Friday, February 28, 2014

The Martian, by Andy Weir

The Martian (2014) as a novel reads like a highly technical instruction manual.  Or like a series of complicated puzzles, all of them linked, all of them moving towards the specific goal of survival for an American astronaut stranded on Mars.  This is not a conventional science fiction novel: it is totally lacking in any elements of the fantastic, and other than the speculation that one day humans will land on and explore Mars, it is not especially speculative.  It also lacks many of the elements one would expect from a good novel—character development, exposition, narrative development.  We come to know the main character, Mark Watney, primarily as the engineer he is, possessed of knowledge about engineering and botany that enables him to do what he must in order to survive. 
Watney doesn’t ruminate much over the nature of his situation.  He may be disappointed or downcast when setbacks occur, but he recovers and quickly begins to cast about for solutions.  It’s difficult to imagine how one could function in his position, stranded on Mars, 480 days away from the hope of rescue.  It’s also difficult to believe that solutions, and the materials they require, would always be at hand, would always be successful.

The interest of this novel lies in the fact that its author, Andy Weir, is a NASA engineer who understands the intricacies of manned space missions and the science behind him.  Each solution to the problems Watney encounters are based on his knowledge.  Everything in the novel seems rooted in fact.  Though it is presented in chapters ostensibly taken from the daily logs of the astronaut, and on occasional accounts of how NASA responds to his situation, the novel’s interest comes directly from the often ingenious methods Watney devises, his fearlessness (though he really has no option to be otherwise), and on the ultimate question of his survival.  I cannot imagine reading too many novels like The Martian, but this one kept its reader engaged.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Män som hatar kvinnor/The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Män som hatar kvinnor (dir. Niels Arden Oplev) is the 2009 Swedish adaptation of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  I thought the 2011 American adaptation, directed by David Fincher, was good.  BothAlthough I found the novel entertaining and readable, as a novel it wasn’t very good.  Both films bring to life the essential events and characters of the novel.  Both are successful adaptations, but the Swedish version is better than the American.  Why?  If we’re dedicated to the notion that a good adaptation must adhere somewhat closely to the details of the source text, Opley’s film more successfully captures Larsson’s narrative, the details of Harriet Vanger’s disappearance, of the serial killings, of how the killer is identified, and of the personalities of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander.  The actors who portray these characters seem more like the characters that Larsson described in his novel, in particular Blomkvist, who is more rounded and middle-aged in appearance (based on the novel’s descriptions) than Daniel Craig.  If we’re dedicated to the notion that a successful adaptation must be forst of all a good film, then Opley’s film wins out there as well.  Both films avoid the flaws in the novel—too much talking and exposition, not enough drama.  The novel’s focus on violence against women, especially rape, and its strident criticism of the corruption of capitalism, which can become preachy at times, are better integrated into the narrative in the film.  Virtually everything that happens in the novel is tied up in violence against women, misogyny, anti-Semitism, Nazism, anticapitalism.  Is the story supposed to be a polemic, or a crime narrative in which these various sins contribute to but do not overwhelm events?  (These flaws are even more evident in the second and third volumes of the Larsson Trilogy).  Both adaptations are better-made films than the novel is a novel.  Finally, however ingenious Larrson’s plot may be, the nature of Harriet’s disappearance, the serial killer and the Old Testament rationale he applies in his killings—these are all fairly conventional.  What makes the novel, and the film adaptations, stand out are the two main characters, Blomkvist and Salander.  They are fully, distinctively drawn, and, most of all, human.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Kept, by James Scott

The Kept (Harper, 2013), by James Scott, takes all the traits that make Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis special and turns them into conventions.  It's set late in the 19th century, in upper New York, near Lake Erie.  There's a revenge plot, very predictable.  And the final scene is predictable, unsatisfying, a cop-out.  There are high points and low points.  The two main characters are a woman named Elspeth who finds her entire family—three children and a husband--murdered, except for one son, 12-year-old Caleb, hiding in the barn.  He is the other main character. We're constantly learning new things about these characters, especially Elspeth, who prior to her family’s slaughter disappeared for months at a time, serving as a midwife in remote towns and villages, entirely beyond the reach of her family.  Nothing is as it seems.  Darkness and mud and ice abound.   The book is structured around a historical event, a disaster in a factory that harvests ice from a frozen lake, but this seems a convenience.

The circumstances surrounding mother and son are so grim that we fail to believe even in the rare moments of hope that the novel offers.  Caleb, by horrible circumstance beyond his control, and Elspeth, both by her own acts and by her situation, are doomed.  This seems beyond dispute even from the earliest pages.  Doom can come in various forms—moral, legal, violent, psychological, even supernatural, and all of those apply here in some way.  The author so convinces us of this doom that the story hardly seems worth reading to the end.  To have these characters rescued in would betrayed the book’s own principles.  Their situation is one from which rescue is not possible. The novel tempts us to believe in some redemptive glimmer, then denies it completely.  The final scene recalled the penultimate moment in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997), whose sadness is tempered by an epilogue.  Here, there is no tempering, and in that regard this novel at least is honest.

Life of Pi

From its earliest images, Life of Pi (2012; dir. Ang Lee) has a fabulistic tone—with the opening shots of zoo animals, of the same animals on the ship the family is taking to America, and finally with the animals that seek refuge (however briefly or unfortunately for most of them) in the lifeboat that the main character Pi (Piscine Molitor, played by Suraj Sharma) finds his way into after the ship wreck.  The entire film is presented as a tale told by Pi to a novelist (Yann Martel, who wrote the novel, played by Rafe Spall) in search of a story, which in essence suggests that the film is a tale told to the audience by the novelist.  In and of itself, Pi’s initial narrative seems incomplete, not in the sense of its narrative, which does have a beginning and middle and end, but with the quality of its completeness—it’s too simple, too straightforward, too perfect, too lyrical and fanciful, too obviously crafted.  There’s no raggedness.  We’re not too surprised when insurance investigators wonder whether the tale Pi told them about his ordeal camouflaged a darker story, which leads Pi to tell about a different series of events that his first narrative “might” have disguised.  The real story (if it is the real one) seems more likely but less entertaining than the fabulistic one.  Of course, we never know which story is true, if either is.  But this film feeds our desire for adventure and fantasy, for a tale of a man striving against the unforgiving onslaughts of nature, and who struggles to reach an accord with the tiger that shares the boat with him—an accord that is tenuous at best and that ends as soon as they reach landfall in Mexico.  It also satisfies our need for Pi’s happy survival of a nearly impossible 227-day ordeal.  Most of all the film feeds our desire for story, and however many faults one may find in either of Pi’s tales, both of which are probably emblematic of some other untold truer narrative, this film is beautifully constructed, with artfully integrated special effects that don’t intrude—they’re part of the fantasy, but they represent the real well enough.  One doesn’t need to have read the book by Martel to understand or enjoy the film.

Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, by Barry Lopez

Good writing—vivid, precise, lyrical, descriptive prose—can be its own justification.  Good writing is one of many justifications for Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, by Barry Lopez (Scribner’s, 1986).  By any definition, this book is encyclopedic—in length, scope, ambitions, and spirit.  It’s one of the great American books about landscape, in this case the Arctic landscape.  As an example, Lopez’s descriptions of icebergs, his epic list of their categories and types and names, are (words escape me) breathtaking.  He explores the Arctic world through its wildlife (the narwhale chapter was especially interesting), geography, native culture, archaeological history going back thousands of years, ecology, and European discovery.  The book concludes with a long narrative detailing the centuries-long search for the Northwest Passage and the voyages of discovery it motivated.  The research and experiences that went into the writing of this book (numerous trips to the Arctic, long sojourns there) suggest not only resolute dedication but obsession.  In his own way Lopez is like one of the British explorers who spent three or four years in the Arctic, waiting for the ice to thaw so that their ships were free to sail home.  But it’s not clear that Lopez has a home.  For him the Arctic emptiness, the lack of detail (on first observation), the long dark winters, and the silence are attractors.  He explores human nature in this book, the nature of the human spirit both to discover and to learn as well as to exploit and desecrate.  Clearly the Arctic too is a mirror of Lopez’s own inner self.  In addition to all the other things Arctic Dreams is, this is a work of reverence, self-contemplation, and spirituality.  In that regard it reminded me of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (Viking, 1978), and to a lesser extent John McPhee’s Basin and Range (1981), but the scope here is more encompassing.

