Monday, November 30, 2009

Through a glass, enduringly: Three reflections on Tarkovsky's Mirror

A television documentary shows a young man being treated for a severe stutter. A woman perches upon a bowed fence, gazing upon a pastoral landscape. Nearby children are sleeping. A gust of wind brushes through the undulating foliage, causing everyone to pause, as though grasping at some elusive memory. Soon a house will catch fire. Later the woman will rush back to the printing press where she works, panicked that she may have made a disastrous typographical error—this is Stalinist Russia, and there are words that can ruin lives. Soon a father will tell a son about a red-haired girl he once loved. There will be newsreel footage, of the Spanish Civil War, of Soviet troops wading through the shallow, muddy waters of Lake Sivash, of clamoring Chinese holding up Mao's Little Red Book. There’ll be a second woman, physically resembling the first, but more guarded, modern and icily sexy than her twin, who’ll examine herself in mirrors while talking to a man who remains off-camera. There’ll be a snow-blanketed field where children play in an evenly scattered formation, as though staged by Brueghel. All of these scenes, separated by time, by their varied roots in personal memories or dreams, hearsay or history, flow into one another, linked only by the filmmaker’s carefully guided stream of consciousness and ever-drifting camera; by the immersive central performance by Margarita Terekhova, who resembles the young Meryl Streep, as the filmmaker’s mother and first wife; and by poems read by their author, who’s also filmmaker’s father, though this is never made explicit. Zerkalo, or The Mirror (1975), has typically been described as Andrei Tarkovsky’s most difficult film. So why is this the one that moves me most?

Solaris (72) and Stalker (79), The Mirror hovers between these science-fictions as something grounded in personal experience, in the realms of childhood and parenthood, war and terror. It is among the closest things we have to a poetic memoir from a major filmmaker. It floats in the confluence of the political and the personal while eschewing context. I’d suggest regarding The Mirror as an essay film as much as anything else, yet ultimately the film’s genre is stubbornly sui generis. Among its offerings is the opportunity to watch a film discover its own form as it unfolds. If you treasure this iconic maverick of Russian and later European cinema, you partly do so because of his relentless belief in the medium’s possibilities. Tarkovsky often looked to painting, music and literature for inspiration, yet rather than result in something merely mimetic or regressive, his absorption of other media rendered his films only more distinctive and progressive, more uniquely cinematic. Because The Mirror is so personal; because it’s as perplexing as it is hauntingly beautiful; because its structure requires such an act of surrender from viewers unconditioned to its rhythms and ambiguities, it speaks directly to each individual’s unique points of connection to what transpires on screen, whether it be the tensions lingering between divorced parents, the longing for some lost idyll or some now-aged or dead parent to take us by the hand, the blur of historical upheaval, or the sight of our home going up in flames.

Everything we need to comprehend about the film’s fundamental purpose is made plain in the title: this is a work of reflection. Appropriately, there are reflective surfaces everywhere, not to mention water, pouring down walls in the most dream-like moments. It’s also an interrogation of vanity and fears of aging. Like a hall of mirrors, it’s a labyrinth where truth, conjecture and fantasy, where reality—Tarkovsky’s actual parents, the archival footage—and re-enactment—the dacha which we return to again and again was meticulously reconstructed on the original site from photos of the actual dacha were Tarkovsky spent childhood summers—are often indistinguishable. To “decode”
The Mirror, to catalogue and understand the full significance of its many layers, requires repeat encounters and research into both Tarkovsky’s life and Soviet history. (Vida T. Johnson and Graham Petrie's Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue is an excellent place to start.) But to understand the emotional textures of The Mirror should only take a single, patient viewing, after which this ghostly parade of memories will likely remain unforgettable.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Stolen moments: Bicycle Thieves

By 1948 the war was already three years gone, yet Italy stills looks exhausted—back then, as today, the process of recovery could seem endless. Life went on, grudgingly, chaotically. So in some tattered, flaking, sun-beaten suburb, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) emerges from a mass of jobless men to accept employment pasting up posters of Rita Hayworth. Any work’s to be envied, regardless of how menial, and his peers are far from congratulatory, especially since they all know Antonio doesn’t possess the one item required for the gig: a bicycle. But Antonio rushes off to find his wife Maria (Lianella Carrell), who solves the problem easily enough. She sells their bedclothes. We can sleep without them, she says. The money the sheets gain from the pawnbroker is just enough to get Antonio’s old Fides out of hock.

Antonio’s new career however is short-lived. His Fides is stolen. We were waiting for this, of course, the pay-off on the title. But the pay-off isn’t complete until Antonio and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), a shoeshine boy, have scoured the city streets in search of the thief, and finally, out of pure desperation, Antonio himself becomes a thief. This is the most persuasive point of the movie, that we are
all potential bicycle thieves, subordinate to the vagaries of money, opportunity, and luck. Antonio’s story is famously simple: guy loses bike, guy tries to get bike back. Yet the story of Bicycle Thieves lies not just in Antonio’s actions but in the faces, gestures and voices of everyone he encounters, crowds of mostly ordinary, equally struggling people who collectively alternate between moments of solidarity and mercenary measures. The movie starts with Antonio emerging from a crowd and by its end he’ll vanish into the crowd once more. One of my favourite things about Bicycle Thieves is its ambiguity as to whether that crowd is meant to offer any consolation.

