Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2014 in Shit: Birdman

The mean way to say it is that Birdman is Synecdoche, New York for adults. Both struck me, while watching, as little more than a proof of concept, blown all the way up. Both also -- and I would include Inception in this category -- left me feeling a kind of muted, hollow happiness upon walking out of the theater that I couldn't really account for, and that didn't persist, and that -- if I'm being honest -- might as easily been a consequence of "going to the movie theater" as it was anything to do with the film just watched. I didn't exactly love any of the movies -- that might be a slight fabrication for Synecdoche, whatever -- but I do hate some of the editorializing around them.

If there's a big difference between Birdman and Synecdoche, it is one of degree rather than kind; where Synecdoche was a proof of content, Birdman was a proof of form. Which is cool, I guess, even though that proof was done famously by Sokurov and recently in Silent House. And honestly, I'd put Silent House in the genealogy of Sokurov and Hitchcock('s Rope) ahead of Birdman, but you know. I like bad things. And have bad opinions. That are badly written. Let's go!

Birdman's a movie shot in a falsified single shot that is basically an extended joke, in which an aging actor, famous for playing a superhero twenty years ago, puts on a stage play to get some of his credibility back. He also has some level of telekinetic powers and Edward Norton ends up having sex with his daughter.

Also, before I get any farther: Naomi Watts is incredible. She's the best. How is she so wonderful. Also Emma Stone is fantastic and Zach Galifianakis is weird and I like him and Edward Norton is pretty cool too. Acting is weird and I don't get it but god fucking dammit Naomi Watts is amazing.

Anyway. Synecdoche, New York was always a movie about signs, about the gulf between the signifier and the signified, as represented through the Grand Boring Theme of mortality or whatever. It has mostly stuck with me because it was one of those movies I saw, and was like, I get it, okay, sure. But also I still liked it. Because it did, at least in some ways, push hard enough that even though it never quite got beyond that it was just an idea turned into a movie, there was enough movie there to enjoy. Birdman, on the other hand, has the immediate benefit of being an idea for a camera turned into a movie, that also happens to have enough movie there to enjoy. At least after the first, like, forty minutes of the movie that come after the first twenty, or something along those lines. After the excitement of trying to figure which particular configuration the limited set of rules afforded by the decision to film with no visible edits will be operative -- that is, after the first twenty minutes or so -- the movie quickly settles into a relentlessly sluggish pace. That this is, in the end, justified -- which is to say that the movie as a whole is well paced, even if the act of watching it in time might not appear to be at certain moments -- is cool, I guess, and allows Birdman to swell and climax in ways that would not seem to be readily available to it were the pacing not quite so stilted.

Do I seem to have disliked Birdman yet? It's weird. I often feel like I do, even though I didn't. This isn't the place to talk about the association of criticality with negativity -- because it never is because that argument can go fuck itself -- but there is a certain tenor to how I have thought and talked (and now written) about Birdman that gives off that impression, even to myself. Sorry. I'll stop talking about Charlie Kaufman now, at least.

There are some neat things about Birdman that -- despite the near-universal praise for it -- I haven't seen mentioned much. The decision not to equate the fabricated single shot with real time is one of them; a few times, throughout the movie, the camera will come to rest and the shot will go all time lapse photography. That is cool and an interesting way of dealing with the constraints of the narrative on the formal decision.

Another neat thing is that this is a goddamn science fiction film. That's weird. Should I talk about that? It's kind of, like, my wheelhouse, I guess.

I don't know much of anything about Alexander González Iñárritu -- or, for that matter, about Emmanual Lubezki, the cinematographer whose work this movie was widely recommended on the strength of -- but, as I blathered about last year, I have some reservations about the use of the term magical realism, especially when used in reference to authors from south of the United States of America. I feel conflicted, now, about my own thoughts; the more it gets formulated, the more I suspect I sound like the kind of whiteboy who decides the best way to talk about the art of artists of color. Which is to say, at least in part, that my issues could be divorced of real concerns, including the development of a language which allows for an appreciation of work on both critical and financial terms which might otherwise be refused it. Which is all just to say that my calling Birdman science fiction is a political argument, and one with which I am not entirely confident of its foundation. But here it is.

