Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Look At These Thugs

Walking around with them gats, thinking they all hard and shit...





















"Straight up dude this bitch is all sad and crying like awwww they killed my baby but she obviously didn't care enough to raise him right..." ~ a concerned citizen.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Woman Without a Country

Olivia Manning, in recounting her childhood split between England and Ireland, described it as having left her with "the usual Anglo-Irish sense of belonging nowhere." This sentiment animates the short fiction of another Anglo-Irish author, Elizabeth Bowen, who frequently presents characters unmoored from any sense of social identity at a tumultuous period of European history. In contrast to Modernism's liberating rejection of national identity, this state inspires angst and loathing in Bowen's characters.

Several of Bowen's characters exemplify this dislocation, in particular Justin of her short story "Summer Night." Though a man in his early forties, he has no close connections save for his deaf sister and the equally unmoored Robinson, whom he inflates in his own imagination. Justin moves listlessly between different cities in England and Ireland, and even different nations on the Continent, without ever setting down roots or moving outside his own closed, celibate, solitary way of life.

However Justin yearns for human connection, as demonstrated in his relationship with Robinson. He inflates the other man, declaring him a genius, thus concentrating the whole of social life from which he finds himself bereft in this single figure. Robinson, eager to be done with Justin so as to entertain his soon to arrive mistress, rebuffs such exultation and drives Justin deeper into himself. Both characters, in attempting to connect, merely find themselves turning further inward.

Even Emma, Robinson’s mistress, cannot shake escape this atomization. Indeed, she experiences it more as Robinson at least has genuine, if fickle, friends to occupy his time while she has a hollow family life and no joy except the limited freedom of her automobile. A rarity and sign of upper class wealth at the time, Bowen further uses Emma’s automobile to show her utter disconnect from surrounding society, stopping at a public house to use the telephone and have a drink but interacting with others no more than is necessary for this rudimentary market exchange. Other people are as phantoms in Emma’s life, as are the places they inhabit which she speeds through seeking some form of human connection in the shallow Robinson.

In “A Love Story,” Bowen presents similar characters but rather than yearning for connection, they actively drive each other away. Frank and Linda’s interactions ring hollow and sterile, Teresa and her mother all but despise each other, and their interactions together display a reluctance to engage with other human beings. Even Clifford and Frank all but say to each other that they do not care for one another and are both quite happy when they are done talking. This resistance to socialization reveals the deep psychic scaring of being a national orphan, of having never developed the skills for interacting with others and establishing a sense of belonging.

Bowen further generates a sense of dislocation through the structure of her narratives. Both "A Love Story" and "Summer Night" follow several separate characters whose individual plots do not come together until the very end, emphasizing their separation between each other. The reader is instead presented with these unmoored individuals, worrying over their own private dramas such as Justin with his awkward infatuation with Robinson. By switching between a third-person singular style for each of her characters, Bowen permits the reader only brief and limited glimpses on her broader narrative.

This dislocation of both characters and narrative reflects the Anglo-Irish experience following the Irish Revolution and into the outbreak of World War II. With British rule thrown off and a new society defined by both Irish tradition and the Catholic Church, the Protestant Anglo-Irish found themselves suddenly citizens of no nation, being too Irish for England and too associated with the old regime for Ireland. Though Modernism with its critiques of the nation-state pursued such a disconnect, Bowen and other Anglo-Irish had such an existence forced upon them and, despite the intellectual orthodoxies of the time, World War II demonstrated national identity remained very much relevant. Without such an identity, the Anglo-Irish found themselves not just disconnected from their nominal homelands but undefended against the territorial and martial ambitions of other nations.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In the Land of Ice and Snow

Since Marvel will be crowding the multiplex with spandex-clad fascists for the foreseeable future, there's no better time to go exploring the fringes of NetFlix. Which I did, and I discovered a great little Norwegian gem.

Escape, or Flukt in its native tongue, is a brilliantly harsh film. Its premise is as simple as its title - girl sees her family murdered, tries to get away from bandits - but like a good found footage horror film, execution is everything. This is a naturalistic tale of survival, without sentiment or neat moral lessons. While the heroine, young Signe, is our entrance into this world she is more part of it than the soft and comfortable place we the audience inhabit. Signe is sympathetic but she never conforms to modern norms of right or wrong because to do so would be suicide.


