Friday, August 12, 2011

If Loving You is Wrong

NPR recently did a survey of Top 100 Science Fiction/Fantasy Books, and the top 10 came out fairly predictably:

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
The Dune Chronicles, Frank Herbert
A Song of Ice and Fire series, George RR Martin
1984, George Orwell
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Not that I'm taking NPR seriously as a source for my sci fi/fantasy. And it's not like anybody's Top Whatever lists are things I generally agree with (except for when, say, Memsaab indulges). But sometimes one can't resist the temptation.

By the way, I was tipped off to this via The Silver Key, and I'm going to shamelessly borrow from him by listing my own Top 10, with notations about how my choices ranked:

Stand On Zanzibar, John Brunner (not listed)
Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany (not listed)
Valis, Philip K. Dick (not listed)
A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick (not listed)
Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson (not listed)
The Conan series, Robert E. Howard (#68)
The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, Fritz Leiber (not listed)
The City and the City, China Mieville (not listed)
The Discworld series, Terry Pratchett (two of the novels are listed at #57 and #60; not sure why they're separate, since the Xanth novels are listed as a series)
Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (#26)

I didn't include either 1984 or Brave New World, even though they're two favorites: I know it's against the grain, but I just can't think of them as science fiction. Never have. Similarly, much as I love The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I didn't feel right about including it. If pressed, I'd say that Terry Pratchett writes fantasy novels that are comic, and Douglas Adams wrote comic novels with a sci-fi element. The emphasis is different. Yes, that's completely subjective and probably illogical, which is why I'm writing here, and not at NPR.

And why no Lord of the Rings? I dunno. I don't dispute its status as a classic. But there are things I like better.

The main thing I notice about my list is that seven of my Top Ten aren't even in the Top Hundred. Yikes. This gives evidence for that feeling I've always had, that I'm an oddball even among oddballs. On the other hand: no Valis on their list? (Which I'd probably make #1 if I weren't ranking alphabetically). I feel like I should be handing out copies on the streetcorner, spreading the good news...

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Oh Black Water, Keep On Rolling

Kala Pani (1958)

Okay, Kala Pani doesn't mean "Black Water" in this case (it's named after a prison, and the film title is usually translated as Life Imprisonment), but it put the song in my head, so it's share and share alike.

Young Karan's mother has always told him that his father is respectably dead, and he emotes furiously when he learns the truth -- he's actually undergoing "rigorous life imprisonment" for murdering a dancer in a brothel. He rushes to the prison, and after hearing the story, devotes himself to proving that his father was falsely accused. Because Karan is played by Dev Anand, his crusade almost immediately gets him emotionally entangled with Kishori, Hyderabad's Most Famous Courtesan (Nalini Jayawant), and Asha, Hyderabad's Most Beautiful Landlord's Niece (Madhubala).

In his furious urgency to free his father, Karan rushes to a newspaper office to research the details of the the crime, but then has the good sense to be distracted upon meeting their Chief Reporter (who is, by the way, busy telling callers that it's only a rumor about man landing on the moon: "Till now Russia has not sent any man up in the Sputnik.")


The investigation well underway, Karan goes undercover to meet Kishori, at which point I was totally distracted by her makeup, which was very like a teenage trend in the late 1990s. I was teaching Freshman Comp at 7:30 in the morning, and couldn't believe those girls would bother to glitter themselves up at that hour.

Nalini Jayawant is so sympathetic as the courtesan who really believes Karan is going to marry her and take her away from all this, I completely forgot that she let an innocent man go to prison (so she could live on the proceeds from blackmailing the real killer) until he threw it back in her face. I still found it pretty unlikeable how he toyed with her emotions.

But frankly, the reason I watched this movie was because of the song "Acha ji main hari chalo," which was so adorable, I wished there was a lot more romantic frolicking, and a lot less anguish about justice. Not that I didn't enjoy it, and I especially liked Kishore Sahu, who was much sexier than Dev as the mysterious and powerful lawyer Rai Bahadur Jaswant Rai.

