Saturday, March 31

Avatar: Order of Adjectives

Avatar is a revolutionary movie with wonderful visual effects and a great story. I simply loved it and used the Na'Vis physical characteristics to practice the use of order of adjectives.

A. Watch the movie segment from the movie Avatar and put the adjectives below in the correct order. The scene shows the Na'Vis, the people who inhabit Pandora, and their relationship with nature. Take a look at the chart below to choose the correct order.

Types of adjectives:

Opinion: It explains what you think about somethig (other people may not agree with you). Examples: silly, beautiful, horrible, stupid)

Size: A size adjective tells how small or big something is. Examples: large, enormous, tiny, little.

Age: It tells you how young or old something or someone is. Examples: primitive, ancient, new, young, old.

Shape: It describes the shape of something. Examples: round, rectangular, flat, square.

Color: It describes colors. Examples: yellow, reddish, pale, pink, turquoise.

Origin: It describes where something comes from. Examples: lunar, French, eastern, Brazilian.

Material: It describes what something is made of. Examples: metal, cotton, paper, marble.

Purpose: It describes what something is used for. These adjective often end with Examples: sleeping (bag), roasting (tin), frying (pan).

1. Na'Vis are a race of (extraterrestrial / intelligent/ tall) humanoids who inhabit the (dense / lush / jungle) moon of Pandora.

2. Na'Vis have a (blue / bright / smooth) skin, accentuated with (thin/darker/cyan) stripes.

3. Their bodies have feline-like characteristics, such as (long/elegant/sweeping) tails, (beautiful/pointed /blue) ears, and (golden/large/ hypnotic) eyes.

4. They have a (v-shaped/upper/ wide) back.

5. They have developed a (evolved/ nervous/ complex) system.

6. They make use of (primitive/ effective/ wooden/ killing) weapons, such as a bow and arrows.



Answer key:

1. (intelligent/tall/extraterrestrial) / (dense/lush/jungle)

2. (smooth/bright/blue) / (thin/darker/cyan)

3. (elegant/long/sweeping) /(beautiful/pointed/blue) / (hypnotic/large/golden)

4. (wide/v-shaped/ upper)

5. (complex/evolved/nervous)

6. (effective/primitive/wooden/killing)

Finnegans Wake: Book I, Chapters 1-4

From the very first page of Finnegans Wake, I knew I was in for a rough ride. Beginning in the middle of a sentence that will eventually be completed by the other fragment closing the book, the Wake plunges into a dense mire of language that collides various tongues into an idioglossia of puns and references so obscure as to be their own words, a sort of twin-speak warping of Dublin's geographical makeup that makes the esoteric written atlas provided by Ulysses seem as easy to read as a star map.

It's heady stuff, a gnarled (if flowing) run of portmanteaux and wordplay that seems to delight in instantly alienating the audience. The first chapter (and the next three) read like the Oxen of the Sun chapter of Ulysses, that book's most challenging, obscurant part. With fewer resources handy for the first-time reader than I had for Ulysses, Finnegans Wake proved an instant struggle. It took hours, whole hours, to read even one chapter.

With a couple of pushes in the right direction by a few resources, I even managed to get something of a grasp of the "narrative": starting with a retelling of the comic Irish song about Tim Finnegan, a hod carrier who falls from a ladder to his death, only to be revived by whiskey, Finnegans Wake instantly complicates and expands upon the ballad to become the story of Ireland, maybe the world itself.

The "protagonist"—if he can be called such—who amusingly takes Finnegan's place when he resurrects but is urged to stay dead by his mourners, is tavern owner Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, who will go by many names in the shifting dreamscape of the book. This being a book of dreams, HCE is at once vaguely aware of his humble reality yet a vast force in the subjective, fantastical realm of sleep, not merely a god but seemingly all gods. HCE is then shown to be running in a local election, only to be undone by a scandal of some vaguely sexual nature that, true to the shifting textures of this dream book, is never clearly stated and transfigures constantly until some minor sexual misconduct has become distorted through gossip until, by the fourth chapter, HCE is on trial for various misdeeds foisted upon him by hearsay and conjecture.

