2007- The Year of Dick

No. Not like that. Or like that. Like this.

I have decided to embark on a literary journey this year; a journey through the paranoid, weird, and highly awesome world of Phillip K. Dick. He was a science fiction writer, known for paranoid plots and characters that come to question the nature of reality. For some reason, a number of his trippy head-fuck stories have been made into big Hollywood films, with varying degrees of success. Blade Runner was awesome. Minority Report was cool. I didn’t really care for Total Recall, and Paycheck pretty much sucked. Generally the films forego the paranoid delusion elements of the novels in favor of pure action sequences. Only the recent A Scanner Darkly managed to receate the tone of his work. The movie felt like a PKD book, due in no small part to the rotoscoping animation style.

I’ve read a few of his books already but its time to work my way through the rest of his catalogue. I really liked VALIS, which was a sort of autobiographical story of the time he was blasted by a divine laser beam of pure information and realized that we are all actually living in the first century, under Roman rule. Yeah…

I aim to work my way through the rest of his work over the course of this year. I intend to read every novel the man ever wrote and hope I don’t have a nervous breakdown like he did.

I’m going to start by finishing out thew VALIS trilogy and work from there. First up is The Divine Invasion.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

On the Politics of 24

I’m just starting to get into 24. I’ve always been leery of jumping on board because I’ve never been able to consistently watch it, and I figured it had to be too intricately plotted for the casual viewer. But the advent of DVR in the household has made it possible to get on board for the new season even though I won’t always be home at 9:00 on Mondays. My old friend Netflix is helping me catch up on the previous five worst days in Jack Bauer’s life.

I’m enjoying it immensely. From the rapid-fire plot to the well-shot (if ludicrous) action scenes, 24 is good TV. I can’t get over the sheer Bad-Ass-itude of Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. I don’t know everything the character has ever done, but within the first few hours of season six, he goes from being a horrifically scarred and fragile prisoner of war to actually killing a man with both hands tied behind his back. That’s right. Jack Bauer is so determined and hardcore that he will RIP OUT A DUDE’S THROAT!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd_Aotvwkms

WITH HIS TEETH!

Yowzah. But as impressive and awesome as I think the show is, I can’t help but feel a little queasy about its politics. As some would have it, 24 is a conservative version of The West Wing. Both shows operate as a kind of mythical fantasy world where everything is taken to extremes, and Straw Men abound. Except in 24, instead of a liberal dream of idealistic social justice we find a world where torture is often necessary, racial profiling is encouraged, and intensive government surveillance is the only thing standing between the civilized world and the viscous dogs that want to bring it all down.

I like both shows, even if I can’t fully get behind the politics of either one. But there is something about 24 that makes me a little uneasy. It does border on propaganda. Whether a recently (and apparently extensively) tortured Jack Bauer can get over his squeamish inability to Interrogate with Extreme Prejudice in time to save us all is a key plot point. (He does.) It seems to be taking its toll on the old man, and only time will tell if this is a completely one-dimensional story, or of we will get even an echo of the moral and ethical questions Jack has to face in the course of his job as a Counter Terrorist Unit agent.

More problematic is plot thread with a character who is the head of an Islamic advocacy group. He was rounded up with several other American Muslims and sent to a detention facility. Initially, it seemed as though the show might be looking at the problems associated with racial profiling, and the difficulties of respecting civil liberties while safeguarding against threats. As far as we know, Walid is innocent of any crime. But some of the detainees aren’t, and Walid is able to eavesdrop on their plans. The moral of the story: Its okay to round up “dangerous” ethnic groups into detention camps, because chances are some of them will be guilty.

Granted, the season has only just begun. I don’t know how the rest of the day is going to play out. And I’m not condemning the show either. I like it and will continue to watch. I just wish the writers would pay more attention to the moral ambiguities inherent in the situations in the show. As it stands, 24 doesn’t ignore these ambiguities exactly. It just portrays them as less than ambiguous.

And just a side note: 24 airs on Fox. All the anti-terrorist heroes of CTU watch Fox News. The nuclear terrorists watch CNN. Huh.

A Parable Regarding the Ocular Organ of a Certain Jungle Feline

Rising up back on the street, I did my time and took my chances. I went the distance and now I’m back on my feet: just a man and his will to survive. So many times it happens too fast. You trade your passion for glory, but don’t lose your grip on the dreams of the past. You must fight just to keep them alive.

