Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett

(Book Review)

And yet another book in the disc world series. After having previously read:
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents,
Monstrous Regiment ,
Interesting Times ,
Night Watch ,
The Color of Magic ,
Thief of Time ,
Going Postal , and
The Truth .

Each discworld book revolves around a different theme. Often these themes are a bit anachronistic for the medieval fantasy realm of the discworld, in which case Terry Pratchett usually uses magic to explain away any discrepancies. (It’s a bit similar to the old “Flinstones” gag of having dinosaurs act in place of modern appliances. It’s a bit corny, but at the same time it’s all part of the fun).

In this case, the theme of this book revolves around rock and roll music. Which enters into the discworld through magic (of course) and creates a sensation (and conservative counter-reaction) somewhat similar to the birth of rock and roll in our universe in the 1950s and 60s.

But the rock music doesn't really belong in the discworld. Instead it’s seeping in from another dimension (presumably ours). As a result everything resembles rock music and popular culture from our universe, but never comes out exactly right. This gives way to a lot of bad puns. For example, instead of rock music, it’s called, “music with rocks in”. Instead of “The Who” there is a group known as “The Whom”. There is a reference to “The grateful Death”, et cetera.

In my personal opinion, Pratchett’s usual wit is lagging a bit in this book. There are some real groaners in here. Such as the following two (which are just by way of example):

“We need to play somewhere. Like in a club.”
“I've got a club. It’s got a nail in it,” said the troll.
“No, I mean like a night club.”
“It’s still got a nail in it at night.”


And…

“Don’t worry. I’ll sort it out. Sorting out about money is my middle name.”
“That must be a long middle name.”


And so it goes. Oh well, when you write as many books at Terry Pratchett does, I guess they can’t all be winners.
At the very least, he has the grace to acknowledge the cheesiness of some of his own puns, like in the following exchange. Our hero Imp, a young musician just arrived in the city, is playing his instrument at a street corner when two policeman walk by.

“That’s a harp he’s playing Nobby,” said one of them after watching Imp for a while.
“Lyre.”
“No, it’s the honest truth, I’m-.” The fat guard frowned and looked down. “You've just been waiting all your life to say that, ain't ya Nobby,” he said.


Corny jokes aside, one of the great things about a Terry Pratchett book is always the plotting. This book has several different plot lines that it is juggling and they all manage to come together seamlessly at the end.
There’s the story of “the band with rocks in” (the band that starts the whole phenomenon, and in the process becomes possessed by the music). But there’s also the story of their talentless imitators (a spoof on punk music), and there’s the Wizard’s University (where the aging faculty starts to act like rebellious teenagers and the arch-Chancellor is worried about the fabric of reality imploding again). And then there’s the story of Death himself (always a character in the discworld series) who gets depressed with his job and goes on a quest to try and forget. And Death’s granddaughter Susan, who is in a boarding school clueless of her real ancestry until a skeleton rat and a talking raven show up at her bedside.

Many of the characters introduced in this book also reappear in other books. For example, after having read, “The Thief of Time” (in which Susan Death was also a major character) it was interesting for me to see her first appearance in this book. (At one point I decided I was going to read all the discworld books in order, but it’s sometimes difficult getting English books in Japan, so now I’m just reading them as I come across them, and gradually the pieces of the broader narrative are fitting together).

A visit to wikipedia shows that this book was adopted into an animated mini-series for British television. And a trip over to Youtube shows that some kind soul has put up the whole thing for public viewing. (At least it was available the last time I checked. You never know how soon it can get taken down).
I confess I gave into the temptation and watched the whole thing. It’s not bad, if you've got the time to waste, but it shows how difficult it is to transfer Pratchett’s dry humor into the medium of TV. (Much the same problem plagues the various adaptations of Douglas Adam’s works. In Adam’s books, like Pratchett, much of the humor is in the ironic voice of the narrator, and this is very difficult to transfer over to live action). Also, with all the much more interesting Discworld books out there, I’m not sure why this one in particular was selected to be made into a mini-series.

