Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Armistice Day

[Read below, or listen here.]

This post is late in coming, but then so was the Armistice Day I’m writing about. Last Wednesday was indeed Veterans’ Day, but it was also the 91st anniversary of what the Commonwealth countries have long called Armistice Day. November 11 marks the end of what I suggest may be the most self-conscious war ever fought. The First World War took on the characteristics of a narrative, despite—or maybe because of—the fact that the experience of its murderous new technologies, mixed with the banal cruelty of mud, was so difficult for civilians to comprehend.

From the very beginning, this war was invested with literary qualities. It had more than one title—the Great War, the War to End All Wars. It had its writers —Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg, Blunden, among many others, sending prose and mostly poetry home from the trenches. These poets gave the war its own graphic: the poppy, an emblem movingly used to this day as a symbol of remembrance.

Most importantly, the war had an ending date and time that were consciously chosen for their symbolic resonance. The ending dates of other wars before and since have become symbolic for us after the fact. In the Great War, the Allies identified a symbol and fit the war to match it. The Great War came to an end precisely at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Has there been another war whose history was shaped to conform to an English idiom?

Among all the blunders and worse committed by the military in the prosecution of the Great War, the manner of its ending might have been one more. Might a few more lives have been saved if the German, French, and British leaders had met at Compiégne on even November 10th or 9th? In one respect, though, the Allies knew what they were doing. They were ensuring that, though their war turned out to be neither Great nor final, it would never be forgotten. And that is as it should be.

More WWI narratives:
Pat Barker’s Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road
Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong

What would you add to the list?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Reading and Listening

There's a new feature on The View Finder! Starting today, most if not all posts will be available in audio format as well. Don't have time to sit at the computer and read the post? Go to the blog on your phone and click on the link to listen instead.

Literature is changing, and the way we take in ideas should expand to accommodate that change. Besides, reading aloud is too much fun to be left to bed-time stories alone.

John Baldessari
Beethoven's Trumpet (With Ear), Opus 127 2007
Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York © John Baldessari
Resin, fibreglass, bronze, aluminuim and electronics
Tate Britain

Thursday, November 5, 2009

New Formats, New Literature?

[Rather listen to the post instead?]

I take books for granted. Not individual books. I treasure individual books. I hold onto them; I refuse to give them away or, truth be told, even lend them unless I’ve practically screened the potential borrower as carefully a nominee for the Supreme Court. But I take for granted the fact of the printed book, with its generally three hundred pages, its soft or hard binding, its black-and-white author photo, and its cryptically intriguing cover illustration. This form of narrative is more or less all I have known—even before I could read the words myself.

That’s all changing now. And I’m surprised to find that I’m not bothered. Yes, there are numerous forms now in which to experience a novel or a short story or a poem. But the existence of digital books doesn’t, I think, require the disappearance of the printed book. It’s not, as I said in a recent comment, a zero-sum game. I have yet to encounter an e-reading devotee who now refuses to read books in print. (Speaking of Books in Print, what will they title that reference volume now? Books Published? Books You Can Buy?)

What will change, though, is something about fiction itself. The technology of narrative inevitably affects the prose or poetry it’s designed to disseminate. The oral tradition gave rise to the epithet. Which one’s Athena again? The gray-eyed one. Right. You couldn’t sit through successive nights listening to stories with hundreds of characters without the crutch of labels like that. Then—I’ll skip willfully over centuries of literature—the Victorian novel had its own tricks. If you serialize a story in a monthly magazine, you’d better be sure to build in ways to remind the reader about what happed last time. Hence those long chapter titles “in which our hero discovers he is the son of a nobleman”. Hence the cliffhanger ending and the scene-setting beginning.

These literary devices haven’t gone away. It’s just that now they might turn up more often on television. In fact, television keeps bringing us closer and closer to these older literary forms. Where we once used to have (and still have vestiges of) the sitcom with its stand-alone episodes and perfect closure, we now have complicated serials that create suspense week to week and that require and, in many cases, reward a viewer’s dedication. We’re now used to that “Last week on” preface to many byzantinely-plotted shows like Lost or Gray’s Anatomy. And shows like the numerous anagram spin-offs rely on predictable moments, like visual epithets, to help individual characters stand out from the crowd of law-and-order professionals. We really haven’t left the Victorian novel or the epic very far behind.

The question is what will be the literary devices of the new generation of narratives? If we’re reading a novel on our cell-phones, as we could do in Japan, surely the form of the narrative has to be different. And if we’re reading a short story on a website or on Twitter, or listening to a book that’s been written exclusively for audio distribution? How will the structure and the language of these new forms reflect the technology we use to take them in?

My own experiences with iPhone literature have so far been fairly limited to what I have stumbled on through Stanza and Classics, where there is a prevalence of Jane Austen (actually, I defy someone to tell me where, besides perhaps a Monster Trucks rally, there is not a prevalence of Jane Austen). Which raises the question: besides the superhuman Jane, how well are older more traditional forms of narrative surviving on these new technologies? How is Dickens faring on a digi-book? How is Shakespeare on a cell-phone?

What’s your experience been with new ways of reading? Embracing them? Keeping them at arm’s length?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bright Star: The Body of Poetry

Jane Campion has succeeded in making a hyper-physical movie about a Romantic poet whose body is failing him and a woman whose art consists in sewing elaborate garments to cover nearly every inch of the human form. That she has done so is testament to her intelligent filmmaking and to the consistency of her vision for Bright Star, the story of John Keats’ relationship with Fanny Brawne. Every aspect of the film—from its opening hyper-close-up of a needle piercing fabric, to the astounding performance of Abbie Cornish—works to convey the idea, or rather the feeling, of poetry. Campion has made a movie about poetry that unwinds Wordsworth’s famous definition. If poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility, Campion takes us back through the poetry to the raw emotions that produced it. (read an interview with Campion here)

Those emotions find their superb voice in Cornish. There is nothing histrionic about her performance. In fact, she carries herself with a stillness that somehow manages to focus the viewer’s attention all the more on her physical presence. She has the ability of the best actors to register subtle shifts of feeling with tiny changes in expression. But more than that, she presents love, sadness, grief as physical sensations so palpable that we can’t help but share them. Since it’s common knowledge that Keats died at twenty-five, it isn’t spoiling the plot to refer to the scene in which Cornish’s Fanny learns of his death. This scene alone, which includes some lovely acting by Kerry Fox, would be enough to make Bright Star worth seeing.

In writing the screenplay, Campion had the challenge of how to represent the writing of poetry, and how to work the text of that poetry into the film without making it seem artificial. Unlike the scenes of Shakespeare’s mad writing frenzies in Shakespeare in Love, or Jane Austen’s ecstatic all-nighter in Becoming Jane, Campion gives us images of Ben Whishaw as Keats doing a variety of things that actually resemble acts of writing. Sometimes with the supervision of his protector Charles Armitage Brown, Whishaw’s Keats sits and stares, he jots notes, he composes aloud, he pores over scraps on which parts of a poem are scrawled out of order, and he recites a new poem from memory, seeming to form it even as he recollects it.

As naturally as the poetry is created, so too is it spoken—either within the narrative of the film or as voice-over (notably with the film’s final credits, which it is worth staying for). When Keats and Brawne take turns reciting lines from La Belle Dame Sans Merci, it isn’t as if they’re reciting at all. They’re taking the poetry back to the passion that lies beneath it.

Though Bright Star finishes with the sound of Whishaw’s voice reciting a poem over the credits, the film opens with an image that signals its central concern. We see an extended shot of a needle and thread filmed in such tight close-up that the needle looks like a pike and the thread like a hawser. This is Fanny Brawne’s art—fashion—and while she creates distinctive and intricate garments for herself, there is nothing delicate about her or her art. Assertive and confident, she makes no apologies for her dedication to what she herself calls the superficial things (along with flirting and dancing). She is an innovator, proudly announcing that hers is the first dress in two counties to feature a mushroom collar. A lesser film-maker might have allowed this story to become a quasi-feminist equation between the famous poet and the unsung designer. In Campion’s hands, Bright Star is instead an exploration of Fanny Brawne’s experience of making, quite literally, her place in the world—through her clothes, her curiosity, and her emotions.

