Sunday, January 30, 2011

Music: itsnotyouitsme at The Stone on December 2, 2010

itsnotyouitsme comprises Caleb Burhans and Grey McMurray on violin and guitar with lots of wires and electronic doo-dads. This night, they played an hour of ambient chamber music, accompanied by singer Theo Bleckmann and bassist Skuli Sverrisson at a strange and wonderful little venue called The Stone, a stripped-down, music-only (that is, no bar, no t-shirts, no ticket processing fees) venue spearheaded by experimentalist John Zorn.

When I describe the experience as ambient chamber music, I mean less that their sound is a combination of "ambient" and "chamber" genres, and more that the music they made generated an enclosed, vibrating space, a warm womb of sound that cradled themselves with their small audience, as if twins in a shared amniotic sac (though we were perhaps 20 persons all together, we were as if two bodies, curling together). And as a mother's womb protects her developing seed from the exterior world, while feeding it transmuted information from that dark, cold place, so the musicians caught the sounds penetrating The Stone (an ambulance's siren, the honking of horns), and seamlessly (clairvoyant mages of sound that they are) made those sounds an essential aspect of the music, weaving them into the melting pulses of Theo's mouthings, Caleb's pluckings, Grey and Skuli's detailed working of strings.

For an hour, we drifted deeply into our shared self, emerging with blinking eyes as if from a salty, red bath, in which we swam with gills, sliding into and out of each other.

Books: Molly, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett

Wary of another series, but hungering for something direct and raw after eight months of Proust’s ornate, insubstantial machinations, I sought my savior in Beckett. Only the desperate go to Beckett for hope. Along with How It Is, which I had already read years ago, I picked up his “acclaimed” trilogy (as acclaimed as such a text, as you will see, can be) of Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable. The three progressively have less and less narrative, and become more and more despondent, and more and more difficult to read. One feels Beckett approaching (on his belly, through the mud) toward the stripped-down How It Is.

Molloy, the most accessible of the three, is a kind of noir detective tale, taken from the hardboiled American writers of the 1940s and unraveling instead in the twisting, repeating, snake-eat-tail mind of Robbe-Grillet, infused with the bare Irish desperation of the actual author. A socially awkward, duty-bound detective called Moran, resting in his garden on his day off, gets an assignment that he does not understand, but must take on. Rather than planning his next actions methodically as he is accustomed, almost as if he were bewitched or enchanted, he sets off that very night without a plan. Before leaving, he is cruel to his maid, as well as his son, whom he takes with him on the journey, departing after midnight in an absurd suit of clothes without any appropriate supplies for a long journey. They are looking for Molloy, a man with stiffened legs who carries a stick, and who has already narrated his own substantial portion of the novella. Molloy rides a bicycle, though as his legs have stiffened, it is becoming increasingly impossible to use it. On the road, camping at night, and covering great mileage by day, the detective continues his cruelty to his son. All the while, he is feeling increasingly strange, weak, and stiff. One day, he sends his son to a village ten miles away to procure a bicycle, which leaves himself alone at camp for three days. His legs are so stiff he can barely walk. His camp is attacked; he thinks, by Malloy. He becomes increasingly mad. Though his son returns, he does not stay long. Molloy wakes up one morning alone, legs stiffened, with a half-busted bicycle, a stick on which to lean, and all of his money gone. Did I say Malloy? I meant the detective Moran. But now, hasn’t Moran become the very Malloy he was seeking? Wandering aimlessly in the woods, alone, schizophrenic?

Who is the man we encounter in Malone Dies? Presumably some other man, called Malone, and yet, he too has a stick. His body has further deteriorated, to the point that he does not move from his bed. He doesn’t know how he has gotten there, only that he is there, and will be there until he dies. He has been there as long as he can remember. He has a notebook and the nub of a pencil, and he makes up bits of stories to pass the time. Is he telling his own story? Perhaps. He doesn’t think so. In the past, there was a kind old lady who brought him a bowl of soup each day, and emptied his full chamber-pot. As the years went by, she stopped entering the room, but still thrust her thin, yellowed hand through the doorway to put a bowl of soup and the empty chamber pot on the rolling table by the door, taking away the prior day’s full pot and empty dish. Mallone used his stick to reach across the room from bed and hook the table, rolling it to his side, then flinging it away when he was done. But now, no new soup comes, and no one empties the chamber pot. Luckily, as he isn’t eating, he has no need for it. He only has need for his exercise book and his pencil stub, writing every waking thought, recounting every dream, writing every breath until his very last breath and then

And who is the man, if we can call him a man, who narrates The Unnamable? Who remembers the Malloys, the Malones, the Murphys (a previous novel of Beckett’s, which I’ve not yet read), but now “lives” (if you choose to call it that) in a mutating but indiscriminate space, a box, a jar, nowhere, a place where everything is gray, but it is not dark, though it is not light, where there is just enough light to keep one conscious, just enough noise to prevent silence? He hasn’t really a body, though he has eyes, which he cannot close. He hasn’t a voice that speaks aloud, but he narrates, presumably inside his head, to us unendingly; in fact, for nearly 110 pages without line or paragraph break, for the last 30 or so pages, without so much as a period. He calls himself Mahood for a time, then Worm, but in the end admits that even those are sham identities (for he is, of course, unnameable, in an unnameable place, and an unnameable state). Dead? Is this the afterlife, lacking in all the succor we are promised? Perhaps. His last words? "you must say words, as long as there are any, until they find me, until they say me, strange pain, strange sin, you must go on, perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on." And with that, he stops.

