Saturday, April 27, 2013

Pi: Film Noir With Math

Let's get one thing straight: Pi (1998) is one weird-ass mind trip of a film and it's not for everyone. However, it's one of my favorite indie movie and a dang good thriller.

And Chevy Chase can rest easy: there's really not a lot of math in this movie.

Max Cohen is a reclusive, paranoid math genius cursed with headaches who knows--just friggin' knows!--that there are patterns in nature that follow certain mathematical precepts. Here are his assumptions: 1. Mathematics is the language of nature. 2. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. 3. If you graph these numbers, patterns emerge. Therefore: There are patterns everywhere in nature.

The thing he's trying to solve is the stock market. He's doing this for the joy of discovery, not for monetary rewards, as he yells at another character later in the film. To help him analyze patterns, Max has built a gigantic supercomputer, named Euclid, in his New York apartment. After a particularly trying day, Euclid crashes but not before spitting out a 216-character number and a single stock pick. Pissed off because the stock pick just can't be correct, Max throws away the printout of the number. Later, he meets with his former teacher and mentions the 216-digit number. The teacher, Sol, gets immediately interested. Max then learns that the stock pick Euclid predicted was accurate...but he can't find the printout.

Soon, he meets a Hasidic Jew, Lenny, who also is into number theory as it pertains to the Torah (remember the Bible Code from the 1990s? Same thing. Basically, every letter in Hebrew corresponds to a number. Thus, the Torah is both a written document and a large series of numbers from which patterns can emerge.) He wants Max's help and he agrees. Add into the mix some shady types (who may or may not be criminal or governmental) and Max is seeing spies everywhere he looks. In order to rebuild Euclid, Max takes from the shady types a new super microprocessor. He turns on the computer and starts analyzing the Torah. Again, Euclid crashes and again it produces a 216-digit number. Since the computer won't let him print, Max starts writing down the number...and finds a pattern.

Here's the key: according to tradition, the true name of God is a 216-letter word. Max's teacher, Sol, thinks that Euclid became sentient and, in that moment, the computer saw the Almighty. Lenny's Hasidic group wants the number because they want to reverse the code and find the true name of God. The shady types want Max to help them do evil things. Max just wants to be left alone.

Filmed in black and white, this is Darren Aronofsky's first film. Most of the tropes and film techniques he uses in subsequent films (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler) are evident here. To be honest, the black and white noir touches make this film. The paranoia Max experiences is heightened by the shadows and the fear of what truly lies in the darkness. It's brilliant. And there are some genuinely weird moments in this film (a brain in a subway that seems to be connected to Max’s psychosis) that would make Salvador Dali proud. Another noir trait is Max's self destruction as he spirals downward into madness. I make it sound light--it really isn't--but in this film, I love it. The electronica score by Clint Mansell (in addition to songs by Orbital, Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, and others) adds to the weirdness. Coming out a year before the Matrix soundtrack, this was a major entry point for me to electronica and I've followed some of the artists in the years since. Opposite of the Pi music, Mansell, in his soundtrack for the 2009 film, Moon, captured the loneliness and isolation of the lunar surface using only a piano.

I originally saw this film when I was dating my wife. She hated the film at the time and has successfully resisted every time I've watched the DVD (yeah, I bought it and have watched the DVD about five times since). I think what really strikes home with me is the nature of God as portrayed in the movie and how we humans can get but a glimpse of the beauty and order of the universe (and God?) via mathematics. It's an awe-inspiring concept and is the touchstone for this great film.

Here's the trailer.
Here's the official site (oddly still active 14 years after the movie's release)

Friday, April 26, 2013

Less is More (some thoughts on the legends of Villainy)

“You’d like to quantify me, Officer Starling. You’re so ambitious, aren’t  you?” – The Silence of the Lambs

Its fair to say that Hannibal Lecter is one of the greatest and most terrifying villains in modern entertainment. From his appearances in Harris’s novels RED DRAGON and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS to his recurrence in MANHUNTER and later SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (the movie) he was the ultimate in chilling evil. We saw just enough of him to know he made the hairs stand up on the back of our neck. He was revealed in slow moments, in pieces, stepping out of the shadows just far enough for us to see his teeth and to know that we needed to steer clear of him.

He was a shadow.

A monster.

