Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review of "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of the most highly-acclaimed authors writing in the fantasy genre today. He is lucky enough to have several film and television adaptations of his work. In at least one case, he wrote a novel based on his own television miniseries. That novel is "Neverwhere".

The plot follows Richard Mayhew, a timid businessman living in London. He's going nowhere at his job. He's engaged to a controlling woman but doesn't seem to mind.

One evening, on the way to an important dinner with his financee and her boss, he stops to help an exhausted street girl he finds bleeding on the sidewalk.  He assists the harried girl into his apartment.  Unfortunately for him, the girl is a dweller of London Below, a strange faerie realm that exists in the old tunnels, sewers and subway systems beneath the city.  London Below is populated by street people, sewer dwellers, people who speak to rats, ragged courts of nobles and monsters. 

Simply by interacting with the girl, Door, he phases out of the reality of London Above and is forgotten by everybody he knew.  Like the other residents of London Below, he is ignored by average people, and when noticed, dismissed quickly and forgetten.  He loses his identity, machines stop working for him, and he becomes a nobody.

Convinced that Door can help him return to his old life, he follows her into London Below, attaching himself to her quest to discover why her father was murdered.  Accompanied by the bodyguard Hunter and a swashbuckling Marquis, they wander London Below for clues, all the while stalked by the ageless assassins Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar.

"Neverwhere" is the second novel of Gaiman's I have read, the other being "American Gods".  I am sorry to say that I am not very impressed.  I say "sorry" because I very much want to love these books.  "Neverwhere" treads literary territory that I love, steeped in history, fantasy, and the supernatural.   Croup and Vandemar are villains straight from Dickens, inspiring fear and laughter at the same time.  London Below is richly imagined.  There are many, many things about this book to admire. 

What drags down Gaiman's book, for me, is his writing style.  I found the narrative to be overly-cutesy.  It is full of turns-of-phrase that sound wonderful when spoken aloud in conversational speech, but, on the page, need to be re-read to fully understand the meaning.  This happens often enough that it becomes distracting and winking, as if to say, "Look at how funny I'm being." 

I also have issues with the plot.  Richard is thrown into events which he, at first, does not understand, nor does the reader.  As Door and her entourage travel the underworld, their wanderings at first seem aimless.  Once the reader has gained an accurate idea of the quest, it seems a bit shallow.  Typically, when characters go on a literary quest, there are consequences for their failure, such as a nation being overrun or the world ending.  Not here, and it made me care less about the outcome.  It is only until the climax of the book that we discover something awful could happen if they fail.  And even then, it's still kind of unclear why or how the forces of evil will triumph and why it's so bad if they succeed in their plan.  I won't say more for fear of spoilers. 

I am very interested to read a more-recent Neil Gaiman book to see if his narration has matured.  As it stands, I am underwhelmed with his 90's novels and their weak narration, but love his work in more visual media such as movies and comics.  Once again, I need to repeat that there are so many things about Neverwhere that are great.  It therefore rends my heart to give it:
3 lame-duck protagonists out of 5

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Movie Review of Sullivan's Travels

...And another giant break between AFI movies.  Anyway, we just watched #61 on AFI's list, a comedy called Sullivan's Travels.  It was released in 1941, directed by Preston Sturges and stars Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.

The story is about a film director named Sullivan who has grown weary of making schlocky comedies and shallow musicals.  He wants to direct a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, an epic that captures the struggles and plight of the common man.  His collegues chide him for knowing nothing about the struggles of the poor.  Undeterred, he dons hobo clothes and runs away to sample life as a migrant worker.  As he travels, he prompts people to talk about their troubles, but discovers nobody is in a big hurry to bemoan the plight of the common man.  He meets "the Girl", many misadventures occur, many silent-movie comedies are referenced and many lines of dialogue are delivered snappily. 

As an aside, despite bizarre claims by old movie posters for this film which proclaim that "Veronica Lake is on the Take", Veronica Lake at no point appears to be on the take.  I can only assume that this genre-defying movie left studio publicists mystified as to how to market it.  Scratching their heads in confusion, somebody suggested, "We need somethin' that rhymes, see!  Who cares if it don't make sense?"


What makes this movie different is that it has a fourth act in its story structure.  After Sullivan and the Girl spend an appropriate amount of time learning hardship and having zany adventures, they return to the studio in triumph.  Normally, a movie might end here.  However, Sullivan decides to don his hobo clothing and repay the poor he lived with a stack of $5 bills.  He is promptly robbed at a trainyard and tossed unconscious onto a departing freight.  His robber is mangled by a train and his corpse mistaken for him.  Meanwhile, the groggy Sullivan lashes out at a railyard guard and is sentenced to six years hard labour.