Vittorio De Sica directed several films that would become central to the movement known as Italian neo-realism,
Bicycle Thieves chief among them. It was shot mostly in real locations, mostly under natural light, with non-professional actors—though their performances are certainly theatrical, you might say very “Italian,” nonetheless. The movie spoke of banality, drudgery, fleeting pleasures, and simple tasks, yet there’s much diversion, and there’s tremendous visual poetry in Carlo Montuori’s fluid camerawork, the images of bikes and ladders flooding the streets, the busy market place, the chorus of street-sweepers, and in an especially memorable scene, men running to take shelter from a downpour while carrying gramophones. De Sica finds beauty in hard times. Some viewers grumble about the aestheticization of poverty, but I’m more concerned with the romanticization of naïveté. I hope I’ve made it clear, should it need repeating, that Bicycle Thieves is of monumental historical importance and is a pretty great movie. The resigned finale, with Maggiorani's speechlessness, is terribly moving. But it’s also a movie that strains a bit for my taste. It’s tough to make a fully fleshed-out story when the story’s trying so hard to make a point. It’s noble to speak for those who have no voice, but it’s precarious too.

It’s instructive to compare
Bicycle Thieves not only to, say, the work of Roberto Rossellini, that other great, far harsher Italian neo-realist most famous for Rome: Open City (1945), but also to other movies with similar themes and tactics. Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (50) depicted impoverished kids in Mexico City, but it eschewed the sentimental, embracing petty cruelties and perversion, imbuing characters with greater specificity and greater possibility. Charles Burnett has paid tribute to Bicycle Thieves as a formative influence, but Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (77) portrays the plight of Los Angeles’ downtrodden with far more idiosyncrasy, humour, and personal vision. The Dardenne Brothers, in movies like L’Enfant (05), revitalized neo-realism’s task-oriented narrative structures through a distinctly dogged, rivetingly relentless mise en scene. Most recently, Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (08) used the premise of a girl search for a lost dog—a premise superficially similar to De Sica’s Umberto D. (52)—to comment on the status of the non-upwardly mobile or economically disadvantaged in contemporary America. While actually watching Wendy and Lucy I was completely immersed in Wendy’s personal, immediate story—its commentary on the larger social issues started to sink in only later on. By contrast, while watching Bicycle Thieves, for all of its marvels, I could rarely forget that the movie was building a thesis.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Technical difficulties

We’ve gained almost exactly two decades hindsight on the École Polytechnique Massacre, on that wintry afternoon when 25-year-old Marc Lépine, armed with a knife and a semiautomatic rifle, killed 14 women and injured ten women and four men before turning the gun on himself. As attested to in statements to victims and his suicide note, Lépine was motivated by a contempt for feminism, something he seemed to possess only the vaguest notion of but which he claimed ruined his life. The abysmal stupidity of these sorts of hate crimes constitutes an enormous part of their enduring horror, so the question as to what any society can do to come to terms with events like those of December 6, 1989 remains difficult to answer. What works of art can contribute to the discussion, especially those designed to convey narrative, is equally elusive. If there’s a story in the École Polytechnique Massacre, the central character would seem to have to be Lépine, prompting further questions about what, if anything, can we learn from him.

Quebec director Denis Villeneuve’s
Polytechnique attempts to counter this apparent inevitability by de-centralizing its narrative, dividing focus between the nameless assassin and some of those who would survive his attack. The obvious model for this circular structure is Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which dramatized the 1999 Columbine Massacre. Yet where Elephant’s formalism lent Van Sant sufficient distance to allow minimal editorializing, to encourage something closer to mediation on the event and avoid facile conclusions, Polytechnique has a difficult time steering clear of artificial parallels and generic constraints. In some senses this is, strictly speaking, a slasher movie, as well as a tale of unrequited love soaked in dramatic irony. It feels at times like a misguided version of the “God’s Lonely Man” movie, à la Taxi Driver, Werner Herzog's Woyzeck or more recently The Assassination of Richard Nixon. The slow push-ins on the face of the killer or on a print of Picasso’s Guernica are ominous without really feeling imbued with purpose or precision. The killer’s narration feels suspiciously like a filmmaker’s apologia, a way of assuring us he knows his Lépine stand-in is an idiot and an asshole. Unlike my experience of watching Elephant, I found myself wondering if Polytechnique wasn’t succumbing to form for form’s sake.

None of this is meant to dismiss the film’s value outright, particularly if we consider the difficulty of approaching such a fraught subject.
Polytechnique’s compassion for the victims can be found in several smaller details, such the way a female student, conflicted about using her sexuality to secure an internship, wobbles as she walks in high heels. (Something in this subplot echoes 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days more strongly than anything in Elephant.) But it’s interesting to compare the ambitious Polytechnique to the relatively modest 1952 film The Sniper—newly released on DVD and reviewed on this blog just two days ago—a fictional thriller whose social message is secondary to its noir ambiance. The Sniper invokes compassion for both victims and killer by simply telling its story as cleanly and efficiently as possible. Of course, we watch The Sniper with very different eyes than we watch Polytechnique—the former film’s potential resonance is essentially left up to us to discover, while we can’t help but search the latter for some fragment of insight to cling to and justify its existence.

PS: Polytechnique was filmed in both French and English, ostensibly as a method of gaining a wider audience. While far from unprecedented, this approach seems especially ill-advised when dealing with a recent event as tender as the Montreal Massacre. On one hand it feels goofy to hear people speaking English in a context where the audience knows the characters are Francophone. It's difficult too, to ignore the political connotations, however beside the point, ie: these women had their lives taken, and now their language is taken as well. Like I said, you could argue it's kind of beside the point, but if you think such matters aren't attended to in Canada, you probably have never set foot in the province of Quebec.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What remains: The Road

The images that open
The Road feature a leaf-lined branch warmed by the sun. Somewhere nearby stands a beautiful mother-to-be. Observing her is a handsome man stroking a horse. These fragments of a becalmed pastoral paradise are fleeting, vanishing as that same man wakes from his memory-laden dream. A handful of years have passed, perhaps seven, judging from the age of the boy who accompanies him, but the man appears to have aged decades, his face lined with grime-streaked gutters, his teeth half-rotted. Still, his transformation is nothing compared to that of the world he inhabits. The topography resembles a five-day beard on a wretched old man. Fires line the horizon, the sky’s an endless gloaming, and the colour green has forsaken us. Food is scarce, earthquakes are frequent, and what’s left of mankind has largely been reduced to foraging ghouls. At least there are still books. The man reads one to the boy. It catalogues animals, each of which is now presumed extinct.

