Wednesday, December 30, 2009

80s SF/Horror special part 2: The Thing (1982)

Three years after Alien (1979) hit the movie world, horror director John Carpenter produced his own version of the SF/Horror formula. The Thing (1982) is based on a short science fiction story by John W. Campbell, Jr. about a shapeshifting alien and Carpenter incorporated lots of elements out of Alien to create a most horrific movie. Of all the movies that the SF and Horror marriage produced, this is perhaps my favourite.

There are many similarities between The Thing and Alien. I almost consider them brothers. Instead of a bushy Sigourney Weaver we have Carpenter’s favourite hero, a bushy Kurt Russell. The Alien tagline runs: In space no-one can hear you scream. Well, the same goes for Antarctica. Cut the communications and you are as lost in an empty and hostile place as you are in space. The movie opens with a powerful scene of a helicopter over the endless white plains of Antarctica.

As with the alien in Alien, the thing in The Thing is created with award winning artwork and special effects. After thirty years, the disgusting creature looks more real than todays computer generated monsters, although the models move a bit awkward. An important part of the movie is the strong mood of paranoia and the desolate, bleak landscape of snow. It has a good pace and is very entertaining. The Thing is timeless.

IMDB: The Thing

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

80s SF/Horror special part 1: Alien (1979)

When audiences sat down to watch Alien in 1979, they expected another space adventure of the likes of Star Wars (1977, only two years earlier). Alien took the dirty-looking spaceship idea of Star Wars and put it in an unexpected horror environment that scared the crap out of the viewers. A new thing was born: the next generation of the potent SF/horror mix. Today, thirty years later, Alien has become a hollywood classic. Too well known to be a cult movie, yet not exactly a part of the canon of respected good movies. How did it hold up in those thirty years?

There is the usual excuse for old movies (and Alien is an old movie by now) that they “were new at the time” and thus excused for shortcomings. Well, one obvious shortcoming is that Alien is a terribly slow movie. Even for the audience of 1979 it must have been slow. It takes half an hour for the movie to get started, and the final part is not much more than people searching dark rooms and faintly lit corridors step by cautious step. Yet the middle part is pure greatness! It is the foundation on which all the future sequels and spin-offs are based on.

Director Ridley Scott increases the tension step by step by step in a series of brilliant scenes:
1. The dark windy planet & the alien spacecraft
2. The eggs
3. The facehugger (great scary idea)
4. The acid blood
5. The birth of the baby alien (chestburster classic)
6. The full grown alien (a great and unique design by Swiss artist H. R. Giger)
7. The robot (very organic robot. A cool new idea)

It might be a step by step movie, but every step is made with deliberation, amazing artwork and set pieces and great shots. With so many iconic scenes and a great atmosphere, the whole movie is a milestone in cinema and I can indeed excuse its slowness.

IMDB: Alien

Monday, December 28, 2009

Book: George Orwell - 1984 (1949)

It is one of the best known books ever written. So many concepts expressed in this book have been copied and used that the very book itself and its title have become symbols. Whenever governments get too powerful or seem to meddle with psychological manipulation, there is someone who stands up and waves a copy of 1984 in their faces. It is the scariest book I have ever read.

The novel is filled with episodes that give you an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach. The Two Minutes Hate is a classic one. Other scenes are more dramatic, such as the vision of the pyramids of the Ministries of Truth, Love, Peace and Plenty that tower over the rest of the city. There are scenes that are a bit comical as well, such as the mandatory morning exercise and Winston’s job as a modifier of documents to change records of the past, but never funny. Instead these scenes have a terrible sadness in them.

Orwell systematically blocks all hope for the reader that the world will ever get better. The fascist state Winston Smith lives in will stay that way forever and the rest of the world is no different. The world exists in a balance that is maintained by three states, which keeps it forever turning. It is a nightmare without end; the future forever ruined. Even the past is lost to memory and destroyed by lies. It makes you want to bury your face in your hands and hide far away. To quote one of Orwell's characters: "If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever."

In 1948, when the book was written, totalitarianism was a real fear. Nowadays it is a bit dated in its prophetic power, but it is a story that will never get old. It is immensely powerful and alarming and as a call to freedom it will always remain relevant. Highly Recommended.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Movie: Avatar (2009)

Avatar is a wonderful ride. Much has been said about this movie already. According to many, Avatar is a breakthrough accomplishment in special effects and 3D cinema and I immediately take their word for it. This is one of those movies during which I thought: “this is visually the most beautiful movie I have ever seen” and that happens only every few years. I am sure that a few years from now, there will be movies bigger and better than Avatar in their effects and 3D (even though Avatar has been ridiculously expensive). Avatar is the movie that people will emulate and, before you know it, do better. But! Avatar will be remembered for a long, long time to come, not because of the techniques that have been used, but because just of what has been created with these techniques.

Avatar’s story is solid, but not very remarkable. At times downright predicable. But so were Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. It’s your standard Dances With Wolves or The Last Samurai story, in which a soldier changes sides when he notices that his own people are the baddies, only you don’t see these stories in a science fiction environment often. It is well written and I really started to care about the characters, as it should be done. James Cameron’s greatest achievement is the world he has created. This is escapism at its peak and it makes the 3D version truly stand out. Avatar feels real, as if Cameron truly flew to another world and took his camera with him, until you notice that everything looks bigger and better than on Earth and you remember that you are watching a movie.

