I’ve written a lot of non-fiction and essays over the years (it keeps my critical faculties sharp). I’ve penned book, movie and music reviews for a variety of publications, from genre magazines (The N.Y. Review of SF and Necrofile) to daily newspapers. I’ve posted a selection of my reviews and commentaries below—this is a representative sample but by no means all of it.
Those interested in reading more film-related writing should check out my blog Cinema Arete.
Somewhere down the road there might well be a compilation of my best reviews and critical essays but nothing is envisioned along those lines at this time.
* * * * *
I’ll start off with a link to an essay that appears on Cinema Arete. I’m a huge fan of western movies, have watched them since a kid. Shoot, I’m so crazy about the Old West, I actually wrote a good old fashioned cowboy tale, The Last Hunt.
“Why Westerns Still Matter” is my take on the enduring appeal of those bygone, frontier days…and my defense of the genre, its many virtues, what it symbolizes and why it still retains a special relevance, despite the passage of the years. Enjoy!
Download your free copy here…MoonlightI
Burning Moonlight II: reviews of Dimestore Alchemy (Charles Simic), The Falling Man (Don DeLillo) and The Pesthouse (Jim Crace).
Download your free copy here…moonlightii
Burning Moonlight III: reviews of Twilight (William Gay) and Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu (Laurence Bergreen)
Download your free copy here…burningmoon_
* * * * * * * *
“The Solace of Fortitude” (print version solace.pdf) was composed out of sheer frustration and rage. It gives you a sobering and depressing look at what the writing life is really like for indies and freelancers. Not surprisingly, this piece was rejected by the folks at Writer’s Digest and Poets & Writers (they prefer to preserve the illusion that you can become a famous writer by subscribing to their publications and following their “20 Easy Steps to Becoming a Bestselling Author”–Jesus Christ!).
“In Praise of Men in Rubber Suits” (print versionrubbersuit.pdf) originally appeared on the website scifidimensions.com. It is a fond look at the sci fi films that preceded the digital revolution which has reduced the genre to mindless pap and CGI-enhanced comic book adaptations. I don’t mind if the wires show sometimes and the special fx aren’t ILM quality. SF films used to be fun, centred around character and story. A nostalgia piece for people who’ve seen three too many “Spiderman” films.
And then there’s “The Prometheus Mission” (print version prometheus1.pdf). Can you say “mockumentary”? This is an article I wrote on a science fiction series from the 1960’s that never was. Imagine if Gene Roddenberry and Rod Serling had collaborated on creating the ultimate show for sci fi fans…this is their bastard off-spring. Written with love for an era that, sadly, is no more. I sent it to Harlan Ellison and was surprised when he called me at home about ten days later. He liked it and says to pass along to you that he gets the joke…and he hopes you will too.
“On James Frey (& Other Beautiful Liars)” (frey.pdf) reflects my absolute disdain for the memoirs and whinging “tell-all’s” currently popular with editors. Look at me, I’m a junkie, a drunk, a victim of abuse with a good agent and six figure advance. Pardon me if I reserve my pity for the real victims out there…
Contemporary Movies (A Rant)
Warning: Not Suitable for Adults (Reader Discretion Advised)
This past week I was fortunate enough so secure a copy of Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle”. I’m a big fan of Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and I would have to agree with Monty Python’s Terry Jones who states (in his introduction to the film) that “Mon Oncle” is the best of the Hulot series. For those of you who can’t make head or tail of these references, I’ll make it simple by describing Monsieur Hulot as a more benevolent version of Rowan Atkinson’s eternally childlike Mr. Bean.
Tati conceived and created a number of memorable productions involving the Hulot character but the quality and popularity of the series declined and filmgoers gradually lost interest. Tati’s last years were sad ones as he struggled to secure financing for his projects. His notorious perfectionism was part of the problem, insisting on multiple retakes until he had the timing or composition of a scene exactly right. That didn’t endear him to his cast and crew and certainly didn’t earn him brownie points with the people putting up money for his ventures.
The term most often applied to the character of Hulot is “bewildered” but I don’t think that quite apt. He’s more oblivious than anything else, unaware of the chaos he trails in his wake. Hulot is most endearing (and hilarious) when he is completely out of his element–that is never more apparent than in “Mon Oncle”. An older but no wiser Hulot finds himself trapped in a world of sterile modernity, a man out of synch with soul-sucking technology and labour-saving gadgets.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the essence of this rant.
