The Nasty Bits, Anthony Bourdain

<em class="BookTitle">The Nasty Bits</em>, Anthony Bourdain

Bloomsbury, 2007 reprint of 2006 original, 288 pages, C$16.50 tp, ISBN-978-1-59691-360-8

In my continued quest to read all of Anthony Bourdain’s written output, I am now left to digest the “collected varietal cuts, usable trim, scraps and bones” of his career so far.  Or, in more prosaic terms, a collection of various pieces written following the runaway success of Kitchen Confidential and his rise as a celebrity food writer.  The Nasty Bits brings together 36 non-fiction pieces, accompanied by a fiction novelette and an essential appendix that comments on the various pieces.  The non-fiction content is subdivided in thematic seconds meant to evoke the five basic tastes, but the real flavour here is Bourdain’s punk-rock approach to food and travel writing.

A standout piece, for instance, is “Food and Loathing in Las Vegas”, a Hunter S. Thompson-inspired piece in which Bourdain describes his first visit to the new Las Vegas food scene.  As entertaining commentary wrapped in semi-fictional homage to its source material, it’s a laugh –and prior to Bourdain’s influence, it’s not always the kind of writing you could find in food/travel magazines.  Much of The Nasty Bits is unpretentious travel writing liberally seasoned with descriptions of good food: Bourdain’s prose is seldom less than fascinating, and he’s got a knack for living interesting experiences.  They don’t all have to involve eating strange new bugs in third-world countries: In “The Love Boat”, Bourdain tries to survive on a posh cruise liner with an in-cabin kitchenette and an on-board gourmet grocer: It’s a look at high-end decadent living from a reformed line cook, and it’s about as interesting a confrontation of world-views as you can imagine.  (More importantly, Bourdain manages to cook a perfect risotto with what he’s given on-board.)

Other pieces stand out for less-charming reasons.  Bourdain’s never been shy to criticize what he sees as being wrong with food culture, and in “Woody Harrelson: A Culinary Muse” takes aim at the actor for insisting on a vegan diet and ignoring what local food culture had to offer while traveling abroad.  Such openness to world cuisine (and Asian food in general) is a hallmark of Bourdain’s writing, and several other pieces document his growing fascination with the world of gastronomic possibilities.  An interesting pair of pieces in this regard are “Notes from the Road” and “Die, Die Must Try”, presenting Bourdain’s brutal first visit to Singapore and a far friendlier follow-up.

Such growth as a person and as a writer is an essential part of The Nasty Bits, allowing us to follow Bourdain’s quick evolution as Kitchen Confidential, then his TV shows, gradually opened more possibilities for him.  From a humble cook with a troubled past to a world-traveling food writer, Bourdain has grown up in public in the six years between Kitchen Confidential and The Nasty Bits, and this evolution is reflected here in many ways, between pieces but also in the second thoughts that ends the book.  In “Sleaze Gone By”, he wears his scrappy New York formative influences like a badge of honour in recalling with some fondness the rougher pre-Giuliani neighbourhoods he used to frequent.  But significantly, the back of the book commentary takes it back: “A pretty glib, wildly over-romanticized look at the New York City of my misspent youth.” [P.285])

Some other pieces stand out because of their unusual subject matter.  In “Warning Signs”, Bourdain describes a well-known London steakhouse chain and itemizes ten reasons why the place ought to be closed down; “The Good, Old Stuff” discusses how several restaurants still serve unfashionable food straight from decades past; “Viva Mexico! Viva Ecuador” pays tribute to the hard-working immigrants toiling away in American kitchens; “When the Cooking’s Over” discusses what chefs do after their shift is done, with several examples in various cities; “The Cook’s Companion” provides an essential bibliography of great writing about the real life of restaurants; and “System D” borrows from the French to explain one of the essential traits of any competent kitchen worker.

A special mention should also be made of “A Chef’s Christmas”, which showcases Bourdain’s fiction credentials to a wider audience.  The piece itself isn’t particularly refined (it self-consciously relies on a rich deus ex snowstorm to provide a happy ending, and seems to hop in-between half a dozen characters’ viewpoint almost at random in only thirty pages.) but it’s an entertaining change of pace from the non-fiction pieces and as witty as Bourdain can be.

