Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rape: A Love Story..........Oh Dear.......

That title means as much as I love this book, I can never read it in public unless I cover it with something or upload it to my e-reader (which is missing right now T_T). Even innocuously sitting on my bookshelf it attracts attention. The word 'rape' usually instills one of two reactions: an 'Oh God, look away' uncomfortable reaction or a nervous giggle. Of course, this is completely deliberate as Joyce Carol Oates likes to make her readers uncomfortable, it's how she gets them to think.

It's a short book, actually a novella to be precise, so it reads quickly but it stays with you for a long time after you've read it. There are a lot of books out there that deal with rape, but I've never come across one that deals with it the way Oates does. Even in her earlier novel 'We Were the Mulvaneys,' a slightly more accessible title for those who want to get into her oeuvre, she deals with a similar subject in a wildly different way. The only thing the two have in common is that they explore the nature of love in traumatic circumstances, as many of her books do. (As I write this, I'm aware that she has a memoir in shops right now that was published after the tragic death of her husband, but I haven't read it yet and I'm not sure I want to. Fake misery I can do, her real pain might be a touch intense for me.)

Rape: A Love Story begins with an act of brutality described in painful detail. Teena Maguire and her young daughter Bethal are walking home through a park after a party when they are attacked by a group of young men who've spent the day drinking and smoking crystal meth. Bethal escapes them with a dislocated arm and manages to squeeze into a tight spot where they can't reach her, but her mother isn't so lucky. She is gang-raped, beaten and left for dead, all within earshot of her terrified daughter. When the men finally leave, Bethal runs for help and manages to flag down a passing police officer, John Dromoor. When he finds Teena, the damage done is so bad he's convinced she's dead.

So far, so awful, right? It gets worse. Teena does pull through, arrests are made and the case is taken to court, but the expensive lawyers that the men's families have hired paint Teena as an irresponsible mother, dragging her child from a party late at night through a possibly dangerous area, while also painting the men involved as merely misguided. They get suspended sentences, and almost straight away launch a campaign of intimidation against the frightened Maguires. Teena loses all will to live and drowns her sorrows in alcohol and isolation, and Bethal is left to cope on her own, with classmates who don't know what to say to her and relatives of the men who attacked her making threats in her school.

So, you been driven to drink yet? Things then start to get better, thank goodness.

Bethal calls Dromoor after a two of the attackers drive by her house shouting for Teena. Dromoor, who fulfills the love part of this story, is sickened by how easily the attackers can get away with this, and out of compassion for Teena and Bethal, he plans to take out the attackers in the most subtle fashion he can manage. One man he encounters in a bar and he manipulates the man into making threats, at which point he is able to shoot the man in self-defense in front of credible witnesses. One by one, he takes them out.

Oates veers off at one point to show how the family of two of the rapists are doing. Quite rightly she pegs that far from being amoral psychopaths, the two young men just don't care enough about Teena or Bethal to feel bad about what they did while under the influence of drugs. What they do feel bad about is how their father had to sell his prized boat to pay for the lawyer, and how their mother ostensibly forgives them but won't let them near their young female relatives. Perhaps the anti-rape campaigns should focus on this approach, given that the average rapist couldn't care less about the welfare of their victim but likely do care about how their families would react. When the two men go missing, their father is devastated. He assumes they escaped prosecution across the border, leaving him to pick up the pieces.

Teena slowly begins to put her life back together and Bethal, knowing full well that Dromoor was behind the disappearances, has her faith in humanity restored. It'd be a happy ending except that someone had to commit murder for it.

A film was in production from 2010 onwards, starring Heather Graham as Teena and Abigail Breslin as Bethal, as well as Samuel L Jackson as Dromoor. They also replaced the word 'rape' in the title with 'vengeance' due to the afor-mentioned knee-jerk reaction. I've been looking for details about it everywhere, it's undergone two major role casting changes and seems mired in development hell, but according to the internet it's in theatres in the USA. Here's hoping it makes its way here soon, if it's as good as the book it's worth seeing.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Road: Zombie Apocalypse without the Zombies

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is well known for being one of the most depressing books ever written, so naturally as soon as I heard about it I was all over it.

