Friday, September 30, 2011


Movies have given me many sensations over the years. Linklater's A Scanner Darkly and Lyne's Jacob's Ladder, for instance, both got me what I can only call high; Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain made me feel I was being metaprogrammed a la Robert Anton Wilson... there are others, you get the idea.

Sebastian Brahm's first feature, Roman's Circuit, though, is the first one that made me feel like a guinea pig.


To quote Inigo Montoya, let me esplain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

Roman's Circuit concerns an odd and upsetting stage in the career of Roberto Roman, a neuroscientist of some renown. As a young man, he shipped a groundbreaking theory of memory migration -- the process by which memories mutate over time from a straight-up record of an event or period into a conscious narrative, which he says happens when different "circuits" of the brain take up these memories over time -- under the guidance of a mentor for whom, years later and somewhat washed up, he returns to work with. Said mentor being his mother's boyfriend. And Roman's ex-girlfriend is dating a departmental rival. And the department is encountering opposition to its experimentation, which relies a lot on animals. And stuff.

But the plot isn't really the thing here, cut up into shards of revelation and startling image as it is.

Brahm has done something quite subtle and remarkable here. As the film opens, we are given pieces of story, exposed to ideas and images and dynamics; we are given the raw stuff, in fact, of a memory. And as the film continues, it and our own brains integrate more ideas, more layers, more elements that subtly but profoundly change our understanding of what's going on. Our memories change, and with them our reactions to certain repeated scenes and images -- the poster falling down as seen in the trailer above, for instance, is seen several times and has different overtones each time.

Think on all of that for a moment. Do you have memories that have maybe changed over time? My own experience here bears out what I'm saying quite vividly. For instance, my ten-year class reunion was a revelation: lots of people I thought I'd known very well (ours was a small school in a small town and 90% of my graduating class had been in pre-school with me), remembered a whole lot of things a whole lot differently from how I recalled them, were sometimes completely backwards about things. Or was I?

It thus occurred to me, about 2/3 of the way during the film, that given that animal research is becoming more and more problematic, scientists are perhaps someday going to have to develop new methods of experimentation. And mightn't one of them, for neuroscientists and psychologists at least, be narrative film?

I got the opportunity to ask this of Brahm, more generally in the Q&A (TIFF tickets are worth the expense just for the Q&A, they really, really are) and in person after the screening. He smiled at the thought, kind of mysteriously, and seemed taken with the idea.

So I wonder what kind of data point I form...

Roman"s Circuit and a less-good film we also saw (mp3)

Monday, September 26, 2011


Your Humble Blogger is very pleased to announce that as of today, the paperback edition of Suppertime Sonnets, a curated selection of poems from my other blog, is now available from Amazon!

Just look at that cover! The work of cover art maestro Viktor Farro under the auspices of Aaron Nathaniel Ommus, who took on the task of turning my iambic ramblings into a handsome little book. The groovy Elizabethan cartoon by M.R. Neno that serves as the cover for the ebook edition appears in the paperback as the title page.

I'm proud as hell of this thing and happy to offer it to those of you who have been nagging me, some of your for years, about how that project really needed to be a book.

Now, onward to the next project, a little thing some of you already know about called Omi & Lulu: The Siren Sea. Moar poesy! This time for kids.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

TIFF 2011: Xiaolu Guo's UFO IN HER EYES

TIFF 2011 was a great festival for science fiction finds, and this was another favorite, a Chinese entry of the low-fi sci-fi kind with a lot of interesting twists and subplots and surprises.

It was also, for me, a year for documentary filmmakers trying their hands at fictional narratives, for the most part successfully; Xiaolu Guo is well-established as same and must have some rocking international connections because she got her craziest, most off-the-wall possible wish for casting this film: for her Steve Fossett-analog western character, she got crazy German star Udo Kier. And she got him to sing. Drunkenly, magnificently, and gloriously badly.

UFO in her Eyes is not primarily about that character, though, but about the woman who rescues him from snakebite after having some strange encounters of her own. Kwok Yun (played by a previously unknown-to-me actress, Ke Shi, with an earthy, funky earnestness that made her a joy to watch), middle aged and single but still attractive and interesting enough to turn a few married heads, has come from a furtive outdoor tryst, found a strange crystal, peered through it and seen in the sky something she could not explain. The film offers a lot of possibilities of what that was, but since the story is very much from Kwok Yun's uneducated perspective, we viewers are left to grapple with them ourselves even as the inhabitants of her tiny village do when she shows up with an injured American and a wild story.

The resulting narrative is as much an allegory for the transformation of China's economy from Maoist communism to state capitalism as anything else. The storytelling gets split perhaps a bit too much -- a lot of secondary characters get a lot more screen time than most directors would give them -- but the impact of Kwok Yun's strange story is what drives all as her village and its forceful, daffy Chief (another remarkable Chinese actress whose name I'm having trouble tracking down; she steals every scene she is in even when she isn't being funny) see an influx of money and opportunity -- and government pressure to change, pressure some resist with somewhat tragic results.

