Review: Hint Fiction

During my vacation last week, I read Hint Fiction, Robert Swartwood’s collection of ficlets.  All sorts of authors contributed to it, each writing a particular sort of story: a composition of 25 words, or fewer, which does not simply tell a story but hints at a larger picture.

For example, the very first: Joe Lansdale’s “The Return.”

They buried him deep.  Again.

5 words that imply a man or masculine creature, one who apparently died and certainly was buried, who was buried deep the first time but nonetheless was exhumed (or dug his own way out), and who They, once again, buried…for all the good it will do, which may not be much.  A brief respite?  A century of rest?  We don’t know!  But we’Hint Fictionre left to imagine it.

It’s a strong entry to lead the anthology.  That sort of compression, almost a prose poem, takes a lot of thought and the ability to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, for every hint that grabbed me, making me pause to ruminate on the larger picture implied by it, there were four that let me pass on by.  Fortunately, in a book of 125 hint-fics, that’s 25 stories that left some impression.  The finer specimens make the most of their title, or use allusions to other stories (Penelope, “Not Waving But Drowning,” Shark Week) as a shortcut.

In the interest of moderating my judgment, I tried writing a few; to try and focus my thoughts, these hint fics are summaries of longer books I’ve read somewhat recently, though that’s not necessarily the best method to achieve this sort of iceberg-writing.

Where dreams come true, so do nightmares.

Suffering the rough buffs away our raggedness until we shine. 

Curiosity, puzzle-solving, and loving the 1980s enough could make you a billionaire.  Bonus girlfriend, if the evil corporation doesn’t kill you first.

They shared what beauty they could find like war rations, to multiplicative effect.  Friendship does not destroy death, but it does discourage suicide.

I wouldn’t call Hint Fiction a must-read, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a must-buy.  But it’s a fun read, and beneficial to writers who don’t otherwise weigh out their words.  Certainly these droplets of story prove that a lot of horror fits in a small space; it’s harder to fit a great deal of glory into that same small space.

 

Review: Technopoly

As in my post of last week, I am in the position of reviewing a book long after I first read it.  However, after reading Neil Postman’s Technopoly last March, I reread it in May, took copious notes on it in June, and still have it to hand for further consideration, because this book gave me so very much to ruminate upon.

Having stumbled over the book’s prologue while idly Googling the story of King Thamus and the Egyptian god of invention Theuth, I wondered how I had never heard of this author before.  Postman wrote at least seventeen books about the nature of education, how various technologies and media can contribute to (or interfere with) it, and the effect this all has on humans, particularly children.  The bulk of his work and writing occurred between 1960 and 1990, and Technopoly was published in 1992.Technopoly

All of this is to say that, though Postman analyzes a technological landscape over twenty years old, so much of it still rings true that the man seems somehow prophetic.

His thesis: technology appears to be a friend, but does not give us time for reflection on potential losses before it changes the world.  As scientists and inventors strive to make life easier, healthier, and longer…technology begins to usurp the place of our critical thinking and our consciences.  It is so intertwined with modern life that most of us have difficulty finding a distant enough vantage point to see what consequences, secretly intended or unintentional, may follow.  As King Thamus tells Theuth (or Thoth), “the discoverer of an art is not the best judge of the good or harm which will accrue to those who practice it.”  The king referred to writing, distinguishing memory and wisdom themselves from the recollection and appearance of wisdom which writing would make possible.

Basically, technology can be used for good or ill – but once the tool is in the culture, it will change it: not just here or there, but throughout.  For example, a culture that can produce written records can – eventually will – shift away from having an oral tradition.  Hurrying toward what is ahead, the inventor does not necessarily examine all these implications, all the ways his invention will change the world – nor do those using it ask, typically.  Instead, everyone emphasizes their hope for all the good this invention will bring.  The culture thus conspires against itself: the onlookers cannot know how this novelty will change their existence, nor that they might well end up on “the losing side” of a technology.

Maintaining that technologies reflect and create the ways people perceive reality, Postman sets out his definitions (by description) of tool-using cultures, technocracy, and technopoly.  Tool-using cultures use tools – many or few, simple or sophisticated, beloved or held in contempt – to solve problems of physical life, or to serve the symbolic world (e.g., art, politics, myth, ritual, religion).  The tools are determined and directed by the culture, thus they generally do not attack the dignity or integrity of it.  Rather, the culture is unified in belief (possibly theocratic), which provides order and meaning for the people within it.