The planet Pandora is an exceptionally beautiful creation. It feels like the moist jungle is dripping around you and the big, cute, blue, alien indians (yea that’s right) may look a bit odd but they grow on you and are rightfully the focus of the story. Avatar is not the typical mediocre movie that tries to hide its lack of story behind awesome special effects; it is a great movie that does everything right, aims high and wins. I love it when that happens.

IMDB: Avatar

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Book: Richard Adams - Watership Down (1972)

Author Michael Moorcock once said that if the bulk of American sf could be said to be written by robots, about robots, for robots, then the bulk of English fantasy seems to be written by rabbits, about rabbits and for rabbits. Well, let me tell you this: you don’t know rabbits. Richard Adams did. He spent days and days watching rabbits and he wrote a book about it. And what a book! If there ever was an instant classic, a must-read marvel that screamed originality, it is Watership Down.

You just don’t make this up. A 400 page rabbit-epic with a power to rival the greatest adventure tales ever put in print. The story circles around a small bunch of rabbits, led by the brave Hazel. His psychic brother Fiver gets a vision of bulldozers and the imminent destruction of their hill, and so they decide to leave their warren with a few others in search for a new home. Along the way they have great adventures and encounter danger and temptation at every turn.

Adams gave every rabbit his or her own character and every warren its own way of running things. He gave them their own language, complete with rabbit proverbs, poetry and culture. You would do wrong to think that this is simply a childrens book. It is a book filled with tensions and toward the end, as Hazel’s bunch is threatened by the tyrannical rabbit Woundwort, downright violent. It explores the ways that heroes are made and communities are formed.

Watership Down is one of the great originals and worth anybody’s time.

Movie: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Before this movie got claimed by certain teenage subcultures and main character Jack Skellington became a T-shirt icon, The Nightmare Before Christmas entered the lists of greatest animated movies ever made. Tim Burton’s magical marriage between Halloween and Christmas was put off as weird at first, but claimed a cult following and slowly gathered the praise it deserved.

I guess most people would label this movie as “weird”, but not many would fail to see that a lot of meticulously crafted artwork has gone into it. Burton created a weird kind of beautiful that managed to twist puppets (which are often unintentionally nightmarish, like clowns) into charming dark fun. It is a little blessing to approach darkness with such good cheer.

This is the heart and power of the movie and would have been enough to make it a cult classic, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is an allround spellbinding production with excellent voice acting, an original storyline and great music. Years later, Burton would try to make the same movie twice with Corpse Bride, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is unique and already complete in its vision, as if it sprung as a whole from Burton’s forehead. He may have named his movie a nightmare, but I wish I could have a dream like this.

IMDB: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Movie: Big Fish (2003)

The universe is made of stories, not atoms. Tim Burton surely looks at the universe this way, and Big Fish is his testament to storytelling. I guess we all look at our own lives as stories. We look for connections and threads and construct our own personal story out of it. It partly defines who we are. Now, does this story have to be true? A story does not have to be true to be beautiful. And the legacy of one’s life deserves to be rich and beautiful.

Big Fish is a feast for the eyes and the imagination as Burton uses his magical touch on a series of near-possible storylines. The movie is a tapestry of mythical-themed fables that stay enjoyable and fresh throughout the movie and here and there intertwine. Burton keeps the viewer guessing. Is it all real or pure nonsense? We don’t believe in giants and werewolves, but could they just be exaggerations? Ewan McGregor delivers it all with a fresh smile on his face and a big Alabama accent that is simply made for storytelling.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter if the stories are true or not. It only matters that the tales have beauty. The conclusion of this movie could have been stronger, more emotional, but perhaps it is a testament to the idea of this movie that the other, “made-up” ending told by one of the main characters is more beautiful than the real one. It is all great fun, and quietly touching too.

IMDB: Big Fish

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Movie: Up (2009)

At the same time grown up and young. That is the strength of Up. Animation is hardly ever so bittersweet as this movie. Amination is mostly upbeat, fast and shows the sunny side of life only, but Up starts at a downcast note in its masterly montage of poor Mr Fredricksen’s life. It is one of the highlights of the movie and is very mature and serious, but that doesn’t make this movie less suited for children, it makes it memorable. In this, Up is a movie very much in the style of Miyazaki’s Ghibli studio.

Up is a different film compared to other Pixar stories as Finding Nemo. It feels simpler and more straightforward. It is more focused on telling one story, whereas Finding Nemo, Wall-E (and also the Miyazaki stories) are more like strings of connected adventures. Up has less sidescenes and inventive stuff going on in the background, but it is by no means shallow. Up rests on a few very strong ideas and images, like the floating house and the waterfall, which become icons for the movie and so it doesn’t need to rely on other inventions to keep things interesting.

