Geek Love #1: No, Seriously, Who ARE You Gonna Call?

No, as a matter of fact, I am not afraid of no ghosts.

I was going to do a review of Thor (big, shiny and sexy, for those who want to know), but then I decided that everything good, bad and indifferent about it has been written.  Go here for a good, comprehensive review by someone far more knowledgable about the Marvel Universe than I.  Instead, I’m going to favor you with one of my continuous obsessions.  One that a lot of people share.

I have a tendency to get really, really excited about certain things.  Books, movies, actors, directors, writers, bands … these usually form the center of my obsessive desires.  I geek out all the time.  But it’s a wide and varied spectrum, untethered by time period or coolness factor.  And there are gradations of obsession.  I was passionate about The Beatles for most of my high school career.  I don’t think there has been a time since I first saw Notorious when Alfred Hitchcock was not my favorite director.  Hunter S. Thompson has been a great hero since college.  And then there’s Ghostbusters.

You know Ghostbusters.  EVERYONE knows Ghostbusters.  It came out two years before I was even born.  When I was a child, I mashed the two Ghostbusters movies together into one gigantic Ghostbusting memory that undoubtedly involved the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man fighting the Statue of Liberty in the Hudson River.  Egon Spengler was one of the first crushes I ever had.  Yeah, that’s right, THIS guy:

I think it was the hair and the glasses and the whole brainiac thing.  Also, being a faculty brat and continuous student, I have a thing for slightly weird academics.  I still think he’s pretty damned sexy, but that’s another post.  I watched the Ghostbusters cartoon, wholly confused by the fact that Egon seemed to be wearing Cool Whip on his head and Peter sounded like Garfield.  I had an outfit, made up of khaki pants and an army jacket that I stole from my mother.  I pinned poorly drawn decals of ghosts to the sleeves.  I WAS a Ghostbuster, dammit!

In the years that followed, my passion for this greatest of American comedies waned.  I turned to other, more esoteric interests.  I became a cinephile and book nerd and looked down my nose at such common things as popular comedies.  Then, one day, I went to Montreal with my parents for a film conference.  And the first Ghostbusters happened to be playing on television.

That was when my little five or six or seven year old self began running around, crying to be let out.  I felt suddenly ecstatic, like someone told me the Easter Bunny was real.  In the days, weeks and months that followed, I basically relived all my childhood.  I wrote a paper for my horror/sci-fi class at NYU on comic apocalyptic imagery in the first film.  I rewatched both films numerous times.  I began watching the TV series again.  While I did not go so far as to, say, build a proton pack or buy a jumpsuit, I definitely did my best to completely geek out.

Ghostbusters for me was not just a really cool movie.  When I was a child, I was frightened of ghosts.  Still am, to tell the truth.  And what Ghostbusters did was prove to me that ghosts were scary, yeah, but they were also funny, ridiculous, something to laugh it.  And when they were scary, well, there were always those guys dressed like exterminators who would show up and stop them.  For me now, Ghostbusters represents New York, home, and the exceptional power of the comic to transcend terror.  In less than a week, I’m going to get a tattoo on my shoulder of the Ghostbusters logo.  It might be a little trite, a little straightforward, but it actually means something to me.  It means that, in the end, laughter will win.  Or maybe it just means that I was born in the 80s.  One or the other.

Writing for the Love of Writing

I can be pretty damned sarcastic (I know how surprised you must be to read that).  But there are times when I want to be completely and totally honest.  And this is one of those times.

Last night, I had the great good fortune to participate in a reading with other members of my MSc class in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.  Over the past three semesters, we’ve been together an awful lot.  We’re a small class, which means that most of us know each other quite well.  When I came to Edinburgh, I was a tad nervous to be in a group of other writers.  I’ve heard of courses where writers compete against other, even come to hate each other because everyone else seems to be a threat.  Thank God, that was not the case with this course.  What I’ve found is a kind, loyal group of incredibly intelligent, talented people, ready to embrace each other’s work as well as provide criticism, understanding and, at times, commiseration.  Trying to become a writer is not easy; it can be a thankless job and few of us will be able to make our livings at it.  It matters a great deal to be surrounded by people who truly love what they do, and who are willing to support each other in the pursuit of a creativity that is simply not as readily rewarded in mainstream society as business acumen or financial prowess.

