17 December 2014

Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Perhaps it is shameful to admit it, but I think this is one of the rare cases where I liked the movie better. Roman Polanski's recent movie, to be more exact, which is not a straightforward adaptation of the text, but rather, a story of a theater director auditioning an actress for a part in his adaptation of the text (meta meta, boioioioing). I really liked the movie, and it reinvigorated a long dormant intention to read the actual book (I once heard Malynne Sternstein talk about an inherent masochism of Eastern Europeans, partly in reference to this text, and I've been intrigued by the notion,  and tracing its manifestations -- there are many -- ever since). Indeed, the book is a curious little work, full of twists and turns and an intriguing late Romantic blend of cynicism and idealism. The problem is, the film is such an interesting perspective on the material, subtly illuminating both the continuities between the book's time and our own and also critiquing the story, both as a relic of a past time AND as an example of what seems to be a rather timeless tradition of portraying women. The book certainly provides ample fodder for the inquiry into gender inflected power dynamics of sexual and romantic relationships, and teasingly gestures towards  some ideas about the relationship between art and life, specifically in relation to love and passion, but the movie develops all these lines of inquiry much more fully. Plus, it's funnier.

But I recommend them both.

09 December 2014

Beyond the Lights

To be honest, I went to see this movie in large part because I wanted to support the director, and more broadly, to support films featuring people of color. I had heard a great interview with the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, on NPR (the film was actually initially brought to my attention by Linda Holmes, whom I trust implicitly and maybe sort of idolize), in which she talks about wanting to get rid of the term "black films" (they're just films!) but also how hard it is to get a film made if the central characters are people of color. So look, not to be all preachy about it, but if you, dear reader, want this to change (and I hope you do!), you need to start shelling out and seeing these movies in theatres. This is a somewhat dour preamble to talking about the movie, I know. But what with various efforts to raise awareness about how #blacklivesmatter this week in wake of all this horrific stuff in the news, I think it's worth pointing out that going to the movies can matter.* Pop culture shapes how people see the world. We need a broader variety of stories about a broader variety of people, and the only way we're gonna get them is by voting with our dollars. But anyhow.

When people say that a movie has heart, this is the kind of movie they're talking about. It's a deeply felt and surprisingly intimate movie, particularly in the love scenes. The story -- about a young female pop star negotiating the demands of fame, who falls in love with a police officer -- is an intelligent look at celebrity culture. It really drives home the intense sexualization of female stars, but manages to do so without ever feeling preachy, which is quite a feat.** Interestingly enough, though the film spends plenty of time appreciating Gug Mbatha-Raw's good looks, it manages to show you how her body is being commodified in a way that doesn't feel as if the film is also participating in that process. It does, however, indulge in quite a lot of ogling at Nate Parker, who is very pleasant to look at. It's funny, much as I appreciate the female body, I rarely enjoy it being displayed on the big screen, because there is so much ideological baggage that goes with it. But this movie reminded me of the pleasures of looking at a fine form, ie, Nate Parker's toned abs. I wonder if that's rampant hypocrisy on my part, or if the film actually produces a respectfully appreciative gaze.

Gina Prince-Bythewood*** clearly cared a lot about this movie. Part of that caring manifests itself as an unwillingness to be as ruthless in making cuts as she maybe should have: the film occasionally feels a bit baggy, and the story is trying to do a little too much. There's an attempt at parallelism in the plot that is intriguing but not particularly convincing in its execution. A domestic violence segment subtly but forcefully reminds viewers that such things do happen to young women in this situation, paradoxically by displacing them onto someone else. But that displacement also makes it seem a bit tacked on. Large chunks of the film, howver, are very well done, enough so that you're willing to give the rest a bit of leeway. In particular, Prince-Bythewood has a real knack for conversations: it's one of those rare films where the characters occasionally just talk about something interesting, rather than only discussing themselves or some aspect of the plot that needs to be moved along.**** Also, the sex scenes are fantastic.

Overall, a worthwhile and heartfelt film from a director that has lot of potential. Looking forward to seeing what she does next.

*Though admittedly, it sometimes feels futile, as anyone who tries to support women in movies can relate to. How much money did Bridesmaids make? And The Heat? And yet, and yet. Though there does seem to be a glimmer of hope on that front. Slowly slowly...

**Certainly something I haven't mastered, as my little preamble makes clear...

***If you search for her on Netflix, you won't find all of her movies in one place -- apparently the system is befuddled by what I presume was a post-marital name-change. I wonder how often this is an issue?

****I could swear I complained about this feature of movies -- and particularly romances -- in an earlier post, but I can't find it anywhere.

19 November 2014

A Sicilian Romance, by Ann Radcliffe

This is one of Radcliffe's earlier novels, and it's obvious that she is still perfecting her craft. It's a surprisingly creaky book, all seams and stuffing. Abrupt jumps in time and space, people conveniently happening across each other when they were seemingly lost forever (and can in no way be found by other people looking for them), and a rather ineffective effort to make mysterious occurrences seem supernatural. Whereas in later works it will be suggested that her protagonists are border-line delusional, eager to see the supernatural everywhere they look, in this novel the characters strongly RESIST that interpretation, even when it is explicitly suggested. It's the servants who immediately see everything as otherworldly, but other characters specifically deny this view (even when it seems absurd for them to do so). But none of that really matters that much: the real suspense in the story is whether or not Julia will be forced to marry against her will. This further strengthens my sense that the explained supernatural, seemingly Ann Radcliffe's most defining trait, is largely beside the point in her novels. She is much more interested in the moral behavior of her characters, and whether evil is punished by a kind of invisible hand of justice. These are old-school romances with supernatural window-dressing. And this one, to be frank, is one of her weaker efforts.

