November 6, 2012

Necronomicon (#82)

Necronomicon by H.P. Lovecraft

What I said then:

When I realised there was actually a book called the Necronomicon, I had to have it. Classic, bleak horror. Fun!

What I say now:

Actually, this wasn't nearly as much fun as I'd hoped. Lovecraft wrote a multitude of horror stories for American pulp magazines in the twenties and thirties, and Necronomicon is a chronologically arranged collection of some of his best, and most well known, tales. It's also eight hundred pages long.

There was my real error. If I'd picked up a book which contained a small handful of stories, and maybe one longer novella, I might have been able to appreciate the good things Lovecraft does. He's pretty good at establishing atmosphere; he sets most of his stories in a tainted, haunted version of rural New England, a setting which is pretty off-beat and unusual; and he definitely had a flair for inventing demons and ghouls and alien consciousnesses.

Unfortunately, under the weight of eight hundred god damn pages, all these positives came to seem repetitive and dreary. Honestly, the vast majority of the stories contained in this collection are incredibly similar: similar in setting, in tone, in language. Once I'd read five stories, I wasn't surprised (or even particularly interested) again.

Add to the repetitiveness his exorbitantly 'gothic' language, which sometimes was so overblown as to almost serve as its own parody. Check this sentence out (a character has just heard a horrifying sound): "To call it a dull wail, a doom-dragged whine or a hopeless howl of chorused anguish and stricken flesh without mind would be to miss its most quintessential loathsomeness and soul-sickening overtones." Yikes.

That sentence gets at another of my issues with Lovecraft: he has an almost complete fear of actually describing anything. He won't tell you about the horrible monster or whatever, he'll relate how horrible his characters feel upon beholding it. Describing something's effects, rather than the thing itself, is always a good way to get on my nerves. (There is one way to make this work, which is to have me care so deeply about the characters, and know them so well, that hearing about the creature/alien/thing's effect on them is enough to sustain the drama. Unfortunately Lovecraft's characters are, without exception, two-dimensional nobodies, so this option wasn't available to him.)

There are more than a few stories where, having told us in exruciating detail about every step in an expedition into some haunted, blighted place, Lovecraft completely wimps out and says 'Oh, what they saw there was so horrifying that I can't even relate it to you, that's how scary it is! The end.' Seriously. That rivals 'and then they woke up and it was all a dream' as one of the worst ways you can end a story, and Lovecraft did it over and over again.

There were occasional stories that stepped out of his usual, frustrating patterns, and they were by far the highlights. The stories being arranged chronologically, it was also really interesting to follow his growth as a writer across the years: he definitely became a better writer with time and practice. Those occasional moments of interest were nowhere near enough to make up for wading through the rest of it though.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
books to go: 79
note: I've fallen way behind with my reviews (sorry 'bout that), which is why the numbers don't quite add up here. Not that anybody probably pays attention to this stuff, but I'm totally anal-retentive, so I feel compelled to explain.

September 18, 2012

Independence Day (#83)

Independence Day by Richard Ford

What I said then:

The continuing travails of a grumbling bastard, first met in The Sportswriter.

What I say now:

Richard Ford writes intricate, poetic novels that are critically acclaimed, and that are frequently prize-winners, and that I really just don't like very much.

It was years ago that I read The Sportswriter, the first in Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy, and I remember virtually nothing about it. The faint ghost of that book did, however, give me a peculiar sense of dread whenever I'd look at my list and see that Independence Day (Bascombe #2) was still on my shelves, waiting for me. It wasn't as horrible a reading experience as I was expecting, but I can now say with absolute certainty that Richard Ford's novels just aren't my cup of tea.

In Independence Day, Frank Bascombe, divorced former sports journalist, is now working as a real estate agent in small town New Jersey. Over the course of the 4th of July weekend, he nearly sells a house to a pair of schmucks, he falls out and then back in with a woman he's been seeing for a while, and he and his wayward teenage son take a roadtrip to visit the basketball and baseball hall of fames. And every step of that incredibly slight plot is described in minute (almost excruciatingly minute) detail.

The main issue I have with the way Ford writes is that he's too caught up in his quest to write lovely 'poetic' sentences ('poetic' in this context meaning 'meandering, slightly obtuse, and utilising unusual vocabulary choices). Character, plot, meaning --- Ford is willing to sacrifice all of those in search of pretty combinations of words. I just can't dig a writer like that. Maybe the most egregious example of what I'm talking about is that Independence Day is written in the first person, from the point of view of a fairly ordinary real estate agent. Yet Frank Bascombe, our main character, has an interior monologue that would put most published poets to shame for linguistic ingenuity. It's supposed to be a realist novel but nobody in the world thinks or talks the way Ford has Bascombe think and talk. And as such, I found it impossible to believe in the character. I never was able to imagine Bascombe as a real man; he was always too artificial a construct.

The other thing I found infuriating was Bascombe's wishy-washiness. In pretty much any given chapter, after an achingly detailed thought process, he'll come to some dramatic conclusion about life and living ... only to re-think one or two chapters later, and come to the opposite conclusion. I don't have any problem with that per se, it's kind of realistic and speaks to something fallible and uncertain about us puny humans. But Ford did it again and again, until Bascombe seemed like nothing so much as a weather-vane, swinging in the breeze. When, at the novel's close, he comes to a series of (what I'm sure I'm supposed to believe are) giant, life-shaking conclusions, it's impossible to give a damn, seeing as I've been conditioned by the novel to expect he'll just change his mind again in twenty minutes time. If none of his thoughts ever actually matter, they never actually matter, y'know? So ... why am I reading this book again?

As I said at the top, Richard Ford is one of the most respected, well-reviewed American novelists working today. Independence Day won the Pulitzer Prize, for god's sake. I just think he kind of sucks, and I'm glad that I'll never read another of his books ever again.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Necronomicon by H.P. Lovecraft
books to go: 82

August 31, 2012

Exquisite Corpse (#84)

Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite

What I said then:

Lots of people get killed, apparently. A friend said my book reminded him of it. I'm worried.

What I say now:

Holy shit, everybody! A blog post about a book, on John's book blog! It's a friggin' miracle!

In my defence, I've been trying to make a movie, which I reckon is pretty reasonable as far as 'reasons from being distracted from stupid self-imposed quests' go. During June/July I was pretty stressed about the whole Apartmentality thing, so any reading time I did have, I spent relaxing with old favourites. It's possible that I re-read the entire series of Hornblower novels, but I'm not gonna confirm or deny anything.

