Wednesday, April 30, 2008

On time, trousers, transcendentalism, and passing once more through The Doors of Perception

Books made me take drugs. Okay, music, general rebelliousness and very likely some fundamental predisposition toward shoe gazing and altered states of consciousness were also significant factors –but books were enormously persuasive, with one in particular holding a prominent position of influence.

Written in 1954, Aldous Huxley’s
The Doors of Perception is commonly attributed with having turned a lot of middle-aged intellectuals onto psychedelics back in the day, but I’m surely far from alone in crediting Huxley with prompting my own first tentative frisks of various substances in my late teens. While reckless abandon had its allure (see Keith Richards), I felt more aligned with Huxley’s air of calm immersion, his heightened curiosity regarding what lies beneath life’s mundane surface. I wanted to penetrate the fabric of perception, and Huxley seemed a trustworthy guide.

Already 50 and established as a writer of novels and essays (in which drugs played a frequent role), Huxley’s introduction to mescaline was at once soberly approached (the dosage was administered by an “investigator” who monitored Huxley for the trip’s duration) and unrestrained in response. Huxley’s interest in psychedelics grew from his general fascination with mystic experience, yet his considerable intellect and skepticism kept his investigation well on the safe side of flakiness. I hadn’t read
The Doors of Perception since my teens, but on returning to it, I suffered none of the disappointment that sometimes accompanies a revisit to one’s objects of youthful enthusiasm. On the contrary, I think I relate to it more deeply now.

“I had expected,” Huxley writes, “visions of many-coloured geometries, of animated architectures ... symbolic dramas trembling perpetually on the verge of the ultimate revelation.” What Huxley actually experienced connected more closely with the texture of immediate sensations. He sees “a slow dance of golden lights” and “sumptuous red surfaces,” but the world Huxley enters via mescaline isn’t the world of alien visions, rather, “it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open.”

Huxley does indeed awaken to Blake’s “infinity in a grain of sand,” but he does so through a dialogue with the tactile world surrounding him, through observing the radiant, complex beauty of flowers (and that marvelous awareness of plants breathing), through books and printed images, through sudden awe over the sublime nature of drapery, which he describes as “living hieroglyphs,” and “a major theme of all plastic arts.” Huxley looks at his trousers, at prints of Van Gogh’s chairs, at the undulating textiles in Antoine Watteau’s paintings: “Not an inch of smooth surface here, not a moment of peace or confidence, only a silken wilderness of countless tiny pleats and wrinkles ... ” Though he begins The Doors clarifying the existential dilemma of individuality and irreversible separateness between people, Huxley, who claims to have never been a very visual person, suddenly seizes upon a way of accessing a great painter’s casual method of visualizing life’s intractable uncertainty through the ubiquitous unruliness of surfaces. It’s exhilarating to read his discovery, to witness how Huxley’s ode to drapery ascends from what first appears to be a druggy reverie over minutiae to something of tremendous insight.

Yet while Huxley spontaneously connects with the imaginative inroads of others while on mescaline, he also confesses to having a lack of interest in actual people while tripping:  “This participation in the manifest glory of things left no room, so to speak, for the ordinary, for the necessary concerns involving persons.” I’m certainly sympathetic to Huxley’s essentially private rapture—the discoveries he’s making seem to luxuriate fruitfully when unencumbered by the rules of conventional human interaction—but it should be noted that not only was it his first time using mescaline, he was also the only one using it. (I have no doubt he would’ve had a radically different response had he, for example, had sex while high—there are few experiences as potentially rich with a sense of shared wonder.) For all Huxley’s introspection, it nonetheless moves me that it’s when he eventually hears vocal music that he reconnects with other people. Voices, he exclaims, became “a kind of bridge back to the human world.” He beautifully evokes that sometimes-difficult passage from interior to interactive states by falling in love all over again with music.

Huxley gets an incredible amount of mileage from this single venture into psychedelics, and in his posterior analysis, taking into account the dangers of drugs, he’s able to convey a larger idea of how we are always going to be drawn toward methods of transcendence, though some methods seem more productive than others. And in conclusion, Huxley thoughtfully imagines the ways in which agents like mescaline (or peyote or psilocybin) can grace one’s overall sense of awareness: the user “will be wiser but less cocksure, happier but less self-satisfied, humbler in acknowledging his ignorance yet better equipped to understand the relationship of words to things, of systematic reasoning to the unfathomable Mystery which it tries, forever vainly, to comprehend.” 

Postscript: On a related note, about an hour after posting this piece I read in the newspaper that Albert Hoffman, inventor, not to mention the first human guinea pig, of LSD, has died at his home in Burg im Leimental. He was 102. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

More on Hot Docs 2008: stalags, robots, writers, killers and ample opportunity for revisiting both the past... and the future

My recent posting on Hot Docs 2008 was organized around the films I’d seen which specifically addressed the use of home movies, but there remain other films worth noting that don’t fall into this realm. In the absence of an equally useful organizing theme, I’m just going to offer some quick comments on these remaining titles in no particular order.

Ari Libsker’s outstanding 
Stalags: Holocaust and Pornography in Israel concerns a trash paperback genre that arose in Israel in the 1960s, garishly illustrated tales of American soldiers captured by the Germans and sent to P.O.W. camps to be tortured and raped by Nazi dominatrixes who they would later exact like revenge on. In exploring the nature of the genre’s enormous popularity, Libsker dissects the labyrinth of issues that created a sort of impenetrable shroud over the development of a Holocaust culture in Israel, as well as the intersection where fantasy and atrocity collide. How does pulp fiction operate as a barometer of a culture’s subconscious fears and desires? Why are these fantasies dictated so specifically by American masculinity and the urge to force sex upon figures of genocidal menace? Provocation of the highest order, Stalags is very worth tracking down should it not get the attention it deserves.

Phie Ambo’s
Mechanical Love moves between Emersonian images of natural tranquility and portraits of rubbery robots in repose. Fascinating, troubling, and yet consistently playful in tone, it studies the slow progress of one Professor Ishiguro and his team as they develop his android double in preparation for an interview between it and Ishiguro’s wife and young daughter. Working a field described as bridging engineering and psychology, the focus of Ishiguro’s research is on identity, behaviour and self-knowledge. Confessing to not being much a husband, Ishiguro genuinely wonders whether his wife will even notice the difference between he and his geminoid, a running joke that alludes to some deeply serious questions. Less overtly addressing of the film’s themes but no less fascinating are the scenes Ambo captures in nursing homes in Europe where lonely elderly woman befriend robot seals. Ambo has caught a disquieting glimpse of the future in Mechanical Love, yet she resists facile qualification.

