Saturday, July 08, 2006

Dick on a Saturday morning

Today was one of the rare occasions that I actually paid to see a new release. A Scanner Darkly, the new film by Ricard Linklater based on a Philip K. Dick novel and starring Keannu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Winona Ryder. Normally if I’m going to fork over $10.75 for a fucking movie, I would at least see it at one of the swank new Manhattan theaters in order to get the most up-to-date audio/visual experience possible, but I was lazy and settled for a little art house cinema on the lower east side. Not that art house theaters on the lower east side are the run-down places they used to be -- this one had comfortable new seats. But still, the screen was little bigger than the typical lower middle class person’s home system and the surround sound not as good.

I’ve never been able to finish a Philip K. Dick novel but have liked all of the movies I’ve seen based on his work. To my taste, he was a great visionary but a lousy novelist. But I haven’t actually finished any of his books and there’s well over forty that I’ve never even started, so I could conceivably change my opinion. Still, I don’t have him on my summer reading list.

Anyway, Scanner tells a good story about drug addiction and the larger societal factors that support it. Both the characters and the organizations portrayed in the film act consistently with how similar characters and organizations act in real life. Linklater’s ear for dialogue is perfectly tuned to the addled ramblings of the very stoned and his actors are well-chosen for their parts. Woody Harrelson, as far as I could tell, was playing himself. There are quite a few funny sequences. And as you expect from a Philip K. Dick story, some heady philosophical stuff as well. There are plot twists you probably won’t see coming and the film transitions seamlessly from superficial comedy to great tragic depths and Linklater does a good job of balancing it all. The movie is well-paced and ultimately satisfying.

Cinematically speaking, the film is done as a faux animation. Rotoscoping is the technique used to turn frames of film into cartoons. If you have ever posterized an image in Photoshop, that will give you some idea of what it looks like.

Linklater used the same technique in Waking Life, a movie that got good reviews but which I was unable to watch. And take my opinions on art for what they’re worth (absolutely nothin), but it’s very rare that I find a well-reviewed artsy movie so bad that I actually don’t finish it. But rotoscoping is the only storytelling thing A Scanner Darkly has in common with Waking Life. Linklater did not screw up Philip K. Dick. His is actually among the best of the Dick movies, probably second only to Blade Runner. The rotoscoping technique works very well in the context of the story.

Generally, the music is unobtrusive – sad sounding string instruments and the like, not some kind of School of Rock soundtrack, but there was a killer song by Thom York that played over the closing credits. I went immediately to ITunes to buy it when I got home, but it was unavailable. A little research leads me to believe that it is called Black Swan and will be on his new album to be released in a couple days. I’ve tried, I’ve really tried, but have never been able to like Radiohead, precisely because of Yorke’s weak vocals, but they were perfectly suited for the song and the song was the perfect coda for the movie.

All fucked up. Yep.

Friday, July 07, 2006

The African woman in the apartment next to me

I finished Kafka on the Beach, the novel by Haruki Murakami. The plot was similar to The Wind-up Bird Chronicles but much better done. I am happy to recommend both books to those of you who like to read fiction. Murakami’s stories contain a lot of mystery and magic. His characters are always interesting and sometimes memorable. He is comfortable weaving elements of music appreciation, philosophy and explicit sex into the story. And he is very easy to read. The books are real page-turners, literary metaphysical thrillers that capture and hold your interest. If I had to write the blurb, I’d say he is a “post-modern Garcia-Marquez” or a “New World Garcia-Marquez” or perhaps a “New Wave Garcia-Marquez.” Though I wouldn’t go so far as to describe him as “the Johnny Rotten of Garcia-Marquezish Japanese fiction." Hell, I wouldn’t even describe his fiction as Japanese, but the Garcia-Marquez bit has to be there with some adjective. You simply must use "Garcia-Marquez" if you're going to describe Murakami in a blurb.

I also got my complete collection of Studio Ghibli movies and have already watched a couple of them. I’m thinking I might forgo blogging about them here and write a sixteen-part philosophical treatise based on them instead. Yea, that could paralyze me for years. Just my kind of writing project.