Increasingly, like Monsieur Hulot, I am feeling like a fish out of water. It probably has something to do with demographics—I’m in my early 40’s, trying to exist in a universe where popular tastes are dictated by/or directed at the 14-18 year old set. I hate the music I hear on the radio, the movies I see advertised hold no attraction to me, most new books leave me utterly cold, I never watch television…
A trip to the video store is enough to send my blood pressure soaring. As I walk up and down in the “New Release” section I see:
-200 copies of the latest comic book adaptation (crap)
-100 copies of the latest installment of a slasher/horror/snuff film franchise (“Boogeyman VIII”, “Hacksaw VI”, etc.—utter and complete crap)
-100 copies of the latest romantic comedy starring the latest pretty faces (crap)
-20 copies of the latest indie film about twenty-somethings looking for love or meaning in a world largely indifferent to their angst and vulnerability (crap)
So, inevitably, I skip “New Releases” and wander back into the stacks, hoping I’ll spot some Walter Hill actioner I haven’t seen for awhile or grabbing a full season of “Deadwood” on DVD or “South Park”, if I’m feeling particularly frisky. I also look forward to our family’s monthly trips to Saskatoon (the nearest population center of any size) so I can pillage the shelves of that city’s Central Library, securing as many of the movies on my “Wish List” as I can find. Our last excursion to Toontown was particularly rewarding; I brought back the aforementioned “Mon Oncle” along with Nicholas Ray’s “In A Lonely Place”, Georges Henri Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear”, Chaplin’s “Limelight” and a couple of films in Val Lewton’s weird oeuvre. Not one movie was more recent than 1956. Fuck it, what’s the point?
CGI (computer graphics) has taken over the world. Now you can shoot movies without sets, without a coherent script, without expensive crowd scenes and there is no limit to what you can portray. You can propel your audience from one end of the universe to the other, from the far future to the distant past.
I know, I know, it was #1 at the box office for three weeks and everybody and his kid brother was telling you what a brilliant film it was. Funny thing that: you had high school students lining up at the movie theatres, inflating its gross earnings…and yet the film was supposed to be “18A”, wasn’t it? That means there were a whole lotta theatre owners looking the other way as pimply faced kids with fuzz on their chins ponied up the dough and went inside to see one of the most ultra-violent shows since Leatherface strapped on a chainsaw and went looking for fun. Where were the folks who are supposed to be guarding our kids against such smut…more to the point, where the fuck were their parents?
I think one reviewer put it best when he said the target audience for “300” was “emotionally disturbed fourteen year olds”.
You know, of course, that “300” was based on a comic book by Frank Miller. That’s right, comic book. Go ahead, defenders of so-called “graphic novels”, take me to task. I’ve read plenty of ’em (including offerings by Miller, Grant Morrison, Joss Whedon, etc.) and it’s my contention that the basic level of writing hasn’t much improved since I was a tweenie devouring Batman and Spiderman comics by the pound.
But the comic book/graphic novel is the perfect format for brain dead twerps who are daunted by all those words in traditional books. They need purty pictures to keep their attention. Ritalin, apparently, isn’t doing the job.
The sad thing is the story of the Spartans is one of the greatest ever told. I urge you to find a of copy of Stephen Pressfield’s amazing account of the battle of Thermopylae, Gates of Fire. You will be absolutely blown away. (Amazon.com)
The makers of “300” utterly fail to capture the human drama, the scale of the sacrifice, opting to slavishly adapt Miller’s comic book, subjecting every frame to computer tweaking, creating lovely, eye-grabbing tableaux…with nothing at the centre. “Visually stunning” is the term I’ve read over and over again in almost every review. Okay, it’s nice to look at but what about the stupid script, the histrionic over-acting, the inaccuracies? Mere quibbles, supporters sniff dismissively.
When I first saw the promo ad for “300” I was, alternately, enraged and amused. The “Matrix”-like choreography was ridiculous…but the Scottish brogue of the chap who was cast as the Spartan king Leonidas was hilarious. I mean, this fucker sounded like Willie, the janitor from “The Simpson’s”! I was soon entertaining friends and family by re-enacting my version of “300”: “Lissen, laddie, we Spartans are mighty tough people and dinnae think you Purrsian gits are gonnae walk over us…”
“300” is a movie made by people raised on video games for gamers whose brains have been devoured by years of hours spent battling virtual ogres, their thumbs swelling to an unnatural size (frontal lobes shrinking commensurately). If you liked the movie, you’re a moron; if you bobbed your head in eager agreement when that fathead Richard Roeper called Miller’s comic book the “Citizen Kane”(!) of graphic novels, you’ve obviously no idea what film he was alluding to. Mentioning “300” in the same breath as Welles’ masterwork is like comparing an “Archie Digest” to Moby Dick. So fuck you very much, Richard Roeper.
In “Kane”, Orson Welles revolutionized an art form and created a landmark film that sixty years later still tops critics’ polls as the greatest movie ever made. How will posterity treat “300”? As just another mindless blockbuster, a manufactured, computer-simulated experience in the tradition of “Titanic” and Peter Jackson’s overblown take on “King Kong”.
These films have no heart, no brains and, in the final analysis, none of the gripping human drama that makes great art resonate down through the ages. They are fluff, confections, deserving nothing from serious film mavens but our contempt and vilification.
“300” is cinema for the lobotomized.
(A Rant on Writing, Music, Free Expression and Kissing Ass)
God, I love Bob Dylan.
I just finished watching No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s brilliant documentary and I’m an even bigger fan of the man than I was before (and that’s saying something). At one point in the film, Dylan is being heckled by folkie purists for “going electric” and he turns to his backing band and snarls the quote found at the top of this page. No apologies, no backing down. You gotta love it.
