Thursday, May 29, 2008
Parts of it are being filmed in Erie, of all places. This might be the one movie that I go to see this year.
Kris Kelvin is a psychologist who is requested to come to Solaris - a distant, mysterious planet - by a friend, Gibarian. When Kelvin arrives there, he knows things are a little off...Gibarian has killed himself, the robots are locked up, and the only other humans on the station (Sartorius and Snow) won't offer any information about what is going on. Kelvin is warned to be careful, to lock his doors, etc. but isn't told why. he soon finds out why: Kelvin falls asleep, and when he wakes up, there is Rheya, his wife who killed herself ten years prior. He is obviously scared and disturbed by this, and in his desperation he manages to get her on a little space craft and ship her out into space. He falls asleep again and when he wakes up, there is Rheya. But it isn't the same one that he just sent into orbit...it's a new copy.
As it turns out, everyone on board has had these visitors. you can't kill them, as it is discovered that they are made of some type of subatomic particles (or some other scientific anomaly) and therefore they are able to regenerate after an injury, including drinking liquid oxygen. They don't really sleep, they are never hungry, and they get violently angry when they are left alone. Sounds sort of like Gremlins, doesn't it? I wonder what happens if you get them wet... Anyhoo...Snow, Sartorius and Kelvin know it has something to do with the ocean, because the visitor thing didn't start happening until they began beaming x-rays at the ocean.
Ok...a little about the ocean. It covers the entire planet of Solaris and appears to be a single living organism. It shows some signs of being sentient, or conscious in some way (though different from our normal conception of "conscious"), and it reacts in unexpected ways to stimuli by creating physical phenomena that science cannot explain. It's a being (of some sort) capable - in theory - of communication, as are humans...but the two just don't speak the same language. And they don't have a universal translator like they do in Star Trek.
The rest of the novel deals with how to get rid of the copies, should they get rid of the copies, how to deal with the ocean, should they try more experiments, etc. In the end, Kelvin and Rheya don't live happily ever after. Snow and Sartorius create some type of ray gun (not really a ray gun, but we'll pretend it was) that would disintegrated the visitors, and Rheya asks to be destroyed. She began to have emotional issues when she realized that they called her Rheya, she looked, talked and acted like Rheya, but she wasn't Rheya; yet Kelvin, though he knew she wasn't actually his dead wife, projected all all his hopes and dreams and guilt about her death onto the copy. The last paragraph of the novel has Kelvin soon going home, exploring the ocean for the first and last time. He hopes that there might be something out there for him and Rheya: "I persisted in the faith that the time of cruel miracles was not past."
I found myself occasionally getting lost in the mumbo jumbo of symmetriads, asymmetriads, mimoids, etc. or whatever the heck all that was, and the theories and treatises on Solaris that Kelvin keeps reading. But it really wasn't important to the overall plot of the novel, and reading information about Solaris and Stanislaw Lem leads me to believe that the author put it in there more as a spoof of science and science fiction as opposed to it actually meaning anything specific in the grand scheme of the novel. The point was to show that humans know nothing about this planet and its ocean, but that hasn't stopped them from filling libraries with theories on what they planet is up to.
The point of Solaris really is that we don't go into space looking to find new worlds, new creatures, etc. We just want to find another version of ourselves. Here is this ocean...that they have somehow figured out is sentient - alive. And it does all this stuff the humans studying it don't understand. So they write books...and books...and books...and books filled with theories about what it is doing, how and why. They continuously try to communicate with it on their own terms. Why is the ocean sending the astronauts replicas of people out of their past? There must be some reason...is it cruelty? Is it because the ocean thinks that that is what they want? WHAT IS THE MEANING? I think in the end of the novel, it is clear that there was no meaning. Somehow the ocean was able to tap into the mind of those people on the station and found these people there that they loved...so the ocean replicated it. It wasn't trying to be malicious, or nice, or whatever...it just was. And any continued search for a meaning, a purpose, for logical human-like communication was futile.
Most people who enjoy reading and watching movies usually have an opinion on which to do first: watch or read. Most people I know who do both prefer to read then watch. I am the opposite - I like to watch then read. My attempts at doing it the other way around usually fail in terms of my appreciation for the film...I simply lose interest. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and Carrie (based on Sister Carrie, not the Stephen King one) come to mind immediately: an hour into those movies I was doing other things. I'm not even sure I watched all of Carrie. This also happened with Paul Theroux's Mosquito Coast and Evelyn Waugh's Scoop - both books I generally liked, but when it came time to watch the movie, I was already over it. There are some film adaptations, however, that if I hadn't read the book, I wouldn't have had a clue what was going on. Of Human Bondage for example. That is also how I felt with Steven Soderbergh's 2002 adaption of Solaris starring George Clooney, which I watched at the novel's half-way point.
I remember seeing the trailer for this movie, which was pitched as being a sweeping love story by the producer of Titanic...Ghost in Space, if you will. I imagine that a person who went to see this Solaris based on that premise would be very disappointed, and probably confused. The background information that is presented in the novel, where it is clear that the ocean is creating these replicas, was essentially left out of the film and I would have been totally lost as to where Kelvin's dead wife came from without the information from the book. Sure, Lem does have a compelling love story in Solaris...Kelvin gets a second chance to make things right with Rheya, but in the movie it is presented as a real possibility that Kelvin could return to earth with her (and he intends to). In the book, though Kelvin and Rheya discuss the life they will have on earth when they return, they both know it isn't possible due to the instability of her physical makeup and also thanks to Earth's extraterrestrial immigration requirements. There is a futility, and hence a sadness about her return to Kelvin's life in that they know it is only temporary.
In response to Soderbergh's movie, Lem himself stated, "the book was not dedicated to erotic problems of people in outer space...I shall allow myself to repeat that I only wanted to create a vision of human encounter with something that certainly exists...but cannot be reduced to human concepts, images or ideas." He goes on to say something to the effect that had he intended Solaris to be a love story he would have called it Love in Outer Space instead. Maybe it should have been "Love in Outer Space, starring George Clooney's naked bum - twice!"
