Monthly Archives: April 2009

No more questions for the prisoner

The Privy Council was anxious to discover who had incited him to commit the murder [of the Duke of Buckingham], suspecting the ‘Puritans’, but Felton insisted that he had acted alone and had not told anyone of his intentions. In the face of this insistence William Laud, then Bishop of London and emerging as an influential anti-Puritan, threatened him with the rack. But Felton was clearly made of stern stuff, and even though he was a ‘person of little stature’ he had ‘a stout and revengeful spirit’. In these tense moments he demonstrated considerable sang froid, replying that if he were put to the rack:

he could not tell whom he might nominate in the extremity of torture, and if what he should say then must go for truth, he could not tell whether his Lordship (meaning the Bishop of London) or which of their Lordships he might name, for torture might draw unexpected things from him.

After this there were no more questions for the prisoner.

- Michael Braddick, God’s Fury, England’s Fire

Thanks for deep pockets poorly guarded

As plot devices go, super thieves and con men are the non-scary equivalents of serial killers: Endlessly fascinating but overused and implausible. There are some in real life, but once you’ve seen fifty variations of the Super Awesome Heist story, or the Brilliant Psychopath Plays Mind Games With Detective story, the spell breaks.

I almost like Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. It’s a Super Awesome Heist story in a fantasy setting. It’s well written and intelligent, thus passing a test most fantasy doesn’t. It begins strong, and stayed there for the 220 pages I read.

But then I asked myself what it was that I liked about it. It wasn’t the characters. I still haven’t got a clear idea about Locke Lamora, the con man whose intricate plans to ruin a nobleman appears to be the main plot here. He’s just a name on a page. The city is interesting – but that got me thinking about Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber’s city of prototypical sardonic thievery, and I remembered how much better in every way his stories were than this. I thought: Why am I reading this? I want to reread Leiber!

I realized that the only thing I enjoyed about this novel was the Super Awesome Heist story, which is just too awesome, too perfect, (although clearly headed for a sudden Complication), and from there it all fell apart. It could have been different. This is the kind of novel I might have read in one sitting on a hot summer day. But it’s not to be.

40′s movies marathon – part 1 of .. very many

Jud Süß (1940, Germany) – Oh shit, I just realized I’ll be spending the next several months trying to remember how many people had been killed in the war at the time of the movie I’m watching. For instance, at this time, Europe’s Jews were still alive. As for the movie, it’s well made, and built on a story template that is more familiar than I expected. In a performance reminiscent of the English bad guys in Braveheart, a Jew who dresses like a Regular German worms his way into the confidence of the Duke of Württemberg, and becomes the most powerful man in the state. The Jew’s reign of terror ends after he rapes a German girl, which turns the people against him and all his kind. I admit it: I cried. They fucking did it, the bastards. They murdered them all.

The Philadelphia Story (1940, USA) – Katharine Hepburn juggles her fiancee, her ex-husband and a gossip journalist before her second wedding. This is a perfect movie, even though, having now seen this version once and the 1956 remake twice, I am still not sure what’s actually going on here. Watched it all.

Gaslight (1940, UK) – A Suspicious Foreigner moves into his murdered aunt’s house in London, where he sets out to drive his wife to madness. It’s the darker sort of English mystery, with an atmosphere that would fit well to a Poe movie. Watched it all.

Mannshelter i kvinnekropp og andre forviklingsfarser

Jeg har ikke vært fristet til å lese Stieg Larsson før jeg leste denne kronikken i Aftenposten, hvor Olav Elgvin anklager hovedpersonen, en kvinnelig hacker, for å være et kapitalistisk mannsideal i kvinnekropp. Dette er et spørsmål som fascinerer meg. Vi tar forfatteren på ordet når de påstår at en karakter er mann eller kvinne, men hvis du som leser “lukker øynene”, og bare følger med på hva karakteren sier og gjør, får du gjerne et annet inntrykk.

Er Sigourney Weaver i Aliens en kvinnehelt og et feministikon, eller en tradisjonell mannshelt med et politisk korrekt ytre, skapt av mannlige manusforfattere for et mannlig publikum? Går det an å være begge deler? Hva hvis den kvinnelige actionhelten er skrevet av en kvinne, men fremdeles oppfører seg som en tradisjonell mannshelt, som i Mary Gentle’s ASH?

Dette gjelder ikke bare kjønn, men også alder: Tenåringene i Veronica Mars ble spilt av 20-somethings, og snakket som middelaldrende manusforfattere. Og bakgrunn: Jeg vet bare om én TV-serie hvor nerdene faktisk snakker som nerder.

Hva er ekte? Hvem gjemmer seg bak masken? Hvem styrer John Malkovich i dag?

Og er det egentlig så farlig? Jeg vil svare: Nei, ikke så lenge man er klar over det. Jeg tror uansett ikke på det klart definerte skillet mellom kjønnene, som feministen Elgvin siterer ser ut til å ønske å opprettholde, og som, i den grad det finnes, forsterkes av stereotype forbilder. Jeg sier derfor ja til det komplette kaos av umulige helter, (og kommer med en anmeldelse av denne Larsson-fyren om ikke så lenge.)

Goodbye to the 1930′s, hello 1940′s!

My 1930′s movies marathon is over. Now what? What else? The 1940′s! Why? Because I’m insane, because it’s fun, and because nobody else is doing it.

It’s insane because the number of movies available from my Mysterious Disreputable Sources increases sharply for every year of movie history. But as long as I can finish the years in less than real time, I could actually take this pretty far.

What, someone made a good movie this year? Be patient. I’ll get around to it.

