Monday, April 27, 2009


Still being as engaged by time travel plots as I was fifteen years ago, it isn’t uncommon for me to sample films with the device on a fairly frequent basis. Usually I am disappointed, but occasionally, as I was with Timecrimes, I am amazed by how such a frequently used narrative can generate such a compelling story.

Directed and written by Nacho Vigalondo, Timecrimes centers on Hector, a man who begins th
e film sitting on his lawn chair and surveying the neighboring hillside with a pair of binoculars. Just as his wife leaves to pick up some groceries, he spies a young woman undressing among the trees. As anyone would, he hikes up to investigate where he is tabbed in the arm with a pair of scissors wielded by a man whose face is wrapped in bandages. He flees through the woods, jumping a fence, and finds himself in a laboratory. Using a walkie-talkie, a man at the laboratory complex guides him into a strange contraption filled with liquid and shuts it.

As one with a basic idea of the story’s content would guess, that contraption is a time machine that sends him back a few hours. Using the same binoculars, Hector sees himself sitting on his lawn and looking up towards the hill. The scientist working at the lab explains to Hector, calling him Hector 2, that the man is him, his reflection at least, and only by letting that Hector 1 leave his home like he had before can the timeline remain unaffected and prevent some sort of meltdown in the space-time continuum, ingeniously left deliberately vague. Yet unable to stay put, Hector 2 leaves the complex and as a result of events, he must insert himself into his prior journey from this new perspective in order to ensure that Hector 1 makes it up to the complex to travel back in time. However, in trying to ensure this happens, Hector 2 does something he cannot live with, and thus must travel back in time again to prevent it from happening, creating/becoming Hector 3.

Confused yet? In all honesty, Vigalondo directs a story that is incredibly complex but quite easy to follow. The explanations of time travel are simple, and he uses visual cues to easily help us distinguish between the three Hectors. The narrative also is compelling as the audience begins the film knowing more than Hector 1, knows about the same as Hector 2 during his part of the film, yet is in the dark about most of what Hector 3 does and says until the conclusion. As someone who has read and watched literally dozens of time travel stories, I was pleasantly surprised that my own guesses about the resolution were off the mark. Or rather, they were spot on but only a small percentage of what Vigalondo had working in the film.

As with most stories like this, there isn’t much time for in depth characterization (no pun intended). And the financial restrictions are obvious by examining the shooting style and the inclusion of only four actors. Yet proving that a good story can trump any of these concerns, Timecrimes resonates as a truly gripping and intense time travel story that is among the best I have ever seen filmed. One imagines that Hollywood will remake this and jack it all up, so do yourself a favor if you are a fan of such films and watch the plot untarnished.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Sinestro Corps War, Volume II

Since DC Comics sold thousands and thousands of issues with their Infinite Crisis super-crossover, universe-altering event a few years ago, comic publishers haven’t been able to get these sorts of stories out fast enough. I for one think these sorts of ideas rarely are successful, but with the conclusion to The Sinestro Corps War, I may have to adjust my thinking a bit.

The premise of the series is pretty straightforward. Former Green Lantern Sinestro forges hundreds if not thousands of yellow power rings that are powered by fear, much as the Green Lantern rings are powered by willpower. Bent on subjecting the multiverse to order with the threat of harm, Sinestro and his people set off to make it happen. I talk a bit more about the premise here, where I reviewed the first volume.

In the second half we see the inevitable tide turning against the villains and for our heroes, though Johns does an excellent job with that victory seeming anything but certain and in many ways pyrrhic. The green power rings are unable to be used in order to kill another living thing
, but the Guardians decide to remove this restriction in order to ensure the victory over Sinestro. This has all sorts of fallout for future stories, especially the idea that sometimes men and women fighting for good must take a life in order to preserve the greater good. It’s something police officers struggle with each day, so it is obviously more believable a scenario than the previous ‘we’d never kill anyone, we are the good guys’ scenario that has been the case up until now.

But the most groundbreaking changes are to the entire mythos of the Green Lanterns. An ancient prophecy foretells the rising of all sorts of other Corps marked by different colors of the rainbow spectrum. Instead of just green and yellow, we witness the birth of the Blue Lantern Corps, powered by hope, and the beginnings of an orange, sapphire, red, and even black corps to come in the future. This is all playing itself out in the monthly issues, yet I am content to wait until the various collections are released to get the whole story.

