25 December 2006

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

This movie is absolutely phenomenal. Hardly an uplifting flick, but a masterpiece nonetheless.

The film is about the Anglo-Irish War and the rise of the Irish free state. It's caused a bit of controversy, probably because the British don't much like to be reminded of their brutal imperialism, but personally, I think it ought to be required viewing for everyone who decks themselves out in Union Jacks (butcher's aprons, as the movie calls them) or blithely orders Black and Tans in Irish pubs. It's an oft neglected bit of history that people really ought to pay more attention to.

But aside from any personal interest in Irish history, it's a remarkable film about rebellion, war, and independence. The brilliance of the movie is in its carefully wrought plot - rather than being a sweeping historical epic, painted in broad strokes, it's more like a carefully assembled series of vignettes, with thematic links. Though it has an overall frame, following the story of two brothers, it comfortably shifts to other issues and doesn't hammer in the "human side". Rather, the plot twists and circles in on itself, returning to questions of justice, betrayal, independence, revolution and the rule of law, in subtle, but powerful ways.

The film is quite brutal, but not gratuitously so. It depicts violence, and cruelty, in an unflinching manner, but I wouldn't call it gory. It also contains long scenes of dialogue, discussions about the beginning of Irish independence and what free Ireland should look like, but these don't seem drawn out or tiresome. Likewise, the love scenes are touching, and relevant, but not over-the-top. Though I did sob at moments, I never felt that I was being emotionally manipulated in some cheap fashion. There are some gorgeous shots of the Irish landscape, but they're remarkably subdued in comparison to most films set in Ireland, which simply can't resist panning over the glorious green fields of Erin. This may be the film's greatest strength - it's quiet restraint, and subtlety. The director recognizes the power of the subject, and doesn't need to dress it up. The acting and dialogue are superb, the story is delicately woven, and the cinematography is excellent. The film has a messy, chaotic feel to it that's very appropriate for depicting a country in turmoil. Also the sound has a curious muffled quality - though this may be because I watched it here in Poland, where I'm vacationing with family, and where presumably most of the audience is reading subtitles. Muffled or not, it's certainly the case that there are many moments where a lot of people are talking at once, giving the film a crowded, bustled atmosphere.

All in all, a brilliant work. Though admittedly, perhaps, not the most obvious choice for holiday entertainment. The woman at the box office was somewhat appalled that this was the movie we came to see on Christmas Day: "Ma'am, you do realize that this is a WAR movie, right?"
Anyhow, highly recommended.

23 December 2006

Stranger Than Fiction

The conceit of this movie is fantastic - the main character comes to realize that he's a character in a novel when he starts hearing the voice of a narrator in his head. The film follows the travails of aforementioned character, but also pulls back to the author, creating one of those delightfully dizzying blends of fiction and reality but yet it's all happening in a movie meta-things that lit dorks like me go nuts over. The problem, however, is that the makers had the brilliance to come up with the idea, but not enough to really do it justice.

The main problem is that the novel being written, the story of Will Ferrell, is boring. It is possible that this is intentional; that Emma Thompson's character, the author, is just a bad writer, which would be a very clever idea, but then why is there a university professor designing courses around her works? Is that a subtle jab at the study of literature? Is that why the literature professor's comments, while often funny, are totally inane? Why is she a bestseller? Why does Will Ferrell see the ending as brilliant, when it's so banal and cliche that it makes you want to tear your hair out?

If this is intentional, it's brilliant. Because the Will Ferrell story is, to me, textbook bad writing. It's tendentious, trite, inconsistent, and generally irritating. Except for the moments where he becomes aware of the narrator's voice, which are hilarious, clever, and very well done. The movie is interesting and entertaining when it focuses on its characters - the dialogue is generally phenomenal, and the acting is fantastic - but the machinations of the plot are so crude and bumbling that its painful. This would be highly appropriate to a movie that claims that characters in novels are real people - bad plots happen to good people too. Sometimes there are characters that seem somewhat interesting (Queen Latifah) despite the fact that their presence in the work seems mostly unnecessary and you barely even get to know them. Which brings up the interesting issue of how it is possible for a character to be so badly written as to be largely pointless and flat and yet still convincingly human and appealing enough that you wish you'd been able to get to know them?

But I'm not convinced that the movie really is that brilliant. I suspect that it didn't actually intend to blow my mind by making Emma Thompson's character a bad writer. I mean, I think it can't entirely be the character's fault, because there's a major whole in the plot that seems to be outside her purview, namely, her surprise at discovering that her character knows about her, which would seem to be impossible if she's narrating his life. Also, I suspect that if that were the film's intent, it would be made more clear. I also suspect that if the movie were that cerebral, it wouldn't have such big name stars in it.

Also, I couldn't help but be supremely irritated by the fact that the movie attempted to pretend that it was set in New York, when it was obviously filmed in Chicago. Especially given that Dustin Hoffman, the lit professor, explicitly makes a point of asking whether the novel's author
is familiar with the city. Incidentally, I think it would have been a nice touch to explore the way that cities are portrayed in literature, to narrate a literary description with a visual counterpart, thus blending ekphrasis and film in particularly tantalizing ways, but maybe I'm the only one who would really get a kick out of that.

All in all, a highly amusing and interesting film. Too bad it's not better. It had a golden opportunity to be an absolutely dazzling intellectual adventure, but it ended up being a watered down, yet somewhat enjoyable, flick. I suspect that it will end up largely forgotten, despite having a ridiculously star-studded cast.

16 December 2006

Thank You For Smoking

I really expected to like this movie. It was billed as this wildly clever satire, ultimately centering on a man who job it is to utilize the persuasive powers of language to their full potential - a bullshit artist, if you will. That it explored this topic through the tobacco industry made it double plus good. But ultimately, I had the same problem with this movie as I did with Quills, that movie about Marquis de Sade - both are films that stick their toes into risky waters, and refuse to take the plunge. Ultimately, Thank You For Smoking ends up unable to resist its own moralizing impulse, and becomes a bland touchy feely lecture on being a good parent.

First though, the plot? Ridiculous. It's so disastrously bad, it's apalling. The movie is supposed to be about talking, but obviously seems anxious that viewers will get bored, so it attempts to make up for this by having these conversations occur in wildly disparate settings, so the main character is always going somewhere, which makes the movie feel really frenetic and rushed. You feel like you only catch glimpses of him in action, and brief snatches of reflection, short bursts where you actually feel like the movie is focusing on its own topic. And when it does so, it manages to be quite interesting, but then, suddenly, the main character is kidnapped and hospitalized, none of which is all that thrilling, or relevant, but is rather distracting and annoying.

The best segment is probably when he goes to the home of the former Marlboro Man with a briefcase full of money. His job is to give the man the money as a bribe to keep quiet about his cancer. It's the moment where the main character's abilities to manipulate people are truly at their peak. But it's weakened by the completely unnecessary presence of his son in the other room, who serves as the nagging thorn of morality in the movie's side. This is truly its achilles heel - the unfortunate choice to introduce the question of morality by examining the kind of role model the main character is for his son (played by the preposterously solemn, doe-eyed Cameron Bright). I hate it when the naivete of children is used to show how corrupt the adult world is. It just gets on my damn nerves. Because of the father-son dynamic, the film is always teetering on the brink of cheap sentiment. Rather than relishing the sleaziness of the main character, you're at every minute anticipating the moment of conversion - which ultimately is exactly what happens, albeit not in the sickly sweet way one dreads.

The real problem with the movie, I think, is that it tries to be both a satire and an psychological investigation of its main character. So on the one hand, you have a cast of totally flat, intrumental characters - the sleazy senator, the sleazy reporter, the sleazy firearm and alcohol reps (most everyone is sleazy in this movie), the gruff boss, the big boss tobacco captain, the concerned mother, etc - and then you have the main character, who is supposed to have some kind of depth. Aaron Eckhart is a great actor, but here he only seems to have two modes of being; the Cheshire Cat smiles and smooth talking, or the contemplative sighs, staring off into space or at his son. You're probably supposed to wonder whether or not he actually believes his own bullshit, but the movie is so busy trying to manufacture some antic-filled plot that it doesn't manage to actually examine this question.

Finally, I couldn't help but be disappointed with the film's prudishness about its centerpiece - cigarettes. I don't know how anyone could see it as a pro-smoking film - to me, it obviously sent a strong anti-smoking message. It emphasizes that consumers should be informed and free to make their own decisions (and curiously, doesn't really explore the manipulative power of advertising, which is supposed to be the point of the movie?), but it makes it crystal clear that cigarettes are not the right choice. It makes a few not-so-subtle comments about the dangers of smoking and refuses to show even a single scene with a character smoking a cigarette. I respect that the filmmakers didn't want to make a movie promoting cigarettes in any way, but if that was the case, maybe they shouldn't have a movie about a tobacco lobbyist?

28 November 2006

Addendum to Quo Vadis?

As it turns out, I'm still thinking about this book. I don't think I said much about this in my original post on it, but one thing that's really incredible about the text is the way in which it portrays, and gives a context for, early Christianity. The vivid contrast between the debauched, hedonistic ethics of the Roman world and the ethical worldview of Christianity is quite poignant. There is also a subtle critique of later developments of Christianity, most strongly of the fire and brimstone variety. The emphasis is on faith, love, and forgiveness. But where the text is really remarkable is in the way in which it illustrates the radical force of the "turn the other cheek" idea. And provides a political context for it. This has really stuck with me, and the force of it hit me even more last night as my friend Sean and I were discussing Christianity in America and the war in Iraq.