It is here that the film abruptly changes tone to a drama.  Miserable, overworked and persecuted, he learns real suffering.  He spends a day in the hotbox for reading a newspaper.  At his lowest point, a revival congregation allows the chain gang to watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon in their church.  All his troubles melt away as he howls with laughter at Pluto's antics.  He realizes then that he doesn't want to direct O Brother, Where Art Thou?  He sees that if he wants to help the common man, more good can be accomplished through laughter.


And that's the message of this movie, recalling the film's dedication at the beginning:
To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated. 

It's a message that could have gone terribly wrong.  For in order to tell the message that "laughter is the best medicine", the film loses all its laughs during the fourth act.  It's risky business and some might accuse it of hypocrisy.  However, in my opinion, the film pulls it off.  Perhaps its hand is heavy, but it is moving in its own way.

It's a pretty good film.  The laughs vary from slapstick to wordplay to high-concept comedy.
4 1/2 unscheduled returns to Hollywood out of 5

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Eyeball Soup for the Soul

For years, horror has been regarded as the lowest form of entertainment. Cultural elites believe horror is a playground for mankind's basest nature, where pubescent boys indulge their appetite for bloodletting and jiggling boobs. Church fathers regard it as a refuge of corruption where the innocent can be lured to sin by Satanism. Other people just think it's gross.

Well, I'm here to tell you today that horror can make you a better person. For lurking within horror's black heart are ethics, humanity, hope, intellect and wisdom. You have to know where to look. Every genre has its own tropes, and it is in these ideas and cliches that horror's morality can be perceived. Here are the most common and what we can learn from them. They are simple moral lessons that we often forget.  

1. Characters Questing for Forbidden Knowledge bring Doom
This is usually how all the trouble starts. It can be somebody delving into evil tomes that should not be read by human eyes, a common theme in H.P. Lovecraft. It can be scientists experimenting in realms of knowledge without considering the consequences, a theme commonly seen in Atomic Age horror. However, it's not just in the concept that characters investigate things they should just leave alone. How many times have you stared at a movie screen and willed a character not to go into that house, not to go outside to see where the dog went, or just DON'T OPEN THAT DOOR!?

The reckless attitude of horror characters can best be shown in the 1999 piece a' shit, Bats. When asked why he created a race of malevolent, super-powered bats, their creator answers, “Because I'm a scientist! That's what we do! We make things better!”  

The Lesson: Curiosity Eviscerated the Human
The 21st century promises any number of humanity-threatening disasters, thanks to mankind's own ingenuity, inventiveness and curiosity. Millions of us could die as the result of global warming. Or self-aware robots. Or self-replicating nanobots. Or, of course, the old favourite nuclear annihilation.

Horror asks us to consider why we're researching creepy stuff like crowd-control microwave cannons. It asks us to consider the implications of programming artificial intelligence that can learn. It asks us to think about the far-reaching consequences of building a nuclear reactor in, say, a place with lots of earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis.

Are some forms of progress worth the danger and loss in human life and dignity. At the very least, horror asks us to proceed with caution. So, to the scientist who is currently working on the project to invent the big red button that destroys the universe (and I know you're out there somewhere), please give some sober thought to inventing something actually helpful, like cars with sewage engines or a cure for pop music.  

2. The Skeptic

"Mulder, there's no such thing as stuff."

A stock character in the horror genre is the skeptic. Oftentimes, the protagonist begins the story as a skeptic. From a story perspective, the skeptic is an agent of the world that audiences find familiar, a world that is unpopulated by horrible, incomprehensible things. The skeptic sympathetically latches to old beliefs about reality even if something overtly supernatural kills somebody. They constantly try to convince other characters that they are safe. Their single most common line of dialogue is some permutation of, “There has to be a rational explanation for all this.”

Or, as Dr. Roger Fleming from The Lost Skeleton of Cadavera says, “Ranger Brad, I'm a scientist, I don't believe in anything.”

 As appealing as the Skeptic's arguments can be, unfortunately they are wrong wrong wrong. The monsters are real and they are dangerous. In order for Horror protagonists to deal with their new reality, they must stop listening to the skeptics and confront the problem. As for the skeptics themselves, they frequently discover the hard way that vampires are real.  

The Lesson: Don't Cling to Old Ideas if they are Proven Incorrect

I would like you to think about your least-favourite politician. How many times have you cursed this politician as being evil? Stupid? Corrupt? A liar? Have you ever been watching them speak and turned them off because their words make you furious? Have you ever shared an article about what a bad person this politician is with friends on Facebook and felt better as likes and sympathetic comments pour in?

Yes, you have. Everybody does it. Your least-favourite politician represents a threat to your belief system. The anger you feel is the result of cognitive dissonance, the tiny voice in your head that whispers that you are wrong. We all hate this feeling and when we are presented with information that contradicts us, we spurn the messenger, downplay the information, or seek comfort with like-minded people.

