May 2009

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Colchicine

 

Guarantee: All reviews contain spoilers

 

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

 

            Julie Otsuke’s When the Emperor Was Divine (2005) is delicately written with some poignant portrayals and haunting descriptions of anti-Japanese prejudice and life in the World War II internment camps. It has a couple of problems. Descriptions of political oppression in fiction compete in a space so well-occupied that it is hard to make one’s voice heard, let alone say anything new or different. Although there have been fewer novels about the Japanese internment than about the Holocaust, South African apartheid, the U.S. civil rights struggle, etc., Otsuke’s work in effect competes with these novels as well: “Look how terribly we were treated.” Sad to say, the experience of seeing one’s father taken away,   being shipped to a desert camp and kept two years under extremely ascetic conditions, and coming home to find one’s house ransacked, though sad and terrible, doesn’t stand out in a genre which abounds in descriptions of people being tortured, maimed, starved to death and murdered.

 

            Unfortunately, horrendous acts by nations and peoples don’t usually form the basis for satisfyingly constructed novels or films. The crimes are usually so great they escape the ability of the artist to capture them. Also, the tone of such works tends to be rather monotonous,   angry and didactic.

 

            Otsuke’s novel lacks structure; it is really a series of short stories or vignettes, about the same family, set at somewhat random intervals during the beginning, end and aftermath of the war.  She was not equal to her theme, but nobody really is.

 

            “Shoot ‘Em Up” (2007), directed by Michael Davis, is one of the most worthless pieces of crap I have ever seen. I have an ongoing internal debate as to whether I should even review stuff here if I dislike it that much, or just let it pass by in silence. I am not opposed to violence in movies, if handled with originality and wit, as in the best of Tarantino’s films. “Death Proof”, his latest,  was at moments gruelingly hard to watch, but very funny and original. “Pulp Fiction”, which achieved brilliance with its fracturing of time and narrative, unfortunately launched droves of third rate imitations, and the brutal “Shoot ‘Em Up”, is one of these. Starring some fine actors including Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti and Monica Belluci, it does not have a single moment which hasn’t been better done before. It involves a baby in danger who is apparently bullet-proof (“Raising Arizona”), mid-air fights while free-falling (James Bond movies, “Point Break”) and lots of balletic shoot-outs a la John Woo. The opening scene, where a  woman is nursing her newborn baby during a shoot-out and is killed with a bullet to the head, is meant to be amusing and instead is one of the more disturbing things I have ever seen in a movie. The body stays around for a while, one breast exposed, and is fondled by Giamatti’s character. To his credit, this intelligent  actor looked embarrassed to me. The things people do to keep working in Hollywood.

 

            We Don’t Live Here Any More” (2004), directed by John Curran,  is a movie I wanted to like for its fine performances.  (It is based on two Andre Dubus short stories I haven’t read.) The problem is that it is yet another entry in an overpopulated genre, adultery in academe. The men are professors at a college and best friends. The wives, played by two of the finest actresses of recent decades, Naomi Watts and Laura Dern, are homemakers. Each spouse has an affair with a member of the other couple. The movie somewhat begs the question of how you can screw your best friend’s wife or husband (the women are close friends too), as if this were a normal if somewhat regrettable American middle class activity. Each of the individuals seems to forgive his or her friend, accepting the normality of the cheating. Mark Ruffalo plays the role at which he excels, the boy-man, intelligence mired in immaturity.

 

            The problem with adultery stories, especially those set against college backdrops, is that there seems to be very little understanding on the writers’ parts that adultery involves a deliberate breach of trust and the infliction of harm on others. I often have the sense, reading novels or watching movies, that the writer is an adulterer excusing his or her behavior. (Most of these stories in fact have been written by men.)  Here, Laura Dern’s character is a bit of a drunk and a slattern, who keeps a “foul” house and forgets to change the sheets when her son wets the bed. The author appears to be asking us: who wouldn’t cheat under such circumstances? Adultery stories tend to be drenched in self pity. Though there are many emotions which can succeed as the cornerstone of a story—love, desire, rage, and compassion have all anchored novels and movies—self pity is not one of them. We instinctively have little or no tolerance for it, because the complainer is typically telling us his woes in lieu of really confronting them and taking action. Though I find all adultery stories set in middle class and suburban surroundings problematic—there was really no need to write another one after “Madame Bovary”—those set in colleges are particularly juvenile. I think this is because academic life, in the real world, is surprisingly puerile, a place where people fight over the paper clips because they survive in a hierarchy where the big rewards are not financial,  and passive aggression is encouraged and rewarded.

 

            By the way, my proposed re-titling of “From Here to Eternity”: “Adultery and Infantry”.