And all the while, Pixar’s mastery in animation shines through. You can watch it in 2D and 3D but I would prefer 2D to really appreciate the art that has gone into this movie. Up has a subtle range of colours, expecially for the interiors of Mr. Fredricksen’s house and the zeppelin later in the movie. Pixar dares to push the conventional boundaries of animated storytelling and I hope they will continue to make movies like this for a long time.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Book: Cordwainer Smith - The Rediscovery of Man (1999)

In 1950, an unknown author under the pseudonym of Cordwainer Smith published a short story in an obscure magazine that was hardly read. The magazine disappeared, but the story remained and slowly gained prestige and admiration in the word of science fiction. But nobody knew who Cordwainer Smith actually was. Over de next few decades, the mysterious Smith published another two score short stories of remarkable genius and readers discovered that all these stories were somehow linked and formed an immense arc of future history. But who was this Cordwainer Smith? It turned out to be a man named Paul Linebarger, an expert in psychological warfare and godson of Chinese prime minister Sun Yat-Sen. His best stories are now bundled as The Rediscovery of Man.

The “rediscovery of man” has a double meaning for me. The starfarers in Smith’s tales are tragic, human figures (even if they are not always, technically, human) and are given a mythical feel in later stories that refer back to earlier ones. Smith asks himself what it means to be human, and what it means to love and feel, in strange future times. He does so far more profoundly than most writers, whose idealized characters are too often found on space ships. So, while Smith’s universe is one of the most unique, strange and beautiful, it is also one of the most real, because he combines it with real people. He rediscovered man in science fiction.

After reading a few of his stories, I got the impression that Smith was narrating them to me from a distant future as legends of the past. I am reading singular moments in history, only it just happens that this history is my future. The eternal stories of the Lady Who Sailed The Soul and the Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal should have been in my history books and I should have seen countless adaptations in film, but I live in the wrong age. This is not the age of the Instrumentality of Mankind. Reading Cordwainer Smith feels like gaining a cultural background in the shape of striking stories from a genius imagination. See what science fiction is capable of.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book: Alexandre Dumas, père - The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)

Ever since 1844, Edmond Dantès has become a figure of almost mythlike proportions. He is the archetype avenger. Everyone who ever felt the need to take revenge, be it a child who felt an injustice or a victim of serious wrongdoing, everyone has become, momentarily, Edmond Dantès. The Count invariably gets hinted at in every modern avenger tale, such as the extraordinary Korean movie Oldboy, because Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is the ultimate, the blueprint tale.

Perhaps only one iconic image measures itself with Dantès: Captain Ahab and his mad search for Moby Dick, but whereas Ahab dissolves into madness and perishes, Dantès plans with care, takes his revenge over course of years, and even saves himself. For madness is the danger of vengeance. But the best part of the book is not the ending, but meticulous planning of revenge that Dantès savors and we with him.

The Count of Monte Cristo is an “epic” tale of adventure, action and drama, and it has remained so popular over the years that it has become iconic. It is quite old, yes, from 1844, but Dumas knew how to write a story. Every part of the story, the downfall of happy Edmond, his mysterious resurrection and entry into society, and the slow vengeance with countless sidestories and characters, is perfect and exciting. It is a book to lose yourself in.

Book: Oliver Sacks - The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1985)

Neurologist Oliver Sacks presents 24 extraordinary stories about his patients. He tells their stories, how they deal with afflictions from Tourette to autism and beyond.

Most of us hold on to the idea that our body and our spirit are separated from eachother, and that our identity is an indivisible whole, but neurological diseases seriously question that assumption, and it makes neurology unnerving and fascinating at the same time. To read about people who have to fight to maintain their identity, their soul, against the most bizarre symptoms of a damaged brain; to read about those that do not even realize that something has gone wrong, strikes a deep chord.

Every case of neurological disease is a very personal one, because the very identity, the spirit, of the sick is at stake. In the 19th century it was common practise to present such a case as a life story, until the advent of the more cathegorical, distant neurology of the 20th century. Oliver Sacks means to bring the personal story back, to show how patients with neurological problems battle for their identity as heroes in a tale, and find their own ways of dealing with it.

Sacks as an observer is very thorough, human and sympathetic. His insights bring light in the worlds of his patients that are so difficult to understand. His stories are heartfelt, exciting and arresting for anyone who values his own mind, and for anyone who ever suspected that sanity is relative and self-identity can be a fleeting thing, easily lost.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Movie: Moon (2009)

There is something spooky about silent, empty space and the sterile corridors of space stations. It is a place where people or, occasionally, robots, loose their mind. Stanley Kubrick knew this, so did Stanislaw Lem, the author of Solaris. Moon is the latest movie that stands besides 2001: A Space Odyssee and Solaris as a quiet, chilly space tale that for all its sterileness is more human than action-packed, explosion-filled science fiction.

Sam Rockwell, better known perhaps from his other science fiction role as the loon Zaphod Beeblebrox, carries this film alone. He is an expressive actor and has no trouble to keep the film going as the plot moves from creepy to weird. Along the way we see echoes of older movies as Sam talks to his robot caretaker Gertie and sees occasional hallucinations. Things begin to go wrong, but when you are up there among computers in a bunker on the Moon you are not going anywhere.

There is a very telling image in the movie of Sam, sitting in his moonmobile in a grey expanse of rocky moondesert, sobbing that he just wants to go home, and the Earth hangs in beautiful blue and green in the black sky. Moon might not be as original and groundbreaking as its predecessors, but is it still a beautiful and thoughtful movie and definately one to remember.