Despite my praise, the collection does have some flaws. First of all, it’s likely inevitable that such a big story would drag in some places and move much too quickly over others. A few plot points seem to be dropped, and certain characters, which may be familiar from other series or the expanded universe, aren’t contextualized. And let me also say that since Galaxy Quest already covered this, it is no longer cute to have a superhero battle crash into a comics convention. As in the first volume, Ivan Reis’s artwork is detailed and fantastic, but this attention to detail can make it difficult to make sense of some of the more complex scenes difficult to parse for the important things.

Yet what really makes this a successful crossover event is not only the creation of the other Corps, but the fact that such a crossover was limited to the extended Green Lantern universe. As the fight moves to Earth, we see heroes such as Superman and Batman fighting alongside the Green Lanterns as makes sense, but Johns is careful to make them so peripheral as to be almost superfluous. Could DC have sold some extra books by tying in some of these battles to their lesser selling titles? Of course, but that would have diluted and perhaps corrupted what came off as an excellent event.

Now if I can just keep myself from buying a Blue Lantern t-shirt until I read a story that expands on their new mythos even a little bit…

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham

'This is what my father did,' writes Joan Wickersham early in her memoir The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order. 'He got up, showered, shaved and dressed for work. He went downstairs and made a pot of coffee, and while it was brewing he went outside and walked down the long driveway to pick up the newspaper. He left the paper folded on the kitchen table, poured a cup of coffee, carried it upstairs, and put it on my mother’s bedside table. She was still in bed, sleeping. Then he went into his study, closed his door, and shot himself.'

For the next 300-plus pages, Wickersham unflinchingly chronicles her fractious struggle to come to grips with the events of that morning 17 years ago, and how this single act forces her to reexamine not only her father’s entire life but her own relationships with her parents, her husband, her children and even total strangers. She quickly abandons the traditional linear narrative and instead arranges her chapters as a series of indexed entries, a nice conceit that works quite well. Wickersham uses this orderly structure to highlight the chaos of the complicated e
motions, elusive truth, ultimately irresolvable questions her father’s suicide has left her with.

But it also gives her a chance to demonstrate how constructing any sort of narrative out of true events is chaotic as well. Saying that lives are apples and stories are oranges, often she points out the seeming oddity that perhaps as biographers, we can explain a subject’s life more accurately than the subject can. While not the focus of her book by any means, this adds a level of complexity onto Wickersham’s account and turns the narrative into a memoir about her rather than a book about her father.

She manages to touch upon family dynamics, the American immigrant experience, literature, psychiatry, the human capacity for self-delusion and the fragmented nature of memory. In the end, this haunting book is less your typical journey through the healing process than an exploration of how we construct the stories we need to survive, and how sometimes acceptance is reached only after all other possibilities have been exhausted.

The Suicide Index is a shockingly frank and compelling read that I finished in two extended sessions, only broken up by the need for sleep while sick. Though my own experiences with suicide have often been distant or deflected, Wickersham’s narrative helped me begin to make sense of only modestly similar scenarios in my life, truly the work of a great artist. Deservedly nominated for the National Book Award, the book is highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In Bruges by Martin McDonagh

In Bruges, the first film by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, depicts the town of Bruges as existing somewhere between heaven and hell with its lovely gingerbread-type architecture and constant catering to Western tourists. Despite the fine acting and often hilarious dialogue, the movie comes across as a slightly mixed bag, with the ending being so bloody that it sort of renders the genuinely touching first two-thirds of the film a bit moot in a hail of bullets.

If one is going to put a city in the title of a film, that city should come across as a charac
ter on its own. However, my ignorance of Bruges wasn’t remedied much at all as McDonagh presents the Belgian town as nowhere place, not genuinely unique at all but merely some sort of European tourist trap that could probably be anywhere. Perhaps across the pond jokes about Bruges abound and situating the characters within the town isn’t needed, but for Americans with little concept of the city, much less Belgium itself, such an effort is sorely missed.

The plot concerns two Irish hit men, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Collin Farrell), who have been sent by their unscrupulous yet principled boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to hide out in Bruges following a job in London gone wrong; Ray accidentally killed a young boy along with the mark. Ken is happy to be there and delights in taking boat rides on the canals and visiting churches that hold sacred Christian hallows. Ray on the other hand, is tortured by the events of the murder and hates Bruges on sight, calling it a shit-hole, a hellhole, any sort of pejorative name that crosses his mind. Since it's Christmas and everything else is booked, the pair is forced to share a room at a hotel. Harry has instructed them to stay put during the evenings to await his phone call. Ray is fidgety and wants to go out, drown his sorrows in Belgian beer. He doesn’t know why Harry has sent them to Bruges as they could easily have hid out in some backwater British town. Ken ventures that perhaps Harry has sent them to Bruges in order to commit another murder. When Harry’s phone call finally comes, Ken is proved right, but not in the way he expects.