Anyway, when I did decide to pick up the challenge again, I decided that, given I loved Dead Europe with all its horror stylin', I'd have a crack at one of the other horror books on my list. There aren't too many to choose from (I'm more a fantasy or sci-fi guy when I want to get down and dirty with some pulpy fiction), but Exquisite Corpse, about two gay serial-killers who meet and fall in love, features more than enough eviscerated corpses to fit the bill.

In England, Andrew Compton languishes in jail for the murder and rape (yes, in that order) of twenty-three destitute youths. In New Orleans, Jay Byrne makes a hobby of killing any young drifters that cross his path, then eating their remains. Both seem to find the ultimate beauty in the stiffening bodies of their victims, and find murder an essential part of their sex drives. They're also both complete sociopaths: no reason is ever offered for why they are the way they are, or how their desires have come to take these sickening forms. After Compton escapes prison (by faking his own death), kills an American tourist and uses his passport to flee to the U.S., the meeting of these two deranged killers is inevitable. When their eyes eventually lock in a crowded French Quarter bar, sparks fly and they decide to team up.

Brite's novel is pretty full on in terms of its gore quotient, and I'd imagine it would be too much for some people. Every murder that gets committed is described in intense, loving detail. The inside of their victim's bodies are like the main character's playground, and Brite must have done a hell of a lot of research with a medical dictionary to know what Compton and Byrne were going to find in there. There's pretty much an exact parallel to how lovingly precise the many sex scenes are, and that makes perfect sense given that, for our main characters, sex and murder are two halves of the same coin.

Unfortunately, beyond the litany of mutilations and blow jobs, there's not much else to this book. Because the majority of the book is told from either Jay or Andrew's point of view, and because both of those characters believe themselves above any questions of morality, there's never really any urgency to anything. Whether they kill that guy or not, or whether they get caught or not, it doesn't ever really seem to matter. It's pretty impossible to empathise with a guy whose main concern is how pretty his next murder is going to be, but I never really empathised with any of the (underwritten) victims either. Given how much time is spent setting up that neither Andrew nor Jay has any feelings or emotions about anything at all, to have them suddenly fall in love (well, lust) just seems ... wrong, somehow. It just doesn't quite scan.

The one character who might have brought this whole thing to life is a guy named Luke, dying of AIDS and spouting anti-straights propaganda on a pirate radio station. He enters the story because his ex, Tran, gets chosen by Andrew and Jay to be their 'perfect' victim. Written in the mid-nineties and set (I think) a little earlier, AIDS panic is still a thing, and Luke's slow, messy decay has him feeling like a pariah (it also contrasts neatly with the quick, surgical beauty of the main couple's murders). Unfortunately Luke, who ought to be the heart and soul of the book, spends most of his time being a complete arsehole to everybody he meets, which makes it hard to go with his sudden, end-of-the-novel turn into good-guy-ness.

Also, and I'm kinda reluctant to say this given I'm pretty much the straightest, whitest, most privileged guy in the universe, and Brite most definitely is not, but the whole 'Homosexuals as Serial Killers' thing feels uncomfortably retro in its politics. Compton and Byrne's murderous impulses are so explicitly linked to their sexual desires that it's hard not to see their gayness as a contributing factor to their evilness. They're kind of like more salacious versions of Norman Bates, or Buffalo Bill, or the killer in Dressed to Kill that I can't remember the name of. Luke's radio rants touch on some really interesting issues to do with queer politics, but Brite never follows through, preferring to hack and slash his way to the end of the book, rather than try for something deeper. Oh well.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Independence Day by Richard Ford
books to go: 83

August 20, 2012

MIFF 2012, Mhghdrfqxhzz! (part four)

Bleurghelblahrgelbleurgh. So ... tired. So ... many ... movies. After I finish writing this and post it up, I think I'm going to lie down for a while. But I made it through, God damn it. 28 movies in 17 days is the final reckoning (which honestly doesn't sound that impressive when you say it like that ... there's gotta be a way of making those numbers seem more epic).

My only animated film of the festival, Metropia is (I think) Swedish in origin, but it was kind of an international stew: it had cast members from all over the Northern Hemisphere (including Stellan and Alexander Skarsgaard, giving their performances in different accents!). In a dystopian future, every underground rail system in Europe has been joined together, and super-fast trains make continent-wide travel a possibility. There's also a conspiracy involving mind-control dandruff shampoo. And ... and ... yeah, okay, I've been trying for twenty minutes to write a plot summary, but I don't think I can, because it made no God-damn sense. It was super stylish, and great to look at if you can handle a movie that's 95% different shades of dank grey. I don't even really know how to describe the animation style: it was kind of flat, like South Park or something, but photo-real at the same time. Unfortunately it was pretty much incomprehensible, and thus pretty boring.

From Senegal, The Pirogue tells the story of a fisherman coerced into captaining a frail vessel filled with immigrants up the coast of Africa and across the mouth of the Mediterranean to Spain. The voyage doesn't go well: inclement weather, in-fighting amongst the various factions of passengers, and the crappiness of the boat itself, all combine to cast them adrift in the Atlantic. It's obviously a really dramatic subject, and certain scenes in the movie were jaw-dropping in their horribleness. Unfortunately it was too episodic and too simplistic to have the emotional punch it should have. And while some of the actors were great, others were pitching their performances well over the top. Interesting moments, but not a good film.

Okay, I made the point in one of my other MIFF round-up posts that FILM-MAKERS NEED TO KNOW HOW LONG THEIR MOVIE OUGHT TO BE. The guy that made In The Fog, a WWII drama from Belarus, had no friggin' idea. In Nazi-held territory, two partisans sneak up to a house in the forest, determined to mete out justice to the suspected collaborator who lives there. When the execution doesn't go according to plan, the three men have to journey through the forest together, and at the same time we get a series of extended flashbacks, explaining how each of them has arrived at this moment in time. There's plenty of meaty drama there (and the flashback explaining why the guy is suspected of being a collaborator is gut-wrenching) but it's kinda ruined by the glacial pace, the insistence on lengthy 'walking through forest' shots that add nothing to the story, and the way the two other flashbacks don't illuminate anything about the main thread of the story. Like The Pirogue, there were moments that suggested a much better movie lurking beneath the surface, but it was buried in pretentious twaddle.

And then here it was, two days from the end, that the best film of the festival showed up. From Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg's searing, horrifying, The Hunt is about a kindergarten teacher who is falsely accused of paedophilia. As an entire town gets caught up in the hysteria that the accusations cause, lifelong relationships are destroyed and previously unbreakable trusts are shattered. There is nothing about this film that wasn't brilliant: every single actor is remarkable, giving everybody in the enormous ensemble the depth of a fully fleshed out interior life; the direction is clear and graceful, telling the story with perfect elegance but without ever intruding on the audience's notice; the cinematography is equally good, dancing on the line between being beautiful and being unstudied; and the script is almost miraculous in the way that it combines air-tight cause and effect storytelling, a rigorous dedication to 'realness', and an ability to find symbolic meaning in everyday life. This film was basically perfect, and I'm sure I'll be talking about it again when the time comes to write about the best movies of 2012. The Hunt is a bonafide masterpiece, and I urge everyone to see it if you can.