So last night, after an exceptional day of panels concerning the business side of literature, we got together and read our own work.  In a pub, naturally; we at least fulfill that stereotype.  Now, I do not particularly enjoy spoken word events.  They can range on the spectrum from generally entertaining to mind-numbingly boring.  At the worst, they can be pretentious celebrations of some very undeserved egos.  Every once in a while, you come across an excellent reader or writer, but I admit that I have taken to avoiding them.  Not so last night.

Having come through several semesters of at times painful workshops, I was grateful to hear stories I had never heard, and some that I had.  Grateful to the camaraderie expressed every time someone else took the stage, and grateful just to be sitting with such a spectacular group of people.  I will be shocked if every single one of us doesn’t manage to make a go of being a professional writer.  MSc programs sometimes get a bad rap for being writing factories, producing generic ‘literary’ novelists.  I can say with certainty that this particular program has not done that.  We are all so incredibly different in our interests, in our styles, in the way we approach writing.  This is a result, I believe, of particularly good instructors, but also of our own desires, our own independence.

We were told of the importance of having a community.  What I learned last night was that we do not have to go looking for that community.  It’s right there next to you, in the person you’ve argued with, got drunk with, laughed with, commiserated with.  We have formed our own community and I, for one, am immensely grateful to be a part of it.  And I can say that honestly, without sarcasm or cynicism.

The Hipster Chronicles # 2: The Way of the Douche

“Just to let you know, your facebook statuses are getting douchier and douchier.”

My dear and always honest friend Lindsay expressed this to me several months ago, when I was in the midst of a paper on Nietzsche and postmodernism that was, like, totally blowing my mind.  And my, but my facebook statuses were indeed getting douchier and douchier.  No question.  Since that fateful day, however, I have begun to hear the word douche used in new and exciting contexts.  How douchey can we be? seems to be the question of the day.

Now, the etymology of the word ‘douche’ has a long and complicated history.  When we call someone a ‘douche’, we are not, of course, referring to the actual item of feminine hygiene.  Nor are we particularly comparing said individual to that item.  Back in the day, my father informed me, to call someone a ‘douche’ was one of the worst things you could say.  Now, we say it routinely.  It references someone (very often male) who behaves in a pretentious, obnoxious, or generally … uh … douchey manner.  It continues to be a derogatory term, of course.  Or does it?

Recently, I have heard (and used) the word ‘douche’ in a highly self-referential fashion.  ‘Hipster douchiness’ has become a regular statement among my circle of friends here in Edinburgh.

“Come and be a douche with us!” stated a text message, inviting everyone along to hang out in the Meadows.  When one sits in a cafe, drinking organic coffee, typing one’s novel on one’s MacBook (or, for true douchiness, iPad), one is achieving a true level of douchiness that few ever arrive honestly at.  Dressing like a hipster, saying things like ‘That is sooooo Postmodern’, reading Nietzsche, speaking of one’s existential self, updating one’s blog with ironic referential comments, shopping at Urban Outfitters, complaining of the difficulty of one’s life while lying in the sun, being a barista in any capacity, talking about being a barista, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, listening to obscure folk music … these are not the hallmarks of true douchiness.  No, true douchiness must be achieved by being AWARE of true douchiness.  By the recognition that one is behaving like a total, complete, remarkable, capitalized Douche.

“We’re so hip, we’re going to a band that even we haven’t heard of!”

This, my friends, is true douchiness.  The Way of the Douche is fraught with peril, for the pitfalls might turn you into an acoustic guitar playing juggler on a unicycle who has no freaking idea of how douchey he/she truly is.  It might turn you into a twenty-something would-be novelist in a cafe bitching about how no one gets just what post-postmodernism is.  The Way of the Douche must be carefully discovered, hopefully with people just as pretend-douchey as you are.  For the true Douche is not a douche at all.  Just someone who enjoys a ironic joke, a scene of pop-culture referentiality, an honest moment in the sun with friends.  Someone who can laugh at themselves.

So, verily, I say unto you: go and discover the Way of the Douche.  I know I have.

‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’: What About the Albino Crocodiles?

