Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Harry, Revised by Mark Sarvas

The only reason I read Mark Sarvas’s debut novel, Harry, Revised, was because I enjoy his literary blog, The Elegant Variation. I found it to be a fairly good novel, but it seemed easy to discern that it was his first. Though I doubt my ability to judge fairly because of the circumstances under which I became aware of it, I nevertheless found it to be enjoyable.

Harry Rent is a recent widower who is smitten by a young waitress. He attempts to win her by manipulati
ng her life as well as others, all the while trying to deal (or rather not to deal) with the death of his wife. The plot suffers from being a bit too earnest, and though I am glad Sarvas didn’t cheat the ending, I never really doubted where Harry would end up in the end.

Someone dies, and the survivor goes through the stages of grief throughout the story. He denies his feelings, he is angry with himself, feels guilty about his anger, etc. It’s a worn trope. So what does Sarvas bring to the table to compensate?

The book is pretty funny, both with regards to narration and the absurd situations in which Harry finds h
imself. The characterization makes all the prominent characters well drawn, save Harry’s in-laws who seem to be stereotypes. And at times I was personally affected by the Harry’s dilemma. Though I haven’t had the analogous situation in my own life, much of the emotion rendered carried a sense of verisimilitude that made empathizing come rater easily, at least for me.

Though humorous, the narrative is a little clunky, especially at first. As to whether I adapted as I went on or it got better, I am unsure. And word choice was at times quite perplexing. Why use a five-syllable word that will send readers to a dictionary when a more common word would do? The point of view is third person limited, through Harry, and as he is described, one wouldn’t expect to hear such words out of Harry.

I would be remiss not to mention the Marxist overtones. Harry is a fairly successful doctor, but his wife is from ‘old money.’ His inability to fit into that world make up a lot of the plot, while he drives a Jaguar up to the crappy little restaurant/diner where he interacts with the object of his affection and another waitress. This other waitress is very poor, behind on all her bills, and has a son ‘in the system.’ Though the idea of class runs throughout the novel, Sarvas never really makes any lasting comment on society. Almost as if it just worked as a device for his plot and he never really gave it a second thought.

Despite its flaws, I found Harry, Revised to be an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, which all in all was the real reason I picked up the book. I’ll be interested to see where Sarvas goes in the future.

Scorcese's Raging Bull

As one would expect from a performance that has entered into the public consciousness as fantastic so that even people who haven’t seen the movie would repeat it, Robert DeNiro really does a stellar job portraying Jake LaMotta.

LaMotta is a man who seems incapable of seeing anything other than black or white. His wife is e
ither a virginal saint or a filthy whore; e is either in love with her or disgusted by her. His inability to relax his suspicions about her leads their marriage to ruin. He also is unable to be honest with himself. When we first encounter Vickie, she is fifteen and hanging out with the local wiseguys. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that she likely has slept with some of them, yet LaMotta convinces himself that she hasn’t while taking his doubts out on her without really admitting to himself what he already knows. After she makes a comment about the good looks of an opponent, LaMotta beats him mercilessly, causing a mob boss in the crowd to say ‘He ain’t pretty no more.’ But rather than celebrating is victory, Jake stares down his wife in the crowd. Message sent.

The film isn’t really about boxing at all, but about a man incapable of seeing the grey in things. Though we do get a scene of redemption towards the end of the movie, the overweight failure LaMotta has become by the movie’s conclusion shows us that he hasn’t been able to change his life and make anything of it.

The movie begins with DeNiro, who underwent a legendary weight gain for what amounts to precious little screen time, sitting in front of a mirror and talking to himself. He quotes the famous speech from On the Waterfront, where Brando as Terry Malloy tells his brother how disappointed he is with the way his boxing career, and by extension life, has turned out. But at the end of On the Waterfront, Malloy triumphs. But at the conclusion of Raging Bull, LaMotta is shown as a failure. This dissonance makes the scene and the film all the more effective.

Cathy Moriarty is ridiculously good as Jake’s wife, Vickie, especially when one considers that she was 19 at the time of filming, but the real surprise of this film was how good Joe Pesci was as Jake’s brother, Joey. As LaMotta is struggling with a television set and grilling Joey over whether he had an affair with his wife, his shocked stare and his words are so believable and natural. Even though LaMotta and we suspect he is lying, the scene is played with such grace by Pesci that his Oscar nomination is deserved.

It seems that since Goodfellas, Pesci has just played the same wiseguy part over and over again. It’s painful to see what has happened to his career and reputation since then. I’d really like to see him in another role that shows his talent the way this one did.

Ian McKellen as Richard III

As the movie begins, a tank smashes through the wall of a military command post, and a firefight ensues. A man dressed in black and wearing a gas mask, quickly shoots the Prince of Wales in the forehead and then executes the king as he prays for his life. Richard’s entrance in the film is reminiscent of Darth Vader’s, and we haven’t even got to the start of Shakespeare’s play yet.

