Monday, December 31, 2007
This story is of one Arthur Friendship, a thirty-something single man, a Romantic and Idealist who, at the novels opening, lives in a boarding house, writes pseudonymic cant for a women's magazine for his living, and works for a peace organization in pursuit of his higher ideals. He fancies the exquisite Elizabeth Pedal, idolizes the pro-peace activist Mr. Besant, and suffers the existence of a variety of more crude men (Mr. Carpenter, his editor at the magazine; Ferdie Jacques, a younger member of the peace organization and a callous womanizer to boot; and Thomas (Toe-mass) Gray, an African-American poet who takes the liberty of a mile whence given an inch). Because of his sublimated baser feelings for Miss Pedal, when she takes up sexually with the black poet Gray, he becomes a hater of blacks (his hate further motivated by fear), and when fleeing his own boarding house (where Gray knows he lives, and may come to kill him), insists on moving into another boarding house where blacks simply won't be allowed (not that they had been allowed, in fact, in his previous home). After quite a bit of romping intrigue, when Gray has left and Miss Pedal is instead shacking with Ferdie, Friendship suffers hideous burns when his new boarding house is burnt by an arsonist (perhaps Gray, perhaps Jacques, perhaps both in cahoots against racist boarding houses), and while he is in hospital, Ferdie Jacques takes the last thing that Friendship imagined belonged to him, that being a post as Mr. Besant's personal secretary. Mr. Besant, we discover, believes in the kind of "tangible" peace that can only be brought about by the complete annihilation of the human race (though he had his start working for the Nazis and exterminating Jews, Gypsies, and other "non-contributors"), and while he is extradited by a group of Israelis to face trial, Friendship, on his way to visit the polite Elizabeth Pedal, is hit by a car and sent to his death. The book ends there, as easily as Evelyn's almost always do, with a big, red, shiny, sorrowful bow.
Auberon's prose is a bit thicker, if less snarky, than his father's, and he has a way of choosing character names that obliquely recall other literary and historical figures for the amusement of his readership in a way that feels more intellectual. Indeed, Who Are the Violets Now? is a much more demanding read than The Loved One or A Handful of Dust, though it remains no Brideshead Revisited. The irony of the Waughs, though, remains for me somewhat tenuous; as much as we are made to laugh at their heroes' small minds, we cannot but wonder at the writers' deep empathy with these heroes, and witness a kind of intellectual nostalgia for that closure. Considering, too, the Waugh readership (sure, myself included), one has ones suspicions.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
The story is the autobiographical one of artist and writer (oh, pardon, graphic novelist) Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Tehran and witnessed, as a precocious child, the fall of the Shah's regime, and the replacement of it by the more militant religionists we see there today. Satrapi's family, though connected by blood to the Shah, was rather leftist, and her film shows her relatives and friends being taken as political prisoners, jailed and sometimes executed. For her own safety, her parents sent her to Europe as an adolescent, and she grew up basically on her own in Germany and France.
The beginning half of the film, which describes Satrapi's childhood in Tehran, is rather lovely--poignant and witty--but just as teenagers are generally less pleasant than kindergartners, the remainder of the film, during which our heroine suffers from the depression brought on by a number of failed love affairs, drags quite a bit. Satrapi introduces color in the scenes that take place in the "present," where she sits in a French airport, recollecting her past, which we see in black and white flashback. The memories are strung together like the (for me, terribly unfulfilling) pages of a comic book (excuse me, graphic novel), which, by their textual limitations, can only delve so deep.
Most confusing, for me, is Satrapi's choice to film the dialogue in French, rather than Farsi. She did attend a French academy growing up, and perhaps her family spoke French in the home (they certainly do in the movie, but then again, so does everyone else), but in showing a French-speaking household, in a film in which all the characters are homogeneous shadow drawings, to an extent ethnicity-free, Satrapi misleads her audience, which might wonder whether her family were expatriates, working for some reason in Iran (which would be a fair explanation for their unusually progressive values). This is clarified later, when her grandmother describes their blood connection to the Shah, but for a time, I found myself rather uncertain.
Ultimately, I cannot say that this film sheds any new or different light on the current Western perspective on Iran or its Muslim regime; a short sequence in which Satrapi's father explains to the child Marjane England's role in the Shah's rise to power, and later the West's further role in feeding arms to both sides in the civil war, in very clear and simple terms clarified some recent history about which I was previously a bit cloudy (having been an even younger child when all of this was happening, with parents equally progressive, but far less politically inclined), and for that I am grateful. But the sweetness of seeing the adolescent Marjane rocking out to a bootleg cassette of Iron Maiden, or changing, in 20/20 hindsight, her rendering of a lover who jilted her, come from feeling a bond of sameness with Satrapi, rather than an introduction to something different. I've gained no real insight into anything other than (blech) femininity by watching this film, whereas I expected to come away with a deeper understanding of something more foreign.
Friday, December 28, 2007
As always with Nabokov, the phrase is better than the sentence, which is better than the paragraph, which is better than the chapter, which is better than the novel. There is one utterly brilliant passage toward the beginning when Pnin, after having all of his teeth pulled and replaced by dentures, recalls in poetic detail the unconscious joys his tongue had found passing across and against those teeth all his life, and recoils at the personified grin in a glass that mocks him from the bathroom sink. Passage aside (which can be read all on its own), there's really no need to read the rest of the darned thing, unless you really have absolutely nothing else to do.
