Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Everything merges with the night: New Directions renews Borges with Everything and Nothing

Among the most memorable moments in Jorge Luis Borges’ 1939 melancholy story ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ is the comparative analysis of a passage from Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote with a like passage from the unfinished Quixote written by the recently deceased Menard, a writer who sought not to “compose another Quixote… but the Quixote itself.” The passages in question are, inevitably, identical—or so it might appear. Borges notes a “vivid” contrast in style. He finds Menard’s Quixote “more subtle” than Cervantes’. Each time I revisit ‘Pierre Menard’ I laugh at this masterstroke of absurdity, yet upon consideration the conceit isn’t absurd in the slightest. Borges attests that Menard’s quixotic desire to re-create Don Quixote enriches the art of reading. Time changes words, context changes the nature of literary ambition—what Milan Kundera refers to as the “consciousness of continuity”—and Borges, a great advocate for re-reading, implies that every reading of a text offers us a new text.

The durability, or should we say re-readability, of Borges’ work, not to mention its considerable foresight with regards to the still-unfolding destinies of art and technology, is surely the central reason why there have been so many Borges collections, the latest in English being Everything and Nothing (New Directions, $12.50), one of ND’s ‘Pearl’ series of affordable, sturdy paperbacks with clean, modern designs. The back cover informs us that Everything and Nothing “collects the best of Borges’ highly influential stories and essays,” a claim obviously open to dispute—there is no ‘Aleph’ here, no ‘Funes the Memorious’—yet finally untroubling, since what matters to me at least is that there remain enticing, accessible editions of Borges out there to be discovered by new generations, and for such purposes Everything and Nothing is a welcome new product. ‘Pierre Menard’ opens the book, followed by ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,’ which describes the contents of the eleventh volume of A First Encyclopedia of Tlön, a book left in a bar by one Herbert Ashe, a deceased English railway engineer. The Encyclopedia offers some of the philosophical notions held by the inhabitants of Tlön, a presumably non-existent planet that nevertheless boasts sophisticated theories of time, views metaphysics as a branch of fantastic literature, and believes that all books are the work of a single atemporal and anonymous author.

The sequencing of these stories is inspired, since there are fascinating and provocative ideas raised in ‘Tlön’—particularly those concerning literature and authorship—that enrich our reading of ‘Pierre Menard’ retroactively. This tactic seems to backfire however in the placement of ‘Borges and I’ just before ‘Everything and Nothing,’ two pieces whose too-obvious similarities discourage the reader from appreciating their disparate characters. A relatively minor offense, of course, and quickly forgiven once we move onto
Everything and Nothing’s final selections, a pair of lectures taken from the elegant and elegiac late collection Seven Nights. In ‘Nightmares’ Borges considers the possibility that dreams are a form of fiction, that life may be a dream and we are all each dreaming each other, that dreams may be our “most ancient aesthetic activity.” In ‘Blindness’ he considers the secret virtues of the titular affliction, comparing his own blindness with that of other authors throughout history, as well as other librarians, noting the irony of his—it turns out, non-unique—situation of being appointed director of Argentina’s National Library just as he was seriously beginning to lose his sight. He ends this moving essay with a phrase from Goethe: “everything near becomes distant.” Typically for Borges, with a minimum of words, Goethe’s words are ruminated upon in such a way that its application to the condition of blindness balloons outward until each of us seem caught up in this sense of all things slipping out of our grasp, the universe expanding and urging us to never forget that we are on unstable ground and must never cease to reach out for new sources of wonder, and warmth.

José Saramago, 1922-2010

Speaking of blindness... the great Portuguese novelist and controversial polemicist José Saramago died on 18 June, and if the announcement of his departure shocked me it wasn’t because of his age—he was 87—but his sheer productivity right up to the end. How many examples in literature do we have of authors who created such a bold, challenging and prolific body of work at an age as advanced as Saramago’s during his last two decades of robust busyness? (I’m sure Borges would have an answer.) Like many Anglophone readers I discovered Saramago with his Nobel Prize-winning
Blindness, published in translation in 1997 and written when the author was already a septuagenarian. I’ve read everything since, which is a lot, and not much that was written beforehand, something I look forward to remedying. Blindness concerns a plague that renders nearly all of humanity blind, and its sentences that go on for pages, with several exchanges of dialogue mounting atop one another so that it can become difficult to discern who’s speaking, struck me as a brilliant way of making the reader almost feel as blind, in some sense, as the characters. When I first read Blindness I hadn’t yet realized that pretty much all of Saramago’s fiction is written in the same style. Yet this style lends itself to a seemingly infinite number of uses.

Saramago’s prose, exalted in structure, colloquial in word choice, seem simultaneously carved in stone and transcribed from the most intimate conversations. His ongoing critique of consumer culture, which was perhaps most eloquent and compelling in
The Cave, which will forever change how you look at West Edmonton Mall, was often aligned directly with his mercurial Marxism, and his fantastical conceits were often regarded, or at least marketed, as allegories. Yet Saramago’s best stories were far too humane, spontaneous, organic, and mysterious to be neatly summed up in any sort of one-to-one metaphorical framework or reduced to didacticism. My experience with his novels has usually gone like this: I enter immediately engrossed and fascinated; halfway through, the seemingly endless digressions are wearing me out; by the end, the grand conclusion arises as though from a fog, my mind is sufficiently blown, and I treasure every page, even the ones that frustrated me, and feel like I’ve genuinely been through something, something that has caused me not to feel closer to Saramago’s world view, but to rigorously question my own. As our world continues to rumble forth his contentious, often poetic voice will be missed, but his texts remain, and thanks to the inherent sluggishness of translation, it seems we still have some new ones to look forward to.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Waiting for the King: Mystery Train on DVD

Mystery Train (1989) opens with a sort of image that recurs with almost dreamlike regularity throughout the work of Jim Jarmusch: the world as seen from a moving train. Traveling abroad for the first time, teenage Yokohamans Mitzuko (Youki Kudoh) and Jun (Masatoshi Nagase) are drawing near Memphis. The shape of their window recalls the widescreen aspect ratio. Through it American landscapes pass like some cinematic travelogue. Soon they’ll disembark and, like the protagonists of the fantasy in which some fissure in reality allows one to slip from the audience and into the movie, Mitzuko and Jun will explore the largely abandoned streets of a mythical place.

