Saturday, November 14, 2009

Reading: Lydia Davis and Jonathan Lethem

So, if I wasn't intimidated by seeing one MacArthur Fellow, then two should really be no problem, especially when represented in the affable forms of Lydia Davis and Jonathan Lethem. As always, readings at the Philadelphia Free Library attracts a number of the city's homeless, who see the readings as an hour in a warm place where they can rest. And I don't fault them for that, as sometimes I, myself, have fallen asleep during readings. But I don't think I've ever snored, however...

Lydia Davis was promoting her mammoth new book of collected stories. But the genre term "story" doesn't necessarily apply to all of her work. Sometimes her pieces are short, pithy jokes; at other times, they seem like aphorisms or meditations or even poetry. They're stronger, I think, than Amy Hempel's often celebrated one-sentence stories, because of their cerebral nature. You turn them around in your head, and they seem to refract different aspects of your own experience.

That's not to say that the stories don't have an emotional component as well: though "Letter to a Funeral Home" seems like an extended meditation on the word cremains, it's wrapped in a painful examination of love and loss and couched in the tone of a letter of complaint. It's almost the perfect fusion of tone, emotion, and intellect pondering.

She ended her reading with new work, surprisingly enough. We were Lydia Davis' test kitchen! First out of the oven was a list story, a contemplation of identity centered around mis-sent mail. Something about it struck me as oddly hysterical, this list of mangled names, enunciated in Davis' precise and calm voice. And she ended with a recitation of dreams or dream-like situations. And although I'm always wary of dreams in fiction, that's usually reserved for dreams that appear within a larger context. But standalone dreams... well, it worked for Naguib Mahfouz...

And let's face it: Lydia Davis is a tough act to follow. Even for a beloved hipster (I use the term not disparagingly, but as a mere descriptor) author like Lethem. He read from Chronic City, which some may recall was savaged by Michiko Kakutani, and based on the selection from which he read, I can't exactly disagree with her. Okay, maybe following on the heels of such precise and gem-like stories, his work seemed much looser and unfocused, but I can confidently state that I did not snore. Instead, I was transfixed by his glasses, a translucent red plastic frame.

I wonder if the MacArthur foundation can out grants based on awesomeness of glasses alone.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Confession

Lest I be accused of not having my blog be sufficiently literary -- and, really, I do love my horror movies -- I'm taking part in a game of Consequences, where a series of writers writes 250 words, set in an abandoned landscape, each using the last line of the previous writer.

So far:

1. Sam J. Miller

2. Jade Park

3. Jane Voodikon

4. Lisa Silverman

5. Anna Shapiro

6. Mark Krotov

7. Wah Ming Chang

8. Alex Chee

And now me. A little tardy.

Okay, a lot tardy.

But still...


He gripped her face in his hands, leaned in for the kiss. Quickly, before the other guards saw. Her eyes were blind with terror, but he had recognized her the moment she was brought here, in shackles. As children, they had once fished for catfish in Tonle Sap Lake, tying crickets to the end of long branches to lure the fish to the surface.

And now, she was a seditionist, a traitor. Who had implicated her, he didn’t know, but he had heard husbands implicate their wives, mothers denounce their sons. The people being questioned called out names of the half-remembered, of the already dead, of the loved and hated and feared. And then, maybe a month later, they were led to the room where the executioner waited with a heavy pickaxe in his hand, because bullets were scarce.

Strange to think that this had once been a school, that students had once strolled across the tan-and-white tiled halls. Now, instead of students sitting in long, orderly rows, there were the prisoners, sleeping head to foot, shackled to a long iron bar.

Now, it was her turn to confess. Her life lay on the sheet of paper before her, starting with her birth. It would take another day, at least, to reach her arrest. She did not speak as he held her face, and did not react as he placed a thumb-sized lump of rice in her mouth. It was a small mercy, a cold mercy, but a mercy nonetheless.


Next up:

10. Lucas Green:

11. Jedediah Berry: (

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Remake Rumble: Ju-On vs. The Grudge

The contenders: Ju-on, directed by Takashi Shimizu, 2002; and The Grudge, directed by Takashi Shimizu, 2004

The story: When a person dies in a state of extreme rage, and that state of rage is made into a feature-length film, it leaves a terrible curse upon the place where the death occurred. Any person who enters that place is marked for death, doomed to return to the theater for the remake and/or subsequent sequels. The curse is relentless, inescapable... and now it's coming for you.

The battle: Remember when J-horror was a novelty? Hard to believe that a scant five years ago, Japanese horror had clawed its way to ascendancy, thanks to a set of (now) cliche attributes: pale-skinned and long-haired ghosts, a creeping sense of dread, and a return to the prototypical ghost story. Since then, of course, these tropes have become so common, they've even been mocked in the Scary Movie series. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. And even though Ju-on came at the crest of the J-horror craze, it was itself a sequel, coming on the heels of two direct-to-video precursors.