The man (Viggo Mortensen) and boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) are making their way south, on foot, in beat-to-shit puffy coats, with dwindling supplies and a revolver with two bullets left, just enough to ensure double-suicide should some horrendous murder suddenly become a certainty. Those aching memories of fecund nature and familial blossoming are the last vestiges of warmth and beauty available to them, though the dying landscapes they pass through possess an undeniable fascination, at least for those of us just visiting for a couple of hours. The most commonplace items become miraculous here: shampoo, Coke, toothpaste, a can of pears. Their magic is intensified by the boy’s first-ever discovery of their comforts—he was born into this. The preservation of his innocence is all the man lives for, his answer to the question of why go on. His wife opted for suicide, along with most people with sense or dignity.

The book is from Cormac McCarthy, author of
All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian and No Country For Old Men. Like No Country, The Road is a kind of western, the man with no name charged with chaperoning the boy through lawless terrain, their destination being the Gulf Coast and its vague promise of less hostile conditions for homesteading. Like the Coen Brothers’ film of No Country, The Road, scripted by Joe Penhall, is an unusually faithful literary adaptation, and director John Hillcoat, who last helmed The Proposition, easily one of the best westerns of the decade, offers a realization of McCarthy’s post-apocalypse that’s richly detailed, surprisingly suspenseful, and hauntingly vivid. A notable difference between the films of No Country and The Road however is that where the Coens nurtured atmosphere with an uncharacteristic paucity of scoring and voice-over, Hillcoat’s enlisted his old friends Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to supply the scoring, which is gorgeously mournful, so evocative as to be a sort of adaptation in itself. The problem being that there’s so much of it. Along with Mortensen’s weary voice-over—the pairing of disembodied voice and music recalls the films of Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line in particular—the hypnotic score lulls us during scenes where we should ideally be alert to the tiniest, most nuanced sound, gesture, and image. It’s hardly the worst problem for a movie to have—an abundance of something beautiful and well crafted—but it does finally swath everything in a single tone, unintentionally protecting us from some harrowing moments.

Yet his central reservation of mine felt less important upon my second viewing of
The Road, which allowed me to better forget the source material and focus more on the tremendous emotional connection between the brilliantly-cast Mortensen and the very natural, wide-eyed Smit-McPhee. During the second half I realized how, beneath the unfathomably bleak milieu, The Road is finally a story about father and son, about what a parent lives for and what a child tries to retain as he carries on alone. The accumulation of moments of desperate searching and running, of laughter and play—rare, but memorable—and of mutual learning about how to negotiate with the unruly world becomes resonant, and unforgettably moving. So see The Road, and then, perhaps, see it again. There’s something precious amidst all that darkness.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Killers, coffee, last dying words: Columbia Pictures Film Noir on DVD

Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics, Volume One collects five fascinating studies—four of them previously unavailable, each on its own separate disc—in how this thing we call noir developed throughout the 1950s, when the style/genre/sensibility was first named and catalogued. It was also the decade that saw the end of the classic noir cycle, partially as an inevitable effect of its newfound self-consciousness.

The Sniper (1952) opens with Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz) carefully assembling his rifle and taking aim from his bedroom window at a woman as she climbs the stairs across the lane. No rounds are fired. For now, Eddie’s still satisfied with rehearsal. But how long before Eddie snaps, before he needs to release his charge, before some poor singer had to die, her stricken body shattering the glass that encased the poster announcing her gig? Eddie’s a walking time bomb, and the chilling thing about this picture, among the first to attempt a serious portrayal of a serial killer, is that Eddie’s the protagonist.

Women really piss this guy off. Everywhere he goes they torment him with their mere presence, even little girls. It’s painful to watch Eddie attempt to chat up pretty ladies in bars or in their homes when he delivers their laundry. He’s upset when a strange woman doesn’t believe that he’s an engineer and that he built a bridge between two Hawaiian islands. He’s tormented and lonesome, yet, in one of the film’s little masterstrokes of social critique—this was an early Stanley Kramer production—the ostensibly normal men and women who might offer consolation consistently express this casual misogyny that only confirms the acceptability of Eddie’s vilest compulsions.

Edward Dmytryk directs with ingenious economy throughout, a superb example of his approach being that scene where a hot burner illuminates the ceiling and is overshadowed by Eddie’s hand as he presses his palm against the burning coil—a pretty awkward cry for help. Yet
The Sniper’s most memorable imagery comes from Dmytryk’s dramatic use of San Francisco—unnamed yet unmistakable—whose vertical, maze-like topography feels eerily aligned to Eddie’s agitated psyche. The disc features a commentary from the “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller (not Miller), a life-long Franciscano and a fountain of knowledge pertaining to both the film and its location.

