Ex Machina II: The Rant

Well, I finally got around to watching Ex Machina, a terrible movie with a good ending, part of which was just that it felt so good that it was ending. I get that it’s a Brogrammer Pygmalion and as such has something to say about what a Pygmalion would be if it were made today – sexist, mysoginist, grandiose, pseudo-intellectual bullshit – in other words, pretty much like any other movie made today.

It’s certainly possible that a billionaire genius brogrammer would do nothing more with his time and his money than create several closets full of sentient sex slaves of various physical and ethnic types, and it’s certainly possible that having done that he would become even more of a drunken asshole. It’s much more believable that a young douchebag brogrammer would fall head over heels with the physical incarnation of his own web-search porn profile, but both of them are only expressions of the guy who made the movie, and the robot is his own Artificial Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the whole experience was like watching the film maker masturbate. Kind of gross.

The ending was okay, but seemed obvious from the very moment we first met the sexbot and saw her partially shattered glass cage (LEMME OUT!!), a bullshit movie thing because everywhere else the fancy home was flawless. I know it’s a pain to get construction workers out there to Greenland or wherever the fuck, but movies, even terrible ones, could be a little more subtle with their foreshadowings.

As for the AI itself, there was almost no content there. Do you like me? Do I like you? What is art? Why am I so shallow? In movies – which create the future – AI are either mass murderers or sex slaves. It’s getting tiresome, people. Please make better movies.

Ideology and the Miracle of Confusion

So last night we watched The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (now available on Netflix), starring the always entertaining (if not alarming) Slavoj Zizek. It’s quite a feat. He guides you through all kinds of movies, sorting through the subtexts and drawing astonishing comparisons that seem so obvious in retrospect. At the same time, you have to admit that half the time you have no idea what the fuck he’s talking about! Considering that when you do have a feeling of comprehension, you decide that the part you don’t get probably makes as much sense, he’s just ahead of you by a mile or two.

Ideology is nothing more than the ruling mythology of the time and place in which you live. For us in early 21st century USA, the reigning myth is that of individual self-fulfillment, generally through the agency of products attained, obtained, purchased, invented, used or otherwise engaged in. It could be the “app of the week”, it could be the Tesla car you drive, it could be the fitness feedback you got from your hyper-intelligent wristband, it could be the number of likes you received for that comment you made on that post that you saw. We are so very individuated that we can now construct our own unique set of fulfillments out of the cornucopia of possibilities surrounding us. Hey, why not? But I digress.

In the film, Zizek brings together several wonderful correlations, often surrounding the concept of The Other. The Other can be a positive or a negative, such as a good God or a bad apple. For example, all fears united in the figure of the shark in Jaws. Change one letter there, and you have all fears united in the figure of the Jews in Nazi Germany. It’s not a stretch at all. It makes perfect sense.

How interesting that so many different political dynasties used Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as their anthem – from the Nazis to the Stalinists to the Maoists to Shining Path to the droods of Clockwork Orange. A symbol can stand for anything, as long as it invokes a certain wordless quality that somehow unites its participants. The symbol doesn’t matter. The product is irrelevant as long as you’re buying something from the sellers.

Ideology is always hiding behind a mask. We don’t want to see that we are always buying into a myth, whether we’re right or left wing, religious or agnostic, scientific or spiritual, naive or experienced, thoughtful or carefree, you name it. There is some version of some myth that justifies our vision of self-fulfillment, and clouds the fact that we are simply creatures of this particular planet alotted a short span of time in which to do whatever it is we either can or else permit ourselves to do.

Recommended: The Conversations, by Cesar Aira

Cesar Aira has so much fun messing with his readers, but I fall for it every time. Here, in The Conversations, he starts us off with an erudite gentleman who enjoys ruminating over his recent chats with his various highbrow friends, so naturally we think we are in for something sophisticated and trenchant. He recalls one such conversation in which he pokes a little fun at a mistake in some crappy Hollywood film, where a peasant is caught with a Rolex on his wrist. How ridiculous, but these things happen. Our intellectual narrator is ready to move on to loftier topics, but his friend stops him and says, “what are you talking about? I saw that film and that was no mistake!” The next thing you know, Aira flings us all down one rabbit hole after another as our protagonist’s greatest fear may come true, that in fact his friends might turn out to be utter morons, in which case might not he be as well?

