February 28, 2005

TV: American Idol -- men's semifinals, week 2

After tonight, things are starting to look fairly clear on the guys' side. Anwar, Bo, and Mario deserve to make the final twelve; David, Nikko, and Scott don't.

The other four -- Travis, Joseph, Constantine, Anthony -- are fighting for three spots, and none of them has any chance at all of winning the competition. Joseph gets the award for most improved of that bunch, and Anthony was the worst of the four.

MOVIES: Oscars 2005

Not much to say about last night's Oscars, except that it was the dullest show I can remember. Chris Rock wasn't funny; the Best Song performances were disasters (especially the Banderas/Santana fiasco); and there weren't even any interesting upsets to spice things up.

I loathed Million Dollar Baby, and Hilary Swank even more, so it wasn't much fun watching the last hour of the show.

The winning animated short, Ryan, is quite good (and at the moment, you can still see it at the
National Film Board of Canada's website).

MUSIC: LA Philharmonic 05-06 season

Got my renewal package for the Los Angeles Philharmonic this weekend, and there's lots of good stuff coming up in the 05-06 season: A full cycle of Beethoven's symphonies; the continuation of the multi-year Shostakovich symphony cycle; a festival of minimalism; a week-long guitar festival; residences by composer Thomas Ades and pianist Leif Oves Andsnes.

I normally have to do a lot of mixing and matching and exchanging of tickets to get a series that I actually like, but my series for next year is actually quite good. I get Eliot Fisk performing Takemitsu and Rodrigo; Andsnes doing Mozart; Hilary Hahn doing the Sibelius violin concerto (on a program with the Shostakovich 13th); Reich's "Proverb" and "Tehillim;" and a pairing of Ligeti's Requiem with Beethoven's 9th.

There're a few more programs I may buy single tickets to as supplements -- Beethoven's 5th/Lutoslawski's 4th (I know practically nothing about Lutoslawski); Poulenc's organ concerto (Disney Hall's organ is magnificent); the US premiere of a violin concerto by Ades (another composer I should know more about).

BOOKS: Show Business Is Murder, Stuart M. Kaminsky, ed. (2004)

Each year, the Mystery Writers of America assemble an anthology of original stories built around a specific theme. Here's the most recent entry in their series, a collection of stories about show biz and crime.The quality is very high; there's nothing that's flat-out awful, and a lot that's very good.

I was a bit surprised at how many of the stories dealt with the Hollywood Blacklist. I probably shouldn't have been; emotions still run high about that ugly time, and there are certainly enough motives for various crimes to be found in those events. Best of that group is Steve Hockensmith's remarkable "Fred Menace, Commie for Hire," which does what I'd have thought impossible: It's a comic Blacklist tale, a magnificent hard-boiled parody in which the hero -- a Communist private eye -- comments on his own Bogie-esque attitude:

I instantly regretted it. Cynicism is a decadent pose, a facade of apathetic ennui that's antithetical to the committed idealism of the true internationalist. But when you're a private eye, it sort of gets to be a habit.

Other highlights include Elaine Viets' "Blonde Moment," in which a TV anchor's scheming goes badly awry; Libby Fischer Hellman's "A Berlin Story," set (mostly) between the wars; and Robert Lopresti's "On the Bubble," about a TV action star fearing the cancellation of his show. Shelley Freydont's "The Dying Artist" has a too-obvious ending, but it does a fine job of establishing its creepy mood.

Fine collection, and highly recommended.

February 25, 2005

BOOKS: Homeward Bound, Harry Turtledove (2004)

Eighth volume in this alternate history / SF series from the prolific Turtledove, following on the 4-volume Worldwar and the 3-volume Colonization series.

Just as World War II was getting started, Earth received its first alien visitors, a lizard-like species who called themselves the Race. The Race was not friendly, and the differences among the nations of Earth suddenly paled in comparison to this new threat.

The Race got more than it bargained for; theirs is a society of great stability and glacial change, as they'd assumed any intelligent society would be. So when their preliminary exploration fleet -- which had flown by some 800 years ago -- found a planet of horse-riding barbarians, they figured we'd be an easy conquest.

