Sunday, October 30, 2011

Bog Help Me...

It's all SennyDreadful's fault. Lord, I love that woman, but right now I want to reach across the pond (she lives in London) and shake her till her pearly whites rattle.

OK, not really. No one -- especially not a kooky gal in another country -- can make me do anything I don't want to. But I did, in a fit of sympathy and fellow-feeling, promise her that I would again endure the insanity that is National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. Starting on Tuesday, Nov. 1, I will strive to add at least 1666 new words to the very rough first draft of a brand new novel. I have a very vague idea of what it's going to be about, but no outline or snowflake, no cast of planned characters, no set ending in mind. No plot, no problem, is how NaNoWriMo works, or, as my good friend Jason Erickson has famously (because I made him famous for it) characterized it "Keep writing crap fast!"

I have won NaNoWriMo twice -- won meaning I have, in fact, gotten 50,000 words down within the month of November. The first novel/novella may be irrecoverable, though maybe someday I'll find a way to retrieve files from the moribund original tangerine clamshell iBook I wrote it on back in 2000. The second has morphed/warped into a giant seekrit project that maybe someday I'll be able to disclose to you -- a few of my closest friends know about it -- but now that it's a collaboration involving at least three other people, well. Yeah.

So I go into NaNoWriMo 2011 with a light heart. I know I can do it. I've done it before and lord knows I have enough ideas. But here's the thing.

I have a lot of other projects I need to be working on, too. One of which is seekrit but is going to be awesome (and yes, it's another collaboration; I'm addicted to collaborating I guess), and another, well, my publisher pulled the trigger on the publicity website for it this summer: Omi & Lulu. And those are just the serious for-sure projects. There are others. Like a script for a budding filmmaker buddy of mine. And two epic poems. And other stuff that's probably slipped my mind right now because I'm on weird pain meds.

For yes, I'm still having lots of trouble with my left elbow, trouble that renders me all but a one-armed woman while the damage heals.

Insert one-armed paper hanger references here.

So honestly, I'm not going to sweat it if I don't win NaNoWriMo this year. But I promised my gal Senny, and a few other friends who are gearing up to go into the trenches, that I'd at least give it another try. Because it's good to barf out that terrible first draft and just see what's right and what's wrong with my idea. And because misery loves company. And because November feels weird without it.

I'm K8E over there if anyone wants to add me as a writing buddy. Good luck, NaNos, and hey you non NaNos, you can do it too; it's not a show!

Monday, October 24, 2011

100 Books 59 - Ernest Cline's READY PLAYER ONE

"The past, she thought, was like glue. No matter how far you thought you had moved on, it kept you stuck in one spot." - from Gary McMahon's DEAD BAD THINGS

It's perhaps odd of me to quote from the book I took up after it in writing about Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (Dead Bad Things will likely be book number 60, unless I get a wild hair and tear through the rest of Henry James' Portrait of a Lady this week), but then again, it's odd and a bit startling to run across a sentence in the next book that so very aptly captures my feelings about the former.

I can't remember the last time I tore through a book this fast, but even as I was, on the whole, enjoying it, something kept bugging me: for all the fun it offers -- for all the fun it offers, Ready Player One is actually kind of a depressing book.

Stick with me here.

As anyone who's read the blurbs knows, Ready Player One concerns a dystopian near-future in which most of the world is utterly consumed by a contest to find the ultimate easter egg in a giant, sprawling combination MMORPG/Second Life/Web X.0 computer generated universe called the Oasis. The player who finds the prize wins not only that creator's immense personal fortune but also control of the company, which means, effectively, control of the World As We Know it circa the post-oil 2050s*. With stakes like those -- and the world otherwise being a blighted, miserable, static place (as in every major city now having giant sprawling exurbs full of nothing but vertical trailer parks -- trailers stacked via makeshift scaffolding into huge structures like skyscrapers -- full of refugees from the smaller cities that have collapsed economically and socially in this new energy crisis) -- this game has pretty much taken over the collective everything.

