Monday, September 26, 2005

Film: Without a clue

Some say that the only criteria by which you ought to judge a comedy is whether it makes you laugh or not. On a subjective level where you pick films for your home DVD collection, I guess you have to account which comedy is funny to you, but there is so many different senses of humor, that we would be inclined to value some shallow gross-out comedy that gets it’s laughs by throwing feces at us or by having characters with embarrassing names as much as some of the greatest films of our times. Because it’s funny to someone too, perhaps even to many, many people.

But then, general rules for judging one film, whatever they are, shouldn’t exclude comedy; There’s an additional goal of comedy, to make audience laugh, but it shouldn’t defy rules of good plot, characterization, narration, film language. Then again, comedies vary too, and not all of them have the goal of making us burst into a neighbour-waking laughter. “Vampire’s ball”, jewel of a horror comedy of Roman Polanski, caricatures gothic horror, but in the same time keeps the horror element and doesn’t allow us to laugh simply by scaring us at the same time. In scene where Professor, the vampire killer and his assistant climb over high rooftops of the mountain castle, we are freaked out by the height that divides them from unrealistically picturesque landscape, yet we are amused by the slapstick with which they clumsily climb over. The result is a miffed, uncomfortable laughter. Similarly, with “Dr. Strangelove”, we will laugh because we are frustrated. That’s not the cathartic laughter of, for instance, whimsical “Airplane!”, it’s a scattered laugh with which we hide our frustration.

“Without a clue”, a Sherlock Holmes comedy by Thom Eberhart is, also, not particularly hilarious; There are a few big laughs in it, like the one related to replacement of the sword with the umbrella. But there are many funny moments, because the film lies on a clever, funny premise, and keeps us entertained with complications that come out of it; It gets most of it’s kick my clashing the old myth with something of a comedic value.

Namely, the premise is that Sherlock Holmes (played by Michael Caine here) is not a brilliant detective, but a dumb, lowlife loser. His reputation is built on the fact that Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) is the real detective, hiding behind the mask of Holmes (who is, in fact, the actor that Dr. Watson hired) that attracts all unwanted attention, leaving Watson to ponder his cases in solemnity. This premise gives a lot of opportunity for comedic turns on the old Holmes fame: For instance, we see Holmes strolling around the scene of crime with his giant magnifying glass, detectives curiously following him, while Watson, uninterrupted, investigates in the other room. We keep imagining twists of truth that Watson uses to present Holmes as a great detective in his published journal.

The story revolves around the attempt of Dr. Watson to establish himself as a detective, unsatisfied with Holmes’ drunkenness and freewheeling. But neither his publishers nor clients aren’t interested in “Crime doctor” as he calls himself, so he has to drag Holmes back to solve one more case. The one involving Dr. Moriarty, of course.

Then DR. Watson is seemingly killed which gives us a chance to laugh at Holmes’ attempts to use deduction that he’s seen Watson using so many times. All he comes up with is that Moriarty’s real name might or might not be “Arty Morty”. Then there’s a showdown, a sword-fighting scene, a fire, and, of course, the return of Dr. Watson (which is not much of a spoiler since we can guess that he wasn’t dead all along.

Being that the film doesn’t intend to get us off our seats to the floor, instead of comedians, it casts British actors known for dead-serious roles, letting Kingsley’s grinning dignity clash with Caine’s clumsiness. Lysette Anthony, as the daughter of kidnapped money printer, has the Victorian beauty that lets us imagine her in some of James Ivory’s takes on Henry James or some other 19th century writer.

And there’s no more to say. It’s funny, it’s clever, unexpected, intriguing, characters are in place and it all works like greased wheels. Perhaps not all opportunities of the premise are used, but then again, who could think of it all?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain)

Though he didn't make a whole lot of films, it is hard to say which is Jean-Pierre Jeunet's best film: both of his masterpieces "Amelie Poulain" and "The City of lost children" have a positive, eccentric weirdness, unlimited originality, richness with ideas that could fill up several average films, in short, an unique sensibility; but they're two different, incomparable words: "Amelie" cheerful, personal and full of love; "The City" dark, bizarre, so twisted that even story structure seems to be testing our guts. Perhaps, for it's complexity, "city" wins for me, but it's "Amelie" that I can watch over and over. But recommending "The City" to a friend who liked "Amelie" has often proven to be a disaster.

How did it start? Very slow, Jeunet, amateur director executed many short films until he got courage to make his first feature. By then he assembled a group of standard collaborators of similar fondness for bizarre beauty, including scriptwriter Marc Caro, cast of actors with unusual screen appearances that became his trademark - the most prominent of which are Dominique Pinon and Jean-Claude Dreyfus, and some time later, a computer effects master Pitoff.

The first feature was "Delicatessen", a story of building tenants who make up for the lack of meat in historically undefined time of poverty by hiring a spare flat to a new tennant, then killing and finally eating him. Cartoonishly morbid, this film was like a test area for "The City of lost children", sharing it's dark tones and much simpler in story; it was a surprise hit in France, and gave Jeunet enough credit to make ambitious pet project, "The City of lost children".

One of reasons why I don't wanna talk about "The City of lost children" is that I don't think I'm fully able to describe it. Set in eerie, foggy port, film seems to float nearly above water; filled with bizarre characters of which the film villain isn't exactly the most terrifying one, "City" is a film that leads you through dark, moldy streets, then leaves you behind, and just when you start fearing that you're lost, it arrives from the opposite direction and grabs your sleeve asking "Where were you, I was looking for you!"

Internationally successful, "The City" granted Jeunet glance of a Hollywood fame and the first hid-for assignment, direction of fourth sequel of "Alien".

Which is a task he should never have taken. With his taste for dark, directing "Alien" franchise was probably a challenge, but by that point, both the franchise and the premise were worn out, not to mention that third part was the planned as end of the trilogy as (duh!) the main character died at the end of it; And yet, on the other hand, fans kept expecting something that would level up with the best moments of franchise. Even though Jeunet brought his entire team from "The city of lost children" with him, results were disappointing and this is the most hated "alien" sequel, that is, if you were lucky enough to manage to erase the half-sequel "Alien vs. Predator" from memory.

That adapting to Hollywood system was poor for Jeunet's team, was further proven by Pitoff who directed the debacle known as "Catwoman". What is the reason for such poor adapting - that is, besides wrong decisions in start, made by producers? The answer is, I believe, that Jeunet's esthetics in fond of kitsch; and that kitsch, supported by convincing characters and unrestrained imagination, proves to be the factor that pushes the film one step further, making his esthetics unique. But playing with kitsch is always tightrope walking, and in Hollywood environment, limited by preordered decisions, by sloppy, week, schematic script that is completely unfitting to Jeunet's vision; Caro’s and Jeunet's scripts, specially "Delicatessen", were kitschy and overblown themselves, supplementing the visuals - Hollywood scripts gave no context or depth to the picture, it's kitsch came from shallowness and cliché and was complimentary unintentional, thus the tightrope walker fell. Jeunet was not Andrei Konchalowsky or Paul Verhoeven, he couldn't simply make American films by temporary forgetting how European films are made.

After that flop, Jeunet decided to rather return to France. He was in situation to have to prove himself once again, and he did it by making a story in completely different tone: "Amelie Poulain" achieved the greatest commercial success of a French film outside of France in history.

It is interesting from conversations with various people about this film (and we talked a lot about this film) that what I mostly liked about this film were things that lots of people didn't consider, while parts that were favourite to people - like lists of likes and dislikes through which characters are introduced, or benign pranks that Amelie is making to torture the grocery store owner - were the ones I considered supplementary, kitschy notes without which the film would've worked just fine. The answer is, perhaps, that this film in such dense, layered Net of various ideas that it offered something for just about anybody - which is, perhaps, the reason of the wide success.

The film, as I said, starts by introducing characters by narrator, through naming their likes and dislikes. It is good idea to return to direct narration when you need to do it efficiently: "Brothers Karamazov" start with "Fyodor Karamazov was a man..." so why should there be anything wrong with it? That narration in "Amelie" is not all that conventional is a nice twist that makes start of the film just more interesting. There is, however, a stunningly beautiful shot in Amelie's "likes", where she is flipping the stones on the bridge over the channel. Camera catches her and her bridge from the back, standing on top, makes a half-circle rotating over her, until it finally stops in place where it's showing her from the front, just as the rock makes several leaps on the water surface. Jeunet's attention to details is such that we see Amelie picking flats rocks from the ground all the time during the film, and it's not a plot device, it's just poetry.

Jeunet has to introduce his characters quickly, as he always have unusually lot of them in stories that are all but simple d straightforward. In "Amelie" he introduces them with narration, in "The City" he was unexpectedly throwing them at viewer with not much explaining, which was, again, ok for that film. Here, Dominique Pinon is notable as Julien, jealous boyfriend of Amelie's co-worker. Amelie is, of course, played by Audrey Tautou, scarily wide-eyed, and it is no surprise that Jeunet had to have her in that role first time he saw her face on film posters. There are other notable performances, like Serge Merlin as the man with crumbly, fragile bones who never gets out of his house, Isabelle Nanty as Amelie's neurotic co-worker, Jamel Debbouze as simple grocery store worker who speaks with vegetables, and, of course, Mathew Kassovitz (otherwise highly uneven director) as Nino, Amelie's love interest.

Film bathes in contrasting colour: it is noted that every scene in the film contains something red and something green; these two contra ting, otherwise unfitting colours, are put together wit such consistency through the film, that they form a visual message of liberation and cheerfulness.

Amelie is an average girl who, in stroke of depression/wild imagination/depression, decides to help everyone he can from background, using witty little tricks. Her first good deed marks, perhaps, the most touchy scene of the film: she finds an old box with toys, hidden behind the wall in her apartment, and decides to return it to it's owner, even though he is an old man now. The box is left to be found by him in the phone booth. As the man finds the box, at first he’s cautious, then confused, finally his Childhood flashes through his mind and his hands start shaking, his breath betrays him, and he rushes to the nearest bar to get a drink. There, shaken up (and we are shaken up with him) he believes that he's seen a miracle; he remembers his grandson he is rarely seeing; in fact, looking back at his childhood, it seems not so long ago, and we don't need to hear from him "where has all this time gone?" to know that that's what he's thinking.

