2014年11月30日 星期日

"Crash" by J.G. Ballard (1973)

"Without thinking, I visualized a series of imaginary pictures I might take of her: in various sexual acts, her legs supported by complex sections of machine tools, pulleys and trestles; with her physical education instructor, coaxing this conventional young man into the new parameters of her body, developing a sexual expertise that would be an exact analogue of the other skills created by the multiplying technologies of the twentieth century."

J.G. Ballard was an English novelist who passed away in 2009.  He began his writing career as an author of science fiction, and later moved into the "serious literature" category with "Crash," "Empire of the Sun," and other novels.  This novel, "Crash," inspired a movie of the same name by director David Cronenberg, and "Empire of the Sun" was given a cinematic treatment by none other than Steven Spielberg.

In "Crash," the author develops a sexual fixation on automobiles following a traffic accident.  In so doing he crosses paths with the enigmatic Vaughan, a man attempting to engineer the death of Elizabeth Taylor.  All of the characters in this novel are extremely promiscuous, obsessed with sex, and completely amoral.

As transgressive fiction goes, this novel is extremely well written, and never grows dull.  It can, however, be a little nauseating at times.  The author spares no end of detail with regard to his sexual liaisons, the car crashes he views, and the various bodily fluids they elicit, and "Crash" at times resembles a cross between a medical textbook and and an automobile owner's manual.  It's a good book, but reading it requires a strong stomach.

Anyone who enjoyed "American Psycho" or "White Noise" will find a lot to like in this short novel.  It says a lot about our relationship with technology, and despite being 41 years old it still feels like it could have been written yesterday.

2014年11月29日 星期六

"The Man in the Iron Mask" by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

"For a blunderer, the souvenir he had evoked was a rather skillfully contrived piece of baseness; for by the remembrance of his own fete he, for the first time, perceived its inferiority to that of Fouquet.  Colbert received back again at Vaux what Fouquet had given him at Fontainbleau, and, as a good financier, returned it with the best possible interest."

Alexandre Dumas was born the same year as Victor Hugo, and died five years earlier.  He is known for his romantic adventure novels, of which "The Man in the Iron Mask" is one.  He wrote all of his famous books in collaboration with Auguste Maquet, a man who may have contributed more to Dumas' fame than even Dumas himself would have liked to admit.

"The Man in the Iron Mask" is also the sequel to "Louise de la Valliere," and features the famous Three Musketeers.  This book finds Porthos, Athos, Aramis, and D'Artagnan much older and wiser, and the four become embroiled in a plot involving a mysterious masked character who inhabits the Bastille.  The ultimate fate of this masked character is never adequately addressed in the novel, and we are left to wonder whether Aramis' plan truly succeeded.

My favorite part of this book was the labyrinthine sort of courtly etiquette which D'Artagnan lives and breathes.  Nothing is ever said directly, and conversations follow a tortured, circuitous route around their intended subjects.  One imagines that anyone attempting to navigate the court of Louis XIV would have found in a slip of the tongue disastrous consequences, and in the counsels of friends and foes alike there would have lurked a multitude of meanings, both intended and unintended.

As an adventure novel, this book works admirably, even if the fate of the man in the mask is bungled.  One surprising thing about this novel is just how dark the ending is, featuring an extended meditation on old age, the passage of time, and the vanity surrounding earthly attainments.  I'm not saying that "The Man in the Iron Mask" is an overly profound sort of book, but it does offer some startling reflections on politics, sexuality, and the way that life ought to be lived.

If it's a bit uneven and long-winded it can be excused these faults.  It's still a good book, and it - unlike some of the characters that populate its pages - has aged extremely well.

2014年11月21日 星期五

The Films of Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan has directed some of the most profitable films (and film trilogies) in film history, and his style of film making has had an undeniable impact on scores of other directors.  His films are often characterized by their dark tone and intellectual themes.

I have been a fan of Nolan's films since Insomnia, in which Robin Williams turned in one of his finest performances.  I later went back and saw Memento, and from that time on I've seen all of Nolan's films in the theater.  While I think that some of his movies have definite flaws, he is definitely one of the most independent and original film makers that Hollywood has seen in some time.

What follows is a list of his films, and my opinions on each.

1. Following (1998)

I have yet to see this movie.  It is more of a student film, and none of the cast members have (so far) gone on to fame and fortune.  A young man follows strangers around London.

2. Memento (2000)

Guy Pearce stars as a man with serious memory lapses.  It's a wonderfully moody film, driven by an excellent script.

3. Insomnia (2002)

Al Pacino travels to Alaska to investigate a murder, and his inability to sleep during the long Alaskan summer forms a key element of the plot.  Robin Williams is terrific in this movie, and it was sadly overlooked at the time.

4. Batman Begins (2005)

This movie, along with Marvel's Iron Man, was what really got the superhero film genre going.  Nolan's more realistic take on Batman was a welcome relief from earlier, more cartoonish incarnations.