 

            “Smart People” (2008), directed by Noam Murro,  is a very ordinary story—buttoned up college professor (Dennis Quaid) meets vibrant doctor (Sarah Jessica Parker), falls in love, unbuttons—that is buoyed by unusual characters and fine performances. Thomas Haden Church as Quaid’s goofy, aimless but warm “adopted brother” and Ellen Page as his obsessive, sarcastic, lonely Young Republican daughter, give the movie a cachet of comic realism which lifts it out of the everyday. It isn’t based on an Anne Tyler novel, but it feels that way.

 

            Because I am traveling and also bogged down in the 900 pages of “Little Dorritt”, this is a light month for novel reviews. Seems like a good time to do a sort of ten best list, recapping the best novels and stories I ever read, the ones I am drawn back to over and over. (When I started writing what follows, I discovered I couldn’t do it without also name-checking some over-rated and plain terrible stuff.)

 

            The best American novel of all time is Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth.” No kidding—if anyone has yet written “the great American novel”, this is it. Wharton could write circles around the men we are taught in high school to believe head the American pantheon, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. The novel relates the tragedy of Lily Bart, a beautiful woman of good breeding, with no money. At first, she isn’t a catch because she lacks a dowry. Later, she has an air of scandal about her which deters suitors. She is doubly unable to settle; she can’t accept a man she loves who can’t give her a wealthy, secure life; but she instinctively ruins any opportunities she has to marry rich men she does not love. She ends up alone, trying to work for a living (but does not know how to do anything), and addicted to chloral hydrate. The ending is one of the most powerful and poignant of any novel I ever read.

 

            For another novel not in the same league but curious and powerful, try Frank Norris’ “McTeague”, a sort of reverse “Les Miserables” in which the hero doesn’t get nobler over time. The last scene is one of the most vivid and cinematic in any novel: McTeague is handcuffed to the corpse of a dead cop, hauling it behind him through the desert.

 

            Melville was a madman. “Moby Dick” is a terrible mess on a really great theme. Melville’s constant switching between first and third person narration, and nonfiction narratives, doesn’t seem planned but rather to have grown by accretion. “Billy Budd”, found after the death of the author who had just spent nineteen silent years working in the Customs House, is the great moral fable of our time, about the conflict between law, justice and the human heart. “Bartleby”, about the employee who step by step, declines to perform all his assigned tasks (“I would prefer not to”) is one of the greatest short stories ever written.

 

            Hemingway’s novels are highly over-rated but his short stories are masterpieces of conservation: maximum impact in few words. Especially “A Clean Well Lighted Place” and  “The Killers”. In “The Capitol of the World”, two waiters in a Madrid café practice their bull-fighting skills and one accidentally kills the other with knives attached to a chair. The story ends with the lament that the dead man never got to see the Greta Garbo movie which was disappointing all Madrid that summer.

 

            Fitzgerald is problematic. “Gatsby”, rammed down our throats as a masterpiece in high school, is a mere pastiche without characters. It lends itself to teaching because of its simplistic use of lurid metaphors, notably the billboard with the eyes staring out across the trash heap. His other novels, which blend together in my memory, tend to be about unlikeable rich kids struggling and failing to achieve maturity (drenched in self pity too). The one exception is “Tender is the Night”. Same rich kids, a bit older this time, but the spectacle of Dick and Nicole Diver switching places—she becomes sane in effect by handing off her insanity to him—is fascinating. I like novels which hit you with a hammer at the end, and the last paragraph or so tracing Dick Diver’s after-story as a general practitioner in a small town in New York hits very hard. Great last sentence, like many Hemingway stories and novels.

 

            Faulkner is one of those novelists I read avidly in high school and find unreadable today. I loved “Light in August” and particularly “Intruder in the Dust”, which seemed like one of those rare literary novels which doubles as a good mystery story. When I reread “Intruder” a few years ago, the prose was so dense and pretentious I almost couldn’t get through it.

 

            There don’t seem to be any modern American novelists likely to have the same reputation in 100 years that Wharton has today. I used to think Thomas Pynchon might be one; as a teenager and young adult, I obsessively reread “V” and “The Crying of Lot 49”. I haven’t tried to read these again more recently, but suspect I would have a Faulkner-style reaction. On three attempts, I have not been able to get through “Gravity’s Rainbow”. Don DeLillo is an example of post-Pynchon imitation. His novels seem to follow a recipe: a cup of paranoia, two tablespoons of coincidence, a couple pinches of irony, and no emotion whatever.