Someone else who should rightfully be acknowledged as having some special insight into the future is legendary SF writer Harlan Ellison, though you’d never really know this from watching Erik Nelson’s
Dreams With Sharp Teeth, a biographical documentary that leaves zero doubt as to Ellison’s elevated place in the genre nor his awesome powers of inspired, cantankerous, hugely entertaining gab, while offering zero lowdown on his work. Ellison talks up a storm throughout Dreams, regaling with tales of humble beginnings, hard work and colorful anecdotes galore—the time he mailed a dead gopher to an editor, the time he wrote a short story in five hours while on full display in a bookstore window—and he’s never anything less than a hoot. Too bad anyone not already familiar with his stories and novels will find here precious little to prompt them to seek them out. Nelson gives us a rousing impression of the man’s charisma and an astounding dearth of insight into what the hell he’s been writing about for the last 50 years.

A more compelling, textured, and purposeful portrait of a writer—if hardly a laugh riot—is
Killer Poet, Susan Gray’s chronicle of the strange fortunes of Norman Porter, a.k.a. JJ Jameson. Convicted of two homicides, Porter was handed two lifetime sentences back in 1960. A model prisoner, he served 25 years before escaping and starting a new life as Jameson in Chicago, where he’d help get a black mayor elected, renovate—or should we rather say rehabilitate—dilapidated homes, become a highly regarded poet, start up a day care in a church, and become a close, caring friend to many. This lasted 20 years before the fuzz finally caught up with him and returned him to the slammer. Gray makes a strong case for redemption while dutifully representing every significant angle in the story and ultimately exposing some of the more infuriating detours of justice.

During Gray’s Q&A following the screening I attended an audience member stood up and revealed herself to be the daughter of the woman who ran some of the inmate educational programs that Porter rose to the top of, giving testimony to the man’s kindness, noting how he helped her father when he was dying of cancer... What strikes me as the key difference between those willing to give Porter a chance and those who see only a pathetic creature who should never experience anything beyond his assigned punishment is simply the belief and understanding that identity is not so fixed, that any one individual is capable of actions both malicious and altruistic over the coarse of a lifetime, that destiny can be brutal or benign. The survivors of Porter’s victims (and it should be added that there appear to be considerable doubts surrounding Porter’s guilt in the crimes) themselves confess that his being back behind bars changes nothing with regards to their loss, but they feel better knowing that justice is served. Their faith in organized justice is obviously stronger than mine.

London to Brighton: a dire case of the cunty bollocks

It’s 3.00 in the morning, so the stark flash of a title card tells us, and an angst-ridden woman with a face approximately one-third beat-to-shit hunkers in a public toilet gobbling chips with a troubled little girl before dashing out to service some grim-faced john in the front of his sedan—just a few more quid and they’ll soon be on their train whose trajectory provides the film’s title. While this is going down we also meet a stubble-headed thug or two, collecting fares from their stable of cheerless tricks, threatening every no-hoper in arm’s reach with violence, and speaking the vernacular we might best describe as “home cunties.” There’s shouting, crying and a sweeping ugliness under fluorescent lights.

A self-assured entry into British brutalism from writer/director Paul Andrew Williams, London to Brighton doesn’t leave us wondering what sort of movie we’re watching. The handheld camera locks on close-ups of damaged faces, very rarely allowing two characters to share the frame, preferring to cut back and forth in an exchange or desperate and/or sinister glances. This sordid tale of the marginalized, the crooked, the corrupted and the plain old perverse unfolds with the appropriate level of panic, abuse, misery and dread. If Mike Leigh lost both his sense of humour and his richly shaded characters and suddenly wanted to make a grotesque thriller, might it look something like this?

Williams understands that in such a setting a variety of types needn’t equal any variation in charisma or presence. His spectrum of characters, the small-time and powerful alike, all conform neatly into people who clearly should be doing something else with their lives: Kelly (Lorraine Stanley), the hopeless hooker who appears to be past whatever passes for prime on these streets; Joanne (Georgia Groome), the 11-year-old runaway Kelly plucks from the pavement to initiate into the trade; Derek (Johnny Harris), the track pants pimp-bully taking clients way out of his league; Chum (Nathan Constance), Derek’s largely mute, homogenously groomed yet incongruously handsome sidekick; or Stuart (Sam Spruell), the über-scumbag crime lord who unenthusiastically exacts the bits of routine sadism expected from him while suffering from a whopper of an Oedipal complex. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? London, apparently. And they collide after Stuart’s pa’s craving for pubescent flesh leads him to Kelly via Joanne via Derek and a date that goes horribly, gruesomely wrong. Not that there could have ever been a happy version.

A certain bare minimum of authenticity sits firmly along the bottom line for a film like London to Brighton, but its is a kind of authenticity that, in trying to offer a grittier alternative to Hollywood artifice, excludes such things as a casual brush with human warmth or a second of spontaneity. Which is fine, I suppose, since even those of us most jazzed about this sort of thing generally want it to proceed fast and ruthlessly as possible. Williams never seems less than in his element delivering the staple goods, though a third act conversation about daddy issues between Stuart and Joanne hints at a penchant for greater subtext than London to Brighton allows. Underlying Williams’ narrative are themes that look past the generic, particularly when it comes down to the notion of accountability among the equally downtrodden—Kelly is the closest thing we have to a heroine here, yet her maternal instincts toward Joanne are severely compromised by her role in feeding her to the slobbering pedophiles who pepper her clientele.

In any case, regardless of Williams’ intentions or more subtle talents, your interest in London to Brighton should roughly align to your eagerness to spend time with a lot of largely irredeemable human waste trapped in a deterministic world where only the youngest inhabitants have even the slightest chance of escape. On such terms, Williams has produced a solid feature debut.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Death of a Cyclist: screening the delicate balance between pure polemic and pure pleasure

It opens on a stretch of country road so gray, stark and forsaken as to feel pulled from a dream—even the two or three trees look cold and lonely. The image of this landscape stays fixed as the cyclist passes us by, exiting the frame not long before the car enters it, the collision between the two happening off-screen in the eerie, phantasmagoric interim. The car stops and the couple within exits to survey the damage. The man, Juan (Alberto Closas), surmises that he cyclist is dying—all we can see in the framing is the still-spinning wheel. The woman, Maria (Lucia Bosé), urges the man to leave. They drive away, abandoning the cyclist, and the titular event of Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bardem’s Death of a Cyclist (1955), newly released by the Criterion Collection, has transpired with bracing efficiency.

Accompanied by a score of Herrmannesque portent, a tone of an unmistakably noir melodrama has been set. Yet right there within this brooding atmosphere lies the first of numerous overt, pointed allusions to a troubling class disparity: a humble-looking man on a bike is knocked down by a well-dressed couple in a sleek automobile; the couple, we learn immediately after, are having an affair, and are more concerned with maintaining their secrecy—and with it their comfortable bourgeois existence—than with the welfare of the victim of their negligence.

With each subsequent scene come further layers of social critique: the insularity and nepotism that allows Juan to hold an enviable position at a university; the appearance of a nefarious art critic, a self-described “good for nothing” who lurks in elevated social circles sniffing out opportunities for blackmail with an ingratiating smile (there is the sense that the art critic’s vocation is itself deemed a product of bourgeois decadence); the fact that Juan looks conspicuously similar to Miguel, Maria’s wealthy husband, implying that her extramarital activities are so automated that she doesn’t even require a lover that embodies a genuine variation of her husband. The accumulative effect, made complete by the sudden development of Juan’s class-consciousness, spurred by guilt over the accident, is a depiction of a Spain well-settled into Franco’s triumph, sinking into its own turgid morass of Fascist reactionism.