Frankly, I put folkies on the same level in terms of general intelligence with your average lake trout and people who watch reality TV.
In keeping with the spirit of the man from Hibbing, Minnesota, I’m going to take a moment or two to vent on a variety of topics near and dear to my heart. I’ll write at length on some of these points at a later date but here are some of the pet peeves on my mind at the present moment:
1) Any writer who pays an entry fee to a contest sponsored by a magazine is an idiot. I’ve got news for you, boys and girls: editors and publishers are supposed to pay authors, not vice versa. Don’t subsidize these shitty little magazines with your hard-earned dollars. If they wanna survive, they should print better material (preferably by someone not on their masthead).
2) Hey, Canada, you can’t socially engineer a national literature. The publishers who are dumping money and resources on authors based on their postal code (“Oh, goodie, another writer from Cape Breton!”), gender or ethnic background are doing a great disservice to Canadian readers. The fact that many of these publishers receive big chunks of change from lottery dollars, grants and the public purse makes their attitude doubly galling. If these people were forced to practice their brand of political correctness at their own expense, they wouldn’t last six months (and they know it).
3) Art. This is the most overused word in the English language. If you make a doghouse out of popsicle sticks, you’re making “art”. Kids who smear a reasonable facsimile of a rabbit out of fingerpaint are making “art”. Folks, Art is a special designation that should be reserved for people like Michelangelo or Sam Beckett. Art is created by an elite group of individuals who by dint of natural talent and years of perfecting and developing that talent have achieved a level of excellence far beyond that of the vast majority of people on this planet. Period. You are not an artist just because you paint a really nice tree or can put together a half-decent sentence.
4) We need more “Dick Lit”. Writing by and for and about men. Right now, most of the editors who respond to my submissions (see: below), either at publishing houses or magazines, are women and they clearly have an aesthetic that is totally different from mine. And I’m not the only one who’s commented on the sea change that’s taken place on the writing scene. Here’s an excerpt from a recent article by Tom Junod on Norman Mailer in Esquire magazine:
“Manhood, and the courage necessary to attain it, were once the great subjects of American fiction, or at least the American fiction written by men. Now they aren’t even considered operative concepts, much less subjects suitable for great work.”
I find it interesting that there is an increasing level on concern out there that boys aren’t reading as much as girls. Educators and librarians are sitting up and taking notice. Let’s hope publishers will too.
5) Over the past 20+ years I’ve spent at least thirty grand submitting stories to publications. I’m finished with it. Done. It’s a waste of time and money and the actual odds of my actually being published in one of these fucking rags is next to nil. Again, there are too many arseholes being published who are friends of the editors or are listed as “Contributing Editors” on the masthead. These people should have their hands cut off to prevent further contagion. They are contemptible, no-talent scum.
6) If you have a choice between watching TV and reading a book by Louis Ferdinand Celine and you choose the former, never step into a back alley with me. You won’t be coming out with all your limbs attached.
7) If you buy a book because it has a sticker on it that identifies it as the winner of some kind of Canadian literary prize, you’re as dumb as a poodle and shouldn’t be anywhere near this blog. If you claim you’ve bought a book because it won a regional literary prize, you’re either a liar or you were dropped on your head as an infant.
8) If you’re a twenty-five year old shopping a memoir around, please wait for me in the same alley as the guy in #6.
9) If any of this offends you, too fucking bad.
10) So there.
Want a print version? rant.pdf
Rant from the Archives
March 29th, 2007—Cormac McCarthy appears on The Oprah Winfrey Show:
I just read that Oprah Winfrey’s next pick for her “Book Club” is…drumroll, please …Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Oh. My. God.
Okay, God bless Oprah for using her, ah, influence, to get people reading but I would prefer she stick to Oprah-type books. You know, novels about a woman in an abusive relationship over-coming great odds and…a crippled sharecropper with an orphan daughter overcoming great odds and…a junkie’s phony memoir about overcoming great odds and…etc. Leave real writers (like McCarthy and DeLillo) to critics and commentators who have the intellectual capacity to appreciate and discuss the complex narratives, word choice, symbolism and so on. McCarthy is far beyond the usual fare she highlights (I suspect she’s taken a crack at a “difficult” author to prove she’s no mental lightweight–you go, girl!). While McCarthy’s agent and publisher are likely exchanging high five’s right about now, the man himself won’t be much impressed. He rarely gives interviews and evinces little interest in his sales or public profile. I expect most of Oprah’s fan base (over-40 women who find Dr. Phil insightful and witty) will be lost when confronted by McCarthy’s dense prose and bleak worldview. Redemption for him means coming to terms with man’s evil and depraved nature. That’s not gonna go over well with the Oprah gang.
Postscript: (A confession). I watch next to no television. In our house, we get two channels…and the reception on one of them renders it almost unviewable. Over the course of my life I’ve tuned in to “Oprah” exactly once. I happened to catch the episode where she had Tom Cruise on her couch. Rather than asking him something pertinent like “What’s with Scientology and how could you possibly base your faith life on the teachings of a dingbat like L. Ron Hubbard?” she came up with: “When did you first realize you were cute?”
That was enough for me.