Saturday, March 14, 2009

This Book Is... American Gods (plus new books!)

So, I've been doing my Movie Rundowns for several weeks now, and I figured it was about time that I branched out. I'm reading again, and I figure that I should try to formulate my thoughts about books into words. Thus, this is the first installment of This Book Is... where I will tell you both what I read, a bit about it, and how I felt about it.

Standard rules apply, I'm going to stay away from long-winded analysis and definitely any spoilers will be tagged heavily as such. That said, they'll likely be a little more involved than the majority of my movie ones, because at the end of the day books just (tend to) have more stuff in them, and also to be less easily recognized by people glancing through.

American Gods
by Neil Gaiman

American Gods is a strange book. But then, so is most of what I've ever read from Mr. Gaiman. The book itself is about Shadow, a man just getting out of prison who receives some bad news about returning to the life he left behind. This is the catalyst for him to take a job offer from a mysterious stranger who has far more up his sleeve than he's letting on.

This is a book about religion and belief. The main theme of American Gods is that all the old gods, the beings that existed and were worshiped thousands of years ago from religions that have all but died out were beings that gained their power because of the belief of the people. When people who believed came to America, the gods came with them, but as the people of America abandoned the notion of gods the beings were left to wither and shuffle, old and forgotten, through a world that moved on.

The idea of existence being reliant upon belief is one of those things that's always been a powerful message to me. I like it when truth is malleable and reality relies upon subjective forces. It's one of the most compelling themes both in the media I'm drawn to and my personal writing and philosophies.

The book itself does a solid job of looking in at this from an outsider's perspective. It tends towards a lighter read than I might have preferred, I would have given a lot to have another 20 pages or so about the various gods' pasts and how the country shaped and changed them. But alas, there's a plot to happen.

My main complaint with the book, actually, is that the plot tends to get in the way. There are things that feel like they're tied up with the most perfunctory of passes. I think that's likely because the idea is more evocative than the story tied around it. But by the time the book spent its last pages tying up a loose end I was happy to let dangle, I ended up feeling a little let down by it.

That said, outside of a weaker ending that I'd like, the book itself is thoughtful and well-written. But then, Gaiman has always been a witty guy. I need to check out his stuff, and maybe dig into Anansi Boys, which takes place with some characters from American Gods.

All in all, I have to say I enjoyed it. It's a quick enough read (took me five days of mild effort), and there are certainly ideas in there that I think are good to explore.

This Book Is... Good. (****)


On an unrelated note, now that I decided to start reading again, I decided to take myself book shopping last night. There's a lovely little used book store around here that has all sorts of amazing things. It was quite shocking to see how full they were last night. I guess "In These Economic Times" you can't put a high enough premium on reselling your stuff and buying stuff on the cheap.

Here's what I walked away with:

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Be Cool by Elmore Leonard
The Grifters by Jim Thompson
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

And all that for $25. Not a bad shopping trip, if I do say so myself. I'll be reading Save the Cat first, as it's a book on screenwriting and Script Frenzy is coming up. Look for a blog on that as soon as I finish with my current novel, which will hopefully be sometime in the next ten days.

And that's all for now! Look for my Movie Rundown on Sunday, assuming I watch anything else this week. If not, I might just push it all back a week. We'll see.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Ritual of Ideas in Print Becoming Ideas of the Soul

So I've been reading lately. The book isn't important, because I'll review it (probably highly) in the blog once I'm done with it. What matters though is that I'm reading at all. You see, I'm something of a cyclical kind of guy.

Cyclical, you ask (play along). You mean, like the tides and the stock market and bad fashion trends?

Sort of, I answer. But with considerably more panache.

I tend to fixate on my hobbies. I'll be really into something for a while, and that's all I'll do. I'll watch movies four a day, or I'll read books like mad, or I'll write until I wreck my hands, or I'll play games until my eyes cross. It's just the kind of guy I am.

I haven't been into reading for about 10 months. Last time I was into reading, I was REALLY into reading. Like, it wasn't healthy. I would read three novels a week for almost two months. I read more novels in that short time than most American adults will read between the diploma and the grave. So either I'm awesome or they're terrible or some combination of the two.

But when I fell out of reading, I really fell out of it. Minus a small thing here or there, I didn't read a single thing of note for months. Until now. When I find myself trying to pick up reading again as my initiative to 'get my life together' or something equally highfalutin' I find that it's like doing it again for the first time, and the tactile responses I've had to books have been interesting.

