Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Norwegian Wood

May 29, 2012

Norwegian Wood is a film by Tran Anh Hung, a Frenchman born in Vietnam, based upon the novel of the same name by Haruki Murakami. I’ve been told that this was the biggest selling novel in Japan during the twentieth century.

The film is set in Tokyo in the 1960’s. Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a high school student, is friends with Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). One day, Kizuki kills himself without any explanation. Watanabe and Naoko are shocked by his death. Watanabe goes to a university and tries to forget his grief by burying himself in his studies. The school he is attending is being wracked by student demonstrations, but Watanabe refuses to get involved. One day he runs into Naoko. They begin seeing each other. On Naoko’s twentieth birthday, they make love. After that, however, Naoko disappears. Watanabe looks for her. He eventually learns that she has had a mental breakdown. She is now living in a sanitarium in a remote area. He goes to visit her, and he meets her roommate, Reiko (Reika Kirishima), a freindly but somewhat strange woman.

Naoko clearly has conflicted feelings towards Watanabe. At times, she is welcoming towards him, but at other times she tells him to go away. Her favorite song is the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, which is about a one-night stand that ends badly. The song speaks to her fear of emotional commitment. Clearly, she is still traumatized by the death of Kizuki. Watanabe can’t forget Kizuki either. He insists on asking Naoko intimate questions about her relationship with him.

Back in Tokyo, Watanabe becomes involved with Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a brash, outspoken woman who is in many ways Watanabe’s opposite. He also becomes friends with the womanizing Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) and with his long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune). Midori wants Watanabe to commit himself to her, but he can’t bring himself to let go of Naoko.

The student demonstrations figure prominently in some of the early scenes. This led me to believe that they would play an important role in the story, but they don’t. I haven’t read the Murakami novel on which this film is based, but the friend that I saw it with has. She told that in the book the demonstrators are portrayed in a highly critical manner. She also told me that some of the minor characters are more fleshed out in the novel than in the movie. I can only guess that Tran wanted to focus on Watanabe’s relationships with Naoko and with Midori. I think the film might have been more interesting if it showed the story’s political context. Surely, that must have been important to Murakami if he included it in the novel.

Even so, Norwegian Wood is a beautifully made and subtly erotic film. The music editor, Jonny Greenwood, has put together a soundtrack that perfectly complements the film and skillfully sets the mood for each scene.

John Carter

April 9, 2012

When I was a kid, I read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom (Mars) novels. The first few, anyway. I don’t remember much about them, except that the characters struck me as a bit slow. It would take them a long time to figure out things that were immediately obvious to me. So I stopped reading them. However, I’m told that some people have fond memories of these books. One of these is the director, Andrew Stanton, who in John Carter, based on the first novel of the series, A Princess of Mars, has recreated in loving detail Burroughs’s fantasy vision of Mars. I’m starting to think that perhaps I was too hard on the books, for I found this film entertaining, a pleasant way to pass two hours. No one does anything really dumb, except for John Carter, who throws away a medallion that enables him to travel between Earth and Mars. (This turns out to be a big mistake.) One thing that did bother me is that there are a lot of sword fights in this film. I’ve never understood why they have sword fights in science fantasy movies. Why would people who have the technology to make guns use swords? (This is one of the problems I’ve always had with the Star Wars films.)

John Carter cost an enormous amount of money to make, and it is widely believed that it will end up losing money. I think that is a shame, for – dare I say it? – this is actually a better film than Martin Scorceses’s Hugo or Stephen Speilberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. The action scenes all advance the story, and the characters are believable (within the logic of their fantasy world, that is). And there are none of those annoying slow-motion shots that mar Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows.

John Carter is played by an actor with the perhaps unfortunate name of Taylor Kitsch. I must say he acquits himself reasonably well in the role. His love interest, Princess Dejah Thoris, is played by Lynn Collins, who is extremely good (think of a sort of an American version of Noomi Rapace).

In perhaps the ultimate nerd touch, we are told that this film is dedicated to Steve Jobs, who, we are told, “inspired us all”. Really? By making overpriced gadgets and exploiting cheap labor in China? Would John Carter have approved of that?