All of it amounts to a collection that Bourdain fans will find essential.  The Nasty Bits is not the best introduction to Bourdain’s work (For that, try Kitchen Confidential, or the No Reservation TV series), but it’s a good satisfying read.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, May 2011) Expectations ran high for this spin-off to the swashbuckling action/adventure trilogy of 2003-2007, but few expected this follow-up to be this… dull.  Despite sporting the same screenwriting team than the first films, this fourth entry feels flat, unremarkable and even boring at times.  The scale of everything has been scaled back (there are noticeably fewer special effects set-pieces, and not a single sea battle), while the sense of fun that seemed so contagious in the first two-third of the series seems lessened as well.  The first few scenes show how off-track the film feels, with broad comedy that fails to amuse, familiar hum-drum action beats and incoherent plotting.  Those who couldn’t get enough of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow will reconsider as the series tries to promote him to protagonist status, putting far too much dramatic demands on a trickster/comic foil character.  While neither Depp nor Penelope Cruz as the feisty Angelica do badly, they’re not very well served by a script that feels noticeably uneven, even sloppy to the point of confusing the audience.  The film even feels cheap at times, its climax taking place on an obvious soundstage, three groups clashing without much of a sense of involvement.  There are a number of scenes that work well (the palm tree escape shows flashes of the madcap action sequences that made the first two films of the series so memorable), but they never sustain any kind of narrative energy.  (A sequence set aboard a perilously-perched derelict Spanish galleon ends up noticeably short, to the point of cheating viewers.)  In fact, the surprise about this film is how much intriguing material it squanders without care.  You’d think that it would take work to mess up something involving mermaids, Blackbeard, the Fountain of Life, bottled ships, Keith Richards, Gemma Ward and Judi Dench in a split-second cameo… and yet the film unspools without raising too much excitement.  Even the film’s link to Tim Powers’ fantasy novel On Stranger Tides is slight: the film is “suggested by” the novel, but it seems more like a case of retroactive acknowledgement of the first film’s debt than any correspondence to the written work.  This way, at least, Powers gets plausible deniability when people will ask him about the mess that is the film itself.

The Perfect Thing, Steven Levy

<em class="BookTitle">The Perfect Thing</em>, Steven Levy

Simon & Schuster, 2006, 284 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-7432-8522-3

I am not an Apple fanboy.  In the great PC/Mac debate, I will forever be against the paternalistic walled-ecosystem paradigm represented by Apple.  I held out as long as I could before buying an iPod Touch, and it was only because I had to admit that it was the best PDA available on the market.  But you know what?  I love my iPod.  I jailbreak it as soon as I can as a matter of principle (I feel entitled to access the file system of every computer I own), but I love it.  It does what I expect of it, and quite a bit more.  I started ripping MP3s in 1999 and have owned a variety of MP3-playing devices from the RioVolt SP250 to the Palm Tungsten T2, but my iPod Touch 2G (and now, 4G) has easily been the best.

Such a sentiment is widespread enough that it is the bedrock of Steven Levy’s The Perfect Thing, a book dedicated to what was then the iPod in its classic scroll-wheel form.  (Not even the touch version, introduced a year after the book.)  Levy, a technology journalist with an interest in cultural issues, makes a convincing case that the iPod represents a fundamental shift in our relationship with music, and doesn’t miss a facet of the iPod culture in the way he studies the history and development of the iPod, its impact on music listening and its consequences on our own individuality.

Levy is so fascinated by the concept of “Shuffling”, in fact, that The Perfect Thing comes in numerous versions, with autonomous middle chapters “shuffled” in a different order from one copy to the other.  (We are wisely warned of this in the book’s opening “Author’s Note”.)  However novel, this idea ends up being a clumsy experiment.  As a reader, I believe in the development of ideas, in arguments building atop each other, in context being established before an explanation of consequences.  However independent Levy has designed his chapters, some of them still read as out of order in my copy of The Perfect Thing: The “Apple” chapter describing Apple and Steve Jobs come late in the book, setting up Job’s formidable reputation too late to be effective; tragically, it follows the Origins chapter that details how Jobs’ incessant attention to detail was a major factor in the iPod’s polish.  Some chapters about the second-order effect of the iPod’s feature are at the beginning of my copy of the book, which takes away from the development of Levy’s thesis.  So, conclusion: no shuffling in books, okay?