They’ve come to Memphis as rock and roll pilgrims, dressed for the part, Mitzuko in her black leather jacket with the wonderfully ridiculous ‘
MISTER BABY’ emblazoned on the back, the taciturn and flamboyantly affected Jun sporting a vintage rockabilly ensemble topped with immaculate pompadour. They debate whether Elvis or Carl Perkins was the real king. Mitzuko keeps a notebook filled with images that compare Elvis’ visage with those of the Buddha or the Statue of Liberty. As is often the case in Jarmusch’s work, especially the immediately preceding films, American culture attains substance when appropriated by outsiders. Through their eyes Jarmusch’s comic confluence of history, geography, legend and everyday absurdities chug into life.

Mitzuko and Jun’s holiday, in which they taste sexual freedom, confront the eerie indifference of realized desire, and confirm that it is indeed cool to be 18 and far from home and in Memphis, is the first of
Mystery Train’s three distinct yet interconnected and chronologically simultaneous episodes—another Jarmusch motif, variations on a theme. In the second tale, Luisa (Nicoletta Braschi, excellent), forced to overnight in Memphis while en route to Italy with her dead husband’s remains in tow, wanders the city and attempts to fend off petty grifters with little success before spending the night with a lonesome chatterbox (Elizabeth Bracco) and a confused ghost (Stephen Jones). In the third, a drunken Englishman (The Clash’s Joe Strummer), also ostentatiously pompadoured, suffering from the loss of his job and his woman, takes to Memphis’ streets with a workmate (Rick Avilles), a barber (Steve Buscemi) and a gun, eventually getting into some serious trouble and winding up at the nexus where all Mystery Train’s routes converge, a somewhat seedy hotel overseen by a red-suited night clerk (outré R&B singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) and his comparatively diminutive bell hop (Cinqué Lee), a vaguely Beckett-like pair whose brief scenes of interaction constitute some of the film’s finest moments of elegantly evoked down-time.

Photographed in Edward Hopper muted tones by Robby Müller, who had already shot
Down By Law (86) for Jarmusch, Mystery Train is a gorgeously composed and carefully coloured film whose dramatic trajectories are in each case essentially a lark, elevating the simplest of conflicts to the level of finely crafted art. Themes of the misleading significance of familial bonds—Buscemi’s wonderful as the barber thrown for a loop when he discovers his brother-in-law never actually married his sister—and the dangers of living in a city lorded over by ghosts and undercut by racism and poverty provide these stories with just enough gravity to keep them grounded, yet at bottom Mystery Train is a superb example of a certain strain of deadpan, unhurried comedy over which Jarmusch possesses a singular mastery.

It’s also a remarkable document of not only a great and neglected American city, but of several mavericks of cultural importance—Hawkins and Strummer, Tom Waits and Rufus Thomas—coming together to play. This final element of Mystery Train is nicely highlighted on Criterion’s new DVD and Blu-ray packages, which feature excerpts from a documentary about Hawkins and a short film that tracks changes in Memphis from the birth of Sun Studios to the making of Mystery Train and right up to the present.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Tracy Wright, 1959-2010

One of Toronto's finest talents, a subtle, deeply funny and adventurous actor of stage and screen, has gone way, way, way before her number should have been up. The partner of frequent collaborator Don McKellar, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer only six-and-a-half months ago. Her film credits include Monkey Warfare (2006), Me and You and Everyone We Know (05), Last Night (98), and Highway 61 (91). Trigger, Wright's final film role, co-starring Molly Parker, directed by Bruce McDonald, and written, specifically for Wright, by Daniel MacIvor, is in post-production.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Left, right, and Romy: Le combat dans l'ile

Alain Cavalier’s debut bears little resemblance to the work of his mentor Louis Malle and feels utterly indifferent to the iconoclastic, postmodernist mischief of his contemporaries riding the crest of the nouvelle vague, yet in its own way
Le combat dans l’ile (1961) couldn’t be more of its time. Concerning a love triangle between a militant conservative, a left-wing pacifist, and an innocent outsider gradually gaining awareness of her adopted country’s aggressive divisions, the movie uses an old-fashioned narrative device to explore events unfolding during the very moment of its filming. The re-surfacing of Le combat, culminating in Zeitgeist’s new DVD, is a testament to how often genuine universality is best earned through specificity. It’s rather difficult not to draw loose parallels between Cavalier’s portrait of France in 1961 and numerous civil wars being fought today, conflicts sometimes mistaken for being a problem exclusive to the Islamic world.

