Saturday, May 31, 2008

Books: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

I'm not a big reader of non-fiction, but I am sort of a Voluntary Human Extinction Movement sympathizer. I call myself a sympathizer rather than a member because I recognize the complete impossibility of such a movement's success; if people lived responsibly, there wouldn't be a need for them to responsibly cease procreation, because their lives wouldn't have the hideous impacts on the environment that our current lives are having. And while Alan Weisman may be preaching to the choir in this book, he has enough ugly facts to scare the shit even out of us. Like the bit about the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a part of the ocean where, thanks to currents and winds, most of the sea-bound trash collects. . . with a surface area bigger than Texas. Um, dude? Texas is pretty fucking big. That's a lot of trash. In the ocean. And that's only on the surface. What about the heavier trash that's sunk? And the trash that has algae growing on it, and is floating indeterminately below the surface? And by the way. . . that whirling sea o' garbage? It's 90% plastic. Even I, who already used to fight with the deli people about not wanting a bag, started fighting more, demanding that my sandwich not be put in a plastic box, but just wrapped up in wax paper (that's how people had been ordering sandwiches for years, you know, before the rise of the plastic box). Whose idea was it to put trash in the ocean?

Weisman covers an astounding breadth of locations to describe the impact humans have had on the Earth (in fact, the Universe), and what the Earth might start to look like if we all somehow disappeared (whether by virus or by will or by "rapture"—a perhaps inoffensive way of alluding to a religious "Second Coming" or some such. We see nature overtaking the supposedly poisoned Chernobyl, and reclaiming a beach-side hotel in Cyprus, where war has kept the tourists away. We see rare birds flocking in the Korean DMZ, the tiny slice of land protected against the encroachment of condos and billboards and flashing lights. We see a Polish forest, preserved because it was once the King's protected hunting grounds, and the British plantation where fertilizer was developed, where over 100 years of canisters of earth show the exponentially-increasing levels of nitrogen in the soil. We see the oil fields of Texas, and learn how, if humans were to suddenly disappear, they would eventually break down—up in flames, if no one turns the off switch before we go, or hunkered down to corrosion and eventual flames as well, if some one does.

Weisman has a gentle way of demonstrating, rather than inflaming, so that by the time a reader has finished the book, whether he or she is religious or not, naturalist or not, capitalist or not, the sense of flux in nature has grown apparent. Humanity, the individual in particular, seems more fleeting—something to which one begins to lose attachment. Although he tells us that our television and radio signals will outlive us in outer space, and that groups of scientists have ambitions to holographically project our intelligence in the same way, so that we might leave our bodies behind and prolong existence, in a higher state, elsewhere, these God-like dreams sound interesting but irrelevant. Life on Earth is a constant game of mutation, extinction, and evasion of extinction via mutation. Weisman even suggests that, perhaps one day, bacteria will evolve that can eat plastic, because of its plentiful availability. Which brings him to his final conclusion: that we need the world, but the world does not need us.

By way of proposing a solution, Weisman suggests that we immediately curtail population growth; that each woman have only one child, until our numbers become more sustainable. Like the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, there is a complete lack of feasibility to this plan, at least for now. And yet, that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve my sympathy.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

An Amy Hempel-style Story

When the knob of the drawer came off in my hand, I knew it was over. I had been looking for a picture—the one where he was standing with my pink umbrella—because I remembered loving the crinkles in his smiling eyes, and at the moment—for years, in fact—I didn’t love—hadn’t loved—anything about him, and hadn’t even looked for any crinkles in his eyes, smiling or otherwise. He never liked having his photo taken, so there were only a few, and they were hidden away with unused passports and expired library cards in stacks on shelves in cabinets and places like that—the kitchen drawer, where we kept the good scissors, the key to the safe deposit box, and all the department store credit cards we didn’t use. I had thought this picture special, though, so I had put it in the top drawer of my mother’s antique dressing table (not the maple one, but the smaller, darker one—the one I liked to think had been her mother’s, even though it hadn’t been, even though the one that had been her mothers was stocky and squat and inelegant, with a warped mirror I’d thrown away when we moved and relegated the dresser to the garage, where it still holds jars of nails and cans of dried-out markers and boxes of rubber bands and strings that he always refused to throw away). I had put it in a safe place, away from his angry hands. He saved everything impersonal, but rushed to destroy the tender things: photographs, poems, love letters. I keep an envelope full of withered roses from my high school boyfriend; anything like that he would have torn or burnt or simply left out on the curb, forty years ago.