Link of the Day
Legitimizing Permanent Iraq Occupation

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Bourne Ultimatum

(Movie Review)

As summer vacation continues, here is another shameless guilty pleasure.

I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of the Bourne series, but they are a pleasant enough waste of time, and in the past I have watched both “The Bourne Identity” and “The Bourne Supremacy”. (Both of which I watched before starting my Movie Review project, and as a consequence I didn't review either of them on this blog. But I did watch them and enjoyed them well enough).

These Bourne films are (as the director admits on the DVD commentary) essentially just long chase scenes. And this film does a good job of keeping up the suspense. Although you’re pretty sure Jason Bourne himself won’t bite it, you’re never sure about the secondary characters, and the film’s creatures use that ambiguity to good effect. There are a total of 3 different scenes in which Bourne is trying to protect 3 different people from assassins. And not all of them make it.

As in all good suspense scenes, the music is an important element. And there is a little staccato up and down rhythm that is played to good effect in all the chase scenes. (It’s also slightly overused and I found it getting a bit annoying near the end of the film. But that’s just a small quibble.)

Since it had been a few years since I last saw a Bourne movie, I was a bit worried I would have trouble following the plot. But that wasn't a problem at all. The plot is kept very simple, and besides Bourne himself there are only a couple of characters returning from the previous movies.
In fact, when the movie was all over I found myself disappointed that Bourne's past hadn't been explored more. This was the 3rd movie of the trilogy, the one that was supposed to explain everything that had happened. Instead I’m still not sure why Bourne lost his memory in the first place. And I’m still not exactly sure why the government has been trying to hunt him down all this time.
(I’m not sure if some of this would be clearer if I re-watched the previous or not).

Well, I guess the ambiguity leaves the door open for another sequel.

Link of the Day
U-M researcher's model says climate change will make storms worse

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Fuck

(movie review)

It's summer vacation over here, which means I can waste time watching movies again. So, I wandered over to my local video store to see what was new.

And I stumbled upon this film.
Apparently it's a few years old, but it just hit my local video store now. (As long as I'm living in Japan, I'll never be a topical reviewer. I've made my peace with it).

I had never heard of this film before, but I guessed (rightly) that it was a film about the cultural wars surrounding the F-word. And so I thought it might be pretty interesting.

Driving home, it occurred to me that it was odd this movie should in a Japanese video rental store at all, 3 years late or not. The F-word is a peculiarly American debate, one that has little relevance to Japanese culture, and one (in my experience) Japanese people don't really understand.

There are impolite words in Japanese, but as far as I can tell there are no "bad" words. I invite someone with a deeper knowledge of the language to comment on this, but in my experience there are no words in Japanese that are viewed as having a moral status. Or words that are bad anytime, anywhere, and in any situation. Simply put, there's no Japanese equivalent to the word "Fuck".

By contrast I, and many of you, were brought up in such a way that if I even thought "fuck" as a youngster I would feel incredibly guilty. When I try and explain the deep taboo this word has in American culture, my Japanese friends just give me confused looks.
(I'd be interested in hearing from those of you who've studied other languages as to your experience with swear words).

On the other hand, "fuck" is definitely one of the most recognizable English words in the world. You travel anywhere, and people know what it means (as Billy Connolly points out in this film). So in that respect I guess it is at least something the Japanese public will easily recognize.

Growing up in a conservative Christian environment, this word had strong moral connotations for me as a child. And as an adult, I decided the whole thing was silly. I wrote a little manifesto about my feelings on "swear words" in this post here, but I had developed these opinions long before that.

The director of this movie obviously has opinions very close to mine. Unfortunately, however, this documentary is a disappointment.

For one thing there's very little hard information actually in this 90 minute film. It's hard to even properly call it a documentary. The whole thing is almost entirely talking heads.

Most of the people being interviewed are celebrities, some of them of dubious qualification (like Sam Donaldson). Many of the other celebrities(Ice-T, Drew Carey, Kevin Smith, Alanis Morisette) seem to be featured just because they use the word a lot. I'm not sure this makes them experts.
And then in an even further stretch there are a few porn stars interviewed, who are famous for...well, you know... .