Clément (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the son of a wealthy industrialist, joins an underground group planning terrorist actions in response to Algerian independence. His Austrian-born wife Anne (Romy Schneider), a former actress, seems content to seek out the fleeting pleasures and numb herself with sleeping pills. She barely raises an eyebrow when her housekeeper finds a bazooka hiding in the closet, but Clément’s physical and emotional abuse proves too much. She leaves him, only to come back on the very night Clément is to use that bazooka. The assassination attempt goes awry and Clément’s forced into hiding. This is really just the beginning of a story riddled with strange twists. Among the many distinguishing qualities of
Le combat dans l’ile is its resistance to establishing a single protagonist. As Clément sinks deeper into a marginal political existence Anne moves toward the story’s centre. Yet a third character, Clément’s childhood friend Paul (Henri Serre), becomes increasingly entangled in the couple’s affairs, until he too begins to occupy the narrative core.

Trintignant’s particular, seductive coldness, an unusual quality in a star, one shared by his American contemporary John Cassavetes, allows him to dominate the frame whenever present and then slip away inconspicuously. Schneider has perhaps the most precarious role, the object of desire whose own desires seem neglected by Cavalier’s allegorical scheme, yet her ability to convey Anne’s insistence on chasing romance and living in the moment clouds our doubts about her motives. Serre makes less of an impression, perhaps because Paul’s politics are less defined than Clément’s and his pacifism reads as ultimately ineffectual. Of course, Serre would soon go on to portray one-third of one of cinema’s most memorable ménage à trois in
Jules et Jim (62). Working with cinematographer Pierre Lhomme, who would go on to shoot with Bresson, Melville and Jean Eustache, Cavalier makes wonderful use of his central performances, elegantly emphasizing details such as Clément’s ceremonial donning of gloves, while tempering the more dramatic moments with a judicious use of scoring, silence, and dialogue that bleeds from one scene to the next. His was an auspicious start, thought it’s difficult to say how well he followed it up since much of his body of work remains obscure.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

After nature: Red Desert on DVD

Red Desert (1964) opens with images of industrial architecture, immense pipes and strange towers seen from some distance in rack focus, rendered as ghostly, uninhabitable monuments, as though our eyes need adjust to these unprecedented apparitions of a new kind of landscape. Our visual lives were already inundated with the products of such places, but Red Desert lingers at the source of these products. The film’s setting changes with each sequence, yet the striking palate modulates only slightly. Collaborating with cinematographer Carlo di Palma, director Michelangelo Antonioni introduced colour into his work with this film, and it’s as though he strove to introduce each one at a time. If Red Desert still arrests us through its use of colour and design alone, it may be because each and every shape and colour is photographed as though only just discovered. Our world has changed, this film tells us, and the change is total.

Guiliana (Monica Vitti) enters this landscape with her son Valerio (Valerio Bartoleschi) in fuzzy green and orange coats, colours so vivid they seem otherworldly here. Giuliana herself seems transported from another, very different place, still reeling from the taxing journey. Who is this woman? She seems well-to-do, vaguely resembles a young Barbara Streisand, yet she approaches a stranger lunching near the site of a strike and pleads with him to buy his already half-eaten sandwich. She then scurries off to consume the sandwich ravenously, and in private. As we get to know and try to make sense of such behaviour, we might surmise that her desire for the sandwich derives from some displaced urge for human contact, yet her need to eat it unseen reveals an inability to follow-through with this puzzling attempt at intimacy. It all seems very peculiar, but here’s the catch: neurotic as she appears, Giuliana is perhaps the most normal person in
Red Desert.

Giuliana’s husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) works for the company who erected those spectral chemical plants. Compared to his wife Ugo seems perfectly amiable, socially adept. When he smiles he looks like Steve Buscemi. He expresses concern for Giuliana, who has recently survived an auto accident, yet he seems incapable of dealing with her hysteria. He clumsily attempts to seduce her to no effect. Along comes Corrado (Richard Harris), a fellow industrialist consulting Ugo in his search for workers to take to Patagonia. Corrado is undergoing his own existential crisis and seems drawn to Giuliana. He tells her he keeps moving around, that he feels out of place everywhere he goes. He’s embodied, rather fittingly, by an Irish actor, though he’s meant to be Italian. Does he really relate to her? Or does he simply find her vulnerability appealing, perhaps erotically inviting? He speaks as though trying to comfort her yet too often just sounds condescending and pompous. Among the most fascinating elements in
Red Desert is Giuliana’s slow emergence as its most powerful character. She may be paranoid and neurotic, almost childlike in Vitti’s timid, occasionally playful performance, but where Corrado waxes philosophical and romanticizes his search for meaning, it’s Giuliana who genuinely searches, urgently scouring the desert-like world of Red Desert for some place where she won’t feel so hopelessly ungrounded, unmoored as the cargo ships that continually slide into frame, and haunted by the electronic drones that permeate the soundtrack.

Red Desert is a film in which landscape possesses an overwhelming influence on the human psyche (and vice versa). Its images of environmental devastation are not to be taken as lament—they’re far too aesthetically charged, drawing upon the work of contemporaneous painters such as Morandi, Pollock, and Rothko. This wintry post-natural world is in one sense observed objectively, without sentiment. How its landscape effects the characters, or rather, how it’s already effected the characters, most of whom, like Ugo or Valerio, are by now fully assimilated, is the essential subject. Red Desert capitalizes on the sense of modern alienation and bourgeois repression cultivated in Antonioni’s preceding trilogy of L’avventura (60), La notte (61) and L’eclisse (62). This lineage is most apparent in the famous sequence where Giuliana, Ugo, Corrado, and three others partake in a failed orgy in a seaside hut. One of the women tears apart the bright red walls of the hut for firewood—a gesture that might also be a small homage to Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (62), which also satirizes bourgeois manners. Yet this film takes a bold step forward, advancing on Antonioni’s established themes and style, not only in its distinctive audiovisual design, which looks forward to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (76) or the ecologically-themed photography of Edward Burtynsky, amongst many other important works of art, but also in its almost perverse pushing of the boundaries of drama—Red Desert is endlessly fascinating, richly detailed, mysterious, and hypnotic, but it would be misleading to call it in any sense entertaining.