Connecting The Unnamable back up with Molloy and through to Malone Dies, witness the early pages of Molloy, in which a narrator who doesn't seem to be either Molloy or Moran describes his state, living in his mother's room, not knowing how he got to be there, writing words on pages, which are taken away by a man who comes every week and gives him money for those pages ("So many pages, so much money.") Molloy, later, before he has gone completely mad, crawling through the woods on his belly, has been pedaling his stiff leg against his bicycle in hopes of making it back to visit his mother. Is the thin, yellow hand that penetrates Malone's room daily the hand of his mother, he being one and the same as Molloy? Moran, too, at the start and end of his section of Molloy sits at a desk, writing a report, that report being the contents of his portion of the novella, at the end of which his madness and/or transition into Molloy is somewhat uncertain; presaging the uncertain state of The Unnamable, he tells us, "Then I went back into the house and wrote, [']It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows.['] It was not midnight. It was not raining." I insert these bracketed quotation marks to notify you that these are the opening sentences of Moran's chapter of Molloy; here our Robbe-Grillet ouroboros, a small one coiled in a larger one.

Movies: The Social Network

Not being particularly interested in Facebook (though I have a profile on it), or any form of living life online (despite the blogging—really, I see no discrepancy there), I had no drive to see The Social Network, but I found myself watching it on an airplane nevertheless. For an airplane movie, it was brilliant; completely absorbing, with a requisite cast of teenage antics (for some reason, I prefer to watch young people in my airplane movies; you will not catch me watching any of those stuffy English period dramas, like The King’s Speech, on an airplane).

The film is structured with flashback, and might be the very first film I’ve seen structured that way that did not completely gall me. How is it that Fincher does this more successfully than, say, Van Sant in Milk or Boyle in Slumdog Millionaire? Perhaps it’s that the flashing back is only to a year or two prior. Perhaps it’s that the flashback sequences are of substantial enough length and content to avoid that awful sense of watching a series of Gap commercials rather than a coherent film. Perhaps it’s just a story worth telling, with a finely-structured screenplay. In any case, this is a very serviceable film. Artistically groundbreaking? No. Emotionally intense? Not really. But quite direct, competent, and appreciably limpid in a moment when other films are either filled with explosions or violence or fantasy or period costumes or mysterious malevolent forces or all of the above. I appreciate clean storytelling at a time like this. It’s surprisingly brave.

A point to be made that has only tangentially to do with the film: Facebook was the creation of shallow teenagers with poor social skills, by shallow teenagers with poor social skills, for shallow teenagers with poor social skills. As we use it more and more to "live" our lives, we become more and more shallow, and our social skills become poorer and poorer. Online living is unhealthy and I am vehemently opposed to it.

Movies: Black Swan

I worry about Darren Aronofsky. It seems that each of his movies culminates with the protagonist cutting him or herself apart to relieve whatever endemic psychosickness lurks inside. I worry that some endemic psychosickness lurks inside of Darren.

Black Swan, like The Wrestler, is of manageable proportion for the director (as things were spinning a bit out of control when his greater ambitions led him from Requiem For a Dream to the baggy and confusing The Fountain). In fact, Black Swan is almost a remake of The Wrestler, the same character arc set on a well-cultured young woman rather than a low-class older man. The Wrestler’s violence is externalized, where the ballerina’s violence is internalized, but both give the director the opportunity to sink into that dark space of self-abuse and destruction.

While watching the film, I wasn’t particularly taken by any aspect; being as catty as some of the ballerinas, I found myself not liking Natalie Portman’s make-up in the final scene, not liking Natalie Portman in general (I never really have). But the movie has had an unexpected staying power, and weeks later, memories of scenes keep bubbling up. The real attraction of the film is Mila Kunis, who has the scratchy sex appeal of young Angelina Jolie, in, say, Gone in 60 Seconds or Girl, Interrupted. Cast to seduce Natalie Portman, she seduces us all, mostly in the rehearsal scene where she dances, her hair down, her technique subsumed in free emotion.

My most common gripe with dance movies is poor dancing, but Aronofsky, surprisingly, gets it right. I quit ballet fairly early, weighing too much to go up on pointe (to clarify, I was thin, but not slight, which is the physical requirement). But, I stayed a dancer, and a critical observer of dancers, and felt throughout The Black Swan, in spite of our protagonist’s mental illness, a tearing nostalgia, a longing to dance—but like Mila, not Natalie.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Books: How It Is, by Samuel Beckett

As an additional antidote to eight months of Proust, I chose Samuel Beckett. There is enough that I want to read that I don't usually reread anything, but I was describing How It Is, which I read for a college course on the contemporary novel, to a friend, and thought that it was a small enough book that it wouldn't hurt to revisit it.

I remembered it fondly; at least, I thought fondly of what I remembered, to be more precise. I remembered the book being about a worm called Bom, who crawls, for the novel's duration, through the mud, on his belly, carrying a sack. I remember the book being divided into three parts: before Pim, with Pim, and after Pim, Pim being a companion upon whom Bom one day comes, and who abuses Bom for a time by beating and biting and poking him, prior to disappearing.

Rereading clarified one key thing, which is that Bom, the narrator, is in fact the aggressor, who clobbers Pim on the head ("thump on skull"), digs his nails into Pim's armpits ("less pads than nails second cry of fright"), beats his organs ("with a pestle bang on the right kidney"), and sodomizes him with a can opener ("opener in the arse," later abbreviated to "opener arse") normally kept in the sack for the tinned food they eat. I also realized that Bom was less a worm than a worm-ish man, for he describes having arms and legs ("right arm right leg push pull"), a head and neck around which the sack is tied, and teeth between which he sometimes clutches the sack. He cannot speak, but Pim can. They are men, if men who crawl in mud, which mud may be their own shit. Bom considers this possibility, but isn't sure.