And here's where the sad really gets to me. Because the game is all about the creator, Halliday's, pop culture obsessions. And he's an old fart in the 2050s -- meaning he grew up in the 1980s. Which means everyone in the 2050s is spending all of their time in goggles and haptic gloves studying up on 1980s pop culture. Most of which, let's face it, wasn't really very good. You who are nostalgic for it are only remembering the highlights. Sit down and watch an episode of Family Ties. Or Silver Spoons. Now imagine that your best and only shot at a halfway decent future is playing a game which, in part, requires minute knowledge of that crap. That the knowledge base also includes good stuff like Star Wars and Monty Python and Zork may make it seem palatable but... ugh.

We who are part of Halliday's generation, who were teenagers in the 1980s, already have had a taste of what that is like. Growing up in the shadow of the Baby Boom, we had 1960s culture force fed to us constantly. And a lot of us just went ahead and embraced that 60s nostalgia -- ersatz tie dying, affected preference for that era's music and politics and mores over modern stuff and all -- at the cost, to some degree, of our development of our own culture. Hence crap like Family Ties.

But so now we have a world beset by real problems -- energy shortages, staggering poverty everywhere except for a few tiny pockets, rising sea levels, polluted air, crime, darkness, horror -- and everybody is avoiding this by immersing themselves in a virtual world fixated on the 1980s. Minutely studying John Hughes movies. Deconstructing Thundarr the Barbarian. Memorizing Superman III.

In its defense, one of the competitors in Ready Player One wants to use the staggering load of money at stake to save the world (as opposed to another, who wants to use it to build a spaceship and go find us another planet, thus saving humanity as a concept but leaving billions behind to stew in the filth of generations), but she still has to win the game to do so. All other planning is on hold while the best minds of the current generation re-enact War Games.

All that sad subtext aside, though, Ready Player One is a fun, fun read. I am absolutely its target audience, and was utterly absorbed in the urgency of the plot -- for it's not just about game play, this story; it's a struggle for the future, with our plucky protagonist fanboys pitted against a giant, evil corporation who wants to take over Oasis and commercialize the hell out of it, privatize it, wall it off, monetize its user data -- sound familiar? So even though it's far fetched that our plucky fanboys and fangirls could save the world with Halliday's money, I still bought in to the notion that their quest had meaning in that they were trying to keep the world from getting even worse.

Plus, yes, it would be fun to get to play King Arthur in a meticulous re-creation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. For great justice.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

100 Books 58 - Seth Harwood's JACK PALMS II - THIS IS LIFE

Damn, but I think Seth Harwood would be a lot of fun to drink with. Ditto for the character that first made Harwood famous, Jack Palms, washed-up action movie star, sometime hustler, trouble magnet, and, in this, his second adventure, the guy the San Francisco cops turn to when things seem too dirty for them to handle (which means, in case you're wondering, that things are very dirty indeed).

Get a few beers or scotches in either one and I bet you're in for an evening of wild-ass stories. They might not be totally plausible stories, but they'll sure as hell be entertaining.

For this second Jack Palms outing, Harwood works more explicitly with a conceit that was only subtly present in the first one, Jack Wakes Up: that an actor, more or less playing a role, can stand in for the real thing when he has to. In Jack Wakes Up, though, Jack was playing a movie star, trading on his fame and what goodwill movie fans still had for him after his time in the tabloids (drug addiction, public ugliness with a pretty wife, etc.) to smooth the way for a complicated drug deal that wound up going wrong. He winked at bouncers, flirted with bartenders, showed the out-of-towners a good time in San Francisco, and juked his way out of crisis after crisis, all the while trying desperately to hold on to his hard-won health and sobriety.

This time around, though, Jack is having to play the role he played in his movie: a rough, tough Dirty Harry type. He has to act like a cop. And he gets in way over his head. As the title says, this is life: the guns, the bullets, the criminals and corrupt cops are all real.

