Friday, November 10, 2017

August Reads Part Two

It by Stephen King
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Last month, I ranked It as the number five best novel written by Stephen King. After finishing it, for what I believe to only be the second time (I originally only made it to the halfway point when I was a young'un), I don't think I would shift its place. With such a long and dense novel such as this, it can be difficult to maintain precision with critique. Like the sprawling plotlines themselves, I worry my words of praise and damnation could unspool themselves to epic length.

Let us begin, then, with the positive attributes of this mammoth tome. King's powers, many that they are, include a control of suspense practically unmatched—surely placing him among such masters of the form as Dickens and Collins. Each session I had with It had me running through a hundred pages or more without noticing the steady tick of time. I'd glance up from the paperback and be almost late for work. The absorption is practically total. The success of this can be attributed to the casual ease of his prose (King demands little of the reader's expertise with vocabulary or syntax) and to use of repetition. A hallmark of King's prose is the recitation of almost talismanic phrases, either irrupting from the subconscious (marked, typographically, with a paragraph break, in italics, often contained within parentheses) or repeated by the narrator. These phrases function like musical motifs, grounding the reader's attention in the whole work, like signposts marking progress, warning against straying from the path. In It, the talismanic phrases are not simply aesthetic or poetical devices but rather narratively motivated: the phrases repeated by the protagonists as defense against the psychic intrusion of the antagonist; the phrases used as weapons against the protagonists, to shake their confidence and increase their fear. In a novel of average length, the repetition might not wear so much on the reader, but after 1,100 pages, I began to tire of reading the same gaggle of words in italics.

When I first read this and the second time, I remember thinking the Derry Interludes were dull and unnecessary filler, but this time around, I thought higher of these sequences. King's project isn't simply to illustrate the trauma of childhood carried into adulthood, but the intergenerational trauma carried from one era to the next, personified, literalized, as ritualistic eruptions of violence. The Derry Interludes, narrated by historian/librarian Mike Hanlon, offer glimpses into the past of the long shadow Pennywise casts over Derry. One of the most successful effects in the novel is the insidious way Pennywise is woven into the fabric of the town itself, to the point where their definitions blur into each other. Can one have Pennywise without the town and vice versa, a question wisely posed by the novel through the Derry Interludes. One of my favourite scenes in the novel and the miniseries, which looks to be adapted differently in the forthcoming film version, is the haunted photographs of Derry's past.

Something I had never considered in my previous readings of the novel was how King uses the discourse of children's adventures stories to scaffold his novel. In some ways, It is about the reckoning of the past and trauma through the detritus of popular culture (an example: for Richie, the terror manifests as a teenage werewolf, complete with classic 1950s varsity jacket, distorted from the film I Was a Teenage Werewolf). King's fiction has often been postmodern:
the past is no longer something to orient ourselves with in the present but rather a vast collection of images from which to draw on repeatedly, like frantic waves of seemingly novel commodities which "randomly and without principle but with gusto cannibalizes all the architectural styles of the past and combines them in overstimulating ensembles" (Jameson 19) (quoting myself from here)
While his cannibalizing is often overt and on-the-surface, in It, he draws upon the long history of children's adventure stories without signposting them so obviously. While the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew are explicitly referenced in a scene or two, King doesn't signal his mobilization of the structure. This effect is similar to that in The Little Friend by Donna Tartt: both are self-conscious imitations of a pulp style, but through a postmodern lens. And I don't mean postmodern as explicitly self-referential or aesthetically avant-garde. Rather, I use postmodern in the Jamesonian sense, the cultural logic of late capitalism. I should even be careful to attribute this use of children's adventure stories to King himself but instead to the text, because I can't with any specificity point to King's intentions.

