Saturday, December 12, 2009

Movies: A Serious Man

The Coens get back to what works in A Serious Man—a kind of 1960s version of The Big Lebowski, more tightly focused, steeped in Judaism and wreathed in wisps of marijuana smoke. A contemporary Job, small-potatoes physics professor Larry Gopnik finds his orderly word to be suddenly out of order. It begins with a Korean exchange student attempting to bribe him for a passing grade, and swiftly progresses to a proposed incursion on his rancher’s property line by the too-American neighbors, a request for divorce from his wife, a car accident, an urgent call from his doctor to discuss test results, and certain financial ruin, not to mention extreme emotional strain. Swirling around him are other such peripheral troubles as a jobless brother with a gambling problem and a cyst that needs constant draining, the warm-mouthed, paunch-bellied widower who is courting his wife, and a son too busy getting high and running from the neighborhood bully to prepare for his bar mitzvah.

The trajectory of the film is preëstablished by a sepia-toned short in which a 19th century Russian Jewish couple argue in their home in front of a guest as to whether the old man is or is not an evil spirit; the husband, who has befriended the bearded stranger after an accident on the road, thinks his appearance is a blessing, for he is a family friend of his wife’s. The wife, who heard that the man died three years ago of typhus, thinks that his appearance is a curse, and stabs him in the chest with an ice pick. The bright-eyed visitor is slow to show signs of pain, but eventually bleeds, then wanders back out into the snow. The husband cries that they are ruined because of her murder; she closes the door, certain that they are saved because of her vigilance.

During the movie proper, Gopnik’s car wreck is mirrored by another, but fatal car wreck: that of Sy Ableman, the widower-lover of Gopnik’s wife, who is called at his funeral (for which somehow Gopnik finds himself paying) “a serious man,” by the Rabbi Nachtner. After Gopnik has visited the over-zealous Junior Rabbi Scott, and the more senior but equally useless Rabbi Nachtner, asking, as a good Jew must, why it is that God is forsaking him, he tries to see the aged and wise Rabbi Marshak, stammering to his secretary that he is—that he has tried to be—a serious man. Marshak, who is busy thinking, refuses to see him, but towards the end of the film, does see Gopnik’s son, for the only work he still does is converse on the Sabbath wit the boy being bar mitzvahed. To this boy, he slowly and sagely says, “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies,” and then pulls from his drawer the boy’s transistor radio, confiscated from him at Hebrew school at the film’s start.

He is quoting, of course, the Jefferson Airplane song that has become the film’s theme, and this is the film’s most brilliant and hysterical moments. Gopnik senior so desperately wants the old man’s wisdom, but it’s given instead to his jejune boy. And yet, it promises to address the man’s crisis—his job, his marriage, and his entire reality are not what he thought they were. But just as that song asks questions without offering answers, the Rabbi Marshak offers no actual answers (“be a good boy,” he says)—and neither does the film. Though the bar mitzvah goes off without a hitch and husband and wife are brought closer by their child’s achievement, and though a colleague from the tenure committee drops by Gopnik’s office to tell him that the news will likely be good, the film ends before we’re given confirmation, before the divorce is called off, and while a tornado is visible on the horizon, and the doctor’s office is on the phone. We are a little disgruntled, but what else could we expect? The film is about uncertainty itself, so cannot offer any certain conclusion.

*Even if everyone else liked No Country For Old Men, I considered it a failure.

Movies: Up in the Air

There is something disconcerting about George Clooney, and Up in the Air crystallizes this thing. The ideal icon of contemporary consumer culture, Clooney is a very fine product. He is well-cut, of a nice weight with double-stitched seams. He has fruit in the nose, spicy overtones, and a balanced structure. He presents well, and he has a smooth finish. He is casually warm, and happy to appear at your benefit for Cause X and be photographed. But what does he actually stand for? What are his passions? What is under the worsted wool, the Egyptian cotton, the clean linens, and the sun-toasted, precor-toned skin? Brad Pitt undoubtedly poops. George Clooney? I’m not as certain. He may not have any viscera.

And Up in the Air embraces, however ironically, that hollow Clooneyan panache. Here is the American dream gone wrong, where corporations are our closest friends, and we are more loyal to them than our lovers. As Ryan Bingham, Clooney flies American Airlines between the country’s armpit outposts—Omaha to Houston to Detroit—laying people off (imagine a fin de siecle capitalist structure so bloated and necrotic that it outsources its termination processes). The tragedy of the working American is his boon; the worse the country’s economy get, the more miles he accrues. This is not-so-subtle social criticism from writer/director Jason Reitman, also responsible for Thank You For Smoking and the less-toothy Juno, but in our irony-saturated state, we need a stronger shake, a sharper stick in the eye, than this cotton-swabbed swipe.

Bingham’s stint in the sky isn’t unlike Ed Norton’s character’s at the beginning of Fight Club—single-serving coffee, single-serving cream, single-serving friend. But Fight Club rages against this empty husk of a life, and tears shit up. Tyler Durden’s disorder is a direct and violent engagement with his depression and disconnection. That was 10 years ago. Up in the Air, however ironic or sly, never breaks the circuit of escape. When the taste of what Bingham thought he wanted sticks in his throat, he runs. When the human connection he thinks he’s found turns out to be false, he runs. And as the film concludes, he’s on the plane again, going we don’t know where.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Movies: Road House

Because I watched this movie on VH1 on the plane, missing the first five minutes, the last ten minutes, and all the good parts in between that were replaced by commercials, I’m not sure that I should be reviewing it here. But I’m so fascinated by its extreme 80s-ness that I can’t help it. Everyone fell in love with Patrick Swayze’s moves in Dirty Dancing, but it’s in Road House that he shows his real moves, doing shirtless tai chi in front of his rented bungalow (no phone, no tv, no air conditioning—my kind of man!) while the next door neighbors—an all-male family of rich boors who, it turns out, have garnished their wealth by terrorizing the town’s small business owners—drive by in helicopters and monster-trucks. At one point, papa rich boor insists to Swayze that he’s done the town good—it’s because of him that they have a JC Penney. Oh, the 80s!

Only in the 80s could a movie with a plot this thin even be made—Swayze’s Dalton is the best cooler in the business (except for his gray-haired mentor, Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott in a fit of casting brilliance)), and he’s paid a pretty sum to leave his big-city digs and help revamp a rowdy roadhouse where brawls rage every night, so violent that the band—led by a blind blues guitar player—plays inside a chicken-wire cage. Dalton cleans up not only the bar, but the whole town, taking out the rich bad guys, and hooks up with a babelicious nerdy girl-doctor along the way (she staples shut a huge knife wound in his torso after he refuses any anesthetic, drives a red jeep, and looks ultra-hot when she takes off her glasses and unbraids her hair). I don’t know what happens in the end, but I wouldn’t mind watching the whole thing through again to find out.

Books: Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev

Once I left school, I started reading the introductions to novels, when they had them, since no one was around to spoon feed me context (which in the past I disdained to consider relevant, but I come to appreciate more and more as I create my own contextual database, reading more and more). Unfortunately, reading introductions first often colors one’s reading of the novel, such that during my reading of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, I was constantly seeking the development of the early image of the “nihilist”—a figure with which I’ve been long fascinated, and which the introduction of my moldy, hardcover copy of this book (left, now, in some airplane’s seat-pocket) posits was first established in this very book. I’d always considered nihilism a particularly French sensation, and known the Russians to be Francophiles (if not Francofetishists), so was somewhat surprised that the concept might have Russian origin (for I expect communist Russians to be nihilists, of course, but Turgenev published Fathers and Sons in 1862).

But to be honest, I found Bazarov a rather disappointing nihilist—rather a romantic, in fact—and his compatriot (and the novel’s true hero) Arcadii a rather dry, typical hero of the Russian gentry, sweetly naïve and achieving fulfillment only in finding a woman even more sweetly naïve to marry and set up farm (Arcadii and Katya reappear almost in carbon copy in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as Levin and Kitty, except that each is a bit older and more tired—though no less naïve and traditional). Bazarov, a naturalist with little patience for the affection of his parents, falls hopelessly in love with the widow Odintsova. When she rejects him, he (arguably purposely) contracts the quick-killing typhus (by touching an infected person’s wound with his own open wound—an experiment someone with his scientific knowledge would know would lead to infection).

As also discovered in reading the introduction, Turgenev lost most of his readership with the publication of this novel; older readers were offended, as they thought he was siding with the young nihilists, and younger readers thought that he was caricaturizing them, and siding with the “Fathers.” Having only read one other of Turgenev’s works, I would posit that he sides with no one, only observing people and the silly games they play with their minds, with a fascination much more pure than that of those who would follow—those writers like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, who had much clearer agendas. Turgenev, rather than trying to alight on the ideal way to live, simply sees the way we do live, a bemused smile on his face and a poignant chuckle in his throat.

Movies: The Bad Lieutenant

I walked into Werner Herzog’s new movie knowing nothing else about it—not that it was a “remake” of a 1992 Ferrara film, not that it starred Nick Cage, not that it would be filled with pulpy drug use, sex, and violence. Each of those facts may have turned me away from the theater (isn’t it a bit soon to be remaking a film from the 90s?), but Herzog’s directorship turned out to be the only essential fact. For while this is an obscenely over-the-top, Tarantino-meets-Lynch parade of human filth—the waxy-faced crooked cop, the soft-focus prostitute with two black eyes, the bombastic black drug king—the irony is constantly interrupted by Herzog’s tenderness for the true human types that circulate in that world—the African family shot dead in their home, the beer-soaked skin of a sad country girl who can’t understand why her lover goes to AA, the bone-thin black teenage mothers who come to the door when Cage’s McDonagh comes knocking at their shack looking for drug-dealing boyfriends hiding in the chiffarobe.

But aside from the constant play between pulp’s crass, cold hyperbole and documentary’s careful, compassionate honesty, there is the Herzog wildcard: a sudden shift out of plot and into a strange existential meditation on the beautiful absurdity and madness of life. In Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about a scientific encampment in the Arctic, this meant following a suicidal penguin as he scuttled away from the flock and into the frame’s vanishing point, inland, away from the shore’s feeding grounds. In Lieutenant, breaks in McDonagh’s consciousness come with shots of iguanas that no one else sees. Herzog films these strange, scaly creatures with his National Geographic-style love of the wild; surrounded by prismatic light, their bulging eyes pulse, their horny skin still. Herzog uses a kind of lizard-cam so that we see the room from the iguana’s eyes, or, once, from the eyes of a crocodile slithering away from the site of a car wreck on the side of the road (where another croc’s insides are strewn across the street).

