There's a piece by Lev Grossman over at the Wall Street Journal, which is ostensibly about how Plots and Genre Concerns are being made respectable in the Novel once again.
Yes, I'm using the Init Caps for Shorthand Sarcasm. Cue the sound of the back of your head hitting the chair as you nod off.
Grossman's piece is shockingly dated in its outlook. It's a literary version
of one of those hopeless "rock criticism" essays about What Punk Is. Lester
Bangs himself took a few pages back in 1981 (Carburetor Dung, pp.
337-338 to be exact) to torpedo that already-sinking PT boat. The people who
really give a damn about such things, he argued — via a hilarious extended
metaphor — are too busy being punk in the first place to care about its
genealogy. Trying to hammer it into a shape limited by your own critical vision is just dippy.
Actually, Grossman's essay is not just dated, but profoundly, proudly ignorant of how fiction works as a whole. The idea that there is some kind of literary shooting war for readers between the brave, wondrous Don DeLillos and David Foster Wallaces of the world, and those evil writers of shudder Genre Fiction gasp ... it's idiotic, plain and simple. Most of the people in either camp, as readers or writers, don't care about what's happening on the other side of their particular Berlin Wall. They've got books to write and read, dammit, and each of them has their own reasons for doing so. Janet Evanovitch is in no danger of losing fans to Robert Bolaño (or vice versa, for that matter). If anything, I'm betting this divide is going to get all the deeper over time.
The whole foofaraw he coughs up about plot going MIA and then miraculously coming out of its "carbonite nap" (his words; gee, where in the universe did he cop that particular metaphor from? the irony is unending) is just as dumb. Most fiction is plotted to some degree; the truly plotless, free-floating works of any repute out there tend not to retain much readership or get filed under a different rubric. (Is Maldoror a novel, a "prose poem", a hallucination? Does the label even matter here?)
I have a theory.
I think what really happened is that suddenly there's a crop of books out there that Grossman doesn't feel quite so bad about being caught with in public. If that was the case, I would have had more respect for the man if he'd just copped to it (as per Chuck Klosterman and his love of Road House) instead of trying to disguise the whole thing with this pesudo-critical weighing-in.
Someone else also weighed in nicely:
Let us banish the idea that it's possible to enjoy a book for the wrong reason.
Let us also banish the worry that we will be accused of enjoying books for the wrong reasons.
Let us believe each other when we say we liked a particular book, even if it was Black Body by H. C. Turk.
Do that, and I can guarantee we'll have some interesting conversations.
Yeah. Me too.
(Once again, I'll have actual printed copies available for sale once I get back next week.)
Tokyo Inferno and all the other books are on their way to Dallas right now, way ahead of me getting there. I'd actually taken a bit of a gamble by doing this; some part of me wanted to have the books in-hand before I left — but then I realized it wouldn't matter much, and it would just mean dragging that much more loot through airport security. I'm still bringing a second (empty) bag to bring things back in, since I'm anticipating coming back with at least some product.
The promo cards I created for Inferno didn't come out all that great. I'm just going to use up the whole supply at the show and create a new design when I get back home — not only does the blurb on the card not match the one on the book (yecch) but the slogan on the front is pretty awful, too (double yecch). Ah, well — screw up and learn.
I may have some announcements about what I'm working on in 2010 after I get back from the con, but all such things should be considered strictly tentative for now. There's several strong possibilities, but I don't count on any one of them being the one. I'm still sticking to a one-book-a-year schedule if I can hack it. For the most part it isn't hard — it's just a matter of discipline, something that most any self-respecting artist typically giggles at. It's in our blood to sleep in late and take extra credits in creative loafing, innit?
One of the last shots of Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea is a very bad CGI shot of an arrow flying up through the clouds. It’s emblematic of all that’s wrong with this movie: obvious, flat, thunderingly dull, and just plain fake at heart. It’s no small feat to make a boring movie about Genghis Khan, but lo and behold they’ve gone and done it.
Or maybe I have it backwards. Maybe it is all too easy to make a boring movie, no matter what the scope or the subject: it requires far less effort to reuse the imagery, the beats, the sentiments from the other movies you’ve seen than to come up with something personal. The end result is, literally, nothing we haven’t seen before. It’s all concept and ambition and pretty pictures, realized by people without a shred of real imagination or curiosity about its subject. Read more
It seems you’ve been living two lives, Miss Chiba. In one, you are Atsuko Chiba, an accomplished researcher and therapist working for the Institute for Psychiatric Research. You’re a hard worker, a dedicated scientist, and on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize. In the other, you go by the alias “Paprika” and carry out illegitimate dream therapy with restricted-use dream-imaging devices borrowed from the Institute’s own labs. One of these lives has a future; the other does not.
Forgive the Matrix quote, but it’s a fitting way to kick off a discussion of Japanese author Yasutaka Tsutsui’s landmark novel. Tsutsui’s eclectic mixes of fantasy, SF, black comedy and other genres have been only sporadically presented in English; Paprika itself was only recently translated, and isn’t even directly available to readers in the United States yet. That’s a shame, because the book’s a broadly entertaining introduction to an author who hasn’t yet gotten his due domestically. He’s been superficially compared to Haruki Murakami or J.G. Ballard, although he’s more playful than the latter and more formally grounded in genre than the former. Read more
An aspiring writer friend of mine composes all of his fiction in the first person. The character is always an "I", not a "he" or a "she" (or an "it", or even a "they", but I digress). I've been more mutable than that: The Four-Day Weekend was first person, but Summerworld and Tokyo Inferno were third. Why the differences?
I asked myself that question the other night and, much to my surprise, got a surpassingly simple answer. If the subject of the story is a natural storyteller, then it makes sense to let them tell the story in their own words. If they're not, then it makes sense to reclaim storytelling duties from them and tell the story in your words, as an author.
Reason #2 is when you, the author, are trying to impart a bigger view of events than he, the subject, can possibly provide on his own. Sometimes you're trying to comment on what he's doing; sometimes throw it into sharp relief; sometimes just look at it as objectively as you can without letting his voice get in the way.
