September 2013

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Lucy Mulloy's Una Noche is an unusually determined, colorful and affecting first independent movie, her NYU thesis. Set in Cuba, filmed there using non-actors, it relates a day and night in the life of a pair of fraternal twins, and the young co-worker the male twin loves. They gather the things they need to flee Cuba in a raft made from inner tubes. The sister finds out her twin is planning to abandon her and insists on coming along. We spend a night clinging to the raft with them as a shark circles and everything goes wrong in every way possible (the compass and motor they have purchased with such sweat and toil also do not work). Among the set pieces are a series of negotiations with black marketers, some of them surprisingly compassionate, to purchase the needed supplies. The friend has sex with an older European woman in order to obtain a camera which can be traded for a last supply of AIDS medication for his prostitute mom. Life is gritty and hard and involves constant calculation, angling, manipulation and petty crime, though the twins seem slightly elevated above it, immune until they choose to dip in. Though the movie ends bleakly, you don't feel despair, probably because the young woman has a sort of innocence and life force that see you through and will probably see her through as well.

Elmore Leonard, who died this month, always seemed a mysterious paragon of a rather modest achievement that continually elevated itself through its very modesty. Writing genre novels, first westerns and then suspense, across sixty years, he never aspired to be Balzac, though in a way his work models La Comedie Humaine: a wide panorama, recurring characters, compassion and cynicism combined. He loved his people, despised the corruption of the world in which they lived. He wrote so much better than Stephen King or Lee Child or Michael Connelly or almost anyone working; only Raymond Chandler had such a consistently recognizable and lovely prose style. I believe I could read a paragraph of Chandler and one of Leonard among several ringers and select them. The fact that Leonard, whose almost every novel was made into a well known movie, stayed modest and realistic about the scope of his talent, is remarkable. Journeyman science fiction writers eventually try to go mainstream, write about World War One or Coming of Age in America; J.K. Rowling is attempting it now in her after-career. Leonard knew better.

Most writers who try to get out a book a year outlive their talent; their prose becomes clunky, their invention dries up, they begin repeating themselves, telling the same story again and again. The remarkable thing about Leonard was that he never avoided repetition; he dived into it, but with little twists of character and description, never made you feel that any book was a mere retread of any other. And his prose and dialog were just as delightful last year as they were fifty years ago, and maybe even a little more so. Djibouti, the pirate novel last year, was one of his best.

Roger Shattuck's Forbidden Knowledge (1996) is one of the clearest, most accessible books written about the history of the idea of free speech. Most free speech writing today is First Amendment analysis, very detailed and mechanistic work using a specialized vocabulary. Reading it is like diving into a treatise on quantum mechanics when one wanted to read about the philosophy and history of inquiry. Shattuck stays on a very high level, starting with the 1950's science fiction movie trope, are there some things man was not meant to know? After analyzing a series of myths (Prometheus, Pandora, Adam and Eve) and literary works embodying them (Paradise Lost) about dangerous knowledge ("After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"--T.S. Eliot), he embarks on two case studies: modern science, particularly the dangers of manipulating the human genome without an over-riding caution and moral ruleset; and then the remarkable story of the horrible Marquis de Sade, a black hole of cruelty and arrogance who has inhabited a huge blind spot in Western letters for two centuries and particularly since his rehabilitation in the 1960's. Shattuck led me to believe that there is a sort of free speech determinism which tracks technological determinism: whatever is written about, spoken, will be performed.