18 November 2014

Artful, by Ali Smith

This collections of lectures -- or should I say essays -- or should I say stories -- or should I say, well, I just don't know, because it is such a dazzlingly creative work that I haven't the faintest idea how one would characterize it. A narrator is visited by (or imagines the return of) her dead lover, who was a lecturer in literature. She discusses things like time and plot and form, and is also well-versed in poetry, or maybe she is just relating the lover's lectures, or maybe both. Occasionally she inserts bits of poetry or quotes from Oliver Twist and it is stunning, how something about the context makes you stop and read them so carefully, and marvel at the density of expression, how tightly packed a poem is. The observations about literature are mostly quite pleasant and interesting, as are the interactions, or are they imagined? with the lover, and the musings about love and loss and getting on with your life.

All in all, a wonderful tribute to art and relationships. Just incredible. Savour it.


Calvary begins quite dramatically: a man comes to confession, tells the priest there that he was molested by a priest for many years as a child, that the man who did it is dead, and that he intends to kill his current confessor -- precisely because he has never done anyone wrong. Killing a bad priest is old news, he says. But a good, one, now that'll get people talking. The man gives the priest time to say his goodbyes and set his affairs in order, saying that he'll expect to meet him on the beach in a week's time.

The film then chronicles the priest's doings during that suspenseful week, as he goes about his business in his village. What made the movie so fantastic, to me, is the way it subtly transforms into a meditation on the Catholic church's role -- both good and bad -- in society. It does not excuse or shy away from the extreme suffering the Church has caused, not only in the sexual abuses, but also more simply, through ignorance or dogmatism. The main character's fellow priest is a narrow-minded idiot, quick to condemn, close-minded and greedy. Many of the villagers openly despise the church, and in their interactions with the priest, one gets a sense of past harms they have suffered at its hands.

At the same time, however, our hero seems like a genuinely good man, one who is imperfect but thoughtful, and who mostly strives to do the right thing. It is this, combined with his genuine interest in and concern for others, that makes him a kind of moral anchor in his small but chaotic world. If a person is lost or struggling, they will have someone to turn to, no matter what. At one point there's a great bit of dialogue between the two priests, where one notes that the sins people confess are increasingly horrific and bizarre, and that he even had to look a word up recently to understand the depravity being described. It's a nice nod to both the psychological toll that the work of being a confessor would exact, but also an interesting way of raising the question as to whether someone who lives largely apart from the everyday world is qualified (perhaps is best qualified, mind you) to listen to the woes of someone embroiled in it.

What is striking about the film, to me, is the way that it also emphasizes personal responsibility. My boyfriend felt that the priest didn't seem to want to help most of the people in the movie, but to me it rather seemed like he wasn't willing to do the work for them, or be a quick fix. If someone genuinely felt remorse and wanted to make a change, he was there. If they simply wanted a stamp of approval, he refused it. It was in some ways a very passive role in terms of moral leadership, but simultaneously, the very presence of a priest is in some ways a visible instantiation of a moral beacon, or at least a reminder of sorts, giving people something to aspire to.

Overall, a very interesting film, often quite funny and occasionally very moving. Also just unbelievably gorgeous to look at -- stunning cinematography. Very much worth seeing.

21 October 2014

Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

This book feels much more like guilty pleasure reading than I'd expected. Not because of all the graphic sex -- although there is plenty of that, it never feels gratuitous. This is one of those rare books in which the sex is explicitly (and beautifully) described in ways that tell you things about the characters and their relationships, in addition to being quite titillating. No, what makes this book feel a bit trashy (and maybe this is my bias) is the way it cycles through so many tropes of Victorian role-playing fantasy. It's all the sexiest parts of the what we often think of as the stuffiest and most uptight era, and thus most enjoy imagining with its hair down. So, I can't help but feel a tinge of embarrassment over my enjoyment of reading descriptions of elaborately tailored clothing and thrilling plays on the master-servant relationship. I guess in my mind, there is something suspicious and middle-brow about a lot of historical fiction?  It might also be some of the melodrama in certain stock tropes of lesbian stories.

But it must be said that this is a smart novel, and one that cleverly weaves in all kinds of issues circulating in the 1890s. It's also a mostly compelling story, though it tends towards the larger-than-life and perhaps goes on a little too long. Overall, it's an enjoyable read, and it's not like intelligent, sexy books about lesbians are a dime a dozen, so it's nice to see someone who manages to be taken seriously when writing them.

20 October 2014

Severina, by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

(translated by Chris Andrews)

While I was shelving the other day, one of my co-workers walked by, plucked this out of a stack and said "This is a great, weird book." So of course I bought it, and indeed. The story of a bookseller who becomes obsessed with a beautiful and mysterious shoplifter, it turns out to be a surprising, but quite pleasing, love story.

I have limited patience with tales of men stalking beautiful women they know nothing about, but this one is effective, perhaps because it is so short, one, because it strikes the right balance of sentimentality and a sort of emotional flatness, two, and because it does not idolize the young woman, three. Even while in her thrall, the narrator seems perfectly able to see her flaws, and their relationship is one of compromise and resignation. The plot is just strange enough to make the story feel a bit unhinged, but not so off-the-rails as to seem entirely silly.

A small book that will grab you, shake you a few times, set you down, pat you on the head, and walk away.