Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life

I like the perverse sense of humor, the curiosity about human behavior, that pervades Werner Herzog’s documentaries.  Think especially of Grizzly Man (2005) and Encounters at the End at the World (2007).  There’s little humor in Into The Abyss: A Tale Of Death, A Tale Of Life (2011), about a triple murder in Texas and the people involved—killers, victims, survivors.  Much of the film consists of interviews with two men convicted of the crime, one of them on death row.  Other sections focus on relatives of the victims and law enforcement officers who investigated the murders. 

One could view this film as an anti-capital punishment film, and in fact Herzog makes clear his opposition to capital punishment during an early conversation with convicted murderer Michael Perry on death row.  But Herzog is really more generally interested in the circumstances of the crime and those who committed and were affected by it.  He's interested in human situations here, not moral positions. He shows little sympathy for the murderers, especially Perry.

The murderers are articulate and apparently introspective.  Condemned killer Perry is by my standards clearly a psychopath.  He convincingly presents himself as a reformed sinner, a Christian ready to meet his maker.  But a wary look behind his eyes, a cagey sense of distance, hints that he’s assessing the effect of his story on the interviewer.  He never apologizes or expresses remorse for his crimes, and in fact his last statement before his execution is to forgive the family of his victims for “the atrocity” they are about to inflict on him.  His partner Jason Burkett is more convincing.  Herzog also pays considerable attention to the father of Jason Burkett, also in prison for an unrelated crime.  

All three of these individuals insist they they’ve changed their lives.  The Burketts repeatedly express remorse for the suffering they’ve caused.  The brother of one of the victims feels guilt over having introduced his brother to his murderers.  Everyone feels guilt.  Ten years later the crime remains alive and painful for the relatives of the victims.  One point seems to be that no one’s really changed by the practice of capital punishment.  One victim’s sister feels better after witnessing Perry’s death, but the three victims remain dead, and the facts of the crime haven’t changed.  If revenge is the purpose of the death penalty, Herzog asks, is it worth the price? 

Herzog’s interests in human character are evident here: in the conflicted emotions of a prison worker who assisted with executions for thirty years—he’s come to believe the capital punishment is wrong.  And in the somewhat disturbing character of Melyssa Burkett, Jason’s wife—they met by correspondence after imprisonment, and later marry.  The look on her face the first time she’s interviewed suggests she’s happy to be receiving public attention. She’s pregnant, she claims by Burkett, though they’ve never touched.

More than an argument against capital punishment, Into the Abyss explores the dark potentials of human character and experience, of chance, environment, fate.  


Monday, July 30, 2012

A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, by Lawrence Krauss

Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (Free Press, 2012) seeks to explain in terms a layperson can understand how the universe could have come into being from nothing.  Defining nothing is the rub, and he makes a point of explaining exactly what nothing means.  Calling on his own research as well as that of other cosmologists and quantum theorists, Krauss argues that the discovery of dark energy, a force that infuses the entire universe, has transformed understanding of the Big Bang and the formation of all that we know.  Quantum energy inhabits even empty space—nothing—and creates a dynamic that makes it natural and inescapable that nothing will erupt into something.  Krauss makes more sense in his book than I do here.  What he argues is widely held scientific theory. 

I have two problems with this book.  One is that Krauss’ definition of “layperson” apparently does not always include me.  Though he is capable of wisecracks and witticisms and well-chosen metaphors, he is not capable on a consistent basis of giving clear and accessible explanations of complicated scientific phenomena.  Certain passages in his book left me confused, even after I reread them.  Did some of the lay reviewers who praised this book for its clarity not want to admit their difficulties with it, or am I suffering brain freeze?  A second problem: Krauss seems concerned with proving that the universe could have come into being without the involvement of a supernatural creator.  This in and of itself is not a problem for me.  But he really wants to argue that there is no need for a god at all.  (He lists Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins among his friends, and Dawkins wrote the afterword for the book). 

Where the existence of God is concerned, I am probably on Krauss’ side.  However, I don’t see why explaining scientific principles necessarily requires explaining away the possibility of God.  Science is how God works, if he is there.  This insistence by many scientists on proving that God doesn’t exist is part of the reason for the Science/Religion schism that infects our world.  Science would be better off if it would focus on explaining itself in clear terms.  Religion would be better off if it would accept that the intricate natural processes science studies are worthy of a Supreme Being.  If our nation had a better understanding of the value of particle accelerators and stem cell research and space exploration we might not have lost our place as the world’s leader in scientific research.  Belief in science shouldn’t automatically mean disbelief in religion. Belief in religion shouldn’t automatically mean disbelief in science.

