Backlog Catch-Up // “Free Dirt” by Charles Beaumont

Hi, I’m Don and I have a problem — I can’t stop accumulating short story collections and anthologies. A few, I actually finish. Some I start and never get around to finishing. Others sit gathering dust. So I’ve decided that once a week I’m going to blindly pull a book from my pile, read one story, and talk about it.

“Free Dirt” by Charles Beaumont
From THE HUNGER AND OTHER STORIES (1959, Bantam)

This is the story of one Mr. Aorta — See, already that sounds like the beginning of a Rod Serling TWILIGHT ZONE intro, which is fitting given Beaumont’s relationship to that show as well as the tone of this piece. First published in F&SF in 1957, it’s a cautionary tale of a lazy man’s petty dreams of avarice coming true thanks to some magic dirt. The wonder of Beaumont’s writing is that while you know Mr. Aorta is headed for a not-so-happy ending, Beaumont’s dreams go a step beyond what you expect.

Quickie Review: PATERSON (2016)

PATERSON strikes me as AMERICAN SPLENDOR (the comic, not the film) for the beautiful people. The ones with artistic tendencies, who are old enough to accept the reality of a workday job but too young to be completely jaded about it yet. Adam Driver is no Harvey Pekar. Driver, a bus driver, goes about his daily routine, observing and absorbing life along his route — the characters, the conversations, the situations (like, being a driver named Paterson, driving through Paterson) — living a poetic life in every sense of the word.

(Spoilers near the end of the post.)

This film’s strength as a piece of art is that you’re able to project a little bit onto it. Some reviewers see this as a piece about a man moving through his poetic life, poetically, with a Zen-like focus on the infinite variety of subjects he encounters in his daily route. His passengers, fellow bar patrons, his artistic (if unfocused) wife and her dog are stops along his way which he soaks up and documents in his poems. And when Paterson’s life is disrupted in the one way it could be, he eventually comes to treat it as the momentary aberration it is, and his poetic equilibrium is restored.

I see something different, though. I see an writer who never publishes, chafing a little against his good-enough routine but with little reason to change anything. And when he pays the price for this life, which then offers him an opening to make a change, here comes the poetic Universe in the form of a magical Japanese man to usher him back. And Paterson does go back, willingly, into that prison and closes the door behind him.

SPOILER here, but I think it’s worth mentioning how this film was a lesson in establishing plot threads that aren’t wrapped up, but which totally works because those things aren’t what the film is about anyway. I was expecting a dog-napping, a smashed guitar, ruined cupcakes, a divorce, or a newly discovered twin. We get none of that, but it’s okay. Depending on your point of view, this is either a film about choosing to live a pure, artistic life for its own sake or it’s about condemning yourself to an existential hell that was ultimately of your own making.

Either way is poetic to me.

Quickie Review: THE DEAD MOUNTAINEER’S INN

The Dead Mountaineer's Inn: One More Last Rite for the Detective GenreThe Dead Mountaineer’s Inn: One More Last Rite for the Detective Genre by Arkady Strugatsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got this book as a gift and I was happy to get it; my reading of Soviet era science fiction has been nonexistent. This book is now my new standard for judging the “genre mashups” I read from now on. The book really is everything that Jeff VanderMeer promises it is in his introduction. It’s all here: shades of mystery, hints of the occult, and a bit of science fiction (some of which brought R.A. Lafferty to mind). A little surrealism and magical realism too, but with a twist. I loved how the Brothers Strugatsky almost always had a rational narrative explanation… which the reader is free to accept or reject.

There’s so much delicious meta in the book, too. In one scene, the main character breaks into a fellow guest’s room thinking, “I did this just like a hero in a spy thriller would have — I didn’t know how else to do it.” Meta is the book’s mission statement, in a way. It’s theme is how “The unknown makes us think — it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It’s like a fire flickering in the depths of the night.” And, it’s a warning that, “You’re following the most natural roads, and for that reason you’ve ended up in unnatural places.” It’s elements like these, and the timelessness of the story’s setting that allows this 1970 novel to age well.

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Quickie Review: ARRIVAL (2016)

I first heard of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” on which ARRIVAL is based, at the very first con I attended as a wannabe writer about seven or eight years ago. It was on a panel that included among other luminaries, Nancy Kress, who cited “Story of Your Life” as the best short story dealing with the idea of translating of alien languages. I read it soon thereafter, a couple of times over. It’s been about 3-4 years since I read it last.

