ncf time after time: duncan jones’ source code

•03/31/2011 • 1 Comment


A man wakes up on a train. Opposite him sits a woman. She speaks to him with familiarity, but he does not know her and insists that he’s not who she says he is.

Then they blow up.

A man wakes up in a harness in a chamber opposite the image of a woman on a screen, who addresses him with familiarity. He asks: where am I?  The woman spits a nonsensical program name at him.

The woman asks: did you find the bomb? Did you find the bomber?

The man says: where am I? The man says: oh, that train was a simulation! But where am I? I should be in Afghanistan, I was in Afghanistan.

The woman says: find the bomb, find the bomber, then the man wakes up on a train.   He tells the woman who thinks he’s not him: you’re the distraction, there’s always a distraction. He finds the bomb, he does not find the bomber.

Then he blows up.

The woman on the screen sends him back to the train. She will continue to do this, for eight-minute increments. He will, for several of these increments, behave with a sort of video game sociopathy: harassing and assaulting people who prove innocent.  They’re not real, right? Later, he learns that they were real, but died some hours before he met them: he is exploring a template provided by the brainwaves of a dead man. Still later, he learns that he himself is dead, or dying.

The simulated people begin to matter.

He blows up, or dies in some other way, over and again. He begs to not be sent back, but the quicksave is always loaded, he’s always stuck back on the train to try again.

Source Code doesn’t do anything terrificly unexpected and stretches its central premise until it breaks, but there’s some good stuff buried underneath the formulaic competency:  the lead’s transition, within the simulation, from confusion to indifference to caring; some images that are almost powerful enough on their own to elevate the narrative.

The inside of a dead/dying soldier’s head rendered as video game.

I had mixed feelings about Jones’ debut picture, Moon: I liked almost every individual scene, but didn’t like how they fit together. Characters wandered off screen with one attitude and returned seconds later with another. They weren’t so much characters as plot tokens to keep things jumping, no matter how impressively animated by Sam Rockwell. Then the end, whose sudden fierce optimism felt abrupt and unearned.

Source Code feels whole, until the end. Our Lead goes through the whole stack of emotions, but in a way that doesn’t  feel forced. The film is organic, at least when people aren’t spouting vague sci-fi bullshit to prop the plot up. The end feels lame, for lack of a better word, a gotcha that undermines all that prior vague sci-fi bullshit in a way that makes the film’s previous treatment of its premise suddenly less strained, while making that premise even more far-fetched. The lame doesn’t come from it straining my suspension of belief that much further (the film hints at this conclusion many times before the fact), but from it undermining the emotional resonance of the initial conclusion with sentiment that feels cheap.

(The train passengers frozen in postures of joy was already pushing it pretty far.)

In conclusion Vera Farmiga should have been wearingquantum al


the business of the future

•03/11/2011 • Leave a Comment

our enchanted postapocalypse

•03/10/2011 • Leave a Comment

THE WILD BOAR IS STANDING 30 OR 40 yards away, at the bottom of a grassy bank, staring right at me. Even from this distance I can see its outrageously long snout, its giant pointed ears, and the spiny bristles along its back. It looks part porcupine, a number of shades of ocher and gray. And it’s far bigger than I expected, maybe chest-high to a man. The boar is like some minor forest god straight from the wilderness, gazing wild-eyed at the strange spectacle of a human being. For a moment it seems to consider charging me, then thinks better of it. When it trots away, it moves powerfully, smoothly, on spindly, graceful legs twice as long as a pig’s, and vanishes into the trees.

I climb back into our VW van, tingling all over. The sighting bodes well. I’ve come to what is being dubbed Europe’s largest wildlife refuge in early July, when I knew spotting animals wouldn’t be so easy. (Winter, with its scarcity of food and lack of foliage, makes them more visible.) And within a couple of hours I’ve ticked a wild boar off the list. Maybe luck is on our side.

