Friday, August 29, 2008

Movies: Coen Brothers at MoMA: Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski, and Fargo

Yowza. Contrary to what I may have said before, these guys know how to make a movie. Of course (and as always), I have my complaints (they rely too often on magical/supernatural intervention for plot propulsion), but ultimately, between their writing, their casting, their timing, and most importantly, their eye for design (they recreate the relevant reality to such a heightened degree of verisimilitude as to create purely visual comedy), they succeed at levels most filmmakers wouldn't even dare to attempt.

Contrary to popular belief, The Big Lebowski, in spite of its unbelievably brilliant cast of strange and fascinating characters, is not the best movie of all time, nor is it even the best Coen brothers film (to say this is, I realize, rather sacrilegious). This surreal-yet-real Los Angeles semi-picaresque for contemporary times could have been a perfect movie, but for two things, one being a rather silly song-and-dance dream sequence (recycled into an equally annoying full-length feature by John Turturro in Romance and Cigarettes) and the other being the narrative framing by the Stranger, a deep voiced cowboy who makes a few appearances in the middle of the story (his is the supernatural element in this film; in The Hudsucker Proxy it's the "magic negro" Moses, the clockworker; in Barton Fink it's John Goodman's character after he undergoes a change at the film's end, but I'll discuss that later, as it's a bit different. Fargo doesn't have any magical or supernatural element, and that is why it's easily the best film these brothers have made; it's cleanly real, pure of the adulteration of fantasy). The opening scenes of The Big Lebowski, during which a ball of tumbleweed rolls through the desert and into the city of Los Angeles, stopping at last on the beach, while the famous Tumbling Tumbleweeds song plays and the Stranger extemporizes on the city of Los Angeles are, to be honest, the precise kind of pretentious crap that film school students find useful. The real opening scene, though, in which the dude stands in the middle of a grocery store aisle, sticking his nose into a carton of half n' half to determine its freshness, and then purchases it, writing a check for $0.69, is completely brilliant, and sets the tone for the rest of the richly detailed brilliance that follows, which I cannot even begin to enumerate here. It can simply be said that Bridges is brilliant, Goodman is brilliant, Turturro is brilliant, Moore is brilliant, and everyone is unbelievably good. Goodman's facial hair is astounding, Moore's lines are astounding, and the smoke stains on the cracked tiles of the Dude's bathtub are astounding. The whole goddamned thing is astounding.

But it's loud. It is sown with the seeds of farce that would grow to bear this travesty; it gave other filmmakers the notion that they could take a character like Jesus Quinana and make an entire movie about him (you can't; he's only funny for ten lines of dialogue, as one of a hundred different kooks). Fargo, conversely, is quiet. What's humorous here is the room in which Norm paints his ducks, the two bobbing heads of the smushed-face prostitutes being interviewed by Police Chief Marge Gunderson (the astounding Frances McDormand), Jean Lundegaard sitting on the couch, knitting something the exact same color as her sweater while she watches late-morning television in her pajamas, moments before the dangerously inept kidnappers break into her home. William H. Macy creates something deeply distressing, a man you pity and loathe but hope for, against all odds.

That said, Barton Fink may be my favorite of the bunch, both because of personal identification with the struggling hero (a writer rudely transplanted from his native Brooklyn to the hyperweird and isolating Hollywood) and because of the film's breathtaking visuals (Barton's hotel room, with its oozing, peeling, living wallpaper, is practically a character in and of itself). John Goodman, as Charlie Meadows, Barton's neighbor and only friendly acquaintance, is a brilliantly steamy, sweaty, fat man, shifting from angry to jolly to lonely with a speed and facility shocking to behold. The man can bloody act. It's because of Goodman's brilliance, the slippery despair of his character, and the (bad-)dreaminess of the entire hotel that we are able to suspend our disbelief at the end of the film, when Goodman reappears as psycho-killer Madman Mundt and the entire hotel bursts into flames around him, flames which, like a gas stove's pilot light, continue to burn without quite destroying anything, including Barton, who finally flees with his finally-written screenplay.

The Hudsucker Proxy, a kind of capitalist fairytale, pales in comparison with these other movies, even though that's not quite fair. It suffers the most strongly for the Coen's magical inclination, but that aside, Tim Robbins and especially Jennifer Jason Leigh are flawless, the visuals (as usual) are pitch-perfect (the Hudsucker building, the Hudsucker boardroom, the Hudsucker logo, Norville Barnes' homemade prototype for the hula hoop: a plain circle printed on a yellowed, folded scrap of paper that he keeps in his shoe), and the scene in which Barnes is oriented with the mailroom is probably the greatest of its kind ever. Really, I could do without narrator/magical clock-keeper Moses and his epic battle with the lurking door painter, and without the reappearance of Mr. Hudsucker as an angel, but a fairy tale's a fairy tale, and there's no reason for me to want this movie to be as real as Fargo. So I'll quit nitpicking.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Books: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver

It's difficult enough to write about a book of short stories, with all its diverging characters and plot lines, but Carver makes it even harder. His stories are simple and natural and perfect; there seems little to say about them, other than that they make you want to read more of them.

The title story, last in the volume, is astonishingly good. Like most of Carver's stories, it describes, in real time (however close literature can ever get to "real" time) people in a relationship at the moment of pressure (in this case, the admittance of infidelity, a common theme). But they aren't all so similar (not that I would mind if they were); there's a story about a boy's battle in a creek for a giant fish (Nobody Said Anything) and a wary letter written by an estranged mother in regard to her now-famous son (Why, Honey?). But these stories diverge from Carver's sweet spot: the feelings of a thirty- to forty-something man and/or woman who is falling apart, like the eerily awkward mother in Are You a Doctor? (one of the volume's best stories), who calls a wrong number but then insists that the man on the line come over to her apartment (and he does). The muffled despair of extreme loneliness, smoked away with cigarettes (and, in What's in Alaska?, with pot), drunk away with beer (in Night School) or buried under food (in Fat) isn't softened by another person's presence—in fact, that other person usually augments the loneliness, by not meeting the first person's needs or expectations (The Student's Wife), by illustrating plainly what is missing.

I have only one complaint, which is that Carver spells "cigarette" without the final "te," and, since his characters do an awful lot of smoking, it's a continual distraction. But if that's the biggest problem with your stories, you're doing pretty well, no?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Books: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

When I first started reading this book, I was doing so at work, online on Project Gutenberg. I got about half through before picking up the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation at the library, and suddenly started reading a lot faster. The Garnett translation on the internet, while perfectly serviceable, gave me a book that was only slightly less tedious than War and Peace, which I fought through with a machete a few years ago (aside: now that I know there is a Pevear-Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace, I might have to read it again. Blast!) But the new translation, free of those strange and clunky anachronisms so common to translated Russian literature, feels "pure" in a way, as if we can read precisely what Tolstoy intended.

This is not to say that the novel doesn't still feel boggy in places; there are lengthy discussions about contemporary politics, the problem of the peasant, what the land-owner's role is in the countryside, and all these do draw out what could otherwise be a two- or three-hundred page romance novel. But there is enough emotion and even anguish, even in these sections having nothing to do with romance, to pull us through. The crises Tolstoy describes are, forgive my cliche, timeless. I could not help identifying with his characters, and developing weirdly strong alliances with some and against others.

Anna, for instance, I loathe. I was rather happy to see her throw herself in front of a train at the end. She's a melodramatic princess, addicted, as so many women are, to constant attention from men. Although her husband is perfectly kind and whole and a good provider (unlike, say, Emma Bovary's husband, Lady Chatterley's husband, or Undine Spragg's husband, although maybe he is a wee bit like Emma Bovary's husband, in the sense that he bores his wife terribly), she allows her head to be turned by the totally unappealing Count Vronsky, who abandons Kitty, the young girl he had previously been courting (luckily for her, because he's plain no good, and would never have married her anyway). Once she's thrown away her entire life for Vronsky, and as good as eloped with him to the countryside, leaving her supposedly beloved son behind, as well as society, which can no longer accept her, she remains neurotic and fretful, constantly worried, in spite of his obvious devotion, that the Count does not love her enough, and that he wants to marry someone else. Her extreme selfishness and lack of responsibility ultimately ruins two men's lives, three if you include that of her son (and why not add another for the daughter she has with Vronsky, for which she doesn't care at all?)

