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.