30 July 2008

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

A really well-made, very interesting movie. The focus is not so much the details of Roman Polanski's infamous encounter with a 13 year old girl as the events surrounding it - his life more generally, and more importantly, the legal proceedings. I was expecting a movie that focused on the way Hollywood and mainstream culture sexualizes young women, but instead, I got a movie about the intersection of celebrity and the legal system, and it was fascinating. The main villain of the film is the judge who presided over the case, and this, as my friend Ruchama pointed out, is kind of a cheap move, given that the guy is dead. It's easy to heap all the blame on the dead guy. That said, I left the movie fully convinced that the man should never have been made a judge, I mean, my god. It was scandalous, what he did. What the movie shows you is how pride steps in, the way a judge behaves differently when he's in the public eye, and more importantly, when the person accused is in the public eye. 

Some other fascinating things about the movie (I'm feeling lazy today, and I've been devoting a lot of organization-of-argument energy to my dissertation, so it's bullet points from here. Sorry.):

1. The culture divide. I'd like to take this moment to point out to the Santa Monica law officers involved that sex with a minor is most certainly NOT legal in Poland. So take your "well I don't know how these things work in Mr Polanski's country [aka, the barbaric outposts of civilization], but in AMERICA..." and shove it. In the meantime, take a good long look at society and mass culture in your country, then look up hypocrisy in the dictionary, and report back with your general impressions. Even the judge had a 20something year old girl on the side for goddsakes. As Polanski says, "Yes, I like young women. Doesn't every man?"

2. Which is not to say that I approve of Polanski cavorting with underage girls. This is one of those strange emotion-trumps-logic issues for me. Because personally, I've never felt inclined to blame Polanski at all, even before I saw this movie. At the same time, I suspect that if this same case hit the newsstands now, I'd be appalled. But it seems fairly clear to me that he was moving in a crowd where this kind of thing was fairly normal (does this make me a hypocrite, re: point 1? oh dear.). Maybe a bit risque, but still, free-wheeling 70s, sex and drugs, celebrity, etc etc.

3. The way the movie subtly indexes the shift from the 60s to the 80s, depicting the 70s as a moment of transition between the hippy dippy 60s and the more decadent and pessimistic 80s. 

4. A point that the victim makes, that none of the people involved in the case really seemed to care about her and whatever suffering she might be undergoing. Instead, the police seem to take a rather prurient interest in the details - a description of the defense team dissecting her stained underwear is exemplary in this regard. Another example, for me, about how moral outrage tends to emerge more from puritanical self-righteousness than any actual concern for others.

5. As he's preparing his initial case, the prosecuting attorney goes to the movies and watches Polanski's films, and finds all kinds of convenient parallels between the case and the films, and uses this to make his case. My reaction is "Bullshit! That's totally ridiculous and unfair! You can't assume that a man's art maps so transparently onto his life!" The film seems to support this view. But then, throughout the movie, there are clips from the films that elegantly map onto the events. And this, I have no problem with, in fact, it actually seems clever and poetic. Errr... I guess there's a difference to me between appreciating it aesthetically and putting a man's life on the line over it.

6. The clear smug glee that the French feel about the fact that THEY appreciate Polanski, unlike zee prude americains. Heh heh. 

7. A point made by Polanski's psychiatrist - he's undergone some truly horrific stuff in his life, stuff that would leave your average person a neurotic nutcase curled in the fetal position, and yet, he's managed to rise above. What's interesting to me about this is that every time I say it, I want to say "a normal person" instead of "average person". Which makes me think about psychiatry and normativity. Kind of intriguing.

Anyhow, great movie, much recommended. 

22 July 2008

Romance and Cigarettes

This is one of the most peculiar movies I have ever seen. It's raunchy and ridiculous and strangely lovely. The characters speak in bad poetry, the musical numbers are absurd, the plot is ridiculous and yet there's this wild beauty to it. It's a triumph of kitsch. The emotional register is very, very skillfully handled, so that, by the end of the movie, the story is genuinely moving. In other words, it goes from campy caricature to heartfelt drama - an extremely difficult shift, and yet, it works. The cinematography moves, too, from bizarre to beautiful. For the first 15 minutes, I thought it was stupid, then it just seemed deranged, and then I fell in love with it. Really, it's kind of a brilliant movie.

