Book #132: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)

aka: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death
author: Kurt Vonnegut
language: English and some German
length: 313 minutes (5 hours 13 minutes)
finished listening on: 22 March 2017

I got this on a cheap deal from Audible, and what a coincidence: it’s narrated by James Franco, who I just watched chew the scenery in King Cobra. I’ve been meaning to read some of Vonnegut’s work for a while, as he’s one of those authors that’s constantly referenced in other works – and is rightly considered a classic author of sci-fi.

The book is a kind of comedy about war, written semi-autobiographically about Vonnegut’s experiences in Dresden during World War II. In that vein, it fits well with Catch-22, but is less obviously comedic in its outlook. In fact, it is a lot more morbid than that book – Catch-22 waits until near the end of the book when we’ve become emotionally invested in its characters before it starts killing them off, but this book starts right from the beginning.

The story of the book is that the main character Billy Pilgrim gets “unstuck in time”, and later kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, aliens who can see all of time simultaneously and are fatalistic in their worldview. Billy Pilgrim also adopts this worldview. To this end, every time a death is mentioned in the book (which is a lot), the book uses the Tralfamadorians’ catch-phrase, “So it goes”.

Like all the best books, and especially sci-fi, this book can be read on multiple levels – on the one hand, it’s the adventures of a man who travels through time a lot and meets aliens. On the other, it seems to be a depiction of PTSD flashbacks, or some other mental illness brought on by Billy’s experiences during the war. Also, because of the non-linear way the book is structured, it is probably best to read it two or three times to get everything, to really understand what is going on. Like Catch-22, jumping around so much could leave me confused as to where I was.

I also realized while listening to this that this was certainly the inspiration for the aliens in Arrival. I feel like I’ve read them in the wrong order now!

As for James Franco, honestly I don’t think he’s cut out for audiobook reading. There’s an awful lot of vocal fry and mumbling in this (especially when he repeats the Tralfamadorian mantra), and the book also contains a few sentences of untranslated German, which Franco utterly mangles. I couldn’t understand what he was saying at all. Can audiobook producers not screen that kind of stuff before producing an audiobook? I complained about Franco in my review of King Cobra recently – I also just realized that I complained about him (indirectly) in my review of 127 Hours, about five years ago, although not by name because I didn’t know him at the time. That film relied so much on his one performance, and he couldn’t quite carry it.

So I think I’d like to read this book again just to absorb it better, but maybe in print form this time. I think it’s beautifully structured, to the point that a single reading doesn’t quite cut it. Anyone else read it? What do you think?

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Film #275: A Single Man (2009)

director: Tom Ford
language: English and a bit of Spanish
length: 100 minutes
watched on: 17 March 2017

I think I knew this film would be sad when I watched it, but it was a major LGBT-themed release from a few years ago that I completely missed… and it would certainly be amiss for me not to watch it.

The film’s central character is played by Colin Firth, a gay man who lost his partner, but was not allowed to attend the funeral. After about a year of mourning, he decides to take his own life, and the film follows his final day, preparing to commit suicide, interspersed with flashbacks to his long relationship.

The film’s use of colour is very advanced – I especially like how things and people that spark something in Firth’s character come into sharp focus and high contrast primary colour. The movie starts out with a lot of sepia colouring and wood panelling in the background, and it shifts to more supple tones, and it seems to be Firth moving from boredom and depression to a different mindset. But at the same time, it becomes laboured as soon as Firth’s characters explains to Nicholas Hoult’s character, the young student who basically seduces him over the course of the movie, in detail what each primary colour represents. I thought it would be better to keep this more subtle.

The period of the movie, in the 1960s or 70s, is demonstrated very stereotypically, just like I mentioned with other recent things I’ve watched like High-Rise – it’s cold war broadcasts about Cuba and students smoking in class. It’s like a weird shorthand filmmakers have got.

Basically the whole premise is sad and depressing – I can’t even imagine what it must be to go through such a loss. But – and there are major spoilers coming up – I felt really cheated by the ending. After the movie puts a lot of effort to show Firth’s redemption and how he regains vigour and a sense of purpose in life by the end of the movie, just as he puts away the gun and decides not to commit suicide, he dies of a heart attack. I was livid – I did not just put in two hours of my time to watch the story of a man rediscover the beauty of life just to have him killed off by some lazy, barely-foreshadowed plot device. I do not need to hear another story about a depressed professor who discovers the inevitability of death.

So there’s a lot of good about this movie – it shows the struggle of gay men growing older and how we deal with the loss of life. It is composed very beautifully. It is a good character study. But that ending ruined it for me.

