Month: February 2011

Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer, Vern

Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer, Vern

Titan, 2010, 420 pages, C$18.95 tp, ISBN 978-1-84856-371-1

Let’s put it as straight as Vern would: If you’re a reasonably smart moviegoer and you’re not reading, then you’re missing out on one of the best movie reviewers writing today.  His self-assigned beat is, basically, “movies for guys”: action movies, horror movies, thrillers… but it’s always a treat to see him occasionally venture out of that demographic segment.  He combines a deep knowledge of film with serious analytical skills and an entertaining online persona.  He may still make intentional use of faux-dumb neologisms as “filmatism” and “web sights”, but there’s a lot of keen intelligence behind the plain-speaking outlaw façade. (Accordingly, his only recorded use of the word façade is in a review he has since half-disavowed.)  With Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer, you too can get a selection of his best online writing in one handy paper package.

Ignoring the possibility that “Vern” is a pseudonym for someone with an established track record, this is Vern’s second professionally-published paper book: His first was Seagalogy, a surprisingly worthwhile book-length study of the film of Steven Seagal.  This time, most of Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer is material reprinted from Vern’s web site, bringing together more than ten years’ worth of content in one handy package that makes for perfect bathroom reading.

Despite the obvious jokes about paying for content you can get online for free, there’s an obvious added value to collections of online content.  On an obvious level, Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer comes with a generous amount of organizing, contextualizing, footnotes amending the original text and a bit of copy-editing as well.  The book is divided in sections prefaced by original introductions, and the familiar typography is certainly easier to read than outlawvern’s default white-on-black-with-red-highlights site layout.  But there’s also a less-obvious value in selecting content for print publication, picking the best or most representative pieces in one single package.  The cognitive savings in not having to navigate a web site in order to read scattershot reams of content are usually underestimated by the why-pay crowd: Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer offers a controlled reading experience, coherent mini-theses and the opportunity to send a few honest bucks (um, cents) to the hard-working author.

Divided in thirteen sections, Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer starts and ends firmly in action-movie territory, as the Die Hard-inspired title may imply.  When you start a book with a review of 300 and end it with a section dedicated to one Bruce Willis, it’s hard to argue that the book doesn’t deliver for action fans.  But there are plenty of big and small delights in-between.  Vern is able to write entertainingly about obscure films; few other reviewers can make readers hunt down long-forgotten movies as effectively as he does.  (I suspect that his commentaries are more entertaining that some of the movies he describes, but that goes without saying.)  Even in discussing films far from the “movies for guys” beat, Vern is reliably entertaining: His takes on films such as Crash (2005), Garfield and The Real Cancun show what happens when a reviewer brings his acknowledged biases to a different kind of film and writes for an appropriate audience.  From time to time, his reviews are springboard to larger concerns (such as the place of the American male in contemporary society, or the debate about the Hostel-inspired Torture Porn horror craze).  Some sections of the book are meant to form a sustained argument: After suffering through Transformers and being aghast at the “summer movies aren’t supposed to be good” argument, Vern revisits some of the best summer genre movies of the past and, in doing so, pretty much demonstrates that laziness from filmmakers and viewers is no excuse.

The result is quite a bit more valuable than a reprint of online reviews: It’s a great time in company of an articulate, sympathetic and knowledgeable critic who wants, in his own fashion, to raise the level of discourse surrounding popular genre movies.  Even in discussing movies that are -at best- forgettable exploitation films, Vern can be counted upon to make one or two observations worth our time.  Trust me on this: You want to be reading, and there’s no better introduction to Vern than Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer.

Gasland (2010)

Gasland (2010)

(On DVD, February 2011) In looking at environmental issues, there’s often a naïve and comforting tendency to believe that the worst excesses are behind us, somewhere in distant history.  Surely, no one will be stupid enough again to build unfiltered smokestacks leading to acid rain, or expand a residential neighbourhood over buried toxic landfill like what happened at Love Canal.  So it is that one of the most depressing facets of Gasland, Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated exploration of natural gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is the realization that this has all happened in the past ten years.  Helped along by a deregulatory framework approved by the Bush administration, tens of thousands of fracking sites have been established and Fox takes us on a damning tour of some of them.  The process upsets natural geology to such a degree that it contaminates drinking water with industrial waste and escaping natural gas, condemning ordinary people to pay for alternate sources of water, fall sick to neurological diseases, live under the threat of explosions or see their rural neighbourhood turn deadly for wildlife.  Much of this is happening on public lands, or within tranquil rural communities once people accept payoffs (er, “mineral royalties”) for what’s happening underground.  Fox’s elegantly mournful tone is unexpectedly effective in creating pure outrage, and part of the film’s effectiveness is seeing Fox become more self-assured both in content and in presentation as the film advances.  The natural gas industry is ineffective in presenting a credible defence: on the other hand, Fox traces a clear path between government deregulation, industry lobbying, environmental degradation and grass-root consequences: He build his case from the ground up, and we can’t help but think that one of the reasons why fracking has become such a problem in such a short time is that for the longest time, its consequences have been on isolated and rural ordinary people, far away from the urban centers of environmentally-concerned citizen.  It remains to be seen what can be done to turn this practice around: Official government entities aren’t doing much; some politicians seem comprehensively paid-off by the industry; and there seems to be some outrage fatigue in the US after the overwhelming Bush years.  And that’s not even going into the various ways the US government is structurally corrupt by design.  Even the conviction that natural gas industry executives are due for a heck of a karmic retribution won’t help anyone in the short-term.  On the other hand, Gasland may still help people outside the US: there’s been a lot of discussion about shale gas extraction in Quebec lately, and the wind is definitely blowing toward far-stronger environmental regulations.  Gasland, which circulated widely in 2010 (excerpts of it even being shown on mainstream TV news about shale gas extraction) may have helped.  It’s not much and it’s far too late to help US citizen, but faced with such a bleak portrait of public environmental degradation, it’s best to take all the good news we can find.

