30 December 2013

Tower of Glass, by Robert Silverberg

I don't read much sci-fi/fantasy, because I tend to find the extensive exposition somewhat tedious, and the ideas vaguely juvenile. A totally unfair generalization, I'm sure, but there you have it. The Glass Tower, however, was highly recommended by two friends whose opinions I trust, and it isn't that long (sorry, Game of Thrones fans), so I gave it a whirl. And enjoyed it. 

I will say up front that the book does suffer from the flaws of the typical sci-fi works. The writing is perfunctory, and you have to be willing to overlook things like characters named Thor and grandiose titles and classifications and explanations. But it also has the strengths of the best examples of its kind: interesting ideas, and the sense of exploring a possible future and considering its probability. The characters aren't as fleshed out as one might like, but there's enough there to care about them. 

One of the more major themes of the book is an underlying question of how political change happens, and the role of religion versus political action. Its perspective on the issue is, perhaps, a bit drastic, but the way it plays out is interesting. There is also a question of what it means to be human, which follows somewhat predictable paths of thought, but I appreciated the importance granted to sexuality.

All in all, an interesting book. Not a must-read, but certainly a pleasant way to pass an hour or two. And as my friends pointed out, it really does cry out to be made into a movie.

22 December 2013

The Puffy Chair / Safety Not Guaranteed

So, apparently I never posted my thoughts on Cyrus or The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, and when I wrote about Jeff, Who Lives at Home, I was kind of meh about it. This is odd, because I have in the meantime decided that I Like the Duplass Brothers' movies, and I'm surprised I never said so before. All three of those films, I think, are in some ways kind of exactly what you'd expect a quirky, small, independent American film to be, but hey, they work. They find a fine balance between sweetness and sap, comic and melancholy, acerbic and tender. The characters are odd but believable, the situations ridiculous yet somehow familiar. So, I was looking forward to seeing The Puffy Chair, having heard it was one of their better works, and indeed, it was exactly what I expected, and I loved it. My boyfriend, who has not seen as many of their movies and was not entering into it with the same expectations, was rather less impressed. But I thought i was extremely clever. Then, a week later, I watched Safety Not Guaranteed. I thought it was also a Duplass brothers film, and was somewhat puzzled, watching it, because it seemed sort of in their wheelhouse, but not nearly as well done. Turns out, it's just that Mark Duplass stars in it -- neither brother seems to have been involved in the writing or directing. And it shows -- the movie is sort of charmingly quirky and has an original plot, but the tone is slightly off, and it's a bit too mopey-sappy, and overall much less clever. Not a bad movie, just not an especially great one. Definitely would've been better if the Duplass brothers had done it...

The thing is, the Duplass bros are very skilled at the craft of writing. Their plots have this elegant construction; a dense network of repetitions and allusions and resurfacing motifs and reversals that makes my analytical engine purr. The Puffy Chair begins on the eve of a guy's departure on a brief road trip: he will pick up a chair that he bought from a guy on craigslist and deliver it to his father as a surprise birthday present. He's having dinner with his girlfriend, and it rapidly becomes clear that there are some definite problems in their relationship. Minor scuffles? The kinds of arguments couples have as they're transitioning into a more serious relationship and jockeying for position in setting personal boundaries? Or symptoms of major underlying incompatibilities? We can't tell. But the result is, she is now going on the trip with him. They stop by his brother's house on the way, and lo and behold, then there were three. So now we have this somewhat tense relationship, plus this wackadoo unpredictable hippy brother. And hilarious hijinx ensue.

What's so great about this film is the way it conveys a sense of absurdity in these fantastically trivial yet strangely insurmountable obstacles, and the way they escalate. A guy dramatically trapped in a van and unable to go to the bathroom that is a mere 10 feet away, for a totally stupid yet completely understandable reason. A screaming fight where a guy simply will not open a door. How ridiculous is it to make threats at someone who is safely behind a closed door? Bragaddocio and the struggle to reconcile sensitivity and masculinity are a wonderful subplot in the movie, as is the balance between laid back emo hippy-ness and pragmatic rationality, and of course, how relationships work, and how you know if someone is truly "the one." It's a warm and tender movie that is also hilariously funny and fantastically clever. Highly recommended (by me. Less so by my boyfriend).

Safety Not Guaranteed has a more unconventional storyline -- a journalist and his two interns try to write a story about a guy (played by Mark Duplass) who has placed an ad in the paper looking for someone to time travel with him. Who is this kook? is the initial angle, but one of the interns, a somewhat troubled young woman, begins to form a relationship with the guy. So, at this point, I'm cringing because you know, inevitably the dude will realize she's been lying to him, and that will be no good. What's worse is that the movie is leaving it open-ended as to whether or not this guy is a kook. Socially maladjusted, no doubt. Actually crazy? Unclear. Are we meant to like him, or mock him? Unsure. Which really alienates me as a viewer, and makes me very uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the main journalist is also visiting an old fling, and trying to get the other intern, a nerdy South Asian guy, laid. At its best moments, the movie offers scenes of what feels like genuine, honest interactions between people, and interesting echoes among these various situations. The ambivalent space between seeing someone as a misunderstood genius or a person with serious mental problems or just a jerk is not uninteresting, but it's difficult to pull off, and this film doesn't quite succeed. Also, the mopey indie rock soundtrack is borderline unbearable for me.

Whereas Safety Not Guaranteed feels a bit precious and contrived, The Puffy Chair, to me at least, had this amazing quasi-documentary effect, where it felt like it was just showing you some stuff that happened, rather than dutifully following along the steps of a plot. Its quirky characters were decidedly imperfect, and occasionally seemed like complete jerks, but they always seemed compelling to me somehow, even when I didn't like them. Whereas in Safety Not Guaranteed, the characters skated dangerously close to cliche, and many of their eccentricities seemed designed specifically to make them seem more real, but did the opposite. Thus, the emotional developments between them seemed to proceed along exactly the lines you'd expect, and felt somewhat hollow. Whereas in The Puffy Chair, you had a sense that anything could happen, and the things that did not happen resonated beautifully with other moments of the plot but never seemed dictated by them. It's a really artful construction, and my favorite kind, where the creators manage to find this delicate balance between organization and chaos, inviting you to perceive patterns in reality without making you feel like they have created them.

21 December 2013

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

Some readers will be thrown, I think, by the loose structure and lack of a clearly mapped narrative arc in this book. It's not exactly a collection of vignettes, or moments: it's more like, stuff is happening. The book begins in Zimbabwe (though I might only know that from blurbs -- I'm not sure you ever learn in the book itself?) with a girl named Darling describing her adventures with her friends. Then, she goes to America, to Michigan. The novel feels like a work with strong links to an oral tradition, not only in the style -- a chapter might begin with "So I asked my aunt..."" for example -- but also because it's evoking a world, and a character, rather than circumscribing a specific event, or organizing a plot. It's a wonderful read because it so compellingly and successfully captures Darling's voice, and its subtle shifts over time, not because it delivers some kind of message, or even story. It manages to be a vivid examination of a character's state of being without any of the usual conventions of psychological inquiry we are used to. A remarkable book, definitely worth reading.

08 December 2013

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

I am tempted to ascribe the strangeness of this novel to the fact that Lorrie Moore writes excellent short stories, but I'm not sure if that really explains it. Certainly, the prose is excellent; absorbing and occasionally lyrical. I particularly liked the repeated tic of random interjections ending with exclamation marks, which somehow perfectly evokes a goofy, awkward young woman's inner monologue. The narration is slightly stilted, in that it is occasionally retrospective ("I would later know that this was x") but often presented with a certain immediacy ("I had only wanted to please and surprise her, but now I suddenly felt very tired."). This makes the references to future knowledge slightly distracting. Though it is an effective tool, I think, in conveying dawning awareness. One of the more interesting things about the novel is that chronicles how a person's thinking changes in college (though I might be particularly inclined to view it that way because I first heard of it in the n+1 article about the "Theory generation"), and this, I think, is what the shifting tenses are especially good for, giving a sense of before, after, and the murky in between of transition, where you are neither before nor after.

The problem is, the plot is just annoying. There are three climaxes, of sorts, in the book, or rather, three scenes that involve a kind of culmination of crisis. All three come across as slightly absurd, and not at all real. They seem senselessly unfortunate and stupid, in an instantly alienating way that deprives you of any sympathy for the characters. Two are especially annoying because they feel like an attempt to be timely, and reflect something about the realities of our historical moment. But the two events described (I don't want to spoil it by giving them away) are not at all typical, which makes their inclusion feel especially ham-fisted (especially BOTH of them). Admittedly, this is exactly how real life works; those weird rare things do happen to someone, and that person's life goes on, and the event is precisely an odd intrusion into some kind of normalcy. One a purely narrative level, this is really tricky to pull off in a novel, because these massive events shift the weight of the whole and exert a kind of magnetic force on the plot, creating the expectation that the entire book is really "about" them, otherwise, why include them at all? I appreciate, I suppose, that Moore makes the attempt, but I don't think it is especially successful.

