Monday, September 22, 2008

Movies: The Bridge On the River Kwai

Second-guessing never stops me from dismissing a disappointing film in print, but it does plague me post-publication. Maybe I missed something? Or maybe I'm completely out of touch with our contemporary moment, having lived for three years now without a television. Or maybe, when I said that Tropic Thunder was a satirical failure, I was right, and only needed to watch a competent war satire to prove it. Watching The Bridge On the River Kwai completely reinstated my self-confidence. This is what a satire should be: serious, insidious, subversive (not silly). Of course, everything that Thunder gets right about race Bridge gets wrong, but we can safely blame that on the 50 year disparity. On the absurdities of war, the key issue here, Bridge is the go-to picture, even at twice the length, ten percent of the jokes, and five times the Tolstoyesque diatribes.

The film opens with a brigade of captured soldiers marching into a Japanese base in Burma. Japanese Colonel Saito has no interest in the copy of the Geneva Conventions British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) waves in front of him, and insists that all captured soldiers, officers included, will begin work the next day on a bridge across the Kwai (the Conventions specify that captured officers are not to do physical labor, but only serve in an administrative capacity). Here begins a battle of wills between the two men; Saito must have work on the bridge completed by a certain date, and is willing to do whatever it takes. Nicholson is an adherent to the letter of the law, and spends solitary days on end in a cramped hotbox without food or water rather than give in, while his officers suffer in a larger hotbox. Meanwhile, the soldiers are "working" on the bridge, but sabotaging all of their work as they go, so that little progress is made. Meanwhile, an American naval prisoner, Commander Shears (William Holden), who has been at the outpost much longer than the British, makes an escape (he first tries to convince the British officers to join him, but they refuse).

At long last, Saito yields to Nicholson, freeing him and the officers to take over supervision of the brigade's work on the bridge. By this point, we've watched an entire movie's worth of plot unfold, but the real heft of the story is yet to come. Nicholson and his officers (competent colonialists who have built bridges all over India) take over the project with a surprising relish, considering that they are working for the enemy. In fact, nationalistic pride inspires Nicholson to complete the project against all odds, demonstrating the skill and strength of British engineering. Meanwhile, a team from the British Special Forces based in Ceylon are working on a plan to destroy the bridge, and rope the rescued and recovering Shears into returning to the Kwai and carrying out the mission. He goes with three other soldiers: an old, hardened explosives fanatic, a young, earnest soldier wanting to prove himself, and a third, who dies immediately upon arrival in a parachute accident. Along with their local guide and a group of supply-bearing women (who double as attending mistresses—where the movie offends race-wise it offends gender-wise as well), the soldiers undertake the massive trek to the Kwai, and, upon finding it, spend the night wrapping the bridge's bulwarks in plastic explosives. By the morning, though, the water has gone down, and the manic Nicholson notices the suspicious wires running down the beach.

As the train carrying key Japanese military leaders approaches the baited bridge, a beautifully-orchestrated struggle ensues; Saito's throat is slit by the young soldier, who is in turn shot by a group of Japanese soldiers running toward the action before he can detonate the explosives. In a panic, the old pyromaniac, stationed across the river, begins shooting, and hits Shears, running across the river from his hiding place, before he makes it to the detonator. At the moment that Nicholson sees Shears shot down, he recognizes his allies behind the sabotage. Realizing his temporary insanity in building the bridge, he runs toward the detonator as well, and falls upon it just as he's shot dead, exploding the bridge just as the train begins to cross it, so that the unstoppable locomotive plunges headfirst into the river.

It is the power of Nicholson's will that makes for the madness; his monomania, in fact, is the same as that of each key player in Tropic Thunder—the self interested actors, agent, executive, and ex-soldier—who blunder through the crisis at hand only working for their individual, short-term goals. But Nicholson demonstrates the danger of military obedience: missing the forest for the trees. The Thunder crew doesn't actually tell us anything about the dangers of war, only about the solipsism of individuals in the movie industry. To be fair, Thunder is more of a war-film satire than an actual war satire. But Stiller (as fond of him as I am) could still take some pointers from David Lean's luscious technicolor lesson.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Books: How To Make Love Like a Porn Star, by Jenna Jameson

Before I attempt to critically address a book that might not warrant critical reading, I insist on disclosing my motive in reading it: my book club, which meets once a month and has previously foisted upon me such literary atrocities as Atonement, decided that, after reading such tearjerkers as Atonement and What Is the What, we needed a break, something light. I suggested The Big Sleep (which, to be fair, we will be reading next), but no, they wanted something even lighter. They wanted something sexy. They wanted to read How To Make Love Like a Porn Star, wherein "author" Jenna Jameson offers her top ten tips on how to give a great blow job. The great tragedy for men in the greater New York area is that no amount of porn star-penned tips is going to turn these girls into cock-ravishers; their sexual maturity level can be summarized by their consensus on head-giving: "no one likes it; it smells like penis!" I will also add that a number of these girls supported Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary election and, once she lost to superior candidate Barack Obama, vowed to vote McCain to punish the "thief." I cannot wait for our group discussion of Miss Jameson's book, when I can remind them that McCain's female running mate is a banner of books who would not approve of Jameson's "Cautionary Tale" being available at the public library (from which I checked out my copy, which had suffered at the hands of a brute who tore out the glossy centerfolds for him or herself).