This nit put aside, The Perfect Thing is, even five years and two technological generations later, still one of the ultimate books about the iPod.  It’s filled with interesting, even little-known information.  It draws conclusions about the behaviour of iPod users that have been validated by the time since then.  In fact, I suspect that the book is so good that it makes assumptions that are completely self-obvious now.  One of the most interesting things about consumer electronic progress is the way their constant daily use quickly overwrites our memories of how things used to be.  Say that the iPod was not for sale until the end of 2001 and your audience will furrow their brows and say “Really?” The iPad?  Introduced in April 2010, not even 18 months ago as I edit this review.  The iPod and its inspired competitors have been a part of our daily lives for so long that it’s hard to remember previous modes of music consumption.  Shuffle, as Levy loves to point out, is an almost-entirely digital-music concept: Before then, you were lucky (and well-off) if you owned a CD jukebox that could slowly shuffle between five or ten CDs.  Otherwise, it was a strictly linear listening experience, even if you were a mix-tape whiz.  (I had to laugh in recognition when Levy described how memories of one song could blend with the memory of the transition between the previous and next song on the same disc)

The chapter on the development of the iPod is a crystal-clear example of good tech journalism, and it’s an eloquent testimony about the need for end-user polishing in the development cycle.  Levy builds the product’s features into a platform that changes the way people think of themselves and others (especially if music is an important part of their self-identity), the way Apple have taken existing technological trends to fashion a workable ecosystem for media delivery (something that’s even truer now than in 2006) and the self-expression possibilities of the podcast, something now obvious that wasn’t even practical to any but a privileged few a decade ago.

The proof of The Perfect Thing’s thesis and conclusions could be found all around me as I enjoyed reading the book on my daily bus commute.  It took me six rides to read the book, and every single time, in the small universe of the twenty people lodged at the back of the bus where I sit, I could never see fewer than two (and often as high as seven) personal devices either branded Apple or inspired by it.  The iPod is indeed the perfect thing of our time.

Tigerland (2000)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Tigerland</strong> (2000)

(On DVD, May 2011) Director Joel Schumacher’s public profile arguably peaked in the late nineties with his disastrous stint as the director of the two worst Batman movies ever made.  Upon its release, Tigerland had been hailed as a return to form for the director and it’s easy to see why even a decade later: A Vietnam movie set entirely stateside, this drama studies the gradual transformation of a cynical young man as he goes through infantryman training in anticipation of a foreign deployment.  The harsh reality of the training is well-depicted, but it’s really then-unknown Colin Farrell’s performance as Roland Bozz that holds all the attention.  Mirroring contemporary audiences’ mindset, Bozz knows that Vietnam is a prodigious waste, has read all of the anti-war books and has little patience for the charade of training.  He’s a free spirit stuck in a machine grinding down everyone to the same component pieces.  It would have been easy for the film to turn into a comedy in which an unrepentant Bozz knows best, or a crude anti-war statement in which the only way out is to get out.  But Tigerland is after something slightly different in putting Bozz up against other facets of morality and the logical consequences of his own compassion.  There’s a lesson in leadership there, in reluctant responsibility and in the humanity to be found in even the most inhuman structures.  It helps that Tigerland’s dialogue are a notch over the average, and that the film feels gripping even though solely set during the training phase.  The film earned some critical notice upon release but practically no commercial success, thus qualifying for an evergreen “hidden gem” recommendation.  Never mind the often too-grainy cinematography and the impression that half the actors look like each other: This is a decent Vietnam picture, and it has a bit more than the usual in mind.

Defendor (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Defendor</strong> (2009)

(On DVD, May 2011) Let’s face it: “Canadian Superhero film” sounds eccentric already. It’s not much of a surprise when Defendor ends up being a very unusual attempt to explore a more realistic take on the idea of a superhero: a mentally challenged loner who reinvents himself as a superhero in a crime-ridden city.  Billed as a comedy and containing a few genuinely funny moments, Defendor is nonetheless a fairly dark and unglamorous take on the superhero idea: There are no magical powers here, and the superhero fantasy itself is arguably laid bare as a coping mechanism by a mind unable to conceive of better alternatives.  (That it actually works may be the film’s lone concession to the demands of popular filmmaking.)  Nonetheless, the film itself is well-paced, and benefits from a superb performance by Woody Harrelson in the lead role.  Other notables such as Sandra Oh and Elias Koteas round up the cast, with a flashy cameo by Lisa Ray.  Where Defendor may end striking a wrong tone is in matters of expectations: There’s little conventional entertainment here, and the end of the film plays a bit loosely with the idea that it’s a comedy.  It’s a challenging film in its own way, and viewer’s expectations should be calibrated accordingly.

