Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Best Books of 2014

Yes, it's that time of year again: time to look back through my blogged book reviews and pick the winners. In 2014 I didn't read much non-fiction, which is unusual for me, and I read a lot more SF, which is very unusual; in fact, Annihilation, an SF novel by Jeff Vandermeer, would have have been on this list but it's the first part of a trilogy so it will have to wait for 2015. As usual, just click on the titles to go to my original reviews.

The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara

The main character in this novel about scientific discovery and the exploitation of the Third World starts out as an ass and ends up a monster. That the author holds our fascinated attention with this horrible person is amazing, as is her prose and the twists and turns of the plot. Not for the faint of heart.

The Sun is God (2014) by Adrian McKinty

McKinty, a fine writer of hardboiled Celtic Noir crime fiction, makes a detour into historical mystery fiction with this tale of a cult of German sun worshipers in New Guinea. The story, as bizarre as it seems, is based on a real crime, and McKinty uses it as a framework for looking at the birth of alternative lifestyles (kooks and cranks division) in the early 1900s. Excellent wrting that comes in a very small package by the standards of historical fiction.

Alone in Berlin (1947) by Hans Fallada

Easily the best novel about totalitarianism and World War Two I've ever read. A Berlin couple mount a small-scale and futile propaganda war against Hitler in 1941, and the novel charts their pursuit and capture by the Gestapo. There's a large cast of characters, almost all of whom meet sticky ends, and despite the unrelenting grimness of the story, Fallada is such an energetic, entertaining writer it becomes hard to put the book down. It's also published under the title Every Man Dies Alone.

Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013) by Max Blumenthal

In the aftermath of Israel's recent assault on Gaza, this journalistic look at Israel's headlong rush towards becoming a fascist apartheid state provides an insight into why Palestinian lives are held so cheaply by Israel. This isn't a picture of Israel that's usually allowed into the mainstream media, and that makes it essential reading.

The Confession of Sultana Daku (2009) by Sujit Saraf

Daku was a famous bandit who terrorized the United Provinces of India in the 1920s. This novel brings that period to vivid life, but also examines the pernicious caste system that produced a bandit like Daku. Saraf is one of those great writers you've never heard of, and it'll take some work to find this novel--I had to order it from a used bookstore in New Delhi.

The Great Night (2011) by Chris Adrian

The fantasy genre is full of mashups, and this might be the most well-mashed I've come across. It's Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream plopped down in contemporary San Francisco, and it works because Adrian handles the fantasy elements masterfully while at the same time writing a deadly serious novel about the high cost of love. Be warned: these fairies are dangerous to be around, and the novel begins with a devastating description of a child's illness.

My Home is Far Away (1944) by Dawn Powell

To Kill a Mockingbird is rightly proclaimed as the Great American coming-of-age novel, but I'd place this novel a very, very close second. Powell was a literary star of post-war New York City, and this is her lightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in small town Ohio. Where Harper Lee's novel is warm and sentimental in its depiction of family life, Powell is brutal in describing the dysfunctional Willard family. A nice touch is that Powell didn't bother to change the name of her actual wicked stepmother when it came time to write the fictional version. Take that, stepmom.

Hard Rain Falling (1966) by Don Carpenter

A great, existential novel that follows a thuggish personality from orphanage to street hustler to prison and finally to a ramshackle kind of redemption. It's easy to see the connections between this novel and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, including the fact that both novels go off the rails in the last act. Hard Rain Falling is so powerful and sharply written that despite its tire fire finale it still manages to make this list. The opening chapter by itself is a master class in tough, efficient, hardboiled prose.

The Centurions (1960) by Jean Larteguy

High-ranking officers in the US Army were being encouraged to read this book during the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's easy to see why. Larteguy was a war correspondent and soldier who had first-hand experience of France's conflicts in Vietnam and Algeria. His novel is both a paean to the martial spirit, but also a savage and comprehensive look at why colonial powers are foiled by guerilla armies. It's a sprawling, exuberant novel that's comparable to Zola's La Debacle; in fact, this is probably the novel Zola would have written if he were alive in 1960.

The Son (2013) by Philipp Meyer

I've saved the best for last. This saga covering the lives of the McCullough family of Texas from the 1840s to the present day is a ripping yarn and a serious meditation on the central role of violence in American history. Meyer paints a big canvas with ferocious energy, and is unflinching in showing the worst in his American and Native American characters. Not quite the Great American Novel, but certainly a great American novel.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Film Review: Daughters of Darkness (1971)

If you're a horror film aficionado, Daughters of Darkness is one of the seminal films of the 1970s. I'd always been vaguely aware of it, but never made a point of seeing until I saw it featured in a 3-part documentary series on horror films done by Mark Gatiss, the co-creator and co-writer of Sherlock.

It's a contemporary vampire film about a young, attractive couple, Stefan and Valerie, who fetch up in a grand, Victorian-era beachfront hotel in Ostend, Belgium. They seem to be the only occupants of the hotel until a Countess Bathory appears with a beautiful female companion in tow. Bathory, played with languid elegance by Delphine Seyrig, is a centuries-old vampire, albeit one who seems as interested in haute couture as much as hemoglobin. The newlywed couple are supposed to be taking a ferry to England, but Bathory and her companion, Ilona, encourage the pair to stay, and it becomes clear that the Countess has her eye on Valerie as a possible replacement for Ilona. The plot has few surprises, and things end with Bathory reborn in Valerie's body.

Viewed from 2014, Daughters earns marks for moody cinematography (particularly its use of colour), nice costumes, and its creation of a suffocating atmosphere. But in the final analysis that doesn't come close to balancing out some dreadful acting, ESL dialogue, a sluggish pace, and some jagged plot holes (wait, does Stefan have a gay lover waiting for him in England?). From a 1971 perspective this film had it all: a stylish European look, a sharp break with genre conventions, and, most importantly, lots of nudity and sex, some of it lesbian! Yes, Daughters easily fulfills its early '70s transgression quota. Like so many films from that period that are remembered fondly or have achieved posthumous, as it were, critical regard, they are, at heart, exploitation films that have a patina of art and sophistication. As someone who grew up in that era, let me tell you that the appeal of these films lay entirely with the amount of violence and sex they offered.

What's increasingly forgotten about genre filmmaking in the late '60s and early '70s is that it was all about the R-rating (X for you in the UK). Film companies, especially the B-level ones like Hammer Films or Roger Corman's American International Pictures, but also, on occasion, the Hollywood studios, could make and market films purely on the basis that they offered t & a and/or guns and mayhem, and filmmakers were happy to push the then limits of what was acceptable to show on film. So on the one hand you have a film like Streetfighter (1974) banned in some quarters because it showed Sonny Chiba ripping an enemy's throat out with his bare hand in gory, Technicolor detail, and on the other there was Big Bad Mama (1974), a Bonnie and Clyde ripoff, that's actually about showing fading '60s star Angie Dickinson in the buff.

Filmmaking in the '70s was the culmination of a trend that began about ten years before. Films of the '30s, '40s and 50s were fairly democratic in their approach to audiences. Most Hollywood films were designed to appeal to all genders and ages, and even the B-movies of the '50s would mix in some romance to appeal to women, and nothing they put on the screen was graphic enough to keep kids out of the theatres. The release of Dr. No (1962) marks the beginning of a crucial change in how films were made. Lots of films were now being made to appeal exclusively to male tastes and fantasies. This testosterone-based cinema gained traction throughout the '60s as producers took advantage of relaxed censorship rules to bring in more graphic sex and violence. It was a pleasingly simple formula for them; no matter if the script was ramshackle, the director mostly drunk, and the actors more used to modeling clothes than reading lines, as long as enough blood was splashed around and some breasts were bared, profits were guaranteed.