Setting Richard III in a fascist England of the 1930s was an inspired decision. Richard reminds one o
f Stalin, Nazi pageantry dominates the visuals of the film, and by taking Shakespeare into an anachronistic time, one is struck by how well it works. What if England had broken into a civil war, with the king being deposed and a new regime sympathetic to the Axis taking over? Humanity has changed so little, even between the four hundred years separating the War of the Roses and WW2. And as always, hearing the language spoken makes it much more palatable, and one quickly is at ease with it. Though heavily abridged, the setting seems to reinforce the spirit of Shakespeare’s words.

The performances here are spectacular, especially Ian McKellen in the title role. He inhabits it with such relish that one finds it hard to root against him, even after he spills the blood of his two young nephews. Jim Broadbent can’t be the same guy from Moulin Rouge, can he? Annette Benning is also marvelous, though her role was actually a blend of two in the original. The only misfires I caught were Robert Downey, Jr. as Rivers: his American accent just didn’t work with the language. And Dominic West as the future Henry VII didn’t seem to bring anything to the role, though that could just be because I saw him as a young Jimmy McNulty.

McKellen's performance is utterly brilliant in its seductiveness, mixing sly direct addresses to the camera with more conventional scenes to build empathy for the nasty manipulator. This visual audaciousness is likely what makes the film so much fun.

The best Shakespeare I have ever seen on the stage was a performance of Henry V set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. But it’s something we don’t see on film all too often. Branagh set Hamlet in Russia in 1900 or so, but Much Ado About Nothing and Henry V were both classical interpretations. It would likely help Shakespearian novices enjoy the plays more if they felt it wasn’t just about kings and princes from hundreds of years ago, but characters whose choices and stories are relevant no matter the setting. Much like Baz Luhrmann did with Romeo + Juliet.

If you haven’t seen this film, you should. Now if you will excuse me, I’m going to go watch some of the other unorthodox productions of Shakespeare, like Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Earlier this week I wrote of my dismay with reviewers who give away too much of a book, yet as I sit down to discuss Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, I can’t think of any way to really do it justice without revealing some of the major plot points. As always, the major reason to read a work by Ishiguro is his prose, which is lyrical easily conjures all sorts of emotions. Therefore, I am not going to worry too much about what I feel I must spoil, though readers who want to approach the work freshly would be advised to stop reading now.

The story focuses on Kathy H. and two of her classmates at the elite prep school, Hailsham. Yet, it doesn’t
take long to realize that things are not as they seem. The school is taught by ‘Guardians,’ and the children are being raised so that they will give ‘donations.’ Kathy becomes a ‘carer,’ and as the narrative progresses, the true purpose of the students’ mission becomes clear: they are all clones, and after they reach adulthood, they will be forced to donate their vital organs to ‘normal’ people.

All through the book, I kept wondering what the point of Hailsham really was. Why spend so much time and resources to educate clones who have no other purpose to the greater community than to dispense their organs in a timely way? At the book’s conclusion, as Kathy H. travels to speak with the former head Guardian, it is revealed that the school was a social experiment. We as readers have been insulated from the viewpoint outside the community of the main characters, so the only concept we get of the greater British community is through their eyes. Here for the first time, we are made aware of the fierce debate concerning whether or not the children/clones had souls and whether it was appropriate to use them in this manner.

Ishiguro deals with this problem on the personal level, so the concerns of greater society are only of peripheral importance in his narrative. However, it is clear to me that by using clones, people who are stripped of much of what we consider common experience (parents, hope for the future, etc.), he is able to get at some underlying essence we all have that makes us human. Even apart from these things, no reader could casually say that Kathy H. didn’t have a soul just because she is a clone. Her story is too well rendered for that to be the case.

As I finished the book, I read Gary Greenberg’s recent review of neurochemistry books in Harper’s. According to the article, recent neuroscience is coming closer to state definitively that the Cartesian model of the ghost in the machine isn’t accurate. Instead, what makes us ‘us’ is isn’t what is in our brain, it is our brain. As the article claims, the frontal cortex ‘is the substrate of our individuality…not just our cognitive capabilities, but our character—our personhood, so to speak—resides’ here. And though the article goes into some surprisingly Brechtian territory, it isn’t germane to Ishiguro’s novel.

I am not claiming that Ishiguro’s purpose was to campaign for clones’ rights. That said, reading these two pieces in conjunction caused me to question the very idea of a similar operation being present in our world. Despite the fact that we ‘normal’ people would live in a world free of cancer and terminal disease, I think as neuroscience continues to advance we would have no choice but to admit that clones such as Kathy H. are no less human than we. The only difference noted between clones and others is their inability to procreate; nothing that would suggest varying brain chemistry is touched upon.

A profound novel is one that causes us to question the reality that we live in, along with providing a compelling and intelligent narrative. Never Let Me Go delivers on both counts.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Frank Sinatra: Idiot

I work in a family owned Italian-American restaurant, run by a guy who identifies more with the media’s portrayal of his culture than anything else. Playing into this stereotype, he is a huge Frank Sinatra fan; in order to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Sinatra’s death (morbid as that is) we had a special menu featuring some of Frank’s favorite dishes.