I've not yet mentioned that the book has no punctuation, and no capital letters at the beginnings of phrases (proper names, like Bom and Pim, are capitalized, as are certain phrases spoken with emphasis ("DO YOU LOVE ME CUNT no")). This does add to the sensation of crawling on one's belly through mud, obviously. But it also allows for a strangely wonderful, ghostly rhythm, should you read it aloud and intelligently.

This is not my favorite work of Beckett's; I haven't a problem with its being difficult—I am willing to suffer that—but I don't think that its repetition is always successful; it's boggy and lags in places, where Waiting for Godot, for example, is taut. Still, the concept, the essence, is cruelly incisive and brilliant, and quite beautiful, for all of its horror. It's better when read aloud.

Books: Airships, by Barry Hannah

After finishing Proust, I thought that this book of short stories by Southern "writer's writer" Hannah would be a good antidote. And it did its duty in that it was blunt, masculine, and violent. The first few stories, especially Love Too Long, really did me. Hannah's stuttering staccato skips the superficial surface of a deep pain: "All I can do is move from chair to chair with a cigarette. I wear shades. I can't read a magazine." Then, "I want to rip her arm off. I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out. Some nights she lets me lick her ears and knees. I can't talk about it." Damn, he is good.

But then, he goes on. There are these weird Civil War stories, about rebel soldiers on horses killing people. There are racial epithets. There's a guy who kills a girl in a graveyard. It's dark. He pushes me too far. And he is also sort of dull. When he's on, he's on, but he is not always on. He is not the writer's writer he has been described to be. He is just a regular writer, who one time out of ten really hits the mark. Read his best ones anthologized with other middling writers' bests; he's not a Flannery O'Connor, warranting your sustained and concentrated dedication.

Movies: The Mission

My Jesuit high school must have done a far better job of indoctrinating me than I thought at the time, because I found this film incredibly upsetting. Set in 18th Century South America, the story poses a set of moral challenges for its characters and thus its audience, for which Christian theology has clear answers, the Catholic church its own considerations, and human politics some additional complications.

Jeremy Irons is Father Gabriel, the film's Christ-like figure, a Jesuit missionary who has established rapport with a geographically isolated native tribe. He has taught them about God without shaming them; they remain naked and painted, but live in loving community. They have build a modest church, and he has taught them to sing and play musical instruments. The money generated by their labor goes back into the community.

Robert De Niro is Rodrigo Mendoza, an enemy at first to these natives, whom he captures and sells to the Portuguese as slaves. But after killing his brother in a duel over a woman, he is racked by guilt. He imprisons himself, and languishes for six months before Father Gabriel comes, and challenges him to seek forgiveness. Mendoza challenges the Father to accept his likely failure. The deal is done, and Gabriel brings Mendoza to the village atop the waterfall; a journey the haunted man makes carrying all of his metal armor and weaponry in a sack tied from ropes, wrapped around his chest. He carries his burden for days, climbing wet mountains, until one of Gabriel's fellow priests decides it is enough, and severs the cord. Relentless, Mendoza goes back down to where his penance has fallen, reties it to himself, and sets out again to climb the mountain. He is not free until they reach the village, and a native, recognizing the slave-trader turned penitent, cuts the cord. Mendoza becomes a priest, working alongside Gabriel to bring the village closer to God's kingdom on earth.

Political machinations, however, threaten their work. Spain (a Catholic country that does not allow slavery) proposes to cede this land to Portugal (a country that does allow slavery, whose colonies are in fact built upon it). A Cardinal is sent by the Catholic church to inspect the missions of the area, and though he is moved by the Jesuit's achievements, he nevertheless allows the Spanish government to pass the lands to the Portuguese (a political choice, the threat being that, if he doesn't, Portugal will expel the Jesuit order). From a moral point of view, this is the wrong choice: the preservation of an institution, even a religious institution, is of less consequence than the preservation of a population, particularly this sort of a population (cf. the Beatitudes: blessed are the poor, the meek, the pure of heart; those that hunger and thirst after righteousness).

The next moral decision is that of the missionaries and natives: when the Portugese soldiers come, will they peacefully stand their ground, or will they fight? The Catholic Church offers a Doctrine of Just War, with four requirements: 1) the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; 2) all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; 3) there must be serious prospects of success; 4) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.

Mendoza takes up his arms. Father Gabriel chooses not to fight. Mendoza asks Gabriel for his blessing, but the Father will not give it. He says, "If might is right, than love has no place in the world." While he acknowledges that this might be the world in which they live, he sticks strongly to Christ's instruction to turn the other cheek, and refuses to take up arms. Mendoza, at least so far as the Just War Doctrine is concerned, would be justified in taking up arms, except that he has not point three on his side. The Portuguese soldiers slaughter the natives, who die with blood on their hands, having killed soldiers themselves to protect their home. And in the end, Gabriel, standing in front of the church with one hundred women and children, leads them singing to their slaughter.

What fills me with anger and confusion is the willingness of each Portuguese soldier to follow through with his "duty" and slaughter these innocents. Christ's way to reach these men would be to approach each individual, arms open in loving acceptance, offering forgiveness for the action he is about to take, and perhaps thus preventing it. That is to say, each soldier needed what Mendoza was given, not what Mendoza chooses to give. He has, thus, not completely learned Gabriel's lesson, and dies still ignorant, defiant as we by nature are.

