30 December 2013

Tower of Glass, by Robert Silverberg

I don't read much sci-fi/fantasy, because I tend to find the extensive exposition somewhat tedious, and the ideas vaguely juvenile. A totally unfair generalization, I'm sure, but there you have it. The Glass Tower, however, was highly recommended by two friends whose opinions I trust, and it isn't that long (sorry, Game of Thrones fans), so I gave it a whirl. And enjoyed it. 

I will say up front that the book does suffer from the flaws of the typical sci-fi works. The writing is perfunctory, and you have to be willing to overlook things like characters named Thor and grandiose titles and classifications and explanations. But it also has the strengths of the best examples of its kind: interesting ideas, and the sense of exploring a possible future and considering its probability. The characters aren't as fleshed out as one might like, but there's enough there to care about them. 

One of the more major themes of the book is an underlying question of how political change happens, and the role of religion versus political action. Its perspective on the issue is, perhaps, a bit drastic, but the way it plays out is interesting. There is also a question of what it means to be human, which follows somewhat predictable paths of thought, but I appreciated the importance granted to sexuality.

All in all, an interesting book. Not a must-read, but certainly a pleasant way to pass an hour or two. And as my friends pointed out, it really does cry out to be made into a movie.

22 December 2013

The Puffy Chair / Safety Not Guaranteed

So, apparently I never posted my thoughts on Cyrus or The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, and when I wrote about Jeff, Who Lives at Home, I was kind of meh about it. This is odd, because I have in the meantime decided that I Like the Duplass Brothers' movies, and I'm surprised I never said so before. All three of those films, I think, are in some ways kind of exactly what you'd expect a quirky, small, independent American film to be, but hey, they work. They find a fine balance between sweetness and sap, comic and melancholy, acerbic and tender. The characters are odd but believable, the situations ridiculous yet somehow familiar. So, I was looking forward to seeing The Puffy Chair, having heard it was one of their better works, and indeed, it was exactly what I expected, and I loved it. My boyfriend, who has not seen as many of their movies and was not entering into it with the same expectations, was rather less impressed. But I thought i was extremely clever. Then, a week later, I watched Safety Not Guaranteed. I thought it was also a Duplass brothers film, and was somewhat puzzled, watching it, because it seemed sort of in their wheelhouse, but not nearly as well done. Turns out, it's just that Mark Duplass stars in it -- neither brother seems to have been involved in the writing or directing. And it shows -- the movie is sort of charmingly quirky and has an original plot, but the tone is slightly off, and it's a bit too mopey-sappy, and overall much less clever. Not a bad movie, just not an especially great one. Definitely would've been better if the Duplass brothers had done it...

The thing is, the Duplass bros are very skilled at the craft of writing. Their plots have this elegant construction; a dense network of repetitions and allusions and resurfacing motifs and reversals that makes my analytical engine purr. The Puffy Chair begins on the eve of a guy's departure on a brief road trip: he will pick up a chair that he bought from a guy on craigslist and deliver it to his father as a surprise birthday present. He's having dinner with his girlfriend, and it rapidly becomes clear that there are some definite problems in their relationship. Minor scuffles? The kinds of arguments couples have as they're transitioning into a more serious relationship and jockeying for position in setting personal boundaries? Or symptoms of major underlying incompatibilities? We can't tell. But the result is, she is now going on the trip with him. They stop by his brother's house on the way, and lo and behold, then there were three. So now we have this somewhat tense relationship, plus this wackadoo unpredictable hippy brother. And hilarious hijinx ensue.

What's so great about this film is the way it conveys a sense of absurdity in these fantastically trivial yet strangely insurmountable obstacles, and the way they escalate. A guy dramatically trapped in a van and unable to go to the bathroom that is a mere 10 feet away, for a totally stupid yet completely understandable reason. A screaming fight where a guy simply will not open a door. How ridiculous is it to make threats at someone who is safely behind a closed door? Bragaddocio and the struggle to reconcile sensitivity and masculinity are a wonderful subplot in the movie, as is the balance between laid back emo hippy-ness and pragmatic rationality, and of course, how relationships work, and how you know if someone is truly "the one." It's a warm and tender movie that is also hilariously funny and fantastically clever. Highly recommended (by me. Less so by my boyfriend).

