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Category: Culture

Building expectations

I cannot believe that they’re giving Alfonso Cuaron the reins to the Harry Potter movie franchise. I honest to god officially can’t believe it. Not that I think it’s a bad thing, but I have to wonder: how many of his movies has J. K. Rowling seen?

The thing is, I watched Great Expectations over the weekend, and it just blew me away. Cuaron had the chutzpah to turn Dickens into a sensual, almost erotic reverie. It’s a movie about passion, and passion lost, and passion recovered. It’s a movie about how much people mean to one another: Finn to Estella, Estella to her mad aunt Ms. Dinsmoor, Finn to his brother-in-law Joe, and so on.

It’s thematically a match for Y tu mama tambien, which generated buzz based on the forthright sexuality of the story and earned that buzz based on its quality. However, that movie, too, was about human relations. It’s just that Cuaron knows full well that sex is often an important component of such matters.

What surprised me in Great Expectations, though, is that Cuaron is willing to acknowledge the tension that can exist between the young. There’s a scene where Finn and Estella kiss at a fountain, at a very young age. It’s daring in today’s society. It’s not in any way repellent or voyeuristic; it’s just the first note in the emotions that grow between them.

So… I guess I should go rent A Little Princess and see how he handles kids there. I love his movies. It’s just not clear to me that he’s going to be a good match for Harry Potter — or, I should say, the third Harry Potter movie. I have no doubts that Rowling is going to tackle romance in the later novels, but man, it’s not exactly a strong component of Prisoner of Azkaban. What’s a lush, romantic director like Cuaron to make of Hogwarts?

Phatic extropians

Charlie Stross and Cory Doctorow collaborated on a short story entitled “Jury Service,” which has been serialized on The whole story is up now. Fun reading for geeks. Not entirely deep, though; I’d kind of have to classify it as what eluki bes shahar calls phatic text.

I.e., it’s very comforting fiction. To a certain class of extropian geek, reading this is like drinking a glass of warm milk. The story is in service of the extrapolation: Huw is secondary to the cool transhuman technology. I am, alas, not compelled by Huw — I’m compelled by what happened to him.

This is not a bad thing per se. Science fiction (as does most genre literature) has always had an element of the phatic to it; it’s part of the outsider culture that revels in the knowledge of difference. There’s a body of knowledge to science fiction reading, in that fans can be expected to know what a hyperdrive does (or what cyberspace is) without a lot of explanation. Elements of that shared body of knowledge serve as phatic signifiers, letting the reader know that he or she is in a familiar place.

Some books also progress beyond that, adding new elements to the vocabulary. Larry Niven invented the flash crowd. Daniel Keyes gave us the concept of enhanced intelligence. H. G. Wells gave us the Moon. There’s an importance balance; the comfort of existing elements provides a base on which to build the new. Phatic text is a necessity, in fact.

The interesting thing about “Jury Service” is that it’s extropian phatic text. It’s not at all clear to me that the extropian concepts inherent in the story are really part of the common memes of science fiction just yet; I think Doctorow and Stross are changing that with this and other similar stories. See also, of course, the father of extropian SF Neal Stephenson. I suppose, come to think of it, that Vernor Vinge is the grandfather. Bruce Sterling is the dirty old uncle, and any metaphor which resorts to a dirty old uncle should probably be put out of its misery around now.

Is this just cyberpunk? No. It differs from cyberpunk in that cyberpunk was not a product of technologically savvy authors. The stuff I’m talking about is informed by the cyber, and has not a whole lot of punk in it. The story of how Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a manual typewriter is legend, and it says a lot about the differences between the cyberpunk ethos and the extropian ethos.

Sterling reinvented himself as a tech-savvy writer pretty early on, mind you, but I’d argue that this really was a reinvention. Note that the top ten nonfiction book list in Cheap Truth #4 is more interested in social sciences than in geek cred.

