Monday, July 29, 2013

Scary Movie 17: The Conjuring

Near the end of Monsters University, the recent Monsters Inc. prequel, Mike and Sully must, for some reason, scare some adults in a cabin. Sully (spoilers -- not really) is not scary himself, but he's a genius at "setting up" a scare. As the adults enter they cabin, they are exposed to one horror cliché after another: doors creak, a wind-up doll walks across the floor, a warped record plays on an antique record player, etc. It's a pretty funny scene.

It also could have been almost any scene in The Conjuring.

This is the story of the Warrens, a husband and wife who apparently are famous ghost/demon hunters in real life, for a very forgiving version of  "real." Basically they go to houses where things are possessed by demons, investigate, summon a priest to do an exorcism, and then keep the possessed thing in a storage room of spooky things. Somehow the things are all still possessed, even though they had the exorcism.

The first thing that we see possessed is a doll. Really. The doll has a mean-looking face that appears to be scowling at you, which means it's not scary at all. Possessed dolls are scary because of the contrast between their apparent innocence and the terror inside them, so a doll that's already scary defeats the purpose. This doll is found by the dumbest couple of nurses on Earth, who for some reason not only take the horrible-looking thing home but then invite a ghost to live in it. The doll leaves them scary notes ("Miss me?") and makes loud banging noises on the door, until the nurses are rescued by the Warrens.

This was just the opening of the movie, a film-in-a-film played by the Warrens at one of their apparently popular university appearances. I and my date both assumed that it was set up as contrast toward the real scary stuff to come. We weren't the only ones: the audience was laughing their heads off.

The main story  involves a family, the Perrins, moving into an old house out in the middle of the country. Really. We've been warned this story is so scary the Warrens haven't revealed it until now. (Why now?)

Eddie Murphy had a funny riff once about how dumb white people are in horror movies, and wonders why they stay in houses like this. But of course the Perrins sank all of their money into the house, so they can't move out when it turns out to a bigger batch of horror clichés than The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.

First, the dog won't go into the house (It doesn't help him; he's dead in the morning.). Doors creak and slam, rocking chairs rock with no one in them, invisible hands grab the children's feet in the night, and there is an old basement full of antique stuff and a ball that rolls by itself. Birds fly into the windows and break their necks. Of course there's a kid who had a sleepwalking problem, and she starts sleepwalking again. She keeps trying to sleepwalk into an old wardrobe. (Spoiler: it doesn't lead to Narnia.) Another kid starts having conversations with an "invisible friend" who she sees in the mirrored lid of a music box.

Really. A music box.

I was reminded of The Shining, which was another collection of scary movie clichés. But The Shining was driven by the genius of Stanley Kubrick and the manic energy of Jack Nicholson. There is no one involved in this movie with the talent to make these tropes fresh, not even Lilly Taylor, who plays Carolyn Perrin, the mother.

Carolyn finds the Warrens at one of their sold-out speeches and begs them to come out. Mr. Warren is reluctant, for mysterious reasons, but Mrs. Warren agrees. Mrs. Warren immediately sees spirits around every corner (she's the one that's "sensitive" to them), including a body hanging from one of the trees. Really.

Research quickly reveals that the house was the location of a ridiculous number of demonic rituals, suicidal witches and child murders. If they'd looked another fifty years back, they'd no doubt have found it was also an Indian burial ground.

Nevertheless the Warrens must investigate with a whole rig of what was then (early 70s, I think) top-of-the-line technology: microphones in every room, video cameras, camera traps, and a UV light for revealing fingerprints. I guess ghosts have fingerprints?

This documentation is necessary in order to convince the Church to get an exorcist out. Mr. Warren can't do the exorcism himself because he's not "qualified." I thought only priests could do exorcisms because of their special relationship with God. But apparently it's just a licensing issue, like being a barber.

They've also brought a young intern (I wonder if he's getting college credit?) and the stupidest sheriff's deputy since The Dukes of Hazzard, who at least provides some comic relief. The deputy was probably sent by the sheriff just to get the idiot out of his hair. I don't know what else he was supposed to be good for since, as the intern quickly points out, "you can't shoot ghosts."

What follows is every scene you've ever seen in any movie about a ghost, a demon, an exorcism or a haunted house. There isn't a single thing that happens in this movie I haven't seen in at least three other films, and I don't even watch that many horror flicks. I kept waiting for one of the Wayans brothers to make an appearance. The Warrens' daughter gets dragged into it and Scary (not) Doll gets involved, too.

Nevertheless, this movie has more than five stars and an 80+% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What's going on, movie critics? Are you trying to trick me into seeing The Lone Ranger?

