Sunday, January 01, 2017

The Lady Vanishes

Fast, witty dialogue is a defining virtue of The Lady Vanishes (1938; dir. Alfred Hitchcock). Although it's a mystery film, with people under various forms of menace, and though it includes gunfire, kidnapping, and murder, it's also quite humorous. Dialogue is one source of humor. Stereotyped characters are another. The stereotypes are mainly ethnic: British, Italian, German, and perhaps East European—I wasn't certain about the last. Most of the film takes place on a train, and among the various passengers are a man and woman who've had an affair, two British gentleman traveling to a cricket match, a doctor, a countess, an Italian magician, a dowdy middle-aged woman (who disappears), and various others. Some humor comes from people of one nationality not being able to understand the language of another.

A young woman traveling to meet her fiancé shares a compartment with a middle-aged woman.  When the older woman disappears, the younger woman takes it upon herself to find out what happened.  No one believes her that the woman has vanished.  In fact, no one claims to remember having seen the woman at all.  As the young woman’s investigation develops, the mystery deepens, and so on.

The story reflects the crisis in Europe as political affairs in Germany and Italy continue to worsen—although neither is mentioned, Hitler and Mussolini are in power, and the prospect of war is in the atmosphere of the film.

Hitchcock’s fascination with human faces, with an array of often eccentric and funny characters, plays into the humor of the film.

Portions of the film, especially early scenes, are fairly risqué for the time. There are also elements that are difficult to interpret, given the year the film was made and the year in which I watched it.  In one scene, the two cricket fans are forced to share a single bed while waylaid in a hotel in the Alps: we see them in bed together, in what I have to say is a cuddled-up position: one of the men has his shirt off.  The other, when he gets out of bed to answer the door, is wearing a nightshirt and no pajama pants. In 2016 we'd conclude the two men are gay, but I suspect that in 1938 most audience members (except perhaps gay audience members) would not have thought much of it, other than to find it humorous.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Singin' in the Rain Revisited

One summer afternoon in 1955 I was visiting my grandmother at her house in College Park, Georgia.  I was five.  My grandmother indulged my every whim.  I’d often heard her and my mother singing or humming the tune “Singin’ in the Rain.”  I hadn’t seen the film, but I knew the tune.  It began to rain, a light drizzle, but rain nonetheless.  I don’t remember whose idea it was, but my grandmother and I went out into her side yard and began singing and dancing in the rain, to the tune from the film.  Although she lived for another thirty-five years, this is one of my strongest memories of my grandmother, singing and dancing in the rain.

It would be many years more until I saw the film that carried the song’s title.  I loved it the first time I saw it, and I’ve loved it every time I’ve seen it since.  Singin’ in the Rain (1952; co-dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly) and I don’t have much in common.  I’m not a singer or a dancer and never had real aspirations to be in “show business.”  But watching that film returns me briefly to the momentary joy of that memory I carry of singing and dancing with my grandmother in the rain.

Singin’ in the Rain  has three great stars: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds.  They’re all dead now, as are virtually all the people who had anything to do with the film.  It was made in the early heyday of technicolor.  It marked in many ways the height of the Hollywood musical, although later musicals such as Oklahoma and Westside Story would make better films.  Singin’ in the Rain isn’t even very coherent: it’s a comedy, a satire of Hollywood and the days of silent film and the coming of sound, a love story.  It makes fun of the egotism and ambition of Hollywood stars.  We think of it as the film that gave Debbie Reynolds her start.  In fact, it was the only significant film, and the only truly good film, she ever made.  But that’s no matter.  She didn’t need to make another film, although she was in many others.  She gives the film purity and energy and youth and exuberance.  Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are wonderful dancers who make the best they can of every minute in which they appear.  She keeps up with them, step for step. The highpoint of the film, the Broadway Melody sequence towards the end, has virtually nothing to do with the rest of the film, but that’s no matter either.  It’s a great sequence.