Face to face out in the heat, I’m hanging tough and staying hungry. They stack the odds, but still we take to the street for the kill, with the skill to survive. Because I’m rising up. Straight to the top, because I had the guts, and so got the glory. I went the distance, and now I’m not going to stop. I’m just a man and his will to survive.

It’s the Eye of the Tiger, my friends. It’s the thrill of the fight, rising up to the challenge of our rival. And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night. He’s watching us all.
With the Eye of the Tiger

What I’m Reading on the Bus: Where Three Roads Meet

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Barth is the Godfather of Postmodern fiction, having been doing it longer and better than almost anyone else in the genre. Without him we would have no Wallace, no Eggers. Personally, he ranks at or near the top of favorite writers, a Zeusian skyfather of meta-fictional narrative who doles his mightiness out to use Mere Readers from his spot on his Authorial Olympus. I remember being assigned his short story “Night Sea Journey” from Lost in the Funhouse when I was a lowly undergrad. I puzzled over the piece for the better part of a day until I realized I was reading a story about Sperm. The hero is a single sperm cell, taking his own mythic quest to that place where All Stories End. I was hooked. He’s been one of my favorite authors ever since.

Like all good postmodernists Barth writes meta-fiction or fiction about fiction. His protagonists tend to be writers, molecularly thinly veiled caricatures of himself and they tend to be in the process of writing. The story itself usually becomes the story of its own creation. It can get a little confusing, but the books are enjoyable enough to be more than worth the effort it takes to get through. He also tends to play with mythological themes by bringing Joseph Campbell to places he thought he would never go. Barth gives us the Hero’s Journey in a number of different forms, and plays it out different ways.

For someone who talked at great length about the “Literature of Exhaustion” and the Death of the Novel, Barth seems to be having fun. A great deal of it. His prose is energetic, and full of rollicking wordplay. He’s always nudging and winking at the Reader, but the sheer exuberance with which he does so belies any pretension and keeps me from getting annoyed with him. He’s like a really smart, slightly off-kilter Grandpa who’s trying to entertain a truly precocious grandkid.

Where Three Roads Meet is his newest work, thought it’s been out for a while. It consists of three interlinked novellas. (At least I assume it does. I have only read the first two and cannot say for sure how the third ties in.)

In the first we find a triad of grad students, a dramatic tripod with a Barth stand-in and engaged couple as legs. Complications ensue, and a love triangle develops that threatens both their habitation arrangement and the jazz trio they comprise.

In the second, a tale is waiting to be told. The story is a first-person narration from a Story, a Heroic Myth to be precise. This Story has been told many times, a Story with a Thousand Places. As the Story is sitting by the side of the road waiting for the action to begin, it is picked up by a Storyteller. This older man of Barthian bent gives the untold tale a ride in his Dramatic Vehicle. When a Reader shows up, Complications ensue.

If that sort of thing doesn’t sound appealing, there’s not much I can say. John Barth is not for you. Go read some Hemingway or something a little more grounded in reality and straightforward in its lack of irony. But if you can accept a certain degree of postmodern gamesmanship and can appreciate the mastery of craft it takes to be so cheekily self-aware and not devolve into cutesy, clever-for-cleverness’-sake-itude you should give Barth a try. Where Three Roads Meet is not as bad place to start, although it does reflect his age (he’s getting on in years) and while still full of exuberance, Barth is thinking more and more about final things and the way stories end. As he approaches his own closing sentence, this is understandable.

You might want use this as a barometer to measure the your stomach for Barth: “Click” is a story he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in December 1997.

 

See Also: A Paper on Freud and Barth, Written By Me.

The Lamest Thing I Said Last Week: Making Music

For reasons too bizarre and shameful to get into here, I found myself listening to the most recent album from that falsetto wunderkind and ex-Boy Bander Justin Timberlake. It’s called Future Sex /Love Sounds, and most of the songs are produced by Justin’s longtime collaborator, a rotund fellow with an undeniable talent for laying down hot beats and dope hooks who goes by the sobriquet of Timbaland. You probably know him. He frequently guests on other pop songs, and was more often than not the architect of the beat. In any case, his presence is all over Justin’s new album, to the point where he pops up on virtually every track. This lead me to make the remark that perhaps the former N’Sync-er should start calling himself “Justin Timb-aland.” The groans could be heard throughout the car.

