Friday, January 31, 2014

The Kept, by James Scott

The Kept (Harper, 2013), by James Scott, takes all the traits that make Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis special and turns them into conventions.  It's set late in the 19th century, in upper New York, near Lake Erie.  There's a revenge plot, very predictable.  And the final scene is predictable, unsatisfying, a cop-out.  There are high points and low points.  The two main characters are a woman named Elspeth who finds her entire family—three children and a husband--murdered, except for one son, 12-year-old Caleb, hiding in the barn.  He is the other main character. We're constantly learning new things about these characters, especially Elspeth, who prior to her family’s slaughter disappeared for months at a time, serving as a midwife in remote towns and villages, entirely beyond the reach of her family.  Nothing is as it seems.  Darkness and mud and ice abound.   The book is structured around a historical event, a disaster in a factory that harvests ice from a frozen lake, but this seems a convenience.

The circumstances surrounding mother and son are so grim that we fail to believe even in the rare moments of hope that the novel offers.  Caleb, by horrible circumstance beyond his control, and Elspeth, both by her own acts and by her situation, are doomed.  This seems beyond dispute even from the earliest pages.  Doom can come in various forms—moral, legal, violent, psychological, even supernatural, and all of those apply here in some way.  The author so convinces us of this doom that the story hardly seems worth reading to the end.  To have these characters rescued in would betrayed the book’s own principles.  Their situation is one from which rescue is not possible. The novel tempts us to believe in some redemptive glimmer, then denies it completely.  The final scene recalled the penultimate moment in Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (1997), whose sadness is tempered by an epilogue.  Here, there is no tempering, and in that regard this novel at least is honest.

Life of Pi

From its earliest images, Life of Pi (2012; dir. Ang Lee) has a fabulistic tone—with the opening shots of zoo animals, of the same animals on the ship the family is taking to America, and finally with the animals that seek refuge (however briefly or unfortunately for most of them) in the lifeboat that the main character Pi (Piscine Molitor, played by Suraj Sharma) finds his way into after the ship wreck.  The entire film is presented as a tale told by Pi to a novelist (Yann Martel, who wrote the novel, played by Rafe Spall) in search of a story, which in essence suggests that the film is a tale told to the audience by the novelist.  In and of itself, Pi’s initial narrative seems incomplete, not in the sense of its narrative, which does have a beginning and middle and end, but with the quality of its completeness—it’s too simple, too straightforward, too perfect, too lyrical and fanciful, too obviously crafted.  There’s no raggedness.  We’re not too surprised when insurance investigators wonder whether the tale Pi told them about his ordeal camouflaged a darker story, which leads Pi to tell about a different series of events that his first narrative “might” have disguised.  The real story (if it is the real one) seems more likely but less entertaining than the fabulistic one.  Of course, we never know which story is true, if either is.  But this film feeds our desire for adventure and fantasy, for a tale of a man striving against the unforgiving onslaughts of nature, and who struggles to reach an accord with the tiger that shares the boat with him—an accord that is tenuous at best and that ends as soon as they reach landfall in Mexico.  It also satisfies our need for Pi’s happy survival of a nearly impossible 227-day ordeal.  Most of all the film feeds our desire for story, and however many faults one may find in either of Pi’s tales, both of which are probably emblematic of some other untold truer narrative, this film is beautifully constructed, with artfully integrated special effects that don’t intrude—they’re part of the fantasy, but they represent the real well enough.  One doesn’t need to have read the book by Martel to understand or enjoy the film.

Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, by Barry Lopez

Good writing—vivid, precise, lyrical, descriptive prose—can be its own justification.  Good writing is one of many justifications for Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape, by Barry Lopez (Scribner’s, 1986).  By any definition, this book is encyclopedic—in length, scope, ambitions, and spirit.  It’s one of the great American books about landscape, in this case the Arctic landscape.  As an example, Lopez’s descriptions of icebergs, his epic list of their categories and types and names, are (words escape me) breathtaking.  He explores the Arctic world through its wildlife (the narwhale chapter was especially interesting), geography, native culture, archaeological history going back thousands of years, ecology, and European discovery.  The book concludes with a long narrative detailing the centuries-long search for the Northwest Passage and the voyages of discovery it motivated.  The research and experiences that went into the writing of this book (numerous trips to the Arctic, long sojourns there) suggest not only resolute dedication but obsession.  In his own way Lopez is like one of the British explorers who spent three or four years in the Arctic, waiting for the ice to thaw so that their ships were free to sail home.  But it’s not clear that Lopez has a home.  For him the Arctic emptiness, the lack of detail (on first observation), the long dark winters, and the silence are attractors.  He explores human nature in this book, the nature of the human spirit both to discover and to learn as well as to exploit and desecrate.  Clearly the Arctic too is a mirror of Lopez’s own inner self.  In addition to all the other things Arctic Dreams is, this is a work of reverence, self-contemplation, and spirituality.  In that regard it reminded me of Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (Viking, 1978), and to a lesser extent John McPhee’s Basin and Range (1981), but the scope here is more encompassing.

