30 May 2007

Mialem Tylko Jedno Zycie, Stefan Kisielewski

Unfortunately, this book is very, very difficult to get ahold of, and it hasn't been translated into English. This is a real tragedy, one that almost inspires me to get into the translation business (because I apparently assume I could do it well...), because it's one of my new favorite books. Flawlessly constructed, hilarious, poignant - a real gem.

The ostensible premise of the text is that the author is chronicling his own alcoholism, and trying to figure out when it started. Not in some kind of depressing, melodramatic, When a Man Loves a Woman kind of way, and not in a philosophizing Bukowski kind of way, but rather, in a detached, analytical, musing vein. This is one of my favorite kinds of narrative voice - that somehow touching self-conscious innocence of a detached intellectual curiosity. And of course, there's plenty of irony in his "findings", but not of a spiteful sort. For instance, his claim that he despises vodka, that his body revolts against it, but he must drink it for his soul. It's amusing, and somehow charming and sweet, despite the fact that it's obviously tinged with irony.

This irony is particularly impressive because somehow, despite the fact that the story is in the first person, there are moments when we seem to have more information than the protagonist. This is a tricky feat, as anyone who has spent some time thinking about unreliable narrators knows. How, for instance, do we see through the drunken haze of the protagonist and glean what is actually happening? And yet, somehow, we do, or at least, I had a sense that I did. It's a really impressive trick.

There is, of course, another layer to this story, namely, its setting. The novel takes place in Occupied Warsaw, and thus provides an inside look at some very important history. And it's done so casually, merely pointing out certain details, and saying "Well, that's what it was like in those times". The narrator has almost no interest in this history. Just after the Uprising, for instance, he says,"I was all alone, and really I could live like this quite well. All I had to do was get out of crazed Warsaw, and, in peace and quiet, with a calm spirit, to drink something good and strong". But despite his lack of interest in what's going on around him, he describes it in fascinating ways.

And then, another layer - the love story. Well, the love and murder story. I don't want to say too much about this, because I don't want to give it away, despite the fact that very few people will ever have a chance to read it, but it's just so brilliantly done that I can't spoil it for anyone. All I'll say is, the beautiful formalism of it, the rigid adherence to structure, blew me away. In a world gone mad, one seeks order, and sometimes one is forced to make it, just for the sake of narrative elegance. God, I loved it.

Truly an incredible book.

26 May 2007

Shrek 3

The genius of the first Shrek movie was that it managed to simultaneously provide a wry commentary on the cultural ideology embedded in children's fairy tales and tell a lovely story. It did a particularly brilliant job of peppering the film with bits of adult humor that children wouldn't get, but grown-ups would love, thus making it a great kids movie that parents would also get a kick out of. I don't really remember that much of Shrek 2, I have to admit, but I seem to recall that it was a slightly inferior version, yet still a largely entertaining film. Shrek 3, sad to say, continues the downhill progression.

To start with the virtues, though, the animation is incredible. It makes the original Shrek look like garbage in comparison. The development of animation technology in such a short amount of time is truly amazing. The texture, the movement - it's incredibly well done. Although, as my friend Peter pointed out, there's something about speech that animation still can't quite capture in a lifelike manner, in other areas it's progressing in leaps and bounds in other areas.

Also, there are many, many very funny scenes in the movie. The first half of it is mostly quite humorous. After that though, the laughs drop off, and the sentimentalism kicks into high gear. Not to mention the painfully cheesy soundtrack. The original Shrek had a somewhat corny soundtrack, but it worked well with the film, and ended up seeming fun-loving and bouncy. This time, the music is heavy handed and rather obnoxious. When Led Zepplin's Immigrant Song comes on, it's hard to suppress a groan.

The real problem with the film is that it can't figure out what it really wants to do, and the attempt to balance its various goals turns it into a rather disastrous hodgepodge. It's not clever anymore - the humor is largely crude, and often misses the mark. Rather than the clever, subtle adult humor, you get scenes of adolescent fairy tale heroes emerging from smoke filled carriages saying something about frankincense and myrrh - come on. Grow up. Little kids probably won't find that funny, and it's not really subversive enough anymore to impress anyone else. And what's really weird, is how the movie can't seem to decide whether it wants to make gay jokes and milk humor out of transgendered people being unattractive, or whether it wants to gather everyone together to hold hands under a diversity rainbow. The movie is generally a bit confused about gender roles and what it thinks of them. Fiona is alternately a tough and independent modern woman and a simpering emotional wreck.