A reader has requested a list of only the movies that I think are worth watching. I’m tempted, but that kind of misses the point. There are no lists of movies worth watching, and never will be. There are only lists of movies worth watching for me, or you, or someone else. You could pick some of the movies I watched to the end, (which has been and will remain the only way I grade these movies), but who knows what forgotten masterpieces you’ll miss out on?

Reading reviews in search of the perfect choice of movie is pointless when you can just get a hundred random movies, and watch them for as long as you’re interested, and no longer. (Just remember to get the ones you like from a Non-Mysterious Reputable Source afterwards. Don’t be a leech.) The movies you find that way will be your own, in a way some idiot reviewer’s favorite never can be.

30′s movies marathon – part 31

The Old Maid (1939, USA) – I just noticed how grotesque Bette Davis’s head is. Beautiful but malformed, like a real-life manga character. Oh, and there’s a love triangle in the shadow of the American Civil War. Watched: 15 minutes.

Each Dawn I Die (1939, USA) – Journalists vs gangsters. The journalists are the good guys, and the drunk driving frameup isn’t very plausible either. Watched: 12 minutes.

The Little Princess (1939, USA) – Gah, Shirley Temple! Watched: 4 seconds.

King of the Underworld (1939, USA) – This gangster movie has cheap written all over it, from the TV drama sets to the not-even-trying Humphrey Boghart. Watched: 7 minutes.

Five Came Back (1939, USA) – It’s the prototypical disaster movie: A group of diverse people with Backstories, (including a rabid anarchist), ends up on the same plane, which ends up in the jungle. To judge from the foreshadowing, they’ll be running from headhunters next, before at last the Final Five are revealed. Watched: 34 minutes.

Oss baroner emellan (1939, Sweden) – A bored noble fails to pick up a girl on the street, and begins a stalker-like search to find out where she lives. Why is it that behavior that is creepy in real life is romantic in movies, (and vice versa)? Watched: 12 minutes.

And there’s a pair of chibi ninjas on my tail

Saturn’s Children is Charles Stross’s attempt at writing a late-period Heinlein novel: “The older Heinlein, despite the weird icky fetishes and the barking political rants and the self-indulgent shit was nevertheless a more interesting writer than his younger self”. Besides, everybody else was doing early-period Heinlein.

The novel Stross pays homage to is Friday, from 1982, a favourite of mine. I’ve read it three times, and will read it again. I won’t reread Saturn’s Children, because even a good homage is a shadow of its inspiration. But it is a good homage. Stross has recaptured what made Friday work as a spy thriller, including Heinlein’s more charming quirks. But he also does sly jokes at Heinlein’s expense, and a major one at Asimov’s.

Humanity has gone extinct, and left their robot servants behind. Programmed to obey, the robots have subverted human corporate law into a foundation for aristocracy and slave labor. The Friday in this story is Freya, a sex bot who works as a courier for a secret organization, and gets involved in a rather complex identity confusion plot involving soul backups and robot clones. Those who have read Glasshouse will know what to expect. Here, Stross takes the confusion a little too far.

There’s no point in reading Saturn’s Children if you haven’t read (and enjoyed) Friday – you’ll miss all the fun. And I’m not sure why it’s a Hugo award nominee – isn’t anyone doing anything new? This is just an enjoyable tribute.

30′s movies marathon – part 30

The Four Feathers (1939, UK) – On the eve of his first assignment, to quell restless natives in Khartoum, a British officer resigns. Branded a coward by his friends and fiancee, he realizes that they’re right, and sets out to the Sudan alone to prove himself through reckless displays of bravery. This is fantastic both as an adventure movie and as a display of the British imperial self-image. A bit unfocused, not to mention implausible and jingoistic, but all its blemishes are interesting blemishes. Watched it all.

The Three Musketeers (1939, USA) – The movie equivalent of a person who laughs at their own jokes. Watched: 8 minutes.

The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle (1939, USA) – Enough with the Fred Astaire and the Ginger Rogers. Enough. Watched: 21 minutes.

Bachelor Mother (1939, USA) – Ginger Rogers (no Astaire, so okay then) is fired right before Christmas, and through an unbelievable confusion of identity finds herself adopting an abandoned child. I don’t like where this is heading. Watched: 7 minutes.

Le Jour se Lève (1939, France) – A man has committed murder. Locked, trapped in a room, he recalls how he became a murderer. No that isn’t my description, it’s the movie’s introduction text, but it’ll do. Starring Jean Gabin, who dies romantically, (***spoiler apology***). Watched it all.

Anointed by the holy oil of an electoral victory

Why do countries fail? In Wars, Guns and Votes, Paul Collier uses statistics to analyze the factors that influence stability and instability:

- In poor countries (<$7 income per day) democracy makes society more dangerous, not less. Democracy requires accountability and legitimacy to do any good, elections alone are too easily manipulated by powerful leaders.

- Peacekeeping forces are a relatively cheap and effective way to promote stability. So is promises of military aid in case of unrest, such as France used to give to its former colonies.

- Security scales well: Large countries are more stable than small countries.

- Multiethnic countries can be stable if they take care to build a common identity that rises above ethnicity. (Btw, “you should all become just like us” is probably not the right way to do this.) Ethnic voting is one of the chief reasons why democracy fails.

- 40% of all aid indirectly goes to military spending.

- Coups could potentially be very useful, because they may be the only real threat to an incompetent government’s power, but in practice they rarely do much good.

- Civil wars cause further civil wars, coups cause further coups.

This is a remarkable book. I had no idea these data were available – and yes this is all based on data, with only a few and clearly marked instances of speculation. I hesitate to recommend Wars, Guns and Votes to pundits, though, because they’ll inevitably reduce its careful analysis to partisan talking points.