But such was not the case, and over the course of the first seven volumes, Turtledove has told the story of the war between the species and the uneasy peace that followed it. As the current volume begins, we've leapt forward a few decades into the 1990s, and Earth is sending its first starship to visit the Race's homeworld, which they call (logically enough) Home. It's not a quick trip, and it's made possible only by putting most of the passengers into cold sleep, which conveniently allows Turtledove to keep alive some of his most popular characters from the earlier volumes, despite the passage of time (by the end of the book, it's roughly 2030).

The plot revolves around the attempt of the two races to negotiate a lasting peace, a task made more difficult by the Race's fears that the rapid pace of human technological advancement will quickly make the Race vulnerable to total destruction, which might make it a good idea to wipe out the humans now, while they still can.

Turtledove's technique throughout the series is to give us a few pages at a time from the perspective of one of a dozen or so primary characters, allowing us to get multiple views of the same events. His characters are well developed, some of them are very much so. The most interesting here is Kassquit, a human woman who has been raised from infancy by the Race; she's visiting Home for the first time, and also spending lots of time with the human diplomatic team, more time than she's ever spent with other humans before. Her struggle to reconcile her biology and her cultural upbringing is fascinating.

This isn't advertised as part of a new subseries, as the Worldwar and Colonization volumes were, but there are certainly enough dangling plot threads and issues to be explored that further volumes aren't out of the question. Turtledove does like long series; his Videssos series of fantasy novels (which I've not read) is up to 11 volumes, and his other long alternate history -- a journey through the 20th century in an America where the Confederacy won the Civil War -- will reach 8 volumes next fall.

This is not a book to pick up if you're not already familiar with the series; references to earlier events tend to be cursory, and it's assumed that the reader will be able to keep up. But the series is a fine one, and this is one of the better installments.

February 23, 2005

TV: American Idol -- seminfinals, week 1

I love American Idol. Quick reactions to the first week of semifinal competition:

The men were not an impressive group. Best was probably Anwar, who's got a great voice, even if his "Moon River" arrangement was awful. I liked Judd, who seems to be the most polarizing of the men, and Mario at least had enough energy and charisma to rouse the audience from its night-long coma. Bo, Travis, Constantine -- all OK. The rest were all weak, with David being the worst. As long as he's one of the two to go home, I don't much care which of the other five (Anthony, Joseph, Scott, Nikko, Jared) joins him.

The women were better, though I don't yet see anyone as good as the previous winners. I liked Nadia, Vonzell, Jessica, and Carrie; Aloha's got lots of personality, but I need to hear her sing a better song. Most deserving of the trip home: Mikalah, who seems to have studied at the Fran Drescher School of Music; she should be joined by either Janay or Melinda. The rest (Amanda, Lindsey, Sarah, Celena) were bland and instantly forgettable.

February 20, 2005

MOVIES: Beautiful Boxer (Ekachai Uekrongtham, 2003)

Beautiful Boxer is an odd movie from Thailand, that tells the true story of Parinya Charoemphol, an actress/model who was born male and became a great kickboxer in order to finance his sex change.

The story is told in flashback, as Parinya narrates her life story to a reporter. We go back to childhood, and see that the boy then known as Nong Toom knew from a very early age that he should be a woman.

As a teen, Toom tagged along with his brother to a local kickboxing instructor; the brother was a flop, but Toom proved to have natural talent. At first, he wasn't interested, thinking that the sport was too violent, but when he realized that it might be his best way to make enough money to pay for his surgery, he began to work very hard, eventually becoming one of the best kickboxers in Thailand.

His manager, Pi Chart (which is an unfortunate looking name for English-speaking audiences, but is pronounced roughly "peeSHAR"), discovers his fondness for makeup. He decides that this will be the gimmick that finally allows him to take one of his boxers to the big time in Bangkok, and Toom begins fighting in full makeup.

It's a skillfully made movie, and male actor Asanee Suwan is very good as Toom/Parinya, but the tone of the movie feels off, and it's hard to say how much of that is due to cultural differences. The audience I saw the movie with responded to much of it as campy comedy, which is not how I think it's intended.

