Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

As I woke up to the news of the demise of Kim Jong-Il, the monstrous and callous dictator of a dystopian, slave and famine state, of which George Orwell himself would be horrified if he would have witnessed its cruelty, it was a logical move to go to www.dailyhitchens.com, a website that sent out links to all things written or related to Christopher Hitchens, one of the greatest socio-political polemicists and rhetoricians of our time. It was a personal natural reflex for myself in the last couple of years – whenever an interesting event or an issue took place in the international media – whether it was the fall of Gaddafi, or the always amusing, embarrassing blabberings of the American Right, the continuous cases of cruel censorship and oppression by religious institutions all over the world, or was it to simply revel in the analyses of the works of Franz Kafka and Arthur Koestler, or simply to know why women weren't funny - it was Hitchens' point of view that would interest me immediately.

However, that natural reflex of enthusiasm quickly turned into a sad realisation that there won't be any new Hitchens articles on the „evil North Korean dwarf“, no analysis and predictions of the events that are to follow this demise – including types of forecasts that quite often in his work turned out to be accurate - no new reminiscences of his own experiences in North Korea, so brilliantly conveyed in many of his articles and lectures, and no unique perspectives on the problem at hand that successfully melded an accessible, down-to-earth approach, through his cut and dry sense of humour and wits, with an impeccable mastery of the English language and countless historical, literature or even pop-culture references and analogies. The man could go from interpreting Socrates, W. H. Auden and Leon Trotsky to quoting Princess Leia from Star Wars in minutes, all while talking about why there is no life after death, and why it would be contemptible if there was one, at least in the case of how the monotheistic religions preach it.

And it was finally death that silenced Hitch and what saddened a great number of free thinkers and admirers around the world. Diagnosed with the cancer of the oesophagus in June 2010, Hitchens went into an aggressive treatment of the disease with admirable dignity, writing about the process and his experiences, during which his physical appearance has notably weakened. To the disappointment of many religious fundamentalists, this didn’t reflect itself in the mind and in his work, which he fiercely continued to pursue, with even more conviction than ever before, which was to argue and fight a case against any kind of totalitarianism. The ultimate and the most cruel totalitarian form possible was, according to Hitch, religion, which brought him a moderate, but worldwide fame since he published his 2007 bestseller God is Not Great.

Although I’ve heard of Christopher Hitchens through his atheism work, it was precisely his work through lectures and articles about North Korea, and about the other two “axis of evil” – Iraq and Iran, that brought him to my attention. I’ve realised soon that not only the man could write, he could write about anything with such conviction and style, that even despite his sometimes controversial and outrageous opinions, you would be so fascinated by the delivery of it, whether it was his eloquence and the power of his voice, or through his sharp writing, that for moments you wouldn't even care as to precisely what Hitch went on about. Hitchens could bring humour and wit while speaking or writing about the most awful of things, but it was rarely, if ever, in bad taste.

I had personally always despised the persistent, shallow and generalising political division of the Left and the Right. Each individual was and is such a complex being, full of opinions that could often contradict each other that such a simplifying and pedestrian collectivism of the human mind in the political and in the social sphere left me often nauseating. Although Hitchens had described himself as a “man of the Left”, thanks to his Marxist and socialist roots during his Oxford and The New Statesman years in the 60s and 70s, he was often accused as being a contrarian, a conservative and a “right-wing convert”, the latter mostly because of his most controversial standpoint of his career – his decisive and never-refuted support of America’s intervention in Iraq. Hitchens went beyond the collective thinking and the generalising, clichéd opinions about certain topics that people had without having even read or seen anything about them, making a convincing case against “saintly” Mother Teresa and her damaging, psychotic religious fundamentalism (as Hitchens puts it in one of his many memorable quotes, “Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor, she was a friend of poverty.”) and “lefty favourite” Bill Clinton, of whose probable crimes people are more aware of, but choose to delightfully ignore them. Further on, he was a harsh critic of historical darlings such as Mahatma Gandhi and Pope John Paul II (although he did call the latter “a man of honour”). This all goes to prove that one could never assume what opinion Hitchens would hold, and this is something that was one of his major advantages as a polemicist and, finally, as a human being.