I look forward to seeing more of Xiaolu Guo's work, to more of Ke Shi's, and more low-fi sci-fi (which I did get more of in the festival -- stay tuned!). If you have a chance to see this strange bit of filmmaking, do not hesitate.

UFO In Her Eyes (mp3)

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Man, is Nacho "Timecrimes" Vigalondo someone to watch. I loved Timecrimes, found it a shining example of what is coming to be called "low-fi sci-fi"* before I knew that was a thing. When I saw the director had a new film at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, I jumped up and down and put it at the top of my must-see list and promptly totally forgot what it was even supposed to be about.

In my opinion, that is the best state of mind in which to see a film.

I was, therefore, pretty unprepared to spend near two hours laughing my head off at what at bottom is really a first-rate romantic farce with trace science fiction elements. Yes, there are UFOs, depicted as hovering menacingly over every major city, but this is far from a conventional alien invasion story; the menace merely turns a handful of neighbors loose on each other in an atmosphere of heightened paranoia, suspicion and opportunistic teepee-creeping.

Carlos Areces, whom I swear I have seen before but whose IMDB entry contains nothing else familiar to me, comes damned close to stealing this show as the leading lady's obsessive, stalkerish neighbor. He's part of an amazing cast that Vigalondo wisely trusted to carry off some amazing scenes, including a Mogambo-esque drunken dinner party in which very little is actually said but everything is communicated, hilariously for we, the audience, in the know.

Since this was TIFF, Vigalondo was there for the screening and a Q&A afterwards, one of the most entertaining I've ever seen. This is a guy who loves making films and has a lot of energy; he hopped all over the stage and joked with us about [SPOILER ALERT] how he has big plans for the promotion of the sequel, Extraterrestrial 2: Now With Extraterrestrials. Man, do I dig this guy.

*Which I would define, pulling said definition out of thin air, as science fiction that does not rely on special effects or overly on an overtly science fictional plot to achieve its storytelling.

Again, I have included Paul's and my Audioboo from the day we saw this:

Extraterrestrial (mp3)

100 Books 50 - Haruki Murakami's KAFKA ON THE SHORE

When I was in school, magic realism seemed to be the special property of the South Americans -- Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sabato, Gabriel Garcia Marquez above all. And, Borges aside, I found it none too enchanting as an idea or a genre; it stayed on my radar but the pings were few and far between.

Then I stumbled across Haruki Murakami's After Dark while perusing the new books at my local public library a couple of years ago, and got hooked on Murukami's dreamy style, the clear concision of his prose, Murakami's erudition and his strange imagination. I rushed to read the rest of the library's collection of his offerings -- Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle -- and pegged him as someone to watch for, forevermore.

Reading Kafka on the Shore felt a lot like reading W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn (quite possibly my favorite read of this waning year) except with narrative. The same seductive dreaminess is there, the same plunges into what just cannot be but is so convincingly presented it feels true anyway, the same reluctance to finish and put the book aside. Unlike Rings of Saturn, though, which I ultimately did put aside to save it for a rainy day, Kafka on the Shore wouldn't let me go until its stories were told -- or mostly told*.

Murakami's characters inhabit strange inner and outer worlds that really don't often make sense, but are rendered in such lovely language (and Murakami does his own translating, I believe!) that the near-incoherence still just works. I can't imagine real people ever having the weirdly opaque conversations these characters do, or making the decisions they do, but I guess that's what makes this realism magic, no?

To talk about the details of the story -- a teenaged runaway, a murder, an Oedipal drama, a quest -- is not so much to commit the hideous modern sin of spoilers as to completely miss the point. This book is a lovely, gentle drug in prose form, mildly intoxicating and more than a little addictive. And yes, I want more.

*Frustratingly, there are narrative questions left unanswered, including one really big one that I'm still a little miffed about. The whole of the two interwoven accounts starts with a strange event of which there is no account; we see its effects but nothing of the cause. This absence still gnaws at me and spoils my enjoyment of the book just a bit.

Friday, September 23, 2011


I think I like the original French title for this film, Terre Outragée, a little better than the English Land of Oblivion. For film that examines in a very specific and  haunting way the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, a phrase that appears (to this non-Francophone) to translate as "the insulted" or even "the assaulted" land just better suits.

This film, director Michelle Boganim's first non-documentary, hit me where I live, despite how its narrative kind of falls apart toward the end (to be frank, I didn't notice how much was left dangling until I discussed it later with my best film buddy, who has a sharper eye for that sort of thing and into whom this film did not get its emotional hooks as deep). It begins by presenting a rapturous rural Ukrainian idyll, all rowboats on the river and kids at play on a lushly wooded riverbank; we learn the pair in the rowboat are soon to be married and they are happily in love. Knowing this film does concern Chernobyl, the viewer can't help but know this is not going to end well, but everything is so beautifully presented and photographed that happy sighs escape as the scenes are taken in -- even when rain interrupts the wedding party and drives everyone under cover.

Queue dead fish floating belly up in the river. Dying, blackened trees. And power plant employees, including the bridegroom, being summoned to work under mysterious circumstances.

