Sunday, January 30, 2011

Galvinizing Review--Arin Greenwood's "Tropical Depression"

The odd thing about writing a book review—or a review of any work for that matter—is that the review, or re-view, is as much a re-flection of the reviewer as it is a reflection of the work itself. So as I read Arin Greenwood’s “Tropical Depression”, a not-so-fictitious (only a few of the names are changed to protect the guilty), somewhat hyperbolic, more-than-semi autobiographical tale of my home islands, I couldn’t help but read it through my lens—what the anthropologist Paul Rabinow called the “insider’s outsider”, a native who never feels quite at home in his native town, but isn’t exactly an outsider either, hence the label, insider’s outsider.

As an insider’s outsider, I found myself feeling many of the contradictory, paradoxical emotions that the novel’s speaker feels—defensive, apologetic, embarrassed, disturbed, forgiving, amused, uplifted, and sublime all at the same time—about how horribly and beautifully insane, or how insanely horrible and beautiful, our islands are. The speaker, Nina, puts it best upon returning to New York City after a year in “Miramar”, when Nina’s friends (don’t quite) want to know more about the island, to which Nina tells herself, “They do not want to hear confusing stories about parasailing accidents and the CIA’s deep involvement with Russian refugees. I can’t tell them about George and Brad, Robin and the judges and the secretaries and the CIA, Erika and Rory, unpaved roads, strip clubs, cockfights, karaoke with the mafia, parasailing ropes snapping, fecal lagoons, missing Max [her ex-lover] and bitter haoles and the cows at the court and how delicious mangoes are when you get them from the right store.”

Indeed, “mercenaries, missionaries, and misfits” (Arin’s labels for the three kinds of American expatriates who find themselves in Miramar) come to the islands with many misperceptions and dysperceptions about the islands, only to be disillusioned by the stark contrast and contentious conflict between their own self-righteousness and the islands’ own self-wrongness. Arin’s novel is thus not a postcard but, rather, a kaleidoscopic memoir of one such expat’s attempt to capture the psychological and cultural dissonance that can result.

That dissonance is fertile ground for humor, which Arin sprinkles throughout the novel with the clever but forgiving wit of a curious, observant, and only sometimes judgmental travel writer. (That should come as no surprise given Arin’s experience in travel writing.) Finding cows grazing in front of the islands’ Supreme Court house and chickens milling about on the airport runway; unwittingly drinking undrinkable tap water; trying to be a vegetarian on an island obsessed with meat, especially SPAM; frequenting poker clubs-slash-strip clubs-slash-karaoke joints; and reluctantly swimming in a beautiful lagoon contaminated by fecal matter are just some of the bizarrities (Yes, I made that word up. Isn’t it a cool and useful word?) that had me laughing throughout my read.

But the real bizzarities are the characters of the novel, who come to Technicolor life because they are based on real people living surreal lives. (Marquez’s magic realism pales in contrast to the novel’s surrealism.) The novel vividly presents a motley crew of missionaries, mercenaries, and misfits who are immensely diverse and distinct, yet share the common experience of being strange people in a strange land. (And boy do they drink and party and drink, which is a very verifiable reflection of the veritas of expats on the islands.) The novel also delves somewhat into the stories behind the foreign workers of Miramar, but linguistic and cultural barriers prevent the novel from providing any deep character studies of these equally diverse and distinct strangers in a strange land.

If the novel’s characterization of foreigners is shallow, the novel’s portrayal of the indigenous people was deeply depressing, only because it was so spot-on. While there are many redeeming characteristics in the local characters, the novel astutely observes that local politicians are crass and corrupt, local kids are raised by foreign nannies, and local cultures are fading away. (In that sense, Miramar is not so different from New York City.)

While locals might take offense to an outsider pointing these things out, Arin’s non-judgmental travel-writing tone spares the novel from the usual self-righteous indignation that characterizes much of what haoles say and write about the islands. In fact, I found her treatment of local characters, much like her treatment of expat characters, to be incredibly humane. Although the novel is sometimes a bit too neurotically myopic, it does take us past caricatures of its characters and into the depths of who these people really are, with all their warts and ticks and struggles and joys. Just as the expats struggle to find themselves in this Island of the Lost, the locals struggle to find themselves in their lost island.

(There is one exception to this depth and that is the one character I could not stand, Brad. He is too cool and hip and unbelievably Indiana Jones/James Bond-ish to be real or have any real depth. Brad is, in my book, a classic douche bag.)

At its heart, and what I found most endearing, “Tropical Depression” is a simple and timeless tale of unrequited love. Having lost her love in New York City, Nina loses herself in the tropics, looking for (what she thinks is) love in others, even if what she’s really looking for is still in New York, 6,000 miles away from Miramar. And, like many tales of unrequited love, in the end, she struggles not to find love, but to let go of the love that has been lost, and in the process, find not love, but herself.