 

            On a lesser level, Michael Chabon is a very good writer, and “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” is a literary novel which succeeds as a whodunit with magical overtones. I wasn’t that crazy about “Kavalier and Klay”. Jonathan Lethem sadly got less interesting as he veered away from science fiction (“Amnesia Moon” is excellent, very Philip K. Dickian) into magical Brooklyn realism (“Fortress of Solitude”). I hated Dave Eggers’ “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”, which I found to be a very ordinary novel with ridiculously boastful overtones.

 

            I said above that novels and movies can’t be based on self-pity. Too much American conversation consists of bragging and complaining. Bragging doesn’t work as the cornerstone of a novel either. Marisha Pessl’s “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” (which I read because it has a great title) is about how tough it is to be the most beautiful, intelligent woman in the room.

 

            I haven’t yet read David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” and may wait til I have a year with nothing better to do. Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” is an ambitious novel which almost works but veers over into Delillo-land.

 

            Philip K. Dick thought he was a hack writer but his best work achieves a kind of crazy Zen greatness: “The Man in the High Castle” (an unusually straight, meaning non-hallucinatory, alternate-history tale in which Japan occupies the West Coast) , “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and the entertaining mind-game “Ubik” are my favorites. Dick was preoccupied with the question of what is human; in his works, an alien which looked like a giant protoplasm or a potted plant might have compassion and a sense of humor, while something which looked human might be nothing more than a killing machine.

 

              When my stepson was applying to colleges fifteen years ago, a friend gave him a word of advice: Whatever you are actually reading, when they ask for last book read on the application, answer “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. I believe this novel, which I return to every few years, will stand up as the one enduring classic of the second half of the 20th century. It also delivers a punch at the end: races born to one hundred years of solitude never have a second chance on earth. Most of Marquez’ other novels are either dense and unreadable (“Autumn of the Patriarch”) or enjoyable but trivial (“Love in the Time of Cholera”). Marquez’ one other work which really stands up is the very short “In Evil Hour”, in which evil people sincerely, for a moment, struggle to make peace with the good ones, but it doesn’t work out, because the Second Law of Thermodynamics seems to apply as much in human affairs as anywhere else. Marquez’ short stories, at the outset patterned overtly on Hemigway’s, are also masterpieces of economy and impact, particularly the haunting “Eyes of a Blue Dog”.

 

            Borges’ stories are enjoyable mind-games which don’t always stick in my memory. His fairly realistic, poignant “The South”, about a man who tries to get himself killed in a knife fight,  is an exception.

 

            European literature contains the bulk of the greatest works I have ever read (at times I feel that in comparison there really is not a North American literature). English novels which I rate highly include Fielding’s “Tom Jones” and Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” which have real people, societal sweep and satire and which make Pynchon and DeLillo look like puerile schoolboys. Sterne’s  “Tristram Shandy” is like an immobile flying saucer discovered in a nearby field; it has some beauties and complexities of construction I don’t yet grasp. I have to read it again.  Trollope’s “The Way We Live Now” includes a fraudulent financier who unfortunately is completely modern, and also a wonderful strong woman character, come to London from the Wild West with an air of murder and scandal about her. In the end, her real sin is too be too much woman for the pale, insecure twits who are most of Trollope’s male characters. Galsworthy’s “Forsyte Saga” is worth reading if lesser and duller; he contrasts men who are unemotional, money-,  possession- and detail-oriented, with those who have the ability to break through to love and the appreciation of beauty. Unfortunately, his women, unlike Trollope’s, are nonentities, shining by the reflected light of the men only.

 

I recognize Dickens’ greatness, but there is a little too much of the commercial, master-manipulator about him; still, “Bleak House” and numerous other large works contain sympathetic characters at all levels of society and political criticism as well,  and are compulsively readable (you can know you are being manipulated and still enjoy it). I haven’t yet finished “Little Dorrit”, but it is shaping up to be one of my favorites, with numerous scenes set inside the Marshalsea debtor’s prison where Dickens spent part of his childhood. The Circumlocution Office of the novel is a completely contemporary obfuscatory bureaucracy, dedicated to ensuring that nothing new and different gets accomplished.

 

            I laud Jane Austen as being a technically excellent writer, fine at portraying character psychology and nuance, but often boring because her settings are very constrained and her female characters’ choices so limited. The only novel of hers  whose title causes me to remember the plot is of course “Emma”, with its delightful, well-intentioned but stuck-up heroine.  I had the same problem with George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”. I like Virginia Woolf’s writing less well but it has had a greater impact. “To The Lighthouse” and “Mrs. Dalloway” are miracles of unusual structure and should be studied by aspiring novelists looking to do anything more sophisticated than writing “ripping yarns”. I found “Orlando” a little confusing, but it occupies an important place as an examination of the proposition that “anatomy is destiny”: what happens to a man’s dreams and aspirations when he becomes a woman?