If Death of Cyclist reads as schematic, that’s because it is, and the supplementary texts in Criterion’s package, including one from Bardem himself, emphasize the director’s schema all the more. Bardem had publicly declared the Spanish cinema as “politically ineffective, socially false, intellectually worthless, aesthetically nonexistent, industrially crippled,” and Marsha Kinder’s essay ‘Creating a Modern Spanish Cinema’ shows in great detail how Death of a Cyclist was designed as the antidote, a work that would subversively exploit the trappings of Hollywood thrillers as a way to synthesize and heighten Bardem’s polemical call to arms, its true stylistic genre being that of neorealism.

The problem with this sort of reading is that is renders the movie as an airless manifesto in which the artist only reluctantly lowers himself to entertaining us. It also does a great discredit to Hollywood—American film noir, for all its compromises, was already a great source of social criticism, frequently pulling back the curtain of American prosperity to reveal the corruption at the heart of the capitalist impulse, and the typical noir already possessed many of the same innovations as neorealism, such as its use of location shooting. Death of a Cyclist arrived right at the climax of the original noir cycle, the same year of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, and Maria, its femme fatale, even attempts to secure her social standing using the same shocking method as Margo in the superb poverty row noir Decoy (46).

Regardless of Bardem’s personal aspirations, focusing all one’s attention on its political promptings can make Death of a Cyclist feel somewhat academic, while the best compliment one can give it is to in fact call it a very elegant, highly effective, often fascinating noir. The film moves superbly, the brisk pacing enhanced by the consistent use of shock cuts, those transitions where one image weirdly matches another in an entirely different scene, as though the storytelling itself infuses disparate events with some creepy synchronicity; exposition is handled with tremendous economy; and there’s a bizarre, fascinating morbidity to the way the accident influences the love affair, which reaches its natural erotic climax in a spray of blood and mechanical impact, acting as a subtle precursor to the bizarre equations of David Cronenberg’s Crash (96).

Death of a Cyclist in the end did not signal much of a revolution in Spanish cinema—not even Luis Buñuel’s return to Spain to make the deliriously perverse Viridiana (60) could manage that. Sweeping changes wouldn’t arrive until the 70s while Franco was either in decline, dying or dead. But Bardem’s film can be admired greatly for the way it gives us a portrait of his country in a period of deep repression and stagnancy, and delivering this portrait in the shape of a thriller sculpted from desire, coincidence, small dreams and the never quite squashed undercurrent of social unrest.

Hot Docs 2008: home movies that come back to haunt us

Though it was as diverse as ever in its programming of movies from everywhere and about, seemingly, everything, this year’s well-attended Hot Docs International Documentary Festival, which wrapped on Sunday night, was for me something of a primer on the shape of docs to come—that shape being defined by the wild proliferation of consumer-level audiovisual technology over the last half-century and our impulse to record our lives as a method of either verifying or coping with it. A few years ago Capturing the Friedmans brought home movies into the theatre with an iconoclastic layer of threat, the past coming back to haunt us in living—if deteriorated—colour, while Tarnation clarified that a more personal sort of non-fiction was to become an increasingly dominant genre. Neither of these movies were the first to use home movies in an inventive way, but they were popular, inflammatory, and influential.

Skip ahead to 2008 and we find
Must Read After My Death, Morgan Dews’ investigation into the private turmoil of his grandparents and their children, a work composed almost entirely of Super 8 footage taken by the family and unnervingly candid audio recordings they made for each other as a therapeutic device. With the mise-en-scène confined to the construction of a montage that will convey insight through canny or poetic juxtaposition, the movie unfolds as a collective public testament to the troubles of open marriage, patriarchal resentment and experimental psychiatry that none of the participants actually intended to make.

Her Name is Sabine is French actress Sandrine Bonnaire’s absolutely devastating portrait of her sister, who in the last fifteen years has slipped from a reasonably functional, autonomous person living with autism to a heavy, sluggish woman in need of constant care and living in a ceaseless, at times nightmarish, drug fog. Bonnaire’s manipulation of a lifetime of family movies is sly, artful, moving and finally deeply respectful, as it should be. The most powerful moments arise when the images of Sabine from the past—a playful, attractive woman with a striking gaze—finally converge with the present. Sabine watches her old self and recognizes all to well what’s transpired. Her flood of anxiety is almost unbearable, an effect you’re not likely to shake off for some time. I very much hope you’ll have the opportunity to see it soon.

Another work, not quite as reliant on personal archives but certainly made more poignant through the intermingling of past and present, was the festival’s opening night gala, Sacha Gervasi’s awesomely titled Anvil!: The Story of Anvil, which chronicles the mostly middling fortunes of the titular Toronto metal band that’s spent its career perpetually on the cusp of success, despite its ardent cult following and the adulation of numerous metal heavyweights. The movie is surely destined for great things, if for no other reason that it’s so damn endearing, with Anvil originators Lipps and Robb Reiner (a drummer named after the director of This is Spinal Tap: further evidence that truth is stranger than fiction) exhibiting an uncommon depth of long-term, contentious, ultimately redeeming friendship.

Citizen Havel, shot over an 11-year period by Pavel Koutecky, proposes an interesting variation on the home movie theme, in that all the footage was accumulated with the explicit intention of being used in a documentary yet it possesses the candidness of something far more personal. Koutecky was granted access to the charismatic former Czech president’s home and work life of a level unmatched in political history, thus we’re able to witness speeches being spun and decisions being mulled over, as well as Havel’s relationships shifting, his despair over the death of his wife, his killing of approximately 96,000 cigarettes, and his visits with everyone from Bill Clinton—who plays a mean ‘Summertime’ on the sax at a Prague nightclub—to The Rolling Stones.

Perhaps no other use of home movies seen at Hot Docs 2008 could ever equal the caustic effect of Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, his "non-fiction horror movie" and graphic investigation into what went down in the Abu Ghraib prison back in 2003. At the dark heart of the story remain the photos and videos, shared, copied and spread around, made by the US military staff guilty of the torture, sexual humiliation and various other sorts of abuse of Iraqi inmates. As Morris interrogates the interrogators, the question lingers: if we can presume that at least some of these people knew what they were doing was so incredibly wrong, why in the hell did they amass—and flaunt—so much evidence of their crime? While most films at Hot Docs have an uncertain future, S.O.P. is among the few that will thankfully be coming to a theatre near you.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Taxi to the dumb side

Harold and Kumar let it all hang out. (Especially Kumar.) Theirs is a proud cinema of no shame, where people can feel free to kick back, light a blunt, speak their mind, be themselves. Before we reach the end of the opening credits of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay Kumar’s already enjoyed a bout of explosive diarrhea and splooged all over his own face. This guy clearly has nothing to hide, and thus earns our trust from the get-go.

