Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tenth of December: Stories, by George Saunders

In Tenth of December: Stories (Random House, 2013), George Saunders encapsulates the lives and sensibilities of average American middle-class citizens.  He shows us quietly desperate lives, some of them set in a future much like our own, others simply in the present day, in the middle of things.  Families are of special interest to him.  So are teenagers and younger children.  Saunders tends to narrate through the minds of his characters.  Sometimes he reports their thoughts and words directly.  In “Victory Lap,” two teen-age lives intersect when a psychopathic killer comes on the scene.  (The story evokes two different but genuinely convincing teen-age minds—the girl recalls that kissing a classmate “had been like kissing an underpass . . . a cow in a sweater”). In “Puppy” a dysfunctional mother is set in contrast with her teenage daughter, who in turn worries about her mentally challenged younger brother.  In “The Simplica Girl Diaries” a father and husband records his experiences in a daily journal—his family is constantly in debt, always obsessed with acquiring material possessions, keeping pace with the demands of affluence, struggling with the different personalities of family members.  “Escape from Spiderhead” is a terrifying exploration of scientists studying how chemicals can control human emotions.  The title story, “Tenth of December,” alternates the viewpoints of an old man dying of brain cancer and of a ten-year-old boy who falls through the surface of a frozen pond. 

This is the first collection of Saunders’ stories I’ve read—glowing reviews and comments, including a New York Times article, aroused my interest.  His style is distinctive.  It’s also frustrating—the frame of reference tends to reside in the mind and language of his characters.  There’s no counterbalancing authorial perspective, or any way to ground the character’s view in a context of reality.  The stories challenge the reader to empathize, to struggle for understanding of what characters experience and feel. Sometimes the characters are so offensive that empathy is difficult—“Exhortation” and “Al Roosten” are examples.  I had difficulty engaging with these stories, and while I admired most of them I didn’t really like them.

These stories are works of the Great Recession.  The great obstacles people struggle against are almost entirely mundane and ordinary—disease, age, depression, economic difficulties and stress.  Yet such obstacles can reduce our existence to abject misery.  In only one or two stories does there seem to be any glimmer of redemptive hope.  Even in the title story, when the dying man rouses himself to wade in to the frozen pond and rescue a drowning boy, he still in the end has advanced brain cancer.  His victory is short.

It’s rare to encounter a writer capable of as much understanding of family dynamics, or as much empathy for suffering individuals.  Yet Saunder’s empathy is never maudlin or sentimental.  It’s the product of deep understanding.  His alternation of adolescent and parental points of view gives us a chilling view of the isolation that can occur within family walls.  Unlike Jonathan Franzen, who for the most part (based on The Corrections) sees families as oppressively dysfunctional, as worthy of contempt, Saunders at least may see some value in the family unit, and he displays genuine compassion for his characters.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths (2012; dir. Martin McDonagh) wanders unsteadily between violent crime drama and comedy.  That uncertainty makes it both amusing and uncomfortable.  One may say something similar about Quentin Tarantino’s films, yet they ultimately verge off towards violent moments of revenge and redemption, while Seven Psychopaths verges towards comedy and introspection, despite continuing violent scenes.

Actually, I might describe this film as a fusion of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men.

Perhaps as a reflection of our utterly amoral and dysfunctioning times, the film’s repeated scenes of violence are presented as if they are in the normal course of things, not to be lingered on or grieved over.  Only the death of a central character at the end of the film seems to stimulate real emotion.  The overall tone of the film is amoral and madcap.  It does not exalt the moments of violence.  It’s failure to comment on such moments in itself constitutes commentary on our soulless fascination with violence and death.  Yet the film is not entirely consistent—one of its most likeable characters commits the worst mayhem.  Yet the Buddhist/Christian hoodlum Hans provides balance: ordered by a thug to “Put Your hands up!” he refuses.  Asked why, Hans responds, “Because I don’t want to.”  Warned by the thug that “I’ve got a gun,” Hans answers “I don’t care.”

Characters and an always moving, self-reflecting, refreshingly unpredictable plot make this film entertaining and surprising. The screenplay is a major strength.  It’s about a screenwriter, Marty (Colin Farrell) who is trying to write a screenplay entitled “Seven Psychopaths.”  But he’s struggling: the only psychopath he can think of is “a kind of Buddhist”:  “I'm sick of all these stereotypical Hollywood murderer scumbag type psychopath movies. I don't want it to be one more film about guys with guns in their hands. I want it... overall... to be about love... and peace. But it still has to be about these seven psychopaths, so this Buddhist psychopath, he... he doesn't believe in violence. I don't know what the fuck he's going to do in the movie.”  So what we have here is another example of a film about a film—in this case, a screenplay within a film--a story about how a story gets written, though in this case the way the story gets written is more interesting than the story itself, which we never see, other than in the title of the screenplay. Seven Psychopaths is about films, about screenwriting and creativity.  There’s even a short debate between two psychopaths about the difference between French and American films (one type ends with characters aimlessly wandering in the desert, while the other ends in a hail of bullets). 

