Review: The Wind Is Rising

 

Miyazaki’s (alleged) final work. Felt very personal as a film, moreso than his others, with a greater depth and emotional resonance.

Really good. Mature (seems like a weird word to apply, but perhaps less whimsical comes closer), beautiful, daffily romantic. Somewhat dour and dark. Occasional dreamy wonderfulness, but very grounded in reality, with the shadows of war and Japan’s strained history looming over everything.

Essentially seems to argue that being courageous and honourable and following your dreams is the way to go, even though we live in a fucked up world full of awfulness and tragedy; and that precisely because the world is the way it is, that is why we must live, and live well.

Glad I saw it, though I enjoyed it less than several of his others; and I think it is the first of his films that will haunt me a little.

Waitangi Day-ish special cultural appropriation post: The Plunder of Glow Worm Grotto

 

How about this (laughable, terrible) episode of an obscure cartoon from the 1980s which makes remarkable use of “Maori” culture and “New Zealand” as a backdrop. Presenting: M.A.S.K S01E55: The Plunder of Glow Worm Grotto.

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All natives are basically interchangeable, after all.

(Sometimes, despite how much further there is to go, maybe we need to reflect on how far we have come.)

 

Reading January 2014

A slow start to the year…

Falling Man – Don DeLillo

Nah.

I have had a mixed run with DeLillo. Underworld seemed brilliant to me. Years later I got half way White Noise then gave up on it until someone told me they thought Don DeLillo was really funny, which confused me, so I picked it up again and saw that it was meant to be funny, though I didn’t think it was funny, and finished it.

Falling Man attempts to grapple with the fallout from 9/11 on the American psyche. Which is admittedly a huge endeavour. But mostly it devolves into DeLillo’s empty characters having empty dialogue and empty interactions which leave all sorts of room for implication but ultimately doesn’t satisfy.

I suspect this will be the last DeLillo I read. (Though Cronenberg’s film of Cosmopolis was interesting.)

The Unfoldment – Neil Kramer

Autodidact spiritualist gives his take on what is happening. Interesting in that it grapples with the modern world as a whole – politics, economics, conspiracy, spiritual malaise – and the forces that keep us down, locked into a false model of reality, as well as providing a relatively functional take on personal spiritual development. Interesting, would probably speak to a younger generation raised on internet research and weird documentaries (and how freaky is it to say that!) Bought it on the strength of this fantastic interview he did on Occult of Personality, which from my perspective remains much meatier and more interesting than the book.

The Sheltering Sky – Paul Bowles

Wow. Paul Bowles is an amazingly talented writer. His grasp of the nuance of human interaction is startlingly precise. Here again, Morocco looms – almost the major character – as an intoxicating and alien otherworld, one which has shaped and inspired so many writers (Gysin, Burroughs, Shah.) Sort of an existential horror novel, the bleakness and meaningless and loneliness of existence writ large; when love is all that holds us together, what happens when that love frays? Who are we? What are we? An extraordinary, beautiful and disquieting book.

The Sheltering Sky is probably better than his later novel Let It Come Down. And I wrote a song about Let It Come Down. Both, along with his short story A Distant Episode, have the same arc; entering into an alien landscape and utterly losing oneself with nightmarish consequences.

The Fool: The Jersey Devil – Andrew Mayer

Novella in beta, so probably shouldn’t comment on it, just logging for my own records.

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Have also been reading a bunch of short stories from various collections.

Review: American Hustle

OK, so I saw this based on seeing the posters before going away to the burn, and on some idiosyncratic vibing decided it was what I should see on returning. I went in knowing nothing but say three images and the name, and then the projectionist telling us right before screening that it was up for like 10 Oscars, to which I was like huh.

Here goes.

What a waste of talent. There are some pretty good actors doing pretty good work in the service of a story which does not need telling and has no content worth imparting. It creates emotion in the viewer and does nothing with it. All this film has to tell us is that people are scum who look out for themselves, and occasionally their friends and loved ones. It is long, feels longer than it is, and then stops abruptly. Walking away, it just seemed to have no point. An empty and confusing experience of cultural production. Distraction and glitz. Will doubtless win big at the Oscars.

