2017年8月15日 星期二

Ten Good Bad Movies

Bad movies can be great.  Sometimes a truly bad movie is better than the best good movie.  Many of my favorite movies are also very bad.

1. Samurai Cop (1991)

Buddy cop movie directed (and written!) by an Iranian guy with a less-than-optimal understanding of English.  The acting is wonderfully terrible, the fight scenes are shoddily done, and some of the samurai cop's more verbose moments are sure to make you smile.  A "WTF movie" if there ever was one.

Oh, and I've seen the sequel too.  It makes about as much sense as the first one, but it lacks the low budget charm of its predecessor.

2. The Room (2003)

"Oh hey Mark!"  This is the gold standard of bad movies - so bad that they made another movie about how bad this movie really is.

Your first watch is bound to be cringe-inducing, but by the second or third watch you'll be quoting it to family and friends.  It was probably made on a budget of $20 and a pack of cigarettes, and features abominable acting, a plot that makes little sense, and a creepy "boy neighbor." 

3. Deathsport (1977)

70s barbarian motorcycle movie starring David Carradine ("Bill" from Kill Bill).  A lot of drugs were involved in the making of this movie, and the ending consists of an almost uninterrupted series of explosions. 

One of the best/worst things about this movie is the dialogue.  It transforms what would have been a boring low budget picture into something WEIRD.  It's kind of like a high-brow science fiction film and a 70s TV pilot had a bastard child that loved loud noises and flashing lights.

4. Basket Case (1982)

The number of times I watched this movie as a kid probably explains a lot about me.  Conjoined twins are separated at a young age, and the larger, normal-looking, sane one carries the smaller, weirder-looking, insane one around in a basket.  Thus "Basket Case."

Sites like Rotten Tomatoes actually give this film a decent score, but I think the real reason many of us love this movie is that it's terrible.  A remake would probably do pretty well at the local multiplex. 

5. Showgirls (1995)

Paul Verhoeven's masterpiece of bad film-making.  A young girl (from a troubled home, of course) journeys to Las Vegas to find fame and fortune.

The funniest scene has to be that odd bit of lovemaking in the pool.

6. Network (1976)

Paddy Chayefsky, where are you now?  With all your earnest, embarrassing dialogue, and tropes centered around older men with younger women!  Wikipedia says you died in 1981, and the world is a little poorer for it.

Anyway, if you've ever heard the phrase "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!" you can thank Network.  William Holden courts Faye Dunaway, and Peter Finch (who is, in other movies, a great actor) gives his most memorable performance as a TV prophet.  Like other Chayefsky-related productions, it's full of memorable lines and some terrifically bad acting - not that you can blame the actors for that.

If you like this one, I highly recommend 1971's The Hospital, featuring the always-overbearing George C. Scott.

7. Female Trouble (1974) 

Do movies that are intentionally bad count?  I have no doubt that John Waters knew exactly what kind of film he was making, and the fact that his earlier movies still enjoy a lot of underground credibility testifies to this fact.

It's hard to pick a favorite among the early Waters films.  Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, and Polyester are all great for different reasons.  I'm picking Female Trouble because it's the movie my family quotes the most often.  "Not on Christmas!  Not on Christmas!"

It's only too bad that Divine is no longer with us.  He/she is sorely missed.

8. Gods of Egypt (2016)

Who says they can't make truly bad movies on a big budget?  Who says all of the truly classic bad movies date back to the previous century?  If I hadn't already mentioned The Room above, I'd be obligated to mention Gods of Egypt.  It's BAD, BAD, BAD.

Partly an attempt at mythology, partly an attempt at superheroes, partly an attempt at "whitewashing," Gods of Egypt is chock full of bad dialogue and worse acting.  It also features some of the worst CGI known to man, and on top of that the plot is nonsense.

Don't worry, Chadwick Boseman.  You're a good enough actor to survive this debacle.  As for the rest of the cast... good luck!