Dance: Alvin Ailey at City Center

Alvin Ailey has long been my favorite dance company. I like to say that when God created man, he created Ailey dancers; certainly, this is humanity achieving its full genetic potential, at least so far as the physical body is concerned. I still feel this way about the quintessential Ailey dancer, but dare I say that the company is not what it was ten years ago, when I saw Revelations for the first time? The program for December 15, 2010 was perhaps just poorly chosen, or even poorly rehearsed. Perhaps the inclusion of live musicians from Jazz at Lincoln Center was a distraction for the dancers, or the producers. Perhaps Judith Jameson is quite tired now, ready to pass her baton to successor Robert Battle. I am looking forward to his tenure, for his featured choreography this evening reminded me of the essence of Ailey: humanity, a thing raw and divine.

The evening began with Three Black Kings, a 1976 work of Ailey's, unfortunately showcasing the worst aspects of the era and the choreographer. The three sections, inspired by King Balthazar, King Solomon, and Martin Luther King, clearly evoked none of these characters, but were instead a confusing parade of slow and plodding extensions and hero-worshipping gestures. It wasn't until after I read the program during intermission that I understood the structure (one given not by Ailey, but by composer Duke Ellington). In this case, I think a less illustrative presentation would have been more successful.

The program improved with Episodes, a piece choreographed by Ulysses Dove in 1987. Unlike the previous piece, this one highlighted the best qualities of its era. Think of a very elevated Flashdance, and you will have some indication of the tone of Episodes. A dark stage with strong bands of light and a spare, booming score by Robert Ruggieri create a plot-less space for conditioned bodies to appear either singly or in pairs, raging alone or against each other. There are undercurrents of hardened sexuality—not sensuality—that I imagined pushed the 1980s envelope, and remain powerful now, if not shocking as then.

Onto In/Side, the Robert Battle-choreographed solo performed exquisitely by Jamar Roberts, the creature I told you God fashioned when he molded Adam from the mud. This was the shortest piece of the evening—Roberts danced for the duration of Nina Simone's Wild is the Wind—but one in which every moment was sacred and to be savored. Here, the body is something organic and foreign, animal and alien, earthen and electric. Tissues are networked with synapses, and a human emerges from the womb of the earth enormous, ungainly, tipping at the precipice, grasping for his inherent nobility. For three entire minutes, my breath stopped still in my throat. This is what humanity is, is meant to be, when you strip away television and cars and jobs and suits and houses and cell phones and all of that crap, even books, and criticism, and philosophy, and nobler intellectual pursuits. This is ur-choreography. This is what we are, raw: deeply emoting bodies, grasping in the dark.

The show would have done to finish on this strong point, but instead, Billy Wilson's 1992 The Winter in Lisbon was tacked onto the end. This is a not particularly interesting or meaningful piece, a Latin-flavored bit of fluff, the kind of thing I've seen done before—and with far better result—by Ballet Hispanico and others. Most offensively, the piece featured "Moe," the one eyesore in the company, who desperately needs a haircut, along with some intensive training to drop his shoulders and raise his extension. I do not know why he is a part of the company. He stood out, even in Three Black Kings, as being out of rhythm with the rest of the group. His chest hunkers in, rather than radiating proudly, as an Ailey dancer's must. Even in his press photo, his head juts forward of his shoulders, like a turtle's, rather than sitting proudly on his neck, like that of every other dancer's. He was so distractingly bad as to appear to be an emergency understudy, but it seems he has danced with the company since 1994. Perhaps it is time for him to retire.

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Seven: Time Regained, by Marcel Proust

It took me eight months, but I have read all of it.

Time Regained is a volume very different from Proust's others. First, the narrators steps, for a moment, outside of his interior world of intimate desire and suffering to acknowledge France's participation in World War I. This is an abrupt change of scale for Proust. True, he had described politics earlier, dedicating much space to the Dreyfus Affair, for example, but politics in previous volumes was only a social plaything, a ball to bat back and forth across the table at dinner parties, a means by which to include or exclude a person from your list of invitations. Now, bombs drop on the city. Soldiers occupy Gilberte's country estate. Saint-Loup dies at war.

Another surprising intensification is Proust's description of homosexual activities. Previously, Marcel had satisfied himself with peering through the proverbial keyhole. While he still does not come forth and admit any personal homosexual desires, he does enter, uninvited, a kind of brothel-cum-dungeon hidden in an apartment house. More the thing you would expect to find in Berlin than Paris, this is a boarding house run by Jupien where Charlus pays to be chained to an iron bed frame in an upstairs room, and beaten by soldiers (who seem generally disinterested in the work, except that it pays well enough). Marcel sees Saint-Loup going into this same place (before his death, of course), and is, somewhat surprisingly, quite hurt by it.

The third, and perhaps most abrupt shift in this volume is that of time. Rather than being "regained" as the title implies, it at last passes, is acknowledged as lost. From volumes one through six, Marcel remains a child. Certainly, he is old enough to keep a woman at home, but he lives always with his parents, he indulges constantly in his own puerile frustrations, and he belabors every passing day with hundreds of sentences, sometimes spending one hundred pages to describe a three-hour dinner party. But in Time Regained, which seems to start with a Marcel of twenty-something (which he has been for the past four volumes, I think), one page turn brings our narrator to a party which he thinks at first is a costume ball, for everyone is dressed as if they were a geriatric. They are, at first, unrecognizable. True, Marcel had given up society throughout The Captive, for he spent his time locked in his bedroom, worrying over Albertine's fidelity, and he didn't pay any visits in Paris throughout The Fugitive, spending the greater part of the volume in Venice with his mother. And he admits, in the early page of Time Regained,that he had to spend some time in the sanitarium, and not just once. If we do the math, subtracting the Dreyfus Affair (1894) from World War I (1914), we see in fact that twenty years have elapsed between The Guermantes Way and Time Regained, but we don't sense that passage until now, when Marcel realizes rather suddenly that he is no longer young.