5. The Prestige (2006)

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale face off as rival magicians around the turn of the century.  If you look very closely you will notice a surprising cameo by David Bowie.  This might by my favorite of Nolan's films, and I have seen it many times.

6. The Dark Knight (2008)

Maybe the best superhero movie ever, and also a prescient commentary on the loss of individual freedoms in modern America.  Heath Ledger turns in an Oscar-winning performance as The Joker, and the whole thing builds up to a big, triumphant finale.

7. Inception (2010)

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a corporate spy capable of infiltrating people's dreams.  The visuals are stunning, and the variable passage of time would also be explored in Interstellar.  In my opinion Inception was the best movie of 2010.

8. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

A somewhat disappointing end to Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy.  This movie felt overlong, and lacked the twists and turns that made both Inception and The Dark Knight so great.  While Anne Hathaway was excellent as Catwoman, I almost wish that Nolan had never made this movie.

9. Interstellar (2014)

Nolan's most recent film, and perhaps the film that suffers most from his already weighty reputation.  There is an ambition in this movie that's admirable, but it's trying to do too many things at once.  I'll probably have a more concrete opinion on this film after I've seen it again on DVD.

10. His Next Film? (?)

Nolan is the producer on several of Warner Bros. upcoming superhero properties, but he's wisely avoided announcing any further plans with regard to directing.  He has stated a wish to avoid the superhero genre in the future, and I think this is a wise decision.  I'm hoping that whatever he does is a bit smaller in scale.


2014年11月14日 星期五

The Greatest Heavy Metal Bands of All Time

What is heavy metal?  Is Led Zeppelin heavy metal?  Is Linkin Park?  Is Pelican?  Any genre of music is hard to pin down, and there are always bands that bring the best (or worst) parts of genres together.  My idea of heavy metal might also be different from yours, depending on what elements we consider "essential" to a heavy metal band.

And which band started heavy metal?  Is it Steppenwolf?  Is it Black Sabbath?  Is it Blue Cheer?  Is it Judas Priest?  All of these bands could claim to have originated heavy metal, and they could all be wrong.  Again, it all depends on what elements are essential.  Is it enough to sound like heavy metal?  Or do you also need to dress the part?  Is the answer in your album cover?  In your devotion to dark themes?

And how to we define "greatest"?  Is it the heavy metal band that sold the most albums?  Is it the most influential band?  Is it the most inventive band?  Some bands were truly ahead of their time, while others were following a trend to its logical conclusion.  Certainly all of these elements go toward making a band "the greatest," though some may predominate over others.

With all of this in mind I offer my own list of "Greatest Heavy Metal Bands of All Time," excluding some because I think they exist too far outside the genre, and others because I don't think they merit the adjective "great."  Take it for what it's worth.  If you disagree with me, I'd be happy to know why.

1. The 1970s: Origins of Heavy Metal

Black Sabbath

If you ask me, the first heavy metal album was the first Black Sabbath album.  They had the look, they had the riff-heavy sound, and they had the satanic album covers.  They were also a great band.  In my opinion, every album the original lineup did with Ozzy was classic, and to those albums I would add the three albums they did with Dio (Mob Rules, Heaven and Hell, and Dehumanizer).  I think that Vol. 4 is the best Sabbath album, though of course it's hard to pick a #1 out of that particular discography.

Judas Priest

God damn Rob Halford can sing.  Judas Priest were almost metal too early.  Parts of both Rocka Rolla and Sad Wings of Destiny must have put people off at the time, but by the time this band recorded British Steel they had cemented their reputation as one of the all-time greatest heavy metal bands.  Sad Wings is probably my favorite Priest album, just because it's so unusual.


Rainbow was formed out of the ashes of Elf, Dio's band, and one of the many Deep Purple lineups.  The three albums they did with Dio are all classic, and Rainbow really brought a level of virtuosity that the genre hadn't seen before.  Of these three albums, Rainbow Rising has got to be my favorite.


You could argue that AC/DC isn't a heavy metal band, and you might be right.  Their sound was never far removed from the blues greats that inspired them, but they definitely had a big influence on the genre.  In my opinion Back in Black will always be the definitive AC/DC album, but I have since grown into the earlier Bon Scott albums.


You only need one Motorhead album, and this would be Ace of Spades.  The rest of their output is fairly similar, but Ace of Spades casts a long shadow.

2. The 1980s: The NWOBHM and Thrash

Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden is the band that launched a thousand imitators.  Back in the early 80s their sound was so new, and their look was so striking that many people didn't even know what to make of them.  Pretty much everything they did up until the departure of Bruce Dickinson is great, and some of their recent albums have also been surprisingly good.  I think that most would pinpoint either Number of the Beast or Powerslave as their best album.


Metallica continues to be one of the most visible bands on the planet.  This visibility has been both bad and good for the band.  The albums they did with with Cliff Burton are their best, though I have a fondness for ...And Justice for All.  These guys invented shredding.  Or Dave Mustaine did.  Depends on who you ask.


