“What we call masterpieces of literature manage to weave a very particular toxin into their letters”

Martel experienced “a crazed euphoria, like a ravenously barking dog that’s finally eating,” when she finished the novel [Zama] for the first time. As she wrote in El País last year:

What we call masterpieces of literature manage to weave a very particular toxin into their letters, one that sickens, maddens, and then transforms humans into better animals. It’s not something you can explain by describing events or characters. It’s something that happens in the writing. In the order and selection of the words… The particular way Di Benedetto makes use of language in Zama allows us to see something we’d never seen before. A region of the planet only made visible by passing through those letters.

There was no edition of Zama in the English-language book world until August 2016, when my translation of the novel was published. […] Martel’s Kabbalistic understanding of Zama’s original language – the sorcerous power of the exact sequence of those letters and words in that particular order – is entirely betrayed by any translation, which has no option but to present different letters and words in different sequences. As I adapted the novel from Spanish to English, though, what I struggled with most were not words but silences: the imperative that the translation not say what the original leaves unsaid. Each sentence of the story’s first-person narration constitutes a self-portrait of its narrator; the silences between them are the blinkered, beleaguered being of Don Diego de Zama.

Esther Allen, The Crazed Euphoria of Lucrecia Martel’s ‘Zama’

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On not writing positive reviews

What is this blog? A scrap-book, a dialectic (even if only with myself) on the process and purpose of writing? Some way to show that I exist (the name was chosen a decade ago, I wouldn’t be that smart-arsed now)?

Most of the reviews on this blog are negative; if I think something is good, and my opinion fits with the mainstream consensus, I have nothing to add, but if something is getting high levels of praise in the mainstream, and I don’t agree, then I do have something different to say.

Since reading H(A)PPY, I have re-read John Gray’s Soul of the Marionette (non-fiction, but of interest to any serious sf fan), Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, and Samuel Delany’s Dark Reflections.

I am currently reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Complete Orsinia (a lovely Library of America edition, borrowed from my local library; from its pristine condition I suspect I am the first person to borrow it). Malafrena, the main novel within the collection, is, to me, the most impressive of Le Guin’s works in terms of worldbuilding: to invent a central European country, and for it to be convincing, takes not just imagination and intelligence, but also knowledge, of hundreds of years of European history, culture, politics, religion, and language (she invents a new language too). Le Guin is also refreshingly modest about what she is doing, in the introduction she says: “Most of what I read drew me to write about Europe; but I knew it was foolhardy to write fiction set in Europe if I’d never been there. At last it occurred to me that I might get away with it by writing about a part of Europe where nobody had been but me.”

I do not deny the existence of ‘good writing’, ‘good’ as in aesthetically pleasing, and ‘good’ as in tells some truth about the human experience. Perhaps it is reviews themselves I should be wary of, the whole cynical commercial infrastructure of reviews and interviews and click-bait headlines competing for attention? (It is not a coincidence that the above are all re-reads, or from a known and trusted author.)

I also read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, and it was wonderful to finally read something that stood up to all the hype. It is a very good book, that doesn’t flinch from the ugly psychological truths of oppression and how it can warp a personality. I have read Beloved, I watched the remake of Roots, I can kid myself that I ‘know’ what this period of human history was like. I also trust, from interviews and the book’s afterword, that Whitehead did his research, that even the most gruesome acts of violence have historical precedence.

But, it isn’t science fiction! From reading (or maybe misremembering) reviews, I imagined something like the modern-day London Underground joining up all the towns and cities across the US, and was curious to see how the author made it all fit together, but the technology is contemporaneous – even if nobody was building underground trains in the rural US back then, they theoretically could have (The London Underground was started in the Victorian era, and the earliest trains were steam trains). Despite what I said before, about science fiction’s ability to make the metaphorical literal, I still don’t think this counts as science fiction. As well, I don’t think the underground trains really added anything to the story, the characters could have been moved around conventionally (or stepping through magical portals in the backs of wardrobes) and the story wouldn’t have changed in any meaningful way.

I signed up to Netflix for a month (leave your account idle long enough and they give you another free month!) to watch Annihilation, which is a very effective sci-fi/horror film (the end scenes are absolutely terrifying), but not as profound as some reviewers seem to think. Although it was interesting, briefly, to speculate whether the alien phenomenon is a force of nature that only appears to have a conscious drive because of its encounter with humans, or an alien consciousness attempting first contact or an invasion, I can’t say that any of it stuck with me in any meaningful way.

