Thursday, May 26, 2011

Veit Helmer's TUVALU

We never see the island nation of Tuvalu in this odd little German experimental film, but seeing Tuvalu is not the point at all as we explore the last days of a decrepit bathhouse in Eastern Europe and the lives of the people who are keeping it going.

Tuvalu is that oddity of oddities, a silent film with sound, by which I mean it uses all of the tropes of silent film -- broadly gesture-driven acting that occasionally strays into mime, strong and somewhat exaggerated facial expressions -- but also employs a full range of sound effects. What it lacks, for the most part, is dialogue, and what little there is, is in a hodgepodge of Eastern European languages that goes unsubtitled because subtitles are not necessary; the meaning is always perfectly clear, even when the rare spoken words are not obvious English loan words or cognates.

It evokes great old silents (especially German Expressionist triumphs like The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari), too, in its monochrome cinematography, mostly warm and rich sepia but with occasional outdoor scenes shot in green or blue, and a wonderful handling of light, especially in the scenes taking place in the weirdly beautiful old swimming pool at the bath house's heart.

But the real joy in Tuvalu is in watching its lead actors. Denis Lavant, who plays Anton, the good son of the bath house's aging, dotty owners (the bad son is engaged in trying to tear down and sell off the bath house to developers), has not only a wonderfully expressive face but an uncommon grace of movement; he's like a ballet dancer or a gymnast as he bounds kinetically through scenes that put these abilities of his on fine display as he scrambles to maintain the illusion that not only is everything in the bath house still in working order but is in working order through impressive modern technology, an illusion he creates largely through putting the business's regulars to work behind the scenes to convince an inspector that the showers, blow dryers, and the all-important boiler (a fantasy in steam punk) are in perfect working order.

He's paired here with Russian actress Chulpan Khamatova, who is as cute as Audrey Tatou and as opaquely innocent-looking as Patricia Arquette, as Eva. Hers is the dream to leave for Tuvalu on her boat that is almost in working order; all she needs is one part that happens to also be a crucial part for the boiler that keeps the bath house going...

Of course Anton falls in love with Eva, in a series of charming scenes that play with perspective in eye-bending ways, long before they realize they are actually at cross-purposes. The course of true love never did run smoothly, not even in a swimming pool full of goldfish...

My favorite scene occurs toward the end, after evil brother Gregor has persuaded the family to replace Mama (who mans the admissions window and has developed a weird habit of accepting buttons as currency) with a fancy modern ticket selling machine, only to have it break during his first demonstration. In a perfect illustration of the sunk cost fallacy that reminded me wonderfully of the dotty muscle-powered space program in Victor Pelevin's Omon Ra, the family has set up the remnants of the machine in the ticket window; when an inspector attempts to gain admission with a button, Mama shakes her head and insists he put an actual coin in the slot. The coin rolls down a shute into a glass jar, Mama simulates some computer-ish whirring noises, hands the inspector a ticket, and finishes up by flicking a cigarette lighter to illuminate a light-up panel on the machine. It's hilarious and touching and poignant all at once and perfectly encapsulates right there all that I love about this movie.

So, if you're looking for something a little different to while away an hour or so, I can't recommend this film highly enough. As with most of the weird stuff I've found lately, it's streaming right now on Netflix. Go for it!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

William Tom Frank

So a hollow voice murmured in my ear the other morning suggesting that I take a look at the video embedded above, a strange combination of drama, cultural criticism and experimental photography called Swap Thing. And all I can say as I take it in is…




I’ve watched it a dozen times and I can’t decide if this video has come to us a) From our future b) From an alternate universe or c) From some random guys just trying to scare me. Of course, that’s not to discount possibility d) That it was made by some random guys in the future of an alternate universe or a few other combinatorial likelihoods.

Whatever its origins, man is it ever creepy. Oh, not in a “you are likely to be eaten” way or an “every breath you take way” or a “how many legs does that thing actually have” way, but in that it plays on some very real worries I’ve been unable to stop entertaining as I watch matters progress in the fields entertainment and law.

