31 December 2009

In Brief: Soseki, Didion, Vonnegut, Moore. And movies.

I resolve to be better about updates in the future, but I read so many awesome books and saw so many movies in the last 2 weeks that writing a post for each one seemed like too much work, so here's a quick recap.

I Am a Cat, by Natsume Soseki
I decided that since I had a chunk of time in which to read over break, I'd tackle a really big book. As it turned out, I flew through this in 3 days or so, because it's delightfully breezy. Especially for a book where nothing happens. It's narrated by a cat, and wonderfully funny and ironic and absurd, but also occasionally quite eloquent. A joy to read.

Slouching Towards Bethelehem, by Joan Didion
I randomly picked up A Year of Magical Thinking awhile ago and loved it, so I was looking forward to checking out more of Didion's books. This one is a collection of essays, mostly about California in the 60s, and it's well worth a read. The first third is phenomenal, the second third is good, and the third third is very good. Didion has this really interesting reflexive writing style, like she's thinking out loud as she goes, and it's really compelling, and somehow beautifully balanced by an odd flatness in her prose. Good stuff.

Armageddon in Retrospect, by Kurt Vonnegut
I was kind of afraid to read this, because I was worried that maybe I wouldn't love it - and Vonnegut - as much as I used to. Luckily, I had nothing to worry about. This is a wonderful collection of essays, drawings and stories, with a fantastic introduction written by Vonnegut's son. One thing that I particularly loved about the introduction was that it encouraged the reader to pay attention to the craft of the works, mentioning that Vonnegut spent hours perfecting his prose. And indeed, although there's a kind of seeming simplicity to his writing, if you pay attention, you realize just how finely written it is. Very enjoyable.

Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore
A short story collection that my mother lent me. Reminds me a lot of Lydia Davis' stuff, except somewhat less experimental and much less self-absorbed. There's the same acerbic wit, but the characters are much more likeable. The first story in the collection is absolutely phenomenal - the others don't quite measure up to it, but are generally quite good nonetheless.

Avatar 3D
I talked to someone who saw it NOT in 3D - don't do that. There's no point. It's really not that great a movie, but the special effects are fucking sweet. Without them, it's a fairly run-of-the-mill eco-conscious parable about the Iraq War.

Broken Embraces
Visually stunning, but otherwise unimpressive. The plot is sort of silly, a failed attempt at modern melodrama. The characters are flat and generally uninteresting. It's visually striking, but really, that's so common these days that it no longer carries a movie.

Who is Cletis Tout?
Remember how much fun Christian Slater movies used to be? This isn't quite as good, but it's approaching it.

District 9
I expected to love this movie. You'd think it'd be right up my alley. And indeed, I was quite impressed with the first 35 minutes or so, when you get the whole story of the aliens and how first contact is handled. And then the plot got all fragmented and strange, like there were 5 different stories going on at once, and the disarray really threw me off. Hollywood is supposed to tell me how to feel and who to root for, and here I was like, wait, so which story am I supposed to pay attention to? Who do I care about? What's going on? And it just kinda didn't do it for me.

21 December 2009

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Before you venture off to see this film, you should understand that it is, first and foremost, a Werner Herzog movie. It's Herzog's take on the crazy cop on the edge, breaking the law to uphold it type of story. This means that it's not the standard version of this trope, but rather, one that's cranked up to a level 11, with occasional bursts of whimsy thrown in for good measure.

Nicolas Cage is wonderful as the cracked out and wholly crazed officer. It's the role he was made for, one where all his various tics and mannerisms get worked to the max. He's absolutely marvelous, both appalling and humane, sympathetic, somehow, even when revolting. Eva Mendes also does a good turn as the hooker with the heart of gold. Val Kilmer is a bit dull as the caricaturish evil cop, but he gets very little airtime, so it's ok.

The movie is definitely quite a bit longer than it needs to be, and drags a lot towards the end, but the occasional flights of hallucinatory joyful fantasy go a long way in making up for it. I liked the movie a lot, despite it's being a kind of meta-movie, a commentary on what such movies are like rather than an actual specimen of the genre. The ending I thought was particularly clever in this regard, a nice compromise that allowed Herzog to have his cake and eat it too. So overall, though it was ot a great film, and went on far too long, I definitely liked it quite a lot.

19 December 2009

Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge

I really enjoy David Lodge books. They're a bit idiosyncratic, with somewhat random observations about literature and language smuggled into their storylines, but they're generally charming and fun and quite pleasant books. Thus, I cannot help but me somewhat worried about Mr Lodge after reading this book, which is in many ways similar in style to the others, but is also far darker and more grim than his other works - to the point that it's actually somewhat unpleasant to read, despite being for the most part pretty well written, if not quite as winsome as his other books.

The novel's main protagonist is a retired linguistics professor, Desmond, who is going increasingly deaf. This in itself is pretty depressing stuff, though well written and poignant. Lodge captures his frustration and sense of alienation as well as the growing annoyance experienced by his wife, who has to repeat everything three times. Desmond seems to be gradually withdrawing from life in a subtle way that's fairly devastating to witness - until he his interest is piqued by a young female graduate student who wants his help on her dissertation. Unfortunately, she turns out to be completely demented. This is taken a bit far perhaps, but it's also written for maximum squeamishness - you read with a growing sense of dread. Luckily Lodge doesn't rely on this for the main narrative drive, because, well, I just didn't want it to keep going, and instead turns his focus more towards Desmond's relationship with his wife and his father, who's growing increasingly demented. The novel definitely starts to flag at this point, and then perks up somewhat with a random trip to Poland (of all places) before chugging to a halt.

The strength of the novel is its portrayal of deafness, first and foremost, evoked in the typical Lodge style with lots of literary references. Secondarily, its a fairly poignant portrayal of aging and retirement, albeit a rather melancholy one. For the rest though, it's a somewhat disappointing book, in that it's not really all that great a read, and definitely falters in comparison to his other books.

18 December 2009

Whip It!

I didn't really expect this to be a good movie, but I did expect it to be a fun movie. Alas, it was not to be. Part of the problem might be that I saw it at the Brew 'N' View at the Vic Theatre which, paradoxically, given that it's a music venue, has such atrocious sound that you can barely hear half the dialogue. Then again, the half that I did hear was so lame that I was almost grateful to miss the rest. This movie is so... bad. The plot is a complete hodgepodge of cliches, like they took 5 different stock plots and rolled them into one to see what would happen. You can imagine the screenwriter going LA LA LA I'M MAKING A MOVIE! WEEEEEE! It's that ridiculous. Most of the characters are completely useless, delivering bizarre off-the-wall lines that there's no context for. Drew Barrymore's character is the worst offender in this case - perhaps Drew was trying to give her character depth or complexity by making her this odd mess that had some strange behind the scenes drama going on, but the effect was just confusing.

Ellen Paige is ok, surprisingly NOT the same as her Juno character, which is nice, but also mostly uninteresting. Same could be said, really, of any other character. It's not that they lack depth so much as context - you don't really understand what's motivating them or what they're invested in, but you also don't really care that much. The plot bumbles from cliche to cliche, partly because all the non-cliche parts are so underdeveloped that you sort of ignore them.

The roller derby footage is ok, though much less violent - and carnivalesque - than actual roller derby - ie, less interesting and badass, really. It's the chick flick version of roller derby.

The most commendable thing about the movie is the ending, which is actually not nearly as annoying as you might think. There's a curious open-endedness to it (I don't want to give too much away here) that I found really interesting, especially given the obvious penchant for treacly sentimentalism in the rest of the movie - it's as though Barrymore decided to avoid the superduper happy ending, but compensated herself by cramming as much feel good chickflick goodness into everything that preceded it as possible.

Seriously though - it's not a good movie. It's not even a fun movie. It's really just kind of a waste of time.

05 December 2009


An absolutely devastating portrayal of a lonely middle aged woman.

Katherine Hepburn is a single woman on vacation in Venice, who initially resists, but ultimately succumbs, to the advances of an Italian stranger. The film is brilliant in its depictions of her isolation and yearning, and the way in which her initial instincts are gradually broken down by her desire for companionship. It's not an earth shattering movie by any means, but the scenes of her alone at a cafe, looking hopefully at the passing strangers, are incredibly poignant. There's an impressive attention to minor detail that makes the film really quite amazing in the way it manages to capture her as a character. Also, the shots of Venice are also absolutely gorgeous - I'd somehow forgotten what a beautiful city it is.

03 December 2009

Paper Heart

A very sweet movie, and not nearly as sappy as you might expect. It's a kind of documentary about Charlyne Yi, whom you may remember from her brief appearance in Knocked Up, and love. At the opening of the film, she "doesn't believe" in love. It's unclear whether this means that she doesn't think it's an actual thing, or just doesn't think she herself can experience it. So she talks to a lot of people about love, and then she meets Michael Cera at a party and they start dating and ... it gets kind of complicated.

Probably the best reason to watch this movie is Michael Cera and Charlyne Yi, both of whom are just kind of great. Michael Cera is (maybe somewhat alarmingly) similar to the character he plays in movies. Charlyne has this wonderful smile and a charming kind of innocence to her - it sort of makes you wonder how much love and heartbreak are actually what make people old and jaded, because she seems so wonderfully free of worldly care. So just watching them, listening to them talk, seeing them on screen, is kind of nice.

It's also interesting to watch their relationship develop, and especially to see the kind of struggle between devotion to a film project and awareness that this is essentially a cinematic goldmine and a desire to just be together. Though who knows, maybe that itself was part of the cinematic plan. It's interesting how the movie regularly breaks down the 3rd wall and makes a bid for a kind of authenticity (and I genuinely believe in it, often) while simultaneously having its character struggle with a desire for privacy. There's something really fascinating about it.

As a reflection on love, it's not all that revelatory. It's cute and charming and sort of interesting, but there's nothing in it that really gave me food for thought. It's kinda peremptory in some ways - aside from a crew of bikers, pretty much everyone interviewed is kinda what you'd expect, though its admirable in its breadth. All in all though, a very nice movie.

