January 2013
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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Soon I Will Be Invincible (2007) by Austin Grossman, is a hoot. It is a deeply ironic novel set in a comic book universe, that can be read completely straight. It is engaging and yet very funny: super-villains get caught because they cannot function completely alone, Grossman tells us, because they are constantly enlisting other specialists who can make a perfect molecular cut or interpret ancient runes. The geeky super-villain, Dr. Impossible, is a former lonely kid who can't help uttering the most egregious boasts and threats, in classic comicese, when provoked. His description of his constant fights with the super-hero team chasing him are full of fear, insecurity and rage; only when the perspective shifts to the other naarrator, junior superhero Fatale, do you realize how easily he kicked their asses--something his insecurity never permits him to tell you, despite the boastfulness.

Harakiri (1962) directed by Masaki Kobayashi, is one of the best samurai movies ever. Set at the precise moment when family samurai were becoming masterless ronin, it relates the story of two of them, a dad and son-in-law, who face poverty and the illness of beloved family members. The younger man, attempting to get money for medical treatment for his wife and son, tries a perilous tactic, asking a wealthy family's permission to commit harakiri on their property, in the expectation they will give him money to go away. They cruelly call his bluff instead, and honor insists he go through with the deed, even though he long since sold his blade and carries only a bamboo sword. Then (in a device which frames the story), the father-in-law shows up, with the same request. The movie is veristic; the swordfights aren't particularly balletic, and the older ronin succeeds in killing only four of his hundred adversaries. Then out come the muskets, the signs of a moral decay, a sea change in the ronin world.

Synecdoche, New York (2008), written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, is a long, depressing, slow-moving work by the unique impresario responsible for "Being John Malkovich" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". I loved the premise, about a playwright who reacts to his wife's departure by vanishing up into his own head and spending the rest of his life working on a vast play, never staged, mirroring his own life, and eventually, that of the entire population of New York City. This leads to some fascinating set pieces where he and other people in his life interact in unexpected ways with actors playing them; an almost girl-friend has an affair, to his displeasure, with the actor playing him, because the actor is more "fun". But, by the halfway point of its two hour, four minute running time, it becomes the kind of reflective film where the protagonist seems to spend endless time walking down decaying hallways looking for and at people, or roaming the New York City-sized warehouse that is his stage. Just when you think its over, it goes on another half hour or so; an example of what happens sometimes when writers direct their own work and have nobody to tell them when they are mistaken. There are humorous moments when the actors ask when they will have an audience, after seventeen years' rehearsal; and the protagonist's last words are, "I know how to do the play. I'll have all the people..." Then he crumps. The overall atmosphere is one of exhaustion, disappointment, despair.

I spoke to a working playwright once whose stuff is extremely dark, and she noted that she always includes one tiny uptick of optimism in an ending, so as not to send the audience out in total despair. There is no reason why a great work of art can't express total hopelessness, but movies need to do a certain amount of business to justify the investment and nobody tells anybody, "You have to see this! Its gonna make you want to jump in front of a train!"

I just looked up the definition of "synecdoche", a word which was never in my vocabulary, and it means a figure of speech in which the general substitutes for the specific, a part for the whole or vice versa. Such as "hand" for "sailor" or "steel" for "sword". Kaufman is playing with "play"/"world" here, and ably, just too slowly. He could have used the following from Yeats as his epigraph:

Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

Drift (2012) by Rachel Maddow is good historical journalism about the way American war-making has separated itself from Constitutional checks and balances; the "military industrial complex" of which Eisenhower warned is here with a vengeance. The CIA and private contractors such as Blackwater (now Xe) have taken a lot of war-making into a covert, extra-budgetary, outside-of-oversight area, while Congress has failed to defend its right to declare wars. The result: a state of permanent war which will last all of our lifetimes. Maddow tells some stories I had never heard before, about the U.S. losing nukes which have never been recovered, in the deep sea, the ice and even in a farmer's field in the south, and about bombs lost in plane crashes in Spain and the Arctic detonating--not as nukes, but as dirty bombs, the conventional explosive which is part of the trigger spreading the radioactive stuff over acres of ice or farmland. Also, the nukes we continue to keep active, in silos and aboard planes, are decaying, and nobody knows how to fix them--part of the same drain of competence which dictates we can't return to the moon or fix bridges.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), written and directed by Ted Durkin, is a well-executed, chilly exercise with great performances, insufficient information and a maddening ending. Some directors (Antonioni in "Blow Up" and "The Passenger") desire to make film a very cool medium in the McLuhanesque sense, where the audience has to work very hard to fill in the blanks. This film fits into that tradition. About a girl who escapes a cult to live with her middle class sister, it is full of oblique hints. For example, there is a moment in which the protagonist tells someone the cult leader has only boy babies with his harem. Does that mean they are secretly killing the girls? The problem with this kind of thing is that unless the script was a masterwork of intention, you can spend a lot of time analyzing unintentional or meaningless clues. At a Connecticut lake house with her sister and brother in law, Martha calls the cult's phone, and a call-back an instant later confirms they have caller ID. Then she starts seeing traces, imaginary or real, of the cult's presence locally, and then a mysterious car follows them at the end when they are embarking for the city and a mental institution for Martha. Then the credits roll. I can't help thinking that with the missing information re-added, this would have been a fairly cheesy horror flick; project it forward a few minutes, for a fatal or near-fatal encounter with the cult, and it would become formulaic. End it with Martha's epiphany she is imagining everything, and it would be a different kind of upbeat mental health cheese. So the real question posed by "Martha Marcy May Marlene" is whether you can make great cuisine from Velveeta shavings.