Shine, Edited by Jetse de Vries

Shine, Edited by Jetse de Vries

Solaris, 2010, 453 pages, £7.99 pb, ISBN 978-1-906735-66-1

Sometimes, when I get bored reviewing books, I take on self-imposed challenges.  Many of them are self-defeating.  Some are just silly.  A few have gotten me in trouble.  But some are interesting style exercises, such as Can you review a themed anthology without saying anything meaningful about any of the individual stories?

Most of the time, that’s simply not possible.  As much as anthologists would like us to appreciate all of their hard work in delivering themed anthologies with carefully-picked stories, there’s rarely more to see in the package than stories around a common, sometimes arbitrary theme.  “Oh, some Sherlock Holmes mysteries”.  “Oh, a book of cat-detective stories.”  Shine is different.  It’s “an anthology of near-future optimistic science-fiction”

It says a lot about the current state of SF that we’re at a point where this kind of theme would be noteworthy.  Simplifying outrageously, SF as a literary genre tends to be manic-depressive, with phases of excitement alternating between cycles of depression.  The manic excitement of cyberpunk may have followed the dour catastrophes of the seventies, but the genre currently seems stuck in a gloomy phase, reeling from the aftershocks of the Bush administration and associated traumas.  In-between milestones such as The Windup Girl, The Road and one-note symphonies of gloooooomy “Year’s best SF” anthologies, the fact that an anthology of optimistic near-future SF would get people excited is itself noteworthy, and a welcome push-back against the prevailing atmosphere.

We’re also lucky that this someone would happen to be Jetse de Vries, an oversized personality who managed to transform his vision in a coherent book.  Thanks to his introduction (in which he clearly outlines the goal of his anthology) and individual notes on each story detailing how he got in touch with the authors, de Vries transforms Shine from an anthology to a sustained think-piece, each story flowing into the next.  If Shine can be discussed without paying attention to the stories themselves, it’s because it feels like a substantial piece of work by itself

It probably helps that the universes imagined in Shine’s sixteen stories end up sharing quite a number of common assumptions.  I don’t think that’s an accident: Today’s fears about the future are clearly defined, and so are our best hopes for salvation.  As a result, the fiction collected here is heavy on globalization, social equality, environmentalism as a way of life, tightly-connected communication networks and a long-term vision that goes beyond the next quarterly report.  I’m pleased, after years of having internalized the notion that “there’s no common future any more”, to discover that there can actually be a vision for a better tomorrow… and that it doesn’t look like classical Science Fiction as much as a trawl through interesting blogs.

That’s as good a reason as any to discuss Shine’s list of contributors, and how it doesn’t look like the usual slate of suspects you can find in other SF anthologies.  Flipping through the list of authors, I notice only two established SF writers, may up-and-comers, a lot of non-Americans (this is significant), a few scientists, some bloggers (heck, even a regular commenter on blogs I read) and others whose biography escapes any easy categorization.  At a time where genre SF is contemplating its own insularity, this too is a welcome change.

This diversity of voices goes hand-in-hand with de Vries’ up-to-the-moment use of social media tools to solicit stories and draw support for the anthology.  Since the project’s beginning, de Vries has been updating a web site and tweeting, getting in contact with newer authors in this fashion.  (I’m probably breaking my vow to not say anything substantial about individual stories by pointing out that one of them is written Twitter-style.)  The impression that de Vries’ enthusiastic use of modern communications suggests is a demonstration of his own thesis: there’s still a bit of wonder in seeing how an individual can assemble not just an anthology of this global reach, but a social community of like-minded people by using tools freely available to all.  (And lest you think that this was just a promotional effort, note that the Twitter feed is still active as of February 2011, nearly a year after the release of the book.)  In some ways, Shine is the first true major twenty-first century SF anthology, inconceivable and impossible even ten years earlier.