29 November 2009

Murphy, by Samuel Beckett

I am totally biased when it comes to Beckett. I love his writing. I know lots of people find it depressing and difficult but to me it's so achingly beautiful, so absolutely perfect, that I just... I dunno. I love it. So this review is probably not so very useful. I loved Murphy, not as much as the trilogy, but still quite a lot.

Murphy is definitely more, shall we say, accessible, than a lot of other Beckett works. It takes place in an identifiably concrete real world, it doesn't stray too terribly far more realistic probability, and it's not quite as extreme as his other works. So, for instance, where in the Trilogy you have the stone sucking monologue, which I happen to love but many people find a. confusing and b. in any case, far too long, here one has a similar idea, but rendered much more succinctly - Murphy and his biscuits.

He took the biscuits carefully out of the packet and laid them face upward on the grass, in order as he felt of edibility. They were the same as always, a Ginger, an Osborne, a Digestive, a Petit Beurre and one anonymous. He always ate the first-named last, because he liked it the best, and the anonymous first, because he thought it very likely the least palatable. The order in which he ate the remaining three was indifferent to him and varied irregularly from day to day. On his knees now before the 5 it struck him for the first time that this reduced to a paltry six the number of ways in which he could make his meal. But this was to violate the very essence of the assortment, this was red permanganate on the Rima of variety. Even if he conquered his prejudice against the anonymous, still there would be only twenty-four ways in which the biscuits could be eaten. But were he to take the final step and overcome his infatuation with the ginger, then the assortment would spring to life before him, dancing the radiant measure of its total permutability, edible in a hundred and twenty ways!

This is the kind of thing that I dearly love in Beckett. But the book actually contains some loftier reflections as well, particularly in the section on madness, and they're more explicitly stated than is usual in his writings. It also is far less pessimistic, I think - the ending could even be said, in my mind, to be rather hopeful. This is, no doubt, because it's an early work, which doesn't really bode well for the universe, but still, if you find that Beckett grinds you down a bit much (myself, I find him a marvelous palliative when the world seems too much to deal with), then you might give this book a try.

27 November 2009


To be clear, Beowulf is NOT a good movie. Not at all. It's pretty wretched, overblown and ridiculous with this awful digitized Final Fantasy look and phallic imagery out the yin yang. It is, however, a fascinating interpretation of the original text.

As a side note - Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf is an absolute delight, and very much worth reading. I had kind of assumed the text was a crusty old classic, but it's wonderful. Very short, which is nice - I think the audio book of Heaney reading it clocks in around 2 hours? - and the language, in Heaney's rendering, is just gorgeous.

Anyhow. Beowulf the movie. One of the major adaptations made by the film is to add this weird psychosexual oh my Freud element, where Grendel turns out to have been fathered by Hrothgar. Grendel's mother is played by Angelina Jolie, and transformed into this strange sexual sorceress who seems intent on bedding various kings, bearing their children and then sending those very children out to slaughter their fathers. Weird. This obviously complicates the notion of good and evil in the work - in fact, at some point, someone (Beowulf maybe?) says something like "it is us who are truly the monsters". Ok. So that's interesting, but also kind of old news. It's also pretty ridiculous and somewhat incoherent in the film. I suppose the director thought that audiences want a SOURCE for evil these days, and making it something so close to home is kind of the obvious choice in this day and age, which is sort of a fascinating look at how our society conceptualizes evil, and an interesting modification of the text, but also sort of stupid.

Next off, the movie insistently cuts Beowulf down to size by having him not be all that heroic at all. He lies about his adventures, oh and also cheats on his wife, and upon his deathbed is tired of all the lies, bla bla bla. This is really fascinating, because it picks up on a strange undercurrent in the original text connected to Beowulf's arrogance. In my opinion, the original work is sort of about how Beowulf is an amazing warrior but not a good king, precisely because the ideals of warriorness and kingship are irreconcilable - a warrior serves his king, yes, but ultimately he is a lone fighter, beholden to no one. A king, on the other hand, is the protector of his people, yes, but also their embodiment - his life is not his own. I read the text as mourning the end of an age of heroes and ushering in a realm of politics, where kings can't just go off and kill people, but have to, for instance, be diplomats and delegate their battles. Anyhow, there nonetheless IS this strange suggestion in the text that Beowulf is kind of an arrogant prick, and the movie sort of picks up on that and runs with it, ultimately turning it into this massive, tedious sideplot about a life of lies, etc.

The most disappointing aspect is the way in which the film deals with the Christianity issue in the text, ie, with the usual evil Christian guy droning on about sin and the like. The material for such a reading is definitely there - the moments when the narrator interjects Christian propaganda definitely alienates him from the text, and make him seem like a jerk - but the movie treats it in the most typical, boring way possible.

Overall - I can't recommend this film at all, unless you have just read the book - which you should! - in which case, it IS kind of fascinating.

16 November 2009

500 Days of Summer

My parents had gone to see this when it was out in theatres and recommended it to me as a clever, interesting film, so I had much higher hopes than I otherwise would have when I went to see it. The problem, as it turned out, with their reliability as film recommenders is that they, unfortunately (for me, really, not them), are less familiar with hipsters as a cultural phenomenon. This means that what I see as completely uninteresting cliches may seem quirky and cute to them. At least, that's the best explanation I can come up with for why they liked this movie, which I thought was total crap.

The movie is about the ascent and decline of a couple's relationship. The 500 Days is actually rather misleading - Day 1 is when the couple meets, they start dating around Day 80 (I think?) and break up no later than Day 300. The next 200 days seemingly refute the truism that the amount of time it takes to get over the end of a relationship is equal to approximately half the time the relationship lasted, focusing on the mostly uninteresting misery of the young man.

The movie attempts to be clever by jumping around the chronology, contrasting scenes of them first getting together with moments where things begin to fall apart. This is occasionally interesting, playing with echoes between those scenes and showing how similar events can be inflected in completely opposing moods. What is distinctly missing here, however, is any sort of play on perspective. The movie is obviously related from the guy's perspective, but coupled with a voice-over from an omniscient narrator, which belies its entrenchment in the guy's worldview. It might have been more interesting if it showed how his memories weren't entirely reliable, or changed over time. Alas, it did not.

The major problem, though, is that the characters are totally flat. You never have any sense of why they love each other, why they cease to love each other (or if they actually do), or really what they're like as people. Their characters are conveyed through standard hipster cliche. They're walking stereotypes. They go on a date to Ikea - you can pretty much write the dialogue yourself, just based on that. Which isn't to say it isn't kind of cute, but it doesn't really tell you anything. Particularly obnoxious to me was the fact that they provide you with all the usual cliches of falling in love, but when it comes to the deterioration of the relationship, the movie develops cold feet. It can't seem to portray either of them as actually doing anything wrong, or disliking each other. The contrast that comes to mind here is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which likewise portrays a relationship, even in a similar way, but which dares to have its characters occasionally act like complete jerks. And really, this is how the movie could be summarized - it's like Eternal Sunshine, except without all the stuff that made that movie so good. It just doesn't really have anything new to offer - it's the same old thing, so much so that it doesn't even bother to create unique characters or situations, it just recycles cultural tropes that may be relatively new, but already feel stale.

13 November 2009

An Education

I was kind of a sucker for this movie. It's a coming-of-age story about a precocious British schoolgirl who works hard so that she can get into Oxford and meanwhile has a love affair with a glamorous older man (played by Peter Sarsgaard, whom I adore). One of the things that I really appreciated about the film was the relatively easygoing portrayal of events - I realized, when it was over, that I had been nervously anticipating some kind of horrible outburst, and I was relieved when it never happened.

The screenplay was written by Nick Hornby on the basis of a memoir, which was promising, because honestly, while I enjoy Nick Hornby's books, the movie versions are almost always better. There's just something made for movies about his take on the world. Furthermore, while he's great at setting up situations, his novels almost always fizzle at the end, because he doesn't quite know how to wrap them up. Curiously enough, the ending of this movie was also kind of disappointing, but for a different reason. (I will try to avoid spoilers, but there are bound to be some, kinda, so be forewarned)

Of course I was absolutely enthralled to see a movie about a clever, wonderful young woman who is unabashedly nerdy but also eager for adventure. It almost - but not really - made me want to be a teenager again. I loved the movie for the way it portrayed her burgeoning sexuality in appreciative, rather than paranoiac terms. I applauded it for portraying some of the problems connected to a relationship between an older man and a younger woman without falling prey to the usual predatory cliches. I was particularly taken with the way it dealt with her relationship with her parents. There's a really impressive moment towards the end where her parents chastise her for the mess she's gotten herself into, and she turns on them - "What about you? Schoolgirls are taken advantage of all the time, but you allowed yourselves to be taken in as well!" While her father's tearful, class-based excuse is a bit thin, his gentle rebuke - "He wasn't what he said he was, indeed - but he also wasn't what YOU said he was" was a really eloquent portrayal of the way that teenagers betray their parents.

Although the main character was played absolutely perfectly by Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard also deserves accolades for his brilliant rendition of the older man character. Charming, lovable, and just barely sleazy - it was absolutely masterful. I really don't know that anyone else could have pulled it off.

I was perhaps slightly disappointed by the way that the movie ultimately didn't answer the girl's question - what's the point of studying literature? - in a fully satisfying way. Her claim is that she wants to have FUN, and school is difficult and boring and ultimately leads to a boring career so who cares. The movie kind of implies that, well, you need a job because it gives you independence and it can ultimately be satisfying in a kind of self-realization sort of way. Fair enough, but couldn't we have a bit on how it is a beautiful thing in and of itself? Also, as mentioned before, the ending, where she basically reclaims her virginity and innocence, was extremely distressing, and seemed to go against the whole point of the film.

Still though, an absolutely charming, winsome movie. Though I might just be damn near the ideal target audience for it, so bear that in mind should you choose to see it.

