Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Although The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014; dir. Peter Jackson) preserves many of the major plot points, it diverges significantly from the latter portion of Tolkien’s novel in tone and nuance.  Bombastic and overdrawn, its main focus falls on the king of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield, who is so overcome by greed once his band recovers the dwarf kingdom and the dragon’s hoard that he loses his grip on sanity.  He doubts the loyalty of the other dwarves and orders that Bilbo be thrown over the walls when he learns that he had taken the Arkenstone.  While a major battle takes place outside the walls of the citadel, Thorin sees no reason to fight alongside the people who had been his allies.  He sits in the citadel and guards his treasure.  The central question is whether he will come to his senses.  He does, at the right moment, but his transformation from greedy demented king to bold leader, as the film portrays it, makes little sense.  It just happens.

Although Bilbo Baggins is ostensibly the main character, he seems largely superfluous in the third film, appearing now and then to throw stones at goblins or to deliver messages or try to convince Thorin to be reasonable.  The film overlooks his importance.

Director Jackson owed no bond to the text of Tolkien’s novel.  He was free to make whatever decisions he needed in order to produce a good film.  In his Lord of the Rings films he managed in a general way to preserve many of the most compelling aspects of Tolkien’s trilogy—the range and depth of characters, the humor, the aura of myth and legendry, the adventure, the magic.  He recognized what was special about the novels and successfully conveyed it in the films. With the three overly complicated and bombastic Hobbit films he abandons the modest and quaint virtues of the novel and creates instead overlong battles, loud noises, and flat characters.  The Hobbit films are a major disappointment.

The Butler

The Butler (2013; dir. Lee Daniels) begins in perilous fashion.  A young black boy working with his family in a cotton field in 1927 watches his mother led to a nearby shack for sex with the son of the plantation owner.  Afterwards, when the white man emerges from the shack, the boy’s father confronts him and is shot dead.  The plantation mistress walks into the field, orders the boy to stop crying, and tells him that she is going to take him into her house and train him to be a “house nigger.”
I use the term "perilous" because the opening scene suggested I was about to watch a nightmarish melodrama of extremes lacking subtlety or intelligence, a film that compels us to view the players purely in terms of victims and victimizers, of clearly marked boundaries of good and evil.  Not so.  Although slavery was long over in 1927, many black Southerners still worked under conditions approaching slavery, especially black farm workers and sharecroppers.  The possibility of violence by white Southerners against blacks was ever present.  But scenes as extreme as the one that opens this film were rare.  As bad as conditions were for many Southern blacks in 1927, few young black boys witnessed crimes against their parents so heinous as these.  The Butler is a more balanced and nuanced film than its opening scene suggests.
The Butler is loosely based on the life of a man who served as butler for seven presidents in the White House. It chronicles the fictional life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the man who the young boy in the cotton field became.  After the plantation mistress teaches him how to serve, he finds a job in a nearby town and later in a posh Washington, D. C., hotel.  Ultimately he begins work in the White House as one of several butlers during the Eisenhower administration.  In the background, as one president succeeds another, history takes place.  The events of the Civil Rights movement serve as markers that carry us from the cotton field to the White House in a literal sense: in the final scene Cecil prepares to meet the first black president of the United States.  The Butler is a history of the nation during the Civil Rights movement, with its murders and demonstrations and achievements, and of the political disagreements and struggles in the black community during these decades.  Cecil observes these events from his post in the White House, while his son, Louis, participates in them.  Cecil fears for his son’s safety and disagrees with the activism of the civil rights movement, while his son doesn’t understand his father’s passive, conservative attitudes. 
The Butler shares similarities with Forrest Gump, which follows the life of a young Southerner as history unfolds around him.  Forrest Gump is more a pageant sort of play than this film, which, by dramatizing contrasting views of the struggle of African Americans for equality, offers a more analytical view of events as they occur.[1]  It employs a series of contrasting scenes that show Cecil Gaines at work in the White House, serving the white politicians who run the country, against scenes of his son Louis, who takes an increasingly activist role in the Civil Rights movement.  (A younger son is killed in Viet Nam).  At times the film seems to favor the son’s extremism.  Increasingly, however, it focuses on the butler Cecil.  Its attitude becomes clear in a scene where Martin Luther King is talking to a group of student activists, one of whom is Louis, who is ashamed of his father’s role as a butler to white men.  When King learns that Louis’s father is a butler, he comments on the importance of people like Cecil, who serve with quiet dignity, gradually changing by their example the attitudes of white Americans towards American blacks.  The Butler endorses both points of view, but when Louis faces the prospect of deeper involvement with the Black Panthers as they move to adopt violent tactics, he backs away.  Later we learn he has earned a graduate degree and entered politics.  Paralleling the film’s exploration of two different ways in which African Americans were involved in the civil rights struggle is the story of the father and son estranged from one another and ultimately reconciled.
Some elements of The Butler are predictable, and it can be overly simplistic and sentimental, but its encompassing view of the civil rights years seeks to reconcile points of view that were once at extreme odds.  Its efforts at conciliation extend beyond the African American community.  Most of the major white American figures in the film appear to struggle with their own attitudes towards race.  Ronald Reagan, well played by Alan Rickman, overturns policies supported by the movement but he also worries that he is on the wrong side of the struggle.  Only Nixon comes across as a one-sided caricature.