Criterion’s new release of
Red Desert on DVD and Blu-ray is itself a strange and beautiful object, designed to highlight the film’s most chilling and engaging images and garnished with supplements that offer plentiful insights into the making and reception of the film while, wisely, never going so far as to pretend there could be anything like a definitive interpretation of its bizarre and enigmatic story, one that still seems to speak to us from some under-explored place that both surrounds us and remains invisible.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Dead on arrival: Jonah Hex

A long time ago, in the days before plastic surgery, confederate super-solider Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) sees his family roasted alive at the hands of the super-evil Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) before being left dangling from a cross with a nasty facial disfigurement that will make the consumption of beverages forever cumbersome. As the days pass Hex gets so close to expiry that even when the noble Crow Indians revive him he retains the ability to converse with the dead, a gruesome parlor trick that comes in handy in his new vocation as half-zombie bounty hunter. So
Johan Hex is a supernatural western of sorts, based on the DC comic that I only remember because my uncle Ricky used to give me his copies after he’d read them, along with his old Sgt. Rocks. (Is it just me, or did only middle-aged bachelors buy all those war and western comics back in the 1980s?)

Jonah Hex was directed by the guy who brought us Horton Hears a Who. It was written by William Farmer and the guys behind the Crank franchise, which is only slightly more indicative as to what’s in store. Jonah Hex is about as dumb as the Crank movies, and it shares the Crank movies’ particular brand of exaggerated, cartoonish violence, yet it has nothing of the go-for-broke audacity or absurd digressions that arguably distinguish the Cranks somewhat from the rest of your sub-Guy Ritchie actioners. There’s not much going on in Jonah Hex, which results in its merciful brevity—it runs about an hour-twenty—yet also results in a paucity of characterization that renders the potentially colourful leads one-dimensional and shuttles those handy Crow Indians so far into the background as to make them crude functionaries, yet another variation on the “magical negro,” merely happy to help the white hero along his journey before dissolving back into the woods.

The score could be described as Metallica meets Morricone, though once having met they apparently have to say to one another. Even under rubber Brolin maintains charisma, yet he really has little to do other than grunt and take heaps of punishment. Malkovich has a new funny wig to add to his collection but otherwise is unremarkable in another payday villain role. Megan Fox plays the prostitute who apparently spends her free time at the rifle range and it’s true she has very nice legs. Her close-ups however are only one of many shots in the movie that seem digitally enhanced for absolutely no reason at all. At least Michael Fassbender has some fun as an inventively tattooed thug.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The internal return: Liverpool

We never find out how long Farrel (Juan Fernández) has been out at sea. Long enough, it seems, for his visage to attain an almost inscrutable neutrality, to covey nothing of whatever degree of contentment or despair he’s accumulated by a life of landlessness and lonesomeness. I’d guess he’s in his late 30s, though his grey hair might argue with that. He’s also a tippler, which can do things to how a face wears its years.

Farrel’s cargo ship docks in Ushuaia, capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego and commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world. So you could say he’s at the end of something. He tells his superior he wants to visit the village where he grew up, to see if his mother is still alive. But is there more to this? He packs a bag while onboard, only to stash it away somewhere near the docks before setting out to traverse a snowbound landscape that sees a minimum of human life. It is unclear to us whether or not he plans to return. It may very well be unclear to him, too.

Like the protagonists of Lisandro Alonso’s previous films, Farrel’s journey from one world to another supplies the bulk of
Liverpool’s decidedly spare narrative. The shift from sea to rough roads to a remote and wintry logging village offers countless images of stark, rugged beauty, while causing us to feel that we’re also somehow sliding deeper into Farrel’s hidden anxieties. When he comes home hardly anyone recognizes him. A young woman of ambiguous mental facilities seems to have taken up his role in the place where he used to live. He keeps drinking, remains reticent, though something in him seems to be changing in this place. By the time we arrive at the film’s final, pivotal image, we’ve gleaned just enough to understand what this journey was really all about.

I’ve seen Alonso’s two previous features, both of which share Liverpool’s rigorously detached, largely observational, almost anthropological formal strategy. I found
Los Muertos (2004), the story of an ex-con returning to the scene of the crime, a masterful example of this sort of filmmaking, as well as surprisingly moving. By contrast, I found Fantasmas (06), which I won’t bother to describe except to say it centers around a screening of Los Muertos, to be a turgid parody of this same style, as though Alonso wanted to take the piss out of his own work and do so in the most annoyingly pretentious and unfunny way possible.