 

Disconnect – block tracking scripts

 

This tool is pretty neat – Disconnect – basically it blocks invisible tracking scripts and advertising scripts and other junk. Combined with adblocker, it makes for a smoother internet. You can also use it to search on Google without them tracking your searches. (It was created by an ex-Google employee.) It is a wee bit fascinating watching which sites track you the most, too, as it tells you the number of scripts etc it is blocking, and often where they come from.

A simple way to fight back a little in the online privacy wars.

top 3′s of 2013

 

…or a half assed year in review just while it occurs to me off the top of my head and before they crop up everywhere; I am pretty culturally out of sync so this will be stuff I encountered this year maybe rather than was definitely released this year.

 

Film

1. The Act of Killing

Perhaps the most astounding, powerful and indescribable documentary – and film in general – I have ever seen. Reviewed back here. Incredible. See it.

2. War Witch (Rebelle)

Phenomenal film about a young girl forced into becoming a child soldier in Africa. And then it goes deeply weird, entering another magical yet completely grounded African reality. Wonderful, intense, bizarre.

3. John Dies at the End

Ridiculous amounts of fun from Don Coscarelli. Not actually sure when this came out but I saw it early this year. Really really fun. Reviewed back here.

 

TV

1. John From Cincinnati

Stoner surfer mystic madness. Possibly the best thing ever. Ten episodes of sheer joy. See it.

2. I think Game of Thrones is the only other thing I have watched.

 

Books

Ouch. Now this will be challenging. These are probably the three that have stayed with me and formed the basis of multiple conversations.

1. Exterminate All the Brutes – Sven Lindqvist

Incredible and unsettling account of the Western colonial expansion and genocide of Africa; and so much more. Reviewed in detail here.

2. The God Problem – Howard Bloom

Bloom is perhaps the most multidisciplinary genius thinker out there, and this is his magnum opus; a synthesis of human exploration and insight into the nature of the universe and its workings, told as a rollicking story through a historical anthropological historical scientific humanistic philosophical biological conceptual &c blend, with remarkable verve and vigour. Epic learnings.

3. Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master Speaks

Singapore’s eminent respected genius leader’s take on pretty much everything that matters about the current state of play in world affairs. An absolute masterclass in what is going on, from someone who knows all the key decision makers, and has been wildly successful at negotiating power at the highest levels for forty years, all in under 200 pages.

 

Music

1. 3 Organic Experiences – Aglaia

Ambient. Lush. Beautiful.

2. Ambiant Otaku – Tetsu Inoue

Ambient. Serene. Beautiful.

3. Toucan Stubbs.

Don’t know that they have released anything. Most interesting live act in Wellington at the moment. Multi-instrumentalist folk duo doing… things. Live. Wonderful things, in strange places.

 

Thoughts on the Roast Busters

Even though I don’t follow news, the Roast Busters thing has been unavoidable.

Here are some thoughts, most of which I haven’t seen elsewhere yet. Some are tangents into wider issues. I don’t claim they are thought out, comprehensive, or even useful. I guess I will figure out what I think by writing it.

a) I don’t recognise my culture in this.

Rape, sexual violence, child abuse, there’s a whole lot of ugly beneath the surface of our culture that doesn’t get aired enough, which is part of what allows it to continue. And I overwhelmingly support talking about this stuff and shining light on it, and it is an excellent use for social media and the general power of the internet to let us have the discourses we need to have.

But this particular incident feels alien.

This feels like what happens when kids are raised by the internet. This is not something so simple as “blaming the internet”. But there is an ever widening pool of influences that pour in on children. My grandparents’ generation were raised by their parents and community. My parents’ generation were raised by their parents and radio and movies. My generation was raised by our parents and the television – a massive explosion of the world and images and ideas into the home. My niece’s generation – she is of the Roast Busters generation – is being raised by a hypermediated world defined by the internet – access to any damn thing whatsoever. Which is what you make of it. A global cesspit, if that’s where adolescent toilet humour and vileness goes. Or non stop ponies and rainbows.