So. Keaton's role in the early 90s Batman films is here transmuted into a movie called Birdman, for which he is equally (un)renowned. His telekinetic powers are established fairly early, when he claims he caused a stage light to fall on one of the actors in his adaptation of Carver's head. There are a couple other scattered sequences, mostly involving small object manipulation, until he throws a fit and breaks a bunch of stuff with it. There is also a voiceover that occasionally intrudes into the film, apparently emanating from a framed Birdman poster in his dressing room. The movie doesn't go full sf until Keaton is considering suicide; a sequence in which he flies around the city is followed by him standing on top of a building as if preparing to jump; he eventually does, only to fly around more. There are regular hints that the whole thing might be in his head; it largely happens when he is alone, and otherwise there are little things to tip it off, like when Keaton glides down to the sidewalk in front of the theater, only to be pursued by an angry taxi cab driver demanding he pay his fare.

Here's the thing about these sorts of moments of disavowal; it is, I would argue, entirely possible to read them as systemic rather than generic. That is, they might usually be used to distance a text from a particular genre, but this isn't in any way a necessary reading of their inclusion. And if the difference between, say, science fiction and magical realism is a difference in systematization, where the latter includes it only as an organizing principle while the treats it as a goal or an end in itself, then the question of how it is read is a question of what genre it belongs to. If that sounds a bit too much like a divorce of genre from history, well, remember that it's all about getting paid.

The most obvious way to think about these disavowals as systemic is to extend the "magic use forbidden around non-magical beings" rules of a Harry Potter. This, at least, is a window; obviously that series mostly uses it to establish scenarios for its breaking. What I'm suggesting is something like that which is not a rule in the fiction, but of it.

Framing a discussion of Birdman in this way allows a potential reading of the film's central verbal conflict to appear; throughout, the question of Hollywood vs the Theater is raised and fought and dropped. I don't know that I would call it the central conflict as such, but there's an argument to be made there; the film's hook (Michael Keaton as functionally himself directing for the stage) certainly relies on it, and it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to say that the technique (false single shot) is addressed primarily through that lens.

Actually, come to think of it, I haven't seen anyone talk about the fairly straightforward observation that the use of the no (apparent) cuts camera style is a way of bringing the experience of movie theatergoing closer to the experience of stage play theatergoing. Which then offers itself as an explanation for why the passages of time are done in the way they are -- when the set changes, the audience stays watching, much like the time lapse shots of the sun. See, framing things through genre makes neat observations possible.

Looked at in this way, the film seems significantly more ambivalent about its stance on the Hollywood vs Broadway argument than it first appears to be. Despite being a film, it puts both the strongest arguments and the strength of conviction primarily in its advocates of theater, and does little to dissuade the viewer from taking the position that Keaton is kind of a washed up boor. Without reading the structure of the film as aspirational toward theater, you have then only the marketing and reception of the film to fall back on, which seem very geared toward the assumption that Birdman is by and for people with little or no regard for the filmgoing audience at large or the productions they enjoy. The very simple fact that it was largely marketed as a superhero film with a twist, rather than on its own merits (at least as far as I can tell), and that this assumption has bled into the reception of the film as its detractors are characterized as ignorant plebs, is remarkably telling.

Well, hell. I certainly didn't expect this to be the direction I took.

Reading Birdman as a film that is not just an attempt at a technical feat of filmmaking as such, but one which is meant to evoke the experience of the theater which it portrays, would seem to only underscore its position on the thematic argument. But by embedding that argument in the structure of the film, the question of genre (Hollywood vs Broadway, again, which is a slightly different use of the term than I usually prefer but which I think is nevertheless apt) is less something declaimed upon and more constitutive. And I do like thinking about genre, especially as a constitutive factor.

All of this, in turn, reflects on the question of Keaton's telekinesis, and whether it is the typical sort of flight of fancy that filmmakers sometimes employ because they can or is a fundamental aspect of the world or is a way of signalling a sort of predisposition toward a systematic realization of a deliberately hermetic world.

There's the danger, in getting into this, of coming off like the sort of IMDb forums posters who just argue minutiae. I'll try to avoid that.

Here's the thing; reading Birdman as being ambivalent about its own genre through its particular formal decision then makes its ambivalence to commit to a position on its more fantastical elements deeper, if not less apparently annoying. And, in the interest of fairness, this doesn't change the fact that while Birdman as a whole reveals itself to be deliberately paced in such a way as to hold up remarkably well as a cohesive text, this is done in such a way as to leave parts of the film, in their moment to moment experience, incredibly dull. This isn't a crime, obviously; it's perfectly valid to pace a film in the service of its being remembered. I even praised Silent House for it. The difference, though, is that if the no cuts technique is in fact an aspiration toward film-as-play (and I only demure because I am attempting to acknowledge the limits of my own memory here and the way in which this is a constructed on the fly argument given the nature of this project; I myself, now, am quite convinced) then the medium in which that takes place is firmly experiential, giving that aspect a weight that the pacing doesn't seem to acknowledge.

