22 May 2006

Authenticity, Deirdre Madden

This book blew me away. It was delicate, subtle, and utterly lovely. I luxuriated in it for three days, and it was sheer pleasure.

The book follows several characters, but focuses mainly on Julia, a young artist, Roderic, Julia's lover, an older (more successful) artist, and Dennis, Roderic's brother. Supporting cast includes Dan, Julia's working class father, and William, a rich guy who Julia becomes friends with. The book gracefully weaves back and forth in time, exploring their lives at various moments. It's a really eloquent portrayal of relationships between people - the emotions are beautifully captured, a real pleasure to read.

One really interesting feature is the way the book handles questions of art and class. Julia, Roderic, William, and Dan all have creative gifts, but only Roderic and Julia are working artists. Though this shared creative impulse would seem able to bring them together, class divides prove stronger. This is made most clear in the interactions between William and Julia. Although she appreciates William’s intellectual companionship, ultimately, the gap between them cannot be bridged: “To look at him tonight, everything about him suggested that his life and values were alien to hers, and she wondered what had ever possessed her to think that there was common ground between them. Why had she let herself be drawn into his world?”. Likewise, we see this with Roderic and Dan: “Roderic was aware that in spite of all the warmth and good will of the occasion, he and Dan were not breaking through to each other on a significant level” (338), and again when Roderic reflects that despite the fact that his whole life has been a “desperate flight from the middle class into which he had been born”, when facing Dan, he feels “deeply conventional”. At the same time, there are moments where art seems capable of crossing this barrier, for instance, when William shares the memory associated for him with the scent of turf smoke:

"‘I feel,’ he said deliberately, ‘that I’m giving you something private. Something precious.’
‘Yes, you are. You’re doing just that,’ Julia said. ‘That’s why I asked your permission.’
‘Is this,’ he asked, ‘what art has become?’
‘This,’ she said, ‘is what art has always been.’"

Thus, there is a way in which class is implicated in the ways that people interact with art, and with each other through art. At times, art seems able to temporarily bridge the class divide, but ultimately, these barriers seem to prove stronger.

There is a second issue at play as well, namely, the class character of the artist. As mentioned above, only Julia and Roderic are working artists. Dan and William both have artistic impulses, but are not practicing artists. The role of class here is most clear when Julia compares William and Roderic, and the seemingly similar trajectories of their lives. It seems that in addition to a creative impulse, the artist requires something else, which could be viewed as a willingness to break with class affiliation, along with a certain measure of privilege, in a curious sense. Not the privilege of money and high class, but having people in one’s life who support artistic pursuits, and see the profession of artist as acceptable.

Also fascinating in the text is the way it plays with time: it moves between past and present from chapter to chapter without warning, forcing you to orient yourself in a way that is intriguing but not unpleasant. But the order in which the story is told seems to be an important part of the way it's being told - the form contributes to the content in a really interesting way, which sort of mimics an artwork, or at very least, reminds you that literature is meant to be aesthetic. As you move suddenly to the past, you can't help but reflect on the passage of time between the two moments portrayed, how the characters have changed, etc. The text’s shifting chronologies and repetitions are certainly connected to the issue of art, but I haven’t quite thought through how this works. It’s certainly interesting that the text ends up looping – the first and final chapters contain the same scene, word for word, of Julia lying in Roderic’s bed and looking at the play of light on the bookshelf, imagining painting it. Furthermore, the prologue and epilogue contain a similar repetitions, but changed: “When she was a child, she used to wake early in the winter”, and “In the winter she used to wake late” – the use of the past perfect (?) tense here is notable. This connection between two moments, the second inflected by the passage of time between, is linked to the question of art, most notably in the following passage:

"What Julia did not understand was that between the joy of an experience such as she was then living and the recollection of it years later, might fall the shadow of intervening time. She knew that each artist creates her own precursors. She knew too that a work of art was changed by being viewed through the filter of later works, but she did not understand that this was also true in life. Roderic could have told her this, so too could her father and even William.
But Julia, at this time, did not know."

Really, a wonderful book, and one that I will definitely be thinking about for awhile. I highly recommend it.

