23 March 2013

Chike and the River, by Chinua Achebe

On the occasion of his passing, it seemed appropriate to pay homage to Achebe by reading something he wrote. Of his works, I've actually only ever read Things Fall Apart and his deservedly famous take-down of Conrad (I don't entirely agree with it, but I do think it's a must-read), but I've heard his other books are really great. So I read Chike and the River, which is quite short - I got through it in half an hour. It's meant to be a children's story (and was recently re-released by Anchor Books with beautiful illustrations), but it's quite pleasurable for adults as well.

Chike is an eleven year old boy who moves away from his small village to his uncle's house in a bugger city by the Niger river. He is told that it's possible to cross the river by ferry boat, and he dreams of doing so. The book is basically the story of his attempts to make it happen, and all the adventures he has along the way. The seeming simplicity of the work conceals some of its underlying elegance - it's chock-full of subtle touches that warm my analytic cockles. I particularly appreciated, for instance, a moment when Chike relates a saying he's heard, but adds his own spin on it - a lovely example of oral tradition getting modernized, and also a nice way of sort of integrating local story telling traditions into this bigger form. And of course, Chike's wanderings give you a bit of a glimpse into the society he comes from, without coming across as blatant touristic-type writing. The book isn't obviously addressed to a Western audience or made to seem like a display of local culture (some of the words get footnotes with explanations, but they most seem to be the Britishisms, rather than, for instance, the pidgin, or even the word pidgin, which is interesting). It's a sweet story about a little boy who wants to ride a ferry boat. If you have kids, get them a copy. If you don't, maybe get yourself one =-)

17 March 2013

New look

I know. I hate it. I just noticed that my blog was apparently switched over to some hideous new template. I restored the black background, but it seems that all the nice stuff I had in the sidebar is just gone. Thanks, blogger.

Edit: I managed to restore the Ad Free Blog banner, which is quite important to me, and a little plug for free rice (apparently their banners have gotten a lot uglier - now a bunch of them say Rice up! which is just SO obnoxious). The rest, we'll just have to live without, my friends. 

Bhaji on the Beach

I picked this one up somewhat randomly at my local video rental (aka, the school library) - it's the same director (Gurinder Chadha) as made Bend it Like Beckham, which I love, and looked to be a similarly rollicking comedy about South Asians living in England. And it is, but it's marred by a bit more earnestness. A large group of women is going on a day trip to the sea shore. Each of them becomes emblematic of a set of Issues confronting Indian women living in Britain; whether it is how to maintain tradition, how to adapt to a new culture, racism, inter-racial dating, children out of wedlock, divorce, etc. They aren't flat characters, fortunately, but it does make the movie rather insistently about Social Problems. It illuminates them effectively, and it is overall a pretty poignant set of stories. But you don't end up feeling like wow! What a great movie!

Actually, at the end I felt a bit heart-sick. While the film does try to end on a cheerful note, it climaxes with this terrifying scene of domestic abuse that reveals the persistent sexism that still imprisons many women in this culture, and while this one case seems to resolve itself, you know that you're seeing a real problem that continues to affect many women even today. And it fills you - or at least me - with both grief and rage.

Overall, it's a pleasant and competent film (I think I felt the same way about Bride and Prejudice, one of her later films), but definitely doesn't live up to Beckham. I certainly wouldn't mind watching more of her movies though - imdb has a nice long list of them, most of which I've never heard of!

16 March 2013

Tenth of December, by George Saunders

I had never heard of this book until Mimi Smartypants, whose blog I read semi-regularly, mentioned it and said it is a rare case of a book that absolutely lives up to the hype.* I looked it up and ended up buying the e-book, because it seemed interesting. Next thing I know, I'm seeing references to it everywhere. So why not, I plunged in.

 And I was completely blown away. From the very first story, just wow. These stories are so weird and funny and insightful, I had a hard time putting the book down. It absolutely sucked me in. Not only are the events described the perfect combination of the everyday and the wacky (in one story, for instance, you gradually become aware that this semi-mundane tale of a guy winning the lottery is set in some unspecified future), but the narrative voices are both familiar and strange, exceptionally well realized. I found myself caring fiercely about the characters and sympathizing with them even when they were being sort of awful. It was kind of amazing.

Buy this book. It is phenomenal.

*In the same entry, she also recommended this GQ article about Burning Man, which I also really enjoyed.

13 March 2013

Sculptor's Daughter, by Tove Jansson

I have made a project of gradually reading all of Tove Jansson's novels for adults, although I've apparently only blogged about one of them.*  A lot of these stories (a full 2/3 of them) are in Winter's Tales. But I think this collection of works is somewhat more coherent than that one. There's more of a unified perspective. The book is meant to be a memoir of sorts, but I don't think that's the way to approach it - it's really more of a collection of stories, or even fragments.