Christianity began as the faith of an oppressed minority, a small group pitted against the absolute power of the Roman Empire. That it rose to become one of the world's major religions is something of a miracle, and it seems to me that it put a bit of a strain on the ideology, in that what was originally the faith of the meek suddenly became the faith of those in control, and now what? I was thinking about this in the context of the War on Terror, or rather, the war against Islamic Fundamentalism. I mean, it's a tired cliche, but what would Jesus do? Would he be out hunting for Osama bin Laden? Well, if we're going from Quo Vadis, no, he most certainly wouldn't. When the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, did he resist? No. When the Christians were thrown to the lions, did they fight? At least in Quo Vadis?, they knelt and prayed and got eaten. In this text, at least, Christianity is presented as the ultimate power of passivity. They turn the other cheek like mad. This passivity, of course, ultimately wins them converts and proves to be quite the weapon in itself, but still. It's not a project of going out and righting the world, or fighting evil, it's a highly individual moral code. And obviously Quo Vadis? is a work of fiction, but still, I mean, the Bible explicitly states that THOU SHALT NOT KILL. It's pretty clear, no? So how does a Christian justify American foreign policy?

So what happened? What am I missing?

Well, here's one thought. The "turn the other cheek" ideology is all well and good in an age where you have to face a man to kill him, but it doesn't quite pan out in an age where the push of a button can exterminate a few million. The scale of violence possible these days, and the estrangement facilitated by technological development, make such a strategy untenable. And the shadow of the Holocaust looms large - turning the other cheek has become an ethical outrage.

Furthermore, there's been an increase in competition. At least in the Quo Vadis world, your options are basically Christianity, Judaism, and Pagan. Paganism is somewhat scattered, and severely lacking in moral fibre. Judaism is dark and mysterious and not exactly welcoming to strangers. So Christianity is quite the upgrade. Note that in the novel, one never sees any Jews converting - it's only the faithless pagans, who don't really have a religion to speak of anyhow. So Christianity never has to mount an argument as to why it's superior to a comparable faith.

In any case, it is a really fascinating aspect of the book, this view of Christianity on its home turf, so to speak.

25 November 2006

The Departed

This is one of the best bad movies I’ve ever seen. It’s fabulously entertaining to watch up to the last 20 minutes, where it takes a serious nose-dive. But amusing as it is, upon leaving, you start to think back on it, and with a bit of poking, the film completely falls apart. I think, actually, that this is why the last 20 minutes are so disappointing – the film is so poorly constructed that the ending can’t help but be an attempt to lamely tie up loose ends.

But first, the virtues – the dialogue is phenomenal. Fast-paced, witty, often hilarious. The acting is largely brilliant (though I was less impressed with Jack Nicholson than I expected to be), with Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin in particular delivering absolutely stellar performances. The two leads, Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon, weren’t quite as strong, but this is due more to poor writing than poor acting, I think. In any case, the movie is a real blast to watch. Fast-paced and funny, it’s a real treat. You’re borne along in the excitement, and don’t invest too much energy considering the plot – until it begins to draw to a close, at which point, the other shoe drops.

The story itself is fairly compelling – two double agents working for opposite sides, tracking each other. Unfortunately, it’s not handled with enough grace. The parallelism is often clumsy, and the psychological exploration that would have made the movie really intriguing is foregone in favor of cheap suspense. That both of them are sleeping with the same woman, for instance, adds some thrill perhaps, in that there’s a chance that they could find out about each other, but in fact, the buildup goes nowhere, and it ultimately feels totally contrived. How much more interesting it would have been to watch each in a relationship with a different woman, and thus get a more nuanced glimpse into their minds! Alas.

It’s odd, in that the movie seems to want to be subtly probing, but ends up being alternately vague and ham-fisted. Thus, repeated symbolic hints clue you in to the fact that Matt Damon’s character is impotent, but gives you no good reason to give a shit. The characters aren’t sufficiently developed to be truly sympathetic (in the fellow-feeling sense, not the nice guy sense), thus the development we do get serves largely to bog down the storyline, or to seem like a crude caricature. There’s some attempt to introduce the question of what truly separates cops from criminals, but again, the question is raised and then left hanging, without enough material provided to make it truly thought-provoking.

But having said all that, allow me to reiterate how much fun the movie is to watch. The individual scenes are, for the most part, great – it’s just that they don’t add up to a coherent, satisfying whole. For example, in the middle of the movie, there’s a somewhat mysterious scene where Jack Nicholson is tossing handfuls of cocaine onto a bed where two young ladies are writhing about. What’s the point of that scene? No idea. But you’ve got to admit, it’s pretty fucking hardcore. Likewise, why does one of the mafia dudes, upon his death, inform Leonardo Dicaprio that he’s figured him out, and then, with his last breath, challenge Dicaprio to explain why? Is it because he’s he’s also an undercover cop? Is it because he just happens to have a soft spot for Leo? Is it because he’s had a change of heart and is actually hoping that the crime ring will get busted? Who knows! But it makes for a pretty intense scene.

Oh, and a sidenote – the movie is pretty intensely gory. This has been remarked upon in many reviews with some shock, as though this were the first movie to come out with this kind of violence. Have these people ever seen a Tarantino flick? Did they go to Sin City? Brutal, splattering, visceral violence is the new black, folks. People don’t just get shot in the head anymore, they get their brains sprayed onto the wall behind them, with big gooey drops of blood flying through the air. I’m not sure why this is, but I find it kind of interesting. A guy I was talking to at the bar about the movie told me that he found it really disturbing, which honestly kind of surprised me. Perhaps I’m just part of a younger, desensitized generation, I dunno.

In conclusion then, I wholeheartedly recommend this movie. It’s a great time. You’ll have fun watching it. Just don’t think about it too much afterwards.

14 November 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

You've probably heard a lot about this movie already. It apparently holds the record for biggest box office opening for any movie that has opened in less than 1,000 theatres. There's already a lawsuit in motion from some of "victims" of the hoax. But none of the articles about this movie, that I've seen anyhow, discuss what a totally bizarre phenomenon it is.

So, as I understand it, the way the movie was made is that Sacha Baron Cohen posed as Borat and then travelled the US, tricking people into thinking he really was Borat, and filmed his encounters with them. These encounters, however, are partly staged. For instance, the frat boys who are suing him were allegedly taken to a bar, provided with copious amounts of liquor, then placed in a trailer home, whence Borat was dumped. The time they spent together was filmed, but their conversation was unscripted. So what you have is a meta-clusterfuck. You are watching a movie that is the story of a fictional character making a documentary, and you're seeing both the process of making it, and the actual footage filmed. The footage filmed is both staged and genuine, basically like an improv routine, where you're given a scenario and set free to act it out. The Americans of the film are aware that they're performing for a camera, and think they're being put in a documentary about the US - which is, in fact, exactly what is happening, except that the guy interviewing them is a fictional character, and the documentary is for the (comedic) benefit of the Western world rather than the cultural enlightenment of Kazakhstan. The blend of fiction and reality here sort of blows my mind.

Let's not forget that part of the humor here is that Borat is a ridiculous character, an outrageously offensive guy from a caricature of Eastern Europe. Now, some of the humor here is to be derived from the fact that these Americans he encounters don't recognize him as a fake, and are apparently willing to believe that Kazakhstan in really this backwards. But is the joke there really on these gullible Americans? Is it that the Americans are just that gullible/ignorant, or is it also that there's a ring of truth to this caricature that allows it to be toeing the line of believability? Are we laughing at how gullible Americans are when we laugh at Borat french kissing his sister? I don't think so. We're laughing at Eastern Europe. Is the fact that the Kazakhstan caricature is a veritable collage of Eastern European traits meant to rope in all of Eastern Europe as fodder for humor, or just to further ridicule the Americans? The phrases such as "jak sie masz" that Borat uses are, in fact, Polish. Most of the "Kazakh" he is speaking is Hebrew with a heavy Russian accent. Azamat is speaking Armenian. The music is mostly Russian, recognizable to some because it's in the Gameboy version of Tetris, though some Goran Bregovic tunes make an appearance as well. I mean, I'm Polish and I find it hilarious, but still, I couldn't help but feel that the vitriolic edge of the film's humor is directed not at Americans, but at Eastern Europeans.

Now, here's where I get dizzy. Let me pause here to say that a friend of mine, as we were en route to the movie, complained about the fact that the reviews of the movie read it as some kind of ethnographic project, cultural commentary on America, etc. "He's just doing this shit because it's funny", claims Sean. So, what's curious to me about the film, which I suppose inclines me to Sean's view, is that at no point in the film is it made clear that the Americans in the movie are not acting. The movie never explicitly states what it is most known for - that these people really did react to this guy in this way. Secondly, everyone knows from the get-go that Borat is a fictional character. So if the film really meant to be hard-hitting cultural commentary on the US, it'd need to be more real, right? For instance, the woman playing the prostitute would have to actually BE a prostitute. Fun fact - she played in So I Married an Axe Murderer. Anyhow, my point is, the fact that the movie doesn't flaunt its semi-documentary aspects leads me to think that it isn't actually meant to be a cultural slap in the face. Rather, it's amusement, albeit with a political side. Now, the final dizzying aspect is the American audiences who are falling over themselves rushing to see this movie, and laugh at how stupid Americans (and Eastern Europeans) are. My friend Ligaya speculated that perhaps this is a key feature of being American - this sense of "Americans are such idiots, but I, an American, am totally unlike them". But the cruel twist of it is that, of course, they kind of are. I mean, even some of the people who are throwing fits about being duped admit that the movie is funny. So...

But, you may be thinking, did you LIKE the movie? So here's the thing - moments of it were hilarious. Incidentally, here's another question - does the hilarity of, for instance, Borat yelling at the rodeo, "May George Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq!" have anything to do with the fact that he's *actually* doing it at a real rodeo in front of people who don't know he's fake? See, because I think that most of the time, what I'm laughing at is the caricature of Eastern Europe, or just the general absurdity of the set-up - it has nothing, for me, to do with whether or not it's scripted. The fact that it's kind of real doesn't really make it funnier. But anyhow, so yeah, moments of it are very, very funny. But honestly, for a lot of it I was just bored. It dragged. The plot was shaky, which would be fine, if it weren't so very developed. I think Borat is really at his best in short bursts, as he appears in the tv show. I wouldn't really recommend the movie if you're just looking for some stupid humor - rent the dvds of the show instead. They're much funnier, I think.

