Thursday, August 09, 2018

John Banville: Time Pieces

Finished Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, John Banville’s recollections of living in Dublin as a young man.  It is a poor and shoddy book, failing both as a portrait of the city and as a memoir, or “semi-memoir”, as the author calls it.  Banville is a bad writer.  Over the years I’ve tried to read his fiction but to no avail.  I never got past page 20 of his award-winning (why?) novel The Sea.  I had hoped that his non-fiction would be better, but it’s not.  My complaints against this book are both substantial and trivial.  Let’s deal with the latter first.

Much too frequently I find myself arguing with Banville’s choice of words or phrases; they seem to me either wrong or inaccurate or inappropriate or simply confusing.  He consistently misses the mark, and as a reader I find this distracting.  Here are just a few instances.

At one point he writes “Here I pause to reflect in wonderment how remarkably things chime with each other…”  Let’s ignore the clichéd sentiment for the moment and focus on the language.  Why “wonderment”?  The word “wonder” will do the job just fine.  In fact, is there any real difference between "wonder" and "wonderment"?

Describing the fine December rain in Dublin, he observes “This was not the driving, pounding rain of the provinces, but a special urban variety, its drops as fine and as penetrating as neutrinos, those teeming showers of subatomic, indeed, sub-subatomic, particles that flash through you and me and all things at every instant.”  Except that rain doesn’t go through us, it stays largely on our surface, so it’s not really like a neutrino at all, now, is it?  Instead he should have written that the rain was “as fine as a shower of sub-subatomic particles” and left it at that.  That's more evocative, conjuring up, at least for me, images of the aurora borealis (itself caused by subatomic particles), a sight known to fill a viewer with wonder, if not wonderment.

Elsewhere he writes of Dublin prostitutes “…most of the ‘girls’ prowled the streets for custom…”  Why the quote marks around the word “girls”?  Were they not girls?  Were they boys?  Or is he trying to convey that they were not young?  Then use the word “women”.  Or does he mean that as prostitutes they’re not proper or respectably feminine?  It’s not clear.  The quote marks are confusing.

“For our next destination,” he tells us at another point, “we shall cross to the north side of the city, and be plunged there into two very different versions of the past, laid layer and layer upon each other in the same house.”  Why not just “…laid layer upon layer in the same house”?  

Do you see what I’m getting at here?  He's verbose, a bit of a windbag, actually.  And these little verbal gaffes of his slow down the reader - at least this one.  They are like burrs clinging to a walker.  The man seems to have difficulty writing a clear and simple sentence.  

On a more substantial note, Time Pieces is very digressive.  Banville rarely stays on a subject for more than two or three pages at a time.  We go from a childhood memory of his and then suddenly he’s writing about issues of Georgian architecture in Dublin, then two pages of literary anecdotes, then onto issues of urban zoning in the 1980s, then onto the girl he had a crush on back in the 1950s, then a story about his aunt, etc.  It’s a jumble.  If Banville is attempting to replicate the flow of consciousness and memory he doesn't succeed since each little scrap of his memory lacks the vividness to lodge in our own.  We’re never anywhere long enough for them to take root and eventually it’s an effort just to keep one’s attention focused on the babble.  The book is garrulous; and as is usually the case when stuck with anything garrulous, one is eager to get away.

The other problem with this book is Marcel Proust, who haunts Time Pieces from its beginning.   On page six Banville writes:
When does the past become the past?  How much time must elapse before what merely happened begins to give off the mysterious, numinous glow that is the mark of true pastness?  After all, the resplendent vision we carry with us in memory was once merely the present, dull and workaday and wholly unremarkable, except in those moments when one has just fallen in love, say, or won the lottery, or has been delivered bad news by the doctor.  What is the magic that is worked upon experience, when it is consigned to the laboratory of the past, there to be shaped and burnished to a finished radiance?
Ah, the amber glow of memory!  It seems there are few memoirists who can escape its enervating charm.  Banville is, of course, attempting to evoke the past and its golden sheen the way Proust did.  In fact the last chapter of Time Pieces is entitled “Time Regained” which is also the name of the final volume in Proust’s Á la recherche du temps perdu.  This will not work.  Proust created a whole world - a whole shimmering, radiant world - out of how we experience the past, and since his day any serious memoirist needs to go down a different road, Proust’s way is barred to him.  But no matter.  Banville is going to try to run blissfully down that already well-trodden road nonetheless.  Unfortunately, he just can't pull it off.  I'm sure that Banville's memories are magical and numinous things to him - I know mine are to me - but when retailed in this book they are free of resplendence or radiance.  Merely saying "There's a glow" is not itself a glow.  