The novel also aims at socio-political commentary with a sub-plot about a white couple who has adopted a biracial baby. This is harder to evaluate. The mother holds weekly get-togethers with parents of mixed race children, and it seems that their earnest discussions are being presented with a veneer of ironic contempt. There is certainly something distasteful about the mother's self-satisfied and self-righteous droning on about various race-related issues, which also made me feel vaguely hopeless. For instance; she renames the baby Emma. And then is criticized for not giving her a name like Maya or Zora. Or she is attacked for not braiding the baby's hair but instead leaving it in an Afro. And I dunno, I mean, to me stuff like this sort of epitomizes a lot of the shitty aspects of American race relations, and how this stuff is all fraught and gross and there is no right way to deal with it, but getting all upset and melodramatic about it is a weird way in which white liberals make it all about themselves again, and can't we all just be people and not get hung up on this crap, but then that too can seem like denying the problem, etc. The uncomfortableness of it is, I think, what makes the book actually quite insightful, in a strange sort of way. It doesn't give you the satisfaction of a right answer. It drags you into the mess and forces you to stay in that space between the weird racism of the smug white liberal and the more crude, brutal and disgusting run-of-the-mill variety, except that maybe it only does that if you're someone who is thoughtful and critical about race issues and primed to be hyper-vigilant when they come up in fiction? Although race is mentioned, it doesn't have any sort of narrative arc, which makes me wonder if someone could overlook it, unless the novel is counteracting that by making it insistently resurface in little everyday ways that suggest that maybe it can't actually be forgotten.

More broadly, the frustrating thing about the book is that the story doesn't really develop or go anywhere. Stuff happens, but it doesn't feel organized or contained by the plot. It is more like an arbitrary slice of the film reel, or one damn thing after another. There are these great moments -- sometimes only a few sentences long -- that you really appreciate, and are glad to have read. But they seem almost too solitary; the novel feels like a string of pearls, except with no string. Hence my theory that Moore's true métier is the short story...

07 December 2013

Workers; Nobody's Daughter

More delights from the Gezici Festival...

Nobody's Daughter
I was surprised to see this make the Cahier du Cinéma's Top 10 list -- it wasn't a bad movie, but I didn't think it was especially revelatory. Admittedly, it was hot and stuffy in the theatre so I did doze off, but only for about 10 minutes. The movie seems to me to be about a young woman and her illicit relationship with a professor. It's told in an interesting, looping sort of way while I wasn't particularly impressed at the time, in retrospect there is something intriguing about its circuitous approach to narrative. The same problem comes up again and again, with no seeming way forward. I guess maybe I need to rewatch it? I feel like it never quite cohered for me; I missed something.

I love love loved this movie. A truly remarkable film. Extremely subtle and understated, but somehow never dull. The filmmaker will just plonk a camera down on the sidewalk and shoot a storefront for 10 minutes, and yet, it holds your interest. Gorgeous shots, a wonderful use of color, and a sense of seeing what life is like for other people.
  The plot is so understated that it's barely discernible, and involves several threads of narrative, some of which overlap, and others which don't. There are essentially two main characters, a caretaker who tends to a rich woman (and a few other members of that household's staff), and an older janitor at a lightbulb company (and a young woman he has a relationship of sorts with. What kind exactly, we don't know.). I don't want to say anything else about it, because watching events unfold in minute shifts is one of the film's particular delights. But broadly speaking, we can say that it's a film about relationships between people, and employees and their bosses, and revenge. Occasionally melancholic, it is also hilariously funny at moments, and bittersweet at points. But overall, absolutely delightful. In fact, I would say that it is the one that belongs on a top 10 list...

04 December 2013

Thou Gild'st the Even

Original (Turkish) title: Sen Aydınlatırsın Geceyi

The bizarre title is from Shakespeare's "Sonnet 28," though I still don't really know what it means. The movie, unfortunately, is not that good. It's kind of interesting because it's just so totally weird; an absurd plot where meaning is glimpsed, dream-like, from time to time. Little things are "off" right from the get-go; the main character walks through walls, another person appears to be a giant, a guy can apparently actually shoot out of his finger guns, a woman can stop time, another guy is continuously wiping away bloody tears, another woman is invisible most of the time. Why? *Shrug* Why not? The plot is not much more reasonable; basically, there's a guy who is kind of depressed, he falls in love with a woman but they have some problems, and, well, a bunch of other random stuff happens. Sometimes the absurdity is comical or charming, but it can also seem pointless. At first I was interested, but after awhile I got restless and felt like I was wasting my time.

To the North, by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen is not very good at endings. It's kind of a fascinating phenomenon, in that it seems borderline pathological; a horror of completion. But it's also frustrating, in that it can really mar an otherwise fantastic book, like To the North, whose ending just stinks. Was it a cliché at the time, I wonder, or is she part of the process of making it one? I don't know, but I don't like it. So let us pretend it did not happen and act as if the book were simply unfinished, and the last few pages lost.

To the North is essentially a romance novel; the story of two very different women, Emmeline and Cecilia, and their love affairs. It's remarkable in that both women are quite unavailable emotionally; Emmeline because she just never really seems to be there in the first place and is a kind of fascinating emotional blank, and Cecilia because she is astonishingly self-absorbed and completely illogical. And yet, they manage to forge these odd connections with two men who seem comparatively normal (though it must be admitted that Bowen is rather less interested in them, and thus, so are we. It's not ideal, but at least they aren't demonized, just sidelined). The ups and downs of their interactions are not at all like those of typical love stories, and it's ultimately very hard to say whether the phenomenon described is love, or whether the relationships are successful, or what is going on at all. The more you think about it, the murkier it seems, which is, I think, rather brilliant. I liked the book mainly because I found Emmeline strangely riveting. Ready to listen but astonishingly unresponsive, in love (maybe?) but uncommitted, abstract but somehow real: she's just a really interesting character study, which often seem to be the point of Bowen's books, in the grand scheme of things. I thought Emmeline was both more persuasive and more complex than the odd outsiders that people Bowen's other novels, and perhaps that's why I liked this book more than I have her others, though I enjoy all of them.

The real reason to love this novel though, as is generally the case with Bowen, is the language itself. Bowen's prose is basically perfect, as far as I'm concerned. She gazed at Julian, wishing he were a clock. It is unsurprising that  critics fixate on Bowen's Irishness, because her writing is exactly what you imagine stereotypical elegant English novels to sound like, except even more so, and with a kind of tense edginess to it. It almost seems like caricature at moments, but it's nearly impossible to tell. Regardless, the two paragraphs about a bus on pg 46 might be some of the world's most delightful writing on public transportation. Definitely a book worth reading.

02 December 2013

Dispatches from the Gezici Festival

Expect a lot of short updates over the next week, because the Gezici Festival is in town! Hooray! I've got tickets to another 7 films, I think? So lots of movies this week. Last night, I went to:

This is Martin Bonner

A pleasant film, though a somewhat meandering one. Travis is a guy who has just gotten out of prison and is trying to start a new life. Martin works for a faith-based program that helps prisoners transition; he has in fact just moved to Reno, and seems to need some help transitioning himself. As the film progresses, we learn more and more about his life (and all the things that went wrong in it). It's an understated film, but the parallels between the two men are interesting, and both actors are so immensely likable that the film manages to be engaging, despite not having much of a plot arc.
  I'm glad that prisoners are getting more screen time these days, and in more thoughtful representations (I haven't gotten around to posting about it, but yes, I totally dug the first season of Orange is the New Black). This movie isn't especially superb, but it's the kind of quiet, contemplative independent film that can be quite pleasant on a Sunday afternoon.

The Impeccables (Kusurzular)

Meh. The story of two sisters staying in the home of their grandmother (who, we learn, died several months earlier). Clearly something is not right, and as the film unfolds, we gradually find out what brought them there, and why they resent each other so much. I guessed it pretty quick, so the movie was a bit flat, because it wasn't a convincing exploration of a relationship between two women, it was two women going through the paces of unfolding a cliché. Though I did think both women played their roles quite well and seemed very talented; it's a pity they didn't have a better film to showcase their abilities.
  One thing that is kind of amusing/interesting is that at different moments, each of them totally snaps off and starts screaming at the other. Turkish women are remarkably good at this. If you've seen it in person (and I have), it's pretty dramatic: they can go from zero to sixty, regular indoor voices to shrieking, in seconds. I don't know if it's something about the language that is particularly conducive to it, or it's a cultural thing, but oooweee! It's the kind of thing that makes you immediately go "ok, ok, ok, fine, whatever you want, whatever will make you stop." Not to generalize (I'm totally generalizing), but I think white American women are so socialized to be quiet that they just can't muster that kind of volume, especially on such short notice. Maybe American women of color can pull it off, sometimes? But the Turkish version is especially impressive because it's so high pitched, which makes it especially hard on the ears. I find it absolutely enthralling.
...but it doesn't really make this movie worth watching.

01 December 2013

Nostalgia for the Light

The real star of this thoughtful documentary is the footage, which is absolutely incredible. But the premise is not less fascinating; a contemplation of the skies over Chile and the ground under it. Juxtaposing the continuing search for the bodies of those who "disappeared" during the Pinochet regime with astronomical research, the film offers a lyrical reflection on space, time, and human knowledge.