Karenin, her husband, I feel a deeply sorrowful sympathy for; his love and his trust blind him to Anna's affair at first (and perhaps some complacency, although the demarcation between trust and complacency is sometimes difficult to distinguish), and once she tells him about it (in a rather mean-spirited way, I would say), he still forgives her, even gives her free reign to do as she pleases so long as she does not disturb the household, his business. What the man lacks in passion, he makes up for with the more important prudence, and incredibly generosity.

But Karenin is not Tolstoy's ideal man (nor is, of course, the clownish cad Vronsky). Konstantin Levin, who marries Kitty after Vronsky abandons her, is the epitome of prudence, generosity, responsibility, intellect, and depth of soul. Here is a man who perhaps worries too much, is too self-conscious, and so has trouble with society's empty and expensive customs. But in the country, on his farm, he works alongside the peasants at cutting the hay. He is able to silence the raging philosophical questions inside his head by working harder (yes, like the poor horse in Animal Farm). His realization at the end of the novel is worth quoting: "When Levin thought about what he was and what he lived for, he found no answer and fell into despair; but when he stopped asking himself about it, he seemed to know what he was and what he lived for, because he acted and lived firmly and definitely." Perhaps if Anna had the opportunity to work on the farm herself, or in fact do anything laborious at all, she wouldn't have been so ripe for distraction.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Movies: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

When I first saw the trailer for this film (which did not disclose Woody Allen's name, which has become something of a liability these days), I rolled my eyes and gagged and cursed the particular American sentiment that idealizes those wildly romantic Europeans. Later, I saw the poster, which did disclose Woody Allen's name, and immediately began looking for a fork to stick into my eye, knowing that I was now obligated to watch the damned thing.

And so. Two young American women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) go to Barcelona for a liminal summer, where they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a romantic artist who sweeps each one off her feet. Cristina is a romantic, unsure of what she wants, and still trying to find herself artistically (she rather reminds me of myself at sixteen, and yes, that's meant to be an insult). Vicky is the classic neurotic, highly intellectual, verbally facile, sexually frigid Woody Allen female, the Diane Keaton, if you will. She, of course, has less than no interest in Juan Antonio's proposed threesome, but he eventually cracks her hardened exterior for one romantic evening; now, although she is about to be married to the "perfect" man, she is now a lot less sure of her desires. But it's too late; Cristina, has moved in with Juan Antonio and is living the bohemian life she thinks she's been searching for. For a moment, her happiness is interrupted by the reappearance of her lover's melodramatic ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) after a suicide attempt, but they quickly all become friends and, in fact, lovers, and Cristina begins to find herself artistically. Strangely enough, as the summer comes to a close, she realizes that she's still not happy, so she leaves them (and their relationship quickly falls apart without her there to temper their passion, which tends toward anger and violence). Vicky gets another chance with Juan Antonio, but passes it up (after a violent intervention by Maria Elena with a pistol), and in the end, both girls return to the states to continue their lives as previously planned.

It's quite a disappointment that the characters are simply type-cast cartoons sketched quickly to illustrate a kind of fantasy Allen harbors about those crazy, wild, passionate Europeans (indeed, as he said in an interview, the film could just have easily taken place in France or Italy or Greece or any such picturesque Mediterranean location). The writing is, in fact, so lazy, that, rather than illustrate each character's emotional state in their words and actions, Allen employs a narrative voice-over that seems to be reading the parts of the screenplay that aren't to be read, so simple and naive are his words (for example, when Cristina first sees Juan Antonio's paintings, the narrator says something rather like, "She looked at his paintings with excitement, and felt moved by the vivid colors and powerful brushstrokes.") Much of this narration was so ridiculous that I laughed out loud in the theater, but no one else was laughing; I'm still wondering whether it is meant to be funny (not unlike the brilliant voice-over narration on Arrested Development), perhaps in a self-deprecating way, or whether it is, indeed, just lazy, a kind of quick-and-dirty way to fill in the story between what actually amounts to a string of relationship vignettes between the various sets of lovers.

The real bugbear (as usual, in Allen's recent films), is Scarlett Johansson's inability to act; here, it rather suits her role as a young woman who desperately wants to be artistic, but completely lacks any real soul or passion. Contrasting her with the breathtaking Penélope Cruz, who steals the show in spite of having only half the screentime of her childish, blonde colleague seems to be a cruel and obvious metaphor; not only does Cristina not have the artistic passion and talent that Maria Elena has, Scarlett doesn't have the command of the screen that Penélope has. When Cristina announces to her two lovers that she is leaving, Maria Elena flies into a fit of sputtering Spanish, tossing her wild hair and raving that Cristina will never be satisfied, no matter how many people she uses. Aside from being an overstated, but perhaps fair, indictment of American culture by Woody Allen, it's an opportunity for Cruz to demonstrate, as she does throughout the film, her superiority to the rest of the female cast. Bardem, for his part, plays equally well, with a kind of melting panache in the line of Cary Grant, European-style. It's too bad, though, that his character, like the rest, is so flat.

Ultimately, this is probably Allen's best film for the decade, but that isn't saying a lot. It makes sense, and is even funny, within the context of his oeuvre, but, in and of itself, it's rather disappointing. What's worse is that, when considered against his other films, it lacks any fresh realizations. Perhaps not since the late 1980s has the man made a movie that came to new realizations, philosophically-speaking. How is it that as he gets older, he loses his wisdom?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Movies: Patti Smith: Dream of Life

Sometimes, I complain that documentaries about famous people are too linear. But sometimes, they can be over-impressionistic, like Steven Sebring's Patti Smith movie. Biography is summarized and done away with in the first few minutes of the picture, in Patti's plain voice layered over the diagetic sounds of a rattling train; we see the view out of its moving windows. The rest of the film continues to use this layering of sound; we see Patti singing one song, sitting on the floor of her room and strumming an old Gibson from the 1930s, but we hear her recorded voice singing a different song, for example. Almost as if the one sound wasn't enough. Which it may not be.

I knew little about Patti Smith before the movie, but don't know much more after it, except that she has a son and a daughter. What I did know I knew from watching an R.E.M. interview about their song E-Bow the Letter (perhaps my favorite-ever R.E.M. song, which features her voice). After that, I procured her album Horses (they mention it), but was kind of disappointed, or maybe just weirded out. Her voice is unquestionably stunning, far outstripping all other female voices of her generation. But her songs are not the most pristine showcases for that voice; on Horses, the trembling beauty is interrupted with spoken word (not so bad) and rhythmic shouting (not so good). I think it's safe to blame 1975 and its concomitant CBGB culture rather than Smith, though she remains completely unapologetic about being loud and visceral and angry when required.

What Sebring does is assemble ten years worth of footage from conversations, interviews, and mostly a lot of just hanging around into a lengthy montage, a kind of extended music video with some talking in between. For a fan, it is probably a whirling delight. For a curious, potentially interested listener who still needs to be convinced, it's not quite convincing.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Movies: La Vérité

While some films are completely unbelievable and therefore terrible, other films, like La Vérité, and completely unbelievable but somehow still brilliant. I would blame it on Bardot, but she's acted through some stinkers, so I know it's more than that (although she is delightfully charming in this one). In fact, this movie succeeds against all odds; it's set inside a courtroom during a trial, and the story is told via flashback, narrated by the judge, who reads from a kind of deposition of Dominique's social and sexual history. The court's goal is to discern whether or not she actually loved her lover when she killed him—whether it was a crime of passion motivated by his poor treatment of her, or whether it was premeditated murder, done in cold blood to punish her hated sister Annie (to whom he became engaged after ending his relationship with Dominique, and from whom she had stolen him in the first place).

