Episode 145 – Kathe Koja and John Clute
Virtual Memories Show #145:
Kathe Koja and John Clute
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“I started writing stories as soon as I knew what stories were. I taught myself to type when I was 8 years old, because I couldn’t write fast enough.”
Novelist and immersive theater director Kathe Koja joins the show to talk about her new novel, The Bastards’ Paradise, the arc of her career from splatterpunk (hey, it was the ’90s) to YA to the 19th C. romance of her Poppy trilogy, the meaning of Detroit, her life-changing experience at a staging of Sleep No More, the joys (and perils) of defying genre conventions, the epiphany of brutally murdering Tweddle-Dee, saving her first novel (from when she was 14) to feel better about herself, why great poetry is like IV drugs, and more! Give it a listen!
“I think the story of the wrongness of science fiction is like an exposure of the nature of homo sapiens on this planet. Science fiction goes wrong because we go wrong, and it does it with great clarity. I want a record of that and I want to see how we go wrong and how we can learn.”
Then John Clute returns to the show to talk about establishing the Clute Science Fiction Library @ Telluride! Also, he uses the word “haecceity” in conversation, which is a Virtual Memories first! Go listen!
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We talk about some books and a couple of movies in this episode. Here’s a list of them:
- Under The Poppy – Kathe Koja
- The Mercury Waltz – Kathe Koja
- Bastard’s Paradise – Kathe Koja
- The Cipher – Kathe Koja
- Kink – Kathe Koja
- The Mad Man – Samuel R. Delany
- Dracula – Bram Stoker
- Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
- Come Along with Me – Shirley Jackson
- Riddley Walker – Russell Hoban
- A Dead Man in Deptford – Anthony Burgess
- Anna Karenina – Tolstoy
- Synecdoche, NY
- Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
- The Odyssey – Homer
- The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
- Dr. Faustus – Thomas Mann
Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes! You might like:
- John Clute 1
- Maria Alexander
- Liz Hand
- John Crowley/Scott Edelman
- Michael Dirda 1, 2, 3
- Craig Gidney
Follow The Virtual Memories Show on iTunes, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and RSS!
About our Guests
Kathe Koja’s 16th novel, The Bastards’ Paradise, is just out from Roadswell Editions. Her other novels include The Cipher, Skin, Strange Angels, Buddha Boy, Talk, and Headlong. Her work has won numerous awards, been multiply translated, and optioned for film and performance. As a director/producer, she leads the performance group nerve in creating immersive live events.
Via John Clute‘s entry from the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:
(1940- ) Canadian novelist and sf critic, in the UK from 1969; married to Judith Clute from 1964. He has been the partner of Elizabeth Hand since 1996. His first professional publication, a long sf-tinged poem called “Carcajou Lament”, appeared in Triquarterly for Winter 1960 (i.e. in 1959), though he only began publishing sf proper with “A Man Must Die” in New Worlds for November 1966, where much of his earlier criticism also appeared. This criticism, despite some studiously flamboyant obscurities, remains essentially practical, and has appeared mostly in the form of reviews, many of which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Foundation, Washington Post, Omni, Times Literary Supplement, New York Times, New York Review of Science Fiction, Interzone, Los Angeles Times, Observer, Science Fiction Weekly (see Online Magazines), the Independent, Strange Horizons and elsewhere. He has written two regular review columns: Excessive Candour for Science Fiction Weekly between 1997 and 2009; and Scores, intermittently in The Infinite Matrix 2001-2003, regularly in Interzone between 2005 and 2008, and in Strange Horizons from 2010. Selections from this work, almost always revised, have been assembled in Strokes: Essays and Reviews 1966-1986 (coll 1988), Look at the Evidence: Essays and Reviews (coll dated 1995 but 1996), Scores: Reviews 1993-2003 (coll 2003), Canary Fever: Reviews (coll 2009) and Stay (coll 2014). An ongoing project to construct models of story “moves” in the literatures of the fantastic is represented by a set of connected motif entries in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) with John Grant [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] and in The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror (2006), as well as in Fustian (2006 chap) with Jason Van Hollander, a long interview focused on these issues. In later essays – like “Fantastika in the World Storm” (Spring 2008 Foundation) and “Physics for Amnesia” (October 2008 The New York Review of Science Fiction), both assembled in revised form with other essays as Pardon This Intrusion: Fantastika in the World Storm (coll 2011) – he has suggested that a central task for Fantastika in the twenty-first century is to dissolve the cultural Amnesia that has arguably consumed the Western world since World War Two (see Horror in SF; Postmodernism and SF). Primarily for his critical work, he received a Pilgrim Award in 1994, the IAFA Award as Distinguished Guest Scholar in 1999, and a Solstice Award (see SFWA Grand Master Award) in 2012.