Someone less generous or more aggressive might have been pleased to discover that a friend of his was stupid. It would make him feel superior, safe in his narcissistic integrity, more intelligent than he thought: in a word, the winner. This was not the case for me. I felt depressed and distressed, like someone on the verge of losing something of great value.

As a famous American football coach (Jim Mora) once said, “you think you know, but you don’t know, and you never will”, and that is never more true than when reading Cesar Aira, from one page to the next.

Parade’s End: The Book and the Movie

I recently watched the BBC mini-series production of Parade’s End (by Ford Madox Ford) and liked it well enough that I wanted to read the book (or books – there are four which comprise the set). I got the sense that the book ought to be much better, because there seemed to be a lot of subtleties and complexities to the characters. It turns out to be more than that. The screenplay (written by Tom Stoppard) was confusing to me and as I read the book I realized that more than just the teleplay, the major fault of the show was in the stars (ha – a play on words on The Fault in the Stars, the book and movie and cultural event currently dominating this week in America). The stars were great, and that was the problem. Who, at this point, does not enjoy watching Benedict Cumberbatch do whatever? And Rebecca Hall was brilliant as Sylvia. Adelaide Clemens, as Valentine Wannop, was irresistible – but they were all too much. The main character, Tietjins, has zero to no charisma in the book. Cumberbatch is bursting with it. Sylvia is gorgeous, vain and cruel, but more shallow than played by Hall. And Miss Wannop is not a pure angel – a good person, yes, but a hard-working and somewhat serious young woman in the book. We liked the characters in the television series more than they should be “liked”, because we like the movie stars. The characters are not meant to be loved, they are meant to be experienced. They are complex, but not confused, and in literature – great literature – you can pull that off. Books let you three-dimensionalize in your mind. Movies and TV by their nature flatten and level things out. I still enjoyed watching Parade’s End, but reading it is a treasure.

One-Star Roundup

Dash it all but I’m dreadfully proud of my one-star reviews! (yes I’ve been watching the BBC production of Parade’s End today). This month in One-Star Roundup brings us a number of excellent examples of one-star readers, which is to say, people who should not have read the book but did and couldn’t help themselves but a) finish the darn thing and b) bother to rate it online (both of which must be some sort of compulsion. Personally I never feel compelled to a) continue reading a book I don’t like OR b) bother to rate it online.

This month’s award for “best self-restraint” goes to a Goodreads reviewer of Orange Car with Stripes (which, by the way, is still #1 on Amazon’s “Cults and Demonism” bestseller list, and #8 in Atheism, one ahead of its companion (and superior), Missy Tonight:

I had planned to write a lengthy review of this book, highlighting the reasons I felt it deserved only one star out of five. But I have scratched my plans for that review, because I couldn’t find anything nice to say. My planned review had rapidly become shrill and mean-spirited. The author doesn’t deserve to be the target of mockery. So, instead, let me simply say that I strongly advise anyone against reading this, and leave it at that.

I was curious about his other ratings , but the only thing of note was that he also gave one star to Pride and Prejudice

The opposite award goes to this judicious reader of Death Ray Butterfly, who reported:

This book is so bad that it doesn’t deserve to be called a book. More like somebody’s disjointed journal. The author couldn’t make two paragraphs blend together with a paint mixer. My six year-old grandson talks with more clarity than this guy can write. I feel my IQ has dropped at couple of points.