And how infuriating could the man be! In some of the disagreements I personally had with some of his conclusions, especially when talking about the wars after the dissolution of Yugoslavia (where he had a certain “epiphany” about foreign military interventions, either NATO or solely US-backed, which was exactly the point where he separated himself from many of his colleagues and inspirations from the “Left”, such as Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal), I had a feeling he might have oversimplified the historical circumstances to reach a certain conclusion. His lack of patience and his “rudeness”, as one of the other three “Horsemen of the Apocalypse” Daniel Dennett put it in his obituary, made him more human, more natural and motivated us more to do what Hitch wanted all of us to do – critically observe and question everything that comes to our attention. One of his main reasons for his contempt of religion was the literal absence of a critical standpoint. No matter what you think about his viewpoints, a well-argued and a passionate counter-argument would be precisely what Hitch would encourage.

Rest in peace Hitch. And I pray to God you’re not in Celestial North Korea (Heaven) right now! Your legacy will live on for many, many years to come. I don’t have faith in that (“the most overrated of all virtues”), I see and read it every day, as seen by the countless praises and admiring words told in your account from every side of the political and social spectrum.


Pearl Jam Twenty

In the history of filmmaking, the concept of a “rockumentary” has more than often been met with a bit of ridicule – after all, there is rarely a part of culture that can be as overblown and corny as rock and roll, so if a certain band did require to have its story told through 2 hours of film, there should have been a good reason for it.

There is in fact something very “filmic” about Pearl Jam’s 20-year story. The famous director and long-time fan Cameron Crowe certainly recognised that. In the early section of the film, Crowe is putting an emphasis on the late Andrew Wood, frontman of the band Mother Love Bone, the so-called predecessor band to Pearl Jam. Wood was well on his way to becoming a rock star before unfortunately succumbing to heroin addiction and overdosing, even before Mother Love Bone’s debut album Apple was released. You have your classic Hollywood tragedy right there, but even the obvious rock n’ roll cliché is avoided to an extent, in terms that Wood passed away well before he was to become famous, and not in the middle of rock stardom like many of his peers. The story of a quiet but intense and charismatic singer, completely new to the Seattle scene and unknown to everyone there, “replacing” Wood and leading Wood’s former bandmates, Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, into huge success is something that even the people who know nothing about the band might find fascinating. And that’s just the beginning of the story. Following that, there are two stories that were vital to the band’s history and which makes them vastly different and possibly more poignant that some of their other rock counterparts - the band’s ill-fated crusade against Ticketmaster and its inflated concert ticket fee policies and the Roskilde festival tragedy in 2000, where 9 people were crushed dead in the audience while the band was playing. Added to that, another point that makes Pearl Jam special and different, therefore deserving of this kind of a documentary, is their reputation as one of the best live bands in the business, characterised by a huge fan following and their unique approach to concerts in terms of ever-changing setlists, the official bootleg program and the overall unpredictability.

The director covers most of these topics quite well – Cameron Crowe was a Rolling Stone journalist in the 70s, following a lot of the classic rock bands while on tour, and this experience obviously taught him to follow his instincts about talented local music scenes. This brought him to Seattle in the mid 80s, not long before the whole scene was ready to explode. One of the main advantages of the film is the fact that Crowe has been with Pearl Jam long before they even started, covering from Green River – first band where Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, the unseparable duo of the Seattle music scene, played together (with Mark Arm and Steve Turner of the great Seattle band Mudhoney, unfortunately not mentioned in the film) to Temple of the Dog, therefore having intimate and vast knowledge about most of the circumstances that revolved around what was to become Pearl Jam.

The Temple of the Dog project, led by Chris Cornell, the lead singer of the other Seattle giant Soundgarden and a very close friend of Andy Wood, was a full album tribute to the late singer, involving Gossard, Ament, a talented guitar player by the name of Mike McCready and Matt Cameron, the drummer of Soundgarden. As Crowe depicts through some clever editing in the film, backed up by some hilarious and insightful comments by Gossard and Cornell, it was during these sessions that the former Mother Love Bone bandmates realised that they will have something special at their hands in the future. Eddie Vedder, the singer for their new project – soon to be called Pearl Jam – just arrived to Seattle and shared lead vocals with Cornell on a track called “Hunger Strike” for the Temple of the Dog sessions. This song proved to be a catalyst for Vedder’s self-confidence, which only improved from thereon. Crowe shows with tons of never-seen before footage Vedder’s impressive development from a very shy and introspective guy who just got to Seattle as an unknown to everyone, to a crazy, out-of-control frontman that climbed 20-meter scaffoldings, throwing himself in the audience and putting as much as he can into his performance.

