FilmJuice have my review of Brian De Palma’s rock opera Phantom of the Paradise. I was not impressed.
Made in the coke-bloat years of prog rock, this musical mashes up Faust and Phantom of the Opera to produce a weirdy-beardy story about a composer who is lured into cooperating with a sinister record producer only for the sinister record producer to betray him, steal his music, get him thrown in jail and eventually try to wall him up in a room in his enormous house. Visually, the film is extraordinary as De Palma makes great use of then-emerging video editing technologies to produce all kinds of split-screen and other effects. My problem was with every other aspect of the film:
Originally a dutiful student of the French New Wave, Brian De Palma soon migrated towards populist films with a hint of artificiality: Carrie and The Fury mused over psychic powers while thrillers such as Body Double and Dressed to Kill obsessed over the appearance of female bodies before hacking them to pieces. Best known for his gangster epics Scarface, The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, De Palma instinctively understood the swaggering pretence of the American hoodlum and how sharp suits and theatrical yelling are a neat way of masking a predator’s scent. Indeed, no film better encapsulates Brian De Palma’s strengths and weaknesses than his much-underrated reboot of the Mission: Impossible franchise: Expensive, slick and entirely populated by people pretending to be someone else, M:I is far more interested in the elegant imitation of humanity than humanity itself. True to form, De Palma’s early rock opera Phantom of the Paradise is obsessed with masks, illusions and pastiches but offers nothing in the way of emotional reality.
As a satire of the music industry, this is pretty toothless stuff not least because while De Palma is quick to point fingers at the excesses of the prog rock era, his proposed solution to the excess is an operatic rock ‘cantata’ based on the legend of Faust. As I said in my review, this is precisely the kind of portentous rubbish that punk set out to destroy and it’s very difficult for a satire to function when the ‘disease’ and ‘cure’ seem equally bad.
The more pressing problem is that the music is almost entirely hideous. Written and mostly performed by the jowly-voiced Paul Williams (of Bugsy Malone fame) this supposed ‘rock opera’ is neither musically complex enough to be operatic nor raw enough to be rock. In effect, this is pompous music theatre with additional cod-pieces. The pastiches are mildly interesting as they do sound quite a bit like the bands they’re supposed to be pastiches of but the songs themselves are neither satirical nor particularly memorable meaning that this vicious attack on soulless nostalgia is itself nothing more an exercise in soulless nostalgia. Watching this, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Dead Kennedys’s “M.T.V. – Get off the air”.
This film has evidently acquired something of a cult following as the re-release comes with a selection of interviews and extras that seems wildly out of proportion with a flabby and emotionally hollow rock opera from the 1970s. However, as is often the case in these types of situations, the interviews unwittingly reveal quite a bit about the flaws in the production process as much like the Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa DVD revealed Steve Coogan’s willingness to work without a finished script and openly countermand the wishes of the director, the interviews included on the DVD reveal Paul Williams to be just as egomaniacal and unsettling as his onscreen counterpart.
Videovista has my review of Gavin Hood’s cinematic adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s sinister science fiction novel Ender’s Game.
Quite possibly the single most commercially successful science fiction novel of all time, Ender’s Game tells the story of a gifted child who is groomed, recruited and trained to become the military commander who will defend Earth against an imminent and unavoidable attack by a race of inscrutable ant-like aliens known as the Formics (the novel’s ambiguously homophobic term ‘buggers’ having been dropped from the film due to the negative press surrounding Card’s activities as an anti-LGBT spokesperson and activist). Having now watched the film and re-read the novel, I am struck by the fact that Ender’s Game sits rather uncomfortably between two different stools:
On the one hand, the story (originally published as a novella in Analog) is a throwback to the golden age of science fiction where genocidal space captains were not seen as particularly problematic characters. This aspect of the novel sits squarely in the foreground and is obvious from the fact that much of the novel’s enduring appeal lies in the fact that it is one enormous Geek power fantasy about a super-smart kid who beats the shit out of his bullies, gets all the cool friends and saves the day despite being misunderstood and persecuted.