But thinking about the previous post in which I wrote about ghosts and spirits in Japanese fiction, I realized that even though I mentioned Mishima and Oshima, their work is not riddled with Ghosts like Murakami or Hayao Miyazaki. Oshima’s Empire of Passion is a ghost story, but that’s the only one I know. Of course they have both done a lot of work that’s unfamiliar to me, but that which I know is very human in a modern way. They are a long way from the spirits of the forests.

And I was just joking about the Japanese woman in the apartment below mine. Her bedroom is not really directly below ours, it is a couple rooms to the northeast. I confess, it was just more dramatic putting her directly below. And there’s an African woman in the apartment next to me who’s dreams mingle much more with mine. But there’s no drama in that, at least not in the context of Japanese literary and cinematic artists.

You know I am a materialist in the philosophical sense. I don’t believe that anything exists except matter. I don’t believe in gods or ghosts or spirits of the forest. I understand that on a universal scale, regarding both time and space, our lives, and even our species, are no more significant than ants. And if it makes no sense for ants to have an afterlife, then it makes no sense for us either.

But like so many, I have the ability to maintain contradictory beliefs. It’s all well and good that I don’t believe in ghosts, yet I have seen so many of them. How do I reconcile those two facts? I know it sounds cliché, but I suspect drugs were responsible, or more accurately, herbal concoctions. But I’m not sure. There are other possible explanations.

It was like this. Many years ago I began seeing ghosts when I was deep into a journey into a deep, dark nowhere place. We had already seen so many things that had the psychological and emotional impact of a hard punch in the gut or a savage whack on the back of the neck with a blunt instrument that suddenly seeing ghosts was not particularly noteworthy. We had watched starving children standing naked in the sand with horribly distended bellies. Even though we’ve seen that in pictures so many times, it’s hard to reconcile when you actually see them in the flesh. I remember thinking, maybe they’re just fat? And worse than that, I was surrounded in a market by about twenty horribly deformed children pushing themselves on little boards with rollers. Some were missing limbs, most were twisted in excruciatingly abnormal positions, their faces and bodies skeletal. And get this. I saw a man put a straight razor in his eye. I could see the blade slide across the white of his eye, almost feel the white of his eye wrap around it, and see the eye pop back to normal when he pulled it out. That will put you in a different head space. You better believe it. And there was a lot more, though not quite so dramatic.

Anyway, to make a long story short, we were in a border town at the edge of two distinct worlds, both of them very strange, to buy cheap gas and we bought some weird dope as well. I don’t remember the details well enough to describe how we felt. It was marijuana, but it seemed there was something else in it as well. Probably some kinda witch doctor shit. Even the old man felt it, probably from the second hand smoke. We were weirded out, all three of us, for at least a month after that, probably more like a year.

The next night we went off road to find somewhere to sleep. We ended up in the middle of a rock strewn dirt field where there were a lot of little rock mounds, kind of like the moon if it were one hundred degrees and humid on the moon. Anyway, that was the first night I saw ghosts. I woke up and they were huddled in the floor of the van. They weren’t wavy or glowing or anything like you see in the movies. They were very real people who were just barely distinct from the shadows. But distinct they were. I could see their every feature, their steady breathing, even the fabric of their clothes. I actually have some corroboration on this. The old man woke up and saw me sitting up. We had a little conversation in which I told him that there were people in the van. He was startled at first, but then laughed and said I was talking in my sleep. But I was wasn’t. I was awake. We both remembered the conversation the next morning.

And I know this makes the whole thing sound hokey, but when it was light and we got out of the van, we realized we were parked in a graveyard. And the footprints of 10 or fifteen people trampled the dust around the van. I know that all sounds pretty dramatic, but by that point in the trip, it was just another thing. And I continued seeing ghosts off and on for the rest of the journey, which lasted another month. It was interesting seeing the ghosts, but there were no revelations or anything profound. At first I’d stay awake and study them, but after awhile I’d just go back to sleep after studying their features for a few minutes. I haven’t seen any ghosts since getting back to Europe.

