Saturday, June 30, 2007

Snow Cake

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, even if it didn't quite go where I'd thought it would. I knew that it featured Sigourney Weaver as some sort of autistic women, living in the snow in Canada (a place called Wawa, as it happens). A review I read somewhere had said it was such a shame to use someone like Weaver to play such a limited character, but I have to disagree: playing Linda Freeman was no easy task. Yes, she's autistic, but that doesn't mean its easy to be her. Linda was what one character says is "high functioning, very verbal" - her autism comes through in her being someone who "doesn't do social", who won't be touched, who is obsessive about having everything just so in her kitchen (to the point that no-one is allowed in), who finds eating snow is a better experience than orgasm (at least as it was described to her by her daughter) and who is a curious mix of innocence and insight.

The film opens with a scruffy hitchhiker, it is unclear at first whether it is a man or a woman, bursting into a cafe and making her way (yes, it is a woman, Vivienne, Linda's daughter) to a table, at which Alex Hughes (Alan Rickman) is trying to read. She chirps away, to the point that he stomps off outside, obviously not keen to chat (in fact, he's told her this when she sat down "I sense that you're a very chatty sort of person. I'm not.") But he ends up giving her a lift - unfortunately, because there's a horrible accident and she's dead, just like that. It turns out that he has his demons he has being trying to erase, as his son was killed in a similar fashion, and Alex killed the driver - this cross country drive was some sort of quest he thought might still at least one demon.

And so Alex finds himself in Wawa, wanting to apologise to Linda ("Was it your fault?" "No." "There's nothing to say then") but getting caught up in her needs ("Vivienne always did the garbage. I can't touch it. Garbage day is Tuesday. You'll have to stay till Tuesday."). Then there's the need to get Vivienne's funeral arranged. The funeral itself was surprisingly sweet - I loved the bit where the priest is saying that the music is one of Vivienne's favourites, by a group by, and here he grimaces as if he couldn't believe in such a thing, the Super Furry Animals. The music overall was pretty good - Broken Social Scene did the majority of it, plus there were tracks by the Stereophonics (Alex was listening to this through some pretty full on looking headhpones), Feist and Tori Amos among others. There's one song that gets Linda dancing joyfully - we hear it first as Alan approaches her house and again at the wake - according to someone at IMDB its
"Kitaka sassa" by Takemi Kakizaki, who sings Min'yo (folk) songs from mainly northern Japan. While she's dancing to this song, Linda can imagine she's dancing with Vivienne.

There's no ceremony or silliness with Linda, just this practical need to have the garbage taken out next Tuesday, so Alex will have to stay. The movie itself doesn't make a big deal about autism - it is just a feature of Linda's character, as much as being a nuclear power plant worker is for Homer. And she's really rather lovely - one of the best moments in the movie was when she managed to get Alex, who's pretty repressed, onto the trampoline. But the movie doesn't do the obvious thing, and see Alex's arrival in her life cause some big flowering into sexuality(in fact, one reason for calling the movie Snow Cake is that Alex gives her a whole cake made out of snow - a present she appreciated much more than the mega cookie her neighbour made for her, unaware she is gluten intolerant.)

But, for reasons I don't really get, Alex gets to have a brief affair with another neighbour, Maggie; this bordered on the gratuitous. It did, I suppose, help Alex come to the realisation that, what with Maggie and Linda in his life, he could see himself staying. And maybe he does - all the movie shows us is him continuing on his journey, a much happier man, with some possibility he'll be back.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Way of Life

Ooh, this movie was awful - in the sense that it was so well made and real, that the story being told was an awful one. I only went along to the Academy to see it because I was still in town when it started (and was the only occupant). Even before the credits start, we see a group of teenagers kick a man (Hassan) to death. He turns out to be a decent, hard working fellow, with a family he's had to look after as his wife died. His only crime is that he's a "Paki" (although he has lived in the UK for more than 30 years, longer than his attackers, and is actually Turkish, but they're so caught up in their sense of grievance that such fine distinctions are beyond them).

Leigh-Anne is the worst of the lot: she's a single mum, living in an awful part of (I think) Swansea in Wales. Her mum killed herself, her dad is no help. The father of her child has long since gone, she has no money, is engaged in an ongoing battle with "the Social" and various other forms of officialdom. She does love her child, I'll give her that, and that is part of what inspires her to awful behaviour - she pimps out a 14 year old girl to a man my age and can't see anything wrong with it, has the cheek to use the proceeds to buy shoes from the girl's mum for her kid. Stephanie James, apparently in her first role, was fantastic - completely compelling when she had to threaten to get what she wanted, tender with her kid, very believable as someone who saw herself as having no options at all.

