Monday, January 22, 2007

The Books Of January (or The Pope's Rhinoceros, part 2?)

January has been a tough month, quantity-wise, of books that I've tackled - of course, it's quality, blah blah blah - and since I know that I'll still be reading the same book at the end of the month, I might as well write about my impressions right now. To start with I read a bit of Neil Gaiman's latest collection of short, weird stuff, Fragile Things, although it was way too heavy on the weird for where I was at that point, so I stopped. I like Gaiman - he's one of the truly original fiction writers out there - and I really wish he wasn't pigeonholed into Sci Fi so much, since that scares a lot of readers off. Go read American Gods, though - and don't be afraid, Neil's genius is that his stories are usually grounded in reality...somewhere.

Anyway, I always tell myself I'll go back to a book once I put it down, but...well, a hypothetical "Exhibit A" would be: in 2003, I stopped reading Lawrence Norfolk's 574 page The Pope's Rhinoceros on page 549. I really actually tell myself that I'll finish it some day. One day my life will come full circle, back to "aught three", and I will be inextricably drawn back to the soothing tones of Lawrence Norfolk and his rhino. No one else believes me though, so it has become sort my white whale....rhinoceros. So, after Gaiman, I picked up a galley for Joshua Ferris's Then We Came To The End - a farce about modern office life that was actually very funny, but reminded me a bit of, well, The Office from my old pal TV. Which is a fantastic show, but the book wasn't really grabbing me right away, so I, well, put it down. I was searching for something more substantial, something with more of a Pope's Rhinoceros-girth to it. Something with heft and drama, exotic locales, not fluorescent-lit office buildings or creepy fairy-lands (although, fairy lands are about as exotic of a locale as you can get, I guess). Then I read the
New York Times review on Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games and I knew I had a winner. 900 pages of Bombay detectives, violent criminals, and nasty slums. Perfect. And never before has a book passed Seth Marko's patented* First Page Test with such gloriously flying colors:

"A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a brand-new building with the painter's scaffolding still around it. Fluffy screamed in her little lap-dog voice all the way down, like a little white kettle losing steam...."

SOLD. And, as a bonus, if I liked the rest of the book, it would fi
nally give me an opportunity to bash Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram
- another 900 page book that I read 450 pages of before I got sick of his over-the-top, "check me out", pretentious bullshit, but that sells like its the last book on the planet at Warwick's - thanks to my fellow Podbots. Ah, but that bashing will have to wait, gentle reader. I'm only 350 pages into this new masterpiece, so the full review will come a bit later. Besides, check out Roberts (at left) - he could do some hurtin' on this punk-ass bookseller. Stay tuned....

*patent not even pending.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Children of Men

I know that this is a mouthful, but I don’t think I have ever been as affected by a film as I was by Children of Men. Towards the end of the film, as Theo clings desperately to the slight possibility of a future for humanity, as that fragile hope begins to slip through your fingers, ever so slightly, I found tears running down my face.

The general premise of the film is this: it is the year 2027 and humanity has been infertile for the last 19 years. The youngest person on the planet, Baby Diego, has just died at age 18. Britain is walled off from the outside world of chaos, war, and death and spends time deporting and torturing refugees. In the face of such despair, the government has issued suicide packets to all its citizens. No one has heard a child’s laugh in almost two decades.

In a lot of ways this all reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in which humanity has experienced a decade of devastation and earth-altering events before you, the viewer/reader, came along – a fact that every character is very much aware of - so why would anyone narrate to you what has happened? That would be ridiculous & contrived, no? In Children, you are left to piece things together for yourself* - London looks like a dirtier, slightly more technologically adept version of its 2006 self. Yes, in 20 years, flatter screen TV’s have been invented, but there are no flying cars, no humanoid robots – life goes on as people get older and humanity dies out...or so it seems for the first 3 minutes of the film. Things are not so simple, of course. (*A point that some viewers have apparently had a hard time with. People prefer to be spoon-fed a storyline with a nice, neat setup, so they can sit comfortably in their theatre seats and watch the “feel good” movie of the year. Wake the fuck up, people.)

Gradually, you begin to see the hopelessness and despair that people are experiencing and the terrifying degree of insanity that humanity has slipped into. Theo (an excellent Clive Owen) blithely orders coffee in a cafe in the opening sequence – going about his daily business, without affect - as the people around him react to the death of the world’s youngest human. Theo seems to have stopped caring about such things – after 20 years of this, would such events really have any meaning for us anymore? Theo has severe ennui – with good reason – and cannot feel affected by the events of the world anymore. He drinks and smokes constantly as a method of numbing himself to his surroundings. It isn’t until he is tasked with helping Kee, the world’s first pregnant woman in 20 years, that his utter despair falls away and he has a reason to keep moving his feet.

As the film progresses, the camera gradually moves closer to its subjects, and you become more emotionally attached to the events unfolding around you. The refugee camp is particularly real - of course, it looks a bit like Abu-Ghraib, and this is the point – look what we are headed for, people – but it genuinely scared me: the frailty of freedom in light of all that’s happening in the world. One minute Miriam, the midwife, is free and working to get Kee safe, the next she’s having a hood pulled over her head and….who the hell knows.

This tension and fear builds and builds and builds – the fragility of human societal existence is exposed. For me, the emotional tide truly turned in the scene where Theo & his companions stop to meet Syd, a soldier helping them achieve their task, in an abandoned school near a refugee camp. It took me a minute for that information to process – the abandoned school. Why would anyone need an elementary school if no kids had been born in almost 20 years?

When the Fishes (a group of misguided freedom fighters) manage to steal Kee and the baby away from Theo – despair & desperation take hold of the viewer a bit. The intensity of the importance of getting them safe.... Theo runs through fucking WAR to get into that goddamn building where Kee & her child are! A horrifying display – at this point, the camera is right on top of Theo – you can feel every concussion from every explosion and every dull thud of bullets hitting concrete next to your head. The suffering inside that building really hits home – these are not refugees or animals, they are human beings being killed for absolutely no fucking reason. Not because they are different or from some foreign country, but because that’s all anyone can manage to do in the face of such degradation of societal boundaries.

And then the baby starts to cry. As Theo leads mother and child out of the building, the world screeches to a halt. This is the point where I inadvertently started to weep. The looks on the faces of all those people – despair, devastation & fear melting into hope and awe at seeing the tiny foot of a child sticking out through a grimy blanket. No one has seen a baby in 20 years....

Anyway, this is just my take, obviously - everyone reacts differently to storytelling. And not everyone will be as affected by this as I was. Of course, it does have some brighter spots: Michael Caine is absolutely magnificent as Jasper, an old activist friend of Theo’s. He lives holed up in the woods with his ailing wife, smoking homegrown weed and listening to awful hiphop and Beatles cover songs. But some of the most poignant scenes are lead by Jasper, and Caine deserves, at the very least, an Oscar nomination, if not the nod. I also thought it particularly poignant that Theo never raises his hand in violence - at least until his drive to save Kee grabs hold. And even then, his violence is reactionary, unlike what is happening all around him. Owen delivers this perfectly - his oppressed sadness is palpable - and his eventual hope for the world is contagious, to say the least. A masterful work from start to finish and, while I, of course, haven't seen every film rumored for Oscar this year, this is definitely the best one I have seen with my own eyes.

By the way, it was a book first. Buy it at your local independent.