If you're not familiar with it, here's the plot in a nutshell: the world has been pretty much destroyed in what's hinted at a nuclear war. All the animals are dead, as are all the plants, even the trees are hollow husks that occasionally disintegrate or burst into flames because there's no rain and the air is dry as a bone. People have survived, as they always do in this kind of situation (and let's face it, there'd be no book if they hadn't) but the only food to be found is whatever they can scavenge from abandoned buildings and those supplies are, when we meet our protagonists, picked clean.

This is a pretty big nutshell, isn't it? On a tangent I should point out that I'm writing this as I watch the film version of Phantom of the Opera, so writing about the apocalypse while listening to Gerard Butler sing Music of the Night (he's trying, bless him) makes for some interesting dissonance.

Anyway, we meet our main characters, known simply as Man and Boy, just like in Antichrist. The man is one of those gruff survivalist types, and the boy is a boy. He's convinced that in this world he and his father are the good guys and they're at battle with the bad guys. The bad guys happen to be cannibals. That's right, with no more food to be found people are eating each other. And any random person they come across.

McCarthy pulls no punches with this, the novel shows several different instances of cannibalism in different forms. At one point the boy and his father come across a baby that's been roasted on a spit (and as with any media that shows small children in peril, I freaked out a bit) and at another point the father finds a cellar full of living people who are having their limbs harvested one by one by some 'farmers'. Every person they come across during the book, with the exception of an old blind man and a single guy who steals their stuff while they're distracted is a cannibal. That's how bad things have gotten.

To top it all off, the man is dying. He's got that cough that signals death for anyone in a work of media, and it's hinted that it's radiation sickness. He's trying to get himself and the boy to the coast for some reason. By he way, if you're wondering about the boy's mother, she walked out of their hiding place in a fit of despair. It's left up to your imagination as to what happened to her. The boy, despite the hopeless setting, is naive and unable to defend himself, so likely the father is trying to get him to some remote place before he dies. Even so they have a contingency plan; their gun has only two bullets, so they practice committing suicide in case they get caught by someone. This is what passes for a spot of hope in this book.

They get to the coast, relatively unscathed, but with the boy having lost some of his optimism along the way and finally the father collapses and dies. Despite everything that's gone before and how everything the father did to keep him alive, the boy just sits with his body until he's discovered by someone else. The person who finds him just happens to be not a cannibal like everyone else has been, but a family man with a wife, two children, a dog and a gun full of bullets. And apparently he has access to fresh fish, which means life could possibly be coming back to the world. And he wants to adopt the boy. It's the most depressing Deus Ex Machina in the history of literature.

Someone once suggested that the end is false and that the boy was hallucinating this new family as he was dying beside his father. It is just a bit too perfect to be true...come on, they have a dog! Probably a white picket fence too...

The film that was made recently did a very good job of capturing the bleakness of the novel, in fact I couldn't imagine anyone doing it better than John Hillcoat did. Viggo Mortenson is pretty perfect for the haggard survivalist father (and he cleans up so well for the happy time flashbacks) but I wasn't really feeling Kodi Smit-McPhee as the boy. He felt a bit old to me, especially when he kept calling Viggo 'Papa'. Kid looks about thirteen to me, it felt a bit off. Then again, given the material it's hard to imagine giving that part to a younger child so it's forgivable.

All in all, both versions compliment each other nicely. The book is sparsely written in McCarthy's usual minimalist style and the film fills in the blanks. It would be hard to imagine a film being made with this kind of desolate ethos unless there was a book behind it and that book happened to be very popular.