 

            James Joyce is a great short story writer, and “The Dead” is the best story of the English language. Its final paragraph (“the snow was general all over Ireland”) should have made his reputation even if he wrote nothing else. “Ulysses” is half-brilliant and half gibberish.

 

            At one time, I read virtually all of Joseph Conrad, and admired him as a consummate story-teller and maker of moral fables. A lot of his stuff I now find hard to re-read, maybe because it is overly familiar. Nevertheless, “Heart of Darkness”, “Lord Jim” and particularly “Nostromo”, in which an upstanding local hero becomes quietly, almost accidentally, corrupt, are favorites.

            More modern British writers mainly leave me as cold as Americans. Martin Amis’ “Times Arrow” was an interesting execution of the tale told backwards (actually a man living his life backwards in time, really accomplishing what “Benjamin Button” did not). One of the most complex and fascinating novels I have read in decades, affecting me as an adult the way “V” did when I was sixteen, is David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas”, with its linked, interleaved novellas covering hundreds of years of human history. Each of the stories seems real but is regarded as a fiction in the world of the next story.

 

            I wish I could praise Salman Rushdie. He has certainly suffered enough to deserve greatness. The only work of his I read cover to cover is “The Satanic Diaries”. I bogged down in “Shame” and haven’t yet attempted “Midnight’s Children”. I have never favored the type of novel where magical elements overwhelm character and narrative (think Ishmael Reed, William Burroughs, etc.)

 

              I re-read Proust every ten years or so; “A La Recherche du Temps Perdu” is 4000 pages long, dense, didactic, beautifully written and, seen as an extended essay on time, memory, aging and the Second Law, has been much imitated but never equaled. Flaubert’s most memorable achievement is “Madame Bovary”, but a work that has a more special resonance for me is “Education Sentimentale”, about ambitious friends and adversaries who, on the last page, recognize that their lives have each been a near-miss, and ask each other why. “Manque de droiture” (often translated as “lack of a straight line”) is the explanation. Balzac was a brilliant hack, and some of his stuff is completely trashy, while even his best work has some very trashy and mechanical elements. The one novel I have been drawn back to read many times is “Peau de Chagrin”, an uncharacteristic fantasy about a young man who receives a magical antelope skin. Anything you wish for while caressing the skin, you will receive; but it gets smaller each time it is touched—and vanishes entirely (along with the protagonist’s life) at the end. Zola’s “Rougon-Macquart” series of twenty novels about the members of an extended family has some lesser entries (“Un Page D’Amour”) but at its best, encompassing all French society from top to bottom, is an amazing, frightening social realist construction, particularly “L’Assommoir” about alcoholism (a woman says she doesn’t need much as long as she has her family, a roof, and enough to eat; by the end, she has nothing); Nana, about a prostitute who rules Paris for a short time; and Germinal, about a coal mine. Georges Duhamel’s “Notaire de Havre” series is to Zola as Galsworthy is to Trollope. It contains one unique novel, “Le Combat Contre Les Ombres”, about a whispering campaign which destroys a man’s career. I have never seen another novel on this exact topic. Alain Fournier’s “Le Grand Meaulnes” is a beloved pre-war fable which may not exist in English translation (not sure about “Peau de Chagrin” either). Raymond Queneau is a mind-game-player who can be as puerile as Don DeLillo, but “Zazie dans le Metro”, about a little girl who comes to Paris with the one ambition of riding the Metro, and meets a cast of strange characters including a transvestite aunt and the Devil, is a delightful roller coaster ride full of wordplay. Victor Hugo, writing in the nineteenth century romantic vein, is always over-the-top but every book is a page-turner, particularly “Les Miserables” and “Notre Dame de Paris”. I admire Jean Valjean from the former novel, because Hugo repeatedly subjects him to moral torments in which he could do the dishonest thing without ever being discovered. For example, another man is on the verge of being wrongly convicted of being the fugitive, Jean Valjean. He did not put the other into that dilemma, and if he did nothing, his own safety and secrecy would be assured. After a night of anguished introspection,  he walks into court and announces, “I am Jean Valjean!” It is one of the great moral moments in literature.

 

            The Russians are all strange, and they take some getting used to. Tolstoy is like a super-Flaubert, very lecture-y, more orderly than Melville but just as didactic, with his chapters on the conduct of war interspersed between those about the merely human and local events happening to his characters. Dostoyevsky, by contrast, wears his pathology on his sleeve; you get the sense he writes about murder so well because he is, in his heart, a killer. “Crime and Punishment” and “Karamazov” are the two greatest novels ever written, and are at the same time, ripping good suspense yarns. In the first, Porfiry Petrovich (the model for Lieutenant Columbo of 1970’s television), plays stupid and worries at Raskolnikov until he pins him down. “Karamazov” is an actual whodunit, with a very satisfying solution. Dostoyevsky’s moment of truth in both novels, the scene he spends hundreds of pages working up to, is a conversation between a killer and someone finding him out, in which the killer seeks to establish they are the same, and the other to prove they are not. We are all murderers, says Dostoyevsky.