Now this was more familiar ground. Those familiar with some of Joyce's preoccupations might see some of ol' Parnell in HCE's treatment: Parnell was certainly aiming higher than this modest (literal) everyman, but both were undone by sexual shenanigans and the court of public opinion. HCE's indecency somewhat recalls the Nausicaa episode of Ulysses, in which Leo Bloom and a lame girl named Gerty MacDowell engage in an implicitly stated explicit act that suggest both parties have participated in arousing the other and getting off on it. It's unclear what HCE does in Phoenix Park, and one won't get a clearer view from his gossiping pub patrons, who distort the already thin story until HCE is turning into different people, even different species, and doing all sorts of mischief. The more they speculate, the more HCE's non-native Irish heritage, stressed by puns that play on Norwegian and Dutch words, appears to come to the fore, eerily reminiscent of the race-baiting fury that informed the Cyclops episode of Ulysses. Joyce has swapped Bloom's Jewishness for some vague nationality, but both men's everyman qualities serve to bring out the hatred and rejection in empty racial nationalism. I can't point to any specific passages that made this clear, but something in the book's tone changed when the 12 patrons ( later, the trial jury) seem to turn to xenophobic distrust of HCE; it makes the absurdism of the man's metamorphoses and expanding list of ills nightmarish, not airy and silly.

Chapters 2-4 all deal with this scandal and its fallout, and Joyce constantly recapitulates his ridiculous tangents in recaps that I'd swear represented the author taking pity on the reader and acknowledging that, already, we could do with a bit of catching up. At least, I'd more readily believe that if these summaries were any more legible, but I still laughed at Joyce's nominal sympathy with the audience. Or maybe this is just the incidental byproduct of basis his work on Giambattista Vico's Scienza Nuova and the theory of human history as a repeating cycle of stages. In that sense, the occasional recap is merely another, smaller reset in the larger cycle of the Wake. I still need to look into Vico more thoroughly, but being told the basics about his views is one of those key clues that clarifies so much of the larger framework of what Joyce is doing. There will always been unfathomable minutiae in Joyce's writing, but a tip like Vico's ricorsos or the Oxen in the Sun episode being about the gestation of English itself can make the hardest material at least framable.

By the fourth chapter, in which HCE, or some form of him, is put on trial, I was hooked. By devoting pretty much all of chapter three to restating and expanding upon (and restating again) chapter two, Joyce gave me enough space to settle in and get as comfortable as I am liable to get with the Wake. And I have to say, it made a difference: while I was so overwhelmed at first that only a few of the puns broke through my confusion and frustration to make me chuckle, chapter four made me laugh out loud. Be it a quick note about a witness being suspected of being a "plain clothes priest" to lewd puns, obscure and allusive enough to slip by censors but unmissable in intent, I was absolutely rolling at times. It was here that I truly surrendered to the book, despite getting Joseph Campbell and Henry Morton Robinson's A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake in between chapters three and four. Even as I read that supplement, I prioritized the flow of the ridiculousness over what was being said. I started to really get a hold of the book, even if there are still whole pages that smack dully against my face like a thrown fish.

That's not to say I had to wait that long to find something of merit, however. Even on this first page, where I already questioned the wisdom of even opening the damn book, I found something that provided a sort of early revelation of the way to process Joyce's nigh-impenetrable work. The second paragraph mentions "the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to Laurens County's giorgios while they went doublin their mumper all the time. As a Georgia (giorgios?) boy, I'm familiar with the Oconee River, which snakes through Laurens County and our very own Dublin, GA. Skeleton Key makes reference of this connection across the pond but also alerted me to the fact that there is a Laurens County in Ireland; I did not, happily, need to be told that the country has a Dublin too.

Nevertheless, even if Joyce intended to stay within Ireland for his introduction—likely, given how the rest of the first few paragraphs contains several Dublin locales—this brief snippet kept me going despite initial doubts and fears. As much as the puns made in other languages and the various historical in-jokes, this connection to something with which I was completely familiar let me in on the true nature of the Wake: it has a plot, to be sure, and one that begins to become clearer after getting a basic grasp of what's going on, but the true delight is in its universality. One of the names Joyce uses for HCE is "Here Comes Everybody," which stresses the breadth of HCE's connections to figures past, present, historical and mythological. If the book exhibits that same range, then it must include something of the whole world. Ergo, Joyce floods the early chapters with puns in other languages, so why not include a winking reference to Dublin's New World copy?

This made me realize: Finnegans Wake is not a book to be "figured out," to be sussed from the author's intent, or the critic's. It's a strange thing: I've never read a book so obviously the work and intent of an author, that so flagrantly violates the concept of the death of the author (even 30 years before Barthes wrote his essay). Yet I've also never come across a book that so openly, encouragingly belongs to everyone. There truly is something here for everyone, even if that necessitates it not being any one discernible thing. That didn't make it any easier to read, but it did make the thing impossible to put down, even at its densest and most taxing. I decided to start writing these update posts to will myself to continue with the Wake, but finishing chapter four helped me to slip into the book with as much enthusiasm (and acceptance of ignorance) as I did with Ulysses. Who knows if it will continue to improve or, in a metatextual ricorso, I'll slip back into hissing barbarism. For the moment, though, all is well, and I can't wait to keep exploring Joyce's mad, hypersexualized, guilt-ridden dream.