Lisa Randall’s book Knocking on Heaven's Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World (Ecco, 2011) more successfully explains complicated concepts, and she gives one of the best accounts of the Large Hadron Collider I have read.  Unfortunately, wooden and clumsy writing riddles her book as well.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Joe, by Larry Brown

Joe (Algonquin, 1991) by Larry Brown is so clearly influenced by the work of William Faulkner that sometimes you must remind yourself who it is you’re reading.  This does not mean that Brown’s work is not his own, only that the strong influence of his predecessor is evident.  The novel tells parallel stories: one about a poor, itinerant family that drifts from one place to another.  The father (Wade) is lazy and shiftless.  His wife is so victimized by him and their situation that she hardly speaks.  An adolescent daughter is so disgusted with the father and their lives that she leaves (she becomes the subject of Brown’s later novel Fay), and her younger sisetr has stopped talking.  The only person in the family interested in breaking out of this life is a fifteen year old boy named Gary.  He wants to find work, make a living for his family, and improve their circumstances.  The family is reminiscent of the Snopes family in Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning,” with a taste of the Bundrens in As I Lay Dying thrown in for good effect.  The opening scene that describes this family walking along a deserted country road in tone and language specifically suggests the opening chapter of Light in August.  The contending forces in this family are the father’s selfish destructive urges and the boy’s impulse to do better.

The title character of the novel is the focus of the second story.  Joe is a middle-aged man who supervises a gang of workhands who are poisoning trees in a forest to prepare for the planting of pine trees.  That work, destroying a forest that has been there since anyone ever moved to the area, is an underlying motif—it describes Joe’s own life, and the more general life of the town, which is somewhere near Oxford, Mississippi.  Joe’s wife has divorced him, apparently because of his drinking and his violent temper.  They still love each other.  Joe loves his family, including his pregnant daughter, but he rarely if ever visits, even after his grandchild is born.  He drinks a lot, all the time, driving around with a bottle of liquor and a case of beer and ice in his truck.  He makes money off his job and from gambling.  He apparently does well as a gambler because he always seems to have enough money and frequently gives it to his wife and daughter.  Joe befriends Gary, hires him on his crew, and they become friends.  Joe is basically a decent soul.  He can’t control his weaknesses.  He loves his wife and wants to be with her.  He even tells other women that he’s too old to have sex anymore, and this seems to be an excuse he gives out of loyalty to his ex-wife.  (Like everything else in his character, he’s inconsistent about using the excuse).

When Joe becomes drunk and sets his dog on a Doberman pinscher that has threatened him, a confrontation with police and a wreck ensue, and events seem to moving towards sending Joe back to prison.

Larry Brown spends much time in this novel describing the activities of his characters: there’s probably more attention to beer drinking and truck driving in Joe than in any novel I’ve read.  But to what end?  Yes, there’s the naturalistic impulse here to pay attention to the details of an individual’s everyday life, but there must be some ultimate justification for all the detail.  Brown sometimes seems to be interested merely in describing, and if beer drinking has its own inherent interest, then he’s game.  At the same time, his prose is controlled, elegant, vivid, with rare false notes.

Brown effectively portrays Joe’s character, with psychological and humanistic insight.  Unlike Wade, who only abuses and exploits his family, Joe wants to be a good family member, a good father, a good person.  If he’s screwed up his own life he doesn’t want to see Gary screw up his.  Joe is Larry Brown’s answer to Updike, Cheever, Bellow and others—Joe faces the same issues as the protagonists of their novels.

The explosive and surprising final scene brings closure to the action of the novel, and is definitely not the product of Faulknerian influence.  It seems more the influence of films like Easy Rider and Joe and Billy Jack and the Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry films.  The final scene brings Joe to an effective conclusion, but it seems an artificial one to me—a way out of Joe’s problems but not the best way out.

Ray, by Barry Hannah

It seems somehow not on point to say that the central character of Barry Hannah’s short novel Ray (1980) is akin to Rabbit Angstrom, Walker Percy’s Will Barrett or Binx Bolling, Augie March, Yossarian in Heller’s Catch 22, Lewis and Ed in Deliverance,  any number of Cheever protagonists, or of Tim O’Brien’s.  And it would seem not the point as well to remark that novels in which the main character suffers Vietnam flashbacks are hackneyed clichés.  Because in Hannah’s work style is the point.  The style of narration, the interlocking and nonchronological chapters, the alternations in tone and mood, most of all the wild and intense prose.  This does not mean there’s no substance, only that style carries the novel, propels the substance, and is what makes Ray so memorable.