Safety Not Guaranteed has a more unconventional storyline -- a journalist and his two interns try to write a story about a guy (played by Mark Duplass) who has placed an ad in the paper looking for someone to time travel with him. Who is this kook? is the initial angle, but one of the interns, a somewhat troubled young woman, begins to form a relationship with the guy. So, at this point, I'm cringing because you know, inevitably the dude will realize she's been lying to him, and that will be no good. What's worse is that the movie is leaving it open-ended as to whether or not this guy is a kook. Socially maladjusted, no doubt. Actually crazy? Unclear. Are we meant to like him, or mock him? Unsure. Which really alienates me as a viewer, and makes me very uncomfortable. Meanwhile, the main journalist is also visiting an old fling, and trying to get the other intern, a nerdy South Asian guy, laid. At its best moments, the movie offers scenes of what feels like genuine, honest interactions between people, and interesting echoes among these various situations. The ambivalent space between seeing someone as a misunderstood genius or a person with serious mental problems or just a jerk is not uninteresting, but it's difficult to pull off, and this film doesn't quite succeed. Also, the mopey indie rock soundtrack is borderline unbearable for me.

Whereas Safety Not Guaranteed feels a bit precious and contrived, The Puffy Chair, to me at least, had this amazing quasi-documentary effect, where it felt like it was just showing you some stuff that happened, rather than dutifully following along the steps of a plot. Its quirky characters were decidedly imperfect, and occasionally seemed like complete jerks, but they always seemed compelling to me somehow, even when I didn't like them. Whereas in Safety Not Guaranteed, the characters skated dangerously close to cliche, and many of their eccentricities seemed designed specifically to make them seem more real, but did the opposite. Thus, the emotional developments between them seemed to proceed along exactly the lines you'd expect, and felt somewhat hollow. Whereas in The Puffy Chair, you had a sense that anything could happen, and the things that did not happen resonated beautifully with other moments of the plot but never seemed dictated by them. It's a really artful construction, and my favorite kind, where the creators manage to find this delicate balance between organization and chaos, inviting you to perceive patterns in reality without making you feel like they have created them.

21 December 2013

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

Some readers will be thrown, I think, by the loose structure and lack of a clearly mapped narrative arc in this book. It's not exactly a collection of vignettes, or moments: it's more like, stuff is happening. The book begins in Zimbabwe (though I might only know that from blurbs -- I'm not sure you ever learn in the book itself?) with a girl named Darling describing her adventures with her friends. Then, she goes to America, to Michigan. The novel feels like a work with strong links to an oral tradition, not only in the style -- a chapter might begin with "So I asked my aunt..."" for example -- but also because it's evoking a world, and a character, rather than circumscribing a specific event, or organizing a plot. It's a wonderful read because it so compellingly and successfully captures Darling's voice, and its subtle shifts over time, not because it delivers some kind of message, or even story. It manages to be a vivid examination of a character's state of being without any of the usual conventions of psychological inquiry we are used to. A remarkable book, definitely worth reading.

08 December 2013

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

I am tempted to ascribe the strangeness of this novel to the fact that Lorrie Moore writes excellent short stories, but I'm not sure if that really explains it. Certainly, the prose is excellent; absorbing and occasionally lyrical. I particularly liked the repeated tic of random interjections ending with exclamation marks, which somehow perfectly evokes a goofy, awkward young woman's inner monologue. The narration is slightly stilted, in that it is occasionally retrospective ("I would later know that this was x") but often presented with a certain immediacy ("I had only wanted to please and surprise her, but now I suddenly felt very tired."). This makes the references to future knowledge slightly distracting. Though it is an effective tool, I think, in conveying dawning awareness. One of the more interesting things about the novel is that chronicles how a person's thinking changes in college (though I might be particularly inclined to view it that way because I first heard of it in the n+1 article about the "Theory generation"), and this, I think, is what the shifting tenses are especially good for, giving a sense of before, after, and the murky in between of transition, where you are neither before nor after.

