24 May 2013

The Great Gatsby

I read The Great Gatsby twice. The first time was in high school, and I HATED it. Mostly because we spent all of class time on plot summaries and beating the green light symbolism into the ground. I re-read the book in grad school (I think mostly because my friend Dunx said it was an amazing book and I figured I needed to give it another try) and realized, actually, yes, it is a phenomenal book. But that first experience made me aware of just how easy it is to ruin an excellent work of literature. And if you love the book and can't imagine how it could ever be ruined - go see Baz Luhrmann's movie version.

There are so many things to hate about the movie. First off, it's long. IT IS SO LONG. It's poorly paced and the story is poorly adapted, and it goes on and on and on. Second off, the music. I was also prepared to be annoyed by this thanks to Moulin Rouge, but I was also ready to give it the benefit of the doubt. But no. Just no. You wanna do hip hop, fine, do hip hop (though personally, much as I enjoy Jay-Z, does he have to do every soundtrack of every major movie?). But don't do some watered down, loungey bullshit mishmash. "You know what I really hate about the Roaring 20s? The music." said no one, ever. There was some vague attempt, perhaps, to combine hip hop and the music of the time, but it was a colossal failure as far as I'm concerned. Third off, the party scenes. Baz Luhrmann, for goddsakes that's what you're supposed to be good at? These were so totally bland and unexciting. And there were SO many of them, and they went on for SO long. Fourth, the characters. Especially Daisy. She spends most of the movie looking distraught, lip quivering. I don't blame Carey Mulligan for this (I loved An Education so much that I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt), I blame the script and the directing. She lacks Daisy's petulance, her charm, and her toughness. She is bland. Tobey Maguire isn't particularly persuasive as Nick either - he's just affable and kind of there. Leonardo DiCaprio is probably the best thing about this movie - he's actually fairly spot on for the role, so long as you can forgive him for saying old sport every 20 seconds. I couldn't quite forgive him for it, myself. Which brings me to the fifth, the green light. I was deliberating which was more annoying, the constant refrain of old sport or the goddamn green light. Jury is still out.

But what really screwed with me is the racial dynamic of the film. Apparently the only thing the internet has seen fit to complain about is the Jewish villain. To be honest, I didn't notice that aspect as much. What I did notice was the weird, weird way blackness came up in the movie. Or rather, the first half of the movie, because in the second half, there's only one moment with black characters, and the point there seems to be that Baz wants you to appreciate the fact that he DIDN'T have them sing a spiritual when he totally could have. And it wasn't easy for him. You can tell. They are so very very close to busting one out, they're clustered around and even kind of humming, but he showed ADMIRABLE RESTRAINT you guys. No, I'm talking about the first half, where, as some commentators have noticed, you see lots of black people! Which apparently contented some critics, who were pleased that the movie wasn't whitewashed. I appreciate that sentiment. But there's something really odd about all these loving shots of black servants, and black men digging. But ok, maybe the point is to highlight how the wealth of these white folks is built on the back of black labor. Fair enough. And then the characters are slumming by having this secret apartment for their debauchery, and when they look out the window into the other apartments they see that there's all kinds of debauchery going on! Because this is a BLACK neighborhood! See, there's a trumpeter on the fire escape playing the soundtrack. In one apartment, there's even an interracial affair. Very taboo. Because... that's what black neighborhoods are like? Full of... life? Ok, moving on, we have Tom spouting his racist rant at the beginning, about how the black folk need to be kept down before they take over, and that's how we know he's a bad guy. Fine.

Except that meanwhile, the movie is using a hip hop soundtrack, apparently with the idea that hip hop is today's version of the conspicuous consumption culture that these white people are reveling in. In order to hammer that in, one of the more blatantly racist lines in the book - "a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry" (55) - is brought to life in the movie by having the "3 modish Negroes" portrayed in a tableau that obviously reference the Notorious B.I.G. So in the book we have Nick, amused by the idea that blacks could ever compete with whites, and racist Tom paranoid that in fact, they will. And in the movie, we have Baz Luhrmann telling us that in fact, that's exactly what happened! Black folks are the new rich people! How wacky is that?!?
Am I reading too much into it? Maybe. But watching the movie, I was repeatedly puzzled by the weird undertexts of blackness in the film. I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what was bothering me, and that's what I've come up with so far. I'd tell you to go see it and come back and tell me what you thought, but honestly, I don't think it's worth subjecting yourself to the film for. Read the book instead. It costs less, and probably takes about as much time as you'd spend on getting to and from the theatre and sitting through the movie. And it's actually really, really good.