And the film’s “happy ending,” which sees the murder of the African family solved, the drug king pinned to the crime thanks to a (planted) DNA-kissed “lucky crack pipe”, the prostitute clean, married, and pregnant with McDonagh’s child, and the bad Lieutenant promoted to Corporal, doesn’t leave us with the couple kissing at the door (too soft and bright), or McDonaugh then snorting a pile of cocaine in a hotel room immediately after (too dark and harsh), but with another curious, elegiac interlude: McDonagh sitting on the floor in the dim blue of an aquarium, next to the Hispanic thug he saved from a Katrina-flooded prison at the film’s start, who has since changed his life and been clean a whole year—the entire year McDonagh slipped into deeper and deeper drug abuse, initially because of back pain caused by a disc injury sustained in saving this man. This Herzog moment is gratifying for almost no one—not the filmgoer who’s never heard of Herzog and came to see a Nick Cage action flick, not the romantic who wants to see every film tied up with the red ribbon of resurrection and resolution—but for the director’s humanist-compatriots, it is the ideal finish: open, quiet, unresolved, without judgment, without promise, without despair.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Movies: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are is my favorite children’s book. I love it so much that, not only do I have the tale committed to memory (“That night, Max wore his wolf suit, and made mischief. . . of one kind and another; his mother called him Wild Thing, and Max said, “I’ll eat you up!” so he was sent to bed, without eating anything. . .”), but I consider it one of my favorite books period, placing Sendak in the pantheon with Foster Wallace and Barthes, who write for adults (very smart adults, at that). As a child, I didn’t like monsters or adventure stories, and I didn’t identify with Max the way most children probably do; my attachment to the book was perhaps precocious—I loved it for its poetry—it’s tempo and its tone.

Generally, movies made about our favorite childhood things are destructive forces—nothing so materially realized can compete with the melting edges of our nostalgic dreamscape. But Jonze and Eggers nailed it, fleshing out the story only as much as needed to make a 101-minute movie out of a book comprising less than ten sentences. And by some trick of masterful art direction, watching a handful of giant, live-action furry monsters tenderly hugging a little boy seemed perfectly real and natural; not once did I feel that spark of critical distance that so often strikes me at the movies—even when watching actual actors not dressed as giant, furry monsters.

Max of the movie is a bit more sensitive (dare I say “twee”?) than Max of the book; his anger is grounded in frustration, with an older sister who ignores him for her friends, and a mother (the sweet, scratchy-voiced Catherine Keenar, who appears in the top-five of every hipster’s MILFs list) who ignores him (briefly) for a wine-swilling Mark Ruffalo-as-boyfriend. The Wild Things, rather than simply “rolling their terrible eyes and gnashing their terrible teeth and showing their terrible claws” also express a fully human range of emotions, with particular attention to the darker feelings of loneliness, insecurity, jealousy, and anger. They are, thus, able to move us as much as Max does, often bringing us to tears.

Characters aside, where the magic of the book lies in the pacing of the page turn (during the wild rumpus, there is no text at all, but the swinging bodies of the wild things propel the story forward nonetheless), the magic of the movie resides in the art direction. This begins when Max climbs into his private boat, something just tattered enough to belie the dreamscape, but solid enough to carry a small boy in and out of a day, and a week, and a year. The sloshing sea, the driving rain, and the huddled boy in his filthy, bedraggled wolf suit set us up for the craggy cliffs, endless dunes, and enchanted caves that Max discovers in the land where the wild things are. The Andy Goldsworthy-like palaces of twigs—huge, swooping organic gestures tumbled across a clearing in the wood and surrounded by a network of tunnels, a fort “to keep the sadness out,”—add another element to the movie—the human compulsion to build—not actually in the book, but in perfect keeping with Max’s psyche (for the land where the wild things are is, of course, something that Max has built in the first place, even if it is fully natural and uncontrolled, without technical structure).

And so, even if detractors will say that this is another hipster puff-piece (the Karen O. soundtrack is neither for children nor adults, for example) made by and for overgrown children, its values (creativity and friendship) are valid. Rarely does movie by the hipsters for the hipsters wear its heart so openly on its sleeve; there is nothing here that is coy or disaffected or too-cool-for-school. Jonze proved himself as tender as he is clever ten years ago with Being John Malkovich, probably one of the smartest and saddest movies ever made, and it’s a bit shocking that he hasn’t done a feature other than Adaptation since then. The man is a genius of humanity and should be making a movie every year, like Steven Soderbergh or the Coen machine. Eggers, further, has proven that he is a worthy screenwriter, and that the travesty that was Away We Go can be blamed fully on wife and co-writer Vendela Vida.

Books: All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

A truly American epic, All the King’s Men, though written 60 years ago and set even farther back, is a coming-of-age tale for today’s young men, who don’t actually become men until their mid-30s, just like protagonist Jack Burden. Simple but heavy, Burden is a man with few convictions of his own, torn between the memories of an intellectual father turned religious madman, an emotional debt to the elderly judge who took his father’s place as a role model, and the demands of “the boss”—Governor Willie Stark, a power-drunk but service-minded politician, a self-made man made fully from piss and vinegar, and nights up late studying law. Burden has detached himself emotionally from his work (he’s a kind of guy-Friday cum-fixer, an underground PR man) and, in fact, from most of his life. The only thing in which he maintains any emotional investment is the elusive Anne Stanton, a childhood friend (actually the younger sister of his childhood friend Adam, who as an adult has withdrawn in his own way, a neurosurgeon of Ayn Randian proportions). Anne and Jack were high school lovers, but did not marry.

As Burden does his work, trying to wear blinders, the interconnected underbelly of his network slowly emerges; hands deep in the dirt, he discovers that the elderly judge was not always so ethical as he seemed—but furthermore that the elderly judge, and not the intellectual madman, was his actual father (was rather than is, as the confrontation over the ethical lapse drives the old man to suicide before the second discovery is made). Worse, Burden discovers that Anne and Stark are having an affair. He drives all the way west, spends a few nights drunk in a California hotel room, then drives back to work. It’s the affair, though, that brings the end of Willie Stark—brother Adam Stanton gets a secret tip-off about the affair, and in true no-compromises fashion, shoots Stark dead (Stark’s driver and bodyguard Sugarboy shoots Adam dead in turn).

With the deaths of all these fathers, Burden is at last able to become a man. He marries Anne Stanton, and with this epilogue, the novel’s throbbing pulse peters out. The story is Burden’s, though it ends with Stark’s death, because Stark’s life enables Burden’s repression. “All the king’s men” refers, of course, to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, where Stark is the big egg on the wall, and Burden one of the men (along with a well-styled cast of supporting characters including the stuttering Sugarboy and the over-fed Tiny Duffy) who can’t put him back together after his fall. And yet, the breaking of an egg in most natural cases leads to the birthing of a chick. Stark’s life, career, and concomitant assignments generate the tasks that enable Burden to seal himself inside the shell, blindly rolling through the world, still an infant. It is truth of his heroes’ infidelities that lead to the deaths that break the shell, and so of course the egg can’t be put “together again”—nor would we want it so.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Books: In the Labyrinth, by Alain Robbe-Grillet

This is another of Robbe-Grillet's clean circles, spare but not sparse, spiraling almost imperceptably away from it's beginning before neatly coming back around. Everything is blown with snow. We follow a soldier through blanketed, blankened strets, lined with anonymous buildings that slowly become familiar-either because we're walking in circles, or because, like the soldier, we are exhausted—sick, wet, and delusional.

Grillet lodges the reader more firmly in the protagnonist here than in some of his other novels. In Jealousy, the reader is a locked-out onlooker, fascinated by the long-haired A, but trapped behind the eyes of her nameless husband, who is never described, who never describes himself, and who gives little of himself away in his descriptions of his wife and their plantation. But in Labyrinth, the narration comes from some third party. Nevertheless, we identify with the lost and woozy soldier as we navigate the text—where phrases and images and entire scenes repeat. Our textual déjà vu is the soldier's physical déjà vu.

And then, there is the matter of the box. The soldier walks in circles because he has a box that belonged to another soldier-one he did not know-and is trying to bring that box to a man-whom he does not know. Nor do we know whether he knows the contents of the box; we certainly do not, for whenever somebody asks him, he only answers, "things," or, when further pressed ("what kind of things?"), "my things" (an untruth, in fact). But the need to be rid of this box is strong, strong enough to push him forward through the snow, following a taunting child who wears a cape and may or may not know the way to the street whose name the soldier cannot remember. And yet, when he tries to be rid of it—to just shove it through the grate into the sewer, he cannot. Nor can we cast aside the book/box, until we have seen it delivered/finished, even though that delivery will not give us access to what is locked inside: who this man is, where he has come from, why he has nowhere to go. When the box's delivery is frustrated, his only remaining task is to die, which he does, from a gunshot unintended for him, in the bed in the home of the sprightly boy, tended by the kind woman, who doubles as a waitress in a painting of a cafe to which we are often drawn—for the soldier and his box are in the painting, as is the boy, and the soldier stops into the cafe as he walks, following the boy.

It is possible, in fact, that the soldier is not walking deliriously through the snowy streets of an unnamed French city, but is a phantom circling the illusory city dreamed by an old, delusional man, in whose dusty one-room apartment the painting of the cafe scene hangs. This man appears in the dream as the doctor, who carries an umbrella, tries to give the soldier directions, and ultimately presides at his death.

Movies: The Proposal

The Proposal: another embarrassing excuse for a film, so fraught with clichés that, in verbally summarizing the plot to a friend (which only required three or so sentences), he was able to preemptively identify each plot development. Of course, one knows, within the first few minutes of the film, when dragon-lady Sandra Bullock takes her Starbucks from her sweaty and apologetic male assistant, we know that, as little respect as these people have for each other, they will be in love and married by the end of the film. The deux ex machina that gets us there is the small fact that hotshot editor Bullock is Canadian, and so self-important that she never bothered to file the appropriate immigration papers. In order to avoid deportation, she blackmails her assistant, who will do anything to become an editor himself, into joining her in sham matrimony. But after a weekend with his family in small-town Alaska, condensed into 90 minutes worth of hijinks including a Hispanic male stripper, a bird of prey that steals Bulluck’s blackberry, and a native-American fire-ceremony turned booty-shaking extravaganza (offending two whole cultures in only one whole scene—brilliant!), the two have actually fallen in love (not before she runs from the altar, though, leaving him alone and ashamed). Why does Hollywood make these movies, and why do airplanes play them, when we are trapped with little choice but to watch and shudder?