In 1960 Clute was Associate Editor of Collage, an ill fated Chicago-based Slick magazine which in its two issues did manage to publish early work by Harlan Ellison and R A Lafferty. He served as Reviews Editor of Foundation 1980-1990, and was a founder of Interzone in 1982; he remained Advisory Editor of that magazine until 2004, and then contributed the column mentioned above. He was the Associate Editor of the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979; vt The Science Fiction Encyclopedia 1979), which won a Hugo award, and was co-editor of the much-expanded second edition The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993; rev 1995; further rev vt Grolier Science Fiction: The Multimedia Encyclopedia of Science Fiction 1995 CD-ROM; further rev 1999), for which he shared 1994 Hugo and Locus awards with Peter Nicholls. Though Clute and Nicholls were listed as editors, the book was in fact written mostly by them and Associate Editor Brian Stableford. The current third edition, again much expanded as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (online from 2011) edited by John Clute and David Langford with Peter Nicholls serving as Editor Emeritus and Graham Sleight as Managing Editor, has similarly been written in the main by its editors and Contributing Editors; it won a Hugo as Best Related Work in 2012. Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia (1995), which he wrote solo and for which he also received a Hugo in 1996, is a companion to sf, not in any way connected to the encyclopedias listed above. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) with John Grant, for which both editors shared a 1998 Hugo, deals with fantasy within a frame broadly compatible with that governing this Encyclopedia, which is its elder sibling.
Over his career, Clute has published several sf stories and two novels: The Disinheriting Party (in New Worlds Quarterly 5, anth 1973, ed Michael Moorcock; exp 1977), which is Equipoisal with the fantastic, but demurs into rationalizations at the end; and Appleseed (2001), which is a Space Opera with an anti-Religion bias. The Made Minds (AIs) who dominate much of the action manifest themselves throughout as Avatars allied to a Forerunner mentor in support of all surviving humans, who are shunned because of the sexual (see Sex) odour they emit; but as they are genetically deaf to god (see Communications; Gods and Demons), the galaxy-wide diaspora of Homo sapiens has created a Pariah Elite destined to become central combatants in the coming universal War against the Entropy-generating deity, as proclaimed for the first time in the book’s Slingshot Ending. [JC]
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation with Ms. Koja was recorded at the Saratoga Hilton on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder (except for when I screwed up the recording and used my Zoom H2n backup). The session with Mr. Clute was done on my enCORE 200 & Zoom H5. I recorded the intro and outro on a Blue Yeti USB Microphone. Processing was done in Audacity and Logic Pro. Photos of Ms. Koja and Mr. Clute by me.
Movie review Tuesday
Since I’m on a movie-viewing kick for the moment, I figured I’d write about the flicks I watched over the previous week. I’d have included them in yesterday’s What It Is, but it’d get too long and unwieldy, and take attention away from the all-important gin section of the post. So here’s what I saw and what I thought:
(500) Days of Summer: Nice germ of a story, completely wasted by a lack of faith in itself. See, the story’s meant to be out of sequence; we’re shown different days of the 500-day span of when the protagonist knows The Girl. On its own, this could’ve made for an interesting structure for a movie. It’s no Betrayal, that awesome flick by Pinter in which each scene goes back 1 or 2 years from the previous one, so that the opening of the movie is really the end of the relationship that we subsequently see unfold. In the case of (500) Days of Summer, the film-makers decided that, in addition to the “non-linear” sequence, they’d hedge their bets by including
a) an omnipotent voiceover that intrudes at critical points to tell the viewer things that the writing and acting are too shoddy to convey, and
Why flashbacks, of all things? For God’s sake, the only novelty of your movie is that you’re telling the story “out of order,” so why on earth would you then have characters tell stories from the past to fill out the “present” scene? Wouldn’t you be better served actually including a scene from that day, instead of cheating by showing it within another day? You’re conceding that your structure doesn’t stand on its own, so your movie’s one unconventional element is really only a worthless gimmick! But, hey: good thing you have that omnipotent voiceover to tell us when something important is happening. A total failure of storytelling.