The task with which writer/director Clouzot sets the court is of course absurd, and to watch the two attorneys vie over whether Dominique was, indeed, a slut, has its own unintended comic merits. But the brilliance of the film lies mostly in its depiction of the "outsider" bohemian set into which Dominque falls when she fights with Annie, moves out of their rented room, and finds herself homeless. Her male friends all double as casual lovers (something which doesn't seem to bother her much)—the darker reality behind their funny, proto-hipster outfits and haircuts is that, if she weren't putting out, she wouldn't have any place to stay (or perhaps that, if she weren't so beautiful, they wouldn't demand that she put out).

Of course, Bardot revels in the role of sex kitten, but her desperate affection for Gilbert, who claims to see her as more (but who arguably actually does not) belies beauty's affliction. Dominique is, in a way, addicted to the constant sexual attention of men (which is why, when one drives by on a new motorcycle, she leaves the wimpy Gilbert in the gutter, hopping on for a two minute ride from which she doesn't come home until the next morning, while Gilbert has been pacing in front of her door all night). At the same time, she knows that these attentions are fleeting, and without Gilbert's "true" love, she feels unstable. His love, though, is stultifying; he's not strong enough to keep her under control, and ultimately, he only wants her for the same thing every other man does.

And so whether or not the courtroom scenario is plausible is irrelevant; the film demonstrates genuine emotions and the relationships amongst a certain social set (the bohemians, that is; not the beauties) that will always struggle for the sake of struggle.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Writing: First Date

Caroline Childs had a date.

She was terribly excited, but she was also terribly nervous. Caroline hadn’t had a date in fourteen years. She hadn’t had sex in three, and for twelve years before that, it had always been with the same man. Her husband—ex-husband, she reminded herself—Lorenzo DeGrazie, had been carrying on an affair during the last two years of their marriage, completely behind her back, while she took their three children to and from school, cooked his mother’s Italian recipes, and kept up her figure—no small feat, considering the three children and the Italian recipes. Lorenzo, meanwhile, had gotten fat, bald, and smug, and one day he came home from the office with divorce papers.

That had been a year ago and the proceedings were at last complete. Her girlfriends at work had convinced her to have a divorce shower, complete with a gift registry, on the pretense that she hadn’t had one for her wedding (they had eloped). She registered at Bloomingdale's because, even though none of her friends were rich, she felt she deserved, for once, something nice. At the party, after drinking two cosmopolitans and approaching tears at each toast, Caroline was asked whether she had been out on any dates yet. Quickly, she said no, of course not, but after a bit of teasing, she admitted that she did have a crush. He was a single dad; she had seen him walking his daughter to school often. They lived in the same neighborhood and took the same route.

Everyone had gotten excited and asked what did he look like, what did he do, what was his name, how did she know he was single? He looked tall, dark, and handsome, ha ha, she didn’t know what he did, something with restaurants and wine—he had given her his card—his name was Eduardo, and he was single because he didn’t wear a ring, and the one time she hadn’t seen him and his daughter walking to school for a week, and then saw him again, she had asked where they had been, and he had said that his daughter had been away to her mother’s in California, where his ex-wife’s mother was sick.

But he might not be single, just because he’s not married to her any longer. He might have a girlfriend.

The girl who said that got kicked in the ankle for being negative.

But he was single, because he had, finally, after months of banter two or three mornings a week, asked her out. There was a strange coincidence, or perhaps it was just the coincidence of Spring Break, that his daughter was going to be in California again, and her children were going to be with their father’s family in Jersey. Do you like wine? he had asked her, his dark eyes drilling into hers. Ha ha, my ex-husband is Italian! she joked, before she realized that had been perhaps the wrong thing to say.

But he hadn’t minded, and now they had a date, for Saturday, which meant she had a week to get ready. She hated all of her clothes, needed a trim and a manicure, and had no idea what they would talk about over dinner. She was afraid to eat in front of him, worried that her underwear wouldn’t be sexy enough, and uncertain whether she was supposed to even let him see whether her underwear was sexy at all—though, to be honest, she didn’t think she’d be able to help herself. It had been so long. She was ready to just invite him over to her house for cocktails, but all the girls at work said no, no no, you can’t do that.

The girls at work were very helpful, in fact. They told her all sorts of things she hadn’t any idea about. One girl, in her twenties, told her that she had to, absolutely had to, have a Brazilian bikini wax if she was even considering letting him see her in her underwear. Caroline was comfortable with her body and ran on a treadmill at the gym every day, but she had never had anything waxed, and had never done anything at all to her personal hair, except soap it in the shower. She had seen some of the younger women at the gym with all kinds of strange configurations—disturbingly neat triangles, the stripes that Cosmo called “mohawks,” and even perfectly hairless mounds that looked as chilly as the Roman statues at the Met. But she had never thought that any of that was an option for her, she just hadn’t even considered it.

The girls asked her even stranger, more personal questions. Did she have vibrating condoms at hand? Flavored lubricant? They told her to go downtown to a store called Toys In Babeland and buy a butt plug. He’s European. He might like that. Caroline was horrified. She didn’t even know such a thing existed. No wonder Lorenzo had left her for another woman; he was European, too! (Eduardo, it turns out, was South American, but no difference.) They asked her what she did for birth control, and she laughed and said nothing; one of the girls, in a stall of the ladies’ room, showed her how to use her mouth to put a condom on a banana, which she had then eaten for lunch. I do it every time I go out with a new guy; it drives them wild! Caroline mustered a grimace that the girl thankfully took for a smile of gratitude. It’s gonna be great! she promised.

And now, the time had come. For her date. For her first date in fourteen years.

Caroline took a deep breath, tucking her hair behind her ears and locking the door behind her. She had done it all: the manicure, the trim, even the wax; she had bought a new black dress, a new kind of perfume, and opened a fresh package of nylons. In her bedroom closet was a discreet paper bag containing condoms, lubricant, and a strange, silicone cork still in its packaging—that she hadn’t been able to bring herself to touch, although she did find her waxed area strangely thrilling.

At the bar, Eduardo was a perfect gentleman. They were having a pre-dinner drink—martinis, rather than wine—and he told her about his business and his country and his life. He had traveled all over the world. Caroline smiled and sipped her martini, blinking her eyes up at him and wondering whether he would want to kiss her, or if she had done all that work for nothing. After she finished her drink, he ordered her another one, even though she told him she didn’t need it—she was feeling terribly tipsy. In fact, she wasn’t feeling very good at all. She needed to go to the bathroom, but she was afraid to stand up, she felt so tipsy. In fact, the table seemed to be falling away from her hands, first on one side, then on the other. She held onto the sides of it tightly, then let go because she was afraid he would see. He kept talking and smiling, his dark eyes drilling down into her. I think, she said, I think I need some fresh air. He helped her up and walked her out. She could barely pick up her feet. She could barely look out of her eyes in front of her. Everything was spinning. His arm was hot around her. Then, she was holding her key, and trying to put it in the lock of her door, but the hole was so small; she couldn’t find it. He took her key from her and opened the door, half-carrying her inside. Do you want a drink? he asked as they stepped into her apartment; she shook her head no and collapsed on the couch. Then he was upon her, like a panther, his body muscled and dark over hers, his tongue down her throat, his hands searching for a zipper. The couch swung wildly underneath her, first one way, then the other. Stop, she said, stop, I feel sick, and somehow, she pushed him—pushed him up, off of her, and out the door, locking it. So sick, she said, to no one, and ran to the sink where she puked and puked. So tired, so sick and so tired, and she dropped right there on the kitchen floor, and slept, until Monday afternoon, waking, maybe, she couldn’t remember, to pee and to puke, since she woke up in the bathroom, her head on the toilet seat. She thought it was Sunday, until she saw her answering machine flashing a message—her boss, wondering where she was.