Movies: State of Play

State of Play is yet another B-list political thriller, hardly worth watching, even whilst confined to an airplane and the dreaded middle seat. While its unending plot twists are more infuriating than the kinks in an old garden hose hooked to a low pressure spigot, which problems can’t be blamed on baggy acting, poor screenwriting, and inept camera handling can be pinned on the genre itself. For there is nothing thrilling about politics. They may be interesting (on occasion), infuriating (often), and convoluted (always), but they are never, ever thrilling. By their multi-constituent nature, they grind, slowly. Even Obama wasn’t thrilling (we could see it coming a mile away). Even Nixon wasn’t thrilling (shocking, but not thrilling). Even the discovery that there were no WMDs in Iraq wasn’t thrilling. Politics buries truth in a snowstorm of fact, and fact are the opposite of thrilling.

This is why I find it so strange that the foil in every political thriller is the shabby newsman. If there’s anything less thrilling than politics, it’s news about politics: the same facts, scrambled and regurgitated, supposedly to elucidate the underlying truth, but buried in its own snowstorm of multi-constituent bullshit: more money and power and machine. The news, like politics, is typically disappointing, disenchanting, and despair-inducing. Occasionally, they get it right, but even when it’s inspiring, cutting to the bone, it’s not thrilling.

And yet, we are again offered the alcoholic, workaholic, pot-bellied bachelor (the inexorable Russell Crowe) pitted against his old college roommate and only real friend, the slick, handsome, young Congressman (Ben Affleck, well-cast insofar as that wooden waxiness particular to politicians comes naturally to him) in an intellectual race to unravel the ethical hairball of private security contracting, at home and abroad. In order to glam up the tedious dilemma, the screenwriter starts off with a purported suicide that Crowe proves to be a murder, which Crowe then proves to be an assassination. For added sex appeal, it turns out that the victim was not only the young Congressman’s research assistant, she was also his mistress—and pregnant, to boot (Crowe uncovers that bit too). With the newsman as our guide, we trust that she was killed by the big bad network of military contractors that the young Congressman has been roasting—she knew too much. But then we discover, along with Crowe, that the victim was actually a plant—a double agent, hired by the big bad corporation to monitor the young Congressman. This is just the news that Crowe needs to publish his big story, which feels great, since it’s also just the story that will help the young Congressman put the big bad Corporation under the bus. But as the one-screw-loose hitman—an ex-military man himself—chases Crowe through an underground parking lot, armed with a semi, Crowe realizes that the young Congressman has been in on it all along. . . The next two minutes sees the young Congressman indicted and the movie ended. Wait, what?

Not to mention that along the way, there are the added glamorous accessories of an additional affair (the shabby newspaperman and the young Congressman’s wife have an old spark to fan), a drug-and-sex fiend PR man (even Jason Bateman can’t make this role work), a homeless teenager with drug-dealer boyfriend and a stolen briefcase, some collateral damage (including the homeless teenager and a pizza guy), and a spunky young blogger (Rachel McAdams) who learns to give up her gossiping to be Crowe’s gal Friday, and like it.

This film is completely bereft of even the minutest mote of quality. The filmmakers have no respect for their audience. Structuring the plot around the righteous “down with government military contracting” theme is not a free pass to make such an offensively stupid movie. Further, anyone intellectually bankrupt enough to enjoy this PG-13 smut doesn’t know or care about government military contracting. Perhaps the worst thing about a political thriller is that people end up caring more about the thrill than the politics.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Books: The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought, by Ron Amundson

I’m well accustomed to the contemporary impetus to hyper-contextualize art and literature—to pull the work down out of the space of the ideal, and tease it apart, qualifying or disqualifying it not by locating any intrinsic Quality (i.e. value, typically of a formal kind) but by revealing the historical and political machinations that, in the mind of the contemporary academic, somehow spring forth art and literature almost in spite of the artist or writer (as opposed to the traditional view, in which the artist or writer births his or her work by a kind of inspired and partnerless parthenogenesis).

Dabbling in extreme relativism myself at times, I fully understand this impulse (though by the nature of the writing here you see that I am ultimately against it). That said, I was always certain that this inclination to contextualize was safely trapped in the (wishy-washy) humanities. The colder realm of science, for example, would be immune to this obsessive historicization, because science moves forward as scientists discover new facts, and subjectivity and feelings don’t enter the lab. But reading Amundson’s book revealed to me that science is just as prone to this kind of infestation.

Amundson is a philosopher and a historian of biology, not a biologist proper, and it is the cross-pollination of these fields that allows this academic parasite ingress to what appears to be science. But in spite of its title, this is not a science book at all. Amundson offers none of his own laboratory research to demonstrate the viability of his argument (I won’t even call it a hypothesis). Instead, he recounts the history, beginning in the 19th Century, of biology’s attempt to understand the process by which life forms are generated. Highly polemical and peppered with as many unnecessary philosophy terms as science terms (woe to the reader who confuses “ontology” with “ontogeny”), Amundson frames that history as an as yet unresolved argument between developmentalists and geneticists (or proto-geneticists, for those 19th Century Darwinists who believed in adaptation, though they were uncertain of its mechanical means).

As a layperson who hasn’t thought about these things since AP Biology in high school ten years ago, my ultimate response to this argument may sound naïve to Amundson or a reader who has something invested in this controversy. But it seems to me that the development v. selection question is moot; both are valid and it simply depends on the direction in which one faces. The developmentalists, who demonstrate that fetuses of various species temporarily show homologous structures, have located a vestige of an inter-species relationship that fully supports the adaptationists’ belief that species diverge by mutation. Likewise, the adaptationists’ understanding of evolution on a population-level leaves room for the individual ontogeny to be the bearer of that evolution. Amundson admits that this is ultimately a chicken-and-egg question.

But if it is, why has he gotten his skivvies tied up in such a sweaty knot? For more than 250 pages, Amundson rather testily challenges primary and secondary sources, scourges certain 20th Century scientists for misreading certain 19th Century scientists, and creates a bogey man out of the Evolutionary Synthesis. In his concluding chapter, he then waffles a bit and concedes that it is awfully hard to make a case for the developmentalists inside the framework of the Evolutionary Synthesis (after he has spent so much effort discrediting that Synthesis!). Perhaps if he were an actual scientist Amundson would be pragmatic enough to make his argument with data, rather than (often opaque) rhetoric, and I might be more inclined to join his cause. As it stands, I’m still uncertain as to whether his cause even exists outside of his own academic paranoia.

Monday, September 7, 2009

The Meeting at Telgte, by Gunter Grass

My dad sent me this book, an extremely elite thought experiment that envisions a meeting of the premier 17th Century German poets during the negotiations at the end of the 30 Years War. Gathering from far-flung regions of the country, the group finds their intended lodgings filled with loitering soldiers and stacks of paper outlining battle plans and failed treaty attempts, but allow an educated and foppish con-cum-highway-man to find them alternative lodgings in a nearby town—Telgte—at the inn of a surprisingly learned and adventurous wench (“The landlady, though undoubtedly a trollop, was nevertheless an extraordinary woman.”*)

Once there ensconced, the poets conduct their meetings, a few days’ symposium during which they sit in a circle and take turns reading their work for comment by the others. The reader sits in a chair of “honor” beside a potted thistle. The highly specialized and spirited conversation circles around their desire not only for political peace, but peace of language—a standardizing of their varying regional tongues—and arguments over poetry’s vocation (religious hymns or bawdy songs).

I don’t imagine anyone, oh, “normal,” would really like this book, and yet I found it completely fascinating and hysterical, and immediately thought of three friends who would as well. They are all poets, though. . .

*From page 15, this may have been my favorite sentence in the book, and is a prime example of Grass’ pitch-perfect sense of humor

To Jerusalem and Back: A Personal Account, by Saul Bellow

I had hoped for a more personal travelogue from Bellow in To Jerusalem and Back, with its subtitle “A Personal Account,” but found it (as thoughts on Israel so often are) bogged down by dissenting voices arguing piddling details over who was where first, and when “first” was, who killed how many when and where, whether this border should be here or there, and, because of its Cold War context (Bellow published the memoir in 1976), what roles Russia and the US are to have in the country’s future.

There are scattered gems in which the author describes a meal on the airplane next to a young Hassidic Jew, a friend’s relationship with his dog, which even goes with him when he ships out to sea as an engineer, and imagines a secret tape recorder hidden underneath the dinner table at which he sits across from Kissinger. But the bulk of words are given over to statistics, and he-said-she-said, and who is entitled to what.

Bellow is a graceful intellectual, and visits the country as an interlocutor rather than a polemicist. That said, he never commits to any proposed solution to this problem, which has as its very simple root a refusal by two groups to share—land, government, culture, and their god, who is quite obviously the same god. Since seeing the country myself ten years ago, my only response has been pure bewilderment that the religious icon hasn’t been removed from the nation’s flag, that it hasn’t been rechristened with a non-partisan name, that the students haven’t been fully integrated, by force if necessary, and taught to love and respect each other, and speak each other’s languages, along with English or French or some other objective third, shared tongue that would become the national language.

Bellow writes at a time when Israel’s first generation of leaders is passing on, but the country is still quite populated by Jews who lived through the Holocaust. In spite of history’s horrors (and I write as a person whose maternal grandfather lost his entire family to the camps before he grew into a man), the insistence on a Jewish “homeland” is preposterous to me; I suppose I am an American first—I hold the separation of church and state more sacred than any spiritual tenet.

The Sea Wolf, by Jack London

The Sea Wolf is everything I ever dreamed Moby Dick would be, but could never access through Melville’s barrier of whaling arcana. London gives us the battle between raw will and acculturated ethics straight-up, with enough clarity of syntax to allow a high school freshman access to the philosophical debate roiling under the castaway-meets-mutiny adventure.

