Saturday, January 26, 2008

Reading: A.L. Kennedy & Roddy Doyle

When you have two readers going up at one time, it's best to have contrast. And, at first glance, this wouldn't be it. You have two prize-winning authors from the British colonies (or post-British colonies, if you prefer; Scotland and Ireland, respectively), and two authors with a voluminous body of work between them. Roddy Doyle is probably better known, of course, from The Committments , of novel and film fame, and the Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. But, for my money, it's A.L. Kennedy who comes out all bangers and mash.

Both authors offered humorous readings, but their delivery was a contrast in style. Kennedy, while subdued, was filled with droll, deadpan humor, much of it rolling just under your consciousness. Her work, as well, has more subtlety about it, the humor tempered by darkness. Doyle, on the other hand, brings his voice to the forefront, which suits his own work: brash, brassy, and hilariously profane. And while both authors captured dialogue nimbly -- indeed, both authors read dialogue heavy sections from their current works (Day and The Deportees, respectively) -- Kennedy captures the hesitations, the pauses and hiccups, that Doyle's head-on language has no time for.

Part of it may be the formal structure of Doyle's work: he admitted that he wrote "Guess Who's Coming For Dinner," the story from which he read, in 800-word chunks which were published serially. Doyle's voice floored the gas from go and rarely let up. And while the story itself -- an Irish retelling of the Sidney Poitier movie of the same name -- Kennedy's quiet, intense examination of a damaged RAF pilot sticks more in my consciousness. Still, you can't blame him for being popular; Doyle's line at the signing table drew much more interest than Kennedy's. It reminded me of the Edward Jones/Edwidge Danticat/Zakes Mda reading last fall. Danticat's fans lined up around the Free Library, while Jones and Mda had plenty of time to twiddle their thumbs.

Sure, I'd go out for drinks with Doyle, but I'll talk mostly to the funny Scottish lady.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

New Potential Boyfriend: Chip Kidd

Buddhists say that desire is the root of all suffering. To that, I would add that these roots grow long and deep. Witness: I want to publish a book. I want to publish a book with Knopf. I want to publish a book with Knopf so that Chip Kidd can design the book jacket. I want to publish a book with Knopf so that Chip Kidd can design the book jacket whereupon we two will fall madly in love and live in a spacious New York City apartment, living off my royalties alone.

Alas, until then... suffering.

Much in the way that Vaughan Oliver changed album covers, Chip Kidd revolutionized book jackets. Think Jurassic Park. Think The Secret History. I rarely buy art books, but each time I open his Book One: 1986-2006, I'm dazzled by the way he juxtaposes image (both found and created), text and color to create a new narrative. It's one thing to read a book and enjoy the beautiful prose (or, conversely, to have the pleasure of throwing it across the room in disgust), but to have the physical object match the interior content -- isn't this what sublimity is all about?

So: author photo taken by Marion Ettlinger (who took the picture of Chip above), book lovingly wrapped around a Chip Kidd design -- who needs nirvana when you've obtained perfection?

Possible positive boyfriend aspects: Since Kidd is also a comic book otaku, I could finally catch up on 10+ years' worth of mind-dizzying storylines in the X-Men (since I stopped buying comic books). Ancillary benefits include: awesome business cards, wowie-zowie greeting cards for Christmas, and an endless supply of free books and ARCs from Knopf. Not to mention: Kidd is himself an author. I wouldn't have to go past my own door to be able to seethe in literary jealousy.

Possible negative boyfriend aspects: I'm pretty sure his current boyfriend, poet J. D. McClatchey, could beat the tar out of me.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Movie: Evil (To Kako)

One of the best things about zombies is that they need no translation. Eeeerrrgh and yarrrgh, on any continent, usually mean "I am going to eat you now. Mmmm, yummy." So it's with this universality that Greek director Yorgos Noussais brings us Evil (To Kako), a delirious blend of Peter Jackson and Danny Boyle's zombie oeuvre.

Let's face it: the why of zombie movies is usually the least interesting aspect. Rogue comet dust, escape plague of rage, or ancient burial ground curse... it's all academic, really. So after the prologue, set in an underground cave, people get to biting, other people get to running, and various guns, knives, and bludgeons are applied in a splattery, Grand Guignol style. And while there's nothing in Evil that's as outrageous as the famous "I kick ass for the Lord" preacher from Jacksons' Dead Alive, the black humor sprays in copious amounts.

Since I've brought up Dead Alive, I'll admit that I can't help but be slightly disappointed. Essentially, the film is one extended chase sequence, as our ragtag bunch moves from one location to the next, usually to a pounding beat (the apocalyspe will always have techno). But Evil neither has the house-bound claustrophobia that makes the climax of Dead Alive so memorable nor the eerieness that punctuated the empty streets of Boyle's 28 Days Later. Indeed, it's not until the end of the film do we see Athens all deserted -- and by that point, it no longer feels ominous; it feels more like early Sunday morning. The ending manages to be snicker-worthy and downbeat at the same time -- though the soundtrack insists that a rave is going on.