My mother had bought the dressing table at a garage sale, I think, when they bought their first house. I remember its stern but voluptuous lines—Deco, I know now—sunk into some kind of acrylic carpet, low-pill and chemically scratchy, steel-wool silver-gray, and its weight’s impropriety against the paper-smooth sheet rock. Here, the walls are plaster, and I like to think that the hairline cracks add the kind of character that an old piece like this needs, the appropriate company. It’s legs reclaim their elegance against the dull herringbone floor. The knobs on the three drawers, simple brass plugs screwed into the pulpy wood, have wobbled now and then, but always remained reassuringly cool against the insides of my sweating fists when I tugged at them. But that day, the knob came off, with a sure and weighty plunk into my palm, and the drawer, stuffed with papers and bills and letters and desiccated lipsticks and powders and tubes of foot cream and Christopher with my pink umbrella—the drawer stayed shut. And I squeezed the knob in my sweating fist, and I shook my head, and I said to myself, “don’t,” but I did anyway.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Books: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Virgin Suicides is one of my all-time favorite movies; I've seen it six or eight times and I have the DVD, but I've never had any urge to read the book (nor have I had the urge to read Eugenides' much-acclaimed sophomore effort, Middlesex, despite it's brick-like size). I have, however, had the urge to join a book club, and as luck would have it (for I joined after the book had already been chosen), the assigned reading is none other than the inspiration for Sophia Coppola's first (and by far best) movie.

Being so intimately acquainted with the film, I found myself again swept up into its green and yellow mellifluous rapture by the book, and unable to determine whether that sun-soaked feeling came directly from the text, or by association, from the memory of the almost over-exposed stock, invoked by similar names, phrases, quotations. I also had a very startling moment of deja-vu, reading about Lux (one of five Lisbon sisters, second-to-youngest, and the only non-virgin suicide) using a can of Coca-Cola as post-coital douche, lacking access to any more pharmaceutical contraceptive; seeing the film a second time, years after the first, I had expected this scene, but it never came. I thought I had been crazy, made it up, transplanted it from another film I'd seen, but no; it's there, in the book, which I'd never read. I've yet to work out this conundrum to my satisfaction.

But to the text. I found myself, right from the first few pages, wanting to read with a red pen in hand, to remove certain stray words and restructure certain clauses. I felt like I was reading a manuscript. A strong manuscript, to be sure, but one that needed the pruning of a copy editor. I've almost never felt this way while reading a "quality" (and I won't argue that this is a quality) novel (I can think of one possible exception, though I probably wouldn't dare to call that novel quality), and I again wonder whether my over-familiarity with the plot, the tone, the very world of the book, is to blame. Certainly, this was Eugenides first novel, so slack must be cut; and yet, perfection is so attainable in this case that I have trouble keeping my OCD in check.

A male friend who had seen the movie and then read the book told me that the later concerned much more intensively the boys who are the witnesses and the recorders of the Lisbon girls' suicides, their obsession, their awkward moments, their adolescence, whereas the movie features more generously the girls, their buttery hair and starry eyes and sun-dappled sorrow. The book being the brainchild of a man and the movie the brainchild of a woman, that's not surprising. And yet, I found the girls to be the same taunting phantoms in the book that they are onscreen, if, perhaps, a bit less beautiful (though no less bewitching), and the boys the same curious, hungry, idealistic dreamers (the girls, in fact, are given more substance in the book; they too are shown to be curious, hungry, and idealistic dreamers). The one character who lives less in the text than he does on the screen is the preternaturally cool Trip Fontaine (who, it can be argued, "trips" the switch that eventually leads to the remaining four sisters' suicides).* If one were to continue along the gendered explanation proposed above, this follows: Eugenides, a man, can't describe with the same affection a male teen heartthrob that Coppola, a woman, can. Eugenides' Trip is an impalpable cipher, harder to grasp than the Lisbon girls. Coppola's Trip (Josh Hartnett, at the time fresh and unsullied by movies like The Black Dahlia and Resurrecting the Champ), with long hair and aviator sunglasses and the swagger to end all slo-mo walks down a high school hallway, melted me at 17 when I first saw the film, 19, when I saw it again, and every additional year since, inspiring me to attend every other Hartnett vehicle, no matter how frivolous.