Wolf Larson, captain of a seal-hunting ship, is all raw will: a self-made man with the body of a beast, ruthless in business, surprisingly well-read, but a materialist with no belief in the ephemeral notions of the soul, afterlife, or morality. He sees the ethical inclinations of narrator Humphrey Van Wyden, a gentleman writer and critic shipwrecked during a pleasure cruise and pulled on board the Ghost (Larson’s ship), as one of that man’s many weaknesses, along with his inability to earn his own meals through physical labor.

Rather than returning him to shore, Larson gives Van Wyden the moniker of Hump and puts him to work at the bottom of the ship’s ladder, as cabin boy and helper to the cook. Perhaps because of Van Wyden’s intellect, he develops a connection with Larson against his will, so that as the crew becomes increasingly mutinous and key men are lost to violence, Hump soon finds himself Mr. Van Wyden again, as First Mate. He has now learned not only to work for his meals, but to work the ships sails and navigational equipment, and he and Larson alone navigate the Ghost through a storm when all the other men are out on their sealing boats. All this time, he has spent nights arguing the nature of man with Larson, who continues to maintain that Larson’s ethics are mere weakness.

The deux ex machina comes with another castaway—the beautiful Maud Brewster, a poet and critic herself—who had been out sailing for her health when Larson’s crew saved her from her storm-smashed ship. Again, Larson refuses to return her to shore; clearly he has sexual designs on her, but Van Wyden is taken himself, and takes it upon himself to be her protector. Ironically thanks to his training through Larson’s brutality, the narrator is now equipped to steal a small sealing boat, load it with provisions, and escape with the willowy, frail Maud in the middle of the night. For days they paddle through hopelessly cold conditions until a tiny and uninhabited islet comes into sight.

There, they make house, combining knowledge Van Wyden picked up from other sailors with memories of shipwrecked characters in their favorite books. London is still obviously grappling with whether man is more mind or more creature. Though the house they build has two rooms, and Van Wyden is very clear about his passing nights alone in the beached boat until the second room is built, he admits to loving her, and finds himself referring to her as “my woman, my mate” in his most secret, silent thoughts.

The final challenge comes when Larson’s Ghost runs up on their islet, with no crew but Larson himself (all men lost in a run-in with his equally ruthless brother, Death Larson). Ravaged by unbearable headaches, blinded, and soon deaf, his body breaks before his will does, and he continues to try and foil the couple’s attempts to escape with the Ghost, cutting their repaired rigging, destroying the sails, and even setting his own bed on fire. But against all physical odds, using mathematics, engineering, and his new found will, Van Wyden gets the ship in working order just as Larson takes his dying breath. The couple sails the ship away from the islet after burying Larson at sea, and are soon rescued by another vessel.

There is something rather indulgent about reading such a straight-forward examination of the human condition; Melville buried his battle in the murkiest encyclopaedic ephemera, and pure philosophy would shy away from giving credence to Larson’s physicality. Though the captain is established as the hero’s tormentor and nemesis, we find ourselves sympathetic to Larson all the while. When Van Wyden is able to succeed precisely because he has absorbed some of Larson’s tendencies—physical strength, sexual desire, and most importantly, a confident will—London is condoning that antagonist’s convictions. But when that purely physical being expires by literal bursting in his brain, and Van Wyden is triumphant in his love, London tempers those convictions with humanist responsibilities.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Books: The Professor of Desire, by Philip Roth

At twenty I must stop impersonating others and Become Myself, or at least begin to impersonate the self I believe I ought now to be. 12

Another classic Roth read, less obscene than Portnoy's Complaint, but more sexually frank than American Pastoral, The Professor of Desire chronicles the romantic coming-of-age of David Kepesh (who becomes a literature professor, fixated on the tender Chekov, the stymied Kafka, and a suite of other authors who focus intently on his own obsession with loveless life's impossibility). Kepesh moves from sweaty tangles with a high school cheerleader through a sadomasochistic menage-a-trois with two Swedish girlfriends to a dysfunctional marriage with an exotic beauty and a penultimate bout of depression before finally settling in with a healthily attractive, generous and kind, simple grade school teacher. He wants to believe that he'll at last be happy, but he feels the seeds of dissatisfaction with his good, scrubbed girl.

I love Roth for his blatant honesty about those feelings for which we are often ashamed, his willingness to admit that we are dissatisfied creatures who rarely know a good thing when we see it and, if we do, find it impossible nonetheless, for whatever petty reason (in this case, it's that clean Claire lacks even the most basic kinks of his Swedish lover, kindly refusing to fellate him, though she wants to bear his child). Kepesh takes Claire to Europe to exorcise his old lovers' ghosts, and, to a degree, it works. But there remains that threat of dissatisfaction, of having tasted too much to be happy with any one flavor, of being too comfortable with seeking to sit still once he's found.

Books: The Old Gringo, by Carlos Fuentes

There's something Under the Volcanoish about The Old Gringo, which is as nostalgic and lonely, even though it's stone-cold sober. And unlike Terra Nostra, the other Fuentes novel I've read (and loved), The Old Gringo is far from epic. Instead, it's a short, bittersweet flurry of repressed emotions, opening at the scene of the old gringo's burial, and flashing back to the days leading up to his death; he came to Mexico purposely to die, clean-shaven, neatly dressed, and carrying Don Quixote, which he intends to read before he does. He plans to do this by joining Pancho Villa's army of rebels.

Instead, he meets a young American girl, come to Mexico to act as Governess for an aristocratic family. The night of her arrival, the rebels set fire to the hacienda and the aristocrats escape. She and the old gringo have an instant, pained connection (he suddenly considers living, so that he can protect her; she is fatherless and refuses to go home). But she has made a bargain with the covetous General Arroyo, the man whose army the gringo has joined on its way to join with Villa. She sleeps with him to save the gringo's life from Arroyo's fire. The gringo, who has come to Mexico to die, has outshone Arroyo with his bravery, which the General cannot tolerate.

The gringo understands Mexico and the corrupt Arroyo in a way that the young girl refuses; patently American, she insists on staying on to do her "duty"—instructing the Mexicans in English "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic" as well as ethics. Insisting that the locals must learn to respect personal property, she orders the destroyed hacienda rebuilt, and places one of the aristocratic family's few remaining treasures—a string of pearls—out on display. She is devastated when they are stolen, despite Arroyo's explanation: the wrongdoing was her own, by creating temptation.

Her ultimate duty, though, is to the gringo, and she leaves Mexico after Arroyo finally shoots him, claiming the old man as her long-lost father. But Fuentes doesn't give us the resolution that she has learned anything or become healed. Like the Consul's wife in Under the Volcano, this woman is hazy, a kind of light-infused shadow. The story is not hers. But neither is it fully the gringo's, with his obsession with his own father, or Arroyo's, with his landowner's papers that he cannot read, being illiterate. The book starts, ends, and is filled throughout with the repetitive pattering voices of the Mexican soldiers fighting with Arroyo, General Frutos García, Innocencio Mansalvo, the boy Pedrito, and the witch-like La Garduña, who gossip about the old gringo, who he was, and what he was doing in Mexico. We have little access to their pasts, futures, or interiors either, but their voices set the tone that makes the book the dream that it is.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Books: The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper

One can’t help wondering what, in 1826, Cooper intended in writing The Last of the Mohicans. Its heroes and villains are clearly enough demarcated that he may simply have sat down to write a good adventure, and the twelve-year-old boy looking for tomahawks and rifles and canoes and caves and battles to the death, complete with scalping, won’t be disappointed. But this is also a highly romantic novel—not in its attentiveness to the negligible love story, but in its depiction of the American Indian, a sort of super-human sub-human, who is elevated above the white man by a pre-societal skill set. To a degree, Cooper aggrandizes the abilities of the natives of all the tribes—including the enemy Iroquois—but the clear epitome of heroism here is the adolescent Uncas, the second-to-the-last-Mohican, who wanders the woods not with his tribe, which has been demolished, but with his father (the Last, after Uncas’ death in the novel’s last pages) and the white-turned-native Hawkeye, who serves as interlocutor for the pair of Mohicans and the English sisters whom they spend the duration of the novel rescuing.

There are moments when Cooper seems to be advocating for equality; the wise (but less beautiful) older sister, though she refuses to marry the villain Magua when he offers her “death or my wigwam,” seems to have a respectful admiration, bordering on affection, for the heroic Uncas, despite their differences, one which he reciprocates. At the novel’s end, when they both lose their lives, it is understood by all that she will join him in the Native afterlife, rather than proceeding to the heaven of her own people (the concept of multiple, segregated afterlives being one worth a masters’ thesis in and of itself). And yet, they could hardly be allowed to couple in waking life, and so the living couple that does marry is, of course, the younger sister, trembling and blonde, and the young General, valiant and dull-witted. Does Cooper mean to say that we’ve killed everything self-sufficient, wise, just, and organic, and built our current society on empty beauty, empty valor, shallow good intentions, unconscious self-indulgence?

Movies: Born To Be Bad

The deliciously evil female is a character missing from films in last 50 years, perhaps because no one could possibly top Joan Fontaine’s Christobel in Nicholas Ray’s 1950 Born To Be Bad, or perhaps because women are too busy managing their careers these days to bother with wealthy husband stealing.

To be sure, there aren’t many saps like Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott) around any longer—a big-eared, kind-hearted magnate deep in love with the capable, attractive, and ethically-sound Donna Foster (Joan Leslie). A man so prone to self-doubt and susceptible to the machinations of the pretty vultures around him (not only Christobel, but also her main gay, the type-cast-but-brilliant-nevertheless Gobby Broome (Mel Ferrer), a society portraitist cast from a Jamesian mold) wouldn’t survive long in today’s business world.