All this is relevant because, regardless of where it ultimately falls, the experience of the fantastic in Birdman is intimately tied up to its pacing. It is introduced early and sparsely used, until Keaton flies around and fucking punches an alien or something (I honestly don't remember) at the film's climax. It also, in a way, bookends the film proper, with the only two sequences not part of the single long take being short sequences, quickly cut, depicting some sort of comet or something (I also don't remember those very well), suggesting a scope beyond the personal life of Keaton's character that ties into it. If the film is paced in such a way as to be remembered, then this isn't as much the case; the real standout scene there is when Keaton gets locked out of the theater and has to run around the block in his underwear. As the best individual sequence in the movie, this bit is characterized by its lack of fantastical elements; dude can fly and all. But as a sequence of images that exist in time, it is the elements of the fantastic that are its anchors.

And those anchors -- to return to Charlie Kaufman, if only to wrap this thing up, because holy hell how did it get this long -- lack the ambivalent valorization that reading Birdman through genre would seem to require of them. To be sure, the intentional refusal to allow the viewer to accept the fantastic as objectively true within the world of the fiction can be called a sort of ambivalence, but it is only one which suggests a recourse to the psychological being the primary motivator of the film's aesthetic choices. Which is a fine reading and all, I suppose, though it ultimately turns Birdman into little more than, well. The mean way to say it is that it turns Birdman into Synecdoche, New York for adults. The nice way? I'm not so sure about that. But it has something going for it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

2014 in Shit: For No Good Reason

For No Good Reason is a documentary about Ralph Steadman, who you better know as the illustrator affiliated with Hunter S. Thompson, or else this movie doesn't give a shit about you. Which, really, is fine, because it's an awful movie that you shouldn't give a shit about.

Some of his other work is mentioned (though never his illustrations for Flying Dog Brewery, which I thought a little weird), of course, but never without Johnny Depp hovering around, looking like he's constantly straining against falling into his Raoul Duke role. That might just be how Depp always is, though, I don't know. And honestly, by the time Depp starts interjecting his presence regularly, he's kind of welcome, if only because it is already painfully clear that this is a documentary that doesn't give the remotest shit about its subject.

Honestly, I didn't much expect to like this movie; I had the Thompson phase and everything, and I've always thought Steadman seemed fine, and occasionally even appreciated some of his work I've seen, but I would never have seen this were it not for a friend who wanted to go. He, too, hated it, though his was more out of disappointment than anything, I think. So there's that; even someone interested enough to invite other, less interested parties along didn't find much of anything worth anything here.

A lot of the issues I had with For No Good Reason -- aside from that it seemed fundamentally disinterested in Steadman as anything other than the closest thing they could get to making a Thompson documentary -- were in its creative choices, of which I can now remember very little. I do recall that the soundtrack was embarrassing, like the filmmakers thought borderline twee indie electronic music was still a thing people found remotely endearing. And that there were a number of animation montages -- often using one of Steadman's paintings as a starting point -- that were incredibly, almost hilariously, ill advised. I don't have an incredible amount of respect for Steadman's work, but even I felt embarrassed for the man.

My strongest memory of seeing the film was of being shushed, even though we were three of maybe seven people in some tiny theater that was showing it. There was a moment when, in mocking the choices of the filmmakers with the friend who had wanted to see it, I started to at least feel some empathy for Steadman, whose work does deserve better. But then someone got upset the theater was being used as a social space rather than a religious one and, since they have the backing of society and money (and politeness, I guess, whatever) in that particular argument, I shut back up and went back to resenting the whole experience.

So yeah. Don't see this shitty movie.

Monday, December 15, 2014

2014 in Shit: Crows : Explode

Crows : Explode is the third in a series. The first two -- Crows Zero and Crows Zero 2 -- were live action adaptations of a high school yakuza-adjacent fighting manga. They both fucking ruled; I watched them in preparation for the third, having never heard of them before. They were also both directed by Takashi Miike, closer to his Dead or Alive style than, say, his Ichi or Audition or Gozu styles. I don't think either of Miike's Crows ever quite achieve the brilliance of the DoA movies, but they aren't incredibly far off.