Ray is a medical doctor who flew F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam.  He’s also a would-be poet.  He’s married to a beautiful woman with beautiful children.  Socially and financially he has what many would call a great life.  Yet it’s clear that he has difficulty accepting who and where he is in life.  He’s had addiction problems and apparently lost and then got back his medical license.  Friends often come to him for drugs, and he’s more than willing to prescribe them.  He’s constantly thinking about sex, if he’s not actually in the process of having it. He has sex throughout this novel.

It seems too prosaic to say that Ray experiences a crisis in this novel, or that his situation as a whole is one of crisis—of coming to terms with his urges, his guilt and sense of failure, his love for his wife, his love for other women, his lack of scruples, the tension between wildness and convention.

Ray as a Southern man of the late 20th century certainly possesses some of the worst traits of his kind: racism, misogyny, and classism.  He makes no qualms about them—he seems aware, to a limited extent, of his attitudes towards women, but he shows little hesitation to use racist terms, even though he credits a black man for saving his life in Vietnam.  There’s no way, I think, of defusing these traits—they’re unarguably present, part of Ray’s complicated character, part of who he is.  He is certainly not a typical Southerner, in any sense of the word that I can come up with, and besides I don’t believe in “typical” Southerners anyway, but Ray’s certainly a remarkable Southerner.  The racism, and other aspects of his character, are significant negative traits.  I wouldn’t teach this novel to undergraduates because of Ray’s racism.  Moreover, I do not find some sort of counterbalancing correlative in the novel to Ray’s attitudes.  Are we to like him because every black man he refers to is, by his term, a “nigger”? Is Hannah making an issue of Ray’s racism, or is he just showing it as part of his character?  What makes Ray typical of an individual in contemporary America is his narcissism, his concern with his own situation to the exclusion of everyone else.  Women he objectifies—even his wife and his sometimes lover Sister—especially them.  I can’t say that the characters in Airships or in Geronimo Rex are much different, so to an extent racism and sexism are part not only of Ray’s innate character but maybe of Hannah’s as well.  Of course, such a conclusion merits more thought than I’ve given here.  It’s also possible than Hannah wants to make a point of observing no social conventions at all, no “rules” of political correctness.  Ray’s use of racist terms, his sexism, his imagining what it would be like to throw a nine-year old from the cockpit of a plane at 20,000 feet are all part of this rebellion against the very concept of social or racial or political barriers.  Maybe we are not supposed to like Ray--this self-obsessed doctor-pilot-poet who takes advantage of anyone within reach, who struggles against and then sinks willingly into the narcotizing somnolence of upper-class late 20th century Southern affluence.

Ray is the narrator.  He sometimes starts a paragraph by referring to himself in the third person and then switches to first person. He switches in time back and forth between different periods of his life, mainly his Vietnam years and the present day, as well as to the Civil War, where an imagined or real ancestor, or Ray himself, reports on battle experiences.  The past haunts Ray—his past marriage and former relationships, his wartime experiences, people he has known.  But not all the narrative is about him.  A long digression early in the novel concerns the desire of his friend Charlie DeSoto to murder an elderly neighbor.  Another digression excerpts a real or imagined passage from the diary of Hernando DeSoto, which Charlie is reading.  There may be a link of some sort between the diary and the concerns of the novel but I haven’t identified them yet.  Stream of consciousness, internal dialogue—these might be appropriate ways to describe the narrative method here.  There’s a kind of awkward clunkiness sometimes to the pace and focus of the narrative, as if Ray (or Hannah) narrates whatever comes to mind.  Is this control, or lack of control?  The Charlie DeSoto digression is hilarious, but it interrupted the flow of the novel, as did the DeSoto diary entry.

