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April 2009

Colchicine

By Jonathan Wallace

 

An occasional compilation of capsule reviews of movies, books, plays, etc. I promise a spoiler in every review.

Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” (1994) is an accurate, well-executed retelling of the notorious New Zealand schoolgirl murders of 1954 (two morbidly close and imaginative fifteen year old friends planned and carried out the killing of the mother of one of them. Both were convicted and imprisoned until age 21). An early work by the director of “Lord of the Rings”, the story gets submerged by some surrealistic fantasy scenes executed in stop motion animation. Kate Winslet’s performance as Juliet Hulme, in her first movie role, is excellent. However, the most interesting element of the story—how such folies a deux happen, and why they don’t occur more often—is not really confronted. Years subsequent to the movie, came the most interesting revelations of all; Juliet Hulme in later life was Anne Perry, successful British crime novelist; and Pauline Parker, the more eccentric of the two who took the lead in planning her own mother’s murder, had a quieter peaceful afterlife as a teacher of disabled children, and then, in retirement, as the owner of a riding school.  This raises a fascinating question, not dealt with in the movie, of the circumstances which make rehabilitation possible—or, conversely, whether some murders are committed by basically stable, peaceful people who revert to living quiet lives. In a science fiction story by Gene Wolfe, “The Death of Dr. Island,” a troubled boy is induced to commit a killing in order to teach him he is not a murderer.  There is of course no way to answer this question without coming to grips with the nature of human evil. Pauline Parker in particular evinced no remorse; how did she acquire a superego in later life if she began with no compassion?

“Quarantine” (2008) directed by John Erick Dowdle,  is a well-made zombie movie based on a Spanish original, “REC”. Since I haven’t seen “REC”, I don’t know whether the elements I found impressive in this one were simply efficiently copied from the earlier film. Part of a rapidly growing genre which began with “Blair Witch Project” and includes “Cloverfield”, the conceit of “Quarantine”  is that a television personality and her cameraman, shadowing some firefighters for a TV show about emergency workers, end up trapped with them inside a multi-dweller building in Los Angeles where the dogs and humans are succumbing to a biologically engineered super-rabies. Dark, grim and very violent, the movie belongs to the “everybody dies” variation of horror  (as opposed to the films which let one character survive, to die in the first minutes of the sequel). The invented biology and science of the movie is sufficiently believable, as is the urban paranoia backdrop (CDC sheathes the building in plastic; one character cuts through, then is shot by a sniper).  But what makes the movie particularly memorable is that the camera itself is the maquffin: we are watching the action through the gimmick which drives the plot. At one point, the cameraman, whom we see a few times in his own lens or in mirror reflections, uses the camera to batter a zombie to death; then, gasping for breath and muttering to himself, wipes the blood spots from the lens, and keeps right on filming. The movie ends in the attic, in the dark, with the camera becoming the only way to see, and evade, the uberzombie (it has a night vision feature). The ending is depressing and eloquent, as the TV personality gropes in the dark for the camera that is gazing into her expressive eyes from a foot away—and then slides away, pulled into the dark by the zombie. This is a film which almost perfectly achieves its limited aspirations. One jarring note is that the TV woman, as a protagonist, is a nonstarter. At the beginning, she is shown as clever and athletic enough to beat the firefighters in a couple contests, including a basketball game; but very rapidly after the zombies emerge, she becomes a hysterical wreck propped up by the heroic cameraman, and never stops sobbing until she slides into darkness at the end.

By the way, if you have time for only one zombie movie, see “28 Weeks Later” (2007, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo). In a rare case of a sequel exceeding the original, this film sets up a perfectly dual and contradictory moral structure in which two loveable kids who are carriers of the rage virus, but have some native resistance to it, are running towards a helicopter which will take them out of the quarantine zone. A sniper is covering them and deliberating whether to take the shot. The movie places you expertly in a deadlock in which you simultaneously hope the sniper won’t kill them (you are rooting for the children’s survival, they are very nice kids and we have been following their adventures the entire film) and know that he should (if the kids escape they will carry the virus outside of England where it has been isolated).

I am on a zombie kick for some reason and also just watched “Night of the Living Dead” for the first time (1968, director George Romero). This was a disappointment; it is talky, static and very constricted by its micro-budget. It has some points in common with “Quarantine”: everybody dies; a mother protects a sick child who becomes a zombie and turns on her; and the lead actress, who we follow from the first moment of the movie but who may not be its protagonist, quickly is rendered hysterical and a burden to the people around her.

Falconer” by John Cheever (1977) shows us what an establishment WASP novelist can accomplish when he is not actually writing about adultery in suburbia.  (I believe that after “Madame Bovary”, there was nothing fresh to say about this subject.) Farragut, the protagonist, is a college professor, war veteran and heroin addict who beats his brother to death with a poker while high, and is sentenced to ten years in state prison. The book is mainly a realistic account, with magical overtones, of his stay in Falconer prison: the broken, sympathetic guards, nonetheless capable of horrendous violence; the basic humanity, though sad and lost, of the other prisoners; gay sex, of course; and the long shadow cast by the Attica uprising, which the prisoners follow on their transistor radios, and then, when these are confiscated, through word brought in by sympathetic workers from outside. In a series of dreams and flashbacks, Farragut confronts his disease; at the end, he is almost magically handed a second chance, and we believe that, like Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, he will not waste it.

Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” (1962) is one of the best novels I have read in years. An exiled professor from Zembla, which is in the grip of a socialist revolution, meets and becomes obsessed with an elderly American poet at a New England university. The novel consists of four elements: an introduction by the professor; four last cantos by the poet, written in rather credible rhyming verse (not an easy job; A.S. Byatt, who is a fine writer, did not pull this trick off in “Possession”); footnotes by the professor, who entertainingly spends more time talking about his own life and the history of his country than he does interpreting the poet; and an index, in which yet more information about the characters is revealed. This unique novel reminds me of only two other works which came later, D.M. Thomas’ “The White Hotel” and “Cloud Atlas”, both of which play with multiple narratives and unreliable narrators. Due to the climactic events which result in the death of the poet, the professor must go underground. He discusses the possibility, which he does not resolve, that he is a schizophrenic and that most of what he has related is untrue; he also speculates about the identity he will take on to continue his life in America, among the possibilities, a happily married Russian professor and novelist (in other words, Nabokov himself). “Pale Fire” expertly juggles themes about art and criticism, identity, obsession and truth. A nice example of the kind of word and mind games in which Nabokov delighted is an old newspaper headline clipped by the poet’s eccentric aunt: “Yanks Beat Red Sox On Chapman’s Homer”, which the professor, missing American idiom and sports knowledge, thinks is a strange typographical error. Every part of the novel works; the cantos, which tell the story of the death, possibly suicide, of the poet’s daughter, create a mystery and fascination separate from the framing material. Nabokov, like Roland Barthes, proved you can deal with post-modern subject matter in limpid prose and succinctly expressed ideas—and in relatively few pages., when most  meta-novels are incredibly dense and dull.  When I was a teenager, I read “V” and thought Thomas Pynchon was a god; but on three attempts to read “Gravity’s Rainbow”, starting the year it appeared (1974), I have bogged down in the same place, when the protagonist dives into the toilet and describes the layers of shit he encounters. A few years back, someone asked me if I was planning to read Pynchon’s latest. “When I finish “Gravity’s Rainbow”,” I said.

Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” (2003) is a very satisfying entry in a well-worn genre, in which gods and supernatural beings live privately among us in today’s world. The protagonist, Shadow, is discharged from prison at the beginning expecting to return to his loving wife and work for his best friend as a gym trainer.  Nothing turns out as he expected, and soon he has become a driver and gofer for Odin, who is preparing his fellow ancients for a war soon to be declared by the new gods of the Internet and media. What makes this novel better than that description is that each god is a believable, poignant character; most are old men who have seen better times and scrape a living together as con men or funeral directors. America, we are told, is not good soil for gods to thrive. Also, every time Gaiman’s plot is at a crossroads, he takes the less expected direction.  Even Odin’s project turns out to be very different than we were told at the outset. In the course of the story, Shadow spends time in places as disparate as a frozen Minnesota lake town and New Orleans, meets the locals mortal and immortal, listens to music, swaps stories and thinks about the strange course his life has taken. Gaiman fills the book with cleverly planted clues and mcguffins—coins which mimic the sun and the moon, for example, and have unexpected powers. The book never drags, but, like the far greater “Lord of the Rings”, the itinerant plot allows Shadow, after he has solved the primary problem, to return to some of the small places and solve smaller problems or say goodbye to sympathetic subsidiary characters he met along the way.  Created through an application of myth and folklore to the givens of modern life, “American Gods” reminded me of the much wilder writing of R.A. Lafferty.

As an unpublished novelist of the most boring demographic imaginable—middle aged American Jewish male, trying to elbow into the stale, embarrassing company of  Bellow, Malamud, Roth et al.-- I have frequently felt jealous of whatever ethnic group and gender is the flavor of the month. For some years now, no category of novelists has been hotter than young Indian women. Applying Gresham’s law  to fashion in novels, the ultimate degraded result of this trend was the Opal Mehta scandal of a couple years back, in which a young Indian American Harvard student was persuaded to put her name on a novel which was not only ghosted, but plagiarized.

Of course, its another insult when the author not only belongs to a hotter demographic but is stunningly good-looking as well. (One mediocre recent novelist deserves  double enmity because her book was about how hard it was always to be the smartest and most beautiful person in the room.)

Jumpa Lhampiri offends on all counts, being smart, beautiful and Indian.  That said, “The Name-sake” (2003), is a damn good novel. About the temptations and fears of assimilation, and in the background, the winds of globalization, its protagonist, Gogol Ganguli, is almost accidentally named after his professor father’s favorite Russian novelist. For someone who has never been to India, reading novels set there, by people who live there or whose families did, is an education and a welcome change from an endless succession of American works about how mom screwed the postman, killed the cat or had to live without daddy while raising two daughters. “The Name-sake”, which is set mostly in the Boston area (where dad teaches at MIT), includes several engaging visits to India. Across several decades, Gogol dates and almost marries two very sympathetic Caucasian women, then, after losing his father, tries to bargain with the gods of connection and family by marrying the first smart, eligible Indian American girl with whom he is presented. The problem is, she is trying to conciliate the same gods, and is unable to be faithful to him as a result of her own longings and resentments. The novel leaves Gogol liminal and hanging between cultures, even as his younger sister plans a happy wedding to a Chinese Jewish American man.

