28 February 2006

The Devil's Miner/ The Yes Men

My campus movie theatre showed these two as a double feature, and they made for a fascinating combination.

The Devil's Miner is a documentary about the Cerro Rico silver mines in Bolivia. The film focuses on a 14 year old boy named Basilio who works in the mines, and also attends school, when he can get the money together to do so. It's a terrifying film, extremely well made.
What was really fascinating, to me, about this movie, was the way that it slowly drew you into an understanding of the lives of these people. In the beginning, you see Basilio and his brother sitting by the statue of Tio, the idol of the devil who is a sort of patron saint of the miners. They tell stories about Tio, and sprinkle coca leaves on the statue as an offering. At first, this seems purely symbolic, but as the movie goes on, you (well, I) realize that this isn't some kind of abstract notion for them - it's totally real. The point is driven home a bit more when you later see the people sacrifice a llama and bathe the entrance of the mine with its blood, complete with a shaman. It's shocking to realize that what you might think of as a primitive ritual is being carried out with full belief by these people. Meanwhile, there are scenes of this same boy in school, learning French, and being taught about the solar system. There is a particularly interesting scene where the boys use their headlamps to burn images into the wall of the mines - it immediately made me think of cave paintings, which led me to contemplate my mental furniture, if you will, in terms of the way that I look at "primitive" cultures, etc.
There are interviews with the local priest, who is likewise a fascinating figure. My friend Jen pointed out that what the priest is saying is pretty radical for someone in the Catholic Church - he really struggles to translate the religion into a paradigm that will be applicable to these people, who, as my friend Sean pointed out, essentially turn to devil worship as a way of coping with the psychological hell that these mines present. And the shots of the interior of the mine are truly horrific - tiny, cramped spaces, where the workers are often squeezing through tiny tunnels to get further underground, meanwhile the camera is steaming up because the temperature is approximately 95 degrees fahrenheit. And they're talking about how the average life expectancy of a guy drilling is 35, 40 years. Wow. It's a brilliant film, but totally devastating.

The second film, The Yes Men, is far more light-hearted, but still highly thought-provoking.
The film follows the exploits of a group of guys, known as the Yes Men, who for awhile impersonated WTO reps and gave talks at conferences. The talks were rather horrific lectures based upon the ideology of the WTO taken to its extreme conclusion. They included, for instance, a discussion about how the Civil War was a tremendous waste of resources, because obviously market forces would have ended slavery - outsourcing is far more profitable, and much easier! What's especially frightening is that nobody catches on. They have to resort to extreme absurdity for anyone to even notice what they're doing. The only group to bat an eyelash is a room full of college students, who are outraged by their plan to recycle feces and feed it to people in third world countries (the Re-burger!) - they actually have to take it that far before anyone will try to ask them some thought provoking questions! The answers they give are pretty chilling, too. It really makes you take notice of the ways in which the corporate world creates authority for itself, the fact that the tenets of this ideology seem to be things that are obviously corrupt and not appropriate for a project that purports to be about making the world a better place for everybody.
I don't want to spoil the movie, so let me just say that their final stunt is perhaps the most thought provoking of all.
The film succeeds on two fronts, I think, in that it not only launches an effective critique of politics (though I would have appreciated more info - and less Micheal Moore, whose presence doesn't really add anything good to the movie), it also critiques corporate culture today, in that their plan at first back-fired, because they under-estimated how unbelievably fucked up the corporate system really is, and finally, it presents an interesting view of political activism today.

Anyhow, good stuff. Lots of food for thought. The struggle to be a better person continues.

