Tuesday, August 30, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: SLANTED AND ENCHANTED by Kaya Oakes (2009)


Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture
by Kaya Oakes
Published 2009 by Holt Paperbacks

Oakes's book is a concise history of the Indie Culture of the United States of America. What is Indie Culture? It's zines. It's First Friday Gallery Nights. It's punk rock, spoken word, and Riot Grrl. It's books and magazines that get published outside the purview of the monolithic publishing entities. It's underground comix and outlaw handicrafts fairs. It's poetry, music, fiction, journalism, regional music scenes, and even cinema. It's a lot of different things. It's a mindset, a philosophy, a scene, it's kind of political. It's also been co-opted by corporations, big box chain stores, and Hollywood. It's a lot of things. It's contentious as hell. It gets a bad rep. Who wants to cop to being a hipster these days? Because, yes, it's hipsters, too.

Indie is endangered from within and without. It's also adaptable. Indie's a survivor. Indie will endure.

At least, all of the above is the impression that Oakes gives in her highly readable book. Oakes is an unabashed supporter of the Indie/DIY ethos, so don't read her book looking for a pro-big business, pro-corporate conservative Republican agenda. But Oakes takes a broad perspective, and is by no means uncritical. Even for someone such as myself who has little personal interest in most of the bands she discusses, and cannot claim to be an avid reader of zines, or a collector of handicrafts, I found her book worthwhile reading. For me, the stories behind these cultural products are fascinating, and suggest alternatives to the usual glut of corporately funded and distributed mass media. But more than this, Oakes's book is an invitation to the reader to create their own culture, and not just be a passive consumer.

Oakes's book opens with a description of a gallery night in Oakland, California. She describes the tension inherent in Indie as a practical cultural endeavor: the proprietors of a gallery love being the center of a cultural event, however they are not a large venue. They're a cozy little gallery, and the increasingly popular gallery night events have drawn more people than their building can reasonably contain. With larger crowds come more crime, vandalism, and obnoxious people who could give a shit about an art scene, and are just looking for another way to get wasted. McDonald's and Wal-Mart are designed to serve millions a day, not a gallery owned by two people.

Oakes sets up the conflicted nature of Indie: people go to Indie for something personal, idiosyncratic, and handmade. They're seeking cultural products created/authored by individuals, or small groups of individuals working in close collaboration. But when Indie products, venues, and cultures become successful the word gets out. Indie gets co-opted by corporations and becomes mass culture. More people want in, and not everybody shares the same version of Indie in their minds. The cultural producers are faced with customers and participants who may not share their perspective on Indie and DIY. For some, an Indie product or experience is just another purchase, just another experience, alongside a Hollywood movie in their Netflix queue, the latest Metallica album, a mass market paperback by Dan Brown or Michael Crichton, or the latest episode of Nip/Tuck, Two and a Half Men, or American Idol. It's a situation that is bound to create unintentional conflict and resentment. The producers of culture become resentful of the consumers, and vice versa. There is no easy solution. People will always seek novel products and experiences, whether it's from a tiny, intimate art gallery, or the cabinet of PS3 games in the electronics section of Wal-Mart. It becomes, as with everything in American commerce, a matter of survival, adaptation, mutation, and evolution.

Oakes's book goes on to give brief histories of various Indie scenes: the avant guard literary scene of Frank O'Hara in 1960s New York, punk rock and Maximumrocknroll, zines and underground comix, feminism and Riot Grrl, the mainstreaming of Indie rock and Indie fashion, outlaw handicrafts festivals, and the shrinking world of independent book publishing. Oakes also addresses the co-opting of Indie by organizations like Urban Outfitters who have R-and-D teams devoted to reverse engineering Indie fashions and thrift store chic and selling it back to budding young hipsters at big box prices. There's also the none-too-hip right wing sympathies of Urban Outfitters' CEO, who has supported homophobic politicians such as Rick Santorum, and made use of sweat shop labor to manufacture their clothing lines. A lot of petty battles are fought over issues of authenticity, but sometimes authenticity counts for a lot more than hipster fashion cred.

Throughout, Oakes explores why exactly it is that artists of all kinds have decided to create on their own terms. In part, it's a question of freedom and autonomy. Certain kinds of cultural expression production do not fit into corporate agendas, schedules, and methods of manufacture. Certain kinds of political perspectives have also been traditionally eighty-sixed from the mainstream. There's also the hurdle of cultural gatekeepers and having the right connections. Many would-be cultural producers get cut out because they grew up in the wrong place, didn't go to the right school, or don't fit in with a given cultural scene. For some, there's no choice but to knuckle down and create their own scene, as was the case with Riot Grrl. Why join somebody else's club if you're not welcome in the first place? In particular, women artists and performers have struggled to achieve equality in male-dominated music scenes.

Oakes's book offers a readable primer on Indie culture as she describes it backed up by substantive readings and interviews. There are some areas she doesn't go into: rap, hip-hop, jazz, blues, and video games to name a few, but she does not claim to have attempted to write an encyclopedic take on Indie. Rather, she has taken a very focused perspective reflective of her own expertise and interests. She also makes a compelling case for the overall ethic of Indie/DIY. This ethic could be applied to most any project beyond rock'n'roll and handicrafts. The tensions and challenges within Indie culture are also astutely described and analyzed, and these challenges should also be kept in mind when deciding to do things the Indie way.

Unhappy being a consumer? Try being a producer for a change. You might have some fun. Anyways, you can always go back to being a consumer if it doesn't work out . . . the consumer crowd has always welcomed me back . . .

Author Kaya Oakes's website:
http://www.oakestown.org/

MANGA REVIEW: THE BOOK OF HUMAN INSECTS by Osamu Tezuka (2011)


The Book of Human Insects
by Osamu Tezuka

Originally published in serial form in Japanese in Play Comic, 1970-1971
English Translation by Mari Morimoto, 2011
Published by Vertical, Inc.

How does one survive in a corrupt world? Does one meet corruption with integrity and honesty? Do you resist the sources of corruption--government, corporations, big media, organized crime, the family, religious institutions, power brokers, violent political extremists--and if so, how does one resist? If the corruption of the world is pervasive, who can you trust? Maybe a few close friends. If the corruption of the world is total, then you can only trust yourself.

If you can only depend on yourself, then you better be tough, smart, and resourceful. Ethics are strictly optional, to be used only as they can give you an advantage in a given situation. That is to say, only do the right thing if it's to your advantage. Do the right thing if it'll elevate you in the eyes of those whom you would seek to manipulate to your advantage. Even in a world of absolute corruption, appearances are everything. People still have their vanity even in the absence of ethics. No one, even at their most dishonest and self-serving, truly thinks of themselves as evil. Sure, they might have some guilt, but nothing they can't live with, nothing they can't explain away, and anyways they were just doing what had to be done.

Massive wars have been perpetrated on the basis of lies, delusions, and self-serving rationales. If those that wage wars of folly can sleep at night, publish bestselling memoirs, and collect generous speaker's fees to cultivate more lies and more folly in the hearts and minds of the next generation of highly placed perpetrators . . . well, why shouldn't everybody have a piece of the game? What's a little graft, a little theft, a little murder now and again? Didn't some villain with a British accent in some movie say, "Kill a dozen people, you're a murderer. Kill a million, you're a conqueror?" And didn't someone else, maybe a grand philosopher, say, "Nature is organized murder?" Surely, as biological entities, we are all a part of nature.

The Book of Human Insects is about a person uniquely suited to survival in a totally corrupt world, a young woman named Toshiko Tomura. She's an acclaimed novelist, actress, and graphic designer. She's also a woman in a man's world, Japan in the 1970s. You would think she would be a role model to the young women and girls of Japan, a feminist icon of achievement and empowerment. Maybe she is, but she's an icon with a lot of baggage if that's the case.

You see, Tomura has a preternatural ability for mimicking her fellow human beings and absorbing their talents. All she has to do is spend time with someone, say they're an actor, and observe what they do in minute detail. Tomura goes to rehearsals, studies the script, and learns the lines. She starts out as the understudy, but soon she's the star. Well, that's not so unusual in the world of theatre.

But after she conquers the world of theatre, Tomura has fantasies of becoming a great novelist. So she latches onto an up-and-coming female novelist, finds out what she's researching, and then studies the same research materials. Tomura gets her novel to press before the up-and-comer can do so, and bingo. Tomura's an award-winning novelist.