The Watchmen” (2009, directed by Zach Snyder) is a creditable entry in a genre of which I have extremely low expectations. I have watched virtually every Batman and Superman movie of the last thirty years, along with films about lesser superheroes or based on graphic novels, and liked almost none of them. “Watchmen” succeeds based largely on its excellent art direction, which creates a gritty, noir and believable 1985 world of costumed superheroes who are retired, or right wing cranks, or alcoholic.  They get involved in politics, ending the Vietnam war in a week at the behest of President Nixon (who gets elected to a third and fourth term). These superheroes, even the idealistic ones, tolerate each other’s flaws and vices, including unnecessary violence and even murder. They also know that they, or at least the most powerful among them, have become implicated in geopolitics, serving as a deterrent to attack by the Soviet Union. Thus, even as someone starts murdering their colleagues, their response  must be calibrated with the international consequences and public relations effects, as well as their  own best interests. The most powerful of them is the god-like Dr. Manhattan, who transcends time and can fly through space, but who has become heartily tired of his humanity and his planet. The movie is sometimes over-written—I haven’t read the original graphic novel, so it may be that some of the dialog that disturbed me is completely faithful to it. But when the villain, while telling the heroes his entire diabolical plan in a lengthy monologue, interjected, “I am no comic book villain”, I didn’t believe him.  The ending weakens as Dr. Manhattan has a sophomoric epiphany about the meaning of life, and decides to participate in one last effort to save Earth from nuclear destruction. He does so by endorsing the villain’s  plan to kill millions of people and blame it on Dr. Manhattan, thereby creating the most effective deterrent yet known. Geopolitics triumphs and the surviving heroes carry on, even more tainted than before. 

Persepolis” (2007, written and directed by Marjane Satrapi) is a unique animated film which is presented as straight autobiography (the protagonist has the same name as the writer-director). Like “The Name-sake”, it is a tale of growing up between two cultures, in this case Iran and Europe,  and feeling at home in neither. A young girl at the time of the 1979 revolution, Marjane learns that her upper middle class family includes uncles who have served prison time for being rebels and communists. Her urbane, educated parents have high hopes for democracy, but as Iran slides under religious  control, they send her abroad to study in Vienna. Marjane fails to assimilate and after some years, devastated by a cheating boyfriend, has a nervous breakdown and ends up living on the streets. She calls her frightened parents and asks permission to come home, insisting they ask her no questions about Vienna, where she has experienced sex, drugs, punk music and even (the film indirectly suggests in a scene of sinister shadows) rape. Over the next few years, she deals with the culture police, attends private parties where the sexes mingle and drink together, enters into a brief failed marriage and, at the film’s end, returns to exile (this time under orders from her parents to live free in the West and never return to Iran). The movie is worth seeing for its lively, sometimes lyrical animation and (like “The Name-sake”) what it teaches us about an unfamiliar culture. (Among the horrific things we learn is that, since the Koran does not permit the execution of female virgins, prisoners are “married” to guards the night before they are hung.) Like most biographies which appear to hew closely to the truth, “Persepolis” is rather shapeless; Marjane bounces between Europe and Iran and even at the end seems depressive and not much enlightened. I would have liked to have a better understanding of why her second stay in Europe was more successful than the first (which I infer because the real Marjane was able to make this movie).

Sputnik Sweetheart” (1999) by Haruki Murakami is a lesser entry in the novelist’s accumulating mythology of liminal people slipping into magical-realist other worlds. I find Murakami compulsively readable if not always comprehensible, because he has a unique voice and does not remind me of any other novelist (a tribute I can’t pay to Cheever, Lhampiri, etc.) Murakami’s stuff is authentically weird and even when I can’t discern his intentions, gives me that “Mr. Jones” impression (there’s something going on, I’m just not smart enough to know what it is). His characters are always marginal, decent and extremely self-deprecating. In this one, the school-teacher protagonist loves a young woman who seems asexual, but who conceives an overwhelming attraction for her new female employer. The loved one and her boss travel to Greece together, where the former slips into one of Murakami’s trademarked alternate worlds and disappears. The schoolteacher travels to the island to try to find her, and fails. Meanwhile, we learn that the boss had a supernatural experience of her own in adolescence which turned her hair completely white: through the window of her apartment, she watched her own double have sex with a man she did not like. The most accessible metaphor is that we are all satellites passing one another in darkness. The novel’s epigram revisits the story of Laika, the collie dog the Soviets shot into space but could not retrieve. If you haven’t yet read Murakami, start with his most realistic novel, “Norwegian Wood”, in which the characters wrestle with suicide instead of slippage into alternate worlds.

Denis Johnson’s “Tree of Smoke” (2007) appealed to me because of its title alone, as I had never heard of it (the last book before that which I read for this reason was “The Howling Miller”). “Tree” tells the story of a handful of people involved in the Vietnam war from 1963 through 1970, with an epilog in 1983. It is neither a thriller nor a traditional narrative, however. At first, you think you are in the world of Graham Greene or John LeCarre, but Johnson eschews ordinary plotting. His two basic character groups, some CIA agents and some soldiers in a recon squadron attached to the CIA, link up via a single not terribly fateful conversation one of the soldiers has in a bar with the patriarch of the agents. You wait in a vain for the satisfying collision of narrative strands which LeCarre or Alan Furst would have devised, in which the soldiers undertake a doomed special mission for the agents.

The book is imaginatively written, largely avoids cliché and is dense in believable details of life in Vietnam. It suffers greatly from being an entrée in a world in which there are too many novelists and novels. Not only did it presumably lose a battle for shelf space against less deserving contestants, but its author is  fighting to occupy a zone in our cultural brains which already has been completely colonized. In the end, starting with  “Ugly American” and “Quiet American” in the ‘50’s (constantly and amusingly alluded to in the novel), there probably have been almost as many Vietnam novels as books about adultery in the suburbs, so we all know what to expect. Johnson, though an original writer who may for all I know have based his characters on people he actually met, does not succeed in avoiding the kitschified tropes of the psychotic murderous soldier, the naïve misguided spy, etc.