He does list some tools which can intrude on cultural beliefs – the stirrup, the clock, mills, matches, and rifles – so I think those can be tied to the rise of Technocracy.  Here, tools are central to the world of thought.  Technocracy disdains and subordinates, but does not destroy, social or symbolic traditions (partly because it’s too new to change venerable phenomena like elder wisdom, regional pride, or social structure; partly because it’s busy doing other things).  Postman notes that Western technocracies were rooted in the clock, the printing press, and the telescope: three tools which changed the fabric of how society organized time, disseminated many new ideas to all sorts of new readers, and how men viewed the cosmos and their place in it. Listing off various natural philosophers-become-scientists, Postman avers that the precision of man’s knowledge of the cosmos “collapsed [the] moral center of gravity,” causing “the psychic desolation of an unfathomable universe.”  Even so, the believing scientists remained faithful, concerning themselves with learning and truth, not power or progress…until Francis Bacon came along.  Thereafter, people came to believe that knowledge was power and continuing progress was possible, while their belief in God was shaken if not obliterated.

More inventions, more factories, more production, faster communication…generally, people learned how to make this all happen, but didn’t spend as much time asking why.  And so western society approached Technopoly: a totalitarian technocracy, wherein efficiency, objective data, and unambiguous calculation is valued more highly than human judgment, human dignity, or the complexity of the unmeasurable.  “Lacking a lucid set of ethics and having rejected tradition, Technopoly searches for a source of authority and finds it in the idea of statistical objectivity.”  Thus ideas are reduced to objects, abstractions are ranked, and realities which were never meant to be reduced to numbers – human intelligence, a student’s understanding of a subject, beauty, ability, how people regard political candidates, etc. – are flattened and simplified until they fit into such boxes.

Postman acknowledges that a certain amount of generalization or oversimplification is necessary for everyone, given that we are awash in information: the sorcerer’s apprentice, with only a broom against the flood.  But in the past, some institution (familial society, religion, etc.) provided the framework for belief and understanding, dictating what was of greater or lesser importance.  Technocracy unraveled that moral and intellectual coherence, and now such institutions, and such overarching structures of belief, are held in suspicion by the Technopoly-addled.  What do they have instead?  An incomprehensible universe, and an unending river of data sans context.  Data management becomes the driving concern – again, not asking why this information or that must be preserved, but only caring how.  “Information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.”

So.  Having been alarmed by the way in which society regards the universe as incoherent, the vicious cycle of bureaucracy, and blatant reductionism, what can we do?

Postman’s response – he admits that it’s not really a solution – is that, at an individual level, we must cling fast to the narratives and symbols which quicken us and organize our thought.

At a societal level, schools are probably the best arena for improvement. The curriculum therein tends to have some coherence and connectedness, and presents ideas or attitudes that can permeate “a person with no commitment, no point of view, but plenty of marketable skills.” Or so we hope. Since it’s unlikely that religion, love of country, or emotional health would be used to provide structure for students’ knowledge, something else must do so.  Postman suggests “the ascent of man” – the idea that “humanity’s destiny is the discovery of knowledge.” The arts and humanities can be joined with science “to gain a unified understanding of nature and our place in it.” Instead of excising anything religious, a study of religious systems can (apparently) help tell “the story of humanity’s creativeness in trying to conquer loneliness, ignorance, and disorder.”

The sudden influx of quotations probably displays my feelings toward this approach: I can’t actually summarize it and keep a straight face. I agree that it’s valuable for our culture to have a nontechnical or noncommercial concept of education, but I don’t know that this approach to learning would be able to overwrite society’s years of emphasis on education as the means to achieve material or financial success; after so many years of people asking “How?” I don’t know how to convince everyone to ask “Why?” instead.

Postman also recommends teaching as much history as possible – not only the history of political events, or of each school subject, but of history itself. This, he hopes, can help illuminate why we know the things we know, whence our ideas and sensibilities issue, and how cultures change. He urges that different theories be propounded if not endorsed or established: “To teach the past simply as a chronicle of indisputable, fragmented, and concrete events is to replicate the bias of Technopoly, which largely denies our youth access to concepts/theories, providing only a stream of meaningless events.”  Which has always been my problem with understanding history: why bother remembering distinct events if I don’t understand the point of them?  Postman agrees with that: “The worst thing we can do is present [facts] devoid of coherence.” Rather, we should go beyond the event into larger concepts, theories and hypotheses, comparisons and evaluations.