Oh shit, oh shit. Without wondering what had happened, she took a hot shower and opened the closet to find something to wear. That was when she saw the brown paper bag, sitting where she had left it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Movies: La Cérémonie and Les Blessures Assassines (Murderous Maids)

These two ultra-weird movies were aptly paired but perhaps inappropriately included in Film Forum's current French Crime Wave series. The crimes they depict are, I will argue, unmotivated. Additionally, the films are fairly recent (1995 and 2000, respectively), and not modern classics by anyone's measure, whereas films like Rififi and Le Cercle Rouge are canonical.

La Cérémonie features Sandrine Bonnaire as Sophie, the new maid at the Lelievre's country estate. This wealthy family of four (an ex-model, an older father, and a teenaged son and daughter) treats her with respect enough, taking her into town for eyeglasses when she claims to need them, and offering to pay for lessons when they find out she doesn't know how to drive. And yet, she hides from them the fact that she can't read (although they would, of course, have paid for lessons for that too) and comes under the influence of dangerously kooky Jeanne (Isabelle Huppert), the postal clerk who has a personal vendetta against the male head of the Lelievre household. A number of very small incidents, all related to Sophie's illiteracy, snowball until she is fired, and when Jeanne comes over one night to help her pack her things, the two women arm themselves with Mr. Lelievre's hunting rifles and shoot dead the entire family, who had been peacefully watching a Mozart opera on television. If that seems rather out of the blue, then I've captured the moment perfectly. The only worthwhile bit of the film is the closing credit sequence; driving from the scene of the crime, Jeanne's car is broadsided and she dies immediately. Sophie runs out and witnesses the wreck, to which the police have already arrived. The boombox on which the Lelievre's daughter had been recording the Mozart opera, which Jeanne had decided to take home with her, is found in the car by a covetous cop, who happens to press the right button and issue an audio playback of the murder. We almost get the feeling that, like the master painter of a Renaissance workshop, the usually fantastic Chabrol only showed up at the very end of the filmmaking process, placing his signature there at the credits without having had a hand in the rest of the nonsense.

We have an equally random, and even more barbaric, murder of employers in Murderous Maids, in which Sylvie Testud plays Christine Papin, an inexplicably high-strung young woman who loathes her sometimes-whoring mother and is desperate to rescue her fourteen year old sister Léa (Julie-Marie Parmentier) from her clutches. Ironically, she takes Léa right into her bed, where they engage in artistic, nude embraces and bite their bottom lips in painful pleasure. I'm certain that there are feminists (and film critics and historians and psychologists) aplenty who would argue that this behavior is totally feasible given the repressive environment in which the sisters find themselves, where they have no privacy, no tenderness, and no sexual outlet, and in which Christine was most likely sexually abused as a child by one of her mother's men. But I am sticking with my bourgeois point of view that this sexual relationship is absurd. It doesn't offend me; I merely find it ridiculous. The head of household here is far less gracious than La Cérémonie's Lelievres, but even her surprise intrusion on the sister's romantic evening, during which they share crepes, naked in bed, doesn't warrant the sudden, brutal death that Christine inflicts upon her (and her present daughter!), with a pewter jug (the closest thing at hand). Nor does it warrant the mutilation wreaked on their bodies by Christine and the now-present Léa, who slice them up with kitchen knives. The sisters are quickly caught (they do not try to hide) and sent to prison, where Christine madly screams for her sister (locked in a separate cell) for days, until the guards bring Léa to her. The older sister, by now clearly insane, claws and smothers the younger, who tries to squirm away, and the guards separate them again. The screen goes black and we're told that Christine, though sentenced to death, died after four years on a commuted life sentence, and that Léa returned to live with her mother, not dying until the year the film was made (without her knowledge or consent). Though the movie is marketed as "a true story," I'm rather doubtful as to its veracity.

A critic with a Marxist bent would be happy to say that these films punish their upper-class characters for their complicity in a destructive social order, and might even propose that my sympathy for the holders of power and money is merely a bourgeois identification with that which I desire. But I would say that these women are emotional basketcases who desperately need therapy and/or yoga, and that these filmmakers need to work a bit harder on generating sympathy for their dark heroines. Why is Sophie so naive and awkward, and why is she so defensive about her (frankly, not all that horrible) deficiency? Why is Jeanne such a roustabout (the backstory about her dead daughter doesn't explain it at all; in fact, it only opens another can of worms). Why doesn't Christine warm to the attentions of the young man at the country house if she is so starved for attention, and, if its because she hates men because of a bad sexual experience in her childhood, why would she open the too-young Léa to sexual experiences, rather than preserve her innocence? None of these women's actions, from the very beginning of each film, make very much sense at all, and therefore, I cannot identify with, feel sorry for, or care about their troubles.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Movies: War Child

This is one of the most awkward documentaries I've ever seen (right up there with Zoo), but it manages, as all tales of Sudanese Lost Boys and/or Child Soldiers must, to tear you apart in spite of itself. The story is that of Emmanuel Jal, a boy about my age who now lives in the U.K., where he raps about his childhood; his performances make up a large portion of the footage. The rest is of Sudan, both in 2008, when Jal goes back to see the family he's been separated from for more than 15 years, and in the late 80s, when Jal was the children's spokesman for visiting international aid volunteers.

It's interesting to compare one child soldier's perspective with that of another lost boy's; in What is the What, Achak Deng is hardly a fan of the SPLA, but Jal's relationship with the rebel army is a bit more ambivalent. His father joined them, and then he did too. He explains how the refugee camps doubled as training grounds for the rebel army (as Deng describes as well). All of the Sudan-based footage, interviews, and narration are excellent. What's awkward is Jal's hip hop career and the excessive inclusion of it in the film. Watching Jal stand on a stage and rap about his brutal childhood while a bunch of white people are smiling and dancing in the audience is very, very surreal, and certain songs (like one in which Jal over-extends the metaphor of Africa as a country being raped by Western interests, repeating "vagina" again and again in the refrain) exacerbate this surreality—as if we were watching a comedic skit from Fear of a Black Hat rather than a documentary about a serious international crisis. But Jal is an amazing storyteller, perhaps in spite of himself (we see that talent even in the footage of his childhood interviews).

Monday, August 18, 2008

Movies: Le Cercle Rouge

Jean-Pierre Melville has disappointed me every time thus far (Army of Shadows and Le Doulos), so I don't know why I expected the critically-acclaimed Le Cercle Rouge to be any better than his other critically-acclaimed films. Like Army of Shadows, it's all gray and brown and dreary blue, as if the studio forced him to shoot color against his will (Le Doulos, in black and white, looks a lot snappier). Also like Army of Shadows, it's a bit too long, and extremely quiet. But while keeping actors quiet works for some directors (if we're comparing talk-free French jewel heists, Dassin does it best in Rififi), Melville's edits lack the visual dynamism necessary to keep an audience engaged through the actors' silence. In his slow, drab sequences, there is little to cling to, which leads me to Gian Maria Volontè's performance as escaped convict Vogel, for he is the only one to draw us in.

When the film opens, Vogel is cuffed to the upper berth in a train, supervised by police inspector Mattei (André Bourvil) in the bottom bunk. Vogel makes a rather stunning break by picking the lock of his cuffs and then kicking out the train window, leaping through the broken glass while the train is in full motion. He runs madly through the woods, and we never suspect that he'll make it past Mattei's immediately instigated dragnet, but he throws the dogs off his scent by crossing a river, and when he gets out onto the road, he hides in the trunk of a car parked at a restaurant. It's only mere luck that the car he picked belongs to Corey (the icy, ultra-French Alain Delon), a convict himself, released from prison that morning, at which time he robbed an old enemy at gunpoint and then purchased said vehicle with some of the money. Corey sees Vogel getting into his trunk (where he happens to have left some guns), and he drives out into a deserted, muddy field to confront the man. He shows Vogel his release papers from prison, and they share a smoke. Luck gets them through the dragnet, and they drive onto Paris, to Corey's old apartment. Here, Corey lets Vogel in on a job he's planning: a jewel heist.