It’s a Ted Chiang story (everyone in the SF/F writing business knows what that means), so it left enough of an impression on me that when I saw ARRIVAL, I knew that whatever liberties this film adaptation took didn’t take away from the fundamental truth of the story. Sure, a film with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker would have to kick things up a notch to justify their salaries. But I’m extremely tickled by how this story about translation was in fact a very good translation. Nothing was lost. And just maybe one or two things were gained.

Quickie Review: A MAN CALLED OVE (2015)

a-man-called-ove-poster-2It was long enough since I’ve been to my local indie theater that my membership lapsed, so the ticket for this film essentially cost me $83. No complaints at all.

I haven’t read Fredrik Backman’s EN MAN SOM HETER OVE on which the film’s based. A lot of my film-going acquaintances have been saying lately of film adaptations, “I don’t know if I should read the book first.” I’ll usually see an adaptation but rarely go back and read the book. I probably will in this case. I’m very curious to see how many of the film’s themes came from the source material, because I don’t think I see too many films that feature an older character growing, at least in a direction other than “feeling young again.”

It’d be easy to watch the trailer and be tempted to dismiss the film as being about a grumpy old bastard who rediscovers life and joy by the end of it.

What I saw in this film, though, was a character transforming into the role of elder. Ove is someone who moves past simply enforcing the rules as a way of adhering to some idealized past. He comes to accept an expanding world, which doesn’t mean he has to give up on core values. Instead, the elements of the expanding world bring some of Ove’s values into focus, moving him forward which enables him to help others do the same. The best part is how, in the end, he does rediscover life and joy in spite of — and due to — being the grumpy old bastard that he is.

Quickie Review: HENERAL LUNA (2015)

I don’t know enough about the history to have a good picture of what the real Antonio Luna was like. I do know that the Luna depicted in the film is every hard-ass Filipino I’ve ever known from the generation before mine. Jovial one minute, borderline abusive the next, before going right back to jovial. I suppose in a lot of ways, HENERAL LUNA is more about the Filipino mindset in general, with the way it portrays the good, bad, and ugly of just about every Filipino peccadillo I’ve ever known. Take “the ties that bind” for instance, and all the ways that loyalty to family, the barangay, the province interfered with things like nation-building. “It’s easier for the earth to meet the sky,” Luna says in the film, “than for two Filipinos to agree on anything!”

Really though, it’s pretty even-handed and definitely far from self-hating, from the way we romanticize memories of home and hearth, to the way a loving mother starts a conversation with her grown son with a smack to the mouth, to the universal Filipino response to someone with a competing interest, no matter how compelling: “Who do you think you are?”

The dramatis personae is huge and the film did its best to keep the characters straight, and to highlight and summarize historical events with small text blocks, almost like a graphic novel. But I think its still struggled with its scope. Still, HENERAL LUNA’S strength is in its depiction of the people. You may not like everyone in the film, but it’s very possible to feel sympathy for all of them. Well, except for maybe Emilio Aguinaldo — but then, that’s always been the case with ol’ Magdalo.

Quickie Review: INFINITELY POLAR BEAR (2014)

Slices of director Maya Forbes’ life growing up with a mentally ill father. Thankfully, Forbes does without with the typical “Act II breakdown” you see in most other films with mentally ill character. And it dispenses with the idea that mental illness is something delightfully quirky up until the point where everything collapses beyond repair. In POLAR BEAR, Mark Ruffalo’s bipolar disorder is pervasive, with good moments and bad moments, often occurring in the course of a single day. By the end of the film we get, as we sometimes do in life if we’re lucky, a brief respite from those ups and downs even as we know the next set will inevitably come.

We also get to see how privilege can mitigate some of the worst social and economical circumstances. The Blue blood background of Ruffalo’s character absolutely is NOT his family’s salvation from its problems, something that we might see in a different film. It’s not particularly the cause of his problems either, even if it exacerbates them in a couple of instances. But it is shown (uncritically, which I think is okay since it’s not really the point of this movie) as the safety net that it is.