The up-and-comer hangs herself in a hotel room. Call it collateral damage. Hey, life is struggle. Life is war. War isn't about making nice with the enemy. War is what George C. Scott talked about in the beginning of that movie Patton. The speech in front of the flag. Youtube it. It's about slaughtering the enemy. And not getting all broken up about it on the inside. You do your murder, and you move on to the next battle.

And so Tomura progresses through society, seeking out unwitting role models to mimic so that she can absorb their talents and co-opt their would-be success and achievement. Along the way, she meets others who are more like predators than mimics: an anarchist terrorist for hire, a right-wing yakuza who's a behind-the-scenes fixer, a corporate executive who would no doubt dig dropping sake bombs with the Goldman Sachs and Enron crowds, and others, all of whom have trouble seeing the moral forest for the ethical trees. Or maybe it's the other way around. What's the sacrifice of one tree when the whole forest is still standing? But what if you're not satisfied with cutting down just one tree? Just one more. And one more after that, there's plenty left. Now let's clear cut this mother . . .

The Book of Human Insects is a comic book, a manga, by Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka was the Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Harvey Pekar, Alan Moore, Akira Kurosawa, Shohei Immamura, Shakespeare, Bertolt Brecht, and Walt Disney of Japanese manga all woven into one, singularly driven man. He wrote superhero comics for kids, like Astro Boy. He pioneered girls' comics with Princess Knight. He did talking animal stories, like Kimba the White Lion. He wrote horror, science fiction, historical drama, Shakespearean adaptations, crime stories, satire, and hard-boiled crime fiction, and sometimes he wrote stories that combined elements of all of these things. He created an anti-heroic surgeon, Black Jack, who became, along with Astro Boy, Kimba, Princess Knight, and others, one of the iconic characters of Japanese manga. Tezuka also did slice of life, confessional material, and experimental works. He told all kinds of stories using the conventions of manga storytelling: text and panels and sequential images.

Tezuka's broad interests as an author seem to be tied to a voracious appetite for all manner of culture, high and low. The man went to medical school, could've been a doctor, but, no, he decided to do what he loved and draw funny books. Here's a man with enough of a grasp of hard science to hack it at a Japanese medical university, and yet also has a fine appreciation for what makes a good story. His comics are filled with allusions to movies, Disney cartoons, and classic literature. Film noir, samurai epics, spaghetti westerns, Dostoyevsky, ancient mythology, history, tabloid sensationalism, new age pseudoscience, surrealism, neorealism, tragedy, comedy, humor, and gore are all present in his works.

Tezuka also pioneered the distinctive manga look: big eyes, simplified faces and bodies, but with dynamic scenic layouts, and a cinematic sense of pacing, and montage. American comics have traditionally gone for muscular figures in highly compressed stories taking place within morally simplified worlds. Tezuka's protagonists are sometimes short and stout, sometimes thin and lithe, and sometimes grotesque and deformed, but they are almost never simplified. Even his unabashed heroes, like Astro Boy, end up dealing with life, death, and complex moral quandaries. Tezuka approached his comics like an auteur filmmaker, paying attention to every last detail of production, and he even created his own stock company of characters who take on different roles in different stories, sometimes even breaking out of their usual casting to show a new side of their acting chops.

The Book of Human Insects is Tezuka telling a serious story with quite a bit of restraint. Usually, his manga are filled with visual puns and gags, even in serious stories. In his epic Adolph, which deals with Nazism, Hitler, and genocide, one of the main characters has a candle growing out of his head, and , no, it wasn't exactly meant as comedy. But Insects has only a few visual oddities that I noticed. During one scene, someone makes reference to Yukio Mishima's spectacular suicide, and a guy in the rather tacky uniform of Mishima's notorious private army appears to put in his two cents. No, there aren't that many visual gags. Tezuka also foregoes using his stock company of characters for this story. No guys with candles in their heads, no Astro Boy or Black Jack.

But Insects is rife with wild and bizarre imagery which establishes a kind of eerie mood and helps illustrate the nature of Tomura as a mimic. Tomura is graphically compared with bugs that mimic owls, and metamorphose into other forms. Such transformations are understood as natural, as the consequences of evolution and survival mechanisms in action. No one would accuse an insect that mimics the appearance of another creature of being a liar. Such creatures have taken on deceptive appearances in order to survive in a hostile, murderous world. By that logic, Tomura isn't evil. She is merely adaptive.

Remember, Tomura is a woman in 1970s Japan, a patriarchal society that, for all its progress, still views women as subservient to men. Even a woman who is artistically inclined, and accomplished and acclaimed at that, will often be expected to give all that up when she gets married to some corporate executive. All of the giant corporations are run by men. All of the government leadership is exclusively male. A woman either accepts this, or has to go her own way.

Moreover, the society is thoroughly corrupt. Bribery, graft, assassination, deception, and betrayal are all business as usual. And all the major players are men. A woman could very well look at this state of affairs and ask, "Why not get my end? Why not be number one? A man in this world wouldn't even think to ask the question. He would just proceed on the basis of stark reality."

But Tomura, as Tezuka tells it, isn't so much coldly calculating as she is following her nature. Yes, she plots and schemes and has a callous disregard for others, but it's not always clear that she is consciously cruel or destructive. This is what makes Tomura such a fascinating character. Is she evil, or is she just following her own nature? Is evil something that objectively exists, or is it something that we project onto reality? That is to say, is there a way to define evil scientifically, or is it more of a fuzzy, mystical-religious notion? And, once again, how do we define evil within a totally corrupt society? By definition, in such a society corruption is inescapable. Try as one might, one cannot get away totally clean.

You could show up to work every day, pay your taxes on time and never steal, murder, lie, or cheat. But your tax dollars go into the coffers of a corrupt government that hires dishonest corporations with sweetheart deals to build projects that may never be properly finished. Organized gangsters and right wing extremists exert their influence and demand their tributes in the form of bribes and hush money. Intimidation, murder, and disenfranchisement are used against those that step out of line, resist, or try to bring about reforms. This is the world that Tomura must navigate.

Along the way, journalists try to get the scoop on her past, and oppressive men try to conquer her. As I read, I asked myself, "Where is Tomura going? Is this a story of self-destruction? Will society punish Tomura for her survival adaptations? Or is she the perfect organism to negotiate this labyrinth of lies?"

I was surprised where the story went. I don't want to give away too much, but it definitely does not cop out even as it takes some rather unlikely melodramatic hairpin twists and turns. I say unlikely, but not necessarily impossible. Tezuka is never one to shy away from outrageous melodrama, even downright bathos, and fantasy, but Insects is disturbingly credible for all its dramatic license and exaggeration.

The Book of Insects is another triumph of book design from Vertical, Inc. Vertical has become the primary publisher of Osamu Tezuka's manga in English in the USA, and each new volume is handsomely turned out with evocative collages of resonant images drawn from the manga themselves. Insects is no exception. Vertical seems to approach Tezuka's books like another publisher would approach the latest Johnathan Lethem or Johnathan Franzen novel: with utmost respect and seriousness. And also, a sense of using Tezuka's distinctive illustration style as the basis for eye-catching covers and dust jackets. Insects is well worth reading, but it'll also look good on the shelf once you're done. But don't just let it sit there. Loan it to a friend. And then point them to Vertical, Inc's website, and chat 'em up about other Tezuka works . . .

Vertical, Inc's website:


Vertical, Inc also publishes the following titles by Osamu Tezuka: Black Jack, Buddha, Dororo, Ode to Kirihito, MW, Apollo's Song, and Ayako.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: TETSUO, THE IRON MAN (1989)

Tetsuo, the Iron Man
Directed by/Edited by/Art Direction by/Produced by Shinya Tsukamoto
Cinematography by Shinya Tsukamoto and Kei Fujiwara
Music by Chu Ishikawa
Costume Designs by Kei Fujiwara

Starring
Tomorowo Taguchi as Man
Kei Fujiwara as Woman
Nobu Kanaoka as Woman In Glasses
Naomasa Musaka as Doctor
Renji Ishibashi as Tramp
Shinya Tsukamoto as Metal Fetishist

A Kaijyu Theatre Production



"Undisciplined self-penetration is no liberation, but is perceived as a form of biological chaos."
-Jerzy Grotowski


I first saw Tetsuo, the Iron Man when I was a freshman in high school. The cover of the VHS box on the Blockbuster shelf had some bug-eyed metallic looking dude on the cover that reminded me of the Golem from those ancient silent movies. The back of the box talked about a guy who worshiped metal. It hinted at mutation and destruction. I thought it was maybe related to the anime epic Akira. Anyone who's ever seen and loved Akira is unlikely to forget the name of Tetsuo, or Kaneda for that matter. Nor or they likely to forget the spectacular biological and psionic meltdowns that make that movie so memorable. The image of the metallic man and the idea of humanity and machine merging also evoked in me memories of Robocop and the live action 8-Man movie I had seen recently. I can't remember if I rented this movie with my father or if I went and got it by myself. Either way, I was the only person in my household interested in watching it.

