Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Film Diary

As I discussed here, I'm a bit burnt out on Letterboxd, so I'm posting some reviews here instead.

Brain Damage (1988). Dir. Frank Henenlotter.

I first saw this film back in 2008 or so, when I had stumbled across the genius of Basket Case. I had always fancied myself a horror film fan but I wasn't really. I was just somebody who sneered at mainstream horror; case in point, my fav of all time was and still is The Exorcist followed closely by Evil Dead II. Since then, I've really expanded my tastes for film in general and have been consuming more and more off-the-beaten-path horror. Thus, I'm in a great place to reevaluate this unique work. As I delve deeper in film and film theory, my appreciate of aesthetics and form have deepened; thus I paid special attention to how Brain Damage looks, how it moves, how it drapes everything in these lights. A weird compliment to give this: it's the Michael Mann of horror films in its aesthetics. I was reminded a lot of Dante Spinotti's cinematography on Manhunter. Henenlotter's film is lurid in its electric blues, its mournful reds, almost as if the real world constructed by the film is actually a hybrid of the hallucinatory paradise provided by the monster, if monster is even the word to apply to the character. Arrow Video's restoration of the film on Blu ray is sublime; I'm not accustomed to Henenlotter films looking so pristine or vibrant. In fact, I wonder if Henenlotter would even approve of this upgrade, considering he calls himself an exploitation director, aesthetic warts and all. Still, I quite loved this.

Royal Warriors (1986). Dir. David Chung

After seeing Corey Yuen Kwai's Yes Madam, I felt the hunger for more of the "girls with guns" mini-trend in Hong Kong cinema in the 80's. Also starring Michelle Yeoh, Royal Warriors opens with an incredibly violent and impressive freeing of hostages on an airplane, with three villains being solidly beaten to death by the two main characters. After breaking a window on the plane, Yeoh manages to fix the hyperbolic decompression of the plane by sticking a villain's head through the aperture. The scene is punctuated by a gleeful and morbid exterior shot of the airplane, with the villain's frozen head in centre frame. The rest of the film is classic 1980s Hong Kong action: ribald and tonally confusing humour, plenty of location shots of a Hong Kong that no longer exists, and copious amounts of asskicking. The climax opts for explosions but more impressive to me was the one-on-one showdown between the final villain and Yeoh. The choreography was exhilarating, the exact type of action ballet I love. A moment in the fight wowed me: a grilled metal cage is used as a weapon by the villain but when shoved at Yeoh, she effortlessly tumbles over it, pushing it back against the villain. Words can't do this moment of graceful perfection any justice. While Royal Warriors isn't as accomplished or as exuberant as Yes Madam, I still very much enjoyed it, especially how Yeoh's costuming seemed to consist entirely of comfy sweaters.

Vanishing Point (1971). Dir. Richard C. Sarafian

Car chase films should have as little plot as possible, I argue. Too many car chase films pile on the plot when it's not necessary. The chase should be the logical endpoint of the emotional stakes established previously by the characters. A simple maxim, but incredibly difficult for films, especially in our current mode of production which requires as much plot and complicating incident as audiences will tolerate. It's as if films think audiences are bored unless the plot never stops finding complications. Vanishing Point was a wholly pleasant surprise for me. I wasn't expecting the film to be as abstract as it is. I'm always appreciative of films which confound my expectations and especially confound my assumptions of films made in earlier modes of production. In other words, I also wasn't ready for the film to be as modern feeling as it is. The film wisely provides the entirety of the premise in the first ten minutes: Barry Newman's character must deliver a car from Colorado to San Francisco in three days. That's really it for the plot. The rest of the film has him evade cops and listen to the radio. He has short interactions with some other characters and backstory is meted out very slowly—and a bit unnecessarily. If there's a mistake to be made, it's in too much information, but I can't really fault the film on the whole. Vanishing Point strives for some allegorical meaningfulness and it doesn't quite get there, but the ambition is admirable. Other than the excellent car chases and sound design, what made this film so enjoyable for me was Barry Newman's obfuscating acting; he and the screenplay withhold motivation from the audience, and I vigorously applaud the decision.

