31 January 2008

Best of 2007

In no particular order, my picks for Best Movies of 2007:

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

Love in the Year of the Tiger

(sadly, neither of these films seems to have secured a wider release)

No Country for Old Men


This is England

Hot Fuzz

Live Free or Die Hard

Lars and the Real Girl

28 January 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This movie is definitely on my top 10 list for most incredible cinematography I have ever seen. Visually, it's poetry. It's incredible, just gorgeous. Also, it ought to be noted as being the best portrayal of uncomfortable laughter I've seen in a very long time. It nails awkward conversations in a really ingenious fashion - very well done. The acting, throughout, is also pretty phenomenal - Brad Pitt is fantastic, and Casey Affleck manages to make his boyishly cute face do all kinds of fascinating things, from resentment to awestruck admiration to shame to a delicate femininity that goes nicely with the film's undercurrent of homo-eroticism - which, incidentally, is subtly and skillfully handled.

Unfortunately, the movie is long as hell, and doesn't really hold itself together well. The individual scenes are great, but they're kind of haphazardly strung together with a ponderous monotony that leaves you stretching and looking at your watch halfway through. The movie tries to be epic and contain multiple narratives about various characters, but it ends up somewhat bloated. While it is somewhat interesting to watch the in-fighting among the gang, all these rambling digressions ultimately make the movie seem unfocused. We know that Ford is going to kill James. But somehow, it's hard to care. Actually, the film is at its most interesting after the murder, when it shows Ford traveling around the country and performing the deed onstage, and the strange transformation his brother undergoes. It holds your attention for a minute, but then somehow it loses it again... and goes on for another half an hour. Worst of all, perhaps, is the droning omniscient narrator - jesus, couldn't they find someone with a better voice? Not to mention a better script?

The movie wants to explore hero worship and the romanticization of criminals, and tries to balance humanizing the characters and showing their less flattering sides while simultaneously letting us see why they were lionized the way they were, and I guess it does a decent job of it, but somehow it feels incredibly flat and uninspired. I suppose a lot of it ultimately turns on whether you end up sympathizing with Ford or not, which I couldn't quite manage to do. I didn't despise him, I just never cared much about him. James, on the other hand, was a fascinating character. Though I must say, the narrator told me early on that he blinked more often than most people because of an eye condition, but Pitt plays him with an unflinching stare that seems to directly contradict this. Which is too bad.

So yeah, not so much on this one. Though goddamn, the cinematography is amazing.

26 January 2008

Silk, by Alessandro Baricco

This book teeters on the border of being overly precious, but manages, just barely, not too go to far. It's the difference between being in love with language and being in love with the sound of your own voice. Repetition tends to be a good indicator - does the phrase really merit a repeat performance? In Silk, for instance, the main character's voyage to Japan is always given in the same words, almost verbatim, but with one variation, which thus stands out starkly from the rest. It's somewhat tedious, but also sort of irritatingly overwrought. No good. Likewise, the woman who is always described as having a "young girl's face" - look, that's just not that great a description to begin with. Repeating it 6 times is not gonna make it any better.

What saves this book - despite all the repetitions - is its brevity. It's maybe 90 pages long, but almost all of those pages contain only a paragraph, or even just a few lines. This, incidentally, tends to be another marker of overly self-conscious writing; when the author feels the need to set each of his/her exquisite sentences ALONE on the page so that each can be cherished like the little jewel that it is - but it actually works well for this book, forcing you to move through it in a kind of halting pace that is well suited to its content.

Anyhow - the book has a sort of aloofness about it that I really enjoyed. It doesn't belabor the emotional upheavals of its cast, and this makes them all the more poignant. Likewise, it doesn't spend a lot of time revelling in its East-West border crossings - thank god - so it manages to avoid overt exoticism and stay in the realm of a kind of passive but intrigued acknowledgement of difference. How deeply the protagonist has been effected by his encounters with new ideas is shown obliquely, by his actions upon returning home.