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Skip Day Double Feature: Curse of the Golden Flower & Pan’s Labyrinth

There are few things in this world more satisfying than playing hooky. To stroll the city streets in the middle of the day, to meander slowly laughing at all the poor suckers who are stuck working- I can’t think of anything better. I especially love to catch an early matinée, when the theaters are empty and I can be confident that no chatting couple or caterwauling children will ruin the movie for me. It all started in my senior year of high school. By the end of the spring semester, I would have amassed quite a few sick days. With no football or wrestling practice to attend, I was finally free to skip days. You could miss nine before you got in any grade danger, so I just stopped going to school on Fridays for the final nine weeks of the year. Nothing but three day weekends for the last two months. Oh, those were the halcyon days of yore…

Anyway, I would usually spend my free Friday at the movies taking on a double feature. I’m trying to bring those days, when I can. I’m not going to work and wasting my time with four hours of cinematic goodness (or, more likely four hours of cinematic mediocrity). So the other day, I got me free refill of coke and popcorn and strapped myself in for a double-header. Working on my indie street cred, I decided to start with some subtitled foreign films: The Curse of the Golden Flower and Pan’s Labyrinth. Both were excellent in their own way, and I learned that a little girl on a fairytale quest in Fascist Spain has more in common with the incestuous intrigues of a Chinese Imperial family than you would probably think.

Curse of the Golden Flower: BOOBS!

Curse of the Golden Flower was first up. At first I thought this was going to be another big, beautiful kung-fu epic, in the vein of Hero or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While the opulence of the Emperor’s Palace in ancient China came through in the set dressing, there was surprisingly little kung-fu action. There were a few fight scenes, but by and large they were large scale battles, several of which involved crazy bad-ass flying ninjas (which I feel are sorely under-utilized in Western cinema, and I applaud the filmmakers for their inclusion here). The crux of the film is the familial intrigue of the royal household. A quick sketch of the film’s Shakespearean/Jerry Springerian family dynamics: The Emperor is slowly poisoning his wife, mostly because she has been sleeping with the middle son (who came from a different set of lions, but still…). The Empress is jealous of her step-son’s affair with a servant, the eldest son is planning a political coup, and you don’t even want to know how the middle son’s baby-mama figures into the equation.

While prone to melodrama, the film moves along at a decent clip and the palace intrigues are interesting enough. Everything is covered in Gold and bright colors, and the decadence of the Court rivals Sofia Coppolla’s recent depiction of Versailles. I don’t know if “Golden Flower” is some kind of Chinese euphemism for giant boobs, but all the lead actresses were wantonly displaying their wares. Not that I’m complaining, but the sheer volume of exposed mammary became slightly distracting. Even the servant girls were shaking what their mammas gave them. Aside from the set dressing and the ample bosoms, there were some fairly awesome fight scenes, and the climactic bloody battle is especially satisfying. While not quite as good as its predecessors, it’s still worth a look.

Pan’s Labyrinth: eyeballs!

After getting my drink refilled and covering a fresh batch of popcorn with butter, I proceeded to the next theater for Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s been getting high reviews across the board, and I can’t give a dissenting opinion. It’s the story of a little girl who gets moved to the country to live with her new stepfather, a fascist commander in the Spanish Civil War. In the woods around her new home, she meets up with a scary satyr in a dark labyrinth. He believes she is the long lost daughter of the King of the Underworld, and assigns her three freaky and terrifying tasks to prove it. The dark fairytale unfolds alongside the story of the stepfathers increasingly brutal efforts to rid the area of rebels. Without overplaying the parallels between the two stories, Guillermo Del Toro weaves them together to paint a bleak picture of the evil that men do and the ways we try to get away from it. This film looks amazing. From the surreal, otherworldly banquet halls with hideous monsters to the gritty torture and firefights of the war scenes, every frame is perfect. The monsters are creepy and unsettling, and the dark Alice in Wonderland nature of little Ofelia’s quest is awesome. I’m just glad I didn’t have to see this when I was a kid. If some unthinking parent had sat me down to watch it when I was 5, I would have been traumatized for life. This is a fairy tale for adults. Pan’s Labyrinth is far too intense, subtle, and creepy for most kids. I would have turned away from it faster than I made my parents shut off The Dark Crystal (which I made it about four minutes into). But for fans of dark fantasy, this movie is a must.

