Friday, May 13, 2016

Remarks for the Department of Theatre and Film Graduation Ceremony, May 13, 2016

David has asked me to speak for a few minutes about my time here at UGA.  I’m glad to do that.  I’ve been bored by many graduation speakers in the past.  Now is your time to be bored by me.

I came to Athens for the first time in January 27, 1967, to take part in a one-act play competition held in this very room.  I remember the date because it was the day three Apollo astronauts were killed in a fire during a test at Cape Canaveral.  I don’t remember anything about the competition, except that our play was called A Game of Chess, I played the butler, and we lost.

I was an undergraduate here, an English major, from 1968 to 1972.  These were the formative years of my education.  UGA was a smaller school then, more provincial, less diverse.  I lived first in Russell Hall for two years, a wild zoo of chaos and anarchy, then for two years in a hovel of a house on the edge of town.  We had a tree stump for a table and lawn chairs for furniture.  In those years on the weekends there was a rich social and cultural life on campus.  Students stayed on campus for the weekend. Downtown was fairly dead. There was officially no alcohol on campus and unofficially a lot of it. I had wonderful friends during those years.  Some are dead now, others have drifted away.  I keep in touch with a few of them.

The great gifts UGA gave me were inspiring teachers and exciting classroom experiences. I never took the opportunity to thank the English professor, George B. Martin, who was my advisor and mentor during those years.  He gave me personal guidance and advice, much of which I ignored, all of which in retrospect I appreciate. I wish I had, at some point, thanked him. It means a lot to professors to be thanked, let me tell you.

If I had to pick out a single life-changing moment in my education at UGA, it would have been in an Honors religion class taught in 1969 by a professor named Will Power. He is still alive and well today.  I don’t remember the exact subject under discussion that day--it had vaguely to do with the existence of God and an afterlife, not surprising because this was a religion class.  What I found so empowering in the give-and-take of that classroom moment--it was like a lightning strike--was the force of logic, of intellect, of discovery that helped me define my relation to the world, my awareness of who I am as an independent thinker. Another great experience was my course in historical geology, taught by J. Hatten Howard.  And Dr. Martin’s seminar in Shakespearean tragedy gave me a world view.  I know you don’t recognize these names. They are semi-mythic figures in my memory.

The truly most life-changing moment in my education, however, did not take place at UGA.  It happened when I was four years old, in 1954.  My family lived in College Park, GA, in a duplex shared with my father’s parents.  My grandfather, an old grizzled man who never shaved and rarely talked, kept a chicken coop in the backyard.  One day he brought home for me and my sister two white chickens, a large rooster and hen. That afternoon my sister and I got up from our naps and went out alone into the backyard to visit with our chickens.  They immediately attacked us, flying, swooping, squawking, coming right at us.  We were rescued by my mother. Put yourself in the position of a four-year old looking eye to eye with an angry rooster.  Life has never seemed secure to me since then.  Especially since my grandmother made my grandfather slaughter those chickens.  I stood and watched him do it.  We had those chickens for dinner that evening.  This was a grim lesson.

I suppose, looking back over my years here, that the big changes I have seen are in diversity.  In four years as a student here I had one woman for a teacher.  I never had an African American or any other person of color in a class with me.  Most students were from Georgia.  It was a monochromatic place. Today 35% of UGA faculty are women.  The student body is far more diverse, not only in color but also in international background.  The campus is a more exciting place to be now.

It’s been gratifying to have been a part of this University’s growth towards becoming a great institution for higher learning.

But the major change I have seen over my nearly fifty years at UGA is that the students are younger. They’ve grown younger every year.  The students I taught this year were 49 years younger than the ones with whom I took my first freshman English class. Why this is, I don’t know.  I can’t get used to it. The Admissions Office is up to something.

What wise thoughts can I offer you from my life and career? Not many that any other person my age couldn’t offer. But I have to tell you something, so here are a few bits of advice:

Friends. They are important.  Don’t lose touch with the friends you’ve made here.  They’re a part of you.  When you lose them, you lose some of yourself. Stay connected. One of my oldest friends at UGA is in this room.  We’ve been friends since we both joined the faculty in 1977—Fran Teague, I know you are here.  Another close friend in this room is Richard Neupert.  We both like movies. We’re going to discuss them this evening.

