Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Hereafter & The Ghost Writer (2010)

These two sort of go together.

I don't see a whole lot of contemporary movies--it is usually more fun to catch up on the classics, and the newer ones rarely speak to me anyway. However, I found I enjoyed both of these, mostly due to their presentations. They are well-made, by famous and very old directors, Clint Eastwood (b. 1931) on Hereafter, and Roman Polanski (b.1933) on The Ghost Writer. Despite having been made by these dinosaurs, both of these felt contemporary to me--or at least what the contemporary world looks like through the lenses of minds rooted in the 1960s or 70s, or even the 50s, which is about where I seem to be stuck as well. A younger person attuned to the thought processes, aesthetics, attitudes and so on of this digital era might not find these to have much to do with the present at all.

The main appeal to me of both of these is what I will call 1% porn. I wonder if there has not been a trend in this direction in recent years since the recession and the ever increasing gulf in educational and professional achievement between the cognitive and financial elect and the masses. There is something in this that echos the many movies of the 30s that depicted the lavish lifestyles of the wealthy, though the emphasis in this modern incarnation is less on raw luxury than on quality of life aspects that suddenly seem inaccessible to large numbers of formerly semi-competitive people. In my youth in the 80s and even the 90s, wealthy people were often presented in movies and other pop culture in a rather cartoonish aspect. The emphasis was on over the top or otherwise absurd and useless frivolities that millionaires indulged in, such as having a hundred sports cars, or a thousand pairs of shoes, or a specially installed room for tanning in the mansion. Qualititavely there was otherwise little difference in the life of such a person and the viewer at home. While the rich kid's boarding school, for example, may have had more thoroughly obnoxious snobs and girls who were into horseback riding, it was not implicit that it was academically superior  to any ordinary suburban high school, if anyone even cared about such things. Indeed the servants or other help were usually at least the intellectual equals of the master, so much so that anyone who took the message of these programs too seriously could not help but believe that fortunes were distributed in the world on a completely arbitrary basis. This trend I am noticing in more recent works is not merely a corrective to this faulty view that prevailed in the past, but probably is reflective of a change in the public imagination and sensibility where the wealthiest and most privileged people are concerned.

In Hereafter, for example, which has a rather bizarre plot about communicating with the dead, most of the appeal of the movie, which I cannot otherwise explain, is in its tasteful settings and what it shows people doing in them . There are three storylines, centered in Paris, San Francisco and London, and the movie opens with a modern French supercouple, a journalist/author and a television personality, at a resort in Thailand that is neither too grandiose nor too bourgeois, which seems to be the sweet spot of modern life. There is, objectively speaking, no little unpleasantness. The Thai vacation coincides with the famous tsunami, in which thousands of people are killed, and the London family consists of a drug addicted single mother living in a council estate with her twin boys, one of whom is killed by a truck. However, after being dead, or very nearly dead, for several minutes, the Frenchwoman caught in the tsunami ends up coming back to life and discovering priorities that are more attractive to the typical fan of the cinema; and in the London episode the surviving son begins traveling all around the city to various beautiful old buildings, train stations, libraries, auditoriums, doctors' offices, etc, in his quest to communicate with his dead brother. Even when the drug addicted mother consents to go to rehab, her facility is in a remodeled castle. We are told that Matt Damon's character works in a factory making $2,000 dollars a month (do they still have jobs like this in San Francisco? as least where the workers speak English as a native language?), but he lives at a much--much--higher tone than this situation implies. He has a very nice 1920sish apartment, where he lives all alone, in what looks to be a neighborhood in the area of the wharf. I am not very familiar with San Francisco, though I am guessing the area where this apartment seems to be is expensive. He takes a Italian cooking class from a distinguished Italian chef in which the students drink good wine and listen to classical music as they slice tomatoes, and everyone in the class is beautiful and well-educated--even the old people. Socializing with or even being around people who are good-looking and smart to any degree (and not being in a position of subservience to them) seems increasingly to be a mark of privilege. I suspect that even if I signed up for a class or joined an activity that had these kinds of perfectly developed persons, I would stand out as not belonging so egregiously that I doubt the desirable people would stay in the class or the outing club once they found I was to make part of the group.