But we find out a thing or two about Amelie too. She is in that bar, nervous, actually scared, and when the man tries to talk to her, she is stiff from fear. There is a reason why she uses tricks, plots, and watches the consequences from the safe distance: extrovert and open to the world, she actually has no time to turn to her own feelings; or rather, she is scared by them, too shy to express them. She is, thus, too shy to share happiness and fear with that man.

This is shown better when Nino arrives, simple nice guy whose hobby is to collect pictures from photo automates that people have thrown away, not liking how they came out. Nino's life, just like anyone's in this little universe, is dictated by his eccentric quirks. Mystery of his life is why one single man throws away perfectly good photos all over the Paris; after a lot of theories of which the latest ones are a pure fantasy, finding out a true, to him has a weight of religious revelation.

But back to Amelie: being as she is, she can only communicate with Nino through her usual plots and tricks, from the safe distance. Nino's obsession from that moment becomes meeting her in person, which requires her growing up and, well, finding herself.

Don't be fooled by attractive visuals, this self-searching is the main theme of the film, It lifts the film to a level of psychological, personal story. To grow up means, perhaps, to give up on dreams that have been guiding her all through the film, but to stay the way she is means to hide behind the corners fur her on, to affect but not to communicate, to help but not to enjoy.

As if to confirm that, film gets more simple and personal near the end. One of the most moving scenes is a simple, with no special effects or complicated mise-en-scene: as Amelie missed Nino and is left with a feeling that she might never see him again, she returns home and prepares pie, she imagines her future life with Nino, she imagines him walking to buy flour and then returning, waving ribbon-curtain on the kitchen door; she is returned to reality by real waving of the curtain. But it's not Nino, it's just her cat.

Music plays substantial role in this film: lovely accordion waltzes by Yann Tiersen Thread all through the film. In the very last scene, where Amelie and Nino ride a motorcycle, picture is speeded up, contrasting slow waltz in the background. Instead of fitting the tempo of picture and music, Jeuned speeded up the picture and slowed down the music just enough to fit them into the same tact, again; it creates a peculiar effect that makes this film emotional playground all through the end.

"Amelie" was followed by "A very long engagement", a war story, again with Audrey Tautou; somewhat visually restrained compared to his old films but still worth seeing.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Film: Network :(

The way I figure it, I don't have to love something to respect it. After all, am a subjective human and just because something is good, significant, influential, doesn't mean it appeals to my taste. There's a lot of undoubtedly great work of art that I don't like very much: 19 century Russian writers, Virginia Wolf, Rauschenberg, most of Orson Wells, Fazbinder; I admit that I don't understand poetry; I am not crazy about pre-renaissance painting; I have many objections toward theater, when compared to film; those are all things that I greatly respect but they won't inspire me to sit for several hours, writing a blog entry about them, just to share what I like about them with someone.

There are, of course, other highly respected things that I think are overestimated and don't have the greatness that is attached to them: Marques; 20 century realism; Alexander Dumas (but of course - is he really that respected, or is he just popular?) Many today's Hollywood faves and regular Oscar nominees, starting with Spielberg and Oliver Stone; Pakula; Victor Fleming; And frankly, I'm very suspicious toward Tolstoy too. But that's all the matter for some another debate.

There are, as I said, many great directors who never really, well, moved me, inspired me, made me experience the film instead of just watching it: Cecil de Mill; Capra; Wells; and then, also, Sideny Lumet.

What bothers me with Lumet, even though I enjoyed "Dog Day Afternoon" and, at the moments, "Serpico", is that his films all seem like well-oiled constructions for critic-pleasing. But of course, there are not only crowd-pleasers but also critic-pleasers; I know, in theory, critics should be the ones to pat the good film on shoulder and to praise the great film or whatever their scales are set to. In reality critics will give four stars to a film that has nothing bad in it. However, lack of bad doesn't always equal good. And there I am, feeling strange as, while the most people see critics as vicious author-eaters, I say that they should actually be harsher?

No, I'm just saying that there is a model to which you can make a film that critics will love, with not much personal inspiration, with no risk going by numbers.

For one thing, satire or social engagement never fails and it somehow doesn't surprise me that Lumet's films always start from such premises; See, critics like films that aren't shallow (duh!) The easiest way to not be shallow is to send a social message; You can strugle with existential, ethical matters, wider problems of humanity, but you might or might not struggle successfully with those and your point might or might not be registered. With level-headed social engagement there's no risk: you're as good as you're merciful when you give money to charity. Even if you're pathetic, if you're too direct and lack subtlety, if you fail to make conclusions, you will be forgiven because of good intentions.

Lumet does that: he often finds a real event that is intriguing on a social level and films it.

Next: good actors. Unlike with books where author is left all by himself to do characterization, with film, actors help you very much, specially if they're from the top shelf (like Pacino, whom Lumet worked with several times), they'll make a good character if only you give them plausible lines and enough screen time.

Next thing you need is to film it in a good, but conventional way. Lumet's film language is always competent but conventional, good but uninspired, it unmistakably tells the given story without holdup, but it doesn't add to a story. And I think it should, point of film is that through specifics of it's narration, you can do a lot more than just retelling what's written in scripts; It's not just surrounding yourself with good actors, good set-designer, good cameraman - it is also moving a viewer through pure camerawork and editing; Lumet doesn't do that, not to me, at least. He's too straightforward, too concentrated to the script he has in front of him.

See what's my beef, he never risks - Not when it comes to critics approval, of course he dealt with risky themes but those are themes that critics love - and usually, the best results, the most moving, the most original, craziest, memorable moments in film come from risking, from going out of usual ways, trying something you're not sure will work, hiring the ex mental patient to play a lead role, for instance (like Herzog did). Lumet does none of those, he was the safe, paved road and he does that with not much mistaking, but somehow I find that not enough; I find that making him no more than a good craftsman.

Now I said that I enjoyed some of his films but the film I found irritating was the one he got most of praises for: "Network". Of course, he got a bunch of Oscars, which doesn't mean much; I stopped caring about Oscars long ago, to ask me whether "Network" deserved six Oscars, my answer would be: probably; Ask me if it deserved six major American film awards (assuming that it's a serious award) and I'll say "Only if it was a really, really bad year."

Well, the most irritating thing about "Network" was terrible overacting, which is surprising since other Lumet's films shown a good, leveled handling of actors. Here, actors act if they are making a theatre play, not a film. In theatre, actor is on stage, far and above the audience. To get emotionally to audience, he has to exaggerate his acting, to fill the entire hall with it, so make his waves so strong that they reach the guy in the last row; heck, they have to talk very loud for everyone to hear them. Film has other means of getting actor closer to audience: first and foremost, closer cuts (when I was younger, asked why I didn't like theatre, I was answering: "because it doesn't nave close cut"); also, lighting, camerawork, music, can all be a backup for actor. So there's a basic difference in approach to acting, and theatre actors who translate to film learn that on first day of the set. After all, when you're looking at someone's face on screen, three meters tall, you don't want it yelling on top - you hear him just fine. Actors in "Network" seem to act as if they think they're on stage. So it's not bad acting, in fact it's very passionate, it's just that it's not appropriate for film; In film, it seems too exaggerated to be taken as true. On stage, it'd might be perfect.

There's something about the entire story a film is based on that makes me go: what's the fuss all about? It looks like a story much more appropriate for a low-cost TV film, than a major, Oscar-winner film. The whole story seems like a rather benign anecdote that isn't ever particularly memorable. To rehash, it is a story of a news anchorman Beal (Peter Finch) who is to get sacked, so in his last news, he says to hell with good manners and announces his suicide and yo momma last night. He shocks everybody which turns him into a novelty, which makes the station not only not to sack him, but to give him a prime time and his own show in which he'll be able to tell whatever he want. They basically turn him into a clown. But as I said, it all seems like a good story to tell at dinners, but a major satire? Yet, Lumet (and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky who, actually, shows more competence than usual) decides that this is a perfect metaphor of cruelty of modern society and makes the show going. As if he feels that his main story is feeble, he makes Beale basically a supporting character with very little screen time and turns the attention to a vicious young program planner Diana (Faye Dunaway) and elderly executive William (Max Schumacher) who have an affaire. And as if to show how cruel the world is, Diana leaves good-natured, old-fashioned William right after he left his wife for her. All this would seem like a soap opera and Diana would have a lot in common with Blake Carington if it weren't for Beale’s storyline to give it a certain air of unusual, dare I say, of inspiration; and yet, it's the same story that Lumet and Chayevsky willfully pushed in second plane, probably because they realized that inicial idea wouldn't have enough material for a feature; Grating result, Beale, the most interesting character, appears very little apart for the very beginning of the film, and seems like just an excuse to get the melodrama going. He is brought back into the focus only to be killed onstage, which is where Lumet decided to finish this, open by nature, story.

And he ends it right where he began. And left me with the feeling: a lot of fuss after nothing. I said that most of Lumet's work passes as nice, pleasurable for looking, craftwork. Perhaps even more than that, in "Dog day afternoon", he managed to see a comical potential of one tragic event, and to exploit it rather good. "Network" is... Well, just grating. Why did it, of all films, got so much compliments? Perhaps because back in 76’, its content wasn’t so ordinary like today is. Perhaps because we see things shown in “Network” all around us – and guess what, world still exists. Perhaps “Network” is just a bit dated film that fails to shock nowadays, and hasn’t got very muck to offer appart from that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Webcomic: Go for it

Those who followed my wade into webcomic reviewing know that this is the last comic in my queue. Being that the queue was formed by application, and noone else applied, I don't have any more particular reviews in mind. However, everyone can still apply for a review here. But before you do, please make sure to read previous reviews so that you know what you're getting into. So that there's no regretting afterwards.


