27 August 2006

The Fountainhead



I should probably be clear from the get-go that The Fountainhead is one of my favorite books. So I went and saw the movie, not out of some kind of joy in camp and kitsch, but out of genuine interest in seeing it on screen, particularly given that Ayn Rand herself wrote the screenplay. It was, alas, a rather disappointing experience, although the process of figuring out exactly why is an interesting one.

I suppose that the first problem is precisely that of rendering the text visual. It’s not just that the people didn’t look the way I imagined them – Gary Cooper as Roark? Please. But generally that the book thrives on potent descriptions that are emotionally resonant but nonetheless rather vague. For instance: “His face was like a law of nature – a thing one could not question, alter, or implore”. Things are often described in terms of the effect they create upon the viewer: “He stood looking at her. She knew that he did not see her. No, she thought, it was not that exactly. He always looked straight at people and his damnable eyes never missed a thing, it was only that he made people feel as if they did not exist”. It is difficult, well nigh impossible, to render such a description in the flesh. This is probably true of any novel, but it’s particularly the case in this one, where so much depends upon the descriptions of the architecture. The buildings are generally described as embodied ideas, with very little detail of their actual physical appearance. And seeing the buildings, or even things like Roark’s signature, which is supposed to be sharp and angular, but looks somewhat prissy, really damages the effect. The film’s aesthetic isn’t particularly original – it’s very much a product of its times (it was made in 1949) – and though it does privilege neat geometric shapes, it isn’t particularly compelling. The book functions, I think, largely by describing certain emotions, which the reader gets carried away on, and the film simply cannot duplicate that effect.

A friend of mine wondered out loud how the movie could be translated into film when so much of it is inner monologue. I was surprised, because I didn’t remember there being much interior narration, but in fact, he was (partly) right. It’s not that there’s a lot of inner monologue, so much as the fact that there’s a great emphasis placed upon people having rigid control of their facial expressions. This is particularly the case for Dominique and Howard, both of whom generally have countenances that are completely inscrutable. In fact, what sets them apart from others is that they are extremely difficult for other people to get a read on, and this is actually crucial to the plot, as is the fact that the reader actually knows what they’re thinking. This, again, is pretty much impossible to convey in film.

Of course, condensing the plot is painful, particularly in a work as epic as this one. I wonder how the film works for someone who hasn’t read the book, if it seems rather scattered and incoherent. Certainly, it lacks the complexities of the novel, which is a great pity. Peter Keating, for instance, is just a boring character whose role is entirely structural, which is unfortunate, because he is such a vital part of the book. There is clearly a desire to keep many of the hallmark scenes of the novel, and this sometimes becomes rather crude; for instance, Dominique tossing the sculpture out the window as Gail arrives at her apartment.

But perhaps the real pity of the film is that it brings the book’s polemic to the forefront. Much as I love the novel, I just don’t agree with Rand’s philosophy. But watching the movie forced me to contemplate why, and for that, I am grateful. Rand’s philosophy is essentially a celebration of egoism. It’s very appealing in her fictional world where it works out quite nicely. It is completely untenable in the real world, not least because people like Roark don’t exist. In fact, in this sense, it has an odd parallel, I think, to the ethics of Levinas (yes, I find this comparison absurd – infinite responsibility to the Other paired with infinite egoism - but nonetheless oddly useful and interesting). In both cases, you have a theoretical system that, in its given universe, is fantastic. Levinas’ ethics of the face involve two people – Levinas himself said that once you add a third, it collapses, hence why justice, which belongs to the collective, and ethics, which belongs to the encounter between the individual and the other, are forever separate. Rand’s worldview of the individual is quite appealing, but the fact of the matter is, we all live in the world. You can’t base a system of politics around the individual. Sure, democracy and capitalism sort of try to, but without concessions to the collective, it falls apart. I believe in welfare. I don’t believe that mercy is inherently degrading. I don’t believe that anyone who doesn’t succeed fails purely because they aren’t good enough. It’s very sad, but it’s true. Furthermore, I do believe that those people who fail because they are actually not as bright or hardworking or what have you as others ought to be helped by those who can help them. I don’t believe that the individual should be a slave to the collective, but I do believe in compromise. But to go back to Levinas and Rand, the problem in both cases is that they only function in an isolated system, and once you add a few billion people into the mix, they falter.

On the other hand, I also appreciate Rand’s celebration of human ability, and glorification of the individual. I love especially the way that she describes the view of a person passionately committed to their work: “(…) before you can do things for people, you must be the kind of person who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences. The work, not the people. Your own action, not any possible object of your charity.” I wonder if anyone who studies literature, for instance, does it because they really care about fame, or helping people to understand a text, or god knows what else. I don’t know how anyone could stay up for 60 hours straight working on something if not for the love of the work itself. Certainly, I couldn’t.