The three guys she hangs around with are a little more nuanced. Gavin is her brother - he actually falls in love with Hassan's daughter, and is at least conflicted over his role in her father's death, although he does participate. Robbie seems like a nice bloke, even has plans to get away or at least get a job (he interviews at an old people's home) but, unfortunately for him, is in love with Leigh-Anne - the one gentle moment in the movie is when she realises it. But this means he has responsibilities: when Hassan seems to be threatening her by talking to the Social to have her baby taken off her, Leigh-Anne wants something done to him, something bad. The third guy, Steve, was a bit harder to make out: he has a dream of changing his name, and thus his fortune.

I was amused, in a perverse sort of way, that the lead up to the brutal scene with which the movie started happened in a library - I was thinking that this was probably the first time any of them had been in one, and the only reason they went in was so that Leigh-Anne could clean her kid up. They're stalking around the shelves after Hassan and follow him outside - an odd touch here was that all four of them put the hoods over their hoodies over their heads, sort of gangsta style.

But the movie goes on after Hassan's death - Leigh Anne is taken in by the Police and finally gets that this act she caused, in the interests of keeping her baby, actually is the first thing she's done that means her baby will be taken off her.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

JPod by Douglas Coupland

I have long meant to read Microserfs, because it has the reputation of being a seminal work in its characterisation of the modern worker bee in a technological world, but have somehow never quite got around to it. Then, when I first saw JPod on the shelves, I refused to buy it, because it seemed to have so many pages wasted, with what struck me as meaningless gimmickry. For example, we have the first page listing various orders of finality (I am not sure if "FINAL" or "FINAL.working" is the ultimate order) of what I take to be a completed computer game; the next page simply goes from "1ne" to "9ine"; then through what seems to be various spam messages all joined together (I was dubious about reading it, but just as I was about to give up, I'd find an odd connection that made reading them quite fun) and culminating in a couple of pages of $ symbols, followed by a page of "ramen noodles" typed over and over and over. The first actual words of narrative (on page 15) are "'Oh, God, I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel".

Flicking through, I found this: one of twenty pages of pi: it is succeeded by another 20 pages of random numbers. The occupants of the JPod amuse themselves by sending each other such documents, with a challenge to find the one digit which does not fit the correct order of the first one hundred thousand digits of pi, or the O in among all the random numbers.

Life in the JPod was curiously amusing, however, and by the time I had read far enough into the novel to see these games being played, I did find them funny (but not quite enough to play along myself). I am still unsure what to make of the numerous pages like this one, however:

They weren't referenced in the narrative, but seemed to be spam of some sort. In addition, there were also several closely typed pages of random spam -

So: what is JPod? It is a team, put together solely on the basis that their surname starts with the letter J, which is designing a computer game. Early on we are given a biographic sketch of each of the characters - thanks to a "living cartoon profile" Ethan (the central character) prepares to demonstrate they're not an "emotional blank". The joke is that he can fit each into standardised list of everything that is special and unique about them (one guy had such an odd upbringing in some sort of hippy lesbian commune that he changed his name to John Doe and desperately tries to do whatever is average throughout the novel). We learn more about them when they try to sell themselves as an ideal mate for Ronald McDonald.

Dramatic tension is provided by the fact that, as the novel starts, our team of happy workers has been told that the game they are working on, one
for streetwise skater kids and which might actually have been quite OK, must now include a "charismatic cuddly turtle character", because the boss wants to reach out to his estranged kid. This kills any enthusiasm any of the team might have had for doing their actual job: most of their time at work is used up trying to create strategies to look busy. Some of the novel attends to the boringness of meetings, the inanity of the work place and the subversiveness of bored workers: they make an inclusion of their own into this computer game - a toxic version of Ronald McDonald. Of course, the whole thing turns out to be a bust, and all the workers go work for the competition - Douglas Coupland. He has borrowed a laptop from Ethan, the central character: the laptop is a virtual record of his entire life, from which Coupland writes a novel. Yep - that's where this novel goes.