Inside Llewyn Davis

In A Serious Man (2009) the Coen brothers placed the Book of Job in a mostly contemporary American context.  Although he was not unflawed, the main character was beset by a series of disasters mostly not of his own making.  In Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the Coens give us a main character so unlikeable and tedious that it’s difficult to know whether most of the indignities he suffers are of his own causing, or whether he is the victim of bad historical timing or a combination. Llewyn wants to be a folk singer with a recording contract and profitable gigs, but for reasons the film shows us and hints at he doesn’t succeed.  The partner he once sang and recorded an album with committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.  We never know details of the death, which is mentioned only twice in the film, but I think we’re supposed to see it as a devastating event for Llewyn.  (It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could survive as Llewyn’s partner).  In every possible way his life is miserable.  Early in the film we see him viciously attacked in a back alley—retribution for his heckling of a singer the previous evening.  He can’t afford his own apartment and relies on friends and acquaintances (whom he abuses in various ways) to give him a place to stay.  He sleeps with his best friend’s wife and leaves her pregnant—the second pregnancy he has caused.  He slugs a nightclub owner who has given him numerous opportunities to sing.  He passes up an opportunity to join a three-person folk group that sounds suspiciously like Peter, Paul, and Mary.  His need for quick and easy bucks causes him to turn down the chance to receive royalty checks for a friend’s novelty song that becomes a hit.  Finally, and significantly, he declines a chance to play a double bill with another singer at the Gaslight.  The New York Times, we’re told, is going to be there.  By then he has already decided to give folk singing up, and as he leaves the Gaslight we hear the voice, and see the profile, of another very recognizable folk singer whose career is about to take off.

Llewyn’s ambition is strong, but his talent isn’t up to his ambition, and his timing is terrible.  He sings well, and with feeling, but perhaps not well enough.

Only one actual historical figure appears in the film.  The others are fictional creations, though they remind us occasionally of real singers, such as Dave Van Ronk or Cisco Houston or Ian and Sylvia or Peter, Paul, and Mary.  There are, notably, no black singers in the film, though much of the folk revival of the 50s and 60s was inspired by black music, and in fact such singers as Richie Havens and Lead Belly and others were a presence in the folk revival days.  But everyone is committed and inspired and ambitious. 

Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece.  It really looks like Greenwich Village of the early 1960s.  The color palette is muted and subdued, and it often seems overcast if it is not actually raining.  It specifically reminded me of the famous album cover from Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963).

A friend complained to me that the film has no plot.  In a conventional sense, perhaps not.  It’s more like a mythic quest, with various stops and pitfalls along the way.  Llewyn meets characters as bizarre and incredible as any of the figures in The Odyssey, or in the photography of Diane Arbus.  His goal is fame as a folk singer, but every opportunity he seeks, even the chance to go back to the maritime when he gives up, doesn’t pan out.  He doesn’t take good advice, nor does he accept several significant offers of assistance.  His performance in front of a folk impresario (the film’s version of Albert Grossman) fails, and the impresario tells him that he needs a partner.  Llewyn doesn’t want a partner.  The one question that grows throughout the film is simple: what’s going to happen? What’s going to break this seemingly endless chain of mistakes, outrages, abuse, and failure?  As far as Llewyn goes, there is no answer.  But for folk music, for the position of success and fame that Llewyn and others are seeking to seize, there is an answer.

