Monday, April 27, 2009

Books: Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry

Though tragedy was in the process of becoming unreal and meaningless it seemed one was still permitted to remember the days when an individual life held some value and was not a mere misprint in a communiqué. 5

Generally, the books that take me a long time to read—the “difficult” books, which have paragraphs and pages I must read two or three times, whose prose isn’t limpid, so that the meaning doesn’t lie on the page, but must be extracted—are books that I cannot enjoy. Not so Under the Volcano, whose opening pages I read four times before progressing further, trying to penetrate the filmy scrim of Lowry’s astonishing but obfuscating prose.

This is a gorgeous book in which the difficulty serves the character, the plot, the theme, for in it, we walk with the Consul, a colonial Englishman and a drunk, through hot, dusty Mexican towns, searching sometimes for his wife Yvonne, sometimes for his next drink, be it whisky, tequila, or the hallucinogenic mescal. The towns are called by their pre-Columbian names (like Cuauhnahuac), and the country is accordingly ancient and inscrutable. There is a filthy woman in the corner of a dark cantina who holds her chicken against her chest, inside her shirt, and a little girl who plays with an armadillo in the sand. There is a dead Indian on the side of the road, his head bashed in, and a ragged vagrant on the bus who steals the corpse’s purse. Events are random, ugly, but slightly distant, without urgency, however oracular.

The Consul’s struggle, like the plot of the novel, is and isn’t tangible—alcohol has hung a haze. He seems to wonder less whether he can quit than whether he should; if he were to quit, it would be for his wife Yvonne, who has divorced him, left Mexico, but now come back. As readers, we can never quite touch her (or the Consul’s brother Hugh, with whom she seems to nurse another waning romance). Nor, it seems, can the Consul; we only know he longed for her because we read a letter he wrote (which Lowry discloses by placing it in the hand of another character, as a found object in a borrowed book). Mescal, in fact, is the truly desired lover; the Consul dreams more and more of El Farolito (the purposefully named “Lighthouse”), the cantina which guides his step to his last drink.

Under the Volcano seethes with that oppressed, colonial heat of Jealousy and Out of Africa, but roils with the further besotted despair that comes from drink alone. And yet, it doesn’t read at all as a cautionary tale. Instead, like Beckett, like Kafka, Lowry wonders why we’re here, and never quite figures it out. Not for love, that is certain.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Leon Morin, Priest

I’d yet to enjoy a Jean-Pierre Melville film, but went to see this one in spite of that fact, for Jean-Paul Belmondo. Melville’s films tend to be slow, monochrome, and pedantic—but while this one technically fits that description, I was mesmerized. Perhaps this is because the film is less a movie than a Socratic consideration of Catholicism. And while I am an adamant atheist (with a small-a!), I attended thirteen years of Catholic school, was baptized, made first communion, and was confirmed, and went on many a retreat as a young person who hadn’t yet challenged her faith. Though the film’s heroine’s character arc is the opposite of mine (she starts out a wisecracking atheist who pops into a confessional for a lark, blurting to the priest “religion is the opiate of the people,” and, after many long discussions with Morin/Belmondo, and long nights spent reading theology, she converts to Catholicism), I appreciate this film for what it is: a balls-out challenge to armchair Christians who don’t know the first thing about their religion’s demands.

Morin at one moment makes a comment to the affect that any person with the potential to be a good Christian will be turned away from the Church by the actions and attitudes of the people who claim to be good Christians (and who aren’t). This is so true that I couldn’t quite believe I saw it being said—this screenwriter knows his theological stuff. Rare is the Christian who realizes just how radical, how completely opposed to the workings of our society, Christ’s message was. In Christianity, there is no room for ownership of anything. I doubt that there is even room for the family (didn’t Christ tell his Twelve Apostles to leave behind not only their possessions, but their loved ones?) There is, in fact, no room for anything but God and service to others, building God’s “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.” The only person who has ever been honest about this to me was one high school theology teacher, studying to become a Jesuit priest. And now, Jean-Paul Belmondo, as Leon Morin, who, like that teacher of mine, always stoked the intellectual flame, happily engaging in dialogue with a jaded, pragmatic mind, and nevertheless insisting on the highest level of devotion, the complete subjugation of the self, the turning over of everything to God.