All in all, a nice book. It's not amazing, but it's a pleasurable way to spend 45 minutes.

19 January 2008


I managed to miss the buzz surrounding this movie. If you did too, suffice to say that there's a pretty well done viral advertising scheme bolstering it's awesomeness. It's a really cool idea, and I kind of regret not having been more aware of it. But going into the movie mostly ignorant had a distinct pleasure to it as well. If you haven't heard anything about the movie, I highly suggest you stop reading right now and avoid any press about the film at all and just go see it. The less you know, the better. When you get home, check out the wiki entry and follow the links in it, because it's a stunning display of the combined powers of film and internet in the service of storytelling. 

But leaving that aside, wow. This movie is fucking awesome. Conceptually brilliant, and really, really well executed - a ingenious take on the monster movie genre. Rather than attempt to capture what happens when Manhattan is beset by a monster from a kind of 3rd person narration, the movie is relentlessly perspectival a la Blair Witch Project. It completely submits to the limits of the first-person handicam perspective. In other words, we never find out what the monster is, how it got there - really, what's going on at all. It's not necessarily a new idea - Children of Men tried a similar approach. But it works in this movie in ways that it just didn't, for me, in that one. If civilization as we know it is coming to an end, we wanna know more about it. Monster movies, on the other hand, usually have fairly ridiculous back-stories, and dispensing with that stuff altogether in the film is a great move. Let the internet do that part, so people like me don't have to be annoyed by it. I'm too cynical to take that type of shit seriously. If you're gonna do it, it better be ridiculous - I'm talking ham sandwiches and lightning strikes and full moon type action, because if you give me some kind of complicated explanation without a hint of irony, you're just gonna come off as ridiculous. I appreciate the backstory that the internet is constructing, especially because it's sparse and shrouded in mystery and I don't know much about it. Let's keep it that way.

I also really respect the movie for sticking to its guns, for the most part, with its initial conceit. The first 20 minutes or so of the movie are all just footage of what these people are doing on the night of the attack. It's long. It's ridiculously long. It's almost too much. But it humanizes the characters in a really clever way. And the idea of having this movie being taped over another film, leading to occasional flickers of the material taped before, which does the love story work of the film - a really nice touch. It gives you a way to engage with the film sentimentally in a way that is more show than tell. 

But it's not just the way the story is handled that is so intelligent, but also the way that the movie is filmed. The most intense parts of the movie happen just out of sight. In this way, the movie acknowledges that one's own imagination is far better at crafting scenes of carnage than any director. At the same time, there's more than enough visual stimulus to keep your jaw on the floor for a good hour. It is seriously neato. The camerawork, though it takes some getting used to, is phenomenal - an awful lot of very impressive work to give you the impression of someone who has no idea what they're doing, and to brilliant effect. As my friend Jen pointed out, there are great moments where the camera is struggling to focus that are just fantastic.The carnage is incredible, and really visually stunning. Though here, I can't help but think about the aestheticization of horror, and Walter Benjamin's claim (in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) that mankind is headed for trouble because "its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order". Because there are definitely scenes in this movie that, it seems to me, are direct references to footage from 9/11 - which is referred to only once in the film, and obliquely - early on you hear someone in the background say "Is it another attack?". But the shaky, frenzied camerawork, running down stairs, dust in the streets - you can't help but remember footage from 9/11. I am not criticizing this aspect of the film, it just occurs to me as kind of interesting. 

The only thing that really disappointed me with the movie was the ending. I don't want to say too much about it, but let's just say that the movie couldn't quite resist tying up its narrative ends - it couldn't quite uphold the first-person premise. The urge to eulogize proved irresistable, I guess. It's a bit sentimentalized, though not too terribly heavy-handed, and it's not a bad ending, just, I think, a rather unfortunate missed opportunity for something really mind-blowing and original. Had the film ended 10 minutes earlier, which it easily could have, it would have been absolutely stunning, but it kept going just a wee bit longer than it should have. A pity, a real pity. Still though - it's a brilliant movie. I have no doubt that it'll be a cult classic. Definitely go see it in theatres - it ought to be viewed on the big screen, to fully appreciate its splendour. Two thumbs up.