The worst of it, though, is the flipflopping between irony and sentimentalism, which borders on schizophrenic - it starts off throwing in some sentiment with a healthy dose of irony, but by the end, it gets totally swept up in an absolutely cringe inducing identity politics melodrama. When Captain Hook confesses that he grows daffodils, "and... they're beautiful" there's no trace of sarcasm. It's an O-channel group hug kind of moment, the kind that makes you want to kick puppies. Particularly interesting, given that earlier, the film seems to be mocking the earnest-ness of various identity politics revolutions. But at the same time, it wants to cling to the advances they've made. So, for instance, one makes fun of women for burning their bras, but cheers them on when they are independent and assertive.

You know, now that I think of it, it's actually a really bizarre movie, one that's not for kids at all. The story is really about the difficulties of marriage, pregnancy, and parenting. Sorry, but why on Earth would you make a movie for kids about that? It's not something they can relate to, really at all. I mean, basically, this is a stock adult emo comedy (see: Look Who's Talking, 3 Men and a Baby, perhaps the upcoming Knocked Up) with fairy tales creatures and fart jokes. And what it has to say about these coming of age adult themes is pretty much the same thing all such movies say about them - oh, it's so hard, but so rewarding, and you learn so much and become a better person and bla bla bla bla bla. Sure, it could be interesting to do that with fairy tale creatures - in fact, quite fascinating, to contrast, for instance, the traditional messages of those forms with a more modern version. Sad to say, this isn't what the movie does. It trades in stock cliches and delivers bland messages. Does anyone find pregnancy cravings jokes funny anymore?

All in all, a flop. Unfortunate, especially given how good the first movie was. Sad to say, it seems likely that there will be more Shrek movies, and I suspect that they'll continue to get progressively worse.

14 May 2007

The Valet

It's kind of lovely, given its off-the-wall premise, how understated and earnest this film ends up being. It starts off looking like a wacky screwball comedy, and ends up normalizing its own absurdity so much that it almost seems like a run of the mill feel-good flick. The more I think about it, the more odd it seems; the way the film sets itself up for certain generic scenes and then goes in a completely different direction, how it blithely skates over certain scenes that would seem to be essential, the neutral treatment of the characters - quite curious. Intriguing as it is though, it's disorienting enough to ultimately leave one feeling vaguely uncertain of the whole experience.

The plot basically centers around two couples; on the one hand, our bumbling bozo protagonist Francois (a man with truly remarkable eyes) the valet, who has just proposed to his girlfriend and been rejected. This is rather poorly executed, actually - they hardly even seem to be dating, and her brusque dismissal of his proposal - "You're like my kid brother" - sort of inclines one to think that they weren't really meant to be. Then we have couple number two, the marvelously cool Kristin Scott Thomas and her spouse, played by Daniel Auteil. He is a fabulously wealthy CEO, but his finances are somehow dependent on his wife's good will - she owns a major portion of the stock in his company, or something, I dunno. Anyhow, he's cheating on her with a supermodel named Elena - the absolutely breathtaking Alice Taglioni. Ms. Taglioni has that resplendent Juliette Binoche type of beauty - a drop dead gorgeous woman with radiant skin and the kind of smile that makes one think she's never had a vicious thought in her head. What she sees in Auteil is mostly unclear, but the film has a kind of "just go with it" attitude to this kind of detail. Anyhow, the paparazzi catch a shot of the two of them together, and Auteuil has to scramble to cover his ass so that his wife doesn't find out. As it happens, Francois was walking by right as the picture was taken, so Auteuil's lawyer - a fascinating character in his own right - comes up with the idea of creating an elaborate cover up by having Francoise and Elena pretend to be a couple. Francoise agrees to do it in exchange for the cash that his would-be fiancee needs to cover her debts, and Elena agrees in exchange for 20 million euros, which will be returned to Auteuil when he divorces his wife (and marries her). So we're all set for hilarious hijinx to ensue, right? Well, wrong, actually. I mean, sure, there's some comedy, but not in any of the places you'd really expect. Elena and Francois settle in together without a trace of awkwardness, chatting like old pals. There's some humor in Elena showing up at Francois' work - complete with the slapstick comedy of people so mesmerized by the sight of it that they fail to notice that they've set themselves on fire - and a bit of comedy around Francoise's buddy, who is forced to move back to his mom's place, but on the whole, there's remarkably little action (but, it should be said, some of the humor is truly excellent, laugh out loud stuff). In the end, Francoise gets his girl, Kristin Scott Thomas does some pretty impressive manipulating and keeps her husband to herself, and Elena ends up silently crying to herself and apparently realizing she's better off without the guy. Um, ok. Wait, so, what was the point of all that?