Although Vedder is the centrepiece of the story, Crowe did free enough space for other band members as well, who are being separately interviewed over the course of the film, along with Cornell. Cornell himself offers some nice insights into Mike McCready, who also came to his own during the Temple of the Dog sessions and brought this creativity into Pearl Jam afterwards. The unusual friendship (“unusual” for rock and roll standards) between Pearl Jam and Cornell’s Soundgarden is one of the more important components discussed in the film, which also subtly explains how Matt Cameron effortlessly joined the band as their 5th drummer in 1998, one year after Soundgarden broke up, therefore “saving” the band as Vedder puts it.

The way the overall drummer situation in the band is explained will not be satisfying for a lot of fans. It is depicted through a comical 1-minute segment, reminiscent of Spinal Tap. The long-rumoured dispute with Dave Abbruzzesse, Pearl Jam’s drummer during their most turbulent and popular years, has obviously not yet been put completely to rest, since the drummer does not get more than a second of mention.

The band’s struggle with fame and huge popularity in the early 90s is portrayed with enough dignity, avoiding most of the clichés and trying to make the band’s lack of comfort with it as understandable as possible. There are some statements from the band that may be puzzling to some (the infamous Grammy situation as an example), but the band members are as honest as they can be with the troubling aspects of that period that almost led to the band’s break-up. The more disturbing moments, as in the case of Vedder’s stalker crashing into his house or the effect of Kurt Cobain’s suicide on the future of the band, are put in balance with the sillier and hilariously bizarre moments, such as the clusterfuck that was the Singles premiere party, Gossard being revolted by the term “grunge” or Gossard and Ament giving Spanish “lessons” to the rest of the world.

Stone Gossard is in fact in many ways the star of the film, offering what are the funniest and the most telling moments, often at the same time, such as his comments on the aforementioned Singles party (“the birth of No”) and his obvious “facepalm” disgust at the patronising farce that was the congressional hearing about Ticketmaster and its feud with Pearl Jam in regards to the price of concert tickets. And what could be a better metaphor about Pearl Jam and its opinion about the music industry than Stone finding his Grammy in a dark corner of his basement?

As far as Crowe’s direction is concerned, it was not his obvious bias about the band that concerned me, as much as the pacing problems that convey in the second half of the film. It was obviously a huge endeavour to cover 20 years of history of the band, well documented by thousands and thousands of hours of footage, but the fact is that the film loses lot of its well-established rhythm in the first half of the film by cutting quite inexplicably from the announcement of a possible band break-up in 1995 to depicting more of where certain members have come from. This not only cuts the chronological build-up of the film, but also makes the following important events disjointed and not as connected and entwined, which was so well portrayed in the first half, as in the case of the aforementioned Mother Love Bone and Temple of the Dog cases.

A perfect example for this comes in the case of the Roskilde tragedy in 2000. The whole situation is covered in a somewhat rushed way, but the flaw is that there is no tangible conclusion to this story. After Ament’s comment that he might not have played music ever again after the incident, Crowe cuts abruptly to the events of the 2003 tour. The band had in fact played a huge North American tour just months after Roskilde, while a shadow of Roskilde was looming still over the concerts, resulting in some truly moving performances. Certain closure to these events was missing, which leads me again to the point that the 2nd half of the film was way too segmented. The Bushleaguer incident in 2003 is one of the more revealing and intense moments in the film, but also suffers due to having no background to the story.

Nevertheless, Crowe wraps up the film nicely with performances of Better Man and Alive, which show the huge response of the fans and the unique atmosphere a Pearl Jam concert has. The Andy Wood/Vedder parallel storyline is concluded through a moving montage of Vedder singing the Mother Love Bone song “Crown of Thorns” in 2000 and Wood singing it 10 years before. The one thing I personally missed in the film and believe is crucial to the band’s history and image is the official bootleg program, started in 2000, which gave them an interesting accomplishment in terms of commercial success and sprawled many imitators afterwards. 7 of their live albums debuted simultaneously on the Billboard 200 chart, which is a record on its own. Despite these flaws, Pearl Jam Twenty seems to be a well-represented document of the band’s history, offering some moving moments and making it possible to see the band in a new light. After all, who didn’t want to know that Stone was such a terrible dish washer?


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I guess Scandinavia got its The Da Vinci Code. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is not necessarily literary pop culture garbage that every once in awhile steps in to force otherwise semi-literate people to read (code: Twilight), since it does have enough social subtext and an interesting mystery plotline to get one engaged in the plot, but the execution is so poor that one can only grieve at the potential lost in this Swedish novel, written by Stieg Larsson, who after submitting his first draft died of a heart attack, aged 50.

