Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Prodigal Son: Choices

    It has finally happened.  I got several people together for a roleplaying game.  Dang, it’s been a long, long time.  I wasn’t sure exactly how things were going to go down, but I guess it went OK.  With only one experienced gamer, I figured a brief introduction to the hobby would help (I hope it didn’t just confuse), and then some general questions of interest.  But after talking to Lisa a few weeks back, I realized she was right, and limiting the options was a good idea (I think she said, “Matt, just make a frickin’ decision.” Though I could be remembering it wrong).  So, I kind of boiled it down to Space 1889 or Call of Cthulhu (while leaving the possibility of something else if people had super strong feelings about something).

    After lots and lots of stammering, occasional blank stares, and a few frantic, scared-rabbit glances, I managed to spit out a stream of consciousness rant about what roleplaying games are (probably missing all the essential elements) and how they’re played.  Then, after a bit of intellectual waffling, I think I may have steered the group toward picking Call of Cthulhu, which works for me.  It’s not rule heavy or number crunchy like D&D or some others, but it’s not as loosey goosey as Over the Edge or Everway.  Having some structure seems like a good idea for folks who have never tried the hobby before.  It’s a scaffolding for the imagination to build its cathedrals (how’s that for some poetry).  With CofC chosen, we set about making the characters.  There’s a handy guide, which was …handy, because it had been quite a while since the last time I went through the process.  We have a big game hunter, a retired naval officer, a reporter, and a mobster.  And the group decided that Lovecraft’s fictional city of Arkham would be our starting point.  With some assignments for reading (you know I love homework!) and a few suggestions for things to look into, I wrapped the day up and started to let it all sink in.

    Now, I’ve got some work to do, but I’ve got a direction to go in.  We’re going to try to meet on a semi-regular biweekly basis.  So, I’ve got about two weeks to do a bunch of reading on Arkham, prep up some non-player character, and create a bunch of story hooks.  I came up with three this morning, and I kind of like ‘em.  So, I’ll probably develop those and maybe a couple others.  There’s always the possibility of multiple story threads being investigated at the same time.  As I’m doing that, I want to prep a list of movies, music, and the like for folks to check out if they’re so inclined.  Things to set the mood or capture the spirit of the age.

    The 20s were pretty wild.  You had the end of the old world and the birth of the new, women entering the workplace at unprecedented numbers, courting going out of fashion to be replaced with dating, money flowing fast and free right next to shocking poverty, great advancements in science along side cultural rejections of progress.  This is the time of flappers and Jazz.  But it’s also the dying days of the Wild West and the prime of Segregation.  Racism is rampant, religious hatreds are inflamed, the scars of one war are barely healed and the shadows of another are just starting to coalesce.  The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl are a few years away, and for the lucky few, things couldn’t be better.  Of course, the brighter the light, the darker the shadow.  And that’s where Call of Cthulhu comes in.  So, with the first night, and a bunch of choices behind us, I’m ready to get this show on the road.  It’s been a long time coming, and I’m glad it’s finally happening.  Now, I just have to not screw it up.

    So, I’m popping on the Cab Calloway, dusting off the Louise Brooks DVDs, and pulling my leather bound Lovecraft off the shelf.  I’ve got my pen and notebook ready, and I’m feeling the creative juices flowing.  If we make it through one complete story, coming to a reasonable end or stopping place, I will be happy.  If folks enjoy that and want to keep going, I will be ecstatic.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Matt’s Week in Dork! (1/19/14-1/25/14)

    Not a lot of movies this week, but some good dork life living.  Finished a book, listened to some tunes, and did a bunch of reading and worrying in preparation for hosting my first role playing game in a very, very long time (with one very brief exception 3 years ago).

Airplane:  Some of the humor of this film is lost now, due primarily to the world changing.  It’s not shocking to hear some of the topics addressed in such a frank way.  But in spite of some of that inevitable aging any comedy that dares to tackle current events or cultural trends is going to go through, it’s still quite funny, and some jokes appear to be timeless.  It’s so absurd, but so well delivered.  And every danged line Peter Graves delivers is pure gold.

    Sunday night, Lisa, Brad, and myself headed out to the Alamo Drafthouse to see an early favorite of mine, Brazil.  It was really something seeing the film on the big screen, and the first time really watching it in a several years.  What a wild movie, and it must have been pretty darned out there when it hit theaters.

