Sunday, 24 June 2012

Olympic tickets!

WP_000440 by Dr Yool
WP_000440, a photo by Dr Yool on Flickr.
I think that the title of this post, plus this picture, about covers it.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Player One

Having already complained about its deviation from reality, it's about time that I got around to writing up Douglas Coupland's latest novel Player One (and, yes, this title is strangely familiar).

Set largely in the cocktail lounge of a airport, the novel revolves around the fate of five disparate characters trapped there during the onset of a global crisis. Single mother Karen has flown hundreds of miles there to meet an online date; Luke is a pastor on the run having just ripped off his congregation; Rachel, the proprietor of a mouse-breeding business, is on the spectrum and struggles to understand other human beings; and Rick is the lounge's barkeep, about to fall prey to another get-rich-quick guru. Finally, Player One watches over the scene, commenting on the struggles of the trapped characters and predicting their next actions and fates. As the outside calamity engulfs the airport, they are joined by a psychopathic gunman, Bertis, who interprets the events as the coming of the End Times, a view that obviously puts him in conflict with the others in the lounge more keen to survive the conflagration outside.

Another frustrating read from Mr. Coupland, once upon a time easily my favourite writer. It's nowhere near as underwhelming as his last novel, Generation A, but it is still disappointingly miles from the highs of his early career. And again for similar reasons: Coupland seems simply incapable of writing novels these days that occupy the same reality that we do. Infuriatingly, he begins very much in our world, and has his characters muse very convincingly about modern life, but before long he goes off at the deep end. While the calamity isn't completely outlandish here (cf. Girlfriend in a Coma), its cause makes its rapidity entirely unconvincing, and in spite of its crippling severity it practically evaporates at an unseemly pace at the novel's close. I kept thinking throughout that, surely, he could think of something - anything - more plausible than the scenario he paints.

It's (again!) particularly annoying because Coupland clearly has interesting things to say. At one point he does rip off one of his best lines, but it's still a great one, and the novel is (again!) full of other brilliant observations. To wit ...
Identifying the unique threads of the human condition is not something that Rachel approaches lightly, and she is not deceived into thinking that high technology is an activity that makes humans different: complex human activities such as enriching uranium, for example, are, by extension, elaborate means of generating heat and of fighting - and there's nothing special to humans about that.
Time and time again he conjures up clever and insightful lines about our daily lives and our place in the wider universe. But time and time again he undoes all of his good work by placing his eminently credible characters (autistic Rachel is particularly well-drawn) into eminently incredible situations that stretch the suspension of disbelief far beyond breaking point. And I can think of no good reason why he couldn't accomplish something far more insightful, or even profound, by just sticking to the real. How hard can it be for someone who's written Generation X, Life After God and Microserfs?

In passing, while I have moaned on excessively here, Player One did have a few redeeming moments which meant that, while I was left foaming at the mouth in consternation at the plot, I still enjoyed it enough to finish it quickly and to find it thought-provoking in places. For instance, Coupland's omniscient observer, the eponymous Player One, affords an interesting perspective on the transitory, largely meaningless and frequently facile nature of human life. It's a practically god-like narrator, but one coming from an unusually deist-like perspective. That was interesting. As were Coupland's characters' reflections on their lives which, given the situation they find themselves in, were at times touching and humane. All of which served to just annoy me more when Coupland decided to inject an insane jolt of surrealist plotting.

Doug: why, why, why, why, why?

Monday, 4 June 2012

Prometheus: the Greek god of pants?

33 years ago, Ridley Scott released Alien. The following two decades saw three sequels - one superlative, two not so much - all independent of Scott. But the film series still managed to carve itself a place in cinema history, and is the touchstone for science fiction / horror crossover. Now Scott has returned to the wellspring, bringing with him understandably high expectations from the fans who've followed the series over four decades (that'll be me then). Can the "Master" bring his winning touch back to the franchise and rejuvenate it for past and present generations of cinema-goers?

The one word answer is: no. The slightly longer answer is: abso-fucking-lutely not - what the hell was he thinking with this gibberish? The film, Prometheus, was always going to be something of a high-wire act - a long-established film series with a legion of fans and a mountain of expectation - but it's still pretty staggering just how misplaced Scott's return is. In constructing this folly, he's certainly brought his full director-as-god weight down on branding the franchise as his - for good or ill - and I think that he's possibly even managed to poison it for good.

Spoilers ahead - not that anything I say could possibly spoil this!

