22 April 2006

Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf

This book is a collection of autobiographical fragments written by Virginia Woolf at various times in her life - they rather neatly fall at the beginning, middle, and end of her career as a writer. Thus, they provide an interesting perspective into her development as a writer - all the more so because two of the fragments, one written in 1907, and the other in 1939-40, both describe the same period of her childhood.

Autobiography has two goals, in a sense - to describe the life, and the self. As Woolf complains, so many memoirs fail because "they leave out the person to whom things happened" (65). But I am coming to think that the self can only be apprehended indirectly, it arises as an effect of the writing, in spite of itself. When somebody describes themselves to you, do you really take them at face value, or do you think of them as someone who would describe themselves that way, and then try to imagine what such a person would be like?

Incidentally, this holds true in quotidian life too, not only in autobiography - awhile back, a good friend of mine was going out on a date, and asked for my advice, and the only thing I could think of to tell him was that when on a date, one ought to avoid self-description, and particularly in-depth analysis and psychologizing of yourself - don't tell someone what you're like, show them. Rather than telling them what kind of person you are, tell them about things that you find interesting. You're far more likely to get closer to somebody because s/he is really into discussing movies that you like then somebody who apparently also fears commitment, no?

Anyhow, so self emerges in spite of, rather than because of, it's attempts to apprehend itself on paper. I think that's why I like autobiographies so much. The good ones really make you feel like you've gotten to know somebody, and being able to do that through written words is quite remarkable.

Another side note - at a conference I attended awhile back, somebody presented the idea of literature as a kind of telepathy. It's an attempt on the part of an author to put something from their mind into yours, and it's precisely the stamp of individuality on it that makes it so remarkable. That's the universal - not some absolute, transcendent humanity, but precisely the opposite, the repeated reappearance of the unique individual. I may be channeling some Zizek here. Moving on...

Woolf's text is also interesting because of her ideas of what a self, and a life, really consists of. The title of the collection comes from the piece called "A Sketch of the Past", where she talks about Moments of Being as the only moments that one really lives - most days, she says, are made up of non-being, "a kind of non-descript cotton wool (...) a great part of every day is not lived consciously" (70). But what are these moments of being? They seem to be a kind of shock of transcendence, where the sef is lost entirely and subsumed into something larger, where a pattern is revealed behind the cotton wool: "I am hardly aware of myself, but only of the sensation. I am only the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture" (67).

The first piece in the text, "Reminiscences", is just that - a sort of chronological account of her life. It's interesting in a sort of voyeuristic way, perhaps, but doesn't get you any closer to Woolf herself, really. "Sketches of the Past" is fascinating, because it tells the same story in a far more reflexive, and interesting way. It's not just a description, it's an attempt to summon the past, and is somehow far more palpable. The remaining pieces, written for the Memoir Club, are interesting because they seem to hold so much of Woolf in them. I could barely tell you what they were about - they're mostly rather gossipy, particularly the piece called "Am I a Snob?", but her voice is so strong within them that it's really as though she were sitting in your kitchen and telling you the story over coffee and cigarettes. Remarkable.

Ultimately then, the book is wonderful not for its explicit content, but for its voice. I don't much care about the actual events described, and the text is hardly a suspensful page turner, but it does make a wonderful companion.

21 April 2006

Casanova, History of My Life, vl. 3

You'd think that Casanova's autobiography would be a one-handed read, but I must say, it's not really the case. Not that there aren't some racy bits, but really, if you're reading it for the sex, you're going to be disappointed. Well, at least with volume 3 - volume 4, as it turns out, is fairly steamy.

Actually, what's really fascinating about the book is Casanova himself; the way a man whose behavior is largely immoral (not in a Puritan, you naughty sexual creature sort of way, but in a Golden Rule sort of way) justifies and repeatedly deludes himself. Claiming, for instance, the he would never want a woman who wasn't willing, he nonetheless has no problems raping several of them. In fact, most of the time, his process of seduction is more like a process of deception, duping various nubile young ladies in trusting that he has purely honest intentions. But it seems that this is just the way that society of his times worked - everyone seems incredibly superficial; the constant references to the theatre and masks are a nice parallel.

The book is a rollicking good time, actually. Despite the fact that Casanova is a bit of a bastard, you find yourself liking him, even if you don't buy into his rather pompous view of himself. Oddly enough, he comes off as incredibly honest, despite his obvious desire to make himself look good. Far more honest, I must say, than his contemporary Rousseau. There's a curious way in which one has a sense of getting to know somebody despite their best efforts.

For some reason, the book very strongly reminded me of Proust, not only because of the length. The language isn't particularly flowery, though it is lively and entertaining, but there's something about the sense of self-importance, perhaps, that recalls dear Marcel.

To be fair, I've only read volume 3 and part of volume 4 - I imagine that it could get old long before you get to volume 12...

11 April 2006

A Fistful of Dynamite

This movie is almost 3 hours long. You should know that before you watch it, because otherwise, you might start tapping your toes after awhile wondering when it's going to end, the way I did, and you might not notice what an interesting movie it is, or appreciate the way it slyly unfolds into an epic project.