At least the characters have been given some modicum of personality. Argiris Thanasoulas, who plays Argyris, the cabbie-turned-chauffer of the doomed, does a strong job with what's ultimately a sex-obsessed and shallow character. Yet he's nonetheless charming, in a Danny Dyer sort of way, and his farewell shows how much his character holds the film together. Sure, the other characters have a chance to give their various backstories, but this illustrates the problem: they must tell their stories to give a context of their motivations, while Argyris simply embodies who he is. No psychoanalysis necessary.

Moreover, it feels as if Noussais tries to have both the humor and the seriousness, but these sit uneasily with one another. Indeed, there's a fleeting reference to the Greek military coup of 1967, but if the zombies are supposed to have an allegorical meaning, it's lost among the quick cuts and multiple split screens. Instead, Noussais is content to distract us with exploding prosthetics, arterial spray, and lots of shots of people running. It's a zombie marathon! Look, the Kenyans have pulled ahead again.

Still, for what it is, Evil manages to be an engaging thrill ride. I just wish it had more teeth.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Movie: The Ghost of Mae Nak

I question how appropriate it is for Ghost of Mae Nak to appear under Tartan's Asia Extreme label -- after all, it's an English director shooting a film based on the Thai legend of Mae Nak. Besides, Thailand has already produced its own definitive version of the tale -- Nang Nak. I suppose I might be taking too much of an essentialist view of what "Asia Extreme" should be. But still, you can't trust those gweilos.

Ghost of Mae Nak follows a young, modern-day couple in Bangkok as they act all cutesy in love before facing true horror: home ownership. What's the Thai word for "variable rate mortgage"? Worse, the house is haunted by a black-mouthed spirit who seemingly protects the house from those who would do the couple harm. She's a sort of spectral mezuzah. But the ghost seems to want something more... I'll give you a hint: she's a young bride who died in childbirth. Jewelry is the appropriate gift in such circumstances.

Issues of cultural appropriation aside, Ghost of Mae Nak shares the promise and flaws of the emerging Thai film industry. On the upside, the cinematography seems competent. Film stocks switch often, but not necessarily arbitrarily. You've got to love that hazy black-and-white "romantic flashback" stock, which they must sell with a per-reel discount over there in Asia.

On the downside, Thai films also have a habit of being langourous and slow. And while this may work for Apichatpong Weerasethakul, for horror, it's the kiss of death. Despite an effective, yet annoyingly cheap jump scare, (something passing in front of the camera + loud noise on soundtrack = damn it, I fell for it again!), the first half of the film seems to be our hero sitting up in bed after a dream. I'm surprised the actor didn't get repetitive strain injury.

We're also treated to ominous inset shots, a gloriously cheesy soundtrack, a boom that's too close to a ceiling fan, and Grandmother Exposition. I suppose she serves the same function as America's "old, world-wise black man who spouts out morals and messages-of-the-day," but her stories raise an interesting question: if this was intended for Thai audiences (it reached #3 in the Thai box office, would they need the lengthy explanation of the Mae Nak legend? Or is this the director explaining the movie to himself and a perceived Western audience?

I sense a dissertation chapter in there.

In any case, the visual effects budget don't seem to have matched the director's vision. The cheapness of subway decapitation made me groan, and the CGI sky in the opening shot seemed awfully generic. Duffield must have been saving his money for a death sequence which hearkens back to The Omen and Final Destination II. It's a startling moment for a film that vacillates between chanting monks and somewhat laughable ghost-related deaths. But the death's aftermath (slopping viscera, a dog carrying off a severed arm) make for black humor that's sorely missed elsewhere, and instantly becomes the most memorable moment. You heard it here first, people: big sheets of glass are dangerous.

Ghost of Mae Nak is a nice diversion, but doesn't succeed much beyond that. In the end, it devolves into "must return the MacGuffin before the ghost kills us all." Although the final twist at the end shows some promise, alas, it returns to people waking up in bed together, as if to say that marriage is the real horror here.

Oh, I see. Maybe the ghost was trying to warn them.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Potential Boyfriend: Alain-Philippe Durand

I came across Monsieur Durand while researching the age-old job interview question: "What sort of literature classes would you like to teach?"

My answer: "The Literature of 9/11." Sexy, no?

I suppose it gets to my enduring interest in disaster -- how they change people, how they don't change people, how everything changes and nothing changes all at the same time. In researching this class, I came across Durand's own class of the same topic. And, being a good academic, I stole from it. Liberally. Because that's what a liberal arts education really means.

Possible positive boyfriend aspects: aside from his Gallic good looks and the quasi-queer charm that all Frenchmen-of-a-certain-age seem to possess, his research seems fascinating. Technology and hip-hop in modern French literature? Be still my heart. I do have a soft spot for academics that I've never been able to articulate. Give me discourse, give me rumination, give me your sweet, sweet lovin'.

Possible negative boyfriend aspects: This may come as a shock, but even though many Europeans seem gay in their mannerisms, inflected speech and cheek-kissing, most of them are not, in fact, gay. Stuffy academics, with their penchants for fine wool suits and elbow-patched tweed coats only exacerbate this image, but I need to remind myself that the line between homo and homme is a treacherous one, and one that must be tread lightly.