If there is one weakness in Campion’s film, it is in the puzzling absence of artist’s errors. We never see Fanny’s scissors waver; we never see her tear out a hem. Nor do we ever see Keats labor for a word as we certainly see him (and later Fanny) labor for breath. It’s an odd depiction, actually: artists for whom art seems to come easily, whose ideas all seem to make creative sense. With her camera’s emphasis on the concrete materials of her protagonists’ arts—fabric and paper filmed in extreme close-up—it’s as if Campion wants to insist that art is nothing more than the diligent execution of a fluently conceived idea.

Then again, this is what Keats was describing when he coined the term "negative capability," the ability to reside in uncertainty, to forego "any irritable reaching after fact or reason." An artist experiencing this state of mind is content simply with beauty and with what Keats called half-knowledge. Could it be, then, that Campion's film is true to Keats not only in evoking his life's great love, but also by replicating the conditions in which he wrote his greatest poetry?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

When is a Book not a Book?

Yesterday’s New York Times ran a photograph that made me stop and stare. It wasn’t, thankfully, an image of war’s horrors or a natural disaster. It was a photograph of the young Walter Cronkite, a pipe in his mouth, reading a book. I glanced at the picture, scanned the article, which explained that Cronkite had bequeathed his papers to his alma mater, and then began to turn the page. But Cronkite’s pose was so startling that I turned the paper back, and stared.

There was such contentment in the way he sat, legs propped up on a desk, holding the book loosely in his lap—a sense that his mind was firmly on the words written on the page before him. Now, when we see people reading in public, they are usually negotiating between competing information sources all contained on one screen. There are plenty of readers out there—even readers of actual physical books—but our image of what it looks like to be reading has changed. It’s the ready-for-anything one-handed hold on a smartphone.

Not so long ago, I decried this cultural slide into what I saw as a devaluing of literature. How can you immerse yourself in someone else’s imagination—and sink into your own imagination—if you can’t sit quietly with just the story in front of you, printed on actual paper? Surely there’s something about the technology of ink on paper that shapes the way our brains interact with stories. (See the Times' Room for Debate blog post on the subject.) Now I know that there are numerous reasons to see the explosion of electronic books—and, before them, audiobooks—as not a threat to literature but an expansion of it, a blossoming of the art form to embrace multiple technologies. And who better to spur my thoughts on all of this than Walter Cronkite, a man famous for his role in what was once the new and misunderstood technology of our time? (How many households had televisions in the first years of the Sixties? How many don’t have at least one now?)

Still, old habits die hard. Note that I was turning the actual page of a physical copy of the New York Times. And know that just last week, after finishing my fourth reading of Tom Drury’s fine novel The End of Vandalism, I held the book in my hands for a moment, and—I confess—caressed the cover before setting it carefully down in my pile. The book as loved object is a powerful thing. I suspect I am not alone in viewing my library as a treasured chronicle of my intellectual and emotional history.

And here is where things become complicated. Barnes & Noble has announced their new e-reader, the Nook, and it is a thing of beauty. On the Nook website today, I was dazzled by the object itself as much as by its abilities. I began to muster reasons why I should own one. The technology creates the use and then the need, doesn’t it? I even clicked on the accessories page to see which cover I might purchase for my very own Nook. Among the selections was one cover so meta that it would make post-structuralist theorists weep with joy: in “100% cotton canvas with painted polyurethane coating,” the cover is designed to look just like the first page of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (whose title they get wrong). It’s the equivalent of a brown-paper wrapper, giving the Nook the legitimacy of ink and paper.

The tongue-in-cheek of this cover appeals to me. It’s a kind of anti-Magritte. He painted a pipe and captioned it “ceci n’est pas une pipe”. Barnes & Noble makes an electronic device and effectively captions it with “yes this is a book”. But my bookstore-haunting, book-buying, book-hoarding self retorts: it isn’t a book. And it's name even says so (or else what's the N there for?) The Nook is the same object whether you’ve purchased and are reading Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next, G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, or Tuesdays with Morrie. The Nook doesn't know, doesn't care. Oh, sure, you can see the cover art in a kind of iTunes-y cover flow screen, but all three of these books will feel the same, smell the same, weigh the same. I think this a bad thing. Or is it?

I was just at the point of determining to resist the blandishments of the Nook and of electronic readers in general when a thought from the other part of my life—the rowing part of my life—rushed into my mind. Every February, Boston holds the World Indoor Rowing Championships, a regatta conducted entirely on rowing machines (ergometers). When I first saw the ranks upon ranks of ergometers at the 1996 CRASH-Bs, as they are called colloquially (for Charles River All Star Has-Beens), I knew I was witnessing a truly post-modern moment. But at no point did I worry that all this virtual rowing would damage the sport of actual rowing on actual water.

The inaugural CRASH-Bs took place in 1982, with ergometers made of bicycle wheels and odometers. The digital revolution that would bring in the Nook was already on its way.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Verb Tenses: A Revelation

For a few years now, I’ve had a running disagreement with my writer friend Randy Susan Meyers.* I’ve learned a great deal from her: the importance of adding misery to your characters’ lives, the need to keep the plot moving through a series of “little wants”. But I confess to mostly ignoring Randy’s comments about my verb tenses. The problem? She finds fault with what she calls my overuse of the word “was”—as in “she was sitting,” “the wind was blowing”. Change them to simple past, she says. She sat. The wind blew.

I do see how cutting out “was” after “was” can streamline a narrative. It’s like a sprinter tweaking some small element of posture to cut milliseconds off his stride. Add all those saved milliseconds up, and you’ve gained some speed (and brought down your word count). Still, I resisted making this change in my style because I could never see why it was wrong. How could you start a paragraph, or a chapter, by saying “she sat”? You needed a verb form that implied a more general state of being, a pre-existing condition, in a way. Hence, “she was sitting”. If you said “she sat,” that was like saying she had decided to take a seat in a chair at that very moment.

Then it hit me. All this time—years and years—I have been writing in English but thinking in Greek, which is, in fact, my first language. In Greek, to say “she sat” (E-ka-tse) is to describe a specific and finite event: the moment the woman takes a seat. If we Greeks want to describe a condition (to explain, for instance, a woman’s location in a room), we use a different verb form—one that says, in effect, “she was sitting” (ka-THO-ta-ne). English takes the all-you-can-eat approach. One verb tense to accomplish two things. All this time, I could have been using the Swiss Army knife of verb tenses and having that woman just sit. Instead, I kept hearing the English words through a Greek filter. In a languorous Mediterranean way, the woman was sitting, and sitting, and sitting.

Randy, I concede partial defeat. I won’t change them all, but I’ll change the ones I really should change.

It would be nice to think of myself as in the company of Stoppard or Nabokov—writers who have made lasting marks on the literature of a language not their own. I bet if I looked again at Speak, Memory, I’d find some extra verb forms, or some Latinate diction where none is needed. And doesn’t all of Stoppard’s incredible oeuvre prove his foreignness? Who but an acquirer of English could wield it with such delight and precision?

But who am I kidding? Nabokov and Stoppard produced masterpieces and I just keep getting idioms wrong. It’s the elephant in my closet.

*Randy's novel The Murderer's Daughters out in January 2010 (St. Martin's Press)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Incandescently: More Frequently

At the end of Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice—in which he turns Jane Austen into Charlotte Brontë but nobody seems to mind—Lizzie tells her newly-wedded Darcy that he should call her “Mrs. Darcy” only when he is “completely and perfectly and incandescently happy”. Incandescently.

The word doesn’t appear in Austen’s text. This is easy to imagine, since incandescent only took on a secondary meaning of passionate or intense in the second half of the nineteenth century (according to the OED). Of course, the whole implicitly post-coital scene is absent from Austen’s novel. Not even the Brontës would stoop to such coarseness, never mind Our Jane!

Deborah Moggach, who wrote the screenplay, made a decent choice of words here.* Beneath its posh and old-fashioned sound, incandescently hints at the passion that hangs over so much of Wright’s physicalized retelling of the novel.

Still, incandescently is a weird word. And it seems to be cropping up in more and more places. In Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel Sarah’s Key, published two years before Wright’s adaptation, a character’s face is “beautiful, incandescent with joy and excitement.” De Rosnay is French but of English and Russian descent. Is it possible that incandescent is more commonly used in French? Or Russian? Somehow, I don’t think so (but I would like to know if any native French or Russian speakers feel differently).