For my own part, stuck in my unfashionable Christian beliefs and morality system, it’s clear that human-centered solutions cannot fill a spiritual pit.  Technology cannot cure its own disease.  Practical decisions cannot solve moral quandaries.  There can be no experts in child-rearing and lovemaking and friend-making, because individual people are not problems to be solved.  If the great danger is to become Adolf Eichmann – the Holocaust organizer who was indifferent to the fact that the timetables and logistics he oversaw were part of the deportation and killing of millions of people – then our defense is to care more about our actions and their consequences, especially the effects on our fellow man.

This is similar to Postman’s final conclusion: that to resist Technopoly, we must be loving resistance fighters.  We must understand that technology is a product of a particular economic and political context; that all technology carries with it “a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing;” and that all technology demands examination, judgment, and control.”

My corollary: Keeping an “a epistemological and psychic distance from any technology” requires an understanding of, and respect for, the dignity of the human soul.  Distrust of technology will not change our society, our culture, our world so much as love for our fellow man.

Review: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

Last August, T. Everett recommended I read The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, saying “Have you ever wondered what Harry Potter would be like if it were about Hermione instead?”

I hadn’t wondered this, because of Ann Margaret’s excellent stories on that very premise – except that, okay, I had, because those still revolve around Harry and his path as the Chosen One.  So the question becomes, “What would Hogwarts – and Hermione – be like without Harry’s shenanigans?”

If we took Rachel Griffin’s Enlightenment as the answer, it would be “Largely the same; other shenanigans would arise to fill the gap.”  There are, in fact, so many shenanigans springing up that the whole 360 pages or so comprise five days, assuming I counted properly.

However, Rachel and Hermione, and their respective worlds, are dissimilar enough that the question of Granger-sans-Potter remains unanswered.  Rather, we are presented with a whole lot of other questions, answers, and characters, including:

– Rachel, a wizard girl of Noble Blood, with an eidetic memory, a strong work ethic, an unyielding compulsion to obey adults (until she tries really really hard and breaks said compulsion), a devotion to her father which must eventually be transferred elsewhere, and complete religious ignorance…but I’m getting ahead of things.  By dint of memory and effort, she flies very well. She remembers everything she looks at, though there were too many instances of Let Me Stop And Review The Picture In My Head for my taste (though I must concede their purpose: to help her see past magical obfuscation). She is super concerned with Who Likes Whom.

– Siegfried, an orphaned dragon slayer who often exclaims “Ace!” while hoarding his gold and food (so much so that he doesn’t know to buy an extra set of clothes), and whose quixotic ideas move the narrative forward, if haltingly.

– Nastasia, a Russian princess…of Magical Australia, for whatever reason.  She has a Bag of Holding, a violin, several skills which I have forgotten, a deeper commitment to the rules than even Rachel has, and the blessing/curse of having Visions when she touches certain people.

Many other figures crop up, though their development is flimsy.  Honestly, a lot of it reads as flimsy: the number of talents every single character has, the fact that a “girl reporter” is under threat of death, the amount of improbable things figured out by a bunch of 13-year-olds, the rapid escalation of threats interspersed with a lot of concern over dating.  The names – Gaius Valiant, Salome Iscariot, Dr. Mordeau, to name a few – are either super-literal or the reddest of herrings; I’m betting on the former.

Still, a few subtler details await development by the margins.  For one, individual takes on magic and magical worlds are generally diverting, and this world is no exception.  The American wizarding school, the Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts, explains how the colony of Roanoke went missing: the school’s founder turned it into a floating island, safe from the eyes of the Unwary (this world’s Muggles).  Magical familiar animals, music, and particular materials (including wands of metal and jewels) contribute to one’s magical abilities.

One of the most intriguing facts is that Rachel Griffin, Devourer of Library Books, is ignorant of all religious information – to the point where she doesn’t understand why a broom would be branded a “steeplechaser,” or what a friar is, or what the winged statue in the forest might be.  The dramatic irony involved might carry on through another book; given the visions, Morningstar references, and discussions between a prophetic raven and a miniature lion, I expect some kind of celestial showdown in the end.  Hopefully it doesn’t get too preachy.

