03 October 2015

Black Mass

I don't know why I did not expect to like Black Mass. I guess I figured it would be a fairly stock gangster film, with a lot of really awful, brutal violence, and a bunch of stock cliches and braggadocio. And there is definitely some intense violence in it (though honestly, by today's standards a few strangulations and some blood splats might seem tame), and in many ways a lot of familiar tropes and ideas -- but somehow, they don't come across as cliche. This is doubtless in part because of the superlative acting, but I think cinematography also has a lot to do with it. The stunningly gorgeous shots are very intelligently framed and carefully chosen in way that creates a powerful sense of intimacy, creating a tremendous sense of emotional depth. To me, the movie was an impressive meditation on the emotional effects of the gangster lifestyle.

Johnny Depp is predictably mesmerizing as Whitey Bulger -- but he functions as a kind of simulacra that the films circles around. He is aloof, mysterious, and terrifying: everything, it seems, will happen exactly as he decides. He seems to have an iron control over his emotions: all of his words, actions, motions and mannerisms appear deliberate and considered, even when they are deeply felt. Part of what makes him so menacing is an unpredictable quality -- one has the sense of a profoundly violent and utterly ruthless rage that is constantly just beneath the surface, and can emerge at any moment. And yet, he also seems fundamentally unknowable -- perhaps because he is hardly human. Thus, the emotional work of the narrative is dispersed across the supporting cast, all of whom struggle to manage the emotions that arise from their contact with him -- fear, horror, anger, sadness, guilt. No one, this movie suggests, is innocent, though no one is entirely villainous either. The brilliance of the cinematography is that you regularly feel that you are witnessing a private moment where a given character struggles with his/her feelings about what is happening in the immediate vicinity. It is these quiet battles that make this film so impressive, and very much worth seeing.

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, by Kate Evans

It's always nice to see female intellectuals get some recognition, and I am a sucker for graphic novels about Marxists. I found this one especially pleasant, and found the artwork especially lovely.

Although the book feels unbalanced in various ways -- the pacing is odd; occasional narratorial intrusions are not unwelcome but seem arbitrarily scattered throughout; the tone is sometimes uneven -- at its best moments, you get this wonderfully human sense of Luxemburg's (feisty) personality. I especially loved the various nude scenes, hairy legs and all -- a really excellent example of how graphic novels can portray a woman's body in a way that feels intimate without being objectifying or prurient.

As a biography, it is in many ways a conventional, step-by-step account of the woman's life: the author clearly has no compunctions about zooming past the eventful bits. Although there is a nice moment where Evans steps in to say that she will depart from the convention of defining women's lives through their relationships to men, this doesn't seem like a radically new form of lifewriting . As an intellectual biography, it's slightly disappointing, in that you don't really get a sense of a meaningful connection between biography and thought: you don't really see where her ideas are coming from, or how her life experiences influence them. Indeed, it might not be the most effective introduction to Luxemburg's work -- it's a little hard to get a grasp on her ideas, or more specifically, what her particular innovations or disagreements with others were. But the book does give you a clear sense of her overall beliefs, and -- what is especially nice -- quotes extensively from the woman's own writings.

Overall, a very pleasant, and often quite beautiful (in various ways) book.

04 September 2015

Eugenie Grandet, by Honore Balzac

-->Balzac is fascinating to me, in large part, because of the way he brings together two aspects of the 19th century that I tend to keep separate: high flown melodrama, and the cold, methodical, calculations of finance in an age of burgeoning capitalism. You can see why Lukacs loved him so much: he is basically a one-man Marxist expose, illuminating how the sentimental frolicking of the upper classes is underwritten by money, and more specifically, exploitation, trickery, and other people’s labor. It’s dazzling. So you get these borderline tedious passages of careful accounting, who has how much money per year, in the same narrative voice that brings us the raptured descriptions of the domestic angel and her holy romantic love. Fantastic.