They are interesting stories, in that they are very much from a (precocious) child's point of view - which makes them both marvelous and somewhat incoherent. A paratactic structure without much in the way of causation or logical connection (this happened and then this and then this), and sometimes, words that get used just because the narrator likes them, not because of their meaning; like a child imitating adult speech. "Explosion is a beautiful word and a very big one. Later I learned others, the kind you can whisper only when you're alone. Inexorable. Ornamentation. Profile. Catastrophic. Electrical. District Nurse." (21) It's a strange world that she evokes, but a wonderful one. You definitely can see how that same mind created the Moomin universe

*If you are curious, my favorites are Fair Play, and Summer Book.  I think Summer Book is probably the better entry point into her novels, but Fair Play is just amazing.

06 March 2013

Day 4 of the !f Festival

After 4 days of movie going (10 films in all!), I was a little wiped out and didn't update as promptly as I should have... But a few days later, some thoughts on the last two films I saw.

Queen of Versailles
I didn't get a chance to see it over the summer and was really looking forward to it. What a fascinating film. And one that people tend to have visceral, violent reactions to. It's fun to watch with other people, because it's interesting to see how people respond; what scenes make someone gasp, groan, or laugh. The movie chronicles the life of an obscenely rich family and then what happens to them after the financial crash. Predictably, you spend the first half of the movie being somewhat appalled by them, and gradually over the second half, you come to feel sorry for them. Not that the movie sugar coats things - you see, for instance, how their wealth basically comes from exploiting others (newsflash: a time share is never a good deal), how the woman who cares for their kids has literally not laid eyes on her own children in over ten years,  how the husband sees his wife as a child and the children see their mother as a trophy wife - pretty awful stuff.
  But I don't think the movie is pure schadenfreude. I was surprised by how much I liked the woman at the center of this movie. I think it is because there was no trace of snobbishness or contempt for others in her. She did not look down on people with less money than her at all. She seemed to completely grasp how utterly arbitrary it was in many ways that she happened to end up filthy rich and hard-working people around her didn't. That didn't extend, for the most part, into a desire to help them out, but at least it also didn't involve thinking less of them and feeling entitled to what she had. Which really made all the difference, to me.
  In any case, overall it is a pretty fascinating movie, very much worth watching.

In Another Country
An oddly charming film. The framing narrative (which sort of disappears halfway into the film) is a woman writing stories, but basically, the movie is three different vignettes, all starring the same actors. In each one, a French woman (played by the mesmerizing Isabelle Huppert) arrives in a small Korean town and interacts with the locals in different ways. Certain themes recur (a search for the local lighthouse; an incredibly friendly lifeguard; a shared meal) but in slightly different ways. It is neither an example of how the same place can appear completely different, nor an example of how different people see the same thing - it falls somewhere in between. Huppert is wonderful in her three different roles - as my friend Daniel remarked, especially masterful is the way her body language changes from character to character. It's a subtle film. Not a must-see movie per se, but one I am glad to have seen.

03 March 2013

Day 3 of the !f Festival

Berberian Sound Studio
I impulse bought a ticket to this after seeing a description of it on the program for the EU Film Fest in Chicago  (I live vicariously through my boyfriend). It's an odd film: I feel like I didn't quite understand what it was trying to do. In the movie, an Englishman arrives at a sound studio in Italy, where he is to help with the sound production on a film (in the classic old style of adding the sound after the picture has been shot). It turns out that the movie is a horror flick, and the scenes get increasingly disturbing. Our hero is more and more disturbed (there's a wonderful scene of him sadly tearing the stems off radishes, meant to represent the sound of a witch's hair being pulled out during torture), particularly, perhaps, because simultaneously, the misogyny of the film's directors is more and more manifest in their treatment of the actresses. Meanwhile, he is also receiving letters from his mother at home, which contrast oddly with the atmosphere he finds himself in. And he is trying to get reimbursed for his flight there, and getting caught up in a nightmarish bureaucracy. It's an interesting set-up for a story, but it's handled somewhat strangely in the movie. The transition here isn't gradual, but in odd lurches, where suddenly he's at a breaking point, having registered only vague discomfort before. And then, things get really weird.

This movie stars Jack Black and Texas. And Mathew McConaughey and Shirley MacLaine have supporting roles. Based on a true story - which I won't tell you about, because I knew nothing going in, and it was more interesting that way - it's about a very very nice funeral director who befriends a rather nasty old lady. The story is largely told through interviews with townspeople, and while Jack Black is delightful, they (and their use of language) are the real stars of the show. It's a real kick in the pants, lots of fun.

