Given the nature of this blog, let me start by saying that Looper (official site and trailer here) is not a film for all ages. It is dark, violent (including off-screen killings involving children), and foul-mouthed, with a little nudity thrown in to give it a solid R rating.

That said, it is also a thought-provoking treatment of time-travel, love and abandonment, and the lengths to which people might go to protect what is dear to them. In many movies involving time-travel (think Back to the Future or Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), the emphasis is on changing only what is necessary and avoiding any contact with one’s former or future self. This film takes the exact opposite approach, putting an older and younger version of the same man, a hired killer, in direct conflict with each other. This sets up a number of interesting topics to explore — for example:

  • The older self has the advantage of knowing where the younger is and what he is doing, by virtue of the fact that the younger self’s actions become new memories for the older self.
  • On the other hand, as these new memories come into conflict or replace old memories from the older self’s previously lived past, the older self experiences pain, confusion, and loss.
  • And while the older self may think he’s securing the future of the younger self, the younger self has no knowledge of or desire for that future — he only knows what this interference by his older self is costing him now.
  • A couple of other ideas are raised but relatively unexplored: If a man went back in time and did potentially great evil to secure some future good, would that good really be manifested? And if you were to kill a version of yourself to protect innocent lives, is it justifiable? Is it suicide?
If those bullets made some sense and sound intriguing, this movie might be worth a go for you. Bruce Willis driven slightly mad by time travel recalls Twelve Monkeys; the dystopian future and film noir elements recall Blade Runner, and the rural setting and certain horror elements recall Stephen King.  If all of that sounds intriguing, see it.

Book Break: Shogun

Cross another book off the Fiction Writing Reading List that I posted last summer: James Clavell’s Shogun. I have a vague recollection of Richard Chamberlain in a TV miniseries adaptation in the 1980s, but I’m certain it’s from the advertisements and not actually watching it. (Maybe Mom watched it? Maybe I’m thinking of The Thorn Birds?)

This book is sprawling, convoluted, vulgar, and violent  and engaging for most of it’s 1,000-plus pages. What made it most interesting to me is its point of view (or ultimate lack thereof) with regard to the cultures clashing throughout the story. Set in feudal Japan in the 1600s, the novel gives us an arrogant, foul-mouthed, and cunning English Protestant protagonist; surrounds him with a narrow-minded and ever fouler-mouthed Dutch Protestant crew; and strands them in a strict (and mostly Shinto/anti-Christian) samurai culture that is deeply enmeshed in trade with the Catholic Portuguese and rushing headlong toward civil war. Initially, it is a very anti-Catholic read; although the Protestant characters are not particularly virtuous or sympathetic characters, the initial perspective is theirs, and their biases shine through.

The British pilot is removed from the group because various samurai see value in his knowledge and his ability to antagonize the Catholics by his very existence in Japan. Gradually he gains favor, and ultimately influence, among the samurai, and becomes conflicted as he begins to see value in their way of life (and of course, falls in love with a well-known samurai woman who has converted to Catholicism).

That’s the gist…but lest you think this is Last Samurai or “Dances With Blue-Man Group” rehash, understand that A) Shogun came first, and B) no one group emerges as the noble savage. All are savage, and ultimately, the only group shown without nobility is the Dutch Protestant crew. (Clavell shows does a tremendous job writing in multiple languages and using “dialects” (written in English) and curses or other interjections to distinguish between Portuguese, Latin, “gutter Dutch,” and Japanese.) The hero never goes completely samurai, never loses his English-Protestant bias against priests and the papacy, and is always “in it for the money”—but he comes to love at least one Catholic convert, respects at least one priest, and has his life saved by another priest. He is a married father of two in England, and as such, is an adulterer; he equally enjoys Japanese views on sexuality and is horrified by them because so much is permitted in the name of pleasure. He enjoys the order, the cleanliness, the beauty of Japanese living, but not the brutality and bigotry that enforce it. Love and life here are regarded as meaningless, replaced by duty and death — as he is immersed in this culture, he begins to use it to his advantage, but it also begins to re-shape him.