Brazil:  One of those films that was so important to impressionable young Matt, Brazil captures that faded dream of a retro-future Utopia so beautifully.  Terry Gilliam tries his hands at Orwell, through the lens of Kafka, and the results are amazing.  It’s funny, it’s unsettling, it’s horribly dark and on occasion, downright mean.  And it’s full of fantastic performances.  Even the repair men are great.  The script is funny.  The world creation is phenomenal.  The music is great.  A classic, all around.

Snow Queen:  Ten minutes in, I checked the runtime and my heart sank.  Three boring hours.  Boring, boring, boring hours.  Made in Canada.  Made for TV.  Dullsville.  Acting sucks.  Directing is lifeless.  Script is crap.

In the Mirror of Maya Deren:  This documentary, as surface as one expects from less than two hours, does serve as an overview of the woman and her art.  Plenty of interviews with people who knew and worked with her, combined with some footage from her films lets you get something of a sense of Deren, a strange and passionate person who broke a lot of rules, and not just the obvious one of being a woman filmmaker in the 40s.  Her work exudes the dream logic I’ve come to love in later David Lynch, as well as the late Euro-trash cinema wunderkind Jean Rollin.  Can I tell you what a lot of her films mean?  No.  Not remotely.  But they capture a mood.  As a jumping off point, I think this film works very well.  I kind of wish I’d seen it 15 or 20 years ago, when I was interested in voodoo.  Deren did a great deal of research and filming, and even wrote a book on the subject, which apparently gets high praise.  A woman ahead of her time, her work is something film fans should seek out.

    On Friday night, I finished Cleopatra.  An excellent, accessible look into the late Egyptian world and the beginnings of the Roman Empire we tend to think of when we think of Ancient Rome.  It reads like a novel, while having lots of insight and context.

The Flame and the Arrow:  “We’re civilized and the art of civilization is doing natural things in an unnatural way.  I’m just a little more civilized than other men.”  Medieval adventure with heaping piles of high-flying gymnastics.  Burt Lancaster can’t seem to stop doing crazy circus tricks with his outlaw buddies, as they face off against a typically stuffy historic adventure movie foe.  The girls are pretty, the guys are dashing, the villains are pompous.  And the sets look pretty good.  Hardly a game changing classic, it bares more than a passing resemblance to any number of other Technicolor action films of its time.  But it’s fast paced and filled with fun, colorful characters.  And that’s pretty good in my book.

    Saturday night we had our 20th meeting of our graphic novel club, hosted by Brad and Lisa.  This time around we read Sailor Twain, which while lauded by critics, turned out not to wow most of us in the group.  A couple people hated it, one person really liked it, and most of us felt very mixed.  It’s no wonder I stalled while writing my review for it nearly a month ago.  I’ll have to go back and try to finish it.


Saturday, January 25, 2014

Brad's Week in Dork! (1/12/14-1/18/14)

Wow, I really knocked em out this week.  A double feature of Dr. Strangelove & Buckaroo Banzai at The Alamo on Sunday launched me into a Peter Weller-A-Thon I was not expecting to partake.  But then the retail plague took over my life, and I pretty much bunkered down in the apartment, and did nothing else except watch movies.  Not too different from my normal day to day activities, just accelerated.  Next week I need to get back to my comics, gotta finish Sailor Twain for book club, and Grant Morrison's Animal Man is singing her siren song.