Fly Me to the Moon (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fly Me to the Moon</strong> (2008)

(On DVD, May 2011) As a life-long fan of the American Space Program, I’m amongst the most sympathetic of audiences when comes the time to see a kid’s film about the Apollo 11 moon mission.  Teenage flies going to the moon by sneaking onboard an Apollo capsule?  Well, why not: There are dumber premises out there and some of them are even titled Space Chimps.  In bits and pieces, Fly Me to the Moon works at portraying the adventure of the moon expeditions: The launch and landing sequences are nice pieces of work, a few scenes stop to breathe and play with the premise, the overall atmosphere is reverential, and Buzz Aldrin even pops up at the end to point out that no flies ever really accompanied them to the moon.  Alas, there’s the rest to consider: The scripting of the film is strictly aimed at the kids, with enough questionable plot choices to dull the edge of what could have been an adult-friendly picture.  The humour is dull, the dialogue is weak (while “Oh my Lord of the Flies!” is funny once, it doesn’t work a second time) and the plot threads barely make sense.  My appreciation of the film dropped like a stone the moment it introduced a subplot about Soviet spies: little about it made any sense, and I could have done without the introduction of fisticuffs, national rivalry and even more unanswered questions about why Soviet flies would be interested in bringing down an American mission.  The film does better when it’s about humankind-united exploration than zero-sum cheap nationalism.  (Never mind the blatant “American this, American that” content in a film made in Belgium.)  There’s a lot more to criticize, but all of it leads to the same place: Fly Me to the Moon is, at best, a bargain-basement choice for kids and a mere curiosity for space fans.

No Reservations (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">No Reservations</strong> (2007)

(On DVD, May 2011) A number of Hollywood cookie-cutter romantic films work on two levels: First, the plot engine is based on tried-and-true formula, with few surprises to offer.  Then there’s the wrapping in which the story takes place, which can focus on just about any area of human endeavour.  So it is that No Reservations is far more interesting when it describes the world of restaurant chefs and the personality quirks that come with a certain kind of hard-driven cooking professional than in the familiar story it’s trying to tell.  The dramatic and romantic entanglements are routine, but the glossy look behind the scenes of a kitchen is interesting, and the film doesn’t skimp on the small scenes that aim straight for the foodie audience.  Which is just as well, because a lot of the film’s plotting is made of short narrative loops suddenly resolved (whenever it remembers to advance the plot forward rather than show some fine cooking).  The main romantic conflict is late in coming and is over before we even realise it exists.  But for those who like food, No Reservations isn’t without interest: pure Hollywood gloss can serve some purpose when it’s focused on something delicious.  At least the actors do well: As a quasi-neurotic French cuisine perfectionist, Catherine Zeta-Jones is playing a somewhat different character than usual in one of her rare 2005-2011 roles, while Aaron Eckhart is pure charm as a quasi-slacker Italian cuisine chef.  It doesn’t amount to much of a movie, but it’s pleasant enough as a Hollywood take on the romance of cooking.  The DVD’s sole special feature is a TV special on the film that contains interesting material, but repeats itself often enough to grate and distract from the content.

More Digressions, Peter David

<em class="BookTitle">More Digressions</em>, Peter David

Mad Norwegian Press, 2009, 408 pages, $24.95 tp, ISBN 978-193523400-5

I don’t know much about the mainstream superhero-oriented comic book industry, but I do know that Peter David is one of the most entertaining “Writer of Stuff” (his own tagline) out there.  Some writers’ bibliography read like a short list of novels published at yearly intervals.  Peter’s own bibliography reads like a multimedia tour through the last twenty years of American pop culture: Aside from his own original work, his tie-in work ranges from Star Trek novels, ten superhero movie novelizations, a Babylon5 TV scripts, scripting runs on superhero comics such as Spider-Man, The Hulk and Supergirl… and much, much more.

Tying much of this work together are the regular “But I Digress” columns published in the Comics Buyer’s Guide.  Given full blessings to write about whatever he wants, Peter uses his column to discuss his life, his work, the state of the comics industry and the world at large.  I had exceptionally fond memories of the first But I Digress collection published in 1994, so it wasn’t much of a sell to make me pick up this follow-up once I was made aware that it existed.

Collecting material published between 2001 and 2008 (leaving an uncollected gap between 1994 and 2001), More Digressions is exactly what it says on the cover: “a new collection of ‘But I Digress’ columns”.  Roughly arranged in thematic sections with titles such as “Life. Don’t Talk to Me about Life”, “The Business of Comics”, “BFFs” and “Fandomonium”, the essays cover much of David’s life and work during the past decade.  David being outspoken even on the calmest of days, it’s no surprise if the book also ends up being a collection of arguments, controversies, daring proposals and public score-settling.