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Day-Lewis is Daniel Plainview, a self-made man, an oil prospector cut from classic capitalist cloth, with worse than Machiavellian ethics. In the pit of his psyche is a disrespect-turned-loathing for other people, and he uses them not if he can, but if he must. These are ugly insides, but they resonate with me. He has no truck with religion, but neither is he a principled atheist; he willingly submits to public confession followed by baptism once he sees that it's the only way to get a key tract of land leased for his pipeline. He seems at first a doting single father, but when his son loses hearing in an explosion, and can no longer fuel his father's pride, Plainview nearly disowns him, and actually does disown him near the film's very end, when the now-grown and married young man, speaking in sign language through an interpreter, asks his for his father's blessing to begin his own business, drilling in Mexico. A stranger coming through town, claiming to be Plainview's "brother. . . by another mother" (the only flaw in this film, as far as I'm concerned, is this line) quickly becomes Plainview's new business partner and "friend" (whatever such a term could mean to a Daniel Plainview) , and just as soon becomes his victim, shot in the head and buried in the oil-seething dirt when Plainview discovers he is an impostor of that half-brother, now dead. We might wonder whether this violence is so much a punishment for deception, or actually Plainview's id, lashing out to protect itself; we've just heard him have the most emotive conversation he's had thus far, and seen him swimming half-naked in the ocean, unprotected, bare, stripped.
In the final scenes, the setting shifts from the fiery, sooty, sandy derricks to the interior of a high-ceilinged mansion, where, surrounded by opulence, Plainview shoots his rifle indoors, signs checks, and still sleeps unshaven on the floor, dirt under his fingernails. Here, the young preacher who once did his utmost to humiliate Plainview (after, mind you, Plainview had already humiliated him), comes for a "friendly visit" (to ask for money) and finds himself first humiliated (forced to shout, with conviction, "I am a false prophet; God is a superstition!") and then bludgeoned to death with a bowling pin. At this point, my breath swelled to a delighted pant (is there something wrong with me that I take such pleasure in the destruction of religious hypocrisy?) With a pool of blood emanating from the preacher's head, Plainview looks up at his frowzy old butler, coming down the stairs at the sound of shouting, and says simply, "I'm finished now;" here the movie ends, and the audience walks away, confused, disappointed, annoyed, or, in my case, strangely elated.
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
Samantha Morton, as Deborah Curtis (who produced the film, and wrote the autobiography on which the screenplay is based), ever ballooning with pregnancy and then depression, and dressed in the most distressing post-psychedelic mumus you've ever encountered, is thoroughly annoying, but one cannot hold her role against her, only express surprise that Ms. Curtis would be willing to portray herself thus. While it's not hard to understand why Ian Curtis would stray from her for the willowy, European Annik Honoré, it is hard to understand why he chose to marry her so young (barely out of high school), and have a baby. Based on Corbijn's early shots of Curtis—alone in his bedroom, chain smoking, listening to David Bowie records, or out with his mate scoring prescription drugs from an old lady's bathroom, then tripping in the grass—it's never clear why he would want a family of his own; he appears malsocialized, and best when alone, writing poems, smoking, dreaming. It's no surprise when he cracks under the pressure of performances, two women's sucking affection, and the countless ineffective pills necessary to stave off the epileptic fits that come over him anyway (Riley, by the way, falls to a seething, quaking, drooling fit brilliantly). I had thought that Curtis had died from one of these fits (I knew that he had died disturbingly young), so was horribly surprised when, at the film's end, he hangs himself in his estranged wife's kitchen. After the movie, I went home and listened to all of my Joy Division records; I've always liked the band, but the music had seemed more hollowly foreboding before. Now, the dread is pregnant, thick, hot.
Monday, December 24, 2007
Movie musicals, in general, are travesties (or witness the here unreviewed Everyone Says I Love You. As I've explained before, it's a bad idea to mix singing and dancing with walking and talking, particularly when the music consists of stop-start pop songs. The makers of Sweeney Todd seem to have had the sense to realize this, and therefore made their movie musical like a regular stage set musical, except tailored to the screen (much better tailored, mind you, than those stage-set Shakespearean videos you had to watch in school). The blood is copious, fire engine red, and absurdly squirtiful. There are no group numbers. The music never really stops. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are perfectly matched and delightfully dreadful; their songs together, particularly My Friends, are brilliant. The only truly dreadful dreck is the constantly-reprising Johanna song, crooned by the besotted Anthony at Sweeney Todd's lovely young daughter, imprisoned in a window by the evil Judge Turpin. In all honesty, I had expected a bit more from the art direction (something in the way of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events), but any lacking was made up for by Sweeney Todd's thrilling barber chair, which he sets up to hinge backward at the turn of a crank, depositing each dead body onto the basement floor through a flap in the floor. Mrs. Lovett's meat grinder is also rather thrilling.
I never stopped to wonder whether there might be something wrong with me that I responded to this gruesome, goresome tale with the kind of delight usually shown by three year olds for lollipops until I sat down to write this, but I'll blame all that delight on Sondheim's light touch and quick wit (cf. the lyrics for A Little Priest, probably the film's best number).
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Black Swan Green begins at the site of such a wintry puddle, but it's a pond, and it's frozen over. Here we meet our narrator who, over the course of the novel, one year, twelve discrete chapters, like monthly episodes sharing keynotes but rising and falling like separate waves, will battle, mostly silently, with his coming of age; there are bullies, parents who don't love each other any more, a speech impediment, a secret society, a curious old lady, another curious old lady, a frozen kitten, a severed mouse head, a county fair, an attractive tomboy, a wallet stuffed with money that must be returned, a kiss, a dance, an older sister with a boyfriend with a sports car. There is a precocious inner life kept secret, revealed to us in the reading, and we fall head past heels in love with it. That's all I want to say; read it yourself if you want to know more.