Mass market paperback books are deceptively light. You can pick them up like they're nothing, even though they take up a large amount of space. Something so light containing so much density when you flip through it is a little exciting.

I find that the cheaper the paperback, the more tactile the response (unless you have a truly expensive hardbound copy). The paper feels pulpy, it has a sensation of wood. You can almost feel the fibers where something living was turned into something dead so you can have your ideas presented to you in that fashion. A sacrifice of flesh to the gods of the mind.

Finally, there comes a point when you realize in a really thick paperback that the left side of the book is considerably thicker than the right now, and in realizing that point there is a great sense of empowerment. Something is being transferred to you. The book suddenly feels more weighty in your hands. The thing you're holding is suddenly a weapon, a sharpened well balanced sword ready to be added to your arsenal.

I suppose part of that is in the ritual of reading. I'm right handed, and regularly hold my paperbacks with a single hand while reading, and as I continue further into the book the side closest to me increases while the side further diminishes. The ritual transfers the bulk towards myself, as I take in the substance that's upon the pages. It's truly tactile.

That's all I've got. I just wanted to post a bit about the experience of reading. Next week will likely be the review. Read on, good people. And maybe think a bit about what you're doing. It makes the experience all the more delicious.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Last Summer: jumbled thoughts on time and memories of the future

Once upon a time, long ago in the summer of 2003, there was a man. Man is perhaps an inaccurate term, actually, but there was a human being of the male gender drifting in the nebulous space between boy and man. That nebulous space is a long and winding road, made of up of shades of gray, but certainly at the tender age of 17 this person was not quite either.

This was to be the last real Summer of this person's life. Oh, certainly, he's experienced summers after that. But this was the summer between his Junior and Senior years of high school and was a very special time. Summer in high school is different than summer outside of it. This man did not work, for he was young and focused on his studies. Or at least, that was the excuse he gave. He simply had little use for money. He was not rich, by any means. In fact, his family was poor. But he saw no reason to trade his time for money yet, and there was no obligation to do so.

This was the last Summer because after this Summer, he would never have such a period of inactivity again. Childhood is full of periods of inactivity. When you are very small, every day stretches on in and endless chain of disconnected events, like islands. Maybe there is a preferred route, but there is nothing set in stone. A person can nimbly hop from island to island. And if he should slip and fall and get wet? It is the season for getting wet. No worries.

But eventually life loses freedom and gains a sense of time. Days are made of hours, and hours are spent doing things. The child loses the largest chunk of his time to a place called SCHOOL where he goes and devotes hours of his life every day in exchange for knowledge. It's not a terrible deal, though most children don't know that. You sit down, and people tell you things for free. If only the rest of life was so easy.

Life becomes less like a chain of fanciful islands floating in an ocean of possibilities as we age. People come in, invited or not, and build roads over the water. Long highways of constant, fast-tracked gray. And maybe some of our islands get steamrolled or sunk to make way for this multi-lane, well-lit, advertisements-aplenty wonder of cement and steel, but maybe we talk to the guys building it and shift it a little to the left.

Sure, you'll let them pave over playing with mud and jumping through sprinklers, but leave the exuberance of getting new things and the ability to bend your thumbs in ways you know are bad for you. Of looking up on the sky on clear blue days (or dark clear nights) and feeling panic and awe at the hint of infinity. Oh, and summer days holding freezepops in your hands until you hurt because it's always better to drink them than eat them like a popsicle.

I'll give you a lot of things if you'll spare me that one. Please.

But then, magically, as if through a divine intervention, just when you're sick of looking at those roads forever, you'll hit a spot where the road is out. And for three months of the year, it's nothing but islands and water and sun again. And during the best time of the year for it, too! And so a person is free to do what they want again, until they find the road. Or the road comes to them. It is inevitable, in this place. You may fight it, you may stretch each island out until the sun has put itself out in the ocean and the night sky is lit with a billion fireflies, but eventually the sun steps out of the water and time lurches forward and the road reappears.

Summers go like that, again and again, until you finally give them up. Maybe you like going fast. Maybe you're tired of getting wet. Cars are air conditioned and go fast and are dry with seats that are ergonomically designed for your comfort. So inviting. A womb of steel and fabric and music and AC, hurtling oblivious through time.