Some words on those movies, to give context on the one under consideration but also because fucking Miike is such a piece of shit and he's the best; in spite of what I just said, if there's any movie of his that the Crows films are closest to thematically I'd have to reach for Ichi the Killer. Maybe Visitor Q, although that has too broad of a scope. This is in the reading of Ichi as a movie about masculinity, which maybe (I haven't seen it in going on ten years probably) isn't immediately obvious. It's something of a copout to say, "well, really, this horror film, what it is actually about is masculinity," in part because this obscures the fact that it (no matter what it is, but especially Ichi) is much more about composing images within a developing abstract framework that produce affective responses. Which is to say that focusing on content to the exclusion of form is a way of reducing films to a set of meanings, which is itself a means of turning any individual film into a data point. Which isn't necessarily bad, you know, but kind of ruins the fun of an exercise like this.

Welcome to 2014 in Shit, in which I take myself to film school for your edification and my embarrassment.

That said, what does organize the way in which the images are presented on the screen over time in Ichi the Killer is motivated, at least in part, by the way it develops the titular character's very, uhm, fraught, relationship to masculinity, and specifically to the forms of masculinity pressed upon him by the other characters. In Ichi, these other characters play specifically on that fray in order to instrumentalize him. This is in some ways Miike's Big Theme.

What Miike's Crows movies do is allow him, once again, to play in that space. And what makes him great is that he really does play in it. There are, I suspect, few directors who are as good at engaging with the fucked up nature of masculine social formation as Miike, or who can at the very least give it so thorough a treatment through odd one-off moments or cringe-worthy comic relief characters. It helps, also, that he can direct the shit out of an action sequence and has no qualms whatsoever about, say, setting it in the pouring rain for no discernible narrative reason.

A final bit about Miike: in addition to all that, he somehow has the worst, goofiest sense of how to use special effects, and it is fucking wonderful. One of his Crows movies has a human bowling moment that is just exquisite.

Crows : Explode was directed by Toshiyaki Toyoda, whose work I gather lends him to this sort of thing despite having seen none of it. All things considered, it's a good movie; it holds together, does its own thing, builds in one important way on its predecessors, and is fun to watch. It is also, unfortunately, disappointing.

I say this as someone -- and this could be taken just as much as my having had inflated expectations going in as of my having a predisposition for generosity toward it -- who is particularly fond of the awkward, unnecessary third movie, especially when something like a change of director happens. The most ready example: I count Pulse 3, the direct to DVD conclusion of a trilogy that began with an American remake of a Japanese horror film, among my favorite films of all time, despite not loving either Pulse (the first; it's great but not amazing, though the second is) or Kairo, its source. Or, even closer to hand, the third Dead or Alive movie, which, while not a favorite period, is my favorite of the three, though that didn't switch directors.

Third movies, given the right circumstances, provide unique opportunities to explore the weirdness of a premise more fully than is generally available. Note that I'm not talking about the sort of third that is the end of a trilogy, and has been projected out from the start, although their being conceived to wrap up a film and its sequel are generally a good thing. Approaching something like "ghosts came out of the internet" or "high school kids beat the shit out of each other" with an eye toward a natural conclusion for that premise, taking into account the batshit happenings of the previous installments, is a fantastic opportunity to craft a trainwreck.

On top of that, the third gets to cherrypick from the past in a way that isn't often a feature of a cinema culture that relies heavily on treating every movie as an experience unto itself. Third parts start running into weird impasses; fans of the earliers' response to certain aspects might dissuade the director or producer from pursuing them, actors may have moved on or demand higher pay, intellectual property may have shuffled hands, sets from other films may need to be repurposed for the lower budget, and on and on. Having an established property creates a lot of interesting eventualities, and watching any third film is in some way also watching how those are addressed. It's fun.

An example, from the movie at hand; the only character who returns for a major role in Explode (from the first two Crows) is Katagiri Ken, who played a graduate of Suzuran (the fighting high school) who was a sort of bumbling, kind-hearted yakuza underling. Through the first two movies he sort of mentors Genji Takiya, the main character and son of a yakuza boss, in his quest to take over Suzuran (via, obviously, fighting), even though Katagiri failed miserably in his attempts there. Katagiri goes from a bumbling sidekick to a fleshed out side character who completes his arc over the course of the two films. Of all the secondary characters in the movies, his might have been the best: self-contained, fully realized, and definitively ended. For whatever production reason, though, he was brought back, even though the only reason he made sense as a part of this story (his relationship with Genji Takiya) was gone.

In some ways, the scenes with Katagiri are the best in the movie; they have at least some of that mixture of deference with relentless disregard for established storytelling practices that make the thirds such a compelling thing to watch. In the same way, of course, his presence never amounts to much more than as an attempt at dressed up fanservice. Which gets, I suppose, to the heart of the disappointment; Katagiri's return couldn't possibly be seen as anything but fanservice, and yet the movie never commits fully to either his wholesale integration into his new role or the kind of joyous embrace of his displacement that it seems perfectly capable of affording.