Primarily there are strange and unusual characters: a true psychopath who murders crime family members, always wearing a bizarre red mask.  There’s an older gangster (Hans, played by Christopher Walken) who earns money kidnapping dogs and then returning them to their owners for a reward.  He’s a devout Christian who eschews violence.  Tom Waits is impressive job as a former hit man named Zachariah.  His wife left him when he couldn’t muster the resolve to murder a target.  Ever since he’s searched for her, always carrying with him his prized white rabbit.  And there’s the murderous Charlie (Woody Harrelson), the worst psychopath of all—he’s reduced to tears and desperation when his beloved shih-tzu is stolen.  At the film’s comic center is Billy (Sam Rockwell), the crazed psychopathic best friend who tries to help his screenwriting friend by creating situations and introducing other psychopaths who might provide material for the screenplay.  At its contemplative heart is Christopher Walken as Hans, the non-violent true believer who fears nothing. All of the psychopaths want to help write the screenplay. They want to share credit for it too.  Marty writes them into the screenplay and, in the process, they become the stuff of the film itself.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro at the age of 85 has spent his entire life perfecting the craft and art of preparing the best sushi in the world.  He runs a restaurant in Tokyo with only 8 seats.  People make reservations a month or more ahead of time, sometimes only for a fifteen-minute visit.  Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011; dir. David Gelb) is a portrait of Jiro himself, of his sons, of the art of preparing sushi, but mostly it is a portrait of a way of life devoted to a continuing effort to perfect one’s chosen vocation. 

With its title and our typical American sensibilities, we might read humor or irony in the title.  But the title means to be taken literally.  Jiro does dream of sushi.  It is his life’s focus—as an individual, a cook, and a spiritual being.  The humor that sometimes arises in the film is not the humor of cultural sarcasm, but the humor that arises from normal human situations.  In other words, this film neither condescends to nor smirks at its subject.  One such situation is the relationship between Jiro and his two sons, both of whom work with him.  The oldest is 50 and is clearly ready to take over when his father steps down.  Jiro, aware of his son’s interests, isn’t ready to step aside.  He knows his hanging on provokes some impatience, is amused, but feels no real guilt.

I do not know whether calling sushi an art form is appropriate or whether it misses the point.  Maybe it overvalues or undervalues the subject.  As an art product, sushi certainly ephemeral—it is made and then consumed and then no longer exists.  But must art be permanent?  (In the long run, no art is).  In this film, Jiro and his sons and their staff treat each piece of sushi with a delicate, respectful attitude that suggests reverence, veneration.  The experience of consuming sushi may be a religious or artistic experience, judging both by how the sushi chef approaches his craft and by how his patrons talk about it.  (Frankly, I’ve often felt the same about fried chicken, but that is another story). 

This documentary observes and watches.  It watches Jiro in his kitchens, listens to him and his sons and colleagues talk, observes them in their daily lives.  We learn something about sushi and much more about life in Japan and about human beings in general.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Late Quartet

A Late Quartet (2012; dir. Yaron Zilberman) is a small, seemingly unambitious film that gradually swells.  The cast is outstanding, with Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, and Mark Ivanir as members of a world-famous string quartet that has played together for 25 years.  Walken has too frequently in his career played eccentric, loopy characters that many take to be an extension of himself. In A Late Quartet he gives a remarkable performance—nuanced, resonant, and convincing as the senior member of the quartet whose discovery that he has Parkinson’s disease sets the plot in motion.  The other principal actors are nearly as good.

The film shows us the melodramatic conflicts, rivalries, disappointments, and ambitions of the quartet’s members.  The first violin (Ivanir) is a perfectionist who refuses to play from memory and has coldly devoted his entire life to the violin.  The second violin (Hoffman) secretly longs to be first violin and suspects that his wife, the violist (Keener) doesn’t love him.  The violist many years before had an affair with the first violinist, before she met her husband, before pregnancy pushed her into marriage.  She never has been entirely happy with herself.  And the cellist (Walken) lost his wife a year earlier and is still recovering.  The relationships grow increasingly complicated and tangled.

The film demonstrates how the lives and identities of the quartet members are intimately tied to the quartet itself.  The violist in particular fears change of any kind, while her husband longs for it, or thinks he does.  The first violin refuses to share his position as first chair with Hoffman, yet he cannot imagine playing with any other person in the second chair position.