I was a privileged kid. I had my own room, my own TV and VCR, my own Super Nintendo Entertainment System, my NES was still functional, and I even had a Sega CDX which was a compact combination of the Sega Genesis and the Sega CD. I sat, alone in my bedroom, sitting through trailers for obscure foreign films. I don't remember what any of those movies were, but they all looked, with a few exceptions, a lot more interesting than anything I'd seen at the actual movie theatre in my short lifespan.

In middle school, just a year or two before, I had discovered the movies of John Woo and Akira Kurosawa and Jackie Chan and Wong Kar-Wai, so I fancied myself knowledgeable about world cinema. Anime movies like Akira, Golgo 13, and Fist of the North Star fueled my adolescent fantasies of retribution and annihilation. I'd also discovered the joys of George A. Romero and his outrageous zombie epics. I was hungry for gore, guns that fired endlessly and only needed to be reloaded when it looked cool, and flesh eating hordes of shopping mall assholes looking to tear people's guts out. I wanted psychokinetic showdowns between enraged adolescents that would sunder the universe. I wanted heavily armed heroes punctured by hundreds of bullets whirling through the air in slow motion, geysering blood from every wound. I wanted samurai in full armor slicing enemies in half and acrobatic martial artists who never take a break to catch their breath or get a sip of water. I wanted pure sensation.

Well, I was about to get what I wanted and then some.

I don't even remember understanding Tetsuo, the Iron Man the first time I saw it. In fact, the opening imagery of the lone man walking through some kind of scrap yard to his hideout was so off-kilter and obscure that I had a hard time telling what was happening. The movie was shot in blasted out black and white, everything looked like it was taking place in the presence of some harsh, blinding light. I could tell that a guy was sitting in the middle of all manner of metallic scrap. He had pictures of Olympic runners cut out of magazines stuck to various bits of metal junk. There's a strange, insistent beat, like someone pounding a metallic surface with an electrified steel rod, or maybe a lightsaber switched to bludgeon mode. The guy is sitting with his metal junk, breathing heavy, and he starts cutting on the inside of his thigh, stabbing with some sharp metal object, making the blood flow. He's mutilating himself in time to the strange music. And then he decides to put a metal pipe or something into the wound in his leg. He goes running out of his hideout and gets hit by a car. 1950s prom music starts to play. The self-mutilator sees the words NEW WORLD emblazoned on the grill of the car that has run him down. Cue title card.

And then there's a guy in a suit and glasses, a real square looking dude. The beat picks up, grows more insistent. A light strobes on and off, and then the square looking dude starts flailing around, doing a kind of jerky slamdance. Sweat, or maybe liquid metal, goes flying in all directions. I was left with the sensation of a great power manifesting. That this guy in the suit and glasses was about to unleash some destructive energy or something.

But I was confused the first time I saw it. I thought the guy mutilating himself and the guy in the suit and glasses were the same person. The style of shooting and editing were so radically different from the movies I was used to watching that I didn't understand everything that was happening. There were people doing things, violent, forceful, perverse things, and there was music, and there was a sense of momentum. But it was all so different, in a grammatical sense, than the movies I was used to watching. There were no conventional establishing shots, no obvious musical cues to indicate who the good guys and the bad guys were, it was just sensation, rhythm and power. It compelled me even as it confused me.

Later, even stranger things start to happen. The guy in the suit and glasses is standing on a subway platform and gets chased by a woman who is seemingly possessed by a strange piece of metallic junk. The suit-and-glasses guy escapes, but seems to have a kind of bizarre private life. He has weird metal shit growing out of his cheek. He tries to cut the spur off with his shaving razor, but his skin breaks splattering blood all over the sink and mirror. The skin gives out, but the metal spur abides. The suit-and-glasses guy has a hallucination where his girlfriend transforms into some kind of burlesque dancer with a robot snake for a penis. His girlfriend does a kind of bump and grind number, and then anally penetrates him with the robot snake penis.

And then the suit-and-glasses guy starts transforming into a metallic monster. The metal is growing out of his body, plating him over in layers. It causes him great pain. He sprouts a high-powered drill for a penis and chases his girlfriend around their tiny house. Is this retribution for his fantasy of being raped by his girlfriend's non-existent robot snake penis? What kind of fucked-up logic is that? Mr. Suit-and-Glasses seems to be going through some changes. Like, Ozzy Osbourne kinds of changes.

But then, a new tormentor appears: the self-mutilator from the opening of the film. It seems he's been the mastermind behind all of these bizarre mutations and hallucinations. The self-mutilator, or metal fetishist, has some strange psycho-kinetic powers that allows him to manipulate human minds and machines. He also is seemingly having an impact on the normal course of human biology, causing organic cells and metal to merge and form a strange and sinister new partnership. This master manipulator also wears some wild-ass stage makeup, and seemingly has a burning attraction for Mr. Suit-and-Glasses. But it's not your usual kind of courtship. The metal fetishist and Mr. Suit-and-Glasses both start to manifest psychic powers and layers of armored skin, and they engage in a combination duel-to-the-death/courtship dance with heavy-duty sadomasochistic over and undertones.

This was all something I had definitely never seen before. I was glad I was watching the movie alone. Not that my parents ever really cared what I watched or did not watch, but I felt like I was watching something forbidden, something taboo. It was awesome! Mom and Dad hanging out would've killed the buzz.

In fact, I can only remember a handful of times my father ever warned me against watching something. One time when I was a kid and we had rented The Adventures of Ford Fairlane. I believe this was sometime in elementary school. My father didn't think it was appropriate that his little son should hear the toilet humor oneupsmanship between Andrew Dice Clay and Gilbert Gottfried. He stopped the movie, and then sent me to bed. But minutes later, I heard him firing up the movie. You see, my father always thought he was being slick by watching trashy movies late at night when everyone was supposed to be asleep, but he always cranked the volume just a bit too loud. I guess his hearing wasn't so great after years of servicing jet engines on the flight decks of aircraft carriers. This act of parental responsibility struck me as doubly unjust: not only was my father watching what he had forbidden me to watch, but he was also a thoroughly foul-mouthed ex-sailor. By the time I was eight years old I had heard every conceivable swear word, racial slur, and insulting epithet imaginable. And this guy had the gall to be offended by the juvenile posturing of a second-rater like the Diceman?

On another occasion, my father warned me against watching Killing Zoe, an ultraviolent bank robbery/hostage crisis thriller set in Paris, France. The villain of the movie, and the most memorable character, is a raging psychopath who gleefully shoots unarmed women in the mouth and has no concern with whether he or his gang survive their latest caper. He is self-destruction incarnate. This villain is also an intravenous drug user. And it was this last character trait that worried my father.

"They do some stupid stuff in this movie," my father grimly intoned. "I don't want you to ever do any of that stuff, okay?"

"What do they do?"

"Well, there's a lot of shooting drugs in that movie. Just real stupid stuff that I don't want you to ever do, all right?"

"Um, yeah, okay."

But mi paterfamilias didn't forbid me from watching the movie. Nor did he object to the chief villain's maniacal disregard for human life. No, there was no admonition to never resort to violence to solve life's problems, "I never want you to pick up a gun, my son, or ever strike out in anger at your fellow human beings!" No. None of that. My father, the wannabe role model, had no problems with women getting shot in the mouth, or the wholesale slaughter of a building full of people by automatic weapons fire. Nope. He was hung up on the drugs. "Just Say No!" My father was momentarily inhabited by the mind of Nancy Reagan.

