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Sunday, April 05, 2015

March 2015 Review Roundup

As noted previously, once a month I'll offer some thoughts on a selection of the books and films I've enjoyed (or not) the previous month.

In film, March was a month of nostalgia and exploration. Turner Classic Movies showed a beautiful high definition presentation of When Worlds Collide, the George Pal SF classic; it really looked marvellous, probably better than when I first saw it on the big screen in Leaf Rapids on a double-bill with War of the Worlds. (For some reason the movie theatre in Leaf Rapids made a habit of showing films that were decades old, a quirk of fate that gave me pop culture tastes probably more appropriate for my parents or even grandparents.) Drawing heavily on Christian mythology - specifically the story of the flood - When Worlds Collide is by today's standards slow-paced until the final fifteen minutes or so; I prefer to think of the pace as stately, taking the time to give you reasons to care about the film's plucky band of determined survivors. And that last quarter-hour is thrilling indeed, as the giant space ark is rushed to completion and launched with only seconds to spare. The model work and final matte painting aren't convincing to modern audiences, but I find they fire the imagination in a way that CG still cannot (yet).

I also watched robots-gone-wild thrillers Westworld and Futureworld in high definition for the first time (well, the second time for Futureworld; I saw that on the big screen in Leaf Rapids, too, during its first run). Westworld still holds up as experimental 70s SF; Futureworld, while reasonably entertaining, tries to take the concept in a new direction and falls on its face with substandard execution. I'm really looking forward to the new HBO Westworld television series; the original concept of a hedonistic amusement park filled with robots programmed to serve every perverse human whim is rich with dramatic possibility.

At long last I finally screened anime classic Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988), but I reluctantly confess that as with most Japanese animation, it left me a little cold. The animation itself is gorgeous, with many dreamlike and/or nightmarish sequences particularly compelling or even harrowing, but the exaggerated acting took me out of the story. I'll keep trying, but anime just might not be my particular thing.

I'm trying to watch more comedies, so last month I viewed Best Picture nominee Father of the Bride and its lesser-known sequel, Father's Little Dividend. I always find it a little strange when I screen pictures that feature a young Elizabeth Taylor, especially in these films, where she plays, at best, a supporting role to her screen father Spencer Tracy. The comedy in both films is exceedingly gentle, perhaps even dull for modern audiences, steeped as it is in the cultural foibles of the 1950s; these are movies in which old-fashioned (to us) family traditions are made light of, but in the end rigidly respected and enforced. There's nothing subversive in these films.

Spencer Tracy's character would probably be horrified if he lived to see Woody Allen's 1979 romantic comedy Manhattan, which features a lesbian couple, cheating husbands and wives, and a relationship between a 42 year old man and a 17 year old girl/woman, all notions that are still controversial today. Indeed, aside from, perhaps, the lesbian couple, the other relationships in the film are, in North American culture at least, less acceptable today than they were in the 1970s. Whether you think of this as progress or regression will depend on your particular perspective, of course.

I confess that I appreciate Allen's genius at some remove; while I genuinely appreciate his films and recognize their artistry, I don't often find them as funny or moving as Allen clearly intends. But that's just my particular taste.

On the other hand, I was thoroughly entertained by 1980s ninja movies Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination, the second and third parts of a loose ninja trilogy starring Sho Kosugi. These films are utterly nonsensical, with absurd ninja fights, bad acting, pedestrian production design, direction and cinematography, not to mention writing that is passable at very best and ludicrous at worst. And yet, for those of us who love "bad movies," the ninja craze of the 80s provided some cinematic cheese of fulsome vintage.

March was a good month for gift books. Sean gave me Austin Grossman's second novel, You, a wonderful coming-of-age story that really hit home for me as its lead character was, like me, born in 1969 and grew up deeply enveloped in the emerging world of computer games during grade school in the 1980s. Unlike me, the protagonist and his friends transform that interest into careers, working in game design through the 1990s. It's a great story of young people trying to find their place in the world, of the fragility of friendships, the risks you take when you get close to someone and the risks you take by distancing yourself. Thoroughly satisfying in all respects.