Feedback on this thought, of the non-electric-guitar non-Merzbow variety, is welcomed.
And now time for a quick roundup of movies from my Region 2 import list that haven't yet shown up domestically. Some of these have been discussed before, but are worth mentioning periodically.
Away with Words: Funny, surreal, touching, weird, funny, poetic, beautiful, and very, very funny experimental feature from longtime Hong Kong cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Tadanobu Asano stars along with Mavis Xu and Doyle's buddy Kevin Sherlock; they're a triumvirate of oddballs in Hong Kong, each with their own peculiar derangements of the senses and soul. The Japanese DVD is loaded with fun extras, including a gut-busting longer version of the "Rapping Granny" sequence, wherein an octogenarian gets up on a nightclub stage and does her own rendition of Grandmaster Flash's "The Message".
Mind Game: My vote for the best animated film not yet available in English. A chance meeting between Nishi and an estranged girlfriend turns into an odyssey across time, space, mind, oceans, continents and memory. Yet more evidence that Japan's animation industry is rocketing into, through and out of the same fearlessly experimental territory as the most adventurous live-action movies in the West. I think DreamWorks had the option to distribute this (it was briefly in theaters), but no domestic DVD has turned up.
Shiriusu no Densetsu (Sea Prince and Fire Child): My vote for the other best animated film not yet available in English. A simple story, a mythological take on Romeo and Juliet, but told with such grace and elegance that it becomes appealing to all audiences and not just kids. The DVD has no English, but a fansubbed version has been circulating. I suspect a license tie-up with the people who brought it (very briefly) into English on VHS is preventing a re-release.
Swallowtail Butterfly: Shunji Iwai's epic three-hour pesudo-futuristic saga about ... well, a lot of things, really. Adolescence, the immigrant experience, life on the margins, crime and punishment, sin and redemption and you-name-it. Gets even better on repeat viewings, and Iwai has done nothing scarcely as good since. The DVD edition is heavily windowboxed but still quite watchable.
The Man Who Stole The Sun: What Dr. Strangelove did for nuclear war, this movie does for nuclear terrorism. Kenji Sawada stars as a schoolteacher who builds his own A-bomb and then realizes he hasn't thought out the next steps too well. Bunta Sugawara is the steel-jawed cop who goes after him, not realizing he's also a public hero who helped save a busload of schoolkids. Leonard Schrader (Paul's brother) wrote the script, and despite some dated touches it still holds up today.
I fully expected the live-action version of Mushi-shi to be beautiful and spellbinding. I did not expect it to also be a deeply moving experience. Then again, the same held true for the original story, which surprised me to no end with both its loveliness and its reservoirs of human emotion.
Yuki Urushibara’s manga has already been adapted to the screen as an animated series, one which I’d recommend unhesitatingly to anyone not new to anime or manga at all. (My mother is awesomely uninterested in these sorts of things and she loved it, which is really saying something.) The live-action adaptation approaches the original material with much the same spirit as the show: there isn’t a great deal of plot, but instead a boundless curiosity about these strange creatures called mushi and the few people who can deal with them directly. It is about experiences and images, and about the sense of wonder that goes hand-in-hand with being a mushi master.Read more
And so Tokyo Inferno is done and off to the printer's. At last!
I won't be making the book available from the website just yet — I want to get all that settled after I get back from AnimeFest 2009, which is where the book's big premiere will be held. Look for it there, or catch up with me after I'm back home and no longer passed out on the ground.
Also, in the coming year, I'll probably be moving to CreateSpace for all of my publishing needs. Less costly, more options, better distribution systems. I have to set up an account with them and see what the results are like, all of which takes time — and I'd rather do all that when I'm a little less blown out and able to better assess the results.
I'm also planning on creating merchandise (shirts, etc.) based on the cover art for Summerworld and Inferno. The former, especially: everyone I've talked to loves the idea of having the Bowman With A Machine Gun on a shirt. And so it shall be, as soon as I can find a way to do that without getting crap quality or breaking the bank.
I struggle with myself. On the one hand I want to write a rave review of Grotesque, one that might verge on being fulsome in its praise. On the other hand, I want to red-pencil the book, to trim out the fat I know is there and expose the muscle and heart of a story that has about one hundred percent more, well, story, than it truly needs. But I got here late: I’m a reader and a critic, not an editor, and so I have to take Natsuo Kirino’s Grotesque as it stands: a very good book that might well be a great one, barring my quibbles about its length.
Told in an amalgam of first-person confessional, third-party documentation, diary entries and letter-writings, Grotesque deals with a now-middle-aged Japanese woman — never referred to by her first name — who was one of two daughters in a mixed marriage. She is “half”, as they say in Japan. The unpleasant union of her Swiss/Polish father (himself “half”, it seems) and her Japanese mother produced herself and Yuriko — the “monster”, as the narrator calls her, a girl almost too beautiful to be believed. The rift that forms between them soon becomes unbridgeable, and before long the two sisters live entirely disparate lives. One settles into a life of respectable work, a veneer that barely conceals an ocean of rage; the other into prostitution and an early death at the hands of a client. Read more
Volume 3 of 20th Century Boys plays like a compendium of every paranoid nightmare you’ve ever had. You are in front of a hostile crowd, singled out for ridicule and aggression. You are dead certain something horrible is going to happen mere minutes from now, but you cannot get anyone to believe you. And you’re convinced there’s some tiny unremembered piece of your past which is crucially important to everything that’s going on, if you could just remember what the hell it was!