Ahem. "Go for it".

Go for it is not for everyone’s stomach or for everyone's taste. It has some drastic scenes and ideas, like bloody murders of childhood and family entertainmeat icons, people eating fecals, joking on account of family tragedies or mental deviations, to name just a few most extreme. But then, is "Go for it" a shock comic?

In last rant I defined shock comic as something that brings shock, insult and mostly (and on the lowest level) gross-out, for their own sake, something of an unprovoked assault on senses. This kind of shock has no cathartic effect or perhaps isn't even intended to shock - it is intended to give satisfaction to authors and readers, of being involved with something that can shock someone. It gives them "the edge". Makes them "mean". Teenagers like to be grossed out, that's why "American pie" was so popular. And on some level, audience of shock comics and "American pie" isn't so different.

In this strict sense, "Go for it" is, I believe, not a shock comic. This is because it actually contains the "edge" that shock comics are looking for; this edge is not, as they'd expect, in shocking images, but in biting satire. Shock is there just to emphasize it's effect. As it proves with every purposeful work of this kind, it is substance that is really assaulting, and whether your comic is going to show bashed heads or not - is just a matter of form. "Go for it" is to, for instance, late "Mall monkeys", like "South park" to "Ren and Stimpy”.

Of course, in final calculation, it might appear that the audience of shock comics is drawn to "Go for it" for shock elements; being that this audience is often an object of satire in "Go for it", that would be an irony. But irony is not a rare thing.

Technicals: "Go for it" is first and foremost a satire of consumerism society, of bying for the sake of buying, forming view of the life through funny lenses of TV and video games, advertising, stupefying mass media products, with accent on showing effects that these have on people; also, with personal beef on anime. There's a lot of stupid people to mock to (and, frankly, be scared of) walking through this comic, but the comic is never deciding on whether they're stupid because as a result of consumer culture, or the consumer culture is the product of stupid people. That's one message that comic never manages to deliver, thus we're short of explanation whether we laugh at culture that is making people stupid - or simply at the low IQ. This is a great difference because in basis of dilemma is whether "Go for it" is humanistic comic (ie. comic that criticizes dehumanizing) or just an exercise in cruel looking down at people.

While we're at that, "Go for it" indeed is cruel. When showing an obsessive videogame fan it will not only point at how miserable his life is, but also at how it will never be any better and it will perhaps go so far as to assume him an early death from consequences of such life. I don't wish to go into discussion at whether this kind of extremeness is necessary; it is, like many things in comic, a matter of taste. "Go for it" violence and misfortune has a sort of cartoonish note in it. Some people like violence, I, on the other hand, never even liked to see Wille E. Coyote falling off a cliff.

But let's turn back to technical part: "Go for it" features a cast of people of whom most are, I presume, in college. Main star is Alex, snarky guy who looks at the world with sleepy, yet observant eyes. He's, you know, a kind of guy who, noticing all the gross absurd of modern world, decides not to deal with them but to hide behind ambivalence. He is brutally honest and cruel, just as the comic is, so it is not hard to perceive him as the author's alterego. Alex gets away with most of things he says, sometimes because his sarcasm isn't caught, sometimes because he is ignored; it actually seems very unlikely that a person who says such things has so little troubles in life because of that.

Now there's a little quench in this character (and i hope i didn't just make that word up), it seems like for the author, it is important to underline that Alex is ambivalent toward most of things, and not hateful. His comments, thus, are not the result of pessimism but of good perception. This characterization, I don't buy. To me, Alex appears as a person with exquisite talent for spotting negative sides and ignoring positive sides of life. Perhaps it is because we never see Alex smile or actually enjoy in something, we always see him constantly surrounded by ignorant people so much that we start thinking that he purposefully chooses such surrounding in order to keep this negative view of life fresh and motivated; all in all, we don't manage to see Alex as objective observer which is, seems to me, the role that author has given to him. The impression is that Alex's drive is hate, hate gives him the consistency in his view of the world; Then, he masks hate behind ambivalence in order to maintain a "cool" look, and only lets it out through his words, seemingly inevitable due to honesty, but biting like snakes. His eyes remain sleepy but inside, repressed emotions rage.

Still, this is also a plausible character.

Perhaps some glimpses of human warmth ill break through, specially in his relation with his brother, Torrey: though Torrey represents everything Alex hates, there is still some brotherly fondness between them (or did I imagine it?) and this comes as a very realistic portrayal of the awkward family relationship. Torrey is, in short, uncontrollable, brainless, destructive force, a teenager who will, given the means, do irreparable damage. He, on one side, works as the subject of satire, he is that product of excessive watching of TV, a kid who cannot differ reality from fiction, thus cannot realize that cartoon violence has devastating effects when applied on reality, he is the one we will laugh at. On the other hand, he also takes a role of avenger, unintentional though, as his outbursts of mayhem are usually turned toward subjects that author despise even more, for instance Anime club. Of course, consequences of his beef toward such subjects are much more extreme than the ones of Alex; While Alex delivers just a snarky comment, Torrey delivers material damage, even life danger. Torrey’s duality of as a subject of satire and as avenger is at the same time intriguing and beneficial. On one side, he is allowed a lot more than other characters are; comic is cruel, but it's characters aren't. Torrey is not cruel because he is not aware of the consequences of his acts (read: too stupid). Thus he is a perfect avenging tool, and all characters that might've been held responsible for such extreme acts like destruction or murder, have their hands clean. This is one of ways in which authors keeps his main characters good guys, a lot more about that later. Anyway, bad side of Torrey’s duality is, the tone of some comics is too indecisive, and it's not a very good pun when we're not sure what to laugh at, actually. An example of this is thanksgiving comic in which Torrey fires up a rocket and blows up a newly bought, uninsured car of some cubicle worker. This, clearly satire of the dangerous tradition of blowing up stuff on 4. July day under suspicious security measure, is obstacled halfa way by the fact that the comic gives us another subject of satire half way through it: a car owner, shortly described as a tool. His years spent in working for a car, an object, a status symbol of consumer culture, are something to be satirized, but not in this comic because that directly confronts the first satirical line. We are in doubt toward the act of lighting a rocket - is it the act of stupidity or of ironic justice? We are in doubt toward Torrey’s role, because he tries to assume both of his roles at the same time and then undecidedly shifts between them. Perhaps author was sticking to the first satirical line but then, wasn't able to show enough compassion toward the car owner, a kind of compassion necessary for first satirical line to work? Perhaps he satirized him out of habit? Alternatively, this could be just a comic about a bunch of stupid people blowing each other up, and we're not supposed to feel anything about any of them, as it doesn't concern us? Not very likely.

Lily is Alex's and Torrey's young sister and she is, in short, female kid version of Alex, though with something of kiddie naivety and wide eyes. Her purpose is to provide same scenario in grammar school surrounding and, perhaps, to throw some light to characters of her brothers. Her look, very close to Alex's, is a fine point noticeable when you see her first - you don't need to be told that she's Alex’s sister to know it.

As a character with lots of "camera time", I will mention Lina, school activist, enthusiastic and it's just that enthusiasm that, in author's opinion, makes her naive, which is a very debatable premise. However, she's a sort of in-the-middle character who, also in communication with the world he despises, still deserves Alex's respect.

Then there are other characters, most of them are walk-through eccentrics, fanboys, geeks, lunatics, fanatics of many sort. Others are straight people who provide a necessary shocked face to counterpoint outbursts of first. Some of them have their place in a slick flash-animated cast page (authors always have crude form of cast page to deal it and author of "Go for it" found a satisfying solution) although they aren't memorable enough to Be assumed main characters. Some characters (especially female) are hard to differ at first, and it isn't helped by the fact that cast contains a pair of identical twins.

Otherwise, art is Very good, and author is keeping himself away from drawing bugs. Robust, with stabile form and appealing character designs. "Go for it" is mostly a dialogue comic so it roughly falls into a category of "talking heads" (but mostly drawn without copy-pasting). Still, art lets as assume that author is capable of more. Colouring is standard cartoon style, with standard colour schemes applied, art would be best described as "webcomic influenced" as it is closest to the amalgam of elements of American school, animation stylization, manga, and beginners mannerism, all of those mixed into a style that doesn't really contain strong elements of either of those. Such is the are style of "Go for it".

Humor is mostly funny, manages to get a big laugh out of us once in a while, all of that, of course, if you're not of so sensitive nature that the comic leaves you speechless and laughless (again, a matter of personal taste). Sometimes, this laugh will be bitter, but then again, so are the topics it's dealing with.

Timing is essential and it is often a main star of the gag. Speechless panel is never there to fill the quote of four panels, but to delay the punchline for it's maximum effects. Not very funny punchlines are sometimes saved by perfect timing. Sometimes, even, last panel is the speechless one, pushing us to think of repercussions of previous three panels. "Go for it" manages something that not many other comics do (and many try): to change the course in the middle of the comic and to finish with punchline seemingly unrelated to the starting premise (something that I like calling "anyway..." syndrome); "Go for it" gets away with is without being unfunny or fake. There is, for instance, a strip in which girl assumes by mistake that the guy is a gay and then, to illustrate how uncomfortable he is, he brings up an old event from the summer camp. And then, in next strip, author actually does exactly the same thing again, and only in that moment, supported by repetition, this routine works and we laugh.

So with all these nice things say, but once again, I saved the worst for the end. The thing is, I don't think that "Go for it" brings it's satire (which means, it's main point) quite successful; and the reason for this is that "Go for it" is too black-white comic, with good guys, and bad guys, and good guys always win, and all. I can easily draw parallels between "Go for it" and some clichéd cartoon or action comic with villains rising their hands in the air and yelling "Curse yooooou!" The difference is that in "Go for it", place of good guys is taken by smart, cynical people who don't fear to stand up to bad guys. Place of bad guys is taken by stupid people which means, sometimes Torrey (when he doesn’t take his avenging role), other eccentric characters, but also a lot of walkthroughs, anime fans, gamers, geeks, managers, profiteers. There is the third kind of characters, used to underline the difference between first two, but effectively unimportant: smart people who, because they don't break their connections with stupid people, usually can't act. Think of them as, if we stitch to action story terminology, incompetent cops, good guys who would like to help but in aftermaths, only stand in the way. Lina, Janet and some other characters.