Need I say that Zombie Nights is one of my all-time leaders in one-star readers, but few have been as enjoyable as this one:

This was one of the stupidest books I have ever read…HELL it wasn’t even a book it was more like a really short story with some serous pointlessness. All the story is about is a guy that wakes up in a grave from where he was bared by a couple of goons that killed him. he wakes up as a Zombie and he roams around until he find his uncle that he hadn’t seen for years , so all though the story he is trying to find out what he is going to do and he ends up getting killed by a Zombie hunter really pointless.

(point of order, however. Zombie hunter? Really? Not as far as I know, and why the capital Z for Zombie? serously! bared!!)

The Part-Time People may be the most one-starred of all, but this one is the best I’ve seen of those:

This was an utterly, poorly written piece of work; better yet…you can’t even call it a story: It was merely the ramblings of a mad man!!! Nothing made sense in this piece!!!

Then there’s my personal favorite of all my books, Secret Sidewalk, which has only received a single one-star review, as far as I’ve been able to find, but at least it was priceless. Here it is, in its entirey:

Nope

Recommended: Searching for Von Honningsbergs by Rowena Wiseman

“Searching for Von Honningsbergs” by Rowena Wiseman is a travel novel, a journey through time and space but also through personal growth and development. The first person narrator, an unappreciated art gallery employee named Lawson, is clearly not the same person depicted in the novel as the one who is telling the story. Years have passed, and the events related have had a major impact on him. He tells the story on two simultaneous tracks – the linear track of things as they happened, and the series of paintings he has created based on those events. As we move from one place to another, from Australia to Ukraine to Siberia to China to Brazil and back again to China, and as we meet important characters along the way, these places and people become the subject of the paintings described to us. But the art came after, and we discover that Lawson himself only began to learn to become an artist later in the book. The tale hangs on the framework of an assignment to travel about and collect some important “lost” works of a world-famous painter, Von Honningsberg, but that artist’s work is far less interesting and important than the narrator’s own.

Lawson’s paintings do not so much depict the people and places themselves as their personal meaning to Lawson, and this relates to a central theme throughout the book. Indeed, the novel begins with a lecture from Lawson to an art gallery manager about the superficiality of the labels you see alongside paintings in galleries. These texts cannot tell us what the painting meant to the artist, only the dates and names and some generalized academic themes, which miss the point entirely, according to Lawson. Art IS personal meaning or else it is nothing more than illustration, mere appearances. The deceptive nature of surface impressions is also a strong theme throughout. Again and again Lawson characterizes the people he meets from his first impression, and only later discovers his error. The “fire dancer” is not at all a fire dancer. She only happened to be doing that one day. The Ukrainian in Siberian seems to be quite a disloyal person, a thief who ran in the night, then later seems the opposite, extremely loyal to certain objects, persons and feelings, only to turn around again. He is not what he appears, nor is anyone, really. The people who seem crazy and dangerous in China turn out to have very good reasons for their rage and anguish. The character Lawson is like a child drifting through these events, but the narrator Lawson has delved deeper and seen farther. We take some of these lessons with us when we read this exceptional book.

You can get it for one dollar at screwpulp.com and you should.

Groan of Arc

Somewhat uncharacteristically, I’ve been watching a lot of Hollywood movies recently, and noticed that several of them tell their story almost exactly the same way. They begin at some critical juncture, then backtrack to show how they got to that point, and then take it from there to the finale. This was true for The Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, Twelve Years a Slave, and Limitless. Every single time, the same formula. Now, I enjoyed all of these movies, so this is not a criticism, just an observation. Apparently, this methodology is in now in fashion. At some point it might become tiresome and so tacky that no one will do it anymore, in which case it could become a sort of nostalgia touchstone, like men wearing hats or lighting matches off of their fingertips.

It’s a commonplace among the literary online circles I follow that the artist must respect the audience, the writer must respect the reader, and may not for any reason upset the applecart. Readers do not want unsatisfactory endings. Readers do not want protagonists with whom they cannot sympathize. Readers want a beginning, a middle, and an end. Readers this and readers that. As a writer, you must give them what they want, and you can know precisely what it is they want by studying the popular writers who are quite adept at providing just that. But readers are also fashion victims, and what they want is what they want now. It’s clear that a bestseller from 1964 would not be a bestseller in 2014, not by a long shot, no more than a film or music from that year would have a ghost of a chance in the current market.

