Category Archives: Art

The Zero Theorem

I’m a big-time fan of Terry Gilliam; I’ve seen every feature-length film he’s directed except for Tideland, and I know I’m (almost) always in good hands (the very obvious exception being The Brothers Grimm, which had a handful of great moments amidst a largely chaotic mess). Brazil and Twelve Monkeys number amongst my all-time favorite films, which is why I’m so excited that Gilliam has played to the strengths of both those movies for his latest near-future masterpiece, called The Zero Theorem.

Gilliam has had a number of problems with distribution for this film, which is why he’s taken the interesting tactic of pre-releasing it for video-on-demand streaming to places like iTunes one month before its theatrical release in the US. I’m guessing that the hope here is to generate lots of buzz by word-of-mouth in order to get butts in movie theater seats, and I really hope it works, because this film deserves to be seen on the big screen; it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the next several weeks. I bought it on iTunes last night, and have watched it twice (I think I’ve got a better handle now on the symbolically heavy ending than after the first viewing).

Ever since the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, I’ve tried to pay much more attention to the visual vocabulary of films, and The Zero Theorem would seem to reward this approach; Gilliam has never been a particularly strong storyteller on his own, which is why his best works are collaborations with others who are (Tom Stoppard and Charles McKeown on Brazil, Chris Marker and David & Janet Peoples on Twelve Monkeys, and now Pat Rushin on The Zero Theorem). His strength remains the visual rather than the verbal, and this new film exemplifies his command over the image; a freeze-frame on any moment in its 107-minute run-time is like a high-definition painting, the mise-en-scène always in control and artfully composed.


There’s a scene early on where our hero Qohen Leth (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz) has been invited to a party by his gregarious supervisor Mr. Joby (David Thewlis, in one of his best performances), being held in a soon-to-be foreclosed mansion; nearly every single person in attendance is dancing to music that only they can hear through their white earbuds, plugged into devices that look suspiciously like next-gen iPads and iPhones. The mansion is full of people absorbed in their own little worlds, refusing to engage with anyone else in the real world. When Qohen—who only came to the party to persuade Management (Matt Damon) to let him work from home—starts choking on a grape, no one comes to his aid (and one person even takes a photo of him as he’s gasping for air), except for an enigmatic sexy young woman named Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), who will play a significant part later on (although she’ll drift dangerously close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory).

This striking scene encapsulates what Gilliam is more preoccupied with these days: not so much the oppressiveness of authority (although there is still a bit of that here too), but how “social” technology has isolated us from our fellow human beings more than ever. From The Guardian: “I find myself sitting at my computer and seduced by the internet. The web gives me access to all the knowledge in the world—but I worry to myself: do we have real relationships any more, or only virtual relationships?”

Qohen himself works as a “cruncher of esoteric entities” in the Ontological Research Division, sifting through vast oceans of public personal data (buying habits, favorite colors, political preferences, clothing brands), an extrapolation where the Facebookian proclivity to share all has been pushed to the extreme, so that it may be interpolated by the intelligent neural-net mainframe at Mancom, a shadowy megacorporation that wants to solve the question of whether all life and mass and energy in the universe will just disappear one day in The Big Crunch, so that everything and everyone that has ever existed will turn out to have been utterly pointless, reduced to zero. When Qohen is tasked with solving this question, called the Zero Theorem, he’s put in direct conflict with his unerring faith that the phone call he’s been expecting for most of his life will finally reach him and reveal his purpose in the universe.

Though so much of Qohen’s existence throughout the course of the movie is the internal landscape of his calculations and entity-crunching, it is his physical environments, and his relationships with Mr. Joby, Bainsley, and Management’s 15-year-old computer wunderkind son Bob (Lucas Hedges), that humanize him. His home is a burned-out church adjacent to a sex shop, abandoned long before by monastic monks, so gorgeously adorned and set-dressed that I was astonished to discover it was a created set rather than an actual rotting church, and it becomes another character in its own right. It’s interesting to note that while Qohen is engaged in solving the ultimate existential question, his home and his friends are what keep him grounded in the real world, and ultimately open him up to the implications of solving the Zero Theorem itself.

Supporting performances by Tilda Swinton as the buck-toothed Scottish virtual therapist Dr. Shrink-ROM (a kinder sort of companion to her northern English character in Snowpiercer), and Sanjeev Bhaskar, Peter Stormare and Ben Whishaw as the doctors who evaluate him for disability leave, and Gwendoline Christie (better known as Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones) as one face of the intrusive interactive advertising that follows Qohen throughout his nameless European town, fill out the absurdities of Gilliam’s world. As opposed to the drab grey bureaucracy of Brazil, and the bleached-out duotones of the post-apocalyptic future in Twelve Monkeys, the exterior world of The Zero Theorem is a riot of color. The film has been called the final installment of Gilliam’s dystopian triptych, but this is a dystopia oversaturated to the point of neon, where the consumerist impulse is fed by bright sensory data rather than human nature being controlled by force, although in the end it is all just one more form of manipulation.