I was a fairly grubby minded teen with offensive tendencies. I have no idea what I would have made of the internet, and what dark corners I would have found.

b) When I say I don’t recognise my culture in this, what do I mean?

I can imagine teen douchebags I knew getting girls way too drunk and fucking them and thinking that was awesome. And I can imagine them bragging about it to their mates.

I can’t imagine them filming it and sticking it on the internet and kinda trying to destroy the girls and bragging about it to the world. If for no other reason than someone in their family would track you down and give you a hiding.

That, and it just wouldn’t have occurred to anyone as a thing to do.

So what is happening? Maybe this is an imported mentality. There is some other culture in which this behaviour makes sense – maybe not even a real culture, maybe just an internet porn fantasy they couldn’t discern from a reality, hybridised with social media and reality television – and it has infected these young people in our culture. And they (and those around them) just didn’t have the health – or self-knowledge – or fundamental sense of right and wrong – to fight it off.

Or maybe this is just part of the mutation that technology is rendering to us – we are enlarged and magnified and distorted by our new technological extensions, and they reveal us to ourselves uncomfortably – and a world without the expectation of privacy, which encourages sharing everything, was always going to bring some dark things to the surface.

c) In terms of the Roast Busters themselves, I have to wonder, where are their fathers? What did you teach your sons that this kind of behaviour seemed acceptable to them? The internet might be an influence, but surely some basic sense of right and wrong can be instilled on a parental level. If we can’t even do that, we may as well give up on raising kids altogether. Let wolves raise them.

d) The real elephant in the corner is that humans just don’t deal with sex very well. It is a massively powerful force in us that can overwhelm, obsess, and prompt all kinds of crazy. Religion and social mores have done their damnedest to control it across the centuries. Nothing much works to control it. Dealing with it directly and doing a better job of it is the way through this.

How many parents have a conversation with their kids explaining the mechanics of sex? And how few have a conversation explaining the dynamics of interaction with the other gender, the confusions of sex, lust and love, and how strongly these basic drives can kick us around and make us act like animals and drive us out of our minds? How many of us understand ourselves and our own experience enough to be able to have those kinds of conversations with our kids? And if we don’t, are our kids going to be any more able to figure it out than we were?

e) Man, when the police get it wrong, it is a real bad thing. The police have a hard, shitty job to do. If we had better people we wouldn’t need police. They are a symptom of us not having our shit together. But the police are also people who don’t have their shit together, operating within a flawed system. And when justice fails, it is ugly and sad.

f) I have seen a lot of talk about “rape culture”. I find the term weird, and the discussion interesting, though am surprised that a bunch of myths around rape continue and that so much effort is going into continually debunking those, which is a necessary step before we can start having the actual conversations that need to happen here. Because hell yes, let’s talk about sex, and consent, and being responsible for ourselves and our decisions and actions in general.

What I would add is, hey, male culture in this country is completely fucked. This is the invisible pairing with how female gender roles are completely warped. Much has been justifiably written on the warpedness of female gender roles and imagery. However, if the female role is imbalanced, the male role must also be imbalanced. This corollary is unavoidable. The roles are complementary and interlinked; by definition, two halves of a whole.

The male gender role in New Zealand is at least as limited and proscribed and warped. And it is shit. And by shit I mean a horrifically constrained and restricted version of what it means to be a fully alive, functioning, experiencing and expressive human being. The masculine mainstream of rugby and beer are a straightjacket and lobotomy in one.

Drop gender for a minute.

We are human beings, facing the same fundamental circumstance in life, lots of which is pretty rough. We need to be free to be human beings. To feel, to think, to be and do.

We need to update our understanding of what it means to be a human being. Period.

We need to remind ourselves of our needs, our drives, our rights and responsibilities, as human beings.