These literary forums and communities and circles are primarily concerned with the profession of writing, of course, and I don’t even know why I read or follow them, because the business of writing is of absolutely no interest to me, but it’s hard to find groups or associations of amateur writers like myself, amateurs who are also interested in innovation, creativity, experimentation, and just plain fun (if you know of any groups lie this, please tell me about them!). Writers in general it seems take the whole writing thing way, way too seriously. They remind me of carpenters, not even craftsmen but industry types, always fussing about today’s modern living room styles. How does one go about “world-building”? What are the essentials of plot development? Is it ever wise to introduce a female character without commenting on her cup size? You want to have a magazine for contemporary writers somewhat along the lines of Cosmopolitan magazine.

7 Sex Scenes That Seriously Sizzle!

Vampire Eyebrows To Die For!

The Twelve Opening Sentence Secrets of the Masters!

Listen. For Guaranteed Success begin with a critical juncture somewhere in the middle of the story, then backtrack from the beginning until you get to that point, and take it from there! It worked for nearly every Academy Award nominated motion picture in 2014. It can work for you too!

Angela started into the abyss. Jumping would solve at one of her problems, but would Arthur ever understand? Fuck Arthur, she decided, and took another step towards the edge.

buh-bye

 

 

Free Indie Reader Promo on Free Ebooks Dot Net

I’ve put my ebooks on a lot of free ebooks sites and “promoted” them on sites that promote such things, always with the “free” in mind since, after all, the books are free so why pay for promoting them? I’ve made a few exceptions, as experiments. I once advertised on Goodreads.com and saw no results from that (that’s a “not-recommended” by me) (but I thought maybe that’s because the good people on Goodreads consistently rate my books a full star lower than they do on Apple, Amazon, Smashwords or Barnes&Noble)(Anyway, I digress)(oops, I digressed again)

Ahem

So there’s this website called free-ebooks.net and according to them some of the books I’ve uploaded there have seen some decent download numbers, more than 2000 for the ones that have been most prominently featured on their site, so when they had a promotion for ‘front page featuring’ I decided to spend a few bucks promoting The Free Indie Reader #1, a collection of great short stories by several of my favorite indie writers. The book has seen more than1000 downloads from the various sites it’s been on since the beginning of the year, including around 240 from free-ebooks.net, so I was curious to experiment and see how it fared with this ‘front page featuring’. Today I received an email and, you’re really not going to believe this, so I will copy and paste it here:

Time to email all your friends and family! 

Hi Tom Lichtenberg, 

The “Homepage Feature” you ordered has been received. It is scheduled to be live on our homepage http://www.free-ebooks.net/ on October 9, 2031 for 1 week. 

Your eBook The Free Indie Reader #1 will occupy this Premium position on Free-eBooks.net and put you and your ebook front and center. 

That’s right, folks, that’s the year two thousand and thirty one. I’m not saying how old I am now, but if I’m still alive at that time I’ll be a couple of weeks shy of my 73rd birthday. So that will be a nice little gift, won’t it? I wrote them back and ask them if this was a typo, or a joke (It was April Fools Day, after all).

UPDATE: They wrote back today and apologize for the date and the ad is live this morning:

promo

 

Our webs-server provider experienced issues over the weekend and we are currently running the sites from our backups while we sort out said issues. In order to make it up to you I have extended the listing for another week at no cost.

You can get your free copy of The Free Indie Reader. You’ll be glad you did. There are some great stories in there by Lisa Thatcher, Michael Graeme, Giando Sigurani, Carla Herrera, WIllie Wit, Judy B and Paul Samael, excellent writers one and all.