I'm not sure I buy the premise that San Francisco's finest, even when desperate to exact justice/revenge for the death of one of their (corrupt) own, would resort to having a has-been actor* take the case when their hands get jurisdictionally tied, but I wound up not caring about that too much as I got sucked in to another intricate, messed up, tough, violent and shocking tale -- mostly, as always, by Harwood's care with the language. This is a guy who wants to get it right, a craftsman with his prose, and doesn't this reader appreciate that!

Harwood takes care, too, to keep us in Jack's head: he's an actor playing a role, and he's not firing blanks this time; the fights have not been choreographed, his dialogue has not been scripted. It's all improv, baby -- and sometimes Jack doesn't really know what to do, which verisimilitude (and again, craft in conveying it) more than makes up for the far-fetchedness of the premise that's landed him where he is. "This is the time, as he sees it, and there's nothing to do but act on what's here."

Plus, well, the action. As in prior books, the action is intense and incredible, and again, reminiscent of a good video game, complete with characters tossing away depleted weapons and taking up new ones. Jack winds up wielding every kind of firearm imaginable before the book is done, with varying degrees of success -- and quite a body count!

Now. Here's the interesting bit. As I mentioned in a prior post about Harwood, this guy is more than a bit of a maverick. He gives away his fiction first, in the form of free audiobooks over at Podiobooks, and releases it as ebooks and paperbacks later. This post of mine concerns the original ebook version of This is Life, but very soon, via a wonderfully successful Kickstarter campaign (and you'd better believe it, I'm a backer), a brand new edition of the book is coming out. And I'll be reading that new version -- and all the other stuff Harwood has in the pipeline -- just as soon as it lands in my greedy little hands. I'm a Palms Momma for life.

And the funny thing is, before I encountered Harwood, I didn't read crime fiction!

*Though as William Shatner says in a certain recent song, "Has-been... might again!"

Friday, October 21, 2011

100 Books 57 - Cullen Bunn's CROOKED HILLS

Crooked Hills is one of those great rarities in this world: something that almost makes me wish that I had children. Almost.

Written primarily for the sort of precociously goofy (or perhaps, goofily precocious) middle school kid that is the age I like best to spend time with when, e.g., substitute teaching or hanging out with friends with kids, Crooked Hills has a lot of grody, spooky charm to recommend it. Our young protagonist, Charlie Ward (whose middle name I really hope is actually Dexter), on a forced vacation from Chicago to a tiny town in the backwoods that is purported "the most haunted in America" quickly gets over his city kid snit and develops an enthusiasm for the slimy, shadowy, legend-riddled hometown of his country cousin that is infectious and fun to read.

Soon he is knee-deep in mud, pine needles, folklore and fetch hunting; the sighting of a possible ghost dog with eerie "human-like eyes" sends him, cousin Marty, little brother Alex, and slingshot-toting tomboy pal Lisa on a hunt after not just a ghost but a witch's ghost. Along the way they encounter more mundane hazards (like a pair of neighborhood bullies) and make an interesting study of the intersection of folklore and fact, all the while re-enacting the style of Marty's beloved Hardy Boys books (with the adrenaline cranked up to 11).

What makes this for me is Charlie's narrative voice. He is precocious but still believable as a smart, curious kid who is still susceptible to a good fart joke or a well-placed can of tarantulas. He has a strong moral center and his genuine concern for his little brother is often very touching; he is also personally courageous as he demonstrates over and over again. Were I a parent, I would feel good about having a kid who wanted to be like Charlie.

I was hoping this book would be a good follow-up gift for my little friend who so loves Brand Gamblin's Tumbler but alas, I think it might be too scary for her. Bunn's background in writing for comics means every chapter ends on a hair-raising cliff-hanger that keeps the reader turning the pages but might give some more delicate sensibilities a bad case of nightmares. If you or your little ones enjoy a good goosebump-raiser, though, this is definitely for  you.

But don't be surprised if everyone in your house takes to screaming "I bury all your cows!"

Monday, October 17, 2011

100 Books 56 - Guy Haley's REALITY 36

Man, it's been a while since I've gotten to dig into some good old cyberpunk. I'd almost forgotten how much I enjoy it.