9. Inframan (1975)

Gotta love Inframan.  You can watch the whole thing on YouTube.  Part kung fu movie, part robots vs. monsters, this Hong Kong production is just as awesomely silly now as when it first appeared in theaters.

"Princess Dragon Mom" and her henchmen are bad news, but thankfully we have... Inframan!

10. The Toxic Avenger (1982) 

Like Female Trouble, this one is also intentionally bad.  Also like Female Trouble, I've seen it more times than I can remember.

After being exposed to toxic waste, a high school nerd develops super powers.  My favorite part of this movie is the game his tormentors play early on in the film.  "Double points, my man!"  Great stuff.

Don't bother with the sequels.  They aren't so bad they're good.  They're just so bad they're unwatchable.

2017年8月11日 星期五

"Gods of Mars," "The Warlord of Mars," and Other Things John Carter

John Carter, contending with some of those damn, dirty white apes.

"Presently a cry went up from the section of the stands near by - 'Rise slaves!' 'Rise slaves!' it rose and fell until it swelled to a mighty volume of sound that swept in great billows around the entire amphitheatre."

Edgar Rice Burroughs is best known as the creator of Tarzan.  He grew up in Chicago, and wrote his most famous stories in the early 1900s.  The first of his stories to be published was "Under the Moons of Mars."  Tarzan, his later creation, appeared shortly thereafter.

As the book cover above indicates, I recently read both "The Gods of Mars" and "Warlord of Mars," which together form the second volume in Burroughs' "Barsoom series."  Burroughs chronicled the adventures of John Carter (a.k.a. the "Warlord of Mars") up to 1941.

In The Gods of Mars, John Carter returns to Barsoom (Mars) after a multi-year absence.  He soon finds himself in the clutches of a Martian "goddess" and her fanatical priesthood, which leads to a rebellion against a theocracy that has ruled Mars for countless ages.

The Warlord of Mars (the second half of this book) is a much simpler story.  In this tale John Carter must rescue his lady love Dejah Thoris from a pirate.  In the course of his pursuit he's led on a not-so-merry chase down rivers, through catacombs, and to the remote polar region of Mars.

As you might have guessed from the above descriptions, Burrough's John Carter stories aren't exactly science fiction.  They are instead labeled "science fantasy," though in my opinion placing the "science" before the "fantasy" is being generous.  As an example of world building, the John Carter series is a lot closer to Lord of the Rings than to Foundation, and many - if not all - of John Carter's exploits fly in the face of any scientific understanding of the world(s).  He's a lot closer to sword and sorcery than to science fiction, and many of his adventures hinge upon both a superhuman prowess in battle and an extraordinary series of coincidences.

Dejah Thoris

As his adventures fall firmly within the realm of pulp fiction, it should also come as no surprise that plot holes are a common occurrence.  The thing in The Gods of Mars that struck me most was the length of his imprisonment.  John Carter himself states that he was imprisoned in a dark cell for more than 300 days... and yet after his imprisonment he is in perfect health - able to fight multiple foes at the same time.  How could he have remained sane for all that time, much less healthy?

In Warlord of Mars there is a different problem.  The villains take great pains to explain both their plans and private thoughts at every opportunity, and John Carter, of course, is always there to overhear them.  At a point near the end this tendency toward narration becomes especially ridiculous, and borders on self-parody.

These flaws aside, the influence of these stories on later writers is obvious.  One example is Philip Jose Farmer's World of Tiers series, which shares with Burroughs' stories elements such as a race of immortals controlling a world behind the scenes, "astral" projection between worlds, and a fondness for Wild West tropes.  Yet where Farmer was big on narrative ideas and weak on action, Burroughs is just the opposite.