The Railway Children (1905) by E.M. Nesbitt was a book I'd heard of all my life, so I finally caught up with it. Its an unusual kind of children's story; dad is in prison for treason and the children live in down-sized circumstances with their author mother near a railway station, which becomes the focus and fascination of their lives. Its a moderately feminist work, not as much as "Anne of Green Gables" though. Men keep trying to help mom, so she won't have to write for a living any more, and she complains, quite mildly, that she enjoys it. The author was a Fabian socialist, but also lived in a fairly oppressive-sounding situation, where her best friend became her husband's mistress and bore him a child, after which they all lived together. Proving that even Socialists can switch gears when writing children's literature, Nesbitt's mystery benefactor in this one is--wait for it--a director of the railroad.

I have been listening to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. I somehow had missed the phenomenon--the song on a barely released album after Cohen was dropped by his label, then covered by scores of other artists, becoming an anthem of hope after 9/11. Of course its over-hyped, but its really a simple, lovely composition, combining weariness, resignation and transcendent happiness. Its a broken, sad old world, full of dirt, violence and disease; but you can still feel the wind and sun on your skin, watch an osprey in flight, and talk to a laughing child. Cohen is the poet of these moments, and that's what the song is about:

It doesn't matter which you heard,
The holy or the broken Hallelujah...

And even though it all went wrong,
I'll stand before the Lord of Song,
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.

Which made me realize what a lazy writer Dylan is by comparison, as the same day I listened to "Ballad of a Thin Man":

Now you see this one-eyed midget
Shouting the word "NOW"
And you say, "For what reason ?"
And he says, "How ?"
And you say, "What does this mean ?"
And he screams back, "You're a cow"...

Peter Mathiessen's At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1964) is his best novel, a non-didactic manual and manifesto of a now almost accidental imperialism, in which a group of Protestant missionaries cause the destruction of the Indian tribe they are trying to convert in the Amazon. A peculiarity, probably not deliberate, is that the Indians, with their animist religion, belief in practical magic, and democratic ways, are more vivid, more human, than most of the white characters, who tend to speak in cliched 1960's novel tropes. There is a mercenary, Wolfie, who seems to have wandered in from a Tom Wolfe magazine piece, and a Catholic priest borrowed from Graham Greene. A faithful Hollywood film based on it, directed by Hector Babenco, probably didn't do any business, but is well worth seeing (with a memorable Tom Waits in the mercenary role).

Freedom Evolves (2003) by Daniel Dennett, in pursuit of free will, recycles many of the same ideas, theories and tropes as "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" (prisoner's dilemma, evolutionary successful strategy). Dennett, who is always compelling and whose prose crackles with ideas, always makes me feel he is much smarter than I am; so much happens in a paragraph that I have to parse it again and again, which interrupts the flow. Dennett believes free will exists, as do I; but this book is so dense I can hardly say whether everything he discusses drives to the goal, or if it is full of digressions. Truth be told, I never really got the arguments against free will Dennett summarizes: I can better understand why certain people--fearful, exhausted, resigned--would want to believe why their choices don't matter. I think we live in a world of profound, lonely freedom, where even the daily choices you don't think are very important can have resounding consequences. So Dennett seems to attack straw men.

Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) by Hubert Selby, Jr. is very intentionally about people without redeeming qualities. The men are all brutal, and hit the women and children. The former bear it as their due, and the children will if female grow up to do so also, while the boys as adults will hit women and children. The only characters who perceive beauty and aspire to better things are the transvestites, and they get brutalized a lot too. Selby's depiction of hopelessness in Brooklyn is intensely conceived and sketched; as dreary and brutal as it is, it is undoubtedly a literary work worth remembering, especially because there is no bullshit to it, none of the posturing and self-adulation which radiates from the work of famous literary novelists. Selby spent much of his life on public assistance, working as a gas station attendant in his forties and a hotel clerk after that.

I was disappointed by Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (2012), a noir experiment in unreliable narration with alternating protagonists, a husband and his vanished wife. Both are liars. This creates an interesting atmosphere, but, as is so often the case in thrillers, the reveal eliminates the pleasure, as the solution--supermanipulative psycho wife framing her husband--is trite. In the end, we are left with a mildly amusing comic exaggeration of the problems of marriage--he stays together with his killer wife for the sake of the child.

Django Unchained (2012), written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, was a guilty pleasure. Tarantino, the successor to Alfred Hitchcock, is a master of B movie tropes, and knows how to give you an incomparable experience with no pretention. This is a revenge tale of a freed slave who goes back to an evil plantation with his white bounty-hunter partner to retrieve his wife. Tarantino, like Hitchcock, is not about world views or existential strivings, but wants to give you the best roller coaster possible, and he manages somehow to field a bunch of choice cliches in a fresh and unexpected way. Something he does particularly well is the long, talky set piece set in a claustrophobic environment, which becomes unbearable as the minutes pass because you know it will end in someone dying, but you don't know who or when. In a scene in "Inglorios Basterds", which was more memorable than anything in this movie, the American team was trapped into playing a German trivia game in a basement bar. The equivalent scene in this film is set at a dining room table, as Django and his partner pull an elaborate con which they hope will result in the purchase of Django's wife. The scene goes on til you can't bear it any more, then (as in the basement in "Basterds") everybody shoots everybody. The actors in this one, who include Samuel L. Jackson as a particularly evil Uncle Tom and Leonard DiCaprio as his putative owner, seem to be having a fine old time, something which usually adds to the richness of performance and the pleasures of a film. One interesting aspect of the narrative: Django starts out as his partner's servant, but by the end-game he is clearly the boss. Samuel Jackson fawns on his master in public, but in one key scene in which they are alone, and Jackson explicates the con game Django and partner are playing, it becomes clear that Jackson too is the alpha male in the relationship.