Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron

William Styron goes further in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness (Random House, 1990William Styron) in conveying the nature of depression than most writers I have encountered.  His own experience with depression made him an authoritative informer.  His abilities as a highly descriptive writer should have enabled him to give an effective account.  And although I‘m not going to say that he isn’t effective, nonetheless there is a distinctive separation between the depression he describes and our ability as reader to know what he is talking about.  What does it mean for the mind to dissolve?  What kind of emotional pain would leave one completely debilitated?  What does it mean to find in one’s life that circumstances have become so hopeless that the only solution is to end life?  (He notes that in his four novels, three main characters commit suicide).  Styron is convincing in his affirmation of his suffering.  He is not self-pitying.  He does not feel sorry for himself.  He seems to have some awareness of the effects of his suffering on the people around him.  But mostly he describes depression as a lonely, isolating, solipsistic darkness.

A depressed individual might well recognize himself in Styron’s account, though he insists that every episode of depression is different.  He offers no consolation for the depressed person, other than to report the fact that most episodes of depression run their course, the sufferer eventually recovering to go on with life, except for the 20% of the most severely depressed, who choose suicide.  It is unhappy to know that, at least in Styron’s experience, medication did not relieve his pain.  It is disheartening to read that psychoanalysis does not often move one towards recovery.  (One psychiatrist told Styron not to talk about his illness because of the social stigma).  Styron sees depression as the result of chemical imbalances in the brain, but he also connects it to childhood trauma of some type, in his case the early death of his mother.

Haruki Murakami’s recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014) gives a wrenching account of depression in its opening pages—similar to Styron’s account but more powerfully convincing.

Friday, March 20, 2015

An Aran Keening, by Andrew McNellie

An Irish friend recommended this book to me, the memoir by a Welsh writer and editor Andrew McNellie of his yearlong stay in Inishmore, of the isles of Aran in the late 1960s.  I have yet to figure out the odd and not particularly pertinent title of the memoir--An Aran Keening (2001, Liliput Press).  There’s no real mourning in the book, no deep preoccupation with anything lost, even though the final pages make clear that loss and deep change have occurred.

As a young man the author wants to immerse himself in the Aran culture, to be isolated and cut off from his own life.  Romantic difficulties might be part of the reason.  So he goes to live on Inishmore.  He tells the people he rents a cottage from there that his wife was unable to come with him, when in fact he is not married at all.  I found it interesting and frustrating to read this book.  The author describes the landscape and the small town and most of all the people of the island where he lives.  But for the most part we never get anywhere.  The author’s self-absorption prevents him from engaging more with the islanders around him.  There’s always a sense of distance between the author and the islanders, and even though he says it is ultimately bridged and removed, we never feel that.  The author is immersed in the culture of Aran, and then after a year with little fanfare he abandons it and returns to the mainland and continues his life.  Is there no after-effect?  No point? No significance to it all?  In the epilogue, he returns to visit Inishmore after 30 years to find how things have changed, how the island has lost its isolation and become something of a tourist spot.

The memoir gives a glimpse, incomplete and scattered, of what life for centuries would have been like in the Aran islands—windswept, isolated, under the constant barrage of winter storms, tales of fishermen lost at sea, nights at the pub. The book is too short and superficial.  We’re tantalized but not satisfied when it’s over with the possibility of what a deeper account might provide.  In some ways the epilogue is the best part of the book.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks

In The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (Summit Books, 1985), Oliver Sacks makes clear how flimsy our hold on reality, on our sense of reality, really is.  Most of us accept the necessity of living with the risk of events that will injure or kill us—automobile accidents, fires, assaults, sudden illness.  I don’t think we are nearly as conscious of the possibility that physical events—stroke, brain infection—will sever or significantly alter our ability to live in and understand the world.

CoverMost of the case studies in this book are of people who were born with brain deficits, or who at an early age suffered a disease such as encephalitis that left their brains damaged.  One man cannot remember events after 1945—he has no short-term memory; a pair of twins are mathematical savants who can calculate 10 digit prime numbers in their heads even though they have IQs of 60; a severely damaged man can draw images with skill; a woman dying from brain cancer is overwhelmed with visions of serenity as the disease slowly eats away at her personality; a woman loses her ability to understand the concept of “left”—she cannot process what she sees with her left eye, she cannot use her left hand, she cannot even turn to the left—the left doesn’t exist for her; another women loses her sense of connection to her own body—to move her limbs, she has to look at and think about moving them—her body becomes in essence a machine that she can control but to which she feels no connection.  The list of afflictions goes on.

Sacks’ book makes clear that our connection to reality, our sense of it, and even, in effect, reality itself, is a physiological function, a brain function.  I thought of the James Dickey poem "Pursuit from Under" in which the poet imagines himself walking on the arctic ice, looking down to see the killer whale that is stalking him beneath the ice.  This is a metaphor for the constant presence of the possibility of death, of non-existence.  In Sack’s book it is the brain whose malfunction can dissolve reality, our world, our identity, entirely.

