27 March 2009

The Natural History of Chicken

I don't really remember how this movie made it onto my Netflix queue, other than hey, I generally like documentaries and try to be conscientious about things I like to eat, so why not. Except that it turned out that this movie wasn't really about chicken at all. It was about people who raise chickens. Holy crap. I mean, I wanna be culturally sensitive and open and tolerant and all that, but wow, wtf is up with these people. I mean, what has happened in these peoples' lives such that they've ended up investing so much of their emotional and intellectual capital into chickens? There's something endearing about it, sure, but it's also kind of disturbing and surreal. You've got a woman who describes her pet rooster as her soul mate for goddsakes. HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN? I mean, nothing against chickens, but you kind of have to wonder when someone really sees them as deep founts of wisdom and a source of inspiration. And these people are so defensive, so wounded that this mystic genius of chickens is generally derided. It's absolutely mesmerizing.

Other than a few minutes telling you about the experiences of industry chicken (which is awful,and reenforces my vow to only eat free range happy chickens, yeah, except for the fact that baby chicks being stacked and then transported on conveyer belts is super adorable), the movie is actually a series of vignettes with weird chicken-related tales. There's the people who took a guy to court because his rooster farm was too noisy (which is really fascinating in terms of the glimpse of rural life it offers - you got a dude reading up on Sun Tzu while constructing the case, and the defendant himself makes the great point that, after all, isn't that what the country is for? who are these yuppy whiners?), there's the woman who gave her pet chicken CPR, and then there's the ace in the hole - the headless rooster.

In the tradition of the best documentaries out there, this movie gives you a glimpse of a specific part of the world that seems totally alien, and in the process, makes you reflect on a whole host of broader issues. Bizarrely fascinating, and at only 55 minutes, definitely worth watching.

26 March 2009

A Rage in Harlem, by Chester Himes

Like all the best gritty noir novels, the prose is sparse but evocative, the characters are fabulous, and the story is gripping while also being somewhat absurdly complicated. A fantastic read.

Really, there's not much more to say about it. It's just solidly excellent. It features a drug addicted guy who wanders the streets dressed as a nun quoting random tidbits of Revelations and selling tickets to heaven. And it's not like one of those books that puts in something like that just to be quirky and cool - even the most bizarre elements of the text seem totally organic and absolutely believable.

Oh, it's a grand book.


This is kind of a guilty pleasure movie, in that it's completely ridiculous, and yet highly enjoyable. It's basically a mash-up of every suspense/horror technique out there (maybe it's because this hotel is built on... AN OLD INDIAN BURIAL GROUND! gasp!), and yet it manages to be genuinely creepy while being utterly silly. It's a preposterously star-studded cast - John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Clea DuVall, Rebecca DeMornay, Jake Busey, John Hawkes, Amanda Peet, Alfred Molina, and Pruitt Taylor Vince, whose name you probably don't recognize and yet when you see him you're like "OMG IT'S THAT CREEPY DUDE!"

Anyhow, I don't want to say too much more about it so as not to ruin it, but I stand by this movie. I enjoyed it when I came out, and I enjoyed it now, despite knowing how it was going to end. It's the kind of movie that makes you twitch in your seat while simultaneously rolling your eyes, and then you kinda have to laugh and say, well, yeah... I guess I did like it. 

And really, it is impressive that one movie manages to combine SO many tropes in one go, and in an entirely coherent fashion. 

25 March 2009

Paradise Now

I've got mixed feelings about this movie, in that, well, it's not a great film. It's unabashedly political and slightly long-winded. It's not particularly gripping or moving, though it's well directed and the cinematography is quite good. On the other hand, I think it presents an important perspective. Whatever side of the political debate you fall on, I think it's important to at least get a sense of someone else's view of things. In this case, it's the perspective of a suicide bomber living on the West Bank.

The rhetoric of those who choose to martyr themselves for a political cause is generally portrayed as fanatical raving, basically empty words that take a prescribed form. This movie attempts to give that form content, to humanize it. It's a mingled success. Because so much of the film is political discussion, it doesn't quite flesh out the characters. You barely see their everyday lives - most of the movie is about what happens once they strap on the bombs. You get some sense of Said's motivations, but have very little understanding of Khaled's. On the other hand, they do have some very poignant things to say about the situation, and, like I said, I think some of them need to be heard. What's also notable in the film is the dissenting voice of the main female lead, Suha. The movie doesn't take a stand on the politics in any direction, it neither heroicizes nor demonizes the characters, which is also nice.