Monday, December 17, 2007
Instead, we have to watch Sydney Lumet go through the dramatic motions of making a movie. I am a big fan of craft, but craft can't rescue an idiotic plot, and indeed then only becomes a distraction. The idiotic plot is as follows: Ethan Hawke is a sweet and likable fuck-up (what a surprise) and can't pay his child support, so when his brother Phil Hoffman asks him to join in on the perfect robbery, he plays sucker and agrees. It's only then that he finds out that he's to rob his own parents' jewelry store, and Phil, being a pompous asshole, isn't going to come along. Hawke gets nervous and decides to bring along a loser friend to do the job; his loser friend, being a loser, brings a gun and, when things go unaccording to plan, shoots the old lady in the store, and gets shot dead by her as well. She goes into a coma. Mind you, she's the mom of Phil Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. She doesn't come out of the coma. Dad starts going crazy. Meanwhile, we find out that the reason Phil needs the money (he never told his brother or his wife or anyone) is because of his very expensive drug habit—coke and heroin (the latter which he procures from the only likable character in the whole movie: a surly homosexual pretty boy with an ultralush loft in Chelsea Heights who always answers the door wearing a kimono and holding a gun).
Now, Ethan's dead buddy's wife's thuggish brother is out to bleed him for the dough he doesn't have, he still hasn't paid his alimony, and everyone around him is losing it. We, in the audience, wish everyone would die so that the movie will end. After about fifty-seven plot twists, there are another twenty-three plot twists (mind you the film doesn't progress in linear order, and we see numerous scenes two or three times from different perspectives) and the movie does end, but not until Phil Hoffman's dad finds out that it was his own evil son who's to blame for mom's death (oh yeah, they finally took her off the life support). Dad goes to the hospital where Phil Hoffman is on same support after being shot by the dead buddy's wife after shooting her thuggish brother (Hawke gets away with the gym bag of drugs and money stolen from the pretty boy dealer whom Hoff also shot) and smothers his son with a pillow. At long last, the bloody thing is over and we get to go home.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
The show came with a lengthy introduction from conductor James Conlon, who lectured on the musical compositions that were chosen to accompany the dancers—each a suppressed work of a composer thumbed under by the Nazi regime, these pieces of music had not been performed live since that time, and never before in the U.S. This all seemed interesting enough (indeed, I would like it if every show I went to see came with such an informative introductory lecture; oh, how I miss school) until I actually heard the soporific music. It wasn't completely dreadful; there was one bit of Schulhoff's Ogelala during which the orchestra ceased playing and the stringy strains of a banjo were wound around by the lilting wails of a soprano, and these sounds wafted into the theatre through an open door high above us and to far stage right, the entrance to a box seat, perhaps. This was a truly avant-garde and beautiful moment (and it is rare that these two things, like banjo and soprano, come together), but it soon ceased, and the orchestra again picked up its traditional brass and melodramatic strings.
The dancing is, I'm sorry to say, even less worthy of discussion. The first piece, performed by the sophomores, was called Prelude to a Drama; swathed in steam, the girls wore lengthy gowns and the men went topless in tights, and everyone flitted about in a manner designed to offend absolutely no one except me, much like elevator music, chicken noodle soup, and Monet's Waterlilies. The second piece, performed by the juniors, was called Proximity Effect, and abided by an opposing aesthetic, something of Tamara de Lempicka, Ayn Rand, and the 1980s, but all desexed. Costumes again were dreadful, but the stage was undressed beautifully, revealing all of the black-painted guts of lights and cables and conduit. I preferred to watch it to the dancing. The last piece, and the worst, and the favorite of my theater-going companion, was performed by the seniors and called No Longer Silent. It was hyper-theatrical, more movement-thought than dance, more concept than art, and it was also brutally ugly. It was not without any take-away for the budding choreographer (the dancers, for example, were often divided into three groups, and would dance within their groups, in formation, in a way that would be appealing had the choreography been more interesting), but for the stranded audience, a breath of soprano-wound banjoy was the only respite in a parade of hideous, meaningless drama.
I won't go on to comment on the hollow mockeries of titles given to these three pieces; I will only point out that my companion quite enjoyed two-thirds of the show, and that all, therefore, was not lost. All the same, I will not be going back, and I will also warn choreographers against ever putting so many bodies on the stage at one time.
Friday, December 14, 2007
The writing is limpid and nostalgic and sensual rather than frenetic and intellectual and multivalent. In describing the plot to a friend, I was interrupted by his brilliant synopsis: "So, it's a cross between Lolita and Lord of the Flies?" Indeed. Focalized through an adolescent male narrator with social troubles enough between acne, masturbation, and the the haughty thumb of his teenage sister, the story slips from inviting to disturbing to (delightfully) horrifying. The reader, however, swept along in the natural stream of narration, finds nothing unnatural in the behavior of these four siblings, whose actions make perfect sense, given their options upon the domino death of their parents. (After their father dies, the four children, ranging from six to sixteen, two girls and two boys, learn to take well enough care of themselves when their mother falls ill and takes permanently to her bed. When she dies, rather than tell anyone and risk being split into different adoptive homes, they drag her body into the basement and bury it in a chest of wet cement, hoping to lock away the secret forever).
Despite the filth that accumulates in the kitchen (no parents, no chores) and the general aimlessness of the siblings (it's summer vacation, and no one plans on going back to school in the fall), things go fairly well. The youngest boy, who has trouble with bullies and seems somehow malsocialized, requests to become a girl, and his sisters, sewing some old dresses to his size, appease him, wig and all. The oldest sister, playing at being grown up, finds herself a boyfriend—at first a mystery provider of expensive new boots and clothing, but soon a regular visitor to the house who wants to be let in on its secret. A sweet, sick smell emanates from the basement; the gasses of the decomposing body under pressure have cracked the cement, and, told that the encased corpse is that of a dead dog, the boyfriend willingly (and knowingly) patches the crack. His frustration at not being trusted with the secret's truth begins to mount as intensely as the smell, and he bursts into the house one evening only to see his rage became truly explosive: our narrator and his older sister, whom he has so loved and hated and desired, lie together on their mother's bed, taking each other's virginity, while the youngest, playing at being a baby, lies aside them, watching. Sick, twisted, lovely, and punctuated by the sound of sirens (while his girlfriend copulates with her brother, the boyfriend's jealousy manifests itself in a call to the police), the novel ends there.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
1. It's been near impossible these past few years to walk past a newsstand without seeing a magazine headline dishing on so-and-so's new "bump;" words can be noxious enough, but a picture's worth a thousand. This month, I'm haunted by this:
Sure, there was this before it:
and this long before that:
but I would argue that frequency and intensity are increasing. There is now such a thing as the "Celebrity Bump Watch," and googling those terms will lead you to loads of slideshows thanks to the patrolers at People, CBS, Us Weekly, The Sun, iVillage, and—roll this one in your mouth for awhile—babyrazzi.com. It's clear that, as stated on iVillage, "The hottest trend this. . . season has been the baby bump."
