25 February 2010

51 Birch Street

I have no idea how this one ended up on my Netflix queue, but it was a fascinating movie. This filmmaker is shooting footage of his parents, just 'cuz, you know, cuz that's what filmmakers do, and kind of reflecting on how his parents seem like such an average happy couple. There are some cracks in the facade - he's close to his mother but not his father, he doesn't really feel like he knows his father, etc, but overall, things seem pretty jolly. Then his mother dies suddenly, and lo and behold, his father marries his former secretary 3 months later. And he starts wondering, and then starts investigating, mostly by reading his mother's diaries. Come to find out, their marriage was never particularly happy.

So the movie is basically him learning about this, and coping with it. It's kind of devastating in a way, but also fascinating. From what we can tell, his parents never actually cheated on each other, and were committed to staying married, even though it wasn't very happy. At moments they seemed kind of resigned to making the best of it, which was at least an improvement from the moments of seething misery, but still.

Thinking back on it, one does wonder whether his mother doesn't ultimately bear a bit too much of the blame for it all. Though he insists that he loves her, the filmmaker ultimately makes her seem like a rather narcissistic, melodramatic woman who is never especially warm or loving to her husband or children. His father, who had formerly been a rather aloof and taciturn type of guy, turns into a cuddly teddy bear after his second marriage. And so you can't help but think, my god, all those years he suffered. Though of course the same could be said of his mother. And in the end you wonder, was it really worth it, to stay together all that time? Which also makes you wonder, more broadly, what marriage is really about, and how happy two people really can be together. I mean, we know that all marriages have their ups and downs and difficult points, but how much misery is too much, you know? When do you just give up?

21 February 2010

Shakespeare Retold: Taming of the Shrew

I have always loved this play, despite it's deeply troubling misogynistic undertones. So I especially love this version, which, in its modernizing impulse, really ameliorates a lot of the misogyny but stays true to the general spirit. It's fabulous and funny and also a very sweet romance. Shirley Henderson, whom I absolutely adore, is phenomenal as Kate, and Rufus Sewell does a very good job as well, though I could have sworn he was Jude Law.

Oh, it's wonderful. I can't wait to see the others in the series.

24 City

A few years ago I was at an art museum in Warsaw and saw a piece by Iwona Zając called Stocznia. It was a beautiful painting of various aspects of the Gdańsk shipyard, accompanied by quotes from employees. It was originally done as a series of murals, but the piece I saw was one gigantic painting done on the museum wall. You can see some of the mural project (and quotes) here. This might seem like a very random way to start a post about 24 City, but the reason that I mention it is because watching the movie reminded me of Stocznia - and affected me in the same way. Both are incredibly beautiful, moving works, and both kind of blew my mind and really made me think about labor, class, and social change.

24 City is about a factory in Chengdu, China, that is in the process of shutting down and being replaced by 24 City, a fancy new complex. The movie is part fiction, part documentary - some of the people being interviewed are actual former employees, others are actors. I had no idea which was which, though I might've, had I paid better attention to the opening credits. I honestly couldn't say whether that would add or detract to the experience of watching the movie.

The film is just a collection of people talking. And it is absolutely incredible. The way that these people talk about their lives, the radiantly gorgeous (albeit occasionally devastating) anecdotes and stories they tell - it's just amazing. Rather than being some kind of hamfisted discussion* of what the factory has meant to them, how their lives will change, they just... talk. And in the process, you get such a powerful sense of how their - and this - world is changing. It's just mindblowing. Maybe it's because I'm an Eastern Bloc baby who left at a young age and never had to really confront the hardest parts of Communism, but what really struck me in this movie was how there is not only a sense of dignity in labor, but also of being part of this larger collective in a way that is really beautiful and moving. Despite what is occasionally immense hardship and intense, almost unimaginable, suffering.

It's not a fast-paced, action-packed movie. The experience of watching it, for me, was of sort of sitting back and letting it wash over me. Visually, it was quite impressive, but it was mostly just this feeling of listening to talk about their lives in this really riveting way.

*Which was the sense I got from Up the Yangtze, which I hated.

20 February 2010

Bright Star

Bo-ring.

Jane Campion's movie about John Keats and his love affair with Fanny Brawne (it's much funnier, when watching the movie, to imagine they're saying "prawn") is undeniably beautiful, visually. The colors are gorgeous, the photography is breathtaking, and everyone just looks nice. Unfortunately, being pretty is not enough to be entertaining, and the movie is a total snooze.

Part of the problem, for me, is that I don't particularly like Keats' poetry. I understand its importance and all that, but it really doesn't do much for me. So in the multiple scenes where various characters recite it, I'm not especially enthralled - which I think I'd need to be, for the movie to work. Some of the love letters are actually beautiful, but the poetry? Meh.

I will say though, that aspects of the film are incredibly romantic, especially given that the couple apparently never had sex. They make kissing look like a real treat (no tongue even!), and there is a wonderful sensuality to the two lovers caressing the wall that divides them.

But yeah, the movie is boring.

14 February 2010

Ghost Town

I'm growing to appreciate Ricky Gervais more and more. My friend Lindsay, who studies modern masculinity, said I MUST watch Extras, and I did (the first season), and indeed, it was great. I mention Lindsay's field because he inadvertently got me thinking about Gervais as a new model of masculinity, and you know, I really think he's a great example of a wonderful, likeable guy who's sweet and sensitive without being emasculated.