The problem is, the plot is just annoying. There are three climaxes, of sorts, in the book, or rather, three scenes that involve a kind of culmination of crisis. All three come across as slightly absurd, and not at all real. They seem senselessly unfortunate and stupid, in an instantly alienating way that deprives you of any sympathy for the characters. Two are especially annoying because they feel like an attempt to be timely, and reflect something about the realities of our historical moment. But the two events described (I don't want to spoil it by giving them away) are not at all typical, which makes their inclusion feel especially ham-fisted (especially BOTH of them). Admittedly, this is exactly how real life works; those weird rare things do happen to someone, and that person's life goes on, and the event is precisely an odd intrusion into some kind of normalcy. One a purely narrative level, this is really tricky to pull off in a novel, because these massive events shift the weight of the whole and exert a kind of magnetic force on the plot, creating the expectation that the entire book is really "about" them, otherwise, why include them at all? I appreciate, I suppose, that Moore makes the attempt, but I don't think it is especially successful.

The novel also aims at socio-political commentary with a sub-plot about a white couple who has adopted a biracial baby. This is harder to evaluate. The mother holds weekly get-togethers with parents of mixed race children, and it seems that their earnest discussions are being presented with a veneer of ironic contempt. There is certainly something distasteful about the mother's self-satisfied and self-righteous droning on about various race-related issues, which also made me feel vaguely hopeless. For instance; she renames the baby Emma. And then is criticized for not giving her a name like Maya or Zora. Or she is attacked for not braiding the baby's hair but instead leaving it in an Afro. And I dunno, I mean, to me stuff like this sort of epitomizes a lot of the shitty aspects of American race relations, and how this stuff is all fraught and gross and there is no right way to deal with it, but getting all upset and melodramatic about it is a weird way in which white liberals make it all about themselves again, and can't we all just be people and not get hung up on this crap, but then that too can seem like denying the problem, etc. The uncomfortableness of it is, I think, what makes the book actually quite insightful, in a strange sort of way. It doesn't give you the satisfaction of a right answer. It drags you into the mess and forces you to stay in that space between the weird racism of the smug white liberal and the more crude, brutal and disgusting run-of-the-mill variety, except that maybe it only does that if you're someone who is thoughtful and critical about race issues and primed to be hyper-vigilant when they come up in fiction? Although race is mentioned, it doesn't have any sort of narrative arc, which makes me wonder if someone could overlook it, unless the novel is counteracting that by making it insistently resurface in little everyday ways that suggest that maybe it can't actually be forgotten.

More broadly, the frustrating thing about the book is that the story doesn't really develop or go anywhere. Stuff happens, but it doesn't feel organized or contained by the plot. It is more like an arbitrary slice of the film reel, or one damn thing after another. There are these great moments -- sometimes only a few sentences long -- that you really appreciate, and are glad to have read. But they seem almost too solitary; the novel feels like a string of pearls, except with no string. Hence my theory that Moore's true métier is the short story...

07 December 2013

Workers; Nobody's Daughter

More delights from the Gezici Festival...

Nobody's Daughter
I was surprised to see this make the Cahier du Cinéma's Top 10 list -- it wasn't a bad movie, but I didn't think it was especially revelatory. Admittedly, it was hot and stuffy in the theatre so I did doze off, but only for about 10 minutes. The movie seems to me to be about a young woman and her illicit relationship with a professor. It's told in an interesting, looping sort of way while I wasn't particularly impressed at the time, in retrospect there is something intriguing about its circuitous approach to narrative. The same problem comes up again and again, with no seeming way forward. I guess maybe I need to rewatch it? I feel like it never quite cohered for me; I missed something.