Last year I saw and very much enjoyed a Korean gangster movie called The Yellow Sea (though to be fair, it ran off the rails a bit towards the end), so I thought I'd give Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time a crack this year, in the hope it might be just as entertaining. Unfortunately, this one felt really tonally scattered, never quite sure if it ought to be a broad farce, or high melodrama, or something in between. After getting fired, an inept loudmouth of a customs officer decides to try and use some of his family connections to become a gangster. As crap as he is at basically everything, he still manages to worm his way into a position of power in the gang of his great nephew, from which point he starts fucking everything up. The film was at its best when it was a comedy: the protagonist's wimpiness offered plenty of laughs as he tried and failed to adapt to the gangster lifestyle. When it reached for drama, though, it was hard to give a damn. Having treated the whole story as mere comedy, it suddenly seemed a bit unfair when bombastic music came on and I was expected to care deeply about this bumbling prat's fate. Also hampering the film was the fact that the crime story, with double and triple and quadruple crosses aplenty, just didn't make a lick of damn sense!

The writer and actor Brit Marling was one of the people behind Another Earth, one of my favourite films at MIFF 2011. She was back again this year, co-writing and starring in Sound of my Voice, about two dating quasi-journalists infiltrating a cult that is led by a young woman who claims to have time-travelled from the future. Like Another Earth, Voice is a low-budget indie drama with a bit of a sic-fi bent, and it's just as good (if not better) than the first film. The scenes inside the cult are filled with genuine mystery and a real sense of unease, and the further the journalists (and the audience) go, the more questions get raised. Apart from Marling, who played the cult leader with an eerie stillness, I don't know any of the other actors but they're all uniformly fantastic (especially Christopher Denham as the guy who starts out the more cynical of the two journos, but doesn't end that way). As things get weirder and the stakes get higher, the central couple's relationship fractures under the strain, and for about the last half an hour I was watching with my hand over my mouth. It's a stifling, sad, almost unbearably tense little film, and well worth a look.

Christos Tsiolkas' Dead Europe is a magnificent novel, but I already told you that months ago. When I heard there was going to be an adaptation, I was filled with equal parts anticipation and dread: I knew if they got it right, it could be brilliant, but if they got it wrong, it could very easily be a disaster of cosmic proportions. How did they go in the end? Honestly, Dead Europe pretty much splits the middle between those two extremes. It only took about five minutes for me to understand that they'd taken a chainsaw to the plot of the book (which isn't necessarily a bad thing), so I was able to let go of my expectations. And for the most part, their new, slimmed down version of the story worked quite well. It was a wonderfully atmospheric film, the music and cinematography combining to make us feel like the main character's doom was haunting him from the moment he stepped off his plane in Greece. Though episodic, the film doled out just enough information, and made just enough sense, for me to hang with it for most of its running time ... then unfortunately they blew the ending in spectacular fashion. Just as everything's coming to a head, and the plot and themes demand some kind of resolution, the film just cops out in the most infuriating way. I don't want to go into more detail, because that would spoil the ending, but it's flat-out disastrous. If the projector had broken down five minutes from the end, I'd have rated it a pretty good film; as is, I can only consider it a missed opportunity.

And that, mhghdrfqxhzz, is that. This was a pretty fantastic MIFF for me, I'd rate about half the films I saw as sitting somewhere between 'good' and 'great' on John's Scale Of Movie's Worth. Trust me when I tell you that proportion is pretty extraordinary. The Hunt and War Witch were the stand-outs, but there are heaps of films tied for third place. Guessing a film's quality based on the tiny blurb in the festival guide is a fool's game, but this year I got a lot of stuff right (umm ... does that make me a fool?). Anyways, thanks for reading, I'm off to bed.

Cheers, JC.

August 16, 2012

MIFF 2012, Mudhaphuqazz! (part three)

Entering week two, I'd come down with my usual case of the MIFF sniffles. Spending hour after hour sharing a room with five hundred strangers at the tail end of winter, it's pretty much guaranteed that you're gonna get sick at some point. So far it hasn't stopped me seeing any movies (which means I'm passing the germs on to others in my turn ...) but the reviews are probably going to get more negative, because I feel like shit!

Speaking of shit, Faust was a massive mis-fire on every level. This bizarre, nonsensical, almost slapstick re-telling of the Faust legend just made no sense whatsoever, and was excruciating to sit through. The plot swung between being non-existent or being incoherent, the acting was horribly over the top (it was like they thought they were in a panto or something), the changes to the original story were brazen betrayals of the material, and the director made some ridiculous stylistic choices which were horribly intrusive. Absolutely nothing worked. If you ever get a chance to see this film, run really hard in the opposite direction.

Beyond the Hills was a hard film to categorise: so much about it was so good, yet there were a handful of things that just didn't work at all. A woman in her early twenties travels to a church in the remote Romanian countryside to convince her best friend, who's now a novice nun, to leave with her. The collision between the modern world and the unyielding faith of the nuns is fascinating, and handled with an elegant touch. Unfortunately the film (which has a fairly slight story, in the end) is way too long. Through the middle section, as the visiting girl and the local priest push each other further and further in their conflicting ideals, it gets super repetitive. The bleak Romanian landscapes are beautifully shot, but man, I wish I'd seen less of them. Take out maybe half an hour, and this would have been one of the films of the festival. As is, I think it's a wasted opportunity.

My second Takashi Miike film of the festival (he made Ace Attorney as well; apparently he makes three or four movies a year) was called Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. (Guess how it ends ...) A period film, it's about a wandering samurai who, finding himself with no useful work in a time of peace, visits a lord's castle to ask permission to commit an honourable suicide. As the samurai and the lord talk through his request, it becomes clear there's a whole lot more to his mission than meets the eye, and a series of extended flashbacks fill us in on what's actually going on. Everything we see in the castle itself is fascinating, as these strong-willed men explore the very edges of their rigid honour codes. It's also gorgeous to look at: whoever does his production design needs kudos in a big way (though the 3D they shot in was completely useless). Unfortunately, the flashback sequences (one of them in particular) are much too long, and they stop the narrative momentum of the story dead. I can see why they're there: some of the info disclosed in them is absolutely vital to our understanding of the story. They just needed to be much more economical in giving us that info, so we could get back to the castle and the main story without the film losing its drive. It's such a shame, because there was so much to like about this movie, but (like Beyond the Hills) it was much longer than it should have been. If there's one lesson for film-makers from my experiences at this festival so far, it'd be that you've gotta know how long your film should be.