A bogey-man.
“Dr Hannibal Lecter himself reclined on his bunk, perusing the Italian edition of Vogue. He held the loose pages in his right hand and put them beside him one by one with his left. Dr Lecter has six fingers on his left hand.” – the Silence of the Lambs

We wanted more of him, this strange, unknowable and terrifying figure.

But when we got more of him, something strange happened. He lost his power. That uncertainty, that unquantifiability suddenly became quantifiable.  Because we learned too much and too fast. By the time Hannibal rolled around, Lecter was no longer this creature in the shadows, but suddenly he had a backstory (a sister lost in terrible circumstances, eaten in front of his eyes, because, you know, that explains his obsession with canibalism) and even an enemy who was more brutal than he was (the ludicrously over the top Mason Verger, who happens to be a paedophile, just so we get the message that he’s more morally reprehensible than our favourite psychopathic doctor). He became more than a supporting character in a larger tale and instead the focus of the story. He became the “hero” instead of the villain. And he lost his edge; became a parody of himself.

And I won’t even talk about Hannibal Rising.

It’s the same story as with Darth Vader. A mysterious black clad figure, Vader was given just enough backstory (spoiler – he’s the hero’s father) to grant him life, but then we were given his backstory which fleshed out his character to the point of pointlessness. All those beats that one could easily have filled in as an intelligent consumer of stories were made explicit. And suddenly Vader was no longer this omnipresent threat, but rather a lovelorn idiot who was once an extremely annoying kid with a talent for driving race-cars. All the threat and menace he once exuded was gone. And it didn’t help that he was given one of the most painfully hamfisted origin scenes in the history of the movies:

The great villains – and by villains, I mean the ones who speak to the blackness of the world, the ones who are truly monsters and bogey-men - do not need backstory beyond what is neccesary. They work at their finest when we know them in the moment, when we know only that we need to be afraid of them, that in this moment they make us feel something at back of our neck.

But the problem comes when those villains start to step out of the shadows; when they become so popular that their creators feel the need to give the audience more, to expand upon their creations, to give these creations more depth than they were every created to handle.

And to do that, they have to let the bogey-men step out of the shadows.

Thus, Hannibal Lecter becomes less a manifestation of our fears regarding the intelligent, thinking monster, and more of a strange sad-luck story.

Darth Vader becomes a weak parody of power; a lost little boy carried by a destiny beyond his own control.

They lose the effect they once had. In the harsh light of over-exposure they become less powerful and consequently lose the effect that they once had on audiences. We know them too well for them to have the same effect upon us they once had. They have become quanitifiable. Understandable. Predictable.

There is such a thing as knowing a character too deeply.

The legends become too thin. The increased knowledge on the part of the audience weakens the power of the character.

Think about it: would Jaws be so powerful if we knew the Shark’s backstory? If we learned that the shark were angry at the residents of Amity Bay because Quint had killed its mother?*

Would Max Cady have benefited from a sequel to The Executioners/Cape Fear in which we learned about the childhood trauma that created the monster?

“He kept grinning at me. I can’t remember ever seeing a more disconcerting grin. Or whiter, more artificial looking teeth. He knew damn well he was making me uncomfortable.” – The Executioners.

Certain villains are iconic in and of a moment and only within a certain fictional framework. Certain heroes work in the same way, too**. They are legends more than they are characters. They do not need to step beyond the confines of the stories that gave them power in the first place.  They do not need continual expansion or mythologizing. Because instead of adding the depth that the creators – and the audience who have demanded this – crave, all that happens is that the characters become lesser. They lose their impact. They become something else entirely; something weaker and altogether less appetising.

I always think about The Joker. He is the Batman’s most appealing villain, and yet for every attempt to explain who he is, we only wind up with more questions and indeed even today we know as much about him as we did in the early days; he is a homicidal maniac with no (definite) name and no agenda beyond spreading chaos across the Gotham city landscape.  We may get glimpses of other parts of him, but never more than is necessary and never anything to take away the most powerful aspects of that character.  Think about Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger’s take on the character in The Dark Knight: constantly telling different versions of his origin, never letting anyone close to what he really is or how came to be. The very uncertainty of the character gave him his power.

 Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was… a drinker. And a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn’t like that. Not one bit. So – me watching – he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it! Turns to me, and he says, “why so serious, son?” Comes at me with the knife… “Why so serious?” He sticks the blade in my mouth… “Let’s put a smile on that face!” And…Why so serious? - The Dark Knight.

Less is more. The less we know, the more the legend has its power.

The best villains – the best legends – do not need to come into the light, do not need to let us see more of them than we do in the moment of the story.

This is why they are effective.

And that is not to say that some villains do not deserve depth, do not deserve to come into the light. But when you’re dealing with iconic figures, with characters whose very existence is dependent more on the effect they have on the reader than on their depth, then you have to walk a very fine line between psychological acuity and oversharing.

Or else you run the risk of destroying everything that made that character work in the first place. By giving the audience more, you wind up giving them less.

*Actually I have a sick feeling this may have been hinted at – or something similar – in one of the sequels. In which case, given how bad the sequels were, point proven.
**Although, as with everyone, I find its more fun to talk about the villains; they get all the best lines.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

30 Days Of The 5-2- Digging.

By Jay Stringer

Gerald So regularly challenges me to write poetry. I usually find a way to avoid doing it, but I'm glad for his persistence. The only time that I've come up with anything passable was Cold Call.

His latest challenge was to get involved in the 30 Days Of The 5-2 to celebrate national poetry month. I'm a Limey, so for me that would be in October, but let's ignore that for now. His idea was simple; An April blog tour where writers talk about poetry, or their favourite poem, or even about how great his website is (he didn't suggest that last bit.)

What I like about trying to write poetry is that it forces me into something I'm not comfortable with. I prize that feeling. I wasn't raised to have any love or understanding for poetry (songs, yes, poems, no) and I have a very limited knowledge. I spent a few years writing songs for bands and various failed musical projects, but it's a muscle I stopped using a long time ago and sitting down to write poetry now is very challenging.

Settling on my favourite poem, however, was not a challenge at all.

I spent most of my twenties being one of those people who would tell you how much I hated school, and how little help I'd gotten from my teachers. The former is still true -I did grow up to become a writer, after all- but I've realised the latter simply isn't correct. It would still be fair to say I didn't get all that much out of the organised education system. A combination of my own attitude, a learning disability, some admittedly poor teachers, and the straight-jacket of the syllabus all combined to let me down. But as I've talked to more teachers, I've realised that many of them are not there for the good they can do "on the clock," but for what they can achieve in and around that. It seems that -for the good and great teachers- it's often about finding ways to make a difference despite of the demands of their job, rather than because of them.

When my first book Old Gold came out I started to do interviews in which I would be asked how I got into writing, and about what had influenced me along the way. I talked about family and comic books, about social issues and music. What I realised as I looked back was there was a key figure in a lot of my development- My high school English teacher.

So much of the literary side of my development can be traced to him, and none of it was "on the clock," none of it was contained in the lessons that he was being paid to teach. He was the first person to put a George Orwell book in my hand, and he sent me home with a copy to read in my own time. He lent me Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht (some of you will know of the obsession I developed much later with one of Brecht's other works.)

But as important as Orwell and Brecht would become to me later on, there was something simpler and more informative that happened during this period. He was my introduction to the Irish playwright Sean O'Casey, and the beginning of a long tradition of my finding subtle ways to steal from his work. This was the beginning of my focusing on social storytelling. The haves and have-nots. All the same issues I've blogged about many times.

And he was my introduction to the one poem I've held close for the past two decades. Digging by Seamus Heaney. I don't really know enough to know if it's a cliche or not to cite that poem, but I know the effect it had on me. There's one part in particular that became a motto-

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

I still remember the moment all the lights came on at the back of my brain as my teacher read that line back to me again and asked what I thought it meant. I still remember how those words hovered around my head the next time I wrote something.

I took that into everything that I wrote or read afterwards. I came from a family full of men who'd been good with their hands. There were engineers, steeplejacks, mechanics, even poachers. I wasn't one of them, I wasn't one of any of them, but like the narrator of the poem I watched with awe and guilt as adults went about their jobs with apparent confidence. But I had words, even if they were a struggle, and I could write about things that mattered to me. I could dig.