Monday, August 06, 2018

Annex Theater: The Great Inconvenience

Saw The Great Inconvenience by Holly Arsenault at the Annex Theater this weekend.  It was pretty bad.  

The year is 2050.  The United States is a theocratic totalitarian state.  A group of performers at a history museum re-enact key moments from the country’s past for the benefit of the school children of the wealthy.  Their skits are nothing more than nationalistic propaganda, a whitewashing of history.  Into this mix comes a runaway girl who knows the true history (or rather, the true future history) of the US.  Soon the performers are questioning the real nature of America’a past and their own places in it.

How you react to this play will most likely depend upon how plausible you find its depiction of the not-too-distant future.  If you believe that the US will soon descend into civil war, or that theocratic rule (unseen in our history since the 17th century) is right around the corner, or that major American cities will form revolutionary military alliances, or that native-born Americans will soon be stripped of their citizenship and deported, or that any moment now Jews will be rounded up sent off death camps (yes, that’s in there, too) then this play is your cup of deranged, flaming, paranoid liberal tea.  On the other hand, if you think that those ideas are not only ludicrous but exactly the reasons why you don’t hang out with your liberal friends so much any more then you should spend your theater-going dollars elsewhere.

I found the play far-fetched, silly, etc. but also poorly written.  Arsenault's futuristic premise is so heavy-handed that the characters are never fully developed.  They remain little more than props upon which she hangs endless passages of prophetic exposition.  One never really cares about them.  Only towards the last minutes of the play did any actual humanity begin to appear among them.  And by then it was too late.

The one bright spot of this production is the actors, who do a very good job with the material at hand.  Mi Kang, Marty Mukhalian, Samantha Canela, Nick Edwards, and Jocelyn Maher make a wonderful ensemble.  They couldn’t save the play, but their good work did save the evening. 

Directed by Erin Kraft, The Great Inconvenience will run to August 18th.  

Thursday, August 02, 2018

On Being a Great Writer

It is splendid to be a great writer, to put men into the frying pan of your words and make them pop like chestnuts.
   - Gustave Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet, November 3, 1851

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Translation and Literature

Translation is the circulatory system of the world’s literature.  Literary translation, I think, is preeminently an ethical task, and one that mirrors and duplicates the role of literature itself, which is to extend our sympathies; to educate the heart and mind; to create inwardness; to secure and deepen the awareness (with all its consequences) that other people, people different from us, really do exist.
 - Susan Sontag, “The World as India" (2003)

Friday, June 08, 2018

Now I Sit Me Down

Now I Sit Me Down: From Klismos to Plastic Chair: A Natural History by Witold Rybczynski is a well-written, fascinating, and entertaining history of the chair: new ones, old ones, comfy, nasty, Chinese, French, Roman, American - his scope is global.  If you like books which reveal the amazing background of the mundane objects in your life - and I love those kind of books - then this wonderful volume is for you.  

A history of chairs, it turns out, is also a history about power, culture, and our relationship to pleasure.  As far back as ancient Egypt, for instance, chairs were symbols of authority and status.  Important people sat in chairs; commoners used stools.  Rybczynski reports seeing an Egyptian wall painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in which a carpenter sits on stool while he’s making a chair.  In contemporary depictions of everyday day life during Medieval Europe this distinction in seating continued.  Commoners sat on stools, benches, upturned pails, etc. but not chairs.  Those are reserved for the privileged.  Much of this had to do with the fact that chairs were - and still are - rather difficult to make.  To create a stable one required the skilled work of carpenters and joiners; they were expensive and not easy to come by.  Hence, symbols of status.

The hu chuang
A history of the chair is by definition also a history of sitting.  Before the chair, there was the stool; and before the stool, there was the ground - which is where many cultures (Japanese, Arab) still prefer to sit.  In this debate (chair vs. ground/floor) the Chinese display the most interesting, and in many ways the most significant, cultural development.  