I titled this entry "...and One and a Half Movies" because there is an earlier Russian version of Solaris (1972), which I tried to watch tonight. I'll be honest - I feel asleep for about an hour in the middle of it, and then decided to finish Book #5 of Dance to the Music of Time. Had I actually watched the film, this post might have been called "...and Two Movies +" because the Russian version is almost 3 hours long. The actor who played Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is no George Clooney, and if there is a shot of his posterior in this version, I'm glad I was either asleep/not paying attention. I will say that based on what I actually watched of it, it was closer to Lem's original than Soderberghs. I guess maybe I should have watched it before I read the book.
"It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.
"The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall."
This is how Don Delillo begins his 9/11 book, Falling Man. Wow. I was blown away (no pun intended, really) by the opening paragraphs of this novel. Two years ago, I had never heard of Delillo. But recently, it seems his name is everywhere, all over my "book folder"... Underworld, White Noise, Mao II, Libra, etc. I got so tired of hearing "Don Delillo," seeing "Don Delillo" that I just decided to pick up one of his books and read the damn thing. And so I picked up Falling Man. I open the book and I'm greeted by, "It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night."
The prose was restrained and distant, reminiscient in some ways of Cormac McCarthy. I'm not sure if DeLillo's writing is always like this - for some reason I doubt it. In the beginning, it was poetic, beautiful. By the end it didn't have the same effect. I don't think it's because I got used to it...I don't know why I felt that way. Once it devolved into Keith's poker tornaments to recapture something he had before the attacks, I lost interest. The book is best when describing what Keith experiences during 9/11, and from there, it goes down hill. I wish DeLillo had further developed Justin and "The Siblings" searching the sky for "Bill Lawton." I felt that that was the creepiest part of the book...the attack's effects on the children and how they process it and come to terms with it.
A book like this naturally brings up the question, what were you doing that morning? I was asleep...dreaming of the wind blowing things around...I was trying get all my stuff together so it wouldn't blow away - everything blowing around. I woke up, got my applesauce and OJ for breakfast and turned on the television. It must have been right after the second plane hit the towers. Only one of my three roomates was home, Lateefah...the rest had left for classes without informing me that the f*cking world was coming down. Lateefah gets on the phone with her friends...she's on the phone yelling "We are under attack and you're worried about getting your hair done???? We are under attack!!!!" Albert aka Rebekah comes back from class, and I say, "Did you know about this?" She says, "yes." "Why didn't you wake me up?" I was so angry that no one had woken me up. I felt slightly like my grandfather who was in bed with TB when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I wish I could have asked him if he felt like he had missed something...if his inability to participate in a meanigful way frustrated him at all. That was how I felt - out of the loop. Didn't we all just want to get on a bus (not a plane) to NYC and do something? Falling Man brought all that back to me, which I had mostly forgotten about.
Friday, May 23, 2008
Ah, what to say about Nostromo? Even in the last chapters, I was unsure of my feelings towards the novel. My liking or disliking it hinged on how it ended - it was that type of book. The first 200 pages or so (out of about 350) were terribly boring and murky and difficult. But I trudged through, and it suddenly became exciting. Out of the blue - action! A revolution! A boat full of silver escaping into the night!
This is a hard book to try to summarize, because so much happens. In general, the plot is this: Sulaco, a port town in Costaguana, an imaginary South American banana republic, is home to a very profitable silver mine run by westerners. There is a revolution, and the leader of the country (Ribiera) is overthrown by a man named Montero. The town fathers know that the revolutionaries will be heading their way because of the silver. They send Nostromo, a trusted Italian sailor known for his exploits, and Decoud, a reporter (whose life is in danger because of what he wrote about Montero and the revolution) on a boat with the mined silver ingots, trying to reach a ship that had left a few days prior. While on the boat, the two men discover a stow-away, Hirsch, a businessman from another city. He had hid on the boat earlier in the day out of fear of the revolutionaries. Montero's brother reaches the town over land, as does Sotillo who comes by boat after the silver. On his way to port, Sotillo runs into the little boat carrying Hirsch, Decoud and Nostromo. Hirsch is thrown overboard and gets picked up by Sotillo and tells him about the silver. Sotillo doesn't believe him. Decoud and Nostromo are able to get to a deserted inlet and burry the silver. Nostromo swims back to town, leaving Decoud with the silver. The rest of the story is of course what happens next, and is too complicated and detailed to try to explain.
There are a number of different subtexts and themes that probably can only be fully appreciated by multiple readings. One of these overaching theme is termed "material insterests". Nostromo, whose name is a butchered phrase meaning "our man" is obsessively concerned about what important people say about him, and has always been at the disposal of the "material interests." His jobs have included saving the disposed of Ribiera, defending the harbor from a riotous mob, and serving as "camp master" for the railway workers. One character, Teresa, poignantly states that he is "paid in words" - his reward is always praise, increased fame, a good reputation, etc. - never money. While he is eager to do anything to preserve or enhance his reputation, he seems annoyed that the owners of the mine have sent him on this life-threatening mission with the silver, and Nostromo is clear that he intends to make sure that he is well compensated when the silver is safe. He feels betrayed by those he trusted, a feeling that is only reiterated when he returns without the silver - everyone assumes that it is at the bottom of the sea - and they say, "oh well, the silver didn't matter." If it didn't matter, Nostromo thinks, why did you make me risk my life to protect it? In the end, the lure of the hidden silver is too much for Nostromo, and his greed for it eventually leads to his death in the end, as the novel takes an unexpected turn towards a love triangle between him and two sisters.