 

            “We all came out of Gogol’s overcoat.” Maybe. His stuff is well worth reading, along with Sterne and Kafka, as proof that you don’t have to be 25 years old and have a New School MFA to write strange, evocative prose. Gogol, like the others, gives me the “Mr. Jones” feeling: something is happening but I don’t always know what it is.

 

            Someone brought me a cheaply printed English edition of Lermontov from Moscow in 1981. All I remember: a duel fought on a precipice, where one of the antagonists is suddenly replaced by a column of dust glinting in sunlight.

 

            I don’t watch much broadcast television. There are a lot of shows which sound kind of interesting, and I stay away either because they will be cancelled (which they usually are) or because if you pick one, you might as well watch seven, and I don’t have the time. “Rescue Me” is an exception (though I watch it a season or two behind, on DVD or, more recently, on Hulu).

 

            It is a kind of guilty pleasure. I am always asking myself whether the show has jumped the shark, and the answer is probably that it was halfway over the shark as of the first episode. It stands out from other firefighter shows and movies (most recently the mediocre “Third Watch”) because it is more realistic and less sanctimonious. The firefighters are all likeable monsters with underdeveloped superegos and overdeveloped libidos; they lie, steal, and cheat on their wives; but the story-telling has been compelling enough to keep me watching. On an episode from the third season, several of the men accompany a fire chief to the home of one of their own, who has not been answering phone calls and is in fact lying on his living room floor in a coma. Outside, they spend a few minutes deciding which window to break, and the chief keeps rejecting the suggestions as the windows are too expensive. He finally says that the man inside owes him forty dollars from the racetrack; so let’s find a forty dollar window. This is delightful dialog and conveys the impression that the writer has actually been in the situation.

 

            Some of the third season writing is very lazy. The man in the coma met a new woman a couple of episodes earlier; on their first date  she improbably volunteered that she was an illegal immigrant, a too obvious set up for her departure during his heart attack without calling 911. On the season’s penultimate episode, Tommy Gavin’s brother Johnny, a fixture on the show since the first season, is killed during a stakeout. There is no run up to this; more careful writers would have let us know that he was involved in a dangerous investigation. Without foreshadowing, the impression is that the writers are saying, “OK, we’ve had enough sibling rivalry, lets move on”, or maybe that the actor asked for a pay raise. More laughable still, at his funeral the show introduced a sister never before mentioned: get rid of a sibling, add a sibling. We are almost in Falconcrest territory.

 

“State of Play” (2009) is a trite but well-executed political thriller, the kind in which Washington reporters on a political corruption story are shot at. In the real world, the only U.S. reporters who were ever murdered in recent memory were victims of organized crime. Woodward and Bernstein brought down President Nixon without anyone ever trying to kill them. So the minute bullets start flying in a reporter’s direction on film, I stop listening to anything else the movie is trying to tell me. You could make an interesting and suspenseful film about reporters bringing down a congressman, or confronting the evil-doing of a Blackhawk-type military contractor, but then leave out the firefights.

 

“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998), directed by Terry Gilliam, is a hoot. About men with warped consciousnesses behaving very badly—scaring people, destroying property, and ordering room service without paying—its highly entertaining if you suspend every day morality. The same is true of the writing of Hunter Thompson its based on—you always have the sense it would be intolerable to spend twenty minutes with the author, but from afar, regarded as a humorist and original, you can enjoy his sputterings and panics. Johnny Depp hangs onto his crown as the King of All Neurologically Impaired Characters. Watching him respond to his partner, Dr. Gonzo’s request to electrocute him in the bath (just as Grace Slick hits the high note in “White Rabbit”) is a treat, just one of a series of strange, funny set pieces of which the movie is composed. It loses a bit of steam at the end, when Gonzo terrifies a waitress with a knife. Suddenly, both men seem chaotic and brutal. We expect Terry Gilliam to give us brilliant, fast paced fantasy with a philosophic core, as in “Brasil” and “Fisher King”; the movie is at its best when Depp looks around a bar and finds all the people transformed into lizards.

 

“The Handmaid’s Tale” (1990) directed by Volker Schlondorff,  is a serious, serviceable version of the Margaret Atwood novel, grimly portraying the suffocated sexual hypocrisy of a world ruled by fundamentalist men. The late Natasha Richardson brings the intelligence, anger and banked fires needed for the role of a handmaid, an involuntary surrogate for a sterile wife. Nevertheless, when escape is offered, it is by the instrumentality of a man (one with whom she slept, to boot).  It is not a feminist parable, any more than the novel was.