“Tree” also reminded me of the immense, not completely beneficial effect Pynchon’s “V” had on American fiction. It legitimized the plotless narrative, set in a paranoid world, across which a  hapless sex and drug obsessed antihero wanders to his eventual destruction.

Zoe Heller’s “The Believers” (2008) is an entertaining novel about a New York leftist Jewish family. Dad is a William Kunstler-type defense attorney, mom an Englishwoman who has stood by him through infidelities and other adventures for forty years. There are two daughters, one thin, humorless, and (after some years living in Cuba),  seized by a desire to seek her Jewish roots; the other married, overweight, struggling with the knowledge that her husband married her to join her famous family and not out of any attraction to her. Finally, there is mom’s favorite, the hapless, addicted, adopted son whose biological mom, a 1960’s radical, is serving a life sentence in prison.

I don’t usually like dysfunctional family novels (Tolstoy could have added to his famous statement that they are all different, that most are boring). This novel kept my interest because of the lefty Jewish setting, and because it avoids the self pity which drenches most work of this genre. Instead, it is studded with gleams of humor, as nothing seems to work out quite the way anybody expects. Mom, the protagonist, has an epiphany that the sarcasm which made her interesting and different at nineteen,  is not treasured by other people now that she’s 58. Dad has a stroke and while he is comatose, the family discovers that he had an African American mistress in Brooklyn and a son. The question that the novel asks and answers, in a surprising funny twist, is: what does a believer do when the cherished object turns out to be hypocritical? The answer:  neutralizes the disturbing facts by incorporating them into the adoring narrative. And moves on.

Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers” (1946) grips you in its first ten minutes and then throws away all that good-will by the very pedestrian ending. That’s because the first ten minutes are the Hemingway story in which two contract killers take over a diner, waiting for their target, the Swede, to come to dinner. Nick Adams, the narrator of many Hemingway stories, goes to warn the Swede after the killers have left disappointed, but the Swede won’t get out of bed. We never find out what he did, or why his spirit is so broken that he won’t try to escape.

In the story, that is.  In the movie, we find out everything: the heist that went wrong, the dame who betrayed the Swede, the kingpin he offended. There’s too much information, and the more we learn, the less interested we are. That’s why some of the greatest artists of the last couple of centuries experimented in leaving out information, in discovering how much you can omit and still tell a story. “The Killers” is a great short story because it does not fill in the background. So is Melville’s “Bartleby”, written the century before. In a radio version I heard in the ‘70’s, the producers had the effrontery to tell us why Bartleby was so depressed—his four year old daughter had died. The result of these tamperings is that what was universal, becomes generic. Siodmak should have let well enough alone.

Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild” (1986) is a would-be cult film, a violence-tinged comedy full of great ’80’s music. Its done with a lot of flair and great performances by Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, but ultimately there is less to it than meets the eye. The message, like that of scores of other films that year and every year, is to contact your wild side, take a chance, break out of the stultifying structure of your life. Yawn.

Jeff Daniels, by the way, gave the performance of his relatively minor career as a Northern general in “Gettysburg”, radiating dignity, calm, and class. Then, a few years later, he chose to co-star with Jim Carrey in “Dumb and Dumber”, where he not only played a moron, but had an unpleasant toilet scene that has, for me, forever tarnished his other work. It is hard to watch him in “Gettysburg” or anything else without remembering that moment. I hope he got paid a lot.

The Sci Fi network has just announced it is changing its name to “Sy Fy”. This is an appallingly stupid marketing move, on the level of New Coke, or the company that made what were essentially jars of baby food for single men. It gets you thinking about possibilities like HBO renaming itself Haum Boks Offis, or Turner Classic Movies becoming Turnyr Klasik Movys. Of course, it represents a desire on the channel’s part to diversify and at the same time distance itself from its core product. Sci Fi already carries wrestling and shows like “Ghost Hunters”.  In fact, the science fiction shows the channel carried were uneven, ranging from brilliant series like “Galactica” (in its complexity and for the sociological and political issues it confronted nondidactically, one of the ten best television shows ever, in any genre) to pedestrian ones like “Stargate”,  and silly monster-of-the-week fare. I waited for years in vain for Sci Fi to develop an anthology series named something like “Reel Science Fiction”, and start doing straight-forward adaptations of classic stories like Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps”, Asimov’s “Against the Fall of Night” and Ted Taylor’s “The Test”.  Sci Fi could have made a better reputation if it had a better library, but most really classic science fiction has continued to show up elsewhere. In the end, maybe they didn’t have a large enough checkbook. Over the years, many first rate series, like “Firefly”  and “Space: Above and Beyond” were cancelled by broadcast channels but not picked up by Sci Fi (except as reruns). Apparently, the audience for genuine science fiction on television and in the movies is quite small, compared to the audience for costumed superheroes and monsters that eat cities.

Almost no specialized cable channel has remained on message. Arts and Entertainment carries no arts programming.  American Movie Classics now specializes in  embarrassingly bad or forgettable thrillers of the seventies and eighties (thank God Turner has picked up the mission of showing good or underrated American films of all eras, without commercials). Court TV became TRU TV and is nonstop reality shows, cop documentaries and the like. The History Channel is an abomination. Once upon a time, when they showed a historically inaccurate movie like “The Battle of The Bulge”,  they would have a panel of historians afterwards to tell you how the film diverged from reality. Now they program UFO shows and just don’t care.

