Column: Two challenges and a soapbox


So you lot are probably all fed up with these challenges. Ice-cold water buckets, books, films, albums, all of them pandering to our vanity and sense of cool/righteousness. Sooner or later I was going to cave in. I’m also taking this as an excuse to get out of a bad case of writer’s block.

So, book challenge (aka “books that stayed with me, in no particular order), as nominated by Joe Field and Manuel “Rey Ardilla” Sandoval.

Julio Cortázar – Rayuela. A book that arrived in my life in the right moment. It was a summer trip and I was in the midst of a bad relationship/crush thingy with a friend that has pretty much erased herself from existence. Reading it in the ruins of the old communist block during a summer trip was pretty surreal. PRO TIP: Drink wine from a Hungarian decanter while playing hopscotch with those pages or read it in Warsaw while on plain sight of the Palace of Culture and Science.

Jorge Luis Borges – El Aleph. Courtesy of Claudia. She insisted I read it and even walked me to a bookstore to buy it. Read it while commuting to and from job interviews just after finishing University. Superb collection of shorts and a good meditation on death, life, more death, the mathematical nature of life and even death.

B.S. Johnson – Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry. This book took me ages to get, but once I got it I devoured it. A strange tale of using accounting to settle grudges and greed, it inspired a very strange film too. Johnson was as misunderstood as John Kennedy Toole (he of Confederacy of Dunces, another great book.) Both Johnson and Kennedy Toole committed suicide.

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five. So it goes. Science Fiction, destiny and the uneasy feeling of hopelessness against the horrors of war. Read this masterpiece at your own leisure, but it’s even money you won’t be able to put it down that easy. Then read anything else by Vonnegut. He was the master storyteller.

Charles Bukowski – Pulp. When I started writing, a very good friend of mine said I had a “voice like Bukowski“, so I had to look around for his stuff. Bought Pulp on a whim at a Barnes & Noble in Arkansas. It was there, all alone, in a discount bin for a measly three dollars and much like the protagonist, Nick Belane, it’s much more worthy than it seems. A bonafide tribute to “bad writing” and a goodbye letter from the author, it was Bukowski‘s last book and easily my fave of his entire catalog, which I ended up buying anyway.

Bret Easton Ellis – The Rules of Attraction. “…it was clear and warm night and the lights from the Big Apple reminded me why this place means so much to so little people that actually made it in this scrap of land. My ears were still ringing from Eddie Van Halen‘s guitar squeals and it’ll take a while to pay for that show at Madison Square Garden but things you do, things you do. Rock and roll. Deal with it. I stop at Strand because I have no money for a ride home and wander through the racks holding 1000 corpses of trees marked after death with ink. I slink around, grab Rules of Attraction because I remember the movie and I still love Theresa Wayman and her tragic, nameless character and how I can’t hear Harry Nilsson without wanting to teleport into that bathroom, hold her and tell her “Bateman isn’t fucking worth it.” I want to do so because a friend of mine almost killed herself like that, barely made it to the ER. Then  I will lose my national identity card at the till where they side-eye me for my accent but I walk out with the book in hand while the sewers spill steam and the night st…”

Chuck Palahniuk – Survivor Fight Club made me a fan and I made it a tradition to read a Palahniuk book in a day after buying them. I kept that until Snuff came out and I lost my commitment to that (but not to Sparkle Motion. Still, Survivor is a fantastic pisstake of religion, celebrity and our own quest for vanity. So many quotes, so many times Panic at the disco! stole those quotes to make terrible songs.

Jules Verne – The Lighthouse at the end of the world. Everyone should pick up a steampunk book and get into the groove. Some folks like 20,000 Leagues under the sea, some prefer Master of the world. Me? I love pirates, yo. Several of Verne‘s books were adapted as comics by Editorial Bruguera, under the name Joyas Literarias Juveniles (“Literary gems for youths”). We were given several of these comic book adaptations, either as single issues or compendiums, as a gateway into the classics. It worked perfectly. Jules Verne‘s stories were my favourite of those when I was a kid and I moved into his books fairly soon after memorising the comics.