First, we need to know it in ourselves. Then we can understand that this stuff applies to all of us. And maybe then we can start acting like human beings towards each other.

 

Billy goes to the movies

Or, film fest 2013 review.

Blancanieves

Spanish update of Snow White, recreated as a very stylish black and white period silent film. Snow White becomes a bullfighter but somehow this makes sense. Looked great but felt very long.

The Act of Killing

Absolutely incredible documentary. In Indonesia in the 60s they killed 2.5 million communists. They don’t view this as a bad thing, and the death squads of the time are now made men in society. The doco follows some of them as they make a movie re-enacting (and celebrating) those times. It is bizarre and surreal and terrifying – much of it is incidental in purely how insane and corrupt Indonesia seems to be – but yeah, incredible to see the re-enacting, and their reflection on what they have done (killing a thousand people by hand!)… the film is long, amazingly well crafted, with so many moments of jaw-dropping speechlessness… and the ending is out of this world. Not fun in any conventional sense, but incredibly worthwhile.

The East

Brit Marling’s latest film is another very smart, very well done alt-SF feeling film. This time more of a straight thriller about an agent going undercover with a principled but extreme eco-terrorist group whom she is both sympathetic to and at odds with. Smart, relevant, excellent. Shows up exactly how shit and irrelevant the average Hollywood thriller is.

Utu Redux

Had never seen this NZ classic. Opening is very brutal, the slaughter of a Maori village by English soldiers, but it loses the edge of that beginning, and meanders into its transposed Western form. Fascinating, bemusing on occasion (particularly Bruno Lawrence), holds up with little to induce cringing, and a couple of excellent performances. Nice restoration, worth catching on the big screen as presumably it will get a general rerelease.

Post Tenebras Lux

Won Best Director at Cannes in 2012. No idea how to describe this. Lush, fragmentary, non-linear, bizarre, powerful; with some extraordinary images. Mostly about the life of a young family in rural Mexico; on the meta level seemed to be about relationships, between humans, and humans and the environment, and how these relationships shape us. One for film afficianados rather than casual viewers.

Only Lovers Left Alive

Jim Jarmusch’s latest is a vampire film. While very stylish and enjoyable – his jaded aesthete vampires are charming and sane, and using their perspective on humanity (“zombies”) leads to some sharp observations – ultimately it is maybe a bit pointless. Good music throughout.

Review: The Room [2003]

 

The Room has gained fame over the past few years as perhaps the worst movie of all time. People get off on quoting choice bits of bad dialogue. They mock its appalling moments. They really can’t quite get over how awful this movie is.

It is now impossible to approach the movie without this context. (And to be fair, without the legend, if I was somehow watching this movie alone by chance, I would have turned it off after ten minutes. If I got that far.) But I wonder if the context has been unfair to the movie itself.

Having achieved cult or midnight movie status, at screenings a strange breed of person will go along regularly, throw plastic spoons and scream responses at the screen. This was how I saw it, and would kind of recommend doing it that way, just as an experience. It is not like the movie is going to be detracted from, or that it would compel being taken seriously on its own terms, and a lot of the fun in my experience was in the stuff being yelled at the film rather than the film.

The Room is written, directed by, and stars Tommy Wiseau. While it is thus a deeply personal work, throughout The Room is comically inept, bizarrely naïve and completely un-self-aware. It is consistently dreadful, lacking in any rudiments of good acting or dialogue, any sense of how a narrative or scene might work, and, often, any sense of how reality might work. It is genuinely baffling that anyone could make something this goofy without the awareness of how completely it was failing, yet there is no question that it is a genuine effort, and therein lies its charm.

(From here we enter SPOILER terrain.)

The essence of the story is Johnny, played by Wiseau, is a genuinely good and lovely guy. He is great to his girlfriend, his friends, and has even adopted a weird kid whose way he is paying through school and life. He is an innocent without sin. In the lead up to what would be their wedding, his somewhat erratic girlfriend begins an affair with his best friend, and chooses to leave him for the best friend. Their intimate betrayal drives Johnny to kill himself – a weirdly shocking moment in the hilarity of the meta-viewing. I really didn’t expect it, especially not after laughing so much.