22 May 2013

Did the Greeks Believe in their Myths? by Paul Veyne

I've been wanting to read this ever since I first heard of it. What a fascinating question! you think to yourself. It's a slim book, so I was expecting a delightful set of maybe somewhat loose reflections on the nature of belief and the uses of myth/history, bolstered by some close readings of a variety of sources. But no. Instead, you get a grindingly repetitive, often rambling monologue supported with no evidence whatsoever. It's the kind of work that people call "suggestive" and describe as brilliant even though it has no discernible argument. It drives me nuts.

That said, it does, almost in spite of itself, have some interesting thoughts (I can't help but think of a swine snuffling through a leaf pile and happening upon some acorns). There is a lovely though somewhat incoherent metaphor of history as polygon with events filling up the space inside it, for instance. Veyne circles around questions like, is there such a thing as a disinterested lie, and, what are the potential approaches one might take to retrieving truth from myth, and sometimes the specific ways he frames juxtaposes these questions is indeed interesting, even if his plan for answering them is just to kinda think about them. So in that sense, it's not a total loss, though I still didn't find it a particularly useful text to think through.

What I ultimately found most frustrating in this book was the lack of any sort of grounding in evidence. That's just, like, your opinion, man. In the last lines of the book, he says
The theme of this book was very simple. Merely by reading the title, anyone with the slightest historical background would immediately have answered, "But of course they believed in their myths!" We have simply wanted to make it clear that what is true of "them" is also true of ourselves and to bring out the implications of this truth.
And I really felt quite cheated. Like, no. It's actually not that simple at all. Thanks for nothing.

21 May 2013

Olympus Has Fallen (White House Taken)

I'm not sure what the exact title is; here it's called White House Taken, but the internet immediately redirects me to Olympus Has Fallen. ANYWAYS. My friend Daniel and I went and saw this because, quite honestly, we were hoping for something mindless with lots of explosions. Oh boy were we in for a surprise. Had I known the director was Antoine Fuqua (of Training Day), I might have realized that this was not so likely to be a big dumb movie, but these days I try to know as little as possible about the movies I go to see, so I was unprepared. But the movie sets the tone in the first 5 minutes. It is intense. Shit just got real, son. Before the movie started there was a preview for World War Z, and Daniel commented on how these disasters always seem to strike New York (where he lived for 10+ years), and we were chatting about how weird it is that post-9-11 Americans enjoy watching footage of their cities in rubble, but I have to say, there is an argument to be made that living in a world where terrorism is an increasingly real possibility, movies like this one do become a lot more intense. I think formerly, I would watch this movie with a sense of bemused distance, like whatever, this could never happen. But now, it's a lot more scary. It's not quite so close to home as to be genuinely unpleasant - but it's scary the way a roller coaster is scary. At least, this movie was. I mean, woof. Unlike so many political action films which are, in the grand scheme of things, relatively bloodless, this movie wracked up a serious body count in a completely unflinching way. It didn't drag the violence out so much that it felt like torture porn, but it was fairly ruthless in dispatching an awful lot of people.

One thing that was curious about the film was how many plot lines it set up and then dropped. As the tagline for the film tells you (there will be no spoilers in this review), the main guy is a "disgraced" former body guard. But to be honest, there is really no reason for him to be disgraced. It's a pretty minor plot point. The trailer sets this up as if it will matter, but if anything, it creates a few plot holes that don't quite check out. Similarly, certain objects or lines are deployed in such a thudding way that you're sure they'll matter later, but nope, not at all. It's sort of odd.

What made this movie so fascinating to me though - and I don't think this is giving anything away really - is how it actually evoked this question of whether the life of a handful of American political figures should be valued over that of millions of others. As Daniel put it, the absolute singularity of, say, the president. So, one way to look at this movie is that it simply asserts that yes, it is. But I wonder. In that, as I watched the film, I found myself thinking that in a way, it was actually suggesting the exact opposite, that a certain sentimentalism (one that is so typical to American action films) is a major vulnerability, and one that movies like this one tends to celebrate, and this is precisely what marks those movies as unreal and/or idealistic. And that, to me, is what made this kind of an amazing movie.