Eugenides, though, can have all the credit, because we have seen what imbecilic froth Coppola comes up with on her own. Ultimately, The Virgin Suicides keys into the despairing depths of today's shallow lives: as Dutch elm disease strikes each of the neighborhood's trees, as the seasonal fish-flies coat homes and cars and the ground with their hollow carcasses after living their brief 24-hour lives, something in the air, a poisonous elixir, inspires restlessness and decay under our skins, and without fresh air and adventure and friendship and sexual intimacy, necessary phenomena pulled farther and farther from our reach, we succumb, and we collapse. For the young, youth is painful, for the old, elusive and lovely. For the lonesome, locked up in apprehension, fatal, for the lonesome who are more free, the stimulus of wist.

*If you are not familiar with the plot, it is as follows: at the beginning, the youngest of five sisters (13) attempts suicide; she survives, but then attempts again, this time with better luck. For a year afterward, the remaining four sisters live under the increasing martial law of their church-going mother and distracted father, until, on the anniversary of their sister's first attempt, they all commit suicide. In the movie, they are all dead when the neighborhood boys, who loved them from afar (across the street) come and find them. In the book, one survives her attempt and lives another month before finishing herself off more successfully. It's not as morbid as it sounds, though I'm certain that my mother wouldn't have wanted me watching/reading it as a teenager, although I did.

Movies: Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Even my pal who thought he'd slit his wrists in the tub whilst listening to the Smiths if he were forced to watch this movie found it to be a surprising delight. Neither of us much enjoyed any of the other Judd Apatow films to date (Superbad, Knocked Up, and The 40 Year Old Virgin), but based almost entirely on a rather brilliant ad campaign (My mom always hated you Sarah Marshall!) I insisted that we see it. (I made a bargain; he got the better deal).

Everything about this movie was better than those other Apatow warm-Budweiser-in-a-can movies. It's no microbrew, and not even a Guinness, but it's definitely Brooklyn Brown in a frosty bottle-quality pleasure. My elbow, already an active jabber during most movies, basically never stopped sticking my poor pal's probably now-bruised ribcage. We laughed, loudly, again and again. The ultimate explanation for such comedic success, I think, was the lighter use of irony than in previous Apatow efforts, and the integration of farce/spoof/etc. with an actual plot and actual emotions (rather than the 100% farce of The 40 Year Old Virgin and the 98% spoof of Superbad). The spoof spots (Sarah Marshall and Billy Baldwin in a hyper-sexed CSI-ish Crime Scene, the innuendo-ridden lyrics of pop-ballad-rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) (the man for whom Sarah dumps protagonist Peter Bretter (writer/actor Jason Segel, who is to thank for the film's wit)), and the E!-like specials featuring Peter standing on the red carpet, awkwardly holding a variety of tiny jeweled handbags while Sarah poses for photographers' seizure-inducing flashbulbs) are hilarious, disturbingly on-point, and laced with just enough discomfort to appeal to the more intelligent in the audience. And while Sarah is the typical ironed-hair blonde with bonded teeth and seamless spray-on tan, who eats up such things, Peter is writing a rock opera about Dracula to be performed by puppets. I am not ashamed to say that sounds far more appealing, although I'm not certain whether the film's target market would agree.

Peter ultimately finds the potential for another relationship with prettier-than-Sarah-Marshall Rachel, the aimless, scratchy-voiced, unbearably sexy hotel clerk who dropped out of college to follow a surfer boy to Hawaii (where most of this movie takes place, by the way). She's no more intellectual than Sarah, to be honest (Apatow and his cohorts never did have much faith in the minds of women, though to be honest, I don't either, considering what I see on the streets every day and hear in the bars every night), but she is more confident, more salt-of-the-earth, more "real," more kind, and, oh yeah, more sexy. And he puts on his rock opera, with her encouragement. And it's great. And life is great. For Peter.

Sarah's show ends up getting cancelled, and her relationship with Aldous ends up similarly canned. And so, a great opportunity for multi-layered schadenfreude arises as she tearfully tries to get Peter back, in the only way she knows how (that is sexually, until he can't perform for her). And so, the triumph of substantive, if sometimes awkward, and even at times slovenly, nerds (for Peter is much more than the "sensitive frat boy" my pal was afraid he would be). Sarah manages to score one fair point against him (demonstrating that, like most women do with most men, she tried desperately for quite some time to improve him (getting him to wear something other than sweat pants once in a while) before first cheating on him with and then dumping him for someone who took better care of his body and appearance). And yet, we women are again faced with the terrible choices we find in real life: the quality schlub, or the sexy asshole.

