Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Special Double Review

Doctor Who: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

I haven't liked a Doctor Who Christmas special since David Tennant's first episode. All of the other specials have been boring forgettable affairs. Moffat's first Christmas special was interesting if only for its aggressive disregard of principles of time travel set before in the show. This particular Christmas special is noteworthy for the revelation that the Doctor is apparently immune to the cold vacuum of space.

The Doctor is blowing up some shit on a spaceship and gets blasted out of it, landing on Earth just before the War. He survives somehow and makes a friend in some lady. Then, years later, the lady's husband is dead in the war, and she is left with two kids. They go to a house where the Doctor has conveniently set himself up as the caretaker. He has a present for the kids, which is a gateway to the future, to a planet made up of a sentient forest. When the kids get there, Bill Bailey shows up for a scene and explains that the forest is scheduled for an acid-rain scorching. Then the trees talk through a character, a typically Moffat device and then timey-wimey happy ending because it's Christmas.

20 minutes of story stretched out for 59 minutes. That's it. This was the worst Christmas special since the one with the Titanic. Maybe even worse than the one with the runaway bride (which I only remember with fondness because the Doctor goes apeshit in it). The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe was boring. One entire third of the special was the various character wandering in the forest, the same set, I might add, but time displaced. In typical classic Who fashion, one episode out of four was simply pushing the characters from one corridor to the next. The son is chasing a bizarre creature, the daughter and the Doctor are chasing the son, and the mother is chasing them both, only to be thwarted by Bill Bailey, who is criminally underused. His scene, along with his henchmen, is easily the funniest thing Moffat has written in years. Funnier than the Cybermen episode that everybody hated (but I liked).

There's a fairly large plot hole in this special, in regards to the creature that the son is chasing. Upon finishing it, I realized that something didn't make sense, and I'm not talking about Moffat's twisting of the time stream in order to provide a happy ending.

So to recap, this was aggressively boring, illogical, and only memorable for its bravura opening and Bill Bailey's scene-stealing. The worst Doctor Who episode I've seen in a long time. Which is a shame, because I've loved Moffat's direction so far. Matt Smith does a tremendous job in this episode, as well, showing how deft he is as a comic actor, not just a scary Doctor.

And to make matters worse, there's no a single frame of teasing for series seven!

Downton Abbey

Remember when I said I was going to give the Christmas special a try and if it was as stupid as the second series I was going to quit? Well, it was even more stupid than I could possibly imagine. Contrived, manipulative, dumb, superficial and totally contrived.

What cousin Matthew proclaims at the end of the second series is quickly and stupidly overturned in favour for plot twisting. What happens to Bates is quickly overturned because it's Christmas and this is what happens on soap operas. Rosamund's story in the Christmas special is so imminently forgettable that I can hardly remember the name of the other character she's involved with. The plot with the second cook and her dead husband that she didn't love is stretched out further and further and further, with seemingly no end in sight. All sorts of things happen, but none of it has any consequence. It's simply the plot twisted for the sake of a Christmas special.

And it was boring. Why was everything boring this Christmas? You know what was an especially good "special" even though it was a theatrical movie? The Inbetweeners Movie! Not only was the comedy fucking hilarious, but the drama was organic as it came from the characters and not from the plot (although there were a few instances of the plot twisted for convenience's sake). Not like Downton Abbey's stupid soapy special. This was awful. Awful, awful, awful, awful. I hated it more than the Doctor Who special. I can't think of anything positive to say about this episode, and normally I can.

In fact, I can even mention something that I hated more than anything. Lady Sybil, the really hot sister, doesn't make an appearance, despite her story being the most interesting. Fuck this show.

And yet I know I will watch the third series.