The movie closes with a quote from Mr. Warren about how God is real and we have to be careful of demons.  Was this whole thing a setup by evangelicals to scare us into converting? That would explain a lot. Using dumb scary stories to spook people into believing claptrap is basically what they've been doing for as long as I can remember. But with all the money they have, couldn't they have gotten a decent screenwriter?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Too Fast to Live: Alaya Dawn Johnson's The Summer Prince

In The Golden Bough, Sir James George Frazer traces a number of folk European rituals to a tradition that he believes was once widespread: A man, usually young, is chosen as the Summer King, and given all honor and respect for a year. At the end of a year, he is ritually killed, perhaps as a sacrifice or perhaps in a battle with his successor. Frazer claims to have found a number of similar rituals, some of them still in practice at the time he was writing, in African, Polynesian and Native American kingdoms.

Regardless of the quality of Frazer's data, or the degree to which the ritual of the Summer King was ever actually practiced, the archetype remains powerful. Names like Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain or Shakur remind us we haven't ceased worshipping those who will trade longevity for power and desirability. It is ripe grounds for fiction, and Alaya Dawn Johnson mines it well in her new book The Summer Prince.

At first The Summer Prince seems it might be one more book in the flood of apocalyptic scifi YA novels that have hit the market after Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, and indeed is marketed as such. But Johnson twists all the expectations of genre into something new, resulting in a work at least as revolutionary as Collins'. The narrator, June Costa, is a teen girl on the verge of womanhood in a the pyramidal glass city of Palmares Três which rises over the wasteland that was once Brazil. Palmares Três is a matriarchy, but it is no utopia. It may be paradise for those who, like June, live in the upper tiers, but their luxury rests on the back of the poor citizens who live in the lowest level amongst the algae tanks that provide the city's energy.

Those who live on the bottom tier call it the verde, or the green, but the upper tiers call it the catinga, or the stink. Literally reeking and full of gangs and poverty, the green produces survivors and people who know how to play the system, people like Enki, the Summer Prince of the title. Enki has chosen to sacrifice his life and future for a year in power, even though his role is supposed to be mostly ceremonial in a city ruled by a Queen and a cabinet of Aunties. The cuddly title of 'Auntie' belies the leaders who bear it. As the book progresses the Aunties, including June's stepmother Auntie Yaha, are revealed to be vicious political knife-fighters more than willing to do whatever it takes to preserve the city and their own place in power -- not necessarily in that order.

It is Enki, initially, who challenges the power of the Queen and the Aunties. He uses the privileges of his position to shove the experience of the verde in their face, literally making them smell the stink they would rather ignore. He hacks the city's robots and its computerized avatar voice, a sort of Big Sister via Siri, to defy the deliberate technological backwardness that the Aunties have chosen to impose on the city.

June, a pampered Tier Eight girl, has no motive to change the order of things. At first, June is only interested in proving herself as an artist, both to the city and to the deceased father who she feels never appreciated her. June's yearning for her father, and her fierce battle of wills with her mother who still seems to be competing with June for him, is painful and utterly believable.

But of course June's quest as an artist links her life to Enki, and to his quest for justice. Initially this happens through Enki's romantic relationship with June's best friend, the painfully handsome dancer Gil. Like a good YA book this one features a love triangle, but as with so many other conventions Johnson turns the triangle sideways. It is Enki who's the vertex here, with June and Gil both struggling for a place in his heart. And no one expects Enki to choose one or the other, or even both. There's no future in a relationship with a boy who has less than a year to live and besides, as June reminds us repeatedly, "everyone knows that Summer Kings screw like mayflies."

It should be clear by now that this book kicks down all the walls regarding sexual conventions and gender binaries. June's mother's marriage to a woman is distressing to June only because it happens so soon after her father's death, and perhaps because the relationship began while he was still alive. Enki's romance with Gil is controversial not because they are the same gender but because Enki uses Gil to deliberately blow off the Queen. In this matriarchal society, there is the implication that men have taken on some of the cultural characteristics we associate with women. At one point June tells Gil, "It's okay for you to cry, you are a beautiful boy." Enki uses his sexuality to seduce older, powerful people to get technology he might not have gotten otherwise. Though never explicit, The Summer Prince deals frankly with a lot of mature themes, and parents will have to decide whether a young reader is ready for it.

At the heart of the book is June's decision about whether to succeed within the boundaries imposed on her by her mother and the Aunties, or to defy and challenge them as Enki does and wants June to do as well. Johnson doesn't make the choice easy, and makes clear that either choice has consequences that are harsh and difficult to escape. This leads to a conclusion that might have been anticipated but nevertheless feels surprising and suspenseful until the end.