Speaking of the sexy asshole, I need to take a moment now to give a serious shout out to Russell Brand as Aldous Snow. I can't imagine his not being given a movie of his own. You hate to love him, but you can't stop yourself. He is brilliant. He is a perfectly nuanced manifestation of the cliched man-that-women-want; he is campy, but still raw; he is an cheating, lying, whoring bastard with no regard for women as more than sexual chattel, but he feels real jealousy when he notices Sarah re-noticing Peter. Brand writhes, scowls, and croons with exaggerated precision. While you are guaranteed to find a soft spot inside for every character in this movie, the softest one will be for him.

Movies: Price Caspian

This post is no joke; I did actually see this movie. And yes, I do watch some real dreck, but for this new low, there's absolutely no excuse. But I'm not to blame.

Agreeing to watch "that Narnia movie" as my friend called it was my part of a cinematic suicide pact, in which, in exchange for my slow death at the hands of four children, a talking lion, and a magical land, my friend would suffer equally while watching the romantic cavorting of "sensitive frat guys" in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which I wanted to see. What a ridiculous double feature. Also, it was one of those weeknights when there's absolutely nothing else to do, and nothing else to see. The kind of night that convinced me, back in high school, to agree to watch movies like Deep Impact and Stigmata. At least the argument can be made that, without such nonsense to compare it to, one can't truly appreciate the look-mom-no-hands approach of Godard.

Anyway. I never read C.S. Lewis books as a child. I tried and got perhaps halfway through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but found it both absurd and unbearably boring; it's not that I hadn't any patience for magic (some of my very favorite books, in fact, were the Edward Eager books from the late 1950s (Half-Magic, Magic or Not?, Seven Day Magic, etc.), written only a few years after those of C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, and also featuring two boys and two girls each), but the Eager children were bookish and clever, while the Narnia children were, I don't quite remember. . . rather bland, I suppose. All that I do remember is something about Turkish Delight, and not knowing what it was, and then, finding out, deciding that Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy were equally cloying; over-sweet and over-chewy.

But onto the movie. I can't judge it against the book, which I've not read, and I can't judge it against the previous Narnia films, which I haven't seen. I can't judge it against the alternative magical children's film of the moment, The Golden Compass, because I haven't seen that either (phew!) The most recent children's film I've seen is Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, whose brilliant Edward Gorey-meets-Tim Burton art direction made up for any more unfortunate aspects of the film (like the plot), and which puts Price Caspian, a poor-man's Lord of the Rings, to shame. Having seen all three Rings movies in the theater, in fact, I can only describe the PG Caspian as gently surreal; violence necessary to the battle between good and evil is softened: we see the blow, the fall, but never the corpse, and there is no blood. The weapon of choice is a tidy bow and arrow. There is also a magical elixir that brings the most-loved fallen character back to life. If there are any children out there in movieland enjoying this nonsense, let it be said that they are a sorry assortment of dorks, geeks, and dweebs (nerds, thanks to their powerful intellect, are above a film this inane). They are the kinds of children that beg their parents to take them to Renaissance Faires, and then, once at these fairs, beg their parents to buy them complete Renaissance outfits (which, by the way, are far more Anglo-Saxon than appropriate. . . didn't the Renaissance bloom in Italy? The only Renaissance in England was that of brewing.)

The actor playing young Prince Caspian puts on the accent of Antonio Banderas. I'm not certain why. Tilda Swinton, perfectly icy but by now above such movies, reappears as The White Witch. The four child actors who play the school-children-turned-ancient-kings-and-queens all have trembling blue eyes and big pink lips, the older two wholesomely sexualized in their adolescent struggles ("King" Peter one of testosterone-fueled competition with Caspian, "Queen" Susan one of estrogen-fueled desire for same). If the film has any redeeming qualities, and anything to offer young people, it is the depiction of these timeless struggles (although Susan's ultimate chaste kiss with Caspian can only be mocked by her American peer-group today, who protect their virginity by engaging in anal sex, upstage their frenemies by hosting rainbow parties, and pass around syphilis, never mind mono.)

But you can't expect anything real from Disney anymore, purveyors of Hannah Montana, JT, and the tragic Britney Spears. They have always brought us a wholesome fantasy. It is only recently that the fantasy frays from the tugging of our real lives.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Movies: The Big Knife and The Sweet Smell of Success

I believe that procrastination is rooted in terror. Not George W. Bush terror, but that deep-seated, fear-and-loathing terror. I made a place-marker post on April 17th to write about The Big Knife and The Sweet Smell of Success, but have put off writing anything about these two movies, which I saw as a double feature on an inadvertent date, until today, a month later. I've been afraid to relive the experience of watching these two movies, knowing all along said distasteful date was somewhere out in cyberspace, delectating each word.