But this is intended as a critical discussion of the book, not the book club. The genre is standard star fare: autobiographical memoir tell-all, but the creators (I can't say Jameson, because it's hard to parse out what portion of the book she actually wrote or even devised) mix it up a bit, including graphic novel pages, diary entries, interview "transcripts," snippets of screenplays, and tons of photos—black and white and full-color glossies—to break up the straight narration. This, plus all the smut (and I use that word with tenderness), makes for a quick read: I plowed through the nearly 600 pages over two evenings.

The joke on my book club is that Jameson's story isn't any more cheerful than Achak Deng's (from What Is the What). Of course, she has less philosophical depth than Deng, and her ghostwriter (Neil Strauss of The Game, also ghostwriter to pickup artist Mystery) has aspirations far less literary than Dave Eggers (Deng's "ghost"writer), and so we feel less like crying when we read about teenaged Jenna being gang raped on the side of the road in a country town where she's a stranger, about teenaged Jenna being raped again, this time by a no-good boyfriend's surrogate father, a biker caricature of evil for whom Jenna is one in a long string of victims (including his own daughter, we later find out), about college-aged Jenna (who dropped out of high school so certainly isn't going to college) addicted to smoking meth (thanks again to that no-good boyfriend), weighing 80 lbs, unable to work or even walk, left for dead in an empty apartment with no friends to wonder or worry about her. To be perfectly plain, she comes from a broken white-trash home (her mother a Vegas showgirl dead from cancer when Jenna was just a toddler, her father a veteran who went into law enforcement but never controlled his own two kids, who ran around the neighborhood setting fires and otherwise disturbing the peace, a brother who was a drug addict, and a grandmother—would you believe this?—a grandmother who stole drugs from her own grandson (Jenna's brother)).

If this is a cautionary tale, it's one for parents, not children. And so while, in a way, Jameson's story is an inspiring tale of survival against all odds, it's incredibly depressing if one steps back to see the forest. What Is the What shook me because I couldn't believe we let that happen (ten year old children making death marches across Sudanese desert, starving so that when they happened upon a bird, they ate it raw, beak to claw, feathers included), but that, at least, happened far away, for political reasons: complex arguments between allied groups and nations over resources and power. This happened, happens still I'm sure, right here, under our noses, for small reasons, individual desires, frustrations, moments of violence, lack of control. It's far less forgivable.

Now where's my grain of salt? How seriously do we want to take Jameson? If the purpose of the book is to make money (I think that, without even reading it, you will agree that the purpose of such a book is not to tell a story, but only to make money), the inclusion of just the right amount of tragedy validates the extreme amount of debauchery (the lesbian lovemaking off the set, the constant full-body pleasure in her work (she her onscreen orgasms are actual), and the enormity of every cock she's ever touched (her narration constantly includes asides describing her trepidation at each of her partner's sizes; not once does she describe a man as anything less than brobdignanian—non porn-stars included)). Clearly, she is pandering, but to point that out only reiterates the absurdity of my attempt to consider this book critically. I ought, like the rest of my book club, say "bring on the blow job tips." Unfortunately, there isn't anything new or useful there either. Except, maybe, for girls who are afraid of the smell of penis.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Art: Dalí: Painting and Film at MoMA

I've never been a fan of Dalí's stark and lacquered surfaces, carefully colored in tans and bright blues, corralled by stoic architecture, darkened by distended shadows, and blemished with bloated creatures, Tanguey-like squiggles, those signature melted clocks. There's no lack of technical virtuosity, nor can one argue that the pictures are boring, per se (though they are, certainly, cool, with the suppressed, airless quality of De Chirico and Magritte, Surrealists all). But all Surrealist painting leaves me cold.

Not so Surrealist film, and so while this show at MoMA seemed to confuse the pulsing throngs who pushed from one tiny study to the next, then stopped to gape at the giant screens showing some very curious black and white movies, I found it rather better than expected. The fault is mine for showing up only on the show's very last day, and not attending any of the film screenings except the tangentially-related Pan's Labyrinth. . . Dalí's early collaborations with Buñuel, as evinced in two shorter films being screened in the galleries, are fantastically weird thanks mostly to the naive time-lapse jump cut. (And these are much more interesting than his more well-known collaboration with Hitchcock on Spellbound, a movie that, with its stuffy psychoanalytic pretensions, never did a thing for me).