Reading Arin’s story of a haole in the tropics reminded me of my days as an islander in the Pacific Northwest. I used to get depressed yet happy in Tacoma—wet, cold, yet content to wrap myself up cozily in the dense greenery, misty weather, and fog-filled mornings. Likewise (or in complete contrast), Arin’s heroine finds herself depressed yet happy in Miramar—humid, hot, yet content to wrap herself up cozily in the dense jungle, stormy/sunny weather, and hung-over mornings. She finds herself tropically depressed in the tropics. But, after losing herself in its metaphorical and literal jungles, she finds her way out of the tropics, out of her depression, and into herself.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Galvinizing Review--Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)

As if the 8-bit version of the Universal opening theme song wasn’t awesome enough to make you love this movie, the rest of the movie just kicks ass. Suffice to say that although I’ve never seen any other movies by Edgar Wright (I know, it’s a crime that I have yet to watch “Hot Fuzz” or “Shaun of the Dead” and I suppose I could watch either movie when it shows up on TV, but I hate commercials. So, Netflix queue, here they come!), after watching “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” for, like, ten times, I can say, by the authority vested in me as someone who loves kick-ass movies, that Edgar Wright is officially the most awesome director…at least of the past six months.

Because I love this movie so much, I’m not sure I can communicate anything coherently. So, in lieu of a brilliant, lucid, succinct review, and as a homage to Nick Hornby’s novel “High Fidelity”, I offer the following list: Ten Awesome Things about “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”
1. The soundtrack. The Pixies, low-fi bass rifts, Beck-inspired singles, and Beachwood Sparks and their cover of Sade’s “By Your Side” are just some of the reasons that this soundtrack rocks every second of the movie.
2. The Smashing Pumpkin t-shirts. Any movie that make any reference to the Smashing Pumpkins is cool in my book. (Sadly, though, not a single SP song is used in the film.)
3. It takes place in Canada. Canada’s cool.
4. It is framed as a classic video game of the classic Nintendo variety. (Who doesn’t remember playing Super Mario for all those coins?)
5. The trivia about Pac Man is erudite yet funny.
6. The soundtrack (Okay, it’s so awesome it deserves two slots on this Top Ten list.)
7. The script. It’s clever, witty, snappy, hella funny, and so true to-yet removed from real life with some of the greatest, most awesome-est lines ever. Here’s a taste and by no means is this an exhaustive list:
“Listen, I was thinking, we should break up…or whatever.”
“We gotta get some buzz goin’. We need ground swell. We need stalkers.”
“What? I’m not afraid to hit a girl. I’m a rock star.”
“You punched the highlights out of her hair!”
“I was just a little bi-curious./Well, honey, I’m a little bi-furious!”
“I’m in Lesbians with you.”
“Well if my cathedral of cutting edge taste holds no interest for your tragically Canadian sensibilities, then I shall be forced to grant you a swift exit from the premises…and a fast entrance into hell!”
“Dying’s gotta suck./You know what’s sucks? Getting killed by that guy.”
“Young Neil, you have learned well. From this point forward, you will be known as: Neil.”)
8. The movie is faithful to the story’s graphic novel origins. In fact, the complete 7-volume set is sitting in my wish list. (Hint, hint, nudge, nudge anyone for my birthday or just because!)
9. Bleeping out the profanity. It helped me allow my kids to watch it and love it with me. (Not that that’s ever stopped me before given that I agree with John Milton’s argument in “Areopagitica” that cloistered virtue is no virtue at all.)
10. Bass Battle. ‘Nuff said.

This movie is so awesome that a Top Ten list cannot do it justice. So, here are Ten More Awesome Things about “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” that didn’t quite make the list:
1. The character, Comeau, played by Nelson Franklin: a douche bag who knows everyone but knows nothing. (Greatest line, when listening to a live performance of a band, “You should see them live, they’re much better live.”)
2. Did I mention that the soundtrack rocks?
3. My wife and kids love it as much as I do. (Well, maybe not as much as I do.)
4. One of the shortest songs ever performed in a movie: “We hate you; please die.”
5. The pee-meter.
6. One of the coolest band names ever with the coolest intros. ( “We are Sex Bob-omb and we’re here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff.”)
7. Chris Evans (you know, The Human Torch from “Fantastic Four” and the next Captain America) as Lucas Lee, a caricature of the action hero with the commiserate caricature lines like “Kiss me, I’m dying,” or “The only thing keeping me and her apart are the two minutes it’s gonna take for me to kick your ass.”
8. Michael Cera doing choreographed martial arts proves that lanky geeks can fight!
9. Bill Hader’s over-the-top narration.
10. Vegan Police. (You’ll have to watch the movie to see what that’s all about.)

For these reasons, and so much more, I give “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” 10 out of 5 bass guitars.