The skies above Chile are remarkably clear, and the soil is very dry, making both highly amenable to exploration. What lies in between, however, is much more murky. What struck me about the film is the way it presented both archaeology and astronomy as studies in history, a process of reading traces that strangely spatializes time, but offers a sort of arid clarity. In contrast, the realm of socio-political history is messy, and in the particular case of Chile, deeply complicated by efforts of those in power to obscure it by hiding physical evidence. It is precisely by producing physical remnants--detailed maps of the camps, or the heartbreaking search for bodies--that people strive to give it concreteness. And those tangible objects speak their history in all kinds of ways. There was this moment where someone points out that Pinochet did not need to build concentration camps; in one case, at least, he could use barracks that had been constructed for 19th century miners. Which, the speaker notes, attests to the labor conditions of those miners...

It's not a cheerful film, and it must be admitted that it's occasionally a bit ponderous and repetitive, but it's nonetheless a very interesting movie, and decidedly worth watching.

30 November 2013

Distant Reading, by Franco Moretti

In the rather frenetic world of literary criticism, theoretical speculation enjoys the same symbolic status as cocaine: one has to try it.
--Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders

I don't always agree with Franco Moretti, but I usually enjoy reading his books, and this one was no exception. Not only because of his writing style, which is lively and straightforward, but also because it is generally interesting and often exhilarating to watch someone puzzle over completely new approaches to literary studies. Distant Reading is a collection of pieces from the last ten or fifteen years, with brief headers added to them to explain their position in his intellectual trajectory, or to explain why he thinks he was wrong. This is a remarkable, and extremely admirable aspect of the book: Moretti's willingness to say that he was incorrect. One might wonder why go to the bother of reprinting them then, but I think there are two very good reasons to do so: 1. though parts of the essays (particularly the now-infamous "Conjectures on World Literature") have been rather thoroughly refuted, other points he makes hold true, and remain original and important. 2. they attest to a process, and helpfully illuminate certain dead-ends of study -- here's what doesn't work (something I always wondered about in the hard sciences, when friends complained that their hypothesis had proven false and therefore they couldn't publish a paper from it--wouldn't it be helpful to let others know not to try this approach?). As Moretti puts it, "Once you have been really proved wrong, the argument is no longer about you; it’s about a world of facts that everybody agrees to share (and respect); about hypotheses that have an objectivity of their own, and can be tested, modified, or indeed rejected." This is the most delightful thing about this book (and Moretti more broadly): he is brave enough to just suggest some ideas for general consideration, even ones that might seem kind of out-there. Sure, it takes some ego to do that, but to me at least, it doesn't come across as an arrogant move; he seems genuinely interested in furthering knowledge, trying out new approaches, throwing out hypotheses and seeing what happens. There is this wonderful sense of exploration and possibility and willingness to experiment, which I absolutely love.

At the same time, the comparison between theory and cocaine might have a more unfortunate accuracy as well. The speculation is interesting, yes, but occasionally seems untrammeled to any sort of... reality. When you're talking about global literature, in particular, it's very easy to paint in extremely broad strokes and make sweeping generalizations, and very difficult to provide concrete evidence for them. Sure, you can make a graph of the number of novels published in a year and the amount of words in the titles of those novels, and marvel that the shapes of the two appear to be in inverse relationship (more books, shorter titles). But correlation--or graphs of the same shape--does not equal causation. I am extremely skeptical of some of his claims about the way Chinese or Brazilian literature developed, precisely because he often relies on other critics (distant reading!) rather than an intimate knowledge of the texts. But he doesn't seem to account for the fact that critical approaches are themselves shaped by accepted paradigms, hence people discussing 'peripheral' literature often consider it in terms dictated by the 'center.' So, while Moretti is arguing that it's the novelists who write texts trying to shoehorn local ideas into imported form, I'd suggest that the real problem may well be critics trying to shoehorn those local ideas into their own preconceptions.  If that's the problem, Moretti's fail-safe -- if a critic is wrong, the insights won't be born out in other critical works -- will not detect it. Though there's not much sign that he's even checking: the evidence Moretti cites, too, is often flimsy or just scant. In the "Conjectures," for instance, he cites one phrase from the introduction to one Polish novel as shorthand for including ALL of Polish literature in his system. That's just poor scholarship. Sure, we can't read everything. Maybe this kind of scholarship needs to be a team effort. Elsewhere Moretti cites his research assistant by name (indeed, he is extraordinarily generous with specifically naming others who deserve credit, which is wonderful) -- perhaps he needs to hire more of them.

Secondarily, as I discuss in more detail in a paper I'm working on (which, if it gets accepted, won't appear for another year at least, what with the way academic publishing works...ugh), there is a very real question, I think, as to what kind of questions such research seeks to answer, and whether this is really what literary scholars are trained for. Moretti is the first to admit that he doesn't have the mathematical chops to know much about data analysis. As a biologist friend of mine noted after seeing Moretti deliver a lecture on analyzing titles a few years ago (which appears in essay form in this book), he could farm out these data sets to some graduate students in statistics, let them play with it for a day and see what they come up with. Because his use of data isn't actually that impressive. Though I suppose this is precisely his argument: that we should be training humanities scholars to work with this kind of data (instead of schooling them in the art of close-reading). But...isn't that what we have sociologists for? I mean, maybe we need more joint programs in sociology and literature, or this is exactly why so many places are hiring in digital humanities, but to me at least, it does seem like what he's talking about is a slightly different discipline. More broadly though, he is essentially trying to figure out why literary traditions develop the way they do; why some techniques catch on and others don't. I'm not sure it's possible to answer that question: how, maybe, but why

I suspect that part of the problem is that Moretti wants to retain a strong link between history and culture, and a strong sense of political engagement. Whereas I believe in both of those ideals but think that systematizing them tends to be reductive and deny precisely what is most interesting and powerful about literature. But I'm still puzzling through all that myself. 

And that's ultimately what makes Distant Reading so rewarding: not the content of its claims, but the way it makes you (or me, rather) think about a set of questions in a new and different way. I am curious to read The Bourgeoisie as well, but in less of a hurry to do so, which is actually kind of telling, and suggests that Moretti might be onto something in his predictions about where the field is going...

28 November 2013


Much as I would have loved to be having a turkey dinner, I had to settle for seeing a restored version of Hitchcock's 1929 silent film Blackmail, accompanied by live (improvised) piano music. I'll feast tomorrow with friends.

For the first ten minutes of the movie, I thought oh boy, I forgot how hard it is to understand what's happening in silent films. The narrative can be really confusing when you don't have any dialogue to help you make sense of it. But then it shifted, and everything became perfectly clear, and remained so for the rest of the film. What was most amazing about the movie was how on the one hand, it was told like a silent film, ie, very exaggerated and expressive faces, and a kind of condensed feeling, where ideas are expressed in a very economical way. But on the other hand, it is so very recognizable as a Hitchcock film. Certain trademark visual stylings, but also something about the narrative, double crosses and paranoia and reversals of fortune. It was so neat to see how his way of storytelling worked in a somewhat different mode, and in some ways even seemed more appropriate to it. Now I want to rewatch his later films and think about whether they bear traces of techniques honed in an earlier time.

The music was neat -- although improvised on the spot, it was quite suited to the film, which is to say that I frequently forgot that it wasn't simply a part of it. Except for one moment, where the pianist played a few snatches of "A Woman is a Sometimes Thing," which kind of yanked me out of the story.

In any case, unsurprisingly, it's an excellent film. Definitely see it if you have the chance.

27 November 2013

The Red House, by Mark Haddon

This is a strange and rather prickly sort of book. I bet most readers hated it, because it is not at all like Haddon's previous two novels, Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime and A Spot of Bother (apparently I never blogged about either, which seems highly unlikely. Huh. Though I did put Spot of Bother on my Best Read of 2008 list). It's much darker--though neither of the other two books is entirely happy-go-lucky, they don't leave a lasting sense of gloom. Perhaps The Red House won't either, as time passes, but it definitely seems to delve into grimmer material. Actually, there are a few moments that are downright terrifying--impressively so, I thought. What sets the book apart, too, is it's structure. Narrated in fragments of indirect discourse (easily mistaken for stream-of-consciousness, but crucially different), hopping from one character's perspective to the next, we gradually arrive at the story of an extended family spending a vacation together, and the various bits of baggage they all bring. It's an ambitious plan for a novel, and it's not entirely successful. But I nonetheless found it quite absorbing (I actually read the entire second half in one long late-night rush, though that might have more to do with late November doldrums than anything else).

The book totters, at times, in bringing its characters to life. It's pretty clear that Haddon doesn't really like all of them equally, and sometimes he seems to be straining to humanize them in the face of somewhat damning evidence against them. There is unfortunately something not quite believable in the women: they often feel like characters rather than people, though I did find that they evoked a strangely vivid instinct to supplement them with my own memories or feelings. In other words, they were containers for ideas that I occasionally helped carry. Haddon's effort to enter the mind of a small child were similarly intriguing (is it terrible that I think of things I've written recently about authors imagining the animal mind?), but mostly in that they made you conscious of the fact that it's a difficult thing to do and he was trying to do it and managing semi-well.

One thing I particularly appreciate about Haddon is that I think he is often ahead of the curve in terms of important issues. Or rather, he is one of the few authors I know of whose books matter-of-factly include things from everyday life that aren't typical to novels, and do so in a non-ostentatious sort of way that doesn't feel like tokenism.I remember being somewhat surprised that A Spot of Bother included a side-plot about a gay couple, which now seems pat but then felt rather new and risque. This time, I noticed that one of the kids has a friend named Pavel, and assumed that the friend was the child of an immigrant from Eastern Europe, but it never came up. It just happened to be the friend's name. Which was nice. There is also a side-plot about bullying, which is slightly less successful, though definitely timely. I think this is something we'll appreciate about Haddon's books in years to come; the way they reflect specific features of our own historical moment. Even if they don't always do it as well as one might like.