But luck isn’t our only obstacle to wildlife spotting here. This is northern Ukraine’s Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a huge area, some 60 miles across in places, that’s been off-limits to human habitation since 1986. Even now, 19 years after the collapse of the USSR, nothing happens in this former Soviet republic without sheets of paper typed and stamped in quintuplicate. It took months of e-mails and phone calls to get permission to spend a few days here. Yes, we’re only a couple of foreign vagabonds—photographer Rory Carnegie is an old travel buddy of mine from England—but we have cameras and a telephoto lens, and my notepad has lines in it: obviously we’re spies. The Soviet Union may have died, but the Soviet mind-set has not.

Henry Shukman

image 2 image harder

•03/05/2011 • Leave a Comment


Narcotics, then, disturb normal perception—


And set up instead a random craving for images. If drugs weren’t forbidden in America, they would be the perfect middle-class vice. Addicts would do their work and come home to consume the huge dose of images awaiting them in the mass media. Junkies love to look at television. Billie Holiday said she knew she was going off drugs when she didn’t like to watch TV. Or they’ll sit and read a newspaper or magazine, and by God, read it all. I knew this old junkie in New York, and he’d go out and get a lot of newspapers and magazines and some candy bars and several packages of cigarettes and then he’d sit in his room and he’d read those newspapers and magazines right straight through. Indiscriminately. Every word.


a bearducation

•02/23/2011 • Leave a Comment

these is a light that never goes out

why I must keep these pictures

•02/23/2011 • Leave a Comment

There was a poem written for me on my comb; written very small with the nib of a pen used for mapping. And when we drifted in the punt, late, in the backwater, I combed my hair, and I was Orlando, I was not man nor girl, and I was Ariel, drifting between the worlds, and a poem in my hair.

I do not know why I must keep these pictures

small eyes, mad eyes that should have been starry               the lovely danger waiting beneath the lime tree             or faces cheating as they pass by, frozen for ever in their fraudulent smiles with the clocks striking an uncounted hour         masks

Why this one  ?  Or that  ?   How chosen   ?

Inexorable self, carried like the superfluous and tiresome piece of luggage, which it is impossible to lose ; franked with the customs’ stamp of every frontier, retrieved exasperatingly from the disaster where everything else is lost, companion of the dislocation of canceled sailings and missed connections, witness of every catastrophe, survivor of all voyages and situations . . . I

-Anna Kavan, Sleep has his house

no critical faculties feels sort of obligated but has very little to say: jesse bullington’s the sad tale of the brothers grossbart

•02/06/2011 • Leave a Comment

About a year ago I purchased The Sad Tale of the Brother’s Grossbart, quoted it, then left it to languish while I read the less promising of the two books cited at the link because, hey, Gene Wolfe. I finally dug Grossbart out of that stack, over there, a few weeks ago and plowed through it, engaged but not overwhelmed, struck mostly by its grasping grotesquerie and frequent invocation of beards.

I mean it is right there in the title just look at it.

Hegel and Manfried Grossbart are terrible men who commit a terrible crime in the opening pages of the book; then we hang out with them for four-hundred-and-twenty-five pages while they stumble south toward their ostensible goal (the kingdom of riches they believe their father, and his father before him, stumbled into) and inevitable comeuppance. The brother’s horribleness is the most immediately striking thing about the work. Bullington does not attempt to soften their actions: the violence is described in gruesome detail, as is the brother’s indifference to what they have done. Grossbart is almost unrelenting in its insistence that its protagonists not display any sympathetic traits for the reader to cling to.

Maybe it’s not quite the Kane & Lynch of medieval fantasy literature: they have time and space to reflect on and discuss what they’ve done, and as I read I wondered if their self-righteous evaluation of their actions didn’t work in hand with my natural inclination, as a reader, to cleave to the protagonists of what is read. Alright , so they’re terrible people who’ve done terrible things but they are convinced that they’re doing the work of the Virgin Mary and they are facing things more fundamentally evil and grotesque than even them and they are kind of a grotesquely skewed reflection of the absurdity of all the small-minded, aggressive, parochial people they encounter in their unpleasant jaunt across medieval Europe. There are even a few grace notes, in which one of the brothers is obviously effected by whatever horrible thing he has done.

Of course, these are only moments, swiftly pushed back by the driving action, or one of the the circuitous, blasphemous theological discussions they use to justify themselves. These discussions are often hilarious, and so.