Dr. Strangelove Or - How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb:  Yikes.  This is one angry film.  Behind every snarky laugh, or straight up goofy punchline, you can feel the daggers of Stanley Kubrick's white hot rage.  Not at the (doomsday) machine, but at the careless dolts who run it.  The underground politicians, the meek military minions who should know better, the marching order pilots with the bomb between their legs - there are a million and one scenarios that could save us from total annihilation, but we can't be bothered to back down.  Dr Strangelove is a tremendously silly movie with bumbling fools named Jack D Ripper & Bat Guano helping our way to THE END, but every chuckle is accompanied by a pang of guilt.  On this latest rewatch I was reminded of the recent assault from Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street.  Both films are comedies by way of auteur wrath - searing condemnations against America's head-in-the-sand populace.  No wonder Strangelove drove The Wife to tears, as the credits rolled she could not bring her self to eek one giggle while a Nazi Scientists sprung to life, and mushroom clouds littered the landscape.  Hi-Larious?  God no.  But...yes.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension:  James Bond.  Indiana Jones.  Buckaroo Banzai.  The holy trinity of cool.  These are the guys 8 year old Brad wanted to grow up to be, role models for my developing morality and lady killer destiny.  The thing is though, he may not be as popular these days, but Buckaroo Banzai has Bond & Jones beat in the coolness department.  Not just a super spy or a nazi smashing archeologist (although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Banzai's done a bit of that too), Buckaroo is a bestselling rock 'n' roll scientist neurosurgeon adventurer who breaks dimensional barriers as easy as ringing a bell.  Possibly the first film to truly understand the appeal of a comic book universe, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai drops its audience into its wild world of Red Lectoids & watermelons, and lets you catch up rather than explaining its peculiarities.  That's a lesson more movies should learn; it's not about the origin, it's about the hero in the thick of it, whether it's Buckaroo Banzai, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Superman, Spider-Man, or The Wolverine.  So, is the world finally ready for a rebooted Buckaroo Banzai Against The World Crime League?  Probably not.  The 1980s seems like the only decade to properly spring such oddball fruit, but I'm willing to watch if you're will to try Hollywood.

Leviathan:  Such a wannabe film.  John Carpenter's The Thing + James Cameron's Aliens = nice try.  But it's fun to watch George P Cosmatos work out his aspirations.  Peter Weller is obviously the best thing about this movie - his One Minute Manager struggling to handle his asshole minions (I'm looking at your Daniel Stern!), and that's before the fishy genetic monstrosity starts downsizing the staff.  It's a goofy movie with an obviously shoddy practical effect hiding in the shadows, but there is enough charm in the players to make Leviathan a passable movie night.  The question remains, is Deep Star Six the superior aquatic retread?  It's been a decade or two, but I think I'll side with Leviathan - gotta snag Deep Star for the rewatch.

Robocop:  "Somewhere there is a crime happening."  How many times have I watched Robocop?  50? 100?  A lot is the answer.  I don't even know how to talk about it anymore.  It's hilarious.  It's badass.  It's genius.  Paul Verhoeven directed both a sendup of consumerism and a righteous action film filled with the best bloodwork of the 1980s.  Kurtwood Smith and his gang of tyrants are possibly the scariest batch of hoods in cinema history, and I find it impossible to separate myself from the first time I saw them butcher Officer Murphy with their cackling shotgun fire.  It's the first murder on screen that truly disturbed me as a child, and for years I could not watch the movie without fastforwarding through the opening execution.  I don't know what Jose Padilha's remake has to offer, but a PG-13 shoot 'em up seems to miss the point of Verhoeven's massacre.  Robocop is a heightened attack on Gordon Gecko's America, and if you loose yourself in the torrents of red, you might miss the giant middle finger stretching out from the Netherlands.  But it is also undeniably a glorious genre picture with cyborgs and CEOs.

Of Unknown Origin:  Certainly one of the strangest forgotten gems of yesteryear.  Peter Weller is Bart Hughes, a yuppie businessman climbing the corporate ladder while basking in the success of his recent town house renovation.  Everything is just gravy until a beastly little rat tears a hole in his dishwasher's drainage line.  A small beginning that quickly escalates to all out war between vermin and man.  Don't believe the trailers or the poster.  Yes, this is a horror film.  But there is not mutant monster here.  No supernatural terror.  The villain here is simply an NYC rat and Peter Weller's deteriorating sanity.  As much as I enjoy films like Tombstone, Cobra, Leviathan, and First Blood Part II, Of Unknown Origin is George P Cosmatos's masterpiece.  This is a claustrophobic siege film in which the terror burrows up from within, the rat in the walls as well as the one nibbling inside Weller's brain.  Another film scratching at the villainy of greed, and possibly the best character to showcase Weller's talent - the entire film thrives on his ability to crumble in front of us.  No one talks about Of Unknown Origin, but now is the time for its moment in the sun.  The DVD is long out of print, but you can snag one pretty much anywhere for less than 10 bucks.  It's worth the blind buy.