So what’s with Homeland Security getting so uppity about Kumar trying to light up in an airplane toilet? These post-9/11 homeboys need to chill. Unfortunately the outfit who nailed our boys on their flight from Jersey to Amsterdam are fronted by a drooling moron racist pitbull who gets his buzz on from wiping his dirty bunghole with the Fifth Amendment—and boy, is that bunghole dirty! But perhaps he can be forgiven for his neglectful hygiene, as he’s in such a tizzy over breaking what’s looking to be the first case of an Al Qaeda-North Korea super-collaboration to murder hysterical American tourists.

One look at Harold’s funny-shaped eyes and Kumar’s chestnut flesh was all it took to send these hapless heroes to Guantanamo Bay, where their worst homophobic fears are embodied in the monstrous white guards who waste no time in getting the newbies down on their knees for their first taste of their new diet of cockmeat sandwich. Fortunately fate intervenes in the form of real-live insane terrorists who like to bite. As promised, Harold and Kumar escape, hitch a ride with some decorative Cubans to Miami, drop in on a party full of pants-free zombies and begin their real adventure through the American South, where they try to enlist the aid of some asshole who’s marrying Kumar’s high school sweetheart yet also has a most helpful direct line to President Bush.

The big theme of Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay is that you can’t always judge a book by its cover. It’s a solid theme, conducive to much excitement and endless reversals. Not long after being mistaken for potential terrorists on account of their race, Harold and Kumar later find that they too are guilty of lazy prejudice. They presume that some ruddy-faced Alabama deer killer is an inbred redneck loony. Well, okay so he actually is an inbred redneck loony—but at least he feeds them and smokes them up… In any case, all in not always what it appears, right? Especially when it comes to the movie itself. Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay may look like a wild comedy with some political teeth to it, but—a ha!—turns out it’s really just dumb. Real dumb. Okay, with a few inspired little surprises that help wash down the pervading dearth of anything actually funny or clever happening.

The ostensibly lovable John Cho and Kal Penn, stars of the 2004 prequel, return from their journey to White Castle for this second go-round of juvenile sex jokes, garish sentimentality and faux stereotype-smashing. They’re joined by a pair of impossibly insipid white girls to pang for and a bizarre guest appearance from the rather stiff but admirably committed Neil Patrick “Doogie” Harris, here playing himself and willfully undertaking one of the most impressive feats of auto-character assassination on record, gobbling psychedelics and branding a prostitute’s ass. Harold and Kumar also have a run-in with the KKK and even George W. himself, who provides the movie’s highlight. (I mentioned the surprises: turns out both Bush and the Klan love metal. Who knew?)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hey, you guys just gonna throw that away?: F. González-Crussi and the strange, chaotic story of medical science

In J.G. Ballard’s superb new memoir Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, the author describes his abbreviated study of medicine as having an unexpectedly formative effect on his distinctive powers as a writer of fiction. Ballard particularly covets his memories of pathological research, the subjects of which were routinely cadavers of other doctors. “Dissecting the face,” Ballard writes, “revealing the layers of muscles and nerves that generated expressions and emotions, was a way of entering the private lives of these dead physicians and almost bringing them back to life.”

This passage has stuck with me, partly because it serves as a vivid reminder for those of us with no special interest in medicine to recognize its role as a source wonderment, and its inherently human foundations—what is medicine but a science wholly driven by the dictates of human life in all its strange and unwieldy patterns? I was reminded of this further still when I recently discovered a terrific book by an author I’d never heard of. There’s a moment in On Seeing, introduced with a certain, provocative brio, where F. González-Crussi, professor emeritus of pathology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine—not to mention a witty, unfathomably knowledgeable essayist—directs our attention to how deeply our tendency to see only what we choose effects even our most critical historical endeavours. He refers here to the always awkward, not-at-all orderly story of medical science in general, and anatomy in particular:

“Historians of science have wondered why the systematic study of anatomy did not originate sooner than it did. And as puzzling as the when is the where of its origination. Several ancient cultures left proof of keen intelligence and extraordinary powers of observation. Many learned men in ancient times performed dissections on cadavers or somehow became acquainted with the interior of the body. Yet, knowledge of anatomy, as we now understand it, remained unexplainably rudimentary.”

No matter how many hearts were ripped from decidedly unlucky Aztecs as a method to placate gods and stave off catastrophe, how baffling, writes González-Crussi, that this society, the authors of exquisite poetry and astonishingly accurate astronomical observations, revealed no interest in the actual functions of said organ. Likewise, the ancient Mesopotamians produced impressive codes of law, an admirable literature, and practiced a sophisticated form of divination involving the study of entrails, yet they appear to have developed no anatomical knowledge. Such willful ignorance is found repeatedly in cultures the world round.

The way González-Crussi conveys this feature of human history, our selective perception, is fascinating, fun, clear, and kept me happily distracted for days after reading it. It was with great anticipation then that I awaited the arrival of his newest book, its appeal made plain in its title: A Short History of Medicine (Modern Library, $29.95). Though not quite as conducive to weird anecdotes, literary analogues or philosophical playfulness as On Seeing, this compact yet breezy doctoring-for-dummies is a chamber of insight, careful research, scientific basics and wide-ranging anthropological interest. Finally, while pulling no punches with regards to the abundant failings of medical science, the book nonetheless inspires tremendous respect for the way medicine in all its forms has changed almost every aspect of human life.

Chief among A Short History’s most colorful passages are, naturally, its quick dips into biography. González-Crussi tells of Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) the hugely influential iconoclast who was so obsessed with knowledge of the body that he kept rotting corpses in his bedroom and encouraged students to hover over terminally ill patients; of Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865), who was tragically fired from his post and driven from Vienna for having the gall to suggest that the practice of hygiene on the part of doctors would drastically diminish cases of puerperal fever in pregnant women; of Alexis St. Martin (1794-1880), the French Canadian trapper and all-around tough motherfucker who after surviving a musket shot to his abdomen spent the rest of his life having his conveniently exposed digestive system studied by William Beaumont (1785-1853); of William Halsted (1852-1922), who pioneered the radical mastectomy through the injection of cocaine into nerve trunks, only to fall victim to cocaine’s addictive powers; of the two-man Franco-Prussian War fought between the flamboyant Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and the more reserved and historically underappreciated Robert Koch (1843-1910). These and many other profiles emphasize that the story of medicine is also a story of politics and personality.