Some of the satisfaction of the film comes from the moments where all these people come together and enjoy each other's company. There's a jolly scene where Francois brings both his fiancee and Elena to his father's birthday party - because of course the two women end up being good friends too. This is all the more surprising, given that earlier, Elena offers the kind of "she's a woman, of course she'll do x" homespun wisdom that seems to presume that women are generally irrational beings who can be expected to behave in certain cliche ways, and yet when it comes down to it, most of the characters are almost outrageously rational. This is what makes the interactions between Francois and Elena so curious, actually. They both genuinely like and appreciate each other, and there's even a kind of chemistry between them, but no tension. There are only two moments when this gets tested - one, when they're sharing a bed and Francois rolls over and starts fondling Elena, thinking, in his sleep, that she's his girl. He wakes up, realizes she's not, and goes on sort of carressing her and sleepily describing his dream, until she, clearly feeling a bit startled and uncomfortable, tells him he ought to roll over and pretend she's his best friend. And just like that, the situation is defused. Then, on another occasion, she's crying, he's cheering her up, and she snuggles up to him and says how wonderful he is, because most other men are creeps who just want to have sex with her. And he, looking a bit frightened, says that given a few more minutes of cuddling, he'll become one too. She sort of giggles, but draws back, and he resolutely returns to the couch. I don't know quite know why these two scenes really stuck out for me - there's a kind of simplicity in them, two people being very honest with each other and calmly accepting a certain state of affairs without any feelings getting hurt. It's a model for a close friendship between a man and a woman, where they really care about each other, and there's a certain level of attraction, and yet it's clear that they will never be more than great friends. Honestly, things rarely work out so neatly in the real world. But it sure would be great if they did.

At the end of the day, it's a pleasant movie to watch, but rather uneven. The tone keeps shifting between a sort of wry appreciation for the calculation and intrigue in human relationships, an offbeat absurd comic sensibility - mainly embodied in the best friend and his alcoholic mother - and these emo heartfelt reflections on true love. The transitions between irony and sincerity are kind of baffling, though not as jarring as one would expect. So at the end of the day, it's basically a nice movie with a very likeable cast. It won't blow your mind, but it's not a bad way to spend 2 hours.

12 May 2007

Weiser Dawidek, by Pawel Huelle

Here's the thing - I'm just not that into children, or childhood. I mean, I appreciate that it is kind of a fascinating period of discovery in a person's life, and indeed, I think it's kind of interesting to occasionally consider what the world looks like to a little kid, but I can only sustain that interest for so long. I have absolutely no patience for books (and films) that seek to recapture the "magic" of childhood. Oh, that time of innocence and wonder, that precious naivete that somehow gets construed as moral virtue - blech. Kids aren't better than adults. They don't hold the secrets to the universe. Yes, they have an intriguing worldview, but let's not go overboard.