I watched season 4 of Black Mirror, which I think was stronger overall than season 3, even though there were more episodes relying on tosh-science (you can’t recreate someone’s personality from their DNA, and the claim that we only use a certain percentage of our brain is an old myth), rather than speculative technology, but didn’t have a stand-out episode like ‘San Junipero’; ‘Hang the DJ’ was good, but not as good as ‘San Junipero’.

(I also watched The Cloverfield Paradox, which really is that bad.)

I watched most of Channel 4’s Electric Dreams, which was mostly meh, some episodes were 40 minutes of obvious and dull set up, then 20 minutes of obvious denouement, while others were basically nonsensical. Only ‘The Commuter’ and ‘Safe and Sound’ stood out, the former for the strength of its emotional narrative, the latter because it was most like a Black Mirror episode.

On Saturday, I went to the cinema to see Zama, a fever-dream of colonial hubris that I am not sure I entirely understand yet. It had a genuine dream-like quality, there are only a few explicatory concessions to the audience, which gives it that feeling of having to go somewhere and do something, with no idea where or what or why. There are jumps between places and times, with no sense of where locations are in relation to each other; characters that appear without explanation; in one scene the protagonist walks through a rich lady’s salon, into a stable, into a brothel, which seems to be all one building (I know people lived close to their domestic animals in ‘the past’ but everything seems too close and crowded in that scene); there are objects that take on significance without understanding, a letter, a handwritten book, a pair of desiccated human ears.

“let’s remember watching a film is not a brave act of resistance”

Without succumbing to hyperbole, this feels like an important moment in pop culture history, and I’m happy I got to witness it.

However, some of the early responses to Black Panther illustrate the lofty and unfair expectations which we often place on black art. For example, that Beyoncé’s seminal 2016 album, Lemonade, was criticized for not outright destroying the patriarchy showed how our culture refuses to allow black art to exist as entertainment. And it’s tempting to imagine that Black Panther will not only improve black representation in media, but radically change the state of our politics too.

But by conflating the film with the the resistive efforts of grassroots activists and organizers, we risk disrespecting our radical traditions, which are increasingly being commodified by corporations whose interests have never been with the people.

That “self-care” and “community” have been reduced to catchy self-help and festival slogans proves how easily these ideas are rendered meaningless under late capitalism. If we behave as though purchasing a ticket to see a film produced by Disney is a form of resistance, we fail to distinguish between black art that touches on revolutionary themes, and the actual work required for revolution itself.

There’s no denying how necessary Black Panther is for representation. In a world where diversity is so often treated as an act of charity instead of a reality, this film challenges the pervasive idea that our heroes can only be white and male.

It provides generations of dark-skinned girls and women with heroes who share the same features which society ridicules them for. But as people descend upon their local cinemas to see what’s been touted as an excellent film, let’s remember watching a film is not a brave act of resistance. There’s plenty more work for us to do.

Khanya Khondlo Mtshali

I Don’t Believe in Magic

A few months ago, I almost finished reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy. I gave up half-way through the final book because I realised I just didn’t care; I didn’t care about the story, the characters, or the made-up worlds, and a big part of the reason I didn’t care is due to the fact that I just don’t believe in magic. I don’t believe that any combination of words, hand gestures, potions or wands can alter reality, and if I can’t get past that I can’t invest in the story.

At least science fiction is potentially exploring the realms of the possible, building something, inventing something. Science fiction can answer the question ‘how can we live?’, which is really the only question worth asking or answering.

I was reminded of my uninterest in magic over the Christmas break, watching Bright on Netflix with my family. The problem with Bright is that its world building is completely shallow, there are elves and orcs (and fairies and centaurs and dragons), and they have always been there, out in the open, not hidden away like in True Blood or Buffy, but human society is still exactly the same (so much the same that the movie Shrek still got made in this alternate reality).

In Bright African-American culture is portrayed as being the same as it is in the real world, implying that the history of the Transatlantic slave trade and the colonisation of the Americas and the West Indies was the same; but if orcs exist as an under-class (one white cop boasts about his ancestors slaughtering orcs in Russia 200 years ago), why would Europeans have needed an industrial trade in slaves from Africa?

Surely if magic were real, and other humanoid races have been living alongside humans for all of human history, the history of Earth and the human race would be entirely different? The elves in Bright are portrayed as an elite, as ruling over humans; what were the elves doing during World War II? Were they on the axis or allied side, or were they ruling on both sides? In which case, what was it fought over? What were the elves doing during European colonialism, during the crusades, during the reign of Alexander the Great? Are they supposed to be Uber-Aryans who slot in above Europeans so that, somehow, the whole history of the world doesn’t change at all, except there are dragons and fairies flying around as well?

This is a problem I have with any fantasy story supposed to be set in a fictional version of the real world (as opposed to an entirely invented secondary world), how to reconcile magic with the long long history of human atrocities?