Incidentally, another thought to ponder - the difference between Stephen Colbert's interviews and Borat's... Look, for instance, at Colbert interviewing Congressman Lynn Westmoreland (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWCJetVdaWo). Hilarious, and incisive political commentary. Doesn't involve any deception, and sends, basically, the same message that the Borat movie is getting at, unless you buy my argument (which is sort of buried in this post) that Borat's real target is Eastern Europe.

This blog is basically a place where I collect my thoughts, buckaroos. So apologies for the scattered-ness of it. If I were to write something on Borat now, having just written all this out, it would likely be something more like this:

Intro: intriguing aspect of Borat film, undiscussed by most reviews, is blend of fact/fiction. Works in very odd ways. So what is the real purpose of Borat movie - humor or political commentary? Who is the real target?
1. doesn't make a point of telling you that the american scenes are unscripted - in fact, parts are totally fake. Prostitute, for example, is an actress. So the reality factor seems less important than people are tempted to claim.
2. humor doesn't entirely depend on reality of these encounters (though this may just be my impression - i'm curious what others think)
3. borat as a character, and plot surrounding him, is actually more developed than the american cultural encounter aspects of the film
4. the real humor of the movie is borat just being a wacky guy, and watching people interact with this wacky guy
5. who is borat? eastern european caricature, collage of various stereotypes, languages, music, etc
6. the anti-semitism aspect. quite obviously a critique of anti-semitism, portrayal of anti-semites as idiot barbarians. yet (sadly) this very kind of anti-semitism does still exist, and especially in eastern europe.
7. in fact, while the americans represent themselves, and are invited to good-naturedly, for the most part, laugh at themselves, the eastern europeans have no opportunity to represent themselves in a better or worse fashion - they're being ruthlessly stereotyped and caricatured. and while it's outrageous, and obviously exaggerated, it's also obviously grounded in some kind of reality. at very least, one can say that eastern europe has largely failed in producing a more positive image of itself in the west.
Conclusion: the real target for humor, somewhat vicious humor no less, in the movie, is eastern europe, not america.

12 November 2006

Quo vadis? by Henryk Sienkiewicz

I finished reading this book about 2 hours ago now and I'm still reeling. Rome has fallen. Hard.

Sienkiewicz's novel depicts the decline of Rome and the rise of Christianity, primarily through three characters - Markus Winicjusz, Petroniusz, and Nero. The centerpiece of the text is the love affair between Winicjusz and a young woman named Ligia, and his resulting conversion to Christianity, but as the text progresses, its scope widens, and events start occuring on a more cataclysmic scale. The tone shifts subtly in the work as the Roman perspective grows increasingly foreign and barbaric, and the Christian worldview becomes more familiar. It's impressively done. The ideology of Christianity is introduced from without in a clever way; first in a sort of speculative fashion - "Have you heard anything about this Christianity thing? I hear they eat babies!" and then indirectly - as people explain the teachings to Winicjusz, the reader encounters them as a foreign idea that gradually becomes more familiar. The reader, initially immersed in the Roman worldview, likewise experiences Christianity as something unknown, new and different. And gets in on the ground level, because after all, the people preaching have personally hung out with Jesus, which is really kind of novel and exciting. It's kind of interesting, in that Winicjusz's conversion happens in a fashion that I imagine is somewhat backwards from the way that people convert nowadays - he is fairly easily persuaded that Jesus was a real, living guy who died and was resurrected, but the teachings themselves are a bit harder to swallow. He's willing to buy the whole resurrection bit - why not, strange things happen all the time, and Paul seems like a trustworthy guy, so if he says it happened, ok, but this turn the other cheek, love your neighbor business, that's a whole other can of worms.

And yet, the logic of the novel inexorably insists on the wisdom of these ideals, and by the end of the text, there is simply no other way to see the world. It's pretty incredible. At page 200, you're right alongside Winicjusz, being completely baffled by these new, strange ideas, totally unable to understand them, and by page 500, you simply can't see how one could think differently. Which isn't to say that the work is polemical. Actually, what's somewhat surprising, to me, is that the text ends more on a note of eulogy for the world that is left behind than the triumphant kick one would expect. The climactic scene, more than anything, is the death of Petronius. With Nero's death, the evils of the Empire are laid to rest, but with Petroniusz, a particular way of loving beauty is lost. Though Petronius originally appears as a rather amoral aesthete, by the end of the work, he actually seems like the one who has things figured out, more so even than Winicjusz and Ligia, who, one must admit, get a bit dull. Petroniusz seems to be able to claim the best of both worlds - the ethical rigor of Christianity but the grace of the Ancient view. Christianity, he says, teaches that one must love everybody, and he's just not capable of loving what is ugly. If the Lord meant him to love everything, why couldn't he have made it all beautiful? Good question Petronius, and one that the text doesn't really answer. Whereas Nero's love of the beautiful makes him a monster (the burning of Rome again reminds me of Benjamin's claim that man has become so estranged from himself that he can appreciate his own destruction as an aesthetic act...), Petroniusz seems to be a good middle ground...

Epics are so neato. We don't often think of things on such a grand, sweeping scale these days - we have too much a sense of relativity, I think. It's just incredible to watch an empire topple, to see a new movement gathering speed and ultimately setting a new world order. People like to compare the US to Ancient Rome and project doomy doom - they have no clue. You start thinking about what it would really take, these days, to unleash that kind of apocalyptic sea change, and it seems like nuclear holocaust would be a bare minimum. And the charm of the historical novel is its ability to somehow encapsulate changes of this scale through a telescoping view, with a scant few characters. True, there may be some compromise in terms of psychological complexity, but one doesn't have a sense that the people are totally flat. Perhaps this is because the interest of the work is in the mental shift that's occuring, the clash of two systems of ideas. So the key moments are generally sights of human interaction rather than physical events. It's not Glaukon burning alive, it's the moment he forgives Chilo, and the ensuing change in Chilo. Though it must be said, the burning alive thing is pretty impressive. The brutality of the Roman world is actually pretty mindboggling. I don't think the reality of the Coliseum and the gladiatorial games had ever really hit home for me, but my god. It's terrifying.

All in all, wow. Quite a book. No wonder they gave the man a Nobel prize.

I passed this on my way to school today:

28 October 2006

Malwina, or The Heart's Intuition by Maria Wirtemberska

I'm reading for my Orals full time these days, so the book selection is about to get way more obscure, or at very least, stodgy, especially because I'm proceeding in roughly chronological order.

Malwina's main claim to fame is that its the self-proclaimed first Romance written in Polish (it was published in 1816). And yes, it is a fairly standard Sentimental novel with a Gothic touch, but it's still kind of fun. The story is that Malwina, a hot young widow living in the boonies, meets the mysterious Ludomir, and falls madly in love with him. But he has this dark secret that, he says, means he can never be hers, so he flees, vowing to love her for ever, and expressing his wish that she'll do the same. Depressed, she goes to Warsaw, where, surprise, she meets Ludomir, revealed to be the Prince Melsztynski. But there's something kind of off about the guy, to begin with, the fact that he has a girlfriend. But he dumps her right away, and starts pursuing Malwina again. Meanwhile, she's beating herself up over her own inconstancy, because she just doesn't seem to love the Prince in Warsaw the way she did back home. But it's hard to get around the fact that the guy's character seems to have taken a turn for the worse. Not only is he a player (as opposed to a faithful devout lover), but he doesn't have much in the way of game. And he can't seem to hold his liquor. Meanwhile, mysterious coincidences and spooky happenings are going on left and right. Ultimately, in the not-so-surprising Gothic twist, it turns out that there are two Ludomirs! Ah, the old identical twin kidnapped by gypsies and then miraculously found plot twist. Yawn. Anyhow, Malwina ends up marrying Ludomir the good, and her sister gets Ludomir the somewhat flaky, and everyone lives happily ever after.

A curious feature of the text is the stunning array of coincidences, which wouldn't be so surprising if not for the fact that the narrator explicitly comes out and says that coincidences are a load of nonsense. "People are sometimes amazed when infatuated lovers, by some peculiar twist of fate, always contrive to find themselves in the very place where they might catch a glimpse, if only for a moment, of the object of their infatuation. This does not happen by magic and we should stop being impressed by it. It is not difficult to conceive how those who are constantly occupied with the same thoughts might also, to some degree, act the same". So first, you have a romance novel that is dismissing the idea of star crossed lovers, and second, you have a psychological explanation for what would appear to be coincidence in a novel that is highly dependent on pretty outrageous coincidences to propel the plot. Odd.

Also somewhat notable is a dream sequence that gets thrown in, basically rendering a condensed version of the plot in dream symbols. I don't know why I was so struck by that, it's not as if people didn't interpret dreams before Freud came along, but nonetheless, it was kind of neato.

Another kind of interesting aspect, to me at least, is the structure of the text. It's mostly in the third person, but with a bunch of inserted letters. We never find out who the narrator is, although we do come to learn that she's a Polish woman. She repeatedly insists on the veracity of the story, most clearly by repeatedly emphasizing that Malwina is a real woman, and not one of those idealized characters in a romance novel, but at no point does she, for instance, explain how she managed to get all these letters. Also, while she will occasionally openly speculate about what's going on (and invite the reader to do the same), she will just as easily slip into a confident reportage of Malwina's thoughts and feelings, implying omniscience. It's interesting, because all of the interiority of the novel could just as easily come from the letters themselves, so perhaps the moments of omniscience should be counted as goofs.

Meanwhile, the narrator of course becomes a personality of the novel as well. What's intriguing here is that the narrator is meant to be our guiding consciousness of the text, our sympathetic entry point, but there are some moments where her scope is limited. She serves to formulate some of the explicit morals, doing some soapbox stints on Polish patriotism, for instance, or stepping up to defend Malwina and remind the reader to refrain from judgement until s/he has finished the book. At the same time, as said above, she occasionally indulges in blatant speculation, making clear her own position as interpreter rather than authority. Furthermore, at moments, she makes claims that seem obviously wrong, for instance, when she says, "at these words, Malwina involuntarily seized Ludomir's hand as if afraid he was about to forsake her. But this was no doubt merely from caution, lest she fall into the water, or at least that is how I understand it". Hold up. This is obviously bullshit. T'werent no hydrophobic tic and everybody knows it. So why would the narrator make herself appear unreliable?