Testosterone cinema was often good, crazy, dirty fun, but what's often glossed over is how enthusiastically misogynist it was, and Daughters doesn't miss out on this trend. The Valerie character is brutally beaten by her husband in one scene, and that's par for the course in a lot of the films of that era. Whether it was a counter-revolutionary reaction to Women's Liberation, or simply an effort to be transgressive, films of this period were filled with violence against women, particularly scenes of rape. In fact, rape may be the defining image of these types of films; from schlockmeisters like Russ Meyer to auteurs such as Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, and Stanley Kubrick, rapes and the threat of rape were a recurring theme in dozens of films. Rape was even played for laughs in films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and There Was a Crooked Man.

The spate of testosterone films that started in 1962 began to peter out (slowly) with the release of Star Wars and Jaws. The studios suddenly found (or realized once again) that films which appealed to the widest possible demographic produced massive profits. Films aimed at a male audience continued to be made, but their toxic levels of sexism and misogyny began to decline. The game-changing film in this regard was probably Alien, in which a beautiful woman gets to take charge, kick ass, show her smarts, and doesn't have to get naked. It's success made even B-movie producers realize that having a female character doing something, rather than just take her clothes off, made economic sense. Manly films made for manly men are still being made, but largely they've dispensed with the casual and comic brutality against women. The Expendables films, for example, are made for men, but there's nothing anti-feminist about them.

One unfortunate side effect from the testosterone era is that filmmaking and film criticism became entrenched as an all-male activity. The film industry was so relentlessly focused on satisfying male tastes and fantasies it sent a strong message to women that this art form was for men and men only. In the decades since then, women have slowly made inroads into the directing ranks, but film critics for major papers and magazines are still overwhelmingly male. This means that it's male opinions and tastes that largely define what's regarded as notable or worthy in films of the past and, to a large degree, in the here and now. And that brings us back to Mark Gatiss. Like most fanboys of '70s films (and I'm guilty of this as well), he glosses over the fact that this era, as much as it was filled with bold, innovative films, also represented the nadir of how women were depicted in films, both mainstream and otherwise. The occasional artistry of films like Daughters of Darkness shouldn't blind us to the fact that women became the collateral damage in films that were really all about pleasing male tastes.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Book Review: How I Stopped Being a Jew (2014) by Shlomo Sand

This long-form essay or opinion piece can be added to other recent works by Jewish writers such as Max Blumenthal, Ilan Pappe and Gideon Levy that deconstruct the self-aggrandizing myths spun around the state of Israel by Israeli Zionists and their (mostly) American backers. Shlomo Sand (a history professor at Tel Aviv University) would prefer it if you no longer referred to him as a Jewish writer. With passion and logic, Sand argues that there is no such thing as being Jewish outside of following the Jewish faith. There is no Jewish race, and, he argues further, there isn't even a Jewish culture.

Sand's main point is that unlike followers of other religions, a Jew is regarded as a Jew even if he's an atheist. An atheist whose grandparents were Baptists isn't currently a Baptist who also happens to be an atheist. A secular Jew, however, is still called a Jew even if they and their parents have never followed the Jewish faith. This double standard has been useful to both anti-Semites and Zionists. From medieval pogroms to Nazi death camps, anti-Semites have needed the idea of a distinctive and unique race of people to justify their terror. For Zionists, the alleged uniqueness of the Jews provided a justification for the creation of Israel. Sand shows that both groups created the idea of a Jewish race and culture out of whole cloth.

When it comes to Jewish "culture", Sand shows that those wishing to perpetuate this particular myth usually ignore the fact that those they have defined as being part of Jewish culture are simply part of their respective national cultures. This obsessive labeling of secular, creative minds from Karl Marx to Harold Pinter as somehow being part of a collective Jewish outlook or culture is sheer nonsense. It seems particularly ridiculous when, as Sand points out, the founding Zionist fathers of Israel showed such contempt for the culture and character of Jews from the Arab world, Eastern Europe, or, bizarrely enough, those who had survived the Holocaust. To cite one example, the use of Yiddish, a dialect most people would regard as being inextricably bound up with Jewish culture, was frowned upon, even banned, in Israel until fairly recently. Now that Yiddish is virtually extinct, it 's acquired a nostalgic glamour in Israel.

What this book achieves is make it more plain that Zionism is a cult that clumsily cherry-picks elements from politics, culture, history, and even archaeology, then weaves them into an argument for a regime underpinned by racism and colonialism. As much as Sand may not want to be called Jewish, it's the work of Jewish writers, who can't be be tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism (although some try), that brings insight and honesty to any discussion of Israel.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Film Review: Birdman (2014)

Birdman is a cheap box of chocolates; the kind that has too many pieces with squishy, oozy, fruity centres and no nutty ones and the chocolate tastes like it might have been recycled from last year's unsold Easter bunnies. But you eat the whole box because it's chocolate and it's sweet and it's right there in front of you on the coffee table. What makes Birdman more enjoyable than it has a right to be is that it absolutely stuffs you with the empty calories of stylish cinematography, panto levels of overacting, and some waspish comments about fame and celebrities.

Michael Keaton plays an actor, Riggan, who was once famous as Birdman, the star of a superhero franchise a la Batman. But that was a long time ago and now he wants to make his artistic mark by writing, directing and starring in a stage version of a Raymond Carver novel, and on Broadway, no less. His extremely Method-y co-star, Mike, is played by Edward Norton. Almost all the action takes place backstage and onstage as Riggan tries to keep his vanity production on the rails. He has money worries, the Norton character is temperamental, his personal relationships are rocky, and his biggest problem is that he's suffering from delusions. Riggan has come to believe (when he's alone) that he has superpowers. He also gets visits from his Birdman alter ego who badgers him to take up the role again.

There's always something compelling about tales of backstage life and conflict, and Birdman mines that vein quite effectively. This side of the story is helped even more by its visual style, which is made up of almost constant tracking shots that transition seamlessly from one location in the theatre to another, and even across time gaps of hours and days. The claustrophobic, rabbit warren character of a large theatre has probably never been captured so beautifully. There are also a lot of closeups, which is a bold move since the camera probably risked being damaged in the frenzy of scenery-chewing that goes on by Keaton and Norton. They don't give great performances, they give loud, busy, twitchy, theatrical performances that are demented but quite entertaining. As a bonus there are some sharp jabs at celebrities such as Meg Ryan and Ryan Gosling.

Where Birdman stumbles is when it's characters talk about Art, Life and Acting. The characters have nothing original or interesting to say on these subjects, although they do it with a lot of spittle-flecked energy. What's more annoying is that only Keaton and Norton are allowed these deep thoughts; the female characters are left to talk about their relationships with men. So that's a score of 0 on the Bechdel test. The one woman who's not confined to relationship chatter is a vicious drama critic, and it's clear she's only allowed this privilege because she's of a certain age. Naturally enough, Riggin and Mike loathe her.

Birdman is scatter-brained, clumsily sexist, and more than a bit pretentious, but the look of it, its frantic energy, and some very amusing bits (Riggin speed-walking through Times Square in his underwear) at least make it better than most actual superhero films.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: The Sun is God (2014) by Adrian McKinty

Brevity isn't a quality normally associated with historical fiction. Writers in this field usually measure out their prose in cubits and furlongs, with innumerable bits and bobs of historical detail clinging to their plots like burls on an oak tree. And then we have The Sun is God. Adrian McKinty is a crime/mystery novelist whose stories have always had contemporary settings. This novel (based closely on a true incident) has a crime and a mystery at its heart, and even a detective, but I'd come down on the side of it being historical fiction rather than a mystery novel. And it's quite short.

The setting is the colony of German New Guinea in 1906. A smallish group of Europeans, mostly German, calling themselves "Cocovores" are living on a small island, subsisting entirely on coconuts, bananas and a lot of sunbathing (they're also nudists). The Cocovores are a cult, in fact, and believe that their simple, pure lifestyle will make them immortal. One of their number dies under mysterious circumstances. The local German authorities (it's a very small colony) are forced to turn for investigative help to Will Prior, an ex-member of the British military police who's washed up in New Guinea after being kicked out of the army. Will goes to the Cocovores' island along with a German official and a Miss Pullen-Berry, an intrepid English traveler and journalist. The island reveals some dark secrets, Will faces death and danger, and the mystery is (mostly) solved.