Altogether, it’s a story that’s mostly drawn in Crayola colors – but here and there are shades in between, shadows implying that something deeper may come.  The concept is better than the execution; by the end of the narrative, I wasn’t certain what Rachel’s “unexpected enlightenment” actually consisted of.  Hopefully the next three installments can answer the questions this book left hanging, and further illuminate the reality (and history) of the Wise.

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Last year, I was engaged in a search for books featuring unmarried women who nonetheless lead lives (or, at any rate, experience some events) worth the reading.  Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie made it to my list; I checked it out of the library; annnd it was promptly ignored for months and months, as I hemmed over my bookshelf and let myself be waylaid by other considerations.

Miss Jean BrodieHaving actually cracked it a week or so ago, I found it to be a fairly quick read.  Miss Jean Brodie teaches at a girls’ school in Edinburgh, and selects for herself a set of girls to be her crème de la crème: the girls who accompany her to museums, the theater, various rough neighborhoods, and tea at various houses.  Each one becomes famous for a certain trait or ability (from mathematics to sex, apparently), and the set as a whole are more devoted to this teacher and what she teaches them than they are to the school or their respective houses.  As the official summary puts it:  Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises her girls, “Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me.”

She doesn’t follow the usual curriculum nor the usual pedagogical methods, and is therefore something of a target for the criticisms of the headmistress and other staff – except for the men, who are rather taken with her.  As she never marries any of them, the story technically still fits my criteria…but I really wasn’t looking for someone who jumps in and out of unhealthy or adulterous relationships.

I also wasn’t looking for someone who declared “I am in my prime!” every page or two.  Miss Brodie’s prime is mentioned 57 times, without further digging into what one’s prime is or why it matters that she is in hers.

Whilst reading, I became convinced that both the book and I were missing something in turns.  I missed some shades of significance where British schooling, Edinburgh accents, and Scottish religious experience is concerned, while the book’s depiction of Jean Brodie misses the point by painting in generalities.

Or, at least, it seemed to miss the point.  Maybe it meant to outline a particular sort of person, leaving readers to fill in any gaps with their own experiences.  Or perhaps it was all an effort to portray a person of just such shallowness, the sort of shallowness that attempts (and sometimes manages) to appear profound.  If so, the effort is successful: I find myself quite agreeing with the character who eventually “betrayed” Miss Brodie (such that she lost her teaching post) that Jean Brodie is a bit of a fool – but folly being some distance from a fireable offense, she is sacked for being a fascist.

(This left me wondering how sensible or attractive fascism might have seemed to a woman in the 1930s. The fact that Jean Brodie admires Mussolini and Hitler is utterly foreign to me, having grown up in a post-world-war time when most everyone discusses Hitler as a means to talk about the worst person they can think of on short notice.)

On the bright side, the book does have a quite intriguing narrative setup.  It describes the girls in sixth form, jumping ahead to when this one dies, that one gets married, jumping back to when they were younger yet, returning to sixth form and the time thereafter. This arrangement makes for a good deal of dramatic irony, and illustrates something of how detached our understanding (of a character, a person, an event) can be: sometimes you learn how things turn out without having any idea how they got that way.

There are also some delightful turns of phrase, some particularly suggestive bits of description; it couldn’t very well be otherwise, given the sort of person Miss Brodie is.  One passage notes that “above all, Miss Brodie was easily the equal of both sisters together; she was the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle and they were only the squares on the other two sides.”  Another notes her “excessive lack of guilt” and how one girl recognizes that as problematic.

“An excessive lack of guilt” might well characterize the whole book.  Both Miss Brodie and her set are unapologetically interested in Certain Things and disregard the rest. There’s a particular instance of religious conversion which must have involved a good deal of reading, thought, prayer, and various turnings of soul. It is given all of three sentences, and presented as a psychological change more than anything.

Bottom line: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a pretty good story, with somewhat lively characterization of a compelling personality.  But I’m not sure that it compels anyone in healthy ways, and as such it isn’t the story I was looking for.