Family: My wife and my three sons mean everything to me.  They’ve been the motivation for my career.  Nothing in my career has been as important to me as they have been.  If you marry or have a partner or long lasting relationship, if you have children, and certainly if you have friends, keep them at the center of your life.

Learning. Keep learning—never stop learning.  Keep reading. Watch plays and films, make plays and films, go to concerts and lectures, write and create.  Engage with the world.  Keep doing this—actively, aggressively—until the moment you die.

Integrity. Don’t compromise.  Whatever job you take, in the arts or business or education or at home, don’t become a clone, a mindless autocrat, a corporate stooge, a cog in some meaningless wheel. Don’t forfeit the self you’ve become. Don’t let yourself grow old.

The Arts. Take the opportunity, at any place and time, to tell your family and friends and co-workers and strangers you meet on the street, especially the politicians who govern this state and nation, and the administrators who run this university, about the importance of the arts and of your degree in Theatre and Film.  Don’t let anyone tell you that your degree didn’t teach you work skills.  You’ve got work skills.  You’ve also got an education. Campaign for support for the arts in this state and on this campus.

I have two parting wishes for you.  One is that, once you graduate, that you do something wild and crazy that you can remember for the rest of your life.  The second wish is that, whatever you do in your life, you’ll do it well, that you’ll do it because it has meaning for you, but also because it will help others, whether you’re entertaining them or teaching them or encouraging them or just helping them figure out how to tie their shoes.

Congratulations to you all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Remarks for the Lamar Dodd School of Art Graduation Ceremony, May 11, 2016

I’d like to congratulate everyone here for the successful completion of this academic year.  I especially congratulate graduates of the Lamar Dodd School, their parents, and their professors.  I want to say something about the value of the degree you’re receiving, whether it is graduate or undergraduate.  A significant debate ongoing at national and state levels has to do with the notion that colleges and universities should be teaching work skills—how to write and communicate, solve problems, compute, and so on.  The implication is that other forms of knowledge, say, those in the arts and humanities, are less important and nonessential. This notion is founded on a major misunderstanding of the goals of higher education.  The primary goal of higher education is not to train you for a job—though I do not mean to underestimate the importance of getting one.  It is to equip you to be a fully functioning, independent, critically thinking, creative citizen of a troubled world, a person who can make smart decisions, who understands the contexts of our world, who can help effect change.  It happens that graduates so trained are highly qualified to find jobs.

Artists, art historians, and art educators create and produce work that contributes to the higher needs and values of our culture.  Whatever you do in your life, your education in the Lamar Dodd School has positioned you to influence the thinking of others around you about the importance of the arts, without which our culture would be an empty, hollow shell.

And let me point out that your education in the Lamar Dodd School has trained you to solve problems, to design, to communicate with each other about your interests and your work, to write about your work.  If you decide not to enter an arts-related field, you still have these skills, which are highly valuable, and made even more so by the larger and deeper understanding of your culture and your world that your education in the Lamar Dodd School and the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences has given you.

Once again, I congratulate you all on this important occasion.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Past, by Tessa Hadley

The Past is beautifully written.  There’s nothing idiosyncratic or experimental or even surprising about the style—it’s just good writing.  Tessa Hadley is interested in the interrelationships of family members over three generations, how rivalries and issues that begin in childhood bubble up and flow down through generations.  She has a nuanced grasp of children—something most writers can’t manage.  In particular the six-year-old Ivy is a wonderfully drawn character.  Her brother is less well defined, but he’s still a believable child.

Ivy has a vivid imagination, and she involves her brother in her thinking about the “Women” and their power over events.

It’s difficult to describe the plot of this novel because there really isn’t any.  Rather there are a series of events, trends, that gain in momentum: a possible love affair that may occur, a seduction in progress, a marriage possibly on the wane.  But, as is the case with real life, events don’t always develop as we’d expect.  A growing sense of doom (or is this simply my imagination?) pervades the latter sections of the novel, yet doom never happens, except perhaps for one character.

The book is divided into three main sections—the first and the third are set in “The Present,” while the middle section is “The Past,” which mostly concerns the mother and grandparents of the siblings who are having their annual reunion in the first and third sections—those siblings are young children in “The Past.”  We know from the first section that certain events occurred in the past, and our knowledge of them suffuses the middle section with dramatic irony, a foreknowledge of events that haven’t occurred yet.