SONY DSCChuck Klosterman – Downtown Owl. Dumb luck was what got me into Klosterman. I was bored near Palacio de Bellas Artes, waiting for a Carmina Burana ballet. Got his Killing yourself to live book on the cheap, read up until he disses Smashing Pumpkins and stopped reading it. A year later, I decided to ignore my petty reaction and read it. Binge shopping ensued and IV was one of the main reasons I dedicated myself to writing about music and pop culture. Now, Downtown Owl has a certain sense of doom that percolates throughout, with a few great jokes thrown in. The ending haunted me for days, both because of its harshness and because I had a novel that ended with a news report too. I eventually chucked that ending (and 75% of my novel), but the general spirit of Downtown Owl is something I aim for now in my writing. My review.

Hunter S. Thompson – The Great Shark Hunt. Like most folks out there, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas was my introduction to The Doctor‘s writing. Strangely enough, I didn’t enjoy it much. However, parts of it stayed with me and my parents bought me a copy of The Great Shark Hunt. A collection of articles and think pieces, all heavy seasoned with that Gonzo style, it pretty much captures the moods of the HST spectrum. My fave pieces involve Oscar Zeta Acosta, the ’72 election (further developed in the great Fear and Loathing: on the campaign trail ’72) and the fishing and drugs trip that is ‘The Great Shark Hunt’, which aptly names the book. This is another one that pushed me into writing.


And now…for film. 15 choices, as nominated by Chema Solari.

heatHeat. Michael Mann‘s fantastic journey through the fierce lives of career cops and criminals, all filmed on location in that hydra we call Los Angeles. Cops aren’t that clean-cut, criminals aren’t that driven by money. Don’t be dazzled by the perfect shoot out in downtown Los Angeles (which is a brilliant scene), but more about these characters, the real bread and butter in this stone cold classic. This is a character piece. The music is the cherry on top, featuring Elliot Goldenthal, Lisa Gerrard, William Orbit, The Kronos Quartet, Terje Rypdal, Moby and many more.

Horse Feathers.  The Marx Brothers were my introduction to vaudeville comedy and as I saw this, I understood how the cartoons of my childhood borrowed so heavily from Groucho and company. Bugs Bunny, ALF and so many more took the smooth talking, conniving ways of The Marx Brothers and this film has them on top form. The first routine I saw by them was this gem:

Hot Fuzz. The Cornetto Trilogy is so revered these days that I really can’t add anything more to the discussion besides “YARP!” Tied with Shaun of the Dead, miles above the letdown that was The End of the World.

Repo Man. I know people who call themselves “punks” who’ve never seen this. To them I say “fakes.” On the surface, it’s a b-movie with a killer soundtrack. Spend some time with it and it’s a parody of suburbanite punks, the 80s, conspiracy theories and American culture. It’s intense but, hey, “the life of a repo man is always intense.”

Ronin. Maybe the last great Robert De Niro film. A throwback to spy films from the Cold War, with a top notch script that was thoroughly cleaned and beefed up by David Mamet, one of my all time heroes for dialogue writing. The action might seem excessive for the younger ones, even passé, but I’ll take real-world chases with not a drop of CGI than anything that is flashy and ultimately vacuous.

The Big Hit. A very silly movie with Mark Wahlberg, but, guess what? It’s fun, it doesn’t take itself seriously at all and Lou Diamond Phillips chews the scenery like Pac Man pops pills. Recurring jokes (a staple of 90s films) are everywhere and my fave is Wahlberg‘s obsession of not being liked by people. He’s then reminded that “Hey Melvin, the hundred or so people you’ve killed in the last five years, more than likely have families that don’t think too highly of you.”

Vanilla Sky. Yes, it might be a vanity project. Yes, it has staple Tom Cruise moments like running and shouty meltdowns. Yes, it’s a remake. But you know what? It hit me hard when I saw it, specially the big reveal and Tom Cruise quietly waving goodbye in front of the mirror. Like any Cameron Crowe film, the music is the main actor and I’d run out of space just naming all the great bands here. This film changed me, both as a person and as a music lover. If you can’t stand Tom Cruise, go for any Crowe film. Singles, Say Anything, Almost Famous, Elizabethtown (yes, I love that one too.) C’mon, even Jerry Maguire at its most mawkish is a great movie.