Much of the film consists of a narrative loop that we can see as a dream story or as in some way surreally metaphoric.  The film opens in the alleyway to the Gaslight (thought at that point we don’t know its name).  Llewyn stumbles out the back door into the dark alley.  We hear faintly in the background the voice of someone playing inside.  I recognized the voice, but it is so faint and muted that most people probably did not.  Then a dark figure emerges from the alley and beats Llewyn nearly into unconsciousness.  He awakes, and from that point the film unrolls.  We gradually learn about who Llewyn is, what he has done to make everyone angry with him, how he has not met with success on the folk scene, how he fails to impress the one person who could have helped him.  He ends up in the Gaslight and turns down the owner’s offer to play the next night.  In the film’s final scene, we see the silhouette and hear the ragged yet absolutely riveting voice of a young Bob Dylan.  This is the answer, not to what is going to happen to Llewyn (he’s going to fade away), but to what is going to happen to the Greenwich Village folk scene.  This is a moment of fate, chance, fortune, or history—a moment so powerful that we know that no matter what break Llewyn might have had, he could never have lived up to this moment.  He’s lost irretrievably.

The one figure in the film that suggests Llewyn is not entirely lost is a cat.  When he leaves the apartment of friends who have lent him their sofa to sleep on, their mackerel-colored cat runs out the door.  Llewyn chases after it, but the apartment door has locked behind him.  He chases the cat down and loses it and chases it down again and in various fumbling ways tries to take care of and eventually return it to the owners.  Unfortunately, he returns the wrong cat, which he also tries to care for before finally abandoning it.  Llewyn is haunted by the cat, by his sense of responsibility to it, by his guilt over having lost it and (in one scene) possibly having run over it.  Near the end of the film, the original cat shows up, miraculously recovered by its owners, safe and sound.  The cat’s name, it turns out, is Ulysses.  No name in a Coen Brothers film is without meaning.  This one is not accidental.  It reminded me of the mystical, totem-like cat that seems always to be present in Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore (2002).  We might associate it with Tennyson’s famous long poem, about Ulysses’ courageous voyage towards death.  Or we might link it to the James Joyce novel (1922), about a seemingly endless walk around the city of Dublin on June 4, 1904.  Or maybe we go back directly to Homer himself.  None of these possibilities fully work with the film, but in general the name is allusive and evocative at the same time, suggesting a larger meaning at stake in Llewyn’s journey than the quest for fame and success in the folk world.


The documentary Salinger (2013; dir. Shayne Salerno), was interesting and disturbing.  It was just what Salinger wouldn't have wanted, but then he is dead, and I don't think he should be exempt from this sort of thing more than anyone else.  This film takes an enigmatic subject about whom many have theorized and fantasized and puts together an explanation of his life based on the opinions of 50 or so people, including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen and Judd Apatow (??) and a lot of writers, editors, and scholars, all of whom appeared to know Salinger’s work and a few who knew him personally.  The film offers three related readings of the man’s life: (1) he was a victim of post WWII trauma and spent his entire career trying to write his way through the pain.  (2) He was fixated on innocence and so was attracted to young women who embodied it.  The film offers Joyce Maynard as a main example, but includes interviews with a few former girlfriends and one ex-wife.  Salinger dances around the question of how deviant this behavior might have been.  And finally (3) despite his obsession with privacy and anonymity in the end his own work turned against him when Catcher in the Rye was cited as a primary motive in two assassination/murders and one attempted assassination.  The film ends cheesily by trotting out information about works Salinger completed and approved for publication before his death.  The first will be published in 2015 and other works will follow.  All of this, a message informs us, has been "verified by two independent sources.”  So the film gives us a version of Salinger invented and constructed by people who did and did not know him and who have their own individual perspectives.  Despite all the information here, there is much speculation, and there is prurience.  Salinger was important to me in younger days (the Glass stories made a bigger impression on me than Catcher), but now he is one of many tumbling along in the dust.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Girl with the Flammable Skirt, by Aimee Bender

The stories in The Girl with the Flammable Skirt (Doubleday, 1998) by Aimee Bender are light, humorous, and readable.  They blend fantasy and magical realism.  An example is “The Healer,” about two girls, one with a hand of ice and the other with a hand of fire.  When they hold hands, their hands become normal.  They are good friends in grammar school but drift apart in high school.  One uses her strange impediment to do good deeds, while the other isolates herself in a shack on the outskirts of town.  In another story, “Quiet Please,” a librarian has sex with every man she can find when she learns that her father has died.  In another, “Dreaming in Polish,” a mother drags her daughter on endless visits to Holocaust museums.  In “Legacy” a pregnant woman has an affair with a man pretending to be a hunchback in a castle.  Many of these stories are whimsically erotic.  All of them are subversive in subtle ways, especially concerning men and women and their socially prescribed gender roles.  The stories were enjoyable, but most of them quickly faded as soon as I’d read them.  At times the author seems profoundly nihilistic, insensitive to situations and people she describes.  At other times she seems full of despairing outrage and helplessness.  Why did Bender compose these stories?  She’s been active as a short story writer and novelist since this first volume appeared, and it’s possible I’ll read one of her other books to see how her writing has developed.  But at times as I read through these stories they seem bizarre exercises in self-indulgence.