Unquestionably, the strangest inclusion in the exhibit is another collaboration: one with Walt Disney. In the mid-1940s, the animation scion commissioned the artist to work on an animated feature, but the project, called Destino, was soon shelved (supposedly for financial reasons, but likely also because of incongruous artistic visions: Dalí is hardly suitable for children). More than 50 years later, Disney completed the film, based on the artist's original storyboards and the less-than 20 seconds of film that had been shot. The result is a strange hybrid: the traditional Disney princess—slender, winsome, doe-eyed—is tinted (just as Jasmine, Mulan, and Pochahontas were all tinted), slightly (but safely) Dalíesque: her bones a bit stronger, her curves a bit deeper, her hair a bit more stringy, her shadows much, much longer. She frolicks in a surreal desert landscape, flatter even than one of Dalí's paintings (Disney animation is the ultimate in flat), trying to rejoin her lost love, who is trapped in stone. There is an accompanying score rather than any dialogue (Disney's original intent was to include the film in another sort of Fantasia). I can't say that I think Dalí would be satisfied with the final product (it is, ultimately, much too pretty; there is a stark contrast between the included original reel and the post-humous creation)—it feels very much a Disney product—but I would rather watch it (and show it to any children in my care) than any contemporary atrocity from Pixar.

There is only one painting in the exhibition that warrants real discussion: Metamorphosis of Narcissus, a medium-sized picture in which the disparate parts formally coalesce (unlike the scattershot compositions of most of his other work). Here, echoing forms tease the eye; perhaps first we see a crouching body repeated, first in sun-drenched mud, then in cold, dried clay, until we notice a ridge in the clay figure's kneecap: it is a thumb's nail, the body actually a hand, holding an egg (simultaneously bodily/base and geometrically ideal), cracked and sprouting a fervent lily. Tiny figures in the wayback strike nude poses, stand contraposto. Behind, the sky is tumultuous, below the pond is reflective (each also contrasting with the usual flat, arid skies and grounds the artist favors). There is still more Surrealistic whimsy than I would prefer (I would, for example, if painters had editors, excise the checkerboard on the right, paint out the burning ponytail of the figure on the left; there is a difference between stark and clean, and this picture, for all its fascinations, is too busy).

Monday, September 15, 2008

Movies: Burn After Reading

Having just seen four incredibly lush Coen films just weeks ago, I set myself up for disappointment on a grand scale when I went to see their new sterile CIA farce.

The best Coen characters are sympathetic weirdos, but the Burn After Reading crowd is short on quirks and sympathy alike. Worse, we can never shake the feeling that we're watching a number of very famous actors, because none of them embody their role so much as take a role that sums our expectations for them: Tilda Swinton is an icy reprise of herself in Michael Clayton, married to John Malkovich, a cussing loose cannon, and having an affair with George Clooney, the happy-go-lucky, fast-talking philanderer of O Brother and Intolerable Cruelty; Brad Pitt is the gum-snapping mimbo he's never actually played but everyone expects he actually is, and Frances McDormand is his health-club coworker and buddy, an insecure, desperately lonely woman whose small mind is filled with big aspirations (plastic surgery and from there, love).

The plot is a snowballing comedy of errors, instigated when Pitt finds a CD-R containing Malcovich's memoirs and mistakes it for confidential intelligence, and he and McDormand partner to try and turn it into money—first by extortion from Malcovich, and, once that doesn't work, by selling it to the Russians (which, in theses post-Cold War times, is nonsensical). Meanwhile, Swinton is ready to finally divorce Malcovich (who has quit his job over his drinking problem and now spends his days pattering about in slippers and a housecoat, "working" on his memoir) and marry long-time lover Clooney, who has moved in with her temporarily while his wife is traveling on a book tour. McDormand sends Pitt, dressed in a suit, to sneak into Malcovich's house and obtain more "intelligence;" it's there that Clooney finds him and shoots him dead. Somewhere along the way, Clooney and McDormand spend a few nights together as well. Things get very messy but ultimately are all smoothed over from the perspective of J.K. Simmons in his CIA superior's office: everyone involved in the mess is killed except McDormand who, for agreeing to secrecy, is paid off in plastic surgery.

There are, of course, careful Coen touches along the way. Swinton wears two necklaces at all times—one gold link and one pearl (a fashion faux pas, but one which represents neatly her simultaneous relationships with two men). Clooney brings a royal purple, velveteen-covered wedge pillow to Swinton's house; we later see it in their unmade bed and then, when they fight and he leaves, he takes the pillow with him. Pitt's character is pitch-perfect, start-to-finish, from his fist pumps while running on the treadmill, white iPod earbuds dangling, to his insistence on riding his bike, even while wearing a suit, to meet Malcovich for the first time, to his request to "hydrate" when he shows up at McDormand's apartment late one night, to his slurping on a Jamba Juice while staking out Swinton's house. We are sorry to see him go and, when he dies, most of our investment in the film dies along with him, whatever little there was.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Movies: El Laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth)

Writing about this movie is hard for me, because I didn't like it at all, although I can't say it isn't an excellent film. I can't say that the story isn't creative, that the acting isn't good, or that the cinematography isn't luscious. I can say that it scared me, that it was brutally violent, and often quite grotesque. I can say that I left the theater anticipating very bad dreams. I can also say that it leans a bit too heavily on Christian imagery in the final scenes of redemption, although one could make the argument that in that way, religion is equated with the fantasy of fairy tales, and argument that I can easily agree with, though I strongly doubt that was writer/director del Toro's intention.