Film #249: Absent (2013)

absentdirector: Leandro Tadashi
language: English
length: 6 minutes
watched on: 20 Dec 2016
on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/61652698

I follow various blogs that post links to gay films to put on my watch list, which is where I found this one. It’s a simple drama that unfolds over the 5 minutes between a man and his late husband’s mother. We find out that he was denied access to the funeral, and understandably, he’s a bit reticent about letting her into his house – she wants to reminisce about her son, and claims it was her husband that was being homophobic, not her. He tells her that’s not the case, and that she should get out.

In the end she steals a photo of the two guys together, but swaps it for a handprint the husband made as a baby.

It should be a heartbreaking little story, particularly as the two guys are so young, but unfortunately the acting was too wooden to show this in great detail. I just didn’t quite believe in the characters. Oh well. I suspect it was made for a course, and in that it’s absolutely fine. I’ve linked it above if anyone wants to make their own impressions and conclusions.

Book #77: Grave Sight (2005)

IMG_2561.JPGAuthor: Charlaine Harris
Language: English
Length: 474 minutes (7 hours 54 minutes)
Finished listening on: 28 October 2014

I think I’m going to start recommending books based on some kind of memorability index. This one would score pretty lowly. Granted, the main reason I’d have cause to do such a thing is that I’ve been neglecting this blog somewhat.

Grave Sight wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it’d be from the blurb, let’s put it that way. I’d thought it’d be a whiny young adult novel about a teenager trying to find her place in the world, akin to Twilight, but instead what I got was a novel about a young woman in her twenties trying to make her way – this, at least, is more relatable to me.

The premise of the novel is that she has supernatural powers, the ability to sense dead bodies and relive their dying moments. Understandably, she’s a pretty fragile character after all that, so as she goes around America selling her services, she’s accompanied for emotional support by her stepbrother, with whom she has some barely contained sexual tension, however much of the book she spends denying it.

The small-town setting off the book definitely had a whiff of American Gods, dare I say it. The author did manage to create an appropriate atmosphere for the setting. But mostly, the book went in one ear, and out the other. I didn’t feel much sympathy for the girl, and lost interest after a while. I also couldn’t keep track of most of the side characters. But it was fine enough to keep going and accompany me during some of my longer bike rides. Just unremarkable.

Book #58: On a Pale Horse (1983)

300x300author: Piers Anthony
language: English
length: 716 minutes (11 hours 56 minutes)
finished listening on: 18 May 2014

This was the next thing I delved into from the Humble Bundle. It’s quite long, as audiobooks go, but that’s not the reason it took me over a month to finish it (I’ve finished longer books in much less time!). I plain didn’t like it after a while. It starts out well, but gets boring and became a chore to continue.

The premise should be exciting: the main character tries to commit suicide after a series of things go wrong for him, but freaks out and shoots Death in the face instead. Thus he himself becomes Death himself, and meets a variety of other “incarnations of immortality” (also the name of the series that this book is the first episode of) including Time, Fate, War, and so on. Satan and God also put their nose in. It’s set in a parallel universe where magic and technology co-exist, which presumably explains the physical existence of these incarnations, and also allows such things as dragons. If it wasn’t written over thirty years ago I’d say it was copying Harry Potter.

Indeed, I was interested for the first few chapters, but it turned into a strange kind of philosophical treatise about the nature of religion and sin. Anthony’s personal philosophy about how sin works is, apparently, that people’s good deeds and bad deeds are literally weighed up on some kind of scales, and if they’re unbalanced, the person will go straight to heaven or hell, and if they’re balanced almost exactly, Death has to step in and personally judge the person’s soul. And if Death’s not sure, they will have to stay in purgatory, and personally complete a sick parody of a tax return to work it all out.

It gets complicated when Christian mythology is referenced. It’s implied that the incarnations are what they are (ie, straight out of Revelations) because Christianity is the dominant religion – sure, in the West! What about all the other big religions? Christianity isn’t dominant for two thirds of the world’s population, after all. It also ignores the messiah part – like, the central part – of Christian doctrine entirely (Jesus is never mentioned, that is), which would kind of negates the whole idea of good deeds and bad deeds being weighed up. The disconnect became clear when I listened to a bit of the author’s note at the end that Anthony actually doesn’t believe in God himself, but then it entirely calls into question his treatment of the atheist character, whose soul simply dissolves into dust and who is outwardly referred to as “strange” by Death. That was a more offputting section than the others because I felt like I was being personally attacked for holding no belief in God.

