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.