Robert E. Howard is another example.  I doubt that his Conan (or Kull) stories would have existed in the absence of Burroughs, and Howard in many ways builds upon the template set forth in Burroughs' earlier stories.  In this case, the chief difference is in the character of the protagonists.  John Carter is a romantic where Conan is a brute.  John Carter engages in swordplay where Conan hacks people to pieces.  John Carter pursues love where Conan just fucks.  I hate to say it, but I find Conan a lot easier to relate to, and I think the greater familiarity with Conan speaks to the fact that a lot of other guys feel the same way.

There are also the movie adaptations.  Disney released "John Carter" several years ago, and less reputable sources produced "Princess of Mars," a straight-to-DVD version.  The Disney movie is BORING and could have done with more bloodshed.  The straight-to-DVD version is even worse, but I think Antonio Sabato Jr. and Traci Lords probably look (and act) a lot more like the characters Burroughs imagined.  You can, by the way, watch Princess of Mars in its entirety on YouTube.

Besides movies, the John Carter stories have also been adapted into comic books.  Of these there are many, and some of them are very good.  John Carter even appears in Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and several companies (including Marvel) have offered their versions of the character.

In the books, Dejah Thoris is also (almost) nude.

2017年8月3日 星期四

The Best-Selling Sci-Fi Novels of All Time?

I'm using the list from the Book Haven site.  This seemed like the most reasonable example to me.  Other online lists include books like Lord of the Rings, or present the list entries in a questionable order.  The Book Haven list is of course also open to debate, but given my years (decades!) reading throughout the genre, it seemed like the most reasonable example.

Defining what science fiction is can be tricky.  Is C.S. Lewis's "Space Trilogy" science fiction?  Is Infinite Jest?  Is A Canticle for Leibowitz?  At the end of the day, labels like "science fiction" are always open to debate - no more or less so than labels used for types of music, or food, or cultures.

There is also the question as to what "best-selling" means.  Given that there are more science fiction readers alive now than ever before, should we assign Orson Scott Card precedence over Frederick Pohl?  Or should we adjust the term "best-selling" to account for percentages of the market at any given time?  Surely the influence of certain authors counts for something, and just because Robert Heinlein's sold more books than Jules Verne doesn't mean that he's influenced more people.

1. "Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert A. Heinlein

I can't stand Robert Heinlein.  Believe me, I've tried.  He has to be one of the most condescending authors ever, and aside from the usual "space aliens and rocketships" tropes, I've found very little substance in any of his books.

It seems to me that only those who read Heinlein in their youth would be able to develop a fondness for this author.  Anyone else - anyone first exposed to much better science fiction - would probably avoid him. 

2. "Dune" by Frank Herbert

The first novel is fairly overrated, although it was definitely revolutionary for its time.  Some of the later entries in the series are excellent.  I'm a big fan of both Dune Messiah and God Emperor of Dune.  Heretics of Dune is also great, but Dune and Children of Dune are ponderous in the extreme.  And Chapterhouse Dune?  Simply terrible.

If you've read this blog for a while, you're probably aware of my fondness for Frank Herbert.  This is partly due to nostalgia, partly due to his origins in the Pacific Northwest, and partly due to the more interesting entries in his bibliography.

If you've already read through the Dune books, I highly recommend The Godmakers, Soul Catcher, the Eyes of Heisenberg, and Hellstrom's Hive.  Many of the ideas first presented in these non-Dune books were later folded into the Dune series, and a reading of these four novels will enhance your enjoyment of Herbert's best-known series.

One of the strangest things about Frank Herbert is that his WORST novel, The White Plague, seems to be everywhere. 

3. "2001: A Space Odyssey" by Arthur C. Clarke

A lot of this book was hammered out in the presence of Stanley Kubrick, while they were putting together the screenplay for the film.  For this reason I don't think you can give Clarke ALL the credit for 2001, though he certainly did most of the heavy lifting.