Ray does talk about himself, but he talks as well about his friends and neighbors, especially his friend Charlie DeSoto and the “Hooches,” poor whites who live behind him on the verge of the swamp.  The main Hooch who interests him is Sister, a troubled if not deranged 18-year-old who writes poetry and has musical aspirations.  Ray ministers to other members of the Hooch family with drugs—morphine and valium—to Sister he provides not only drugs but sex.  They’re lovers on an intermittent basis throughout the novel, but he also loves his beautiful upper-class wife Westy.  They satisfy different needs—Westy is respectability, affluence, prestige, the attainment of a certain level of achievement in the upper-middle class life he lives.  Sister is an outlet to wildness, the rapidly receding days of his youth, of his desire not to give in to the lifestyle Westy represents, the lifestyle that, in spite of all his self-recriminations, he is clearly a part of.

Charlie DeSoto is really just another version of Ray.  Describing Charlie, Ray is describing himself.  The Desoto digression early in the novel is narrated as if Ray himself is the author.  We know what Charlie says and does and thinks.  Is this because Charlie has described himself to Ray, or is it because Ray has imagined himself into Charlie, a sort of alter ego?


Memorable quotes:

“ . . . I went seriously into Fine Arts after that, where you could play with yourself and get applauded for it.”

“Toward the end of the ceremony, Mrs. Hooch raises a dreadful animal wail of fearful, unknown, soprano lamentation.  But the wooden Indian in the station wagon never batted an eye.”

“Rising sins from my past are coming up and haunting my insides, and there’s this miserable dew on my buckle loafers.”

“Yes, I have seen the rain coming down on a sunny day.  I have seen the moon hot and the sun cold.  I have seen almost everything dependable go against its nature.  I have seen needless death and I have seen needless life.”

“Now I guess I should give you swaying trees and the rare geometry of cows.”

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Millenium Trilogy, by Steig Larsson

Lisbeth Salander is certainly a striking figure in The Millennium Trilogy novels by Steig Larsson.  A computer hacking whiz, brilliant mathematician, 4’ 11”, rebel, ferocious fighter, pugnacious, short-tempered, labeled by psychologists as schizophrenic, covered with tattoos, she’s a unique figure.  She gives these novels a fascinating center, though I’d argue that her sometimes colleague and one-time lover Mikael Blomkvist is nearly as interesting. 

Transfixing though she may be, when all her different dimensions are considered, she’s not very believable either. Whatever fix she finds herself in, she inevitably finds a way out, or someone finds a way out for her.  She holds these novels together, though, along with Blomkvist.  I found the first two Millennium novels to be entertaining.  But they’re full of flaws and inconsistencies not to mention basic lapses in writing.  But they’re interesting.  The third novel, a continuation of the second, keeps the narrative going but is so full of talk and planning that it seems more exposition than story.  At least it answers some of the questions left unanswered by the first two books.

In The Girl Who Played with Fire (2006), the second of the Millenium novels, Salander and Blomkvist are not speaking to one another, for reasons explained in the final scene of the first novel, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005).   Even though she refuses to contact or be contacted by Blomkvist, they end up working on the same case.  Larrson is fairly adept at interweaving and counterbalancing different plot strands, though after a while his method becomes predictable and a bit tiresome.  In both novels the characters and the interwoven plots give the stories their interest.  The crimes—the mysteries—that Blomkvist and Salander set out to unravel seem at first highly interesting but in the end involve conspiracies of one sort or another.  It becomes easy to identify characters who are going to die (especially in the second novel).  And finally the mysteries are not unraveled so much by logic as by painstaking research.  This has its own interest, of course, but there’s an unwieldy discursiveness to how the mysteries unfold, so that it seems more that we’re being given a third-hand account of how they are solved rather than being permitted to witness or engage in the process directly.  We can’t follow and judge the logic the characters apply to what they discover--we just have to take Larsson’s word that their conclusions are sound.  This is especially so in the third novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010).

Larsson’s novels express a basic suspicion of government and of industry, especially of the interrelationships of the two.  And even more fundamental is a conviction that human nature, with the encouragement of power and money, is corruptible.  These are post-Cold War novels—they explore what happens to an intricate government, military, corporate, surveillance bureaucracy built towards the goal of opposing another such bureaucracy on the other side—what happens to those bureaucracies when the political underpinnings that justify their existence is removed?  Another underlying theme is oppression of women, in every form, but especially violent oppression.  Zalachenko, important in the last two installments of the trilogy, embodies this theme, but he embodies others as well.

I admire any novelist who can maintain interwoven plots for hundreds of pages.  Larsson does just that, but even in the second novel, and certainly by the third, one becomes aware of the underlying formula he’s following, and of the inevitable ways in which events will unfold.

