A single long movie that was split in two because Harvey Weinstein wanted to fuck a potted plant that day (I don’t know). On the surface it’s a movie about kung fu/grindhouse/western tropes of revenge, but equally, it’s about the technique of moviemaking itself. The closest parallel is watching an artist who puts paint on canvas with such consuming skill that the act of watching him paint is as fascinating as the actual painting.
Kill Bill is ingenious, and one of the stronger Tarantino works. There’s hardly any story. From beginning to end, the movie wants to thrill. It’s just cool visual, cool setpiece, cool dialog moment, with only tenuous ligatures of plot and motivation in between. It’s all delivered with ease: some movies try so hard that they seem to sweat, while Tarantino’s, whether good or bad, all have an effortlessness to them. Only later (or upon rewatching) do you become aware of how hard certain parts must have been to film. Although a shorter one-movie version of this would have been stronger, it’s good to live in a world where any form of Kill Bill exists.
Witness the opening scene, which goes from 0 to 100, 100 to 0 (when Vivica A Fox’s daughter interrupts the fight), then 0 to 100 again – sudden gear-changes that have devastating effects on the viewer. The staging, and blocking, and so forth is cartoony as hell, and this almost seems like an effect. There’s an animation technique called rotoscoping that consists of artists painting cels over live-action film. Kill Bill almost looks like reverse rotoscoping, with live actors playing at being comic drawings. The exaggerated swooshes, bangs, and music stabs add to this effect.
But it’s uneven in places. Vol I is much the stronger half. Most of the classic Kill Bill scenes are here – the animated sequence, the House of Blue Leaves sequence, the final boss battle. The climax is absurd beyond absurd, but it’s directed with a slaughterman’s eye for weight and mass, with blood spraying and limbs falling convincingly. Everything makes sense and can be followed on the screen. The decision to film everything “practical” was the right one – watch the Crazy-88 fight and infamous “burly brawl” scene in the second Matrix film (the only comparison I can think of) and the Wachowski film looks like Pixar.
I enjoy Vol II less. It has a slower pace, which allows for some fun Coen Brothers-esque character moments (a lethal assassin who winds down his days cleaning toilets in a strip club), but much of it’s clearly filler, stretching out a too-short movie. Kill Bill was chopped in half, and due to the way the plot is structured, it couldn’t be chopped in half. Most of its skeleton and organs ended up in Vol I. Vol II contains a lot of mush, with about seventy or eighty minutes of movie mixed in.
And it’s visually less appealing. The first part looks drab and overstays its welcome – it feels like we spend a million years in some asshole’s mobile home, and when the Pai Mei flashback sequence occurs, it’s a relief to see some color on the screen again. And it doesn’t really try to recapture the first film’s excesses, which is a shame. There’s 2-3 fights and they end pretty quickly, with only the Elle Driver battle arousing much interest (it also contains the best eye-gore scene since Lucio Fulci retired). And the more grounded tone doesn’t always work to the movie’s advantage. It invites logic into the proceedings, and logic is Kill Bill’s antimatter. “Wait, why is the Bride allowed to carry a samurai sword with her on the plane?”
I enjoyed David Carradine, though. I guess you could say he has a stranglehold on the movie. There’s a lot hanging on him, and its good that he doesn’t choke during his performance. The film really breathes during the moments he’s on screen. I’m glad Tarantino gave him maximum airtime, and didn’t leave him dangling.
Adolfo Bioy Casares was an Argentinian author, and The Invention of Morel (1940) is probably his most famous works.
100 pages long, the book is sleek and deadly, like one of those rockets with every planar surface graded away to minimize wind drag. It evolves Siddhartha-like through several distinct forms: a Robinson Crusoe-like adventure tale of a man surviving on an island, then a “William Wilson”-like horror story about doubles and dopplegangers, then a disturbing science fiction tale from the speculative side. Prominence romance elements keep the story anchored throughout, although it’s not romance of the usual kind.
The island-stranded protagonist doesn’t warrant a backstory: he has done something bad and is a fugitive from justice; that’s all we know. He’s not alone on the island: there are some dwellings that are inhabited by strange tourists. He soon grows afraid of these people, and not because he thinks they might report him to the police. There’s something very peculiar about them. Their party never ends. They play two pop songs – over and over – until the sound seems hammered permanently into the air.
In time, he notices a beautiful young woman. He’s attracted to her – even though there’s something unusual about her too. She doesn’t react to him, and she behaves as if he’s not there. Confusion about the island and where exactly he’s ended up cause him to explore, find things he’s not supposed to find, and make some world-shattering (or mind-shattering) discoveries.
Adolfo Bioy Casares is often compared to Borges. They were friends, countrymen, colleagues. Bioy’s imaginative faculties are dimmer than Borges, but he’s more successful as a teller of tales. Borges work is a little like a puzzle box: there’s satisfaction in watching pieces slide together and a solution appear, but often there’s not really a story there. Bioy is a lot like Edgar Allen Poe (or, hell, Edogawa Rampo) – he takes dry ideas and wraps human flesh around them, making his scenarios seem real and scary. The story’s third act is as nailbitingly intense as anything I’ve read in recent memory.
Invention of Morel is a jostle of influences and sources, both fictional and nonfictional. HG Wells The Island of Dr Moreau is a pretty obvious inspiration (Mor-el/Mor-oh). The character of Faustine is based on silent film star Louise Brooks, who Bioy was reportedly obsessed with. But that’s the interesting thing – did he ever really know her?