Bullitt (1968). Dir. Peter Yates

My Letterboxd capsule review unfortunately sums this up: the small scene when McQueen effortlessly parallel parks in as few moves as possible was more impressive than anything else in the film. Bullitt isn't much of anything other than a historical document, an insight into what audiences liked back in 1968. McQueen's performance shimmers with coolness but he lacks characterization and motivation. He goes through with everything in the film because that's just what cops were depicted as doing in the late 60's. His Bullitt stands uncomfortably over the line between the rigid dogmatism of Dragnet et al. and the wild antihero shenanigans of Dirty Harry et al. He does things mostly by the book (as we're told by other characters) and sometimes not by the book (falsifying hospital records and disobeying direct orders... to get the job done). Other than the famous car chase, Bullitt doesn't have much to offer the modern viewer, especially the absurdly inert climax, a stupefying chase through an airport runway which offers zero thrills thanks to its ink black cinematography and a loose grasp of geographical coherence.

Dragons Forever (1988). Dir. Sammo Hung and Corey Yuen Kwai.

I've not seen as much Sammo Hung films as I should. From what I've seen, Hung is working overtime just to entertain the audience: fluid graceful choreo, romance plots, slapstick, acrobatics, and fights galore. There were definitely places in this film where my patience was a bit tested, but for every moment like that, there would be something Mark Cousins-y, in the punctum sense. Consider the scene in which Sammo's character serenades his fiance on the docks and does a little dance. It conveys much about the two characters: his romanticism and sincerity, her embarrassment but gentle acquiescence to his seduction. It also doesn't quite fit with the rest of the film, but in a positive sense. The other two leads, the famous Jackie Chan and the underappreciated Yuen Biao, don't quite accomplish as much characterization, especially Biao. Though the aforementioned Biao is one of the most absurdly graceful acrobats I've ever seen in a martial arts film. He's a Grace Kelly, a Fred Astaire, floating on air while punching people. Putting his birdlike flying against Sammo's physical solidness is a stroke of genius. Their two fights in the film are the most fun, the most impressive part of the movie. I could have done without the atonal strokes of misogyny, but watching a Hong Kong film requires a slight modulation of cultural perspective. This isn't to excuse the sexism but we should remember these films were produced under entirely difference conditions of production and cultural circumstances. Just as Western audiences might find the slapstick silliness of these films to be a bit too campy, Eastern audiences might object to the lack of action in similarly themed films.

Prometheus (2012). Dir. Ridley Scott.

Worse than I remembered to be frank. I saw this opening weekend in 2012 and had never felt the desire to rewatch. With the sequel to the prequel arriving in theatres this week, my partner suggested we give it a go. They had never seen it. I'm guessing they now regret watching it. I've read multiple positive reviews of this turgid slog but never have I been convinced. I'm glad, obviously, there are fans of the film, but this film boasts one of the worst screenplays I've ever had the displeasure of sitting through. Characters lack any motivation or human emotion, nor do they even behave like human beings. Everybody makes the most boneheaded decisions to the point of exasperation. It's certainly pretty in places but one would expect a director with such a career able to, at least with the barest minimum of effort, produce aesthetically pleasing imagery. A waste of a top shelf cast and a waste of the Alien brand itself. The film fundamentally misunderstands the allure of the Space Jockeys and seeks to undo all that made them work with two(!) films explaining away their mystery. Ugh.

Almost Human (1974). Dir. Umberto Lenzi.