Even so, it's not the most depressing thing I've ever read. With dead parents, society crumbling and the world slowly perishing, how can that be possible? Because Cormac McCarthy isn't Joyce Carol Oates. If she ever decided to write a dystopian novel (and it's possible she started and finished one as I was writing this review) God help us all.

She's next on my list. Ad the novel I'm reviewing will be Rape: A Love Story. Hoo boy...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

School Days: Just Say No!

I'd like to talk about the greatest word in the English language.


Why is it so great? Because there's no ambiguity there, you can't twist it to suit your needs. It's one of the first words very small children learn. It's such a small and simple word and really deserves to be used more. Because, let's face it, people are idiots. Even me. I may like pseudo-intellectual bullcrap and spell like a champion, but this morning I spent about ten minutes looking for the calorie count on a tube of moisturizer. I'm an idiot. You're an idiot. We're all idiots. That's why we have the word 'no'. Any time you're presented with an idea that could turn out badly, all you have to say is 'no'. Easy! Right? If more people said 'no' in School Days, it'd be a much more boring story.

Hey Makoto, you wanna cheat on your super-hot girlfriend with this other hot girl?

No, that'd hurt my girlfriend and I don't think she's quite that stable to begin with.

Hey Makoto, you wanna cheat on both girls you're seeing with that girl who looks about ten?

No, if either girl found out I'd be in trouble. Plus I should really break up with one of them...

Hey Makoto, you've cheated on your girlfriend with two girls so far, why not add your lovelorn childhood friend too?

What? No! What kind of awful person do you think I am?

School Days is a deconstruction, one of my favourite subgenres because it always leads to depressing conclusions. It focuses on the harem anime, which runs with the idea that several girls chasing one guy is a good thing and the guy can actually settle down with all of the girls in a sort of Mormonesque arrangement. TV Tropes calls this formula 'The Tenchi Solution' but it did exist before Tenchi brought his particular brand of piddling bland crap to my TV screen. Urusei Yatsura had a protagonist that wanted to set up a harem (most of his dialogue revolved around it) but he was treated, quite rightly, as a pathetic lech. Kimagure Orange Road (hilariously known in other parts of the world as Almost Magical Harry) has only two girls to form a harem with, but towards the end of the series the protaganist mans up and tells one girl he loves the other girl. He leaves her a heartbroken mess, but at least she has closure and can start to move on. In Tenchi Muyo, there is no such resolution, our dull-as-fuck hero just coasts along adding more girls to his harem as time goes on. And they're all okay with this.

School Days' hero, Makoto, is a Tenchi in the making, a spineless little twat with no real defining features aside from being very good at lying to girls. He spots a regulation hottie on the train one day and, too much of a coward to approach her, he takes a picture of her on his cellphone. This is then spotted by a cute girl names Sekai, who offers to help him get close to the hot girl (named Kotonoha) for some reason. The ploy works, Kotonoha doesn't tell Makoto to get the feck away from her like she has every right to, and they start dating.

For some other reason, Sekai decides she wants Makoto for herself (it must be twoo wuv!) and she throws herself at him. Makoto, like Ryan Giggs, Tiger Woods, is incapable of refusing sex when a girl offers it no matter who it hurts so they end up dating behind Kotonoha's back. Then Sekai's friend Setsuna tries to convince Makoto to be exclusive to Sekai the only way she knows shagging him. Amazingly, this tactic did not work.

Makoto apparently has this childhood friend named Otome who also wants to hop into bed with him and has been picking on Kotonoha with her gang of bitchy girls (no real reason for this, they're just bitches.) Otome corners him during a school festival and jumps on him, and Makoto is just too weak to stop her from banging him. Poor guy must be severely chafed by now...

BUT WAIT! Some random girl with a stupid hairdo named Hikari who is apparently a friend of Sekai's shags him too. Poor Makoto, these disgraceful women are forcing him to cheat on his loving girlfriend (who he abandoned at the school festival to bonk Otome/dance with Sekai, and it's heavily implied that she was then raped by a friend of his and her mental faculties are starting to fray badly).

