Monday, July 21, 2008

The Sure Thing

In this satire, everything is an object lesson—even sex

By Ed Park

Petroleum Man

Friday, July 18, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke's Down-to-Earth Legacy

The revered author, who died Wednesday at age 90, could step from the edge of science fiction into metaphysics.

By Ed Park

In Carter Scholz's 1984 epistolary jeu d'esprit "The Nine Billion Names of God," an author named Carter Scholz submits a curiously familiar tale to a science fiction magazine. "Plagiarism occurs in science fiction as elsewhere," the incensed editor replies, "but I've never before seen anyone submit a word-for-word copy of another story, let alone a story as well known as Arthur C. Clarke's 'The Nine Billion Names of God.' "

In Clarke's original 1953 classic, Tibetan monks use a supercomputer to sort through permutations of characters to arrive at the name of God—at which point, in an elegantly chilling sentence, the universe ceases. The writer in Scholz's amusing cover version claims to have developed a random-text generator that, to his shock, spat out a verbatim copy of the Clarke story.

Seriously equating Clarke with a form of divinity surely would not have pleased the author, who died Wednesday at age 90 and left explicit instructions that no religious ceremony accompany his death. (For good measure: In what was possibly his last interview, in BBC Focus magazine last December, he said the greatest danger humanity faced was "Organised religion polluting our minds as it pretends to deliver morality and spiritual salvation.") Yet he was one of the genre's presiding deities, a member of the Golden Age's "Big Three," who still cast their shadows across the field. (That trio's other two members, Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, predeceased Clarke.) Scholz's dizzying little tower of a story can be read as a tongue-in-cheek take on the anxiety of influence, inventively recycling and repeating other tales—not just "The Nine Billion Names of God," but also Asimov's "The Last Question," Borges's "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" and another Clarke text, "The Longest Science-Fiction Story Ever Told."

For all Clarke's hard-SF bona fides -- background in physics and mathematics, chair of the British Interplanetary Society, inspiration to scores of astronauts, thinker-upper of geosynchronous orbit, etc.—a ghost in the machine lingers, a persistent aura of mysticism. Most famously, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which featured the menacing, omniscient spacecraft computer HAL. In "The Nine Billion Names of God," the supercomputer imported from New York to Tibet hastens the quest for knowledge and expedites the end of everything.

Science and magic

Locus magazine marked Clarke's 90th birthday recently with testimonials from fellow writers, a brief reminiscence by Clarke and a reprint of the aforementioned Focus interview, which he concluded with the line for which he'll be remembered for as long as there is remembering: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That maxim has the ring of scientific truth to it: These words will reach my editor's screen as swiftly as if viewed through a crystal ball in Oz. But one might detect a cautionary tone in that line, or even a secret atavistic wish. Indeed, in Clarke's work, advances can look an awful lot like regression. At the end of "2001," astronaut David Bowman transforms into the Star Child.

'Childhood's End'

Clarke judged Childhood's End to be the finest of his nearly 100 books (along with The Songs of Distant Earth). It was published in 1953, the same year as "The Nine Billion Names of God," and both works begin in science and dissolve into metaphysics. Childhood's End (at least in the original version; a new beginning was substituted in 1990) kicks off with some Conradian scene-setting ("It was quiet here beneath the palms, high up on the rocky spine of the island") and an escalating space race between America and Russia (the latter team led by an engineer named Konrad). Then giant alien spaceships hover above the Earth's cities—their mere presence implies a power far greater than that of any nation, or of mankind as a whole. The possibility of war vanishes (Clarke was writing this not too long after World War II), and we never see these characters again.

It's a brilliant prologue, a sucker punch to rattle the reader's complacency. Our assumption of what this book might be about—militaristic SF—vanishes in about the amount of time it takes for humanity to realize that it's not the center of the universe, not even close. The spacecrafts are like Swords of Damocles, their unseen inhabitants (the Overlords) the last word in passive-aggressiveness. By refusing to lash out or even punish the small but vocal minority of disgruntled humans, the Overlords emphasize the planet's insignificance. In the meantime, freedom from want is established, cruelty to animals abolished.

When the seemingly benevolent Overlords finally reveal themselves, they turn out to look like traditional depictions of the devil, a legacy of some distant and disastrous visit—and this is just the start of further mind-bending revelations. Childhood's End is a true novel of ideas, an inquiry into what happens to human nature in the face of utter futility. Clarke balances the cosmic scope with an intimate, often epigrammatic voice. All of mankind's religions fail in the face of the more advanced Overlords, but ultimately the new chain of command is a surrogate belief system, just as messy and senseless. Was Clarke simply giving us a few more of the nine billion names of God, an elaborately imagined self-destruction kit? Supremely enigmatic, Childhood's End bears an unusual prefatory note that seems appropriate for the man who created those memorably mysterious monoliths: "The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author."

Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2008

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Last Men Standing

By Ed Park

Kurosawa & Mifune
July 26 through September 12 [2002] at Film Forum

"I did a scene where I had to kill 30 people at once," Toshiro Mifune remarked about Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro (1962), one of 12 offerings in Film Forum's seven-week "Kurosawa & Mifune" series. "I was young then, but I thought my heart would explode." Though most identified with the ronin sword slinging of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961), Mifune at his peak was never just a pretty face or an action hero; physically imposing and able to unleash vortices of rage, he could also accommodate more nuanced vigor—conscionable deception, soul-deep laughter. In Kurosawa's hands, he was grandly human: not just vanquishing bandits but grappling with the dictates of fear and the maddening logic of responsibility.

The legendary director (1910-1998) didn't discover his legendary actor (1920-1997): Mifune, who came to Toho Studios looking for work as cameraman ("I don't want to be an actor. I don't want to have to rely on my face to make money"), had already received top billing in his very first picture, as a gangster in 1947's Snow Trail. In their first true pairing, Drunken Angel (1948), Mifune is a tubercular yakuza eaten up by disease and his own gang, in a literal Tokyo backwater that breeds mosquitoes, a repository for the detritus of squandered lives. Though there's an overload of illness as metaphor, Mifune ably locates the tragic tone, and Kurosawa favorite Takashi Shimura (best known as the lead in Ikiru) is wonderful as the gruff but caring doctor. For Stray Dog (1949) Mifune replaces hoodlum swagger for the panicked despair of a stammering military vet turned cop whose stolen gun has been used in a series of crimes; monitoring the status of the Colt's seven bullets is both snappy noir scorekeeping and a foretaste of Seven Samurai's body-bag accounting. Realizing the killer is a fellow ex-serviceman, whose rampage was triggered by the theft of his knapsack, the humiliated Mifune acknowledges both his connection to the criminal and the necessity of moral choice. (Stuart Galbraith IV, in The Emperor and the Wolf, his massive new book on the director and star, writes that the demobbed Mifune was so poor after the war that he took his two air-force-issue blankets and made them into a suit.)

Also included from this fertile era are Kurosawa's justly famous jidai-geki, or period pieces. Despite its imposing castle set and lavishly armored players, Throne of Blood (1957) is less an epic than a gorgeously concentrated nightmare, a Noh-inflected Macbeth that subsumes Mifune's capacity for subtlety into its darkling scheme, the way the omnipresent fog swallows warriors and woodland alike. (The new print intensifies Throne's crepuscular, death-haunted milieu until it treads upon the border of the unreal.) The following year's The Hidden Fortress consequently feels all the more luminous, giving full CinemaScope to the ripping yarn of a disguised princess, Mifune's loyal general, bumbling farmers, and hidden treasure. And the jaunty, cynical Yojimbo, with its Mancini-land score and Mifune's itchy mercenary, is enjoyable if a bit one-note; the better sequel, Sanjuro, manages to be both lighter than air and ultimately more serious than its predecessor, giving more time to the camellias that give Mifune's Sanjuro his name than to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it showdown.

Back in contemporary dress, The Bad Sleep Well (1960) is Kurosawa's unofficial Hamlet, an intricate revenger's tragedy that doubles as a critique of corporate corruption. Opening with a bravura wedding sequence and ending with a sycophantic bow to a replaced telephone receiver, the film has its longueurs, but Mifune's buttoned-down avenger is a compelling portrait of righteous obsession foundering on unpredictable reality. Three years later, Kurosawa adapted an Ed McBain novel for the brilliant High and Low. Mifune is Gondo, an up-by-the-bootstraps shoe company exec who lives high above the city. Learning that his son has been kidnapped, he's prepared to pay; when it's discovered that the wrong boy's been nabbed, the kidnapper insists that Gondo pay up anyway. Though some prefer the original Japanese title (Heaven and Hell), High and Low maintains the altitudinal relation (the villain is a denizen of the city's lower depths, most vividly depicted in the nighttown of "Dope Alley") while suggesting the brows of its bisected narrative: The first hour is a taut moral drama; the second, a nail-biting tale of detection. (As in all these films, Kurosawa's trademark "wipes"—still used by George Lucas—give the stories a page-turning rhythm.) High and Low contains the series' single transgression from carefully composed black-and-white: a startling stream of pink smoke shooting out of a distant incinerator that signifies the chase is on.

There is no color in Red Beard (1965), Mifune's final collaboration with Kurosawa, though director and star experimented with various dyes and bleaches. Mifune is the eponymous doctor, head of a clinic for the poor, willing to break some bones (with physician's precision) to rescue a sick girl trapped in a brothel. The film is a bildungsroman (heartthrob Yuzo Kayama is the arrogant young physician who comes to share Red Beard's philosophy), an extended treatment of Kurosawa's ongoing concern with life seen through the lens of sickness, and a deft weave of numerous plotlines that add up to a Dickensian microcosm so rich one doesn't care to leave.

Mifune—and perhaps Kurosawa—would never reach such heights again. With slight exceptions, the actor's career would run on fumes, sinking to the ignominy of playing Lou Diamond Phillips's Eskimo father; his once proud form would succumb to Alzheimer's and other medical problems. Red Beard is a last stand, with Mifune's doctor-hero an argument for compassion, fallible but unstoppable, and radiating something like pure charisma.

The Village Voice, Tuesday July 7, 2002