Then recently, on the popular blog Jezebel, a critique of Caitlin Flanagan’s Atlantic article on infidelity finds that “Flanagan has some incandescently insulting things to say about [Rielle] Hunter.” I am happy to stay out of the argument over John Edwards, his sex life, and Helen Gurley Brown (yes, Flanagan weaves it all together). But I can’t help noticing that word again. It’s used just the way it was used in the second issue of the Edinburgh Review, in 1803: “More incandescently wrongheaded than any body else.” Maybe the Edinburgh Review editor was chastising some Scottish politician’s mistress?

What is it about incandescent that is making people (admittedly, only three people in four years) want to use it? Is it its length—the four syllables seeming to draw out and emphasize the passion or fury the word is intended to signify? Is it all those vowels? Or is it just me?

*Emma Thompson is listed as an uncredited writer of some of the dialogue. Perhaps we owe incandescent to her? And if so, are we inclined to like the choice better—because she can do no wrong?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: Waiting for Lefors

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid possesses the mixed blessing of the iconic film. We know and admire it as a series of greatest-hits moments, but we’ve lost the feel for the entire movie. Stumbling across it on cable, we might watch a moment or two, savor a beloved line, and then move on. It’s an old movie, after all, and we already know all the best parts: “who are those guys?”, the jump from the cliff, Katharine Ross riding on Paul Newman’s handlebars, the goofy Bacharach music.

But watching the 1969 film again in its entirety is a revelation. It begins slowly, sadly, with an extended faux vintage newsreel. It goes on with long stretches in which virtually nothing is said. Minutes pass in which we have only the sound of hooves and tackle and feet scrambling over dry ground. The generally languorous pace of this film fails to hide that it is nothing more than one long pursuit with a grim outcome.

Yes, William Goldman’s dialogue is witty throughout, and Newman and Redford bring true élan to their portrayal of the two bandits. But what emerges from a re-viewing of the film is its underlying melancholy, signaled right from the beginning by the mournful pianola sound that accompanies the sepia shots of robbers and trains.

While George Roy Hill made a name for himself as the director who played with the camera—using peephole and window-frame effects both here and in 1973’s The Sting—it’s his static, wide-angle frames that lend Butch Cassidy its unique look and give it its serious undertone. Time and time again, Conrad Hall’s cinematography contain two elements, one near, one far, their distance collapsed by a flat depth of field. Hall’s camerawork provides a visual correspondence for the theme of the film: connection and entrapment, and always the effort to get away.

George Roy Hill plays with the dualism of the western—here, the bad guy (who is actually a good guy, a lawman) wears a white hat. He turns the classic opposition into a partnership, and not just between Butch and Sundance but also between the two of them and the authorities who pursue them. As we watch frame after frame of the two bandits in the foreground with their pursuers a dust-cloud in the background, we come to see the two sides not so much as opposed but linked. It’s a stranglehold that none of the parties involved can escape.

Watching the whole film for the first time in many years, I was struck by the inexorability of this pursuit. No longer the starry-eyed adolescent who first came across the film on television or in some secondary release, I could see the worry, the fatigue in—especially—Newman’s eyes.

This time, the famous line “Who are those guys?”, repeated as the white-hatted Joe Lefors tracks Butch and Sundance to a dead-end cliff, seemed to me to echo the desperation of another well-known iteration: “Let’s go.” “We can’t.” “Why not?” “We’re waiting for Godot.” Yes, Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon famously stay in one place, waiting for a mysterious figure who never arrives. Yes, Butch and Sundance are always on the move. They’re neither hoping nor waiting for the man they know is coming to kill them. But they are expecting him. And in that, they’re not so different from Didi and Gogo.

Aren’t all four men waiting for death and trying to stave off death at the same time? Aren’t they all bantering their time away, slipping occasionally into the despair that underlies their situation? “Who are those guys?” is, in a way, saying the same thing that Didi and Gogo say when they simultaneously propose departure and quash all hopes of it.

It’s easy to see Butch and Sundance as a sixties counter-culture movie only thinly disguised as a western (and that is how its trailers pitched it back then). Coming out just two months after Woodstock, the film has us rooting for the outlaws—and against the authorities—from the very outset. At times, with their sideburns and boots and corduroy, Newman and Redford seem to have wandered in from San Francisco or Harvard Square. But the movie is richer than that, more complicated, like the Sixties themselves, I suppose. Beneath the charm and the devil-may-care attitudes of its good-looking heroes is the sad fact that they are set on a course that will kill them.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Summer Reading

In today’s New York Times, commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg raises the essential question every avid reader faces, for some inexplicable reason, the moment school ends and blockbusters fill the multiplexes: what to read. He answers it in characteristic Klinkenborg fashion—thoughtfully, without sure conclusion, but with insights that are as true as they seem familiar. Here is what he says about choosing the last book of the summer.
The book I want is a vortex. When I lower my eyes to it, I’m sucked deep into a place more plausible than the one that surrounds me. When I look up, I want the actual life around me to look strange and original, like a brand new page in a pop-up world.

This is asking an awful lot of a book, I know. Or it would be, if readers weren’t such willing collaborators, if we weren’t so susceptible to the power of suggestion. And yet there’s a practical, skeptical vein in most of us, too — even when seeking an August escape. There’s no such thing, for instance, as a placebo book. All the recommendations of friends and critics will carry us only so far. Ultimately, a book has to meet the test of our own experience, which is a reminder of just how much we live books out as we read them.

Nothing “about” a book can tell you whether this will be true love. Only the book itself can say. For the first few pages, my reading feels provisional, probing, just as it always does. But soon that feeling dissipates. The traces of uncertainty vanish. So, somehow, does the ink on the page, and I realize that I’m looking through the book as if it were translucent. This remains, after a lifetime of reading, a mystery and a joy.

“How much we live books out as we read them.” Indeed. This is why the choice of what to read during this slowed-down time of summer is so important—because we’ll remember those books long after we’ll remember a book we read, say, in October. We’ll remember those books in a different way, too. Not just as stories we liked or were disappointed by, but as lives that became woven in with our own—events that colored our thinking in the way that a dream can affect our moods long after we wake up.

One summer, my studies required me to read the collected works of Charles Dickens and a handful of other Victorian writers. I began with Dickens in June, certain I would hate him and determined to get the worst over with. The Brontës would be my reward in August. Something tells me I began not with The Pickwick Papers (because if I had, I would have been tempted not to continue), but with Oliver Twist, next in the chronology. I read every evening after work and virtually all day on Saturdays and Sundays, managing to finish a 900-page Penguin Classic each week (I was then, and remain, a slow reader), going through the familiar Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby; gagging on the maudlin Old Curiosity Shop; thankful for Sairey Gamp who showed up to brighten the otherwise dry Martin Chuzzlewit; and marveling at the four great novels that came almost in straight succession: Dombey and Son, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend. A more sustained reverie on the darkness of human nature—and the comedy that survives it—doesn’t exist, in my opinion, in English literature. Decades later, that reading of Dickens remains my most treasured reading experience. The fact that it occurred in summer is, I think, no coincidence.

By the time I reached The Mystery of Edwin Drood, sometime at the end of July, I was distraught. The world I had lived in for ten or so weeks was shutting down, closing its doors, and leaving me on the wrong side. I remember that time in my life vividly—the rattan chair I sat in for all my reading, the gypsy moths outside chomping the leaves that year, my absent-mindedness as I went to work after a night of Sairey Gamp putting drinks on her “manklepidge” or Flora Casby mincing about her drawing room or Bradley Headstone and his spontaneous nose-bleed. What happened then, and what happens with some regularity with most books I read, is what Klinkenborg describes as the disappearance of the ink on the page. He’s absolutely right: it’s that experience of “looking through the book as if it were translucent”. It is, as he says, a mystery and a joy.

My Bleak House, however, and my Little Dorrit are now a little less translucent than they used to be. So are my Atonement and my Sense and Sensibility, thanks to their film or television adaptations. Dorrit was slimmer before I saw Matthew McFayden; I always saw Jo’s street crossing from the other side of the street. Even in cases where the casting gets the character’s looks right—as is the case, I think, with Gillian Anderson’s Lady Dedlock who looks just like George Cruikshank’s Victorian illustrations—the movie image is just too overpowering, too vivid.