Sacks writes in a style that is somewhat aimed towards the layperson but that is also clearly the prose style of a doctor.  He makes frequent reference to other neurologists and to studies of the brain and employs terms that are specific to the discipline of neurology.  Oddly, he uses terms such as retardate, moron, simpleton, dullard.  I suppose in the field of neurology they have specific meaning while in common parlance they are unacceptable 

Sacks writes with great compassion for his patients even while he regards them in the most clinical and detached way.  In each of his patients, he looks for humanity, and he seems to feel that the health industry and society’s tendency to institutionalize people with extreme brain deficits, or to assume they are incapable of living a normal life, overlooks what they are capable of in many cases—personal fulfillment and satisfaction, even of use to the human community.

The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand

Many portions of this book were interesting.  The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand (Flamingo, 2001), traces the development of key ideas in American intellectual life from just before the Civil War to the first several decades of the 20th century.  I was especially interested in his account of the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution on American thinkers, the abolitionist movement, the development of pragmatism (to an extent), and the philosophy of John Dewey.  I found the book most fascinating in its account of the (mostly) men behind these ideas.  Several figures especially emerged—Louis Agassiz, who played a major role in the development of the fields of geology and anthropology and whose ideas on race (he was obsessed with proving African Americans as biologically inferior) were deplorable, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce (more interesting for his lifestyle than for his thought—he is portrayed as brilliant but never quite able to get his ideas down into essays and books in finished and cohesive form).

The Metaphysical Club is well written, wide ranging, willing to wander off on rewarding tangents, and, too often boring, especially in the latter half where we encounter dense discussions of competing philosophical ideas.  (I spent too much time eager to reach the final page).  I credit Menand for not beginning with preconceptions or received wisdom.  Contrary to popular opinion, many abolitionists did not believe in racial equality (a few did; many did not).  He portrays the leading figures in his narrative three dimensionally, not as icons but as thinking men whose ideas develop over time and who could sometimes be wholly wrong headed.  Menand treats these figures as participants in an evolving and developing American intellectual culture, men who gradually moved away from venerated traditions towards a more modern view of the world, of ideas, of philosophy which is contingent and ungrounded in absolutes.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Whiplash

I don’t enjoy stories or films about abusive teachers.  Maybe the fact that I am a teacher makes this a sensitive topic for me.  But I don’t think there is any excuse for tyranny in the teacher-student relationship.  The film Whiplash might be seen to condone such abuse for the cause of higher art.  A despotic teacher tyrannizes an aspiring percussionist—he yells, throws objects, shames, humiliates, and physically abuses.  Members of the band he conducts are terrified by him, yet they put up with him in hopes of being discovered—of getting the big break that will give them entry into the music industry—and their teacher constantly holds up this possibility in front of them.

Fletcher is the teacher—J. K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor for this portrayal.  His student is Andrew, played by Miles Teller.  Fletcher’s abusive nature is equaled, perhaps, by Andrew’s ambition to be a great drummer.  He practices until his hands are bloody.  He breaks up with his girlfriend because, he tells her, she will get in the way of his ambitions.  He does nothing but practice and as Fletcher goads and shames and tempts him with the first position among percussionists in his band, he drives himself towards a breakdown.  When he oversleeps on the day of an important competition, he drives recklessly towards the rehearsal room where he is supposed to be, wrecks the car, arrives injured and bleeding, only to be ejected by Fletcher for his tardiness.  A fight ensues.  It is difficult to feel much sympathy for Andrew, who is headed towards becoming some a version of Fletcher.

This film’s conclusion tempts us to believe that, after all, abusive tyrannizing and hyperactive ambitions are justified in the name of art.  Abuse your students.  Isolate and deny yourself.  Nothing else matters.  Art justifies all.  Not so.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Nightcrawler

Louis Bloom, the main character in Nightcrawler (2014; dir Dan Gilroy), played by Jake Gyllenhaal, has the classic traits that I associate with psychopaths. He absolutely lacks in empathy. He's singleminded in pursuit of his ambition to become known, wealthy, and successful. He walks with a curiously stiff gait, in short steps, holding his arms flat against the sides of his body. His state is focused and without emotion. He exploits people without guilt or even awareness that he is exploiting them.  He shows personal interest in one person, the news team leader Nina Romina played by Rene Russo, and part of the reason is that she is much like him.  Another part of the reason is that she is his avenue to success—she can buy the footage he takes of accident scenes throughout the city. Gyllenhaal’s character was not merely unlikeable.  It made me deeply uncomfortable to watch him and his treatment of other human beings.

Louis is entirely self-created.  After watching two videographers film the scene of a car wreck and learning that tv stations will buy video footage for money, he buys equipment with the proceeds of stolen goods and starts filming.  He is fearless and puts himself and his assistant at risk.  To rid himself of a competing team of videographers, he cuts cables in their car so that they have a wreck.  He reaches the point of arranging crime scenes so that he can film them.  In the end, he sets his own assistant up to be shot dead, all so that he can film the event.

Such verminous figures prowl the landscape of our nation in numerous guises and forms.  The idea that they can, as they often do, go free is not encouraging.  It doesn’t make for a rewarding film either.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Skeleton Road, by Val McDermid

Well written, with a three-dimensional and richly detailed exposition, embedded in the historical milieu of the Serbo-Croatian war of the 1990s, concerned with issues of mass murder, ethnic cleansing, sectional hostilities, with an interesting parallel between Scotland and Serbia, by all reckoning The Skeleton Road (2014; Val McDermid) should be a successful novel.  It left me cold.  A few of the characters, the professor of geography and the Croatian war hero Mitja Petrovic, were larger than life.  The intentionally diminished characters, especially the British detective Macanespie and primarily the Scottish detective Jane Pirie, were the most interesting.  If the novel had centered on Pirie more than it did, it might have been more of a success.  But it lacked something.

