Tuesday, February 23, 2010

And then Lois says, "You've got me. Who's got you?"

Look, I need to say upfront that Lex Luthor is a genius. An evil genius, sure, but nobody's perfect.
So when some guy on the Internet says that Christopher Nolan is the wrong guy to revitalize the Superman movie franchise, I say to myself, well, that guy's no Lex Luthor.
When news broke that Nolan had been hired to shepherd the Man of Steel back to glory, I wasn't thrilled, but not because I didn't think he was up to the task. My worry is that the silver screen version of superheroes could become as homogenized as their comic book counterparts.

TANGENT: This condition was institutionalized at DC Comics last week with executive shuffling that names Geoff Johns Chief Creative Officer. As recently as 2004, you could find a wide array of storytelling in the DC Universe. You had the moody police procedural of Gotham Central, the anything-goes super-soap opera of the early run of Superman/Batman, and the fearless cartooning of Kyle Baker's Plastic Man. If you bought an issue of Detective Comics starring Batman and an issue of The Flash, you could count on each comic having its own tones and rhythms. Then, beginning with Identity Crisis and continuing on from Johns's well-intentioned disaster Infinite Crisis to his current thuddingly-dull Blackest Night, the whole line became this dour, depressing series of catchphrasing and limb-rending. END TANGENT

C. Robert Cargill, however, thinks that, much like Lori Lemaris, Nolan is "wrong, wrong, wrong" for Superman. And he was kind enough to break it down to five reasons, all of which are based on the pretty insulting assumption that Nolan only knows how to make one kind of film. As if a Nolan-driven Superman movie will feature Jor-El and Lara taking Kal-El home from the opera when all of a sudden a man comes out of the shadows and blows up Krypton, unwittingly giving birth to Superman's neverending war on opera.

1. According to Cargill, "Superman ISN'T a dark hero." Really? He's the last survivor of his entire species. If the deaths of millions, probably billions, of people and the destruction of an entire planet isn't a dark subject, what is? Batman lost his parents and became a pouty creature of the night. Superman lost his whole freaking planet. Brood on that, Bats.
2. "Superman isn't a detective," says Cargill. No, he's just a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. Nothing sleuthy going on there, no sir. Especially not from that very un-detective-like Lois Lane, who, as a nervy dame with a nose for news, never finds herself in over her head in situations that might as well be lifted right out of the noir textbook. Nope, nothing like that to see here. And since when is Nolan a detective filmmaker? Batman Begins and The Dark Knight succeed largely as science fiction films dressed up as crime thrillers. Certainly The Prestige is full on sci-fi, and at its heart, so is Memento. The Prestige and Memento are both exactly the kind of stories that used to feature in Superman comics back when Superman was the most popular fictional character on the whole planet. Thanks to his frequent contact with futuristic sorceresses and Red Kryptonite, Superman was always losing his memory or discovering imperfect duplicates of himself.
3. "They're throwing out the current continuity," Cargill mentions. I actually can't find any reference to Nolan in this "reason why Nolan shouldn't oversee the new Superman film", so I'm tempted to overlook it. Also, because it's a stupid reason. Also, because hopefully filmmakers will recognize that they've been telling Superman's origin for the last 10 years or so on Smallville and just tell a good Superman story.
4. "Nolan is great on story, but terrible on staying true to its history," Cargill claims. By now, I'm not sure if Cargill has ever seen a Christopher Nolan film, or any film at all for that matter. Nolan, like Tim Burton before him, excels at creating style and atmosphere, setting an appealing and intriguing tone for his films. The storylines and plots of his films tend to take a backseat to tone and theme. That's not the worst flaw for a filmmaker to have, and it's consistent in his films.
5. "Superman is science fiction," Cargill says. "Nolan is real world." This seems to be the same reason as #2, but what the heck. Cargill's got Nolan here, since Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige and The Dark Knight were all faithful adaptations of true stories. Cargill notes that Nolan's upcoming film Inception is science fiction, but dismisses it because nobody knows if it will be good or not. Unlike his Superman movie, which Cargill knows will be bad. Cargill also proves that he hasn't seen Superman III in this paragraph, which is too bad, because I think he'd like it.
Stayed tuned for an upcoming post where I'll outline ways that a new Superman movie could be awesome (regardless of who's involved), including my top secret idea for a 30th Century Bromantic Comedy co-starring Lar Gand and Jo Nah.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