Joseph Conrad uses an unusual narrative technique in Nostromo. In the beginning the story bounced back and forth in time, and I was having trouble following along. But once I got it, it wasn't so difficult, particularly once Nostromo and Decoud left in the boat. Conrad tells the story from different points of view. For example: what happened to Nostromo and Decoud from time A to time B; next, what happened to Dr. Monygham from time A to time B. Then Dr. Monygham and Nostromo meet up, and we have a narrative from time B to time C. Following that, the story of Sotillo from time A to time C. Without warning, we are taken to Captain Mitchell giving a dignitary a tour around Sulaco a few years later (say, time S). Through this technique, the reader learns what happened overall during the revolution, who died, who succeeded, etc. and then we are plunged back into the narrative (at time C)...we already know what will happen thanks to Mitchell, and now we are going to find out how. Of course this at times makes for confusing reading, but it was interesting once I figured out what was going on. Off the top of my head, I can't remember a novel in which time is broken up like this without any apparent break (such as a chapter). Many novels jump around in time, but those changes are usually delineated in some fashion. Not so in Nostromo.
Joseph Conrad is a really interesting figure. He's actually Polish, and couldn't speak English fluently until his twenties...and he apparently spoke with such a thick accent that his acquaintances couldn't understand him. He occasionally became "hysterical, chattering and screaming like a monkey, [calming] himself by compulsively brushing his hair." He disliked Herman Melville "with whom, to his disgust, he was repeatedly compared" and was friends with Ford Maddox Ford, Stephen Crane, and my arch-nemesis, Henry James. He even wrote a whole article about the appreciation of James's work, in which he states, "After some twenty years of acquaintance with Mr. Henry James's work, it grows into an absolute conviction which, all personal feeling apart, brings a sense of happiness into one's artistic existence." Yes, a sense of happiness ONLY WHEN IT IS OVER! Conrad's wife, Jessie, has been described as - I'm sure with love - Conrad's "lump of a wife" by Virginia Woolf and by H.G. Wells as "a Flemish thing from the mud flaps" (I love HG Wells. He said mean things about James as well. Was he the Capote of his generation?). Despite Conrad's delusional affection towards James (ok, maybe he was a nice guy, I don't know, but I enjoy taking punches at him) I still like him.
So, I think I liked Nostromo - I'm still not really sure yet. I know that I liked The Secret Agent better, but that might just be personal preference. Nostromo was a lot different than I thought it would be, in all aspects. I found it to be a difficult book, one that has so many layers that it calls for rereading to be truly understood. I don't know if I would call it one of the masterpieces of 20th-century literature, but it was good.
-- Billie Holiday gets it. No matter what is happening in your life, she understands. Same with Nina Simone.
--I have two theme songs: "Runaway" by Del Shannon and “Desperado” by The Eagles. If I had a third, it would be “I Wanna Be Free” by the Monkees. Do you sense a theme here?
--My favorite music: The Raveonettes, Portishead, The Monkees, exotica music (like Martin Denny and Les Baxter), 1950s-early 1960s pop, and the Ultra Lounge series. If you ever pass someone in a little red Nissan blasting "Music to Be Murdered By" (the theme to Alfred Hitchcock Presents), it's probably me.
--My musical guilty pleasures include 80s pop, early Marilyn Manson, Def Leppard...among others.
--I occasionally enjoy driving to work listening to "Gay Spirits" by David Rose. There is something incredibly satisfying in commuting to space age pop music.
--My grandmother used to sing me the following songs: "Swingin' on a Star," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" and "Mareseatoats and Doeseatoats". My mother used to sing me protest songs from the 1960s. I'm sure that this had an effect on my personality, though I'm not sure in what way.
--My childhood heroes include Cindy Lauper, Boy George, Michael Jackson (from his Thriller days), and Davy Jones. I think that this explains a lot.
--My favorite TV show is Mad Men. I am in love with Donald Draper. Then again, who isn’t? My favorite tv show of all time is Just the Ten of Us.
--I own the book Hard Boiled: Great Lines from Classic Noir Films. I have made attempts to memorize these quotes and use them in conversation, but have never succeeded. I’m still waiting for the opportunity to say, “Bourbon straight with a bourbon chaser.”
--My favorite movies include The English Patient, House of Fools, Streetcar Named Desire, Some Like It Hot, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and O Brother Where Art Thou? The best movie I have ever seen is Miracle in the Rain. It has been my favorite movie since I watched it at my grandmother’s house 20 years ago, and it will always be my favorite. I have watched it countless times, and it still makes me ball uncontrollably.
--I have much love and respect for the films of Jean Luc Goddard, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, and Mel Brooks. But no matter how much I try to like Woody Allen, I just can’t stand him. EXCEPT Midnight In Paris...one of the best movies I've ever seen.
--I will always watch certain movies when I see them on television. These include Willy Wonka, The Wizard of Oz, Jurassic Park, and Karate Kid.
--Though Zeppo was clearly the better looking one, I have a total crush on Groucho Marx. I suppose it's the old adage that humor really is the most important thing.
--I love love love Rocky Horror Picture Show.
--I also love classic animated disney movies. My favorite is Alice in Wonderland. I buy all the DVDs when they come out. It's really sad.
Food and Drink
--My favorite alcoholic drink is Red Death, mostly for literary reasons. My record is six in one night – well, it may have been more but I lost count. That did not turn out so well.
--I also enjoy Malibu and Diet, Jameson on the rocks, and Old Fashioneds. No wussy drinks for me!
--My favorite beer is Fransizkaner Hefeweizen.
--I hate most white wine. That statement is not meant to include champagne, which of course isn't technically white wine, but I wanted to be clear. I sometimes eat potato chips with champagne, a la The Seven Year Itch. I highly recommend it - both the movie and the potato chips.
--My favorite cuisine is Indian. This is followed by Moroccan, followed by Middle Eastern food. I am a huge fan of bastilla, falafel, and gulab jamun.
--My favorite Pennsylvania German eats include sauerkraut, chicken pot pie, chicken & waffles, shoe fly pie, and Montgomery pie. My family always made potato candy as well, but I don't know if that's Deitsch or not (no, I did not just mean Deutsch). I don't do scrapple though (or soupies).