Up: Maybe it’s because I was watching this at like 2 a.m., but I found it pretty boring and trite, as far as Pixar flicks go. Was there some point at which the viewer was supposed to think, “This cantankerous old man is going to abandon the little kid, lose the goony-bird to the aged villain, watch the dog get mauled, and not live up to his dead wife’s memory?” Sure, it was gorgeous, there was plenty of action, and the “growing old” sequence at the beginning was deft, but the whole exercise felt formulaic. Maybe itÂ was the best movie of 2009, like some people were saying, but that’s damning with faint praise.
Once In a Lifetime: Impossibly entertaining, but that may be because I was a Cosmos fan as a kid. Still, I think a casual viewer would find the story pretty amazing, in terms of what soccer was like in the U.S. in the early ’70’s, what Pele’s arrival meant on the world stage, and how Giorgio Chinaglia could succeed in New York as an egotistical Italian who spoke English with a Welsh accent.
Inception: It was a mind-blowing visual spectacle, but I’m struggling with what to make of it. With a day’s distance, I find myself bothered by the sheer orderliness of the dreams that the characters invade. Maybe it’s because there’s an “architect” character who creates dream-structures, but they all seemed Escher-like at best, not surreal and identity-shifting, the way we tend to dream (right?). That is, the dreams seemed ordered and logical, which contradicts my (and I assume everybody’s) experience with dreams. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fantastic flick, but I think “dreams” really means “movies” in Christopher Nolan’s world, and that this was a movie about the layers of imagination that go into our movie-watching experience.
Part of it is that there’s aÂ lot of time spent explaining “the rules” of being in dreams. I used to complain that theÂ Sandman comic book would occasionally pull some dream-rule out of its ass as a deux ex machina. In this flick, you get all The Rules spelled out, but there are aÂ ton of them, and they still seem a bit arbitrary. The most important one, in terms of storytelling mechanics, is the differing experience in time for dreams within dreams. Thus, Nolan’s able to have one event take place in “level one” incredibly slowly while the dream one level deeper is moving more quickly. (This piles up in a fantastic way. It reminded me of the moment in the Rush documentary, when someone talks about the song Spirit of Radio, and marvels over how the song repeatedly changes time signature, and yet manages not to lose the audience.)
Early in the movie, I thought the most apt comparison would be Synecdoche, New York, as the discussion of layers of reality, consciousness and artifice were in the fore. By the end, I realized the closer comparison would be to another Charlie Kaufman-written movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both movies center around an “invasion” of the mind, and have unconventional story structures. Kaufman and Gondry’s flick has all the heart that’s lacking from Nolan’s extravaganza, but that’s no knock; I think Eternal Sunshine is one of the best movies about love in the past 20 years. What Nolan made is a movie less about dreams and memory than about movie-making, and maybe a specific type of blockbuster movie-making. That said, it’s a hell of an experience, and the fight scenes in the hotel, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt battles security goons in a hallway in which the plane of gravity keeps shifting, are worth the price of admission. (However, the visual hat-tips to Keanu Reeves and The Matrix kept reminding me that this was a movie about movies.)
It’s a monstrous achievement, but I’m not sure I’ll be reflecting on it years from now, or even a few months from now.
So that’s last week’s movies (not including American Splendor, which I’ve seen 5 or 6 times already). If I watch anything good this week, I’ll try to pontificate about it for you.
