Sunday, June 27, 2010

Recently Read: Replay

by Ken Grimwood - this is #23 of 2010

In Ken Grimwood's Replay, a middle-aged man named Jeff has a heart attack, dies, and wakes up in his college dorm room to find himself in his eighteen-year-old body. Sounds great, right? Who wouldn't like a chance to redo everything from the beginning, knowing how to avoid all the mistakes and tragedies you'd suffered the first time through? That's exactly the myth that Replay sets out to bust. Jeff starts out by doing all the cliched things that time travellers do when they're new to the trade: making an exorbitant amount of money betting on sports, investing in companies he knows are bound to succeed, and generally living an indulgent lifestyle. The only problem is, nothing he can do significantly alters the original timeline, and that heart attack (along with another restart) is waiting for him just as it was in his first iteration. As Jeff repeats his life again and again, he starts to realize that no matter how hard he tries, he can't force his relationships to be perfect, nor can he prevent the creeping isolation he feels as the lone "repeater." The book has a lot in common with David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself, but takes a more sedate approach. Gerrold wanted to convey how bizarre and alienating it would be to have control over your future and past, where Grimwood seems to say that living the same life again and again would actually grow pretty mundane. Replay isn't the most original book, but it does a great job of showing how the dilemmas that Jeff faces aren't really all that different from anyone else's. In the end, dwelling on repairing the past only causes Jeff anguish, and he's only really at peace when he learns to live for the future.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Recently Read: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

#22 of 2010: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig

After venturing into the world of romance with our inaugural round of book exchanges, I was happy to see that Matt had selected a somewhat more normal book for me to read in the second round. We had no theme in the first round, which made it sort of hard to pick out books for each other, so this round we kind of ended up picking books we had already read and giving them to each other. I received something that I had heard of from a couple of people but never read myself: Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

I literally went into this book knowing nothing about it - even whether it was fiction or not. It turns out that the story is mostly true, and based on events that occurred in the author's life. We follow him and his young son (and a couple friends, initially) on a motorcycle trip across the country while he works through a philosophical arguement in his head. Most of the book is spent focusing on philosophy, with occasional connections made to events occurring during the trip.

I can honestly say I enjoyed this book in the beginning. The philosophy focused mainly on the reconciliation between the natural world and the world of technology, which are often seen as opposing forces in the world. Pirsig says they're really are just two sides of the same coin, and I think there's some merit to his ideas. The events of the trip actually reflected the philosophical arguments that he was making, and it was interesting to see the opposing views of his friends as they journeyed together. There were also some semi-foreboding hints at something dark in the author's past that he was still working through.

When the author's friends parted ways and left him and his son to complete the trip alone, I thought the book just sort of fell apart. My problems with it can be boiled down to two things:

1. If an author has to tell the reader how important and revolutionary his ideas are, they probably weren't that important and revolutionary to begin with.

In the second part of the book, there's nobody for the author to debate with, and no more relevant motorcycle metaphors. Instead, he just delves into his past and starts talking about his philosophical ideas - particularly the importance of Quality as the force behind the entire physical universe. I'd be okay with this, except that he clearly believes that he's done something revolutionary and isn't afraid to tell you how revolutionary it is. Just like I'm wary of people who tell me how smart they are, I'm wary of authors who tell you how important their ideas are. If you have something truly important to say, it should be self-evident.

I didn't share Prisig's enthusiasm for "Quality," and had a hard time seeing it as the thing from which all matter and ideas in the universe arise. Reframing it as "goodness" or "God" or a force along those lines helped me understand a little more about what he trying to say, but I didn't quite see these ideas overthrowing thousands of years of Eastern and Western philosophy.

2. If you're an author and you want to lecture at me, write a nonfiction book. If you want to tell a story, write fiction.