With that realization comes the bookend to the famous madeleine incident in Swann's Way (the initial volume), which I'm not ashamed to admit I found somewhat dull. Perhaps I am still too young to appreciate these sentimental musings on time and memory, but I would rather say that Proust's strength is as an imagist. Take, for example, the one sentence that I noted from this final volume: "For in this world of ours where everything withers, everything perishes, there is a thing that decays, that crumbles into dust even more completely, leaving behind still fewer traces of itself, than beauty: namely grief." I don't believe the man for a moment, for I've never encountered an author who grieves with such excessive labor as this one. But what is most appealing about the sentence is not the distilled essence of his argument (which is completely flawed), but the vision he presents: dusk on a day in early winter, scraps of brown leaves, ashes swept into a corner by the wind.

After investing eight months in reading this man's oeuvre, my time too is lost rather than regained. I take away ten or fifteen fine specimens of sentences, and some surprise that in over 4,000 pages of very personal writing, the author keeps from us his homosexuality, instead painting a cruel caricature of the homosexuals he encounters in society. Most importantly, I take away the right to say I have read it all, and deem in unworthy of such a reading. I think a strong and poignant novel of 300-500 pages lurks somewhere here, in the midst of many red lines, but somehow Proust has been canonized, protected from a much-needed abridging.

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Six: The Fugitive

After finishing Cities of the Plain, alternately titled Sodom and Gomorrah, and finding that Proust had yet to acknowledge his homosexuality, I expected that he would do so in The Fugitive. I imagined that this volume would describe his fleeing from the stifling, miserable life he shared with Albertine, running away to Venice with Robert Saint-Loup to at last indulge his true desires. Perhaps my expectations are too 20th century. Instead, the “fugitive” is Albertine, who in the middle of the night asks Francoise to pack her boxes, and is gone when Marcel wakes.

Ironically, Marcel had stayed up late that same night, deciding at last that their situation was untenable, and that he would ask Albertine to move out the next morning. Nevertheless, as always, he hates to be pre-empted. Cue despair. He wants to beg her to come back, but knows, or thinks he knows, that the way to get her back is to feign indifference. They exchange letters filled with falsehood. Proust discloses to us, “For a woman is of greater utility to our life if, instead of being an element of happiness in it, she is an instrument of suffering, and there is not a woman in the world the possession of whom is as precious as that of the truths which she reveals to us by causing us to suffer,” thus demonstrating that he is indeed either a masochist or a homosexual, for he derives no pleasure from a relationship with a woman, only pain. (Clearly he is both.)

The moment comes when he has despaired enough at being left that he becomes willing to take Albertine back, to speak the truth to her—that he wants her, whatever the circumstances; that he will give her the freedom she desires, if only she will come back to him. And in the author’s only moment of gross sentimentality, he receives two telegrams at once. One from Albertine, begging to return; the other from her guardian, bearing the news that she is dead, thrown from her horse while riding that morning. Now, despair intensifies, but only briefly. Never having loved Albertine—only the idea of Albertine—weeks pass and soften his sorrow.

He does go to Venice, traveling with his mother, and makes sketches in the cathedral. He watches the women with fascination. He has all but forgotten Albertine when he receives a startling telegram: you thought me dead but I'm quite alive. She wants to talk of marriage. Marcel despairs, not wanting to see her again (I told you; he never loved her.) When it is time to leave Venice, he refuses, sending his mother to the train station by herself with all of their luggage. But in the end, he does as he must, meeting his mother in time for the train, and planning to simply pretend that he never received Albertine's telegram.

Upon his return to Paris, Marcel is met with another surprise; that telegram was not from Albertine, but his childhood friend and first object of desire: Gilberte, in whose terrible handwriting, "Gi" looks like "A." Her news? She is engaged to marry Robert Saint-Loup.

Books: In Search of Lost Time Volume Five: The Captive, by Marcel Proust

Proust’s “captive” is Albertine, whom he has somehow coerced into moving into his parents' flat with him (while his parents are away; the only person privy to this secret resident is the nosy Francoise, who doesn’t hide her distaste of the guest.) That is indeed what he would have his readers think, but the real captive is Marcel himself. No longer captivated by Albertine’s reckless voluptuousness, he is instead held captive by his fears that she is secretly carrying on any number of lesbianic affairs behind his back. Though he finds her rather dull while she’s near, as soon as she steps out of the house—even makes a plan to go out—he is plunged into despair, certain that she is planning to meet some actress or loose-moraled girlfriend for hanky-panky. Thus, he never leaves the house, certain that if he were to go out, she, unsupervised, would betray him.