That's not to say that Reality 36 is cyberpunk, precisely -- it strays a bit from the classic Gibsonian high tech/low life scenario -- but Gibson and the genre he spawned are an influence woven proudly into the nanowired smart fabric of the virtual sleeves of Haley's 22nd century gumshoes, the ex-military cyborg, Otto Klein and his AI partner Richards. They owe a bit, too, this pair, to Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs. But they're their own men, er, entities, er, sentients. And damn, are they ever cool!

The nature of the case they're on as this novel unfolds is not clear for a lot of it. Lots of narrative threads spin out independently of each other both in the real world and in a virtual world that used to be a game but is now, along with all the others, set aside as a sort of ecological preserve; the detectives' ultimate quarry-cum-client is the guy who originally led the legal/political battle to liberate and establish civil rights for artificial intelligences (who by the 22nd century have become sophisticated enough to achieve sentience), aka Neukind, not only in the ordinary human world but also in those game worlds. It's a crime, he has persuaded society, to create intelligent, thinking and feeling life, solely for the purpose of being hunted for sport in games. That's right: in this world, all those zombies/boars/evil wizards/Nazis we so enjoy mashing buttons to mow down are citizens, yo. And have a right to live out their own lives in whatever weird world they've found themselves in.

That's just one of the many intriguing ideas and issues Haley tackles in this novel -- but it never gets preachy or thinky or overly philosophical. Otto makes sure of that (lots of explodey action bits; a film version in the 80s would definitely have Arnie playing him -- hey, Otto's even got a German accent!), and so, in his way, does Richards, possessing, at one point, a barely sentient forklift (the Internet of Things plays a satisfyingly big role in this plot as well) in order to rescue his buddy after he's blundered into a trap. A smart and resourceful and refreshingly matter-of-fact female co-protagonist, Veronique (and her sidekick/phone, Chloe) rounds out the main crew and ties the whole story together very neatly. Too, Veronique provides the console cowboy edge every good cyberpunk yarn needs; she spends a lot of the novel hooked up to an IV drip-and-catheter in the Real so she can hunt down the mastermind in one of the game worlds alongside a pair of the aforementioned liberated game AIs. It's all very complicated and glorious.

And of course, Richards and Klein, Security Consultants, is going to be a series. I got a bonus short story about them included with Reality 36 in my Angry Robot ebooks subscription and a proper sequel is slated for publication next year. BRING IT ON!

Friday, October 14, 2011

100 Books 55 - Victor Pelevin's HOMO ZAPIENS

I love Victor Pelevin, but I somehow managed to miss this one when it came out. I only learned of its existence because a film adaptation premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year under the title Generation P. The film blew me away and was my favorite from this year's festival and I promise that soon I'll get around to writing about the rest of the films I saw there; for now, suffice it to say that Victor Ginzberg's film adaptation was magnificently faithful to a novel that was begging to be a film from the first page.

Homo Zapiens -- the title refers to a theorized new, devolved form of human being whose thoughts and reactions are largely governed by the television, even if, maybe especially if, what he's mostly doing is zapping to avoid commercials -- is Pelevin at his most gleefully nihilistic as he surveys the chaos that was Russia in the 90s. Not since The Exile: Sex Drugs and Libel in the New Russia have I seen this milieu so vividly depicted: blatant corruption at all levels of public and private life, gross materialism and drug abuse, vodka and cranky mysticism, all wrapped up in the Russian version of How to Get Ahead in Advertising; had hero Babylen Tartosky sprouted another head I would not have been surprised. But Pelevin has other, crazier ideas to play with, here.

Like the idea that at some point the mass media stopped reporting the news and started making it up -- even to inventing the politicians, who only exist as artfully computer-generated animations and carefully seeded urban legends (a cadre of ordinary-seeming ex-soldier types has the job of planting stories of seeing, e.g. Yeltsin or Berezhovsky in a grocery store or walking down the street). It's unclear whether or not we readers are expected to take this idea as true for this fictional world, or as just another whopper his co-workers and employers have laid on for Babylen's confusion or edification, and it's one of the amazing things about this novel that it ultimately doesn't matter if the reader believes it or not, if Babylen's superiors believe it or not, or if Babylen believes it or not.