So, yeah; phatic text, but perhaps not phatic in the usual ways. I’ll have to think more on this.

Edit: Cheap Truth,. not Cheap Trick.

Back on the trail

This weekend, on the Brunch Report:

I had a lovely breakfast today; fried eggs with bacon and some nice monterey jack melted on top, between two toasted English muffins. Instead of the traditional cholesterol-laden mayonnaise, there was some tasty artichoke salsa to glue it all together — spicy, but not too spicy, with a hint of roasted garlic.

Where’d I get it? I made it myself. I am bachelor king! My coffee is good, too.

Science fiction double feature

That was another busy movie weekend. Two SF flicks, which had more in common than you might think (above and beyond both being surefire money losers): Equilibrium and Solaris.

I was determined to catch Equilibrium, since I missed Below and am still annoyed about it. Equilibrium is only on about 300 screens, too. I’m really glad I did. It’s a sometimes awkward graft of a unique action aesthetic onto a fairly standard totalitarian dystopia, which somehow works very well. The backbone of the movie is the near future dictatorship we’ve seen before: it’s Farenheit 451 via Albert Speer’s Berlin. The director, Kurt Wimmer, gets it right. It’s almost as pretty as anything by Wim Wenders.

Here and there, though, John Preston (our redeemed hero, played by Christian Bale) breaks into utterly lovely gun-based action sequences which are both innovative in their integration of handguns and martial arts and well-filmed. The first, five minutes in, is illuminated solely by muzzle flashes. The last, which I won’t spoil, is a veritable hammerblow of intensity. Nice stuff.

I think that it all flows together so well because the sparseness of the film’s visuals meshes with the sparse economy of the action sequences. Little is wasted.

Emily Watson gets yet another role as the quietly inspiring female lead, and Sean Bean growls his way through a brief part. Taye Diggs is not so great, but what are you gonna do?

Meanwhile, Solaris. Wow, it’s hard to know where to start. Soderbergh has utterly returned to form. I think the most masterful thing about his directing is his understanding of pacing. Solaris could easily have seemed long and overdone; it alternates between being talky and more or less dialogue-free. Soderbergh skips through the story, touching down lightly here and there, and brings off a philosophy-heavy movie with graceful ease.

The acting is also fine. George Clooney is a bit too much George Clooney, which is probably inevitable at this point. Still, he conveys the pain of his character competently. Natascha McElhone is perfect. She’s got a really tough job, effectively having to portray two characters, and brings it off without a hitch.

At first, given the distinctly 70s look of the Persephone (the space station upon which the movie takes place), I thought Soderbergh was going for a 2001 homage. I think not, though; I think that he just wanted that 70s SF look in order to properly get across the sense of isolation that’s so central to the movie. I realized on later reflection how much of Soderbergh’s work has been about loss. Solaris is no exception, despite the redemptive quality of the ending.

It doesn’t get much better than this for intelligent, contemplative science fiction film.

Mmm mmm urk

Sound Bites was a very good breakfast, but the memory is somewhat tainted by the tainted pizza I had for dinner. I liked their mashed potatoes, and I liked the corned beef hash very much, but I will probably not go for the poached eggs again just in case they were at fault.

I have a mini-essay about the necessity to rethink the way governments interact with relevant non-governmental organizations, which I will write when I am feeling somewhat better.

Not so much the action movie

I picked up the Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys DVD last week, and watched it over the weekend. I’d managed to miss it in the theaters, since although Jodie Foster is a strong selling point for me, Todd McFarlane is not. However, after watching Igby Goes Down I was pretty pleased at the thought of watching Kieran Culkin again.

Not a bad little movie. Not great — it probably overreaches at the end, in terms of plot — but pretty good. The core of the movie is the nature of teenage desire and ennui, and if you forgive the twist at the end you won’t have much to complain about. I think the actors did a great job of nailing the complexity of first love, teenage sexuality, and the sheer boredom that leads one to be a complete idiot.