16 January 2008

Hoop Dreams

This movie blew me away. It's brilliantly understated and incredibly poignant. 

The film is a documentary about two kids from the 'hood who are fantastic b-ball players and are trying to make it to the NBA. At the start of the movie, both get recruited by a neighborhood talent scout and get a chance to try out for the team at a fairly fancy Chicago high school. The film basically tracks their lives over the next 4 years. It's a really fascinating example, to me, of documentary film-making, in that it's incredibly minimalist. The movie touches on so many questions of race, class, and athletic culture, but it rarely states anything explicitly. There's one moment, just a brief snippet of Spike Lee talking that basically sums up the scene, for me - it's all about money. These kids are basically being exploited for their basketball skills, which will ultimately make other people plenty of money, and none of the schools wooing them gives a shit about their lives. But that split second of Spike Lee is all you get in terms of assessment - other than that, the movie lets everyone speak for themselves. 

It's a pretty heart-rending tale, actually, and all the more so because it isn't bogged down with sentimentalization. One of the kids, Arthur Agee, has to leave his high school after a year because his parents can't afford to keep sending him there. He goes back to a public school, where he continues to play ball and does pretty well in terms of sports. A few commentators - his mother, the coach at his new school - point out that had he been a better ball player, the school would have found a way to keep him there, but seeing as how he couldn't quite make the cut on the team, they didn't mind letting him go. It's quite a contrast to the other kid, William Gates, whose knee surgeries and rehab get funded by the school. And the movie definitely lets Arthur's devastated disappointment at having to leave the school come through. 

I really appreciated, too, how the movie shows you plenty of their personal lives, but in a way that isn't intrusive or tell-all. We find out that William had a baby almost as a side-note. Certainly, as becomes clear, it's a major part of his life, but the movie doesn't go so far as to dig into the story and find out how it happened. And while William tells us himself that being a father and balancing school, parenthood, and basketball is a real struggle for him, we don't get to see everything going on behind the scenes. Likewise, the various comings and goings of Arthur's father, and his time in rehab, are reported but not delved into in detail. I felt like the movie did a really good job of respecting the privacy of the people involved while also showing you how much is going on in these kids' lives. And what's happening out side of school is part of the film's ultimate message - one of the most powerful moments, for me, is when William talks about how he came to his coach and tried to talk to him about the problems he was having at home, conflicts between his family and that of his child's mother's, and the coach told him to "write them off". William's sense of hurt and outrage are expressed in muted but forceful terms.

What I also found somewhat devastating was the education side of it. Much as various school officials insist that it's education first and basketball second, it's pretty obviously bullshit. And you can't just blame the schools for that - as is repeatedly pointed out by Arthur's teachers, he'll do the minimum needed to get by. What he wants to do is play ball, not learn Spanish. But I dunno, I feel like those two guys got left behind in a major way. I guess it's that nobody ever seemed to care much about their academics, so long as they were getting by, that was good enough. Their families want them to get a diploma, but nobody seems to take the time to actually engage them and tell them to use their heads. I wonder, the moment when William gets his ACT scores back and finds out that after taking the test 5 times, he's finally, barely, managed to get the minimum score needed to qualify for a sport's scholarship, and he says it's the best feeling he ever had - what is it that's making him feel so good right then? And perhaps there's something about it that could be developed into something further? Because yes, a lot of the problem is probably them not making an effort, because they don't much care about academics, but I think that feeling is a bit more complicated than them just wanting to play basketball. 

Anyhow, it's an amazing movie. Highly, highly recommended.

11 January 2008

Breaking and Entering

An anonymous person recommended this film to me in the comments section, so I obediently stuck it on my Netflix queue and watched it last night. I can see why one would think I would like this movie: billed as a 'thinking person's drama', directed by Anthony Minghella (whose other movies I have enjoyed) and filled with class and ethnic tensions, street ninjas, and a main character who occasionally talks about metaphor. 