So like I said, I’m a materialist and think it was most likely some combination of the psychic toll of all the weirdness and human suffering we witnessed and some kind of witch doctor shit mixed up with the dope, but another part of me, the non-materialist part, considers another explanation.

I’d gone into the whole thing ignorant, but I’ve studied it quite a bit since. The people in those places live in a ghost and spirit infested world. Nothing ever happens by chance and nobody ever dies of natural causes. And it was very far from what we know as civilization. Most places didn’t even have electricity. Perhaps different places on earth have different characteristics, especially outside the bustle of modern civilization. Perhaps in those countries some shade of those who suffer horribly and die hang around for awhile. I never saw any happy ghosts. They all seemed grimly resigned to their fate. The African woman in the apartment next to me used to know all this. She still does if she thinks back, but for the most part civilization has chased away her ghosts and spirits, just as it has ours.

And maybe Japan is one of those places on earth that is eminently habitable for the sprit world. We think of Japan as a place of big modern cities, but actually 90 percent of the land is mountain wilderness. The forest is a major character in all three of the artists I’ve been writing about -- Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Murakami, and Miyazaki. Maybe they just know something we’ve forgotten. Don't get me wrong, I don’t believe for a minute in the supernatural, but it’s always possible that there’s a lot of natural we have yet to discover.

Yes, but more likely they just use the local collective unconscious to make art that affects us. Most everyone likes watching a good ghost story in which it's difficult to tell what's imagination and what's reality. Telling that kind of story can be fun as well.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Japanese whispers

I’m not some kind of Japan-ophile and am no more interested in Japan than anywhere else in the world. I would happily go there if someone gave me a round trip ticket and a suitcase full of money, but otherwise it’s way down my list of travel priorities.

Yet, Kafka on the Beach is the third Murakami novel I’ve read recently. I’ve begun to study the films of Hayao Miyazaki and put some thought into Kurosawa’s Rashomon.

Oh, I’ve read Japanese novelists or seen Japanese movies before now. Many years ago I was into the films of Nagisa Oshima and I’ve both seen Mishima and read several of his novels. But that was many years ago and over a long period of time. All this Japanese art and lit has come in a bunch lately. I don't know why.

Tonight as I was reading Kafka, I realized that there are an inordinate number of supernatural themes in Japanese stories. From what I’ve been reading, I’d say that the collective Japanese unconscious must be among the most spirit-infested in the world. The wall between the physical senses and the ghost world is as thin as rice paper.

I’m sure that more educated people are aware of that cultural trait, but the stereotypes I soaked up from popular culture gave me no clue. I think of the salary-men herded into subway cars who work 12 hours and then drink and whore around till late at night; the bright lights and neon of Tokyo; the Buddhist shrines and the zen masters; the giggling schoolgirls and the high tech industries with ultra-rational workers in little orange hard hats. They just don’t seem like the type of people who are obsessed with ghosts and spirit worlds. Shows how much I know, eh?

A Japanese woman lives in the apartment below mine. She is young and quite beautiful, but that neither here not there. I rarely think about her and our conversation has never been more than neighborly. She takes care of the yard and different plants, packages, and seed catalogues are regularly delivered to our door. At a glance you cannot tell that any plan is behind the landscaping. There is no symmetry to her design. She may not even have a design. Yet when you look closely, each plant fits in its space and something is always flowering. If you look very closely, you will find little shrines among the bushes and weeds.

Often at night the smell of Japanese cooking wafts up the stairs. Her bed is directly below ours and now that I’m reading Murakami I suspect that her dreams are mingling with mine, thus my interest in these supernatural Japanese stories. The Earth slowly keeps on turning. But beyond any of those details of the real, there are dreams. And everyone’s living in them.