[1] Wikipedia notes reviews in The Washington Post, Boston Globe, St. Louis Dispatch, and Miami Herald that draw the Forrest Gump connection.  See

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

This is Where I Leave You

This is Where I Leave You (2014; dir. Shawn Levy) would like its audience to feel amused and heartwarming as an eccentric group of family members come together to sit shiva for their dead father. There are definite emotional moments, and not a small number of comic ones, but in general the film invokes every hackneyed cliché imaginable. Think The Big Chill and The Royal Tenenbaums and any installment of the Fockers franchise and stir them all together and dilute them and overcook them and you have something like this film. There is the loud and un-self-censoring mother who says whatever comes into her mind, especially when it is embarrassing to her adult children, especially when it involves her sex life with her deceased husband. There is the oldest brother, who stayed at home to run the family hardware store, and not very well, and who is jealous of the siblings who left home.  (He and his wife are desperately trying to conceive a child).  There is a bitter sister in a loveless marriage (Tina Fey).  There is a middle brother (Jason Bateman) who has just discovered his wife having sex with his boss. She appears halfway through the film to announce she is pregnant.  And there is the fuck-up youngest brother who has never grown up, and who is very aware of his failures. As these family members mourn, they argue, reminisce, have tender moments, and fight. There are reunions with former lovers. There are humiliating scenes in front of family friends and neighbors. There’s a shocking revelation.  And so on. Tina Fey is especially good as the bitter sister.  Jason Bateman is likable as the brother with the errant wife. Jane Fonda, not much of an actor in my estimation, does as well as she can with her heavily drawn character of the widowed mother. At the end of this film, as everyone leaves, I am glad to see them go.  

Family life has never been so reducible, so reductive.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

In Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2014), the main character Tsukuru in high school has four close friends: two men and two women.  They do everything together.  When they graduate, four of them stay in their home town, but one, Tsukuru, goes to Tokyo to study engineering.  In his sophomore year, returning home for a visit, Tsukuru learns that his friends do not want to see him again, and that he is not to attempt to contact them.  This dismissal causes a terrible crisis in his life.  For six months he is depressed, at loose ends, on the verge of death, either through suicide or simply through wasting away.  Gradually he recovers his equilibrium and goes on with his life.  For years he doesn’t look back, accepting without question the loss of his friends. This is the underlying premise of Murakami’s most recent novel.  The question it circles around concerns the reasons for the dismissal, and what will happen with Tsukuru.

1. The narrative focuses on Tsukuru’s thoughts and experiences.  We sink deeply into his mind.  I cannot tell whether it is Murakami himself driving the translated prose, or whether his translator is simply a good writer, but the narration is smooth, calm, and immersive. There hardly seems to be separation between ourselves as the readers and Tsukuru’s thoughts as main character.  For much of the novel, this approach is effective.  In the end, it becomes irritating when the author rather than illustrating certain realizations coming to Tsukuru simply describes what they are. 

2. I did not recognize until almost the end that a schematic design drives this novel, so that the effect is too automatic.  We assume early on that we will learn the cause of the schism between Tsukuru and friends.  That point arrives, ultimately, in a way that is too formulaic.  Seventeen years after he lost his friends, Tsukuru meets and becomes interested in Sara Kimoto, a woman a few years older than he.  They spend the night together, and a longer-term relationship seems a possibility.  When he tells her about the loss of his friends, she is surprised that he has never tried to learn the reason for the break.  She tells him that if he wants her to consider him seriously he must visit the former friends and ask for an explanation.  He does so, he learns what happened--a terrible misunderstanding and failure of personal ethics on the part of his former friends—but it is all too down to earth.  The explanation is more like something you’d learn from an episode of Dr. Phil than what you expect from a Murakami narrative.  After this point, the novel has nowhere to go.

3. Tsukuru’s attitude towards himself and his life is too self-absorbed, too sentimental.  He is weak, passive, and besotted with the inertia of a mind that cannot will itself forward.  Instead he must wait for things to happen, and it is only through the insistence of the woman he thinks he might love that he decides to contact his former friends.  Is my judgment of Tsukuru based on some misunderstanding of Japanese culture?  Is Tsukuru a typical Japanese male?  Or is his passivity, his solipsistic self-scrutiny, an aberration of character?  One evening as he prepares to reconnect with his old friends, he sits in a restaurant, looking out the window, and sees Sara Kimoto, the woman whom he thinks he may love, walking down the street with another man.  Tsukuru doesn’t know what this means.  Is she involved with another man?  Is her interest in him different from his interest in her?  He doesn’t seek answers to these questions.  Suddenly his future seems less certain, unsettled.  He is forced out of his self-absorption to consider that his future with her is not set, that it is in fact wholly unresolved.  Yet his inherently passive attitude doesn’t alter.  He knows he will accept whatever happens, even if it means he dies.  This attitude is exasperating.

4. Not surprisingly, there is no true resolution to this novel.  It ends without ending.  Tsukuru prepares to have dinner with Sara.  She will tell him that she wants a relationship with him, or she will dismiss him.  He doesn’t know which.  He wants a life with her, and believes that if she rejects him he may die.  But he is willing to accept whatever happens.   Other elements of the novel end unresolved as well, but they did not bother me so much—Tsukuru’s strange sexual dreams involving two of his friends, the disappearance of Fumiyaki Haida, the student he became friends with in college, the nature of another friend’s death.  These are all left unresolved.  The novel hints faintly that in some way Tsukuru might have been involved in his friend’s death, or that his dreams might have been more real than they seemed, that his fantasies may be entwined with his realities (a standard Murakami theme), but it also hints with equal contrary force that none of this may be true.  It just ends.  That is the way of life, irresolution, uncertainty, continuance, until the final moment of blackness.