Part of the problem is the odd mix of coyness and sophistication; Thai society seems (for the most part) unshocked by the idea of transvestism and gender-change (not the same thing, I know, but the terms are used pretty much interchangeably in the movie), though many of Toom's opponents are outraged that a boxer would appear in the ring in makeup.

But the movie treats Toom as largely sexless. There are hints that he may have been attracted to one of the other boxers at his camp, but the movie never really deals with the question of orientation, which feels like a copout, especially when telling the story of someone who lived his/her life with such courage.

February 19, 2005

MOVIES: The Animation Show 2005

This is the second installment in the not-quite-annual collection of animated shorts assembled by Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt. This one's made up of ten films, with a combined running time of about an hour and forty minutes.

Most of the shorts are very recent, with only one made before 2002; that oldie is Wendy Tilby & Amanda Forbes' "When the Day Breaks" (1999), a lovely contemplation on interconnectedness that follows several anthropomorphized animals through a typical city day, with particular attention to a pig who's badly shaken up after witnessing an accident.

Of the newer films, only a couple left me completely cold. David Russo's "Pan With Us" is an overly artsy jumble of images set to a Robert Frost poem; Jennifer Drummond's "The F.E.D.S." is a mini-documentary about the folks who hand out food samples at the supermarket, animated in the jittery tracing-of-live-action that Richard Linklater used in Waking Life. It's a technique that gives me a headache, but even if the film had been animated differently, Drummond's subjects don't have much to say.

Many of the films in the collection are quite good. Peter Cornwall's "Ward 13" is the longest of the bunch, running about 15 minutes; it's a fine piece of clay animation set in a sinister hospital. The protagonist's attempts to escape from the evil doctors feel something like an action sequence from TV's Alias, and Cornwall does a terrific job of keeping the tension high.

Tomek Baginski's "Fallen Art" is a dark look at how the military turns young men into interchangeable, expendable gears in the war machine. Jonathan Nix's "Hello" is a charming tale of romance between the technological generations (he's a beat-box kinda guy; she's a Walkman kinda girl).

Best of all is Bill Plympton's "Guard Dog," one of this year's Oscar-nominated animated shorts, which follows the attempts of an unusually vigilant dog to keep his master safe from any potential threat during their daily walk in the park. Plympton gets canine psychology just right, I think, and this is a very funny film.

The nice thing about a collection of short films is that if you don't like what you're watching, you know that there'll be something new along any minute. The hit rate is certainly high enough here to recommend this show to any animation fan.

February 16, 2005

BOOKS: Christmas Stars, David G. Hartwell, ed. (1992)

I don't read many literary short stories; I generally prefer my fiction at novel length. I like having the time to get to know characters and settings, and to get absorbed in a plot.

But I do enjoy mystery and SF shorts, for some reason. In science fiction, especially, shorter fiction is often just the right size to present an idea that wouldn't hold my interest for 250+ pages.

The anthology at hand, Christmas Stars, is a Christmas-themed science fiction collection (reprints, not originals). On average, the quality's pretty high here. There are a few classics: Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star," Philip Van Doren Stern's "The Greatest Gift" (the story that inspired It's a Wonderful Life), Connie Willis's "Miracle."

Of the pieces I hadn't seen before, I particularly liked Ian Watson's "When Jesus Comes Down the Chimney," in which the holiday's sacred and secular mythologies have gotten a bit blurred; William Gibson's "Cyber-Claus," a brief high-tech update of C. Clement Moore; and Raymond E. Banks's "Christmas Trombone," which plays right into my weakness for stories about the unstoppable nature of the artistic spirit. The Joe L. Hensley/Alexei Panshin collaboration, "Dark Conception," is seriously dated -- it's a 1964 piece in which race relations are key to the plot -- but it's an effective piece of writing.

There are, of course, a few clunkers. Two prose poems by John M. Ford don't do much for me, and James Powell's "The Plot Against Santa Claus," an attempt at a hard-boiled detective story set among the North Pole elves, isn't effective as noir or parody.

Good collection on the whole, though.