By the way, who the fuck is going to watch an ITV miniseries of the Titanic? Even if it's written by Julian Fellowes? The special effects are going to look campy in comparison to a thirteen year old movie that will no doubt produce a significant influence on the plot of Fellowes' script. What motivated ITV to produce this? Why didn't they do one of the Lusitania? Oh well. Sherlock starts on Jan 1 and I will be watching that with a big smile on my face.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas

The fact that Christmas' origin lies in both the birth of Jesus Christ and the solstice celebrations makes no difference to me. It is a time to celebrate the brotherhood of man, really. I use Christmas as a way to relax, to visit friends, to get drunk, to be with my family. It's not a holiday of religious observance or Midnight Mass or any other rituals. Today, on December 25th, I plan to sit in bed and read, as I am far behind in my reading these past three months. I hope to catch up by February. So, Merry Christmas to everybody. Also, I hope you enjoy the new design, which is definitely influenced by my love of the 80s.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The To-Read Pile

It's getting exceedingly big. I need to stop buying books again. I was doing so well and then I moved back into my parents'. Well, here is a small portion of the to-read pile. Caveat emptor, I may not read all of them.

Click on the picture to make it big. Not pictured, because there wasn't enough room: Stephen King's new behemoth, Philip Hensher's behemoth The Northern Clemency, the behemoth Masks of God tetralogy by Joseph Campbell and a host of other things. I really need to conquer this pile!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Texas Killing Fields

It's hard not to like this movie based on that poster. The lightning, the starkness of the fields, the intense glares in each actor's eyes, the "Produced by Michael Mann" text. It's going to be hard to judge this one because I'm walking into it thinking that I'm going to love it, based solely on that poster. Of course, I watch every movie with the hope that it's going to be my new favourite movie, that it will supplant Indiana Jones and The Bourne Ultimatum. This film has a lot of the ingredients to possibly change things up in my film hierarchy. It's directed by Michael Mann's daughter, it stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Sam Worthington, two good actors.

Set in Texas City, Texas, Worthington and Morgan are two homicide officers who are on the trail of a serial killer or killers, who are abducting women and killing them out in the badlands, in the fields. Chloe Grace Moretz plays a little girl from a impoverished family who wanders the streets and Morgan feels protective of her. Jessica Chastain plays Worthington's ex-wife and a cop in another town, where girls are also going missing.

The opening scene of this movie features beautiful stark imagery of the impoverished conditions these people face, the racial issues and the social inequality faced by them. This is a small town, one without sidewalks, where little boys ride bikes down the street at 11 o'clock at night. Mann shoots all this with the same quick shots of establishment, with the grainy digital eye her father used in Collateral. It evokes a sense of desolation and of dead-ends. These men aren't going anywhere in their shitty jobs, just drink and whores. Even an older peace officer, a friend of Worthington's character's dad, is essentially a functioning alcoholic with a badge.

As the plot slowly builds, with each piece being put in place, the audience is given little sketches of the two main characters. Worthington, alone and sitting on the floor, feeding his dog canned food. Morgan, a family man, praying and cuddling in bed with his wife. However it is Morgan that is inexorably drawn into the killing fields, the place so desolate and so empty that even the Native Americans won't go into it, according to Worthington. He keeps trying to tell Morgan to stay out of the fields, figuratively speaking of course, but this is a cop movie. Morgan must go through the Hero's Journey and reach the Underworld.

Here's a handy chart of the Hero's Journey.

The helper is Worthington's character who guides him through Texas City, Morgan's adopted town. It is the fields where Morgan's death and rebirth will occur. He has crossed the metaphorical threshold of law-abiding and enforcing, God-fearing man into a world of blurred distinctions between following the letter of the law and getting shit done. When he finally reaches the fields, the killing fields, the dark abyss of his own soul and even Texas's soul, he returns for his atonement and the return to the status quo.

Yes, Texas Killing Fields takes on mythic qualities. The fields are imbued with a sense of the epic, of the darkness and of the eternal. Mann shoots the fields in blue, a colour of death, and has thunder and lightning crash over them. The fields themselves become more than a place, but a symbol, like Chinatown does in the titular film noir.

