I’ve a history of using this column to boast about my bouncing across the globe. Because huzzah for travel! That’s a thing I care about. Anyway a few weeks back I’ve been to Barcelona for the Primavera Sound festival and also spending a couple of days spent solely eating and drinking (and slowly ambling from one eating/drinking hole to the next), and in exactly a week from the time this is published, I will be in Turkey. Exciting! Anyway, this is supposed to be POP CULTURE DESTRUCTION so here’s your fine contributors doing what they do best.
DESTRUCTION NEWS E3 2015 SPECIAL
June is when E3 2015 happens, and with it news of all the games we’ll be playing in the… oh, very far future. Like the much rumoured (since the days of the PlayStation 2!) Final Fantasy VII, which will be a thing that will happen. Sometime. Unless it’s all just vapourware, which might be quite likely.
Also trailer’d – Metal Gear Solid 5! My favourite bit, outside of the New Order music and the talk of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is the fact Batman villain-alike Skullface wears a Zorro mask. That’s amazing! I love you, Hideo Kojima.
You know what sucked about this year’s E3? Persona 5 failed to make a showing outside of this earlier (if very slightly translated form) trailer. But hey it still looks as sharp as hell so here it goes. It combines many things that I like, such as JRPGs, Tokyo, heists and cartoon cats.
Okay one last videogame trailer. I like the idea behind this, Horizon Zero Dawn, being a game about a cavegirl hunting down robot dinosaurs. What I like less is the protagonist nonsensical babble. Like, who cares why there’s robot dinosaurs stomping around ruins? Just shut up and go kill ’em already!
And now Noel Tanti takes over to tell about a horror piece he wot has watched.
A GIRL WALKS ALONE AT NIGHT (Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014)
Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) is the latest in a string of extremely well-made horror films directed by women. It holds its fanged head high amongst the Soska’s American Mary (2012) and See No Evil 2 (2014), Leigh Janiak’s Honeymoon (2014) and Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014).
Girl happens in Bad City, a small fictional town in the middle of a fictional nowhere whose distinctive features are several oil derricks and a pit full of corpses. This is where Arash (Arash Marandi) lives, a young man sporting a Jimmy Dean look and a Greaser attitude, complete with a T-Bird straight out of American Graffiti (1973). His junkie father Hossein (Marshall Manesh) bursts his dreamy bubble by being heavily indebted to loan shark/pimp/gangster/drug dealer/cat torturer Saeed (Dominic Rains) who, in lieu of money, takes Arash’s car. Saeed rules the town in pretty much the same fashion that Sergio Leone’s figli di puttana did: easygoing and blithely unconcerned. Aptly, he finds a Girl with no name (played by Sheila Vand) to give him his due.
Ms Amirpour’s film has been publicised, somewhat cheekily, as “The first Iranian vampire Western” which is true as much as it is not. There’s a vampire, sure, and the characters speak in Farsi, and there’s more than a passing nod to spaghetti westerns and John Ford. However Girl is an American production through and through. It’s produced by Logan Pictures and Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision and it was filmed in California. The Western angle is a bit oblique because even though at times it does look and sound like a Western, it doesn’t really ponder on or indulge in the genre’s usual preoccupations. Ms Amirpour herself, of Iranian descent, was born in England and raised in the USA. So it’s a lot of nos and yesses, all of which are good because this ambiguity is the lifeblood of every self-respecting creature of the night.
The undead are, by definition, not dead, implying that they once were. It also means that, prior to their unholy kick of the bucket, they were alive. So we’re left with a murky minestrone where nothing is but what is not and possibly never was in the first place; the living, the dead, anything in-between and beyond.
Arash, for instance, tells us that he worked for exactly 2,191 days to get his prized car, which completes his American bad boy image. Six years to become that who he imagines himself to be. But this rebel has a cause as the environment at home is far from idyllic. The mother is absent and the father wallows in narcotic misery. Therefore Arash is pretty much a 9-to-5er: James Dean at the office, fucked-up dude at home. The cherry on the cake is seeing him dealing drugs dressed as Dracula.
The Girl shares the same liminal post code. We know nothing of her past. Ms Amirpour eschews the usual tropes: extreme old age despite the youthful looks, existential angst/glee, words of wisdom borne of old age and vast experience. There is nothing of the sort. The Girl just is. She hangs in her apartment as she tries on make-up and listens to music, surrounded by posters of 80s pop icons. (Sort of – that’s Margaret Atwood stuck on the wall and not Madonna). At night she becomes a killer in a chador, playfully stalking her prey,randomly terrorising children and feeding on men. Even the title of the film allows for misinterpretation as it gives the impression that the titular Girl is helpless when in fact she’s anything but.