This isn't the aforementioned good thing that Crows : Explode does to build on its predecessors. More on that soon.

The reason I ran through Miike's work, other than that his work is important to me and that he directed the first two installments of the franchise, is to talk about (or at least around) how it is that Crows : Explode does its own thing. For as much hemming as I did, it seems hard not to read a movie with this premise as a commentary on masculinity, at least to some degree. Toyoda's film, for better or worse, does engage with this but opts not to centralize it. In the same way that its fight sequences, which I dug, were nowhere near as important (or, so, as central) as the ones in Miike's movies, it seems to want to take a much more conventional approach to dealing with its overarching abstractions. Which is to say, it focuses on its characters, and the themes are just kind of a thing you infer. I find that boring, honestly, but I watch movies as poorly as I do everything else, so. What this means is that the characters in Explode are much more rounded than the characters in the other two (with the possible exception of Katagiri Ken, which I am now realizing might make for an interesting argument on the terms of his inclusion); but to deploy the jargon against itself, (well) rounded is just another way of saying that they lack any edges. So they're folks, woohoo.

To round this whole thing off; the one important way in which Explode builds on Zero and Zero 2. Briefly in, I believe, the introductory scenes at Suzuran, as the new class is having their first fight of the year, a new social dynamic is introduced. The first day is now host to a ritualized "first fight" type thing, a bit of an open call for the student closest to taking over the top to tangle with whoever (although it very much seems like a number one contender sort of deal). As the movie goes on, this is hinted at more broadly; there are official rankings maintained by what must be some sort of third party group, that sort of thing. Basically, in the month since Takiya vacated the throne, a sort of Vegas atmosphere has developed, or a boxing/MMA contendership structure, or something.

There are a couple reasons this ruled, although, to quickly get it out of the way: it, also, is not utilized to nearly the level I would've liked, and so was also a bit of a disappointment. That aside; the thing about Suzuran, the setting of the movies, is that, despite being nominally a high school, there isn't a single scene (that I can recall at least, if there is the point still stands) in which it is so much as intimated that there is anything resembling schooling happening there. No teachers are shown, no principal; these kids just show up, hang out, and kick the shit out of each other. The most straightforward (read: paranoid) reading of this is as indicative of the film's as allegorical; thus the weird rant about masculinity above. It isn't too hard to figure out how forcing kids into arbitrary, pointless competition with their peers maps onto masculine identity formation, I don't think. The other reading that suggests itself is basically the same argument, except from a psychological perspectives; the camera shows us high school as experienced rather than as lived sort of thing. The places both of those arguments would take you might well be interesting, but for my purposes here we'll treat them as tools to be used rather than propositions to be explored.

To expand that binary slightly; if the goal were classification, then Miike's films in the series would fall on the allegorical side of the divider, and Toyoda's on the psychological. This is evident throughout the films as a whole by watching for both tone and emphasis, but if there is one deciding factor it would be Toyoda's inclusion of the rankings.

Per good deconstructionist practice, though, an issue must be brought to bear; that ranking system feels, more than almost any other part of Crows : Explode, like a natural consequence of the direction the film had to take after Crows Zero 2. And this is not, I very strongly suspect, because the well had run dry. As much as I respect Miike, I doubt even he could exhaust the high school as petri dish for masculine social identity metaphor.

That sense of being an extension is what might be the second of the "couple." Thus the weird rant about third films in a series above. For this one I don't have a lot to say, other than that I really appreciated that, in at least one way, Crows : Explode lived up to the arbitrary conditions for valorization my dumbass set.

And a slight postscript. The sets for Crows : Explode (and all of the Crows films, really) are fucking phenomenal. The school, the bar, the docks where Katagiri works and everything else both look fantastic and play into the drama and action wonderfully. Maybe at some point I will end up writing more about that. This format does have restrictions, though, and a big one is memory (with access as a correlate). So.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

2014 in Shit: American Hustle

American Hustle came out last year, but I only saw it at the beginning of this one. Christian Bale is pretty okay, and Bradley Cooper is the worst.

It was the worst. What a bad, bad movie. I don't have anything else to say about it. Even including it seems like kind of bullshit, even though a lot of the movies in this Year in Shit came out last year originally. They didn't generally come to US theaters then, though --or at least not to ones in my area. This movie did.