Now, onto the not-so-great stuff. Here, I shall quote myself, where I defended charges of sexism against the novel. It seems, in reaction to feminist readings of King's fiction and re-readings of the novel, the climactic sex scene is being re-examined. I maintain the scene is gross and sexist. I wrote this in another spot:
It’s not so much that Beverly is *defined* by her gender or her sexuality. That much we can all agree on and it’s a credit to King’s skill at characterization that she is more than the constant references to her “budding” breasts the narrator can’t seem to forget. No, rather, and here I shall mobilize that “lazy trend” of feminist critique, it’s not the individual character, but as Mike points out, the gender imbalance. It’s also not simply Beverly herself as a character but Beverly as she exists in the *discourse* of children’s adventure stories, a rich and complicated history King is drawing upon (hence the setting of the 1950s, the end of the era’s golden age). Other than Nancy Drew (to which King explicitly draws a comparison, specifically highlighting Nancy’s father’s intervention), girls in adventure stories often did not have starring roles or if they did, their agency was subordinate to that of the boys’. King’s attempt at rectifying this, by making it her idea to have a tween gangbang, is a classic example of “good intentions” (as with lots of King’s politics, they’re marred by his reductive sense of good intentions… cf. the Magical Black Person). We must widen our lens and look at Beverly in *context* of the discourse in which she has been placed. Again, we have yet another girl whose agency is expressed through her sexual viability, her currency as sexual creature. I hesitate to use “sexual object” because as you note, the objectification her body (which is pronounced throughout the novel, either in the 50s or the 80s) is at least thematically motivated. Bev’s character, while rich in some ways (most importantly, her steady hand and steady eye with the slingshot), is still another girl characterized by her body. In “Woman on the Market,” Luce Irigaray writes that “wives, daughters, and sisters have value only in that they serve as the possibility of, and potential benefit in, relations among men” (172). The only way she can think to bring them together is to open herself to them and allow them to essentially take a piece of her (virginity). The scene is icky not just because of the ages of the characters but because none of the boys offer up their butthole to accomplish the same end. Her value, when it comes down to it, is how she can be used, exhausted as a commodity to artificially create a bond.

But what's the point of rehashing the same argument about the gangbang? Most people dislike it and it's been wisely excised from both adaptations. What matters is how this use of Bev is dismissed as just simply gross and not indicative of the ways in which women are objectified and commodified by heteropatriarchy. Enough of this.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy was okay. I did like how when the protagonist meets the anarchist hottie, he asks for her pronouns. I did not care for the peppy quippy narrator voice which irritated and did not do enough to get across the horror of this summoned demon.

Kiernan's Agents of Dreamland was incredible. It's a classic Lovecraft homage with some hardboiled shit tossed in but what elevates it from ordinary is the aesthetic push. The narrative cuts between stories and rarely provides much in the way of exposition. Similarly, the novella deploys a fun bit of false document, with a very real-sounding lost film. I loved this. These Tor.com novellas have been mostly good. I'm going to keep with them.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

October Reads

Umbrella by Will Self
Age of Assassins by RJ Barker
The Grip of It by Jac Jemc
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
The Three Sisters by May Sinclair
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I Will Not Serve by Evelyn Mahyère


Let's start with the not-so good: The Grip of It should have been great. A literary haunted house novel is a premise right up my alley. The major issue, without a doubt, is how over-written it is. The stink of writer workshop wafts up from every sentence: the affected terseness of the male narrator and the pretentious lengthy verbosity of the female narrator both feel so calculated and workshopped as to be evacuated of any of the immediacy or possibility afforded by the genre. One aspect to horror's success is the potentiality: anything could happen. But the prose in The Grip of It holds everything back, asking the reader to focus more on the poesy than the slow creeping dread of the premise. Like Atwood's science fiction novels, this book feels like it was written by somebody who has never read any other horror. I get that sense from the archaic premise (haunted house? in this economy? who can afford a house, haunted or otherwise?) and from the antiquated unfolding of the plot (childhood trauma, town secrets, etc). Throwback novels aren't the problem, but if you're going to do Shirley Jackson, you better bring something other than tired aesthetics.

I haven't felt much like writing recently, but I'll say that Umbrella and The Bell Jar were incredible and will easily crack my top ten best of the year.