 

There are two types of movies about dystopian futures, ones with zombies and ones without. Of the latter type, the more realistic dystopias, this is one of the better versions, up there with “Children of Men”.  It portrays a future in which women are simultaneously sexualized, diminished and reduced to breeders. Richardson persuades us that, even with obedience—the character, Offred, participates in hanging another woman for fornication—the spark does not easily go out.

 

The movie does reveal the impossibility of living a straight life in a perfectly twisted world. The situation Offred finds herself in is skewed from ours, yet perfectly plausible. Fred, her Commander, has sex with her while she lies clasped in the arms of his wife. He is probably sterile but, as a man, will never be tested. She is his third handmaid, and neither of her predecessors ever conceived. The doctor who examines her each month offers to impregnate her (even though fornication with someone other than the Commander is punishable by death). And, in the world of “Handmaid’s Tale”, doctors are well-known for making this same offer. Even Fred’s desperate wife, Serena, implores Offred to have an affair with the chauffeur—to save everyone’s face, and to avoid the fate reserved for putatively barren handmaids. When Fred falls in love with her, and begins seeing Offred outside of the socially sanctioned three-way bedroom encounter, Offred (formerly a librarian, and presented to us as more intelligent than her captor) plays along, asking for gifts such as hand cream. When Serena, played by Faye Dunaway as a woman of rectitude doing the best she can in a tormenting world, discovers her husband’s “infidelity”, Offred apologizes to her, in a moment which is almost unbearably expressive: This world made us what we are.

 

“Fighting” (2009) directed by Dito Montiel, is better than it deserves to be. It is a completely ordinary story—boy comes to New York, discovers he’s good at fist-fighting, meets a manager who enters him in illegal bouts which he refuses to throw. What makes this movie escape from the forgettable is the scrappy energy and intensity with which it is done; the dumb sweetness of Channing Tatum as the protagonist, reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone in the first “Rocky”; the unusual performance of Terrence Howard as the manager, with an elaborate, hesitant, discursive, softspoken style unusual in this kind of film; and the half-improvised nature of the dialog. The twist in the last act is visible miles away, but you forgive the movie this and many other sins. Montiel’s earlier “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” was more inventive, more unusually structured; the big danger for Montiel is that he is homogenizing, getting ready to direct an entirely forgettable cookie-cutter blockbuster for summer 2012. That would be a shame, especially for a man whose name sounds like he is a character in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”.

 

“The Taking of Pelham 123” (19740 directed by Joseph Sargent, is a delightful New York thriller of the kind that Sidney Lumet and William Friedkin used to make. Four men, identified only as Mr. Brown, Mr. Green, Mr. Blue and Mr. Gray, hijack a New York subway train  and hold eighteen passengers hostage.  A TA cop, played by Walter Matthau, takes the lead in negotiating, but the movie gives us a view of the police hierarchy, the city’s unpopular and indecisive mayor, and other vignettes of the players at various levels adapting to and even making use of the emergency. In the meantime, there is politics among the criminals, and other suspenseful glitches; the cop car bringing the ransom money uptown crashes; we know one of the hostages is an undercover cop, but not which one; one of the snipers placed in the tunnel fires a bullet at an inopportune moment. We learn that the hijackers can’t decoy the cops by sending the subway car forwards without a driver; then they do; then one of the passengers attempts to reassure the others, as the train hurtles seventy miles an hour towards the South Ferry loop, that there are automatic “stoppers” built into the tunnel which will brake the train the moment it runs a red signal. The movie is a paradigm of a genre in which the writer places us in a highly specific situation, and then works out all of its possibilities. At the end, the final hijacker is captured because of his very recognizable sneeze—just when he appears to have gotten away scot free. It is an entertainment which doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and does its one job really well.

 

 

            I just finished Dickens’ “Little Dorrit” which I have been reading for most of this month. I am thrilled to report I had confused Little Dorrit with Little Nell from “The Old Curiosity Shop”; I vaguely remembered accounts of the public mourning when Dickens killed that character; so I plowed through the 850 pages of “Dorrit” waiting for the grippe or other mysterious malady that would so poignantly carry off the incomparable loving girl. Imagine my delight when the novel ended happily, with Dorrit and her beloved Arthur Clennam married.