I suppose I could have refused to watch when these novels turned up on the screen, or on PBS via the BBC. But like many of us, I couldn’t resist another chance to inhabit the world I knew so well. It’s a small-scale Faustian bargain, though: hand the man your ticket, but the place you’re going to will never be the same. Or, more accurately, it’s Eurydice and Orpheus: look back one more time, and you lose the ability to inhabit that world without reservation or limit.

Am I making too much of this? Of course. It’s not life and death, after all. But it’s narrative, and that is a very powerful thing. The good news is that we have it better than Eurydice. We can pull the book down from the shelf and—as long as it doesn’t have the movie-tie-in cover—sink back into the fictional world as we first and then again and again imagined it. Our pictures of the books we read don’t stay the same, after all. They change with us, from one reading, one summer, to the next.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Julie and Julia: Bittersweet

When people stay in their seats to watch the credits of a movie, they generally do so in silence, feeling slightly embarrassed about their need to know which stately home stood in for the heroine’s abode, or who sang that vaguely familiar song at the end. And when the relevant information is relayed on screen, these determined credit-watchers nod to themselves, murmur something thoughtful, and shuffle out, barely avoiding the teenaged boy who has come to sweep out the empty popcorn bags.

With Julie and Julia, this is not the case—at least it was not the case in the Greater Boston theater where I viewed the film on its opening day. With Julie and Julia, nearly the entire audience remained in their seats while the credits rolled. But they weren’t paying attention to the credits. Instead, they were all in animated conversation, torsos twisted towards each other in little clusters, talking about cooking, about the movie, and about memories of the movie’s protagonist Julia Child. The thought of leaving the convivial space of the movie theater was far from everyone’s mind until the hiss of the white screen forced people to leave.

Like a good meal shared with good friends, Julie and Julia makes people happy. It is not a complicated entertainment. In fact, it’s more of a Perfect Omelet of a movie than a Duck en Croûte sort of film. It doesn’t aspire to challenge its viewers with too much contemplation, but it succeeds utterly in the very straightforward mission it sets out for itself: to regale us with the life of a beloved icon, and, through the character of blogger Julie Powell, to make us feel better about ourselves for having known or learned about her.

How could Julie and Julia not succeed? It has Nora Ephron’s hilarious dialogue; it has Meryl Streep adding Child-ese to her quiver of accents; it has the lovely pairing of Streep and Stanley Tucci who were so well-matched in The Devil Wears Prada; it has Jane Lynch in a role that finally makes the most of her forceful physical presence; and it has Amy Adams doing a nice job in a role that sadly doesn’t require very much of her at all. This last is not Adams’ fault, of course, but rather has to do with the one flaw in the film—about which more later. Most of all, Julie and Julia is the antacid to Nora Ephron’s much earlier film about food and marriage, Heartburn. Never mind that montage of all four protagonists popping Tums. In Julie and Julia, the two marriages are happy and loving. Paul and Julia Child’s especially is joyful and robust (though we do wonder at times whether the filmmakers brought in Peter Jackson to work some Frodo/Gandalf magic with Tucci’s and Streep’s heights.) And though Powell’s marriage undergoes a slight hitch when food and cooking seem to push the husband (Chris Messina) out of the way, the problem is resolved quickly and without trauma. The night (or two or three?) that Eric Powell spends living in his office handily serves as the obstacle to be overcome in the film’s modified romance structure.

There is no question that part of what led my Greater-Boston audience to linger in the theatre was the movie’s depiction of two success stories. Julia Child gets her twice-rejected manuscript published as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Julie Powell gets her blog made into a book, made into a movie (which the film cleverly jokes about in the credits). Both women’s husbands share in their successes without visible envy or bitterness. But here is where the film presents a problem. For what it seems to say quite clearly, if you look past the supposed evenness of its structure, is that we live in a fallen world. And by “we” I mean those of us cooking and eating in twenty-first century America.

The film’s title is rendered Julie & Julia but it might as well be Julie < Julia. The soufflé in Powell’s kitchen stays up, but everything else about her world is a fallen copy of that better world inhabited by Julia Child. Compare the two women’s lives: Child has French doors, French windows, France. Powell has a cluttered Queens apartment above a pizza joint. Child has markets where she can buy gleaming fish and glistening produce. Powell has Gristede’s. Julia and Paul Child enjoy their meals with good manners. Powell’s husband can’t stop talking with his mouth full. And most of all, Julie Powell aspires to Julia Child’s life. Julia Child lives it.

What does it say about twenty-first century existence that it can be considered a triumph to follow someone else’s life? Obviously, we live in a virtual time. But do we live in a derivative time, too? Child’s road to success was to follow something she loved passionately and to push and push until she was able to pursue it. Powell’s road to success was to imitate. When we watch the film, we have a choice, I suppose, to consider Powell as Child’s equal partner: they are two women who find themselves through cooking—and, in so doing, rescue the endeavor from its “little lady at the stove” image. But to choose this interpretation is to ignore the film’s underlying message. Powell is our equal, not Child’s. Like us, she comes home weary to cramped and imperfect real estate; she takes on more than she can always manage; she multi-tasks. Like Powell, no matter how skilled we are with our skillets, the vast majority of us will never have Child’s impact on a culture.

Ephron is a master of hiding sadness in the center of an otherwise lighthearted movie (Heatburn, or even When Harry Met Sally). She has done the same here. Her movie lets us keep our icon on her pedestal and tells us all the while that we don’t have to aspire to anything particularly grand in order for our lives to have meaning. It’s a consoling vision—and a bitter one.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Free Association Reviewing: The Bourne Identity

The DVD of The International is now out (my review coming soon), which leads me to think of its director, Tom Tykwer, which makes me thing of his earlier film, Run Lola Run, which makes me think of its redhaired star, Franka Potente, which makes me think of another film she appears in in which red again plays a prominent role: The Bourne Identity.

Doug Limon’s taut version of the Robert Ludlum thriller does numerous things just right: the casting of Matt Damon for the combined innocence and cruelty of his face; the editing (which went to pot in the second Bourne film when excessive quick cuts confused the action); the setting in a drab European winter; the music, from Moby’s closing theme to the relentless push of Oakenfold’s "Ready, Steady, Go" for the car chase; and actors like Chris Cooper and Brian Cox and Potente to round out the strong cast. With all this cinematic excitement telling the story of a man who does not know who he is, we might overlook a small detail that, in my mind, elevates The Bourne Identity to the level of an art film: Limon’s use of the color red, which appears in some object in nearly every single scene.

We notice the red in the film’s very first shot. A body is floating in the open sea at night. The image is a range of grays and blacks, except for one dot of red from a beacon on the man’s clothing. The color is more than incidental to the shot, and more than just a plot point telling us Bourne’s body will be found. It signals the kind of world we—and Bourne—have been immersed in: a world in which the essential elements exist in relation to technology, in which Bourne’s search for his identity will be compromised and defined by the gadgetry of espionage.

From there, the red goes on: Bourne’s sweater, his puffy jacket, the bag in which he dumps the contents of the safe-deposit box, the flowers in the otherwise gray CIA lunch room, Marie’s Mini, and of course, the red streak in her hair. This is only a partial list. I guarantee you that nearly every shot of the film contains something that doesn’t have to be red but is.

The question is why? Did Limon begin with the beacon or red bag and then build in the rest of the objects because he thought the red looked cool? Is the use of red nothing more than a visual motif, just because? It’s tempting to think that, after casting Potente as Marie, Limon decided to make a film-length in-joke about her previous film and Lola’s famous blaze of bright red hair. But there has to be another reason. Otherwise, we would either have to believe that Limon is the only filmmaker to adopt a quirk like this or that this kind of superficial Motif With No Meaning is going on in countless other movies and we simply haven’t noticed.

I’ll admit that for me, watching The Bourne Identity, which I seem to do with some frequency, does turn into a game of Where’s Waldo as I note with pleasure each instance of something red in the grays and browns of Limon’s wintry Europe. Other viewers are probably happy to watch Matt Damon search for his identity without noticing the color of his bag, his jacket, or his borrowed car. And failing to notice the red does nothing to diminish their appreciation of the film.