There are many echoes and callbacks to Brazil and Twelve Monkeys. Slim and Chubs, two Laurel-and-Hardy-type clones in charge of bringing Bob to and from Qohen’s church, recall the Central Services technicians Spoor and Dowser. Mr. Joby feels like a kinder and more generous version of Michael Palin’s Jack Lint. The hairless physicality of Christoph Waltz echoes the baldness (and nakedness) of Bruce Willis’s James Cole, and Qohen’s existential angst is a direct descendant of Jonathan Pryce’s Sam Lowry. Bob calls everyone else Bob, just like the homeless prophet in Twelve Monkeys. The tubes-and-wires bio-technological system that Qohen uses to crunch entities, and the lighting used in Qohen’s church, are reminiscent of both films. The gigantic mainframe at Mancom, referenced from a grimy disused boiler room, feels like the inverse of the cooling tower used in the torture of Sam Lowry. And instead of Sam Lowry’s magical fantasies of escaping his reality by becoming the Hero, we get Qohen Leth’s inverse obsession about the meaninglessness of existence.

(Unrelated, but I also loved the musical touch of including a jazzy piano cover version of Radiohead’s “Creep” as the background music on Bainsley’s website before she and Qohen have haptic virtual sex.)

So there you have it, an existential visually stunning retro-futuristic dystopia directed by an American, starring a German, co-starring a Frenchwoman and a Briton, and filmed in Romania. See it however you can.

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Hell’s a Good Joke

Keith Brooke, the über-awesome proprietor of Infinity Plus Books (and an excellent author in his own right), asked me to write a short essay on the genesis of the main characters in my new ebook collection The Alchemy of Happiness, and it’s just been posted on the KB/I+ blog.

It’s called “Hell’s a Good Joke“:

It all started with a sculpture.

In 1999, when I was still an unpublished newbie, I attended the World Horror Convention in Atlanta, where some of the notable writer guests included Neil Gaiman, John Shirley, Michael Bishop, Caitlín R. Kiernan, and Ramsey Campbell. At that point, I thought that I might still be a horror writer, even though my innate squeamishness for violence and terror was beginning to win the battle for my chosen subject matter, and I attended very much because of the writers there. However, on the second day of the convention, at the urging of several new friends, I made my way into the art show, and beheld the gloriously dark and whimsical sculpture work of Lisa Snellings, who was the Artist Guest-of-Honor. Her smaller pieces made me smile and her larger kinetic works (including the moving Ferris wheel that inspired the anthology Strange Attraction, edited by Edward E. Kramer) filled me with wonder, but it was her largest piece on display that literally stole the breath from my lungs.

Named “If Love’s a Fine Game, Hell’s a Good Joke,” the sculpture consisted of two life-sized harlequins, one balancing on the knees of the other; the expressions that Lisa had so painstakingly crafted on their faces were so devilish and sly that, right there on that spot, I conceived of the siblings Blue and Dane: immortals, manipulators, elementals.

Read the rest here.

Buy The Alchemy of Happiness at the following ebook stores: SmashwordsKoboiTunesKindleKindle UK

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Wound Up At the SAF

Toru and May at the abandoned well, photo by Lloyd Smith

A week ago, I was lucky enough to attend one of only three performances of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as part of the Singapore Arts Festival, directed by Stephen Earnhart, who co-wrote the play with Greg Pierce. Adapted from Haruki Murakami’s masterful book of the same name, the play did something I could not have imagined possible: distill a complex 600-page novel into a tight two-hour stage play, and retain all the wonderful surreal weirdness that initially made me such an instant Murakami fan (and which helped to inspire a recent tongue-in-cheek Bingo game at the New York Times).

It’s been several years now since I’ve read the book, and this was likely for the best; I didn’t have the plot and characters firmly established in my head anymore, and so I was free to go into the performance without any preconceived notions. Once things began, plot points once again resurfaced in my mind, and so moments of recognition peppered my experience, but filtered as they were through the mise-en-scène of the dramatic performance, they felt newly reimagined, as if encountered for the first time.

It’s difficult to describe the performance to someone who wasn’t there, mostly because of the innovative visual elements. This trailer for the play should give you some idea:

The use of both opaque and translucent projections screens, many of which moved on rollers across the stage (as well as, at one point, image projection onto a fish tank, which was really cool), allowed a multiplicity of locations without the cumbersome aspect of a set change. The photo at the top of this entry (credit: Lloyd Smith) is a good example of this technique, where Toru Okada (played by James Yaegashi) and May Kasahara (played by Kristin Villanueva) are having a conversation at the abandoned dried-up well that Toru later uses as a sanctuary for quiet and solitude; a circle of light, representing the entrance to the well, is shone on the stage between them, and the image projected onto the back wall is their view of the well’s interior, descending into blackness (although I’m not quite sure why they’re both looking upward in this photo).