That’s been Kenji’s problem: the clues to the imminent apocalypse being unleashed by a former childhood friend are scattered far and wide through his life. What’s worse is now that he’s finally started to fit the pieces together, the one great discovery that comes to him is that he is the only one who can comprehend the full scope of what’s happening. The attacks taking place around the world are all based on the daydream scribbles he came up with all those years ago. Ergo, it’s a warning, a message aimed directly at him: Come get me. You know who I am, don’t you?Read more
There's now an official Facebook page for Genji Press. At least, I think that's the address to use — I hate the fact that it's next to impossible these days to tell what the actual permalink is for such a page. I'll be adding the link to the sidebar in the next day or so once I get some more actual content up there. Right now, it's just a placeholder, and it's not going to be anything more than a place where I announce new stuff and direct people here to the official site.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t the end of Darker Than Black. It’s just the end of the beginning, with another season of the show gearing up in Japan and perhaps headed our way sometime next year. But it brings some degree of closure to another of important things within the story — the tension between the Organization and the world powers, Li/Hei’s ongoing quest to find his lost sister, the quest to control the Gates, and the ultimate fate of every Contractor across the face of the earth.
I’m against spoilers as a rule, so I’ll be forced to tread lightly while talking about all this. The short version is simple enough: the scientists studying the Gate are determined to destroy it, which may well liberate mankind from its planetary prison — but will also kill every Contractor in a millisecond. The Contractors, as you can imagine, do not plan to take this lying down, and will instead trigger off a plan that may cause even greater devastation — by turning Hell’s Gate into the same sort of dead zone that enveloped the first Gate and several thousand miles around it.Read more
Chuck Klosterman goes to town on the etymology of the Guilty Pleasure:
What the authors of The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures (and everyone else who uses this term) fail to realize is that the only people who believe in some kind of universal taste — a consensual demarcation between what's artistically good and what's artistically bad — are insecure, uncreative elitists who need to use somebody else's art to validate their own limited worldview. It never matters what you like; what matters is why you like it.
So here comes the dilemma. Is it worth attempting to argue that I like Machine Girl and and Doomsday (yes, that thing) and I Love Maria the same way I love Kagemusha and Ran and Oldboy and Mind Game? That I like the items in the former list because they are trashy, and the latter because they are sublime?
I don't think so. I like everything on those lists for one overriding reason: they give me joy. Sometimes it's because there's a peek into human nature — not just because of what's on screen, but sometimes in spite of it ("Who in god's name could have made this thing?"). Sometimes that joy is in the form of seeing something I have never seen before — and even sometimes that joy can be absurd or profound or even both at once.
Chuck is touching on something crucial here, though: we tend to form our like and our dislike first, and then look for our reasons for it. The more effort you put into it from a critical perspective, the better you can disentangle your feelings from some sense of what the work is attempting to do and why. Consider all those movies that you know are great pieces of work but you never, ever want to sit through again. And then consider the stuff that is just so fundamentally empty-headed or inexplicable that you can't help but marvel at it. The level of astonishment you get from the latter sometimes supersedes what people can do when they really are trying.
The former would any of the mercilessly sad movies about WWII that get made in hopes of an Oscar bid. The latter is lunacy like Wolf Devil Woman, which features a feral female swordswoman who (among other things) extinguishes a fire by ripping open a vein on her arm and spraying it with her own blood. Or We're Going To Eat You, a movie about human cannibalism that sports a climactic fight on rollerskates.
Such logic explains a lot of the affection some people have for bad movies. They don't just go out of their way to find the badness and wallow around in it and fling mud back at it; they seek it out because more often than not such things produce the above reaction. There's nothing quite as stupefying as a creator who embraces madness with a straight face — it's rare, and in its own way, quite brilliant.
None of this, of course, is an argument against someone doing something brilliant/serious with a straight face and getting away with it. If I was against that, I'd have to take everything I've done and throw it into a deep hole and push dirt over it. Being straight is what I'm good at. Other guys, who get to be crazy with a straight face, get my admiration any day of the week. It takes real nerve, nerve I'll never have, to make a movie about, oh hell I dunno, people whose wounds turn into machine guns.
Or, hell, Eraserhead.
Ever get the feeling you’d been cheated?
There’s a clutch of words that when uttered in the presence of fans can elicit near-homicidal reactions. One of them is censorship: if there’s even the suggestion that a title of theirs has been “cleaned up” (shilling for dumbed down) for its domestic release, they’ll blow out the windows. Case in point: the manga version of Tenjho Tenge, which tanked in sales once word got out it had been bowdlerized to keep it from going into “mature audiences” shrinkwrap. To be honest, the Comstockery in question wasn’t all that bad, but it was the principle of the thing that ticked people off, and rightly so. Why pay for what you know to be damaged goods?
But there’s another word also capable of unleashing whole hectares of fan-wrath, depending on the context and the circumstances. That word is remake, and in a way it’s even more problematic a word than censorship because it cuts both ways. It isn’t inherently evil. Sometimes a remake can revitalize a dated or flawed piece of material, and give it a whole new gloss. The current remake of Evangelion might fit into this category, depending on your level of attachment to the original (and that deserves to be an essay unto itself).
I could not have made this up if I wanted to. Read more
There's been a spate of SF and near-SF movies recently, the reviews of which helped me pull together a thesis or two.
On the one hand we have the well-reviewed and -received District 9. I'm extremely interested in seeing it, especially since people whose opinions I trust had intelligent things to say about it (a sign that the movie provokes thought in the best ways) — and since it managed to beat G.I. JOE in last weekend's box office, which I imagine for the studios is something like the mountain coming to Mohammed.
On the other hand, you have stuff like Benjamin Button and The Time Traveler's Wife. Both are examples of what I call "middlebrow SF": SF written by and for people who wouldn't be caught dead reading that s_____e f____n stuff. It's something that Hollywood has been going back and forth over for decades; this is just the latest burp from that particular case of neverending dyspepsia.
The big difference between these movies and something like, say, District 9, is to what end the ideas are used. One of the dangers of people with no experience writing SF (or something analogous to SF) is that when they attempt to slum it they often have no idea what to do with the ideas. They get mired right back down in the mundane. Button had a particularly chronic version of this problem: here is a guy who is aging backwards, forchrissakes, and not only is the protagonist weirdly incurious about this condition but so is everyone else around him. With Wife, you have time travel and all of its inherent problems (both inside and outside the story) used as a substitute for the other diseases of the month.