The flip-side of such a strong editorial presence and crisp premise is that the project can overshadow the stories to a point where a review can dispense of discussing them entirely.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing for the project, or the anthologist himself, but the poor authors may have to read other reviews in order to get their kudos.  Fortunately, thanks to our bright current future, that too is just another web search away…

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, Don Thompson

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, Don Thompson

Anchor Canada, 2009 reprint of 2008 original, 268 pages, C$22.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-385-66678-7

One of the reasons why I’m reading and reviewing mostly non-fiction books these days is that the real world seems to have, in its quasi-infinite diversity, a lot more to offer than the well-trodden pathways of fiction.

For instance, it’s hard to imagine a fictional universe more irrational than the high-end contemporary art market.  What could possibly motivate otherwise intelligent and accomplished people to drop a few million dollars on objects of dubious artistic value?  Damien Hirsch’s titular artwork, after all, is £50,000’s worth of dead shark, preservation fluid, glass and steel.  Why would it be worth so much more to collectors, galleries, auction houses and dealers?  As contemporary art becomes baffling to the average viewer, why does it continue to fetch such high prices?

The simplest answer is a variation on “It’s crazy!”  But that’s the kind of explanation made to annoy every professional economist, trained to believe in the rationality and efficiency of the marketplace.  In other words, it’s a perfect research opportunity for academic economist Don Thompson, who sets out to understand the business of contemporary art in less than three hundred pages.

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark ends up being a far more revealing journey than anyone could expect.  If you want to start somewhere, go with the buyers and collectors.  One of the smartest passages of the book illustrates just how rich big-time art collectors actually are: Twelve million dollars, at their level of income, is something like a week’s salary –substantial, sure, but not crippling.  The buyers are from all around the world, and many of them are on a quest for social respectability.  How best to prove their upward mobility and refined artistic tastes than to display a work from a familiar name?  Some buy sight-unseen; others will borrow the work for a few weeks to see how it fits in their décor.  Other will buy for investment opportunities, but even Thompson (who has since joined the staff of The Art Economist magazine, a periodical aimed at art collectors/investors) cautions that overall, most art never sells for more than it was bought at.

Most artists, after all, reach a plateau; most art ends up stored somewhere; museums have more art than they can display (leading to a credible argument for museums selling work); and most would-be investors never see a return on most of their investments.  This makes art a risky investment, but not a hopeless one, because some work from some artists do appreciate, and everyone is in a race to identify the next hot artists before they hit big-time prices.

From that starting point, we get to explore art auctions, auction houses, the dance between dealers and their competitors, the increasing importance of art fairs and the artists that are getting most of the attention nowadays.  Get ready to distinguish your Saatchis from your Christies and maybe even appreciate some work from Jeff Koons and other contemporary artists.  One of the best chapters in the book explains the curious psychology of auctions in a wonderful wealth of subtle details that show how people react in constrained situations.

Even fast readers shouldn’t be surprised if they remain glued to the book for a while.  Thompson covers his subject through anecdotes, interviews, historical information, plenty of money figures and a few illustrations along the way.  Avowedly inspired by Freakonomics, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark becomes a layman’s introduction to contemporary art from a non-artistic perspective.  Thompson doesn’t spend a lot of time on quality judgement, except to suggest that if there is considerable disagreement as to what is a good art piece, it’s easy to quantify what is an expensive art piece.  This should make most artists and connoisseurs wince, but it’s an essential assumption if the book is to explain the field as it is rather than how it should be.

Ironically, Thompson’s book feels like dense reading in part because it doesn’t skimp on telling anecdotes, biographical profiles and preliminary conclusions on the state of the field.  I found it to be absorbing –I didn’t want to miss anything, so I ended up reading it very slowly to be sure to keep up with Thompson’s thorough exploration of the relationships between the various players involved in the field.  Perhaps more tellingly, I bought this book in the wake of the excellent “Pop Life” exhibition of contemporary art at the National Gallery of Canada, and now regret that I can’t go back to the gallery to see a few Warhols, Koonses, Hirsches and other darlings of the contemporary art market.  Thompson may have focused strictly on the economics of the market, but he may be able to stoke up a continued interest in the art.