Finally, the closing scene is a bit odd, in that you get your happy ever after moment, and then there's some rambling about how everyone ends up, culminating in a scene where, years down the road, Ludomir the good thinks he sees Malwina making eyes at his twin brother, only to be immediately reassured that she's not, and then they live happily ever after, for real this time. So why insert that note of doubt? Especially in such a clumsy, torturous fashion? Very peculiar.

So yes, it's basically a stock classic, but there are some perks that liven it up.

24 September 2006

Native Realm, by Czeslaw Milosz

The Polish title of this book is Rodzinna Europa, which translates to something like Native Europe. The title of the English translation, Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition, is deceptive, for it implies that the quest of the book is the self understood in the American sense, and the quest a process of psychological probing. But Milosz makes it very clear in the introduction that this is not his purpose. Rather, he wants to explain who he is as a representative of the part of Eastern Europe that he hails from, to write against the prevailing view of Eastern Europeans. As he writes, "Undoubtedly I would call Europe my home, but it was a home that refused to acknowledge itself as a whole; instead, as if on the strength of some self-imposed taboo, it classified its population into two categories: members of the family (quarrelsome but respectable) and poor relations" (2). This is a problematic process in that he both claims his homeland as a part of Europe but also stakes out for it an exclusive position, an insistent difference. And this insistent difference often takes the form of moral highground: "While the countries that bordered the Atlantic were acquiring colonies across the seas and setting up manufactures, no such foolhardy ventures interested the Eastern Europeans, who were engaged exclusively in agriculture; and their consciences today are not burdened with the sufferings of black slaves or the first proletarians". Leaving aside the question of how justified such a view is, it's curious to me that Milosz both glorifies Poland as the site of a potential alternate vision of nation, crushed by its ruthless neighbors, but likewise indicts Poles, and particularly Polish nationalists, for their messianic visions of Poland. As though his version of Eastern Europeans being sacrificed for the good of civilization is free from vainglorious delusions of the more typical form...

But despite having this clear ideological agenda, the book is also a memoir. It doesn't strike the Western reader as such because it lacks the confessional urge, the desire to uncover the most intimate parts of the self. Rather, it's a calm reflection on the ways in which the writer was shaped by the intellectual and political milieus he has inhabited. It gets more personal at the end, when Milosz discusses his new life in the U.S, but still, we don't read much about his emotional life. We never learn how he met his first wife, or hear about the birth of his children. The self is approached obliquely, as it emerges through descriptions of encounters with others, or with the outside world. The gaze is not directed inwards, but rather out, and finds itself by examining the ways in which it views the world. And in fact, despite the controlled, distanced tone, the work does manage to seem incredibly intimate. The descriptions are not particularly detailed, but are nonetheless poignant in their economy. Patricia Hampl, in her essay on the book (which can be found in her book entitled I Could Tell You Stories), points out that idiosyncracy is the proof of authenticity in the work; the particular observations that Milosz makes, that he notes the gold watch on a man's wrist, or the way his friend's pants are always falling down, are the indelible stamp of his own consciousness. Milosz is a master of conjuring up a strong mental image on the basis of a scant few details.

The book is thus fascinating not simply as the account of a place, or of one man's life, but rather, as an exploration of the relationship between the two. This, more than anything, is the search of the text; an attempt to understand how a man interacts with the world, how it shapes him and how, or if, he can shape it. Milosz refuses to give up on human agency, despite having witnessed first-hand the horrors of the Second World War and experienced in terrifying ways the whimsy of fate. At the same time, he is weighed down by the past, and bothered by what he perceives as American amnesia. The book is thus at attempt to find a kind of balance, a way to live a moral, responsible life in relation to the past. He clearly feels that this process is a universal moral imperative, but speculates that Eastern Europeans have been "given the lead" by virtue of their experiences. This book, then, is an attempt to share those experiences with others, to give them some insight into a shadowy corner of the world and the lessons it holds. This message is made all the more urgent because of the cost at which those lessons were learned, and in this sense, the book is a sort of plea for memory itself.

21 September 2006

Some Thoughts about TV

I'm currently recovering from knee surgery, so while I am actually watching a fair amount of movies, and reading some fun novels, the painkillers keep me from having any particularly interesting thoughts about them. I was attempting to read Knut Hamsun's Hunger, but I bailed on the project. It's actually kind of the perfect book to read when you're laid up and somewhat woozy, because the protagonist is often teetering on the brink of madness due to hallucinations induced by hunger, but I got sort of fed up with it. It's very similar in tone to Dostoevsky, Sartre - generally the narrative voice of the overly conscious tortured soul. I'm sure it's a grand book, but it's just not doing it for me right now. It's extremely rare that I give up on a book halfway through, but I just didn't feel like struggling through it.

Anyhow, I read an article in The New Republic today about how sales of tv shows on dvd are now outpacing the sales of films (the article is called Tubular, by Christopher Orr, annd is available here) . Orr suggests that this is because tv shows these days are actually much better than recent movies, and then goes on to wonder (via Tom Wolfe) whether tv shows are sweeping realist works of our time. He concludes by suggesting that this new crop of tv shows is stretching the possibilities of the medium for storytelling. An interesting thought, and one that I'm not really qualified to comment on, given that I haven't seen any of the shows he's discussing. I did watch the first few seasons of The Sopranos on dvd, and I was quite impressed by it. I thought that it went downhill after the first season, but early on, it was a really complex and fascinating show. I think it started out more as a psychological investigation of a man who happened to be a mobster, but ended up unable to resist the mob scene as a plot source, and sort of went south in the process.

But I did watch some tv today - two episodes of The King of Queens. I have a real soft spot for that show. It's certainly not one of these complex, sweeping serials like those discussed in Orr's article, but it's actually kind of interesting to think about. I think it's the Roseanne of our times. I saw a retrospective on Roseanne awhile back, and what was emphasized was how Roseanne was intended as a portrayal of working class American life. I found this really intriguing, and it really deepened my appreciation of it. The King of Queens is similar in some way - not only in that the characters are working class, but also in the way one relates to the characters, I think. They're not portrayed as ideals, in fact, they're insistently imperfect, but it's precisely this imperfection that is being celebrated.

Whereas Orr compares tv shows to sweeping realist novels, I think that shows like Roseanne and The King of Queens are more akin to essays. They generally spend half an hour playing out a given scenario, or thinking through some particular aspect of life by staging it. These scenarios aren't particularly profound, but they are interesting as a sort of auto-ethnographic work on the average American. For instance, in one of the episodes that I watched, the story was that Doug and Carrie had been regularly hanging out with another couple who "broke up with them" when they met a new couple who also had kids. So Doug and Carrie were searching for a new couple to be friends with. It was told precisely as a break-up, searching for new love kind of scene, with many of the standard cliches from relationship scenarios being employed with a new twist. But in the process, you end up thinking about the fact that Doug and Carrie are childless and how this affects their social life, and about how one goes about meeting new people and making friends with them. Not mind-bending stuff, but interesting.

What makes these reflections work, however, is their serial nature. The show is amusing enough that even if you've never seen it before, you'll probably enjoy it, but you're only really going to appreciate it fully once you've seen a few episodes and "gotten to know" Carrie and Doug. And this is what I find curious about tv shows, how they ultimately develop sympathy for their protagonists, and how this sympathy propels the action. You keep watching because you've started to CARE about them. And that's what makes the story interesting. This is the difference between these shows and the more "complex" ones - shows like The King of Queens aren't meant to be watched in any particular order, they don't really build on each other. The plot isn't sufficient on its own to account for watching multiple episodes. You don't get sucked in by the action; the characters grow on you. The Sopranos, to pick one, are actually trying to get by on the strength of plot, and the episodes don't really stand alone. There are some shows that sort of straddle a middle ground - Friends, for instance, or Sex and the City. In my opinion, both of those shows are garbage, partly because the characters are crap, and partly because the episodes are semi-autonomous - they don't really stand alone, but they're not interesting or complex enough to merit extended viewing. They're basically soap operas that pretend to be more realistic, which is again a failure, because half the fun of soap operas is the unabashed melodramatic fantasy element.

Anyhow, scattered thoughts on tv.

17 September 2006

We the Living, Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand's books are generally triumphant celebrations of the endurance of the human spirit winning out over the soul-crushing stupidity of the masses and their evil governments. Not this one. In an interesting twist, this time, the soul-crushing system wins. It's pretty effin' grim. It's also not a particularly compelling read. The characters are less interesting, so you just don't care about them as much. Furthermore, they're in a position that is basically untenable (which I guess is the point of the book, the evil of a system that cramps the style of these marvelous people), but instead of sympathizing, I found myself getting somewhat annoyed. If they're so great, why can't they pull their shit together and adapt? Maybe their much vaunted principles aren't so grand after all?

As I reported in my post on The Fountainhead, love is a thornier issue in this book. As in Atlas Shrugged, you have a woman choosing between two men. But in this case, she seems to be making the wrong choice. Leo, originally a total swoon, becomes a bit of a prick fairly early on. You start to wonder why she's sticking around rather than ditching him and installing herself permanently with Andrei, who despite his Party affiliations, is a total rockstar. The explanation is that Kira loves Leo, but it's not entirely convincing. In fact, it seems rather at odds with the rest of her character - how could she continue to love a man who wasn't even worthy of her respect?