Despite writing a few crappy books, Clarke refrained from writing any as crappy as the latter entries into Asimov's "I, Robot" series.  He was, generally speaking, a better writer than Asimov, and one of the things I appreciate most about Clarke is his succinctness.  Some of Asimov's later books really feel like he was grinding out his obligation toward a publisher, whereas Clarke, even at his worst, wrote engaging stories that can still be appreciated today.

The three sequels to 2001 are all good.  None of them will blow your mind, but they're all solidly written and very readable.  For Clarke at his best, see entry #9 below.

4. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams

If you're wondering why people still worship these books, you'll probably also wonder why people like Monty Python and Doctor Who.  They're predicated upon a very British sense of humor, and those with more "American" tastes will be mystified by them.

For my part, I loved all of the books in the series.  Life, the Universe and Everything is my favorite, but I thought they were funny right up to the last book.

I haven't read anything else that Douglas Adams has done.  My impression is that his other novels aren't quite up to the same level?  I could be wrong, but they don't seem to enjoy the same kind of audience.

5. "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury always struck me as a writer of "serious fiction" trapped in the body of a sci-fi writer.  He'll spend pages waxing poetic over spaceflight, but the stories in which these mini-poems are to be found are all very minimal - little more than outlines.

Is Fahrenheit 451 his best book?  I'm not sure.  It's certainly the best known.  I can remember being unimpressed with it, and both his Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man seemed much better at the time. 

6. "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Philip K. Dick

Why is this Dick's best-known book?  Because Blade Runner.  Ridley Scott's ode to AI was adapted from Dick's novella.

In a way this is unfortunate because Dick wrote much better stuff.  But then again, I suppose "Do Androids?" is merely an entry point to Dick's catalog, an appetizer if you will, and those seeking true strangeness will find Dick's other books, eventually.

Of all the writers discussed here, PKD (as he is often referred to) is by far the trippiest, and maybe also the best.  His stories of time travel, alien intelligences, and alternate timelines continue to exert a powerful influence over the popular imagination, and it's safe to say that modern science fiction would be much, much poorer without him.

If you want to get WEIRD, I suggest spending a week(end) with his VALIS trilogy.  Fans of more conventional sci-fi will likely prefer novels such as Martian Time Slip and The Man in the High Castle.  Whichever point of entry you chose, it's worth looking over Dick's bibliography beforehand.  He wrote a lot of books, and although none of them are really "bad," many of them are very similar.

7. "The Foundation Series" by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was a smart guy.  He also wrote some of the most important books in all of science fiction.  I, Robot and the first (published) Foundation book are brilliant, and the only reason these books aren't the source of more films is the fact that they are, for the most part, unfilmable.

Even so, Asimov wrote a lot of crap.  His Foundation series goes downhill fast, and his I, Robot series goes downhill even faster.  Some of these books contain interesting ideas, but these ideas alone aren't enough reason to struggle through most of his novels.

If you really want to know Isaac Asimov, the best way is through the short stories that made him famous.  It's in stories like "Jokester" that Asimov really shines, and I have had ample cause to regret that he gave up short fiction for the more lucrative novel.

8. "Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card

Before you embrace Orson Scott Card too enthusiastically, be aware that he is 1) a practicing Mormon, 2) believes that homosexuality should be illegal, and 3) believes in "Intelligent Design" (i.e. the Biblical account of creation).

With this said, I don't think you can always hold every author responsible for every ridiculous thing he or she believes.  Many famous authors were chauvinists, many were racists, and many others also believed that the Bible should be taken literally on all points.  The problem here is that Orson Scott Card is a writer of science fiction, and many (if not all) of the beliefs listed above speak against a scientific understanding of the world.  If you're only after "space aliens and rocketships" this is no problem, but if you're after fiction based on sound, scientific conceptions of the cosmos this is definitely an issue.

For what it's worth, I've read both Ender's Game and its sequel, Speaker for the Dead.  Ender's Game is a fairly competent effort, though Speaker for the Dead is, in my opinion, bad.  I did like Card's take on Iron Man in Ultimate Iron Man, but I can't say that I've bothered to read him since.  To put it simply, there are much better writers out there, and Card's belief system hinders his development beyond the established tropes of the genre.

