25 November 2008

The Rabbi's Cat, by Joann Sfar

I had intended to spend my Sunday in dissertation la-la land, but then I decided that a good breakfast would kick-start my genius, and Harold and Ruchama picked me up to go to Chicago's House of Chicken and Waffles, Ruchama had brought this book (and the sequel) with her. After an amazing breakfast, I was somewhat incapacitated, and I couldn't resist the urge to peek between the covers. 2 hours later I was closing the book with a sigh of bliss. This book is so fabulous. I want to go out and buy copies for everyone I know. Please, please buy this book, and read it, and give it to your loved ones. It's wonderful, not in that "omg it'll change your life" sort of way, but in that "it will make your soul hum with contentment" kind of way. It's just wonderful.

The Rabbi's Cat is a graphic novel about... a rabbi's cat. After eating a parrot, it miraculously develops the ability to speak, and so its adventures begin. Although there are moments of dialogue, much of the text is actually given in the form of voice-over narration from the cat with accompanying illustrations. The cat is fantastically snarky and hilarious and generally a delight, particularly when he's learning about Judaism: I tell him that even a kitten would not buy this nonsense. He says that's what his master taught him. I tell him what I think of his master. But for all his sarcasm, the cat is also a thoughtful, loving creature, and there are plenty of moving moments in the text. Also some really interesting insights into culture shock - the story is set in Algeria, but they also travel to Paris at one point. The work ends up being a really beautiful complex reflection on love, religion, and culture. 

Also, the artwork is fantastic. Really wonderfully rendered images, that serve as marvelous accompaniments to the text. It's a really stunning example of the artistry of the graphic novel, where the images aren't just illustrations, but are themselves an instrumental part of the narrative. 

Oh, I love this book. Go buy it. 

20 November 2008

Dummy

Kudos to Netflix recommendations - I had never heard of this movie, despite its star-studded cast (Adrien Brody, Illeana Douglas, Vera Farmiga, and, in an amazing role, Milla Jovovich), and it's SO much fun. Fairly typical quirky indie fare in many ways, but done well. Definitely worth checking out.

Adrien Brody plays a shy dude who gets into ventriloquism and develops a romantic interest in his employment counselor, Vera Farmiga. Illeana Douglas, in her usual typecast sort of role, is his frustrated older sister, and Milla Jovovich steals the show as his punked out best friend who learns Yiddish so that her band can play klezmer at a wedding. All the characters are awkward and somewhat pathetic, but in that delightful charming tragicomic, over-the-top way that ensures you'll laugh, albeit with sympathy, at their various woes. There's nothing particularly profound about the plot, but it's a thoroughly entertaining film. 

18 November 2008

Clash of Civilizations of an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, by Amara Lakhous

This was an impulse buy on a recent trip to the bookstore, and it was a bit of a disappointment. This is a bit tangential, but it's such a pretty book. I thought we were destined for each other. It's got this fabulous purple cover (which, combined with the description on the back, called to mind The Westing Game, a book I ADORED when I was younger), and those oh-so-sophisticated unevenly cut pages, and it's a story about immigrants in Italy written by an exiled Algerian who hold degrees in philosophy AND cultural anthropology, and it's already won some prestigious Italian literary prize - doesn't that sound like the kind of thing I'd love? Right? 

Unfortunately, I didn't love it. The idea is clever - a tenant in an apartment building is murdered, and we're given the testimony of other people in the building (or neighborhood). It's never made clear who the people are talking to - we presume the police - but it is made clear that it's recorded dialogue, as they occasionally acquire new pieces of information while talking. So it's a murder mystery and a "slice of life" book. Fabulous. Except it's not, really.

I think the best way to describe it is that it comes across very much as a novel written by a grad student - there are lots of nice ideas, but very little subtlety. Yes, there are some sly, and quite fabulous, literary allusions (though you probably need to be a serious lit dork to pick up on some of them), but the novel also wears its politics on its sleeve, and it gets grating after awhile. The characters are caricatures. The fact that they all know each other and talk about each other doesn't create a sense of intertwined lives - it just seems repetitive. At first, the various misunderstandings between people are kind of interesting and cute, but they rapidly become predictable, usually because the author can't resist using the same trick again. 

So while it's meant to be this thoughtful consideration of immigrant life in Italy - which is a really worthwhile topic, and one that deserves more attention, and especially, more literary description (Roddy Doyle does a good job of it, I think, in The Deportees and Other Stories), this book doesn't quite live up to its promise.