Shimizu divides Ju-on into several episodes, each heralded with a title card naming the cursed victim. He jumps backwards and forwards in time, letting the viewer piece together the connections and the chronology. And, in an fascinating moment, one victim, a father who has entered the house in order to burn it down, encounters a vision of his daughter in the future. It's an off-putting moment that relies more on displacement than any jump scares, and I would almost say that it's the most eerie and effective scene in the film.

Ju-on also touches upon an extremely sensitive topic for the Japanese: elder abuse. Our social-worker heroine, Rika, first comes onto the scene when she makes a home visit to an elderly Japanese woman, who, by the looks of it, has been neglected. Shimizu's panning shots of urine-soaked sheets and the inset shot of a dark smear of unrecognizable filth certainly elicits a protean sense of horrific disgust, but for the Japanese, who generally revere and take excellent care of aging parents, it touches on a culturally-specific horror.

Unfortunately, the titular curse seems to spread, all Romero-zombie-like. So instead of having just Kayako (the deceased wife) and Toshio (the dead son) paying people unexpected visits, the curse infects a trio of schoolgirls. If one pale girl ghost is scary, than three must be three times as scary, right? Especially when they're wearing knee-high socks! On the DVD, Shimizu, in describing his deleted scenes, explains how the final shots of an emptied-out Tokyo harkens to Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo, implying, perhaps, that the curse has spread wide enough to wipe out the population. Indeed, it's pretty effective at trimming down the city's inhabitants. Who needs population control when you've got a cursed house to do it for you? (Interestingly enough, even though the film uses Kayako, the deceased wife, and Toshio, the son, as the main bugaboos, Rika's final moments points more squarely at the murderous father, Takeo, as the true malevolence.)

With Sam Raimi's Ghosthouse Picture at his back, Shimizu was able to direct his own remake. Honestly, it's difficult to say whether or not this is a good idea. It's good if you want to control and honor the artistry of the original, but I wonder if a different set of eyes would have created a new vision -- so to speak -- of the original concept.

The Grudge focuses on American expats living in Japan, particularly Karen (the Rika role, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her boyfriend Doug. And even though screenwriter Stephen Susco tries to milk "zomg i can't read any of the signs" for all it's worth, he doesn't quite capture the sense of displacement in a way that enhances the terror.

As well, the episodic nature of Ju-on has been scaled back to center more around Karen, and in order to make up the time lost by eliminating the non-Rika segments in the original, Susco falls back on two all-American standbys: the love story and the detective story. How do we know Karen and Doug are American? Because they're always on the verge of getting it on at every possible moment. (Imagine Canadians doing that. Or the Swiss.) Once Karen discovers her cursed nature, it's a race against time (too reminiscent of Ringu) to neutralize the source of the curse.

Kayako in The Grudge is a much more menacing presence -- but not in her ghost form, strangely enough. Instead, Kayako is shown to be somewhat of a stalker, following around an American professor and popping up in all sorts of casual photographs. She's like the drunk dude in the background that you can't crop out. Her Madama Butterfly-like obsession sets her squarely on the road to spooksville, and even though it's the husband who's responsible for her death, her craziness over a white man (Bill Pullman, of all people! couldn't she have chosen Hugh Jackman or someone?) sets her up as a villianness.

White American men: the cause of curses everywhere.

The Grudge also suffers from over-Hollywoodization, including abuse of CGI effects and abuse of soundtrack. There's a sudden loud, build-up of strings and then... a door opens! Granted, Ju-on had its own soundtrack abuses, particularly a high-pitched tinnitus headache, but at least the ambient sounds were allowed to suffuse the atmosphere, rather than having an orchestra introduce herald each jump scare.

The verdict: Ju-on wins. The mental discombobulation from the fractured timeline adds a chronological je ne sais quoi to the horror quotient. Plus, it's difficult to watch Sarah Michelle Gellar face off with a ghost and just sort of cower. Now, I abhor typecasting as much as the next person, but I kept thinking, "Buffy, come on! Just kick her ectoplasmic ass!"

Friday, July 24, 2009

Remake Rumble: [•Rec] vs. Quarantine

The contenders: [•Rec], directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007; and Quarantine, directed by John Eric Dowdle, 2008

The story: A film crew, while following on-duty firemen, gets trapped in an apartment building with its residents... one of whom has come down with a mysterious illness. Needless to say, the illness involves face-biting, excessive salivating, and poor posture. As the authorities seal the building to prevent any residents from leaving, the film crew continues intrepidly taping the events. Think The Blair Witch Project meets 28 Days Later.

