Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.30: Cynthia Ward

2012 in Review: Flying Eyeballs and Latin Brass
by Cynthia Ward

"Entertainment Burns Over 90% of My Body" (Film, Television, and Music)

This year, my partner and I saw several movies. If only I could remember them all…but I suppose that's its own recommendation.

I do remember that we saw The Avengers, which was distinguished by cramming every Marvel Comics superhero/ine except the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Kitchensinkwoman into its 143 minutes. OK, not every single one, but it felt that way, or at least it did when I wasn't dozing. I like most of the actors and supercharacters, but the surplus meant no one got enough screen time. I wish this had been a television miniseries; then it might have worked. As it is, I emerged from the theatre thinking of movie critic Libby (Paul Rudnick) Gelman-Waxner's line: "I suffered entertainment burns over 90% of my body."

…Which brings us to triple threat (writer/actor/director) The RZA's American wuxia-meets-blaxploitation movie, The Man With the Iron Fists (presented by Quentin Tarantino). Like The Avengers, it had at least one character too many, and demonstrated that cramming a movie with ever-more action scenes can make it ever-less interesting. It's not that I require action movies to be works of high art, or even to make sense (cf. my appreciation of the wildly incoherent wuxia heroic fantasy movie Dragon Inn). I don't even require action movies to have many women characters. But my experience of Hong Kong and Chinese wuxia movies is that the women characters, however few, are all distinctive: interesting and strong, whether or not they ever touch a weapon. In contrast, Iron Fists delivered mostly cringe-evoking exoticized Oriental prostitutes who submitted interchangeably to the Russell Crowe character's magic fingers (he was clearly having fun, but his character was dispensable). And if I were casting the redoubtable Pam Grier ("the second Greatest Female Action Heroine in film history....[and] cinema's first female action star,"), I would've given her a whole hell of a lot more to do. Fortunately, Lucy Liu, as brothel owner Madame Blossom, portrays a tough, kickass woman (of Liu, more anon). On the whole, I wouldn't say 'Iron Fists gave me entertainment burns. But I did feel like I was being metronomically beaten with a lead club. P.S.: This is by far the most violent wuxia movie I've ever seen. Even the trailer at has a flying eyeball. Consider yourself warned.

(If you want to see a more representative wuxia movie, you might want to try Swordsman II, in which the formidable Brigitte Lin / Lin Ching-Hsia plays a sorcerer who changes sex to gain power

When we learned the 2012 movie reboot of Dark Shadows was set in Maine, Joe said, "We're going to see this, aren't we?" "Yes!" (It looked to me like the location shots got as close as Oregon, but apparently they only came as close to Maine as the United Kingdom.) As a peripatetic Air Force brat, I never saw the original supernatural soap opera. But I did enjoy the movie, which has something of a reputation for making oil slicks look deep. And that was my impression for much of the movie, until I finally noticed it had few and oft-weak male characters, embedded in a strong matriarchy (was the original TV show like this?). I enjoyed this reversal of the stereotypical Hollywood approach, and I also enjoyed the choice of time period (1972). The high point for me was the obligatory music-video interlude, which featured my favorite '70s group, the Carpenters (

Speaking of reboots, Joe and I saw the American remake of the Swedish film adaptation of the Swedish novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ( It would've really blown me away with the toughness of the titular character, if I hadn't already seen the Swedish adaptation and read the original novel. While the U.S. adaptation does emphasize Lisbeth Salander's impressive mental gifts, she is definitely subordinated to the male lead in this incarnation (a reversal of the previous two versions). Also, the American movie sexualizes the rape scenes in which Salander is victimized, though not - how very odd! - the one in which a man is victimized. The actress Rooney Mara does an outstanding job, but it's a problematic movie, at best.

The Hollywood adaptation of The Hunger Games did not greatly tamper with the YA novel's very tough, smart, and resourceful female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen ( (strongly played by Jennifer Laurence The tamperings with the plot made sense, given the different requirements of film. The adaptation didn't obscure the novel's acute awareness of class, but, judging by fan overreaction in some quarters, it enhanced the fact that many characters in the novel aren't white (though the casting director missed the mixed-race description of the main character and most of her fellow villagers, which is subtly buried in an obscure location: chapter one). The movie is not as good as the book, but certainly worth a view.