“Fixture” Finds a Friend

When you write and self-publish obscure and strange little books that have no clear path to finding any friends out there in the big bad way over-populated world of books, it’s always a happy day for the book that does somehow find a friend. For my book “Fixture“, this is not quite an annual event, but it’s always worth a celebration. Today’s comes by way of a very nice review on Amazon:

Unfortunately I can’t say a lot about this story because it was so different and strange and completely unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The author is exceptionally talented and the prose was absolutely beautiful. The descriptions of the “Fixture” throughout the story really added life to the fictional individual whose life is being recounted by the narrator. The way the author brings the “Fixture” to life through the description and emotions that it elicits really made it so I could almost see something like this truly existing. Honestly I’d pay big money to see something like this if it could actually be done! Fascinating and enthralling but you definitely need to pay attention while reading it. Maybe someday an artist will do a rendering of the “Fixture” as described by Tom Lichtenberg that would be awesome!

Blue Jasmine vs. Fight Club – A Heavyweight Bout

I just happened to see these two movies on the same day in a rare (for me) double bill. Like anyone, I brought my own background to the show, projecting my own light onto the films. Fight Club is a movie I had put off seeing for many years, and Blue Jasmine is the first Woody Allen film I’ve seen in decades. I’d had enough of that guy but was willing to give this one a chance on account of the best-actress hype around Cate Blanchett’s peformance. Spoilers alert! Seriously.

The movies share common themes of gender issues and mental illness. On the latter score, both do a genuine disservice to the subject. While Jasmine is portrayed as mentally ill – she talks to herself out loud in public, has panic attacks defined by shortness of breath, pops a lot of pills and mentions she was subject to electroshock therapy – to me it didn’t ring true. She was only mentally ill sporadically, whenever it suited the needs of the script. Her supposed illness matched only one diagnosis I know of: a sort of 19th century mysogynist definition of “Woman” in the abstract: Jasmine was a weak, dependent, greedy, lying, vindictive, hysterical bitch who wildly over-reacted to her husband’s “natural tendency” to stray by ruining everything for everyone rather than calmly settling the matter to her own financial benefit like a sensible rational person (male) would have done. What was the crime after all? He fucked a few other women and then left her for a younger one! No biggie, right? Unless that wasn’t really the crime. Unless the younger woman thing was just a cover up of the real crime, let’s say a man who raped his seven year old daughter and then went off and married his teenaged one. Like Woody Allen did. Jasmine as Mia Farrow, flying off the handle about such things!

The background I brought to this one, of course, was that yesterday, the same day I saw the movie, was also the day that Dylan Farrow, the daughter molested by her father, Woody Allen, published a public letter detailing those crimes, and talked about how her mother decided not to pursue criminal charges (for the sake of the children?) and how guilty she felt all those years about all the other girls who might be victims of the same man who was free to go around the world making movies year after year and reaping rewards and awards, even lifetime achievement awards at the Golden Globes earlier this year. A real man might well have spent those years in jail, perhaps committing suicide like Hal in the movie, instead of merely having his reputation soiled.

Blue Jasmine, the movie, was also absurd in the way that every single (cardboard) character was simpy a function of how much money they had, or had lost. You could plug in the numbers and arrive at Augie and Hal, Ginger and Jasmine, Dwight and Danny, and so on. It was also remarkably Caucasian for a movie set in San Francisco and its largely Latino Mission district (Ginger lived on South Van Ness, around the corner from 16th and Mission). The working class Italian mokes who dominated the male set of figures might have come straight out of that area some three or four generations ago, like my late father-in-law. But anyway. The men in the film are straight-up fuckers and nothing else, and the women are all basically fucked.