However, unlike Chinatown, Texas Killing Fields does not benefit from a stellar Robert Towne script. The dialogue in this film is mildly clunky, with Worthington's character helpfully telling Morgan and the audience that Morgan's gone over the edge. The cops sort of speak like cops are expected to, and the Texan young men and women speak with the same drawl and the same emptiness. Despite the dialogue issues, the script takes an uneven line for the Hero's Journey. Mann uses a bit of misdirection to try and fool the audience, but anybody who has seen a movie in their life will be able to guess the ending.

The screenplay feels artificial, especially since it maps onto the grid of the Hero's Journey fairly well, but even then, Texas Killing Fields seems to have a sense of authenticity. It wasn't even filmed in Texas (Louisiana, to be honest) but it feels like Texas, like the Southern states where everything is hot and everything is slow because it's too hot to move fast. Mann even borrows from Peter Berg, one of Michael Mann's ardent followers, and uses a sort of Explosions in the Sky style soundtrack, similar to Friday Night Lights. Both those two things are from Texas.

Mostly, it's Mann's competent direction that saves Texas Killing Fields. It's well shot, a mixture of documentary feel and inventive camera work. The car chase near the end of the film is extremely well shot, with the audience being able to follow the action and the geography of the location perfectly. There's a couple action scenes that are shot just perfectly, with a sense of cold-blooded quickness and reality, not the nonsense John Woo crap from the late nineties.

This is a good movie. I may seem somewhat dismissive because of its adherence to the Hero's Journey, but it actually kind of makes me like it more. If only the dialogue was a little bit better. Hopefully Mann directs at a quicker pace than her father. I'm more than excited to see her next film.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Film Round-Up

Fish Tank (2009)

I watched this because of Michael Fassbender. There I said it. I'm glad I ended up watching it though. It's a well shot and well acted film about a young girl living in a council estate who develops feelings for her mother's handsome Irish boyfriend. There's plenty to be said of the film as a text, and you can interpret it in any which way, especially with an eye for social realism. It's a thematically deep film, and it's successful in convincingly portraying the emotional development of this girl. However, it's a little slow. Could've used a trim here and there just to speed things up. Other than that, this is a fantastic film.

A Good Old Fashioned Orgy (2011)

The cast. Oh my god the cast. Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Nick Kroll among others. The plot? I couldn't care less about the plot. However, this is a surprisingly heartwarming and hilarious movie about a group of friends who want to celebrate their last holiday in the summer home before its sold with an orgy. At first the film sort of stumbles with its awkward premise and its thinly drawn characters, but as the film goes on, and sketches the background details of these friends, without belaboring the details, the cast fills out, and the humour comes alive. It helps that everybody is fairly charming and quick-witted, and there appears to be a healthy level of improvisation. What sort of diminishes the movie is the romance that develops between the main character and the real estate agent in charge of selling the house. In a surprising move, the climax of the film sweeps it aside and goes straight the emotional catharsis of the orgy. It works! This is a good comedy, not quite to the level of The Hangover or Bridesmaids, but this style of ensemble comedy with a focus on the dialogue is greatly appreciated.

Drive (2011)

Ryan Gosling, amirite? There's a good looking fellow. The opening scene of Drive is fantastic: a car chase that's not quite a car chase, one that's cerebral and intelligent but tense nonetheless. Certainly emblematic of the rest of the film. Then, the credits sequence, hot pink cursive writing set to night time scenes and a killer French synthpop jam. These are all ingredients for a fantastic movie. I liked Drive a lot. Gosling is amazing, even though he's hardly doing anything. The violence is spectacularly shocking, when there is. Albert Brooks is really good, and so is Ron Perlman. So what's the problem? Not enough Gosling driving. There just isn't enough of him doing what he's best at. The car chase is also bizarrely shot, with odd editing choices, giving the viewer a wrong sense of geography. But the rest of the movie is good. I don't really have much to say about this movie. It's good, but it's not great. It's really really good, but not great.

