Monday, May 30, 2011
Dreams are imperfections of sleep; even so is consciousness the imperfection of waking.
Dreams are impurities in the circulation of the blood; even so is consciousness a disorder of life.
Dreams are without proportion, without good sense, without truth; so also is consciousness.
Awake from a dream, the truth is known: awake from waking, the Truth is—The Unknown.
~ Aleister Crowley, The Book of Lies (1913)
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Enki Bilal is a comic book illustrator/writer and movie writer/director who was born in Yugoslavia in 1951 and emigrated to France at the age of nine.
Bilal's art and vision are magnificent, both on the page, and on celluloid, but a theme which runs throughout all his major works (including those he only illustrated) is the role of the revolutionary. It's natural to assume that the atmosphere in post WWII Belgrade influenced this trend, plus perhaps, and more personally, his own family's history (apparently, his father was once a tailer to Tito; more importantly, his father was Bosnian, while his mother was Czechoslovakian).
For whatever reason, the revolutionary, the anti-establishment anti-hero, has featured as a leading character in all of Bilal's significant works. The role of this character, however, has evolved over the course of Bilal's career: from hopeful successes, to temporary victories, to pessimistic post-heroes, doomed to relive the consequences of their revolution(ary act), without even the recollection of its motivation.
The initial phase is clearly visible in Bilal's work with Pierre Christin, who wrote a trilogy of fanciful political commentaries for him, eventually collected as Townscapes. In each of these three stories, a mysterious stranger interferes in some bizarre way to bring about a surreal political statement, heartily endorsed by local disaffected townspeople. In the first two, Cruise of Lost Souls (1975) and The Ship of Stone (1976), there's a strong sense that change is achieved, if only on the local level.
With the third book in the trilogy, however, The Town that Didn't Exist (1977), a strange foreboding appears. The local factory has been shut down, and the workers protest for better wages and benefits. When the old man who owns the corporation dies, his crippled daughter inherits his wealth and his business. She employs her financial resources and political influence to construct a utopian dream city for the inhabitants of the old town—here they may do as they please without worries about finances or security.
Here, the progressive social goals of the trilogy's enigmatic protagonist appear to have been achieved, yet when he leaves the new city, he is joined by several of the former factory workers, one of whom proclaims "that town doesn't really exist." Interpretations abound here—is utopian success a dream? Is philanthropic behavior such as that of the daughter in principle impossible in capitalist society? Or is it the workers who are blind to what they can achieve, who doubt the validity of the Marxist utopia that could await them if only they found the right resources? The text is silent on interpretation, but the darkness and ambiguity of the ending casts a long shadow over the earlier stories.
Perhaps the most optimistic of Bilal's revolutionary stories can be found in the first volume of the Nikopol trilogy, his most famous work. The titular character, Alcide Nikopol, unlike almost any other Bilal hero, is not actually a full-fledged revolutionary, but a mere deserter, sentenced to life-long hibernation. When incompetence awakes him on a corrupt future earth, he is partnered with Horus, a "revolutionary" figure in the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Horus wields his supernatural powers to place Nikopol in political power over the Paris of 2023. A fascist dictatorship is overthrown, Nikopol is free to implement the progressive policies of his choice, and Horus abandons control of him for more godly matters.
Yet, despite La Foire aux immortels (1980) evincing the first instance of widespread political control and change achieved by a revolutionary (albeit a reluctant one), the atmosphere at end is far from optimistic. Nikopol goes mad and his son (who looks like his twin due to Nikopol's period of government mandated suspended animation) is placed in control in his stead. By volume 3, Froid Équateur (1982), just a few years later, we learn that Nikopol's son's progressive government has been overthrown by the fascists: revolution is short lived. And Horus himself, the revolutionary deity, is on the run throughout the entire trilogy, defeated multiple times by his peers. (Though in the final scenes of volume 3, after the Egyptian gods' pyramid-shaped space ship is accidentally destroyed, Horus' leadership is finally welcomed.)
During the decade+ it took to complete the Nikopol trilogy, Bilal collaborated again with Pierre Christin on The Black Order Brigade (1979) and The Hunting Party (1983) (collected as The Chaos Effect). Both books paint a much bleaker picture of the revolutionary than Bilal's earlier work with Christin. The Black Order Brigade, in particular, features the first introduction of a common theme in Bilal: the ex-revolutionary. Here, a group of passionate progressives who had fought in the Spanish civil war, reconvene in their old age to combat the titular "black order brigade," a fascist death squad with whom they had had many skirmishes during their glory days.