But I didn't like it. Ok, the street ninja aspect was awesome. If you don't know what street ninjas are, check this out. Fast forward to about 2:15 or so, the beginning is dumb. Anyhow, yeah, I was pleased to see this kick-ass cultural movement make it onto the big screen. But that was about all I really liked in this movie. Well, and it was pretty. Oh, and there was a subtext about architecture and class that was kind of interesting, but it never got developed. Which is right in keeping with the movie's flaws in general - it uses these various ideas as decoration, without really exploring them. So Jude Law, the protagonist, is talking about how he finds it annoying that urban planners insist on stuffing in some grass or whatever to give an illusion of being connected to nature, and this is kind of an interesting idea, but all it ends up being good for is a trite lecture from a prostitute on how he can't handle the only wild thing in his life (a fox that lives in his backyard), which I suppose is supposed to imply that he's a control freak. Bo-ring. It's a totally superficial engagement with the underlying ideas, it's just meant to sound profound. That kind of thing drives me crazy - it's why I can't stand most Richard Linklater movies.

But ultimately, what is so infuriating about this movie is that it pretends to be this exploration of the way these people's lives get interconnected across class and ethnicity, but really, it's all moving towards getting Jude Law to stop being such a self-absorbed prick and realize what a good woman he's got at home. Everything in the plot is totally instrumental, purely there to help this narcissistic, melodramatic, petulant drama queen man up. And while he does indeed end up doing the right thing and going home to his woman, he doesn't actually undergo any kind of convincing psychological transformation. Meanwhile, all the chaos he's wrought in life neatly disappears - most particularly, the immigrants go back to Sarajevo where they belong. There's this subtle classist xenophobia about it, too - the damn immigrants can go back home to their hell-hole, and you know, hopefully the other ones will go on to prison, and meanwhile the upper-class deranged daughter of his girlfriend can get the care and attention she deserves (the parallel is interesting here, her obsessive gymnastics as a contrast to Miro's street ninja antics - one is socially acceptable, albeit unhealthy, the other is criminal). There's this scene, where Jude Law is debating whether or not to show up to court and potentially save Miro from a life in prison, and he just _can't_ face the prospect because it would mean publicly admitting his infidelity and threatening his precious domestic sphere. I almost threw something at the tv. Gawd. And the point isn't to critique his self-absorption and complete lack of moral fibre. I think you're meant to actually _sympathize_ with the asshole.

Ok, the metaphor thing - Jude Law has this schtick where he likes to use metaphor. He doesn't actually do it much in the movie, he just kind of mentions it once in awhile. And what he keeps saying is something about how metaphors are dishonest; he uses them because they're vague and they allow him to be evasive. I found this rather obnoxious. The point of metaphor, to me, is that it tells you something true that you can't really express in logical discourse. Not to mention, his metaphors suck: "You are like two circles, and I'm outside them, but a part of me sees those circles as a cage". Not only is it a mixed metaphor, it's a totally flat and uninteresting one. So yeah, not earning any points there.

Ultimately, this movie is totally skip-able. But I appreciate the recommendation, anonymous! Thanks! Keep 'em coming!
Seriously, I love recommendations. And comments in general, though it'd be nice to slap your name on there.

06 January 2008


I was driving home from this movie and trying to figure out why I felt so bummed about it. It was sweet, touching, and funny as hell, and yet there was a sadness to it, and I found this sort of baffling until I figured it out.

But ok, first off, like I said, it's a very sweet movie. Extremely funny in a sharp, sassy way, and full of immensely likeable characters - especially its heroine, Juno, who is about as likeable as a girl can be. For a movie about a pregnant 16 year old girl, it's incredibly chipper and upbeat. It's not overly mushy or sentimental, despite being about the miracle of life - it's cute and moving and generally does a good job. So why is it depressing?