The first ominous sign is the fact that all the primary characters have distinctive two word names—Jane Pirie, Maggie Blake, Phil Parhatka, Tessa Minoque, etc.  For whatever reason, this immediately established for me an artificial and contrived narrative.  Then there are the parallel competing plots.  Then there is the opening scene, in which occurs a murder the solution to which becomes the justification for practically all the characters and events in the novel. There is the character who emerges late in the story as the mole and the murderer whom everyone is tracking.  There’s the final confrontation—predictable and formulaic—between the murderer and her adversary.  It’s formula.  Well executed, but formula. 

McDermid has a knack for developing minor characters.  Her most compelling characters are the ones who do not immediately fall into a glamorous mold.  Jane Pirie is interesting precisely because she doesn’t immediately seem to have the physical beauty, wealth, and brilliance that such characters as Maggie Blake or Tessa possess.  McDermid’s ability to develop an interesting and finally compelling character from a commonplace background is impressive.  For me, one of the most impressive characters in the novel was Pirie’s sidekick, the “Mint,” whom Pirie at first loathes as dimwitted, but who gradually develops into a figure who, if not brilliant, feels deeply and shows his loyalty to Pirie in various significant if unremarkable ways.  Both these characters seem real, far more so than do Maggie or Tessa or Mitja Petrovic.

As I advance in years (I suppose this could be called gaining in wisdom or deteriorating in mental capacity—the reader may choose) I have less tolerance for shallow or sloppy or half-ass or self-indulgent writing.  The novel Glow, mentioned in an earlier post, was not a bad book.  It was well written and in some ways creative, but in the end I couldn’t see the point.  It was just an exercise in good writing and technique, not literature.  I thought Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch was, at times, entertaining, and at other times impressive, but in the end it left me empty—it substituted the pyrotechnics of Tartt’s undeniably interesting and wide-ranging mind and her ability to write endless pages of narrative for art.  I’m sure she thought her book was art.  I certainly couldn’t have written it.  I couldn’t have written The Skeleton Road.  I appreciate what both Tartt and McDermid accomplish in their novels.  But they seem more an ordeal than a literary experience.

One major subplot is dropped, unresolved at the end of the novel.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Glow, by Neil Beaumann

Glow (2015), by Ned Beauman, is about the entanglement of the industry that designs and manufactures illegal drugs with freedom fighters and multinational corporations.  By standard definitions, those who manufacture illegal drugs are criminals.  In this novel, we deal not only with those criminals but with criminals who go to any lengths to promote and protect the interests of international corporations.  This interesting novel did not at first grab me, but eventually I found myself engaged.  I stayed up late reading, and then, at some point, my interest waned. 

Several of the leading characters in Glow are experts not only in the manufacture of drugs but also in the anatomy of the brain and of the chemicals and neurological processes affected by drugs meant to excite the brain for purposes of producing pleasure.  We’re much exposed in this novel to the chatter of these characters about the brain’s anatomy, and after a time the chatter becomes as tiresome as discussions about sports or about how to build a deck.  It doesn’t sustain the novel.

There are many mysteries here involving the nature of the white vans that cruise throughout London, kidnapping Burmese citizens, and about strangely behaving foxes.  There’s a beautiful young woman named Cherish with whom the main character Raf falls in love.  There’s a missing friend.  The plot rapidly thickens.  I found it increasingly difficult to follow the thickening tangle of events.  Is this my fault or the novel’s? 

One interesting device the writer employs is that of introducing a secondary character who then proceeds to tell a long story about himself or about someone he knows, and this provides information of importance to the general plot of the novel.  Such a device should seem artificial or contrived, but for the most part it works.  Glow is well written and intelligent, and every few pages the writer manages to trot out a new word—a word so unfamiliar that I had to look it up—and this should have been more of a distraction than it was.  There’s a cleverness in how this novel interweaves competing concepts and ideas—sometimes excessive cleverness.

Friday, February 20, 2015

John Wick

In The Equalizer (2014; dir. Antoine Fuqua) a former highly skilled assassin emerges from retirement partially induced by the death of the woman he loved to combat Russian mobsters.  In John Wick (2014; dir. Chad Stahelski) a former highly skilled assassin in mourning over his lover’s death emerges from retirement to combat Russian mobsters.  It is not that one film has copied the other.  The idea of a retired assassin lured from retirement by personal affront or moral outage is an attractive plotline.  Even more so when the assassin is so skilled that there is little reason to doubt that he will succeed in defeating adversaries.  One difference between these two films is production values.  John Wick is competently made and tightly executed, but The Equalizer is a more artful film, with better acting (Denzel Washington), cinematography, and a more compelling backstory.  When the head Russian crime lord learns that his son has stupidly stolen John Wick’s car, killed his dog, and beaten him up, he groans because he knows from past experience that if John Wick decides to seek revenge, nothing will stop him.  In effect, that moment strips the film of dramatic tension—John Wick will win.  The film thus proceeds to show how John Wick does what he does.  There is much shooting and mayhem. Russian mobsters die left and right.  Even though the film begins with a scene in which John Wick, badly wounded in a deserted parking lot, passes out, thereby suggesting his death, as the film makes its way forward we come to suspect that even this scene will be followed by another in which John gets back up and moves on.  We are not disappointed.  John Wick depends for whatever success it achieves on two factors: one is that we in the audience enjoy watching evildoers destroyed; the other is that we relish violence of every sort, especially when we can delude ourselves into believing that violence that serves moral retribution is somehow violence justified. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Shadows in the Night, by Bob Dylan