Hot girl picked up in the cooking class in Hereafter

I almost forgot that Matt Damon is a rabid Charles Dickens fan. He chills out at night by listening to David Copperfield on books on tape and has the great man's portrait hanging up in his kitchen. Later on, after he gets laid off from his $2,000 a month job, he regroups by taking a trip to London, perhaps the world's most expensive city, and goes to Charles Dickens's house on Doughty Street (I was there too! It looks like they have re-arranged some of the displays since that time). This was all very corny, but I admit, it drew me in.

In the Ghost Writer the impression made is more of the untouchable power, knowledge, raw intellect and grim professionalism of the modern well-educated and connected. The movie is very persuasive on the point that pretty much all the core faculty and best graduates of places like Harvard and Oxbridge are in the employ of the CIA or Halliburton-like corporations and deeply involved in endless political machinations of a decidedly sinister character, to which they seem to devote an even greater part of their considerable intelligent energy than to their glittering academic careers (which only underscores how impressively brilliant they must be). While the bulk of the story takes place in a pretty ugly modernist bunker (albeit on the ocean on Martha's Vineyard) we do get to examine the interior of one particularly evil Harvard professor's perfectly maintained and appointed colonial home in one of New England's most desirable zip codes. Most of the movie was actually shot in Germany and France due to Roman Polanski's well known legal situation, but a second unit was dispatched to Provincetown and Wellfleet on Cape Cod to shoot some exteriors. As I have written before, all these years I have lived in New England, but I have never made it yet to Cape Cod. It looks great in this movie, though it appears to have been filmed in November, when it is unlikely I will have the time or opportunity to go down there anytime soon. Maybe this summer--Gloucester is also on my never been/to visit list, courtesy of the Captains Courageous movie, though Gloucester is on the north shore and I could go there as a daytrip. Cape Cod is too far to go for the day, and during the high season it is difficult, both due to expense and availability, to drop in for an overnight or a weekend on the spur of the moment. The summer is so short anyway when you have to work.

Ghost Writer star Olivia Williams: The favorite middle-aged actress of a certain kind of Anglophilic, book collecting, undersexed middle-aged dilettante intellectual. Born Camden Town, London, 1968

Another facet of this movie that was of personal interest was its depiction, somewhat unusual I think, of the professional aspect of the publishing industry and writers, people who are actually in it to make money, who take on projects and assignments for hire, and are expected to be able to execute those tasks competently. In other words it bears somewhat more resemblance to real life than the image of the writer wrestling with his typewriter in his film noir inspired New York apartment or cabin on a lake in Maine hoping to wrench something resembling literature out of it that I somehow latched onto. This more adult version has probably always been out there for me to pick up on, in movies and real literature itself, but when I was younger I would either not have seen it or thought it was somehow beneath consideration. It is true, it is not an aspect of writing that most English teachers, either in high school or college, treat as of much importance, or maybe they take it for granted that everyone understands the nature and importance of professionalism. I am not going to blame them for the oversight.

Troy (2004)

I am going to review this very quickly. I don't think this got especially good reviews, but if you were able to block out all of your pre-existing knowledge and feeling about The Iliad and the legend of the Trojan War and maybe ancient Greece itself the movie is somewhat successful as an entertainment. The actors are very good looking, have incredible bodies (assuming they are real), to the point that it would almost be ridiculous if they did not have sex with each other all the time, which they do. I like the casting of Diane Kruger as Helen of Troy--she is plausible--and I like the seduction scene where she lowers her top and invites the willing Paris to come and get it, though I don't think it happened quite that way back in the day. There is a similarly smoldering Briseis who holds a knife to the throat of Achilles, played by a supernaturally buff Brad Pitt. Needless to say he does not panic, but smiles devilishly and begins to massage her sensitive areas, and pretty quickly the knife falls harmlessly to the floor. After all this sex, in marked contrast to modern life, the women are wiped out and look as if they won't be able to rise from the bed in any kind of functional state for several days, while the men are up at the break of dawn as fresh as newly laid eggs ready for a full day of ancient warfare in open arid terrain in 90 degree heat.     

Diane Kruger as Helen. I like her look. Born Algermissen Germany, 1976 (around age 27 at the time of the filming this movie, which, though now ten years old, I still think of as being brand new. I have no sense of cultural time after about 1999).