--It would be impossible for me to describe something as tasting "too sweet." But potato candy gets close.
--Ketchup is my favorite condiment. I put it on macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. My whole family does this. Though there is contention about the macaroni and cheese - do you put it off to the side, or on top? I'm with the side contingency. There really are arguments about this.
--One of my earliest memories is dancing around the living room to "Saturday's Child" by the Monkees. I thought that they had written it for me. I would not be who I am today without the Monkees.
--I have had a variety of nicknames throughout my life, including Smidget and Protoplasm. Don't ask.
--I was one of the fattest kids in 4th-7th grade. I weigh less now than I did when I was 10. I weighed less at 9 months pregnant than I did in 6th grade.
--When I was 12, I wanted to be a professor of comparative religion. I was already studying Buddhist and Hindu texts.
-- Growing up, I attended an evangelical/fundamentalist church. Rachel in the documentary Jesus Camp reminds me of how I was when I was a youngster. Very terrifying. Thank god (or not) for Thomas Paine.
--My best friend from second grade on killed herself in 1997, when we were juniors in h.s. I still have the candle I was going to give her for xmas that year. My grandfather died 10 days later. I miss them both every day.
Places I’ve Been
--My favorite place in the world is a little bar in Pirates Alley, New Orleans next door to William Faulkner's old house. I drank absente there with two guys from Colorado that I met because I went to take picture of Faulkner's house (it's now a bookstore) and they invited me to sit with them and have a drink. That was a great night. We all went together to a little restaurant somewhere and ate alligator. Later on, I tried to get up the courage to ask a hot dog vendor on Bourbon Street if anyone ever called him Ignatius but I didn't. He looked a little scary.
--I would love to live in NYC...or at least have an extended stay there.
--Though this may sound wimpy, I decided after my honeymoon in Quebec that I never want to travel to a non-English-speaking country, unless I am part of a tour group with a guide or with a native speaker, and maybe not even then. The feeling of isolation almost gave me a panic attack, even though I can speak/read French.
--My favorite philosophers are Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Nietzsche. I was born an existentialist. I have at times (both in high school and in college existentialism units/classes) wondered if my teachers were stealing my journals and using them as class notes - Dr. Hales are you reading this?! Seriously, sometimes it was almost word for word.
--In the last few years, I have become very interested in the theories and writings of Joseph Campbell. Love him.
--I wish I knew more about astrophysics. I am completely enamored with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Director of the Hadyen Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. I would love to have a beer with him and talk about black holes.
--In case you couldn't tell, I'm such a nerd, and I'm proud of it :-)
Sunday, May 18, 2008
This is the first Taylor movie I have seen. I think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is next on my netflix list. Is she this good in everything?
It feels like I've been reading this book forever, mostly due to scheduling issues. This weekend, however, I had a marathon read the final 3/4 of the book. It's not difficult, and when I actually spent the time to devote more than a few mintues to reading it, it went very quickly.
The book follows Isadora Wing, a married 29-year old Jewish woman on a trip to Vienna with her husband, Bennett, for a psycholanalyst convention (he's the psycholanalyst, she's along to write an article about it). While there, she meets Adrian, a British psycholanalyst who sweeps her off her feet. It's pretty much Portnoy's Compaint for women. Henry Miller thought that it was a woman's Tropic of Cancer, and I can definately see the connections, but this was much more readable, and the importance (to some degree or other) of Jewishness and the prevelance of analysts made me feel the novel's link to Roth was much more obvious. The second paragraph in Chapter nine begins, "When I think of my mother, I envy Alexander Portnoy. If only I had a real Jewish mother - easily pigeonholed and filed away - a real literary property."
This year, I've been reading a lot of books about people my own age...I'm not doing it on purpose, it's just kind of happening. Rabbit Angstrom, Katharina Blum, and Isadora Wing are all generally my age. But Isadora Wing...I get her. The pervasive anxiety about life, about marriage - what it means, who its with, and what type of relationship you should have with your spouse, the insane ex-husband, but particularly her issues with babies - I completely identify. "How did people decide to get pregnant, I wondered. It was such an awesome decision. In a way, it was such an arrogant decision. To undertake responsbility for a new life when you had no way of knowing what it would be like. I assumed that most women got pregnant without thinking about it because if they ever once considered what it really meant, they would surely be overwhelmed with doubt. I had none of that blind faith in chance which other women seemed to have. I always wanted to be in control of my fate. Pregnancy seemed like a tremendous abdication of control." Exactly. In my experience as a woman in her mid-turning-to-late twenties, most of my friends (who are also mid-turning-to-late twentysomethings) are in one of three camps: those that want children TODAY...they cannot get pregnant SOON ENOUGH; those that want children eventually, but are not really worried about it; and those that simply don't want children. I, on the other hand, have been wracked with uncertainty for a number of years. It's a love-hate relationship with the idea of pregnancy - on the one hand, the biological desire, which is completely illogical and inexplicable, and on the other the thought of the commitment, responsibility, body and relationship changes that will inevitably occur...am I ready for all of that? Can one ever actually truly ready for that? Probably not. But that doesn't stop me from losing sleep over the whole thing. I felt that Jong hit the nail on the head in describing a lot of what it's like to be a female in her late 20s. I might not have - or want - the exact life that is portrayed in Isadora Wing, but I can definately relate.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Lambs of London is a fun romp through late 18th-century London in search of lost Shakespeare notes, papers, poems, seals, and plays. The Lambs of the title are Charles and Mary Lamb, famous for Tales from Shakespeare. They meet William Ireland, who lures Charles into his father's antiquarian book shop with a book that was once owned by Shakespeare. William has found a secret stash of Shakespeare curiosities, including some deeds, a will, a love letter, and eventually a lost poem and play. Or did he really "find" them?