The shop they are planning to hit has just installed a new, electronic safe/alarm system (rather evolved next to the alarm system featured in Rififi, but one that the cast of Ocean's Eleven would sneeze at). To break in, they need an excellent marksman, and Vogel has a connection with a bad cop who's a great shot. Corey calls him on the phone to set up a meeting, and we see Jansen (Yves Montand) at home when the phone rings in the film's only, but very, psychedelic sequence; the man is in bed, sweating and shaking, staring at an opened secret door in the striped wallpaper, out of which lizards, snakes, and rats wriggle and thump across the floor, up onto his bed, and into his face. He seems to be suffering from Heroin withdrawal, and so, later, once he's shaven and showered, met with Corey, and agreed to do the job, when we see him back in his room, wearing a suit, measuring and weighing curious substances, and melting them in a crucible, we are surprised to see that he is molding his own bullet. This bullet will be of the precise combinations of metals that, from the combined heat of the gun and its impact with the alarm system's keyhole, it will melt into and release the lock, instantly leaving all of the jewel cases open for the thieves to plunder. The heist goes off without a hitch.

As in Rififi, it's the translation of the jewels into cash through the fence that creates the problem. The fence Corey originally chose backs out of the deal, and he's forced to go to nightclub proprietor Santi (François Périer) for a connection to another fence. Meanwhile, Mattei has been putting pressure on Santi to help him find Vogel, for the business man has strong connections to the mob and all the Parisian crime scene. Santi continues to refuse until Mattei brings his teenaged son in on marijuana charges; he then yields, and when Corey comes to him for a connection with a fence, he provides Mattei, in an improbably disguise consisting of sunglasses and a pinky ring. Corey takes the bait, though, and drives the jewels out to the country estate Mattei has named, telling Vogel to stay at home. Vogel's sixth sense refuses, though, so he follows Corey out to the estate; the moment he walks in and sees Mattei, he tells Corey to grab the jewels and run. He runs too. Mattei, and the hundred-odd officers lying in wait run after; both thieves are shot down. Jansen, on the scene as well, and back on the side of the law, is accidentally shot dead by Mattei, thus proving his strange, misanthropic commissioner's preemptive accusation (at the film's beginning, when Mattei is called in for losing Vogel, the commissioner insists that all men are guilty).

This seems a tidy conclusion; all men are guilty, all men are dead, crime doesn't pay, etc. But there are a number of strange loose ends that remain unresolved. What exactly was going on in Jansen's apartment with all of those creatures? He cleans up too quickly to have had a real problem. And what is going on with Mattei at his apartment? Twice we see him come home to his three cats, going through his routine of removing his hat and coat, opening the taps of the bathtub, and placing a dish of food from the refrigerator onto the middle of the kitchen floor for the animals. The second time he comes home, the third cat is slow to appear, and ominous music plays while the camera zooms in on the food dish. We are certain the camera will swing around to reveal a murdered feline, but nothing comes of it. And finally, what of the strange tenderness between Corey and Vogel? In the final scene in Corey's apartment, before he leaves to meet Mattei, they share a moment weirdly tender, even lover-like, and after Corey leaves, Vogel makes his decision to follow while fingering a red rose (brought home by Corey from his initial meeting with Mattei at Santi's). Perhaps I'm overreading, or perhaps Melville was just sloppy; why would he plant these seeds and then leave them unattended?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Books: The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor

This was my second (and for some of the stories, third or fourth) read through Flannery O'Connor's astonishing oeuvre, and her work remains as fresh and mesmerizing as the first time (when I was 17 and Everything That Rises Must Converge was assigned by my favorite English teacher ever, Mr. Dekker.) In the Introduction to Donald Barthelme's Sixty Stories, another short story collection I've been reading simultaneously, David Gates disparages the kind of short stories that describe "modest deeds of modest people leading up to a modest epiphany." He sets Barthelme up as a foil to those, quoting the author's own disparagement of those stories that are "constructed mousetrap-like to supply, at the finish, a tiny insight typically having to do with innocence violated." Without engaging in disparagement, I include these two quotations here because I think they rather well encapsulate what O'Connor does so well; unlike Gates, I think constructing these traps for modest people is a far greater feat than Barthelme's aimless trawling in the linguistic sandbox.

O'Connor writes with a hammer in one hand and a club in the other. I don't doubt that some readers might find her rather infuriating; she's opinionated and angry and hard, there's nothing fanciful or flowery or pretty in her stories, and her characters are poisoned by vitriol. There is an intense ambivalence about faith, religion, education, and families, and everyone seems to get punished (and the more sure you are of your own goodness, the more intensely you are sure to be punished, whether you get whacked across the face with a woman's heavy handbag and told "he don't take nobodies pennies!", hit in the head by a flying textbook and called "an old warthog from hell," or have your wooden leg stolen by a Bible salesman posing as an innocent country Cassanova who hisses at you, saying "you ain't so smart. I been believing in nothing ever since I was born!"*) The faithless are punished along with the faithful, and, while the country-bred, pap-swilling mothers sit around and exchanging empty truisms all day, their seething, city-educated children do no better, trapped back in their country homes, reading alienating books, wearing purposefully ugly clothes, and erupting with loathing—they too are punished for their ingratitude, and for their ego, and for their attempts to subvert the class structures: land-owner on top, white farmhand in the middle, "negro" on the bottom.

To briefly address the issue of race, I must disclose my extreme discomfort at reading this book in public places like the subway, where a person might read over my shoulder, because of O'Connor's frequent use of the terms "negro" and "nigger" (even in, in one case, a story's title: The Artificial Nigger). I wonder whether, if called on it, I would be able to express quickly enough O'Connor's use of the term, as a kind of illustrating against racism. In the few of her stories that are set in New York City in the 1940s and 50s (interestingly, the volume's first story, The Geranium, and its last, Judgement Day), where racist, old, white men transplanted from the country in the South see, for the first time, blacks dressed in suits, living in the same apartment buildings as whites, these men are punished for their backward closed-mindedness as strongly as the young white man in The Enduring Chill, who tries to establish rapport with his mother's black dairy workers, is punished (although the old men die, whereas the young man, who wants to die, is forced instead to live a long and tortured, sickly life). Interestingly enough, as punishing as O'Connor is to all kinds of whites, never is a black character punished, and never is a black character central; they are used only to express, by relation, the true interior of the white character being epiphanized.

And these epiphanies are actually far from modest; the violation of innocence leads, always, to insight much greater than tiny (I know, I write about it often, likely taught to do so by Flannery herself). Barthelme himself seems to me one of Flannery's ungrateful, over-educated children, stuck in a house full of chattering morons, certain that he's better than all of them, and about to be attacked by a bully or a preacher or a raging old woman. I can't wait.

*In order, from Everything that Rises Must Converge, Revelation, and Good Country People

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Movies: Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts

This almost too intimate documentary is aptly titled: it's more a portrait of Philip than a study of Glass. We are shown a man playing with his children, cooking a big meal for a gathering of family friends, practicing Qigong, who then just happens to go into his study and write out a symphony. I exaggerate a bit; the filmmakers give a fair amount of attention to Philip's work, showing him working with Woody Allen on the score for Cassandra's Dream, opening new opera Waiting for the Barbarians, and reviewing symphonic orchestration with his conductor in the backseat of a taxicab. At the same time, though, we meet his young wife who intimates that their relationship isn't working out, and nearly breaks into tears.

