Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2007, Pt.5: Oyceter and Nancy Jane Moore

Moving right along...


I didn't go see many movies in theaters this year, so most of my favorite films this year are older ones. I did actually watch a lot of US domestic movies, but very few of them ended up sticking out in recollection.

Afro-Punk (2003) - This is a documentary interviewing several black American punk rockers and punk fans and how they feel they fit into the punk scene. The documentary begins with a critique of Patti Smith's song "Rock N Roll Nigger" (lyrics), which compares being a woman in "cock rock" with being a black person in America. This is a great critique of racial politics in the punk scene and in America in general, covering many different points of view within the Afropunk community. Though it focuses on the US, some sections do go into the influence of the African diaspora on the US Afropunk community as well. And even better, it goes a little into issues of gender and class as well. Also, as a bonus, I came away not only with a good watching experience, but also with great music recs.

Hot Fuzz (2007) - Though the tone of the movie wavers as it briefly turns into a horror movie, this is a great send-up of action movie cliches. Amazingly competent Sgt. Nicholas Angel is unwillingly transferred to a small town in the country. He first attempts to reform the lackadaisial police department there, but he and his partner Danny end up uncovering a conspiracy. I laughed so hard I nearly fell out of my seat, particularly at the climactic action sequence in the end, which stars a swan. I'm not sure if non-action-movie fans will enjoy this, since it requires knowledge of action movie tropes, but those of you who grew up knowing the about fruit carts in car chases will have a lot of fun.

Infernal Affairs (2002) - This is a gorgeous film about an undercover cop in a Hong Kong gang and a gangster mole infiltrating the police right at the Hong Kong handover to China. It's a twisty game of cat-and-mouse, and while the movie could have been a simple action movie, its gorgeous cinematography and elegaic tone make it something more. I particularly love the repetition of Buddhist imagery and the nostalgic song from the beginning. I do wish the women had more to do; the two main ones here are restricted to being love interests. Martin Scorcese remade this as The Departed.

Lust, Caution (2007) - In Japanese-occupied China, a group of idealist students scheme to assassinate an important Chinese political figure, Mr. Yee, by having Wong Chia-Chi insinuate herself into his affections. I would have seen this movie just for the visuals -- 1930s Shanghai and Hong Kong are beautiful, though ravaged by war, and I especially loved the period clothing. But if you're not a costume nut like me, the movie is moody and atmospheric, and I liked the focus on the heroine Wong Chia-Chi's emotional turmoil and how the actress slips in and out of Wong Chia-Chi and the bored wife that is her facade. I have many qualms with the ending, particularly in terms of gender, though.

And now, my favorite three movies of the year! Somehow, all three of them ended up being "kid" movies, though I think they're all so great that anyone would enjoy them.

Ratatouille (2007) - Rats and cooking! It's like it was made just for me! Despite the distinct lack of women (the only woman in the movie starts out interesting and then becomes the Love Interest), I love this movie to pieces. My favorite moment is when someone takes a bite of Remy the rat's cooking and is immediately transported back to childhood and the dish his mother would make to comfort him, but the entire movie is a love letter to food and eating. This is the only movie I rewatched this year when it came out on DVD, and I am tempted to buy it now just so I can watch again. Warning: may leave you with an insatiable appetite for the titular dish.

Princes and Princesses (2000) - This was going to be my favorite movie of the year, until yesterday night. Michel Ocelot tells six fairy tales with the framing story of an art professor and his two students. The animation in this is gorgeous and so different; Wikipedia says it's silhouette animation, a form of stop-motion animation that is a take off of shadow puppetry. The backdrops are intense colors, and everything else is stark black, emphasizing the intricate lacework of a princess' collar, the bright wink of diamonds, or the beautiful colors of an old woman's coat. I think most of the stories are original stories by Ocelot, although the Egyptian one is adapted from a traditional story. I wish I knew if the Japanese story of the old woman and her coat were original or adapted. The stories all feel like they could have been passed down for ages, but they somehow retain their freshness, as with the best fairy tales. This is lovely and charming and sweet and funny, and the worst thing about it is that it's not available in the US. But if there's any way you can get your hands on this, go for it!

This site has a lot of links on the movie, including a site full of absolutely gorgeous stills.

Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998) - This is the displaced Princes and Princesses as my favorite movie of the year, something that I thought was impossible (I suspect I will love Sweeney Todd when I see it, but I love retold fairy tales and shadow puppetry even better than Tim Burton Victorian London and Grand Guignol). Unsurprisingly, this is also from Michel Ocelot. Kirikou is born walking and talking, and as soon as he discovers the evil sorceress Karaba has eaten nearly all the men in his village, he tells his mother he will go defeat the sorceress.

I think I would love this movie for its politics alone; Ocelot based this on a West African tale and included some of his memories from growing up in Guinea (he's white). From reading his notes, he took great care in pretty much every aspect of the movie, from getting an African composer (Youssou N'Dour) for the score and African actors for the voices, to making sure all the plants and animals in the film were actual African flora and fauna. I love how Ocelot makes one of the central relationships in the story the relationship between a mother and her son, and while I first had some problems with the image of the evil man-eating sorceress, Ocelot knows exactly what he's doing and has fun subverting expectation.

Politics aside, this is just a great movie. I was only going to watch a few minutes last night, but I ended up watching the entire thing and going to bed at three in the morning. I want to say that it's delightful and charming, but that makes the movie sound slight, which it is not. I want to say that I love what it's about, but that makes the movie sound boring and didactic, which it is not. It does a great job of adding to an old folktale and making those additions seamless; the story feels both timeless and fresh. It's wonderful and made me laugh and smile and feel happy, and it's even available here!

- official US site
- good collection of links

Nancy Jane Moore:

This isn't so much a list of the best works of 2007 as it is a few words on books and other art forms that shook me up and made me think about the world a little differently.

I found myself completely bowled over by a significant thematic similarity in Laurie Marks's Elemental Logic series and Timmi Duchamp's Marq'ssan Cycle: They are changing the rules for resolution of human conflict. Despite the fact that Marks is writing fantasy, complete with powerful magic, while Duchamp is writing science fiction, complete with aliens, they are coming out in the same place -- violent revenge against oppressors does not ultimately change anything. And it is wisdom, not the power of magic or aliens, that opens the space for this change.

Neither of these series completely abjure violence nor are they promoting old-fashioned pacifism as a response. Instead, both are pointing toward a new approach, one that makes it possible for old enemies to become allies as humans struggle not merely to keep from being oppressed and victimized, but toward becoming truly civilized.

Up to now, much of science fiction has projected people into the future without changing them in any fundamental way -- even when they are enhanced by various technological and biological means. Fantasy has been even more conservative, managing to alter the laws of physics without changing human nature. Both series give me hope that humans will begin to use not just our great capacity for creating tools, but also our ability to think and become wise, as we begin to take more and more responsibility for our own evolution.

I hope others will pick up on their ideas and expand them. It would be nice to read either near-future SF or a contemporary work that applies this shift in thinking without the aid of either magic or aliens.

The two most recent volumes -- Marks's Water Logic and Duchamp's Tsunami, both published in 2007 -- opened my eyes to what they were doing in the two series as a whole, but those books do not stand alone. You will need to read both series to really understand where the authors are going.

Though I do not define myself as religious, I have read a significant amount of theological work over the past few years, most notably books by Karen Armstrong, Elaine Pagels, Karen King, and Bart Ehrman. This year, I read National Geographic's translation of the Gospel of Judas along with an analysis by Elaine Pagels and Karen King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. Using Judas, the betrayer of Christ, as a leader, the gospel challenges established Christian teaching in a significant way.

It does seem clear that the author of the Gospel of Judas (written a couple of centuries after Christ), used the shocking name of Judas to challenge other Christian thinking of the time. These newly discovered gospels are powerful, because they make it clear that the ideas that became orthodox were not the only interpretations of the teaching of Jesus Christ. At a time when we are beset by fundamentalists of all religious stripes, it is valuable to discover what else is available within the powerful ideas of religion.

Jumping now from God to war: Erin Solaro's book Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military not only provides proof that women can and should be soldiers, but also details the barriers that have been put in their way and what can be done to knock them down.

The military is one of the few remaining power centers in the U.S. where women are legally held back due to outdated arguments about what they can and cannot do. I have always contended that women will be blocked from full participation in society so long as we continue to assume that they cannot fight to defend themselves and their country. I wrote about this book more extensively earlier this year on In This Moment.

And now going from war to art: Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer also gave me much food for thought, both as a writer and a reader. In her discussion of sentences she gives wonderful examples of long, meandering but perfectly comprehensible sentences that are both art forms in and of themselves and absolutely essential to the narrative in which they are used.