The Guard (2011)

Here's an hilarious movie in the same vein as Bad Santa or any of those foul-mouthed bastard and the people who love them. Except, it's Brendan Gleeson as an Irish cop, one of the Garda, and Don Cheadle, strait-laced cop from America comes to track down some drug smugglers. This is a film to watch for its screenplay and its dialogue rather than its plot. Mark Strong, the UK's leading villain in all films, delivers a strong performance as an Englishman looking for some violence. Everybody's pretty funny, and despite the film being made in Ireland by Irish people, there doesn't seem to be a lot of specifically Irish humour. It's simply people swearing at each other for two hours. Not a bad way to pass the time.

Final Destination 5 (2011)

I have some sort of affection for the series as a whole. The first one is clever, in that it removes the slasher from the slasher movie, and the second one is amazing for just upping the stakes to an incredible degree. However, the next two were of diminishing returns. Hopefully this fifth one would do something interesting? Well, it does and it doesn't. This one adds the dimension of taking a life in order to appease death, so Miles Fisher, one of my favourite people in the world, ends up trying to murder people. The setpieces are cool, I guess, but nothing as spectacular as the second film. It's the end that really fucking does it. Does anybody remember the end of The Mist? How fucking mean it is? Well, Final Destination 5 is even meaner, if that's possible. The requisite twist ending is impossible to see coming, and it's utterly nihilistic. It's fucking mean and I love it because of it.

Contagion (2011)

Soderbergh is a filmmaker who has almost exhausted my patience. Traffic, Erin Brockovitch, the Ocean's Trilogy, Out of Sight and the Limey are all terrific movies. However, Soderbergh punctuates his career with misfires such as Full Frontal and the Che two parter. I only made it through about an hour of Che before I fell asleep. It's painfully boring. So when Soderbergh makes a more commercial picture, I'm interested. Where will it end up? Like Traffic or like Solaris? Contagion is a fast-paced medical thriller, which is an automatic thumbs up from me, really. Plus, it is meant to be hyper realistic, and its attention to detail is amazing. The cast is uniformly excellent, including Gwyneth Paltrow's exceedingly disturbing death scene in the first ten minutes of the movie. The second half of the movie suffers a bit from a lack of direction. Only two or three characters have a goal by the second half and the rest of the cast simply wanders around until the denouement. Still, it's slickly made and goes to show that Soderbergh is one of the greatest cinematographers in the business.

Fright Night (2011)

This was one of my most anticipated films of the year. I have great affection for the original, despite not seeing it in almost ten years. I remember it being witty, frightening, hilarious and altogether charming. I expected something of the same from the remake, especially because of its acting pedigree. Yes, the Tenth Doctor plays a Criss Angel type of arsehole, and he even uses the same accent from his tenure on Doctor Who. Of course, this was not the only engaging part of Fright Night. Rather, it is a clever movie that suffers only from its dismal CGI effects. There are numerous scenes of palpable suspense, like when the main character is attempting to sneak out of the vampire's house while the villain watches reality TV and drinks beer. Instead of the charming debonair Chris Sarandon, this film features a rugged and animalistic Colin Farrell, who just oozes sex and violence. It's a restrained performance, in which the possibility of violence is more threatening than the display of aggression. The film is equal parts funny and scary, including a hilarious turn from James Franco's younger brother in a small role as a stoned bully who gets his throat ripped out. I enjoyed the movie more than I thought I would.

