randy_byers: (Default)
I read Synners not long after it was published in 1991, but I don't remember what I thought of it. I liked it a lot the second time. It's a novel full of furious energy and lots of ideas. What surprised me a little bit was how much it's about a counterculture, but also how realistically the countercultural life is depicted. At time it reminded me of Delany's Dhalgren on that front, with free spirits squatting in utter squalor, eating badly in filthy surroundings. It's not a very romanticized portrait.

Cadigan is also more sympathetic to the corporate drones than I remembered, especially to Gabe, who is a mid-level corporate toady just ttying to get by as best he can, which is not actually very well. Of course the corporation he serves is an amoral profit-consumed machine that makes a bad situation worse by trying to capitalize on a new neural computer interface that threatens to integrate human brains into the internet and thus expose them to hackers who have nothing but chaos and viruses on (and in) their minds.

This is a novel of many characters that weaves back and forth between the members of the large cast. I had a hard time at first keeping track of everyone and their agendas, but eventually I mostly figured it out. After that the weaving of character points-of-view and ideas about consciousness and perception became hypnotic. This came out at a peak moment in cyberpunk history, and it is loaded with tropes and ideas of the era, practically an encyclopedia of the form.

Basically one character -- a video artist who wants to be a machine -- creates a video that goes viral and and starts to cause people to stroke out. The novel has a romantic resolution to this problem that seemed a little out of tone with the rest of the story. The other problem I had with it was the attempt to create a future slang -- e.g. "stone home" this and "stone home" that -- which sounded just as phoney as any attempt to create future slang. TANSTAAFL, anyone? For the most part, however, I found Cadigan's linguistic riffs to be rich and dense.
randy_byers: (wilmer)
"This is not 'like TV, only better.' This is like a piece of someone's life, straight from the cerebral cortex."

Continuing my survey of Kathryn Bigelow films, I watched this near future science fiction film for a second time. The first time was on commercial TV probably over a decade ago, and I'm pretty sure I missed the beginning. Didn't remember it anyway. Although I didn't remember much else either, except Angela Bassett and a vague sense of sleaziness and disturbing developments.

This is set five minutes in the future. (Actually five years in the future; specifically on New Year's Eve 1999.) There is basically one new thing -- or novum, as Darko Suvin calls it -- which is SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), a technology for recording and playing back brain signals, which recordings are experienced as raw psychosensory subjectivity. It allows you to play somebody else's personal experience in your own brain. The technology was developed for use by police informants as a replacement for the wiretap, but in the best William Gibson tradition the street has found its own use for the device. The protagonist, Lenny Nero, is a dealer in black market recordings of a variety of sleazy types, including pornography and true crime. The conflict in the movie is centered on a recording of something that has political implications. There's also a psycho killer who records his horrific crimes.

Well, already I'm seeing some common concerns in Bigelow films, most prominently the addiction to thrills and adrenaline. She seems to have a real ambivalence about it, as she both exhalts the highs of thrill-seeking and shows the price paid in collateral damage. Strange Days also contains some breath-taking action sequences that very much follow in the footsteps of Point Break (1991), which was her previous feature film. Here the SQUID recordings provide the basis for a number of action set pieces, and the subjective nature of the device allows her to explore the subjectiveness of the camera in many of the same ways that Robert Montgomery did in his 1947 film noir adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake. The latter was filmed entirely from the point of view of the detective protagonist, Philip Marlowe, and Bigelow doesn't quite go that far.

The subjectivity of the camera is one of the central themes of the movie, however, and Bigelow uses it to the put the audience into the story. (Something she does in The Hurt Locker too, but in a different way.) I had remembered that there was a deeply disturbing, horrific sequence that really soured my first viewing of the movie. SPOILERS below the cut. ) It was still a deeply disturbing sequence the second time around, but the thing I realized this time was that not only is the crime itself horrific, what really makes it disturbing is that Bigelow puts the audience in the psycho's shoes. The audience is made to commit the crime, or at least to participate in it. There's nothing particularly new in this, but it's an effective use of an old trope. Instead of wagging her finger at our love of sleazy stories, she asks us how far we would really go for our vicarious thrills, and she asks it in the bluntest fashion.