I've been reading Bakhtin lately, and it's led me to note an interesting feature of Rand's writing, namely, that her characters are fairly standard epic heroes. This isn't just to say that they're great people; rather, it's that they have no internal/external divide. They're all surface. There's no introspection, no psychological investigation. It's odd, and seems counterintuitive, because they tend to be so mysterious to other people, but as far as the reader is concerned, they're basically a walking set of principles. They function like parts of an equation, as do, in fact, all the characters in her books. There are no real surprises. The text is basically her setting up these various perspectives and then sort of bumping them into each other and working out what happens. Which is pretty much how epics work - it's not a process of working out ideas, coming to conclusions - it's just an illustration. Everything is known in advance.

Ultimately, the question for me is why are Atlas and The Fountainhead so great, when her other books are such garbage? I used to approach it looking for the fault of the other texts, but I think the answer could more fruitfully be sought from the other end, trying to figure out why the good ones actually work...

11 September 2006

Killing Zoe

This is the slowest bank-robbery movie you will ever see. It really shouldn't be described as a bank robbery movie at all, actually. The most interesting thing about it, to me, was how tedious it managed to be. A scenario that is generally highly suspenseful was transformed into a ho-hum, crawling bore. The much vaunted gore was gimmicky and not particularly shocking (though to be fair, in this age of ultra-violent movies, not much is shocking anymore, and this did come out back in 1994), and the love story had that Richard Linklater pseudo-profundity about it.

Look, I know that Julie Delpy is gorgeous, but the fact that any man she meets falls madly in love with her after she drops a few of her naive observations about the world on him is preposterous. I think the secret to the Delpy charm in most of these movies is the way in which she discusses sex from a curiously innocent, childlike perspective. In this movie, for instance, she plays a prostitute who goes all starry eyed and cuddly when a guy gives her an orgasm. She has this total naivete about her and a capacity to fall madly in love with random dudes that makes her seem very poetic and wonderful but really just annoys the hell out of me.

Anyhow. The plot of this movie is ridiculous. To sum up: Eric Stolz (who I thought had been largely forgotten after Some Kind of Wonderful, and meanwhile it turns out he's been astonishingly prolific, albeit mostly in crap movies) rolls into Paris, sleeps with a hooker (Julie Delpy) (20 minutes), then meets up with an old friend. They plan a bank robbery (6 minutes) then go on a massive drug binge (30 minutes). Then they rob the bank, where, incidentally, Julie Delpy works (40 minutes). Of course, things go wrong, treachery abounds, there's some soul searching, etc. As you can see, the movie is about evenly split between bank related activites and completely unrelated stuff. The most obnoxious is the half hour long drug binge. I guess back in 1994 it was really edgy to show people shooting up, and highly artistic to try and capture the state of mind of the characters with blurry lights and erratic camera movements. I suspect that the makers of the film were really into this idea, and needed a plot to slap on. I imagine it went something like, "Ok, so how are we gonna add some plot to a bunch of people doing random drugs?" "Well, what if they're doing all these drugs THE NIGHT BEFORE THEY ROB A BANK? Pretty cool, eh?" "Dude, yeah, that'll be awesome." "Um, so I guess we need to actually show the bank robbery too, eh?" "That's cool, so we'll make it a little longer than originally planned. Maybe we can even stretch it into a feature length film." Because really, the two portions are entirely separate units. These two pieces are bookended by Julie Delpy romance, thus attempting to form a coherent whole.

But the bank robbery itself is perhaps the most intriguing, because it's so damn boring. Upon reflection, however, this may be more realistic than many heist movies one watches. After all, if it's gonna take one guy an hour to break into the vault, and the rest are sitting upstairs guarding the hostages, then yeah, there isn't really much going on, is there? The fact that the police are waiting outside may lead to some tension, but doesn't mean that anything exciting is actually going to happen inside. Stand-offs are really pretty dull if you're not participating in them and don't much give a shit about the people who are. It makes you wonder how other movies manage to keep them lively, really.

Finally, a somewhat interesting aspect of the movie is the fact that it's set in France, and the dialogue actually does include a decent amount of French, not all of which is translated. The plot does somewhat depends on a French setting, but the bilingualism is nonetheless notable. Most of the untranslated dialogue is irrelevant, but arguably not more irrelevant than most of the dialogue in the damn movie.

In conclusion - a total flop, but an interesting one. Killing Zoe is one of those films that you end up remembering pieces of (I mainly rented it because my ex-boyfriend quoted some funny lines from it a few times and I was curious), and thinking about often, mostly because you're trying to figure out why it was so damn bad. You can do this with just about any bad movie, but the solution is not always so obvious. This one is a particularly enjoyable puzzle, but still a godawful movie.

01 September 2006

Roger Dodger

This movie really wanted to be thought-provoking and interesting, the kind of bittersweet film that finds some good in the sleaziest of characters, but instead, it was a glimpse into the world of a largely despicable guy with very little payoff. The premise is that this guy Roger, a know-it-all, self-absorbed, and rather pathetic jerk, is helping his nephew Nick get laid. And in the process, pontificating about how the world works, how women work, etc. Roger spends most of the movie expostulating these theories, and nobody really buys into them - even Nick, desperate though he is for advice. Unfortunately, the viewer of the film has to sit through a lot of them anyhow, and the entertainment value wears off very quickly.

The movie, I think, is trying to redeem Roger. It seems geared towards having Roger realize what a prick he is as a result of his interactions with Nick. And yes, Roger does ultimately burst in and stop Nick from having sex with a prostitute (after he's dragged him in and payed his way), and yes he makes Nick call home. And in the final scene, where Roger visits Nick at school, and attempts to educate the lunchroom crowd of geeky guys in the art of seduction, his theories have been somewhat adapted. But there's no evidence that he has genuinely been converted out of his objectifying, crude views on human relationships - quite the opposite. It's just that he's realized that high school is actually less of a meat market than your average New York bar, and the rules are somewhat different. Roger is just as much of an asshole as he was in the beginning of the movie, and he's still not a likeable guy. The fact that he's been jilted by his mistress (who is, of course, older, richer, and more successful, and is well played by Isabella Rosellini) doesn't make him more sympathetic, it makes him pathetic. Of course she's dumped him. Why would she condescend to sleep with him in the first place? I respect the fact that the makers didn't want to have a fill conversion ├╝ber happy ending. I appreciate it even. But they also don't seem satisfied to leave him be as a complete dirtbag. And honestly, I don't want to spend 2 hours with a complete dirtbag. So something's gotta give. At some point, I need to be convinced that the movie is aware of the fact that Roger is full of shit.

One could make the argument that Nick's more romantic notions serve precisely to disprove Roger. But Nick's voice is obviously so much weaker, and at best, he can not take advantage of the opportunities for despicable behavior that Roger affords him. But ultimately, it's Roger who saves him from degradation - he can't do it himself.

Also, the movie suffers from over-the-top theatricality. It's totally artificial. The middle section of the movie, where Nick and Roger chat up two women in a bar, and then in a park (the two women being played, rather gleefully, by Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals) is completely preposterous. It's that spontaneous, super honest, "genuine" kind of interaction that does happen sometimes in life, but is far too convenient here. The scene where Jennifer Beals is riding away in the taxi, and the expression on her face suddenly changes from playful musing to acute melancholy, is just irritating. Oh, how very profound. The mysterious inner lives of random strangers have suddenly been illuminated. Please.

Ultimately, your feelings about the movie will depend entirely on whether you find the main character, Roger, completely worthless or not. I know there are people like Roger in the world, but honestly, I'd like to believe they have moments where they're not total scum. Not that I want to see the revealed as just like everybody else, but I would be more interested in seeing them rendered more complex, rather than placed on a pedestal and given the air-time they so desperately crave. To be fair, I find Campbell Scott ungodly annoying, and this probably has more bearing on my assesment of the film than it ought to. The guy just irritates me. And it's not the kind of "love to hate him" feeling, I just don't think he's worth my time. And thus, neither was the movie.

27 August 2006

The Fountainhead

I should probably be clear from the get-go that The Fountainhead is one of my favorite books. So I went and saw the movie, not out of some kind of joy in camp and kitsch, but out of genuine interest in seeing it on screen, particularly given that Ayn Rand herself wrote the screenplay. It was, alas, a rather disappointing experience, although the process of figuring out exactly why is an interesting one.

I suppose that the first problem is precisely that of rendering the text visual. It’s not just that the people didn’t look the way I imagined them – Gary Cooper as Roark? Please. But generally that the book thrives on potent descriptions that are emotionally resonant but nonetheless rather vague. For instance: “His face was like a law of nature – a thing one could not question, alter, or implore”. Things are often described in terms of the effect they create upon the viewer: “He stood looking at her. She knew that he did not see her. No, she thought, it was not that exactly. He always looked straight at people and his damnable eyes never missed a thing, it was only that he made people feel as if they did not exist”. It is difficult, well nigh impossible, to render such a description in the flesh. This is probably true of any novel, but it’s particularly the case in this one, where so much depends upon the descriptions of the architecture. The buildings are generally described as embodied ideas, with very little detail of their actual physical appearance. And seeing the buildings, or even things like Roark’s signature, which is supposed to be sharp and angular, but looks somewhat prissy, really damages the effect. The film’s aesthetic isn’t particularly original – it’s very much a product of its times (it was made in 1949) – and though it does privilege neat geometric shapes, it isn’t particularly compelling. The book functions, I think, largely by describing certain emotions, which the reader gets carried away on, and the film simply cannot duplicate that effect.

A friend of mine wondered out loud how the movie could be translated into film when so much of it is inner monologue. I was surprised, because I didn’t remember there being much interior narration, but in fact, he was (partly) right. It’s not that there’s a lot of inner monologue, so much as the fact that there’s a great emphasis placed upon people having rigid control of their facial expressions. This is particularly the case for Dominique and Howard, both of whom generally have countenances that are completely inscrutable. In fact, what sets them apart from others is that they are extremely difficult for other people to get a read on, and this is actually crucial to the plot, as is the fact that the reader actually knows what they’re thinking. This, again, is pretty much impossible to convey in film.

