Archive for August, 2003

Bruiser

Saturday, August 30th, 2003

Bruiser is the only film that the great George Romero has been able to make in the last ten years. It’s about a man who lets everyone use him as a doormat, until one day he wakes up and finds himself without a face – there’s nothing but a blank mask. He goes on a revenge spree, killing his bitchy wife, his alleged best buddy who has ripped him off, and everyone else who has betrayed him, ending with his evil, sexist, exploitative, self-aggrandizing boss. The film is visually striking (in a nicely overwrought sort of way), psychologically tense and intense, and especially delicious in its sarcastic portrayal of corporate culture. All in all, though, it doesn’t quite have the allegorical richness and resonance of Romero’s best films (among which I would include, besides the Living Dead trilogy, Martin and Monkey Shines). But even this lesser effort shows what a brilliant director Romero is. It is sad, and a telling symptom of the general rottenness of the film industry today, that he has gotten so few opportunities to direct films under his own control in the last decade and a half.

“Legal” Digital Music Distribution

Wednesday, August 27th, 2003

Reading the “Terms of Use Agreement” on buymusic.com, which aspires to become the biggest digital music store on the Web, I find the following:
“All downloaded music, images, video, artwork, text, software and other copyrightable materials (“Content”) are sublicensed to End Users and not sold, notwithstanding use of the terms “sell,” “purchase,” “order,” or “buy” on the Site or this Agreement…End User may only download, transfer, copy and use the Digital Downloads as stated in the particular song, partial album or album’s Metadata Information, which is hereby incorporated by reference. No other downloads, transfers, copies or uses of Digital Downloads are permitted. ”
This is why I will not order anything from BuyMusic.com. Because, in short, you are not really able to buy any recordings there. You can always BUY CDs: I do it all the time, and usually I then rip the music from the CDs in order to play them on my iPod. But you can only “sublicense” the music on BuyMusic.com, not buy it, despite the site’s name. Welcome to the era of “digital rights management”, where corporations will have control of the use of their “intellectual property” in perpetuity.
I wonder: since you are allowed to burn the songs you download at BuyMusic.com to CDs, is it possible then to rip unprotected, unrestricted mp3s from those CDs? It seems like that would be too easy a way to circumvent these regulations.

Lucky Wander Boy

Sunday, August 24th, 2003

Lucky Wander Boy, by D. B. Weiss, is a smart, funny, and ultimately poignant novel about love and illusion, creativity and commerce, and video game addiction. The twenty-something narrator is obsessed with the (now obsolete) video games of his youth; these games are not only the focus of his passion, but provide a mythical template for his life. The novel itself plays with this as a metafictional conceit, in a way that is totally compelling (rather than, as it could easily have been, corny): the video game as the codification of dream logic, or of the desires, or better, the self-deceptive fantasies, that animate us. Along the way, we get – among other things – disquisitions on the Gnostic subtext of Donkey Kong, the best definition I have ever seen of what it means to be a geek (“A geek is a person, male or female, with an abiding, obsessive, self-effacing, even self-destroying love for something besides status”; which is true – I should know – although the most painful part of it is that this configuration does not exclude, but is indeed usually coterminous with, narcissistic self-absorption, such as the narrator exhibits throughout); and a great satiric account of the dot-com boom and bust. This is a novel that remains light on its feet, even as it goes ever further out on a limb that it keeps on sawing off behind itself (a strained metaphor, I admit, but a good account of the book’s actual accomplishment; and if it sounds too much like a back-of-the-book blurb, so be it; the inextricability of commerce and commercial promotion from our innermost fantasies is something that this book doesn’t insist on, so much as it simply takes it for granted as an aspect of The Way We Live Now).