The texture of the film further underscores this ambiguity. The when and the where are left to simmer on vague, recalling David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014). The astonishing black and white photography takes us back and forth in time, imbuing the mise-en-scène with an immediate sense of nostalgia. It’s here, it’s now, and yet it isn’t. Bad City is barren and rundown. It looks dilapidated and one step short of being a ghost town which makes one wonder where the heck does Saeed get his cash and Atti (Mozhan Marnò), the prostitute, her clients. (The most populated area we see is the corpse pit.)
So what’s it about? There is a feminist-ish subplot running through (the finger sucking scene is great) but Girl is essentially a love story. Or rather, a young girl’s reverie of a love story. The entire film is stylised to a degree where characters, setting and narrative become types, fantasies. It’s an escape into a world full of things that someone likes, or things that someone likes to annihilate. It’s the kind of dream you wouldn’t want to wake up from.
Whose dream? I think that’s an entirely different film.
This month the BOOKS section gets a couple of reviewers! First off is Teodor with Vermilion, from Schlock Talks Hall of Famer Molly Tanzer. Take it away, T.
VERMILION (Molly Tanzer, 2015)
Admit it, it’s the beautiful cover by artist Dalton Rose that first grabbed your attention. It was certainly the case with me. But as luck would have it, Molly Tanzer’s Vermilion more than lives up to the illustration of its ambiguously-gendered, mixed-race heroine – in fact, I would hazard to say she’s created a character for the ages.
When young San Franciso psychopomp Lou Merriwether discovers that some of her fellow Chinese migrants are disappearing mysteriously down by the Colorado Rockies, she reluctantly heads down to investigate, spurred on by her caring but difficult mother. But though Lou is used to dealing with ghosts of various personalities and persuasions through on a semi-regular basis thanks to her job – inherited from her now-dead British father – she may not be all that prepared for what lies ahead. The largely benign – if somewhat jittery – ghosts that Lou routinely shepherds from the world of the living to that of the dead, are no contest for the vicious and conniving creatures that will be coming her way.
Her mother’s trail of breadcrumbs points towards an esoteric new health resort at the heart of Colorado’s vast rocky enclave. Along the way, Lou deceives her way into scoring a travelling partner, the gentlemanly Shai, who however appears to be just as elusive to Lou as Lou is to him.
The triumph of Tanzer’s debut novel is not that it lives up to the energetic hodgepodge at the root of its premise, but that it all runs on an appealing and personable narrative engine – it’s an alternate-history Western that incorporates both Chinese and Western folklore, with a couple of vampire traditions thrown in for good measure too. But by telling the picaresque tale through closely-focused third person narration, Tanzer collapses Lou’s coming-of-age tale into a dynamic world-building exercise. We get to discover an exotic world through a sometimes bumbling, sometimes injudicious, but always likeable character, which gives way to some of the novel’s most amusing, immersive and pleasurable moments.
There’s obvious fun to be had – a young but confident heroine waltzing into a situation that is way out of her depth – but the advantages of Tanzer’s approach come across in ‘smaller’ moments too, such as Lou’s scenes with her sturdy, traditional mother. Theirs is an imperfect relationship (but then again, which parent-offspring relationship is?), but a scene in which the two bond over cooking a meal together brings out some of the most affectionate aspects of Tanzer’s writing. The way the narration zooms in on food and domestic accouterments suggests warmth and familiarity. In other words, a home worth returning to once – and if – Lou emerges from her adventure in one piece.
Happily, Tanzer’s twist on the 19th century historical setting allows for the language to maintain a contemporary register, which helps us to sink into the world with no hassle. It also aids Tanzer’s already sharp ear for dialogue, which is at it best during the midway stretch in which Lou and Shai begin to cultivate their offbeat relationship.
The downside of this breezy style is that when genuine menace seeps into the story, it jars a little bit. A torture scene midway through the novel’s final act comes across as abrupt rather that genuinely upsetting, and in a smaller way, Lou’s professional attitude to the ghosts she encounters on a semi-regular basis snips off some of the supernatural edge. But then, this is a very rich collage of genres, tropes, and styles, so some of its seams are bound to jut out unceremoniously. It’s a trade-off.
One of the most admirable aspects of Vermilion is Tanzer’s commitment to populating her world with ethnic minorities and gender-fluid individuals (her protagonist actually embodies both these things). This could have come across as a compulsory chore on the writer’s part. Instead, it’s exactly the opposite. By respectfully incorporating elements of Chinese culture and addressing the plight of minorities in a conscientious and mature way, Tanzer has actually succeeded in wresting the pulp adventure from the retrograde maw. What could have been yet another exercise in orientalist cultural appropriation becomes a non-icky adventure story with all the thrills you traditionally expect from the genre. Tanzer has the cake and eats it too, and it just goes to show how a little bit of consideration can go a long way.