Leslie gave me Peter Mendelsund's What We See When We Read, a gorgeously illustrated and deeply considered analysis of the very act of reading. When we're moving through a novel, how do the words on the page translate into images in our minds - or does this really happen at all? Mendelsund's argument had me nodding in recognition in many places, but he also gave me a lot of new ideas to consider. This is the sort of book that bears review once a decade or so, I think, as a refresher; and it's gorgeous to boot.

I also enjoyed Murray Pomerance's 2013 non-fiction work, Alfred Hitchcock's America. As the title implies, Pomerance reviews Hitchcock's Hollywood period and reveals how Hitchcock's British sensibilities informed his portrayal of American culture in his films of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. The analysis here isn't particularly deep, but it provides a good introductory overview for new fans of Hitchcock who are curious about the master's American work and its subtexts.

Catherine Asaro released a new book in her Skolian Empire universe this year, Undercity, a prequel introducing a new set of characters, this time a nanotech-infused private eye and her bad-boy lover. Asaro is as much a romance writer as she is an SF author, and I appreciate the soft edges this gives her work. If you're familiar with Asaro's work, don't expect any surprises; this is her usual blend of military SF and star-crossed romance, full to the brim with beautiful, genetically and technologically-enhanced superpeople. Reading Undercity prompted me to pull out her 2006 novel Alpha, which explores the same themes but in the near future instead of hundreds of years from now. Again, this is SF comfort food, dependable if not challenging.

I continued to catch up on Ursula K. LeGuin, finally getting to The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness (despite Jeff's protestations, I really don't think I'd read it before now); shame on me for waiting so long to get to these really beautiful works of social-science fiction.

Some time ago Ron recommended Daniel Suarez, who writes near-future technothrillers that really are somewhat revolutionary in the way they deconstruct the failures of the capitalist surveillance state and envision a chaotic but potentially far more equitable future for humanity. His latest, Influx, is Suarez' most speculative work to date; he imagines a world in which a secretive government agency has been hiding technological breakthroughs like cheap fusion, functional immortality, artificial sentience and gravity control from the world in order to prevent societal upheaval, doling out new tech in dribs and drabs to keep the populace reasonably content but holding back general progress by decades. It's not quite as grounded in the real world as his other work, but the novel still raises some interesting questions while providing fast-paced, pulpy thrills.  


Jeff Shyluk said...

The Left Hand Of Darkness was required reading in our one shared class at University. Either you read the book and forgot (unlikely) or you dodged out of doing your assignment (more unlikely...?).

Susan and I showed the Spencer Tracy "Father Of The Bride" to both my father and her father the year before we got married. My father laughed at it until tears ran down his cheeks. Her father betrayed less emotion than an Easter Island statue. The humour is completely relevant, but it's highly contextual, and no doubt daughter-dependant. Elizabeth Taylor, though, wow. It's easier to believe that she's a CGI construct than an actress. She just has this etherial look to her on camera. She becomes somewhat more "real" in "Taming Of The Shrew", and finally comes down to earth as perhaps the most grounded character in the "Flintstones" movie.

Akira, for the gaijin (us), relies on the quality of its translation. Some versions have a much better translation than others. I think Criterion (as always) has the best, but I'm about as Japanese as Vladimir Putin, so that's hard for me to be definitive.

Now that I am finally discovering comics, I'm thinking of ordering the new re-release of Akira in book form. It's not so expensive. The movie suffered notably because the comic wasn't finished: Otomo was working on both projects at the same time, and rushed both of them to meet his deadlines. It helps in the movie to understand that the very opening scene is essentially a mirror-foreshadow of the closing scenes. Some translations don't make that clear at all, and the movie staggers when you don't immediately grasp that opener.

Earl J. Woods said...

I remember The Left Hand of Darkness being on our reading list for that shared class, but to this day I don't recall the book - or rather, now that I've read it, I don't recall having a memory of the book before last month. But as you say, it was assigned reading...maybe I just skimmed it or something and didn't fully absorb the beauty and power of the text, I don't know. Regardless, I've either read or re-read the novel for certain now!

I thought Elizabeth Taylor was pretty raw and real in _Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?_, but yes, in her earlier appearances she really exudes an unearthly quality.

I read about Otomo working on the manga and the movie at the same time, and kind of wondered what compromises were made in order to produce a film with some kind of closure. It would be interesting to read the text as a comparison.

Anonymous said...

Happy to read you liked _What We See When We Read_, Earl. Cheers!