Moments during which Philip discusses his work are for me the most interesting; he likens music to an underground river; it is always there, one only has to listen for it, find it. When he writes, he says, he is not creating something new so much as writing down something that is already there; when he hears his new symphony played for the first time, he listens to find whether it correlates with what he's already "heard." Almost equally interesting are the photos of Philip as a younger man, staging musical happenings in downtown warehouses in New York in the 1960s and 70s, where people came to listen, lying on the floor in a circle around the ensemble, which also played in a circle.

More divulging than "cameo" conversations with Chuck Close, Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Woody Allen, etc. (although these are certainly interesting) are the shots of Philip at home (both at his city house and country house); seeing the space in which he lives and works reminds us that he is a mere man. Watching him practice Qigong in a stretched out tank top and loose cotton pants, shameless before the camera, confirms this. All the while, though, his gorgeous music forms the soundtrack, reminding us that he is, in fact, much more.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Movies: Pineapple Express

Farce is killing comedy.

Don't get me wrong. I like good old fashioned over-the-top hysterical self-referentiality, and I do think it's funny, but between the self-centered stylings of Will Ferrell and the mockumental antics of Judd Apatow's posse (Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, Bill Hader, Steve Carell, Jonah Hill, etc.) wit has gone by the wayside in favor of childish nonsense: slapstick and fart gags and gay gags and all other varietals of fat man in tighty-whitey underpants humor. And now, pot humor.

I readily admit to having an odd fascination with the stoner movie (odd because I have never touched the stuff myself). Certain favorites include the more explicit Harold and Kumar Go To Whitecastle and the less explicit Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures, the philosophical Dude Where's My Car?, along with the classics Friday and Dazed and Confused (I was less impressed with Half-Baked, although it has a pretty good soundtrack). And while would be absurd to say that Harold and Dude are less farcical than Pineapple Express, their relationship to farce is different. Whereas the first two are meritorious until interrupted by certain farcical moments (in Dude, it's the "hot alien chicks;" in Harold, it's the "battle shits"), Pineapple Express, like all those Will Ferrell-as-a-basketball-player, Will Ferrell-as-an-Anchorman, Will Ferrell-as-an-ice-skater, Will Ferrell-as-a-Step Brother, Will Ferrell-as-a-Nascar-driver, Steve Carell-as-a-40 Year Old Virgin, etc. movies, is completely rooted in farce, is nothing but farce, and contains basically zero minutes of genuine human behavior.

That said, there are certain stunning pot-humor moments, like when Seth Rogen puts his face into a bag of the infamous pineapple express marijuana and says it smells "like God's vagina," or like when he and James Franco together simultaneously light the three ends of a joint fashioned into a cross shape, which supposedly delivers a stronger hit. Musical details are also on-point; at one moment, Rogen stops his car at a red light, listening to Electric Avenue, and a car pulls up next to him with two Hispanic stoners also jamming to the same song. But every actor/actress besides Franco and Rogen are infuriatingly plastic, from Rogen's high school girlfriend (the typical, flat Apatow blonde) to the villainous drug lord out to kill them to the female cop (a disappointing Rosie Perez) who's in cahoots with him.

The movie actually starts out strong; Rogen and Franco pal around, stoned, in Franco's apartment (where he has two televisions going at once, one of which is sitting up on a third). But it gets progressively worse, devolving deeper and deeper into farce and culminating in a half hour long fight scene in the drug lord's hideout. The violence is tremendous but rubbery, like a bad Cops reenactment. That, I imagine, is why it makes the audience laugh, but for some reason, I've never found that sort of thing funny (never could I stand, for example, Warner Brothers cartoons, as a child or an adult, and the characters here take their beatings with disturbingly similar resilience).

The last few minutes of the movie take place in a diner, where over a table full of greasy breakfast food, the three guys (Rogen, Franco, and their sidekick, played by a very obnoxious Danny McBride) recount their adventure ("Remember when you did this and that?! That was awesome, man!"—"And how about x, y, and z?! Yeah, crazy!") in the way that writer Rogen knows his audience will go out and do. Here is a good example of hyper-self-consciousness being used for cleverness rather than stupidity. Ultimately, though, it's not enough to redeem the movie.

Books: Forty Stories, by Donald Barthleme

Here is a slippery author upon whom I cannot get a grip. One story, like Jaws, like Visitors, like 110 West Sixty-First Street, like Sakrete is beautiful—ever-so-slightly strange, off-kilter, nagging—but beautiful: emotionally valid, tender, human, wistful, hopeful, triste. Then, the stories before and after it, post-postmodern thought experiments, are basically unreadable, unless one has the kind of book-bulldozing OCD that I have. These are stories like On the Deck, The Genius, the infamous Porcupines at the University and At the Tolstoy Museum. They are structured as interviews, dotted with Qs and As, or dashes to mark new speakers, or they are broken into bits by illustrations—not Vonnegut cartoons, but inscrutable black Malevich boxes, Escher-like floor plans, or they go on and on and on, describing a disjointed tableau, and then stop abruptly, without ever engaging us in any part of it. Only one such experiment, Sentence (a six page story that consists completely of one unfinished sentence), actually works, because the narrator has a personable voice, offers a human connection; the others are a bog thicker than any Beckett, Joyce, and Pynchon could have created, even working together on an Exquisite Corpse. And yet, I will soon find myself reading his Sixty Stories, his Dead Father, his Paradise. Not because there is something wrong with me, but because, somewhere, buried in this mess, are moments of brilliance.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Books: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

It takes a person as cold and callous as myself to read this book, "written" painstakingly by the single blinking eye of an otherwise completely paralyzed man—imprisoned by "locked-in" syndrome—and admit, in writing, on the internet, that I found it disappointing. If only I had read this pamphlet-sized elegy before seeing the stunning film based upon it, I might have had a different experience, something similar to the measured exuberance of the critics quoted on the front and back covers, but, having already been exposed to Schnabel's sundrenched, dreamy vision, the simple straight text on the page could do nothing for me but recall pale shadows of that vision. How Schnabel could transcend these still marks and create what he did seems, hideously, far more fascinating than how Bauby could, with the power of one trembling eyelid, transpose these sentences onto the page.

I am a horrible person, a complete objectivist. But I am judging art, not men.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Movies: Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi)

If your mouth isn't big enough to fit all ten fingers in up to the knuckle, it will be by the end of this spectacularly suspenseful kickoff to Film Forum's French Crime Wave festival. Rififi is a jewel heist movie that offers up the traditional morals of the 1950s noir: Crime doesn't pay and Never trust a dame, but director Jules Dassin draws out a lengthy, technical middle that tailspins into a drunken, pre-psychedelic, nerve-frying ending to deepen our investment in the plot to a degree that a movie, particularly a gimmick-ridden noir, rarely does.

Le Stéphanois (basically the best name for a French criminal ever) has just gotten out of jail at the film's opening, and has reunited with his old friends who, despite being thieves, are very likable family men (not unlike Clooney's Oceans Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen crew). The group of four (le Stéphanois, his younger buddy Jo (the father of his godson), Mario Ferrati (basically the most delightful caricature of an Italian man ever), and his safe-cracking buddy César imported from Milan just for the job) decide to steal the jewels from the (not very impressive, by contemporary American standards) Mappin & Webb, a corner shop above which the owner makes his home in a sumptuous apartment. Their plan, which they follow precisely, involves breaking into the old man's home while he's on a weekend hunting trip, and cutting a hole in the floor through which they can drop into the store. The best moment of ingenuity is when they use an inverted umbrella to catch the falling bits of masonry whilst cutting (any piece that hit the floor would create a vibration that would trip the alarm), and their silencing the alarm's ringing bell with the viscous foam of a fire extinguisher is equally delightful in its embrasure of the analog.