Man Out Of Time: Movies
Introduction | Music | Movies | Comics | Sports | Books
A few months ago, I listened to a Bill Simmons podcast in which he and guest Chris Connelly discussed the “movie of the decade.” Simmons’ criteria were
- Excellence when it came out
but they were somewhat compromised by the fact that Simmons’ job consists of sitting at home, watching TV, and writing columns. He does good work, but someone who has the TV on 16 hours a day is going to have some odd ideas about the second and third of those criteria.
Anyway, both men had some odd choices â€” O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the Coen Brothers’ best movie, Chris? The Dark Knight is rewatchable, Bill? And you’re considering The Departed, even though it’s a remake? â€” but it sparked an interesting conversation. Connelly initially drew a blank when asked about movies of the decade, pointing out that movies during this period â€œreally bifurcated.â€
He said, â€œYou had movies you admired, and movies that were popcorn movies. It was not a good decade for the twining of the two. The economics of movies meant that they had to be thrill rides. And all the critical metrics of how you assess these movies flew right out the window. . . . Guys who could make the high/low movie, they just didn’t do it this decade, because the economics were baited.â€
My initial thought when he said this was, â€œWell, Spielberg wasnâ€™t making as many movies this decade, so that must account for the shortfall.â€ Because if anyone can negotiate storytelling with studio expectations, itâ€™s Steven Spielberg. Then I opened up his IMDB page and realized that he actually directed more movies this decade than last. They just werenâ€™t good.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
Schindler’s List (1993)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
War of the Worlds (2005)
The Terminal (2004)
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Minority Report (2002)
Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
(Some people like Minority Report, but that just means they didn’t actually watch the movie. See, the whole minority report turned out to be a Macguffin, and the only thing that would’ve made the story compelling would be if the cops were busting people days and days before they committed a crime, not mere moments before. I understand how the latter is better for the sake of thriller-tude, but the issue of “psychic profiling” becomes a lot more ambiguous if the criminals-to-be have no idea they’re going to be committing a crime. I know some people like AI, but that just means that they’ve failed a Turing Test and are actually automatons of some kind.)
Connelly concluded that TV was where the great movies were, citing The Sopranos (beginning in 1999) as the movie of the decade, and The Wire as the great indie movie of the era.
Simmons began the conversation by offering up Almost Famous (2000) then revised his pick and went with The Dark Knight (2009). He recanted that position in a recent podcast, presumably after realizing that, despite its technical virtuosity and a great performance by Heath Ledger (although I’m convinced that if Ledger hadnâ€™t ODâ€™d, it would have just been another big superhero movie, not the Titanic of this decade), it has ridiculous plot-holes, the third act goes on about 2 days too long, and the wrong villain dies.
Still, their conversation got me thinking about the topic, and how it differs from my Favorite Movies of the Decade list (below: have patience!). Since I see relatively few movies, I feel pretty unqualified to offer up candidates for “movie of the decade.” I mean, Borat (2006) was a monstrous success in comedy, and pretty re-watchable. The first Saw (2004) also made huge box office was pretty influential on the horror genre. (I never watched it; I’m not a horror fan.) I find 300 (2006) pretty darn entertaining, and I’ll stick with it for a little while if I notice it while channel-surfing. It too was a massive and unexpected hit. I never saw Gladiator (2000), so I have no idea how “movie of the decade” it is, outside of the fact that it inspired a bunch of sword-and-sandals flicks. Similarly, the Lord of the Rings cycle (2001, 2002, 2003) was a massive success that inspired a wave of cookie-cutter “let’s build a movie franchise out of a series of fantasy novels” releases. My wife and I have a tradition of watching the trilogy annually around New Year’s Eve/Day. She always gets mad when I tell her that the moral of the story is that evil is too clumsy to win.
But the whole theme of my decade-trospective posts is Man Out Of Time, so I have to go to 1999 to find my “movie of the decade”: Three Kings.
I’ve seen Three Kings three times: in the theater, the night before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and two weeks ago, in preparation for this post. Because if this decade’s going to be defined as The Bush Years, then one of the best warnings we had for What Went Wrong is David O. Russell‘s caper movie about Gulf War I.