But then again, my father and I had watched plenty of ultraviolent movies together. Schwarzenegger, Dirty Harry, westerns, Indiana Jones, the kinds of movies where one tough dude wipes out legions of bad guys. My father never batted an eye. But God forbid Dirty Harry fool around with a joint, or Indy Jones get addicted to pain killers. Think about it. Dirty Harry hung out in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a high stress personality type. You don't go around with that Clint Eastwood-type look on your face and not have an ulcer. Dirty Harry probably hit up all kinds of chemical mood enhancers. And Indy Jones? The dude got dragged under a military truck at high speed. He got the shit knocked out of him by the big, bald Nazi scumbag at the airfield. He's been shot a couple times, if memory serves. Yeah, I think Indy Jones was on the road to pill-popperdom.

My father never raised any objections to any of this mayhem. In fact, he would sometimes regale me with one of his favorite Vietnam stories: Puff the Magic Dragon. You know, the plane with the heavy machine guns that mowed down scores of Vietnamese? According to Dad, there were fields of shredded corpses, punctured many times over by high impact ordinance. I suppose war does that to people, warps their sense of morality and decency. Knocks their priorities into disarray.

But then again, I was never sure if that was a bullshit story or not. Later, when I sat through the John Wayne fiasco The Green Berets, I thought, "Hey, wait a minute. Did my father actually see the mayhem, or did he just crib it from this laughable movie?" Hey, Ronnie Reagan confused real life and the movies all the time, and he was the goddamn President.

. . . but wasn't I talking about Tetsuo, the Iron Man?

Yeah, I guess my point is that part of the thrill of watching Tetsuo was its taboo imagery, its sheer weirdness. The sure knowledge that this was a movie Ma and Pa would never dare to watch, let alone comprehend. And if ever they did try to watch it, they'd just wrinkle their beetling brows, and pout their simian lips and say things like, "I don't get this," and "Who's the main character here?" and "Wouldn't I be happier if I just turned on the TV?" I could watch Tetsuo and feel cool and superior.

I get it, dude, and I wanna go hang out with other people who get it!

Except, I didn't get it. Not completely. Why, exactly, was everybody mutating and hallucinating? Was it magic? Was it psionic powers? Even Akira, a movie often noted for its strangeness and ambiguity, had a rationale for its mass destruction, mutations, and psychic battles that put it more in line with science fiction epics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and scores of dystopian sci-fi novels. Was it all a dream-within-a-dream? And what about all the kinky sexual stuff? Was this meant to be a parable about a button down, suit-and-tie kind of guy who discovers his repressed homosexuality? Or was this a movie looking to blast away all our tired notions of sexuality and identity and forge a bold and terrifying new path? Why did it look so weird?

Yeah, the movie just had this jerky, stop motion vibe to it that made it look and feel unlike anything I'd seen up to that point. All of the animations in the movie were done with poverty budget stop motion animation which lent the film a strange look, a handmade feel. Even though the movie was nowhere near as slick as the latest Hollywood special effects extravaganzas, and wouldn't even bear comparisons with Star Wars or Star Trek, it's very rough look actually lent it more credibility. The movie seemed to be about people living in a world filled with junk and waste, and how they merge with this refuse. It made a bizarre kind of sense that the movie would look and feel kind of clunky and rundown. I dunno, it's hard to pin it down in words.

Another aspect of it is its soundtrack by Chu Ishikawa. When I first saw this movie, not only was it unlike anything I had ever seen, it was unlike anything I had ever heard. The music drove the movie with crazed percussion and relentless rhythm that evoked both machine like regularity and precision and out of control mutation and biological chaos. It evoked a musical sense, as though it were just as much a concert as a movie. But not your run of the mill, tapped-out rock'n'roll bullshit. No, this was a new mutation of sound and image and momentum.

Maybe I could compare it to opera. Because the voices of the performers were important, too. Not because they recited soul-searching monologues, or engaged in witty exchanges, but because they screamed incoherently, breathed heavily as they mutilated themselves, and let loose battle cries and threats of destruction against the fabric of the universe itself. Yeah, it was like opera. In opera, you have talented singers doing highly unnatural, intense things with their voices that sound majestic, emotionally charged, yet aloof. Well, maybe I shouldn't compare it to opera, in that case. The performers in Tetsuo work it more like punk rock performers or loonies in the bin. Let's just forget the comparison to opera . . .

I've watched this movie many times since high school. Every time I watch it, it makes more sense. That's not to say that it offers any pat solutions or clear cut character motivations, but that nowadays, when I watch it, I get it. I grok its crazy grammar. Things which just seemed random and opaque the first few times I saw it, are now revealed as having a twisted visual and sonic logic powering them.

For example: the use of grainy video as a sign of the metal fetishist's psychic powers. The metal fetishist seems to be broadcasting his memories and willpower into various machines, and into the mind of Mr. Suit-and-Glasses. It's partly how the fetishist goes about tormenting people, but it's also his way of communicating his past. The fetishist wants Mr. Suit-and-Glasses to know about his rather bizarre trauma at the hands of a belligerent hobo with a metal club. Apparently, when he was a child, the fetishist's head was bashed in with a metal rod by some strange, crazed wanderer. It is possibly implied that this tramp was the fetishist's father, but this could be some sort of hallucination, or fantasy. Maybe the fetishist no longer remembers his own past, and how he became a mutant and so he has manufactured his own memories, or fantasies, about how he came to be. Just because someone has superpowers doesn't mean they're sane or that they recall things accurately.

In any case, the use of distorted video seems to signify the presence of the fetishist's memories, and his psychic powers in action. I never got that the first few times I saw it. Now, I get it . . . I think.

Tomorow Taguchi plays Mr. Suit-and-Glasses. True cinematic auteur Shinya Tsukamoto plays the metal fetishist. Kei Fujiwara plays Mr. Suit-and-Glasses's girlfriend. Taguchi is an actor who would become familiar to me from later Tsukamoto films, and also other Japanese movies, particular the films of Takashi Miike. Taguchi gives a totally committed performance as the anoymous suit-and-glasses dude, jerking his body with abandon during the surrealistic dance sequences, and growling and yelling with appropriate fervor and menace when he begins to mutate. He would reprise this role in Tetsuo II: The Body Hammer.

Kei Fujiwara also gives herself over to the crazed and sexually out of control burlesque woman with the robot snake penis. Fujiwara would later go on to direct bizarre horror movies herself. She also helped shoot this movie, and contributed to the memorable metal mutant designs.

Tsukamoto, as the metal fetishist, is enraged, power-crazed, sexually empowered, and just a bit goofy. The role of the scheming tormentor is one that he would reprise in a number of his later films, where his sinister machinations are seemingly bent on inspiring creative destruction conducive to rebirth within the psyches and souls of his protagonists. These tormentor roles are also possibly commenting on Tsukamoto's role as a perfectionist, totally independent film director. Could it be that he directs his actors to actually mutate? Maybe those aren't special effects at all . . .





Friday, August 26, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: ULTRAVIOLET (2006)

Ultraviolet
Starring
Milla Jovovich
Nick Chinlund
William Fichtner

Written and Directed by Kurt Wimmer

Ultraviolet should have been a musical. It's got the costumes, the wild set designs, and the coordinated movements of scores of performers at any given time. The coordinated movements are martial arts routines, but surely they could've worked in a dance number now and again? If this movie had been made the Bollywood way, it would've been glorious. As it stands, it's pretty interesting in its own right.

In the future, all of humanity is united as one. Individual nation states are a thing of the past, as is the lamentable phenomenon of nation-on-nation violence. So far so good. Ah, but this future utopia has a dark side: the hemophages, humans who have been infected with a blood disease that endows them with superhuman strength and speed and a reduced lifespan. They also sprout enhanced canines which gives them the appearance of olde tyme vampires. The hemophages are viewed as a threat by the human controllers of the planet, and so they are rounded up and put into concentration camps. Some of the hemophages evade capture, and form underground resistance cells. The hemophages conduct raids using ultra-technology and derring-do on government science facilities and learn about a plan to develop a virus that will wipe out the hemophages once and for all.

Milla Jovovich stars as a very pretty woman named Violet. She's the top hemophage operative whose mission it is to steal the anti-hemophage virus and save the day. She is opposed by a smarmy dude called Vice-Cardinal Ferdinand Daxus (Nick Chinlund). You know if the dude's got a name like Daxus he must be evil. Beware names with Ds and Xs in them. There is also, apparently, some kind of theocratic dictatorship in place upon the planet, although this is only minimally established (late in the movie there's a giant, sinister building that's shaped like a cross). Daxus is a guy in an expensive suit who is seemingly intensely germophobic and fears infection by the hemophage virus. He's constantly using sanitary wipes to pick things up, and he wears some surprisingly fashionable nose filters. Overall, Daxus is way uptight.