The movie is written and directed by John Turturro, and produced by the Coen brothers. The  story is fairly basic, in some ways - a guy cheats on his wife and regrets it. The cast is outrageous - James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Kate Winslet (with a Cockney accent, a lewd mouth and a shock of red hair), Mary-Louise Parker, Eddie Izzard, Christopher Walken, Mandy Moore (I am consistently impressed by the bold acting choices either she or her agent is making), Steve Buscemi, Aida Turturro (I love her, I really do), Amy Sedaris... it's star-studded, to say the least. And it's a musical! And it's just so... bizarre. Really. I spent about half an hour with my mouth open, struck dumb with astonishment. But while it's outrageous, it never goes too far, I think. Somehow it manages to work. And the dialogue, while cheesy and ridiculous at times, has this strange sort of poetry to it. 

You've got to check out this movie. It's wild.

Oh yeah, also - check out the deleted scenes in the bonus features. And the featurette thingy. They're actually worth it.

Dwoje biednych Rumunow mowiacych po polsku, by Dorota Maslowska

I'm sorry to say that this book will probably never be translated. And even if it is, I doubt it'll be done well. Maslowska has an absolutely fantastic style, a marvelous way of rendering vernacular Polish that I think, really, is just untranslatable (I consider the translation of another of her novels, whose English title is Snow White and Russian Red, to be an absolute disaster). It's horrifically vulgar and wonderfully musical, tender and appalling and absolutely delightful. For those who know Polish, a sample (apologies, I don't know how to render Polish characters on here):

Albo daewoo tico. To jest woz. Panie, jak my powiemy w Rumunii, ze tym jechalismy, to hooo. Krewni nam szalas podpala z zazdrosci. Seiczeto. To nie jest samochod, to jest religia. Ludzie popierduja tu jakimis pan widzi. Tego, kurwa, wysciguj go, ja pierdole! Jak pizda, no jak pizda, masz samochod z takimi mozliwosciami, a wleczesz sie nim jak kurwa w kislu. 

For all its horrific vulgarity, it's a brilliant book. Maslowska is an absolute virtuoso, playing with conventions of genre and time, dropping in allusions to other literary works, all in a seemingly effortless way. But her subjects, as per usual, are scum. Their marvelous language is essentially their only redeeming factor. They're lowlifes, drugged out scum who do truly awful things. It reminds one of Irvine Welsh, whom Maslowska is often compared to, or Bret Easton Ellis, but actually, I think Maslowska is a far more interesting writer, precisely for her daring experiments in form, which are more akin, I think, to Beckett and Gombrowicz. She's generally known for her curious capitalist apocalyptic vision, and bizarre phantasmagoria - one never knows what's actually happening and what is hallucination, or if the characters are inhabiting a fictional space where there simply isn't a difference, but this text also, in a quite fascinating way, plays with time as well. It's written as a play, though, given precisely this hallucinatory aspect, it'd be nearly impossible, I think, to stage, but there's a fantastic scene where the characters are actually speaking at different moments in time. The two main characters, Dzina and Parcha, are speaking to a driver. The driver, however, is actually speaking to the police and reporting his conversation with them. It's brilliantly executed, like I said above, in a seemingly effortless and natural way.  

The story is curious, too, in that it purports to be the adventures of two Romanians (the title translates as Two Poor Romanians Who Speak Polish), who turn out, possibly, to be two Polish druggies. In other words, it begins as a caricature of a crude ethnic stereotype, and turns out to be a caricature, kind of, of two Polish lowlifes. The irony, however, is impossible to locate reliably. It's a tantalizing book. 

17 July 2008

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

I suppose this is meant to be this profound investigation of the disastrous consequences of foreigners meddling in the politics of other countries, and the impossibility of genuine neutrality, cleverly couched in a love triangle. But I just didn't find it all that compelling. The racism and misogyny of it wore me down and ultimately robbed me of much sympathy for the characters. By the end I was tired and frustrated by the arrogant idiocy of soft colonialism. 

At first, the cold, somewhat detached style of it really appealed to me, but after awhile, I yearned for a bit of description, a sense of place. The main character is haunted by images of violence, but there's almost no imagery in the novel at all - it's totally flat. It's really just psychological exploration, which can only take you so far when you despise the characters. Ok, sure, so maybe it's a profound exploration of the very racism and misogyny I'm complaining about, but I'm tired of that shit. It's the kind of thing that people calling for a rethinking of the literary canon complain about, and it makes perfect sense to me now. The prose isn't masterful enough to merit listening to the anguished ramblings of colonizers. We hear their side of it all the goddamned time - I'd rather hear the other one, for once.

