30 March 2007

Obabakoak, by Bernard Atxaga

This is a lovely, lovely book. Originally written in Basque, and apparently one of the few novels to have ever been written in the language, it's an absolute delight.

The text is a collection of tales centering around life in the village of Obaba. The tales are linked by location, and with some thematic connections, yet it's not really a collection of short stories. It's not a novel in the standard narrative sense, rather, one would call it such because it does what a really good novel does - it opens up a new world for the reader. In this case, it's a sort of shimmering land of dreams and passions, quiet late night reflections and yearnings. It's written in that precious, almost magical style, but without the now-cliche supernatural touches. There are plenty of wondrous things in the book, and they seem more so for the fact that they don't rely on magic - thus, one appreciates the beauty of life and its complexities, the unexpected and beautiful things of the world. I was particularly taken with this book because I've grown so weary of this kind of style in writers like Kundera and Marquez - much as I once loved them both, lately they've seemed sort of tired and fatuous to me. As though they were so pleased with their precious magical view of the world, and kind of smug about it. Atxaga doesn't strike one as being in some kind of mystical lala land of overwrought affected prose - the language is gorgeous, but actually quite simple. He doesn't overdo it.

It's also a wonderfully intellectual book with some very nice reflections on literature. The tone is often playful, enjoying the puzzles and complexities of its subject matter . Insights about the world are delivered simply, without that patronizing air of the mystic delivering great truths. Also quite subtly evoked is a kind of wistfulness about the lack of Basque literature - quite moving because it's confronted head-on, its tragedy allowed to speak for itself without being blown up into melodrama.

The book brought to mind, for me, another work - Olga Tokarczuk's Prawiek i inne czasy (I don't know the title of the English translation). It's a similar sort of work, a collection of tales about a small village. Both books sort of explore the rich inner lives of various characters. They're not exactly realistic psychological portraits, but they nonetheless somehow capture these intensely private moments in people's lives. Thinking about both works, I wondered what it is about the small village that seems to make it a particularly amenable setting for works of this kind. One could theoretically have the same kind of text about a huge city, but somehow it would be very different. There's something about villages, not just as a trope, but in actuality, a kind of isolation from the larger world that turns the gaze inwards. It's not that the rest of the world doesn't exist, but somehow it seems further away, and the world of the village somehow seems bigger. One notices details more, perhaps because there's less going on, so you have the time to really look at things carefully. Or maybe this is me projecting my literary fantasies onto landscapes, who knows.

18 March 2007

Czeka na nas swiat (The World is Waiting for Us)

This movie is absolutely phenomenal. One of the best movies that I've seen in a long time. Absolutely fascinating.

The film chronicles the exploits of a man attempting to find a job, and failing. It's actually quite Beckettian, in that while the events depicted become increasingly horrific, there's a dark humor that renders the film genuinely delightful to watch, but without invalidating its tragic poignancy. It's not that you laugh because you don't realize the gravity of the situation, and it's not that you laugh out of discomfort, because there's no other appropriate response; the scenes are genuinely funny in their grim absurdity. At the same time, the film is an incredible confrontation with the realities of Poland today, a reflection of globalization and those who are left behind, offering wisdom that transcends its local context. Incidentally, I maintain that this is precisely the best way to depict a universal truth - not by casting a wide net and trying to get at the all-encompassing aspects of it, but rather, to immerse yourself in the particularities, through which the general miraculously shines through.

I managed to catch this movie at a local film festival, but if you get the chance to see it, I really couldn't recommend it more. It's quite possibly one of the best movies I've ever seen - one of those films that you find yourself talking about to anyone who will listen, and thinking back on constantly. What marks it as so amazing, in my mind, is that telling people about it, I am strongly aware of how completely incapable I am of describing it in a manner that would do it justice. This, I think, is the mark of a truly great film - that no matter what you say about it, the film itself surpasses any summary. There are so many brilliant details, bits of dialogue, facial expressions that just can't be explained in isolation. Really, it's just incredible.

09 March 2007

The Passion of Ayn Rand

This movie has made me realize that made-for-tv movies are really their own special breed of film. Because this movie, in some ways, is phenomenal, and yet it's not. It's really odd. It's a really good made-for-tv movie. Which is not to say that it's a good movie. Which is not to say that it's not worth watching. It's really quite curious.