Occassionally there are a few good points made in the discussion, but mostly it's just a lot of idle talking and hot air.

Even worse, there's lots of man on the street interviews. Whenever you're watching a documentary and they keep throwing in "man on the street interviews" you know they're just desperate for a way to fill up the time.
I've lived in America for 23 years. I know what the man on the street thinks about the word "fuck". I don't need to rent a documentary to learn it.

The film goes briefly into the origin of the word. Several people in the "man on the street" interviews repeat the urban legend that FUCK is an acronym. And then a few expert linguists set us straight.

This is the most interesting part of the film, but it would have been a lot more interesting 20 years ago before the rise of the internet. Nowadays people can just google the origin of "Fuck", and I suspect most of us already have at some point in our lives. And if you haven't, what are you waiting for? Check out the on-line dictionary or read wikipedia's article. If you do that, you'll be better informed than you would be after watching this movie.
...(and well you're over there, check out the history of the word "OK". I always thought that was an interesting story).

There's some brief historical tid-bits about the word fuck in the 20th century, but it's very patchy. It's obvious that whoever put this movie together did almost no research. (Well, why would you? When you can splice a bunch of celebrity interviews together and call it a finished documentary, why bother to do any research?)

For example, the word fuck has been around as far back as anyone can trace, but it only achieved it's status of infamy in the 20th century. Why? This film mentions the 2 world wars as the reason, but doesn't expand on that at all. Out of all the dirty words in the English language, why fuck?

(This also would have been a great time to mention Kurt Vonnegut's quote: "If you hate filthy language, you better make sure you vote against wars. Because after Johnny's been in the battlefield and seen his friend's head blown off, he's not going to come home talking like a choir boy anymore" (all paraphrased as I have no copy in front of me) but unfortunately the movie's director dropped the ball on this one as well).

We get other brief historical glimpses. The Supreme Court ruling on the use of Fuck in anti-war protests, the first time Fuck was said on the moon, the first time Fuck was used in a major motion picture (1970, "Mash"). But they're just skimming the surface here, and for the most part they're not telling us anything we didn't already know.

The film does attempt to create some sort of debate by having on defenders of public decency advocates like Pat Boone, Miss Manners, Alan Keys, and assorted right wing talk show hosts. But the conservatives are always edited to look ridiculous, or intercut with opposing comments.

Although I agree politically with the director, I think this is an area where his passion got the better of his common sense. Had the debate just been allowed to happen on equal footing, the conservatives would have looked ridiculous all by themselves. As they tried to create moral boundaries around a phonetic utterance, they would have drifted more and more into the world of the bizarre, and the whole ludicrousness of the debate would have been shown for what it is.

...As it is, they can now go back to their right wing radio listeners and complain (legitimately) that they came in good faith to give their opinions for this liberal documentary, and were skewered in the editing process.

But even aside from that, this film is preaching entirely to the converted in a lot of other ways. In addition to the word "fuck" there are gratioutious scenes of fucking added to the film. (Much of which I suspect is again mainly just for the sake of filler). This all but guarantees that anyone on the other side of the culture war debate is not going to sit through this film without turning off the TV and walking away disgustedly. So as a film which hopes to impact and inform the cultural debate, it shoots itself in the foot. (Or the head really. I know lots of people in the moral majority, but there's no way I could possibly recommend this film to them).

The film is not without it's good points, however. It does a good job of showing the hypocrisy of Washington politicians, especially Dick "Go Fuck Yourself" Cheney. And the film also does a good job of pointing out that with the increased clampdown by the FCC (an undemocratic, unelected body) free speech is once again under renewed attack.

But on the whole I agree with this reviewer who said: Anderson's jumpy editing fails to cover up the fact that he only has 30 good minutes of material here. It's not that there aren't some good points in this film, but unfortunately there's a lot of pointless filler as well.

The high points of this film are usually when it shows clips from other films: Lenny Bruce, South Park, George Carlin. Renting those videos should be just as good as sitting through this movie.

Link of the Day
Vanity Fair's Christopher Hitchens Undergoes Waterboarding