I think the moment that really gets me is when the blond guy, the one who looks wholesome and upright but whose behavior seems the shadiest (while the British one natters on about Toy Story 3, he nips off to drop a dime on the scruffy guy in the goggles, who looks shady but behaves innocently), names, of all things, patent theft as the worst crime of all. Hold the phone – patent theft is the worst crime? Patent theft? Patent theft is worse than murder, extortion, vandalism? Really?

What kind of world is that guy living in?

Have a look for yourself.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

100 Books 27 - Jane McGonigal's REALITY IS BROKEN

Jane McGonigal is one hip chick, in ways I thought I was too but find that I really am not.

It's a strange and vaguely disappointing thing, being confronted by one's own un-hipness. I feel very connected and in touch via my amazing Twitter feed, which consists for me essentially of a thousand or so friends constantly on the watch for cool new stuff, disturbing news, ideas, breakthroughs, constantly saying "look at THIS, you guys!"

But somehow about 90% of the games and idea implementations McGonigal talks about in Reality is Broken are ones of which I had never heard before. This stuff has been right under my nose, just a click or two away from virtual places I frequent, and I've been all but wholly ignorant of it! How in the world did that happen?

Partly, I suppose, it's because I'm kind of crap as a gamer. I'm of that generation that came of age alongside video games, but missed out on a lot of the early years due to geographical and cultural isolation. My middle school had A personal computer, an Apple IIe over which a handful of us (and only a handful; most of my schoolmates, mercifully, were profoundly uninterested in it) fought, in order to get a few minutes on it to play, e.g. a crudely animated arithmetic game in which we destroyed very abstract asteroids by entering the correct answers to math problems. Someone out there probably knows the name; I don't remember. But so while so many of my present-day friends were sitting in their parents' dens and basements playing Zork and teaching themselves to program, I wasn't. This is not a complaint; I had a fulfilling if vaguely old-fashioned childhood, but it was in Wyoming, where it was still the 1950s except with modern cars and (eventually) cable TV. And the one arcade video game down at the 7-11, which the bigger, drunker kids usually were hogging.

I've done my best to make up for lost time since then, of course. Fast forward to the present and I have an Xbox360 that I break out every now and then for a spell -- I game in binges. When I find something I really like, say, the Oddworld games, I play the hell out of it, sometimes forgetting to go to bed; my days off disappearing into the game world, leaving me a semi-delirious shadow of myself when it's time to resume my day gig. It's bad for me but since I live alone there's little to keep me from doing it except for old-fashioned self-discipline, which resource I'm currently channeling into other endeavors, so, bottom line, I don't play very often. And because I'm a cheap bastard in certain ways, I'm also a few cycles behind the cutting edge as far as new games; my friends are all raving right now about L.A. Noire while I'm sort of desultorily poking at Alan Wake, for example (desultorily not because I don't dig the game, but because I've got a lot of pressing demands on my time just now and can't afford to disappear into that world for hours or days like I do).

But hell, I pay attention. I know what L.A. Noire is and that it's going to be a hell of a lot of fun to play when I get around to it.

But somehow, I had never heard of most of what McGonigal is talking about in this book.


Reality is Broken is that rare thing, a positive polemic, arguing that gaming in general and video/computer games in particular are far more a force for good than for degradation and sloth, as most of the popular press still likes to portray them. The statistics she cites about how much collective time and energy we expend playing these games are staggering and at times both im- and oppressive, but, being a game designer herself, a gamer herself, and someone who has made it her responsibility to forecast the future and find our best possible outcomes, she does not decry the spreading bottoms, the carpal tunnel, the (mostly-bogus) claims that these games desensitize us to violence and rudeness and misogyny that are all the cliches that arise when most writers tackle the subject of how we all seem more interested in interacting with pixels than people.