I love love loved this movie. A truly remarkable film. Extremely subtle and understated, but somehow never dull. The filmmaker will just plonk a camera down on the sidewalk and shoot a storefront for 10 minutes, and yet, it holds your interest. Gorgeous shots, a wonderful use of color, and a sense of seeing what life is like for other people.
  The plot is so understated that it's barely discernible, and involves several threads of narrative, some of which overlap, and others which don't. There are essentially two main characters, a caretaker who tends to a rich woman (and a few other members of that household's staff), and an older janitor at a lightbulb company (and a young woman he has a relationship of sorts with. What kind exactly, we don't know.). I don't want to say anything else about it, because watching events unfold in minute shifts is one of the film's particular delights. But broadly speaking, we can say that it's a film about relationships between people, and employees and their bosses, and revenge. Occasionally melancholic, it is also hilariously funny at moments, and bittersweet at points. But overall, absolutely delightful. In fact, I would say that it is the one that belongs on a top 10 list...

04 December 2013

Thou Gild'st the Even

Original (Turkish) title: Sen Aydınlatırsın Geceyi

The bizarre title is from Shakespeare's "Sonnet 28," though I still don't really know what it means. The movie, unfortunately, is not that good. It's kind of interesting because it's just so totally weird; an absurd plot where meaning is glimpsed, dream-like, from time to time. Little things are "off" right from the get-go; the main character walks through walls, another person appears to be a giant, a guy can apparently actually shoot out of his finger guns, a woman can stop time, another guy is continuously wiping away bloody tears, another woman is invisible most of the time. Why? *Shrug* Why not? The plot is not much more reasonable; basically, there's a guy who is kind of depressed, he falls in love with a woman but they have some problems, and, well, a bunch of other random stuff happens. Sometimes the absurdity is comical or charming, but it can also seem pointless. At first I was interested, but after awhile I got restless and felt like I was wasting my time.

To the North, by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen is not very good at endings. It's kind of a fascinating phenomenon, in that it seems borderline pathological; a horror of completion. But it's also frustrating, in that it can really mar an otherwise fantastic book, like To the North, whose ending just stinks. Was it a cliché at the time, I wonder, or is she part of the process of making it one? I don't know, but I don't like it. So let us pretend it did not happen and act as if the book were simply unfinished, and the last few pages lost.

To the North is essentially a romance novel; the story of two very different women, Emmeline and Cecilia, and their love affairs. It's remarkable in that both women are quite unavailable emotionally; Emmeline because she just never really seems to be there in the first place and is a kind of fascinating emotional blank, and Cecilia because she is astonishingly self-absorbed and completely illogical. And yet, they manage to forge these odd connections with two men who seem comparatively normal (though it must be admitted that Bowen is rather less interested in them, and thus, so are we. It's not ideal, but at least they aren't demonized, just sidelined). The ups and downs of their interactions are not at all like those of typical love stories, and it's ultimately very hard to say whether the phenomenon described is love, or whether the relationships are successful, or what is going on at all. The more you think about it, the murkier it seems, which is, I think, rather brilliant. I liked the book mainly because I found Emmeline strangely riveting. Ready to listen but astonishingly unresponsive, in love (maybe?) but uncommitted, abstract but somehow real: she's just a really interesting character study, which often seem to be the point of Bowen's books, in the grand scheme of things. I thought Emmeline was both more persuasive and more complex than the odd outsiders that people Bowen's other novels, and perhaps that's why I liked this book more than I have her others, though I enjoy all of them.

The real reason to love this novel though, as is generally the case with Bowen, is the language itself. Bowen's prose is basically perfect, as far as I'm concerned. She gazed at Julian, wishing he were a clock. It is unsurprising that  critics fixate on Bowen's Irishness, because her writing is exactly what you imagine stereotypical elegant English novels to sound like, except even more so, and with a kind of tense edginess to it. It almost seems like caricature at moments, but it's nearly impossible to tell. Regardless, the two paragraphs about a bus on pg 46 might be some of the world's most delightful writing on public transportation. Definitely a book worth reading.