One defense that's been raised in favor of this approach is that by focusing on the person and not the "condition", or "gimmick", you get a more human story. Well, yes and no. It's always good to keep your focus on the character rather than his tropes. Batman's attitudes about social justice and his nascent guilt about his parents are more interesting material than his collection of gadgets. But there's a mile of difference between that and acting as if the only difference between Mr. Button and, say, the Elephant Man, is that the former actually got to be handsome for a little while.
I should underscore all of this with the admission that I haven't seen anything in the list yet; I'm going by concept alone. That's dangerous, and I know it. I fully expect to have most of what I say here changed after I watch all the movies I've talked about. That ought to be worth a discussion all its own.
Don't forget - Criterion's BD of Kagemusha streets this week. With any luck Ran will follow later this year once the rights nonsense with the Weinstein crew has been unsnarled. Also check out my review (from the Criterion DVD).
Two volumes back I noted that Black Lagoon is one volume setup and one volume payoff. Volume 7 is almost entirely setup with one big dollop of gunbunny lunacy in the opening chapters to whet the appetite. But it’s good setup — it’s not just plot cogs creaking, but further definition of character. In a series like Black Lagoon the characterization and plotting are joined at the hip anyway.
The end of the last volume kicked off a new plot arc: the return of the Lovelace family’s cadre of murderous maids. Maids, plural. As it turns out, the nutjob Roberta is indeed back in town and looking for revenge. She’s convinced the folks who killed the head of the Lovelace family with a well-placed bomb are squirreled away in Roanapur somewhere, and she doesn’t care how many dead bodies she leaves behind before she finds them. The gun-toting maid we met back at the end of the last volume, though, was Fabiola — another servant of the same ilk, and the one whom the “young master” of the Lovelace clan is currently depending on most for his protection. Fabiola’s nowhere nearly as unhinged as Roberta out of the gate, but she’s enough of a handful that Rock (and by extension Revy) are persuaded to lend them a hand looking for Roberta to keep the body count to a minimum.Read more
Tokyo Inferno is now as done as it gets! That is, at least until I get some word back from my selected proofreaders and editors. Once I have texts back from them, I'll be able to post my usual teaser chapters for public consumption. Budget permitting, I'll have those available as ashcans at AnimeFest (although, of course, the digital versions are free).
Also to come this week: final cover designs and other muckamucks.
This whole issue has been discussed in detail elsewhere — it involves a saber-rattling Dan Simmons piece about a time traveler, stop me if you've heard this one before — but here's a perspective that's worth noting. (The Simmons piece itself is not even worth taking apart — other people did a better job of that after they stopped laughing contemptuously.)The point is simple: Life's too short to throw money at people you have contempt for.
Limited lifespan divided by number of books it's possible to consume due to vagaries of money and mortality equals I am not buying your books if you behave like a fuckmuppet in public.
There's a threshold you can set for how much you are willing to be offended by an author before you spend money on them. It sounds actually more like a formula with a couple of variables: time since publication, personal distance between you and the author, nature of the offense. It varies between people.
I know I have my own version of this, and I'm not ashamed of it. In fact, I think at this point it's basic human decency to not feel complicit with people you can't help but see as scumbags.
Por ejemplo. I have spent money on exactly two books by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night and Death on the Installment Plan. And that's all I'm ever going to buy. From what I've seen those two give you more or less everything you could possibly want of the man in all of his misanthropic insufferability. I found out after reading those two that Céline was responsible for a number of anti-Semitic pamphlets written slightly WWII. No, I could not find it within myself to excuse such behavior with some silly post hoc fluff like, "Well, it's okay because he probably just hated everyone equally in the end". Especially not after I had nearly been duped by the Holocaust-denial crew into swallowing their brand of (anti-Semitic) slop.
The same thing happened to a lesser extent with William Burroughs, although my disenchantment with him as an artist (he really did end up a one-trick pony) was the bigger motivator there.
People who enjoy a certain person's artistic input often find a way to condition themselves to ignore the person as a person. Edgar Winter once complained about this: once when he was hospitalized for something or other, he noted that it was one of the few times in his adult like when people didn't treat him like a jukebox. Hey, Edgar, you know that tune, the one that goes — ? Yeah, buddy, I know it, and I'm not going to sing it for you; sing it yourself.
Neil Gaiman recently protested this entitlement mentality when it manifested as thinking of a particular author as your employee. The author, if he works for anyone, works for himself — and his publisher and editor, and then his fans. If only because that's the way most of the business is set up.
Now, one of the other advantages of treating the person like a jukebox — or vending machine, or what have you — is that you can selectively disregard that person's moral failings. Yes, I know that Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole (even though, according to at least one of his biographers, he richly deserved it), and that Wagner alienated pretty much everyone he knew by being a grasping scumbag — but, hey, Guernica! And Lohengrin! And the thing is, a good deal of the time, that sort of argument gets plenty of mileage because it's not like Picasso or Wagner screwed you over personally.
On a long enough timeline, the grievance rate for everyone drops to zero.
The problem is that for people who are still alive and still producing, there's a non-trivial chance that we might get to know the person slightly better than casually. In fact, at this point, it's almost unavoidable.
I know from personal experience that I've had a couple of unpleasant whammies like this. Someone I admired as a creator — and thought I knew decently well as a person — turned out to hold views and opinions that just seemed so far out of phase with anything else they did or expressed that I scarcely knew how to react.
It's sort of like having the nice man on the bus next to you chat with you about the weather, and then between words he opens his briefcase and dumps a live snake in your lap. And, worse, he can't for the life of him figure out why you're freaking out and screaming and running up the aisle.