Too bad that year's Filmfares didn't have a "Best Scowl" category.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The funniest labors of Hercules

I wouldn't have guessed that the biggest highlights of my weekend's Sword and Sorcery Sinema night at the local sci-fi convention would have been Hercules fighting a bear -- twice!

First up, from Hercules in New York, "rated G -- for Great!" as my cohort put it:

Arnold "Strong" fights an escaped zoo animal ("known to be surly and dangerous," but actually looking small and kind of drunk), in Central Park. The whole movie is funnier in the version that dubs Arnold's voice, but this YouTube clip with the Schwarzenegger audio track is still pretty funny. Apart from the bear itself, I love the part where the girl asks Hercules if he has a girlfriend and he says "You know how it is." Smooooth! Plus when she screams in terror and kind of throws her hair over her face.

Bear #1


Next up, Hercules (1983). When I heard that this movie features Lou Ferrigno fighting a bear and throwing it into space, I assumed that the throwing was part of the fighting. Like he was going to spin the bear over his head and toss it in the heat of battle. That would have been funny enough, but fortunately, the filmmakers' imagination outdid mine. He has actually already defeated the bear, but then, upset that it had killed his father (sorry for the spoiler, but really, are you likely to watch this?), his emotional reaction is to pick up the bear and, yup, fling it into outer space. It must be the vast scale of the infinite universe that makes it look like a twirling teddy bear.

Bear #2 (This clip has a goofy intro, but at least there's no ad).

I am not finding any evidence off-hand that Kevin Sorbo's Hercules ever fought a bear on his TV show, but it seems like he must have. I'm sure Sam Raimi has seen these seminal films!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Speaking of valiant endeavors...

Tonight I'm doing Tarot readings at a sci-fi convention, and tomorrow I'm hosting a movie marathon that I'm calling Sword and Sorcery Sinema. Original, I know. (Ha!)

The line-up is:

Hercules in New York, starring "Arnold Strong." I'm showing the original theatrical version, with the Governator's voice dubbed by a veddy proper accent.

Hawk the Slayer, previously discussed.

Red Sonja, previously discussed.

Hercules, starring Lou Ferrigno. Even the opening credits, in which they establish that the Greek Gods live on the moon, is totally whacked.

Conan the Barbarian. Again, the original theatrical cut, and not the oddly bloated "Collector's Edition."

The Sword and the Sorcerer, one of the films I most fondly from the '80s heyday itself. I previously reviewed it, but apparently not here. I'll have to remedy that.

Amazons, my late-night feature. In which Amazon warriors on a world-saving quest stop immediately to skinny-dip. Oh, the joys of a Roger Corman production!

If I survive this, I think I deserve to have someone sing of my mighty deeds!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Where the Good Folk Meet

New Orleans, 1947

"You don't belong here."
"Well, aren't you jumping to conclusions."

I love cautionary tales. Show me a period piece about how the most trivial transgressions lead to ruin, and I'm in heaven. Even though -- or maybe because -- I've never listened. But here, something looks like it's going to be a cautionary tale, and instead turns out to be against "call(ing) it sin to have a little fun," as one song lyric goes, and that's even better.

On my trip to New Orleans in November, I was awake and at Cafe du Monde for coffee by 6:30 every morning, and I was enthralled by the absolute army of people taking out garbage and cleaning the streets. So when New Orleans shows a guy taking the trash out two minutes into the film, it certainly struck me as the authentic touch.

If you're ever inclined to look this movie up, it's probably going to be for the same reason everyone else does: for the wonderful musical performances by Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, a shoe-horned-in Woody Herman, and other less-famous but revered jazz greats. I'm certainly no expert, but even I was thrilled to see Kid Ory. Or else it's to see Holiday in her only acting credit. When you do, you're going to encounter two continually mentioned criticisms: first of all, it's corny. Yes, that is true. It was made in 1947. Nobody is going to take, say, the dialogue for realistic. Get used to it (it's kiss or kill).