Which is to say that Homo Zapiens, novel and film, messed with my head in all of the ways I most like having my head messed with. But if you're not familiar with the real world that inspired this phantasmagorical fake (or is it? Hmm?) one, do yourself a favor and have a look at The Exile, either the book I linked to above, or look at some of the archived "classic" issues from its original run as one of the bitchiest and most profane alternative newspapers the world has ever seen. Doing so will not only enrich your experience of reading or watching Homo Zapiens/Generation P, but will also give you a unique and completely compelling look at the  world through the eyes of "two hairy-assed jerks" who had front row seats to watch the chaos, cannibalism and cockery of the collapse of the world's last great empire.

100 Books 54 - J.G. Ballard's THE DROWNED WORLD

It's kind of embarrassing and inexplicable that I'm just now reading J.G. Ballard. Most of the science fiction authors I admire the most (e.g. Heinlein, Sturgeon, Ellison) cite Ballard as the one they admire most, after all. And lots of my friends agree.

Now I can see why!

The Drowned World could easily look like a climate change cautionary tale nowadays, depicting as it does a planet on which all the major cities are under hundreds of feet of water, the average daytime temperature is a good 120-140 degrees, and the biosphere is reverting to something much like its Triassic state, teeming with giant ferns and reptiles that some people are starting to suspect are evolving back into dinosaurs. But the book (first published in 1962) predates modern theories; here the sun is the culprit; a series of really bad solar  flares having stripped away a lot of the protections Earth's atmosphere provides, the planet has gotten hot and steamy; The Drowned World could well be a sequel to Stephen Vincent Benet's poem, "Metropolitan Nightmare," which is even older.

So the characters here are neither hand-wringers nor moralizers. Robert Kerans, Colonel Riggs and Beatrice Dahl are studying the vast series of lagoons that used to be London as the book opens. But it's time to go back to the relative safety and comfort of the Arctic Circle; the iguanas and gators are getting uppity and the heat is going to get unbearable. Everything looks good to go -- but nobody asked Beatrice. And Beatrice, like many other members of the expedition, has started to have "deep" dreams that seem to be seducing her into staying, into giving up her humanity as it is commonly understood and becoming a quiescent consciousness submerged in jungle and lagoon. And because she and Kerans have become a couple during their time in the Lagoons-That-Were-London, he's going to stay, too. Besides, Kerans kind of likes his living arrangements, in the penthouse of the ruins of the Ritz Hotel -- a penthouse that's now more or less at water level, and still crammed full of a long-dead resident's silk shirts and other treasures.

What follows is a short -- shockingly short by modern standards; I had almost forgotten that novels once took up just 133 pages! -- account of a myriad of ways in which people can go mad outside of civilization. We have looters, a savage king (who arrives on a paddle steamer escorted by hundreds of alligators who seem to respond a bit to his will), and more than one person who has decided to do as the dreams suggest and just sort of zone out and become human lizards. When the savage king finds a way to drain the lagoon where Kerans and Beatrice are basking, the better to get at the treasures he imagines are still to be had in the abandoned stores and museums at the bottom, things get even stranger, which I would not have thought possible.

I had my own "deep" dream after reading The Drowned World in which I basically invented my own sequel to it and shared the sense of being subsumed in its waters; Ballard's sequences are so vivid and compelling that I wasn't at all surprised by this. I too, want to see London's big planetarium filled with water and teeming with sponges and coral and angelfish, the little specks of light from the water's surface far above forming a new set of constellations that Kerans imagines mirror those that appeared in the night sky when the Earth's climate was last like this.

Ballard is a wonder!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

100 Books 53 - Lauren Beukes' ZOO CITY

A lot of my friends recommended this book to me, and boy am I glad I 1) took their advice and 2) got around to it sometime this year.

This, my friends, is an utterly unique and utterly entertaining read.