What gets me is this: Wiseau, however ineptly, is expressing a genuine pain. An authentic anguished cry of a good guy being tormented by the world and driven to death. It is not a good piece of art in the sense of craft, but it does communicate this in its own way. And it feels deeply incongruous to celebrate a story such as this in this fashion, in much the same way it is considered rude to laugh at a mentally handicapped person.

I find I am left disliking the way people seem to get into shitting on it. Partly this mocking and dissecting is just what is done nowadays. We must have an opinion on media. This is almost the main pastime of the privileged first world. (I realise that is what I am doing now.) And boy can one unleash an opinion on this turkey – perhaps no movie, scene by scene, provides as many opportunities for comment. What I question is the motive.

My sense is the audience is mocking it, kind of affectionately, but without respect. Sure, everyone who has grown up watching movies could probably make a technically better movie, but could we make one as genuine, as naked, as unselfconscious? In the era of a Hollywood without a soul but for the dollar, blandly agreeing everything is “awesome”, that genuine artistic expression – however failed – is increasingly rare.

While he failed in almost every way (though hey, he did make the movie, and it is now certainly a financial success), Wiseau made a movie that meant something to him, that (presumably) corresponds to his vision, and communicates something heartfelt.

Film is a very compromised media, and within it I am attracted to uncompromised works. (I also seem to be moved to write deep reviews of bad movies (Sucker Punch, Transformers 2), maybe because interesting failures teach us more.)

That said, I currently do not feel any urge to watch The Room ever again. It is so bad it hurts.

Part of my reading of The Room is informed by watching Eraserhead on the big screen soon afterwards, quite a stunning experience. Eraserhead is deeply extraordinary, a highly effective psychological horror movie of often unbearable intensities. This is the very other end of the spectrum from The Room – Eraserhead is David Lynch’s expression of emotional anguish, armed with all the technical mastery and artistic vision Wiseau lacks.

 

Review: Inferno (1980)

 

I first saw Inferno on late night TV, maybe somewhere in the 12-14 age bracket. It holds the distinction of being one of the very few films that ever genuinely scared me.

 

 

Later in life I rediscovered it as one of Italian horror legend Dario Argento’s masterpieces, a companion piece to the absolutely sublime Suspiria, one of my all time favourite cinematic experiences. They both feature the same bizarre mythology around the Three Mothers, Mater Suspiriorum, Mater Tenebrarum, and Mater Lachrymarum. They both feature the same insanely lurid colour palette and utterly dreamlike narration. They both use striking music to excellent effect.

 

Along the way I had came to regard Inferno as the lesser of the pair, neglecting its own magnificence, and hadn’t watched it for most of a decade. Rewatching it recently was a real treat.

Gorgeous, incredibly atmospheric and dreamlike. Very little actually happens in the story; it is an intense exercise in style in the telling. The action is simultaneously grounded in simple moments of reality that extend out forever – how can he hold the shots so long, and make them so gripping? – and a surreal inescapable nightmare layer, a world of constant descents into weirdly lit labyrinthine spaces.

What scared the younger me was not being able to work out what was happening. Atmospheric whispers, hooded figures, old books, malevolent cats, strange women, not quite human hands…. It was just so weird. Something is clearly going on, people are being killed horribly, but the motive and murderer is generally unknown; perhaps simply the power of evil itself unleashed.

As an adult the film barely makes sense, even on multiple viewings. It almost coheres, but is most effective on an unconscious, metaphoric and symbolic level. The encounter with a genuine archetypal force beyond us, working through us and the world, will not be a rational one.

And ultimately the forces at work in Inferno are transcendent. Death itself, present as a purposive force. There is no escape. Triumph is an abeyance. The flames change nothing.

Beyond its immediate visceral impact, Inferno remains a work of art with depth that rewards repeated consideration.

 

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