3/25/12

Those about to die


The Hunger Games is a book or something. I don't need to know what it is because I've seen it before. Death sport on the big screen is at least as old as Ben Hur. My favourite examples are from the 1970s. Punishment Park (1971), a cinema verité showdown between military and the counter-culture that looks disturbingly real from the next century; Roger Corman's Death Race 2000 (1975), as unwatchable and unforgettable as the best Corman fare; and Rollerball (1975), the sine qua non in any discussion of sci-fi futures.

Set in a dull grey Euro-America, Rollerball follows a professional deathsport player as he goes round and round, spiralling upward instead of down. The game is a substitute for war and no man can be greater than the game: the premise is simple. But the resonance of the images and performances is a feast. I love this film for its jump cuts, its soundtrack looping and dropouts, the grainy Medium Cool camera style, and its lack of finish. It's a ballsy, six-cylinder blat, violent and empty, the screenplay relying almost entirely on the mise en scène. For instance, this decadent party in which stoned footballers' wives laser a pine forest at dawn:


That's everything you need to know about this world, right there.

Rollerball began -- as is so often the case with good movies -- as prose fiction. William Harrison's short story 'Roller Ball Murder' was published in Esquire magazine in 1973. Harrison adapted it for the screen (those were the days) for director Norman Jewison.


Jewison talked about the movie at The Hollywood Interview:
Rollerball was my first, and only, film about the future, the not too distant future. I tried not to get caught up in the technology too much. I wanted to isolate the areas in which I would work. I found the BMW building in Munich, which was perfect, as our main location. Its design was very ahead of its time. We were the first ones to use identity cards to get into places and all that sort of thing which is quite commonplace today. It was an interesting film to do from a political aspect, because it was a film about a world where political systems had failed and multinational corporations had taken over. It deals with violence used as entertainment for the masses, which goes back to the Circus Maximus. I think when you use violence for entertainment, you're getting pretty low on the human scale. (laughs) I think it turned out to be a pretty interesting film, very stylized, packed a wallop. In Europe it became a cult film, whereas in America a lot of the critics went after it as being exploitative, of just being about a violent game.
Rollerball is contrastingly enigmatic and action-packed. Philip Strick observed that it loses steam when its protagonist, Jonathan, is not playing, but that was part of the point: life without the death sport is boring. The players are prisoners of an existential world. There is no THX 1138 sunscape to run off to and no Logan's Run leafy wilderness. And there is no Soylent Green twist that explains it all, either. When James Caan finally gets to question the computer that runs the city the machine blows bubbles at him and remains silent. Even the Alpha 60 in Alphaville rasped back.

Young viewers should also be warned that the movie contains scenes with John Houseman.

In 1978 Jewison said of the film:
Rollerball looked into the future in which all-powerful corporations provide a murderous sport to let people work off their aggressions. I worry about how much direction we have over our own lives.
This week New York magazine's culture column Vulture ran the numbers on The Hunger Games publicity machine:
Size of production budget: $80 million
Size of marketing budget: $45 million
Soon newspapers and blogs will be trumpeting the box office take, and how the studio income is trending, and thus people like me who know nothing about the movie shall be entertained. Thumbs up or thumbs down? Will the franchise survive or be killed off? Today the death sport is money.

3/17/12

Telegraph cables that sing down the highway


Remember the days when the murderer's flashback played inside the frames of his / her sunglasses? I do. Pictured above: John Cassavetes in Columbo: Étude in Black (1972). Searching for other examples I came across this scene from Columbo: Death Lends a Hand (1971).


Note past errors in Robert Culp's specs... and the score by Gil Mellé, Blue Note jazz saxophonist, band leader and composer. Mellé scored many films and TV shows. Here he is taking things for a cool, brisk walk on the opening credits of Columbo: Short Fuse (1972):


Mellé was an electronic music pioneer who built his own instruments. He played with an all-electronic jazz ensemble at Monterey in 1972 and composed one of the first all-electronic scores for the movie The Andromeda Strain in 1971:


He was also an exhibiting painter whose work appeared as sleeve art for Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Monk, among others. He lived in Malibu, California where he died age 73.