Rather, she argues that it's best that we accept that this is how we as a species like to spend our time; it's not going to change short of some kind of brutally oppressive regime exterminating the game industry, taking away all of our toys, and exercising superhuman powers of surveillance and invasiveness and every other dystopian police state tactic to suppress the black market that would inevitably arise. We like to play. You can whine about it and wring your hands, or you can take it as a starting point, accept it as a fact of humanity, and find a way to work with it to achieve a much nicer future.

These games, she argues over and over again, are nothing more than a massive, decentralized, somewhat anarchic training program for the future. We are all the Last Star Fighter, except no external force has crafted the simulation that is testing us; in playing these games we are eternally bootstrapping ourselves forward. It's a nice thought.

I won't waste anybody's time summarizing the argument she constructs; plenty of reviews and columns and essays have already done so. For this blog and this series I'm more interested in documenting my experience of reading these books I've chosen. I will say that I found her arguments more persuasive than not*, and have been delighted at all of the discoveries she has led me to, like FreeRice (a vocabulary game in which each correct answer results in a donation of ten grains of rice to an anti-hunger project) and PlusOneMe (a sort of social media site that allows users to "plus one" other people in a wide range of categories to reward their real-life performances in the fashion of stats boosts in video games) and Investigate Your MP's Expenses (in which a British newspaper turned the tedious chore of sifting through a million pages of Parliament member expense reports to find the kind of essentially fraudulent reimbursements elected officials were making to themselves into a massive, crowd-sourced game), to name three. That lots of game designers, players and enthusiasts are doing exceptionally exciting and creative things was never news, but that so many are trying so hard to harness our inherent fondness for tackling unnecessary obstacles, our hunger for real engagement, to improve real life kind of was, to me.

While this has been thrilling, however, in a very real sense reading this book has also felt weirdly depressing. As she makes her argument about the inherent attractiveness of gaming, she contrasts it with the meager offerings of the real world, our "broken reality" which does not easily offer us focused and achievable goals, satisfying work, chances to be adventurous and heroic, measurable feedback on our accomplishments and failures, and many other things positive psychologists have highlighted as keys to feeling that life is really worth living. Which is to say she is constantly reminding us that real life as it is constructed now is really rather a sad and dull affair, disconnected, hopeless and meaningless, a reservoir of near-infinite human potential going to waste. And all the problems we face: climate change, dwindling fossil fuel supplies and slow progress towards replacing that resource, threats to the food chain, poverty, economic crises -- the list is long, and the litany appears over and over again as she talks about the kinds of problems she is sure we can solve if we tap into this weird resource we've bootstrapped ourselves into creating with games: a huge population of people eager to collaborate, brainstorm, imagine and, above all, work (for as anyone who's spent hours and hours trying to beat a modern game can tell you, gaming is totally work).

And I'm convinced that what she is proposing can happen, though not through games alone. It can happen because of what we are making of ourselves with technology, the connections we are forging every day, the hive mind we so like to joke about but all have come to rely on. Our biological evolution may seem to be stalled but our evolution as a species has left us unrecognizable to our ancestors, after all; what would even our great grandparents make of us walking around, Bluetooth headsets in our ears, talking to thin air, pulling gadgets out of our pockets to look at and laugh and get excited and participate in arguments great and small. We are becoming telepathic with technology, with consequences marvelous and yes, sometimes a little ugly (forum trolls, anyone?). The potential is there and it is manifesting in more remarkable ways every day. But we're still at bottom jumped-up hominids with brains that are messy evolutionary kluges, and so to tap all of this potential we basically have to trick it: we have to turn our world into a game if we're going to save it and be happy.

Why the hell not?

*She hooked me in right away with an example from Herodotus, in which a famine in ancient Lydia was in part addressed via games: the kingdom mandated that every other day would be a fast day in which everybody played games, immersing themselves so entirely they would not notice their hunger pangs, and so passed 18 years and the society survived. I've always loved that story (hell, I love Herodotus period) and that she used it as one of her first supporting examples grabbed my attention like perhaps nothing else would.