Meanwhile, le Stéphanois has a grudge to settle with a club-owner, Grutter, who's been dating his woman while he was inside. That grudge turns ugly when Grutter gets wind of le Stéphanois windfall (César, unable to resist the sensual charms of the club's resident chanteuse, gave her an enormous diamond ring he secretly pocketed during the heist, and the club-owner recognizes it, adding two and two for four, trussing up the Italian, and then killing Feratti, who won't disclose the jewels hiding spot). To get the goods, he kidnaps Jo's son for ransom, and Jo, sitting at home by the telephone, his wife in a faint, finally decides to take the suitcase of cash (the jewels have already been sold off to the fence) to the club-owner's villa, without knowing that le Stéphanois has already been there and rescued his son. When Jo arrives with the money, le Stéphanois is on his way back, but he's too late: the money has been turned over and Jo has been shot dead. Grutter shoots Le Stéphanois down too, and we chew our nails to the quick until we see him, le Stéphanois, stand up again, and shoot Grutter dead, grab the suitcase of money, and stumble back to the car. Here begins his mad drive, back to the cafe where he left his godson, and then back to Jo's house, with the boy and the money. He's bleeding and reeling and we're certain that he'll drive off the road. All the while, the boy, unawares of the emergency, is standing in the backseat of the convertible, wearing le Stéphanois' coat, waving a plastic gun that, at one moment of brilliant irony, he holds to le Stéphanois' head. Le Stéphanois collapses just as he pulls up to Jo's house, and the boy's mother runs out and snatches him up, leaving the dead Stéphanois and the suitcase of millions behind for the police to mull over.

That always gets me down—these poor criminals work so hard, and are so likeable (Ferrati who transfers good luck kisses via his fingertip onto everything from the jewels' secret hiding place to his girlfriend's sweatered nipple, Jo who sweats like a chiseled, homoerotic Vulcan as he bears the weight of the safe on his back when they ease it to the floor, even the old and tired Stéphanois, who seems to be living for little more than revenge, but only half-heartedly, without much bloodlust (though he does kill César for snitching out Ferrati's address. . . yet another noir moral: Always kill a rat). Always, always, I want them to win, to get their take, to keep it, to quit crime and live comfortably on the sum, but Hollywood never lets it happen. Even in France.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Books: And He Tells the Little Horse the Whole Story, by Steve Barthelme

Is this really Mr. Barthelme's only book of short stories? Brother of the much more known Donald Barthelme, also a short story writer, Steve, even if far less prolific, writes stories that cut much closer to the quick than the effete, hyper-intellectual experiments of his brother. Adultery is a common theme, along with the relationship on the skids, as are loneliness and isolation. His stories, closer in tone to Raymond Carver's than his brothers, start in the middle and end and the end, with neither bangs nor whimpers, just a kind of quiet, slow burn, like a still-smoking cigarette butt on the pavement.

It was a surprise for me to see that this book received a pretty chilly review from the New York Times when it came out in 1987. Despite my strong affinity for the rampant post-modernism of 1980s literature (of which Donald Barthelme is a kind of hallmark), I do believe it's an equal if not greater achievement to write clean, direct, feeling prose about human emotions without tending toward the soppy, the sentimental, the melodramatic. Barthelme here manages to keep his cool without being detached, so that, in a story like Beach (my favorite of the bunch), a small incident illuminates a larger crisis, crystallizes our fears, needs, desires. A few stories do dabble in Donald-style experiment; The Friend, a stream-of-consciousness bit from the point of view of a rapist, fails, but Failing All Else, a description of a metaphoric dream featuring a beautiful woman, dancing bears, and cargo ship heavy with gold, told over a parade of desserts in a diner, outstrips most of the older brother's oddball narratives.

I wish he would write some more.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Music: Hank Jones at Birdland

Oh Birdland, with your carpet-papered walls all aglow in neon pink fluorescence, your diners from Jersey smacking loudly over their suppers, your solicitous barkeep who memorized my name and warned me not to be a stranger, and your midtown cover charge: how could you do Hank Jones so wrong, and on his 90th birthday?

This is not about the cake—that was sweet if not a bit stagey (did you do that every show? Is it more for the audience than the man himself?)—but something much more important: the sound. You let Mr. Jones—with his tidy hands—his gentle fingers that plink the keys as neatly as a young slim cat licks a bit of cream off its nose—you let him go up there and play a piano poorly amplified, its top shut tight to keep all the sound inside, so that some guitarist half his age could play over him, drown him out with waves of mellow riffs much easier for the audience to grab hold of, to "rock out" to, than the precise, chilled, plink plink plink of the solo piano playing Monk (an aural delight too subtle, I'm sure, for the soup slurping audience to understand).

Those were, you know, the best moments of the show, the opening solo, and the moment in the middle when the quartet silenced themselves for a minute to let Hank play on his own. If you are going to call yourselves "The Jazz Corner of the World!" you're going to need to learn how to properly mic a piano. And you should also run some edits on your website: you mention that the original Birdland was "located on Broadway, a few blocks west of 52nd Street;" surely you know that nothing but more 52nd Street is west of 52nd Street (unless Birdland was in the Hudson): the street runs east-west. Mr. Parker would be none too pleased, I'm certain.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Movies: The Wackness

My own experience of hip hop in 1994 differs ever-so-slightly from The Wackness' Luke Shapiro, in that I was West Coast while he was East, I was finishing 6th grade while he was graduating from high school, and I barely knew what a blunt was, while he was not only smoking weed every day, but selling it out of an Italian ice cart, first with his girlfriend and then with his therapist (I had neither). Of course, Luke also isn't real, and I was, even more awkwardly so than his fumbling, liminal self. The Wackness won't let you forget that, either: Josh Peck's appropriately cringe-worthy stylings (he's Luke) meet mostly dead ends in his supporting cast, a group of type-cast frigid women, flailing men, nymphet-y girls, and assorted weirdos. Except, of course, for Ben Kingsley as Dr. Squires, a flailing man who flails with forlorn grace, trading Luke therapy sessions for dime bags, and slowly becoming the teen's friend.

The music is what makes the movie, but it's also connected with what makes the movie, dare I say, totally wack. Luke isn't the first, last, or only white boy to fall into hip hop and style himself without regard to racial distinction. However, there is absolutely no way, not even in the precocious concrete jungle of Manhattan (where Luke's crush-object Stephanie (the filly-legged Olivia Thrilby) could certainly have "done it hundreds of times," the "it" being sex, and she being barely legal) that an awkward, middle-class white boy like Luke Shapiro would gain the confidence of the armed and body-guarded Jamaican supplier who not only introduces him to the Notorious B.I.G. (who still defines 1994 for me), but also supplies him with obscenely hefty stacks of herb in a dark and smoky warehouse, which Luke then sells on the street, trying to save enough money to save his family's apartment after his father's business goes sour (spoiler: they get evicted anyway). It may seem unreal that Luke and Stephanie scamper off to the Hamptons for a weekend of sun-drenched, virginity-shattering (his, not hers) debauchery, or that Dr. Squires would sit around his multi-million home doing piles of drugs and tagging the furniture with a fat marker, but in New York, these things are possible, and as credible as the wealthy white teens' constant slurping at 40 oz bottles of malt liquor. But the scale of the drug sales is hard to swallow, making an otherwise tender, awkwardly honest film into just a fantasy, and an awfully whitewashed one at that.

Maybe I'm just like Luke, who, as Stephanie accuses, only sees the wackness, while she's concentrating on the dopeness. There's no doubt plenty of dopeness here—most of it sensory (off the hook classic jams, blown-out, impressionistic cinematography, subtle physical performances from Josh Peck and Ben Kingsley)—but it all gets stomped over by the wackness.

Dance: Keigwin + Company: Elements at the Joyce

Going to see a piece entitled Elements: Water, Fire, Earth, Air, one has a certain set of expectations. Going to a show put on by Keigwin + Company, one also has a set of expectations. These two sets do not exactly match up. But Larry Keigwin, with his invincible wit, eclectic ear for music, and playful relationship with movement manages to turn the crusty old trope on its head, creating four suites of dances that have the audience giggling for two straight hours.