IMDB: Moon

Monday, October 19, 2009

Movie: Burn After Reading (2008)

The Coen Brothers (Fargo, The Big Lebowsky, No Country For Old Men) are on a killing spree these last years. Burn After Reading is the Coen Brother’s take on special agent CIA Bourne Identity like thriller movies, but then, you know, the Coen way. The lazy way to summarize this movie is to say it is a story of morons with weird hairdos who do moronic stuff and the CIA is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on.

This movie takes some very charismatic actors, Brad Pitt, George Clooney, and makes them look like suburban dorks. There is no a political dimension to this movie and there isn’t really a hero to this story. There is a sort of tragic character, played by John Malkovich who is so terrific at getting totally mad. He starts as a member of the CIA with a nice suit, the enlightened bunch that tries to make sense of everything, but falls from grace and becomes one of the morons, even as he doesn’t see it that way (but look how his clothing changes towards the end).

What is quite unique about this movie is that all the main characters are unimportant, middle-aged people. They are all suffering from a personal crisis, whether it is unhappiness about their marriage or their aging bodies. All these crises describe their actions, which sort of collide at odd moments with disastrous results. The anguish and problems of the characters are very familiar and human and so there is a tragic undertone to the story, but at the same time it is a “light” tale and very humoristic.

IMDB: Burn After Reading

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Book: Susanna Clarke - Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004)

Not many authors present as their first publication such a big book as Susanna Clarke did. Big in wordcount and ambition, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell enters the field of literature as an immediate classic after Clarke had been working on it for a decade. At times, her book is alternate history in which England once had magical fairy-infused past, or an historical novel set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars.

Mr. Norrell, a grumpy, boring, serious man who reminds me of the actor that plays Mr Beckett in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and his pupil Jonathan Strange, the typical English gentleman given by flights of fancy, are two talented magicians who, as the only real magicians of England, work to rediscover the workings of magic. In the process they become each others adversaries and in the ensuing battle for recognision the boundary between sanity and madness begins to shatter. Meanwhile, a gentleman with thistledown hair, brought into the world as the result of amoral use of magic by Mr. Norrell, begins to haunt their steps and the English societal landscape.

All this is an smashing counterpoint to proper English decency. Here is one of the main points of Clarke’s novel. The exploration of Victorian Englishness as a sort of comedy of manners. In this, and the elaborateness of her work, like the shimmering of a compendium of magical scholarship, her book has evoked many comparisons with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is quite something else. It is a flowing patchwork of a wide variety of styles and moods, ranging from pure fantasy to military literature to gothic horror. Very entertaining and impressive.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Movie: District 9 (2009)

Science fiction has always been a problem child, both in movies and books. The special effects always seem to take the upper hand in science fiction movies as an irresistable force that in the end deprives the vitality of the story, much like candy in real life. Science fiction books are systematically ignored by critics who still carry an image in their mind of the pulp space opera of the 30s. But science fiction can be good (in books more often than in cinema) and on these occasions it can function as a mirror in which our image and our values of the world get transformed in the stirring threads of the possible future.

District 9 is such a film. Its power comes from the original ideas it presents and the gritty, down-to-earth (inside joke), realism of the way it is executed. So here we have a UFO that got stranded not above New York but above Johannesburg, South Africa. The humans break into the UFO and find lots of malnourished prawn-like aliens. This all happened 20 years ago. The aliens were unable to adapt to a human city and people just want to see them leave. They are living in a slum (district 9) at the edge of the city. The star of the movie is Wikus van de Merwe, who is in charge of relocating the aliens, but he finds out there are lots of secrets kept in District 9.

The movie starts out as a documentary. We see people commenting on the events that we are about to see unfolding. It slowly gathers momentum and in the final half an hour District 9 transforms itself into an exciting action movie in which special effects are used sparingly but very effectively. The special effects are generally used in a masterful way. The aliens are very realistic (think Gollum-like realism) and the UFO hangs ominously as a sword of Damocles above the scenes. It is the big unknown.

District 9 is a masterclass in storytelling and I can see this develop as a franchise and a future classic.

IMDB: District 9

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book: Tom Holland - Millennium (2008)

One way of storytelling that has become more and more popular is narrative history. It is not the dry educational highschool book that sums up the important parts and it is not historic fiction. Instead it is history told as a story. Tom Holland is one of the best selling authors in this field after his brilliant book Rubicon hit the scene, where he relates the final 100 years of the Roman Republic as a nailbiting story. His next book, Persian Fire, told us about the wars between the Persians and Sparta. Now his third book, Millennium, is in store.

Millennium tells about a fateful part of the Middle Ages. Around the 10th century, Europe is chaos. Holland shows us how, from the rubble and the vacuum left of the Roman Empire, modern Europe gradually shapes itself. It is an age of Franks, Saxons and Vikings. Of monks, knights and castles. It is a story of bitter yearning for the past, for the glory of the Roman Empire, by the desintegrating Byzantium and the western upstarts as Charlemagne who all see themselves as the heirs of the Romans and the last bullwark of young Christianity. Tom Holland has a brilliant flair for the dramatic and his tale is a gritty one.