We're introduced to Signe, her parents, and her little brother as they're traveling between villages. This is a textbook case of efficient exposition as just a few words and glances establishes the emotional bond of this little family before all hell breaks loose. Seems these tiny migrations were common at the time - early 14th century, which in Norway looks to have still been the Dark Ages - and massacres by bandits were just as normal. And so it goes with first Signe's mother, unceremoniously dispatched by an arrow. Her father soon follows, after a courageous if sloppy last stand against superior numbers and weapons. Bandit leader Dagmar - the brilliantly cold Ingrid Bolsø Berdal - dispatches Signe's little brother with an efficient crossbow bolt. That's the theme of the entire openeing, the cold efficiency of the bandits after the warm and homey establishing shots of Signe's family. And it quickly pulls the audience into the Norwegian McTeague that is the rest of the film.

There's the immediate tension surrounding Signe of course. Will they kill her? Sell her into slavery? Rape her? One particularly nasty bandit keeps trying that third option, only to be shouted down by Dagmar and even the men. At a time when feminist critique of the arts is seeing a resurgence this is a particularly poignant film - Dagmar, a woman in the Middle Ages, leads this motley band of cutthroats and is clearly feared by them. Signe, though at first a helpless damsel, frees herself and strikes back at her captors with only the help of another little girl, whom Dagmar has adopted.

That little girl, Frigg, provides some much needed humanization for the bandits. Coming across a bearded hermit who delivers backstories, as bearded hermits are wont to do, Signe learns Dagmar was once a perfectly respectable wife and mother until the day witch-hunters drowned her daughter and smashed the fetus out of her. While it could be maudlin, this flashback serves to explain Dagmar's motives, at least concerning her manic desire to reclaim Frigg, but also shows how even in this brutal world people are not brutal out of some innate evil but simple, mindless circumstance. More importantly, he teaches Signe how to wield a spear.

And that's the extent of the hermit's contribution to Signe's survival. I want to take this character and rub her Suzanne Collins's stupid face and go "Looook! This is how you do a sympathetic female protagonist ion a survivalist story!" But as I'll likely never get the chance, I'm doing it to you right now. Signe's character arch is both well-handled and immensely cathartic, as she evolves from a terrified girl into a hardened survivor just as capable and ruthless as Dagmar.


The setting deserves special mention. While the film tells us this is all going on in the early 14th century, the landscape is still modern Norway and yet still just as feral and alien as the unfolding story. Tall mountains, deep rivers, and cold forests all emphasize the finite mortality of the characters, even the brutal Dagmar. It's a world of cold beauty where death is an immediate reality and survival hinges solely on determination.

And it bears repeating - the principle protagonist and antagonist are women. Neither is a caricature or treads in stereotypes. You could easily make them both men and it wouldn't change the plot one bit - even the almost rapist, as it's not like that doesn't happen to boys. And this is from 2012! The Scandinavians are busy making progressive historical thrillers while Hollywood is pulling its hair out over making a fucking Wonder Woman movie!

Rot the multiplex. Stick to streaming.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Land of the Dead and Dying

Throughout Dubliners, and particularly in the concluding story "The Dead," James Joyce explores an ideology of paralysis unique to Irish life at the time of writing. Joyce saw an inertia in the culture and politics of Ireland, owing to both failed attempts in the past to throw off English rule and to rigid social and religious norms, leading to stagnation. Through this story, Joyce presents the debilitating effect of such an ideology on the whole of the Irish people.

Centered on a holiday party on a cold January night, Joyce presents to the reader a number of characters who reflect this stagnation. The hostesses, the Morkan sisters, have held the same party every year, singing the same songs for the same people. Those people being Freddy Malins, chained to his ancient and decaying mother, the irreverent Mr. Browne whose jokes, though witty within their closed world, never rise beyond the boundaries of middle class niceties, the rare new addition Mr. D'Arcy the famous tenor who refuses to sing until the very end of the evening, the nationalistic but largely harmless Molly Ivors, and the muddling academic Gabriel Conroy with his wife Gretta.