08 November 2009

The Collector, by John Fowles

An interesting idea, but it doesn't quite work. The novel is about a misfit sort of guy who wins the lottery and uses his winnings to kidnap a woman he's obsessed with and hold her prisoner. The novel is split into parts - first from his perspective, then hers. There are some interesting reflections on class, love, sex, and art in the book, but ultimately, it starts to seem rather puerile and just sort of drags. The main problem is that the guy is a bit too pathetic and weird to be entirely likeable, which isn't in itself a problem, but when you pair it with the fact that the woman is sort of obnoxious and full of herself, it becomes 250 pages of hanging out with people you don't really like just to watch their interactions. The switch from his perspective to hers is initially interesting, but after awhile, you sort of get how she works, so you're basically reading the same plot episodes over again - and honestly, they weren't all that exciting in the first place.

While everything that I'm saying is sounding quite negative, the thing is, there really are some impressive things about this book. The characters, though not entirely likeable, are realistic and persuasively rendered. I mean, it's not easy to pull off a convincing madman and make him actually likeable, in some strange sort of way. And, like I said, there are lots of interesting ideas wrapped into the work - the thing is, I just don't have the energy to unravel them at the moment. And for leisure reading, the writing style is awfully dry.

So, it's not a great book, maybe not even a really good one, but it is an interesting one.

05 November 2009

Where the Wild Things Are / Away We Go

I was going to write about Away We Go, but part of what persuaded me to watch it (in addition to a recommendation from a good friend) was that I watched Where the Wild Things Are and enjoyed it. The relation between the two is that both are written (co-written) by Dave Eggers, whom I really can't stand. I made it through 1/3 of They Shall Know Our Velocity and I HATED it. But Wild Things convinced me to give him a chance. It seems to me though, that it's productive to discuss the two films together - not just because I feel like I should've posted on Wild Things before, but also because I think the comparison is kind of enlightening.

Wild Things is an interesting film. It is NOT a kids movie. Rather, it's in the cinematic tradition of works that are centered in a child's perspective but treat very adult themes. Spike Jonze accomplishes this wonderfully - not just in the action and the aesthetic, but the camera work, the narrative logic, even the soundtrack (or silences) are somehow very much based around what it's like to be a kid. Which - lest you expect sunshine and lollipops and the general idealized realm of youth - is not much fun. It's frustrating, confusing, and really kind of sucks.

Away We Go, on the other hand, is not about what it's like to be a kid - it's about what it's like to be in your early 30s, expecting a kid. Turns out to not be so different - confusing, frustrating, and just kind of sucks. Although it has its (sappy) moments. Being a kid does too, in Wild Things, but they're much more frequent in Away We Go.

Both movies are about quests, or at least voyages, and both resist a neat, overarching storyline, choosing rather to operate through a kind of series of vignettes. Although both achieve a kind of resolution, it's not really total, which is definitely a strength of both, I think.

A big difference is that Wild Things is much more abstract. It's hard to say what Max really learns or gains in the process, or even who the monsters "really" are. Away We Go, on the other hand, is much more straightorward and almost spells out the "message" behind each encounter. To me, this verged on hamfisted and caricaturish. On the other hand though, the main characters are more fully realized than those of Wild Things, particularly the father-to-be, who's definitely the most likeable person in the movie. There's more humor, definitely, but also more of a kind of sense of human-ness, and what people are actually like. It's not exactly normalcy or everydayness, because everyone is quirky in a rather twee way, but it is somehow realistic. Max and the monsters were less available - you didn't have as strong a sense of their personalities.

Ultimately though, what it came down to for me is that the bittersweet melancholy of Wild Things felt justified, whereas in Away We Go it seemed self indulgent and whiny. Even the scenes where they're having fun seemed fraught with potential tragedy (which was realized, more often than not). It's a similar kind of pessimism and anguished worldview as you find in David Foster Wallace, whom I also can't stand. Where everyone's like, "Oh, life is shit, it's so awful, but goddamnit the best we can do is grin and bear it and try to find some joy", which is an alright philosophy really, but the labor of finding joy seems like WAY more work than I really want to take on.

02 November 2009

Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson's Moomintroll books are extremely close and dear to my heart. I grew up reading them and they remain continuous part of my mental world in hundreds of little ways. Until recently, however, I had no idea that Jansson also wrote books for adults - and as soon as I heard, I went and bought one. I was not disappointed. Summer Book is quintessential Jansson - the same simple but evocative prose style, the love of nature and landscapes, the quirky characters, the interest in what it's like to be a child. The book is a series of vignettes, centering mostly around a little girl and her grandmother. There's no real overarching plot, but the book is nonetheless absolutely lovely.

What makes Jansson's books so amazing is that she has this deep love for people (or moomintrolls) but doesn't shy away from their negative sides. Her characters - especially the children - are frequently spiteful, selfish, vindictive - childish, in fact. They can also be sweet and loving. But they're pretty much always likeable and realistic, even when they're behaving like pigs. There's something really great about that, and it's a rare quality.

27 October 2009


I don't want to say too much about this movie, because the less you know about it, I think, the more you'll enjoy it. So I'll just say that it's one of the most wonderful movies I've seen in quite a while. It's absolutely wonderful. I laughed, I cried, I gasped in terror, I was on the edge of my seat. It was SUCH a lovely film.

22 October 2009

A Boy and His Dog

This is a flawed but ultimately winsome film about a young man and his canine companion and their adventures in a post-apocalyptic landscape. There's nothing particularly original or interesting about the film's version of Armageddon - all the movie's entertainment is lodged in the character of the dog, who is an absolute delight. A spiteful, curmudgeonly, but absolutely lovable creature, who faithfully trots around at the side of Vic, played by a young, dumb, full of etc Don Johnson. There's a kind of charm to the young man, but really, it's all about the dog. In fact, if you rent it, you might as well hit fast forward for the half hour that the dog isn't on screen - it's not really worth watching. But you definitely won't want to miss the ending, which is so great that it redeems the previous half hour.

17 October 2009

Moo, by Jane Smiley

I've been on a kind of Jane Smiley kick since I read A Thousand Acres a year and a half ago. Or at least it seems that way. I had read a novel of hers back in high school, Duplicate Keys, and really enjoyed it, and I loved Acres, so I kind of started working my way through her oeuvre. The next one I did was Horse Heaven, which was good, but not as good as the others, and then I watched The Secret Lives of Dentists, which was based on a short story of hers and pretty much sucked, and then I tried reading 10 Days in the Hills and hated it after 15 pages, so I thought I was basically over it, but for some reason I picked up Moo and now I feel sort of done with Jane Smiley. It ended on a high note - Moo is definitely one of her better books (though Thousand Acres is still my favorite).

Moo has all the perks of Horse Heaven, but without the flaws. It's a massive, sprawling cast of characters, but they're successfully held together by the overarching frame of Moo University, and there aren't so many of them that you get totally confused as to who's who. It has only one animal character, the giant hog Earl, but he's a well written and very likeable creature. It has Smiley's typical warm, pleasant prose, and a bit of the ironic humor. Although a lot of the satire seems kind of outdated, it's interesting nonetheless, and kind of a nice time capsule of its particular moment ('89). It's probably more entertaining to those familiar with the strange inner world of universities, but it's not quite as dorky as, say, David Lodge novels (which I love).

All in all, a warm and pleasant read, if a rather long one.

Raging Sun, Raging Sky; Looking for Eric; Little Moscow; Case Unknown

The International Film Fest is in full swing here, and I've been livin' it up. I've also been lazy about updating, so we've got a lot to cover, and ima do it quickly.

Raging Sun, Raging Sky:
The first movie we saw. We had actually wanted to see something else (a lot of other things), but everything was sold out, so we got tickets to this. Only later did we notice that it was 191 minutes long. yowzers.
So first off - seriously, it's really long. It's so long that it becomes an Experience. You doze off, wake up, and you're still there. Lifetimes pass. The thing is though, it really didn't need to be that long. You could shave an hour off easy, and in fact, the movie would be vastly improved.
This is a pretty advanced level artsy film. As in, the cinematography is gorgeous, the movie is heavily symbolic (even venturing into primal scenes of goddesses, wandering through deserts, and of course butt sex) and the plot makes very little sense.
But for all it's flaws, there was something moving about it. Maybe it's because I've been thinking about epics so much lately, but there was something interesting about how it played with the conventions of origin myths by centering around male homosexual relationships. Also, the main hero had a lovely smile.
A final thought - there was lots of gay male sex in this movie, ranging from loving consensual to brutal rape. It occurred to me that generally, when one sees gay male sex in movies, it's awfully brutal and looks painful and unpleasant, even when it's consensual and between two guys who care about each other (think of Brokeback Mountain). What's up with that?

Looking for Eric:
De-lightful. The main character is a down-on-his-luck dude who is on the verge of ending it all when Eric Cantona, former Manchester United star, magically appears as a guardian angel. As my bf put it, the movie has it all - action, humor, romance, guns, drugs, sports footage. It's a jolly good time, if a wee bit sentimental.

Little Moscow:
Patriotism makes me want to support this movie, but god it sucked. A forbidden love story with political overtones. A Polish town that is essentially occupied by Russians in the 60s, an adulterous love affair between a Polish officer and the songstress wife of a Russian officer. The wife sings Ewa Demarczyk songs in Polish, which is a really big deal. Her Russian husband is a preposterously nice, good-hearted guy, and one has no idea why she'd cheat on him with this arrogant potato-faced Pole (apologies to Lesław Żurek, who was at the screening and is actually a babe in real life, but his character was NOT charming). SPOILER ALERT. The movie tries to sell itself as this tragic love story, saying she killed herself out of love for him, but it also can't resist implying that really it was the evil Russians who killed her. The coproducer, also at the screening, mentioned that they wanted to work with the Russians on the movie - it doesn't portray them negatively! Uh, really? Yeah, no surprise that one didn't work.
Anyways, point being, it's melodramatic and boring and not a good movie. Curiously enough, Żurek has apparently been in a movie directed by Ken Loach - who directed Looking for Eric. Small world!