Holland also wanted to suffuse his book with a statement for which is questionable proof. It is the idea that important revolutions in the order of the world came to pass partly because the year 1,000 was approaching fast, and many people therefore believed the End of the World was near and the Antichrist would arise. Bloodlusty pagans and the glorious expansion of Islam were to be omens of this. I think Holland occasionally tries to force the information we have too hard into this framework, but it does tie together this diverse and fascinating part of history.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Movie: Gake no ue no Ponyo (2008)

(Ponyo on the Cliff)

When the best days of Disney were over, the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki suddenly became a lot more famous in the Western world. But Miyazaki’s studio Ghibli had been cracking out full length cartoon films for years. With his modern animation classics, Miyazaki revolutionized the Anime genre in the West. On forums people often note that they are going to show their future kids Ghibli films instead of the Disney classics because they are so much more magical. And indeed, everything Miyazaki touches becomes gold, culminating in an Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Spirited Away in 2002.

Miyazaki makes hand drawn art look impressive; never shying away from the enormous work of drawing oodles of the same stuff. At the start of Ponyo on the Cliff, for example, there is a scene with hundreds of jellyfish, all drawn separately. And I should also mention the numerous painted backgrounds. He is an artist and a teller of fairytales.

That is what Studio Ghibli is doing. It is creating a resume of new fairytales for the world. The stories of Miyazaki have the power of making adults feel like children. To let us remember that time of magic, awesome discoveries and the surreal logic of a childhood world. The boundary between fantasy and reality is paperthin in Ponyo on the Cliff, and that makes the storyline a bit puzzling now and then, but that is a Miyazaki trademark.

Despite a rushed ending, Ponyo on the Cliff is a work of creative brilliance and a lovely cartoon for children and adults alike.

IMDB: Ponyo on the Cliff

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Movie: The Fifth Element (1997)

I know it hasn’t won any oscars, and it would have been a weird day if it had, but The Fifth Element has guilty pleasure written all over it. Fun is the magic word. It is not meant to be the best movie of all times, it is meant to give people a fun evening and I think it gloriously succeeds. At the other hand, it has the kind of style that easily divides people into groups of lovers and haters. It has the humor that you “get” or you don’t. The dividing line is often the scenes with Chris Tucker’s (detestable or funny) Ruby Rhod. A friend of mine once asked if he should take this film seriously after viewing these scenes. In that case, you didn’t get the humor of the whole hour previous.

The Fifth Element
moves at a good pace and it consistently funny and inventive. It has a great cast of characters, Willis plays as he should play, the way we like him, Oldman clearly enjoys his amoral Jean-Babtiste Emmanuel Zorg and Jovovich’s Leeloo is an adorable creation with a few funny quotes. The aliens are awesome, from the big-bellied Mondoshawans to the stupidlooking Mangalores. And this must be the only movie that features an opera singing alien.

The plot is ridiculously simple and there is never any doubt that the heroes will save the day, it is all tongue-in-cheek, but the locations have been given great care, from Willis’ little room to the office of the president. The Fifth Element is a movie that is very conscious of its pulpy play but sneaks in a few scenes here and there that can easily stand repeated viewings and even get better with age. Such was always the style of director Luc Besson and it proved a happy marriage with science fiction. We need more like this!

IMDB: The Fifth Element

Friday, October 2, 2009

Book: John Gardner - Grendel (1971)

Grendel is the mysterious monster from the old English epic Beowulf from the 10th century. Grendel has never gotten a very clear description and writers and filmmakers have given us many interpretations of the beast to choose from. John Gardner’s Grendel is the best by far, for in his little novel Grendel, he is the main character. We see his part of the Beowulf story through his eyes as he narrates his feelings and actions.

Grendel is a pathetic little monster, filled with loneliness and doubt. He hates the world, but the world does not even care. “ “Ah, sad one, poor old freak!” I cry, and hug myself, and laugh, letting out salt tears, he, he! till I fall down gasping and sobbing. (It’s mostly fake.)” Grendel points out to us that he doesn’t think that he is more noble than the deers that go at it again at springtime. He knows he is a monster, and fails to see any reason in it. Grendel asks the dragon for help but realized that the old one is not his friend. “My advice to you, my violent friend, is to seek out gold and sit on it.” Eventually he keeps attacking the humans, inspired by the human storyteller (“the shaper”) who names him the big adversary of the Danes. Only this way Grendel could make a purpose for himself in the big cosmic show.

Grendel is a bittersweet tale, at once humoristic and sad. He pesters the humans with glee but is convinced in the back of his head that nothing has any meaning. He revels in psychotic mindgames, talks to himself and has an unhealthy love/hate relationship with his mother. “(whispering, whispering. Grendel, has it occured to you my dear that you are crazy?)”

And when finally the big hero arrives, Beowulf, John Gardner describes him as utterly insane. For only a complete inner obsession with heroism can end Grendel’s nihilism. So what is there to live for, as Grendel asks himself? His road at least seems a dead end. “Poor Grendel’s had an accident,” I whisper. “So may you all.”

Movie: Ed Wood (1994)

I'm sure every one is familiar with the Tim Burton & Johnny Depp duo. They have done lots of succesful movies together, often with composer Danny Elfman thrown in as a third man. Yet in 1994 Tim and Johnny made a movie together that may be their oddest, their least-known but perhaps the one they will be remembered for the most. (Instead of Danny Elfman, Howard Shore did the music this time.)