Somebody on Letterboxd complained Tomas Milian always overacts to the nth degree and it's especially true of this film, but I kind of like Milian's brand of mugging. His face never stops contorting itself, never stops moving. He delivers every line as if he's on stage in a comedy show, even when playing the villain (ie Four of the Apocalypse). Almost Human, like the aforementioned Vanishing Point, feels incredibly modern in its screenplay; characters have these great scenes of dialogue, as if the dialogue was written by Mamet or the person who wrote The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. Milian's character is similar to his in Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse: barbaric, misanthropic, vindictive, and cruel. I've been thinking a lot about cruelty in cinema, an extension of my interest in the ethics of film. I've found myself really repulsed by the mindless cruelty and bloodletting found in mainstream Hollywood. Case in point, the so-so Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. From a friend's review:
here he engages in revelling in the slaughtering of lots of people, emphasising their pain by having close ups of their anguished faces while an upbeat 80s song plays which is astoundingly not cool for a moment that is supposed to be badass, comes off as needlessly cruel.
It's cruelty in the guise of coolness and I'm no longer interested in it. The same can be said of Scott's Alien: Covenant: it's relentlessly cruel and misanthropic film reveling in the misery and pain of its characters without any counterpoint. Films like Almost Human and the oeuvre of Ruggero Deodato at least try to do something with the savagery. While Lenzi isn't operating at the same skill level as Deodato in terms of thematic depth, Almost Human suggests a dare on the part of the film: can you root for, can you invest in, can you identify with a protagonist as evil as this one? Audience identification can be defined(from here)by three vectors:
emotional empathy (the ability to feel what the characters feel and become effectively involved in a vicarious way), cognitive empathy (adopting the point of view of or putting oneself in the place of the characters), sharing or internalizing the character’s goal and absorption (having the sensation of becoming the character or a temporal loss of self-awareness and imagining the story as if one were one of the characters).
In this case, none of the three vectors are satisfied by Milian's protagonist: his goals are obfuscated (why this particular get-rich scheme?), his emotions are kept at a remove for much of the film (until the end), and the cruelty of his actions means we can't really live vicariously through his scheme. He takes wild risks, murders his compatriots, and rarely stops to self-reflect on his actions. He resists identification but the audience still can't look away. The film is daring the audience to find redeeming qualities in this "almost human." For that, the cruelty in the film and of the film is motivated. It's not just a woman being torn to pieces by dinosaurs in vivid detail (Jurassic World). This is my sixth Lenzi film and I'm beginning to get a grip on his interests. Like Deodato, he's not simply an Italian hack churning out pieces of exploitation. He's working on a project of audience provocation.

And so ends this film diary.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Blood Meridian or the Bailing out in the West

This is a short bit on my giving up on McCarthy's masterpiece by consensus

My history with Cormac McCarthy is short but sharp. There was a time, brief but intense, when I seriously considered doing a PhD covering McCarthy's fiction. The first I read of his was No Country for Old Men back in 2005, just after graduating university for the first time, and from then, I gobbled up most of his major works. I considered All the Pretty Horses to be one of my all time favourite novels, though I haven't read it in a decade. I wound down my glut of McCarthy by finishing with Blood Meridian, though I never completed the novel. I remember quite clearly, around 2006 or 2007, sitting in the waiting room to get laser eye surgery. I had Blood Meridian in my hand. After the surgery, I couldn't read for a long time, and the distance between us, between the novel and I, between McCarthy and I, grew exponentially. I didn't realize how much of a gulf had opened until this week when I tried to read Blood Meridian for what I think is the last time. I struggled through 60 pages before deciding to concede. What happened? Where did my love for McCarthy go?

McCarthy's prose in Blood Meridian is as gorgeous and as biblical as I remembered it being, so it wasn't an aesthetic problem. Certainly, my tastes in aesthetics have been veering closer to the abstract while still rooted in narrativehence my vocal adoration of Elfriede Jelinek—so McCarthy's sparse, polysyndetic language worked for me. I don't think anybody has ever written about the sun as beautifully or as evocatively as McCarthy; to this day, I can remember a line from All the Pretty Horses about the sun, sitting bloated and bloodred angry on the horizon, and how malevolent the sun feels in his fiction. Even typing all this makes me yearn to try Blood Meridian again. Yet, I think of how inert my experience with the novel was during the past couple days. 

Perhaps the problem is one of masculinity. McCarthy is a very masculinist writer: his casts are mostly men, white men, white men taciturn and emotionally closed off. Interiority is something often absent in McCarthy's work as his characterization derives more from actionnot as in, drama, but as in gestures, movements, words. Many beautiful sequences in his novels detail men working on things, manipulating things with hands. Consider the sequence in No Country for Old Men when Llewelyn buys a shotgun, saws it, and prepares for Anton Chigurh imminent arrival at the motel. Here, McCarthy uses his careful use of polysyndeton to quicken the pace and bring focus directly to Llewelyn's relationship to the gun, to the waiting, to the act of working with his hands. McCarthy's self reliant men, operating in a long discourse of American culture, stretching back to Emerson and Thoreau, take their fate in their own hands, literally and figuratively. The problem is manifold for me: I'm not as terribly interested in the plight of the emotionally remote white man who is unable or unwilling to voice their feelings in a productive manner. Where Blood Meridian and earlier texts seemed to revel in the glory and mystery of this mythic man, this archetype, at least No Country and All the Pretty Horses were loudly critical of this type of masculinity. Perhaps we can apply a spectrum to McCarthy's oeuvre: ending before Blood Meridian, we have an uncritical exaltation of masculinity, while the novel represents the shift towards undoing all the myth and majesty of the discourse in which McCarthy is working. 

