Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier

The title of Kevin Brockmeier's novel refers to an unnamed city that serves as a way station for those who have recently died. They suddenly find themselves in the city, by means that are unique for each person, and they live there for decades, only to disappear suddenly and without warning. Where they go, if they go anywhere, is unknown. People in the city know they are dead, and they remember the "real" world they have recently left. They can even deduce certain factors governing the links between the two worlds. They wonder over sudden fluctuations in the city's population, sudden influxes of massive numbers of people, the disappearance of equally large numbers. The city mysteriously expands and shrinks in response to the number of inhabitants.

Life in the city of the dead goes on just as it did in the real world. People have jobs, relationships, problems, and so on. Husbands and wives, parents and children, are reunited, though soon enough again, as people inevitably disappear, they are parted.

This is the premise of Brockmeier's novel. He develops it in a full and imaginative way. The novel is infused with melancholy, and though the prose is spare and economical, in ways the novel reminds one of Poe (especially of the poem "The City in the Sea"). Once it gets going, the novel fluctuates in focus between the city of the dead and certain individuals in the "real" world.

The novel is a fiction, of course, a fantasy. It's also a meditation on mortality, the possibility (or impossibility) of an afterlife, on the perishable nature of our civilized world, on our propensity towards self-destruction. Insofar as the author builds a credible and even conceivable afterlife, the novel is convincing. But its world is a complete fabrication. What is interesting about the world is that it bears little clear resemblance to Christian notions of the afterlife. Most depictions of the world beyond are in some way founded on literal Christian notions of heaven and hell. In fact, there is more in common between Brockmeier's afterlife and the Hades of Homer.

Ultimately, as the book winds to a conclusion (I have omitted many details so as not to ruin the reading experience), Brockmeier can't sustain the illusion, and the novel ends in an indeterminate and unsatisfying way. Nonetheless, it's a generally successful and enjoyable and profoundly sad book that reminds us of our own short term on this earth.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Isaac Newton, by James Gleick

James Gleick’s Isaac Newton is both the history of a man as well as of a set of ideas. Gleick is a science writer whose other books include a study of chaos, the accelerating pace of life, and a biography of the physicist Richard Feynman. My interest in Einstein and relativistic physics directed me to this book. I’ve read a lot about Einstein and therefore became interested in reading about this famous predecessor. The common notion is that Einsteinian physics replaced Newtonian physics. Such is not the case, at least according to Gleick, who sees Einstein’s theory of relativity as supplementing and building on Newtonian concepts rather than replacing them.

Gleick shows how Newton’s ideas, especially his study of light, optics, and the planetary laws of the universe, were built on the work and ideas of those who preceded him. He also shows how Newton conceived of these laws through mathematics and reason and perhaps intuition as well. Above all else, Gleick shows how Newton really was a monumental genius, one of the great thinkers of civilization, of a sort that comes along only every millennium or so. I found especially fascinating Gleick’s descriptions of the scientific community in Newton’s time, especially the incipient Royal Society of Sciences, which Newton served as president from 1703 to his death. Newton’s rivalry with Robert Hooke, who preceded him as president of the Society, is a theme that runs through much of the book. At times, however, Gleick does not write clearly about the scientific principles and discoveries for which Newton is famous. Some portions of the book are slow-going as a result.

The fact of Newton’s genius, and of his theories and discoveries, naturally leads me, a humanist, to a desire for more information about Isaac Newton the human being, the man. Gleick offers some satisfaction on this score, though ultimately I want more than he gives. Newton was a great genius who devoted himself to science with monastic dedication. He kept journals in which he recorded his theories and his own self-criticisms. In one journal entry he worries that he is not pure because he has unchaste thoughts. (Newton never married). He wrote extensively about religion and was a passionate alchemist. He was a man of great vanity and ego who wrote glowing anonymous reviews of his own work. As warden of the Royal Mint, a post to which he was appointed late in life, he diligently pursued counterfeiters and saw them condemned to death.

