21 June 2012

Jeff Who Lives at Home

I saw this on a recent flight and as I was watching, it occurred to me that there is a certain type of movie whose plot arc follows this pattern: you are introduced to a cast of characters who seem like fairly typical suburban types. But you start to realize rather quickly that in fact, they are all incredibly unhappy, and as the movie progresses, various things occur that serve not only to illuminate their misery, but also to increase it. Then, about halfway through the film, things start to improve, and by the end, they've all basically achieved fulfillment, or at least are well on their way to doing so. It's kind of a strange formula, when you think about it. And an interesting commentary on American society (because I think this is typically a narrative found in American independent films in particular).

Anyways, as you can guess, that's the basic formula for Jeff Lives at Home - sorry to give it away, but honestly, are you surprised? No. Because it really is that typical a plot line. Which is fine, but overall, the movie is not an especially interesting take on the formula - it feels a little too tidy. It's pleasant enough to watch, but everything fits together so well that you stop believing it. The danger appears early on, when we learn that Jeff is obsessed with patterns, signs, and the idea of destiny, and is out to seek his. Right away you figure that whatever whackadoodle adventure he undertakes will turn out to be freighted with significance, and sure enough. In fact, the movie doesn't even twist itself into particularly arduous contortions to get you there - it's almost blunt in its willingness to cut to the chase.

Jason Segal and Susan Sarandon both give enjoyable performances, as do the other leads, whose names I've forgotten. In some strange way, everyone in the movie seems to be giving a solid version of their standard role - even if you don't know who they are. I wonder what gives me that impression; if it's a feature of the director or what. There's just something very stolid about everyone in the movie, I dunno.

Overall, meh. It's definitely enjoyable for a rental or an in-flight feature, but I wouldn't rush to the cineplex.

14 June 2012

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith

De-lightful. I read it with pleasure in one day, on the recommendation of my boyfriend. I'm often somewhat resistant to mystery novels, but this, which was more like a collection of short stories, was a lots of fun. They weren't exactly mysteries - there was little to no suspense, or whodunit type stuff. It's more the enjoyment of seeing how our hero will tackle the problem, watching her interact with people, etc. So it's a kind of fun, folksy story, but with some startlingly complex reflections on modernity, life in Africa as opposed to the west, gender, etc. Beach reading, but with a brain.

12 June 2012

Creaturely and Other Essays, by Devin Johnston

This book is an interesting case study in the definition of the prose poem as a genre. There is indeed something poetic about the way the ideas are strung together, a kind of precarious layering of associations that doesn't quite amount to an argument so much as a cluster of related thoughts that mutually shape and inflect each other. Some of the observations are really interesting and thought-provoking. I read the whole thing in one sitting (during a 45 minute bus ride), but wished that I'd spent more time on it and chewed over the ideas a bit more.

Simultaneously, however, I hated the language. Perhaps because it was described on the back as a series of prose poems, I expected the language to be incredibly beautiful, but instead it was... I can't even explain. A mealy mouthful of gristle. It was so weird, because there is something incredibly vivid and evocative in the imagery, but you're so keenly aware of the tortured medium that's conveying it to you. I don't know if this example can convey it, but perhaps?

 Dark begins to fall. Beside a picnic shelter, a drunk man vomits violently, doubled over in his camouflage jacket. The owls seem to pay him no heed; but suddenly, the female opens her wings and enters a long swoop, the field pouring away in her wake. (100)

I can see it all so clearly. But the alliteration of the violently vomiting man, the assonance of away and wake, honestly, even the amount of syllables - there is no musicality to it. Is it just me?

The whole book is like that. Slightly precious, a little bit cliché, and strangely ugly - but also kind of lovely and interesting in both its imagery and its ideas.


Fun fact: if you go to see a Polish movie in theatres (or a Polish-French movie), you are basically guaranteed to see at least one Polish person there. And I don't mean just me, I mean someone in addition to me.

This is in some sense exactly what you'd expect from a (Polish-)French movie about prostitutes, but it's actually quite well done. Juliette Binoche plays a journalist doing a feature on working girls for a magazine. The film combines scenes from her life with scenes from theirs, along with some footage of their interviews. The two girls, one French and one Polish, are kind of an interesting contrast. There's a way in which the acts that the Polish one engages in seem rather more debasing, but she also seems a lot more into it all than the French one, who is more of the sweet and submissive type. And she seems to get humiliated and abused more. I'm not sure if the film is intentionally skewing things in that way or if that's just how it came across to me, but it was an interesting contrast. The Polish girl seems to have a kind of strange genius for becoming embodying other people's fantasies.

Meanwhile, Binoche's home life is sort of grim in that somewhat cliche bourgeois sort of way; successful, sex-less, somewhat neurotic career woman with a teenage child who openly disrespects her and a husband she resents. This would be annoyingly predictable, but it's done with a somewhat light touch, and somehow, it works.

Overall, while it's kind of cliche and predictable in some ways, there's also something kind of interesting and original in the way that it's done. It's definitely not a must-see, but it's not a bad movie either.

11 June 2012

Caleb Williams, by William Godwin

Interesting from a literary history/theoretical perspective, but otherwise pretty dull. Caleb Williams is the story of a young servant who becomes very curious about his master's past. He ends up learning the man's dark secret, and the rest of the novel is a kind of cat-and-mouse game. Falkland, the master, is a virtuous guy, but he also doesn't want his secret to get out, and doesn't feel he can fully trust Caleb. So he can't kill him or just let him go, which means they are initially sort of chained together, making each other's lives miserable. But then Caleb attempts escape, upping the ante. An interesting premise, and the way that events play out isn't predictable - it's just kind of blah. There's a good bit of railing against the conditions of society, especially prisons and the justice system as such, which makes the novel feel both preachy and dated (though some - even most! - of its criticisms probably still apply). Perhaps the problem I had with it was the characters - the mechanics of the plot were quite interesting and well done, but the moral ambiguity of the characters actually made them kind of hard to track emotionally. Or maybe it's just that I read the book in fits and starts and didn't get into it properly. Who knows. 

10 June 2012

Hygiene and the Assassin, by Amelie Nothomb

I liked this book less than her others, but I enjoy Nothomb's prose style enough that even a more outlandish book, like this one, is entertaining. The most patently fictional of her books that I've encountered, this is the story of an aged, Nobel prize-winning author who is interviewed by a series of journalists, torturing them with fiendish spite, until he meets his match in a typical Nothomb heroine; a cool, witty woman.

The viciousness of the author, Pretextat Tach, allows Nothomb to revel in a bit of sadistic glee. You can tell that she loves Tach in some ways; an unabashedly arrogant and dogmatic gourmande, monstrously fat and repulsive but with beautiful hands. It's the kind of sadism you find in Houllebecq or Michael Haneke, but in Nothomb's works it feels less heartless somehow, more like a celebration of the grotesque a la Bataille than an enjoyment of human suffering. But maybe I'm deceiving myself.

The story, while amusing enough to read, is not entirely successful. It is a bit too neatly constructed to be believable, which makes it seem somewhat gratuitously lurid and somewhat juvenile. The reflections on reading are interesting but come across as a bit trite by virtue of their context. Overall, an entertaining enough book, but not a must-read.