And one can see it is a first draft. The book is poorly written and structured – the dialogue is on-the-nose and lacking any subtlety, the narrator is overtly subjective and preachy, hitting us with a sledge hammer with morals relating to feminism, sexism and fascism. Too bad Larsson obviously didn't do his research with the latter point, offering some silly and horribly superficial political undertones into the story (the main character – a Swedish journalist named Blomkvist - writes that a Swedish magnate sold weapons to right-wing Ustashe in the Yugoslav wars in the 90s... which is incredibly ignorant and a sloppy plot point for anyone who had studied or lived through these wars).

It's interesting to notice that the original title of the book is Men Who Hate Women, which is another point as to how much Larsson didn't really cared for the subtle approach. Well, not being subtle wouldn't be such a problem if his central character, the girl with the dragon tattoo herself – Lisbeth Salander, the epitome of Larsson's frustration with sexism and harassment of women in Sweden – was indeed three-dimensional, memorable or likeable. She's none of these things. There was not a moment in the book where I sympathised with Lisbeth or understood her motives. I thoroughly disagreed with most of her principles and found her in some cases to be disturbingly annoying, for the lack of a better word. It was commendable that Larsson characterised her as a flawed individual... it's only too bad these flaws were exactly those attributes that cause such dangerous and malicious stereotyping of women in modern society – whiny, patronising, dangerously stubborn and commanding or uncarefully promiscuous. Her positive attributes are constantly being emphasised and becoming more and more over-the-top, to a point where Lisbeth becomes some sort of cartoon-like female James Bond character, hacking into tightest computer securities, speaking „Oxford English“ (barf), „impeccable German“, all while disguising herself into various characters like Simon Templar. Is this Tomb Raider or a „socially important novel“?

A supporting character of Erika Berger makes for a much better and more persuasive evidence of the social subtext and message that is Larsson trying to convey – a strong, independent woman taking no shit from anybody; flawed, but far more sympathetic than Lisbeth. This is why Larsson's writing could backfire and exactly create the opposite effect – which skeptics would undeniably twist and deem all critics as sexists and therefore „uncovered“. This creates an underline of demagogy all over Larsson's novel – you can take the womanizer Blomkvist, the main and mostly fair character, who gets laid all over – his intentions undeniably (intentionally or not) having sexist undertones.

There's an annoying preachiness all over the novel, both in terms of the narrator moralizing about feminism, fascism and corrupted journalism, as well as in the moral stature of its two main characters. In the climax of the novel – spoilers ahead – it is decided to cover up all the atrocities and crimes that were committed in the main mystery, not to harm or emotionally damage those whose lives had been deeply scarred by the tragedy. Both Blomkvist and Salander – agree or disagree with them – behave annoyingly holier-than-thou because of this, in terms that the truth must be told to make the harassment of women more public. 10 pages later they're illegally acquiring data by hacking to blacklist a certain Swedish magnate, not feeling they're doing something wrong and hiding behind the good old „a journalist's source cannot be discovered“ argument. So much for taking the moral high ground! Now, you might say that this is intentional and it was Larsson's goal to portray this hypocrisy (as well as sending a message that the end justifies the means), but it always seems in his repetitive writing that the narrator is backing his protagonist 99% of the time.

It was until the last 100 pages that the grade turned from „average“ to „painfully mediocre“, which are as anticlimactic as it gets. The main mystery is solved (through a scenario and a deus ex machina nicked from Hollywood's most cliched endings), and the final 5 chapters are dedicated to a faceless, one-dimensional villain not even mentioned for two thirds of the book. It was never as hard for me to finish a book as here.

I could say more about laughable plot holes and contrivances (well, try this one: the serial killer in the novel has been bringing prostitutes and immigrants to a small island with a handful of people for years and nobody seemed to noticed a thing), but you get the picture. If one is a fast reader and likes mystery novels, with an admittedly intriguing initial storyline and a couple of shocking, memorable scenes, it wouldn't be such a waste of time. I just hope David Fincher does a „Godfather“ and makes from an underwhelming literary basis something great in his upcoming American film version. But I remain skeptical.


Thoughts on Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys

Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Written by: David and Janet Peoples
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse, Jon Seda

An old favourite of mine, I accidentally caught Twelve Monkeys on TV last night, and enjoyed all 2 hours of it. It is easily my 2nd favorite Gilliam film (behind Brazil), and it includes probably the finest performance any director got out of Bruce Willis, playing an intelligent, but emotionally unstable convict on a larger-than-life mission quite admirably. Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt fill out the all-star cast, with the latter going in full over-the-top mode as a mentally insane, monkey-loving outcast son of a respected virologist, played by Christopher Plummer.