But after watching the film on a plane recently, when my attention was less than complete, I was struck with what I think explains Limon’s use of the color. The red is there, all the time, whether we notice it or not. We are likely vaguely aware of it on some subliminal level. It is a detail that doesn’t generally alter the course of events or shape people’s reactions. It becomes a constant in the film nonetheless.

The red objects that punctuate the film give us a sense of what Bourne himself is experiencing. Like Bourne, we go from the open ocean, to Marseille, to Paris knowing there is meaning out there, often close at hand, but never close enough for us to pin it down. It’s the notion of identity itself as the amnesiac Bourne experiences it. If Limon has done this on purpose, it’s a stroke of genius, and it explains why The Bourne Identity is so much more resonant than the clunky novel it is based on, and so much more powerful than just another fast-paced action film.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Up: Good

A Boston-area moviegoer headed for the Dedham Community Theatre this weekend had a choice of two movies that could not be more different: the execrable Angels and Demons, and the perfect Up. (The moviegoer would also be able to visit the fabulous Museum of Bad Art, located near the men’s room in the basement of the theater, but that is a story for another day.) It’s an odd pairing, but I assume the theater managers were planning to hedge good taste against bad.

Up and Angels and Demons have only one thing in common: they both feature, to varying degrees, a man borne aloft by an aerial device. But while the parachute from which the priest dangles in the Dan Brown movie is just one more agent of the destruction of goodness (cinematic and otherwise), the balloons that tug Mr. Fredricksen’s house off its foundation are agents, emblems, and reminders—all in one—of unbounded hope and loyalty. The rainbow colors of the balloons appear like visual grace notes in Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s film—in a little girl’s rug, in the badges on a wilderness explorer’s sash, in the wooden bird that sits on Mr. Fredericksen’s mantle piece as a reminder of his life with his beloved Ellie, and in the plumage of a comically expressive exotic bird. It’s a bit of a cliché idea: the rainbow as a sign of goodness and innocence. But it works here—largely because Docter and Peterson bind their symbolism up neatly in a plot that keeps the viewer deeply engaged.

It bears repeating: Up is perfect. (Not everyone agrees with me. Click here.) And it is an unusual movie, as well. Suitable for older children (the PG-13 rating is well earned), it is at the same time a thoroughly grown-up film. Its concerns are the concerns of adults: the loneliness of advancing age, and the combined burden and release of memory. Wonderfully voiced by Ed Asner (loveable curmudgeon to a generation of television-watchers), Mr. Fredricksen illuminates for us the fine line between loyalty and stubbornness as he eventually realizes he must let go (quite literally) of the past. Up doesn’t repudiate the power of memory, but it leads us—laughing and crying—to see the beauty and the joy in forming new bonds and new dreams.

As for that laughing and crying. Plenty of movies generate either tears, or tears of laughter. Few—and in this reviewer’s experience, no others—can generate both. I suppose it helps to be a dog owner, and to understand how true it is when a dog—thanks to his master’s invention of a speaking collar—says something like: “I was hiding under your porch because I love you” (the last two words drawn out in utmost sincerity). But even a dog-avoider will laugh at the wonderful mix of pomposity and shame, goofiness and rote obedience that Up’s large pack of speaking dogs demonstrates.

And it’s not just the dogs that are funny in Up. There is that exotic bird, and the wilderness explorer voiced by Jordan Nagai, and perhaps most of all, the clever visual language of Pixar’s animators, who constantly delight and surprise us with the ingenuity of their images. (Poker-playing dogs find their movie home here in a brief flourish.)

The tears. They need no further explaining than a reminder of what the film is about: loneliness and loyalty. An old man desperate to fulfill his and his beloved’s lifelong dream. A little boy eager to Assist Someone, and to fill the hole in his sash full of badges. A bird determined to protect her babies. A dog eager to be loved. Have I said enough? When you go, bring tissues.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Run Pee: Don't Want To Miss Anything

This may be the most ingenious movie-related invention since cupholders in cinema seats. Dan Florio (hear him on All Things Considered) has created a website that identifies the precise moments in a movie when getting up to go to the bathroom won't cost you much in terms of significant cinematic moments. The name of the website? Run Pee. It's simple, it's straightforward, it's brilliant.

Who among us hasn't experienced that terrible ambivalence as we weigh a full bladder against the risk of missing the Big Revelation or the Big Kiss? Run Pee makes it so we will never have to endure this crisis again. As long as the movie we're interested in has already been screened for "pee times" by the Run Pee community, we need never agonize in a movie seat again.

Here's how it works: you go to the site and click on the movie you want from the list of screened films. This opens a page that indicates where exactly, in the time-line of the movie, the peeing moment occurs. You needn't worry about spoilers. Run Pee gives you the cue to get out of your seat, and then provides scrambled text that will tell you what's happening while you're in the bathroom. If you don't want to know ahead of time, don't click to de-scramble.

It won't be long before pee times become a form of the most basic movie criticism: the more awful the movie, the longer the pee time.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Angels and Demons: Stay Away

Mindful of the Obama enormity/enormousness kerfuffle (thankfully clarified by William Safire in March), I feel I should be careful before I use the word heinous for a movie. But if there was ever a movie that deserved the word, it is Ron Howard’s Angels and Demons, which sets a new standard for cinematic hateful evil.

It seems to me that the mini-furor (in comparison to the Da Vinci Code outcry) about the second Dan Brown film is entirely misplaced. Anyone who decries the film’s portrayal of the Catholic church hasn’t noticed that Howard’s depictions of violence are straight out of medieval representations of Christian Hell. There is more than enough fire and brimstone—not to mention unmentionable things done with rodents, brands, and weighted movers’ dollys—to go around. And for what? To spin out the story of a corrupt church embroiled in high-level conspiracy? When you put it this way, it’s not even a new story. Vatican conspiracies have been around as long as there have been Swiss Guards in Disneyland-style outfits. And so, at the film’s two-hour mark, faced with the imminent appearance of a scene of yet another symbolic branding, I had enough. Angels and Demons can claim the title of First Movie I Have Ever Walked Out Of.

Just before this breaking point in the movie, Howard and his screenwriters (if not Dan Brown himself) seemed to be saying something potentially interesting. In order to rescue the Vatican, Rome, the Church, and maybe even the world, the Camerlengo, a seemingly humble priest played with polished civility by Ewan MacGregor, takes a capsule of anti-matter up into the heavens in a helicopter (conveniently, in his youth, he trained as a helicopter pilot). Earlier in the film, someone mentions terrorists—of the suicide-bombing sort. When we see the heli-bound Camerlengo praying as the anti-matter’s timer counts down, we know we are about to witness a suicide bombing of a completely different sort. The explosion takes place, filling the night sky with lurid mauves, blues, and oranges—and quite neatly resembling the Sistine ceiling Howard has made sure to show us earlier. We are watching the self-immolation of one man so that he can save, not kill, thousands.

Or so we think. Because actually, the Camerlengo emerges from the still-throbbing explosion, dangling from a parachute. He is alive! If it is possible for a movie to jump the shark, Angels and Demons does it right here. Brown’s perverse instinct for the grotesque and the macabre—and his thoroughly deaf ear to the rhythms of narrative—compel him to keep the story going. Onwards, to another twist, to another branding, and to Tom Hanks’ rueful assertion that science and religion must coexist (I’m guessing on that last part. Did I get it right?).

As for Tom Hanks—at least we can say it’s nice to see him looking fit. Has he been working out? His character, Robert Langdon, is a fascinating creation in today’s world. A “symbologist”—I defy you to find a scholar anywhere who identifies him or herself this way—Langdon inhabits a world whose certainty hasn’t been seen since Sherlock Holmes could parse the life habits of an individual by looking at the polish of his shoes. Even a passing acquaintance of Photoshop tells you nothing is necessarily as it seems in the 21st century. And yet, for Langdon, everything is exactly as it seems. Statues’ arrows point in only one direction; maps can be read only one way; when carvings are considered sculpture, the assessment proves to be spot on. Even when, as in the case of the Bad Men of the church, no one is who he seems to be, everyone cooperates by being exactly his opposite. It’s amazing! Robert Langdon has escaped from Marvel Comics. The Symbologist! Surely the Riddler’s arch-enemy.