Unlike in the war itself, however, when the young progressives had been suffused with idealism and optimism, they find their new quest quickly sours. The pains of old age, the indifference of the general public, and the futility of correctly conveying their message (in the media, they are treated as terrorists, no different from their fascist counterparts) drag down their spirits and motivation. By the end, they succeed in eradicating the black order brigade, but at the cost of all lives but that of the original organizer and narrator. In the final panels, as he relates the conclusion to their saga, he mournfully proclaims "I . . . got all my friends killed for a reason I can't even really remember anymore."
Ironically, the mysterious traveling revolutionary of the earlier Bilal / Christin collaborations makes a brief appearance as an accomplice—sympathetic to the cause, but largely outside the specific plans and woes of our heroes. This war is not for him, and its Pyrrhic "victory" hints at the impossibility of radical social change. Idealists cannot succeed, and, more importantly, they cannot even maintain their idealism should they try.
In The Black Brigade, ex-revolutionaries choose to resume their activities, with ambiguous, arguably disastrous, consequences. In Bilal's films, e.g. Tykho Moon (1996) and Immortal (2004), the lead characters are ex-revolutionaries forced back into revolutionary action. In the case of Tykho Moon, the title character is a former revolutionary suffering from complete amnesia. He recalls neither his revolutionary acts, nor why he engaged in them.
Nevertheless, Tykho is forced into transgressive acts anew by the bizarre lunar dictatorship of the Mac Bee family, whose degenerative disease demands organ transplants, and with whose genetic code Tykho is uniquely compatible. Although Tykho eventually succeeds in executing the last of the Mac Bees and escapes the moon with his love interest (herself a hired killer and former employee of the dictatorship), the motive is never revolutionary change, but mere survival. An actual revolutionary (from earth) who assists him is spurned on the the topic of political idealism and dies in the violence of the finale.
In Tykho Moon, we see the personal details of life (survival, love, the chance to dance with a beautiful woman) overwhelm revolutionary priorities. One who simply lusts for a life to himself is forced into revolutionary action, and consequently, his actions are drained of idealism, and suffused instead with necessity. Obligation, unavoidable and personal. At the end, although the dictators are overthrown, we are given no promises about the future political situation on the moon. Our heroes do not aim at reform, merely survival.
Similar themes can be found in Immortal, Bilal's screen adaptation of his own Nikopol trilogy. Unlike the Nikopol of the comics (and much like Tykho Moon), the Nikopol of Immortal is an ex-revolutionary. He has been sentenced to 30 years imprisonment in suspended animation on a floating prison. A freak accident sets him free prematurely. The fascist NYC in which he finds himself is ruled by a "medical dictatorship," but his name survives as a rallying cry (the "spirit of Nikopol") amongst those who oppose the regime.
Just as in the books, a large chunk of plot is devoted to Horus' attempt to impregnate Jill via Nikopol. Just as in Tykho Moon, the very personal goals of love and survival motivate Nikopol's actions, and the execution of fascist dictators and general social upheaval which take place along the way are largely incidental. In Immortal, not only the whims of the fascist elite, but also those of the gods force Nikopol and Jill into a sequence of bizarre situations. No longer is the blame for the revolutionary's actions foisted solely upon the state—here fate, or at least its proxy, are equally, if not greater to blame.
So, while Bilal has continued to focus on the revolutionary as character throughout his career, we see a gradual evolution from the revolutionary as active instigator of social change to the revolutionary as accidental instigator of social change. The reluctant revolutionary is at first forced into this position by the very authority figures he eventually destabilizes, though later, it is fate, or forces beyond his control generally rather than merely political forces which motivate his actions.
The most recent chapter in Bilal's evolving depiction of revolutionaries is the so-called "Hatzfeld tetralogy." Unfortunately, only the first two volumes are available in English (as The Beast Trilogy: Chapters 1&2), so the overall trajectory of the work is as yet unclear to those of us who are linguistically limited. So far, many similarities emerge with Bilal's earlier works. Just as in the Nikopol trilogy, the backstory is elaborate, involving various layers of authoritarianism and fascism. Religious dictatorships, terrorist NGOs, evil policemen, bizarre alien intrusions, all make an appearance, buffeting the world our characters inhabit.
Unlike in the works discussed above, the protagonists are not (yet) explicitly terrorists themselves, but rather mercenaries, scientists, and prodigies for hire to the various competing forces which shape their world. No longer is there an "evil" authoritarian power force, and a "progressive" outsider revolutionary, but rather a sequence of authoritarian forces with various religious and political motivations. There is no "right" side for the would be mercenary to choose, and given the trajectory of alienation from idealism we've seen in Bilal's previous works, it's perhaps unsurprising that the protagonists here do not begin with an ideology, but rather a skill set of interest to ideologues.