On the other hand, the story is painfully aware of the literary turn of 1960s science fiction and so tries to reflect the fact that you can no longer get away with writing a novel about a genocidal space commander without acknowledging the fact that genocide is bad (Mm’kay?) and that characters need to be well-rounded individuals with internal conflicts to resolve. This aspect of the novel is evident not only in Ender’s undirected and largely uncritical angst but also in the way that the book tries to have its cake and eat it too by building towards a climactic battle only to then suggest that climactic battles aren’t necessarily a good idea.
The tension between these sets of literary values not only explains why the more recent Ender’s Shadow (a retelling of the book from the perspective of Ender’s psychopathic and entirely angst-free sidekick Bean) is a far superior novel, it also explains why Ender’s Game is such a deeply problematic work of fiction. Had Ender’s Game embraced its golden age roots and been about a heroic kiddy space captain then it would have been nothing more than your standard piece of reactionary escapist SF fluff and had Ender’s Game been about the morally problematic aspects of military service then it would have been a pretty good revisionist MilSF novel comparable to Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. However, by trying to write within two politically incompatible literary traditions, Card effectively wound up creating a novel that emphasises all the worst aspects of traditional science fiction.
I don’t like the politics of Ender’s Game and I don’t like the politics of this film:
The problem is not that Ender’s Game is a power fantasy wrapped in a persecution complex and fired into the faces of unsuspecting children, the problem is that this film sends a message that the only rational and intelligent response to feelings of alienation, betrayal and confusion is to conform to the demands of the institutions that caused those negative feelings in the first place. Ender’s Game is not content with telling us that there is no alternative to a life of selfish brutality, it goes out of its way to present that life as sane, heroic and oh so very clever. Gavin Hood’s film is well made and elegant to look at, as beautiful as a $110 million advert for fascism could ever hope to be.
I’m not the first person to have this reaction:
- Elaine Radford wrote an essay entitled “Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman” in which she points out a number of moral and biographical similarities between the two genocides.
- John Kessel wrote an essay entitled “Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender’s Game, Intention and Morality” in which he points out the problematic nature of Card’s moral system.
But I don’t think I’ve seen anyone else point out that the book is not only fascistic but also incredibly derivative as it is essentially a re-skinning of Tom Godwin’s short story “The Cold Equations”. I outline the similarities between the two texts at some length in my review but the similarities are even more striking when you read the original “Ender’s Game” novelette, which was published in 1977 in the same magazine that originally published “The Cold Equations”.
PS Not long after uploading this, I came across a recent Cory Doctorow column from Locus magazine that essentially makes the exact same point about the artificiality of TINA and how Godwin creates a particular moral scenario and then expunges all blame and concepts of moral responsibility by willfully confusing the political laws governing the pilot’s society with the laws of nature. Given that it’s written by Cory Doctorow, the piece is significantly better written than mine and makes the connection I somehow missed with the concept of moral hazard:
The parameters of ‘‘The Cold Equations’’ are not the inescapable laws of physics. Zoom out beyond the page’s edges and you’ll find the author’s hands carefully arranging the scenery so that the plague, the world, the fuel, the girl and the pilot are all poised to inevitably lead to her execution. The author, not the girl, decided that there was no autopilot that could land the ship without the pilot. The author decided that the plague was fatal to all concerned, and that the vaccine needed to be delivered within a timeframe that could only be attained through the execution of the stowaway.
It is, then, a contrivance. A circumstance engineered for a justifiable murder. An elaborate shell game that makes the poor pilot – and the company he serves – into victims every bit as much as the dead girl is a victim, forced by circumstance and girlish naïveté to stain their souls with murder.
Moral hazard is the economist’s term for a rule that encourages people to behave badly. For example, a rule that says that you’re not liable for your factory’s pollution if you don’t know about it encourages factory owners to totally ignore their effluent pipes – it turns willful ignorance into a profitable strategy.
He then goes on to talk about the moral horrors of a Robert Heinlein story and I am reminded, yet again of that author’s toxic influence on the history of science fiction.
FilmJuice have my review of Don Siegel’s The Killers, an awesome character-based crime thriller starring Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Ronald Reagan.