After a long career of highly creative music that had a major impact on American popular culture and that as artistic expression will likely last for centuries, Bob Dylan has earned the privilege of his eccentricities.  We should be willing to indulge them, occasionally.  I knew of his fondness for Sinatra from his memoir Chronicles, volume 1, and in a number of recent albums he has written songs in the Tin Pan Alley style.  I think especially of “Beyond the Horizon” on Modern Times, which sounds like a Bing Crosby Hawaiian tune, and of the entirety of Christmas in the Heart, a part-serious, part tongue-in-cheek tribute to the American popular Christmas music tradition.  No one could have grown up when Dylan did and escaped the influence of the music that people listened to in those years.

The songs on Shadows in the Night (2015) are well performed, and it is interesting to hear Dylan put his imprint on works that Sinatra sang but that we don’t normally associate with him.  I’ve read commentaries about how Dylan comes across in these songs as emotional and vulnerable, about how the album really works and is fun and listenable.  The reviews, in fact, have been strongly positive.  There’s no doubt that in performing these songs Dylan seriously puts his heart into them.

From my standpoint, these songs weren’t written for Dylan’s voice.  The Dylan I respect and admire is a writer of songs, an interpreter of his own music.  He’s the masterful creator of Highway 61 Revisited, “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Cold Irons Bound,” Love and Theft, “I'm Not There,” and so many others.  If I recorded an album like this one, no one would listen to it, except perhaps my embarrassed family.  I couldn’t convince anyone to record it, unless I paid to have it made.  Dylan has a band, he has the financial resources, he has the reputation to persuade people to listen to whatever he records and produces.  (I will listen to anything he records.)  Now he has produced Shadows in the Night.  I have listened to it repeatedly, attempting to “get” what he is doing. But I can’t. I hope he’s got it out of his system.

The Children, by David Halberstam

The Children, by David Halberstam (Random House, 1998) is organized in chapters focused on the important participants in the sit-ins that began in Nashville in 1960.  The important participants in these events, such as Diane Nash and John Lewis, went on to become leading figures in the civil rights actions of the early 1960s.  Halberstam tends to devote one chapter at a time to these individuals, moving back and forth among them, so that we come to understand and appreciate them as participants in as well as leaders of the movement.

The account of young college students who came from various backgrounds, some of them privileged, some not, is a tremendous story.  In ways that few people their age today can imagine, they put their lives at risk, opposing a deeply engrained way of life that others were willing to fiercely, even violently, protect.  Their persistence and courage, their deep belief in nonviolence, changed America.

For many of these students, the high point of their lives was their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.  Afterwards many of them discovered they had suffered trauma, the equivalent of traumatic stress syndrome, from which it took years to recover.  Some went on to productive lives in politics, medicine, education, while others drifted.  Halberstam traces the arc of their lives and careers in detail.

Diane Nash, whom previously I knew little about, was a beautiful, intelligent young women who dropped out of college to work in the movement.  She held important leadership and administrative positions, playing as important a role as many of the males.  Unfortunately, as was typical of the times, she did not always receive full credit for her contributions.

James Bevel, who for a short time was married to Nash, was a fiercely independent and iconoclastic figure.  Unlike many members in the Movement, who were willing to discuss their plans and negotiate and compromise before reaching consensus, Bevel believed his way was always the right one.  He was difficult to work with as a result.  Martin Luther King was particularly wary of him.  However, his fierce courage in the face of the worst forms of adversity made a major contribution.  He became an anti-war activist later in the 60s and drifted away from many other members of the Movement. Late in life he allied himself with the Unification Church and Reverend Sun Myung-Moon.

Above all others, the figure who stands out is John Lewis.  Although I knew of his participation in the Selma march, I was unaware of the important role he played in the Nashville sit-ins, and in the formulation of the nonviolent tactics of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.  He comes across as the most devoted and deeply invested member of the group.  He is a genuinely heroic American figure.

Marion Barry, like Lewis, came out of difficult surroundings in Alabama to participate in the Nashville civil rights actions. He held leadership positions during college on the NAACP and later for SNCC.  When he enters politics in Washington, DC, gradually rising to the position of mayor, he suffers gradual personal deterioration and becomes the center of political corruption.  Drug abuse, alcohol, sex, and money all brought him down.  His second term as mayor ended in a jail sentence.  He was soon after elected again to the city council and then again to the mayor’s position.