My exhaustion with McCarthy isn't so much with the work itself, but more an indication of my shifting tastes. My blog is an excellent archive of how my interests and likes have changed along the axis of time. When at one point, I loved Richard Ford enough to name my blog after one of his novels, I can't imagine anymore wanting to spend time in his world, his nebbish world of missed connections and Puritanical reservation. Similarly, I thought at one point Don Winslow to be a great writer when now I have no interest in his works. Looking back on what I had opined were my favourite novels, I listed Richard Ford, Bret Easton Ellis, Michael Crichton, Douglas Coupland, etc etc etc. Perhaps those are still great artists with great works to their name (I sincerely doubt Ford's The Lay of the Land stands the test of time), but I've moved away from them. I can't even say I moved onto better or more diverse things (though I have read more and from more diverse people). But these writers mired in the same masculine White Guy discourse makes me yawn.

This isn't to say all White Guys are boring (most are tho) but that the subject of masculinity doesn't appeal to me anymore. My own shifting gender identity has played a part in this along with my distance from the commonly accepted tenets of masculinity (sports, cars, etc). Hitherto suspicious or disdainful, I am now holistically apathetic to upholding any form of masculinity which feeds into patriarchy. I couldn't care less what men do as long as they keep it to themselves and check their privilege. Thus, all these Great White Men writers, with their phallic obsessions, their myopic focus on gestures and actions coded manly (consider the almost erotic sensuality of McCarthy describing hunting of animals), it no longer appeals to me.

Even in The Road, I think his worst novel, the undoing of toxic masculinity by celebrating the loving affectionate bond between man and son (wholly jettisoning any Oedipal replacement anxiety) is undermined by the repetitive robotic fascination with manly pursuits (though I still retain a fond memory of the infamous baby on a spit scene!). I won't ask McCarthy or any of these Great White Dudes to write something else. Why bother, when there are endless quantities of other books I can read which don't fetishize masculinity in the same way? 

Again, this isn't a criticism of McCarthy's writing or interests. I still love his prose and think many of his novels are terrific. It's just simply my taste has shifted, and not unilaterally either. Tastes are nebulous and almost protoplasmic in their malleability. Perhaps I'm just not at the right stage in my life to read Blood Meridian. Perhaps in a year or two, I'll yearn for McCarthy. For now, I officially abandon the novel and redirect my energies elsewhere. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Spider-Man 3 (with meandering introduction)

I'm feeling a bit burnt out on even the idea of Letterboxd right now. What seemed like a Goodreads for film has seemingly taken over my life and writing. Most of my writing has appeared there in the past year or so, and while it's been a boon for my prose and critical eye, the social aspect of the site has unmoored me from my island of solitude here at the blog. I've said before I write for myself and LB started as a place for me to further hone my skills. I didn't expect I'd accumulate >900 followers and enter into real friendships with other users. I also didn't expect I'd become thirsty for "likes" on my reviews, but here we are. I'm frustrated with myself for wanting those likes, those numbers, as if they're a reflection of me or my taste or my writing.

At the same time, paradoxically, I'm frustrated with the fickle nature of the site; just as popular Goodreads reviewers opt for the middle, as do LB users. On the whole, they seem to prefer one sentence reviews, snark and sharp claws over lengthy analysis or digressions. This isn't, of course, limited to LB, but to criticism as a discourse. Ebert's negative reviews were always more popular than his encomia. I resist posting one sentence reviews, or at least, I try to avoid it, preferring a handful of paragraphs over Wildean bon mots.

This weekend, I felt a bit of sting. I wrote what I believe are two strong reviews of Death Wish 2 and Death Wish 3 and they have garnered little attention (7 and 9 likes respectively). Subsequently, I wrote one sentence reviews of Star Trek Into Darkness and Magnum Force (10 and 7 likes respectively). Admittedly, popular films will generate more activity as users are more likely to have an opinion about the film, not that I only review unknown films (far from it; I do enjoy my cinematic trash).