14 May 2006

Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia, Nina FitzPatrick

This collection of short stories is strikingly original, bizarre, and often hilarious. Irish stories tend to feature wee leprechauns, ghosts, magic, bogs, guilt-ridden Catholics, etc. In fact, so does this one, but with such a bizarre twist that they seem radically different - unlike the common precious, melodramatic, self-absorbed voice of stereotypical Irish literature, the reader is confronted with brash wit and a sort of in your face attitude. The stories are quintessentially Irish, but minus the cliche. In fact, in direct opposition to the cliche. They're crude but funny, very clever, and written in a peculiar style that's quite difficult to describe. " 'What are you doing?' she asked him again and again. 'I'm shoving my cock in your cunt,' he replied like a true British empiricist." There's a cosmopolitan perspective coupled with a curious kind of xenophobia, a sense of being a duck out of water in the age of globalization - "Every time I spoke French it felt like standing in front of a doctor and being examined for the clap. I was ashamed. My words were inflamed and ulcerated." There are cults, yogis, communists, ghosts - it's a great time.

Nina FitzPatrick, incidentally, is a nom de plume - the stories are co-written by Nina Witoszek, a Polish writer, and her husband, the Irish Pat Sheeran.There was a big scandal when Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia was nominated for the Irish Times/ Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize for Fiction and Nina FitzPatrick turned out to be unable to prove her Irish origins. The prize was given to Colm Toibin instead.

In any case, maybe it's because I study Polish and Irish literature, but the revelation that the authorship of the book was Polish-Irish made perfect sense to me, and did a lot of work in accounting for the particularities of the tone and style. There's some of the dry Polish humor and penchant for the absurdity, coupled with lovable, effusive Irish bizarre-ness. A marvelous book.


EDIT:

An anonymous person has posted several comments informing me that Nina Witoszek and Pat Sheeran were never married. She certainly claims to have been, but Anonymous Poster says it's a lie. I really am not qualified to speak to the issue, but I wouldn't want to be accused of spreading misinformation, so there you go.

10 May 2006

Silent Hill

Silent Hill is the most faithful video game to film adaptation I've ever seen. Watching it is just like watching somebody play the game. The makers were so devoutly passionate about the game that they didn't try to spruce up the plot, or impose some kind of logical narrative progression on the action. In other words, as a movie, it's a hilarious failure, albeit a visually impressive one.

The movie is fascinating, however, in that it really makes clear why video games should not be made into movies. Video games don't really have much plot. They don't need to. The narrative is propelled by the player, exploring the video game world, encountering various foes, and attempting to kill them. This may sound like your average book or movie, but in fact, most books or movies depend on some kind of bigger picture to keep the action going. In other words, books/movies involve a plot that is some kind of larger story, and the narrative is driven by its interest in that story. The point isn't to tell you everything that happened to a given set of characters, but rather, everything that happened that is interesting in terms of a particular story. And generally, the action is partly composed of internal changes in the characters - it's mental or emotional. The point is often how the characters respond, or feel about certain events, not the events themselves. Video games just can't convey that kind of internal life in any interesting kind of way - the action has to be totally external. The one exception to this, perhaps, is in the realm of knowledge - the game can turn on the character acquiring some specific information.

Narrative progress in video games works somewhat differently to books or movies. Take one of the scenes in Silent Hill, for example - the main character is in a bathroom (having been lured there by a little girl), and happens upon a rather horrifyingly mutilated corpse in one of the stalls. She stares at it with horror, and then... well, in most movies, she'd get the fuck out of there, as most people would in that situation. In a video game, however, she would examine the corpse carefully looking for weapons, tools, hints, etc, because if you have the capabilities of inspection, you better be inspecting things. That corpse is there for a reason. The movie attempts to go halfway - she apparently notices something in the corpse's mouth and retrieves it. Ok, maybe that's not totally preposterous. But the next step again shows us a clear difference - she finds a hotel key in the corpse's mouth. So she concludes, she has to go to the hotel. In video game world, this makes perfect sense. In movie/book/real world, it's ridiculous. I'm failing to fully articulate the key dinstinction here, I know, and that's because I'm still trying to get clear on it myself.

Finally, of course, there's the key issue, that watching a movie about somebody killing a lot of monsters generally isn't as much fun as killing them yourself. I don't fully understand why it's fun to push buttons in fairly formulaic ways to execute a number of moves, generally similar, that will kill something on screen, but it is. You can happily spend 10 minutes slaughtering people in a video game, even though all you're really doing is pushing the B button repeatedly. It's actually exhilarating. It can even be fun to watch one of your friends try to do it. But it's not much fun to watch it happen in a movie, unless there's some creative choreography involved (see my entry on The Transporter 2, for instance). Part of the problem here is that you know how it will end - you or your friend might not succeed in killing the bad guys, but the film hero certainly will. Actually, the flipside here, which the movie does depict, is that in a video game, if you're roaming around a mansion and happen upon a room full of bad guys, your first move is to slam the door and try to find another way to go. Movies generally (this one is an exception) don't let their protagonists off so easy. This one leaves plenty of creepy crawlies unharmed - in fact, there isn't much fighting at all. Although the main character acquires, and drops, a weapon at one point, she's really not kicking any ass. Some of the supporting cast does though.