 To say that The Summer Prince is the most important YA I've read in a long time understates its significance. A book like this, if it was released when I was an adolescent, would have been categorized as adult science fiction and marketed that way, and a young reader would have only found it by browsing the scifi and fantasy shelves as I and so many kids my age did. In a way I wish it was marketed to adults, because then kids could stumble upon it the way I stumbled upon, and surreptitiously read, so many titles that would then have been considered too mature for someone my age. As it is, I expect Johnson's work to challenge the expectations of young and adult readers alike.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Singularities: Across the Event Horizon by Mercurio Rivera

The event horizon of a black hole is the point of no return, the point beyond which the rules of the universe as we understand them cease to make sense. It is also one of the most popular metaphors in science fiction, lately in particular when discussing the Singularity, the time when all our technological developments collapse in on themselves to make a world we no longer understand. Mercurio David Rivera, in his new collection titled Across the Event Horizon, shows a refreshing lack of interest in trying to track where our technological development is taking us. Nevertheless, his book couldn't be better titled.  Rivera's stories tend to be "what-if" studies that imagine what will happen when we cross other kinds of boundaries to futures that are just as foreign to us.

One such boundary is the one that separates us from extraterrestrial intelligences that we imagine must exist. This is a narrative area where Rivera has found fertile ground, much more than a lot of recent scifi. At ReaderCon recently Rivera told me he was surprised when someone told him he had a lot of alien stories, though when he thought about he he realized it was true. One of the first significant writers that dealt with alien intelligences, though he's not thought of as such, was Jonothan Swift in Gulliver's Travels. In addition to the better-known Lilliputians Gulliver encountars many other species, including the intellectually top-heavy inhabitants of the floating island of Laputa and the horse-like Houyhnhnms, each of which was a foil to humanity. Recently Alastair Reynolds' aliens, such as the predatory Musk Dogs of Pushing Ice, have continued this tradition.

Like Reynolds, Rivera understands that whatever aliens exist must be inimaginably strange to us, but he also knows that we can only really imagine them by how they are like and unlike us. The avian Kawkawroons have two personalities in one body, one frivolous and one solemn; the Wergens in "Longing for Langalana" develop an unrequited crush on humanity. Like Vernor Vinge in his "Deepness" trilogy, Rivera recognizes that any contact between other species and ours will involve exploitation. But it may not be obvious at first who is exploiting whom. This theme occurs repeatedly; in "Sleeping with the Anemone," about a director of questionably consensual human/alien pornography, the victimizer becomes a victim.

Another boundary Rivera explores, and one even more rare to scifi, is the one between us and whatever gods or spriritual beings we believe in. Religion plays a large part in a number of Rivera's stories, none more than in "Missionaries," a story about a group of possibly self-destructive Buddhist monks trying to make contact with a mysterious group of uncommunicative aliens. Rivera explores the tension between faith and reason without offering easy answers. In "The Scent of Their Arrival," another alien race is divided between "naturalists" and "supernaturalists," categories that conform to their gender. This enriches a fascinating first-contact story with a terrifying twist at the end.

A pair of stories, "Dear Annabehls" and "Snatch Me Another," are ostensibly about the boundary between different universes, but really are about the boundary between who we are and who we might have been. This alternately hilarious and terrifying set of tales is based on the concept of a gateway that allows us to reach into parallel universes and snatch different versions of the same item. Not surprisingly, people soon go beyond snatching items and start snatching people as well -- copies of people who are alive, and those who are dead.

"Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us," perhaps the darkest story in the book, is also the most directly political. The theme of the story has been explored before, as in "The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. LeGuin. But Rivera takes it in new directions, connecting it with race, terrorism and class inequality.

In many ways Rivera's stories hearken back to an earlier era of speculative fiction, an era more concerned with exploring ideas of what it means to be human than trying to actually predict what will happen. Many of his stories feature surprising twist endings that are worthy of a the best Twilight Zone episodes. These kinds of stories are something that speculative fiction needs more of, and I will be eagerly watching for future publications with works by Mercurio Rivera. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Monkey Be, Monkey Do: Monkey, Journey to the West

Monkeys and apes have been a problem to spiritual beliefs and mythology for a long time. They're too much like people to ignore, but they're distinctly animals, and act like it. They throw poop, they commit infanticide and they make strange noises. Consequently, they often play interesting roles in mythological literature.