5. Colorless Tsukuru has great narrative force.  I enjoyed reading it, until it fell victim to its own scheme.  Moreover, the stakes are not earthshaking. Or are my reservations the result of the possibility that in reading this minor Murakami book, after having read several other much better ones—Norwegian Wood, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, 1Q84—I am simply recognizing designs that were there all along?


Like other Murakami novels, this one explores the meaning of identity and personal responsibility and the relation of fantasy and reality.  It is highly readable, interesting, and exasperating.  Patti Smith, in her New York Times review, writes, "On a first reading, 'Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage' seems kin to Murakami’s more minimalist novels 'Sputnik Sweetheart' or 'Norwegian Wood,' but it does not really fall into that category. Nor is it written with the energetic vibe of 'Pinball, 1973' or in the multidimensional vein of his masterpiece, 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.' Here and there realism is tinged with the parallel worlds of ‘ IQ84,' particularly through dreams. The novel contains a fragility that can be found in 'Kafka on the Shore,' with its infinite regard for music. . . . there are moments of epiphany gracefully expressed, especially in regard to how people affect one another. 'One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,' Tsukuru comes to understand. 'They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss.’"

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013; dir. Peter Jackson) marks a lot of time.  In the first film, we had exposition—Bilbo Baggins and a group of dwarves set out towards the Lonely Mountain to retrieve the dwarf kingdom and treasure.  We expect setbacks and challenges along the way, and The Desolation of Smaug provides them: a thickly wooded forest in which it is easy to become lost, monstrous oversized spiders that tie the group up in webs, elves that imprison them, goblins that chase them, and so on.  There are fights and pursuits and escapes.  There is a reasonable amount of intrigue, though more of the film than one would expect takes place indoors, especially in the hidden elf settlement in the forest and in Bardstown.  Those who know the novel will note significant differences.  The basic plot is here, but there are characters who didn’t appear in the novel, including Sauron and Legolas and Galadriel.  There is a love plot between one of the members of Bilbo’s group, Kíli, and a young elf named Tauriel—this wasn’t in the novel.  (Without Galadriel and Tauriel, the film would have no significant women characters). Just as the wandering dwarves get lost in the murky wood, so too does this film lose itself.  Where it really takes flight is in the scenes at the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo encounters Smaug and steals the Arkenstone.

In the novel, as I recall, the Battle of the Five Armies was an aftermath to the killing of Smaug.  Obviously, the battle is a primary focus of the third film.  Moreover, it’s clear that Jackson has set out to interweave the three Hobbit films more tightly with his Lord of the Rings films than Tolkien ever meant to link his novel The Hobbit to the later trilogy.  His first novel was a loose prequel. 
The Desolation of Smaug is entertaining but it lacks the charm of the Lord of the Rings films. It is more loosely and carelessly put together, and there is a strong sense of one’s having gone through the motions.  There’s no discovery or delight, except in rare moments, as when Tauriel heals Kíli’s infected leg, and when Bilbo Baggins has his encounter with Smaug.  For the most part, the film gives up the quaint, fairy-tale-like story in Tolkien’s novel for a blundering, overwrought Hollywood juggernaut.  


At any moment Frank (2014; dir. Leonard Abrahamson) follows one or more of several paths.  There is the existential drama of a talented rock musician who hides his identity from the world: why?  Is his large cartoon-like mask a rejection of the cult of celebrity, a way of focusing his audience on the music, an embrace of privacy? There is the path of an outsider, Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson) invited to join a band that already tilts on the edge of sanity when its keyboardist tries to drown himself?  Burroughs brings ambition and new ideas that threaten the band and its members (the film is told mainly from his point of view, so that it takes us a while to recognize how damaging his intrusion into the band has been).  Or do we follow the path of mental illness?  At various moments this film, titled after the name of the band member who always wears a large mask over his head, follows one or more of these paths.  It’s at its best when it follows the first path, at its most melodramatic when it follows the second, and its most maudlin and sentimental when it follows the third.

Michael Fassbinder plays Frank, and for most of the film that means we hear his voice only.  We don’t see his face.  For all we know Fassbinder could be providing the voice while another anonymous body wears the mask.  But he throws himself fully into the role of a character who seems both talented and demented.

It’s never clear whether the band’s music is meant to be seriously good or a joke.  Is this performance art, cutting-edge music, or a parody? It’s not clear how seriously the film takes itself.  It’s only in the final scene that we really get to hear the band perform, and what at first starts out as a pathetic and muling caterwaul ends up being a really good song.  (But who am I to pass such judgments?—I’m 64 and this music, not to mention this film, probably doesn’t aim at people like me).  I find Frank a dark comedy that lapses towards the end into sentimentality.

All the members of the band, with perhaps the exception of the intruder keyboardist Burroughs, seem to totter on the verge of mental illness, and the band itself seems the incarnation of neurosis and self-preoccupied narcissism.   This is what I found most interesting about the film.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is good as the band member who resents Burroughs and secretly loves Frank.