Monday, September 25, 2017

mother!


CN: violence against women, misogyny

Allegory sucks. Or rather, the way most writers use allegory sucks. Most writers suck—their technique is sloppy or poor or missing entirely and since allegory takes a delicate and careful hand, which most writers lack entirely, writers suck at allegory. Case in point, Darren Aronofsky's irritatingly titled mother! with its lower case m and it's perky exclamation point. 

mother! has two major problems going for it: the allegory isn't subtle in the slightest; the allegory is open ended enough to bear the weight of practically any interpretation. This is not a paradoxical claim. Aronofsky's story, that of a cruel creator subordinating a feminine figure to the point of abuse, is a mash up of multiple well known stories from the Bible. The film is even divvied up into two major sequences: the arrival of annoying houseguests in the first part, then the escalation of an absurd amount of houseguests in the second part—mirroring the two testaments of the Bible, of course. Jennifer Lawrence's titular mother figure represents, all at once, Eve, Lilith, Mother Nature, Mary, and a host of other maternal archetypes while Javier Bardem's poet can be considered the Abrahamic God or any creator who gives himself up at the expense of his loved ones. None of this is astute or perceptive analysis of the allegory because the allegory doesn't need any investigation. It announces itself loudly, almost to the point where one expects Darren himself, clad in his trademark scarf and pervert mustache, to face the camera and explain "THIS IS ALLEGORY." But when the allegory gapes open so wide as to allow anything and everything, the technique loses any forcefulness.

What is Aronofsky trying to say other than that he's trying to say something?

Which is a shame as the first half is an exquisite endurance of tension and anxiety. Lawrence is plagued by a well meaning but clueless husband and a gathering of intrusive and nosy houseguests who overstay their welcome within minutes. Later, during an extended gathering, Lawrence is forced into the role of hectoring harpy, padding barefoot around the partygoers, admonishing them for disobeying what little rules she has set out for her home. People continue to seat themselves on a non-load-bearing sink, much to her mounting exasperation. The level of inconvenience and intolerable behaviour from these guests reaches a level of hilarity verging on absurdity. I was encouraged when other audience members seeing the film with me laughed at the same bits, though I'm skeptical Aronofsky meant for his allegorical houseguests to elicit such a reaction. He probably meant for them to be frustrating and menacing in a vague way, but really, most of the first half climaxes into the tonal landscape of a sitcom. I couldn't help but laugh.

Unfortunately, mother! doesn't maintain the dark humour. Instead, the last third of the film is an extended tableau symbolizing Homo homini lupus: violence, destruction, rape all depicted in short sequences with the camera tucked in close to Lawrence's face as she bears witness to all the awful things human beings do to each other. At first, these vignettes are gripping and startling but the film can't sustain this—eventually these bursts of violence become numbing and altogether ineffective. 

It ends, now infamously, with Bardem offering the unruly mob his only son, and in a moment of hollow horror, the kind of flinching from the real stuff of horror, the film shows the mob munching on the already killed and divvied up baby. It's a moment of filmic cowardice, the kind evinced so perfectly by Eli Roth's weak and frightened film The Green Inferno. Like a posturing pubescent, these films pretend to be powerful and scary but can't commit themselves to true terror, the true existential dread which characterizes the best horror films.

After this moment of allegorical cannibalism, the mob turns on Lawrence, beating her and ripping at her clothes. This is probably the hardest moment for any audience member, including myself. Even remembering this moment is making me anxious. Throughout the film, there has been a quiet threat of sexual violence against Lawrence, culminating in a quasi-violent act of lovemaking which produces their only child. In one particular scene, Lawrence is asked by an anonymous party guest to go "for a walk." She refuses and when rebuffed, the man turns nasty. Just as with this man, the mob turns on Lawrence. The violence is subtly flavoured with her sexualization and it's godawful. 

I can't compute why male filmmakers are so quick to depict the beating of women under the guise of feminism. It's abhorrent. I'm sick to death of watching women get beat to shit by men just for "entertainment" or—even worse—meaning, no matter how illusory or shallow the depth.