Do Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians not have magic, or is it just crap compared to European magic? The same with Africa, India, the Middle East, and Asia. Were there Nazi wizards? Were there no Jewish wizards? Did all the chief wizards and witches see the Holocaust (or any other atrocity) happening, but decide it wasn’t important enough a reason to interfere in the ‘mundane’ world?

The Magicians did touch on this, a little, there was a mention of Polish magic books being destroyed by German magic books, and a joke about the 2000 US election being manipulated by magicians for a bet (not such funny reading in 2017), but it’s still inadequate.

The problem with magic is the same as the problem with religion, if there are higher powers capable of manipulating things, how do you account for all the bad things that happen in the world?

The idea of magic being real in this world, is more awful than the idea of there being no magic at all.

“His characters are robotic silhouettes spouting gaudily profane wisdom that is dispensed two hundred and eighty characters at a time”

“Three Billboards” is a game, too – a cinematic game in which the writer and director, Martin McDonagh, feigns empathy with a magician’s sleight of hand. His characters’ ordeals, demands, sacrifices, and redemptions fit together like, well, a jigsaw puzzle, and he retrofits their traits and experiences to fit. In “Three Billboards,” I have the sense that, despite the fulsome emotional displays, McDonagh is far more interested in his narrative contraptions and contrivances than in his characters, who exist solely to play their part in the plot. His characters are robotic silhouettes spouting gaudily profane wisdom that is dispensed two hundred and eighty characters at a time; his excellent actors have to sweat every line, weigh every gesture, and pose every gaze, pouring every ounce of their skill into humanizing the flimsy simulacra that are written for them. (McDormand’s controlled fury, more than any other factor, keeps the film unified and dramatically engaging even when little else does.) McDonagh also scatters progressive political crumbs throughout the film, and his obscene trivialization of their substance is displayed in the cavalier casualness with which a black woman’s arrest and imprisonment on trumped-up charges drops in as a plot point and out with a smile.

As for violence and gore, McDonagh seems more turned on by it than the Spierigs are. Though I’m squeamish, I found the scenes of grotesquely and meticulously imagined torture in “Jigsaw” to reflect a degree of restraint, bordering on aversion – which suggests that the filmmakers’ actual interests lie elsewhere. McDonagh’s theme of expiation by violence plays a repellent double game; even as his plot pivots on the acknowledgment of misdirected anger and the emotional effort to overcome it, the movie reflects an almost erotically tantalizing excitement at the prospect of showing the gory impact of that warped rage. McDonagh seems excited by it, and he displays it with a blend of suspense-building anticipation and blatant enthusiasm that reflects his own arousal and is meant to arouse viewers as well.

Richard Brody, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “Jigsaw” Are the Same Movie

Blade Runner 2049

Massive Spoiler Alert!

I really did not enjoy Blade Runner 2049. Yes, it is visually stunning, but it’s all style and no substance, it felt like a series of set-pieces, just showing off the special effects rather than telling a meaningful story.

In spite of the stunning visuals, it’s very dull; I saw it last Saturday and wrote a first draft of this post the next day, and I can honestly say that in the intervening week, none of the imagery has ‘haunted’ me in any way. At three hours including all the trailers, it is physically arduous to sit through.

It is sleazy and gratuitously violent. Yes, the original Blade Runner is also sleazy and violent, and it is set in a dystopian world, but there is a difference between creating a film about a violent and misogynist future and using images of violence and misogyny to titillate the audience; why did I have to watch a scene of a naked women being stabbed in the abdomen by Jared Leto’s character, just to prove how crazy and evil he was?

There is another scene where an AI’s female avatar syncs with a replicant ‘pleasure model’ (a euphemism for a sex slave) to sexually service K, 2049’s blade runner (his identity as a replicant is made clear from the start of the film). If this is moving at all it is only because it is pathetic, the AI is programmed to please its owner, and both replicants are conditioned to not feel emotions; if it is not pathetic it is just more titillation.

The story itself is also disappointing; while the original Blade Runner asks interesting questions about memory and identity and self, Blade Runner 2049 instead goes with cod mysticism, and the questions it raises about the nature of the replicants just show how nonsensical it all is to begin with, enough to spoil the original film as well.

At this point I am going to put the rest of this review under the fold, because I am going to be spoiling a lot of the plot.

Continue reading “Blade Runner 2049”

The Red Turtle

Spoiler alert!

This film was such a disappointment! I had high hopes for it, the trailer was gorgeous, and it had Studio Ghibli attached – so what could go wrong?