Although the mystery plot gives the novel its backbone, the meat of the story is its look at one of the psychological and philosophical turning points of the modern age. McKinty has managed to pack into this one small, historical incident a lot of the themes that would define the 20th century. Let's begin with Will, who is psychologically damaged from taking part in a massacre of starving black South Africans being held in a British concentration camp. In one horrible moment Will has seen the pointy end of repressive colonialism and industrialized state terrorism, two isms that will metastasize in the decades to come. Will's flight from South Africa is an unspoken resistance to what the British government is doing. And the Cocovores are one of the earliest expressions of the individualism, narcissism, and utopianism that characterize the cults, counter culture, and alternative lifestyles that grew apace over the next several generations. In his descriptions of the Cocovores McKinty nimbly references aspects of future cults such as Jim Jones' Peoples Temple and the Heaven's Gate cult.

The Cocovores are the children of Darwin and Freud and Nietzsche, something that they're very aware of. They are among the first people of the 20th century to take the view that they can and should live outside the control of established states, religions and philosophies; they are the architects of their own universe, albeit one that's demented and reliant on cheap native labour. In the Cocovores we also witness the true believer fanaticism that leads to persecution and murder; on a small scale here, on an epic scale a few years down the road in Europe.

As mentioned earlier, McKinty keeps his story lean and doesn't overindulge in historical scene-setting. Instead, he lets his prose do some that work, as shown here:

Bethman swung a clumsy haymaker at Will's face, which he easily dodged before cleaning Bethman's clock with an upper cut to the point of his prominent chin. The German fell backward, poleaxed by the blow.

The use of semi-archaic words such as "haymaker", "clock" and "poleaxed", and the Boys Own Paper tone of that passage, take us back in time without the addition of distracting historical asides. The Sun is God isn't an exercise in nostalgia or a showy exercise in historical research, it's a sharp, piercing look at an unlikely group of people (for the time) who form a kind of template for the century to come. The only comparison that comes to mind are the Mamur Zapt novels by Michael Pearce (my review), which are marketed as mysteries but are more about colonialism. In any case, McKinty is working at a higher literary level than Pearce. And here's where I contradict myself; as much as I enjoyed the economy of McKinty's writing, in retrospect I wanted the novel to be a bit longer. The back stories of the Cocovores cried out for more detail; these are people who have stepped far, far outside the mainstream so the inner journeys that brought them to New Guinea almost demand a fuller description. That aside, The Sun is God is a refreshing example of historical fiction that achieves a lot without doubling as a cinder block.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Film Review: Nightcrawler (2014)

It was argued in the documentary The Corporation (2003) that corporations think and behave like psychopaths. Nightcrawler takes the view that inside every psychopath there's a raging capitalist struggling to get out. The title character is Louis Bloom, who when we first meet him is driving a crappy car (this already marks him out as odd in Los Angeles) and stealing metal for a living. In the few, short scenes that begin the film we learn all we need to know about Louis: his large, moist, unblinking eyes are always on the lookout for whatever can earn him a dime or a dollar. He's confronted by a security guard while stealing some chain link fencing and notices that the guard is wearing a large, shiny watch. Like some kind of crazed thieving magpie he wrestles the guard to the ground and in the next scene we see Bloom wearing the watch. Is the guard dead or injured? We don't know because the story is told from Bloom's POV, and he certainly doesn't care what happens to other people.

Bloom happens upon a freelance videographer filming a dramatic car crash and learns that these freelancers can make good money selling their footage to local news stations. Cue the demented Horatio Alger story as Louis rises to the top of the freelance news heap by being more aggressive, more cutthroat and cheaper than any of his competitors. He hires an assistant, Rick, who's living in a garage, and patiently explains that he's offering an unpaid internship because the experience he'll get is worth more than money. Bloom eventually, and grudgingly, gives Rick $30 for each all-night shift. The two of them listen to an emergency services scanner and race other videographers to car crashes, fires and crime scenes. Bloom's ruthlessness eventually leads to him manipulating the news instead of just recording it.

Bloom is an odd amalgam of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, a reptilian version of Phil Silver's Sgt. Bilko character, and Chance from Being There. He has no interior life (his stark, barely furnished apartment is a window to his soul), he's just a feral entrepeneur who's learned to mouth business platitudes gleaned from self-help books and seminars. He's matched by Nina (Rene Russo), the producer of a morning TV news show. She'll accept raw video material from Louis no matter how tainted, how immoral his methods are in getting great footage. Nina is in the minor leagues of the TV industry and is desperate to keep her job. Rick plays the role of the oppressed worker who is ruthlessly exploited and then cast aside.

A lot of Nightcrawler is a simplistic, connect-the-dots analogy about the way business works (something I'm in agreement with), but the film still works exceptionally well as an atmospheric thriller. The action takes place almost entirely at night, and Los Angeles has rarely looked so beautiful and yet menacing. The film also benefits from a constant and underlying tension thanks to Bloom's unpredictable ruthlessness, and the finale is a fine piece of action choreography.

On the debit side, the lampooning of local TV news is pretty stale. This subject has been done to death, and Nina is, unfortunately, one in a long line of dragon lady TV executives. The Bloom character is compelling to watch but he's never more than a polemical argument made flesh and blood. And I could have done without the police detective who is given dialogue recycled from every cop show ever. Finally, it's nice to see a nasty, dyspeptic, criminal view of life up on the big screen again. Those kinds of films were the heavy hitters of the 1970s and I'd like to think this marks a comeback for them.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Film Review: Fury (2014)

Much of Fury can be described as a ham-handed, badly acted and poorly-written rehash of Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers. The action sequences (with one notable exception) are impressively noisy and bloody, even gripping at times, but at it's heart this is a western, the kind in which our American heroes/gunslingers have to face off against hordes of Mexicans or Native Americans in a final climactic battle. Think of it as The Wild Bunch with tanks.

The tank commander, "Wardaddy", is played by Brad Pitt. It's a preening, scenery-chewing performance that shows what happens when a megastar isn't held in check by the director. Pitt doesn't create a character, he strikes a variety of poses and attitudes from every macho action film he's ever seen. The script does him no favours because he, along with the other four members of the tank crew, are products of a special key on the lazy scriptwriter's keyboard; it's a function key that automatically creates macho male characters who swear, argue, brawl, bicker, swear, spit, swear, kill, swear, weep copiously over the deaths of buddies (with extra swearing), drink hard, and finally die in a Twilight of the Gods firefight. It's homoerotic porn for gun nuts. David Ayer, the writer and director, goes the extra mile by making his main characters so frantically manly and tough they become loathsome. Aside from the wet behind the ears newbie, the rest of crew, including Pitt's character, are just cursing windbags of testosterone-addled idiocy. In a bit of clunky writing Ayer tries to explain their bestiality by saying that their long service at the front has brutalized them. OK, that was almost an original thought forty years ago. We get it, David, war is hell and you don't win battles with Boy Scouts. Moving on...

Fury would be just another slack-jawed action movie but for one notably offensive sequence that lumbers on stage at about the halfway point. Our "heroes" have taken a small German town, and Wardaddy and the newbie, called Norman, force their way into a home occupied by a woman and her teenaged female cousin. The threat or prospect of rape hangs heavy in the air. That's fine, because history tells us Allied troops did rape German women; not to the degree invading Russian troops did, but it certainly happened. The women are clearly terrified that one or both of them is going to be assaulted. Instead, Wardaddy, who speaks German, tells the older woman to cook for them. A short time later, however, Wardaddy tells Norman to take the young girl into the next room and screw her or he'll do it. A semi-reluctant Norman goes into a bedroom with the girl and does some kind of half-assed palm reading on her. She doesn't speak English and Norman doesn't have any German, but she's evidently so charmed, so smitten by these few seconds of interaction with her potential rapist she happily and enthusiastically has sex with him. WTF? What we have here is a rape fantasy, plain and simple. The female character is being coerced/forced into sex, but because her rapist shows a molecule of charm, she magically becomes eager for sex. And just to complete the fantasy aspect, the girl is gorgeous. The terrors and privations of Germany in 1945 haven't diminished her lingerie-model good looks one iota.