John Carter of Mars

John Carter of Mars (2012; dir. John Staunton) raised for me questions of why and how.  Why and how was such a movie made?  I can’t properly characterize the badness of this film.  Everything is bad: dialogue, music, acting, editing, the story.  It is bad within the category of classically bad films.  It’s so bad that there’s no pleasure in talking about its badness.  It’s full of laughable lines, but there’s no irony or self-reflexiveness in their badness.  They’re just atrocious.  Everyone on Mars dresses like Romans.  Instead of dogs, they have big lovable newts for pets.  No chance this film will become a cult classic, like The Room.  I’ve read a few pages of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel on which the film is based.  I finish most books I start, but not this one.  But the source novel is not the problem.  A poorly adapted and written screenplay is the problem.  The writing’s on the level of Flubber and Herbie the Lovebug.

Was John Carter targeted at a teenage audience, or an audience of comic book or sci-fi readers, or an adult audience?    Whatever the target, the filmmakers misjudged. 

Interestingly, the main character is a Civil War Confederate veteran who, while prospecting for gold out West, is suddenly transported to Mars.  His Confederate origins make him a sort of man without a country or home, and he has flashbacks about finding his wife and daughter killed in the ruins of their burned house.  On Mars, he finds a new home, and a new wife. If Martians have the same number of chromosomes as Earthlings, I guess he’ll have a new daughter.

John Carter is a Disney formula film.  The father of a Martian princess plans to marry his daughter to the leader of an enemy nation for the sake of forging a peace treaty.  A young man meets her, they seem to argue a lot, he rescues her, reveals and foils the plot that her would-be husband is planning, and saves the day.  The young man and the princess fall in love and marry.  Her reaction to his proposal of marriage reminded me of a Hallmark Hall of Fame greeting card.  He gives her the wedding wing of his dead first wife.

The digitally created Martians are among the film’s virtues—they resemble a cross between the inhabitants of Avatar and Jar Jar Binks, without his shuffling and jiving.  But they have personalities—human personalities.  With the exception of their appearance, there is little that is unfamiliar about them.  Without much of a film to carry them, what do they have to do?

I can understand why the Disney Studio chair lost his job over this film, whose ending sets up a sequel that I’m not betting on.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