Like other Asian cultures, the Chinese began by sitting on mats on the ground.  Around the third or fourth century BC, the Chinese invented the kang - an elevated platform which could be heated from below.  Kangs would often extend along an entire wall of a room and were used for sleeping as well as sitting.  In fact, they’re still in use in China.  In the second century AD the folding stool (hu chuang) was introduced to China.  It had the same design as the X-frame stools which the Romans used in their army camps.  Since there was then no Chinese word for “chair” or “stool” they used chuang, which means “bed.” Hu means “barbarian.”  It is believed that the hu chuang was probably an import from the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.   

The Chinese Yoke Back Chair (Yi)
But it was in the Song dynasty (960-1127 AD) that the Chinese developed their first and most unique chair, specifically the yi (a.k.a. the yokeback side chair).  The yi is a simple side chair with a splat - a piece of wood in the center of the chair’s back - to provide lumbar support.  In China it became the standard chair for centuries.  The word yi is taken from the verb “to lean” and as Rybczynski observes “one sat on a stool, but one leaned back on a chair.”  This shift from utility to comfort - and eventually pleasure - would be a monumental one in chair design.  This change in seating created others in Chinese domestic life.  Tables and desks were now raised to the height of the waist.  Lamps, washstands, and mirrors followed suit.  Even the ceilings in rooms rose to accommodate these changes.  “When the Emperor Huizong commissioned his official portrait,” Rybczynski notes, “he chose to sit not on an elaborate throne but on a yoke back side chair.”  

The cabriole
What drove these changes was the great increase in prosperity that China experienced during the Song dynasty.  It was the increase of wealth in Europe which would transform the chair and sitting in the West, too.  As the Middle Ages waned and trade and commerce began to expand so too did the demand for new and improved household goods.  In fact, the demand for chairs was such that in London the association of joiners received their royal charter in 1571; in 1626 the guild of Upholsterers was founded.  But it was France which would take the lead in chair design.  18th-century Europe was enchanted by all things Chinese and the French would soon take the yi and transform it into the cabriole chair.  Curvy, sculptured, upholstered, the cabriole seemed to have its own personality.  Rybczynski writes (paraphrasing the historian Vincent Scully) that “an occupied cabriole chair disappears behind the sitter, but an unoccupied one can seem almost alive.”  But that was just the beginning.  The french produced a plethora of lush, beautiful, richly upholstered chairs - the fauteuil (see image below), the bergère, the voyeuse, and others.  Pleasure was the order of the day, even in sitting.  When asked why she had not entered a covent (as her sisters had done), one of Louis XV’s spinster daughters quipped “It was an armchair that was my undoing.”  

The Windsor chair
The United States, too, played its part in the history of the chair.  Although invented in England, the Windsor chair was phenomenally popular in colonial America.  It’s the chair in which the signers of the Declaration of Independence sat, though when John Turnbull created his famous painting of the event he has them mostly in easy chairs.  These were men of property and leisure, after all, no homey, ordinary, work-a-day Windsor chair for them.  Thomas Jefferson was something of a chair fanatic.  When he returned from his post as ambassador to France he brought back with him fifty-seven French chairs.  And when he wrote the Declaration of Independence he did it in a Windsor chair of his own design.  The seat swiveled while the base remained set.  (Does that guy ever stop being amazing?)  America’s unique contribution to chair history is, of course, the rocking chair, an item still so ubiquitous that I don’t even need to show you a picture of it.  And in US history it was a rocking in which Lincoln sat when he was shot in Ford’s Theater.  

Fauteuil à la reine
So, as you can see, this book covers a lot of ground.  I haven’t even dealt with chairs in the modern age.  And I won’t.  I will leave that for you to discover for yourself in this brief, superb book.  Mies van der Rohe, Charles and Ray Eames, Le Corbusier, Michael Thonet, Hans Wegner, Alvar and Aino Aalto, and others bring the chair into the industrial era.  Published in 2016, the book takes the history of the chair into our own times. Illustrated with the author’s own attractive drawings (such as the fauteuil, left), Now I Sit Me Down is an impressive and eye-opening account of an ordinary item with a revealing history.