Finally, there’s the problem of the love affair, which in the movie is rendered with all the melodrama of its time, and, of course, less of the sheer physicality. People tend to be very put off by Rand’s attitude towards love, because generally it looks a lot like rape. But I read it somewhat differently. I am not apologizing for her, and I have plenty of problems with her female characters, etc, but I nonetheless find some of her attitudes quite appealing, albeit extreme. This is probably more personal than I’d like to be in this venue, but I find the idea of one’s soul mate as one’s worthiest opponent highly compelling. While I wouldn’t try to demolish a person I loved, the sense of love as exquisite torture, both ultimate surrender and ultimate power, the attempt to break someone while nonetheless praying they can’t be broken, revelling in their strength while pushing it to its utmost, is actually quite beautiful. And despite the violence of her love scenes, there is tenderness there as well. And what many people miss, as they read of women surrendering themselves to men, is the reciprocity of those very scenes – the surrender of the man as well. It’s a power play, certainly, but both are vanquished. And everybody wins!

Incidentally, love in Rand’s books is a fascinating case, because it’s the one real challenge to the policy of ultimate egoism, and it’s not fully resolved. I think she attempts to sidestep the issue by generally speaking of love from the female point of view, where the woman is bowing to the man, who is of course superior, and basically submitting to him entirely, but the fact remains that Roark can’t get Dominique out of his head, and suffers without her. And while he drops her at a moment’s notice for his work, one can’t really imagine the book ending without the two of them being together at last. And in fact, it would be a flaw in the fictional world if they didn’t, so there’s some kind of catch. But this I haven’t quite figured out yet. Actually, by coincidence, I’m currently reading We the Living, where it’s a thornier issue. So I suppose I’ll come back to the question when I get around to reviewing that.

23 August 2006

Identity, by Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera has a real gift for simple, beautiful observations about human nature. It's the brilliance of his books - the brief moments of eloquence, where he hits on something about how people work that really strikes home. My problem with this novel, however, is that all the stuff that connects those moments annoys the hell out of me. The storyline is haphazard and the characters are irritating. The narrative, which ought to be the meat of the novel, is crap.

The novel (or novella, perhaps, given how short it is) follows two lovers, Jean-Marc and Chantal, but the plot is basically an excuse to reflect upon love and relationships, aging, deceit, and, of course, identity. At first you think it's telling a story, then it sort of wanders around, and ultimately concludes with a totally obnoxious, sollipsistic, pretentious ending that basically ruins the whole book. Seriously, it's awful. I don't really want to give it away, but I'll give a hint - think of the most annoying, preposterous, cliche solution to a novel that you can. Yeah. That's it.

Oddly enough, the observations about love and relationships ring true, despite the fact that both Jean-Marc and Chantal are self-absorbed, pretentious twits. And the reflections about their relationship are somehow worthwhile, even though their problems are silly, and largely based upon misunderstandings or miscommunications. Maybe it's my own bias, but I have zero patience, or sympathy, for couples whose problems, it seems to me, stem from casual deceit bred from sins of omission. In any case, as I said, some of the sound-bytes that use their case to make more general claims are nonetheless compelling, which makes one fear that perhaps human nature is that shallow and stupid. It's not even the idiocy I mind, so much as the utter lack of grace, the melodramatic egocentricity.

The reflections on identity, which I suppose ought to be the entire point, are unfortunately sullied by their context, and ultimately seem rather vapid. Or maybe it's just that I'm bored with the topic. Or at very least, bored by seeing the same issues appear over and over.

Perhaps the best one can say about Identity is that it's very short. You can easily burn through it in 90 minutes or so, and it's not an entirely unrewarding task. But really, there are better books out there. Better Kundera books, even.

20 August 2006

Aguirre: The Wrath of God

A fascinating film. It took me awhile to warm up to it, but by the end, I was mesmerized. Alas, I missed the first 5 minutes or so because of projector problems at the theatre, and I think I missed some opening captions that set up the action. But basically, the plot centers around a group of conquistadors in (I believe it is) 1568 who are searching for El Dorado. Someone on Netflix posted an interesting comment about this movie: "Perhaps the strongest point in favor of the film Aguirre, The Wrath of God is that it can be viewed differently depending on your preferences. You can watch it as serious drama or as amusing camp, as a historical reenactment or as total fiction." I would say that this is actually the point - that it's both. Not just the movie, but really, history itself.

Made by Werner Herzog in 1978, it looks very crude, with garish colors and clumsy shots. Everything is up close - almost too close. One can't help but feel a sense of absurdity over the fact that the Spanish conquistadors are speaking in German - one notices this in any historical drama I suppose, but it's heightened here. I don't know if it's intentional, but the fact that the English subtitles appear on screen a good minute before the speech they are translating is heard contributes to the effect. Of course, historical dramas are generally done in the wrong language, but here it's somehow far more noticeable, though maybe it wouldn't seem that way to a German audience. But then again, in fact, Spanish was every bit as alien to that land as Germany. These people were completely out of context. And the use of German sort of drives that point home in an interesting way.