Gleick effectively shows why Newton’s simultaneous interests in science, religion, and alchemy were, for the times in which he lived, not contradictory at all. Yet he leaves much unanswered about Newton the human being, the cipher who remains one of the great scientists who ever lived.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


Fightplan is a negligible film, but it is interesting to see how much the context of the September 11 terrorist attacks informs it. I have three or four thoughts about the film. First is that Jodie Foster, a very fine actress, does not change her facial expression even once in the film. This must have been contract work for her. It makes Panic Room look like high art. Second is that there is little suspense in the film, owing primarily to its formulaic nature and the failure of the director to do something new or innovative with the formula. We’ve seen this film a hundred times, nay a thousand. Third (and this is the most interesting point) is the way the film fetishizes the airplane in which almost all the action takes place. If anything, it is a Gothic airplane, with hidden corridors and rooms, unknown passageways, hidden coffins and surprises, designed with intricate and loving fascination. The airplane is by far the most interesting element in the film, and it enables the cinematographer to do some innovative camera work. The closing credits scroll across a background of digital design plans for the airplane, and they are hypnotically fascinating. It is too bad that the rest of the film fails to measure up.

Like a number of films and books of recent months, Flightplan is a reaction to and commentary on the 9-11 terrorist attacks. It is, first of all, set in an airplane, a huge jetliner, itself a potential weapon of destruction, under threat of a terrorist bombing. One small element of suspense comes from the front row of the economy class section of the airplane, where a group of middle-eastern passengers sit. We are clearly meant to wonder whether they are hijackers, and they are the frequent object of insults from non-middle eastern passengers sitting nearby. When the action starts to flag, the camera quickly switches to the swarthy glowering face of one of these middle-eastern passengers. In one of the few deft touches in this film we the members of the audience gradually come to realize that these middle-easterners are fully aware of how the others look at them, and they are afraid for their safety.

A number of films from the 1950s used children in danger to represent adult fears about the cold war and nuclear holocaust. This film uses a mother on an airplane desperately searching for a missing child that no one believes exists to express 2005 fears about the unstable and threatening world introduced to America by the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Aristocrats

In this film some one hundred comedians, many of them well known, tell their own versions of a very dirty joke whose punchline is (usually) "The Aristocrats." This film is a documentary tribute to a joke highly revered among those in the comedy trade. At least so we are asked to believe.

Watching The Aristocrats was akin to sitting around a camp fire on a boy scout camping trip, telling and listening to incredibly dirty jokes that no one understood. Is there something exalted about this great tradition among comedians, this telling of the aristocrats joke? What I get from this film is that a large number of comedians are puerile, pathetic, and self-absorbed. There is nothing glorious about the tradition of the joke. It’s not even funny. (Some of the people who told it need to be on law enforcement watch lists--they may be dangerous to themselves or others—how they tell the joke reveals much about their inner psychology--violence and sex involving children, in one case unborn children, figure prominently in most of the versions). The only truly funny tellings of the joke, I thought, were Gilbert Gottfried’s (largely because of the context, some two weeks after the Sept. 11 disaster in New York) and the South Park version. And there was a highly offensive version by a mime that was pretty funny too.

Still, this film is overcome with its own cleverness, the false mythos of a comic tradition, the invention of significance out of nothing.

Disclaimer for The Da Vinci Code?

Click here to read my commentary in Flagpole.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A History of Violence

David Cronenberg's most recent film begins by evoking a mythic midwestern America of small towns and fundamental values. Tense string music in the opening scene suggests some event is going to disrupt everything. In fact, in the opening scene we meet two small-time killers who themselves are the agents of disruption. This is one of the themes of the film--the old mythic America subverted by modern urban values.

There are two major themes in this film. One is the notion that violence and the potential for violence underlie every aspect of American life and history. The other theme is identity. What makes us the individuals that we believe ourselves to be? Can we change, in a truly fundamental way, and become someone else? Can we erase the past and its sins and enter into a new existence, a new beginning? This second theme is as basic to American history as the theme of violence, since America, the United States, is a nation that sought in its founding to erase the past and reconceive human nature.