But even if the plot and its stakes are dated, and the characters terribly typecast (the central group is rounded out by writer/adventurer Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), the tough-talking romantic whose raw masculinity ensnares Christobel’s passion), the film is fantastic, filled with arch one-liners, choice bit-parts (an insistent jewelry salesman; a sickly great-aunt), and a punishing ending for the gold-digger (who keeps the furs and the convertible, but has to give back the key to the house). I have a soft spot at the movies for things I can’t stand in real life.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Movies: Bu San (Goodbye, Dragon Inn)

I had this DVD in my possession before I finally watched it, on my laptop, in bed, the motor’s heat radiating into my thighs as dusk fell to dark out the picture window in front of me. Ironically, this ultra-intimate viewing seemed ideal for this slow and quiet film, a kind of Tarkovsky treatment of a Wong Kar-wai subject, in which a semi-incapacitated young woman drags her leg down long hallways and an isolated young man, afflicted with either Asperger’s or latent homosexuality, sits uncomfortably in a mostly-empty movie theater, always surprisingly near to the few other moviegoers. It’s ironic, of course, because the film is about a movie theater, its big, vacuous space, a vaguely unpleasant cavity between damp concrete slabs, as so much of China seemed to be when I was there (and when I procured this DVD, which I did not watch until now).

Tsai Ming-liang is known for these long, quiet shots, which make us as uncomfortable as the woman with the limp, or the man subjected to the sound of a vixen in the row behind him, shelling sunflower seeds between her teeth. Whether one finds this titillating or tedious depends on one’s patience and state of mind; I’m certain that, had I watched this film with someone else in the room, or in a theatre filled with shifting bodies, I would have loathed it. Tsai’s melting reds and greens are as beautiful as Wong's, but In the Mood For Love, with its similarly quiet and repetitive sequences, draws us to its characters (enabled by its haunting string theme, which, though it repeats constantly, never wears). We don’t feel much of anything for Tsai’s characters—they are pariahs, really, which is why they are there in the first place, cleaning out the stalls of the bathroom, lurking in the hallways, waiting in the projection room, dreamless, deadened. They are unpleasant people, detached from their own longing.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Books: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

Either screenwriter Haythe and director Mendes were more faithful to the novel than I credited them with being, or I completely lack imagination for, reading Revolutionary Road seven months after watching the movie, I could only project the film’s images in my mind’s eye. Months ago, I insisted DiCaprio was miscast, but reading every mention of Frank Wheeler, I could only see his pliable features. I distrusted Daisy’s foresight in bringing a pack of cigarettes up the hill with her in the midst of her worst argument with her husband, but there it is on the book’s page, so I saw Kate Winslet’s face briefly blow in the flame’s amber light.

I had also trusted the proclamations of male readers that the book’s sympathies skewed male, to Frank Wheeler’s professional dissatisfaction and self-loathing, but when reading it for myself, found it to be as much a tale of women’s woe as the film was. The FDA first approved the oral contraceptive pill in 1960; Yates published Revolutionary Road in 1962 about a couple whose lives are literally destroyed by the responsibility incurred by unplanned pregnancies in the 1950s.

Frank Wheeler is not a particularly likable character. April Wheeler is not particularly likable either, but nor is she quite as dislikable as Frank. Though she was as complicit as he in the formation of their mistake (allowing a brief affair evolve, via a series of mounting emotional white lies, into a marriage), she had the foresight to suggest aborting their first pregnancy. And so, at least she kept her wits about her, and wanted to make logical choices in the face of reality. Facing the same opportunity at the outset of their third pregnancy, Frank Wheeler fights tooth and nail to keep the child, until, winning at last, he locks himself in the bedroom with a bottle of whisky, realizing that he doesn’t even want that third child, probably didn’t want the first two, and fought for them only with the instinct of protecting his manhood. This is someone I cannot respect, and I rarely side with the girls.

Radical ethics aside, I was surprised to be a bit let-down by the book, just as I was surprised to be let-down by the movie. Yates’ writes with facile distaste, such haughty, smug prose, rather like a contemporary, American, Evelyn Waugh (arch Waugh of satires like The Loved One, not of the devastating Brideshead Revisited).* I didn’t much care for the plight of the bright young Wheelers, or anyone in the book, for that matter, except perhaps the hapless Shep Campbell, who thinks he loves April, is used by her one night, and then has to comfort her husband when he himself is reeling from her death. Only his emotions, perhaps because of their naïvete, feel genuine. The insightful madman, John Givings, whose proclamations came so cutting in the film’s otherwise blithely elegant chatter, seems equally blithe in the book, nearly as resigned to the “hopeless emptiness” as the Wheelers.

*April’s flashback to a scene in which her Gatsby of a father gives her the plastic horse charm off a bottle of cologne or liquor because he forgot to bring a gift is, it seems, a flashback to an Evelyn Waugh novel, unless Yates is relying completely on the Fitzgeralds for inspiration.

Movies: In A Lonely Place

My second-ever Nick Ray movie, In A Lonely Place is just as, if not more dark, than Bigger Than Life. It seems that Film Forum is going to give me the chance these next few weeks to find out if all of his movies are that way, but for now, let’s talk about this one.

Bogart is the brooding, boozing screenwriter Dixon Steele, who hasn’t had a hit in years and whose friendly caricature-of-a-Jew agent is constantly pushing him to get to work on something. Too lazy, or perhaps too depressed, to bother reading the latest trash novel his agent wants him to adapt, Steele opts for the more efficient and promising option of taking home a hatcheck girl who has just read it. She tells him the story in broad and bright, if misread strokes, and equally fed up with the inanity of the plot and the girl, he gives her cab fare and walks her to the door, giving up on hopes of an evening with any more sensual adventure than staring at the elegant blond in the apartment across the way.

But he’s woken by an investigator at the door at five o’clock in the morning—the hatcheck girl has been murdered and he’s a prime suspect. To his rescue comes the mysterious blonde neighbor; she saw him bid the girl farewell and go straight to bed. Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame, whose breathy, doe-eyed neuroses presage Marilyn Monroe’s handling of those more-disturbing roles) becomes his savior in more ways than one; they become lovers, and Steele overcomes his writers’ block, staying up all night scrawling a script that she types for him. But Steele remains under suspicion, and that, combined with a few other violent episodes, frays Laurel’s nerves. While Steele is making plans for them to be married, she is making plans to sneak away on a flight to New York (we know that she snuck away from her last romance, as well; she was running away from an engagement to a wealthy real estate mogul when she moved in across the way from Steele). Steele finds out and there’s a dark, dangerous confrontation in her apartment, where he pins her and she squirms with fear that he might just kill her too. When the phone rings at that moment with an exonerating call—the actual murderer, the hatcheck girl’s jealous boyfriend—has been captured, it’s too late. The necessary trust has been shattered for both parties.

The moral of the story is my favorite 1950s Hollywood truth: those damn dames are just no good. Laurel Gray was nothing—a failed wannabe actress with a svelte frame and big eyes and the ability to fill out a sweater nicely—and Dix Steele bought her diamonds, and dresses, and wanted to marry her, even though she gave it up plenty without his even offering. But then she had to go and get skittish, all because of something so minor as his explosive temper, a record of a few barroom brawls, and a fist-fight on the side of the road where he could have bashed in the face of his passed-out opponent with a nice rock, if she hadn’t stopped him. Why do girls get such cold feet?

Books: East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Having read The Pearl in grade school and The Grapes of Wrath in high school, both for class, I long ago dismissed Steinbeck as a plodding clod, a writer of flaccid fables, elementary and dull both formally and in content. When, last summer, I met a mid-American man who also threatened to be a plodding clod, a naïve imbiber of our country’s particular brand of moral and mystical pap, who praised Steinbeck, I would have dismissed him as summarily, except that his weedy, upright, je nais se quoi kept me ensconced in his bedroom for a time (where I might still be, if he hadn’t kicked me out). There, waiting for him one night, I pulled down the thick East of Eden to pass the time.

Fifteen years ago, a fleeting, pre-teen fascination with James Dean had inspired me to rent the VHS for my parents’ thirteen-inch television. Whether I fell asleep from the lateness of the hour, a lack of acclimation to the monochrome of the black-and-white scenes, or plain intellectual immaturity, I’m not sure, but I don’t remember even the opening scenes of the movie any more than I remember those of Giant, which I rented and slept through around the same time.

And so I came to East of Eden fairly fresh; I read the prologue-like geography of the opening chapters, reacquainting myself with the vintage Steinbeck I’d expected to find, whose dusty plains and alternately dry and swelling riverbeds set up the character and fate of his protagonists long before they are even born.

Then that man came home and the book was laid aside. Soon thereafter, I was excised from his life and his bookcase, and East of Eden was added to the very short list of books I’ve started and never finished. A year later, late summer again, another copy fell into my hands again, right before a trip abroad. If one is at all dogged by the sense of literary responsibility, gong abroad, one should always take a big, serious, uninspiring book along, because the confined spaces and measured durations of planes and trains focus the will in an unrivaled way. This is how I ended up on the beach in Costa Rica once with the leather-bound, gilt-edged War and Peace, and how I found myself this summer in front of the clear swimming pool of a Tuscan villa, my eyes focused not on the distant purple hillsides, but the black ink and browned pages of this old, fat paperback.

I would have to revisit The Pearl and/or The Grapes to determine whether the new found literary maturity in East of Eden belongs to writer or reader. Had I missed something before, too young, the way I had watching the rolling, grainy, ten-inch tall James Dean? Or is East of Eden simply an unexpected masterpiece, limpid and true, unpretentiously incisive, clear-eyed and lean-muscled and unabashedly honest (a bit like that plodding American man, but let’s not dwell on loss).

Steinbeck sets us up for a retelling of Cain & Abel’s parable, recast with perhaps inept farmers first in the East and then in the fickly-fertile California central valley, outside the newborn town of Salinas. To tell the story properly, though, he needs two generations of brothers, the first apocryphally named Charles and Adam, the second, Adam’s (or are they Charles’?) twin sons, Caleb and Aron. The uncertain provenance of the second set of boys is due to the fact that their mother, like most Biblical women, is unadulterated and unexplained evil. A runaway who has murdered both her parents and established a small nest egg by ruining a local married man by erotic devices, she finds herself beaten and on the brink of death when Good Samaritan Adam finds her, takes her in, and marries her. Revolted by but reliant upon his kindness, she keeps him from her bed during her recuperation, instead insinuating herself into that of Charles.

Because Adam and Charles had never gotten on, one night Charles going so far as to beat Adam near to death when their father preferred his birthday gift of a mongrel puppy to Charles’ of an expensive hunting knife, Adam decides to move clear across the country with his new wife. Their tyrannical father has passed, leaving behind a surprise fortune, the means by which he accumulated it mysterious and likely illegal. Adam takes his half, leaving the dark and grunting Charles to man the old farm out East alone. Settled on a hopeful ranch outside Salinas, Adam primes the expensive estate for his new family, but as soon as his sullen wife has spat out her twins, she refuses them, her husband, and her new home. Shooting her husband in the shoulder to prevent him from keeping her there against her will, she leaves him and the baby boys behind, not to be heard from for quite awhile.