Building on a script written by David and Janet Peoples (a rarity with Gilliam to be working on a script written by someone else), the Monty Python legend has rarely been in such outstanding form. His films can often seem inconsistent in tone and full of pacing issues, but Gilliam hits the mark with this one, which is probably his most accessible work. The wonderful cinematography (the deserted, snowy post-apocalyptic Philadelphia in the opening scenes comes to mind), the innovative and subtle production design (I wonder if the film's relatively low budget actually contributed to the claustrophobic, threatening vision of the future), the ominous atmosphere Gilliam creates, whether it is of the dystopian underground future or of the filthy, homeless-ridden downtown Philadelphia are some examples to support the fact that Gilliam went all out on this one. David Lynch's Eraserhead comes to mind as another example of nightmarish representation of this city - I wonder if this was one of Gilliam's inspirations for this film.

What has caught my attention this time around, outside of the wonderful performances (I understand that Pitt chewing up scenery could be annoying to some, but the energy he brought to this role was unmatched afterwards), is the ambiguity that Gilliam brings to the whole storyline. The identity of the "Bob" personality Willis' character has contact with throughout the movie (is the crazy homeless guy yammering about conspiracy theories indeed a spy sent from the future or not?), the fact that we're not sure for most of the film's duration time is all this happening in Willis' head or not (check out the scene where Willis is looking paranoid all over downtown Philly - the grizzly in the store display is either a memory or a perfect vessel for more crazy imagination), the fate of Jose's character (are his scenes on the airport happening "before" his accident in the 1st World War or not?). To go even further, is Stowe's character actually suffering from Stockholm syndrome in the second half of the movie or is Gilliam indeed depicting a doomed romance with a future already written from the start? This exploration of memories, depiction and interpretation of reality and the madness within it, all in the midst of a time paradox storyline (inevitable plot holes aside) is what makes the film work.

Some of this ambiguity can be seen as resolved in the ending Select the black box below with your cursor to view the spoiler text
(where the scientist from the future does return to try to acquire a cure based on the virus specimens, without Willis or Stowe actually being present)
, or in the fact that the photograph indeed shows Willis as being in the 1st World War, but there are still ambiguous clues Gilliam leaves behind, in many of the subtly paranoid shots from Willis' perspective (room with the CAT scan - again, memory of the time machine or a creative stimulation?), backed up by Gilliam's intensely memorable "tilted" camera angles, that makes one wonder about how far Gilliam has decided to fuck with the viewer.

Despite the storyline being dark and disturbing most of the time, there are moments of crazy Gilliam humour all throughout (most of Pitt's scenes or the "crazy dentist" sequence), which makes this one occasion where Gilliam hit the balance just right (Tideland being a completely different story for example).

Any thoughts?


Blood Meridian - a novel by Cormac McCarthy

There is something strangely masochistic in appreciating works of art. Certainly in the case of Cormac McCarthy, one of the most acclaimed American writers today, made pop-culture famous after the huge critical success of the movie adaptation of his novel No Country for Old Men. The unique depiction and multi-layered interpretation of a story seemingly told million times, narrated from the perspective of an older sheriff baffled and lost in the world he has lived for a couple of generations passed, firstly had me interested in McCarthy’s work. My first true contact with McCarthy’s unique prose was with his arguably most personal and also most accessible work – the most recent The Road, a simple, albeit beautiful story about a father and a son seemingly trapped in a post-apocalyptic world with barely any hope left.

As one can tell, McCarthy doesn’t really think of roses and harps when he looks at the world outside. In fact, rarely have I come across an author, both in film and literature, who has such an utterly bleak, hopeless and brutal narrative style, both in his stunning depictions of vast and ominous open landscapes and the violence that occurs frequently within them; Blood Meridian is thematically similar (at least on the surface) to No Country For Old Men, since the nature and origin of violence and the effect and the ease it has to corrupt men is a major theme in both of the novels. The major difference lies in the fact that No Country can be considered more character-driven and more human to an extent, since the protagonists are more or less decent people caught in impossible situations. Blood Meridian introduces us to the infamous Glanton gang, a scalp-hunting real-life cohort of ex-soldiers and outlaws, who are paid to massacre and slaughter everything human, plant or animal that does not resemble an armed American, with a special eye on Native Americans and Mexicans. The first and final third of the novel is narrated from the perspective of a character solely named “the kid”, who joins the Glanton gang after not having much choice in life, since from the beginning he was thrown into the merciless apocalyptic nightmare that is McCarthy’s vision of the West in the mid-19th century.