This sour, nasty scene is followed by a finale in which a couple of hundred SS troops launch an assault on Fury (the tank's name) and her crew. Wardaddy and Co. are all that stand between the Germans and an Allied supply depot. This action setpiece fits comfortably with your father's idea of what a World War Two movie should be like: the Germans lineup in an orderly fashion so that the good guys can mow them down in the most efficient manner possible. The Germans must have been scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel in 1945 because these guys have less tactical sense than the average paintball player. They stand in the open and fire rifles and machine guns at a tank. A tank! And then they look surprised when they're blown to smithereens. This last battle is doubly disappointing because some of the earlier tank fights are quite well done. Oh, well. At this point I was just grateful that I was seeing almost all the crew members meet a bloody end.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lessons Learned From Toronto's Mayoral Election

If at some point late in the evening of October 27 you noticed a sudden wind stirring the tree branches outside your house, that was the result of Toronto's population collectively releasing its breath after the defeat of Doug Ford in the mayoral election. The pollsters all predicted it, but even the faint chance that they might be wrong had the city on edge as though fearing an impending natural disaster. Doug and Rob Ford have been the two-headed kaiju of Toronto politics, but now that they've been sent back to Monster Island, it's time to look at some of the hard lessons Toronto's learned from the election.

Racism Works

Toronto's media scratched its head raw trying to figure out why Doug and Rob could consistently draw the support of up to a third of the electorate despite spouting a string of racial, ethnic and religious slurs. What seemed even stranger was that the Fords had solid support from Toronto's visible minorities. I think the media was trapped in the idea that prejudice is the exclusive preserve of whites. If you've spent any time in public service, or taken a lot of cab rides, you quickly learn that a segment of every race, ethnic group, and religion has a bad word for the other guy. When the Fords vocalized their prejudices they appealed to anyone who's worldview is filled with stereotypes and bigotry. A portion of our population, no matter what its racial or ethnic origin, saw in the Fords people who share their prejudiced view of the world.

An Election is Not a Policy Symposium

Full disclosure: I was an Olivia Chow supporter. It was clear several weeks before the election that Chow was going to finish a distant third, a remarkable failure on her part given that she began the year as an overwhelming favourite. So what happened? The first problem was that Chow has spent her political life in the cozy bourgeois-bohemian confines of wards and ridings in downtown Toronto. At the ward or riding level you can get elected by going door-to-door, speaking to community groups, and generally doing a lot of one-on-one political work. Trained in this environment, Chow thought that simply articulating her policies was a sensible campaign strategy. That's not what elections on the big stage are about. People want to vote for someone who exudes confidence, determination, empathy, and a certain single-mindedness. Chow didn't offer that. She came across as a well-meaning senior civil servant who was tasked with explaining rules and regulations to her juniors. She had to sell herself as a leader and she failed completely. What was worse was that Chow began to campaign defensively with a series of self-deprecating remarks about her accent, her speaking style, and her insistence on sticking to discussions of policy. Her supporters got in on the act and started muttering that criticism of Olivia's campaigning style was veiled sexism, that being aggressive and loud was a male view of how to run for office. That argument didn't wash. Kathleen Wynne just won a provincial election quite handily without being aggressive or shouty, and she had a lot of political baggage to overcome. The simple answer for Chow's failure was that she didn't understand that an election campaign is about selling yourself rather than putting forward an agenda, and she sent the message that she had little faith in what she was selling.

TV News and Talk Radio is an Enabler

Throughout the Ford saga, the Toronto Star and, to lesser extent, the Globe and Mail, have proven over and over again that print journalism matters. They broke story after story about the Fords' crimes and misdemeanors, but all their good work was almost undone by local TV news and talk radio. Most people get their news from TV, and they were ill-served by the local talking heads. TV news twists itself into knots trying to present "balanced" coverage, and that meant the Fords could get coverage of their staged media events without analysis or context. TV news relies on an older demographic, a group that also happens to be key Ford supporters, and it seems obvious that they went out of their way to avoid alienating their audience with critical Ford coverage. Talk radio skews even older, and stations like 1010 were right behind the Fords, up to and including giving them their own show. You could almost include the Toronto Sun newspaper as part of talk radio because their advocacy for the Fords was so blatant any claims they had to being a news organization became risible. They were propagandists, plain and simple.

The Canadian Disease

Call it Canadian politeness, but we don't seem able to call a spade a spade. The Fords spouted lies the way a volcano spews ash, but I don't think I ever heard Chow, Tory or a reporter interviewing a Ford call them liars. Lying is the oxygen on Planet Ford, and without it they didn't really have a campaign or even a platform. Chow and Tory had multiple opportunities in debates and speeches to point out this fact out but something--fear of sounding rude?--stopped them. And why couldn't one of them have drawn attention to the Globe's story that Doug Ford was once a hash dealer? It's hard to imagine an American or British politician being given a free pass on that accusation by his opponents, but that's what Ford and Chow did.

What's the Matter with Kansas?

That's the title of a book by Thomas Frank that attempted to explain why poor and working-class Americans in red states support the Republican Party, something that clearly goes against their economic interests. The same phenomenon took place in Toronto. The poor and working poor flocked to the Fords, a pair of millionaires who want to slash city services, and snubbed Chow, the theoretical socialist. I say theoretical because Chow worked hard to make people forget her NDP roots. Late in the campaign, as her poll numbers collapsed, she began to call herself a progressive, but it was too late. Ford's demographic should have been hers, but like too many Canadian leftists she decided to chase the middle-class and ended up on the outside looking in. The Fords appeals to the poor, which consisted entirely of meaningless photo ops, was monstrously hypocritical, but it worked because they were the only ones making specific appeals to that group; the working-class was rewarding the Fords for having the courtesy to pay some attention to them.

Cops and Capitalists United in Impotence

During Rob Ford's time in the mayor's office he committed multiple crimes, including drug possession, impaired driving, and child (his own) endangerment. The police were tailing Ford off and on for months, and were very likely aware of these crimes as they happened, and certainly knew about them once they hit the newspapers. They took no action, except for mumbling excuses about "ongoing investigations." The city's business leaders were silent about the buffoon savaging Toronto's reputation around the world. In fact, many people in the business community (take a bow, Toronto realtors) were happy to have a mayor who woke up every morning with the words "Tax cuts!" on his lips. Ford's mayoralty was a clear, cold lesson that political power, even if it's wielded by an idiot, provides a moral Teflon-coating, especially when the idiot is singing from the right-wing hymnbook.

John Tory is the new mayor, and while he's highly unlikely to go on a crack-fueled rampage (he seems like more of a milk and Graham crackers guy), he's conservative to the tips of his Bass loafers and just as likely as Rob to try and cut city services. He'll do it politely, but his CV suggests that politically he and Ford have everything in common except recreational drug use. Here endeth the lesson.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Best Non-Horror Horror Films

Every October the internet is awash with suggestions for Halloween-themed movie watching. This isn't exactly one of those lists. Rundowns of the best horror movies have a year after year sameness to them due to the fact that the genre has been in a creative rut for a quite a few years. On the one hand you have Paranormal Activity and its dozens of clones, and on the other you have torture porn/slasher films that only exist to highlight the work of the prosthetics wing of the SFX department. So here's a list of films that provide the fear and existential dread of the best horror films, but without any supernatural content or masked men wielding knives/axes/garlic presses.

Onibaba (1964)

It gets scarier than this.
 Set in a marsh in rural Japan, a woman and her widowed daughter-in-law make a living killing lone samurai who cross their path. They dump the bodies in a deep hole in the marsh and sell the armour and weapons they've stripped from the bodies. Things go awry when the young woman acquires a love interest and her mother-in-law finds a "demon" mask. This is a seriously creepy and atmospheric film thanks to some amazing cinematography that's reminiscent of Val Lewton's horror films.