American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

Throughout Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (1996) Stephen King’s influence loomed, especially the Stephen King of The Stand and The Shining.  This surprised me because I have found Gaiman in his other, later works to be a fairly creative, original writer.  Like King in the two aforementioned books, Gaiman interweaves narrative strands and characters, builds towards a mounting climax, and then can’t quite make it work.  There’s much that is interesting and original about American Gods, but parts are derivative, parts wander or drag, and parts are intent on teaching us a bit too much about comparative religions.
American Gods could easily have been a graphic novel.  Its premise would have worked well in that medium: millennia of American immigrants, beginning with the first native Americans, brought their own religions to America.  By the time of the novel, all the old gods of the immigrant traditions—these gods are actual characters in this narrative--have been forgotten or trivialized, replaced by the gods of media, capitalism, and industry.  The United States is not hospitable to the old religions.  The novel builds towards a final confrontation (referred to in increasingly tiresome terms as a “storm” that “is coming”) between the old gods and the new.
This novel certainly works well in the tradition of American road novels, moving back and forth across the continent, mostly through the middle sections of the United States, with occasional visits to the west (Las Vegas) and the East.  The final battle is set in Rock City on Lookout Mountain.  America as this novel portrays it is an expanse of empty spaces, of towns with dwindling populations, of wandering and embittered gods who have been forgotten or cast out or both.
An interesting array of characters populates the novel, many of them based on gods from Nordic and African and Asian traditions.  A grifter named Wednesday (based on the Nordic god Odin) plays a prominent role, as does a paroled prisoner who refers to himself as Shadow.  He is the central character.

Students of comparative religion and world mythologies would find this book rich and interesting.  It’s full of hypotheses and theories about how religions are born, how they develop and die out.  This is a novel, after all, and its speculations would probably not hold up under careful scrutiny.  Gaiman certainly did a lot of research for the book, and I suspect he knew Joseph Campbell (Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Sir James Frazer (The Golden Bough) well.  Sometimes the baggage of New Age mythologies weighs the narrative down. But I found it readable and interesting.

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

Stardust (1999) by Neil Gaiman is an adult fairy tale about a young man named Tristan Thorne who seeks to win the hand of the woman he thinks he loves by recovering a star that has fallen to earth. He lives in a small town named Wall that adjoins a region called Faery. The worlds of fantasy and reality overlap somewhat, but for the most part they remain separate.  Guards at the entrance to Faery prevent its inhabitants from entering the town. The story is set in the early years of Victorian England, though in the regions of Faery we seem to be in medieval times, or even no times at all. The clear distinction between the real and unreal in this narrative, the underlying premise that normal rules of science and logic do not apply, at least in the realm of Faery, make it diverting and in a certain way enchanting. Gaiman’s handling of characters, his whimsical tone, his steady control of the tale, enhance the overall impact.  I read this book to counterbalance and assuage the effects of the history of the Holocaust that I had just finished.  But as much as I might want to claim that its story is light and fanciful, it has dark moments.  Three brothers die in various ways as they seek to lay claim to the throne of their dead father. And a vicious witch tracks the fallen star—a young woman named Yvaine—with the intent of killing her and cutting out her heart.

This fairy tale has a happy ending of sorts, but it is qualified by the differences between the land of the real and the realms of Faery—one is mortal and transient while the other is governed by fancy, magic, and imagination.  The happy conclusion in the end becomes remote and chilly.

The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy, by Martin Gilbert

Martin Gilbert’s 960-page history The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (1986) is a mind-numbing, shocking, horrific account of a cultural and ideological nightmare, and of one of the lowest points in the history of human civilization.  An entire nation, or at least its government, sets itself to exterminating six million people primarily because of their religion.  (The Nazis killed millions of others—Russian prisoners of war, homosexuals, Catholics, Poles, Gypsies.  Gilbert does not ignore these other victims, but his central subject is the Jews, who were the main target of the Nazis).  In excruciating detail, the Gilbert outlines the early days of this developing cataclysm, which grew out of an inherent anti-Semitism in European culture and from the insane political ideology of the Nazi party and its leader Adolf Hitler, who was obsessively committed to the extermination of Jews. He shows that when the Final Solution was implemented as government policy in early 1942, Nazis killed as many as 40,000 to 50,000 Jews at a time—in single-gunshot incidents, in vans filled with carbon monoxide, in mass shootings, in concentration camps.  He relies on incredible historical research, ranging from first-, second-, and third-hand accounts, to Nazi archives, to oral and written narratives of survivors, and other sources.

The book is full of human details. Gilbert humanizes the Holocaust by citing, often in one- or two-sentence vignettes, the story and fates of victims.  He names the victims, tells us what they did, their history, how they died.  He relies on oral histories and testimony, Nazi government records, diaries, letters, newspaper articles, scholarly articles, interviews.  Although he spends some time tracing the development of the Nazi ideology that led to the Holocaust, he mainly attends to the experiences of the victims.  Much of the book is centered in Eastern Europe, where the worst of the killings took place. Day by day, month by month, year by year, Gilbert relentlessly moves forward.  Example:  “One such gassing, recorded by Dr. Albert Menasche, a deportee from Salonica, was of 2,500 girls, including his own eleven-year-old daughter Lillian” (p. 620).  Example: “on June 6, 260 Jews living on the island of Crete, . . . were taken, together with four hundred Greek hostages and three hundred Italian soldiers, Germany’s former allies, a hundred miles out to sea, beyond the island of Santorini, where the boat was scuttled.  All were drowned” (p. 683). Example: “Of the Jews murdered at Oradour, the forty-five-year-old Maria Goldman had been born in Warsaw, and the eight-year-old Serge Bergman in Strasbourg” (p. 685).

Before gassing or shooting their victims, the Nazis typically collected their victims’ possessions, forced them to strip naked, shaved the heads of the women, and marched them to their deaths.  Afterwards, gold fillings were pulled from the teeth of the corpses.  Clothing and jewelry and other personal possessions were sorted, cleaned, warehoused, redistributed to German citizens, or sold.  Gilbert measures the vanished lives by cataloguing the possessions the dead left behind.  Example: “Himmler received a report on the ‘quantity of old garments’ collected from Birkenau and the camps in the Lublin region.  The list included 97,000 sets of men’s ‘old clothing’, 76,000 sets of women’s ‘old clothing’, 132,000 men’s shirts, 155,000 women’s coats and 3,000 kilogrammes of women’s hair.  The women’s hair filled a whole freight car” (p. 538).  Example: “when Soviet troops entered Birkenau on January 27, they found in the six remaining storehouses, 836,255 women’s dresses, 348,000 sets of men’s suits, and 38,000 pairs of men’s shoes” (p. 773).