But even if you leave that hyperanalytical bit aside, it's a pretty thrilling film. I'm not a big fan of Gerard Butler, and I don't think he was actually all that good, and Aaron Eckhart and Morgan Freeman were basically doing the same thing they always seem to do now. Melissa Leo and Angela Bassett were both good, though one kind of felt that it was overkill to put such talented performers in the movie. The special effects seemed just fine to me, I don't know what reviewers are complaining about. It's an exciting film. Maybe it's just that I haven't watched movies like this in awhile, I don't know, but I was fairly riveted.

16 May 2013

The Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Danielewski


I LOVED House of Leaves, but I can't quite bring myself to read Only Revolutions, because it looks like it's a lot of effort without much pay-off. The Fifty Year Sword seemed promising though - a creepy story, not too difficult. And I will give it credit, it's not - I read it in an hour. But it's also not that great. This is unfortunate, because I think Danielewski has the potential to be a fantastic writer. His prose is strangely magnetic and really sucks you in. And the "effects" he's interested in are sometimes quite effective - particularly the arrangement of words on the page. But other ones seem pretty gratuitous. In this book, for instance, we are told at the beginning that there are five different speakers, and that who is actually talking will be indicated by the color of quotation marks. So for starters, the colors are quite similar. Secondarily, the voices aren't that different. Thirdly, it arguably doesn't really matter, because they seem to all be talking at once and producing something awfully similar to a monologue, so who cares. I find myself wishing he would just write a good story and spend less time with the conceptual stuff, but then again, sometimes the conceptual stuff is kind of neat. The fact that most of this story is only on the left hand side of the page does have some kind of effect in this book. I can't explain it, but it  does generate some sort of mental state in you as you read. The illustrations, unfortunately, are not especially effective, and seem rather shabby, and the red thread that binds that book is just...silly.

Essentially, you have an extremely talented writer relating a pretty stock and cliche tale, and loading it with a bunch of "special effects," very few of which actually add to the story. It's a pity, really. Danielewski seems capable of so much better.

12 May 2013

Queen of Montreuil

I have made it a sort of informal rule that whenever an opportunity arises to see an Icelandic film, I seize it. Especially if the description is somewhat bizarre. Because in my experience, Icelandic films are fantastic and weird and actually, they are just like their descriptions, it's just that they are so off-beat and quirky that they can't really be described, except it extremely basic plot points which do not do justice to the whole. Queen of Montreuil is indeed about a French woman who returns to Montreuil to grieve over her husband's death, and then somewhat randomly an Icelandic woman and her son arrive, and also a sea lion. It won't make any more sense to add that the Icelandic woman is returning from Jamaica, where another son of hers lives, or that she befriends a construction worker. Nothing is really going to give you any sense of what this movie is like, except to say that it's funny and sweet and just overall great. The plot, inasmuch as there is one, is subtle and understated, allowing information to emerge gradually, except when its fantastically improbable in a delightfully absurd sort of way.
Just go see it, if you can.

06 May 2013

Pow! by Mo Yan

I have been neglecting this blog so hard. I'm sorry blog. Neglect has a way of being cumulative, where you get this unfortunate inertia built up, so I'm going to try and make some baby steps into posting more regularly again. Part of this involves deciding that a short crappy post is better than no post at all. But apologies in advance if these are short and crappy.

I picked up Pow! while in the States because my mom was interested in reading it. She and I generally get around to reading the Nobel Prize winners (you know, you kinda gotta), but this one was a little intimidating, on account of being so long. Once I started reading though, I was hooked. It's a totally bizarre book, and definitely not for everyone, but I found it totally engrossing. For all its weirdness, there's also something profoundly familiar about the emotions being depicted, making the book incredibly moving, even though the plot is totally out there. While I thought the comparison to Gombrowicz (made on the dust jacket) was apt, this book packed much more of a punch emotionally, perhaps because it eschewed narcissistic forrays into meta-fiction.

The novel follows a scene of storytelling - a guy telling a monk about his life. Interspersed with the narration are these weird, dream-like sequences where totally random things happen. The guy's story is itself pretty strange; when he is a young boy, his parents split up (his father runs away with another woman), and his mother is strict and miserly. Our hero's biggest gripe is that he doesn't get to eat meat - he loves meat. As the novel progresses, he comes to see himself as a kind of meat-whisperer - he has a special relationship with it, understands it in ways others can't, etc. His love for it occasionally leads the book into the grotesque - parts of the story are definitely not for the squeamish - but there's also something kind of cute about it.

Overall, it's definitely a book you need to be in the right mood for, but if you are, it's really something.