Iron Sky
When this movie ended, my friend Daniel turned to me and said "My god, it really was about Nazis on the moon!" Yes. Yes it was. A totally silly film about an American astronaut in a semi-dystopian future (the US president is a somewhat older looking Sarah Palin type, usually found on her elliptical machine) who stumbles upon a Nazi colony on the dark side of the moon. There are occasionally humorous moments of satire (the astronaut is black, and one of the first things the Nazis do is to make him white), but nothing especially insightful.  Campy and ridiculous, not quite as much fun as I was hoping (it's no Dead Snow, alas), but amusing enough.

02 March 2013

Day 2 of the !f Festival

Stories We Tell
A very interesting movie. I don't want to say too much about it, because I went in blind and I think the movie is a lot more fun if you don't know the story, but basically, it's Sarah Polley exploring her own life by conducting interviews with her family. Invariably, it thereby becomes a reflection on memory and identity and family and how we make sense of our lives, but it's very well handled and actually quite engrossing.

Celeste and Jesse Forever
This is about what I expected, ie, the reviews turned out to be right: despite very lovable performances from everyone involved, and a seemingly interesting story, the movie just can't quite get off the ground. Celeste and Jesse have been separated for months, but still act like a married couple. Because the movie doesn't really explore why their relationship fell apart, we're not really sure, as an audience, how we should feel about the whole situation. Which is fine, the movie is pleasant anyhow, with funny bits of dialogue and likeable characters, so it kind of ambles along and all is well, and then there are some curveballs, so you're somewhat intrigued as to what will happen next, but the movie is just so even tempered and mellow about it all that you kind of don't worry about it too much. After all, let's be honest - you know everything is going to work out in the end anyways. Oddly enough, most of the characters are basically blanks - the film rapidly comes to focus on Rashida Jones' character, and everyone else is just background. Colleen noted that it's interesting to see a rom-com discuss divorce, to which my response was well except not really, because it's not like it actually explores it in a very substantive way, it's really just typical rom-com plot moves but in a slightly different configuration. To my mind, this stuff is all so superficial anyhow that I focus more of the surface. To me, what was innovative was the open discussion of marijuana (change is a'comin', America!) and the many references to Biz Markie (nice!). I was glad that the career woman, although typically self-absorbed, obsessed with being right, and out of touch with her own emotional life, was mostly pretty likeable rather than being an utter harridan.
But yeah, overall, meh.

Nobody Walks
I was interested in this one primarily because it was co-written by Lena Dunham, and I find her work interesting. The cast is really excellent - Olivia Thirlby is just as mesmerizing as she's supposed to be, Rosemarie DeWitt is smart and intriguing, John Krasinski is wonderfully likeable yet flawed - they absolutely carry the film. The story is off a young artist named Martine (Thirlby) who comes to stay with a family so that the husband, who does sound for movies, can help her with the sound editing of a video-art piece. She semi-inadvertently wreaks havoc as all the men around become attracted to her.
     One of the interesting things about the movie is that she does not set out to be a home-wrecker, nor is she callously sowing discord. The film remains ambivalent as to whether she bears some responsibility for the negative consequences that result (at one point she says "I'm just doing what I need to do to get my shit done!" or something like that, and it's a good point). I appreciated the ambivalence, and the subtle way that the movie gestures towards the fact that disaster seems to follow in this girl's wake, without taking a position on why. It was actually kind of thought-provoking. It's part of a broader inquiry into the nature of a young woman's sexuality, and how they are both subjects and objects, in a curious way. There's a nice parallel here with the character of the sixteen year old daughter, who is negotiating these questions herself. Particularly interesting is that she's being sleazed at by her Italian tutor (not quite preyed upon, but certainly, what's happening is not ok). Her response initially seems like a girl power! sort of moment, and then gets very scary for a second - a poignant reminder of the danger that underlies these kinds of things. Just speaking up for yourself is not a solution.
     I think the film also does a pretty good job capturing the realities of marriage, though not being married myself, I wouldn't really know. But it certainly felt like a more authentic portrayal of a relationship, where you notice that your partner is checking someone else out, but that is neither the end of the relationship nor completely unimportant.
    Another thing I really liked about the movie was that, appropriately enough for a film where two people are working on sound production, it used sound in a wonderful way. You know how sometimes you see a movie, and afterwards you are suddenly way, way more conscious of all the noises around you? This was one of those movies. I peeled an orange when I got home, and was just kind of lost in the raspy, squishy sound of it. I think that's an indicator of an effective use of sound in a film. It makes you hear things more.
  It is not a perfect movie. Actually, my first response to it was kind of lukewarm, and now I'm finding myself warming to it. I think it's because it is subtle and not overdone. There's a wonderful restraint to it - no massive, horrific consequences and hyperbolic dramas. Things happen, life goes on. It's a feature I'm appreciating more and more in movies.