3-9April2011 :: This Week
- Watched Dai Sakô's Running on Empty (imdb), a weird little Japanese film, probably best characterised as a slacker film, with a manipulative girl, a bunch of guys who've never met a decision they couldn't avoid, and a jarringly bleak/nihilistic outlook offset against what could or should have been a sweet love story; it's low budget, and while it works around its limitations for the most part, keeping locations and cast in small numbers, the poor quality of the sound makes things difficult; much of the dialogue is regularly overwhelmed by environmental sounds, and I only continued because I could rely on subtitles instead.
- Subscribed to Monocle magazine; didn't feel like waiting on newsagents here; curious that I'm falling back on a printed property in this age of the iPad, but there you go. It's a bonus that this particular magazine, despite being based in London, has a deliberate international focus, reflected in the fact that a subscription costs the same regardless of where you live.
- Read Iain M Banks' The State of the Art; having read a couple of its short stories last year, I finished off the smaller ones, plus the title story, which is responsible for half the book's length; I found the shorter short stories a little too ranty, without the meat necessary for Banks to really explore what he wants to say rather than just telling it; I also get the impression his understanding of religion and spirituality has come a long way over the last few decades (the short stories are from the 80s, while his latest, Surface Detail, demonstrates a far more nuanced understanding of (pan-) humanity's relationship to the spiritual).
- The State of the Art itself is an interesting story, telling of the Culture visiting Earth; not a lot really happens, and the tale's not as deep as it could be, with some strained retelling of Earth events (and it's a product of its times, clearly), but nothing struck me so much as the idea that Banks' atheistic universe had replaced God and angels with 'Contact', with much given to the idea that the Culture's avenging angels could swoop in and save us.
- Picked up Theophilus London's This Charming Mixtape; it has the unfinished feel of a mixtape, as much a compilation of experiments as a coherent album, but there are some very cool sounds in there, as it plays with a range of soul samples, new and old, and he's a promising rapper.
- Since returning to work and switching roles, I've found myself hardly spending any time at my desk. It's great fun, but it gets exhausting. This week was especially broken with a trip to Canberra on Wednesday to give a talk at a seminar we ran for government agencies who have to transition their websites to the latest accessibility standards. We had a few talks, a demo from Sitecore, and a panel Q&A, 2 hours all up, which I stil need to write up for the Gruden blog. All seemed to be well-received, which may mean some more Canberra time is on the cards for my near future.
- Finally finished The Girl Who Played With Fire, though I had to force myself to get through the second half of the book; the writing is dry and all just describing what's going on, all surface and no depth, with no characterisation (excepting the early ridiculousness with Salander, and even that's one-dimensional), and no exploration of its themes beyond righteous indignation; one doesn't expect a lot from an airport thriller, but this is just tedious, and could've done with an editor chopping it to about half its size.
- Watched Never Let Me Go (imdb); as tweeted, it felt like having my own heart ripped out, and a day later, I'm still emotionally torn; I've not seen anything so affecting in a long time, and certainly never anything that prompts the same mix of emotions; it's sadness and despair and sweet melancholy, and bleak as it is, it's incredibly beautiful, the story and the look and the music and the acting (the main three are great both as kids and young adults) all contributing to a wonderful piece of storytelling. Edging for a place amongst my hypothetical favourites-of-all-time.
- Watched Then She Found Me (imdb); an interesting mid-life crisis tale, with Helen Hunt and Colin Firth both newly divorced, the latter with two kids he struggles to care for, the former with an overwhelming desire for a child of her own (you know where this is going); Hunt's life is also interrupted by the discovery of her biological mother shortly after the death of her adoptive mother, all mixing up her own feelings about becoming a mother herself; it's awfully ambitious though, and while Hunt is reasonably good most of the time, she doesn't have a great deal to work with, and the characters around her are all very one-dimensional.
Never Let Me Go got me thinking (once more) about genre. I was partly prompted to see the film after seeing David and Margaret on At The Movies denigrate it as "scifi", with David insisting that it took too much suspension of disbelief, and Margaret suggesting it should have had a "futuristic" setting. I suspected, though, that it shouldn't really be watched ("read", in the parlance) as science fiction, and that doing so, especially as critics with an automatic bias against science fiction, may have prompted their reaction.
In watching the film myself, I found my suspicion validated, but it's not so simple to just watch it as a literary film. On the whole, the "scifi" simply provides a setting for a literary tale, a simple story about friendship and love and shared lives; similarly, setting that story in an otherwise low-tech society (much of it looks and feels like it's taking place in the fifties and sixties, though it's supposedly an alternate seventies to nineties) forces one to watch it as though a period piece rather than expecting the conventions of scifi. It is, after all, emphatically not a film about farming cloned organ donors, and so, at least in the language of film, it's difficult to say that it's science fiction.
This is where things break down though. Genre in the written word is classified very differently to genre in film. In some senses, genre in film is where the written word was a couple of decades ago. In film, "science fiction" tends to mean that all of theme and setting and look are identifiably "scifi", and even plots are expected to unravel a certain way and characterisation relies on known types. Cross-overs like Never Let Me Go confuse conventional critics. In the written word, however, the genre boundaries are blurred and critics are slightly more accustomed to this. "Speculative fiction" exists as a handy label to ascribe to works in the middle — Never Let Me Go and Atwood and Murakami can all be shelved in the literature section, because they're literary stories even when they appear in a scifi setting — the setting provides only room for speculation. A whole other series of conventions put, for example, some of Banks' work in the scifi shelves. The issue of classification is particularly vexing me as I near the completion of my own story, neither scifi/fantasy nor literature nor thriller, but with elements of each; "speculative fiction" is as good a label as any, but it doesn't seem to mean anything. (I also like "weird fiction" myself, but suspect the label mightn't attract everyone.)
But back to the film. Taken in itself, the filmmakers have done well to present a literary tale, with a few elements being embellished with the conventions of scifi (eg, one can read into the scene in which the school children buy old and worn children's toys, coming from a "bumper crop", with the implication that with a population living much longer, few children are being born out in the real world; this is never stated, but is reinforced in scenes in the real world in which we never see anyone under the age of thirty, with adults looking suspiciously at our young protagonists, and with no feel of joyful families and children). Similarly, by presenting the scifi premise upfront, one should only have to suspend one's disbelief in one case (ie, that this story takes place in a world in which children are systematically cloned to be organ donors), with the story extending from there.
Aside: Plenty is written in film theory about the suspension of disbelief, but the most important thing is that if that suspension is important to the premise of the film, and to the audience's understanding of how the story plays out, it needs to be done up-front; this would be the main reason the filmmakers shifted from the novel's approach by getting this knowledge out up-front; once we know we're in a slightly alternate reality, we should be able to roll with it. However, it's also critical that we're not asked to suspend our disbelief repeatedly; in this example, we're given one basic difference between our world and the film world, and we can't be asked to later incorporate other major differences into our understanding of the world. I would suggest that Never Let Me Go passes on this count, but that it's probably aided by a knowledge of the conventions of the genre (speculative fiction, in this case, requiring some knowledge of literature and of science fiction), else later revelations feel incompatible with the premise.
This is all an ongoing exploration, at least inside my own head, so while I'm glad to get some of this out, I'm aware it's not entirely complete or coherent yet. I'm going to have to pick up Kazuo Ishiguro's original novel too, and see how his use of the conventions compares.
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