The Life and Death of the Book Store

I don’t mean to wax lyrical and mewl like an old lady on her stoep with a blanket on her knees and a cat on her lap, but I remember drive-ins. The slap chips, the giant radios that threatened to crack the window, my parents smoking freely while we ran down to the playground just under the screen until the next movie. We could watch in our pajamas and fall asleep where we watched, and maybe the sound wasn’t great but it was better than the movie house because at least no one could throw popcorn at us.

Now, the drive-ins are nearly dead. One remains in Joburg, and for how much longer I’m not entirely sure. (Their offerings are outstandingly paltry.) They died for a number of reasons: muggings, poor quality food and film and the brutal Joburg winter that makes any outdoor activity impossible. With movies becoming more accessible, portable and affordable, the drive-in has become a sepia relic. Like so many other things, we absently miss them but didn’t really do much to support them and stop them from going under.

Which brings me to the constant cry of ‘the bookstore is dying’! The Mail and Guardian posted this article about the death of the bookstore. Interviewing several bookstore owners as well as my boss Ben Williams, the article attempts to offer a multi-faceted view of the book industry. I appreciate the efforts and the statistics are nice to have. Let’s have a look at some of them:

On May 29, The Nation ran a piece by Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He reeled off dizzying statistics: there were about 4 000 independent bookstores in the United States 20 years ago; less than half remain. About 2% of Americans had an e-reader or tablet three years ago, and by January this year the number had swelled to 28%. In 2011, he wrote, e-book sales for most publishers made up between 18% and 22% of total sales.

That article, ‘The Amazon Effect’ can be found in its entirety here. (It is lengthy, but definitely worth the read.) That article goes on to state:

 Just three years ago, only 2 percent of Americans had an e-reader or a tablet; by January of this year, the figure was 28 percent. And Amazon, despite watching its market share drop from 90 percent of the American e-book market in 2010 to about 55–60 percent today, reached a milestone just under three years after the Kindle was introduced. “Amazon.com customers now purchase more Kindle books than hardcover books,” Bezos crowed, “astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months.”

Jeff Bezos’ deeply irritating personality aside, the picture is a little grim for bookstores. Alongside the purported death of the publishing houses (we’ll still waiting for that), this year alone has seen the closure of several notable bookstores in South Africa: the Boekehuis, for example. The Wordsworth in V&A Waterfront. EB in Irene and Balito. And as the Mail and Guardian noted, Kalk Bay Books very nearly went under as well. Never mind the independents and second-hand stores that quietly drowned in debt and silence without anyone noticing.

However, it doesn’t mean that all bookstores will become a thing of the past. In the panicking about ereaders, a great number of people forget that 3 million Kindles and 15 million iPads in a sea of 7 billion people is pittance. (I guess because only white readers matter? But I digress.) And while global literacy rates and access to books is not as high as I would like (especially in Africa), there are millions out there who don’t have Kindles and who will still buy paper books. After all, it is sheer idiocy to assume that people who don’t have Kindles/iPads/Nooks don’t matter. What matters, as it always has, is marketing and accessibility. I have discussed before why paper books are so expensive in stores, and those problems need to be addressed. One of the bookstore owners in the M&G article put it quite succinctly:

‘The death of the bookstore is bullshit,” Mervyn Sloman, the owner of the Book Lounge in Cape Town told me over the phone. He was clearly irritated by my presumption. “I own a bookshop and we’re not dying.”

Sloman opened at the end of 2007, not long before the global recession hit. While he admitted the industry was in flux and that last year was a bit rough, he said this year was looking up. “Part of it is about — and how to say this without sounding like an asshole — you have to take responsibility for what you are doing. If anybody thinks they can find a space, fill it with books and wait for people to stream in they are not going to last two weeks. But if you are prepared to work bloody hard and be creative and innovative, then it is completely doable.”

There has to be something better than wailing and whining about how we should all roll over and die, sacrifices on the altar of Amazon. What we should be doing is going back to books as art, as objects of joy and a celebration of the delicious, febrile nature of human imagination and endeavor.