Angels and Demons is a movie full of wannabe symbols and real-life (or CGI) images of some of the world’s most famous art. But all that beauty, the movie is engulfed by images of detestable violence. You leave the cinema, alas, not thinking of the beauty of the Sistine Chapel (or even of Howard’s lovely nighttime explosion), but of scenes of cruelty that, like the movie itself, you’d prefer to forget.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past: Humbug

There is a moment near the end of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (GOGP) when a single tear rolls from Jennifer Garner’s right eye as she listens to Matthew McConaughey’s Big Speech of Wisdom and Repentance. The instant the tear falls, Garner makes a little twitch and it looks for all the world as if she has genuinely surprised herself. I would be surprised, too. For there is not much that is surprising in this remake of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by way of Hugh Hefner.

In fact, the makers of GOGP seem to have gone to unusual lengths to produce some of the unoriginality that appears in this film. Some degree of unoriginality goes with the territory here. This is a chick flick, and as with any established genre, it is practically required to offer up a standard list of narrative elements. In this case: the adolescent and unrequited romance, the pining young woman, the secretly unhappy object of her affection, the epiphany, the reconciliation. There is even the montage of relationship scenes, displayed to the soundtrack of Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time—though writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore try to have their cliché cake and eat it too by making Emma Stone’s Ghost of Girfriends Past alert us to it.

But especially in the little things, Lucas and Moore have been downright lazy. Need someone to play a young Jennifer Garner? Easy: get the kid from 13 Going on 30. Need a setting for a romantic revelation? No problem: a swing set worked wonders for 13 Going on 30. Looking for a potential romantic partner for Garner’s character? How about Daniel Sunjata (The Devil Wears Prada)? He’s nice to look at, and he’s already played Garner’s would-be lover—on a Broadway stage in last year’s Cyrano.

There’s a laziness to the filming, as well. Much of the movie is shot indoors, in a mansion that is supposed to be on Long Island but that exists in real life in suburban Boston. I understand that it’s a winter wedding, but don’t these people get stir crazy? The interior scenes give the movie a murkiness that we associate more with a thriller. And no matter how widely Matthew McConaughey opens his eyes as he reads his lines, there is not much thrilling here.

The winter setting does provide the film with one of its handful of pleasing moments—and there are a few. Towards the conclusion of the film, McConaughey’s Connor Meade opens a window and does a perfect, word-for-word recitation of certain famous lines from Dickens’ Christmas novella (no, not those lines, thank god). It’s a nice touch—unnecessary, and a little clunky, but a sweetly humble hommage to the 19th-century writer who managed to be always original. Other appealing scenes involve a precariously balanced wedding cake and the flexibility of McConaughey’s left foot; Stone’s raucously sincere ghost; and Garner’s quietly funny and warm performance. She isn’t given much to do as Jenny Perotti, Connor’s childhood almost-sweetheart. It’s the Wry But Hurting character that she’s played, in variations, in Catch and Release and Alias (with kickboxing in place of wryness). But what she does, she does well. Garner needs to be given (or to choose) better roles fast. With a face that can go, Janus-like, from severe gorgeous to dimply sweet in nothing flat, she has the wherewithal to register a wide range of emotions and the restraint to make them appear sincere.

The same cannot be said for McConaughey, who doesn’t act so much as move. He speaks his lines—almost no matter what the situation—by fingering the air before him, as if searching for the teleprompter, all the while balancing himself with an arm outstretched behind him. He has spent too much time surfing. While GOGP demonstrates a moment of humility by citing Dickens’ text near its conclusion, McConaughey is always arrogant on screen. With one key exception: Tropic Thunder, in which, as Ben Stiller’s agent, he abased himself to hilarious effect, just to make his client happy. That trademark arrogance is in full force here. And even in the Big Speech that makes Garner cry—as well as certain audience members who were annoyed by their susceptibility—he just can’t play it straight; there’s the twinkle, the drawl, that draw attention to the actor and away from the role. Maybe someday someone will cast McConaughey against type and we will see what he can really do.

A review of GOGP would not be complete without comment on its status as a chick flick. Maybe a better term is romantic comedy—that’s certainly how Netflix is going to categorize it in a few months. But it’s difficult to know who Mark Waters and writers Lucas and Moore are trying to appeal to here. The release date in early spring confirms that it’s a light film, an entertainment. But the winter setting belies that notion, giving the movie not only those darkened, wood-paneled rooms, but also its theme of repentance. Not exactly breezy rom-com fare.

Then there’s McConaughey’s character. I won’t go so far as to describe the film as misogynistic (like its cousin Made of Honor), but Connor Meade is certainly an unappealing man who treats women badly. Ah, people will say, but the women like him that way; they seek him out; he is a legend. And what’s wrong with women having enormous sex drives, anyway? Can’t women enjoy a movie that shows other women trolling for wedding sex? Sure. But then why the infinite past girlfriends, arrayed in a reproachful line-up? Why the criticizing assistant who gathers three exes together like Furies pre-gaming revenge on Bacchus? Has Connor Meade behaved badly, or not? The director can’t make up his mind. Garner’s character tells McConnaghey he looks like a gay pirate (and this is not a compliment), and she works to reform him, but all along the way, GOGP expects its audience to have a grand time with Connor The Unreformed.

GOGP is that rare hybrid: the May/December movie. It tries to combine the darkness and self-questioning of a December movie with the tipsy, gauzy hedonism of a May flick. Unfortunately, this marriage doesn’t work.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972)

Like most writers and serious readers I know, I have a collection of favorite opening and closing lines of novels. Like most people with a scattered memory, I tend to remember the Big Ones—the last line of The Great Gatsby, the first line of Anna Karenina, or Pride and Prejudice, or, heaven help me, Hard Times, that most known and least characteristic of Dickens’ novels. Or a new favorite opener, from Tom Drury’s excellent, moving, and funny The End of Vandalism: “One fall they held the blood drive in the fire barn at Grafton.” Every word but the last is a monosyllabic tread in a laconic march of fs, bs, and ds.

(Have your own favorites? Add them here.)

Of course, as a lover of film, I have favorite scenes from that medium, as well. And the first that come to mind are always the same: the opening and closing scenes of Werner Herzog’s 1972 film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I returned to that film recently, eager to be excited and slightly terrified by the eeriness of the synthesized music and the opening long shot in which we see a march of people, ant-like, winding down the steep jungle face of an Andean pass. The scene didn’t disappoint, though the first shot didn’t linger as long as I remembered over the mist-hidden mountain. Herzog’s second shot sustains the mood of the first, presenting us with a disorienting angle, as a ridiculously steep cliff cuts down from the left-hand side of the frame. We notice, again, the line of tiny people on a zig-zag path, surrounded by a vast expanse of jungle. Then the camera moves in just a little, and holds there to take in the marchers as they come towards us up another ridge. We see the tips of spears and pikes, and maybe the very top of someone’s Peruvian-hatted head, as the line of poncho-clad Indians passes just beneath where the camera is stationed. Eventually, Herzog switches to a sequence of shots taken from the path itself, and we see the artifacts that give us a grounding for the unease and dread that have been building: soldiers in Spanish armor, helmets among the Peruvian hats, chains binding Indian slaves together, a basket of chickens plummeting down the mountain, a sedan chair in which a velvet-gowned woman is ferried by more Indians. This is an attempt at mastery—Pizarro’s attempt to find El Dorado, as we later learn—and an exercise in folly: outsiders heedless to the power of a world that will inevitably destroy them.

As if that weren’t enough, by the time we reach the end of the film, we have only Aguirre and his dying daughter, felled by an Indian arrow that has pierced her brocade. Played by Herzog’s muse Klaus Kinski, Aguirre stalks about his decrepit raft like a drugged-up rock star (as if Johnny Depp had chosen Jagger not Richards as the basis for Jack Sparrow), driven mad by the failure of his conqueror’s ambitions. The camera follows Kinski as he roots around the raft’s cannon, dispersing a pack of small monkeys, while a voiceover offers us his plans to repopulate his own new world by marrying his daughter (Kinski’s daughter, Nastassia). Kinski snatches up one of the monkeys and holds it up to his face, baring his teeth at the animal. For a moment, we fear Kinski will imitate another rock star, but he tosses the creature aside. Herzog knows that the desolation of the raft, the dead bodies scattered upon it, the torn remnants of the sedan chair, and Aguirre’s own obvious delusion are sufficiently unsettling without such a gothic flourish.