You Can Count on Me

Few movies are as nuanced and insightful about family as You Can Count on Me (2000; dir. Kenneth Lonergan).  Many films either ignore family or view it as a source of melodrama, pain, and oppression.  It may be these things, but it is also more.  There are some moments of melodrama in this film, some anguish and pain, but mostly it is understated and subtle, and effective as a result.  The central characters are a brother and sister whose parents were killed in an accident when they were young.  Fifteen years later, the brother and sister are adults.  The brother, Terry Prescott (Mark Ruffalo), lives a drifting and unsettled adult life.  He moves from one job to another, one state to another, and apparently from one relationship to another.  His sister Samantha (Laura Linney) is settled and conservative.  She has a son by a marriage that failed.  She works in a bank whose new manager (Matthew Broderick) causes disruption when he comes on the scene.  He insists that everyone in the bank office adhere to a strict schedule, even in the face of family emergencies, and that workers not have unprofessional color schemes on their computers. Samantha has difficulties with him.  She also has an affair with him, despite his six-month pregnant wife, despite the long-term suitor who has proposed and is waiting for her answer.  As uncentered as her brother’s life is, Samantha’s is more so.  She’s inflexible (like her boss, but in a different way), she’s overprotective of her son (though not excessively so), and she tends to find problems and misbehavior in others as a way of ignoring her own issues.  She tends to make rash decisions, as her affair with her boss and her failed marriage show.  She’s full of self-contradictions and paradoxes.
This summary may make You Can Count on Me seem the epitome of melodrama, yet the film doesn’t seem this way.  Despite the careful approach to its subject, certain recognizable patterns do emerge.  We’re not surprised that Samantha ends up having sex with her boss, despite their antagonism for each other.  Opposites do attract, and they’re not really that different after all.  And it’s not surprising that Terry’s return to town after seven years of silence and absence will bring conflict and difficulty to his sister.  It’s not surprising that he develops a close relationship with Samantha’s son Rudy.  Yet director Lonergan works through these Hollywood patterns in a way that seems to reinvent them.
Terry and Samantha’s characters are self-reflexive.  Even as they are making mistakes, they’re also judging themselves.  Terry is rebellious in various perverse ways, and he has a creative way of not doing what Samantha wants him to do.  While he’s looking after her son, he’s been told that the boy must go to bed by 10:00.  Instead, he takes Rudy to a local bar to play pool with him.  (They team up and win $100).  He picks the boy up from school and, instead of taking him to the babysitter Samantha has scheduled arranged for, takes him to a construction site and teaches him to use a hammer.  And in one of the most important scenes he takes the boy to meet his father, whom he has never met.  Terry is fatalistic and convinced that his life is meaningless and without value.  He makes choices that tend to confirm these attitudes.  Yet his motives are not entirely perverse.  He senses the boy’s need for companionship and believes he needs to be confronted with the realities of the world he will one day live in (just as he as a young boy was confronted with those realities in his parents’ deaths).
While Samantha has built a life for herself around order and routine and settlement in one place, Terry has followed exactly the opposite path.  Each of them longs for what the other has: freedom, lack of responsibility, stability, home, place.  While they find it difficult to live with each other, they also need each other as well.  Each has taken a different course adjusting to life without their parents.  The film moves by stealth in demonstrating the entanglement of their lives.
One of the characters most affected by the deaths of Terry and Samantha’s parents is Rudy, whose plaintive, expressionless face belies loneliness and confusion.  While his mother has tried to protect him from the world he will grow up into, Terry plunges him right in, and becomes a sort of surrogate father figure as well.  Rory Culkin is wonderful in his role.  The subtle acting in this film, especially that of Laura Linney, is a major virtue.
The film appears to take place in New England, in a small town named Worcester in the Appalachian foothills.  This is the town where Samantha and Terry grew up.  The past is always present, always impinging on Samantha and Terry’s lives.  For Samantha it’s a protective home.  For Terry it’s oppressive.  He tells Rudy:  “It's narrow. It's dull. It's a dull, narrow town full of dull, narrow people who don't know anything except what things are like right around here. They have no perspective whatsoever, no scope. They might as well be living in the 19th century 'cause they have no idea what's going on, and if you try and tell 'em that they wanna fucking kill you.”
The Methodist minister whom Samantha goes to with her problems seems absolutely clueless.  In the midst of her affair with her boss, she suddenly decides to go see the minister.  We are sure she’s going to ask him for advice about her affair, but instead she seeks advice about how to deal with her brother—a typical example of how she deflects her own issues on to others.  She returns for a second meeting and this time does talk about the affair.  She tells the minister that she needs help, not psychological mumbo jumbo.  But mumbo-jumbo, mumbling in general, is all he can offer.  The slow-witted, lifeless look on his face suggests absolute emptiness, though he tries hard to help, and when he does have a conversation with Terry, they seem to connect.
There are elements of comedy and tragedy in You Can Count on Me, all of them presented in a quiet, unassuming manner. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Artist

The Artist (2011; dir. Michel Hazanavicius) exemplifies both the virtues and limitations of silent film.  Its plot is highly reminiscent of the three versions of A Star is Born, except that this one offers a happy ending.  Except in a few scenes, there is no sound in the film, which is made in black and white and which features many of the techniques we associate with silent movies.  The two lead actors, Jean Dujardin, who plays George Valentin, and Bérénice Bejo, who plays the aspiring actress Peppy Miller, show how effective silent film actors could be in conveying emotions and speech through gestures, facial expressions, and posture.  Their names are emblems of the film eras they represent in The Artist: Valentin’s name is reminiscent of Rudolf Valentino, and of an entire era of heroic swashbuckling, while Peppy is more suggestive of the sound film—her name lacks class, perhaps, but it expresses the “pep” and vigor that increasingly characterized sound films of the 1930s.  The plot is formulaically standard: an established and highly popular actor befriends a young woman by inviting her to join the cast of one of his films as a dancer.  As the silent film era comes to an end, his success as a Hollywood icon fades, while hers rises.  After his studio fires him, Valentin tries to make a silent film on his own.  It’s a commercial failure.  He loses all his money and begins to drink.  Several years later, Peppy tries to rescue Valentin and his career.  Each character seems to have been secretly (and silently) in love with the other since their first meeting.

The Actor is great entertainment. As much as it tries to commemorate the silent film era, it uses a number of methods we’d identify with contemporary films.  For instance, the film represents the dawning of the sound era by having Valentin in his dressing room begin to hear sounds.  He responds to it as an alien phenomenon, and he’s never able to adjust.  Even when he tries to speak, he can’t, and we never hear his voice.  For that matter, we don’t hear Peppy’s voice either, though she’s making her career as a sound film actor.