After years of saying how little teachers had done for me, I realised how much I owed to one in particular. Mr Leathem. A gruff old Catholic boy who dressed like he was auditioning for Doctor Who and smoked a pipe. His demeanour scared the hell out of so many students in the school, but if you asked him about literature or Irish history he'd come alive and talk for as long as you would listen. I tried to contact him recently, but found out he passed away a few years ago. I was left wishing I'd made more time for someone who'd always made time for me. Even if he did have poor taste in football teams.

So, when Gerald invited me to pick a poem for the 30 Days Of The 5-2, it was a no-brainer.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Winner of EVIL

Kieran takes home a copy of EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES for his caption last week.

THE NEW YORK TIMES By David Barboza 
Posted: 04/17/2013 11:23 am EDT - Hilary Davidson, 
writer and wax sculptor extraordinaire, 
pauses to admire her latest life-like creation "The Fondler"

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Indie Authors Stay Out

By Steve Weddle

The co-owner of Mrs. Dalloway’s Literary and Garden Arts in Berkeley, California has written a letter to the editor of the New York Times, taking time to provide a word of warning for indie authors:

We see this every day in our independent bookstore: writers dropping off unsolicited work in the hope that we will stock books that have had little or no editing, and few reviews or distribution beyond Amazon (always a nonstarter).
You can read more here.

Of course, it seems odd that an independent bookstore should be at odds with independent authors. It seems odd that the co-owner of the store would think that a book would have had "little or no editing"
simply because the book is not corporately owned. I do not automatically assume that the restroom at the independent has had "little or no cleaning" just because it doesn't have the Barnes & Noble smell.

Then again, I don't have the experience of a bookstore co-owner, nor the experiences of this particular co-owner. It could very well be that 98% of indie authors she's met have had horribly edited books.
Typos can ruin the read of even the best book. I recall how I had to set aside the purple paperback of Graham Greene's TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT because of all the typos in that book.

What really seems odd to me, though, is this notion of the two indies at odds -- the writer who, for whatever reason, is not published with a corporation fighting against the little shoppe on the corner.

Maybe the indie author went that route because she didn't want to "sell out" or answer to anyone else. Maybe she didn't like the corporate terms. Sometimes people go indie as a choice. Sometimes people don't work in indie bookshops because they were fired from Barnes and Noble. Maybe they like being indie sellers. Maybe people like being indie authors.

In fact, when you consider some of the troubles between traditional bookstores and traditional book publishers -- BN vs SS, for example -- you'd think that working with individual authors with a stake in their books would be welcomed. And, as most indie authors don't have budgets to travel across country, being able to focus on locals would be beneficial.

Of course, we should be honest about it. Having a publisher to vet books means you don't have to read 500 books a day. Which, you know, you can't.

And some indie authors are batshit crazy. Some are awful to deal with. Here at DSD, we get bombed a few times a week by someone attempting to get reviewed here by acting like an asshole. That said, this type of behavior is not limited to indie authors.

And dealing with one sales person from the publisher is much easier than dealing with 1,000 various authors.

But that's the point, isn't it? You've got so many local, indie authors who want to be associated with you, that you should be able to figure that out. When their books sell, your cash register rings. And
you get to keep a chunk of that money.

When I worked at a gas station, we'd often get folks coming in, telling us how we could all be rich if we'd just give shelf-space to their innovative beef jerky/fingernail clipper/lighter. Everyone wants
shelf space.

And I'm not suggesting that bookstores do anything different than they've always done. I'd never suggest that. I don't know the business from a co-owner's point of view. I have no idea the challenges these folks face. If they want to keep going about it as they always have, that's fine.

But how cool would it be if indie authors and indie bookstores could work together? Maybe a special section for indie authors, Maybe a monthly spotlight. Maybe a reading on the 13th of every month so that readers can meet local, indie authors.

After all, these authors are coming to the bookstores because those bookstores are doing something right.

I think many, many bookstores, both indie and corporate, are probably trying stuff just like this. One store came under fire a couple years back when they sold shelf space to indie authors instead of just
offering it. Some have other ideas that seem to be catching on.

I don't have the Great Solution. But I think it's just making the problem worse when you tell indie authors that they're not the type of authors you want in your indie store.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cort McMeel

By Brian Lindenmuth

I was going to write about a really great documentary I saw but, with the untimely passing of Cort McMeel, I decided to write this instead.

One of my earliest exposures to Cort and the Murdaland gang was this Sarah Weinman blog post from 2006 in which bold statements were made and the gauntlet was thrown. You can tell by the comments section that an impact was made.