Of all the characters, Gabriel best demonstrates the debilitating effects of this ideology of paralysis. A college lecturer, his biography similar to that f Joyce in that he also took a degree in modern languages, at the time thought a woman's discipline, he perpetually finds himself stymied by others despite the desire to assert himself and his control. It starts with a fumbled joke directed at the Morkan housekeeper Lily at the beginning of the evening, which Gabriel attempts to brush off with the conspicuous magnanimity of a hefty tip. However, it fails to endear Lily to him or convince her of his mastery, as she later displays an impertinence towards him in front of his wife, who laughs it all off.

Worse still is Gabriel's encounter with Molly Ivors. She chastises him for his ignorance of the Irish language, his penning of articles for an English periodical, and for never seeing the rest of the country. She sneeringly dubs him a "West Briton," a moniker she relishes rubbing his nose in even during a dance. Shaken, Gabriel cannot even respond but rather broods over the injustice of Molly breaking the social niceties of the party. He only feels his manhood redeemed later when he takes up his traditional role of carving the meat for dinner. In performing an old and familiar role, he finds both his confidence and sense of place in the world.

However, no one else has a more debilitating effect on Gabriel than his own wife Gretta. Feeling invigorated by performing his masculine duty with dinner, Gabriel wishes to make love to her though he lacks the strength of will to forcefully take her as he truly wishes. Instead, he affects a nonchalance and superiority, all while yearning for Gretta to open herself to him. In the process, he elicits a confession from Gretta of a youthful fling with another. This boy, Michael Furey, once sand the same song as Mr. D'Arcy, "The Lass of Aughrim," to Gretta and hearing it again reminded her of the affair.

The confession is a trifle to Gretta but absolutely debilitating to Gabriel. The thought of his wife having a life and emotions independent of him only heightens his own sense of littleness, already foremost in his mind following his bumbling with both Lily and Molly Ivors. Gabriel wanted to seize his wife in the street, to boldly show his love and possession of her, but could not move beyond the strict proprieties of Irish social life even when in private.

In this, Gabriel proves to be the apotheosis of Joyce's critique of Irish life and culture at the time of Dubliners. An educated, intelligent man but held in place by his own inability to act and his fixation on things past. Instead, he finds his only sense of self in old and worn out roles – carving the meat for dinner or patronizing the help with a generous gratuity. Though educated and styling himself a clever man of letters, Gabriel can conceive of no place for himself but the traditional roles for which he proves ill-suited, causing himself only grief. And though dead and gone, like Parnell, Michael Furey exerts an influence over Gabriel Conroy, sapping his will with his own wife and leaving him to agonize over his own mortality, rushing ever onwards to the grave while standing still

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fiend Excerpt: Rock The Casbah!

The following picks up where previous Fiend excerpt, Barbary Nights, left off...

You're looking green, Doctor. Are my tales so terrible? At least I had the decency to face them - the tribe, that is. Anglo ships routinely blasted anyone close to shore with their cannons - just for the perverted thrill of it! At least I drink blood like a proper monster...

I couldn't very well continue with the old con after that. No Kinch, for one. No one to guide me or play bloodhound or help clean the vermin from me when I woke up every evening... I considered - briefly - trying my luck out in the dessert. The last gasp of blood madness - my first time seeking refuge in those ever shifting sands and a gust of wind would have uncovered me at high noon! Seen me scorched to a cinder! Reason won out, thanks to such a prospect...

I spent the first few nights hoping from one scrub brush of a farm to the other. Really just hill cottages, one sickly family and half a head of goats. The family served to fill me up the first night and subsequent nights I picked at the goats before moving on... A dark time, I confess. Dark and ever so dull...

Though it served to keep my strength up and my skin out of daylight until I could find something approaching civilization...

Algiers! That great port of the Ottomans and their corsairs! Or rather sea fort - the Casbah looming high on the rocks, the Low City sprawling beneath it and into the shore. No fit place for a white man at that time, of course. They'd just taken a heavy beating by English cannon and - while their lords promised no more Christian slaves - the hoi poloi held to no such promises. Any white face they saw, they cut! Hispaniola all over again!

I hid in cisterns during the day, soaking my now tattered clothes. At night, I crawled forth as some common ghul, snatching the unsuspecting and the lame into the alleys between the squat buildings. And resisting the urge to drink my fill - such a powerful urge! every time, Doctor! - it made for quite a meager subsistence...