Monday, May 16, 2011

100 Books 26 - Rob Kroese's MERCURY FALLS

With the latest date for the start of the end of the world just around the corner -- supposedly the Rapture is now set for May 21st, another chance to spoof your neighbors by leaving random piles of clothing on the sidewalks -- what reading could be more appropriate than some good old Apocalypse slapstick?

What, you didn't know that was a genre? Well it is, albeit one with very few entries so far (even fewer if you don't count the works of Tim LaHaye). It is so obvious that Rob Kroese had so much fun writing this one, though, that there are sure to be imitators if there aren't already. It will be hard to get the style, which owes a very great deal to Douglas Adams both in its delivery of one-liners and its terrifying grasp of the ins and outs of giant bureaucracies (remember, Adams didn't just write the HHGTG books but is also responsible for the maddening Infocom text adventure, Bureaucracy), but I'm sure folks will try.

Mercury Falls comes down in the "not with a bang but with a whimper" camp of world-ending narratives, almost completely reducing Armageddon to a legal dispute -- even the famous Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are rendered as attache cases, which only exhibit the powers for which they are sought about 2/3 of the time, wreaking highly consequential havoc the other third. The Apocalypse Accord took hundreds of years to hammer out in excruciating bureaucratic detail by a heavenly agency that makes the IRS look like five guys smoking in someone's basement. That the Accord is so airtight that the Devil is guaranteed to lose is the main engine that drives the plot, for his Unholiness just signed to get it over with and decided to figure out a way to circumvent it all later.

Enter mortal journalist Christine Temeri, whose born-again boss has assigned her the global Apocalypse Cult beat, writing stories about freaky doomsday cults and waiting and watching with them until time and circumstance prove them embarrassingly wrong -- until she stumbles, not entirely by accident, on one that isn't, or isn't exactly, and meets Mercury, sometime angel, sometime pagan deity of mischief and commerce and communication, doing his utmost to be worthy of all that his name has come to mean but also, seemingly, sitting this one out, until the job of dealing with the Antichrist falls into his lap.

I won't spoil the Antichrist for you, except to observe that he is, indeed, as Mercury calls him a few too many times, a "dickweed" and that his method of selection is very amusing. He's not at all a powerful or commanding figure, is Karl; the job that Mercury and Christine land is of protecting him rather than stopping him, for he is potentially a walking loophole for the Devil and everybody wants him.

My only complaint about Mercury Falls lies in the actual experience of reading it. It should perhaps tell you something that this is the book I put aside to read all of A Song of Ice and Fire as it currently exists, and ASOIAF was a bit of a refreshing break from it. This is not to say that Mercury Falls is in any way a bad book, just a peculiarly relentless one. What it amounts to is that Rob Kroese is very smart, and very funny, and I look forward to the day when he decides he doesn't have to prove this quite so thoroughly in his fiction -- sometimes several times on a single page. His favorite device is a rhetorical equivalency wherein he adds a pop culture annoyance to a list of serious ills "some very evil people, like the Nazis or ABBA"; "Spreading plague, burning witches, breaking up Van Halen, there's no telling what he's got her working on now." Since the whole nature of his Antichrist manifests in much this same way, it becomes a bit much; for my money, a book this funny as a whole doesn't need to keep reminding me that it's funny in all of its minute parts.

That annoyance aside, Mercury Falls is an entertaining read, as its author is an entertaining follow on Twitter, and a very timely choice if you're looking for something to read right before the Rapture.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


The Bed Sitting Room Directed by Richard Lester

Damn it, I'm pretty sure I just went insane. Either that or Richard "Superman II" Lester did back in 1969. Or both.

I like a weird movie. Terry Gilliam always makes me smile, and never so much so as in Brazil (except maybe also Twelve Monkeys). Alejandro Jodorowsky makes me scratch my head in (mostly) that good way. Stanley Kubrick is always entertaining, especially when he's romping through Doctor Strangelove. And long have I been a Monty Python fan -- so long I can't remember not being one. Because my mother is that awesome.