My favorite sequences are “Moses Supposes,” “Gotta Dance,” and “Good Morning,” the last of which features Debbie Reynolds in the best performance of her career.  It is sad that she died.  Everyone must.  But few will live on as she will live on in this greatest of Hollywood musicals.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One

Like all of the Star Wars films, Star Wars: Rogue One (2016; dir. Gareth Edwards) marks an advance in the possibilities of digital technology. The special effects are spectacular. The use of the planet killer weapon was chilling. While in the first Star Wars film from 1977, the weapon caused the planet merely to blow up in an explosion of sparks and flames and noise, in Rogue One, when the weapon is used to destroy cities, the thermonuclear blast that ravages the landscape for hundreds of miles around is overwhelming.

Digital technologies and the possibilities they afford have raised certain questions that are under debate by reviewers. As to whether certain characters resurrected from the past after 20 or 50 years look real and convincing, I don’t have a strong opinion. Peter Cushing has been dead for 20 years, so when he appeared on screen as Grand Moff Tarkin, commander of the Death Star, I knew he was a digital effect. He looked real enough to me. Another effect at the end of the film happened so quickly I hardly had time to examine it. Some reviewers regarded it as transparently artificial. While I did feel there was something unusual about it, it worked well and offered a poignant and moving image with which to end the film, especially given recent events.

As digital technology has advanced it has become possible to put numerous complicated effects on screen simultaneously. This is both a benefit and a challenge. Sometimes Rogue One is a bit too busy.  At moments so many things are happening that it is difficult to keep up.

Let there be no doubt: the film is entertaining. Although it took me a while to figure out who the different characters were and whose side they were on, I enjoyed the film and was often on the edge of my seat.

Star Wars: Rogue One is dark, perhaps the darkest of all the Star Wars films so far. Unless I missed something, any sequels will certainly have a cast of new characters.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Statue and the Fury: A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails, by Jim Dees

The Statue and the Fury: A Year of Art, Race, Music and Cocktails, by Jim Dees (2016) is the memoir of a reporter's experiences as a rookie journalist in 1996 and 1997 working for the Oxford Mississippian in Oxford, Mississippi. After losing his job at the University of Mississippi, Dees turned to the Oxford newspaper in hopes of another vocation. He was 40 years old. The central focus of this book is about the efforts of the mayor and the city council of Oxford to erect a statue of William Faulkner, who lived in Oxford until his death in 1961.
Faulkner is actually a side-interest of this book. Although he is memorialized in the statue, he's not what the book is about. Rather, it's about small-town politics. It's about how Dees finds Oxford to be a quaint, eccentric, and also in certain paradoxical ways progressive small southern college town. I did not learn anything new about Faulkner from this book, and in fact a lot of what's presented as fact seems to be gossip and hearsay. We run into people who were according to their own testimonies Faulkner’s doctor or bootlegger. We have to take such information with grains of salt.
We learn a lot from this book about small-town politics, about pettiness in the ambition and the corruption of small-town politicians. I think Dees started out with the expectation that he would find Oxford a weird and off-the-wall town. He found what he wanted to find. The book is focused on a year which Dees takes as indicative of the pressures of the modern world on Oxford to expand, to build its infrastructure, to encourage tourism, and to take advantage of such attractions as it has on hand, such as Faulkner’s reputation. In the course of the book we run into other people who visit Oxford or who perform in nearby Tunica: Willie Nelson, James Brown. We learn a bit about Larry Brown the writer, and less about the writer Barry Hannah.
The Statue and the Fury has a fragmentary quality: it moves back and forth from reminiscences of people who knew Faulkner to discussions of the furor over the statue to interviews with country music stars to accounts of the visit to the town of the rap group 2 Live Crew and the controversy caused by their performance at a local nightclub. In general the book explores a small town grappling with its Southern heritage and seeking to move, tentatively, into the contemporary world.
Jim Dees was probably a good reporter, but he certainly took sides in the controversies he covered. He's an example of a person who sets himself in the company of famous writers and musicians and others as a way of certifying his own significance in the world. That's not such a bad thing. A lot of us do that.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Likeness, by Tana French