If I could add a sound effect, it would be the sound of a needle on a record going off the groove. It probably sounds something like the word VROOOT. Three Os, because damn if we didn't just ruin the hell out of it. One big long scratch, right through the B side of an album that might not be your favorite, but you didn't want to lose. My metaphor ran on too long, and it's time to get back to business. No more whimsical treks. We're talking about 2003. Where was I?

2003 was the last Summer. There would be seasons where it was hot, between spring and fall when the days are long and the sun shines a lot. But it's not Summer like we used to rock Summer. Summer kicked you in the shin, jumped a shark and rode out of town and out of your life after you're done with school. Goodbye, Summer. It was nice knowing you.

Oh look at that. I scratched the hell out of the record again. VROOOT! Let's get back on track here.

The Summer of 2003 was about books. I had a friend, who I since long lost contact with, who was telling me all about the amazing world of literature that you find for yourself. Things both arcane and obscene, profound and base, common and rare. I was a product of eleven years of public education, brighter than my upbringing would suggest but recently with an awakened interest in expanding my horizons.

There are moments in your life where when you look back at them, you see a clear dividing line between who you were before and who you were after. And while I know it's not true for everyone (because I don't want a certain someone telling me that we've had this conversation before, and she's immune to moments like those) I imagine many reflective people could point to at least a time or two.

This was one of those times. The Last Summer. Looking back on it, it was a strange time. I discovered Buddhism, which I didn't whole-heartedly embrace but I did adapt to my own usage. I discovered Descartes, whose work has been one of the fundamental teachings of my life. I discovered Asian literature, which doesn't really bear much resemblance to my own writing, but is perhaps my biggest influence in a way I can't explain.

In my last summer, I discovered something special. You see, I knew that this was the last time I would ever have the Islands to myself. I read the papers. Coming up was the big, badass new version of the Superhighway. It was going to stretch on for miles and miles, as far as I could drive. No exits, no rest stops, just a straight stretch of pavement that'd take me from the onramp to the pillow of my coffin. And just my luck, I didn't even have to get up. It was coming to me, plopping me in a car, and sending me on my way.

Modern convenience.

That last Summer was the first time I felt the inklings of what it meant to exercise potential. I would not say I was a particularly motivated child, but in that long summer, where I sequestered myself away in books and words and worlds that I had never quite experienced before, I felt something greater than myself. An understanding of the world at large, perhaps. A brush of a hint of a connectedness between all things. Whatever you want to call it, I could feel something, a lurking shadow that was just out of focus.

I said sequestered before, and by sequestered I mean it. For three months, I lived a life of my own. I would wake up each day in the afternoon, and begin to read. I would read for hours, sometimes well towards dawn. And near dawn, I would meditate. Meditation is something that never took for me, not in the way I was trying to practice it. It was during those sessions that I experienced something much more in line with the Western tradition of meditation.

I devoured and processed for three months. I would walk at night through the park near where I lived at the time and look at trees and the sky and the moon. It is still the closest I have ever been with nature. I would always retreat back in before the sun rose, to sit in a beam of light that appeared with the sun and process the day. Then, finally, I would sleep.

One of the greatest warriors of Japanese folklore is Miyamoto Musashi. He was a real man, a master swordsman and painter and poet. The legend, however, states that as a young man he was little more than a brute, until a monk locked him away in a library for years to study before he emerged as the man of legend that he was to be. In that time, through books and meditation, he encountered a world greater than himself, forged his mind into something purer than meat and electrons.

I didn't know of this story at the time, but when I read it, I knew exactly what it referred to. It is the total embracing of introspection. The closing oneself so far internally that it explodes outward. The self is so well-known that it becomes like glass, and a person is both vulnerable and without weakness, seeing everything equally.

Many of the things I hold to be true and dear to me came into being during that Summer. I carried them with me as they began to sprout and grow, as ideas became stronger and slowly became the bedrock upon which I set who I was.

Those fundamentals have been ignored, tested, injured, corrupted. I've rebuilt, reassessed, reconsidered. But in the end, I cast myself upon a rock bigger and deeper than I ever knew. And I'm just now beginning to realize some of the depth of the foundation I rest upon.

Today was a grey day, the sky was featureless. I imagine it was not too far from what Limbo or Purgatory, should such places exist, would look like. But when I looked up at the sky I felt something pierce at me like a knife and it cut through the years of baggage and garbage that I've heaped upon myself since that Summer, and despite it not really coming to mind in a long time, I felt as though I had made some sort of connection with who I was back then. With a strange, lingering sense of potential hanging over me. Something both limitless and fleeting.