The story is one deeply rooted in the genre of the Gothic and Sublime : young Ofelia's father has died, and her mother brings her to a creaky, isolated, mansion-turned-fortress where her new husband, a captain in the fascist army (we are in Spain, 1944), is fighting a group of forest-dwelling rebels. Ofelia doesn't like the man, and while her mother ails in pregnancy, she spends her days exploring the overgrown ruins of a labyrinth on the property. An insect turned fairy through her willingness to believe guides her in the middle of the night down spiral stone steps at the labyrinth's center, where she meets a (very very scary looking) satyr, who gives her a magic book (its blank pages fill with words and color when the time is right) and tells her that she will need to complete three tasks before the full moon in order to regain her title as princess of an ancient kingdom, where her father has been waiting. She begins these tasks, although they interfere with the house's social goings-on. All the while, in the "real" world, the Captain's housekeeper and doctor are moles for the rebels, bringing them food, medicine, and information.

Ultimately, the two stories come together; the captain discovers the doctor and shoots him dead, Ofelia's mother dies in childbirth, but the baby survives, and Ofelia's third and final task is to bring him to the Labyrinth. The captain chases her there, and sees her speaking to thin air, while we see her speaking to the satyr. The creature demands that she give up her brother; the blood of an innocent must be shed to reopen the gate to her father's kingdom. Ofelia refuses. And then, the captain shoots the little girl dead, taking back his son, only to find the rebels waiting for him outside the labyrinth in a united front; they take the baby and kill him. As Ofelia's blood drips down onto the gate to the other world, we see her transported, in red and gold, to a light-infused, high-ceilinged cathedral, where three thrones on dangerously long legs look down at her; in the center sits an old and bearded man; to his right, her mother. They ask her to take her seat in the third throne. They are, of course, God, Mary, and Christ, every-so-slightly reconfigured.

The scariest scene may be the most artistically profound; Ofelia's second task is to use a golden key she obtained in the first task to unlock a tiny door and find a gold and silver dagger. This chamber, though, is one she reaches by drawing a door on the wall with magic chalk, and then walking through a long hall until she reaches a banquet hall. The walls are painted with disturbing murals of a monster eating children; the sounds of wailing babies filter through the air, and a pile of discarded shoes, all of them tiny, stands in the corner. The table is laden with shining food and dewy fruits, but at its head sits the freakish monster from the murals: a chicken-skinned man with no hair, no eyes, long bloody claws for fingers, and two nostrils with no nose. He sits unmoving until Ofelia eats the food she was repeatedly warned not to touch, at which time he comes to life, taking two eyeballs off the plate before him, plugging them into blinking sockets in the palms of his hands, and then holding his open hands up to his head, creating the most ghastly (and yet somehow delightful—deliciously frightful, as the Sublime always insists) face you've ever encountered. I think it's for this creature alone that MoMA decided to include this film in its Salvador Dalí festival. This monster was born in the Surreal.

There is a pervasive darkness in the Spanish aesthetic, and it's not something I've ever identified with (detesting beloved painters like Velasquez, Goya, and yes, Dalí, though he's the least dark of them all). Parts of the film (particularly the role of the mandrake root) recalled Fuentes' massive novel Terra Nostra, which I oddly enjoyed in spite of that aesthetic (though in a way, I liked reading a Velasquez painting better than seeing one, if that makes any sense). The more I think about what del Toro has done here, the more amazed I am, and yet, I am still so afraid, so very horrified by his creatures, by his cruelty, that I don't want to think about it any more.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Movies: The Pool

I can't really believe that the Chris Smith responsible for American Movie is the same Chris Smith responsible for The Pool, and "Chris Smith" is a common enough name that someone at IMDB could have messed up, but the director's presence at a number of screenings proves that he, indeed, is responsible for this elegiac, touching, O'Henry-goes-to-India story of friendship and selflessness.

The story is one of two friends in Goa, a younger one without a family, and an older one living far away from his. The two each work menial jobs, one in a restaurant, the other in a hotel, where they scrub the same floor all day that they sleep on at night. The older boy becomes enchanted by the swimming pool on a tropical estate, and in order to get closer to it (and to the pretty girl he sees sitting by it), he approaches the man who constantly work in the garden. The man gives him work, and, gardening together, they become something like friends. When we discover that the man doesn't swim in the pool because his son drowned there, we see how this new boy begins to fill that gap in his life. The man tells the boy stories to teach him lessons, and quizzes him with arithmetic. He decides to pay for him to go to school, in Bombay. . . the boy would of course have to leave his young friend behind. Meanwhile, the boy and his young friend have become friends with the girl, forming another kind of makeshift family, eating together, going boating and exploring an abandoned fort.

The heartwarming part comes at the end, when the man and his daughter leave for Bombay. The boy has decided to stay home and go to the school there; the man has agreed to pay for it. But in the final scene, we see the boy watching all the kids in uniform going to school, and he is still wearing his work clothes. Then, we see his younger friend walk up, in uniform. They banter a bit, and the older boy reminds the younger that, when roll is taken, to use the older boy's name. And our hearts are warmed, I suppose.