On the other hand, Sleepless Night, a French thriller set almost entirely in a huge nightclub, was a real find. A deceptively complicated little film, it gets great mileage out of putting a bunch of well-defined characters into a situation, then using the ways their motivations come into conflict to drive the film from one action set-piece to the next. The script was brilliantly structured, one scene leading inexorably to the next as the good guys bad guys, and sorta-kinda-both guys put their plans and counter-plans into action. The fights were brilliantly directed as well (unlike the vast majority of contemporary action movies), one showdown in an industrial kitchen having an incredible visceral punch to it. A brutal, well-directed, brilliantly structured, self-contained action thriller, leavened with moments of organic humour ... honestly, it kinda reminded me of Die Hard, and that's very high praise, because Die Hard is basically the king of 'brilliantly structured self-contained thrillers'. Obviously it's not going to be to everyone's taste, but if you dig action movies, give this one a try. It won't disappoint.

A fascinating Iranian buddy movie, Facing Mirrors is a devastating critique of the inflexible moral codes that rule that country. Rana is driving her husband's cab while he's in prison; one day she picks up Adineh (or Eddie), a pre-op transsexual trying to flee the country to escape an arranged marriage. As the two overcome their initial distrust and open up to each other, the sexual politics underpinning Iranian society are laid bare, and held up for analysis. Two great performances from the leads (particularly from Shayesteh Irani, fucking fearless and totally convincing as Adineh/Eddie) and a subtle, slow-burn to their burgeoning friendship made this one a real highlight.

The word 'quirky', when used to describe a film, usually leads to either awesomeness or disaster, and rarely to anything in between. Although 'awesome' might be over-stating things a bit, Safety Not Guaranteed definitely fell on the right side of the ledger. An indie sci-fi romantic drama comedy thing (man, is that a mash-up of every single genre? If it had somehow managed to also be a sword 'n' sandals western, I think they could have made history...), the film-makers had the good sense to base their bizarre, fantastical plot elements on a grounding of sympathetic, believably damaged characters (okay, it's not that believable that Aubrey Plaza, who's basically my dream woman, is playing a friendless loser, but I'll forgive it that one flaw). Each of the four main characters has their own personal journey of discovery, and it's in the way those stories collide and lend each other deeper meaning that the film really shines. It's more than the sum of its parts ... and it's also very funny, which helps a lot. This one will definitely be hitting cinemas at some point I reckon (code for: it's American), see it if you get a chance. It was lovely.

From Hong Kong, Vulgaria was silly and funny and, yes, vulgar, and left most of the cinema in stitches. Those who didn't like it, though, took great pleasure in walking out in an ostentatious huff: it's that kind of a film. During a Q&A at a university, a bumbling, inept film producer recounts the many disasters that dogged the making of his latest film. The wild story includes bestiality-obsessed gangsters, vain elderly former porn stars, an eye-popping oral sex technique, exploding body parts, a videogame that simulates masturbation, and a sexual harassment case based on an unfortunately misheard word. It's pretty much batshit crazy, but it's also a whole heap of raucous fun.

21 films down, 7 to go. I can make it! Oh God, can I make it? The MIFF sniffles are turning into something worse, and (like last year) I suspect there'll be at least one day when I just have to stay in bed and let the movies carry on without me. Hope not, though, there's still a few films left that are among my most anticipated flicks of the whole festival. Wish me luck! And if you sat/sit next to me and I give you a cold, I'm really sorry.

Cheers, JC.

August 11, 2012

MIFF 2012, Muthafuckas! (part two)

Onward, ever onward, I keep on charging headlong into challenging, beguiling (and occasionally frustrating) subtitled movies ...

From Chile, Bonsai is a slow, sad romance about a doomed relationship between two literature students. The film cuts between two moments in time: the burgeoning relationship itself, and then eight years later as the man (with a beard now) writing a novel to try and explain to himself what happened. I felt this movie was too snail-paced (attention arthouse film-makers: slowness DOES NOT equal profundity!), and the guy playing the lead gave a weirdly passive, expressionless performance in the 'young lovers' sections, so I didn't buy that this vivacious, awesome woman would date him at all. The ending was also a problem: the whole point of the movie kinda turned out to be that there is no point, that some things defy explanation. Okay, that's pretty much what life is like, but it doesn't necessarily make for great drama, y'know?

Caesar Must Die, on the other hand, was utterly peculiar, and utterly fascinating. (side note --- I totally overuse the word 'utterly' in this blog. Sorry, I'll try and thesaurus myself up some alternatives.) Not quite a documentary, not quite a narrative feature, and not quite a filmed version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, it was sort of all those things at once. As part of a prison program, a theatre director puts on Julius Caesar with inmates as his cast. As the cons rehearse, we get massive long chunks of Shakespeare's text, played out in various locations in the prison, and it's cut in its proper order so we see the majority of the story. But during those rehearsal scenes, there's also moments where the prisoner-actors break from their Shakespearean characters, to talk about life on the inside, and how Shakespeare's play is relevant to their own lives. And if that's not self-reflexive enough, the movie was actually shot in a prison, with actual prisoners playing versions of themselves. Though obviously staged for the cameras, having real guys play themselves gives everything an intense immediacy. It's a weird little film, falling in between real and fake (and some may have moral problems with it making stars out of murderers and gangsters), but it's well worth a look, just for the Shakespeare stuff alone. Whatever else they've done in their lives, these guys can act, and the 'pure Shakespeare' scenes would comfortably grace any stage in the world. Definitely worth a look if you get a chance.

Miss Bala starts out with a pretty fascinating concept: a contestant in a Mexican beauty pageant gets sucked into a gangland war. Unfortunately, everything that might have worked about that idea gets ruined by having the main character be completely passive, uninteresting (and occasionally very stupid) throughout her entire ordeal. Couple that with a plot that swings between being incoherent and being filled with lazy coincidences, and you've got a film that doesn't hang together at all, and which was ultimately pretty dreadful.

Errors of the Human Body marked my first English-language film of the festival, which was a bit of a help as it's by this point that my eyes were beginning to get a bit sore. A break from reading subtitles didn't hurt, let me tell you. A sorta-Australian (most of the creatives are locals), sorta-German (it was shot over there), sorta-Everywhere (the cast are from all over the shop) medical sci-fi thriller, Errors played around with some intriguing concepts. One scientist's discovery of a miraculous gene which can help wounds heal almost instantly, coincides with another scientist's infant son dying from a wholly new, devastating virus. The first half of the film, dealing with a lot of internal politicking within their research facility, was slow but intriguing, but the further the film went the more the weakly drawn characters, lazy plotting and moribund pacing dragged it down. By the time one dude was infected and wandering around Dresden and the shit was really hitting the fan, I'd stopped caring. An interesting failure ... but a failure.