Monday, June 04, 2018

SIFF 2018: Constructing Albert

Constructing Albert
Restaurant stories all seem to follow the same pattern.  Through hard work and struggle our talented chef-hero (he’s a genius) encounters success early.  But then he loses his way.  The fame and money, it seems, have gone to his head.  Soon he’s embarked on dangerous ventures.  Failure peeks over the horizon.  Our hero is shaken, but he’s not down for the count.  After some soulful and somber moments of self-reflection he realizes the error of his ways.  His stumbles have taught him a valuable life lesson.  He’s a new man now.  He rediscovers his passion for cooking and for cutting meager portions of food into small squares.  Inspired by his revived spirit, he and his restaurant crew take his new venture to heights undreamed of before.  He’s a bigger success than ever - and a bigger genius too!

If this weary old tale is one of which you cannot get enough, then Constructing Albert (showing in Seattle under the auspices of SIFF 2018) is right for you.  The subject of this mediocre Spanish documentary is Albert Adrià, world-renown Spanish chef.  Over the course of a few years he attempts to open five different restaurants in his hometown of Barcelona.  The movie largely follows the mythos outlined above, the main difference being that during Albert’s “slough-of-despond” moments in the story we are, thankfully, spared any psycho-babble.  Though there is babble aplenty of other sorts.

Unlike, say, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this film is not so much the portrait of a man as much as the portrait of a man’s ego.  And what an ego it is.  The film goes from admiration to adoration to adulation of its main subject.  And then it goes beyond even that.  In the “triumphant return” ending of the story, Albert opens a new restaurant called Enigma - the interior of which looks like the set of many an early-80s music video, though I don’t think that was the intention.  On Enigma’s opening night the praises go stratospheric.  Albert’s food, which was always amazing, is now good beyond imagining.  In fact it's not just food - Albert has created a new language, we are gushingly told.  The bite size foodstuffs are referred to as “discourse.”  Albert is a genius.  And it’s not just him.  Also present at Enigma’s opening is his brother, Ferran Adrià, himself a brilliant chef whose famous elBulli restaurant was where Albert got his start.  Ferran that night is referred to as “a god.”

One of the problem with this film may stem from the limits of film itself.   If you make a documentary about a painter, a musician, a dancer, etc. we can see examples of their art and appreciate (perhaps) their talent.  Chefs don’t have that opportunity.  We can judge the presentation of their food but that’s all.  Whether it tastes good or not has to be taken on faith.  And on the glories of haute cuisine one may be, as I obviously am, a committed skeptic, if not atheist.  The food may be fantastic but the entire venture often comes across as ludicrous.  For instance, at one of Albert’s restaurants he is presented with a tree leaf coated in gleaming but no doubt flavorful oils, he puts it in his mouth, sucks off the coating, pulls out the leaf and says to the chef “It needs more lime.”  At such moments it’s hard not to scoff.   (“‘And fewer caterpillars, too,’ he added” would be my joke.)

It may sounds paradoxical but to make a good documentary about a restaurant or a chef it can’t be about the food.  The food should serve as a gateway to something else.  In the aforementioned Jiro Dreams of Sushi, it’s chef Jiro Ono’s lifelong commitment to an unattainable perfection of sushi that makes him interesting.  You can be a brick-layer and still be inspired by his passion and his view of life.  By contrast, in Constructing Albert we don’t get anything more than the awesomeness of Albert Adrià.  Directors Laura Collado and Jim Loomis never take us beyond that. And unless you’re a passionate foodie, that’s simply not enough.  

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

SIFF 2018: The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales
A fun and highly entertaining animated children’s movie from France (and coming to Seattle as part of SIFF 2018).  It’s made up of three different stories all set in the same farmyard.  In the first, a lazy stork cajoles a duck, a rabbit, and a pig into dropping off a new baby to a couple in Avignon.  They succeed, but along the way there is much slapstick mayhem.  In the second, a fox, who’s a bit of wimp, steals three eggs from a chicken.  As soon as they hatch, however, the little chicks mistake the tender-hearted fox for their mother, thwarting his culinary designs.  Even worse, they believe that they are foxes, too.  The third tale is a Christmas story involving the duck, the rabbit, and the pig again.  To my mind, it wasn’t as good as the other two, but judging by the reaction of the kids in the movie theater, I’m in a minority on this one.