Here’s hoping we’ll get to hitch another ride with Lou Merriwether sooner rather than later.
And now it’s time for POP CULTURE DESTRUCTION first timer (and two-time podcast guest) Robert Iveniuk, who tells about a fantasy trilogy from the man behind the Takeshi Kovacs novels…
A LAND FIT FOR HEROES (Richard K Morgan, 2008, 2010, 2014)
Richard K Morgan is one of those authors you wouldn’t expect to see behind a fantasy trilogy. His largely dystopian cyberpunk-themed bibliography certainly never alluded to the possibility that any of his protagonists would pick up a halberd and talk about magic, unless they drank down several psychedelic drugs. Nevertheless, here it is: A Land Fit For Heroes, a trilogy of books including The Steel Remains, The Cold Commands, and The Dark Defiles.
Set years after humanity formed a temporary and undeniably shaky alliance in order to fight off a mysterious horde of lizard people called the Scaled Folk, the aforementioned lands are back to being horrible again. Slavery has been legalized, the current ruling powers are tyrants and ex-pimps, and border skirmishes persist. However, with an ancient evil rearing its eldritch head, some of the world’s finest heroes are being called out of retirement to bust some skulls.
Caught in the middle of this mess are our three protagonists: Ringil Eskiath, a nobleman-turned-freebooter exiled on account of him favouring man booty; Egar the Dragonbane, thuggish steppe nomad who was awarded the title of village clanmaster, but finds himself missing the bright lights and stone streets of the civilized world; and Archeth, last remaining member of the mysterious Kiriath race, who’s presently serving as the drug-addled adviser to the winner of the World’s Worst Emperor award. Each one of them had been screwed over by the empire somehow, and are now forced to fight again for the people who left them to rot. There’s worse ways to spend a week, I guess.
Left in less-capable hands, Heroes would be another fetid Young Adult fantasy series. We’d be following the heroes’ experiences during the war with the waves of disposable lizard dudes (adhering to the “it’s okay to kill them, they’re gross!” model), and each book would feature scenes talking about friendship and trust and respecting each other’s differences. Here, though, we see characters razzing on each other, cursing and being discriminatory, caught in corruption scandals, selling out their fellows, and making incredibly uncomfortable decisions. Book Two itself involves a moment near the beginning where one of our heroes straight up does A Very Bad Thing to an antagonist, and it left so bad of a taste in my mouth I had to keep reading to find out what the fucker was going to do next.
What I like about the protagonists in particular is how they’re handled. I maintain that a protagonist doesn’t have to be likable in order to be interesting or relatable, and boy howdy does Morgan know that. From the Very Bad Thing to our characters basically being a trio of embittered grouches begrudgingly accepting the fact that maybe the world that doesn’t deserve to be saved still kinda does because they still live there, it’s far more honest.
Morgan’s books are known to show the human toll war and the Military Industrial Complex™ takes on ordinary folks. Our leads’ horrible attitudes and inexcusable decisions make more sense when you learn about what sorts of lives they were forced to lead, before and during the war. They don’t do what they do because they have to, or because there was “no other way,” or even because they enjoy it. They’re victims of their environments, grim reflections of a world gone mad. Haunted by visions of horror and madness from the battlefield, they travel the lands as damaged husks of human beings fighting for a point to it all.
While it’s good to set world-building into the story rather than engage in an exposition dump, there’s such a thing as telling far too little. Book Three, for example, features a moment in the first chapter where the narrator offhandedly mentions a skirmish between Ringil and a motherfucking kraken that happened in-between the second and third books, which left my balls sky goddamn blue given how visceral the fight scenes are depicted. Other events, such as the introduction and re-introduction of certain characters, are given almost the same lack of attention, which can work but at times left me a little lost.
This is a shame, because given how Fucking Colossal the final book is in particular, some of the chapters or scenes that felt like padding or featured a subpar subplot could have been removed or replaced with, say, someone fighting a kraken. Or giving one of our three heroes an ending that’s more satisfactory, as opposed to them fighting an incidental villain and then riding off into the sunset.
Then there’s the dialogue. The modern and colloquial dialogue a bit’s on the jarring side. Every time someone drops a “Yeah” or generally speaks like someone in a mall, I can’t help but imagine a pair of sunglasses descending on their heads and a skateboard sliding under their arm.
That’s not to say that either of these are deal-breakers. They are annoyances, to be sure, but in the face of interesting set-pieces and the idea of a world-shattering evil being thwarted by three ruined war vets, I’m willing to look the other way. It’s not a feel-good fantasy series, but one that left me a shivering, disenchanted wreck while I wait for The Winds of Winter – whenever that’s coming out.