Innocence (2004)

"This doesn't look like Hogwarts."
The girls who live and study in this French boarding school make their first arrival at the school in coffins in which they seem to have been sleeping. Things get weirder. The school is in a walled park and no one is allowed out. After a peculiar course of study the girls are sent...but, no, that would be a spoiler. Marion Cotillard is one of the teachers in this sumptuous-looking film, which creates tension and dread by not giving us any clues as to what's really happening.

Winter's Bone (2010)

And they live in the good part of town.
Every minute of this dark crime drama is filled with dread. Jennifer Lawrence's character, Ree, has to prove that her father's dead, and to do that involves running a gauntlet of back country characters who'd probably regard Deliverance as a sitcom. The hills of rural Missouri are filled with crazed crackheads,  meth dealers, and garden variety bug-eyed rednecks, all of whom Ree has to negotiate with or cower in terror from. It's a hair-raising film that's almost devoid of violence.

The Parallax View (1974)

One of them gets down the quick way.
One of the key tropes in most supernatural films is that ordinary things aren't necessarily what they appear to be; see that sweet-looking doll over there? Turn away for a second and suddenly it's got it's hands around your throat. This political conspiracy thriller about a shadowy corporation that assassinates US politicians works a bit like that. Warren Beatty is a journalist who starts uncovering the truth but faces danger and double-crosses every step of the way. Director Alan J. Pakula brings the same mood of paranoid spookiness to this film as he did to Klute and All the President's Men.

Wake In Fright (1971)

Watch out! He's reaching for his pouch!
Yet another horror film trope is the character who keeps making terrible choices, such as taking midnight strolls in cemeteries, going into attics/basements to investigate odd noises, and admitting men into the house who introduce themselves by saying, "I'm Count...uh...Alucard. Yeah, that's it, Count Alucard!" The central character in this Aussie film (but directed by Canuck Ted Kotcheff) is an Englishman who has to spend one night in a godawful Outback town for a flight that will take him back to England and civilization. He then makes a series of bad decisions that land him in one horrible situation after another, all involving the very unappetizing locals. The film has a gritty, documentary feel, an unrelenting sense of impending doom, a big, brassy performance from Donald Pleasance, and cinema's only knife fight between a man and a kangaroo.

The Hill (1965)

Harry Andrews isn't keen on Connery's moustache.
A tried and tested horror film structure is to have our hero(es) battle/run from a seemingly invulnerable maniac killer or supernatural entity. In the last few minutes of the film the baddie is bloodily defeated and all is well...or is it? The Evil One inevitably leaps back to life and things end badly for everyone except the film's producers, who've thereby left the door open for sequels. The Hill is set in a British military prison in North Africa that holds deserters and shirkers and the like. The officers in charge of the camp are a collection of bullies and incompetents, and one of their prisoners is worked to death as part of a punishment detail. A few of the prisoners, led by Sean Connery's character, try and have the responsible officer brought to justice. It seems like an impossible fight, and just when it looks like they've won...This is probably Connery's best performance, and he's supported by an A-list cast of Brit character actors all of whom try and outshout and outact each other; it's like a thespian version of WWE.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

I'm telling you it's not a horror movie!
 The title character, an upper-middle-class Roman housewife, finds out her husband is having an affair and has a nervous breakdown. Her breakdown takes the form of seeing visions, and this being a Fellini film, the visions are eye-popping celebrations of Technicolor, sound design, and visual imagination. Fellini isn't trying for scares or even dread, but some of his imagery, especially in the final section of the film, makes you realize that he could have made an amazing horror film.

So there you have it; seven "horror" films that are largely blood and viscera free. And if you absolutely have to have celebrate Halloween with a horror film, check out Lake Mungo, an Australian film that could almost make this list because it keeps its supernatural elements to an absolute minimum and becomes all the scarier because of it. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Book Review: Get Carter (1970) by Ted Lewis

Get Carter is hands down the most iconic British gangster film of all time, and it's arguably the most memorable role of Michael Caine's career. It's odd, then, that it took so long for a publisher to reissue the novel it was based on. The original novel was called Jack's Return Home, which is an accurate, if underwhelming, description of the contents therein. And now the eternal question: which is better, the book or the film? The answer is that this one of the rare cases where the book and film are equally superb.

For the few people unfamiliar with the film or the book, the story follows London hood Jack Carter as he returns to his hometown, an industrial town in the north of England, for the funeral of his brother Frank. Jack suspects that Frank's death in a car crash wasn't accidental, and he's soon putting the hurt on various people to try and find out the truth. The local gangsters and Jack's bosses in London don't like that Jack is ruffling feathers and breaking heads, and decide it would be better if he was dead.

The novel has not aged one bit. The plot is tight and tense, but what really stands out is Lewis' dyspeptic prose. Here's his description of the patrons at a pretentious club/casino:

Inside, the decor was pure British B-feature except with better lighting. The clientele thought they were select. They were farmers, garage proprietors, owners of chains of cafes, electrical contractors, builders, quarry owners; the new Gentry. And occasionally, thought never with them, their terrible off-spring. The Sprite drivers with the accents not quite right, but ten times more like it than their parents, with their suede boots and their houndstooth jackets and their ex-grammar school girlfriends from the semi-detached trying for the accent, indulging in a bit of finger pie on Saturdays after the halves of pressure beer at the Old Black Swan, in the hope that the finger pie will accelerate the dreams of the Rover for him and the mini for her and the modern bungalow, a farmhouse style place, not too far from the Leeds Motorway for the Friday shopping.

Throughout the novel Lewis applies an acid wash to English society; more specifically, the culture and environment of ugly, money-obsessed, industrial towns in the North. Sometimes the novel reads like hate literature about northern England, but certain other (brief) passages are tinged with Jack's nostalgia for childhood outings with his brother in the countryside around the town. There's a sense in the novel that a more civilized, less mean-spirited England once existed but has now been consumed by a cabal of gangsters, bent coppers, avaricious politicians, and a middle-class obsessed with climbing the social ladder. The spirit of this older, better England is personified by Jack's brother. Frank is dead when the novel begins, but in a brilliant bit of writing Lewis lets us know all about him with a description of the contents of his living room bookcase; his tastes in magazines, books and music are an eloquent testimony to a sober, decent character who was too good and too old-fashioned for his place and time. As Jack investigates Frank's death it becomes even more clear that he was the odd man out in a town given over to self-interest and viciousness, and Jack's attempt to solve and avenge Frank's murder becomes an attempt to reclaim some small part of the innocence he once shared with his brother.

The literary step-parents of Get Carter are Alan Sillitoe and Harold Pinter. Jack's misanthropic descriptions of the town are an echo of the anger Sillitoe brought to his novels and short stories set in the north. Sillitoe had more sympathy for his characters, trapped as they were in dead end jobs and dreary housing estates, and he was more concerned with showing the social and political facts that produced depressed lives and dreary communities. Get Carter's terse, elliptical, and allusive dialogue is pure Pinter. Jack's chats with his fellow gangsters usually have a neutral and pleasant tone but underneath it all they're straining to express violence, rage and naked threats. It's a unique way to create tension, and it's a device that was developed further by Brit crime writer Bill James in his long-running Harpur & Iles series.