Well, because the story isn't just about Juno and her pregnancy. When you think about it afterwards, there are 3 big developments in the movie - 1. Juno has a baby, 2. Juno finds love with Bleeker, an adorably awkward and lovely, caring guy, and 3. Vanessa and Mark get a divorce.

Vanessa and Mark are the young couple who want to adopt Juno's baby. And they depressed the hell out of me. First, we've got Vanessa, played by Jennifer Garner. Vanessa annoyed the hell out of me at first, but I grudgingly grew to decide she wasn't all bad. It's not her fault that her character is basically motivated by one thing - her desire for a kid. And we do get one scene where we spy her playing with a toddler, and it's clear that she will make a lovely mother, despite the fact that she's going a little overboard buying baby supplies, reading books, etc. She _wants_ to be a mom. It seems to be the only thing that can really fulfill her. That alone is pretty sad, to me, but hey, she gets the baby in the end, so I guess it's not all bad.

No, the real downer in the movie is her husband Mark, played by that dude who played the main guy in Arrested Development (which I've just started watching). Mark is a totally awesome guy. You really wanna hang out with him - he's supremely likeable and generally a lot of fun. At first, when he and Juno hit it off, we're totally stoked. This guy is gonna make a great dad. He's great with kids. Then, as they get to be better and better friends, we start feeling vaguely uncomfortable. The film doesn't take it too far - there's a scene where they slow dance in the basement that kind of makes you cringe because you have this awful feeling that any minute now, there'll be some sexual tension and everything is gonna blow up, but it doesn't actually happen. The scene ends with a good long supportive hug. And you realize the strangeness of their relationship - he's more like an older brother, really, than a father. No wonder he and Juno get along so well - because he can interact with her as a peer, swapping cds, watching movies, etc. Which, you know, it's not that adults can't be into slasher flicks or Sonic Youth - not at all - but there's something going wrong there, and it's hard to place just what. And then he drops the bomb, his plan on divorcing Vanessa - which really, you could see coming from a mile away. And he gives the speech about not being ready to be a father, and Vanessa gives him the grow up and stop trying to be a rock star speech, and god, it's just so sad. And, I think a very poignant index of a contemporary crisis in maturity. This guy has a job and a wife and a baby on the way and he just can't really fully let go of being a teenager. You don't blame him for feeling the way he does, but you do blame him for ultimately giving into those universal doubts and fleeing them in favor of perpetual adolescence.

And the thing is, ultimately, the movie kind of implicitly endorses that. We've got Juno and her boyfriend, who can happily escape the consequences of unprotected sex, for the most part - by the end of the movie, they're basically like any other teenage couple - her boyfriend doesn't even see his child. We've got Mark, who leaves Vanessa, and the movie, pretty much. Then we've got Vanessa, who indeed gets her happy ending, but still, who wants to be like Vanessa? She's no fun at all! We also have a few other parents - Bleeker's mother, who is a total hosebeast, Juno's mother, who is absent, and then her father and stepmother, who are indeed happily married and a delightful dysfunctional loving family unit. So yes, there's one compelling couple that can serve as a role model for adult family life, but in the meantime, there are plenty of reasons to stay the hell away from that shit altogether. Hence, I think, my vague sense of melancholy. Because I don't wanna end up like Mark - but I don't really wanna end up like Vanessa either.

I'm not saying the movie is a downer - like I said at the outset, it's actually really upbeat and funny and delightful. Still though, there's this lurking melancholia about it, at least for me... Anyhow, a good movie. Recommended.

What I read in 2007

So you can see just how much a slacker I've been about posting... authors are from memory, so some are missing, possibly mispelled or simply wrong. If there are any in particular you really wish I'd posted about, leave a comment, I might be able to remedy that.