Coming from a family of six children, I enjoyed moments of recognition as I read about what various siblings in the family said and thought of one another.  This aspect of the novel, perhaps, was prurient.  Yet I experienced pathos as well, that sense of pity and despair for those who are about to, or who did, suffer physically and emotionally for things that happened in “the past.”

In ways The Past works in the same tradition as To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf) and Howards End (E. M. Forster).

Monday, February 01, 2016

Cow Country, by Adrian Jones Pearson (pseud.)

The faculty of Cow Country, by Adrian Jones Pearson (pseud.), are supposed to be representative of faculty at many American colleges and universities.  Cow College is an extreme, though.  Barely solvent, struggling to recover accreditation approval it was denied a year ago, the College is torn by the whims of accreditors, donors, administrators, and faculty. Its main attraction is an archery and shooting range.  In tribute to the industry that supports the community of Cow College, a statue of a mating bull and heifer is the centerpiece of the campus.  While the surrounding country side is dried out desert—the word desiccated is repeatedly invoked as the novel moves along—the campus is lush and green, the irrigation system apparently paid for by the financial gifts of donors.

Like many campuses, this one is riven by rivalries, gossip, and intrigue.  The faculty is bitterly divided over the issue of whether to have a Christmas party.  At the start of the fall term, new faculty are entertained at two parties—the one they choose to attend confirms their political alliance—one party given by the vegetarian and earth shoe wing of the faculty, a tantric yoga session—and the other a beer guzzling barbecue. And someone secretly deposits the bloody scrota of a cow on the desks of faculty who have somehow transgressed codes of behavior that no one can identity. Bessie, a secretary, admits to having had four husbands and a thousand affairs.  The College president is one of her ex-husbands.

This novel is frequently funny, but its author didn’t know when to stop.  There are brilliant comic moments, and then there are other moments that go on and on and on.  Characters are given to endless monologues on esoteric subjects.  Their concerns often seem to have no relation to reality.  They’re just caught up in solipsistic self-absorption. Most of them, especially the main character and narrator, are more like cartoon caricatures than human beings.

This satiric novel targets issues that normally would interest only those who have been in a higher education environment for years--accreditation reviews, strategic plans, fundraising, faculty burnout, administrators without academic backgrounds, faculty entitlement: a history professor who smokes his cigar and swills his bourbon beneath a “No Smoking” sign in a faculty cafeteria, a creative writing professor who grooms his female students for sex, mathematics faculty who party wildly all semester.  What this novel best illustrates is the isolation of college campuses and faculty from reality.

Rumors to the contrary, this novel was not written by Thomas Pynchon.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body, by Martin Pistorius

At the age of twelve the author and narrator of this story (Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body, 2013, by Martin Pistorius) began to lose control of his body.  His muscles weakened. He lost the ability to walk and talk.  His memories and cognitive abilities faded. Ultimately, he entered a vegetative state from which no real recovery was expected. For five years there was oblivion.  His father and mother cared for him, frantically seeking help from doctors and others.  Ultimately his mother gave up and tried to kill herself.  After five years, he began to see flashes of the world.  Within two years he was fully conscious but unable to move or communicate. He had no memory of his previous life.  He saw and heard everything around him, but no one knew he was there.

Over the next fifteen years, Pistorius returns to life.  He never regains speech or general use of his body, but through various means he learns to communicate and reconnect.  Undoubtedly this book itself was painstakingly typed into one of the devices he uses to communicate. Telling his own story, he also tells the story of his parents and siblings, of his sense of isolation and loss. Finally, over the Internet, he meets a woman and falls in love and they marry.

