31 October 2008

Conversations With Other Women

Sometimes a good gimmick is enough. I strongly suspect that Conversations With Other Women is adapted from a play, because it has the weakness that many such things do, namely, ALL THEY DO IS TALK. And have sex, ok, but really, it's a LOT of talking. And not particularly well written talking, too, though it does have its moments. If it weren't for the actors doing the talking, and the way it's shot, it would probably be a fairly dismal movie. Instead, it's an occasionally dull, but nonetheless fascinating film - definitely worth checking out.

The stars of the movie are Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart, both actors whom I very much enjoy and appreciate, and both of whom do a really fantastic job in this movie. They're alternately tough and vulnerable, jealous and detached, cynical and tender, bold and morose. It's really, really well acted.

And this phenomenal acting is fully showcased by the creative way the film is done - the entire movie is in split screen, with two screens of action at once. Sometimes, both screens are focusing on the same thing, and really the split is hardly noticeable. Other times, one screen is showing you the past while the other is on the present. Sometimes you get the same event but from different angles. It takes a bit of time to get used to, but it's brilliant once you do. Particularly the moments when you see the same scene from different angles - it really makes you see how much the way that a shot is framed matters. And, related to that, how much body language affects your understanding of a scene (though I may be particularly capable of this because I was just talking to an artist friend of mine, Rine Boyer, about her latest series of works, which are all about body language and gesture). So it's a gimmick, yes, but it's a really interesting one.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, because I think one of the pleasures of the film is the way that it slowly unfolds, so I'll limit myself to saying that for every hackneyed, clumsy aspect to it, there's a moment of poignancy. It's basically a love story, and while it requires a pretty serious suspension of disbelief, I think there's a pay-off in the form of these moments of encounter between the pair that are rendered in an insightful, and often touching, way. I suppose, actually, it's also kind of a movie about getting older - and in a remarkably honest sort of way, quite different from the usual Hollywood treatment of the topic. Though I wouldn't be surprised if someone disagreed with me on this, and they could probably convince me - I wasn't really focused on that part.

Anyhow, all in all, an interesting movie, if not a great one. But definitely worth renting.

22 October 2008

Lanzarote, by Michel Houellebecq

I wrote a review of Houellebecq's The Elementary Particles - which I really liked - for the upcoming issue of Caterwaul Quarterly. I believe I said something in the review about it being better than his other books, and Lanzarote illustrates my point. It's short and to the point, but unfortunately, Houellebecq's point gets tired pretty quickly - expressed once well, it becomes shrill and paranoiac upon repetition. It's a pity, because Houellebec is an excellent prose writer - though admittedly, I read him in translation - his writing is sharp and wry and funny. The first 20 pages or so of Lanzarote are great. The narrator is a cynical jerk, but oddly sympathetic nonetheless. But then the focus shifts to the usual graphic sex and "the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of all these religious freaks" stuff that makes Houellebecq so controversial. I suppose he'd argue that his self-absorbed protagonists, while they may be repellent, are not wreaking havoc on nearly so large a scale as the "religious freaks" he loves to hate, but I still find the vitriol off-putting. It reminds me of this in some ways - I'd have sympathy for the project, perhaps, if it weren't so vicious and hateful. I'm not advocating turning the other cheek or anything, but it doesn't make any sense to me to attack people for being small-minded and intolerant by being small-minded and intolerant yourself. I prefer this kind of approach, myself.

Uh... point being, I was underwhelmed by this book. Maybe it's because of all this stuff going on in politics these days (see links), but more likely, it's that the book just loses its shine half-way through. 

21 October 2008

Time Out

Having recently watched With a Friend Like Harry - a fantastic movie - and being lately immersed in spooky Gothic novels (Castle of Otranto: AWESOME. In the first few pages, a man is crushed to death by a gigantic floating helmet. If that doesn't win you over, what will?), I figured I'd continue the streak with Time Out, which purports to be a suspenseful psychological thriller about a man who gets fired from his job and can't bring himself to tell anyone, embarking on a strange double life. Netflix promised that it's "positively creepy". Well folks, it's not creepy. It's long and mostly boring and it took me a good three days to actually get through the entire movie because I kept falling asleep.

The thing is, there's not much to do with that premise. I mean, at some point, obviously, the truth is gonna have to come out. And it's kind of hard to really sympathize with the main character. Especially once he starts stealing money from people close to him. But the real problem is, the movie just drags on and on and I just wasn't at all invested in what happened next. At the same time, I felt compelled to watch it to the end, and I honestly can't say why. 

What is, I suppose, mildly interesting about the film is that on the one hand, you've got this unemployed guy who basically does nothing all day and is pretending to live this typical bourgeois existence. Not only is he pretending to be at work, but he's pretending to be there all the time, spending long hours away from home, witnessing his relationship with his son fall apart. In fact, he mostly fakes the most miserable aspects of gainful employment, the way it erodes family life. Meanwhile, the job that he pretends to have is somehow related to NGOs and developing nations in Africa. So it's kind of ironic in the Alanis Morissette-ean sense, that this guy who basically ought to be on welfare is pretending to be helping poor nations. 