Inside Llewyn Davis

In A Serious Man (2009) the Coen brothers placed the Book of Job in a mostly contemporary American context.  Although he was not unflawed, the main character was beset by a series of disasters mostly not of his own making.  In Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the Coens give us a main character so unlikeable and tedious that it’s difficult to know whether most of the indignities he suffers are of his own causing, or whether he is the victim of bad historical timing or a combination. Llewyn wants to be a folk singer with a recording contract and profitable gigs, but for reasons the film shows us and hints at he doesn’t succeed.  The partner he once sang and recorded an album with committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.  We never know details of the death, which is mentioned only twice in the film, but I think we’re supposed to see it as a devastating event for Llewyn.  (It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could survive as Llewyn’s partner).  In every possible way his life is miserable.  Early in the film we see him viciously attacked in a back alley—retribution for his heckling of a singer the previous evening.  He can’t afford his own apartment and relies on friends and acquaintances (whom he abuses in various ways) to give him a place to stay.  He sleeps with his best friend’s wife and leaves her pregnant—the second pregnancy he has caused.  He slugs a nightclub owner who has given him numerous opportunities to sing.  He passes up an opportunity to join a three-person folk group that sounds suspiciously like Peter, Paul, and Mary.  His need for quick and easy bucks causes him to turn down the chance to receive royalty checks for a friend’s novelty song that becomes a hit.  Finally, and significantly, he declines a chance to play a double bill with another singer at the Gaslight.  The New York Times, we’re told, is going to be there.  By then he has already decided to give folk singing up, and as he leaves the Gaslight we hear the voice, and see the profile, of another very recognizable folk singer whose career is about to take off.

Llewyn’s ambition is strong, but his talent isn’t up to his ambition, and his timing is terrible.  He sings well, and with feeling, but perhaps not well enough.

Only one actual historical figure appears in the film.  The others are fictional creations, though they remind us occasionally of real singers, such as Dave Van Ronk or Cisco Houston or Ian and Sylvia or Peter, Paul, and Mary.  There are, notably, no black singers in the film, though much of the folk revival of the 50s and 60s was inspired by black music, and in fact such singers as Richie Havens and Lead Belly and others were a presence in the folk revival days.  But everyone is committed and inspired and ambitious. 

Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece.  It really looks like Greenwich Village of the early 1960s.  The color palette is muted and subdued, and it often seems overcast if it is not actually raining.  It specifically reminded me of the famous album cover from Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963).

A friend complained to me that the film has no plot.  In a conventional sense, perhaps not.  It’s more like a mythic quest, with various stops and pitfalls along the way.  Llewyn meets characters as bizarre and incredible as any of the figures in The Odyssey, or in the photography of Diane Arbus.  His goal is fame as a folk singer, but every opportunity he seeks, even the chance to go back to the maritime when he gives up, doesn’t pan out.  He doesn’t take good advice, nor does he accept several significant offers of assistance.  His performance in front of a folk impresario (the film’s version of Albert Grossman) fails, and the impresario tells him that he needs a partner.  Llewyn doesn’t want a partner.  The one question that grows throughout the film is simple: what’s going to happen? What’s going to break this seemingly endless chain of mistakes, outrages, abuse, and failure?  As far as Llewyn goes, there is no answer.  But for folk music, for the position of success and fame that Llewyn and others are seeking to seize, there is an answer.

Much of the film consists of a narrative loop that we can see as a dream story or as in some way surreally metaphoric.  The film opens in the alleyway to the Gaslight (thought at that point we don’t know its name).  Llewyn stumbles out the back door into the dark alley.  We hear faintly in the background the voice of someone playing inside.  I recognized the voice, but it is so faint and muted that most people probably did not.  Then a dark figure emerges from the alley and beats Llewyn nearly into unconsciousness.  He awakes, and from that point the film unrolls.  We gradually learn about who Llewyn is, what he has done to make everyone angry with him, how he has not met with success on the folk scene, how he fails to impress the one person who could have helped him.  He ends up in the Gaslight and turns down the owner’s offer to play the next night.  In the film’s final scene, we see the silhouette and hear the ragged yet absolutely riveting voice of a young Bob Dylan.  This is the answer, not to what is going to happen to Llewyn (he’s going to fade away), but to what is going to happen to the Greenwich Village folk scene.  This is a moment of fate, chance, fortune, or history—a moment so powerful that we know that no matter what break Llewyn might have had, he could never have lived up to this moment.  He’s lost irretrievably.

The one figure in the film that suggests Llewyn is not entirely lost is a cat.  When he leaves the apartment of friends who have lent him their sofa to sleep on, their mackerel-colored cat runs out the door.  Llewyn chases after it, but the apartment door has locked behind him.  He chases the cat down and loses it and chases it down again and in various fumbling ways tries to take care of and eventually return it to the owners.  Unfortunately, he returns the wrong cat, which he also tries to care for before finally abandoning it.  Llewyn is haunted by the cat, by his sense of responsibility to it, by his guilt over having lost it and (in one scene) possibly having run over it.  Near the end of the film, the original cat shows up, miraculously recovered by its owners, safe and sound.  The cat’s name, it turns out, is Ulysses.  No name in a Coen Brothers film is without meaning.  This one is not accidental.  It reminded me of the mystical, totem-like cat that seems always to be present in Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore (2002).  We might associate it with Tennyson’s famous long poem, about Ulysses’ courageous voyage towards death.  Or we might link it to the James Joyce novel (1922), about a seemingly endless walk around the city of Dublin on June 4, 1904.  Or maybe we go back directly to Homer himself.  None of these possibilities fully work with the film, but in general the name is allusive and evocative at the same time, suggesting a larger meaning at stake in Llewyn’s journey than the quest for fame and success in the folk world.

Salinger

The documentary Salinger (2013; dir. Shayne Salerno), was interesting and disturbing.  It was just what Salinger wouldn't have wanted, but then he is dead, and I don't think he should be exempt from this sort of thing more than anyone else.  This film takes an enigmatic subject about whom many have theorized and fantasized and puts together an explanation of his life based on the opinions of 50 or so people, including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen and Judd Apatow (??) and a lot of writers, editors, and scholars, all of whom appeared to know Salinger’s work and a few who knew him personally.  The film offers three related readings of the man’s life: (1) he was a victim of post WWII trauma and spent his entire career trying to write his way through the pain.  (2) He was fixated on innocence and so was attracted to young women who embodied it.  The film offers Joyce Maynard as a main example, but includes interviews with a few former girlfriends and one ex-wife.  Salinger dances around the question of how deviant this behavior might have been.  And finally (3) despite his obsession with privacy and anonymity in the end his own work turned against him when Catcher in the Rye was cited as a primary motive in two assassination/murders and one attempted assassination.  The film ends cheesily by trotting out information about works Salinger completed and approved for publication before his death.  The first will be published in 2015 and other works will follow.  All of this, a message informs us, has been "verified by two independent sources.”  So the film gives us a version of Salinger invented and constructed by people who did and did not know him and who have their own individual perspectives.  Despite all the information here, there is much speculation, and there is prurience.  Salinger was important to me in younger days (the Glass stories made a bigger impression on me than Catcher), but now he is one of many tumbling along in the dust.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Girl with the Flammable Skirt, by Aimee Bender

The stories in The Girl with the Flammable Skirt (Doubleday, 1998) by Aimee Bender are light, humorous, and readable.  They blend fantasy and magical realism.  An example is “The Healer,” about two girls, one with a hand of ice and the other with a hand of fire.  When they hold hands, their hands become normal.  They are good friends in grammar school but drift apart in high school.  One uses her strange impediment to do good deeds, while the other isolates herself in a shack on the outskirts of town.  In another story, “Quiet Please,” a librarian has sex with every man she can find when she learns that her father has died.  In another, “Dreaming in Polish,” a mother drags her daughter on endless visits to Holocaust museums.  In “Legacy” a pregnant woman has an affair with a man pretending to be a hunchback in a castle.  Many of these stories are whimsically erotic.  All of them are subversive in subtle ways, especially concerning men and women and their socially prescribed gender roles.  The stories were enjoyable, but most of them quickly faded as soon as I’d read them.  At times the author seems profoundly nihilistic, insensitive to situations and people she describes.  At other times she seems full of despairing outrage and helplessness.  Why did Bender compose these stories?  She’s been active as a short story writer and novelist since this first volume appeared, and it’s possible I’ll read one of her other books to see how her writing has developed.  But at times as I read through these stories they seem bizarre exercises in self-indulgence.