Set in a Johannesburg, South Africa in which a certain kind of magic (muti) works and in which the commission of a crime or other serious sin earns one an animal (that may or may not, via the cultural associations we have with that animal, be a commentary on the sin itself) as a constant companion much in the mode of the daemons of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, this story of a hip young music journalist gone to seed has a vibe and an energy and a logic like no other. The world is seedy and compelling and sexy and utterly believable, which offsets what is otherwise a fairly ordinary private investigator/crime/noir plotline and makes it so fresh you can almost taste it.

Our heroine, Zinzi, basically stood by and watched her brother die, and is now accompanied by a sloth, who mutely comments throughout the story on Zinzi's actions and inactions as she investigates -- partly via her shavi, or the power that came with her sloth, for finding lost objects -- the disappearance of a pair of twins who are Jo'burg's latest pop music sensation.

It's the literary equivalent of an exceptionally rich bowl of gumbo followed by some really strong black coffee and I loved every second of it.

And it appears I'm not alone in thinking so, because Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Well deserved!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

100 Books 52 - Ian McEwan's SOLAR

I feel a little bit bamboozled, when I turn my mind to this one. I haven't read any of McEwan's other work but he's classed with a lot of science fiction writers I admire, and so I dove into this "New York Times Notable Book" expecting some good near-future sci-fi and some nice thoughts on an alternative-energy future to boot, but that's not really what I got.

This is much more of an entry into the "white male narcissist" genre -- so named by the late David Foster Wallace, very aptly. We have here a middle aged protagonist whom John Updike and his ilk could easily have inflicted on us, most of the story concerning his various failures as a lover, a housekeeper, a driver of his own destiny -- failures at self-care, at continence, at social relationships -- and oh, it just happens that he is a Nobel prize-winning physicist who has inherited (from a protege who died stupidly just minutes after being caught in flagrante with our protagonist's fifth wife) the foundations for artificial photosynthesis, a technology that could finally make solar energy a reasonable replacement for fossil fuels.

As a White Male Narcissist book it's one of the less annoying I've encountered; as science fiction it's so-so. What saves it from being an oh-God-delete-it-from-my-Kindle drag is something cunning that it achieves: it conveys the feeling that we're getting a peek behind the scenes at what is really holding alternative energy back, namely, the messed-up personal lives of the staggeringly ordinary men and women doing the science, the engineering, and the logistics. This coupled with the way the protagonist, Michael Beard, serves as rather a sly and amusing stand-in for all of us westerners, who know we need to shape up and stop being such idiots about our present and future but never quite seem to take those necessary first steps -- pass up that bacon double cheeseburger, take a jog around the block, turn down an ill-advised sexual liaison, buy a hybrid vehicle or shut off the air conditioner, act in any way like a responsible, competent adult -- to addressing the heap of problems piling high and threatening to topple and engulf us.

So I don't consider the time spent reading Solar to be wasted as such, but as I am pretty well convinced already that anthropogenic climate change is a reality and that redressing those ills starts at home (hence my love of bicycle commuting and hand-cranked gadgets and other ways to lessen ye carbone footeprinte), I'm not sure that if I'd had a clearer idea of what I was getting into with this novel, I would have taken it up.


100 Books 51: Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha's SEX AT DAWN: THE PREHISTORIC ORIGINS OF MODERN SEXUALITY

I am very much a singer in the choir this book is preaching to, but I can see where some might find it controversial, yes I do. First of all, it concerns evolution quite a lot, which is still (amazingly, to me) a hot-button issue in many circles. Second, it concerns sex, which is pretty much the most fascinating* topic we've yet found to talk or write about but which lots of people really rather wouldn't. And third, it's a thumping great, thoroughly researched, entertaining, funny and well-researched argument against monogamy as anything but an artificial cultural constraint.