Only Werner Herzog could get me excited about a movie about cave paintings.  The thought of one of our greatest living filmmakers descending into the depths to examine the secrets of prehistoric man is wonderful to me.  And, as usual, Herzog did not disappoint.  He crafted a film in which paintings came alive, in which the weird world of calcified remains and sparkling geological wonders, buried beneath the surface, awakens into our own.  ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams‘ is both riveting and elegiac, and creates a sense of wonder coupled with a sense of just how small our current world is in comparison with that of our ancestors.

Herzog manages a great deal with a limited camera crew, limited lighting and limited mobility within the cave.  The images he produces are spectacular.  The paintings themselves — of cave bears, cave lions, furry rhinos, wooly mammoths, wild horses, and a host of other animals, many now extinct — are brilliantly shaded, complex drawings that exhibit the artistry of what we like to call primitive humanity.  The cave sparkles under Herzog’s lighting as he wanders on a narrow metal track, pointing out calcified skulls of cave bears, and the markings of animals and human beings alike.  One image that he can only describe and never show is that of a footprint of an eight-year old boy next to the pawprint of a wolf.  The images that evoke movement — a stampede of horses, two rhinos fighting — are linked to cinema, and Herzog dexterously draws out the correlation between some of the earliest forms of art with the most modern one.

There are moments when the film drags.  Herzog, for some inexplicable reason, seems to have an obsession with New Age choral music that detracts from the majesty of what he’s trying to present.  Rather than allowing the sounds of the cave to speak for themselves, he introduces a somewhat clunky heartbeat that recurs throughout the film and hammers home the point that the cave has a life of its own.  Some of the analysis of the archaeologists takes on a ‘well, we know nothing about this, so we’re going to speculate wildly’ tone, which might have been toned by a bit more scientific/historical discussion rather than what it feels like, which is rampant speculation.

There’s also plenty of Herzogian weirdness to go around.  A master perfumer wanders the forest trying to ‘sniff out’ caves.  One of the archaeologists attempts to throw a spear.  Another reveals that he was a circus performer before turning to archaeology.  And, finally, there are those albino crocodiles that take up perhaps one of the strangest postscripts in the history of documentaries.  But I won’t completely spoil that one for you.

I wish I could have seen the film as it was meant to be seen, in 3D (never thought I’d say THAT), but even in 2D, it is spectacular.  Herzog remains a master of his craft, a deft commentator on the beauty and futility of human endeavor.  He hasn’t quite mellowed in his old age, but he has achieved a new spirituality that is both welcome and, at times, a little weird.

‘Rubber’ Review: No Reason

If, like me, you are a cinephile, then I wish for you to take a brief moment to imagine the following film.  Imagine that Luis Bunuel around about his Mexican time period (when he was making a lot of films in the desert) suddenly came across a young producer by the name of Roger Corman.  Imagine that Corman asked Bunuel if he would be interested in writing a movie with a promising young man named Pynchon.  Imagine finally, that Bunuel and Pynchon wrote that movie for Corman, that Bunuel directed it, and that David Lynch supervised the editing process.  You might very well come out with Quentin Dupieux’s flawed but immensely entertaining ‘Rubber‘.

As everyone who has heard of ‘Rubber’ is well aware, the film centers around a psychopathic tire named Robert with telekinetic abilities.  That in itself was enough to make me want to see it.  What is pleasantly surprising about the film is that the psychopathic tire is only the beginning.  The film opens with a character addressing an on-screen audience, touting the need for a factor of ‘no reason’ in the greatest of films.  The lack of reason for Robert to become ambulatory, much less murderous, is what drives the plot.  Why does Robert wake up, shake off the sand that has covered him, and begin rolling across the desert? No reason.  Why does he suddenly discover a destructive ability to explode things (bottles, bunnies, people’s heads) just by … well, shaking a lot, but the implication is that he does it with his mind? No reason.  If the lack of reason in the film is meant to comment on the malaise of modern filmgoing, then there’s a problem.  But if, as I suspect, it is meant to be exactly what it says it is (an homage to No Reason), then it is remarkably successful.

That on-screen audience provides the highest dosage of meta commentary, as audience members (standing in the desert watching Robert’s progress) comment on the action.  And here the movie lags, then threatens to disappear up its own tail-pipe.  On-screen audiences show up far too much in cinema to be unique, although handing them binoculars and then torturing them in various way is a nice conceit.  Their comments neither move the action along, nor contribute to the enjoyment of the off-screen audience.  They are too self-conscious to be interesting, and the scenes centred around them become increasingly wooden and dull.  And about mid-point through, the entire film becomes derailed to concentrate on this audience in an overlong scene of metafiction.  The fact is, we really want to see what Robert will do next, not what the audience members think he will do next, nor how aware the characters are that they’re in a movie.