Glenn Ford plays a rogue cop trying to annul a marriage between city officials and organized crime in
The Big Heat (53). He has the moral high ground, his single-mindedness is transfixing, yet what of the fact that his crusade results in the torture and killing of three innocent women? It’s a revenge film, but not an unreflexive one. Women are collateral damage, but they’re also the most compelling, most richly detailed, smartest characters in the movie, especially Gloria Grahame, unnervingly sexy and sassy, and finally scarred by lanky Lee Marvin as a marvelously oafish gangster with a child’s feeling for stupid sadism. Grahame gets him back in the end, and I always wonder if he could smell the coffee boiling before she threw it in his face. Fritz Lang orchestrates scenes with restrained menace, the camera hanging back and then pouncing like a cat.

5 Against the House (55) finds college boys planning a prank heist in Reno with Kim Novak, here a lounge singer. This “field experiment in psychology” is strictly caper material, with lots of smart alecky gags, some nifty casino insider bits, Novak as luscious eye candy, and one weird-ass robot valet service that deserves its own documentary. Smartly directed by Phil Karlson, it’s consistently entertaining, if somewhat out of place in this collection. The sole noir element comes from Brian Keith’s Korean vet, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, ready to explode, his eyes bulging and body shaking, the hidden, writhing violence lurking beneath this film’s relatively placid surface.

A ship’s porter tosses some luggage into a cab, the cab zooms away, the cops follow, the cabbie’s shot, the car crashes. A cop’s killed in the chaos. No one understands what just happened. That’s the first 60 seconds of
The Lineup (58), a San Francisco procedural based on a Dragnet-like TV show. It’s prime Don Siegel: clean, taut, lucid, and bracing. Siegel exemplifies the evaporation of the romantic fatalism of 1940s noir and the emergence of something more visceral and nasty. Less than a third of the way through the bad guys arrive from Florida to collect a shipment of heroin and completely take control of the picture. Eli Wallach plays a killer named Dancer, offing a guy in a bathhouse during a sequence baldly driven by latent homoeroticism. Bodies fall from great heights, limbs a-flopping, one of them onto a skating rink—the old Sutro Baths complex is brilliantly used. Robert Keith plays the dapper chief heavy, rather humorously trying to refine Wallach, and revealing himself to be a collector of people’s last dying words, which strikes me as a pretty apt metaphor for noir in all its emotionality, enigma and morbid fascination.

The Lineup also features a commentary track with Eddie Miller, but Miller spends most of his time fending off James Ellroy, who repeatedly goes rabid and indulges some of his most incoherent, far-right, pro-police brutality pet topics. Ellroy has been a welcome contributor to commentary tracks on the Zodiac (07) special edition and the recent Crime Wave (54) DVD, but here he proves far less illuminating and far too easily distracted.

Murder By Contract (58) already neo-noir? It certainly exudes a sly knowingness about noir convention and, being the story of a guy who becomes a hitman so he can buy himself a nice house on the Ohio River, it lends itself to being read as consumerist satire. It is in any case a low-budget wonder, brimming with brilliantly quirky characterizations and scenes in which killer Claude (Vince Edwards) kills time playing mini-golf, deep sea fishing, and going to the fucking zoo when he’s supposed to be killing a woman set to testify in a high profile trial. When he’s informed that his target is female he recoils, not because he’s squeamish about having to murder a woman but because he should have charged double—women, he claims, make undependable marks. At one point Claude embarks on a nihilist rant when a waiter brings him a coffee cup with a lipstick stain. But he’s most of the time Zen-like, obsessed with efficiency, and doesn’t like guns—he’s the evil version of a Jim Jarmusch protagonist.

Elegantly photographed with the barest of resources by Lucien Ballard, who’d later collaborate with Sam Peckinpah, smoothly directed by Irving Lerner, and enveloped in a quiet, insistent, all-guitar score by Perry Botkin Jr.,
Murder By Contract is deeply creepy, darkly funny, and totally engrossing, perhaps the premiere discovery from what’s looking like the best multi-title DVD release of the year.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Manic repression: Sentimental Exorcisms

There are forms of oppression so subtle, draconian, and fully incorporated into our shared way of living as to press their hoary bulk upon us only in guises of kindness, invitation, and concern. The stifling embrace of altruism. Trevor Spate offers a curious case study. He’s a market analyst having some sex problems at home, which is to say he’s having a tough time working up the energy to perform the sex act with his wife Gillian. Gillian wants a baby, which, requiring sex, only increases the pressure. Trevor takes to visiting a peeler bar to get him in the mood, but his gallant efforts to defend the dignity of an ungrateful waitress—who not coincidentally resembles Gillian, at least from a certain distance—yield nothing but troubles. He’s forced to take a leave of absence, coerced into going into analysis as part of his legal defense, urged to visit his sister and brother-in-law and their wriggling new child in Tofino, of all places. Next thing you know he’s trapped with a self-described reformed rapist with a ponytail who co-opts Neil Young to justify his own neuroses and plies Trevor with experimental drugs that ostensibly produce only “positive emotions” and the most tender-loving desires. Trevor has fallen victim to the “tyranny of sympathy.”

Trevor’s one of several such protagonists inhabiting
Sentimental Exorcisms (Coach House Books, $18.95), Toronto author David Derry’s eloquently titled debut, a collection of blackly comic stories in which the Victorian era lives on in the collective unconscious of the white Canadian middleclass male. Stories in which no man is allowed to tend the garden of their own repressed impulses in peace. Stories of men with thorny mom and dad issues, neighbour issues, spouse issues, workplace issues, poo issues. In some cases organized transgression becomes a form of self-medication, but unforgiving society seems unable to appreciate such valiant efforts to take matters into one’s own hands. In Derry’s taut, arrestingly witty opening tale “one of the University of Toronto’s top English undergrads,” employing perfectly sound solipsistic logic, arrives at the conclusion that the only way to fully realize his inherent and sturdy normalcy is to extinguish his compulsion to peep through peeping. “Attainment is annihilation,” he explains. He buys a ladder and a painting suit. He limits his technically criminal therapy to two nights a week. If only he could just manage to see a woman sodomized then surely he would revert to the pristinely well-adjusted individual he and his looming parents know him to be. (In a sly bit of detail, Derry has his protagonist alternately studying The Portrait of Dorian Gray and ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ both being works not only involving sexual repression, but more importantly, looking.)