I have no idea what the personal and professional dynamics of string quartet members are, but A Late Quartet does a convincing job of suggesting that it knows.  At stake here is the vocation of art, music, age and time, disappointment, love, and change. The final scene, where the group performs Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 (a motif throughout) is a wonderful and emotional resolution.


Friday, February 22, 2013


The 1970s animator Ralph Bakshi used broadly drawn cartoon stereotypes of racism, poverty, and oppression to attack these failings in America.  His animation opted for crude rawness over artistry.  The double-edged nature of his method appeals to the same forces it attacks.  This is evident in his 1975 film Coonskin, which transports the Brer Rabbit stories of Disney’s Song of the South (and of African American slave stories appropriated by Joel Chandler Harris) to Harlem.  Bakshi more than Disney sees the subversive nature of the Brer Rabbit stories as allegories of black rebellion against white authority.  In Coonskin the rabbit, bear, and fox in different ways attack religion, the mob, and corrupt police as forces of black oppression.  Bakshi understands that these institutions often work in collusion with the white power structure, a collusion that he illustrates through a number of episodes.  A black preacher named the Simple Savior preys on believers to collect money, working under the direction of blonde white women.  Madigan, a homophobic New York policeman charges protection money to black business owners.  The godfather of the mafia claims to care about the suffering of blacks but collects protection money anyway.  And so on.  In Coonskin the rabbit and his friends take over Harlem and defeat these oppressive forces.  The message is one of black power.

Throughout the film Bakshi portrays crude stereotypes—thick lipped black women with enormous buttocks and breasts, jiving black hipsters, and so on.  The effect is of a confused Black Nationalist arts performance commingled with a minstrel show.  The intent is to show how thoroughly infiltrated our society is with racist images and to demonstrate how they oppress and disfigure the individuals and groups they represent.  Perhaps also the intent is to entertain an audience that is probably mostly white, as were Bakshi and (I am guessing) his animators and crew. One could argue that images Bakshi uses to celebrate and quote from black culture also ridicule it (a similar argument may be levelled at Django Unchained—2012).  The numerous images of huge breasts, naked women, and the various allusions to sex and female sexuality may exploit and comment on our nation’s obsession with sexuality, yet they’re also prurient.  And the ridicule of homosexuals throughout the film (four of the Godfather’s five sons are cross-dressing gays) hardly advances the cause of gender preference equality.

Why is this a Southern film?  Its main characters come from well-known Southern tales.  The film begins in the South and ends there.  The whole film is framed as a series of tales told by an older black convict to a younger one as they crouch against the outer wall of a Southern penitentiary, waiting to elude the white guards and escape.  Yet the society excoriated in the film is not specifically Southern—it’s American.

John Dies at the End

I read John Dies at the End (pseud. David Wong; Jason Pargin; Thomas Dunne Books, 2009) on the basis of a review that promised I would not be able to put it down if I made it through the first three pages.  The review promised bizarre and zany strangeness beyond my wildest expectations.  How to resist?  In reality, the book was somewhat entertaining, but not as zany as I’d hoped.  It began as a chapter posted online in 2001 by the author.  As the chapter gained admiring readers, the author posted another, and then another until, a few years later, he published the results as a novel.  A sequel is apparently on the way.  And three days after reading the novel, I discovered the just-released film of the same title, made by Don Coscarelli, the director of Bubba Ho-tep (2002), one of my favorite films.  How to resist? 

In the novel, Stephen King and Dean Koontz are called out, especially the latter, whose name one of the characters sarcastically invokes.  In the film, less successful than the book, production values are an issue, along with a plot that plods rather than doing anything else.  There is ample humor, some of it forced.  The one great moment comes when frozen food from a meat locker assembles itself into a talking apparition.  Then the film shifts briefly into the realm of Bubba.  More often it trots along as a more serious, more creative, less fun version of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

This isn’t the first published web serial that later became a published book.  But it may be the first to achieve such success.  Serial publications were common in the novel’s early history.  Dickens published many of his novels serially, one chapter at a time, in newspapers and magazines. More recently, Gurney Norman’s Divine Rights Trip was printed first in 1971 a chapter at a time in The Last Whole Earth Catalog and then later made its way to book form.  Now we’re to a point in the novel’s history where its physical appearance hardly matters.  John Dies at the End existed in free-to-read form on the web for a good while before it was removed and published.  The same apparently applies to its sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously Dude, Don't Touch It.  You can’t fault these titles.