It's not like this is even unprecedented -- I reviewed Hitchcock last year even though it technically came out at the tail end of the prior year, to my area, and I didn't even have that much to say about it then. But I had something, I guess, or was able to fabricate something. For this I have nothing at all. Bale has a toupee? Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams weren't the worst? David O. Russell seems like a fucking geek? I dunno. Shitty movie.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

2014 in Shit: Boss Fight Books (Season One)

I backed the Kickstarter for the first season of Boss Fight Books in an uncharacteristic fit of optimism. Games writing had been my major source of exciting cultural criticism for a while, by that point, with a vanguard of radical women engaging in theory and practice that pushed in a number of directions.

There were problems, of course; the writing could be stilted or excessively guarded, the trap of ethical consumerism as political project lurked not far under the surface of some authors, and the engagements with race were often lacking. The creation of a series of books about games seemed to open up the possibility of that vanguard's being followed, if imperfectly. A certain amount of appropriation of their work, but also the possibility of the creation of a tone to the discourse that would allow them greater stability to continue what they were doing.

I lied to myself a lot, in other words. I told myself that, even if the idea of a book per game was not my thing, at least they had Earthbound, which could work, and that the author was a fan of M. Kitchell's, which was a good sign. And that Darius Kazemi couldn't do wrong, surely. And why not give a book about Galaga a try. The biggest lie, of course, was that comparing themselves to 33 1/3 was anything other than a huge warning sign that I would have zero fucking interest in these books.

I talked to a friend about Earthbound during breaks at the Critical Proximity conference. We both thought it sucked, but weren't really prepared to say it. He held out some hope for Anna Anthropy's ZZT, so I allowed myself to as well. I didn't read the Chrono Trigger book, because I didn't back at that level. I read the Galaga book, but I may as well not have. In that way, at least, Baumann's Earthbound was a perfect book; it set my expectations low, and the editors from then on did their best to never jostle them too strongly.

Coming from a literary criticism background, I expect a book about a single work (another book, generally) to be one of two things; either the consequence of decades of research and work, or something on the border of self help, all liberal platitudes about the ethical richness of the printed word. There is a reason a book like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Signifying Monkey moves from Walker to Hurston to Reed, through Ellison and others; whether the point is to develop concepts or to reconstruct certain historical conditions through their consequences, or whatever else, your single source is probably not up to the task without some embarrassing stretching going on that will likely undermine your argument.

The two books from the first season that I've seen receive the most praise have been the two, I think, that most deserve it. I've also got little to say about them, because I think they're basically the best possible examples of a broken, useless format. These were Anna Anthropy's ZZT, which especially felt like the strongest possible example of the type (a damning with faint praise, probably, but said with all respect to the work Anthropy has put in) and Darius Kazemi's Jagged Alliance 2, which felt at first as though it was straining against those limits, until it broke and settled into a sort of very bright journalism. This, of course, is fine for what it is. Except that what it is is largely uninteresting to me.

Maybe, as time goes on, they will develop a stronger editorial voice, or open up to interesting veins of thought. Or, probably, they will continue doing what they do, and it will be fine with the occasional outstanding individual project. Maybe Press Select, another small publisher with a similar idea, will push forward the field. I'll probably just dodge the whole thing though.

Worth noting, too, about the Boss Fight Books series, is a problem that only became clear to me during my reading of Super Mario Bros. 2 by Jon Irwin. In addition to the one game one book stipulation, the series is characterized by the inclusion of personal anecdotes by the authors. These range from childhood memories to detailing moments of the research process, and are largely inconsequential. What this does is to establish the author as a sort of congenially fallible authority; they demonstrate their dedication and the labor which they have exerted, and that they are only human. I've always found this sort of thing vaguely insulting, as though the author was worried I would forget that there was a human being behind the words had they failed to remind me. There's also the weird way in which it seems as though the author is insulating themselves from criticism with that tone, which just seems goofy.

There are weird little factual distortions in Irwin's book. On page 26, for instance: "Later, when the game would finally cross the ocean as an unlockable bonus in a Game Boy Color port of the original, its retrofit title explained what that simple numeral could not. This was Super Mario Bros.: For Super Players." This despite the fact that on page 52, Irwin references Super Mario All-Stars, which actually brought the Japanese SMB2 to American shores first. Because of this, I started noticing things like his claim on page 51 that, "It wouldn't be until 1996 that fans could finally play as a three-dimensional plumber in Super Mario 64," which is the right year at least. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars had a 3D Mario, and Irwin didn't say anything about playing as a 3D plumber in 3D.

