29 May 2015

First Position

I am deeply skeptical of movies about ballet for some reason, but my parents had recommended this one in glowing terms, and when a person is physically destroyed (aerial conditioning + 20 mile bike ride) it's kind of satisfying to watch other people exert themselves. To my pleasant surprise, however, this movie was fantastic. And did not really depend on a person being into ballet (though I am, I just don't like movies about it), though obviously that helps. The documentary follows a handful of young people who are training to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, a major ballet competition. It turns out, real dancers are pretty fascinating. Obviously the filmmakers picked out some particularly interesting people to focus on, but still.

Unlike many sports movies where the point is to win a prize, end of story, here the competition is rather more meaningful: among the prizes (there are more than 20, making it seem less impossible) are scholarships to dance schools and contracts with major companies. So you really get a sense of these kids' future being on the line in a way that isn't always the case in such films.

Also, unlike many stories of children competing, in this movie, one never has the sense that the parents are pushing their kids into something or forcing them to push a hobby into something bigger. Yes, there is one mother who says that she was a failed ballerina and wanted her child to dance, and there is another one who cries when her child decides to quit, but you never see the terrifying stage parents common to other documentaries about gifted children. Instead, you see the (in some ways terrifying) drive and self-discipline of these kids, who work unbelievably hard and make a lot of sacrifices so as to devote themselves to their art. And you also see their parents and siblings make a lot of sacrifices (or others, in some cases -- as one mother points out, when the father moves his office to be closer to the ballet school, all of his employees are affected!), and spend A LOT of money (which surprisingly, does not seem like a racket -- a lot of the things dancers require, like a personal trainer, many many pairs of pointe shoes, and intricate, hand-made tutus and costumes, are just expensive), without getting much in return. When you consider that in many (even most) cases, a dancer's body will be shredded by the time s/he reaches 30, it seems completely insane. The movie in no way romanticizes this, or uses it as a way to make ballet seem more beautiful or noble. All it does is show you footage of different people dancing.

You don't realize how much emotion is in a ballerina's dance until you see two different children give performances, one serviceable, the other phenomenal. In the first, you realize that technical proficiency is not enough -- the je ne sais quoi of a beautiful performance is a certain amount of feeling, and obviously one does not expect an 11 year old to convincingly manifest desire, or heartbreak. But when they do, ie, the latter case, my god, that's a show-stopper. It's not creepy, the way little girls singing sexy songs in talent shows are: it's a moment when they somehow seem to be in possession of an astonishing amount of wisdom and emotional maturity. As one mother puts it, "something happens in her face, and she becomes an adult in those moments."

Now, for me, the moments of truly extraordinary dancing in the film make a very powerful case. Not that it "makes it all worth it," it's obviously more complicated than that, but still -- wow. I think you could very easily watch this movie and not come to that conclusion, without feeling like you were disagreeing with the film, and without diminishing your enjoyment of it. Ultimately, what makes the movie compelling, cheesy as it sounds, are the truly compelling and unique stories of the different people in it, and the way the movie really gives you a sense of them as actual people, rather than a collection of relevant features. It's really an excellent movie, and available on Netflix Instant. Check it out.

27 May 2015

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

It would be very easy not to like this book. The narrator is fairly unpleasant, and his time is alternately spent making bad decisions and reflecting on art in what to many people will seem a fairly pretentious way. It's a tricky question, whether you have to at least partially share his view on poetry to enjoy the novel -- I suspect you do, even if (like me), you didn't necessarily endorse his way of expressing them. But I would wager that what makes the narrator worthwhile, though not necessarily likable, is that he manages to say things about literature that are actually somewhat poignant and interesting. And moreover, that it is entirely believable that such a thoroughly hapless, self-absorbed, and unappealing guy could come up with such insights -- and that his drug-addled, booze-soaked, largely aimless days in Madrid could produce them.

This is not a typical novel: it's a fragmented collection of thoughts, almost akin to a diary, and there is no real narrative arc or resolution. Impressively, however, it feels complete, and is exactly the right length. In many ways, it is structured very much like a poem, but it also has the satisfying, simple feeling of straightforward sentences, things happening.

Frankly, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed it.

30 April 2015

The Poor Clare, by Elizabeth Gaskell

I've been meaning to read Elizabeth Gaskell for awhile now, and although this is hardly representative of her style, apparently, it does have the virtue of being quite short. And Gothic, which I'm always interested in, academically at least. It does mean, though, that my reading of it is probably more analytic than usual, so apologies.