Well, that’s one possible explanation. I admit that there could be others. Maybe when I'm done with Kafka on the Beach I'll read some real Kafka to bring me back to a more western reality.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Hollow Man

I’m currently reading Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I’ll have more to say about it in the coming weeks, but I like it very much so far. Murakami is one of those people who is infinitely better educated than I am, or could ever possibly be. He has read every book, poem and play and understood them in all their depth and complexity. And he has achieved the same profound understanding of music as well. Or perhaps he just fakes it, being a fiction writer as such? No matter, as long as he fakes it well, which he does.

Anyway, I don’t want to say much about it while I’m only about a quarter of the way through the book, so I’ll limit myself to one observation and provide one interesting link.

There is a character in Kafka that my political friends would probably appreciate. I can’t be certain, but it appears that the Johnny Walker character was modeled upon Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Perhaps not, but the resemblance is truly uncanny.

And since the characters are so fucking well-read and always quoting or referring to literary masterpieces, I actually looked up one of the references, so for your pleasure friend, I provide this link to aT.S. Eliot masterpiece. Ponder it as you drift off to sleep and your dreams will be sunlight on a broken column, under the twinkle of a fading star, for thine is the kingdom, and you will know how the world ends.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Bowden, Whitehead, and Sedaris

For my next trick, I will review three completely unrelated books at the same time. Normally, as I have noted elsewhere, my book reviews are very shallow. I rarely have anything more to say than “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.”

Why do I like something, or not? Usually it’s the story. If the story is good, then I like the book. But I can also be taken in by good writing. If the writing really soars, I can overlook a weak story. And then there’s the entertainment factor. Although I sometimes lean that way, I’m really not one of those literary snobs that feel a book can’t be good if one doesn’t have to suffer to get through it.

Social relevance can be a factor as well, but for me cannot stand on its own. I have no interest in reading a book that is socially relevant but doesn’t tell a good story, isn’t well-written, or has no entertainment value. On the other hand, if a book meets any of the above criteria and has social relevance to boot, then so much the better.

"Watching the performances of my former colleagues, I got the idea that once you assembled the requisite props, the piece would more or less come together on its own. The inflatable shark naturally led to the puddle of heavy cream, which, if lapped from the floor with slow steady precision, could account for up to twenty minutes of valuable stage time. All you had to do was maintain a shell shocked expression and handle a variety of contradictory objects. It was the artist’s duty to find the appropriate objects and the audience’s job to decipher meaning. If the piece failed to work, it was their fault, not yours." -- David Sedaris, Me Talk Pretty One Day

That paragraph pretty much sums up Sedaris’s book. He tells no story. The book reads like a series of writing assignments in which the author is challenged to take an anecdote from real life and embellish it to make it funny. So he takes a little of this, a little of that, throws in a healthy dose of exaggeration and there you have it. The writing is good but not exceptional. It has no social relevance whatsoever. But the anecdotes are entertaining and the book is an enjoyable read. Since the anecdotes are short and there is no plot or any kind of continuity, it’s a good book to read on the subway or john.

"On the buildings the names hung there as if by magic. In the windows of stores they were spread out in an unruly mess, this pure chaos, sick madness, as if tossed into a garbage heap. And the citizens walked the streets, alone, in comfortable pairs, in ragged groups, with their true names blazing over their hearts, without pride or shame, plainly, for this new arrangement was just and true.

Now he was in the Crossroads of the World, as this place had come to be called. The names here were magnificent, gigantic, powered by a million volts and blinking in malevolent dynamism. Off the chart. The most powerful names of all lived here and it was all he could do to stare. He had entered the Apex." --
Colson Whitehead, Apex Hides the Hurt

Several years ago I read The Intuitionist by Whitehead. The premise was fascinating and I thought it was a great novel through about two thirds of it. Although it kind of fell apart towards the end, the writer showed great promise. Apex Hides the Hurt doesn’t exactly fall apart at the end, but it does wrap things up a bit too neatly. The story is interesting. The writing seems forced and/or over-edited, but it is serviceable and good in places. It is moderately entertaining in a literary way. I’m not sure if the story has any social relevance, but it certainly has the pretense of social relevance. All in all, my reaction is lukewarm, but since it’s short and easy to read, I’m comfortable recommending it to anyone interested in literature. I think the author has the potential to truly pull off something great one day.

