26 February 2007

Emma, by Jane Austen

Man, Jane Austen is absolutely fascinating. This book is no exception. Her novels may seem like fluffy feel-good romances, but the prose is so tightly controlled, it's mesmerizing.

Wayne Booth has an amazing chapter on Emma in his book, The Rhetoric of Fiction, where he points out that the entire novel is a precarious balancing act, teetering between omniscient narrative and Emma's perspective. On the one hand, we need to see things through Emma's eyes in order to have sympathy for her - if we didn't have access to her thoughts, we wouldn't like her much, and wouldn't really care about her. On the other hand, we need to know more than Emma does in order to appreciate the comedy of the situation, which generally stems from Emma's being completely wrong in her opinions of the things going on around her. But at the same time, we can't know too much, because that would spoil the suspense, and the pleasure of the unfolding romances. It's really kind of incredible, when you think about it, I mean, these three forces are basically in contradiction with each other, and it's really hard to imagine how they could be combined. And yet it works.

Emma is basically a conversion narrative, and a particularly interesting one, to me, because it's a conversion that depends upon her gaining self-knowledge, or rather, upon a correction of her staggering tendency for self-deception. In other words, it's not that Emma was previously a thoughtless jerk who never considered her actions, and then she suddenly looked within herself and realized she needed to be more considerate - Emma is a hyperconscious character throughout the novel. She's constantly checking herself, analyzing and evaluating her own behavior and actions. The things is, though, is that she's usually wrong. Self-deception is a really fascinating philosophical problem, and this is probably one of the best depictions of it that I've ever seen. Think about it - the author is setting up a situations where a character makes pronouncements about herself that the reader knows are wrong, even though she doesn't. How do you do that? And how do you then show her learning to be right about herself? So cool.

Another kind of notable thing about the book, for me, is that it has a terrific depiction of genuine platonic friendship between a man and a woman, which you wouldn't really expect in a Jane Austen novel. The relationship between Frank Churchill and Emma is a remarkable portrayal of a man and woman who meet, go through a period of romantic tension, and end up being really good friends. Crazy plot twists aside, they both realize that they're very similar in many ways, and like each other a lot, but wouldn't make a good couple. What's interesting about this, to me, is that they're similar because they share the same faults. And that is an excellent basis for a very close friendship, and a terrible basis for a relationship. And this is actually a really valuable bit of advice that the novel conveys in a very subtle way. Thanks for the life lesson Jane!

Still though, at times, the careful structure gets to be a bit much - you feel like you can see the scaffolding at times. Like the totally whacked out scene where Harriet gets attacked by a horde of gypsy children - wtf? I mean, seriously. Did Jane Austen drink too much tea that day or what? The plot works out a bit too nicely - and it sort of has to. It's a very tidy text, but it's so neat that it gives off a vaguely irritating squeak when you rub it.

Reading the book, I couldn't help but think back to Clueless - I gained a whole new appreciation for that movie. I mean, I already loved it on its own merits, but I hadn't sufficiently appreciated what a phenomenal adaptation of the novel it is. It's a very skillfully compressed and modernized version of the story - I'm really looking forward to watching it again now.

Critics writing about Austen often reiterate what a narrow subset of the world she's describing. It's true - it's a book about upper middle class English country folk. And even with that constraint, the text is strikingly stark. There's no history, very little awareness of the outside world, and practically no physical description. Yet one has the sense of meticulous detail. Everything is in extremely sharp focus - but what is the focus on? It's really hard to say.

Fascinating stuff.

21 February 2007

Love Stories (Historie Milosne)

I have a strange sort of weakness for Jerzy Stuhr. He strikes me as this sort of peevish, pretentious guy who desperately wants to be profound and interesting but doesn't quite manage. You can't really like him, but you sort of enjoy him nonetheless. This movie is kind of like that too. It really wants to be a thought provoking allegory about love, but it ends up being rather tendentious and droning, yet somehow kind of enjoyable. It's clearly an ego trip - Stuhr not only wrote and directed it, but also stars in all 4 leads. It doesn't really add anything to the film to have all 4 leads played by the same person. In the end, it just shows you that Stuhr isn't as good an actor as he'd like to be. I suppose one could claim that the 4 leads are MEANT to be variations of some universal everyman, but really, they're just 4 variations of Jerzy Stuhr. It's kind of fun to watch him attempt to play 4 different people - the 4 different ways he walks in the opening are pretty impressive - but after awhile they all kind of meld into one.