The book is too long and should have been compressed.  There are too many instances of repetitious information, of accounts being repeated.  This is by no means a fatal flaw, but it does make for slow going at points.  Especially in the final chapters, Halberstam spends too much time spinning out the lives of the various participants after the Civil Rights years are over.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

The Circle (Knopf, 2013), by Dave Eggers, is a latter-day version of 1984.  A company like Google and Facebook develops technology with which it collects information about everybody everywhere in the world.  It manufactures inexpensive but highly effective cameras and places them everywhere.  It pressures politicians to wear the cameras around their necks (this is called becoming transparent) so that their behavior is visible to anyone in the world.  The result is elimination of political corruption.  It places cameras in family homes, around the necks of family members, and thereby eliminates spousal and child abuse.  In public places, the cameras eliminate crime.

In the company called The Circle employees are expected to share information about everything they’re doing, and they’re expected to comment on the activities of others in the company—to send them “smiles” as a sign of approval.  “Sharing” becomes not merely a voluntary expression but mandatory, a way of life.  The main character of this novel, Mae Holland, is criticized by her supervisor early in her work for the company when she goes kayaking alone and doesn’t post about it to the company web site.  In this regard “The Circle” is much like Facebook, but while in Facebook one’s sharing of information is entirely voluntary, the Circle requires it.

The Circle describes how the company develops and grows and eventually takes over the world.  There isn’t much tension in the narrative.  A few people resist the expansion of the Circle, but for the most part it grows without opposition.  Therefore the novel lacks tension, suspense, and in the end a degree of interest. 

One problem is the main character Mae.  She lacks fiber, substance.  She graduates from college and goes to work for a utilities company, where she is unhappy.  She asks her friend Annie, who has a high-level job in the Circle, to help her find a place there.  Once she joins the Circle, she exhibits little will, virtually no awareness or concern about the all-seeing ambitions of the company, and in the end becomes a primary agent of its ubiquity.  She becomes the company’s first transparent employee, and then becomes its spokesperson, speaking to the millions of Circle followers as its transparent public face. Her ambition, combined with her narcissistic vacuity, makes her a fairly exasperating and unsympathetic character.  Her blindness to the needs of her parents, and her treatment of her former boyfriend, make her unlikeable.  But this is part of Eggers’ point, I think.  Individualism, privacy, one’s inner life—these all disappear in the Circle. He is worried they will disappear from our contemporary world as well.

One must admire the message in The Circle but not its presentation.  One expects some sort of dramatic showdown between the rapidly expanding Circle and a mysterious man who appears periodically, warning Mae of the dangers of the Circle. She never learns his name, even when they have sex, and we know that in some way he is an important figure.  When we finally learn who he is, as if we haven’t quite guessed already, it is a letdown.  For some inexplicable reason, he believes Mae can put a stop to the Circle if only she will inform her followers of how dangerous it has become.  The novel putters to a stop, and the Circle reigns supreme.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Lucy

The trailer for Lucy contains all of its worthwhile moments.  The trailer also bears little resemblance to the film.  The title refers to the main character, played by Scarlett Johansson, and also to the name given to the remains of the ancient australopithecine ancestor of humankind uncovered in Ethiopia in 1973.  Evolutionary leaps, with nods to Michelangelo, 2001, and E.T., are what this film would like to be about.

Premise: Asian drug lords force a young woman to be an unwilling mule for a drug they want to smuggle internationally.  When she is kicked in the stomach, the drug, a powerful artificial growth hormone, leaks into her body.  As a result, she develops unusual abilities, and her body begins using previously unutilized portions of her brain, so that she becomes physically powerful, hyper-intelligent, can manipulate matter, and travel through time.

Here is what Lucy (2014; dir. Luc Besson) has going for it: Morgan Freeman, mainly his voice; Johansson herself, passive and beautiful; special effects—they’re actually good, although there are few opportunities to put them on display; the director, who in The Fifth Element (1996) showed a few skills. 

There are neutral elements: Asian drug peddlers, many of them, in great abundance. Why Asians? What statement is made here, intentionally or not? Also, Paris. It has little bearing on the central plot, but it is picturesque, especially the Eiffel Tower.  We can’t have Paris without the Eiffel Tower. And it diverts our attention from other elements, such as black goo merging with computers.
What pulls this movie down to abject and craven failure? The screenplay, which is preposterous, illogical, superficial, incoherent, and silly. 

Whom do we fault?: the screenwriter, the producers, the director (who should have rejected the screenplay), the actors (ditto), and anyone else who had anything to do with the film. 

Let us give due credit to the makers of the trailer.

Selma

Selma (2014; dir. Ava DuVernay) features as main characters people who actually lived and who in some cases are still alive.  I lived through and paid much attention to the Civil Rights movements and its leaders.  I know the faces of M. L. King, Ralph David Abernathy, Andrew Young, Hosea Williams, John Lewis, and others.  It was jarring in this film to see these figures played by actors who at best only slightly resembled them.  I often struggled to identify them.  This was a distraction, but not something the film could help.  Eventually I recognized that the actor in overalls was Hosea Williams and that the man with thick-rimmed glasses played Abernathy.  David Oyelowo’s work as King is excellent, and especially in the speeches he made he became a convincing simulacrum of the original.