But overall, I liked the book. I am enjoying watching Haddon grow and develop as a writer. I didn't like Curious Incident nearly as much as most people did, though I found it enjoyable, and I'm relieved that the adulation it inspired didn't end his career. I like that he seems to be slogging on, doing adventurous and difficult things despite receiving mixed reviews for them. I think he's a skilled writer and an interesting one, and I look forward to seeing what he does next.

23 November 2013

Europa Report

This movie is currently being promoted by Netflix, which is how it caught my eye (according to its wiki, it was released digitally first, then into theaters? Weird.). I'm on kind of a space kick I guess, having watched (and very much enjoyed) Gravity not too long ago, and then listened to this awesome interview with astronaut Chris Hadfield, so I was sort of primed for enjoyment. The description on netflix described the movie as a "nail-biting thriller," an account highly contested by various users in their reviews, which were, however, quite positive. But man -- I was on the edge of my seat. This movie was so fantastically unsettling and creepy, I was totally enthralled.

The movie is in the form of 'found footage,' and jumps around in time, giving you a sense of impending disaster. It follows a group of scientists sent to explore Europe, one of Jupiter's moons, because they believe that its icy surface may contain life forms. Of course, things start to go wrong.

So, a number of things I loved about the film (and I am not going to give any real spoilers, but I also think you might be better off watching it knowing nothing about it beforehand, so you may want to consider saving this post for after you've seen it):

1. I complained about the sappy psycho-drama of Gravity, and indeed, for days afterwards I found myself thinking, "Why can't someone make a space exploration movie in which the voyage is NOT a metaphor for working through psychological trauma?" And Europa Report did it for me. It's not that the characters don't have psychological issues; they do, but most of them seem to be specifically caused by the mentally grueling experience they're undergoing. Which is emphatically not a metaphor for anything. It is very insistently its own thing which is more than enough. You do not need to be thinking about your dead daughter in order to make space exploration meaningful. Harping on that, in fact, does the exact opposite. This movie gets that.

2. It is a visual assault, in some ways. I am perhaps more attuned to this because I am currently sitting in on a seminar about Deleuze's cinema theory, and we had just been talking about how film can change your way of seeing precisely by overloading you with visuals, such that you are unable to synthesize or process them. It is exhilarating to have a barrage of images flash before your eyes at a moment of dramatic tension - it literally took my breath away.
  Relatedly, the way the film handled narrative was extremely effective, and really ennobled the 'found footage' form. Very well done. I honestly thought there was never a dull moment, despite plenty of seemingly mundane footage. As with The Sorrows of Young Werther, which I was recently so impressed by, this was a work that managed to make it seem as though various narrative elements were emerging organically from an assortment of material. It never felt contrived or ham-fisted. The realist illusion at its best.

3. I thought it was really neat how the technological symptoms that suggested the possible presence of life forms -- anomalous data readings, a weird tremor of color on the monitors, etc -- came to seem like living things in and of themselves. Again, this is maybe because D.L. and I had just been discussing Koyaanisqatsi as representing capitalism as living organism and flow, so it was at the forefront of my mind.

4. The way it gives you a sense of what an extreme environment space is, to the extent that it makes this unbelievably high-tech equipment seem bumbling and crude. The most minor things become a matter of life and death. It's completely terrifying.

5. The way it subtly raised questions of scientific discovery and self-sacrifice, and left them open. Is knowledge worth dying for? Where do you draw that line?

My one beef with the movie was in the very final scene, which was very cool in some ways, but I wish had been done in a slightly less cliché way. They really bumbled it. Neat idea, lame execution.

But overall, a very cool movie, and well worth watching.

The Two Emilys, by Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee's The Recess is a somewhat overlooked classic of late eighteenth-century literature, an important precursor to the historical novel and a really fascinating text. I was hoping that The Two Emilys would be similar, but perhaps more light-hearted (The Recess is kind of astonishingly grim, on balance), not least because it seemed more like an adventure story. It turns out not to be all that cheerful: there is a distinct lack of campiness and glee, it's actually a pretty straight-forward tumultuous and highly dramatic romance. Which is kind of disappointing, though there are some very interesting things about it.

The plot is actually quite bizarre, and revolves around a lot of misunderstandings. I'm about to spoil the heck out of it, so stop reading if you actually intend to read the book and prefer suspense. The main storyline (which is preceded by several others) centers around Emily Arden, who is to marry her cousin, Marquis Lenox. Lenox is not particularly keen on the match, because Emily lives in Ireland, and Lenox thinks that she is probably a "wild rustic" and not a very suitable wife. She, on the other hand, has spent her whole life dreaming of him. She seizes an opportunity to meet him incognito, and alas! learns his low opinion of her, but also manages to make him fall in love with her. Somewhat stung but still in love, she sets up an elaborate farce (in the book's terms, a 'romance') to deepen his attachment before she will reveal her true identity. Meanwhile, however, she also incurs the wrath of another Emily (Note: there is no good reason why every woman in this book is named Emily. I mean, there is exactly one moment where it comes up, which could easily have been handled differently.), Emily Fitzallen, who feels that Emily Arden cheated her out of an inheritance, and vows revenge. So anyhow, Marquis Lenox is successfully charmed by Emily Arden, and he sets off on a grand tour with her father, Sir Edward, hoping to figure out a way to marry this 'other' woman instead of Sir Edward's daughter. Everything seems lined up for a happy ending, but alas! While traveling, Lenox meets a charming young man named Hypolito, and becomes strongly attached to him. One night, while drunk, he discovers that Hypolito is actually a woman! And she insists that she is in fact Emily Arden in disguise, and that he marry her immediately. Apparently forgetting about the other woman he ostensibly loves, he does so (not noticing the different last name on the marriage certificate. I guess the idea was that he did notice the first name, which is why they needed to be the same.). But then! There is an earthquake! So their marriage is unconsummated, and though he miraculously survives, he assumes she's dead, and when he randomly encounters his "true" love, and learns that she is Emily Arden, he is baffled but pleased. They are all set to marry, when the spectre of Hypolito appears at the ceremony and terrifies the Marquis, who faints. The marriage is considered final, and then begin various miseries, as he is blackmailed by Evil Emily, and cannot bring himself to confess (the excuse being that Good Emily is pregnant and he fears the news will kill her). Things get increasingly thorny, as Sir Edward learns what he thinks is the truth and kills the Marquis, telling Good Emily that she was never truly married and refuses to see her baby. Then Sir Edward finds out that there was no way for Evil Emily to prove that she had been married, and regrets killing the Marquis, who meanwhile pops up again in secret meetings with Good Emily, as it turns out that he convinced the monks in charge of his burial to pretend he was dead. Then Emily pretends to be dead so as to run away with the Marquis and leave Sir Edward, whom she now despises (though shockingly, she leaves her baby with him, under the care of Conor, her faithful Irish nurse). Everyone keeps regretting the negative consequences of their pretenses (if Good Emily had not tricked the Marquis, Evil Emily would not have had access to him; if the monks had not told Sir Edward that the Marquis was dead, he would not have forced Emily to write a will that claimed the child as hers rather than its fathers, etc). Emily and the Marquis in fact return to Ireland, where they live in a simple cottage next to the castle that rightfully belongs to Emily (though we are told that it has been so remodeled that it's more like a big fancy house now) and have a pack of children. 10 years later, the fathers of both arrive, with the first child in tow (also named Emily, of course), and the whole family ultimately ends up reunited, aside from a few other bizarre revelations and plot twists, including the reappearance of Evil Emily, who is forgiven before she dies.

Oddly, as with a Polish novel that I recently re-read and still like, Malwina, or the Heart's Intuition, this text also closes with an über happy ending, but not before one last test, as if the novel resolved itself, then doubted a little and had to reassure everyone a final time that things really, for reals, ended well. As in Malwina, where the heart is always the ultimate arbiter, able to suss out its true objects even when directly contradicted by outside appearance, in The Two Emilys characters are often "strangely drawn" to the people they are actually supposed to love, though this procedure also fails sometimes, as with Conor, who can no longer recognize her beloved Emily once her hearing is gone and Emily's appearance has changed.

There is also a curious back-and-forth in terms of portrayals of Ireland; on the one hand, there seems to be some pushback against the 'wild Irish' stereotype, as both Emilys are quite cultured and well-educated individuals, even if one is kind of evil. But there are also moments when their servants are unfavourably classed with the Italian servants in the book, as both being deeply superstitious and rather savage. It is notable that, as with Malwina, the lower classes do get to be quasi-developed characters, which I think is less common in other European fictions, but I could be totally wrong.

Anyways, overall, not actually the most entertaining of books, unless you study eighteenth-century romance.

