July 2009
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Colchicine

Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guarantee: all reviews contain spoilers

                        

            “White Oleander” (2002) is a faithful rendering of the novel, with some detail omitted, of course. These words are usually faint praise; it seems to be a rule of the movie universe that there is an inverse relationship between fidelity to the story of a novel and a movie having an organic life of its own. The film version of Camus’  “L’Etranger”, starring Marcello Mastroanni as the alienated man, is a case in point. He is quite simply too beautiful, too well groomed, to be persuasive as a sociopath who shoots another man for no reason. Often enough, in novel adaptations, you have the settings and dialog, empty as tableaux vivants, with no sparkle or life. In this case, however, the movie does have a gritty heartbeat of its own, based on the fine performances and the editing.

            Astrid Magnuson is a young girl whose artist mother murders a man who jilted her and is sent to prison for life. Astrid is committed to a succession of foster homes, in the first of which she is shot; in the second, her foster mom commits suicide; in the third, ironically the best one, she is merely financially exploited, sent out to scavenge for saleable stuff and to work at a flea market. In between, are stays in an institution, where she meets a shy, artistic boy who loves her. Alison Lohman, who can be rather distant, does a good job conveying Astrid’s frustration, rage and eventual fear of loving anything that can be taken from her. Evoking Nietzsche’s premise that whatever does not kill you, makes you stronger, she emerges at the end with a newly fierce independence, free of her monstrous mother at last, living with the boyfriend and making Cornell-style boxes evocative of her ordeal.

            “Carmen Jones” (1954) is an enjoyable curiosity, Carmen set in the South with an all black cast, and Bizet’s music re-married to vernacular lyrics. Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte catch fire together, and both can sing more than well enough to pull it off (no Marni Nixon voice-overs in this movie).

            “Tipping the Velvet”(1998) by Sarah Waters, is a novel which overcomes somewhat clunky, lackluster prose by the great interest of its setting. A young woman from an oyster-fishing family in sea-side England in the 1880’s discovers her desire for women at a time when there was no public lesbian culture to turn to. Her wish to dress and live as a man, her involvement with a cross-dressing music hall singer, a passage as the mistress of a wealthy older woman, and then true love with a socialist charity worker and activist, are colorful described. Anachronism, the major pitfall of historical novels, is avoided. At the end, we are in effect witnessing a merger between her outsider desires and a nascent political identity. There is an effective scene near the end when she learns that the act of performing oral sex on another woman is known colloquially, in the secret lesbian culture of the time, as “tipping the velvet”. Asked if she has never done it, she replies that she has the experience but not the vocabulary.

            Douglas Coupland’s “”Microserfs” (1995) is one of only three novels I know of concerning portraying development culture. The others are Po Bronson’s “The First 20 Million is Always the Hardest” and Ellen Ullman’s “The Bug”.  (My own otherwise unpublished hypertext novel “Montauk” is set in the shareware and software publishing culture of the 80’s and 90’s.)

            The software world is a fascinating subject for fiction because it was rich with metaphor and innovative in the new ways it viewed people and information. The software development process begins with a search for the right metaphor (user interface as a menu? A toolbar? VCR controls?). The finished software itself is often a metaphor. The unique, manic culture of the 90’s, which happened against the background of a financial bubble, presumed that software and the people who made it, and the Internet which became a framework for communicating about it, delivering and accessing it, would change the world. Fifteen years later, the bubble has collapsed, the companies with no possible road to profitability have been washed away, the world is drearily retrograding to 1929, and we know that the Internet, as important as it is and will be, is mainly a delivery mechanism for porn, spam, viruses and other crap. But it is the fate of all revolutions to deliver a lot of evil, and less good than touted.

            Microserfs” has all of the enthusiasm and the maddening flaws of the revolution it portrays. The narrator and his friends all are workers at Microsoft at the beginning, and all migrate southwards to Silicon Valley to a start up founded by one of them. The new product they are developing is essentially a set of virtual Legos, the prospective use of  which is left  somewhat vague. Perhaps their product will be used by architects to design homes, or by game designers to make worlds. The vagueness is realistic, because many of the products of the ‘90’s, including some seminal ones, were broad platforms for modeling the world which were impressive in scope and dubious of application.