16 November 2008

The Wackness

This movie was pretty disappointing, but it's my own fault really for having such high hopes for it. The premise is fabulous - Ben Kingsley as a psychiatrist having a mid-life crisis, trading therapy for pot with a kid who goes on to fall in love with his daughter. Set it in NYC in 1994 and make it an ode to hiphop, cast Method Man and one of the Olsen twins in minor roles, and boom, I'm sold. But it was not to be.

So to begin the griping, casting Method Man - genius. Casting Method Man as a Jamaican - boo. It's not that his accent is terrible, it's that there's no way I can take Mr Meth seriously when he's talking Jamaican. Sorry.

One big problem with the movie is that it drags. There are long sequences, for instance, of the main protagonist selling pot. It's kind of a nice way of putting in lots of footage of the city, but it gets old. 

Secondly, for a film that's basically a study in the emotional evolution of two characters, there's a startling lack of character development. It's all a bit flat, much like the washed out colors of the film, which perhaps were meant to give it an aura of back in the day, but ultimately highlighted the lack of depth. Ben Kingsley was strong enough to make it work, mostly, as was Josh Peck, but still, they were both barely clinging to compelling. Meanwhile, the female characters in the film weren't graced with any sort of understanding, rendering them into cold, inscrutable, and ultimately cruel creatures. Famke Janssen is almost brutal in her indifference, and the few moments where she seems, maybe, to have something resembling a heart aren't nearly enough to compensate for it. Worse yet is Stephanie, who ultimately comes off as a capricious, self-centered princess, which is a real pity, because she started off so charming and understanding. 

Then, when you think back on it, the whole movie is basically a big long sob story, these two somewhat messed-up guys who granted, are quite sympathetic, but can't really seem to get their shit together, and meanwhile life is crapping all over them, and oh boo hoo. Meh. The glimpse of redemption at the end of the film manages to be simultaneously cheesy and unconvincing. 

On the other hand, there are some fabulous moments in the movie as well, whenever it can resist the urge to spill over into cheesy triteness or pretentiousness. While it made me cringe a lot, I have to admit that it's a pretty fantastic rendition of adolescent awkwardness. When it's not painful to watch, it can actually be kind of sweet, in the standard coming-of-age sort of way. 

At the end of the day though, the best thing about the movie is the music. The soundtrack is back-to-back classics, and it's awesome. It beautifully evokes this image of the golden era of New York hiphop (no, I wasn't there for it. But that's pretty much exactly how I imagine it.), and the excitement of discovering these amazing albums that speak to you on a profound level. It's so lovely. 

But honestly, unless you're gonna appreciate the hiphop aspect of it, you can probably safely give it a miss. 

EDIT:
My friend Trevor sent me a link to this entertaining review - we're in agreement, but this version is much more amusing.

10 November 2008

Jonathan Swift and the Art of Raillery, by Charles Peake

This is a tiny little book, barely 30 pages long. It's actually a lecture that someone was thoughtful enough to publish on its own, and I'm so glad they did, because it's a delightful piece. 

It's a fairly simple work, but highly satisfying. The basic thrust of it is that raillery is generally defined as either 1. Cheerful ridicule, banter; or 2. Reviling, castigating. But these meanings, though by virtue of popular usage they may be considered correct, do not do justice to the earlier meaning - what could be seen as a lost art. Raillery, according to Swift, was a kind of reverse satire - rather than the usual satire, which appears to be praise but is actually critique, raillery is that which appears to be critique, but is actually praise. Peake explains this a bit, giving some background on Swift (who generally worked by opposites), then turns to a consideration of the simultaneous use of raillery and satire, focusing on the bookseller's dedication in A Tale of a Tub. It's not earth-shattering, but it's a nice, thoughtful treatment of an interesting aspect of Swift, and I heartily enjoyed reading it. Kudos to Mr Peake and to the publishers of this fine work. If, by some random chance, you happen to read this, please accept my thanks. Reading this book was the intellectual equivalent of receiving a nice bouquet of flowers completely out of the blue.

Oldboy

This is the most notorious of Chan Wook Park's vengeance trilogy, and I was expecting something seriously horrific. I mean, Sympathy for Mr Vengeance was pretty grueling, gorgeous as it was. So I was surprised at how NOT traumatizing this was. Maybe it's a sign that I'm watching too many disturbing movies and I've just become desensitized, but honestly, this movie struck me as a kind of ultra-violent Amelie. It's a similar kind of whimsical feel, with this chain-of-association logic to the plot, quirky characters, cheerful music, and curious settings. I dunno. 

Though I do wonder what the big deal with teeth is. Aside from how they keep getting yanked out, there were a couple random shots of toothbrushes, and overall, I feel like there was a lot of focus on dentistry. 