Dividing his broad subject into sections—anatomy, surgery, procreation, disease, diagnosis and therapy—González-Crussi breaks medicine down into its essential components, rendering its evolution into a jargon-free, easily digestible network of interrelated fields of study. He ends each section with some reflections on where this evolution has brought us; what we may have lost on our path toward longer, less painful lives; how a surprising number of folkloric or instinctive remedies have proven to be effective (did you know: swallowing semen does help to induce childbirth!); how and whether or not the eradication of pain is a plausible or even desirable goal. In short, A Short History of Medicine asks numerous questions while answering others. And it does what any such volume should do: it presents history as something relevant, alive and ongoing.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Emotional Arithmetic: Impressive figures that don't quite add up

There’s this scene in Emotional Arithmetic that, like a handful of others, feels as though it was shaken loose from the film’s tight weave of pervading solemnity. It features two old guys getting up in the dead of night to raid the icebox for the congealed leftovers of what was previously a lavish meal. With their grub and a couple of bottles of 50, they hunker over a table and get down to work. Each man represents a disparate chapter in the history of a beguiling younger woman, and this unexpected wee-hours companionship is thus laced with a certain, amusingly masculine tension. What happens in this scene neither dissolves the tension entirely, not does it exactly resolve anything. It lingers briefly between the ostensibly important scenes. Interestingly, this scene lingers in my memory more vividly than anything else in the movie.

Awkwardly adapted from Matt Cohen’s Holocaust-related novel by screenwriter Jefferson Lewis and director Paolo Barzman, Emotional Arithmetic, with its godawful title, was never going to have an easy time proving itself a dynamic cinematic experience. It comes burdened with themes of loss, sacrifice, memory, and the at times crippling responsibility to the past. I say burdened not because these themes aren’t potent—on the contrary, the ideas Cohen’s addressed are rich and resonant—but because rather than coming to us through action, these themes are announced, lobbed about, mulled over.

What eases this burden considerably is the tremendous cast, five actors from four different countries with such accumulated experience as to evoke networks of emotion the moment they appear on screen together. Susan Sarandon plays Melanie, Gabriel Byrne plays Christopher, a pair linked by their time spent in the Drancy transit camp in occupied France as kids, and their being rescued from deportation to Auschwitz by Jakob, played by Max Von Sydow. The bulk of Emotional Arithmetic takes place four decades later, at Melanie’s rural home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where Melanie is now a mentally unstable middle-aged woman, wife to David, a much older history professor played by Christopher Plummer, and mother to Benjamin, a handsome, talented chef played by Roy Dupuis. The story as such concerns an unexpected reunion between Melanie, Christopher and Jakob, an event fraught with opposing ideas about how to memorialize victims of catastrophe and how to manage life’s loose ends and enduring desires.

There are moments where something happens, risks are taken, pent-up feelings are given expression—but these moments are nearly crowded out by scenes of stasis or contemplation—and it is not an active, nor an especially contagious contemplation. The rather gaudy, overwrought flashbacks to Drancy constitute only a fraction of the Emotional Arithmetic’s duration, but they somehow exemplify the overall weakness here, a tendency to make a case for the film’s seriousness by merely directing our attention toward events that we all know are overwhelmingly serious. The end result I suppose is a somewhat muddled meditation, a movie that doesn’t entirely work as a movie, but arguably fucntions as some modest catalyst for thought, and a rare opportunity to see actors of this caliber sharing the screen.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Inland Empire: Lynch and Dern crawl deep inside to break out, crack up, throw down the gauntlet for exploring the new digital landscape

A new neighbour with a Martian-like head drops in on actress Nikki Grace (the fearless, inimitable, marvelous Laura Dern). She accurately predicts that Nikki will be selected for a much-sought-after role and then recalls a folktale about a boy who, leaving his house one day, catches sight of himself in a mirror, inadvertently releasing evil unto the world.

The notion of evil residing in one’s reflection exists in many myths; in
Inland Empire it brilliantly manifests as the fearful fascination one finds when one’s image looks back at them from a movie screen.

Polish mobsters, Hollywood prostitutes, movie people, a Balkan circus troupe, anthropomorphic rabbits confined to a room like the trio in
No Exit: each of these milieus intersect, refracting off each other over the course of Inland Empire. Things shift from menacing, basically realistic intrigue into a layered world of overlapping anxieties and violence. Causality becomes overwhelmingly tenuous, lucidity evaporates and fantasy takes hold, clenching the fabric of the established reality in its bared teeth. Nikki’s new movie, it’s discovered, has secret, cursed roots in an earlier, unfinished production. She comes to identify with her adulterous role, so closely that her persona blurs into it completely.

While aligning to his previous tropes and unbridled appetite for portent, the self-distributed 
Inland Empire breaks much new ground for David Lynch. It’s an epic set—not on some vast landscape but in a largely insular, even interior region. It’s visually dynamic, hauntingly image-saturated, yet shot with low-grade DV cameras. It’s more resistant to simple summation than anything since Eraserhead, and so rich with a sense of discovery, goofy humour (enter a panhandling Harry Dean Stanton) and billowing strangeness as to be considered among Lynch’s masterworks.

Exiting a press screening for Inland Empire, I overheard one critic say, “Good thing they didn’t cut that down to only two-hours; then it wouldn’t have many any sense!” A clever quip, but misleading commentary. Yes, Inland Empire is three hours long, much of it audaciously perplexing, rippling with ambiguity even in its resolution. Admittedly, there’s the sense of Lynch being somewhat indecisive, inviting one too many freaks for dinner, but still I’d argue that the movie’s protracted duration itself is a key factor in how it works on you.

Like Hitchcock, Lynch is interested in “putting the audience through it,” the “it” signifying normally unpleasant sensations such as terror and unease.
Inland Empire is extremely successful at inflicting unease and one of the ways in which it does so is through sheer hallucinatory relentlessness. Spend enough time in Nikki’s nightmare and you’ll leave the theatre feeling very much like you’ve been through something—and I don’t know about you, but this sort of transporting experience is precisely what I go to the movies hoping to have.

At a crucial juncture, Nikki is putting some groceries in her car when she spots some cryptic writing on a wall. She’s compelled to enter a darkened door and, in a memorably chilling sequence sees—in a manner of speaking—her reflection. From here, Nikki tumbles down the rabbit hole, where she’s lost for a very long time. She enters what appears to be a two-dimensional set. Once she’s inside, however, it proves to be a real, furnished bungalow, one Dorothy Vallens might have inhabited if she moved to the Los Angeles suburbs. She’s entered the labyrinth of
Inland Empire, crossing over into a realm where identity, place and even time assume a tempestuous fluidity.

And Lynch himself has crossed over into new territory. His grainy DV creates unstable, textured shadows, looming close-ups, distorting rays of light and the most ghostly hand-held camerawork I think I’ve ever seen. (Lynch says what he loves about these cameras is that he can hold the image in the palm of his hand—accordingly, the camerawork assumes an unusually physical, choreographic quality.) He’s renovated his sensibility to embrace a now primitive technology, ironically employed to capture images of glamour; in doing so, he’s revealed glamour’s darkest underbelly, picking up where
Mulholland Drive left off and moving even deeper into the empire of our movie-infected subconscious. 