The film chronicles 4 love stories - a priest who is reunited with his daughter, a college professor and his student, a military man and his former fling, and a convict and his wife. Each of them is called upon to make certain decisions, to decide whether or not they are willing to sacrifice their careers for love. But the film doesn't really pose these questions in a provocative way. It just kind of shows you 4 stories. You don't really care about the characters or what they're going to do, for some reason. Maybe because everyone speaks in such slow, measured ways. Maybe because they're sort of lofty types who wear their motivations on their sleeves. There's no ambiguity, no real character development. The college student, for instance. She loves her professor. That's all she really cares about. And you know, that's just not very interesting. The one real shining star in terms of interest is the wife of the convict, played by the always delightful Kasia Figura. My god, what a woman. But she, too, is basically programmed to behave in certain ways in certain situations - there's not much to it.

The film attempts to unite the 4 stories by introducing a sort of St-Peter-at-the-gate type character and spinning off into the mystical, bringing in a Final Judgement kind of motif. the interrogations are interesting, actually, because it's the one moment that any of the characters seem to have any depth. The symbolism is really clunky and largely incoherent - what's the deal with the Examiner's leaky pen? Who cares? The Judgement bit, however, is just annoying. It's an attempt to neatly wrap up the various stories and it's obnoxious.

So why do I say that the movie is enjoyable? Hard to say. The more I think about it, the more I think it was basically crap. If you wanna watch a good movie with Kasia Figura and Jerzy Stuhr, watch Kiler. Because that's a solidly fantastic movie.

16 February 2007

Farce of the Penguins

Man, this movie could have been so much funnier.

The premise is ridiculously basic - a parody of March of the Penguins, made entirely with cheap stock footage, and voiced by a star-studded cast of comics. Bob Saget is credited with the writing - the movie probably would have been a lot better if all the comics doing voices had just written their own lines. But still, it's not a _bad_ movie - for some reason, I tend to expect that dumbass comedies like this will either be genius or crap. But this one is soundly mediocre, with a few moments of absolute hilarity. I wouldn't be surprised if, 5 years down the road, I ended up thinking it was really funny. Because as my friend Ligaya pointed out, if you spent some time hanging out with someone who thought that this movie was comic genius, and constantly quoted lines from it, you'd probably end up finding it hilarious. I mean, that's kind of how my love of Office Space started - I didn't think it was all that funny when I first saw it, but after hearing it quoted a billion times, I ended up thinking it was comic genius. Farce of the Penguins actually has the potential to be that kind of movie. There were scenes that I'm still chuckling over a few days later, and some of the lines will indubitably become a part of my amusing non sequitor repertoire ("I'm Jaime. I'm up front. I don't play games. Wanna bang?" "Ew, disgusting!" "Oooh, you're up front too. I like that."). Some might complain that it's overly crude, but what in the hell are those people doing renting the movie? What did they expect?

The highlight of the movie is almost certainly Samuel L. Jackson's narration. But Carlos Mencia (whom I normally don't particularly care for) does a great turn as a stoned penguin roaming through the tropics. And the montage of various animals getting it on is kind of awesome.

Ultimately, I guess, it's a movie you sort of have to be in the mood for. And getting in the mood should probably involve slaughtering an ungodly amount of brain cells. I certainly wouldn't recommend watching it at full mental capacity. But if you're looking for some good dumb humor, you could do worse. You could also do better, but hey, it's always good to have a backup plan.

