27 September 2010

City Island/ The Kids Are All Right

I saw The Kids Are All Right awhile back and never wrote about it, but was inspired to return to it because in a way, it belongs in the same category as City Island - both are basically mainstream, fairly standard "wacky family" movies, except they're not, because mainstream movies these days are such crap. So both of them mostly played at "artsy" theatres, despite the fact that they're not particularly challenging or highbrow. They're just a little more candid and open about certain things that "mainstream" America is prudish about. Of the two, I actually liked City Island a lot more - it's a clever, sweet movie, and well constructed. The Kids Are all Right was a little harder for me to love, because of the politics involved. But we'll return to that.

City Island is a movie about secrets. It stars Andy Garcia as a correctional officer who's covertly enrolled in an acting class (predictably leading his wife to suspect that he's having an affair). At the opening of the film, he's just discovered his son is in jail, but can be freed on the responsibility of a family member - so he brings him home, but of course, without revealing their connection. Everyone in the movie has a secret, be it big or small, and of course, the work of the movie is to ultimately bring them out into the open or somehow resolve them. It's pretty predictable, but nonetheless quite enjoyable. It's also pleasantly restrained in its drama, resisting the impulse to veer into catastrophe, ultimately espousing a kind of live-and-let-live mentality. This includes the seemingly "devious" proclivities of its cast, and in that, it comes to seem like a progressive or liberatory work, though it's a sad state of affairs that one would even think of it that way. It's not great, but it's fun and has plenty of laughs, a very pleasant way to spend an evening.

The Kids Are All Right is a little touchier, because there's the baggage of being an indie movie about a lesbian couple and their kids that's clamouring for mainstream attention in a moment when gay marriage is such a fraught issue. So of course, you can't help but be disappointed that one of the women has a fling with a guy - I respect the reviews that celebrate the film's fluid depiction of sexuality, and I agree with them to a great extent, but that doesn't stop me from rolling my eyes and kind of wishing it didn't go down that way. More than that though, I was annoyed by the fact that the lesbian sex scenes in the movie were SO unappealing, and the hetero ones were so hot. I understand that it's also a married/illicit sex difference, and that given how hypersexualized girl-on-girl action is anyhow, it's arguably a smart move to make it seem mundane and downright sterile, but still. I also would've liked Annette Bening's character to be a little more likeable - she was by the end of the movie, but man, she's an uptight, hypercontrolling jerk for most of the film.
I don't, however, begrudge the movie it's strictly normative ideology when it comes to the family unit. In a way, I like that the movie kind of writes off any possibility for a healthy alternative family structure, and thereby slyly smuggles lesbian couples into the normative family category (where they belong). Politically speaking, I can understand the utility of a seemingly extreme group professing its conservative impulses. But I wouldn't have minded if the movie made it a little more clear that the ultimate resolution it came to was a concrete, individual one, not a template. I dunno.
In any case, in terms of all the buzz about the movie - overrated. It's not bad, it definitely had its charm and there were a lot of things I liked about it. It's unfortunate that my opinion of it was so strongly tinted by the political context, because there are a lot of aspects of general family dynamics that were well captured.

Still, of the two, I'd rather watch City Island again.

26 September 2010

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

I was going on vacation to Belize with my family, ie was about to spend a lot of time on airplanes, so I decided it was time to tackle the monster. To my surprise, it was a quick, light read - I made it through all 817 pages in 4 days. And for the first 600 pages or so, I thought it was one of the most fantastic books I'd ever read. But as it started to wind down, I found myself a little less taken with it, and started thinking over the whole thing and being a little more dubious. My friend Ruchama put it very well - she said that in general, reading the great Russians, she finds that the agony and angst are very compelling and well described, but the resolutions are invariably unsatisfying. I think I agree, kind of, but that's not really what my problem was. It was more that, thinking back on it, the changes in the characters are actually pretty extreme, and not sufficiently motivated, or rather, kind of skimmed over. I know it seems strange to want more development in an 800+ page novel, but seriously, what happened to Karenin? You know?

What's odd about this feeling is that it's exactly the opposite of my initial sense of the work, where I was enthralled by the way the characters were drawn. It's absolutely incredible, the way Tolstoy seems to know exactly what it's like to be all these different people, and how skillfully he manages to convey it, sometimes with just a few small details. The plot sort of progresses through vignettes, and each of them is worthy of being a short story of its own; they're so vivid, and seem to index so much more than what they concretely describe.

Another thing I appreciated was how un-melodramatic it was, in contrast to what I was expecting. While it's ultimately a novel about passions, it allows the characters some margin of self-awareness, such that they're never on a complete tailspin - even when their actions are. I really, really valued that - the moments when they questioned their thoughts and feelings, even though their behavior was totally hostage to them. Thus, for instance, Levin finds himself jealous, and knows that he's being unreasonable, but just can't really help himself - which is EXACTLY what it's like to be jealous, unlike the usual portrayals where the person seems completely irrational and unaware of it.

The historico-political aspect of the novel was also fascinating, and really well drawn. It was the spiritual side I found rather less compelling, and it's kind of hard to say why. Unfortunately, that's what the culmination of the novel really hitched its wagon to, so the book ended on more of a whimper than I would have liked.

Still though, it's a great, great book.

13 September 2010

An Experiment in Love, by Hilary Mantel

I guess I never wrote a review for Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, which I read in the late-winter/early-spring. A friend of mine had absolutely loved Mantel's Wolf Hall (many people did) and when I bought it from amazon, I discovered Greater Safety, a novel about the French Revolution. I was trying to learn more about the French Revolution at the time, and the novel seemed like a good way to do it. It was not a revelatory book, but it was quite good. Amazingly dense with historical information - I can't imagine how much research went into it - but also wonderful, lively prose and well-drawn characters. It was, however, quite long. It needed to be, but still, I was reading it for weeks, and it kind of wore me out.

So I was happy to see An Experiment in Love at Costco, a nice short Mantel novel about British women in the 60s. The back implied that it would be all about the struggles of feminism and femininity and academia, which sounded just great to me. There was also some kind of suspense and/or gradual buildup to an explosive climax promised, which seemed iffy but ok.

But you know what? It wasn't very good. There was a climax. It was not very explosive or exciting. And there wasn't much of a build-up to it. In a way, I suppose, one could appreciate the subtlety of the book; the way it allows most of its characters their privacy. Unfortunately, they have so much privacy that they're basically shrouded in mystery - you have no idea what's going on with them, and you never really find out. Couple this with the main character's lack of self-awareness, and you get a novel where everything is kind of chaotic and unclear, but not in a particularly compelling way. Thinking back on it - and I only finished reading it a few hours ago - it's hard to say what even happens in the book, what occupies the pages and keeps the story moving. There's a lot about food (the main character, rather annoyingly, gradually becomes anorexic, except that she doesn't seem to do it consciously - at first she's just broke, then she seems to want to be thin, but the transition happens in a single paragraph). The whole reflection on feminism in the 60s part that I was so looking forward to was more like an afterthought, a bland generalizing sentence here and there.

Overall, a great disappointment - I like Mantel's prose style, but I barely kept reading this book, and if it wasn't so short, I would never have carried on.