The most engrossing aspects of this story concern the years prior to his return to life, before he could communicate, before people knew he was something more than an insensible body. There are no great philosophical insights here.  The recovery itself is remarkable enough, and it reminds us how tenuous our grip on reality is, how quickly we can lose it. The account raises the question of what the Self is, whether it can exist at all locked within the mind beyond contact with the outer world. (What Self do any of us have, beyond the web of people and places and events that make up our reality?) Much of the latter part of this book, about his attempts to learn language, to form romantic attachments, to educate himself, to gain independence from the parents who cared for him through many long years, is prosaic and not especially interesting. But, as I said before, the recovery itself is remarkable.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


Where do we place blame?  Discussions of the deplorable situation in Mexico, Columbia, and other parts of the world embroiled in and torn by the illegal drug market either ignore the question entirely or become so caught up in it that the problems on the ground seem to disappear.  We can suggest that the market for cocaine and heroin in the United States creates the demand that leads to the chaos and crime of Northern Mexico.  No doubt that market exists, but it exists in other parts of the world as well.  The demand for illegal drugs may help create the market, but if we somehow prove that argument we have not addressed the drug trade itself.  And if all we do is deplore the lawlessness and terror that predominate in certain parts of such a place as Mexico, then we ignore the cause, and if we don’t address the cause the market, somewhere, somehow, is going to be there.

The film Sicario (2015, dir. Denis Villeneuve) tries to consider cause.  The result is confusion.  In one long-distance shot, the camera pans from neatly ordered streets of an Arizona border town across the river to a disorderly, chaotically arranged, decidedly ominous Mexican town—presumably Juarez.  The music for the film, which relies on ominous drumbeats and portentous groaning bass notes, colludes in the effect.  Here in Mexico we’re asked to see the Other, the dark and uncivilized heart of the drug wars that seem to be infiltrating areas around the border with the United States.  Therefore, it’s Mexico that is the problem.

But the film hedges its bets and in the end suggests that not only has the demand for drugs in the US created the drug trade, but that the tactics of certain US law enforcement and security units devised the tactics that came to be the stock and trade in terror of the Mexican drug lords.  In this case, it’s the CIA that has become involved in trying to subdue the drug lords, but in so doing its operatives sink to a level of lawlessness and terror that is, so the film would have it, hardly separate from that of the drug lords itself. This is simplistic.

I hoped to find in this movie an intelligent attempt at portraying and even understanding the problem.  Instead, I found a veneer of ultra-realism, suspense, and first-person shooter video game substituting for perceptiveness. The film tries to mimic the method of faux documentaries like Zero Dark Thirty, Black Hawk Down, Syriana but the result is an action adventure film that pretends to be more than it is.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Thoughts on the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, J. J. Abrams):
  1. It was highly entertaining and thoroughly satisfying.
  2. It captures the spirit of the original.
  3. The special effects are impressive and seamlessly integrated.
  4. The two young protagonists—Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) are compelling figures who give the piece energy and interest even in the presence of the iconic characters from the 1977 original.
  5. Some portions of the film drag, especially in the first half.
  6. In plot, the new film follows the original.  This is not necessarily a flaw.  The story of a young and lonely figure struggling to survive on a desert planet who discovers that she has an important place in a greater scheme is archetypal.  It’s a coming of age story.  In The Force Awakens we have two characters finding their place in a greater scheme.
  7. How many Death Stars remain to be blown up? How many sleazy alien bars could there be?
  8. The pilots of the Tie fighters mostly no longer look like Radio Shack employees.
  9. Cute robots grow tiresome.
  10. Whatever people might say about the physical appearance of Princess Leia or Hans Solo, they look pretty much as you would expect nearly 38 years after we first met them.  Ford effectively and convincingly carries off his role—he really acts—not something you can always say of him in some of his recent films.  Carrie Fisher struggles a bit.
  11. The film is well suited for 3-D.
  12. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the film’s successor to Darth Vader, comes across as a disaffected bad-boy teen.  No doubt he does much damage and is evil enough, but in the end he is more irritating than fearsome.
  13. This film, more than the others, considers what it means to be an individual living in an oppressive regime.  For the first time we glimpse a Storm trooper’s inner life.  In its portrayal of the brutal and terroristic tactics of the First Order, for which Kylo Ren is a commander, the film seems to invite comparison with political situations and figures within our own world.
  14. Lupita Nyong'o plays my favorite secondary character, Maz Kanata.
  15. I would have preferred less of the original John Williams score and more of the new music he composed for the film.  However, the music remains a key and distinctive element.