Violet is much more hip. She wears dark glasses, skintight jeans, and halter tops and sallies forth into battle against scores of enemies who wear gas masks and riot armor. One might wonder, "Why would someone go into battle with a bare midriff? A bullet in the guts is no fun at all." The answer: it looks cool. Or maybe it's like why Batman has a big old bat symbol on his chest: to distract the enemy. In Batman's case, the bat symbol is bulletproof, so he gets the bad guys shooting at the bulletproof symbol, and not shooting at the exposed lower half of his face. Perhaps Violet's midriff is bulletproof? It is an impressive midriff. She must do a lot of crunches.

Milla Jovovich obviously put a lot of time in at the gym for this role. It's too bad she isn't given any dialogue that's worth a damn. She's saddled with all-too-bland threats and imprecations, "I'm gonna kill you!" kinds of stuff. The kind of dialogue a 10 year old could have have written. Jovovich, since the advent of the Resident Evil movies, has become the go-to lady for embodying video game heroines. Now and again, you see her in something like Stone where she displays some serious acting chops, but I'll leave it to you to figure out where the big paydays come from.

Violet also has this gyroscopic device that allows her to defy gravity and also creates pocket dimensions within her body where she can store a near-unlimited supply of weaponry and ammunition. Violet is a walking, running, motorcycle riding video game avatar. She can drive her bike up the sides of skyscrapers outrunning military-grade attack helicopters, while dodging volleys of military ammunition. When she needs a weapon she just exerts her will and full-auto handguns materialize out of the palms of her hands in a flourish of sparkling light and swirling gun components. She can also manifest a sword covered in mysterious runes, but this is science fiction, not sword-and-sorcery, so the runes are purely decorative.

How about that? Sheathing your sword in another dimension. I wonder, are there other intelligent beings who exist in those dimensions? Does Violet have to lease storage space for her equipment from these extra-dimensional beings? Or are we to understand that this is some new technology that literally makes space for the exponentially increasing amounts of stuff that people of the future will own? I don't know, but it's fun to speculate.

Maybe Violet's ultimate secret is that she is actually a Lenswoman and a top operative for the Galactic Patrol. Wouldn't that be a cool movie? "Milla Jovovich is LENSWOMAN!" I would pay to see that. Of course, I don't think E.E. Doc Smith approved of women serving in the Galactic Patrol. Dr. Smith was a product of his times.

But back to Ultraviolet. The movie takes place in a futuristic city that is a mixture of real world locations and copious CG. The CG looks pretty good. At times the movie seems to be flirting with some kind of transhumanist or extropian theme. This is a world where people carve out whole other dimensions just to use them as holsters and sheaths and ammo dumps. Why can't this same technology be used to forge new communities, a new frontier, new homelands for the expansive human population? Think of it: a network of trans-dimensional gateways where you can instantaneously zip from reality to reality, sampling different cultures and lifestyles. You could have whole dimensions devoted to producing food, curing disease, expanding human lifepsans, maintaining museums, creating live action fantasy role-playing theme parks, and the design and construction of spacecraft. And if the technology is so advanced that people can manipulate space-time, surely they can also alter their bodies at will. You could remake yourself as an elf, or a centaur, or a Milla Jovovich. You could change your skin color at will. You could make your hair retract into your body, and extrude itself as wiry tentacles. You could use your hair to type and do handicrafts.

But, no, this movie's not about any of that. In this movie, people use bleeding edge technology to shoot each other, infect each other with bioweapons, and put each other in concentration camps. These people carve out dimensions in space time just to have more places to dump their shit--their weapons, for Christ's sakes! Like we don't have enough assault rifles and attack choppers and miniguns and handguns and rocket-propelled grenades, and the assholes who worship these implements on our own planet we gotta create whole new worlds to accommodate this bullshit . . . but I'm probably reading too much into this movie. It's a dumb action movie with some intriguing notions and Milla Jovovich. It has laughable dialogue, a confusing plot, some decent action sequences, and some striking set design and costumes. The look of the movie put me in mind of some of Mario Bava's movies, like Danger! Diabolik and Planet of the Vampires. In some ways, Violet is kind of like Diabolik. She's heavily armed, she kills scores of people, she's engaged in a war against the government and the law--what about "Milla Jovovich is Diabolik!" Yeah, I know, Diabolik was a dude. So what? Jovovich could be Diabolik's sister or something. There's a Batwoman, right? We can have a Lady Diabolik.

Of course, Bava's movies are actually fun to watch, and were made at a fraction of the cost of 21st century cinematic potboilers with much cruder special effects technologies. What is it that Bava got right decades ago, that early 21st century spectacle movies keep bungling again and again? I will refrain from the usual CG and Hollywood bashing, because, strictly speaking, the CG is pretty decent in this flick, and I believe that this was an international production with funding from European nations, so all the blame can't fall on the usual suspects this time around. But Ultraviolet is undeniably influenced by Hollywood styles and approaches in its slickness and lack of intellectual substance.

Luckily, I didn't pay to see this movie (a friend loaned me the DVD insisting that I would find it to be cool), but I'm still willing to pay to see Jovovich in that Lenswoman movie. In fact, I probably would've been willing to pay to see Ultraviolet back when it came out if I hadn't been so disappointed by that Underworld movie that came first. What is it about Hollywood and high concept vampire movies that end up being punishingly lame? No wonder they've turned to the tweeny-bop boredom of the Twilight flicks. Women with guns and form-fitting couture are out, teen angst and thinly veiled parables of abstinence are in. I can't decide if it's an improvement or a new degeneration.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978)

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow
Directed by Yuen Woo-ping

Starring
Jackie Chan
Yuen Siu-tien


Once upon a time in China, the deadly Eagle Fist Master stalked the land, killing off all the Kung Fu students who practiced other martial forms and thereby showed disrespect to the supremacy of the Eagle Fist School. The Eagle Fist Master slaughtered 3,000 students before any other school could mount an effective defense. This school was the Snake Fist school. On a barren plain, a champion of the Snake Fist School entered into deadly contest with the Eagle Fist Master . . . and lost.

But the Snake Fist acolyte made a worthy account of himself. And a wily old man(Yuen Siu-tien), who is also the last surviving master of the Snake Fist School, observed the battle, and knew he was no match for the Eagle Fist Master. So he decided to go on the run, hoping to stay alive long enough to pass on his technique to a younger, tougher student who might one day destroy the power-mad Eagle Fist Master.

The old man wanders into a podunk town. The martial arts schools here are all the Kung Fu movie equivalent of a Ponzi scheme: middle class and upper middle class merchants enroll their layabout sons in the Mantis School or the other school across the street, hoping to stiffen up junior's spine enough to take on the family business someday. The teachers here will take on any student, no matter how pampered and out of shape, as long as the money is good. The head of the Mantis School has a young man working for him, Chien Fu (Jackie Chan). Chien Fu gets all the shit work at the school. He has to scrub the floorboards with a rag. The Mantis School teacher uses him as a punching bag, and a fall guy in bogus demonstrations of Kung Fu prowess. Chien Fu suffers this ill treatment and sees no other choice. He wasn't born to wealth, has never been to school and can barely even read, and he's been kicked around all his life. He's a total loser.

But sometimes even losers get a chance. The old man runs afoul of the mediocre students of the Mantis, and makes short work of them. During his escapades he encounters Chien Fu and sees that he is bullied by the unscrupulous leader of the Mantis School. This young man seems to be a washout, but the old man sympathizes with his plight, and sees some potential in his footwork. And so the wily old master proceeds to take the young man under his wing, without the dude even realizing it . . .

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow is the directorial debut of master martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Woo-ping would go on to direct a number of movies that would become box office hits in Hong Kong and around the world, and would end up as cult classics to American Kung Fu fans:
Drunken Master, Iron Monkey, The Tai-Chi Master, Magnificent Butcher, and many others. He would also work with the biggest stars of HK cinema: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Stephen Chow, and more. After 1996, he seems to have spent his time exclusively as a fight choreographer, working in Hong Kong and Hollywood on such films as the Matrix Trilogy, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill, and Kung Fu Hustle. In 2010, Woo-ping directed another movie, True Legend, and did fight choreography for the Bollywood robots-gone-wild magic realist spectacular Enthiran.