Intellectuals

December 19, 2011

In my earlier post about Paul Goodman, I pointed out that the only contemporary intellectual who has comparable influence in the U.S. is Noam Chomsky. This led me to a disturbing thought. Chomsky is in his eighties. When he is gone, who will be left? I mean, will there be any really influential intellectuals in this country? Will the deepest thinker that people have heard of be Anderson Cooper? It’s a depressing thought. However, I don’t know of anyone who can take Chomsky’s place. Slavoj Žižek is too European, and, besides, some of his ideas are, well, weird. There is Jared Diamond, of course, but a recent court case could do him irreparable damage. I know people who think that John Bellamy Foster should be as well known as Chomsky. He is certainly one of the more original Marxist thinkers around nowadays. Unfortunately, Foster is not a good public speaker. He tends to be long-winded, and he also tends to use a lot of academic jargon. One of the reasons Chomsky became famous is because he can discuss complex ideas in a clear and succinct manner, using (mostly) everyday English.

I suspect that one of the reasons for the current paucity of famous eggheads is that simply becoming an intellectual in our society is not easy. It requires being able to blot out a lot of noise. Let me give you an example. In one of the few amusing scenes in the otherwise dreary New Age film, I Am, someone asks Chomsky if he has ever seen Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. “Ace who?” says Chomsky, looking completely mystified. Lesson: you can’t be an intellectual if you watch movies like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. I know it sounds elitist of me to say that, but it happens to be true. (Mind you, this bit of wisdom comes from a man who just watched a movie titled Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. I’m not making this up.)

Footnote One: Let give you an idea of how well-known Chomsky is. One night I went to my local Papa John’s to order a pizza. From where I was standing at the counter, I could hear a radio in the kitchen. The voice on the radio sounded strangely familiar. It took me a moment to realize that it was Chomsky’s voice. About what other intellectual could you possibly tell a story like this?

Footnote Two: I meant to write a scathing review of I Am. The problem is that every time I think about that film, my eyelids start feeling heavy. I’m afraid of slumping forward and damaging my computer monitor.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life

December 12, 2011

One rarely hears Paul Goodman’s name any more. You have to be of a certain age to have likely heard of him. Back in the 1960’s, he was, with the possible exception of Marshall McLuhan, the most famous intellectual in the United States. (The only comparable present-day figure is Noam Chomsky.) His Growing Up Absurd was a national bestseller. The book is a merciless critique of social institutions, exposing their inadequacy and arguing that people were becoming increasingly alienated from them. It helped inspire the counterculture movement of the 1960’s. It has long been out of print, but it is soon to be released on Kindle.

Goodman was a sort of thinker that we never see nowadays. He wrote on politics, sociology, psychology and urban design. He also wrote novels, short stories, poetry and plays. Jonathan Lee’s documentary tries to do justice to all these aspects of Goodman’s prolific writings, with uneven results.

Goodman came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He became an anarchist after reading Kropotkin, and this remained his basic philosophy for the rest of his life. He was a pacifist during World War II, a difficult time in which to be a pacifist. I would have liked it if the film had discussed this chapter in his life in more detail, but instead it moves on to Gestalt therapy, which Goodman developed with Fritz and Laura Perls. To give us some idea of what this is about, Lee shows us a clip from a film of Fritz Perls conducting a session. He invites a woman into his office and tells her to sit down. She lights a cigarette, smiles nervously, and tells him she feels “scared”. Perls tells her that because she smiled when she said she was “scared”, she was a “phony”. Not surprisingly, the woman takes offense at this. They go back and forth about this for a while, then Perls says, “So, now we are getting somewhere”. In all honesty, I couldn’t see the point of all this.

Fortunately, Goodman devoted his attention to other matters as well. Goodman had very strong views on education. He advocated creating small schools with no more than 25 or 30 students in each. (There is some logic in this idea. Any teacher will tell you that students tend to do better in small classes, because they receive more personal attention.) Goodman became an outspoken and eloquent opponent of the Vietnam War and of the nuclear arms race. He frequently spoke at college campuses during the sixties. However, Goodman’s traditional anarchism eventually brought him into conflict with the New Left of that period. He abhorred the ultra-leftism of the S.D.S., and he disapproved of the drug culture. By the time of his death in 1972, his influence on the left had begun to dwindle.