Tana French’s second novel, The Likeness (2008), depends on the premise that one person can successfully, or almost successfully, pretend to be someone else. In this case, we have the detective Cassie Maddox, an important character in French’s first novel, In the Woods (2007). When a graduate student in English at Trinity University in Dublin, Ireland, is found stabbed to death in the ruins of an old farm cottage, police undertake an investigation to determine who murdered her and why. Coincidentally, the murder victim, Alexie Madison, is identical in appearance to Cassie (this coincidence, on which the entire novel depends, is difficult to swallow). Alexie lived with four friends in an old mansion outside of town. Rather than tell them that their housemate is dead (they are immediately identified as suspects in the crime) detectives send Cassie in undercover to take over the identity of Alexie Madison.  The hope is that she can discover who committed the crime.

The novel thus poses a curious question: can one person who looks exactly like another person of an entirely different background and history pretend to be that person? The novel assumes that this kind of impersonation is possible. I don't believe it. When Cassie appears at the mansion after having supposedly spent a week in the hospital recovering from the stabbing, her friends appear to be glad to see her. They assume slight differences in her behavior are the result of trauma and amnesia suffered in the crime. Over a period of six weeks one of them becomes suspicious. Cassie is not the only person in the novel who assumes alternative personalities.

French writes well. But her plot is overdeveloped, and she fails to explain away occasional false leads. The revelation of the true murderer is a letdown.  The dénouement of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992), which French has identified as an influence on her second novel, was also a letdown. As in her first novel, an individual with a psychopathic personality plays an important role.  Once again, a police detective becomes psychologically over-involved with the crime under investigation.

When Cassie Maddox determines who committed the crime, she doesn't tell her colleagues. Rather, she allows someone else to take the blame—someone who is already dead and who therefore can’t be arrested. The true culprit and the housemates who protect him aren’t prosecuted. This is supposed to compensate for the guilt Cassie feels for having taken advantage of the housemates. It's not enough for me.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Arrival

Arrival (2016; dir. Denis Villeneuve) is a film of great emotional intelligence. Aspects of the film may require some suspension of disbelief, or at least a willingness to give oneself up to the logic and the imagination of the story. I expect good science fiction to stick within the realm of science, of scientific possibility, however much the writer may want to push and extend those barriers. The viewer of a science fiction film should apply a similar standard. Science fiction writers and filmmakers can't simply make things up.   When they speculate, they must do so within the boundaries of what is scientifically plausible.  Arrival honors these boundaries. (Much so-called science fiction should be more properly termed fantasy because it doesn’t work within these boundaries).

As I said, Arrival is an emotionally intelligent film. It's an intelligent film in general. Not to say necessarily that it's a great film, but that it is, given all the instances of cinematic science fiction out there these days (especially superhero films), a good film: partially because of the intelligence--you don't see intelligence in most films; partly also because of the acting – Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are excellent in their roles.  Because Arrival is a film about the sudden appearance on earth of twelve alien spaceships, special effects are necessary, but the film doesn't over-rely on them.

Arrival interweaves different motifs and issues and plot lines: it's about a so-called alien invasion; it's about a linguist attempting to decipher and communicate in an alien language; it's about a mother grieving over the death of her child, and dealing as well with the failure of her marriage; it’s about how the arrival of alien life might affect domestic and international relations. And it's a love story. The movie doesn't stress the love story until the end. The love plot involves what I would regard as the worst line in the film. I'll leave it to readers to identify that line. Arrival is also about time, about a theory of time.

There is considerable expository infrastructure in the film. By that I mean we expend a lot of time watching the military gather its forces and send troops and tanks and tents and other military materiel to the location of the alien spaceship that has landed in Montana. Do all such alien arrivals necessarily result in the mustering of military forces? It's not necessarily pertinent to the film how the military conducts itself. Even if the military needs to be on the scene, we don't need to watch for multiple minutes how it gets there. In a larger sense the military is pertinent because tensions are rising in the nations where twelve of the spaceships have landed, and as the film progresses those nations are moving towards going to war with the aliens and with each other. But this is not a film about the military. Let me be clear: I don't fault the military. It must do what it must do. Its role is over emphasized in Arrival, however, to the detriment of plot and character development.