The first thing I realized reading More Digressions was that I had little business reading the book.  Let’s face it: the American superhero comics industry is so insular that keeping track of its mythology is a full-time hobby.  The columns collected here were published in a trade publication, aimed at readers who were fully aware of the slightest twitches and grunts of the various publishers and series.  For a very casual fan like me, parts of More Digression read like intense but meaningless squabbles about subjects that must be really important to the people involved in the discussions, but close to meaningless for anyone who’s not a comic-book store regular.  The learning curve here was steep, and I have to admit that Wikipedia helped a lot.  (Even more casual readers who feel that a book should not require Wikipedia as a reading companion may have a point, but then again every book has a specific target audience.)

Still, knowledge is one thing, and attitude is another.  From afar, reading David talk about the comic book industry and its fandom can be cause for bafflement and concern.  The comics industry is currently in crisis: it’s suffering from the rise of the paperback collection as a preferred buying format, it’s under siege from those who want to “widen” the material to appeal to the audiences hooked by Hollywood superhero movies, and it’s reaping the results of decades’ worth of catering to an obsessive 18-to-34 geeky male audience.  For creators such as David, this situation has translated into two recurring motifs: the sometimes counterproductive marketing strategies of the industry, and the rabid self-entitlement of the fans.  Reading about the dysfunctional nature of the industry and stories of fannish abuse, I felt more compelled than ever to stay as far away from the craziness of superhero comics fandom.

Of course, this is the comics universe as seen from Peter David, and that he’s perfectly entitled to be critical in his own column.  Plus, More Digression isn’t all about the business and fandom of comics: His essays about his own life and creative process are a good read, and in talking about his best friends, we get a look at such notables as Harlan Ellison (who contributes a typically self-absorbed introduction to the book), George Takei or Neil Gaiman –further proof of David’s interesting life.

More Digressions is a collection of opinions and recollections, and it’s normal that not everything works at the same level, or reaches the same interest.  I found some columns weaker than others, including a naïve take on racism that had me wincing at the lessons from the painful RaceFail debate that shook the online SF community in early 2009.  But it is Peter David’s soapbox, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff here for whoever can follow along, forgive some self-justifying entries and ignore minor trade squabbles since then forgotten.  It’s a portrait of a unique columnist, and an unvarnished look at a sometimes-demented subculture.  It’s not for everyone, but it’s exactly what it tries to be.

Streets of Legend aka Quattro Noza (2003)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Streets of Legend</strong> aka <strong class="MovieTitle">Quattro Noza</strong> (2003)

(On DVD, May 2011) It would be easy to be overly critical of this film.  The home-video graininess of the picture is matched by the script’s lack of focus, inconclusive ending and quasi-pretentious cinematography.  A hybrid between documentary and micro-budget romantic drama set alongside the Los Angeles street-racing scene, Streets of Legend often feels like a vanity project by someone who really, really wants to be taken seriously as an artist.  The result will be laughable to anyone looking for a straight-up action film.  On the other hand, there are a few things worth taking seriously here.  First would be the nature of the street-racing scenes, reportedly shot documentary-style on the streets of LA.  They would work better without the ridiculous amount of post-processing taking away from the visceral nature of the footage (some of the shots feel genuinely dangerous, but are too blurred to make an impact), but the movie shows some invention in how to shoot a racing scene with what I’m presuming was a minuscule budget.  There’s also a lot to like about the film’s characters, where they come from and where they almost go: as Street of Legends shows a car full of teenage girls bantering mindlessly while on their way to a street racing event, it’s not hard to realize that there’s a reality-based layer to the film that we haven’t seen in glossier pictures such as the Fast and the Furious series.  From time to time, the loose unscripted nature of the film’s young protagonist is almost endearing –which makes it even more frustrating when the film ends on a lazy note, barely tying up its loose ends.  Still, the end result is halfway between a documentary, a drama and an action picture without much cohesive material in-between.  The scant DVD supplementary material hints at a very unusual making-of process, but we barely get any of that on the disc.  A further alert: The film’s picture seems to have been stretched from a 4:3 aspect ratio to 1.85:1… which really doesn’t help in making the picture look any prettier.  While there isn’t much to Streets of Legend to satisfy conventional expectations, there quite a bit of unrealized potential underneath the lousy images.  It’s a shame that it wasn’t better-executed.

