Monday, December 5, 2011

What's Wrong with a Little Symbolism?

I finished reading Nathaniel Philbrick's Why Read Moby Dick? recently. It's a slim volume of only about 130 pages that provides some historical, biographical, and analytical details on the great American novel. It was fascinating to hear about Melville's relationship with Hawthorne (the author's namesake), real-life accounts that Moby Dick was based upon, Melville's real-life experiences on a whaling ship, and details about the historical Nantucket. Melville came to Shakespeare late in life and virtually rewrote the entire novel after having completed a first draft to give its characters more "Shakespearean" weight. Philbrick also discusses the novel's Biblical style; its sentences and rhythms are epic and breathtaking. Why Read Moby Dick? drips with Philbrick's enthusiasm for what many call the greatest American novel. He came to the novel in high school, and while he admits that most of his peers did not take to it well, reading it for him was a deeply meaningful and life-changing experience, and he claims he's now read it thirteen times.

One thing, though, that annoyed me slightly about the book was Philbrick's insistence that Moby Dick doesn't symbolize anything. His point is that the whale and the story as a whole suffers from attempts to put it neatly into categories: the whale represents God, the whale represents the power of Nature, etc. He feels that thinking of the whale as a symbol takes away from the fully realized complexity of the creature. It seems like this is something I've been hearing quite a bit about lately from lots of different places. (And by lately I mean the last 20 years). College professors, some English teachers, and writers like Philbrick have something against symbolism. I've heard lots of people who want to downplay the role of symbolism. Now, I see Philbrick's point and I would agree with him if was an either/or possibility. And there are certainly works whose characters are clearly meant to be symbolic and that heavy symbolism flattens the character. They become types not people. Some might say this is the case in, say, Animal Farm, and if we compare Orwell's characters to, say, Jane Austen's anti-symbolic and fully realized characters in Pride and Prejudice, we might all see the point. But I don't understand why people like Philbrick can't see the option that Moby Dick could be a symbol and a fully realized character. Maybe I'm just naive and don't understand how this all works. I see the complexity and richness of the whale and Ahab's character, but I also think they mean something beyond the literal.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Diaries of a Not-So Mad Man

In my attempt to eventually finish reading all things Kafka, I read the first volume of his predictably strange but often fascinating two-volume diary collection, The Diaries of Franz Kafka: 1910-1913. Never meant for publication, these diary entries are raw, unpolished, quite personal, and often deeply insightful in terms of Kafka’s literary ruminations. The diaries include rough drafts for stories, descriptions of very strange dreams, plot summaries and criticism of Yiddish plays, criticism of Yiddish actors and performers, reflections on books, details on daily life, food and dress, descriptions of acquaintances  and socialites from Prague, self-deprecating passages in which Kafka doubts what he believes is his limited talent, reflections on the importance of literature and writing in his life, morbid fantasies of suffering and dying, guilt-ridden passages describing how little Kafka has written, and reflections on young and married women with whom Kafka was clearly interested.

For anyone interested in Kafka, probably Metamorphosis, “The Doorkeeper’s Parable,” and “A Hunger Artist” are the best places to start.  I would follow those with The Castle, “The Judgment,” “In the Penal Colony,” and The Trial. But if you want to dig a little deeper into what kind of person Kafka is and how his life clearly shaped his stories, the diaries are where you’ll find the so-called inner Kafka, the man behind the stories. He had a conflicted relationship with his father and mother, a sometimes jealous and overly critical relationship with his friend Max Brod (who would become Kafka’s literary executer), a deep interest at least for part of his life in the Jewish theater, a vivid imagination, and a darkly wry sense of humor.  On the whole, I suppose reading the diaries makes him seem a bit more “normal” than one would gather simply from reading his stories. The play summaries and criticism, reflections of novels, and his interest in women are aspects that most people (or most writers) would record in their diaries. But then you get these brief descriptions of very dark and pretty disturbing passages. One motif he continually comes back to is the image of Kafka lying down with someone or something sitting or pressing down on him, making it impossible for him to get up. In one reflection, he imagines himself pulled up through the ceilings of several apartments until his skin has been shorn off of his body and his skeletal remains crash through the roof.
You can read some of the diaries here. They are also published in book form.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why Didn't I Like Pants?

I watched Kung Fu Panda 2 again last night, and once again I marvel at its genius. Despite the fact that it’s another Dreamworks production, the sequel employs the same Pixar-esque attention to detail as the first, along with a similar and intelligent message-driven script. Although we see the same kind of sumptuous visuals as the first film, the sequel includes two additional and highly unique visual styles: the title sequence employs paper cutouts to tell the backstory and throughout the film several 2D animated scenes serve as Po’s haunted memories. Nothing against the brilliant Ian McShane in the first one, but I found Gary Oldman’s Peacock villain more interesting, more diabolical, more insane, and more funny. While not as gag-filled as the first one, the slightly more serious sequel still has moments of Po’s buffoonery and idiocy, but I felt it packs more of an emotional impact as it deals with a child coming to terms with his lost parents and his parents’ (both biological and adoptive) love—and it packs this punch in a fairly natural way and without sentimentality.
Kung Fu Panda 2 Quotes
I could see some people finding the self-discovery theme of the film heavy handed, and with lines like the following, it’s hard to miss the message:

Soothsayer: Your story may not have such a happy beginning, but that doesn't make you who you are. It is the rest of your story, who you choose to be.
[Po remembers all the things that have happened to him in his life so far]
Soothsayer: So who are you, panda?
[Po stands up slowly]
Po: I am Po. And I'm gonna need a hat.

But I’m drawn to books and films that don’t shy away from big ideas—even when the ideas themselves are fairly played out or even a bit obvious. For instance, I’ve always liked Siddhartha and Beowulf and even Invisible Man even though the authors basically spell out what they want the reader to understand about the meaning of life, the inevitability of death, or the power of white hegemony. We also have to keep in mind that it’s a children’s film, after all, and what children’s book or film doesn’t spell out the message for its audience? I doubt most kids give much thought to thinking about who they really are, but I think it’s great that the film not-so-subtly encourages kids to think about character, not letting their past form their identity, and making right choices.  Thinking about the kind of person Po wants to become and the kinds of choices he needs to make to form that person is something Po comes to terms with. And it’s something we all face.
Kung Fu Panda 2 Quotes

The other main theme deals with the conflict between the past and progress. It’s true that this isn’t the most original idea either, and I could name a hundred books, films, songs, or poems on a related issue (Julius Caesar, Inherit the Wind, Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers,” “London,” Pleasantville, The Great Gatsby, Gattaca, and many, many others). The film frames this conflict in relation to the possibility that kung fu (the past) may be overrun by Lord Shen’s new weaponry (progress). Of course, the film takes on a fairly romantic idealization of the past and, no surprise, kung fu (the past) wins out in the end. Sorry if that’s a spoiler.

Here’s my favorite line with some set up: Po’s dad describes how he found Po.

Mr. Ping: I brought you inside. Fed you. Gave you a bath. And fed you again. And again. And tried to put some pants on you. And then I made the decision that would change my life forever. To make my soup without radishes. And to raise you as my own son.
[flash back vision shows of Mr. Ping feeding baby Po his soup]
Mr. Ping: And from that moment on, both my soup and my life, have been that much sweeter. And little Po, that's the end of the story.
Mr. Ping: Oh, Po! Your story may not have such a happy beginning. But look how it turned out? You got me. You got Kung Fu. And you got noodles!
Po: I know. I just have so many questions. Like how did I ever fit in this tiny basket? Why didn't I like pants? And who am I?