So, there you have it. Until the next time I finagle a day off…

1984- The Last Cyborg: Children of Men

Children of Men Clive Owen

This Friday Night at the Movies, I saw Children of Men, the latest offering from Alfonso Cuaron, whose deft touch made Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban stand head and shoulders above the rest of the series. He brings his “A” game in his latest.

Critics seem to love Children of Men, and I can’t help but to agree. It is gritty, intense, and as beautiful as it is bleak. The plot is a straightforward post-apocalyptic roadtrip. It’s kind of like Cyborg meets 1984, with a dash of Y: The Last Man thrown in for good measure. I know that sounds like it would suck, but the end result is all kinds of awesome.

In a world where humanity has become mysteriously infertile, Clive Owen is a disillusioned former activist who finds himself the unwitting guardian of a mysteriously pregnant young girl. The film tells the story of their journey to the coast of Britain, dodging a repressive state and dangerous revolutionaries along the way. The film never explains why no one is able to procreate, nor does it delve into why Kee is an exception. The sci-fi angle is not what Cuaron is interested in. He focuses more on what the world is like after the onset of a slow apocalypse, offering a compelling portrait of a world without hope. The British government in the film is taking its xenophobia to Fourth-Reichian levels, while the people seek solace in new religious cults. Owen is too apathetic, and we first meet him drifting aimlessly through his life. While everyone gathers to mourn the death of the world’s youngest person (an eighteen year old), Owen is barely aware enough to order his coffee. His complacency is broken by an explosion, as a terrorist bombing shakes him from his walking sleep. From there he meets up with his ex-wife, who has become a leader of the Fishes the terrorists responsible for the attack. It is his ex-wife, portrayed by Julianne Moore, who recruits him for the mission.

Cuaron takes the “show don’t tell” admonitions of a thousand freshman writing instructors to heart. The back story is told largely through panning shots of bulletin boards and photo displays, with a few overheard stories. The storytelling is subtle without becoming overly elliptical. The world of the film is decidedly and understandably run down. What’s the point of keeping streets clean when the entire race will be soon be extinct? One of the most striking scenes is Owen meeting with his cousin, who acts as caretaker for the several priceless pieces of art. Locked away from the common people, in a less-grungy part of the city, the broken man eats dinner with Guernica behind him and a shattered David out in the hall.

Across the board, the film is well shot. There are several long take tracking takes, usually during moments of intense violence. It really ratchets up the tension, as my eye kept looking for some kind of cut or camera switch to distract from the action. The performances are strong, though I did grow slightly irritated with Michael Caine’s aging hippy.

If you haven’t seen it, you really should. It might not be the most rollicking, fun-loving film at the theatre this week, but its well worth the time. As with any film about the future, it can be hard to resist drawing parallels with today’s political climate. But it is subtle, and the story is about personal loss and redemption, not society’s. Though the characters inhabit a doomed world and move through its dystopian landscape with out the benefit a future, the movie never becomes bloated on its own gloom. It is, after all, a film about hope.

It had to happen…

Florida State University To Phase Out Academic Operations By 2010

It was only a matter of time. The wise old adage that has graced many a t-shirt has been proven true. Without pesky academics to get in the way, Tallahassee is officially a “Drinking Town with a Football Problem.” At last the Mighty Seminoles can focus on the truly important things in life, like preparing for the illustrious Emerald Bowl, here in San Francisco. It is perhaps the most prestigious of all the bowls to be named after a brand of nuts.

The only thing I find shocking about this article is that the byline is Sarasota, Fl. How could the Onion, one of the most reputable news outlets in the world, have made such a careless error? Everyone knows that Florida State University stands like a beacon of ivory tower intellectualism in the thriving metropolis of Tallahassee, the fast paced capital city. Sarasota, indeed.

Tract Infection

Have you ever found one of those little comics laying around somewhere? You know, the ones with the hilariously over-the-top fundamentalist warnings against the evil of rock music, abortion, and science? Well, chances are it came from Jack Chick. I remember I found multiple copies of the witchcraft one slipped in between the shelves of the New Age section of the bookstore where I worked. I’m sure the souls of the nerdy goth kids who shoplifted tarot cards were saved. Perhaps their acne was miraculously washed away through the power of God, like the leper’s spots. I found the little comics repugnant, but was strangely fascinated. You can see what I’m talking about here, but a far more entertaining synopsis has just been posted at 10 Zen Monkeys. Check it out.