Pacific Rim

In this 2013 film big monsters rise out of a Pacific trench which is really a “portal” to another universe and inflict carnage on various famous coastal cities such as Los Angeles, where most of the action takes place.  The script is not entirely horrible, with one iconic line that has already entered into the Valhalla of famous movie lines (“Today we are cancelling the apocalypse.”)  The acting is serviceable.  The production values are strong, and with one major exception the special effects are fine.  The problem is the monsters.  They seem to come straight out of a 1950s-era Japanese Godzilla film, men in rubber suits, lumbering around and swishing their various rubber appendages back and forth against people, bridges, buildings, and the giant robots the Japanese and Americans build to oppose them.  The robots also are giant costumes with men in them, but they are more convincing, insofar as giant robots can be convincing.  The story takes place ten years after the first robot attack.  The allies think they have permanently held them at bay, but boy are they wrong.  Those alien space monsters start spewing from the Pacific trench portal at increasingly alarming rates, and boy are they big monsters!  But the good guys come up with a plan, and in a last ditch effort they carry it off, though not without sacrificing two real heroes in the process.  Humanity is saved, at least for now.  The fun of this film is its silliness, and the serious way in which it pursues that silliness.  Turn it up loud, sit close and revel in the explosions and the robotic groans of consternation and the gradual momentum towards that final kiss between the man and woman who can’t stand each other but who have to be partners and who, what do you know, surprise, surprise, actually have the hots for each other.  Go robots!  Death to the alien space monsters from the portal to an alternative universe deep in the trench on the edge of the Pacific Rim! Guillermo del Toro knows the Japanese monster movie genre well, and this is one of the best examples of the category.  

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe

From each of our individual perspectives, our lives matter.  No matter our station in life, our economic or monetary or social or education attainments, we all face certain significant events.  Death is certainly foremost among them.  Whether you’re rich or poor, famous or just an anonymous soul on the edge of the road, your death matters, and the deaths of those important to you matter.  When death comes, the universe shakes.  Certain recent memoirs, such as Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2006) or Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story: A Memoir (Ecco, 2011), have sought to talk about death in a way that conveys the authors’ individual perspectives in a way a more general audience can appreciate and empathize with.  Oates and Didion are good writers.  The talents of Didion and Oates as artists, as accomplished writers, enable them to work the subject thoroughly without giving into to self-absorption, self-pity.  (One might argue that self-absorption is Didion’s métier).

I am struggling to understand why Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club (Knopf, 2012) didn’t work for me.  Part of the reason may be that the writer speaks from a position of considerable wealth and privilege which he seems to take for granted.  His mother Mary Ann faced a horrible diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and her struggle to keep living and working even as she is dying is heroic.  There’s no doubt that she performed numerous good deeds and services in her remarkable life.  She sought to be a good mother and an independent worker in an age when mothers were generally expected to stay at home.  She travelled to many parts of the world at times of danger and crisis and she helped suffering people, not only through the agencies and boards and schools she served, but also because of many acts of personal kindness that few of us could hope to emulate.  Yet she could have done little of this had she not possessed the financial means to make these trips and donations. 

Will Schwalbe is a former book editor and the owner of a web site devoted to cooking.  He loves his family, and his book while focused on the life and death of his mother makes clear how important his brother and sister and father are to him.  At the same time the book explains how the prospect of his mother’s death, and her desire to form a two-person book club with her son in which they would discuss books they had read together, allows him to understand and love her more deeply than ever.  In particular he comes to appreciate what a difficult and challenging life she led, trying to be both a full-time mother and a full-time employee in various arenas, in all of which she appears to have been successful.

Mary Ann has the benefit of wealth, position, and supportive family members in the nearly two-year process of her death.  She’s aware of that position, and even in her final blog post she speaks about the importance of universal health care, but the author himself never made me feel that he fully understood.  I grew tired of the patina of famous names and places laid down in the book.  The book discussions themselves are not consistently interesting or revealing—sometimes they’re superficial.  And although one of the book’s persistent themes seems to be the author’s struggle to reach a deeper understanding of himself and his mother, I’m not convinced that the understanding he achieves goes very deep.  If Schwalbe’s mother had written this book, post mortem, I suspect we would have had a different story, a different book.  As it is, I’m more impressed by the woman who died than by her son’s memoir.