Procrastination turns out to be rather germane; in The Big Knife, movie star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance, of whom I grow fonder with each film of his I see) puts off signing his new contract with the studio, afraid of and disgusted by what his career has turned him into, and hoping, by refusing to sign, to win back his wife, son, and sanity. For all the putting off, though, there is something supremely satisfying about doing the deed at last (for Castle, that deed is the ultimate refusal to sign, quickly followed by a wet and bloody suicide with a knife in the running shower). After all, we have watched his agent, his trainer, his producer, his producer's assistant, his estranged wife, his friend (who is also openly his wife's lover), his PR manager, and a hapless starlet swirl around him, drinking and shouting and threatening and accusing and hitting and making up, in the very compressed space of his Hollywood home's open entertaining area: the front door, (entrance, stage left) and its catwalk into a living room with wet bar, sliding glass doors out to the patio (exit, stage right) and a spiral staircase (upstage), leading to the private space upstairs, intimating the diegetic sex and suicide, but protecting us from it.

We find ourselves, then, in the pressure-cooker of a stage play, a domestic melodrama of the glitterati, where a dark secret (a year prior, Castle was the driver in a hit-and-run accident that caused the death of a child; that aforementioned hapless starlet, with whom he had been having a negligible affair, was his passenger) and its cover-up (someone else from the studio, more expendable, took the blame and went to prison, and the starlet was given a few walk-on roles to keep her quiet) is the rock, and the threat of divorce is the hard place; not signing means the studio publicizes the whole ugly truth, and Castle gets sent to jail, while signing means that Castle loses his wife and son. And everybody, Castle included, is just plain mean and ugly (with the exception of Castle's trainer, who, untroubled, acts more like a faithful dog than a man). And so the deed, however painful, is a relief, for Castle, for his compatriots, and for the audience.

Next to this elegant potboiler, The Sweet Smell of Success feels a bit naive, though it too investigates the media's darker underbrush. Falco (Tony Curtis), a struggling PR agent whose flexible ethics may or may not be stretched by his need for a buck (the type is that of today's New York City rental broker), has been maligned by Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), the all-powerful writer of the city's preëminent gossip column (a pale, echoing moon to Waldo Lydecker's sun in Laura), and now must go beyond brown nosing into slander and conspiracy to win back the writer's good graces. The victim is a jazz guitarist who is dating Hunsecker's younger sister Susan (theirs is possibly the least healthy sibling relationship you've seen onscreen, and she wears a fur coat as a not-too-unpleasant symbol of her shackles—tough life, being emotionally controlled and manipulated by a silver spoon). But, after a few plot twists and turns, the victim becomes Falco—Susan discovers Falco's responsibility for the frame-up, and then frames him in front of her brother for attempted rape (when Falco thought he was actually rescuing her from attempted suicide); in his defense, Falco blurts out that Hunsecker had put him up to the initial frame-up, and Susan finally gathers up the gumption to leave her brother's custody. Again, everybody is plain old mean and ugly, but this time they at least rather witty, so much so, in the case of Hunsecker, that we almost feel sorry when he loses his sister, even if he deserved it. Of course, in this film, procrastination is far less germane, as everyone is in a constant hurry to act Now!, it being New York, life being hand-to-mouth, and newspapers being a deadline-oriented business.

Blogs, though, less so.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Movies: Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris)

I'm terribly anxious about where to start. This happens sometimes. And this is, after all, a rather anxiety-inducing film. Even if you consider yourself fairly "liberated" (as I do), this film will make you wriggle squeamishly. God forbid you've made the unwitting mistake of seeing it with your parent, or on a first date. But even if, like me, you've gone to the theater alone, watching these things happen on a screen in front of the public will cause you some anxiety. You may think better to rent it, and watch it alone, but you'll feel even more sordid for having done that, because there is an aura of pornography, an intimation of "peeping" through the keyhole, and an unignorable air of complicity in violence. Being solitary will magnify it.