See the idea? Good guys aren't morally superior here, but intellectually and culturally. They are white not because everything they do is right (which would be the case in lame action conics) but because everything they do is smart, reasonable. Bad guys here are black because everything they do is stupid, unreasonable.

So this is how the parallel goes further: bad (stupid) guys are menacing society by: boring good guys with their stupid interest; by endangering people with their negligence; or just By being stupid and led on (in this system of values, that is a crime). Good guys win in the end by: making up a witty retort to which bad guys cannot reply (Alex); by blowing them us (Torrey); or, in the end, bad guys do that to themselves with their reckless behaviour.

There is a rough simplification in idea that characters can be divided this way; in reality, smart people will act stupid on occasions (Alex never does) and stupid people will have their moments of sophistication (which, needles to say, stupid people from this comic never do). It is a sort of simplified look at the world that is grating in the same way too strict black-white characterizations are grating in action comics.

Finally, the postulate that good always wins, is here out of place, unrealistic, even contradictional. See, Alex will always have a smart reply that will shut the opponent up. In real life, would a guy Be able to shut up religious fanatic? More likely, fanatic would keep talking, completely sure of what he's saying and ignoring every intelligent argument. Also: Torrey will always blow up stupid guys. In reality, noone blows up anyone, and even if they do, victims are much more random and much further from this comic's standard. Finally, star wars fan will realize that he wasted his life - not very likely to happen.

Sticking to black-white division of characters, "Go for it" fails in it's, perhaps, the most important or at least the noblest goal: to be a picture of today's society. So we became less likely to believe in what this comic has to say, it seems too far from realistic presentation (even if distorted) and too close to... Well, wacky cartoon that shouldn't Be taken very serious. "Go for it" is most telling to people who already know what it is saying, to people aware of flakes of modern consumerism, to people who encounter obsessive fans, dangerous eccentrics, desperate geeks, in real life. And that's not much, telling something to a small group of people who already know it.

But thanks to the fact that good (smarts, that is) prevails in this comic, it turns comic into something else: a vengeance area, a punching bag for it's author to, at least in one way, get back to people who irritate him in real life. Some might think this is ok; I don't really think that comics are suitable punching bags. But then again, I am a strange that way, when I see a boxer beating the bag, letting the rage he collected somewhere else out, it is always the Bag I feel sorry for. On the other hand, perhaps making comics is better way than actually really blowing something up, but that has little too with the quality of the comic.

I said that Alex never makes mistakes: that's wrong, that's just what makes him not very likely character. He never laughs, as if that's one of mistakes he could've made. On the other hand stupid guys never do anything right, which makes them just as unrealistic bad guys. Think about that obsessive anime fan for a moment: does he have anything good about him? He must have, simply because everybody has. Wouldn't it make stronger scene, if his good sides were shown before he was shown descending into his obsessiveness? That would be a critique of society that causes potentially good people to be wasted, ruined by mass media and such, that diminishes all their good sides; this way, it is only a critique of society whose members irritate main character of the comic. Again, significantly less than it could (should) be; what is worse: the fact that the system ruins lives, or that it irritates some guy over there?

But that's all because comic shows very little compassion to anyone but a few main characters (just as bad guys will be shot dead by one bullet while go guys will be able to receive a kilo of lead into their chest and remain on feet). It ignores many of possible victims of the society it is satirizing. Take as one example an earlier mentioned case where comic fails to show compassion to the guy whose car is blown up and, instead of that laughs at him. Somehow, comic assumes that people are always to blame for their own problems, which is simply not true. Furthermore, comic has special treatment for main characters (including Torrey) so they are never to blame for their problems. One problem of Alex might be that he is constantly approached by weird people. Isn't he, in some way, partly to blame for that? Comic never considers it.

All in all "Go for it" is a bold, possibly influential comic, dealing with topics that aren't brought up often, it is a fun read if you have stomach of steel; Yet, because of mentioned problems, it never goes very deep, it only makes some waves on the surface that quickly calm down.

Film: Four Weddings and a funeral

There is a notion that director Mike Newel and his often collaborator screenwriter Richard Curtis single-handedly ruined reputation of British cinema; Not far from true, today, British film is most known for such romantic comedies like “Bridget Jones diary”, films relying on hope that dry British accent sounds funny to Americans, more than on actual humor. Though Great Britain was home to David Lean’s epics, Nicholas Roeg’s contemplativeness, Peter Greenaway’s eccentric spirit, Ken Loach’s and Mike Leigh’s social dramas, even Kubrick’s refugee to territory less controlled by producers – today, people expect only romantic comedies from British cinema; Scene of going to pub is as inevitable as going to strip-bar is in average Hollywood copper.
Yes, British comedies were never bad; “Full Monty”, for one, is remembered as the rare film that manages to get a laugh at poverty and to leave a bitter feeling after that laugh, enough to pass the message. “Sliding door”, not very good, is at least intriguing. “Four weddings and a funeral” was a heck of a film, film with so much layers that in requires repeated watching. “Nothing Hill”, by the same crew, was a desperately bad and shameless copy of “Four weddings and a funeral”. All elements that, authors thought, were the audience draw, are there: confused Hugh Grant, beautiful American women, an obligatory, unlikely group of friends, Grant’s indecisiveness, and people constantly embarrassing themselves in order to get a laugh out of audience. Pure crap.
And then, on legacy of that, you have films advertised as British romantic comedies (or comedies with British lead actors), a tagline that grants only one thing: A lot of people will accent that you probably consider amusing, embarrassing themselves, regularly getting drunk, and a Hugh Grant on top.
Sadly, that’s the case, and I somehow think that all that could’ve been avoided if only Newel, Curtis and Grant didn’t decide to copy themselves and try to match the success of “Four weddings...”
Of course they forgot one simple thing: Success of “Four weddings...” wasn’t just a result of such superficial elements, but also of the fact that it was a clever, deep, insightful film that dealt with dilemmas that lots of us encounter in our young bachelor age.