The battle: Although both films -- given their "found transmission" nature -- purport to be in real time, that sense is more pronounced in [•Rec] than Quarantine. The edits in [•Rec] are accompanied with digital fuzz, hinting at an actual camera being turned off, whereas the edits in Quarantine are much more smooth. Indeed, the sense of reality in [•Rec] feels much stronger. Angela Vidal, our newscaster heroine makes errors in her introduction to the show and whispers to her cameraman, Pablo, to cut if an interview turns out to be dull. Her tour of the fire house suggests real life for late-shift firemen: lots of boredom. Certain people are too shy to appear on camera. In essence, you get the feeling that this is a real event taking place, even to the point when, as the fateful emergency call comes in, the firemen feel no real need to use the siren on their truck. Given this firmly-established sense of the mundane, when the more horrific elements are introduced, the viewer is more inclined to accept these as plausible.

Indeed, the total immersion in the viewing experience allows [•Rec] to get away with jump scares -- say, for instance, a body falling down a stairwell. It's particularly well-done considering that many of the shots are done in long takes to emulate someone turning on a camera and leaving it on. There's no foregrounding of the scare with a ominous strings on the soundtrack or any other emotion-heightening techniques. Everything seems normal... and then boom!, a body falling into the frame. It's an effective moment. The long takes also amp up the gore factor, as the camera witnesses acts of violence that go naturalistically from shaky chaos to juicy face-munching.

[•Rec], being a Spanish production, also introduces two cultural-specific elements, one of which makes an important point, and the other which muddles an otherwise clean storyline. During one moment of respite, Angela interviews different trapped folks, which deepens the audience's sympathy for those caught in an increasingly dire situation. During these scenes, [•Rec] comments upon issues of immigration -- particularly, the Chinese family living upstairs. As the nature of the infection is discovered, blame quickly falls upon them, manifesting the stereotype of immigrants as bearers of exotic disease. (Ask Lou Dobbs on this point.) One vain resident (clearly coded as homosexual) who preens before his interview delivers a xenophobic screed about the smells coming from the apartment and their consumption of raw fish. He even explicitly mistakes Chinese and Japanese, saying that they're interchangeable. His buffoonery suggests a strong sympathy for the immigrants, who are just as doomed as he is.

The second cultural point is more problematic. Towards the end, it's suggested that the source of the outbreak might be demonic possession. For heavily Roman Catholic Spain, this might hold extra sway as a horrific element, but it adds some confusion. Had an exorcism taken place? Why all the scientific equipment? Did the occupant of the room take the Papal Encyclical about religion and science too seriously?

Quarantine, on the other hand, has a much more plausible explanation for the outbreak: a virulent strain of rabies. Given that the film is set in Los Angeles, this offers the opportunity for plenty of dog-related mayhem, and the director Dowdle is happy to oblige. Unfortunately, however, Quarantine also feels much more scripted than [•Rec], and a random, free-form night among the firemen becomes an opportunity for sexually-charged banter and playful harassment (coming primarily from Fletcher, played by a mustachioed Jonathon Schech.) Perhaps it's saying something about American firemen and their cult of masculinity. Come on -- firemen are plenty hot as is. No need to be jerks about it as well.

Interestingly enough, [•Rec] was released on DVD long after Quarantine, bearing the tagline "the movie that inspiried Quarantine." But Quarantine seems to be an almost shot-for-shot replica, with a notable exception: the cameraman in Quarantine, Scott, becomes much more of a presence. Whereas Pablo never even appears on-screen, Scott shows up several times, even using the camera as a weapon at one point. Somehow, his transformation from a witness to an active participant makes the film feel much more contrived. Though I understand the necessity of showing a rat, would he really film himself stomping the rat and then staring at rodent splatter on his shoes?

Quarantine also makes the mistake of introducing too many ancillary characters (also known as victims). The limited cast of [•Rec] keeps the tension lean, maintaining our focus on just a few individuals. Why should we be concerned with the drunk yuppie or the young, nubile opera student? On a positive note, in contrast to [•Rec]'s concern about immigration, Quarantine shows integration as somewhat of a fait accompli. The building's residents run the gamut of ethnicities and ages, including an immigrant Somali family (who only briefly get the blame for the illness) to the South Asian opera teacher (again coded as homosexual). But somehow, all their interactions feel staged, never quite achieving the same degree of naturalism that [•Rec] establishes.

But Quarantine does critique a uniquely American cultural anxiety -- namely, the idea of government as a malignant entity. Whereas the threat from the government in [•Rec] remains distant, the American government actively engages in propaganda (insisting that the building has already been evacuated) and terror (sniping an unlucky individual who tries to escape through a window). And, instead of demonic possession, Quarantine offers another uniquely American institution as the ultimate source of the outbreak: a doomsday cult.

The verdict: [•Rec] wins. Its more improvisational feel and tighter focus make for a more shocking experience.