Case Unknown:
Again, patriotism issues. I thought it was pretty boring. My mom liked it though. Borys Szyc, who was awesome in Wojna Polsko-Ruska (why oh why aren't they showing that at the festival?) was not as great in this one, mostly because he had this absolutely ridiculous haircut.
The movie can't decide whether it wants to be an inspiring medical drama or a thriller. So it piles on various bits of plot, many of which are both unnecessary and unconvincing. There's a sideplot about the main character's father that is cliche, unneeded, and unclear all at once. The plot is garbled, and starts to drag. The characters are too scattered to be convincing. It's a pity, because there are things about it that are clever - the ending is surprisingly UN-cliche, which is nice, except that by then I had lost interest and just wanted it to be over. Szyc, despite his awful haircut, is kind of compelling. The guy who plays the patient is extremely charming.
But I still didn't like it.

06 October 2009


I'm not even sure I can explain why I liked this movie so much. There's something that's just so fantastically even-tempered about it. It has this wonderful matter-of-fact presentation of the plot line, treating everything from the most mundane to the most bizarre events without any discernible shift in tone that is just wonderful. It's the kind of film where you want to tell a person - just watch it, I can't explain.

The movie is vaguely about a guy named Odd Horten who has just retired from his job. Netflix tries to add some deeper storyline of "he decides to change his daily routine" or some shit, but no. That's not the point. There is arguably a kind of subtle development in that direction, but what's great about the movie is that it's precisely that - subtle. It's also one of the few films I can think of (No Country for Old Men is the other one that comes to mind) that has little blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments that aren't instrumental to the plot, but are just lovely bits of atmosphere. For instance, when Horten is in a shop, a man leaves and as he's walking by the window, slips and falls. This happened so quickly that I actually had to rewind the movie to make sure I didn't imagine it. It's a nice, quirky touch, one of several, and it's really neat.

You could certainly read into the even-temperedness paired with the quirky characters and see it as a kind of manifesto about being nonjudgemental and embracing humanity in all its strange diverse forms, or being alive to the possibility for wonder in the world, but honestly, I think the movie's charm is in being a sort of plain, straight-forward day-in-the-life piece of joy.

02 October 2009

Master of the Flying Guillotine

This is in many ways a typical 70s kung-fu movie, which is to say it's totally rad and a marvelous way to spend a Sunday afternoon. What is curious about this film, other than the fact that it (or the version I had, at least) alternates between dubbing and subtitles, sometimes mid-sentence, is the way the story is told. Explaining this will obviously involve some serious spoiler action, so if you are generally a fan of kung-fu movies and are thinking about watching this one, stop reading now.

So the movie opens with an old man - a blind old man - who we learn is the master of the flying guillotine, receiving word (via carrier pigeon bearing a sort of braille tablet) that two of his disciples have been assassinated by a one armed man. Let me pause here and say that the flying guillotine is not actually a guillotine, except insofar as it is a device that decapitates people. It's actually more like a kind of gnarly teethed hat on a chain that, used properly, separates people from their heads. It's pretty rad in a 70s special affects kind of way. Anyhow, so homeboy finds out his people have been killed and sets off to get revenge. So far, fairly standard, right?

So things first get a bit odd when he arrives in a town and goes to a restaurant for dinner. While he's there, a one armed man arrives and loudly says something to the effect of "I am a one armed man!" upon which the guillotine master does what he does best. People are kind of horrified, and it turns out that this was the wrong one armed man. Our hero, unfazed, says he doesn't care - he'll kill every one armed man he meets! This is a strange moment. It's absolutely hilarious, but it also doesn't quite seem right in the ethical world of kung-fu films. In fact, it's a subtle indication that our hero's moral compass is flawed, leading one to suspect that he might not be our hero at all.

Then we actually meet the one-armed man - the right one, that is - and a whole host of other characters with various fighting skills, which are brilliantly exhibited in a conveniently organized competition. Look out for the go-go gadget armed "Indian", because wow, he is neat.

I won't bother summarizing the whole plot, because it's long and bizarre and doesn't make a lot of sense, but the point being, as the film progresses, we slowly realize that it's actually the one armed man who's the good guy, not the master of the flying guillotine. This shouldn't really come as a surprise, given that Wang Yu has made a whole series of movies about the one armed man, but in the space of this film, and the way it's set up, it's really kind of odd. There's a gradual and subtle reversal of hero and villain, one that's never explicitly stated.

Mostly though, it's just a sweet movie with super cheesy sound effects that are nonetheless totally awesome, and it's a lot of fun to watch. Not a masterpiece of the genre by any means, but an enjoyable film for sure.

23 September 2009

How to Read World Literature, by David Damrosch

This book was added to the syllabus of the intro world literature class I'm teaching this fall by one of the higher-ups, so I read it today so as to figure out what to do with it. To my surprise (I dunno why I'm so cynical, but I guess this should teach me a lesson), it's actually a really great book. Extremely useful, accessible, and even entertaining. It actually deserves to be required reading in any world literature class! Who woulda thunk, eh?

Damrosch provides a clear, well-written overview of the merits and problems of studying "world" literature. The book handily explores questions of definition, translation, cross-cultural interpretation and understanding, and how to think about some of the power dynamics involved in this area. There's a particularly strong chapter on how various texts portray other places, that is particularly well done. Overall, the examples are useful and interesting - he tends towards the slightly profane or lewd ones, I think, which gives the book a nice irreverent feel, and will hopefully keep the students' interest. The text closes with a consideration of globalization and how it has shaped the reading - and writing - of world literature.

Whether you're just beginning literary studies or are, say, a phd student in comparative literature who has spent an awful lot of time thinking about the notion of world literature, the book is not only of interest, but even contains useful and interesting insights. I was really impressed. Much recommended.

PS - If my students turn out to have surprising reactions to the book, I'll report back.

19 September 2009

Chicken with Plums, by Marjane Satrapi

So, I'm probably one of the few people out there who really didn't like Persepolis. This might have something to do with the fact that I had read Maus not that long before, and I just wasn't ready to acknowledge the genius of anyone else's graphic novel autobiography. I dunno. Maybe I'll give it another try. But my friend Kasia and her husband Krzyś came to visit me this weekend and brought me Chicken With Plums as a gift. I woke up early the next morning in a flood of sunshine and started reading it, and was instantly absorbed. It's a wonderful, wry story, loving yet dark, really a wonderful book. I finished it in under an hour and felt, just, pleased. It was a pleasing book.

I don't want to give too much away, because I came to the book knowing nothing at all about it and the process of discovery was a large part of the pleasure, so I'll just tell you that the story is of a man named Nasser Ali Khan, a musician whose beloved instrument is broken. Unable to find another that can produce the same quality of sound, he lays down in his bed to die. It sounds grim, and it is, but the book is also curiously lighthearted without flinching away from the depressing sides, which are quite powerful. It ends up being this really kind of wonderful story, opening onto a lot of broader themes and issues, but not in a way that you can really restate without reducing.

The weakest moments are, first, when Satrapi lets you know that the main hero was actually her uncle ('cuz personally, I just don't really care. I suppose this is why I didn't like her autobiography. There's something about the way she describes her own life that I find tremendously off-putting), and second, when she adds a bit o' the ol' homespun wisdom, ie, the anecdote about the blind men touching the elephant. Look, we've all heard that anecdote a bazillion times. It's tired. It may be a wise tale, it may be appropriate to the moment in the text, but it just feels stale. And this coming from me, who loves elephants.

Otherwise, though, it's really just a wonderful book. Nice artwork too. Highly recommended.

15 September 2009

Trouble, by Kate Christensen

Not as good as The Great Man, but decidedly better than The Epicure's Lament. I think Christensen's strong point is smart, sultry, sassy middle aged women. Her books aren't quite chick lit, in that I tend to think of chick lit as involving annoying, whiny, stereotypical women, and hers tend to throw back tequila shots, maybe some some herb, bed attractive (and sometimes just sorta cute) men and curse a lot. Oh, and eat lots of good food. But there's definitely a kind of guilty pleasure aspect. I can't help but cringe a little bit whenever they discuss aging and appearance, because I try to pretend that I will love myself no matter how many wrinkles I have, and I sure as hell don't want to be self-conscious and wondering whether a guy I'm trying to take home is going to find my nekkid body attractice just because I'm over 40.

Uh... anyways. So Trouble is mostly a kind of character study. The center of the novel is Josie, who in the opening pages realizes she wants a divorce. Josie is a therapist, and there's a bit of an interesting dynamic in terms of her talking to her patients, how she interacts with them, how they reflect her life, etc. But soon she's off to Mexico City to spend some recovery time with one of her best friends, a pop star fleeing the gossip columns. The whole pop star bit is kind of over the top. As is the terrible relationship that Josie and her daughter have. The plot, unfortunately, starts to veer towards the overly melodramatic, but nonetheless, the book is an enjoyable read, simply because Christensen is an interesting, engaging and most importantly, intelligent, writer. It's pop fiction for liberal arts college grads. Thus, the main character finds herself reflecting on political activism, colonialism, etc - the kinds of things I think about! But without going into long, boring analyses of them - they're just sort of thoughts that flash through her mind, in a very true to life fashion.

I also really appreciated the way that she was a slightly neurotic character, as so many of us are, but she wasn't totally defined by her neuroses. And at one particularly interesting point, she realizes that she's read way too much into a certain interaction with someone and totally misunderstood. So there's this nice moment where she's talking to this guy and telling him about various impressions about people, and he sets her straight on a number of things. She then feels like an ass, and tells him so, and he gently tells her that no, she's actually quite perceptive, she just misinterprets some things. It's not a big deal. I found this immensely soothing, because misinterpreting things is something I am both prone to and despise myself for, and it was very calming to be told that it's really not a big deal.