But there is a whole heap of other stuff going on as well; Ethan has problems with both parents, but not the normal things that kids angst over. Mum runs a dope growing plant, and calls on him to help out with debt collection (and the disposal of the odd dead body). She has boundary issues, so wanders into one of Ethan's meetings and, to make matters worse, starts dating his boss. His father is waiting for his one big break - to finally get a speaking part, no matter how modest, in a commercial - has a dope-fiend stalker girl and an unhealthy addiction to ballroom dancing. Even his brother gets him into weird scenarios: Ethan comes home to find his apartment over-run by "maybe twenty stick-thin Chinese people huddled on my floor" - refugees his brother is smuggling into the USA. This provides Ethan with a way of striking out against consumerism: he is sick of everybody buying outfits from the same selection of stores at the same mall. He wants to establish a look, and stick with it - when he has to reclothe the Chinese refugees, he is left with their cast off clothing; "it was like my fashion gift of the gods. Indeed, the gods had handed me a look on a platter. And the thing is, once you establish a look, and once everyone recognises that look as your look, you never need to think about fashion again."

A further character becomes vitally important: Kam Fong, the fellow behind the people smuggling: he and Ethan's dad find a bond in ballroom dancing; he and Ethan's mum also form a bond (so that when Steve becomes a problem for her, he disappears and is found, months later, in a Chinese forced labour camp). Yes - it is a big sprawling novel that goes all over the place, to the point that it is hard to take as any kind of serous commentary, but it is very funny. I think my favourite bit is when Ethan and his dad have to run an errand out to the boondocks (something to do with a bootleg satellite system), so they take off in Kam's vehicle (his "two-ton smuggling-mobile" - I guess I should have noticed the clue). Anyway, they're out in the middle of nowhere, they find a guy whose dog had bit Ethan's mum. Dad gets all territorial and knocks the fellow off his bike and decide to take it off him:

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Whatever happened to May?

Weeks slipped away like minutes, what with the film festival, a fairly heavy dose of good reading and the stress of working to a June 1 deadline, so that I could get away and spend a few days in Sydney. I do have various books and movies to write about, but in the meantime, some highlights from the last month:
  • I was in the newspaper, on the front page even. Not in my work capacity, which has been the case a couple of times recently. Not in the court pages; I have yet to make an appearance there and, touch wood, never will. Nope, I made it into the society pages of the local paper, as an example of a male in a book club. It was an interesting experience being interviewed at length and then seeing all my good points edited out, but other members thought it was a nice piece. And, yes, I and the other member interviewed were on the front page, in the little teaser banner at the top of the page. A lot of people I know saw it, but only one complete stranger came up to me to say "I saw you in the paper". We didn't get any new members out of it either, but two acquaintances did ask if the two of us who had our photo appear were in love with each other - we were represented as gazing fervently at each other, despite the fact the photos were taken separately.
  • Our book club finally picked something that we were all blown away by, after a few tough months where people struggled to finish or have much to say. Our good taste was then validated entirely by seeing our book (Chinamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun) win the Orange Prize. I tried to call an emergency meeting of my book club in Sydney when I noticed an African restaurant which had a dish lovingly prepared by Ugwu, the houseboy in Adichie's novel, for his Master: jollof rice. Since no members were about, I had to try this dish by myself - the sacrifices one makes for one's commitment to the arts. It is very tasty: rice cooked pilau style, with tomato paste, pepper sauce, black eyed peas and chicken.
  • Another fantastic dish I enjoyed in Sydney was when I left the NSW State Library to go for a wander and came across a chocolate cafe. Lunch that day consisted of a double-sized shot glass of hot chocolate (the taste and consistency of a bar of chocolate that has been left in one's pocket until just short of the absolute gooey mess) with a waffle on the side for dipping purposes, as well as a coffee and an almond chocolate.
  • My favourite encounter in Sydney occurred while I was standing on King Street, Newtown enjoying a quiet smoke before entering a book shop. A gaggle of young girls, maybe 16 or 17, came along . One was heard to say "He's odd. That guy over there, he's really odd." I deduce that this statement was made with reference to me and in a slightly approving way from the fact that she then came over to ask if I wanted to eat the sugar cube she had stuck to her hand.
  • Speaking of odd encounters, thanks to unusual weather conditions, the Leith found itself full of salmon, all having difficulty in making their way up to their spawning grounds because of the low levels of the water and the various concrete humps placed in their way. After class one day, I spent a fair while watching one unfortunate fellow trying really hard to get over one such hump: he'd swim around for a while, gathering his energy, then make a leap over the hump - only to go splat about 2/3 of the way up. I wonder if he'd noticed the channel cut into the hump, for the very purpose of aiding salmon. I wonder if my mate's "encouragement" helped him any: "Go on, you loser. What are you, a loser?..." I thought the least he could have done was to pray. I guess it wasn't quite as bad as the situation facing the salmon I saw in the DVD version of A Long Way Round: salmon there would arc gracefully out of the water, clearly with sufficient energy and more to make it over the natural hurdles, but straight into the mouth of a waiting bear. Ouch.