Friends with Kids (2011)

Again, here is another movie that I watched if only because of the cast. Jon Hamm, Kirsten Wiig, Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd and some other fine actors all star in Friends with Kids, written and directed by Hamm's partner, who stars as one of two platonic friends who have a kid together with the aim of not falling in love and of course, they end up falling in love. The story beats are boring, but the cast is charming. Hamm's partner is a terrifically weak actress in comparison to the rest of the cast, though. Her own dialogue sounds stilted and forced in her mouth. If you had this cast together, wouldn't you let them improv the shit out of everything? Well, they weren't allowed or at least it didn't end up in the final cut. This is a movie that screaming to be let loose from the director's quiet dialogue. It shakes the frame with potential energy but focuses on small scenes of warmth. Luckily the film moves into real emotion by the end, and it concludes with a heartwarming scene. It's the barebones of romantic comedy, but the cast keeps it barely alive.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Religious Hypocrisy

Here's a photo of a protester from the Westboro Baptist Church - yes the church that protests funerals of soldiers saying that it was America's fault for allowing gay people to marry or whatever. They famously hate gays. Their signs often have things like "Faggots burn in hell" or whatever. Here's an adorable photo of a protester wearing a Glee shirt. This is fucking adorable.

I don't post about religion on my blog because it's not really a topic that's worth talking about. I'm atheist, my whole family is, we're secular and we don't believe in religion. We have special disdain for organized religion that promotes hatred and intolerance. Theism isn't necessarily dangerous; it's the belief in the supremacy of the pontiff that's dangerous. Either way, the Westboro Baptist Church have set up their own pontiff who is dangerously influential among his followers. It is only a matter of time before somebody does something violent to the church in retaliation for their absolutely bonkers beliefs.

But before that day arrives, let's all sit back, with a smug look on our faces and laugh at this fucking photo.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

David Bowie - "Someone Up There Likes Me"

I have gone on a fairly big Bowie kick the past few weeks. I've always liked Bowie, but he's not somebody that I immediately reach for when wanting something to listen to. I decided to give Young Americans and Let's Dance a re-listen, if only because they are aggressively more commercial. However, in my ever-present pop apologia, I've decided that both albums are, in fact, masterpieces. Especially Young Americans. That saxophone! Those backup harmonies! Bowie's "live" singing - sometimes done with one take! Long story short, Bowie is a God.

Monday, December 5, 2011

You Deserve Nothing

Will Silver is a 30-ish American expatriate working in Paris, at an international high school, home to students from across the world, sons and daughters of diplomats and businessmen. Will is teaching a special seminar on philosophy and literature to Gilad, the son of an American businessman who uses his fists in communicating with Gilad's mother. Also in the seminar is Ariel, best friend of Marie who ends up in a sexual relationship with Will, to devastating effect to all. Set in 2002, as tensions around the world and in France were heating up, this is a novel about the dynamic of power and authority, and of the intersection of philosophy and life, narrated by Will, Marie and Gilad in the first person.

As every reviewer of this novel is going to mention, Alexander Maksik wrote this from personal experience, as he was a teacher in Paris who left his job after an inappropriate relationship with an underage student. Jezebel, of Gawker media, broke the story, and showed that this novel isn't nearly as innocent or as fictional as it might appear. The real "Marie" expresses the uncomfortable feeling that she was exploited and used, whereas in the novel, Marie longs for Will, and her last line is "I still dream of him." As a reviewer and critic, I hope I can separate the work from the artist. But I have to admit, that my own feelings of discomfort will bleed through. It is inescapable that I am not disturbed by Maksik's rewriting of reality. Even without this added dimension of reality, this work stands alone.

You Deserve Nothing, in a nutshell, is a promising debut. However, it is not a great novel. Nor is it even a good novel, but neither is it bad. It's aggressively average, from its themes to its repetitive prose, to its glaring signposts reminding the reader that this is, indeed, a first novel.

Firstly, there are innumerable scenes of teaching in the novel, with Will at the head of the class, diligently and earnestly explaining existentialism and Sartre and Camus to a group of homogenous students, all of whom have discrete names but blending voices. The teaching scenes are interesting at first, if only to get a sense of why and how these students seem to idolize Will. But then the teaching continues. It makes up one third of the novel. This is not a quantitative count, but an estimate. One third of the novel is a teacher teaching. To sound childish, if I wanted to be taught existentialism, I'd read it for myself rather than read a novel, in English, regurgitating and twisting Camus' words. At least, Maksik provides us with the opening line of L'etranger in French, a rather difficult passage to translate. Not only does he provide bits of Camus, but there are numerous pieces of other works, simply block quoted, so that we can read along with the earnest students and learn along with them. By the end of the novel, when some of the students have become disillusioned with Will, the teaching scenes are excruciating. If the teaching scenes are bad, maybe at least the reader can console himself with above average prose? Not so, unfortunately.

