January 2012

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

I re-read Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) in one marathon session yesterday. When I first read it some years back, it struck me as a highly original riff on some American folklore themes I always enjoyed (the sadly unknown and out of print R.A. Lafferty; Peter S. Beagle; Larry Niven's magic stories; some Fritz Leiber stories such as "Roll Dem Bones"). Gaiman's conceit is that wherever people believe in gods and magical beings, they manifest, and thrive so long as enough people worship or acknowledge them, then die as they are forgotten. He envisions a society of hard luck, almost forgotten gods, such as Odin, Anansi and Horus, gearing up for a war against the new gods of media and the Internet. His protagonist, Shadow, is a human serving a prison term for assault, who is recruited by Odin to be his gofer and bodyguard upon his release. The mixture of mundane and realistic elements--sisters who are an Eastern European version of the Fates live in a cluttered, tiny apartment and over-boil the cabbage--with magical ones is compelling, and the characters, even the gods, achieve a degree of specificity and quirk which saves them from being merely iconic. Sadly, on a re-reading, I liked the book a little less than the first time around. The tricks and surprises--most notably, the origin and effects of a gold coin that Shadow receives from one of the fates, and then drops into his wife's grave--are not surprising the second time around of course; but the greatest work, such as Tolkien's, gets hold of you even when the reveals are all old hat. In Gaiman's case, the lack of mystery on a second reading accentuated a series of rather tedious set pieces in which Shadow leaves the real and gritty world which is the strength of the novel and enters a dream world in which he confronts a buffalo headed super-deity, climbs towers of skulls, etc. When Shadow enters these alternate worlds, we are in a heavily-mined, trite fantasy arena, eagerly waiting for him to return to his "real" world of old, broken down Miatas and tired convenience store clerks. It is worth mentioning the one effect I don't remember spotting on the first reading: a very late suggestion that Shadow's mother was African American, a neat trick to play, even at this late date, on an American audience, which assumes characters in novels to be Caucasians unless told otherwise. Unfortunately, Gaiman accomplishes this by having mom, in her one flashback scene of direct dialog, use a very tired idiom, a white man's vision of how black women speak.

Empire Falls (2010), a miniseries directed by Fred Schepisi, is a serviceable, rather enjoyable presentation of the Richard Russo novel. It is broken into chapters, possibly because screen-written by the novelist himself, and suffers from that miniseries disease, of feeling like a film version of a book, lacking the rhythms and visuality of film. The novel, which I also mildly liked, told the story of a group of mostly middle-aged people interacting in a Maine town, and the director and producers deserve credit for casting some actors to play them we don't often see these days: plump Theresa Russell, the 1980's wild woman; Helen Hunt, who disappeared more recently; Aidan Quinn, with a pot belly. The protagonist is played by Ed Harris, who unfortunately resorts to a repetitive series of grim and even constipated facial expressions in lieu of acting. Since he is good at his trade, Harris' dilemma is probably that the novel's main character is a cipher and a nonentity, whose immobilization and more particularly, the reasons for his paralysis, are never clarified. Paul Newman turns in a wonderful performance, his last, as Harris' crazy father, who is much younger than his son in every way that counts. Helen Hunt apparently has a new plastic surgery chin (it couldn'tr be a prosthetic, what would be the point?) As the novel did, the film flirts with some Stephen King-like themes, eliding some of the book's minor suggestions of supernatural or violent elements in local life.