The film’s final shot is a masterful counterpoint to the opening scene. Where the first images are static, the final shot is full of motion. Linear progress has given way to the circling of madness, as the camera makes a slow revolution around Aguirre’s raft. In the film’s opening sequence, Herzog offers the striking image of a cannon wheel strapped across the back of an Indian porter. Now the cannon is on the raft, and the raft is headed slowly but inexorably to the more turbulent water that we can glimpse at the very edges of the frame.

As I watched this marvelous scene, I pondered the mechanics of it. I imagined a giant boom protruding from a speedboat of some kind, with the camera thus hanging over the still water ahead of the boat. I rejected the idea of a helicopter, since the water bore no signs of propeller wind. In fact, Herzog did use a boat or motorized raft, and the surprising thing is that, as the camera circles Aguirre, the raft begins to be rocked by the boat’s wake. The rocking fits in with what we have already concluded from the plot of the story: that Aguirre is headed to some unseen waterfall (we have had an earlier long shot of rapids in the beginning of the film, and we have seen a raft trapped in a whirlpool). But it is quite clearly produced by the act of filming.

While Herzog likely had few other options, what is interesting is that Herzog held to this idea for the final scene, even though we would see the traces of its making. But then, in the opening shots of the Peruvian porters, we notice that a handful of the porters wear, beneath their ponchos, something that looks suspiciously like rolled up tracksuit bottoms. Herzog is a careful filmmaker. If he allowed for these slight intrusions of the outside, contemporary world, he did so mindfully. These tiny piercings of the film’s illusion remind us, after all, of the folly of yet another expedition to a mythical place: Herzog’s own filming expedition mounted with hundreds of Indians from the Cooperative Lauramarca, at 21,000 feet in Amazonian Peru. As in 1982’s Fitzcarraldo (again with Kinski), and the recent Grizzly Man, Herzog is fascinated with men who refuse to listen to the messages of the natural world around them, and who cling—in combined hopefulness and delusion—to the idea that they matter. As Roger Ebert eloquently puts it: these are “Men haunted by a vision of great achievement, who commit the sin of pride by daring to reach for it, and are crushed by an implacable universe.” Herzog does, of course, matter. And the arrogance of his characters is matched by a strange humility on the part of the filmmaker who has the sense to include himself among them.

Monday, April 27, 2009

From the Vault: Carefree (1938)

In 1938’s Carefree, the world’s first—and likely last—dance movie about psychoanalysis, Ginger Rogers performs a trick rivaling anything she ever did while going backwards in heels: she manages to make hypnosis and anesthesia sexy.

As Amanda Cooper, she allows her fiancé (a young Ralph Bellamy) to sign her up for psychoanalysis with his friend Tony Flagg (Fred Astaire), to rid her of the issues that are keeping her from getting married. Of course no one says “issues”; instead, Tony tells Amanda about her “two minds”, one of which is located somewhere in the air behind her head. Later in the movie, Tony tries hypnosis, and later still, he tries an anesthetic that allows her a surprising amount of both consciousness and mobility.

In other hands, the plot of Carefree would serve up the standard passive female. In more contemporary rom-com hands, we would see a woman’s adherence to pop stereotype masked as empowerment. But Carefree is ahead of its time—in a strange way. Granted, Amanda is taken to the psychoanalyst by her fiancé; granted, fiancé and analyst decide how to treat her—and there is no waiver or consent form in sight. Granted, she is rendered out of control by the scientific methods these men employ. But throughout the film, Rogers’ Amanda asserts her independence, in whimsical and also in more determined ways.

In one sequence, the “anesthetized” Rogers walks along a city sidewalk intrigued by a truck loaded with an inviting sheet of plate glass. Her attempts to hurl things at the glass are thwarted by a balletic sequence of random acts from passersby, but she finally uses a policeman’s baton to accomplish the deed. During this extended scene, Rogers is both gleeful and sly—to the extent that one wonders whether director Mark Sandrich is playing with the notion of the conscious and subconscious mind. Rogers’ Amanda begins the film playing a trick on Astaire’s Tony, and later, after she has fallen in love with him, she strings him along with a dream full of analysis-ready images and events. It’s not too great a leap to consider the possibility that Amanda uses her anesthesia as license for unruly behavior (including firing a skeet-shooting rifle at the men who have been trying to control her).

(Amanda is not the only woman asserting herself in Carefree. The character actress Luella Gear is in fine form here as Amanda’s Aunt Cora, always telling Judge Travers to “Sit down, Joe.”)

When it comes to the romance that we know is coming between Amanda and Tony, it is Amanda who declares her love, not Tony. (He does love her, but doesn’t come to understand it until later in the movie. Psychoanalysis, indeed.) She turns out to be a woman who knows what she wants and doesn’t hesitate to go after it. Interestingly, she makes her announcement of love while wearing a dress that puts appliqué to innovative use: as a Valentine/Rorschach combination. The dress features a large cartoon-style heart with multiple arrows piercing it from various directions. Tony misses the cue. Where did he get his degree, anyway?

Carefree was the last of five films Sandrich made with Astaire and Rogers, and he already seems to be making a transition away from song-and-dance to straight comedy or drama. Carefree features far less dancing than, say, Top Hat or Shall We Dance. But what there is is full of the grace, athleticism, and originality one expects from Astaire and Rogers. Rogers’ steps are hard to follow beneath the flowing fabric of her gowns, but what is easy to see is the high speed with which she gets whipped around Astaire’s center—without ever giving up any lightness and precision in her dancing. (For a commentary on Rogers’ dancing, see here.) And as for Astaire, Carefree draws attention to an unlikely source of his grace: his unusually large hands. Every time he reaches into the air behind his head to signify the “inner mind”, we are struck by the elegance of the gesture.

By 1938, the Hays Code had been in effect for eight years and enforced for four. It prohibited depictions of various sorts of immorality, including safe-cracking or the taking of illegal drugs. Adherence to the Code is likely the reason why we never see Rogers’ face with a mask over it as she inhales the anesthetic that gives her such freedom. The camera moves to a spot behind Rogers’ head, which is then obscured by the figures of Astaire and another doctor who hover over her as she is drugged. Surely, this is the image the Code enforcers should have found troubling. But they miss the unsettling disappearance of Rogers in this moment. That police baton that Rogers tosses at a plate of glass? That’s what the Hays people should have worried about.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Language Rant 4

Verse vs. Versus

Judging by the usage heard around the playing fields and backyards of my town, I'm guessing there are a lot of kids out there who think they've seen "Monsters Verse Aliens". There is an entire generation, it seems, that thinks that that tiny abbreviation for the Latin versus (against) is actually supposed to be pronounced like the genre that has even fewer readers than short fiction: verse. You can see how this starts. "OK, it's them versus us". "Right. Them verse us." That second "us" can seem like an extra syllable after a while--if you're seven.

I tried to fix this problem many years ago, but there's a limited amount of Latin pedantry a pack of seven- or eight-year olds wants to hear when they're watching their little sister pick up one of the goal markers and turn it into a house for her stuffed animal. They'd really rather get playing. And so I failed.

Is it too late? Or is this latest DreamWorks movie a chance for linguistic improvement at the multi-plex?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning: Sundance Marring

A film whose center is revealed to be the memories shared by two sisters, Christine Jeffs’ Sunshine Cleaning gets better if its viewers forget a lot. Forget Alan Arkin’s presence as the crankily affectionate grandfather. Forget the word “sunshine” in the movie’s title. Forget these indicators of indy-film credibility—and consign to oblivion the hokey use of a CB radio in a rusty Econoline van—and you are left with a beautifully acted study of the relationship between those sisters as they struggle on the edge of financial and emotional stability.

Anyone who saw Enchanted or Junebug knows that Amy Adams can sell any role. Especially in Enchanted, where it would have been easy to play the part of the wide-eyed Giselle with a dash of insincerity and a wink to the audience, Adams brought an unassailable conviction to every scene. What else is there to be in life, she seemed to say, than a princess stuck in Manhattan eager to return to the kingdom?