Many probably know the story but I’ll repeat it for my own pleasure:
First invention of “Four weddings and a funeral” is that the film happens in whole on those five social events (plus one shorter interlude). Limiting scene to these public, social occasions has an unique effect: we have a feeling that those characters spend all their life attending big social events; There’s lack of private life, lack of time-for-yourself, and it seems like whole their lives comply to the rules of such events. For one thing, on these events, noone will ever tell you something directly: you’ll find out things from hints, sidelines, from listening to someone else’s conversation, and, specially nice touch, you won’t be able to let your feelings out while the weddings last (it’s not appropriate). Only when the funeral comes, you’ll stand to think about your life for a bit.
Charles (Hugh Grant) is the main character; Pretty, blue-eyed, funny, yet shy and indecisive. The essential doubt of this character is that he doesn’t believe in true love of epic proportions, the one that films and novels tell us about; And yet, at the same time, he hopes for one. He is struggling to keep his feet on the ground but deep inside he is expecting to meet a women and feel the thunderstroke. It’s something of a common feeling in modern world, with the clash of the ways of life. On one side, promiscuity, one-night-stands, premarital sex, are common thing nowadays. For one, we have a right to choose, to try before we permanently connect to someone. It is a cynical time in which noone is waiting for true love anymore, noone is Madam Bovary, reading romantic novels and waiting for the knight in shiny armor. Yet somehow, we all feel nostalgia for those times, we read about it in the books with a lot of joys; Women still want to be swept away with love and men still want to be fearless heroes. But we are too cynical to still believe that such times ever were, except in fairy tales.
That is Charles’ main problem too, he is still a romantic deep inside. He meets Carrie (Andie MacDowell) on the first wedding, she is attractive and she is someone he could spend the rest of life with. But he doesn’t feel the thunderstroke so he lets her pass by. Not much later, he becomes aware of the love that came slowly, not as a wave but as a tide; But when he meets Carrie again, she is marrying another guy. And that’s something of a greatest fear that Charles, or any man, could have: missing an opportunity to be happy, to have a happy life. He is living this great fear: when he finds out about the wedding, he really seems like a person who missed his only chance, he really doesn’t believe that he will ever love someone but her.
But Charles is a modern man, so he is pragmatic enough. He doesn’t rush into her arms and ask her to cancel the wedding, he doesn’t despair or kill himself, he doesn’t do any of those things that noone but a romantic character from a book or a film would do. Charles tries to comfort himself with the second best, if he won’t have a happy life, he’ll have some kind of life, that’s for sure. What happens next, I think, we all know.
Charles’ counterpart is Tom (James Fleet) desperately clumsy, immature person, you could say a laughing stock of the party. He is (as anyone who life wasn’t very gratuitous to) stripped of all illusions. What he hopes for is a girl, pleasantly looking, who will be able to stand him. That’s, in his opinion, the most a social loser like him could ask for. Finally, that’s what most of people settle with, and he realizes that one, Romanesque true love is not the only grant of happy life (which is what Charles seem to think). Tom is a peculiar character, he is intellectually immature, but emotionally probably the most mature of the case. His dialogue sequence with Charles following after the funeral is perhaps the most telling moment of the film, the sequence that sums up everything that happened so far into a coherent, telling meditation about modern day relationships and about the outlook of modern man to fairy-tales (and frankly, how sticking to those fairy-tale ideals can ruin you – which is, actually, nothing that haven’t been said before). This sequence also turns Tom, until that moment a comical relief, into a character that is, next to Charles, perhaps the most important in the film. He is Charles’ contrast, and in the same way, shares his problems.
These problems being that they’re both bachelors in their best years, not only they want completion through marriage, but society asks them to. A person who never forms a family is in one way or the other, still outcast from society, and neither Tom nor Charles have the desire to be outcasts. They feel that, somehow, this is their last chance and they have this great burden of years incoming.
Which is why characters of Matthew (John Hannah) and Gareth (Simon Callow) are important. They are a freewheeling gay couple (a thing that we indeed find out from hints, never directly from someone), and they are, in a way, outcasts: Matthew through his folded-arms introvert appearance, Gareth, on contrary, in his cheerful, energetic persona of shameless entertainer, perhaps even Clown, where impression that he belongs to the crowd is only illusion given by the fact that he actually stands above the crowd. When Charles and Tom talk after the funeral, Tom says “We can’t be like Matthew and Gareth”; They have to marry and settle one day. He hints that the reason society is not giving Matthew and Gareth (who is at that moment already dead) the same peer pressure it is giving to Tom and Charles because it has given up on them. Tom and Charles, among other things, don’t wanna be given up on; Gareth and Matthew didn’t care.
I said that people in this film can only open up on funeral, because such honesty is not considered appropriate for a wedding. Gareth, a kind of spiritual leader, a person who gets the party going, is here also the person who, by his death, allows characters to finally open up, to cry under the rain, to reconsider what they’ve done so far and how high their stakes are. He remains a spiritual leader after his death. John Hannah, competent Brittish comedian, as Matthew delivers a moving speech on Gareth’s funeral.
The rest of Charles’ little circle of friends includes Fiona (Christine Scott Thomas), charming but definitely unfinished character; There is David (David Bower), Charles’ deaf and mute brother, who gets his points by sharing smutty comments in sign language that noone can understand but Charles – an action that comes unexpectedly from a deaf and mute person but only when he forget that he’s a human too. Finally, there’s Scarlet (Charlotte Coleman), totally useless except as a comical relief, but final touch on the picture.
There is, of course, cameo by Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean, Black Adder) as a new, confused priest, quite unimportant moment of the film but (of course) main star of the trailer and advertising campaign. Those who came to see Mr. Bean weren’t quite happy, unless they decided to stay for the rest of the film.
Particular Newel-Curtis humor based in embarrassment lays just fine in this setting, social occasion where seeing someone embarrassed in often the pinpoint of amusement (take inept best-men’s speeches for one). They repeat this gag through entire film, and it works all the time, perhaps thanks to Grant’s performance, who always precisely delivers mute embarrassment, but every time slightly different. Grant has a talent for comedian but in his roles, he is constantly typecast as the same confused Englishman from this film, so he hasn’t got much chance to develop his comedy skills. Sadly, humor based on embarrassing is something that later British comedies took over from this film, even though here, it is mainly a supporting character, a sort of pad, background.
Film reconstructs English weddings to the detail; I even learned quite a bit about them. For instance, I didn’t know that bride and the groom make a list of presents they want to get, so guests pick from the list. Very convenient, even if a bit impersonal. Here, everybody gets whatever comes to their mind, so in the end newly wed are usually stuck with a bunch of stuff they don’t need, and they’ll probably never use.
I like the director’s work here, I like how he manages to place quite a lot of characters in one frame for the most of time. I like how he balances different planes through quick exchange of camera focus. There’s a lot of very nice solutions here, though they’re usually laid back, subtle and in purpose of the story, never the main event,
The worst moment of the film is probably the ending. Even if we discard Charles’ final speech to Carrey, something that doesn’t make very sense, and the obligatory standing-in-the-rain romantic moment, the decision to force a happy ending on every single character from the film is quite annoying. They are saying that everyone at the end finds his way to happiness despite all worries and dilemmas, but that is something that film has been trying to subtly say all the time, and forcing it as a final message in the end, is like poking in the eye. Film has shown a lot of spirit, a lot of smarts in saying big things with small words, but the ending simply doesn’t have any of those. The ending is something that seems to be put there only for hard-core romantic comedies fans: people who want to see happiness till the rest of our lives all over, people who don’t have enough imagination to think of what will happen with some character after the film is finished, so they need the director to tell them.
But all in all, “Four weddings...” is a very good film, with something of a reputation of a soaped romantic comedy, understandable because of it’s first appearance but undeserved because of it’s quietly realized ambitions.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Webcomic: Freedom Fries

Well, when you see all those beautifully drawn comics, slick to perfection but with desperately empty, cliché story - I guess everyone, once in a while, wishes to make a comic that looks so bad, with lined paper in the background, with uneven lettering and with art on level of stickfigure - if nothing, just to spite all those beautifully drawn exercises. But it's a gimmick, really. It's something that, perhaps, works at first, but if a reader has to progress through months of such comics, well, simply, noone will want to do that. Luckily, Liberty Cabbage, author of "Freedom Fries" realized that along the way.
His first few months - daily updates, what's more, three strips a day - were an exercise in a trash comic: lined paper, simple, improvisational drawing, hand lettering hard to read, no postproduction, which means that comics were uploaded right from the scanner with no levels balanced, a lot of grayish, muddled comics. Frankly, going through that part of the archive was a torture: I was able to comprehend what's going on in one out of three comics - and I really tried.
Now let's get it straight: I don't mind lined paper as long as it doesn't detract from the content of the drawing (though it usually does). I mind grey lines as opposed to usual, beautiful pitch black, but I am ready to accept that under some circumstances, they make a sense, as long as it's clear what's going on in the panel. I love hand lettering but only when it's professionally done and easy to read. I hate hand lettering that isn't in all caps, because that is never easy to read. I hate when artists are sacrificing readability of the text to a supposed statement: like when they are using some illegible gothic font for certain characters, so I have to strain my eyes all the time. I accept pencil-drawn comic but only if author is able not to lean his hand on paper and smudge all drawing that way. Readability of the comic is a must, a basic think, a starting point of the comic. From then on, artists take different paths, but readability is a must.
Luckily, Liberty Cabbage understood it after a few months and after he started cleaning up his comics before posting them, they became much better. My concern is, if it took him two months to start doing something so basic - how much time will he need for the next big leap? No doubt, Liberty Cabbage is progressing, but with which pacing? Perhaps he should speed up and learn faster.
But anyway, that painful phase is over so we won't talk about it anymore. Let's talk about what comic is now.

Art hasn't progressed much since the first days. Perhaps it's the burden and the blessing, that Liberty Cabbage’s character designs are so simple. Take Skippy, main character, for example: a circle for head, two eyes and a mouth. On one hand, there is no space to better your art through drawing this character. On the other hand, keeping characters so simple is what makes “Freedom fries” somewhat better looking than the average beginner's comic: see, if a beginner tries to draws characters with more realism applied, his comics will look horrible, yet he will progress faster, that's my opinion at least. But the bottom line is that “Freedom fries” has a certain cool, simplified look, that most of beginners comics don't. Here and there Liberty Cabbage will attempt to more graphical, action scenes, in which cases it's hard to figure out what's going on.

Now, you notice: comic's name is "Freedom Fries", we all know what it stands for. Author's alias is Liberty Cabbage which is reference to, perhaps, somewhat less known event from WWII, similar to the one of freedom fries. So the impression is that this comic is political, perhaps me sort of biting satire - also easily dated, as “Freedom Fries” are even now an old joke. But as it turns out, it's thing of it: “Freedom fries” is actually a comic that shifts from random to irrational humor, where politics is offered only through occasional references and stereotypes. Invoking freedom fries was, as it's explained on first page, just a whim. Comic was originally to be named "Skippy", and it's a good decision that it wasn't, as that name would hardly be memorable.
Ok, one step back: I said that “Freedom fries” shifts between irrational and random humor. These two are, by all means, not the same. While irrational comics respect certain logic, that logic is not the usual one, the one that we expect; yet, it's a logic reflective of the absurd in the real world. Meanwhile, random comics escape every logics, but, unlike classic "Andalusian dog", in webcomics this escape is not a product of conscious effort, but of lack of consistency, preplanning and thought put in creation a comic. Thus such comics fail. Freedom Fries is, therefore, hit-and-miss. It hits and gets a chuckle from us when it steers toward irrational, it misses and leaves us hanging and asking "is that all?" when it steers toward random (specailly when we start feeling that Liberty Cabbage doesn’t know how to finish the strip so he suddenly brings something completely unrelated in the game).

Comic hasn't got much of a story, its separate gags with no continuity. Skippy is the main character but there are a few other reoccurring characters as well - among others, God and Jesus; The main idea is that Skippy finds himself in a certain, sometimes surreal, sometimes comical, sometimes real-life situation; it's not important how likely Skippy is to find himself in that situation. This is, I believe, the best element of the comic as it relies on previously mentioned irrational logic: situations in which Skippy finds himself aren't fully explained, they're not very likely, and yet, there's a consistency applied through the rule that Skippy will find himself in one such situation in ever first frame of the comic; and then, given wide span of various of situations, this concept could've been purposefully used as a polygon for representing various aspects of life - whether “Freedom fries” does that successfully or not, is a different matter.
Skippy is, in basic, very stupid person who unintentionally goes around hurting and killing people; sometimes, as result of his negligence, sometimes of his ignorance, and sometimes of blatant lack of compassion. He is a sort of omnipotent presence here, a person who causes pain, yet never feels the pain (and even when he dies, he safely respawns in heaven (???) or in next comic). Relation of comic (and readers) toward him in undefined: are we supposed to like Skippy? Or hate him? Or take him as a comical relief? Seems like the author's answer is: "none. I don't care. I'm here just to goof off."
And it's those words "I don't care, I'm here just to goof off!" that float all over the comic and it's every segment. So I’ll bring them up again later, as I often get a feeling during the reading, that it’s exactly what author is trying to tell me.
Which brings me to the main point. I left the main point for the end because it needs longer explanation, so far I was talking about technicalities.