Meanwhile, the boys are raised with industrious silence by Adam’s Chinese housekeeper, Lee. Adam is an empty shell of a man, a silent figurehead deaf even to the forceful shouts of his only friend, neighboring farmer, blacksmith, salt-of-the-earth intellectual, and patriarch of a brood of ten, Sam Hamilton. It is Hamilton who befriends Lee and convinces him to stop speaking the pidgin tongue of the Chinese lackey, and it is Hamilton who insists that Adam give names to his twin boys, an entire year after they’re born. It’s at that fateful moment that they discern a dark, Charles-like brood to one of them—now Caleb, and a bright, clear-eyed smile of the other—now Aron.

Their names their fate, the boys grow up together, close but sometimes squabbling, Aron more trusting, Caleb more manipulative. Aron, simple, is what he is, does what he does; shoots a rabbit to take home to his father, falls in love with a little girl called Abra. Caleb, calculating, brings up the question of to which brother the killing shot should be attributed, sabotages Aron’s gift for Abra. As they grow older, Aron spends time at the church and considers becoming a minister; Cal wanders the city streets at night, restless, watching gamblers and drunks and whores. And that’s how he discovers his mother.

This all-chaff woman, who has used sexuality only ever as a weapon, has, by another bout of murderous deceit, become proprietress of a whorehouse—the cruelest, darkest, and most depraved of whorehouses in town, using intimidation and the threat of blackmail, amateur pharmacology, and a surprising understanding of fetish to terrorize her employees and customers. At the novel’s long-promised climax, Caleb, who has been following her for some time, trying to diagnose his own troubling mean streak, shows her to the sensitive and naïve Aron, who in a fit of shock and horror enlists in the Army and summarily dies fighting in WWI. Cal’s fury at the moment was born from his father’s rejection of his hard-earned gift of $15,000, which he earned by investing in bean futures (a good investment in war-time), and Adam’s concurrent praise of Aron, who’d finished high school a year early and enrolled in college at Stanford, for which achievement, masterminded by Caleb in the first place, Aron was given an engraved gold watch, while Cal was ignored.

Steinbeck’s Cain feels all the guilt of having slain Abel, though he hasn’t done it with the direct blows of the Biblical Cain. But at the heart of the book and pulsing through to the end, is a scene in which the Chinese Lee, the Irish Sam Hamilton, and the dazed Adam discuss the brothers’ parable, the as-yet unnamed Cal and Aron sitting on the kitchen floor, too young to walk or talk. Lee, a lover of books and a scholar by nature, had brought a question of semantics to the Chinese elders in town, who in turn had brought it to a set of Hebrew scholars, for he had discovered a single but pregnant difference in two translations of God’s curse upon Cain. The Hebrew word “timshel,” translated in one Bible as “thou shalt rule over [sin],” and in another as “do thou rule over [sin],” issued here in English as first a promise, than an order, actually translates best, he found, to “thou mayest rule over [sin]”—a challenge, a confirmation of free will. This is the final word that Adam issues to Cal on his deathbed, when Lee begs the man to give his sole surviving son his blessing, i.e. his absolution for Aron’s death. Cal, having met his inhuman mother face-to-face, realized with some relief that he was not like her, not unexplained greed and cruelty and hate. Aron, though, unable to face the darkness of his mother, or even the plain sexual reality of the world (revealed in his physical withdrawal from Abra into the repressive chastity of the church), like those false translations, had no free will, could only “rule over” so-called “sin,” or perish, the other side of his mother’s inhuman coin.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Postcards from Tuscany

Intoxicated by the events of the past week, and inspired by Sebald’s similar dream-state in The Rings of Saturn, this travelogue, unlike my previous, will not be a laundry list of meals had, admissions paid, exits missed, and squabbles with my adventurers. To convey the melting pleasure of champagne-soaked sunrises and the uncanny internal tremble of sudden realization, I will follow the tidal trajectory of emotions that crest and wane, and therefore might diverge from the linear. But I think you’ll understand.

Was it Wednesday or Friday morning that I laid myself out on a lawn chair, face to the early sun, my wet eyes glossing over the cold clear pool and the endless rows of rich greenery on the distant hills? So many mornings were spent here, still reeling from the party the night before, but on this day, the second or third into our trip, I was drenched in sadness. Perry, my fraternal confidante, stretched on the other chair, insisting that I needed to speak to a therapist. I told him no, I was merely lonely, terribly lonely, even surrounded by nine friends and lovely strangers in this beautiful house, and ten and twenty and fifty and two hundred more lovely strangers as Clara’s wedding date approached and the attendants accreted for activity after activity, cocktail after cocktail.

Loneliness is a strange thing; being an only child, it and I have a long and intimate history. I need to be alone, in fact, to percolate, to dream, to restore. When I was smaller, I spent hours and hours alone on the deck of my parents’ house, building a pasha’s tent filled with pillows where I would cuddle with a piece of chocolate, an orange, a glass of water, and a stack of novels, reading and relishing with all my senses the cold wind outside, the growing warmth from my body inside; the rich sweetness of the chocolate cut with the sharp sweetness of the orange, flushed with the sweet, cold water. On warmer days, I would climb the hillside and gather poppy seeds, or long-stalked weeds, imagining that I was a Sioux princess gathering food or making fishing rods for my father (while my actual father hid downstairs in the house, reading the newspaper or constructing open-faced sandwiches for his lunch.

Never, as a child, did I have more than one friend at a time, so these partnerships were always intensely intimate. And so, it is more reasonable than one would think that, surrounded by myriad lovely people, I might be isolated inside. Only Perry’s probing, along with the safety granted by our similarity (he, too, a single only child with an over-active intellect and a dreaming heart of which that intellect is occasionally ashamed), let me cry openly, and dare I say incant, “I need to meet somebody.”

I knew he’d known that from the moment we’d met in the Frankfurt airport on Tuesday morning, nearly missing our connecting flight to Florence because we were sitting too far from the gate, wondering about the strange prick on our necks from being in that country, where darkness still feels eminent in spite of floor-to-ceiling windows planes that land on time. He’d known it when our flight was re-routed to Bologna due to dangerous winds gusting across Florence’s too-short runway, and a chartered bus brought us from one airport to another. He had told me that I needed a new job that would challenge me; I told him no, I was merely lonely, terribly lonely. I told him that I didn’t want to be challenged; I told him that I rejected our country’s culture of achievement, I told him that I had resigned my fast-track status after I couldn’t answer the question: “To what end?”

So, after three nights in the country, the first spent at a cocktail at Clara’s apartment, the next at home in our villa cooking and drinking wine, the third at Clara’s parents’ home, ignoring for the most part the adults and playing with the delightfully rambunctious, five-year-old Milo and his shy, sweet, small sister Esme, I had verbalized the obvious. Adventures we had already had, muscling our rented BMW through the dark and narrow streets of downtown Florence, pulling up onto sidewalks to allow oncoming traffic to pass, pulling up behind drunken revelers in short skirts and spike heels, and at one elated moment, gunning the engine through an open piazza and past Il Duomo, its pink and green marble walls, which I hadn’t seen for ten years, rushing by my windows. The tiny car was so responsive, the streets so close, the squeals from my friends inside so sharp, I was certain it was a videogame. After wine and cheese and salami and meeting the groom and hearing the bride’s brother’s raucous stories, we’d piled back into the car and I’d gotten us properly lost yet again. Thursday we had woken up early for a walking tour of the city, and after visiting the Palazzo Davanzati, an 11th Century church, and the mosaic-covered Baptistery of Il Duomo, we split apart. I wanted, in my loneliness, to be alone—the noise of other voices makes it hard to hear your own, on the inside.

I found a small and silent church, filled not with tourists, but with old women, praying. The walls were frescoed with sober saints; the altarpiece a glittering, Byzantine Madonna and Child. Her heavy lids and pursed lips made me think of Bobby’s Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands, the ideal soundtrack for my wandering, wistful mood. From there, I progressed to the Uffizi, where I could finally cry—first Filippo Lippi, then Botticelli, with their sad, smooth-cheeked ladies, whose eyes like peeled grapes are wise to all the world’s sorrow, who cry without tears through their beneficent smiles. Whether Chris is a baby grabbing at a misplaced tit, or a languorous man draped too-big in her arms, her eyes are limpid with love lost.

And after that, as the sun began to dip, the Academia, which houses the David. No matter how many times you’ve seen a reproduction, a replica, a joking spin-off, the original’s aura remains untainted. Looking up, I was certain that if I were to brush the outside of his hand, he would turn and look down at me; that if I were to put my small hand in his immense, curled palm, that he would squeeze me with the power of flesh; that if I were to stroke his neck with my fingertips, . . .

From the Academia, a new friend and I took a bus to Clara’s parents’ house, where I was given my first negroné (the Italian aperitif of choice, a potent combination of gin, martini & rossi, and campari). Here I met Milo, and then Esme, a featherweight fairy of a girl who first cried but then squealed with delight when I bounced and lifted and spun her, until I was sweating through my sunburn. When this party wound down, it was decided that the drinking would continue in a piazza somewhere in the center of town. Again I got behind the wheel and got us lost, parking in a lot far from where we needed to be. I then got us lost inside the parking lot itself, unable to find the exit and practicing my skills at backing out of dead-ends. Silencing my navigators, my friends calling other friends on mobile phones, I looked at the map, looked at the street and followed my intuition. I drove straight to the right spot and parked in the lot. Resurfacing on foot, my group thought itself lost again. Again, the phones came out. Again, I consulted the map and led us one block away, to an open piazza where everyone had gathered, drinking plastic cups of beer.

It must have been the next morning that I made my incantation, because it was the next night that something first shifted. It was Friday, the first of three official days of wedding celebrations, and that night’s event was a rooftop cocktail party in Centro, right on the river Arno, with views in all directions. As astounding as it was, this wasn’t the site of magic. In fact, it felt so unreal that it only augmented my isolation, my sense of “I don’t belong here,” in this movie, or this place for people who star in movies—the rich, the landed, the jet set. Five or six or seven glasses of rosé champagne couldn’t shake the outsider feeling, though they prepped me well for saying “yes!” to the after party once the clock struck midnight and our rental of the venue expired.