The acting is top notch. I haven’t seen Farrell in too many other things, but he strikes me as an actor who quite possibly is too good-looking to play the character parts he is best suited for. He plays Ray with a compassion that is quite stirring, communicating his anguish often with just a wrinkle in the forehead or a twitch of the eyebrows. Gleeson too plays a humane hitman, and the relationship between the two is an affectionate father/son one even with all the verbal sparring. Ken’s inner torment is every bit as harrowing as Ray’s, but he has found a way to deal with it. Despite their likeability, McDonagh is careful to not turn them into heroes and constantly reminds the audience that the two are killers for money. While I was reminded of Guy Ritchie’s early films, especially when Fiennes is onscreen, this is a more mature and nuanced work.

While the ending is one that just about anyone could have predicted, especially with the way McDonagh shows close-ups of props to highlight their future significance, the way that ending is reached was a bit surprising. But with all the moaning, even at the end, with having to be in ‘fucking Bruges,’ one still feels it could have just been anyplace. Like the plays of McDonagh I have been fortunate enough to read, this is a good film that just falls short of being very good. He seems to open more doors that he cares to walk through, something that hopefully won’t continue as he matures.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins, Director of the Contemporary Media Studies Program at MIT, attempts in his acclaimed 2006 book Convergence Culture to look beyond the hype surrounding new media and instead analyze the cultural transformations that occur when these new media meet the old. Arguing against the idea that convergence should be understood primarily as a technological process, he instead demonstrates that it represents a cultural shift as consumers are urged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content.

Rather than writing from an objective viewpoint, Jenkins instead describes what the media landscape looks like from the perspective of various localized people. He also is quick to dismiss the idea that in the future consumers will get all their media from one device, referring to this prognostication as the ‘black box fallacy.’ Through his book, Jenkins explains how convergence is both a top-down corporate-driven process and a bottom-up consumer-driven process.

Throughout the six chapters making up the first edition of the book, Jenkins looks at a number of scenarios that highlight the way culture is shifting based on the intersection of new and old media. He describes in detail the fans of the television show Survivor who have banded together online to form communities that attempt to find out as many secrets about the show as is possible, using this example as a microcosm to explain how knowledge can be formed within a community that would be impossible to be formed by individuals working separately. He also discusses the ramifications that interactive audience-driven voting has had on the hit American Idol, and the potential backlash against its new brand of corporate sponsorship.

In the realm of movies, much attention is paid to the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy and the various other ways the universe was used by different media. Calling the practice ‘transmedia storytelling,’ Jenkins explains how the unified universe across the multiple media gave viewers of the films an insight into the greater intended meaning and helped inform seeming gaps in knowledge that caused the later movies to be panned by critics. He then goes on to describe the way fans have created their own content in the Star Wars universe and the issues that have been raised. The explosion of fan fiction in the fictional world of the Harry Potter books is used as an example of the copyright problems both producers of fan content and owners of intellectual property face, while advocating such practices help young people learn ways of communicating and collaborating that are antithetical to the education they receive in schools.

Finally, Jenkins analyzes the way that politics is changing as traditional means for campaigning are being influenced and in some cases superceded by the new media options available online. Even with an afterward written seemingly towards the end of 2007, this is the weakest part of the book not because of anything Jenkins did or did not include, but due to the timeliness of issue. While analyzing the way Howard Dean was able to raise so much money in 2004 is worthwhile, without the discussion of how President Obama seized these ideas and raised millions upon millions of dollars causes the arguments to seem outdated.

Formatting errors abound in the book, with dozens of hyphens being placed in the middle of words for seemingly no reason. Often lines just skip down halfway through a sentence and at least once a block quote just ended, completely obscuring the point for which it was quoted. In all this is only mildly distracting, but it does tend to jar one out of Jenkins’s narrative.

Timeliness is a problem with any book concerning technology, and can be seen in the other chapter as well, though not to as great a degree. As new media continues to explode and the changes to our culture become more and more drastic each day, Jenkins’s book will become more and more obsolete. Yet his arguments are illuminating and his writing style is easy to read and able to be assimilated by scholarly audiences as easily as by educated laymen. For those interested not only in the types of new media that are currently emerging but also in the effects said media is having on our culture, Convergence Culture is a book you should read.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Sinestro Corps War, Volume I

I’ve given up on superhero comics about a dozen times now, yet they always find a way to get me back. As a longtime fan of the Green Lantern, I must admit that the idea of bringing back rogue lantern Sinestro and having him lead a corps of yellow lanterns in a massive intergalactic war was quite appealing to me. After I read somewhere that blue and red lanterns show up in the series, I made the educated decision to rescind the superhero ban (at least temporarily) and pick up the first volume of The Sinestro Corps War.