Another cool technique was the use of minimalist bunraku-style puppetry, often as a stand-in for Toru’s actions in the real world, or his experiences in the dream world. The large articulated puppet was often manipulated by two or more puppeteers, who at other points in the play may have shown up as Dream Police. The photo below (also taken by Lloyd Smith) shows Toru falling asleep and entering the dream world, with the puppet rising from his prone form, then turning to look down on him, and then drift away into the dream. From where I was sitting, it wasn’t always clear what the puppet was doing, but when it was, the technique was incredibly effective.

Toru enters the dream world, photo by Lloyd Smith

The last thing I’ll mention is the utilization of both recorded and live music throughout the play. Before even starting, the live musician, Bora Yoon, emerged from backstage, slowly made her way to the pit, and set the aural tone of the show through water effects and Tibetan singing bowls. Throughout, her use of synthesized sounds and real instruments created the eerie and often tense soundtrack of Toru’s descent into the sometimes frightening dreamscape of his suddenly disappeared wife Kumiko (played by Ai Kiyono) and her controlling politician brother Noboru Wataya (played by James Saito). At times ambient and at others driving, the constant undercurrent of music intensified the cinematic quality of the play.

It was an amazing, fantastic (in both senses of the word) experience, and I’m so glad I was able to go, and to share it with my friend and former colleague Krison Tan. It revolutionized my idea of what could be done in a live dramatic performance, and best of all, it made me want to read the novel again.

(Another much more coherent review of the play, at its premiere during the Edinburgh International Festival last August, can be found at Variety.)

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Drawing Out the Dragons: A Review and Appreciation

As a writer, it’s sometimes very easy to get discouraged with this career I’ve chosen. Rejection rather than acceptance is the norm, a book may sell to a publisher then get dropped because of financial reasons, work that does gets published may get panned or, even worse, ignored. Holding onto that motivation that made me want to be a writer in the first place can sometimes seem a futile endeavor.

And so when James A. Owen released Drawing Out the Dragons: A Meditation on Art, Destiny, and the Power of Choice as an e-book (on April Fool’s Day, of all days), it was like an inspirational bolt from heaven, exactly what I needed to read right now at this point in my life and career.

One thing the book does is to humble me utterly. Owen has gone through ten people’s worth of seemingly-insurmountable challenges, and yet he has never lost his faith in himself as an artist and creator. Not when he was expected not to survive a mysterious childhood illness, not when his drawing hand was crushed in a car accident, not when he sold everything he owned to move overseas for his dream job and then watch that job evaporate before his eyes. Owen’s consistently positive outlook enabled him to not only meet these adversities (and many more) head-on, but to turn them into opportunities for life-changing triumphs.

In the telling of his life’s lessons, Owen consistently relays the impression that while his experiences may have been unique, the way that he handled them was not, that any of us can maintain the same mindset toward success. That the choices we make — moving long-distance for a new career, quitting a safe regular job to focus on one’s passion, taking inspiration from Superman and visualizing oneself healthy, or simply making lines on paper — are always up to us to make the best of.

Unlike normal types of self-help or motivational books, Drawing Out the Dragons provides inspiration through experiential storytelling. Owen never lays out the “keys to success” or the “steps to happiness,” but through his actions and the wonderfully fluid way in which in relays them in this book, any reader can glean these keys and steps for oneself. A modern riff on the idea of giving a man a fish versus teaching a man to fish, and Owen proves himself a master teacher.

I’ve known James Owen for a number of years now, but only online. We’ve never met in person, but he has done more for me as a friend and “big brother” than many people I know in real life. But perhaps the best thing he’s yet done is to write Drawing Out the Dragons and present it to the world, and for this I am infinitely grateful. If I am ever lucky enough to meet James in the flesh, you can bet I’m going to ask to see his Superman ring.

Buy Drawing Out the Dragons as a DRM-free PDF ebook at Coppervale International for only $4.99. Or you can get it for the same price for the Barnes & Noble NOOK or the Amazon Kindle.

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Art’s Saving Grace

Tomorrow is November 9th, what would have been Jamie Bishop’s 39th birthday. I haven’t talked about Jamie in a while, because his untimely death is still as raw for me as it was three and a half years ago, but also because I was accused of using his murder and my connection with him to somehow vaguely further my writing career. This is of course a ridiculous notion, but as I’ve mentioned before, I’m now very aware of how egotistical and attention-seeking my public mourning of Jamie could have appeared to some.