The illicit makes us feel guilty, but that guilt is exciting. Our arousal is then complicated by another level of guilt. The audience enacts these wriggle-inducing visceralities alongside Jeanne (Maria Schneider), who retires daily to a filthy apartment where she has increasingly violent anonymous sex with a frowzy-but-animal American twice her age and thrice her weight (the never-so-disturbing Marlon Brando, as raw as always but now letting it all hang out). Bertolucci displays Schneider's breasts with typical European abandon, but also offers full-frontal female nudity as one of the least shocking items on the film's agenda. Perhaps you would like to see the girl masturbate when her lover shuns her, writhing face down on the mattress, grinding her hips against her hand. Perhaps you would like to see the man demand that she bring the butter, so that he can toss aside his baguette, shove her face down on the floor, and rape her, yes, anally, with that traditional farmhouse lubricant. Does that turn your stomach? And these are only words. Imagine it on the big screen, in a sordid French apartment building, with rust colored carpets and a bare mattress on the floor in the room's center, all the blinds drawn shut. Imagine a dead rat in the bed. So squeamish, we Americans are! I know. You feel sick. But titillated. And therefore even more sick.

Intercut with these grim, rust-colored scenes of filth are their perfect opposites; Jeanne, all this time, is engaged to Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud) a reconstitution of Léaud's Godard roles as an excitable naïf with a video camera, who is making a film about Jeanne and his love for her. The walk around outdoors, in the sunlight, their every moment together conscripted by the camera and a crew of assorted clueless hipsters carrying audio/visual equipment. He takes her to the farmhouse where she grew up and she talks about her childhood. When she returns to the room and to her more beastly man, her storytelling about childhood becomes an interrogation, in which he coaxes from her stories about her adolescent illicit behavior with a male cousin. One day, out with Tom, and trying on a wedding dress, she runs back to the apartment in the rain to tell her lover that she will be getting married, and not seeing him anymore. Deaf to her protests, he picks her up, tosses her over his shoulder, and takes her to the bathroom, where he demands that she bathe. In the process of explaining to him that she's fallen in love "with a man," her description grows to describe not Tom, but this robust, déclassé American.

The film then winds down into its less titillating (and simultaneously, but not consequently, less interesting) conclusion, in which Jeanne's relationship with Brando steps out of the apartment and into the daylight; he tells her his name (Paul), about his wife (he's freshly widowed), and takes her to a funhouse of a dancehall, ordering whisky and champagne; he professes his love; drunk, they stumble across the dance floor, where buttoned-up dancers are performing a tango (that structured, cold, farcical representation of passion that equates not with Jeanne and Paul's relationship, nor with Jeanne and Tom's relationship, either); when they are forced off the dance floor, Paul pulls down his pants and shows the proper company his ass.

And then, the very end: all this time, Paul has inspired in Jeanne the always-intermingled passions of lust and fear. She repeatedly fights, but always succumbs. Now, she is done. She hurries away from him, but he follows her. He chases her through the streets of Paris, to her home, but his place (their place?) is not out in the sun, nor in the apartment she shares with her mother. He follows her in, and puts on a military hat, which had belonged to her (now dead, of course) father. She turns around and, holding her father's gun, shoots him dead.

It was, I'm certain, the right thing to do. A latter-day interview with Schneider suggests that the anal rape was not in the original script, but had instead been Brando's idea (butter and all). It was done in one take; the tears, she insists, had at that moment been real.

Squirm away.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Books: Springer's Progress, by David Markson

Procrastination is in the air; I've put off writing about this book for ten days, but put off reading it for ten months (God knows why, it's such a slim little volume, toothless, really, and, paradoxically, toothsome to boot). Worse, Lucien Springer, our anti-hero, has been putting off work on his new novel (I can sympathize. . . were it not for iTunes, my laptop would be as dusty as his typewriter). Instead, he's been nursing yet another extramarital affair, this time with student Jessica Cornford, writing a novel of her own (without, it seems, any bother by procrastination). He calls her "horsey," but in all other ways impresses upon us her beauty, so let's instead call her "equine." Somewhere along the way (seemingly about the time his cock stops working, to his young and fertile lover's vague disappointment (she has no shortage of other lovers, which inspires Springer's impotently raging jealousy which might in fact be the inspiration for his impotence) he finds that she's inspired him to write again, and he begins his novel, which is about his extramarital affair, this time with student Jessica Cornford, writing a novel of her own. . . wait: Mobius Strip Alert.