Uh... Yeah. So that's the thing. It's not a great book - again, if you're gonna read anything of hers, I DO recommend The Great Man, which I thought was a lot of fun (though the one male I recommended it to didn't like it at all, so it might be more chick lit-y than I realize). But this one is really not that great, though it is a fairly engaging and enjoyable page turner.

10 September 2009

The Dream Life of Balso Snell, and A Cool Million, by Nathanael West

I picked this one up randomly at a bookstore (it has a very eye-catching cover) and I'm so glad I did. The novels are a sort of bizarre, satiric, quasi-surreal romp that's an absolute delight to read. Lewd, funny, clever, and generally entertaining. I liked Balso Snell more than A Cool Million, but both were amusing.

Balso Snell features a protagonist who enters a Trojan Horse, wanders around inside and meets a host of strange characters. That's pretty much it in the way of plot - a surreal picaresque, if you will. Cool Million is the story of a country boy trying to make it in the big city, except with all the violence, gore and plaintive misery included. His sweetheart fares especially poorly, and I suppose some might be offended by how often she gets raped, and how humorous those moments generally are, but, you know, the moments where the hero loses various limbs are also quite funny, so hey. Style-wise, it's the sort of dry absurdist humor that I adore - very reminiscent of Flann O'Brien, except with Americana instead of Irish folklore.

What fun!

08 September 2009

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Mindful of the wrath I incurred when I panned Elliot Perlman's 7 Types of Ambiguity, I will try to be a bit more, um, restrained in describing this book - because basically, my impressions of it were rather similar. Entertaining enough to read - quite absorbing initially, in fact - it sort of failed to really wow me. Which is unfortunate, because the first 150 pages or so, I was totally enthralled and excited about it. Then it just sort of petered out.

The book is a series of nested stories, spanning over time and space. I don't want to say too much about it, because most of the pleasure of the text is in the discovery, but basically, they stories are all sort of connected, but the author can't seem to settle on what kind of connection that really is. Meanwhile, the stories themselves are all fairly interesting, a bit o' the old excitement. Mitchell is to be commended for writing in so many different voices, most of which are quite successful and compelling.

Reviewers on goodreads.com are crazy about it, praising its cleverness and saying it's really a life-changing sort of book. Well, I disagree. It didn't seem all that brilliant or profound to me, just sort of interesting. For a 500 page book, it certainly goes quickly, and like I said, it's a pleasant read, but the thing is, it just didn't seem all that profound, nor did it really have much to say in terms of broader reflections on humanity, society, etc. Or so it seemed to me.

So as mentioned above, the overall effect was similar to the Perlman novel, to me, though Cloud Atlas at least was less ostentatious about its own supposed cleverness. Ultimately, I don't particularly recommend either book, but they're not altogether terrible either.

03 September 2009

District B13

Honestly, I'm speechless. This movie was so fucking sweet that there's not much for me to say, other than go rent it right now. It's on Watch Instantly on the Netflix. It's awesome from start to finish.

02 September 2009

Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is an absolutely incredible prosaist. I mean, it's really amazing the way he can just conjure up this terrifically vivid scene is the most perfect words in a way that comes across as completely effortless. And then can flip it and show you how he does it, and say something like no no no, let's do it like this instead, and pull out another one, simultaneously pulling you into this fictional universe and then taunting you with a reminder that he's the one running the show. It's incredible, but unfortunately, after awhile you find yourself less impressed with his artistry, and more irritated with the way he jerks you around. He's a little too pleased with himself, particularly in this novel. I still maintain that his autobiography, Speak, Memory, is a dazzling, poignant piece of artistry, but honestly, his novels - well, this one and Lolita anyhow - are just not as good.

Despair is particularly irritating because it feels like such a rip off of Dostoevsky. It's like Crime and Punishment, Notes from the Underground, and The Double all rolled into one. Although you're initially sort of intrigued (and impressed by the prose), it rapidly becomes sort of predictable and ho-hum. Not to mention, the main character becomes more and more irritating as the novel progresses. Actually, it reads like something that an adolescent who loved Crime and Punishment but largely missed the point of it would write. Or maybe I just have less patience with mind-of-a-murderer stories than I used to. In any case, it was unconvincing, and just not that compelling. Next!

26 August 2009

Quantum of Solace

This entry really ought to be subtitled Get Your Hate On! because oh boy did I ever hate this movie. Apparently I never wrote an entry for Casino Royale - which I also despised - so I can't just tell you that Quantum of Solace took all the things that I hated about the last movie and raised them to the 10th degree. We'll have to start from scratch.

Look, if you want to make a James Bond movie, make one. It's a distinct genre, unlike other action movies. There are certain key features that we know and love, namely, gadgets, ridiculous plots, cheesy puns, Miss Moneypenny, hot chicks, and of course, James Bond himself, the super smooth, ultra masculine, badass ladies man.

I didn't particularly like Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, because I find him sort of bizarrely repugnant in a strange, slimy sort of way. But I have to admit he did a pretty good turn as Bond, even if the movies weren't all that great. To be honest, re-watching some of the old Bond films, they're not nearly as good as you remember. You love them because they're so familiar and similar.**

Now, Casino Royale, I didn't like, because while it had some of the necessary Bond elements - especially the cheesy puns! - I thought it was lacking in a certain kind of masculine vigor. To state it plainly, Bond was way too emo. When he started explaining that he has problems with commitment, my jaw dropped. What?!? Since when is James Bond's lack of commitment a PROBLEM? Since when does he have feelings? And why in the fuck should I give a shit about them? Thus, I thought it was strangely appropriate that 20 minutes of the film were devoted to him being repeatedly hit in the balls, because on a metaphorical level, that had been happening for the entire film***.

I think Daniel Craig could potentially be a convincing Bond (his role in Layer Cake certainly suggests as much). Unfortunately, somebody got it into their head that James Bond needed a more human dimension, which they apparently took to mean angsty and emo as fuck. They worked it in Casino Royale, and apparently decided they hadn't really done enough. So in Quantum of Solace, EVERYONE is angsty. It's kind of a running competition really between Bond and M as to who can have more soul searching scenes. Craig spends most of the movie in exquisite torment, looking for all the world like a man who could use a big hug and maybe a teddy bear. There's another component too, which is that jesus christ, he kept getting clobbered. I suppose some people had complained that he never seems to get hurt and is always spotless and suave. Yes, that's the point. Here, he looks beaten to shit for most of the film. What's especially ridiculous is that it seems like they wanted him to get battered and bloody, but without compromising his general badassness, so rather than have him get beaten up by villains, he just has one mishap after another, where he swings into walls, falls from great heights and hits every blessed protruding thing on the way down, etc. It verged on slapstick at times. I turned to my boyfriend and was like "Is it just me, or does he have the worst luck ever?" Interestingly, my boyfriend, who had complained that Captain Kirk got beaten up too much in Star Trek, didn't think that James Bond's apparent clumsiness reflected poorly on his overall skills. Personally I think it's far more impressive to show that you can take a hit as well as dish one out than to run into shit every five minutes.

So that was my main objection - Bond sucked. Of course, there were others - the dialogue, for instance, was atrociously written. Also, the villain was almost absurdly evil. This was actually kind of interesting. Bond villains are generally bizarre caricatures, and they're generally connected to various political dynamics (especially the Cold War). This time, the villain symbolizes the evil of multinational corporations. So that was kind of intriguing. He still had all these weird personal neuroses and general creepy bad guy traits, but ok. And then they just start making him more and more evil. It starts to get kind of ridiculous. They cement it, though, by making his partner in crime, the Bolivian general, really really really evil, and they make that especially clear with a really disturbing rape scene that's just sort of casually thrown into the film. I'm a pansy when it comes to rape scenes. I don't like them. They really disturb me. I don't wanna watch them unless they're really necessary to the plot. This one was pretty effin' gratuitous, and I resented being made to sit through it - especially because it cuts away from it to something else, then back again, then away, then back. It's like PLEASE ENOUGH ALREADY.

So I had worked myself up into a proper froth of hateration fairly quickly in this movie, and this is probably why I found the action sequences incredibly irritating as well. Why? Because they were unbelievably pretentious. There's a long scene that takes place during an opera, and the movie cuts between the shoot-out and the action onstage. Now, aside from the fact that this was already done in The 5th Element, my main feeling was - give me a fucking break guys. This is not high art you're making here. Get off your high horse and gimme some 'splosions. In fact, the cinematography is the movie is generally quite fancy and high brow. Unfortunately, given the plot and dialogue it's working with, it comes across as clunking and ridiculous. On a better day, I might even have appreciated it, but as it was, I hated it all the more.

So yeah, basically, I hated this movie. That's probably more to do with me than it is with the movie, but still, man, I really, really hated it.

** I have heard the argument that the point is to modernize the James Bond franchise and make it more like today's action films. Again - if I wanna watch today's action films, I will. But when I'm watching a James Bond film, the only modernizing I really want is more cooler special effects and bad-assitude. And even those, I don't want too over the top. There's a reason there are a zillion James Bond movies that are all very similar - because people like them. They will continue to watch new ones. They will be perfectly happy if they are just like the old ones. If you dilute them so much with other general action stuff, they will become just like all other action films, and then they will be less, not more, compelling.

***I had a similar reaction watching XXX, the movie that was supposed to make Vin Diesel the hottest thing in action movies. When he tells his new lady that he's gonna try to get her American citizenship, his action career ended in my eyes. Look, I'm all for falling in love and having relationships. But that's just not what an international man of mystery does. It's not that I whole-heartedly approved of Bond's womanizing ways, it's just that they were given as a fact not to be questioned or contemplated. If you start getting into the psychology of it, then, well, he just comes across looking like an asshole who treats women like shit.