Cable’s originally promising deconstruction of TV into a diverse universe of specialized fare has come to absolutely nothing. There are nights when you surf the sixty or a hundred available channels and find nothing but reruns of “Family Guy”, “House” and the various “Law and Order” incarnations, on Fox, TBS, USA, TNT, Cartoon Network and on and on, cable without end, amen.

 One of the working playwrights I’ve met told me that she always leaves the audience a little hope at the end. I have read four of her fascinating, dark,  complex plays, which are essentially tragic in character, and looked for the moment of hope.  Sometimes it felt shoehorned in.

            I myself have experienced the phenomenon of walking out of a movie or play depressed as hell and wondering why I just invested money and time watching the most pathological evil triumph and the good people destroyed (for example, the original Dutch version of “The Vanishing”, the ending of which was so unpalatable it was changed for the American version).  

            That doesn’t mean I require a work of art to have an optimistic ending. I want there to be a click of recognition, where I have learned something, connected with some emotional logic in the work and been changed by it even if just for a moment. If the only message is “Evil endures and we are its meat,” I may regret my investment. If I am watching a compelling character who experiences a near miss—almost pulls it all together before the Second Law of Thermodynamics pulls it all apart—I may be buoyed by the energy of the attempt. I certainly don’t need a bolted-on coda telling me that someone else succeeded, or survived, or was inspired.

            Shakespeare certainly did not write “Lear” according to my acquaintance’s rule. In that play “Ripeness is all”, everybody dies, and there is no hope. Yet we are sent out the door enlivened and enlargened by what we have seen; we have lived for an evening in a bigger world than our own.

            I find enervating the hypocrisy of those who draw a particularly thoughtless and inane double standard. “Oh yes, but that was Shakespeare.” We may never see another playwright of his talent, but we all live on the same planet and breathe the same oxygen he did. We are entitled to wield the same tools and use the same ideas; even if we do not do it as well as he. There is room in art for the three minute tragic folksong as well as the three hour opera in which the soprano dies. It is absurd to claim that only Shakespeare has earned, or has the right to, an ungroomed ending.

            There is a kind of reverse engineering involved; by now, all these centuries later, Shakespeare is no longer great because he could write a storm; he is great because he is “Shakespeare”. But when he wrote, he was just a guy named Will; all the rest is just the accretion of time and history, of critics telling each generation what to think.

            I first encountered the idea that work is great because the artist is famous, in high school. A teacher had shown us Bunuel and Dali’s very obscure and violent “Chien Andalou”. When I showed him my own short movie, of “The New York Times” on fire, he became frightened.

            What this also regrettably means is that we view Shakespeare with a much different eye than my acquaintance’s work or any other contemporary drama. With Shakespeare, we are likely to have been trained to think that we are experiencing something pleasant, dull and arteriosclerotic (a viewpoint I am told most opera fans bring to the Met). We read Fielding, Smollett, Eliot, Dickens etc. the same way (or don’t, because we think they are too dull). But the true greatness of Shakespeare is not that he could turn a phrase like “hawk and a hanshaw” or ”springes to catch woodcocks”. It is that his stuff is founded so deeply in the human heart, is so universal, lively and true, that huge swatches of it have aged much better than the work of more recent dramatists like Eugene O’Neill.

            As proof of this, I offer a joke of Shakespeare’s which is still as fresh as the day it was canned. In “Titus Andronicus”, a barbarian queen who has married the Roman Emperor is delivered of a black child, the son of an evil, charismatic slave who is her closest advisor. “You have undone our mother!” cry her sons. “No, thou knave,” is the reply, “I have done thy mother”.

            The increasing failure of audiences to tolerate worlds larger than their own onstage has led to a smashing-flat of American theatre—something playwrights have been complaining about for a good sixty years already. One result is that most of the plays you see  by famous working playwrights (Wendy Wasserstein, for example) are of the quality of particularly good television sitcom writing. You look in vain for characters who want more, rise higher or smash harder than “the average bear”.

            The two hour finale of Battlestar Galactica hit on five out of six cylinders.

            Serial dramas are extremely hard to sustain across a run of five years or more.  While there are some accounts of creators and show runners smart and focused enough to story-board five years of episodes in advance (“Babylon Five”), most serial shows have the sense of being made up on the fly, with the characters being modified to suit the story-lines and becoming little more than puppets. Its probably a cheap shot to mention a prime time soap here, but such shows are the epitome of mechanical plotting and character modification; on “Falconcrest”, almost everyone was good and evil at some time or another, everyone discovered they had a child, sibling or parent they didn’t know about, etc. And then actors’ career choices tend to  distort story-lines. On the various Star Trek series, if an actor chose to leave the show, the writers would kill her character off in a particularly humiliating way.

            Sometimes the producers, under network pressure or panicked by low ratings, betray the commitments they made to the audience. “The X-Files” is the most painful example. Fans who watched every episode accumulated a lot of information about gray aliens, black oil, Cigarette Smoking Man et al, without any of it coming to anything in the end; the show diverged from its mythology in order to run three more years.

            “Galactica” did a pretty fair job of satisfying expectations. For starters, it was hard science fiction (space based and concerned in large part with real issues about surviving off planet, such as oxygen leaks, power sources and food supplies).  Such shows are rare and rarely succeed (“Space: Above and Beyond” in the 1990’s was quite similar to “Galactica”, with flawed humans fighting a near-perfect android enemy, and was canceled after one season). Repeated titles giving the remaining count of surviving humans (which dropped radically to less than 40,000 by the show’s end) created a background sense of terrible tension. The show’s protagonists were all dark and flawed. Mainly people with good intentions, they drank too much, made some bad decisions, lied and cheated, stole elections and even committed the occasional killing, all in search of stability and survival. One interesting feature was that the humans were polytheistic (the details of their beliefs, however, were one of the weak elements of the show). Their adversaries, the machine-based Cylons, believed in one God. Over the life of the show, the spectacle of the Cylons breaking ranks, fighting one another, cooperating with humans and even falling in love with them, gave the show tremendous heart and life.  The loss in the fourth season of the Cylon resurrection technology was an interesting variation on the trope I wrote about last month of immortals falling into time.