For about 150-200 pages, I felt as if I was being lectured at by a particularly self-absorbed professor. The narrative of the latter half of the book pretty much disintigrates, leaving nothing but pages and pages of semi-stream-of-consciousness philosophy. This is occasionally broken up by a couple paragraphs or a sentence about the motorcycle trip, but it never illuminates the philosophy even remotely. At worst, it's just the author or his son being emo and eating at restaurants. Normally I wouldn't mind straight philosophy, but I feel as if I was lied to at the beginning of the book. I wanted the journey to tie in with the philosophy more than it did. If you're going to use one to illuminate the other, then stick with it through the whole book.

One other minor point that I had a hard time dealing with was the relationship between the author and his son. The author is clearly not the best father, and is often sarcastic and dismissive of his son. He largely ignores him so that he can indulge himself in his ideas, and the son even points this out a few times, only to be promptly written off by his father. Matt remarked that it's almost impossible to carry on a conversation while riding a motorcycle, so I'll grant the author that much. However, there's a significant portion of the story in which the two are hiking up a mountain and the author behaves the same way. I felt genuinely bad for this kid. While the author continually ponders why his son is sullen and emotional for most of the trip (even going so far as to suggest it's mental illness), it seemed crystal clear to me. The end of the book made me feel somewhat better about this, as the author and his son have a "come to Jesus" moment, but that couldn't completely erase the feelings I'd had for the last 300-some pages.

I have a feeling that I'd like this book more if I were to read it again, knowing how it's structured and how everything eventually turns out. I can appreciate it a little more in retrospect, and am willing to give the author's ideas a little more credence than I did when I was reading them. While it's hard to pick them out all the time, I thought that there were some good ideas buried in the middle portion of the book. The sections on the unification of the natural and man-made worlds and the application of Quality to everyday life really stood out to me and seemed relevant. I just wish they hadn't been so obscured by the author's ego and the unevenness of the narrative.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Recently Watched: XTRO

XTRO is a weird little film that's just heinous enough to have managed to hang around since its release in 1982. I've seen it referred to a number of places as "the movie where a woman gives birth to a full-grown man," but honestly, that only starts to scratch the surface. The opening scene shows a young brat named Tony throwing sticks at the family dog with his father before dad's abducted by something - we never actually see anything but a bright light, lots of wind, and a thrown stick inexplicably freezing in mid-air. A couple of years pass, and Tony's father returns to claim Tony and take him away to space. Or something.

I'm having a lot of trouble right now trying to explain what happens in the middle of the film because there really is no logic. An alien crashes on earth and somehow impregnates a random woman with the man-sized version of Tony's father. The father is born, Tony wakes up covered with blood, both develop telekinetic powers, a midget clown with a razorblade yo-yo appears and slashes some throats, Tony's father eats some snake eggs, a black panther appears in the hallway... The list just goes on.

Nobody watches a film like this for any sort of logical plot though. XTRO was one of the post-grindhouse era films that rode into the world on video and could have just as easily disappeared without a second thought. It was temporarily included on the list of "video nasties" which were banned in the U.K., and gained some notoriety when a news story about a murderer showed a copy of XTRO sitting in his living room. The director, Harry Davenport, maintains no illusions about his body of work, and freely admits that they were just out to shock with this film. For the most part it does its job. This film is interesting precisely because you're not sure what it's going to throw at you.

Unfortunately, aside from its unpredictability XTRO doesn't have a lot going for it. It's weird, but not particularly clever. Other than a few surreal scenes (particularly those with the clown), there's not really any artistry in the carnage. Davenport brings some enthusiasm to his work, but it's not always enough to balance out the lack of care. The low budget of this film sometimes works to its disadvantage, and after a while its seams start to show. Nevertheless, it's worth checking out just because it is so bizarre. I'd say there probably won't ever be another film like XTRO, but there are two sequels, with rumors of another coming soon. Directly to video, presumably.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Recently Read: The Chronoliths

This might be something that I do only once or twice before becoming lazy again, but I want to start writing down my thoughts about stuff I read. Sometimes I remember liking a book but can't remember specific plot points or reasons I liked it. Numerical ratings are quick, but don't really remind me of a whole lot. This is book #21 of this year, for the record.

