Monthly Archives: March 2011

Books: Roadside picnic

If you know this title, congratulations: You seem to be a true scifi geek. If not, don’t feel bad – it’s a rather obscure book by conventional literature standards. You may know the movie that’s based on Roadside picnic, though: Stalker. Still no luck? Ok, this will be a tough sale, but don’t let your mind miss an opportunity to be blown away.

What would happen if aliens visited earth? Now, we all know the stereotypes and Hollywood templates, but what would really happen? Well, it depends on how these aliens view us, what they want from us, why they came. Now imagine they didn’t want anything from us. Imagine that apparently they didn’t even take notice of our existence. That we are so far below their level that they just don’t care.

That is – in a nutshell – the premise of roadside picnic. As one scientist in the book puts it,

Picture a forest, a country road, a meadow. Cars drive off the country road into the meadow, a group of young people get out carrying bottles, baskets of food, transistor radios, and cameras. They light fires, pitch tents, turn on the music. In the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that watched in horror through the long night creep out from their hiding places. And what do they see? Old spark plugs and old filters strewn around… Rags, burnt-out bulbs, and a monkey wrench left behind… And of course, the usual mess—apple cores, candy wrappers, charred remains of the campfire, cans, bottles, somebody’s handkerchief, somebody’s penknife, torn newspapers, coins, faded flowers picked in another meadow.

The alien visitation left behind six zones filled to the brim with artifacts and reality-defying phenomena. The aliens are nowhere to be seen, and it seems they have left as quickly as they came, after little more than a day. However, what remains is a mess of alien technology that is so far beyond human comprehension that its effects border on the supernatural.

The alien artifacts are by no means harmless, and they effectively render the zones uninhabitable and extremely difficult to navigate. The zones may even contain technology which might lead to global destruction or the extinction of the race. Therefore, access is tightly regulated and only careful scientific expeditions are allowed. At their edge, frontier societies appear comprised of scientists, venturers and the so-called stalkers. Stalkers are people who go into the forbidden zones on their own, against the law. They face great danger, both from law-enforcement and from the zones themselves. However, considering the nature of the artifacts that can be found in the zone, the reward is potentially boundless.

Now, as ‘hard scifi’ as the above sounds, Roadside Picnic is not about technology or aliens or laser weapons. It’s about us humans. The remains of the ‘picnic’ are so out of the ordinary that our only way to cope with them is to do business as usual. In the face of technology lightyears ahead of our own, it’s the same old games of greed, bickering, deception and betrayal. The alien artifacts are taken as found, as weapons, as energy sources, as toys, but any attempt to crack their secrets and learn the why and whereabout of the aliens are thwarted by intrigue and powerplay.

Wikipedia has a nice listing of the artifacts and phenomena encountered in the zone, and even knowing that these lists are figments of the authors’ imagination, they are thrilling enough to keep your mind busy. It’s very interesting how the inhabitants of the frontier city Harmont, for whom they are entirely real, react to them. Basically shrugging their shoulders, they accept them as new facts and integrate them into their daily business, trying to find ways to take advantage of them. No one seems to care about the deeper cosmological implications, or about the fate of humanity in general.

Roadside Picnic is a very pessmistic novel, which basically concludes that Homo sapiens will always stick with his behavioural programs designed for small hordes of cave-dwelling gather-hunterers. Even in the face of something so clearly superior and simultaneously threatening and promising as the visitors, people are still people. This could actually be quite funny, but the novel is very serious about it: In the end, we know nothing, and the fact that we know nothing is owned to our inability to transcend ourselves.

You can actually find the full text of Roadside Picnic online here, in Russian and English side by side.

Roadside Picnic has been written by two brothers, Arkady Natanovich Strugatsky and Boris Natanovich Strugatsky, who are actually quite famous in Russia and among scifi fans in the West. They are remarkable characters, and it’s worthwhile to look into other works by the Strugatsky brothers, as is a trip to their Wikipedia entry.

As I mentioned above, Roadside picnic has been turned into a beautiful and brilliant movie, Stalker, by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s usually said to be ‘loosely based’ on the novel, which technically it is, but I think it’s an extremely faithful translation of the book’s atmosphere, human dilemma and fatalistic approach of the protagonist into film. So go watch it. Here is the IMDb entry (and don’t let the ridiculous movie poster put you off). Here is the DVD.

The Saddest Music in the World

Another movie by Guy Maddin, and equally nonconformist, fascinating, and beautiful as Careful. ‘The Saddest Music in the World’ is a very unique film, and as Careful, it comes with its very own, very unconventional visual language.

It’s the 30ies, shortly before the end of probhition, and everybody is drowning in the global depression. Lady Port-Huntly, the owner of a Canadian beer company from Winnipeg, knows how to seize the opportunity: As soon as the prohibition is gone, millions of American drinkers will return to beer. And what instills the thirst for alcoholics better than melancholy?

The conclusion is obvious: Muskeg beer starts a contest for ‘the saddest music in the world’. Hundreds of musicians from all over the world follow the call, and intend to ‘lay claim to the jewel-studded crown of frozen tears and 25 thousand dollars in prize money. That’s right, 25 thousand depression era dollars.’