The Hatzfeld tetralogy draws more explicitly on Bilal's Yugoslavian heritage than any of his previous works. The story centers around a trio of "Yugoslavians" of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Their origin is retold by the protagonist Nike Hatzfeld, who's gift is a complete photographic memory (contrast with Tykho's amnesia!) which dates back to his very first days of life, when he and Amir and Leyla (the other two Yugoslavian orphans) lie next to each other in a Sarajevo hospital as it is ripped apart by violence.
The chaos of the future world inhabited by Nike, Amir, and Leyla somehow mirrors the violence of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Bilal focuses on individuals buffeted by larger political and religious forces beyond their control. The revolutionary becomes an employee when there is no right or wrong, but only conflict.
[If we're lucky, the re-emergence of Humanoids as a North American publishing force will result in new editions of the Nikopol trilogy (now, sadly out of print and exorbitantly priced) and the Hatzfeld tetralogy.]
Friday, May 20, 2011
(Even if you are obviously joking, say? And you say you are joking, and you are referencing the particular details of your personal life (say, you are raised by a Jewish father and told by your mother on her deathbed that he was not in fact your biological father)? And you explicitly reject those features of the ideology which are damning (e.g. WWII) and emphasize your sympathy for the human being (no matter how "evil") who inspired the ideology rather than the ideology itself?)
Or is sympathizing with an ideology acting upon it, say by demonstrating fascist ideology through the censure and control of the speech and acts of individuals? Who here is acting "contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity"? Who here is the real nazi?
Sunday, May 15, 2011
Monday, May 9, 2011
First, a caveat: I have not actually finished the series. I read the first book many many times, and it is tied very closely in my memory to various experiences during my formative years even my love of reading itself. I read the second and third books hungrily and was quite excited by them, but did not resume consumption of the remainder until some time after the fourth was published and the series resumed.
After the third book, my experience was with audio books. I listened through about a third into the final book. I still have the audio book on my computer, but doubt I will ever be able to stomach going back to it.
The success of the first Dark Tower stories lies entirely in their imagery and atmosphere, the old west, the Beatles, dark magic—these elements seamlessly blend into an organic whole which evokes a magical picture in the reader's mind.
By the last few books in the series, however, Stephen King had fallen in love with his characters. For a storyteller, this is the death of their craft, in particular, the death of arc and character—after he fell in love with his characters, he was scared to kill them off, and, correspondingly, unable to produce legitimate tension in the story; after he fell in love with his characters, he was unable to make them cruel, and, consequently, Roland the anti-hero became Roland the kind and wise uncle whose supposed willingness to sacrifice his loved ones for the quest was given lip-service, but not realized in any convincing or tension-inducing way.
Furthermore, King's near-death experience induced him to force a post-modern turn on the series, emphasizing a multiverse perspective, fatalism, and introducing himself as a character. Fatalism kills suspense, it kills character, it removes the incentive for motivation, which drives both character development and plot—fatalism is the the bane of modern genre storytelling.
So, fuck the end to the last Dark Tower book: King, you had your chance and punted—if a Dark Tower movie adaptation is going to be any good whatsoever, it will have to follow the first rule of adaptations in a very serious way and feel free to violate the source material.
Usually this means feeling free to replace features of the source material inappropriate for the relevant new medium. For example, the Harry Potter films erred on the side of including incidents from the books rather than developing characters in the spirit of the books. Less time spent on including all the scenes from the first books in early movies, and more time spent on showing us in a manner unique to the medium of cinema the same character features that were demonstrated in the books in a manner unique to the medium of text would have greatly improved the quality and efficacy of the early movies. (I refrain from commenting on later ones as I am unqualified.)
So, the rules for adapting the Dark Tower books to the screen effectively are
1. Ignore the NYC plotline; ignore the multiverse aspect; ignore everything that is self-referential.
If the multiverse is included, everything will become convoluted, in-joke, inaccessible, and directed only at the fans or King himself. If it is abandoned, then there is some hope of telling a story which stands on its own, and is compelling to the viewer whether he has read the books or not.
2. Ignore cutesy references to other Stephen King books / The Wizard of Oz.
Same reasons as above for the first; for the second, it ridiculously undermines the atmosphere.
3. Acknowledge you cannot tell the whole story.
Making a good (series of) movies about the Dark Tower series means acknowledging you cannot reproduce every detail and nuance of the series of seven (sometimes very long) books. Confront this fact and meditate on it. If you do not, you will fail. Begin with the idea that only a very very tiny fraction of the material will make it to the screen—in the case of a series of this magnitude, we're looking at less than 1/20th, even if, say, a trilogy is green lit. Probably less.