Really, for all its horrific brutality and misery, it was a surprisingly upbeat film. Maybe I'm just really susceptible to light-hearted music?

05 November 2008

Dogtown and Z-Boys

I'm exhausted, but I feel like I've been neglecting this blog, so...

Honestly, I dunno, meh. This movie didn't do that much for me. I mean, the skating footage was cool, and the story was kind of interesting, but overall, I was much less impressed than I expected to be.

I suppose what was fascinating about it was, first off, this idea of skateboarding as more of an art than a sport. What's emphasized repeatedly in the film is that every skater has an individual style, and how, especially in the early day, it was all about creativity and innovation, and figuring out what you could do on the board. People think of skating as an athletic thing, and it is, but it's also very much about what it looks like. Sort of like figure skating, heh heh.

Secondly, the story itself. I'm not sure what the film was really trying to say about how this group of skateboarders became international cultural icons - and highly commodified creatures - but it was definitely interesting to think about. I've been thinking about capitalism and it's creative genius a lot lately (ever since I heard about this. Wow. Really just wow.), and this movie is definitely good food for thought in that regard.

So here are these guys who live in a crappy area and skateboard a lot. They're on the fringe of society. They're cultivating their own kind of aesthetic. It doesn't seem to be a conscious thing; they just really like skating and surfing. And then people start to get interested in them, and then this reporter writes a series of articles, with photographs, and voila, next thing you know, they're doing tours, promoting products, and generally being businessmen. And, to be fair, turning their fringe sport into a major event. Henry Rollins does a cameo and tells us about how all the kids in his snowy town were living vicariously through these guys. Tony Hawk tells us they inspired him. Ok, cool.

So on the one hand, there's the whole, what does it mean to become massively popular, and is it really a good thing? There's this curious moment where one of the guys talks about how he sort of regrets it, because it led to lots of drugs and partying, crazy stupid youth, etc. And how perhaps if he'd been better at marketing himself, things might have turned out differently. Then another guy comments, saying "Man, he could have had it all. And it's such a tragedy that he didn't". So then I wonder to myself, what does he means by `have it all'? What is it the guy could have had? More money and fame? Isn't that the part that he pretty much regrets in the first place?

Also, there's this whole issue of becoming a commodity. So these guys become massively popular, and it seems obvious to me that the major reason for this is because other people figure out there's money to be made by them being popular. So for awhile, other people are hiring them to do appearances, promote products, etc. Sure, the guys make some money, but whoever is hiring them is making WAY more. This actually reminded me of Hoop Dreams, in that again you see talented kids being exploited financially by people who pretend they're helping them make their dreams come true, and in actually don't care about them at all. But then, curiously enough, a lot of the Z-Boys seem to have figured this out and gone into business for themselves. And this, in some ways is cool - they're promoting this thing they love, and spreading it to other places, and meanwhile doing well for themselves. But still, it's a whole new thing now. At one point, a kid who's dying of cancer, as his dying wish, asks his Dad to empty out their pool and let the Z-Boys skate there. And they talk about how this is so great, because a. they have a stable location in which to work, and b. it's just them, skating, like back in the good old days. In other words, it seems to me, what they really loved all along was what they were doing in the first place - everything that followed, in many ways, wasn't nearly as satisfying. Well, except for Tony Alva, who was stoked because he got to officially be the best in the world. But then again, ahem, when you pretty much invented the sport, you know...

Then, there's this repeated refrain that it wasn't just about the skating, it was about the culture. This is particularly fascinating to me, because the culture seems to be pretty superficial - I mean, yes, there are socioeconomic factors that the Z-Boys generally share, but that's not really what they're exporting. Nor, for that matter, are they really embodying a specific set of beliefs, or an approach to the world (though the idea of skater as urban guerilla is frequently mentioned, it's also never really discussed in depth, other than some loving stories of trespassing and vandalism). At one point, they it's the attitude. But what they really seem to mean by this is a general kind of tone - a way of playing it cool. They redefined cool. But it seems to me that this is an early example of a kind of cool that is basically an empty signifier - kind of a foreshadowing of more recent commodified coolness (think Naomi Klein's No Logo) or the hyperbolically bemoaned hipster phenomenon. I mean, this is obviously a far cry from that, but, yeah, I dunno. It does seem somewhat similar, at least as presented by the movie.


Finally, there's the mythologizing aspect to it. Mythologization and commodification obviously go well together, but really, it's a little weird how nostalgic these guys are, and how much they've built up their past in these epic terms. Especially given that they don't really seem to have formed lasting, meaningful friendships, and they all basically jumped the shark the minute they had the chance to.

Some interesting material, but the movie didn't really do much with it, I guess.