Perhaps this is the year we, collectively, have had enough of Film Culture's toxic relationship with women. With Devin Faraci, Harry Knowles, and the other headscratchingly obtuse things the Alamo Drafthouse has done in the past year, maybe we're all at a point of frustration heated enough for change to happen. Because nonsense like mother! doesn't happen in a vacuum. The same well-meaning but ultimately dangerous attitude which brought us this garbage movie is the same entitlement plaguing the film industry and all its satellite discourses such as criticism. Nice Guys like Bardem who ooze sexual danger and this film which smuggle a desire to beat women via "deep" allegory feed into the toxicity of the critics who feel they can get away with threatening women with sexual violence or turning violent when rebuffed. For years, for decades, powerful men in powerful positions use their power to cover the asses of their friends, at the expense of women in the industry. mother! might gesture towards this but the execution is so flawed as to backfire horribly, violently, hyperbolically. 

None of the positives of the film (its stellar sound design, its mounting claustrophobia and anxiety) can outweigh the damage the film has done and, more importantly, represents as the worst kind of Mediocre White Man movie. 

Fuck this movie.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

September Reads

Provenance by Ann Leckie
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
Shadows Linger by Glen Cook
Acadie by Dave Hutchinson

I didn't like Provenance and that's a great disappointment to me, considering how much I adore her first novel. I'm not sure what went wrong here: Leckie's increasing interest in social etiquette; the lack of central forward momentum; the myopic interest in the upper class and the plot hinging on replicating their power and status—all of these things could have been the problem or worked together to form a gate barring me from enjoying the novel. At around the halfway point, I was already fed up with the fumblings by the characters for more status, more power. While in books 2 and 3 of her Ancillary trilogy, the interest in social niceties was part of the overall texture and not the prime focus, in Provenance, it feels I'm reading a cultural anthropology textbook of a future. Which might be a delicious meal for some, but it never nourished me. 

The two Hutchinson novels were stupendous. He has risen from being an author I'm interested in to an author I will follow very closely. 

While I liked the first Black Company book, nothing prepared me for how much a forward leap in quality the second book was. Shadows Linger was as close to a masterpiece of fantasy fiction as I've ever read, not just in the worldbuilding and general narrative, but in the execution of all the technical stuff, such as the dual plotlines, the meting out of exposition, the careful accumulation of plot tangles for the series, the Weird aspects (a castle made of bodies, growing with each body added to the stack, etc). It's all fantastic. 

All in all a good month. I also started a couple things, abandoned two things, and have yet to post my August Reads Part Two. When I get the energy to write again, I'll post it.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Film Diary

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Dir. Sergio Leone. 1966.
Silkwood. Dir. Mike Nichols. 1983.
The Terminator. Dir. James Cameron. 1984.
Frankenhooker. Dir. Frank Henenlotter. 1990.
Don't Look Now. Dir. Nicholas Roeg. 1973.
Walkabout. Dir. Nicholas Roeg. 1971.
Dead Ringers. Dir. David Cronenberg. 1988.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was a rewatch, this time on Kino Lorber's so-called 4K restoration. Apparently, the MGM Blu-ray is far too yellow in tint and looks awful. Kino Lorber's release was meant to remedy this problem, and it does, but in doing so, introduces new problems. First, indoor scenes have a teal tint, as if digitally colour corrected like a Michael Bay film. The uniforms worn by both armies in the film aren't as crisply grey or blue as they were in real life. This might work in the film's favour, as the blurring of the uniforms is thematically motivated, but aesthetically, it's a bit of a chore. On the other hand, any scene outdoors is beautiful: the sky is an alluring, almost aseptic blue, while the desert and other ecological zones burn with a yellow or orange. The film itself still holds up for me. It might be a bit too long, but it's never boring. Each scene is its own mini-drama, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It's not my favourite of the so-called Dollars Trilogy. That honour is claimed by the darkhorse of the three, For a Few Dollars More.