Arrival alludes in a subtle way to contemporary American politics and the distrust of some elements of the American population in the American government. This leads to a mutiny of sorts by some soldiers, which is deftly integrated into the structure of the film.

The two most important plot lines are interwoven: one line is the struggle of Louise (Amy Adams) to grieve for and come to grips with the death of her teenaged daughter by cancer. The other is her efforts to decipher the alien language. Part of the intelligence and uniqueness of the film is how it makes a linguist the main character and central interest. Louise's partner in the efforts to interpret the alien language is an astrophysicist, played by Jeremy Renner; he regards what he does as science and what she does as something else. He is impressed to discover that linguistics at least from one point of view is a mathematical discipline. As the linguist, Amy Adams brings, in contrast to the authority of the military and scientific logic of Renner’s character, human emotions. She has the empathy and intelligence to recognize that language is more than simply a matter of words. It involves the need for physical presence--the need for individuals to be able to touch each other in some physical or at least emotional way. The film suggests that language is more than simply an ability to communicate.

Arrival works on the premise that language is a way of thinking with a direct physical effect on the brain. When one learns to speak another language in the deepest possible way, he or she learns to think in that language. When Louise learns to communicate in the alien language, she also learns to think like the aliens. Because their language and their way of thinking involves a non-linear concept of time, there are specific consequences in the plot of the film

The narrative to an extent moves back and forth in time, primarily from scenes involving Louise and her daughter (many of which she is remembering) and scenes in the present time. Louise's memories of her daughter play a role in her developing ability to decipher the alien language. As she advances in her ability to speak that language, she begins to think of time in nonlinear ways, which again has an impact on the plot.

Arrival may offer occasional difficulties in understanding what is going on, but maybe those difficulties are part of its point. Because it is so well-made and the acting is so effective, because of its emotional intelligence, the film justifies the willing suspension of disbelief that its plot requires.

Minor caveats: the physical appearance of the aliens--viewers can make their own decision about this point--and the amount of time it takes Louise to decipher the alien language--it's a nonhuman language, but she's communicating on a basic level in less than six weeks. These are quibbles.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Sausage Party

I gave up on Sausage Party (2016; co-dir. Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon) after 20 minutes. There is a certain novelty in hearing grocery store produce—hotdogs, apples, potatoes, carrots--call each other mother fuckers. It's even more novel when a hot dog and a hotdog bun talk about the prospect of having sex for the first time when they arrive in the “Great Beyond.” But after a while, even with a hot dog, the joke gets old. Although the comedy in this film works mainly on a level that would appeal to 14-year-olds, there is an adult dimension. All the grocery store items long for that moment when someone from the outside world will arrive and put them into a grocery basket and take them out the wide glass front doors of the store to the Great Beyond. The Great Beyond is the afterlife, the hereafter, paradise, Shangri-La, heaven. When a customer accidentally spills groceries out of her cart and has to return a damaged item, one of the returned items--a douche kit-- reveals that the Great Beyond is not heaven but instead death and oblivion. Understandably, this revelation prompts existential angst amongst the vegetables, condiments, and other household products.

Isn't this the notion we’re all living with, that we've been living with all of our lives? We may already believe that the Great Beyond is nothing but oblivion. If we don't believe that, if we believe in heaven, or some other afterlife, don't we also live with the shadow of a suspicion or even more than a shadow that after it's all over with there's nothing but--nothing?

It's easier to contemplate this dark prospect in human terms than in terms of broccoli and carrots.

This film’s philosophical dimension did not compensate for the diminishing novelty of bananas and bottles of ketchup calling each other mother fuckers.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fantastic Planet

In 1972 Fantastic Planet (dir. René Laloux) was an unusual and significant step forward in the development of animated films. It uses muted pastel colors, a limited palette, and stylized, childlike illustrations to portray its characters. The film is about a planet where alien creatures with blue skin and big eyes keep humans as pets. They don’t regard humans as anything more than curiosities, as animals, and they periodically conduct exterminations to reduce the numbers of humans, whom they regard as pests. The humans who are not kept as pets live in settlements outside the alien city and try to escape notice.