The mad, brave Danish journalist/comic Mads Brügger's brilliant documentary The Ambassador involves him purchasing an ambassadorship in Africa. After haggling with a couple of shady characters who deal in this sort of thing (a paranoid British fellow who lives in a castle in Portugal; a harassed Dutchman who reports to a mysterious "Mr Eastman", whom we never get to meet), he ends up being appointed as Liberia's consul to the Central African Republic. The CAR, we're told, is the end point for systemic corruption: you need to pay a bribe at the airport to even enter the place. Brügger, using a combination of hidden cameras and his various targets' breathtaking stupidity, paints a remarkable portrait of a society where everyone is on the take, everyone is one bad decision away from a bullet to the back of the head, and, consequently, everyone is paranoid as fuck. The movie is hilarious, but only because the only alternative to laughing is to weep bitter tears. Some of the footage he's captured is remarkable, (though I could wish for a few less scenes of him standing around talking on the phone) and there aren't many who come out looking good. One of the only men who does is a former member of the French Foreign Legion who is now the CAR's Head of State Security, and he's fantastic because he tells Brügger the straight up truth (unlike everybody else). And that guy ends up getting assassinated. Shocking, funny in its absurdities, and tragic, this is a film you really have to see.

What was that I said up the top about slowness not being synonymous with profundity? The Delay, a Uruguayan drama about a family fracturing under economic pressures, needs to take that advice to heart (though if it did, it'd only be about twenty minutes long). Three generations of a family share a cramped apartment in Montevideo, and the grandfather's increasing senility leads his adult daughter to contemplate desperate measures. The two leads were fantastic with what they had to work with, but the story was soooo slight (seriously, every inch of this ground got covered in the first ten minutes of the brilliant Iranian film A Separation) that no actor could save it. Leaden and dull.

It's funny how some nationalities just seem to have particular tones, or styles, that they can do to perfection, but that nobody else should ever dare try. In my last post I wrote about how Ace Attorney has a really peculiarly Japanese sense of humour, and Chicken With Plums is definitively 'French' in kinda the same way. It's operating within a framework of highly stylised whimsy that reminded me very much of Amélie (and other Jeunet movies) and nothing else. Apparently the French own that style now, or something. Anyway, Plums, though French, is actually set in Iran in the 1950's. It's the story of a celebrated violinist who, after his favourite violin gets smashed, lies down in bed and decides to die. The film carefully takes us through the eight days between that fateful decision, and the violinist's funeral. That sounds kinda depressing, but the film, filled with animated sequences, painted backdrops, and comic diversions into the past or the future, was actually tremendous fun (and often very very beautiful ... and not just because of Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian actress who I suspect might be the most beautiful woman in the world). It's directed with wit and verve (and it's not slow! Woo!), and the fantastic cast, led by Mathieu Amalric, all hook into the playful tone. The only word I can use to describe it is 'delightful'.

And that takes me to the halfway mark. Fourteen films down, fourteen to go. At this point, honestly, I've seen enough really good films that MIFF 2012 is going to go down as one of my better years for picking movies, no matter what the next week serves up (I'm tempting fate by writing that, aren't I?). Either way, you better believe I'll keep you posted ...

Cheers, JC.

August 8, 2012

MIFF 2012, Motherfuckers! (part one)

The two and a half weeks of the Melbourne International Film Festival are pretty much my favourite time of the year. In case it wasn't obvious already, I love going to the movies, and MIFF gives you the chance to catch a whole bunch of stuff that you'd never get to see otherwise. There are strange, surreal Japanese films (lots of these) and moody, elegaic pieces from Eastern Europe, and lush Chinese movies, and visceral Mexican movies, and movies, and movies, and movies. Seriously, it's awesome.

Unfortunately, because I took time off work to shoot Apartmentality in June, I wasn't able to also take time off work in August to wallow in MIFF in quite the way I'd like to. Still, despite working full time, I'm booked in to see 28 films over the course of 17 days. And right now, as I type, I'm seven films down and MIFF '12 is shaping up to be a barn-burner. It's always kinda pot-luck whether the films you see at a festival are any good or not, because you're choosing them based on nothing more than a tiny picture and three or four sentences in the festival guide. But this year, for the most part, I'm guessing really well.

I also try as much as possible to steer away from movies that I know are going to get a release soon enough anyway (Sorry, Wes Anderson, I love you to bits but I can wait three more weeks to see Moonrise Kingdom). It's not always easy to predict what will and won't turn up in cinemas (though you can usually assume that U.S. movies will), and in the past I've got it disastrously wrong and missed films that looked fascinating. I think I'm getting better at picking it though.

So, to business: I started the fest on Friday night with Ace Attorney, a brilliant and hilarious Japanese legal thriller by director Takashi Miike. Based on a videogame, it's set in a weird alternate universe where trial lawyers are a mixture of sportsmen and warriors, and their debates are like battles (they also have outrageous fashion sense). It's lots of fun. I don't know if the twists and turns of the legal mysteries at the heart of the film would stand up to a second viewing (Japanese movie logic works in bizarre ways...), but the tone of the film was perfect: a deft and funny mixture of absurdism and high melodrama. I had a blast. (It's also probably the first ever good movie based on a videogame.)

Things slowed down for my second film, Carre Blanc, a dystopian French flick set in a blank, cheerless city. The movie presents a Kafka-esque nightmare of bureacracy, humiliation, sudden bursts of violence, and croquet(!), a dog-eat-dog world in which anybody can do what they want, if they have the strength to get away with it. The seemingly heartless main character has risen far, but at the expense of his humanity, and his wife makes it her mission to reawaken his soul. Slow, dreamlike, and wilfully obtuse, Carre Blanc had a hypnotic quality that is hard to describe. It was beautifully shot, and made incredible use of some startlingly brutal architecture, and seemed to delight in only explaining the absolute bare minimum about its world. I'd highly recommend it, but only for people who are okay with having to fill in a lot of blanks for themselves.

Flicker, a Swedish comedy, was another great little movie. It's a sprawling ensemble piece, all about the last week in the life of an ineptly run telecommunications company. Everybody involved, from the CEO down to the cleaners, has a story, and the real joy of the film was in the way those stories collided and combined, bouncing off each other and shooting off in bizarre directions. Flicker manages a really difficult trick: all the characters seem realistic, and have recognisably human motivations, yet the events portrayed are completely batshit crazy. Making all the characters so believable really sells the drama as the plot gets more and more absurd. Really worth catching if you get a chance.