Still though, it's basically a short lecture couched in a film. It fairly straightforwardly addresses the issue, unlike the more subtle, creative take of Divine Intervention or The Band's Visit, which makes is somewhat less compelling. Still, it's a movie I'd like to show to the many people I know who assume that all suicide bombers are lunatics frothing at the mouth. Their actions may be incomprehensible, but  they're people after all. It's easy to forget, I think, when you're dealing with people who behave in extreme ways because of religion. Actually, this reminds me of another movie I quite like in this regard, God's Army, whose main protagonist is a Mormon missionary. It's hard to understand - for me at least - how people who basically pledge themselves to some kind of greater cause can be normal, doubt-plagued individuals just like everyone else, and movies like this are therefore all the more important for giving one a better grasp of what that could be like. 

23 March 2009

Jacques the Fatalist, by Denis Diderot

I have a lot of respect for Tristram Shandy on a theoretical level, but honestly, I've always found it somewhat tedious to read. The endless digressions, the snarky lewd humor - it just gets old after awhile. All the same, it's a fascinating text, and really interesting from the perspective of how to construct a novel. Jacques the Fatalist is, in a sense, Tristram Shandy v. 2.0. It has a lot of the same playful experimentation (and endless digressions) but it doesn't go overboard. What results is a charming little novel that is clever, silly, and actually entertaining to read.

The story is a kind of loose collection of conversations, beginning with Jacques starting to tell his Master. They are endlessly interrupted by a host of other characters with stories of their own and various misadventures on the road. If that weren't enough, the text is laden with authorial intrusions "Where are they going? I don't know! Who cares?" "Ok reader, you're bored with this conversation? Then allow me relate a little anecdote of my own". 

In some ways, the novel is an early prototype for choose your own adventure fiction - except in this case, the novel progresses with the choice you have seemingly made. When the characters momentarily part ways, there's a moment there's a moment of debate over which one to follow, and then one is dismissed as too boring and off you do.

It's an interesting book, playing as it does with its fictional status (going back and forth between the author saying he doesn't know what happened and, for example, threatening to send the carriage into the ditch just to create a commotion). It's also a nice take on the stories-within-stories and digression mode, much more effective than Sterne's, I think. 

For all it's dry wit and snarkiness though, it's also quite warm and lovable. Really, just a lot of fun to read. Worth checking out.

19 March 2009

The Queen

This is actually a fairly remarkable movie. Far more than just the story of the aftermath of Princess Di's death, it's a complex reflection on public emotion and political power, on monarchy in the age of democracy and the affective links between a queen and her people, and also on politics and the media. Really fascinating.

There's a fascinating unstated comparison in the film between the Queen and Princess Di - subtly alluded to, for instance, in footage in which Di is asked if she thinks she will ever be Queen (the answer: "No"), but also in the implicit contrast between the Queen's desire to keep her life and feelings private and Di's tendency to live in the spotlight. Di's openness, it's suggested, is part of what people loved about her - she didn't hide her faults, she made herself completely available to the people. The Queen, in contrast, fiercely guards her privacy, and clearly finds so much public disclosure unseemly. What's interesting about this is that there's a kind of vague claim in the film that people in such a position of political power - especially a position that implicitly demands not only the obedience of its subjects, but also their love - actually owe it to their public to be vulnerable and emotional. Di's death was experienced as a catastrophic tragedy by people all over the world, but especially by British subjects, and the Queen was therefore in some way obligated to partake in that mourning in an explicitly public way. This isn't just about decency and respect for the dead, but about some kind of national process of working through trauma. That alone makes the movie fascinating.

Secondly, however, there's this really interesting interplay between the Queen and Tony Blair. Blair gets elected as a great modernizer, which would seem to automatically put him into an antagonistic relationship with the monarchy. And indeed, later in the film his wife - who's a fiery revolutionary type - faults him for "going gaga" over the Queen. And indeed, you can see how, over the course of the film, he comes to this kind of respectful awe of her, even as he's increasingly frustrated by her behavior. It actually called to mind, for me, the passage in Reflections on the Revolution in France, when Edmund Burke goes gaga over Marie Antoinette. Anyhow, there's this kind of interesting tension there - it appears to be a moment in which public outcry is so great that one could make a big for doing away with the monarchy entirely (because her disapproval is as high as 25% - which is considered APPALLING. What were the numbers like during Bush's last days in office again?), and instead, he saves the day, and, the movie implies, the crown. And by the end of the movie they're jolly friends. 

