Thursday, March 31, 2011

City of Thieves, by David Benioff

City of Thieves, by David Benioff (Viking, 2010) is an almost flawless narrative. Set in Leningrad and surrounding regions during the siege in the Second World War, it chronicles the search of a 17-year old boy (Lev) and a young deserter from the Russian Army (Kolya) for a dozen eggs. If they fail, they’ll be shot. But that threat seems almost incidental as they make their way across deserted frozen farmlands. They are threatened and then captured by Nazis. They escape and flee. They fall in with a group of Freedom Fighters. They encounter scenes of brutality and cruelty.

The narrative is framed. The grandson of the main character begins by asking his grandfather to talk about his experiences in the Second World War. After he begins to talk, the grandson disappears until the last pages of the book.

World War II now seems like such a distant event. As those who participated in the war die, memories disappear, and only official histories survive, along of course with records—memoirs, oral accounts, films, and so on. But the living memories die with the participants. Moreover, the war’s Eastern Front is one Western readers don’t often think about—yet more men died, more battles were fought, more suffering and carnage occurred, on the Eastern Front than the Western. (Some accounts say thirty million Russians died in the war). City of Thieves is an entirely fictional story but it brings the war to life through the eyes of a 17-year old who worries about still being a virgin, who’s afraid of death, but who also is ready for adventures.

Some of the scenes in the city are nightmarish. The siege has gone on so long that people are dying of starvation or killing one another for food. In one scene the main characters meet a man who is selling human flesh. In another they meet a man who is nearly dead from starvation. Friends are killed when an apartment building is bombed and collapses.

City of Thieves describes horrors, but it doesn’t dwell on them. it just moves on. The result is an intensification of the horrors, and at the same time a dispassionate disengagement from them. The overall tone of the story is gently comic, governed by the bragging tales and jokes of the deserter Kolya, who claims to be writing a great novel and who never admits to being a deserter until the end.

Events from the past have tangible impacts on the present. City of Thieves is about how a 17 year old experienced the war, but it’s also about the other narrator’s genealogy, how he came to be.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Caribou Island, by David Vann

Caribou Island is a domestic horror story, not in the vein of Stephen King or Shirley Jackson but rather of Jonathan Franzen. A couple in their mid-50s, recently retired, children out of the house, are having difficulties in their marriage. Each partner has different reasons for the difficulties. Each blames the other for disappointments in life. To attempt to repair their marriage and to address personal issues, they decide to build a log cabin on a small island in an Alaskan bay. (The husband insists on this solution, to which the wife acquiesces—this is a life pattern for them). I can hardly conceive of a worse way to solve marital difficulties, which play themselves out in the course of this novel by David Vann, his second.

The children of the couple also lead lives of disappointment, or lives headed in that direction. Their son Mark lives in a half-built house he has left unfinished. He earns a living as a fisherman. Their daughter Rhoda is thirty and unmarried, though halfway through the story she becomes engaged to her boyfriend, a dentist. He begins working out in anticipation of extramarital affairs.

Vann’s view of human relationships is dismal. In this book they all head towards pain, betrayal, unhappiness, and worse. The Alaskan setting accentuates the predicament of the struggling married couple. They’ve made their own hell, and the natural world with its storms, cold temperatures, wind, rain, snow, offers little solace. They are on their own, as are we all.

Setting is a strength of the novel. Descriptions of the ocean, the Alaskan countryside, the island and the lake surrounding it give a visit sense of place. Of particular interest are the descriptions of trolling for salmon on Mark’s fishing boat. A community of counter-culture wanderers, disaffected souls, eccentrics on the margins populate the peripheries.

This novel demonstrates how in the course of a 35-year marriage small resentments and larger ones build up, accumulate, until they add up to far more than the sum of individual complaints, and then some final accounting brings them all to bear. It also shows how children inherit the miseries of their parents, dooming them (at least in this book) to repeat failed lives already lived.

I recognize the skill of the novel, especially the scenes on the island, and in the final chapters, but nothing in Caribou Island gave me any satisfaction.