A large chunk of this film is devoted to Goodman’s sex life. There is reason for this, since Goodman was openly bisexual at a time when gays were often subject to legal harassment. However, this film told me more about this topic than I really wanted to know. Goodman was married and had three children, yet he spent a good deal of time having brief, meaningless affairs with men he met in bars, at the beach, and on airplanes. Just as you would expect, this behavior sometimes created strains between Goodman and his family. This is interesting – up to a point. I would have liked to learn more about Goodman’s anarchist and pacifist ideas, as well as about his troubled relationship with the New Left. Lee clearly wants to get people to read Goodman’s writings, but I don’t see how dwelling on the sordid details of his personal life is supposed to do this.

Magic Trip

October 4, 2011

In the early 1960’s, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters decided they would make a film about a cross-country trip they would undertake. After the journey, when they tried to edit the film, they found they couldn’t synchronize the sound and the images. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that they were tripping on LSD most of the time they were filming. Recently, Alison Ellwood and Alex Gibney used the surviving footage as the basis for a documentary about Kesey and about the 1960’s.

In 1964, Kesey and a group of his friends, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, decide to travel across the country from California to New York. They renovate an old school bus and paint it bright colors. They name it “Further”, and they call themselves “The Merry Pranksters”. They manage to get Neal Cassady – the “Dean Moriarty” from On The Road – to be their bus driver. Cassady is on speed much of the time, so he talks incessantly and is constantly gesturing with his arms. The trip is largely a success, but it is not without problems. A woman has a mental breakdown and has to be sent home. Another woman, who is pregnant, eventually decides that she is not enjoying herself and eventually drops out. When the pranksters reach New York, they seek out their hero, Jack Kerouac, only to get a decidedly chilly reception from him. They go to the World’s Fair, thinking it will be a good place to trip, only to find it a bit dull. They then travel to upstate New York, where Timothy Leary has a mansion, where he and others carry out experiments with LSD. When the Pranksters arrive, however, most of the people there, including Leary, hide from them. (One of the Pranksters comments that these people seem “upper class”.) The only one who talks to them is Richard Alpert (“Ram Dass”), who creeps them out.

When the Pranksters return to California, they begin holding parties called “acid tests”. These start to attract large numbers of people. The Pranksters become disenchanted with Cassady, who seems to be all talk and nothing else. One day he is found dead lying alongside a railroad track in Mexico. Kesey eventually seems to sour on the drug culture he helped create, although he never expresses any regrets about what he did. He moves to Oregon, where he settles down on a farm with his wife and children.

It’s funny how society tries to appropriate artists after they die. A statue of Kesey now stands in downtown Eugene, where environmental activists have sometimes been brutalized by the police. At least one of these incidents took place across the street from the statue.

Magic Trip is part road movie, part cultural history, and part morality tale. I highly recommend seeing it.

Louder Than A Bomb

September 25, 2011

Every year over six hundred teenagers from schools in Chicago and its suburbs take part in a poetry competition. I find this amazing. At the rich, white high school I attended, if you had suggested having a poetry competition, you would have been laughed at. It was the considered opinion of my classmates – some of whom went on to Ivy League schools – that only “faggots” read poetry. These students from Chicago clearly don’t have such preconceptions.

The students are formed into teams representing their individual schools. The teams have coaches. At the competition, which is called “Louder Than A Bomb”, audience members clap and cheer almost as if they are at a sporting event.

This documentary by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel follows several students during the six month period when they are preparing for the competition. Perhaps the most affecting of them is Nova, who was physically abused by her alcoholic father, and who is intensely devoted to her developmentally disabled younger brother. Her poems have an honesty about them that is deeply moving. Much of the film is devoted to the team from Charles Steinmetz High School, who call themselves the “Steinmenauts”. Their mentor, Coach Sloan, is a stern disciplinarian who nonetheless genuinely cares about his students. At one point, the team undergoes a crisis when three members act up at a meeting, resulting in their being kicked off the team. They are readmitted after they deliver an emotional apology. The high point of the film comes when some members of this team perform a group poem about gang violence. Overall, I was deeply impressed by how talented the students in this film are. Their poems are much better than anything I could have written when I was their age.

Louder Than A Bomb is not for everyone. It will be deeply offensive to people like Barack Obama and Michelle Rhee, as well as the producers of Waiting for “Superman”. No doubt they will angrily demand that these students should be studying for standardized tests instead of writing poetry.