24 August 2009

Shakespeare Behind Bars

This movie is good enough to give you a taste of just how incredible the material that it presents is, but not quite incredible enough to be a really amazing movie. It's strange - watching it, I thought it dragged a bit, and wasn't all that effectively presented, but at the same time, there are some incredibly powerful scenes in it. I had this sense that if the narrative framework that held it all together was a bit more organized, it could have been a really phenomenal movie, but at the same time, I appreciated that it didn't necessarily try to push those moments into an overly intrusive sort of plot line.

The movie is about a program in a prison that has convicts performing Shakespeare plays. There are two aspects about it that are really amazing: one, the convicts themselves, and two, the Shakespeare aspect.

First, the convicts. I don't know much about convicts and what it's like to be one. I have strong views about the prison system and how messed up it is, etc, and a strong belief that society presents prisoners as thoroughly evil people, and denies them a real chance at rehabilitation (an amazing film that deals with this, by the way, is The Woodsman), but it's pretty powerful to actually hear the prisoners themselves talk about their lives. One very clever aspect of the film is that it doesn't tell you about the crimes people have committed right off the bat. As the film progresses, it gradually introduces clips of the men themselves revealing their crimes. These are often absolutely devastating moments. And their accounts, and how they make sense of their lives, is really fascinating. It kind of makes you think about how people make sense of evil, to put it in rather extreme terms. One guy, for instance, describes the multiple crimes he committed, and how he tried to become "good". But he always seeks an external cause for his actions - it was the people he was with, the place he lived, etc. Another guy describes his crime and then talks about wanting to achieve some kind of redemption, and contemplates how he could do that. It's intense stuff, and all the more so because it's interspersed in these moments where they're just going about their everyday lives in prison, and really seem for all the world like "normal" guys. Although the film doesn't really push the point, the movie does also illustrate how messed up the prison system is - indeed, I suppose it would be difficult NOT to.

The second aspect is that it makes you realize just how brilliant Shakespeare really is. I mean, the way these guys relate to these plays and the various themes in them, and how one can use the plays to consider what it means to be human, and the nature of good and evil, is just amazing. The friend who recommended the movie to me was saying how it made her want to go out in the world and teach Shakespeare, because it made her see how doing so could make the world a better place. Watching the movie - I completely understand why she felt that way, and I absolutely shared the sentiment. It's a really powerful example of how literature can inspire philosophical and ethical reflection in these really amazing ways.

Like I said though, the movie somehow doesn't quite achieve the greatness that its material deserves, and it's sort of hard to explain why. Nonetheless, I think it's absolutely worth watching - I just wish it were better.

19 August 2009

GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra

This is one of the worst movies that I've seen in a long, long time. And that's saying a lot. Especially coming from me, who generally has a lot of time for big budget Hollywood action movies, and plenty of patience for their flaws and foibles. But GI Joe pushed me over the edge almost immediately. I pretty much hated every minute of it. I was so annoyed that even the special effects bugged me. It was that terrible.

The big problem with the movie is the dialogue. It's SO bad. There bad that's so bad it's good (aka, The Room), and then there's just bad. This movie was firmly in the latter category. If you want a taste, check out Christopher Orr's piece on the movie - he gave up on reviewing it and just provided a series of quotes. I mean, I usually love cheesy dialogue - I enjoy puns, for goddsakes - but this was horrific.

But bad dialogue won't sink your film, so long as you somehow manage to make at least some of your characters likeable. Or at least something akin to human. But the people in this movie are such absurd pastiches of poor dialogue that there's really nothing even remotely believable about them, which made it basically impossible to engage with them on any sort of human level. There's Duke, the totally wooden and humorless "hero". There's Shana "Scarlett" O'Hara, who's supposed to be an intelligent woman, which apparently involves being an android, because, you know, emotions are irrational, so therefore she as an intellectual cannot have them. There's McCullen, the deranged Scot who's hellbent on destroying the world, because that's just how Scots roll. The movie clearly establishes this by setting up a tradition of arms dealings and atavism going back to 1641. There's the token black guy, who comes action-packed with plenty of self-deprecating humor (he's dumb! and inept! he gets arrested!) and lots of slang so that he can keep it real***. And of course, there's the deformed evil scientist. We don't really ever find out why he's evil. I won't spoil the plot by lingering over some of the many other plot problems connected with him, but I shouldn't need to - if you do see the movie, they'll be clear enough.

Look, I don't demand that action movies be realistic. But within the constraints they set themselves - digging a hole to the center of the Earth, fighting a race of evil robots, an ancient shark, a mummy, etc - I do expect them to be at least somewhat consistent. If you are attempting to steal a case full of warheads, it is really, really dumb to go about it by blowing up the vehicle transporting it, because, well, that seems likely to destroy it. If you are an elite fighting force pursuing somebody who intends to release a warhead containing metal-eating nanonites somewhere in Paris, it should not be a startling discovery that their target is the Eiffel Tower. If someone is brainwashed by nanonites in their body, they can't just get kinda partially unbrainwashed by suddenly having flashbacks of cuddling scenes. Ugh. I could go on, but why bother.

Ok, so finally, the special effects. The fighting scenes were pretty badass, I have to admit. If I hadn't been so irritated and had cared even a smidgeon about the characters, I probably would have been perfectly happy with them. The technology was pretty neato but to me, it was a little too neat and shiny - it just looked cartoonish and fake. I wasn't as thrilled by it, because it just wasn't believable, even if it was kind of cool. As the movie progressed, I found myself rolling my eyes - especially at the costumes, which were just preposterous and impractical. I know that's standard, but like I said, I had lost all willingness to suspend disbelief.

Overall - worst. movie. ever. 2 hours of my life I will never get back.

***I honestly am not sure what bothers me more, his character or Michael Bay's illiterate afro-bots. I mean, Micheal Bay is racist as fuck, but he's so over the top about it that it becomes kind of ludicrous and extravagant. For instance, my boyfriend and I were discussing the scene in Bad Boys II where Will Smith does this amazing parody of a dude from the 'hood grilling his niece's date. That scene is completely over the top and absolutely hilarious, as it is clearly intended to be. Now, if you want to be extremely charitable, you could argue that the over-the-top minstrelsy of the Transformers movies is intended in the same way. Myself, I'd say it goes too far and crosses a line, but let's pretend for a minute. That, to my mind, is far preferable to Marlon Wayans' character in this movie, which does not in any way signal itself to be a parody or exaggeration. Whereas in the Transformers movies, pretty much EVERYTHING is. Nothing in those movies is taken seriously, it's all tongue in cheek and poking fun at all kinds of stereotypes. Or at least, one can see it that way. There's just no charitable reading of this one. It's perhaps less blatantly offensive, but that's part of what's so infuriating about it. It's so nonchalantly stupid.

18 August 2009

The Saragossa Manuscript

I'm currently working on a chapter about the novel this film is based on, so I figured I oughta check it out. Also, I was kind of curious how it could be done - the novel is a 600 page behemoth of stories within stories within stories. I have seen one adaptation of it, the Looking Glass Theatre's theatrical version which was, it must be said, absolutely dismal. The thing is, it's a massive text and there's a lot going on. There's no way you can do justice to that complexity in 3 hours. So you have to pick out some key themes and just stick with them. The Looking Glass went with lots of touchy feely religious tolerance stuff with some mommy issues on the side, which involved butchering the text and slapping on an ending that undoubtedly has the author clawing the inside of his grave. The movie, I'm happy to say, did it far more justice. In fact, although it somewhat shows its age and feels a bit theatre-y, it's a pretty well done movie. Then again though, it's hard for me to assess whether it would be of any interest to the average viewer, because I've basically been totally immersed in the book for what feels like eternity.

One of the greatest strengths of the film is the cinematography, which is gorgeous. The second thing that's done well is the overall tone - funny and cheerfully absurd (the material is in the text, but the actors ham it up to the max), but also dreamy and surrealistic, which is fitting. They do change the ending of the book, but honestly, I think it's kind of an improvement. They also do an interesting job on the interspersed stories. While many a director would throw on some Wayne's World diddlyoops or some kind of fade out, here it just cuts to a new story. This might be confusing to people less familiar with the text, but actually, that might be a good thing, because the multiplicity of narratives in the novel is truly dazzling, and this might be the closest the film can get to producing that effect.

The main minus is that the movie is really long. 3 hours. And it kind of drags at times, as does the book, because really, it's just a big collection of random stories. Still, it's an interesting movie, I think, and well worth watching if you can gets your hands on a copy.

*Fun fact: the movie was made in the 60s but re-released in the 90s thanks to Jerry Garcia, Martin Scorsesee and Francis Ford Coppola, who financed its restoration and distribution, apparently out of great love for the film.

11 August 2009

The Hurt Locker

Three entries in one day! I know! And this one will probably be pretty weak, given that I'm feeling a bit pooped. But I felt like I couldn't not mention The Hurt Locker, which is really a fantastic movie, destined to be a classic.

The film follows a bomb squad in Iraq. There's a kind of overarching narrative that revolves around a bomb specialist, but it's not overbearing - the movie is more episodic in nature, showing a series of day in the life of the characters. There are three main guys that the movie is focused on, but also a cast of surprisingly well defined minor characters. It's a really subtle, well done film, with the various characters contrasting with each other in really fascinating ways. It's through the characters, and their interactions, that the movie investigates the nature of modern warfare, the clash of cultures, and the meaning of heroism. I was really impressed by Jarhead (the book, rather than the movie, though that was aight) for the way in which it reflected on what being in war, and the training to go there, does to people, but I have to say, this movie does it in a much more interesting way. Finally, the film's eye for detail is incredible, and the cinematography is poignant. It's a really, really good movie.

P.S. I am, by the way, totally fascinated by Kathryn Bigelow, the director. She is also responsible for K-19: The Widowmaker, which I believe is the most expensive film ever made by a female director, Strange Days (added to the Netflix queue), Blue Steel, and Point Break. If that doesn't intrigue you, then, well, you're very different from me. I would love to know more about her - I've looked around for interviews, and this one is kind of interesting, but very short. Not that I have any idea what I'd like to ask her, and I suppose she sort of speaks for herself through her films, but yeah, I wanna hear more of what she has to say.