Of course, condensing the plot is painful, particularly in a work as epic as this one. I wonder how the film works for someone who hasn’t read the book, if it seems rather scattered and incoherent. Certainly, it lacks the complexities of the novel, which is a great pity. Peter Keating, for instance, is just a boring character whose role is entirely structural, which is unfortunate, because he is such a vital part of the book. There is clearly a desire to keep many of the hallmark scenes of the novel, and this sometimes becomes rather crude; for instance, Dominique tossing the sculpture out the window as Gail arrives at her apartment.

But perhaps the real pity of the film is that it brings the book’s polemic to the forefront. Much as I love the novel, I just don’t agree with Rand’s philosophy. But watching the movie forced me to contemplate why, and for that, I am grateful. Rand’s philosophy is essentially a celebration of egoism. It’s very appealing in her fictional world where it works out quite nicely. It is completely untenable in the real world, not least because people like Roark don’t exist. In fact, in this sense, it has an odd parallel, I think, to the ethics of Levinas (yes, I find this comparison absurd – infinite responsibility to the Other paired with infinite egoism - but nonetheless oddly useful and interesting). In both cases, you have a theoretical system that, in its given universe, is fantastic. Levinas’ ethics of the face involve two people – Levinas himself said that once you add a third, it collapses, hence why justice, which belongs to the collective, and ethics, which belongs to the encounter between the individual and the other, are forever separate. Rand’s worldview of the individual is quite appealing, but the fact of the matter is, we all live in the world. You can’t base a system of politics around the individual. Sure, democracy and capitalism sort of try to, but without concessions to the collective, it falls apart. I believe in welfare. I don’t believe that mercy is inherently degrading. I don’t believe that anyone who doesn’t succeed fails purely because they aren’t good enough. It’s very sad, but it’s true. Furthermore, I do believe that those people who fail because they are actually not as bright or hardworking or what have you as others ought to be helped by those who can help them. I don’t believe that the individual should be a slave to the collective, but I do believe in compromise. But to go back to Levinas and Rand, the problem in both cases is that they only function in an isolated system, and once you add a few billion people into the mix, they falter.

On the other hand, I also appreciate Rand’s celebration of human ability, and glorification of the individual. I love especially the way that she describes the view of a person passionately committed to their work: “(…) before you can do things for people, you must be the kind of person who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences. The work, not the people. Your own action, not any possible object of your charity.” I wonder if anyone who studies literature, for instance, does it because they really care about fame, or helping people to understand a text, or god knows what else. I don’t know how anyone could stay up for 60 hours straight working on something if not for the love of the work itself. Certainly, I couldn’t.

Finally, there’s the problem of the love affair, which in the movie is rendered with all the melodrama of its time, and, of course, less of the sheer physicality. People tend to be very put off by Rand’s attitude towards love, because generally it looks a lot like rape. But I read it somewhat differently. I am not apologizing for her, and I have plenty of problems with her female characters, etc, but I nonetheless find some of her attitudes quite appealing, albeit extreme. This is probably more personal than I’d like to be in this venue, but I find the idea of one’s soul mate as one’s worthiest opponent highly compelling. While I wouldn’t try to demolish a person I loved, the sense of love as exquisite torture, both ultimate surrender and ultimate power, the attempt to break someone while nonetheless praying they can’t be broken, revelling in their strength while pushing it to its utmost, is actually quite beautiful. And despite the violence of her love scenes, there is tenderness there as well. And what many people miss, as they read of women surrendering themselves to men, is the reciprocity of those very scenes – the surrender of the man as well. It’s a power play, certainly, but both are vanquished. And everybody wins!

Incidentally, love in Rand’s books is a fascinating case, because it’s the one real challenge to the policy of ultimate egoism, and it’s not fully resolved. I think she attempts to sidestep the issue by generally speaking of love from the female point of view, where the woman is bowing to the man, who is of course superior, and basically submitting to him entirely, but the fact remains that Roark can’t get Dominique out of his head, and suffers without her. And while he drops her at a moment’s notice for his work, one can’t really imagine the book ending without the two of them being together at last. And in fact, it would be a flaw in the fictional world if they didn’t, so there’s some kind of catch. But this I haven’t quite figured out yet. Actually, by coincidence, I’m currently reading We the Living, where it’s a thornier issue. So I suppose I’ll come back to the question when I get around to reviewing that.

23 August 2006

Identity, by Milan Kundera

Milan Kundera has a real gift for simple, beautiful observations about human nature. It's the brilliance of his books - the brief moments of eloquence, where he hits on something about how people work that really strikes home. My problem with this novel, however, is that all the stuff that connects those moments annoys the hell out of me. The storyline is haphazard and the characters are irritating. The narrative, which ought to be the meat of the novel, is crap.

The novel (or novella, perhaps, given how short it is) follows two lovers, Jean-Marc and Chantal, but the plot is basically an excuse to reflect upon love and relationships, aging, deceit, and, of course, identity. At first you think it's telling a story, then it sort of wanders around, and ultimately concludes with a totally obnoxious, sollipsistic, pretentious ending that basically ruins the whole book. Seriously, it's awful. I don't really want to give it away, but I'll give a hint - think of the most annoying, preposterous, cliche solution to a novel that you can. Yeah. That's it.

Oddly enough, the observations about love and relationships ring true, despite the fact that both Jean-Marc and Chantal are self-absorbed, pretentious twits. And the reflections about their relationship are somehow worthwhile, even though their problems are silly, and largely based upon misunderstandings or miscommunications. Maybe it's my own bias, but I have zero patience, or sympathy, for couples whose problems, it seems to me, stem from casual deceit bred from sins of omission. In any case, as I said, some of the sound-bytes that use their case to make more general claims are nonetheless compelling, which makes one fear that perhaps human nature is that shallow and stupid. It's not even the idiocy I mind, so much as the utter lack of grace, the melodramatic egocentricity.

The reflections on identity, which I suppose ought to be the entire point, are unfortunately sullied by their context, and ultimately seem rather vapid. Or maybe it's just that I'm bored with the topic. Or at very least, bored by seeing the same issues appear over and over.

Perhaps the best one can say about Identity is that it's very short. You can easily burn through it in 90 minutes or so, and it's not an entirely unrewarding task. But really, there are better books out there. Better Kundera books, even.

20 August 2006

Aguirre: The Wrath of God

A fascinating film. It took me awhile to warm up to it, but by the end, I was mesmerized. Alas, I missed the first 5 minutes or so because of projector problems at the theatre, and I think I missed some opening captions that set up the action. But basically, the plot centers around a group of conquistadors in (I believe it is) 1568 who are searching for El Dorado. Someone on Netflix posted an interesting comment about this movie: "Perhaps the strongest point in favor of the film Aguirre, The Wrath of God is that it can be viewed differently depending on your preferences. You can watch it as serious drama or as amusing camp, as a historical reenactment or as total fiction." I would say that this is actually the point - that it's both. Not just the movie, but really, history itself.

Made by Werner Herzog in 1978, it looks very crude, with garish colors and clumsy shots. Everything is up close - almost too close. One can't help but feel a sense of absurdity over the fact that the Spanish conquistadors are speaking in German - one notices this in any historical drama I suppose, but it's heightened here. I don't know if it's intentional, but the fact that the English subtitles appear on screen a good minute before the speech they are translating is heard contributes to the effect. Of course, historical dramas are generally done in the wrong language, but here it's somehow far more noticeable, though maybe it wouldn't seem that way to a German audience. But then again, in fact, Spanish was every bit as alien to that land as Germany. These people were completely out of context. And the use of German sort of drives that point home in an interesting way.

The movie teeters between camp and high drama in a very strange way. Is Aguirre a madman or a visionary? Is there a difference? Is he a comic figure, or a tragic one? Kinski's portrayal is brilliant, in that it's almost a caricature, but not quite. He's both bizarre and charismatic.

So what you have is a bunch of guys, starving and sick, floating down the river on a raft, planning on taking over a continent. And furtively documenting their efforts in legal titles, etc. And you can't quite figure out if it's supposed to be the history channel or a Monty Python skit. Is it meant to be funny? Look at the Priest, for example, the guy who keeps talking about enlightening the savages as his companions set about massacring them. The great thing about the movie is that it doesn't glorify him, or cast him as a hypocrite, or mock him, or even pay him any particular notice. The whole tone of the film is flat, not accentuating anything. The cinematography is brilliant in its tonelessness. It's not a Heart of Darkness story. It almost refuses to be any kind of story at all. The events aren't mobilized into a grander narrative - they're just sort of stuck in, and one has no idea what to make of them.

The ending, with the raft spralling in circles as Aguirre paces amongst the bodies of his companions, raft overrun by monkeys, ranting about the new world he will found, is genius. It's moving, funny, and terrifying all at once. I wouldn't call it comic, but rather, wrenchingly absurd. Certainly, there must have been scenes like this in such settings. Watching it, one simply doesn't know how to respond emotionally, and the movie doesn't offer any guidance.

So you watch this movie, unsure of how to respond, and then you think, or at least I did, but isn't this kind of how it happened? A band of Spaniards rolled into South America and deemed it theirs? And isn't it both hilarious, astonishing, and horrifying, that they succeeded?

19 August 2006

Snakes on a (motherfucking) Plane

(Yes of course I went to opening night. And yes I did dress up in snakewear. And you wish you did too.)

Wow. Really just wow.

If you haven't heard about this movie yet, and haven't been eagerly awaiting its release, you might not really appreciate it. Unless you're excited about seeing the movie just based on its title, the fact that it stars Samuel L. Jackson, and the plot premise (ie, the title). If that doesn't get your engine revving, don't bother going. The movie is camp genius. It's made better by the fact that it's an interactive experience, with the audience cheering, and even shouting along for the most famous lines. It really does testify to the incredible power of the internet.