Fast Track: No Limits (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fast Track: No Limits</strong> (2008)

(On DVD, May 2011) As a Fast and the Furious clone, this isn’t too bad: Despite what feels like a low budget, Fast Track: No Limits cleverly tricks out what it has under the hood and delivers the honoured mixture of street racing, attractive young people, low-grade crime drama and automotive pulchritude.  Ignore the opening credits, which take the TV pilot approach of showing highlights from the film and headshots of the actors alongside their names: Within minutes, it’s easy to appreciate the glossy cinematography, European setting, likable actors and fast cars.  Fast Track doesn’t have many stunts compared to its inspiration, but they’re used effectively and make an impact when they’re on-screen.  While the rhythm of the film goes a bit flat during its second half, the attention paid to the characters is a bit better than what we could expect from a street-racing action film, and the direction is a bit nervier that one would expect.  There are a few vexing plot holes and missed opportunities (one love scene seems notably gratuitous), but it all amount to a better-than-expected action film, especially considering the low budget and straight-to-DVD pedigree.  Don’t expect anything more than the film from the DVD, which is so lacking that it doesn’t even feature subtitles –something that would have been appreciated given the bewildering salad of accents sported by the film’s actors.

Citizen Black (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Citizen Black</strong> (2004)

(On DVD, May 2011) I’m not much of a hater, but few figures lead me to gleeful schadenfreude as surely as Conrad Black, a Canadian media mogul with a reputation for savaging newsrooms, promoting an aggressive right-wing editorial agenda, renouncing his Canadian citizenship when it stood in the way of a British peerage, taking money for personal benefit from his corporations and asking for his Canadian citizenship back when it looked like the only way to get clemency from the US legal system.  His recent stint in prison during seemed unusually well-deserved (although the legal manoeuvring leading to his release were another black mark against him), and Citizen Black, despite predating his 2007 conviction, lays the case for and against Black.  Filmmaker Debbie Melnyk portrays a highly-driven man, as charming as he can be arrogant; testimonies about Black are just as eloquent in portraying the man’s complex personality.  Melnyk makes herself a part of the story in pursuing an interview with her subject and exchanging emails with him.  What’s less fortunate is the film’s made-for-TV pedigree, with low-grade sound, sometimes-awful picture quality and scatter-shot approach: It makes the film less pleasant to watch than it should have been.  At least the curt conclusion is to the point: Like Icarus, Black started with the best of intentions and became corrupted with time, flying too close to the sun before crashing down to Earth.  Citizen Black now feels exceptionally dated in the missing material (Since 2004, Black has been convicted, jailed and released; he has also released another massive presidential biography), but it still holds true as a portrait of Conrad Black.  One could even say that time has proven Melnyk right.  The cheap DVD edition lacks just about everything (there aren’t even any subtitles, which is a shame given the variable audio quality), although it does feature some documentary footage that was later subpoenaed during Black’s trial.

Family Guy: Blue Harvest (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Family Guy: Blue Harvest</strong> (2007)

(On DVD, May 2011) I’m not that familiar with the Family Guy series, so take my doubts about their Star Wars homage with a grain of salt.  Blue Harvest is a 45-minutes-long recreation of the original Star Wars, mixing in cultural references, commentary on the source film’s plotting and more usual comedy gags.  There’s some remarkable work in integrating CGI models with the Family Guy style of animation, and some of the resulting scenes almost look pretty.  Still, Star Wars fans are the primary audience here, as I’m not sure if the film can be equally appreciated by those without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the source film.  Blue Harvest is amiable enough to earn grins throughout… but it’s also far too loose to earn a recommendation.  It often seems content to recreate original scenes without making them funny, several gags are stretched far beyond their comic value, and the musical numbers outstay their welcome.  Part of the issue, we can learn from the commentary and DVD extras, is that this was a half-hour episode stretched to an hour: Some slackness can only be expected.  Other DVD extras include an interview with George Lucas (who approved of the production), and a clear sense that this way in many ways a labour of love for the creators.  (Trivial note: I end up watching this film 12 years, to the day, after The Phantom Menace’s release.)

The Business of Science-Fiction, Mike Resnick & Barry N. Malzberg

<em class="BookTitle">The Business of Science-Fiction</em>, Mike Resnick & Barry N. Malzberg

McFarland, 2010, 269 pages, ~C$35.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-7864-4797-8

Reading books about how to write are one of my not-so-secret vices.  Jaded by endless convention panels repeating the same advice, I don’t read them to learn how to write as much as to learn how other writers write.  A good how-to-write book is usually a window into an author’s career, or an inside look in the publishing business.  The best of such books will tell stories, teach real-world pitfalls and be entertaining as well.