It’s not over yet. Publishers are still bringing the world magnificent books, and bookstores are still lovingly curating them. Not everyone loves Kindle, and while Amazon is a giant, it is also unwieldy, unfeeling and unethical. The Amazon self-publishing ponzi scheme will collapse under the weight of its inherent mediocrity and the world will always value content, even if they have to pay a little more for it.  We should be focusing on accessibility, making books more affordable by dropping the customs tax or giving printers subsidies. In Japan, daily manga collections are published cheaply in disposable bundles. This makes a national art form accessible to all, and nicer colour versions are available for those who want them.

There’s always a better way of doing things, and while the solutions aren’t always easy, they are there. Publishers could treat authors better than they currently do. Bookstores can provide a personal and caring service that Amazon can’t ever hope for. How about some of the money spent on sport in South Africa being put to making printing books cheaper? Translating them into more languages? I refuse to accept that it is okay to bow under the pressure. The most important thing to start with is to abide by Douglas Adams’ advice:

Film review of The Immortals (and all its tropes)

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect upon this movie, and align my thoughts through writing about it, I have to admit that the charm has worn off. Basically, the film is a mostly garbled account of Theseus finding the Epurian Bow, becoming a believer of the gods and eventually one of them after defeating the very evil Betty. Hyperion. Whatever. He had all the depth of a teaspoon. (I won’t even go near how this as far removed from actual Greek mythology as possible.)

The 300 influence is made very clear in the highly stylised settings, colour and fight choreograpy. Visually, the film is astounding, all credit being due where it is. The fabrics were lucious and the sets hugely detailed. I thought the gods were slightly pornographic in the Xerxes sense, what with gold being the pimp’s metal, but they were awesomely strong. For once, there was the sense of unbridled power that gods should have. Athena’s fighting style was especially sharp and fluid and the final fight between the gods and Titans was superbly handled. (It was also stomach-churning, like the rest of the movie.)

But its not enough to save a movie. Personally, I was annoyed by the whole “he was an unbeliever, but now look how awesome he is now that he believes in the gods, Chosen One, weeoo-weeoo”. Yes, I know, that stems from my own personal ideology rather than the movie itself, but it does grate a bit. It looks like easy evangelism. Now, I’ve said before that I love action movies but this one was just a bit much. Of course, no one expects action movies to be art, and I wasn’t expecting much. And yet, there are some fundamental problems with this movie that made it taste a little bitter. Let’s go through the tropes here.

There’s the typical woman stuffed in the fridge; the main character’s mother is slain before him, and all we know about her is that she was religious and was raped once by villagers. (I don’t think she was even given a name.) Later on, she becomes a Lost Lenore, in which her corpse proves useful. Its never really made clear what happened to disappeared Dad. This gives him the Orphan Power-up as well as turning him into a Convenient Orphan. He is also the dutiful son, as well as being the last of his kind AND the sole survivor. There’s the gross sidekick/follow-along guy, the Wannabe Casanova who says the kind of shit that suggests a punch is not enough, making him a straw misogynist. There’s the Noble Virgin (as you can imagine, that doesn’t last long because Nature abhors a virgin) who is also the champion and living MacGuffin. And, of course, the fake virgins just weren’t as pretty.

And its almost like the producers (who made 300) thought no one would notice if they recycled a few things. Gratuitous torture (amped up to 11 in this movie), virgins in lovely flowing dresses, action scenes shot like a scrolling platform game, gods dressed in gold, soldiers with ridiculously impractical cloaks and rousing speeches from underdogs, all done in the same copper tones. Isn’t it directors who should stamp their style like that?

Sometimes, a movie is worth it for the visuals alone. But the writing is so bad and the plot is so thin that it couldn’t be seen without Sherlock’s microscope, that its better just to watch the action scenes on Youtube. Even some of the fights were a bit stilted; I don’t know why the running looked like a sped-up shuffle.