I thus came to
Liverpool with a great deal of skepticism, but the film quickly won me over. Whatever pitfalls Alonso may stumble into as he develops his body of work, he clearly has a tremendous affinity for these stories of solitary, stoic figures working their way through the world. It’s interesting to write this after having just revisited Paris, Texas (84). That film’s vision of restlessness, masculine self-loathing, familial unease, and landscape as a metaphor for the vast and hostile unconscious seems to echo favourably in Liverpool. Perhaps the peculiar stories that grow out of one America are not so different than those of another.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Working Knowledge: Král catalogues the quotidian

Petr Král, with Jana Bokova

It was something I’d been meaning to pick up for months, yet Petr Král’s
Working Knowledge (Pushkin Press, $16.95) ultimately found me precisely when I most needed it, which was about ten days ago, just as I was settling into this large, half-empty, half-lived-in house in rural Saskatchewan, the semi-abandoned home of a friend, where some arguably misguided notion had prompted me to pass some weeks in solitude. The book was the last thing I bought before leaving Saskatoon, my last chance to soak up city life, and heading farther east. It’s been among the wettest Junes in provincial history, the house cold and damp, the surrounding fields too marshy for strolling, so I’ve spent many of these hours seated at this big wooden table, trying not to let my brain go completely soggy. I needed to try and remain alert to the world, to not retreat completely and morbidly inward, and Král’s eloquent, charming little book, his “strange and beautiful existential encyclopedia of the everyday,” as Milan Kundera describes it in his brief introduction, served to help me keep my focus.

Ranging in length from a few pages to a single sentence,
Working Knowledge catalogues dozens of meditations on things known and most commonly taken for granted. Though I can hardly verify this, the translation sometimes strikes me as poor. Thankfully, Král’s is the sort of poetic yet mostly spare writing that can weather an awkward rendering or two. The book opens with ‘Coffee,’ immediately awakening our senses with its “residue of night,” before slipping into ‘The Shirt,’ considering ‘Dawn,’ that “washed-out, ashen period in which all things are reborn into doubt,” assessing the distinct values inherent in two kinds of breakfast, exploring the miniature offerings of self-recognition that lay waiting in every act of shaving, and reminding us to cherish the glaze of sleepy morning stasis: “…we are never closer to a state of grace than on those mornings when we lie in bed, half-awake, allowing ribbons of thought and itinerant dreams to drift idly through our minds. We are as yet no more than pure potential… sending out feelers and drawing them back again, between the shadows and the flares of light which occasionally reach us from between the closed curtains…”

Not all of these writings are so serene. One piece considers the unease raised by retrieving your luggage from the airport’s conveyor belt and wondering where it’s been or who’s been inside of it. Another is a strident defense of the word “cunt.” There are a number of rousing declarations threading through
Working Knowledge, which sometimes read as so out of left field as to constitute enigmatic one-liners. “Only visiting mothers truly makes it possible to get to know a foreign city,” he writes at the top of ‘Mothers and Daughters.’ Yet as the book continues Král engages with his topics less as platforms for such pronouncements than as opportunities to ask the reader questions, as in his pages on laughter, where he wonders when did we first truly laugh, or whether true laughter is instinctive or learned. The prose seems cleanest when considering concrete items with a minimal number of words, yet I think the most wonderful passages are the longer ones which, while en route to some other assertion, pause to offer some tantalizing fragment of some other, larger story. These micro-narratives include references to ex-cons from Guyana who build their houses facing the prison as a reminder not to go back, to a mountaineering conductor who takes a catastrophic fall, to Lenin asking Trotsky for a cigarette even though he didn’t smoke, or to Luis Buñuel, who was hard of hearing, spending his final days rising at dawn to listen to the wind in the trees off his Mexico City terrace.

Like Kundera, Král, a poet, essayist and one-time surrealist, is a Czech living in France since fleeing his homeland back in 1968. It’s tempting to attribute his sensitivity to small things to the exile’s condition and its implied nostalgia—after all, there is in Working Knowledge a tribute to Czech Christmas fish soup that’s as brimming with affection as anything else in this book—but I’m fairly confident that Král would have written about such things anywhere and under any circumstance. Though often writing as though of universally shared experience, his perspective is unapologetically specific—male, white, heterosexual, European, art loving, and at times a little old-fashioned in his adoration of women and notions of gender roles—yet it’s this specificity that elevates Working Knowledge to something inspired, bold and funny, and necessarily particular, rather than aphoristic. I’m certain that this book is best read slowly, or even randomly, at one’s whim, but my present conditions compelled me to gobble it up over only a couple of sittings. It’s the sort of thing I read first for pleasure, secondly for work, and, perhaps thirdly, out of a lingering suspicion—or desire—that to live with a little more alertness to quotidian experience might make us better human beings, or at the very least slightly more pierced by the rush of living as it passes us by.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dennis Hopper, 1936-2010

Apocalypse Now (1979)

I learned of Dennis Hoper’s death in a bowling alley in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, while drinking warm Canadian, trying to figure out what I was doing in this place, and losing badly at five-pin. I tend to take it hard when my heroes die, even when they’ve had a good run, and this didn’t seem the ideal scenario in which to hear sad news. Yet somehow, there in that bowling alley, with the leering local drunks and ill-fitting shoes and the unseasonably bone-chilling, desperately lonesome prairies unfolding forever just outside the doors, it struck me that this place was perfectly emblematic of my personal experience of Hopper’s singular body of work. It wasn’t difficult to imagine Feck, Hopper’s character from
River’s Edge (1986), perched by the bar, slapping his artificial leg, embracing his rubber doll, hardening his beady eyes, and launching into a monologue about bikes, beer, and pussy. This gave me comfort.

River's Edge (1986)

Feck. Father. Photojournalist. Frank Booth. For moviegoers of my generation, Hopper’s story didn’t begin with
Rebel Without a Cause (55) or Giant (55), or even with Easy Rider (69). It began with River’s Edge and Blue Velvet (86). That famous anecdote, how Hopper phoned David Lynch, already in production in North Carolina, just to assure him that he could play the drug-addled, sexually deranged, murderous, mommy-fixated sociopath Frank Booth because he was Frank Booth, how Lynch got off the phone and confessed to Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan that Hopper’s identification with the character could be great for the movie but how are they going to have lunch with him?, endures not only because it fuels the legend of the then recently rehabilitated Hopper, but, more importantly, because it functions as a declaration of an artist’s devotion to his work. Hopper recognized something of his own weaknesses in Frank Booth, and he used that recognition to elevate what in less disciplined hands might have been a cartoon villain. I will never forget hearing in an interview how the only thing that got Hopper through his worst times was his persistent belief that the cameras were always rolling.

