All the Books

I’ve finally allowed myself to learn to love audiobooks. They’re great for providing something for me to focus on when otherwise doing a fairly mindless or boring task. But since my multitasking ability sucks, I’ll only listen to things that I’m okay with missing something in. Listening is just not the best way for me to absorb a story (and I’ll never accept that it’s comparable to reading; they’re just apples to oranges–oral storytelling is great, but it is different than written storytelling, and this is real estate in the general vicinity of a hill I’m willing to die on).

Truly, the credit for my newfound acceptance goes to the Indianapolis Public Library’s collections and the accessibility of the Overdrive and Hoopla websites and apps. I’ve already made it through a couple books despite the recentness of this change of heart.

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The first audiobook I experimented with was William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Verily, A New Hope, by Ian Doescher. I enjoyed the stageplay feel, with a few different voice actors narrating the book. The sound effects were great. I was tickled by the human pronunciations of R2-D2’s whistles, and his internal monologues were a weird diversion. Nonetheless, the novelty wore off quickly enough for me. It’s hard to suggest that this has much merit on its own, after all–it’s entirely about the gimmick of combining Star Wars and Shakespeare. The saturation in pop culture and melodramatic nature of the two draw comparisons, and Doescher obviously put a lot of effort into emulating Shakespeare’s style, but it’s basically what it says on the tin, good for a bit of amusement and nothing more. Still, the production value of the audiobook was so good that I could listen to another in this series.

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan was second on my list. My first observation: it has too many subtitles. The audiobook brought life to the story, and it really showcased how good Drew Karpyshyn is at describing action. The narrator’s decisions regarding voices were somewhat disappointing. Revan sounded like bored Batman, even though he was written in the book as a sort of funny guy who was quick to quip and often contemplative. The Sith Lord Scourge sounded like angry Batman. And the female characters–Meetra and Bastila, for instance–typically sounded like man-doing-a-high-pitched-voice (which is, after all, what was happening), so I think the emotional resonance of their characters suffered.

Despite enjoying the action sequences, I don’t like what this book did to Revan and the Jedi Exile. For one thing, it shouldn’t have defined who they were. The KOTOR games were stories set in the distant past, a fable even in the context of the old EU canon. There was no need to have a “canon” series of events–these games thrived on player choice and the consequences of those choices.

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But even accepting a “canon” version of events, it’s icky to have a story where the Jedi Exile acts like a subservient cheerleader of Revan and ultimately dies for him, becoming a Force ghost to keep him alive. Also, these are characters players have a lot of connection to–their tragic ends here are a let-down and seem to exist only to raise the stakes of The Old Republic and make that game seem EVEN BIGGER, LOUDER, AND BETTER THAN THE ORIGINAL (reminds me of the decision to kill off Newt and Hicks in Alien 3). Finally, the game seems to retcon things a little bit, once more in the service of making The Old Republic more important. For instance, and most significantly, the Sith Emperor’s Force-devouring evil is presented as this colossal threat that would even shift Sith to become Jedi allies–but isn’t that reflective of exactly who Darth Nihilus was and what he was up to in KOTOR II?

I liked the similarly over-subtitled Star Wars: The Old Republic: Fatal Alliance (by Sean Williams) when I read it years ago, but in retrospect, I cannot be sure if I was just more into the “edgy” take on Star Wars being offered by the writers of The Old Republic game and media push than I would be now.

The one Star Wars story of the bunch that I really enjoyed was something I read rather than listened to: an ebook version of Star Wars: The Prequel Trilogy: A Graphic Novel (yet another work with too many subtitles). The artwork is clean, colorful, and emotive. Best of all, it’s a masterclass in efficient editing. Each of the films is stripped down into a much tighter, action-packed core. Extraneous fight scenes (and the infamous podrace) are cut down considerably or even (as in the case of the starship fight over Geonosis between Obi-Wan and Jango) cut completely. Some quirky bits of dialogue and some genuinely good character moments get left on the cutting room floor, but almost everything felt improved by the omission. Some things I wish they’d been willing to cut even further. They opened late and ended early on a lot of moments, and yet midi-chlorians remain in, and Anakin’s admission that he killed even women and children in the Tusken Raider village stays as well. Still, given the source material that the graphic novel is operating from, this is probably the best format that I’ve seen the prequels in so far. The weird thing is that this collection seems to have been made with a crew big enough for a small film–it’s difficult to attribute to only a few individuals.