Ackroyd, in his disclaimer, is clear that he has taken liberty with the Lamb family story. Mary really did kill her mother with a kitchen knife, but Charles died before she did (it is depicted in the novel that she died first).
This book was a light-hearted, easy read - and very enjoyable. I don't typically read this type of novel - I'm much more interested in the dark stuff, and when I do venture out of my "comfort zone," I am usually disappointed. So, I crawl back into my hole of melancholy literature. But this one was well written and just plain fun to read. I good break from Nostromo. Definately recommended.
Sunday, May 11, 2008
The week that I was to graduate from high school, the circus came to town. They ran an ad in the newspaper saying that anyone who wanted to join the circus should be at a certain place that Friday (I was to graduate on Saturday). I have always been subject to a wanderlust - a restlessness about my life and its conventional trajectory. I had my summer job lined up, I was going to college in the fall, etc. - all things I was not particularly excited about. But the circus...now that was a place for me! In my romantically inclined imagination, I envisioned myself showing up that Friday at the designated spot, suitcase in hand, ready to hop on the train. I don't know if there actually was a train, or if they were actually going to leave that day, but so it went in my mind. But my mother would not let me go. I'm sure that my interest in joining the circus was only half-hearted - a way out as opposed to a desire to be in the circus - because if I had really wanted to do it, I would have regardless. But I didn't. I often think back to that decision not to bother, and wonder what course my life might have taken if I had shown up with my suitcase. It's like tootsie pops...the world will never know.
Besides seriously, but briefly, considering it as a career move, I have always been fascinated by the circus. I almost took a clown class when I was middle school (which was canceled since I was the only person who signed up), and I love the 1932 movie Freaks ("We accept her! One of Us! We accept her!"). So I was all excited about a circus story. But Water for Elephants was disappointing.
The writing was so-so. It wasn't so terrible that is was distracting (like Suite Francaise), but it wasn't fabulous either. There was something about the dialog in particular that didn't seem right, like Gruen was unable to capture something inherent in conversation...what exactly it was I couldn't say. Like dialog in a movie or drama in which the actors can't act...it's forced or unnatural. I wanted to be moved by this book, and there where moments where I felt like I could almost cry...I was to that point of emotional involvement, and then...let down. The point would be dropped, or undeveloped, or the dialog would get in the way. Damn, almost had me there. And there were themes that could have been developed further, backgrounds better explained, which would have given more depth to the characters. For example, what was the deal with Camel and his family? It was mentioned that it had something to do with his soldiering in WWI, but what exactly happened?
And Walter... I really wanted to hear about Walter's experience as a dwarf during those times, and at the circus. A cousin of mine, Faye, was also a dwarf during the depression, and the circus had tried to buy her too, but her parents wouldn't sell her. Her life would have been Walter's life. I never got a chance to talk to her about her experience during those times (she died earlier this year), and I felt that Gruen had a chance to tell a little bit of that story in Water for Elephants (and the stories of the other performers and workers) but she simply left it out. I mean, come on - Walter, Camel and Jacob are in that car for how many countless hours and it's never discussed?)...this was to the detriment of my ability to relate to or be invested in the characters.
One point of the novel really annoyed me. August, the "equestrian director" is subject to bouts of extreme violence, cruelty and jealousy. Rather than just accepting this as part of his personality, or that he is an abusive person, end of story, Gruen feels the need to characterize him, explicitly, as a paranoid schizophrenic. However, I don't believe an unmedicated schizophrenic could have functioned in August's capacity. Perhaps there is a case to be made that he had dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personalities) or was even bipolar, but not schizophrenia. It seems clear that he must have been diagnosed as such (pg 265), and if he was, I doubt he would have continued in his important capacity at the circus - it wouldn't have been simply 'worked around,' he would have been institutionalized...this is besides the fact that Marlena describes August as being "glamorous in the way only an equestrian director can be." (pg 222) Really? I never imagined equestrian directors as glamorous...but maybe I've never met the right one?
There seems to be some controversy on the internet regarding whether it was Marlena who killed August instead of Rosie. I don't understand where this comes from. On page 326, Jacob states the following: "I was never entirely sure whether Marlena knew - there was so much going on in the menagerie at that moment, that I have no idea what she saw...Rosie may have been the one who killed August, but I also wanted him dead." What could be more obvious?
New York Times reviewer Elizabeth Judd characterizes Water for Elephants in the following way:
"Gruen's prose is merely serviceable, and she hurtles through cataclysmic events, overstuffing her whiplash narrative with drama (there's an animal stampede, two murders and countless fights). She also asserts a grand passion between Jacob and Marlena that's never convincingly demonstrated."
Cleveland Plain Dealer reviewer, Karen Long wrote that Gruen batters readers "with barely serviceable, primary-color prose, full of sobbing, shrieking, fighting, boozing and whoring that comes off at the clip of an exaggerated Saturday-morning cartoon." While there has been a lot of enthusiasm and praise for this book, I tend to agree with Judd and Long on this one. It just wasn't that great.
I know that what books any individual likes is extremely subjective, and I shouldn't be judgemental of someone who really likes a book that I don't. But at some point in art (and literature, like music and film, is a form of art, or can be a form of art), there has to be an objective standard. For example, can one compare the works of Michelangelo, Picasso, Monet, etc. with the works of Marcel Duchamp or Cy Twombly? Yes - and the first group is infinitely better than the second - end of argument. I don't try to be snobbish about it, but seriously, there are some books that are - not even considering the plot - simply written better than others. On this point, another internet reviewer said that Water for Elephants is one of the best books that s/he has read in the last decade, second only to Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. Now, I have not read Gilead, but if Water for Elephants is the second best book that you have read in ten years, wow. What the hell else are your reading? Seriously, send me a list, because I don't want to read those books.
Water for Elephants is totally ripping off Sophie's Choice.