11 February 2007

Smokin' Aces

One generally thinks of the plot of a film as being its main purpose - we are watching the movie because somebody wants to tell us a story, and that story is gonna be meaningful, entertaining, enlightening, etc. I am generally a bit of a fascist about narrative structure - I get kind of annoyed when there are long scenes that don't really fit into the narrative arc, I get pissed when portions of the story are left dangling - I relish an intricate structure composed of lots of little pieces that fit into an elegant whole in interesting ways. Also, I generally despise movies that have a huge cast of characters (all of whom I'm supposed to care about) whose stories are being told in parallel - not on principle, but because they're generally so badly done. This movie ought to have annoyed the crap out of me, but as it turns out, I really enjoyed it.

People were thinking of this movie as being like Snatch, or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, or something Tarantino. It's not. It sort of looks like those movies, because it's a sprawling story of a bunch of wacky people doing very violent things , and you're jumping around between all these stories waiting for the boom, but the thing about those other movies, is they actually have fairly sophisticated plots with very complex relationships between characters. This is not the case here. The relationships between the characters is extremely straight-forward, and doesn't rely on any kind of backstory. These people are only vaguely aware of each other. There's not a lot of suspense. You're not necessarily rooting for one side or another. This is made most clear when two of them, who have developed a more complicated relationship over the course of the film (one nearly killed the other) meet in a parking lot at the end of the movie. This ought to be a somewhat tense encounter, but really, it's just kind of amusing. You aren't really invested in it - they might end up friends, they might not, who knows, who cares. It's a funny scene, but the humor doesn't really come from the relationship between the characters, it comes from each of them individually. The denouement doesn't really move you - it is what it is.

Smokin' Aces is not about the story. The plot in this movie is basically a contrivance employed to get all of these characters in the same place (the scriptwriter would probably make a killer DM, heh heh). So the opening of the movie, which several reviews have complained about, is the set-up - we meet the cast and watch them collect their missions, so to speak, which will get them to the scene of the action, and get a quick rundown of their stats and skills. The premise is fairly simple - Buddy Israel, Vegas magician, is wanted dead by the mob and alive by the cops (apparently the Mob has so little faith in their hired assassins that they hire 5 different ones, just to keep their bases covered). And now the stage is set - we're in Tahoe, where, in the top floor penthouse of a semi-classy hotel, we have Buddy and his crew, and it's a mad scramble to see who will get to him first.

There is, of course, more plot than that. But it's crap and is best just ignored entirely. The "twist" at the end, I'm telling you now, simply doesn't make sense. It's one of those standard tropes of movies of this kind, so you hear it and you're like, "oooh, wow, ok, right" and move along, because you didn't _really_ care that much, but if you see this movie, pause and think about it for a second. It makes no sense.

The biggest problem for movies like this is the ending. If you're making a movie based on, "Ok, so we've got all these people, and we're gonna throw them into a room together and see what happens Go!", there's generally no obvious ending point. And there's an expectation that endings will feel conclusive, like we've all been on this journey together and now we've all learned something and can walk away feeling like the last 2 hours have been spiritually worthwhile. It's unfortunate that Smokin' Aces didn't end with Common carrying Alicia Keys through the rubble***. Yes, it would have been cliche, but you know, I wouldn't have minded. Instead, the final scene was absolute garbage. As one review so delighftully put it, "It doesn't help that the director taps [Ryan] Reynolds to carry the emotional weight of this scene, which is a little like asking Daniel Day Lewis to tell a dick joke."

My major beef with movies of this sort (the reason that I didn't like Traffic, Syriana, Crash, etc) is that trying to bring together an extremely diverse cast in a manageable amount of time generally involves a lot of condensing - they have to find a way to basically summarize a character in a scene or two. The product is usually caricature. You're given the two or three standard traits and you're supposed to fill in the rest based, pretty much, on stereotype - so that's what the characters end up as. What's breathtaking, to me, about this movie, is that the characters actually have depth - they're genuinely interesting. You want to get to know more about them. The movie is interesting because you're watching a bunch of fascinating people, and you want to see what they're going to do in a given situation. And you just kind of want to hang out with them. Thus, you really don't mind that there are plenty of scenes that are pretty much completely superfluous to the rest of the story, because they're interesting, and entertaining. Jason Bateman, for instance, does a great turn as a lawyer who may or may not be a furry. It's a hilarious scene. I have no idea how it fits into the story at large, but I loved it anyhow. The dialogue is, for the most part, fantastic.