Why didn’t I like pants? Love that.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Destination: 19th-Century Feudal Japan

Director of over 80 films and video productions, Takashi Miike is known for depicting over-the-top violence, disturbing images, and sexual perversions. Watch Audition or Ichi the Killer and you’ll see what I mean.  I’ve seen fewer than ten of his films, but it’s clear that he has developed a unique style, one that is fast-paced and in your face. Miike takes things in a very different direction with 13 Assassins, a 2010 remake of a 1963 black-and-white samurai film. 13 Assassins is austere, stately, and deliberate (at least in comparison with his other work). It’s a return to a traditional but sophisticated mode of storytelling; it feels like watching Kurosawa or Mizoguchi. I acknowledge that Miike still throws in some of his trademark violence—there’s plenty of blood and a couple of beheadings—and there’s a pretty disturbing image of woman whose tongue and limbs have been cut off, but these images are fairly restrained and serve to enhance the story rather than simply shock the audience.

Set in 19th century feudal Japan, 13 Assassins tells the story of a cruel, brutal (even heartless) lord named Naritsugu. Lord Naritsugu takes whatever woman pleases him, kills whoever annoys him, and finds pleasure in war and violence. (Naritsugu was the one who cut off the tongue and limbs of the woman). He is on the rise politically and must be stopped. And a samurai master is recruited to assassinate him. The epic film quickly builds, with echoes of Seven Samurai, to an amazing 50-minute battle scene with the 13 assassins taking on Naritsugu’s men.
The acting and swordsmanship are excellent. The cinematography is beautiful. But, more importantly, it’s a great story where we care about these characters, men who are fighting to make the world a better place.
This will easily be one of the best movies of the year, and it’s deserving of that oddly oxymoronic phrase instant classic. I can’t wait to see Miike’s latest, another classic remake that premiered at Cannes. It’s called Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai. And this one is in 3D.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Morality and Justice

What is justice? This is a central question in Plato’s Republic, the famous philosophical dialogue where Socrates describes the cave allegory, the Theory of Forms, and his vision for utopia—in Plato’s view the only place where justice can exist. Plato’s Republic involves a class system, a grand lie to maintain the class system, philosophers as kings, equality for women, rigorous education, radical censorship (no plays, no Homer), free sexual relations, and an abolishment of the family. This was Plato’s ideal and just society. In Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, Michael Sandel, the popular Harvard professor whose classes can be found on DVD and Youtube, doesn’t mention Plato or Socrates but instead turns mostly to 18th, 19th and 20th century philosophers to explore justice. After laying out the ethical divide between utilitarianism, libertarianism, and egalitarianism, Sandel ultimately argues that liberals made a mistake in leaving moral questions out of the political debate and that we should return to a kind of Aristotelian notion of virtue and morality when we or our political leaders make decisions. But what’s most interesting about the book is the wealth of fascinating thought experiments and controversial current events Sandel uses to illustrate the differences between the ethical philosophies and bolster his argument.

One of the most interesting hypotheticals is one that I have heard before. You are at the controls of a train screaming down the tracks, a train with no brakes. Down the line five rail employees busily work on the track. The train will surely kill them shortly, and you have no way to warn them. You notice an alternate track to which you can divert the train, only one man works on that line. You must choose. Will you flip the switch and move to the other track? Will you spare the five and kill the one? Most people would.

Sandel also explains a variation to the train thought experiment. Now you stand on a bridge watching the train barreling toward the five men. Next to you a very fat man leans over railing of the the bridge to watch the train. You realize that you could easily push the man and kill him and his death would spare the five. Will you kill the one and spare the five? Most people wouldn’t. There is something not quite right about our act of pushing, but a justification could be made all the same.

But Sandel takes these interesting experiments beyond the hypothetical. He also explores price gouging after a hurricane in Florida, affirmative action, abortion, and two actual cases of cannibalism. He asks whether maximum collective happiness (utilitarianism), letting the market rule freely (libertarianism), or equal rights for all (egalitarianism) is best in these different situations. Sandel doesn’t ever give his opinion about specific cases (at least initially); instead, he presents the arguments from different points of view, ultimately showing the faults with the three ethical philosophies. And then he presents his solution.  

The section on Kant is the most difficult, but aside from Kant the book is quite readable and engaging. It’s a book I hope our political leaders read and one that everyone could benefit from. We all need to think rationally about justice and morality.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Austen and Tolstoy--Kindred Spirits

I finished reading Anna Karenina the other day, and I was struck by how much Tolstoy’s writing reminded me of Jane Austen’s, even though some five decades separated their novels and they literally lived worlds apart. Of course, I realize that there are stark differences between the two: Austen’s airy neoclassical style strives for syntactical perfection, balance, indirection and wit, and it swims with parallelism and antithesis, subordinate clauses and parentheticals, understatement and irony; Tolstoy’s heavier and unironic (transcendental?) realism purposely lacks perfect syntactical form and strives for clarity and directness with emphasis on independent clauses and simplicity rather than subordinates; Austen utilizes third-person limited narration with its primary focus on her main characters: Lizzy, Emma, Marianne, Anne Elliot, etc., while Anna Karenina possibly best exemplifies third-person omniscience as the narration shifts from the interior and exterior perspectives of all seven major characters (Oblonsky, Darya, Anna, Karenin, Vronsky, Levin, and Kitty) and occasionally some minor ones like Levin’s brother and Countess Lydia Ivanovna; Austen rarely if ever alludes to or quotes from the Bible or literature, but Tolstoy makes constant literary and Biblical allusions; and while Austen is sometimes criticized for her dearth of major political events and philosophical ideas of her day (there’s nothing in Austen about the American Revolution, Napoleon, or Romanticism—all of which occurred during her lifetime), Tolstoy’s characters discuss the socio-political and philosophical issues of his day: liberalism, agrarian reform, the role of peasants in Russian society, educational reform, and women’s rights. Austen would never describe a nursing baby latching on to his mother, a Dickensian tenement occupied by a frail and dying man suffering from bedsores, or a violent death by train with its bloody remains. Not that Tolstoy elaborates on the graphic or the sexual, and there are certainly no descriptions of the sex act in Anna Karenina, but while it’s clear in Austen that characters have extramarital relations, she writes about infidelities and other scandals with such restraint and indirectness that make it seem unfathomable that sex, poverty, or squalor exist in her world.

Even though at the syntactical level we see differences between Austen and Tolstoy, in general terms I think most people would put them both in the realist camp. Tolstoy is a more “serious” realist than Austen and in terms of content Austen is a bit of a romantic, but neither of them uses the kind of entertaining but sometimes absurd Dickensian plots or characters; in Austen and Tolstoy, there are no gothic elements, no ghosts, no monsters raised from the dead—all aspects common in the greatest 19th century literature. Austen’s style mirrored a neoclassical realism that had nothing in common with the naturalism popular in modern novels, but she was still striving to paint a realistic picture of her era—at least in terms of capturing middle- and upper-class conversations. But to say that Austen and Tolstoy are realists is perhaps a bit misleading because there is also a clear sense of morality or even spirituality in them. Transcendental realism sounds oxymoronic and I’m not sure that term quite applies to Austen, but in general terms both authors are interested in demonstrating the contentment and spirituality that comes with inner peace. While we don’t get anything quite like Levin’s moments of spirituality and peace while working the fields or observing peasants when reading Jane Austen, her characters do find in the end a happiness that might be equated to spirituality.

In reading and teaching Pride and Prejudice a number of times over the years, I have come to the conclusion that Austen subtly satirizes the Church. She clearly uses vapid characters like Collins to criticize traditional Christianity—or, more specifically, Christians by name and not by deed. Collins is the only spiritual leader in the novel, yet he is also one of the most unforgiving and judgmental—think about his letter to Mr. Bennet in which he says that the “death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison” to her running away with Wickham and then harshly advises him “to throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence.” In his own life Tolstoy was a Christian anarchist, a man who criticized the state church, preached pacifism, advocated asceticism (including abstaining from sexual relations), and believed that happiness comes from modeling one’s life on the teachings of Jesus and not the ritual and liturgical practices that accompanied the state church. Being a Christian for Tolstoy meant something more than attending mass or confessing one’s sins a few times a year. To my knowledge we don’t know the details of Austen’s religious beliefs but I wouldn’t be surprised if she agreed with the Russian.

