Monday, September 28, 2009

Some people are born stupid...

And some are born stupid with a cell phone in their pocket.

This is what you get for messing with Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman while they're working:

Other than their convenience and usefulness in an emergency, is there any worse invention in recent memory than the mobile phone?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Have I mentioned I hate CG?

So this is what the Beatles look like in the new Rockband game -- Four lifeless, soul-less marionettes:

Jeeze! They looked way better in the old Saturday morning cartoon! God save us from CG.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Best sellers.

I just received an email from Foyles Bookstore (the place where we bought all those books when we were in London), and among the new-release announcements was a list of the chain's top ten bestselling books. At the top was that new Dan Brown thing, of course, but I was surprised to see the great Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities at number nine. Wow -- a 35-year-old structuralist postmodern meta-novel on a bestseller list in 2009! I love England.

There were some other good books in the bottom nine, which makes me wonder if Foyles' clientele is divided between people who read Dan Brown and people who read real books.

Of course, a more likely reason for a best-seller list crammed with good books is that nobody buys books anymore unless they're written by Dan Brown, and the titles that actually manage to sell a copy or two the rest of the week make up the rest of the list.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Kirk City is under attack!

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times ran a review of a new DVD edition of three Toho films: The H-Man, The Battle in Outer Space, and Mothra. The piece was insightful, largely favorable, and nearly a page long. (You can read it here.)

Schnikey! How the Times have changed! In 1956, NYT critic Bosley Crowther called the original Godzilla "an incredibly awful film" and derided everything about it, including the acting. (Ironically, a few years later Crowther's review of Ikiru cited the performance of the film's star, Takashi Shimura, as "measuring up with the top film actors anywhere." Shimura was, of course, one of the leads in Godzilla, and many other Toho monster movies. Think this is just a typical example of 1950's cultural insensitivity? Five years ago, when Godzilla was re-released here in its original uncut, non-Americanized version, Roger Ebert dumped grief all over the acting, while almost simultaneously placing Ikiru in his "100 Greatest Films of All Time" list.)

So how is it that these campy "Ho-Hos from Toho" have become respectable? Part of the reason is that camp itself has become respectable. Multiculturalism has played a part, too: Japan isn't as weird and different as it used to be. And then there is the rise of Geek Culture, where pop-cultural artifacts like the Toho films are studied seriously and people like Quentin Tarentino champion the work of Ishiro Honda, director of the original Godzilla and most of the other Toho monster and SF movies through 1974. (Indeed, the early scenes of Tokyo in Kill Bill Part 1 utilize leftover miniatures from Godzilla Final Wars. And Tarentino showed Honda's War of the Gargantuas to Uma Thurmon and Daryl Hannah prior to filming, explaining that he envisioned their climactic fight scene as a "War of the Blond Gargantuas.") The availability of the uncut, undubbed original versions of almost all the Toho monster films on DVD have also improved their reputation of late.

But I think the biggest reason is the qualities of the films themselves, which are only now beginning to be appreciated. For starters, they are rich in emotion and thematic subtext. I first saw Godzilla on television when I was nine; I knew enough about special effects to immediately recognize that the monster was not an armature puppet like King Kong, but a man in a rubber suit. As a huge fan of stop-motion animation, I felt that using a suit was cheating somehow. But the film stayed with me because it was in some strange way a deeper emotional experience than most other giant monster movies: it had sadness to it; you saw the people, displaced, damaged and suffering because of Godzilla's rampage (reflecting Japan's devastation in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I later realized). As Terrance Rafferty wrote in the New York Times, reviewing the recent release of the uncut version, Godzilla has a "haunted, elegiac quality." The films of Ray Harryhausen may have vastly superior special effects, but with one or two exceptions they are dramatically inert. The effects in a Honda-directed Toho film may look cheesy, but the movies deliver emotion and atmosphere in spades.

This, I think, is because while Honda was basically a journeyman director, he was extremely talented. After all, you don't get to be Akira Kurosawa's assistant on virtually all of his major films by slinging cheese. As AK himself said of Honda: "His films are full of his sincere humanity and his tender personality -- films like Godzilla. I like it very much. His films have remained popular because there were shot honestly and sincerely -- they're naturally good." (Kurosawa himself expressed a strong desire to direct a Godzilla film, to which the head of Toho snapped, "Your films already cost too much! You'd bankrupt the studio!")