Beneath this story is a violent political thriller that uncoils slowly only, to be completely understood at the very end — and perhaps not even then. According to Clavell, in a small crowded country with paper walls, politeness is paramount; everything is planned (and counter-planned, and counter-counter-planned); everyone hears and everyone knows, but no one speaks until it is to their devastating advantage. The result is a fascinating book that seems overlong at times, but not monotonous. He wrote six novels in what came to be known as his Asian Saga; Shogun was the third written, but is set the earliest in history. Rumor has it he had other Asian novels planned at the time of his death, and I have no doubt there’s a great book to be written exactly where this one leaves off.

Book Break: A History of Corruption

As I mentioned last summer, I’ve been reading a number of diverse books as research for a novel that I hope to complete in 2012. These have included three books on the Irish mob in the U.S. which, together, paint a sobering picture of corruption extending back to the earliest days of our republic.

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld

Written by journalist Herbert Asbury and published in 1927, this book provided much of the fodder for the Scorcese film Gangs of New York, if not the actual storyline. It paints a picture of unimaginable squalor, poverty, violence, racism, and political corruption beginning in post-colonial New York City and continuing through Prohibition. Filled with colorful characters and a mix of historical facts and gangster lore and legend, it is a darkly engaging read that makes the reader question how close our animal instincts may lurk beneath our human surface. The propensity for grotesque violence among those with no hope and nothing to lose stands in sharp contrast to our usual views of American ideals and opportunity at the time of our nation’s founding. I will see the film soon, but I don’t expect to enjoy it much…

Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster
This 2006 volume by T.J. English draws on the Asbury book as a source, but digs deeper, extending beyond New York City to Chicago, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Boston, and including the mid- and late-20th century. The book is more explicit about the relationships between Irish mobsters and hoods and the Italian Mafia, organized labor, corporate strikebreakers, and politicians on both sides of the aisle. (It also paints a less romantic picture of the Kennedy family and suggests multiple strong motives for the assassination of President Kennedy.) It appears to be well researched and is also an engaging, if disturbing, read. Whereas The Gangs of New York made me question human nature, Paddy Whacked made me question the nature of our democracy.

Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal
This 2001 book by Boston Globe journalists Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill tells the story of the legendary South Boston crime boss Whitey Bulger: his rise to power and secret status as a federal informant whose corrupt FBI handlers protected him and his men from prosecution for years. The recent Scorcese film The Departed may have been a remake of the Hong Kong crime thriller Infernal Affairs (in some cases shot-for-shot), but the South Boston setting and the Jack Nicholson character are inspired by this true tale, and Bulger’s capture this past summer after 16 years on the lam does little to fend off the disquieting feeling that we cannot know who the bad guys are or how far their reach extends. A parallel history of Bulger’s brother, formerly a prominent state senator and president of the University of Massachuesetts, adds to that feeling…

Taken together, these books provide a sobering look at the seamy underbelly of “truth, justice, and the American way.” Strong language and violence abound, and these books won’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy about the world, but they are good, solid reads.

Book Break: Two Very Different Books

As part of my ongoing research into the novel I hope to write this year, I’m looking at a wide range of books and movies — including two very different books I recently finished.

The first is a graphic novel by Frank Miller (of Sin City and 300 fame) called Ronin, about a masterless samurai reincarnated and finding his purpose in a grim, post-apocalyptic future. Because I have a fascination with ancient codes colliding with the modern world, and because I am specifically interested in samurai-themed comics and artwork with regard to my fiction writing, I checked it out from the local library on a hunch.

I’m never been a comics reader, and found it to be a very engaging story, once you get the feel for “reading it” — especially learning to pick up visual cues that convey the order of panels and images, which isn’t always left to right. These visual cues enable Miller to occasionally use visually arresting images that are full-page, full-spread, or shaped or cropped in unusual ways to convey more clearly (or more chaotically) what is happening.