The Wages of Fear (1953), directed by Heni-Georges Clouzot, would be one of the greatest movies ever made, if it had any heart. The people it displays are all appalling, and we don't really care what happens to them; but the formal, surprising and powerful technique of the filmmaker remains stunning after many viewings. First, the long build up, shortened in some prints I have seen, as the refuse of Europe grumbles, begs and fights in a small South American town; shots of peasants, apparently real ones, scrabbling and scrambling in the background; the bar they all inhabit, in which nothing ever happens; and then the opportunity to break definitively out of this stultifying life by driving a truck full of nitroglycerin across 300 miles of bad road. The balance of the movie is almost science fiction, firmly rooted in a life which is at once completely contemporary and familiar, yet alien to us. When the truck, its sirens blaring, leaves town at ten miles an hour, we are beginning a different movie, which grows organically from the first. Chabrol coats his two anti-heroes in oil, from head to toe, to establish visually their demonic nature. He kills off their only rivals, the two drivers of another truck, in a distant explosion with no foreshadowing; the last we saw of the others, one was playing his harmonica, and they were talking happily. The movie reaches its moral climax when Yves Montand must make a split second decision, to run over his exasperatingly craven friend, or risk miring the truck in the oil which has coated the two of them. He makes the expected decision, and pays for it not long afterwards. The movie is a noir which makes most others look like "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm".

Warhorse (2011), directed by Steven Spielberg, is a crock, with absolutely not one believable moment. The play, which I have not seen but which reviewers found kitschy, at least had the craftsmanship, the staged magic, of its puppets to hide behind. Cast it with real (or CGI) horses, and you have naught left but the kitsch. Its like a Lassie movie on steroids: the horses are kissing! They are comforting one another! they are finding their humans! All the performances are awkward, and the Germans and French speak a phony accented English. As he so often does, Spielberg comes most alive in the battle scenes, including a memorable set piece in which the horse evades the treads of a tank. I said long ago that every Spielberg movie is a remake of "ET": here a horse is the alien who rescues a boy while being rescued.

John Buchan was a favorite of my childhood, and I just read two of his novels which I downloaded to my phone--they are public domain and free. The 39 Steps (1915), which I loved as a boy, does mot stand up: nothing in the story makes any sense (we are expected to believe that the villains are such chameleons that a group of British cabinet ministers will not recognize that one of their familiar colleagues has been replaced by an impostor). The book also has a jarring tinge of anti-semitism; the journalist killed at the outset believes in an international Jewish conspiracy. It made me wonder whether the edition I read in the early '60's was censored, as I had no recollection of the bigotry. Prester John (1910), an African adventure, is better plotted; its villain, an intellectual African trapped between two worlds, and trying to become a king in one of them, is portaryed with some respect as strong, highly intelligent, manly and well educated, yet he is from almost the first page also a dangerous and deceiving devil in a trite mold. Buchan's disquisition, in the closing pages, on the white man's burden in Africa, betrays him as a man who could not rise above the times or the politics of his class.

I completed the first two books of George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire and am marooned in the third one, for reasons I will explain in a moment. At first, I was inclined to dislike the series as sub-sub-Tolkien and a melange of borrowed elements, from zombies to dragons to medieval sword play. But the characters grow on you; some are women who take up swords, and particularly sympathetic, while none of the villains is wholly evil. Martin's talent is in making you sympathize with all sides, as his characters fight and kill each other. Various evil men are on their way to becoming good, typically because of the example set by a sword bearing woman or girl. On the other hand, some of the narrative tricks are rather contemptible; one young woman, my favorite, has by the third book, already been killed twice in cliffhangers (the first time the apparent assailant was simply trying to cut her hair). The strategy, politics and war-fighting are rather good, and even the folk-songs are respectable, rising above the usual doggerel.

I read the first in paperback, bought and downloaded the second to my phone, and checked the third out of the Suffolk County public library system web site. Which led to a really insulting experience. Last night, as I finished a chapter in which one of the characters (an evil but sympathetic and ever-improving dwarf) was apparently about to be condemned to death, the book went away and was replaced by a message which said,"Your book has expired. Do you want to delete it now?" Which leads me to ask: why is the check out period only a week? Who can read a 600 page book in a normal week? Why was there no message, "Your book will expire in three days", or two? Why is there no way to renew the book? Why can't I choose to keep it out an extra day or two and pay a fine, as I could with a paper book? (Instead, I have to put my name on a waiting list, and sit tight another week or two, so I can read the last couple of chapters.) Finally, what idiot designed this really unpleasant library experience?