The plot of Three Kings is pretty simple: after the ceasefire at the end of the first Gulf War, three Army reservists discover a map for a cache of gold that Iraq plundered from Kuwait. A special forces major â€” played by George Clooney, first seen having sex with Judy Greer (yay!) â€” finds out their secret, and the four head off to steal some gold.
Of course, it all goes awry. The guys find the gold, but also discover that the Iraqi army is too busy brutally suppressing internal revolt to bother protecting the treasure. The major changes the mission mid-stream to save the dissenters, leading the men into disaster. One winds up dead, another gets captured and tortured, the humanitarian mission almost leads to the death of all the Iraqis it’s supposed to save, and media embeds are manipulated to spin the war and the caper. Oh, and the dissidents’ only hope is to flee into the arms of Iran.
All this movie needs is roadside bombs and some beheadings by extra-national jihadis, and we’d have a blueprint for why Gulf War II was never going to work! But don’t take my word for it; here’s Clooney’s Major Gates and his commanding officer near the movie’s start:
Major Gates: I don’t even know what we did here. Just tell me what we did here, Ron!
CO: What do you want? To occupy Iraq and go through Vietnam all over again? Is that what you want? Is that your brilliant idea?
Later in the movie, Gates is trying to convince a rebel fighter to give him a fleet of cars in order to rescue a soldier. The fighter says he has no money for food, prompting Gates to launch into pep rally mode:
Major Gates: Listen to me! We will rise up together! Rise up! Look at us! Many races, many nations, working together. We’re united. George Bush — George Bush wants you! Stand up for yourself!
Rebel: George Bush?
Gates: Yes! Wants you! Wants you! Wants everyone to rise up! George Bush wants you! He wants you! You have to fight for freedom on your own, and America will follow! God bless America and God bless a free Iraq! [cheers of throngs] Now what do you say, my friend?
Rebel: Can not give car.
Gates: Okay. I guess we’ll buy ’em.
Interestingly, the only character who’s “right” is the one who just wants to take the gold and leave the locals to their ugly fate. He’s the one (played by Mark Wahlberg) that gets tortured by an Iraqi soldier who’s been trained by the U.S. and who â€” in another wonderfully prescient moment â€” begins his interrogation by asking, “What is the problem with Michael Jackson?”
I don’t want to make this out as simply a propaganda flick, nor an anti-war diatribe. While Three Kings ridicules the idea of liberating Kuwait and shows the revolt as something the U.S. should have supported and that would have been impossible to support, the movie is made memorable by the fantastic performances of Clooney (my favorite flick of his), Wahlberg (in the role the inspired Adam Samberg’s awful impression of him), Ice Cube (and his ring of Jesus fire), and Spike Jonze, who steals every scene he’s in. Oh, and Nora Dunn does a fantastic job as the media-embed who’s clearly patterned after Christiana Amanpour. If you’ve never seen Three Kings, or you didn’t catch it during the decade that it presaged, do yourself a favor and watch it. Just like Major Gates, you can ask what we did over there.
For a followup, avoid David O. Russell’s next movie, I [Heart] Huckabees, and go straight to In The Loop.
(Oh, and here’s a short video by NYTimes critic A.O. Scott about Three Kings, which should give you some idea of how visually striking it is.)
So that’s my convoluted take on the Movie of the Decade. In fact, 1999 was a very important year for movies. Here’s a couple of the big ones from that year and the lessons they had for us:
- American Beauty – Middle-aged guys want to have sex with hot high school girls! Surprise!
- Election – Ditto. Oh, and Hillary Must Be Stopped.
- American Pie – Everyone wants to have sex with hot high school girls! Surprise!
- Cruel Intentions – Ditto.
- The Straight Story – Some guys don’t want to have sex with hot high school girls; they just want to visit their dying brothers by driving their riding mowers hundreds of miles.
- The Matrix – black vinyl + martial arts + wirework + lots of guns + slo-mo rotating camera – Keanu talking = revolution in action movies
- Being John Malkovich – From the beginning, Charlie Kaufman was always trying to get us into someone else’s head.
- Office Space – Kill yourself now . . .
- The Sixth Sense – . . . but don’t keep going to work after you’re dead.