So, how far does the book differ from the film, you ask? Not that much, really. The plot was streamlined for the film, and scriptwriter/director Mike Hodges did a wonderful job of choosing what to cut and compress. In a few places the film actually does a better job than the novel; Jack's famous line in the film when he meets Cliff Brumby ("You're a big man, but you're in bad shape. With me it's a full time job. Now behave yourself") is a tweaked improvement over the dialogue from the book. Hodges also made a wise decision to tone down some of the violence aimed at the female characters. Ted Lewis wrote two other Jack Carter novels, Jack Carter's Law and Jack Carter and the Mafia Pigeon, both of which are also being reissued.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Book Review: Alone in Berlin (1947) by Hans Fallada

Well, the contest is officially over. George Orwell's 1984 and Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon have been relegated to my personal second division of searing novels about life in a brutal, totalitarian state. It wasn't even close. The prime reason for Alone in Berlin taking home the cup is that Hans Fallada knew whereof he spoke. In 1911, at the age of eighteen, Fallada killed his best friend as part of a mutual suicide pact and then bungled his own attempt to kill himself. Life was telling Fallada something. He was then banged up in a psychiatric hospital, and for the rest of his life (he died shortly after finishing this novel) Fallada was in and out of prisons, hospitals and psych wards. He battled addictions to drugs and booze, worked as a farmer and journalist, and eventually became one of the more successful and well-known German writers of the 1930s. One of his novels, What Now, Little Man?, was even made into a successful Hollywood movie in 1934. Under the Nazis he alternately resisted and knuckled under (Goebbels put a menacing word in his ear) to their insistence that his writings take a pro-Nazi stance. Fallada had intimate knowledge of resistance and collaboration, and those are the twin poles around which his last novel revolves.

Alone in Berlin is based on a true story and follows Otto and Anna Quangel, a working-class couple whose only child, a son, is killed in action in 1940. They're devastated, but unlike millions of other Germans, the couple decide to clandestinely protest the war. They start writing anti-war, anti-Hitler statements on postcards and drop them in public places. The Gestapo is soon on the case, although the impact of their protest is clearly negligible. The Quangels manage to evade capture for several years, but, inevitably, luck turns against them and they're caught, and the last quarter of the novel covers their interrogation, trial and imprisonment.

The Quangels are at the centre of the story, but there are at least a dozen other characters who orbit around them, including co-workers, neighbours, relatives, cops, Gestapo officers, and criminals. These supporting characters include (to name a few) ardent and avaricious Nazis; working-class Berliners trying to keep their heads down and endure the war; petty criminals who are both evading and profiting from the war; and naive, hopeless resisters to the Nazis. Fallada knew what life was like in the lower reaches of German society, and presents it with a brutal, even enthusiastic, harshness. His characters are terrified of the Nazis and the war, and the horror of the regime seems to bleed into personal relationships, many of which are violent and toxic. Fallada is brilliant at describing the petty, degrading horrors of life under Nazidom and the way people will demean themselves to stay out of trouble or curry favour with the authorities. The prison sections of the story are the best of their kind I've ever read. Fallada had many and varied experiences of being detained by the state, and every morsel of that experience and knowledge makes it into the novel.

Grim would be a good, catchall description of Alone in Berlin, but it's also ferociously tense and spiked with a terrifically black sense of humour. It makes for an odd but exhilarating reading experience. There are no happy endings for anyone, but Fallada writes with such energy and descriptive richness that reading about the horrors of life under the Nazis becomes perversely pleasurable. What's even more remarkable about this novel is that Fallada wrote it in under a month, and you can sense that he was in a rush to capture in prose all the rage, bitter sarcasm, and cynical humour that had been bottled up inside him since the Nazis came to power. Alone in Berlin isn't just a great novel about totalitarianism, I'd also put it forward as perhaps the best novel to come out of World War Two.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Film Review: Mystery Road (2013)

There are lots of things to like about the look of this Australian mystery-thriller, but the strong visual elements paper over a threadbare plot and characters who seem to have been developed on an Etch-A-Sketch. The story takes place in a small community in one of the most Outbacky-looking parts of the Outback, and that means we're treated to a full share of limitless vistas, glorious sunrises and sunsets, and shots of people dwarfed by desiccated, yet epic, landscapes. That's all well and good, but  the Outback, like the Alps or the Hawaiian Islands, is one of nature's visual wonders, and any half-decent cinematographer should be able to find some eye candy in those locations.

The mystery at the heart of Mystery Road is the murder of an aboriginal girl just outside of town beside a highway used by big-rig truckers. The investigating detective is Jay Swan, part aborigine, and recently returned to his hometown from a stint working in the big city. If Jay had seen his share of mysteries set in small towns in which outsider cops figure, he'd have been prepared for the cold shoulder he receives from all and sundry. He's disliked and distrusted by the all-white police force, and equally scorned by the local aborigines because he's working for the white authorities. Oh no, he's a man caught between two cultures! This aspect of film isn't done with any originality, except in the visual realm. Jay's dealings with these two communities are filled with a palpable physical tension. The people he talks to and/or questions lean away from him, look to one side, or otherwise convey through their movements and posture their utter disdain for Jay. It's a smart and visual way to convey information without resorting to dialogue.

The weakest part of the film is the mystery. Striking shots of the Outback don't make up for a plot that wanders off in various directions at a very slow pace, and then leaves us almost completely in the dark as to what happened to whom and why. Fortunately, the film ends with one absolutely terrific action sequence that plays out over vast distances. An added bonus is the work of actor Aaron Pedersen in the role of Jay Swan. He has a strong, Russell Crowe-like physical presence that makes him the centre of visual attention even if he's just standing or sitting.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Book Review: The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara

The utter brilliance of this novel can be gauged by the fact that its central character and narrator starts off as annoying and unlikable, and proceeds from there, by stages, to become despicable and utterly repellent, and yet it's impossible not to be fascinated by his train wreck of a character arc. Bad guys and girls can often be compelling fictional characters, but Norton Perina, the sociopathic scientist at the centre of the novel, lacks the glamour or calculating genius of a Hannibal Lecter or Blofeld. Perina is anti-social, pedantic, misogynistic, lacking in empathy, occasionally sadistic, and, worst of all, an enthusiastic pedophile. Yanagihara's compelling, incisive writing keeps us fascinated with Perina even though it's hard not to spend most of the novel hoping that he's bitten by a poisonous snake or run over by a bus or shot with a...you get the idea.

The novel is written as a series of autobiographical letters sent by Perina from his prison cell to a friend and fellow scientist. The friend feels that Perina's remarkable career demands some kind of autobiography. Perina is raised on a farm in Ohio in the 1930s by parents who are both one card shy of a full deck. He goes to medical college and in 1950 joins an expedition to a chain of barely-explored islands in Micronesia. Perina is accompanied by two anthropologists, and the purpose of the expedition is to make find a tribe that has never had contact with the outside world. The tribe is found and it seems they have discovered the key to extending life. Some of them appear to be hundreds of years old, but while their bodies don't age, their minds eventually turn to mush and they wander the jungle like animals. Perina's research, and his realization that eating a turtle found only on the island extends the islander's life, provide the foundation for his spectacular career in research, which culminates in the winning of a Nobel prize a decade or so later. The island is eventually despoiled by researchers and pharmaceutical companies searching the island for more medical marvels. The turtles quickly become extinct, and the key to longer life is never found. Perina makes many trips back to the island and starts adopting the island's abandoned children, forty-seven in total, and brings them back to the US where he raises them himself. Perina is arrested in the 1990s and charged with sexually assaulting one of his adopted children, and his final letter to his friend lays bare the enormity of his crimes.

The People in the Trees works superbly on many levels. It's an adventure story about exploration, an allegory about Western exploitation of  Third World cultures and resources, a critique of scientific curiosity, and a clinically thorough examination of a brilliant sociopath. One theme in the novel could be described as the fascism of scientific inquiry. In Perina's career, and in the scientific/academic environment he lives in, the quest for empirical truths trumps all considerations of ethics and morality, and even common sense. One of the tragedies of Perina's life is that his amorality actually makes him a better scientist, and his resulting professional success makes him a more successful monster. The awfulness of Perina is made bearable and fascinating by Yanagihara's meticulous examination of his thoughts and beliefs. He's far from a one-dimensional villain; at times he can show pity, even affection, and he's even aware of the cruelty he's unleashed on the island. Perina's POV is always colored by his general misanthropy. This becomes particularly apparent during his first trip to the island when his descriptions of the flora and fauna are filled with disgust and loathing. Perina is surrounded by riotous tropical life, and its fecundity and variety seems to horrify him, possibly because he can't control or dominate this environment.