            Along the way, we are treated to lively, satirical portraits of the nerds and geeks who comprise this world, the venture capitalists, sales people, and baffled parents on the periphery. One particularly interesting feature of the book is its inclusion of three sympathetic female nerd characters, and some accurate analysis of the brand new difficulties of being a woman good at math in a world not used to you. The plotless narrative, constructed as a sort of software road movie, bogs down in emails reproduced complete with typos, and then in endless list making which screams out for an editor. The lists (what roles each character would assume in a “Star Trek Universe”; the comparative merits of the little plastic people in Lego and competing sets; etc.) are funny but there should have been far fewer of them. Ultimately, “Microserfs” is rewarding reading for its unerring capture of the tone and vocabulary of an unusual world, but doesn’t work very well as a novel. It is brought down by the arrogance which informed everything we did back then: if you’re a software wizard, why would you need a narrative or an editor?

            Brian Aldiss, “The Dark Light Years” (1964), is a clumsily written but clever and entertaining satire of human idiocy.  Humans meet an extremely alien intelligent race and immediately shoot the majority of the alien party as if they were big game, then take the survivors back to earth where they eventually vivisect them. This novella-length book touches lightly on a wide variety of interesting characters and themes. Even the kind, most responsive humans are portrayed as weaklings or fools. In one crucial moment, an anthropologist stands before a statue of one of the aliens, in their home city, and wonders if she doesn’t detect a level of humanity (compassion? wisdom?) which humans renounced. But she later disclaims her insight, and the killing goes on. At the end, one of the few surviving aliens eyes a cache of weapons the humans left behind and starts thinking about resistance.

            The novel, though not as well written, is reminiscent of two others, Ursula LeGuin’s “The Word for World is Forest” (1976) in which a peaceful alien race which must fight humanity for its independence, is left with a legacy of murder, and Stanislaw Lem’s hilarious and grim “Fiasco”, in which humans, frustrated by a deeply strange alien race’s failure to respond to their overtures, become insanely homicidal in response.

            The fourth season of “Rescue Me” was better written, more organic, and more satisfying than the third.  Stories took a while to build, and there was sufficient foreshadowing of disturbing developments, such as a major character’s suicide. The protagonist, meanwhile, actually seems to be changing, becoming a better human being; at the end of the season, he had nearly a year of sobriety. Good new characters, such as a black rookie, were introduced. The show is still heavily misogynist in a really retro kind of way—women use sex and are highly irrational; the woman firefighter from a couple of seasons ago, who was a really great character, has vanished from the show. This year, the show’s descents into darkness—the main character thought about drowning his baby—were earned. The season finale, rather than being a contrived cliffhanger, wrapped up a number of story threads in a surprising way. Strangely, the deaf sister introduced on the last episode of season 3 never re-appeared (actress not available?)

            Norman Spinrad's “Bug Jack Barron” (1969) was one of the influential novels of my teenage years. Breathlessly written in faux-neo-Kerouac/Burroughs/Tom Wolfe style with lots of psychedelic images separated by three dots or, even worse, unpunctuated, the book nonetheless is a dead on satire of the importance of glitzy, self-involved media as a power base in politics, written in an era before Oprah where the most powerful figure was still Johnny Carson. Jack Barron is a television show host watched each week by a hundred million people. Each week, he takes one phone call from someone with a complaint, then challenges the rich and powerful to resolve it. Now he takes on the most powerful foe of all: Bennie Howards, the multimillionaire behind the “Freezer Foundation”, wealthy enough to buy or kill Senators. The foundation promises immortality, which comes with a price: the death by irradiation of an abducted or purchased child, whose glands are then transplanted to the wealthy or privileged recipient. Baron himself is a former activist, founder of something called the “Social Justice Coalition”, who ostensibly sold out when he became an entertainer.

            What is most enjoyable about rereading science fiction forty years later is checking what it got right and wrong. The novel seems to be set around 1990, though the date is never stated. A mcguffin important to the plot is a brand new cellphone (referred to as one of the new AT&T satellite miniphones) which Barron secretly uses to transmit and record a conversation with Howards. The black governor of a Southern state arranges to become the vice presidential candidate on a ticket to be headed by Barron, reflecting that's the only way a black man can get on the national ticket in the U.S.

