wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: April, 2015

Men and women: Two Discworld books. Briefly.

Men at Arms (Terry Pratchett)

Even better than Guards! Guards!, on par with Reaper Man — there aren’t many higher compliments I can pay a novel. The middle section, in which Cuddy and Detritus pursue a killer through Ankh-Morpork’s sewers, is hilarious and thrilling and eerie and unexpectedly heartbreaking. The scene in the pork futures locker, in which Detritus saves Cuddy’s life and experiences his first unimpeded higher thought since coming to the city, is rapturous. And Pratchett is equally deft at rendering Carrot’s increasingly worldly wisdom, Angua’s lived-in ambivalence and simmering anger, Vimes’s complex relationship to his city and his work, Vetinari’s too-brilliant scheming… Even the broad fantasy-species-as-human-races allegory takes on a surprising sharpness when Vimes goes to tell the dwarf tinkerer’s family that he’s passed away.

And Vetinari gets one of the most powerful lines in the series so far: Carrot spends the novel trying to live up to a piece of knowledge he’s acquired, that ‘police’ comes from polis — a policeman is a ‘man for the city.’ That moves and inspires him, and the other Watchmen he talks to, and sets them apart from the machinations of the book’s various schemers. But when he meets Vetinari at the end — the true king talking to the Machiavellian Patrician — Vetinari says something that earns his (and my) sympathy: ‘Do you know where the word “politician” comes from?’ The angry moralist writer gives the haunting climactic line of a heroic policier to the joyless technocrat, and means it.

Wise, funny, humane, and (this time out) perfectly paced. And just like that, Pratchett is one of my favourite authors again. I’ll be rereading these books twenty years from now, I know it.

Wyrd Sisters (Terry Pratchett)

Less shapely than Men at Arms, and less moving — though just as funny — and the climax doesn’t have the same mad kinetic energy as the endings of the first two Guards novels. The villains are, in the end, like something out of play. But (forgive me) the thematic development in Wyrd Sisters runs deep, and the final staging of not-Macbeth opens into something extraordinary. The three Witches’ struggle to wrap their minds around the theatre, the power of mere words to make a universe, is both clever John Crowley-ish metafiction (that’s a huge compliment, by the way; Aegypt is the best metafiction I’ve ever read) and a moving, sympathetic rendering of razor-sharp but parochial country folk encountering a power that seems, terrifyingly, to overflow and invalidate their idea of the world.

And there is Nanny Ogg, and Magrat, and the Fool; there’s Tomjohn (cousin to Carrot, vis-a-vis the thematics) and the extraordinary Hwel, and the equally extraordinary Vitoller, merely a man, a man of parts.

And there’s Granny Weatherwax, a world unto herself.

Pratchett was a genius of sorts, obviously. Those are surprisingly common. But these books aren’t ‘works of genius,’ they’re living worlds full of human life. Because, in addition to being a genius, he was a sage. An enlightened spirit.

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Peter Bebergal, Season of the Witch.

In tone, basically the less credulous Rock’n’Roll Edition of Mitch Horowitz’s Occult America. No surprise there; Horowitz edited this volume for Tarcher Penguin. Bebergal has written a very fine book here: he traces the ‘occult imagination’ in rock, convincingly arguing that rock/pop musicians have engaged with occult/magical energies and ideas, consciously and un-, since before rock was rock. The opening chapter on occult currents in early African-American music and slaves’ cultural practices is revelatory, as are the links Bebergal makes between that material and blues/rock. I wish he’d made more of the role of African-American supernaturalism in rock and jazz, and of regional occultures — you’re hearing two totally different understandings of blues from the Dead and the Allmans, say — but Season of the Witch has a lot of ground to cover, and that thread goes untugged.

The material on prog, proto-metal, and especially early electronic experimentation (Moog!) has a narrower focus, so as with Erik Davis’s Zep book, your enjoyment of the material may scale linearly with your curiosity about the individual bands under discussion — but Bebergal never stays too long with any one band or style, so they never wear out their welcome. He throws light on the way the transition from 60s to 70s occulture paralleled changes in pop/rock music at the time, and the way the psychedelic counterculture found expression in ecstatic/programmatic musics of the 70s and 80s outside of the permissive 60s drug culture. That material is of particular interest to me as I finish off this Phish book; the ‘psychedelic’ quality of Phish’s music is an area of some debate in the fandom, and Bebergal’s terms have been clarifying for me.

My main complaint is that I wanted much more of/from the book. The chronology slows at postpunk, touches on Hollywood Kabbalah and a couple other topics, and adds parenthetical sections on Scandinavian metal and Jay-Z; Bebergal’s strong preference for 70s High Weirdness over contemporary stuff is clear, as these latter pieces are the weakest in the book despite having rich implications. Jay-Z co-opts Illuminati/Masonic imagery in his videos as ‘provocation,’ but paranoid secret narratives and inverted religious symbols are everywhere in hip-hop (The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, anyone?); I’d love to hear more about hip-hop’s connection to its progenitor musicultures in this context. Same with the relationship between, say, permissive childrearing, helicopter parenting/governance, and changes in pop representations of the occult — what functions does supernatural imagery serve today, in an increasingly pseudorational/’optimizing’ world? Who’s the Grateful Dead of the Ritalin generation? Is such a thing possible anymore?

No matter. This book’s aimed directly at my pleasure center, and it strikes true. Recommended.

You’ve misled me. You’re misled: THE WINTER SOLDIER.

I was led to believe that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a ‘paranoid 70s thriller’ that shows the flexibility of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is not. It’s a wholly conventional punch-em-up with some 70s set dressing that’s apparently been given extra credit for having fifteen minutes’ worth of quiet dialogue instead of the customary eight. As action movies for teenagers go, it’s excellent, but that’s a low bar.

The Winter Soldier tosses physics out the window, but that’s OK — it’s a comic book movie, thats the universe they inhabit. Much worse is that it doesn’t suggest the presence of an inner life in even one of its characters. That’s a failing it shares with tons of modern films: instead of reflection or conflict or mixed motives, it has secrets!! and traumatic backstories!! and the occasional bit of posing before landscape!! You can feel those exclamation marks trailing every line of dialogue — even the quiet ones.

I enjoyed some of it. Redford’s line readings are so effortlessly casual he seems to’ve beamed in from another time; I guess he has, in a sense. And the lead, Chris Evans, embodies the character’s sweetness and decency and indomitable will. I love watching him. Indeed, I’d rather see two hours of ‘Steve Rodgers in the world’ than this.

So why did the critics fall for this flick? Why are supposedly sensible adults praising as ‘politically relevant’ a film that borrows its conspiracy material from Minority Report and, y’know, 40-year-old Robert Redford movies? But then, asking is answering: I suspect the critics were glad to see a movie that gestured at a genre other than punch-em-up, reflected (however superficially) a decade other than this one. And Marvel only needs to beat the curve, gradewise, which isn’t hard — they hire extraordinarily well, in front of the camera and behind, and spend a hell of a lot on digital FX.

It’s just the writing that’s a letdown. And even that isn’t horrible, it’s just…I wish there was a three-letter word meaning ‘I wish I had strong feelings for this but whatever.’ Will ‘meh’ do? If I say ‘meh,’ am I part of the problem? The Captain would never say ‘meh.’

That’s the best thing I can say about this movie: I came away wondering what the Captain would do. I just don’t think he’d do anything particularly interesting.

If Whedon writes a Captain America feature I’ll be there for the midnight opener. But this wasn’t that. It was…just fine.