Small tragic dramas are encapsulated in a sentence or two: “In Minsk, on January 9, the twenty-year-old Jewish partisan Emma Radova was caught, tortured, and killed.  But she betrayed nobody” (p. 515).

At several points, Gilbert makes clear his own connection to the victims: “Hillel Katz was shot by the Gestapo: he helped to provide the Soviet Union with information about the German war effort.  His daughter Annette survived.  She is my cousin.  Her grandfather, my great uncle, had been murdered in Czechoslovakia in the early months of the war.  Almost all her other cousins, my cousins also, were later deported” (p. 586).  In this book, the verb deported always means sent to a camp and gassed, or taken to a ditch and shot.

Especially in the latter years of the war, there were numerous efforts to resist what was happening.  There were the Warsaw rebellion, a number of small and large rebellions in the death camps, partisan resistance groups in the eastern forests of Germany, individual acts of defiance.  Almost always these failed, overcome by the massive weight of the German machine and the compulsion to exterminate.  The isolation of many Jewish communities from what was happening made resistance difficult.  The lies told by German officials left victims unaware of what was about to happen until it was too late to take action.

There were individual efforts by German citizens and others to help the victims.  Gilbert describes the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg to save Jews from deportation. He reports on the actions taken by Schindler to save Jewish workers in his factories.  He notes the opposition to the killings expressed by the clergy, by leaders such as Churchill, by individuals and families who took Jews in and hid them and who often were arrested or killed for their efforts.  Yet he notes as well that agreement with the Nazi efforts, or fear or apathy or inertia, compelled many citizens—most citizens—to do nothing.  Even after the end of the war and the liberation of the camps, killings of Jews continued by Polish nationalists, former Nazi soldiers, and others.

Reading this book left me deeply depressed.  I wanted to put it aside, wanted it to end, but I felt obliged to finish.  The events chronicled in this book did not occur so long ago.  World War II ended five years before my birth.  The worst years of the Holocaust are only seven decades in the past.  It’s incredible to conceive that supposedly civilized human beings could commit such atrocities, that the nation of Germany turned its machine of government to the killing of millions of people simply because of their religion, their race.

I have known about the Holocaust all my life.  I remember hearing as a child that six million Jews had been killed during the war—my mother told me that.  At the time I couldn’t identify with that figure. What connection did it have to my life and me?  Now, as an older man with three grown sons, I find these stories of fathers and mothers being sent to the gas chambers or the killing fields to die with their children, of entire families being wiped out, entire communities extinguished, horrific to contemplate. We may tell ourselves that we live in a day when such a thing as the Holocaust could never happen again.  Yet it has happened, and continues to happen, if not always on the same horrendous scale. And other potential calamities—nuclear war, famine, drought, and disease--could wreak havoc and death on our lives.  The Holocaust is a story about what human nature is capable of, and of the disasters that can tear apart our lives. 


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Messiah, by George Frederic Handel

Listening to music in a live performance can be like listening to music for the first time.  In a live performance, especially in a good concert space, there is three dimensionality of a kind that recorded music and the best technology cannot replicate.  I’ve listened to Handel’s The Messiah on and off for forty years.  I associate it with Christmas, though only the first section concerns the nativity.  I’ve used Easter as an excuse to listen as well, although only the second section concerns crucifixion and resurrection. I’ve listened to The Messiah in its entirety on a few occasions, but most often I have listened only to parts that I particularly enjoy, especially the choral sections. Rarely when I’ve listened to recordings of The Messiah has it held my whole attention.  More often it’s played in the background.  At a concert, the music commands your attention, and as you listen, especially if the performance is a good one, you hear and appreciate and understand in a new way.
In the December 21st performance of the UGA Hodgson Singers with the Knights Chamber Orchestra and four soloists, I heard The Messiah in live performance for the first time.  It was stirring, moving, inspiring, and deeply emotional.  The Hodgson Singers consisted mostly, if not entirely, of young singers, undergraduates and graduates.  Their voices gave a purity and aery grace to Handel’s music.  Voices flowed back and forth across the hall, responding to, answering one another, male voices and female voices, sopranos and basses, together and separately.  The music filled the hall.  You could feel it all around you, in front and behind of you, enveloping, enlarging the room.  It was enrapturing.
One misses in recorded performances the faces and the physical presence of the performers.  No recording could convey the passion and intensity in the faces of the Hodgson Singers as they performed.  You could see the satisfaction of the members of the Knights ensemble.  All the performers seemed to enjoy the occasion.
Soloist Reginald Mobley, a countertenor, sang the alto sections.  He is a big, burly man, and to hear him singing in an alto voice was a revelation.  Soprano Molly Quinn was astoundingly good.  The Knights ensemble played with a passionate precision.  Someone told me that some members of the ensemble, composed mostly of musicians in their 20s and 30s, had never played The Messiah before, but there was no sign of unfamiliarity in their performance.
The experience was a celebration of great music, of Handel, of youth.  Congratulations to conductor Dan Bara, the Hodgson singers, the Knights, and the four excellent soloists.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Orfeo, by Richard Powers