Based on a short story by Ernest Hemmingway and originally made for American television, The Killers poses the question as to why someone would refuse to run when confronted by two men who had been sent to kill him. Unlike the original short story (which is minimalist to the point of being nothing but negative conceptual space), Don Siegel’s adaptation functions as a kind of therapeutic process that buries into the past of a murder victim and tries to make sense of the decisions that lead him all the way to that refusal to run.
It is difficult to watch The Killers without becoming a tiny bit obsessed with Marvin’s performance. A former marine and infamous drunk, Marvin spent the 1960s carving out a reputation as a cinematic tough guy. What made him so special is that, unlike most of his contemporaries who depicted violence as an unpleasant but occasionally necessary part of a heroic vocation, Marvin let the spirit of violence seep into his bones and tried to depict it with as much realism as possible. Fifty years on and Marvin’s interrogation of the blind receptionist is still incredibly difficult to watch… it is too real and too unapologetically sadistic. Brilliantly, Siegel embraces the visceral character of the opening scene and uses it to set the tone for the entire film; The Killers is not just about hooking up with the wrong woman, it is also about the huge psychological cost of violence and how the threat of violence can grind you down, wear you out and drive you to acts of madness in a bid to escape. The solution to Hemmingway’s question is contained in the look of terror on that blind receptionist’s face.
In the few weeks since I wrote the review, the thing that has remained with me is the threat of violence. Most thrillers wear their violence and law-breaking on their sleeves and derive most of their tension from the idea that violence and law-breaking might be deployed unsuccessfully: Will the heist fail? Will the hero walk away from the gun-fight? The Killers is very different in this respect as all of the film’s tension comes from the threat of violence. Though much of this threat is down to the film’s astonishing opening sequence, I have now come to realise that Marvin’s presence in the film would not have been half as effective if it hadn’t been juxtaposed against that of the wonderfully nervy and unconstrained Cassavetes. Done up in pitch-black shades and a steely-grey suit, Marvin broadcasts the same violent nihilism that followed him from film to film and made his career. Cassavetes, on the other hand, hides absolutely nothing: When he’s a race-winning driver, he swaggers. When he’s in love, he floats. When he’s afraid, he can’t keep still. The Killers is an incredibly tense film because we can see the fear of violence in every move Cassavetes makes. Brilliant.
Draft Hugo Ballot 2014 – The Publishing Categories (Best Editor Long Form, Best Editor Short Form, Best Semiprozine, Best Professional Artist)
You can find my other nominations for the 2014 Hugo Awards here:
The publishing categories are all about the infrastructure of genre. Rather than being about celebrating the substance of genre (as in the fiction and media categories) or the people who love it (as in the fan categories), these categories are all about the people and institutions that provide the substance of genre to the people who love it. And therein lies the problem.
As Paul Kincaid pointed out to me the other day, one of the primary problems with the Hugo Awards is a tendency to give awards to people rather than individual works. This is problematic as it encourages people to vote for people’s reputations rather than their work over the previous 12 months. Looking at these awards with my amateur genre-historian and fan-historian hats on (yes… two hats, think of them as the crowns of upper and lower Egypt) I can see why the WSFS went down this path.
Magazines with strong editorial presences dominated the landscape of 1950s genre publishing. People like John W. Campbell and Hugo Gernsback were not content to pick stories and fade into the background, they put themselves at the centre of their magazines and made it clear that consumers weren’t just buying magazines but a way of looking at the genre. These are the people who inspired Stan Lee’s editorial voice and his desire to forge a relationship with the ‘true believers’ who read his comics. Full of personality and ideology, the pulp magazines made the infrastructure of genre entirely visible and so the Hugo was able to support a Best Professional Magazine category from 1953 till 1973.
The problem is that, when the pulp fiction market collapsed at the end of the 1950s, science fiction went from having dozens of professional magazines to little more than three, and even then they were often not large enough to support a professional staff. Forced to realise that there simply weren’t enough professional magazines to support a credible shortlist, the WSFS ditched the Best Professional Magazine category and moved towards rewarding individual editors. Unfortunately, when the pulp fiction market collapsed, science fiction’s remaining pool of professional authors migrated away from the visible infrastructure of the pulps and towards the more opaque editorial culture of the publishing industry. When authors jumped ship, genre culture followed them and Hugo voters were left trying to give awards to people from a culture that encouraged them to blend into the background.