I’m used to films and TV shows where mixed race families always seem to be fixed in a certain specifically defined socioeconomic status (usually one extreme or the other), and dealing with (or not) a certain set of racial issues – that is to say, families of caricatures. Here, we see a mixed race family in the ’70s presented in a very complex way, i.e. like real people. Forbes gives us the sense that if this particular White trust fund kid marrying Zoe Zaldana was ever an issue to the elderly Blue blood matriarch holding the purse strings, it’d been resolved enough that it needn’t have been brought up in this particular story. Which, even in the pre-Post-Racial 1970s, was something not entirely unheard of. Okay granted, maybe in the same way it was “not unheard of” for campers to encounter something big and hairy in the woods in the ’70s but still. I like the fact that Forbes doesn’t lazily caricature Blue bloods, either.

What DOES matter to the Blue blood matriarch is Zaldana’s plan to advance herself to become a better breadwinner by temporarily abandoning her family to go to Columbia. Forbes never glosses over the fact that we’re talking about a Black woman here, but she does focus more on the problems of the traditional gender role. And while you might not like that choice – much like you can theoretically take filmmaker Anthony Chen to task for not being all that critical of the treatment of Overseas Filipino Workers in his 2013 work ILO ILO – you can only fault this filmmaker to the extent that you don’t buy that she’s painted an accurate picture of her life, more or less as she lived it.

Quickie Review: AMY (2015)

Whenever I watch films about artists with issues or peccadilloes (cf. JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, LOVE & MERCY, et al.), I get this naive idea in my head that, “Of course, I don’t want to be as fucked up as that artist, but if I could just dip my toe into that pool of mad genius….” I think, “I have my dysfunctions too. But if I can somehow learn to leverage them somehow while keeping them dialed back just enough so I don’t implode, well then I can be brilliant without the train wreck, right?” Of course, the difference is that if I try, and then inevitably crash and burn, it would just be a clear case of pride going before a fall. When it comes to real artists and truly troubled artists, it’s not a strategy. It’s a very precarious way of life.

I only knew the basic facts about Amy Winehouse before I saw this documentary. First was that Voice. I’d heard it back in the day, and knew instantly what Tony Bennett knew instantly. I wasn’t surprised that it came to endear her to fans and musicians alike, from the up-and-coming-at-the-time Daptone Records stable to Bennett himself. She was brilliant and I never questioned that. And of course, I knew about the spiral. Not the details, you understand. You see enough star meltdowns, and its easy to think we’ve seen it all before. “[So-and-So] found dead after a long period of [insert issue here], wash, rinse, repeat, next case.”

This documentary doesn’t really provide much in the way of missing pieces that lead us to a better understanding of Winehouse’s trials and tribulations, or even necessarily to increased sympathy. I don’t see AMY changing anyone’s opinions, for better or for worse. But I did learn a few new things. I learned how well documented life was in her circle. Because that’s just how the kids do things nowadays. I learned how soulful and penetrating her lyrics are. I had no idea. Luckily, the film literally spells them out for you. If Bennett likens her vocal chops to Billie Holliday’s, then her songwriting rates at least as highly as Cole Porter’s. And I definitely didn’t realize — if one accepts the film’s narrative, and I have no reason not to — how many times Winehouse came so close to pulling herself up out of the spiral. That’s the saddest part, to me.

Not that she didn’t make her bad choices. But trapped as she was in the petri dish that is the music business, constantly under a media microscope, having started out with a life that came close to being as tortured as that of any other troubled artist you could name, what choices did she really have?

Quickie Review: SEVEN GOOD YEARS by Etgar Keret

The Seven Good Years: A MemoirThe Seven Good Years: A Memoir by Etgar Keret
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I used to read essay collections for facts, details, or wit. And if I stumbled across the occasional bit of truth or wisdom, so much the better. Now this could be my bias towoard Etgar Keret (#2 on my I’ll Read Anything They Write List), but this collection is brimming with both. Okay, maybe more of the former than the latter… but I think even Keret would say that.

Remove the surrealist and speculative elements from Keret’s writing and you’re still left with his sense of the absurd, with keen observations of (by way of projections onto) other characters, and not surprisingly, his friend Uzi who, just like in the stories, offers advice such as…

What you need isn’t a bunch of lies from a PhD in clinical psych. You need a real solution: a nest egg in a foreign bank account. Everybody’s doing it.