Lone Survivor:  This is a tough movie.  And it sparks complicated emotions from this viewer.  It's a helluva story.  Based on the book by Marcus Luttrell and ghostwriter Patrick Robinson, four Navy seals battle it out against a hundred Taliban soldiers in the mountains of the Kunar provence, after they release a shepherd and his two sons from their custody.  The film is absolutely punishing.  Obviously, the title is a spoiler, and you go into the story knowing that these guys are doomed.  It's nearly a sadomasochistic act waiting and watching these guys catch bullets in their bodies and crash down the mountainside.  My heart was in my throat for the entire film, but when the Afghan Villagers took up arms against the Taliban I suddenly felt the pangs of the "Based On A True Story" hypocrisy.  All films are fiction.  Whether their narrative or documentary.  A camera is present, so is a storyteller.  There might be truth to be found, but Lone Survivor is not a FACT, and it bothers me when people react to "True Stories" as Truth.  The machine gunning villagers just felt wrong, and the movie absolutely fell apart for me at that point.  Marcus Luttrell committed a noble act in bringing this story to the public.  He wanted to tell the story of those friends he left on the mountain.  But it's also big business now.  He's making a lot of money on this tragedy, and however virtuous his action may be, that collection of wealth bothers me a little.  And the liberties the film takes nag on me.  The film Lone Survivor is certainly a rousing saga of military triumph, and I'm weary of criticizing something that has become so (wrongfully) politically charged.  But Lone Survivor is a fiction - like Saving Private Ryan, The Dirty Dozen, and Battleship.  Filmmaker Peter Berg seriously loves and respects the armed forces, so do I, but I'm reaching a point where our blind belief in the True Story distracts from what should simply be a Good Story.  And I recognize this as a weird (possibly hypocritical) point of view coming from the guy who put Pain & Gain on his Top Ten Films last year.  Like I said at the start, complicated emotions here.

Bottle Rocket:  In anticipation of the March release of The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Wife and I decided to work our way through Wes Anderson's films in chronological order.  She had never seen Bottle Rocket before, and my last (& only) experience with Anderson's first movie was a negative one.  Not sure what my initial problem was, but on this second go-round I really took to Luke Wilson's romantic plight - it feels like a dry run on to the mentally fragile heartache found later in The Royal Tenenbaums.  Is there another actor out there who can pull of Sweet as perfectly as Luke Wilson?  Every expression, a bird's broken wing.  Owen Wilson is also fantastic as the film's bad influence.  He's an imp, a sad creature desperate to remain attached to his childhood buddy.  I'll take a million Dignans over one You, Me, & Durpee.  It's impressive how well formed Wes Anderson's world already is in this first venture into filmmaking, even when he's still working out his artificial world - the slomo, the soundtrack layering, the color palette.  Some herky jerky story beats, but Bottle Rocket succeeds more often than it fails.

You're Next:  John Carpenter's name gets thrown around a lot when talking about this festival crowd pleaser, but it's less Michael Myers then it is Assault on Precinct 13.  What begins as a run-of-the-mill stalk & slash cabin film quickly transforms into a root 'em, toot 'em table-turner in which Sharni Vinson steps up to the predatory challenge.   In that regard, the film actually feels like a tip of the hat to Ridley Scott's Alien - a haunted house picture in which the likely heroes are dispatched and the audience is left with one badass Final Girl to cheer on.  You're Next is not a peek-from-the-cover horror, it's an action fist-pumper worthy of your raucous popcorn screams.

Short Term 12:  VODed this in the middle of the week, and I'm left curious as to why this film ranked at the top of several critic's Best Lists last year.  Brie Larson is the lead supervisor of a residential treatment facility, not quite juvenile detention, and certainly not a hospital.  Got a problem child?  Dump 'em here.  Shortly after college I spent some time teaching English & Creative Writing at a private school for troubled kids, and I felt a lot of those frustration pangs rise to the surface while watching this movie.  However, I never connected with Larson's relationship troubles or her twenty something worries.  I don't flat out reject this film the way I did Frances Ha, but I also recognize that the psychological troubles of youth do not interest me anymore (if they ever did).  There is sweetness in this story, and some strong performances.  It probably is Brie Larson's best work to date and I look forward to future roles.