Then she shows that a short one-sentence paragraph can work, too.

Prose argues for close reading of complex works. She made me yearn for the time to go back and read all the classics that I have missed over the years.

I re-read Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City after the Nobel Prize was announced, to see if it still resonated with me as it had back in 1973 when I first read it. It is still a great novel, though didn't affect me as much emotionally as it did the first time, both because I knew where it was going and because my own understanding of life is more complex than it was back then; that is, her thinking no longer came as revelation. Significantly, as I wrote earlier on this blog, I realized on re-reading that Lessing led me to science fiction, which probably explains why I have rarely been satisfied with the more superficial stories in the genre.

I have become less enchanted with movies over the last few years. Unless they focus on a very narrow story, they seem to necessarily treat all subjects superficially so as to stay within the commercially acceptable length. As a result, I haven't been to many.

The video art form that has drawn me is television. More specifically, good series television that knows how to tell a story both in a one-hour episode and over a multi-episode season (or several seasons). Joss Whedon hooked me on this form with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and now I seek it out.

This year, the series spoke to me was The Wire, a complex story about cops and crooks in Baltimore. It's drawn from the same source as the old series Homicide, but since it's on HBO, it can be grittier than it ever was on network TV.

On The Wire the computers don't work right and the big bosses pull the plug just as the cops are actually making progress -- you know, just like in real life. But it wasn't just the true-to-life aspect that got me. I found myself growing attached to the characters, empathizing to the extent that I mourned deaths and even wanted murderers to get off. That is, I was sucked into the lives of the criminals as much as I was the cops.

I'm not quite sure what makes it all so compelling, but I suspect it's that the makers understand their medium so thoroughly that they get inside the viewers' heads. Television is more intimate than movies; the characters become people we know, especially when we follow them over a season.

The only flaw I found is the classic problem with HBO: You can show heavy sex on cable, so all shows do. Sex has its place in these stories, but we don't need as much of it as they insist on showing.

This story is dominated by male characters -- there are few women and they are primarily women who are willing to play in a male world. This is likely an accurate depiction of police life, but it could put some viewers off. But while I have found myself drifting away from male-driven adventure drama, this series is so good that I recommend it even if the dull cop shows of network TV bore you and even if you have seen enough screen violence to last a lifetime.

I haven't added much new music to my life this year, but two performers who have been around for awhile continue to sustain me: singer/songwriter Neko Case and the great punk poet Patti Smith. In fact, my Christmas present to myself this year is a ticket to hear Smith live at a downtown club. Kind of cool to go down to the heart of alt-culture DC (this is not your mother's Nation's Capital) to hear a queen of hip who is as old as I am.


Anonymous said...

The Wire is sooooo much more than a "cop show". What The Wire really is is the story of an American City. With each subsequent season The Wire shows another aspect of the city. To refer to it as just a cop show greatly diminishes the scope and purpose of the show.

Oyceter said...

Doh! I keep forgetting links. Anyway, if anyone is interested in more about Afropunk, there are some links and clips here.

Anonymous said...

Yeh, we took Rebecca Ore to see Patti Smith a few months ago, and she was amazing at sixty. But seeing a packed audience of white Philadelphians jumping up and down and singing "niggerniggernigger" was just wrong, dude. Dumb song.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Gosh, anonymous, my intention in commenting on The Wire was to make it clear that it wasn't just a "cop show." But it does use the perspective of the police as a major focus.

Josh, it will be interesting to see what a DC audience does with that song. Even a white audience. I'll report back.

J.R.D.S. said...

Thank you for linking to my "good collection of links" for the Ocelot films! To me it seems so strange to have seen Princes et princesses before Kirikou, as well for the latter to displace the former. Despite how much of an Ocelot otaku I am, it may surprise you that I've never really liked Kirikou and the Sorceress – it interested me just enough to wonder what his other work was like, and it's that earlier and later work which I love.

As for Le Manteau de la vieille dame – the most I know is that he based it on a story he read in a Japanese person's journal. Whether this was a folk tale they were reciting, an original story of theirs or even based on a real event, I just don't know. I've never even seen it mentioned exactly whose journal it was.

The one other unoriginal story is Le Garçon des figues – just like what the boy and girl do in the film, this was based on a story told in cave paintings and hieroglyphs in an Egyptian tomb, which Ocelot must have seen photographs of in a book somewhere.