The psychological and physical horrors that fill this novel are made tolerable thanks to Yanagihara's lush, precise prose. She moves seamlessly from describing tribal life, the ecology of her imaginary jungle, to the intricacies of scientific research without missing a beat. It's an amazing achievement, albeit one that's sometimes hard to stomach.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Film Review: The Organizer (1963)

The list of films about strikes, unions, and labour disputes is a short one, and it's safe to say that almost none of them qualify as light entertainment. It's not a sub-genre known for laughs and whimsy. I'd never heard of The Organizer and I really have to wonder why, because this has to be the Lawrence of Arabia of the organized labour sub-genre of films. Yes, it's that good.

The setting is a textile factory in Turin in the late 1800s. The five hundred or so workers endure 14-hour shifts in hot, dirty and dangerous conditions, and, not surprisingly, don't get paid much. One of the workers gets his hand mangled by a machine, and that serves as the impetus for the workers to at least think about demanding changes to their working conditions. As luck or fate would have it, a teacher and socialist named Sinigaglia is passing through Turin (he's on the run for political crimes) and offers his help in organizing the workers. A strike ensues, and as it drags on for several weeks the resolve of the workers is sorely tested. The owner of the factory begins to feel the pinch and offers a meagre improvement in working conditions. The workers march on the factory to occupy it, the police fire on the crowd, a striker falls dead, and the film ends with the workers filing back to their jobs with nothing gained.

That synopsis makes it sound like The Organizer is yet another breast-beating, long-faced melodrama about the kicking the working-classes take from plutocrats. What makes this film so brilliant and surprising is how exuberantly and broadly entertaining it is. There's tragedy, yes, but there's also romance, comedy, pathos, farce, social commentary, slapstick, and action. The script and the director do a masterful job of weaving multiple characters and sub-plots into a story that resonates because it's so multi-dimensional. Most labour-oriented films are polemical, and that can distance an audience from the story. This film is so engaging, so lively, so filled with vibrant characters that the message aspect of the story works on an almost subliminal level.

I referenced Lawrence of Arabia because one of the most riveting aspects of The Organizer is the cinematography. Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno gives every scene an epic quality, no matter if the location is a tenement or a grimy factory. One of among many superbly filmed sequences shows people filching coal from a railway siding. The sequence's shot composition, the staging of the action, and the camera movements are those that we're used to seeing in films with more monumental subjects and budgets. The look of the film is actually used to make us feel how important this struggle is. The plight of workers in a forgotten time and place isn't an easy sell to an audience, but thanks to the film's majestic, dynamic cinematography, the story and its characters are given a gravitas that might not have existed with a more conventionally-shot film.

The film also gets bonus marks for not demonizing management in any ridiculous way. The factory's manager is simply behaving as one would expect a late 19th-century capitalist to act, and in a clever little scene we see the manager being put in his middle-class place by the factory's owner. The manager is visiting the owner at his home where a birthday party is going on. The manager is there to update the owner on the strike, and when their chat is over the owner invites him to join the party but then instantly and coldly disinvites him with the words, "But you're not dressed suitably." It's the owner's upper-class way of telling him that he's not one of them. The factory's owner scoots around in a wheelchair, and I'll hazard a guess that the crippled railroad owner in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West is a reference to this character. Mario Monicelli, the director and scriptwriter of The Organizer, even references his own previous masterpiece, Big Deal on Madonna Street, with an almost identical closing shot that suggests work is a prison. And once again this film proves that Italian cinema of the 1960s and '70s (my review of Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) was unmatched when it came to turning politics and social issues into mass entertainment.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

When Clowns Attack! Or Why Russel Brand Offends All the Right (and Sometimes Left) People

Warning: dangerous when opinionated.
Clickbait links are the colorful, candy-coated landmines of the Internet. We all know they're full of empty calories (You Won't  Believe What Kim Kardashian Just Did!), provide traffic for dodgy commercial sites (Incredible Story Of How This Georgia Housewife Lost 30lbs In 3 Days!), and lead us to websites that we wouldn't want showing up in our web history (The Rude Pictures Of Obama The CIA Doesn't Want You To See!). The clickbait I almost invariably fall for is the kind that's offering me a clip of one of Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, John Oliver or Stephen Colbert, who I'll get to see "takedown" or "destroy" some cruel/clueless/vapid right-wing pundit/pol/entity.

These video bits are usually smart and funny, and their targets always richly deserve the comic abuse thrown their way. Lately I've stopped biting on these clickbaits (and even watching the shows they come from) because there's something depressing about the enthusiasm that greets these "epic takedowns." The glee with which these bits are greeted online by those of a left-wing bent (and I'm pink verging on red) speaks to the absence of vigorously left-wing politicians and parties in the US, Canada and Britain. The takedowns done by TV's political comedians amount to a political form of whistling past the graveyard. These shows are an opiate that delude us into thinking that the cabal of rightist politicians, think tanks, advisory groups, and media conglomerates that dominate political discussion and decision-making are faced with a vocal, determined and effective opposition. They aren't.

The popularity of the political humor programs fronted by Jon Stewart & Co. is a testament to the lack of success of leftist politicians and organizations. All the riotous jokes, witty ridicule, and takedowns by these comedians have done nothing to retard the growth of income inequality; rollback government privatization; stem the tide of anti-union legislation; or diminish the increasing role of corporations in political life. All that laughter is the soundtrack to the morphing of the welfare state into the corporate state, If there were political parties fighting and winning battles for the majority, rather than the super-affluent minority, these shows probably wouldn't exist. In fact, back in the 1960s and '70s political comedy was relatively uncommon, and what little there was took the form of good-natured ribbing rather than today's acid attacks. The modern age of political comedy got underway in 1984 with Britain's Spitting Image, a satirical puppet show, which was a reaction to the rise of Margaret Thatcher (elected PM five years previously) and the concurrent dismantling of unions and the welfare state. Similarly, America's political comedy shows were a reaction to two terms of George W. Bush, the advent of Fox News, and the growing mainstream acceptance of barking mad groups such as the birthers, creationists, and the Tea Party.

Today, political comedy functions as a loud, entertaining, but toothless opposition party that helps hide the fact that the left has, to varying degrees, become mute and emasculated. Even the shows' stars sometimes seem to realize what's really going on; Bill Maher and Jon Stewart often complain that Obama isn't pulling his progressive, leftist weight. The right wing is quite aware of the harmlessness of left-leaning political comedy. Occasionally a Fox News anchor or Republican politician will get in a snit over something they heard on the Comedy Channel, but more and more often they simply ignore it. Stewart and the others have settled into their role as clowns and court jesters, people whose political opinions and barbs can be ignored because they present themselves entirely in the role of comics, and who takes that kind of person seriously?

And then we get to the curious case of Russell Brand, a comic who seems to make both the left and the right uncomfortable and angry. About a year ago Brand made waves in the UK when he advocated in print and interviews that people shouldn't bother voting since all the main political parties are simply playing minor variations on the same pro-corporate tune. More recently, he raised hackles on the right by suggesting that the rise of ISIS and its appeal amongst some British Muslims was partly attributable to British political policies and attitudes. I'm not going to argue the validity of Brand's opinions, but the flak he's taken seems to be as much about his background and profession as it is the intellectual strength of his arguments. What seems to have infuriated his critics is that this particular jester is daring to aggressively suggest alternative policies and points of view. This isn't what designated clowns are supposed to do. The mockery and caricature that typify programs like The Stephen Colbert Show passes without criticism on the right because it's largely calorie-free; their hosts put laughs ahead of advocacy at all times. When Brand combines humor and advocacy, and reaches a large audience, voices on the right get hot and bothered. This piece in the Catholic Herald is a typical response.