9. "Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clarke

This book is fantastic.  It remains one of the best science fiction novels ever written, and displays a level of prose unmatched by anything Clarke did after.  It deserves the praise it has received, and it was written with an economy that few other science fiction writers can match.

10. "Gateway" by Frederick Pohl 

It's been SO long since I've read this book that I can't really say much about it.  I remember reading this and its sequels when I was in elementary school, but my recall of any Frederick Pohl books is sketchy.  Maybe I should read him again?

"Mercury" by Ben Bova (2005)

"When the greenhouse cliff struck so abruptly, flooding coastal cities, collapsing the international electric power grid, wrecking the economy, Earth's governments became repressive, authoritarian.  People who are hungry, homeless, and without hope will always trade their individual liberties for order, for safety, for food.  Ultraconservative religious groups came to power in Asia, the Middle East, even Europe and America; they ruled with an absolute faith in their own convictions and zero tolerance for anyone else's."

Ben Bova has been kicking around the sci-fi world for a LONG time, and I'm a bit surprised it's taken me this long to read one of his books.  He's won the Hugo several times, he was the editor of both Analog and Omni, and he's written more novels than I'd care to count.  At the time of writing he's 85 years old, and his most recent book appeared this year.

His novel "Mercury" forms part of his "Grand Tour" series, which explores the (human) settlement of the solar system.  This series stretches all the way back to 1985, and with new entries published every year or so you can imagine how many there are.

While the plot of this book could be dismissed as "Count of Monte Cristo in space," it's grounded in solid technical details, and written with a good eye for drama.  It's not a stylistic achievement by any means - just a solidly written story of revenge - but Bova's more pedestrian writing style serves the story well.  Certain touches like naming it "Goethe Base" are a little too on the nose, but this is a small complaint.  In the greater scheme of things Mercury builds steadily toward its somewhat ambiguous conclusion.

Of particular note is the disaster that occurs halfway through this novel.  This sequence of events is executed brilliantly, and while reading this part of the book I kept thinking how amazing this sequence would appear on film.

I've already bought Ben Bova's Mars, and plan on reading it soon.  Mercury has been a surprisingly enjoyable read, and I heartily recommend it.

2017年7月29日 星期六

"A Misfit's Manifesto" by Donna Gaines (2003)

"And some years later I did get there, an invited panelist at an international youth conference.  A generation later, all the kids were fucked up and by then I was an adult, an expert on youth violence.  People would interview me, quote me, hire me as a consultant.  From Germany to the Navajo Nation, parents, educators, lawyers, clergy, and police would ask me why the kids were killing themselves, their parents, and one another.  And I'd be able to explain."

Just think about the arrogance, the sheer egomania, typified in the above quote.  Just think about it... let it sit there.  I'll come back to it later.

So to begin, any (auto)biography has two tasks to perform, and two questions to answer.  These are:

1. Who is this person?


2. Why should we care? 

With respect to this particular autobiography, question #1 is easy to answer.  Donna Gaines is, in her own words, a noted sociologist and expert on the youth of today.  She is the product of - again, in her own words - a messed-up childhood, despite the fact that the "messed-up" parts of her childhood seem largely self-inflicted.

She was raised in a stable home by two loving parents.  She was never molested.  She grew up in a safe neighborhood.  She sold jewelry at the beach.  Of course she goes out of her way to dredge up details about distant relatives and their struggles with REAL problems, but she fails to make a convincing case as to how these other, more tangible problems translated into problems for herself.

Sure, she grew up intermittently obese, but so have a lot of other people.  It doesn't make them all experts on the subject of self esteem, or how to cultivate it.

And then there's question #2 above - why should we care?  If you believe Donna Gaines, the answer to this question lies in the fact that she's single-handedly revolutionized our understanding of youth violence.  But is it true?