The Business of Science-Fiction is a collection of twenty-six columns published in the Science-Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s (SFWA) trade journal “The Bulletin”.  SFWA is where speculative fiction writers go to talk shop, and it’s hard to get closer to the SF&F genre than to read its internal house publication.  For more than a decade, Mike Resnick and Barry N. Malzberg have been jointly writing a column on various aspects of SF writing and publishing.  Those columns take the form of exchanges between the two of them; Resnick usually plays the role of the optimist, with Malzberg’s gloomy outlook balancing the dialogue.

To SF fans with short memories, Resnick and Malzberg may not be the obvious choices to write authoritative columns on the current state of SF writing.  While Resnick regularly gets nominated for the shorter Hugo Award categories, it’s usually for cloying stories that seem designed to appeal to SF fans’ sense of nostalgia rather than try anything new.  Meanwhile, Malzberg’s heyday as an author dates back to the seventies, without much of a public profile since then.

But that’s being myopic.  Resnick has been tremendously influential in discovering and encouraging newer writers.  If his own fiction is a bit bland, it’s usually solidly bolted together and as we discover through the columns, he has proven uncommonly effective at reselling his stories to markets other than first-run English-language paper publication.  Few other writers in the genre are as knowledgeable about the business aspect of Science-Fiction.  Meanwhile, Malzberg has developed a reputation as a cranky historian of the field: His Breakfast in the Ruins non-fiction collection brought together a number of highly astute pieces about the state of Science-Fiction over the past decades.  Reading the columns, it’s difficult not to be impressed by the depth of his historical knowledge of the field.  More crucially, readers may not see his continuing work for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, which has let him keep an insider’s view of the business throughout the years.

The columns collected in The Business of Science-Fiction, taken together, show a snapshot of the changing publishing industry in the first decade of the twenty-first century.  Resnick and Malzberg discuss the state of the business with the benefit of long memories, but they don’t forget to question themselves in trying to figure out what is changing along the way.  They can also, writing for a professional audience, allow themselves to discuss “the next question” and pick up arguments aimed at professional writers rather than beginners.  The references they make to SF publishing’s long history are filled with interesting details, and the advice they provide feels fresh and uncompromising.  (SF convention organizers won’t like reading what they say about whether authors should attend conventions.)  The dialogue format can be entertaining to read, especially when both of them are aware of the role they have picked for themselves.  (Both refer to Malzberg as “Eeyore” more than once.)

Given that this is a re-packaging of existing content, it’s no surprise if some material and stories echo throughout the book, or that it’s not a good idea to read more than a few of the 4,000-word columns at a time.  Academic publisher McFarland has done a fine job putting the collection together, not the least feature being a complete index at the end of the book.  What’s missing, unfortunately, are dates of publication attached to each column: In discussing rapidly-changing topics such as e-books or the Google Settlement, for instance, it’s vital to know whether these are facts and opinions from 2003 or 2008.  I also can’t help but be amused at the cover design, which takes some Shutterstock stock art to suggest a dialogue between the two authors: Having seen both Resnick and Malzberg in real life more than once, it’s obvious to me that neither of the silhouetted figures are even close to them in physical appearance.

But the book does live up to its subtitle as “Two Insiders Discuss Writing and Publish”, and the quality of the advice here is good enough to justify its Hugo nomination in the non-fiction category.  Both are charming and witty to read in print, and the advice has some real-world relevance.  What more would you want from a how-to-write book?

Priest (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Priest</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, May 2011) It’s not a good sign when you can feel the film’s final act locking itself into position, think “Already?”, look at your watch and find out that the film’s barely past the 65-minutes mark.  There may not be all that much to say about Priest, but at least it has the decency to wrap things up in less than 90 minutes.  Anything more would have been wasted, mind you: Even though the film seem very loosely adapted from a presumably richer Korean graphic novel series, there just isn’t a whole lot of plot here to gnaw upon: Setup, two dramatic confrontation and we’re already on to the third act.  At least there’s a bit of eye-candy to contemplate during that time: The techno-grunge atmosphere is a bit tired, but it’s reinvigorated with the somewhat less usual industrial-western feel of the film’s middle section.  Paul Bettany also gets a good role as priest with quasi-supernatural ass-kicking powers: After seeing him in so many dramatic roles (including Charles Darwin in Creation), it’s entertaining to see him re-team with Legion’s director Scott Stewart for action-movie credentials.  Otherwise, well, Maggie Q is fine as another renegade Priest, Karl Urban chews scenery like he enjoys it and Christopher Plummer earns a pay-check as the face of the shallow-but-oppressive Church.  But it’s all flash and pretty visuals here: no depth, little originality and even less substance.  That doesn’t make it a bad film as much as it makes it a very forgettable one. The future for Priest is clear: an unceremonious DVD release, and then onward to cultural oblivion.