"It is not right for us to scorn this past since we are still in the very earliest phase of a recovery from it. We sit on a hillside and cannot name the trees, there are simply too many. We look up and cannot name the butterflies, they are too colorful. We walk through the forest and forget the need for names as the flowers hang over our heads. We are on the edge of finding a place." -- Charles Bowden, The Secret Forest

Notice how I selected that quote to contrast with Whitehead? Not only in the obvious way -- how one writes about naming things and the other writes about the inability to name things, but also in the ease that the words flow in Bowden’s writing vs. the feeling of strenuous exercise you sense behind Whitehead’s prose. I know of no writer today who can dash off genuinely great prose with such seaming ease. Even a relatively minor work like The Secret Forest is filled with amazing sentences and sublime paragraphs. And Bowden tells a story, an important story, but he does not tell it in any kind of traditional form. He has seen too much. He knows too much. The little known reality of the southwest (or northwest, depending on your perspective) deserts that he knows so well is ill-suited to the temporal, much less the linear story. But the story is there. Like the forest, it can be a blur of shadow and light, of night and day and dusk and dawn. Valleys and streams lead off in all directions, sometimes they dead end at beautiful waterfalls, sometimes at shallow graves. And the story, like the forest, is not just flora and fauna. Real people live there leading otherwise unsung and anonymous lives. There are is not beginning or end, only beginnings and endings.

If you are unfamiliar with Charles Bowden, I very much recommend you get acquainted. His books can be hard to find because he does not really fit into any category. So you may find him under environmental books or crime of possibly general non-fiction and sometimes Photography (he often collaborates with photographers). Blues for Cannibals is a good place to start. Blue Desert, Desierto, and Blood Orchid work would work as well.

Okay, you've read this far, let Chuck have the last word:
We need new answers and our old answers only get in the way. They are like those Sabbath values nineteenth-century writers like Mark Twain always made fun of -- pieties we tell others but that we make sure do not confine our own lives and habits. We've got a pantry full of junked words like progress, development, capitalism, communism, industrialism, and environmentalism and, if we really get desperate, we haul out that old favorite, lifestyle. We prefer this rhetoric to facing a rather simple problem: In a world where almost everyone is poor, our species takes things faster than they are replaced. And whether one heads into the forest with a machete or a two-hundred-dollar backpack, this simple fact does not change.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Out of the Garage

I’m sorry to report that the Nouvelle Vague music I bought and wrote about a few posts back is not great. Of course I didn’t trust the Guardian review, but I liked the idea of the project enough to risk ten bucks on it.

And I like it okay as background music, but I think ultimately it is more of a novelty record than art that stands on its own. Most of the songs are pleasant. A few, like Guns of Brixton or PiL's This is not a Love Song are pretty good. The Cure's A Forest would be excellent if they would have abstained from ruining it with creatures of the forest noises. A couple, like Depeche Mode’s I just can"t get enough, are simply irritating. The Dead Kennedys’ Too Drunk to Fuck is the only one that feels like total Kitsch.

In general, it’s not the songs that keep Nouvelle Vague from being good, nor is it the vocals which are generally very well done. The music has no life at all. It sounds like it was created in Garage Band, just a bunch of loops with the all too occasional sound effect. There is not a hint of either depth or innovation.

It didn’t help that I actually went out and saw live music last night that featured a few real Brazilian musicians. Angelique Kidjo was at Celebrate Brooklyn and put on a great show. The crowd was one of the best I’ve ever been in at the Prospect Park bandshell and Angelique was able to pull off one of the best crowd sing-alongs I’ve ever seen. The band was hot and they played a variety of music from African Souskous to Salsa and Brazilian music to Jimmy Hendrix.

The Garage Band compositions from Nouvelle Vague sounded listless before I saw the concert After an hour or so of real Brazilians (and others) playing real instruments those pre-packaged Nouvelle Vague songs sounded distressingly lifeless.