Behind-The-Curve Trendwatch: Cinematic Déjà Vu

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a film in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a remake. Unfortunately, movie reviewers and fans alike, especially those who specialize in horror, bemoan the recent spate of American remakes of overseas hits, and, for the most part, they have ample reason to complain: something about the Hollywood system seems to drain the essence of what made those films exciting in their native tongue. After the messy cannibalization of J-horror, America now has its sights set on its own corpus, remaking American horror classics from the 70s and now 80s.

It'd be simplistic, however, to chalk this up to the commonly-heard excuse that Hollywood has no good ideas. That'd be like saying that there's no point to reading anything because there are only four different sources of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. fate, or man vs. himself. (Or, as John Gardner put it, there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.)

Instead of putting all the blame on Hollywood, part of the fault lies squarely with indiscriminate consumers of horror films. After all, if there weren't such an appetite for remakes (and/or sequels), then film studios would need new ideas or concepts to lure cash-oozing gorehounds back to the theater. But instead of clamoring for something startlingly fresh, we're content to wait for the latest iteration of Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street.

But I wonder if people flock to remakes simply because they are familiar. Terror is, at heart, all about being plunged into unfamiliarity, and to allow yourself to be immersed in that situation -- well, what sane human being would want that? Instead, if the horrific element is wrapped in a familiar frame, this minimizes the terror aspect, leaving the audience free to be entertained, rather than terrorized.

While that certainly holds true for sequels, what about remakes? I'd argue that the original wave J-horror films were popular mainly because they were dislocating: there was no pre-set pattern on which audiences could rely. (Later, of course, this would change.) And perhaps bringing in some of these destabilizing elements is a good thing for the proto-typical Hollywood horror film, which has relied too long to serial killers, vampires, and now zombies.

But people charge that remakes (particularly American ones) flatten out the more intriguing aspects of foreign films, instead of injecting new blood into a moribund industry. And while this is a valid criticism, I think this gloss can sometimes be used as a cover to ignore what Hollywood can offer to their remakes. Namely: nudity, loud soundtracks, and big-name stars.

So, as a matter of research, I've added a new feature -- Remake Rumble -- in which I compare an original film to either its foreign counterpart or its fabled forebearer.

Let the games begin!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Reading: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Wherein I prove that I'm not frightened of MacArthur fellows.

It's an established fact that Adichie once lived in the same house as Chinua Achebe -- though not at the same time. It was a mere coincidence, said Adichie; in the small Nigerian academic community, these sorts of things were bound to happen. Achebe had moved out, and Adichie's family moved in. At the time, she didn't realize who Achebe was: she was not yet ten and was more excited to have a balcony and a staircase than to soak in whatever writerly vibes inhabit a place after an author has left it. Maybe it's like a light left on in the attic. Or mold that grows on the inside of walls. In any case, Adichie didn't realize the significance, she said, until the publication of her first book, when her editor apparently was flabbergasted by the news. I imagine the exchange as going:

"I used to live in Chinua Achebe's house."
"He had terrible choice in wallpaper."

I wonder how much children grasp the concept of a book as a physical entity, as a fetish object. Thinking back to my own childhood, books were merely the place where stories resided. Nowadays, I see books as having heft and weight and white space and clever cover designs. The words inside--who cares about those anymore?

At the Adichie reading, I encountered into my "signing buddy," Matt, whom I see regularly at the Philadelphia Free Library Events (also the photographer of Adichie and me above). He's like the book dealers I used to see at readings elsewhere, coming to readings with backpacks laden down with ARCs and dust jackets tenderly wrapped in acid-free plastic covers. But instead of simply getting a signature to bump up the resale value, Matt has the authors inscribe the books to his children, Caleb, Brigid, and now Colleen. That evening, Caleb had come with Matt, hanging on his father's arm and being shy. He was halfway through the sixth Harry Potter book, in preparation for the movie later this summer. He had listened intently for the last hour and a half and looked forward to getting some ice cream afterwards. His opinion on Adichie: "She was all right." When he grows up, he and his sisters are going to have an impressive library, courtesy of his father: all these carefully protected books; stories that jump out at them; their names in black marker on the inside, as if to say This was especially written for you.

I can't think of a better inheritance.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Reading: Joseph O'Neill

According to Joseph O'Neill, the first organized team sport to be played in the United States was not football, or baseball, or soccer, and polo. It was, in fact, cricket, that strange sport familiar to most Americans only as what those good-looking British chaps played in all those Merchant-Ivory films. In fact, as O'Neill pointed out, Philadelphia itself was known as somewhat of a hub for cricketeers, and he, himself, has played (for the Staten Island team) on Philly cricket pitches, the least of which is located on the unfortunately named Dick Avenue.