Selma powerfully depicts the events leading up to and surrounding the march on Selma.  It’s clear, I think, that one of the purposes of the film is to remind viewers of the sacrifices and risks made by the many participants in the movement, and to pay tribute to its leaders.  The movie presents them as heroes, and that is what they were.  But it also portrays them as human beings.

The film’s intelligence is reflected both in the three-dimensional portrayals of King and his wife Coretta and in how it shows King and others in the movement strategically planning the Selma march in order to bring the greatest amount of national attention.  King is shown both as determined and hesitant, and when during the second march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge he pauses and then turns back, he receives much criticism from his supporters.  This moment of apparent retreat is never fully explained.  We hear various people attempt to understand it.  King himself tries to explain it as the result of his concern for the people who might be injured if the gathered police decide to attack.  Most importantly this moment contributes to the humanity and mystery of King as he is portrayed in the film.  He is rightly regarded as a man of moral vision—we see this aspect clearly--but the film also shows him also as a politician and a strategist.  It also shows him as a husband and father.  A short scene in the film alludes to his affairs with women, and to the unhappiness this caused in his marriage to Coretta.  It shows as well his anxieties over the welfare of his family, especially given how his leadership in the movement made him a target for violence.

Several scenes show the brutal abuse of Civil Rights protestors by white Southerners.  The central scene is in the first march on the Pettus bridge, where police and gathered white crowds viciously attached the marchers.  John Lewis’ skull was cracked.  We see several murders and are told about others.  It was painful to watch these scenes and tempting to view them as exaggerations.  However, newsreel footage, photographs, and numerous reports from bystanders and participants make clear that these portrayals of violence and hate are accurate. 

Malcolm X briefly appears in the film.  He played a small role in the events surrounding the Selma march, and his inclusion was probably a gratuitous acknowledgement of a man who was King’s leading critic among African Americans during the early years of the 1960s, and whose activism represented an alternative approach to the nonviolent tactics of King’s strategy for working towards civil rights.

There are historical inaccuracies in the film.  Many of them may be minor, but the portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson is a significant misrepresentation.  Johnson was responsible for pushing both the Civil Rights bill and the Voting Rights act of 1965 through Congress.  He was not an opponent of voting rights.  At worst he and King differed over the timing of the bill.  By the time of the events the film portrays, Johnson had already called for a voting rights bill to be drafted.  Recordings and transcripts of public and private conversations and comments make clear his support for the voting rights bill. Selma makes out Johnson to be the opponent who must be convinced by the Selma march of the bill’s necessity.  In fact, Johnson needed no convincing.  Another issue is the omission of the 1964 Freedom Summer project, including the murders in Mississippi of three civil right workers.  Those events together with the efforts of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation to be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention did as much as the Selma March to galvanize support for the voting rights act and to bring about its passage.[1]

Although these are serious flaws, especially given the focus on a crucial moment in the Civil Rights movement, they do not ruin the film, which is a dramatic, inspiring, and moving tribute to King and other leaders of the movement.


[1] For various opinions see Elizabeth Drew, “’Selma’ vs. History,” The New York Review of Books, Jan. 8, 2015, http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jan/08/selma-vs-history/; Ann Hornaday, “Film fact-checking is here to stay,” The Washington Post, Jan. 3, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/film-fact-checking-is-here-to-stay-so-lets-agree-on-some-new-rules/2015/01/02/9698f87c-92a6-11e4-ba53-a477d66580ed_story.html; Amy Davidson, “Why ‘Selma’ is More than Fair to L.B.J.,” The New Yorker, Jan. 22, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/news/amy-davidson/selma-fair-l-b-j; Bill Moyer, “Bill Moyers on LBJ and ‘Selma,’” http://billmoyers.com/2015/01/15/bill-moyers-selma-lbj/; Dee Lockett, “How Accurate is Selma?,” Slate, Dec. 24, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/24/selma_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_ava_duvernay_s_new_movie_is_to_the_1965_marches.html 

 

 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Silver Linings Playbook

In Silver Linings Playbook (2012; dir. David O. Russell) four main characters carry the film.  Jacki Weaver is excellent as the worried and sometimes frightened mother who gets her bipolar son released early from the mental institution where he has been under treatment for six months.  The look in her eyes makes clear that she doesn’t know what to expect of him (and of her husband, played by Robert De Niro) from one moment to the next.  Bradley Cooper as the explosively bipolar Pat, and Jennifer Lawrence as Tiffany, hyperactive and depressed over the death of her husband, are excellent.  Without these characters, the hackneyed plot would be more evident—a young man who must recover from adversity and prove his worth; a young woman quietly seeking the attention of a man who often doesn’t seem to know she exists; two young people who are meant for each other but who first have to realize the fact.

Cooper is convincing as the young man struggling to recover and regain his equilibrium.  But Lawrence was the best element in the film.  She’s absolutely convincing.  She brings an intensity and credibility to the role that makes us wonder how close to life it is.