To be fair, the film does have a smattering of good points. Much to its credit, it at least tries to something different. The film series has steadily become swamped in its own history and in particular themes and tropes, and while Prometheus apes some of these, it certainly charts some new (if wholly misconstrued) directions. Given that we live in an era of weapons of mass destruction (most likely phantom ones), I did actually quite like its presentation of the Alien as a biotechnological WMD. For just a moment there it felt like something interesting was being said. Just a moment though. The film even manages to steer surprisingly wide of the actual Alien part of the franchise. Of course, it can't resist a closing nod to the fanboys, but it doesn't rely on the familiar figure of the Alien for almost its whole length. And, finally, the film almost does something interesting and novel with its (requisite) android character. David is quite different from the corporate traitor Ash, the ambiguous-but-good Bishop and the conflicted Call. His kill-your-maker sentiments are much more interesting than the film gives them credit for, and it ultimately leaves exploration of them at skin deep level - Scott showing his hand as a hack who simply can't spot good subplots.

Documenting the bad points of Prometheus is hampered from the get-go: where to start? There are just so many missteps, unfinished thoughts and broken promises. Leaving aside the plot stupidities and holes - which I will touch on shortly - top of the heap is that the film makes the exact same mistake concerning its characters that the franchise's lesser sequels - Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection - make. Namely, a suite of two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs given about two lines apiece to establish themselves before characterisation is firmly transferred to the back-burner. And where character in the film is actually suggested by more than a thin stereotype - basically David and (Ripley stand-in) Elizabeth Shaw - Scott still manages to sabotage things. David's hinted plot arc is largely aborted, while Shaw is an unbelievable and unsympathetic scientist that Scott tries to bludgeon into human shape by giving her a dead dad and an inability to have children (until ... well, until the film needs an unconvincing jolt of body-horror). Given that Scott's original film managed to convey (as much as a science fiction film can) a suite of intellectually and emotionally different characters, one is left with the feeling that this must have all been in the script then, since there's nothing on show here to suggest that he understood what he was doing back in 1979.

Regarding specific stupid points, the most ridiculous - and telling - for me was how the film dispatches Vickers. A large narrow object is collapsing towards you - do you run along the direction of collapse, or turn 90 degrees and run away from it? Is this seriously the best that the writers could do? Actually, that's pretty rhetorical - it seems an entirely fitting response from the writers of this film. Another awful misstep was an Alien birth (by caesarian!) that's a shameless gorefest (and from which the character recovers remarkably quickly). It makes even less sense, both dramatically and scientifically, than that in Alien Resurrection - at least that served the theme of motherhood pretty well, and nicely brought the franchise around full circle. And while making things superficially interesting, Prometheus' alterations to the Alien lifecycle (a "crime" for which Alien 3 was attacked at the time) arguably make it completely incoherent. Gone are the classic anthropomorphic horrors, now replaced by more plastic - but much less iconic - rejects from The Thing. At times, it's almost as if Scott wants to reinvent the whole series again from scratch, dashing even his own contribution from 33 years ago as he goes.

There are also gaping credibility issues like the space jockeys having a "perfect match" with human DNA but looking more like marble gods (Titans, perhaps?) than humans - plus the convenient failure by the writers to remember that humans have a whole slew of inconveniently closely related animal cousins back on Earth. The film also offers only the scantiest of scant hints about what the space jockeys were up to, including what turns out to be a pretty inexplicable opening sequence that seems portentous but winds up pointless. Given that we have a living, breathing space jockey at one point, and given that the film isn't in the least reluctant to spoon-feed the audience exposition from the lips of its characters, this could have been easily rectified. The film makers might well claim that leaving viewers confused preserves some mystery, but I suspect that it instead preserves the illusion that the writers had the first clue what they were doing - this is all straight Chariots of the Gods stuff.

Finally, I can't let pass Prometheus' shameless teeing up of a sequel at the end. Its precursor films always ended fairly definitively, usually accompanied by a sigh of relief from the surviving characters. Sequels weren't precluded (except by Alien 3 - and look how that worked out), but a roadmap to them wasn't sketched out before the credits roll. Here, the film ends with characters heading off with a definite purpose (albeit a misguided one), patently angling for a future cash-injection. Scott has come a long way since the cold and bleak ending of Alien.

Overall, Prometheus further cements my long-standing opinion of Scott as a hack who got lucky. Good scripts occasionally drift over his desk, and he has done a good job in the past of turning some of these into perfectly creditable films (although, as I've noted before, sometimes only with the first cut). This film also cements my annoyance with the equating of the success of a film as a piece of art (high-brow or otherwise) with the director rather than with the writer. To wit, Prometheus - it's got Ridley Scott at the helm, who cares about the writer - what could possibly go wrong? Again and again, all credit for a successful film is delivered with great fanfare at the door of its director, with nary a scrap left for the creator that first breathed life into it. Yes, it's still the case that a good director is needed to turn a great script into a great film, but character and plot are gifts from the writer that a director gives form and shape to. Given this film, as well as some of his earlier efforts, Scott would appear not to know a good script if it jumped out of someone's chest and bit him.