Schwalbe is not the literary writer that Oates and Didion are.  He’s more of a journalist.  His prose is spare and straightforward and tends towards simple and compound sentences.  One can’t fault him for that.  He writes well enough.  But does the fact of his writing skills, or Oates’ or Didion’s, make his experience of his loved one’s death anymore painful and terrible than the similar experiences of millions of others who don’t get written about? 

I still have failed in explaining my unhappiness with this book.  Maybe my own resentment of the author’s privileged station in life, and his insouciant unquestioning satisfaction with it, is the problem.  Maybe I am the snob.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941, by Lynne Olson

Narrative force is a key element in Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 (Random House, 2013), Lynne Olson’s account of the national debate over intervening or remaining isolated in the early days of the Second World War.  Representing the two sides of the debate are Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh.  Olson traces in interesting detail the development of the opposing sides of the debate from the 1920s on, describing Roosevelt’s rise to power and Lindbergh’s shift from American aviation hero to increasingly controversial German apologist and isolationist spokesman.  The challenge for the writer of a book such as this is that the facts are already there.  They can’t be changed to suit the needs of the story.  Of course, the writer can bend and burnish elements of the story so as to give it color, but only within bounds, and he or she cannot change the facts.  A novelist can fabricate events.  A documentary writer can only select and edit them.  Olson’s challenge is to take preset events and people and to bring out their interest, if it is already there, or to find within them what makes them relevant to the present day.  Olson is an excellent nonfictional narrativist.  She writes well, evokes her characters effectively, and clearly explains the issues that made those days so angry.

The parallels in this book between America in the pre-World War II 1930s and the present day are striking.  The debate over involvement in WWII was fierce, furious, and sometimes nasty.  Lindbergh comes to us as a not especially intelligent and sometimes clueless articulator of viewpoints that are, in retrospect, contemptible.  But there were many Americans, including leading members of Congress, who agreed with him.  Roosevelt comes across at moments as a scheming politician, telling the citizenry one thing with the intent of doing something else.  While he was assuring voters that he had no intention of getting America involved in the Second World War, he was in fact looking for ways to provide support, including military support, to the European allies, especially the British.  He was a consummate Machiavellian.  He was also, at times, an indecisive procrastinator unable to recover from judicial and legislative setbacks suffered during his second term.  In the end, following Pearl Harbor, he emerged as the great wartime leader we remember today, while Lindbergh gradually withdrew from public life.

Lindberg was, according to Olson, a controlling father and husband.  He wanted to mold his wife and children in his own image, though he often went months without seeing them.  He couldn’t understand why some of his speeches against interventionism provoked outrage and threats against his family.  Olson identifies a growing rift, personally and politically, between Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow, a gifted and talented writer who did what her husband wanted even as she had misgivings about his views and wrote in one of her novels about an ambitious young woman struggling against a domineering husband.  Olson tries to present Morrow sympathetically, but in some of her writings she clearly sought to defend and explain the attitudes her husband was expressing openly.

In the end, when he died, Lindbergh left behind in addition to his own children with Morrow seven children from relationships with three other women.  They didn’t learn their father’s identity until decades after his death.  His arrogance, egotism, and political wrongheadedness make him the least sympathetic of the people in this book.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012; dir. Timothy Hedges) is a cruel fantasy for adults.  It doesn’t mean to be.  It means to be gently and comically warmhearted.  Its premise involves a husband and wife who are told by their doctor that they are infertile and have no hope of biologically producing a child.  Later that evening, in a last gasp of deluded hope, they drink wine and jot down on bits of paper the traits they want their child to have: great at soccer, talented musician, kind, and so on.  They put the bits of paper in a small box and bury it in their garden—they’re burying their dream of parenthood.  A storm hits, lots of thunder and lightning and rain (the town where the film is set is suffering a severe drought), and the couple suddenly discovers in their house the slight form of a boy of around ten years old.  He’s naked, and green leaves are growing out of his legs.  He says his name is Timothy Green.  The couple somehow realizes that he came out of the ground in the very spot where they buried the box.  Without much delay, they adopt him and start inventing stories about how they got him and about his many talents.
I won’t divulge more of the plot, but an attentive filmgoer can predict how things will go.  The cruelty here involves young couples who cannot reproduce.  Burying a box in the garden doesn’t typically solve that problem.  This fanciful treatment of a painful situation is sour.  In the course of caring for Timothy, his adoptive parents learn how unprepared for parenthood they really are.  There’s a lot for them to learn, and a lot of attitudes to change.  Does this mean they really don’t deserve to be parents?  There’s a good bit of attitude adjusting for this film’s audience too.  Is this a comedy, a romantic adult fairy tale, a supernatural yarn, an eco-tale, a bogus New Age yawp?  Do we feel sorry for the parents as they fall victim to error?  Do we feel sorry for these parents or for Timothy as we realize what is about to happen to him?  And have the parents earned what comes to them in the final scene?  You can’t separate the real from the fanciful in this film.  Where does the real world stop and the invented one begin? It seems to me that fantasizing in this particular way about infertility should be off limits.  Adoption as an option for the parents doesn’t come up until the end.