Ed Wood is about a little Hollywood history, about the real director named Ed Wood. It is a story about a man that does everything right, but nothing works. He had the passion, the enthousiasm, the spirit! Ed Wood believed in himself and made the movies he wanted to make, and was absolutely convinced of himself and of the greatness of his work. But they were bad. His movies were oh so terribly bad and after his death he was called the Worst Director of All Time. Depp plays him with a naive innocence.

It is not a wonder that Ed Wood (the movie) flopped in the US because nobody wants to believe that an enthousiastic passionate worker cannot succede. It is a movie that speaks to everyone who has tried to make something artistic and asks himself: "Am I good enough?". Tim Burton shot the movie in black and white to make it look as if it was produced in Ed Wood's time.

Now all I have to do is watch Wood's "masterpiece" of bad SF, Plan 9 From Outer Space, and see if it is really that terribly, excruciatingly bad...

Book: Gene Wolfe - The Book of the New Sun

Consisting of:
The Shadow of the Torturer (1980)
The Claw of the Conciliator (1981)
The Sword of the Lictor (1982)
The Citadel of the Autarch (1983)

“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.”

So much has been said and written about these books. I feel I cannot do then justice in this little review. After finishing these books, I felt I was living in a hypnotized state, with Severian’s (or Gene’s) eloquent manner of speaking resounding in my head. It felt like my life was a continuation of Severian’s story and in a way it was so, because the Book of the New Sun’s impact on my mental life was very great for quite a long time.

When I look back on other epics, such as Tolkien’s The Silmarillion or Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, I fail to completely recall all the scenes, but I am left with a vague remembering of great happenings of the size of Wagnerian mythology. The Book of the New Sun awakens this feeling during the reading of the text, because it is up to the reader to tie up the loose ends. Severian, the main character, narrates what has happened to him but he is an unreliable narrator. He, like all of us, interprets and lies to himself. Gene Wolfe plays a sneaky game of words and I didn’t know until halfway through the first novel that I was trapped in it. The rule of the game is to pay attention and to find the grand story behind the story. The plot behind the plot. Thinking back on it, months after finishing the book, I keep on reinterpreting his words and finding clues.

As Wolfe makes Severian say at the end: “Before you assume that I have cheated you, read again”. And so I did, and indeed all the answers are there in casual revelations, only now I read more carefully, new questions arise. This book is meant to be reread multiple times, and every reread feels like a personal resurrection because it makes you feel more intelligent.

So far I haven’t even discussed Gene Wolfe’s mastery over the English language. Severian is one of the most extraordinary characters ever brought to life and he speaks in beautiful sentences. His world is set in the so far distant future that the stars are visible during the day and incomprehensible technology from the past manifests itself as magic. The books are wildly inventive and original but at the same time very sober. I will go further and say that The Book of the New Sun is so much more than speculative fiction. It is a profound meditation upon history, symbolism, religion, philosophy and mythology and perhaps the best thing I have ever read.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Movie: The Fountain (2006)

A movie about love, life and death, molded into a search for eternal life. Director Darren Aronofsky (better known from Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler) has outdone himself in making such an intimate film.

The Fountain has three different stories running that span a thousand years, but only figuratively. One story is set in 13th century Spanish America, one in modern times and one in a proposedly far future. The three overlap and are linked not only storywise but by similar scenes and words uttered, which get symbolic meanings near the end of the movie.

The story of the 13th century conquistador story is adventurous, romantic, told as an historic novel should be told. The modern day story is realistic, passionate and sad. The future is a symbolic place, a landscape of the mind filled with symbolism. The modern day story is the true heart of the movie, while the other stories comment upon it. Approaching the end of the movie, the three intertwine into a three part climax.

The Fountain is a unique piece of filmmaking unlike anything I have seen (although scenes from 2001: A Space Odyssee and Donnie Darko come to mind). Aronofsky gives only little information about what is actually going on in his movie but it is not hard to figure out for those with a philosophical disposition. The scenes are awe-inspiring and its mood is intense and often serene. The soundtrack by Clint Mansell (also known from Requiem for a Dream) has become just as much a culthit as the movie itself. The whole package is a beautiful poem about life and death, intelligent and evocative.

IMDB: The Fountain

Book: Ursula K. LeGuin - The Earthsea Quartet

Consisting of:

A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)
The Tombs of Atuan (1971)
The Farthest Shore (1972)

The Earthsea novels are considered milestones in the fantasy genre and have never gotten out of print. Nowadays they are presented as the Earthsea Quartet, as the book Tehanu (1990) is added as a fourth, which is written almost 20 years after the third. Tehanu feels disconnected from the original trilogy in style and substance and I will say some more of it at the end of my story.

The three Earthsea novels have gathered a lot of critical acclaim thanks to LeGuin’s knowledge of anthropology and psychology. The Archipelago she sets up harbours an immense diversity in cultures and every book expands upon another psychological theme. Most impressive of all are the subtle differences in style that LeGuin used between books to get to her themes.

The first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, reads as a travel memoir. It follows the adventures of the young wizard Ged while he travels from island to island and grows up. The wizardschool he end up in is a very clear progenitor of the later Harry Potter novels. The ending comes straight from psychoanalyst Carl Jung. LeGuin’s style is very descriptive and a bit detached.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan, might be her best and provides a perfect balance with the first. While Ged travels around the world, the girl Tenar stays her whole life on one single place. LeGuin takes her time to describe this place so that it really comes alive. There are only a few locations in the fantasy genre so fully realized (perhaps only Gormenghast). If the theme of the first book is growing up, the theme of the second is love and trust. Tenar is a richly developed character and LeGuin’s style is personal and involving. The third book, The Farthest Shore, is again a travel story but not as detached as the first. Its theme is death and the circle of life. The adventures of Ged end, but overlap with those of the young prince Arren, who grows up.