Two Italians, one of whom I’d met at Clara’s parents’ home the night before, were leading the way. Our group of twenty was a chain of straggling knots of two and three and four that stretched two blocks long, with varying degrees of interest in walking an unknown distance to an unknown destination. I began bringing up the rear, and found myself running up and down the ranks, polling my friends sharing cars and the villa to be certain that everyone wanted to go out, that no one wanted to stop and eat, or go home. And so, I soon found myself at the front of the line using what little Italian I have to speak to the two Italians, until I realized that one was very much also an American and an English speaker, who lived in Brooklyn—not so far from me. But he and his friend continued in Italian and I didn’t much mind, as deciphering what I could became a game, skipping alongside them and suddenly feeling very much a part of something.

We came at last to train tracks; squeezed through a chain link fence and picked our way across them, traversed a parking lot, and found ourselves at a fenced-in, open air nightclub, where a DJ was joined onstage by a saxophone player and three dancing girls, who gyrated lasciviously with bored expressions on their faces, wearing long-sleeved, collared, booty-short black leotards, unzipped in the front to reveal brassieres, and stamped with large, white letters reading “FBI” on the back. Some budding academic’s master’s dissertation awaits. My friends were drinking, but I’d had enough, and I danced. I danced and danced and danced and was soon joined by the American Italian, who had let out his ponytail and was moving with a liquidity never seen in American men, and who was drilling me with his eyes in a way I’ve never been drilled before. I could have stayed all night, but my friends pulled me away; I had the car keys and they wanted to go home. I told my partner that I had to leave. He grabbed my hand and told me no, he needed me to stay and dance with him. I told him that he could dance with other girls there (which I had seen him doing before), but he told me no, he only wanted to dance with me. I told him that we would dance the next night, at the wedding.

We made it home, slept by the pool, got ourselves to the wedding. In a countryside church built in the 11th Century, the crowd fit standing-room-only for a short, tender ceremony in an ad-hoc mixture of Italian, French, and English, the priest pausing to assign translations to different people in the wedding party. Most memorably, in a bit not translated to English, but which I ascertained through my rudimentary understanding of Art Historical Italian, Don Giorgio described the way Michelangelo would look at a block of marble, intuiting the form inside that needed to be released, and positing that, when we find our partners, the experience is the same. Clara made an ideal old-world Italian bride, radiant and tan and so obviously thrilled with Charlie, who was so obviously thrilled with her. I’ve never felt so much comfortable joy emanate from a young couple.

We drove a few minutes and parked again, wandering up a green hillside and into a fairytale: a ruin with four walls and no ceiling perched on an extensive lawn littered with candles and rose petals and glasses of champagne. We drank on the lawn for hours, not sitting down to dinner until midnight. When the bride and groom entered the glittering fortress, everyone jumped up and began to swing their cloth napkins in circles above their heads, while the couple danced around the room to loud music in French. The joy was unstoppable. The wine was poured from bottle after bottle, the food served up, tender speeches made by Clara’s father and brother, Charlie’s mother and siblings. The cake was an orgasmic meringue of ethereal lightness, melting against yet another glass of champagne on my tongue.

We were banished outside to watch videos made by the bride and groom’s friends while the hall was cleared and the music set up. We began to dance. I went outside for a break and found my partner from the night before, reminding him that he owed me one. He joined me quickly. Clara’s brother had brought a box of white gloves, and as the DJ played a series of Michael Jackson songs, everyone donned one in tribute.

He and I danced closer. We had been in the midst of a knot of bodies, but soon we were alone, far to the sidelines, making big, extravagant twirls and turns, until he grabbed my hand and dragged me outside. Running, he pulled me across the long lawn, took both my hands, spun me around and around until I fell on the grass. I was laughing. He bent down and grabbed me and swung me up onto his back, running off with me down the lane and into the woods. We kissed. On the ground, in the dark, I lost all sense of time and place and limits, until I heard, in the dark, voices calling my name.

It was five in the morning. I’d thrown on my clothes and emerged from the brush into the worried and now bemused eyes of Perry, who let me comment on the nest of twigs and dirt my hair had become, who led me, drunk, trembling, elated, and now a bit let down, like a petulant child dragged home from the playground at the end of a long day, back to the car, and drove me home.

The next morning promised poolside champagne brunch at Villa Tizzano, and I did not know what to expect. I was sure, as I told Perry, that all the delights of the past night were temporary and indiscriminate; I’d seen that social person, I explained, talking with other girls, dancing with other girls. If it had not been me in the woods, it could have easily been the French girl he sat with at dinner, the other American he’d danced with at the discotheque. When we walked out to the pool and I saw him, I waved, smiled, kept walking. I’m a dreamer, but not a dream chaser. I’m afraid to be that girl. I’m petrified by the potential of shame. So I wandered off on my own.

But he found me. Unsure, I’m now sure, himself, he convinced me to join him in the pool, settled me into a floating chair, and holding the rim, walked me round and round the pool while I sucked on a peach I’d found. The rest of the day progressed like that, casting away the prophylactic floatation tubes so that I was in his arms, his skin against my skin. Other couples in the pool joined us in a series of chicken fights, but with my thighs wrapped around his shoulders, we were unvanquished. As the sun waned, and my friends all left with my car for dinner in Siena, I stayed, still being handed endless glasses of champagne, sitting with him on a lawn chair, then reclining, until he laid on his back with me nestled against his side, both of us shaking in our damp suits as the sun set. The ten or twenty people left, the closest of family friends, covered us with towels and let us fall in love with none of the judgment or snide comments one might expect from an audience.

As night approached, eight of us planned to go into the city for drinks, and four of us waited for a taxi. Back in town, the two Spaniards who had ridden with us needed to stop at their hotel and change clothes. My lover said to them, “When you’re ready, we’ll be over there, kissing,” and pointed to the river wall.

Drinking in another open air bar, this one right on the river’s wall, he kept his arm or his hand or his eyes on me, diving in for kisses, oblivious to potential judgment, perhaps because there wasn’t any. After a few hours, the tension peaked, and his friend, the same one who had led the way to the discotheque a few nights before, took us to his apartment and left us there, for the longest Odyssey of hands and mouths I’ve sailed.

So much so that, at a neighborhood bar the next morning, with two cappuccinos, we sat staring at each other, trembling inside. He told me that he felt drugged. He told me that I had immense power. He told me that he hadn’t felt anything like this before. Everything he told me was something that I could have told him. We had pressed a red button that dissolved completely our outer selves, locked our hidden, protected truths together. We walked, shaking, intellectually uncertain about what was otherwise certainty, sharing stories, for the first time hearing actual things about each other. He had so much more depth that I had ever expected, and he had disarmed my defense system.

That night we dined in Florence with all our friends from our villa, finishing long after midnight. He and I took the car on an adventure to the ruins of baths set on natural hot springs south of Siena; no one wanted to join us, so we went alone. We drove mostly in silence in the dark, thinking ourselves lost, but finally arriving in this Maxfield Parrish dream world, where stars like tossed handfuls of glitter danced above a steaming waterfall that poured into a shallow river, its bed lined with smooth rocks. We stripped and slithered into the dark waters, sliding on our bellies to the tubs, ancient pools big enough for one or two or three or four bodies, each a different temperature, sampling one too hot, one too cold, until we found one just right. There we stayed, dreaming half-awake, curled together, bodies pulsing, until the sun rose, lighting the beautiful place for fresh eyes. On the drive back to the villa, we stopped for another unreal cappuccino and the most revitalizing juice I’ve ever drunk, which zapped my cells like an elixir of life.

Somehow wide awake, I drove to the villa and picked up Perry, who needed to be taken to the airport. He drove while I navigated, another airport-going friend sharing the back with my dozing lover. After the airport, I drove us back to my villa, where we had our last swim and moments together before I had to pack my things. He came with me to the airport. We kissed in front of the security gate. I cried, dropped my passport, couldn’t find my boarding pass, didn’t want to leave. He promised that he would find me, for I didn’t have his phone number, his email address. He promised that in a few weeks he would see me, even though he’s destined to spend a year on the other side of the globe.

I made my way to the gate in tears; found myself sitting next to one of the closest family friends, who had witnessed many of the week’s evolving motions. I was ashamed of my tears, but she welcomed them. She insisted that a year is not long at all.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Books: The Tetherballs of Bougainville, by Mark Leyner

What a weird, hyper-satirical adventure. I'm still uncertain whether or not I liked it.

Leyner's uber-teen narrator, who wears designer leather pants and no shirts, plays video games with the aim of rescuing rock stars from being turned into packaged snack foods by aliens, and worships the tetherball players from the tiny island of Bougainville, witnesses the failed execution by lethal injection of his PCP-addicted father, helps the man choose a song to go along with his commemorative video of said failed execution (a remix of West Side Story's "I Feel Pretty" transposed into "I Feel Shitty"), refuses to share a cab with him, and then embarks on a sex-infused drug binge with the exceptionally attractive female prison warden.

I don't think I've come across satire any more dismissively jaded; once lethal injection fails, the state of New Jersey (governed by a lazy teenage girl elected into office when voting rights were extended to her peers) let's the narrator's father go, instating their right to kill him at any time by any means with total disregard to any possible collateral damage by a complicated, bureaucratic lottery process.

If this weren't absurdist enough, there is an additional layer of retelling; early in the book, the narrator announces that he's a contender for a grant for his screenplay, which will pay $250,000 per year for the rest of his life—but he hasn't written the screenplay yet (he's only been offered the award because he has such a good agent), and needs to turn it in the next day. The second half of the book is a screenplay version of events inspired by the first half.

Leyner's wild imagination is disturbingly close to the absurdity of real life, and he writes with a strangely precise elation. But its giddy hopelessness is even darker than honest despair, and I don't know that I can accept it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Movies: The Brothers Bloom

I almost didn't go to this movie because the synopsis sounded so unappealing: Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody partnering with Rinko Kikuchi and Rachel Weisz for one last hurrah as con-men? It was only my love of Brody that dragged me down and across town to the only theatre still playing it (I sense it did not do well).