And I so badly wanted this movie to be better. Greek mythology is rich and all that effort spent on visuals should have given me something less trite. But there’s always going to be the Ultra White Masculine Hero, the women basically stepping stones to his glory. Even Athena gets her ass handed to her. At least in 300 Queen Gorgo was given a beautiful speech and got to kick some ass by stabbing the disgusting rapist. Its something. It is sad that we have to reach so hard for a female protagonist these days. I think Salt is one of the few movies where the female protagonist fights on her own the entire way without a man stepping in (a la Kick Ass.) And at least Kill Bill offered up some decent female fighters without the ultra sexing up that usually attends such characters, like Sucker Punch did. I mean, are panty shots necessary in an action sequence?

So, I guess Immortals is great for those who enjoy gratuitous torture. Like Saw, really. But if Se7en was your pace, then this is just going prove that violence for its own sake will always be tacky.

The King’s Speech, Black Swan and The Oscars

Warning: long blog post requires coffee!

It has been a good year for movies, and for once the Oscars wasn’t dominated by shocking explosion-centric timewasters. To add to my collection of great books and movies enjoyed this year, The King’s Speech was a sublime movie, one that traded on dialogue, cinematography and solid performances rather than Megan Fox’s less than stellar looks and a brainless actor backlit by explosions on the movie poster.

The King's Speech cast

The King's Speech

Colin Firth’s performance was superbly balanced, and even though one does not normally relate to someone who has won the equivalent of the genetic lottery and never has to submit his CV for anything, he draws in the viewer with the frustration of not being able to vocalise a thought. While most of us wish to be more eloquent, at least we can spit out a sentence almost as quickly as it is mentally formed. To watch someone who has suffered a great deal of repression (including leg braces and being forced to change writing hands) attempt to overcome it through various therapies and interactions was an emotionally rewarding experience. There wasn’t so much character growth as revelation, and Geoffrey Rush is, as always, fantastically dry and charming to watch. (Pity about Pirates of the Caribbean, it didn’t really flex his remarkable talent. Shine is still his best work.)

It was also grand to see Helena Bonham-Carter not playing a crazy person. While I always enjoy her performance in the vein of Marla Singer from Fight Club, she was dangerously close to being typecast thanks to the godawful Alice in Wonderland and Sweeney Todd. She was remarkable as Elizabeth and as devoted as anyone could ever hope for in a life partner. She also has that remarkable ability to gently nudge someone in the right direction, no matter how hard it is for them. A wonderful performance, and such a nice change from her usual.

The settings were sublime, the costuming perfect and the soundtrack was a rising crescendo of violins that I thoroughly enjoyed and am definitely interested in getting my paws on. I particularly loved Lionel Logue’s consulting room, and I suspect that style of wallpaper or pastiche (I’m not sure how they coloured the walls like that) will quickly become the vogue. A movie made all the more rewarding by background knowledge of the start of World War 2, which is covered discreetly in the background. Timothy Spall made a fantastic Winston Churchill. I would have liked to see more of him, but unfortunately Mr Churchill is one of history’s most biostorous characters and apt to take over an entire movie should he be given more than twenty lines to say.

Next on my Oscar Movie list is The Black Swan.

I was ready to lobby for a war of letter-writing should Natalie Portman not get the Oscar for Best Actress. Thankfully, she swooped it up and it was deeply deserved. In the kind of role that crawls under the viewer’s skin, Natalie Portman plays a ballerina under a great deal of pressure, both internal and external, and the director Aronofsky drags us with Nina through the looking glass and into the crushing, exacting and relentless nature of her mind. It was a movie that stuck with me for days, and the soundtrack is still my accompaniment at work.