As a post script, I think it's also worth mentioning that Inland Empire pretty much has my new favourite closing credit sequence ever, employing Nina Simone's rendition of 'Sinnerman' to a very different yet equally tremendous effect as Golden Door did the same year. It's wonderful, flashy, loopy, sort of delirious, featuring numerous cast members, friends, lip-synching performers, a monkey. It's also a shrewd move, a way to keep exasperated audiences in their seats (if they've made it this far...) rather than jolt up or run out screaming, to come down a bit from a long, frequently insane ride. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Time slips, the world ends, The Rock sees double, and Southland Tales slouches toward DVD shelves, one coma-inducing chapter at a time

Before we get started, let me just say that it's useful to remind oneself every now and then that there are countless ways in which movies can turn out lousy. When you consider all the factors that come into account when putting together a feature film —the diverse contributors, conflicting visions, constraints financial or physical, accidents happy or otherwise, disasters natural or manmade—it’s kind of a wonder that any of them turn out good. And if you throw a young, reckless, giddily adventurous auteur into the mix, things can get only more precarious.

I want to talk about Southland Tales, writer/director Richard Kelly’s much anticipated follow-up to his 2001 debut Donnie Darko, which must be the most beloved non-theatrically released American movie of the century. A long, unwieldy, virtually incomprehensible satire about the American apocalypse, featuring a wildly bloated cast half-comprised of has-beens most popular during Kelly’s childhood—John Lovitz, Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Curtis Armstrong—it debuted as a work-in-progress at Cannes 2006 to a chorus of boos and loathing reviews from all but a small band of US critics. (Most of them, incidentally, quite good critics.) Whether because of Kelly’s protracted re-cutting schedule or an understandably pessimistic marketing team, Southland Tales slouched back into the ether until, having shed 20 minutes, several characters and a few subplots, it was finally granted a limited release last November before vanishing without a trace. In Canada it never even opened. It finally arrived on DVD shelves last month.

Having very much admired Donnie Darko, and putting little faith in the judgment of noisy festival naysayers, I eagerly looked forward to Southland Tales, making a point of reading as little about it as possible so as to come at it fresh. Ready for whatever, I popped it in the player and within two minutes realized I needn’t bother to continue my initial jolt of frenzied note-taking—the exposition was being hurled around like a cafeteria food fight. Texas has been nuked; oil is drying up; the US is at war with at least five counties; a neo-Marxist resistance is emerging from somewhere in Venice Beach; Americans are being monitored everywhere and all the time; an action star gets amnesia and teams up with a “cock-chugging” porn star developing an apocalyptic action movie and an all-porn star talk show. I got that much. But the problem wasn’t so much what was being relayed as how. Screens within screens resembling drearily cheesy video games (or, I guess, Fox News) slam into place and slide around. Between the near-constant, impossibly flat voice-over, courtesy of Justin Timberlake, and the soft electro-wall paper score, courtesy of Moby, I felt the film was actually designed to help me slip into a coma. Little did I realize that much of the two-and-a-half-hour movie would be more of the same. I started taking pee breaks when I didn’t even need to pee.

The central players in Southland Tales don’t help matters. I guess the trio of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Seann William Scott is some sicko’s idea of a dream team, but their collective dearth of charisma or even ability with coherent line readings makes their perversely vapid characters that much less engaging. Of course they’re supposed to be funny. “All the pilgrims did was ruin the Indian orgy of freedom,” Gellar’s nattering “cockchugger” complains. “The fourth dimension’s going to collapse on itself, you stupid bitch!” imparts Johnson in his bizarrely spaced, over emphatic sub-Shatner speak. Those are some of the best, or at least most memorable lines, but they look better on paper than they play in the movie. Admittedly they play far, far better than the astoundingly lame insertions of Jane’s Addiction lyrics, Philip K. Dick book titles or T.S. Eliot poetry into the dialogue. This unimaginative flaunting of influences reaches its nadir early on, when we get to watch a good chunk of the opening of the classic nuclear noir Kiss Me Deadly on Gellar’s TV. In his Village Voice review, J. Hoberman writes that “Kelly’s movie may not be entirely coherent, but that’s because there’s so much it wants to say.” I genuinely appreciate Hoberman’s championing of Kelly’s bravura messiness—I am, after all, a huge fan of Inland Empire—but it seemed to me like most of what he had to say was “Look at how many movies/books/music I’ve seen/read/listened to!”

Maybe Kelly really just wanted to make a cult phenomenon, a rather odd choice when that’s exactly what his first movie already accomplished. Maybe it was meant to be something else altogether. In trying to figure out what Southland Tales is, it might be worthwhile to establish what it isn’t. Southland Tales is neither a Heaven’s Gate nor a Battlefield Earth, which is to say it isn’t an overly ambitious maybe-masterpiece completely overshadowed by its expense and extravagant production, nor is it a mega-budgeted lemon full of dialogue, costumes, performances (I’ll stop here) so risible as to be pure camp and infused with elements that allow for some fun extra-filmic readings (ie: the Scientologist movie star fronting a story written by the father of Scientology). I don’t know that Southland Tales’ long gestation period captured the public’s imagination all that much. I don’t know that there’s been much of an effort yet to canonize it in any so-bad-it’s-good category. Outside of a sometimes-fevered critical debate that I suspect was of interest only to other critics, I don’t know that the film has thus far met anything but near-total indifference. Whether or not this will change will probably depend on whether or not the above appraisal reads to you like a clear warning to steer clear or a disguised encouragement to see the greatest cheesed-out, conspiracy theorist/stoner epic since El Topo.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: a masterful, hallucinatory pageant brimming with sensuality, colour, natural beauty, mustaches

Great myths and folktales endure not on account of their universality—which is beyond question—but on the capacity of our finest storytellers to render them vividly, to renovate them according to changing modes of expression, to bring a personal voice to them, and endow them anew with vivacity. Such stories speak of the business of living in terms that transcend the limits of reason, thus, in 1964’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini zabutykh predkiv), when one man is suddenly driven to slay another, when a tormented, lonesome lover allows himself to be carried writhing down rapids on a spindly raft of lumber, or when that same lover, now physically wounded, scavenges the forest at night hoping to be enveloped by death as a means to finding himself once again in his lover’s embrace, the events feel like the opposite of mere artifice. They resonate as more truthful than what we generally refer to as realism.

But then Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors—the artistic breakthrough of Sergei Parajanov, a Georgian born to Armenian parents who had the decidedly mixed fortune to find himself forging a career within the Soviet film industry—has its finger on the pulse of myth like few other films. The slaying of the man is followed by an enigmatic flash of red horse silhouettes; the lover on the raft captured in a long, unbroken, rapturous camera sweep (which can't help but look forward to numerous like images from Werner Herzog); the search in the forest constructed from close-ups of faces seemingly floating through a web of trees, cheeks brushed by branches with near-palpable sensuality. The tirelessly adventurous camerawork, care of the great Yuri Ilyenko, a writer/director in his own right, is somehow at once delirious and precise, full of low, creeping angles where foliage brushes the lens and breaks up the frame; of careening flights through the collective rituals of Carpathian village life; of scenes that at times resemble some hallucinatory staged anthropological documentary. More than four decades after the fact Shadows still feels vibrantly exotic, a thing set apart, its particular poetry uncorrupted by the rest of the world’s culture of movies.