While I can't say I've ever seriously asked myself what would happen if we took all of the above, ran it through a blender (with a good dose of the Philip K. Dick of Dr. Bloodmoney) and filmed the result, it would appear that someone else did -- and many years before a lot of that stuff even existed: in 1969 Richard Lester, who would later make two Christopher Reeve Superman movies and a lot of other junk, teamed up with the original authors of the stage play, Spike Milligan and John Antrobus, and made this utter farce, The Bed Sitting Room.

The Bed Sitting Room is an absurd picaresque that follows a handful of characters through a Britain that has been utterly destroyed by a "nuclear misunderstanding" that may or may not have had its origins in a dispute over how much rent the nation owed the Chinese for continued occupancy of No. 10 Downing Street. Of the estimated 20 people who remain alive, the nearest in line to the throne is a Mrs. Etheyl Shroake, whose name and residence cause no end of metrical dilemmas to those who sing the revised national anthem and who looks most uncomfortable seated royally on a horse. Fortunately, she doesn't have to much as she is the least interesting figure, with the least screen time in the film. Yeah, it's like that.

What we have instead of a dotty suburban dame trying to rule the rubble is a family who live on a still-running train in the London Underground, who emerge into the wasteland above only when the parents finally decide it's time they found a nurse to help daughter Penelope have her baby -- she has been pregnant for 18 months after all. And that is not their only cause for hurry; whatever bomb destroyed Britain has left behind powerfully weird mutagens; a Peer is transforming into the titular bed sitting room, a sergeant into a dog, and as for Mummy and Daddy, well!

All of this madness is handled with pure British aplomb even as ridiculous lines are delivered: "I always knew my inside leg would lead to power" being, perhaps, my favorite, except, perhaps, when Peter Cook, in a move way prefiguring his iconic appearance in The Princess Bride, dons a mitre and performs a farcical wedding ceremony amidst the rubble of St. Paul's Cathedral.

And hey, it won a Hugo award!

To watch this film is to constantly wonder if it is real, so fantastic is its melange of ideas and images and slingshots into the boffo. It's streaming on Netflix right now; if you think you can stand this much awesome, you owe it to yourself to go have a look.

But avoid beverages unless you like spraying them all over the living room.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

100 Books 25 - Gene Wolfe's PANDORA BY HOLLY HOLLANDER

I am a fan of Gene Wolfe's even though sometimes I'm not sure I know what that means. I'm not sure I've gotten all there is to be gotten out of his mind-bending books, as dense with allusion as illusion, misdirection as straightforward narrative, shifty, complicated, deceptive, almost always presented from the point of view of an unreliable narrator who is often a self-serving liar (as is Severian in the four-volume Book of the New Sun) or, as is the case here, is bright but perhaps not as bright as she thinks she is... or is it we who aren't so bright?

Pandora by Holly Hollander is at first glance a murder mystery, told by the point of view of Holly Hollander, teen detective, a young woman from a privileged Chicagoland family who has benefited about as much from her advantages as one can but who is still a bit problematic as a storyteller; her narrative voice, complete with colloquial interjections and almost-erudite observations is one of Wolfe's masterpieces. She is more aware of what's going on around her than any of her elders suspect, but she is no Nancy Drew; where Nancy teases out clues methodically and constructs a simple narrative of what really happened, Holly bulldozes her way through situations, knowing she'll be forgiven because she is young and pretty and something by way of a potential heiress, and she imposes her own will on delicate situations where a more experienced and subtle detective would stand back and observe, but that is how she gets her weird and wonderful results.