Solyaris. Another recommendation by Claudia, who took me on a date to see Stalker. USSR’s response to 2001, the movie dissects Stanislav Lem’s book and brings to the front the biggest strength of Russian cinema: atmosphere. The movie might feel “slow” but it’s because it’s slow burning. The ending confused me and when “I got it” I sat there, for 10 minutes, dreading the sound of a planet coming to life.

Bringing Out the Dead. Martin Scorsese‘s second foray into loneliness and guilt, as previously seen in Taxi Driver. So, why I chose this film? Again, it was timing. Another bad spell, another low mood governing life and this film comes around, tossing ideas about redemption, guilt and loneliness. It was a box office bomb and many Scorsese aficionados I’ve met told me I’m crazy for loving this film. Fuck it, this one earned its place. Key quote:

Terminator 2: Judgement Day. In 1975, Jaws created the summer film. In 1991, James Cameron made a sequel that re-defined modern cinema. Many have tried to trick us with effects as well as he did with T2, but they never remembered that you need emotions attached to this. He forgot it in Avatar, tho. Brad Fiedel‘s score is perfect. Any other sequel is more of a tribute than something canon. This is the end of Terminator. Selah.

Flight of the Navigator. My perfect example of 80s adventure. One of the first films with CGI, a good dash of science fiction and a lot of heart to it. Get your friends, cook something tasty and watch this with Goonies, The Boy who could fly, D.A.R.Y.L., Batteries not included and Explorers.

A Scanner Darkly. Phillip K. Dick, Richard Linklater, Graham Reynolds and Rotoscoping. Trippy adaptation of a seminal writer who never gets his dues, it has a perfect cast and as much as everyone makes fun of Keanu Reeves, he’s perfect as Bob Arctor. This brought a tear to my eye:

The Last Boy Scout. That moment where the bravado of the 80s started to roll back and the cynicism of the 90s popped its head, quipping a catchphrase. A great script by Shane Black (another master at dialogue) made a dark (but humorous) take on the Buddy Cop film. Bruce Willis is in top cynical form, with his turn as Joe Hallenbeck a perfect archetype for the “I don’t give a fuck” hero that is much more than he seems.

Wallace and Gromit : the curse of the were rabbit. Look, I like Pixar and Disney a lot, but I grew up with British humour and every single film by Aardman Animations has engaged me so much more than anything else. It’s the lovely stop-motion, it’s the humour (both silly and cerebral), it’s the music, it’s… everything. If I had kids, they would see this one a lot and I would never get tired of it. Chicken Run, Flushed Away and Pirates! are equals here.

Phew…this one hurt because as I was deciding which 15, I kept thinking of amazing films, such as: Dead Presidents, Zoolander, Goodfellas, The Godfather 2, True Lies, The Crow, Dark City, Rollerball, Traffic, Smokin’ Aces, Training Day, Drive, D.A.R.Y.L., Some like it hot. I’m finishing this because I’ve been switching, deleting and re-writing this so much for the last week that it isn’t funny anymore. Maybe I’ll follow this list up soon. Besides, there’s something more important here.

Anyways, this big ego trip is mostly to bring some attention to a charity I wholeheartedly support. Things sometimes don’t work out that well and all you really need is someone that hears. Samaritans did that for me, in the darkest of times where every thing was seen through a glass darkly. I called myself Bob Arctor and emailed them for a long while. And I do mean a long time. They can’t solve everything and they might not be perfect, but in my hour of need, they were there.


So if you felt a little entertained by this column or by anything else that this Shithole of a Website (TM) has brought to you on the last five years, consider making a donation to Samaritans. If you are strapped for cash or simply don’t want to donate for charity, consider letting other people know about Samaritans. Or maybe use other websites like Blurt and Mind, who also do great and sorely needed work.

If you take anything from this post, besides the fact that I love hyperbole, take this:

You are not alone.

Sloucher endorses Samaritans. Thank you for reading us.

Words: Sam J. Valdés López

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