31 May 2010

Summer Hours

A curiously meandering sort of film. It's about 3 siblings who have to decide what to do with their other's estate after her death - her house, but more importantly, her incredible art collection. The film sort of ambles along as they puzzle over what to do, and work out various issues they have with each other, but what's interesting about it is how understated everything is. Bizarre revelations - such as the fact that their mother was having an incestuous affair with her uncle - are mentioned but unexplored. There are various tensions between the siblings, but they're just... there. The movie has a plot line, but very little narrative momentum, yet it doesn't feel slow.

What I found particularly appealing about the style was the character development. The wife of one of the brothers, for instance, is a very minor character, but you have just enough information about her to think that you don't like her very much. Not that she's villainous or anything, just kind of off-putting - exactly what a sister-in-law who you don't especially care for is like.

While the movie does open up some interesting questions about art, ownership, and legacy, I can't say that I found it especially thought-provoking. It was a pleasant way to pass an hour on a sunny Sunday, but it didn't really stick with me. Still, I'm glad I saw it.

15 May 2010

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson

Huh. I could've sworn I wrote a blog post on I Am Legend the Will Smith movie, but when I tried searching for it, I got nothing. I had really enjoyed that movie, because I went into it expecting some kind of action badass Will Smith fighting monsters flick, and was delighted when the first hour was more like some kind of plumbing of existential angst and loneliness. Then it went into the more standard action stuff and got rather less interesting*. But the inquiry into loneliness was fabulous, and brilliantly played by Will Smith. Anyways. The movie is kind of odd though, because the whole "legend" part is never really explained. And I read somewhere that the film is actually quite different from the original novella. So, hey, I figured I'd read it.

It's a quick read, but not a very good one. The existential angst is there, but because it's all conveyed through monologue, it loses all the subtlety of the film version. One of the movie's most brilliant moves is to have a series of encounters between Will Smith and a mannequin, which do far more to illustrate the misery of solitude than pages and pages of whining.

The book spends a lot of time on the protagonist's sexual desires, which is kind of intriguing (leading me to ask my boyfriend - hey! if you're the last man on Earth, with only crazy vampires and corpses left, which do you prefer - necrophilia, or raping a vampire? He said neither. Bo-ring.). It also goes into more explanations of the cause of the apocalypse, which aren't all that exciting or interesting. The ending is indeed totally different from the movie, but it's also kind of ... meh. I mean, I guess it's kind of a tired trope, but the real problem is that the writing isn't all that good. Not just at the conclusion, but throughout. Also, the plot is actually far less compelling than the one in the film, and does much less with the material in terms of raising interesting issues.

So yeah, overall, this is one of those cases where you're really better off watching the movie**.

*Incidentally, I'm led to believe that Hancock is somewhat similar in this regard. I'm curious.

** This is a small list. I'm trying to think of other examples - I definitely prefer The Princess Bride movie to the book, but there are some other cases too, I'm just blanking right now. I know there are two other film adaptations of I Am Legend, Last Man on Earth and Omega Man. I'm not really dying to see them. I've kind of lost interest in the story, for one, and for two, uh, those movies don't have Will Smith in them***.

*** In itself an interesting side point. My friend Russ and I were talking awhile back, and he was saying how he completely doesn't get why someone would watch a movie purely because a certain actor is in it. Well, I certainly do. Now, I haven't seen all of Will Smith's films, especially the more recent ones, which are apparently pretty terrible. But nonetheless - I'm definitely gonna see them all at some point. Because, well, I just like watching Will Smith do stuff. It's not just Will Smith. I also have a Tupac obsession and will generally watch pretty much any Ewan MacGregor movie as well.

06 May 2010

Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier, edited by Boris Fishman

So I was already annoyed at the outset by this whole Eastern Europe as "last frontier" idea (as described by Fishman in the introduction), and the notion that this book was going to reveal some kind of truth about Eastern Europe to me (if you wanted to do that, why not compile a collection of stories by Eastern European writers, rather than by Americans and ex-pats?). So I could certainly be accused of being overly critical. A few of these stories, I might have enjoyed if I'd read them in a different context.

... but not that many, I suspect. Honestly, aside from being boringly stereotypical (Eastern Europeans as violent, criminal, money-seeking, hard-drinking, mysterious, yet often charming), most of the stories just aren't that good. Partly, I'm just tired of hearing what Americans think about different parts of the world. But also, there just wasn't much to these, the plots were uninteresting, the characters unbelievable. Much of the violence seemed sensationalized or gratuitous, the one exception being Thomas de Waal's piece on Chechnya, which was really more journalism than fiction, and also, though horrifying - not all that good.

Overall - meh. Not worth the read.

02 May 2010

Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, by David Margolick

I think I'm kind of a snob when it comes to books written by journalists. I generally expect that they're gonna be packed full of interesting information, but probably not all that well written. There are exceptions, of course, but the thing is - most nonfiction isn't really amazing, stylistically. This book does nothing to change this bias of mine. Though it is a case where you kind of wonder why he wanted to make it a book in the first place - he really doesn't seem to have a book's-worth amount of things to say. There's a lot of repetition, and a lot of testimonials from people that basically amount to them saying they really love the song, which by the end, seem increasingly unnecessary.

It's also a bit misleading to call it the biography of a song, because it's really much more about Billie Holiday's version of it. While it does tell you the truth about who actually wrote it, and mentions other versions of it here and there, it really spends all its time talking about Billie Holiday. The book is clearly a little uneasy in terms of how it handles discussions of The Lady, which is fair, because she's a problematic figure. The central "controversy" of the book, one could say, is the question of whether or not Holiday actually understood what she was singing. Apparently there were claims that she didn't. The author seems to say that it's pretty unlikely that she didn't, and leaves it at that. The fact that Holiday lied about the song's origins, and claimed it was written for her, etc, the book clearly refutes, but also cites the true author of the song saying that he understands why she said that, and he doesn't want anyone to focus on her doing so, etc.

Reading it, the thing I was thinking about is this whole power of words versus power of music versus power of a voice issue. To me, just reading the words, I get the chills. As poetry, it's just devastatingly intense. Musically, I don't think it's that amazing a song - I think the music subtly sets off the words, it's a melody that seems pretty simple with a slight jazziness to it. Basically, it's nice, but I don't think the song without the words would be all that momentous. But the argument of the people who love the song is that Billie Holiday sings it in a way that no one else can. That she has this particular vocal genius, where her voice expresses something in the song that the words alone can't.
I guess I have a slightly harder time with this part. In that people tend to speak of it as if it were a fact: "X can convey sadness in their voice in a certain way". And honestly, sometimes I just... don't hear it. I'm not saying this is true of Billie Holiday or her version of this song necessarily, I just mean in general.

One might also add in relation to this, the power of photographs. The book has a photo section in the middle. It's mostly pictures of Billie Holiday. Makes sense. Suddenly, you turn the page, and it's pictures of lynchings. Which freaked me out bigtime, and I still can't get those images out of my head. They're horrific.

Point being, that's kind of an interesting thing to consider, the power of various mediums. And added to that - the power of those mediums for political change.

One thing that's distinctly lacking in the book is a better idea of the context. I mean, there are really good descriptions of the actual performances of the song, which is nice, but it'd be nice to know more about the historical moment. For instance, just how common lynchings were, and how that changed over time. The author gives a few numbers, but you don't really get a good sense of it. And that's really missing.

Overall, meh, it's an ok book. It could easily have been a magazine article though.