At last, some sort of consequence forces itself to the crux of the storyline. All that unprotected sex has managed to make Sekai pregnant somehow and Makoto does what any red-blooded man who had no part in this would do... he tells her to get a termination, publicly abandons her and continues to sleep with her friend. At this stage, Otome's bitchy friends realize that this man is a real prize and they co-erce him into a threesome with them. I remember when I used to randomly turn up at my male classmates' house with two of my friends for communal one night stands, don't we all? Ah, our School Days...

Finally, based on his harsh treatment of Sekai (but not Kotonoha, no-one cares about her anymore) the girls he's been schtupping abandon him. Makoto is forced to go without sex for one whole day, wandering around in the snow like a lost dog, until he runs into Kotonoha (who has been wandering around in the snow waiting for him to message her for God knows how long) and they reconcile. This is kinda sweet, but only because poor Kotonoha looks so happy to be with this douche.

Sekai catches up with the happy couple and they display how happy they are by kissing in front of her. Actually that's quite restrained for Makoto, I'm very surprised he didn't bend Kotonoha over and have his way with her right there to show Sekai he's totally serious. Sekai understandably freaks out and runs away, while the newlyweds make plans to have dinner together. Everyone knows what happens next, even if they've never seen the series.

It's stab o' clock!

Sekai freaks the feck out and givens Makoto a great big stabbin'. Good for her, if only she'd thought of doing that before all the unprotected sex that got her pregnant, and likely now ridden with some sort of venereal disease. So this is awesome and all, but what'll happen when Kotonoha comes back and finds her twoo wuv dead? Will she call the police and talk about this whole sorry affair? You'd think so, but that'd be too sensible and Kotonoha has alreay demonstrated through the series that she's not quite right in the head.

On the roof of the school where the murder took place (why the hell didn't she run for the border?) Kotonoha catches up with Sekai, who is prepared to kill again to protect herself. Fortunately Kotonoha proves far more crazy than Sekai and after shocking her opponent with Makoto's head in a rugsack, she gives Sekai a well-deserved murderin'. Then she cuts Sekai open just to check that she was telling the truth about being preggers (as if it mattered at this point.) The series ends with Kotonoha on a NICE BOAT (look it up) clutching Makoto's head.

As misery porn goes, this is a delightful romp. Everyone is either a slut, a jerk or crazy and when you throw hormones into the mix you got a proper misery martini. The bad ending in the series actually outdo the bad endings from the game by powering up the gore and Makoto is a slimy little weasel just like Tenchi, so it's very satisfying to see him get the end I've been wishing on Tenchi for years. As harem anime goes, from the start you can tell this isn't going to be like any of the others, even the notoriously bloody Higurashi. The uniforms actually look like school uniforms and not overdramatic cosplay, everyone has a relatively natural hair colour and style (except Hikari, but she seems like the type of person who bleaches her hair and does it up like that for attention) and it effectibely displays what kind of people you'd really expect to see in a real-life harem situation. The game has two sequels, Summer Days and Cross Days (which gives us a yaoi option...hooray!) so here's hoping another series could be made. You don't come across misery like this every day.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Antichrist: It's for sick, sick people

A little background before I launch into this review/bootlicking. It was almost a year ago, and I was reaching the brink of exhaustion. I was working two jobs, both stressful, and I'd had some personal trauma dropped on me suddenly that I'm not going to talk about here. One day I arrived at job number two and found that the Noro Virus was wreaking havoc on the two youngest boys of that family. All day I played nursemaid to them both while simultaneously praying I wouldn't get it, and knowing full well I would. And I did.

I've had multiple bouts of this illness, as someone with a compromised immune system I have to expect this kind of thing, but the severity of it hit me much worse this time. I couldn't eat, I couldn't drink more than a few sips without ferocious vomiting, I was in too much pain to sleep and I couldn't concentrate enough to lose myself in the internet. It was pretty awful. It got worse when my mother called me to rant about how I told facebook I was sick but didn't call her. I was in a black mood when I came across Antichrist, and figuring it couldn't make me feel any worse, I suggested to my housemate we watch it.