And of course, there's the action, by which I mean violence, which is pretty sweet. People don't just get shot, they get blown away. It's neato. There's not a lot of intense hand-to-hand combat, which is sort of a pity, but it's good fun anyhow.

You know, in a way, this movie is similar to The Departed, in that both have are essentially very entertaining, bad movies. But I think I liked Smokin' Aces more, probably because it doesn't purport to be something it's not. It's like all the best parts of The Departed - the moments of comedy where they quirkiness of the characters was put on display, unhindered by the demands of the story. Smokin' Aces, in a way, is all flash and surface - it doesn't make try to make you think about the motivations of the characters, or pick a side to sympathize with, or really care at all. It just offers you an entertaining spectacle. And it does it pretty damn well.

***Though you know, it's kind of a pity that they couldn't quite bring themselves to let her character be a lesbian. Then again, I guess that's been done (Queen Latifah in Set it Off spring immediately to mind). But really, it made Taraji Hensen's character kind of pathetic - she ended up being this forlorn lover rather than a raging badass, and making Alicia Keys' character seem to go fully straight at the end sort of hammered that in - the sobbing lesbian in love with the beautiful straight girl.

05 February 2007

Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The ungodly cold here (-23C! Wow!) has turned me into a total slug. So I selfishly decided to spend the late afternoon curled up in bed in a patch of sunlight reading this novel. It's quite short, which makes it well suited for such escapism, but alas, it's not really the delightful experience that one would hope for. As Marquez works go, it's pretty tepid.

Written as the memoirs of a 90 year old man, the novel begins with the racy plan of spending a night of pleasure with a young virgin. We're then given some background about our protagonist, which initially paints him as a mild-mannered and upright citizen, and implies that he's a bit of a prude, making the resolution to deflower an adolescent all the more delicious, but then it turns out that in fact, he's been regularly frequenting prostitutes for decades, and in fact, he's quite the Casanova. This, unfortunately, makes his character a lot less interesting. His exploits are of course rendered quite lyrically, but all the same, the beautiful descriptions and the protagonist's own self-loathing and shame don't really redeem him.

So he secures himself this young virgin, but in order to quell her anxieties, the madam has given her a sleeping draught that renders her unconscious. And our protagonist can't bring himself to wake her up. But falls in love with her anyhow. This would perhaps be marvelous if not for the fact that it's been done before, and far better, by Marquez himself. I don't remember the name of the story at the moment, but it's actually one of my favorites by him. Anyhow, he falls in love, and the story explores this idea of a 90 year old man coping with thoughts of impending death and falling in love at the same time. And it's all lovely and poetic and grand, but still, the narrative sort of meanders around and blends these lovely reflections with somewhat uninteresting plot fluff, so the ultimate effect is just not that satisfying. Then there's some calamity, meant to heighten the tension and suspense before the blithely inevitable ├╝ber happy ending. The novel has this weird blend of somewhat striking, lovely juxtapositions, and tired cliche (albeit fairly well-rendered) - on the whole, it's incredibly uneven. Also on the level of content, the beautiful descriptions work well for women's bodies, but not quite as well for burning assholes. Why does he keep harping about his burning asshole? Is it a nod to Beckett? Is it meant to reiterate the guy's age, and point to the indignities inherent in growing old? Is it supposed to be funny? It just didn't really work for me.