I grew bitter... I grew tired... But I did not grow sloppy...

I'd learned from Hispaniola and that wandering of the coast, I assure you! No daring the locals, no flagrant monstrousness, just a common thief in the night. A blood thief. It served me well, all things considered...

So well in fact that I went completely unnoticed for some good deal of time. Years, even! Until I awoke one evening to hear on the streets above the voices of French soldiers! They'd come and captured the city while I slept!

Oh what a relief to walk the streets as a man again! Not some skulking cutthroat! Though I had to skulk a little at first, until I could catch some corporal who wandered off from where his unit was celebrating their victory with a bottle of wine. Carried in a soldier's pack from across the sea! It infused the corporal's blood, made it all the sweeter!

His uniform though... Explain to me, Doctor, why fashion trends so to the constricting? Last time I'd had proper clothes, they'd flowed and ruffled over me! Was that merely because my Anna had more aesthetics in mind than the practicalities of battle? Never mind, it just felt good to be in trousers again...

And those French weren't just in for a bit of pillage. They'd taken the whole coast! Brought in their own ministers. I suppose they'd quit Hispaniola too... I walked the streets openly in my stolen uniform and those moors didn't dare to cut me!

Well, one did... An old pirate with more salt than sense. He stormed up to me, spitting Moorish insults and reaching for his dagger. With a swift kick to the stomach, I sent him sailing across the Casbah!

Oh it felt like the old days again... I could rent rooms again, with the gold rings and lapis lazuli plucked from my prey... When I began drawing attention with my stolen uniform, I tracked down some appropriately sized minister and made a trade - after drinking him into unconsciousness. I think he got time in the stockade before anyone could piece together his true identity...

But soon as these French soldiers and ministers had the run of the place, they were thrown in disarray! Not by the moors, but by their own homeland! While they'd been covering themselves in glory in Algiers, they're king had been deposed. For the second time, I might add! One night I'd walked beneath the Casbah, seeing French uniforms keeping the locals under heel, and next they were all sailing away to be replaced by migrants who freely mixed with all the moors, went native in coffee shops and around water pipes.

A shock, certainly, but I followed suit to keep up the appearance of being just another occupier. It was then I acquired my smoking habit, the Moorish hookah providing all the chummy warmth of the tavern or public house without my having to feign interest in wine.

Ah, how the brutality of war is forgotten! Or not forgotten, not on every side... But those French, so different from the mad bastards who'd stormed across Germany and battered Besancon and... You know, they didn't just mingle with the moors? No, invited them into the business of the white man. The government! Let them join their Armee d'Afrique! The French had a real change of heart after Hispaniola, got that democracy fever...

I'm not so sure the moors appreciated it as much... You could see it in their eyes, if you knew what to look for... I'd seen it in Jeannot's eyes, that slow-burning hate... All the stronger when their conquerors deigned to treat them as human...

I would broach this to a few around the water pipe in the evenings. Tried to explain "sharmutah" was not some Moorsih honorific. They didn't want to listen... They'd stormed across the sea to conquer this blighted land for the glory of France!

Particularly this one little captain of cuirassiers, a provincial named Julien. The Chevalier de la Croix, as he insisted with the urgency of the recently titled. He believed every word of those ministers about "civilizing" the poor heathen Moors...

"We've brought them true government! True religion!" he'd insist as we sat around a pipe.

"And they'll never forgive you for it!" I laughed.

I could get away with such impertinence as Julien and the other young officers who followed him around all took me for some pirate -

"Don't listen to that old villain!" they would laugh right back, consoling their little captain. "He's just pulling your leg! Just having a laugh at us!"

And Julien would listen to them, because he so wanted to believe in France. Those citizen-soldiers... they took their duty and their lofty nonsense seriously. To the death! Nothing like them anymore...

Oh I admired the little idiot, Doctor. I admired his conviction, his courage, all the way to his ignoble end... I was there, though I was not the cause. Not directly...

I was walking through the High City with him one evening - he returning to the barracks, I planning to run down some tramp or other in the alleys - when out of the dark struck something I should have expected. I heard nothing but the young Julien's heartbeat, smelled nothing but his blood... then I smelled his blood all too much, his throat having been opened in the blink of an eye!