David Derry, photo by Shannon Bramer

The risk with this sort of material is that the author inevitably condescends to his characters, smugly stacking their often-tormented psyches with so much fodder for gags cheap or otherwise. Derry largely avoids this through writing in the first-person and stressing identification through sheer desperation and what would appear to be a large number of characteristics shared by both the author and his creations. Only a short piece that takes the amusing form of a letter addressed to real-life author Austin Clarke—written by a lawyer convinced that two of Clarke’s stories were based on true events in which the lawyer himself played an instrumental role—seems to stumble through an awkward balance of exposition and the narrator’s somewhat tiring, pedantic tone. Yet the most sympathetic protagonist in Sentimental Exorcisms turns out to inhabit Derry’s only tale written in the third-person. The eponymous hero of ‘The Eventual Eponymization of Tim Pine’ is a Polish-Canadian stamp collector whose washroom experiences epitomize that horror of the log that won’t drown so often described by Slavoj Zizek. I mean it as no small compliment when I say that Derry really knows how to write shit. In the story of Tim Pine Derry transforms an innocent bowel movement into a form of disaster fiction. Here’s a sample:

The aforementioned swirls suggested heavy use, but the water had been clear, and he’s noticed nothing unusual in his advance flush. This time the contents gurgled and started to rise. Back up against the door, he fumbled the lock open, eye on the bowl, and twisted out of the stall with his belt still undone, as the soiled, matted surface paused at the rim before overflowing, just a trickle.

Coach House’s lovely packaging of
Sentimental Exorcisms features reproductions of paintings by Greg Denton excerpted from a series entitled Out of Date: 365 Self Portraits. Denton himself joins Austin Clarke by playing an actual role in one of Derry’s stories. In ‘Greg Denton Dons Golden Threads in Anticipation’ a 42-year-old stockbroker unexpectedly becomes one of several subjects—all of them named Greg Denton—to be painted by Denton. The irony that drives the story emerges from the protagonist feeling singled-out and redeemed by an invitation received explicitly for no other reason than his bearing an apparently very common name. Yet, come to think of it, our titular Greg Denton does prove himself a unique individual as the story reaches its conclusion by clothing himself in what reads as one flamboyantly ugly motherfucking suit.

Well, there may be a lot of Greg Dentons in the world, but there was surely only one Raymond Carver. Or was there? Controversy still lingers around the degree of authorship shared between the late Carver and his devoted editor Gordon Lish, crediting with having excised massive chunks of Carver’s most beloved stories and even changing endings, titles and names of characters. My friend Salvador insists that Lish was responsible for what he refers to as “the Carver twist.” (Salvador always places finger and thumb in close proximity and then flips his hand over whenever he says "twist.") I’m not so sure. But it does make you wonder about how many people can claim some part of the person we all know as Raymond Carver. Also, according to Wikipedia there’s also a famous darts player with the same name.

In any case, the Library of America has recently published
Raymond Carver: Collected Stories ($50), which offers the whole canon between two covers. These stories remain some of the most influential and enduring in modern American letters, and the nicely packaged collection should make a superb Xmas gift for completists.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Vulgarian, historian, voyeur, exhibitionist: the one and only James Ellroy

He mounts the stage to applause lustier than what greets most sexagenarian novelists, but still he demands more, waiting silently for the claps and cheers to whither before gesturing with feigned impatience to keep it coming. We comply, and he soaks up our squeezed adulation with Mussoliniesque stoicism. James Ellroy has arrived. He’s in Toronto to promote
Blood’s a Rover. His opening speech rallies against “the internet invasion,” invokes Elliot, Sexton, and Houseman—supplier of his new novel’s title—before paying tribute to Knopf, his publisher, rendered in this bat-shit reverie as a prophet dog who came to Ellroy moments after his birth—his parents had slipped out for a drink—and deigns Ellroy the savior of literature, author of a string of future masterpieces, decrying that in the year 2009 he’ll publish a book that will single-handedly reverse the downturn in the global economy. Ellroy then promises an afterlife of divine promiscuity to everyone in he audience who purchases ten copies. He’s quite insistent that we each buy ten copies. As though storing up for the Apocalypse.

Blood’s a Rover’s the final installment of Ellroy’s ‘Underworld USA’ trilogy. It picks up where The Cold Six Thousand left off, covering 1968 through 1972. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King are dead. Black militancy is on the rise. Organized crime’s setting up house in the Dominican Republic. “I wanted to tell the story of the unsung leg-breakers of history,” says Ellroy. “Bad men in love with strong women.” The bad men include Dwight Holly, muscle for J. Edgar Hoover, Wayne Tedrow, ex-cop and drug-runner, and Donald Crutchfield, a kid with a penchant for peeping who becomes swept up in a tsunami of lethal clandestine activity. Prominent among the women is Joan Rosen Klein, an enigmatic, sexually ambivalent, leftist shadow figure. There’s also a gay, black undercover LAPD cop who easily constitutes one of Ellroy’s most intriguing and sympathetic creations. The novel runs over 600 pages. It’s dogged and ambitious, a labyrinth of conspiracy and conjecture through which Crutchfield functions as our sole convoy. It is at times almost comically grotesque—the cameos from Hoover and Howard Hughes especially—yet it also features some of the most emotionally textured interactions Ellroy’s ever penned.