19 November 2013

Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, by Mo Yan

I really enjoyed Mo Yan's Pow! (totally, if you judge by my blog post. Ugh.), so I was looking forward to reading Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, but the length intimidated me a little. Once again, however, I found myself completely engrossed. I simply didn't have the time to fly through this in a few days the way I would have liked to, but more the most part, I read it greedily, in 1-2 hour chunks, gulping down as much as I could. Mo Yan is truly a master. There is something so completely winning and wonderful in his characters; despite their many flaws and frustrations, you cannot help but love them. Life and Death is all the more remarkable because the main character is, for the most part, an animal, and yet it remains totally convincing, and you find yourself totally identifying with how it must feel to be a male donkey who has just scented a female in heat. The only other book that immediately springs to mind as providing such an effective insight into the animal mind is Jane Smiley's Horse Heaven (which I remember fondly, though apparently I was slightly less enthusiastic when I read it, which is weird, because I remember guiltily passing up opportunities to sight-see in Sofia, Bulgaria, in favor of reading it, so I must have enjoyed it quite a bit), but Mo Yan, astonishingly, manages to give each different animal a different worldview. The novel tells the story of a man's repeated reincarnations, each time into a new animal, but always in the same village he lived in as a human. Gradually, his human memories and attitude fade away, and he begins relating to the cast of people in a different way -- another very impressive aspect of the book. Meanwhile, he is also witnessing momentous changes in Chinese history, another magisterial stroke. Amusingly enough, when discussing Pow! I speculated that it was more charming than Gombrowicz because it didn't involve narcissistic meta-fiction. So, Life and Death does have a meta-fictional component, and while I was not crazy about it, and it was a little bit narcissistic, it was also at least kind of interesting, and sort of sweet. Similarly, the ending initially seemed a bit hasty and haphazard, but ultimately it actually kind of won me over.
The book is just so, so good. You should read it.

14 November 2013

The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Goethe

You would think that this is a book one would enjoy in their angsty youth and grow to despise as they got older, but funnily enough, it seems to be the opposite in my case. I used to think that Werther was annoying, melodramatic, and silly, but reading the book again now, I found him strangely lovable. More importantly, however, I was completely blown away by the novel itself. It is so brilliantly constructed; these little random bits of observations (that make the epistolary trope genuinely convincing) that fit together in such amusing ways, as when Werther marvels at how a man could have been deluded by his wife for years, and begins the next paragraph with "No, I am not deceiving myself!" and explain his conviction that Lotte loves him. Reflections about nature and children and literature form this wonderful tapestry of ideas that provides a broader sense of a worldview full of idealism and contradictions. Werther is brimming with passion and zest for life, while also being arrogant, hypocritical, and blind to his own privilege. But he manages to be mostly charming nonetheless. You'd expect the enjoyment you get from the book to be of the campy, cynical variety, but it's actually not--there is something genuinely winning about its earnestness and funny little thoughts. I was discussing it with a friend today, and I think he kind of nailed it when he said that it's a novel that could very easily have been a total flop, and that it took someone like Goethe to make it work. It's actually a pretty incredible book, and really interesting as a clearly very carefully and thoughtfully constructed work of fiction.

10 November 2013

Haute Cuisine

This is a surprisingly understated movie, in many ways. Like many foodie films, it's true raison d'être is arguably the incredible footage of delicious meals prepared by the main character, loving shots of pastry-encased meats and roulades, or a mouth-watering open-faced truffle sandwich. But, barring cinematic masterpieces like Tampopo or Like Water for Chocolate, many of these culinary-oriented films justify that footage with a rather clunking story about a hard-luck chef trying to save the family business, or neglected woman whose cooking brings passion back to her life. Haute Cuisine could very easily have gone in that direction, but it pulls short, and in the process, runs the risk of minimizing narrative satisfaction altogether. There are two threads -- or rather, settings -- in the film. One is the Presidential Palace, where Hortense, the main character, is put in charge of the President's private kitchen. The other is Antarctica, where, 4 years later, she is preparing her final meal as head of the cafeteria before returning to France. A documentary filmmaker, who I think was want to be from Australia, but whose accent didn't seem to be, is trying to get footage of Hortense, who remains elusive. I'm not sure if this is a clever reference to the film's refusal to tell an over-simplified tale, or a half-baked attempt to explain the story's narration. I prefer to think the former, but that might be giving the movie too much credit.

In any case, the Antarctica scenes are pleasant, carousing moments of community. The French scenes are full of jealousy, animosity, and sexism, leavened with the pleasures of a budding friendship between the fellow private kitchen team, and occasional chats with the President himself, a great adorer of traditional French food. Budget cuts, dietary restrictions, and a nasty Main Kitchen team ultimately make the long hours and grueling work at the Private Kitchen head less pleasure than frustration, and that's that. Hortense's more personal struggles--particularly with the sexism that is constantly rearing its ugly head--are alluded to but left unexplored, which I think was the perfect way to make their existence clear but avoid trivializing them. I found myself enjoying the film's subtlety as much as I relished its gorgeous images of food. It's a quiet film, but a tasty one.

03 November 2013

Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith

I first read this back in 2007 (those lists of books I read in the year do end up being useful; I should stop not doing them) and enjoyed it then, and re-reading it now, I find it just as delightful as before. Maybe I'm overthinking it, but to me, the book is a totally bizarre combination of irony and sincerity. There's plenty of snark in eighteenth-century writing, but this book seems unique in its utterly unstable shifts between seeing its characters as idiots or heroes. I'm still not sure whether we are meant to admire the main character's cheerful equanimity and willingness to forgive those who hurt him, or think he is insane. Is he a wise man, a pretentious blowhard, or just a lucky fool? There's also the novel's form, which on the one hand seems fairly carefully constructed with a 3 part tragic structure and an intricate web of fortuitous coincidences and revealed mysteries, but it is also breezily laden with sermons, political disquisitions (one of which, amazingly, turns out to be delivered by a butler pretending to be the master of the house!), poems, and other random bits of fluff. Time passes in uneven ways; 3 weeks, or even years, will blow by without notice, and then two days will be carefully chronicled. It's a chatty, humorous, and utterly charming book.

01 November 2013

Mourning Diary, by Roland Barthes

Not exactly a diary, because it was written in an occasional sort of way, on index cards. Most entries are only a sentence or so. The book is a chronicle of Barthes' grief following the death of his mother. The fragmentary nature -- though I found myself reading it compulsively, rather than in slow, reflexive fashion -- means that rather than a sense of wallowing or self-indulgence, you have the idea of an iceberg of sorrow thinly covered by a veneer of day-to-day coping, with this book being a kind of ice pick chipping at the mass beneath. It's quite moving, though not a work I found myself relating to (the way you absolutely do -- or at least I did -- to Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking.

I picked this up after reading Michael Taussig's I Swear I Saw This, which is an extended reflection on the field notebook as a genre. He entertains the idea of it as a modernist text, and is specifically interested in the role drawings play. I was not particularly taken with his thoughts on drawing -- overall, many of his ideas seemed somewhat derivative, though at least he gives plenty of credit to people like Barthes and Benjamin -- but the idea of the notebook as a fetish, and of anthropology as a space of contact rather than observation, I really enjoyed. Both the Taussig and the Barthes were useful to me as works that reflect on the process of writing, helping me get over my own strange blockage about it.

28 October 2013

The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad

Conrad's prose is reliably gorgeous, but I didn't find this novel particularly compelling. All the things you might expect -- suspenseful double-crosses and deceptions, or penetrating insights into the mind of the terrorist, or the tensions between his political and domestic life -- are completely absent. In fact, one has the sense of a fog hanging over the book. It's the same kind of thing you get in Heart of Darkness, but there, it's the arises and part of a meta-reflection on knowledge and storytelling. Here it's indirection and vagueness. Events are almost never related outright, but usually rough a prism of secondhand information or newspaper reports. The minds of the characters are amorphous and confused; this initially makes them seem complex, and later does the exact opposite. Specific scenes, such as the descriptions of Stevie, the musings of the Chief of Police, or the anguish of Winnie, are completely incredible, but overall, the story drags and seems clumsy in its construction.

Incidentally, I also re-read Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday today, and it remains a totally fantastic metaphysical story about being a double agent. Such a great book.

23 October 2013


This was both better and worse than I expected, knowing almost nothing about it. It perhaps helped that I spent two hours discussing Deleuze and film theory beforehand -- I was primed to really appreciate thoughtful cinematic composition, and oh boy did this movie deliver. Especially good, because I did not realize that I was going into a movie that was largely monologue (and by monologue I mean Sandra Bullock saying oh shit oh shit oh shit), and might have been annoyed if I were in a less pensive mood.

So, the flaws first. The dialogue is pretty weak. The characters are pretty annoying, to the extent that you don't quite care enough about them. The plot is kind of one damn thing after another: essentially, it's a movie about flailing around. You can't help but feel vaguely frustrated that the only woman (admittedly, there aren't many people period, but it's still notable to have a female astronaut after all) is sickly, complaining, anxious, emotional, uptight, and basically everything a stereotypical annoying girl would be, in space. And of course, whenever possible, she strips down to her skivvies, and we watch her (quite attractive) butt float around. Meanwhile, the movie also gets quite sappy in the most American, Hollywoody way, and seriously why did it need to do that.