            “Bug Jack Barron”, though somewhat antique and off-putting with its psychedelic prose, is still a worthy experience because of its take on  media and politics.

"Of the Farm" (1962), by John Updike, is an early gem of a short novel from the author's pre-bloviation years. The protagonist takes his second wife to meet his mom for the first time. She re-purchased the family farm where she grew up, but is now too old and ill to run it. She is a strong and rather cruel personality, yet sympathetic. She chips on him about his marriage until, in a sad and powerful reveal, he admits that his new wife is rather stupid, that he has discovered he still loves his first and is sorry he left her. The wife is described in a classic '60's writing style; like starlets of the time in French and Italian movies, she is all hair, hips and breasts, a kind of seductive yet maternal female principle in motion. The mother, too old to be a sexual being, is the most strongly sketched real person in the novel.

           

"The White Sheikh" (1952), directed by Federico Fellini, is a minor early movie, a rather traditional comedy about a honeymooning couple overwhelmed by Rome. The wife wanders away to look for her idol, an actor who stars in a series of quaint photographed comic books. She finds him and naturally discovers he has feet of clay, while her husband is quietly going crazy. Nonetheless, the film has Fellini's playful love of spectacle, and circus music; the actors posing on a beach, acting out a cheesy harem story, is a classic Fellini set piece. The husband, drunk, sits by a fountain, and the movie becomes immediately electrified when Giuletta Massima walks on, as Cabiria, the prostitute she would later play in "Nights of Cabiria". She comforts the husband a moment, then shouts "Look there's Arturo!" and coaxes the latter, an exhausted performer, to breathe fire for her while she looks on in wonder. Forget the movie, remember the moment.

 

"Wise Blood" (1979), directed by John Huston, is a fairly faithful retelling of an interesting but rather shapeless Flannery O'Connor novella, about the World War I veteran, shot in an embarassing but unspecified part of his anatomy, who decides to go to the big city and preach the "Church of Christ without Christ," telling his listeners that

"Jesus died, but not for you." The rest of the movie is the arc of his decline and self-destruction; an engagingly waifish and strange young Amy Wright seduces him; various people try to save and harm him; he blinds himself; and finally dies in flight from his older landlady's proposal of marriage. The movie, powerfully made with the director's typical humor and attention to detail (he lists himself in the credits as "Jhon Huston") qualifies as a lesser effort not through lack of craft on his part but because O'Connor didn't give him much to go on.

 

"Virtuality" (2009), directed by Peter Berg, is a science fiction pilot that didn't get picked up as a series. Set on a space ship heading for the Eridani system, the casting, acting and effects are good, the starship believable and reminiscent of"2001", all spars and struts and far from the hurtling huge triangles of "Star Wars". However, one reason NBC probably did not pick up the series is that it would be incredibly claustrophobic to watch a series with six or seven characters set on a ship which doesn't actually get to stop anywhere on its way to Eridani; no "Star Trek" peculiar-planet-of-the-week. The writers' solution for this is to have the characters spend much of their spare time in a virtual reality in which new characters can be introduced, dead ones resuscitated and so forth. The problem with this that no series has ever solved is that not much is really at stake for the audience in a virtual world; the show itself is about as virtual as most of us are willing to get. In "Virtuality"'s "VR" module, a strange man, supposedly a computer glitch, keeps showing up, killing and even raping other characters. This is unfortunately, a very tired trope in science fiction film and television; think Chris Carter's failed "Dark World" series,  "Tron", the similarly titled "Virtuousity", the three or four half decent VR movies from the 90's like "The Thirteenth Floor", all of the weak holodeck episodes of "Star Trek" (why didn't they just beam the fucking thing into space the first time it tried to take over the ship?), and in the horror genre, the whole "Freddy" series and a million other movies and shows where the monster comes from your dreams, the tv set, the computer, etc.

 

For all that, "Virtuality" is decent science fiction. Because its a pilot, it doesn't really end. But it is nigh unto impossible to imagine how they could have stretched the story-telling out for five or seven years.