Robert is the most developed character, as we watch him come to life, discover his powers, discover sex, discover death and destruction, suffering and excitement.  Without speaking a word, without having a face or eyes or being anything other than a tire, he manages to evoke sympathy, terror, humor, and a good amount of self-awareness.  One gets the sense that Dupieux’s interests lie in the same place and that he was suffering from too much cleverness when he added in the running commentary.  If only he let Robert do the talking, the film would have rolled along much better.  As it is, though, I cannot resist the sheer enjoyment of watching a tire best humanity, without speech and finally without reason.

I’m assuming that ‘Rubber’ can be viewed in theatres, but it can also be downloaded from iTunes.  Really, it is well worth it.  

One Genre to Rule Them All…

How to be a douche in two easy lessons

As my friends are well aware, I am a total snob.  I’m a film snob, a literature snob, and, most recently (due to my sudden interest in Nietzsche, that syphilitic genius), a philosophy snob.  I watch movies with long names and long takes, like Last Year at Marienbad and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.  I read Thomas Pynchon for fun.  I like Baudrillard and Foucault and words like ‘signification’ and ‘heteronormative structures’.  I write douchey posts on my blog, like this one.

But …

I also like terrible B-movies, slasher flicks, sappy romantic comedies and things in which Bruce Willis or Vin Diesel blows shit up.  And I read genre books: crime fiction, sci-fi, fantasy and their subgenres, steampunk, cyberpunk, even the occasional romance novel.  I do not like contemporary literary fiction as a rule.  Everything recent that I’ve taken interest in usually turns out to be what would be broadly classified as ‘genre’ fiction.  You know, genre.  That thing that snobs are not supposed to like.  That thing that is repetitive and has rules and is, like, generic and stuff.  That section of literature (or film, or art) that is not ‘serious’.

Recently, a furor broke out over the BBC’s World Book Night last month.  Lead by Stephen Hunt (an excellent steampunkish author), a group of fantasy/sci-fi writers responded to what they perceived as the BBC’s anti-genre attitude.  I believe the phrase ‘sneering derogatory tone’ was used.  The BBC of course denies that they sneered at genre fiction. (Hunt’s original post can be found here: Stephen Hunt vs BBC , the BBC’s response according to The Guardian here: BBC Denies Sneering at Genre Fiction ).

I did not see the program, so I really can’t comment on how right or wrong the sci-fi authors or the BBC are.  Being that an opinion is much easier to hold if not hampered by the facts (thank you, Mark Twain), I choose to side with the authors.  But the point that this whole debate makes is one that keeps coming back to me: what’s the matter with genre?

What is it about so-called genre fiction that makes folks like the literati over at the BBC sneer? I use the BBC specifically, but this extends to a whole section of writers, readers, professors and intellectuals.  Why is To the Lighthouse literature, and Farewell My Lovely not? I once took a whole class in 20th Century Crime Fiction at a university known for its stalwart dedication to the canon of English literature.  Why is this debate still going on?

Warhol, like him or hate him, made great strides in making pop culture art.  Thomas Pynchon wrote a potboiler, a steampunk novel, an adventure story.  Cormac McCarthy writes westerns, but no literary critic will admit that he’s working in the tradition of Zane Grey.  Robert Louis Stevenson is taught as canonical, but lest we forget that he was a genre author: horror (Jekyll and Hyde) , adventure (Kidnapped, Treasure Island), historical fantasy (The Master of Ballantrae).  Dickens was a popular writer who got published in monthly installments in magazines.  Jane Austen, let’s face it, wrote chick lit.

I blame the Modernists.  Before Virginia Woolf et al began venerating themselves, novels were largely modes of entertainment.  They were a popular medium intended for a wide audience longing for a three volume escape from mundanity.  They were TV for the middle classes.  The best ones (for my money, Dickens, Hardy and Thackeray, but that’s debatable) were entertaining first; the depth of their subjects, their political commentary and social consciences were a marvelous addition.  The Modernists made the novel deep as a cave and just as dangerous.  They gave it a greater social conscience, and moved it towards real political efficacy, but in the process lost sight of entertainment value.  We read Ulysses because it’s important, but is it fun?