1. Clarissa, Samuel Richardson
2. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
3. The Vicar of Wakefield, Oliver Goldsmith
4. A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O'Connor
5. Wide Saragosso Sea, Jean Rhys
6. Meir Ezofowicz, Eliza Orzeszkowa
7. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
8. Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and Coleridge
9. Mimesis, Eric Auerbach
10. Molloy, Samuel Beckett
11. Consciousness and the Novel, David Lodge
12. Memories of my Melancholy Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
13. Bouvard and Pecuchet, Flaubert
14. Waverley, Walter Scott
15. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
16. Prochno, Waclaw Berent
17. Emma, Jane Austen
18. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Mark Haddon
19. Middlemarch, George Eliot
20. Liquidation, Imre Kertesz
21. Gaelic Gothic, Luke Gibbons
22. Obabakoak, Bernard Atxaga
23. They Call Me Naughty Lola, a collection of LRB Personals ads
24. Vanity Fair, Thackeray
25. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Sterne
26. Maxims, La Rochefucauld
27. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau
28. Melmoth the Wanderer, Maturin
29. Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
30. Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
31. Daisy Miller, Henry James
32. Nogi Izoldy Morgan, Bruno Jasienski
33. Sons and Lovers, DH Lawrence
34. The English Novel: Form and Function, Dorothy van Ghent
35. The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien
36. Cathleen ni Houlihan, Yeats
37. John Bull's Other Island, Shaw
38. The Playboy of the Western World, Synge
39. Translations, Brian Friel
40. Juno and the Paycock, O'Casey
41. Salt of the Earth, (don't remember)
42. The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
43. Solaris, Stanislaw Lem
44. Hamlet, Shakespeare
45. The Present Age (? no idea)
46. Weiser Dawidek, Huelle
47. Romans Teresy Henert, Nalkowska
48. Trans-atlantyk, Gombrowicz
49. Mialem tylko jedno zycie, Kisielewski
50. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde
51. Austeria, Stryjkowski?
52. Turysci z bocianych gniazd
53. Czaszka w czaszce
54. Granica
55. A Passage to India, Forester
56. Paradise Lost, Milton
57. Nienasycenie, Witkiewicz
58. Songs of Innocence and Experience, Blake
59. The English Novel, Terry Eagleton
60. Something Out There, Nadine Gordimer
61. A Small Place, Jamaica Kingston?
62. The Tempest, Shakespeare
63. Absurdistan, Shteyngart
64. The Informer, O'Flaherty
65. Foe, Coetzee
66. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
67. The World Republic of Letters, Pasquale Casanova
68. Molloy, Beckett
69. The Compass of Irony, Muecke
70. Harrington, Maria Edgeworth
71. Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
72. July's People, Gordimer
73. Obsessive Genius
74. 1984, Orwell
75. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
76. Freakonomics
77. A Rhetoric of Irony, Wayne Booth
78. Iliad, Homer
79. Osmy dzien tygodnia, Hlasko
80. Fever Pitch, Hornby
81. Gone, Baby Gone, Lenehan?
82. Genesis
83. Amongst Women, McGahern
84. The Impact of Irish Ireland on Young Poland, Merchant
85. Mialem tylko jedno zycie, Kisielewski
86. Samuel Johnson is Indignant, Lydia... Davis?
87. Apology, Plato
88. The Butcher Boy, Neil... ?
89. Malone Dies, Beckett
90. Jazz, Toni Morrison
91. Symposium, Plato
92. Jakob von Gunten, Walser
93. Cronopios y famas, Cortazar
94. Disgrace, Coetzee
95. An Essay on Irish Bulls, Maria Edgeworth
96. The Unnamable, Beckett
97. The Fall, Camus
98. Somebody's Darling, McMurtry
99. Three Junes, Julia Glass
100. Franny and Zooey, Salinger
101. Atonement, McEwan
102. Irony, Claire Colebrook
103. black dogs, McEwan
104. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera
105. The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan
106. Serendipities, Umberto Eco
107. The Arrival, Shaun Tan
108. always outnumbered, always outgunned, Walter Moseley
109. Confessions of a Mask, Yukio Mishima

05 January 2008

Coast of Chicago, by Stuart Dybek

I am really, really picky when it comes to short stories. It's one of the trickiest genres out there, because it's so condensed, but a good one never seems that way. It's really difficult to give the reader enough information about a character or an event so that they'll actually get engaged and give a shit in such a small amount of space. You just can't do the same kind of development that you can in a novel. You need to find a way to convey a lot through small features or aspects, but without overburdening those specific features with meaning, not to mention avoiding tired cliches. It's also tough to write a story that has a point of some kind without seeming trite.