I might be being too harsh here. I might soften in my views as time passes and focus on the places where the film slightly lives up to expectations. But I hope not. It's a wretched film really - largely because of its conception rather than execution. Unfortunately, it will make money, most likely a lot of money, so I fear for another return - but it will be difficult to clear up the mess left by this film regardless of how good the script is. Much as the space jockeys were hoping to do in the film's mythology, perhaps Scott has finally "salted the Earth" on the franchise?

A few curious points also occurred to me about the film.
  • The aged Weyland bears more than a passing resemblance, physically and ethically, to Rupert Murdoch. Coincidence?
  • While Ripley knows to do the right thing in Alien (don't let Kane back onboard the Nostromo) and survives, Vickers does the same but dies.
  • In Alien the space jockey ship carried a warning about its contents, but here it's strongly implied (though we don't know for sure because they never get to tell us) that the space jockeys were up to no good. Which is it Ridley?
  • Much as with other science fiction prequels, the technology on display in this film seems much more advanced (touchscreens, 3D holograms) than that in the earlier films (CRTs, big buttons) that purport to be occurring later. Haven't the continuity supervisors spotted this yet?

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The Sisters Brothers

Another slight change of direction this time, something of a latter-day western no less, The Sisters Brothers by the Canadian writer Patrick deWitt.

Set in 1851 during the Californian Gold Rush, The Sisters Brothers follows the eponymous Sisters brothers, Eli and Charlie, as they journey from Oregon City to San Francisco. Sent by the Commodore to track down Hermann Warm, a prospector caught up in gold fever, the brothers' journey south crosses the paths of a diverse range of of characters and agendas. Some want help from the brothers, some want merely to share their story with the brothers, while some wish the brothers ill, an unwise course of action given the brothers' talents. As their journey southwards continues, Eli, who narrates the novel, begins to question their mission, who exactly they are doing it for, and their wider vocation in life. Is working as henchmen for a shadowy "big man" either defensible or worthy of the Sisters brothers?

This one came recommended by C after her book group read it a few months back. While it got something of a mixed reception there, she was one of its fans and figured that I might wind up being one too. And, what do you know, she was right.

But it's still far from a straightforward book to like. It's a bit of an episodic and rambling shaggy dog tale that reads a little like I'd imagine a Quentin Tarantino western might look like. Which is to say that it features a pair of philosophical gangsters and a not immodest body count. Well, I guess that it only really features a single philosophical gangster - Charlie is far more enamoured of his career path, and its benefits, than is his more thoughtful sibling, Eli. But their chosen career as well as their observations on the events that befall them as well as life in general, which are quite endearing at times (for instance, Eli's discovery of the toothbrush), reminded me more than just a little of Jules and Vincent.

The novel's episodic nature takes a bit of getting used to as well. It introduces and dispatches characters at quite a rate, such that, by the end, it feels like there really are only two characters, Eli and Charlie. But the interludes - which include a "witch", an inexplicably crying man, a boy who's the only survivor of a raid on a wagon train, and a terminally ill bookkeeper - are so diverse as to always be enjoyably interesting. And they also serve to paint quite a vivid picture of the social landscape - such as it is - of the time. On this point, The Sisters Brothers is yet another counter to the rather romantic view that we often have of the "wild west". deWitt paints it as a pretty arbitrary and violent arena where gold fever ensures that might is usually "right", and where women pretty much only occupy the "service sector". The description of the San Francisco that the brothers visit is particularly notable on this point, being simultaneously a fascinating and appalling place.

The main strength of the novel for me was the way in which it's told by Eli. deWitt gives him a nicely understated tone and way of describing things - even quite outlandish things, such as when he calms down a dying man that he's just shot. He is also, for a hired gun, something of a naive and likeable softie. He has a strangely touching relationship with his doomed horse, Tub, and he's (usually) polite and honourable with women he meets. Unfortunately for Eli, the women that he likes either appear to have drifted into opportunistic prostitution, a fact that Charlie won't let him forget, or are even more doomed than his horse. But he makes for a perennially interesting narrator and deWitt gives him a great and distinctive voice.

There are a couple of things that are a little less satisfying, however. Principally, what it's all about? While there's a journey, and some character growth along the way, I'm not sure that I drew out what I was supposed to as I travelled with the brothers along the way. Perhaps it is just about the journey, and the time that the novel is set in, but Eli's grappling with his conscience seems to suggest otherwise - although I'd certainly concede that Eli's thoughts seem fairly obvious ones rather than deep truths. Also, for a novel that seems to be trying to paint a credible portrait of the time and place, it throws a bit of a spanner in the works with something of an implausible MacGuffin in the shape of Warm's formula. While it's not completely "out there", and it does help give the novel something of a shapely resolution, I never entirely bought it as a concept, and it served to undermine a lot of deWitt's earlier good work in creating a credible mid-19th century setting.

Overall, I'd have given it a 7 / 10 at Annie's book group. It's easily the most distinctive of the books I've read of late, even if I still haven't quite worked out what deWitt is saying with it - if anything, that is!