Blue Velvet (1986)

In any case, Frank led me to Feck, then back to Father, his wonderful supporting role in
Rumble Fish (83), and to Apocalypse Now (79), and Hopper’s unforgettable photojournalist or, as Hopper enunciates it in the movie, “I’m a photo. Journalist.” Between moments of eerie stillness he rattles off his monologues like a Beat auctioneer, with multiple cameras dangling round his neck like so many eyes, trying manically to take in everything. By the 1980s Hopper’s infamous past exploits, even Easy Rider and The Last Movie (71), didn’t matter as much as what he was doing right then, giving one performance after another that seemed that much more virtuosic, focused, dynamic, scary, and inventive for Hopper’s new straight edge. He seemed to convey genuine craziness with greater force when he wasn’t wasted. His work from this period, at least in the better movies—there were plenty of very bad ones, too—dispelled the notion that the demise of the New Hollywood meant the demise of great ambition in American movies. Blue Velvet was a masterpiece, and Frank Booth a walking, talking, horny, nightmare Id figure, at once terrifying and hilarious and the likes of which we’d never seen, barking lines as impossibly banal as “Let’s fuuuuck!” and rendering them gleeful howls from the collective unconscious.

Night Tide (1961)

Over time I began to grasp the larger story, to catch up with Hopper’s long and winding career, his photography and art collection and years in alcoholic abyss. For years I was merrily tracking down
The Trip (67) or Out of the Blue (80) or, wow!, Night Tide (61) on VHS, while still trying to see every new movie he appeared in or directed, which wasn't easy because there were so damn many. He was always coming back, from blacklisting, humiliation, disaster, and addiction, but even Dennis Hopper’s resurrections are numbered. His death from metastasized prostate cancer at 74 came not as the last ember of a long fading away but as a sudden burning out. To the very end he worked like a madman, perhaps because he was a madman, a suggestion not meant to diminish his talents but simply contextualize his sensibility. He radiated unnerving intensity, and while he could play softer, more palatable roles, such as the schoolteacher hero of Carried Away (96), he had a special gift for weirdoes who left such indelible impressions on a movie that he barely needed names, guys known only as Goon, Moon, Prophet, Chicken, Shooter, Cracker, Doggie, and Kansas, his state of birth. He first left Kansas at 13, and it was then he first saw mountains, skyscrapers and the ocean. In every case he was disappointed because in his imagination these things were always grander than reality. For better and for worse he was born to seek grandeur, and through the most ragged and at times ridiculous routes, whether scaling the lower depths or shooting to dazzling heights, his life and work achieved it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Blood on the dancefloor: Tony Manero on DVD

We can interrogate and, to some degree, illuminate the most tenebrous horrors of the past through making up stories, but what sort of stories should we devise? Which are best equipped to stir us out of despondency and actively engage us? The greater the horror, the more urgently and rigorously this question needs to be addressed. When the young filmmaker Pablo Larraín interviewed his fellow Chileans about living through the institutionalized terror of the Pinochet years, he found most of their memories to be foggy and imprecise. “What I got from this research was not any particular idea of what happened in terms of facts, but a tone, an atmosphere,” Larraín explains, “a combination of fear, sadness, and strangeness, because they didn’t know what was going to happen the next day.” Larraín’s response to these interviews was not to somberly chronicle the plight of victims of the Pinochet years, but rather to scour the era’s atmosphere and dread in search of a unique sort of character, one that might cloud the conventional frontiers diving victim from oppressor. His response was
Tony Manero.

It’s Santiago, 1978, and 52-year-old Raúl is devoting all his energies to preparing for a local televised celebrity impersonation contest. It seems Raúl wants not simply to evoke but to literally transform himself into Tony Manero, John Travolta’s ambitious, disco dancing sensation from Bay Ridge, the hero of John Badham’s 1977 hit movie
Saturday Night Fever. We see Raúl in a rundown cinema watching the film, studying Travolta’s moves and parroting his dialogue—but does Raúl ever stay to the end? Does Raúl even realize that Tony Manero never actually becomes a big star? Or is Raúl hoping to correct Saturday Night Fever’s downbeat ending by miraculously transcending his own marginalized existence of despair, poverty, confinement, communal living, dysfunctional sex, and routine applications of jet black hair dye to cover up the accumulating grey? Raúl will do anything to fulfill his dream of usurping reality with his distorted reading of an imported fantasy. His desire initially seems akin to that of so many go-for-it movie protagonists. You wonder at first if Tony Manero will be a comedy of self-discovery and triumph over adversity, its protagonist yet another addition to the movies’ ongoing collection of lovably obsessive, nerdy, underdog dreamers. But any such suspicions are dashed once we see Raúl help an old lady home after being mugged, only to get her alone in her little apartment and calmly bash her head in so as to steal her colour TV. Colour TVs were apparently tough to come by in Pinochet’s Chile.