This comic romance, with all its charms (and I did enjoy it) depends on our willingness to laugh at the difficulties and mishaps of the mentally ill.  Part of our interest in Pat lies in our uncertainty about what he is going to do next—his fits of temper, his bursts of outrage (he is outraged when he gets to the end of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and wakes his parents at 2:30 in the morning to throw a fit).  His wife has taken out a restraining order against him.  In the first half of the film he is constantly on the verge of doing something that will get him sent back to the institution.  All these episodes and outbursts are funny and entertaining.  But my sense is that for those in mental and emotional distress, they are not so funny.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown

1936 Olympics Crew Gold MedalThis novelistic approach in The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, by Daniel James Brown (Viking 2013), to the story of how the 1936 University of Washington crew team won the Olympics gold medal uses a novelistic approach that left me wary.  Brown describes the main figures of his story in detail, recounts their speech, tells us what they are thinking.  Clearly some inventive license is taken.  Yet his research notes and his account of his sources make clear that in writing the book he drew from letters, diaries, published articles, interviews with some of the characters and with their relatives in other cases, journal entries, newspaper articles, meteorological records, and historical studies. Detailed notes are included at the end of the book, and the author indicates his web site will list 1,000 endnotes (they were listed as “coming soon” when I checked).

Brown develops the book around the character of Joe Rantz, whose hard life as a Washington native made him an unlikely candidate for a crew team.  He tried out for the team in an effort to find an activity that would help pay his way through college.

Other important characters are Joe’s girlfriend and future wife Joyce, his coach Al Ulbrickson, and the man who builds the “shells” on which the team races, George Pocock.  Statements by Pocock serve as introductory epigrams for each chapter.  They document his view of crew as a way of life, as a philosophical approach to living, an art.  The epigrams make him the Zen master of this book, which is as much about perseverance and dedication to a craft as it is about victory in a competition. 

The Boys in the Boat is a book in the vein of the Lauren Hillenbrand books on Seabiscuit and Louis Zamperini.  Hillenbrand is effective at embedding her stories in the larger history of the times.  Brown tries the same approach, and to some extent succeeds.  However, he seems to force the issue a bit by trying to tie the story of the crew team members to the Dust Bowl and Depression, and this is not wholly convincing.  He’s more convincing in his portrayal of the economic differences between the mostly working class University of Washington team and the upper class teams from the East—Harvard, Yale, and so on.

Photo credit: Univ. of Washington

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It, by David Wong/Jason Pargin

I have to credit This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It (2012), by Jason Pargin (under the name of David Wong), for inventiveness.  It’s a follow-up to John Dies at the End (2001), which features the same two main characters: stoner dudes who take a drug at a party that gives them access to alternative dimensions and brings them in contact with all sorts of disturbing creatures and beings.  With this premise the author has free license—he can have anything happen in the book, and it does.  In this second book, we begin with a scene in which one of the characters wakes up in his bedroom to a spider-like creature that is crawling up his leg.  In short order, his house is on fire, a policeman has been taken over by the creature, and all sorts of apocalyptic carnage occurs.  The characters move back and forth in their town through portals that take them instantaneously to different locations.  I don’t usually enjoy books like this one, but because of the two main characters, the fantastic situations they get themselves into, the unlikely ways they get out of trouble, and the author’s skill at building suspense and contriving bizarre and horrific situations, I was hooked.  This book features a detective who drives a Porsche and is focused on being cool. He starts out as the nemesis of our two heroes, but ends up as their ally.  It also features a literal deus ex machina, though in cardboard form. We have an interesting Labrador named Molly, and all examples of monsters, inter-dimensional beings, and secret government agencies.  By the time it’s all over, I was exhausted and looking forward to the next book.

The Giver

The Giver is a teenage novel by Lois Lowry that I have not read.  Whatever its faults and strengths, it deserves a better film adaptation than the one provided in 2014 by director Phillip Noyce.  The film portrays a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world in which the surviving members of humanity live in a community engineered to avoid conflict or inequality or unhappiness.  When babies are born they are assigned to parents.  Old people and, presumably, the sick, are remanded to a place euphemistically named “Elsewhere.”  So too are people who don’t fit in.  Everyone takes medication to suppress emotions, such as love.  Love is all there is in this sappy film.  Students attend school and when they graduate are assigned jobs: drone pilot, child bearer, etc.  Our lead character Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is assigned to be a “Giver,” who carries the memories of everyone in the community, who knows what many do not know.  His mentor is played by Jeff Bridges, like Jonas a person who doesn’t quite fit, and who understands the real nature of the community, where love is suppressed, where rebels and the sick and the old are euthanized.  Well, once Jonas learns the truth about the community, he sets out to set things right.  The incredible amount of hooey and hoopla in this film prevents it from having to meet any standards of logic or even narrative coherence.  Jeff Bridges in particular speaks as if his mouth is full of pebbles, or as if he has just been to the dentist.  Meryl Streep, as the Chief Elder of the community, is severe and distant and autocratic and wholly bland and one wonders exactly what compelled her or Bridges to appear in this film.  The whole effort seems half-hearted and sloppy, as if no one thought it worthwhile to write a script that made sense or had continuity.

Child of God

James Franco may take the literary texts he has adapted into films too seriously.  His adaptation of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (2013) was interesting and, I thought, an admirable and creative attempt to render the novel into film.  Faulkner’s novel is primarily a series of internal monologues by his characters, fifteen of them.  In the film, Franco uses voiceovers, camera angles, various cinematographic ploys, and split screens to convey the inner lives and the poetic prose of the novel.  To some extent he succeeds in the effort, but to another extent he fails.  While the novel to me is intensely interesting and psychologically immersive, the film at times seems inert and lifeless.  Certain key scenes, most significantly the attempt of the Bundren family to cross a flooded river, fall flat.  But in general I felt the film was an authentic effort to convey intense literary experience in cinematic form.