So the story opens on a man and a woman (never given a name) having an enthusiastic shag. This is the last time we'll see them happy. Everything's shot in slow-motion black and white and this is how we're forced to watch the couple's little boy make his way to an open window while his parents are too consumed with lovemaking to notice. So we can already tell the director wants us to feel bad by giving us every parent's (and nanny's) worst nightmare: somehow attending to your own desires has caused the otherwise avoidable death of a small child. Well played, Von Trier.

It gets worse from there. The father of the child is visibly grief-stricken, sobbing away during the funeral. The mother, however, is a walking corpse. Her grief is a parasite eating away at her and this is very convincingly and unnattractively portrayed by Charlotte Gainsbourg. She has several distressing and rage-filled breakdowns. Because he's a therapist and a complete idiot, the man decides to take her away to a remote cabin in the woods. This is when things get really nasty.

You ever hear the phrase 'Nature is cruel'? In Antichrist, it's downright evil. What would normally be a delightful encounter with a deer in the undergrowth turns pretty sinister when it's clear that the doe has the half-decomposed corpse of her fawn hanging off of her. When the man sticks his hand out a window for just a moment every tick in the forest jumps on to have a munch on his arm. A fall of acorns from a nearby tree hit with such force that they almost seem launched at the cabin. In the scene the film is probably best known for, a fox disembowells itself and groans something about chaos reigning at the (most likely hallucinating) man. Meanwhile, the woman is getting crazier as time goes on and they're still at it like rabbits, but very angry rabbits. I can't say any more without some serious spoilers, but it gets worse with every minute that passes until it's clear the woman is convinced the forest is evil, so is she, and the man deserves to die for some reason.

Watching this film, you can tell Lars von Trier was hitting that part of his depression that was full of hate for everyone and everything including copious amounts of self-loathing. When you compare it to his other works, which are also very bleak, it's in a completely different category. Compare it to Breaking the Waves (more on that later) which at least had a shred of hope to leave us on after the emotional walloping we bore for two and a half hours, Antichrist just keeps beating you. It's the Mohammed Ali of depressing media. It's nice to see that he seems to be in a better place with his new film Melancholia, but i haven't seen it yet so I can't comment on it too much yet.

After four days of non-stop vomiting, a ton of painkillers, no sleep and no end in sight, Antichrist made me feel better. I made a full recovery the day after I watched this film, which was nothing short of a miracle. I heartily recommend you keep this handy for the next time you're violently ill.

Holy Hatpins, I'm Back!

This is my fourth attempt at keeping a blog, I think, so I'm going to roll with it while I still have the patience and inclination. Now I'm going to focus on something I'm really passionate about; misery porn!

Remember when you were a teenager, dressing all in black, writing poetry about how nobody will ever love you because you have an evil soul, listening to Nirvana and crying because Kurt Cobain is the only man who will ever understand your pain and he's long gone? Well, I don't because I never had that phase. Sucks to be you!

I'm a happy person. I stay that way through keeping an upbeat attitude towards my own life as well as dealing out nice big slices of pure agony through fiction. It gives one a nice sense of perspective when you've spent an afternoon reading about a man and a child struggling through a radioactive wasteland and the worst that's happened to you today is stabbing yourself in the eyebrow with a sewing needle. Plus it can be really fascinating to see someone take a tried and tested formula such as magical girls, domestic drama or high fantasy and take it to its darkest possible conclusion.

Aside from anything else it can really display the state of mind of a creator during production and for armchair psychiatrists it's fascinating stuff. Watch End of Evangelion and see if you can pinpoint exactly when they decided Hideaki Anno needed to be sectioned.

So this is my new blog. Welcome. First on the list is Antichrist.