My pitch to guests: ‘In order to commemorate the death of a drunken womanizer…’

Anyway, we were forced to listen to nothing but Sinatra music for a week, which is cruel and unusu
al punishment for anyone. And after the fifteenth time of listening to ‘The Lady is a Tramp,’ I couldn’t take it anymore. The song doesn’t make any sense. None of the things that allegedly make this woman a tramp are even remotely tramp-esque. For example:

She gets too hungry, for dinner at eight
She loves the theater, but doesn't come late

She'd never bother, with people she'd hate

That's why the lady is a tramp.

So to Sinatra, needing to eat before eight o’clock makes you a tramp? Arriving on time to the theatre is just common courtesy to the players and the rest of the audience, and if you loved the theater you wouldn’t want to miss any of it so you would be sure to get there before the show started. Okay, never bothering with people that you hate might cause you a bit of social unease, since we are forced to deal with people we don’t like all the time (like Sinatra). But all this verse identifies this woman as is hypoglycemic, courteous, and uninterested in putting on a façade for people she doesn’t care for. None of this would make me consider a woman a tramp.

Doesn't like crap games, with barons and earls

Won't go to Harlem, in ermine and pearls

Won't dish the dirt, with the rest of those girls

That's why the lady is a tramp

So this woman doesn’t want to hang on Sinatra’s arm while he plays craps with a bunch of rich land owners who participate in a caste system? That just seems like common sense. Though I’ve never been to Harlem, I wouldn’t imagine it is a place you would want to stroll around in a fur coat with pearls. And not gossiping with other women is a virtue. Again, not a tramp, only a woman who seems like a decent person to be around.

The song goes on and on, but never are we given any evidence as to exactly why we should consider this woman a tramp. In my book, if you re my girl and have sex with my father, that would make you a tramp. But the ability to be your own person even around a powerful, pompous asshole like Sinatra makes you anything but a tramp.

What a stupid song.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Pacino's Looking for Richard

Despite asking valid and important questions, such as ‘why don’t more Americans perform/respond to Shakespeare,’ Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard seemed to me to be a little off kilter. The film is a documentary of sorts, following Pacino through four years of talking about Richard III with fellow actors (both American and British), average people on the streets, and in table readings with actors who strenuously debate the meaning of certain aspects of the play. Yet with all this material, most of it very entertaining and thought provoking, I came away feeling like he hadn’t really put it all together.

I recently watched Ian McKellen’s Richard III, which was set in neo-Nazi 1930s England, and I could
n’t help but compare it with the brief snippets of the play that Pacino includes here. The acting in Looking for Richard doesn’t even come close to matching, especially w/r/t the role of Richard Gloucester. Pacino displays the same theatrics here that made watching his Shylock such a chore, and though this is 1995, I can’t help but see Pacino as past his prime: he is more ‘Pacino’ after 1992 than he is the character he is playing. His insights into the role are of interest, but his performance is not. However, the other actors do commendable work, especially Penelope Allen as Queen Elizabeth.

But to criticize too much in this area would be doing the film an injustice. It supposes to be an interpretation, not merely a documentary. By bringing together many great minds, Pacino attempts to illuminate what is magical about Shakespeare, and further to explain why that magic is relevant to contemporary Americans. In this I believe he falls short, but he did help me see what is so magical about the theater and the art of choices that must be made within.

Bringing together a stellar set of actors, from Kevin Spacey to F. Murray Abraham, Pacino sits everyone around a large wooden table where they read from the play dramatically. Of course, these are impassioned people, and it is not long before a point of contention is loudly debated. This method of determining the artistic vision of the production was amazing, and the necessity of getting everyone on the same page with regards to that interpretation is cleverly done here. It is a communal effort, and by allowing us to see the mechanics behind the acting, the entire production is raised to a level that would have been unattainable otherwise.

However, I do think more attention could have been paid to the Shakespeareans Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi, for their conversations were brief and unremarkable. They hint at the American/Shakespeare question that never is answered, and this seemed a failure to me.

Not being needful of persuasion as to Shakespeare’s importance in my American life, I may not have been the target audience for Pacino. He presents an engaging and interesting look at Richard III and the way in which theater is performed. In these respects the film succeeds and in the end I must say that it achieves more than it fails. It was an admirable effort, and I would be interested to see more films such as this in the future.

Look for views on McKellen's portrayal in the near future.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Critics and Narrative Surprises

Paying much more attention to how criticism is written than what that criticism is actually saying about its subject in the past few months has alerted me to a trend that has caused my irritation to grow exponentially. It seems that quite frequently the surprise twists in a narrative, be it film or book, are revealed in the reviews presented by major publications. What is the point of me seeing a movie or reading a novel if I already know what is going to happen?

In the May 5, 2008 issue of The New Yorker, John Updike quickly lets the reader know about a major plot twist in Andrew Sean Greer’s new novel, The Story of a Marriage. In the interest of this discussion, I am going to print here those revelations, so readers wanting to be unspoiled should quit reading now. The first person narrative is revealed on page two to be narrated by a woman, which in itself would be difficult to not discuss and to which I do not feel any alarm. However, Updike is quick to say that she ‘does not let the reader know until page 48 that she is African-American.’