Pacific Rim

In this 2013 film big monsters rise out of a Pacific trench which is really a “portal” to another universe and inflict carnage on various famous coastal cities such as Los Angeles, where most of the action takes place.  The script is not entirely horrible, with one iconic line that has already entered into the Valhalla of famous movie lines (“Today we are cancelling the apocalypse.”)  The acting is serviceable.  The production values are strong, and with one major exception the special effects are fine.  The problem is the monsters.  They seem to come straight out of a 1950s-era Japanese Godzilla film, men in rubber suits, lumbering around and swishing their various rubber appendages back and forth against people, bridges, buildings, and the giant robots the Japanese and Americans build to oppose them.  The robots also are giant costumes with men in them, but they are more convincing, insofar as giant robots can be convincing.  The story takes place ten years after the first robot attack.  The allies think they have permanently held them at bay, but boy are they wrong.  Those alien space monsters start spewing from the Pacific trench portal at increasingly alarming rates, and boy are they big monsters!  But the good guys come up with a plan, and in a last ditch effort they carry it off, though not without sacrificing two real heroes in the process.  Humanity is saved, at least for now.  The fun of this film is its silliness, and the serious way in which it pursues that silliness.  Turn it up loud, sit close and revel in the explosions and the robotic groans of consternation and the gradual momentum towards that final kiss between the man and woman who can’t stand each other but who have to be partners and who, what do you know, surprise, surprise, actually have the hots for each other.  Go robots!  Death to the alien space monsters from the portal to an alternative universe deep in the trench on the edge of the Pacific Rim! Guillermo del Toro knows the Japanese monster movie genre well, and this is one of the best examples of the category.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe

From each of our individual perspectives, our lives matter.  No matter our station in life, our economic or monetary or social or education attainments, we all face certain significant events.  Death is certainly foremost among them.  Whether you’re rich or poor, famous or just an anonymous soul on the edge of the road, your death matters, and the deaths of those important to you matter.  When death comes, the universe shakes.  Certain recent memoirs, such as Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2006) or Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Memoir (Ecco, 2011), have sought to talk about death in a way that conveys the authors’ individual perspectives in a way a more general audience can appreciate and empathize with.  Oates and Didion are good writers.  The talents of Didion and Oates as artists, as accomplished writers, enable them to work the subject thoroughly without giving into to self-absorption, self-pity.  (One might argue that self-absorption is Didion’s métier).

I am struggling to understand why Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club (Knopf, 2012) didn’t work for me.  Part of the reason may be that the writer speaks from a position of considerable wealth and privilege which he seems to take for granted.  His mother Mary Ann faced a horrible diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and her struggle to keep living and working even as she is dying is heroic.  There’s no doubt that she performed numerous good deeds and services in her remarkable life.  She sought to be a good mother and an independent worker in an age when mothers were generally expected to stay at home.  She travelled to many parts of the world at times of danger and crisis and she helped suffering people, not only through the agencies and boards and schools she served, but also because of many acts of personal kindness that few of us could hope to emulate.  Yet she could have done little of this had she not possessed the financial means to make these trips and donations. 

Will Schwalbe is a former book editor and the owner of a web site devoted to cooking.  He loves his family, and his book while focused on the life and death of his mother makes clear how important his brother and sister and father are to him.  At the same time the book explains how the prospect of his mother’s death, and her desire to form a two-person book club with her son in which they would discuss books they had read together, allows him to understand and love her more deeply than ever.  In particular he comes to appreciate what a difficult and challenging life she led, trying to be both a full-time mother and a full-time employee in various arenas, in all of which she appears to have been successful.

Mary Ann has the benefit of wealth, position, and supportive family members in the nearly two-year process of her death.  She’s aware of that position, and even in her final blog post she speaks about the importance of universal health care, but the author himself never made me feel that he fully understood.  I grew tired of the patina of famous names and places laid down in the book.  The book discussions themselves are not consistently interesting or revealing—sometimes they’re superficial.  And although one of the book’s persistent themes seems to be the author’s struggle to reach a deeper understanding of himself and his mother, I’m not convinced that the understanding he achieves goes very deep.  If Schwalbe’s mother had written this book, post mortem, I suspect we would have had a different story, a different book.  As it is, I’m more impressed by the woman who died than by her son’s memoir.

Schwalbe is not the literary writer that Oates and Didion are.  He’s more of a journalist.  His prose is spare and straightforward and tends towards simple and compound sentences.  One can’t fault him for that.  He writes well enough.  But does the fact of his writing skills, or Oates’ or Didion’s, make his experience of his loved one’s death anymore painful and terrible than the similar experiences of millions of others who don’t get written about? 

I still have failed in explaining my unhappiness with this book.  Maybe my own resentment of the author’s privileged station in life, and his insouciant unquestioning satisfaction with it, is the problem.  Maybe I am the snob.


Thursday, January 16, 2014

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, by Lynne Olson

Narrative force is a key element in Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (Random House, 2013), Lynne Olson’s account of the national debate over intervening or remaining isolated in the early days of the Second World War.  Representing the two sides of the debate are Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh.  Olson traces in interesting detail the development of the opposing sides of the debate from the 1920s on, describing Roosevelt’s rise to power and Lindbergh’s shift from American aviation hero to increasingly controversial German apologist and isolationist spokesman.  The challenge for the writer of a book such as this is that the facts are already there.  They can’t be changed to suit the needs of the story.  Of course, the writer can bend and burnish elements of the story so as to give it color, but only within bounds, and he or she cannot change the facts.  A novelist can fabricate events.  A documentary writer can only select and edit them.  Olson’s challenge is to take preset events and people and to bring out their interest, if it is already there, or to find within them what makes them relevant to the present day.  Olson is an excellent nonfictional narrativist.  She writes well, evokes her characters effectively, and clearly explains the issues that made those days so angry.

The parallels in this book between America in the pre-World War II 1930s and the present day are striking.  The debate over involvement in WWII was fierce, furious, and sometimes nasty.  Lindbergh comes to us as a not especially intelligent and sometimes clueless articulator of viewpoints that are, in retrospect, contemptible.  But there were many Americans, including leading members of Congress, who agreed with him.  Roosevelt comes across at moments as a scheming politician, telling the citizenry one thing with the intent of doing something else.  While he was assuring voters that he had no intention of getting America involved in the Second World War, he was in fact looking for ways to provide support, including military support, to the European allies, especially the British.  He was a consummate Machiavellian.  He was also, at times, an indecisive procrastinator unable to recover from judicial and legislative setbacks suffered during his second term.  In the end, following Pearl Harbor, he emerged as the great wartime leader we remember today, while Lindbergh gradually withdrew from public life.

Lindberg was, according to Olson, a controlling father and husband.  He wanted to mold his wife and children in his own image, though he often went months without seeing them.  He couldn’t understand why some of his speeches against interventionism provoked outrage and threats against his family.  Olson identifies a growing rift, personally and politically, between Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow, a gifted and talented writer who did what her husband wanted even as she had misgivings about his views and wrote in one of her novels about an ambitious young woman struggling against a domineering husband.  Olson tries to present Morrow sympathetically, but in some of her writings she clearly sought to defend and explain the attitudes her husband was expressing openly.