Meanwhile, so long as Albertine appears to be “behaving,” languishing mournfully in her room, dressed in the expensive silk gowns and kid shoes Marcel has bought for her, he longs for every other woman he sees out his window. He writes, “O girls, O successive rays in the swirling vortex wherein we throb with emotion on seeing you reappear while barely recognizing you, in the dizzy velocity of light. We might perhaps remain unaware of that velocity, and everything would seem to us motionless, did not a sexual attraction set us in pursuit of you, O drops of gold, always dissimilar and always surpassing our expectation!” He is not writing about Albertine. That is to say, had this passage been taken from Volume II, in which Marcel first sees Albertine, leader of the little band of mischievous girls on the beach, it would have described her and her companions well. Now that she has become a part of his daily life, however, a fixture rather than a fantasy, his desire fizzles.

Still, I’m waiting patiently for Marcel to make some disclosure of his homosexuality, to begin to realize that perhaps the reason Albertine has ceased to please him is that he fancies rather his friend Robert Saint-Loup, or someone similarly of the masculine persuasion. But he does not. Which leads me to The Fugitive.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Movies: Sex, Lies, & Videotape

As a child, when we went to the video store to rent a movie, I would wander the aisles of VHS boxes and wonder about certain films, like Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I imagined it was very bad, and of course I could not ask to watch it. And indeed, as an eight, nine, ten year old, I had no business watching it. Even at sixteen, I didn't need to watch something it. But it's not smut. It's one of Soderbergh's best movies, straight and honest and made with a very delicate touch, for its heavy themes of marital infidelity and sexual repression. It's also surprisingly timeless. Watching it now, you don't get the feeling that the film is over twenty years old. It feels like it's pushing the envelope in its frank, spare delivery, even now.

When I picture James Spader, I inevitably see Graham, his character from this film: a shy, strange, and it turns out impotent college friend of boisterous asshole John (Peter Gallagher), who is sleeping with the sexpot sister of his frigid wife Ann (Andie McDowell, who also gives her definitive performance in this film). Spader's character moves around, living in bare apartments and out of his beat-up old car, videotaping interviews with women on their sexual habits. Watching these tapes, after-the-fact, in solitude, is the only way he is able to obtain sexual climax.

Soderberg is meanwhile making his own meta-videotape, Ann positioned uncomfortably upright on her analyst's couch, talking about her marriage, sex, and irrational fears (pointedly, she is concerned about all of the world's garbage). She is first wary of the stranger's visit, but soon intrigued by Graham's sensitivity. John, conversely, finds him creepy, and doesn't want to spend any time with him. Ann helps Graham find an apartment, and visits him there a few times, nursing a budding friendship until she discovers his tapes, fleeing in disgust.

Ann's sister Cynthia, open in every way that Ann is closed, can't get Ann to tell her what Graham's secret is, so she goes to his apartment, uninvited, and introduces herself. She makes a tape. Ann is disgusted. Meanwhile, her relationship with John is deteriorating further. She is certain he is having an affair. When she finds her sister's earring in her own bedroom; she is certain. Potent with rage, she goes to Graham's apartment, and demands to make a tape. He tries to talk her out of it, but she refuses. They begin.

Cagey Soderbergh doesn't give us this scene. Instead, we watch the tape as voyeurs, sitting with John, who breaks into Graham's apartment and watches first the one of Cynthia, then the one of his wife. Minutes into that tape, Graham and Ann's bodies magnetically draw closer, and the video halts into snow. Rage. Needless to say, the marriage does not survive.

What I love about this film is its spare simplicity: four characters, six relationships, one issue, unfolding over the course of a few weeks, simmering very quietly, as if in a pressure cooker. Soderbergh is deliberate and restrained, and only films the steam seeping out of the safety valve, but it is beautiful steam, hot and pure.

Movies: Cyrus

I am shallow; I did not enjoy watching this film because I cannot stand John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill. They depress me. They are not funny. They are sad. Looking at them makes me sad. Listening to them speak makes me sad. The characters they play make me sad. Awkwardness is not funny; it is sad. Sad, sad, sad.

Let's also be very honest. Marisa Tomei: wow is she hot. Hot, hot, hot. I believe I commented previously on her hotness in The Wrestler. Let's be honest. Someone as hot as Marisa Tomei is not having a child who looks like Jonah Hill. Further, no matter how strange her home life is as the single mother of a too-attached grown son, someone as hot as Marisa Tomei is not falling for John C. Reilly. It's just not going to happen. Especially since she's not stupid or boring or mean or etc. She is super warm and cool. She can do much better than divorced, depressed, going nowhere fast John C. Reilly.

Do I really want to watch John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill, playing the lowliest of low specimens of humanity, engaged in a psychological thumb-war over the heart of this tender, sweet, smart, hot woman? No. I find it totally degrading. She should leave them both behind and move to a city where she can find people of higher caliber.

Movies: Going the Distance

Another airplane movie, Going the Distance was chosen from a selection of forty-something films solely for the reason that, one day when I was volunteering at the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, a set designer who was working on the film came into the store to buy some things to decorate the Justin Long character's room. I scoured that room for our products, but it seems they didn't make the cut. Along the way, though, I got just what I want out of an airplane romantic comedy, plus some. I spent an academic year in a long-distance relationship myself, being in New York only last winter while my fiance was in New Zealand (much harder than the film's New York/San Francisco split—you can fly from one coast to the other for a weekend for $300; tickets to New Zealand run about $1,000, and it takes practically 24 hours just to get there). Going the Distance was thus an unexpected trigger of memories, and an opportunity to laugh very hard about a time that I am very happy has passed.

I do have one issue with the film, which is simply that Drew Barrymore, as cute and spunky as she is, is old enough to be Justin Long's mom (okay, actually not, but it seems that way); basically, they are a poorly-cast couple. But the script is sweet and funny, filled with candy-coated insights, and only one truly stupid gag (Long getting a spray-tan, and its aftermath) that I could have done without. I'm not generally forgiving, but I'll let this one go.