You know what happened, after that summer? Like everyone else, I got on the road. But I'll tell you a little secret. Every once in a while, on a day like today, I'll stop my car on the side and get out. The shoulder is narrow, the line between it and the road treacherously thin. But you can get up against the railing and look out into water so clear it's as forever as the sky. And below, even now, are the islands.

Someday, I think, I might go down there. Maybe there aren't any exits, but I can stop this car. It's just water down there. Water and stars and sun and possibilities. I'll get out of the car, and look over the rail, and maybe there'll be a wind that blows the smell of freedom from down below. And I'll just hop over the railing, just like that.

Sure, it's not as fast. Sure, I might not be going the right way. But down there is something amazing. A place where time moves slower and faster and only as fast as you'll allow it. Where days become magical and the world becomes something to be felt and worked with, not something to be overcome and conquered.

I don't expect it to be like the old days. You can never go home again. But maybe, just maybe, when I'm down there splashing around and making a fool of myself and loving every second of it, I can honor the memory of what was, create the memories out of now, and look towards the future.

It goes on forever, as far as the eye can see. Like the ocean. Like the sky. Like the mind.

Movie Rundown - Feb 23 to March 8

I've been really slack on doing these movie rundowns. I have been writing them as I watch the movies, but this past fortnight I've been just watching and rating and moving on. I know, bad idea, really. But there you go. So this is going to end up being one long damn list of movies, I'm afraid. There are some gems and some terrible films in here, but we'll see how it goes.

The Trouble with Harry [***]
Hitchcock's attempt at a cheerful comedy, I found this to be a middling effort. It's quite a beautiful film, but it seems to just hang around with its characters a little too long and cover not enough ground. I think that it's one of those comedies that time moves past, and you can't easily return to. Especially since the plot could have been condensed down to a typical 22 minute sitcom.

War Inc [****]
I watched this on a whim, not knowing anything about it (see Grosse Pointe Blank further down) and was thoroughly enchanted. The subtle and gross digs at modern American culture, the sharp and smart staging, John Cusack being a badass... this film pushed all my buttons twice. Yes, the story is kind of nonsensical, but I adored it for leaning on cliche while it danced around trainwreck. That might just be me, though.

Three ... Extremes [***]
Three horror shorts by prolific Asian horror directors, this was a conflicted set of movies. The first one, Dumplings by Fruit Chan, ended up being my favorite of the three. Cut, by Chan-wook Park was great, right until falling apart at the ending. I was disheartened, but I found that it segued nicely into the mess that was Takashi Miike's The Box. I'm normally such a strong Miike fan, watching this unintelligable mess of a film was genuinely depressing. I would strongly recommend the first third of this movie, and probably the second film, too. But the third could easily, easily be skipped.

Superfly [**]
A classic of blaxploitation. Typically, I like the genre. I'm a fan of Across 110th Street, Foxy Brown, Coffy, the other classics. The problem, I think, is that those were all later entries in the genre. Compared to them, Superfly comes across as lumbering and confused. It seemed conflicted about what it was, and never quite recovered from major missteps in tone. I couldn't recommend it aside from the history it represents.

Fantastic Flesh: The Art of Make-Up EFX [*****]
This is a Starz documentary on, you guessed it, make up effects. Most of it is about creature films and horror movies, but there's other work shown on there, too. I think that my genre preference is showing, because watching this I had seen almost every movie they talked about and knew every person they interviewed. I was just geeking out. I'm not sure how much you'd get out of it if you don't know anything about KNB Effects, or Tom Savini, or classic horror movie makeup, but my friend Elizabeth enjoyed it and she's not nearly as much of a horror fiend as I am. Me? I was grinning through the whole thing.

Gross Pointe Blank [****]
So, I was looking up War, Inc. on Wikipedia and IMDb like I'm prone to doing to every movie after I finish it, and this movie came up. Apparently, War, Inc. is seen as the spiritual sequel to this movie. So, I figured, why not see the original? And I did. And it was equally awesome. This film is a lot lighter on the satire and a lot heavier on trying a non-normal take on the romantic comedy genre, I think that it's probably the better movie but I enjoyed it a little less. It's just not crazy enough, or something. Also, the movie was supposedly shot in 1997, but I swear it might as well be 1987 from how it looks. Has decade drift happened that hard already?