The little captain crumpled to the ground beside me! I fell into a fighting stance - though against who I couldn't begin to guess. No sound betrayed this murderer, no scent... Like when I met that dread baron...

And next - a slash at me! Only by quickly raising my arms did I keep that shimmering, curved dagger from slicing my nose clean off! It stung as it sunk into my flesh - unnatural strength driving it nearly to bone! See this here? The scar? That didn't happen in the war...

I whipped about to face my enemy. A blur of Moorish robes, again the flashing knife - but I was ready! I feinted one way, drawing out the knife, and as this undead assassin regrouped I struck back!

This Maur Nocta fought like some venomous serpent, striking with swift precision and retreating to do so again. From Bohemia to the Antilles, I'd acquired the habits of a bull - all forward power! No quarter asked or expected! I battered this demonio de la noche, the burning knife only spurring me on this time!

What a ruckus we caused! What a sight of whirling, slashing, smashing brutality! What a joy to fully indulge in my otherworldly strength! I tell you Doctor - the God's honest truth - pretty soon I was laughing like a tickled child!

The knife thrust into my chest - only very nearly missing the heart! - and stuck in the ribs. My assailant pulled back a bare hand... Exultant, I gripped the miserable villain by the neck and hurled them across the square! Into a cart of reeking fish!

I sauntered over to my enemy, plucking the knife from my chest as one may brush off soot or sawdust. I cast what Moorish insults I knew - or thought I knew - at the robed figure struggling to stand back up on a now broken leg. Things I'd heard Kinch throw about from time to time - or were thrown at him by that last clan. Imagine my surprise when my response should be -

"Pedicabo ergo vos et irrumabo!"

And in a startlingly feminine voice...

Read the whole thing in paperback or the e-reader of your choice!


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Going and Going and Going...

Gone Girl is a hit and likely due to suck up a whole slew of Academy Awards. This is warranted by the first third of the movie, a haunting and at times skin-crawling examination of the All American Marriage.

Nick Dunne - Ben Afleck at his commendably least Afleckiest - is just any other suburban self-centered oaf. He doesn't know as much about his wife as he should, spends more time on ESPN and beer than any deep and contemplative thoughts, and just can't stop looking like a jackass when the national media needs to depict a grieving husband. In Nick, David Fincher presents an Everyman with the very unflattering warts of every man thrust into a crisis with the whole world watching and judging.

"Llladies..."

It's a mystery not just of what happened to wife Amy Dunne but also what happened to the happy couple that had once been Nick and Amy. As the police, represented by the smartest detective in the South and her doltish sidekick, uncover more clues so does Amy's diary reveal more and more of just what went wrong between her and Nick.

That's the first third of the movie. Then everything blasts off to Bizarro World.

Amy not only faked her death - spoiler alert - she did it in such a way as to frame Nick for murder. And not just frame him, she intentionally cultivated a friendship with the bubbly baby factory so as to both provide a counter-narrative to Nick's after she disappears but also to harvest pregnant lady pee, so that the whole world will think Nick Dunne murdered his pregnant wife. She even contemplates suicide just so as to further implicate Nick. It's a brilliant and alien cunning that feels utterly detached from the slow boil that has been Gone Girl up until this point.

It could almost work if it served as the finishing twist of the film. A great big "Gotcha!" on both Nick and the audience as the last anniversary scavenger hunt clue she leaves him essentially explains her whole grand plan. If we'd faded to black just as realization dawn's on Nick's big stupid face, this would be an okay movie.

But it keeps going. And going. And going...

Amy runs into a snag in her grand scheme when she gets mugged by reality. Reality in this case being a young couple at the motel where she's hiding, the better half of which delivers the fantastic line "You look too rich to've ever really been hit," and then proceeds to really hit her. If the movie had stuck with this brutal logic it would have been great but no, Amy gets Doogie Howser to come rescue her not just from poverty and privation but from the implosion of her schemes.

While Nick's affair with a hilariously dense girl becomes national news, Amy forges a new narrative in which she escapes from Doogie's sex dungeon. This involves sticking a wine bottle up her hooha to simulate rape trauma, which Amy is adept at faking. She did it once to a boyfriend because, despite being invented by a woman, Amy Dunne is a caricature of every MRA fear.