Fight Club is the world where men become men and there’s not much about women at all. The only women in that film are the ones dying of various illness and Marla, Helena Bonham Carter, in a performance I quite enjoyed, as a grown-up goth girl, a reckless careless death-bent mess. She comes into the picture as the other “tourist”, like the main character (Jack – played by Edward Norton), an addict to recovery meetings, be it Cancer or Alcoholism or anywhere that suffering people meet to cry on each other’s shoulder. Marla is there, utterly inappropriate, chain-smoking and bearing witness to the inevitability of death wherever she goes. Jack attends these meetings because he cannot sleep. He hasn’t slept in six months but he accidentally discovers that if he lets go and cries then he can sleep, so these meetings become indispensable to him. He is only able to maintain his normal, Ikea-filled white-collar life by pretending to be suffering from some horrible ailment like testicular cancer. Of course his real ailment is mental. He is supposed to have either a multiple personality disorder or some kind of schizophrenia because he is, of course, also the macho, evil Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt, in an exceptionally vintage Brad Pitt-like performance). I’m no expert but I’m pretty sure that people with multiple personality disorders don’t actually hallucinate their other selves as imaginary friends they see and interact with as physical other beings, but hey, it was a fun plot device, even if it made no sense. (People who don’t sleep at all also cannot function at all)

Jack must attend his recovery meetings every night, and resents Marla’s presence exposing him as a fraud. For her part, she doesn’t give a shit if she’s exposed or not. She is far more self-aware. Plot hole #1? He attends every night, and yet his job requires him to travel around the country continually? Okay, if you say so. Plot hole #2? The Fight Club itself begins when he and Tyler have a fist fight outside a bar and others come to watch. Yeah, but they’re watching a guy punching himself in the face? They are going to join up with that? Actual real guys?

Of course the heart of the movie is about being a real guy – in the sense of taking your shirts off and punching each other in the face. That’s where you get in touch with your masculinity and it is far better therapy than crying on shoulders in recovery meetings, which, need I say, is seen as highly effeminate. Real men don’t cry, they just beat each other up. Or off. One of my favorite lines in this very cynical movie is “self-improvement is masturbation”. To me the fights were brutal and kind of gross to watch, but I am a man who was bullied and beaten up rather often as a kid, and had my life threatened enough under some dire circumstances later on – some of the baggage I bring to this film – and as a result I’m not a man who has a high regard for fighting or knives or guns.

About a year ago I came back to the States from a period abroad (in New Zealand) and at a welcome-home party thrown by friends I had a conversation about Fight Club with a friend’s boyfriend. This guy kind of lived that creed – he and his buddies like to punch each other in the face. I was in a pissy mood (I did not want to be home. I wanted to stay in New Zealand, and I had not missed these friends very much if at all) and I sort of slammed the guy (verbally) and all Americans in general for their endless stupid obsession about “the dark side” of the human psyche (America was at that time in shock over the slaughter of kindergartners in Connecticut, but by now we’re back to being used to mass shootings nearly every day in one happy little town or another). But it made me want to see Fight Club, and I’m glad I did.

Real men? Hardly. The men who join the fight club turn into passive, submissive cult-followers eager and willing to sacrifice their lives and personalities to the charismatic leader. They are soldiers, warriors, gangsters, and punk-slave-bitches every one. This was a subtext I had not expected to see, and was perhaps the most interesting aspect of the movie. Is this the true nature of Men? There’s an argument to be made. Our history is full of violence and war and religion and follow-the-leader mentalities, and the quickest way to make a man your lackey is to assert a more macho masculinity. Ask any Stalin or Hugo Chavez. And there’s even something very macho about surrendering yourself to torture and showing that you are man enough to overcome even that kind of death – eh, Jesus Christ?

There was only a pretense of mental illness in these movies, mental illness as convenient plot device, as excuse for crimes both physical and thought. The real mental condition in both movies is gender confusion, men who don’t understand women and men who don’t understand men (or women). There’s a lot of fear in that, and guilt.

On the purely viewer level, I enjoyed watching Fight Club much more than Blue Jasmine. The latter seemed like the same scene over and over again. It had almost no dynamics. It was “here’s a rich person scene. Here’s a normal person scene. Now here’s a rich person scene again. Now back to the normal people once again. Oh, and isn’t she totally fucked up? It’s her own damn fault you know.” Fight Club was many things, intentionally mythical in a bold way, dramatic and exaggerated, intense and different, as if it were a movie that was worth being made!