Thunderstruck, by Erik Larsen

Thunderstruck by Erik Larsen (Crown, 2006) interweaves the stories of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, a homeopathic pharmacist and doctor, with Enrico Marconi, the inventor of the radio.  Though these individuals never met, their tales intersect in a seminal moment, perhaps the first such moment, that illustrates the galvanizing power of media in the human world.  Crippen’s story is a miserable one.  Regarded by everyone as meek and mild-mannered, he apparently murdered his flamboyant and overbearing wife, removed the bones from her body, removed her head, and buried what was left underneath his house.  His motive was, we can assume, to free himself of an unhappy marriage so that he could be with a young woman with whom he had fallen in love.  Persistent detective work by a Scotland Yard inspector brings out the truth.
Others besides Marconi were working to develop a way to communicate by electromagnetic waves.  But no one was so persistent as Marconi, who through hours and years of experimentation succeeded in developing the first successful wireless communication system.  In Thunderstruck Larsen describes how Marconi tries to prove the utility of his invention by sending Morse code messages over the Atlantic Ocean.  Marconi himself believed it was possible to do this, even though he also knew that because radio waves move in straight lines the curvature of the earth should have prevented it from happening.  When he did succeed in sending a transatlantic message, he wasn’t sure why it worked (the reflection of radio waves off the ionosphere provide the explanation). Marconi’s story is more interesting than that of the miserable Dr. Crippen.
The seminal moment comes when Dr. Crippen and his lover try to escape from England in a ship headed towards America.  Unknown to him, chief inspector Walter Dew of Scotland Yard learns what he is trying to do and communicates with the ship’s captain.  Messages fly back and forth as Inspector Dew on a faster ship tries to reach Canada first to be able to arrest Crippen.  His attempt to outwit Crippen is communicated by wireless all over the western world and widely reported in newspapers.  Everyone follows the developing events (except Crippen).  It’s one of those moments in media that punctuate the 20th-century: from Edward R. Murrow’s World War II broadcasts from England, to the moon landing, to O. J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco, to the Gulf War broadcasts, to the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Everyone was watching.  The Whole World Was Watching, or in this case listening.
Such moments have had a major impact on reducing and leveling out cultural differences and gaps across the world.
Dr. Crippen was hanged.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Making a Murderer

I watched the ten-part documentary Making a Murderer (2015; dirs. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos) within the span of a weekend.  I felt compelled to watch each episode, even as I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the depiction of the murder and the trials that followed.  First, the series was too long.  It could have been compressed.  Second, the series is told from the perspective of the Avery family, and we see relatively little from the perspective of the family of the young woman who was murdered, Teresa Halbach. There’s a lack of balance. In fact, the series led me to believe (perhaps this was not its intent) that Avery might have been guilty.  Finally, the series ends unresolved—Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey remain in prison, still pursuing without success various lines of appeal.
Frankly, if the intent was to convince us that Avery and his nephew were innocent, I don’t think this documentary succeeds.  At best, it leaves us uncertain, although it leaves strong doubts about the guilt of Brendan Dassey, who was sixteen at the time of the murder and who was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
The documentary does succeed in demonstrating that the quality of justice one receives is directly tied to the economic status of the accused, and to the availability of good lawyers.  It shows the helplessness of the accused when incompetent or dishonest law enforcement work against them. Steve Avery in the early 1980s was sentenced of beating and raping a woman.  The documentary demonstrates convincingly that he was framed by the local police and prosecutor. His family had a bad reputation in the community, was regarded as poor and shiftless, as outsiders.  He’s a convenient scapegoat. He spends 18 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerates him.  Released from prison, for a short time he becomes a public symbol of how weaknesses in the legal system can leads to unjust convictions.  Then he’s arrested again, this time for raping, killing, and incinerating a young woman.  This time the evidence appears to be more definite. Avery uses money received from a settlement with the state for the unjust conviction to hire two excellent lawyers to represent him.  As good as they seem to be, they can’t convince the local jury that their client is innocent.  Perhaps they err in arguing that evidence central to the case—a key, and blood found in the victim’s car—was planted by local police. It’s possible members of the jury, all from the local community, didn’t like their policemen being accused of corruption.  It does seem likely the key was planted.  It was not found until the seventh time Avery’s home was searched. The argument that the blood evidence was planted seems less convincing). Avery presents himself as a reasonable and affable man, and in the many recorded phone conversations used in the documentary, he never comes across as anything other than an innocent victim of police bias and malfeasance. However, other evidence (such as the victim’s bone fragments recovered from a fire-pit on his property, and her vehicle, recovered from the auto junkyard he owns), suggest his guilt. There may be a darker side to Avery, a murderous side, but the filmmakers don’t show it.
The documentary implies that the factors leading to Avery’s conviction had little to do with guilt or innocence, and more to do with poverty, the family’s reputation in the community, and Avery’s previous difficulties with the police. 
More clearly outrageous is the case of the 16-year old nephew Brandon Dassey.  He’s described as barely functional, with an IQ of 70 and a verbal IQ of 67.  When the police first question him, he’s hardly able to communicate.  He doesn’t understand what they ask him, doesn’t understand basic vocabulary (“inconsistent,” for example), doesn’t understand why they are questioning him.  The detectives lie to him, ask pointed questions, bully and pressure him, suggest that he won’t go to jail if he tells the truth (that is, the story they want to hear), he implicates himself.  His court-appointed lawyer is not present when he is questioned by the police without his presence, encourages him to take a plea deal, and basically connives with the police to convince the boy to tell a story that will make him a prime witness against his uncle.  An interrogator hired by the defense attorney bullies the boy into confessing. The boy gives three or four different versions of the story, ultimately insisting that he has nothing to do with the crime.  He’s a helpless, pathetic, manipulated victim of corrupt police and a dishonest defense attorney.  He’s the victim of a legal system that is biased against the poor and biased in favor of law enforcement officials even when allegations of corruption or incompetence are involved.
It’s quite possible Dassey was guilty.  But his guilt is not demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt.  It’s possible his uncle manipulated him into helping with the crime or at least with covering it up.   It’s also possible, perhaps likely, he was innocent. 
The documentary uses recorded video testimony from the trials and from interrogations of Dassey, audio recordings of phone conversations and of courtroom transcripts.  Many individuals are interviewed, especially members of the Avery family.  The documentary generates an intriguing sense of place, of setting, of atmosphere.  It offers vivid portraits (some of them one-sided) of the principal figures involved.  It tells a disturbing story. It doesn’t convince us of the innocence of Avery and Dassey.  It does convince us of the egregious shortcomings in the law enforcement and legal system that convicted them.