Here it is:
What kind of comic is "Freedom Fries"?
It's a shock comic.
Yep, another comic genre that I'm ready to use even though it's not official genre. You know, all those comics whose purpose is to shock by offering extreme imagery, talking about extreme themes, etc. Some of the first shock comics like "Sexy losers" or "Jack" opened Pandora’s box, so now everyone thinks not just that about every theme is allowed, but that the sole purpose of freedom given by webcomics is to outshock each other.
I remember a guy once coming to Keenspace forums and complaining about how he got a letter by offended readers. His comic was shock comic and he proudly wore that title by naming all the gross things you'll find in it in hid banner. Purpose of his comic was, then, to shock - and yet he was surprised that someone was shocked by it. Even more, he laughed at those people, people who, maybe, saw his comic in a way he intended more than his usual readers. Then, what was he other than hypocrite?
Why do so many people make shocking comics, brag about how those comics are shocking, and then get surprised when someone doesn’t like them? To be edgy, I guess, because they think it makes them different, cool. It’s a sort of self-promotion, a setup in which you are a main star, you hold a central position, and your comic is there just to show how much ‘wacky’, ‘edgy’, ‘anti-establishment’ you are. Needless to say, comic suffers when it is in shadow of your self-promotional author figure.

Back to “Freedom fries”: you'll find some imagery of mad Bombers blowing up the mall, babies bashed by a baseball bat, people slaughtered so that their bones could be fed to dogs... On one hand, crude drawing makes these sights covered, diminished; on the other hand, it leaves them open to imagination. Which way you'll see it, depends on how much you'll stick around to think about the comic.
Now, about shock in comics, book movies: I am by all means not against it. Shock can have therapeutic effect; it can be cathartic: good horror films often are, after they’re finished you feel strangely fresh, clean, safe, happy to be alive. Shock can bring a message in a much more effective way: it can carve it in your head for a long time. Shock is a powerful tool that can be very effective if used smart and carefully. But you have to know how to use it; you have to find what is it that is so shocking in the scene, what are the sources and the consequences of it.
Why, two days ago, I was writing about “Deliverance”, film notorious for its sequence of sodomy and human degrading and humiliation – scenes that were horrific back in 1972 and contain a certain shock effect even nowadays. We are shocked because we get to know these characters, because it happens just as we started caring for them. We are shocked because we identify with them, because we’re partly living through their humiliation. The message of two civilizations, two ways of living, crashing into each others, remains memorable because of this shock. Finally, this shock is cathartic because characters have to stand up and respond to humiliation, and that’s what they do.
Is there any of this in “Freedom Fries”? Of course not. The shock of “Freedom Fries” can, perhaps, be summed the best by considering the title: Liberty names his comic “Freedom Fries” and then never mentions it again. Now, most of us will agree that freedom fries is a reference to a moment of recent USA history that they won’t be very proud of. Liberty brings up this reference in vain hope that people will be reminded of this moment and offended by bringing it up. He never puts a thought in why freedom fries are so unpleasant to recall of, nor any back-story or meaning of the phrase. He just knows that some people are for some (he doesn’t know or care which) reason offended by mentioning freedom fries, so he mentions them.
All in all, Liberty Cabbage shows not only the lack of will to think about his shock a bit more, but also a lack of knowledge of the themes he’s dealing with. See, when he shows a baby being bashed with a baseball bat, we are certain that he is able to put that image through with such ease simply because he not only never saw baby bashed with baseball bat in his life, but also because he never actually bothered to picture this sight in his head, to think about it’s consequences, whats and whys. For instance, one of the major disturbing concepts in that scene relates to the subject of continuity of human species: baby is a little man, that is, it is to be a man one day. Baby is future you, future me, baby is, perhaps a little Liberty Cabbage who still didn’t get to grow up enough to make a comic. Each of us was once a baby, and, while we cannot inevitable relate to a scene of bashing a puppy, we can relate to bashing a baby on an instinctive level.
Liberty doesn’t care about this. He just knows that people are, for some reason, offended by the sight of a baby being bashed with a baseball bat, so he shows this sight.
Further on, Liberty shows, for instance, sights of racial intolerance or, in extreme cases, molestation of black race. These sights are not thought out enough to be taken as a satire of racism, they’re not strong enough to be taken as real racism – they’re nothing. Again, Liberty veils with the statement that he doesn’t care, that he didn’t intend to give any message in the first place, which seems to be the tone and the defense to most of these comics.
Yes, you guessed it: Liberty has heard that some people are insulted by display of racism, so he shows racism.
Final example: He has God, Christ and Virgin Mary as characters. Let’s put on a side Virgin Mary, who has very little “screen time” and Christ who is pretty much a rip-off of Christ from “South Park”. But look at Liberty’s God: He is not a caricature of Christian (or any other) God. To be caricature, he has to bear certain resemblance to Christian God. However, Liberty simply doesn’t know enough about Christianity to make enough resemblance. Imagine a caricature of a guy named Joe. Now, imagine a stick-figure with and word “Joe” written by it, with an arrow showing to the stick figure. Liberty’s God is just as successful caricature of God, as is the stick figure a successful caricature of Joe. Liberty’s God is simply some character that happens to bear the same name as Christian God, but is not related with him in any other way.
Is this insulting to Christians? It’s hard for me to say, although nominally a Christian, my religious beliefs aren’t so strong. Perhaps such blatant use of the name “God” can offend someone who is more religious. But as you can see, Liberty has heard that some people hate jokes on account of Christianity, so he tries to make jokes about Christianity. And it all looks like making a parody of a film you’ve never seen in your life - based on trailer and words of your friends who actually saw the film.

What does it sum up to? Liberty Cabbage wants to shock. But he doesn’t put enough effort, and he, debatably, doesn’t know enough about shocking topics, to successfully shock. So instead he chooses to disrespect. He hopes that he’ll shock people by handling shocking, offensive subjects in a casual, disrespectful manner. Disrespect is hardly shocking. I know a lot of people who are disrespectful to everything, and who lack compassion, in real life. I don’t like those people, so why should I like the comic that has same qualities?

Then, of course, there’ll be people who will laugh at “Freedom Fries” (admittedly, I did sometimes – not at “shock” parts, mind you, those parts irritated me too much to make me laugh), there’ll be people who’ll laugh saying “Hah! He’s drawn a baby bashed by baseball bat!” How does Liberty manage to put this through? And, a question with the same answer, why is noone ever going to accuse Liberty of racism, misanthropy, cruelty?
Answer is not favorable: “Freedom Fries” looks like a work of a 8-12 years old child, from it’s beginners drawing to it’s casual handling of subject and lack of narration. And we know that 8-12 old kids can sometimes be unusually cruel, self-observed, numb at suffering of others. Thus, it’s likely that a child would draw a comic picturing there “shocking” scenes that “Freedom Fries” does: Simply, because a child of that age doesn’t know a lot about the world around it, it takes life for granted, death as something that happens to other people, and it’s maximum of pain is when it’s toy is taken away. Liberty will not be accused of racism, misanthropy, cruelty or any homicidal intentions because he will, through his comic and by an average reader, be perceived as a person who doesn’t fully comprehend the seriousness of themes he’s dealing with.
And grown ups often laugh at children’s oblivious behavior. They laugh when a kid, disregarding good manners, loudly asks: “Who farted in this room?” In same way, people may (or may not) find “Freedom Fries” naive cruelty amusing.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Film: Deliverance

You may say that "Deliverance" was a "surprise hit" for me. I never expected that a film about four city guys, going on a paddling trip in wilderness and then being abused in the forest by a couple of highlanders, finally having to fight for their own lives - would be much to my liking. The way I see it, it could've been a Rambo-style action (if the accent was on survivalism) or a low-budget horror (if the accent was on abuse) and, while such films today have a vintage quality, they are often less than recommendable. But then, there is John Boorman, director who already wrote himself in film encyclopedias with revisionist thriller "Point Blank", film that was, as it's cult status has proven, some ten years ahead of it's time. Then there was also "Zardoz", heavily controlled by producers (just like any high-production SF) to the point where Boorman's authorship is questionable.

So Boorman rather made a drama in which action elements are there to represent transformation of characters, their symbolic loss of virginity as they're forced to kill and lie. It is a study of civilization, of it's relation with environment, civilization often destructive and nature mean and vengencefull; a lot of accent is put on studying this relationship, with the middle ground in small near-forest towns and their simple folks; four men depart from civilization with the sight of old, wrecked cars. This sight is, just as well, first thing they see upon returning, and this time it's a sign of saving. Building sight where cranes are digging up a place for the new dam, turns from the sorrowful sight to something that one of characters looks at almost with gloating.

Four town guys are Ed (John Voight), Lewis (Burt Reynolds in one of a few dramatic roles he had), Bobby (Ned Beaty) and Drew (Ronny Cox). They appear in a mountain city, looking for someone to drive their cars to the town down the river while they pedal that distance in canoes. Thing is, this river will soon be flooded together with surrounding forest and villages, and Lewis, more a survivalist fan than a real survivalist, wants to take an opportunity to enjoy the unspoiled nature before it's gone. Notable scene from the beginning, "dueling banjos", where Drew indulges in a speedy musical duel with a local retarded kid, sets the musical background for most of the film - but also the tone of what happens later: boy not only wins, but rejects a hand offered by Drew. Well, if I was Boorman, I would've cut this scene from it's final version. Too show-offy for the rest of the film, naturalistic and real, "banjos" scene also stolle spotlight from other, more important and more fascinating on substantial level, scenes.

Guys head down the river and they're amazed by the fresh, adrenaline-pumped feeling of paddling down the rocky river. However, as soon as next day, Ed and Bobby are attacked by two armed man tied to a tree, expecting Lewis's arrival (as Lewis is the only one who can save them), Ed is forced to watch one of the men raping Bobby in one of the most notorious scenes, known for it's untamed brutality.

Eventually, Lewis and Drew arrive, sneak out behind their back and Lewis executes the rapist with one arrow through heart, as he was planning to proceed from Bobby to Ed. The other man runs away.