It is not a book for younger readers; though not as bad as I expected from the cinema adaptations of Sin City and 300, it contains some nudity, sexuality (though not explicit), strong and racist language, and lots of violence.

On the contrary…

Yesterday I started and finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret — a wonderful, award-winning novel for young readers that was unlike any book I’ve ever seen. I’d asked a high-school friend who now teaches English and is particularly interested in graphic novels if he knew of any really well-done novels written in a combination of styles, with drawings conveying scenes or sections, interspersed with pages of prose, and he recommended this one as the only such book he knows. It is intimidatingly thick, but reads very quickly, and the story–about a secretive orphan who lives in the walls and crawlspaces of the Paris train station in the 1930s and keeps the clocks repaired, was utterly unique to me and completely unexpected. Even a second-grader with a decent vocabulary could probably handle it, but I suspect it would be a wonderful to read aloud as a family in the evenings, provided everyone could see the pictures. It was a delight, and I’m excited to learn that the author, Brian Selznick, has another novel out as well!

Also on my novel research stack: non-fiction books The Gangs of New York (from which the movie takes its title), Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish American Gangster (which has the best title ever), and Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal (which tells the true story upon which the movie The Departed was based, nevermind that was also a remake (in some instances, shot-for-shot) of a Hong Kong crime drama with the cheezy English title Infernal Affairs. I’ve seen both, and liked both for different reasons.). Finally, we just watched Angels With Dirty Faces starring James Cagney the other night. Check it out if you can.

If It Doesn’t Help, It Hinders (Addendum)

I had the most productive work day I’ve had in weeks today, by implementing a few relatively minor changes. First, I closed my browser when I wasn’t using it, and relegated email to first thing in the morning, mid-day, and late afternoon. This kept the browser closed most of the day, and kept me feed-free (except for the red flashing light on my smart phone, which I’ll need to deactivate).

I also removed all the the buttons from my web browser’s Favorites or Bookmark bar except my work email login, the U’s homepage, and the college intranet site. Yesterday, if I wanted to check Facebook, Gmail, Yahoo, the Yankees score, or blog comments, I had only to click the button at the top of the browser – this afternoon it was disconcerting to notice the number of times my mouse-arrow reflexively climbed the screen to click on distractions that were no longer there, each time forcing a conscious decision on my part about whether I needed to log in. The vast majority of the time, the answer was no. (I didn’t use the timer, but I would estimate that, this blog post included, I’m in the 30 minute range for today.)

Finally, I imposed a gentler discipline on my schedule. I had been forcing myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. in order to stretch, shower, pray a rosary, and eat breakfast, and still have time to write fiction for a while before starting my workday. The alarm sounds, it’s dark, I’m inevitably tired; my shower’s slow, I drift in and out of awareness as I pray, and it takes a full hour and a half to ready myself for…what? I stagger downstairs and doodle as I try to write something worthwhile, yawn and drink some coffee, trying to awaken some creativity.

So today, I set the alarm for 6, with the same goal of 7 a.m. for fiction writing. I urged myself to move briskly, but also told myself, “If I’m 10 minutes late, the train is not derailed, it’s only delayed.” (Truth be told, I didn’t articulate it that way until just now; my actual thoughts were more abstract but no less compelling.) I started writing at a little after 7, set a deadline for myself, and stopped more or less on time, resisting the urge to write until I hit a block, and resisting the urge countless times throughout the day to take “just a few minutes” and do a little more. As a result, right now, I can’t wait for morning and the chance to write more.

As I’ve transitioned to working from home, I’ve tried to impose discipline, filling my work calendar with blocks of time for reading, writing, responding to email, etc., and when I’ve fallen off the pace, or run over the time allotted, I’ve basically said, “Well, forget that; I’ll never get caught up now.” Today I was a bit more flexible, and it paid off. When a colleague called unexpectedly, I wasn’t distracted by what I Ought to Be Doing, and at the end of the day, I accomplished more than I set out to. That feels so good, I should try it again tomorrow.