The first theme is difficult to deny. The first European settlers in America encountered violence in every aspect of their lives--as agents as well as victims of violence. Yet violence hardly seems to be a characteristic only of the frontier. The successors of those first settlers, down to the present day, continue to find it useful. We can see it literally and metaphorically in every corner of our lives, in economic suffering, the war in Iraq, domestic violence, racism, Internet porn, the list goes on. And though some coyly want to argue that such violence is intrincsically American, it is more truly simply an aspect of the human condition.

Tom Stall (a suggestively allusive name--Stall?) some decades before the time of the film apparently sought to escape from his life as a mobster, probably a hit man, working under the thumb of his big brother. He escapes t the West, always a place of death and rebirth, and assumes another identity--is it an identity he invents, or an identity that he steals from one of his victims. We never know, and Cronenberg hints at several different possibilities. Tom moves to a small Indiana town, marries, runs a diner, fathers two children. When two thugs show up to rob his diner and brutalize the people there, the old Joey Cusack emerges and in a violent scene the thugs are murdered. Joey/Tom's old associates take notice and come looking for him.

The suggestion here is that you can never escape your past. It's always there, hidden perhaps, but liable to break out at any moment. When Tom's usually timid son brutally beats up a bully at his school, we discover that he too may have a violent dimension hidden within. And when Tom's wife enjoys a rough sex encounter with her husband, we discover her penchant for violence and brutality as well. This is a low estimation of human nature.

Cronenberg asks in this film whether, once you discover the truth that lies beneath the illusion of your life, you can continue to live. It is a question others have asked--for instance, Sam Peckinpaugh in Straw Dogs and Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness. It is a theme of many war films as well.

There are points where A History of Violence seems inadequately developed, especially in character relationships. The ambiguous father-son relationship between Tom and his son Jack is a major example. After Tom kills the things in his diner and receives acclaim as a hero, Jack, who has to this point been more willing to turn the other cheek and suffer abuse than become physically involved in a conflict, becomes aggressive. He beats up a bully at his school and then uses a shot fun to kill a man about to kill his father. Though he seems to stand in awe of his father, he also stands at a distance, and when he learns that his father may not be who he has been pretending to be, he becomes hostile. It’s not clear what is happening here. Did watching his father's violent behavior awaken his own violent streak, or is he simply following his father's example? To a lesser extent, Tom’s relationship with his wife is also poorly developed. The film hints at a history for her. I found disturbing the scene in which she dresses up as a cheerleader to seduce her husband. What is she saying about their relationship? She tells him that she wants to make up for the fact that they did not share their adolescent years together, but does she think that, at his age, the masquerade is going to give him something he is not getting from their marriage? Maybe my own life has been more limited than I had thought, but this scene does suggest something awry with their marriage. In the extras on the DVD, Cronenberg makes clear that the rough sex scene later in the film is a deliberate parallel to this earlier, supposedly more innocent scene.

A related issue is the programmatic nature of the film. The themes drive the action, or sometimes seem to, rather than letting the action generate meaning. There is almost a schizophrenic quality to Tom Stall. When Joey begins to "come out" after so many years of suppression, prompted by the violent episode in the diner, Tom seems to withdraw. Sometimes Tom seems to disappear altogether, as in the scene when Joey/Tom attacks his wife on the stairs of their house. We know (as we knew in Eastwood's The Unforgiven) that Tom/Joey is going to confront those who are calling to him from his unresolved past: we can predict the outcome, the fated violent redemption, because it has been scripted for us by films and novels that preceded this one.

Cronenberg's attempt to depict the idyll of middle America sometimes approaches the verge of campy satire but never crosses that line. The people who work in Tom's diner are standard American types--good, solid, middle-of-the-road people whose lives have never wandered far outside the borders of their small town. This is apparently even true of Tom's wife. Sometimes you are tempted by the film, or by your own predispositions, to find satirical something that may not be. Perhaps this is the film's intention. In Blue Velvet, David Lynch leaves no doubt that the perfect middle-American world he portrays is an illusion cloaking a darker reality. Even the mechanical bird leaves no doubt. Here Cronenberg is more willing to let the reader contemplate possible meanings and ambiguities.