This book is meant to be a collection of linked stories, which allows for a more progressive development, both on a smaller scale and a larger one. So there'll be a section entitled Nighthawks, for instance, within which you get 10 stories or so about various insomniacs, late night adventurers, etc. And then there's the overarching theme, which I guess is kind of meant to evoke Chicago at large. Now, while I have absolutely no doubt that to a native Chicagoan, the book is extremely evocative and deeply rooted in place, for someone like me who has been living in the city for 3 years, I must say, it doesn't particularly capture some kind of essential Chicago-ness. I mean, it's set there, and convincingly so, but I don't get some kind of unique Chicago flavor out of it. I dunno. I suppose this is because my favorite stories in the book were the ones that _weren't_ all that rooted in Chicago - the ones that could have happened anywhere. For me, the moments of genius in the book were the ones that captured something beautifully true about human nature via its particulars. I've probably talked about this for - it's my grand theory that the best way to get at a universal is through an extremely specific description of a particular. My favorite story of all was barely 2 pages long, and it was just a phone conversation, but there was something so... true about it, I dunno.

Anyhow, so there are some really incredible parts of this book that absolutely blew me away. But there was also plenty of it that didn't really do much for me - they just felt like somewhat self-indulgent nostalgia. Also, this is maybe somewhat unfair, but it drove me absolutely bonkers that Dybek insists on occasionally using Polish words (in italics) and always, ALWAYS they are incorrect. Seriously, he couldn't find anyone to fact-check that shit? Piersyna is not a word in Polish. It's pierzyna. It's a big difference. wtf.

Incidentally, I did see the theatrical adaptation at the Looking Glass when it was on. I didn't like it at all. It kept me from reading the book for a long time, actually. And it makes sense, because the parts of the book that were used in the play - the parts that would lend themselves best for such things, because they have the most "plot" - are all my least favorite parts. It's the childhood memory stuff, that magic of the neighborhood - what to me, is the weakest portion of the whole thing.

But on the whole, I really liked this book. It was a pleasure to read. Even the parts I wasn't that crazy about, I enjoyed reading. I recommend it.

The Jane Austen Book Club

God. damnit. I got tricked into watching this movie because for once in my life, I didn't bring enough books on the plane with me (you'd think 4 would be enough, but when you lose interest in one of them halfway through... THIS IS WHY I PACK EXTRAS USUALLY. SO EVERYONE WHO GIVES ME GRIEF ABOUT PACKING TOO MANY BOOKS CAN SUCK IT. Why am I so annoyed? Because I ate this movie up. It's a goddamn chick flick extraordinaire, and I totally fell for it. Ugh.

So the premise of the book is, one woman's husband dumps her for a younger woman, another one's dog dies and she holds a huge funeral for it because she's so distraught, and another one's husband bails on their trip to Paris, and a friend of theirs decides to start a book club to cheer them all up. They decide it'll be the Jane Austen book club. Dog-lady meets a random guy and ropes him into it too. So we've got 5 women, one guy, ie one person per Austen novel. And of course, as they read, their love lives get all kinds of complicated, and through the laughter and the tears they all become better people and it's a big happy ending. Well, almost. The lesbian, she doesn't really change at all, nor does she get a happy ending. Hetero-normativity triumphs again!

Yeah, the more I think about it, the more that irks me. Especially because the final shots of the film so insistently focus on her, ALONE. And it's not as if to say, look! She can be happy on her own! And in fact, while all of the women have various hang-ups when it comes to relationships, hers are the only ones that are really explicitly stated and seen as her problem, whereas the others are ultimately minimized. For instance, the fact that one of the women is about to get married for the 7th time to a guy who makes his first appearance in the last 3 minutes of the film - nope, nothing wrong with that. So that's annoying.