The movie starts with a quote from Mao ("The Revolution will not be a dinner party...") and then opens onto a scene of class bias, with the poor getting bloody revenge. Juan, the Mexican bandit, dreams of knocking over the National Bank, and tries to befriend dynamite master, former IRA member John to help him. You almost think that this is all the class contemplation you're going to get, when suddenly you find yourself in the middle of Revolution. Very interesting.

Like other movies by Sergio Leone, the pacing is very curious - you'll get a 10 minute scene where nothing really happens, and then fly through a scene that's a focal point for action, and seems totally rushed and underdone. There are lots of super close-up shots of people's faces, which are really interesting, and highly expressive. The music, by Ennio Morriconne, is great as always.

The main oddness of the film is that there are occasional fantasy cuts to IRA John's past that seem completely ridiculous, and don't make much sense. The idea of bringing his experiences in Ireland into play is a good one, and thought provoking, but it's done in such a cheesy, bizarre fashion that it ultimately undermines the effect.

Oh, but the best part - the explosion are fucking awesome. Trains, bridges, churches - this is a big budget kaboom, and it's totally sweet.

09 April 2006

The Unforgiven

This movie was a lot more interesting than I expected it to be. Made in 1960, it's a Western that tackles issues of race, ie, Indian-White relations*. It also happens to be Audrey Hepburn's only Western.

The plot centers around a family, the Zacharys, one of whom is Rachel (played by Audrey Hepburn). Everything seems fine and dandy until a strange man appears and spreads the rumor that Rachel is actually an Indian - stolen from the Kiowa tribe. Meanwhile, the relationship of the whites to the Kiowas is tricky anyhow, but having caught wind of this rumor, the Indians come to take their lost sister back, thus kicking off a whole new round of antagonisms. At the same time, the settlers start to turn against the Zachary family, and there's an increasingly tense questioning of whether the rumor is true.

The movie is kind of strange - particularly the ending - and refuses to take a clear stance on the race relations issue. There is, incidentally, also an assimilated Indian character, just to provide some further food for thought. I thought it was nuanced, complex, and fascinating. Of course, one could claim that the portrayals of Indians are essentializing and fucked up, but actually, they weren't as bad as I expected them to be - a cut above the usual, I'd say. Audrey Hepburn is indeed a rather bizarre choice for a girl who may or may not be an Indian princess - she's really a bizarre choice for a Western at all - but she manages to be charming and likeable as always, so you don't care as much that her accent is completely bizarre.

Another interesting trait of the film is the way it depicts masculinity - I don't know if it's a conscious interest or just something I've been paying more attention to in movies lately, but again one has the hot blooded men who ultimately seem to be less "manly" than the quiet, reflective guy who was originally seen as weak. Though this is somewhat undermined by the willingness of the quiet guy to slaughter ruthlessly when it was deemed necessary, so perhaps, rather than challenging gender roles, the movie is really just advocating a cool head in conflict, which could be a mild critique, and a call for a revision of the notion of masculinity, but not a revolutionary change.

There's also a strange incest theme going on that really quite detracts from the movie. It's somewhat bizarre, and rather unnecessary. The Zachary brother most willing to defend his sister's honor proves to be madly in love with her, which opens the possibility that his championing of Indian rights throughout the film is motivated by fetish more than a belief in justice. Hmmm.

The film does have some great characters though. The mysterious stranger in particular is phenomenal - dressed in a civil war uniform, rattling his sabre and squinting through his one good eye, he haunts the desert, a disturbing and malicious ghost from the past. His lines are great - he speaks in the parlance of Biblical prophecy, and the effect is quite chilling.

Another great strength of the movie was the landscape - gorgeous shots of the desert, the cacti, the sky. I love the desert, and the movie really made me miss the west coast. Seeing all that untouched open land was glorious.

Anyhow, yeah, great movie. I actually watched it almost two weeks ago - I've been too busy to update regularly, and I haven't been watching as many movies and reading as many books lately - most of my reading assignments are exerpts of Marx, and for cinematic fun, I've been working my way through Twin Peaks - so there's not a lot of grist for the mill. The point being that as time goes on, I find myself thinking about the movie from time to time, which is generally a good sign. Worth watching.

*Before you dog on me for saying Indian, allow me to explain - a professor of mine recently related the complaint of his Indian friend (though I also seem to recall reading a similar argument somewhere) that to say Native American is actually quite offensive. It attempts to enfold these people into a notion of American-ness, when the goddamn country was founded upon wiping them out and erecting America on their bones, which thus makes a move to posthumously sort of apologize and include them now that they're safely dead and gone, creating a spectral authentic "natural" America that is an impossible fantasy. Furthermore, it tries to correct a mistake, partly to make whites look better. As this man apparently said, "I'd rather keep the name Indian, as a monument to white stupidity. It's the least they could do, is admit that although they had the ability to wipe us out, they also thought they were in India when they first arrived." I've decided I like it, and am going to say Indian from now on, unless I can specify tribal identity - it's not like all them Injuns are the same, you know.