I should say, first, that the art work is lovely throughout; the detail and realism of the island backgrounds and wildlife are worthy of Studio Ghibli, or other Japanese animation like the films of Mamoru Hosoda. The human characters bear no resemblance to saucer-eyed anime characters, and did seem more ‘French’ to me, reminding me of artists like Moebius (I may simply have been pre-biased by knowing it was a French co-production, or this may just be due to the fact that it does not look like anime or Disney). The sound effects of the natural world, as well as the soundtrack, are also superb.

The story is of a shipwrecked man stranded on a deserted island. After exploring the island, he builds a raft from bamboo and attempts an escape. Some invisible force destroys the raft a short distance from the island, and the same thing happens when he builds a second, bigger raft. A third, still bigger raft is also destroyed, but this time the giant red turtle of the title is there, and the man assumes it is her attacking him and his raft, although she leaves him alone when he is in the water.

After the third attempt, the man sees the red turtle coming up onto the beach. In a fit of rage, he smashes her over the head with a bamboo pole, turns her onto her back, jumps on her, then leaves her to die in the sun.

Later, feeling guilty, he tries to revive her by pouring seawater over her head, and also tries and fails to right her. It doesn’t work and she appears to die, her shell splitting open.

Then, she turns into a woman, unconscious, and still lying inside the split shell. The man feeds her fresh water, and builds a shelter over her. After a brief rain storm she becomes conscious, and runs into the shallow water near the beach.

The man leaves her his shirt and walks away into the bamboo forest, when he returns to the beach, he sees the woman in the water, walking away from the beach, pushing the floating turtle shell in front of her. When she reaches deeper water, she pushes the shell off out to sea and returns to the beach.

The man responds by doing the same with the forth raft he had started to build. Then they sit on a sand bank, and the woman starts breaking open mussel shells, feeding them both. The man has a flashback to smashing her over the head and shudders, the women now appears unafraid of the man.

Then they walk from the beach into a meadow on the island, and both float up into the air together – a PG metaphor for sex, as we then skip to years later, when they have a toddler son.

The rest of the story covers the boy’s growth into manhood; he swims out to sea with other giant turtles (they are all green, but he has red hair like his mother), and eventually swims off with them for good. There is also a tsunami that devastates the island before he leaves.

After the son leaves, the man and women stay on the island together until they are old and grey, then the man dies in his sleep, and the woman turns back into a turtle and heads back out to sea.

The problem I had with the film while watching it, is that it looks like the man is rewarded for his act of cruel violence by being given a compliant, silent, wife. I kept giving it the benefit of the doubt while watching, hoping there would be something later in the story to mitigate it, but I don’t think there was.

There is no talking in the film, and we never see the story from the woman’s perspective (we see the man’s dreams and hallucinations while he is alone on the island, as well as his flashback). There are lots of fairy tales where people are released from an enchantment trapping them in animal form, or stories like The Little Mermaid, where a magical/mythical creature chooses to be transformed into human form (and these transformations are often violent, or come at a cost), but it is never clear which is the case for The Red Turtle, and there is no way the man knew in advance that this is what would happen, it is obviously a complete surprise to him.

It is not clear what force is keeping the man on the island – is the red turtle supposed to represent the spirit of the island itself? But the island, when it is devastated by the tsunami, is shown to be a normal island, at the mercy of the elements. Was she in love with him from the start? But we only see them ‘meet’ right before he attacks her, they build no relationship with her as the turtle – the brief moment when they first see each other is actually quite moving, it feels like two sentient creatures making first contact, but that is then spoilt by the later violence.

I can see what the story is trying to do, it is aiming for mythic resonance, but I don’t think it achieves it. As a whole, the story itself is best at the beginning, when the man is first washed up on the island, as he explores his new environment (and as an aside, ‘mild peril’ my arse! The moment when he is trapped in a deep-sided pool and forced to swim underwater through a very narrow tunnel to escape terrified me!). The details of this first half build the character of the man, he dreams of a bamboo bridge out to sea that he flies along, and hallucinates a chamber orchestra. There is humour to his Sisyphean raft building, and there are cute crabs for comic relief.

The rest of the story, covering decades, feels sparse by comparison, and the woman never really has a character at all. We only see her swimming once as a human, she doesn’t even go into the sea when her toddler son falls into the same pool that his father fell into before. There is one moment, when the man draws pictures in the sand to show the son that there is a whole world beyond the island, and she adds a drawing of a turtle, but it is not clear if this means she misses her people, or if she is just telling her son that there is that option for him as well.

So, I was disappointed, because the need for the violence of the transformation is never explained, and there is not enough character development to see why the woman wants to stay with him anyway. I worry about the message it portrays, that (male) violence (against a woman) is an acceptable prelude to romantic love and devotion.