I found Silkwood a bit of a disappointment. Like many biopics, the film struggles with its own intentions. Is the film meant to be a portrait of a person or a depiction of what that person did? The question is not merely philosophical as any answer will change the film substantially. If this film is indeed about Karen Silkwood the person, then I didn't get quite enough of a sense of who she was. The film doesn't invest in Cher and Kurt Russell's characters enough so Karen feels unmoored from the people she ostensibly considers family. Likewise, if the film is a chronicle of her labour activism, then the film fails even more. Erin Brockovich has the luxury of forming its drama around a court case, an intrinsically dramatic proceeding which lends itself to cinema, but Silkwood doesn't have this structure. Instead, the film focuses on Karen's amassing of evidence for the union's position in negotiations. These negotiations, barely depicted onscreen, aren't nearly as cinematic as a trial. And since the film is a biopic of an individual, the film ends with her death which isn't really the end of the story. Silkwood leaves the audience with onscreen text remarking the death was considered a single vehicle accident and that the corporation closed the factory. Perhaps wanting to avoid being the target of litigation, the filmmakers opted for safety instead of righteous ire and indignation. I did enjoy the performances, especially Cher's effortless one, but otherwise, this was a bit of a disappointment.


I think I've only seen the original Terminator twice before. I saw it long after I'd seen the second one. I was inspired to rewatch this after seeing a tweet (of course, I can't find it now) praising the look of the film. I picked up the remastered Blu-ray of it and I was blown away by how pretty the film is. Almost every frame could be printed out and framed. Always ahead of the curve, visually speaking, Cameron and his cinematographer Adam Greenberg soak the film in fuzzy lights, reflective surfaces, incandescent blues, and the odd piercing red. The movie still rocks, of course, being a lean and ruthless machinery of efficient storytelling. Truly one of the finest action films of the century.


With Frankenhooker, I come closer to having seen all of Henenlotter's major works. The film is a blast (pun intended). Beautifully absurd and joyful, the film reminds viewers of a time when horror and exploitation were part of the margins of filmmaking and there's a solid exuberance to everything, even if the film coyly mourns the Times Square and 42nd Street of the past, lost forever to gentrification. It's absurd and entertaining, though certainly not sensitive to the lives of sex workers (who remain the butt of the jokes, no matter how the screenplay tries to care for them).


After rewatching The Limey a week ago, in anticipation for Soderbergh's return to multiplexes with Logan Lucky, I thought I'd give Roeg a try, an obvious inspiration for Soderbergh. Both Walkabout and Don't Look Now were tremendous works, the kind of movie I could see firing up budding filmmakers, showing young cinephiles the limits of what cinema can do. I liked Walkabout a bit more than I did the latter, thanks to the former's gorgeous cinematography, careful building of theme and characterization. Walkabout says some fairly routine things (the problems of communication) but in deeply resonant ways. I still liked Don't Look Now a lot, but it just didn't command my attention in the same way. Part of the problem is what Pauline Kael dubbed the film's "clamminess." Since reading Kael's review, I can't shake the word she uses. Like other master prose stylists, Kael had an ability to select only the most apt word possible, making it almost impossible to think of the object of the comparison in any other terms. The clamminess doesn't just refer to the literal atmosphere, of Venice during the off-season, but to the emotional distance. Affect isn't so removed as to be clinical, like a Kubrick, nor is it so pronounced as to be uncomfortably moist and close (like Spielberg). Critics have praised the film for its emotional maturity in its depiction of a couple dealing with grief, but I never got that sense. The relationship between the two isn't quite as defined as I think the film would like it to be. Add to this the very Italian ending, which I didn't care for at all, and you have a film I like, but I don't love.