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow is a comedy, and so the martial arts battles, even the deadly ones, are played rather broadly. Some of the movie's best sequences involve the relationship between Chien Fu and the old man. The old man is played by Yuen Siu-tien, who was Yuen Woo-ping's father in real life. Siu-Tien gives a wily and goofy performance. He really shines during the sequences when he's training Jackie Chan's hapless Chien Fu. He smokes a big pipe and bashes Chien Fu with it whenever he screws up. But Siu-tien imbues the character with warmth and charm. He is not like the stern and sadistic Pei Mei played by Gordon Liu in Kill Bill vol. 2. He is both a true martial arts master in a world full of phonies and con men, and a true friend in a world of treachery and deceit.

Jackie Chan brings his inimitable gifts for physical comedy to the role of Chien Fu. Even when he eventually becomes a Snake Fist Master, he's still vulnerable and a little scared. Even after he stands up to the bullying teacher of the Mantis School, he is still a bit of a bumbler, but a bumbler with determination and heart. One of his best scenes is when he is being bullied by the Mantis School teacher. The teacher steps in white powder and makes footprints all over the floorboards. He forces Chien Fu to follow behind him, wiping up the footprints with a tiny washcloth. The teacher is a real bastard. But there's a comic payoff to this scene later after Chien Fu has been studying the Snake Fist techniques . . .

Another good scene is the one in which Chien Fu and the old man first fight together. Chien Fu is being bullied by a gang of thugs, and getting his ass kicked. The old man literally puppeteers Chien Fu into victory. It's hard to describe in words, but the scene is both a cracking good fight scene and comic gold.

Chan and Siu-tien would go on to star in Drunken Master, an epochal film in Chan's career as the master of Kung Fu comedies. But Snake in the Eagle's Shadow was also part of Chan's long road to stardom.

There are some other amusing things about this movie. The soundtrack is a glorious mess. Part of the soundtrack from the climatic Death Star battle in Star Wars is used at various moments of heightened dramatic intensity, no doubt without the full permission of John Williams and/or Lucasfilm, but I'm not complaining. If you're gonna steal, steal from the best. Moreover, the soundtrack, which has not been preserved well, has all those great, over-the-top sound effects that make Kung Fu movies so enjoyable. The opening title sequence has Jackie Chan going through the various strikes and movements of the Snake Fist School against a screaming red background. He's not even hitting anything, and yet just the motions of his arms and legs through the air sound like some strange kind of battle in a dimension of pure percussion noise.

The plot is ludicrous, but since it's played for comedy it works. It's almost like a kind of parody of solemn martial arts sagas of vengeance and betrayal. Jimmy Wang Yu or Bruce Lee would've been disassembling dudes left and right, betraying no emotion even as their fists become soaked with blood. But Jackie Chan's whole screen persona was built upon being the Kung Fu hero who was funny and vulnerable. Chan embodies that persona quite effectively with this early effort.

Watching this movie, I also contemplated, yet again, how much more entertaining and intense these old school martial arts movies are compared to the computer graphics spectaculars that Hollywood is trafficking in these days. Yeah, I know, it's easy to flog CG and Hollywood, but this movie was made for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the budget of Transformers or 2012 or X-Men and in 1978, and it still has more oomph and style than these $200 million monstrosities. I sat, stony-faced, during the second Transformers live action movie. I did not have a good time. Snake in the Eagle's Shadow made me laugh, it made me mimic the over-the-top kung fu moves, it made me care.

Not bad for a $3 DVD from Big Lots . . .



Friday, August 19, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: ALL YOU NEED IS KILL (2009) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka


All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Originally published in Japan in 2004
English translation by Alexander O. Smith
Published 2009 by Haikasoru Books

All You Need Is Kill is one of the most astute genre mash-ups I've experienced. Try this on: Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers, with echoes of classic Japanese anime shows such as Mobile Suit Gundam, Armored Trooper Votoms, and Macross.

How cool is that?

A young man named Keiji Kiriya dons a formidable suit of powered armor, called a Jacket, to battle four-legged alien invaders that resemble cow-sized squashed toads. Keiji's just a teenager, but he enlisted in the United Earth Defense Forces for a shot at the glory prophesied in all the cheeseball, no doubt Michael Bay directed, militaristic epics cranked out by the defense-entertainment complex of the future. Keiji ends up being a pretty good Jacket Jockey, but not for the usual reasons. Usually, in mecha anime, such as Mobile Suit Gundam or Armored Trooper Votoms, the young hero is some kind of a Chosen One, or a genetically engineered supersoldier, or a NewType, or maybe just unusually skilled with working with machines--but not Kiriya. No, Kiriya wasn't blessed by a prophecy, or DNA, or psionic powers. Keiji Kiriya is getting practice and lots of it.

Somehow, he has gotten trapped in a time loop on the day of a momentous and disastrous battle with the alien foemen. He replays the same doomed defense over and over again. Keiji Kiriya is condemned to fight to the last, and watch all his comrades get slaughtered over and over again, and there is no readily apparent way to break out of the loop, or communicate his condition to anybody else. Only Kiriya awakes each morning with the sure knowledge of eternal repetition. So Kiriya approaches it like some kind of video game. He maps out the possibilities, uncovers the right tactics and weapons to use against the Mimics, and elevates his game with each run through the loop.

But loops keep on loopin', and the implications are disturbing to say the least.

Has Keiji died and gone to some kind of twisted Valhalla? Is he trapped in some Matrix-style simulation? Maybe it's all but a dream-within-a-dream. Keiji's speculations on the nature of his reality don't go too far, but as a reader along for the ride one can't help but go for the extreme scenarios. One of the book's distinct pleasures is its unraveling of the mysteries of the time loop, how and why it works the way it does. Sakurazaka does a pretty good job of drawing the suspense out, and leaving the philosophical heavy-lifting to the reader. After all, Keiji's just another grunt--not dumb, but just much too practical minded and of the moment to go off on philosophical tangents. Sakurazaka somewhat indirectly plants the possibilities of what could be happening, and avoids putting too much overt philosophizing in the mouths of his characters.

The quadrupedal enemies are called Mimics. I think because they mimic living organisms in general, and not because they actually mimic any specific critter. The Mimics aren't actually living things, but some kind of sophisticated agglomeration of intelligent micro-machine swarms that have constructed their quadrupedal bodies from organic and inorganic materials. Overall, the strategic thinking behind the use of the Mimics is sharp. The alien overlords don't have to amass a clunky, Lensman-style space armada and expend massive amounts of resources to reach the Earth, no, they just launch a probe filled with self-replicating nanobots that touches down in the ocean, gestates, and emerges as an army of fully-formed killing machines. "WATCH THE SKIES!" they used to say. Humanity never saw it coming.

Emerging from the oceans, the Mimics attack en mass, are heavily armored, and can shoot scalpel sharp spines which easily pierce the humans' Jackets. The Mimics are totally ruthless, and are not interested in diplomacy. In addition to wiping out humanity's defenses with extreme prejudice, the Mimics are also the first wave of terraforming apparatus. They burrow through the soil, consuming everything, and excreting a rich gumbo of waste that's toxic for humans, but just about right for the alien overlords.

Unless, of course, it's all some kind of video game simulation. Or a drug or madness induced hallucination. Or a dream in the mind of an itinerant Star Child. One of the cool things about reading a book with such a strange set of premises is that it induces wild speculations in the mind of the reader about where it's all going, what's it all about, what's the punchline. Sakurazaka doesn't disappoint with his take on the how and why of the loop, but that's only one of the mysteries in this story.

Another mystery is the female Jacket Jockey known as the Full Metal Bitch. Who she is, how she came to be, and how her fate intertwines with Keiji Kiriya's is another aspect of the Groundhog Day aspect of the story. The FMB is Andie MacDowell to Keiji Kiriya's Bill Murray, I suppose. But the FMB isn't a journalist. She's the most highly decorated armored warrior on the planet. She's slaughtered thousands of Mimics using a giant ax. In a world of science fiction weaponry, why does she use a battleaxe? Another mystery. It would seem that the farther we journey into the future of warfare, the closer we get, paradoxically, to our primal, savage natures. Away fall all the Buck Rogers energy weapons, and out come the clubs and blades and hacking and impaling implements writ large. The FMB wields an ax that could cut through a tank. Sakurazaka comes up with some intriguing notions about the nature of warfare to justify this.