Melville never stoops to staging mysticism or miracles—in fact, the only remotely “magical” sequence is a dream our heroine has when she actually falls away from god, suddenly consumed by lust for Morin, dreaming that he comes to her bed, that she unbuttons his cassock, that they embrace passionately. And this moment, salaciously included to interest the less philosophically-minded in the audience, it seems, is also the first moment the film losses my riveted focus. Certainly, it’s meant to be sordid, and there’s a strange thread of dark sexuality running through the film—overt admittance of lesbian desires, a too-strong overture by an American soldier (we are in France during and immediately after the Nazi occupation)—but our heroine’s melodramatic reaction to her dream—an actual, if half-hearted attempt to seduce Morin—is out of character and a bit cheap. That aside, the film is a fascinating and fascinatingly candid treatise on the Christian faith. Not a film for those completely uninterested in theology or philosophy, it should be required viewing for students at Catholic high schools and colleges, and anyone else who calls himself a Christian. Never mind that the average person who calls himself a Christian wouldn’t be able to comprehend or tolerate the film, much less drudge up the willpower to commit to the demands of his faith.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Charulata (The Lonely Wife)

Satyajit Ray is supposedly the master of Indian cinema, but based on this film, he’s not much worth any investment of your time. This film is about a woman married to a wealthy man who spends all of his time working on his pet project, a political newspaper. She wanders the wide, gusty rooms of their house, moping, reading, and doing the occasional bit of embroidery. She is terribly bored, and so are we. Finally noticing this, her husband brings his brother and his wife to live with them, putting his brother to work on the newspaper, while the wife, who’s not terribly bright, plays card games with Charulata. Charu is still bored, as are we.

Then, another brother—the youngest—moves into the house as well. He’s fresh out of school and uncertain what vocation to take up, until he settles on writing—he and Charu have a shared affinity for novels and poetry (neither of which Charu’s husband can abide, living only for politics). The rich man decides that he can entertain his wife, though, by having his young brother inspire her to write. She refuses, insisting on playing only the supportive, traditionally feminine role, making him a painted notebook and serving as a muse. They seem to be falling in love, although their interactions are childishly innocent. When his story is published, though, she is, for some undisclosed reason, livid (there seems to be some kind of jealousy as the other wife, who doesn’t understand a thing about literature, has also been serving as a kind of muse for the young man, constantly bringing him culinary treats). In a frenzied fit, Charu writes an essay on the village in which she grew up, and it is published in the preeminent literary journal. She doesn’t tell her husband; only brings the article to show her new friend. He compliments her writing—tells her how much better it is than his own—but in another inexplicable fit of tears, she runs away angrily.

Soon, the young man knows he must leave and start his own life (and take his own wife). He goes in the night, leaving a note behind. Charu is livid, but she and her husband have the house to themselves again—his other brother and wife also absconded in the night, but less righteously so. They stole money from the newspaper, so that now it’s gone under.

For a moment, there is hope for Charu and her husband. They sit on a bright beach and hatch a plan to start a new paper, one that contains cultural as well as political pieces, with roles for them both. But when they get back home, there is a letter from Charu’s young brother-in-law announcing his marriage, and Charu takes it to his old room where she clutches it, sobbing, her head against the bed. Her husband sees her and, rather than reacting with tenderness, burns with a jealous rage, which he bottles silently. At the film’s conclusion, Charu, knowing that she’s been “caught,” dries her tears and goes to find her husband, extending her hand to him. He hesitates before he takes it. This is the film’s most interesting sequence: a still frame of Charu with her hand extended in an offering of peace; a still frame of her husband with his fingers tentatively reaching, but with an expression of loathing and distrust on his face, followed by a still of the entire frame, the two of them together, their hands nearly but not quite touching. Then, a large caption flashes onto the still: “The Spoiled Nest,” and all of the delicacy of the moment is wasted, and the film, for me, gets tossed out the window onto the trash heap.

Bonus fact: Every artistic nuance that could possible be construed as interesting in this film was lifted from Alain Resnais Last Year At Marienbad, which came out three years before Charulata.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Movies: Anvil! The Story of Anvil

This is a movie rather like The Wrestler, only more depressing, since it’s a documentary about actual people. Anvil is a metal band to whom many of the greats—Metallica, Slayer, etc.—readily admit they owe a debt. And yet, success has not come their way. This is not for lack of effort; Anvil has managed to stay together (at least, it’s lead man and drummer have) from childhood friendship up to their fifties. They have released more than ten albums, and play regular gigs for die-hard fans in their Canadian town. But they all keep day jobs (front man "Lips" delivers lunches from a warehouse to public schools) because fame and fortune both have shunned them.

