Monday, October 31, 2016

What's that howling in the distance?


Neoreaction a Basilisk is a book that I supported through Kickstarter. I had a lot of fun reading it but you should probably know by now that I have somewhat strange tastes.

It's a book of literary theory and philosophy that explores the NRX movement in a tone that suggests it might be (but isn't) a novel.

It's hard to explain.

But I did have fun reading it. It made me feel incredibly inadequate at points (like how much I feel I need to brush up on Blake after reading it) and dragged and reached at points (like when it's attempting to use Hannibal as a reflection of one of the unholy trinity at the center of the book) but as a whole it was entertaining.

Philip Sandifer (the author) is a personality I know through Tumblr and I haven't read anything he's written other than his blog posts and his philoso-novel about bizarre politics. He seems like an interesting thinker and he has a devastatingly wry, which is most of what makes the book worth reading.

For me, at least.

I don't know if it'll be worth reading for you if you aren't heavily invested in criticism of the NRX movement and literary theory. "Let us assume that we are fucked," the book opens, and repeats. If you can get behind that statement and wish to explore it further, this might be the book for you.

     - Alli

Sandifer, Philip. Neoreaction a Basilisk. Conspiracy Zine Edition.  2016.

Good, bad, and editing

I've talked a bit about my sister's movie month programs, and I've talked a lot about my family's obsessions with media, but I don't know if I've talked about why.

Part of it may have to do with the fact that Strother Martin is my cousin and I basically grew up in a circus family.

My Grandfather, a lifetime performing stage magician by profession, married my Grandmother - a badass lady whose first cousin happened to be one of the more recognizable bit actors in about a hundred films.

Probably his most famous line is as the Warden in Cool Hand Luke - "What we have here is failure to communicate." He played that kind of guy.

At least when he wasn't playing mad scientists or Satanic cult leaders. Because he was my grandmother's cousin (and therefore my dad's cousin and therefore my cousin) my family has seen A LOT of his hundred-plus movies. Some of them (like Cool Hand Luke and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) are legitimately good movies. Others (like Sssssss!) are not. The Brotherhood of Satan is one of Strother's movies that is NOT a good movie.

But, fuck, it almost could be. The director was more competent than I expected, the cinematographer took some chances and landed on some kickass shots. Dialogue that could have been straight-up rotten mostly lands because the casting director got lucky.

I actually feel like this would be a damn decent little film if someone would sit down and do a fan edit and maybe mix up the music a bit. It's an early 70s schlock horror flick about a satanic cult so there's probably no way to make it a great film (some of those costumes and props just can't be gotten around) but it's surprisingly understated for what it is and pretty damn entertaining in spite of all the ways it easily could have failed.

If you're looking for a goofy horror film to throw on in the background of a party you could do a lot worse than The Brotherhood of Satan.

     - Alli

Disassociation for fun and profit

Shirley Jackson makes me feel crazy, which kind of makes me feel okay because I get the feeling that Shirley Jackson was crazy too. She writes characters who are having breakdowns or who are reacting to trauma or who are living with mental illnesses in such a convincing way that I can't help but be convinced. She knows what she's talking about. She's telling the story about the inside of her head, which coincidentally happens to have some similarities to the inside of my head. At least that's how I feel.

If We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a staggering portrait of obsessive compulsive disorder then Hangsaman feels like the impact of PTSD, which is how I chose to interpret it on my first reading. I will probably go through and read the book again and try to apply different interpretations, but on this first go-round I read the social anxiety and hallucinations (? maybe?) of the second and third parts of the novel as Natalie's reaction to being raped in the first chapter. But Jackson never makes it clear that Natalie was raped, just as she never makes it clear whether Natalie is hallucinating or if the world she occupies is just an incredibly strange one.

The openness to interpretation is what drew me so deeply into this book. There are at least two major ways that it can be read that are immediately obvious but there seem to be infinite ways to interpret every interaction that Natalie has.

Which is part of why it fucked with me. Natalie's internal voices and the stories she tells herself as conversational asides and the sideways view she takes of the world makes it totally unclear how the world works in this novel right from the start.

The ambiguity is brilliant and the fact that it's sustained from start to finish is a wicked trick that I admire deeply.

I'd read "The Lottery" in high school or college, as so many people in the US do, but never more than that until this year. Within 6 months and 2 books I've come to feel the same combination of admiration, frustration, and awe for Jackson as I previously only felt for Phillip K. Dick - at least in terms of an author who can make me question reality to the point that it seems to become unhealthy.