Get Low

Get Low (2009; dir. Aaron Schneider) offers a folksong of a story in the vein of “Barbara Allen” or “Long Black Veil.” But folksongs don’t always translate neatly into fully developed narratives. What is suggestive and allusive in a song or ballad, enough so that the listener’s imagination fills out the empty spaces, may seem mere thinness in a traditional film. An old man, Felix Bush, haunted by images of a burning house from the past, decides to stage his own funeral. His reasons are at first unclear. He has lived alone for forty years, stubborn and bitter and hostile. He is childless and has never married. He’s the source of rumor and myth in the community, where everyone knows him by sight but no one really knows him personally. The announcement of the public funeral, to which the whole town will be invited, causes an immediate sensation. Why does he want it? Maybe he wants to dispel the myths about his meanness. Maybe he wants to confess his sins before he “gets low.” Maybe he has other reasons. The idea of a gruff old man who wants to change his ways and make amends, if that is what he means to do, is certainly interesting, and we are more than willing to see where this will take us.

When Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), a woman whom Felix once courted, returns to town, complications develop, not necessarily along the lines we’d expect. And with these complications the film founders. In the last scene, overly sentimental, the film gives up the ghost in more ways than one.

Up until the point when Mattie arrives and the story careens off path, Get Low seems promising. Robert Duvall as Felix is gruff and grisly and, at the age of 80, looks the part of a man preparing to leave this world. Any film that gives Sissy Spacek an acting opportunity is worth seeing. Bill Murray as the undertaker with a checkered past, who sees in Felix’s funeral plans a chance to make some money but who ultimately becomes more interested in Felix than in a profit, is good. And his apprentice Buddy, played by Lucas Black, is effective as well.

The problem is that Felix Bush as a character is not convincing. He’s not all there. Robert Duvall is entirely capable of playing such a character. Witness The Apostle (1988). The logic beneath his sudden shift from irascible misanthrope to a man set on celebrating his demise is weak. As the film moves forward, we learn more about his past and the reasons for the funeral. Both because the unraveling of information comes too late, and because the various threads of the tale finally seem too melodramatically tenuous and contrived, the film seems hollow.

Set in the 1930s, with a storyline reaching back to the 1890s, Get Low depicts characters and a community from a past long since disappeared. Felix himself is the emblem of those vanished times. Though the Southern setting gives the story an atmosphere and a place, it could have happened anywhere. It is not a Southern story but rather one of lost love, guilt, regret, the desire for understanding and forgiveness.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

The primary struggle in Richard Brook’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is not one typically associated with the American South. For Brick (Paul Newman), depressive alcoholism seems to be the result of any number of causes—regret that he is older and can’t be the star athlete he used to be, humiliation over his wife’s betrayal, grief over his friend Skipper’s suicide, shame over his feelings of guilt for the suicide, or something else. In the end, as he and his father Big Daddy (Burl Ives) confess to one another in the basement cluttered with family acquisitions, it’s suggested that the root cause of his problems is that his father never truly loved him. Given Brick’s behavior and mood throughout the film, this explanation seems inadequate—the disconnect between Brick’s mood and the ultimate explanations for it leave the film seeming empty.

The reason, of course, is that the Brooks screenplay strips away the theme of homosexuality from the stage play, provides a happy ending to replace the desperately despairing one that Tennessee Williams originally wrote. In the play Brick doesn’t drink because his daddy didn’t love him enough or because he thinks his best friend slept with his wife—he drinks because he loved Skipper, and his own failings along with those of the oppressive world in which they lived prevented them from fully accepting or expressing those feelings. In the film, it’s hinted that Skipper loved Brick in an unnatural way that Brick himself rejected. When Big Daddy hints at this possibility, Brick blames him for dragging the friendship through the gutter, but that’s as far as this 1958 film is willing to go.