Ellroy’s most famous for his ‘L.A. Quartet,’ which includes the novels
The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential, though I’d argue his real masterwork is his 1996 memoir My Dark Places, in which Ellroy traces the investigation into his mother’s unsolved 1958 murder with chilling clinical detachment, describes his own desperately lonesome youth of window-peeping, drug addiction, Oedipal fixation and homelessness, and chronicles the re-opening of his mother’s case in partnership with Detective Bill Stoner, whose portrait is crafted with such elegance and compassion as to anticipate the most compelling of Ellroy’s later protagonists. My Dark Places is so astonishingly frank, its author’s public persona so shameless in every sense of the word, that Ellroy would seem every interviewer’s dream subject—you can ask this guy anything. But Ellroy’s also the emphatic architect of his own image. Descended from a long line of Scottish preachers, empowered by his considerable height, he holds court more easily than he converses. He's a practiced showman. He is also however a perfect gentleman, inquisitive, playful, observant, hilarious, and endearingly unabashed about his neediness. I truly enjoyed his company. I met him at Random House’s Toronto offices the morning after his triumphant Harbourfront Centre reading in early October.

JB: With
Blood’s a Rover your fiction begins creeping into a period that you actually lived through as an adult. Does having personal memories of history change how you write about it?

James Ellroy: I was ten when this trilogy begins, 24 when it ends. So it’s my youthful cognizance. But frankly I was bombed. I was very self-absorbed. I recall history bopping around on the margins of my consciousness, but I didn’t care particularly.

JB: You expressed antipathy toward Martin Luther King when you were young.

JE: I was a dipshit kid. Now I revere Martin Luther King. He is in every way the moral voice of the trilogy. You live, you learn.

JB: You’ve endowed the character of Donald Crutchfield with an awful lot of the young James Ellroy—he lost his mother at ten, takes Dexedrine, does B&Es. Would you say this overlapping of characteristics your method of entry into the story?

JE: Crutchfield’s a real man. He’s a security consultant. He was a wheelman back in the ’50s and ’60s. He’s ten years younger in the book than he is in real life. We share certain passions. We interested in crime. We both love boxing, particularly the lower-weight, Latin fighters. He told me about the wheelman world and I thought this was something I couldn’t have invented. So I cut him in for some proceeds of the book and he gave me access to history I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

JB: But, for example, him mom being from Wisconsin, like yours?

JE: That’s all made-up.

JB: So was it important for you to give him some of your own history, neuroses and experiences?

JE: I was out to attack the iconography of my own life in a way that I’d never done before in fiction. He’s very much me. He’s a genius. He’s indefatigable. I did not go to the Dominican Republic and eat herbs and kill people. Or invade Cuba. Or disrupt the Democratic Convention in Chicago. I didn’t do those things. Did Crutch? Ask him. I think he’d probably avoid the question. He was a way in, and I began to see the viability of the construction early on because I’ve never written a dipshit kid. He’s impressionable. He’s malleable. I never say it in the book, but he’s never been

JB: Crutch’s also a voyeur, as you once were. Voyeurism permeates the book. I think the dominant characteristic that you nurture in your depiction of J. Edgar Hoover’s also a deeply entrenched voyeurism.

JE: Hoover was a celibate homosexual. I swear to you I don’t think he ever had sex with man, woman, or beast. Or centipede. The idea that he would show up at the Waldorf Astoria in drag is preposterous. He was much too repressed. Much too circumspect. He liked to bullshit with big, rugged, good-looking men. But the idea of being a identified as homosexual would have been repugnant to them.

JB: To get back to voyeurism, do you find that by channeling this aspect of your persona into varied points in your story it enables you to rocket forward into a new kind of writing? Because in many ways
Blood’s a Rover is departure from your earlier work.

JE: It
is a departure, and I’m glad you mention it. It’s about the women. About women with children. It’s about the lost boy finding his way to some women who disperse and cut him loose in the end. The women are smarter than the men, stronger-willed, undeterred.

JB: So maybe what you’re doing is surpassing voyeurism. These female characters are more sculpted than you’d expect when the author’s viewpoint is that of an outsider looking in. Last night you spoke about how part of what accounts for the eight-year gap between
The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s a Rover has to do with recent tumult in your personal life, and the role that women played in your recovery.

JE: I had a crack-up. You think I’m skinny now. I was 20 pounds lighter. I couldn’t sleep. I’d been working way too hard for too many years. I’d neglected my marriage. I went on a book tour for five months. I went to five European countries and 32 cities in the US and Canada. I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep, and I’m just going full-boar, performing every night. I was losing it
baaad. I was out to dinner with a colleague in Chicago, and I went to the bathroom and I forgot where I was. I thought I was in Toronto. I passed out in the Pfister Hotel the next day in Milwaukee. Meanwhile my marriage tanked, and damned if there wasn’t a woman named Joan, and damned if there wasn’t a woman named Cathy, who I changed to Karen in the book. I dug as deep as I could into my own life. Helen Knode, my ex-wife and best friend, said Cold Six Thousand was too rigorous in its presentation of a very complex text. Go back to your art. So this is a much more heartfelt book than the two that preceded it.

JB: There’s a tenderness that recalls moments in your early novels, but it seems conveyed with more conviction, complexity and vulnerability here.

JE: I’ve learned a lot about myself, and put everything I could into this.

JB: Was it important to inject a theme of racial reconciliation into
Blood’s a Rover?

JE: I recall the times, and I recall a tenuous coming together of whites and blacks because it was cool.