Monsieur Lazhar was also really good (did I have a good run to start MIFF with, or what?). An Algerian immigrant in Canada takes over a primary school class after their teacher kills herself, and from that beginning it's exactly the film you might expect: the kids learn lessons, the teacher confronts his tragic past, the school as a whole manages to move on. So far, so schmaltzy, except it's so well-made that the fact that it's predictable doesn't really matter. The performances are top-notch all round, and given how many child roles there are, getting that many great performances out of ten year olds is pretty miraculous. It's a small tale, and an unsurprising one, but it's told with real skill and penetrating insight. (On a side note, I was really annoyed when, having just booked all my MIFF tickets,  I went to see a movie and saw the Monsieur Lazhar trailer, meaning it's coming out soon. Can't win 'em all, I guess ...)

And that was the end of my magical every-movie-kicks-arse run: the next two films I saw were disappointments. Modest Reception, an Iranian movie about a couple who drive around rural Iran handing out bags of cash to strangers, started out as a pitch-black comedy, and was very weird and very funny. Unfortunately, as the characters' bizarre quest takes a toll on them, they start acting completely illogically and the film loses steam. The deeper and darker it tries to get, the less interesting it becomes. And the explanation for their behaviour, when it comes, is so half-arsed, so tossed-off, that it would have been a much better film without it.

Le Grand Soir, a French black comedy about a middle-aged punk teaching his straight-laced, just-been-fired brother to stick it to the man, was too aimless and unfocused. Occasional scenes were thrilling (usually when the film was being its most satirical), but too much of its running time was spent on things that seemed inessential to the plot. I got some laughs out of it, but they were pretty far and few between, and in between times I was just bored.

I got back on track, though, with War Witch, a stunning film about an African girl stolen from her family and forced into being a child soldier. Beautifully written, acted (by non-professionals), and shot, and filled with incredible, transfixing scenes, this is a film I'll be thinking about for a long time to come. The plot seems kind of aimless for a big chunk of its running time but when, with twenty minutes to go, the arc of the film becomes clear, it suddenly makes perfect sense: we only understand where the film's been heading all along when the main character, Komona, finally understands what she needs to do. It's a great example of a film's structure serving the story it wants to tell. War Witch is also fascinating for the way it blends its visceral horrors with an ever-present spirituality. Magic, ghosts and witches are as everyday occurences for these characters as executions and rape. That combination makes War Witch an incredibly unsettling experience, but it was pretty friggin' amazing. See it if you can. (Also, the proper copy of the film didn't arrive in Melbourne in time for my screening, so we watched a version with a time code superimposed at the top of the screen. It's a mark of the film's brilliance that after the first minute or so, I hardly noticed it was there.)

Seven films down ... twenty-one to go. I'll be back with more mini-reviews in a couple of days.

Cheers, JC.

June 6, 2012

The Iliad (#85)

The Iliad by Homer

What I said then:

 Well ... fuck. Maybe Proust isn’t as bad as it gets after all.

 What I say now:

Oh my. So much snark. So undeserved. Seems like every time I sit down to read something I'm really dreading, it ends up surprising the hell out of me. The Iliad was no exception.

There’s a brief passage in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (one of my favourite novels) in which the characters discuss reading Dante. One of them has a theory, that in order to read The Divine Comedy, you have to be a Christian. “If one is to read Dante, and understand him, one must become a Christian if only for a few hours … [it has] to be approached on its own terms.”

I felt something similar about The Iliad: to read it properly I had to accept Homer’s morality as my own, because you simply can’t read it using contemporary judgement. By our standards, every man in the poem does vicious, horrible things. Slaughter is to be gloried in, slavery is a given, rape will follow victory without any hint of remorse. Hell, the possibility of remorse isn’t even countenanced. It’s an alien time, and an alien way of thinking, and at the beginning of the poem I had difficulty relating to that mindset. I’ll admit it, I was squeamish.

Helpfully, Homer describes his characters’ motivations with wonderful clarity. What at first seem like strange, contradictory ideas about duty, loyalty, glory, piety and honour, come to be perfectly understandable, because they’re expressed with such ease and grace. It took a while, but eventually I sort of learned to think like a Greek, and could accept their alien morality within the confines of the poem. I suspect that clarity, that ability to sum up a man’s thoughts in a moment, or with the application of one perfect simile, is why the poem has endured. Homer can make ancient Greeks of us all.

(For the purposes of this post, I’m talking about Homer as if he was one man. This may not be the case. Because The Iliad and The Odyssey were part of an oral tradition for centuries before they were ever written down, we’ll never know for certain the truth of how they were originally composed. The translator of this edition, Stephen Mitchell, believes there is a single original author, even going so far as to remove a section of the poem that scholars believe was a later addition to the text. I must admit, I’m kinda fascinated by what went on in that ‘lost chapter.’ I might have to look it up in somebody else’s translation.)

As the war rages on the Trojan plains, Homer’s narrative often flits up to Mount Olympus, where the Gods are watching, and scheming. Basically every major plot point comes about because of the intervention of one God or another. From swatting arrows and spears away from their favourites, to raising rivers, the Gods play out their bickering rivalries through the lives of men, the clash of armies. This leads to a kind of heroic fatalism that is present in all the human characters. They know they are merely agents of the Gods’ will and that they can’t change their destiny, so instead they just accept it. Achilles knows he won’t survive the war, but the knowledge doesn’t effect him in the slightest.

It’s also (in this translation, anyway) a total page-turner. Writers like Tom Clancy or Matthew Reilly or whoever should check it out, they might get some ideas. It’s incredibly violent, very gory (turns out there’s a thousand ways to kill a guy with a spear, and Homer delights in describing every single one in excruciating detail) and completely gripping. Late in the poem there comes a moment when, after a few hundred pages of squabbling and using humans as pawns, the gods actually come down from Olympus en masse to join the fighting, on either side. It’s breathtaking, and kind of terrifying (and I couldn’t help but think: ‘Why wasn’t this in that silly Brad Pitt movie? This is friggin’ awesome!’).

I’m noticing a really nice pattern with my reading: it seems like every time I’m really dreading one of the books on my list, it always turns out to be a pleasant surprised. And what do you know, The Iliad was exactly the same. I’d probably never have picked this up if not for my reading challenge, but now I’m incredibly glad I did.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
books to go: 84

June 2, 2012

Homer and Translation (and Cheating)

Before I start yakking away about The Iliad, I thought I'd take a moment to talk translation, and how important the translation is when reading an ancient work like this, and (not coincidentally) how I'm a total cheating arse.