I could usually give a shit about these sorts of issues, especially when I am just sort of plowing through a book convinced I won't enjoy it. Something about the tone, though, that "oh, I'm just a passionate fan with a little luck and a lot of work," made these issues stick for me. It's a balancing act, working those anecdotes in, and frankly, I think the Boss Fights Books thus far have been unable to find that balance. Even if they had, of course, they seem mostly to be content to be little more than works of mildly interesting journalism, which I'm sure is fine for many.

And the weird thing is that those little, inconsequential inaccuracies (or quibbles with wording, even, I am not above mentioning that it is reasonable to read my complaints as just that) seem like the exact sort of thing that the inclusion of personal anecdotes affects the personable tone to absolve the text of. Like, sure, he twists the wording about the subtitle of the American localization of SMB2 to use the better subtitle for his point; he's just some dude, you know? Just a fan with a book contract, god bless him. For me, of course, the opposite effect took hold; I found myself more and more inclined to call bullshit on his claims the chummier he seemed to get.

I'm somewhat scapegoating Irwin here; his just happens to be the most recent book and on the franchise with which I am the most familiar. I found this problem in all the books. And, truthfully, the issue of trusting the author to this degree wouldn't be any particular issue if I had ever seen any promise from the premise of the series after my cash had gone through the Kickstarter funnel. It's all, I suppose, a roundabout way to say that the thing I learned most from this set of books was about how I navigate trust around an author of a non fiction book. So thanks to them for that, I guess, even if the end result isn't much for flattery.

Friday, December 12, 2014

2014 in Shit: The Midnight After

The Midnight After was, in most respects, one of the best movies I saw this year. I saw it on the strength of its director -- even though the only Fruit Chan film I have seen is the "Dumplings" short from Three...Extremes -- and the fact that the premise, with my immediate association of the Langoliers miniseries, seemed promisingly goofy. And, for the first half, it hit exactly where I hoped it would, willing to engage the goofy premise seriously with the attendant levity. For the second half, too, as a matter of fact. A good whole, of course, shouldn't arbitrarily be split into two good halves. I promise that it wasn't.

In the dead center of the movie there is a scene. As, I suppose, there should be; were there no scene, it would presumably mean the movie had ended. Certainly it is a scene that cuts the movie in half. After the premise has been set up, and after the relationships have been established, and when that is all about to start bearing fruit; that's when it happens. Once everything has been explained and before anything has happened. Once the good will has been won and before it needs to be tested, expanded, engaged. It's the cut in half moment. It's where the hope goes from an abstracted thing that is being gratifyingly fulfilled to an abstracted thing that can be dispassionately viewed happens. It sucks. This movie sucks.

Right at the midpoint of The Midnight After -- if not in timestamps, then certainly in feeling -- there is an extended sequence in which two of the guys who have been absent for some time from the rest of the group admit that one of them raped one of the women that had earlier been found dead. This admission is played out on screen, for an incredibly long time. She dies of some mysterious cause part of the way through, and the rapist keeps on. After, the rest of the group decides that to dispense justice they are going to kill the perpetrator, by way of each of them stabbing him.

It is obviously supposed to be some sort of meditation on the postapocalyptic setting, in the way that setting is always leveraged to say stupid shit about the Nature of Man. It's the same sort of bullshit you get everywhere with these things, and its fucking exhausting and, because of how good the movie has been up to that point, especially demoralizing. It sucks. Fuck this movie.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

2014 in Shit: Fox Drum Bebop

Last year, Kaya Press put out what was probably my favorite book of the year, even if it was just the rerelease of a book that was self-published going on a century ago. So when they came to the Bay this April, I was excited to see some of their authors read. Shailja Patel -- whose work I am unfamiliar with, but whose twitter presence I am not -- and Sesshu Foster were on the lineup, along with two others. I did go, and enjoyed it; I even went to the reading's afterparty, though I didn't really talk to anyone.

The two readers I didn't know were the two who had books coming out this year, and of them it was Gene Oishi's book that I bought and will be reviewing here. Before that though, a short story; of the four readers, the only one I haven't mentioned is Amarnath Ravva. He read well, and his book seemed interesting. I didn't pick it up, for whatever mixture of insignificant reasons (though I suspect I will at some point, as it seems very up my alley), and, since I didn't socialize at the afterparty, I figured that was about that, until I did get around to the book.