Thief:  "Lie to no one."  After penning some solid teleplays for shows like Starsky & Hutch and Police Story, Michael Mann entered cinemaland with a straight up crime classic.  James Caan's journeyman thief has a lot in common with Richard Stark's Parker series - he's just there for the job.  Don't get in his way, and he'll pay you no nevermind.  Stand between him and his score, or him and prison, and you'll get dropped quick.  Mann is obviously entranced by the process of burglary, and his camera lingers on the minutia of the job.  The director is obsessed with getting the fiction right.  He goes as far as placing known thieves in the roles of detectives, and actual Chicago cops in the roles of henchmen (the most famous being Dennis Farina).  The film is slick as hell, with some gorgeous night shooting that tingles with Tangerine Dream's neon synth score.  I've seen this film a handful of times, but the 4K Restoration on the new Criterion Blu Ray reveals an array of details I'd never noticed before (ex. Caan's sideburn scar), and it's essential for fans of the underworld subgenre.

Elite Squad - The Enemy Within:  Picking up several years after the first film, Wagner Moura is still heading up Rio De Janeiro's Elite Squad despite a dissolved marriage and a son drifting into liberal ideology.  His second in command Andre Ramiro is a Frankenstein Monster of sorts, and when a prison riot escalates into a quick-trigger assassination the Brazilian people turn against Moura's necessary fascism.  Just when you though Rio was a Dante-like Inferno, the government corruption sinks to new horrific depths, and no white shining morality goes unscathed.  The Enemy Within is a solid sequel to the original horror show, but I feel about it the same way I feel about The Godfather Part II - I got the gist in the first film, and I pretty much already saw where this film was going to take its demons after the original's credits rolled.  Again, the message being, don't go to Rio.

Twenty Feet From Stardom:  For the first time ever, I have already seen all of the Best Picture films nominated for the Academy Awards.  The only categories I need to bone up on are Best Actress & Supporting Actress (gotta see August: Osage County), Best Animated Film (haven't seen a single nom), and just two films in the Best Documentary Category - both of which I tackled this week.  Twenty Feet From Stardom is a fluffy, glorified VH1 Behind The Music about the unsung background singers behind Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, etc.  It's fun enough.  Lethal Weapon's Darlene Love naturally being the highlight for me.  However, the idea that this is the frontrunner, when powerhouse docs like The Act of Killing & The Square (see below) are standing next to it seems like another idiotic example of America's head-in-the-sand mentality.  After all, another feel-good musical, Searching For Sugarman, took home the gold guy instead of the far superior, socially conscious docs like 5 Broken Cameras & How To Survive A Plague.

The Driver:  "I'm going to catch the cowboy that's never been caught...dessssspperado..."  Ryan O'Neal is an impossible to catch getaway driver who captures the dogged determination of police detective Bruce Dern after one too many successful robberies.  Too bad Dern is not the star.  His wildman cuckoo routine is endlessly watchable, but O'Neal is a big sack of human boredom.  His dead eyed stares are less cool then they are annoyingly dull.  The man has no emotion.  He drifts through the screenplay, playing googoo eyes with the mysteriously sultry Isabelle Adjani, but things don't get exciting until he hands the reigns over to the stunt drivers.  Walter Hill knows how to crash a car.  When the engines are racing, and the various array of cardboard boxes are getting smashed, The Driver is certainly watchable.  And again, Bruce Dern spitting foul hate and screaming whacko at his mollycoddle partner is delightful.  Watch his movie, ignore O'Neal's, and you can have a good time with The Driver.

A Fantastic Fear of Everything:  Simon Pegg plays a disgraced children's author who abandons talking hedgehogs for London's most vile serial killers.  Unfortunately, his exploration of the Jack The Rippers of this world has driven him into a catatonic state of agoraphobia (as well as various other maladies).  Who doesn't love Simon Pegg?  Assholes.  But I gotta admit that he makes poor picture choices outside of his Edgar Wright pairings (Star Trek & Paul not withstanding).  A Fantastic Fear of Everything has its moments thanks to Pegg's commitment to fear, but the story deteriorates into a mediocre mystery involving launderettes and finger chopping.  I wanted to love it, but after I finish typing this sentence, the film will most likely drop from my memory immediately.

The Square: In 2011, Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim was determined to document the people's revolution, in which thousands of Christians & Muslims gathered in the Tahrir Square in Cairo in an effort to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak.  But once they succeed...The King Is Dead, Long Live The King.  Noujaim had several years to record these events, and The Square practically takes us up to the present day, and thanks to Netflix it can stream into your home tonight.  Idealists find their cause shaken, but not shattered.  What is victory?  What is loss?  It's a powerful piece of journalism, and if not for the revelatory experience that is The Act of Killing, I'd give Oscar to The Square.