But that's what the book does, collapse on itself and thusly end just as it's getting started, in either a majestically painless, perfectly landed, triple axel of postmodern figure skating kind of way, or in that leave-a-swampy-taste-in-your-mouth three card monte of postmodern con-artistry kind of way, depending on what camp you're in (and depending on whether you even got to the end of the book anyway, considering the way it's all bunged up inside with big long words that will send even Ivy League grad students to Merriam Webster in tears, not to mention the lists and anagrams and codes and literary and art historical in-jokes that aren't "in" between anybody but Markson and his own self, at least until he discloses his secrets in a compendium, or until a reader comes along with enough OCD to tweeze them all out (he makes, I promise you, excellent use of Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky). Being a complete cad, David Foster Wallace called Markson "pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country." Being a complete cad myself, I will now have to read all of Markson's other books, too.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Movies: Godard's 60s Festival

Film Forum recently offered a festival of Jean-Luc Godard's 1960s films, and I will write about the ones I saw not in the order that they were made, but in the order that I saw them. I didn't go to Breathless, which I had already seen twice (once at home at my mom's behest, on video, when I was 15 or so, and once in college for a Philosophy course on Existentialism in Literature and Film), to 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d'elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her), which I'd patiently sat through a year or so ago, also at Film Forum, without comprehending to which mysterious female the title refers (Paris? The brunette?), or to Contempt, which I'd seen the month before, also at Film Forum (surprise). The list of attended features in the order I saw them, then, and with instant opinions, is as follows:

1. Pierrot Le Fou (1965)--Belmondo is even better in color; why can't I incorporate this kind of madcap fun into my life?
2. Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961)--Women are the most obnoxious creatures; I must be more careful not to act this way.
3. La Chinoise (1967)--This is the most hilarious boring movie I've ever seen, but only because of my assigned reading at Universities.
4. Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis (1966)--The trailer was better, and promised a dynamism the film itself lacks.
5. Sympathy For the Devil (1968)--Even young Mick Jagger's hotness cannot save this absurd project; I wish I hadn't remembered that it was screening tonight, and anyway I don't even like the Stones.

If you're not bored yet, read on. I will now be discussing each at some length, before coming to a general conclusion.

Jean-Paul Belmondo is Pierrot Le Fou; Anna Karina is Marianne Renoir. She shows up to babysit while he goes to an absurd cocktail party with his Italian wife. Everyone converses in advertisement copy while the lights change color. Later that night, he drives her back home and we find out that they had an affair a few years ago. She is somehow involved in arms dealing (in the lightest, most amusing way possible—her mod apartment is scattered with rifles; seems her brother dragged her into it), and she and Pierrot, after a bout of romance, kill an arms-related intruder with a wine bottle, hop in his car, and motor out into the countryside to make their escape. Bonny and Clyde-ish hijinks ensue; they are being sought by Pierrot's wife, the arms dealers, and most likely the police, and they steal a number of cars along the way. They take a walk in the woods and dance on fallen tree trunks. They stop for awhile at an abandoned seaside cottage, where Pierrot spends all of their money on books (he's a sort of devil-may-care intellectual, the swoon-maker for the wannabe-anarchist philosophy majorettes) while Marianne takes walks by the shore, bored-bored-bored with the sudden domesticity (they keep a pet fox and a parrot, and eat out of tin cans, but that is suddenly the extent of their adventures). When they need money, they paint their faces and put on an amazing charades-style rendition of the Vietnam War for a group of American Navy men. Ultimately, she leaves, double-crossing him to take up with the arms dealers again (turns out her "brother" is actually her lover). Possible moral? You can't beat the demise of youth.

As far as I'm concerned, to say that A Woman is a Woman is another way to say that a woman is annoying. Anna Karina is Angela, a burlesque girl who lives with her boyfriend and wants to have a baby. Jean-Claude Brialy is Émile, her live-in boyfriend who does not want to have a baby, at least not now. Jean-Paul Belmondo is Émile's friend Alfred, who is in love with Angela and will do whatever he wants. They all sing, this being a kind of snark-free mock musical. One of Angela's co-workers gets her a little fertility monitor, and the girl tries and tries to seduce her man, who will have no part of it, much more interested in mealtimes, the newspaper, and riding his bicycle around their living room. Angela locks herself in the bathroom with Alfred, but has no intention of going through with any kind of affair, although Émile has all but given his blessing, so great is his detachment to her twaddle. The best scene (the only good scene?) is one in which the couple goes to bed, but aren't talking. Although they aren't talking, they still want to insult each other, and so one goes to the bookshelf, carefully chooses a volume, and points at words on the cover in order to deliver a wallop. The other retorts. Soon, they are both in front of the bookcase in their pajamas, plucking titles to huffily carry back to bed and stick in each other's faces. Ultimately, after a thorough wracking, he concedes. Possible moral? Women are annoying, and babies are stupid, but you will likely end up with both, even if you put up a fight.