Dead Ringers was a rewatch, the first time in probably 12 or so years. I remember the film being a lot more sinister and malevolent than it actually is. I'm struck by the oft-stated critique that Cronenberg is cold or clinical when my favourite movie of his, and possibly one of my top five favourite films of all time, The Fly, is a heartbreaking tragedy which made me cry the first few times I saw it. Dead Ringers isn't quite the operatic tragedy The Fly is, but it's not nearly as exploitative of the twins as I remembered it being, or as the reputation would have one believe. Rather, it's quite sensitive to the inherent character flaws of the two, sensitive to their inevitable self-destruction. I like the film a lot, but it's in dire need of a trim; the movie goes on a bit too long.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

August Reads Part One

Exodus from the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

First, let us start by disclosing that I am not, in fact, a child between the ages of 10 and 14, no matter how much my (imaginary) detractors might paint me. I am not, therefore, the target audience for L'Engle's well-regarded and prize-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time. Still, with the upcoming film adaptation (let it never be said I am not a bandwaggoner), and my diving in the Catholic waters of Gene Wolfe, I thought this a good time as any to finally read it. Boy, was I disappointed. I was worried the overt Christian proselytizing would put me off, but this aspect wasn't that which stuck in my craw the most. Rather, L'Engle's flat plotting and tedious need to withhold from the audience got my goat. Any narrative which relies on the protagonist being told "this will all be explained later" or "now's not the time for questions" is a narrative I'm inclined to dislike. The same issue marring the entirety of Harry Potter taints every interaction in A Wrinkle in Time. Meg, the somewhat intriguing protagonist, is whisked on a quest for her father across time and space by three women who may or not be witches or angels or even stars (as in the gaseous source of heat and light for our planet), but any time Meg risks asking a question for clarity's sake, her efforts are rebuffed in clumsiest of manners. Never does anybody answer a direct question. It's infuriating. And obviously this is personal taste, as this narrative strategy is a well-used one for young adult fiction, meant to mirror the frustration of the young when they're told "you'll understand when you're older." Though it might be purposeful and effective for the younger reader, I found it beyond annoying. I could have managed through my irritation had the narrative had been otherwise compelling, but alas, the entire novel feels haphazard, bolted together from seemingly discrete episodes. The second half of A Wrinkle in Time changes settings to a planet controlled by what we're supposed to take to be Satan, I suppose. This totemic baddie manifests its evilness with—because it's the 1960s—communism. Yes, the great threat the protagonists must thwart (it's never clear why these particular kids and not any of the other billion people on the planet) is the specter of communism. *groan*. What kind of novel waits until the second half to introduce the primary conflict and setting? How much more shaggy and slapdash can this novel get? Alas, I will never find out as I jumped ship with 75 pages to go. I scanned the Wikipedia article for the remaining bits of "plot" as they are, and no, I can guarantee myself that I am missing nothing of import. An astonishingly boring novel, so boring I couldn't even finish 250 pages of it.

And thus, I finished the middle third of Wolfe's Solar Cycle. Nine books down, three to go. If I were to rank these four, I say: 2>4>1>3. The second one was terrific: paced as all hell, tightly controlled, and careful in its meting out of details. The third, with its long sections in the tunnels (oh god, the tunnels), could have used a trim. The fourth tamps down the insurrection plotline and the tunnels a bit (but there are still many scenes in the tunnels; oh god) for more existential dramas and some political intrigue. The fourth ups the metafictional quotient and obfuscates all that the reader has read before, in both compelling and annoying ways. A major reveal is so shrouded in Wolfe's style that it was entirely lost on me until I read the Dramatis Personae where it was revealed with little fanfare.

As for project as a whole? I loved it. Gene Wolfe is my quintessential "problematic fav." His treatment of women improves slightly with The Book of the Long Sun but he still finds time to denigrate sex work and have a woman completely naked for 200 pages. Breasts are always commented on, but only with the verb "heave" and Caldé Silk's love interest is the definition of beautiful vacuity. There's barely any reason for her and Silk to love one another but love one another they do, in the most simpering ways possible. I can recognize these flaws, both pervasive and structural, but I can't seem to give up on him. His "medieval fantasy world with traces of high technology" arrests me every time. I can't wait for my omnibus of The Book of the Short Sun to arrive so I can keep going.