Despite the title, it’s not really terribly important that the kids go to Catholic school. I gather it’s a semi-autobiographical story, which explains that choice. The animated sequences, on the other hand, are pretty important. It’s not that they reveal anything very surprising about the way the kids think of themselves, and they certainly don’t reshape any of the plot. They do, however, provide the movie with a propulsive sense of action which I think distinguishes it from a lot of indie coming of age flicks. The animation ruthlessly strips away sentimentalism, because it’s so cheesy and in places tawdry.

Definitely worth owning, for me.

Darkness, I hardly knew thee

I was expecting to write a snide little comparative review of the new Matthew Scudder mystery, Hope to Die, and the new Jessie Stone mystery, Death in Paradise. I was probably going to throw in some comparisons between Spenser and Scudder, since they’re both aging detectives, as well. Woulda been a beauty. I’d have contrasted Lawrence Block’s gritty realistic approach to alcoholism and his honest approach to the aging of his main character with Robert Parker’s increasingly self-indulgent treatment of the same issues. I am blogger, hear me roar.

Unfortunately, while Death in Paradise wasn’t all that great, Hope to Die was kind of unimpressive as well. I believe I’ve discovered one of the signs of a mystery series on decline. When an author starts indulging in chapter intros told from the point of view of the criminal, things are getting bad. If those intros happen to be in italics, it’s worse. If they cleverly don’t ever give away the criminal’s name — well.

That was a problem with Hope to Die. The basic trappings are still pretty much there: Scudder is an alcoholic, but it isn’t the focus of the book; Elaine is a dear; T.J. continues to be an important presence. I liked the thread of family obligations that wove through the story. Scudder’s obligations to his sons were a good counter-part to the criminal’s attitudes towards certain characters.

However, the ending is deeply unsatisfying and requires us to believe that Scudder has suddenly discarded his keen intelligence. The darkness that’s integral to the Scudder mysteries comes by way of plot contrivance rather than through Block’s writing. It’s a pity. I wouldn’t say the series is dead, but I really hope the next book isn’t what I think it’ll be.

Oh — Death in Paradise is about what you’d expect from a mystery series whose author is willing to name a town Paradise for the sake of catchy titles. There is not actually a town named Paradise in Massachusetts. Just so you know.

Sports metaphors would be lazy

Summerland rules.

It absolutely, completely sings. I could sling around quotes all day, but suffice it to say that Chabon’s prose is elegantly clear, without unnecessary flourish or artifice. He’s got the knack of writing about the mythic without seeming pretentious or overwrought. People sound like people, even when they’re saying important things. “A baseball game is nothing but a great contraption to get you to pay attention to the cadence of a summer afternoon.” Yeah. I love the way he takes the sting out of the eloquence by deliberately dropping back into the vernacular with “get you to pay attention.” A lesser writer would have said “to force you to pay attention,” or used some other more grammatical construction.

On top of that, the structure of the book is beautiful. He’s said he was trying to do Susan Cooper for America, and I think he’s come pretty close. Baseball is the central metaphor, but it is not a book about baseball; I fell into the assumption that I was reading a book that would follow the usual sports tropes and was thus pleasantly flabbergasted at the climax.

I must also give Chabon credit for writing about the real American gods. Sorry, Neil. Gaiman’s characters claim that “This is a bad land for Gods,” but Chabon defuses such criticism and writes of The Tall Man with the Knife in His Boot and reminds us that yes. We do have our own myths. It is not necessary to paper the walls of America with faded gods of other lands.

Even his Coyote is pretty solid. He occupies the most malevolent corner of the Trickster continuum, but that’s OK. It’s good to be reminded that Coyote isn’t a benevolent god, just a god who mostly has good intentions.

I was probably fated to love this book from the moment Chabon casually mentioned a Hellboy T-shirt, catching the attention of my geek side, but everything else about Summerland was perfect too.