Watch, Robert J. Sawyer

<em class="BookTitle">Watch</em>, Robert J. Sawyer

Viking Canada, 2010, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-670-06742-8

Second volumes in trilogies are the hardest to review, in part because they offer no compelling questions to answer.  First volumes?  Easy: Reviewers can get by with a simple description of the premise, the tone, the style, the characters and end on a note that wonders about where the trilogy is going.  Final volumes?  Again, easy: The reviewer can simply say whether the final volume deviate from the style established in the series and whether it fulfills expectations.  But second volumes… In today’s highly-optimized, heavily-managed genre publishing environment, second volumes aren’t much more than bridges meant to take readers from first to final volume.  The trilogy usually being sold to the publisher and the reader as a unit, it’s in the author’s and editor’s best interest to make sure that the approach remains consistent with the first volume, and that any dramatic differences are toned down.  At best, second volumes offer a few answers, plot points and character development.  At worst, we simply turn in circles until more plot coupons are collected.

Since “What Would Robert J. Sawyer Do?” has become one of the most reliable barometers of professionalism in the written SF field, you can bet that Watch (aka WWW: Watch in the US market) does not take any radical departures from the approach and theme set in Sawyer’s previous Wake.  The series is meant to be a procedural SF thriller describing the development of an artificial conscience from the World Wide Web, and this second volume simply pushes the plot a bit further along.  After revealing itself to blind teenage prodigy Caitlin Decter, emerging AI Webmind continues to learn about humans.  What’s new in the volume are the first hints of conflict, as an American government organization notices something strange on the Internet and starts wondering whether Webmind is a threat to national security.  Meanwhile, another plot threads converges to reinforce the trilogy’s theme of non-human consciousness.

In terms of stylistic approach and tone, Watch seamlessly integrates with Wake, which is to say that everything good and bad about the first volume extends here: Further observations on Canadian/American differences, awkward pop-culture references, facts so obvious dumped as exposition as to qualify as hand-holding, the portrait of a bright blind teenager and the restraint with which Sawyer circles a familiar idea to Science Fiction readers.  You can re-read my review of the first volume and re-apply it in its entirety to this follow-up without being led too far astray.

As a reviewer, this leaves me stuck with an unusual, almost daring tactic for reviewing Watch: Focus, for once, on Sawyer’s strengths as a writer.  What does work in Sawyer’s fiction… as exemplified by Watch?

The first strength that does come to mind is clarity: Sawyer’s prose is unusually easy to read even in the most challenging public-transit environments.  His characters are sharply defined, the issues are clear, plotting ambiguity is kept to a minimum (he’s reliably more nuanced in matters of moral ambiguity) and his classical approach to plotting means that it’s not hard for readers to locate themselves within the structure of the novel.  The sometimes-infuriating hand-holding for readers less used to SF’s idioms and common references is a deliberate aspect of this stylistic choice, and it helps Sawyer reach audiences well beyond SF’s usual readership.

This clarity of execution usually comes bundled with a somewhat more ambitious speculative intent meant to deliver satisfaction for SF genre readers.  If you read Watch’s Chapter 42 carefully, for instance, you’ll find an explanation for advanced consciousness (ie: “it overrides evolutionary pressures, preventing a race to the bottom”) that can be interpreted as a counterpoint to the somewhat more sombre conclusions reached by fellow Torontonian hard-SF authors Karl Schroeder (Permanence) and Peter Watts (Blindsight).  This specific example is also an illustration of Sawyer’s quasi-constant optimism: his novels seldom feature outright villains (the universe is antagonistic enough, especially when there are ideas to discuss along the way), his protagonists are rarely defeatists and his endings usually point the way to a better tomorrow.  Given the sad chorus of doomsayers that seem to dominate much of the contemporary SF scenes these days, it’s easy to see why Sawyer’s fiction can reach an audience looking for something that won’t encourage them to put together a survivalist stockpile.

For worse or for better, Watch is a typical Sawyer novel that plays to his usual weaknesses and strengths.  As an exploration of non-human consciousness, it’s more detailed than the usual SF hand-waving.  Its protagonist Caitlin is still as sympathetic as she was in the previous volume, and it sets up the required pieces in time for the final volume of the trilogy.  It’s a second volume that does exactly what it’s supposed to do, and readers who made it to this second tome are sure to pick up the third volume Wonder.  As for critics of Sawyer’s usual approach, let’s take a page from his prose and blow our fragile little minds with the little-known proverb “Dogs bark, but the caravan goes on”…