Yet, I write the above paragraph and I shake my head. When did I become enamored of popularity? When did I confuse quantity of visits/likes with my own self-worth? I'm embarrassed with myself. I know better. Just last year, I wrote about writing for myself. I concluded my state of the union would be:
I will labour at my prose, at my thinking, at praxis. I will labour at cultural objects because they give me pleasure, because thinking and writing give me pleasure.
And yet, here I am, whingeing about how few likes I've received for slightly-above average analysis and prose. What then to do?

Should I import my data from LB and painstakingly post all the good reviews on my blog? Should I continue to toil in the fields of LB, hoping to one day reap some measure of validation from strangers? Should I shift my "brand" and write only snarky one sentence reviews (which, I'm not even that great at)? I'm not sure. For now, I'm taking a smidge of a break from LB. Here, then, is a review of a film I watched yesterday.

Spider-Man 3

I've written at length about two previous Spider-Man films, here and here though I have not written much about Sam Raimi's wondrous trilogy. I picked up the Blu ray set for 15 bucks as I had been jonesing for a bit of the third one for awhile, which I saw in the theatre back in 2007. The critical consensus puts the third film down as being a bit overstuffed, not as focused as the previous two, and a bit too silly in places and a bit too dour in other places.

Since 2007, I have staunchly defended the two scenes which have traditionally been the target for the most amount of scorn: Peter walking down the street shooting finger guns at women and the jazz club scene. Critics of these two interrelated scenes have pointed to how silly they are, how the tone breaks immersion, how the viewer cringes with embarrassment. Of course, the Internet loves/hates anything to do with cringing. Here, from a subreddit about cringing (the only time I'll ever link to Reddit):
I think it was intentionally cheesy. Sam Raimi loves his cheese. The problem was that it was just too weird and silly, especially at the point in the movie when it arrived. It broke all tension and damaged what was supposed to be a halfway serious character arc. There's lots of problems with this movie, but one of them is that this scene doesn't fit. It might have worked in another film, maybe, but it didn't work here.

The reason, I think, why people have a hard time telling if this scene is supposed to make him seem cool or be silly, is because it's such a strange tonal choice for this film, and at this point in the plot.
This is one of the only reasonable posts in this thread about the scene. Most people strain themselves to hit higher and higher heights of hyperbole, calling it a "steaming pile of crap" while another user calls it, I kid you not, "Easily one of the biggest disappointments of my life." The user quoted above does a great job articulating that which bothers people about the two scenes: the tonal whiplash. What is a serious downturn for the character, Parker at his lowest and most aggressive, hurting the ones he loves in petty attempts at revenge, is deflated by the silliness of the sequence, including a close up shot of his mouth as he whispers, "now dig on this." How does the scene fit into the logic of the emotional arc if it veers so wildly from the tone surrounding it, viewers might ask themselves.

My answer, and the reason why I love the two scenes so much, is because they get at the truth of the character of Peter Parker. Lots of people applauded Captain America: Civil War for "nailing" the character of Peter so quickly and efficiently in only two scenes: a dorky enthusiastic motormouth. Admittedly, Tom Holland's performance as Peter is excellent, but the emotional labour he carries is minimal compared to that of Tobey Maguire's over three films. The truth, which Sam Raimi understands in his bones, better than any subsequent superhero film, absolutely, is that Peter Parker is a dork who will never fit in and will never succeed because to do so would betray what makes him work as a character. Peter walking down the street and pointing finger guns at women appreciates just how out of touch he is. The black symbiote, written in this film as amplifying his negative tendencies and aggression, operates like alcohol does: showing us the truth of this person and this person, Peter, is an absurd dork who genuinely thinks women would like this behaviour. At the end of the scene, Peter walks into a clothing shop and buys a black suit. We can assume the shop chose the suit as it fits well and is relatively stylish. The scene ends with Peter doing an absurd dance, complete with pelvic thrust in front of the entrance, with two embarrassed women trying to walk past him. Nothing in any other Spider-Man film will ever capture the cluelessness and naive optimism of Peter better than this single scene. I adore it. Peter's lack of rhythm, his obliviousness, his dangerously naive positive outlook on the future: all amplified by the suit, but still the essential truth of what makes Peter Peter. He will never be cool, never be comfortable, never be satisfied, because he carries the burden of responsibility, the burden of being Spider-Man.