I say all this, because Weiser Dawidek relies heavily on this mystification of childhood. And this has a lot to do with why I didn't like it very much. The book centers around a mystery - Weiser's disappearance. It's not weird enough that he just vanished one day; actually, Weiser was a pretty odd dude from the get-go. A very odd dude with a penchant for explosives. Who could talk to animals, kinda. And was _really_ good at soccer. Oh, and could levitate. What a character, eh? The thing is, the book doesn't really give you any kind of explanation, or motivate this mystery in any way. At the same time, the book does a rather good job of showing you the world from a child's perspective; how kids make sense of the world in very strange ways because they are too dumb to do otherwise, ahem, don't understand how it works yet. In other words, kids create these wierd causal chains, and have a bizarre sort of narrative logic because they're missing certain key premises that we take for granted. So they'll connect stuff that seems to be totally unrelated, for instance, or come up with strange explanations for things, like "the man on the radio said that the play was cancelled because somebody named mr lincoln had been shot and everyone started to cry because now they wouldn't find out how the play ended". While I'm generally a fan of estrangement, in this text it doesn't really work. The kid's perspective is well executed, but on the other hand, it renders him somewhat unreliable as a narrator. Which is a bit of a problem, if we are to believe that Weiser is indeed some kind of sacred figure. It's not that it automatically means that he isn't, but we at least want a second opinion. And there's the rub - the narrator's buddies, whom he goes back and finds years later, don't seem to care. Is it that they don't care? Or are too traumatized to say? Or just don't really remember? Who knows. Again, we're depending on the narrator to interpret them, so we just don't know. So basically, in my eyes the book totally sabotaged itself.

Furthermore, I found myself unable to muster up a lot of sympathy for the narrator in the present. He mostly seemed like an intrusive, whiny guy who was way too hung up on his childhood. Plus, the trope of repeating over and over "This is not a book about Weiser. I'm just writing, just trying to figure things out." and "Oh, but I have to go back and explain x, and I will justify my repetetiveness by subtly hinting at my deep deep trauma" - seriously groan inducing.

All in all, a sort of emo mystery melodrama. Not my bag, baby.

06 May 2007

Drawing Restraint 9

Seriously, it's not that I hate art. But this movie just pissed me right off. I enjoyed the first hour ok, when it seemed to essentially be a pastiche of neat looking things. There was a strong interest in texture and movement that I quite enjoyed. Maybe it's just me - I'm the kind of person who can watch the donut assembly line at Krispy Kreme in rapt fascination for 3 hours. I really like watching machines work. And I'm likewise willing to sit around and watch a big tub get filled up with water. 5 minutes of footage of some mysterious oily substance swirling around? No problem. I think that buried in these lovely shots, there was a kind of reflection on man and machine, contrast and collision. It was kind of like looking at a really incredible photograph, except with movement over time thrown in. I mean, I guess that's what film is, but wow, first time i really thought about it that way. So that was all well and good, though honestly, I could just as well have been watching it in the background of some kind of weird space age type of bar or while lying supine and totally bombed at some swanky artsy party - generally a place where one would be more free to come and go.

But then it shifted focus. Previously, Björk and her husband were occasionally sighted amidst the action, cruising around in boats, dipping their fingers in streams, stomping around in big puffy jackets, whatever. They weren't of much interest in comparison to everything else, but hey, whatever. But then, they became the centerpoint of the movie. They get to the boat - a Japanese whaling ship. The get bathed. Some mysterious dude shaves a stripe down Matthew Barney's head, and removes one of his eyebrows. In one of the most fascinating scenes of the film, Matthew Barney's big bushy beard is shaved off with something that looks sort of like a straight razor, except it's curved and thicker, and wicked sharp. My god it's incredible. The same tool later shaves off Björk's eyebrows. Let me just pause here and say that it turns out that shaved eyebrows _really_ creep me out. There's something distinctly unsettling and eerie about them. I don't like it. Anyhow, they get all cleaned up and decked out in some pretty intense outfits, then they trip on down the hallway in their crazy whalebone shoes and have tea with a japanese guy who tells them a little about the ship. Then they lock themselves in a room that is filling up with some kind of liquid - blood? fat? water? who knows? and start carving fat off each other's bodies and eating it. There's a really big storm. And uh, I think that's basically it? Interspersed with this is a subplot following this big thing on the deck of the ship that is apparently a vaseline sculpture? I dunno. It's kinda neato though. There's also a whale spine. Yeah.