 

            The novel had me in tears at least twice, but the kind of tears one cries knowing one is being manipulated. Dickens is the master of what one might call the “middle class novel”, as epitomized by George Eliot and “Middlemarch” or Jane Austen and her whole oeuvre. Dickens knows there is much wrong with society; his Circumlocution Department, which turns out to be curiously tangential to this novel, is evidence that he thought Britain was stultified, mired in mud; yet he is not a revolutionist. One comes away from every Dickens novel with the conviction that, despite the flaws, British society is fundamentally sound and things are almost the way they should be. As long as the fine, unpretentious, compassionate, not overly intellectual middle class exists (represented in this novel by Mr. Meagles), all is right with the world. Particularly tiresome are the didactic speeches  his characters occasionally make one another, such as Meagles’ fond lecture to the repentant Tattycoram about placing duty over resentment. Now, of a very long list of things I would rather not be lectured about by Dickens or anyone, I would have to place duty at the very top.

 

            The novel includes a Ponzi schemer, Mr. Merdle,  similar to the character of Melmotte in Trollope’s later “The Way We Live Now”. Both men, the Bernie Madoffs of an earlier time, are crude, simple and have no obvious graces or other redeeming features, except that society associates them with tremendous amounts of money and the opportunity to make more. Melmotte at least speaks, cajoles, threatens; Merdle almost never opens his mouth. He is more of a prop than a character, much spoken about but never acting on others. In his last scene, Merdle borrows a letter opener from his new daughter-in-law, goes to a Turkish bath and kills himself with it. We presume, but Dickens doesn’t tell us, that he was about to be discovered. Melmotte in Trollope’s novel will also be a suicide.

 

Another thing I took away from this very enjoyable novel, was Dickens’ laziness, something I had never noticed before in a lifetime of reading him. The fact that “Dorrit” was written in hurried installments, might explain it; or perhaps by the date he wrote it, Dickens could no longer be bothered with full explanations of trite plot mechanics. Whatever the explanation, Mr. Dorrit comes into a fortune, and is released from decades of debtor’s prison, without a single word of explanation as to where the riches came from, or why they reached him so late in life. More significantly, the much foreshadowed explanation of who Little Dorrit is to her lover’s mother, is so incoherent, that an editor attached a postscript to an early edition explaining what Dickens failed to. Little Dorrit apparently is the niece of a man who was the benefactor of a girl who was rejected by another young man and later went mad.  The young man later married Mrs. Clennam.  This young man’s uncle later feels remorseful and writes a strange codicil to his will, leaving a bequest to the benefactor’s daughter, or failing his having one, his niece.   Dickens dashes off this complicated explanation in one incomprehensible paragraph. Another significant character, the bitter and parentless Miss Wade, turns up several times to intervene in people’s lives in dark ways, but her antecedents are never explained; you never get the expected revelation that she is the rejected sister or child of another character. Perhaps there is something a little postmodern in Dickens’ disregard of explanation, but one feels it isn’t intentional, thus not nearly as stimulating as similar moments in the earlier, but much more modern “Tom Jones” or “Vanity Fair”.

 

“Vanity Fair” (2004) directed by Mira Nair, is a near-miss. Mira Nair is one of the better directors working today (anyone who is as far different in background and gender from McG as possible, has all my support and interest). She was definitely an interesting choice to direct this movie, which would otherwise have gone to one of a pack of dull male workhorses adept at making respectable conversions of classics into films that no-one loves but no-one needs to be ashamed of. Thackeray’s protagonist, Becky Sharp, deserved, and got, better than that.

 

Becky Sharp is one of the most fascinating women in literature; she presents as someone who would have eaten Emma Bovary for lunch,  and then kicked Anna Karenina downstairs. Rather than sink into depression, fits of weeping, lovelorn abandonment, or passivity demanding male protection, Becky navigates her own skiff through the waters of society, driven back sometimes by class prejudice, sometimes by her own errors. She is always strong; even the battle of Waterloo does not frighten her. She marks down goals ands goes straight at them like a meteor; when she misses, she leaves the entire landscape in flames.

 

Mira Nair does her credit, eliciting a wonderful performance from Reese Witherspoon, who proves once again she is an actress of depth and range. Nair also makes India, barely mentioned in two or three scenes of the book, almost a character in the movie, as the place where Sedley, one of Becky’s suitors,  lives, where Major Dobbin, unrequited lover of her  best friend Amelia, flees, and  where Becky triumphantly returns with Sedley at the end. Midway, in a private entertainment performed at the home of Becky’s would-be lover, Lord Stayne, Becky and other women perform an Indian dance. Becky’s relationship to men and to society becomes an ironic counterpart to Britain’s relationship to India; some of the same men who colonize India desire to colonize Becky Sharp.