The film follows the band on what hopes to be a promising European tour, but which is instead a string of fiascoes including missed trains, unpaid gigs, and audiences of less than 25 people at dive bars. The constant reality of failure drives a wedge between the strangely faithful front man (who has the best attitude I’ve ever seen in a metal head—constantly optimistic and willing to grab for the brass ring, and then willing to discuss his emotions when it doesn’t work out) and the more quiet, pragmatic drummer, who seems to enjoy hanging out in his basement painting just as much as he enjoys playing with the band. One refuses to give up the dream; the other already has, and is just playing along to keep his friend happy.

The disastrous tour is only the beginning of the end; there’s also a trip to Transylvania for a rock festival in a stadium that seats thousands (perhaps a hundred attend). The front man is certain that their constant commercial failures can be attributed to the low production values of their albums and the band’s constant mismanagement, so he gets a loan from his sister to enable the band to cut a new record with the most famous and capable metal producer alive, who seems to be doing the project for nothing but good karma. They shop the record around to all the major labels, but no one will take it. From what we hear, it’s obvious why; Anvil’s sound hasn’t evolved at all, but metal, which has been around for more than twenty-five years now, has. The tragic thing is that the band does not realize this, and no one tells them, either.

Apparently, the release of the film has given them quite a bit of good publicity, and their new album is therefore starting to sell (likely more as hipster kitsch than as serious metal). This is the kind of scenario that would lead a self-aware person into a negative spiral of self-loathing and depression, but for the completely unconscious members of Anvil, it’s probably quite a boon.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Movies: Behind the Rainbow

If you’ve heard the names Mbecki and Zuma in the news and haven’t quite understood why, this film is an excellent primer on their back story: the history of the ANC (African National Congress) party in South Africa, from the beginning of apartheid to the recent unseating of Thabo Mbecki by his close friend-turned enemy Jacob Zuma, to the most recent division inside the ANC with the break-away COPE party.

The ANC is the party of Mandela, one which started as a revolutionary, underground movement, complete with a military arm, that brought apartheid to an end and promised black South African citizens racial equality, complete with education, housing, electricity, and clean water. In addition to its domestic mission, the ANC set out to not only set an example for the rest of Africa, but also to actively engage in keeping the continent on the right path, which would require a strong military.

Of course, each of these promises was incredibly expensive to keep, and Mbecki, who became President after Mandela, could not keep them all. While he was once a political prisoner, he was also once a student in England, and his allegiances are primarily to the Western capitalist system. In order to bring industry and wealth to his nation, he engaged with multinational corporations who did not keep their promises to the people of South Africa.

Jacob Zuma, who was imprisoned for years with Mbecki, and who also served as his Deputy-President (as Mbecki had served for Mandela), but who is less educated than Mbecki and rose instead by a military credentials, is far more openly nationalistic. His bombast, combined with South Africans’ frustrations with Mbecki’s broken promises and back-room dealings with Western nations, was strong enough to inspire the ANC to elect him President in Mbecki’s stead, despite a mudslinging campaign, likely started by Mbecki himself, that accused Zuma of being a rapist without actually bringing legal charges against him (and therefore withholding the opportunity for him to clear his name).

The squabbling between these two, meanwhile, has left an opening for the rise of another ANC bigwig—a military man called “Terror” Lekota cut from Zuma-style cloth. Lekota insists that there can be no real, positive change in South Africa until the government is divided between more than one party (the ANC, which started as a kind of minority coalition, has become the majority party). The film leaves us watching Lekota's new party rally, wondering what will become of South Africa.

Everything I know about the current political situation in that country I learned from this documentary, so it’s hard for me to definitively say whether the film is factually correct, fair and unbiased, and therefore a good source of information. But I can say that I constantly found my allegiances shifting back and forth between Mbecki and Zuma (ultimately, I think I like neither; nor do I find Lekota any better), and that the tone of the documentary is more even-toned BBC than incendiary Fox News.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Movies: Enlighten Up!

Yoga fanatics might say that the serendipity that landed me in the theatre to watch this movie was a sign from the Universe (I hadn’t heard of the film, but needed to kill a few hours, and it was the first show playing at the closest theatre). But the film doesn’t take that naïve, new-aged approach. Though the filmmaker, Kate Churchill, is a committed yogi, who has been practicing for seven or eight years, but she recruits a newbie for her experiment: a young, cynical New Yorker—a journalist, nonetheless. Her plan is to fully immerse him in the waters of yoga for six months, and to see whether that immersion inspires any positive changes in his life.