McCarthy’s demystification of the Wild West is especially interesting, when looking at it from a context of growing up playing cowboys and Indians and watching John Wayne films. Blood Meridian is by far more disturbing than any other post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read (including The Road), for two reasons; one is the fact that McCarthy throws us in the midst of the apocalypse, not bothering so much with its long-term consequences – there are bodies and carcasses everywhere, violence is escalating on every step, blood is more often visible than water or even whiskey, McCarthy doesn’t shy away from creating graphic and disturbing images that will probably prevent to make a viable movie adaptation ever (the tree of dead babies as one example, the main characters do not shy away from brutally slaughtering children…). The second reason which makes the whole thing a lot more frightening is that this “apocalypse” actually happened – a lot of the events that McCarthy dramatized did in fact happen, and some characters, like John Joe Glanton, leader of the group and one of three main characters, were real-life personas. What is also commendable to mention is that McCarthy does not take any sides in this war and doesn’t turn anything into some kind of propaganda – the Native Americans are as hungry for blood as the white men, and all the characters stay in the shades of bloodiest kind of gray imaginable.

Except for the obvious star of the novel; the character called judge Holden, who is the antagonist of the story; this is for sure one of the most memorable villains in literature I’ve read so far. The ambiguous, demonic nature of the mysterious seven-foot tall and all-bald judge is especially brought to the forefront in the book’s stunningly morbid, open-to-interpretation ending that had and will have various analyses, since McCarthy notoriously shies away from giving any kind of interviews or information about his work (actually, Oprah had a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interview the writer, and she wonderfully used the time to ask the writer “does he read a lot before he writes”… Ah…). Judge Holden is the epitome of everything rotten, corrupt and dishonest in a world that is already treacherous and deceitful even without him, and his undeniable charisma through memorable monologues and teachings about the nature of humanity, origin of war etc. always gives the novel that extra push. The most humorous, enigmatic and brutal moments are interconnected with the judge’s character, and I’m sure, when the inevitable movie adaptation is to come, the biggest expectations (and paranoia) will be surrounded around the character’s transfer to the big screen. I especially enjoyed the bizarre, morally reverse father-son (or maybe something even more intimate) relationship and tension between the judge and the kid that results in the aforementioned memorable climax. Outside of that, where Blood Meridian may lack in character development, the atmosphere, the endless cleverly implemented symbolism (which will need a second reading to fully grasp and analyze) and the insufferable tension, especially in its last third, make this a success where I’m not surprised to see it being called McCarthy’s true masterpiece.

Now to explain my first sentence, reading this book was a nightmare (so I could relate to the nightmarish architecture of the novel). One could say I hated it as much as I loved it. As a non-native speaker, McCarthy’s biblical, Shakespearian way of expression, filled with thousands of archaic words and with excruciatingly long sentences, it was impossibly hard to decipher sometimes even the basic plot even when actually getting used to the rhythm and the feel of the book. One has to commend in a way that the book reads like poetry and the language is almost like its own character, something that is probably unique in modern prose. But yeah, my next book is going to be something equivalent to watching a Steven Seagal movie on TV (OK, maybe not that bad – that would be the exact opposite sort of masochism).


The Mist (2007) - Ramblings

Written and Directed by: Frank Darabont
Starring: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, William Sadler, Jeffrey DeMunn

Man, I wasn't so pissed by a movie in a long time. This shouldn't be considered a review, more like a rambling article. The film in question is Frank Darabont's The Mist, a film based on Stephen King's novella about a group of people trapped in a grocery store while a mysterious mist with terrifying monsters dwells outside. If there was a horror movie cliche manual somewhere, you probably wouldn't find The Mist in there, since it was in fact critically moderately well-received (something which I am quite frankly baffled by) and there were so many renowned names both behind and in front of the camera involved. But let me begin...

It's a shame that people behaving incredibly dumb in a movie cannot be considered as a plot hole (something which this movie has a lot too, we'll get to that later). There are plenty of your typical horror C-movie reactions to monsters where everyone stands stiff, nobody tries to run in other direction, someone starts rejoicing before the situation has nearly come to an end and so on and so forth. What surprised me is how much the acting and the dialogue were atrocious, getting progressively worse as the film moved on. There was especially one scene which was downright insulting dialogue-wise, where the characters go into a sudden philosophical discussion about the destructive nature of humanity, a.k.a. hitting the viewer's head with the film's message with a hammer, in the case we haven't got it figured out, since it is oh so hard to comprehend what the director Frank Darabont is trying to tell us.