            The “Galactica” last season and finale went back months and years to tie up loose ends, mainly with a satisfying click.  One of the better moments: an old Bob Dylan song, “All Along the Watchtower”, which had already played a fateful role at several reprises, turned out to contain some critical information. On a less satisfying level, a dream repeatedly shared by several characters turned out to be a disguised prediction of a moment of action in the last battle aboard ship, rather than something more grandiose. Finally, one of the shows great mysteries was left hanging,  explained only by resort to a hackneyed supernatural trope I first encountered in a comic book in 1960 (in which a character saved some friends on planet X and  then was discovered to have died some days previously on planet Y).

            The finale also boasts one of the best inter-titles ever: “150,000 years later.” All in all, it is second only to “The Wire” as the best sustained television I have ever seen.

            “American History X” (1998), directed by Tony Kaye,   is a well-intentioned misfire. Probably planned as an expose of white supremacist movements and apparently even as an inspiration to those caught up in them (“You can leave! There is a better life!”), the movie appears to be one of Hollywood’s occasional failed efforts to prove that it can educate and motivate.

            Unfortunately, it is nothing more than a 1950’s juvenile delinquent movie transposed to the ‘90’s, populated with the Bad Kid Who Is Essentially Good, the Younger Brother Who Must Be Saved From a Bad Example,  the Confused but Essentially Loving Family, and the Dedicated Teacher With a Heart of Gold.

            Edward Norton, who is a powerful actor and always watchable, does his best but the writing deprives him of a genuine character to play.  He is a good kid who inexplicably becomes a racist killer and then, after one bad experience in the prison showers, becomes a good kid again. The endangered younger brother, played by Edward Furlong whose vulnerability and wounded charisma made him ideal for such roles, has little more to go on.

            There is a movie to be made about the things which lead people into white supremacy movements. It would more likely be inhabited by abusive, abandoning parents and teachers who don’t give a fuck. And the protagonist probably would not be good at heart and eligible for redemption. But then it wouldn’t be Hollywood.

            Last night I saw a student production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Savage in Limbo” at Edison College, Fort Myers, Florida (director Stuart Brown), and was reminded of all the reasons why I love small, marginal theatre. No rotating sets, no bored or clueless television actors, just an auditorium stage with minimal furniture and kids with heart and charisma which more than compensate for lack of experience. It was a creditable, fast-paced production of a lovely little play.

            While “Doubt” is first-rate workmanship and deserves the awards it won, Shanley had to tone himself down, really genericize himself, to write it. His early plays, including this one, “Women of Manhattan”, “Italian American Reconciliation” and “The Dreamer Examines His Pillow”, are full of crazy, beautiful flights of language, which are believable as the utterances of real (and, in most cases, uneducated) people but which permit them to soar above their lives for a moment. “Savage” is nothing more than five people in a bar for ninety minutes, each looking  to escape the rapidly setting concrete in which each has his or her feet planted at age 32. Alliances are formed and broken, three proposals of marriage are made and one accepted, and each character avoids or embraces solitude.  There is even a little set piece which qualifies as memorable theatre magic, in which the bartender puts on a Santa costume for a moment to retrieve the alcoholic woman he loves to sanity. In another writer’s work, this would be kitsch, but Shanley knows how to surf the  crest of kitsch without ever falling in.

            I have a soft spot for Anne Tyler, and have recently reread “A Patchwork Planet” (1998) and “The Accidental Tourist” (1985).  Hers is the rare work which is sentimental but not kitschy, because the people are believable and flawed, and the plots as untidy as the characters. One of the ways that Tyler, like Shanley, avoids kitsch is that in her stories, people you like sometimes get injured. There are no villains, just good people at cross-purposes, in fact, just good people making choices, and if you choose to marry A, B will be hurt. People don’t always get what they expect or deserve, and the ones who end up alone do so because of quite small hesitations or errors, not gross crimes. In “Planet”, the protagonist is taken up by a woman who is more successful than he is, but who genuinely loves him and is willing to do anything for him. Her slight but incalculably resounding mistake is believing that he might possibly have committed a theft of which he is innocent. In “Accidental Tourist”, a wife, overthrown by the murder of a teenage son, leaves, only to discover that there is no road back, no matter that she remained faithful while apart and is sincerely remorseful.

            Something else which distinguishes Tyler from the gray run of indistinguishable novelists is that she seems to be genuinely self-deprecating and also to love her characters while seeing them clearly. The world is full of much less talented, more arrogant novelists who sincerely believe that they are god-like in form and intellect, and whose characters aren’t people but merely the roller-skates on which the novelist plans to wheel to glory. 

            I never thought of this before, but if Tyler was a shade more metaphysical and mysterious, she would be Haruki Murakami, who is similarly modest and attached to his people. Any Murakami character could slip out of the frame and appear in a Tyler novel without seeming out of place.

            Tyler is also a marvelous coiner of titles; the names of her books are all sideways like her people, evocative, rueful and funny.

