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.