Directed by Patrick Imbert and Benjamin Renner (and based on the latter’s comic book of the same name), The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales is big, cute, wonderful fun.  Check out the trailer below and you’ll see.  

Monday, May 28, 2018

SIFF 2018: Mademoiselle Paradis

Maria Theresia Paradis was a young, Viennese pianist in the late 18th-century.  For unknown reasons she went blind in childhood.  This did not stop her, though, from becoming a magnificent musician.  She was a prodigy at a time and place when there was great competition in being a musical prodigy.  In her late teens, after many years of painful eye treatments, she became the patient of doctor Franz Anton Mesmer.  Mesmer believed that all life was suffused with an invisible, vital fluid and that disease and illness were caused when this mysterious substance was blocked up.  He coined the phrase “animal magnetism” and is the source of our word “mesmerize.”  His treatments involved magnets and a special healing tub, but mostly involved gentle stroking of the patient’s head or arms or back.  This was meant to remove the alleged blockages.

After a few weeks of this unorthodox treatment Maria regained her sight.  It was Mesmer’s greatest success.  However, complications soon arose, the most important being that she could no longer play the piano.  The sight of the keys seemed to throw her off.  She sank into a deep depression.  Her parents, frightened at the news that her musical abilities were impaired - and thus her disability pension threatened - had her forcibly removed from Mesmer’s clinic.  She returned home, where she soon went completely blind but regained her amazing musical abilities.  She went on to have a highly successful career as a performer and composer, though sadly most of her works have been lost to us. 

This is the true story behind Mademoiselle Paradis, a wretched little film from Germany directed by Barbara Albert and showing as part of SIFF 2018.  There are two main problems with this movie.

First, the simple story I told above is interlarded in this film with numerous uninteresting and overwrought sub-plots involving tangental, if not entirely irrelevant, characters.  We’re subjected to scenes of fighting and scheming among the servants in Mesmer’s clinic, a sexual assault, and an attempted abortion.  We meet a young boy with mental and physical disabilities who comes to a bad end when he gets too close to the horses one night.  This sub-plot was totally clichéd and predictable and unnecessary.  “Oh, boy,” I told myself as the adorable little imp first ran onto screen chasing the carriage containing Maria “Little Nell there ain’t gonna make it.”  Right from the start you could tell that he was only being introduced into the story to get killed off later in a cheap bid for pity.  That poor little bastard.

Second, there is no chemistry between the two lead characters in this film.  Maria Dragus plays Maria and plays her as something of a freak.  From the first repulsive shot of the film - a long close up of a heavily-made up and bewigged Maria playing the piano, her eyes rolling in head, her head lolling around on her neck, and her mouth spasmodically twitching and grimacing - we get the impression that Albert sees disability as some sort of gateway to freakishness.  She makes Maria walk awkwardly and complain about her eye treatments making pus form on her scalp.  WTF!  The girl’s just blind, Barbara, she’s not the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Albert’s depiction of Mesmer’s clinic is no better.  The patients giggle, twitch, tremble, laugh hysterically for no reason and then begin yelling uncontrollably.  During the time at the clinic we hear an unknown woman screaming in the background - exactly the sort of Snake Pit nonsense which one had hoped was discarded decades ago.  
Devid Striesow and Maria Dragus
Devid Striesow's Mesmer is cold, aloof, and stuffy.  In other words, completely devoid of exactly the sort of charm and personal magnetism that makes a faith-healer/charlatan like Mesmer such a success in life.  The scenes of he and Maria together are flat.  They lack vitality and are free of any spark of magic between the two.  And that’s fatal for this film.  Since it was Mesmer’s personal abilities - his charisma, if you will - which healed his patients, if that’s lacking in the telling of the tale then the heart of the story is missing.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

SIFF 2018: The Cake General

The Cake General (Tårtgeneralen)
Is Köping the most boring town in Sweden?  Back in 1984 a popular Swedish TV show thought so.  And they devoted a whole segment of their program to showing how dreary the little town was.  This insult infuriated Köping-resident Hassa P.  He decided to strike back by putting his town on the map.  How?  By constructing the world’s largest sandwich cake.  Thus The Cake General, a hilarious new comedy based on those real-life events (and currently showing as part of SIFF 2018).