But for me the enduring quality of Honda's monster movies is their atmosphere. Most were made during the Showa-30 era which marked the beginning of postwar Japan's "Economic Miracle," and this atmosphere drenches the films as thoroughly as the Gothic atmosphere of the Universal horror films of the 30's. The films have a type of strangeness, both artificial and optimistic, that you can't find anywhere else. Surrealism is one of the natural hallmarks of SF and fantasy (I defy you to show me anything in La Chien Andalou that tops the image of King Kong looking through the window of Fay Wray's hotel room), and Honda's genre films dish it out by the bucketload. As Tarentino has said: "Nothing in an Ishiro Honda film looks real. But everything looks cool."

With their defiantly artificial sets, the world of these films is the world of the film studio: interiors and many exteriors (even city streets) are shot inside soundstages. And of course when the monsters begin to fight, the whole world is enclosed inside a soundstage.

For my money the best of Honda's monster films is Rodan (1956). It's not just a really good monster movie, it's a really good movie, period -- well-plotted and thoughtful, genuinely scary, with a scale that relentlessly grows from the intimate to the colossal. At the beginning of the film, a mining town is menaced by monstrous 10-foot-long insects that emerge, unnervingly, from the murky waters of a flooded mine, feasting on unfortunate miners and ultimately crashing throujgh the ricepaper walls of the miners' houses. Shigeru, a supervisor, investigates the deepest part of the main shaft and vanishes, only to turn up a few days later with total amnesia. As he recuperates, a mysterious flying object, barely glimpsed, is terrorizing the sky, flying so fast that its shockwave destroys several aircraft. Then, as Shigeru lies dazed in his hospital bed, his girlfriend notices that the eggs are hatching in a bird's nest outside the window; she brings the nest over to his bed to see -- and as one of the eggs cracks, his memories come crashing back. He recalls that he came to a massive underground cavern beneath the mines, containing hundreds of the huge insects -- and a huge egg, 150 feet tall. As he watches in horror, the egg cracks open, and the head of a giant reptillian bird emerges -- and proceeds to eat one of the giant insects like a falcon plucking up a tiny maggot. And that's just the baby Rodan! Oh, and by the way, there are TWO of them!

The rest of the film is mainly Rodan(s) kicking the hell out of Sasebo, a city near Nagasaki. Like most of the Toho monster films, the minature work is brilliantly excecuted and photographed in a way that guarantees you'll know they're miniatures. It's a lot of fun, but the sequence of Shigeru's memory-return is one of the finest in cinema. And its masterstroke is the shot where the camera dollies in on the little bird nest, and one of the tiny blue eggs starts to crack, and the previously silent orchestra suddenly blasts out a bone-rattling chord of existential doom. That, boys and girls, is surrealism of the highest order.

Enjoy the original Japanese trailer for Mothra, below.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Now THAT'S how you greet a spiritual leader!

So the Dalai Lama went to Memphis... (Note: Raw video, good stuff is all in the first minute.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Current reading. (Like you were really interested.)


Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher. (Research.)

The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kaddath by H.P. Lovecraft. (The old Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition from 1970 – and it’s the first time I’ve read it!)

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas.

Gothic! (YA short-story collections; more research and a MAJOR slog.)

The Writer’s Tale by Russell T. Davies. The Doctor Who writing process, by a genius who’s not afraid to burn his bridges.


Ophelia Speaks by Sara Schandler. (More research.)

Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead. (Yet more research.)

About Writing by Samuel R. Delany. (Chip’s astounding knowledge, erudition, and writing chops have always been a source of profound irritation for me.)

The Jewish War by Josephus. Found my father’s copy of this old Penguin – printed in Isreal! – last June in NYC. You can only read a few pages at a time. Dense, but chock full of violence, treachery, depravity, and other Roman goodness, written by one of the most fascinating characters in literature – a Jewish historian and commander of the Jewish army in Galilee who became a Roman citizen; upholder of Jewish tradition to the Romans, Roman apologist to the Jews, and a guy for whom the phrase “You can’t please everybody” apparently held no terror. I am reading his famous account preparatory to reading Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel Josephus.

A bucketload of plays by my friend Rob Shearman.

The first draft of Audry’s novel.

Next from the stack:

Blood Promise by Richelle Mead. (That I might better understand what flips Audry out.)

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers. (Penguin Read Red, loaded with win!)

Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenter & Seymour by J.D. Salinger. (Can’t believe I never read this one.)

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link.

Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam by David Kaufman.

…unless I change my mind and grab something else instead.

Josephus copy

Jaws REALLY 3-D.

They've sighted and tagged several great white sharks off the coast of Cape Cod.