Drive:  "You look like you're hard to work with."  What is this?  My tenth rewatch?  Sounds about right.  This time around I can't help but see the influence of both The Driver & Thief.  The opening scene is a straight up lifted from Walter Hill, and Ryan Gosling's anonymous wheelman has the facebashing meanness of James Caan mixed with Ryan O'Neal's don't-give-a-shit blankness.  Drive is homage cinema, and I'm not sure it quite elevates it the way a Tarantino film can sometime achieve.  But it's slick, cool, and twisted.  It respects its characters enough to take them through the black hole of violence and leave them appropriately shattered.  Until that last breath in the second to last shot.  Hope?  In a Refn picture???  Yep.  This is also my first time through the film post-Breaking Bad & Inside Llewyn Davis, so I found myself paying close attention to both Bryan Cranston & Oscar Isaac.  Cranston's gimpy Shannon is light years away from Walter White, a soft low-rent entrepreneur who shakes hands with all the wrong people.  Almost from the moment he walks on screen you know he's fish bait.  Isaac's reformed convict is just a puppy dog.  It's a cliche story the audience doesn't bother to sympathize with because it's simply the catalyst to spring Gosling's Driver into action.  Still, I believe every word he says at his Welcome Home party.  Drive is a fun crime film.  But it's no Only God Forgives, a film that currently ranks at the top of Refn's work for me.

The Dark Knight Trilogy:  "There are many forms of immortality."  Are you ready?  Christopher Nolan's Batman Saga is my absolute favorite cinematic trilogy.  Sorry to Star Wars, The Godfather, and The Lord of the Rings.  All fine films, but The Dark Knight Trilogy is the only set of films that takes its material as seriously as the comic books.  This is Frank Miller's world, Neal Adams's world, Jeph Loeb's world, etc, etc.  Batman Begins is still my favorite of the batch.  It's the only story (including comic books and animated series) to truly detail the psychology of Bruce Wayne.  The use of fear is exceptional - young Bruce's fear of bats essentially kills his parents, that fear becomes his weapon, and Ra's Al Ghul uses it to assault the people of Gotham.  Of course the Scarecrow has to be involved.  The Dark Knight is the only comic book film to up the villain ante and succeed.  The Joker is Gotham's response to the presence of The Bat Man and the dream of Harvey Dent's savior smashing upon the rocks.  And The Dark Knight Rises takes the saga to its epic heights with the siege of the city dropping its players into a Dickensonian nightmare.  The films are not without their flaws, like any trilogy, but I can forgive the exposition and the questionable shakey cam battles and even the leaps in logic.  I am simply thankful for the gravitas Nolan grants these characters.  An epic worthy of David Lean.


Friday, January 24, 2014

Book Review: Cleopatra

“The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty.”

    Growing up, Ancient Egypt was something of an obsession of mine.  Like most things, I think it started with Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it blossomed into something more as time went on.  It wasn’t just digging up tombs and finding ancient bones that I found interesting, it was the lives that led to those bones, to those ruins, and those statues.  And how could I not notice Cleopatra.  Long before I knew anything about Rome and Caesar, I knew Cleopatra.  Well, I thought I did.  Over the years I’ve found that a great deal of the history we learned in school was at best shallow and at worst (sadly, most often) simply wrong.  There are countless reasons for this; not the least of which is a sort of iris through which much of the past has been distorted, the Victorian Era, when history got a prudish make-over.  But Cleopatra has been getting bad press since day one; two thousand years of having her name dragged through the mud or held aloft like a prize, depending on who was writing the books.  Stacy Schiff’s biography tries to cut through all the fluff, the rewrites, and the outright slander to get at the woman and her times.  Like with Bettany Hughes’s excellent Helen of Troy, I think one of the most striking and useful parts of this book is the recreation of the time, the context in which the person lived.