February 14, 2005

MUSIC: Big Daddy

So USA Today ran one of those "oh, look what the kids are up to now" articles last week on podcasting. Now most of the time, a USA Today article would be a sign that the featured trend had peaked six months ago, but this one actually seemed to be relatively timely, and infomative for out-of-it folks like me who'd heard of podcasting, but didn't know much about it.

The article led me to Coverville, which I'm enjoying immensely, and I'm looking forward to working my way through the backlog of existing broadcasts.

And Coverville Episode 10 led me to -- finally, the subject of this post -- Big Daddy. Led me back to, I should say; since Big Daddy was a favorite band of mine in the early 90s.

Big Daddy was a band with an elaborate back story. They had, we were told, been a popular prom band in the mid-to-late 50s, when the cruise ship they working disappeared. The band's members reappeared 30 years later, having been held prisoner in Cuban prisons for never-clearly-explained reasons. Now, all they wanted to do was go back to playing the songs the kids loved, but the only musical styles they were comfortable with were those of early rock-&-roll.

And so, we got three albums of current pop hits ("current" meaning late 80s/early 90s) played as if they were pre-Beatles tunes, cleverly merging the new and the old. Each interpretation was inspired by a specific artist, and usually by a specific song, with the connections ranging from the obvious -- Paul Simon's "Graceland" as (what else?) an Elvis Presley tune -- to the thematic -- Mike & the Mechanic's "The Living Years," in which the singer mourns the fact that he never really talked to his recently-deceased father, gets recast as the death-rock classic "Leader of the Pack." (OK, that's a bit tasteless, but the execution is very funny.)

Some of the connections were a bit more puzzling. Rick James' "Super Freak" as an Everly Brothers ballad? The Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" as a Belafonte calypso? But even at their most far-fetched, the band's musical skill and obvious affection for both generations of music made it always at least listenable.

Occasionally, they achieved brilliance. U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" through the lens of Hank Ballard becomes a rousing gospel shout, and the Wilson Phillips-meets-Jackie Wilson version of "Hold On" is inspired. Their interpretation of "Memory" (yes, the one from Cats) draws on "Unchained Melody" for inspiration, but not the obvious Righteous Brothers version; no, Big Daddy goes for the more obscure, insanely manic version by Vito and the Salutations, turning Lloyd Webber's treacly slush into a hyper-speed piece of lunacy.

After three CDs of this magnificent nonsense, they released their masterwork, "Sgt. Pepper's," a track-by-track reinterpretation of the Beatles album. "Fixing a Hole" goes Dion; "With a Little Help From My Friends" becomes a surprisingly apt Johnny Mathis ballad. And most stunning of all, "A Day in the Life" is presented as a Buddy Holly rocker ("I read the news today, uh-oh boy").

Sadly, all of their CDs are now out of print, but if you should ever stumble across them in a used-CD shop, they're worth a listen.

February 12, 2005

MOVIES: Hitch (Andy Tennant, 2005)

Will Smith finally makes his romantic-comedy debut in Hitch, and while the material isn't terribly original, Smith and the rest of the cast are immensely likable, making the movie reasonably entertaining.

Smith plays Alex Hitchens, the "Date Doctor" who helps hapless men court the women they love by training them in the "basic principles" of dating and relationships. His current client is Albert (Kevin James), the junior member of the accounting team working for heiress Allegra Cole (Amber Valletta), who is a celebrity for no apparent reason beyond her wealth; she's like Paris Hilton with a brain.

This is Hitch's greatest challenge. Albert's a likable guy, but not particularly handsome, and Allegra's a wealthy beauty who wouldn't normally even notice him. James and Valletta have their work cut out for them to make the pairing convincing, and for the most part, they pull it off. James is particularly good, with a real flair for broad physical comedy and a sweetness that shines through his outer schlub.

Of course, for all his success as a dating consultant to other men, Hitch's own romantic life has never been terribly successful, and he can't seem to make his own principles work when he finds himself falling for gossip columnist Sara (Eva Mendes). For a long time, we're left wondering why they seem not to realize how perfect they are for each other. This is, of course, the standard romantic comedy question, but it's particularly problematic here because the movie takes too long to set up the principal obstacle to their relationship, Sara's attempt to discover for her newspaper the identity of the "Date Doctor."