The story fascinated me because it's constructed in a strange and unexpected way. For starters, the supernatural elements are just unabashedly supernatural. No lengthy is-it-or-isn't-it suspense, no tortured contortions about whether such a thing is possible, just blammo, there it is. Relatedly, however -- the story spends very little time on it. I don't want to give anything away, so I'm doing some contortions of my own, but when you finally get to the creepy thing -- and it takes quite awhile to get there -- it's established, briefly described, and then it's off to the elaborate process of trying to get rid of it. There's very little description of it, very little exploration of what it's like and it's effects. It's all seen obliquely, from the side as it were. In this sense, it's reminiscent of Clara Reeve's Old English Baron -- the story is much more interested in all the stuff happening around the supernatural, namely, what the humans are going to do to get rid of it, than in the supernatural itself. Which makes for a somewhat drawn out and slightly tedious tale, slightly mechanistic and just not that compelling.

But then, surprisingly, the most interesting thing about the story -- the glimpses of historical context. There's this political turmoil in the background, and drama and conflict and all kinds of excitement, and she sprinkles in a few sentences here and there, and those brief asides are by far the most interesting part of the whole story. To wit: The political state of things became worse than ever, increased to its height by the scarcity of food consequent on many deficient harvests. I saw groups of fierce, squalid men, at every corner of the street, glaring out with wolfish eyes at my sleek skin and handsome clothes. This is essentially a random aside about the state of Antwerp. It has little to no bearing on the story, but don't you want to hear more about it? No wonder the woman is known for her portrayals of society. I'm looking forward to reading her more typical novels.

29 April 2015

Furious 7

I love the Fast and Furious franchise. Not only is each movie better than the last, but with 6 especially, I think they really perfected the formula for a perfect action movie: totally f*@!ing awesome stunts, corny jokes, just a touch of emotional gravitas ("Nothing matters more than family"), and a (diverse) cast that is easy on the eyes. So obviously, I was VERY excited about Furious 7. So excited, in fact, that my man and I rewatched the entire series (minus Tokyo Drift, which is kind of apocryphal, though I intend to rewatch it soon anyhow) in preparation. I was buoyed by the glowing reviews -- the best movie in the franchise! they said. And I believed it, because every new movie in the series is better than the previous one (except for 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is decidedly the weakest link). My excitement was fueled by the insane box office numbers. This was gonna be AWESOME.

But it was not. I mean, ok, I set a high bar going in, so perhaps I was bound to be disappointed. But Furious 7 is not the best movie in the franchise. It's not as good as 6. It's not even as good as 5! I'm not saying it's a terrible movie, because it's got a lot going for it. And as we know, tragic events certainly influenced the final product. But it's just not as good a movie as one would like it to be. The filmmakers seem to have abandoned the formula they had so painstakingly perfected, and the results are decidedly imbalanced.

For starters, WAY too much Vin Diesel. Yes, he's always been the brooding melancholic core of the films, but he was complemented by a broad array of goofiness, badassery, and even some other emotional subplots (Han and Giselle's relationship, Paul Walker's anxieties about fatherhood). With Han and Giselle gone, Vin apparently decides to shoulder the entire emotional weight of the story, such that any time another character is having feelings, they're doing so while in conversation with Vin Diesel. He is so overburdened by all this feeling that he frequently has to go off by himself and emote for awhile. It's boring, and it makes us like him less. The man has a very sexy impish smile, and knowing chuckle, and we don't see nearly enough of it in this movie.

Also, someone apparently decided that audiences are more interested in fight scenes than driving scenes. This has been on a slow increase since the first film -- each one has more fighting. 6 had just the right amount. 7 had too much. Or at least, it felt that way, because it seemed like it came at the cost of awesome driving scenes, which it did not have enough of.

Related to that, the stunts themselves were precariously balanced on the fine line between mind-blowingly badass and absurd. If your action sequence is awesome enough, I don't care if it's realistic. If it's not, I start to ask questions. I particularly start to ask questions about whether something better could have been done with those resources. For instance, if you give me a big set-up about having the fastest car ever, I want to see it go really fast. Soaring through the air is neat, but you don't need the fastest car ever to do that. As we all recall from Speed, even a city bus can do that shit.

The pacing was totally off. The scenes were all very short, which made the movie seem quite rushed, despite the fact that it also felt bloated and way too long. This, in turn, made one notice how uninteresting the plot was. Which is pretty surprising, because I can hardly remember the plots of the other films, and I have no complaints about them whatsoever.

Also, I'm sorry, but CGI Paul Walker is not seamlessly integrated into the film. It's painfully, tragically obvious on a number of occasions that he is being digitally added. And it's very sad, and I sincerely mourn the man's passing (and I quite appreciated the homage at the end, which incidentally is also at the beginning of the dvd of 6, should you rent it), but this was not the greatest way to solve that problem.