This doesn't address the tonal problem highlighted by many people. To this I say, the tonal whiplash is intentional. Raimi's entire trilogy is filled to the brim with asides, weirdness, odd camera movements, and cheesiness, a loving cheese, an adoration of the sheer lunacy of comic books, which only Gunn's first Guardians of the Galaxy seems to have captured. The Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics were awash in weirdness and pathos, a genuine love for the characters they depicted, a universe in which even a villain named The Spot or Morbius can be figures of sincere pathos, tragic figures caught in circumstances beyond their control. The great example of Spider-Man villain is of course The Green Goblin, both Norman and Harry Osborn. The protagonist and the antagonist quip while they fight, do silly things, look silly even, the comics are soaked in sympathy for their plight, even simultaneously condemning their actions, which sums Peter's attitude to the villains just as much. Consider in the first film when Peter brings the dead body of Norman back to the Osborn house. He hides the Green Goblin's identity from Harry, appeasing the final wish of the villain and father. No matter how silly these characters, a giant man made of sand or a man in a Halloween costume, the silliness hides a deep respect for their tragic origins. The silliness is an integral part and Raimi knows this.

Raimi will deflate or cut the tension throughout intense scenes using a gag or a throwaway line. During the climax, with Mary Jane in serious peril, two villains operating together to humiliate and destroy Peter, his best friend unwilling to help him, Raimi still cuts to a mini-drama of comedy of J. Jonah Jameson trying to buy a camera from a little girl to get photos for the Daily Bugle. The silliness helps deflate the tension, just as a good gag in a horror film does. Tension doesn't work as a straight line easing upwards, but as a series of peaks and valleys. Raimi captures the tonal whiplash of comic books, the sincere operatic highs of tragedy with the lows of simple gags and silly costumes. Consider the moment when Gwen Stacy replicates the upside down kiss during the key-to-the-city ceremony. We know MJ is at her lowest and Peter's ego is close to its biggest. Restaging this kiss will mean a betrayal of MJ, but Peter does it anyway. Just before doing so, the crowd urges them on. Raimi cuts to a lone dissenting voice, a little boy crying, "don't do it, Spider-Man!" Once they kiss, the boy retches. This moment of comedy shares the same space as MJ's hurt and anguished face. These moments can exist together because this is a universe of contrasts, both in colour and in tone. This is a universe in which a man made of sand can make poor decisions because he feels he must but can still be forgiven.

While Spider-Man 2 is much more focused than the third, focused in both content and in theme, Spider-Man 3 extends the previous film's interest in bringing Peter down to reality, reminding him of his humanity and his responsibility to the world. The third film is about facing our mistakes (letting the burglar get away, accidentally shooting an innocent man, confusing vengeance with atonement) and learning from them. Only Eddie Brock opts for annihilation instead of atonement, though, as Peter is a figure of grace, he still offers Eddie a moment for forgiveness. I still tear up when Peter apologizes to Harry for all that he's done, even though Peter is ostensibly the victim of the Osborn's insanity. Likewise, I tear up when Flint Marko (underwritten, admittedly) tells Peter he's not asking for forgiveness, but asking for Peter to understand. What Flint doesn't know is that Peter will always understand. But for Aunt May, Uncle Ben and his heart, Peter would have been these same villains. But for a strong sense of responsibility, Peter would have made the same mistakes. Instead, he chose differently.

No matter how many more Spider-Man films they make, none of them will be able to capture Peter better than these three films. Everything has been said about the character and everything else will be a stale repetition.

Which isn't to say Spider-Man 3 is perfect: the Venom stuff is superfluous (while still thematically appropriate); Flint Marko is underwritten (we never a sense of how Flint feels about anything other than his daughter); I've never thought Rosemary Harris worked as Aunt May; this New York City is astonishingly white. But the film is never boring and Raimi's choices almost always work despite the circumstances of studio meddling and a tight schedule (the reason for his departure from the planned fourth film). Also, Bill Pope's cinematography is gorgeous: the black and white flashbacks, the film's shifting colour palette (as Peter falls further away from his friends and the family, the palette moves closer to teal than the omnipresent orange; with the end of the climax, dawn breaks, letting a bit of orange light back into the palette). Raimi and Pope's camera move around with a balletic grace, understanding instinctively that the same old plane won't cut it for a character unmoored from the banality of gravity (the rescue of Gwen Stacy, done in only 7 or 8 shots, captures perfectly Raimi's intuitive grasp of how Spider-Man moves through space). I love Spider-Man 3, even with its flaws. In fact, like Peter, I should love it because of its flaws.