Movies: Get Low

Get Low is basically a Cohen brothers' film that wasn't made by the Cohen brothers. A cranky old hermit in an old Western town gets the notion into his head that he wants to have a funeral party—now, before he's dead, so that he can hear the stories people have to tell about him. First he appeals to the local parish, but the priest won't take his dirty wad of money to do something so unorthodox. Bill Murray (one of many Cohenesque touches), a down-on-his-luck funeral parlor owner in a town where no one is dying, gets wind of this through his young assistant, and offers the old misanthrope just what he wants. They take a portrait of the crazy old man and post it all over town, and sell $5 raffle tickets to win ownership of the hermit's property once he does die.

But because the film isn't actually written by a Cohen, it turns sentimental where it should have stayed quirky and smart. After a number of challenges, including theft of the raffle money, the pastor's refusal to speak at the event, and the hermit's threat to call the whole thing off, the party goes on, and the curmudgeon tells his story. As a young man, he had been in a relationship with a young lady, but had fallen deeply in love with her already married sister. At their house one night, something went wrong. There was a fight, and a big fire. He tried to save the woman he loved, but he failed. He lived and she died. No one ever knew. In the forty years since the event, he kept himself isolated in his compound, no one but a donkey and a string of dogs (all buried in the yard) to keep him company.

Redeemed by the truth in front of the town, the man can die in peace, which he does, then having a much more modest funeral, attended only by the handful of characters we have come to know throughout the film. Very nice. Next?

Movies: A Fish Called Wanda

When I was a kid, there were two movies that I was drawn to every time we went to the video store to rent a movie: Sex, Lies, and Videotape, for the promise of titillation behind its cover photo of shadowy mini blinds and the blatant appearance of that potent three-letter word, and A Fish Called Wanda, also for its cover design and title, less illicit, but nevertheless adult and impenetrable, not akin to The Incredible Mr. Limpet or Splash. Do cut me some slack; I was five, six, seven years old.

Somehow, Alitalia knew that I wanted to finally make good on that childhood curiosity, and offered A Fish Called Wanda as one of forty or so films to watch on my way to Italy this Christmas. I had no idea what to expect, and my sense of stymied expectation lasted throughout the entire film (though at a point about halfway through, I did begin to wonder when it would end). I have a few misconceptions to clear up. First, Jamie Lee Curtis is not hot. It seems that, in many films, she is cast as a woman of incredible sex appeal. I am not saying that she is a bad actress; I am just saying that it is awfully challenging to play an extremely attractive woman when you look more like an ugly man. Also, John Cleese is not funny, and thus A Fish Called Wanda is not funny. I have just read that the film had a number of Academy Award nominations, even winning one for supporting actor, and that it has been ranked in the top 50 of a number of Best 100 Comedy lists. But the film is, in fact, incredibly dull, a confused jewel heist in which the four robbers are all trying to steal the loot from each other, with two of the three male robbers thinking they are in a relationship with Jamie Lee Curtis. There is an additional male character, an older, married lawyer, representing the imprisoned Cleese character, who falls for Jamie Lee as well. If anything about this film is funny, it is the idea that I am supposed to believe that three men desire this woman.

Movies: Salt

There was a time when I would pay to see Angelina Jolie movies in the theatre, even though I knew they would be awful, just for the privilege of basking in her glow. But Angelina has changed. Her movies have gotten worse (is it possible?), and her glow has dissipated. Salt is probably the worst movie I have seen in a long time; it was, in fact, the worst of six airplane movies I saw during my international Christmas holiday. That is pretty bad.

The tag line for the film was, "Who is Salt?" and I have to admit that, though I carefully watched the film, even rewinding and re-watching certain confounding scenes, I am still not sure. But not because the plot is complex and redoubling, like Primer's. The challenge here is that the screenwriting is lazy, and the plot is incomplete. At the film's start, Jolie is an American agent. She is hoping to go home to her adored husband at the end of a long workday, but is called in to interrogate a strange man, claiming to be a Russian spy. During the interrogation, he describes a plot in which a Russian agent will assassinate the Russian prime minister—on American soil. The name of the Russian agent? Eveyln Salt (Jolie). Strangely, she runs. She is chased. She blows some things up in order to get away. Action! Adventure! Explosions!

We have flashbacks. Jolie was an American child in Russia. Her parents were killed and she was taken in as a student at a spy academy and sent back to America to be a double agent. But when the time comes to kill the prime minister, she doesn't do it, only injecting him with a spider's poison, which makes him appear dead for a few days. And so, has she double-crossed Russia? Or are we at triple-crossing now? I am not sure. The film ends with her running through the woods, chased by an American helicopter she has just jumped out of. Where is she running, and what is her plan? Did she truly love her strange, arachnophilic husband, whom we discover in flashback that she had courted intentionally from the start, as a cover? We don't know. Nor do we care.

Movies: Burlesque

I'm not ashamed to admit it: I am a girl, and I am thus the target audience for this film. Even if I consider myself an aloof intellectual, too critical for television and bubble-gum pop, there is something about dance flicks that I just cannot resist. Burlesque takes its best cues from Marilyn Monroe in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, and at its worst moments is like a Lifetime movie designed for an MTV audience, but I loved it all. Sure, small-town Christina Aguilera standing on top of tables at her dead-end diner job in Nowhere, USA, singing with the jukebox after closing as she scrubs tabletops is an embarrassing fantasy, but it is an embarrassing fantasy in which I myself have partaken (aside from the fact that I've never waitressed). Do I wish that I could go to LA and be a burlesque performer? Um, yeah!—well, maybe not LA. I don't like LA. But who doesn't want to lounge onstage in a bustier made out of pearls, sitting in a giant martini glass? Maybe I did watch too many Marilyn movies as a girl.