Stylistically, another key similarity between Austen and Tolstoy is that both utilize imprecise character descriptions. For example, Austen’s first description of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice occurs during the Lucas’s ball: “Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien.” This kind of vague physical detail is common in Austen. Aside from a handful of references to Elizabeth’s “dark eyes,” Austen never provides a physical description of her main character Elizabeth; instead, she describes general personality traits and says that Lizzy “had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous.” Even when Elizabeth’s biased mother Mrs. Bennet describes her daughter, it is in imprecise terms: “Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia.” And when the narrator first describes Mr. and Mrs. Bennet in perfect parallelism, again we see imprecision at work: “Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”
It’s true that Tolstoy doesn’t go as far as Austen in this regard, but they are kindred spirits when it comes to vague descriptions. The only character details we get about Oblonsky at the beginning of Anna Karenina are that he is 34, “handsome” and “amorous.” While Tolstoy shows Levin blushing occasionally, he doesn’t tell us what Levin looks like. However, Tolstoy does often go into more detail when describing his female characters, especially in terms of hairstyle, attire, and dress. For instance, when we are first introduced to Darya, she is “wearing a dressing jacket, the skimpy braids of her once thick and beautiful hair pinned at the back of her dead, her face pinched and thin, her big, frightened eyes protruding on account of that thinness.” But even though Tolstoy will eventually describe Anna’s clothing and some of her physical traits, the first description of Anna, as Vronsky meets her on the train, is Austenesque: “Vronsky determined from one glance at this lady’s appearance that she belonged to high society…[he] felt a need to glance at her once more—not because she was very beautiful, not because of the elegance and modest grace that could be seen in her whole figure, but because there was something especially gentle and tender in the expression of her sweet-looking face.” (Interestingly, this particular sentence contradicts what I said earlier about Tolstoy in general; this one is syntactically Austenesque in its use of subordinate clauses and parallelism). It’s true that in the next sentence Vronksy recognizes Anna’s “shining grey eyes” and “thick lashes,” and though Austen would probably never describe a character’s eyelashes, we can see from this passage that Tolstoy, like Austen, purposely omits physical details in his main characters. Preferring the vague over the precise, both authors use words like beautiful and handsome in order to create a blank slate for the reader to fill in the gaps. Beauty is somewhat subjective and in not spelling out what it means for them, we can envision our own characters, making the reader an active participant in the construction of the novel.

Another important similarity between Austen and Tolstoy is that both tend to downplay the physical environment and focus their narration on dialogue and character’s thoughts. Austen only rarely describes the countryside. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, the only time the landscape is described (from what I recall) occurs in the few pages of description of the grounds at Pemberley, which is used by Austen not to reflect on nature or the environment but to provide a metonym for Darcy’s character. In other words, Pemberley and its grounds represent the stability, traditions, and nobility of Darcy. Tolstoy does spend more time describing the country than Austen, but like Austen he uses these descriptions primarily to comment upon Levin’s character (he is also interested in making a few salient socio-political comments about land reform and the peasantry). Perhaps the greatest affinity between these great 19th- century authors is the emphasis on dialogue and interior reflections. Authors use many different ways to communicate information about their characters. Some use physical description, some dialogue, some actions, some the landscape. Austen probably utilizes more dialogue than Tolstoy, who more heavily utilizes interior narration, and the kinds of topics that characters discuss and the manner in which they discuss these topics are somewhat different. Striving primarily for humor and wit, Austen fills her novels with both clever and stupid people to make the reader laugh; Tolstoy’s characters are much more occupied by weightier philosophical conversations—at least at times. The emphasis on dialogue and interior reflection impacts the depth and complexity of our understanding of their characters. We thoroughly understand Lizzy, Anne, Emma and other Austen characters because we have been inside their heads for the majority of several hundred pages, and the same is true for Levin, Anna and the other major Tolstoy characters. We know not only what they say but how they think and why they think in this particular way.

However, now that I think about it, another fairly significant difference is Austen’s heavy use of foils. Nearly everyone in an Austen novel contrasts with a major character in some way. In Sense and Sensibility we have Marianne and Elinor, in Emma, there is Mr. Knightly and Mr. Churchill, and in Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth’s foils include Mr. Bennet, Lydia, Jane, and Charlotte. Austen uses these contrasts to shed light on her main characters; in other words, we learn more about Lizzy by observing Lydia and Charlotte. There are of course contrasting characters in Tolstoy: characters who have affairs (Oblonsky and Anna), characters who deal with their spouse’s infidelity in different ways (Karenin and Darya), and the radically contrasting brothers of Levin. But I wouldn’t call any of these foils—a foil is something more than a contrasting character.

On a plot level, both Austen and Anna Karenina deal with the impact, resolution, and return of a rejected suitor. In Pride and Prejudice we have Darcy, in Persuasion, Anne Elliot, in Anna, both Levin and Vronsky. Though their characters are decidedly different (Darcy is the embodiment of pride, Levin is the embodiment of reason and humility, and Vronsky is somewhere between them) and Austen’s arc is much more dramatic in terms of the changes that occur because of the rejection (at least this is true for Darcy), this basic theme does tie the woks together nicely.

I’m sure there are other differences and similarities, and I recognize the dearth of examples here. In fact, if I was grading this, I would write “more textual support needed.” Then again, this isn’t meant to be a high school term paper.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Mysterious Life and Work of Louis Kahn

The documentary film My Architect: A Son’s Journey (2003) tells the story of director Nathaniel Kahn’s quest to find the father he only vaguely knew. Nathaniel’s father Louis, a legendary architect on par with Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry, lived for his work and, possibly for this, very few truly knew him. He only created a handful of works: a few in the United States, a few in India. But Kahn’s few works are celebrated for their mystical use of geometric forms, concrete, brick, and natural light. One critic said that visiting a Kahn work “can change your life.” Bankrupt and lacking identification, Louis died of a heart attack in 1974, when Nathaniel was only 11. We soon find out that Nathaniel was Louis’s illegitimate son and that his father, in fact, had three families. One was his wife and daughter; the other two were secretive relationships about which most of Louis’s closest friends and colleagues were unaware.

In Nathaniel’s attempt to discover who his father was, few questions are answered and even more mysteries are unfurled. We only get the roughest sketch of the great, if contradictory, man. Having emigrated from Estonia as a young boy, Louis attended UPENN and worked all of his life to establish a lasting legacy. He was, like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead (I realize that he was based on Frank Lloyd Wright), totally uncompromising in his artistic vision, even if that meant losing many clients in the process. In the respectful, even awestruck, way in which Nathaniel photographs his father’s work: light streaming inside buildings, close-ups of the purposely unpolished concrete, perfectly symmetrical squares and crosses of a ceiling, artificial waterfalls cascading next to concrete rectangles, red sunset surrounding brick cylinders, and a young boy standing stationary and gazing at the permanent structure in the background (this is a motif Nathaniel utilizes); the point seems to be that Louis may have abandoned young Nathaniel, and no one may have known him aside from his work, but does this really matter if all of this is sacrificed for great art? That is, did Louis give humanity something greater than a father’s love?