- Star Wars: The Phantom Menace – All the CGI in the world doesn’t make a good movie.
- The Blair Witch Project – None of the CGI in the world apparently can make a good movie.
- and . . . Fight Club – Testosterone-fueled guys with no sense of higher purpose are capable of bringing down the world financial system.
And now . . . my favorite movies of THIS decade, in no particular order, although the first two probably are #s 1 and 2:
Favorite Movies of the Decade
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – It may be my favorite love story committed to film. If not, it’s at least the Annie Hall of the decade. Although I’d already met the woman I would marry by the time this one came out, I still carried the memory of a recent heartbreak. This collaboration between Michael Gondry and Charlie Kaufman captured so much about what we gain when we find love, and how we’ll do anything to escape the pain when we lose love. And it covers the terrain in between, when it all falls apart. It’s also quite funny and visually mind-blowing (as it were). Earlier this year, I thought about how it was the perfect sweet-spot in the arcs of Gondry and Kaufman, with the former going on to make the silly, adorable Be Kind Rewind, and the latter going on to make . . .
Synecdoche, New York (2008) – . . . the most frustratingly rewarding (or rewardingly frustrating) movie I’ve seen this decade. Unlike Cronenberg’s adaptation of Naked Lunch, it didn’t cause me to throw my hands in the air and surrender. Nor did I feel as though misinterpreting one symbol was enough to set me on a wrong path that devalued the rest of the movie. It’s an insane trek into the artistic process, for which Kaufman’s Adaptation (2002) was a mere dry run (and I loved it at the time). No, I don’t have any idea what to make of Samantha Morton’s house being perpetually on fire. (UPDATE: It looks like Roger Ebert considers it the best movie of the decade, too! But Crash? I know someone’s not gonna be happy about that . . .)
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005) – I heard about this one when Robert Downey Jr. went on Howard Stern’s show to promote it. It turned out that Stern hadn’t watched the screener DVD the studio sent over, so Downey spent the interview telling Stern about how much he would’ve enjoyed all these aspects of the movie. I filed it away, and picked it up on DVD, and thought, “Howard would’ve hated this movie.” That said, it’s right up my alley: a smartass meta-narrator, a sidekick (Val Kilmer, who’s really more of a boss) constantly taking the piss out of him, an adorable female lead (Michelle Monaghan, who we’re supposed to believe is around the same age as Downey), and a caper/crime plot that tries to pay tribute to Raymond Chandler’s LA.
Hero (2002) – My pal Sang described this as a Confucian Action Movie. It’s visually breathtaking, with fantastic wuxia action scenes, a Rashomon-ish story to tell, and some Hegelian questions about the responsibility of power and the head of state. It’s difficult to pick a favorite scene: I’m partial to the fight in the chess court in the rain, but the archers laying waste to the calligraphy school is unforgettable.
Kung-Fu Hustle (2004) – If entertainment were freebased into little crack-nuggets of entertainment, they would be this Stephen Chow movie. It’s a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, the best superhero movie of the decade, and a touching tribute to kung-fu movie legends, especially the indomitable Qiu Yuen, who became a grandmom the year this one came out. I make every houseguest of ours watch this. You’ve been warned.
Oldboy (2003) – Yeah, I feel bad that the VA Tech shooter was crazy about this movie, but he was crazy in general. It’s too simple to call it a study in the nature of revenge, but that’s the base of it. It’s a tense thriller, has one the greatest fight scenes of all time, and will leave you hollow and scorched by the end. Not in a good way.
Spirited Away (2001) – This was my first exposure to the work of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. The plot is pretty simple; a young girl and her parents are moving to a new home, take a shortcut, and end up in the spirit world, where the girl has to rescue her parents. The centerpiece of this world is a bath-house, populated by all manner of unearthly creatures. The girl “wins” by growing up, but never in a Disneyfied way. I can’t do justice to how full this world is, and how full of wonder. I once described The Triplets of Belleville thus, “It’s like being in another person’s dream; unfortunately, that person is astonishingly dull.” This movie is like being in the dream of the most interesting man in the world. Not the guy from the Dos Equis ads.