In the end, when he died, Lindbergh left behind in addition to his own children with Morrow seven children from relationships with three other women.  They didn’t learn their father’s identity until decades after his death.  His arrogance, egotism, and political wrongheadedness make him the least sympathetic of the people in this book.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012; dir. Timothy Hedges) is a cruel fantasy for adults.  It doesn’t mean to be.  It means to be gently and comically warmhearted.  Its premise involves a husband and wife who are told by their doctor that they are infertile and have no hope of biologically producing a child.  Later that evening, in a last gasp of deluded hope, they drink wine and jot down on bits of paper the traits they want their child to have: great at soccer, talented musician, kind, and so on.  They put the bits of paper in a small box and bury it in their garden—they’re burying their dream of parenthood.  A storm hits, lots of thunder and lightning and rain (the town where the film is set is suffering a severe drought), and the couple suddenly discovers in their house the slight form of a boy of around ten years old.  He’s naked, and green leaves are growing out of his legs.  He says his name is Timothy Green.  The couple somehow realizes that he came out of the ground in the very spot where they buried the box.  Without much delay, they adopt him and start inventing stories about how they got him and about his many talents.
 
I won’t divulge more of the plot, but an attentive filmgoer can predict how things will go.  The cruelty here involves young couples who cannot reproduce.  Burying a box in the garden doesn’t typically solve that problem.  This fanciful treatment of a painful situation is sour.  In the course of caring for Timothy, his adoptive parents learn how unprepared for parenthood they really are.  There’s a lot for them to learn, and a lot of attitudes to change.  Does this mean they really don’t deserve to be parents?  There’s a good bit of attitude adjusting for this film’s audience too.  Is this a comedy, a romantic adult fairy tale, a supernatural yarn, an eco-tale, a bogus New Age yawp?  Do we feel sorry for the parents as they fall victim to error?  Do we feel sorry for these parents or for Timothy as we realize what is about to happen to him?  And have the parents earned what comes to them in the final scene?  You can’t separate the real from the fanciful in this film.  Where does the real world stop and the invented one begin? It seems to me that fantasizing in this particular way about infertility should be off limits.  Adoption as an option for the parents doesn’t come up until the end.

Life is not so easy.  It can be painful, not only for the parents who can’t conceive, but also for the parents who produce their own children and raise them and watch them grow and then see them leave the household.  It’s wrong to portray it as otherwise.  This film is an allegory, I suppose, about parenting, but it left me feeling cheated, unsettled, and unhappy.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Room 237

Three lessons in Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher), a 2012 documentary about people who see secret codes, hidden messages, and unusual conspiracies encrypted in Stanley Kubrick’s 1981 film The Shining:

1.  People need to believe in extreme and bizarre narratives that prove the real world is merely a shadow of a more sinister and dark reality. Not coincidentally, their ability to identify and explain this hidden dimension that others do not see proves their special intelligence.

2.  Artists, certain types of artists, have access to special forms of knowledge, and subtle means of burying that knowledge in their art so that only the most capable and intelligent can find it.  The artist cited in this film as similar to Kubrick is James Joyce whose book Finnegans Wake (1939) they find to be noteworthy, mainly because almost no one can read it.  Again, like Kubrick’s film, it is a work of art whose meaning and value is accessible only to those smart enough to decipher it.  One of the people interviewed for the documentary believes that every flaw and inconsistency in The Shining is an intentional act by Kubrick.  He makes much of the fact that in one scene the main character’s typewriter is gray and in another it is blue.  If anything, this film makes me wonder whether continuity is a problem in Kubrick films, and whether he was more careless and capricious in the use of props and setting than he should have been.

3.  There are limits to what interpretation can do (cf. Umberto Eco on the over-interpretation of texts).  Conversely, there are limits to the messages and themes artists can place within their artistic works.  We encounter in Room 237 some highly unusual theories that people claim to see worked out in The Shining.  One commentator thinks that it is an allegorical narrative of Kubrick’s experience when he worked with NASA in the late 1960s to create the videos that were shown as proof that the US landed on the moon. (The commentator actually believes the moon landing occurred, but that (for some reason) the moon landing videos were faked).  A woman believes images of minotaurs are hidden in the film.  A man believes that the film is about Kubrick’s obsession with the Holocaust.  Another believes the film is about the genocide against Native Americans (there’s more to this theory than the others).  All of these ideas are based on “evidence” in the film, and on biographical evidence from Kubrick’s life and his other films.  But most of them do not make sense--they’re illogical, they misconstrue the evidence, they stretch and distort, all for the purpose of making the film fit and support a pet theory.  The film in effect becomes about their theories rather than about what it really is about.  Any random assortment of data can be made into meaning.

Room 237 is amusing throughout.  It uses  clips from The Shining as well as other Kubrick films and from films that have nothing to do with Kubrick.  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Kick-Ass 2

Despite a few exciting moments, Kick-Ass 2 (2013; dir. Jeff Wadlow) suffers the same fate as many sequels—it lacks novelty and bogs down in plot.  We learn how the main characters of the first film have fared, and we encounter new characters.  Apparently, a lot of people in the city where the film takes place  want to be superheroes, and they have banded together in gangs that go out at night either to protect the law abiding or to do evil.  Mindy Macready (“Kick Girl,” played by Chloë Grace Moretz), at her adopted guardian’s insistence, is trying to live a normal life, so instead of seeing her do flips and assault super villains, we see her trying to fit in at the local high school.  We see her on her first date, which goes badly.  We see her befriended, and then rejected, by a group of mean girls.  (Faint hints here of Carrie, 1976; dir. Brian De Palma).  Her former associates in super-herodom can’t understand what has happened to her.  This is especially the case with Dave Lizewski (“Kick-Ass,” played by Aaron Taylor Johnson), who in the first film wanted to be a super hero and was befriended by Kick Girl.  There are various twists and turns of plot here, and when things get really dark, Kick Girl comes out of retirement—as we would expect her to.  The first film had novelty and a foul-mouthed 12-year old super hero who was full of energy and hyperkinetic explosiveness.  In this film, we’ve seen it all before.  It compensates for lack of novelty with excess of plot.  It misses the point of what was special about the first installment.  It lacks the balletic energy and form of the first film.  All the same, there are moments of life.  The leader of the gang of heroes that Kick-Ass has joined is Colonel Stars and Stripes, played remarkably well by Jim Carrey (whom I didn’t recognize until the credits rolled and I saw his name).  Carrey disavowed the film after production ended because of its violence, but he brings something special—he inhabits his character so well that we forget or never realize who he is (shades of Man on the Moon, 1999; dir. Milos Forman).

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Wolverine

Marvel Comics has certainly created over the years a vast and intricate mythological history for the X-Men series.  I haven’t followed it, except through the various films over the past several years that seek to bring it to life.  I am not a fan of the series, but not necessarily a detractor either.  It just doesn’t appeal to me.  Some of the films, or certain scenes within them, have been striking.  In The Wolverine (2013; dir. James Mangold), we see the atomic bomb blast at Nagasaki from a prison camp across the bay.  It’s an unexpected and impressive perspective, to be sure, especially when Wolverine and his Japanese benefactor dive into a well to avoid the fiery blast.  I didn’t know Wolverine was around for WWII.  The film alludes to certain facts about his creation, but in general it dramatizes the Wolverine’s struggle to recover from his grief over the death of Jean (another X-Men mutant), whom he killed in an earlier film, and to come to grips with the fact that he is who he is, immortal and invulnerable but also fundamentally isolated.  In the films I’ve seen he’s always struggling with this issue.  He needs to get over it.  As far as existential struggles go, this is one-note angst.

Hugh Jackman is a good actor.  He was quite effective in Les Misérables, a film I otherwise didn’t much care for.  Why does he choose to be typecast as the Wolverine?  Certainly it means he gets to work and therefore earn money.  But aren’t there other roles for him?  He’s one of the producers of this film.