I think, though, that most people love Balzac for his characters, and indeed, they are delightful. Eugenie is not quite as developed as one might wish, but she is more feisty and hard-headed than it would appear at first glance (qualities, of course, that she inherited from her father). The real star is her father, the shrewd, miserly businessman. Surely someone has written a study of the miser in 19th century letters: they have a quality similar to the obsessive drive of the anorexic, a terrifyingly ascetic existence lived among abstract calculations of profit. And there's the long-suffering mother, the loyal housekeeper, the gossiping neighbors, the selfish fop, the calculating mistress... All the types you hope to see in this kind of stuff, and so much fun.

All the same, one must admit that it is a clumsy novel in some ways, and tends rather towards easy solutions to its problems. The pacing is strangely uneven, dilating on several days and then zooming ahead a few years, and the ending is hurried, almost rudely so. Nonetheless, it is a delight to read (or, in my case, listen to) -- in exactly the way that you expect it to be.  

29 August 2015

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Oh blog, how I have neglected you... I will be better. I will, I will. Maybe I will even finish the post I started working on months ago detailing the many things wrong with Jupiter Ascending. Ay caramba.

So, apparently the only Penelope Fitzgerald books I've blogged about (or more accurately, mentioned) on here are The Blue Flower and even more briefly, Offshore. But they so won me over that I've been slowly working my way through her catalogue ever since. She is great. There is a wonderfully blunt, abrupt quality to her stories that totally knocks you off balance. Her characters are utterly strange but they never seem like caricatures, and they inspire sympathy even when they are utterly irrational or idiotic (which they frequently are).Her books are poignant yet funny, dark yet cheerful. You really should read them.

That said, Innocence was not as compelling to me. This is most likely because I was in the midst of packing, moving, unpacking, starting a new semester, and generally living an unsettled and somewhat stressful life. I did greatly appreciate the short chapters and brisk pacing of the story, but it also seemed a bit too random, probably because I wasn't able to properly focus on it. Sometimes it happens; you read books at the wrong moment. Sometimes the moment is wrong for any book at all, but the thing is, not reading anything at all just makes me miserable. Who knows, maybe I'll return to this one again someday and reconsider. For now though, I'd say that there are better Fitzgerald books to be enjoyed.

29 May 2015

First Position

I am deeply skeptical of movies about ballet for some reason, but my parents had recommended this one in glowing terms, and when a person is physically destroyed (aerial conditioning + 20 mile bike ride) it's kind of satisfying to watch other people exert themselves. To my pleasant surprise, however, this movie was fantastic. And did not really depend on a person being into ballet (though I am, I just don't like movies about it), though obviously that helps. The documentary follows a handful of young people who are training to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, a major ballet competition. It turns out, real dancers are pretty fascinating. Obviously the filmmakers picked out some particularly interesting people to focus on, but still.

Unlike many sports movies where the point is to win a prize, end of story, here the competition is rather more meaningful: among the prizes (there are more than 20, making it seem less impossible) are scholarships to dance schools and contracts with major companies. So you really get a sense of these kids' future being on the line in a way that isn't always the case in such films.

Also, unlike many stories of children competing, in this movie, one never has the sense that the parents are pushing their kids into something or forcing them to push a hobby into something bigger. Yes, there is one mother who says that she was a failed ballerina and wanted her child to dance, and there is another one who cries when her child decides to quit, but you never see the terrifying stage parents common to other documentaries about gifted children. Instead, you see the (in some ways terrifying) drive and self-discipline of these kids, who work unbelievably hard and make a lot of sacrifices so as to devote themselves to their art. And you also see their parents and siblings make a lot of sacrifices (or others, in some cases -- as one mother points out, when the father moves his office to be closer to the ballet school, all of his employees are affected!), and spend A LOT of money (which surprisingly, does not seem like a racket -- a lot of the things dancers require, like a personal trainer, many many pairs of pointe shoes, and intricate, hand-made tutus and costumes, are just expensive), without getting much in return. When you consider that in many (even most) cases, a dancer's body will be shredded by the time s/he reaches 30, it seems completely insane. The movie in no way romanticizes this, or uses it as a way to make ballet seem more beautiful or noble. All it does is show you footage of different people dancing.