Hello Kitty turned 40 this year. You might have heard about it; it happened in Los Angeles. I went to the convention. It was my first convention. I'm not particularly fond of LA, but I know a decent number of people who live there. None I am super close with, but a few I have known for a long time. The night after the first day of the con, I reached out to a few people and, surprisingly (to me), got a response from one in particular. He's a twitter friend from the heyday of Deleuzian twitter, back when I was texting strings of words into a wall of text as poetic/performative/formal experimentation. Back when lefty trolls were in Soros' pocket and before, even, my university system was sending detectives out to threaten my mom about lawsuits against me. He's a good dude, but we hadn't been in touch for a minute. By chance, a space he helps run was having an event, and I was able to get there. So I headed over, and saw a couple readings, and it was cool.

After the event was over, we chatted for a little bit. It was the first time we'd met in person, so it was mostly old twitter shit, invitations, how cool the space was, that kind of thing. After talking for a bit, Amar walked over to say hello to David. I recognized him, said I had appreciated the reading, and we talked briefly. He was cool. And that's the story. On to Oishi's book.

I don't know that I'd say that Fox Drum Bebop would give Kaya Press the coveted Year In Shit award for best book two years running, but that might have more to do with the fact that I hardly read anything new this year than anything else. It certainly is a book well worth reading. In the afterword, Oishi notes that he wrote it, in part, to contribute to the still too-small conversation around the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. As an artistic exercise, where it sometimes stumbles along the (false objectivity) of pure craft, this goal is, I think, upheld. One of the roughest portions of the book, along the lines of craftsmanship (and the section Oishi happened to read at the Kaya event) deals with the protagonist, Hiroshi, attempting to solicit a sex worker during his stint with the Army Band, after he has been accepted at a jazz club. Beyond how this scene reflects Oishi's own strengths and weaknesses as an author -- his best moments are all clearly in the memoir wheelhouse, where the emotional stakes are clear from the environment and don't need direct description -- it reflects how much the literature of Japanese American internment (and, even more broadly, if to a significantly lesser extent, Asian American literature that deals with that specific cultural experience) has been pressured to elide these sorts of experiences. There is not, in other words, a healthy world of letters dealing with the sexual experiences of those who lived through internment.

Other than this particular (and other similar) failures (and -- honestly -- including them, because though they have issues they do contribute to the overall engaging sense that the book has some degree of roughness) Fox Drum Bebop is a pleasure to read. It is sometimes overbearingly memoirish, but again the goal seems served by this.

As a whole, it's hard to say much about Fox Drum Bebop. It doesn't push enough to one direction to be, say, a No No Boy, nor to the other to be an America is in the Heart (which, issues of the author's personal experience aside, is the only other book I've read than FDB that talks directly about the area in which I grew up, which is a little weird), nor in a third to be a Language of Blood; which is to say that the prose is never exceptional enough to delve into at length, and the history isn't quite as focalized. The benefit of its being a "semi-autobiographical" novel (rather than a straight memoir), though, is that it structures itself to be read through as a story, with developing thematic and character concerns. This it does very well, if not in any magnificently unique way, excepting, perhaps, that it is strong and confident enough in that structure to take liberties with it.

Fox Drum Bebop is structured chronologically; each chapter has a title (a not unwelcome holdover, I presume, from its original form as a series of short stories) and a year or range of years. Over the course of the forty-some years the novel covers explicitly, there are occasional forays into the past; the lives of Hiroshi's parents and elder siblings are sketched out, and the futures of his nieces and nephews, with relation to that (and his own) past, are suggested. I don't know that this is an interesting thing to talk about on its own; it sounds, as I write, even to myself, like I am saying "wow this did things novels do." But it is done well, and worth mentioning, I think.

What actually sets Fox Drum Bebop apart, for me at least, is how Oishi interweaves political narratives into Hiroshi's personal story. FDB is necessarily a political novel, of course. But there aren't, to my knowledge, many discussions of things like the radicalization of young, interned Japanese Americans. Hiroshi, though young enough to spend most of his time apart from it, experiences a rift in his family as one brother becomes an advocate of American loyalism (with attendant military service) while another takes a strong leftist critique of the country that imprisoned his family. The characters themselves are written such that these positions feel like natural (but not inevitable) conclusions; the former a high school football player, the latter a student at Todai, both the sons of an American Dream-style immigrant success story who remained a nationalist that toasted to Pearl Harbor.

In the time the novel spends with Hiroshi after the camp (which, I should probably mention, is the bulk of the book) these political questions, both informed by that time and not, continue to arise. As with the passage about the sex worker mentioned earlier, the question of how this informing happens is often complex and not strictly an effect of established narrative causes. It is, in other words, interesting, in a way that rewards engagement.

Which is all to say that, yes, about all I have to say about Fox Drum Bebop is that it is a novel. And I liked it, and I think you could too.