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I also read an ebook version of Dark Horse’s Age of Reptiles Omnibus: Volume I by Ricardo Delgado. The art was gorgeous and dynamic. So much was packed into each panel, and there was such a strong flow from panel to panel. Motion was clearly conveyed. There was a buzzing energy that propels you onward. This comic series appears to have a well-deserved reputation for its entirely visual storytelling. Motivation and emotion are clearly conveyed through dinosaur body language and action. There is no dialogue (obviously–they’re dinosaurs), and there are no descriptive sound effects. All storytelling happens through the art alone. My major criticism would be that the stories are a little too focused on nature red in tooth and claw, but we do see other aspects of the dinosaurs’ lives. The Journey was the most satisfying story (the image here comes from it), epic and yet also somewhat mundane, a slice-of-life story nonetheless replete with death and violence.

That’s it for the books. Next: all the video games.

Review: The Road to Jonestown

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples TempleThe Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Road to Jonestown is a compelling portrait of Jim Jones. He’s a fascinating human, and his combination of socialism and an increasingly spiritualist interpretation of the Gospel seems very enticing (though obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Jones was not a man worthy of following). Typically I don’t see the appeal in cults, but that ideology and service-driven focus could have easily snagged 19-year-old me if I’d been around at the time. Just as interesting, Jones was able to gain legitimacy by obtaining membership within a nationally recognized church and by integrating himself into civil rights campaigning in Indianapolis and San Francisco. For all the abuse, control, and killing that would come down the line, he started off doing a lot of good. Yet that doesn’t make up for the evil that was ultimately unleashed by his increasingly twisted, controlling psyche.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown, cults in general, or even local histories of Indianapolis or San Francisco. Just a fascinating read, and quite well-researched too.

I had two complaints with the book that were perpetual minor irritants.

For one thing, Guinn repeatedly refers to “Indiana University” as “the University of Indiana.” There are a lot of universities in Indiana, but the University of Indiana ain’t one of them. No one I know who is an alumnus or fan of IU calls it that, and as far as I can tell, it never had that name in its history (certainly not in the mid-twentieth century). Despite this, it’s a misnomer that Guinn uses frequently in the first third of the book, and he even indexes the university under this incorrect name. While it seems like he did his research about Indiana and appears to have visited at least Richmond and Lynn, this nonetheless made me repeatedly question his rigor of research and understanding of the state that, after all, formed Jim Jones into the adult and pastor who would form a church and campaign for civil rights reforms all before moving on to California.

The other complaint is that Guinn freely mixes the use of the terms “socialism” and “communism.” This would be a minor irritant, but it made it difficult to understand what, exactly, Jim Jones was advocating for. It may be that Jim Jones left plenty of confusion on that point–his organization seemed socialist, but he was prepared to move to communist Cuba or Russia by the time of the Jonestown days. Nonetheless, if Jones’s basic ideology was really so muddled as to be unable to distinguish between these systems of governance, it would have been nice to make that clearer in the text (or to make it clear that the confusion lay in communist countries referring to themselves as socialist). Especially in today’s politically divided America of hyperbolic rhetorical extremes, where even commonly accepted government entitlements are derided as “socialist” and treated as equivalent to communism by an ever-growing subset of conservatism, I think it’s important to use these terms as carefully as possible.

Those were the only things that bothered me while reading. It was a fast-paced, informative, and disturbing read. Guinn appeared to approach the matter with honesty and good faith. While in retrospect I would have preferred to learn more about the specifics of Jones’s increasingly bizarre beliefs that appeared to combine government conspiracy theories with spiritualism, a belief in reincarnation, and socialism, Guinn still does an admirable job of tracing the public and private arc of one rather charismatic cult leader’s life and self-serving death.

View all my reviews

Return / Updates

I was accidentally away from the blog for a while. On return, I decided to make a couple changes.

First, I’ve changed the WordPress template I’m using to hopefully make things more streamlined. Now there’s a greater emphasis on text, which is after all the primary format of this blog. I think images still look fine with the changes. And the stream of past blog posts feels less overwhelming to me now. I genuinely liked the walls of images until I didn’t anymore. (There are some other minor tweaks, like the addition of displayed archives.)