Shadows, set in the early 19th century, is based on the book by Ukrainian writer Mikhaylo Koysyubinskiy and functions as a carefully detailed window into the daily life of the Hutsuls, the highland people who for centuries have inhabited the Ukraine, as well as the northern extremity of Romania. The film is a sumptuous pageant of traditional costumes, religious rites and iconography, strange, powerful music made with impossibly long trumpets, and a dazzling array of elaborately groomed moustaches. At its narrative centre is an ebullient variation on Romeo and Juliet: Ivan (the deeply haunted Ivan Mikolajchuk) and Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova) grow from a childhood characterized by bloodshed and blissful interaction with nature to an adulthood characterized by harsh weather, hard work, adultery, sorcery, drunkenness and betrayal, all the time concealing a forbidden love that slowly plunges into morbid obsession, though finally proving itself to be even stronger than mortal life.

The man at the helm of all this was reaching the height of his talents and would subsequently feel the wrath of governmental forces bent of punishing such vision as unacceptably decadent. While still young, Parajanov showed great affinity with music and painting, and both mediums heavily inform the sensibility at work in Shadows, which possesses a compelling, lyrical fluidity broken by flutters of striking frozen images, as well as a richness of colour and is heightened by the movement of elements and animals. This dialogue with other mediums is but one of numerous cinematographic ingredients unmistakably mirrored in the contemporaneous films of Andrei Tarkovsky, especially 1962’s Ivan’s Childhood, and it comes as no surprise to discover that Parajanov and Tarkovsky were great, mutually admiring friends who shared similar difficulties with Soviet censorship and even died of the same disease. Like Ivan’s Childhood, Shadows fixates engagingly on horses, water and trees, and its soundtrack seems always to return to a motif of voices calling out names into vast landscapes. Unlike that of Tarkovsky however, Parajanov’s approach is gifted with a willful, buoyant naïveté and effervescent sense of freedom, moving effortlessly between broad symbolism and an uninhibited, textured emotionality.

Though it deals in symbols and mysticism, it needs to be emphasized that Shadows is grounded in feelings and experiences of tremendous immediacy. In the end, Ivan’s story is simply that of a man who even after settling into a potentially happy, normal life with a sexy, loving wife, can’t quite shake off the grips of the one that got away. It’s what distinguishes a film like Shadows from ones we think of as fairy tale flicks, delighting viewers with its folkloric spectacle and archetypical imagery while penetrating those murkier, very adult feelings locked up inside us. Parajanov wasn’t able to make many films during his life, but the legacy of Shadows and its follow-up The Colour of Pomegranates are alone enough to cement his place among the most important filmmakers of cinema’s first century.

Ivan's Childhood: the special pleasure of genius not yet fully formed

Though sometimes underappreciated by the director’s admirers as a less mature work, one predating his soon-to-be realized aspirations toward a very particular formal and philosophical rigour, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 film Ivan’s Childhood deserves to be seen and re-seen for perhaps these very same reasons. A film about the corruption of innocence, it is in fact characterized by the endearing innocence of its approach, one expressing a budding director’s youthful enthusiasm for staging images of simple (if enigmatic) lyrical beauty that contrast the story’s underpinning theme of the tragic toll of war on man and nature. Tarkovsky would go on to make films far more ambitious, audacious and personal than Ivan’s Childhood, but none of them that possess quite the same affecting charm.

Since this was Tarkovsky’s first film after leaving film school, and since the project didn’t originate with Tarkovsky (he inherited it from another director who’d been ushered off the film, while the script was an adaptation of Vladimir Bogomolov’s novel)
Ivan’s Childhood can be seen as a sort of bridge linking Tarkovsky’s apprenticeship within the approved vocabulary and ideology of the “thawed” but still restrictive post-Stalin Soviet film industry to the deeply idiosyncratic, unabashedly complex and poetic body of work that would come to distinguish Tarkovsky as one of the world’s most distinctive, dazzling and, for some, frustrating filmmakers. Watching it today in Criterion’s lovingly packaged and supplemented new DVD release, we can see the film as a beguiling and fascinating artifact of a certain moment in history.

However, the moment in which
Ivan’s Childhood is set takes us back more than a decade and a half before the film’s year of release. Its titular character (played with striking polarities of unadulterated awe and rugged, preternatural confidence by Nikolai Burlyaev) is a 12-year-old scout working for the Soviet military during the closing chapters of World War II. Ivan’s family has been murdered by Nazis, violently hurling him into a world of adult grotesqueries to which he has adapted all too well. He used to talk in his sleep, he tells a grown-up comrade, but now he lacks rest, and is nervous all the time. He’s made strong alliances with Russian field commanders and is considered a valuable asset. He’s threatened at certain points with being transferred to a military school and angrily protests the idea, saying he’s more useful at the front. His superiors must agree, since Ivan’s childhood will continue to be spent on the peripheries of combat, and will in fact never progress to manhood proper.

For those familiar with the imagery of his subsequent work, Tarkovsky’s most obvious contributions to the story of
Ivan’s Childhood are the film’s multiple dream/memory sequences: the beatific mother walking along the beach, the cart spilling apples which are muzzled and chewed by dewy horses, the rustling of leaves as they brush past Ivan’s naked skin and the otherwise absent sunlight and clean water. With these digressions, Tarkovsky takes a technique so basic to storytelling and brings it to an impressive level of multiple meanings and cinematic textures. Yet really, the bleak realistic scenes in the film are equally evocative and lulling in their frequently vertical imagery: the flares that fall like stars, the dangling nooses, the tall, spectral birch trees, the crashed plane and a memorable kiss shared over a trench that gradually doubles in our imagination as an abyss.

It should also be said that it’s here in Tarkovsky’s feature debut that his influences are presented most nakedly. He produces interesting variations on the stylistic flights found in previous Russian war films, such as
The Cranes Are Flying, certain deeper compositions echo those of Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, and the film’s scenes of hushed, crouched movement in dark water pleasingly recall Ugetsu, the most famous work by Kenji Mizoguchi, one of Tarkovsky’s few confessed idols. Rather than make Ivan’s Childhood feel derivative, these references function as a sort of starting point for Tarkovsky’s directorial journey.

Criterion’s package includes an illuminating half-hour commentary by Tarkovsky scholar Vida T. Johnson, who co-authored the terrific book
The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue, placing special emphasis on Tarkovsky’s use of other art forms such as music, literature and painting in the development of his style and content. There are also interviews with cinematographer Vadim Yusov and the now middle-aged Burlyaev, who tells a great little story about Tarkovsky’s osmosis-like way of instructing his actors. As well, a handsome booklet includes a poem by Tarkovsky’s dad and essays by Tarkovsky and Dina Iordanova.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Hollywoodland: an uneven dance with Californian gloom, going nowhere memorably

The suicide of George Reeves might not have pulled many flags down to half-mast at Hollywood’s film studios back in 1959, but it probably unleashed some kind of rampant emotional trauma among the millions of American kids who worshipped Reeves from his starring role on TV’s Adventures of Superman. Though he began promisingly with a part in Gone With The Wind, Reeves’ career never lived up to his aspirations and never lived down the role of the underwear-clad alien superhero that audiences came to identity him with completely. Despondent and without prospects, Reeves shot himself in the head in his Benedict Canyon home at the age of 45. Or so it seemed…

The lingering ambiguity surrounding Reeves’ death is the engine behind Hollywoodland, the feature debuts of director Allen Coulter and writer Paul Bernbaum. Framed by an investigation pursued by private detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), Hollywoodland’s a dark bit of Tinsletown self-reflection, an indictment of the circuitry of corruption linking the Hollywood studios with the LAPD, and an ordinary story of one more lost soul chewed up and spit out by the movies.