The movie is ostensibly about Ayn Rand's torrid love affair with a younger man (and is based, as I understand it, upon the book written by his wife), but what it's _really_ about, if I may be so bold, is the way in which people attempt to rationally justify and control their emotions. This, I think, is what makes it kind of a remarkable film, and quite well done, all the more interesting, because the rationale employed here is Objectivism. And as it turns out, a sly premise of Objectivism is its valorization of absolute rationality, and what this film brilliantly illustrates is that at the end of the day, people just aren't fully rational. In other words, it illustrates the flaws of Objectivism, partly by showing that Ayn Rand can't live up to it. What's nice about the movie is that it's not a jerk about it. Rand, curiously enough, is portrayed in a touching, very human way. She's kind of a Quixotic character, actually, it's kind of lovely. The film realizes that she's misguided, but nonetheless has a tremendous amount of respect for her. It's not that you pity her at the end, but you have a kind of compassion for her, and yet you can't help but admire her at the same time. It's not that her tough-as-nails, hardass exterior is shown to be false, but rather, that there is a softer, vulnerable side to it as well. It's a tribute, in a sense, created by someone who has gotten older and wiser and yet still retains a touch of hero worship.

At the same time, you have a very interesting array of characters alongside Rand who illustrate different variants of the problem, and its moral dynamics. Her husband, who is a big softie, her lover, who is a total hypocrite, her lover's wife, a particularly fascinating creature who is a curious blend of emotion and intellect, her lover's lover, who is basically at the opposite end of the spectrum from Rand herself. Really quite well done. Conceptually, the film is pretty amazing, and rhetorically, it's quite persuasive. I could say a lot more about this, but honestly, I'm too tired. Moving on, the cast is kind of remarkable- Helen Mirren, who is amazing, Peter Fonda, who's quite good, Julie Delpy, who is entirely decent, and Eric Stoltz (bwahahaha) who is mediocre. Also, notably, there's a lot of sex, and quite well done. Obviously a movie made for cable, heh heh.

Unfortunately, there's also a wretchedly cheesy jazz soundtrack. Also, it looks like a made-for-tv movie. It's hard for me to put my finger on what that means exactly, perhaps someone can explain better? The sets, the costumes, the color scheme, I dunno, but there's just something tv about it. The melodrama has this odd canned effect, which is a pity, because it's actually a really poignant film.

So while you may not need to rent it, if you're couch surfing and stumble across it, don't touch that dial.

06 March 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest

Ok, so maybe this has something to do with the fact that I started watching this movie at 3 am, but can someone explain the plot to me? Please? Seriously. Let's try, shall we?

So Elizabeth and Will are about to get married (in the midst of a torrential downpour?) when the militia rolls in and arrests them for saving Captain Jack Sparrow. It turns out that what they want is for Will to get Jack's compass (which apparently now does more than tell you how to get to the treasure in the first movie?), in exchange for a full pardon. Will sets off to get it. Meanwhile... there's some kind of political intrigue with the East India Company. Reflections of globalization and encroaching modernity. Immediately followed, appropriately enough, by Will finding Jack, decked out in some gorgeous facepaint, on some kind of island with the standard Other, the native tribesman. Who speak a strange language that occasionally sounds like French with a Chinese accent. But Captain Jack seems to have learned some of it. And it turns out that they consider Jack to be their leader, and therefore want to eat him. Those wacky natives! But they escape, and it turns out that Jack needs his compass because he's on some mysterious mission. Will's dad, Bootstrap Bill appears out of nowhere and tells him that he owes Davy Jones, who is pissed, and is sending the Kraken to collect. Then he turns his hand black. Meanwhile, Elizabeth escapes, with the signed pardon and stows away on a ship. Clever crossdressing is involved. Back on the ship, Capt. Jack declares his intention of going after this mysterious key. They travel down a river and meet up with a voodoo sorceress type lady with very bad teeth. He finds the Flying Dutchman and its crew of squidmen, abandons Will there, and heads back to Tortuga to collect some souls for Davy Jones. Which is where Elizabeth finds him, along with the Commodore from the first movie. Jack needs Elizabeth, because his compass is not working (a curious feature we shall return to). Meanwhile, Will is reunited with his father, and plays a game somewhat similar to Liar's Dice (except with some modified rules that don't quite make sense) in which his father's soul is indentured for life (it wasn't before?), and then manages to steal the key everybody wants, and escape. Meanwhile, there's all kinds of sexual tension between Jack and Elizabeth. Will somehow gets reuinited with them, after facing the Kraken. They arrive at the island where the chest, which contains Davy Jones' heart, is hidden. They open the chest, it turns out everybody wants it for their own reasons, a mad scramble ensues. The squidmen attack, but are defeated. The commodore escapes with the heart. Everyone else gets back on the ship. The Kraken attacks. They battle it, and then decide to flee. Elizabeth betrays Captain Jack and leaves him for fish food, but not before Will sees them making out. Captain Jack dives into the jaws of the Kraken. The rest of the crew return to voodoo lady, and resolve to set off to the afterworld in pursuit of Jack. The evil captain from the first movie rolls in to assist. Am I missing something here?