In a final scene at the Tokyo airport, Magneto and Xavier (back from the dead) alert Wolverine to yet another threat against mutants, setting up the next film.  It’s crucial the franchise continue.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Conjuring

Most of the terror that The Conjuring (2013; dir. James Wan) conjures comes from off-stage, so to speak.  Only at the end does the source of the terror—a demon that has possessed the mother of a family—become clear.  To the film’s credit, it inspires a good bit of suspense and uncertainty.  To its discredit, the revelation that the source of the family’s problems is a demon simply tosses this film into a pot of other like films where the supernatural plays a decisive role.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991; dir. Jonathan Demme) inspired terror through the psychopathology of Hannibal Lectern, just as Hitchcock’s Psycho did through Norman Bates in 1960).  There was nothing supernatural about Hannibal.  But his deviance and his personality, his sense of humor, his relish for good food, made him a truly frightening, dangerous character.

Is there room for more films about demonic possession.  They’re a cliché.  And a fiction.  I can give myself up to them occasionally.  I remember what it was like to come home one Sunday evening back in the early 1970s to my room in the basement of my mother’s house.  My siblings and I had gone to see The Exorcist (1973; dir. William Friedkin).  The basement was empty, and dark.  Every small sound was reason for insomnia.  I managed to go to sleep with the lights on.

The Exorcist created its own formulaic cliché.  It ultimately became its own victim.  With good writing and acting and production values, it was truly frightening.  Most films that have tried to emulate it have not come close to succeeding.  Even a re-viewing of The Exorcist proves unsatisfying—rather than something innovative and new, it seems hackneyed, because of the very clichés it popularized.  The Conjuring doesn’t try to be The Exorcist, but it does resort to demonology and exorcism, and the supernatural fiction at its heart—that there is a supernatural realm beyond our own—ruins the frightening moments it manages to produce.

The appeal of these films is a sign of weak-mindedness in the people attracted to them, including me, I suppose.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Dark Victory

A romantic melodrama about brain tumors and death, Dark Victory (1939; dir. Edmund Goulding) gives us fatal illness in a vein that makes it a welcome opportunity for proving one’s nobility.  With George Brent as a brain surgeon, a young Ronald Reagan as a perpetually drunk young friend, Humphrey Bogart as a horse trainer with an Irish brogue, and Bette Davis as the doomed young woman Judith Traherne, Dark Victory gives us death as only the rich can know it.  It’s a good death, too, one that involves no suffering, only a few hours of blindness until the final moment comes.  And it’s a kind and redemptive death too because Judy has the chance to win riding competitions, drink and smoke with abandon, offend all the people she doesn’t like, find love with the man she loves (not, surprisingly, the brain surgeon) and then to dump him bitterly only to seek his forgiveness and then to have a big wedding and then to run off to New Hampshire with him so they can live in a country cottage while he does brain research in an out building and she keeps house with servants and waits to die.

Davis apparently considered this film her favorite.  It was a great commercial success.  It’s not her best, however much money it might have made.  An actor is not always the best judge of her best work. 

A few random thoughts: the notion that a young woman can die happy and fulfilled with no pain and suffering from a brain tumor is offensively sappy.  When Judy realizes that her last moments are approaching, she hides her condition from her husband, who is about to leave for New York to present his research.  She tells him that she wishes to remain at home with her friend Ann, who has come to visit.  I don’t believe this.  So her husband leaves, and Judy lets him go, and Ann doesn’t let on that anything is amiss.  I don’t believe this either.  Then Judy orders Ann to leave too, so that she can show her courage and strength by dying alone.  But before she dismisses her, Judy orders Ann never to leave her husband’s side after she is gone, obviously setting her up for matrimony on the rebound. Ann weeps and runs hysterically away down the road, flapping her arms like a suffering bird (or so I imagined it).  What a friend. 

Davis’ acting is frenetic, nervous, and rapid delivery throughout.  Even when she isn’t insulting friends and behaving like a bitter doomed heroine, she isn’t particularly sympathetic.  This film was made in the days when doctors and patients could smoke together in medical offices, when everyone admired heavy drinking, when dying patients weren’t told of their condition, when the poor didn’t matter except as props for the rich, or as servants.

The lesson here is that everyone is going to die, some sooner than others, and that we all must use well the time we have remaining, so that we can die a good and noble death in the end.  We all should live the best we can.  No doubt there.  But if there is a good and noble death, I’d like to see it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Tolkien’s novel The Hobbit, like all novels, is a work of imagination.  One reads it and creates within one’spersonal imagination a series of images that represent characters and places and events it contains.  Often these images may not connect with those provided by the writer, if indeed he has provided them (Tolkien did not, except in some maps of Middle Earth and surroundings).  I first read Tolkien in college.  On the wall of the places where I lived I kept a colorful and overactive map of Middle Earth, loosely based on Tolkien’s writings and his maps.  I no longer have the map, but it still colors my imagination when I read the books.

The appearance of the Peter Jackson films based on The Lord of the Rings and on The Hobbit, for those readers who were serious admirers of these works as novels, created a challenge.  Do we give up our personal images in favor of the film versions, or do we hold to our own vision and avoid the films entirely?  I was unwilling to miss the films, so I attempted a middle ground.  In many cases this was easy because of the inferiority of some of the films’ images, particularly of the orcs and trolls (who seemed cast-off monsters from Lost in Space or The Outer Limits television series).  But the powerfully evocative images of the hobbits and of the elves overrode whatever images I had developed of them.  In the case of the hobbits, I think Tolkien’s books and the films were fairly much in accord.

If we’re going to be purists, we have to be purists and hew entirely to the books or to the films.  I’m no purist.  I need both.

Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films have the disadvantage of coming out after the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first.  It was a much simpler, more elementary, even more juvenile venture than the trilogy that followed it.  Moreover, the events that it narrated precede and lead up to the events in the trilogy.  It was thus natural that one would first read The Hobbit and then move on to The Lord of the Rings.  The case is reversed for the films of these works.  Jackson’s trilogy preceded his Hobbit films.  And, of course, he decided to make The Hobbit a trilogy as well.  We will have to see what difference this makes.  It’s certainly clear from the first installment in the Hobbit trilogy that he has inserted a lot of extra story, much of it from The Silmarillion, some of his own creation.  The film is much darker than the book, and part of the reason may be that the LOR trilogy itself was so dark—it’s difficult put aside that darkness and go back to the relative light and innocence of The Hobbit.

So it’s unfortunate that the Hobbit films were made after the Lord of the Rings films.  It would have been better if the Hobbit films had been made first.  It would have been better to move forward from innocence and light to darkness and evil.  The finding of the ring, and Bilbo’s decision to hold on to it, is the Fall that makes the latter three novels inevitable.

Yet it’s fortunate the films were made, and we have to live with the order of their creation.  I’ve noted the many reviewer comments about the slowness of the first Hobbit installment (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, 2012; dir. Peter Jackson).  Yes, it is a bit slow.  Yes, it departs considerably from the monolithic plot of Tolkien’s novel.  But it many ways it preserves the basic events and spirit of the novel and embellishes and adds to them.  I look forward to the second installment.

 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Wretched Films I've Seen

Among the wretched films I’ve seen in the last six months, A Good Day to Die Hard (2013; dir. John Moore) is astounding in its cartoon exploitation of a worn out formula that was exhausted in the first three installments of the Die Hard series.  Here Bruce Willis seems to go through the motions.  We hear jokes about his age and about his bad relationship with his son.  Throughout the film, even at times of greatest peril, father and son argue with one another, hurling insults and jabs left and right. 

Pay no attention to laws of physics in this film.  What is good about it?  Loud explosions, helicopter crashes, fire, and cars hurling through the air.  And, oh yes, the shooting.  This is an NRA joyride.

Let us now consider Jack Reacher (2012; dir. Christopher McQuarrie.  Its hero (played by Tom Cruise) is interesting, but there is really not much of a plot. 