            A possible example of the arrogant type of novelist is John Burnham Schwartz, whose “Claire Marvel” (2002) begins, “There was before her and now there is after her, and that is the difference in my life.”   What follows, interrupted by regular throes of similar mooning, is a very familiar tale in which an Egghead meets a Beautiful Mysterious Girl Slightly Out of His League, and heartbreak ensues. They are together, apart, together; she is despairing for unknown reasons; there are flights of prose describing her hair and eyes, and not one word which persuades us that she is of the class of mortals who, in a Tyler novel, might actually break a heel or put their lipstick on crooked.  

            “Claire Marvel” also illustrates the profound difficulty of writing love stories, in which by definition, the object is half-seen and greatly misunderstood. It may in fact be impossible to write a literary novel worth its salt about the “in love” phase of a relationship (unless, possibly, it is set against the background of the Russian revolution). These stories always end, with the first kiss, or first make-up after a break-up, or the proposal of marriage—in other words, just as the people really begin to experience one another and the going gets interesting. Many more compelling novels have been (and will be) written about the ensuing relationship, which requires work and common sense and is inherently more dramatic than the “she’s great and I’m starry eyed” phase.

            To Schwartz’s credit, the novel does end poignantly; like “Our Town”, it has one punch, and saves it effectively for the end.

            An arrogant novelist who carried it off was Po Bronson, who wrote two fine comic novels in the ‘90’s. “The First 20 Million Is Always the Hardest” (1997) created a genre which it occupies almost alone, that of the computer industry novel. There is one other that I like, Ellen Ullman’s “The Bug” (2003)  (think “Moby Dick” with a software error in place of the White Whale). There are a few other titles I haven’t tracked down yet, like Douglas Coupland’s “Microserfs”. It’s a shame, because  computer software, the technology and the industry both, are rife with metaphor, are rich, dreamlike ways to model life. There probably haven’t been more software novels yet because so few people are qualified to write them, and not a great many more people are qualified to read them. Please note that Richard Power’s “Galatea 2.0” is NOT a software novel; it is a phony artificial intelligence fairy tale, “Claire Marvel” if the love object was a shade more insubstantial and resided inside a mainframe. Remarkably, it tells the same story that Heinlein did, more believably and better in 1966, in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” (same ending too).

            Bronson’s “Bombardiers” (1995) is about the world of bond salespeople; its protagonist is a master salesman who is too smart and caring to survive in that world, and too good at his job to leave. Each succeeding bond issue is crappier and more suspect than the last, and his quota for each one is higher, until by the end of the book he is ordered to sell a hundred million dollars worth of bonds backing a leveraged buy-out of the Dominican Republic by American military contractors. Along the way, there is a really funny set piece in which the salespeople gang up on their manager and demand to see a bond; they have been selling the product for years on end without ever seeing what one actually looks like. The novel, set in the late eighties, is prescient, mentioning mortgage backed securities and the Street’s philosophy of inflating crap into mastery by creating a narrative which becomes far more important than the underlying substance. You don’t need to understand tranches or yields to enjoy “Bombardiers”. The book does bear a certain passing resemblance to “Catch -22”, including a similar ending, but you forgive it because it is so damn entertaining. Unfortunately, it seems Bronson made a decision after these two novels to be a nonfiction writer specializing in children and families. I wish he had stuck to his lathe; there are lots of navel-gazers in American literature but few Balzacs, Flauberts or Zolas who can lift the roof off a social institution and show us the gross, maddening hypocrisy on which it runs. That puts Bronson in company he doesn’t quite warrant; “Bombardiers” veers, like “Catch-22”, into madcap farce rather than the sober yet still quite funny social nihilism of Balzac. Still, if we can’t do things on a grand scale, it would be nice to have a few novelists attempting grand tasks on a smaller scale, and not merely studying lint.  Two other American novelists who have occupied the roof-pulling niche with some success are Tom Wolfe (“Bonfire of the Vanities”  and “I Am Charlotte Simmons”) and Christopher Buckley (“Thank You for Smoking” and “Little Green Men”).

            Secuestro Express” (2005), directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz,  is harrowing. In this spare, almost perfectly pitched story, a  young Venezuelan couple are kidnapped together at the end of a night clubbing. The guy is selfish and a liar, the girl volunteers in a hospital for the poor and is about to bring home a ten year old cancer victim to stay with her. Eighty-seven tense minutes later, the girl is on the verge of freedom after a series of mostly understated, surprising and believable events. At the end, the movie loses a little steam because it becomes sentimental for the first time, and also because it takes us one twist too far. Its done with a lot of talent, and almost succeeds (especially because it is in a foreign language, has exotic settings and great camera work) in putting itself across as an art film. But its really a nearly nasty little horror thriller with almost-sympathetic villains, which avoids the standards of sadism and hopelessness recently set by American movies in the same genre. Its director deserves to get snapped up by Hollywood, where he will probably eventually direct a movie in which a professional wrestler becomes a family’s butler, or a street smart black kid teaches an elderly Holocaust survivor to trust again.

            I am obsessed with the idea that novelists and playwrights tend to be launched by other writers. While artists may choose to congregate with one another once they are in the milieu, the chance of one community discovering most of our talented people, to the exclusion of others, is quite small. Are most good playwrights able to study with Edward Albee,  or is Albee more successful at launching his protégé’s careers than the high school drama teacher in Racine?

Horton Foote, who died recently, was a very talented writer, who deserved the honors and attention he received during his long career. His obituary revealed that he also happened, as an actor, to have wandered into a New York community where he could be supported and promoted by famous friends. If he had stayed home in a small Texas town, his talent alone would not have earned him the same career.