Smith is effortlessly charming here, and you can't help but root for him; Mendes, in her largest role yet, is lovely and funny. Their first meeting, a self-referential barroom dialogue in which Hitch and Sara flirt their way through a description of their own flirting, is very nicely done.

Sure, you can see all of the plot twists coming, and there aren't many original moments in the movie. But formulas become formulas because -- when they're done right -- they work, and Hitch works well enough to be a pleasant diversion.

BOOKS: Planet Simpson, Chris Turner (2004)

Here's a very detailed look at The Simpsons and the ways it's influenced (and reflected) the popular culture of a generation. There is, Turner argues, no single cultural artifact that is as universally recognized and understood by the generation that's come of age during the show's 15-year (so far) run; there's not a situation that can't be summed up, joked about, or understood by referring to a Simpsons character or punchline. And it's true that the show's fans can be obsessively devoted, holding a tournament to determine the most popular of the enormous cast of supporting characters, for instance.

Turner gives us a quick history of the show, starting with its first incarnation, as a series of short cartoons that aired between sketches on The Tracy Ullman Show; and an analysis of the show's comic style. The Simpsons is often dismissed as mere cynicism, but Turner thinks that satire is a better definition, the distinction being that satricial comedy is at its heart optimistic, believing that the institutions and people it ridicules are not yet beyond redemption.

We then get detailed examinations of five principal characters (Homer, Bart, Burns, Lisa, Marge), and examinatins of how the show has dealt with cyberculture, other countries, the cult of celebrity, and television itself. Turner's analyses are very thorough, and they are most successful when he's dealing with the show's characters; when he strays into broader real-world social and political issues, he flounders a bit and it becomes more obvious that his own political biases are shaping his interpretations.

Turner is occasionally overly impressed with his own profundity, and for some, this sort of analysis may seem to be more than the show deserves. It's hard not to groan a little, for instance, at the over-intellectualizing that leads to thoughts like, "If Homer's doughnut is understood as symbolic...".

There's also a bit too much fan-nish adulation in spots. Turner loves The Simpsons and everyone associated with it, but to claim, as Turner does, that Phil Hartman's voice acting in the roles of Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure has made "a permanent mark in the annals of pop culture" is going a bit overboard.

Still, Planet Simpson is entertaining reading, and I'm always happy to see pop culture taken seriously; more people watch The Simpsons in a week, after all, than will ever seen a play by Shakespeare or heard a symphony by Beethoven. Pop culture matters, and even if Turner occasionally gets carried away by his own enthusiasm, it's worth taking the time to consider why the show has remained popular for so long.

February 07, 2005

MOVIES: Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (Danny Leiner, 2004)

OK, yeah, it's a stoner movie, and I'm at least 20 years older than the target audience, which is why I didn't bother with this when it was in theaters last summer. But I laughed pretty much nonstop through it.

John Cho and Kal Penn are a terrific comic team as (respectively) Harold and Kumar. Harold's an uptight junior analyst at an investment banking firm; Kumar's a more laidback type who's not all that excited about his current round of med school interviews. They're roommates, and on a typical Friday night, they've got nothing better to do than lounge around the apartment and get stoned.

On this particular Friday night, though, the boys get a craving for White Castle burgers, and head out on what turns into a disastrous night-long road trip. They get lost; they pick up a hitchhiking Neil Patrick Harris (playing a rather dissolute version of himself), who eventually steals their car; and have countless other misadventures along the way, and the less I say about them, the happier you'll be with the surprises.

Dumb young buddy movies are hardly a new idea, and the most obviously distinctive thing about this one is that the leads are Asian-Americans. The movie doesn't ignore this fact, and it has a lot of fun with the ways in which Harold and Kumar do and don't live up to the stereotypes. But the movie's never heavy-handed about that, either; it's not a message movie determined to teach us that Asian-Americans Are Just Like Everyone Else.