By highlighting the psychology I do not want to convey that these are boring books. Not at all. For those who like to read about dragons, dark shadows, old forces and the open sea Earthsea is a must read.

Then a word about Tehanu. The reactions to this book are almost solely negative. It is, let me say this, a very well written book. But the magic seems lost and almost nothing happens. The hero of the trilogy is described as a shimmer of what he once was and is involved in little backyard adventures. It may have a lot to do with the fact that LeGuin had become a passionate feministe. I don’t want to scoff at feminism but she gave Tehanu a didactic aspect that severly hurts the magic.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Movie: No Country for Old Men (2007)

This movie was praised as the best movie of 2007. It was a multiple oscar candidate (and winner) and the latest work of the Coen brothers (also known from The Big Lebowski, Fargo and more). Is it good? Yes it is, but it is a moviemaker’s movie, if you catch my drift. It is the kind of movie that will be shown as course material for movie students but naive or innocent theatre guests might stumble bewildered from their seats.

At the start of the movie it resembles a slow, standard action movie about a person shooting other persons. But it becomes a tense movie as it progresses. The Coen brothers know what they are doing and have complete control over every single shot, the way Quentin Tarantino has, only less obvious. It is also a very silent movie. There is almost no music, because music makes a movie more approachable and that is not part of the Coen’s agenda. As a result the whole cinema was dead silent, fixated on the screen.

What the Coens set out to do, is toy with the expectations of the viewer. Some might interpret the result as bad filmmaking, but the directors did it on purpose. Time and again they set up scenes, only to let them end completely different as expected from wellknown movie tropes. Systematically they tackled all the conventions of regular action movies, until the viewer loses all grip on what is happening. And exactly the same thing is happening to the main character. As the old deputee Tommy Lee Jones mumbles tiredly about how the world has changed, and how it doesn’t make sense any more, we know what he means. The Coens made us feel exactly like him.

Jones sums it up in his final speech just before the end credits roll. This movie is a rough country, and it made you, like Jones, and old man, unable to handle what is happening and there is no father out there to help you out. It is no country for old men.

IMDB: No Country for Old Men

Book: Mervyn Peake - The Gormenghast Novels

Consisting of:
Titus Groan (1946)
Gormenghast (1950)
Titus Alone (1959)

Mervyn Peake is not so much a writer, but more a painter. A painter of scenes and he uses words instead of paint. In broad lines he sketches a room, scrutinizes it from a distance, advances like a predator with his fingers raised high to strike upon his paralyzed keyboard, but when he reaches the keys he puts a few well-chosen words where they belong with a loving touch and a twinkle in his eye. Such are his chapters built up.

His chapters are sometimes not more than a single scene, or a single conversation. You can imagine that the Gormenghast novels do have an elaborate plot because there is simply no time and space for it. The book is already thick as it is. But it does not matter, for it is the atmosphere that matters. The tale is set almost entirely within a claustrophobic castle of enormous proportions, Gormenghast, with its mysterious shadows and creaks from old age, howling drafts, twisting alleys and stairs. The characters are near caricatures, grotesque but compelling.

Mervyn Peake created something wholly original by plunging the darkest chasms of his imagination and painted a surrealistic, macabre masterwork that somehow connects to deep roots of the subconscious. Gormenghast paved the way for gothic subcultures and its influence is clearly to be found in the Harry Potter novels. Some consider it to be one of the greatest works of the English language.

Reading Gormenghast is not easy. I cannot read for long stretches because the mood and darkness of the place becomes too oppressive, but I cannot stay away from it for too long because Peake’s descriptions have enveloped my mind. I have never been so fully immersed in another world.

No book can prepare you for the Gormenghast novels, because they are unlike anything ever written.

Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

Movie: The Fall (2006)

Director Tarsem Singh (better known from his movie The Cell, but never mind) has worked for years on this movie, which would become an ode to the beauty of the place of his birth: India. By choosing only the most arresting locations and using a minimum of special effects, Tarsem has made one of the most visually beautiful films of all times.

It soon becomes very clear that The Fall is indeed directed by the director of The Cell: surrealistic locations, bizarre costumes and fantastic landscapes. Many reviewers call this style over substance, but I do not agree with that condemnation.

This movie has two storylines: (1) the story of a stunt double, Roy, who ends up in the hospital after a failed attempt to impress his ex girlfriend. He meets the little girl Alexandria and uses her to steal morphine by telling her stories. (2) The story that Roy tells Alexandria. We see everything through her imagination and it is set in India. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice in the story that Alexandria misinterprets what Roy tells her.

The story is made up on the spot. As it progresses, Alexandria adds ideas of her own and it becomes a project of both of them. The way the story shapes itself is a pleasure to behold. The true heart of the movie is the interaction between Roy and Alexandria, and with it the interaction between the story they make up and the real world. It is a source of humor, tension, creativity, friendship and eventually the power to change the real world.