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, by Sebastian Barry

This is the first Sebastian Barry book I've read, but I must say, his prose is wonderful. Sparkling, lively, evocative, lots of wonderful descriptions, and generally quite entertaining.

The content doesn't quite live up to the style, I think. Or maybe I'm just being snippy, I dunno. But I almost want to say that there's something too lighthearted and good-natured about the book. Even when it's describing something utterly horrific, it's strangely cheerful.

Also, the book treats history and politics with a rather broad stroke. There's a real underlying bitterness about the violence of the IRA and the coercive nature of nationalism that is perhaps not unwarranted, but it stridently ignores the other side of the story. I suppose maybe that's a worthwhile aspect, to give the other (Irish) side of the story, but I couldn't help but feel a touch irked by it. Nonetheless, it does cover an interesting portion of history, and draws a vague though intriguing parallel between Irish and Nigerian liberation movements. I suppose its pessimism is a valiant corrective to the normal postcolonial ebullience.

Anyways, politics aside, as a story, it's entertaining and sympathetic. I'm not in a huge rush to read another Barry novel (I've got Long Way Home on my to-read shelf) but I did really enjoy the descriptive passages, especially the ones about sex. There's something wonderfully vibrant about the words he uses to describe things, it's really lovely.

Political Readings

Perhaps you have seen this article in the BBC about Venezuela's Revolutionary Reading Program, instituted by Huge Chavez as part of a larger project to instill socialist and humanistic values in the masses? Personally, I think it's a really neat idea, a government book club. I think it would perhaps be even more effective if it were combined with something like Book It! Corporate sponsored socialist consciousness raising! What an idea! Seriously though, I think it would be fabulous if the US government put out a list (and perhaps also distributed free copies) of books they think everyone ought to read. Then I realized that I guess this is kind of what, you know, high school government classes are for. But those, I think, mostly focus on history? I was in Germany that year of high school, so I dunno.

Anyhow, I was quite upset to discover that the Venezuelan list is nowhere to be found online - how am I supposed to become a Revolutionary Reader if I can't access the syllabus? But I have, in the meantime, been amusing myself by contemplating what books I would encourage every American citizen to read. One that comes to mind is Whiteness of a Different Color, by Matthew Frye Jacobson; or at least excerpts from it. I think it'd be nice, particularly given American obesity and junk food culture, if everyone read Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser and The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, but I guess those aren't as necessary. It's a nice thought experiment, anyhow.

Meanwhile, my friend James just sent me a link to a list of books that Obama has been sighted reading. I haven't read any of them, actually. I personally can't stand Dave Eggers, so I was surprised to see that one on there. Walcott is wonderful. The rest seem to all be non-fiction - I'm most curious abaout the Zakaria book. I read an interview with him in Playboy awhile ago, he seemed like a really smart guy.

Anyhow, fun stuff. People are so obsessed with role models for the youth and all that - I think that actually, role models are especially important in creating future readers.

09 August 2009

Pather Panchali

My friend Dustin summed up this film pretty well - it's powerful but devastating, one misery after another but so well made that you feel genuinely present, totally absorbed in the story. There's something about the way it's shot, I think, and the sparse, unaffected story telling style, that makes it seem sort of simple and everyday, despite the fact that for the most part, the everyday isn't exactly a barrel of laughs.

02 August 2009

Daimons, by Nina FitzPatrick

The final collaboration between Nina Witoszek and Pat Sheeran is a charming, hilarious novel, a wonderful send-up of Irish culture and society. It's sparkling, witty, and quite amusing, characterized by the same sort of humor that one finds in their other books, Fables of the Irish Intelligentsia and The Loves of Faustyna; in other words, a kind of raunchy enjoyment of well worn cliche.

The Polish-Irish aspect is in some ways most visible in this book. You could sort of see it in Fables, which were stories of Irish life, and Faustyna, whose titular protagonist was a Polish woman, but in this novel it's more curious, in that it's set wholly in Ireland, yet there are occasional, often unexplained references to Polish things.
Of course, there are also great references to Irish stuff - I particularly relished seeing Declan Kiberd get namechecked - and really, the book is a very smart take on Irish culture overall, I'd say. In particular, it raises some really nice points about society's relationship to (and commodification of) the past in amusing ways. It's also a nice satire of the West of Ireland overall.

But that's sort of beside the point. As a novel, it has to be admitted, it's not perfect. It definitely loses steam towards the end, and generally, the sprawling cast of characters is a bit more than is manageable, but nonetheless, it's a charming, entertaining book. Not the best Nina Fitzpatrick work - I think that honor goes to Fables - but great fun in any case.

01 August 2009

Sita Sings the Blues

I'll be teaching the Mahabarata to freshmen in the fall, so I figured I'd start gearing up by checking out this movie, which I missed when it was playing last year. Sita Sings the Blues is an animated feature that combines a retelling of the Ramayana with the story of the director's (Nina Paley) divorce. A curious idea, and the end result is worth watching, if somewhat disappointing.

First, the good part - the Ramayana portion is pretty delightful. Irreverent, certainly, but charming and quite clever. It's narrated by three characters who also provide a running commentary ("And then it turned out she was pregnant. Maybe they joined the Mile High Club?" "So what, she's just a bloodthirsty woman?") which is really well done, a very intelligent take on the text. It's also accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack of old jazzy blues songs by Annette Hanshaw that are just terrific. FYI - you can buy Ms. Hanshaw's complete best of, 47 (!) tracks, for only $9.99. I'm downloading them as I type this. So, yeah, Ramayana - lovely. Lots of fun.

The problem with the movie is the "parallel" story, that of the director's divorce. First off, there's not much there - to summarize, she and her husband are apparently madly in love. He gets a 6 month job in India, and he seems to grow a bit distant, metaphorically speaking. She comes to India, and he is quite clearly distant (this is conveyed, however, in just one scene of her in a bra and panties in bed, and him going to sleep instead of making love to her). She flies to New York for a meeting, and receives an email from him telling her not to come back. She is very sad. Very very sad. Then she starts reading Ramayana. End of movie. Seriously. It's actually even sparser than I'm making it sound. So, I guess there's sort of a parallel to Ramayana, in that Sita ultimately tells Rama to take a leap because she's tired of his bullshit, but that's a pretty weak parallel. Then, there's the fact that her husband was in India, so I guess that's kind of a link. But really, it seems like the point is, Ms. Paley read Ramayana while all this stuff was happening, and probably related to it on some kind of deep level, such that she decided to make a movie of it, and then she figured she'd keep the part about her relating to it in the movie.

Now, I don't want to be harsh about this, but here's the thing - either give me a solid reason why I should find your story as compelling as the Ramayana, show me how your own personal experience with the text illuminates it and brings out meanings that simply reading it on its own wouldn't, or - leave your story out. I'm sure it was a very difficult time for you. I imagine working on this film was a comfort. But putting in the story of your marriage ending comes across as pretty self-indulgent. Sorry.

Meanwhile though, as a cartoon version of the Ramayana - it's a lovely film. Worth checking out.

Dead Snow

An unrepentantly goofy, gory, and utterly delightful zombie flick.

I honestly don't have all that much to say about this movie other than that it was a blast. Nazi zombies! In the snow! Nonsensical plot! Very funny stuff!

The two movies that come to mind as related to this one are The Descent, for the nature element - although Dead Snow doesn't do as much with it, there is an avalanche scene that could have been pushed a lot further. It seems curious to me to have a zombie movie that simultaneously pits the protagonists against nature itself. It kind of highlights the strange non-naturalness of zombies, not to mention the fact that really, nature is way more badass than any monster. Though I guess the humans do triumph over it, sort of.
It also sort of makes one think of Shaun of the Dead, mostly for the whole zombie movie that self-consciously references zombie movies aspect. This is actually something that bears thinking about, in that it seems increasingly common. Is this the sign of a genre dying out, that it becomes a kind of accumulation of references while still repeating the same old tricks? Or is it a sign of its perseverance, an impressive registering of a long noble heritage, and the fact that even though the audience pretty much knows exactly what's gonna happen from the get-go, it's still enjoyable to watch? Has fright simply transmogrified into new forms? Are we more afraid of terrorists than monsters?
Actually, there's another interesting point there, in that some would say that it's old school American horror that's died out, whereas Japanese horror, for instance, is going strong (or at least it was a few years ago - the fad seems to have passed now). So it's interesting that this movie is a clear throwback to American cinema - especially given that it's apparently one of the first Norwegian horror flicks, a rare specimen.

Oh - one weird aspect of Dead Snow is its obsession with poop. There's a big focus on intestines. And there's an outhouse scene that's just gross. Is this its bold, original take? Zombie film - now with Nazis and poop!

Anyhow. Entertaining movie.

31 July 2009

Stadion: The Devil's Playground, by Ify Nwamana

So, I actually read this in Polish (the translated title is Stadion, Diabelskie Igrzyska) because I didn't realize it was a translation, but then when I looked online, it turned out that it's difficult if not impossible to get it in the original, or so it seemed. Which is ok though, because honestly, it's not a very good book.

Stadion is, basically, about African immigrants in Poland. It is written by a guy from Nigeria, so, you know, presumably someone who knows what he's talking about. It's particularly about people who start working - selling stuff - at the Stadion in Warsaw. Or rather, those who used to, because the Eurocup 2012 has pretty much ended sales there, which is a tragedy because in its day, the Stadion was an extremely impressive bazaar. I was a big fan of the place, and regularly bought pirated cds and random trinkets there. So I was excited to read this book, because it seemed right up my alley.

So, definitely, at moments, it's very interesting. I enjoyed seeing Poland through the eyes of a Nigerian immigrant. He made some really interesting points about Polish politics and life that I simply wouldn't think of. For instance, there's a scene where the main protagonist and his friends are talking, and they wonder why Poland doesn't ally itself - economically speaking - with Russia and Germany. At which point most Poles are inclined to think "Are you out your goddamn mind?!?" but he goes on to point out that the US and Britain, who Poland has been faithful to for CENTURIES, have pretty much done nothing but shit on us that whole time (which is true). So, hmmm. Good point. This is obviously a somewhat simplistic example, but there are plenty of moments like this that sort of make you see things in a new way.