The many different translations of Homer that abound in English mean that each new reader, if they bother to inform themselves, has a choice about what kind of Iliad they wish to read: the Richmond Lattimore translation is the most literal, taking as few liberties with the Greek as possible; the E.V. Rieu transforms poetry into prose; the Alexander Pope is apparently brilliant, but is more Pope's poem than Homer's; and so on, and on. How you respond to the work is obviously mostly to do with Homer, but in a situation where so many differing translations exist, your translator of choice will have an effect on your reading.

I own both The Iliad and The Odyssey, but both of them were books I picked up from the store for free (damaged Penguin books don't need to get sent back, so we get to take them if we want ... it's both a blessing and a curse, trust me), and I didn't pay any attention to whose translations I was shoving in my bag. I'd always intended, once the time came to read them, to do a bit of research, figure out which translations I wanted to read, and replace my copies if necessary. So, yes, I bought a book, which is technically cheating I suppose. But my copy of The Iliad turned out to be the first ever English translation, completed by George Chapman in around 1615. Reading a Shakespeare-era translation of a 3000 year old poem, which I'm already dreading reading anyway? Umm, no thanks.

I ended up going with Stephen Mitchell's recent translation, which seemed from the reviews to be doing its utmost to be accessible. A quick glance at page one confirmed my impressions.

Let's compare them. Here's the opening of the Chapman translation:

Achilles' baneful wrath - resound, O goddess - that impos'd
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos'd
From breasts heroic; sent them far, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove's will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis' godlike son.

And here's the same passage from Mitchell:

The rage of Achilles - sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief
and hurled down to Hades the souls of so many fighters,
leaving their naked flesh to be eaten by dogs
and carrion birds, as the will of Zeus was accomplished.
Begin at the time when bitter words first divided
that king of men, Agamemnon, and godlike Achilles.

It's pretty remarkable that Chapman managed to fashion the entire Iliad (more than fifteen thousand lines of poetry) into rhyming couplets. But, being that this is the first toe I'm dipping into the waters of Classical Greek literature (okay, second toe: I was in a production of Lysistrata at school), I figured 'accessible' should be the quality that should carry the day. Having just finished, and adored, Stephen Mitchell's translation, I'm pretty sure I made the right choice. Now that my toe is thoroughly dipped, when the time comes for The Odyssey, I'll probably go with a translation that's a bit 'tougher'. I'm willing to let myself get there one toe at a time, though, know what I mean?

I'll have my proper review of The Iliad up in (hopefully) another day or two. In the meantime, here's the short version: it was great!

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite
books to go: 84

June 1, 2012

Dead Europe (#86)

Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas

What I said then:

I'm one of the few people left that hasn't read The Slap, but I'm told by people I trust that this is a better place to start.

What I say now: 

Dead Europe is magnificent. After thinking long and hard about it, I reckon this is my favourite Australian novel.

It's also a hard book to discuss, to dissect. I finished it weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about it. And thinking about how to write this blog post.

Isaac, a gay Greek-Australian photographer travels to Europe. He starts his trip in Greece, visiting some cousins and then hiking into the mountains to visit his mother's village. After that, he travels the continent, journeying through Prague, Paris and London. Despite his destinations, the Europe he sees is not the postcard world that we here on the other side of globe picture in our collective memory. Isaac's trip is across the darker face of Europe, the Europe of docks and slums and mistreated migrant workers, of crumbling ancient buildings and crumbling ancient beliefs. Tsiolkas makes a point of refusing to give us what we might expect: nearly every time Isaac sees somebody on the street, it's not a native of the country he's in. He wanders through the Russian and Chinese neighbourhoods of Athens, the Jewish quarter of Prague, and shares cigarettes with North Africans in Paris. Everything is in flux, Isaac (and Tsiolkas) tells all the Europeans he meets, and all the things that once seemed so solid are shifting beneath your feet. And yet ...

In horrific counterpoint to Isaac's realist narrative is a second story, a bleak, black nightmarish fable. Told initially in the language of a fairy-tale, this story seems at first wholly disconnected from Isaac, worlds apart from his listless, jaded journey. Except ... except the two stories bend together, slowly converging in what becomes a masterpiece of real horror. There are monsters buried in Europe's past, and the ruptured earth can't always hold them in. When they surface --- the old stories, the old hatreds, the old wars --- anyone can be caught up by them.

I shouldn't say much more about the plot, except to say that it's breathtaking in the way it toys with the reader, and masterful in its execution. The two stories begin by seeming to have opposite meanings: is everything changing, or can nothing ever change? These two ideas are reconciled inside the body of Isaac, a Greek from the other side of the world, an exile returning home to a place he's never belonged. How that's achieved, I really shouldn't tell you. But God, it's fantastic.

I used the word 'horror' a couple of paragraphs ago, and Dead Europe could be read as a horror novel. There's barbarity, there's blood, there's even a monster of a kind. Now, I'm a sci-fi and fantasy kinda guy, and a lot of my favourite novels are literary excursions into sci-fi or fantasy territory (Handmaid's Tale, Tender Morsels, J.G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut). When great writers take genre and turn it to literary pursuits, there's some curious alchemy that makes those stories work brilliantly for me. Tsiolkas is doing the same thing here, only he's doing it with horror: he takes old tropes (curses, vampires) but uses them with new, startling effects.

(I probably should add as a word of warning: I've spoken to a number of people who found passages in Dead Europe really confronting, to the point that they found it difficult to continue reading. I didn't have that problem, but I've probably got a jaded reading palate when it comes to extreme violence. Seriously, once you've read American Psycho, there's really nowhere else to go, and I've also written a fairly long piece myself that is pretty bloody in parts. Just thought I ought to mention it though, as it seemed a common theme among other Dead Europe devotees. Having said all that, not one of them thought it was anything less than an exceptional novel.)

There you go. It's past midnight now, and I'm really tired, and I've barely scratched the surface of what makes this book remarkable. I also have no idea how much sense any of this rambling has made. If it hasn't made any at all, then I'm sorry, and I'll put it much more simply for you: read Dead Europe. It's amazing.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: The Iliad by Homer (translated by Stephen Mitchell)
books to go: 85

April 25, 2012

Gulliver's Travels (#87)

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift 

What I said then:

He’s little! He’s big! It’s a satire! A Hollywood remake is on its way starring Jack Black! God help us all.

What I say now: 

Haha, that Jack Black film sank without a trace, didn't it? Hell, even I didn't see it, and I see pretty much everything. That's how crap it looked.