It Helps if You Dress Like a Detective: Intro to Crime Fiction

I've always been a fan of crime fiction. I mastered reading on the Hardy Boys novels (and entrenched my fascination with detective work in The Hardy Boys Detective Handbook, which featured a brown colour scheme instead of the usual blue, underscoring its grim purpose) and DC Comics (DC originally stood for Detective Comics, but now it doesn't stand for much at all). When I returned to reading comics as an adult (after a 13-year indifference), I was surprised to find superhero comics generally lumped in with Science Fiction. To me, they had always been detective stories, four-colour morality plays of crimes punished and justice avenged. Even the more glaringly sci-fi stuff like Green Lantern featured readily identifiable elements of crime fiction.
Sure, I was into Star Wars as a kid, but my Sci-Fi/Fantasy interest didn't go much further. On my bookshelves today, non-comic book Sci-Fi appears infrequently. I have some Soviet Sci-Fi, a novel written by a Regina author, and Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music, if that even counts. The Yiddish Policemen's Union won a Hugo, but, hey, come on, that's a crime novel.
Richard Price talks about how he uses the act of investigating a crime as a means of taking readers to place they otherwise wouldn't have access to, be it the tenement courtyards of Clockers or the condo-converted synagogues of Lush Life. The investigation of a crime, especially a murder, is a distorted reflection of the way fiction writers work: building files on their characters, coming up with plausible scenarios and then breaking them down, constantly asking what if, what if, what if? It's no surprise, then, that so many writers use the crime novel as a vehicle to explore larger themes than merely whodunnit, and that there are so many terrifically-written crime novels. The first two entries in our series are examples of this socially aware crime fiction.

The Story of a Crime: The Martin Beck Series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö - This ten-book series is the big daddy of Scandinavian crime lit (Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, etc) and colossally well done. Hyped by Michael Connelly and Michael Ondaatje, this is straight-up police procedural at its finest, but also remarkably potent (but never polemic) social criticism. Before they started this series with Roseanna in 1965, married couple (and affirmed Marxists) Sjöwall and Wahlöö worked in poetry and journalism, and the skillsets of those two trades are used in perfect harmony here. Witness:
Ten yards away stood a lone dismal figure, a pipe in his mouth and his hands thrust deep down in his coat pockets. This was Fredrik Melander of the Murder Squad in Stockholm and a veteran of hundreds of difficult investigations. He was generally known for his logical mind, his excellent memory and unshakeable calm. Within a smaller circle, he was most famous for his remarkable capacity for always being in the toilet when anyone wanted to get hold of him. His sense of humour was not nonexistent, but very modest; he was parsimonious and dull and never had brilliant ideas or sudden inspiration. Briefly, he was a first-class policeman. (from The Fire Engine That Disappeared)

As you can probably tell from that passage, Sjöwall and Wahlöö were not interested in supersleuths or tough guys. American crime fiction is full of disenfranchised mavericks, often working in competition with the authorities, even when they themselves are members of a police force. It's that rugged individualism of one man against the world, or at least the system. But the detectives in the Martin Beck series are presented as civil servants, who solve cases not through passion but through process. They wait weeks for lab results, stumble blindly into breaks, sleuth by way of talking to people and reading reports. In between, they go home to their wives (the books were published between 1965 and 1975 and reflect an era when there were few women in policing), their model ship kits, and Sax Rohmer novels. The series epitomizes Walter Mosley's idea of the Novel as "a pedestrian work of the everyday lives of bricklayers and saints."

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley - This is the first of three collections of short stories featuring Socrates Fortlow (the others are Walkin' The Dog and The Right Mistake). Mosley is one of Bill Clinton's favourite writers, and also one of mine. In the Watts neighbourhood of L.A. of the early 90s, we meet Socco, fresh from a 27-year bit in an Indiana prison for the murder of two people. We follow him through his neighbourhood as he struggles to give purpose and meaning to life on the outside. Mosley never shies away from Socrates's darkest parts, and never resorts to sentimentality, all the while creating a remarkably sympathetic portrait of a very hard man. HBO made a pretty damn fine miniseries out of it starring Laurence Fishburne Jr.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Vanhattan? More like Vanhassle!