We may be right to do so, because sometimes other people really are deceitful or incorrect. However, somewhere in your life, right this instant, a there is something in your life that is making you unhappy. This issue may be difficult to see at first, but if you need hints, you need only think about stuff that makes you angry or tearful. Work from there. What is your unhappy truth that you won't admit? It can be causing depression. It might even be killing you, such as if you are a smoker, alcoholic, or over-eater. Ignoring it isn't helping. Identify it. Your proverbial vampires can still hurt you, but to slay them, you have to know that they exist.  

3. Isolation
More than any other genre, horror isolates its protagonists. This isolation can be physical, such as the uncharted wilderness cave of The Descent. It can be social, such as when characters seek help from indifferent or hostile authorities, or worse yet, authorities who are in league with the baddies, such as Body-Snatchers!

The characters must know that no help is coming, not God, not the cavalry. If help is on the way, you can bet that it will be thwarted. Even when the protagonists ARE the cavalry, such as in Aliens, they will soon find themselves beyond help and hope. In that movie, the Colonial Marines, the universe's ultimate badasses, find themselves reduced to whiny, helpless children when their dropship crashes. Game over, man!

The Lesson: Only You can Solve Your Problems
Life is our horror flick. When it comes to our personal issues, we are as alone as any horror character. Remember that hidden, wicked truth about yourself that is lurking within your personality? Nobody can confront that issue but you. A therapist, counsellor or priest might assist you, but only you can actually take the steps to solve your problem.

Self help-types agree:  
The most important aspect of taking responsibility for your life is to acknowledge that your life is your responsibility. No one can live your life for you. You are in charge. No matter how hard you try to blame others for the events of your life, each event is the result of choices you made and are making. “Gatekeeper”, By S Miriam Clifford

Once you have seen your truth, deal with it. You will take steps closer to the person you want to be.  And when your life fades to black and humanity's ultimate monster, death, creeps upon your soul, you will not be the cringing idiot who claws at his deathbed and screams, "I'm not ready!"  You'll be able to grunt something awesome like, "Take me, ya sonofabitch.  I had a fuckin' good run!"   

4. The Crazy Plan that Might Just Work
Horror monsters are usually immune to conventional problem solving. If dealing with them were as simple as negotiation or shooting them, they wouldn't be scary. Luckily, they usually come with disastrous heels Achilles'. While common in other genres, a Crazy Plan that Might Just Work is almost required in any horror story.

This exploitable weakness might be as simple as a vulnerability to silver. Or perhaps the portal to the other dimension can be sealed if the streams of the proton accelerator packs are crossed. Or maybe a virus can be downloaded into the invader's navigation system. Whatever the solution, it possesses the power to completely neutralize the baddy and its minions.  

The Lesson: Every Problem Has a Solution
The message here is one of hope.  The characters of horror movies often best the vilest, most violent and supernatural opponents the human imagination can dream.  Their problems are so much worse than yours, yet they succeed.  Every problem you face also has a solution for somebody clever enough to see it and brave enough to use it.

To quote Stan Rogers, singing from beyond the grave:  
Rise again, rise again—
though your heart it be broken Or life about to end. 
No matter what you've lost, be it a home, a love, a friend, 
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.

 5. The Misunderstood Monster
The last few years have seen a parade of movies involving dead little girls annoying protagonists with their antics, only to have the hero help them solve their murders. The Sixth Sense, Stir of Echoes and What Lies Beneath come to mind. They are a common manifestation of another stock character, the Misunderstood Monster.

For me, the most memorable Misunderstood Monster of my childhood was the Pale Green Pants with Nobody Inside them, the antagonist of Dr. Seuss' story, “What was I Scared Of?” It's silly now, of course, but I know there are more than a few kids out there who found those pants terrifying. In the story, a hero of indeterminate species constantly meets the spooky pants in frightening locales, becoming progressively unnerved. Finally, he shouts for deliverance, only to discover that the Pants are terrified of him:  

 I never heard such whimpering 
And I began to see 
That I was just as strange to them 
As they were strange to me 

  In the case of the Pants, they become friends. Other monsters offer assistance or information to heroes after they discover the nature of the story's real enemy.  

The Lesson: Losers Make Loyal Friends
Professor Steven Reiss lists 16 basic desires that motivate all people.  Amongst them is Acceptance, the human need to be liked and understood by other people.

Different people rank their desires in different order of importance, but chances are you know a socially inept person who needs Acceptance in a bad way.  If you can practice tolerance and patience when dealing with these misunderstood freaks, you can win loyal allies.

If you are a misunderstood freak yourself, you can always hope that somebody reading this post reaches out to you.  In the meantime, there's always porn.