You don't realize how much emotion is in a ballerina's dance until you see two different children give performances, one serviceable, the other phenomenal. In the first, you realize that technical proficiency is not enough -- the je ne sais quoi of a beautiful performance is a certain amount of feeling, and obviously one does not expect an 11 year old to convincingly manifest desire, or heartbreak. But when they do, ie, the latter case, my god, that's a show-stopper. It's not creepy, the way little girls singing sexy songs in talent shows are: it's a moment when they somehow seem to be in possession of an astonishing amount of wisdom and emotional maturity. As one mother puts it, "something happens in her face, and she becomes an adult in those moments."

Now, for me, the moments of truly extraordinary dancing in the film make a very powerful case. Not that it "makes it all worth it," it's obviously more complicated than that, but still -- wow. I think you could very easily watch this movie and not come to that conclusion, without feeling like you were disagreeing with the film, and without diminishing your enjoyment of it. Ultimately, what makes the movie compelling, cheesy as it sounds, are the truly compelling and unique stories of the different people in it, and the way the movie really gives you a sense of them as actual people, rather than a collection of relevant features. It's really an excellent movie, and available on Netflix Instant. Check it out.

27 May 2015

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

It would be very easy not to like this book. The narrator is fairly unpleasant, and his time is alternately spent making bad decisions and reflecting on art in what to many people will seem a fairly pretentious way. It's a tricky question, whether you have to at least partially share his view on poetry to enjoy the novel -- I suspect you do, even if (like me), you didn't necessarily endorse his way of expressing them. But I would wager that what makes the narrator worthwhile, though not necessarily likable, is that he manages to say things about literature that are actually somewhat poignant and interesting. And moreover, that it is entirely believable that such a thoroughly hapless, self-absorbed, and unappealing guy could come up with such insights -- and that his drug-addled, booze-soaked, largely aimless days in Madrid could produce them.

This is not a typical novel: it's a fragmented collection of thoughts, almost akin to a diary, and there is no real narrative arc or resolution. Impressively, however, it feels complete, and is exactly the right length. In many ways, it is structured very much like a poem, but it also has the satisfying, simple feeling of straightforward sentences, things happening.

Frankly, I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed it.

30 April 2015

The Poor Clare, by Elizabeth Gaskell

I've been meaning to read Elizabeth Gaskell for awhile now, and although this is hardly representative of her style, apparently, it does have the virtue of being quite short. And Gothic, which I'm always interested in, academically at least. It does mean, though, that my reading of it is probably more analytic than usual, so apologies.

The story fascinated me because it's constructed in a strange and unexpected way. For starters, the supernatural elements are just unabashedly supernatural. No lengthy is-it-or-isn't-it suspense, no tortured contortions about whether such a thing is possible, just blammo, there it is. Relatedly, however -- the story spends very little time on it. I don't want to give anything away, so I'm doing some contortions of my own, but when you finally get to the creepy thing -- and it takes quite awhile to get there -- it's established, briefly described, and then it's off to the elaborate process of trying to get rid of it. There's very little description of it, very little exploration of what it's like and it's effects. It's all seen obliquely, from the side as it were. In this sense, it's reminiscent of Clara Reeve's Old English Baron -- the story is much more interested in all the stuff happening around the supernatural, namely, what the humans are going to do to get rid of it, than in the supernatural itself. Which makes for a somewhat drawn out and slightly tedious tale, slightly mechanistic and just not that compelling.

But then, surprisingly, the most interesting thing about the story -- the glimpses of historical context. There's this political turmoil in the background, and drama and conflict and all kinds of excitement, and she sprinkles in a few sentences here and there, and those brief asides are by far the most interesting part of the whole story. To wit: The political state of things became worse than ever, increased to its height by the scarcity of food consequent on many deficient harvests. I saw groups of fierce, squalid men, at every corner of the street, glaring out with wolfish eyes at my sleek skin and handsome clothes. This is essentially a random aside about the state of Antwerp. It has little to no bearing on the story, but don't you want to hear more about it? No wonder the woman is known for her portrayals of society. I'm looking forward to reading her more typical novels.