It is not all fun and games though. Roy needs to find his own redemption. The Fall has quickly become one of my favorites and I think I can watch this movie over and over again. If you like storytelling and visual spectacle, it is not to be missed.

IMDB: The Fall

Movie: Låt Den Rätte Komma In (2008)

Vampires seem to be hot these days. There is a new hype going on, named Twilight, after the vampire novels of Stephanie Meyer, in which uncertain teenage girls are powerless for the unbearable hotness of our secretive bloodsucking fellows. It is quickly becoming a franchise. But here is something quite different and extraordinary: Let The Right One In. A Swedish movie after a Swedish book.

It is a movie about children but it is not for children. The 12 year old Oskar gets bullied a lot and is altogether lonely, until he meets Eli, a girl of his age, and a vampire. They meet outsides in the evening in the cold snowy darkness of the Swedish winter. There is much more to this film. There are different storylines running in the back of it, in the deep shadows cast by trees upon the red snow.

It is a typical arthouse film with an icy atmosphere. The lonely, cold and dark Swedish landscape gives the movie a quiet, chilly feel. Sometimes the movie itself is rather quiet. The director shows a lot but dialogues are sparse. Music is used sparingly, but when used it is excellent. It is the kind of macabre movie that ends with a smile of happiness and that stays in the back of your head for the rest of the day.

Compared to this, Twilight is such a product. It is a very beautiful movie.

IMDB: Låt den rätte komma in

Book: E.R. Eddison - The Worm Ouroboros (1922)

The Worm Ouroboros is a curious book. Written 30 years before The Lord of the Rings, it is often seen as the Ring’s predecessor. And when Tolkien’s work was published, the comparison with Eddison’s book did not always go in Tolkien’s favour. Eddison too gives us a fully realised world, the creation of which began in Eddison’s teenage years.

Eddison believed in living life to the full, like commercials tell us today. All his characters are larger than life, glorious heroes and passionate villains. Houses are grand, the landscape is legendary, women are beautiful and glory is worth dying for. The book makes me feel like hitting my chest with a fist and let out a primordial scream, but it is not a primordial book. There is real philosophy behind it. Eddison believed in this world, and especially beauty, beauty of women and beauty of landscapes, is a real tangible thing in this world. At the beginning it sounds overdone, but it has a cumulative effect to the extent that you actually feel that you experience a world with a different set of values. Ancient Greek, or Viking. It is the only way in which the ending of the book would make any sense (I can say no more).

Add to this that Eddison is a fantastic storyteller. When the action starts, it is there to stay till the end of the book. And he tells his story in Shakespearian proze, which might be hard at first, but gives a wonderful feel to it. It will make you read the story in small pieces so you can savour it slowly and let the wonderful feel linger in your brain. (Here I must confess that I have read the Dutch translation, but even so, the book’s volcanic nature apparently has radiated through.)

So here we have scene after scene of beautifully crafted material. Our heroes are happily climbing an unclimbable mountain, while looking to tame an untameable animal to ride to a land which cannot be reached, while their country gets invaded by a perpetually resurrecting villain. Still the book is a flawed masterpiece, because it has some irksome failings. 1) The first 15 or so pages give an introduction about a guy that dreams about flying to Mercury and then disappears from the story, 2) All the nations have names like demonland, impland and witchland, but all the inhabitants are simply humans. Let us forgive and forget these quirks. Perhaps Eddison could not discard some of his teenage ponderings.

This book is a force of nature. It becomes the symbol of a philosophy that stays with everyone who reads it.

Book: Patricia McKillip – The Riddle-Master Trilogy

Comprising of:
The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976)
Heir of Sea and Fire (1977)
Harpist in the Wind (1979)

In the seventies, two writers, Patricia McKillip and Stephen Donaldson, had a close friendship and both set out to write their own fantasy epic. Donaldson published the first book of his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and in the same year, McKillip published The Riddle-Master of Hed. I suppose the two would make a nice pair on your shelf.
Both authors claim to be inspired by Tolkien. But although McKillip admits so, her trilogy is remarkably original. Far more so than piles of epics that do not make such confessions. And although there is now available an excellent omnibus of all three parts, her story stays quite unread.

On with the review. McKillip’s writing is not just solid, but also lush and dreamy. At times quite descriptive, but always beautiful:

"The wind sped past like wild horses, pouring through empty rooms, thundering down the street to spiral the tower and moan through its secret chamber."

The book can be reread just for the richness of her writing. But let’s not forget her characters. Almost all of them are human. There are no Elves of Dwarves or Dragons in this epic. Only wizards and things-I-will-not-spoil-for-you. They have a very realistic feel about them. Especially in the second half of the story, the main characters are supposed to be romantically involved, but they quibble and whine and on the whole really get to know each other. Also the character Deth is one of the most interesting characters in the history of the fantasy genre.
The worldbuilding is very rich. During the story, McKillip makes the reader familiar with its interesting past in moments of creative brilliance. Also her idea of a magical land-rule remains fresh throughout the books and the riddle-society as an alternative to science or an historical institute feels utterly believable. And the story itself is epic alright. Battling armies, ancient powers, world-rule.

Are there no negative comments to make? Well, I didn’t like her use of names. Deth, Yrth, Hel, Hed. It sounds too shallow to me.