Then there's the whole chick flick aspect of it, you know, all these women are stereotypically unique snowflakes with poignant miseries and personal melodramas and fervent, secret desires. The movie actually does a decent job, in this respect, by having one character who, while she indeed does have some valid things to gripe about, is obviously taking it out on her husband, a thoroughly decent guy who really wants to make his marriage work despite the fact that his wife is a self-absorbed bitch. Also, while the male characters are clearly fictional products of a female imagination, there is a nice moment where the guy in the club points out the way in which he is being objectified. And he also gets to complain that the woman he's pursuing isn't making an effort to understand him, which is a refreshing reversal. So the film at least makes a half-hearted attempt to avoid the more egregious faults of your average chick flick. But of course, it painfully re-enforces a whole host of incredibly irritating gender norms, not to mention the whole hetero domestic bliss thing.

What's meant to be the movie's big hook was actually kind of interesting to me, though probably not in quite the way it was meant to be. Because of course, all these seething personal melodramas are brought to the fore in the discussions of the novels. We get a read on each character by the way they react to the books, because their reactions so transparently lay bare their own inner states that it's almost painful. This actually didn't annoy me as much as I thought it would. I actually ended up appreciating it, in spite of myself. Because their discussions of the texts are actually kind of interesting - each person brings their own experiences to the text and pretty much everyone gets at least one interesting observation about at least one book (I personally totally dug the guy's parallel between Mansfield Park and The Empire Strikes Back, though I suppose it was meant to seem totally stupid). Though I couldn't help but feel like they were missing some really important things about the books, really interesting stuff, I kind of had to admit to myself that probably, they wouldn't really give a shit about those aspects of the books. I would be no fun at a book club, I think. They'd be all like, "Isn't Mr Darcy dreamy?" and I'm like, "Isn't the narrative voice fascinating? Whose perspective is it? Did you notice how at times it seems to slip into the vernacular of a given character, repeating key phrases over and over in an ironic kind of way? What's that about?" Sigh.

I do think, though, that the film is intentionally trying to reflect on Jane Austen novels and their narrative appeal, not least by subtly paralleling her plot devices. Which is clever... but not as clever as a Jane Austen novel. I mean, I guess though, for most people, it's the effects of her cleverness that are appealing, not so much the techniques that creates them. And I admit, I'm a total sucker for them too. But the whole point, the reason, for instance, that all these dudes in the movie can believably actually dig these books, is because they're actually amazing works of literature, and you know, it'd be nice if they could get away from the crappy chick lit reputations. Which, of course, is also kind of what the film is trying to do, by ultimately giving you three male characters who genuinely appreciate the books...

But ok, I admit it, I totally had the hots for the male lead. I mean, come on, he's smart, funny, sweet, into good books (and passionate enough about them to get the girl of his interest into Ursula LeGuin novels, which is totally awesome) AND a total gadget dork? And easy on the eyes to boot? Oh, and a good dancer? Please. I know Christmas is long gone, but if you find one of those lying around, send 'im my way. Should he also be into underground hiphop and food, then, well, you should probably see a doctor because you're hanging out with a figment of my imagination. Heh heh. Sigh. Heh heh.

See how I was ostensibly talking about the movie there, but actually wasn't really at all? That's kind of what happens in the movie for the most part, except it's not nearly so blatant, and actually does involve some interesting reflections on the texts. So anyways, yeah, it did lead me to think about what people get out of books that they read for pleasure, and what makes for a satisfying reading experience. Which was a lot more satisfying than thinking about the "life lessons" in their various love affairs. And which is probably what most men who watch the movie despite its chick flick rep will claim to get out of it, thinking of living out gender stereotypes.

Seriously though, this movie isn't that bad. It's not great, but it's better than many movies of its kind. You could do worse than to watch it.