Finally, I couldn't help but think that the film is perhaps dangerously seductive - I have no idea what actually went on after Diana's death, but the movie presents a very persuasive account, and I'm willing to bet that most people who see it will - even perhaps unconsciously - assume that it's an accurate depiction. I mean, I guess that's fairly standard stuff, but somehow it seems more unfair to me with this movie than usual. I dunno.

Still, really a phenomenal movie, I think.

15 March 2009

Croupier/ Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Man, I feel like I'm on crazy pills. A friend of mine recommended this to me, and I look on Netflix and see that 7 of my friends have given it a good rating - 3 of them even gave it 5 stars. Ok, so cool, a "sexy crime thriller" starring Clive Owen, looks good, right? So what happened? My dude and I rolled ourselves home after a marvelous breakfast at Chicago's House of Chicken and Waffle, settled onto the couch and popped it into the dvd player. Perhaps in our over-stuffed state we were too sluggish to appreciate the genius of this movie. Because man, we thought it sucked. It was neither sexy nor thrilling, in fact, it was palpably stupid, with groan-inducing dialogue and a fairly moronic plot. 

First off, you need to know that Clive Owen is not only the protagonist, but also the narrator, providing running commentary via voice-over. What's key here is the fact that he refers to himself in the third person for the entire film. If that isn't enough to make you smack your forehead in frustration, wait until he splits into TWO protagonists, Jack and Jake, and starts saying things like Jake was horrified. But Jack found it quite amusing. BARF.

Jake is a struggling writer, which means there are quite a few scenes where he frowns at a computer and chain smokes. While wearing a ridiculous hat. This is my WRITER HAT! Jake is supposed to be a badass of the film noir variety, but aside from being elegantly quick with his hands as a croupier, he's actually just a douchebag. Now, this might just be me - thinking back, I kind of always see Clive Owen as a douchebag, even when he's also somewhat badass. He just takes himself a little too seriously. I mean, even when I like his movies - I think Closer is legitimately fantastic, for instance - I never particularly like his characters. 

Of course, Jake being a writer and working on a novel while providing preposterous voice-overs means that - wait for it - this movie will turn out to be... the very novel he's been writing! Gasp! Who saw that coming? BAAAAAARF.

Furthermore, the movie just looks crappy. Maybe I'm spoiled, I mean, it is over 10 years old, but I expect sexy thrillers to look sharp goddamnit. I dunno. Look, I just thought the movie sucked, ok? I'm sorry. I tried. It was dismal.

But if you're looking for a quality film in a similar genre, including voice over narration, then look no further than the marvelous Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. What a delight. The voice over narration is hilarious, skillfully exploiting the humor of meta (Hey Ma and Pa Kettle, wanna get out of the goddamn frame?) and the dialogue is sharp, snappy and laugh out loud funny. While people generally go all doe-eyed over Robert Downey Jr (who is indeed fabulous in this movie, and is indeed making a great comeback, I'm just a little sick of hearing about how great he is), the real star of this film for me was Val Kilmer. Val Kilmer! Remember when he made phenomenal movies like Top Gun, Top Secret, and The Doors? And then suddenly in the mid-90s he apparently decided to devote himself to nothing but garbage? Well, he's back folks! A little chunkier, not quite as hot as we remember him, but fabulous nonetheless. 

In the tradition of good action movies, the violence is potent and surprising, no-holds-barred type stuff that manages to be powerful but not disturbing, both shocking and funny. Also wonderful is the female lead, Michelle Monaghan, who isn't nearly as pathetic or irritating as most women in action/thrillers, even if she is occasionally somewhat deranged.  

Overall though, a fabulously entertaining film. Do not rent Croupier. Rent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

13 March 2009

Lost Horizon, by James Hilton

I've been working on a chapter on utopias, so I've been reading a lot of them, and this is one of the best I've encountered. This book is fascinating. It's far less didactic and moralistic than most utopian/dystopian fiction - for instance, at the end, it's actually unclear whether this ought to be considered utopian or dystopian (at least, it is to me...), which is a pretty impressive feat. There's this marvelous subtlety to the book, and a kind of mystery - it happily leaves plenty of aspects open for the reader to draw their own conclusions. 

The story is a found manuscript, or rather, related tale, of a group of people who go missing during a military conflict in India and find themselves in a mysterious Tibetan monastary. I don't want to say much more about it, because I think it's a text whose pleasures unfold gradually, but one of the things I found intriguing was the guiding principle of the monastary - moderation. There are plenty of different notions about how to organize a utopia, but this is a particularly interesting one. They're moderately virtuous, moderately chaste, moderately disciplined... it's a curious approach. 