In any case, I very much enjoyed watching Silent Hill. I was in hysterics for the last half hour of the film - it was so ridiculous that I was literally crying with laughter. The "mind-blowing" ending was such a fantastic slap in the face to most of the audience that I think I actually cackled with glee. Also amusing was the number of people who walked out of the movie - the best being the couple who fled the theatre immediately after a character declared "The darkness is coming. We must leave". Indeed. I was quite impressed with the gore, too. They didn't pull any punches - the game is brutal, and so is the movie. Faces melt, people are impaled and ultimately torn in half with barbed wire (my boyfriend, incidentally, thought the physics of dismemberment was quite impressive), skin is torn off by the fistful - it's hyper-violent. As my friend joked, "Technology, what can't it do?". If we have the powers to realistically portray a woman's face slowly melting as she's being roasted alive, then by golly we ought to.

Anyhow, yeah, if you liked playing Silent Hill, you might want to go see the movie. It's actually kind of neat to see it on the big screen - the first 20 minutes (well, after the preposterous prologomena meant to explain how the main character got to Silent Hill) are spot on. The cinematography here is incredible - the cuts, the perspectives, even the way people move, are just like the game. Very cool. If you never played the game, you will probably not like the movie. It would do alright on a night you want to rent something stupid and get mega-trashed, but really, you could probably do better.

09 May 2006

The Hours

I suppose it's to be expected that one will not like the movie adaptation of a book that one despised. The Hours is a very pretty movie, glossy, well-acted, poignant. Yet, I found it completely uncompelling. I actually fast-forwarded through chunks of it because I couldn't stand all the long takes of the various characters staring into space to the sound of fervent piano music. Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books, so I'm probably not as open to the idea of innovation in this case as I could be, but honestly, the three stories woven together never did a lot for me. I wasn't wild about it in the book, and I liked it even less in the movie, where the rapid cuts from story to story, revelling in the simulataneity of the mostly mundane events of the women's lives was rather irritating. When the whole thing escalated into a sort of collective consciousness, with everyone writing each others' neurosis, it became massively claustrophobia inducing. The accumulation of angst and misery sent my cynicism into overdrive, and rather than sympathizing with anyone, I thought to myself that movies should restrict themselves to one overwrought woman at a time. I suppose the effect should have been a sort of impressive move between general and particular, these three women in such different contexts sharing similar tragedies in unique ways, but instead, it just became a mish-mash of neurosis. Nobody in the movie was genuinely likable by the end - the poor, ineffectual supporting cast struggled to deal with the whirlwind of passive-aggressive outrage nobly, but seemed either exasperated or just broken by the process. I admit, the acting was excellent - Nicole Kidman in particular was very impressive as Virginia Woolf, and Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep were stunning as always. They were gloriously consumed in their misery, teetering at the brink of breakdown, their shining eyes giving a convincing presentation of seething misery just below the surface. The problem is, they were downtrodden all the goddamn time. I don't think any of them ever laugh, or even smile with genuine happiness - even when they're not explicitly miserable, one always has the sense that any good mood is just a front. But because they're so unhappy all the time, you never get an idea of what they'd be like if they were happy - you don't have a sense of what is lost. They seem pathetically doomed to depression, consitutionally incapable of joy. Tragic, yes, but rapidly exhausting.

02 May 2006

Love Actually/ The Transporter 2

Everyone needs a guilty pleasure. Love Actually is a guilty pleasure par excellence; The Transporter 2 is (largely) a flop. Though it should be noted that the first Transporter is a guilty pleasure to rival Love Actually - it might even surpass it.

Much like Bridget Jones Diary and Notting Hill, Love Actually is a delightful feel-good romantic comedy that features a power-house cast and a lot of very funny moments. I generally am disappointed with movies that try to cram 5 or 6 narratives running parallel to each other into a larger whole, but this one does a decent job. It doesn't get completely ridiculous about somehow connecting everyone, and it's surprisingly skillful with negotiating so many characters without making them all caricatures. Though some aren't really fleshed out, none are really flat - it's well done. Although it ultimately succumbs to the impulse to load on the sap, it's not overly saccharine - some stories are left unresolved, or rather wistful, and the ones that do receive an ├╝ber happy ending are balanced with a generous dollop of comedy. It doesn't rush right into the lovey-dovey stuff, either - it starts out somewhat cynical, allowing for a period of adjustment, so that you can get on board and cheer for the happy endings without feeling completely emasculated. And there's enough lewd humor sprinkled throughout that you never feel like you've completely overdosed on mush.

