Thursday, April 30, 2015

Selected Stories, 1968-1994, by Alice Munroe

Rarely in Alice Munroe’s stories does she ever seem to lose the pace of the narrative.  Her focus may wander back and forth in time and place, or from one character to another, but she is always in control.  That is to say, her stories command the reader’s attention.  Place figures prominently in her work, mostly Canada as a place, especially outlying towns and areas.  She doesn’t celebrate place, or long for it nostalgically, but it’s frequently there, in the background, occasionally the foreground.  Munroe’s stories tend to be long ones—not verging on short novel length, but long.  She develops characters at length.  We learn much about them.  We inhabit their minds and sensibilities and come to know them.  Even so, they can surprise us.  In a sequence of stories taken from Munroe’s collection Who Do You Think You Are (1978) centered on a woman named Rose, the character gradually changes from a sympathetic and innocent young girl someone who wins our sympathy and interest to an unlikeable, self-absorbed, damaged soul. 

Munroe’s main characters are almost always women—young women, mothers, single women in middle age or older.  There’s not an overtly feminist ethos at work, but constraint—the restraints of a women’s life, whether imposed by geography or money or marriage or motherhood or age—is almost always an issue.  Few writers have surprised me more than Munroe.  Often in a single sentence, she turns the reader’s perception of a character or a situation or a motive or of the overall narrative on its head, and the story opens up.  These may be epiphanies, but not in the Joycean sense.  Munroe reinvents the epiphany.  More subtle, less dramatic, than Edith Wharton or Henry James or Joyce, her epiphanies still shake the earth.

As different from them as she in fact is, Munroe invokes for me the stories of Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter, if only because her practice of the short story, like theirs, is distinctive, individual, and absolutely deft.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Star Wars films

I recently watched the first two Star Wars films, Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  In their time, these films and their special effects laden representations of cosmic star battles and the American Dream of a would-be Jedi knight on a lonely planet may have been groundbreaking and entertaining.  I probably saw the first Star Wars film eight or nine times in the first year of its release (I was old enough at the time to know better).  These films were great fun.  They were exciting. But viewing them some 35 years later, they seem corny, awkward, badly managed, and dead.  They seem about as real as the portrayals of space on the old Lost in Space television series.  Watching these films, I remember the initial rush of discovery and surprise they gave the first time I saw them.  But today there is no rush.  The notion of an intergalactic empire is patently unbelievable. Moreover, and most importantly, people don’t talk to one another as the characters in these films do.  The supposed flirtatious banter between Hans Solo and Leia is excruciating.  And why exactly do people on distant planets walk around clothed in the garb of ancient Rome? 

I can overlook the costumes, but not the dialogue, and not the patently absurd premise that underlies these films.  Not to mention “the Force.” Most of all I can’t overlook how badly the films are made.  The pacing is flat, the editing poor. Lucas made things worse by adding in digital effects that often seem superfluous when these films went to DVD.  He added scenes and dialogue intended to create unity with the larger narrative he would later embellish in the films released in 1999, 2002, and 2005, and which the Disney Studios will continue to develop in its own production of the last three films of the nine Lucas originally envisioned.  They don’t work anymore.  Have I grown too old?  Am I just a complaining human version of C-3PO?

Monday, April 20, 2015

St. Vincent

St. VincentSt. Vincent (2014; dir. Theodore Melfi) is amusing and entertaining.  It’s also formula driven, the old story of an embittered and aging curmudgeon whose heart is softened by (in this case) a child.  Sometimes these stories are told with subtlety.  This one is not so subtle.  The key performers are Bill Murray as the curmudgeon, Vincent, and Melissa McCarthy as the boy’s mother.  I’ve not cared much for McCarthy’s work—she has dedicated herself to portraying overweight female buffoons.  Here she is subdued and more effective.  Most of the comedy is focused on Murray’s crabby responses to practically everything that confronts him.  He’s a gambling chain-smoking alcoholic.  He is good in this role, but he’s really enacting a character he’s played on and off since his Saturday Night Live years). I still think Lost in Translation (2003) is his best film.  This one hints (as these films often do) that there are reasons for Vincent’s crabbiness.  He’s a Vietnam war veteran. Several scenes show him talking to a woman who lives in a nursing home.  He wheels her around in a wheelchair, does her laundry, and gradually we come to realize who she is.  (She seems so placid and sweet that it’s difficult to imagine how she and Vincent could ever have gotten along.  Maybe they didn’t.) Vincent suffers a stroke after two crooks try to force him to pay his gambling debts, and in the end he is more a victim than anything else. St. Vincent basically suggests to us that a sweet and needy child, along with a caring prostitute, can solve just about any problem. I wish life were so easy.

Monday, April 13, 2015

What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South's Tornado Alley, by Kim Cross

What Stands in a Storm: Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South's Tornado Alley, by Kim  Cross (Atria Books, 2015), is most effective in its descriptions of the moments just before the tornadoes strike, and the immediate aftermath.  In one scene an ambulance full of EMTs arrives in a public housing development just after the tornado has passed and is immediately greeted by three different men carrying dead babies.  The moment is gruesome, awful.  Cross efficiently portrays the destructive power of tornadoes both in their impact on buildings and on human victims, those that survive the storms and those that don’t.

My objections to this book fall into two categories: moral and narrative.  What Stands in a Storm is virtual voyeurism.  It focuses on, highlights, and exploits the suffering and death the storms caused.  It provides journalistic disaster footage, in essence, and to the extent that we enjoy the spectacle of airplane crashes and burning buildings and auto wrecks, we relish the onslaught of the tornadoes—because we survived, because Cross in her book allows us to experience the storms in a virtual and safe way.  The value of learning about the April 2011 storms is significant, but In terms of the narrative, Cross uses a tried and true way of telling the story: she introduces an array of sympathetic characters, college students, parents, meteorologists, and policemen.  She introduces the developing storms.  She moves methodically from one description of the oncoming storms to another description of worried students watching the weather on television to a scene of a weather broadcaster worrying about whether people will heed warnings about the storms.  Moving back and forth from storms to people, Cross builds tension, engages pathos and fear, pushes us towards the moment the storms strike.  The choice of three college students hiding in the basement of a house in the storm’s path seems calculated in my opinion to evoke sentiment.  It’s even more exaggerated by the phone calls and text messages that the students make to friends and parents.  A hysterical mother describes the oncoming storms to her hysterical daughter.  Cross makes clear by how she sets the story up that the students are going to die, well before the storms approach Tuscaloosa.  We’re taunted and tantalized and tempted with their fates, and then trees fall, crushing the house where the students hide, killing them. Then we’re treated to the search for their bodies, the reactions of the distraught families, the funerals (and wedding) that follow.

Several hundred people died in these storms.  Cross’ decision to focus mainly on young college students seems a cheesy ploy that ignores the extent of the deaths and destruction the storms caused.