Narrated by Filip Hammar, who was a young boy living in Köping back in 1984, this film is a charming, funny, and, yes, heart-warming account of those events as well as a celebration of human eccentricities and differences.  And if anyone is a little different, it’s lead character Hassa P.  During the opening credits we see him running through town with his latest invention: a pair of jogging shoes with large metal springs on the bottom - the kind Wylie Coyote would use.  He thinks they’ll make you run faster.  While A-Ha’s “Take on Me” plays, we watch him jaunt, stumble, jog, fall, and finally make a drunken sales pitch for the shoes to a small crowd of baffled onlookers.  Ultimately the police show up and haul him away.  Hassa P., it turns out, is just one of the town drunks.  But a drunk with great ambitions.  He fancies himself one of those great entrepreneurs who rose to prominence in the '80s.  He dreams large.  And if in reality he’s spent most of his life on benders in between failed ventures, once he gets a new idea he won’t let it go.  Equally colorful is the Filip’s father, a beret-wearing Francophile whose eccentricities - he takes his 10 year old son to see Paosolini’s torture-porn film Salo - are the bane of Filip’s school life.  During the course of the film, Hassa P.’s crazy example will inspire Filip as well.  

Mikael Persbrandt

Written and directed by Filip Hammar and Frekrik Wikingsson, The Cake General is a lot of fun.  Not only is it set in the 1980s, but I also found it evocative of some of that era’s best comedies, especially Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero (1983).  It shares that film's charm and gentle sense of humor as well as its ability to winningly depict an entire community as a character.  Both films would fill a double-bill well.  The cast, headed by Mikael Persbrandt as Hassa P., are all excellent.  And if the film tugs at your heartstrings a little too obviously - the end of the film reunites the real-life Hassa P. with his townsmen in 2009 - you don’t really care.  The important part of a guilty pleasure is not the guilt, it’s the pleasure.  And The Cake General supplies that in abundance.  

Monday, May 21, 2018

SIFF 2018: Racer and the Jailbird/After the War

Thursday was opening night of the 44th annual Seattle International Film Festival - twenty five days featuring over four hundred movies.  On Friday I saw two of them.  The first was a French-Belgian production; the second a French-Italian production.  Unfortunately, both were disappointments.

Racer and the Jailbird (Le Fidèle)
A very, very mixed bag.  Bibi (Adèle Exarchopoulos) is a successful race car driver.  Gino (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a thief with a long history of screw-ups and prison time.  They meet and fall in love.  But Gino’s inability to leave his life of crime behind him pushes their relationship to the limit.

Also pushed to the limit in this film will be your willingness to endure director Michaël R. Roskam’s wildly uneven story-telling ability.  The first two-thirds of this film are very good - original, compelling, moody.  But in the last third of the movie, the narrative goes into complete meltdown.  (Be advised this post will contain spoilers, though, frankly, nothing spoiled this film more than what Roskam and his co-screenwriters Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré did to it in the final thirty minutes.)  Gino is in prison at this point in the film.  But Bibi still loves him.  Soon, thanks to prison visitation rights, she’s pregnant with his child and waiting for her fiancé’s release.  The film should have stopped there.  If it had, it would have been an entertaining love/crime story.  But no.  Instead Bibi has a miscarriage.  Then she gets cancer.  She cuts a deal with the Albanian mob (!?!) to break Gino out of prison (this is completely out of character for her, by the way).  Then she goes into a coma.  Then she dies.  After a savage beating, Gino is taken out of prison by the Albanians.  But rather than free him, they lock him in a cage in a warehouse.  He breaks out of the cage.  Then there’s a big gunfight in the warehouse from which Gino emerges victorious.  He leaves and goes to a cemetery (presumably to see Bibi’s grave).  The end.  

Ludicrous, far-fetched, over-wrought - it was hard not to walk out of this film.  When the house lights came up, not a single clap.  Why do film-makers ruin their own films like this?  I don’t understand.  I had the same problem with Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino.  That was a outstanding portrait of a man and the changes he encounters in old age; but, there too, the film-makers couldn’t leave well enough alone and had to spoil the film by dragging in Eastwood’s tiresome, old Dirty Harry conceits.  Maybe after years in the film business it hard for producers, directors, and writers to deal with normal, ordinary life.  The concept of people experiencing events and then just going on with their lives is not something film-makers (as compared to, say, novelists) know how to deal with.  Reality is too disturbing for them; they are out of their element.  It freaks them out.