But! But. Wow. What a brilliant meditation on space. Both outer space, relative space, the way that film portrays space... Best use of the 3D medium ever, perhaps. Absolutely ingenious use of sound. I actually want to watch the movie again, and pay attention to it more carefully. Fantastic, for instance, the way the focus shifts, and gives you a sense of the enormity of space through a kind of reverse relativization: here you have Sandra Bullock, who is freaking out, literally in an echo chamber of her own panicked voice, and suddenly, the focus pans to a single tear she is crying, wobbling through the gravity-free area before her. So clever. And the movie does it a few times, jumping between the vast space around her, the claustrophobic space immediately around her, and the microcosm of an entirely uninterested object in its own little world beside her. It's really, really interesting. So that's what I mean by relative space; how the movie manages to evoke entirely different scales and shift between them.

Relatedly, there's outer space, and just how amazingly vast it is, and how that gets into a level of unknowability/abstraction that you kind of start to drift, and who knows what the rules are any more. And the only thing that can even compare is the labyrinth of your own mind, and the two start to collapse into each other.

And then, there's the way film portrays space, namely, the way the 3D makes you feel all floaty and weird, and like things are coming at you, and you're awkwardly fumbling for them.

Yes, it's sappy, and yes, the characters are annoying and the dialogue is dumb. But you need to see it, and you should do so in a theater.

03 October 2013


Fun fact about me: I will see any movie Daniel Brühl is in, on general principle. The dude is fantastic, and most of the movies he's in are too. And even if they're not, they're worth watching just for him. So yup, off I trotted to check this one out. Overall - it's a so-so movie. But you should go see it anyways, because he's great.

The premise is made for cinema - the rivalry between two Formula 1 race car drivers, one the classic bad boy, the other an anti-social nerd who knows how to drive good. The bad boy character is pretty much the same one we know from many many other movies, though good ol' Thor is certainly pleasant to look at and manages to play it reasonably well, with only the occasional eye-roll-inducing descent into utter cliche. The filmmakers are canny enough to give him a genuinely interesting scene that serves to completely redeem and humanize his character and make you root for him, but it comes rather late in the film.

Brühl, meanwhile, is a character we are less familiar with, and not quite sure what to make of (and oh man his Austrian accent is SO spot on, both in German and English). A genius of sorts, but also thoroughly unpleasant, personality-wise. We can't quite decide whether or not to like him, and attempts to humanize him are shaky and not entirely convincing. He also throws a real wrench into the typical trope of sports biopics. What is it that drives him, really? It's hard to say, but Brühl manages to make this seem complex and subtle rather than undeveloped. What I really liked about the movie was how it managed to deliberate between the nerd and the popular guy in what to me at least was a genuinely compelling way.

Unfortunately there's a fairly lengthy bit in the middle that is way more gruesome than necessary -- one really wonders why the filmmakers insisted on such wrenchingly grotesque stuff; to shock? To make us realize what we're really dealing with here? Just 'cuz? -- and his wife is shamefully undeveloped personality-wise. But I will say this for the movie -- it actually gave me a glimpse of how Nascar might be genuinely interesting. It definitely captures both the thrill and the terror of racing, but also the utter stupidity and the wreckless disregard that the organization has for the people involved. As a bonus though, they do something at the end that I really like in this type of film, namely, they let you see what the real people look like, which is neat.

Overall, I'd say it's worth watching, but as should be clear, when it comes to Mr. Brühl, I am not even a little bit objective.

27 September 2013

We're the Millers

I went into this with extremely low expectations, so I was pleasantly surprised: there were some genuinely funny moments. There were even some that weren't in the trailer (though not many). It's not a masterpiece, or a barrel of laughs, but it's an entertaining movie.

The major weakness, I'm sorry to say, is Jennifer Anniston, who is just not convincing as a stripper. It's not her fault that she's a skinny little thing without much to jiggle in a customer's face, but one can hold her accountable for her utterly robotic movements. Have any of the filmmakers ever been to a strip club? They feature a very specific style of dancing. I saw no examples of it in this film.

The movie makes a thankfully small gesture towards the typical Hollywood moralizing and personal growth, so while it's somewhat eye-roll-y, it's also easy to overlook. And it does manage to muster a couple of genuine awwww moments.

Overall - not something to rush to the theatre for, but if you're wondering what to get at the Redbox some lazy Friday night in the future, you could do worse than this.

24 September 2013

The Hairdresser

This randomly caught my eye as I was skimming the foreign offerings on Netflix Instant. It is a total charmer. A very pleasant movie about a very large woman who wants to be a hairdresser. When a shop refuses to hire her because of her size, she launches a mission to open her own place next door. It's a feel-good story, but not in a saccharine American way, in a robust, semi-fatalistic European way. Plenty of things go wrong, and life isn't perfect, but by golly, we do the best we can and find pleasure where we may.

It's certainly nice to see a non-typical body type get represented as beautiful (you may quibble with me on this, but I felt that the camera lingered in a matter-of-fact but loving way on her curves). I also particularly appreciated the random appearance of a bunch of illegal immigrants from Vietnam and their effect on the storyline, because I'm a sucker for multiculturalism, and honest portrayals of immigration, and movies where someone encounters a foreign culture and falls in love with it and allows it to change his/her life (see also: The Visitor and Kinamand and if you have others you'd like to recommend, leave a comment. Gosh, I didn't write much about Kinamand, did I? It's funny; I hardly remember the film at all, but I do vaguely have the sense that I felt the same way after watching it as I did after this film - cheerful and content.

19 September 2013


A lot of people told me not to expect much from this movie, but for the first half I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Then it kinda declined, and then the last 20 minutes or so were so completely stupid that it turned me against the entire thing. Actually, I had a similar experience with District 9. But that movie was so much more intelligent, and featured vastly more astute political commentary. The only real "statement" here was a separation of classes, and the fact that the lower classes spoke Spanish. Although I was entertained at first, in retrospect, the plot is ham-fisted (do you even really need the super villain, or is he just there to add the suspenseful possibility of brutal rape?), the aesthetic is grainy and fairly similar to District 9's, and even the sci-fi technology is fairly tame. The movie is totally skippable. Though I will grant it this - Jodie Foster is great. And she gets to speak French! It's nice, too, to see a female super villain who isn't portrayed as aberrant, gender-wise. She's perfectly feminine, she just also happens to be evil. And she gets the cartoonishness of it just right, unlike the rest of the cast, which veers between lifelike and totally wooden cliche.

25 August 2013

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen is pretty inconsistent these days, so I find myself going in to his movies in kind of a weird head space, trying not to get my hopes up, and also trying not to jump on the hate-train too early. I did not particularly like To Rome with Love, and actually, I thought Midnight in Paris was clever but somewhat sappy. But I did really like Vicky Cristina Barcelona, so I am totally ready to believe that Allen can still make a phenomenal film. And personally, I think that with Blue Jasmine, he has. Though a disclaimer - Boyfriend was much less taken with the movie than I was. He thought it was so-so, and was totally puzzled by my occasional fits of gleeful cackling. I started off being sort of annoyed with the movie and prepared not to like it, but after 20 minutes or so, it won me over, and then I was completely hooked.

So to begin with, I might say that I found myself contemplating this movie in the context of films made in the aftermath of the economic crash that either reflect on that crash, or seem self-conscious/careful/ about, or at least interested in, ways that extreme wealth is represented (See also: Queen of Versailles, which you really must see, I loved it, or more weirdly, Tower Heist, where this comes up in strange ways, or Up in the Air, which took a lot of heat in this context, which I thought was semi-warranted). Also be aware that I just spent two weeks at a summer program in narrative studies, so I may be even more analytical than usual =-)

Anyways. Blue Jasmine is ostensibly the story of a supremely rich woman whose life comes unraveled after her husband's financial scams send him to jail and deprive them of their ill-gotten wealth. She moves from New York to California to stay with her sister and "get back on her feet." The movie jumps around between flashbacks of her marriage, and the continuing adventures of both her and her sister. Cate Blanchett is absolutely electrifying as a woman coming apart at the seams. I mean, my god, the play of emotions on her face. Incredible. 

But what made the movie so incredible to me was that it seemed more like a kind of formal dance between two story types, that of the ultra-rich character, and that of the average character. What makes the movie remarkable is how it models the collisions, cross-overs, and parallels between those types of stories, while also showing you how part of what drives the actions is the way in which these women narrativize themselves. Repeatedly, you have scenes of Blanchett essentially reciting her story to others, or even herself, these cliches that she clings to so much that they seem to break free of reality altogether (or explicitly do, as the movie progresses and Blanchett begins fantasizing a new script for herself), or you see her sister, played by Sally Hawkins (whom I completely adore) thinking through her life in terms of what kind of story it is and wondering whether that's a story she's content with. This is one of the more masterful things about the movie, I think, these subtle links between the experiential and formal levels of the movie. 

So here is Blanchett, living this highly melodramatic rich lady life. And here's her sister, and whose struggles cannot quite be elevated into high tragedy, because, as Erich Auerbach taught us, that is a mode typically reserved for the upper classes. Even when the miseries of the lower classes are pretty much caused by the callousness of those in the upper echelons. There are these moments of almost absurdist comedy, when the two storyworlds collide. Here's Jasmine (Blanchett), having a tear-filled, pill-popping, rich lady anxiety attack, and here's Ginger (Hawkins) and her boyfriend (Bobby Canavale, who is totally delightful) trying to hook her up with work as a receptionist at a dentist's office. It's Woody Allen's trademark humor emerging in a somewhat unexpected way, and it is totally delightful.