Greer’s narrative trickery here could be a poor decision, and Updike’s review is not kind to it or the novel as a w
hole. But perhaps this was put into play in order to challenge the reader’s assumptions. Since so much of literature is written from the perspective of a white man by a white man, not to mention that Greer himself is white, a reader would likely use a white male as their default narrator until textual evidence would persuade them otherwise. This ethnocentrism should be behind us as a culture, yet it persists, and Greer could be calling attention to this part of our collective psyche. By revealing his protagonist to be African American a quarter of the way through his narrative, he forces us to ponder just why we were so quick to assume that she was something else.

This trend has a bastard cousin as well, an attempt to preserve the surprise as some sort of ethical choice, yet in their reviews the presence of a surprise is alluded to if not stated outright. Telling your reader that a narrative possesses a shocking finale without revealing what that shock is means these reviewers don’t understand the point at all. The knowledge that something unexpected will happen at the narrative’s climax causes us to view a film or read a book differently than we otherwise would.

Imagine if a reviewer had spoiled the ending to a movie like The Sixth Sense. No one I know who saw the movie unspoiled had any idea of what was going to happen, and due to being unaware, the shock was all the more effective. Recently I had an experience with a review that caused me to read Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief in a different fashion than I probably would have initially, causing a different sort of surprise when I reached the big reveal.

Perhaps I am being too broad with this criticism; it may be likely that the only good way to review a novel like Greer’s is to spoil some of the surprises he has woven into his text. I do feel that the ideal way to approach a narrative would be with as little information as possible, yet with such a glut of material vying for our attention, reading reviews is an effective way to cut through the treacle. Maybe it is a necessary evil in some cases, but I still don’t like it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Black Hole by Charles Burns

Touted as ‘one of the most stunning graphic novels yet published’ by Time magazine, Charles Burns’s Black Hole had a lot to deliver just to be deemed adequate. A bit to my surprise, I found it an excellent and haunting story, with several stylistic choices that really enhanced Burns’s narrative.

Set in mid 1970s Seattle, the narrative focuses on a group of teens who are infected with a mysterious, sexually transmitted disease that causes all manner of mutations and leaves them outcasts from society. One boy
s face turns feline, another girl sheds her skin, while yet another grows a second mouth on his lower neck. Though many of these teens are involved in the drug culture, Burns avoids a judgmental stance by presenting several people who are users and having sex yet do not contact the ‘bug.’

It is refreshing to see teenagers written in a believable way. Too often I have read books or seen movies, most recently Juno, where it is impossible to believe that a person that age would say those things or have those thoughts. Yet throughout the novel, I felt my own teen years conjured up, and seeing how Keith pine
s for Chris only to have his love unrequited, I remembered how I felt the same way in high school. And while I wasn’t around in the mid-1970s, the elements of the drug culture seemed to be accurate to me as well.

Instead of exploring the origin of the disease, Burns is more interested in how its presence affects those who are infected. Their relationships with each other and the outside world are altered, often tragically, yet a chord is struck between the alienation these teens feel and the alienation we all felt as we were growing up. Perhaps we didn’t have strange growths coming off of our bodies, but in a sense we were all infected.

Burns uses varying perspectives, often of the same material, in order to tell his story. The inner monologues of Chris, Rob, and Keith are poignant, and it is interesting to note that the fourth major character, Eliza (the sexy woman with the tail), never serves as the point of view in the narrative. Wavy lines are used to border panels that show the past or contain dreams, blurring the line between memory and fantasy.

There is no gray in this comic: only black and white. Mostly black. In the world of Black Hole, there are only two ways to end, happily or horribly. And the dominance of black is reflected by the ending, with the majority of characters meeting not so happy fates.

Burns also shifts visual perspectives from panel to panel is striking ways, often blending faces together. In one instance, he splits the faces of Rob and Chris and sets them side-by-side, so that a reader must rely on the boxed text and dialogue to grasp that the face, which merges from the two panels, is actually two distinct faces. In another, the adjacent panels are aligned so that it appears the back of one character’s head is spread between the two, yet Burns actually has this over the shoulder perspective flip from character to character, causing temporary confusion until one realizes that we are over Rob’s shoulder in one perspective, and Chris’s in the other. I know that images would help convey this better than I can with mere words, but I am unable to locate appropriate ones online.

My experience and knowledge aren’t broad enough to judge whether Time’s assertion is true, but I can say that Black Hole is an engaging and satisfying read. The narrative is compelling, but you would be doing yourself an injustice to not slow down and take in the artwork as well. A haunting read that will likely evoke your own feelings of adolescent alienation.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

In my opinion, Michael Chabon is one of the elite writers of our time. I buy his books as soon as they come out, and usually I get very sad as I near the end, because he writes so well that I just want the story to go on forever. Maps and Legends is a collection of mostly previously published nonfiction that covers a whole range of ideas and topics. And it serves as a reminder of what good prose can do, no matter the genre.

The initial piece is likely the most famous, the strident defense of genre fiction that first appeared in issue 10 of McSweeney’s. While I agree with much of Chabon’s assertions about genre fiction, both in this essay and others, I think what seems to be missing is the obvious: good writing will/should trump genre conventions. While the writing of China Mieville may not be quite mainstream, it has a chance to break through because he writes so well. The reason that a lot of the pulp fiction of which Chabon is so fond gets no respect is because it honestly isn’t all that good. However, his appeal that divisions in genre be eradicated and all fiction in the bookstore be shelved together makes some sense to me, and it is welcome to read.