The characters couldn't be more card-board if Darabont tried (and this is the guy who did write, better said adapt some wonderful characters in The Shawshank Redemption). You have the good guy who can't do no wrong in Thomas Jane [SPOILER](don't worry, I'll get to the ending in a bit)[/SPOILER], you've got the good fair lady in Laurie Holden's character, the utterly dumb blue-collar creep (I hope William Sadler got a good paycheck, since it would be painful to play such a plastic character... for me anyway), the sceptic and utter denial guy (Andre Braugher, WTF? Ever since your brilliant work in Homicide you seemed to go AWOL). The actions of these characters are all so painfully clichéd and predictable, and there is not a single moment where any of these start to show any layers whatsoever (there's Jane always being a brave knight, there's Sadler always being a babbling coward, there's Braugher in his denial mode even though he is aware there are people dead under mysterious circumstances...Must I go on?).

The only character I did find reasonably executed was Marcia Gay Harden's gleefully malicious religious fanatic Mrs. Carmody, which was a character that was delightful to hate (unlike other main characters that should have been likeable... Nice try, Mr.Darabont). Even though I find the religious/extremist angle the only interesting thing in the movie, even that seemed underdeveloped (Jane's character wakes up after one day and Carmody already has most of the power in the store - none of the characters in Carmody's control were believable and seemed like caricatures - ditto on Sadler's character).

And something that needs to be touched upon is the "controversial" ending, which I find downright laughable (and surprising that Stephen King actually liked this changed version from the novella).

[SPOILER]For some unknown reason, there is not a single attack from the monsters as soon as our heroes get into the car and manage to escape from the market premises. But if we go beyond that, we can marvel their stupidity once more - instead of finding a shelter (hell, they've managed to survive in the interior for 3-4 days) or another car before the fuel went out in their car (as there were no monster sightings since the market), they decide to drive it until there's no more fuel left on an open road, so they can stay there afterwards like sitting ducks (yeah, they tried to escape the mist, but you can start to have a plan B at least 10 minutes before the fuel goes out, right? Too bad I hadn't had a plan B to escape this trainwreck). The characters decide to finish their horrible fate by ways of suicide. Jane's character walks out of the car, revolted by what he has done and by his own horrible acting (to tell you the truth, I blame Darabont's direction - Laurence Olivier couldn't make that believable) and suddenly - FROM THE DIRECTION THEY'VE DRIVEN BEFORE - there are hundreds of soldiers approaching, burning everything as they go. Another 20 seconds of Thomas Jane shrieking because he has just killed 4 people (including his kid) in vain and me laughing by his performance and the whole absurdity of this scenario. So, all this driving and they've managed to miss so many tanks and soldiers, survivors being salvaged (or more importantly, the other way around)... Makes me laugh just thinking of it![/SPOILER] It's nice to see Darabont trying to avoid your typical Hollywood happy ending cliche, but I've seen plenty of crappy happy endings that made a lot more sense than this.

I'm finished.

[SPOILER]God that ramble turned out to be a lot bigger than I had planned. Any thoughts?[/SPOILER]


The Wire (2002-2008)

Television has always been a volatile media for storytelling. All the shows that had managed to push the numerous limits of network TV as far as possible were nevertheless plagued by these very problems. Limits and restrictions like: censorship for language and violence, diluting “controversial” plotlines, removing unattractive characters, cancelling the show due to its poor ratings in the middle of the story, or unnecessarily prolonging it in the opposite situation, along with the obligatory annoying habit of network bosses “generously” giving their own clever and original creative input to writers and producers (read: More sex scenes please!). Most of these shows lasted too damn long, sometimes ruining the legacy of what made them great in the first place (The X-Files, Twin Peaks, Oz, Homicide anyone?). Sure, it’s easy to look at the flipside of the same coin; without the financial input of these very same institutions it would hardly be possible that these film or TV series ideas would ever see the light of day, while too much creative control of one artist can also be a bad thing, as history has proved it to be the case (the fallout of the New Hollywood era in the 1980s as one example in film history). You can pull out plenty of topics and themes in real life, including one as banal as this one, and draw parallels to the story The Wire offers to us - the story of institutions and corporations as the merciless, but magnificent final stages of a flawed capitalistic system that somewhere along the way forgot the essence of what created it in the first place; the ideas and needs of an individual and the society that made it happen in the first place.