My undeveloped and only semi-formed thought about the movie is that it brilliantly plays with ideas of who (class-wise) gets to have what kind of story line, how we respond to similar events told on varying levels (do we feel more sorry for people at one layer rather than another, for instance), and how those different modes/genres work together. My basic emotional response is that I was highly entertained by it and think it's worth seeing. So there you go.

2013 Booker Longlist

FYI: The Booker longlist came out like a month ago.

The only one I've read is The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. Which a lot of people I know really liked, and I couldn't really get into. It's a disembodied monologue, which is challenging enough, but it's also kind of ramble-y and abstract and I just didn't really get what she was talking about half the time. Maybe I was overly tired or not in the right frame of mind. But it just didn't do much for me.

I don't pay a whole lot of attention to literary prizes, but with the Booker, I have this weird conviction that the short list is pretty reliably good, and that whatever actually wins is typically not that great. There also seems to be a concerted effort to be "multicultural," which is vaguely entertaining to track.

I do typically try to read something by the Nobel prize winner every year, but I don't always succeed. I tend to think a lot of those choices are obviously politically motivated and sometimes aren't really deserved.

I don't follow the PEN awards really at all, but if I'm looking at something in a bookstore and see that it's won, I usually take that as a very good sign. Though off-hand, I'm not sure what I'm basing that off of other than Kate Christensen's The Great Man, which is a really fantastic book.

I don't follow the Pulitzer either, but looking at the list of fiction winners, I am inclined to think they are mostly well-written books that make for pleasurable reading, though they have a faint whiff of the middle-brow about them (what a horrid thing to say!). I am inclined to say that they all make for excellent airplane reading - absorbing but not necessarily challenging. Maybe this is because I recently read Olive Kitteredge, and that's how I felt about it. It's an excellent book. Very well written, very enjoyable to read, wonderful reflections on the ways in which people are interconnected, but something in me turns up my nose a little at it. You find yourself thinking, this is the perfect Christmas present for the middle-aged female readers in your life (and I feel gross saying that). Which also reminds me that I want to read this.

Anyways. I started down this rabbit hole because I was writing a post on Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, which brought me back to the comments thread on a past Woody Allen review, and I figured it was worth a post.

05 August 2013

The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett, and The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

Both totally fantastic, but in somewhat different ways. It's amazing that I've loved film noir for as long as I have, and yet never tried reading any of the books. Predictably, I loved them. The Hammett is delightfully light-hearted; a comedy of manners with a little crime thrown in. The Chandler is dark and brooding, but with these incredible taut and lyrical sentences (perhaps my favorite: "her face like scraped bone."). Both of them involve plenty of drinking and smoking and and wise guys and brassy dames (though the Hammett is especially wonderful for having an affectionate and loving husband-and-wife team, Nick and Nora), and somewhat convoluted plots with surprising twists and turns, and both are fairly quick reads. Much recommended.

26 July 2013

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I adore Adichie's writing (I was a big fan of both Half of a Yellow Sun and That Thing Around Your Neck). For some reason, I find her writing style completely absorbing. It's not that her books are transcendent works of genius -- there is something missing from them that I can't identify, they seem almost too closely bound to actual life? They are a little too neatly constructed? I know those are basically the opposite critiques. Shut up. -- but they are just a wonderful place to spend time in. They're like hanging out with someone you really like and having an interesting conversation. They are very smart, and often quite edgy. This one, in particular, has a lot of extremely incisive and intelligent observations on race, immigration, and identity (a nice companion piece to Baratunde Thurston's How to be Black, which I apparently never posted about but was very impressed by. Smart, funny, and highly readable. Everyone, regardless of their race, will learn something from it.). The highly cynical critic might complain that much of the story seems like an excuse for all this fascinating reflection on racial identity; but they would be missing out on how well realized many of the characters are.

The novel opens with Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who has been living in the US for over 10 years, getting her hair braided in preparation for her return to Nigeria. Over the course of the 6 hours she spends at the salon, we go back in time and learn about her adolescence, and particularly about her former boyfriend. We also get caught up on his life since they parted ways, positioning ourselves to be ready for their reunion. In this sense, the book can seem slightly overdetermined, but one does have to admit that the shifts in chronology are skillfully handled, and the book admirably manages to straddle multiple settings, and bring all of them to life.

Yes, it is in many ways catnip for the Good Liberal Reader. But what can I say; it's a smart and enjoyable book, and a quick read, despite its length. I look forward to seeing what Adichie does next.

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

I loved The Year of Magical Thinking, so I was looking forward to Blue Nights, morbid as that sounds. It's hard to critique this book without feeling like a jerk, because she's obviously tackling very difficult topics (the death of her daughter, her own increasingly poor health), but the fact is, it's just not as good of a book. It's scattered and fragmentary, without a strong thread running through to link the parts together. The voice is timid; Didion's trademark brevity comes across as incomplete thoughts rather than controlled prose condensed into hard nuggets of insight. The stories about her daughter -- more specifically, about her daughter's adoption -- are interesting, but they also seem almost still too personal.  Overall, it reads more like material for a book than a finished product. Not her finest work.

17 July 2013

A whole bunch of movies

I think my lack of updates is at least partly caused by a combination of suddenly having a very busy social life (back in Chicago) and becoming a regular listener of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour (haven't they basically covered it?), but I miss you, blog. And I've seen A LOT of movies in the last few weeks. So rather than trying to make myself go back and write thoughtful, worthwhile posts on all of them, I'm just gonna give it to you fast and dirty (admit it, sometimes you like it that way).

Before Earth
I love Will Smith, but nope. Bo-ring. The biggest problem, I think, was that one of the premises of the film was that the Bad Things tracked people by sensing their fear. So the ultimate fighter (Will Smith, duh) had to be a person who could show no fear, which turned out to translate more broadly into showing no emotion, ever, which is kind of counter-productive in a movie that also wants to be about father-son relationships. Or not - it basically plays right into the emotionless-father-and-the-raging-hormonal-son-who-just-wants-to-hear-Daddy-say-he-loves-him dynamic. But I don't go to Will Smith movies to see him being a robot goddamnit.
  Jaden does an ok job, but he's maybe a bit more like a normal teenager than one really wants to see in the movie. In other words, one minute he's acting like a child, the next like a brave young man. He regularly doesn't listen to instructions and does the exact opposite of what he should do and you want to shake him. So yeah, probably just like a real teenager?
  I will say though, the special effects were pretty cool. The planet looked really neat, and definitely seemed like a living thing, another character in the movie, which does weirdly make you think about climate change and saving the environment and stuff. 
 Oh, and then there's this weird thing with ghosts (ok, I guess I had more to say about this movie than I thought...). Unclear whether the dead really are coming back to speak to the living, or whether imagining they are is a way that the living pep themselves up. I found it kind of odd. Maybe this is because I'm working on a book project about Gothic fiction, so I am way, way more attentive to how the supernatural is being portrayed than anyone else would ever want to be.
  Overall though, the movie was boring. The promo interview that Will and Jaden did together in NYMagazine, on the other hand, was totally fascinating.

Fast and Furious 6
I don't understand why all of the Fast and Furious movies are totally sweet. But they are. I mean, people are like, "what? really, another one?" And then they're like "well, I guess if suckers are still willing to go..." And you know what? I am one of those suckers. I will keep going because they keep being bizarrely fantastic. The writers seem to have hit on the formula for the perfect mindless action movie. Convoluted plot, sprinkling of corny emotional issues (but not enough to drag the movie down) delivered with just the right amount of sincerity and woodenness, snarky humor and cheesy one liners, and stunts that are just ridiculous enough to be TOTALLY AWESOME. A ringing endorsement from me. Boyfriend hasn't seen the entire series and I am really looking forward to going through it again and seeing if the previous movies are as good as I remember. 

Man of Steel
I don't know why everyone is hating on this movie so hard. I wasn't all that interested in seeing it (I'm pretty over the whole superhero movie thing), but Better Half was, as were some of our friends, so why not, we went to the opening screening at midnight. I should be up front here and tell you that I dozed a little. But still! I enjoyed it! I very much appreciated that they skipped a lot of the stock pieces of the superhero genre (lengthy montage as he figures out his capabilities; droning explanations of how things got to this point; tormented negotiations with the love interest because superheroes aren't good at maintaining relationships; self-righteous lecture on what a hero is) or dispatched them quickly and efficiently. I thought the movie wasn't nearly as trite as many of these things are - I even found some aspects of the story compelling. The movie was definitely really, really long, but again, what movies aren't these days? The special effects were pretty sweet. Overall, I quite enjoyed it, for what it was. It wasn't exactly the same as every other superhero movie. Maybe that's why other people hated it?

What Maisie Knew
Very well done. Excellent acting, gorgeous cinematography. It's really hard to tell a story about a sweet little girl getting neglected by her parents, because often you worry so much about the child and hate the parents so much that you can't actually enjoy the film. What Maisie Knew cleverly gets around this problem by having rock-solid, reliable caretakers at hand, so you know that nothing really bad will happen to Maisie, and also by giving the parents just enough self-awareness to realize what awful parents they are, even if it's not enough to make them better, which makes you despise them a little bit less. It's a sweet, quirky story about incredibly attractive people. I liked it.