I am going to make a few nominations in the Best Editor categories but I would like to see the WSFS take a long hard look at these categories: This is not the aftermath of the 1950s crash, there are now dozens of paying genre markets and I think moving away from personalised awards to institutional awards would not only reflect the genre infrastructure now, it would also put a stop to people nominating editors who manifestly spend more time promoting stuff on Twitter than they do copy-editing or working to improve their books.
I think replacing the two Best Editor categories with a Best Magazine and a Best Anthology award would better reflect the genre infrastructure that we currently have.
NB – As in my other nomination posts, I’ll be putting up links to other nomination posts. People should feel free to link to their posts in the comments but anyone putting themselves forward for ‘consideration’ will have their comments deleted.
Draft Hugo Award Ballot 2014 – The Fan Categories (Best Fan Writer, Best Fanzine, Best Fan Artist, Best Fancast)
You can find my other nominations for the 2014 Hugo Awards here:
We are told that fandom used to be one big family. We are told that fans not only shared a set of common institutions but also a set of values and ideals that helped them to determine what was a good novel and who was a good fan writer. Sure… not everyone agreed with each other all the time but chances were that if you considered yourself a fan then you would at least know and respect the people who made it onto the shortlists of the fan categories.
Whether or not this state of grace ever existed, it is now long dead. Like a fresh-faced young universe, fandom is fragmenting at the speed of light. Where once there was a more-or-less unified social hierarchy, now there are dozens of hierarchies and affinity groups split along methodological, geographical, political, generational and literary lines. Every few months, an argument erupts and another corner of fandom shatters; followers are culled, blog-rolls are amended, friendly direct messages are reborn as frustrated sub-tweets. Given that it is in the nature of fandom to become both more diverse and less coherent, expressing any kind of opinion about the activities of people operating outside of your immediate affinity group is not just difficult but downright hazardous. People are increasingly afraid to speak their minds and it is not hard to see why.
The more fandom descends into a patchwork of bellowing cliques, the more we seek to limit ourselves to the people whose values and experiences match our own. Huddled for warmth around a shared sense of outrage over the fact that not everyone shares our worldview, we are increasingly slow to express ourselves publically lest we get on the wrong side of the wrong fan. These days, saying the wrong thing can get you smeared, bullied, doxed, threatened with rape, threatened with professional consequences and blackballed from convention programming. The worse thing about these tactics is not that they exist but that they remain incredibly effective; nothing makes you more likely to reconsider your approach to fan writing than a fear of overwhelming and disproportionate reprisals.
Given the increasingly confrontational character of Science Fiction fandom, fan writing is beginning to take on something of a heroic aspect, doubly so when that fan writing involves speaking truth to power, puncturing hype with snarky commentary or taking so wide a view of the field and genre that this week’s hot new property is revealed as little more than a talentless hack leaping on an already overburdened bandwagon. My fan category nominations are explicitly and unapologetically political: I am nominating the people and publications that best embody what I hope for in fan culture. Each of these nominees (in their own often imperfect ways) embodies the change that I want to see in fan culture.
NB – I’m including, where relevant, links to some alternative nomination posts. Some people have produced individual posts for each category, some have produced posts covering partial lists and others have made all their recommendations in a single post, for ease of use, I’ve included links to relevant posts in each section so I’m probably going to make trackback functions implode. I’ve also left empty slots in the Best Fancast and Best Fanzine categories as I’m still making my mind up about certain fanworks. If anyone decides to make a nominations post, please leave a comment but personal eligibility comments will be treated as spam ;-)
Videovista have my review of Don Coscarelli’s drug-addled urban fantasy John Dies at the End.