It’s clear that Franco admires Cormac McCarthy’s 1973 novel Child of God, another novel that largely centers on a character’s internal life.  Franco preserves the essential structure of the novel and relies on voiceover commentary by members of the community where the action occurs to establish the basic focus on Lester Ballard. It has been a while since I read the novel, but my sense is that Franco is doing something different with McCarthy’s novel in the film than he did with Faulkner’s.  While I thought Franco was trying to translate Faulkner’s novel to film, preserving the essential aspects of the narrative, here I think he is using McCarthy’s novel as a source for a film that in some ways tells a different story.  The film is mainly what I want to consider here.  In tone it is significantly different from the novel.  Our sense of the main character is significantly different. We never see him at all in the novel—we hear people talk about him and we see the world from within his head—in the film, we see him constantly.  As often as we see him, as the camera follows him in doing what he does, we never get inside his head (although we may speculate about what’s going on there).  The film’s intensely visual depiction of Lester Ballard portrays him as a physically and mentally defective hillbilly degenerate, the kind of depraved stereotype who creeps up on the cars of necking teenagers on remote country roads we might encounter in folktales and films from the 1950s and 1960s (the story of “the claw” comes to mind—does anyone remember it)?  Lester is an extreme variation on some of the characters who terrorize the Yankee teenagers in 200 Maniacs.  Even though what Ballard does in the novel—kill women, have sex with their bodies, hide their bodies in a cave) is horrendous and depraved, because much of our knowledge of Ballard comes from within his own consciousness, we don’t immediately view him as a monster.  He is, after all, a child of God, and the novel challenges us to see him that way, in addition to seeing him also as an insane killer.  For all that he is, we’re compelled to see cause and effect, and we’re compelled to consider his humanity.  Given its subject, that the novel would make this demand of its reader in itself is remarkable, and one could argue that the novel goes too far in this regard.  Franco’s film doesn’t toy with our views of Ballard.  From the beginning—from how he behaves and talks, to how he holds his jaw, the uneven cast of his eyes, his slurred and often unrecognizable speech, we see him as mentally challenged and as potentially psychopathological from the beginning.    

The pacing of the film is uneven.  Ballard wanders back and forth across Tennessee farmlands, spies on the man who bought his father’s farm, and not all these scenes have a point.  In an early scene, we see Ballard defecate in the woods and then wipe himself with a stick—what’s the point of this other than to suggest his primitive savagery?  I didn’t see the need for this scene at all, by the way.  He goes into a town and buys a red dress for one of his victims and the young girl who waits on him—with his smelly clothes, his dirty and haggard appearance, his inarticulate speech—seems not to think anything is unusual about him.  Does she have customers like him every day?  (Others in the community, especially the sheriff, are very aware of what is unusual about him).

It’s difficult even in McCarthy’s novel to accept the meaning of the title—that Ballard is after all one of God’s children, marginalized, orphaned, abandoned, driven by bad genes and change in the circumstances of his own life and in the changing conditions of his world to become what he becomes.  In the end, perhaps, though we as readers want to maintain a great distance between Ballard and ourselves, though we want to be sure he doesn’t roam free to do what he does, we come to understand something about him.  In Franco’s film this moment doesn’t come—the resolution of the film differs substantially from the resolution of the novel, and as Ballard wanders across an empty field proud of himself for eluding his former captors, what we’re supposed to think or feel—other than confusion and disgust—is just never clear. Ballard remains a monster.

The rollicking bluegrass music that accompanies parts of the film, especially the opening scenes, doesn’t seem appropriate to the content.

Into the Woods


In most musicals music matters more than story.  Such is the case with Into the Woods (2014; dir. Rob Marshall), where Stephen Sondheim’s songs are mature, thoughtful, deeply emotional and philosophical commentaries on the differences between romantic ideals and realities, fantasies and disillusion.  Most films based on musical plays, at least the films that I’ve seen, don’t work very well.  Stage plays are designed and conceived for stages, and transforming them into films often doesn’t succeed.  Into the Woods largely does work.  The director doesn’t hide the stage origins of the film, which largely takes place on sets that preserve the artifice of staged productions.  The one time in the film when I felt that this approach faltered was with the appearance of a giant.
Into the Woods interweaves a series of familiar childhood fairy tales.  They become the pretext for a series of excellent Sondheim songs that are entertaining and fun.  The second half of the film replaces romantic fantasy with reality.  A wife becomes bored with her husband, a formerly charming prince turns out to be a deceiver, a main character accidentally dies, and everyone makes a series of choices—individually they seem minor moments of deceit—that lead to disaster.  The songs in the film’s second half are about what it’s like to live in a world turned to dross, where dreams that once came true have vanished into nothing. 

The best actor in the film, not surprisingly, is Meryl Steep, as a witch.  We can joke about how often she’s been nominated for best actress, but if she’s nominated this time, it will be deservingly.  Also excellent in the film is Anna Kendrick, as Cinderella.