It's easy enough to see the potential for allegory here: we can think of our pets, or of the livestock we raise for food. We can think also of race or nationality and how one national or racial group might tend to regard other groups as inferior.

In 2016 this film is more a historical curiosity than anything else. It is slow, and we spend a lot of time watching the humans walking from one place to the other or the aliens doing whatever it is that they do (they meditate a lot, and this is connected to their process of reproduction). This film was made during the age of psychedelia, and certain elements remind me of the Peter Max-style of animation in the film Yellow Submarine (1968; dir. George Dunning), made a few years earlier. There are many scenes of bizarre and fantastic creatures that are imaginatively and amusingly depicted, but which have no pertinence to the central plot.  The film argues that if we could all settle our differences and live together peacefully, everyone would benefit.  Oh that it were so simple.

Monday, December 12, 2016

In the Woods, by Tana French

The virtues of In the Woods (2007), the first novel by Tana French, are many: an intricate plot, compelling narrator, a lush and descriptive prose, narrative momentum and tension, convincing knowledge of the inner workings of law enforcement in Ireland, and so on. The narrator Rob is a detective on the murder squad of the Dublin Police Department. Some 15 years before the present time of the novel, he was one of three children who were victims of a crime in the woods near his hometown. He remembers little of the event, but he was discovered clinging to a tree covered in blood that wasn't his. His two friends, a boy and a girl, were never seen again. The murder that is the focus of this novel involves a 12-year-old girl whose body is discovered on top of a sacrificial altar in the middle of an archaeological dig in the same town where the narrator grew up and where his friends were abducted. With the discovery of the body, both the narrator and the reader begin to wonder whether there is a connection between the crimes.

What Tana French does well in this novel is build a sense of the narrator’s personal history: his past life, his time in a private school where his parents sent him for safety and privacy after the disappearance of his friends, his loss of his Irish accent, and so on. Our narrator is a prime example of an unreliable narrator. He confesses early on that he tells lies, that lies are a part of his job as a detective trying to discover who committed a particular murder: he must, he says, tell lies to get suspects to give up information. It's not until the end that we discover how truly significant his admission is. This unreliable narrator turns out to be an unreliable police detective whose mistakes, incompetence, self-centeredness, and inability to assess his connection to the case result in a psychopath’s being allowed to go free. Having said all this, I haven’t given much away.

I was unhappy when this novel ended because of the narrator's responsibility for botching both the case and his relationship with his partner, and because of the many dimensions of his dishonesty in his interactions with his friends and colleagues. But perhaps that's all a part of the novel’s realism, which colors the action in shades of blame and virtue and evil. There are no sharp dividing lines between the good and the bad, the incompetent and the able.

We have here what I call a diminishing narrator, whose credibility and trustworthiness gradually crumble as the novel progresses. By the end he is pitiable and unlikable. He reminded me of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel Tender is the Night: Dick Diver enters the narrative as an entirely admirable person but by the final chapter he is a moral and physical wreck.

Among the problems I have with this novel: the characterizations of the main detective and narrator Rob and his partner Cassie. The ways they talk and joke and banter and pretend to flirt with each other struck me as unrealistic and unbelievable: a total contrivance, an invention, a ruse, an artifice. Sometimes my skin almost cringed when they joked with each other. I wasn't convinced. Some of the secondary characters are more realistically drawn.

This was a first novel, and perhaps as a result there are occasional missteps. I don't read many murder mysteries: this one was certainly above the average quality of the ones I have read. But it seemed odd to me in this novel where the murder takes place in the middle of an archaeological dig and the detectives determine that the victim was not killed where her body was found but instead was killed somewhere nearby that there's not an immediate search of the buildings on the site of the dig: there are two sheds. The detectives don't get around to searching those sheds until late in the novel. This seemed unlikely.