The cadence of Maksik's narrators are all the same, despite their different backgrounds and gender. They all narrate in the same style. The narrator uses two or three short sentences. Then to break up the style, the narrator eliminates the conjunctions, strings two clauses together. Just like that. I wrote this paragraph in Maksik's style.

There's an affected style of disaffection, of disillusioned people. This normally works for me; after all I love Bret Easton Ellis. The problem is that there is an overbearing sense of sameness with characters and scenes bleeding together. Structurally, Maksik uses three narrators, but they all sound the same and use the same style. Not only that, but even his multicultural students use the same voice. Colin, a student in Will's seminar, is from Dublin, as the audience is constantly reminded, but his accent and dialect is totally American. He uses specific American slang and misses that particular sentence structure that the Irish use. Maksik totally fails in constructing differing voices for any of his characters. This would not have been a problem if all the characters were American students of the same socio-economic background. No, Maksik uses a specific multicultural and multiethnic cast, from the Irish kid to the Muslim kid who speaks exactly like a boorish isolationist American thinks a Muslim speaks.

My edition of the novel has 320 pages. Every time the narrator switches, there is a blank page. Therefore, there are at least 40 pages of blank pages, lowering our page count to 280. If one third of that are asinine teaching scenes, then only 186 pages are actually important. Of that 186, there are many repeated scenes, from each of the narrator's point of view. The point I am trying to make? This is a short story with ample padding. If this had been a short story, without Gilad and Colin, focusing only on Marie and Will's disastrous relationship, I would have loved it. It would have been a tight and gripping narrative of the delusions of power. Unfortunately, we have a earnest naive novel filled with extras from Dead Poets Society.

Now that I have thoroughly excoriated the novel, and judged it on its own merits, let us turn to the unfortunate reality of the situation Maksik found himself him. Jezebel tells us that almost everything in the novel is taken from actual experience, with only the names changed. We can then position Maksik onto Will. Therefore, Maksik wrote a novel about himself as a charming and charismatic teacher that all female students want to bang, a teacher whom the male students idolize, whom even the faculty thinks is a fantastic and efficient teacher. Maksik re-wrote the ending of this episode, from real life, into one in which it is Maksik who makes the fateful decision to depart, leaving Marie in a longing state, pining away for Maksik.

The cliche of first time novelists is that they tend to write idealized versions of themselves into the novel. Otherwise known as a Mary Sue in fanfiction parlance. Maksik has written a creepy and narcissistic version of events that paints him in a rather flattering light. The effect of which is to turn me off entirely. At the beginning of the novel, I was quite enamored with the French setting, the multicultural student body, and the sexual subtext. By the end of the novel, I was creeped out, but not in the way Maksik intended. Will seems to love Marie. Marie reciprocates this. At no point does Maksik entertain the notion that this is a situation of power and dominance. Maksik used his authority as leverage to sleep with a girl, despite the girl thinking that it was her choice. In the teaching scenes, Maksik implies heavily that there are no choices, that there is no free will. It is a determinist novel. At the end, Will is accused by the headmaster of thinking himself innocent. Will provides a sly smirk and walks away into the sunset. He thinks he is innocent because there is no free will. He is an idiot.