But back to the movie itself. I expected to love it, but wow. They really pulled out all the stops. I mean, if you're gonna have snakes attacking people, let's face it, they need to be attacking vulnerable spots. Like genitals, nipples, and eyeballs. OH YES. The brilliance of the movie is in the way that it delivers EXACTLY what the audience wants. Stock characters (the goofy surfer dude, the slutty flight attendant, the asshole European, the rap star, the Paris Hilton figure, and of course, A KICKBOXER - yes, I'm using all caps because I'm yelling this gleefully in my head as I type), lots of mean looking snakes (including one seriously awesome anaconda), lots of cheesy dialogue, some breasts, some gore, some suspense, some ridiculous pseudo-science (the pheromones! nooooo!) and seriously, dialogue. They don't hesitate. "This plane will go down faster than a Thai hooker". Genius.

And a sidenote, but at some point in the movie, Samuel L. Jackson makes a joke that hinges on him being black - a great joke - and then suddenly you realize, hey, this is actually a really multi-racial cast. And that seems really cool, until you realize that, Samuel L. Jackson aside, all the non-white characters are total caricatures of racial stereotypes (A KICKBOXER). And then you realize, oh wait, that's because ALL the characters are caricatures of stereotypes. So I guess it's ok in the end.

Also, it's intriguing how the film doesn't just rely on the snakes for suspense and action. There are plenty of other problems, caused by the snakes, to be sure, but still separate from them - like the plane lacking air circulation and everybody sweating bullets, for instance. So when Samuel L. Jackson said it'd be a double whammy for people who are afraid of both snakes and airplanes, he wasn't fucking around. Especially given recent events, I imagine the airline industry is none too thrilled about this film's relief. I mean, don't get me wrong, the movie isn't really scary - though I did kinda jump in my seat a few times - I would describe it more as action-packed. And awesome.

Sure, there are some things that don't quite make sense - like why does he stop using the tazer? But still, the movie is a damn good time. Which is exactly what it intends to be, and boy does it deliver. Hallelujah.

15 August 2006

The Matador

What a strange movie.

One has the sense that this could have been a great film. It was quirky, the acting was great, and there were some really choice moments. The humor was off-beat, the dialogue was entirely decent, the story was odd and somewhat compelling... but the movie was boring. It just kind of dragged. Parts that seemed totally irrelevant went on and on, and important bits raced by. The timing was just off. The movie seemed to proceed in the jerky forward motion of a manual transmission car being driven by someone who has only ever comandeered automatics. It leapfrogged forward 6 months, showed brief clips of action in various cities, then spent 20 minutes on one conversation. Very, very weird. There were lots of scenes that just seemed completely random - for instance, Greg Kinnear is leaving for Mexico very early in the morning. Like, 5:30 am. He's quietly eating his cereal, and his wife comes downstairs to say goodbye. They get a bit sappy... and then start having sex (this transition occurs in the space of about a minute)... and then a tree crashes through the roof. The tree is referred to later a few times, but it has no real bearing on the action. It's just a really strange scene, kinda crammed into the movie. It's interesting, and the juxtaposition of the half nude embracing pair with the fallen tree is kind of neat visually, but still, huh?

I think this problem in timing had to do with the makers insisting that the real "message" of the movie is NOT in the story itself, but between the lines. The fact that it's about the friendship between an assassin and an average joe wasn't the point. The real POINT, the movie seemed to want to say, was that the assassin was lonely and led an empty shallow life, and the boring average joe had a wonderful wife. Ok, so really, the point is, love is super. Huh? I mean, ok, but why do you need this crazy outlandish plot about an assassin to say that?

I read one review that praised the movie because Pierce Brosnan was so great as an ultra sleazy character, the very opposite of his suave James Bond. But the thing was, he wasn't properly sleazy. I mean, he was still a sympathetic character, and ultimately, a pretty good guy. In fact, everyone in this movie seemed pretty darn pleasant. Kind of odd. Hope Davis had a really great character - a really wonderful woman.

Finally, one thing that caught my interest, there are two shots in the movie that involve one character looking in a mirror, and two other characters in the background. Kind of curious, not really sure what they're doing there.

Anyhow, a very odd film.

10 August 2006

The Descent

I was reading an article in the New York Times Magazine recently about the difference between Japanese and American horror films, and one of them is apparently that American audiences require some kind of explanation to find horror satisfying, whereas Japanese viewers are content to spend 2 hours watching scary things happening without ever understanding why. Severed hands making collect calls? Water streaming from walls? Why not? The Descent doesn't provide any kind of explanation for its subterranean monsters, and it's kind of refreshing in that way. Because generally, the explanation part of fright flicks is the weakest link, providing some kind of false assurance rather than contributing to the scare.

In any case, the monsters of The Descent aren't even the scariest part. They make for a lot of good jumps and screams (honestly, I don't think I've ever screamed as loudly in my life as I did during this movie), but as is generally the case, they quickly become campy and amusing. The real fright of the film is in the cave setting itself. As one woman commented after it ended, "That was the most stressful movie I've ever seen in my life". As soon as the women start jamming themselves through tiny cramped tunnels deep under the earth, most of the audience starts squirming. The camera work is brilliant - it's incredibly claustrophobic, and very, very scary. Unlike most underground movies, it's dark as hell. True, there is a scene or two where you think, 'wait, where is that extra light coming from?', but for the most part, the movie does well in depriving you of a totalizing view, limiting lighting to a few flashlights or headlamps.

I'm not going to touch on the ending debate here, because I haven't seen the UK ending yet, but honestly, I don't really give a shit. The brilliance of the movie was in ambiance, not plot. Likewise with the Juno debate - the Lord of the Flies/treachery aspect of the film didn't do a lot for me. It probably could have been mobilized to contribute to the suspense, but in the end, it just seemed somewhat dull and trite. Same goes for Sarah's various flashbacks - the inner emotional lives of the characters were largely uninteresting to me. It's not that they were totally flat, they were just sort of dull.

Finally, one thing I (predictably) loved about the movie was seeing a horror film with a cast of women who kicked some serious ass. Awesome climbers, zombie slayers, and general badasses. Holly's leg injury? Swoon. Hooray for a movie that lets women be hardcore, but also lets them be giggling girls drinking beer and gossiping. Of course they're terrified of the monsters, but rather than run away, breasts heaving, waiting for some man to save them, they search for a way out and unleash holy hell. They figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy and act accordingly. Occasionally someone does something stupid that makes you cringe, but that's the point - the characters don't have the same information that the audience does. That's what makes them believable, and all the more impressive when they figure it out. So while I said above that I found their mental lives boring, I did very much appreciate them as real women who were tough, sexy, but still human. Ok, so it was strange that some of them were wearing thick eyeliner underground, but hey, why not. The jab at Tomb Raider early on was well placed and subtle, but drove the point home. So three cheers for that. Now the challenge will be to find/make a movie that can sustain that kind of female charisma and also have male characters...

28 July 2006

Clerks 2

I'm telling you now, Clerks 2 is nowhere near as funny as Clerks. It's not as witty, sharp, or snappy, and it's got a sappy streak a mile wide. Dante and Randal are older and fatter and a lot less appealing. A lot of the jokes are trying way too hard to be that peculiar kind of profound that Randal's Star Wars reflections are in the original, and failing miserably. Attempts to be subversive fall sadly flat, for the most part.

And that's why, in an odd way, I think it's actually a very interesting movie. See, Clerks, I think, was meant to capture something about its time, and make some kind of statement about 1994. But instead it's just a really fucking awesome, hilarious movie with a pretty rad soundtrack. It doesn't particularly feel like a reflection of its time, though it probably is in more ways than I can appreciate. Clerks 2, on the other hand, manages to document a certain cultural ethos of today in a way that I find really intriguing, partly because I'm not entirely sure that it's intentional. Humor me as I read way too much into the movie, but I think that it's trying to depict the world of these two guys, Dante and Randal, who are essentially losers. Ten years later, they're still working shit jobs. And while it was one thing back then, because you sort of believed it was just temporary, they were about to do something big, because obviously such awesome guys weren't losers, it's a bit different now. They're just not as funny anymore. It's gotten old. They're stuck in a past that in some ways is superior, but the fact that they appreciate that Star Wars movies are vastly better than the Lord of the Rings trilogy doesn't really mean much in the bigger picture. The fact is, Elias, the Transformers loving dork of Clerks 2, is the it generation now. Randal and Dante are washed up dorks whose wit has lost its edge, and they're beginning to realize they don't have much left. Their jaded cynicism is giving way to a genuine desire for love and domesticity, a desire they can only express in the cliche, trite language of crap late 90s movies. When Randal breaks down and tells Dante he loves him, it's not touching, it's lame, and kind of pathetic. It's not that it seems fake, it's rather that you get the sense that Randal can't find a language to express his deeper emotions in that isn't either cynical and sarcastic or cheesy and cliche. Clerks 2, thus, is a hollow movie because it's about hollow people, dudes who have outlived their lovability. And in that sense, it's actually kind of brilliant. Or so I think.

Honestly though, given Kevin Smith's more recent track record, I think the problem is more that he just ran out of genius, and has now somehow buried his head so far up his ass that he actually thinks that his movies are both funny and profound, and his idea of the profoundness doesn't depend on meta the way mine does. Yowza. How can the guy who wrote the script for Clerks, which is so goddamn brilliant it hurts, be capable of writing some of the tripe dialogue of Clerks 2? I really want to believe it's intentionally so bad, because the thought that it's sincere genuinely pains me.

I also wonder if the movie was actually trying to be subversive, or if it was intentionally trying to show how difficult it is to be subversive these days. Whereas the fisting discussion in Chasing Amy was a big fucking breakthrough, bestiality doesn't really shock anyone these days. Neither do Anne Frank jokes. We've been watching South Park for years. The racism bit, now that's intriguing. And quite funny, at moments. And highly offensive. And I'm still not sure how I feel about it. Which means it's made me think, which in my book, is a point in its favor at least, but the jury's still out on the issue.

Anyhow, an interesting movie, but I wouldn't drop everything and rush to the theatres. In fact, I think it could comfortably wait until video release. Here's hoping that Kevin Smith manages to recover his lost genius, wherever it may be. Because even with the most charitable reading, this movie just wasn't that great. Interesting, yes, but still...