Incendies (2010)

Incendies (2010)

(In theaters, February 2011) French Canadian cinema is best-known for comedies and historical pieces rather than globe-spanning dramas, and that’s a good part of why Incendies feels so satisfying.  Spanning thirty years and two continents, the film is kicked off by posthumous revelations that send Montréal-based twins to the Middle East (specifically Lebanon, although the film is careful to invent place names and never specify countries) where they eventually piece together a set of terrible family secrets.  While borrowing a few tricks from the thriller playbook (Guns! Explosions!  Torture!), this is a serious drama more than anything else.  Bouncing in time between the contemporary odyssey of the twins and the events of their mother’s life, Incendies has scope, dramatic depth and feels like a world-class production.  The actors are exceptional (Lubna Azabal is particularly good, but it’s also hilarious to see Remy Girard show up in another Oscar-nominated film), the direction is solid and the film features some wide-screen cinematography along the way, despite a comparatively small budget and source material adapted from a stage play.  This is a film to chew on for a while, in its operatic themes of redemption and blinding truth.  Deservedly nominated for an Academy Award, Incendies also marks an odd development for Quebec cinema: a film that uses Montréal as a framing device for a story that takes place elsewhere.  It’s good to see the local film industry look outside once in a while.

The Discovery of the Titanic, Robert D. Ballard

The Discovery of the Titanic, Robert D. Ballard

Warner Books, 1998 reprint of 1987 original, 287 pages, $13.99 tp, ISBN 0-446-67174-6

I know that Titanic-mania is so 1997-1998, but there’s no expiration date for good books.  I’ve had Robert Ballard’s The Discovery of the Titanic in my to-read stack for nearly forever and now seems as good a time to read it as ever.

An account of the discovery of the Titanic shipwreck by the oceanographer in charge of the expedition, The Discovery of the Titanic sometimes feels like a throwback to the heroic era of exploration.  It’s not much of a stretch to point out that less than six months elapsed between Roald Amundsen’s December 1911 expedition to the South Pole (the Earth’s last great unexplored frontier) and the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912.  A frontier opened even as another one closed, as generations of curious observers wondered about the exact location of the wreck.

It wasn’t as simple as looking somewhere near the approximate location of the Titanic’s last know position.  Given the depth at which the ship sank, no attempt could be made until technology improved.  Several expeditions simply couldn’t find the wreck.  Meanwhile, popular culture spun its own tales: As a kid, I remember being told fanciful tales of how the wreckage of the ship was still traveling underwater, moved by underwater currents to circle the world.  As amazing at it may sound, it wasn’t until nearly sixty years later, in 1985, that the wreckage was found once again –four kilometres down on the Atlantic ocean floor and broken up in two pieces six hundred meters apart.  Overnight, historical accounts of the ship’s sinking were revised, as common wisdom until then (As reflected in such things as Clive Cussler’s overblown thriller Raise the Titanic!) held that the ship had sunk in one piece.

The discovery of the wreck, far from dampening interest in the story of the ocean liner, revived interest in the matter and eventually led to James Cameron’s blockbuster 1997 movie.  A minor boom in Titanic-related publishing occurred to coincide with the film’s success, and this re-edition of Ballard’s 1987 book, revised to take in account the latest discoveries, was part of the mania.

Still, discounting fads, there’s little doubt that this is one of the essentials on every bookshelf dedicated to the Titanic.  While it doesn’t seem to be in print at the moment, it’s a first-hand account of the discovery of the wreck by the lead discoverer himself, has been favourably reviewed, frequently cited by latter works and is still fascinating to read even a quarter of a century later.  There are better accounts of the sinking itself, and more complete examinations of the wreck (some of them by Ballard himself), but when it comes to describing the moment of the discovery itself, this is the source.

The book does feature a summarized account of the sinking; just enough to set the scene, provide context and prepare readers for the discovery.  Ballard also provides an overview of the previous failed efforts to find the wreck, not sparing one or two barbs at his predecessors.  Describing his own attempt to put together an expedition of his own, Ballard is notably coy about the now-known deal he made with the US Navy to get funding in exchange for exploring US nuclear submarines wrecks prior to his own search for the Titanic.

The world had to wait until a French/American 1985 expedition, using what was then state-of-the-art technology, for the wreck of the Titanic to be found. Ballard’s account of the discovery, in the wee hours of the morning, remains the book’s best passage.  He’s also candid in describing the aftermath, the way the discovery escaped in the press before they had a communication strategy to go along the scientific agenda, and the difficulties dealing with the media circus that accompanied his return to shore.  Ballard’s factual description of the debris found in the field underneath which the Titanic sank is curiously effective in describing the human element of the tragedy.  The book comes with a full-color insert showing beautiful illustrations showing the state of the wreck in 1985.

The Discovery of the Titanic also explain why, as discussed in the afterword of the 1995 edition, Ballard did not raise any artefact from the site –a decision that eventually let others take possession of the wreck under maritime salvage law.  As of this writing, the Titanic wreck is property of a for-profit company putting together traveling museum shows, the debris field has been picked clean of artefacts and numerous visits to the site have left the wreck in far worse shape.  We may want to enjoy the thought of having access to the wreckage site, because chances are that it will be gone, rusted beyond recognition, within a few more decades.  Isn’t it remarkable to realize that the Titanic may have a shorter life as a known site than a lost legend?