So what's the threshold for such things? It varies. Obviously, it makes no sense to cut yourself off from genuinely good work because of some petty disagreement with the creator — but what classifies as "petty" is going to vary wildly between people. If someone thought the Gulf War was not an inherently bad idea, that's one thing. The subject is at least something that can be contained within the realms of civil debate, especially if he shows that he's willing to examine his position. But if he thinks the sooner we bomb Country X the better, then I have that many less words to share with him about — well, anything.
I imagine that Dan Simmons sincerely feels the West is in danger (never mind that most of the people he sees as The Enemy are too busy trying to blow each other up first), and felt he was doing his duty speaking his mind by writing that story. Or maybe he wanted to take the ambivalence felt by contemplating such things and write about that. Fine with me: he's well within his rights to fall flat on his face.
And I'm well within my right to step over him on the way to hear someone else more worth my time.
I would like to consider myself as a germ who enters into the system of genres and creates changes, or changes the DNA or the makeup of the genre in some way, and causes this genre to become sick.
And since genre filmmaking has been woefully sick for some time, I say "To extreme sickness, extreme remedies."
Is it possible to enjoy a book because of its limitations, as much as you might enjoy it despite them? I’m faced with this issue right now because after all four (or two) volumes of Pale Fallen Angel, I can’t deny I’ve enjoyed the story. I’m just not sure if that’s the result of the way it was written or an unintentional by-product.
The D stories don’t lend themselves to being epics. They’re called light novels for a reason: they’re compact, fast on their feet, and trimly written. Small wonder the longer D stories end up tilting under their own weight. The would-be epic two-part Journey to the North Sea was impressive, but caused Hideyuki Kikuchi’s storytelling framework to bulge at the seams. With the four-part Angel, the framework has ripped clean open. I didn’t like seeing the brevity I associated with the D series turning into the very same ponderous, bloated fantasy that I started reading the D books to get away from in the first place. But after both volumes of Angel, I found I’d done my best to enjoy the books for what they were and not for what I wanted them to be. Read more
The other night I had a conversation with a friend that was sparked by him expressing his disgust with and contempt for the anti-Obama crowd in many of its incarnations — the "birther" crew, the "tea party" people, etc.
It was actually an entry point for him into a far more universal flavor of disgust, since his next comment was along these lines: Given that people are gonna believe what they want to believe anyway, what's the point of bothering to try and tell them anything?
It took me a good long while to respond to that.
People believe what they want to believe. Okay, why? Because they have a certain sensibility about themselves, a specific self-image. When the self-image changes, so do the beliefs.
Most people vigorously defend their images of themselves as a specific kind of person — and I'm willing to wager at least some of that is because if they change, they'll feel like they've broken a covenant with the people around them who depend on (or expect) that self-image to persist. If your mother suddenly throws her travel valise into the back of a rented car and disappears for a year to "find herself", you might think of her that much less as "mother" — especially if she says the same thing.
Self-images are mutable. They can change without warning, from the outside or the inside, for good or ill. We get into the habit of reinforcing certain views of ourselves — typically for the sake of survival, but sometimes because we perceive (however inaccurately) that certain traits need to be preserved at all costs. If you're lucky, you can wake yourself up from that kind of reverie. Sometimes you need more than luck, though; sometimes you need a push from the outside to have your perceptions changed.
This is why telling them something matters. You have no way of knowing what sorts of changes can come about from even the most incidental interactions between people. You're a part of a process of remaking everyone around you, even if that process is invisible.
The older and more cynical part of me, the closet Andrei Codrescu if you will, has his own rather jaundiced view of this: Somehow we went from having friends for the sake of having friends, to having friends for the sake of improving ourselves and each other. Part of our compulsion to root out everything Bad For Us, I suppose. Time was we accepted the fact that people were flawed and ignoble creatures with something approaching saintly grace. Now anyone who is not stepping out of a confessional or into a twelve-step program is trouble. It is the compulsive Puritan wine of old poured into a new bottle, probably with a California label. If you have a friend who is always and forever trying to make you a "better person", run like hell. He has probably spent so much time on the analyst's couch that he thinks everyone else will end up there in time, too.
As much fun as I had writing something that curmudgeonly, I know it's only partly true. Self-improvement does not have to inevitably spiral towards Therapy Culture, and one of the unspoken corollaries of "acceptance" as we used to know it was "acquiescence". The truth's in a halfway house somewhere between these poles, as always.
Take the rest of the year off.
By that, I mean take the rest of the year off any writing projects. No future novel work, no NaNo (sorry, gang, it's just not happening), and no outlining/planning.
One thing I do plan to do is bring the rest of the Genji Press site back up to speed. Now that I found my old site archive I can restore the good material and finally forget about all the frankly adolescent junk that doesn't deserve enshrinement anywhere. Blogs are ephemeral and mutable; they're the first draft of things that may or may not be saved, and I've felt a great deal less loss than I might have at having much of what I wrote in it vanish overnight. Much of it was the product of an earlier phase of my life that I'm not lamenting having closed the door on.
The ever-excellent Orac takes his Cleats of Logic to the face of the "Obama=Hitler" crowd. He also does a nice bit of shoe-leather research in actually digging up the text of the debated legislation and examining it in detail, which is something I haven't seen done by many people on either side of the debate.
He gets most of his mojo from dismantling crank medicine, but talked earlier this month about the ways mainstream medicine can be undermined by crank-tastic influences — e.g., "pharma ghostwriting".
(Just so you don't think he's giving the boys on this side of the aisle a free pass.)
How do you solve a problem like Haruhi?
— with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein II
There’s a lot about Kyon’s new school that he doesn’t like. The long walk all the way uphill to get to it, for instance. The fact that he doesn’t know anyone there isn’t a boon, either. But none of that comes near the level of flabbergast Kyon feels when he meets his infamous classmate Haruhi Suzumiya.
Infamous doesn’t begin to sum her up, as he quickly learns. Infamy-generating is more like it.