As much as I enjoyed this film, it didn’t make me long for a return to the silent era.  I’d have preferred to hear the voices of the actors, along with the singing and dancing of their sound era films.  The history of film is the history of the technological advances that make film as an artistic form possible.  Although silent films continue to be made as a sort of sub-category, and although we can associate the acting styles of such people as Jackie Gleason, Woody Allen, and others with silent acting techniques, film as an artistic form depends on sound.  Just as occasional black and white films can represent occasional welcome diversions from the mainstream, so can silent films.  But for the most part, color and sound are fundamental elements.  I don’t long for silent films.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Columbine, by Dave Mullen

Evil is a product of human behavior, much of it genetically determined, of environmental factors, of the values that a culture identifies itself with.  Though we may speak of evil as an absolute, its meaning is relative and pliable.  Too often, labeling an event as the product of evil can prevent understanding true causes.  If evil is a force external to the human world, and therefore beyond our understanding, then there is no explanation for such events as Nazi Germany, the attacks on the World Trade Center, the massacre of summer campers in Sweden, and the killings at Columbine high school in 1999.  Most of us would agree these horrors can be described as “evil,” but those responsible for them are likely to have regarded them as entirely rational.  If evil is beyond our control, then attempting to understand these events in the fullest way is pointless. I believe explanations are always possible, that causes leading to the tragic effects can be identified.

In Columbine (Twelve, 2009), Dave Cullen sorts out the events and individuals of the notorious shootings in 1999.  One of his purposes is to correct various myths that surround the shootings, many of which persist to the present day.  These include the notion that the killers targeted athletes or minorities and that they were part of a larger conspiracy.  One myth in particular holds that one of the students, asked by Eric Harris whether she believed in God, answered that she did and was then shot in the head.  Cullen shows that this never happened, and that it was another student, a survivor, who professed her faith to one of the gunmen.  Cullen covers the killings from as many angles as one can imagine: the killers, their parents, the victims, their parents, school administrators, local law enforcement, the FBI.

But his main purpose is to determine cause.  He does not suggest that evil caused the killings.  Instead after much examination of personalities and events, after interviews with FBI profilers and psychologists, he concludes that Eric Harris was a psychopath who methodically planned the killings well ahead of time, who wanted to see the extinction of the entire human race, and who enlisted the support of the passive and willing Dylan Klebold, a disaffected and unhappy friend. 

Though I’d be unhappy if Cullen had ascribed the cause of Columbine to evil, suggesting that it was the work of a psychopath (with all that the word entails) is only slightly more enlightening.  This effectively written and researched book offers a full account of the Columbine events, but it left me unsatisfied on the issue of cause.  Psychopath in our modern times is just another word for evil.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Tiny Furniture

Self-absorption is the subject of Tiny Furniture (2010).  A young woman named Aura returns from college to live again with her mother and sister and to decide what to do with her life.  The dilemma is that she does not know what she wants to do, yet she feels pressured to decide.  She needs to move forward, yet she returns to the same family issues she left when she went away to college.  Probably she will become a filmmaker, and in fact Tiny Furniture seems to be the film she has made about her situation. In fact, it seems to be the film the director Lena Dunham has made about her own situation or at least one from her recent past, given the success she has had with this film and with the TV series Girls, which she produces, directs, writes and acts in. Lena plays herself, while her mother, a successful artist who makes photographs of tiny furniture constructions, and her sister appear essentially as themselves too, though all of them have changed names.  She used her mother’s apartment as a setting.

Tiny Furniture is made as if it is a documentary, following the main character around in handy-cam fashion as she deals with her mother and sister, meets old friends, looks with increasing desperation for someone to have sex with (she finally manages to have sex in an abandoned sewage pipe with someone she has met at a party).  The film is random and scattered, but what else could it be, as the chronicle of someone representative of what my youngest son refers to as millennials—creatures and products of the turn of the century, of the economic crash, of the altered circumstances of a post-Bush, post 9-11, recession era America?

The mother is an artist who photographs models sitting next to tiny furniture—hence the title.  Her apartment is all white, with stark white and flat cabinets lining the walls.  Despite her apparent success, she seems more torn and desperate than her prodigal daughter.  It was interesting to sit through this film.  I never want to see it again.  Perhaps this is the point.