This is not to say that there is no place for intellectual books.  I love intellectual books.  I also don’t want to be bored by something just because it’s ‘important’.  Anti-intellectualism is a terrible thing, but sometimes I get the sense that intellectuals are looking to cordon themselves off from the rest of the world, to look down their noses at something just because it does not fit into an arbitrary criteria of ‘art’.  The fact is that literary fiction is as much a genre as anything else: there’s BAD literary fiction, and there’s good.  We just slap the phrase ‘literary’ on it and suddenly it’s a tome worthy of the New York Review of Books.  Good genre fiction is difficult; it requires as much skill, as much intelligence and attention to detail as any other work of art.  Entertaining people is hard work.  So, basically, we all need to get our heads out of our own asses and realize that literature is a slippery category.  Besides, some literary fiction could be improved by a dirigible or two.

The Hipster Chronicles # 1: A Walking Cliche

This is going to be one of those ‘geez, my life is fascinating’ sort of posts.  Brace yourself.  I live in Edinburgh–a glorious city, beautiful, gothic, that drives me completely insane 9 days out of 10–and, this being Scotland, it was something of an event when the sun shone yesterday.  Not only did the sun shine, but the wind had sunk to a light spring breeze, the sky was totally clear, there was no chance of getting all four seasons in one day, as there usually is in Edinburgh.  So as I am on ‘vacation’ from grad school, so to speak, I betook myself to the Meadows, a public park in the middle of the Old Town.  There I witnessed what happens on a sunny day in a place known for its continuous greyness.

It seemed that the entire city turned out to picnic in the park.  There were people juggling, boys on unicycles, crowds of students with those little barbeques you can buy at Tescos, couples sleeping, children playing, bicycles inexplicably and dangerously traversing the crowd.  I laid down on a nice sunny patch of grass, had my lunch, opened my book, turned on my music and settled myself in for a few hours of existential contemplation.

The problem with existential contemplation on a sunny day in Edinburgh is that you begin to consider, naturally enough, your existential self.  Which I did.  It happened when I sat up to remove my shoes.  In a flash, I saw myself, sitting there on that green expanse.  And I did not like what I saw.  I saw a twenty-something girl in Levis, H&M tank top, wearing worn down red Converse with no socks, listening to folk music on her iPod, iPhone tucked into her back pocket.  I saw a girl drinking an organic smoothie while reading ‘American Psycho’, eyes shaded against the sun by her horn-rimmed, retro sunglasses, head propped up on a messenger bag with pins that read ‘Peace: Back By Popular Demand’ and a picture of Che Guevera.  I saw (and I tremble as I write this): a hipster.  The only thing missing was a pashmina and skinny jeans.

Allow me to rephrase that: I saw a fucking hipster.  Because I, like the rest of the civilized world, do not like hipsters.  They are false creatures of darkness who use ‘ironic’ ironically.  They move in packs, like werewolves, and listen to bands you’ve never heard of just because you’ve never heard of them.  They ride unicycles…and there is nothing I irrationally despise more than the unicycle (it defies all laws of God and Man, but let’s not get into that).  They are pop-culture leeches and they have usurped all the good things, like Godard and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and acoustic guitars.

And I am one.  Joanna reassured me that I could not be a hipster if I wasn’t doing any of the things I was doing ironically.  But of course, I am ironic by nature.  I’m a sarcastic, snarky film snob.  And isn’t not doing something ironically that  you should be doing ironically by extension ironic? The irony of being un-ironic in an ironic setting? Dear.  God.

Kerouac defined the hipster of the 1940s, but went on to say that there are a million and one false hipsters out there.  There’s an excellent quote from ‘Desolation Angels’ about this, but I can’t find it.  And now I’m referencing Kerouac and my cliched nature is complete.  Fuck.

In my defense (from myself), I actually want to read American Psycho.  I have a Che Guevera button because I respect him, and I have read some of his work.  I love my Cons, and my iPod, and my iPhone Caligula.  Levis fit me, and they are not artificially distressed.  I was drinking a fruit smoothie in an attempt to get my 5 a day.  If anything, I am a sincere hipster.

How very ironic.