The main character is totally opaque - it's strange, for a movie that seems to be invested in psychology, how little we actually understand his inner state. He's got this brick wall of a face that's completely impenetrable. I hadn't the faintest understanding of his desires and motivations. It just made no sense. Maybe that's what was supposed to be so creepy? But yeah, final answer: snore.

12 October 2008

Trans-sister Radio, by Chris Bohjalian

Lately I've been thinking about how one of the reasons I love novels so much is because I like learning about the world.  This is, I think, one of the most amazing things about fiction, the way it allows you to experience what it's like to be someone, or somewhere, else. Wayne Booth has this beautiful observation, worth quoting at some length:

In life we never know anyone but ourselves by thoroughly reliable internal signs, and most of us achieve an all too partial view even of ourselves. It is in a way strange, then, that in literature from the very beginning we have been told motives indirectly and authoritatively without being forced to rely on those shaky inferences about other men which we cannot avoid on in our own lives.

What I take this to mean is that fiction gives you the sense of having a kind of knowledge about the world that is actually impossible. It's kind of amazing. 

I start with this observation as a long way of getting to the point, namely, this book. I wanted to like this book. It's a topic I find really fascinating, and important, and I was really looking forward to experiencing the inner worlds of the people involved. The center of the novel is the story of a romance between a woman named Allison and a man named Dana. They fall madly in love, and then Dana informs Allison that he is about to undergo a sex-change operation. The novel, in shifting perspectives, describes what the two of them are going through, as well as the people around them - mainly Allie's ex-husband and her daughter. 

So, there are many really excellent things about the book. I do feel like I learned a lot about transsexuality, and that it changed some of my thinking on the issue. While I've always supported the rights of people to have whatever body they choose, etc, I don't think I had ever really understood the burning desire to have the body of the gender you feel you are, and I think this book really helped me in that regard. And for that fact alone, I'm tempted to recommend the book to other people. 

I was also really interested in the discussion of sexuality in the book - the central one being, if Allison loves Dana when he has the body of a man, will she continue to love (and be sexually attracted to) Dana in a woman's body. The book actually doesn't really give you backstage access to Allie's thought process about this, which is kind of interesting. It does talk about Dana's gradually growing sexual interest in men, but Allie's feelings are curiously left aside on this matter. 

Meanwhile, the book is also really focused on the fallout in the small Vermont community where they live, which is depressing and unpleasant. But also, sadly, rather predictable. 

I guess the main problem that I had with the book was all the attention devoted to Allie's daughter, Carly, who no offense, I had damn near zero interest in. Then there was the way it was told as a kind of expanded NPR special, which isn't a terrible plot device, but for some reason, kind of annoyed me. 

The real issue, sad to say, was that the prose was decidedly underwhelming for the most part. 

But to conclude on the novel's strengths, because, like I said, I really wanted to like this book so much more than I actually did, it does have some really fascinating insights and observations on gender identity and performance which I found quite fascinating. I tend to fall pretty strongly on the gender as constructed social identity, not biological fact, side, and I'm ever fascinated in how that social construction works. So I very much enjoyed that portion of the book. 

Ultimately, I guess, it's a really noble project, and an important book in many ways. The author is clearly really intelligent and has some very interesting insights on the world. Unfortunately, the prose didn't quite live up to them.

08 October 2008

Martha Quest, by Doris Lessing

One of the most marvelous experiences one can have, I think, when reading literature, is a kind of shock of recognition - where you read a passage and think, yes. That's exactly what it's like, and I never even thought about it or realized it, but my god, there it is. It's an incredible feeling. I wrote about it a bit in my entry on Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, but that was a fairly specific, constrained kind of emotion being described. Whereas reading Martha Quest was like re-experiencing the last 10 years of my life. It was amazing, and even slightly embarrassing. The novel tells the story of young Martha as she matures from a grumpy adolescence to an even grumpier adulthood, and while I imagine that a lot of readers would find her rather difficult to get along with, I immediately sympathized with her peculiar sort of anguish. She's desperately unhappy, but equally desperately longs to be happy, and the world just never quite works out the way she wants it to. She's both fiercely intelligent and assertive and strangely passive, in a way that I think many women are. If you ever wonder why so many of the fantastically brilliant women that you know seem to date absolute clods, I think the answer is hidden within the pages of this book. 

Also, though, it's a really interesting text in terms of colonial literature, in that it's a very nuanced exploration of racial and nationalistic attitudes in South Africa before the Second World War. In that, it's a valuable text for any student of race, post/colonialism, etc. 

All that said, it's not an amazing novel. It's nowhere near as brilliant as The Good Terrorist, which I maintain is absolute genius. The plot line is fairly bland, and it trails off rather suddenly at the end - though it's part of a series, as I understand, so perhaps it's meant to encourage you to pick up the next one. But in any case, it's not a magisterial book so much as a rather brilliant character study. 