All this aside, I think there is a certain point, depending on the amount of immersion in Homer and the study of Ancient Greece that you have had in your life, where it is hard to get past the many liberties taken with the traditional story (Agamemnon and Menelaus don't die during the war, obviously, and it's kind of hard to get past that here) and the general atmosphere of lightness with regard to the material. I don't want it to be over-reverent, but I would like to have seen more of a sense of the true epic quality of the story, which I did not get. The gods, just to name one example, play no part in the film at all, and they are kind of central to any understanding of the Trojan war story, I would think.

Rose Byrne (Briseis). Born Sydney, Australia, 1979
I like Peter O'Toole, but I don't like his teary-eyed, moist-lipped turn as Priam here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I Can't Do the Writers' Workshop Essay

My instinctive response was that something about the whole controversy was absurd, since two of the major reasons for the existence of writing programs, as far as I can tell, are for affluent white people who don't know what else to do with themselves to pretend to be engaged in a serious and prestigious pursuit, and for the colleges who run them to collect fees from these people. Of course nothing is absurd to people who are involved in things, and my sense of the less than brilliant dynamics and results of writing programs doesn't mean that they are not too white, or that they are not successful in some way that it is too subtle for me to discern. Still, it struck me as picking a fight over something that is not that desirable to infiltrate or emulate.

The social atmosphere at the writing camp that I went to, admittedly a small sample, did not strike me as suffering from excessive and rampant male heterosexuality. I was surprised by the number of energetic New York lawyer/doctor/finance types looking to break into the crime fiction market. These people did project masculine confidence, though as the origin of this was outside of their literary prowess or thorough domination of the humanities, it had the effect of being alien in the context of the conference.

The one thing that always ensnares me in these racial debates with regard to literature is that it seems to be almost implicitly assumed that there is a body of literature written by underrepresented groups that is almost as large as, and equal in quality to, that of the major national literatures of Europe, of which obtuse people like me, much to their detriment, are wholly, wilfully, embarrassingly, shamefully ignorant. My general feeling about this is that the people pressing these kinds of arguments, especially if they are enraged in some sense, can't possibly have enough of a grasp of European literary history, or much affection or respect for literature in general, or even reading, for me to have to take them wholly seriously. However I have long established that I don't see anything, whether hidden in shades of meaning or sitting out in plain view, that it would be useful for me to see.

I am falling behind on my movie notes. I wanted to keep those up to date.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Hi Public

I am working on the post about the writing workshops. It is taking me a long time. I cannot tell anymore if it is the time or the stamina I lack to get anything done. Even five years ago I used to be able to put something out a couple of times a week.

I have had a pretty good life, but I wish I could have had more fun, learned how to dance, met more girls. That is really my only regret. It would have been nice to have had a distinguished career, but even at age 44 I don't have any sense of what I might have been any good at, to the level of having a distinguished career, so I can't really regret what might not have been possible in the first place.

I like these videos for 1960s TV show dance parties:

Here's one for the 70s too. It may be even more amusing than the 60s ones, for the George Jefferson dance alone. I am clearly more of a 60s guy though. There is actually a picture of me dancing with my wife that looks very similar to the dance Dick Van Dyke was doing in his living room. Dick Van Dyke of course had a lot of real dance training, and was known for his talent in that area, so I sure I looked much worse than he did in the show.

While we're in this vein, here's a well done tribute to Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island that gets at the essence of its subject, always an achievement. My children had never seen this show, or any of the 60s junk that I grew up on. It came on when we were in Florida. They regarded it from an almost anthropological standpoint, but I think they found it interesting.

I used to like Bruce Springsteen when I was about fifteen. This was the time when he was most popular, but as he came out of the same part of the world and general part of society as I did, I gravitated to some of his older songs. After about a year though I pretty much stopped listening to him, 'and never went back', as the song goes. I don't think all of his stuff has aged well, but recently I listened to a few of his old songs that I think have held up. "Blinded by the Light" is a great song. Most of the album The River still resonates with me. That's a world, and people, and an emotional response to people that I recognize. I like 'Atlantic City' too, and the video is very reminiscent of the visual life I had at age fifteen, shambling around the not especially mean but decidedly forlorn streets of Northeast Philadelphia, Cottman and Rising Sun Avenues especially. I have never acually been to Atlantic City itself. I have been to every other place all around it, and I distinctly remember being on the southern end island just north of it (Barnegat?) and staring across the sound there at its high rises and whirling lights. But by the 70s and 80s it was too seedy for any of my relatives to consider taking me there.