JB: But you’ve got some of the unlikeliest guys imaginable making peace with the black community, with black women in particular. It’s interesting to arrive at a point in your body of work where racial animosity isn’t just a given, something casually accepted.

JE: You’re very deft. PC people want racist to be a defining characteristic, rather than a casual attribute. You’re supposed to like these guys despite their vile sentiments and vile expressions. Dwight Holly’s obsessed with racial invective because he feels guilt over killing Martin Luther King, because he’s a Klansman’s son and he knows it’s wrong. But all these guys need women to show them the way.

JB: Do you think you might be able to attract more female readers with this book?

JE: I don’t know about developing a significant female readership at this point in my career. It’s a very male vision. It’s an American vision. It’s a Protestant, heterosexual vision. Don’t look for me on
Oprah. Don’t expect me to be invited to the Obama White House.

JB: Would you like to be invited to the Obama White House?

JE: I’d like to look around. I'd like to ask Obama if being President of the United States the biggest fucking blast on Earth. George W. Bush would laugh like hell. Bush’s dad would laugh like hell. Ronald Regan would love it. Clinton would be beside himself. I think Obama’s a stiff. I don’t think he’d get it. He’s tremendously self-important and he’s humourless. He has an infectious smile. I watch the media so little, so I only get snippets of him.

JB: You’ve often said you don’t read anymore, don’t really keep up with the cultural current, but I know you’ve at least read Don DeLillo. You’ve read

JE: 20 years ago, yes.

JB: I think it’s interesting that both you and DeLillo have created bodies of work around an idea of Americaness, not really pinpointing it, but circling it continually. When you read
Libra, or any other DeLillo, did you feel a certain kinship?

Libra knocked me on my ass. Flat on my ass. I’d never read DeLillo before. He’s very self-conscious. He’s more than a little self-important. He’s much, much more intelligent than me, much more learned. I may be a better writer moment-to-moment because I’m not that self-absorbed. And I am a vulgarian at my core. But that he gave us this portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald as this overachieving, grandiloquent American snoop before me gores my goat. That thesis of his, that the JFK assassination is the world’s most over-glamourized business dispute killing, that Jack mandated his own death by fucking with Castro, unleashing a tidal wave of forces, all of whom were professional killers—organized crime, crazy Cuban exiles, renegade CIA guys—who couldn’t get Castro, who had to kill somebody and it had to be him: it’s astonishingly deft and complex. The best explanation I’ve ever heard. I had a slight correspondence with Mr. DeLillo. We met by accident at an Amsterdam book fair and had breakfast. He’s a difficult man. He’s reserved. He’s very intellectual. He’s almost impenetrable. Yet I’m fond of him.

JB: I was also thinking about the way you evoke these mountains of files in
Blood’s a Rover. This also echoes Libra, obsession embodied in paper and ink.

JE: It’s an epistolary novel. The characters are all file hoarders. That’s how you solve crimes: you read files. A shit detective will read a file ten times, a great detective 50. He’ll find something nobody ever found. There’s no postmodernism here. This is not a comment on me. This is just the way it was done then. An interviewer said this is a comment on the death of the analogue age. Beats me, I’m computer illiterate. I will do anything to simplify my life in order to think more efficaciously and live in bygone periods.

JB: I was surprised to learn you don’t do much first-hand research.

JE: I trust myself to extrapolate fictionally. I hire researchers to compile fact sheets and chronologies so I won’t write myself into error. I had a ten-second girlfriend in France the better part of two years ago. She was Spanish-fluent, and we were going to go to the Dominican Republic together. But what is the DR? Shitsville-fucking-USA. What, I want to go to some third-world slum? So I sent a friend of mine who’s an inveterate traveler. She came back with some slides, maps, history. She sat me down with her foldout computer. I looked at it for 45 minutes and said that’s enough. I got it. It’s fiction—you extrapolate. I knew about Joaquín Balaguer. I knew he was this tall.

JB: I was also surprised to learn that you’re a man of faith. Did this spring from your addiction recovery experiences in the ’70s?

JE: I’ve always been a man of faith. I had a Christian upbringing. People are astonished at this. It’s a happy way to live. I’m not a Creationist. I believe in evolution, as do most Christians. Like most Christians I don’t bomb abortion clinics, don’t beat up homosexuals, don’t lynch black people. If you look at my books there is always, however tenuously, a note of redemption struck at the end. Even if it’s a cliffhanger. The books are profoundly moralistic.

JB: I’m fascinated that you spend so much time in the very dark, frequently grotesque world of your books and still maintain faith in some cosmic order.

JE: I believe in love. I believe in the conjunction of men and women. I am as fuck-struck and sex-crazed as I was when I was 20. I just met an extraordinary woman who I think will be the love of my life and it’s an amazing experience. I blundered around a lot. I’m very fit at 61, and I’m back where I was at 14—obsessed with classical music and women. I don’t think about much else.

JB: What do you think about when you lie awake at night? Or have you beat the insomnia?

JE: I’ve gotten over my fear of death. I’ve largely gotten over panic attacks. Faith helps. It’s just suppressed emotions, repressed sexuality. It’s all that crazy shit that accumulates in your body. Although I’m not a freak, I have chased women compulsively for many years. But I always had the crazy idea that I’ll meet a woman one day and that’ll be it. And damned if it didn’t happen. Just when I thought it’s my karma to lie around in the dark waiting for women to call and then go out like a pitbull and attack the female race, it happened.

JB: When
My Dark Places came out you were often quoted as saying that you don’t believe in closure. Has that changed?