On a more personal note, I'll add that this movie totally made me want to marry a Yes-Man. The fantasy goes, I'll be a super-star academic at a top-dog university, and my Yes-Man will go out and fight to make the world a better place full-time. We'll live off my salary, which won't be enough to live large, but hey, we can live modestly. In other words, I need to find someone who wants to make the world a better place and is unable to hold down a job because of a crazy brilliant political activist lifestyle, but doesn't mind following an academic around, and maybe doing some stay-at-home parenting. Alas, I don't think it's really feasible. I was trying to explain it to my friends, and they didn't seem to get it. I don't want a leech, I want someone who is actually trying to do this stuff full-time. But whoever it is would probably end up feeling like a leech. No one really gets how this is actually a brilliant partnership. However, it requires that we have the same goals, but apparently, it comes off like I'm looking for an employee, not a life-partner. Sigh. Nobody understands me.

27 February 2006

Me, You, and Everyone We Know

What a fantastic movie.
There's something slightly surreal about this film. The colors are just a touch too bright, the characters just slightly exaggerated. If you were to isolate one character from the movie, and examine him/her, you could convince yourself that such a person exists, despite being a bit eccentric. But taken altogether, it's just slightly past the boundaries of the believable. Yet, it doesn't seem absurd, just mildly estranging. It gives the movie an interesting quality, not quite dream-like, but something else - perhaps one could say that it seems, self-consciously, to be a piece of art. Yet, it manages to do this without being pretentious, quite a feat, especially when one of your main characters is a performance artist.
The real charm of this movie is its use of estrangement turned towards tenderness. Throughout the film, there are scenes of acts which at first blush, seem disturbing - a small child having cyber-sex, a grown man propositioning teenage girls - sexual acts that are of a somewhat depraved nature, and would generally disgust the viewer. The amazing ability of this movie is to turn these acts into moments of truly moving tenderness, without white-washing their moral ambiguity. For instance, when a small child describes an extremely graphic and rather revolting sex act, he does it with such naive, innocent tenderness, that it does become something loving and beautiful, without losing the mildly disturbing undertone.
My only beef with the film was in the final scene, there was a moment of physical connection that seemed out of place in a film where love is so much focused on words. The real connections between people in this movie happen in shared fantasies, two people spinning a vision of the future together - physical touch seemed almost vulgar, in contrast, despite the fact that it was rather beautifully done.
I was, however, extremely impressed by the way that film managed to handle multiple strands of plot - I tend to get irritated with movies that follow the lives of 8 different characters, because they tend to do it in a clumsy fashion that flattens out most of the people and spends too much time revelling in its own clunky coincidences. This movie, however, handles the parallelism with grace, bringing the characters together, but allowing them to have their own lives.
All in all, a phenomenal movie.

26 February 2006

Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic

When I saw The Aristocrats (which I thought was phenomenal, by the way), Sarah Silverman's version of the joke blew me away. Even having seen that many different versions, when you're starting to think that nothing can shock you anymore, her's was just... wow. So I was really excited to go see this, because I figured it would not only be jaw-droppingly inappropriate, but also hilarious. And I relish inappropriate yet hysterical humor. It was definitely plenty offensive, and there were some moments of real hilarity, but all in all, it was kind of a let-down.
The premise of the movie is sort of hokey; really, it's just footage of her stand-up with a plot plastered around it. Which is fine, but the premise could have been a bit funnier. The movie also features a lot of musical interludes, which generally take the form of music videos, the main purpose of which seems to be that it allows her to dress in various entertaining costumes, but whatever, it works. The songs are funny, her voice is ok, and hey, she's an attractive woman, and can pull off a lot of different looks quite convincingly.
As for the humor, at times it was absolute genius, but for the most part, it was chuckle-worthy, with a few belly laughs. At no point did I genuinely fear that I was going to wet myself. Not even close. Maybe my expectations were too high. Also, while she definitely managed to make lots of offensive jokes, but she never really managed to make me squeamish. To be fair, it's pretty hard to do. But whereas Dane Cook and David Cross can generally manage to at least make me feel someonewhat guilty about laughing, or elicit a "Daaaaamn!" that is immediately followed by hysterical laughter, I didn't really find any of the stuff that Silverman said to be particularly hardcore. But maybe that has more to do with her delivery than with the content. Or maybe I'm just a horribly insensitive human being.
In any case, amusing movie, but it didn't really sustain comedic genius for it's (somewhat short - just over an hour) duration.