Human Nature

Friday, August 22nd, 2003

Human Nature, directed by Michel Gondry from a script by Charlie Kaufman, was a box office flop and got mostly hostile reviews, but it’s a brilliant film. Basically, it’s a postmodern version of Kafka’s “A Report to an Academy”, which is a story about an ape who has been trained to become a human being. In Kaufman and Gondry’s film, the ape-turned-human is supplemented or mirrored by human beings who idealize (and want to go back to) nature; but the film’s sardonic reflections on humanness, language, and civilization are very much in the spirit of Kafka’s story. The man who was raised as an ape is “civilized” by being taught (along with language) refined table manners and the enjoyment of opera. He goes along with this charade because he presumes that becoming “human” is the only way he will ever be able to get laid; although his training includes brutal electric shocks every time he gives way to “animalistic” sexual urges. Of course, after learning language, he will never be able to go back to the wild, although he can make eloquent speeches about his desire to. Meanwhile, the twisted human characters are puppets of their own unanalyzed and out-of-control sexual desires, equally when they espouse the virtues of civilization, and when they seek to “return” to a more “natural” life. Kaufman, rather like Kafka, undermines and ridicules both sides of the nature/civilization duality, suggesting that high culture is in fact driven by base instincts, but that these base instincts, far from being animalistic, are only thinkable in linguistic human creatures.
By describing the film in these terms, however, I’m risking making it sound more like an intellectual, analytic exercise than it actually is. The script is definitely schematic in its outlines, but it comes across much more as a delightfully, cheerfully perverted comedy of manners. That is to say, it’s more late Bunuel than early Godard. Gondry’s direction is gorgeously anti-naturalistic, in a way reminiscent of his videos for Bjork, giving the movie the flavor of a fractured fairy tale. Or say it is as if Jacques Demy were recounting a tale that was a cross between an I Love Lucy episode and a short story by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. I’m flailing about here, giving absurd comparisons, because the film is quite sui generis, and can’t really be compared to anything less bizarre and ridiculous.

The Devil’s Home on Leave

Wednesday, August 20th, 2003

I learned about Derek Raymond from Warren Ellis’ recommendation; The Devil’s Home on Leave is about as grim and downbeat a crime novel I have ever read. The detective narrator recounts a talk with the psychopathic murderer whom he wants to arrest: “He droned on, completely – and what was worse, unconsciously – absorbed in himself, and suddenly I realized what hell it meant, not only to be a killer, but a bore. You think nothing of taking life, but your own existence fascinates you, and that’s the imbalance that we mean by evil… This neat, dull man, crouched in a sort of mass over his own hands, that freaked me.” This book is all about the drab everydayness of horror, grotesque tortures perpetrated by unimaginative bores in a drab industrial setting where it’s always raining. Everyone is wounded, and everyone has their reasons (though these are usually foul ones). The narrator’s stoicism, and his determination to catch the killers even though he knows it won’t do any good, are the only things that keep him from killing himself – it’s that bleak.

Soderbergh’s Solaris

Sunday, August 17th, 2003

Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris is an impressive film, if not a successful one. Soderbergh set himself a difficult task in making Solaris, since he was competing against two undoubted masterpieces: not only Stanislaw Lem’s original novel, but also Andrei Tarkovsky’s earlier film version. The power of Soderbergh’s version comes from its claustrophobic visual style: harsh, quite dark lighting, mostly shades of blue and black; minimal, oppressive interiors; isolation of faces or bodes in the frame; brooding pace, with lots of waiting between the lines of dialog, slow pans, and painfully juxtaposed montages of past and present; and overall an emotional coldness, which was probably the main reason the film did poorly at the box office, but which is perfectly articulated and precisely right, for this story of failed connections and impossible confrontations with incomprehensible otherness.
The film ultimately fails, however, on metaphysical grounds. Where Lem’s novel was a meditation on the limits of knowledge and of human capacity, and where Tarkovsky’s film (much to Lem’s chagrin) was a spiritual meditation on loss and (heavily qualified) resurrection, Soderbergh ends up with a thoroughly unconvincing affirmation that love conquers all. The sense of otherness that is the main point (in different ways) of both Lem’s and Tarkovsky’s versions is evident in the early parts of Soderbergh’s films, but as the movie proceeds it drains away, without offering anything of similar weight in its place; the story is eventually diminished both intellectually and affectively. You might say that Soderbergh remains unimaginatively “humanist” where Lem and Tarkovsky both question the limits of humanism and the human (albeit from very different directions – Lem from an ironic socialist sensibility, and Tarkovsky from a deeply Christian one).
One thing, though: I don’t want to be misunderstood here. Soderbergh’s relative failure is emphatically not because he would have substituted a crassly American Hollywood mentality for a refined, reflective European one. I think it is almost the reverse: Soderbergh’s failure of nerve, his inability to push the story beyond human limits, as it were, so that he falls back on humanist banality, is precisely the result of his determination to make a pure “art film” rather than a crassly commercial one. I can’t help thinking that, if he had been willing to be less tasteful and more sensationalistic, he might have arrived at a powerful pulp-fictional American interpretation of Solaris, rather than, in effect, falling back on the mere external form of European art cinema without its philosophical depth.