2. Knocked Up is thinly veiled propaganda, and much more horrifying than it is funny. What's even more horrifying is that audiences did indeed laugh.
3. Critics are saying that Juno is either more realistic or more fair or more feminist-approved. Though it's clearly a better movie, it's still propaganda. If you were an intelligent sixteen year old girl with a future, would the concept of tiny fingernails inspire even a slight hesitation on your way to abortion? Didn't think so.
4. The Center for Disease Control (yes, I did say disease control, does that strike you as odd?) has reported that based on data gathered through 2006, the teen birth rate has risen for the first time in 14 years. Additionally, the non-marital birth rate has reached an all-time high, up 16% from 2002. Finally, and most importantly, the total fertility rate reached the highest it's been since 1971.
I'm actually using the term "propaganda" somewhat playfully; while I don't consider this. . . trend. . . (pun, for once, intended) quite a laughing matter, I'm no conspiracy theorist. I am not proposing that there are or were any top-secret meetings at which George W sat at the head of a board table, flanked by the minister of the female interior, a demographer, Judd Apatow, reps from the major Hollywood studios, and a sales exec from Bugaboo (purveyors of fine baby carriages ($759.99 for the "frog" model), whose website rivals that of BMW, purveyors of fine automobiles), to decide that abstinence-only sex education, when combined with a pro-repro media barrage, was the only way to reinvigorate the country's waning reproduction rate, thereby ensuring the production of future waves of consumers. I'm certain that the films are far more symptomatic of said "trend" than instigatory, although they are guaranteed to be entrenchatory. But here is a question for you: why aren't any of these besmitten, besotted, beset females on the pill? And even if they weren't, what stopped them from inhaling the now-available-directly-from-your-pharmacist Plan B ("morning after") tablets? Narrative devices, of course; no pregnancy means, in the case of Knocked Up, no love story, and in Juno, no single-mom adoption story (oops, spoiler; sorry. . . well, not really).
So what's my problem? The entrenchatory powers of film, of course. It's bad enough for the individual who spends his or her life wondering why love isn't what it ought to be (i.e., the way we see it portrayed again and again on screen); having false expectations for oneself generally leads only to disappointment, self-loathing, depression, and anxiety, and the pharmaceutical industry has got us covered on that front. I'm far more concerned about all the impressionable young women across the country, coveting Hollywood's bumps. It's one thing to covet JLo's six-carat, pink diamond ring; you're probably not going to ever get one, but you can buy an imitation on the internet for $24.99 without much affecting anyone. A bump, on the other hand, is totally procurable, and to get it only requires engaging in a fun and healthy activity you'd probably be engaging in anyway. The only difference is the consequence's duration. When the pink diamond becomes déclassé, you can toss it in the closet or trash or street and forget it ever happened. Doing this with a child is less highly recommended, and has been proven to lead to imprisonment for the parent, followed by imprisonment of the child, once it grows up into a young thug, as unwanted children tend to do (don't believe me? See Freakonomics.
So, is Juno a cute, generally well-written movie featuring the next best thing in female talent (under the name Ellen Page; I give her two years or less to blow up into the thing, just hopefully not naked, preggers, and on the cover of some pseudo-fashion rag)? Sure. But should she have stayed put once she got to that abortion clinic? Hell yeah.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
The magic is, as usual, in his delivery (despair's deadpan: think Godot); the best prose beats the pants off poetry with the poet's own tools—rhythm, diction, imagery—and West has it all up his sleeve. Miss Lonelyhearts is an alcoholic young man shuddering under the weight of the world's sorrows, which pour into his heart through his mind from the stacks of mail he reads at work, paragons of poor grammar and poor spirit. West provides us with a sampling of these missives, and we empathize. Miss Lonelyhearts has pryed a collapsing Christ off his crucifix and nailed the sculpted body directly onto his bedroom wall, but it hasn't helped. Eventually, he meets a married woman whose copious flesh feels all-encompassing. He has sex. He dies with an errant gunshot. The story is over. It's the best story you've read in a long time. Day of the Locust isn't as good (and there's no locust, just a lizard that an isolated man watches day after day, until a beautiful young starlet moves herself into his house, and her cowboy admirer, her Mexican lover, and their cock-fighting chickens into his garage), but it still is good—higher in drama if lower in pathos. Life, it seems, is a beautiful, miserable thing.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
The drawback, of course, when showing fourteen pieces in one evening, is that the audience won't remember them all. I took some notes, but I will only touch on the ones that made the strongest impressions. Nada, from choreographer Yara Travieso, threatened to frustrate me via whimsy (it did make the audience laugh, and I positively loathe dance that makes the audience laugh) and a gimmick: half of the dancers were dressed in scuba suits, including flippers, masks, and snorkels. The other half of the dancers wore business suits (a trend I've noticed of late, which I don't love) with fire-engine red socks. All of this was a set-up for something dreadful, but the choreography turned out to be actually quite good, and the piece would have been equally as interesting if the dancers had all been wearing unitards. Me m ry, choreographed by Charlotte Byrdwell, was a beautiful and poignant dance, for its cloying title. Four spotlights marked "beds" on the floor, each in which a couple, dressed in white gowns and drawers, writhed and curled and twisted and embraced on the ground, occasionally switching to another bed, so that at one moment there may be three to one bed and one person left alone. The music, from Edward Aaron Goldman, was a bit on the cloying side as well (three sopranos screeching to an accompanying pianist), but suited the piece fairly, I suppose. Clearing, choreographed by Evan Teitelbaum and composed by Cristina Spinei, was clearly the crown jewel of the evening, with an all-percussion accompaniment to a group of primitivist dancers wearing perfect costumes and dancing their guts out. Juilliard could use a little more of this.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Zooey, the second youngest of the same mess of now-grown, pseudo-mal-socialized precocious siblings, lies in the bath, smoking countless cigarettes and reading the manuscript of a play. After some time, his mother barges in on him and makes a variety of demands; he blithely insults her and insists that she leave him alone; she does not. Mother insists that Zooey speak with Franny. Zooey insists on continuing his toilet indefinitely.