Insightful essays on Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, M.R. James, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have stuck with me, and I will have to read more by these authors in the near future. His review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road does so much more than review the book; it offers a perspective on apocalyptic fiction, and its place within literary fiction as opposed to science fiction.

In ‘Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner,’ Chabon shies away from listing accomplishments and hagiography, and instead focuses on the more overlooked aspect of Eisner’s work: his savvy as a businessman. And his personal history with his first novel and his unfinished second novel make for compelling reads. In each case, his sharp and melodious prose make these essays seem like stories, yet one never gets the sense that Chabon’s actual voice is lost to the voice of Chabon the narrator.

The book itself is beautifully produced as well. The cover contains a large gold ‘X’ with the title printed across it, and Chabon’s name sits at the top with the ‘O’ a moon. Three dust jackets, each with a different magical scene are layered, creating a provocative scene individually and collectively. And the pages are acid free and quite thick, as most of the books published by McSweeney’s are.

Though one may not always agree with the stances Chabon makes in these essays, Maps and Legends is required reading for any fan of genre fiction. Though he just published two novels last year, I can hardly wait for the next. If you haven’t sampled his fiction, please do yourself a favor and pick up Wonder Boys, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, or Kavalier & Clay the next time you are at a bookstore. You won’t be disappointed.

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)

Influential artist Robert Rauschenberg passed away yesterday at the age of 82. I have always been drawn to his work, overwhelmed by some of his pieces. I don’t know much about art, beyond what I like and dislike, but it isn’t hard to see why Rauschenberg was such an influential artist.

When I was in New York three years ago, I was able to see several works by Jasper Johns. The way he used collage to make up the small portions of his art, things that one could only see close up, was amazing. He built painti
ngs. Rauschenberg did the same, blending painting and sculpture in a way that hadn’t been broached before, and which served as a model for Johns and others. They’ve been labeled ‘Combine paintings,’ and I think the moniker illustrates exactly what these pieces really are.

His piece ‘Bed’ was made up of his own sheet, quilt, and pillow slathered in paint, as if they were soaked in blood. It’s hard to verbalize how works like this affect me, but I was really moved, I felt like he was showing me the corruption of my youth. It exhausted me.

He once said that he really felt ‘sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.’ He turned average things that surround us into art, and thus changed the way we looked at our world.

Reading his NYT obituary, I see that Rauschenberg was much more influential and had a much greater scope than I was ever aware of. But what I remember tonight is how briefly studying him for a week or so when I was 18 allowed me to connect with modern art for the first time, maybe not enough to ‘get it,’ but enough to realize that there was something there worth getting.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Frankly, the movie just doesn’t work. It has a cast of madcap characters, and the plot is ridiculous enough, but the magic that existed in Rushmore and The Royal Tennenbaums just isn’t present here.

It’s not that I expect to laugh out loud at a Wes Anderson movie, though I often have, but I do expect to be amused. Only one scene of the film was truly amusing, a clip from an earlier movie made by Zissou in which the crew is performing cannonball dives into an ice bath when they hear and rescue a rare seal or something. But other than this, the films attempts at humor are transparent and therefore unfunny.

Bill Murray isn’t bad as Steve Zissou, but he just doesn’t display the charm that was present in Rushmore. Owen Wilson, who isn’t all that funny anyway, isn’t at all here, and his ridiculous Kentuckian accent is grating. Willem Dafoe is wasted, as is Cate Blanchett. And Seymour Cassel, who is present in all Anderson films, barely appears as Esteban, Zissou’s partner and friend who is killed by the mysterious Jaguar Shark.

Visually, the film is stunning. Zissou’s ship is constructed on a cutaway stage, so we can see a cross section of what it looks like inside. As one would expect from Anderson, the rust bucket is stocked with all forms of luxury, most noticeably a spa staffed by a masseuse. Though the underwater scenes are completely unbelievable, they are so stylized that it works.

Max makes Rushmore work. You root for him, you like him, you want him to succeed. And while Royal Tennenbaum is less likable than Max, you wish pretty much the same for him, and his redemption is at the heart of the movie. But I never really cared about Zissou at all. I didn’t dislike him, though he isn’t all that likable, I just didn’t care. And without a lead that can generate emotion from an audience, this film was doomed to mediocrity.

I didn’t think Wes Anderson could miss so badly. One day, when I get around to seeing The Darjeeling Limited, I hope I find this film was a misstep and not a trend.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels

It takes a skilled intellect to present church history in a way that is riveting for the reader and does justice to the material, without becoming so esoteric that one need actually be a scholar to make any sense of it. Elaine Pagels has excelled in presenting thoughtful works about church history and the Nag Hammadi Library time and time again, and with The Origin of Satan she does not disappoint. Though she is not writing for experts, as one does when composing scholarly work, she does not condescend to people who obviously know less than she.