It’s a beautiful and moving film and one that asks lots of interesting questions about art, form, the balance between work and family, art and society, love and faithfulness, social conventions, and costs of leaving a mark on the ever changing world.      
Here's a link to the My Architect website:
Here's the trailer:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Early Charlie Chaplin: The Formative Years at Keystone

Chaplin At Keystone
Mack Sennett and Keystone Studios, one Hollywood’s earliest film production companies, hired Charles Chaplin in 1913. Before his short stint at Keystone, Chaplin was a little-known British vaudevillian. In only a year, Chaplin established his Tramp character, became a major film star who was widely recognized in the U.S. and abroad, and learned how to write and direct films. Chaplin at Keystone, a four-disc DVD set from Flicker Alley, collects 34 of 35 of Chaplin’s Keystone films (one is now lost). While none of these primarily short films reach the quality and sophistication of later silent masterworks (The Kid [1921], The Gold Rush [1925], City Lights [1931], and, Modern Times [1936]), it’s still fascinating to watch Chaplin as a developing actor, director, and comedian. Chaplin directed 17 of the 34 films and wrote the scenarios for 20. A few of them are admittedly slow, especially for a modern audience, but I found most thoroughly entertaining. My six-year-old son even watched most of them with me. He was a little confused sometimes, but he always laughed during the drunken brawls. (Who wouldn’t?) And there are plenty of drunken brawls to like.
Charlie and Fatty Arbuckle
Speaking of brawls, Keystone certainly did not shy away from repetitions. In nearly every film we see exceedingly drunken characters, men lusting after women other than their spouses, buffoonish policemen, or straight policemen who are easily duped. But only two of the films, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)—considered the first feature-length American comedy— and The Knockout, showcase Keystone’s trademark Keystone Kops. By 1914, Sennett began putting the Kops in background roles in order to highlight up and coming actors like Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, whom we see in several of the Chaplin films.
Despite the lack of superlatives in these early Chaplin films, a few standout. The Tramp character makes his first appearance in Chaplin’s second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). The film’s basic situation is pretty simple; a film crew documents the auto races, but the Tramp persistently walks into the frame, looking at the camera and usually playing with his hat. The director talks to him and then pushes him out of the way, but he quickly returns. Here is Kid Auto Races from Youtube:

In addition to Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which is quite good and at times affecting, even if the story is predictable and clichéd (again, my 21st century bias comes creeping in), The Knockout, The New Janitor, His Trysting Places, Dough and Dynamite, and His Prehistoric Past are among my personal favorites. All of these are from 1914 and are written and directed by Chaplin (excluding Tillie’s and The Knockout).
Chaplin's The New Janitor:

In His Prehistoric Past, Charlie has a dream in which he lives in prehistoric times. A king has a harem of young and beautiful women and Charlie’s character, wearing bearskin and a bowler hat, seduces one of the women and tries to kill the king. With this, the last of Chaplin’s Keystone films, we clearly see the development from films made earlier in the year. His Prehistoric Past has a more sophisticated story, slightly more complex characters (though I wouldn’t take that too far—they are still basically stock characters), humor that is mostly in keeping with the story itself, and a more fluid pace.  
What’s a bit surprising in watching Chaplin’s earliest work is that the often tragically pathetic and utterly human Charlie that we know and love today started by playing some real rapscallions. In one called “Mabel at the Wheel,” for instance, Charlie plays the unsympathetic villain—something akin to Captain Terror on Speed Racer or Dick Dastardly from the Hanna and Barbara cartoons, who themselves were clearly inspired by silent movie villains. Charlie kidnaps and ties up a man, makes a few cars crash, and has two idiotic henchmen to assist him. Even when Chaplin plays the Tramp, it’s not the sympathetic character we are used to. He’s often drunk and sort of mean. In one scene two lovers are kissing and Charlie rolls his eyes and mockingly kisses a tree in parodic fashion.

But not all of his characters are mean. And whether Chaplin is mean or kind or desperate or unassuming, he is a joy to watch. Even as a novice, we can see Chaplin’s bright future ahead.
You can watch all of the films mentioned above on Youtube, but the quality is not going to be as good as the restored Flicker Alley collection, which is unfortunately not available on Netflix. I got it from the King Country Library.
Here's a link to Dave Kehr's review from The New York Times:
Here's a link to Flicker Alley's website:

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Kafka Is So Kafkaesque

Kafka Museum and Prague Castle
When we visited Prague a few weeks ago, I took my students to the Kafka Museum. Located on the banks of the river Vlatava and next to the historic Charles Bridge, the museum houses some interesting artifacts of Kafka, whom many (myself included) consider one of the 20th-century’s greatest authors. Anything but a traditional exhibition, the museum’s organization, exhibits, and design are quite creative and reflect a modern, Kafkaesque style. Opened to the public in 2005, the Kafka Museum includes hovering three-dimensional exhibits, sets of file cabinets that house drafts and letters, holes in walls available to peep through, and two video installations projected on large walls and running on a loop. The videos are both surreal in style with strange cuts and wavy, dreamlike images and montages; one video is projected in a small mirrored room which has the effect of making the images of Prague and Kafka both more expansive and also strangely inclusive since you see yourself while you are watching.

Kafka had a conflicting relationship with Prague, where he was born and spent most of his life. He called it a “dear little mother with claws,” and the museum emphasizes the claws and horrors of the city and his writing. In fact, if I have a criticism, it’s that the museum leaves out the humor of Kafka’s writing and emphasizes only the darkness. To be honest, I thought it presented him as a bit of a psychopath, and maybe that’s how some see him, but I don’t. He was clearly troubled, but he wasn’t a budding serial killer either. It’s true that there are stories you can point to, like “In the Penal Colony”—where a foreign visitor inspects a ghastly torture device—that demonstrate the horrific and humorless, but I think these are the exceptions to Kafka’s oeuvre.

Dying of tuberculosis in 1924 at age 41, Kafka only published a few short pieces before his death, including The Metamorphosis, which famously begins: “One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in his bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug.” Gregar spends the rest of the story tortured over how he is going to get to work and then feeling great shame over leaving his family in seeming financial ruin. When he finally dies, his family is relieved of the burden and embarrassment their son has created for them, and they go for a drive “in the warm sun.” His family can move into a different apartment now. And their daughter has “blossomed recently, in spite of all the troubles which had made her cheeks pale, into a beautiful and voluptuous young woman.” She’ll now be ready for marriage. The story ends with this sentence: “And it was something of a confirmation of their new dreams and good intentions when at the end of their journey their daughter stood up first and stretched her young body.” The metamorphosis is complete.

The Metamorphosis is just one of several stories that reflect Kafka’s tortured but also darkly humorous outlook on life. Life for Kafka was absurd, surreal, and ridden with guilt. It was also strange and mysterious. Nowhere do we see the enigmatic aspects of life more clearly than in his unfinished novels The Trial and The Castle. Kafka asked his literary executor Max Brod to destroy all of his work when he died, but Brod ignored Kafka’s dying wish and published nearly everything he had given Brod. Even though both The Trial and The Castle are incomplete (The Castle actually ends mid-sentence!), they are still masterpieces and have great depth and complexity. I’ve taught and had some success with The Trial, but I think The Castle (at least Mark Harmon’s new [1998] translation) is even more accessible for students.

The Trial tells the story of a man named Joseph K. who gets arrested one “fine day” for no apparent reason. He spends the rest of the novel attempting to navigate the labyrinthine legal system, an arbitrary, confusing, convoluted, and unjust structure. Like The Trial, The Castle’s world is also an impossible labyrinth. In this novel, a man simply named K. (for Kafka?) has been hired as a surveyor by a village with a large, dominate castle, which is ruled by its obfuscating and impenetrable bureaucracy. Once K. arrives in town, he is given two idiotic buffoons as assistants, but no one can confirm that he was in fact hired, let alone tell him what he is supposed to survey. It’s impossible for him to even look at Klamm, the village chief, and he certainly can’t meet with him. There are characters who think they have connections and either boast of these in front of K. or advise him, but we never know whether even they are just fooling themselves. Perhaps no one really knows how the system works.

Max Brod believed that all of Kafka’s works were about finding God and salvation. But works like The Trial and The Castle have also been interpreted in other ways. Possibly they represent our futile attempt to find order in a meaningless and absurd world. Maybe they are a commentary on modern bureaucracy and the idea that as humanity has progressed, we have created systems that are impossible to navigate or understand (though this has always seemed to me the most simplistic reading). Maybe they can be likened to Plato’s cave allegory, but in Kafka’s allegory the Truth or the outside world simply does not exist—or at least his characters never find it.