Friday, March 30

Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005)

I've been meaning to write a defense of the director's cut of Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven (one of my favorite movies of the Aughts), for some time now, so I knew what to choose for my latest Criminally Underrated piece for Spectrum Culture. The theatrical cut is an admittedly mediocre movie, stressing Gladiator-esque action in an attempt to cash in on Lord of the Rings. The director's cut, however, belongs with films like Munich and Gangs of New York as some of the finest American filmmaking to seriously address the War on Terror and the modern context of endless infighting, wrongheaded wars and relativist righteousness, typically through the prism of the past. All three films (even Gangs, which concerns the American Civil War, not ages-old Middle Eastern conflicts) suggest a cyclical movement of violence from outside forces that creates seemingly endless fighting that eventually tears apart people from the inside. Kingdom of Heaven takes (even) more liberties with history than the other two, but its fundamental position, that peace, however tenuous and short-lived, is preferable to senseless war, is delivered with a nuance I've sadly come not to expect from Scott.

My full piece is up at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, March 27

Life of Brian on Friday Night, Saturday Morning

It's a Life of Brian kind of day, to my surprise. My blogging buddy Ryan over at The Matinee chose the film for his latest Blind Spots entry (my own, for Robert Bresson's L'Argent, is up now as well). Life of Brian is my favorite Monty Python film, even over Holy Grail, and I was as shocked that Ryan hadn't seen it as I was thrilled to read his thoughts on the matter. But no respect to Ryan, who is a great writer, but the bigger revelation of the day was that YouTube FINALLY has the complete episode of Friday Night, Saturday Morning that addressed the film's controversy in an hour-long debate between Monty Python members John Cleese and Michael Palin and two Christian detractors, broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge (fantastically British name) and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark.

I can't even begin to explain how happy this makes me. Looking at YouTube, this has been up in parts since last July and in this complete video since November. It figures; I spent years looking for this episode. YEARS. Ever since I saw Life of Brian in 2006, I've scoured the Internet for the full episode, having seen one- or two-minute clips in making-of documentaries of the film or in career summaries of Monty Python's full output. It was a legendary debate, in part because, even among the forums I scanned looking for so much as a torrent, no one had seen the full thing. The closest I ever got to experiencing it was in the wistful, still-satisfied faces of the Pythons recalling that day in talking heads.

Until now. Thanks to Corey Atad (who runs his own fine blog at Just Atad), I've finally watched the full thing, and it's every bit as good as I was led to believe.

The show in question, Friday Night, Saturday Morning, was an interview program with a quirk: in addition to the guests changing every night, so would the host. It's a delightfully oddball idea, albeit one that never took full advantage of its potential — it only cycled through a few hosts, basically handing off between a small pool of talent like a relay. Yet the concept was clever for its potential to match interviewers with people and topics with which they had some familiarity. The night of this debate, the host was Tim Rice, lyricist of Jesus Christ Superstar and thus no stranger to the outrage of the easily affronted.

The first thing that's evident watching the full episode is that the talk show itself might have been a comedy bit (something Cleese points out before Muggeridge and the bishop come out): Rice's droll, officious delivery makes his recapping of Life of Brian absolutely hysterical. Clearly relishing the absurdity of the situation, Rice discusses plot details as if reading a weather forecast, disarming an audience that, from the sounds of it, already sounds as if it's on Python's side. That surprised me, given the time period, but then I have an American mindset, and I can't even imagine an American audience now being so vocally supportive of "blasphemy."

When Cleese and Palin come out first, they have a calm, charming discussion with the host, and the program might have been memorable if this is where it had stopped. The Pythons divulge interesting information not only about Brian—how they molded initial bit ideas into a full-fledged feature, how George Harrison's intervention got the film made at all—but the Python's process as a whole. John Cleese even uses a question about whether he'd do any more episodes of Python or Fawlty Towers to offer a gently but passionately stated treatise on the perils of the "sausage machine." It's a revealing peek into the troupe's workings, and the thought of these men actively trying to attack Jesus—something they flatly, eloquently deny—is ridiculous.