Review: The Imitation Game

On Saturday, Cecilia dragged me out to see The Imitation Game: the story of Britain’s Enigma-code-cracking team in Hut 8, and, more broadly, of Alan Turing’s life. It was fairly good, as movies go, but days later, I’m left conflicted about it._TFJ0226.NEF

The good:

It’s effective, cinematically speaking. The storyline trips back and forth between Turing’s application to Bletchley Park, his schoolboy days at Sherborne School, and how a robbery at his house after the war led to him being arrested and tried for gross indecency, that is, for homosexual behavior. This braiding of events maintains the tension: will Alan get the job? Will he and his childhood friend Christopher carry on happily at Sherborne or will some disaster befall them? What will the interrogating policeman learn? Will the team indeed crack the Enigma…and, having done so, what will they do with it?

So that’s all very good, in its way. Benedict Cumberbatch, as always, presents us with a lonely eccentric academic who, despite being a bit of an arsehole, wins our sympathies. Turing’s represented as an extremely literal man who has difficulty parsing people and may be a touch autistic. This difficulty is neatly encapsulated in young Alan asking his friend Christopher at school: “How’s code-breaking different from people? No one says what they really mean.” Alex Alex LawtherLawther, who plays the young Turing, is very good at letting his eyes shine with quiet, earnest admiration of this friend. He also rather resembles the real Turing more than BTCC does – though Benedict can turn his body to admirable use, going from the fresh-faced Bletchley Park applicant to the older, more drawn fellow undergoing interrogation, to the oestrogen-injected man, stumbling feebly while still trying to work on his machine.

The rest of the cast was also fairly good, from those overseeing Bletchley to those on Turing’s mathematical code-cracking team to the policeman who, having dug into Turing’s past and interrogated him, regrets having done so. It is satisfying to see Turing triumph over Commander Denniston with Winston Churchill as his advocate; Awkwardgut-twisting to see the team keep German naval plans secret, though the brother of one of them will die within hours on account of it; intriguing to have a Soviet spy found out; and awkward as all get-out to see Turing propose to his friend Joan Clarke lest she leave Bletchley, then break off the engagement on account of his homosexuality (and, one presumes, to keep her safe).

Finally, the set was carefully constructed, both to give visual cues to Turing’s later work and to display a bit more of how his Bombe machine (not actually named “Christopher”) worked. Newsreel clips are spliced in to show footage of both the Blitz and the victory celebrations when the war is over. The film ends with Hut 8 burning their classified work, and on-screen text regarding the end of Turing’s life, British treatment of homosexuals, and the calculation that breaking Enigma shortened the war by more than 2 years, saving over 14 million lives.


The bad:

Translating a person’s life to not-quite-two-hours of screen time means a lot of oversimplification. This is understandable, and perhaps I’m simply picky, but I found it disappointing that Turing’s work was so cinemafied. All his mathematical discoveries, the philosophical implications of the question “Can machines think?,” his research in biology, is glazed over. Maybe those involved decided such things would require time they couldn’t spare, but it seems a shame to present Turing’s life without digging into what he did and what he accomplished outside the context of war.

That, and I can’t roll my eyes hard enough at the repeated line “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.” Ugh.  Sometimes it’s the people who are really good at math who do the things no one can imagine, Hollywood, though I know that’s a less encouraging thesis to so many of us.
The ugly:

I’m leery about history because my own grasp of it is comparatively weak, and I’m leery about movies depicting historical events because of the cinematic tendency (necessity?) to manipulate characters and happenings in certain ways. In addition, I’m leery of unmitigated condemnation of people’s (or government’s) decisions in the past, using today’s mores.

The onscreen text over the bonfire at the end states outright that Alan killed himself in 1954, after a year of government-mandated hormonal therapy. This is actually a matter of considerable debate: he was given injections, and fourteen months later died of cyanide poisoning, but it is unclear whether he accidentally inhaled fumes from an experiment or purposely ingested it. Either way it is a tragic event and a great loss, but there is a difference between death by misadventure and death by one’s own hand.  The ever-burgeoning machine for LGBT interests may, I suppose, claim him as martyr where the estrogen injections were concerned (quite appalling enough for some); it therefore strikes me as suspicious that they couldn’t leave it at “Alan died of cyanide poisoning in suspicious circumstances which may have been suicide.”