Being out of the loop in the DC Universe since the end of Infinite Crisis, Geoff Johns did a pretty good job of filling me in on the state of events without an expositional info-dump. Apparently the multiverse being restored has lead to 52 distinct universes being centered on Earth. Exiled to the antimatter universe, Sinestro arms hundreds of aliens with yellow power rings and teaches them to use fear to control the universe.

Here’s the basic gist: the Lanterns are essentially space cops that patrol the universe, armed with magic
rings that create anything their bearers imagine. Each member of the corps is selected based on their ability to know no fear. One of the greatest Lanterns of all time, Sinestro, went rogue after his idea of law and order drifted too close to fascist territory. Convinced that his way was right, Sinestro set out to start his own ring-wielding army, tasked to eradicate chaos through a more violent path—by instilling fear. And thus the drama begins.

Seeing the massive Sinestro Corps battle the Green Lantern Corps is pretty awesome, but the art here can be a little crowded to really get the sense of what is really happening, even in a two-page spread. It doesn’t help matters that most of the aliens are bizarre creatures who only remotely are discernable as actual beings. For instance, one Lantern is a huge rectangular cube with the symbol printed on it. How is a reader supposed to empathize with that?

Johns doesn’t forget to throw in a couple of interesting additions to the Sinestro Corps. First is Superman-Prime, the evil Superman from Infinite Crisis, who just wants to destroy everything. But more compelling is Hank Henshaw, the Cyborg Superman who blew up Hal Jordan’s home Coast City and was an imposer to the Superman name when the character died 16 years ago. He wants to eradicate life because without it no one will be able to feel pain. His character is handled quite well, and I really do hope that he gets what he wants at the end of this saga.

The first volume concludes with the Sinestro Corps preparing to attack Earth, causing me to fear that the conclusion will focus heavily on help from the Justice League and the rest. The mythology of the Green Lanterns and the greater ramifications of their existence on the universe is the most compelling aspect of a huge story like this. I hope that such matters are not forgotten and that characters like Superman play a small role, if any, in the rest of the story.

Looking forward to Volume 2, which maybe I’ll get a chance to read next week. I also hope to look into the Tales of the Sinestro Corps collection, which focuses on Superman-Prime and the Cyborg Superman to a greater extent. Hard to judge without reading the concluding volume, but my tentative thumbs up for now.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Ecstasy of Influence

In an attempt to respond to the challenge of creativity, I attempted to create a mash-up of my own this week, using Jonathan Lethem’s essay on copyright and literature to form the basis of the project. Published by Harper’s Magazine in February of 2007, ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ concerns the nature of cultural borrowing among artists, specifically novelists. Nearly every word of the essay is appropriated from another source and cobbled together to form a cohesive whole. Lethem has a lengthy afterward in which he explains where each appropriation came from.

But this is more than a stunt. It’s a passionate salvo in the copyright wars, a crowd of voices coralled together by Lethem to say, basically: without borrowing, stealing, cribbing, remixing, mashing-up, collaging and compiling — without influences great and small, in other words — there is no creating. No hip hop, sure, but also no blues, no Shakespeare, no Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream.’ Everything ‘created’ comes from something else; none of it i
s new at all.

Yet creating a mash-up of this article with my own thoughts was much more difficult than I had imagined. For one, I am a bit unfamiliar as to how a mash-up really would work in this sort of scenario, so rather than an integrated piece, my response tends to be an annotation of Lethem’s article with thoughts of my own. While I believe I raise some worthwhile points, overall I think the mash-up fails to be its own sort of creation.

The most striking idea that kept coming to the forefront for me was the thin line we as academics use to separate plagiarism from scholarly work. In any essay I may write for class, much less for publication, at least half of the words use are either someone else’s or used to explain the ideas of another person. Certain conventions like quotation marks allow one to escape the charge of plagiarism, but it goes much further. I often will appropriate the methodology of another researcher and apply it to my own research, often with the barest of mentions. Everything I hav
e done as a student/scholar has been based on the previous work of countless others. No one in academia is creating order out of madness; instead, that madness has been shaped into something resembling order for thousands of years and we use this without citation everyday.

While I won’t use this space to rehash all the ideas I shoved into Lethem’s essay, I will take a few moments and discuss another literary mash-up that may speak more directly to the sort of audience that reads this forum, but if you are interested in taking a look at what I’ve done with Lethem’s work, my attempt will be posted in the TRACS site and is available via email for those of you who are interested but lack access.