I think the obvious, but little discussed, reason for this is: 1. Standards of quality in most forms of writing have become mushy and tendentious enough that few publishers and agents trust themselves to recognize talent any more. And that’s before you even get to the question of whether the work is commercial, as opposed to being too “dark” or intellectual. 2. As a tiny component of  a world population which has doubled from three to six billion in my lifetime, there are far more people who can write well than there are publishers to print all their works or audiences to read them. (The publishing business and reading public have dwindled, in relative and maybe even absolute terms,  as population has ballooned.) Both these assertions lead to the conclusion that the easiest way to do your job as an agent, producer or publisher is to see whom Edward Albee recommends, not to look for talent in the slush pile.

The music industry seems to be quite different. In classical music,  its quite irrelevant whose friend you were when you were twenty-two. The number of people who can really make a violin wail is certainly far tinier than those who can write a decent novel. Even in the rock world, people seem to break in by playing a lot of gigs rather well,  not by carrying Jack White’s briefcase.

Duplicity” (2009), directed by Tony Gilroy, is a well-made machine, a romantic corporate espionage thriller that jumps back and forth in time. At its core is an interesting concept, of the circumstances under which two professionally paranoid people can trust one another. They test each other with mind games; the best and sexiest of these involves Julia Roberts’ character taking off a thong and pretending to find it in a closet in her boyfriend’s apartment. They constantly review with one another the possibility that unforeseen setbacks are really tricks that one has played on the other; one of the things which set the classy dialog apart,  is that it is usually the one to be suspected who raises the question of his or her own subterfuge. From another perspective, the movie has a tough row to hoe before today’s audiences: it is an old fashioned romantic comedy-thriller, with no guns, chases, fistfights or killings. The ending was at once very predictable and satisfying, leading to and supporting some final dialog: “At least we still have each other.” And they do.

“Ninotchka” (1939) , directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is one of those old fashioned romantic comedies, of a kind which is rarely possible any more, in part because we don’t have many actors with the poise and timing to pull them off. Julia Roberts is probably the closest thing we have, but is strangely inert at moments in “Duplicity”; she is minor royalty indeed compared to Greta Garbo. Before she even opens her mouth and reads a single line of dialog, garbo already has established herself  as an actress of tremendous gravitas, strength and quiet; one feels that it would be possibly to simply watch her going about the most trivial tasks of her daily life without ever losing interest. In the scene where Melvyn Douglas takes a pratfall, and she starts laughing hysterically, you know you are witnessing something remarkable (“Garbo laughs!” was the advertisement for the film). And she doesn’t quite pull it off; that face was not made for laughing, it could never giggle; but you are glad to have shared that moment anyway. She is the epitome of that star quality which is so rare today; you sense, watching her, that she is a good person, simple, devoid of duplicity or even of some of the every day human emotions, yet somehow larger than other people. For a more tragic and memorable role, watch her in “Queen Christina” in which she easily persuades you she was born to rule a nation, but is bored by it; when she moves mountains to escape her ordinary life, to abdicate so she can marry a commoner, she crosses the border only to learn that he has been killed in a duel earlier the same day. In her expression, you can read all of her thoughts, the incomparable loss and her acceptance of the years of ordinary life ahead of her. I would watch “Christina” first, then “Ninotchka” to see how a great actress can stoop to comedy without ever suggesting she is above it—or giving up the slightest shred of dignity.

Ursula Hegi’s “Sacred Time” (2003) is a first rate small New York family novel which illustrates the small but powerful aspect of talent which is unquantifiable. The world is full of people who can turn a sentence; there is a smaller group which can sketch a believable character; but the novelists who can really make every person in her story come to life believably, who can surprise us and make us care, are a vanishingly small group. There is nothing unique about Hegi’s Amedeo family, but their experiences in the Bronx and Brooklyn, across fifty years, hit home in a way that the people in “Claire Marvel”, “The Believers” and even “The Accidental Tourist” do not. And it is very hard to say why this should be so. The prose is serviceable but not ornate (and overworked prose gets in the way of narrative anyway; that’s why so much of Faulkner is unreadable). We don’t get more information about the people than other novelists provide, or information which is substantially different. Yet there is some irreducible quality of imagination, of conviction, that make this novel superior.  (I have to admit the possibility that I am revealing nothing more  than the subjectivity of criticism.)

On the second page, a mother says to her young son, who is importuning her for a stencil kit to make wax angels on the windows: “Quit skutching, Anthony.” And the novel has the quality at that moment of a memory of your own.

Hegi also creates some very satisfying effects by letting us arrive at the truth by triangulating between the sections. Each piece is told from the point of view of a family member (sometimes in the first person, sometimes third). So the knowledge is different. The man whom Anthony Amedeo thinks is his elderly mother’s friend in 2002 we know is the lover she took in the 1950’s, when she was thirty and he was nineteen,  during a short period when Anthony’s father left.  It is poignant tolearn he never married. There are jumps of ten and twenty years between sections, and much of the action takes place between, and is alluded to without being directly narrated. Sooner or later, we will always circle back to an event which took place in the 1950’s, when Anthony’s cousin Bianca jumped to her death from the apartment window, while Anthony was standing next to her. It isn’t strictly a genetics novel, but we watch how the charisma, doubt and neuroses of the elders is transmitted to the younger generations, as they all deal with the love and rage they feel to one another, and struggle with truth and fidelity in their relationships. The woman at the center of the novel, Leonora Amedeo, who tells her son Anthony to quit “skutching” at the beginning, is magnificent. At the end, elderly but with a fiery spirit, she disturbs her son by taking self defense classes in the much deteriorated Bronx neighborhood she has refused to leave.