Would Raúl have been a sociopath had he not lived under a murderous dictatorship? Are there certain kinds of monsters that are only awakened by the right circumstances, prompted by social conditions that seem to offer tacit permission to act out otherwise repressed atrocities? It’s a question that lingers in some of the novels of the posthumously celebrated Chilean-born author Roberto Bolaño, and Larraín, in his documentary-like follow-up to the very different, far more baroque, and not very successful debut
Fuga, implies this question too, without offering any answers that might oversimplify his bizarre, grotesque and utterly absorbing story. Larraín instead focuses on imbuing Tony Manero with numerous details that heighten the film’s sense of place, its tension, and its black humour. Raúl’s incestuous housemates rehearse in their ramshackle performance space and perform their almost endearingly lame song and dance show for paltry audiences of locals happy for whatever sort of diversion to fill their hours before curfew arrives. Some of these housemates meet with secret insurgent groups, though Raúl himself isn’t to be distracted from his mastery of Manero embodiment, getting the right number of buttons on his white pants or the right high-density glass cubes to build an illuminated dance floor, just like that of Saturday Night Fever’s 2001 Odyssey nightclub, and replace the crappy wooden plank floor he memorably rips up in a wild fit when something in one of the group’s disco routines goes wrong. The success of that scene, like so many others, including an especially messy one you’ve just got to see to believe, rests firmly on the interpretative talents of lead actor Alfredo Castro, who plays Raúl with such complete, deadpan immersion it’s positively chilling. Castro’s work alone is reason to see this film.

Kino’s disc of
Tony Manero is pretty much devoid of extras, and while that’s regrettable given that some minimal historical context at the very least might help certain viewers to appreciate its layers of critique and genuine audacity, it is finally a work that can stand alone and leave you reeling. Tony Manero barely screened in North American cinemas, but everyone with whom I watched it during its appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival, including a few Chilean friends, still haven’t forgotten the experience. Here’s hoping it continues to intrigue and appall viewers on DVD.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Man Between: the Cinematheque Ontario celebrates 20 years with the films of James Mason

I’m thinking about that scene in
Lolita (1962), the one where Clare Quilty meets Humbert Humbert on the veranda of the hotel where a police convention just happens to be underway. “You have a most interesting face,” Quilty tells Humbert in parting. Yet only minutes earlier he’d told him, “You have the most normal face I’ve ever seen.” That’s James Mason.

5 Fingers (1952)

The Cinematheque Ontario, recently—and, it must be said, lamentably—re-dubbed TIFF Cinematheque, turns 20 this year, and it strikes me at least as serendipitous that among the numerous exciting programmes being unveiled in their newly launched anniversary season, which include retrospectives of legendary directors such as Eric Rohmer, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Akira Kurosawa, they’ve made room for a 14-film retrospective of James Mason, the extraordinary actor whose larger body of work I only became exposed to, and only began to fully appreciate, after becoming a Cinematheque member five years ago when I first moved to Toronto.

Julius Caesar (53)

Laura and I arrived in June of 2005, right in the middle of a heat wave and right in the middle of the Cinematheque’s Ingmar Bergman retrospective. We’d just traveled across the country with our aging Mexican poodle, had been through car trouble and illnesses along the way, and had nearly exhausted our finances completely. Nonetheless, a Cinematheque double membership was the first thing we bought with our last bit of cash. It was one of the best investments we ever made. If you’re going to be broke for a summer in Toronto, you might as well spend it watching elegantly projected masterpieces with an enthusiastic and attentive crowd.

Bigger Than Life (56)

It was at the Cinematheque that I first saw Max Ophüls’
The Reckless Moment (49) and Caught (49). In the former Mason plays a blackmailer, in the latter a kindly pediatrician. It was at the Cinematheque where I first saw Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (77), in which Mason plays a Nazi. And it was at the Cinematheque where I finally saw Bigger Than Life (56), Nicholas Ray’s melodrama about a middle-American schoolteacher and patriarch who’s saved from a death sentence by a wonder drug only to have it drive him off the rails. The material is fascinating and provocative, the mise en scène exacting and so tense as to make you grit your teeth, but its Mason who makes the film so enduringly troubling. With his mid-Atlantic accent, his slightly overwrought cheerfulness and contained superiority, Mason’s Ed Avery is that much more reflective a mirror of postwar American values by so obviously being an outsider, one quietly desperate to fit in, and when he’s gradually transformed from an amiable, humble, hard-working family man into a potentially murderous, ultra-conservative megalomaniac, you never quite buy that it was just the drugs that did it. It was something already there, inside the character and permeating his environment. I believe this sort of transformation, this rigorous persistence of ambiguity, even while working within the confines of the Hollywood studio system, is evidence of Mason’s genius.

North by Northwest (58)

The Cinematheque will be screening all of the above pictures minus the Peckinpah, as well as some well-known favourites such as
North by Northwest (58), where we get to see Mason survey Cary Grant’s well-tailored wrong man like he’s sniffing leftovers and stroke Eva Marie Saint’s neck like he’s fitting it for a noose. And of course we get Lolita, which took Mason even farther out on a limb than Bigger Than Life. Mason’s Humbert is rather different from that of Vladimir Nabokov’s source novel, as are so many things, but Nabokov’s own adaptation, realized by Stanley Kubrick, manages to offer a slightly more palatable, if still inky-blackly comic variation on the novel’s pedophile’s confession. (As I get older and begin to re-asses Kubrick, Lolita is starting to look more or more like his best work.)

Lolita (62)

I cannot imagine another actor in this role, not even Jeremy Irons, who played Humbert in the later Adrian Lyne version (97), which corrected certain things while completely screwing up others. It’s the odd sincerity in Mason’s expression and vulnerability in his voice when he urges Quilty to understand he’s about to be killed. It’s his deliciously ridiculous attempt to cha cha cha with the very horny Charlotte Haze. It’s the hoity-toity way he enunciates words like “issue” and “toenails.” Mason’s Humbert, though afflicted with a perverse, crippling nostalgia, is indeed, as Mason’s characters usually are, urbane. He’s also bumbling. He’s nefariously manipulative, yet he’s also somehow innocent, even in the depths of his moral bankruptcy.