I found another winsome Dianne Lennon video. This one has her children in it. Usually other people's children annoy me, but now I realize that that is because I don't really like the mother. Where I like the mother I find I am inclined to feel kindly toward the children, even though obviously I am not the father. But in most cases of this sort the father tends to be somebody like me, who got his girl by a combination of luck, choosing wisely, and finding somebody the extent of whose real worth was not widely appreciated by our stupid society (and yes, I think even someone like Dianne Lennon could fall into this latter category), and I cannot begrudge anybody for that.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

The Woman in the Dunes (1964) and a Teaser

I had recently read the book, which is considered an important enough work of 20th century Japanese literature to have been translated into English and reprinted numerous times in this country. I liked the deliberate style, and some aspects of the spare atmosphere and nature of the story, though in other instances I found it a little too spare, and was desirous of more meat, or at least a denser broth. I am aware that the Japanese are masters of subtlety and it is probably impossible that I could pick up on the multitudinous things that were really going on in the story; however I also did not have the sense of missing things of great import that I get sometimes in other books. I decided near the end that the story was an allegory about marriage, though probably it is a more general statement about contemporary life, in which marriage, especially at that time, was an overwhelming force in the lives of ordinary people.

The premise by the way is that a fairly regular man, a schoolteacher, though possessed of a certain amount of ego and self-regard about his abilities and status among men, while on a weekend insect collecting expedition to the seaside, is fooled into allowing himself to be lowered into a very deep hole in the sand where there is a house, occupied by a woman who is of the man's general age and not unattractive, from which hole he cannot afterwards get out.

The movie, which I had not heard of previously, is highly rated by the experts. It did not take long for me to accept it into my mental category of "1960s foreign art house masterpieces (as determined by other people)". It has that atmosphere through and through. I thought the material would translate well to film when I was reading the book, and the movie is highly faithful to the source (the author, Kobo Abe, wrote the screenplay). The director was Hiroshi Teshigahara, about whom I otherwise know nothing. The dominant motifs here are nihilism and alienation, and the atmosphere with the sand and the woman whom one is willing to relate to in an animal way but does not have much of a spritual bond with conveys this state of being well. There is also that very particular atmosphere of 1964 film productions here--a pivotal year, the spirit of which apparently carried across disparate nations, and one that has been important to me. In addition to all of the other major transitions during that year and the one after it--the Civil Rights act and reform of immigration law in America, the last year of high birthrates across the Western world, which have never recovered since, etc--it has always felt to me like the last year of black and white movies and television being the norm, and color being the departure. I know that there continued to be a number of landmark black and white movies in 1965 and '66, particularly overseas, but most of those have to me an archaic sense to me now, as if they were projects already in progress when everything went over to color, that the directors were allowed to finish. One thing about film is that technological advancements have often rather quickly brought an end to eras that artistically had not seemed to exhaust themselves. As time progresses in its still relatively young history, these eras grow shorter and more constricted within that history. The silent era now appears very brief, and silent movies as art were starting to get really outstanding in the last couple of years just as the form was becoming obsolete. I would not say that the same thing was happening with black and white movies or the studio system (which latter may indeed have exhausted itself), but I find it interesting to think that when I was a boy, in the 1970s, color television and movies were still somewhat new, and most of the history of these mediums, and a substantial number of the reruns that played on televison were in black and white, whereas now it is almost rare to find anything in black and white there. But anyway, the atmospheres of the famous black and white '64 films--Dr Strangelove and A Hard Day's Night are two examples that come to mind in addition to this one--all give off something of the vibe of the new era having arrived, the recovery from World War II being over, there is all this new technology and media, we are going to start addressing really egregious social problems and injustices because our conscience is kind of demanding it, etc, however, we are still wearing the clothes and acting in the attitudes of the era that we are moving out of (including black and white film) and then of course there is also the circumstance that the to me highly attractive social and cultural era that the 60s seemed to be building towards in these films was very short-lived, and was completely exploded by 1968. But I have to stop here.

I was going to offer some commentary on the Junot Diaz-writing workshops suck are too white controversy but I will save that for the next post.