We can’t help but ask ourselves: what if Kafka had finished these novels? Would the meaning be more clear? Well, reading “A Hunger Artist” and other published works proves that even published Kafka is difficult to decipher. There are no easy answers in Kafka’s world. In fact, if Kafka had been able to revise them, I doubt the revisions would very much impact the ideas in the novels. They would probably be primarily structural and syntactical alterations. But who knows?

Reading Kafka, whether published or unpublished, finished or not, is like playing a trivia contest where you never know the answers. It’s a world of endless possibilities—where meaning may be tentative but it is always evocative. And that’s the real joy.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Book of Job and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life

Tree of Life begins with a quote from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth...When the morning stars sang together?” It’s God speaking to Job at the end of the story after God has allowed Satan to test Job’s faithfulness. Satan begins by destroying all of Job’s many possessions and children. After this first assault, Job reacts faithfully—if mechanically—and says, “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” So Job does not curse God, and Satan loses the first round. With God’s permission, Satan then curses Job with a terrible skin disease, Job’s wife tells him to “curse God and die,” and Job’s friends arrive. Instead of comforting Job, Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz lecture their friend and tell him to repent, for he must have done something wrong, something to really anger God. After all, they believe, we are only punished when we do evil. God rules a just and orderly universe.

William Blake, Book of Job

Most of the Book of Job consists of a series of dialogues between Job and his friends. Job defends himself vehemently, even arrogantly. Indeed, the cliché about Job being patient is clearly not true. As early as Chapter 3, he curses the day of his birth and wishes he was dead. Later he insults his friends, questions God, challenges God to face him in a legal battle, and whines—probably justifiably—about once being respected where now people spit at him and sings songs about how pathetic he is (I’m not making this up.). When God finally appears in Chapter 38, he arrives in the form of a whirlwind, probably a painful reminder to Job that God is the powerful force that took his family away. Instead of answering Job’s question (why is this happening to me?), God asks Job a series of questions like the one above. The point of the questions is obviously to show Job that he is small and insignificant when compared with God. Job is nothing, so he repents in “dust and ashes” to show his nothingness and to remind us where we will all someday return. For this, Job gets a new wife and family and possessions and lives a really long time. One hundred and forty years, to be exact.
So, why does Malick begin his film with the Book of Job quote? I think part of the answer has to do with themes both works share. Both deal with a seemingly random and meaningless tragedy, both explore the nature of human suffering, both show the mysteries of the universe and the decidedly human quest to find answers to life’s questions, and finally, both highlight the power of God and, conversely, the smallness and insignificance of humankind. Now, I don’t really think Malick believes in God, per say, for him God is nature, the universe itself. He’s clearly a neo-Romantic influenced by Wordsworth, who also found God in nature—at least in his early works like “Tintern Abbey.” But for Malick the universe has both positive and negative connotations: it is paradoxically beautiful and ugly, peaceful and violent, serene and frenzied, rejuvenating and destructive—or any number of dichotomies. The Sean Penn character is also a kind of Job figure, a man searching for justice in what seems to be an unjust world. Possibly one interpretation of Jack’s work as an architect is that, like Job, Jack is also trying to reach the heavens and confront God. Maybe Jack creates buildings and structures that remove him further away from God (nature) because he does not want to be close to the force that killed his brother. Maybe the buildings are emblems of Jack’s attempt to create order in a chaotic world.

One of many striking images from Tree of Life.

Neither Job nor Jack gets his answer to the question of why (this isn’t ever directly asked in Tree of Life, but it is implied). But I think the answer is pretty clear: for no reason at all. Terrible things happen to good people, and auspicious things happen to bad people. There is no justice. What Jack might learn is what fundamentally makes us human. We are weighed down with suffering, tragedy, guilt, and shame.  But we shoulder these burdens and move on. That’s the miracle. Think about Oedipus. He doesn’t kill himself as most people would expect. After he discovers that the prophecy has already been fulfilled despite his futile attempts to circumvent fate, he stabs himself in the eyes and becomes a wanderer. I’ve always thought he does this to show the gods that they can’t control everything. We can determine our final ends, not the gods. So Oedipus, Job, and Tree of Life are all saying that we are nothing next to God, but there is a kind of nobility in our insignificant mortality. We experience something the gods cannot. We live.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Let There Be Malick: Tree of Life

And God said, let there be Malick, and there was Malick. And God saw Malick’s Tree of Life, that it was good. Winner of the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes, Tree of Life—a film about creation, life, suffering, death, and the meaning of life—is only Terrence Malick’s 5th film in 38 years. So it goes without saying that Malick is anything but prolific. His most ambitious and experimental film, Tree of Life feels like an art film, especially the first 45 minutes and the last 20. Of course, Malick disregards conventions in all of his films. From Badlands to Days of Heaven and now to Tree of Life, his films scream idiosyncrasy, independence, and romantic imagination. They are all—whether you like them or not—powerful artistic statements about what it means to be human.
The story (if you can call it that—there’s not much of a plot here) takes place in Waco, Texas.  Jack is the oldest of three boys growing up in the 1950s. Tragedy strikes, and Jack grows up to what appears to be an architect (it’s never quite clear), a lost, alienated man living in a modern world that boxes him in tall skyscrapers, empty boardrooms, and glass elevators. But Malick is more interested in fleeting images of domestic life, waves crashing, volcanoes erupting, and the sunlight shining through trees than he is in telling a story about Jack’s family, so there are lots of gaps here.  Like the French director Claire Denis and her predecessor late-19th-century-painters Monet and Manet, Malick’s work is aptly called impressionistic. Malick provides us impressions of life and nature in the film. Snapshots in a photo album that serve as an aesthetic counterpoint to the realism or stylized realism presented in most films.  But his work might just as easily be labeled expressionistic since he uses the music and images to express his inner emotions and ideas about modern life and its complexities.
Regarding its cinematography, Tree of Life contains possibly the most beautiful images ever put to film. Ever. Bob Mondello of NPR said, “There's not a frame of The Tree of Life—not one—that I wouldn't love to have hanging on a wall in my home.” But I would go further and say that watching this film is like walking through a museum and gazing awestruck at a van Gogh or a Vermeer. One of the most visually striking shots utilizes an upside-down camera to frame several distorted shadows of boys playing, possibly a metaphor for the darkness within our souls. In the scenes from our modern world, the camera almost constantly tilts upward, looking through the glass roofs of modern buildings, looking to the heavens, searching for an absent God, searching for hope. The beautiful images and sounds (we hear selections from Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, and others) are so powerful that we can’t help but feel the spiritual power while we watch. But for Malick the transcendence is not a result of religion; it’s about the sacred in the secular, the sacred in nature. There are also lots of gorgeous images from the Hubble telescope when Malick flashes back to tell the impressionistic story of the creation of the world. In my view, these early creation shots, though beautiful, went on too long and were pretentious, but this is a minor complaint in an otherwise powerfully affecting film.
While the cinematography is probably the most memorable element in the film and I was left with lots of images seared on my brain, the acting is nothing less than astounding.  It depicted convincingly realistic portrayals of sibling interactions, and mother-child, father-child relationships. Much of the emotional impact rests in the hands of a pair of wonderful child actors, who are natural, raw, and real. This is probably Brad Pitt’s strongest performance, too, and Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother, is also excellent. In a whispering voiceover, Jack says, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me,” and I suppose the parents are meant to represent polar forces in our world. The yin and yang of nature and society. She is ethereal, soft, luminous, smiling, watchful, full of what she calls grace. There’s even a scene of her floating and dancing in mid-air. He is earthy, loving but hard, driven, intellectual, stern, and sometimes explosive like the volcano we see in the early days of creation. Walking on the grass and teaching his son to tend the garden and lawn, he connects himself to the earth and savors his time treading on land, even though he works in aviation and aspires to soar to the heavens like Daedalus. He demands respect and wants his sons to love him. But for him respect is more important than love. He also wants his sons to be strong and hard, prepared for the real world, and in one scene encourages them to punch him in the face. They merely stand and stare.  
There is no easy-to-comprehend message in this film, which is both frustrating and fascinating. You have to work pretty hard at figuring things out. And even after thinking about it for a while, the answers will probably still be out of reach. But this is typical of Malick’s films. He’s a skeptic who is not really sure about answers to life’s big questions, so he is certainly not going to simplify things for his audience.
The ending feels incomplete and in many ways it is dissatisfying, but I suppose that’s part of the point. We only get a series of snapshots from this family and we are left to fill in the blanks on our own. We can’t and won’t ever have all the answers to everything. We can’t know all of the beginning and the end.
Here's the official trailer from Youtube:

Here are several other takes on the film, both positive and negative and in between:

Wesley Morris's slightly negative review from the Boston Globe.