Nick gamely tries a variety of teachers, classes, and styles in New York. Most of these instructors (particularly the few that Kate interviews for the film’s introduction—famous instructors whose names have become brands) immediately demonstrate conflicting theories, histories, and practices. Nick continues attempting not only to twist his fit but inflexible body into strange contortions, but also to elicit the meaning of yoga—and the meaning of spiritual life—from these instructors. The only New York instructor who says anything worth saying about yoga is Sri Dharma Mittra, a seventy-year-old Indian.

Kate decides to take Nick on an investigative mission; they go to India where Nick is introduced to the Mysore Ashtanga tradition (which involves a grueling practice each morning at six), introduced to Bhakti yoga (which does not involve physical postures at all; rather a constant devotional praise, often in song, of the divine), and given an audience with BKS Iyengar, likely the most famous living yogi. Whereas yoga in the US seems to be generally about physical fitness, yoga in India is about communion with the divine, which enables us to be better people. The American instructors suddenly appear rather immature, and completely unqualified to teach yoga (as I’ve found most yoga teachers to be!)

After six months, Nick has not found the magic seed that will grow for him a spiritual life. He does, though, reconnect with his family (he finds himself missing his parents terribly while in India), and decide to leave New York. In spite of her disappointment with the experiment (Nick does not continue to practice yoga after his six months are up), Kate continues to practice, certain of the change it’s made on her.

As a yogi myself, it’s clear that Nick failed to see the twinkling lights only because of a lack of patience—if yoga teaches you anything, it’s that there is no fast-track to enlightenment. As soon as you’ve mastered the pose you thought you would never even be willing to try, there is yet another, more challenging variation. And this is how we learn patience, and non-attachment to result, which somehow leads to bliss. Nick is clearly a brain-person, but yoga is a way for brain-people to shut off their brains. In that way, an intellectual investigation of yoga is necessarily bound to fail. That said, rare is the opportunity to hear great men say great things, and Kate gives us access to the entire pantheon of living gurus. If only for that, I’m grateful the film was made.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Art: The Third Mind at the Guggenheim

The tag line of this show (American Artists Contemplate Asia 1860-1989) is a loaded gun, and I don't like it. Perhaps my stint at Berkeley taught me too well how to be offended on behalf of others, but I fear that a show of this kind, which binds an aesthetic kitchen sink together with the thread of so-called Asian influence, not only invites viewers to make gross generalizations, but, as an educational cultural institution, reinforces, in fact validates cultural stereotypes.

Just because a cultural stereotype is "positive" (one that I overheard in the gallery today is that "Asians have more reverence for the passage of time than Americans") doesn't mean that it is acceptable (or true). And, by including such disparate influences as Japanese printmaking, Chinese calligraphy, and Indian philosophy under one slogan, the Guggenheim's curatorial staff not only engages in a kind of cultural (in)discrimination inherent to the ignorant, but it irresponsibly disseminates that misinformation to a trusting audience.

Recklessness aside, the show additionally fails as a cohesive collection of objects. Certain items, like Nam June Paik's Zen For Film (a loop of blank 16 mm film, which produces a rectangle of white light with black splotches and dots dancing to the warm, mechanical whirring of the projector) and Paul Kos' Sound of Ice Melting (a circle of microphones surrounding two melting blocks of ice) are effective both as aesthetic objects and think-pieces (with the added bonus of thematic relevance; they are material objects in the tradition of zen koans). However, most of the show's contents don't manage to muster any reaction, emotional or intellectual.

The included pieces by Richard Tuttle, Adrian Piper, and Morris Graves in particular, amongst plenty of other immemorable detritus, not only waste prime exhibition space, but contribute to the numbing of the audience's mind, so that the spectacle of Ann Hamilton's Human Carriage (an installation in the museum's rotunda, in which small groups of shredded books fall from the top of the gallery at regular intervals, after a cart decorated by Tibetan prayer bells and veiled in white silk has sailed along a metal tube mounted to the museum's spiraling interior wall), an obtuse yet shallow metaphor dressed in unfortunate preciousness, becomes enthralling, drawing the visitors like lemmings to the ramp's edge. I hope (as I often do when visiting this institution) someone will jump.