Along the way, we come to the understanding that Franny has been zealously reading a book found in her older (and now deceased) brother’s room, the story of a Russian pilgrim with a withered arm who found his vocation through constant repetition of “the Jesus prayer,” the phrase “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” until said prayer becomes engrained in his being. We also come to understand that Franny and Zooey, being the youngest of a mess of precocious siblings, were raised by way of a sort of educational experiment administered by their oldest brothers, in which religious education preceded cultural. We also come to understand that Franny and Zooey and all of their older precocious siblings were featured on a radio program entitled “It’s a Wise Child,” in which they would be asked questions, and given an opportunity to spout their wisdom.
Zooey does try to talk with Franny, who’s lying on the living room couch under an afghan while painters work on other rooms in the tired but grand Upper West Side apartment. The room contains multiple pianos. The siblings get into a spat and Zooey leaves her, goes into his older brothers’ (untouched) room, and calls her on the phone, pretending to be their brother; after a while she identifies him as himself. Ironically, it’s then that they are finally able to connect, as they begin reminiscing about their older brother’s demands about “It’s a Wise Child.” He would insist that Zooey shine his shoes (although it was a radio show, and no one would see), and he would insist that Franny try to be funny. He told them to do it “for the fat lady.” Each had their own vision of the fat lady, but in each vision, that fat lady had cancer. Zooey then remarks to Franny, doesn’t she know, by now, who the fat lady is? The fat lady is Jesus Christ.
This gentle slap in the face, I suppose, is Zooey’s way of telling Franny that she has no business lying on the couch in existential crisis, loathing everyone for being dreadful, when each and every one of those dreadful people is, er, her brother or sister in Christ (oh, it sounds so cheesy; Salinger is intelligent enough to leave it at the connection between the fat lady and Christ, and end the book there, and that’s what makes him different than the writer of the Pilgrim book). Anyway, it’s quite the read, and was insidious enough to throw me into a sort of Franny spell for a whole weekend (although one would hope, if it really did its job, it would snap one out of a Franny spell as well. . .) Having attended Catholic high school, I’m rather surprised that for our Salinger dose, we read Catcher in the Rye instead of Franny and Zooey, which seems much more relevant. As a side note, fans of Wes Andersen who have long heard that he stole everything he does from Salinger anyway may be dismayed to see that the brilliant Gwyneth Paltrow in the bathtub scene from The Royal Tennenbaums was lifted from Zooey’s time in the tub.
Friday, December 7, 2007
I would like to argue that the film is simply objectively dreadful, but I've found that a number of my male friends (and even one of my lady friends) thought it was the best movie of the year (and it wasn't just a really bad year), so I will have to accept that there is something about this movie, which is chock-full of random, non-campy violence, cold, stiff characters with no penetrable motivation, and big, empty landscapes to please my philosophically- and artistically-inclined friends. I don't know what it is, because I found the film to be irrational and aesthetically uninteresting, but these are people whose opinions I tend to value.
The plot is as as follows: somewhere in rural-ish Texas, a guy out hunting comes upon a scene: two bullet-riddled trucks, a number of dead Mexicans, a dead dog, and a truckload of narcotics. He collects all the weapons and keeps them, and trudges off to find another dead body resting in the shade of the plain's only tree, and there finds a case of money (which turns out to be $2 million). This scene is well-crafted, and the artistic mind will appreciate the way his scavenging mirrors the scavenging of the hyena that had, minutes earlier, eaten up the deer the hunter had shot and wounded. From that point on, though, I had a similar response to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) that I had to Bigger Thompson in Native Son: he makes wrong decision after wrong decision, for the sole purpose of furthering the plot. A writer who treats his characters like pawns in the game of pushing his agenda—whether it be philosophical or political—is a hack, and having read Blood Meridian, I'm hesitant to label McCarthy by that epithet, and more inclined to pin the blame on the Coens.
But back to the plot. Llewelyn decides to go back to the "scene of the crime" (mistake number one, which no man of his mettle would, in real life, do) in the middle of the night with a can of kerosene. Before he can torch the tableaux, another truck pulls up to his, slashes his tires, and starts to shoot and chase him. Llewelyn runs. He outruns the truck. This, dear readers, is ludicrous; men simply cannot outrun trucks. The truck drivers send a nasty, muscled dog after him when Llewelyn tries to escape by jumping into a river. This, dear readers, is again unlikley; a man probably cannot outrun and swim a dog of such breed. When the dog does catch up, Llewelyn shoots it dead. This moment is nicely done, although it requires a grand suspension of disbelief to get to that point.