    The various conflicts throughout the lives of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cicero, and Octavian, among many others, help to create a tapestry of cause, effect, action, and reaction in a world on the cusp of tectonic shifts.  The end of an era, the beginning of a new.  So many players at the table, all bets were off.  The unlikely winners and losers, the highs and lows, the doomed and the destined.  The story is as rich as any novel, and as well written.  Schiff manages to dance comfortably on that fine line between recitation of facts and a novelist’s grasp of story.  And most important, these people come off as…well, people.  Men and women with goals and dreams, driven and pulled by each other and the sweep of wars and loves.  Societies going through tumultuous changes on a grand and intimate scale.  We see Rome, still a stinking warren of mud spattered buildings, still sputtering with barbaric pride.  Alexandria, refined and perhaps a bit snobbish.  Rome, with its focus on physical prowess and not too subtle anti-intellectualism.  Alexandria with its love of art and learning.  How could they not clash?  And of course, the clashes were about more than land and gold, they were about lifestyle and world view.

    Again, Schiff gives famous names their human faces.  I quickly came to like Julius Caesar, with all his many faults.  Cicero strongly reminded me of someone I knew and didn’t especially like. Cleopatra, at first clever and lucky, but eventually ruthless and powerful, a leader who knew her people, but made many enemies.  Mark Antony, a man of great passions, is as bold a hero as any bard could hope for, and as tragic.  Even knowing the history, at least in broad strokes, I couldn’t help but hope things would turn out better, that some people would win while others get their comeuppance.  Alas, this history was written in blood a long time ago.

    Of course, when trying to tell the story of Cleopatra, Schiff has a hard job of separating the truth from the propaganda.  Does she do it?  Even she isn’t sure.  Throughout the book, she reminds the reader that much has been lost, much has been exaggerated, obliterated, and intentionally obfuscated.  And always, Cleopatra, or the idea of Cleopatra, has been used as a tool.  She quickly became the “Whore of the East.”  As often happens when you have people from a more civilized, cultivated, and yes, rich place; those who are not as civilized, cultivated, or rich look upon them as pampered, decadent, and immoral.  And, when you have an conspicuously male centered society like Rome, a supremely powerful woman, in charge of that rich, cultivated nation very quickly becomes the target of the harshest slander.  Schiff doesn’t paint Cleopatra as some victimized wimp, nor as the painted trollup, nor a secret modern hero.  She was a product of her life and times, a resilient, cunning, daring, competent ruler, forged in the disasters of her early life, soaked in the blood of her enemies.  A foil to the rulers of Rome, and a historic figure of tantalizing complexity.  With all these people coming together, at the heads of great nations, it’s no wonder we’re still talking about them two thousand years later.

    If you want to see Rome through a different perspective, or just want a glimpse into the era that produced so many famous names, this book is a great read.  If you want to read a compelling story of love, loss, betrayal, politics, religion, life, and death, with murders, suicides, sex, and wild parties, this book has what you need.  And you don’t need to have a background in Roman/Egyptian history to understand or enjoy it.

"She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all.  A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time."

Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0-316-00192-2 (I listened to the audio book read by Robin Miles: 978-1-61113-915-0)

-Matthew J. Constantine

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What I’m Listening To (1/21/14)

    I thought I’d try a new feature here on In the Mouth of Dorkness, focusing on one of the parts of my nerdiness that I don’t talk about all that much, my love of music.  I am not an audiophile.  I don’t have an opinion on vinyl.  I don’t have any kind of education in music theory, and I didn’t spend my high school years living in an indi music store, talking to all the people in local bands.  Heck, I’m not a fan of the Beetles, Bob Dylan, or Michael Jackson.  I’m just a dork who listens to music and is always glad to find something new.

    For a long time, I would joke that everyone I listen to was dead.  That isn’t the case anymore, thankfully.  Over the last ten years or so, I’ve found several active, productive bands and artists that I can now look forward to hearing new music from.  You’ll notice I don’t stick to one genre, nor do I tend to explore any genre too deeply.  I may love Ministry, for example, but not go for a lot of other respected Industrial bands.  I may find myself listening to Lightnin’ Hopkins, but not go in for Albert King.  And I go through moods, phases where I’ll be very into a certain type of music, to the exclusion of all others.  And then out of nowhere, I’ll be on to something different.

    I don’t know how often I’ll post one of these.  My moods often last for a few weeks at least, so I might go quite a while without new music to talk about.  Hopefully no less than once a month, I’ll write up some of the albums and songs I’m most in tune with …Oh, puns…at a given time.  Of course, I welcome your thoughts and suggestions.  Most of the music I discover comes from two sources, movie soundtracks and friends.  On the rare occasion I listen to the radio, it’s NPR, so I don’t hear new music there, and am generally unaware of whatever thing is ‘hot’ right now.

