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.