JE: No. I think life is open-ended. I think the cosmos is open-ended. Of course, I could be wrong. We’ll see.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

2012: Not with a bang but a protracted groan

The planets will align, the sun will burp fire, the earth’s surface will start to slide all over, and it’s all happening faster than expected—unless of course, you use the Mayan calendar, read New Age books, or
watch this ridiculous movie. It’s two-and-a-half hours of earthquake, flood, fire, and fun for the whole family. The apocalypse becomes a theme park ride, yet again, in the hands of Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow director Roland Emmerich, never one to do anything as rash as stray from the flabbiest of formulas. There are idealistic heroes and grotesque villains, family reunions, teary goodbyes, countless near-misses, blatantly sexist divisions of labour, reams of dopey but relentlessly portentous dialogue, and rampant death and destruction. There’s also a Paris Hilton impersonator, replete with valiant chihuahua. Amanda Peet holds hands with a Tibetan lady. Woody Harrelson plays himself. They don’t call them disaster movies for nothing.

John Cusack plays a novelist and chauffer who wrote a book about Atlantis dismissed by critics for its “naïve optimism”—his words—but beloved by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mercilessly micromanaging humanitarian geologist and advisor to US President Danny Glover—among the prophesies espoused in 2012, apparently a full term in office is really going to add some years to Barack Obama. Cusack stumbles onto Harrelson’s paranoid—but 100% correct!—apocalypse watcher and gets from him the map to the mountainous Chinese hiding place of the secret super-arks being developed by a committee of global politicians. Cusack packs up ex-wife Peet, the two kids, and the ex-wife’s new boyfriend, who thankfully knows how to fly a plane, and runs for it. They make it to China with the help of some unsavoury Russians, but will they get on the ark?

There’s lots going on in 2012, though little of it amounts to anything besides constant regurgitations of the same stale sub-Spielbergian sentimental schlock and suspense scenarios spruced up with the latest CGI scenery. What’s most annoying is that Emmerich and co-scenarist Harald Kloser don’t even make use of the more interesting items they themselves conspicuously plant in the story, such as all those wild animals being hustled into the ark, ready to make lunch of some hysterical humans, or the fact that Cusack’s seven-year-old still wets herself and has to wear diapers. A filmmaker willing to fess up to his own lust for visions of Armageddon would surely have made something more genuinely spectacular and provocative with all this—my vote would be for Paul Verhoven—but Emmerich, ever the conservative, doesn’t go all the way with anything, not the familial reconciliation story nor the gallows humour nor the horror nor the millenarian pseudo-science. You would think that a movie about the collapse of civilization might, you know, have something to say about civilization, and you'd be wrong. Not the end of world, of course, just an astonishing lack of imagination.

But you want to know what really pisses me off about 2012? All through the film everyone keeps talking about how the Mayans warned us. But take a look at the faces of those who make it onto the ark at the end—not one fucking Mayan! So much for NAFTA.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Extracurricular studies: An Education

Their meet-cute is irresistible: there’s Jenny, after school, still in uniform, stuck in the rain with her cello, and here comes David, the older, eloquent stranger in his smart little car, offering to provide shelter not for her but for the beloved instrument, which as an unabashed aesthete he can’t bear to see in peril. So the cello gets the back seat while Jenny, for decorum’s sake—she’s only 16—walks alongside as David drives, slowly, gently questioning her, completing the first part of his seduction. A few scenes later Jenny’s in the passenger seat, and the way she looks at David, her vulnerability nearly palpable, her awe eroticized, all we can think is, man, has he ever done a number on her. That moment carries within it an awful lot of what’s initially wonderful and finally disappointing about
An Education. Like David, the film’s deft with persuasion but falls short in the way of follow-through.

Helmed by Danish director Lone Scherfig and adapted by novelist Nick Hornby from Lynn Barber’s memoir, An Education is a coming-of-age tale set in 1961, with London not yet swinging and Paris still holding its position as the world capital of romantic-would-be-sophisticate teenage fantasy. The film’s beguiling enough to leave you uncertain as to how much power comes from Scherfig-Hornby-Babrber’s collective sensitivity to the heights of one’s first brush with adult thrills and how much comes from the immersive quality of Carey Mulligan’s startling central performance. The actress, now in her mid-20s, is a few significant years away from the heady experiences that Jenny—innocent, yes, but smart as a whip—gets her first taste of, but she registers her enrapture as through it’s all still fresh and undigested. She’s radiant and awkward, a child discovering elegance and sex, fixating while just holding a cigarette, listening to Ravel, or sitting motionless, one hand poised on the dining table while her parents argue in the adjoining room.

As David, Peter Sarsgaard, too, is inspired casting, sleepy eyes, smooth talk, an expert listener, and a pretty blatant grifter to anyone with a decent radar—something Jenny’s parents, played by Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour, rather implausibly lack. For as long as we sense only the vague threat of David without knowing quite what he’s up to, the film’s delicate and engrossing. A rake he may be, but David’s endowed with remarkable texture and charisma, so that we never feel that Jenny’s malleability is purely a matter of youth, or of movie convention. The problem starts when Peter exits the picture and turns into a bogeyman. The last round of scenes in which we discover the full extent of David’s deceptions are almost laughable in how they compress exposition into flat melodrama, rushing to resolve Jenny’s crisis, which suddenly boils down to a battle between David and Jenny’s English teacher, who's fighting on the side of feminine independence, social legitimacy, and what Jenny cruelly dismisses as the dread life of an old maid. Jenny’s young and bright and has everything ahead of her, so she recovers from David’s whirlwind fairly quickly, but the movie never quite manages the same feat. I guess buy the ending, I just don’t buy its ostensible consolation.