Less about Satan the character than the way the presentation between cosmic good and evil arose, the book begins by contextualizing the four gospels, identifying the authors’ relationships to each other and the social climate a
t the time of their writing. While none of this information was new to me, it served as an engaging refresher. Most interesting was likely the persecution of Christians by other Jews, creating much of the anti-Semitism that exist within Christianity today, for the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion was blamed less on the Romans and more squarely on the Jews as the writers of the gospels responded to their present climate.

Pagels also focuses on the early church and the way Christians were treated by the Roman Empire, which was made up of pagans. They supposedly hated the Christians because their monotheistic view was thought to anger the multitudes of gods that were worshipped, yet this theory is debunked by claims that even these pagans saw all their gods created by one force, and that perhaps the monotheistic view was not original to Judeo Christian thought. Many early Christians of this time are detailed, like Justin, Origen, and Tertullian, whose writings are compared and contrasted to pagan thinkers like Marcus Aurelius and others.

Finally, Pagels demonstrates the growing antagonism between the different sects of Christianity. As one would expect, she relies on the Nag Hammadi texts to demonstrate the differences in thought. The exploration of these suppressed texts is fascinating for the view it gives one of the differences between early Christians. One writer argues (fairly convincingly in my mind) that the deity identified as God in the Adam and Eve tale is actually Satan, and that the serpent was a representation of the true God. One wonders how different Christianity would be today had a slightly different selection of canonical books been selected at Nicaea. Pagels also uses later historical figures, like Martin Luther, to show how Satan was invoked as an ally of those propagating a different set of beliefs than the attacker.

This book helped solidify for me personally some of the issues I have with the modern church and the way it exerts control over ideas and represses anyone attempting to question dogma or perceived truth. Pagels has written an easily read and incredibly engaging book that is highly recommended for anyone with even the slightest interest in the material.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pan's Labyrinth

What makes Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth so powerful is that it brings together to different sets of material, which are completely incompatible, yet insists on being true to both until the very end. On one hand there are fauns and faeries, on the other a sadistic fascist captain who will brutally murder with only the flimsiest of excuses. The nature of these two worlds is probably the scariest part of the film, for both contain incredible dangers that could get 11-year-old heroine Ofelia killed.

The faun seems at times both good and evil, yet what he really offers Ofelia is an opportunity to choose between the two. Her inability to follow his warnings almost get her killed by one of the most frightening, albeit initially ridiculous, monsters to grace any screen I’ve seen. And her refusal to accede to the faun’s requests in the end is her way of finding redemption when given a second chance.

But she is likewise tested in the real world. Finding out that the captain’s servant has been aiding the anti-Franco rebels, Ofelia refuses to divulge the information because she doesn’t want anything bad to happen to her. The movie seems to be about the choices that Ofelia must make, that she must learn to be true to herself, even in the face of grave danger.

Though Ofelia is the only person who can see the faun or faeries, there is evidence to convince one that they are real enough. For one, the magical chalk that she uses to create doorways helps her escape a room that was guarded, something unlikely to have occurred otherwise. The mandrake root provided by the faun to help her mother seems to have positive results, and its discarding has the opposite.

I am at a loss in trying to explain exactly how this movie works, about what makes it so good. The visuals are stunning, like something out of a real nightmare, something attempted by the makers of The Cell, though this time with resounding success. Del Toro’s mastery is in how he is able to present these two vastly different worlds side-by-side, make it work, and make the result more than the sum of its parts.

What Tim O’Brien said is true. Stories can save us. Lover of stories and faerie tales, Ofelia creates a story for herself that becomes real, helps her survive the horrors of her surroundings, and in the end becomes real enough to save her. The conclusion can be interpreted in two separate ways, yet I choose to believe that she was saved. The film moved me, changed me, and I don’t think I will forget this feeling for a long time.

Friday, May 9, 2008

The 9/11 Report: a Graphic Adaptation and New Literacies

In the fall of 2004, 72-year-old Ernie Colon bought and read the 9/11 Commission Report, realizing as he did that only a fraction of the book’s buyers would do the same. With tons of free time even though he was employed as a security guard, he wondered if more people would read the Report if it were presented in an easier to understand format. He called Sid Jacobson and put together the nonfiction graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Report.

The two had worked together at Harvey Comics in the fifties, on titles like Richie Rich and Casper, the Friendly Ghost, but had moved into other fields as the superhero comic wiped out the children’s market in the nineties.

Their graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Report has won kudos from many. I found the book quite moving, and as Colon surmised, the only reason I know a lot of what I do about that Tuesday morning is because of their effort. For instance, the report states that at most, 2,152 individuals died at the WTC who were not rescue workers or on board one of the two planes. Of that number, 1,942 were at or above the impact zones. That the evacuation of the building was such a resounding success was something that I hadn’t been exposed to, even with all the coverage.

The tone set by the creators is a calm and factual one, reflecting the prose of the Report itself. The likenesses are well rendered and the information is presented in such a way that it is easily digestible. Their accomplishments will be followed with another title, After 9/11: America’s War on Terror (2001- ), and the pair have another three in the works.