Boganim wisely doesn't dwell on any attempt to re-enact the tragedy itself; all of this is just prologue. The main events take place 25 years later, when stubborn, homesick former residents of the village of Pripyat (just eight miles from the reactors) start finding various excuses to return home despite official warnings not to. Noplace else is home; nowhere else feels right; cancer and radiation sickness and ruined, moldy houses with mutant birch trees growing through them be damned.

I could relate. I have a similar attachment to the valley where I grew up, a valley that lives under threat of destruction, not from a nuclear accident but from forest fire (look up any article you wish about the Medicine Bow National Forest and its lost battle with the Mountain Pine Beetle). It has its hooks in me gut-deep and I can never tear myself away, and you bet even if it did somehow, someday, become an irradiated hellhole, I would still sneak back to be there if even one tree was standing, one pool of water still reflecting the sky.

Yeah, this film made me cry. Well done, Ms. Boganim. Well done.

Once again, I have embedded the AudioBoo I recorded with Paul Laroquod the day we saw the film, just for completeness' sake.

The Land of Oblivion (mp3)

Thursday, September 22, 2011


Imagine you're a filmmaker. Maybe you even are one. And it's all you've ever wanted to do, and you're good at it, and the world has come to love your work and love you for doing that work.

Now imagine your government has banned you from doing it for 20 years because it finds your work politically objectionable in some way.

That's the plight in which we find Jafar Panahi as this elegantly moving little documentary, This is Not a Film, opens. His case is on appeal; his lawyer is on the fight; his family is trying to keep his hopes up. But he's at home and going a bit stir crazy, a completed script that's ready to shoot tormenting him. So he asks a fellow filmmaker, a documentarian, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to come over and just noodle around with him. Bring a camera.

The resulting portrait of an artist going a little stir crazy feels like it should be a lot more uncomfortable to watch than it is; Panahi is doing his best to handle his situation with grace and humor and the cracks only really show once, towards the end of an extended "scene" in which he is reading from his script and sort of enacting it in a room of his home (I have been banned from writing and directing, but not from acting, he tells us early on. Bit of a stretch, but aren't loopholes always?).

For me, the film is almost stolen by Panahi's daughter's pet iguana, who treats Panahi as part of the furniture and stares impassively into Mirtahmasb's camera for long, hilarious seconds in the process -- which becomes retroactively even more amusing later when a neighbor who knows Panahi is home and bored tries to press him into dogsitting a yappy dachsund who wants no part of the filmmaking and comes unglued at the sight of the equipment.

This is Not a Film was screened for free at the Toronto International Film Festival, and while there was no way Panahi was going to be let out of the country to attend, there were hopes that Mirtahmasb could -- alas, dashed; the documentarian was detained on his way to Toronto and may now be in the same pickle as Panahi. Good thing the duo seems to have invented a new way of not making a film: grab a guy who isn't in trouble yet and have him run the cameras while they talk about the film they'd be making if allowed. Repeat until everyone in the country is banned from making films. Nice job, Iran.

Oh, and in case you missed it, here's an AudioBoo I recorded with Paul Laroquod soon after seeing the film.

#TIFF11 #1: This Is Not A Film (mp3)

100 Books 49 - Michael Bishop's PHILIP K. DICK IS DEAD, ALAS

Book #43 in this series was a Philip K. Dick pastiche by Philip K. Dick. Here is one by an admirer, and I'm happy to report it is of equal quality as well as being a marvelous love letter to a writer who would have, I think, been immensely gratified and flattered to see himself portrayed, as Dick is here, as what amounts to an agent of VALIS.

Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas is not only the novel's title but also the first line of a doggerel elegy that haunts the universe of this book the way "All Along the Watchtower" does Battlestar Galactica; at least two characters believe they came up with it and its follow-up line "Let's all queue up to kick God's ass." But little time is left for these characters to mourn this important literary author whose subversive works earned him a top spot on perennial President Richard Nixon's enemies list even into the great man's third term of office; there is vital work for them all!

Third term? That's right. Not only did Watergate never happen in this universe, not only did the U.S. win the Vietnam War and establish a lunar outpost called Von Braunville as part of its detente with the Soviet Union, but Nixon has stayed on top and his ideological and actual grip on his country is as tight as any gaggle of Burmese generals could wish for. Only in death could Dick begin effectively to combat his power, and only as a non-corporeal spirit urging others towards a very spirtual coup that echoes not only Dick's VALIS books but also The Man in the High Castle. As the book winds towards its climax the Dickian elements feel piled on a bit too thickly, with even a convenient Episcopal bishop tossed into the mix, but I found myself forgiving this as it felt like another old friend come to visit; I recall similar feelings when characters from old original Oz books turned up for cameos in Ruth Plumly Thompson et al's later homages/pastiches.

If you're not a PKD fan already, I don't know that this book would have much to offer you; if you are one, your collection is as incomplete without it as it is without Emmanuel Carrere's I Am Alive and You Are Dead.