Given the apparent unwillingness of prosecutors and grand juries to indict policemen who shoot young black men in, at best, questionable circumstances, or who commit other actions that lead to their deaths, this documentary has particular relevance.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Martian

Andy Weir’s 2015 novel was an interesting fictional account of how an astronaut stranded on Mars might struggle to survive, using his scientific knowledge and training.  A major flaw in the story was the relative absence of an inner perspective.  The novel recounts the various solutions that the astronaut, Mark Watney, devises to overcome the problems that face him.  But it doesn’t tell us about his inner feelings: what is it like to wake up and discover that one’s companions have fled the planet; how the utter isolation, the lack of companionship, the desolation of the Martian landscape makes one feel?  It’s as remarkable that Watney doesn’t lose his mind as it is that he manages to survive, to preserve his physical existence.  Maybe the fact that he had to stay busy trying to save himself is the answer.  He had no time for inner emotions, no time to contemplate his situation.  Or maybe he is just one of those people who doesn’t need or even notice the absence of human companionship.  The novel didn’t satisfy my need to know more about the astronaut’s perspective on his situation.
The 2015 film adaptation (dir. Ridley Scott) of the novel at least partially addresses this issue.  It gives us some sense of how Watney regards his situation.  Yet even in the film he’s clearly the kind of self-reliant individual who takes solace in action and motion, who uses his mind and training to try to save himself, who doesn’t abandon himself to despair.
There’s a clear connection between the film and Apollo 13 (1995, dir. Ron Howard), about the three lunar astronauts who use ingenuity and resourcefulness to save themselves when an explosion virtually disables their spacecraft on the way to the moon.  Like Watney, they decide to “science the shit out of this.”  Much of the fascination of Watney’s story, both in the novel and the film, is following his efforts to do just that. Like the novel, the film limits itself to what is scientifically plausible—at least, I didn’t notice if it violated that principle.