I said earlier that Sakurazaka doesn't overdo the philosophy in this book, but in a way the book is all philosophy. Philosophy in action. Like the best war stories, even ones with humans pitted against alien invaders, he uses it as a chance to put human behavior and history in a harsh light. What are we when faced with extinction? How do we endure the unendurable? Is it worth it? All too often pop culture simplifies war stories into us-vs.-them, good-vs.-evil, but in a story like this humanity is a united front. We're not fighting over flags and borders and ideologies and economic systems and non-renewable resources. This time it's a fight for survival of the species. In this sense, the Mimics are the ultimate enemy, a threat which must be totally eradicated. But that doesn't make them evil. After all, they're just killing machines, working at the behest of alien overlords on a distant planet. But the alien overlords aren't necessarily maniacal villains, just would-be colonists. Human groups have used superior technology, deception, cunning, and ruthlessness to exterminate other human groups and take their land for their own throughout history. Now, humanity as a whole is being subjected to such awful treatment. It's a rich vein in science fiction going back to H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, and Sakurazaka makes it his own.

Sakurazaka has a lot of insight into the intimate, everyday aspects of his story, too. Like the mystery novel Keiji is reading that he will seemingly never get to finish. The way macho posturing and signification works in an aggressive, testosterone drenched environment. Why is it that Jacket Jockeys from different divisions still punch each other out in one-to-one pissing contests when the real enemy is anything but their fellow man? And then there's the character of the Full Metal Bitch . . . but the less said about her the better. Discovering who she is is one of the pleasures of taking this journey with Keiji Kiriya.

This novel is Hiroshi Sakurazaka's first book to be published in English. His second was a wonderful novel called Slum Online, which I read, and blogged about, prior to reading All You Need Is Kill. Slum Online was such a mellow and funny novel, that I was kind of surprised by this one's intensity. But I'm impressed with how Sakurazaka crafts such compelling drama out of such worn-out materials as mecha anime, alien invasion sagas, and, in the case of Slum Online, MMORPGs and beat 'em up streetfighting arcade games. Sakurazaka, who has a background in IT and enjoys playing video games as per his author's bio and afterward, clearly loves the classic tropes of science fiction. He also is not content to just rehash the off-the-shelf components, but refurbish them, reverse engineer them, and implement them in strange and poignant new contexts. He's not afraid of injecting some mystery into the mix, as well, but mystery and science fiction have always worked well together. I'm looking forward to the next English translation of a novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka.

But, hey, in the meantime there's the impending Hollywood movie adaption of All You Need Is Kill. If the Variety article is accurate, it sounds like the movie is at least trying to stick to the broad outline of the novel.

I hope it doesn't suck.

But even if it does, the pitch meeting for it must've been something like this:

"It's Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers!"

And that's pretty damn amusing no matter what the quality of the movie they end up making.

But a decent movie adaptation of a Sakurazaka novel suggests some new vigor which could be injected into mainstream cinema. Instead of another sub-moronic romantic comedy or unnecessary slasher movie reboot, a successful, and well-crafted, movie of All You Need Is Kill could pave the way for more international collaborations based on cool literary properties. The current movie version is being put together with Japanese producing partners, so maybe that's a sign that everyone involved wants to do right by the source material. One can hope.

But there will always be the book. Hollywood can't take that away.

Not yet, at least . . .


Click here for Haikasoru Books' All You Need Is Kill page.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

GAME REVIEW: THE SHIVAH (2006)

THE SHIVAH
Designer/Developer/Script and Dialogue by Dave Gilbert
Original Music Composed by Peter Gresser
Backgrounds by Tom Scary
Character Animations by Shane Stevens

Featuring the voice talents of:
Abe Goldfarb as Rabbi Stone
Ruth Weber as Rajshree Lauder
Joe Rodriguez as Amos Zelig
with
John Swist
Francisco Gonzalez
Kim Lee
Dave Gilbert

Published by Wadjet Eye Games, 2006

The Shivah is a PC game after the style of the point-and-click mystery adventure games of the 1980s and 1990s. It tells the story of Rabbi Russell Stone who leads a synagogue on New York's Lower East Side. His temple has fallen on hard times. No one shows up to hear his services, save for a sleepy old lady. His email inbox is filled with angry and disappointed messages from former members of his congregation who have been alienated by his harsh, cynical sermons. The bills are piling up, and he expects to be evicted from the property any day now. That's when the homicide detective shows up to tell him that his old friend Jack Lauder has been murdered. The Rabbi is a suspect because Lauder has left Stone a sizable fortune. Of course, the detective has no hard evidence, and so Rabbi Stone, piloted by the player, must solve the mystery and clear his name.

The Shivah orchestrates an intriguing dramatic situation around the murder investigation. Like any good murder mystery there is much more to the case than meets the eye. There are also issues tied to Rabbi Stone's sense of his own identity as a religious leader. He has sacrificed much of his own personal happiness to his profound sense of what it means to be a rabbi. The game doesn't come right out and reveal every last detail of this sacrifice, but it starts out with the broad picture, a depressed and embittered rabbi in a fading synagogue, and gradually zooms in on the specifics of Stone's past and, by implication, the nature of his personality that has led him to the particular dilemma he faces in attempting to clear his own name. The mystery isn't just, "Who murdered Jack Lauder?" It is also, "Who is Rabbi Stone?" It is this second mystery that the game as a game allows players a certain degree of freedom to solve. The choices you make determine the game's ultimate outcome. There are several endings, each one dependent on key moral and ethical choices the player makes as they pilot the Rabbi through the game.

Another fascinating element about Rabbi Stone is the fact that he is a flawed character. Many video game protagonists are screwed-up people. First person shooters and RPGs are filled with violent, heavily armed sociopaths, mutilation and power obsessed barbarians, and brain-washed militarists. Rabbi Stone's flaw is also his strength: his unwavering commitment to his sense of identity, and the kernel of remorse that he seems to feel over a harsh decision he made a long time ago. A decision that affected the life of his old friend Jack Lauder. Rabbi Stone is a dramatic character in the way of great literary characters: Oedipus, Sam Spade, Hamlet, Othello, The Continental Op, and Antigone. He isn't just another ultraviolent cipher to pilot around a dungeon or field of battle. He actually comes off as someone who could conceivably exist in real life.

The dialogue is excellent, sharp, and is worthy of a stage play or film. There are some rather impressive one-liners, and some pitch-black humor as well. One of the key elements of Rabbi Stone's character is his questioning nature. It seems, depending on which dialogue options you follow, that he is always seeking to respond to whatever trials that reality or God or whatever sends his way with the right question. Rabbi Stone's identity is tied to this view of life as a constant inquiry. This outlook is also a great fit with a mystery-adventure gaming dynamic.

A strong cast of voice actors, led by Abe Goldfarb as Rabbi Stone, lends a massive amount of credibility to the characters and the story. I would like to say more about individual performances, but I don't want to give away too much of the story. Suffice it to say, that all of the voice actors do top-notch work, including designer Dave Gilbert in a cameo role.

The visuals are consciously retro--way retro. Like, King's Quest retro, but very carefully done. All of the locations by Tom Scary are rendered with pixelated precision. The game presents synagogues, bars, apartments, stores, and subway platforms that look like they've actually been inspired by genuine New York settings. It's hard to describe, but it's rather impressive that such locations and atmosphere are so effectively rendered with such limited graphics.

The character animations by Shane Stevens are also effective, and include some surprising events. Whenever there is dialogue, the characters' faces are rendered in boxes and display a pleasing array of emotions and nuances which are complimented by the strong voice acting. The effectiveness of the dialogue animations reminded me of Scott McCloud's breakdown of emotions and expressions in Understanding Comics. McCloud puts forward the notion that sometimes visual storytelling can achieve surprising depths and abiding effects by paring real life actions and emotions to their bare essence and then sequencing those essences correctly. It's just another example of how a retro-game can offer worthwhile, involving experiences in a world of ultra-tech gaming.

A state of the art 3-D gaming engine could, of course, deliver photo realism, physics, and a persistent world to get lost in--but would it offer such a concentrated dramatic experience? The Shivah is like an intriguing Off-Off-Broadway play in a black box performance space. Or maybe a memorable crime novella you might find in an old paperback collection of murder mysteries. The retro-charm runs deep.

The musical score by Peter Gresser is mournful, jazzy, and achieves some epic highs as the drama escalates. The mournful, contemplative opening theme is particularly effective, establishing a mood unlike what you would find in most video games. It isn't at all intrusive, and, in fact, it helps with the investigation. I found it to be the perfect underscore for a murder case. Although Gresser's score is more accomplished, it put me in mind of the underscores for the Kemco/Seika NES adaptations of the classic graphic adventures Deja Vu, Shadowgate, and Uninvited. The music in those games, for me, was also mood enhancing and conducive to ratiocination.