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013; dir. Tommy Wirkola)—instead of guns, there are flaming swords, or spells, or something.  The fact that Hansel and Gretel are siblings removes most of the sexual tension from the film, except for those viewers who are truly perverse.  Given the premise, which involves how Hansel and Gretel take revenge on witches because some old witch in the past tried to have them both for lunch, there’s not much of a place for this film to go.  As a child I was always bothered by how the parents in the fairy tale abandoned their children in the woods.  How cruel!  I could empathize with the abandonment the children must have felt.  My parents were good parents, they never abandoned me in the woods, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t worry about abandonment.  This film ends up explaining too much about that abandonment in the fairy tale.  In the film, it turns out that the children’s mother was a white witch, which means a good one, and that as a result all the other witches wanted to kill her.  So she gets burned at the stake, and her husband dies, but not before they take their children deep into the woods to ensure the bad witches don’t find them.  There’s not much imagination here.  It’s predictable and prosaic and pretty dumb.  Why would Jeremy Renner, the main actor in The Hurt Locker (2008; dir. Kathryn Bigelow), agree to appear in this one?  Maybe he was desperate.

If we don’t praise Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, who played a racist African American stereotype in the figure of Stepin Fetchit through many films of the 1930s and 40s, or James Baskett, who played a lovable if stereotyped Uncle Remus in Song of the South (1946), why do we praise Melissa McCarthy for her comic portrayal of a bumbling, dysfunctional, sociopathic overweight woman in Identity Theif (2013; dir. Seth Gordon)?

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013; dir. Sam Raimi) features several well-known and even respected actors, including James Franco as the Oz character.  It’s produced by Disney Studios, renowned for achievements in animation and for a string of creative animated films running from Fantasia (1940) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) to Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Finding Nemo (2003).  Why, then, is this film such a travesty?  The story is lame, the acting is embarrassing, the special effects and animation are impressive, but they have no story to carry, and after a while they grow tiresome.  Were Baum’s novels as wretched as this film? 

Jack the Giant Killer (2013; dir. Mark Atkins) was actually entertaining.  Its wit and inventiveness raised it well above the level of the films mentioned above.  It had action, interesting characters, wit, and, most of all, big, dumb giants.

 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Gravity

When things start going wrong in Gravity (2013; dir. Alfonso Cuarón), one hardly feels capable of watching the screen.  There’s an awful inevitability to what occurs, brought on by the laws of physics and of, well, of course, gravity.  Every 90 minutes the heroine must face another onslaught of orbiting debris that has knocked out communications with earth, killed her coworkers, and made the prospects of her survival dim.

I am sure there are many elements that Gravity gets wrong, but the verisimilitude, the appearance of realism, the fine attention to detail, the effort to be real, can give one the sense of watching a live-action news report rather than a movie-created illusion.

Against the stunning backdrop of the earth, of the international space station, Gravity offers especially insipid dialog.  George Clooney, who plays a senior astronaut on the verge of retirement, is especially irritating as a somewhat self-absorbed space wrangler who’s convinced that romance with his colleague Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) is a great conversational topic during a spacewalk.  And there are elements of Gravity that seem entirely predictable—one catastrophe followed by another, survival and recovery and then more danger.  But Sandra Bullock’s character, who in her first time in space, sent to reprogram the Hubble telescope, must fight nausea throughout, not to mention fear and horror), carries the film.  The acting Bullock must do is not physically demanding--it manifests in how she reads her lines, the tones of her voice, her facial expressions)—mostly we see her face inside a space suit, in various stages of alarm and distress.  But she enacts her role deeply and empathetically, especially in an extended scene inside a Russian space station, as she thinks about her situation, her life, and the unlikelihood that she’ll ever return to earth.   Her character is introspective and wounded, and there’s a meditative, even spiritual quality to her that many reviews have missed. 

Bullock’s character Ryan Stone reminded me especially of Tom Hanks as the man lost on an island in Cast Away (2000; dir. Robert Zemeckis).

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) presented humankind as a species evolving forward into the future through technology, and Gravity offers a similar theme.  In both films technology goes awry, and human beings are thrown back entirely on the naked reality of human experience, human consciousness.  In Kubrick’s film technology develops its own agency and threatens to take over.  In Gravity disaster happens as an unpredictable manifestation of chance, and of the bad planning of nations that never stop to consider the consequences of throwing more and more junk into orbit over the earth.  In Kubrick’s film, technology is potentially transformative, even as it threatens to erase the humanness of its creators.  In Gravity, technology has the power to kill the humans who employ it, but even to the last moment something fundamentally human and self-sustaining persists.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Spectacular Now

Filmed in and around Athens, Ga., but not necessarily set in Athens, The Spectacular Now (2013) creates a paradoxical tension for the viewer who knows and lives in the places the film displays.  We want on the one hand to connect the events and people of the film with those places, but the film doesn’t necessarily encourage connections.  And although, according to director James Ponsoldt, filming in Athens allowed him to make use of emotional resonances stirred up by the images of his childhood and adolescence, the film isn’t really about his hometown.  It’s about a small and not always charming small town where the characters live and which most of them want to escape.

Ponsoldt has an impressive ability to create characters who don’t come across as Hollywood actors pretending to be normal people.  We saw this clearly in one of his earlier films, Smashed (2012), and there is little that is glamorous about the two main characters in this newer film.  Sutter (Miles Teller) has scars on his neck.  Aimee (Shailene Woodley) has bumps on her face, and she’s slender without the emaciation of a starlet model.  Neither is heavily made up.  Allie lives in a small, nondescript  home.  Ponsoldt, in an after-film question and answer session, credited the intelligence of the actors in understanding their characters and the importance of making them “normal.”  However, he clearly insisted on their normalcy, so that his film would give us characters we could be interested in, even identify with, not on a wish fulfillment level but on that of personal experience.

Let me be clear.  The main characters Sutter and Aimee are eighteen-year-old graduating high school seniors.  It’s been a long, long time since I was their age, or lived through the kinds of experiences they have. I don’t automatically identify with them, especially Sutter, who’s conflicted and complicated.  Amy’s innocence, her willingness to overlook Sutter’s failings (except, perhaps, in the film’s final moment) seemed to me a bit much.  But Ponsoldt makes these characters credible, and in the end you care about them because he’s made it possible on some level for you to understand and empathize with them as real human individuals.

 

Characters drive this film, just as they drove Smashed.  Ponsoldt is a gifted filmmaker.  His comments following the showing of The Spectacular Now at Athens Ciné (Athens, GA) made clear how steeped he is in film tradition.  He is highly articulate and his intelligence certainly comes across in the film.  Yet his background and training are not a hindrance in the film.  The only direct influence I saw in The Specatcular Now was Say Anything (1989, dir. Cameron Crowe).  Its two main characters—a goofball, directionless male and an intelligent, high-achieving young woman—are similar to Aimee and Sutter in this film.  Sutter resembled John Cusack of Say Anything in both appearance and personality.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Juicy and Delicious, by Lucy Alibar

Juicy and Delicious (New York: Diversion Books, 2012) by Lucy Alibar is the play that inspired the film Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Alibar knew director Benh Zeitlin, and years after she wrote the play, he approached her about adapting it as a film.  Together they wrote the screenplay.  There are several major differences between play and film.  One is the gender of Hushpuppy, who was male in the play and female in the film.  Another is the setting—Georgia in the play and Louisiana in the film.  The play is impressionistic, in the fashion of what we might call magical realism.  Certainly it is told from the child’s viewpoint.  It has the same sort of whacky, off-beat, fanciful humor as the film.  The film uses much of the dialogue in the play, some of it nearly verbatim, some of it changed.  The fact that Hushpuppy becomes a girl in the film creates an additional level of humor and irony, especially in the scene where the father tells Hushpuppy that “you are the man.”  The play creates the story in the child’s imagination, and uses the aurochs as well as the approaching “end of the world” presaged by Hushpuppy’s schoolteacher Joy as a metaphor or representation of how the child is working his way towards acceptance of his father’s impending death.  The storm (considerably more of an event in the film) and the boat on which Hushpuppy embarks after the storm, and after his father’s death, are also part of the play.  Essentially, the film fills in details of plot and character without significantly reducing the fanciful nature of the play.  And while the play probably didn’t work very well in performance—it is too slight (and too short)—the film works very well.  What is surprising is how fully the film incorporates the essence of the play, its underlying issues and images and characters and motifs, but most of all its tone and atmosphere.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Look Away, Look Away!, by Wilton Barnhardt

Look Away, Look Away! (St. Martin's Press, 2013), by Wilton Barnhardt) offers perhaps the most comical and painful account of a nightmarish Christmas dinner ever in American fiction.  A family undergoes a general breakdown and chaos erupts.  And if Barnhardt's account of sorority and fraternity life at UNC Chapel Hill in the early 2000s is remotely true, the NC governor ought to call out the state National Guard to subdue the depravity.