What follows is a long and passionate argument as Drew claims that they should report an event to police, while Lewis suggests that they burry the body in the forest, where it'll soon be covered By tons of water. Ed and Bobby cling to Lewis, so they proceed burying the body. Every scene of this part is torturous, while four exhausted, shocked and disoriented men carry the body, then as they burry the body with their bare hands, Boorman doesn't cut down on anything; he takes his time, lets us see them and feel their pain, and it seems like digging that damn hole takes forever.

But the end is not near. Paddling down the river, four men don't realize that they're running right into the hands of the surviving highlander.

Noone is quite sure what happens then. Drew might've been shot from the coast, but when his body floats to the surface much later, guys aren't able to tell whether those are bullet wounds or just bruises. Canoes crash to each other and Lewis, the only one able to assure the survival, breaks his leg. As Bobby and Ed fish him out to a post in the steep canyon, he yells repeatedly "Drew was shot!" But if this is true, then the other man is stalking them from the top of the canyon. Far from manly, but rather gentle and boyish, Ed has to climb up the steep and stalk the killer. Again, Boorman lets us see every second of it. However, he doesn't reassure us into what happens then. Did Ed, who is not able to calm his hand from shaking while he aims at anything alive, really kill the villain? Or was there a third person with the bow and arrow, aiming from outside? Ed is wounded with an arrow while his enemy has a shotgun, but was it self-inflicted wound? Probably even distressed Ed can't tell. Finally, when he drags a body down, neither he nor Bobby are able to tell whether it is really the person who attacked them. Muddled, psychological scene open to interpretation would hardly satisfy any action fun, but then again, it was not the intention.

Ed and Bobby sink the bodies down and, in a remaining canoe, paddle wounded Lewis down the river. But they still have to make up a story for the police. Ed, forced to take over an unlikely leader position, shoves the fake story into Bobby's face, and Lewis, in terrible pains, barely squeals "I understand".

But down in town, story doesn’t match, police is suspicious as one villager recently disappeared. Ed and Bobby are forced to change the story; in a hospital, Ed barely has time to whisper to Lewis that they changed it, and when policeman enters the room, he's not even sure that Lewis heard him. But manly Lewis has enough strength to say "What happened? I don't remember anything after that last fall" and even put a cynical grin on his face.

That's the end of it and Ed is free to do to s home, his wife and a kid, but the final shot, his nightmare in which a hand is reaching out of the lake, says that he is too much of a man to just forget and go on as if nothing happened.

It's too simple to say that it's a good film; it is swiftly directed, with scenes that you can just keep watching over and over. There's a lot of wonderful nature photography. First part of the film is marked by dynamic, enjoyable scenes of paddling down the waterfalls; second part favours scene in which a character in first plane is countered with an impressive nature sight in background, be it a canyon, a river or a forest. Especially impressive is a shot of Ed, on the background of colourful dawn over a canyon.

Dramatic scenes are, however, dealt with wide scene shots in which various planes are put in use; while the first plane is left to a puzzled Ed or Lewis, second plane often offers action, or counterpoint to his puzzle (in a form of Drew, perhaps). Take the scene in which Ed, just before he is to be violated by two men, spots Lewis with a bow, far behind them, and the change of camera focus emphasizes his change of focus from villains to Lewis. One villain is shot and Ed grabs the gun from the other one. Boorman lets a slow rotation of camera follow their struggle, and then the escaping villain; Ed is here lost from the frame, left lying with the gun, but as villain, disappearing in the woods, leaves the frame empty, ravaging Drew fills it with his presence, rushing after him. Perfect orchestration of action by several characters, framed in one, slow moving take, owes dynamics to Ed's initial movement, grabbing the gun, and Drew's final burst of anger.

Film is filled with clever dialogues - not clever by itself, but cleverly depicting characters who like vain philosophy though, being city boys, simply don't understand the environment; often, they're talking at the same. There is a fine sense of detail, and no scene is just there to tell us what it has and then leave, without sticking around for a clever detail or two. After Ed has unsuccessfully taken a shot at deer with his bow, he trips and falls to the bed of leaves the forest is covered with.
There's a fine sense of orchestration in these talking sequences and often, characters aren't even in the frame at the time, as to show how this talk in filling up the hollow space, it's silence. Then there is timing; Boorman takes his time for everything to do: introduction, paddling down the river, brutal scenes, Drew's hysteria as they're digging the shallow grave, Ed's climbing up the steep rock. He wants to drive us into a story slowly and patiently. He wants us to see every little bit of their suffering; he won't let us out the easy way. We see some unpleasant things: the said rape, Lewis' gapping wound from a broken leg, Drew's twisted and broken-apart body - film of unusually brutal imagery, especially for year 197when it was made. We are forced to watch some emotional and physical torture, but it's a kind of torture that has a cathartic effect, and as the film ends we are frustrated, but clean, new, and better men.

There are four outstanding performances, two of which are debuts. Bobby played by Ned Beaty, probably the simplest character, is a small man, disrespectful for nature, openly vulgar but in no means deserving the torture he gets. He is deeply disoriented in wilderness, but despite his unimpressive appearance (or perhaps thanks to it), he slides through society, keeping his position, he is on his own there. Ronn Cox, as Drew, shy guitar played, puts an incredible transformation in front of us: mostly silent, good-natured and with perpetual friendly smile, he turns into a desperate man, with painful old-man's face as his moral standpoints are compromised. While he's hysterically digging that grave, we realize that he has harder time getting over that compromise than anyone else. "He was the best of us", says Ed as they sink Drew's body into the river; Perhaps, that's what actually killed him.

Lewis, butch, solemn man who only occasionally lets it visible that he is a fake, city slick like any other, is claimed by Burt Reynolds to be his best performance, one of rare dramatic performances by a man incredibly popular for his roles of a mustached womanizer in slick comedies and cop films. For this occasion he shaved moustaches and put his muscular arms on display. He is carefree early in the film, but for the most of the ending after he breaks his leg, his face is turned into a mask of pain. But as he manages to follow Ed's plan even in this condition, d when, by the end, his image of grinning butch is retrieved, we start believing that Lewis is becoming one with his desired image.

But the most impressive role is the one of Ed; Voight, a competent actor ever since the "Midnight cowboy", wasn't always so good in choosing roles. Yet, he accomplished outstanding performances scattered over his Career. One is of Ed, gentle and sensitive man, happy with his eventless city life, yet something keeps pushing him to these excursions with Lewis. Thus he is, aside from Lewis, most competent in wilderness and, just like Lewis, he tries to get in tune. But when he tries to shoot a deer, his hand uncontrollably shakes; too emotional for wilderness. He also lacks a somewhat misanthropic view of Lewis, that one day survival will be granted to the strongest, the best adjusted. For him, such trips are just picnics, fun in which he might learn something - not ideology by any means. And it is Ed who we feel with, it is him who we attach to. When he looks, stunned, with a wide-eyed shock, we are shocked too. When the shock turns into a despair or fear, that's exactly what we feel. And then, when he's determined, we are determined too. When he, finally safe, starts crying, we know why he is crying.

"Deliverance" once might've been a film for those with strong stomach. Today, average ten years old kid has seen worse stuff on TV. But it's mental torture that is hard to stand. Today's violence in films is detached, almost cartoonish. That's why it doesn't have the same effect on us like when we turn off the lights, sit down and watch "Deliverance".

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Book: Franz Kafka: Complete stories

This a kind of book everyone has to have in their house; Kafka is, no doubt, one of the most influential, intriguing and exciting figures of literature. Czech writer who wrote in German (to be exact, citizen of Austro-Hungarian empire), insurance clerk, passionate observer of early, silent cinema, Jew, citizen of Austro-Hungarian empire in time of rising anti-Semitism, Kafka inhabited dark corners of human mind better than any other writer. No wonder, 'cause he had such model in himself. Suffering from the inferiority complex forced on him by his obtrusive father, thus leaning to self-destruction, paranoiac, Kafka was still very analytic observing there states of mind in his stories. His more compulsive, orgiastic bursts of self-destruction, he left mostly for his diary that is today read and analyzed as much as his stories. Yet being sensitive and compassionate, Kafka's stories were often ruthless because he felt the need to write about his fears, not about his joys.

Collected stories, of course, don't contain two of his masterwork novels, "The Trial" and "The castle"; both trembled by the sense of inevitability, of rushing into disaster. In "The Trial", Josef K. is being trialed for an unknown crime and his first reluctance to take the whole situation seriously, is as if he's realizing the real nature of this court: that there is no crime, no charges and no evidences; the only method of this court is to convince him that he's guilty, to which he'll come to a death row with his own free and without asking question. As the trial goes on, K. is affected, and as he starts taking the trial more seriously, his doom is inevitable. Eventually, yes, he starts believing that he is guilty even thou still not knowing for what crime. In one later scene, a priest tells him a story of a man who is waiting in front of the door with a guard; waiting for years to be allowed inside, near the end of his life, man finds out that, not only he could go inside whenever he wanted, but those doors were his, placed specially for him. Does a man have enough self-confidence to make that leap, risking being killed by guard? Kafka thinks not; he believes that guilt is a feeling deeply rooted into human, though we don't even know the guilt of what. People often interpret "The Trial" as the critique of totalitarian regime, that's even the interpretation I was taught in school. But this is a wrong, simplified, cheapening interpretation, rare one that we can actually dismiss as incorrect; first of all, "The Trial" is too detached of any model from reality to be seen that way: to regime works like this. The court from "The Trial" isn't oppressive, not even aggressive. Inevitability of K.'s downfall is due to his mental state, not due to court's actions. "The Trial" is, before all, picture of his mental state, and court is just an outside agens that pushes him in the certain direction. "The Trial" in German means 'trial' and 'process', and this second meaning points to that K.'s conviction is rather a process than a single event.

"The Castle" is simpler in basic idea. This time, K. Is trying to reach mysterious ruler who lives in a castle above the village, but the barrier, although invisible, seems impenetrable. Again, there is sense of inevitability in the fact that it's clear that K. Won't reach the castle, but conclusions aren't there since "The Castle" remained unfinished; Kafka died before finishing it.