I'm sorry to be down on the movie. I wanted to love it. And some of the stunts are great, and some of the fight scenes are pretty badass, and I do love the characters and enjoy seeing them again, but at the end of the day, you're better off re-watching 6.

21 April 2015

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison's prose is spell-binding. She can do astonishing things with language; such that you not only see, smell, feel, and taste what she describes, but can somehow simultaneously relish the gorgeous combination of words that she does it with.

But this novel does not quite work. I read the entire thing today in three sittings: the bus ride to work, my lunch break, and the bus ride home, and I was riveted, because that's how good her writing is (well, and, because that's the kind of reader I am). But even as I drank in the language, I couldn't shake various little nagging thoughts, like, wait, will we never hear from that character again? or hmmm, that doesn't really seem like something this character would say, or wait, when is this supposed to be happening? There are some wonderful moments in the novel, but the pieces don't quite add up, and the story doesn't quite come together.

The pervasive theme is child abuse, and how its effects linger and (mis)shape people's lives. But we are told about these things rather than shown them. Morrison doesn't quite seem to get inside any of these characters: they all remain somewhat inchoate and unclear, a collection of features rather than a person. The story meanders as we move from perspective to perspective, and the attention is unevenly and inconsistently distributed, as if certain plot-lines were simply abandoned along the way. Others are suddenly resolved in ways that feel overly tidy and simplistic, and disappointingly typical. Although the book turns its attention to some of the ugliest parts of today's world, it can't seem to bear to plunge fully into them, and ends up stuck somewhat in the middle, not quite telling the story it sets out to find. 

01 April 2015

Discontent and Its Civilizations, by Mohsin Hamid

I remember reading an amazing essay about how to write essays (if anyone knows what I'm talking about, PLEASE leave a citation in the comments!!) at some point in high school or college, one that explained but also demonstrated how it was both a very open and a tightly controlled art form, how it had no one particular kind of topic, how it could be serious, or funny, or both, personal or impersonal (I suspect it was written by a Pole, but I could be wrong). My point is: the essay is a noble form. Not all magazine articles are essays. There are many pieces of writing that are quite good as short pieces of writing, but they are not necessarily good essays, and they are perhaps better encountered in a magazine than in a book with other pieces like them. That is, I think, the case with the pieces in this book.

To be clear: I enjoyed reading this book. Hamid's prose is light and pleasant -- not breezy or chatty exactly, but comfortable. The topics covered in the book are reasonably weighty, but the tone is for the most part even and conversational, often with a more personalized, confiding feel. The things he has to say are interesting, and I agreed with pretty much all of them. The problem is -- and it seems awfully demanding to hold this against him -- nothing said here really made me stop and think, or see things in a new way. It all seemed very familiar. Perhaps this is a testament to how clearly and effectively he articulated his ideas, so much so that they instantly seem like things one has already thought! Certainly, it can't be true that I've thought all of those things, because there were plenty of things about Pakistan that I didn't know beforehand (though the political analysis of these new pieces of information essentially validated beliefs I already hold). And yet, for all its musings on culture and identity and dislocation and politics, I think the most memorable piece in the collection is a description of standing next to a woman, a stranger, on a hot day, a very sensual evocation of the intimacy of sweating beside someone. Perhaps it means that Hamid is better at saying things more indirectly, say, in a novel...

In any case, I very much hope that people who haven't thought all these things will read the collection, and come to agree with Hamid and I. And I look forward to reading his fiction.

14 March 2015

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I finished the novel this morning and am still chewing over it. Certainly a spell-binding, immersive read: in terms of world building, it's an incredible book. The characters wander in a vaguely familiar landscape that is blanketed in a mist of amnesia, groping towards an ill-defined goal, searching for memories, struggling through confused interactions with other people who are equally befuddled. A vague air of menace hangs over everything. It's brilliantly done, and the reading experience is both suspenseful and strangely soothing, and our two main character, Axl and Beatrice, lovingly comfort each other and tread carefully over potential sources of pain or conflict.

As the novel progresses, details of a broader history begin to emerge, and this is where I am lesssure how I feel about the book. Initially, the socio-political commentary that emerges seemed poignant, timely, and interesting. As it developed, however, I found it less compelling, or rather, it didn't seem to go beyond the somewhat obvious in terms of ideas that it developed. But maybe it is me who is not giving the novel its due, ruminating on its peculiar ending and what it means.

Regardless, it is a book worth reading: eerie, engaging, and deeply felt.