Also, for a book written in 1934, it's kind of amazing how enlightened it's thinking on race is. It tackles a lot of orientalist stereotypes in a really intelligent way, I was impressed. In this day and age, where Tibetan Buddhism is the hippest thing on the block, ie, the orientalist impulse has gone whole hog in the other direction (which is less disastrous perhaps, but still has some serious flaws), it's nice to find a more balanced approach. 

Really, a very interesting book. Quite recommended.

Old Joy

This movie blew me away. In many ways, it's extremely simple, a short (75 minutes) movie about two guys who go on a camping trip. But it's actually an astonishingly complex reflection on friendship, maturity, and generally, how people move through the world. And what's particularly incredible about it is that it doesn't preach or tell you how to feel - it's incredibly subtle, allowing the reader to provide the meaning, which makes it all the more compelling.

The plot, like I said, is basic. A guy who's wife is pregnant gets a call from an old friend asking if he wants to go camping. The old friend - does everyone know someone like this? I feel like this guy is a universal character - is a kind of aged hippy, a guy who sort of hasn't found his place in the world, and basically kind of cruises around looking for meaningful experiences. So they set out on this trip to check out some hot springs. And then they come back. Nothing major or revelatory, but nonetheless, there's so much packed into that trip. It's the best kind of realism: thoroughly probable and persuasive, and yet, honed to a kind of universal profundity, where its as though you can see all the contours of how the world works within it. 

Actually, I don't want to say anything else about it, because I think each viewer should draw their own conclusions about the interactions between these two guys - no doubt, the way you understand them will be strongly formed by your own life experiences, more so than is usual in movies - and just say that I highly recommend this movie.

01 March 2009

Tristes Tropiques, by Claude Levi-Strauss

It's not surprising that much of Tristes Tropiques comes across as clearly written in another time, ie, that parts of it are somewhat appallingly offensive and obnoxious. Rather, what's impressive about the text is the fact that in spite of all that, many of its reflections are still resonant, and what's more, are quite fascinating. The book chronicles the adventures of the anthropologist Levi-Strauss. You could describe it as a kind of quest narrative, where Claude bravely searches for a civilization (or rather a lack of one! har har!) that is still truly "primitive", ie, untouched by contact with Westerners. Rousseau's state of nature, if you will - though as Levi-Strauss himself points out, even Rousseau acknowledged that such a thing may not exist. And this whole problem is kind of the question that the text orbits around. LS at one point realizes that in fact, there's been plenty of contact between various groups of people for a very very long time, and were he to exist in an era before that time (if one even exists), he wouldn't have the conceptual tools to make sense of the encounter anyhow. He doesn't quite follow this thought through, and think about how those very conceptual tools have been shaped precisely by those encounters - Claude has a distressing habit of implicitly assuming that Europeans invented most modern though - but the seeds are planted for the reader to ponder the matter. More broadly, this is what is most fascinating in the book; the way it reflects upon, or provides an occasion to reflect upon, how knowledge is produced out of encounters with the unknown. There's this amazing moment where he seems to actually find the "primitive" tribe he seeks, but alas, he doesn't have the time to really get to know them. He realizes, though, that if he did, once he got to know them, they'd no longer be unknown. Or rather, that what appeared initially as their radical difference would be normalized once he had figured it out and given it a name, or if it wouldn't, it would mean that it was ultimately unknowable. Later in the book, this reappears as a contemplation of how the pursuit of knowledge ultimately destroys its object. Good stuff.

There's also an interesting moment where he considers immigration. Curiously enough, in a surprisingly prescient way the question that he's tackling is of whether France could sustain a large Muslim immigrant population. He says that the US "took a gamble" in opening its borders, and he wonders whether France could do - and survive - the same. Intriguing stuff.

There are also some nice sections on the ethics, and position, of anthropology, though Claude himself could do well by taking a page out of his own book on that one, because man, some of his work comes across as pretty horrific. But when he turns to theorizing it, he comes up with some good ideas. 

What's also kind of interesting in the text is how ultimately, his newfound cultural relativism sort of explodes the work into the quasi-mystical contemplation of the world and the meaning of life. The book ends with a celebration of the sort of precognitive profundities of the universe, the scent of a lily or the gaze of a cat. Quite charming.

Anyhow, for all it's problems, overall it's a highly worthwhile read.