Monkey: Journey to the West is a multimedia performance at Lincoln center based on the novel Journey to the West, one of the "Four Great Classical Novels" of Chinese Literature. I haven't read this book, but it appears the authors have made an effort to be as loyal as possible to the text, or at least the central part of it. The book is about a journey by the monk Tripitaka(as he's called in the play, in the book he's named Xuanzang) to India to bring sacred Buddhist sutras back to the East.

The play includes Chinese acrobatics, dance, music, martial arts and animation. The style of animation will be familiar to anyone who's seen the work of animator Jamie Hewlett, the creator of Tank Girl and the "virtual band" Gorillaz. Mostly the animation is an intro to the main action in the first few scenes; I'd like to have seen more of it. Damon Albarn, the producer of Gorillaz, composed the music. But the music is very different in style from Gorillaz's. It's minimalist, combining Asian influences with some modern dance beats.

The stage is alive everywhere in this play, perhaps too much so. There's no way you can appreciate everything that's going on in a single performance. The acrobatics are sufficiently spectacular, with spinning plates, backflips and performers balancing in seemingly impossible ways upon each other. The acrobatics and martial arts scenes are more than engaging enough to entertain a child who is accustomed to manga and cartoon adventures, as my son is.

Tripitaka is the leader of the journey to the West, but the star is clearly Sun Wukong, AKA the Monkey King and Great Sage Equal to Heaven. Born out of a rock, he's a first-class ass-kicking superhero who is not defeated by anyone except the Buddha himself. But he's no saint. The first part of the play is devoted to Sun Wukong leaving his position as king of the monkeys to acquire superpowers, especially magical weaponry from the Old Dragon King of the Eastern Sea. But rather than using his powers for good, he immediately uses them to crash the Queen Mother of Heaven's Great Peach Banquet and chow down on her peaches. As a result, Buddha imprisons him for 500 years, and only releases him to protect Tripitaka on his journey.

The story itself is a syncretist combination of abstract principles of Buddhism with classical Chinese mythology. My wife, who's more knowledgeable about Buddhism than I am, suggested that Sun Wukong represents the mind as opposed to the spirit. Mythological ass-kicking is interspersed with serene Buddhist sermons about desire and suffering. It's hard to see what the two have to do with each other. Monkey is clearly the bridge between the two, but his role is unclear. My first thought was that the monkey represented the id. But that role is clearly played by Pigsy, one of Tripitaka's other guides. Pigsy is greedy and horny, and is first found devouring food out of a dumpster.

Tripitaka's other two assistants, the river ogre Sandy and his white horse, who is the Dragon Prince confined to equine form, play almost no role at all, though they're there for every scene. These characters, and even Pigsy, seem a wasted opportunity. Every one of Tripitaka's guides are superpowered beings who have committed great crimes. Pigsy sexually harassed a goddess, Sandy devoured people by a river, and the Dragon Prince burned down his father's castle. Clearly this is a journey of redemption for all of them, but they do almost nothing to earn the redemption, besides kicking ass on some demons. Their backgrounds are given to us by info-dumping introductory songs, and then play very little other role. The only exception to this is Pigsy, whose lust leads him to fall for the lures of a spider-woman seductress, allowing her to kidnap Tripitaka and nearly rape him.

So whatever redemption happens must happen through Sun Wukong. It seems that Sun Wukong's problem is not exactly excessive desire. When he steals the Queen of Heaven's delicious peaches (which take 1000 years to ripen), he barely nibbles on a few. Mostly he just kicks them to the floor. He seems more interested in kicking ass on the Queen of Heaven's guards. Later, he doesn't seem to be susceptible to the Spider woman's lures, though he's not around when she springs her trap.

It seems that the monkey's weakness is a need for physical and psychological dominance over everyone around him. But whether anything happens that's a redemption for that isn't clear. A climactic moment occurs when Tripitaka mistakenly dismisses Sun Wukong for excessive violence after he defeats a demon disguised as a young girl, and old woman and an old man. But the monkey was correct, since this demon was eager to eat the monk's flesh for eternal life. Nowhere does the monkey have to consider there might be another path to enlightenment besides kicking ass and chewing bubble gum.

Monkey: Journey the West is an amazing show, and incredibly entertaining. It's a great family show. After we saw it, my wife told me "You liked it for the mythology, and I liked it for the Buddhism," and my son said, "And I liked it because it was awesome!"

But the message of the piece is muddled, and the narrative is flawed and weakened by missed opportunities. It's possible that some of these weaknesses are part of the original work. But every work is its own, and loyalty to a classic text is no excuse for narrative failures. As much as I enjoyed the show, I can't help but wish they'd dug a little deeper.