Brand's critics, from the left to the right to spittle-flecked Fox News personalities, make disparaging mention of his lack of qualifications to speak out on the issues of the day. He's often described as "only" being a comic, a celebrity, and a third-rate actor. Apparently being articulate, intelligent and passionate isn't enough. I can understand the angst about Brand's lack of qualifications. The mainstream media overwhelmingly favours and respects voices that are "qualified" by virtue of having degrees from the right universities, a job at a think tank or NGO, a position within government or a political party, or are ex-military officers. In the Catholic Herald opinion piece the writer says that Brand's "ignorance" might be aiding and abetting (to an undefined degree) the flow of Muslim jihadis from the West to Iraq/Syria. Just for argument's sake let's say Brand has somehow inspired one or two Muslim lads from Bradford or Manchester to decamp to an ISIS stronghold. The theoretical blood on Brand's hands would pale in comparison to what the tall foreheads from Oxbridge and the Ivy League, the writers on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, and the legions of "experts" on CNN and Fox are responsible for. It's these people who supported the sanctions against Iraq (1990-2003) which led to the deaths of as many as 500,000 children, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in search of mythical WMDs. That conflict cost Iraq somewhere between 200,000 and one million lives, and those figures don't include those who died as result of breakdowns in health care delivery and sanitation.

It would seem that if you have the right kind of qualifications, and express yourself in a dry and academic tone, your opinion and advice can be as deadly as a car bomb or IED. Brand's rambling, witty, orotund musings have so far proven to be far less lethal. Just think what the body count would be if he had no sense of humor and a degree from the London School of Economics or Harvard.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Book Review: Hard Rain Falling (1966) by Don Carpenter

In one of my recent book reviews I ranted about writers reviewing the works of other authors. Hard Rain Falling has glowing testimonials from George Pelacanos, Anne Lamott, Richard Price and Jonathan Lethem. I guess they're the exception that proves the rule, because Carpenter's novel is a startlingly original work that, rather amazingly, was out of print for a very long time. The problem may have been that upon first publication it was advertised and reviewed as a crime novel. Jack Levitt, the novel's central character, moves in a criminal milieu most of the time but crime fiction fans would have been bitterly disappointed, not to say shocked, by Carpenter's relentless focus on Levitt's existential despair and anger. Yes, this is pure literary fiction, having more in common with novels by writers such as Sartre, Camus, and Patrick Hamilton than anything from the hard-boiled or noir schools of crime fiction.

Levitt is raised in an orphanage in rural Oregon in the late 1940s after being abandoned by his feckless parents at an early age. Jack runs away from the orphanage to Portland where he becomes a petty criminal, hanging around pool halls, scrounging a living from the occasional job or petty theft. It's there he first meets Billy Lancing, a black teenager who's also a runaway like Jack. Billy has a tremendous gift for shooting pool and makes his living hustling games. The two don't really become friends, but Jack finds something admirable or appealing in Billy's pure talent. The story hops in and out of Jack's wandering life, which is mostly spent in divey hotels and bars. He also ends up in jails and, finally, in San Quentin prison. In prison Jack is reunited with Billy, whose life has been almost as messed up as Jack's. Jack spends three years in prison with Billy as his cellmate, and they eventually become lovers. Shortly before Jack is released, Billy is murdered while trying to protect him from a prison gang. Jack finally goes straight after leaving the "Q", as it's called, and ends up married to a woman from a much higher social bracket. Complications ensue.

When we first meet Jack as a teenager he's a brutalized, empty soul, and his character arc in the novel can be loosely described as a philosophical and psychological journey to acquire some humanity. It's not an easy, pleasant or entirely successful trip. Jack sees no meaning in the world and barely any value in existence itself. Here's a taste of Jack's acid view of life:

"All right. Everything is a dream. Nothing hangs together. You move from one dream to another and there is no reason for the change. Your eyes see things and your ears hear, but nothing has any reason behind it."

 Jack absolutely revels in the power of negative thinking. Almost all the novel is written in this tone, but the perfect clarity and ferocious honesty of Jack's scathing analysis of existence (as seen from his perspective) is actually exhilarating. This kind of writing can easily drift into tediousness and cheap nihilism, but with Jack we believe that his brutish, streetwise existential angst is coming from actual experience. Jack's seen the worst from people and so he's basing his worldview on bitter experience. Literature is filled with middle-class characters saying roughly the same things, but most of the time they sound like solipsistic whiners. Jack doesn't have a self-pitying bone in his body.

The most powerful part of the novel might be the relationship between Jack and Billy. The two men don't discover that they're gay while in prison, they discover that they have a desperate need for intimacy and love. The sex is secondary, and the awakening of Jack's humanity is attributable to his romantic relationship with Billy, brief though it is. The other exemplary aspect of the novel is the way in which Carpenter captures the flavour of life on the fringes of society. The atmosphere and cynical camaraderie found in pool halls, bowling alleys and cheap hotels is vividly described, and the scenes set in prison are the best of their kind I've ever read outside a memoir.

One way of looking at Hard Rain Falling is as a modern, R-rated retelling of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both novels are picaresque (more or less), and both have a surprising relationship between a black and white youth. And in turn, it's obvious that Hard Rain Falling has exerted its own influence on later writers, specifically Jonathan Lethem, whose The Fortress of Solitude (my review) is clearly based on Carpenter's template. In fact, Lethem edited Carpenter's last, and unfinished, novel Friday's at Enrico's which was released just this year. The only flaw in Hard Rain Falling is one also shared by The Fortress of Solitude: both novels sputter and fumble at the end. Jack's relationship and marriage with Sally brings the novel down to earth with a thump. The writing remains intense, but the relationship's ups and downs veer towards melodrama more often than not. The entire last quarter of the novel is poorly conceived and the finale is clumsily abrupt rather than intriguingly ambiguous, which is probably what Carpenter was aiming for. Even with this problem, Hard Rain Falling is a remarkable novel that deserves a new readership.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book Review: Leviathan Wakes (2011) by James S.A. Corey

This is meat and potatoes SF writing, but the respective protein and vegetable components are of a very high quality. More specifically, this is an SF novel that's conceived and written to be one of the best SF films of the 1980s or '90s; it's basically a film script in novel form, and the obvious influences are Alien, Aliens, Outland and Blade Runner. This isn't a "hard" SF story, the kind that delves deeply into the effects of scientific or technological changes on a future society; this is about tough men and women who swear, drink and fornicate, and also get caught up in a monstrous corporate plot that threatens to destroy the solar system.

The two main characters are described in broad strokes--brave space captain, hard-bitten space cop--with just a little bit of extra shading (a bit of humour here, a dash of exstential despair there) to make them more than just cartoons. Secondary characters run the gamut from good ol' boys to slick corporate baddies to grrl power femmes, all of whom are familiar to us from every action movie of the last thirty years. The plot is a deftly-constructed series of revelations and cliffhangers, and the action scenes follow the templates laid down in most every SF film.

Leviathan Wakes is a clean, efficient, enjoyable piece of genre writing that's devoid of any original style or exciting prose, but what makes it interesting is that it's the product of two writers working under the Corey pen name: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. The only dual author novel I've read previously was Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. That novel read exactly like any other Pratchett book, and I was left wondering if Neil's only contribution was to bring Terry tea and Jaffa cakes when he was feeling peckish. Leviathan is no-frills blue collar writing, but it's also an example of error-free writng. Something that too many genre novels (SF, fantasy, mystery, crime) have in common are literary "speed bumps." What I mean by speed bumps are those moments in a novel that make me put down the book, groan, and wonder why an editor wasn't around to say, "Uh, you might want to rewrite that last bit."

This isn't really about bad writing. Lots of modern genre novels feature decent prose, but too often they feel like a rough draft rather than a finished product. For every genre novel I read, I probably abandon two others because they need heavy pruning; have serious, but fixable, plot problems; are barnacled with clumsy pop culture references; get caught up in referencing genre conventions; and have underdeveloped lead characters. Good prose writing can't be taught or edited into existence, but all of the aforementioned problems can be eliminated or reduced with the help of a good editor. I'm guessing that the drastic belt-tightening that's gone on in the publishing industry has probably diminished the role of  creative control editors in favour of glorified proofreaders. At least it seems like that's the case. The Corey team hasn't produced deathless prose, but each author undoubtedly acts as a rigorous editor for the other, and that's resulted in a novel with a high degree of professional polish. Oh, and it's also going to be the next big show on cable TV.