And let's be real, any novel that fucks with its narrative enough to make me feel like it's fucking with reality is a novel I want to spend a lot of time with. I can't state enough how much I'm enjoying reading Jackson and how much more I want to read as soon as I can get my hands on it.

     - Alli

Jackson, Shirley. Hangsaman. Penguin Classics. New York: New York. 2013. (1951).

A basket of deplorables

I don't even know why I wanted to read A Confederacy of Dunces. I think it's just one of "those" books, you know? It ends up on tons of must-read, Western literary canon, well-read lists and I guess I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

Turns out it's about repugnant people in a surrealistic dreamworld New Orleans.

The book is actually very funny and very fucking bitter. John Kennedy Toole did a really fantastic job of lampooning a truly bizarre swath of stereotypes but I'm left wondering why.

I get what Myrna Minkhoff is supposed to represent, and Mrs. Levy, and Miss Lee - I'm clear on what Toole was contemptuous of in these three women. I also get what he's criticizing with the whole Manusco arc and the character of Jones - institutional problems, education, bureaucracy, yadda yadda yadda.

But what the fuck is going on with the Reillys? Like yeah, okay Irene is too forgiving and makes excuses for her son and coddles him and drinks and I guess those are all things to laugh at? But her son is a literal monster. Of course Irene drinks, she lives with a monster. I suppose the book is overall sympathetic to her, but I'm just not sure what she's supposed to be parodying other than, maybe, a loving mother. The relationship between Irene and Ignatius is fascinating to me considering the way Toole's famous novel ended up getting published.

Ignatius is hilarious (the whole book is hilarious) and gross in every way, and it's amusing for a while to wallow with him but I find the proximity cloying.

I'm pretty significantly disconcerted at the similarity between Ignatius' ridiculous revivalist medieval attitudes and the current political climate, though. It's somewhat upsetting to read about a monstrous fictional intellectual calling for a return to lords and serfs while at the same time in the real world there is a political movement that is calling for a return to lords and serfs. Ignatius is a mind-bogglingly accurate prediction of the modern neoreactionary movement, down to his obsessive disgust with women and his condescending and manipulative attitude toward urban blacks and the predatory revulsion he holds for the queer community he interacts with.

It's actually a little creepy how close Toole was to the mark for something that happened more than half a century after he died. Especially since Toole was aiming for over-the-top ridiculous and obviously fantastical characters. Maybe the NRX movement will run off to New York with some slacktivists and leave the rest of us happier in their absence as well.

     - Alli

Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. Grove Press. New York: New York. 2002. (1980).

Friday, October 28, 2016

Perfectly strange

I don't know any way that I could make it clearer that my family is obsessed with movies. My dad has something like 3 dedicated movie blogs and does podcasts as part of a movie podcast network, my sister minored in film, and when I go back to my parents' house it's difficult to find a surface that isn't in some way covered in posters and memorabilia, from my dad's collection of signed lithograph James Bond prints to my sister's pop figures and special edition DVD display shrine to the rotating posters over our fireplace (currently The Mechanic, Jodorosky's Dune, and 50 Shades of Grey because I'm pretty sure my mom is the ultimate troll), to the TWO walls of DVDs and the thousand-plus laserdiscs. We are a movie family. I'm the least movie person in my family and I'm still one of the most movie-oriented people in my friend group.

For a couple of years now my sister has had a Christmas Movie Advent Calendar - a foam-core tree with paper ornaments that hide the printed out cards she's made to tell her what movie she's watching that day. Usually around Thanksgiving she'll sit down and make sure all the cards have their appropriate posters neatly glued on and then she'll organize that year's configuration. There are some staples and standards (Die Hard, the ultimate Christmas movie, is always on the first) but she likes to vary the lineup. This year, for the first time, she's made an October Horror Movie Calendar.

Because I hang out with my parents and my sister at least once a week that means I sometimes get sucked into her movie projects. I don't always stay for the film they're watching that day (The Polar Express sucks, I'm out) but sometimes she'll schedule a film she knows I like for a day she knows I'll be there (see also why I've written about Edward Scissorhands twice so far).

Which is a lot of backstory to tell you that Bubba Ho Tep is fucking awesome.

I actually saw this weirdo little film in its incredibly limited theatrical release with my dad way back in 2003. There was a tour of showings, one happened to be at UC Irvine, and there was going to be a Q&A with Bruce Campbell and Don Cascarelli after the show (if you didn't find that exciting you probably won't like the movie). Seeing that showing with my dad was really cool. I got a few photos of Bruce Campbell, the cast and crew were funny and engaging in their responses to the audience, and I got a tee shirt out of the deal. Plus the movie was good!