This novel about the decline of a Charlotte, NC family in the early 2000s, prior to the Great Recession, includes a vacuous college girl whose goal is to go to college and find a husband; her sister, of many appetites, especially gustatory and sexual, who against all expectations makes a killing in real estate; her brother, who hides his gayness from his parents by bringing his African American lesbian partner to family gatherings as proof of his heterosexuality; his oldest brother, a Presbyterian minister; their parents, a conniving and ruthless mother who resorts to every imaginable stratagem to maintain her place in the upper-crust social structure of the Charlotte community; her husband, a lawyer whose prospects as a political candidate inexplicably tanked some years before, and who spends his time puttering with his civil war relics; and his brother in law, a successful writer with real talent who squandered a promising career by turning to the writing of potboilers to make money, and who’s bitter that critics no longer show him respect, and so on.

This satiric novel traces the decline of the genteel Old South through the misfortunes of this self-absorbed family.  Barnhardt is never sure of his own attitudes towards his characters.  Early in the novel he treats them with merciless scorn, but as the narrative progresses his attitude softens, as if he feels sorry for them.  His targets are too easy and obvious—the vapor headed sorority girl, the puttering Civil War buff, the real estate maven, the brother who hides his gayness, the would-be Scarlet O’Hara.  It’s too easy to make fun of these figures, and because it’s easy, the satire often seems superficial. 

Too often Barnhardt's characters provide long histories of society in Charlotte or the real estate market.  In such moments the novel grinds to a halt.

 

Look Away, Look Away! is a comic melodrama that in the end shows too much fondness for its own characters, even as it lambasts them.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella, by George Saunders

The stories in George Saunders’ Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella (Random House, 1996) are set in an indistinct future, a time advanced in technology, but in many ways as full of human difficulties as our own.  One long story involves a time in which mutant humans, apparently the result of environmental pollution, are the victims of relocation camps and general discrimination.  The story especially connects to contemporary issues regarding undocumented aliens and other marginal groups, and it summons up recollections of Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa, and the American South pre-civil rights era.  (Is there a connection between this story and the X-Men?—the mutants in this story do not have special powers—they suffer physical malformations--for instance, misshapen toes).  Saunders takes a wry, disconnected yet engaged attitude towards his characters, for whom he expresses pity, empathy, and a certain I told you so attitude.  But the autobiographical essay at the end of the volume invested the stories, with their concerns about people struggling against unhappiness and economic hardship and personal failure, with a specific poignancy.  Saunders recounts his years of struggle to find a style and an approach that would work for him as a writer.  He says he often tried to imitate Hemingway.  But he discovered his true identity as a writer by channeling his own personal anxieties about failure and disruption in his family life—he had a good marriage, a family he loved, children he cherished, and though he was not financially secure at least in the early years of his career he had these things.  His worry about what it would be like to lose these reasons for happiness energized him, gave him a subject, and presumably led to the stories in this volume.

The Year's Best Science Fiction, ed. Gardner Dozois

As a child I read science fiction constantly.  In the third grade the first adult novel I checked out from the library was Clifford Simak’s Step to the Stars, and for the next six or seven years I read as much sci-fi as I could find, before drifting on to other kinds of writing.  Recently, on the Facebook recommendation of Georgia science fiction writer Michael Bishop, I read The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection (ed. Gardner Dozois; St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013).  It was interesting to find that in some basic ways sci-fi had changed very little over the five decades, and that in others it had advanced and matured significantly.  As standards of comparison, I should add that I have few, not having read widely in sci-fi for 45 years.  Maybe what seems significant progress to me is no surprise at all to other readers.  By matured and advanced I probably mean in prose style and quality.  Many of the stories in the anthology at least had literary qualities—strong prose, characterization, plotting, and themes.  But many of the scenarios in the stories seem similar, and they tend to replicate one another.  Many of the stories concern far-advanced civilizations, some human and some not, completely removed in time and space from earthly origins.  Writers go to extremes to describe the ecosystems of alien worlds, and the results are fascinating if sometimes not quite convincing menageries of creatures.  The stories have in common a concern with technology and how it can transform if not entirely distort or destroy the humans who create it.  Technology in many of these stories means bio-technology, or the fusion of silicate and bio-technology.  Writers imagine self-healing, genetically engineered humans who live for thousands of years, living starships, robots, androids, and so on.  Many of the stories reflect concern with the environment and with the ecology of alien worlds.  Most describe worlds in which attitudes towards sex, gender, and human relations have changed considerably.  A number of the stories seem to come to no particular end.  One of the most fascinating, the final story, “Eater of Bones,” by Robert Reed, goes on for too long.  Among my favorites was Michael Bishop’s “Twenty Lights to the ‘Land of Snow’,” about the settlement of a New Tibet on a distant planet.  “Old Paint,” by Megan Lindholm, is a humorous story about a family car that takes on a life of its own. “In the House of Aryaman, A Lonely Signal Burns,” by Elizabeth Burns, is a murder mystery set in a futuristic India in which a hybrid cat-parrot with amnesia plays a significant part.  Christopher Barzak in “Invisible Men” retells the famous H. G. Wells story from the point of view of a chamber maid who herself feels invisible.  I was interested in how many of the writers had day jobs in physics, and how many had studied Elizabethan literature in graduate school.  Women and writers from places other than the United States were well represented.  These stories were entertaining and diverting.  The best of them were intelligent and evocative.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

A paranoid, right-wing fantasy thriller, Olympus Has Fallen (2013; dir. Antoine Fuqua) imagines what might happen if a North Korean terrorist attacked the White House, killed virtually everyone in it, and took the president hostage. Well, the terrorist is not precisely North Korean—his family was expelled from North Korea, and his mother was killed by an American mine in the DMZ, and he’s angry that North Koreans don’t eat well.  It’s difficult to make out the logic of his motives, but then, hey, so what, he’s a crazed maniac.  What this film imagines is a highly adept group of North Koreans who have compromised all the nation’s security systems, stolen secret American weapons, and have a plan for blowing up all American ICBMs in their siloes, thereby causing the nuclear incineration of the nation.  They have the cooperation of an American accomplice.

Why is the film rightwing?  Because it glories in imagining what the evil North Koreans would do if only they had a chance.  It relishes images of American soldiers and diplomats and government officials being gunned down.  It trembles at the image of the top of the Washington monument crumbling, and the bullet marked White House in flames, and so on.  All of this is causes by nasty foreigners, evil Asians intent on mayhem.  (Recall George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil speech).  The xenophobic implication being that we should adopt militaristic, hyper-aggressive strategies to keep those verminous enemies out.  This is a parable of sorts, another version of September 11, 2001, a call for vigilance along with a dimwitted, heavy-handed, jingoistic, self-aggrandizing approach to foreign policy abroad and security at home.  Shades of the NSA.

The film takes its title at face value.  Washington DC, especially the White House, is Olympus.  Stirring music with a hushed chorus accompanies each iconic image.  When the President is wounded, the music suggests that Christ’s side has been pierced. 

Despite all the hoopla, this is just another action movie about people (the President) rescued from a tight spot by an unlikely hero (the disgraced Secret Service agent), with empathy and pathos delivered by the president’s young son, hiding in the captured White House, wanted by the hostage-takers who believe that by threatening his life they can force the President to give up a secret code.  The boy is saved, but for reasons I couldn’t discern the President gives up the code anyway.  The Americans win out in this conflict by brute strength rather than intelligence, and the evil Asians lose through their greed, lust for power and wanton destruction, and madness.  There’s no distinction in the action or the story or the scenario.  The film is mildly entertaining—you can sleep through half of up yet be caught up on the action as soon as you awake, because there is not much to catch up with--it’s got a lot of shootings and explosions and noise.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

School Daze

Spike Lee’s second film School Daze (1988) is set in a large Southern town recognizable as Atlanta, though it is never named.  It’s set on the campus of a historically black university, Mission University, a place like Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Lee studied.  On the one hand, this is an African American version of any number of mainly white films devoted to campus life, such as Animal House (1978) or Back to School (1988) or PCU (1994) or of those awful college films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s (Knute Rockne All American, 1940, comes to mind).  On the other hand, with its many comic moments, School Daze has a serious purpose: to explore political and cultural divisions in African American life by focusing on a college that is educating future African American leaders.  The film begins with a montage of images from the Civil Rights movement.  They connect the college campus the film portrays with African American history.