“I have no interest in ordinary humans,” she declares to her astonished homeroom class on the first day of school. “If there are any aliens, time travelers, sliders or espers here, come join me.” And with that Kyon’s sucked into the orbit of what proves not only to be the oddest girl in the school but the girl who’s going to turn his life inside out and repaint it in mighty garish colors.Read more
Editing on Tokyo Inferno is moving at a decent clip, all things considered. I'm about 2/5ths of the way through the first (cleanup) pass; then I hope by before the weekend I can do the actual logic/plotting pass. And then I'll pack it up and give it to my Crack Proofreading Squad, you all know who you are (I hope).
I already have the internal layout about 90% of the way there, so that's not a problem. Ditto the cover design — the biggest issue there will be calculating spine width and whatnot, but I have templates for such things already prepped and ready.
My absolute drop-dead day to send this thing to the printer is August 26th. That gives me roughly a week and change to get it out to the people who need to read it, receive any fixes to be made, implement them, and put the last bits of spit'n'polish on the document.
And after that ... well, that's the subject of the next post.
Tokyo, 1952. Out of the ashes of war, a new society has sprouted: democratically inclined, scientifically rigorous, and socially progressive (or so it likes to think). But like Rome, this modern Japan is built directly on top of the ruins of the old — both physically and psychically. The supernatural and all of its trappings still exude great gravity thanks to their centuries of accumulated weight, and so an exorcist in this world can find himself just as gainfully employed as any private detective.
The Summer of the Ubume gives us just such an exorcist — Akihiko Chuzenji, or “Kyogokudo” to his friends. Diviner, bookworm, jack-of-all-subjects, professional grouch, he’s a Shintoist Sherlock Holmes for an age split between skepticism and superstition. “There is nothing that is strange in this world,” he declares. “There is only that which should be, and only that which should happen does.” In short, there is no supernatural — just things we don’t yet understand in a systematic way. Scratch a mythos and you’ll find a sociological motive; crack open a demon and you’ll see the gears of plain old human fear and avarice grinding away inside.Read more
Time for a little Amazon backtracking!
The live-action version of the outstanding Mushi-shi is headed Stateside! Right now all we get is the regular DVD, but this had better be a candidate for a Blu-ray release at some point. Incidentally, if you haven't seen the show, it's available free and legit on FUNimation's website, and I cannot recommend it enough for those of you interested in something beautiful and different.
Onéchanbara was not as outlandish as Tokyo Gore Police or Machine Girl, but it certainly got the job done in terms of Bikini-Wearing Zombie Slayer Chicks. I hear a sequel is already on the way Over There.
Another blast from the past, Stunt Rock! I remember seeing this extremely odd-looking flick languishing in a corner of my local mom-'n'-pop video store (which also rented LaserDiscs, god bless their hearts), and while I never did rent it, I also never quite forgot about it. I think the fact that the box plastic had gone yellow with age and the cover art looked like it had been left out in the sun for a few years kinda turned me off. But buzz says it's an Aussie Indie that deserves a closer look throughout the rest of the world.
Three movies featuring Tony Jaa. Enough said. Especially now that we have the U.S. trailer for Ong-Bak 2 in Glorious QuickTime (well, not quite so glorious once you've spent two hours trying to figure out how to export a clip in that damn format).
We still need Pi in HD, but for now we have Requiem for a Dream. Great price, too.
Something tells me this doesn't really belong in the same category as Onéchanbara. Let alone the same room.
The Korean movie industry has seemed a bit moribund lately — or maybe that's just because I haven't followed it as closely as I should have after my import-DVD-rental account was closed. But here's an item that looks intriguing: Murder, Take One. "A woman is killed in a hotel room. The ensuing police investigation is conducted in front of TV cameras for the entire country to watch as it unfolds." (If it's in the vein of most other biting Korean social satires, sign me up.)
A new printing of one of my favorite movies of all time. To my immense surprise, I was able to find my long-missing review in an archive of old web content, but one glance at it convinced me a rewrite was mandatory: it's really bad. Fawningly, fulsomely horrible. Expect a newly-rewritten review that actually talks about the movie to surface at some point.
... okay, with a title like Zombie Hunter Rika, how can you go wrong? Well, I dunno. Quite wrong, possibly. Perhaps even very, very wrong indeed. We'll see.
Another intriguing-looking Korean horror (satire?), The Butcher. (And to think I still haven't seen Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in Daehakroh. Must remedy that.)
And Versus goes back to the replicator YET AGAIN! But no HD version. Yet.
Pet peeve time.
Sometimes I run into a writer expressing a sentiment which I will paraphrase as follows: I know that the way I write isn't for everyone, and I don't expect everyone to like it. I have my own voice to follow and my own path to walk.
Most every time I hear some variety of this exact sentiment — and I have heard it many times from many parties, myself included — such words are used more often than not as a pre-emptive way of defending bad writing from simple technical criticism. It's a dodge. You just don't get what I'm trying to dooo, maaan.
By bad writing I do not mean writing that deals with "weird" things or "reads funny" or any of those no-brow know-nothing arguments. I mean lazy writing, sloppy writing, inaccurate and shiftless and blowsy writing — in short, writing with no craft, writing that makes other writers with similar ambitions look bad by proxy. To use the above argument is to imply that craft simply isn't important, that anyone who gets worked up about such things is a stick in the mud.
Sorry, no. There's a big difference between taking pride in your work and being unintentionally contemptuous of your audience by not fulfilling your end of the bargain, and by using the cloak of "individuality" or "creativity" as a way to not have to do the work done by every other writer worth his salt. If you want them to enjoy what you create, deliver it gracefully into their hands. Don't drop it on their feet and walk out.