Anyway, to the book. I was slightly dismayed when I read the introduction and discovered this book was written in the early 18th century. Ignoramus that I am, I'd imagined it was Victorian-era, so to discover it was 150 years older than that made me a bit nervous. I don't think I've ever loved anything written before about 1820 (yep, Jane Austen, and I don't mind admitting it), so this was not a particularly pleasant discovery. However, Swift's writing soon put paid to my worries: there's nothing particularly difficult about his writing style. Indeed, considering Gulliver's Travels was written nearly 300 years ago, it's aged remarkably well. Succinct, clear and never overblown, the prose was perfectly accessible to a modern audience. Well ... it was to me, anyway.

A bigger issue, in the end, was the frustrating way this volume had been over-enthusiastically edited. By which I mean, there were a shitload of footnotes, most of which were simply defining the meanings of words that actually weren't all that obscure. Pretty much anybody with even a medium vocabulary, and anybody capable of inferring meaning from context, doesn't need explained to them that 'Zeal' means 'Passionate ardour for any person or cause', right? Or that 'Intelligence' can mean 'Information'. Come on, we've all seen spy movies, haven't we? Unfortunately, sometimes the targets of Swift's satire were completely specific to his time, so occasionally the footnotes were necessary to my understanding of the book ... so I couldn't just ignore them.

On the content of Gulliver's various travels, all I can really say is: there's a good reason why this book has lived on. Swift invents his different races --- the Lilliputians (they're small), the Brobdingnagians (they're big), and the Houyhnhnms (they're horses) --- with sophistication, wit, and wonderful attention to detail. Though it's Gulliver's travels in Lilliput and Brobdingnag that have the greatest hold on the popular consciousness, Swift saves his sharpest, most biting satire for the final chapter, Gulliver's stay with the Houyhnhnms. These horse-shaped beings are completely rational, and have organised their society in such a way as to make everybody within it perfectly content. By imagining a perfect society, then comparing it to his own, Swift tears everything about the human race to shreds. Our venality, our irrationality, our fears and mistakes and madnesses: Swift shows us just how foolish we puny humans are, by imagining a people free of all our faults. It's a wonderful (but also kind of horrible) piece of writing. Jonathan Swift was one mega-cynical guy.

As well as those three voyages, there's a fourth chapter which is less successful. Swift devotes this time to poking fun of 'natural philosophers' of his day, and their dubious experiments. After so much political satire, it seems an odd choice for a target, and given that those natural philosophers became the grandfathers of contemporary scientific thought, it doesn't really hit the mark. Still, nobody's perfect I guess.

All in all, Gulliver's Travels was a really enjoyable read. It holds a mirror up to the society of its time and doesn't like what it sees, and today we're enough like they were then to make the lessons Swift's teaching still valid. Perhaps even necessary.

(Before I sign off, let me apologise for the long delay between postings on here. To all four of my regular readers: sorry. Sometimes life gets in the way, you know? Basically, I've had two large writing projects bubbling away for several years now, and they both have kind of come to the boil at the same time. I've hinted cryptically about these 'large projects' in the past, but expect some biggish news soon. Oh look, I've gone and hinted cryptically again! Heehee ...)

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas
books to go: 86

March 5, 2012

Aboriginal Stories of Australia, Aboriginal Fables and Legendary Tales, and Aboriginal Words of Australia (#90-#88)

Aboriginal Stories of Australia, Aboriginal Fables and Legendary Tales, and Aboriginal Words of Australia by A.W. Reed

What I said then:

They’re pretty much what they say on the tin, collections of Aboriginal dreamtime fables. I originally bought them as research for a long-delayed writing project.

What I say now:

Okay, I'm no expert at this sort of stuff, but the universality to the stories in these collections was pretty mind-blowing. By that I mean, if you replaced boomerangs and nulla-nullas with spears and swords, and swapped Wahn the mischievous crow for an evil witch, and changed the tribal elders to Kings and Queens, the vast majority of these dreamtime stories would be pretty much indistinguishable from a tale out of the Brothers Grimm. No matter who we are, or which corner of the globe our descendants wandered to back in the dawn of man, we all tell the exact same sorts of stories to try and explain the world around us.

That's pretty amazing to me. Aboriginal Australians arrived on this continent somewhere between 40,000 and 125,000 years ago, and never had contact with any outside influence until the late eighteenth century. And yet, despite that enormous gap when they were evolving separately, the stories they told around their camps were, in every narrative essential, exactly the same as the people of Europe (at this point I should admit my ignorance of the rest of the world's mythologies). It's not surprising that Joseph Campbell collated folktales from all over the world to create the idea of the 'monomyth' --- what's surprising is that it took someone so long to twig that we were all telling the same stories all along. If you ever needed more evidence that the very idea of racism is ridiculous, the universal nature of these stories would, I imagine, make anybody who reads them more aware of the fact that deep deep down, we are all the same. Heck, there's even one story, titled The Coming of Death, which is a nearly exact replica of the story of Adam and Eve.

(It's worth noting that these stories were all collected by white men, and it's impossible for a casual reader like me to know how much the narratives have been changed from their original form. It is certainly possible that the story's collectors and translators have adapted the tales to fit a more European narrative form, which could at least partially explain the universality I'm talking about. To get a definitive answer on that point would take a hell of a lot of time and research, but I feel it would be remiss of me to leave it unremarked. Reed's versions contain one element which points to this ambiguity: when specific geographical locations are mentioned, he uses their current names. It's hard not to realise that there's been editorialising by a white man when you're reading an ancient fable that's been given the title How the Murray River Was Made.)

One other fascinating element to these stories was the way that animals were once men, who had turned into animals as punishment for their misdeeds in a sort of reverse evolution. Many of them begin with the different animals in human form, then use the narrative to explain how each animal gained their unique characteristics. Why the kookaburra laughs in the morning, for example, or why koalas don't have tails, or where the galah got its unique plumage. Often devolving from human to animal is a punishment dished out by Baiame, the Great Spirit, or one of the other God-like beings that populate the sky. Often it's not actually possible until the end of a story to tell if it is about animals, or about dreamtime humans with animal names.

I probably shouldn't have include Aboriginal Words of Australia on my list of books to read in the first place. I'd thought it included essays and analysis of the language differences within the continent, but I was remembering wrong. It was actually just an alphabetical list of words, like a two-way dictionary, so obviously I didn't bother reading that. Apologies for the faulty memory (but I'm not too sorry, because hey, that's one more book down).

Anyway, reading these was a fascinating experience, and has me wanting to better explore and understand Aboriginal culture, as well as explore the oral histories and folk traditions of other regions of the world. And I should probably give Joseph Campbell a look as well, I guess.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
books to go: 87