Bob Mondello's review from NPR.

Kenneth Turan's negative review from The LA Times.

A.O. Scott's positive review from The New York Times.

Anthony Lane's positive review from The New Yorker.

Todd McCarthy's review from The Hollywood Reporter.

Roger Ebert's review from The Chicago Sun-Times.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Super 8

I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I’ve been an off-and-on J.J. Abrams fan since Felicity. I say embarrassed because if there ever was a chick-flick television show, Felicity was it. But I watched it because it was smart, I cared about the characters, and it made me nostalgic for my recent college years. Plus, Keri Russell is totally hot! It’s true that I only saw a couple of episodes of Alias, which is basically Felicity with Guns, and I only just watched the highly acclaimed Lost (I know, finally…), so I’m not the most devoted fan or anything. When Abrams made his first big-screen film (MI3), I was curious but a bit skeptical, and I was even more skeptical about Star Trek. But both turned out to be strong and entertaining blockbusters, which aren’t usually my cup of tea, but if they are well made and have a good story, I’m right there. In fact, Abrams’s newest film comments on this idea. A group of 14-year-old boys are making a zombie movie for the Cleveland Super-8 Film-Festival, and their director explains to his crew that their film will be forgotten if nobody cares about the characters and the story. This is a lesson that Abrams (mostly) takes to heart and something that makes Super 8 stand apart from most of the summer-blockbuster drivel.
Watching Super 8, I couldn’t help but count the references to the films of Abrams’s idol Steven Spielberg, who also produced. The film is partly an homage to War of the Worlds, E.T., Close Encounters, Jaws (well, sort of), and Goonies. The gang of boys also reminded me of Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me. I can’t say Super 8 is a great film, but it is good and there are touches of greatness in it. Some might say it doesn’t pack the emotional punch of a Spielberg film, but I would say that’s a mark in its favor since most or maybe all Spielberg films suffer from high doses of sentimentality. The two lead characters played by Dakota Fanning’s sister Elle and newcomer Joel Courtney are excellent. I was struck by one small scene where Joel’s character Joey explains to Elle’s character Alice how a zombie acts and, click, Elle suddenly becomes one of the most convincing zombies I’ve ever seen (and I’m not embarrassed to say I’ve seen many of them). The best scene, though, comes during a rehearsal on Alice’s first shoot. It’s an amazing scene that you have to see.
But the rest of the gang are just OK; I’m not sure if it was overacting or poor scriptwriting—or both. Every time I hear the word “mint,” I’m going to wince. And there are some ridiculous details, the worst being that a man hits an oncoming train head-on with his truck--and survives! And what’s the deal with movies where the kids figure everything out way before the adults? Probably my biggest complaint, though, is one that not many others care about. I wish that Super 8 had more of the ambitious big ideas that were present in Lost. Super 8 is partly about loss of innocence and partly about recreating a not-so-distant past (1979, to be exact), and it does say some interesting things about the feared and alienated Other, but nothing is very deep. Nonetheless, a fun, entertaining film that’s great for light summer viewing.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Reflections on Homer’s Iliad

I read The Iliad recently, and while I have read three different translations of The Odyssey and taught it several times, I’ve never previously read the former poem. It was one of those major literary works that I always wanted to read but never got to—or, more precisely, there were always other books that I placed in front of it in my never-ending “to-read” stack.

First, in general it was more exciting that I expected it to be. I love The Odyssey, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s pretty slow in parts, and I expected about the same from this earlier work. Here is one moment that stands out as an example. Toward the end of the poem, after Achilles has avenged the death of his close friend Patroclus, the Greeks participate in funeral games to honor Patroclus: boxing, archery, running, and others. The most thrilling to me was the chariot race, the winners receiving a woman “skilled in crafts” and a tripod (1st prize), an “unbroken” pregnant mare (2nd), and a cauldron and gold bars for 3rd and 4th.  Homer cuts back and forth between the race itself and its audience who sometimes cheer and sometimes rudely but humorously insult each other. A young up-and-comer named Antilochus, the son of King Nestor of Pylos, approaches fast behind King Menelaus, husband of Helen, whose unfaithfulness causes the war to begin in the first place. Antilochus gains ground on Menelaus as they charge neck and neck. Nearing a section of the course far too narrow for two chariots to ride side by side, Menelaus commands the younger risk-taker to pull back, for they will surely crash. Antilochus refuses, and in what must be the first literary example of a game of chicken, they dangerously careen toward the narrow stretch. At the last moment, Menelaus pulls back, and Antilochus goes on to win second prize and the respect of Achilles and all the Greeks.
Not counting Gilgamesh, The Iliad really must be the first major tragedy. Everyone is doomed by an ineluctable fate, and the poem ends not with the war’s end but with the funeral of the fallen hero Hector, to me the only representative of civility and honor and (national?) pride in the poem (despite Hector’s foolish decision to wear Achilles’ armor after killing Patrolus). A great city has fallen and a noble hero is no more. Hundreds of years before Sophocles’ Oedipus and Aristotle defined tragedy, Homer created the first tragic hero in Achilles (again, with the exception of Gilgamesh). Achilles is larger than life, doomed to fail, and pulled down by his hubris. He experiences peripety (a reversal of fortune) in the death of his closest friend and demonstrates anagnorisis (an awakening or seeing the world in a new way) when King Priam begs him to return his son Hector. Achilles realizes something in this moment about humanity and honor that he couldn’t grasp before.
There is a kind of paradoxical attitude that Homer seems to have about war. While it brings glory and honor to those who fight and win, it also clearly brings out the worst in people. This could just be my biased, modern-pacifist perspective skewing what Homer was trying to say, but my sense is that even Homer had mixed feelings about the brutality and viciousness of war. For instance, he’s constantly using similes to compare fighters to lions and other animals, and this is done not to glorify or venerate the fighter but to show how brutal they are. While Homer admires Achilles’ power and courage and fighting skills, he also clearly thinks Achilles goes too far at times. The tragic and completely disrespectful example of Achilles attaching and dragging Hector’s body around Patroclus’ funeral pyre comes to mind. Homer seems to be asking: Is this really what humans do to each other? Maybe this is a different topic, but there is also the ridiculous image of Achilles, bloodthirsty and single-minded in his quest to seek revenge, fighting a river. A river! How foolish and arrogant humans can be to think they stand a chance against the powers of nature.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing

Cormac McCarthy (1933-)
What is the nature of man and the universe? Cormac McCarthy asks this fundamental metaphysical question in all of his novels, at least the five I have read: Blood Meridian (1985), All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), No Country for Old Men (2005), and The Road (2006). The broad question can easily be broken into five more specific questions: Does God exist? Does man have free will? How much control does man have over his life? Is the universe a place of order or chaos? Does Justice exist? These questions are the main reason I continue to turn to McCarthy.
In The Crossing, the second of McCarthy’s critically acclaimed Border Trilogy, the author presents a stand-alone work that tells a very different story and with different characters than the first, All the Pretty Horses.  The first two in the trilogy do have some clear thematic connections and they both tell stories about young American men who travel, or descend, into Mexico and return to the American side of the border. In the last novel of the trilogy, Cities of the Plain (1998), the two main characters from each of the first two novels become friends and work together on a cattle ranch in New Mexico.
Written in McCarthy’s ever poetic and spare voice, The Crossing tells the story of sixteen-year-old Billy Parham, who in the late 1930s captures a wolf that has been threatening the family ranch. Instead of killing it, and without notice to his parents, Billy decides to take the wolf back to its home in Mexico. With this crossing, he begins a long and mythic journey into a kind of netherworld where thugs, federales, horse thieves, powerful landowners, and a few kind and giving peasants share the land.  If God exists here, He is a distant god far removed from the affairs of men. McCarthy’s Mexico is a world almost totally lacking in order. And justice is not to be found here either. In fact, a couple of characters Billy runs into—including an eye-less former revolutionary—speak at length to the boy about the world’s lack of justice and order. While their fascinating stories differ, most of them share the same basic message. They spend much of their lives searching for order and justice and God but found none of the above, so, they imply, it’s best to live with and appreciate what you have. Concerning the question of whether man has free will, the answer is perhaps a bit more nuanced. From my point of view, Billy clearly makes choices. He decides—perhaps ignorantly and hubristically—to take the wolf to Mexico. He decides to return home. He decides to leave his brother at one point. But Billy ultimately has little control over his life and very little control over what happens to him or others in Mexico. So, McCarthy may be saying that our will may be free but our outcomes or the outcomes of others are out of our hands.

I really enjoyed The Crossing. For me, it was that rare novel that is both literary (by which I mean poetic and philosophical) and entertaining. I was constantly experiencing bursts of euphoric pleasure simply reading some of McCarthy’s beautiful sentences.  Like his other novels—and some probably find this frustrating—he entirely does away with quotation marks and most apostrophes. And he often fails to indicate who is speaking. Here is a brief sample:
You mind tellin me what the hell you’re doing? he said.
Trying to keep these damn dogs off of my wolf.
Don’t give me no smart answer.
I aint. I come up on your fence and went to hunting a gate is all.
What the hell did you expect was goin to happen?
I didn’t know there was dogs here.
Well hell, you seen the house didn’t you?
The man squinted at him. You’re Will Parham’s boy. Aint you?
What’s your name?
Billy Parham. (65-66)

Another trait I noticed right away is that McCarthy almost entirely does without commas, replacing them with ‘and.’ I recall this trait in All the Pretty Horses and The Road, but McCarthy uses ‘and’s much more exhaustively in The Crossing. Here’s a sample:

He got the fire going and lifted the wolf from the sheet and took the sheet to the creek and crouched in the dark and washed the blood out of it and brought it back and he cut forked sticks from a mountain hackberry and drove them into the ground in the firelight like a burning scrim standing in a wilderness where celebrants of some sacred passion had been carried off by rival sects or perhaps had simply fled in the night at the fear of their own doing. (126)
The effect of a sentence like this, I think, is to stretch time, to emphasize a particular act or sometimes to highlight the monotony or tediousness of our daily lives and the relatively small impact we have on our surroundings. Nonetheless, no matter how you interpret it, it is unique, poetic, and powerful. Though less overtly literary than, say, Blood Meridian (which has a kind of profoundly Biblical high style), The Crossing remains a powerful example of one of our most gifted American stylists.  Even though I enjoyed Blood Meridian, The Crossing is certainly a more enjoyable read. I didn’t feel like I was working at it as I did with the denser and more challenging Blood Meridian. I even found it quite funny sometimes, especially some of the conversations.
My one small quibble is that the novel introduces too many characters. As Billy rides to and through Mexico, he probably meets somewhere between fifty and a hundred people. With some he converses, with others he doesn’t. There are some pages where McCarthy describes meeting several different characters over several hours in the course of a day. So sometimes a character is described in one or two sentences and that character is never seen again. I’m sure that the plethora of characters has a thematic purpose. It’s probably some statement about the evanescence of life or McCarthy’s attempt to show us that there are many different stories and Billy’s is just one of them. I guess what I most found frustrating was that several of the characters were really interesting (like the ex-Mormon who converts to Catholicism), and I didn’t want to see them go.  

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Best Films of 2010

For my maiden voyage on this blog, I wanted to do a best-of list. I did it last year and found it sort of fun. I should first say, though, that there are many 2010 films I have not yet seen, but only a handful of these have been regularly appearing on other top ten lists, so my list is not radically out of step with other critics' lists. I include links to a few other best-of lists below.

My List
1. The Social Network. David Fincher’s film is topping most of the “best of” lists for a reason: it’s really good. Written by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing), it’s funny, witty, and full of pathos. It’s also a brilliant commentary on the new socially-networked world in which we are living. The Social Network has it all: intelligent writing, great acting, and fine direction by Fincher (Fight Club and Zodiac). Some might find the greed, cynicism, obliviousness, and unadulterated arrogance of the Zuckerberg character off-putting, but I found him quintessentially human. He’s pretty despicable, at times, but I sympathized with his utterly sad and ultimately lonely character. The founder of Facebook has no friends…or shouldn’t if you believe this version of his story.

2. Red Riding Trilogy: In the Year of Our Lord 1974, 1980, 1983. Originally made in 2009 for British television and adapted from David Peace’s quartet of novels, this gripping and stylized neo-noir crime drama, inspired by the Yorkshire Ripper case, tells the complex story of police corruption and cover-up for one of Britain’s most heinous crimes. I thought the second film (Red Riding: In the Year of our Lord 1980), starring Paddy Considine, was a masterpiece. There’s nothing quite like the experience of a long series like this; it hooks you from the very beginning.

3. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg was a U.S. military consultant who, while working for the RAND Corporation, secretly photocopied what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers and distributed them to The New York Times and other national newspapers. The papers recorded the history of our involvement in the war in Vietnam, detailing lies told by the Johnson and Nixon administration to justify and extend our involvement in the war. These papers represented a major shift in American attitudes toward the government, and while Nixon vilified Ellsberg—Kissinger calling him “the most dangerous man in America”—the risks he took to expose the government for what it really was has earned him hero status among many on the left. Channeling Henry David Thoreau, Ellsberg committed his own act of civil disobedience, an act that technically may have been illegal but clearly served the greater good for our country. Along with his lovely wife, Ellsberg (now 80) has devoted himself to fighting for a more perfect union ever since.

4. Toy Story 3. The third Woody/Buzz venture has it all: humor, excitement, drama, a prison escape, a runaway train, a Ken and Barbie love story, Spanish with English subtitles, and a really evil pink teddy bear. My wife teases me for being so stoic (my word). It’s true; I don’t cry easily. And while I didn’t quite get to tears in the scene where Andy’s mom comes into her son’s empty room after he has left for college, I did get quite choked up. I couldn’t help it. Someday that will be my little Wyatt.

5. The Ghost Writer.  Roman Polanski’s political thriller easily ranks among his masterpieces, films like Repulsion, Chinatown, and The Pianist. It’s the story of a ghost writer played by Ewan McGregor, hired to revise the autobiography of a controversial former British Prime Minister, clearly inspired by Tony Blair and played by Pierce Brosnan. McGregor stumbles upon some information that fuels the plot of the film and creates some Hitchcockian suspense without the irony (unlike Mother, which is full of irony and humor). It’s a smart, steady, and spare film that builds the suspense and slowly sets the mood rather than the often abrupt or manipulative surprises of typical thrillers.