"I shall rule them all with my hypno-vagina!"

This latest narrative takes hold because Amy's disappearance - and stinking rich parents - have made her the nation's sweetheart. Nick goes along with it because, like any mediocrity who lets slip his latent misogyny from time to time, he is absolutely worthless. And Amy had kept some of his frozen sperm, just in case she needed to manipulate him with pregnancy. Seriously, a woman wrote this?

It's utterly laughable by the end, not because of Amy's psycho-bitch evil but because it all started out so good. David Fincher is turning into the second coming of Kubrick with his camera work, infusing the early scenes with both the flat emptiness of the American heartland as well as the creeping dread not only of what could have happened to Amy but how the media gleefully scrambles to graft a narrative onto a tragedy with little regard for the truth. Plus the best cinematic use of an orange tabby other than Inside Llewyn Davis.

Then it all goes so far off the rails. And what most worries me is that this sort of ham-fisted madness isn't just hailed as brilliant, it's viewed as acceptable.

Fincher maintains a studiously realistic tone all through these shenanigans that would have been better handle by a blackly comic satire like Schizopolis. To reiterate - Amy fakes rape claims as a matter of course, outright murders Doogie Howser, and it's hardly a secret between her and Nick by the end, with even Tyler Perry and the hyper-competent Southern detective having a good laugh over it all. As someone on Twitter put it: "Help me famous lawyer and detective!" "Nope, that would undermine the plot."

Yet audiences and even the highbrow critics accept this lunacy at face value. "Well, it just illustrates how messed up Amy is," some say. A collection of human ears would show just how messed up Bree Van de Camp was, but the makers of Desperate Housewives had the good goddamn sense not to take such a cartoonish leap. So too does Amy's Hannibal Lector level of hypercompetence obliterate the excellent noir tone Fincher spends the first third of the film establishing. What could have been the best movie of the year turns into a kaleidoscope of plot holes and paranoid fantasies.

That it takes for fucking ever to resolve this nonsense is almost the lesser crime.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Swine Fever

No sooner does America work up a good head of crazy over ISIS than a real threat pops up. While both they and ebola are less likely to kill you than an enraged mime, the latter has managed to penetrate US borders. That alone has gotten the Fear from boiling over in ludicrous ways, from open racial hatred of West Africa to a lady in Newark refusing to leave her house without latex gloves and a surgical mask.

"Boo!"

But how did it get to this point anyway? Isn't ebola one of those Third World diseases that thrives in the absence of modernism and sanitation? Indeed it is, and you can thank good ol' capitalism for bringing it to the US of A!

Specifically, you can thank both a for-profit healthcare system and career pols opposed to any sort of public spending. Like Rick Perry, Texas governor and responsible for a state healthcare budget ranked 33rd in the nation despite being number 1 in ebola cases. Not that you can blame Perry for all of it - tempting as it is - as he's just following the party line. The Bad Guys - and yes, the GOP are pretty much The Bad Guys from now on - have worked rigorously to break the grip of Big Health on the nation's budget. Mostly by cutting the CDC's emrgancy preparedness budget by half since 2006. In their defense, it's not like they expected any of those brown people diseases to cross the Atlantic because they've never heard of airplanes.

Meanwhile at the local level, administrators with no patient care experience decide on not just who gets the HAZMAT suits, but whether it's worth the time to actually sterilize medical equipment. This is also how Duncan, the only poor bastard to die of ebola in the US so far, got sent home by the ER despite showing symptoms. They've since insisted it just looked like a viral infection.

Much like how your local high school hired a confirmed pederast, this is just more of that highly decentralized decision making Confederates conservatives claim to love so much. It's why they want more small government like Perry's and why they slash all federal spending except the hyper-efficient and meritocratic defense budget. The free market will take care of things, like it took care of that uninsured Ron Paul staffer.

"But there's no alternative to capitalism!" says any given stupid person. Indeed, every American schoolkid knows socialism leads to such horrors as longer life-expectancy, shorter workdays, and the most reliable spacecraft ever made. Better to stick with this neofeudal disease pit.