Richard Powers’ novel Orfeo (Norton, 2014) is about a dissatisfied man at the end of his life looking back at everything he has done wrong, and everything he has failed to achieve.  It is about a man coming to terms with the outline of his failures, trying to make amends to the people he once loved, trying to come to terms with mortality.  The often elegiac tone of retrospection that governs the novel, especially as composer Peter Els flees across the country, first visiting his former wife, then his friend Richard, and finally his daughter Sara, infuses the narrative with emotional power.  Although the details of my life are quite different from those of Els, I identified with him and found the novel, as a result, both moving and depressing.  I also found it to be a very fine work.
Orfeo fuses the story of a failed composer of modern classical music with bio-terrorism. Powers makes this improbable combination work.
Powers employs an indirect form of first-person narration in this novel.  The main character Peter Els does not tell the story himself. Powers as author, or implied author (to use an archaism), narrates through him, conveying speech and thought, all placed in the context not merely of Els’ life but of the history of the moment.  The reader therefore experiences the drama indirectly, rather than directly.  There are benefits to this method, and challenges.  Such narration can become tedious, and at times the reader may feel as if he is being guided too forcibly towards whatever end the author wants to achieve.  I felt pushed along in Orfeo.  At moments, when Powers is describing what is going through Els’ mind as he listens to a particular work of music, murky confusion results.  On the other hand, I won’t complain too much. 
Els doesn’t have a strong personality.  He doesn’t exude much personal force.  He is more often driven along by the women he loves, by his friend Richard, by the musical calling he would like to follow, by musical trends he doesn’t like but feels compelled to follow.  He drifts into marriage and then out of it, hardly aware of what has happened.  He’s out of tune with his age.  He sees music as a transformative force.  He believes in melody at a time when modern music is becoming increasingly avant garde, directed not so much at an audience as at the artistic inclinations of the composer.  (John Cage appears as a minor character).  Els wants to compose music that people admire and listen to, but the music he wants to write is not the kind of music he feels obligated to write.
It seems likely that some of Els’ work is good. But his passive, reticent nature prevents him from receiving more attention or pursuing a serious career.  The opera he composes at the instigation of his friend Richard Bonner receives a strong positive reaction from the audience, but Els is so worried that people will think that its concern with a 17th-century rebellion will be confused with the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas (which has just happened when the opera premieres), that he refuses to allow it to be produced again.  Yet people do know about him, he has a small following, and he works successfully as an adjunct teacher of composition at a small liberal arts college
In the present time of the novel Els is 70 years old.  He has been retired for several years, still teaches on an occasional basis, not composing very often.  He has become interested in biological engineering.  With the proper expertise and equipment (most of which can be bought in surplus form online or at hobbyist stores), amateur self-trained scientists can perform fairly sophisticated work in their own living rooms.  Hence the reasonable fear by government security agencies of biological terrorism by individuals who brew up toxins or biological agents at home and release them to the public.  This is not what Els is doing.  He is attempting to discover whether he can imbed the notes of a musical composition into the DNA strands of a non-lethal microorganism and then release it into the world.  He would then at least have the audience (unknowing audience) that he has longed for.  When Homeland Security agents mistake his experimental work for that of a biological terrorist, they raid his house, and instead of explaining himself, he flees.  He flees throughout the novel.
Powers uses historical markers to ground the narrative in the last half of the 20th century—Els’ opera premieres immediately after the burning of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco Texas in 1993, for instance.  Sometimes these references are important to the story, as in this case, but sometimes they can seem gratuitous.
Els is often listening to or thinking about music during the novel.  Music is how he experiences and measures his life.  I found the treatment of music in this novel particularly exciting.  Orfeo was an intense and affecting experience, one that kept me up reading late into the night.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara

Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974) gives the most intense, striking descriptions of battle I have encountered.  He strips battle of hackneyed stereotypes and shows it as a complex, intricate series of human actions, some carried out by design, some the result of necessity, some of chance.

Although the novel is about the three-day long Battle of Gettysburg, the most important battle of the Civil War, it is largely devoid of partisanship.  Shaara makes us aware of the reasons why soldiers on both sides of the battle are fighting (why they think they are fighting), but he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the evils of slavery, the impracticalities of a particular world view.  He does a good job of contrasting the habits and cultural disposition of both sides, but again without an underlying bias. I don’t view this as an assertion that both sides occupy equivalent moral positions.  Rather I see it as a reflection of the historical moment—what matters in the battle is not the right or wrong position each side is defending, but the battle itself, the prospect of death.

The novel is about battle, about the fury of battle.  The ideological and political conflicts that lead to Gettysburg, the reasons why it may be the turning point in the war, and in the history of the nation, are secondary or even tertiary to the battle itself.

The novel is structured around the three day-long span of the Battle of Gettysburg and around the officers who lead the armies on both sides.  Various figures emerge, often colorfully (Pickett and Stuart), but the two main characters are General James Longstreet on the Confederate side and Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain on the Northern side.  Chamberlain becomes an unlikely hero during the defense of Little Round Top more out of panic and necessity than anything else, but the experience transforms him and determines the rest of his life.  Longstreet, who for me was the most interesting and developed character in the novel, was a deeply introspective and rational man who believes that Lee’s plans to undertake a full frontal assault on Pickett Hill on the battle’s third day will fail and that the Southern army will be wiped out.  He urges Lee to change his plans, but Lee is resolute.  Longstreet follows Lee’s plan anyway, because of his loyalty to the general and because as a military officer he regards it as his duty to comply with his commanding officer’s orders.  But the failure of the Southern efforts in the battle leave him scarred and full of guilt, and destroys his close friendship with Lee, whose miscalculations the novel seems to suggest lead to defeat.