25 February 2006

No Longer Human

This book, by Osamu Dazai, is an example of the Japanese genre of shishosetsu, a kind of autobiographical fiction. It's different from what we think of as autobiography, in that the purpose is not so much to tell a story - there is no real emplotment, beginning, middle, end in the traditional (or Aristotelian) sense, but rather, the text is a sort of rambling exploration of the self. Style is de-prioritized, sincerity and immediacy are tantamount. There is no constrained form, but rather, an attempt to establish a direct link between author and reader, to explain a particular perspective.
The book is largely autobiographical, based on events from Dazai's own life. He was a literary rock star, but a deeply miserable guy, attempting suicide several times before finally succeeding. There's actually a monument at the spot where he killed himself (along with his mistress), and apparently people gather there on the anniversary of his death every year.
In any case, the book itself is interesting. It makes me want to learn Japanese, for starters, because no matter how great the translator, there's no getting around the fact that the grammatical structure of Japanese is completely different from that of English, most importantly, for this book perhaps, in that it is entirely possible, and even common, to construct a sentence in Japanese with no subject. Apparently the entire book is written in this form, which would be particularly appropriate to the work itself. Though I wonder if the Japanese reader would really think of this as particularly artful, given that it's apparently a standard thing to them. But I guess that's a question for psycho-linguists to answer.
The book is the related story of a very unhappy guy who is essentially chronicling his downward spiral. Though it's hard to say if it's really a downward spiral - though he does pinpoint a moment at which he ceased to be human, it's not entirely clear that he was ever really human (by his own definition) to begin with. One question is what it means, in his eyes, to be human.
There is a clear parallel to Notes from the Underground (Dazai was big into Dostoevsky, and the main character refers to Crime and Punishment), in that both are notes from deeply unhappy men who are convinced of their own uniqueness, but there are definitely differences. Dostoevsky's character is raging against rationality, and the way in which it dehumanizes people, so in a sense, though he calls himself a mouse, etc, he could be seen as claiming that he is really the only human. Dazai's character, Yozo, sees himself as inhuman, mainly, it seems, because he lacks certain basic human traits. He claims, for instance, that he has never felt hungry. However, there is also a certain issue of domination at play - he is unable to say no to anyone, to turn down anything. In this sense, one could say that he is entirely determined by the outside world. Despite the fact that he has an inner life, he keeps it hidden from the outside world. In fact, his behavior is entirely, he claims, an act, he "plays the clown" for the amusement of others, refusing to let his own feelings show.
But I'm not certain if this is really the case. For instance, he wants to be an artist, and actually disobeys his father in order to pursue his artistic career, and confesses to the other authority figure in his life, Flatfish, that he wants to make art. So it seems as though the masking process is incomplete in this case, and at times he does behave authentically. I wonder if the same could be said for the Underground Man? I think that it's slightly different in his case, in that the construction of the Underground Man is such that he can't behave authentically, because he has no stable self. Yozo, on the other hand, certainly has an inner life, it's just a rather empty one. He doesn't seem to have any real will of his own, or rather, the will that he does have is purely towards self-destruction - he can get booze and drugs, and drink himself into a stupor, without any difficulties. But then again, he also seems to have a brief lull of happiness, directly following his marriage. But even there, it's hard to say if he's happy. Maybe it's most accurate to say that he is so constructed as to be incapable of happiness?
There's more thinking to be done here.

24 February 2006

Rue Ordener, Rue Labat

This brief autobiography by Sarah Kofman is absolutely riveting.