I highly recommend seeing this film.

Hobo with a Shotgun

August 5, 2011

Years ago, I had a group of friends who liked to watch bad movies. No, I don’t mean “so bad it’s good” movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Robot Monster. I mean movies that are just bad. I’m talking about low budget exploitation films that make you feel unclean while you’re watching them. The idea seems to have been that these guys would get together and share a common feeling of smug superiority towards the people who made these films, sneering at the bad acting and the inept camera work. Try as hard as I could, I was never able to buy into this aesthetic. I would sit squirming in my chair, wanting to say, “ Wouldn’t it be more fun to watch a good movie?”

Hobo with a Shotgun seems to belong to a similar aesthetic, although the attitude here seems to be one of morbid fascination rather than smug superiority. The main reason I went to see this film is because I thought the trailer was funny. Considering that even the trailers for Hollywood “comedies” aren’t funny, I thought this had to be a promising sign. I have since learned that it originally was one of a series of joke trailers that were made for the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino concoction, Grindhouse, which I haven’t seen. I have, however, seen Rodriguez’s Machete, which also started out as one of these joke trailers. Although I liked that this film takes the side of immigrants, I must admit that I didn’t think it was very good. The characters were too cartoonish to be interesting, and the action sequences weren’t well done. (Well-done action sequences, in my opinion, are the bare minimum requirement for a good action film.) I suppose some would argue that this film’s badness is the whole joke, although, in my opinion, it is a joke that wears thin pretty quickly.

Hobo with a Shotgun, directed by Jason Eisener and written by John Davies, is the second of these Grindhouse spin-offs. The film has a 1970’s look and feel to it. (I take it the seventies were a sort of Golden Age of exploitation films.) The basic plot is an example of a peculiarly American genre. It’s that type of story in which a stranger arrives in a corrupt city or town and, using ruthless methods, proceeds to clean the place up. (The best example of this type of story is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.) One morning, a hobo (Rutger Hauer) arrives in Hope Town, which is known by its residents as either “Scum Town” or “Fuck Town”. (In keeping with the rules of the genre, we are never told the hobo’s name, just as we are never told the name of Hammett’s Continental Op.) The hobo finds that there is rampant crime in the city. The place is run by The Drake (Brian Downey), who is a combination gangster, preacher and carnival barker. The Drake holds public executions of people who displease him, including his own brother. The police are completely under The Drake’s control. The hobo befriends a prostitute, Abby (Molly Dunsworth), who is far and away the most sympathetic character in the film. When he sees a robber threatening to kill a baby, the hobo snaps. He gets a shotgun, and soon the bodies start to pile up.

Hobo with a Shotgun is the most violent film I have ever seen. Eisener and Davies cram as much gratuitous violence as they can into each scene. There are depictions of torture, disembowelment, mutilation and people being burned alive. Yet the film has a Grand Guignol feel to it that makes it hard to take seriously. Everything is so ridiculously overdone that I couldn’t help laughing at times. Other people in the audience reacted the same way. However, several people got up and left.

I have deeply mixed feelings about this film. I can’t say that I didn’t find it entertaining, yet I can’t really recommend it. It has no redeeming value, even though Eisener and Davies try to inject some social consciousness into it. In one scene, for example, Abby makes a speech defending homeless people. The problem is that when you present an argument like that in the cynical context of an exploitation film, it rings hollow.

I have a suggestion for Rodriguez, Eisener and Davies: wouldn’t it be more fun to make good movies?

Look Homeward, Angel

April 3, 2011


Thomas Wolfe

In his preface to his 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe admits that the work is autobiographical. The novel’s main character, Eugene Gant, is his alter ego, and the novel’s setting, the town of Altamont, is meant to represent Asheville, North Carolina; where Wolfe grew up. The novel is set in the early decades of the twentieth century. This book is by no means a Norman Rockwell celebration of small town life. Those who get teary-eyed over old episodes of The Andy Griffith Show or of The Waltons will not care for this work. Among other things, Wolfe depicts, with shocking bluntness, the racism and anti-Semitism of the town’s inhabitants. (The novel’s hero shares these views. This is clearly self-criticism on Wolfe’s part.) Moreover, they often come across as hypocritical. For example, Eugene’s father is a drunkard, yet he is also a noisy advocate of prohibition, because he thinks that will make him appear “respectable” in the eyes of his neighbors. And, of course, his neighbors completely buy it.