Speaking of adaptations, Joe and I sampled the new television series Arrow, which reboots the DC Comics superhero Green Arrow for the 21st Century. Perhaps they should have left him in the 20th, since the show unwittingly emphasizes how much of a Batman knockoff the non-superpowered superhero is. Not that I care that he's a pastiche; some Batman knockoffs are interesting in their own right (cf. Daredevil, Midnighter, and several of Green Arrow's comic book incarnations). However, Arrow demonstrates how a once-fresh approach to a trope can decay. In the 1980s, the comic-book miniseries Watchmen ( and The Dark Knight Returns ( radically revised the superhero concept for grownup Boomers; since then, we've been getting adult-oriented superhero updates across all media. With Arrow, the update has putrefied to the point that the hero's antiheroic behavior is indistinguishable from the one-dimensional villainy of mid-century comic books: the titular character exhibits not a trace of internal conflict while killing the upper-class villains' working-class henchmen and leaving the upper-class villains alive. How far we've come from the busted-flat, leftist Green Arrow of decades past. Call the 21st Century Arrow a hero for the 1%. (Nice costume design, though. Which I suppose is as it should be, since he can afford the very best.)

Having heard the buzz about the U.K. TV update of Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous character, we watched the first two episodes of Sherlock ( The first episode was riveting, the second boring and annoying, since the characterizations of Holmes and Watson were stubbornly one-dimensional, with Holmes an abusive sociopath and Watson his ignorant, pathetic doormat. The latter's behavior seemed especially unbelievable for a highly educated military doctor; ultimately, the portrayal is insulting to veterans. On the plus side, I enjoyed the assumption by every other character that Holmes and Watson must be lovers, and I found the actor playing Sherlock fascinatingly intense; but he's a gem set in decaying paste. Too bad. We'll try the show again, but in the meantime, we have another series to watch.

Given my previous paragraph, you might think we'd really hate Elementary (, the apparent U.S. knockoff of Sherlock, starring Johnny Lee Miller as a modern-day Holmes relocated to New York City, and Lucy Liu as his reluctant companion, Dr. Joan Watson. The truth is, we're enjoying it far more. The plots are damned clever, which suggests this isn't actually a knockoff (though of course I could be full of shit). And--more to the point--the lead characters are in tremendous pain, which gives a far better explanation for Holmes' harsh behavior than "born that way." The characterizations have depth and the acting is powerful. And while she isn't a war veteran, Dr. Watson is (like the other Liu characters I've seen) no doormat. The show isn't flawless; but I can't remember the last time I uttered the words "can't wait for the next episode ("

We saw two of the three broadcast episodes of one of the year's quasi-Madmen-knockoff series, The Playboy Club, which was condemned on every front, from the feminist left to the Christian right, and swiftly met its doom. Not that I knew any of those things when we watched the eps and released them from the DVR, an act I now regret, since it would be interesting to revisit them. They featured the kind of strong women not particularly associated with either Playboy or the early 1960s (among them a [somewhat] older career woman, a young woman who kills an attempted rapist, a black woman with dreams of real estate mogulry, and a closeted lesbian in an affectionate and respectful marriage of convenience with a gay man). Far from perfect, or even from non-exploitative…yet, in retrospect, I have this sneaking suspicion that an episode passed the Bechdel test. I guess there'll be no verification.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 is the best of the movie franchise since the first, and shows the possessive vampire boyfriend/spouse finally lightening up on his repugnant control issue, while his newly-turned girlfriend/spouse finally gets out from under the doormat and does a little booty-kicking and decapitation; I also enjoyed the scene where Bella rapturously (if not always pleasantly) explores her superhuman new senses. These plusses do not, however, do anything to explain why, even with vampires converging from around the world, they're still a pretty Caucasian bunch. Snow White and the Huntsman stars Twilight's Bella (actress Kristen Stewart) in a more active role, though the movie is far too long for the content. John Carter, which is a far better action flick than rumor says, nonetheless has its problems. These start with the title's mystifying omission of the suffix of Mars, but do not end with the attempts to eliminate Edgar Rice Burroughs' outdated attitudes on race and gender by substitution of more modern racefail and genderfail. On a less uneven note, the local cineplex hosted some freshly digitized classics. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is good, but distinctly showing its age. All about Eve (1950) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) are extremely different from one another, yet equally tremendous. And, to return to 21st Century film, Les Miserables wins Most Accurate Title.