There are people for whom The Wire is first and foremost a cop show. But it is far more than that. It differs from every other cop show in many aspects, firstly because of the fact that it looks at the other side of the law – drug dealers, smugglers, addicts, corrupt politicians (the word “corrupt” next to “politician” seems a bit redundant these days, doesn’t it?) – in the same detail as it does when it is concentrating on the police department. If one would have to sum up The Wire in one sentence – it is the story about the city of Baltimore, which in and out of itself is a microcosm of America itself. To quote the series creator David Simon: “it is the story of the America left behind”. The city of Baltimore has in relative numbers the second highest crime rate in the U.S. behind Detroit, its homicide rate is almost the 1000 time rate of the one in New York City, and although its crime problems may not be representative of every bigger city in the world, one can relate its problems with institutional bureaucracy, corruption, social and economic inequality to most of the global urban areas today.

Simon was a news reporter in the Baltimore Sun in the 80s and 90s, during which he closely cooperated with the Baltimore police, to the point where he stayed and worked for one year in the homicide department. Afterwards he documented the experience in his book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, that was afterwards immortalized in form of the cult TV show Homicide: Life on the Street. Plenty of parallels exist between that show and this one, in terms that some real-life events and characters are similarly depicted in both shows. The Wire brings it even more to the table, since plenty of supporting roles are played by ex-cops and former drug dealers; one amusing trivia is that a small role of a communal philanthropic deacon is played by Melvin Williams, who was a drug kingpin in the 1970s in West Baltimore, on whom some characters in the show are based. The man who arrested him is Ed Burns, a former policeman who is along with Simon the creative writing force behind the show. The highly realistic fashion in the sense of how the show was written, both in terms of plot and dialogue (you’ll love the street slang), comes from the personal experiences of these writers.

The story – planned and sketched since day one from the beginning until the end – is told in five seasons, or five acts if you will; the first season concentrates on the drug trade in West Baltimore, the second on the port unions who, while facing probable extinction, turn to smuggling and cooperating with the mob to make ends meet, the third on the city hall and its inner political schemes, the fourth on the school system and educational setbacks and the fifth on the fallout and the continuing “tabloidism”of newspaper media. Not to say that the old plotlines are being abandoned while the new ones are being introduced; everything is interconnected in the world of The Wire, either directly or indirectly; thematic parallels are drawn between all of the worlds, in a sense that there is a much smaller difference between a policeman, a unionman and a drug dealer than one would think – all of them are slaves beholden to the aforementioned bureaucratic and corrupt institutions. The show is trying hard to demystify all the clichés about these kinds of characters; drug dealers weren’t born evil and cops are rarely the fierce supporters of justice who empathize with their victims. Take for example Jimmy McNulty, the closest thing the show gets to have a lead character, played excellently by the British actor Dominic West; McNulty is a talented and persistent homicide detective whose priority is not to clean the streets of West Baltimore from crime. This is barely a side-effect to the fact that, if the case does work, he will be able to prove he’s the smartest guy in the room. He’s also a wild womanizer that ruined his marriage, let alone the fact he’s a pinky close to being a full-blown alcoholic.

The series itself is a slow-burn in the true sense of the word; its concept is purely novelistic, in a way that its slow pace leads to a terrific and well-deserved climax at the end of each act, but one that is “gained” through patience and concentration, because answers are rarely given in an open fashion – Simon and co. rarely underestimate the viewer and urge him to go along with the plot and make his own conclusions; you won’t find heart-felt monologues that explain the entire scheme or some character’s emotional state here. There are dozens of characters that are crucial to the plot, that disappear for awhile but then unexpectedly reappear. All of these characters are multilayered, breathing people who are far from perfect (or imperfect) and who mostly escape all the clichés that Hollywood and network TV is famous for, and whose journey throughout the show is as fascinating and important as the main plot itself. The Wire is so far the closest show to ever escape the aforementioned problems that were infecting all those shows before it (including Homicide: Life on the Street, whose best episode I’ve reviewed below), because it had a clear beginning and a clear end; all the cast members (most of them unknown, but terrific performances all around) stuck, and the writing crew remained being consistent, despite going out on a limb in some plotlines. Like all pieces of art, this one is not perfect as well; it suffers somewhat from some clear propaganda at moments, the dialogue or acting may sometimes seem a bit iffy and some parts do drag along, but it is probably the closest show to perfection in a long time.