Last spring, I’m waiting for the #3 Downtown bus at the corner of Main and Broadway. I’m on my way in for a 12-hour shift, on a Sunday, so I’m not in a great mood to start with. The bus, unreliable at the best of times, seems to follow no schedule at all on Sundays. So I’ve got to get out way ahead of time just be on time. I’ve got to hustle like a keener just to keep from being a slob.
But here comes the bus, I can see it way down the street.
During the week, the #3 is like any other bus I’ve ever been on in Vancouver, packed. By the time I get on, no more than ten minutes from the city core, it’s standing room only, usually with the pleasurable view of the sleeve of someone’s wet raincoat. But Sunday mornings before 8, it’s mostly shift workers like me. Security guards in turbans with shopping bags full of groceries from the 24-hour supermarkets, nurses in their colourfully printed scrubs, and the occasional straggler from Satuday night’s revelry. Sunday mornings, I can count on sitting down on the bus.
The bus stops at a red light across Broadway, and I can’t believe my eyes. The digital display reads “Sorry. Bus full.” The light changes to green and the bus carries on in the centre lane.
As it goes by, I see them: Sun Runners, in their T-shirts and shorts. Chipper with their power shakes and lattes. Laughing, ha ha. As I watch the bus make its way down the hill, I quietly pray for rain. Hail, even.
Another bus passes by. As if!
Finally, I get a break. The third bus is no less full, but the driver is at least a reasonable human being.
I edge on to front of the bus sideways, like a Tetris block. I can’t even get in far enough to validate my Faresaver. Upfront we’re elbow to eyeball, but craning my neck, I can see empty seats at the back. Lots of them.
The Sun Runners, these fit folks who ride the bus maybe five days a year—to hockey games or fireworks—are bogarting their personal space. They’re doing stretches in the aisles.
And I’m late for work.

To live in Vancouver is to deal with frustration. If it's not the Sun Run--an annual 10km race sponsored by the city's broadsheet publisher of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle--it's made-for-TV film shoots, infrastructure mega-projects, Victorian-era zoning bylaws, or gang-related shootings. It's not the awe-inspiring natural surroundings that lead so many Vancouverites to yoga, it's the hope of learning to cope with constantly thwarted plans.
The Olympics will just be an extreme manifestation of this essential Vancouverism.
What's saddest about the Olympics as an event--aside from the 800 teachers the province might lay off to help pay for it, or the dozens of innocents who will inadvertently read a Shelley Fralic column--is that visitors are going to miss out on the best parts of Vancouver. Parking restrictions and transit priorities will leave little opportunity for tourists to see what daily life in the Soggy Apple is really like. It won't be impossible, but it won't be easy for the determined to get to the other side of Gastown and drop in on Robert at Solder & Sons, the Downtown Eastside's coffee and books emporium (the coffee is new, the books are used) where you can challenge the regulars to a match of Scrabble, or just hang out with the fixed-gearheads from Super Champion, the bike shop next door. Or take your Americano down the street to Crab Park Fight your way back to the Downtown side of Gastown for a Najib's Special at Nuba, arguably the finest lunch in all of Vancouver. Or, how about Cambie Village? The area paid a dear cost during construction of the Canada Line, and now, in the hinterland between City Hall and King Edwards stops, will they reap any benefit?
Of course, the real best parts of Vancouver have nothing to do with the city itself. Without the bridges, without the SkyTrains, without the souvenir shops, without the people, the mountains and ocean would still be here. There are wild parts of the city, such as the steep banks of the Millennium Line at Commercial Drive, overgrown and lush, that remind us how we've changed the landscape to suit our needs. Raccoons and coyotes, great blue herons even, roam the city streets before dawn. Many progressive agencies in the Downtown Eastside acknowledge the idea that Vancouver sits on unceded Coast Salish territory, and the persistence of these nocturnal fauna is a reminder of our late arrival here.

Gary Stephen Ross, editor-in-chief of Vancouver magazine, wrote an essay on "the idea of Vancouver" for the current issue of The Walrus. It's accompanied by brilliant photos of Vancouver by Grant Harder that capture the range and depth of Vancouver life. Also in the issue, a powerful piece by Marian Botsford Fraser on the Canadian penal system, and a fantastic report on Rush by Jason Anderson. In fact, my favourite part of the issue is on the Contributors pages, where it says that Anderson is working on his second novel, about the Canadian film industry. It's a hell of an issue, you should buy it.
Ross compares Vancouver to Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred in the film Owning Mahowny, which was based on the book Stung, written by Gary Stephen Ross. Hoffman, you'll remember, also played Lester Bangs in that terrible Cameron Crowe movie about ten years ago, and Bangs, who died in 1982, wrote that The Bells is Lou Reed's best solo LP. Bangs didn't live long enough to hear Mistrial, but I don't think it would have changed a thing. Bob Seger is reported to have written a song about Lester Bangs, called "Lester Knew." Bruce McCulloch definitely did write a song about Bob Seger, called "Bob Seger." It's on his album The Drunk Baby Project. It is also better than anything on Mistrial.

mp3: "Nobody Can Turn Me Around" by the Sojourners
mp3: "Bob Seger" by Bruce McCulloch

mp3: "I Wanna Know Girls" by Lambchop