Also, I created a Facebook page for this blog. If you like the blog, I’d be flattered by a like of the page, but it’s basically just there to make it easier to publish new posts to Facebook now.

If you like (or dislike) the changes, feel free to let me know.

I think I’ll be back to regular posts now. It’s funny–I’ll schedule stuff through holidays, but then it’s after the holidays that I get behind.

(Header: Oil painting by Samantha Melvin, 2016.)

Swan Watch: Clone Wars Adventures

Bultar Swan stars in “Impregnable,” the third story in the short comic anthology of Star Wars Clone Wars Adventures Volume 7. The script’s by Chris Avellone, with art by Ethen Beavers and colors by Dan Jackson. It’s a fine little action story. Swan, her forces demolished, strides into an allegedly impregnable fortress, slowly dismantling defenses and sealing the surviving commander inside. Locking an opponent in as the life support fails is more “Cask of Amontillado” than Jedi Code, though. I thought the story worked well enough for the format, but I was very disappointed by the use of Bultar Swan as the protagonist. This seems to go against what little character development had already been established for her. A ruthless killer willing to leave someone to die is basically antithetical to what interested me about her in the first place. (And while it goes unaddressed, her ability to simply walk into the fortress certainly suggests she might have sacrificed wave after wave of soldiers for little purpose.)

Plus, she’s silent the whole time, while the despotic villain in the fortress core taunts her throughout. It’s not an unheard-of form of storytelling, and it can work well, but her silence and martial prowess evoke uncomfortable comparisons to the silent, stoic Asian martial artist cliche. In this light, the otherwise forgivable caricature of her facial features that is typical of the style of art employed comes off as a way to accent her Asian-ness while removing much of the character’s resemblance to her film counterpart. There’s even one panel where her face is bathed in a greenish light (which does not affect the warm colors behind her), calling up comparisons to the racist and offensive imagery portraying villainous Asians in mid-twentieth-century America.

Outside of this rather disappointing Swan appearance, I overall enjoyed the anthology, which captured the visuals and action-packed fun of the television miniseries. The first story, “Creature Comforts” (script and art by The Fillbach Brothers, colors by Ronda Pattison) was a near pitch-perfect portrayal of war hero Obi-Wan and Anakin at their wittiest while being tossed from monster to monster. The one misstep is at the end, when Obi-Wan rather cruelly crushes a tiny crab “monster” to stop its cry. It’s meant to be funny but makes Obi-Wan seem like a sociopath rather than a kindly, wizened Jedi Master.

The other two tales try out a girl-power spy story (“Spy Girls,” script by Ryan Kaufman, art by Stewart McKenny, colors by Dan Jackson) and a bank heist gone wrong (“The Precious Shining,” script by Jeremy Barlow, art by the Fillbach Brothers, colors by Ronda Pattison). I might have enjoyed the last story the most, as it showed people caught between the Republic and the Separatists. It presented a level of moral nuance, and a more down-to-earth perspective, that was more likely to be found in the later Filoni-helmed series on the Clone Wars, though it ends in a simple twist of fortune.

The anthology was slender and quick to read. It was mostly fun. Too bad that this was my least favorite portrayal of Bultar Swan yet. At least she got to be an action hero for a little while.

Recommendation: Manila in the Claws of Light

What follows isn’t exactly a review; nor is it analysis. It’s just a recommendation of a classic film that I only recently discovered.

I had the pleasure of recently watching Manila in the Claws of Light, a 1975 Filipino noir film directed by Lino Brocka, produced and with cinematography by Mike De Leon, based on the novel of the same name by Edgardo Reyes and adapted to screen by Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr, and released in the midst of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. In sum, it’s about the crushing oppression and despair experienced by the urban working class. Julio Madiaga (portrayed by Bembol Roco) is a simple fisherman who moves to Manila in search of his missing girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso (Hilda Koronel), who was coerced by a strange outsider woman to move to the city with the promise of a factory job and education. Julio struggles to make ends meet as a construction laborer, encountering corruption and labor violations (including terribly unsafe working conditions) and discovering the worst slums of the city where some of his coworkers live. Ligaya, meanwhile, has been forced into prostitution. Julio most make desperate choices to stay alive, and yet we also see the working class friends he makes standing together in solidarity (mostly) to try to make it to another day. The film builds toward Julio finally rediscovering Ligaya, who is virtually imprisoned, with its final act devoted to a plan to escape. The entire arc of the movie is a series of tragedies, scenarios always worsening whenever the slimmest sliver of hope manifests.