The main characters in this novel are generals and colonels and other officers who sent thousands of men into battle.  Although some of these officers die, most stand back and watch the battle develop—Lee, Longstreet, and others.  They feel responsible for what happens, but they survive.  The thousands of anonymous soldiers killed and wounded in the battle are acknowledged in the novel, but they remain mostly faceless.  What makes Chamberlain significant is that he actually fought.


City of Falling Angels, by John Berendt

In the closing pages of City of Falling Angels (Penguin Press, 2005) John Berendt writes that “I knew that in Venice I had been told truths, half-truths, and outright lies, and I was never entirely sure which was which.” The narrative begins in 1996, with Berendt’s arrival in Venice, around the time of the burning of the famous La Fenice opera house.  Berendt gives to this calamity a treatment similar to the one he gave to the murder of a male prostitute by an antiques dealer in Midnight in the Garden of Evil (1994).  What we got in that book was a cultural and social study of Savannah and its history.  What we get in this more recent book is the political, social, and cultural history of Venice, with special attention paid to leading citizens of the day, both Venetian and American.  The question at the center of the story is why did La Fenice burn.  Considering that question, Berendt engages in 400 pages of history, commentary, speculation, rumor, gossip, and hypothesis about leading citizens of the city, and about the wealthy Americans who set as their goal saving the city and its cultural attractions.  Someone tells Berendt early in the book that when a Venetian makes a statement, he really means the opposite of what he says.  He never quite loses sight of that observation, reminding us of it occasionally as he recounts his meetings and interviews with various people implicated in the burning, or trying to rebuild the opera house, or simply interested in the story.  His account of infighting among a group of wealthy Americans called “Save Venice” is particularly entertaining.  For those who enjoy listening to people talk and gossip about each other behind their backs, this book will be of interest.  Berendt must be an affable, sociable man who likes to hear people talk, and he puts his skills effectively to use in this book.

The Trip

In The Trip (2010; dir. Michael Winterbottom) two moderately well known British comedians travel around together in northern England sampling the food at various hotels and restaurants.  They try to outdo one another with impersonations and jokes and heartfelt testimonials.  Playing fictional versions of themselves, Steve Dougan and Rob Brydon are amusing for long stretches, and then tiresome.  The film is entertaining, but not enough so to justify the sequel currently in theatres, A Trip to Italy.  What we really have here is a study of two men in middle age.  One is having difficulties with his girlfriend, who was supposed to be along for the journey but who declined to go along at the last minute.  Work is her excuse.  He invites Brydon in her place, oddly, both since he is a man and since they don’t get along that well, at least not initially.  Gradually they bond.  They have several adventures, and then they return home.  The film is mostly formless, its episodic shape dictated by the roads the two men travel, the hotels they stay in, villages they visit, people they meet.  It’s is based on a nine-hour British television series, edited down to the 107-minute length of the film.  Ninety minutes would have been preferable.  The underlying premise is that these two actors are likeable blokes and that we’ll enjoy their company, on screen at least.  In fact, I found them tedious, clueless (especially the man whose girlfriend didn’t come along).  Some view this sort of humor as sophisticated and diverting.  It’s really rather weak-minded.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Babadook

In The Babadook (2014; dir. Jennifer Kent) a supernatural entity from a child’s picture book terrorizes a mother and her young son.  The film follows a typical formula: small events lead to larger ones, and finally a climactic moment.  The Babadook itself never directly appears—we hear its voice (repeating the words “Babadook”) and see its shadow, or the outline of its form.  Although the film was shot in color, you cannot tell.  It might as well be in black and white, and murky low-light black and white at that.  The lights often go out in the young mother’s apartment, but even when they are on I wanted her to turn on more lights.  The darkness supposedly contributes to the atmosphere of doubt and confusion and uncertainty but mostly it makes for irritation.

The interesting core of this film is the mother, Amelia (Essie Davis) and her child Robbie (Daniel Henshall).  Amelia’s husband was apparently killed seven years before the time of the action in a car wreck as he drove her to the hospital to have their son.  She lives her entire life in the remembered shadow of that event and associates her son with her husband’s death.  She’s lonely, sexually deprived, and overwhelmed both by her desire to care for Robbie and her sense that he is suffocating her.  She is both loving and hateful to him, at times abusive.  In one scene she tries to strangle him.  He probably suffers from autism or Asperger’s syndrome.  At any rate, he has serious behavioral problems and is demanding and clingy.  He loves his mother in an obsessive way and often tells her that he doesn’t want her to be disappear, he doesn’t want her to die, as if he can see something that might be coming in the future.  In a number of scenes, he’s clearly afraid of her.  Even without the Babadook, the household is claustrophobic, oppressive, and deadly.

It’s possible that the Babadook is a psychological, psychosexual manifestation of Amelia’s tormented state, that it’s not present in the film at all except in her mind.  The child believes in Babadook, but does he believe because he is fueled by his mother’s strained mental state, or because Babadook is really there?  Both mother and child are descendants of characters in Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

A serious flaw in this film is the lack of sympathy one feels for mother and child.  Neither is particularly endearing.  We feel sorry for the mother’s plight, her loneliness and her difficulties with her son, yet she lives in a world where help is available for people with problems such as the ones she faces, and even without help one would expect her to bear up better than she does.  And the boy is, frankly, selfish and irritating and obnoxious.  One can understand why Amelia feels about him as she does.

Whether the Babadook is real or not, the horror of the film emanates from the lives of the entrapped mother and son.