Llewelyn knows that shit is going down, so he sends his hemmy-hawy wife to her mother's house and prepares for combat by abandoning his trailer and moving into a motel. Meanwhile, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), looking for the money, begins to hunt him, first going to his trailer, then his motel. Also on the trail is the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones, who else?!) who is as disinterested and detached from his case as I am about this film; he goes through the motions up to a point, and then throws in the proverbial towel and wonders why he ever bothered in the first place. Before that, though, Llewelyn and Anton circle each other, predator and poisonous prey. In and out of a variety of motels and stolen vehicles, they shoot at each other and service their own wounds in the same "manly" way Mark Wahlberg's character does in Shooter (for some reason, we are supposed to take the hulking, animal-like Bardem much more seriously). Once it's too late, Llewelyn realizes that Anton has been tracking him thanks to a blinking device lodged in the suitcase of bills; rather than ditching the tracker, jumping out the window, and getting the hell out of the motel room (movie-goers, suspend your disbelief), he waits behind the door for Anton, prepared to shoot upon the beast's entrance. He eventually does leap out the window, jumping into a stolen car, but sustains wounds thanks to his delay.
Eventually, Llewelyn wises up (after a drunken, bloodied night in Mexico followed up by a conversation with bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) (who, not surprisingly, will also end up dead at Anton's gunpoint)) and instructs his wife to load herself and her mother into a cab to a motel in the nearest city with an international airport. While they're on their way, though, Llewelyn arrives at the motel and joins a woman lounging poolside for a beer in her room. Needless to say, when wifey arrives, close on the heels of the sheriff, it's already a crime scene; Llewelyn is shot dead (we don't see the shot or body, as if anything could be to graphic after all the killing we've witnessed along the way) and Anton is long gone with his money. Afterward, there is no need for the audience to wonder what the poor young widow will do; Anton arrives in her house and engages her in a succinct cat-and-mouse conversation before, presumably, shooting her dead. Again, one wonders why the Coens chose to add the seed of non-ambiguous ambiguity by protecting the audience from witnessing the actual shooting.
Once Llewelyn is dead, of course, the audience loses whatever vestigial interest in the film it might have had, even though the Coens go on to show the sheriff have two impenetrable "deep" conversations, one with a wheelchair-bound ex-colleague, who serves four-day-old coffee, and one with his wife over breakfast, while he tries to decide how to spend his day now that he's retired, and recounts the bad dream he had the night before. And, with this unpleasant mouth of spit-up to be swallowed, the film ends.
Reviews have had their socks knocked left and right over Bardem's "chilling" performance as either an amoral or weirdly ethical killer, but I found Anton's character to be the biggest intellectual turn-off of the whole hollow mess. The king of empty, he's so methodical that he performs most of his executions with an air gun, a kind of heavy gas-tank that he carries around that has a tube attached to the top; he uses it to blow locks out of doors and to blow holes in people's foreheads with equal perfunction. He toys with a few of his victims, threatening to use a coin toss to determine their fate (a gas-station owner doesn't understand what's happening, but Llewelyn's widow does), and this is being considered by some as ascribing to his character a philosophical bent. To me, though, Anton functions completely outside of philosophy, and in fact outside of humanity (I have wondered, after watching this film, whether there are people like him, and I have decided there are not—not that there are not serial killers, mob-men, and murderers of every kind, that kill for work or play. But Anton doesn't kill for work or for play or for revenge or for attention (those seem to be the the newest killers lighting up the front page); he's just a killing machine. He kills because that's what he does. He came into the world the age that he is, shooting; he had no childhood, no family, no lover. His character is a character that kills, and his violence is clean and dispassionate, often an afterthought (at one moment, while driving, he pauses to shoot dead a bird standing on a bridge's safety rail). This is lazy characterization, and as I said at the outset, I don't know whether to blame McCarthy or the Coens. But someone should be shot.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Augie grows up in relative poverty with an older brother (a go-getter), a younger brother (a retard), a meek single mother, and a domineering older female boarder they call grandma. The era is that of the depression, and since money is tight, Augie and his older brother are constantly working odd jobs while going to school, and collecting charity as well. As he gets older, Augie continually finds himself in the service of other people—first employers, then lovers—who, taking advantage of his relative aimlessness, try to make him into what they want him to be; he works for an old wealthy cripple, Einhorn, an aged childless couple, the Renlings (who want to adopt him), and tries to work for his brother, who has married into business and big money. None of these yokes fit for long, and Augie throws them all off, eventually running to Mexico for a proto-beat adventure with Thea, a beautiful devil-may-care debutante-type, who wants to make documentary films about an eagle they purchase and train to catch giant lizards. This doesn't work either, though; the eagle, not raised in the wild, refuses to fight the lizards, fleeing in fear as soon as they bite him, and Augie, seeing his own failure to be what Thea wants mirrored in the eagle's failure, lets his (emotional) wounds fester after he takes a fall from his horse. While Thea continues with her western fantasy, absent for days at a time hunting snakes in the mountains, Augie hangs around town and collects stacks of foreign currency playing poker. Eventually, he decides to go back to his hometown of Chicago, after giving most of his money to a beautiful girl named Stella to help her escape her crazed husband and thereby formally ending his broken relationship with Thea. During this time, he has had an opportunity to travel in the revenue of Trotsky, who is hiding in Mexico from people who want to kill him; he has mixed feelings about the opportunity and is ultimately relieved when it is withdrawn. Augie returns to Chicago and knocks about for awhile, then moves to New York, reconnects with Stella, and decides to join the Army (WWII is exploding all over the news). Because of deficiencies in his fitness, even after an operation, Augie is still ineligible for the Army, so he joins the Merchant Marines and, a few days after his wedding, ships out. Not long into the journey, the ship is attacked, and Augie finds himself alone in a lifeboat with Bateshaw, a mono-maniac who doesn't want to be rescued, and instead wants to find solace on an island where he can conduct his scientific experiments in bioengineering with Augie as his assistant. By a combination of wits and brawn, he manages to tie up Bateshaw (after Bateshaw has tied him up), light a flare, and get them both rescued. Eventually, Augie gets back to New York and Stella, who now has a promising career as an actress. They move to Paris, where the novel at long last finally ends. Somewhere along the way, Augie also works as a union organizer and has an affair with a Greek hotel maid, and is also a college student who steals books for a living and who helps his female flatmate through a botched abortion (the child isn't his), but, considering all that happened, you will hopefully forgive me for not being certain where those parts quite fit, as well as any other parts that I might have left out.