The character cast of La Chinoise consists of a small group of university students on summer vacation (Jean-Pierre Léaud as Guillaume being the most recognizable); they are holed up in a borrowed apartment where they paint communist slogans on the walls, listen to Radio Peking, and give each other lengthy lectures on the different aspects of Marxism. At the beginning, one of the group is beaten up by the European Socialist group (apparently the Euro set isn't radical enough for these kids—it's all about Mao. One wall of the apartment is lined with countless hollow-looking copies of his tiny red book, to which they refer constantly). By the end, another one has committed suicide after threatening to do so throughout the entire film. Ironically, one of the girls, with darker, larger, and more exotic features, wears a housekeeper's costume and seems to be their maid. Each morning, the group does regimented calisthenics on the balcony, chanting quotations from communist literature to keep time. In the middle, one quits and moves out; a cameraman (presumably Godard?) then interviews him at length as he sits dipping his baguette into a bowl cafe au lait. He's left because of a fall-out over violence; one of the girls has decided that terrorism is the only answer and wants to begin by blowing up the university; eventually, the claustrophobic apartment gives way to a scene in which she sits on a train, discussing her ideas for change with Francis Jeanson, who, at his age, has more wisdom to offer than she is prepared to hear (you mean to say that blowing up the university is not the answer to all the world's problems?!). Soon, the summer has ended; everyone goes back to school, and bourgeoisie return to their apartment and wash the slogans off the walls. This is the talkiest film I've ever seen, and I don't recommend that anyone but the hardest-boiled intellectuals watch it. Possible moral? Optimism is innocence is naivete; sometimes charming, sometimes tedious, but luckily always temporary.

Masculin féminin turns out to be a kind of Woman is a Woman recap, but without the burlesque, the babies, or the bicycling indoors. There is singing, though; the fay Jean-Pierre Léaud is Paul, and his object of affection is Chantal Goya as Madeline, a kind of French, brunette Marianne Faithful, who is recording her first big single, a whispery pop-folk ballad that matches her brown bangs and neat sweaters. The best part of the film is at the very beginning, before Paul has become Madeline's boyfriend, when he follows her into the women's bathroom and awkwardly demands a date while she combs her hair and powders her nose. Also, quite sweetly, Madeline at one moment asks Paul to bring the car around while she does an impromptu radio interview. Paul asks what car? and she demands that he be steal one for her, just like Pierrot Le Fou would. Godard has a habit of referring, in his films, to his other films, cementing his own importance, as it were, to contemporary French culture (what could be more timely than a reference to a Godard film?!), and it generally comes off as more clever than obnoxious, particularly thanks to self-referentiality being all the rage these days (plus, it gives the audience a moment to congratulate itself for catching the reference). But these moments aside, the film is longer than it needs to be, interspersed with meandering interview sequences on masculinity and femininity, during which Godard's presence behind the camera is unignorable (Paul's pimply friend (Michel Debord) chats up Madeline's roommate (Catherine-Isabelle Duport), trying to suss out whether she will sleep with him as she munches on an apple, a banana displayed prominently behind her.) Possible moral? It's hard to be a young woman; it's harder to be a young man; and it's even harder to put together a decent movie about something this vague.

Sympathy For the Devil marks the spot where I draw the line when watching "art films;" it is a documentary of sort—a recording of the sessions during which The Rolling Stones recorded their famous song by the same name, as they work out the the percussion and finally decide to include the can't-imagine-the-song-without-em "woo-woo-oo"s. In order to break up the monotony (it can't possibly be in order to illustrate some theme, because there is a complete lack of cohesion), these sequences are intercut by others, unrelated to the band or music: a Russian peasant girl, for example, wanders through the woods while a film crew follows her around and a director asks her a series of semi-inane questions. Also, a group of young black men hang stagily around a junkyard piled with used vehicles, spray-painting Pantherisms on the sides of cars, reciting from books by LeRoi Jones and Eldridge Cleaver, and (again?!) conducting an interview. If you read up on the film, any reviewer more engaged than I am will tell you that it's a portrait of 1960s counter-cultural strategies or some such (probably valid) rot. But for the average movie-goer, it remains a lengthy series of disconnected nonsense. Possible moral? My kathi roll, which I had snuck into the theater to much on, was a lot more interesting.

Take-home: Unless you went to NYU Film School, Godard is sort of over-rated. What credit he gets usually belongs to Jean-Paul Belmondo. He's precious, fay, twee, tedious, and more intellectual than thou; in a way, that makes him an original hipster, for which I suppose he deserves some credit. I realize that this post is basically sacrilegious and generally makes me sound far less intelligent than I am, but I'm okay with that. If you're going to learn French, do it for Resnais before you do it for Godard, that's all.