Here's the Gil Mellé Quartet doing a particularly lovely 'Moonlight in Vermont' from Patterns in Jazz (1956):

3/11/12

The Deep


Last night I attended a screening of Knife in the Water: an unrestored 35mm print complete with scratches, pops, blurry subtitles and mono sound. It was fantastic. The first time I saw Knife in the Water was on TV in the 1970s, on TVNZ's "classic film" slot (remember when TV was like film school?); the second was on VHS in the 1980s. Watching it this time I was struck by how complete it is, structurally and tonally, and the technical achievement of its storytelling. There's a scene where the young man swims out and hides behind a buoy on a calm lake: a conceptual stretch, but the director and DOP completely sell it. The yacht is a tiny physical space but after even a few minutes the dramatic possibilities have already become vast. When the three characters finally sit down inside the cabin around the tiny folding table, they might as well be in a ballroom scene. There's so much going on.

You couldn't make Knife in the Water now. You wouldn't be allowed.

3/8/12

Everything new is old again


Ray Kurzweil interviewed by Damon Lindelof at THR:
Kurzweil: There's an issue in portraying the future, which, if you follow my reasoning, will be very different in every dimension. And as soon as you introduce even a single change, you've got to explain what it is. Spielberg's A.I. had human-level cyborgs, but otherwise it was a 1980s reality: The coffeemaker was 1980s; the cars were no different; there's really no virtual reality to speak of. Nothing changed except he introduced this new concept, and then you had some dramatic tension about people's relationships with this new thing. There's actually a reason for that...
Full interview is here.

3/6/12

Guys and Dolls





'I came to the conclusion long ago that all life is six to five against.' -- Damon Runyon

(John Cassavetes, Columbo: Étude in Black; Marilyn Monroe by George Barris; Ben Gazzara, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie; Gaga by Terry Richardson.)

3/4/12

All we'll ever have is now


The French government has moved to seize copyright on books published prior to 2001. From the UK blog Authors Rights:
"The Bibliothèque Nationale de France is to compile a freely accessible online database of all works published in France before 1 January 2001 that are not being commercially distributed by a publisher and are not currently published in print or digital form... Once a book has been listed in the database for more than six months, the right to authorize its reproduction and display in digital form will be transferred to a collective management organisation approved by the Minister of Culture."
The French government has been struggling to control the internet. The Hadopi agency has complained about the workload of tracking pirates (18 million complaints; 10 users charged) and the three-strikes law was suspended in 2011 when the contractor administering the system failed to protect its data.

Four of my novels have been published in France -- Shirker, Electric, Departure Lounge and The Church of John Coltrane -- all after 2001, and all still in print (Coltrane is still French only). It will be interesting to see if the Ministry of Culture initiative reaches a compromise similar to the one made for the Google Library Project.

And Stanza has been crashing on my iPod. Stanza is the e-reader I use when I want to strain my eyes on my very battered iPod touch (iOS 4.3) reading Sherlock Holmes, Aristotle's Poetics, Edgar Allan Poe and other Gutenburg Project favourites. More importantly I used it to teach myself about e-publishing and re-issue some of my early short stories on Kindle.

After Amazon bought Lexcycle in 2009 there was chatter on the boards that they had killed the e-reader, one of the best for iOS. But it seems Stanza has been fixed -- if only for iOS 5. Another incentive to upgrade to an iPad, then. Or to just keep reading them on paper.

(Pictured: Alphaville. Still one of the best movies, ever.)

3/3/12

The True Wheel


When work's going well I stop talking and I stop reading. Not entirely, but generally: when your head's good, stay in your head.

I'm writing long on this one. I have to keep reminding myself that novels take longer to write than they do to read. Authors read faster than a bush fire. A lot of the work goes into what's not on the page. The underpinning has to be right but a reader can go a long way into a novel without caring about that.

Brian Eno discussed production to consumption ratios in music with Richard Williams in 1979:
"I have a theory that, as a maker you tend to put in twice as much as you need as a listener. It's the symptom of contemporary production. With the facilities that you have today, you tend to plug every hole.. You're always looking for that charge, so you put more and more in to get it. But as a listener you're much less demanding... you can take things that are much simpler, much more open, and much slower. It's often happened that I've made a piece and ended up slowing it down by as much as half. Discreet Music is an example: that's half the speed at which it was recorded."
Somewhere in the index of Platonic forms there must exist the perfect ratio of writing-to-reading hours. If the time invested in creating a work far exceeds the time it takes to decode, the text becomes a bottleneck: an obstacle to all but the most perservering -- the "important but unread" category. At the other end of the scale would be the pulps -- the real pulps, not the good ones -- that are so light that they offer no challenge and no reward.

I suspect that a prerequisite for book to be a best seller is that the narrative has to be constructed at the same speed at which a reader is prepared to unpack it. Errors and stylistic missteps are irrelevant: in fact, the clunkiness of the prose humanises the narrative. As Johnny Cash said, 'Your style is function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.'