It's far from a perfect movie; perhaps a bit too long, and rather dreamy in a way that I often cannot tolerate, though the color-soaked shots and curious costumes and Brody's always so-sad face kept my eyes rather satisfied. The story is a strange, perhaps fractured, fairy tale, in which the older of two orphaned brothers creates schemes not only to keep the pair flush with cash, but also to give the shy, romantic, younger brother access to the promise of love, a means to interact with a beautiful girl who catches his eye. But there is a constant struggle for Brody's brooding romantic between the fantasy world of the con and the let-down once it's over, once it's time to collect the booty and split. Weisz's isolated idiot savant, a girl-woman raised in isolation with too many hobbies and not enough social skills, is both the ideal mark (rich, clueless, and willing to buy into the promise of an adventure) and the ideal love object for Brody's Bloom.

The four slip in and out of madcap adventures, but at the end, Big brother Ruffalo has to die, both a mock and real death, before brooding Bloom can be free to pursue his "unwritten life." This is not an unsatisfying ending, either, for Ruffalo's wooden clowning, his ringmaster card tricks, inspired a sadness even deeper than Brody's Bloom's: a disbelief in anything's truth, a refusal to dream or hope or long.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Books: The Rings of Saturn, by W.G. Sebald

In a dream state, Sebald recounts a trip through a sea-side town, along which his mind wanders, as dreaming minds are apt to do. He writes about a Chinese empress who refuses to give up the throne to her young, male successors, about a shore-abutting town that migrated constantly away from the sea as the coast eroded, until the town was washed away in entirety, about the Western discovery of silkworms and governments' insistence that people cultivate these strange creatures, blind and hungry for only one kind of plant. It's an expansive book with the occasional black and white photo of a moth or a painting or a skull, a treasure-hunt that retroactively informed my reading of Laird Hunt's The Exquisite and Thomas Wharton's The Logogryph. Sebald is a dreamer and a collector, an unwitting influence on me via his influence on one of my most important teachers at Berkeley. His historical digressions generate a tone of passing and shifting and losing, a half-waking, weathered nostalgia into which I've keyed for so many stories.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Movies: Away We Go

Ugh. Call me shallow, but I have no interest in watching two rabidly ugly, functionally-impaired people who are madly in love with each other despite each person's lack of attractive qualities muddle through a cross-national house-hunting extravaganza while they nervously await the impending birth of their accidental, out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Like many of Dave Eggers' other creations, this screenplay appears to be disturbingly based on events of Eggers' own life. This is an aspect of his oeuvre that has never bothered me; in fact, I've adored it. Away We Go's pregnant heroine Verona can only be named after Eggers' wife and co-screenwriter Vendela Vida, except that Vendela is beautiful and Verona is a monstrosity. Similarly, Burt is a sham stand-in for Dave, but where Eggers is attractive enough, intelligent, and accomplished, Burt is an ill-groomed, malapropism-spewing loser who sells insurance futures. Don't get me wrong—the couple is well-intentioned, but watching well-intentioned idiots in the real world always makes me flinch. Why pay $12 for the experience when I have it for free every time I go to Brooklyn?

The film's only olive branch is offered by director Sam Mendes, who asserts his preference for the aesthetically pleasing in the film's only bearable scene, which happens to feature the sometimes aesthetically pleasing Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gyllenhaal playes Burt's cousin LN (say "Ellen"), and when the homely Burt and Verona walk into her university campus office, she is bare breasted, long-haired, and bathed in Mendes' signature buttery light (Mendes: the Vermeer of filmmakers). She is radiant, suckling a radiant baby at one breast and a pink-cheeked boy of three or four at the other. The hippy-feminist-Madonna extravaganza continues when Burt and Verona go to her home for dinner, meet her long-haired and Indian-garbed husband, see the family's communal bed (the couple does not hide their love-making from their children), and attempt to dine with them. From a writerly perspective, it is pretty flat-footed satire, snarky and perhaps even a bit jealous, but Mendes films the scene so beautifully that we can ignore the immature Burt and Verona when they snap, shout, and flee (even though this is a moment when we in the audience are supposed to cheer them on). Personally, I'd much rather be an LN than a Verona.*

*IF I had to be a child-bearing woman, that is. And why is it that in each city, each couple the the couple encounters has children? Even in the idealized Montreal, where the couple has five adopted children, each from a different country, the wife is consumed by grief because her womb refuses to be fruitful and give her a child of her own. Ugh. That Verona should really have had an abortion. How can people so dysfunctional that they don't even know where they want to live, and need to go visit five random cities to choose a home, properly raise a child? Ugh.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Books: Spring Torrents, by Ivan Turgenev

This short Russian novel came highly recommended from a friend during a discussion over which Tolstoy novel is superior, Anna Karenina or War and Peace. That is, the person who recommended this book knew his stuff.

And so I was a bit disappointed when, more that halfway in, it didn't seem anything more than a typical 19th Century love story: simple, melodramatic, and hyperbolic. But after spending the first three-quarters of the novel convincing you that nothing particularly interesting is going to happen, that the naive hero Sanin has simply fallen madly for the beautiful young Italian girl originally engaged to a wealthy German shopkeeper, who serendipitously loves him back, has broken her engagement, and agreed to marry our simple hero, Turgenev dissolves the fantasy that is love-at-first-sight, fate, and happily-ever with the last few page turns.

In order to appease his love's mother, Sanin needs to raise an impressive amount of money rather quickly. The only way he can think of to do this is to sell his Russian estate, but he doesn't know how he'll manage to do that without returning home—and leaving his fiance even for a few days seems unbearable. Luckily, he runs into an old school friend, who has a beautiful and wealthy wife who owns the neighboring estate and will likely buy Sanin's. He takes a short trip out of Frankfurt to the countryside, where his friend is staying with his wife, where he proposes the sale to the attractive but somehow menacing woman. She asks for a few days to think about it, and during those days, she requries that Sanin attend the theatre with her, dine with her, and then go horseback riding. Out in the woods, she leads their galloping horses to a secluded shack. Sanin hasn't liked her one bit from the moment that he met her, but he is defenseless. She is beautiful, and wild, and fully in control. She had intended this from the start, her cold, cynical intellect charmed but rightfully lacking faith in his charmingly effusive affection for his fiance.

Because he is a weakling and a romantic, Sanin does not return to Frankfurt and marry the Italian girl, keeping this small tryst a secret, as most men would and, frankly, ought do. Instead, he writes his finace a letter filled with lies and never speaks to her again, instead following this woman like a servant for years afterward, going so far as to peel a pear for her husband one afternoon when the three are riding together in her carriage. (Said husband is a rather interesting character, who looks on his wife's many such trysts with detached amusement, getting all of his pleasure from overeating).

The story is told in flashback, and when we return to the "present" (1870, when all of the action had taken place in 1840), Sanin, alone, is reminded of the Italian girl, and writes her a letter. She writes back. After receiving Sanin's engagement-breaking letter 30 years ago, she emigrated to America with her family, where she married a successful man and had some lovely children.

Though not much of a feminist, I absolutely love the fact that, in the 19th Century, when the bulk of tragic love stories (like Anna Karenina) culminate in the death of a woman who has cheated, here is a story featuring two perfectly strong women and a weak and snivelling man. While Sanin's temptress does succumb to the early death that faces all 19th Century female characters who engage in sexual activities out of wedlock, no emphasis is put on her passing. I find it rather delightful that the young Italian girl is far from ruined by her broken engagement, and simply moves on to the next (and likely better) relationship. But the thing I find most delightful is that the inane Sanin is punished, repeatedly, for his idiocy and romanticism. This is less a story about men and women than about realists and romantics, and there's nothing I enjoy more than the popping of a romantic's white balloon. How impressively modern!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Art: Dan Graham at the Whitney

Dan Graham is the ideal candidate for a retrospective at the Whitney; the artist and the institution share all the same character flaws: both are hyper-cerebral, tedious, self-important figures suffering from an identity crisis. Graham is not so much an artist as a scienceless sociologist who flits from medium to medium dabbling in linguistics, anthropology, and other social sciences. One of the retrospective's featured pieces is a video that, according to the wall text, juxtaposes the heady dancing of middle American Shakers with the same of teenagers at Woodstock. This piece is actually a poorly-edited "documentary" filled with pseudo-scientific, politically-motivated, "radical" "insights" (e.g., rock-and-roll is a something created by corporate adults to entertain and thereby control/defang young people. This statement holds some truth, if one removes the term "rock-and-roll" and replaces it with "pop," but Graham overinflates the bogeyman and centralizes it in a big, bad, single-minded and intentional consciousness that just doesn't exist. Most of his work lacks the subtle nuance that would make it potent.

Other work includes a large selection of printed work Graham placed in magazines (the original mock-up of Homes For America, sheets of semiotic "poetry," and ads inviting investors to send money in exchange for shares in Dan Graham (something that Duchamp had done less seriously and with more aplomb artistic eons ago)), a number of mirrored-glass installations (a small-scale fun house version of a Richard Serra, a room behind clear glass through which you see people in the other room, and yourself reflected in the mirror behind them, and a revolving door a guard ushers you through that only has two compartments, as opposed to the usual four), and a number of embarrassingly dated "post-modern" video projections (a filmed performance in which a nude man looked at a nude woman only through a camera, and she looked at her nude self on a television screen playing the camera's recording in real-time, a dual-projection of two nude people (Graham and a woman) holding movie cameras pointed at each other, and a room in which a camera records your image and projects it onto the opposite wall, while a camera on that opposite side of the room records the images of people there and projects it onto the wall on your side).

The issues of space and media and personality and control that Graham keyed into as long as fifty years ago are still very much relevant, if not moreso, in today's society. Unfortunately, Graham's work is too stilted and cerebral, too detached and obtuse, too moralizing and judgemental, to act as potent social criticism. It is too easy to write him off as a disgruntled, nerdy crank who, despite being very much stuck in the aesthetic of the early 1970s, nevertheless has aged without grace and continues to try to be relevant to alternative kids today, including a model skate park graffitied with names of punk bands in his oeuvre.
It's a little embarrassing, but mostly tedious and easy to forget. Poor Dan Graham. Poor Whitney. Both want so hard to be hip and relevant and radical and edgy, but ultimately they are just sort of ugly and boring. Posers, trying too far too hard, look like this.