However, we are particularly interested in the fate of two brothers, who – due to rather bizarre circumstances – represent the USA and Serbia respectively. While the contest is going on, and we see a variety of musical performances from folklore groups all over the world, it dawns on us that it’s all about – for the lack of a better word – love pentagon, involving the two brothers, their father, Lady Port-Huntly herself and Narcissa.

No use in explaining who Narcissa is – go see the movie. It’s complicated, but Maddin manages to show the simplicity behind the complex, the constants of human desires and trials. And when we are finally ready to suspend our disbelief, to see the sorrow of the protagonists behind the retro style filming, the hilarious stereotypes, he ramps up the parody factor to turn everything into a brilliant, albeit somewhat sarcastic, comedy.

The Saddest Music has been called a ‘musical’, but I think that’s not fair. To me, it is foremost a comedy, transcending a range of categories and styles to tell a simple story about egotism, personal battles, and love. It sure has music in it (duh!), but that music is merely setting the stage. In fact, Maddin ensures that the music is delivered in the least enjoyable – and hilariously comic – way: Two bands from different countries go head-to-head into the musical battle, playing their corny folklore tracks alternatingly and – as the battle nears its climax – simultaneously. Which nicely illustrates the pointlessness of competing for the saddest music in the world.

The winner of each round takes – must in fact take – a slide into a pool of beer. Depression era entertainment at its best. Well, we can be lucky that we can watch the spectacle from the safe distance of the new millenium, or so it seems… if you look closely enough, you will easily recognize the cruel and mindless misanthropic ‘entertainment’ that’s dished out by contemporary media.

The Saddest Music is also a jibe at Maddin’s home town Winnipeg, which, the introductory announcement for the contest states, is the ‘world capital of sorrow’. However, as with many artists in a love-hate relationship with their home town (or country, for that matter), it’s rather obvious that Maddin has a deep affection for Winnipeg and its melancholic and struggling 1930ies denizens.

Great praise deserves the cast: Lady Port-Huntly is played by Isabella Rossellini, and she does a great job conveying both the glamour and the tragedy of her character. The Lady, being an obscenely rich beer baroness admist the poverty of depression-Canada, has a bitter secret of her own. Due to a rather bizarre car accident involving above-mentioned father and son, she has lost both her legs. Now her dearest dream is to be able to walk again, a wish that seems to be fulfilled when she gets two artificial legs – made of glass and filled with Muskeg beer, no less.

If you feel uncomfortable at the thought of a legless woman delightedly praising the clean, sparkly beauty of her new, beer-filled glass legs, you are not the only one.

Ross McMillan plays one of the brothers, Roderick Kent, who has migrated to Serbia where he became ‘Gravillo the Great’. Gravillo  is the prototype of the melancholic, a figure with multiple levels of tragedy woven into his life, so tragic in fact that it’s outrageously funny.

No one has seen Gravillo’s face, as he wears a veil ‘as black as night’ all the time, so as to express the ‘national sadness of Serbia’ over being the cause of the World War I. A clear parody of ‘the man in black’, Johnny Cash, Gravillo is mourning the 9 million dead of the war, but also his dead son, whose heart he always carries with him in a jar.

It’s these little details, executed perfectly by cast and photography, that make this movie so interesting. And make no mistake: The greatest thing about this movie is how entertaining and funny it is.

I tent to be somewhat nervous when a 2003 movie starts black and white, and stays that way almost entirely, with a few colored scenes thrown in. In this case, the effect is not the least bit annoying, and in fact the deliberately low quality of the visuals (mimicking the distorting and field-narrowing effects of early cinematographic techniques) adds to the already powerful atmosphere.

If you want to see an ‘artsy’ independent movie, but want to be thoroughly entertained at the same time, you cannot go wrong with the Saddest Music.

The Saddest Music in the World at the IMDb

Watch The Saddest Music at Amazon


At the movies: Careful


‘Careful’ is set in a rural mountain village, ‘Tolzbad’. Tolzbad is under constant threat from avalanches, forcing the villagers to keep noise to a minimum. You would expect that growing up with such a burden would leave its mark in the souls of the villagers, and oh boy, it does.

Tolzbad’s inhabitants are perfect showcases of Freudian deviations. Whatever can go wrong in the microcosm of a family, it is bound to happen in Tolzbad. Keeping silent all the time, the villagers’ minds are crawling with suppressed desires, innuendoes, and dysfunctional family relations.

If you haven’t stumbled upon the Canadian director Guy Maddin, you better take a seat. Any of his films is a breathtaking experience, and entirely the opposite of Hollywood’s cookie cutter blockbusters. While such a verdict usually implies ‘difficult to watch’ – read: excrutiatingly boring to watch weirdness – ‘Careful’ is far from it.

In fact, it doesn’t get much more entertaining than this. ‘Careful’ delivers on multiple levels: The visuals are a perfect reenactement of – especially German – films from the silent movie era, copying the style of Fritz Lang and Leni Riefenstahl. They are very fitting to the clicheed Tolzbad, seemingly the protoype of a down-to-earth alpine village, where so much goes awry behind closed doors.

The story itself isn’t overly complicated or breathtaking, but it is delivered with so much punch and humor that it becomes a hillarious rollercoaster ride through the human subconciousness.

Careful is about the essence of cinema, storytelling that would not work without the visuals, a perfect amalgamation of image, sound and script. Absolutely watchable, absolutely recommended.

Careful at the Internet Movie Database.

Watch Careful at Amazon.