4. Once you have meditated on 3, pick moments from the book to collect in each of the films which (a) will stand alone, (b) are cinematic, (c) will constitute a compelling story for someone who hasn't read the books, and (d) allow for an organic and internally consistent development of the characters. How many and which moments you collect will depend crucially on the scope of the series which is funded.
For example, suppose a trilogy is funded: you might break the story down such that:
I. includes the first story in detail, the discovery of the boy, and the Gunslinger's sacrifice of the boy.
II. The Drawing of the Three? Introduce the coherence of the quest, and the secondary characters? Culminate, perhaps, in the grand train journey across the radiated countryside?
III. Some kind of climax - combining features of Wolves of the Calla, and Song of Susannah with an actual confrontation with the Man in Black at the actual Dark Tower. If the cutseyness, the NYC scenes, the meta-fictional world crossing are left out, and one focusses entirely on a) scenes crucial for character development, and b) cinematic imagery which also advances story, one may be able to compress key elements together into a coherent conclusion to the story.
Then, keep the flashback story in Wizard and Glass in reserve, to use as a prequel if one hits financial gold with the trilogy.
Key point: Don't bring "the boy" (Jake) back!!!!!! Bringing back Jake was the beginning of the end for The Dark Tower—it is the abandoning of consequences, the undermining of Roland (the Gunslinger)'s character, and the introduction of multiverse, metafictional, self-indulgent, character-loving idiocy.
Follow these rules, and a powerful adaptation could be made. Abandon them in favor of the full details of the story, and you court pathetic, self-referential claptrap. Tell a good story! This is more important than faithfulness to the exact text of King's novels. Remember that it only takes one man to create a novel, but an entire team of individuals and millions of dollars to create a movie. There is much less room for ego and self-indulgence in the realm of cinema. This brings us to
5. If Stephen King doesn't sign over the rights and agree to 1, 2, 3, and 4, then don't waste any of (our) time or (your) money, just forget about the project, and go reread the books instead.
Saturday, May 7, 2011
For one thing, glee at the death of someone else, no matter how "evil," seems in poor taste. More significant, however, is the mistake of thinking Osama was the enemy, or the ultimate cause of 9/11.
9/11 was caused by ideas—the radical fundamentalist muslim idea that the murder of non-believers is permitted + the terrorist's central idea that creation of fear in one's enemy is a means of bringing about political change. If I'm going to feel some kind of catharsis about 9/11, if I'm going to feel "we did it!" or "at last!" or "victory!", then it's only going to occur when I see evidence we've done something to combat these ideas. Are there fewer people today who hate the US? Who think that violence against citizens of the US is both permitted and righteous? Who believe that the suppression of alternate belief systems is both permitted and righteous? If there's evidence to this effect, then I haven't seen it.
With respect to the death of bin Laden itself, the source of my ambivalence is uncertainty about the effect of his death, and the manner in which it was achieved, on the propagation of these dangerous ideas. Whatever guidance (financial, conceptual, or spiritual) bin Laden gave to al Qaeda and related terrorist elements, the fact of the matter is that terrorist acts require hardly any resources at all. Bombs can be built in the kitchen from household chemicals. The most important commodity for terrorism is willingness. If the (manner of the) death of bin Laden creates a greater willingness in potential terrorists to carry out violent acts / sacrifice their personal wellbeing in the name of islam, then it is not a victory, but a mark of increased danger for the American people.
Of course, I already think the real dangers of terrorist attacks are overblown—I'm not advocating public fear here or (heaven forbid!) increased security measures of any kind. The point is that this is a question we should be asking ourselves. If your glee at the death of bin Laden is simple revenge fulfillment, fine, I sympathize. But if you think it has somehow reduced the terrorist threat, lessened the influence of radical islamic ideas, or made America safer, then you presume to a far greater insight into the psychology of the muslim world than I do.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
That we cannot devise as many laws as there are men must be admitted; but the laws can be lenient, and so few in number, that all men, of whatever character, can easily observe them. Furthermore, I would demand that this small number of laws be of such a sort as to be adaptable to all the various characters; they who formulate the code should follow the principle of applying more or less, according to the person in question. It has been pointed out that there are certain virtues whose practice is impossible for certain men, just as there are certain remedies which do not agree with certain constitutions. Now, would it not be to carry your injustice beyond all limits were you to send the law to strike the man incapable of bowing to the law? Would your iniquity be any less here than in a case where you sought to force the blind to distinguish against colors?
~ de Sade (1795) La Philosophie dans le boudoir