Friday, May 5, 2017

April Reads

Koko by Peter Straub

Though I managed to only finish one novel in the month of April, I made significant progress through two major projects which ate up most of my reading time.

I'm officially 25% of the way through The Water Margin, or in the translation I'm reading, Outlaws of the Marsh. One of the Four Great Classical Novels of China, The Water Margin is so far an incredibly dense read, introducing hundreds of characters, and slowly, so slowly, moving them into position. It's incredibly funny and packed with incident, though mostly light on interiority or reflection. Instead, it's mostly violence and expressions of brotherhood. I don't think the novel has even come close to hitting the Bechdel Test at any point.

I'm also just over halfway through Alan Moore's Jerusalem. Unlike the aforementioned Chinese novel, this one is dense as hell with interiority. Chapters are long dense histories of characters and their relation to Northampton, the setting of this longer-than-the-Bible novel. The middle section, The Two Towers part of the novel, is a single adventure in Moore's vision of the afterlife. I took a break from it not because I needed a break per se, but because I wanted to savour it.

Both novels are very long: Outlaws of the Marsh is 2,500 pages and Jerusalem is 1,200 pages of tightly packed prose with tiny margins. I'm not sure why I start this massive projects. 

Koko was both a disappointment and enjoyable in equal measures. I complained to a friend, an expert on Straub, that the baroque ornate prose was absent, much to my disappointment, and the narrative seemed really linear, almost to a fault. It didn't feel like the ambitious intricate project I've come to expect from Straub: Floating Dragon is so carefully built and Ghost Story is a masterpiece of tiny gears working all at once. Koko had a straightforward story to tell and it does so in the way you would expect. Additionally, the great sequences of horror (not that this is a horror novel in the classic sense) rely on an obvious streak of Orientalism: the East is confusing, exotic, alluring, and frightening all at once.

There are two spectacular setpieces in Koko: the aforementioned bit of Orientalism, in which a character stumbles inexorably into the Singapore underworld discovering a backdoor moment of pure dehumanizing terror; and when the protagonist returns home from the Orient, unable to relate to his wife, unable to relate to his job, unable to function in bourgeois society. Much of Koko operates the same way Bob Clark's fantastic film Deathdream does: the sheer incompatibility of soldiers and "polite" society literalized as a horror film. In Clark's film, the returning soldier is undead, compelled to continue killing, despite his parents' vehement declarations he is unable to kill. Lots of late 70s and early 80s culture grapples with the integration, mostly failure to, of Vietnam veterans into American society. These boys were turned into killing machines, committed some atrocities, fully documented, and "survived" to return to a society distrustful, wary of what soldiers did and are capable of. This is what Koko does well: the horror of war is the truest purest form of horror not because of what one sees but because of what one brings back.

The second setpiece concerns the PTSD the protagonist has been stifling for 20 years finally manifesting. Mike's complete inability to relate to his already distant wife comes to the surface; he imagines himself an actor, playing a role, while his wife plays a similar role. The acting bit isn't quite convincing as metaphor ("we all wear masks, maaaaannnn!") but Straub's meticulous unraveling of their marriage through physical actions, or even lack thereof, is undeniably chilling. His wife (I can't remember her name, alas) attempts to initiate intimacy, wearing lingerie. She takes him in her hand, but he can't maintain his erection. Straub conveys all this with third person limited narration, from Mike's perspective: he wants to perform—in both sense—but he's so emotionally distant as to be in another galaxy. The narration presents all this as coldly and dispassionately as possible, almost Yates-like in its distance, a moment of form meeting content. Like the other major setpiece, this particular sequence works as horror not through the abject physicality horror usually works with, but through the cold unblinking abyss of trauma, the hollowness of humanity, the inescapable dread of not connecting, contra Forster's exhortation.

These moments of horror in Koko are effective but they're a bit few and far between. The novel isn't a slog; Koko is still gripping; Straub is too skillful of a writer to bore me. The novel just is, in the sense that it unfolds just as a novel such as this would. Perhaps if I hadn't read Ghost Story or Floating Dragon or had seen Deathdream, I might have been a bit more excited about Koko. As it is right now, the novel simply exists as a starting point for his Blue Rose Trilogy, which I understand to get more intricate and metafictional as it goes on.