So I cooled it for a while, at least online. But I’ve been thinking a lot about Jamie today, and celebrating his life, in a small way, by reading his father’s amazing collection Brighten to Incandescence, for which Jamie provided the cover art and design (and an appearance in the author photo). Art was a huge part of Jamie’s life, and one of the ways through which he defined himself. His portfolio website, memory39, no longer exists except in a broken fashion accessible only through The Wayback Machine, and this seems a terrible tragedy to me, akin to losing Jamie all over again.

Brighten to Incandescence

A Google Image Search reveals some of the book covers that his art adorned (and a lot of completely unrelated images), but this is an incomplete picture of Jamie as an artist. He was highly influenced by mixed-media masters like Dave McKean, Cliff Nielsen, and Bill Sienkiewicz, coming across their work initially through comics. Jamie was a huge comic book geek; on my and Janet’s visit to Blacksburg in 2007, I finally got to see his massive drawer filing system for his comics (I don’t remember if Jamie built it himself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had), with rolling racks that slid out on whisper-soft ball bearings. The Sandman was one of his all-time favorite series (he seemed inordinately proud to have the entire 75-issue run bagged up; it is my presumption that this is where he encountered McKean’s art for the first time), as was Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil. He loved comics, but I think he appreciated even more the fine art touch that these artists added to them.

The first time I visited my sister Kristin up in New York, sometime in the early 2000s in October 2001 (yes, just a month after 9/11), she took me to Forbidden Planet, which had about a thousand percent more comics, comics-related, and SF-related items than even the chain stores back in Raleigh. (This was, of course, before Graphic Novels got their own section in the bookstore.) As I was browsing around, mouth open, I spotted a paperback copy of Dustcovers, a collection of McKean’s cover art for every issue of Sandman, printed on thick beautiful art paper, plus commentary by McKean and Neil Gaiman, and an eight-page meta-Sandman story. Though I’d seen (and bought) all of the collected volumes of Sandman in the science fiction section of my local Borders, I’d never seen this book before (I likely might have found it at my neighborhood comics shop, but I’d stopped going there years earlier).

I immediately bought the book, plus a set of McKean-illustrated postcards, and when I returned to North Carolina and next saw Jamie in Carrboro, presented the gifts to him. His face lit up as if I’d just given him precious treasure, and we spent much of the rest of that visit poring through the pages and talking about McKean’s techniques, and what he might have done to get a particular effect. (I later bought a copy for myself, although I don’t remember from where.) The postcards he ended up framing and displaying in his living room, which made me doubly happy each time I visited as I could see how much they meant to him.

His art style was influenced (in part) by Dave McKean, my writing style was influenced (in part) by Neil Gaiman, and so it felt only natural to collaborate the way those two great creators had. Jamie illustrated a number of my stories, some published professionally and others self-published, and the back-and-forth process as we discussed how to approach each piece felt natural and invigorating. He was not only a friend but an artistic soulmate.

As he worked on other projects, he’d sometimes email or call and complain about a part of a work that just wasn’t coming together, or the lack of time to complete it, or a number of other things, but in the end, he would always finish the piece, on time, and to everyone’s satisfaction. (I sometimes think that those missives were a way for him to work some things out verbally that he couldn’t quite do in his head alone.)

Whatever his day job, he kept coming back to his art, the one place he truly felt at home, again and again, always refining, always improving. His later work (and I’m thinking specifically of “Passing for Human,” “Thanatopsis,” and “A Reverie for Mister Ray”) was a quantum leap in style, subject matter, composition, and confidence from those earlier pieces I was exposed to at the Trinoc*con Art Show where we first met. He seemed to have finally found his “voice” as an artist, still wearing his influences on his sleeve, but also clearly producing a vision that was solely his.

As incredible as his late work is, he seemed to be on the cusp of true greatness. Steadily moving forward to something remarkable and awe-inspiring. To think that the world is now deprived of his future brilliance only adds to my depression. As does the fact that he had been accepted into the art school at Virginia Tech, ready to start classes in the summer of 2007; not content to rest on his talent, he saw the need for graduate study in VT’s MFA program, and I imagine him looking so forward to the new exposure and knowledge to come, but which would be denied to him several months too soon.

And so I must be content (although a part of me knows I never can be completely) with the art that Jamie did leave behind. I page through the digital prints that he gave to me, fresh from his own printer. I pick up my copy of Brighten to Incandescence and remember all the little secrets he told me about the composition of the cover art. (I’ll reveal just one: the besuited figure was taken from a photograph of Colin Powell; Jamie took a certain glee in giving the then-Secretary of State the head of a rat). My fingers touch his inscription on the book’s blank frontispiece, and I still somehow feel connected to my friend and his talent.

Illustrations and photography by Jamie Bishop under the jump…

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