All I can say is that I'd never heard of her, and if I ever hear of her again it will be too soon.  I don't doubt her credentials (which she lists at length throughout the course of the book), but is she, as she claims, really the voice of a generation?  Either her own generation, or some other?  I very much doubt it, and given her fondness for talking about her "accomplishments," I also doubt that she's the understanding type of person she so fervently pretends to be.

All of that, and this is a BADLY written book.  I'm not sure what was going on at the publishing house that deigned to publish this, but at least one of their editors should've been fired.  This book is chock full of both useless information and confusing transitions between time periods.  Its irrelevance extends right down to discussions of a long-gone restaurants the author frequented, and the lyrics to songs that no one cares about anymore.

An editor with half an ounce of experience could have chopped this book down to half its present length, and the result would have been a much better book.  What would have resulted, moreover, is the thing that Donna Gaines was really trying to achieve: a well-written resume that she could reference, distribute, and even sell at one of the conferences she attends.

And yes, anyone who thinks they're an expert on the younger members of any generation is probably full of shit.  If you want to know what the kids think, it's best to consult the kids themselves.  Resorting to fraudulent "experts" like Donna Gaines will just get you (and them) into trouble.

2017年7月22日 星期六

"We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk" by Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen (2001)

Buyer Beware: I've never been that big a fan of punk.  I grew up more of a metal guy, though I've owned albums by the Circle Jerks, Bad Brains, and The Pricks.  Those bands are about as far as my flirtation with punk has ever gone.

Buyer Beware #2: This book isn't so much "a book" as a series of non-chronological interviews.  As such there's not much point in dissecting it.  What follow below are merely some impressions. 

In the Beginning there was Bowie... 

And Bowie is/was GREAT.  I'm not sorry I missed L.A.'s short-loved glam scene, but I am glad to hear that someone in the States had one.  Up here in Seattle they were in thrall to the likes of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath.

There's nothing wrong with either of those two (awesome) bands, but variety is good!

Iggy Pop was also an influence...

And I've got to say that I've never been a big fan.  Some of his stuff I like, but on the whole I never really understood the power he exercises over the popular imagination.  Lou Reed, another of Bowie's associates, has always been more my thing. 

After glam died (or, by some accounts, went into hybernation...) around the mid 70s, the L.A. punk scene sprouted up in its place.  One of the earliest local precursors to punk was a band called Sparks.

But if you've bothered to listen to the above clip, you're probably wondering what's so punk about Sparks.  New Wave, maybe.  But punk?

However it happened, Sparks led to bands like The Germs.

And X.

And the Runaways.

And you might recognize the song "Cherry Bomb" from the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack.

Oh, and I forgot Devo.  Their L.A. cred is more ambiguous, but they were also part of that scene for a time.

If the chronology of the above bands seems "off," it's because some were signed later than others.  The Runaways were an earlier, more manufactured effort.  Devo found success a lot faster.  X and The Germs were floating around for YEARS before they produced anything other than singles.

There were also The Go-Go's, but I have the feeling that their earlier punk stuff was vastly different from the kind of music they did after they were signed.

Black Randy was also a big deal.

But of course a lot of that stuff was too arty, and not aggressive enough for the kids in the suburbs, so they had to invent Black Flag.

And the Descendents.

But by that time the scene had moved away from Los Angeles, and "punk" in most people's minds had become associated with skateboarding, white supremacy, and violence.  

The Circle Jerks appeared after Black Flag concerts got too aggro for even Black Flag.

"I've got the world... up my ass!"  Great stuff.

Unfortunately (?) it wasn't enough to save the scene, which died its inevitable death due to a combination of New Wave and heroin.

So it just goes to show, everything is cool until people start doing heroin.  Make a note of it, my friends.  If we can all remain just slightly more vigilant, we can keep H from destroying the next musical fad!

...or can we?