This film tribute to Pina Bausch (2011; dir. Wim Wenders) and her choreography raises the question of what a choreographer really is.  Not just a creative inventor of dance, but a powerful personality.  The dancers interviewed for the film speak of her as if she were a daemonic force, or a lover, or a parent, or a tormentor.  Most speak with awe and respect.  A few speak in fear.  All seem affected by her, even haunted.  How can dancers who live in such close creative proximity to someone for 10 or 20 years remain whole when she dies?  The film raises these questions, because I thought about them as I watched, but it does not explore them.  Bausch’s choreography, however, does.

It’s clear that Bausch saw human relationships as power relations, as hostile and passionate interconnections, destructive and creative.  You see this most clearly in her piece called “Café Muller,” in which couples stumble around the stage, furiously moving chairs, manipulating one another’s limbs.  The constant movement is visual cacophony, anarchy, though ultimately the dancers achieve what seems a short-lived balance or harmony with each other.  My favorite part of the film was the long introductory dance choreographed to Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring.”  It suggests courtship and mating as a cultural and biological ritual. In the beginning male and female dancers enter into separate areas of the stage, gradually intermingling in a process that is more violent than anything else.  The stage is covered with several inches of what appears to be barley.  The rhythmic movement of the dancers is entrancing and also ominous. Another work that suggests a science fiction theme and that certainly seems apocalyptic is “Vollmond” in which dancers individually and together move around a stage dominated by a large red boulder.  They splash in a stream of water, jumping from the water and the boulder back to the floor.  The movement is disorienting, and must have been hazardous for the dancers, given the movement from dry floor to water to wet boulder.

The film offers ample excerpts from Bausch’s major work, interspersed with interviews with dancers in her company, and with others who had worked with her.  She had died of cancer, unexpectedly, shortly before filming of Pina began. The company (I assume) is still mourning her, and the film is suffused with loss and sadness.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

Sixto Rodriguez’ music might have sounded dated even when it was first released in the early 1970s.  Many of his songs (“The Establishment Blues,” for instance) show the Dylan influence, especially the Dylan of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 41 Revisited.  One hears Donovan occasionally, and Dion, especially in the song “I Wonder.”  One hears also Jose Feliciano, both in how Rodriguez sings and in his guitar playing.  One could argue that his music is derivative, but I’d prefer to call it eclectic—it incorporates many influences.  Unfortunately, the arrangements are often too commercial, unsuited to his lyrics, with too much echo in his singing, with cheesy beats and violins.  His early producers make great claims for his music ability, for his genius, one calling him a prophet, another suggesting he could have been better than Dylan.  I don’t buy those claims—they’re all made forty years after the fact by people who want to bask in someone else’s glory, who want to share credit for his musical accomplishments, but who take no blame for his failure.  There’s no doubt that Rodriguez is a distinctive, unusual person.  And there’s no doubt that his lyrics are often quite good, and perhaps removed now from the milieu of their time his music may be better received.  At least in the United States.  In South Africa, it’s been well received for decades.

The documentary Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012) divides into two parts.  The first half tells us about Rodriguez’ first two albums and his disappearance after their failure.  In South Africa, he becomes famous, a super star, but everyone assumes he’s dead, and various legends circulate about the manner of his death, including one that has him committing suicide on stage.  We meet the South African record store owner who seeks information about Rodriguez, the musicians influenced by his music, and we learn about the impact of his music on the anti-apartheid movement.

The second half describes the revelation that Rodriguez is still alive in Detroit, working as part of a demolition crew that tears down old buildings.  He returns to South Africa, performs four sold-out concerts, and enjoys the success he never had in the United States.

The transition between these two parts comes in a wonderful moment shortly after the music store owner receives an unexpected call at 1:00 in the morning from Rodriguez himself.  We stare at a window on a run-down but respectable house somewhere in, as we learn, Detroit.  A shadowy figure moves back and forth behind the class and then raises the window, leans out, and looks at the camera.  It is Rodriguez.  This is a magic moment.

The film considers but never answers the question of who received the royalties for the 500,000 Rodriguez albums sold in South Africa.  It hints at an answer, but doesn’t pursue it, and it’s clear  Rodriguez never received them.  But he does enjoy the proceeds from his concert tours in South Africa, most of which he gives away to family and friends.

There’s a wonderful story here in an engaging film, deftly and warmly told, with suspense, humor, and some awe, with diversely interesting human personalities, at the center of which is Rodriguez himself, a person who, as my wife Patricia commented, seems to have lived a Zen-like existence, impervious to his early failure, content to work in demolition for thirty years, unfazed by his unsuccessful campaigns for office in Detroit (including his candidacy for mayor), equally content to discover that in South Africa he is famous.  We watched the film twice.

For those of us who lived through the 60s and 70s, there’s nostalgia in the film too, which is in that respect about memory, about past and present, about what was and what might have been.