For once, the ugly world of ballet is shown for all its difficulty and ruthlessness. It is one of those arts where one in fifty ballerinas becomes a true prima, and the rest stay in the chorus line. It is an art obsessed with thinness and perfection and not one that I would encourage my children to do. There’s blood and hunger and cutthroat competition and Nina is maybe just a year too young or a little too coddled by her mother to deal with the pressure of being the Swan Queen. I found Black Swan to be more in the line of Japanese horror, the kind of passive-aggressive, subtle terror one links to those awful haunted hospitals in Japanese theme parks rather than bland, shouting violence the Americans parade as horror. While Black Swan does not market itself as a horror, I was tempted to leave the theatre, and was begging for the movie to end if only to let Nina escape the twisted horror of her life. Aronofsky, most famous for Requiem for a Dream, is remarkably talented in making the viewer undergo the same horror. In Black Swan, this is done through keeping the camera either over Nina’s shoulder, behind her eyes or right in front of her. There is rarely any distance between us and her, and at times one begged for a long shot just to give me some space.

I do not mean any of the above as negative criticism: it makes for true storytelling. Used to the usual saccharine nature of godawful Hollywood fluff, it was a positively raw experience that has restored some credence to the venerable art of filmmaking. I have always been an ardent believer in the power of film to move, especially because it can inspire as many people, if not more, than books. While books still own a large percentage of my passion for words, I believe that films have the power to inform and inspire through their infinite capacity to put sound and image together in a way that can knock against the heart of the viewer. We are not living in an age of widespread imagination, and the very visual nature of our information and entertainment has given film a great deal of power that it has unfortunately squandered on projects like The Hangover and Twilight.

Which brings me back to my general delight with this year’s Oscar nominees. While Inception was not very new in concept (despite what people might think, it was very predictable) it was incredibly well shot and the graphics alone deserve an Oscar. Toy Story 3 was a great deal more interesting just for Andy’s off-screen growth and its exploration of the roles toys play in our lives, and how they mark the years. I, for example, have a graduation Rhodent that I am very fond of because he reminds me of how very proud my parents were at my first graduation, and how special that moment was. I will likely keep it even though its unseemly for a grown woman to hold onto toys. Toy Story 3 looks at that, though it does have the usual formula of adventure and relationships.  True Grit was divine to look at and listen to. Hailee Steinfield was superb, and  her character Mattie Ross is my new favourite female character for her true grit and unfailing strength in such difficult situations. I haven’t seen The Fighter, but I really think Hailee deserved the Oscar. True Grit is quite dark (typical of the Coen Brothers) and while it was maybe half an hour too long, it was still a bold western enjoyable for its dialogue and characters.

I watched The Social Network in bits and pieces, but it seemed worthy of its adulations. Since I am a big fan of Facebook (if only because it allows me to try keep touch with rapidly fading friendships, but that’s a blog post for another day), I was interested to see how it was created. I think I am the only person not enamoured of Justin Timberfake’s performance. It also avoided the Hollywood happy ending, which pleases me.

As soon as I’ve caught up with my Oscar viewing, I shall likely post more. For now, I am mostly happy with the Oscar results and would much rather have seen Robert Downey Jnr host it. Anne Hathaway is sweet and she did it well, but RDJ is still king. (Yes, that was vaguely valley girl, but I will not apologise for it.)

For your edification, a picture of RDJ. To make your day sexier.

Under this pillow lies the key to my release.

Triple Whammy Movie Review

One of the reasons why I am glad to be back in Joburg is that I do not have to wait a month until after a movie comes out to see it. So, in deference to the new purpose of the blog (ie not an angry feminist bitch blog, as it previously has been seen), I would like to offer my thoughts on new movies, and one I watched recently that isn’t new.

Clash of the Titans 3D

Overall, it was not great art, but it was in the vein of 300. Lots of well-designed monsters and landscapes. The dialogue wasn’t too painful, other than the “Someday, someone has to say ‘enough'” kind of rhetoric. The main guy was a bit of an annoyance, because if I was given the power of the gods, I would use it. Who wouldn’t? Um, Io was strange. There was a little bit of cradle-snatching going on there, but at least no gratuitous sex scenes/romance scenes etc. It is very loosely based on Greek mythology and they thieved from the Koran a bit with the Djinn, but since no one looks to these movies for great accuracy, this is fine. (Although 300 was remarkably accurate.)