Via the Youtube vaults, Nisi Shawl introduced me to Obama's Anger Translator, and thereby the titular comedy duo of Key & Peele. The OAT pieces feature some of the best physical comedy I've seen in years. And did I mention they're great political satire? "Victory" is a good sample: I plan to check out the TV show.

In music, the most relentless hook to sink into my brain this year is Bostick + Fussible and the Tijuana Sound Machine's "The Clap" - go to to embed it in yours. My friend Ericka provides the link to another great Bostick + Fussible/Tijuana Sound Machine video, titled, strangely enough, "Tijuana Sound Machine": And, while I'm thinking of Tijuana brass, thanks to Nisi for introducing me to some re-whipped Herb Alpert classics that work surprisingly well. Here's one of the remixes:

Swords and Piledrivers (Prose)

Probably the author I read most this year is Melissa Scott, who's had several new and reissued novels appear in eBook form in the last few years. Excellent works all, but since I've reviewed or will review them elsewhere, and since Ms. Duchamp would undoubtedly like to see this post turned in before Christmas 2013, I'll just put links to my reviews:

Point of Hopes (written in collaboration with the late Lisa A. Barnett; reissue):

Point of Knives (new):

Point of Dreams (written in collaboration with the late Lisa A. Barnett; reissue): review forthcoming at

Lost Things (written in collaboration with Jo Graham; new):

While I haven't reviewed them yet, I want to recommend two more Scott reissues: the first and second novels in her science-fantasy Silence Leigh trilogy, which are Five-Twelths of Heaven and Silence in Solitude. I hope the concluding volume, The Empress of Earth, soon joins them.

Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is a beautifully written, genre-aware mainstream novel about subtly nuanced, wittily developed characters. Particularly well depicted are the male writer characters, whom I particularly wanted to piledrive through a concrete floor. The book is supposed to be a portrayal of how artists fail to grow up, which I guess means it's supposed to be about me and lots of other people of my acquaintance, or at least the male writers of my acquaintance, or maybe just the male mainstream writers of my acquaintance, which considerably narrows the field. However, I can't think of anyone I know, male or female, "artist" or not, who managed to commit so many stupendously stupid mistakes during adolescence. Why blame callowness for the plethora of spectacularly self-destructive acts committed by Chabon's adult wonder boys? Getting this fucked up takes decades of dedicated practice.

Anthologies I read this year include Milton Davis's Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology, recommended to anyone interested in swords & sorcery fiction and/or Afrocentric fantasy and/or pulp fiction (; Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon's religion-themed horror anthology, Dark Faith (; JoSelle Vanderhooft and Steve Berman's best-of anthology, Heiresses of Russ 2011: The Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction of the Year (which I reviewed for The Cascadia Subduction Zone; and Connie Wilkins and Steve Berman's best-of anthology, Heiresses of Russ 2012: The Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction of the Year (ditto, but no URL as of this writing).

The most can't-put-downable book I read this year is Amy Wolf's memoir of the Great Recession, Don't Let Me Die in a Motel 6 ( Contrary to my expectations (pace Rashomon), I didn't find a lot of variance between my memories or knowledge of events in the memoir, and my friend's recounting of same. And, incredible as it may seem that all the recounted events (the WaMu Bank collapse, near-simultaneous spousal job losses, family meltdown, breast cancer, etc.) occurred in just four years, they did. It's not often you find a book as simultaneously humorous, horrifying, and brutally honest as this one.

While we're on the subject of the Great Recession, journalist Timothy Noah's The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It ( isn't flawless, but it is recent, timely, and a recommended resource for those wondering about the relationship between tax cuts for the wealthy and economic growth for the rest of the United States (spoiler alert: they're intimately and inversely related). Not cheerful reading, but it makes a difficult subject (economics) clear and interesting. And, like the 2012 U.S. election results, it gives cause for hope.

Cynthia Ward ( lives in the Los Angeles area. Her most recent fiction may be found in Pirates and Swashbucklers (Pulp Empire), edited by Nicholas Ahlheim; Tales From the Den: Wild and Weird Stories for Bears (Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press), edited by R. Jackson; and Triangulation: Last Contact (Parsec Ink), edited by Steve Ramey and Jamie Lackey. With Nisi Shawl, Cynthia coauthored Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press), which is now available as an e'book.

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