Ebert drops some hints as to why good movies get short shrift from younger viewers (the crowd that has long been associated with avid moviegoing):
... despite "The Hurt Locker's" impressive box office success, "younger moviegoers are not flocking to the film, which could limit its ticket sales." The obvious implication is, younger moviegoers don't care about reviews and have missed the news that "The Hurt Locker" is the best American film of the summer. There is a more disturbing implication: word of mouth is not helping the film in that younger demographic. ... apparently those younger viewers who have seen it haven't had much of an influence on their peers. While the success of the film continues to grow as it steadily increases its number of theaters, the majority of younger filmgoers are missing this boat. Why is that? They don't care about reviews, perhaps. They also resist a choice that is not in step with their peer group. Having joined the crowd at "Transformers," they're making their plans to see "G. I. Joe." Some may have heard about "The Hurt Locker," but simply lack the nerve to suggest a movie choice that involves a departure from groupthink.
There's much more, all of it worth reading, and particularly resonant with anyone who has felt like they are hemmed in my the terminally incurious.
Something else that Ebert mentions, the business about stars being kept on short leashes, I found particularly saddening. One of the things I loved most about interviewing Richard Epcar or Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (not "names", but people with talent and strong followings) was how there was none of that nonsense about pre-screening the discussion. You got to talk to them like human beings, and get equally human responses. You asked the questions that came into your head, and if some of them were stupid, then you had to endure the actor telling you "That's a dumb question" — not to mention the possibility of being razzed by your own cronies.
The "professional" side of the business seems to be distinguishing itself from everything else by dint of how much overprotection it builds into everything. Well, of course: you're trying to get the most revenue with the least losses, and it's hard to do that, you think, without insuring that every step is stage-managed to death. But in the long run, that's a formula for creating a whole industry that can't take it on the chin. The end result is more movies that don't get screened for critics, more thoughtless automatic booking, more movies made for the supply chain and not for any conceivable audience, and a whole lot of junk.
I miss the days when you could have a movie like The Old Man and the Sea come out and have Papa Hemingway himself snarl "No movie with a goddamn rubber fish in it ever made a dime." Only he didn't use the word "goddamn", if you know what I mean.
The first draft of Tokyo Inferno is finished, at just over 100,000 words. Now comes the hard part: getting it hammered into shape and taking delivery of the finished product before AnimeFest. If I edit about five chapters a day, that means I can get a first pass done by around Thursday of next week. Odds are I can do more than that on the weekends. But I'll need at least 2-3 passes — one for mechanics, one for logistics, and one more for general read-through.
And after this is done and out there, I'm thinking I'll take the rest of the year off.
In re.: Rupert Murdoch's plan to force people to pay for News Corp. content on the web:
The problem, as I see it, is that people who consume news have taken quality news for granted, and don't understand how much more work goes into the kinds of things that the Times produce. This is not to say the little-guy blogs are no good; many of them are excellent when it comes to opinionated, impassioned discussion. But news needs to hew closer to research and analysis than opinion and exhortation, and there are fewer direct substitutes for the dailies and the big news outlets than we'd like to think.
So if it comes down to it, who would I pay for? The Times; maybe the BBC on top of that (although I doubt they'll need to charge for it). I suspect it's going to come down to those of us who care about such things picking one outlet to support and voting with our wallets.
Apparently director Peter Berg (Hancock, The Kingdom) has been working on getting a third adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune to the big screen. I'd heard about this new adaptation a while back but wasn't sure it was ever going to move forward — but then I remembered that the mid- to upper echelons of many moviemaking companies are now populated by people who might actually have read and liked the book (e.g., fellow geeks).
I admit, I liked the David Lynch version for its Werner Herzog / Alejandro Jodorowsky style of vision, and the
SciFi SyFy TV version for its relative fidelity to the original story and themes (even if the sets looked horribly cardboardy at times). A new version might work if it was handled in a Traffic / Syriana kind of way — we've had enough "training" in this kind of storytelling thanks to non-linear episodic TV and other movies of that ilk, that it probably wouldn't be too tough to put into 3,000 theaters at once.
Someone in the comments on the article above mentioned an animated adaptation, along the lines of the largely-unseen but epic-length Legend of the Galactic Heroes. I liked how director Noburo Ishiguro mentioned that as long as the series made money for the production company (which was as much a function of staying within budget as it was being successful) they were more or less free to do as they wished.
Among the books I picked up during a one-dollar spree at The Strand a while back is a nifty little volume entitled Off-Hollywood: The Making and Marketing of Independent Films. The emphasis is as much on the marketing as it is the making — that is, the process of finding money for the project, the logistics of creating it, the often knotty problems of getting distribution. It's a bit on the dry and scholarly side, with a lot of financial charts and tables, but I enjoyed how it talked about some of my own personal favorites: El Norte, Hollywood Shuffle, Eating Raoul, My Dinner With Andre, and so on.
I paid close attention to the book around the time I was junking Thegline.com (my old domain and my old projects) and bringing Genji Press online. There were a lot of lessons in there about how to draw attention to projects that might not otherwise get an audience at all. The most invaluable lesson was that if you build an audience directly, face-to-face, through word-of-mouth and the power of your own persona, you get more useful clout than you ever could through ad flyers or anything you bought.
This isn't MBA machine hype, but something I puzzled out on my own while trying to figure out how to make this all come together. I didn't want to make a million dollars or become a "bestseller". I just wanted to garner a palpable amount of appreciation for my work, build a fanbase that I could relate to on a personal level, and have (cue The Clash) complete control over my work. Such things don't come without continued effort — but oh, man, when they do, what a kick!
What I like best about this whole business is how I feel like I'm providing something that's as close to handmade as you get in this culture-of-the-copy world of ours. It's a vibe I got from many of the movies listed above and discussed in the book, too — that they were put together "by hand", not stapled together from other movies and audience-tested into oblivion. Irwin Chusid has a little blurb on the back of his outsider-music compilation CDs: "Get off the focus-group treadmill and hear some real sounds!" or something to that effect. I'd like to think I'm doing something in the same vein.
Right now the news is reporting that Bill Clinton met privately with Kim Jong Il (a notoriously rabid movie fan) and brokered a deal to release two American journalists accused of espionage by North Korea.
So, how did Bill do it? Easy, sez I: he offered Kim a three-picture deal with gross points and merchandising.