Nor is sexuality the only sacred cow getting a goring in this fantastic (but sigh! too short -- my Kindle led me astray again. Oh hey, I'm only 59% of the way into the book, yay! Oh wait, 40% of the book is endnotes. Aaaaah!) book: the work of a lot of well-known anthropologists and thinkers gets a beady-eyed look from the authors, who find the logic of, e.g. the Hobbesian notion that prehistoric life was "nasty, brutish and short" rather wanting, both on its own and in the light of contemporary research and the evidence it has found that our ancestors were freer, healthier, less stressed out and more laid-back than we can even imagine being today.

I don't want to spoil Ryan's and Jetha's arguments, which are wonderfully presented, as to how our evolutionary history and our present-day biology argue that promiscuity and not fidelity is our natural sexual state; I will say this is not written as a set of excuses to offer one another. That's not the intent of the book; indeed, the authors encourage frank communication between partners or potential partners. Knowledge is power, and I, at least, can see how honestly confronting the facts of our biology can strengthen, rather than weaken, relationships. Sure, it's easier to ask forgiveness than permission, for instance, but having the balls to ask permission and begin a dialogue about the realities of our minds and bodies seems to me ultimately less costly than asking for forgiveness after feelings are hurt and trust is shattered and pride is at stake. But you've got to be brave. And if you're not brave, what are you doing dallying with the opposite (or same, if that's what you prefer) sex (or both) in the first place?

Along with Rings of Saturn, Inverted World and The Hidden Institute, Sex at Dawn is one of the best books I've read this year.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

TIFF 2011: Pen-ek Ratanaruang's HEADSHOT

Sigh. This was one of the films I was most excited about seeing at this year's festival -- Ratanaruang's Last Life in the Universe was really beautiful and cool -- but it wound up being a bit disappointing. As I said in the Audioboo that accompanied my post on Roman's Circuit yesterday, I was originally disinclined to say more about Headshot than that, but looking over clips and things again I am developing a retroactive fondness for the film. Perhaps another case of memory migration? And is this why I recall liking Last Life in the Universe so much more the first time than I did on a recent second viewing? It's kind of bugging me.

This time around, Ratanaruang was adapting a novel -- the novelist, the prolific Wyn Lyovarin, seems to be a fan of Ratanaruang's and has sent him copies of everything he's written -- called Rain Falling Up in the Sky. It's big-time crime fiction, with cops and drug dealers and hitmen and femmes fatale galore, romping all over dirty old Bangkok. Our hero was a cop until the crime boss found a way to manipulate/force him into switching sides and becomes an expert hitman -- the action scenes in which he plies his trade are pretty good from my point of view, but I'm no action aficionado so take that with however much salt you wish -- until one day a botched hit leaves him, yes, headshot. When he recovers, he sees everything upside-down, which is the hook that intrigued me about this film beyond Ratanaruang's name in the credits.

What ensues is a decently plotted crime tale, with just enough twists and surprises to keep from getting boring... except for the fact that this is Thai cinema and it's apparently a rule, written or un- (Ratanaruang educated us after the film, a bit, about the kinds of restrictions the Thai government places on filmmakers, including no negative depictions of Buddhist monks or people dressed as monks, ever) that there must be a lot of long, static shots of important characters staring profoundly into or just beyond the camera. They were okay in Last Life in the Universe because it was Tadanobu Asano doing the staring, and we knew the kind of lushly gorgeous scenery he was staring at, and it was part of a slower, more thoughtful story, but they were pretty out of place here, however attractive this new leading man (Nopachai Jayanama, who is very attractive indeed) may be.

And, too, while the neurological damage and ensuing strange point of view is what really makes this film unique, it's not really utilized; it's more of a throwaway that's good for trailers and promotional blurbs, to make it sound more interesting than it is.

And so between this and Uncle Boonmee (which we dubbed Uncle Bore-Me) I will never get Paul Laroquod to go to a Thai film again.

But damn, is Pen-ek Ratanaruang a funny speaker, very dry and subtle and understated and hilarious. "This film is in Thai," he counseled us before the screening, "So it is subtitled, so if you cannot read there is no point in staying," he said in his quiet, small voice...

He hasn't lost me yet, but I tap my foot a bit in his general direction....

Oh, and I WANT that typewriter.