The movie isn't much more than a string of comic bits and gags, none of which have much connection to one another, all of them very loosely held together by the boys' increasingly desperate quest for those White Castle burgers. In any such movie, there are going to be jokes that don't work -- I could have done without an overly-long set of fart jokes, for instance -- but the hit rate is high enough here (and the jokes that do hit hit very well) that I enjoyed it a lot. The last five minutes are the semi-obligatory set up for a sequel, and I really hope that Cho and Penn will be reunited for Harold and Kumar Go to Amsterdam.

MUSIC: Silence and a Sampler

When I started this blog a few weeks back, I expected that I would post more about the music I listen to, and have been trying to figure out why I don't.

What it boils down to, I think, is that music affects me in a different way than the other forms of entertainment I talk about here (books, movies, TV). When I read a book, or watch a movie/TV show, there's a part of my mind that's enjoying the experience (or not), but on a different level I'm thinking about why I'm enjoying (or not).

I've never learned to do that with music. It hits me at a deeper level, I think, and moves me in ways that I can't consciously think about while it's happening. When it's over, you can ask me what I liked, and I might be able to say this singer has a terrific voice, or that piano riff made me chuckle, but I'm not going to get much deeper than that. I'm not generally going to be able to talk about how skillful the arrangement is, or how well the guitarist plays, or how well the album holds together as a grand statement on Theme X.

(For that matter, I'm not going to be talking about "the album" at all; I'm a song-oriented guy. If there's one three-minute chunk of perfection on a record, I don't care whether anything else works at all.)

And I suppose I could post more often, even if all I have to say is "I liked it!" Who knows, maybe the experience of making myself say something would teach me to be more articulate and analytical about the reasons. My fear, I think, is that it might also rob me of the experience of being immersed in a piece of music; turning on the analytical part of my brain might just detach me from the music more than I'd like.

An interesting puzzle, which will no doubt keep my mind occupied as I listen to music in the future.

And since I haven't done one of these in a while, a snapshot of the music collection courtesy of iTunes shuffle mode:

Buck Owens, “Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line”
ABBA, “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do”
Jane Siberry & k.d. lang, “Calling All Angels”
Lynn Anderson, “Rose Garden”
The Crystals, “He’s a Rebel”
The Capris, “Morse Code of Love”
Martyn Joseph, “Thunder and Rainbows”
Thelma Houston, “Don’t Leave Me This Way”
Grand Drive, “A Little Like You”
Andrew Ratshin, “Roses From the Wrong Man”
The Temptations, “I Know I’m Losing You”
Marshall Crenshaw, “Mary Anne”
The Weather Girls, “It’s Raining Men”
Bob Luman, “Let’s Think About Living”
Los Lonely Boys, “Heaven”
Billie Jo Spears, “Blanket on the Ground”
Vanity Fare, “Hitchin’ a Ride”
The Supremes, “Stop! in the Name of Love”
Elton John, “Too Low for Zero”
Ricky Nelson, “Lonesome Town”

MOVIES: Born Into Brothels (Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman, 2004)

Photographer Zana Briski had lived in Calcutta's infamous red light district for a few years, working on a project about the lives of the women who live and work there, when she found herself teaching photography to one group of eight children. Realizing that this was potentially more interesting than what she'd been doing, she recruited documentary filmmaker Ross Kauffman to join her and document what was happening.

The prostitutes of Calcutta -- like prostitutes everywhere -- are stigmatized, and so are their children, who find it nearly impossible to get the kind of education that would allow them to make a better life for themselves. The vast majority of the girls born in the red light district will eventually become prostitutes themselves.

The children we meet in Born Into Brothels are aware of what life holds in store for them, and while they are understandably frustrated by the limitations they face, they somehow manage to find shreds of joy and beauty to cling to, especially in the photographs they take.

About halfway through the film, Briski sets out to get a decent education for the students in her class, and begins hunting for boarding schools that will take them as students. It's not an easy search; most schools refuse to even consider children of criminals as students.

Born Into Brothels doesn't have a tidy happy ending, or even a tidy unhappy ending; we're simply given a glimpse into a short period of these children's lives, and at one women's attempt to do something to help them, no matter how small it may be in the face of the larger problem. It's a fine movie, and deserving of its spot of this year's list of Oscar-nominated documentaries.