16 July 2008

Close Encounters at the End of the World

I have to admit, I kind of adore Werner Herzog. He's such a lovably strange goofball, I can't help it. But the man has a unique vision, and one that he manages to convey brilliantly in his films. His movies are these fascinating reveries on civilization and what it means to be human, with gorgeous footage and an almost childlike awe of the material. There's a downside to this, namely, that he's got severe tunnel vision - whatever the subject of the film, you only hear about the stuff that Herzog finds interesting. There's no pretense of actually depicting something essential about the subject, it's more about how it fits into his overall worldview. Close Encounters at the End of the World, which documents his explorations of Antarctica, is no different. I actually had the good fortune to watch the movie with a group of scientists, some of whom have in fact done research in Antarctica and know many of the people depicted in the film personally, and they were somewhat annoyed at the way it was portrayed, and how Herzog completely ignored multiple important aspects of the world there. But despite their irritation, I think even they acknowledged that it was an interesting and entertaining film.

At the start of the movie, Herzog (who narrates the entire film) explains that he did said from the get-go that he was not going to make a movie about penguins (though he can't resist giving them some airtime). Instead, he came to seek the answers to several questions. Why do humans enslave and torture other humans? Why do they set out to explore the wild frontiers of their world? Why do ants enslave wood lice? Why don't apes enslave anybody? I would have LOVED to read his grant application. I can't believe the NSF funded him. But anyhow, it's a fitting start to the film, which is a somewhat rambling meditation about Antarctica and the people who live there. While he doesn't exactly illuminate the scientific research they're doing, or even, really, what it's like to live there, and the people he picks are clearly the oddest ones he could finds, the movie is nonetheless fascinating. The footage is gorgeous - especially the scenes of scuba divers under the ice, and the creatures they find down there. Absolutely amazing. 

And while Herzog is an oddball and his questions are totally bizarre, they're also kind of lovely. "Do penguins ever go insane?" I was amazed by how merciless he was about focusing only on his own interests in this film, and especially by how brutal he was to the subjects when they ceased to interest him (a sudden voice over interrupts a woman's monologue to say that "She went on and on"). At the same time, I was occasionally grateful - she really WAS going on and on - though at times, I was also frustrated. It was strange, whenever he asked people how they ended up in Antarctica (which is a damn good question, I think), you ended up with a kind of description of their life beforehand, and then an abrupt end, with no actual description of the relevant transition ("so I was in Guatemala being chased by guys with machetes... and now I'm in Antarctica!").

My only real beef with the film was the music, which was somewhat over the top and rather distracting. Especially the final track, which was some kind of religious hymn in a Slavic language. It might have sounded neat if you couldn't understand it, but meanwhile I'm listening to this strange voice droning on about God and it was seriously getting on my nerves.

Still though, it's a lovely movie. Definitely worth watching.

13 July 2008


I was all inspired and ready to write about this movie, but then I happened to read Christopher Orr's review of it in TNR and, lo and behold, he'd basically said everything I was going to. But so it goes. Perhaps I can add something worthwhile.

So to begin with, the special effects are AWESOME. The movie looks fantastic. The stunts are badass. The bending bullet paths business might be hooey, but it looks pretty neato. And the movie is highly diverse in its "action", aka gore. It's bloody and raw and carnal and great. Totally sweet.

At the same time though, never have I been so keenly aware that an action movie is basically a porn that substitutes violence for sex. Actually, that's inaccurate. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this is NOT in that the case for most action movies. Actually, I would argue, most action movies are like picaresque novels of yore; rollicking adventure stories, characters a bit flat, plots rather crude, but a good time nonetheless. There's an escapist dimension to them, and certain political/socio-cultural elements encoded within their logic, but overall, it's a fun loving genre that evinces a certain warmth towards humanity at large. There are bad guys, yes, but there are also good guys, and their friends and families, and even if the hero is a ramblin' lone star type of creature, family and friends are generally accepted as a good thing.