And Murdaland did make an impact. Anthony Neil Smith declared that Murdaland was "the rightful heir to PLOTS WITH GUNS."

Murdaland blazed hard and bright, left a trail, and burned out, leaving an image in the retinas of the crime fiction landscape still felt today. Little did we know that the rise, fall, and influence of Murdaland would foreshadow its founder.

I didn't have the pleasure of meeting Cort in person but I exchanged emails with him and spoke to him a couple of times. I regret that I won't have that opportunity to meet him.

The Cort that I will remember was a fierce book enthusiast. The kind of person that gives you a reading list just by virtue of having a conversation with him. The kind of person who advocated for great books that deserved more recognition. The kind of person I strive to be.

Murdaland mission statement:

Murdaland: Crime Fiction for the New Century will feature the best and most derelict, deranged, bareknuckled honest voices to bring about a renaissance of crime fiction. Currently, the predominant “mystery” magazines are two lame, staid, old fogey establishment publications: Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Both are put out by the same publisher and stuck in a timewarp of 1950's schlock. They even have mystery crossword puzzles catering to nuns living sober lives in the cornbelt.

Murdaland will not be kin to this kind of writing or experience. More risk taking in nature, possessing the kind of vision and rebellious attitude as such rogue presses as Olympia (Naked Lunch, Burroughs), our mission will be to free American crime fiction from the cage of civility where it now rots. Murdaland is a beast of three parts: part literature, part rabid dog, part sad whiskey shot spilled on the barroom floor. The final result will be in the tradition of crime writer David Goodis (Shoot the Piano Player), as he was once described by Kerouac: “the poet of the losers.”

We are calling for stories that will help redefine the Noir/Hardboiled genre and take it to new literary heights. Stories don’t have to be about boxers, PIs, pimps, hookers, bank robbers and drug dealers, as much as they should be about exploring characters in a violent modern world existing on the margins of society. Above all, it’s about the writing. The prose must be high and tight.

Links of interest:

Tribe's Murdaland interview

Baltimore City Paper about Murdaland featuring Cort

Cort writing about Simenon

Cort writing about B Traven

Ben Whitmer's remembrance

Les Edgerton's remembrance

Mario Acevedo's remembrance

Kevin Hardcastle's remembrance

Cort's novel, Short, and a novel that apparently he wrote under a pen name, Blue Bloodbath.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Paying it forward

by: Joelle Charbonneau

According to the widget that my publisher created there are 43 days until THE TESTING launches. YAY!  EEK!  Help!  All sorts of emotions flood me when I think of the launch.  And today there is a brand new emotion that I can add to the list - hope.  And not in the way you think.  Yes, I am hopeful the book will be read and even more hopeful that some readers will connect with the characters.  But this hope is more than that.  It is farther reaching.  Why?

Because yesterday Anderson's Bookstore announced something that we have been working on for a
while.  Anderson's and I have created a pre-order incentive that I hope everyone will take advantage of.  No, we aren't giving away cool swag.  Instead, we are offering readers a chance to make a difference in the lives of others.  Because for every book ordered from Anderson's between now and THE TESTING launch on June 4th - Anderson's and I will together make a donation to Autism Speaks.

Here is the link to Anderson's Bookstore's pre-order page for THE TESTING.

As a teen, I was a member of the International Order Of The Rainbow for Girls.  The Rainbow Girls are a Masonic youth service organization that encourages teenage girls to raise money and donate their time to charity work as well as building self-confidence, camaraderie and so much more.  This year, the Illinois State Chapter of the Rainbow Girls chose to raise money for Autism Speaks and I want to help them.

So many of my friends have children with autism.  It is a condition that seems to be more common with every passing year.  The challenges for families who have to navigate this condition are great.  The challenges for the medical community to find the best ways to not only help those with the condition, but prevent it in future generations is even greater.   More research is needed to understand how best to help those who have autism as well as how to prevent it in future generations.  Autism Speaks is dedicated to advocating for those with autism as well as funding research to find a cure.  They are such an important voice for families and I am beyond thrilled to be able to help raise money for such a worthy cause.

If you are considering reading The Testing, please join with me and Anderson's and help raise money for this wonderful cause. I hope together we can make a difference.