 

Then Nair unaccountably blows the ending of the two hour, twenty minute movie. First, after faithfully following the plot of the novel, she subtly changes the conclusion, in order to make Becky out to be a better, more conventional human being than Thackeray did. In a scene in the book and the film, Becky breaks Amelia’s link to her dead husband, George, by showing her a seductive note he wrote the night before he died at Waterloo. This causes Amelia to decide to get on with her life and marry her faithful admirer, Major Dobbin. In the movie, this is presented as a purely selfless act; in the book, an amazing and exact satirical balance is struck, because Becky’s act of nobility has the secondary, and calculated effect, of clearing Dobbin out of the way so Becky can suck Sedley dry, and possibly murder him (he dies months later, leaving Becky his fortune). At the end of the novel, Becky has overcome years of bad fortune, and become the perfect predator she always aspired to be. The movie, instead, has a conventionally happy ending, in which Becky, riding an elephant with Sedley, marvels at the wonders of India.

 

To compound the failure of this ending, the scene in which Becky reveals George’s infidelity to Amelia is underwritten and badly performed. She shows her the note, and Amelia, who has clung to the memory of George for fifteen years, immediately exclaims, “I’ve been a fool!” and without any transition, runs in search of Dobbin.

 

 “The Girl in the Café” (2005), directed by David Yates,  is a very smart, sweet comedy that avoids kitsch by managing its expectations, and ours. A hesitant, nerdy British civil servant, whose passion is crunching the numbers that support his administration’s fight against world poverty, meets a much younger woman who seems to have come into existence, for him, at that exact moment. (This is probably the impression that most very young women make on most fifty-ish men, in real life as in fiction.) He conceives a serious crush on her, and, without learning anything about her, invites her to accompany him to the G8 meeting in Iceland. At the social events after the meetings, she proves to have a sort of moral Tourette’s, challenging first the finance minister, then the prime minister, about their ability to horse trade while 30,000 children a day are dying. She is ejected from the meeting, and her lover resigns in shame; but the implication, hinted at rather than slammed home, is that her words may have made a small difference, and provided the two liberal politicians with the amount of encouragement they needed to go the extra distance. If this was a Disney movie, world poverty would be solved instantly, and the enigmatic girl carried out on everybody’s shoulders, and then appointed to the cabinet; instead, the movie ends as the prime minister hesitates before the cameras, so we don’t really know how it all came out. The movie asks the question, how we can all stand by as children starve; it is an invigorating, optimistic and naïve work, which avoids any thought that the world may possibly run on dead children, and on other crushed and destroyed things. Jesus’ own answer to the question was, “The poor you shall always have with you.”

 

“Vagabond” (1985), directed by Agnes Varda, made a stir when it came out because of the vacant performance of Sandrine Bonnaire in the title role of a young woman who freezes to death one night in a ditch in rural France. She has no wish to improve her circumstances—when an idealistic philosophy student who has returned to the land takes her idle chatter seriously and gives her some acres on which to raise potatoes, she does nothing. She coasts along like a chip in a wave, barely stirring herself to move towards food and warmth and sometimes sex, and away from harm. Not only does she lack desire, but as ably presented by Bonnaire, she has no personality either, just a collection of attitudes and reactions. She starts off vacant  in every interaction, then becomes angry when she perceives the other’s revulsion. She steals when she can, seems to trade sex for shelter occasionally, but cries and screams when assaulted.

 

The film, like “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, is based on a very different premise than most. Almost every movie invites you to identify with its characters, to want to be one of them for two hours. These movies hold up someone appalling like Rod Serling delivering one of his patented prologues: “Submitted for your consideration, a young homeless woman named Mona…” At the end, there will be no peace for Mona, except in the Twilight Zone.

 

Scenes of Mona camping, wandering, drinking, and bouncing off of other people, are interspersed with short scenes in which others talk to the camera about her, a device made tedious by movies like “Reds” and “When Harry Met Sally”. None of these little cinemas verite moments is particularly profound or adds much to our understanding of Mona. In the end, she is little more than a bat glimpsed for a moment as it flies across the yard at night.

 

I wanted to like “The Last Wave” (1977), directed by Peter Weir, more than I did. It is a mixture of great elements that doesn’t quite cohere. It has Australian aborigine mythology, and great unworldly shots of rain, hail, waves, water dripping from ceilings and down walls. An Australian corporate lawyer takes on pro bono representation of four aborigine men accused of the murder of another. He soon begins to suspect that tribal customs and sorcery are in play. Then he begins having strange, prophetic dreams of his own and discovers that he may himself be a sort of shaman figure, sent to predict a great tidal wave that will wipe out Australia and begin the next cycle of history. The pace unfortunately is slow, the story-telling repetitive and (how American I must sound!) there is no pay-off at the end; the catastrophe is neither averted or arrives, but our hero meanwhile sits blankly on a beach, waiting.