The film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof requires that Maggie’s (Elizabeth Taylor) struggle to win back her husband’s affections will actually succeed. In the play, we realize that it won’t. Maggie’s struggle then seems more one of economic and personal survival. So wants to conceive a child with Brick so that she can breed her way into the family and thereby into Big Daddy’s inheritance. In the play she’s less sympathetic and more conniving than in the film—she’s more like her competitor Mae (Gooper’s wife). In the film it’s love she’s after, and a family. Yes, she wants the inheritance, but she wants it as much for Brick as for herself. She sees Gooper as unsuitable and incapable of carrying the family name forward (despite his five children—and one on the way—with May). In the film Gooper and May care far more about the inheritance than they do about Big Daddy, while in the play they are much closer to the same level as Maggie the cat.

The film carefully positions itself as a Southern film by way of iconography. The family lives in a large traditional Southern mansion with columns and porticos. Black house workers serve guests. Big Daddy’s farm is 25,000 acres (we’re repeatedly reminded). Everyone speaks with a heavy Southern accent, though not heavy enough to seem false. May’s children, trained to march and sing for Big Daddy’s entertainment, carry a Confederate battle flag with them when they go to greet him at the airport and when they march around the house playing “Dixie.” (The film does a good job of conveying Williams’ distaste for children—these are among the most distasteful children on American film).

In fact, these Southern symbols are simply decoration. Race, Southern nationalism, traditional regional culture, have little to do with the concerns of the film. Patriarchy, patrimony, gender, class—these are the central issues. They are part of Southern history and culture, but they are part of culture and history in general. Perhaps the most “Southern” element in the film is the class division. Maggie comes from a poor, lower-class background. Her need to survive, her desire for Brick to take possession of the patrimony that is his by right (at least everyone in the film seems to think so, except Gooper and May--and Gooper is the older of the sons). By marrying into Brick’s family, and by giving birth to a child, presumably a son, she will acquire the necessary means of survival. In the play, Maggie is an equivocal character. It’s never clear whether her love for Brick is stronger than her desire for wealth, or whether the two motives have become so entwined that they can’t be separated. Brick’s possible homosexuality complicates the issue of Maggie’s love even further. In the film, though Maggie makes clear that she wants Brick to receive Big Daddy’s patrimony, her love for him is the driving force in her behavior. There’s no issue of homosexuality to complicate of confuse her motives. Mae comes from an upper-class family that has lost its wealth. She had a privileged upbringing, but needs the inheritance from Big Daddy so that she and Gooper and their progeny can live in the lifestyle she wants. Love does not drive her behavior; pure greed and the desperate need to cling to some vestige of family name and honor are what drive her.

Another aspect of class in the film is Big Daddy and his origins. Although we may speak of Brick as taking possession of his patrimony, it is not as if Big Daddy’s family is descended from Southern aristocracy. His story is a rags to riches tale. As a young boy he rode the rails with his father, who bequeathed to him only an empty suitcase, a hat, and memories. He says he was driven to acquire wealth so that he could share material things with the people he loved, his wife and his sons, though Brick says he substituted things for love. (This acquisitive substitution of possessions for love echoes Citizen Kane, 1941). And in his ambition he seems to have driven off or dismissed any conventional connections to his family. Big Daddy says he had to pretend to love Big Momma for 40 years. He makes no bones of preferring Brick to Gooper, or of intensely disliking Gooper’s children. In a sense Big Daddy is another version of Faulkner’s Flem Snopes, or of the Faulknerian patriarch Will Varner in The Long Hot Summer.

The film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof offers a redemptive conclusion for everyone (but Mae and Gooper) that is hollow to the core. Brick and Big Daddy come to an understanding. Maggie tells her lie, Brick doesn’t betray her, and together they proceed up the stairs to the bedroom where they will make the lie into truth. Big Daddy invites Big Momma to walk out on the farm and survey the land. By stripping away the issue in the play that ties everything together—Brick and Skipper’s forbidden love—the film denies itself necessary logical underpinnings of Williams’ play. Instead we have a lot of loud people yelling for sustained periods of increasing monotony and then a kind of family harmony. We have a claustrophobic domestic drama that in the end makes little sense.

But Cat on a Hot Tin Roof reminds us what Elizabeth Taylor was like at her height, and Burl Ives gives the best performance of his career, the “Little White Duck” notwithstanding.