Odd Man Out (47)

Mason was born in 1909 in Yorkshire. He studied architecture. He co-authored a book about cats. He led several lives, it seems, before his death in 1984. He was self-effacing, yet his career, which thrived both in the UK and the US, was clearly driven by a tremendous ambition and belief in his particular talent. The Cinematheque’s programme gives a superb assessment of his singular career, and is not to be missed.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Vibration analysis: The Shaking Woman

“At one time or another all of us go to pieces,” writes Siri Hustvedt, “and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing.” I first heard of Hustvedt though her husband, the writer Paul Auster, and first encountered her writing through
Mysteries of the Rectangle, her collection of astute, insightful, and engagingly personal essays on various works of visual art, before digging into her novels, starting with her debut, The Blindfold, which among other things fictionalizes her experiences with chronic debilitating migraines. Her new book, The Shaking Woman, or a History of My Nerves (Henry Holt, $28), is a relatively slim memoir and a seeming departure from her body of work. Yet The Shaking Woman is in many regards a synthesis of nearly every major theme she’s ever dealt with. It’s a nonfiction, existential detective story with faint promise of any neat resolution, concerning the search for a missing diagnosis. It explores lingering mysteries of behaviour and perception, of the body and the mind—if you’ll excuse the dualism—while attempting to uncover established facts with a discipline and fervor rare in writers of fiction. It’s at times scary, always fascinating, and a pleasure to read.

The Shaking Woman was prompted by an experience Hustvedt had in 2006, two years after the death of her father. She was giving a speech in his memory at the university where he taught when her body began to violently convulse. She was already in her 50s by this point and had no history of seizures. As her limbs began to shake and flail, she noticed that her ability to speak wasn’t impaired in the slightest. She gripped the edges of the podium and went ahead and gave the speech while from the neck down her body went nuts. The shaking woman returned three more times, once while giving another public presentation, once while appearing on a low-key Norwegian television programme, and once while hiking in the Pyrenees. The attacks are obviously triggered by something more than stage fright, a particular memory, or repressed mourning. Four years have passed and Hustvedt still doesn’t know where this shaking woman came from.

“I can’t really see where the illness ends and I begin,” writes Hustvedt, addressing how neurological or psychiatric illness is identified with self in a way that corporeal illness isn’t. A large part of this book is devoted to trying to come to terms with what feels like an experience with a separate Other, despite the fact that this Other comes from within. Hustvedt provides readers with a brief history of hysteria, a condition and/or a term that’s been used and abused, discarded or renamed, yet whose real significance remains ambiguous. She consults a number of doctors, both real and imagined, including psychiatrists, a group who, despite her obvious interest in psychology, she’d previously avoided. “I have the vague sense that there are hidden recesses of my personality that I am reluctant to penetrate,” she writes. “Maybe that’s the part of me that shook.”

Hustvedt at one point describes the shaking woman as “a speechless alien who appears only during my speeches… an untamed other self, a Mr. Hyde to my Dr. Jekyll, a kind of double.” She interrogates the shaking woman, and tries to befriend her. She emphasizes the essentiality of language to reflexive self-awareness, of putting together words so as to find meaning through making a story of one’s life. Of course, she questions that, too. “Am I looking for a narrative,” she asks, “a confabulation, to interpret a debility that is no more and no less than synaptic wiring and firing?” Yet she accumulates ample evidence of the scientific and therapeutic value of storytelling, quoting physician Rita Charon, who describes how “narrative knowledge, by looking closely at individual human beings grappling with the conditions of life, attempts to illuminate the universals of the human condition by revealing the particular.”

While hurling herself into what seems a very personal search it’s interesting, and endearing, to observe how Hustvedt is continually fascinated by other people, among them Neil, the boy who can remember things exclusively through the act of writing, only to forget the information written as soon as he sets down his pen; Bertha Pappenheim, Breuer’s famous hysterical patient who lived with a “double consciousness,” one basically normal, one who was always observing the other from the outside; S., the man from whom everything was involuntarily associated with images, even numbers and individual words, so that reading a single sentence overwhelmed him with myriad detailed and competing pictures; or the psychiatric patients to whom she teaches writing. Hustvedt also looks to fictional people for help in her investigation, such as Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, unable to accept death, Dostoyevsky’s epileptic Prince Myshkin, or Borges’ Funes the Memorious, who can’t forget a thing.

Hustvedt is a truly voracious reader, as fascinated by psychology, philosophy and science as she is by art, poetry, and fiction. At times her points of reference are so esoteric, so indicative of deeply obsessive research, as to be nearly comical. I had to laugh out loud when she pulled a quote from
Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Yet this all-inclusive devouring of literature provides Hustvedt with a healthy skepticism, a view of various phenomena so broad and alert to contradiction as to keep her from latching too readily onto any one theory, however fashionable. It allows her to be as judicious as she is promiscuous, so that every time she seems in danger of losing the thread, of digressing far off from her personal detective story, she always manages to loop back to the essence of her search and feed it with more insight and precision. “The search for the shaking woman takes me round and round because in the end it is also a search for perspectives that may illuminate who and what she is.” And, inevitably, what Hustvedt comes to accept is that the shaking woman is her, or one part of her, an individual like any other, unfixed, unimaginably intricate, and alive.