Announced a few months ago, the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a literary mash-up of J
ane Austen’s famous novel by Seth Grahame-Smith. Here is the description: ‘Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she’s soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead.’

Grahame-Smith has been reported to use over 85% of Austen’s original text in this work and has already been signed by a publisher for two more works of a similar nature, starting with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He has also spawned dozens of other authors into trying something similar, including me. However, so far I have some sort of mixture of Jasper Fforde and true mash-up, and my track record on projects leads me to believe that it will never see the light of day.

Lethem’s essay is definitely worthy of your time, especially if you have even the slightest interest in the idea of copyright and how it affects art. As for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I haven’t read it yet, but when I do you can be sure that I will be discussing it here.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bradley Inman's

In this morning’s New York Times, Brad Stone reports on, a attempt to create a multimedia hybrid tailored to digital reading devices that incorporates fiction, video, and a Twitter stream. Bradley Inman is the entrepreneur behind the idea; he is also an author who wrote his own thriller and hired a company to film two dozen short video to supplement the book’s action. I’ve attempted to see what this new startup is all about, but so far have only been able to ask for an introduction to their beta site.

I’m as interested in anyone in the future of fictional narratives with respect to advancing technology, but what I am getting quite weary of is the approach that Stone takes here in trying to predict the future of the book. First of all, the word ‘book’ isn’t a fixed concept but a nebulous one, and the current discourse surrounding this issue is mostly meaningless without pinning down a definition. But secondly, why can’t we just view new narrative forms like Vook as a separate thing?

Video games didn’t exist thirty years ago, yet now one can immerse themselves within a second person narrative that also gives them agency. Yet we don’t lament the shift of books from musty, paper tomes to electronic and interactive because of this. Stone brings up the ominous Kindle, but fails to recognize that the Kindle as it stands now is merely replicating the physical writing space in n electronic one, not creating something new. Vook is way ahead of the Kindle with respect to new narrative devices, yet Stone just lumps it all together. This article should be less about the future of publishing and more about the new opportunities technology is giving to producers of fictional content.

I’ll be keeping an eye on Inman’s to see where he’s going with the idea and how successful such an attempt will be, but I’ll be happy to look at it as a new form of storytelling rather than as a potential precursor to he death of publishing.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reading List: March 2009

I must apologize for the lack of content here over the past few weeks. This point in the semester is always busy, and when you add stress from the rest of your life in there seems to be none left over for side pursuits such as this. It's not that I haven't read good books or seen some good movies, it's just that I am too tired to really formulate any sustained opinions to post here.

Completed a big presentation this evening on Joseph Mankiewicz's All about Eve for my class on Film and Feminism which went reasonably well. Despite my reservations about the subject, I am finding that film criticism may be an outlet for scholarly work for me in the future. Still have no idea what my seminar paper will concern, but I am thinking of comparing Frank Miller's Sin City comics with film noir movies, then analyze the Sin City movie with these observations. However, that may be more research than I would care to do.

Anyway, I read 25 books and/or graphic novels last month, the best of which was likely Mark Harris's Pictures at a Revolution, something anyone interested in the film business should probably take a look at. I also finished up the released books in Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming's Powers comic series, which is fantastic, a must read for even so-so superhero fans. Here's what they were:
  • The Long Tail by Chris Anderson
  • Astro City: Local Heroes by Kurt Busiek & Eric Anderson
  • God Save the Fan by Will Leitch
  • Powers: Forever; Legends; Psychotic; Cosmic; Secret Identity by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming
  • Rickles' Book by Don Rickles with David Ritz
  • Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger
  • Preacher: Dixie Fried; War in the Sun; Salvation; All Hell's A-Coming by Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon
  • Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris
  • Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham, et al.
  • Box Office Poison; BOP! [More Box Office Poison] by Alex Robinson
  • Time and Human Language Now by Jonathan Boyarin & Martin Land
  • Sin City: The Big Goodbye by Frank Miller
  • The Lemur by Benjamin Black
  • Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street by Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson
  • The History of Sexuality: An Introduction by Michel Foucault
  • DMZ: Friendly Fire by Brian Wood & Riccardo Burchielli
  • The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball
Now that I am caught up with Powers and almost done with Preacher, who knows what I will end up reading. Of course, I promised to finish The Satanic Verses by now and I'm not even close, which I hopefully will get back to after I finish Thomas Geoghegan's latest. And I hope that this forum will see a bit more activity this month as well.