Thursday, May 8, 2008
Gertrude, from Hamlet
Mrs. Thenadier, Les Miserables
Hester Prynne, The Scarlet Letter
Becky Sharp, Vanity Fair
Daisy Buchanan, The Great Gatsby
Other mothers in literature, (for whom I couldn't find a photo):
--Pulkhenia Alexandrovna Raskolnikova, Crime and Punishment
--Irene Reilly, Confederacy of Dunces
--Mrs. Ramsay, To the Lighthouse
--Charlotte Haze, Lolita
--Mrs. Bennett, Pride and Prejudice
and my personal favorite lit mom:
Ma Joad, from The Grapes of Wrath
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Last night I finished book #4 (At Lady Molly's) of A Dance to the Music of Time. I am really enjoying this movement much more than the first. I am still slightly frustrated by Nick's non-involvement in the story. For the most part, nothing really happens in the stories, so far as a traditional plot is concerned. Instead, things happen 'off-stage,' and we the reader learn about them through the gossip of the various characters. Nick, however, only appears to be the collector of the gossip, and his life is virtually left out. In book 4, we are introduced to Isobel Tolland, who Nick makes clear he is going to marry. By the end of the book, they have become engaged. You would think that in between, we would have some details as to their courtship...or at least that he would have taken her along to one of the parties he frequents. But no...they meet at her brother Erridge's place (where Nick is with Quiggin and Mona) and a few chapters later, they are suddenly engaged. As was the problem with his tryst with Gypsy Jones, Nick skirts around the issue of his being engaged, refusing to give details. This is all he says: "A background of other events largely obscured the steps leading up to my engagement to Isobel Tolland." (203). It's like your closest friend mentioning off-handedly in a casual conversation that he has just become engaged to someone you never really heard him talking about: "What? You're engaged? When did this happen? I didn't even know you two were dating!"
I'm getting through this movement a lot quicker than the first, which is mostly because I enjoy it now...I get it. I feel invested in the characters, if for no other reason than that I'm spending so much time with them. "Yeah, I knew that thing between Mona and Quiggin wasn't going to last. He's so...Quiggin-like. No wonder she up and went to China with that Tolland weirdo. And Widmerpool...did he really expect us the believe that Mildred was actually going to marry him? What a lark!"
Speaking of Widmerpool...ok, he was engaged to Mildred and then they broke it off due to something surrounding their first physical encounter. It's not clear exactly what happened...we only know of it through gossip, of course, and we know Widmerpool will never speak of what really happened, because he's so wrapped up in himself and his image (like Gen. Conyers said, he's probably a narcissist) he would never admit to failing in that department. Anyhoo... Nick, when contemplating Widmerpool, who kind of approaches Nick for advice on whether Dogdene (someone's estate) is a romantic enough place for, you know (they never come out and say anything, but you know what's going on - or at least I know now...I didn't in the first movement...but I digress)...when contemplating what Widmerpool said in that instance, Nick asks us the following: "Could it be that his love affairs had always fallen short of physical attack?" (pg 195). This confuses me because Widmerpool was mixed up in the business with Gypsy, when he had to pay for her abortion. (see here) While the movie version made me realize that Gypsy was pregnant prior to Widmerpool coming onto the scene, I assumed that they had had relations, particlarly because he mentions being indiscrete in the affair. But from Nick's comments, I wonder if he just paid for the abortion for god knows what reason...maybe she would blackmail Widmerpool and tell everyone it was his? Maybe he just lied to Nick about why he paid? Or did Nick forget about that mess when he made the comment? I wish that I could ask him what the hell is going on.
Saturday, May 3, 2008
I don't typically write about non-fiction books (mostly because I don't typically read non-fiction books), and I try not to blog about political subjects because I don't want to alienate anyone who comes here to read about books, not about politics. However, Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy was such a great book that I have to write about it...and in doing so, I must discuss political issues on some level.
The subtitle of this book is Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, and I felt that the book was really more about Raunch Culture than Female Chauvinist Pigs...but I suppose perhaps some definitions are in order here. Raunch culture is everywhere: Girls Gone Wild, Girls Next Door (the show about Hugh Hefner's girlfriends) and the resurgence of the Playboy Bunny, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian (who are both pretty much famous only because they have sex tapes), Rock of Love (the Bret Michaels show on VH1)...the list obviously goes on. Female chauvinist pigs are the women who embrace this culture, and in some cases participate in it - essentially, taking a "guys-eye view of pop culture."
"The proposition that having the most simplistic, plastic stereotypes of female sexuality constantly reiterated throughout our culture somehow proves that we are sexually liberated and personally empowered has been offered to us, and we have accepted it." (pg. 197) While I always found something slightly uncomfortable with what is being presented on television as an empowered female - Holly, "Hef's" now-ex-girlfriend, for example - ...always getting up from the show and looking in the mirror and feeling off (is it guilt for watching such brain candy? is it self-evaluation in light of the fact that I don't look like those women who pose in Playboy? Why was I fine until I turned on this show and now I'm feeling insecure?)...After reading this book I now see the danger to myself and to women in general that is implied by raunch culture, and the danger that is the outcome of the behavior that constitutes raunch culture. The common belief of the day (or justification for women's participation) is that it is empowering: posing naked for a magazine, being a stripper (or learning how to strip), flashing your boobs for Girls Gone Wild, is all seen as taking control of one's sexuality...of attaining power. It is the "new feminism" and women who do not support or participate in it are Puritanical, uptight, etc.
But Levy clearly refutes the idea that these behaviors lead to the attainment of power: "Why is this the 'new feminism' and not what it looks like: the old objectification?" (pg 81). She goes on to state, "The new conception of raunch culture as a path to liberation rather than oppression is a convenient (and lucrative) fantasy with nothing to back it up. Or, as Susan Brownmiller put it when I asked her what she made of all this, 'You think you're being brave, you think you're being sexy, you think that you're transcending feminism. But that's bullshit.'" (pg. 82). What actual power has anyone ever gained by taking off their clothes for the enjoyment of men?