But are they? I have to be the naysayer here and argue that, while this is a very generous gesture on the older boy's part, it is not only deceitful of the older man, who trusted him and singled him out for his ability (I'm less concerned about this), but also a poor choice, strategically speaking. The younger boy has more time; if the older boy went to school for a few years, he could achieve enough to get a decent-paying job and then pay for the younger boy to go to school as well. Two educated people is better than one. Of course I'm missing the point, but The Gift of the Magi always infuriated me.

All that aside, watching this movie, so steeped in India, made me miss that odd place, so beautiful and hideous, so tempting and impossible. If the movie had been made anywhere else—in France or Singapore or Ghana (it could have been anywhere)—it would have done nothing for me. But at least I could take pleasure in watching the kids buy samosas from a street vendor, and wobble their heads a bit when they spoke, and do their scrubbing while in a deep squat, in ancient filthy sandals. I kind of miss these things.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Books: Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme

Everything I said about Barthelme's Forty Stories here applies, except 50% more. The two best stories are (the completely weird but wonderful) Me and Miss Mandible and (somehow less weird but equally wonderful) The Great Hug. One is long and one is short, but they both can and should be read.

A good lot of the other stories (e.g. Will You Tell Me?, The Emerald, The School, I Bought a Little City, A City of Churches) are interesting, at least in part, if a bit weird, confusing, distant, or surreal. They may warrant perusal if you have nothing better to do, or need some exposure to the outside of the box.

And some stories (Alice, Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning, Paraguay, Eugenie Grandet, A Manual For Sons, Aria, How I Write My Songs, etc.) are basically unreadable and offer no prize for your labors. They should be avoided at all costs, lest you decide that all modern literature should be thrown out the window, and pledge from hereon to read nothing but Dickens.

Books: The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis

Only three or four pages in, I knew that I was going to hate this book. I was on the fence about reading it in the first place, it being from a female author, and on the topics of memory, loss, and love (a dangerous and boggy territory for any writer, but for women in particular). In fact, because I had no recollection of how this book made its way onto my reading list (the person I thought recommended it has denied ever even hearing the name Lydia Davis, much less recommending this, her first novel; nor did it come, where some crappier recommendations have, from Slate, to which I pay much too much attention, but which hasn't mentioned Davis since I began reading it), I considered, after the first 40 pages, to add it to the short list of books I'd started but didn't finish. I could see that I wasn't going to get a thing out of it, except an evening lost. So, being myself, I decided to call the evening lost, power through, and finish the goddamned thing then and there.

It wasn't until I sat down to blog this morning that I found out that Davis, the tedious, insecure, neurotic, depressive, and ugly (sorry, low blow I know) creator of this sad, lonely diary parading itself as a novel is not only a McSweeny's author (really, there is no way; I refuse to believe it), and not only a successful translator (the creator of newly acclaimed Proust), but the ex-wife of Paul Auster (really?!), and, to top it all off, a recipient of a bloody MacArthur genius grant. If she's a genius, I'm MacArthur.

Okay okay okay. So what, exactly, about this book fills me with such disdain? Davis takes advantage of the post-modern tendency toward self-consciousness and, rather than building up a riveting, wry, impressive, shocking edifice only to tear it down and build it again from the pieces, as regularly do writers like Barth, Pynchon, Foster Wallace, Eggers, etc. (all men, it's true, but I can't help that), she catalogs her fretting about wanting to write, and calls that collected fretting a novel. Devils advocates will argue that Eggers frets aplenty in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius—beginning in the very introduction!—but I shoot back to them that it's not the same. Eggers' fretting works to propel the story; many things happen in A Heartbreaking Work. In The End of the Story, nothing happens. Paragraph after paragraph describe Davis' painstaking process: "I don't know why I need to reconstruct all this. . ."; "I have tried to find a good order, but my thoughts are not orderly. . ."; "I am trying to separate out a few pages to add to the novel and I want to put them together in one box, but I'm not sure how to label the box. . ."; "And every idea had to be written down so that I would not forget it, even though I knew that later some of these ideas wouldn't seem worth remembering." Lady, here's a hint: none of these ideas are worth remembering. They're not worth writing down. They're not even ideas! Buy a goddamned remote control and turn off the inner monologue!

Perhaps this is what happens when you spend too much time with (fussy, self-obsessed, neurasthenic) Proust. He, too, is on my short list of books I began and never finished, but I intend to finish not only the half-read Swann's Way, but also the entire seven volumes of À la recherche du temps perdue. Perhaps I'll try Davis' translation, since I didn't have much luck with Scott Moncrieff. Perhaps she'll redeem herself.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Movies: Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player)

For such a famous film that I've hoped to see for so long, this was a bit of a disappointment. There's nothing wrong with the plot in and of itself (a piano player, trying to quietly restart his life after his wife commits suicide (having revealed that she jump-started his career by sleeping with his promoter) by changing his name and playing in a small bar, gets dragged into the mud thanks to his thuggish brothers, as well as the jealousy of the bar's proprietor when he starts up an affair with the waitress)—in fact, because the piano player is still alive at the end, and back at his bar piano (sans waitress, who's been shot), the plot is actually rather fresh, if something so dark, so resigned, so Kierkegaardian, can be "fresh."