The novel is amateurish and clumsily written. The prose is weak and repetitive. Add into this mix the fact that Maksik thinks he did nothing wrong and re-wrote reality to suit his ego, then you have the recipe for a novel that is not good, but not bad. Maksik has enough talent to make the novel readable, engaging, and at the beginning, quite good. Perhaps with a second novel, not based on his questionable decisions, then he'll succeed. It is laudable that Maksik even wrote a novel about such a controversial and taboo subject, but he did it in the clumsiest way he possibly could.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

"Nothing on Earth Comes Close"

This is a commercial directed by Tony Scott for Saab. Thanks to this commercial, Scott was offered the chance to direct Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise. The rest, they say, is history. This is an interesting advertisement in that it is starkly simplistic. There are two men, and I mean masculine men. Both of them walk towards the camera in slow motion, carrying their paraphernalia. They open garage doors, and an ethereal light illuminates their machines: a jet fighter and a Saab. The pilot lovingly strokes the wing of the plane. They drive their machines out into the rain, and thanks to a series of quick cuts, it appears that they are staring each other down. There is a competition to occur. As the orchestral score lowers in volume, the engine of the plane grows louder. The plane and the car drive towards the camera, but the plane takes off. In the frame, the jet is above the Saab. There is nothing between them. The music returns, swelling, and the logo is revealed again: Saab.

It is simplistic but ever so effective. Ostensibly, the comparison is being made between a jet fighter and an automobile. The viewer is meant to associate the two machines and conclude that if one wants to be an ideal of masculinity, or a fighter pilot, one must purchase a Saab, the next best thing. The comparison is made by using equal screen time and by shooting both machines at the same angles, then cutting between them, creating a sense of continuity between the two.

The fighter jet is also made by Saab, famously so. The idea that the makers of a fighter jet would also make a car seems attractive. If you were a man who appreciated the power and thrust of a jet engine, then why would you not enjoy the power and sleekness of a miniature jet, an automobile version of a jet? While there is an explicit comparison being made between the Saab car and the Saab jet, there is an explicit comparison being made between the men. Only men who drive Saabs are comparable to the men who pilot jets. In the Eighties, with the Cold War simmering, a common masculine ideal is that of the military man. In 1985, both Rocky and Rambo sequels were dominating US box offices. In 1986, Top Gun dominated the box office totally along with Platoon. Military personnel were symbols of American austerity and prosperity. Of course, Saab is a European company, and the commercial aired in Europe mostly, but the point is that the military figure was on the minds of millions of people. They were symbols to look up to. If you wanted to be like a symbol, all you had to do was buy a Saab.

This is why this is one of the best commercials ever made.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The King of the Badgers

The quiet village of Hanmouth is far from London, but picaresque and beautiful, containing a small university, twelve pubs, a Neighbourhood Watch, a cheese shop owned by two men who host gay orgies every once in awhile, an estate council from which young China has been abducted. Now, all eyes of the nation are fixed on this small community, where everybody watches everybody and CCTV cameras gaze unblinking and silent. The King of the Badgers portrays an England in the 21st century as it copes with the postmodern problem of what to do when everybody is watching but you've nothing to show them.

This was not longlisted for the Booker this year, despite Hensher's prior novel The Northern Clemency being shortlisted and despite Hensher's prodigious talent and critical presence in the UK. The very brief version of this review is that The King of the Badgers should have been shortlisted, and possibly should have even won the prize. It towers over some of the novels published this year, and yes, I would even say it was better than The Stranger's Child, which I recently finished and reviewed.

Part of the novel's success is Hensher's gripping and exuberant prose. On his Wikipedia page, it is said that Hensher is known for his detached prose, his distance from the characters. While this might be true, the sheer linguistic deftness and dexterity that Hensher shows on a sentence-by-sentence rate is impressive. If I were judging a novel this year by prose alone, The King of the Badgers would surely be in the top 3 (with Oblivion and The Stranger's Child all competing). Each sentence is so intricately and brilliantly composed, with clauses and subclauses interpolated like a wonderful trumpet solo in the middle of a gorgeous Miles Davis song. Hensher finds a quick and often evocative way to describe a physical detail, then expands on it with more sentences to place it within the larger scope of the village itself. From the description of the estuary flowing through the center of the town to a central character's thin humble penis, Hensher's prose rivals some of the better stylists I've read before. It is Hensher's utmost fidelity to the grammatical rules that helps each phrase sparkle with complexity but clarity. If there was ever an author to argue for a style of rule adherence....