6. Mother. South Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s 2007 film Host was one of my favorites that year. It blended comedy and family drama with a kind of Godzilla-monster genre.  In Mother, Bong does an homage to Hitchcock in telling the story of virginal and mildly mentally-challenged Do-Joon, a man who is suspected of murdering a teenage girl. Determined to free him, Do-Joon’s mother does everything she can to prove her son’s innocence, despite her newly acquired pariah status in her community. The film has some really powerful performances and a script with lots of surprising twists and turns.

7. A Prophet. A French film directed by Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped), Un Prophet follows Malik, a nineteen-year-old of North African descent who is imprisoned for fighting with police officers. Malik enters a racially divided prison where he begins to work for the Corsicans, a powerful gang with connections outside the prison walls. And it is there in this oppressive prison, where the Corsicans and not the guards rule, that Malik slowly rises to power. 

8. Vincere. Septuagenarian Italian director Marco Bellocchio’s film tells the story of Benito Mussolini’s lover and wife, and Il Duce’s rise to power. Ida Dasler sells all that she has to support the young and ambitious Mussolini and his socialist newspaper, but after marrying her and fathering a child, Il Duce abandons Ida without a second thought. Undeterred, Ida remains absolutely faithful to her husband, and her blind devotion lands her in a mental institution, where she falsely believes that if only she can speak to the right person, she will once again be placed beside her rightful husband. Vincere (which ironically means “to win”) is at once a biographical exploration of Mussolini’s early days and a kind of grand classical opera, stylized by the exhilarating aesthetics of Bellocchio. Two excellent performances by Giovanna Mezzogiorno (as Dasler) and Filippo Timi (who plays both the young Mussolini and Dasler’s son Albino) seal the deal.

9. Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Directed by Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), this new documentary traces the rise and fall of the former governor of New York and presidential hopeful. Gibney, as he clearly indicates by the title, frames the story as a Greek tragedy, with Spitzer fighting against the cruel gods (aka Wallstreet, who cheered and opened champagne bottles when news was announced of Spitzer’s involvement in the sex scandal). While his behavior is, of course, inexcusable, the film forces us to consider whether his crime even comes close to measuring up to the crimes perpetuated by the gods of Wallstreet. The one slightly odd choice in the film was Gibney’s decision to hire an actor to play the role of “Angela,” one of Spitzer’s favorites. The acting is pretty forced and anything but natural, but what she says is fascinating. “Angela” quit her job after the scandal and now works as a securities broker on Wallstreet.

10. Exit through the Gift Shop. A documentary about Thierry Guetta, a d.i.y. “filmmaker” turned self-made street artist. By happenstance, Guetta meets major street artists like Shepard Fairey, who designed the Obama “Hope” image, and Banksy, the British artist probably most famous for painting tranquil images on the West Bank wall. Deciding on something of a whim to become a street artist himself, Guetta, who now goes by MBW or Mr. Brainwash, quickly puts together what surprisingly becomes a well-attended art show. But the documentary just might be (and probably is) a well-orchestrated Banksy hoax. That is, MBW—even though he continues to produce art and has now designed a Madonna album cover and has had shows in L.A., New York, and Miami—is probably Banksy’s satirical creation, a figure pretending to be an artist in order for Banksy to make a mockery of the commercialization of art and the gullible public. What’s amazing is that the film works on so many levels. As a straight documentary, it’s a fascinating and entertaining portrait of the world’s greatest street artists. As an allegory for our day, it’s a deep and meaningful exploration of lie and truth, fiction and reality. As a work of art created by Banksy himself, it serves as a profound commentary on the art world and asks big philosophical questions about economics, aesthetics, ethics, and metaphysics. What is art? Or what is the value of art? Or more broadly, what is reality and how do we know what is real? It’s like the Matrix without knowing for certain whether the Matrix actually exists.

11. Repo Men. I like movies with rich themes, and Repo Men is a film of ideas. It takes place in a futuristic world where a company has developed excellent artificial organ replacements. The organs save lives and make it possible for dying brothers, fathers, mothers, and grandparents to live long, healthy lives. But the organs come at an exorbitant cost. People purchase them on credit, but when they can’t pay that’s when the repo men come in. Jude Law and Forest Whitaker play men who collect the organs. They knock people out, perform surgeries on the living room floor, in the bathroom, in the back seat of a taxi cab, or wherever, and leave the recipients to die. The corporation gets its money; the repo men get paid. It’s a perfect allegory for our debt-ridden consumerist society and the greed of big business. Warning: The film is fairly bloody, so stay away if that bothers you.

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order)

Defamation. Originally released in 2009, this documentary from a secular Israeli Jew explores the controversial issue of anti-Semitism and its role in U.S. foreign policy. The film’s underlying argument is that anti-Semitism may not be as widespread as the Anti Defamation League, the Israeli press, or the Israeli government make it out to be.  The ADL and the Israelis take the stance that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, and there are American scholars on the left who question this new definition of anti-Semitism, arguing that it serves only to provide justification for foreign aid to Israel. While the ADL visits powerful leaders across the world warning them of the growing threat of anti-Semitism, the film questions the legitimacy of these incidents. Racist attitudes are clearly still present—as demonstrated by interviews with black men on the streets in New York, but the film questions the value of what seems to be hyperbolic and trumped up incidents reported to the ADL. It also questions what seems to be indoctrination and propaganda instigated by the Israeli government in which Israeli high school kids are taught to believe that the world outside of Israel is full of anti-Semites that hate them.   

The Kids Are All Right.  It’s a mistake to pigeon-hole this film as merely a gay comedy because it’s much more than that. But it is pretty funny. It’s so refreshing to watch comedies that aren’t dependent on corny one-liners or bathroom humor. And performances by Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Mark Ruffalo are all spot-on.

Kick-Ass. I haven’t seen this film on any top-ten list. Bummer. It’s a funny and entertaining riff on the superhero genre that manages to do something very rare. It tells an effective superhero story while simultaneously making fun of superhero stories. I guess that’s a contradiction, but who cares? By the way, the trailer doesn't do it justice.

The Killer Inside Me. Warning: this is an incredibly violent and misogynistic story, and I’m not really sure if the director Michael Winterbottom is criticizing or commenting on the violence and misogyny. But despite the brutal violence (there is one scene in which a man beats a woman to death with his fists), I still found it to be a fascinating exploration into the mind of a psychopath. Not a place I want to stay long, mind you.

The King’s Speech. Collin Firth will probably win an Oscar for his performance in this film as stuttering King George VI. And he should; it’s an excellent and moving performance. The fact that he so nicely humanizes a king, something we Americans seem to disdain, is a feat in itself. It’s a feel-good movie that basically says, “If he can do this, you can do something important, too.”

The Secret in Their Eyes. Winner of the 2009 Best-Foreign-Film Academy Award, this Argentinean film tells the story of a lawyer haunted by the memory of a brutal rape and murder case. I found the first few minutes overly arty and self conscious, and it took probably twenty minutes to get into the story, but I became completely engaged after that. A gripping murder mystery and a beautiful love story, it’s also a film that asks some pretty profound questions about crime, betrayal, punishment, redemption, and what it means to be happy.

The Town. Some of the critics I read thought that this wasn’t as good as the almost universally praised Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck’s first film, but I thought The Town was better. It’s a strong genre film about a gang of expert bank robbers working in Boston. It’s a gripping, gritty, and well-paced heist film. And who doesn’t love one of those? Strong acting with Affleck and Jeremy Renner (from The Hurt Locker) and a smart script take it to the next level.

Wild Grass. A thoughtful, aesthetically gorgeous, and ambiguously philosophical rumination on aging, love, and truth. It’s a French film directed by Alain Resnais, who has been directing since the ‘50s.

Film Comment's List

The New York Times' List (go all the way below to see the list)

Sight & Sound's List

Brian Miller's List (from Seattle Weekly)

Roger Ebert's List

David Edelstein’s List (NPR’s Fresh Air and New York Magazine)