The gaming element which is most distinctive is the Clue Inventory. In adventure games, it is not uncommon to have inventory puzzles, wherein you must combine items in your possession in just the right way and use them on some key element of the environment. The Shivah uses a similar dynamic with clues-words and phrases that Rabbi Stone picks up on while questioning people and investigating the various locations. You can then click on a clue and drag it over other clues, click, and see if the ideas work together to offer new insights. The clues also figure into the dialogue options. Clues beget clues, and so the investigation proceeds. The game is much too brief to fully realize this intriguing gaming mechanic, however it does reinforce the cerebral and questioning nature of Rabbi Stone.

Another interesting feature is the Kibbitz Mode, which is a DVD-style commentary that you can choose to switch on while you play the game. In Kibbitz Mode, as you play through, Dave Gilbert, the game's creator, pops up as a charmingly animated talking head and talks you through how he made the game, and offers interesting insights into how, why, and when certain decisions were made. Gilbert is an enjoyable commentator who offers a generous amount of insight into how and why he made the game the way he did. It is strongly advised that you do not switch on the Kibbitz Mode until you've played through the game a few times, as it gives away most of the puzzles and plot twists.

The Shivah is not a very long game, nor is it difficult. But it offers a compelling and concise dramatic narrative with clever dialogue, effective music, and a strong thematic focus.The Shivah is offered through Wadjet Eye Games's website for near-instant download. I say near-instant because it took about an hour for the company to process the order. For $4.99, The Shivah is cheaper than a movie ticket, and much better scripted and acted than what you are likely to find at the summer multiplex.


Official game website:

Game Trailer:

Monday, August 1, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES: MIRAMAX, SUNDANCE, AND THE RISE OF INDEPENDENT FILM

by Peter Biskind, 2004, Simon and Schuster

Late in Biskind's book, the author describes Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York as being overlong, awkwardly structured, overstuffed with bombast and epic battle scenes and riots, and hobbled by a leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio, who seems to lack the acting chops and physical presence to carry such a brutally violent saga of revenge, corruption, ambition and revolution. However, Biskind concedes, the movie does contain a magnificent villain played by Daniel Day-Lewis who dominates the entire picture. Biskind's book is kind of like his description of Scorsese's film. It purports to cover a range of topics and ideas and revolutions in the world of Indie and Indiewood cinema, and yet it comes to be overwhelmingly dominated by one larger-than-life anti-hero: Harvey Weinstein, the once indisputable boss of Miramax pictures and king of so-called Independent Cinema.

More than a portrait of any one player in the world of Indie Cinema, Biskind's book gives an overall and fairly detailed portrait of an industry in transition, and how the economic and cultural circumstances gave birth to a kind of "Indie Bubble" that was destined to burst, and pave the way for the further corporatization of the film business. Biskind's chronicle ends sometime in 2004 and begs for a sequel. In light of what has happened to Miramax, Harvey, the Sundance Film Festival, and other industry players, along with the ascent of $200 million dollar comic book spectacles and the resurgence of low to medium budgeted horror flicks, I would say that Biskind, or someone, should write a book chronicling what has happened since 2004.

If Harvey is the Daniel Day-Lewis of this saga, then I suppose Robert Redford is the Leonardo DiCaprio. Redford and his Sundance Institute are a part of Biskind's story, and indeed, as the book goes on, Redford becomes more and more of a non-entity, seemingly content to retire from the prevailing currents of late twentieth and early twenty-first century cinema.

Harvey got his start as a take-no-shit concert promoter, and fought his way into distributing concert films to art house cinemas. From there, he moved into acquiring and distributing independent and foreign films to the art house circuit. He developed a reputation for using intimidation and uncontrolled emotional outbursts that alienated many people, but got the ink on the contracts. And yet it was this ruthless side of his personality that drove Miramax's profits and also would drive the company into riskier ventures. At his side was his equally tough but less demonstrative brother Bob, who would one day become head of Dimension Films, Miramax's genre distribution label. Dimension Films racked up massive profits with the Scream and Scary Movie franchises even while the "legit" art house line devolved into Oscar bait bogus uplift flicks masquerading as cutting edge cinema.

Hungry for respect, Harvey also had ambitions as a filmmaker, and even if he couldn't direct his way out of a paper bag, as his debut film Playing For Keeps seemed to suggest, then he would achieve this ambition by working as an influential producer, a David O. Selznick for the millenium, who would have hungry young up-and-coming directors from the world of Indie Cinema do all the grunt work of scripting and shooting and then he would exercise his power in the editing room by shaping highly idiosyncratic filmic visions into commercial shape. Harvey would use test screenings in suburban shopping malls to generate test scores which he would use to leverage directors to alter their films, often times eliminating provocative content, or, at the least, mainstreaming it just enough to fit into a largely mythical notion of "commercial." On occasion Harvey would even write new scenes and insist they be filmed regardless of whether or not these new scenes fit with a given director's vision. In a number of cases, the films altered would end up as neither fish nor fowl: not commercial enough to compete with Hollywood melodramas, moron comedies, or action spectacles; too compromised and watered down to play with discriminating art house crowds.

Citizen Ruth, The Hairy Bird, 54, Velvet Goldmine--just a few of the titles to fall victim to Harvey Scissorhands, as many came to derisively nickname Harvey--though seldom to his face.

Harvey bulled his way to the top of the Indiewood distribution game, and eventually sold out to Disney. He implemented an aggressive PR campaign for his prestige pictures to garner Academy Award nominations and wins. He even bought his way into New York intelligentsia circles by starting a publishing division with the magazine Talk! and the Miramax Books imprint, and began hobnobbing with Democratic political figures, most notably Bill and Hilary Clinton, and Al Gore.

With Disney's financial backing, if not always with the consent of its corporate leadership, Harvey led Miramax pictures into the realms of full-on production, something he had long flirted with when doing re-edits and re-shoots of acquisitions. This production over reach ended up giving a boost to other indie distributors such as the Independent Film Channel, while increasing the overhead costs and reducing profits for Miramax. The subsequent fate of Miramax since the times chronicled in Biskind's book seems to suggest that Harvey was indeed overreaching.

Subsequent lawsuits over ancillary profits and points on gross arrangements also point up the continuing acrimony over Miramax's accounting practices. Interestingly, Biskind was able to sit down and interview Harvey. When asked about the many allegations of screwy accounting practices and unpaid revenues, Harvey asserts over and over again that everyone was paid "everything that was owed to them." Marketing and distribution costs are often cited as cutting into future profits for the artists, although many of the filmmakers dispute these numbers.

Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, a number of the filmmakers interviewed by Biskind, even some who felt they got the bum's rush, still respect Harvey. The overall sentiment seems to be that Harvey had to play hardball to get over on the industry, and that the state of cinema in America was greatly improved and diversified by the efforts of Miramax. Miramax is often described as paving the way for other independent distributors and for the mainstreaming of more provocative content in films in general.

And what of Mr. Redford and his Sundance Institute? In Biskind's telling, Redford comes off as an obsessive micro-manager and egotist. A man who only wants to back films that he can somehow take credit for, often times going so far as to usurp scripts from other directors at the Institute just because he can. And yet, strangely, Redford seems to want to sit on projects and do nothing, paralyzed by inner doubts that only he can know. Redford all but disappears from Biskind's narrative by the last couple of chapters. Early on, Biskind describes how the Sundance Film Festival served as a kind of cultural mecca for regional cinema, which Biskind dismisses as granola and boring. Despite the author's snark, he makes a valid point: the Sundance model of delivering indie cinema in the 1970s and 1980s was going the way of the dodo. In contrast, Miramax developed aggressive marketing strategies to get unusual films into the cineplex and onto the Oscar radar. Redford is portrayed as distrustful of the media, much too provincial and elitist to compete in the coming media saturated world of the 1990s and beyond.

Biskind's book is an entertaining read. It is a sort of follow-up to his earlier book Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, which chronicled the New Hollywood of the 1970s: Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, Peter Bogdanovich, and others. In addition to Harvey and Redford, he also gives thoroughgoing accounts of the career breakthroughs of such directors as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, and Todd Haynes. As I said above, it begs for a follow-up, maybe even one written by Biskind himself.