February 2012

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Guaranteed: many spoilers

I have been enjoyably mining the immense trove of public domain books made available free in electronic format by Google. Last month I went on a small British adventure fantasy binge, and read Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and She. Haggard, like John Buchan whom I also reviewed last month, is very much a man of his time, of a British Empire in its last greatness, the white man's burden and all that. "She", which has its share of cruel cannibalistic primitives, is a rather unique and engaging story, of the most powerful woman in the world, an Arab of Caucasian beauty, who has been hiding in an isolated part of Africa for two thousand years, awaiting the reincarnation and return of the love of her life, whom she murdered when he spurned her. The ugly, smart protagonist inadvertently brings the reborn lover, his foster son, to her. Her powerful intellect and magical powers lead to some rather chilling moments, when she contemplates returning to Britain with her lover: she takes it as a given in her musings that she will overthrow and replace Queen Victoria. One thing I appreciate in Haggard is that his protagonists are anti-heroes; Allan Quatermain, of Mines and many other novels, is even a bit of a coward and greedy, in a likeable, amusing kind of way. When diamonds are being divvied up, however nobly the other Britishmen around him may decline their portion, Quatermain will always take his. The story of King Solomon's Mines is almost indistinguishable from that of Buchan's Prester John, which I reviewed last month: both have kingly Africans, diamonds and plucky Britishers way out in the outback, using their fists and guns to get by. In the end, I enjoy Haggard more than Buchan, because his characters have lumps, his knowledge of foreign places and people is more complete, his powers of imagination greater.

I also read Conan Doyle's The Lost World, another example of the same genre. Doyle's Sherlock Holmes genius does not flash here; I thought a little less of him after reading this. However, his swarthy, brilliant, vain Professor Challenger, who is accepted by some ape-men as one of their own, is entertaining. The simple, athletic, right-living hero makes Buchan's protagonists look like masterpieces of nuance.

Sir Walter Scott's Quentin Durward is gripping, as long as many British novels of manners, but much more pleasurable. Novelists who describe an upper crust existence are stuck within constraints, where they are forced to look for novelty in worlds which abhor change, emotion and adventure; Scott was free to send knights off to confront ruffians of every stripe. He is the precursor to Kipling, Stevenson and Conrad; even Dickens (who set himself most free when he wrote about the French revolution) mainly dealt with classes of people who were anti-adventure. Scott's greatest achievement in Quentin Durward is to create a character, a gypsy, who is completely post-modern, if you will accept the phrase: whose pragmatism, atheism, courage and fear of the dark, are completely compelling, and who is even able to experience a kind of fundamental if misguided loyalty, a morality without religion rare in any writing of the era. While Scott himself is broad enough to appreciate this character, to describe him with care and love, his otherwise noble protagonist, Quentin, hates him as godless--yet behaves towards him with the perfect respect of a knight.

Mean Streets (1973), is a very early Martin Scorsese movie that completely disclosed his brilliance: the sheer exuberance of the actors and the visuals, coupled with inconsequential and often trite, seemingly improvised dialog, communicated a new understanding after so many decades of cinema, that movies are not about the words. The movie has some rough edges--no way one of the thugs would cite Blake--but also some fantastic set pieces, such as the fight that occurs when someone calls someone a "mook", even though nobody knows what that means. (Cinema folklore claims that "mook" is movie set slang, not street.)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011), directed by David Fincher, is an effective rendering of a book already effectively rendered in the trilogy of Swedish movies previously released. David Fincher at least brings his own style to it, rather than making a shot for shot homage, as did the director of "Let Me In". Still, when the Scandinavian actors and crew worked so hard to do justice to these novels, it seems unfair that they all need be done again, to win an American audience. This one has some rewards, notably the scene in which Lisbeth on her motorcycle implacably pursues a fleeing killer to his death.

The Grey (2011), directed by Joey Carnahan, wrestles with its own intentions: is it a man vs. wolf, man v.s man or man vs. nature thriller, or is it man vs. God or man vs. himself metaphysics? It actually steps through each of these, and winds up nowhere. Marketed and titled as a man vs. wolf suspense film, it sets us up, changes its mind and has no pay off, as it diverts from the structural necessities. Liam Neeson, the alpha human, informs us that the goal is to winnow the wolf pack "like they're doing to us"; he manufactures some rather improbable "bang sticks" with shotgun shells, but they are used a single time, to kill one wolf. Then people are dying, falling out of trees and in frozen rivers, and the wolves don't appear for a long time. The movie commits two other large sins: a recurring return to a piece of doggerel written by Liam's father ("live and die on this day") and an equivocal ending which has Liam, armed with claws made from broken miniature whiskey bottles, leaping at the alpha wolf and then black-out. Are we supposed to think he died fulfilled, having overcome his fear and found himself metaphysically? A crock.