Angel-A [****]
A film by Luc Besson, who is one of my favorite directors. This one is a modern take on Its A Wonderful Life without such a heavy reliance on the saccharine. I adored this film, from its drop dead gorgeous black and white version of Paris to the irresistable charm of the two main chracters. This is probably my favorite of the movies I saw in the past two weeks, even if I fully recognize it isn't the best one.

Watchmen [?]
Look, the hype machine on this movie is too much for me to actually review it. If I had to, it'd be somewhere between three and five. I loved it. It has problems. But I loved it. I don't know what to say to you, other than this: READ IT. Seriously. I guarantee that the graphic novel is a good expenditure of $20. Even if you hate it, you'll get something out of it. The themes are much more clearly expressed in the book. Then, so long as you didn't hate it, go see the movie. Outside of that, I don't feel that I can sum up what I feel about the movie until I get some distance on it.

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry [***]

How do you think they accomplish that?


Well, nowadays unfortunately you're right more often than not. But back in the all or nothing days, the Vanishing Point days, the Dirty Mary Crazy Larry days, the White Line Fever days, they had real cars crashing into real cars and real dumb people driving em.

Death Proof, by Quentin Tarantino
Sometimes I get my movie choices from strange sources. That said, this movie is a bit of a relic. It's full of 'stick it to the man' sentiment, with burnt out hippies robbing stores and driving fast. The story is a barely there wisp that I imagine wasn't relevant when it came out. That said, the driving is absolutely fantastic. If you're a fan of car movies, or good stunt work, I'd highly suggest this movie. It gets the Stuntman Mike seal of approval.

(La Femme) Nikita [****]
Luc Besson again! This is a film that I grew up watching. It really is quite good, and much better than the soulless shot-for-shot American remake Point of No Return. This one has aged quite a bit, but it's still got an amazing performance by Anne Parillaud. Also look for the third act appearance of Jean Reno being his typical badass self. Random rumination, why is it that in his American comedies he's always such a clown, but in French films he's the ultimate in awesome?

Confessions of a Superhero [****]
This is a documentary (*gasp!*) about the performers in Hollywood who dress up as superheroes for pictures with the public. It's essentially about street performers, who come from all walks of life. From Superman Chris, who takes his role way, way too seriously but is obviously both well meaning and nice, to a Batman with anger issues and a shady past, it's a look at people from all walks of life who all do a unique job. It's about the difficulty of making it in movies, in LA, and in acting. It's about life derailing and dreams going unfulfilled. It's a sad movie, I feel. Interesting, worth your time, but sad.

Man with the Screaming Brain [***]
A Sci Fi Original movie, written, directed by, and starring Bruce Campbell. If you aren't on board already, there's nothing here for you to see. It's basically Bruce Campbell being Bruce Campbell for 90 minutes. There's some bits about a gypsy and a mad scientist and some brain switching, but it's all about HIM. The man, the myth, the Bruce.

Yes, this is not a good film. But it's also awesome.

Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter [**]
I don't know what to say about this one. Vampires are abducting lesbians, so Jesus is recruited to stop them. With his sidekicks Mary Magnum and El Santo, the god of Mexican wrestling, they fight atheists and vampires. This one REALLY, REALLY isn't a good film. Like, it's pretty terrible, made on a shoestring budget and with the barest considerations for good filmmaking. This is the definition of cult. I had fun with it, but I wouldn't suggest it to anyone who didn't have a taste for this sort of thing. And if you had a taste for it, you were sold at the title.

Cashback [*****]
This movie probably doesn't deserve five stars. It's the story of a young art student recovering from a bad breakup. He gets insomnia, begins to work nights at a supermarket, and slowly starts to return to the world again even as he drifts further and further into himself. There are ruminations on time and beauty throughout. And the ending is a little much. But it's a beautiful film that I think holds well to its purpose. And, the first fifteen minutes pierced right through all my jaded cynicism and hit me in a place I forgot I had. I don't know if everyone will get what I got out of it, but I know that it's good. Highly recommended.

That's it. I'm working on finishing ITMeat in the next three weeks before Screnzy. I'm sure I'll talk about Screnzy soon. I have my idea all set up and ready to go. Hint: It's an 80s creature feature film. It will also be awesome.

Maybe another post later in the week. Certainly I'm not going to do these every two weeks. Movies stack up too high for that.