Louise Brooks was famous for her pictures, maybe immortal because of them, but an actress’s fame is a kind of living death. Brooks is going to smile and giggle and tempt in Pandora’s Box for a thousand years, or however long people still watch it…but the smile will be cold, the laughter will be as robotic as that of a coin-operated machine, she’ll walk eternal steps dictated by a film director. The real Louise Brooks died long ago. The fake one lives on, the way an insect’s molted shell often outlasts the soft, pulpous creature that crawled out of it. But which of the two did Bioy fall in love with? Certain primitive humans think cameras steal souls, and maybe they’re right to.
Nonfiction influences include Malthus’s economic theories, which end up joined with the book’s primary concerns in an interesting way, and the de Broglie hypothesis of matter being made up of waves. More generally, it plays on terms set by George Berkeley’s subjective idealism – the idea that perception is king, and that physical objects only exist to the extent that our senses perceive them. The idea is that if you overlay a combinations of visual, audible, tactile (etc) data using a machine, you will have, in some sense, created the thing you’re depicting. Bioy’s version of this technology is vague and impossible, but it’s not altogether absurd as a concept. A lot of things in this universe seem to hinge upon observation. And a lot of technically nonexistent things (such as nations) exist because we will them out of the ether.
The Invention of Morel seems well ahead of the curve, which is generally where you want science fiction to be. It presages things like the parasocial relationships of the online era. I enjoy books that drag together unlike influences together like oxen and make them pull the ploughshare of a story, and few achieve this with Bioy’s skill.
Heavy metal is a temple erected in worship of riffs, which are repetitive melodic or rhythmic figures played on guitar. The greatest bands wield them like mystic incantations: songs like Metallica’s “Orion” and Dark Angel’s “Black Prophecies” have such deep, complex, and interesting guitar work that I hope they’ll never end when I listen to them. But it’s possible to overemphasize the riff, and some fans have an almost fascistic relationship with the guitar’s fretboard, with the “trueness” of metal subgenres increasing linearly with how many riffs they have. Dark Angel’s final album famously came with a sticker advertising 246 riffs, like an ad for a cable TV package, and some “cult” bands (Vio-Lence comes to mind) are like laboratory exercises in having riffs and nothing else, with vocals, songwriting, production, and so on being left deliberately casual.
But the riff religion has lukewarm worshippers as well as zealots and fanatics. It also has exploiters (I don’t mean that in a bad sense), and flower metal/melodic power metal bands like Sonata Artica are among them. They’re nominally heavy metal, but they simply don’t care about riffs at all, and metal ideals of “trueness” mean nothing to them. I guess you can’t have a temple – musical or literal – without attracting merchants and moneylenders.
Flower metal first emerged in the early 1990s. Right from the start it didn’t fit in – it was centered around a couple of trailblazing bands (most famously Finland’s Stratovarius and Italy’s Rhapsody) rather than a “scene” as such, and took inspiration more from Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, and Johann Sebastian Bach than from Black Sabbath. It achieved a degree of commercial popularity (flower metal is extremely catchy, almost comically so) but it was never respectable, either inside or outside the metal genre. After all, it had no riffs.
Sonata Arctica’s Ecliptica is an album I would have mocked 10 years ago, called “Disney metal”, or whatever. Now, I can appreciate what it’s doing. It’s not perfect, but it’s exemplary. If someone’s not sure what melodic power metal sounds like, show them this. It’s very intense, very catchy, not particularly heavy, and is unembarrassed and exuberant about what it is: a wintry storm of consonance and melody.
Fast songs like “Blank File”, “The 8th Commandment”, and “Picturing the Past” are like being in the path of a VTOL jet’s booster engines – they’re just a nonstop blur of notes, propelled by Tommy Portimo’s 16th note double bass drumming (this had already become a flower metal cliche). “Blank File” is probably the best; Tony Kakko would later regret pitching the key that high: he had tremendous trouble hitting those notes live.
“Kingdom for a Heart” and “My Land” are catchy uptempo rockers, anchored by Tony Kakko’s emotional (sometimes histrionic) vocals and loud/soft dynamics. “My Land” has a great moment where a staccato guitar riff cleaves through in the verse, proving that although Sonata Arctica were heresiarchs, they weren’t above occasionally genuflecting to the riff god. Deeper in the album we get “Full Moon”, which has a degree of lyrical storytelling about lycanthropy. This would cement the wolf as Sonata Arctica’s mascot, as much as the pumpkin is Helloween’s and the dragon is Rhapsody’s.
There’s a couple of ballads, which are overripe and hard to listen to. The band was still learning. They barely had any business playing heavy metal to begin with – their earliest demos (under the name Tricky Beans) reveal a kind of new wave sounding pop band. But their singer, Tony Kakko, discovered Stratovarius, and became briefly obsessed: Ecliptica is a forty seven minute Stratovarius tribute album that actually upstages the band he’s paying tribute to. Stratovarius is fast and virtuostic, but stiff and dead. I like some of their songs, but a lot of it just comes off as slabs of glittering plastic. Sonata Arctica has more life and color.
The album tapers off a little at the end, with “Unopened” and “Mary Lou” sounding like rearrangements of “Kingdom for a Heart”, and “Destruction Preventer” doesn’t have the songwriting to carry it to seven plus minutes. It’s as awkward and unengaging as its title. Nice scream, though.
At least 75% of the album is good to great, which – then and now – is an amazing batting average for melodic power metal. It’s an exhausting style to listen to, and an equally exhausting one to play. Many power metal bands eventually burn out or change styles: Edguy became a glam metal band, Nightwish pushed increasingly into film score and folk music, and Helloween became a dollar-store version of the Beatles for a couple of years. But Sonata Arctica changed styles further (and worse) than most, delving into prog rock, glam, ambient, and even quasi metalcore at points. I don’t like them at all now, and for me Ecliptica is one of the saddest things in music: an early peak.