Just because it can be shown, doesn't mean it should be. A movie with all "money shots" has no climaxes. It just neutralizes itself. The rules of storytelling apply to CGI: if anything can happen, then what's the significance? Today's CGI, when noticeable as a "special effect," plummets fatally into the uncanny valley. It's so pristinely close to photo-"real" it looks utterly fake.
I think I said some of that word-for-word back when I was talking about Shinobi. Effects technologies are only useful when they're realizing a vision that is worth seeing in the first place. If the concept's dumb to begin with, the execution's going to be even dumber.
My friends and I have back-and-forth discussions about "Ugly CGI" vs "Crappy Models". The former is something we should all know by now — the horribly unconvincing airplane bellyflop at the end of Air Force One, for instance, or the wretched-looking graphics used to simulate car crashes in a couple of movies (one of which was so beautifully parodied by a friend when he declared "MY AUTO ACCIDENT IZ PASTEDE ON YAY*"). The latter can be seen in everything from low-rent rubber-monster "epics" to the crummier episodes of Dr. Who. The models have the saving grace of at least looking like something physical, even if it's egg cartons and Styrofoam. Ugly CGI isn't grounded in anything physical at all and looks even worse for that reason.
The other evening I pulled out The Dark Knight and ran through some of the bonus material about the FX sequences. The thing that impressed me most about them was that I never said "Wow, what an effect!" Everything that happened, from the garbage truck being shoved into the roof of the tunnel to the 'copter crash to the semi flipping over to the you-name-it — all of it looked at least partway credible, all of it behaved as bound by the laws of physics as we have come to not know it lately in the movies. The fact that all of it was happening to people we cared a whole hell of a lot about didn't hurt either.
Musique Machine has a fairly detailed interview with Merzbow / Masami Akita here. Some nice notes about his use of drums, past and present, and some additional details about how he feels his anti-meat-eating stance is also a pro-environmental stance. I'll continue to review the 13 Birds discs as they come out, but I'm going to probably pay some long-overdue attention to earlier material like Batztoutai or some selections from the Merzbox. (Yes, I actually own this beast, sort of: I ended up collecting most of the discs from Just The Disc a while back, and most of what I'm missing has apparently been released elsewhere in other forms.)
Fellow writer Catherynne M. Valente mulls over writing SF after spending a long time being a fantasy writer:
I also feel, mostly because for me SF is the Mysterious Other, that it's much harder to do something new over in that camp. It's like vampires or elves. So much has been done and redone well or badly. How can you add to that unless you're like a mad SF genius, which I am not? Plus the whole need to be in conversation to some extent with the whole of the genre, to be more hardcore and gritty and monochrome meathook future BSG OMGREALZ, or alternately, the most hardcore imitation of previous generations of shiny, bobbing futures where money is no longer an issue. The thing is, the future will get here when it gets here. I have no horse to whip in the race to the singularity. Mostly, I just want to tell a story about things I love, future, past, present, alternate reality.
I've run into that whole "what do I have to add to this conversation?" issue before myself, many times, and it's part of why I started to get tetchy about labeling anything I was doing as SF. I took the more Kurt Vonnegut approach, where he insisted that he was simply writing fiction, and that the burden of the work vis-a-vis classifying the results fell to the reader. They would have to figure out for themselves what they were reading and what hole to drop it in, after they were done with it. That kind of thing.
The bad news is that unless you're already a name author — unless you can say "Vonnegut" with the same you-know-what-you're-gonna-get cachet as "Woody Allen" or "Prince" — it's hard to pull this stunt. Most people want at least one thread to guide them through the labyrinth. So a little labeling, if only as a provisional measure to get people (the right people, the curious people) into the door, is okay. You just can't confuse the label with the product, or the process.
The whole issue about predicting anything, I've also found, is a fairly smelly red herring — and the stink of it is often noisome enough that you forget about everything else. People love to dig up old SF books and point and laugh at how sad and broken so many of the "predictions" are — it's 2009, and I don't see my flying car or my food pills. I do, however, see, desktop supercomputing and digital connectivity of a kind that probably only John Brunner circa Shockwave Rider even came close to musing about.
It's not worth getting too wound up about, because — and this is something friends of mine have helped me realize — SF isn't about predicting anything. It's about seeing what's around you right now through the eyes of the future. Some of those visions are going to be more "accurate" than others, but the ones that are truly timeless are the ones about what kinds of people we are, or are turning into. To wit: More Than Human, or most anything by Phil Dick.
This new super-secret project I hatched down at Otakon is vaguely SF-themed, but more than anything else, I think it is about human fallibility. Not in the sense that the human being is this broken thing to be done away with — but in that it is all we have, and that we need to make the best of it as we are. Our foibles are something to be taken on face value, not schooled ruthlessly out of existence — which sounds rather like a formula for doing away with one demon and summoning another in its place.
I think, therefore I scam.
I think back to when someone was buttonholing Miles Davis about what Bitches Brew was supposed to be (jazz? rock? experimental?) and he replied, simply, “Music.” Chameleon Street is a movie. It isn’t merely a “black movie” or an “independent movie” or a “comedy”, all of which are easy pigeonholes into which you could stick a movie like this. Yes, it was made by and primarily stars black actors; yes, it was independently-financed and -released; yes, it is riotously funny. But there’s another element to it all — the “stinging salt of recklessness”, to use someone else’s words, that makes it a category-breaker.
The “chameleon” of the title is William Douglas Street, based loosely on a real-life conman of the same name whose exploits played like Frank Abnegale, Jr. filtered through Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Street’s a smart guy — entirely too smart for the ennui of his dad’s burglar-alarm business, but also too arrogant to look for a “straight” replacement. Everyone around him, from his bar buddies to his wife, muse about big money and big payoffs, and before long he starts hatching a couple of ways to fleece the unsuspecting. What he doesn’t expect to discover is how unsuspecting most everyone is, as a rule. Man wishes to be deceived; therefore, deceive him, and laugh all the way to the bank.Read more