The “Daze” of the title suggests the unreality of college life, and the film spends a good bit of time showing us college students engaged in meaningless chatter about relationships, sex, fraternities, skin color, and hair style.  A central musical number is about a dispute between two groups of women who style their hair in different fashions—the light-skinned group favors 80s style hair and the darker skinned group prefers hair in a more revolutionary vein. 

The film presents more a pastiche, a montage of scenes from college life, than a coherent plot.  A character named Half-pint (Spike Lee) wants to pledge a popular fraternity.  He also wants to lose his virginity.  His cousin, Dap (Laurence Fishburne), is a would-be revolutionary who wants Mission College to disinvest all its funds from South Africa.  Dap hates fraternities and has a serious rivalry with Julian (Giancarlo Esposito), president of Gamma Phi Gamma, the fraternity Half-Pint wants to join.  School Daze sees fraternities as irrelevant and destructive.  Pledges undergo silly rituals.  They are encouraged to feel superior to other students, to abuse women, to feel contempt for people like Dap who want to change the world.  You can imagine many of these fraternity members headed for a conformist career in business.  It’s not in their interests to seek change in a world that they want to join.

Dap is loud and obnoxious in his ever-present advocacy for the causes he supports and in his hatred of the fraternity Dap wants to join.  He is not especially effective as an activist, but Spike Lee as director makes clear that Dap believes fervently in what he believes, and that he, as opposed to Julian or Half-Pint, recognizes that in a world where everyone’s attention is diverted by disagreements over affluence and skin color and hair styles and fraternity memberships, progress won’t occur.

On the night Half-Pint is initiated into Gamma Phi Gamma, Julian orders his girlfriend to sleep with Half-Pint because he can’t have a virgin in his fraternity.  She follows his command.  When Dap finds out what has happened, he is outraged at his cousin and at Julian.  The film ends with his commanding question “Why?” which seems to imply that while these students are whiling away their time on trivial, narcissistic irrelevancies, the world is suffering.  Dap’s “Why?” is a call for change of directions and for political action, both in the world at large, but on the campuses of places like Mission College, where future citizens are being educated.

Spike Lee’s method of introducing an array of characters and situations that he gradually interweaves through the course of the film is evident here.  School Daze is a major step towards one of his great films, Do the Right Thing (1989).  It also paves the way for a number of other films about African American college life, all centered in Atlanta.  Drumline (2002; dir. Charles Stone III), ATL (2006; dir. Chris Robinson) and Stomp the Yard (2007; dir. Sylvain White) are examples.  

La Grande Illusion

One memorable scene in La Grande Illusion, (1937; dir. Jean Renoir) comes when inmates of a German prison camp are rehearsing for a skit they will perform before other prisoners and German officers.  They are trying on costumes they will wear as they portray women dancing and singing on stage.  The slightest of them, who plays some sort of ingénue, puts on an attractive dress and blonde wig.  When he walks out in front of the other men, they suddenly fall silent, gazing at him in the dress and blonde wig with wistful regret for the women they miss at home, desire, and shame for the desire they feel for another man.  The scene is comic but moving, as this slender man in a dress and wig arouses conflicting emotions in his fellow prisoners.

In another scene the commanding officer of the French prisoners of war, Captain Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) talks with the commanding German officer of the prison, Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim).  They are friendly acquaintances from past days; they both remember the same prostitute and the same restaurants in Paris.  They both feel trapped by circumstance and their class—both are members of a vanishing class of upper class nobility that will pass away along with the end of the war.

The scenes of this film are carefully photographed, full of authentic details, so that if any of them actually are filed on a set, it is impossible to tell.  Renoir, the son of the famous painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, composes many scenes as if they are paintings.  I especially liked the indoor shots of people in the immediate foreground, set against an open window that reveals another scene outside, in the background.  This is more sophisticated cinematography than we are used to in most American films of the 1930s.

La Grande Illusion directly addresses anti-semitism and German hatred of Jews.  Although it is set in World War I, it clearly is responding to contemporary events of the late 1930s, including the movement of Nazi Germany to go to war with the rest of the world.  Yet this film does not demonize the Germans.  Rather it emphasizes the arbitrariness of boundaries between individuals, social classes, and nations.

This must be the archetypal prisoner of war film.  Both Stalag 17 (1953; dir. Billy Wilder) and The Great Escape (1963; dir. John Sturges) echo it in different ways.  The film Casablanca (1942; dir. Michael Curtiz), with its scene of French patriots breaking into “Le Marseilles” in front of German officers in Rick’s Café, was probably inspired by a similar scene in La Grand Illusion, when French prisoners begin singing the same song in front of German officers when they learn of a French victory over the Germans.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Dictator

The Dictator (2012; dir. Larry Charles) observes few boundaries of political or moral correctness.  Its satiric story of a middle-eastern dictator who comes to New York to address the United Nations takes middle eastern politics and Muslim culture as its main targets—there is no doubt about this. In the course of this exercise, Dictator levels its aim at Jews, African Americans, Asians, middle-class white America, women, feminists, and probably other groups and categories I haven’t thought of yet.  The main character, Admiral General Aladeen Aladeen (Sasha Baron Cohen) is an utterly ruthless dictator who orders anyone who disagrees with him executed.  He hates Jews, women, and anyone who opposes him.  The wealth of his nation, Wadiya, what there is of it, goes towards maintenance of his opulent palace and lifestyle.  His nation is rich in oil, but because he promised his father that he would never sell it to outsiders, he remains true to that promise (one of the only promises he keeps).  His dying father appointed him dictator despite the older brother (Ben Kingsley) who was first in line of succession.  His brother is constantly plotting to assassinate or overthrow him so he can take control of the country and sell its oil resources to foreign oil interests (BP, Exxon, and so on).  

As with Cohen’s two previous films—Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009), both directed by Larry Charles—this one skirts a fine line between satire and intolerance.  Is it attacking western stereotypes about the Muslim world, or exploiting them for comedy?  It’s both, I think, and these opposites aren’t always compatible.  Cohen rarely misses the opportunity for an outrageously inappropriate joke: when he delivers a baby at the food collective, he is genuinely moved, yet when he sees that the baby is a girl, he wants to throw it out with the trash.  When his new wife tells him that she is pregnant, he asks her whether the child will be “a boy or an abortion.”

In the course of this film, Aladeen falls in love with the owner of an organic food collective—she’s whole earth in every way, Jewish, and feminist—everything he hates.  He declares at the UN, after he sees her watching him, that he will restore real democracy to his country and not sell out to international oil conglomerates.  Yet the film makes clear, in the typical eye-winking, ear-pulling way of Cohen, that he’s not really serious.

While Arabic culture and politics suffer the main brunt of this film’s satiric attack, in his speech to the UN, Aladeenn outlines what he believes are the benefits dictatorships can bring—and they are all practices and acts that have characterized American democracy over the last 25 years.  The point is not to let Arabic culture off the hook, but to make clear that U. S. capitalism is guilty of sins and injustices of its own. 

Cohen may seek to soften somewhat the depravity that Aladeen represents by portraying him as an inept, incompetent, ignorant, and not very smart buffoon (every time he orders someone executed, his executioner helps the condemned victim escape to a Wadiyan refugee community in New York) who can’t open his mouth without making outrageous and offensive statements.  This in part may be a nod to another film called The Great Dictator (1940; dir. Charlie Chaplain) with Charlie Chaplain playing a clear parody of Hitler.  But Chaplain’s political and humanistic message in his film isn’t as compromised as it is in this one.