The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) – I had to put one of the Apatow / McKay / Ferrell movies on this list. I was torn between this and Anchorman, especially because this one really suffers after the first hour. That said, the first hour is awesome. I’m a sucker for supporting performances, and the camaraderie on display at the electronics store among Steve Carrell, Romany Malco, Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd is dementedly entertaining and (to me) convincing. Its peak may be when the guys are sitting out back on the loading dock, smashing fluorescent light tubes while shooting the breeze. Oh, and Jane Lynch is hysterical in her few scenes. I think Anchorman‘s funnier overall, but this one wins for not having Will Ferrell in his underwear.
American Splendor (2003) – This meta-biopic of autobiographical cartoonist Harvey Pekar somehow convinced us that Hope Davis could stand in for Joyce Brabner, a miracle in itself. My wife & I watch this each year on Pekar’s birthday. It’s a great study in the story behind the storytelling, with a career-making performance by Paul Giamatti (I wasn’t as much of a Sideways fan as most everyone else).
Memento (2000) – My wife thinks it’s funny that I didn’t remember this was from this decade, but for some reason, I kept associating it with 1995’s Usual Suspects, and thought it was from around that era. Ingeniously structured in the shape of a V; the protagonist’s anterograde amnesia forces him to recreate the scene from scratch every few minutes, while the main strand of the movie keeps jumping backwards in time, disorienting the viewer but never cheating. All the pieces are there, making the conclusion inexorable and, um, unforgettable.
Shaun of the Dead (2004) – I’m not a horror movie fan, and I’ve got a weird hangup about zombies, but this is a wonderful flick. It’s not redeemed simply by its sense of humor, but by the sheer humanness of its characters. Shaun is a fantastically realized character, full of doubts, frustrations, laziness and love for his mum and mates. And he has to save his girlfriend (who just dumped him) from a zombie plague wreaking havoc on London. It’s funny, warm, scary, and has some scenes with Bill Nighy. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?
Zodiac (2007) – No movie has ever left me feeling so carefully manipulated, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. David Fincher keeps every scene so utterly under control, carries the viewer along so expertly, with individual shots and compositions perfectly set up to convey the frustrations and obsessions of the investigation into the Zodiac killings. I can’t turn away when I’m channel-surfing.
Wasabi (2001) – It used to be an ironclad rule that every movie could be made better by adding Jean Reno. Someone let me know if that held up for The Da Vinci Code, the Pink Panther remake(s!), and Couples Retreat. Meanwhile, I’ll stick with Wasabi, which carries the tagline, “Quite Possibly The Greatest French-Language, English-Subtitled, Japanese Action-Comedy Of All Time.”
The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – My favorite Coen Bros. movie of the decade. Everyone else was taken by No Country for Old Men, but this one wins for me. Only thing that would’ve made it better is if Billy Bob Thornton‘s character never managed to get out a word of dialogue, but owned the movie via voice-over.
Millions (2004) – Another one of my contrary picks. Everyone else loves Slumdog Millionaire, but my favorite Danny Boyle movie of the decade is this little gem. It sorta retells Boyle’s first movie, Shallow Grave, from a child’s perspective. Two young brothers find a suitcase filled with money. There are two catches:
- it’s in pounds, and the UK is moving over to Euros at the end of the month, so they need to spend it all before the changeover, and
- the people who stuffed the money in the suitcase want it back.
The protagonist, a young boy whose mother recently died and who obsesses over The Lives of the Saints, is a wonder. Go watch this.
Light Keeps Me Company (2000) – A documentary about the wonderful cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. He lit one of my favorite flicks, Another Woman, and this teasing out of his story by his son, as Sven decays from aphasia, is heartrending and wonderful.
Napoleon Dynamite (2004) – I saw this with two friends who did not get the joke. I tried not to laugh too hard, because I was staying at their place that week, and thought it’d be rude. Later, I watched it with my girlfriend, and we fell out laughing. I was glad to find that this wasn’t just an instance where I was being weird.