02 December 2013

Dispatches from the Gezici Festival

Expect a lot of short updates over the next week, because the Gezici Festival is in town! Hooray! I've got tickets to another 7 films, I think? So lots of movies this week. Last night, I went to:

This is Martin Bonner

A pleasant film, though a somewhat meandering one. Travis is a guy who has just gotten out of prison and is trying to start a new life. Martin works for a faith-based program that helps prisoners transition; he has in fact just moved to Reno, and seems to need some help transitioning himself. As the film progresses, we learn more and more about his life (and all the things that went wrong in it). It's an understated film, but the parallels between the two men are interesting, and both actors are so immensely likable that the film manages to be engaging, despite not having much of a plot arc.
  I'm glad that prisoners are getting more screen time these days, and in more thoughtful representations (I haven't gotten around to posting about it, but yes, I totally dug the first season of Orange is the New Black). This movie isn't especially superb, but it's the kind of quiet, contemplative independent film that can be quite pleasant on a Sunday afternoon.

The Impeccables (Kusurzular)

Meh. The story of two sisters staying in the home of their grandmother (who, we learn, died several months earlier). Clearly something is not right, and as the film unfolds, we gradually find out what brought them there, and why they resent each other so much. I guessed it pretty quick, so the movie was a bit flat, because it wasn't a convincing exploration of a relationship between two women, it was two women going through the paces of unfolding a cliché. Though I did think both women played their roles quite well and seemed very talented; it's a pity they didn't have a better film to showcase their abilities.
  One thing that is kind of amusing/interesting is that at different moments, each of them totally snaps off and starts screaming at the other. Turkish women are remarkably good at this. If you've seen it in person (and I have), it's pretty dramatic: they can go from zero to sixty, regular indoor voices to shrieking, in seconds. I don't know if it's something about the language that is particularly conducive to it, or it's a cultural thing, but oooweee! It's the kind of thing that makes you immediately go "ok, ok, ok, fine, whatever you want, whatever will make you stop." Not to generalize (I'm totally generalizing), but I think white American women are so socialized to be quiet that they just can't muster that kind of volume, especially on such short notice. Maybe American women of color can pull it off, sometimes? But the Turkish version is especially impressive because it's so high pitched, which makes it especially hard on the ears. I find it absolutely enthralling.
...but it doesn't really make this movie worth watching.

01 December 2013

Nostalgia for the Light

The real star of this thoughtful documentary is the footage, which is absolutely incredible. But the premise is not less fascinating; a contemplation of the skies over Chile and the ground under it. Juxtaposing the continuing search for the bodies of those who "disappeared" during the Pinochet regime with astronomical research, the film offers a lyrical reflection on space, time, and human knowledge.

The skies above Chile are remarkably clear, and the soil is very dry, making both highly amenable to exploration. What lies in between, however, is much more murky. What struck me about the film is the way it presented both archaeology and astronomy as studies in history, a process of reading traces that strangely spatializes time, but offers a sort of arid clarity. In contrast, the realm of socio-political history is messy, and in the particular case of Chile, deeply complicated by efforts of those in power to obscure it by hiding physical evidence. It is precisely by producing physical remnants--detailed maps of the camps, or the heartbreaking search for bodies--that people strive to give it concreteness. And those tangible objects speak their history in all kinds of ways. There was this moment where someone points out that Pinochet did not need to build concentration camps; in one case, at least, he could use barracks that had been constructed for 19th century miners. Which, the speaker notes, attests to the labor conditions of those miners...

It's not a cheerful film, and it must be admitted that it's occasionally a bit ponderous and repetitive, but it's nonetheless a very interesting movie, and decidedly worth watching.