Fresh, too, is Truffaut's lighting: dark, flickering, and often diagetic. When the piano player comes home late at night, the screen is practically black, lighting darkly in a few flashes until he finally switches on a lamp. And the next entrance in that scene is a bit surprising, too, even for a French film—the piano player's neighbor, a prostitute, comes over, undresses, and gets into bed next to him, showing her breasts (the breasts less surprising than the fact that she's a prostitute who regularly spends her off hours in his bed).

So what is it about the movie that leaves me wanting more? I haven't figured it out. Charles Aznavour is an unusual hero: a bit shorter, bigger of eye than the usual male lead, and his performance has a nervous twitchiness just right for the character, who is a lot less dashing, and a lot less hard-bitten than the usual noir protagonist. He is so tentative the first time he walks home with the waitress; we're surprised to see him so frisky with the prostitute (she remarks on it herself.) Perhaps its disappointing to see him live (though isn't that what we always wish for our criminal-heroes? Not that the piano player is a real criminal at all), plunking away at the keys at the piano bar as if nothing had happened at all.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Movies: She's Gotta Have It

I want to say that this is Spike Lee's best movie, but I'm unqualified to do so because I've only seen one or two others (Jungle Fever, 25th Hour, and Inside Man). It's also a bit ludicrous to say so, because it's Spike's first film out of school, and its packed full of film school pretension (um, I mean intellectualism). But it's hard to imagine that a better movie could be made, in spite of the stilted dialogue, the wooden acting, and purposely-typological characters.

I don't know that I've ever witnessed a male writer/director/actor get more closely inside the head of a woman. Maybe it's just because that woman, Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns) is, like me, rather in touch with a more masculine sexuality, but it's really quite delicious to see her with her three different lovers, refusing to drop any of them because they all satisfy (entertain?) her in different ways, and in fact trying to bring them to make nice with each other over Thanksgiving dinner (it doesn't work; having tried the same thing before myself, I could have told her that).

Nola's three lovers, the preening Greer Childs, the clowning Mars Blackmon, and the romantic Jamie Overstreet each remind me of a different man I've known, in addition to representing, for Spike, a certain type of black male available to the modern black woman (even by his name, Jamie Overstreet is clearly the closest to the ideal, but even though Nola finally gives in and tries to be monogamous for him, he can't hold her). But as funny as these three men can be, Spike includes a (hysterical) montage of other men's pickup lines, their big faces in black and white arthouse framing, as they threaten to "drink her bathwater" and offer her ten inches of "prime-cut, grade-A tube steak."

Somehow, this film manages to be completely of its time (with its full-color Ailey-esque dance sequence, Nola's lesbian friend Pearl, Jamie's terrible, horrible short, tight shorts, Spike's crazy Mars getup, and the naive documentary/interview style of so many of the scenes), and yet also eternal (and still fresh, and still relevant, and still hilarious). Much can be made of the gray-rape scene (and it's done so badly, I almost wish it wasn't there), but I'll leave that to the real feminists. For me, a better movie couldn't be made.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Books: The Conversions, by Harry Mathews

It seems I've come across yet another book that's far out of my league. In spite of its slim binding and thick-stock pages graced with extra white space, engaging with this book's depth is a challenge for anyone functioning with less intellectual capacity than Pynchon, Foster Wallace, or Mathews himself. The author is one fascinated by eccentricities, minutiae, anachronisms, and oddities; indeed, this semi-noirish, semi-picaresque, semi-mystery wild goose chase seems the book that Mr. Kindt would write, if Mr. Kindt were to write a novel (Mr. Kindt, in case you're not sure, is the tattooed, museum-going, fish-eating man in Laird Hunt's The Exquisite, which book may have been influenced by Mathew's style, just as Jesse Ball's Samedi the Deafness might have; it bears a striking thematic and stylistic similarity.) Both of these contemporary novels seem closer to The Conversions than A Void, the e-less murder mystery by Mathew's friend and contemporary Georges Perec, which I read before the dahlhaus was instated, but which includes rather incredible rewrites of both The Raven and Hamlet's famous monologue without the letter "e" ("Quoth that Black Bird, 'Not Again.'") Mathew's most important influence is said to be Raymond Roussel, author of Locus Solus, a novel I've been meaning to read for years now, but can't seem to find at the library in English translation (Roussel wrote it in French).

The topic of linguistic difficulties brings me back to The Conversions. Mathews is clearly comfortable with not only his native English, but also French, Latin, and German—all of which he includes, sans translation, in his novel. And it is not only a mere line or two—no!—the entire last few pages of the book (described as Appendix, but which may, thanks to his general trickery, contain the actual completion of the story (for the last chapter offers none)) are written in German. And in case his reader is as highly-educated as he is, and is fluent in French, Latin, and German, Mathews includes a number of paragraphs sprinkled throughout the novel in non-existent languages, languages that he has made up, that, if one reads aloud, offer a flicker of hope of intelligibility, as if they were some evolved or corrupted pig-latin, but ultimately remain elusive.