The other thing that struck me this time around were the racial politics. The movie definitely has Rodney King on its mind. It's there in the SQUID recording of a police action that has political implications (cf. the videotape recording of King's beating by police), and it's there in a beating that Angela Bassett takes from the cops and in the riot that results. It's there in the racial polarization we see on the streets of the city. Angela Bassett's Mace is the one truly sympathetic character in the movie, and she fills something of the redemptive role of the Good Blonde from film noir, except that she can also kick ass. She's a very interesting character, but then so is the sleazy Lenny Nero, played very effectively by a greasy, sweaty Ralph Fiennes.

So I liked this a lot better the second time around. It's another pulp thriller, but Bigelow seems to be really good at this type of thing. Strange Days is both grittier and sleeker than Point Break. It's very urban, very noir. I was reminded at times of Luc Besson's cinéma du look visual style, but Bigelow handles action and characters in her own way. Think I'll go back to the beginning of her career now and check out The Loveless (1982).
randy_byers: (machine man)
Well, I've got the sniffles, and they seem to have started hitting me Hallowe'en night. I didn't have the energy to watch any of the movies I wanted to, and I went to bed early. Appropriately enough, just after midnight I got a call from Sharee, who was a bit drunk. It'd been a couple months since we last talked, and she confirmed that she plans to go to the Montreal Worldcon. Asked me to get her a membership, in fact. Yay! How many sleeps until Montreal? Another nice thing was that when I filled out the membership form yesterday, I discovered that because of the surging US dollar, her membership was 25 USD less than the one I bought for myself just less than a month ago.

Anyway, yesterday I watched one of the movies I had intended to watch on Hallowe'en, Phantom of the Paradise (1974). This was one of my favorite movies when I was in college, and I still think it's great. A mix of Faust, Phantom of the Opera, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, with a heavy dose of Alice Cooper and KISS thrown in. The last time I watched it on DVD, which was the first time I'd seen it in years, I felt the music didn't hold up well, but last night I decided it mostly works just fine. It actually covers a number of different musical styles, from Philly doo-wop to California beach grooves to campy heavy metal thunder. It's the '70s-style ballads that seem bland to me now, but there's really only a couple of those. The visual style is pretty eclectic, too, with lots of fish-eye distortions and a reference to German expressionism that I hadn't picked out before. Paul Williams is perfect as the mephistophelian Swan, purveyor of Death Records, with its beautiful dead crow logo that crops up everywhere in the design of the movie. The satire on the hit machine music industry is sharp, oh, and Gerrit Graham as the gay (or at least effeminate) heavy metal singer, Beef, is still probably my favorite character in the whole thing. "I know drug real from real real." It struck me last night that this would make a good double feature with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), which has a similar glam musical and genre mash-up sensibility. Speaking of favorite movies in my college days.

Before that I watched Abel Ferrara's adaptation of William Gibson's New Rose Hotel (1998). I had heard such horrible things about this movie when it came out (direct-to-video, as I recall) that I was never interested in giving it a try, but recently on Dave Kehr's blog Brad Stevens made the case for Ferrara and specifically for New Rose Hotel as one of his masterpieces. I don't know if it's a masterpiece, but it was more interesting than I had expected from other reactions I've seen. It doesn't capture the high tech surface of Gibson's story and in fact barely feels like science fiction at all, but it does get the globalism and corporate conspiracy and Japanophilia. This is the story of a couple of conmen who are hired to convince a Japanese scientific genius to defect from the German coporation he works for. Their plan is to hire a hooker to lure him with the promise of love. So it's a very tawdry film in many ways, with more than a hint of exploitation films about it. (E.g., half-naked writhing girls.) It reminded me of Olivier Assayas' demonlover (2002) in that way, and also in the focus on corporate espionage. There were some similarities to Assayas' Boarding Gate (2007) as well, partly because Asia Argento is in both and because of the talkiness. Christopher Walken is great as Fox, the philosophical song and dance con man with the broken back, and Willem Dafoe is pretty good as the henchman who falls in love with Argento's hooker mole. One of the controversial things about the movie is that much of the story is repeated in the second half. The question is whether the repetition actually changes our understanding of what happens, or whether it just hammers the point home ham-handedly. Not sure what I think on that question myself. I will say that I think demonlover is a much, much better movie on pretty much every level. Still, I'll watch it again at some point, because the structure is something that probably requires a second viewing to fully unwind.

Still sniffling today and feeling run down. Maybe I'll watch more movies and dream of Montreal.


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