This is not the new feminism. It is not feminism, it is not female empowerment, and it does not advance the cause of women besides making certain careers - like stripper or porn star - more acceptable. Instead, it is the commodification of sexuality, and by making women's sexuality something to be consumed or bought - and the justification that it is using sexuality to attain power - isn't that a form of prostitution?
Sexiness is now something that can be bought: we are constantly being sold one particular type of sexuality, and we are buying it. People might come up with some logic as to why breast implants are to please themselves and not the opposite sex, but let's be honest, baring medical reasons, why would anyone get them - especially the clown boobs - except to appear more attractive? And more attractive to whom? "Making sexiness into something simple, quantifiable makes it easier to explain and market. If you remove the human factor from sex and make it about stuff - big fake boobs, bleached blonde hair, long nails, poles, thongs - then you can sell it. Suddenly, sex requires shopping; you need plastic sugery, peroxide, a manicure, a mall." (pg. 184). Advertisers (or somebody) are taking what is inherent in a female (sexuality, in a number of different forms), making it into a product, and selling it back to us.
What makes all this worse is that women are buying into it ourselves: we are actively and willfully participating in our own commodification, in our own subjugation, and at the same time creating an image of womanhood that is detrimental to our own advancement - effectively rebuilding the glass ceiling that is the way to attaining ACTUAL power. As Levy states, "If you start to think about women as if we're all Carrie from Sex and the City, well, the problem is: You're not going to elect Carrie to the Senate or to run your company. Let's see the Senate fifty percent female; let's see women in decision-making positions - that's power. Sexual freedom can be a smokescreen for how far we haven't come." (pg. 195) And what does participating in our subjugation make us? Uncle Toms: "deliberately uphold[ing] the stereotypes assigned to [our] marginalized group in the interest of getting ahead with the dominant group." (pg 105). Jenna Jameson is not Joan of Arc (implying a strong female who bucks the patriarchal system in the most dramatic way)...she is Uncle Tom.
Raunch culture also leads to the loss of identity for women. A woman is pictured nude in Playboy...how does this help you attain real power? Does anyone listen to someone just because they were in Playboy? No. The people looking at her "pictorial" aren't wondering what she thinks about illegal immigration, or the economy, or constitutional law. And the more that some women seek to objectify themselves, the women who have something to say about these issues will be increasingly ignored.
"The women who are really being emulated and obsessed over in our culture right now - strippers, porn stars, pinups - aren't even people. They are merely sexual personae, erotic dollies from the land of make-believe. In their performances, which is the only capacity in which we see these women we so fetishize, they don't even speak. As far as we know, they have no ideas, no feelings, no political beliefs, no relationships, no past, no future, no humanity...instead of advancing the causes of women's liberation movement and the sexual revolution, the obdurate prevalence of raunch in the mainstream has diluted the effect of both sex radicals and feminists, who've seen their movement's images poluarlized while their ideals were forgotten." (196)
This point is brought home most eloquently by Hugh Hefner himself:
[Levy writes,] "Women were meant to be ornamental entertainment, not partners in wildness, and their complicity - their obedience - was policed accordingly in the Playboy empire...A double standard was unapologetically built into [Hefner's] philosophy. In the first issue of Playboy Hefner's introduction read, 'If you're somebody's sister, wife, or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.' [Hefner later said]: "I do not look for equality between man and woman...I like innocent, affectionate, faithful girls. Socially, mentally, I enjoy more being with men. When I want to speak, to think, I stay with men."
I won't get into the equation of using sexuality for the attainment of power (in all its forms) to prostitution, but I think that a strong case for it could be made. The case could be made based on the quotes from Jenna Jameson alone. I also didn't really get into how the female chauvinist pigs contribute to all of this. Additionally, I don't want to get into a lengthy discussion of how raunch culture presents us with only one form or idea of sexiness, of sexuality, when there are so many other forms out there to explore, but I do want to include this extremely insightful quote of Levy's which makes that point:
"Looking like a stripper or a Hooters waitress or a Playboy bunny is only one, very specific kind of sexual expression. Is it the one that turn us - or men - on the most? We would have to stop endlessly reenacting this one raunchy script in order to find out...We have to ask ourselves why we are so focused on silent girly-girls in g-strings faking lust. This is not a sign of progress, it's a testament to what's still missing from our understanding of human sexuality with all of its complexity and power. We are still so uneasy with the vicissitudes of sex we need to surround ourselves with caricatures of female hotness to safely conjure up the concept ‘sexy.’ When you think about it, it's kind of pathetic. Sex is one of the most interesting things we as humans have to play with, and we've reduced it to polyester underpants and implants. We are selling ourselves unbelievably short." (198)
This book was extremely personal for me...I was very affected by it, and look at the popular media in a whole different light now. I am the same age as Holly, Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, Mary Cary, etc... and while there are women my age in the world doing amazing things, and even famous women my age who are not participating in this (Natalie Portman for example)...but turn on the television. Where are they? You can't find them. (And when you do find them, this is how people react.) In the popular media, it is essentially impossible to find a positive image of a truly powerful woman in her mid-twenties that is not portrayed in the uber-sexual Raunch Culture mold. I think that Levy's book did an excellent job of showing the dangers inherent in this system of commodification and self-objectification. I would definitely encourage all women at least my age and younger to pick up this book and take the message to heart: objectification is not empowerment. Subverting the system of objectification and refusing to be Uncle Toms is empowerment. It is the only way to real power.
I will leave you with the following quote: "We have simply adopted a new norm, a new role to play: lusty, busty exhibitionist...we need to allow ourselves the freedom to figure out what we internally want from sex instead of mimicking whatever popular culture holds up to us as sexy. That would be sexual liberation." (200)
The story of the film is amazing: the original copy was destroyed by fire...lost to the world forever...but then - another copy was miraculously discovered in 1981...in a Norwegian mental institution of all places. And that truly is miraculous, because for such a significant, stirring artwork to be gone forever would be a tragedy.