The film seems well made in every sense.  It’s effectively edited.  It employs a cast of effective actors.  Matt Damon is very good in the role of Watney.  Cinematography is a major strength in the film.  The Martian landscape looks absolutely real.  Undoubtedly the filmmakers took good advantage of years of photography of Mars by rovers and satellites.  The shots of vast expanses of Martian landscape, contrasted against Watney’s tiny outpost in the red deserts, make us feel his isolation.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mad Max: Thunder Road

I’d heard so many positive comments about Mad Max: Thunder Road (2015; dir. George Miller) that I came to the film with great hopes of, at least, an entertaining two hours.  It showed up on a number of high profile "Best Films of 2015" lists. How could I lose?  It was a dismal time.  
There is a plot here, tenuous enough that you hardly notice it.  It is a plausible justification for what actually occupies the screen for most of the film’s duration: huge trucks powering across dusty, empty red deserts at high rates of speed.  Occasionally there are human refugees left over from whatever apocalypse destroyed the world.  They have all reverted to the kind of savagery we see in Lord of the Flies, or in Mr. Kurtz’s “unspeakable rites” of Heart of Darkness.  A few of these remaining savage humans are somewhat less benighted than the others.  They are our heroes. Furious driving, bomb blasts, bullets, and ingenious Rube Goldberg engines of destruction abound.  So do bizarre costumes and facial makeup.  And, inexplicably, there are diaphanously clad vestal virgins, the future consorts of the evil villain who’s only slightly more evil than everyone else.  What a snore. 
Paucity of gasoline seems to be an issue.  Yet in transporting precious gasoline back and forth across the deserts, our characters expend incredible amounts of it in their speedy trucks.   What a snore. 
Mad Max is the apocalypse as a 14-year old’s wet dream cartoon nightmare. My favorite elements of the film were the names of the main characters: Tom Hardy plays Max Rockatansky, while Charlize Theron, hardly recognizable, is Imperator Furiosa.  The evil villain is Rictus Erectus.  Happy days are here again.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Underground Man, by Ross McDonald

Ross MacDonald has a considerable reputation as a mid-twentieth century mystery novelist, the creator of the private detective Lew Archer.  His actual name was Kenneth Millar.  I’ve been reading his correspondence with Eudora Welty, which came as a complete surprise to me.  It’s an intense and passionate correspondence, almost like the correspondence of lovers, which McDonald and Welty never were, except perhaps on paper.  They both professed a strong admiration for one another’s work.  Welty reviewed McDonald’s novel The Underground Man (1971) for the New York Times and praised it.  Because there are few writers I regard as highly as I do Welty, I decided to read McDonald’s novel.
One of the most unusual characteristics of the novel, narrated by its main character, Lew Archer, is how invisible the narrator seems.  He describes what is happening, what he does, and why, whom he is talking to, what they do, how events transpire, but he does it in a strangely passionless way.  He’s hardly present.  His personality is never really evident.  We learn a few bits of information about him—he lives alone, for example, he was once married, he feels sympathy for young people in the early 1970s of Southern California who have gone off the rail because of drugs.  But for the most part he is, as the main character, completely absent.  Even when a woman he is interviewing, a woman whom he describes as “well built,” throws off her robe and offers to have sex with him, it’s as if he isn’t there. He declines the offer.  I compared him in my head with Philip Marlowe, who’s being so thoroughly infuses the tone and narrative of Raymond Chandler’s novels--there’s no comparison.  McDonald is more reserved and removed from his subject than Chandler is from his, but at the cost of indifference.
The narrative revolves around two murders, the disappearance of a young child who is probably in the company of a teenage girl whose parents believe she is perfect but who for various reasons turns out to be less than.  Archer methodically works his way towards finding the child and unraveling the mystery of the murders.  There are no big surprises, no gotcha moments, one event simply follows another.  Perhaps it is the reader’s interest that gathers momentum.
Brush fires burn in and around the setting of the novel.  Archer is constantly thinking about and alluding to them.  The fires signify something—but it’s not mystery or passion.  Maybe its evil, the sin that underlies the kidnapping of the boy and the troubled life of the girl who is with him.  Maybe it’s his underlying assessment of the culture and the times.  But the fires evoke a troubling, unsettling atmosphere, as if at any moment they might change direction and move towards the town and engulf everything.  It’s California as a kind of modern hell.
Another motif is suggested in the title.  The novel moves towards uncovering the mysteries beneath the lives of its characters, unknown, hidden information that gradually comes to light.
I didn’t really care when the novel was over.  It’s dated, I guess. So am I.