Sarah Kofman was a French Jewish philosopher. I don't know much of her work, I'm sorry to say - it seems that a lot of her stuff hasn't been translated - but she apparently was highly active in the Deconstruction movement, and did a lot of work on Freud and Nietzsche. I definitely want to read some of it. This book is the story of her life during the second world war, when she and her mother were taken in and sheltered by a French woman. The real drama of the text is the relationship that she developed with this woman, who after the war wanted to keep her.
This was actually not so uncommon during the war, and was really a heart-rending issue. The parents of these Jewish children had been robbed of so much, and now, the people who had offered their children protection, saved their lives, became their enemies, trying to steal the one remaining thing they had.
Kofman writes about this in stark, unemotional prose. She doesn't dress it up in melodramatic language - she lets the events speak for themselves, in a way. The work is extremely brief, but there is so much in it. Kofman had earlier written a lot about the impossibility of autobiography, as well as the theoretical problems of writing about the Holocaust. She doesn't do the sort of critical self-questioning in the autobiography that a lot of Deconstructionists do, but these questions are nonethless there, perhaps in the things that she does not say, most of all. She writes about how, after the war, she snuck out to see Meme, or wrote her furtive letters, etc, but then, at the end of the text, she talks about how she stopped seeing her, saying "For several years I cut off all contact with Meme: I can't stand to hear her talk about the past all the time or to let her keep calling me her "little bunny" or her "little darling". When, later, I do come back to see her, I always bring a friend". This, incidentally, is the only moment in the text that is not in the strict past tense. It is this kind of writing, that says much more than it seems to on the surface, that makes the work so powerful.
Kofman doesn't give a lot of detail about her relationship with her mother, but it's clear that it's a difficult one - her mother at times beat her, locked her into the closet, etc. But she in no way paints her mother as a terrible person, or a monster. There is no judgement there at all. Interestingly, she links a lot of what she says about her mother to her later theoretical work, particularly fascinating, given that so much of her work was on Freud. Indeed, an underlying theme in the text seems to be her process of finding the roots of her later theoretical work in her own life story, or connecting her later impressions, such as her discomfort watching Hitchcock's film, The Vanishing Lady, with these early parts of her life. Again, she doesn't spell out these connections, just kind of places these reflections in the story. So the process of connecting the past and present self is an interpretive process that is left for the reader, and the author, to do on their own. This is interesting, in that it allows the author a degree of privacy that one wouldn't expect in autobiography.
Thinking about it, perhaps this says something about how autobiographies work. It's a process not only of relating the events of a life, but connecting them through narrative in a way that provides an interpretation, the result of which is a sort of image of a self, rather like a weird hologram, floating over the text. In other words, who you are isn't just what happens to you, but how you understand it and make it into a story. Kofman gives you the "what happened", but without a lot of the interpretation. Even the process of linking it into a narrative is curiously tenuous - the text isn't exactly fragmented, but it doesn't quite flow, either. The logic isn't precisely of causation, chronology, or association. Hard to say what really moves it forward.
In any case, it's an incredible book. Highly recommended.

A Writer at War

A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945, edited and translated by Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova.

Hmmm. Edited, eh? That's putting it lightly.
Vasily Grossman was a Russian Jew who worked as a journalist during the Second World War and was reporting from the front for the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. This book is a collection of his notebooks from the war, along with copious commentary. His notebooks are marvelous. The commentary, not so much.
Grossman's notes are marvelous. I don't know if he actually scrawled his notes in brief fragments or if the editors just excerpted them that way, but the book is filled with brief bits, or one-liners. This has the effect of making everything seem very profound, so you get these gnomic utterances like: "The political-moral state of the troops is good. Deserter Toropov was show in front of his company". Many of Grossman's observations are just that, brief impressions of what he sees, but he really has a way with language and an incredible eye for detail - it's wonderful to read. He also does a fantastic job with interviews - there are these brief segments about soldiers, generals, peasants, etc, and you have a sense of this person's voice, he evokes them marvelously, usually just by relating a brief anecdote they're told him. Wonderful stuff.
Also highly fascinating, in that one learns a lot about the war. Not only through Grossman's observations, but also from the commentary, which provides background information and context. It's useful, and for the most part, fairly well-written, and quite interesting. It really makes you realize though, how much war has changed. Imagine, now, a general attacking with 650,000 troops! Real trench warfare, and close combat. It's also fascinating to read about people fighting a war that they truly believe in - it's incredibly moving, actually. I almost cried when the Red Army reached Berlin.
The real problem with the book is the editorial commentary, and the selection from the notebooks. The commentary does well when it's providing historical background, less so when it provides personal info, or discussions of censorship and rising anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, or interpretations of Grossman's work. Also, the selections from the notebooks feel frustratingly like excerpts. I want more! I suppose though, that the thing to do would be to read Grossman's novels, particularly Life and Fate, which this book claims is one of the greatest masterpieces of Russian literature. They may be a wee bit biased though.

