October 2012

Top of This issue Current Issue


Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guarantee: many spoilers

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke was lovely, strange and rather gripping. Set in an alternative 19th century London in which magic, represented by a figure named the Raven King who ruled northern England for centuries, is making a come-back, the two magicians of the title are first partners, then adversaries. The most wonderful thing about this self-assured fantasy, which always takes an unexpected turn when you think you know where its going, is the denouement, in which the two men, who would have fought each other to the death in a lesser novel, unexpectedly cooperate to defeat a greater danger.

The Throwing Madonna (1983) by William Calvin is a medium effort by a scientist to follow in the footsteps of James Watson and others and write a book of varied essays which can be appreciated by the layman. I wasn't that taken by most of it, which seemed unusually brief and fragmented. An adulatory, uncritical account of a year in Israel made me actively uncomfortable; one instinctively wants scientists to be objective about everything, not just their work. But I took away one fascinating idea, the one suggested in the title. Two ideas, actually. One is that language was a byproduct of the human ability to throw stones at prey; a spandrel, in a phrase Calvin doesn't use which I learned from Daniel Dennett. Secondly, that women mainly did the stone-throwing, with their right hands, as they pressed infants against their left side, where the babies could be comforted listening to the heart. So I guess that is three or four good ideas. I would like to believe that an unusually brilliant human female figured out how to brain a rabbit while hugging a baby, and language was the result.

Given the size of the disaster that was John Carter (2012), directed by Andrew Stanton, for Disney, I expected it to be staggeringly inept, with leaden dialog and cheesy special effects. Instead, Mars has a kind of steampunk ambience, and a light-handed intelligence has translated the elements of Burroughs' book into different, more cinematic configurations for the screen. When the ending credits rolled, I saw the reason: Michael Chabon co-wrote it. Is he made of teflon, that he didn't get taunted or even mentioned in the coverage of the vast thud made by the movie in the marketplace?

Rebel Cities (2012), by David Harvey, is a book of old fashioned Left perspective on the city as commune, community, and insurgent movement, ranging from the Paris Commune to Occupy Wall Street (whose chant "Whose streets? Our streets!" falls squarely in the historical tradition limned in the book). In the present environment of nonstop depradation, I have to say that leftist rhetoric, which seemed very pre-programmed and dull in 1973, again has an invigorating taste like mountain air, when the only alternative is to lie down meekly amd let the powers-that-be take everything. After all, whose city is it: Bloomberg's? Kmart's? J.P. Morgan's? Its mine!

I'm sorry, but I really don't like the Iliad (who knows when) by Homer, even in the beautiful Lattimore translation. Its all people impaling people with spears, cutting their tendons, and (in one memorable scene) causing their eyeballs to fall out and bounce on the ground. Tedious, really. I like "The Odyssey" much better, because it has characters, personality, tactical moments, weakness, isolation, and not as much killing (until the end).

Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial (1658), is a dense but beautiful meditation on death, memory, and the anthropology of graves and funerals; a deeply strange little essay (in a good way).

Half Nelson (2006), directed by Ryan Fleck, is a portrait of a young white schoolteacher in a black neighborhood, coming apart at the seams, buying crack from the uncles of the young people he teaches; he bonds with a twelve year old female student, who arguably will be his redemption in the otherwise ambiguous ending. Part of the problem I had was that Ryan Gosling, who plays the teacher, is a little too goodlooking, and self-satisfied, for this role, so I did not really believe what was happening at the core of this movie.

Looper (2012), directed by Rian Johnson, is one of those atmospheric, suspenseful films that dissipates in the ensuing days as you think about the plot. (The same can be said of many Hitchcock films; I remember an aphorism that a Hitchcock flick succeeded as long as you didn't see the holes til after the ending credits ran). The premise makes little sense: a future Mafia which ships people forty years back in time to be assassinated. Even less credible is the follow on premise, that when this future Mafia wants to terminate its contract with you, it sends back your future self as a kind of Hallmark card, to say "Thanks for the memories". The film is a jumble of interesting elements, design and plot, borrowed from better movies: much of it can be construed, including Bruce Willis' presence as the protagonist's future self sent back for termination, as an homage to "Twelve Monkeys"; the amusingly ragged, almost steam-punk time machine also suggests that movie (in which the time machine, however, was never seen. And What led Mr. Willis to make another time travel movie after that one, a crazy classic which can never be outdone?) Then, halfway through, the movie suddenly becomes an amalgam of the famed Twilight Zone episode, "Its a Good Life", and Brian DePalma's telekinesis movies like "Carrie" and "The Fury". I was disappointed, but only after.