Of course, The King of the Badgers isn't a novel written for linguistics students. This is a "state of the nation" novel, something that the English excel at, something that, in American, only Franzen seems brave enough to attempt. Hensher's novel is explicitly concerned with the postmodern anxiety of constant surveillance. Perhaps this is reviewer's bias, but I started reading this novel on day 3 of a seven page paper on Michel Foucault's Panopticism, which is surely an influence on Hensher's novel, even in the most superficial of ways. In a nutshell, the panopticon is an architectural design that places each prisoner into a room where they cannot see the other prisoners, but they can see the central tower, where an unseen presence may or may not be observing them. Thus, the prisoners assume they are being watched and modify their behaviour accordingly. The model of the panopticon is echoed in the spatial and philosophical designs of institutions, or disciplines, such as prisons, hospitals and schools. In The King of the Badgers, the panopticon is represented in the ubiquitous CCTV cameras, the unseen Neighbourhood Watch (the presence of which is only felt in politely worded but sinister letters slipped through mail slots) and even in the village dwellers themselves. Their constant gossiping and judging of other people tends to affect each other's behaviour. This is a novel that could only be written right now, as Hensher plunges the reader into a wealth of detail relating to the music they listen to, the books they aren't reading for book clubs, and especially the television shows they watch. The presence of the TV, the forever strobing cyclops, weighs heavily in this novel, and it should, considering the central theme of watching.

The "state of the nation" novel, like Freedom by Franzen, is about trying to capture the national feeling at the moment of writing. It is usually expressed in an anxiety. In this novel, it is the ever present anxiety of the ever present observing eye. The cast of characters in this novel, sharply drawn and exhaustively detailed, are constantly expressing a feeling of discomfiture, not only with their own lives, but with each other's. It's enough for people to go bonkers what with all the watching. Hensher takes this to another logical step by showing us the people who have fallen down in this quickening march to modernity. David, the gay son of two retirees, brings a sexy charming man from London and poses him as his boyfriend, but David could never acquire such a partner, thanks to his crippling lack of confidence and his ever-expanding waistline. After a night of debauchery with the resident posh gay couple, David finds a measure of inner strength and when he does a bit of coke to shore up his mental defenses in celebration, he promptly dies of an overdose. In The King of the Badgers, the neverending fight for relevance and importance is like Zeno's paradoxes. There is a goal that never be achieved, a status that can never be attained.

Despite this slightly defeatist conclusion, Hensher's novel is always entertaining. At no point does Hensher ever let up the pace of swift cutting scenes nor does he ever let the characters wallow in self-pity, unless it is in service of a good joke. Do not let it be said that Hensher maintained a serious or dour tone. Instead, when there is a joke to be made, even at the expense of his characters, he never lets the opportunity pass. This is a funny novel and should not be mistaken for an overly serious novel, despite its lofty aspirations. Here is an instance of a novel both being entertaining, imminently readable, and successful at saying something about the conditions of life.

The King of the Badgers is a tremendous success. I began reading The Northern Clemency but gave it up in favour of this tome when I realized that it's 250 pages shorter. However, now that I have finished this fantastic novel, I plan to return to the book and its daunting length.

A small note on The King Badger's: the dust jacket uses a very specific tone and typeface for its logo and author. The inside of the book uses the typeface and layout as advertised on the UK hardcover. This leads me to believe that this is simply the UK hardcover with a redesigned and incongruous dust jacket being slapped on it for a North American edition. Ultimately, both covers are not very evocative or successful, but at least the UK's dusk jacket, title pages and spine match! The header image for this post is the UK cover, not the bland North American image of a cup of tea (which seems altogether a rather lazy image, meant to represented the sheer Englishness of the novel).