It is that eluding that seems to thrill Mathews; he is not unlike the wealthy eccentric who dies at the novel's beginning, after rigging a musical worm race (I told you he was eccentric!) and sending the narrator on a quest to answer three peculiar (and multi-lingual) questions about an antique adze (and if you know what that is without consulting a dictionary, perhaps this book is for you). And yet, the bulk of the novel contains less information about the adze than digressive vignettes about other curiosities, stories told to the narrator by the people from whom he seeks information about the adze. We read about a painter who has rigged a machine in order to mechanize his color choices, and Mathews describes the apparatus and its many pipes and joints in great detail. We read the history of a scientist who discovered what he thought was a new element, called fleshmetal, which refuses to liquefy, and Mathews describes his experiments, quoting temperatures and chemicals with abundant jargon. There is a chapter about a cult-like Christian splinter, a chapter about ancient choral music, and a chapter about a group of customs officials who spend their days smoking contraband cigars and reading confiscated picture books. There is a man who uses for a doorbell a carpet of chirping crickets on his stoop, which silence themselves at the approach of a guest. And none of this fits together sensically at all. I'm afraid I am going to have to read it again, once I've learned German, relearned my Latin, picked up a bit of French, and increased my IQ.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Movies: Pépé le Moko and Quai des Orfèvres

If you are wondering whether you'd like to be a French jewel thief on the lamb, hiding out in the Algerian Casbah in 1937, Pépé le Moko can tell you that it's not a bad idea. Mysterious French women with startling bow lips and heavy-lidded eyes will brave the Casbah's dark and twisting corridors to bring you afternoon delight once you tire of your bangled gypsy woman, and every other woman in the sultry, shadowed corridors of the twisting, stone-hewn city will answer to your any whim. The cops will try to catch you, but so long as you stay inside the Casbah's protective walls, you're safe. But therein lies the rub; you'll never again be able see the streets of Paris, ride the Metro, eat frittes unguarded, and, if your heavy-lidded French lover is dragged back to a ship to Paris by her fat and wealthy husband, to follow her there will mean death.

If you are wondering whether you'd like to be an attractive chanteuse in 1947, your career held back by an awkward but loving husband, Quai des Orfèvres will instruct you against sneaking out behind hubby's back to have a dinner meeting at the home of a dirty old man who promises you a movie contract. He'll put the moves on you, and you'll have no choice but to defend yourself by breaking a champagne bottle over his head, fleeing to your grandmother's house. When your suspicious husband goes to the dirty old man's house, expecting to catch you in flagrante delicto, and instead finds the body of the old man, dead, the two of you will both be in a world of trouble, suspects of the police. Neither of you will tell the other that you were indeed at the old man's house, and the fear and frustration of lengthy questioning will tear you apart. Your husband will attempt suicide, but will luckily survive, only to find out that neither of you killed the man—it was done by an itinerant robber, who saw the door open after you had already fled the scene, and before your husband arrived. You will have learned your lesson.

It's much more fun to be Pépé le Moko than an attractive chanteuse, or maybe movies were just that much more spare and romantic in the 30s. Or maybe it's Algeria. Yeah, it must be Algeria.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Movies: Richard Serra: Thinking On Your Feet

Here's a documentary to demonstrate that Richard Serra is a man as tedious as his work. He offers all the big words required to have landed him the critical attention he has received since the 1960s, propelling him to his current monumental, iconographic, plop-art status (what great city doesn't have a clearly recognizable Serra sculpture, paid for with civic funds?)

Clearly missing from this (low-budget, ugly) film is the response to Serra's work by the hundreds of manual laborers who create it for him. His multi-ton sheets of steel are produced by a plant in Germany that does most of its work for airplane and shipbuilding corporations. I am terribly curious about the steelworkers' understanding of Serra's art.

Also missing is a response by Serra to the graffiti often found on his sculptures. He insists repeatedly that his work is about urban landscapes, materials, space, rather than traditional sculpture, which he likens to pictorial painting. But while society's interaction with his sculpture is then necessarily a part of that, he is mum on the sour reception of Tilted Arc, and doesn't say whether his sculptures make good walls to lean upon, or on which to write your name with spray-paint.

Finally, I found myself frustrated by a moment at which Serra implied that his work is politically-oriented. An anti-Bushie, he argued that the government's reaction to art is always against, because art expresses something that the government wants to silence. It is clear to me, though (and illustrated by the aforementioned number of municipal commissions Serra has enjoyed) that Serra's work is precisely the kind of art that governments love: it is completely silent, innocuous, "pure." It makes no statement except about perhaps chemistry or physics; it cannot be sarcastic or critical; it cannot inspire hope, or roil a revolution. It is inert. It is dead. But it is art. It is the perfect way out for a government. It is akin to a giant button by Claes Oldenburg, an ugly explosion of orange I-beams by Mark di Suvero, or a giant spider by Louise Bourgeois. It's blank, and an easy bone to throw.

I don't need my artists to be Yale-educated and to use four-syllable engineering terms. I need them to make art that affects me, in my guts. Serra has never done this, and this film fails to inspire me to give him another chance.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Movies: Tropic Thunder

Here we have another comedy that doesn't live up to its potential, thanks to the excesses of farce. To reiterate a point I've made before, I have nothing against farce per se, but instead, a certain brand of overacted farce-cum-slapstick we've seen growing more and more popular, as opposed to the more sly and witty form to be found in, say, Waiting for Godot (of course, any contemporary big budget film is going to be a far cry from the spare delight of Beckett, but I use him to mark a point on a farce continuum: a point from which we are wandering ever farther).