The movie teeters between camp and high drama in a very strange way. Is Aguirre a madman or a visionary? Is there a difference? Is he a comic figure, or a tragic one? Kinski's portrayal is brilliant, in that it's almost a caricature, but not quite. He's both bizarre and charismatic.

So what you have is a bunch of guys, starving and sick, floating down the river on a raft, planning on taking over a continent. And furtively documenting their efforts in legal titles, etc. And you can't quite figure out if it's supposed to be the history channel or a Monty Python skit. Is it meant to be funny? Look at the Priest, for example, the guy who keeps talking about enlightening the savages as his companions set about massacring them. The great thing about the movie is that it doesn't glorify him, or cast him as a hypocrite, or mock him, or even pay him any particular notice. The whole tone of the film is flat, not accentuating anything. The cinematography is brilliant in its tonelessness. It's not a Heart of Darkness story. It almost refuses to be any kind of story at all. The events aren't mobilized into a grander narrative - they're just sort of stuck in, and one has no idea what to make of them.

The ending, with the raft spralling in circles as Aguirre paces amongst the bodies of his companions, raft overrun by monkeys, ranting about the new world he will found, is genius. It's moving, funny, and terrifying all at once. I wouldn't call it comic, but rather, wrenchingly absurd. Certainly, there must have been scenes like this in such settings. Watching it, one simply doesn't know how to respond emotionally, and the movie doesn't offer any guidance.

So you watch this movie, unsure of how to respond, and then you think, or at least I did, but isn't this kind of how it happened? A band of Spaniards rolled into South America and deemed it theirs? And isn't it both hilarious, astonishing, and horrifying, that they succeeded?

19 August 2006

Snakes on a (motherfucking) Plane

(Yes of course I went to opening night. And yes I did dress up in snakewear. And you wish you did too.)

Wow. Really just wow.

If you haven't heard about this movie yet, and haven't been eagerly awaiting its release, you might not really appreciate it. Unless you're excited about seeing the movie just based on its title, the fact that it stars Samuel L. Jackson, and the plot premise (ie, the title). If that doesn't get your engine revving, don't bother going. The movie is camp genius. It's made better by the fact that it's an interactive experience, with the audience cheering, and even shouting along for the most famous lines. It really does testify to the incredible power of the internet.

But back to the movie itself. I expected to love it, but wow. They really pulled out all the stops. I mean, if you're gonna have snakes attacking people, let's face it, they need to be attacking vulnerable spots. Like genitals, nipples, and eyeballs. OH YES. The brilliance of the movie is in the way that it delivers EXACTLY what the audience wants. Stock characters (the goofy surfer dude, the slutty flight attendant, the asshole European, the rap star, the Paris Hilton figure, and of course, A KICKBOXER - yes, I'm using all caps because I'm yelling this gleefully in my head as I type), lots of mean looking snakes (including one seriously awesome anaconda), lots of cheesy dialogue, some breasts, some gore, some suspense, some ridiculous pseudo-science (the pheromones! nooooo!) and seriously, dialogue. They don't hesitate. "This plane will go down faster than a Thai hooker". Genius.

And a sidenote, but at some point in the movie, Samuel L. Jackson makes a joke that hinges on him being black - a great joke - and then suddenly you realize, hey, this is actually a really multi-racial cast. And that seems really cool, until you realize that, Samuel L. Jackson aside, all the non-white characters are total caricatures of racial stereotypes (A KICKBOXER). And then you realize, oh wait, that's because ALL the characters are caricatures of stereotypes. So I guess it's ok in the end.

Also, it's intriguing how the film doesn't just rely on the snakes for suspense and action. There are plenty of other problems, caused by the snakes, to be sure, but still separate from them - like the plane lacking air circulation and everybody sweating bullets, for instance. So when Samuel L. Jackson said it'd be a double whammy for people who are afraid of both snakes and airplanes, he wasn't fucking around. Especially given recent events, I imagine the airline industry is none too thrilled about this film's relief. I mean, don't get me wrong, the movie isn't really scary - though I did kinda jump in my seat a few times - I would describe it more as action-packed. And awesome.

Sure, there are some things that don't quite make sense - like why does he stop using the tazer? But still, the movie is a damn good time. Which is exactly what it intends to be, and boy does it deliver. Hallelujah.

15 August 2006

The Matador

What a strange movie.