The first and last suites, Water and Air, are the two more literally translated pieces (in Water, the dancers wear towels, and bathe and drink from bottles of Poland Spring; in Air, they dress as flight attendants and pilots, and dance with silver wheeling suitcases against a backdrop of bright blue sky dotted with puffy clouds). These are the crowd-pleasers, and they are, indeed, quite clever and amusing. The real dancing, though, happens during Fire (the weakest of the four) and Earth (an oblique relation to the element, in which the dancers take on the vamping attitudes of lizards in dances called Gecko, Chameleon, Dragon, and Iguana, dancing low to the ground, making faces and flicking their tongues).

Fire fails, mostly, due to its "straight" interpretation; rather than literalize the element in a pun, as he does with Air, or in a product, the way he does with Water, Keigwin dresses his dancers as actual flames for Fire, and the piece, particularly the first dance, Flicker, wanders into the territory of meeting, too easily, our expectations for an interpretation of the elements. It lacks evolution of thought. In Burn, though, dancer (and Associate Artistic Director) Nicole Wolcott does a stunning job "burning" to Patsy Cline; all dancers should be noted for their theatricality throughout, but hers is a face that can make a piece all on its own, even though her dancing is equally powerful. Keigwin makes one brief foray into hip hop as well during Fire, in Flame, (danced brilliantly by Samuel Roberts) to instant rap classic Walk it Out. Having been a hip hop dancer before I ever took a modern class, and noticing that Keigwin started his career as a back-up dancer for Downtown Julie Brown, I must commend him for going there, but I wish he would have gone farther and stayed longer. Further integration between the modern and hip hop moments of the dance would have made it stronger (modern timing works against or apart from the music, while hip hop works right on the beat; dancing modern dance to hip hop music only works if the choreography accords with the beat). I'd like to see him do an entire hip hop show.

While Earth is, by far, the sleeper favorite, I have the least to say about it (except that Dragon, danced by Liz Riga to Stormy Weather, is by far the weakest moment of the entire show, the song and mood of the choreography departing completely from both the earth and lizard themes, Ms. Riga's costume being a pink plaid abomination (when every other costume in the show is pitch-perfect), and the piece being, ultimately, just boring, which Keigwin really never ever is. I imagine that one of his other dancers, the doll-like, flexi-bendy Ying-Ying Shiau, or the emotive Nicole Wolcott, might just maybe make it work, but as performed, the piece drags. Otherwise, Earth is perfect, culminating in a four-person dance to Whip It that is somehow as vitalizing and fresh as that song itself is.

At the end of Air, a kind of encore, called Wind, is danced by the entire company to a stunning Philip Glass piece (Channels and Winds), in which dancers run on and off stage amongst raining pink balloons. This is not the first time I've seen the Philip Glass/balloon combination from Keigwin, but it works, gorgeously, and is the one bit of "serious" (that is, not funny) dance in the show. Earth, I think, will stay with me longer, but Wind is there for those more old-fashioned dance-goers, who expect leaps and jumps and big, free movement. And for that, it beats the hell out of the New York City Ballet.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Writing: Feline Defenestration

I haven’t done it yet but I’m about to do it even though I know I shouldn’t do it. I know she doesn’t want me to do it either because she’s all fur and claws, all wriggling and writhing desperation. Holding onto her is hard enough; she’s never gone in much for holding. She’s always all wriggling and writhing and fur and claws when you try to hold her, but not desperate like now. Now she knows that something bad is going to happen, and I know it too, and I know I shouldn’t do it, but I’m going to do it anyway.

She’s all twisty and squirmy; I’m holding her right on the ledge, thinking about it, thinking about should I do it and what’s going to happen and will she do it, and her claws are clinging like mad to the aluminum frame, making a desperate, panicky clicking sound, a scraping sound I can’t stand, and she’s clawing at my hands and turning round her neck and rolling her eyeballs around in their neat little sockets. I want to know what will happen. I want to know will she land on her feet. I stretch my neck out the window and feel the wind outside on my cheeks. My mom’s car is parked in the driveway down below.

The thing is, she looks really big and fat, but it’s all just fur. When you grab her, which isn’t easy, you feel how small she is, you feel her bones, all rattling and twisting, and her tiny heart pounding real fast. You put you hand around her neck and you feel how it’s so tiny, how tiny her head is, her skull. So tiny, under all that big fur, just a tiny little motor driving those claws, desperately scratching at the window frame while I hold her out in the wind, through the window, in mid-air. I shouldn’t do it, but I do. I want to know, will she land on her feet. I let go.

I don’t—I didn’t—I don’t know why—what did I—

The sun goes black a moment when I squinch my eyes and I do not see whether she did it. Everything is hot, and rushing, and tears, and what did I do, and I’m running down the stairs and I’m crying and I’m shouting “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry,” and my parents are downstairs and I see them. They look at me and I run to them and I blurt “I threw the cat out the window,” and my confession is immediate and my remorse is immediate and my forgiveness is immediate and my father is out the door to find her and my mother is hugging me and asking me what happened and what did I do and why did I do it.

I cannot tell her that I wanted to know would she land on her feet. I cannot tell her that at school we sing a song that has a chorus that goes “and he threw her out the window, the window, the second story window,” which is not about a cat but is instead a silly song, with nursery rhymes, where Mary Mary quite contrary’s garden gets thrown out the window, and Peter Peter pumpkin eater’s wife gets thrown out the window. I can’t tell her that I wanted to know would she land on her feet, and I didn’t even wait to see if she did. All I did was hear a loud noise, a heavy thud, a bad, sick sound, and close my eyes and cry. My arms are covered in scratches that are bleeding. My mom asks did she scratch me. I keep crying and nod my head. “Did you do it because she scratched you?” she asks, and I keep crying through my squinched up eyes and nod my head while my mom hugs me and holds my hot face in the tender, forgiving darkness of her silk blouse, ruined with my snotty tears.

My dad comes back into the house holding the cat, who’s wriggling all around, wide-eyed and fearful, who has blood dribbling down her nose, but is otherwise very much alive. My dad tells us that she had run four blocks away but that he had caught her, and he takes her into the kitchen, holding her under his arm, washing the blood away, his hand at the tap. She is okay. She is okay. My dad says that he thinks the car broke her fall. He doesn’t say whether she landed on her feet. I think that if she had landed on her feet, her nose would not be bleeding. I think that if she had landed on her nose she would not be alive. He holds her for awhile and tries to soothe her while my mother holds me the same way. I do not have to tell him why I did it. My mom tells him that I did it because she scratched me. It is implied that I know that what I did was wrong in all my tears and shouting. I am not punished. We do not talk about it ever.
The cat hates me now. The cat was never nice; her mother was an alley cat we adopted when we moved to the new house and my mom saw she was pregnant. All the kittens were born in the middle of the night while I was sleeping; she gave birth inside a suitcase lined with my My Little Pony blanket, which got ruined from blood and placenta and tiny mewling hairless things: five of them. At night, I would sleep on the couch while they would play, climbing on the drapes and tearing them with holes, and in the morning I would wake up with a whole puddle of black and white fur snuggling in my lap. My mom said we could keep one and would have to give the other four away. She gave away my favorite one. Their mom had been mean and taught them all to hunt, to scratch and claw and bite. I remember how she got sick when we started giving the kittens away. She looked and looked for the missing ones, and made low, long howling sound in her throat. She threw up everywhere. After that she hated my mom, and got even more mean until she got hit by a car one day and died. Now her daughter hates me, and runs away every time I come near. Even though she’s okay, even though she’s lived almost fifteen years now since then, she remembers to hate me. Even though she’s too dumb to remember anything else, like her own name, or the whistle my mom uses to try and call her, she remembers to hate me for what I did when I was seven, in the name of science, of experiment, curiosity. It didn’t kill the cat.