Not every essay reached me; there were a couple that left me scratching my head. But I’m used to that experience reading Keret’s short stories, so I’m okay with it.

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Quickie Review: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015)

Okay, maybe not so quickie. Anyway, I’ll begin by stipulating to three points. Spoilers, ahoy!

First, it’s a gorgeous film. I can’t remember the last time any film’s visual narration made my eyes widen.

Second, if this film had a literary modal equivalent, it wouldn’t be that of a novel, but rather a novella. FURY ROAD is a work with a lean-muscular, 0%-body-fat plot and very tight character development, such that everything you see and hear is exactly everything you need, with no real examination or extrapolation of subtext necessary (unless you’re into that kind of thing). I’ve seen people accuse the plot of being thin, but that’s bullshit; people nowadays are just used to having it exposited for them. Creator/director George Miller will have none of that mess.

Third, it is a feminist film. Not a perfect one, but one nonetheless. Want to know more? Google it. Want to argue about it? Then take it to one of those sites. FURY ROAD is Imperator Furiosa’s story and yes, the spotlight shines on her frequently. But the idea that this comes, or indeed, must come at a cost to Mad Max — either as a character in this particular film or to the franchise in general — is bullshit. And I’ve seen this argument on both sides of the “MM:FR is Feminist” debate.  And you know what, if some folks feel the interpretation of “Max has to be sidelined so Furiosa can be front and center” is necessary — well I just don’t think that’s the worst thing in the world; it’s totally arguable. I just don’t buy it.

Personally, I thought the Max I saw in FURY ROAD is pretty compelling. THE ROAD WARRIOR and BEYOND THUNDERDOME make clear that Max is ultimately concerned about exactly two things: His immediate survival and a shot at redemption, in that exact order. In that context, it makes absolute sense that Max’s alliance with Furiosa and Immortan Joe’s Wives didn’t happen after any kind of “Come to Jesus” moment about the righteousness of their cause. There was no indication he thought or felt anything along the lines of, “I must help burn down this Patriarchy That Objectifies Women and Brainwashes Boys to Perpetuate the Cycle!”

In fact, the moment Max had anything resembling an upper hand in the film, his first move was to threaten Furiosa with throwing her, The Wives, and himself under Immortan Joe’s fast approaching bus. This, AFTER coming to understand their plight. A bluff? Maybe. But regardless of his intentions or subsequent deeds, this act (for which I don’t think he ever formally apologized) is the modern-day equivalent of tweeting out…

@MadMax: Sorry @Furiosa but if I don’t get away, none of us do. Hope #WeAreNotThings was fun while it lasted… #BloodBag #WhatALovelyDay #ZeroFucks

But instead of throwing under, he throws in, because just like ROAD WARRIOR and THUNDERDOME, these people end up being the keys to both his immediate survival and a shot at redemption. And he knows it. Which means, of course he climbs all over the War Rig to keep it moving. Of course, he lets Furiosa use him as literal support to take out the Bullet Farmer. Immediate survival. And of course, he encourages them to go back to the Citadel. That’s for some redemption, something Furiosa wants for herself as well.

So, don’t listen to any of this “FURY ROAD sux ‘cos Max isn’t driving the plot of his own movie!” crap. I mean, except for MAD MAX, has Max ever really driven the plot? Granted, I haven’t watched ROAD WARRIOR or THUNDERDOME in awhile but as I recall them, you can argue they were both about Max stumbling into other people’s squabbles, trying to work a hustle, failing, and then ultimately fumbling his way to doing The Right Thing before resuming his Walkabout. Hell, in the first movie, Max was lackadaisically half-assing his cop gig for two-thirds of the story before his wife and kid get killed.

All that said, I do have two nits that I almost missed because yes, the movie throws you right into the action and doesn’t stop. One: Is George Miller really trying tell me that in a post-scarcity economy, it makes sense for Immortan Joe to burn guzzoline to get guzzoline from a town withing spitting distance? He had engineers and mechanics, and no one thought to build a pipe? “But it was his display of wealth and power, blah blah….” Whatever. Two: No third party narration at the end. If someone pointed a gun to my head and forced me to come up with one thing that didn’t make this a “Real Mad Max movie” to me, okay… it’d be that.