So even though O'Neill's novel Netherland became somewhat of a cause célèbre when President Obama revealed on the BBC that he was reading it, O'Neill seemed quite self-effacing, declining to speak further on what might be the hippest endorsement since Oprah Winfrey's Bookclub called it a day. Instead, he was content to talk about cricket for the uninitiated, all but inviting the audience to come cheer him on. (You see, there's this ball, and this bat, and two teams, and something called a wicket...)

But he did point out an fascinating point on the issue of celebrity and the president: for ordinary folk, meeting the president can seem like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Something you commemorate by taking copious pictures, writing effusive diary entries, and vowing never to wash your hand again. But for the President, it's possibly the most forgettable moment in his day. So perhaps, O'Neill hopes, reading novels is a way for the President to reconnect with the people in a more sustained way than a handshake and a quick shuffling of Secret Service agents. The novel becomes a means of re-entry, rather than escape.

And if that fails, there's always a game of cricket.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Movie: Deep in the Woods (Promenons-Nous Dans les Bois)

Stop me if you've heard this one before: five good-looking youngsters venture out to a secluded house in the middle of a dark, spooky forest. What sets apart Deep in the Woods, then, is a defintie sense of style. instead of drawing inspiration from 80s slashers or 70s grindhouse, direction Lionel Delplanque takes inspiration from Italian giallos, particularly Dario Argento. Indeed, the opening sequence plays like an homage to Deep Red, with its tale of childhood trauma and its rich, saturated colors.

Deep in the Woods also plays upon the internal creepiness of fairy tales; in this case, the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Whereas Neil Jordan turned into a story of female sexual empowerment (helped, in no small part, by Angela Carter), Delplanque seems content to make a solid shocker. Although he confuses his animal metaphors (what's with all the crows?), his stylistic flourishes bring a surreal touch to a pedestrian storyline. Take, for instance, what seems to be the largest, steamiest bathroom in the world. Some of the camera tricks, of course, exist merely for their own sake (including: glove compartment cam, nylon bag cam, and fisheye lens crow cam), but if nothing else, they're kind of fun... which sums up the movie in general.

But what would a giallo be without flamboyant camera moves and psycho-sexual weirdness? The main creepy guy in question, Alex De Fersen, seems quasi-gay. He takes an unusual interest in blonde pretty boy Wilfried, complimenting Wilfried's physique, among other sleazy old man moves. And yet... he has a son and a co-dependent relationship with his pervy gameskeeper, Stephane (the French go-to guy for freakiness, Denis Levant). And although, in the end, the psychological make-up of the killer seems head-scratching, keep in mind that giallos were never really meant for their acuity into the human psyche. Instead, enjoy the lesbian sex, full-frontal nudity, and wolf-head imagery. It doesn't always have to make perfect sense when you've got those.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Movie: Eden Log

Remember that episode of Pokémon that caused kids to have seizures? The first three minutes of Eden Log should probably carry a similar warning. I'm opposed to strobe effects, particularly when they're used well (for instance, the last few minutes of Looking for Mr. Goodbar), but director Franck Vestiel seems insistent to make his audience feel as much physical discomfort as possible. So if this entails inducing epileptic fits, then so be it.

Still, Vestiel tries the best he can with a limited budget and a surfeit of imagination. Eden Log, on some levels, reminds me of Cube, another cerebral sci-fi/horror film that makes the most of its limited set(s). (Primer, however, is the one to beat.) There is, however, only so much creepiness that you can eke out of a mud-covered man looking at plant roots. So Vestiel cleverly incldues some deformed and violent humanoid beings to up the ante.

But, oh, if that were only enough. Instead, Eden Log tries to cram in as many ideas and concepts into its limited space as possible. So rather than offer another siege-and-escape movie, Vestiel attempts to add timeliness. Is the film a Marxist parable? An environmental warning? An uneasy mixture of Soylent Green and The Matrix? At one point, a character threatens to let the world know "what you're doing to all the minorities" -- a post-racial future, my ass -- but is quickly (unsurprisingly) quieted. Somehow, the political points don't mesh with the film's metaphors. They feel sort of tacked on -- the right idea, but the wrong execution.

Mostly, whatever political point Vestiel tries to make also gets lost in the murk. The movie, shot in black-and-white with the occasional splash of color, is so dark that everything seems to get lost. As the movie begins, the main character wakes up at the bottom of a pit covered in muck, and decides that he must trek his way up from Level -4 to the surface, where (theoretically) answers await. But, since our main character conveniently has amnesia, he's as in the dark about his situation as the audience is. Quite literally. Along the way, there's a man covered in tree roots, a botanist who glides in mid-air (thanks to a series of wires and harnasses), and a mysterious woman who is weirdly passive. There's an infection, there's a revolution, and, most of all, there's Eden Log itself: giant tree, scientific facility and overburdened Macguffin all in one.