That said, there is something a bit creepy and voyeuristic about the way the movie is essentially packaging the suffering and poverty of these children as entertainment for the rest of the world. I'm not sure there's a way to get around that problem, and certainly Briski and Kauffman have worked hard to make the movie as non-exploitative as possible.

February 05, 2005

Movies: Why I Walked Out of...

...Travelers & Magicians.

The first feature film to be shot in Bhutan, we're told, and the reviews were generally good, so I was looking forward to this.

Then the movie began, and the subtitles were so lightweight that they couldn't be easily read. If the standard subtitling has the feel of something written in magic marker, this was like something written in pencil. The subtitles were yellow, which was good -- yellow is almost always better than white -- but that wasn't enough to overcome the disaster of the font weight.

When subtitling is done well, I can pay attention to what they say without being distracted from the movie by the fact that I'm having to pay attention to what they say. But this time, I was constantly aware of the fact that I was having to work really hard to read the titles, and it kept me from really getting involved with the story. Watching a good movie may be challenging, difficult, thought-provoking; it shouldn't be laborious.

A shame, too; I think I might have enjoyed the movie if I'd been able to pay attention to it instead of to its ancillary deficiencies.

February 02, 2005

BOOKS: The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, Minister Faust (2004)

This is a McGuffin story, which means that everyone's running around trying to get their hands on something, the precise identity of which isn't all that important beyond the fact that everybody wants to get their hands on it. To be more precise, it's a science fiction McGuffin story, which means that the something in question is a gizmo that will allow the user to see the cosmic powerlines and travel through interdimensional gateways and become the Master of Time, Space, and Dimension (™Steve Martin).

Or something like that, anyway. If we're being honest here, the McGuffin is even vaguer and more McGuffiny than is usual for this sort of thing, and the plotting isn't always as tight as one might like.

But plot isn't really the point of Coyote Kings, which is about style and attitude, both of which it has plenty of.

Our hero is Hamza, an Edmonton dishwasher who lives with fellow underacheiving genius Yehat (a video store clerk). Hamza's been in a bit of a rut lately, but that comes to an end when he meets Sherem, a woman who speaks several ancient African languages, swaps Star Wars quotes with the best of them, and (as if that weren't enough) is stunningly beautiful.

We know fairly quickly -- though Hamza does not -- that Sherem is one of those hunting the McGuffin, and that her interest in Hamza is largely, though perhaps not entirely, driven by her belief that he can help her find it.

There are several other people hunting, too. Restauranteur Dulles Allen commands a group of misfit thugs, and brothers Heinz and Kevlar Meaney -- nemeses of Hamza and Yehat since high school -- are also chasing after it.

The book is narrated in first person, with roughly a dozen characters taking at least one chapter of narrative duties. The largest share, though, falls to Hamza, and you get a good sense of his voice from the opening of the Epilogue that begins the book:

In advance, shut up. I know epilogues go at the end. My point here, which should have been obvious already in my opinion, is that I am telling you some of the end of this story so as to get you to comprehend the mind-set under which I am currently operating and during which I am escaping.

I think that made sense.

The point is, is that this summer has been really, well ... it has included an unexpected series of events.


That doesn't quite ... episodes? Adventures? Harrowing escapades? Whaddya
want me to say? Things.

Faust's characters all have distinctive voices, and it never takes long to figure out who's narrating each chapter. Sometimes it's very easy; there's no mistaking the voice of wannabe-Jamaican Alpha Cat, for instance:

So yu know mi WOK intu di baas-maan hoffice -- di SitchuWAYshaan Room, ee calls
it -- fi mek a ripoht on stock-an-ting, an see if dey is enniting mi can elp out wit, SEEN?
A little of that goes a long way, and Faust wisely doesn't give his more exaggerated characters more than a chapter or two apiece of narration.

It takes Faust too long to tie the plot threads together and to make it clear what the McGuffin really is -- even if it's just a McGuffin, there needs to be some explanation -- but Coyote Kings has such humor, warmth, and heart that it's great fun to read. There's enough wiggle room at the end of the book to allow for a sequel, and I would happily pick up a second volume about Hamza and Yehat, no matter how loose-limbed the story might be.