Movies: Primer

Shane Carruth only needed $7,000 and a few years to give us the headache-inducing Primer; perhaps the process gave him a headache as well, because he hasn't given us another film since. Of course, things take time when you are the writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and editor, not to mention lead actor, and composer to boot, for the project.

The film's aesthetic is as spare and minimalist as the budget implies. Nearly every frame of film shot was used. Sets include a cheap apartment's kitchen and garage, a motel, and a storage facility. The palate is gray and taupe. Even the dialogue is delivered as if there was a surcharge for any complete sentences delivered audibly, so instead, the script is filled with vague technical mutterings. The camera nonchalantly observes, more like a security device than an auteur's intentioned frame.

All of this minimalism makes room for an impressively baroque timeline of events. Primer is a film about time-travel, with some of the same concerns as Back to the Future, like risking encountering your double, but none of the sweeping historical gestures. The box (not so flashy, compared to the DeLorean) can only take you as far back as the number of hours you're willing to spend stretching out inside, sipping from an oxygen tank: you turn it on, say, Friday at 8 AM, go do whatever you want all day, come back at 6 PM, and crawl inside. You lay there for ten hours, and when you get out, it's 8 AM again on Friday. There's not much you can do in this window of time, except trade stocks based on stats from the evening paper, which is what Abe and Aaron, accidental inventors of the box, do. But things are strange and confusing. Sometimes Aaron, listening to a radio with one earphone, dictates what Abe is about to say. But then sometimes, Abe says something different. One day, Aaron's ear begins bleeding. Later, Abe's ear begins bleeding. There might be two Aarons, and one of them may have drugged the other one and kept him hidden in the attic; these doubles remind us of the nefarious ghosts in the new Solaris, posing as the "real" selves, whether or not those selves are made of any stuff more real than the double selves.

My understanding is that Primer takes a good three or four viewings to even get a basic handle on the timeline of events, and I don't know that it aesthetically could sustain my attention through that number of viewings. But it is an interesting puzzle, and I prefer it to other deconstructionist timeline films (e.g. Memento). For $7,000, it is an extremely accomplished headache.

Movies: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight

When The Dark Knight came out and everyone was talking about it, I refused to see it. It was a sequel, and I hadn't seen the first movie. In fact, I had never seen a Batman movie, or any comic book movie at all, for that matter. I had no context by which to judge it, so I recused myself.

But I was recently coerced to watch both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight on a living room couch on a big flat screen television (something I'm not so familiar with, having neither a couch nor a tv). For all of their expense, the films struck me (Begins more so, but DK as well), as having been filmed by a couple of eight-year-olds for two dollars. This is an exaggeration. But there is something about the digital video, the depth of field, and its affect on the camera's quick pan during action scenes, that gave me vertigo. If I wanted to describe this effect in a positive light, I would say that it captured the flattened, stylized cartoons of a comic book, but I don't want to be positive. For reasons incredibly shallow and profoundly deep, I feel that they failed their audience.

Let's be shallow. Katie Holmes, Rachel in Begins, is hot. Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rachel in DK, is not. How am I supposed to accept that Katie, ripe-of-lip-and-breast, with her wet eyes and luminous skin, suddenly has become the dried-up, burnt-out, smoker's-skin Maggie? Maggie has her own kind of indie sex appeal in, say, the Agent Provacateur catalogue, but has no business here, in this pulpy fantasy of urban decay.

Let's be deep. A number of the Joker's monologues are deeply troubling. I watched this movie with two boys: one twelve and one seventeen. They are normal American boys, if a bit precocious, subjected to demonstrations of meaningless violence through video games, movies like this, and the suppressed rage in arguments between their divorced parents. And yet, the Joker's discussion of his father holding a knife to his face, asking "why so serious" before slashing a false and permanent smile onto it, is too much. There is pain of that depth in the world, but I don't want my little brothers inducted into it—particularly in this way, where it is not discussed, contextualized, or countered. What is the Joker, but the uncontrollable force of chaos? He is driven by untreated pain, which becomes rage. Batman is intended to be an inspiration, fighting entropy's evil, but the Joker (as we see) cannot be contained or killed; he must be held, accepted, loved. Batman, still struggling to accept himself, is the wrong hero for this task.

I know that I'm risking sounding like a mother, psychologist, or radical Christian in saying this, but it's clear as we watch Joker poison Harvey Dent in his hospital bed, taking advantage of this moment of pain and isolation to turn an idealist into an evil-doer. Harvey can be saved by love, but instead is condemned by unsupported anguish. I wasn't one of Ledger's many mourners, but I think nevertheless that his death was the culmination of the same unsupported anguish, turned inward like Harvey's rather than out like Joker's.

I am not proposing that Christopher Nolan should have inserted Gandhi as Batman's sidekick (or given him vedic training in Begins); plots are problematized and often driven by the hero's own weaknesses and subconscious sympathies with his enemy. But I worry that audiences, skipping along the surface of entertainment without penetrating critically into its depths, are being wounded, unawares. Chaos is by definition uncontrollable; I worry that the Joker's potency seeps out of the film, and that Batman does not protect us. I worry that we are allowing our hearts to crumble like Gotham.