The scorpions are well worth a mention for their sheer nastiness and excellent design. Charon (which they prounced ‘Karon’ instead of ‘Gahron’ in the correct Greek style) looked like the cover of a metal album. Which is awesome. His boat was superb as well. Visually, the movie offered interesting interpretations.I particularly enjoyed the interpretation of the Kraken, even though it is a creature of Icelandic and Norwegian mythology and not Hades’ demon voodoo poodle. I just wish that Ancient Greeks didn’t sound so American or Scottish. I know that we cannot be certain of what they sounded like, but they could have modelled it on a Cypriot accent. Because of its relative isolation, Cyprus speaks the closest dialect to Ancient Greek. Mind you, it isn’t the sexiest accent in the world. Neither is American. In any case, it jarred that these hardcore Greek warriors sounded like they fell out of a Hollywood studio.

The 3D, for a change, was superb. Alice in Wonderland had shocking 3D, and I have it on authority that Avatar, apparently filmed for 3D, was poorly rendered. (James Cameron is such a blowhard.) And speaking of 3D, that brings me to…

How To Train Your Dragon 3D

I watched the trailer for this and thought, ‘meh, looks lame’. But from the opening til the ending, I really, really enjoyed it. The wit was superb, the dragons stunningly rendered and the characters well-rounded and likeable. Toothless was absolutely adorable, in his looks and mannerisms. Like a big, fire-breathing puppy! Its good to see a kids’ movie returning to the relationship between child and animal. I think Disney helped encourage a love of animals in me, and I would like to see more of that in movies. The visuals were phenomenally well-rendered, Dreamworks providing the best 3D experience thus far. Garfield and Friends in 3D is next best.

Sure, none of the ideas were particularly new. Father-son relationships, being the odd one out, befriending the enemy etc, but what Dreamworks does best is inject new life into old concepts. I loved Stoic the Vast, who just dominated the screen whenever he was around with his amazing beard and breast-hat. Toothless and Hiccup were just so amazing, and often I was just so moved by the simple joy of their relationship that I came close to crying, Movies these days often don’t inspire me with just visuals alone, but HTTYD managed friendship without cliche. The movie really should have been horribly cliched but it wasn’t, and I loved it. The little accident that happens to Hiccup at the end stopped it from being disgustingly cheesy, so good work.

So, good on Dreamworks. For the fantastic design of the dragons, the DnD references, the cast, the voice work. I loved it all, and now look forward to finally watching Up.

Hancock

I wanted to see this the moment I saw the trailer. To be honest, I’ve never been a big fan of Will Smith. Maybe its because he only has three facial expressions. Sad/kicked puppy, action man and comedian.

But Hancock put a very interesting spin on an old,and now tiring, genre. As a superhero, he is not awesome with a tragic flaw. He is just an ass. It takes work to groom him into being a relatively well-behaved superhero. He is an alcoholic, destructive, rude and sadistic anti-hero and it takes a really, really good normal guy to help him in an excellent role reversal. Because hero movies have always been about the hero inspiring others, and its nice to see the real good guy being a normal guy. The movie looks at PR, prisons, personal rehabilitation and the life of superheroes. The twist comes out of nowhere, is deftly handled and makes the movie even funnier.

The action was superbly choreographed, especially the opening car chase/car flying scene. Will Smith plays an asshole really, really well, and reluctant good guy equally well. It was good to see someone do something new with the superhero genre, similiar to what Robert Downey Jnr is doing with Iron Man. Because his Iron Man is a rich, narcissistic ass, which is unusual for a Marvel character. Tony Stark, who has an extreme intelligence, should not play well with others. The intelligent and brilliant usually don’t. That he is a man with money and attractiveness and uses it to get all the things he wants does make him unapproachable by the common person.

Hancock and Tony Stark are not supposed to be like us. Superheroes are not famous and long-lasting because they pay bills and deal with the traffic like we do. We admire them because they do things we cannot, because they are our wish-fulfilment creatures. It is why we read and play fantasy games. Most of us want to be or do more. For some of us, being awesomely good at martial arts or parkour or science is the closest we’ll ever get to being heroes. Most people on this planet will sink into mediocrity.