Ok, so while i am totally thrilled to watch machines work for hours, I'll be damned if I'm gonna sit there and watch Björk at her goddamn toilet for 25 minutes. Fuck that. Especially when it's coupled with a godawful yowling soundtrack of her own composition. Sweet christ. I mean, I don't know why really, but the thing is, people just aren't as interesting to me. And it seems to me that they can't be treated in the same way as a tub of water, because in fact, they're not like that at all. What's the point of filming someone sitting silently for 15 minutes? They don't do anything interesting. Flowing water changes, it moves. Björk getting dressed, not so much going on there. I can imagine that it might be interesting to just watch a video of a person who doesnt realize they're being taped and is doing their own thing, whatever, but when you're watching people who seem to be trying their damndest to be sculptures, it gets kind of lame.

You know what ultimately really annoyed me though, was the obnoxious Orientalism of it all. It was like oh wow, those crazy lovely Japanese people and that wacky world they live in. Let's be Occidental tourists and immerse ourselves in their bizarro culture. Blech. It just seemed offensive to me by the end, like a free-for-all fetishization of Otherness.

And what in the hell was the point? The Onion says, "What's it all about? Per Barney's press notes, "its core idea is the relationship between self-imposed resistance and creativity." Well, maybe. But it works even better as a long, somber, hypnotic, only occasionally dull depiction about how rituals like marriage and impulses like sex change us, and how those changes can be simultaneously scary, liberating, and a little grotesque." Uh, really? Hmmm. I suppose I can see the ritual thing, but it requires a significant supplement from the viewer. I'm not even gonna touch Barney's statement - what a prick. Newsflash buddy - being vague is not the same thing as being profound. Ugh.

At the end of the day, you're better off renting Koyaanisqatsi.

Hot Fuzz

Made by the same team that created Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz is another wonderful example of an increasingly popular type of film; the parodic homage. God I love this genre. I'm a sucker for irony, and this is one of my favorite kinds - where a film, or novel, manages to use a certain narrative mode while simultaneously commenting upon its efficacy, poking fun at it, and being nostalgic for it. And this movie does it so damn well. I've said before how much I adore the cornball action movies from days of yore, and apparently, so do the guys who made this movie. Much like Shaun of the Dead was more than a zombie movie, Hot Fuzz is more than an action comedy.

It must be said, unfortunately, it's not quite as successful as Shaun of the Dead. What made that film so brilliant was that it was simultaneously a zombie film, a sendup of zombie films, and a reflection on what it means to be an adult. So there was a kind of larger goal behind the ironic interaction with the zombie genre that was nonetheless linked to zombie movies - it was also a movie about guys who love zombie movies, and what happens when it's time for them to grow up. Hot Fuzz doesn't quite push through to that larger goal - there's material for it there, but at the end of the day, it kind of gets stuck in the genre play. Which is understandable, because that alone is so goddamn wonderful, but still, I did kind of feel that it was a pity. There are a few major themes that don't really get developed - one is the rule of law, another is the idea of the accident, a third is how society treats its best and brightest, and a fourth is the tension between the urban and the rural, and a fifth is a sort of exploration of media stereotypes and how they create pre-packaged, glamorized identities that people strive to emulate. All of these themes are in the movie and get some screen time, but ultimately the movie doesn't really do anything with them, which is unfortunate, because the film provides fertile grounds for a really fascinating exploration of such issues.

But as I said, the genre play alone makes it a movie worth seeing. It's a virtuoso treatment of the topic - going back and forth between doing those great things that action movies do, and then pointing them out in order to both enjoy and poke fun at them. For instance, Angel kicks a guy's ass, and delivers one of those fantastic one liner puns that makes cheesy action movies so goddamn great. Later, after another fights, his partner asks him "Did you say something clever?" "No," he says, "But you missed a great bit earlier, when I _____", and describes the earlier scene. The self-referentiality of the film is so brilliantly done, it's gorgeous. It's not quite the full on shattering of the third wall, as in Spaceballs when the characters actually watch earlier bits of the movie - it's entirely appropriate that the Onion mentions Mel Brooks in their review of Hot Fuzz - it's a bit more subtle than that. When Angel says "Let's bring this ridiculous story to an end", it's not fully within the context of the events of the moment - and yet it also works on the metalevel. A lovely montage segment in the middle of the film, where the movies that the protagonists are watching are providing the appropriate dialogue for what is going on, unbeknownst to them, just down the road, slyly points to this marvelous metalevel of action. It's so elegantly done, it's great.