This being the case, I wonder why this technique isn’t used more often. Though series like the ‘For Beginners’ have had a fair amount of success, there has been little crossover into other genres. So much can be taught in a form that many find more palatable than prose. We’ve seen how well Scott McCloud was able to discuss some fairly heady work on comics by writing in the form, and thousands of kids, including me, have read comic versions of historical classics like Moby Dick.

The popular criticism is that our country is getting dumber and prefers the graphs and photos of USA Today to the lengthy texts of the Wall Street Journal. But what if we look at that as not a failure in literacy but a shift to a different kind of literacy? With this new perspective, perhaps we can begin to see that these readers may very well be interested in reading things like Jacobson’s and Colon’s The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation.

There may very well be a hole in the market. Somebody should fill it.

Friday, May 2, 2008

The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum

I spent a week thinking over this review, trying to decide if I was being fair to Ron Rosenbaum or not. In some ways it feels that I let my preconceived notions about the book influence m enjoyment of it, which there is nothing wrong with. However, as John Updike would say, it’s not really fair for me to criticize someone for not doing something they weren’t trying to do.

I have mixed feelings about
The Shakespeare Wars. In many ways it was quite informative. Even though I have taken a couple of classes that focused on the Bard entirely, those courses were taught through a certain critical lens that obscured other valid methods. For example, Rosenbaum’s copious interviews with directors like Peter Hall and Peter Brook, among others, gives a lot of insight into the performance studies aspects of the plays, and a lot of their comments were fascinating and insightful. These approaches also helped me identify a method I would use later to organize a paper around Pinter’s The Homecoming. Often he suggests other readings that may help explain more nuanced arguments, and I do feel that they are genuinely helpful.

But there is a lot that I didn’t like too. Rosenbaum spends forty pages covering the insignificant ‘Funeral Elegy’ issue, which is bad enough, but its inclusion seems to be based solely on the fact that Rosenbaum has a personal grudge to settle with Don Foster. Allegedly, Foster at one point said he could ‘bury’ Rosenbaum for questioning his methods. Forty pages used to essentially make Foster look like an ass.

After a lot of thought though, I really only have two major problems with the book. First, Rosenbaum claims that he will illuminate the battles in Shakespeare scholarship for the layman, and this is something that he does from time to time. But too often he presents only the view he thinks is right and obscures the other opposing view. For instance, he admits that there are some that feel Shakespeare should be experienced in the theater and not on the screen, but he does little more than this. Since he is a strong proponent of film, it receives the brunt of the attention.

Rosenbaum also hates postmodernism, even suggesting that Derrida and Foucault have little if anything to offer. Not in Shakespearean studies, but little to offer anyone, anywhere. This is naïve. It is easy to see his age and the time he went to school based on his love of the ‘close reading.’ While there is certainly something to be said for that critical approach, it fell out of vogue thirty years ago. Rosenbaum comes across as an old man, afraid of these new-fangled critical methods the kids are using these days.

Secondly, Rosenbaum is a journalist. He’s not a scholar. Sure, he may know a lot about Shakespeare, certainly more than me. And he is always cautiously deferential to Shakespearean scholars he cites, even though he really only bothers with the most elite. (It is easy to admit that a world-renowned expert in something knows more than you.) But he doesn’t seem to understand that what he is doing isn’t scholarship. Rosenbaum postulates as much as he reports, and the assumption is that we will respect his ideas as much as we would a scholar’s. But what makes scholarly work scholarly isn’t the idea so much as it is the approval that the scholarship is valid by a group of scholarly peers. To the best of my knowledge,
The Shakespeare Wars underwent no such review process.

In some ways I feel that I am nit-picking, that this criticism is unfair and that the book really isn’t that bad. (It’s not.) But Rosenbaum spends too much time on himself, to the point of distraction and frustration. I don’t know if he is a cocky asshole in real life, but he comes across as one in his writing. This is an interesting primer for further readings on Shakespeare, but as a text itself, it didn’t do much for me.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Reading List: April 2008

There has been a severe lack of content on this site, much less than I had intended a few months ago. One of the things that I am going to endeavor to do is write reviews more often, though they will likely be less substantial than previous reviews. Perhaps a couple hundred of words apiece.

To report, in the month of April I managed to read 19 books, play, and graphic novels. Here is what they were:

1. The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico Garcia Lorca: If you take a passage on English, translate it to Spanish and then back again to English, all the nouns will be the same. But the verbs can change the meaning of the passage entirely. So when reading the lyrical drama of Lorca in English, something is truly lost. I found the symbolism in this play to be over the top, and the characterization screamed farce rather than tragedy. But the real reason this is considered a great play is the lyricism, and it just doesn't translate well. Reading Clive James over the past year, I've begun to think that perhaps it is time that I at least get my Spanish up to the functionally literate level so I can enjoy some of these writers in their native language.

2. 100 Bullets: The Hard Way by Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso: The storyline really hits it
s stride here, and as more of the Minutemen are activated, I am getting a better idea of what is going on. I'm still haunted by something that happened, still sad. A lot of things happen that I wasn't expecting, and Risso's artwork captures the mood unlike any other artists I am familiar with. Often described as a noir tale, a description I feel is apt, I wonder why this is about the only noir that I really enjoy. As if I only enjoy derivations from the convention, not the convention itself.