What was most strange about the book, I have to say, was all the sex. So, on the one hand, the narrator talks about how there are all these stereotypes (in Poland, but really all over) of African men as having huge cocks and massive sex drives. But then, pretty much all of his characters have... you guessed it. And ain't nothin' subtle about it either. The sex scenes are actually gratingly obnoxious in this regard. In fact, there's a weird sort of auto-exoticization going on in a lot of the sex scenes, with lines like "She ran her hands over his rippling black muscles" that are just weird and kind of gross.

Ultimately, the thing is though, the book is boring. The plot is clumsy, the writing is flat, and the characters, though initially sympathetic, become less and less likeable as the text continues. In a sense, the plot arc chronicles how hard immigrants in Poland have it - how many of them end up in refugee centers, where they're given a mere pittance in spending money, but also not allowed to work. So many of them turn to illegal work - at the Stadion, for instance. Fair enough, makes perfect sense. But as the text progresses, you get more and more stories of people who are playing the system, shredding their passports on the plane so they can claim they're from whatever country they want, then making up a sob story of political oppression just to get a visa. Meanwhile people who have been genuinely oppressed are getting screwed. I mean, I have fairly radical views on immigration, but it bugs me how this guy is basically disseminating stories that confirm the worst fears of xenophobes. What's worse, is as the text progresses, the characters move from illegal work that really doesn't hurt anyone (well, except maybe major corporations like Nike) to cheating people out of their money. Usually people who have somehow helped them or befriended them. At this point, it's pretty hard to feel any sort of sympathy for them whatsoever. Throw on a side plot of how the main character is constantly cheating on his wife, and well, yeah, there's not much to like anymore.

Also, one of the characters, Charlie, is an obvious stand in for Simon Mol. It's not a particularly flattering portrayal - although the text doesn't come down either way on whether or not he knowingly infected women with AIDS (which is what he was accused of doing, though it was never proved), but it does depict all his human rights work as being purely for money and attention. It's a really, really negative depiction. It really makes you wonder - I mean, it's the kind of book where if someone Polish had written it, I imagine there would be an apoplectic response, at least in some quarters, of people infuriated by these negative portrayals. In fact, in some of the more clever moments of the text, this type of thing is actually depicted. And then the book blithely continues on with its own approach.

Now, there's something to be said for realism, and I don't think you have to paint all foreigners as angels. The problem is though, the characters in the novel are thinly veiled cliches, and the writing is terribly formulaic. The perspective may be "authentic", but the voice comes across as extremely canned. It reads like somebody took a Creative Writing 101 course and the product was published because the topic is interesting. And it is - I just hope that more gifted writers will take it on in the near future.

13 July 2009

Angry Black White Boy or, The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay, by Adam Mansbach

Another book that suffers from an underwhelming finale. Angry Black White Boy was shaping up to be one of the more impressive books I'd read in quite a long time, all the more so because it's so contemporary and timely and clever, and then it went wheels off the tracks in bizarro land. Granted, it would have been a tough book to conclude anyhow. But the solution the author came up with was like something out of a Choose Your Own Adventure story; totally strange, quite disturbing, and highly unsatisfying.

Prior to that, however, it's a tremendous book, and a really intelligent examination of race issues in the US today. Macon Detornay is a white kid from the suburbs of Boston who loves hiphop in a major way, and desperately wants to live by its teachings. He's also smart enough to realize that he is not and will never be black, and that it would be extremely offensive of him to pretend otherwise. He has, however, learned to hate white people, and this includes a strong dose of self hatred.

If the novel were entirely from Macon's perspective, it'd be irritating in the extreme. Because he's not only self righteous and pretty full of himself, he's also ridden with hypocrisy (though at least he's smart enough to realize it sometimes). But the novel refuses to take the timeworn irony excuse - yes he's annoying but you're meant to (occasionally) read him ironically and figure that out - no, the author is smart enough to realize that a lot of the problems of Macon's worldview might be too subtle for the reader to catch, and therefore occasionally makes one privy to the thoughts and reactions of others (who may themselves be flawed). It's really, really well done, and it's a highly thought provoking text. The examination of race issues, especially as related to hiphop, is given an added layer by a bit of deeper history - Macon is related to a key player in the history of the segregation of baseball. It might sound cheesy, but it's actually a really nice touch.

But the book doesn't just stop at the problem of white fans of hiphop - it also considers the problem of political action. You see, Macon has decided to fight against White People (and raise awareness about racism) by robbing them. And - it strains credibility a wee bit, but it's worth going along for the ride - he becomes a kind of folk hero. Well, to some. To others he's a race traitor, and to others he's just plain crazy. But in any case, he becomes An Event of sorts, and the consequences are thought provoking.

Also, it should be said, the book is often hilariously funny, and for hiphop heads, full of tidbits of music history and some surprisingly good rhymes, on occasion.

It's a worthwhile read, especially for hiphop fans, just be forewarned - the ending is a let-down.

10 July 2009

The Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing is an amazing writer in many ways. Her prose is harsh yet lyrical, evocative and absolutely gripping. Politically, she's a fascinating writer, excoriating ignorance, racism, and greed but without resorting to caricature - her characters are revolting and yet strangely human and sympathetic. This book is no different - except for the last 3 pages, where it falters badly.

The novel begins with the murder of Mary Turner by a "native", and then Tarantinos it to explain how it happened. It's all well and good at first, a seething misery of a woman descending into madness that's brilliantly evoked. It doesn't seem unreasonable that the perspective of Moses, the murderer, is missing, because the text is obviously rooted in the perspective of the Turners, and is engaged in depicting their ignorance and oblivion.

But then, in the last pages, it seems to turn its attentions to Moses. And you think, ah! Perhaps I will now learn why he did what he did, and what he thinks of all this. But no. Despite being in his perspective, you never enter his head. What his thoughts are, the work says, "it is impossible to know". Why is it so impossible? wtf? Isn't that why I read novels, to know? Is the mind of the native truly so unknowable? I doubt it. While the text is solid in depicting white ignorance, it can't seem to make the move to actually overcome it. As someone I was talking to once put it - "First there were novels that didn't realize the natives had interiority. Then there were novels that used irony to critique white people for not realizing that the natives had interiority. But when will there be novels that actually depict the native's interiority?"

Indeed. A good book - a great book, even - for the most part, but the last few pages were a decisive let down.

04 July 2009

Run, by Ann Patchett

Ah, my streak of mediocrity continues. Actually, to give Patchett her due - her prose is quite absorbing. There's just something, I dunno, highly readable about it. It's a pleasant enough book, and often emotionally compelling, despite its weaknesses, the greatest of which is the fact that it's utterly unrealistic.

To begin with, the characters are all way too good to be true. Everyone is noble and good and a bastion of integrity, even when they're irritated or selfish. The character who ought to be the most despicable, Sullivan, is so laden with pathos that he becomes a kind of tragic hero, an image that's only reinforced by his redemptive kindness to children. Likewise Tip, who is in some ways curmudgeonly and selfish is ultimately redeemed by his love of fish, which bespeaks a kind of warmth and aesthetic refinement. It's charming, in a way, but it turns the text into a kind of feel good fairy tale, where all these heroes grapple bravely with tragic events that seem largely arbitrary, despite being products of human creation. For instance, Sullivan's tragic car accident is presented as a complete blank, where he's no memory of it at all but is left to live with the consequences.

Secondly, the book is meant, I think, to be a kind of meditation on biological ties versus emotional ties, with an underlying interest in how dynamics of race factor in. You've got Tip and Teddy, the black adopted sons of Doyle, and then they encounter their birth mother and her daughter. The text ultimately moves to (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER) the seemingly über happy ending of one big family, except for that vaguely fucked up part, namely, that the problematic element, the poor black mother, has been conveniently removed from the picture. One could say that it's only fair, given that the white mother was herself killed off early on in the text, but that hardly seems sufficient. The text further tries to ameliorate this, however, by using her death as an occasion for political critique - would a rich white woman with insurance have been allowed to die of the same thing? - and even goes so far as to have Tip pursue a career in medicine. Then, curiously, it changes its mind, and tells us that Tip's medical studies have taught him that actually, what happened was actually exactly the kind of thing that one wouldn't notice, with fatal consequences, and that it might have had nothing to do with race. And then, to retreat from the cliche of the son becoming a doctor, he decides to abandon the career on the very day of his graduation. And then! Just when the book has seemingly disavowed cliche, it announces that Teddy has decided to become a lawyer and is currently working with the homeless. It's borderline ridiculous, and there's something vaguely offensive in that kind of idealism, in that it seems to shut down political critique.

So the plot is poorly structured. Actually, this is most glaringly obvious in the way that Tennessee, the biological mother, is treated as a character. The text seems to realize that leaving her out entirely would be problematic, so it decides to give her a chance to explain herself (ie, reveal herself as saintly by a supposed exposition of her deeply human flaws) and goes for a terribly ham-fisted supernatural intervention. Whenever a text that is otherwise secular resorts to the supernatural, it's a sign that something has gone awry in its composition. Here, again, there's a compensatory gesture, whereby good old Uncle Sullivan gets invested with Christian magic superpowers, which in turn allows for some of the standard reflections on faith, miracles, etc. It's all terribly clumsy.

Patchett has a talent for style and lovely descriptions, but the plot is horribly amateur and rather offensively removed from reality. You get the sense that she knows absolutely nothing about the worlds, and people, she's describing. Perhaps this has something to do with the racial politics involved, and a sense of discomfort on her part about being a white woman writing black characters. But ultimately, she didn't handle it particularly well at all, ending up with this strangely utopian work that is occasionally moving, but never convincing.