ANYWAYS. It took about 40 minutes for me to get into Ghost Town. The whole plot of the protagonist being able to see dead people, who prove to be a nagging, obnoxious bunch, didn't really do much for me. But once he starts talking to Tea Leoni*, it gets great. Totally charming. The interactions between them are wonderful, and right as the movie is winning you over with them, it also moves into a more serious note, thinking about the regrets of the dead for the wrongs they did in life.

Unfortunately, about half an hour later, it peters out again. Not that it totally crashes, but it loses a lot of steam and sort of rolls into a finish. It handles the cliches its plot is freighted with and the conversion in the character gracefully enough, but it's still just not that great of a movie. Nonetheless, worth watching, if you're willing to set the bar low, just for the pleasure of the sweet romance between Gervais and Leoni.

*You know who Tea Leoni reminds me of? Kim Dickens, from Zero Effect. They both have that unbelievably sexy intensity combined with an easy laugh and a kind of toughness tempered by a certain vulnerability. So hot.

13 February 2010

The Voyage of St Brendan, by St Brendan

I randomly came across a reference to this text, the travelogue of a monk from around 500 AD, and it sounded so fascinating that I immediately got up to find it on the library shelves**. To my delight, the text turned out to be a mere 60 pages or so, even in John O'Meara's unabridged translation. I read it in the bathtub a few nights later. What fun!

It's a really, really odd text. Basically, it's the story of an Irish monk sailing around with a bunch of disciples. But it's also this wacky Christian allegory - all kinds of bizarre and fantastic things happen. Strangers appear out of nowhere on various deserted islands and provide the monks with food, or instructions. The monks are searching for the Happy Land, but that's doesn't actually seem all that central - they don't really come across as goal-driven seekers in the way one might expect. Their schedule is dictated largely by the Christian holidays - where they'll celebrate Easter, etc. Also, their course is determined entirely by God. God regularly makes them circle an island for days without food or water before providing them with a safe landing. Saint Brendan tells his followers not to exhaust themselves too much with rowing, because after all, if the Lord wants them to get somewhere, they will. Actually, they keep coming back to the same places - the Island of Sheep and the Island of Birds.

This might sound kind of boring, and it's definitely on the dry side, but there is something really remarkable in these sparse chapters and the wacky adventures they describe. Sea monsters, a crystal pillar, Judas perched on a rock. Most of these events are related with threadbare descriptions and not much in the way of reaction or commentary. When they see the pillar, for instance, they spend quite a few days trying to sail right up to it, and then they inspect it rather thoroughly, taking its measurements, etc. They express their appreciation, "perform the divine office", and sail away. There's something absolutely delightful about Saint Brendan's equanimity throughout. Although he occasionally experiences fear, for the most part he's wholly imperturbable, calmly accepting each new wonder with thanks to God.

Apparently historians are still at work trying to figure out exactly where the sainted man went. Some suggest that he may have even discovered America. Because he most certainly DID actually travel. This text was written much later - maybe as early as 800 AD, but probably not earlier (St Brendan died around 570). Popular versions of his story had already been circling for centuries, and O'Meara says they were undeniably influenced by other epic voyage texts such as the Odyssey or the Aeneid.

In some ways, the book is like a catalogue of wonders, a la Calvino's Invisible Cities or the like. But given how meager the description is, that doesn't really seem like the right characterization. The lack of psychological details makes it difficult to read as a quest narrative, or a document of the changes in the protagonist as he experiences new things. But there is something just, well, charming about the book.


** This is why one doesn't generally get much work done in a library - you're surrounded by distractions, calling out to you from the shelves.

08 February 2010

Top 10s of 2009

My top 10 reads - which weren't published in 2009, it's just when I happened to read 'em:

A Rage in Harlem, Chester Himes
How Many Miles to Babylon? Jennifer Johnston
Reading in the Dark, Seamus Deane
At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O'Brien
Che's Afterlife, Michael Casey
I am a Cat, Nastume Soseki
Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle
Murphy, Beckett
The Natural Order of Things, Antonio Lobo Antunes
The Summer Book, Tove Jansson

Top 10 movies:

The Hurt Locker
Up
An Education
This is It!
The Informant!
Moon
Tyson
Absurdistan (I know, it was technically released in 2008, but it didn't come out in the US until 2009, so there)
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
Dead Snow

Runners-up:
35 rhums
In the Loop
Tulpan
Star Trek

Bad Lieutenant

Having seen the Herzog version and liked it, it seemed appropriate to go back and see the original. So. I did not like it, really. Perhaps this is because I saw the other one first and couldn't help but compare them, but I don't think so, really.

Harvey Keitel is certainly convincing as a seriously demented dude, but he doesn't have the strange vibrancy that Nicolas Cage brings to the role. The cinematography might be at fault here somewhat - I can't really put my finger on how exactly, but it seemed to me that the camera angles and perspectives were really ineffective in this movie. Keitel seemed awfully small and far away - you really felt like you were removed from all the action. Again, this could be because I saw the other one on the big screen and this one on my small tv at home, but still, it really felt oddly detached.

Also, the plot is a lot less exciting. In this movie, the story is rather simple - two guys rape a nun. The nun knows who they are but won't tell. Meanwhile, Harvey Keitel does a lot of drugs and also gambles. There's nothing particularly dramatic or compelling about it, and the various storylines seem pretty unrelated to each other, whereas in Herzog's version, there's a dense web of stories that all seem to permeate each other in various ways.

The Keitel version left me cold, for the most part - except for the last 5 minutes. Maybe just 3 minutes. They were actually quite interesting, and definitely upgraded the movie in my mind. Unfortunately, that 3 minutes comes after 130 fairly dull ones, so the payoff isn't really worth it.