The Babadook is not as frightening as the trailer would suggest, and although the psychological dimension elevates it among many others in its category, it is not the first to suggest that horror is a product of the human mind.   It doesn’t suck you in, leave you gripping your chair in suspense as you wait for the next frightening moment.  It’s more of an endurance test.  Moreover, here we have another film that blames a woman’s hysteria for problems that occur.

Essie Davis does an admirable job as the tormented and unlikeable mother, and one must credit as well director Jennifer Kent for her skillful if not wholly successful effort to move outside the usual bounds of the supernatural horror genre in this film.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Once again, seeking respite from the oncoming cold, I sought a diverting, undemanding film and chose How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014; dir. Dean DeBlois).  Brisk, vivid animation and the swooping, soaring exploits of flying dragons make for a significant entertainment.  The film avoids many of the pitfalls of sequels.  Although not as fresh as the original, this second installment of what may be a series follows the exploits of characters some five years after the first film as they take on the menacing dragon king Drogo.  At the center of this film is the return of a parent who has been missing and presumed dead for twenty years. She reunites happily with her son and husband but then as you should always expect there are complications with consequences.  In addition there is the discovery of a forgotten menace who reemerges to threaten the kingdom.  (The success of this sequel may come from the series of books on which the two films are based). The characters in this film seem to be Vikings.  They refer to themselves as Vikings, but there is a good bit of bagpipe music, and the chief’s sidekick Gobbo is voiced by Craig Ferguson, so perhaps these Vikings live in or near Scotland.  The flying sequences are exciting, the battles loud and explosive, the comedy is about what you would expect—the film offers the usual array of comic secondary characters that seem almost de rigeur in films like this one.  (What would Despicable Me be without those strange little eraser-like yellow sidekicks who follow Gru around?).  Does the use of the Arabic numeral 2 instead of the Roman numeral II in this film’s title indicate some assumption about the film’s intended audience?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Into the Storm

Coming down with a cold, I wanted to sink down in my recliner and watch something that would require no real effort.  That is, I wanted something brainless.  My choice was Into the Storm (2013; dir. Steve Quayle), about a cluster of tornadoes that besiege the small town of Silverton, Oklahoma, one spring afternoon.  I’d read the reviews that excoriate the film for its plotless implausibility.  No doubt, the way the tornadoes behave in this film is probably not very consistent with observed meteorological realities, though the film evades the need for reality by having characters point out on various ways how “nothing like this has happened before.”  Reed Timmer, the loud and in my opinion somewhat demented tornado chaser we’ve seen on Storm Chasers and other shows, insisted in an online essay that the film’s storms are realistic, if slightly exaggerated.[1]  He also wrote a book about his storm-chasing experiences from which the film took its title.  The loud and somewhat demented storm chaser whose crew are among the main characters in this film seems vaguely similar to Timmer and his storm chasing companions.  So here we have monster tornadoes devastating a town, and what is the film’s focus? A young man estranged from his father; teenage romance; a storm-chasing meteorologist longing to be with her child.  Father and son reconcile.  Teenage romance blossoms.  Mother and daughter reunite.  Oddly, despite the movie’s insistence on the historical proportions of the tornadoes besieging Silverton, only a few people are actually blown to their deaths.  There’s not much focus on the survivors either.  There’s more concern with the aforementioned teenagers, the tornadoes, and their special propensity to wreak havoc.  I have to admit that I was curious as to when certain characters would die.  For the most part, I was disappointed.  Of the main characters, only the loud and somewhat demented head storm chaser meets his fate in the monster tornado that blows him and his storm-chasing vehicle up into the heavens.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Star of the Sea, by Joseph O'Connor

A clear purpose of Joseph O’Connor’s novel Star of the Sea (Random House, 2004) is to present the suffering, prejudice, and mistreatment suffered by people of Ireland during the potato famine of the mid-19th century and more generally suffered at the hands of the English.  The point of view shifts among an Irish maidservant, an Irish composer of folk ballads and also murderer, Pius Mulvey, an American journalist Grantley Dixon, and an English aristocrat David Merridith Lord who owns land on which he lives in Ireland.  Others figure in as well, including Merridith’s father.  The maidservant Mary Duane is at the center of the novel, but Merridith and Dixon are almost as important.  Both have had affairs with her.  All of these characters live entangled lives.  This is an Irish novel, and although O’Connor gives us a range of English characters, some of whom he portrays with sympathy, his allegiances lie with the Irish. 
This novel has many virtues and strengths.  It is invariably interesting and engaging.  It’s beautifully composed and structured. The characters are fully drawn in Dickensian fashion (Dickens himself makes a couple of appearances).  But it gives as dark a story as one might imagine.  Suffering and depravity are everywhere—in the streets of London, on the estates where Irish servants labor for British landowners, in the fields and ditches where Irish people die from famine and disease, in the hold of the ship, Star of the Sea, where Irish refugees are transported to America in hopes of an improved life, and in the American harbor where the ship, along with many others carrying Irish refugees, lingers for days waiting to be allowed to unload their passengers, who perish in growing numbers with the passage of each day.
O’Connor wants his reader to appreciate the enormity of the largely overlooked potato famine, which caused the deaths of as many as a million people, and from which as many as two million Irish citizens fled to the United States and other parts of the world.  The consequence for Ireland and those who remained behind was devastating.
The message overwhelms the artistry of the book at times, if it is possible to extricate one from the other, and the book reads occasionally like a political tract, a work of historical documentation.  This is understandable.  The horrors O’Connor recounts, the suffering and racism, may be too fraught for fiction to bear.  The historical events at the core of this novel are so appalling that fictionalizing them seems to trivialize them.