Without further blather…Oh, wait, with further blather…here’s what I’m currently listening to:

Artist: M.I.A.
Album: Kala
    I’ve been dimly aware of M.I.A. for quite some time, but never given her much attention.  I knew she had that song with the guns going off that was featured in Pineapple Express (Paper Planes) and I knew she was from Sri Lanka (well, born in England) because of some dialog in the movie Hanna.  But other than that, nothing.  After catching a couple of her tunes on YouTube for some reason or another, I got hooked and picked up Kala.  Right off, I was into it.  As a young teen, I was listening to a lot of early rap, N.W.A. and Public Enemy mostly.  And that’s what M.I.A. reminded me of straight away.  There was a raw, garage sound to the music, but also a vitality you tend to miss in big studio albums.  Add to that samples of music and instruments from around the world and it’s a crazy mix of sounds that’s infinitely danceable, but also layered enough to concentrate on.  As a long time Cyberpunk junky, I couldn’t help but think of this as being the sound of the Sprawl.  I wanted to take out my copy of Count Zero and jack in.  The weakest two tracks on the album, XR2 and Come Around are still perfectly listenable.  Ten of the twelve tracks were instant classics in my mind.  If I were pressed to name my favorite tracks, I guess I’d have to go with Bird Flu and $20.

Artist: Kate Nash
Album:  Girl Talk
    I find something very charming about Kate Nash’s lowbrow London accent and awkward relationship stresses.  When her new album came out, I picked it up, but I wasn’t quite in that mood, so it sat by my desk for a while.  When I finally popped it up on my playlist, I was kind of surprised by it, but pleasantly so.  While she’s still singing a lot about the struggles with love, betrayal, and confusion, and she still has that Rose from Doctor Who accent, the music has a much more polished and produced sound to it.  But where some performers loose their heart when the glitz is added, Nash seems to have kept her harsh edge.  There’s a retro vibe to it, tapping into 80s punky flare and even a bit of rockabilly.  I really like Part Heart and Sister, and You’re So Cool I’m so Freaky is cute.  Plus, the song Labyrinth is based on…the movie Labyrinth.  So, that’s cool.  Rap for Rejection is probably the weakest track.  It just doesn’t quite work.  Overall, the album is pretty good if you’re in the mood for her sort of music.  This is good post break-up music.  Or maybe, it’s really bad post break-up music.

This tune needs more propellers!

Artist:  George Antheil
Album:  Antheil: Ballet Mécanique, Serenade For String Orchestra
    While recently reading the book Heddy’s Folly, I was introduced to the rather odd character of George Antheil, who seems to have been trying to make Industrial music within the cultural and technological constraints of early 20th Century orchestral work.  Well I just had to listen to this guy’s stuff.  Interestingly, like the author Robert W. Chambers, he was quite popular at one time, but has now fallen off of most people’s radar.  I was able to find a CD and give it a listen.  It’s pretty intense.  Ballet Mécanique is darned intense.  His desire to make mechanical music, music as written and performed by machines was pretty out there.  I feel like there’s some similarity to Gershwin, though you’d never mistake one for the other.  Perhaps just elements of the times in which they were working.  If you haven’t listened to Antheil’s music, it’s something to check out for sure.

Artist:  Magnet
Album:  The Wicker Man (soundtrack)
    I recently started work on a script for a horror movie.  The idea started as a kind of modern day pagan tale, but has evolved away from that.  However, part of the vibe I imagined when I started has remained, that of the 70s pagan/psychic/Satanist type horror films, like The Wicker Man, The Exorcist, or The Fury.  In keeping with that, I’ve been kicking around the soundtrack of The Wicker Man, which is so much of its time.  I love it.  I can imagine the slightly oranged film footage, the tweed jackets, and the subtle hint of sinister post-hippie madness.  The whole album, from the saucy, beer soaked tune The Landlord’s Daughter, to the dreamy Willow’s Song is quite good and evocative.

    That’s all for now.  I’m sure I’ll be having some kind of tectonic shift in listening soon as it often changes in a big way with the seasons.

It might as well be spring...