3. The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh: though nowhere near as interesting as The Pillowman, McDonagh has written a genuinely entertaining and funny play. However, I hesitate that much more is going on than that. There is a bit about the nature of lying and telling stories, yet it sems to be a door that McDonagh opens but refuses to walk through.

4. Forged in Fire by Michael A. Martin & Andy Mangels: Extended comments available here.

5. Endgame by Samuel Beckett: I spent the month pondering the power of silence in the drama of Harold Pinter, and it is easy to see how he was influenced by Beckett in this play. Clov inflicts so much violence in his silences at the end of the play, it is a shame it is so overshadowed by the violent language that Hamm uses. I just don't think it is possible to fully understand the play though a mere reading, something I found a lot like Pinter as well.

6. The Bald Soprano by Eugene Ionesco: Didn't really offer anything new or different from The Lesson, which was a better play even if I didn't enjoy it. Ionesco embraces absurdism to the point of near incoherence, something that makes him less accessible to readers than other absurdists.

7. The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder: I hated this play. Pirandello did the same thing first and better. I can't believe that the same person who wrote Our Town had a hand in this. And what kind of name is Thornton anyway?

8. The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan: An unsatisfying ghost story that broke several conventions but wasn't enough to salvage a fairly predictable narrative. O'Nan has been said to be the voice of the working class, but I didn't get a sense of that here. Perhaps I will try another of his books in the future; I do find myself with a certain professional interest in how he depicts the restaurant environment in Last Night at the Lobster. The narration is so specific that it goes to the point of distraction. Does it really matter which value meal a character orders from McDonald's? Or that a character eats a 'Nutrageous' rather than a candy bar? Just because something would be depicted specifically in another medium, say film, doesn't mean it needs to be so precise in prose.

9. 100 Bullets: Strychnine Lives by Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso: This collection contains the most violent scene I have ever read in a comic. The overall story progresses nicely, and now that I realize only two following collections have been released thus far, I am trying to keep myself from reading them all at once.

10. The Best American Short Stories 2002 edited by Sue Miller: I'd already read the best story before (Richard Ford's 'Puppy'), but this was my first exposure to Jhumpa Lahiri whose story was fantastic. These collections are a nice way to be introduced to lesser known writers, or perhaps even famous ones who you just haven't had a cha
nce to read yet.

11. Amnesiascope by Steve Erickson: Erickson writes like a less talented and inspired Jonathan Lethem or David Foster Wallace. There is quite a bit of pornography as well, with passages being written for no reason other than to titillate. He gets a lot of praise, so I may take a look at the supposedly more mainstream Zeroville, but perhaps not.

12. Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan: A good, though not great, graphic novel from an Israeli creator. the storyline is something that we have seen before, but the characterization is well handled and the art really does evoke a different culture without descending into stereotypical depictions. I am very interested to see where this creator goes next.

13. A Burning House by Keith R.A. DeCandido: Though I have enjoyed the episodes of Star Trek that have focused on Klingon politics, their civilization as a whole seems to make no sense. DeCandido is able to write convincingly about a culture that is based entirely in honor, but even some of his inventions ring false. For example, a member of an opera chorus can challenge and kill one of the leads to take their place? A good novel overall though, and the conclusion of the Rodek storyline was well handled.

14. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams: A good and interesting memory play whose conceptual idea causes narrative problems. I'd like to go back and read this again with a better understanding of Williams's biography, especially the way he treats Laura who was modeled after his sister. Better than I remembered, but I don't thin
k this is a classic.

15. Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran by Danny Postel: A collection of Middle Eastern journalism and scholarly work that is most interesting with respect to the natural alliance between anti-imperialist Westerners and Iranian dissidents. Read more about it here.

16. The Shakespeare Wars by Ron Rosenbaum: I have a lot to say about this, so I will write a bigger review in the next couple of days. Brendan, this was the book I was referring to earlier.

17. Greatest DuckTales Stories, Volume 2 by Carl Barks: Barks is a genius. Not only are his stories entertaining for children and adults without pandering or offering some pat moral at the end, he changes the ways his characters are presented from panel to panel is vastly different ways, yet integrates it within the page in a way that is almost undecipherable unless you are looking for it. Barks has been the focus of a dedicated critical effort in the past few years, and it is easy to see why he deserves it.

18. Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman: Not as good as Smoke and Mirrors, this collection still contains a few gems. I really enjoyed 'A Study in Emerald' and 'The Monarch of the Glen.' I had been told to pay special attention to 'The Problem with Susan,' but I must confess that while I found the story serviceable, my lack of any real knowledge of Narnia dampened its impact. Maybe I should go back and read the series, they sit on my shelves, but that type of writing just holds less and less appeal for me as time goes on.

19. A Good School by Richard Yates: Yates has a way of capturing the isolation that we all feel and articulating it in such a way that evokes the same emotions the characters feel in you. While I felt this was the least effective of his novels that I have read so far, it still is a testament to Yates's place as the most underappreciated writer of his generation.