Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Carpet Makers (book)

(1995; English translation 2005) (book)
By Andreas Eschbach

The Carpet MakersIt's rare that you pick up an unheralded book and realize it is truly great. Even heralded books are hard to find.  In the science fiction/fantasy field, there were things like Dune, Replay, The Book of the New Sun, and Lord of the Rings.  Lately, that feeling has happened to me less and less often.

That's why The Carpet Makers blew me away. It was released in the US in 2005, and came out with little fanfare. The main reason I picked it up was that its first chapter had already appeared as a very memorable story in Fantasy and Science Fiction and I was delighted to be able to read more.

Andreas Eschbach is clearly the greatest SF writer Germany has ever produced.  Not that there's a lot of competition -- SF is an English-language game, and even the best from other countries (Stanisalaw Lem, for instance) are reinventing the wheel.  Eschbach clearly knows his SF and, more importantly, he know how to tell a story.  He's evidently very successful in Europe, but this was his first (and so far only) novel translated into English.

And what a book. Eschbach sets up an intriguing situation:  a universe ruled by an emperor, and about one planet, whose men make their living by creating carpets out of the hair of their wives and daughter, training one son -- and one son only -- to continue in their profession.  The emperor purchases the carpets and then . . .

No one knows.  Because the emperor has been deposed, and the mystery of the carpet makers is has been lost.

The novel's structure is different.  Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, each with a different perspective. Little scenes are dramatized -- and dramatized memorably, each slowly coming nearer to the central mystery, while telling the stories of a wide range of people and how they are affected by it. And the resolution of the mystery is well worth the wait, and is one of the greatest dramatic outcomes I've seen in any book.  The solution is logical, with plenty of hints, and is also heartbreakingly terrifying.  And Eschbach does even more:  a final chapter that has an even greater kick that reflects on everything that has happened.

The book was released to good reviews, but didn't seem to be a big seller.  I've rarely found anyone who actually read it. And te biggest shame about the book is, if it did have poor sales, then no one will want to translate more of his work into English.  The Carpet Makers was Eschbach's first novel, and one can only marvel at how good his books will be as he continues to develop his craft.

And I'll be the first to buy one once they come out in English.

Addendum 12/13/14:  Still no translations, and none are likely.  I understand it would take $10,000 to translate a book, and Eschbach just isn’t worth it.  <sigh>

Friday, April 13, 2007

Mother Night

Directed by Keith Gordon
Written by Robert B. Weide from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Starring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
IMDB Entry

I was a fan of Kurt Vonnegut from the time my cousin left a copy of Cat's Cradle in my room one summer.  I picked it up and read it guiltily, with the impression that it was somehow a dirty book I shouldn't be reading.  I loved it (I recently reread it and was amazed at how much I missed the first few times -- truly a sign of great literature) and started to read all of his books I could get my hands on.

Vonnegut was ill-served by movies, however.  There was a very nice version of Slaughterhouse Five (which I may talk about here one of these days), but, generally, dramatized versions of his works were few, and came and went without attracting much notice. A version of Cat's Cradle was in development for years with nothing coming of it.

Mother Night was one of my favorite Vonnegut novels (and one of his most underrated).  It was perhaps his most realistic, the story of Howard Campbell (Nick Nolte), an American caught in Nazi Germany who becomes a Nazi propagandist on the behest of a mysterious US spy (John Goodman).  While broadcasting, he is told to insert phrases, pauses, and sneezes that are really coded messages to the underground.

Nick Nolte and Sheryl Lee in Mother NightVonnegut once called it his only novel with a moral:  you must be careful what you pretend to be because in the end you are who you're pretending to be.

This is one of Nick Nolte's best roles.  He's perfect as the weary Campbell, a hunted criminal after the war is over, hiding out in New York and trying to make sense of the universe.

The movie follows the book pretty closely, both in plot and spirit.  Vonnegut even makes an appearance -- a cameo as a man walking down the street.  If you like Vonnegut at all, it's a film worth seeking out.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Doberman Gang

Directed by Byron Chudnow
Written by Louis Garfinkle and Frank Ray Perilli
Starring Byron Mabe, Hal Reed,  Julie Parrish,  Simmy Bow, and  JoJo D'Amore
IMDB Entry

There's a category of movies and TV shows that I sometimes use:  Better Than It Has Any Right To Be. It applies to films that on the surface seem undistinguished, with a cast of unknowns, a silly story line, routine direction, etc. Yet, even though all the elements seem wrong, somehow it manages to be entertaining.

A classic example is the TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The writing was pedestrian, the characters not particularly funny or interesting, and they had the phoniest looking mechanical cat in the history of film.  But, if you sit through a half hour, you'll find you enjoyed it and even laughed from time to time..

8The Doberman Gang is Better Than It Has Any Right To Be.  It's a low budget film with a cast of unknowns -- some successful TV actors, but no stars and only Julie Parrish has ever had a major part (in the forgotten Good Morning World, a footnote because Goldie Hawn was a regular -- her first film or TV role).

The concept is interesting, at least.  A small-time crook decides the way to commit the perfect crime is to have it done by Dobermans.  Yes, the dogs.  After all, in 1972, Dobermans were considered the meanest of dogs (if they remade it, it might be The Pit Bull Gang). And Eddie Newton (Byron Mabe) figures they can be trained to rob a bank.

So he and a gang of small-time crooks steal a group of Dobermans (and one bulldog), and trains them.  The film shows the process, as well as the relationships among the crooks, as the dogs are taught what to do.