Zizek

Friday, August 15th, 2003

Slavoj Zizek is the most fascinating of contemporary theorists: I always find him compelling, irritating, insightful, wrongheaded, inspiring, and obnoxious by turns – but never dull. He writes too much for me to keep up with, as well. The latest book of his that I have read, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!, is no exception…
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Kelly Link

Wednesday, August 13th, 2003

Kelly Link‘s short stories, many of them collected in the volume Stranger Things Happen, are marvelous in ways that almost entirely defy description (well, at least they defy my powers of description). I could call these stories surreal, I could call them quirky; both adjectives are accurate, but they are both too bland, and have been overused too much, to give an accurate impression of the singularity of Link’s prose, and the acuteness of her vision. All her stories spell out compelling dreamlike scenarios, with absurdist frameworks, much humor in the details, and undercurrents of dread which nonetheless never gain the upper hand. They are disturbing and perverse in the ways that human desires are nearly always disturbing and perverse, if we look at them honestly and clearly enough; except that such phrases tend to suggest a kind of existential anguish and heaviness that is entirely absent from these stories; they have, instead, a childlike openness (they are in a certain way reminiscent of children’s literature, sort of like a Girl’s Own Adventure), which is also an almost inhuman, or superhuman, lightness, frivolity, and grace (I mean this as the highest possible compliment). Gender certainly has something to do with all this; I cannot imagine these stories, or anything like them, being written by a man, although there is nothing about them that is stereotypically “feminine.” But that is also an inadequate, although accurate, comment. The only comparison I can think of to Kelly Link is Jane Bowles. Actually, Link is not anything like Bowles at all, except for one thing: they both have a sense of humor that is somehow transcendental, that is to say, at the limits of possible understanding, not arising out of the situations being described, but somehow presupposed by those situations instead. I am not sure that I am making sense at all, but it is rare that a fiction writer, especially one I find so wonderful, leaves me so much at a loss for words.

Queer Eye for the Straight Guy

Saturday, August 9th, 2003

What can I say, except that I love Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Let’s not even get into the argument over whether the show represents a gain for gay rights, or whether it is yet another offensive exploitation of stereotypes. (It’s both, OK? these things don’t work by an exclusive either/or). What I love is the texture of the show: the way the Fab Five get to trot out their expertise, the general dorkiness of the straight guys being made over, the suggestion that a quick remodel (and a bankroll to pay for it) will altogether change somebody’s life (you can just see the straight guys returning to pre-makeover entropy once the camera is no longer on them), and above all, the snide remarks the Fab Five make as they watch, via live video feed, the results of their endeavors. Despite not being really sleazy and prurient (which is usually a must for reality TV) this show both delights and instructs, which is how the Ancients defined the role of art.

Behind the Blip

Thursday, August 7th, 2003

Matthew Fuller’s Behind the Blip; Essays on the Culture of Software (also available directly from Autonomedia) is not a very inviting read (its flashes of surrealism and delightful nastiness are not enough to redeem its clotted prose and its reified theoryspeak), but it raises important question about software, its meaning and its uses. What ideological assumptions, and what power relations, are built into the way programs work, and especially into their “interface” with the user? Fuller hammers away at this question, and convincingly argues that such things are never neutral. The book is less effective, however, at proposing any sort of alternative (isn’t that always the problem? it certainly is for me in my own writing). The things he does propose – free, open-source software on the one hand, and an interrogation, probably by artists, of the ideological underpinnings and hidden levels of code on the other – are not really satisfactory. Open source software, for one thing, tends still to be too demanding and difficult to be used by anyone who doesn’t already have a high level of technical skill; being able to read the source code doesn’t do me any good, since I can’t understand it; even the surface usage of such programs is difficult for computer users who (like my parents, for instance) have considerably less experience than even I do. As for Brechtian artistic strategies of unveiling the hidden substructures of code – one could include under this rubric the two software projects Fuller himself was involved in, and writes about, Web Stalker (an alternative browser) and Natural Selection (an alternative search engine) , as well as other celebrated web art projects like those of jodi.org, I can only say that the relatively meager results of such projects, compared with the theoretical sophistication that went into making them up in the first place, only suggests that our critical paradigms of demystification, alienation-effects, deconstruction, and so on, are far behind the times, because they were developed for print, or live performance, or other, older media, and simply do not work with the new (electronic, net-based) media we are experiencing today.