This is not the story of Joan of Arc in battle - it is the tale of her trial and execution. Probably half of the film is simply close-up shots of Renee Maria Falconetti, in her only film role ever. Absolutely powerful, absolutely amazing.
I saw Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ when it first came out, and was completely turned off by it. I understand that the point was to show how much Jesus suffered, but I felt that the violence was gratuitous (such as the 20 minute scourging scene). Did we really need to see the spurts of blood when Jesus's hands are nailed to the cross? I don't think so...the thought of a nail being pounded through one's hands is really enough to get the point across.
I bring up that movie - (movie compared to film) as a comparison: they are both about a passion (in the religious sense). One I found so blatantly violent for violence's sake that I was turned off, numbed and unaffected, unmoved. The Passion of Joan of Arc, however, is one of the best pieces of film that I have ever seen...it shows the heights to which art can be taken...and I wonder, what would have been the impact of The Passion of the Christ if it had been modeled after Carl Theodor Dreyers silent masterpiece? It probably wouldn't have had the mass appeal that it did, but does that matter? Should that matter? (Perhaps that is the disctintion between films and movies.) In terms of an enduring piece of art, The Passion of Joan of Arc is far superior.
This film is so much more than film. As I said, it is really a depection of the height of art - it is the most beautiful, stirring, poingant artworks that I have ever had the pleasure to witness. It is film as art.
P.S. Though it is understood today that there was no definitive score for this silent film, the DVD gives you the option to have Richard Einhorn’s Voices of Light played during the film. This music was inspired by the film, and I would definately recommend that you watch the movie with the sound.
Thursday, May 1, 2008
The essential plot line behind APtI is that Aziz, an Indian Muslim doctor is falsely accused of sexually assaulting Miss Quested, a British woman who has come to India to get engaged to Heasop, a British official in imperial India. I really still don't understand why Miss Quested accused Aziz... it certainly wasn't out of malice. But when she realizes that he was not actually in the cave with her (on the witness stand she realizes this), she admits that she was wrong, and Aziz is freed. There is a lot that happens behind that story, and after that matter is cleared up, but that's the gist of it.
It's also a book about racism - the racism of the British towards the Indians (both Muslims and Hindus) but also the prejudices of the "natives" towards the British (for good reason in some cases). There are discussions about whether or not an Indian can really be friends with a Brit, and the answer ends up being that in England, Indians and the English can be friends, but not in India. I suppose what perhaps makes it so important - as in the top 6 of a century important - is that it told the story without prejudice against the Indians. It treated them as on par with the English...he is able to speak about both sides with fairness. I don't know how prevalent that particular point of view was towards native peoples under British rule in the early 20th century, but I imagine that most people were less cosmopolitan in their views.
The statement that struck me most in the novel was when it was stated that Miss Quested wanted to know India, but not Indians. Don't we do that everywhere we go? We want to see a country, and experience the natural beauty, the food, the human improvements to the natural beauty...but do people really go to France to get to know the French? That is a deep statement about our nature, and the nature of our travel. Afterall, who could feel comfortable visiting the Dominican Republic or Jamaica (like people I know have) and enjoying their resort if they really knew about the people of Jamaica or the DR and the conditions that exist outside of the neatly contructed universe of the resort? To get to know the country is vastly different from getting to know the people.
I really don't get why this book was so important. Maybe in time I will come to see it's merits beyond just being a good book (but not too good...not Gatsby good, or Lolita or 1984 or On the Road good) with a unique perspective for the time.
The structure is slightly unconventional: it is written as a report. We are not given a narrative in which we see Ludwig and Katharina at the apartment, in which she instructs him for the daring escape. Instead, it is presented as if it is part of an official police report. We are told how Katharina knows of the duct system by which Ludwig can escape (thanks to "Trude the Red" - see below), we are told that witnesses saw the two of them leave the party, at which they danced with each other exclusively. They were followed by the police, so it is known that they went to her apartment...the place is surrounded, but Ludwig never comes out, and when Katharina's apartment is raided in the morning, he isn't there. She must have helped him escape. Because of this technique the narrative is distant, and in some cases speculative. When she is telling the police about some of the people she has danced with, and that they frequently made advances towards her (which she did not appreciate), it is mentioned that she also danced with case's chief prosecutor. But the narrative then states, "she was not asked whether Hach had been among those who made advances to her." So, was he or wasn't he? There is a lot that.
The way that they construed real facts to represent their version of the story abounds. Katharina's employer's wife is known as Red Trude, for her red hair, but this is changed to Trude the Red and implies Communist symapthies. Though I mentioned earlier, we are told initially that Ludwig is a bank robber, but it turns out he deserted the army and emptied a safe.
The story isn’t really about why or how Katharina killed the reporter. It reflects a lot of Boll's thoughts on the right-wingers in Germay at the time and how the fear of communism led to this type of renegade sensational journalism that took Boll unfairly to task a few times personally. The tale of parasitic, irresponsible tabloid reporters destroying innocent lives to get a story, however, should ring true even today. Anyone who is at all slightly familiar with pop culture (even if that familiarity only comes from flipping past TMZ on television, or walking past the celebrity magazine rack on their way to the check-out line) will recognize Katharina Blum’s relevance to what passes as journalism today…deliberate misquotes, leaked sources, seeking out anyone who ever might have known the subject, exclusive interviews, stakeouts, etc. Maybe the victims of this predatory behavior should take a page from Katharina and start shooting people. (Can you see the headlines? "Jennifer Aniston shoots paparazzi" - Britney Spears was too obvious). Maybe then we would have real journalism. Is the fact that a 15-year old posed semi-nude in Vanity Fair really more of an issue than the war in Iraq? No, it isn't...but you would think that it is.
Overall, I wasn't really into this book. It was very well written, but I really didn't feel invested in it. I would give it a 3 out of 5. It's probably not a book I would read again.