25 July 2006

Elizabeth Costello, by J. M. Coetzee

As a baby academic who studies literature, I am highly intrigued by the way in which the creators of the works that I love so much understand the world, and their own art. I love to listen to artists discuss their work. A lot of artists despise academics and openly describe them as clueless jerks. The ones that don’t are sometimes worse; they try to dress up their own work in unfamiliar analytical language, cramming it into incredibly dull intellectual boxes or solipsistic whining. What I love, when listening to artists, is the opportunity to see a different way of approaching the world, a mode of expressing something that defies rational everyday language. I think Derrida somewhere wrote that all literary criticism aspires to be the text itself; after all, we’re trying to elucidate something within the text, but in a different way, and perhaps we’re always struggling with the knowledge that the text has already said it, and said it better, and more elegantly? But what I find, in the best lectures, essays, etc by writers or artists, is a curious way of looking at the world, of making observations, rather than arguments. It’s a sort of aesthetic apprehension of the real, that at first blush seems somehow superficial, but, it seems to me, is every bit as true. It’s sort of like the idea behind the essay, a genre that allows itself to be an aesthetic contemplation of a given object, freed from the rigors of analytical thought. This freedom at times leads to garbage, at times to brilliance.

What is fascinating about Elizabeth Costello is that it is precisely an exploration of this mode of thinking and reasoning. The novel is actually a sort of collection of public lectures, or rather appearances, of the main character, Elizabeth Costello, a novelist. It’s interesting, because the book doesn’t necessarily endorse her arguments – it presents plenty of critiques of them, in the form of questions from the audience, or complaints of people around her. Likewise, there are lectures given by others, and her thoughts about them. She repeatedly states that she is not an academic, and indeed, despite being extremely well-read and quite intelligent, some of her arguments are vaguely offensive to reason (most especially when she argues against reason itself). All the same, a lot of her ideas are interesting – food for thought, at very least. What’s nice about the book is that it gives the lectures (although often abridged) and also gives us her thoughts about the lectures, the topics, as well as her memories, experiences, etc. It’s as though these thoughts were being situated, fleshed out.

The only real objection that I have to the book is its casual hatred of Poles. Although one could argue that Coetzee himself isn’t endorsing this view, that it belongs in the same category as Elizabeth’s sometimes offensive reflections about the Holocaust (she compares the deaths of the Holocaust to the deaths of animals slaughtered for meat), it’s not questioned in the text in the same way that her other ideas are. Nobody in the audience stands up and says, “Hey, not all the Poles were complicit, the camps were built in Poland NOT because Poles wanted them there, but because Poland was occupied by Germans, and had the largest Jewish population in Europe – it was at least partly a matter of convenience.” Unlike many of Costello’s ideas, which the text seems to make a point of holding up to scrutiny, this casual attack slips by unnoticed, even though it appears repeatedly in the text. It’s not that I object to the claim that plenty of Poles were horrifying anti-Semites and did some atrocious things – it’s that I object to that being the only thing said, without providing the rest of the story. Particularly because it’s such a complex story, and because I can’t shake the feeling that the reason that the story is so one-sided when it comes to Poland has a lot to do with the fact that while the world had to find a way to forgive the sins of Germany, France, etc, Poland was safely behind the Iron Curtain for years and could comfortably become the scapegoat. Elizabeth, for instance, nicknames a Polish woman she meets Kapo (only in her head) – purely because she’s Polish. Imagine the shitstorm that would ensue if someone made the same claim about a German character, or a French one.

Still though, it’s a good book.

07 July 2006

Nuns and Soldier, by Iris Murdoch

Reading novels is generally a leisurely pleasure, but sometimes you stumble across a book that grabs you and demands submission. You simply can’t put it down. There’s a certain intensity in the work that bends you to its will; the narrative is cruel, somehow brutal, greedy of your time. I suppose it’s different for everybody, but when I encounter such books, I obey them completely, reading voraciously, rising to the challenge, the battle the book seems to be. The Fountainhead is such a book – even now, when I pick it up and flip to a random page, I can’t put it down. Curiously, Iris Murdoch’s Nuns and Soldiers is also such a book. I find this strange, because I honestly don’t think Nuns and Soldiers is of the same calibre as The Fountainhead. All the same, once I started reading it, I read it constantly, on trains, in cafes, in bed until it was 4 am and I was dying of exhaustion. I went to the British Museum and spent 3 hours in the Reading Room with it – I barely managed to break away to see the exhibits. I think it’s something to do with the force of personality behind the work – it’s not that I was particularly in love with the characters, or the story, but the voice of the book simply commanded attention.

All the same, as I said, I wasn’t in love with the text. It starts off very strong, but decidedly peters out towards the end – the last 80 pages or so particularly. It’s a curious book, in that it combines deep moral reflection with a kind of comedy of manners, a move that works very well early on, but then causes some problems. The thing about having a book loaded with characters is that you ultimately have to do something with them all – this means that you can well end up with large chunks of narrative that seem to serve merely to tie up loose ends that the reader doesn’t really care about, but expects nonetheless, and dutifully reads. Nuns and Soldiers introduces you to a lot of people, and fleshes them out fairly well, but as the text progresses it becomes obvious that only 4 of them are really at the center of action. The text really centers on the love affair between Tim and Gertrude, and although Anne and The Count are necessary as a supporting cast, once Tim and Gertrude have gotten themselves sorted out, the other two become basically irrelevant. Unfortunately, Murdoch can’t really let them go, and creates a new sideplot to accommodate them; one that is not particularly satisfying, and never gets resolved. As the text winds to a close, she suddenly remembers other characters; Manfred, Sylvia, Mrs. Mount, and tries to cram in some action with them. I suppose it’s meant to show how complex human lives are, to prove that they’re not flat and superficial, that they have important roles unrelated to the central action of the novel, but by then, 400 pages in, you just don’t care that much about them. It’s odd, because on the one hand, it’s quite clever to retroactively tell you about a doomed love affair that was occurring alongside the rest of the action, particularly when part of the action concerned the oblivious love object being fixated on an entirely different doomed love affair, but it ends up seeming like too little, too late.
The thing about juggling lots of characters falling in love with each other is that it very quickly can slide into formulaic combinations that just don’t seem believable, but if everyone is in love and one character is left out, that one person seems completely superfluous and not worth bothering about in the first place.

The character of The Count was of course personally interesting to me because I’m a frightful patriot and his main trait is his Polishness. It’s so interesting to me, the way Poles appear in Western European works. Murdoch did manage to capture something rather emblematic about the Polish case, in a strange way. The Count is the symbol of total moral virtue that is nonetheless doomed. He fights a battle where he is clearly on the right side, but will inevitably lose. And while everyone very much likes him, and sympathizes, nobody can really give a shit. And he realizes this to some extent, alternating between seeing himself as a tragic, heroic figure, and a comic one. It’s an apt understanding of the peculiar self-esteem complexes of Poles, something a friend of mine remarked upon recently. Our low self esteem doesn’t stem our belief that we’re worthless, it stems from our conviction that nobody gives a shit about us, and historically, you’d have to admit we’ve been basically correct in our assessment.

Finally, there’s the matter of the moral contemplation of the text, which is interesting, but I need to process more to really grasp. There’s an interesting way in which the text sets up a difference between being good and having a clear conscience, a reflection on human imperfection that is intriguing. Also, another beloved theme of mine, the question of chance and accident. There are plenty of moments in the novel where characters meet unexpectedly, right when they most need to, and plenty of others where the text tells you that they’ve passed within 100 feet of each other without noticing, and though it doesn’t necessarily seem important, by virtue of being reported it becomes so. It is a book that is self-consciously manipulating characters and situations, the narrator is a very curious presence. Information is explicitly held back until later (“What Manfred was then thinking will be revealed later”), or characters are kept in the dark (“It never occurred to Tim that he could draw inspiration from such observations”). It’s a third person narrator, but a slippery one, who slides in and out of characters minds and rigidly controls the story, flaunting its superior access to knowledge. All in all, an interesting book.

02 July 2006

The Informer, by Liam O’Flaherty

I adored this book. I found it absolutely fascinating. The story begins with two friends, Frankie and Gypo, former political activists, meeting in a pub. Both have been kicked out of their political organization for their role in an assassination 6 months prior, and Frankie is also wanted by the police. They meet, and then Gypo goes to the police and tells them where to find Frankie in exchange for a reward. He then realizes what he has done - he has turned informer, the lowest of the low. He is terrified that someone will find out. Meanwhile, the organization is horrified that someone has informed, and delegates Gypo to figure out who, offering to reinstate him as a member if he succeeds. I don’t want to give away too much, because really, it’s a tremendous book that everyone ought to read.

What makes the book so fascinating, to me, is that it’s like a massive case of mistaken identity. Everyone is trying to figure out who the informer could be. There’s a way in which ‘informer’ is a type of identity, and everyone is trying to figure out who fits the type. Including Gypo himself, who is passionately devoted to the organization, and certainly doesn’t identify himself as an informer. The point is, Gypo did not “turn informer” – he never assumed that identity. Rather, the action was a kind of curious mistake – “A monstrous idea had strayed into his head like an uncouth beast from a wilderness into a civilized place”. In a curious way, the story originates in a sort of bizarre narrative mistake, a glitch that has thrown everything into disarray.

Gypo is an incredible protagonist. He’s somehow only half-conscious, dull-witted, slow, dog-like in his devotions and dislikes. You don’t get much of a glimpse into his head, because there’s just not much there. He doesn’t feel hollow; you have the sense that his thoughts are like ants swimming through molasses. He’s a complete idiot, and completely guileless. He has no ability to calculate; for instance, he spends his reward money all over Dublin, and seems completely powerless to control himself in any way. It is this total lack of scheming that makes him so sympathetic – he’s completely genuine, all the time. The fact everyone is deceived by him seems to stem somehow from the fact that nobody thinks of him as capable of such deception – which he’s really not.

It’s a fantastic read – highly recommended. A real joy.