Dave Mustaine, guiding force within Megadeth, started his career as the lead guitarist for Metallica.  He is something of an asshole in real life, but he made some great music.  Everything Megadeth did up until Countdown to Exctinction is great, and Rust in Peace might just be my favorite metal album of all time.


Slayer has made so many great albums that I wouldn't know where to start.  They tended to be more "underground" than either Metallica or Megadeth for most of the 80s, but their popularity has surpassed Megadeth's since then.  Reign in Blood still gets me riled up, though Seasons in the Abyss is probably my favorite Slayer album.

3. The 1990s: Cross-Pollination


Whatever people say, Soundgarden were a heavy metal band in the best sense of the term.  I've never really understood "grunge" as an appellation... and I'm from Seattle.  Their cover of "Into the Void" should settle the argument by itself.  Everyone should own a copy of Badmotorfinger.

Alice in Chains

Another band grouped under the grunge banner, but they were even more metal than Soundgarden.  They're not quite as prominent as they once were, but Facelift, Dirt, and the self-titled Alice in Chains remain classic.  Layne Staley will be missed.

Faith No More

Where grunge didn't suffice, many people in the 90s took to using the term "alternative."  Faith No More weren't from Seattle, so that was they label they were stuck with.  This band never got the credit it deserved, but their Mike Patton-era albums continue to influence a lot of people.  King For a Day, Fool for a Lifetime and Angel Dust should have been much bigger hits than they were.


Yes, Venom had a song by the name of "Death Metal," but Death are just as often credited with creating the genre.  They hailed from Florida, and never saw widespread success during their classic period, but their albums Human, Individual Thought Patterns, and Symbolic will rock your world.


Undertow, Aenima, and Lateralus are among the best metal albums ever made, and singer Maynard James Keenan is still one of the most unique vocalists ever.  I wish I could say I liked this band at the height of their popularity, but it took me a while.  I can remember seeing them on the second stage of a Lollapalooza, but I wasn't able to hear them.


I'm sure a lot of people find this band headache-inducing, but I have been a fan since the late nineties.  I think Destroy Erase Improve is their best album, but I also like Obzen.  If there is such a genre as Mathcore, no one is more Mathcore than Sweden's Meshuggah.

4: The 2000s: Metal Goes Global


Excellent band from France.  Most of their lyrics touch on environmental themes, and their music comes on like a sledgehammer.  I've owned all of their albums, and I think The Way of All Flesh is the best.


From Sweden, the country where metal often goes to get better.  Opeth is a very eclectic, very technically proficient band, and some of their music can wear a bit thin.  I didn't like their last album all that much, but Blackwater Park and Watershed are excellent.


Mastodon are an American band with progressive leanings.  Their last album seemed a bit uninspired, but Remission and Leviathan are HEAVY.  I sometimes wish they would stop emulating King Crimson and just play what comes naturally.

Dillinger Escape Plan

This is the band most often associated with the "math rock" label.  In tone they are very similar to Meshuggah, and they've been around for about the same length of time.  Miss Machine is a fantastic album.  They are probably the only band that can truly sound "poppy" and evil at the same time.

5. The 2010s: Searching for the Next Big Thing

I haven't heard it yet, not to say it's not out there.  Here's hoping something good surfaces soon...

2014年11月11日 星期二

"The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" by Victor Hugo (1831)

"Or rather, his whole person was a grimace.  A huge head, bristling with red hair; between his shoulders an enormous hump, a counterpart perceptible in front, a system of thighs and legs so strangely astray that they could touch each other only at the knees, and, viewed from the front, resembled the crescents of two scythes joined by the handles; large feet, monstrous hands; and, with all this deformity, an indescribable and redoubtable air of vigor, agility, and courage, strange exception to the eternal rule which wills that force as well as beauty shall be the result of harmony.  Such was the pope whom the fools had just chosen for themselves."

Victor Hugo also wrote "Les Miserables," the much-adapted story of the French Revolution.  He was very concerned with social justice, and also the preservation of Paris's architectural heritage.  He is one of France's best-known authors, though his reputation in France largely rests upon his poetry.

"The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" is set in Paris in the late Middle Ages.  Most of the action is set in the great cathedral, and the plot unfolds around a love triangle involving Claude Frollo, the archdeacon of the cathedral, the gypsy Esmerelda, and Phoebus, the vain captain of the king's archers.  Along the way the hunchbacked Quasimodo also falls in love with Esmerelda, with the religious life of Paris serving as a backdrop for their thwarted passions and fleeting triumphs.

It's a good book, though I must add that I read the author's "restored version" which includes two added chapters on the architectural history of Paris.  These two added chapters bring the narrative to a screeching halt, and the author's musings on the future of architecture are at best quaint, and at worst tiresome.  Aside from these two chapters, however, the remainder of the book is excellently written, and everything builds to a satisfyingly tragic climax.

I've also read Hugo's "Les Miserables," and I'd have to say that I liked that book much better.  "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" is a great novel, but it's much longer, much more burdened with detail, and requires a lot more concentration.