This is a bigger disappointment in a film coming from (the brilliant physical comedian) Ben Stiller and featuring (the shockingly capable) Robert Downey Jr. and (the almost-always delightful) Jack Black. Every quality moment is a tease that ends too soon and lapses into tediously hyperbolic absurdity. The only real crux of social relevancy in this film is Downey Jr.'s character, an Australian award-winning method actor who has undergone cosmetic surgery to play a black character in the movie within the movie (conveniently also titled Tropic Thunder). His interactions with the only other black character (an actual black) are funny and fascinating and incredibly on point at this juncture in which black culture is being completely appropriated by whites. In case anyone is thick enough to miss this, the point gets hammered home when Tom Cruise and Bill Hader, the studio head and his assistant, perform a twisted, offensive, but ungodly funny dance to a hip hop track in order to illustrate the kind of wealth which with they are tempting Stiller's character's agent (Matthew McConaughey).

Seriousness aside, the movie is packed thick with incredibly funny performances: McConaughey is Rick Peck; Nick Nolte is Vietnam Vet Four Leaf Taybeck (who never actually fought, and never actually went overseas); Steve Coogan is jerky director Damien Cockburn; Tom Cruise is assfucker studio head Les Grossman, and Danny McBride, even though I hate him, is semi-competent explosive technician Cody. I just wish that, given all that star power, I didn't find myself regularly rolling my eyes.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Books: P, by Andrew Lewis Conn

As sometimes happens, I'm not certain how P got onto my reading list, but there it was, and the New York Public Library finally provided. According the the flaps and some nonsense on the internet, the book is a Joycean (oops, haven't read Ulysses yet) Lolita, sans pedophilia but with plenty of other smut to make up for it: a tale of a thirty-something pornographer and his unexpected friendship with a precocious ten-year-old runaway girl.

This is all well and good, but it is also Conn's first novel, and it reads painstakingly so. It's rare that, when reading, I feel the author's nervous effort, his fretting, his anxiousness to just get something—anything!—on the page. Here, Conn over-experiments. It's not the Joycean wordplay that bogs down his book, but the attempt to postmodernize the form. In the middle of the book, he switches from narrative prose to screenplay. As a denouement, he shoehorns in a lengthy stream of consciousness from a character tangential to the tale.

Benji, Conn's shabby protagonist, is an aging pornographer (filmmaker and often the star of his own movies) who can't get his life back together now that the industry has moved to LA and his wife—the only love of his life—has moved there with it, leaving him behind in New York. Conn attentively draws Benji with the care of a Renaissance draughtsman; this is a fully-realized, beautifully detailed character, whom we understand through by his actions (for example, we understand the depth of his love for Penelope when he sucks the blood out of her used tampon; and if reading that horrifies you, don't read the book). Finn, the runaway girl who, at ten, is reading Nietzsche in Washington Square Park while smoking a marijuana joint, is a little less well-realized (I suppose Conn had more trouble getting in touch with his inner tween than his inner porn star). To be honest, her presence in the novel doesn't do much to illuminate Benji (our real concern), except to provide a way from him to end his three year dry spell by sleeping with her mother once he has rescued her and brought her home.

What Conn needs is a tyrannical editor, who will beat the lazy bug out of him (the screenplay section reads as if Conn originally was writing a screenplay, and then decided to write a novel instead, but got too tired of converting all the dialogue into straight prose, so instead just pasted it right into the middle) and rub out the less-important characters. The author is too sentimental, too attached to his creations, to do this on his own. P reads like a great manuscript, awaiting a fascist armed with a fistful of red pens. It's not, though, in the league of Joyce or even Safran-Foer, whom his publishers name-check as his contemporary. I don't know if it ever could be.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Movies: Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows)

Here is one of the stranger, more elaborate noir plots I've encountered: Moreau is Florence Carala, and her lover, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) gets stuck in an elevator just after killing her husband. He spends the night trapped; in the meantime, a young couple steals his convertible for a joyride, uses his name when they check into a motel, and then kill another couple when they're caught trying to steal their Mercedes. They skip out in the middle of the night, and the police begin searching for the killer: Julien Tavernier. Once they find him, he's hesitant to confess his alibi, since it will link him to Carala's murder. Thanks, however, to the developed photos from the miniature camera in Tavernier's glove box (both of him with Ms. Carala and of the actual killers drinking champagne with the victims), all the murders are solved.

And yet it is more a tone poem for film than a thriller. Director Malle seems to completely rely on the moody Miles Davis score to color the smoky closeups of Jeanne Moreau's face with relevant emotion, to a degree that the movie seems more an illustration of the music than the music an accompaniment to the film. The score outperforms the picture to such a degree that when the music fades away to give room for Moreau's voice (which is saddled with a clumsy, overwrought voice over), our attention flags. And though Moreau became the star, Yori Bertin, who plays the young Véronique is far more interesting, mercurial, promising, even if it's sacrilege to say so.