Life is not so easy.  It can be painful, not only for the parents who can’t conceive, but also for the parents who produce their own children and raise them and watch them grow and then see them leave the household.  It’s wrong to portray it as otherwise.  This film is an allegory, I suppose, about parenting, but it left me feeling cheated, unsettled, and unhappy.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Room 237

Three lessons in Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher), a 2012 documentary about people who see secret codes, hidden messages, and unusual conspiracies encrypted in Stanley Kubrick’s 1981 film The Shining:

1.  People need to believe in extreme and bizarre narratives that prove the real world is merely a shadow of a more sinister and dark reality. Not coincidentally, their ability to identify and explain this hidden dimension that others do not see proves their special intelligence.

2.  Artists, certain types of artists, have access to special forms of knowledge, and subtle means of burying that knowledge in their art so that only the most capable and intelligent can find it.  The artist cited in this film as similar to Kubrick is James Joyce whose book Finnegans Wake (1939) they find to be noteworthy, mainly because almost no one can read it.  Again, like Kubrick’s film, it is a work of art whose meaning and value is accessible only to those smart enough to decipher it.  One of the people interviewed for the documentary believes that every flaw and inconsistency in The Shining is an intentional act by Kubrick.  He makes much of the fact that in one scene the main character’s typewriter is gray and in another it is blue.  If anything, this film makes me wonder whether continuity is a problem in Kubrick films, and whether he was more careless and capricious in the use of props and setting than he should have been.

3.  There are limits to what interpretation can do (cf. Umberto Eco on the over-interpretation of texts).  Conversely, there are limits to the messages and themes artists can place within their artistic works.  We encounter in Room 237 some highly unusual theories that people claim to see worked out in The Shining.  One commentator thinks that it is an allegorical narrative of Kubrick’s experience when he worked with NASA in the late 1960s to create the videos that were shown as proof that the US landed on the moon. (The commentator actually believes the moon landing occurred, but that (for some reason) the moon landing videos were faked).  A woman believes images of minotaurs are hidden in the film.  A man believes that the film is about Kubrick’s obsession with the Holocaust.  Another believes the film is about the genocide against Native Americans (there’s more to this theory than the others).  All of these ideas are based on “evidence” in the film, and on biographical evidence from Kubrick’s life and his other films.  But most of them do not make sense--they’re illogical, they misconstrue the evidence, they stretch and distort, all for the purpose of making the film fit and support a pet theory.  The film in effect becomes about their theories rather than about what it really is about.  Any random assortment of data can be made into meaning.

Room 237 is amusing throughout.  It uses  clips from The Shining as well as other Kubrick films and from films that have nothing to do with Kubrick.  