Based on a novel by Jason Pargin writing as David Wong, John Dies at the End follows a pair of generically handsome American youths (with ‘Close Boy Faces‘ naturally) as they are sucked into a weird and evocative demimonde in which they are compelled to battle ghosts, demons and genetically-engineered Cthuloid deities. The reason I go on at considerable length about JDATE being a work of urban fantasy is that the film is clearly desperate to escape that label:
Given the structural and social barriers involved in getting a work of urban fantasy made for the big screen, it is perhaps unavoidable that most marketing departments try to position works of urban fantasy as being part of more socially acceptable genres. Thus, The Matrix trilogy was successfully marketed as a work of science fiction, while the cowardly and ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of the Hellblazer comics was described as a ‘supernatural action-thriller’ lest girl-cooties alienate the intended audience. John Dies At The End continues this somewhat inglorious tradition with a PR campaign that tries to distance the project from the literary context that inspired the original novel, and reposition the film as the kind of gonzo horror/ comedy you would expect from the man responsible for both the Phantasm series and Bubba Ho-Tep.
The wikipedia entry for the film describes JDATE as “dark comedy-horror”.
The wikipedia entry for the book describes JDATE as “cosmic horror”.
Why should this be?
The answer has quite a lot to do with privilege and the ways in which we are socialised into a particular gender. The straight white men of today are like the painted French aristocrats of pre-revolutionary France: Pampered and protected by economic and social systems that are as unjust as they are unstable, straight white men live in unconscious fear of becoming declasse or reduced in status to a lower social rank like that of woman, BME or LGBT.
Once upon a time, the trappings of masculinity were so instantly recognisable that all a man needed to do in order to protect his privileged status was to grow a beard and either run off to war or get a job that required him to wear a tie. However, as society has been shaped and re-shaped by the tidal forces of global capitalism, the trappings of masculinity have been commodified to the point where cloaking yourself in the traditional trappings of masculinity no longer serve as a basis for differentiating one group from another. However, because straight white men are trained to take pride in their status, they are forever on the lookout for things that will identify them as straight white men and distinguish them from everyone else. Maybe it’s liking football, maybe it’s wearing sports gear, maybe it’s drinking pints, maybe it’s talking about how much you enjoy sex in a loud and boisterous manner. The problem is that every time straight white men find a way of broadcasting their group membership, fashions change and people from other groups begin adopting those characteristics. This has made straight white men hypersensitive to any product that might make them look like they might belong to a lesser social class, and this is where Urban Fantasy comes in.
Urban Fantasy shares about 80% of its DNA with Paranormal Romance. In fact, the only difference between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is that Urban Fantasy places ever so slightly less emphasis on the romantic sub-plots. This association is somewhat problematic as reading Romance novels is one of those characteristics that is so unquestionably feminine that it is enough to alienate most straight men. In fact, some straight white men are so uncomfortable with the connections between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance that they have tried to re-write the history of Urban Fantasy to exclude as many female authors as possible. This is why JDATE is being marketed as “dark comedy-horror” rather than the work of cinematic Urban Fantasy it so obviously is.
Another result of the association between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is that Urban Fantasy is a genre with very little critical status. In fact, it’s quite telling that what I liked most about this film is the director’s valiant attempts at resisting genre narratives even though they were built into his film at script level. Some might argue that this is a reflection of my own privilege and failure to take the red pill and move beyond the gendered aesthetics fed to us by our culture but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Our aesthetic preferences are built into us on the same level as our personality traits and there’s a point at which getting free of the system is effectively indistinguishable from becoming an entirely different person.
The postal gods are generous for they have given us the latest issues of both Interzone and Black Static. Issue 250 of Interzone includes short stories by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, David Tallerman, C. Allegra Hawksmoor, Rebecca Campbell, Greg Kurzawa, Caroline M. Yoachim and Georgina Bruce. The non-fiction side of things includes a long review and interview with the novelist Libby McGugan, Nick Lowe’s cinema column Mutant Popcorn, Tony Lee’s DVD column Lazer Fodder and some interesting book reviews from people including Ian Sales, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Juliet McKenna, Duncan Lunnan and Stephen Theaker. You can subscribe to the hard copy edition of magazine via the TTA Press website and I believe that e-copies are available but I’m not sure that the latest issues of IZ and Black Static are up yet. My fifth Future Interrupted column features in issue 250 of Interzone. Entitled “Profound and Beautiful Lies” it is all about Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia and the connection between Science Fiction and Non-Fiction.
Reprinted here, my second Future Interrupted column is entitled “Dominion of the Dead” and it looks at the role played by the history of Science Fiction in determining what kind of stuff gets published as Science Fiction today and how we need to start picking our own genre histories.