From what I’ve read, Turing was not left broken by the treatments; even his experience of gynaecomastia spurred his biological research.  So presenting him as an enfeebled creature who couldn’t solve his crosswords anymore leaves me with a bit of a bad taste, as it seems more fit to say “Look at what he accomplished in spite of it all!”
All in all, I recommend The Imitation Game, though more for its virtues as a movie than for its historical accuracy.  Expect to leave the theater thinking a little bit about Turing’s accomplishments, but mostly pondering the role of government, the nature of homosexuality, and the law.

Poets on Poetry

My friend The Grackle, of The Grub Street Grackle fame and previous adventures, has recently begun a video series entitled, Poets on Poetry. The exercise of this is to see how poets respond to, appreciate, or analyze each other’s poetry. Which is supposed to help the rest of us respond to poetry.

The Grackle has hitherto worked with words and ideas captured solidly through paper and ink, or pixels approximating paper and ink.

The foray into film to explore the sounds, sights, and nuances of spoken poetry is a bold stroke.

And as such, I, your brooding muse of tragedy, am honored that he chose one of my poems to initiate this series. Our friend Ian (his nom de plume is in the works, I shall let you know when it coalesces,) gives a wonderful and insightful introduction to the piece, one which made me gasp in sudden and new-found wonder over my own work. It is a powerful quality in art that it can hold more depth and meaning that the author purposely intended. Truly, poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonian, as Milosz says.

It is my favorite of my poems, and I have many thoughts and opinions about it. But we want to know your thoughts. Please watch, listen, and read, and then comment either here or over at the GrackleRag!

Res Mundi

I dreamed of you last night.
Knobby, creased ground pressed
Up under our feet,
And you were facing west
With your back to me, firm,
As dark as almost shadow,
Fixed and calm;
The moment almost hallowed.
But then you leaned back on my shoulder.
(Shoulders closer than a kiss.)
Weight bouldered
Me awake, and now I press

 A fist against my breast: I ache – how I had forgot –
For the weight of another being upon my heart.

 

To quote the original post,

The written, printed word is our bread and butter at the Grackle. But we don’t mind admitting—we will insist on it, in fact—that what makes poetry necessary is something that turns up first of all in a common breathing and beating of hearts. So what we’d really like is to get together with you somewhere, read some poems, and talk.

We hope the video series in which the above is the first entry gives you a hankering for the same.

If you’ve read a poem in Grub Street Grackle that you’d like to see featured in a future installment of “Poets on Poetry,” please leave a comment below to let us know!


Some questions about the poem, for your consideration:

  1. “Closer than a kiss” seems to draw attention to the fact that the two in the poem are not kissing. What do we infer from this about the speaker and the one being addressed?
  2. Res mundi. Things “of the world,” as opposed to what? Things of other worlds? Eternal things? Dream things? Memories?  There’s a turn in the poem at “But then.” Does that turn tell us anything about the nature of the opposition?
  3. The poem is framed as the recollection of a dream after waking, and the dream itself seems to be of something remembered. At what point does this dream memory end? Take the line, “Weight bouldered.” Is this something that happened in the dream? Then where was the weight? Is it “of the world,” or not?
  4. We are used to distinguishing a literal meaning of “heart” from a metaphorical. Does this distinction make sense applied to the last line of this poem?

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Pontypool

On Sunday, I saw an atypical vampire movie. The weekend prior, I saw an atypical zombie movie.*  Next up: atypical werewolf movie! I’ve no idea which one, though, so please comment with your suggestions, and in the meantime, let me tell you about Pontypool.

Were you to say “Hmm, you don’t strike me as a zombie movie watcher,” you would be quite correct. But Pontypool is a zombie movie the way Signs is an alien movie, which is to say that the plague-monsters themselves don’t get a lot of screen time. In an hour and a half of film, there are perhaps twelve minutes of shuffling revenants, and fewer of gore. There is neither a shotgun nor a cricket bat to be seen, and only a few splashes of red against a subdued background of bluish grays.

That said, there’s a lot to hear. The film is set in a radio broadcast studio built in the basement of an abandoned church, and most of the suspense and horror comes from what information can be gleaned from people calling in to the station, sometimes mid-attack, reporting a mob of people converging on the doctor’s office or a car being buried under a “herd” of people. Since none of it is shown, the mind is free to imagine just how awful those attacks might be. The responses and actions of announcer Grant Mazzy, his manager Sydney Briar, and assistant Laurel-Ann Drummond underscore the terror of ignorance and the slowly-dawning horror of understanding.