The other issue is, yes, again it's true. We would all rather a film focused on Armstrong (who plays himself, albeit in a fictional version of his story) and Holiday (who plays a specifically fictional singer named Endie). That would be much more interesting than the tale of bland white nightclub owners and patrons that's in the forefront. Sadly, though, I don't think the movie we want to see could have been made in 1947. And if it had, it would have probably been considered a "race film," shown only in segregated theaters to black audiences, and never preserved.

Remember, this is the only movie we've got in which Billie Holiday performs (apart from an obscure French film, and one "short" credited). So although she reportedly hated the role, it's one of those cases where we're lucky to have anything at all.

But anyway: back to taking the film on its own merits. It begins with a wealthy matron who's happy to stay up all night gambling in a swank joint on the wrong side of town, but she doesn't want her sheltered daughter Miralee to go anywhere near it. Fortunately the daughter, who's been conveniently off training as an opera singer, has new-fangled ideas, and is deeply impressed with her new maid's singing -- as she should be, because her maid is Billie Holiday. When told that "young ladies of quality don't visit Basin Street," an acquaintance tells Miralee that she might be able to accompany a gentleman on "one of his slumming parties." She replies, "Sounds much too patronizing," and instead talks Endie into taking her on a girls' night out.

Once in the back room of the Orpheum Cabaret, where Holiday sings with Satchmo, Miralee scoffs at the idea of needing a chaperon, and it seems clear that she's humoring Nick, "the King of Basin Street," when she allows him to treat her like a "girl" and send her home. But not before she's discovered that the respectable symphony conductor who's been overseeing her opera debut sneaks off at night to play ragtime.

"You can't lock it up!" the conductor emotes. "It's as though I had caught some virus. Except that a virus makes one ill, and this music doesn't make me ill. It makes me feel very well. But mixed up!"

You can watch the iconic performance of the song "New Orleans" here.

There's going to be more plot, about the closing of the "Historic Basin Street Area," more commonly known as Storyville, by forces of "public decency," who are really fueled by the desire of a few people, rivals of Nick's, in this case, for personal gain, and enabled by hypocrisy. In other words, a timeless tale. There's also romance with Nick, but he's right, she's more drawn to the music than she is to him. I couldn't invest in the melodrama about whether he was going to break up with her in order to save her reputation, until he made something of himself, yadda yadda.

I just wanted Miralee to get her chance to sing with the band! Because the story is really about the moment in time when jazz was embraced by white people, exemplified by the proper, but modern, Miralee.
The experience of hearing a kind of music you've never heard before, and falling in love with it, wanting it to be a part of your life, is something that's rarely depicted. I mean, there's that scene in Almost Famous when the kid starts listening to his sister's albums. But I certainly didn't expect to find this theme so prominent in a story from the 1940s, with a young woman as the protagonist, and it's awesome.

"I feel I'm exactly where I want to be, and on my way to where I want to go, for the first time in my life," she says. She argues that classical music was new and original once, just like jazz is now. At this point, the movie pointedly doesn't address the race question as a factor in why this music in particular is considered disreputable, or not for girls like her. Eventually, as the film hurried through, jazz would sweep the nation, despite one commentator declaring "It is a sad commentary on the youth of America." Again, some things never change!

Audiences eventually come around to Miralee's way of thinking, and when they do, it's a dubious victory, as well-dressed concert audiences politely cheer a pretty white girl singing "Do you know what it means, to miss New Orleans?" (Tellingly, I couldn't find a single clip of the performance by star Dorothy Patrick on YouTube). It's gentrification, right before our eyes.

On the plus side, we also get this:

Despite its emphasis on the white jazz fans, the film has made no bones about the fact that the music was primarily made by black people, for black people, and for anyone else, white or not, who could appreciate it. Louis Armstrong and his band are clearly depicted as having contributed greatly to American culture. The black characters are treated overall with dignity and respect, and the white government is shown treating the working-class black community appallingly, as in the beautiful "Farewell to Storyville" song seen here. Without the musical performances, it's likely that this movie would have been long forgotten, but for fans of New Orleans and its music, it does have its charms.

For a more serious take on race relations in New Orleans, both good and bad, I highly recommend the documentary Fauborg Treme. It's only about an hour long, and if you can get through it without tears, you're a tougher person than I am. But who isn't?