My honest impression, at the risk of sounding philistine, is that Bellow might have left out quite a bit of this. The childhood memories, valid as they are, drag without a stronger plot arc, and the reader has no impetus to turn the page until past the half-way point in the novel, when Augie goes to Mexico with Thea. This section in and of itself would have made a good short novel, not that enough good short novels haven't been written about Americans going to Mexico in the first half of last century. The end, what with New York and the Marines and shipwreck and Paris, rings false and tacked-on after the lengthy Mexico portion, as if Bellow were scraping together scraps of other books he had read.
All of that aside, the girl sitting next to me is on the phone, and she just said the following: "I hope you do win the lottery, but in the mean time, you need to get a coat." It's good advice, even if completely unrelated to this book I would have preferred not to have read. I do want to add that Augie March is a distinctly likable character, one in fact with whom I empathize a great deal, being relatively aimless myself (we two being the kinds of aimless people who are a bit interested in everything, rather than interested in nothing); that said, I wonder why I haven't had any Adventures yet, though I have certainly had employers who tried to mold me as more than mere assistant (from that yoke I have finally broken, finding freedom within the confines of the corporate structure). Additionally, I can't help but read Augie as a writer, a writer-in-the-making, who doesn't write anything, or that is, hasn't written anything yet (and again, thereby, I connect with him); his passivity is that of an observer's (he does quite a bit of reading throughout the novel)—he is spongy, allowing himself to be swept into other people's currents in order to collect the flotsam that will eventually comprise his story—and if he lived in isolation, his story would be a mere page long, since all of his storytelling consists of other people's stories. It's something of a warning signal to me, so whether I wish I hadn't spent an entire month reading this book or not, it isn't bad medicine.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
As I said, this plot has all of the pretenses of an "inspirational" (i.e. "gag me with a spoon") tale (think The Peaceful Warrior, which, luckily, I did not see), just in time for the holidays. It also has all the makings of one of those movies designed particularly to make you cry (think The Pursuit of Happyness, which I fortunately did not see either; partially). And while I did shed the errant tear, more often, my jaw was stretched to its very maximum in horror and frustration and fear and anxiety—the precise emotions, I imagine, that rushed through Bauby when he discovered (as we simultaneously discover) that no one could hear him speaking (and then shouting, as they sew shut his incapacitated eye against his uninterpretable will). Bauby's emotions hit the audience so immediately because director Julian Schnabel chose to place the cyclopic camera in Bauby's one working eye (both eyes, at the very beginning, when we see our own view of the doctor being stitched away from us, a black needle and thread winding expertly through the center of the screen.) From that point on, we see four different kinds of shots: more hyper-lit, hyper-color, often blurry, blinking views of the world through Bauby's singular working eye; crisp, full-cover scenes from Bauby's memory, in which we see the the man in his prime; fantasy sequences in which Bauby pictures himself suspended in murky waters wearing antique deep sea diving gear and as a buzzing insect flying amidst giant grasses and bobbing flower heads, as a championship skier, a surfer, and as Marlon Brando; and finally scenes in which we see Bauby as his visiting friends and family see him (and how he sees himself for the first time in a mirror): frozen, bloated, his lower lip pulled to the side in a hopelessly ugly gesture, spotted with drool.
The visual experience itself makes this film worth watching, but the sharp, witty, and never-patronizing (to Bauby or to the audience) dialogue deepens the audience's connection with Bauby. His ability to maintain wit within the confines of his frustration lure us into connection with his psyche; those stilted cues that put us in a critical, outsider position, so often found in more trite films on the topic of healing, are not to be found, and so all barriers to our unmediated experience are removed. Schnabel has thus outstripped both himself and his peers with this film, which is on my required viewing list for anyone who has any interest in any kind of art at all.
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
My friend finally called and said that she was on her way, and gave me the address; I had been a whole neighborhood off (it's in SoHo, not the LES), and had to walk (did I mention it was below freezing that night?) ever farther back than where I had come from. When I finally got indoors, all of my skin was burning and tingling from the temperature change. Now I know how a snow cone feels when its subjected to the inside of your hot, wet mouth. That was probably the most edifying experience of the evening. To be fair, the new building is gorgeous, particularly from the outside; it looks like a stack of effervescent white boxes, each precariously settled onto a larger one beneath it. Inside, the effect is less dramatic; the galleries number only one per floor: white cubes broken by the off-center stairwell and elevator bank. It looks like this:
This leaves ample room for sculptural/installation art in a main gallery space, and some narrow corridors where other, quieter pieces can be snuck in. The ceilings are exceptionally high and airy, and lined with strips of skylights (which, I've heard, produce a beautiful colored affect during the daytime). An over-touted narrow stairwell links the third and fourth floors; I haven't anything against it, but it isn't what they say it is. The floors, poured concrete, don't touch the walls; there is an half-inch gap between the two, a tender minimalist touch that makes the space much more interesting than the art it houses, at least right now.