Robert Charles Wilson is one of those science fiction writers that's fond of introducing a single grandiose change into the world and then spending the rest of the novel exploring how it affects the lives of his characters. This time it's a series of enormous monoliths, apparently sent back in time to commemorate the military victory of a leader known only as "Kuin". The obvious question to ask is whether Kuin's takeover is inevitable or not, and whether these "Chronoliths" truly respresent Kuin's domination of the world or if they're just a bluff sent back in time to change the past and ensure Kuin's rise to power. The main character, Scott, has just undergone a rather messy divorce and is recruited to investigate the true nature of the Chronoliths. Wilson uses the Chronoliths to examine questions of determinism in the context of a life filled with mistakes and regrets. If the future is inevitable, can we be held responsible for the ways in which we've erred or even try to avoid mistakes at all? While the societal upheaval that follows is interesting and meticulously imagined, following Scott through the chaos is what keeps this book interesting. The focus here isn't the spectacle itself (something I've always disliked about Clarke, and to a lesser extent Asimov), but the ways in which it affects real people.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Evil Kids in FIlm

Sometimes I like watching a few thematically linked movies in a short period of time. That way, even if one isn't particularly interesting, I can at least think about it in the context of the others. I've made it through some pretty terrible movies this way. I did a super-long marathon of French horror films back in the Fall, in which I might have lost my sanity (or at least a properly functioning frontal lobe) had I not been thinking slightly more critically about them. My Lucio Fulci series in the Winter was less traumatizing, and I am currently tracking down a series of some forgotten 80's cold-war nuclear apocalypse films.

A few months ago I unintentionally happened to see a few films that all ended up being linked through the theme of evil kids. (For the uninitiated, this is a recurring theme in horror.) I approach kids with apprehension as it is - mostly due to their small size and unpredictability, but also due to the fact that they are largely irrational semi-human things. So imagining them as imbued with some sort of supernatural malice doesn't seem that far off for me.

The first movie that got me thinking was Grace. This film got a lot of buzz before it was released, so maybe I went into it expecting more than I should have. The premise is this: an expecting mother is in a car crash that kills her late-term unborn baby and also her husband. Stricken with grief, she carries the baby to term, and finds ... it's alive... or is it? The somewhat ashen-skinned baby attracts flies and drinks blood - congratulations lady, you gave birth to a zombie. Still grieving for her husband, she refuses to see that her child has, er, special needs, and grows slowly more insane trying to give it the blood that it requires for sustenance.

For me, this film was unsettling in all the wrong ways. This isn't a light-hearted zombie baby movie - it's a pretty depressing study of grief and the destruction of traditional family values. There are some obligatory scares and blood, but what really disturbed me is the way the film focuses on the repressive nature of the traditional nuclear family. There's an overbearing mother-in-law who, after losing her son in the car crash, becomes obsessed with finding a new child to nurture, and tries to gain custody of the dead baby. She's obsessed with nursing in a way that's not just a little creepy and leads to a few scenes that I'm trying really hard to excise from my memory.

While the mother of the zombie baby goes to escalating means to provide for her child, there's also a subplot/subtext about her breaking the shackles of the traditional family. By the end of the movie, she has completely demolished (literally and figuratively) her old family structure, and flees with her (female) birth counsellor to start a new life.

The thing is, Grace sounds more interesting than it actually is. Even at under 90 minutes, it drags in places - a sign that the short film it's based on didn't quite have enough ideas to fill out a feature film. Also, there's really no character you find yourself eager to relate to. The mother is a little too crazy and volatile to really empathize with, the baby is more a plot device than a character, and the birth counsellor appears too intermittently for us to really get to know her. It's interesting enough in retrospect, and has some pretty unsettling scenes, but doesn't maintain enough tension for it to be a really memorable film.

Next up was the Spanish cult horror film Who Can Kill A Child? which would probably have disappeared entirely had it not been for Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth lauding its virtues in the recent past. The title's rhetorical question is largely for show - you know what's going to go down at the end of this movie. What the question is really asking is: what would it take for you to kill a child, and how much remorse would you feel afterwards?