Even the former shock-jock is creeped out.

Even the former shock-jock is weirded out.

That creeping comprehension makes the movie. From the first two minutes, shown below, each little word is significant. The missing cat and its name; the people speaking French; the BBC broadcaster; the Valentine’s Day cards: all of it matters, and it takes watching and re-watching to understand why.

The pacing, the music (curse you, creepy violins!), the language, and silence all put the viewer in thrall. I had to talk to bring myself out of it a bit, had to eat my popcorn with determination, had to hug the friend sitting next to me whilst watching it. I’m no nail-biter, but it’s full of nail-biting tension anyway. There are those moments when one is left hollering at the screen, Don’t call him! No, hang up your phone! Such is the way of suspenseful movies: they mess with you as they draw you further in.

More thoughts and some spoilers under the cut.

Continue reading

Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

My housemate Cecilia and I went to see this film the other night.  We did so in flagrant disregard of the Benedict Cumberbatch rule, namely “Do not watch a movie, TV episode, or miniseries for no other reason other than one actor you like is in it.”  The one actor in question is, unsurprisingly, Tom Hiddleston; we’re fans of his, nor are we opposed to Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, or the rest.  Sadly, none of them could save Only Lovers Left Alive from a deadly (undeadly?) slow pace.

Only Lovers Left Alive

First, the good:  as a whole, the movie certainly catches a quality, a flavor.  It’s dark, coppery, and not very pleasant, but it’s certainly there in Eve’s brisk walk through Tangier (the most feminine I’ve ever seen Swinton), in the grungy melancholy of Adam’s house, in the streets of Detroit.  Cecilia found this depiction of Detroit rather refreshing: instead of focusing on the city as the capital of crime and corruption, the movie focuses on its musical contributions, the grittiness of its urban blight, and its hope for better things.  Eve notes the importance of the lakes all around, saying “This city will rise again.”  Why she doesn’t go for the original Latin, Jim Jarmusch only knows.  But then, Adam is the one in residence there.  Caught in the 1970s as he is, his affinity for the city indicates that both hope for better, but neither really changes.

The benefit of unending existence is the opportunity to read ALL the books.

The benefit of unending existence is the opportunity to read ALL the books.

That stagnant quality of endless days might account for the sluggish plot.  This is the most charitable explanation that comes to mind: that vampires, having spent centuries of darkness watching all that the “zombies” (ie, humanity) have to show – all the art, the music, the scientific advances – are doomed to ennui, to anomie, to acedia, and (should no sunlight, contaminated blood, or immortal beloved interfere) to suicide.  The story arc, such as it is, might just be one more postmodern conceit for human lives with no overarching narrative, no implicit meaning.  The lack of chemistry between Adam and Eve might have been intentional, depicting the natural consequence of being married for some 200 years.  Sparks, fire, fizzle, distance, regroup.  They try to patch it over with allusions to quantum entanglement, Adam describing them as particles which affect each other though they be a universe apart.  Perhaps Donne could make that metaphor work; this script can’t.

The less charitable and possibly more realistic explanation for the film’s torpidity is poor writing and an undeveloped plot.  At some points it was like watching Catcher in the Rye but with vampires in.  There are amusing moments – Adam burying his head under the pillow to avoid Eva, Eve’s iPhone calling Adam’s curious corded setup, the wrinkle of disgust that crosses Eve’s face on watching a body dissolve – but for the most part, neither Adam nor Eve compel me to care much about their undead existence or their butter-scraped-thin romance.  By far the most interesting character was Eva, Eve’s younger sister.  She is obnoxious, she is careless, she drinks them out of their fugue-inducing O-negative – and she somehow remains lively, as Adam and Eve do not.  We left the theater wondering how she spent her time in LA, how she’d offended Adam in 1925 in Paris, what bloodletting would attend her trip back west.

Possibly devotees of artistic films would appreciate details that I missed.  There are a number of overhead shots, a heavy-handed motif which attempts to connect the spinning of the stars, of records, and the eponymous lovers.  Adam takes a look at all manner of classic guitars, so perhaps Gibson fanboys would be into that.  Those with a dog in the fight over the author of Shakespeare’s plays might be amused when Christopher Marlowe turns up.  But for my own part?  Speraveram meliora.  I’d hoped for better.  They’re hardly lovers, and barely alive.