We get clues to Eden Log's purpose via memory cards -- in a unique touch, the hero must find screen onto which these images, whether it's pieces of scrap metal or a dead person's face. But all the cinematic flourishes don't resolve the issue that it's still terribly unclear what's going on. When we do finally discover the hero's identity, it feels like a big so what. As it turns out, the guy's just another poor sap.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Reading: Yu Hua

In the film The Interpreter, we get an inside view of the world of simultaneous translation at the United Nations. Nicole Kidman, who for her part learned an invented African language for an invented African country, has to listen, process and translate as the original speaker talks. For Yu Hua’s appearance at the Philadelphia Free Library, Chinese woman, certainly less tortured than Kidman’s character, and several shades more perky, took on the job adroitly, punctuating her translation with the time-honored time-buying words well and umm. Let's face it, though: I worked as a freelance translator (my specialty: Vietnamese) and totally sucked at it.

So as Yu discussed his newest novel, Brothers, I accepted without complaint long pauses as the translator parsed questions and answers back and forth. Interpreting is a different skill set than translating; interpreting means working on-the-fly, trying to capture mood, tone and nuance in an immediate situation. And I’m not sure all those came through, despite the interpreter’s best efforts. Oftentimes, when Yu spoke, the Chinese-speaking audience laughed, and we English speakers waited breathlessly to hear the joke. (Yu, after all, is known as a great satirist.) And yet, what we heard in English didn’t seem as funny. Perhaps there was some slippage. Or perhaps humor doesn’t translate well—which is often the case.

Still, she cheerfully translated when one audience member asked a long, rambling question—well, less a question and more an observation of how the world works and how the world should work, and why isn’t the world working the way it should?, and wouldn’t it be great if…—stopping the speaker at certain points to digest what he had to say, and possibly saving the rest of us from more grief. Yu himself indulged the question, addressing what he saw as the number one issue facing China today: poverty.

Indeed, Yu spoke eloquently (via cute translator) about the difference between bootlegging his book in China and in the U.S. In the U.S., he said, the issue is rightly one of copyright, and seeing that his hefty tome costs $30 retail (but worth it), recouping those losses is worth it. In China, however, illiteracy is a pronounced problem, so if bootlegging promotes access to reading material, then so be it. It reminded of Connaught Square in India, where I bought a bootlegged copy of Midnight’s Children. Does Rushdie need those few extra cents of royalties? And how would I feel if that was my book being photocopied and poorly bound?

Yu’s talk took place at the Independence Branch in Philadelphia, at 7th and Market, the designated Chinese-American/gay and lesbian branch, as it has sections specifically devoted to those communities. Power to the people, I say. Maybe well-stocked and fully-funded libraries should be the real solution to China’s illiteracy issues.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Movie: Sheitan

Sheitan has plenty going for it. For instance: attitude. As the first full-length from the Kourtrajmé collective (though Kim Chapiron is the named director)—best known for their hip-hop inspired short films—Sheitan demonstrates a no-holds-barred attitude when a title card announces, “Lord, don’t forgive them, for they know what they do.” It’s like Jean-Luc Godard in baggy jeans. Kourtrajmé’s anarchic energy attracted the attention of Vincent Cassel, who plays the maniacal, giggling groundskeeper Joseph. His wide-eyed portrayal of a man who may or may not have made a deal with the devil is another thing Sheitan has going for it.

The movie centers on a post-racial crew (an Asian, a black African, a light-skinned Muslim woman, and the main character, Bart, who’s as whiny has any other white suburban kid) who just want to have a good time—which includes picking fights, shoplifting, and driving away from the pump without paying. When they meet Eve, a pouty-lipped sexpot, she suggests, “Let’s go to my place in the country,” and—well, you know what you’re in for.

But not really. Sheitan bucks traditional backwoods stalk-n-slash for something more amorphous and loose. Kourtrajmé has previously disdained narratives, but when you’re not Chris Marker, achieving it with some sort of cohesion is a lot harder than it sounds. The director/writers move the film in any number of directions at once, milking creepy dolls and doll parts for all their worth. But bizarre plot deviations and perverse goings-on don’t necessarily build suspense; instead of building to a climax, Sheitan sort of accretes.

As if to compensate for this lack of narrative tension, Sheitan piles on the hip-hop attitude. And although linking hip-hop to the French riots might be short-sighted, the anti-social behavior in which our less-than-sympathetic characters partake have a hip-hop soundtrack, more a vent for their own strangely misdirected anger, rather than a means of authentic self-expression.