“Is damn strange, though. Seems someone must a closed their ears at some point in the tale and got it all crooked when it came out again. She’s the bride of the Lord, yet She’s a virgin. A virgin what gets with foal. Then She gives birth to Her Husband.”

Hegel chortled. “Guess he got in there after all!”

“Watch your blasphemous tongue,” snapped Manfried, tugging his beard. “Had you the sense to listen you’d hear how I got it all figured.”

“Oh you do, huh?”

“Damn right. See, one thinks She can’t be a virgin, cause virgins can’t have babes or they ain’t virgin. The Lord’s pole is pole nonetheless, Hell, if anythin, it’s the biggest pole to ever poke fold.”

Hegel unbunged the cask, reckoning they needed some sacramental beverage if they were to truly unravel the mystery.

“But She’s definitely a virgin, I mean, just look at Her.” Manfried held up the Virgin he had recently carved. All day he had waited for an excuse to show up his brother’s necklace.

“No question,” Hegel agreed, trading the beer for a better look at his brother’s handiwork.

“So here’s what I think. The Lord comes pokin his thing round Mary, bein all sweet and tryin to get him some of Her sweetness. And she straight denies him the privilege.”

“Why’d She do that?”

“To stay pure. Lord or man, She knew to stay holier than the rest She’s have to virgin for all time, else She’d be just another mecky sinner.”

Hegel stared at the statue, contemplating this.

“So the Lord’s mad, real mad, as the Lord’s wont to do. So he sticks it to Her anyway.” Manfried belched.



“But couldn’t he, I dunno, make Her want to?”

“He tried! Everythin’s got limits, brother, and even the Lord can’t make a girl want to spread for him, even if he can force Her.

“Poor Mary.”

“Don’t pity Her, cause She got Her revenge. Made sure the Lord’s son was the snivelingist, cuntiest, most craven coward in a thousand years.”

Enlightenment misted Hegel’s eyes. “She done that for vengeance ?”

“Worst fate imaginable, havin a son like that. And that’s why She’s holy, brother. Out of all the folk the Lord tested and punished, She’s the only one who got him back, and worse than he got Her. That’s why She intercedes on our behalf, cause She loves thems what stands up to the Lord more than those kneelin to’em.”

And so.

It is reactionary. In an interview appended to the end of the book, Bullington explains

I did intend to subvert some of the conventions of mainstream fantasy fiction… Much of what I love about fantasy, horror, and historical fiction seems at odds with what is currently popular in those genres, and this novel probably reflects that.

…but for all its gore and insistence on wallowing in the grubby details of its certifiably awful character’s awful lives, in its strengths and weaknesses it came to remind me of patriarch-of-traditional-fantasy Tolkien, specifically Lord of the Rings where his fair hand with Epic Romance was diluted by the more novel-like requirements of dealing with hobbits. His most powerful, or just plain effective, moments were those in which he emulated the traditional epics he was learned it, but he opened his epic with one-hundred plus pages of tiny men experiencing minor dramas and unveiling well-meaning conspiracies to accompany one another on pleasant walks. These children’s-novel shenanigans are a barrier to entry, a buffer between the reader and the real fruits of the author’s talent, whatever their ultimate narrative or thematic importance.

For his part, Bullington is strongest when invoking the lens of folklore, and the first time he really settles into applying his blood-and-guts-and-bile-and-shit sensibility to a straight-up fairy tale it’s a goddamn tour de force that kept me committed to the book when my attention was threatening to go elsewhere. He’s less riveting when dealing with the day-to-day tedium of the brother’s journey and, in the action climaxes where things go to pot or come together, these sloughs of description that left me numb. The final such was a parade of violence that I rushed through, bored, to the satisfaction of a conclusion that was far more pleasant in its restraint and invocation of masturbearding eternal:

Before their eradication, preachers of the Grossbart Heresy alleged that Saint Hegel gave his own life a second time to save his brother, but the tales of madmen and heretics are just that. Far, far to the east, however, there lies a chain of islands with curious beliefs. The people of that land have long held that eating the flesh of a sea maiden grants immortality; perhaps, then, the Brothers Grossbart still dwell in that lightless tomb long buried in sand, tugging their beards for all time.


One full beard up would read again with lowered expectations.