I probably would never have bothered with it, but my girlfriend at the time was a real dog lover, so anything with a dog in it got her attention.  And when you're dating, you'll sit through a lot of things that you wouldn't bother with otherwise.  Still, this was well worth the time, most notably for the twist at the end.

Director Byron Chudnow went on to direct The Daring Dobermans, The Amazing Dobermans, and Alex and the Doberman Gang(do I detect a pattern here?).  He was also credited with Kwaheri, which the Medveds skewered in "Son of the Golden Turkey Awards" for its circus of an ad campaign.

I can't vouch for the sequels, but if you're looking for a pleasant bit of fun, you can do much worse than The Doberman Gang.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Flying Blind (TV)

Created by Richard Rosenstock
Starring Tea Leoni, Corey Parker, Michael Tucci, Marcus Giamatti, Clea Lewis
IMDB Entry

Flying Blind is remembered, if at all, for the star turn by Tea Leoni. Though she had had a role in A League of Their Own, this put her on the map.

Corey Parker and Tea LeoniTechnically, she wasn't the star.  Flying Blind was about Neil Barash (Corey Parker), a somewhat repressed young man in a dull job who meets up with Alicia (Leoni). She has to pretend she's dating someone to keep away an old boyfriend, and chooses Neil, who's sitting alone in a restaurant. 

Alicia is smart, sexy, and uninhibited -- Neil's complete opposite.  Of course, in TV and romantic comedies, opposites attract. The two become a couple, but he's flying blind -- Alicia is spontaneous and moves in circles Neil never knew about.

Leoni is spectacular.  She's the type of woman most nerds dream of -- and know they're never going to get.  She's had many relationships, often with rich handsome men, and Neil is never sure where they stand, and always walking on eggshells, afraid that he can't measure up to her past and present.

Parker is good as the slightly neurotic lead character.  Michael Tucci plays Neil's father, who also finds it hard to accept the relationship.  Marcus Giamatti is especially funny as Ted Sharperson (the name's ironic), Neil's go-getting co-worker.

There were a few nice guest turns, most notably Peter Boyle as Alicia's CIA agent father, whose life makes her whirlwind look sedate, Thomas Haden Church as Alicia's ex-boyfriend, and Charles Rocket as her ex-husband.

The show had an odd style, with long, drawn out punch lines.  They were very funny, but the humor came from the amount of detail and description in the joke, and the style put some people off.  It also changed direction in mid-stream, as Neil moved from a mundane job to working in a small-time movie studio (with Mary Woronov as his boss).  I get the feeling they were trying different things to help the ratings.  It didn't help, and the show was cancelled.

In the final episode, Neil and Alicia break up -- but they meet six months later and it's clear things aren't over yet.

Creator Richard Rosenstock went on to work on several successful TV shows, including Friends, Arrested Development, Family Guy, Will and Grace, and The King of Queens.One of the writers, Linwood Boomer, later created Malcolm in the Middle.

Corey Parker has worked in TV since, though not consistently and not as a lead.

Leoni used the role as a breakthrough and has been working regularly, with good roles in Flirting with Disaster, Spanglish and other films.  Alas, she suffered the fate of too many women in Hollywood once they turn thirty:  switching from romantic to "mommy" roles even though she still looked good enough to play romantic roles. But whenever I see her, I think of Alicia.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Emmitt Rhodes (music)

Emitt Rhodes(1971)
Emitt Rhodes
-- all instruments

When I decided to branch out "Great but Forgotten" to include music and other things the first thing that come to mind was Emitt Rhodes.

Rhodes was a surprising talent who came out with a promising album in 1971. He had been with a group called Merry-Go-Round, which had a minor local hit before breaking up.  Like Paul McCartney, Rhodes went into a home studio and emerged with an album where he played all the instruments himself; he didn't even have Linda to help with vocals.

The McCartney parallel goes further.  There is a certain similarity in their voices, for one. Both were able to write catchy pop tunes, and if McCartney is undeniably better, Rhodes is following honorably in his footsteps.

There isn't a song on the album that couldn't have been a hit single and it's mysterious that he never had one.  Songs like "Fresh as a Daisy," "She's Such a Beauty," "Lullaby," "With My Face on the Floor," and "Live Till You Die" are catchy and infectious melodies. You could almost imagine the Beatles doing something like this.  He was even called "The American Paul McCartney" -- a bit of hyperbole, of course, but with a grain of truth (at about the same time, a young musician was being billed "The American Elton John," but he did a bit better -- Billy Joel).

Rhodes's problem was his record company.  He was signed to ABC-Dunhill records (we used to call it ABC-Dunghill for the quality of their releases), who fine printed him to death.  They insisted he tour.  Usually a good idea, only Rhodes played all instruments himself and didn't have a band.  Then, they required he produce an album every six months.  Awfully hard with you do everything yourself, don't have a band, and are supposed to be out touring. Then they sued him for not living up to his contract.

If he had been signed to a label with a bit of common sense, they would have nurtured hit talent and give him some time between albums.  But they didn't.  His follow-up to Emitt Rhodes, entitled Mirror, was, inevitably, a disappointment. He was eventually dropped and stopped putting out music.

Most of his music has been forgotten, and the album is not easily found (eBay only shows expensive Japanese imports).  But sometimes, someone remembers:  his "Lullaby" -- a beautiful little love song -- showed up on the sound track to The Royal Tennenbaums. He's an artist that deserves more respect, and, at the very release, a reissue of the CD.