Some say that "The Trial" is a metaphor of life, while "The Castle" is metaphor of religion; this is one possible interpretation: in "The Trial", you are dead when you give up caring and fighting; in "The Castle", you never see but you never doubt the existence either.

Third novel, "America" , or "The disappeared" as Kafka originally named it, also can't be found in this collection. It's Kafka's only humoristic work a look at America through eyes of an average European, as a scary, mystic place, and Kafka easily satirized that provincial view. Even though "America" is, just like "The Castle", unfinished, it is, too, considered a classic.

Kafka was, too, one of writers with the most interesting biography. His diaries, full of horrible, suicidal imagery, as he describes his countless imagined deaths; his never sent letter to father is torturous, as Kafka hovers around the father's guilt, willing to bring them all out in sight but never quite able to fully take his own side. In one way or the other, Kafka's love/hate relation with his parent and dilemmas that come out of it, are illustrative of average modern man.

Now subject of legend, act in which Kafka requested from his friend Max Brod to burn all his scripts after his death. Kafka died of tuberculosis In 1924 and Brod didn’t obey his last will. Instead, he approached to a massive, tedious editorial work of putting Kafka's scripts together, one that made one lesser known half-amateur writer into one of the greatest writers of all times.

This act of Max Brod was, again, a subject of discussion: did he have right to act the way he did? How much of novels that were published were really the way Kafka intended them? There are lapses of Continuity in season changes in "Trial" that make some analyzers think that the order of chapters was not the one Kafka intended. Some go so far to claim that Brod added his own chapters and stories to Kafka's opus; and, of course, there is a movement of re-editing and re-issuing novels into something supposedly closer to Kafka's intentions. True is that Brod, encountered with bookcases of writing, had to apply some creative freedom in putting it all together. But who other than Kafka's closest friend could know best what Kafka actually had in mind? True is that, if it wasn't for Brod, most of Kafka's best work would end up destroyed. True, some of famous stories like "The Metamorphosis", "The Judgment", "In the Penal Colony", were published during his life, and there are certain unpublished stories that Kafka still wanted spared, such as "A Hunger Artist", but others like "The Burrow" would be lost forever. And then, there is Borgues' argument: "if he really wanted them destroyed, wouldn't he have done it himself?" Ironically, a certain amount of Kafka's writing, siding in the house of his lover Dora Diamond, was destroyed when Gestapo busted into her apartment, fulfilling his last wish.

First story from the book, "Description of a Struggle", is far from what we'd expect. Brutal, extravagant story of surreal imagery, it still bears beginnings of what made Kafka great: namely it's as if most of the story resides in main character's head, as if events around him are affected by his state of mind, thus often unexpected, irrational and dreamlike. Story tells about his unintended journey with a friend he just met on a party; but he soon leaves intriguing hate/attraction/jealousy/fear relation with his friend behind and wades into a series of digressive battles with inanimate objects, until it culminates in encounter with a strange human whose physical state doesn't even resemble human, and his Zen-like philosophy. Unfinished and never published, this story was probably abandoned in process; parts of it were later published during Kafka's life as separate stories and, with its digressive nature, it seems possible that Brod put more stories in one. However, it is visible why Kafka never published this story: his first writing effort, it bear no perfection and concentration of his later work and it's worth mostly as a curiosity, as a display of Kafka's literary growth.

Lots of Kafka's shortest stories represent a mindflow, starting from some mundane topic that quickly and inevitably turns into unexpected vision of the world, through series of paranoid but somehow logical and inevitable conclusions. It is, perhaps, alternative thinking that we all posses, but keep at the back of the head. In any case, Kafka formed basics of modern paranoia phenomenon, perhaps followed the best (or at least in the most clever, self-ironic way) in worldwide conspiracies prose of great postmodernist Thomas Pinchon.

One of the most fascinating stories of that king, "A Country Doctor", has a dream-like quality: have you ever has a dream where you are awaiting for something to happen and, even though you're terrified of it, it is inevitably stumbling upon you, you can't stop it, you're even unable to try.

"A Country Doctor" has this feel: at the beginning, as the old dirty pillager is trying to trade his horse (a horse that doctor desperately needs to drive to a patient) for doctor's young housemaid, doctor is found riding a wild horse through the wood before he even got to reply to the offer. Then the patient seems to be a hypochondriac, but his family looks at the doctor with such expectation, that they almost seem happy when he finds a gapping wound on patient's side. He's thrown into a bizarre ritual, as villagers expect him to be more than a doctor, to be a tribal magician who miraculously cures wounds. It is not surprising that the escape seems a more appropriate solution than attempt at healing a patient, and at the end, doctor is chased through the wood, while everything he knows boils into a gothic nightmare. But as always with Kafka we feel that his topic is the state of mind, that this world is inside a head.

"Transformation" may be Kafka's best known story; in starts with perhaps the most notorious first sentence ever:
"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect...". Nowadays, this sentence is quoted as a scholar example of quick, swift introduction in a setup. It takes no more than one sentence for Kafka to set the stage, and he puts hid strangest premise in that first sentence; the rest of the story are consequences of the first sentence, in a social, crudely realistic environment. In first sentence, Kafka lets us know that he's not interested in hows and whys of the transformation. He cuts every explanation with the period of that sentence. He is interested in how this giant bug can live in this world, what changes in it's perspective of the world and in world's perspective of it, mental and emotional processes.

This is a story about the feel of being useless, excessive. Gregor, once a supporter of the family, is now a burden to them; a presence that they have to put up with, out of mercy and, perhaps, remains of the family love. And indeed, when Gregor dies, it is a new beginning for his family, pictured in his sister's mature youth, described in last sentence, a beginning of grown-up life.

This was a first of a string of stories in which Kafka assumed the shape of an animal, a part of his self-depreciating wish to disappear. "Transformation" contains lengthy descriptions of Gregor trying to take control of his movements or to do some usual actions using his bug limbs. No doubt, Kafka got a kick of imagining how a bug would act if it was equipped with sense. Later, he will turn himself into a monkey ("A Report to an Academy"), a dog ("Investigations of a Dog"), a mouse ("Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse folk"), a mol ("The Burrow").

It is interesting to read the story "Blumfeld, An Elderly Bachelor", that was abandoned soon after he started it. As it describes title character who is inexplicably being followed by two bouncing ping-pong balls, we can see the intention in describing the rejection by the world. It is, however, not surprise that Kafka rejected this idea soon, and wrote "The Metamorphosis" instead.

Particularly unpleasant story, "The Judgment" was emotionally torturous for Kafka as his first attempt to deal with his father, but also for his character, Georg. Georg, soon to be married, cannot enjoy as he is eaten inside by a guilt of leaving his father (though his father still seems capable of taking care of himself), which he transfers to a guilt for not informing his old friend of his marriage. But real reasons come to daylight as his father insanely preaches to him, while Georg has no strength to talk back; all he can do is hope that his father would fall down and crush like an egg. Father sentences him to death and he obeys the command. That is the guilt that Kafka is talking about in "The Trial" too; one you can not get away from, as you don't even know what you're guilty for. You have to face it and accept living guilty - or die.

"In the Penal Colony", unusual story of very violent imagery, describe machine intended for punishing convicts of even the smallest crimes, that carries The punishment by carving words of the sentence into convict's skin until he dies. An enthusiastic general attempts to demonstrate the machine to a foreign traveler, describing every segment of machine's work with great proud. But realizing that not traveler, nor anyone else, shares his enthusiasm, he decides that it's only right to use machine on him, carving words 'be righteous". But he doesn't get that satisfaction, as the machine starts malfunctioning, stabbing him into a bloody pulp with its writing needles, and finally leaving him hanging under the pit.

Is Kafka talking about impossibility of reaching a justice? Or about human urge of self-destruction? I can hardly tell; although of fascinating brutality, this story is of the most enigmatic of his, at least to me.

"A Hunger Artist", essential meditation on the topic of being unadjusted, tells of an artist who specializes in being hungry, and there is, no doubt, irony in this twist of the old "starving artist" cliché, but that's not the point; at first, starving artist is popular, many people come to see him starving; later, his glory fades and he's thrown into a marginal circus where he quietly breaks records in starving duration. Yet, nobody knows that he simply has to starve as he never found any food that he'd like. He is forced into his art by his outworldly nature.

Earlier story, "First Pain", tells of another artist, trapezist who can only live in air. It is easy to recognize first ideas of what will soon became "A Hunger Artist".

"The Great Wall of China" tells a story of building the title wall, from the viewpoint of an engineer, the people's man. His narration concerns details of the strategy of building the wall and how it affected people's moral, then later wonders to talk about the curious relation between villages far out in the south and their government, more personified than really present in that part of the empire.

It is interesting, concerning details of building the Chinese Wall, that many of them, pure product of Kafka's imagination, turned out to be true in some of recent historic findings.

Lastly, as I said, Kafka wrote numerous stories in which he put himself into a skin of an animal; most of them were concentrating on supposed mindflow of an animal, and Kafka seemed to be so amused with these extrapolations that he wrote these stories unusually long and monotonous. The most notable one, again unfinished, "The Burrow", tells of a mole; mole is building it's home in the ground, making it quiet, enjoyable, as secluded by the world as possible, enjoying it's every little pit and food stash. Building of it seems so tedious that it seems likely that mole enjoys the future security that it'll give, more than the one it's giving now. But paranoia kicks in again, and the mole hears noises, scratching behind the wall, digging, underground steps, awaits for arrival of the unknown creature and never actually gets to enjoy in it's burrow. Not without fear. This is one of the rare Kafka's works written in first person.

Franz Kafka is fascinating writer, both in his pseudo-detached style and in his deep self-psychoanalysis. While "Letter to his father", usually published with selected diary entries, is a curia for fans and those who want to understand Kafka's person better (and, in the end, for curious people), three of his novels and “Complete stories" round up this small but fascinating collection.