And so, onto the art. The current show is called Unmonumental, and oh, boy, is it. I suppose the curators were quite clever in mounting a show that aims to be forgettable, because then, when the show is panned, they can defend themselves by reminding their critics that they've achieved exactly their intention. I won't go so far as to say that it was all "trash" (which I've seen it called on various other blogs), but I will say that the general youth of the artists is apparent, as well as a curatorial distrust of what might traditionally be considered "aesthetically pleasing" (although, considering the altered aesthetic preferences brought about by the last 100 years of art, many connossieurs might find this work quite aesthetically pleasing). As I rack my brain trying to remember a piece that I like, I recall there was something of a riff off of Duchamp's Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even), from Nate Lowman but, like many (but not all!) post-modernist riffs, it's empty of the original's aura. Tucked into one of those quiet little corners I mentioned is a low wooden tabletop (more a cipher for a tabletop; even if you sat on the floor a la Japan, it would still be too low) from Carol Bove, decorated (forgive me, I could say "marked," but I think "decorated" is more precise) by bits of driftwood, a slightly weathered black and white photograph in the style of Man Ray, another other little odds and ends (the only thing missing an Imogen Cunningham coffee table book), which, in the absence of any instructive wall text, I couldn't help but read as a parody of a Pacific Northwestern intellectual elitist's home (a professor and his wife (an "artist" or a "poetess") in their fifties, childless). The best-looking piece by far is a kind of dangling sculpture: a hanging cluster of netted buoys in weathered reds and oranges and yellows and greens, recalling (this time, far surpassing) Eva Hesse's untitled testicular hanging nets (grouped in threes and fives instead of twos, but fooling no one nevertheless). Unfortunately, I have no picture of the buoys for you, and I don't have the artist's name either. I will therefore have to go back, armed with a (probably illegal) camera.
Monday, December 3, 2007
By casting six actors to play Dylan at different historical moments, Haynes (likely unintentionally) establishes a test to separate the brilliant actors from the competent from the complete hacks (to break it down for you right off: Cate Blanchett and Ben Whishaw are phenomenons unto themselves; Christian Bale and Marcus Carl Franklin are capable and enjoyable, if missing that je ne sais quois of the aforementioned, and Heath Ledger and Richard Gere are vortexes of anti-charisma that threaten the entire film's stability; if the film were a souffle, they would be edge that might just cave in). To be fair, Ledger and Gere's Dylans are the Dylans we all might like least (except for Bale's Christian Dylan, whom we probably all hate the most (but Bale is redeemed by also playing the folksy Times They Are A-Changing Dylan, whom we probably all love the best))—the bad father/bad husband/bad movie-making Dylan, and the inscrutable, rambling, half-dead Dylan we see on stage today, his tempo hopped up, his hope gone, touring and touring and touring until he collapses dead on stage one day (I've been predicting it since the first time I saw him live; remember, you heard it here first). All that aside, final note to the casting directors: Ledger and Gere are both too fat to play Dylan, and far too goyische, adding insult to injury. They're in way over their heads!
Haynes makes up for these two's weakness by art directing the hell out of their sections (not that Blanchett's segments aren't art directed to the pearly whites (because they are, and brilliantly so), or Franklin's either (ditto). The director recreates five distinct historical moments (five instead of six because Wishaw's section—an interview only—features very little other than the actor himself, tightly framed, against a blank white wall): a hyper-colored late-50s South with creamed-spinach carpets and yam-colored walls;a xerox-copied late-60s with pills, cigarettes, and giant tarantulas; a home of an aging hippy (did I mention that Julianne Moore plays an amazing reminiscing Joan Baez, and perfects the Behind the Music interview persona to the very smallest of interactions with her cat?); the seaside empty family resort of the mid-70s, where Sara (played beautifully by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who, in her naive hipsterish ways, probably walked onto set in her street clothes, more appropriate than any costume that could have been found) raises Dylan's first two daughters while he philanders on a film set far away; and the surreal, costumed, face-painted Western town of Riddle, through which Gere rides around on a horse while an Ophelia-esque corpse is displayed on stage while a sorrowful rag-tag Civil War band plays a dirge (this, I imagine, is the closest we'll ever get to Bobby's interior world, where Desolation Row meets Talkin' World War III Blues meets Not Dark Yet.)
The film is non-linear, non-rational, and non-realistic, and if that troubles you, you're probably not a big Dylan fan. I can imagine a non-initiate (in my reality, there can be no dissenters, only the not-as-yet-enlightened) watching this film with a mixture of trepidation, confusion, and frustration; he or she wouldn't get the hilarity of references to the great 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, for example, or appreciate the way snippets of lyrics are woven into the characters' dialogue. Never having seen many of the older movies, like the 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, I'm sure I missed some myself. The music, of course, is almost all Dylan (with the inclusion of The Monkees' I'm Not Your Stepping Stone, my absolute favorite song when I was five years old, no kidding), and so certain to please any fan (and although, as usual, my absolute favorite Dylan song of all time—Buckets of Rain—was not included, plenty of non-hits were indeed used, like my second favorite Dylan song of all time, Ballad of a Thin Man.)*
In the case that you are one of these non-initiates, I recommend that you listen to Dylan for a few years before attempting to enjoy this film. I was probably around 18 when I started to get into Dylan heavy, so it will take you awhile; don't worry, though, it will all be worth it. Dylan-haters, I refuse to believe you exist, but I paradoxically know you're out there. You, too, might find enjoyment in this film (believe it or not), because Blanchett and Wishaw, brilliant as they are, play Dylan with that perfect edge that he has always had: cold, sarcastic, distant, unappeasing. The entire film has a back-handed, razor-sharp current slicing underneath it, dramatizing the ever-present criticism and distrust of the Dylan persona: the slip-shod put-on-ness, the ugly detachment, the uncontrollable ego. As a lover, I love even these aspects of (yes I'll say it) the greatest song-writer of all time (who, don't get me wrong, has written some real shite in his day (see Empire Burlesque)). I've long had crushes on both Cate Blanchett, and more recently, Ben Wishaw (since first seeing him in Perfume), but they've managed to supersede previous incarnations of themselves this time around. That Wishaw, he is one to watch.
*Caveat emptor! The commercial soundtrack is comprised of all indie-star covers, for whose quality I can not yet vouch.