I know it's part two, and various things are left open to be resolved in the next movie, but still, huh? What's the deal with Davy Jones' heart anyhow? Why is his crew composed of men who are gradually metamorphosing into sea creatures? When did they gain the ability to teleport? What does Jack owe Davy Jones anyhow? What's with the political rumblings? And the wacky tribesmen? And, perhaps most interesting to me, why doesn't Jack's compass work for him?

This last question, I can venture to answer in non-diagetical terms. The compass apparently points to what a person most wants. Now, I don't think the purpose here is to provide an additional layer to Sparrow's character by showing him to be a man of conflicted desires, rather, the idea is to get the compass into the hands of the lovely Elizabeth and stir up some trouble. Suddenly, the compass seems to be pointing to none other than Captain Jack! This occasions some confusion on the part of the young heroine. Doesn't she love Will the mostest? Is she really pining after Jack Sparrow (honestly, who in their right mind wouldn't be?)? I was waiting for it to turn out that it was actually pointing to Will after all, but nope, instead, the sizzling sexual tension between Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley seems to be developing into something a bit more serious. Elizabeth, formerly as morally uptight as her adorable fiancee, seems, in the process of getting to be more of a badass, to have developed the same ambiguous moral status as the delightful pirate captain. She's manipulative and calculating, and deliciously tempting. Of course, when the shit hits the fan, she's just as liable to scream like a little girl, fall over a lot, and hide behind the toughest man in sight as she is to run some fools through with a sword, but what can you do. Interestingly, the movie at first seems to be allowing her to use her feminine wiles as a powerful weapon, but then has this curious scene where she tries to stop the (somewhat silly) three way duel between Jack, Will and the Commodore with various girlish tricks that utterly fail. Because men will always be more interested in sword fighting than fainting women, doll. But to get back to the original point, the compass is our most explicit pointer to this blooming love triangle. Will she go with the roguish captain, or the nice guy? I'm glad that the movie allows the nice guy to also be a badass, even if he can't do it in the same flamboyant style. But it makes the choice between the two men more tricky than it normally would be in such films.

Interestingly, though, I suspect that Elizabeth's betrayal lost her a lot of fans. This is interesting, because structurally, it actually works to show her similarity to Jack - it's EXACTLY the kind of thing he'd do. And he knows it, which is why he looks at her with adoring eyes the minute he realizes what's up. I really enjoyed the subtle exploration of pirate morality that this movie offered, and the way it problematizes the typical hero/villain dichotomy.

Because all plot confusion aside, I really enjoyed this movie. Of course. It's a blast. It's fantastically over the top and unapologetically ridiculous. There are these fantastic Waiting for Godot bits where these two pirates go all meta that are hilarious. The dialogue is clever, the action scenes are completely preposterous, the special effects are totally neato (those squidmen man, wow), and it's a great time. And even though the plot doesn't make sense, you don't care, because the movie doesn't take itself seriously anyhow (unlike, say The Departed). Which isn't to say that it doesn't have substance, or even a kind of depth. But it's one of those movies that's meant to be a good time, and is, and if the plot not making sense really bothers you, then go be a grumpass at some other movie, because this one is a damn good time.

04 March 2007

Nights of Cabiria

I was completely blown away by this movie. It's absolutely stunning.

The film is sort of a series of vignettes, the misadventures of Cabiria the plucky prostitute. It's not a hooker with a heart of gold story, nor is it a courageous underdog making it (or failing to...) against all the odds kind of tale, though it has some elements of such storylines. But the story isn't really the point - it is more like a side effect that arises from the circumstances. It's as if the camera was following Cabiria, the protagonist, because there was nothing better to do, or rather, because her face is so fascinating that one can't help but be mesmerized.

And this is really the essence of this film - Cabiria, played by Giulletta Masina, is absolutely riveting. The woman has the most incredible face I have ever seen in my life. I could stare at it for hours. She can express more depth of emotion just by moving her eyebrow ever so slightly than 1,000 monkeys making emo records could ever dream of. The action of the film is not the events that happen in it, but rather, the play of emotions across that exquisite visage. It's incredible. The final shot is absolutely transcendent.

The film is carried entirely by her person. She sets the tone of the film in a really remarkable way. It's remarkable, in that the events portrayed are actually pretty depressing - Cabiria gets a raw deal, a lot. And yet it's not a depressing movie, partly because of the lovingly humor with which she's portrayed, with moments verging on slapstick. Although there are some rather devastating moments, ultimately, I think the movie has an uplifting effect. I see it as a sort of triumphant celebration of human spirit. This sounds incredibly cheesy, and it would be, if the film were explicit about it, or tried to convey this by valorizing some kind of epic character. But here, it's a film about a very marginal character, a kind of anti-hero, who is not valorized with grandiloquent dialogue or lofty action. All the camera really does is pay attention to her. And in this most humble setting, this unnameable quality that I want to call spirit, or humanity, or something like that, shines forth, needing no ornamentation. It's absolutely sublime.