The story follows Eugene through high school and into college. Wolfe portrays the pedantry and philistinism of his professors, as well as the complacency of his fellow students. It seems some things never change.

Wolfe’s prose takes some getting used to. He is prone to launch into strings of poetic associations that are not always easy to follow. (This becomes less frequent as Eugene grows older. It seems to me that Wolfe was trying to convey the intense way that children experience things.) There are sudden changes in point-of-view and passages of stream-of-consciousness writing. Overall, the novel has a sprawling, shapeless feel to it, which has earned Wolfe the hostility of some critics. I, on the other hand, actually like its formlessness. To me, it mirrors the messiness of life as we actually experience it. I have too often read finely crafted novels that ultimately seemed to me to be pointless and dull.

I should warn the reader that Wolfe’s language may offend some people’s racial sensibilities. Wolfe was a product of his place and time: the South in the early twentieth century. What’s more, Wolfe, whose father owned a statuary business, was essentially petite bourgeois in his worldview. However, there is evidence that Wolfe was moving leftwards towards the end of his short life. (He died at the age of 38.) The terrible suffering caused by the Great Depression greatly affected him. He often expressed sympathy for socialist politics.

It’s clear to me that Wolfe must have influenced Ray Bradbury. There is a scene at the end of the novel, in which Eugene meets the ghost of his older brother, which was Bradburyesque before there was Bradbury. Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is similar to Look Homeward, Angel, although it is sentimental, which Wolfe never is.

Look Homeward, Angel is a rich, hearty meal of a novel. I highly recommend it.

Hamlet: The First Conspiracy Theorist

February 27, 2011


Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, spiritual forebear of Scully and Mulder.

In a previous post, I criticized Amiri Baraka for espousing conspiracy theories. In all fairness to Baraka, I should point out that he belongs to a long literary tradition of conspiracy theorists. The late Norman Mailer, for example, often dabbled in conspiracy theories, including, bizarrely, ones about the death of Marilyn Monroe. Mark Twain, who was fairly sensible most of the time, bought into the silly “Shakespeare didn’t write his plays” idea. Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers is about conspiracies in the court of Louis XIII, with Cardinal Richelieu as the seventeenth century equivalent of the C.I.A.

The first conspiracy theorist, however, was Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He believed that his uncle had murdered his father and usurped his throne. How did did he know this? His father’s ghost told him so. I don’t think that kind of “evidence” would stand up in a court of law. What other proof did he have? He staged a play about a man who murders his brother, and afterwards his uncle seemed agitated. That seems pretty thin to me.

The irony of Shakespeare’s play is that Hamlet’s attempts to root out the truth are not only futile but also tragic, resulting in the deaths of several innocent people, including Hamlet himself. One may possibly draw a moral from this.

Amiri Baraka

January 19, 2011

The distinguished poet and playwright, Amiri Baraka, spoke at the University of Oregon the other day. He began by talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the early years of the Civil Rights movement, which, he argued, began with the murder of Emmett Till in 1955. He discussed the violent attacks on civil rights activists, and he drew a direct line from the terrorist opponents of that struggle to the current-day Tea Party. (He said that George Romero predicted the Tea Party with his film, Night of the Living Dead. This got a good laugh from the audience.) He talked about how King and Malcolm X both called for a “united front”. He said that people on the left with different ideologies must work together. He also defended Obama, although he admitted to having disagreements with him. He said that Obama should have taken over the banks instead of bailing them out. Yet he defended Obama’s “tax cut compromise” by saying it was necessary to help the unemployed. (Is he aware that this “compromise” undermines Social Security?) I agree with Baraka’a analysis of the Tea Party, but I don’t think that defending Obama is the best way of dealing with this problem.

During the question-and-answer session, Baraka made clear that he takes a conspiracist view of history. He believes the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were all conspiracies. I’m not keen on conspiracy theories, because I believe they lead to cynicism rather then activism. Baraka also claimed that the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy by the U.S. government. He apparently doesn’t realize that if this conspiracy were real, Obama would have to be in on it.

Baraka also read some of his poems. They were funny, biting and thought-provoking.