And at the end of the day, the movie is also a great screwball action comedy, and can be enjoyed as such. The ironic commentary in no way detracts from enjoying the film on that level - it takes a step back to comment on the genre, but only to appreciate it more. It's fascnating, because it's an intellectual appreciation of a genre that is meant to be good clean thoughtless fun. And the intellectualization of it doesn't nullify the laid back, silly entertainment of it.

Also, by the way, another great gore fest. Some hardcore bloody scenes - the movie doesn't flinch. Blood splatters, people get impaled, and in one memorable moment, an old lady gets her nose broken by a kick to the face. Bam. It's an interesting use of violence, because it's not purely cartoonish. Even when it's funny, it still has a kind of realism to it that gives it a disturbing edge. Very curious.

All in all, a blast. Not to be missed.

04 May 2007

Some thoughts on Carly Simon

The following email was forwarded to me the other day:

I am an amateur logician and I have a logic problem that I want to develop a solution to, but that I'm finding very difficult. The problem is this: In the lyrics of Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain', it may be assumed that the chorus (You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you) is entirely about You, but that the verses may be understood to be talking about the vanity attributed to You. For instance: the first line of the first verse is 'You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht'. If we dispute that the second instance of 'You' is purely referential (because it follows from the simile that You cannot be both at the party and walking onto a yacht) then we might paraphrase 'You walked into the party like someone who was walking onto a yacht' (otherwise it might be ' You walked into the party as if it was a yacht'). We might then further paraphrase 'The way you walked into the party was the same way as someone would walk onto a yacht'. This makes the subject 'The way you walked into the party' and makes

ii.Your hat strategically dipped below one eye
iii.Your scarf it was apricot
iv.You had one eye on the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte

in reference to 'The way you walked into the party', which seems as Carly Simon intended.

Is this right? Is there a way to prove it?
If this much can be established as a legimate interpretation of the lyrics then the hardest work can begin, namely: establishing how true it is that this song is not about you.

My reply:

Well, perhaps the answer to the more difficult question is made simpler by the previous work; namely, if the subject of the in the above case is seen to be "the way you walked into the party" rather than you, than one could further hypothesize that the song is, in fact, not about You, but about Your Vanity.
The introduction of the first person perspective in the second verse ("when I was still naive") suggests a second possibility, namely, that the song is actually about I, and the effect that You and You's vanity had upon I.*** This is reinforced by the repetition of the line "I had some dreams, they were clouds in my coffee", which suggests a retrospective analysis of I and I's life, dreams, etc. In this reading, one would take the final speculation as to the location of You to be serving a primarily comparative function, in other words, to highlight the contrast between what You is now doing and what I is now doing (which, alas, remains unarticulated).
There is also a third possibility, which is that the refusal to name You is intentional. The song insists upon the anonymity of You and demands to be read allegorically. It's not about You, because it's about a hypothetical being who does not actually exist, though s/he may be quite similar to you. A little research (http://www.carlysimon.com/vain/vain.html ) adds credence to this theory, for it appears that You is a pastiche of Ms. Simon's former lovers, and is meant to be a comment on the male ego. It saddens me that Ms. Simon does not seem to appreciate the irony of people repeatedly asking her who the song is about, and suggests to me that she perhaps put less thought into the logic of the song's text than I have in the last 5 minutes.

Far more troubling, to me, is the line "i had dreams, they were clouds in my coffee"; a very puzzling metaphor indeed. Note that it's doubled - M1: Tenor - dreams, vehicle - clouds in coffee, M2: tenor - ? something in the coffee ? vehicle - clouds. In other words, what in the hell is is in I's coffee?

***Though this does raise the questions of what it means for a song to be about something. Obviously one could argue that the song is _kind of_ about you, because You is clearly present and plays an important role in the production of meaning - could the song make the same point without mentioning You at all? (Note that this problem seems to be somewhat remedied by the third possibility mentioned, the allegorical reading). So perhaps what is at stake here is the main topic. Of course, this also raises the spectre of that hideous debate over the relation between meaning and authorial intent...