Watching it with my sister as she saw it for the first time I was reminded that it's a perfect storm of campy excellence. The plot is that Elvis and JFK are still alive and in a nursing home together where they have to fight off a mummy who sucks souls out of the assholes of the aged residents of the home. That sounds like the stupidest thing ever, and in some ways it is, but Bruce Campbell is a fucking GREAT old grumpy Elvis, Ossie Davis is an odd but entertaining JFK, and Don Coscarelli literally has "scare" in his name and it was like he was genetically engineered to make perfect, cheap, strange horror movies.

I know that there's just too much disbelief to suspend for this to be a serious movie, or even a movie that many people will like. At one point Bruce Campbell (who it should be noted has "Camp" in his name, it's like these two are a dream team) as Elvis fights a giant rubber scarab with a bedpan, a meat fork, and a space heater. There's a climactic battle that involves a motorized wheelchair and a flamethrower. There are SO, SO MANY dick jokes. But there are also a ton of really good low-budget effects that serve as a reminder that you can make a scene really creepy without desaturating your film or tossing in jump scares. Just some flickering light and intense music will add more of a creep factor than adding film grain and CGI monsters for millions in post. It's a great way to handle a budget of about a million bucks when you're making a super indie flick.

It's occasionally a genuinely touching movie too - it takes place in a home full of dying people and addresses how people handle death.

Kemosabe is a character who has reverted to childhood and wears a Lone Ranger mask and holds cap guns at all times. He goes down fighting and the combination of the way it's shown and Cambell's voiceover at that moment makes me cry every time.

Side note: Ella James is also in this movie as a kind but condescending nurse and she's fucking rad. And I'd like to note that Ella James and Ossie Davis are two black actors in a horror movie and at no point are either of them gratuitously murdered to make it more scary for the white main. There's some tension around both of them, yeah, but it's really great to avoid the "kill the minority" stereotype.

Anyway I had a blast watching this with my sister and it was nice to be reminded of what a fun little film Bubba Ho Tep is.

     - Alli

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Beautiful bites of story

You know the phrase "read 'em and weep"? I don't think it's supposed to be literal but that's what happened in Sandra Cisneros' beautiful introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of her lovely book The House on Mango Street. And I don't want you going away under the impression that this was the only place I cried while reading the novel. Throughout there were stunning moments of poignant liminality that just fucking obliterated me. This is the good shit.

It's a novel in the shape of dozens of vignettes, none more than seven pages long, that tells the story of a little family and its inner life. It is knock-down drag-out gorgeous. And it's an incredibly compelling way to craft a novel - the book doesn't have a unified theme, or any one particular plot to tie it together, but instead it's held together by tiny bites of wonder. Each chapter is a piece of art, made to be the utmost that it can be in the small space it's given before bleeding away into another beautiful bite until you reach the end and are sated, having gorged yourself in every moment of the book.

I think I found The House on Mango Street so compelling and addictive because you don't know where it will take you next, whose story will pop up on the next page, how many years will have passed, what color the sky will be. But you know that when you find out it will be transportive and lushly written and invite you into the world of itself and hold you there until the next little world opens up.

Good books take up places in your heart, they fill in the shadows of your memory and live in your thoughts. Great book fix something about you that you didn't know was missing, they change you irrevocably. The House on Mango Street is a Great Book. And I know I've talked a lot this year about books that should be required reading but this is another book getting added to that list. Read it, especially if you want to write.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. Vintage Contemporaries. New York: New York. 2009. (1984).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Keeping the action going

Sometimes you just need to read a book that's a lot of fun but doesn't have a hell of a lot of substance. And sometimes those kinds of books are slow burners that make you realize you read more than you were in for when you closed the book a couple of weeks ago.

I think Brockway has a lot to say about poverty and effort and loss that doesn't scan on the surface level of these books but that takes up the spaces between the pages. His main characters are a homeless old punk and a barely-employed stuntwoman and waitress, after all.

And I think that the conclusions he comes to, or wants his readers to come to, are generally kind. It actually kind of feels like he's written the Empty Ones series as a way to say "I know it's hard out there, come have some ridiculous explosions, you've earned them."

God damnit, I have earned these explosions, and I enjoyed them while I was reading them. Brockway is a little more basic than a lot of the books I read these days, but it's really nice to just take a break and sink into something silly and explosive and over-the-top that still seems to be optimistic about humanity and has an optimistic attitude to offer.

I appreciate it, and eagerly await the next book in the series.


Brockway, Robert. The Empty Ones. Tor. New York: New York. 2016.