Brody’s bruised and amused as a cynical opportunist, Jake Gittes with a broken family and without a real career. Ben Affleck convinces as Reeves by contrasting a self-conscious phoney actor’s charm with striking glimpses of inner despair, reminding us that he was actually pretty good as the guilt-ridden lover in the underrated Bounce. Diane Lane, playing Toni, a Warner mogul’s wife and Reeves’ not-so-secret sugar mama, sympathetically embodies middle-age desperation in a town where a woman’s looks count for almost everything. It’s a shame her character’s gradually abandoned to a sort of generalized, theatrical gloom, muttering in a darkened room.

This is the stuff that terrifically lurid movies are made of, but Bernbaum’s approach, in tandem with Coulter’s, sabotages the richer, more resonant aspects of the material by focusing on the attempt to expose a possible cover-up –which goes nowhere– rather than on the conditions that brought about Reeves’ demise. It’s especially disappointing considering the talent in front of the camera. (At the same time, the nowhereness of the film is what's stuck with me the most since seeing it....)

Hollywoodland looks like it got stuck searching for a solid narrative when its sense of atmosphere and emotional texture could have been its strong suit. It’s interesting however that this failed narrative was trying to emulate the wonderfully perverse dynamics of Sunset Blvd: the older woman supporting the washed up talent while actually doing nothing for his career, that unforgettable claustrophobic love affair referenced right down to the message Toni has inscribed into Reeves’ watch: ‘Mad About the Boy!’ It’s an admirable sort of homage, even if it only makes Hollywoodland look even paler by comparison. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Second Plane: Martin Amis on our being the involuntary guests to the blood wedding of terror and religion

If the numerous figures wrangled together under the big top of global intelligentsia, certain novelists among them, desire to distinguish their two cents from the clamour of collective pocket change, it mightn’t hurt to allow themselves to change their minds now and then, or at least develop their positions through time and experience, however subjective or limited that experience may be. If his various opponents have any single bone to pick with Noam Chomsky, for example, it’s that he appears to have the same response to everything. For many of us not graced with similar certainty, there’s something persuasive about thinkers who make some attempt to regularly tend to their thoughts, to bring to their ideas a sort of narrative that we can track, a path we can follow and perhaps more easily identify with.

Turning the development of political convictions into narrative seems to be the underlying point of The Second Plane: September 11: Terror and Boredom (Knopf, $29.95), the new collection of previously published writing by Martin Amis addressing, through essay, fiction and book or film criticism, the new challenges of life after that fateful “day of de-Enlightenment.” Arranged in chronological order, the last entry written only last September, the pieces convey something of Amis’ wrestling with man’s capacity for darkness, violence, tedium and self-delusion, all themes that, were it not for 9/11, would otherwise signal just another day at the office for the author of London Fields, Time’s Arrow and Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. Okay, “wrestling” may be too fraught a term –Amis, as always, never sweats all that much under the heatlamp of heavy consideration– but he does in fact think out loud and articulately, resulting in a highly valuable read.

In ‘The Second Plane,’ written only a week after 9/11, Amis writes how for “thousands in the South Tower, the second plane meant the end of everything. For us, its glint was the worldflash of a coming future.” In ‘The Voice of the Lonely Crowd,’ written in June 2002, the future begins to form a network of links to the past that were perhaps not so easily discernable in 9/11’s immediate aftermath, and the links keep highlighting the role of religion. While Amis separates his stance from that of “humanist pit bulls” like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great) –Amis is a humbly confessed agnostic, rather than a tough-talking atheist– he begins to examine what he sees as the fundamental dangers of religion. And Amis being Amis, he’s not preoccupied with niceties.

“The twentieth century… has been called the age of ideology. And the age of ideology, clearly, was a mere hiatus in the age of religion, which shows little sign of expiry. Since it is no longer permissible to disparage any single faith or creed, let us start disparaging all of them. To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatever. Religious belief is without reason and without dignity, and its record is near-universally dreadful… if God existed, and if he cared for humankind, he would never have given us religion.”

In ‘Terror and Boredom: The Dependent Mind,’ written in September 2006, Amis makes some refined distinctions: between Muhammad, who “no serious person could fail to respect,” and Muhammad Atta; between Islam, “the donor of countless benefits to mankind,” and Islamism, “a creedal wave that calls for our own elimination.” To be sure, Amis seems less concerned with excusing religious moderates from his attack on extremists than with directing our attention to the ways in which religious rhetoric, along with the new boredom of life burdened with arbitrary security measures, injects all post-9/11 powers with tacit permission to stop thinking. To put it another way, whichever side you’re on, so long as God’s on it, you’re allowed to be a bloodthirsty idiot.

Amis has been taking a lot of flak for what some have deemed his hateful, anti-Islamic attitude, an accusation that, once you actually read his work, can be seen as just a form of media-based bullying, an attempt to mob Amis into a corner, one cohabited by a truckload of right-wingers that would no doubt make for some rather uncomfortable chit-chat. Amis is openly hostile to the Bush administration –another house of destructive religious piety– and only friendlier to Blair by comparison. He’s hardly on side with the invasion of Iraq –see ‘The Wrong War’– but he’s willing to put things in some perspective. He declares the invasion of Iraq was not “wholly dishonorable.

“This is a more complicated, and more familiar, kind of tragedy. The Iraq War represents a giant contract, not just for Halliburton, but also for the paving company called Good Intentions. A dramatic (and largely benign) expansion of American power seems to have been the general goal; a dramatic reduction of American power seems to be the general outcome. Iraq is a divagation of what is ominously being called The Long War. To our largely futile losses in blood, treasure, and moral prestige, we add the loss in time; and time, too, is blood.”

Amis may be going a little too far out of his way (benign?) to avoid being lumped with the camp of the ineffectual Left that welcomes all manner of conspiracy theorist pundits, but his perspective is far more nuanced than any voluble variation on “stuff happens.” Above all, Amis keeps his eye on a bottom line peopled with mass murderers, whose culpability can’t finally be diminished by arguments of how the US had it coming. Throughout The Second Plane, and perhaps most especially in the fiction pieces –one of which imagines the final days of Muhammad Atta, a story which functions nicely as a sort of companion piece to the alternating chapters in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man– Amis keeps coming back to the sheer banality of sexually repressed, fleetingly inspired evil, seeing nothing noble or righteous anywhere in its vicinity, only something sad, deadly and all too familiar.