In Wanted, on the other hand, humanity is largely evacuated. It's all survival and cold calculation. No one can be trusted, let alone depended on. The moment that you let your guard down is sure to be your last. Most striking, however, is the complete lack of sex in this movie - the erotic is completely replaced with violence. If there is sex, it's essentially another potential weapon or tool for humiliation. There's no passion or warmth to it at all. In fact, the only really human physical encounters between people are violent ones; a punch to the face, the final twist of a knife. And these have a definite erotic dimension - there's something satisfying about them.

So essentially, the film is, as stated before, a porn, but with violence instead of sex. The plot is about as inane as that of a porn, except that the cable guy turns out to be some kind of ninja who may or may not be double-crossing a bunch of people for money and possibly possesses some kind of biological superpowers. Or something. In other words, despite being fairly complicated (I'm still a bit confused about one aspect of it, so if you're reading this and haven't seen the film yet, which would be strange but who knows, or if you have - can you perhaps provide me with a transcript or summary of the conversation that the guy on the roof has over the phone with the other guy? I'm being vague, in case you haven't seen it, but if you watch it, you'll know what I'm talking about - it turns out to be highly relevant to one's ultimate understanding of the plot), it's completely ridiculous. It's a great pity, actually - Bekmambetov has really gone downhill. I maintain that Nightwatch is an absolutely brilliant film, phenomenal special effects - that are not only badass, but also creative and interesting - and a genuinely intelligent plot. Daywatch, on the other hand, is all big budget flashy effects and a completely inane and insanely complex plot. And I guess he's just gonna continue down that route. What a pity.

The Winged Seed, by Li-Young Lee

I did not make it all the way through this book. Which is strange, actually, because I quit pretty late in the game - a good 3/4 of the way through. Furthermore, I can't exactly say that I didn't like it, or that it's not a good book. But nonetheless, I just didn't wanna read it anymore.

The thing is, Li-Young Lee is a lovely poet. He crafts these beautiful images that I absolutely adore. This is marvelous when you're reading a poem that can fit on a page or two, but it's just not enough to sustain a book-length work of prose. Particularly when your images are so opaque. If a poem's meaning is elusive, couched in metaphors that I don't quite understand but think are very pretty, I don't mind. In a prose piece, however, I expect there to be some communication going on. I can only float in figurative la-la land for so long before I start getting a bit impatient.

I think the problem is exacerbated here because Lee is writing his life story. I get the sense that he's actually a rather private person who isn't particularly keen on penning a tell-all life narrative. So he doesn't want to write a straightforward I was born, then this happened, then this, then this kind of story. Rather, he weaves back and forth across time and place - and the man has moved around a LOT - picking up various threads and images as he goes. There's a kind of anguished engagement with the memory of his father running throughout the text as well. Now, this is all fine and good, but ultimately, one has the sense that Lee is writing the book in order to sort all this stuff out for himself, not because he particularly wants to tell the world about it. He talking to himself, not to any reader. And the book is thus highly inaccessible, and therefore, failed to sustain my interest. There are some beautiful moments, but the connecting tissue is too weak. Ultimately, you have the sense that there's raw material for a series of incredible poems in there, but it just doesn't hold up as a book. For me at least.

09 July 2008

The Good Terrorist, by Doris Lessing

This book was mesmerizing. Absolutely incredible. It's so subtly crafted that even though nothing really seems to be happening, it's absolutely seething with life. The prose is riveting. It starts off fairly mundane and gradually sucks you in, building up tension in this really amazing way.

The story follows the gradual metamorphosis of a group of somewhat bumbling political activists into a terrorist cell, largely through the perspective of one woman. The stunning subtlety with which it registers the ethical undertones of what's going on in absolutely amazing. Although most of the text is narrated, indirect discourse style, from the perspective of Alice, the main character (while brilliantly revealing her limitations with all the rigour of Flaubert, but less of the bite), Lessing also uses the interactions between Alice and the other people in her life to give you another view of events. The gradual shift to violence is registered in this really intriguing way by occasional shifts into a kind of proleptic retrospective, a curious sort of entry into history, I think. Really, the prose is absolutely masterful.