In Bruges (2008) – I’d managed never to see a Colin Farrell movie before this. I only knew him from his Page Six escapades, so I was pleasantly surprised about how good a comic actor he is. This one’s a small scale crime movie, fitting in behind Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, but the story’s so sharply constructed around the performances of Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson (and a ferociously mean Ralph Fiennes) that I’ll go back to it repeatedly.
In The Loop (2009) – A verbal tour-de-farce (as it were) about the buildup to war. It plays off of UK/U.S. relations and expectations, features one of the most foul-mouthed characters of all time (Peter Capaldi, whom I’d last seen in Local Hero, shot 25 years earlier, looking all innocent), and needs multiple viewings, since you’re likely to be laughing too hard at one line to catch the next.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) – I hated this movie when I first saw it. I had that reaction with Rushmore, too, but now love it, so I think I just have an instinctual wariness about Wes Anderson‘s brand of preciosity. Now I understand and accept that he creates elegant little jewel-boxes and I adore this flick, about a mutant version of J.D. Salinger’s Glass siblings revisited by their long-lost, ne’er-do-well dad.
Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Anchorman, The Incredibles, 300, Borat, Role Models, Adaptation, Ghost World, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Darjeeling Limited, Be Kind Rewind, Superbad, Man on Wire, Bad(der) Santa, the whole Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Pootie Tang (just kidding).
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What It Is: 3/2/09
What I’m reading: Montaigne & Clive James. Oh, and I started Liar’s Poker, on my new Kindle!
What I’m listening to: My new Mad Mix CD, and a couple of Kate Bush records.
What I’m watching: The Darjeeling Limited, Synecdoche, New York, and Adaptation.
What I’m drinking: Blue Point Blueberry Ale, and Plymouth & Q Tonic.
What Rufus is up to: Finally playing with the other dogs on his Saturday dog-park visit! It helped that one of his grey-pals was there and sociable.
Where I’m going: Nowhere special, but we’re hoping to get into a nice restaurant next Saturday to celebrate my wife’s birthday.
What I’m happy about: I survived a weekend at home without Amy, my first since late 2005.
What I’m sad about: The death of my wife’s grandmother (the prompt for Amy to be away this weekend). She was always alright to me, even if she was a little confused about who I was sometimes.
What I’m pondering: Synecdoche, New York. I have a feeling that movie’s going to be in my head for a long time.
Apart, the Hole
I saw Synecdoche, New York on Friday afternoon and I’ve spent this weekend trying to parse what I saw, heard and felt. I’ve even been struggling with the metaphor of how it’s affected me; I don’t want to ape the ongoingly-dying lead character by saying it’s infected me like a virus. I think it’s more like ink in water, gently dispersing, ever obscuring.
I don’t feel bad that I can’t come up with the right words. Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis both loved the movie, but neither of them seem to have the vocabulary to approach it. Ebert comes closer in this blog-post about it, but he’s still barking at cats. Robert Wilonsky named it his favorite movie of 2008, but didn’t review it for his paper. He did get in a good interview with writer/director Charlie Kaufman. (Rex Reed’s negative review is pretty funny, in its way.)
I watched Adaptation on Saturday night, in hopes that it would provide some clues into Synecdoche, since it seemed to be the most thematically similar of Mr. Kaufman’s previous screenplays. I was completely wrong, of course. Adaptation is about a man who can’t start, and Synecdoche is about a man who can’t stop. Also, Synecdoche isn’t about writing, but dying. It’s also a million times funnier than Adaptation, and the women are amazing. (Like Ebert, I won’t write about the actors or their performances.) Unfortunately, I caught a 1 p.m. screening, so the other dozen audience members were generally elderly people. They didn’t find it as humorous as I did.
For all the difficulties in the movie, I never felt like I was being sneered at by Mr. Kaufman. It felt more like he was struggling to convey the ineffable, knowing it’s ineffable. I still don’t get why Samantha Morton’s house was on fire, but this isn’t the sort of movie where misreading a symbol will derail your entire experience with it. At least, it wasn’t for me.
I almost drove back into NYC on Saturday to watch it again, but the DVD is coming out on March 10, so I preordered it. I have a feeling that I’ll ramble more about this movie in the next few months.