What I mainly noticed, sad to say, is that while Marquez is a master of these incredibly gorgeous descriptions of women, their bodies and beauty, he doesn't actually _know_ them. I mean, they're always these exalted objects of idolatry, and lovely as they are, they're never real. And the narrative doesn't seem to have any awareness of this; that these women are all basically fantasies projected onto beautiful bodies. There seems to be some acknowledgement of this in the work, when the narrator realizes that he much prefers his lover when she is sleeping, but it ultimately doesn't seem to matter. And at the end of the book there's this whitewashing move that declares her madly in love with him as well. But you only know this because someone else tells you so - at no point do you get any kind of glimpse into the girl's consciousness. I mean, the story is after all the memoir of the protagonist, so one could argue that the author is subtly critiquing his own main character, but honestly, I feel like this is the case in Marquez's oeuvre in general - he has absolutely no idea what goes on in women's heads, but he assumes that it's NOT like what goes on in men's. And that just irks me. Which isn't to say that I don't appreciate his work, because I adore his use of language, but still, I can't help but feel a bit estranged from it, or rather, excluded.

03 February 2007

The Squid and the Whale

People have been recommending this movie to me for awhile. Well, as it turns out, I hated it. Ok, well, maybe hated is too strong a word, but yeah, definitely didn't like it. And I didn't think it was particularly good, either.

It struck me as being very similar to Me, You, and Everyone We Know but where that movie succeeded, this one failed. Whereas that film depicted somewhat deviant sexual behaviors in a way that brought out their tenderness, this one seems to be trying to find humor in them, and instead shows them as depressing and somewhat sordid. Why is this? Because of the characters. The movie is people by unbelievably self-absorbed characters that it's very difficult to have any sympathy for. And the narrative seems designed to systematically rob them of dignity. But while I felt that I was meant to pity and love them when they were brought low, I just felt repulsed.

The biggest similarity between the two movies is the device of having a young boy encountering the world of graphic sex. But the reason that this worked in Me, You and Everyone We Know was because of the naivete with which the child approached the material - a naivete that is totally missing from The Squid and the Whale. Both films also treat the development of adolescent sexuality, and again, in totally different ways. Compare the two scenes where a teenage boy is getting head for the first time - both have a certain awkwardness, but whereas in the one, its charming, in the other, it's off-putting. Furthermore, whereas in me Me, You and Everyone We Know one values the sort of moral objectivity of the film-makers, their refusal to pass judgement, here, it's rather appalling. A young boy sitting around pounding whiskey and jerking off is just straight-up messed up and not right. It's not funny, or touching. It's just fucked up.

There is a way in which the movie does a tremendous job of portraying these people as well-meaning jerks. For instance, when the mother is talking to her older son and describing a past love affair, and he calls her out for telling her things he doesn't want to hear, she says "It's a bad habit of mine". This casual selfishness is breathtaking, and highlights, I think, the ethical responsibility of parenthood in a really interesting way. That being a parent, you don't just get to "be yourself". You play a key role in the growth and development of another human being, and that entails a peculiar kind of self-sacrifice. The movie sheds some interesting light of this issue, but in the process, you lose all sympathy for the parents. I was particularly appalled, probably, because both parents have Ph.Ds in literature. Their cold, analytical perspective on the world, and the resulting moral lack in terms of relationships with others, perhaps struck a bit too close to home for me.

Another thing that the movie did really well, I thought, was to illuminate the casual sexism in the family dynamic. This was really, really well done. The way that the mother, and her work, were repeatedly marginalized, and the off-handed misogyny of the father, and the way it reappears in the son, were terrifyingly well done, and definitely the best thing about the movie.

Ultimately, though, the movie was painfully cliche and formulaic. I was particularly exasperated by the father's heart attack - it was such a clumsy plot device. You could see it coming from a mile away. The minute the cat ran out the door, I thought, here it comes, the final blow to his fragile virility. Ugh. And then, of course, the son returning to the museum. Come on. It was obviously necessary to bring the narrative full-circle, and that's exactly the way it was handled - as a necessary process of tying up the plot. In a successful story, you are suprised and pleased by how neatly it fits together, rather than experiencing the moments of closure as a necessary burden.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the way it provides an occasion to think about honesty and care in human interactions. What it illustrates, for me, is the way in which care for others sometimes involves silence. Unfortunately the movie bludgeons the point so heavy handedly that it's easy to miss the more subtle aspects of it.