But fidelity to the strictures of hip-hop, however, isn't an excuse for misogyny. I know, it’s almost redundant to criticize a horror film for this, but given the filmmakers’ staunch anti-establishment stance, you’d also hope that they’d rebel against patriarchal structures, rather than falling prey to them. Their simplistic views of female sexuality seem too willfully narcissistic, and the sight gags involving female genitalia and childbirth seem particularly childish. The women in the film are little more than cyphers, and while Roxane Mesquida plays the siren effortlessly, compare this to her work as a fully-fledged seductress in À ma soeur! If you want a provocateur, try Catherine Breillat on for size. Jerking off a dog just isn't the same thing.

There’s also a strange queer subtext to Sheitan—which seems to codify this masculine ideal. When Joseph shows an unusual interest in Bart (inviting him to go skinny dipping, thrusting his nubile red-headed niece at him, having Bart climb on his shoulders), Bart insists that he’s “not a fag,” even as his compatriots tease him about Joseph’s advances. Plus: Vincent Cassel in wet underwear.

Wet underwear aside, Sheitan offers a thrilling, if confusing ride, willing to throw in camera-tricks and narrative jumps to shock the viewer. But, as we all know, the devil is in the details.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reading: Wells Tower

Every year, there's room for one or two "next big things" in the literary world. Wells Tower has already reserved his spot for 2009. A recent issue of Poets & Writers had a feature on him, and all the folks from Farrar, Straus and Giroux at his book launch seemed smitten with his short-story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. And meeting Wells in person, you can't help but be overcome by his sweet demeanor and good humor. Plus, he's got an awesome name. I dare you to say it without adding a little James Bond inflection to it.

Also, I finally discovered the difference between a reading and a book launch. At a reading, someone reads, and nobody gets drunk. At a book launch, nobody reads, and everybody gets drunk. While the former is more intellectually satisfying, the latter is more physically satisfying. A little bird told me that FSG has permanently banned the presence of Crisco from its book launches.

So at Moe's in Brooklyn (replete with a portrait of Moe from The Simpsons, natch), we revellers enjoyed free Mediterreanean food -- a full-on dolma feeding frenzy -- bathed in atmospheric red light. While I sat in a row of dislocated fold-down theater seats and jealously guarded the tapanade, Mr. Towers circled the room and charmed the heck out of people. Cheers!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Movie: Artifacts

Given how the Belgians have always been the butt of French jokes, much in the way the Polish are worldwide, you can't blame them for trying to capitalize on the "French horror" craze. The director, Giles Daoust, admits as much. He wanted to make a quick, low-budget sci-fi/horror film. And while he gets the "quick" and "low-budget" parts of the equation right, the sci-fi and horror aspects don't quite make it through. Artifacts tries to engage the viewer in a mystery—why are these good-looking young friends meeting tragic ends? But as the mystery deepens (they don't know each other at all! they have metallic "artifacts" embedded in their chests! their exact doubles are trying to kill them!), the film stumbles and falls flat on its face.

To be fair, some of the film's shortcomings are readily apparent early on. The writing, in particular, is strained. Exposition is delivered in the awkward ways possible: an overhead conversation in a police station elevator, for example, or a helpful radio news report. And before twenty-five minutes have elapsed, three characters have met their doom, as if there's a quota to be met. (Helpful hint: if you're alone in your apartment, and you see something writhing in your bed, it's best not to pull back the covers.) We're concerned for these people... why? Things don't get better towards the end, when guns magically appear by bedsides, and we finally get an explanatory figure, Carl Francken (found via Google, of all things). But what he has to say is rather ridiculous and frustratingly fails to explain anything whatsoever. Indeed, the explanation makes things more muddled. Maybe the writer tries to say something about the nature of identity (as doppelgängers are an effective metaphor for this). But, really, it feels more like the writers—Daoust and co-director Emmanuel Jespers—simply said, "Oh well, we'd better wrap things up with an anti-climactic chase scene."

To Daoust's credit, however, he milks the doppelgänger aspect of the film for all the creepiness it's worth. The closed-circuit television shot of a woman entering a building twice is appropriately eerie, and the boyfriend who doesn't know where he keeps the coffee establishes a bit of tension—despite being telegraphed from a mile away. There's also a genuinely cringe-worthy moment that involves the physical extraction of the artifact—the director's concession to gore fiends. As well, the low electronic screeching that permeates the soundtrack works overtime to establish atmosphere, which, perhaps, matches the film's low-fi quality of digital video.

The film certainly tries to be ambitious despite its miniscule budget, but in the end, a surfeit of ideas and the failure to consider those ideas fully sinks Artifacts. The film itself becomes one of those nasty little artifacts: a screechy, metallic annoyance that you would prefer to have out of your body.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reading: John Wray

Readings are generally genteel affairs. With John Wray, however, all of those niceties disappeared: people walked in and out willy-nilly (sometimes nudging their way forward), people fought for seats, people wobbled and toppled into one another, and Wray spoke through a megaphone, a device you usually associate with political agitators or street preachers. Though you could chalk this up to the fact that the reading took place on the last car of the L train during rush hour, I'd argue that it's the decline of civility in Western society.