05 October 2008

Black Book

I had heard good things about this movie, and I was kind of curious to see what Paul Verhoeven, known for directing such phenomenal films as Total Recall (one of my favorites) and Basic Instinct, would do with a, shall we say, weightier topic. In fact, the result was almost exactly what one might expect - a fast paced thriller set in World War Two. The thing is though, it's somewhat problematic (to me at least) to use the position of Jews in the 1940s as fodder for your action porn.

Allow me to explain. The movie centers around an extremely attractive Jewish woman who is in hiding, then joins the Resistance, and ultimately infiltrates the Gestapo as the head boss' lover. In some ways, actually, it's not unlike Ang Lee's wonderful film, Lust, Caution. Both are lush, tense films, with lots of tension and very hot sex scenes. But while Lee's film is erotically charged, the sex scenes never lose their somewhat disturbing edge. Verhoeven's, on the other hand, are purely for the purpose of titillation. They're there to get you hot, and the risk factor is supposed to add, not detract, from that. Same goes for the violence and degradation of the movie - it's upsetting, sure, but there's a sense of relish behind it (a la Thomas Hardy) that is really kind of gross. It's gratuitous. It's not meant to illustrate or heighten the moral aspect, it's meant to excite. So you see the main character get put into all these situations where there's an awful lot of pressure on her to have sex with someone, and she does, and hey, it's all good because she seems to be enjoying it. The fact that she could just as easily not have been enjoying it is sort of irrelevant. Because, you know, that wouldn't have been nearly as much fun to watch. This way, sure she might seem a little unwilling at first, but she's just being coy. Or at least, that's the feeling that I got from it. It was war porn.

That said, it is a fast-paced and interesting movie, and the lead actress, Carice van Houten, is absolutely phenomenal. I just found it kind of strange to treat the subject matter so instrumentally - and even more irked, now that I think about it, because I bet plenty of people thought it was a profound meditation on the topic. And maybe it was more thoughtful than I'm giving it credit for. I dunno, it just weirded me out at bit. Though one interesting aspect is that the film doesn't end with the end of the war, as most such movies do, but takes the next step of showing the aftermath. This is interesting, because what it shows you is how absolutely horrific some of that aftermath was, how the "good guys" went bad. Not something you see too often. 

So it was a strange sort of movie. Also, how much fun is it to listen to people speaking Dutch? Maybe it's more entertaining if you know German, but I love the way it sounds as a language. It just makes me cheerful, I dunno.

03 October 2008

Total Eclipse

This movie was way before its time. It's kind of a forerunner to Brokeback Mountain, I think, but alas, in 1995, the world wasn't ready to be down with dudes having tumultuous sexual relationships. Or so I suspect, because the reason I waited so long to see this movie (I'm a fan of the director, Agnieszka Holland) is that it was roundly panned when it came out. And I'll admit it, what gave me that extra oomph to finally rent it was the fact that I'd heard that you get to see Leonardo DiCaprio naked (you do). But I was pleasantly surprised by the movie - it's actually really good!

The film chronicles the relationship between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, two 19th century French poets. Rimbaud is in himself a fascinating figure - hailed as a genius at age 16, he stopped writing poetry entirely after 21, took off for Africa and died at 37. I have a particular fascination with depictions of genius, especially in film - how people imagine what it's like to be a genius, how a genius' mind works, and how they attempt to portray that to a mass audience, is really interesting to me. And this film, I think, does one of the best jobs of it I've ever seen*.

2 years before Titanic, back when he actually took risks as an actor, Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as Arthur Rimbaud. He's impetuous and moody, brooding one minute and laughing with delight the next. There's a kind of girlishness to both his face and figure - not that he's effeminate, rather that he's masculine in a vulnerable sort of way. He's an absolute tyrant, sweet as sugar one minute and horrifically cold the next. Repeatedly, you find yourself on the verge of thinking that he might be the cruelest person in existence, and then you remember - he's only 16. He behaves just like the average teenager. Unfortunately, he's also gifted with this incredible wisdom beyond his years. It's really well done. 

Meanwhile, David Thewlis does an incredible turn as Paul Verlaine. Affected, pompous, but also somewhat callow and sniveling, he's most sympathetic in his moments of weakness, and most monstrous when he's trying to compensate for them. His patent insufficiency drives him to viciousness and brutality - some of the scenes between him and his wife are really awful and upsetting - but there's a tragedy to him, namely, he is granted the brilliance to recognize greatness in others (a meaningful talent in its own right), but never to achieve it himself. 

The movie doesn't have too terribly much in the way of plot, and it definitely sags towards the end. But at its best, it's a seething, atmospheric exploration of the interactions between these various people, subtle and elegant. Definitely a movie worth watching.

*The usual approach is that intelligence is largely an effortless kind of thing - think A Beautiful Mind, where the numbers pop out of the wall, or Good Will Hunting where he just starts happily scribbling on the board. Alternatively, there's the freakish approach, aka Rain Man. Neither of these are particularly satisfying to me. The question is, how do you show what it's like to understand things that no one else can in such a way that everyone can understand?