In the final scene, Tom Stall returns from Philadelphia to attempt to rejoin his family, seated at dinner around the iconic family dining table. When he walks through the door, everyone freezs at the table. No one moves. Are they relieved he is alive? Are they sorry he has come back? His wife won’t look at him, nor will his son. Finally his daughter pours him a drink of water. Then he and his wife stare into one another's eyes. Both are teary-eyed, and neither looks happy. Yet there is a suggestion that these two will work struggle towards some accomodation with one another.

Now that Tom has apparently killed everyone connected with the past that he tried to hide, will he and his family return to their idyllic American pastoral existence? Will no one be able to connect the dots that lead to Tom as the murderer of his brother and his henchmen?

All of this is left hanging--whether Tom escapes (in an unrealistic, fantasy ending) or is ultimately arrested for his crimes (more likely, given the film several message that you cannot escape your sins, they always catch up with you)--what the film really wants you to focus on in the concluding moments is what these characters have gone through and discovered about themselves and one another, how they will cope with these realities, how they must accept themselves and each other for what they really are, after all.

What is it the 19th century abolitionist Wendell Phillips said about his desire to end slavery and redeem the land? “There is no remission of sins without the shedding of blood.”

A History of Violence suggests that the way to come to grips with a past of violence and murder is through violence and murder. The only way Tom can rid himself of Joey is to rid himself of all those people from his past who would call him to account. For them, especially for his brother, his blood kin, the new identity Joey has chosen for himself does not meld with the old. They will not relent. And it becomes clear in the final scene with his brother in Philadelphia that the way these people from the past want to deal with Joey is to kill him. This would appear to leave Tom/Joey no option, and he acts accordingly. You might think of this as a form of redemption through violence. But it is possible to think that Tom/Joey would not have chosen this redemption had he had a chance? This is one of the ambiguities with which the film leaves us. But I don’t really believe that we are meant to have this choice. In a violent world, violent redemption may be the only choice, and as the last scene with his family suggests, it is by no means certain that Tom Stall has redeemed himself.

For a number of reasons, then, the film’s ending is difficult and challenging.

Senses of Cinema profile on Cronenberg.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The New World

Terrence Malick's new film The New World is a disappointment. Beautiful as the cinematography may be, it lacks the lyricism of his earlier three films. All of his films are slow-paced, deep and philosophical. But this one is especially slow. It lacks focus and at times seems poorly directed. In one scene the characters in the Jamestown settlement, reacting to an attack of the Indians, shamble around in apparent indifference, as if they've been instructed to "shamble around." Malick fails to connect the story of Pocahontas to the larger story of the New World's discovery and colonization. The story is simply told, and then it is over.

I've always felt Malick's films were extraordinary. Badlands is one of the great films of the 1970s. Days of Heaven is almost as good. And although The Thin Red Line was over long and sometimes too complex (too many characters), it was still a wonder--the voiceover narration in particular was deeply moving and invested the film with mystery and significance. The cinematography was stunning and in a strange, disturbing way made war horrifically beautiful. In The New World the cinematography sometimes seems murky. And it takes us nowhere. Only when Malick follows Pocahontas to England to meet the King and Queen does the film briefly come to life. I enjoyed watching The New World, but I did not like it.

Senses of Cinema profile on Malick

Friday, March 03, 2006

Cormac and the Coens

Word has it that the Coen Brothers are in final negotiations to make a film version of No Country for Old Men. McCarthy's novel is humorless. Can we even stretch to call it dark comedy? No, even that isn't the right description. The Coens make great comedies. What will they do with this novel? I haven't seen their film Miller's Crossing in a long time. But what I remember of it suggests to me that they may have made a good choice of No Country for Old Men. They're capable of giving this novel the treatment it merits--but it will be a challenge for them. Some time ago they considered filming James Dickey's novel To the White Sea--another humorless book, a grim and violent book. The Coens have what some regard as a nihilist vision of the world. McCarthy is no nihilist. He is a pessimist, though some of his characters may be nihilists. It will be interesting to see what comes of this pairing--the Coen brothers and Cormac McCarthy.