The structure of the story is couched in intrusive flashbacks, especially in the first act, which can be disorienting and which reflect the protagonist’s exhausted, overworked frame of mind and his driving goal. Scenes of life on the streets of 1970’s Manila are bleak and powerful; at times, it almost feels documentary. The music is eerie, often anxiety-inducing, and frequently in jarring dissonance with the ambient sounds of the city, which typically crush in on the action. Manila’s streets constrict on the actors and audience as people swarm about with their own lives. Violence is commonplace and random. The few beautiful shots of city high-rises almost always frame them in the distant background, unreachable or uninhabitable by the core cast of characters. Public parks can be beautiful but also are threatening and clearly position Julio as out-of-place.

A few weeks ago, I’d never heard of the film. Now, it’s one of my favorite neo-noir works, up there with Taxi Driver and Chinatown. Thanks, Indianapolis Public Library system! This was a Criterion Collection remastered release of the film, and in addition to special features, it included a very thoughtful essay by film scholar José B. Capino regarding the movie and the director.

Manila in the Claws of Light is beautiful, disturbing, and intense, and I highly recommend it.

Review: BlacKkKlansman

I cannot imagine leaving BlacKkKlansman without a strong emotional reaction. In the film’s final moments, when it cuts from the narrative to footage of present-day racist gatherings and racist violence and finally ends in solemn silence, it felt as if a sobering pall had settled over the audience, who digested a few moments in silence before beginning to leave the theater. For me, white supremacist groups in America have felt so distant and ridiculous, not so much a threat as an absurd caricature, but this film portraying fictionalized events in 1970’s Colorado Springs reminded me of just how virulently evil and close and dangerous racism could be. I have remained perpetually disgusted with Trump’s administration, but I had the cooling distance of a native-born, white, middle-class American male, and with the never-ending string of controversies and scandals, most seeming more ineffectual and frivolous and unchanging, I stopped being so angry without ever realizing it. It’s a privilege to not be angry, to not be constantly troubled by the sudden confluence of blatant white supremacists and longstanding racist institutional structures, and this film reignited that anger and reminded me that a good portion of Americans don’t have the privilege of turning a blind eye to the never-ending racism in this country.

Some left the film confused–I know that. I overheard a discussion between mother and daughter, the mother hesitant and reserved in her evaluation of the movie, disbelieving. Some might be angry at the film itself, either for allowing nuance and complexity or for being too militantly activist. Others might challenge the factual events underlying the story (although any dramatic film actually trying to tell a story with any degree of artistic merit and structural cohesion will of course deviate from and embellish facts–it’s not a documentary). I’ve heard and seen some of these reactions emerging. The only sure thing is that people will react upon seeing it.

The film validates black anger and various black responses to a racist system and to individual racism, but it still credits those black people accomplishing good by working within the system rather than opposing it, and it recognizes white allies and other minorities who can work together and produce positive good in or out of the system, supporting or working in parallel with black activists. That was a fascinating trick, to simultaneously validate black anger against white people, to understand how someone could feel that all white people are bad, and yet to see that there are good white people who can be counted on to make a difference. Part of the success of this “trick” is that the film fundamentally recognizes that there is no single universal experience, that white people and black people don’t fit into monolithic demographic groups without any divergences or varied opinions and experiences. Even police officers are shown to inhabit a variety of attitudes, some compassionate and good, some obviously racist and power-hungry and evil, some subservient to additional power structures and punishing of those who push against them. But it’s still a trick that I can’t fully explain, because it’s not something revealed in a single moment. That nuance, the validation of the anger of many black people and the recognition of the range of attitudes among white and black people and among those within institutions of power in this country, might be what the film is about–one of the many things the film is about.