One has the sense that this could have been a great film. It was quirky, the acting was great, and there were some really choice moments. The humor was off-beat, the dialogue was entirely decent, the story was odd and somewhat compelling... but the movie was boring. It just kind of dragged. Parts that seemed totally irrelevant went on and on, and important bits raced by. The timing was just off. The movie seemed to proceed in the jerky forward motion of a manual transmission car being driven by someone who has only ever comandeered automatics. It leapfrogged forward 6 months, showed brief clips of action in various cities, then spent 20 minutes on one conversation. Very, very weird. There were lots of scenes that just seemed completely random - for instance, Greg Kinnear is leaving for Mexico very early in the morning. Like, 5:30 am. He's quietly eating his cereal, and his wife comes downstairs to say goodbye. They get a bit sappy... and then start having sex (this transition occurs in the space of about a minute)... and then a tree crashes through the roof. The tree is referred to later a few times, but it has no real bearing on the action. It's just a really strange scene, kinda crammed into the movie. It's interesting, and the juxtaposition of the half nude embracing pair with the fallen tree is kind of neat visually, but still, huh?

I think this problem in timing had to do with the makers insisting that the real "message" of the movie is NOT in the story itself, but between the lines. The fact that it's about the friendship between an assassin and an average joe wasn't the point. The real POINT, the movie seemed to want to say, was that the assassin was lonely and led an empty shallow life, and the boring average joe had a wonderful wife. Ok, so really, the point is, love is super. Huh? I mean, ok, but why do you need this crazy outlandish plot about an assassin to say that?

I read one review that praised the movie because Pierce Brosnan was so great as an ultra sleazy character, the very opposite of his suave James Bond. But the thing was, he wasn't properly sleazy. I mean, he was still a sympathetic character, and ultimately, a pretty good guy. In fact, everyone in this movie seemed pretty darn pleasant. Kind of odd. Hope Davis had a really great character - a really wonderful woman.

Finally, one thing that caught my interest, there are two shots in the movie that involve one character looking in a mirror, and two other characters in the background. Kind of curious, not really sure what they're doing there.

Anyhow, a very odd film.

10 August 2006

The Descent

I was reading an article in the New York Times Magazine recently about the difference between Japanese and American horror films, and one of them is apparently that American audiences require some kind of explanation to find horror satisfying, whereas Japanese viewers are content to spend 2 hours watching scary things happening without ever understanding why. Severed hands making collect calls? Water streaming from walls? Why not? The Descent doesn't provide any kind of explanation for its subterranean monsters, and it's kind of refreshing in that way. Because generally, the explanation part of fright flicks is the weakest link, providing some kind of false assurance rather than contributing to the scare.

In any case, the monsters of The Descent aren't even the scariest part. They make for a lot of good jumps and screams (honestly, I don't think I've ever screamed as loudly in my life as I did during this movie), but as is generally the case, they quickly become campy and amusing. The real fright of the film is in the cave setting itself. As one woman commented after it ended, "That was the most stressful movie I've ever seen in my life". As soon as the women start jamming themselves through tiny cramped tunnels deep under the earth, most of the audience starts squirming. The camera work is brilliant - it's incredibly claustrophobic, and very, very scary. Unlike most underground movies, it's dark as hell. True, there is a scene or two where you think, 'wait, where is that extra light coming from?', but for the most part, the movie does well in depriving you of a totalizing view, limiting lighting to a few flashlights or headlamps.

I'm not going to touch on the ending debate here, because I haven't seen the UK ending yet, but honestly, I don't really give a shit. The brilliance of the movie was in ambiance, not plot. Likewise with the Juno debate - the Lord of the Flies/treachery aspect of the film didn't do a lot for me. It probably could have been mobilized to contribute to the suspense, but in the end, it just seemed somewhat dull and trite. Same goes for Sarah's various flashbacks - the inner emotional lives of the characters were largely uninteresting to me. It's not that they were totally flat, they were just sort of dull.

Finally, one thing I (predictably) loved about the movie was seeing a horror film with a cast of women who kicked some serious ass. Awesome climbers, zombie slayers, and general badasses. Holly's leg injury? Swoon. Hooray for a movie that lets women be hardcore, but also lets them be giggling girls drinking beer and gossiping. Of course they're terrified of the monsters, but rather than run away, breasts heaving, waiting for some man to save them, they search for a way out and unleash holy hell. They figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy and act accordingly. Occasionally someone does something stupid that makes you cringe, but that's the point - the characters don't have the same information that the audience does. That's what makes them believable, and all the more impressive when they figure it out. So while I said above that I found their mental lives boring, I did very much appreciate them as real women who were tough, sexy, but still human. Ok, so it was strange that some of them were wearing thick eyeliner underground, but hey, why not. The jab at Tomb Raider early on was well placed and subtle, but drove the point home. So three cheers for that. Now the challenge will be to find/make a movie that can sustain that kind of female charisma and also have male characters...