In case we weren't already thinking about this, the credits roll over stock war footage as statistics about child casualties of war are printed on the screen. This really adds nothing to the movie, and could be skipped without a second thought. I thought it bordered on tasteless, and didn't serve to make the film any more relevant. If anything, it should have been pushed to the end credits.

The film is pretty straightforward. Think "Children of the Corn" (which this film predates by a year or so) set on an isolated island, minus the crazy religious sect. A young couple sets off for a vacation on the island, only to find a distinct lack of adults, and a distinct abundance of creepy dead-eyed children. Eventually, they realise that the children have taken out the adults in what seems like a sort of game. Trapped without a ferry to the mainland until the next day, the couple struggles with the realisation that sooner or later, they're going to be overwhelmed by these evil kids and have to step up to the plate.

This film, like Grace, seems to take a little too long to get to the point. I would have enjoyed it a lot more had it been missing, oh, half an hour or so. But while it does a poor job of building suspense, the final act is what makes this movie worth it. This film doesn't shy away from the question it asks, and shows real guts in following it through to the end. Who Can Kill A Child? is a unique sort of film that takes the 70s Eurotrash aesthetic (with all of its flaws) and applies it to a slightly unorthodox idea. It's worth seeing just for something different, although I'd hesitate to label this as a classic. It's more an unusual relic of the exploitation era.

Finally, The White Ribbon, directed by Michael Haneke, takes a slower (non-horror) look at childhood innocence and how it's really a construction of society. The film is set in rural pre-World War I Germany and focuses on a young schoolteacher, who also narrates the film. The town feels almost intentionally storybookish in the way that most characters are identified and divided into social classes primarily by their occupation. In this way, they also come to represent society as a whole, and it's clear as the story opens that the somewhat tyrannical pastor, the aloof mayor, and the abusive doctor are the ones running the show in this town.

So when the doctor is injured after his horse is tripped in a clearly deliberate attempt on his life, there's no lack of suspects, but an abundance of them. Violent acts continue in the months ahead, and grow increasingly disturbing. Still, it's hard to narrow down just who is responsible. The characters in this film are anything but caricatures, and we see even the most obviously 'evil' characters in a variety of situations that humanize them. Every time you think you've got it figured out, you're shown a new piece of evidence that only serves to complicate things.

The title of the film seems to me to point out what this film is really about. When the mayor's children are out past their curfew, they're punished and forced to wear a white ribbon on their arm as a reminder of the innocence they've abandoned. When the mayor's son confesses to "self-abuse", his arms are tied to his bed at night with the same ribbons. The ribbon itself is an obvious symbol of innocence, but it's the way in which it's imposed upon the children that's really interesting to me. It's not an innate thing, but a label forced upon the kids by the adults in defiance of their true nature. It's also a way for the adults of the town to turn a blind eye to the fact that the children are the common denominator in the increasingly violent occurrances in the town.

The White Ribbon, like all of Haneke's films, isn't easy to digest. It's (ironically) filmed in black and white, but the moral issues in the film are anything but. Haneke isn't fond of giving clear answers to the questions he asks in his films (or even any answers at all, as in Cache), but instead chooses to lay out a number of possibilities that each illuminate the question in a different way. I'm sure that I'm reading this film differently than a lot of people would, but that's what I really like about Haneke - he offers you a problem and lets you come up with your own solution. Regardless of how you view it, one thing is clear in this film: whatever darkness has arisen in this town has been birthed by the town itself, and only upon accepting responsibility for this fact can it be eliminated.

In reality, kids aren't born evil, as in Grace, nor do they rise en masse to punish adults for their cruelty, as in Who Can Kill a Child? They are capable of evil things, as is anyone, and it's the way in which they're raised that determines exactly what kind of adults they'll become. In that sense, the White Ribbon offers the most nuanced and perhaps accurate view of innocence itself: as a brief and fleeting ideal that can never be fully recaptured, but is nonetheless worth striving for.