Or, in the case of Sunshine Cleaning, who else is there to be in life but Rose Lorkowski, a single mother starting a crime-scene clean-up business with her irresponsible sister Norah (Emily Blunt)? Here, Adams is well paired with Emily Blunt who overcomes the difficulty of an American accent to portray Norah’s interesting mixture of vulnerability and defiance, cluelessness and shrewdness. Whenever the movie is dealing with just these two—either in the same scene or through cross cuts to paired solo scenes—it is very strong indeed.

Jeffs must have cast these roles with an eye to her actresses’ appearance. For though they look nothing like sisters, they each seem to fit their roles perfectly. Rose is all eyes, big blue ones, willing herself to see only the good that might come her way if she can manage to convince herself of it. It’s as if the wider she opens her eyes, often fighting back tears, the less of the rough world around her she will admit into existence. Blunt’s Norah, on the other hand, is all lips, eager to consume things—to take everything in, even to the point of excess—but also pouting like the abandoned child that, at heart, she is. Jeffs brings her camera in to a pore-revealing closeness throughout the film—beginning with the film’s otherwise throwaway shot—no doubt because she knows that we will watch Adams’ and Blunt’s faces with fascination.

In one scene filmed in the milky white of a restaurant bathroom, Rose and Norah move from confrontation to an exchange of memories that gestures towards the film’s core. But the scene actually offers much more than that. Not so much exchanging memories, the two sisters are creating a shared memory for each other, with each other. They begin with different perspectives on the same event: Norah remembers pain, while Rose fittingly remembers dedication. Then we watch mesmerized as they lob bits of their past back and forth, their faces revealing more and more about who they are and about what ties them together.

Later on, Jeffs and screenwriter Megan Holley orchestrate a moving sequence of cross cuts between the two sisters, intercut with a third element that ties them together beautifully. It’s a lovely piece of filmmaking and, if it is a bit over-sentimental, we are inclined to grant Jeffs, Holley, and their actors some leeway here.

Other aspects of the film shouldn’t, however, get such a free pass. (See Slate's Dana Stevens' review for more on this.) That business with the CB radio, and the wide-eyed child whose only imperfection is a precocious intelligence that makes him unfit for the mainstream world, and other trappings of the Sundance aesthetic weaken the film. (And was there really no one else available for an almost cameo role than Robert Redford’s daughter?) Generally restrained, even when conveying the appealing slapstick of the sisters’ clean-up efforts, Jeffs occasionally overdoes it with her camerawork—either through an extreme wide-angle shot of southwestern desolation, or through an overly lyrical sequence involving sparks from a train.

Sunshine Cleaning is a film about people trying to stop circling the drain. They go over their one important memory over and over again, or they shut another memory out completely—whatever works to keep them in this barely sustainable limbo. All around them are signs of mobility: the Porsche of one of Rose’s high school classmates; the squad cars that are never far from the clean-up jobs Rose and Norah go to. Meanwhile, Rose drives a beat-up hatchback to her pre-crime-scene job at Pretty Clean; and her father drives an old Caddy with its trunk full of whatever it is he’s desperate to deal. It’s a stark contrast, and Jeffs makes sure we notice it. From the film’s opening sequence to its final overhead shot, we know that the agents of change in these people’s lives are also what can trap them. When we see that final shot, with its straight line of movement, we are glad to know Rose and Norah have stopped circling and have found a way to go forward.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens: Kids vs. Adults

Whether in two dimensions or three, Rob Letterman’s Monsters vs. Aliens plays furiously with perspective. Numerous sequences are designed with distant vanishing points, dramatic foregrounding, and a very shallow depth of field that seems to suspend faces or objects in mid-air. Even in 2-D, the movie’s visual impact is powerful. Not only are the images beautifully and marvelously detailed (heat waves shimmering off a pavement, blades of grass, individual hairs on the belly of a gigantic mutant grub), but the thrusting forwards and backwards of blocks of color, and the film’s swooping point of view give you the strong impression of being inside the images. Even the surround sound seems to be ratcheted up a notch—almost to the point of being as clunky as a poorly set-up home speaker system—as if the visual jolts and jabs were throwing sounds into the back corners of the theater.

Playing with perspective is an important part of children’s entertainment, starting from the 1952 Borrowers books, in which a minuscule family lives among the thimbles, buttons, and teaspoons of a normal-sized house, and going on through Stuart Little and The Cricket in Times Square. If books tend to explore the child’s sense of smallness in an adult world (with the exception of Gulliver’s Travels, which really shouldn’t be read by children at all, anyhow), movies tend to go the other way, playing with a child’s bafflement at the threat of growing up: Big, Thirteen Going on Thirty, and the forthcoming 17 Again are just a few examples. When Letterman’s own Gulliver’s Travels film is released in 2010, it will surely express his interest in the comic and alienating potential of shifts in size and perspective.

Monsters vs. Aliens builds on this size-shifting tradition, capturing the mischief and the misery of distorted size at both ends. Susan (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) becomes the mother of all Bridezillas by expanding to enormous size after being hit by a meteor. (Interestingly, she goes from meek bride to something out of Barbarella as she pops out of her human-sized clothes.) She is soon imprisoned along with three other monsters: Hugh Laurie’s exasperated-scientist cockroach, Will Arnett’s lizard-fish strongman, and Seth Rogen’s gurgle-voiced B.O.B. whose confused eagerness is one of the best parts of the movie. These three become Susan’s Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man as the story warps into The Wizard of Oz, complete with its demonstration that the heroine’s strengths lay within her all along. While Susan/Ginormica ingeniously uses cars as roller skates and the roof of a gas station as a sitting stool, her trio of buddies, wriggles and crawls and blobs its way through small spaces. Watching the film, we are always following the point of view of someone who is the wrong size at the wrong time.

But interestingly, adults watching Monsters vs. Aliens are always the right size. We always have the right perspective, catching all the jokes that sail over the heads of the children on booster seats in the next row. This makes sense. After all, Letterman hasn’t forgotten that children don’t drive. Someone has to bring them to the movie theater, buy their candy, and smile benignly when they address the characters on screen (e.g. the little girls at a 2007 screening of Enchantment who answered Amy Adams’ Giselle by assuring her that she looked pretty). And so, Monsters vs. Aliens has a general named W.R. Monger explain that the imprisonment of the monsters is a diversion to keep people compliant with the I.R.S. (Surely this is the first children’s movie to use the tax code as its premise.). The prison is a textbook image of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, complete with its central tower from which all the cells are visible to ever-watchful eyes. And when the President of the United States, voiced perfectly by Stephen Colbert, attempts to communicate with the alien robot, the adults will recognize the music as a pastiche of alien-encounter theme songs. The B-52s’ “It Came From Planet Claire” as background music is just icing on the cake.

The movie is so full of allusions that it risks coming across as a bit of a mess. There is no central theme here—other than, I suppose, the trite and played-out story of the stranger accepted for just who he or she is, and the band of strangers that comes together. (We’re only a small step away from “Don’t make fun of my differences,” an expression that even kids have been mocking for years.) For kids, the whole show is no doubt fun. The monsters are funny, the action is exciting, the images are surprising. For adults, the movie is a bit like a Wikipedia page, chock-full of links that take our thoughts in different directions.

Ah, but then there’s Insectosaurus, aka Insecto. A grub the size of an upended zeppelin, with stubby, comic antennae, and enormous placid eyes, Insecto has the unchanging happy face of an amusement park toy, without the creepiness. Like a giant baby, he doesn’t do much. When they need him to go somewhere, they hang a bank of stadium lights from a helicopter and use it to lure him away. He is a bit reminiscent of Totoro, the magical creature from the children’s anime films of the same name, and in a way, he performs a similar function here.

More than any other monster fighting the legion of Rainn Wilson’s aliens, Insecto saves the day and saves the movie. I won’t go into detail here, lest I ruin the well-prepared for surprise. Suffice it to say that, in a movie at least partly about one’s sudden transformation into something else, about the bewildering distortions of one’s body, Insecto, with his imperturbable eyes and his infant smile, brings the movie’s allusiveness together and organizes it around a rather sweet conclusion.