OK, I’ve trashed the bad part of this film but now let me back up and praise the first two-thirds of it, which are worth seeing.  Exarchopoulos and Schoenaerts are a delight to watch together.  She’s reserved and moody, yet full of a watchful suspicion of the world.  Self-protection is her nature.  He is vivacious, charming but boyishly vulnerable.  A crook more by accident than by nature.  If there was a French version of Reservoir Dogs, he would have fit right in with the other doomed petty thieves.  The original title of this film is Le Fidèle, which means “The Faithful” in French, and it should have been kept for its American release because this is a film about faith, trust, and confidence.  Not among the criminals, mind you, but between the two lovers.  Normally two people arguing about the importance of trust in their relationship would not have a lot of dramatic possibilities, but make one of them a criminal, as Roskam has done, and the topic takes on major importance.  This is a thriller about honesty.  Finally, I like Roskam’s directorial style.  Everything about this film is low-key and slow.  The colors are muted.  There isn’t much music.  Roskam doesn’t force a scene, he lets the camera linger.  He’s not afraid of silence.  This doesn’t weaken the film, rather it enhances it.  In a film this quiet the slightest gesture becomes a tidal wave.  It was masterfully done - at least for a while. 

After the War (Dopo la Guerra)
Back in the 1980s Marco Lamberti (Giuseppe Battiston) was part of a left-wing terrorist group in Italy, sort of like the Red Brigades.  After murdering an Italian judge, he sought and received asylum in France.  Decades later a terrorist act in Italy (which he had nothing to do with) puts him under the spotlight and makes him a target for extradition.  He and his sixteen-year-old daughter flee into the French countryside.  Meanwhile, back in Italy, his family suffer the consequences for his past crimes.

A dud.  This film is slow, heavy, and lugubrious.  The characters are shallow.  Worst of all, though, is the inability of the film-makers to honestly deal with the very topics their own film raises.  To make a candid and frank film about the terrorist groups of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s (The Red Brigades, Baader-Meinhof, Weather Underground, etc.) requires a tremendous amount of courage and intelligence.  For this film to work we need to understand Marco’s commitment to violence, especially the ideology of revolutionary violence so prevalent at the time.  Without that, he remains unsympathetic and this is nothing more than a dreary little tale about a scofflaw.  But the film never provides this understanding, we never really get inside Marco's head.  Instead we’re shown the problems which the terrorist’s family undergoes - his sister in Italy gets fired from her teaching job, his daughter can’t go hang out with other teens at the beach, etc. Interesting, to be sure, but since the big question of the film - should Marco go to jail for his actions twenty years ago or not - never gets candidly addressed, all of the human interest sub-plots seem evasive.  

Giuseppe Battiston and Charlotte Cétaire
I understand the reluctance of director Annarita Zambrano and her co-writer Delphine Agut to take an honest look at terrorism from the terrorist's point-of-view.  There are many angry and damaged people in Europe and the US who might find Marco's commitment to revolutionary violence inspiring, but if the artists are unwilling to deal honestly with a difficult topic like this, then they shouldn’t deal with it at all.  And the final sign that Zambrano is in over her head is the ending (spoiler alert).  Marco gets run over and killed by a car one night while he's on the road.  Rather than deal with the issues her own movie raises she kills off her protagonist.  As they used to say back in the '60s: What a cop-out.  

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Nabokov on Colors and Letters

On top of all this I present a fine case of colored hearing.  Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline.  The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but the French a evokes polished ebony.  This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped).  Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites…Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z and huckleberry k.  Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue to c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother of pearl.  
  - Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1960)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Rages of Young Men and Old Men

Young man’s rage is an invigorating condition, cleansing, cheering, self-assertive: hatred of the bourgeois seems indeed the beginning of all virtue.  Old man’s rage is corrosive and pessimistic; it is a refusal to admit that you were wrong, combined with a refusal to admit that your best efforts, even if allowed to continue for a further thousand years, would probably have no impact on humanity.  
  - Julian Barnes, “Flaubert, C’est Moi”