Perhaps this is why Tyler Durden is so seductive as a character and idea. The point of fight clubs is to remind men of their personal power, something they may feel robbed of in this new age. After all, they are no longer needed by Western women for anything, really. Wanted, of course, but not needed. We earn our own money, can adopt or buy children and hire specialists as needed for various tasks and household needs. Fight Club, I think, addresses this feeling of being unneeded. What the clubs do, then, is provide both group therapy and self-empowerment. So, to sum up Tyler Durden:

“Getting fired […] is the best thing that could happen to any of us. That way, we’d quit treading water and do something with our lives.”

Tyler says this after he puts a note amongst the rich hostess’ perfume bottles saying “I have urinated into one of your fine bottles”. The hostess goes insane, cuts herself to pieces on the bottles filled with whale oil and pain, and Tyler is glad that this act will free him from his menial, shit job. Later:

“I am trash,” Tyler said. “I am trash and shit and crazy to you and this whole fucking world,”Tyler said to the union president. “You don’t care where I live or how I feel, or what I eat or how I feed my kids or how I pay the doctor if I get sick, and yes I am stupid and bored and weak, but I am still your responsibility.”

This is why we have superheroes. Because most of us are stuck in menial, shit jobs, or in situations we don’t know how to change, or feel we don’t have the power to change. Tyler splices porn into kids’ movies to entertain himself. Tony Stark builds machines and is an alcoholic (in the comics), and Hancock drinks enough whiskey to drown a whale. Sometimes the closest we come to being like our heroes is that we have the same flaws, except that they colossally fuck us up more.

I love Tony Stark. Because I wish I was insanely smart and rich. I wish I was Tyler Durden, because he has the guts to be the anarchist I can’t be. I love Hancock because he was left behind and wonders ‘what kind of bastard I must have been if there was no one to claim me when I woke up’. Perhaps we can relate to them, but mostly we can’t. Superman is flimsy because he is too perfect. Especially after he was turned from 30’s vigilante to Christian poster-boy during the Vietnam War.

I don’t know why a movie review ended up becoming a dissertation on the place of the superhero, but if you are interested in this kind of cheap psychology, then read Superman on the Couch. All I really have to say is that I love comics and animé and movies because, like everyone else, I have wishes I can’t fulfil and that I turn to others to do it for me.  Because most of the time, I feel like this:

“What Tyler says about the crap and the slaves of history, that’s how I felt. I wanted to destroy something beautiful I’d never have. Burn the Amazon rain forests. Pump chlorofluorocarbons straight up to gobble the ozone. Open the dump valves on supertankers and uncap offshore oil wells. I wanted to kill all the fish I couldn’t afford to eat, and smother the French beaches I’d never see. I wanted the whole world to hit bottom. Pounding that kid, I really wanted to put a bullet between the eyes of every endangered panda that wouldn’t screw to save its species and every whale or dolphin that gave up and ran itself aground.”

Movies

As I write this, I am listening to the trailer for Clash of the Titans. I know that it might have shocking dialogue and general shamelessness, but it will undoubtedly have the scale and action I so loved in 300, a movie both remarkably accurate and engaging.

I love movies, I always have. And while I can be an annoyingly discerning fuck, I still enjoy movies that either go for spectacle and enjoy equally the ones that forgo spectacle for excellent dialogue, characterisation and setting. In order to make better use of this blog, I think I will turn it into a place for movie reviews instead.

Movies on circuit I want to watch now:

Hurt Locker

Nine

The Blind Side

Shutter Island

Movies that I am looking forward to. You can guess why. (Release dates are for SA according to Nu-Metro website)

The Cove – 1st April (I may not survive watching this)

Monty Python is Not the Messiah – 2nd April

Iron Man 2 – 30th April

Kick-Ass – 23rd April

Clash of The Titans – 16th April

The Men Who Stare At Goats – 30th April (George Cloony. Duh.)

9 – 14th May

Prince of Persia – 21 May

The Lion of Judah – 17th September (South Africa’s first full-length animated movie)