Still, a brilliant marketing move by the folks at FSG for Wray's new novel, Lowboy. One representative had a roll of Lowboy stickers on her arm like a giant spool of toilet paper. The crowd gathered at the far end of the 8th Ave. and 14th St. stop, a gang rumble of hipsters. But we were headed to Williamsburg, after all. And who doesn't love a well-appointed hipster boy? On the train, Wray read the opening of his novel, moving from one side of the car to the other, graciously allowing room for oncomers and get-offers. Just as the train started to pull away from 8th Ave., a guy yelled obscenties from between cars at someone still on the platform. In the six stops to Bedford Ave., Wray didn't make it too far in his reading, but there was a playful tone to the experience: Lowboy, which deals with a 16 year-old paranoid schizophrenic boy, makes the New York City subway a major set piece.

At Bedford Ave., the crowd shfited to Spike Hill, where Wray read another section of Lowboy, this time accompanied by a friend plucking suspended notes on his electric guitar. He read a letter written by the title character to his mother, emphasizing the ways in which paranoid schizophrenics wrap their heads around certain ideas and facts and then concoct a grander narrative around them. He managed to plug Dogfish Head, on tap at Spike Hill and flowing free for the crowd, by replacing Schlitz with it in a dirty joke. I think, however, that the passage works better on the page than read aloud. As Wray explained, letters of this sort have all sorts of strange typographical emphases: words randomly capitalized, words underlined multiple times, words in all caps. Part of the fascination is trying to uncover the thinking behind the emphasis. But, as strange and defamiliarizing as the language was, as read by the tall, calm and (presumptively) sane John Wray, the narrative voice sounded suspiciously like a guy who had just come off the subway.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Movie: They Came Back (Les Revenants)

George Romero has so thoroughly changed the popular conception of zombies that it's difficult to even think of the word without bringing to mind Romero's particular creation. Whereas cinematic zombies were once a colonialist construction—think voodoo—flesh- (or brain-) eating undead have become the norm. Anthropophagous zombies have even made their literary mark—and I'm not even talking about the Jane Austen zombie novel. So with zombies becoming the status quo, what's a French auteur to do?

Robin Campillo, who has written some of the more interesting French films of the last decade (Time Out, Heading South, and most recently, The Class), takes the director's helm for Les Revenants, his debut feature. Campillo jettisons Romero's conception of zombies, but the cultural baggage that remains creates a lingering unease. They're dead; of course they're up to no good. As Campillo starts the film with long shots of the dead, streaming out the cemetery and walking down the street, the dead remain almost as impassive and inscrutible as the living.

Campillo also sets out an interesting metaphor: the zombie as immigrant. Early in the film, as the Red Cross shepherds the newly un-deceased quarters where they can be catalogued and identified, one city council member remarks that their living conditions are like that of refugees. And, the fears that one assigns to newcomers to the country increasingly become assigned to the zombies. How can we give them all jobs? Why do they congregate together? What do they want? Campillo addresses these fears with a light touch: surveillance cameras mounted upon weather balloons keep track of the undead residents. And let's hear it for undead civil rights: in one mordantly humorous scene, the members of city council are assured that the balloons only register the lower body temperature of the zombies, and not their faces. Still, one panoramic shot, the camera does a 360, showing not only the balloons hanging low in the sky, but also the stone-faced (and primarily elderly) zombies. No speedy clamboring for human flesh here!

Towards the end of the movie, however, it becomes clear that zombies do, in fact, have an ulterior motive, and in a scene that seems prescient, Campillo depicts them blowing up cars (hints of the Paris riots again). The zombie as foreign infiltrator/terrorist? Not surprisingly, the Army appears with a plan to quell the zombie uprising once and for all. They got your civil rights right here.

But the zombie-as-immigrant is only a metaphor. Les Revenants seems more concerned the process of grieving. The ways in which people come to terms with their grief—whether parents reunited with their young son or an elderly widower with his wife—becomes the central issue. How does a woman return to life, so to speak, with a husband that she previously thought lost to her forever? Can people return to normal even if there is nothing normal about them? Jonathan Zaccaï plays the dead husband in question with an impassive face and steely blue eyes, but as he begins to regain his memory, that mask begins to quiver.

The ultimate goal of the zombies, however, remains opaque, and the ending feels tossed-off, as if Campillo is unsure of how to conclude his what if. But having established such a heartbreaking set-up—the scene in which two parents slowly wait as their returned son slowly comes into focus for the first time conveys such overwhelming grief—one can cut Campillo some slack for copping-out at the very end. After all, this is a movie that's all about letting go.