If this sounds like I'm writing about a juvenile novel, well, I am to a degree, but this is Gene Wolfe so there's lots more going on of which a surface reader is only dimly aware. One character is mad and in the custodianship of his younger brother; the brother's wife Elaine is Holly's mother and a strange figure who vibrates with mythological power and, partnered with an improbably handsome subaltern in the story's depths, warps the whole story around her; a criminologist named Aladdin Blue seems almost a Merlin figure; the whole milieu is just reminiscent enough of Wolfe's Castleview, which concerned finding a new bearer for Excaliber, that I suspect my Arthurian inklings are not imaginary.

But I must confess that right now, I can't quite tease them out. Further readings of Pandora by Holly Hollander will doubtless be required, and will indeed be undertaken because, as in all good fiction, inside or outside the mystery genre, the mystery plot isn't everything and knowing whodunnit on subsequent readings won't, I am confident, spoil my enjoyment here.

Still scratching my head over this one, but in that good way.

Monday, May 9, 2011

George R.R. Martin's A FEAST FOR CROWS

Oh my goodness.

I was warned starting in on A Feast For Crows that it was a slow burn, that some elements would be missing, that it was going to be fundamentally different from the three books preceding it, but no amount of warning could prepare me for what Joel of Oak Park, IL illuminated so brilliantly in his Good Reads review of the book, which can be found here. Go have a look. I'll wait.

Nor is that stunning dadaist triumph in any way a satire or exaggeration. That line, repeated to the point of being felt as a bludgeon, really does appear at least that many times in A Feast for Crows, spoken by a character who has already been established in prior novels in A Song of Ice and Fire as being more than a bit stolid. Monomaniacally now she has set off on the last shred of her quest to keep the last fragments of her promises, and we are dragged along for every excruciating step of her plodding journey. A far cry from what I've lauded in the prior three books? Yes it is.

Fortunately that is not all there is to A Feast for Crows, but it is a strong indicator that the crows have not left us much in this case.

George R.R. Martin apparently got carried away in continuing his thumping great series beyond A Storm of Swords, so much so that he decided at some point to cut the next book in two, and, furthermore, not simply to stop halfway through the story he had spun out for A Feast for Crows but to excise wholly entire story lines and move them to a future book. Many beloved characters have been hanging from many cliffs for many years now, and A Feast for Crows left them hanging; many get barely a mention in this book.

What we get instead are a spate of minor characters, new and old, taking center stage in ways both good and, as I complained of above, bad -- and also what perhaps saves this novel from feeling completely like filler, the comeuppance of a villainess who is perhaps the only figure in the book that Martin has left as a completely hateable figure, a woman who spent so much time and energy scheming to take power that she didn't leave any over for deciding what to do with that power once she had it -- apart from Making Them Pay, of course. Her unraveling is told with great skill and is enjoyable to watch, and even here, in the final moments of the decline and fall of a pretty much unvarnished villain, Martin manages to wring from us a bit of sympathy for her. But just a bit.

Meanwhile another seeming villain appears poised to actually become the hero of the epic overall, which is not something I would have predicted in the early days when I started this series. This character's turn has been so subtle I didn't see it coming for a long time either. Bravo!

Alas, I still feel the impulse to cry foul. George R.R. Martin is not a young man and there are two more volumes to go after the next, A Dance with Dragons sees daylight in July, and I feel like he was coasting here. Extremely repetitive dialogue aside, the storyline in which one maid quests after another (especially since the reader is fully aware of the fate of that other) is still one this story could have done very well without, and while I can confess to have had a certain curiosity about a realm within the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros which had only gotten off-hand references before, the chapters set there and the personalities illuminated generally bored me. Perhaps I merely suffer from plot fatigue at this point?

At least there wasn't too much religious nonsense of the kind I complained of in A Storm of Swords, though it was a resurgence of fanaticism within the state religion that proved our villainess' undoing. This is cause for concern, though, as with her effectively neutralized I suspect that the last big secular storyline has concluded and the remaining three books will now romp through all the jihads and counter-jihads the prior four have set the stage for. I really hope that doesn't happen, but am pessimistic. This is fantasy, after all.

But so, what color is Sansa Stark's hair again? Ugh...