It's interesting, in one of the lectures I attended recently on Irish and British feminism, the lecturer, recounting her own feminist exploits of the 80s, mentioned that they were all avidly reading Lessing. And she said that re-reading her now, she's astounded by how un-feminist it seems. Indeed, in this book, the main character seems, to a woman of today, to be horrifically kind of dependent, devoted to a guy who's totally worthless and completely unable to realize that she deserves much better. I really can't tell if an awareness of this is built into the narrative itself - I think it is - or if I'm reading it anachronistically. There is, for instance, a moment when Alice's mother giver her a lecture on how she had wanted so much more for her daughter, more than she herself had, and more than her daughter has achieved, which is incredibly poignant. So why, one might wonder, were these feminists so devotedly reading these books? I think it's because it is a really powerful account of what it's like to be a woman. The author may not have an idea, yet, of what it's like to be a woman who doesn't define herself largely in relation to the men in her life, and assess herself based upon how pleasing she is to them, but she does have the ability to portray a woman sympathetically and realistically while simultaneously registering the tragedy of her position.

It's an amazing book, and just as politically relevant now as it was when it was written, I think. Highly recommended.

08 July 2008

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, by Jean-Dominique Bauby

There are two curious traits of this book in relation to its film adaptation, to my mind: firstly, that it took me less time to read the book that to watch the film, and secondly, that I actually liked the movie more than the book.

I think the problem is mostly that I saw the movie first - I bet I would have been a lot more impressed with the book if I hadn't. But the book is quite short and sparse (which is understandable, given the circumstances of its creation), so it comes across as rather barren, in contrast to the lush visuals of the film. I'm impressed that the makers of the movie could conjure up such incredible imagery on the basis of the text. This could also be a translation issue - the movie is in Bauby's native French, but I read the book in English. Certainly, there are parts of the book that are explicitly quoted in the text, but they seem to be the highlights, honestly.

There's also the difference between the first person of the text and the sort of indirect discourse of the cinematic perspective, which allows you a bit of distance from the protagonist. This distance, I think, gives you a bit of extra space to appreciate the narrative construction. Though it must also be said that the book lacks a real narrative construction - rather than an overarching plot arch, it reads like a collection of fragments. Again, the mode of construction more than justifies this, and I'm not faulting the guy, or diminishing his achievement, but at the end of the day, the film is able to do more with the material. 

There is one thing in the book that I really loved, and I don't remember if it's in the film. It's a description of a trip Bauby took with a lover, and things weren't really going so well with the two of them, and to make matters worse, he was completely immersed in a book and was having a hard time tearing himself away from it while they were traveling. Didn't want to get out of the car and see the sights, didn't want to do anything but read. I loved it, because it's an experience I've had many times myself. And it's a horribly selfish thing to do, and absolutely maddening to the people around you. And furthermore, it's ridiculous, because you're missing out on these great views and sights and things that you might not get a chance to see again in favor of a book you can just as well read tomorrow or the next day, but at that particular moment, when you're sucked into a good book, it seems absolutely worth it. And you know, even looking back on it later, you don't regret having chosen the book, even though you know you probably should. In this case, it's exacerbated by the fact that he's not only missing out on the joys of the trip, he's also neglecting this woman, who takes her revenge, fittingly, on the book. But still, he gets the final word, because thankfully, she's only desecrated pages that he's already read.

I'm back!

Apologies for the long silence. I was in Ireland for 3 weeks and spending most of my time in fairly intensive lectures, so I didn't even try to read books or watch movies, let alone post about 'em, and just used my spare time to catch up on The Wire instead. The Wire, by the way, is a phenomenal show - I dunno that I'll ever write a review of it, but take my word for it - I've just finished season 3, and goddamn it's good.

Anyhow, I'm back now, and reading away, and updates are imminent. In the meantime, you may be interested in checking out Caterwaul Quarterly, a web magazine whose editorial board I somehow found myself on. It's online, it's free, and the first issue just came out. I haven't read it all yet, but what I have looked at has been good - I'm particularly fond of one of the short fiction pieces, called The Beard. There's also book review from yours truly, to tide you over until I start posting again, heh heh.

Also, incidentally, you may have noticed the Good Reads widget on the right there. I've recently persuaded a whole gang of friends of mine to join,  and oh man, it's great. By far my favorite online community. You should join (and friend me!) and persuade your friends to join, because it is really wonderful and fascinating to see what your friends are reading, what they think of various books, etc. It's a minimal amount of effort for a very high pay-off, in my opinion.