Star Trek: Into Darkness
Meh. I enjoyed it well enough when I saw it, but I don't remember much of it at all. I didn't like it as much as I did the last one, and I think overall the dialogue was less snappy and the plot was less intelligent, but it wasn't bad.

This is the End
Maybe it's partly because I read this Linda Holmes piece  on the lack of women in this summer's movies, or maybe because it really just is that blatant in this movie, but GAH! Let me start by saying, sure, it's a funny movie. The porn mag sequence between James Franco and Danny McBride is phenomenal. There are plenty of chuckles to be had. It's fun to see celebrities playing versions of themselves, kinda, and to feel like you get to see them in their regular lives, kinda. The plot is silly and takes a seriously cheesy turn towards the end, but hey, that's ok. But seriously, how much do these guys hate women?? Three women get to talk during this movie: Mindy Kaling, who shows up to say that she wants to have sex with Michael Cera; Rihanna, who basically just gets to repeat that she's not gonna have sex with anyone (see, 'cuz she's empowered! Right?); and Emma Watson, who gets to resurface in the bunker in the middle of the movie, only to be kicked out of the movie again because she makes rape jokes not funny. No, really. She reappears, then there's this odd scene where Jay, the sensitive guy, tries to talk to the other guys about how she might be worried that they're gonna rape her (how depressing is that? The movie can't quite decide whether he's a sensitive feminist for being concerned about this, or whether it's creepy and weird. I can't either.), and in the ensuing dialogue, they accidentally give her the impression that they're debating who gets to rape her, and she gtfo, after axing a giant penis sculpture. Once she's gone, the movie can go on with slotting males into all the traditional "female" roles (thereby challenging typical conventions of masculinity, which initially tricks you into thinking its doing something subversive with gender, until you realize that it's only subversive enough to permanently rid themselves of women) by having Franco, for instance, have a crush on Rogen. In fact, they even go the distance and have one of the male characters get raped, and another one later in the movie become a sex slave. Sexual violence: totally funnier if men are the victims. Right?
It's a rare case when gender stuff angers me enough that I have a hard time enjoying the movie, but this movie managed to do it. It's not just the specific points listed above. It's that throughout the entire movie, I felt very much like I was on the outside looking in on a scene where I was not wanted, specifically - and solely - because I'm female. It's not that they don't think women can be funny. It's that they don't care, because so can men, so why have women? My boyfriend was like well, it's just that it's a movie about a group of friends, so it had to be those guys because they're friends in real life. To which my response is, oh, so they don't have female friends in real life either?
  Look, maybe I'm rare in having a large group of friends that includes men and women. Maybe it is unreasonable of me to think that people should have (close) friends of the opposite sex. But I do, and yes, if you don't, than I think you probably are kind of sexist. 

Much Ado About Nothing
Yes, this really is the next thing I saw. Even more funny, Anthony Lane actually reviewed this along with This is the End (and I thought his review was spot-on, though I don't always enjoy or agree with his stuff), pointing out that both movies are basically extended house parties. 
Anyways. Let me be up front and say that I LOVED the original (well, the 1993 version, maybe there was an earlier one) Much Ado About Nothing, the one with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson back when they were still married, and Denzel Washington, and Kate Beckinsale and Robert Sean Leonard before they went on to do kind of weird random stuff with their careers, and even a surly Keanu Reeves. It's actually one of my all-time favorites. I basically know it by heart. I've seen it a bazillion times. It's so great. Why would you even make another one, unless you're gonna do something meaningfully different, because obviously you can't do the same thing better? So I was almost certainly not gonna like this one anyhow, and you should probably discount everything I have to say.
  But I thought their delivery of the lines was flat and ugly, and the black and white stripped the whole film of any warmth or human feeling, and the gestures toward modernizing the story were unnecessary and seemed tacked on and actively dumb, given the whole Hero plot. A couple of the moments of self-parody that many reviewers have mentioned, like a dog howling in the distance during a monologue about love, are cute. Nathan Filion is pretty great as Dogberry. But I didn't care about most of the other characters, and I was bored during the entire movie. So there.

The East
An entertaining thriller. I don't have much to say about it, and I suspect that in years to come it'll be one of those movies where people mention it and I'm like "huh? oh! yeah! that WAS pretty good!" Actually, I tend to not enjoy spy/CIA type movies very much, so the fact that I liked this one is in itself notable. It definitely wants to be a thought-provoking movie that makes you think about terrorism and social action and evil corporations, and it's willing to take that to surprisingly subversive places. Tangent, but I love the way Ellen Paige walks. My boyfriend says it's because she walks like a dude. 

The Heat
YES. Yes, yes, yes. I went in wanting to love it and so worried I wouldn't, and I loved it so much more than I expected. I love buddy cop action films of the 80s, so it's not like it was a hard sell, but this was SO funny, I was literally in tears at one point. Holmesie (yes, that's how I refer to her in my head now, because I love her so much, don't make it weird) nailed it in her review, so I don't think I need to say much else. As a side note, one point where Holmesie and I do disagree - I watched Miss Congeniality on my flight back to the US in June, and I enjoyed it, I dunno why she hates it so much. But entertaining as it is, it is nowhere near as good as The Heat, which is just completely great. Go see it. It's awesome. 

The Lone Ranger
Bo-ring. So boring. Johnny Depp is entertaining enough, doing basically his typical Johnny Depp thing, but he cannot shrug off the deadweight that is the rest of this bloated turd. Everyone else in this movie pretty much sucks. Is the movie offensive to Native Americans? Well, there is the matter of the serious implication that an entire tribe gets wiped out in the middle of the movie, which is, you know, a bummer, but isn't gonna get in the way of anybody's happy ending. Really though, the movie is just overall offensive in its immense suckitude, and you should shun it.

The Way Way Back
If you have seen the trailer for this movie, you probably know exactly what you're gonna see, except for maybe the last 3 minutes of the end. Not that it's bad, it's just pretty paint-by-numbers indie flick. It is nice to be reminded of what a good actor Sam Rockwell is, and how very likeable he is when he's being likeable. It's fun to see Steve Carrell be a jerk, and nice to see that he's a good enough actor to do it convincingly. I don't particularly enjoy watching movies about unhappy teenagers, because I was one myself and what's the fun in being reminded of what that was like? But in this movie, as in many such things, the world is actually far kinder and better than reality at crucial moments (even my boyfriend, who is normally tolerant of movies in a way I struggle to be, leaned over after a scene involving break-dancing and said "Yeah that would never happen."), even though it still kinda sucks. Meh. Pretty skippable movie overall.

I think I'm still forgetting some movies, astonishingly enough. But that's a start at least. I'll try to be better from now on...

07 June 2013

5 Minarets in New York

My friend Colleen is reviewing this movie for a journal, so we watched it together the other day. Having just read the draft of her (excellent) review, I started thinking about the movie again and figured I'd log my own responses (bonus: this being a blog rather than a respectable publication, I don't have to be nice). What makes the movie interesting is its attempt to be a Turkish-American blockbuster. The plot centers around a terrorism investigation that brings two Turkish cops to NYC, where they are to capture a local imam named Haci and bring him to Turkey to stand trial. One of the cops has tortured the crap out of some terr'rists and identified Haci as The Bad Guy. After a quick chat about American imperialism with a comically bigoted FBI agent (Robert Patrick, what happened to you??) they arrest their man, who is then rescued in a daring mission led by Danny Glover, his Muslim buddy, and Glover's army of Harlem thugs. In a wildly improbable sequence of events, the Turks end up hanging out with Haci (and his Christian wife, played by Gina Gershon, who as Colleen points out, is dressed like a Turkish mom for the entire movie, distressingly though impressively obliterating her considerable sex appeal) for a few days, where they are forced to confront the fact that he is clearly a saint. This puzzles them somewhat, but in the end, off to Turkey they go (where innocent men don't stand a chance!). I won't spoil the rest for you, because the surprise twists are half the ludicrous fun of it. But as Colleen aptly summarizes it, from that point on, the movie basically turns into a Turkish soap opera.

Let me be totally clear: this movie is terrible. The dialogue is appallingly bad (I suspect the English language bits were written in Turkish and fed into Google Translate), and the movie is basically a massive collection of worn out stereotypes. You might think that a cooperative effort between Turkish and US film folk would help avoid stereotype, but bizarrely, it seems to do the opposite - instead, all character types are pulled straight out of the stockpile of cliche, whether they be Turkish, Muslim, American, cops, WASPS, distressed daughters... there is nothing new under the cinematic sun, in this movie. I was, however, somewhat intrigued by the question of audience, namely - who is this movie made for? I think it must be Turks, because Americans a. don't like reading subtitles, ie will be turned off by all the Turkish dialogue, and b. won't get a lot of the cultural specificity of the Turkish segments. Not that they necessarily need to, but the underlying critique of juxtaposed scenes of fundamentalist groups chanting in a mosque and quasi-fascist training of the Turkish police force is going to be somewhat lost on them, and it might be one of the more interesting aspects of the film. I wonder, then, whether the problem is that this movie shouldn't be judged alongside American film at all, but rather, as a stock Turkish melodrama that has upped its ante by including American actors, similar to the way you occasionally see US film stars in Bollywood films (Kambakkht Ishq being particularly awesome in that regard. Seriously.). Not being a connoisseur of Turkish melodrama, I'm not really qualified to speak on that, but I think it's an interesting possibility.