6. An Asshole Screws Everybody Over, Inviting Unfavourable Comparison to the Monsters
Seen many zombie apocalypse movies? The best ones go like this: in the first act, the heroes run from the zombies. In the second act, they have found a sanctuary from the undead hordes that allows them to talk, love and argue in safety. While the zombies remain a threat, the heroes can deal with them.

Then what happens at the beginning of the third act? An Asshole or Assholes screw everybody over. Mister Cooper refuses to open the door, then tries to take the gun away (Night of the Living Dead). Or Assholes on motorcycles let zombies into the mall (Dawn of the Dead). Or an Asshole-scientist is feeding soldiers to a zombie to make it tame, and when his faux-pas is discovered, Asshole-soldiers initiate a bloodbath (Day of the Dead).

In short, while the zombies are dangerous, it is the conflicts between humans that destroy the community of survivors.  When considering the horror genre in general, Perhaps Ellen Ripley says it best after company-man Burke locks her in a room with some Aliens in an unsuccessful attempt to cover his own ass:   

"I don't know which species is worse.  You don't see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage."   

The Lesson: Play Nice and Share
Last summer the world experienced the Occupy Protests.  Large groups of people camped in public spaces everywhere to protest wealth inequality, amongst other things.  One of their slogans was the phrase, “We are the 99%”, referring to figures that the top 1% of income earners are hogging all the wealth while everybody else is left with nothing. If you are unemployed, broke, or suffering from a disease you can't afford to treat, perhaps you know what they're talking about.
They have a point.  Economic inequality would seem to be a bad thing.  Places with low economic inequality include Europe and Canada.  Compare that to places where inequality reigns, places like Botswana, Bolivia and the Central African Republic.  Would you rather live in a place that has peace and prosperity, or a place that has old trucks careening through the streets, packed to the brim like a clown car full of AK-47-wielding child soldiers?

Most people are not serial killers.  However, we can still be monsters.  Like that Asshole in the zombie movie, we become monsters when we follow selfish ends that harm other people, even indirectly.  When our community is harmed, we are harmed.  And someday, like a zombie horde, our selfish actions may bite us in the ass.  The Romanovs were probably kicking themselves over that whole greed thing as they were being murdered by communists.

Right now, people all over the world are suffering, not just in the first world.  It's easy to dismiss these people as “lazy” or “drunks” or “criminals” or “terrorists”.  And you would be right to do so, because amongst the ranks of the poor, there are many layabouts, drunks, criminals, and a smattering of anarchists.  But a lot of them are not pretending.  Those people, right now, are hungry, homeless, in pain and dying.

Personally, I advocate progressive taxation. But that's just me and those of you who are a little more libertarian at heart may find that distasteful. So here's another idea: charity.

Are you a millionaire? Or maybe even a just a half-millionaire? Somewhere in your life, you are considering a purchase you really don't need.  Instead of a second summer-home, maybe a church charity beckons.  Instead of a new yacht, some starving students out there would really appreciate you setting up a scholarship fund.  Instead of buying that Hummer, rush down to the soup kitchen passing out $100 bills and giggling like an idiot.  Spare that brother a dime.

You might actually find it spiritually rewarding. You'll get pats on the back from your contemporaries and you may help avert a communist revolution.  Also, God will give you a personal thumbs up upon entry into heaven.  Everybody wins.

 7. The Horror is Not Over
Any lover of Horror cinema knows well the tiresome scene that happens at the end of hundreds of movies.  It's the one where we see the monster's corpse and it opens its eyes.  Or we see a bunch of baby crocodiles and O noes, what happens when those crocs grow up to be as big as the last one (Lake Placid). Or, surprise-surprise, Freddy returns for one more fatality.

You're supposed to be scared, see, because the scary stuff is still out there, man.  This horror-standard has, no doubt, caused many a viewer to lie awake in bed with the light on, fretting and jumping at night noises.   

The Lesson: Evil Can Never Truly be Destroyed
We got that sonofabitch, Adolf Hitler, the most evil man ever.  Huzzah for us, we sent a murderous madman to hell.

Now we just have to forget that the evil Joseph Stalin never paid for his crimes.  We also have to forget about how Mao Zedong ravaged China.  Now forget that hundreds of bloodthirsty dictators have emerged since 1945 in countries all over the world, bathing the earth in blood.

But we cannot forget.  For evil still lurks in the heart of our species.  Evil dwells in the sneer of a miserly employer, the cackle of a snobby country-club madam and the baton of a racist cop.  Evil will exist as long as there are humans.

What does that mean for you? That's a complicated question, and it's up to you to answer. I will ask you these questions to help you ponder. What is evil? And, does somebody you know view you as evil? Are you okay with that?

That's enough observation for now. Every horror story has a moral, even if it's drowning under gallons of blood. Next time you pop in a crappy horror flick, ask yourself what it's trying to tell you.

Or don't. Hey, look at the naked woman getting killed!