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Kick-Ass 2

Despite a few exciting moments, Kick-Ass 2 (2013; dir. Jeff Wadlow) suffers the same fate as many sequels—it lacks novelty and bogs down in plot.  We learn how the main characters of the first film have fared, and we encounter new characters.  Apparently, a lot of people in the city where the film takes place  want to be superheroes, and they have banded together in gangs that go out at night either to protect the law abiding or to do evil.  Mindy Macready (“Kick Girl,” played by Chloë Grace Moretz), at her adopted guardian’s insistence, is trying to live a normal life, so instead of seeing her do flips and assault super villains, we see her trying to fit in at the local high school.  We see her on her first date, which goes badly.  We see her befriended, and then rejected, by a group of mean girls.  (Faint hints here of Carrie, 1976; dir. Brian De Palma).  Her former associates in super-herodom can’t understand what has happened to her.  This is especially the case with Dave Lizewski (“Kick-Ass,” played by Aaron Taylor Johnson), who in the first film wanted to be a super hero and was befriended by Kick Girl.  There are various twists and turns of plot here, and when things get really dark, Kick Girl comes out of retirement—as we would expect her to.  The first film had novelty and a foul-mouthed 12-year old super hero who was full of energy and hyperkinetic explosiveness.  In this film, we’ve seen it all before.  It compensates for lack of novelty with excess of plot.  It misses the point of what was special about the first installment.  It lacks the balletic energy and form of the first film.  All the same, there are moments of life.  The leader of the gang of heroes that Kick-Ass has joined is Colonel Stars and Stripes, played remarkably well by Jim Carrey (whom I didn’t recognize until the credits rolled and I saw his name).  Carrey disavowed the film after production ended because of its violence, but he brings something special—he inhabits his character so well that we forget or never realize who he is (shades of Man on the Moon, 1999; dir. Milos Forman).

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Wolverine

Marvel Comics has certainly created over the years a vast and intricate mythological history for the X-Men series.  I haven’t followed it, except through the various films over the past several years that seek to bring it to life.  I am not a fan of the series, but not necessarily a detractor either.  It just doesn’t appeal to me.  Some of the films, or certain scenes within them, have been striking.  In The Wolverine (2013; dir. James Mangold), we see the atomic bomb blast at Nagasaki from a prison camp across the bay.  It’s an unexpected and impressive perspective, to be sure, especially when Wolverine and his Japanese benefactor dive into a well to avoid the fiery blast.  I didn’t know Wolverine was around for WWII.  The film alludes to certain facts about his creation, but in general it dramatizes the Wolverine’s struggle to recover from his grief over the death of Jean (another X-Men mutant), whom he killed in an earlier film, and to come to grips with the fact that he is who he is, immortal and invulnerable but also fundamentally isolated.  In the films I’ve seen he’s always struggling with this issue.  He needs to get over it.  As far as existential struggles go, this is one-note angst.

Hugh Jackman is a good actor.  He was quite effective in Les Misérables, a film I otherwise didn’t much care for.  Why does he choose to be typecast as the Wolverine?  Certainly it means he gets to work and therefore earn money.  But aren’t there other roles for him?  He’s one of the producers of this film.

In a final scene at the Tokyo airport, Magneto and Xavier (back from the dead) alert Wolverine to yet another threat against mutants, setting up the next film.  It’s crucial the franchise continue.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The Conjuring

Most of the terror that The Conjuring (2013; dir. James Wan) conjures comes from off-stage, so to speak.  Only at the end does the source of the terror—a demon that has possessed the mother of a family—become clear.  To the film’s credit, it inspires a good bit of suspense and uncertainty.  To its discredit, the revelation that the source of the family’s problems is a demon simply tosses this film into a pot of other like films where the supernatural plays a decisive role.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991; dir. Jonathan Demme) inspired terror through the psychopathology of Hannibal Lectern, just as Hitchcock’s Psycho did through Norman Bates in 1960).  There was nothing supernatural about Hannibal.  But his deviance and his personality, his sense of humor, his relish for good food, made him a truly frightening, dangerous character.

Is there room for more films about demonic possession.  They’re a cliché.  And a fiction.  I can give myself up to them occasionally.  I remember what it was like to come home one Sunday evening back in the early 1970s to my room in the basement of my mother’s house.  My siblings and I had gone to see The Exorcist (1973; dir. William Friedkin).  The basement was empty, and dark.  Every small sound was reason for insomnia.  I managed to go to sleep with the lights on.

The Exorcist created its own formulaic cliché.  It ultimately became its own victim.  With good writing and acting and production values, it was truly frightening.  Most films that have tried to emulate it have not come close to succeeding.  Even a re-viewing of The Exorcist proves unsatisfying—rather than something innovative and new, it seems hackneyed, because of the very clichés it popularized.  The Conjuring doesn’t try to be The Exorcist, but it does resort to demonology and exorcism, and the supernatural fiction at its heart—that there is a supernatural realm beyond our own—ruins the frightening moments it manages to produce.

The appeal of these films is a sign of weak-mindedness in the people attracted to them, including me, I suppose.