Other things the film is about: how individual and institutional racism are separate but serve similar oppressive functions and ultimately work together to mute or neuter progressive change; how a certain brand of conservative politics and religion, coalescing around a cluster of issues including crime, immigration, and entitlements, has given racism a reformed look; how certain politicians (irrespective of party or platform), from Wilson to Nixon to Trump, have directly benefited from playing to the concerns of white supremacists; how gun ownership and ready access to firearms is simultaneously a tool of white supremacists and a potentially empowering protective force for minorities; how even the most absurd, caricatured, cartoonish racism can be violent and dangerous and never really vanishes; and how even people with good intentions and admirable goals can still do terrible things (Stallworth starts the movie spying on the black power movement so that the police leadership can keep the minority population in check). That’s not an exhaustive list by any means, and it’s a combination of themes that are clearly intended by the creators and also inferred by my own viewing.

BlacKkKlansman is a film that sits squarely in the director-as-auteur tradition; Spike Lee’s fingerprints appear to be all over it. That said, I only know of Lee and his films by reputation, not familiarity, and so I can’t comment coherently on this or say what does or does not reflect his previous works. The cinematography was excellent (Chayse Irvin was director of photography), but this is definitely a film that benefits from careful editing and post-production. Posters, film clips, radio transmissions, music, and documentary footage flit between diagetic and non-diagetic. A particularly powerful moment flashes up images of a rapt audience reacting to a speaker, faces illuminated against a black void, showing the power of the speaker’s impact and the personal relationship between speaker and listener that is felt in a particularly moving oratory. The film is sometimes surreal, and its surreal moments develop an emotional authenticity. So even while the movie feels like an auteur production, it’s impossible not to easily recognize the influence of editing and the art, visual and special effects, and sound design departments in crafting a masterful whole.

The pacing is spectacular for the over-two-hour run-time. The dialogue is smart; it’s at times repulsively, unbearably hateful (which, in this context, is incredibly appropriate to show just how insidious and terrifying racism is), while at other times it’s charmingly, playfully light. No matter how dark the film gets, and it gets very dark, there is a lot of humor, and even some of the darkest moments can be funny, if uncomfortably or shockingly so. (Writing credits were given to Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee; the film was based on a book by the actual Ron Stallworth.) Interestingly, the plot feels very much like neo-noir: an investigator unravels a series of discoveries that result in a small win that is in turn ultimately crushed under the weight of institutional corruption and fails to produce lasting change. The comparisons are more numerous than that, but even in a nutshell, the noir influences are obvious enough. It makes sense: the narrative conventions of the genre work rather well for a story about battling against organized racism without ever really making a substantial dent. The local Klan by the end of the film has been somewhat defanged, but not deterred, and the organizational structure and political pressures in the police force cause efforts to curtail the Klan to be derailed just as soon as the undercover cops begin to make progress. They are too successful in stopping the worst of the Klan, such that the threat seems unimportant to higher-level officials.

And the film is full of fantastic acting. Most noteworthy are the leads (as is appropriate, I suppose). John David Washington has such natural charisma and a gleaming white smile, while his eyes alone are able to project such a range of emotions, even while the character of Ron Stallworth is often reserved or inhabiting a role. Adam Driver dripped sarcasm but always projected a heart of gold as Ron’s undercover partner Flip, and he has his own emotional arc as Flip finds himself reflecting more on his Jewish identity and how he has passed as “white” even as he burrows into the role of white supremacist to infiltrate the KKK. Laura Harrier conveys intelligence, passion, flirtatious charm, and self-righteous fury as Patrice, a black student union president, activist, and Ron’s romantic interest. Topher Grace is very hilarious as a young David Duke, and while I assumed he was just doing outright parody, the ending and very real clip of the current-age Duke made me realize that the performance was hilariously spot-on. And the cast of cops, activists, and white supremacists in supporting roles is deserving of note, as well–the supremacists in particular shockingly had a range of roles that, while all detestable and often idiotic, allowed at least local KKK leader Walter (Ryan Eggold) to seem charming and intelligent and almost-sympathetic. (I could say a lot more about the character of Walter–one of the interesting choices of the film was that it gives him a moment to explain why he’s a racist, but never explores it further; we don’t know if his history of violent encounters with black people is true or false, and ultimately it’s irrelevant, because nothing would support his racism. Actually, each of the characters represents something worthy of discussion about white supremacists, including the role of white women in these organizations.)

You may not like BlacKkKlansman. You may not agree with the film’s apparent messages. You may walk away with a variety of emotions or experiences that I cannot fully predict. But I’m sure that you will react. See it, and see it soon.