But that wasn’t the place where Anthony crossed the line; far from it. He crossed the line in his treatment of rape and his idea of what constitutes it. In his world, babies born out of rape inherit the sin of the rape, and are born impure, and have to be reaped by Death instead of going straight to heaven, like the good pure babies. That’s a bit of an ugly idea in itself, but the moment where I almost threw down my iPhone in disgust was when a ten year old kid was impure because he’d been having sexual relations with a grown woman, and the author literally muses that if it’d been a man raping a girl, it would be unambiguously the man committing the sin and the girl would remain free of sin, but the other way round, the woman is doing a favour to the young boy. As if he’s asking, what young boy wouldn’t want to be raped by an older woman? For fuck’s sake.

It’s also just boring, and badly written. The next book in the series is on the next Humble Bundle, which I’ve bought now, but I think I’m just going to skip over it. Don’t read this.

Film #21: 9 Dead Gay Guys (2002)

directed by: Lab Ky Mo
language: English
length: 80 minutes
watched on: 14 July

Apparently this movie was universally panned by critics when it was released. I quite liked it, although I thought the acting was a bit terrible, and the premise was a bit naff (probably the best word for it), and the production values were a bit low. I certainly wasn’t offended by it, which I think was a criticism regularly levelled at it.

The characters, which is ultimately the aspect which this film is going to prop itself up with, were funny, I thought (if badly acted a lot of the time), although it is true that every single one of them is one crude stereotype or another. The DVD extras say that they were all based on a weird story that the director was told by mates in the pub… not sure how much of that I believe, but I think some of the ideas in there are quite funny, like the “discreet” Jewish guy who loves massive cock, or the Indian taxi driver with a foreskin problem (his nickname is Knobcheese), desperate for a blowjob that he’ll never get.

The premise is just a bit silly; it’s basically two Irish guys prostituting themselves to gay guys for a bit of easy cash, leading into a convoluted gambit plot involving the Jewish guy’s legendary money. A lot of it’s very predictable, of course, even aside from the obvious hint given away in the title of the movie – like one of the guys coming to a “realisation of his own” halfway through the movie. Essentially, it’s a movie that should be taken light-heartedly, because if you take it too seriously, you’ll probably just get angry at how stereotypical and awful it can be. I’d say, take it or leave it. Quite funny but not hilarious.

Games: Karoshi and Super Karoshi

played on: 22 & 23 May

Karoshi is a cute little platformer that you can get online. It’s rather morbidly derived from a Japanese word meaning “death through overwork” (trust the Japanese to have such a word, eh?? And don’t we all just love Sapir-Whorf jokes??), and the concept is that instead of “winning” each level by getting to the end, you have to kill the main character (I think he might be called Karoshi, I can’t remember).

Frankly, when I first heard the concept sometime last year, I thought it sounded stupid, because you’re just replacing a “victory” goal with a goal that looks like spikes and makes your wee man splatter blood all over the screen. But, well, as you might imagine, that’s very addictive. The first game, which I got for free when I was trying out the App Store (yeah, I know, sellout!), is a straight platformer with relatively set rules. Sadistic, for sure, but it follows those rules for at least most of the game. Super Karoshi, which I think is actually the fifth game, is the one that you can find on all the flash game websites and the one that I originally played last year, and has a slightly insane bent to its pre-existing sadism, with far more levels that require you to think outside the proverbial box, levels that alter the rules ad hoc and a series of fake endings. It also has its fair share of “normal” levels, and adds the mechanic of Super Karoshi, a superhero version of the character who can’t die but can fly, and must lead his comrades to their safety inevitable death.

So in comparison to Super Karoshi, which I already played a couple of times and is loads of fun, the original Karoshi is also fun, but feels quite boring by comparison. If I remember correctly, however, it has a few more challenging levels. And it’s definitely worth it, both of them.

Film #11: Trainspotting (1996)

director: Danny Boyle
language: English
length: 94 minutes
watched: 23rd April

Danny Boyle is a stylish motherfucker. Perhaps too stylish, because while this film does portray all the horrors of drug abuse… they still come across as having a more exciting life than viewers do. Oh, I can’t even be bothered reviewing this properly, just gonna jump straight for the beating heart of that old “is it glamorising drugs???” chestnut. And my answer is a boring, non-committal “Maybe, maybe not…”. It’s not exactly nice about them, put it that way…

So yeah, I could easily harp on about the complex characters or scene composition, but I can’t be bothered – I’m two months behind on my film reviewing now (even though there are a couple of massive gaps of like 3 weeks). Gotta catch up.