The Transporter 2, unfortunately, is mostly pretty dull, and doesn't even begin to approach the excellence of The Transporter (1). The only thing it has going for it, which actually does make it worth watching, albeit with one finger hovering over fast forward, are the fight scenes. The choreography is incredible - it's really like watching modern dance. There's a lengthy scene involving multiple "bad guys" being subdued with a fire house that is simply stunning. The other perk of the movie would theoretically be Kate Nauta, the vilainess who can't seem to bear the confinement of clothing, and thus runs around blasting everything in sight to bits with two machine guns wearing nothing but skimpy underwear. Why is she only wearing underwear, even when it seems directly detrimental to the task at hand? Who knows, but honestly, I don't mind that much. Or at least, I didn't at first, until I realized that I'd much prefer a woman with a more attractive body to be playing the role - I meean, if you're going to put someone in as eye-candy, make them good looking, eh? She's just too damn skinny. At first it seems hot, until you realize that super model bodies are kind of creepy. She has almost no body fat, but no muscle either. It's weird.

The plot is total rubbish, and has gaping holes in it. Again, this wouldn't really be a problem, if it weren't so damn boring. Action movies don't need to have intricate plots - they just need enough momentum to keep you interested. This one just doesn't, really. Though I was really impressed when they crashed an airplane into the sea while the two main characters were fighting on it - I had just been thinking, man, it's so lame how they always manage to save the plane somehow*. What's really missing though, is personality. The fantastic thing about the first Transporter movie is that it's a throwback to action movies of old, like Commando. Jason Statham is, in fact, my number one candidate for an Arnold Schwarzenegger successor, and let me tell you, that means a lot, because I LOVE Schwarzenegger movies**. Statham is a raging badass - in fact, he's got Arnold beat here, because he's not only a fighting machine, he's also one of the best drivers to grace the screen in years. So rad. But he's also got Arnold's charm. The real secret to an entertaining action movie, after great action, of course, is puns. Great puns. The first Transporter movie had them, but this one really doesn't, so much. In fact, Statham seems incredibly wooden, and not much fun. His "rules", so amusing in the first movie, now seem really more irritating than anything else. Finally, to be honest, the action was awesome, but the suspension of disbelief required was really straining my resources. I mean, I think that it might be fair to set a maximum on the number of times that a stunt can involve a car flying through the air in an incredibly precise fashion - you wanna launch the car, spinning, into a crane such that the crane will snag the bomb attached to the bottom of the car just before it explodes while you land safely across the harbor, fine. But you can't have your cake and eat it too - you've got to cut the scenes where you leap from one parking garage to the other in order to evade the cops. Save it for the third movie, eh?

*Actually, I was wondering something else, namely, what I would have thought of the movie had it ended with the plane on which the two main characters were fighting crashing in the sea. On the one hand, it would be interesting to just end the movie there - that would really throw people for a loop, eh? Slavoj Zizek was recently mentioning how, when he first saw Ben-Hur in Slovenia, it had been censored such that it ended right after the famous chariot race, and he had thought it was one of the most profoundly existential movies he'd ever seen. I don't think an abrupt ending would have made this movie profound, but it would have been kind of cool.
Of course, this would also imply that the good guy failed to save the day, which leads to another interesting alternate ending, namely, showing what happened after the good guy failed to save the day. It would probably be a flop, because really, most movies, and especially action movies, despite the way that they seem to be about some sequence of events, are really about watching someone badass do cool things. Lose the hero, lose the movie.

**The Rock is the other possible candidate, and the one apparently favored by Arnold, if you go off his cameo in The Rundown. The Rundown is an excellent movie, and The Rock is fairly badass, and has a pretty good personality, especially for making wise-cracks and puns, but there's something missing. I mean, as I said, Statham has the added bonus of being a high-tech, incredible driver badass, in addition to knowing several different styles of fighting. So he's got a one up there. But he also does better with the wise-cracks - The Rock has a bit too much of a sensitive side to be fully convincing. He always seems like a really nice guy, even when he's beating people up.
I had high hopes for Vin Diesel, but I was so appalled by XXX that they were immediately shattered. Not at all a badass - his stunts, though impressive, belong in an Xtreme Sports reel, not in an action movie - and the whole romance thing? Are you kidding me?
Matt Damon is just not badass enough. Sorry.
Chuck Norris is amazing, but he's his own category. I'm talking about Arnold successors, not badasses in general.