21 February 2006

Arabian Nights and Days

It's difficult to review a book that one doesn't really have a fixed opinion about.
Naguib Mahfouz's Arabian Nights and Days is a curious work. The text reworks and interweaves the stories of 1001 Nights, but without quite creating a whole. There is a sort of framing device; the moral education of the sultan Shahriyar (husband of Scheherzade), but to see the whole book in this guise is somehow unsatisfying. It reads like a collection of tales - perhaps intended as a further nod to the original - that are loosely connected, in that they concern the inhabitants of one city, and characters reappear throughout. Furthermore, the stories are connected thematically - they all basically revolve around questions of good and evil. The basic template is that an ordinary person encounters the supernatural somehow, and this generally leads to evil-doing. There is a didactic character to these tales, but it seems rather shallow. In many cases, the character seems to basically get screwed over through no fault of his own, so the moral lesson kind of falls flat. And the stories that seem intended to provide a positive model aren't particularly compelling either.
The text is oddly flat - one would expect luscious descriptions (or maybe that's just my hidden orientalism?), but the tone is rather dry and monotone throughout. But it seems to me that for the supernatural element to be fully actualized, one needs a sense of wonder of some kind - levitation, for instance, is generally a pretty cool phenomenon, and worthy of a note of awe. Another theme throughout is the blurring of the division between dream and reality, but that somehow doesn't really work either. I guess this is the problem with the book, for me - a major theme throughout are these various dichotomies, dream/reality, reality/supernatural, sanity/insanity, good/evil, etc, but the tone throughout is so flat that it almost levels out the difference. I read the book for the class that I'm TAing for, and the professor suggested that the book wants to suggest there is something essentially human about these dichotomies and their instability, as though this dialectic is somehow what keeps people going, and while I like the idea, I don't think that the text really bears it out.
It's a difficult book to get a grip on. I was left feeling as though I must have missed something - I want to believe that there are some fascinating things buried within the novel, but I can't seem to find them. I guess I expected the text to be more self-conscious somehow, and question itself. Perhaps the idea is to leave this work for the reader, but it doesn't give you that much to go on. It's frustratingly opaque, but I'm not entirely convinced that it actually has the depth that I want to attribute to it. Ultimately, I can't seem to decide if it's much more complex than it seems to be, or much less. Unfortunately, the narrative itself isn't so gripping that I expect to lose sleep puzzling over it.

19 February 2006

To Begin

It occurs to me that I go to the movies a lot. I also read a lot of books. It seems like a worthwhile endeavor to chronicle my cinematic and textual adventures. We'll see how it works out.

~An afterthought
I should probably point out that when I say "go to the movies a lot", I mean to my campus theatre, or to my couch to watch the latest arrival from Netflix, so don't hold your breath for reviews of the newest, hottest movies. Sorry.
Also, my choice in books is almost entirely conditioned by the courses I'm taking or TAing for, or the readings for my Orals lists. In other words, the selection may seem somewhat idiosyncratic.
But I welcome recommendations! In fact, I adore them.