Speaking of ridiculous, it's about this time that the other two guests come out. Muggeridge and the bishop come out during the playing of a second clip, meaning we can't see them until the camera cuts back to the show and Rice is asking them questions. On the one hand, this seems a bit unfair: it prevents the two from having a proper introduction and not-so-subtly hints that they are being ridiculous and are unworthy of serious consideration.

On the other, it allows the show to fluidly transition from Life of Brian to the responses from these uptight Christians, which so eerily align with the single-minded devout just shown in the film clip that the whole show comes to resemble an outtake of the actual movie. Asked for his thoughts on the film, Stockwood responds by putting on his glasses and delivering what is obviously a pre-rehearsed speech, referencing Nicolae Ceaușescu and rambling on about the pervading influence of Jesus before finally getting to some written zings touting the supposed childishness of the film. Cleese laughs good-naturedly at the barb, but perhaps because he's never seen so much irony in one place at once.

I was fascinated by Stockwood, such a caricature of unsmiling orthodoxy that he might have had a part in Life of Brian. He looks everywhere except at the two men he's debating, glancing at his notes and then looking up and beyond the audience as he gets bolder in his attack, as if receiving divine inspiration. It's like watching the world's most confident child of giving a book report for something he hasn't read, free-associating vague links to the subject (Mother Teresa and the Holocaust get plugs). He speaks with an imperious tone, relishing each word as if he's closing the noose on his beneath-contempt foes. Muggeridge, who looks like concept art for Treebeard, is no better, condescending to the comedic talents of Python and forming a false-equivalency tag-team with the bishop.

Cleese and Palin struggle for the remainder of the program to get a word in edgewise, and the prickly energy between the two sides makes for absolutely riveting television. The Christians who accuse the Pythons of immaturity and juvenilia interrupt and speak with single-minded anger, while the Pythons address each point respectfully (if comically) and sincerely. Part of the drama of the program is watching Cleese and Palin slowly lose their patience as the unyielding strains of Muggeridge's and Stockwood's attack force them to keep repeating the same basic arguments and preventing the full range of their well-considered, well-researched view of their film and of Christ. At one point Cleese only just manages to keep his cool when he openly suggests that the film is not mocking Christ, whom he and Palin establish as a man too decent and good to trash, but instead people like Muggeridge, who utterly fails to process that for a second. (Muggeridge even gets in a prescient bit of racism when he argues that the filmmakers would be too scared to make fun of Islam and instead chose to mock Jesus, to which Cleese gets in maybe his best crack of the night.)

Palin later said that this was Douglas Adams' favorite piece of TV, and it's certainly the best thing I've ever seen happen on a talk show. Sandwiched between the interminable, pre-prepared attacks of Muggeridge and Stockwood are insightful, intelligent defenses of satire and critical evaluation of one's beliefs. Muggeridge sneers at the Pythons' talk of seriously testing one's faith, but C.S. Lewis might have been as big a fan of this episode as Adams. The exaggerated fury of the two Christians emphasizes the thrust of Life of Brian, that the words of a great man can be misconstrued around the preconceived notions of His followers, and that a faith which refuses to truly engage with something that challenges it is not serious faith at all. The bishop gets the last, petty word, but it's clear that Python won the day, in the process proving how seriously they took their mad farce.

L'Argent (Robert Bresson, 1983)

[This is my March entry for my Blind Spots selections]

Robert Bresson famously referred to his non-professional actors as models, and he even more famously bypassed people altogether when he chose an animal to be the centerpiece of Au hasard Balthazar. Why not, then, extrapolate even further and cast an inanimate object as the lead? Bresson's final film, L'Argent, settles on a nominal protagonist after a fluid opening sequence, but its true centerpiece is its titular object, an item of artificially created meaning and worth but one that is, in the words of one character, "God incarnate."

Bresson's films, despite their stark framing and minute focus on detail, always seem to capture the world, and generally not in flattering terms. But there is nevertheless some kind of release to his work, even if it occasionally borders on Flannery O'Connor levels of grotesquely ironic. Such a release is absent in L'Argent, which ends on one of the most profoundly unsettling notes I've ever seen. Some directors grow soft with age; Bresson, 81 when the film premiered, unleashed his most unsparing evaluation of the human race in a career rife with piercing, harsh insights.

The opening sets the tone of the film, with diegetic sound comprising the totality of the audio track and a combination of close-ups and taut editing propelling the action. The frame opens on a static close-up of an ATM machine before jutting abruptly to the bourgeois home of a young boy named Norbert, who enters his father's office to ask for his monthly allowance, plus an advance to pay off a debt he owes another schoolboy. The father gives his son the allowance but refuses the advance, leading Norbert to a friend who wants to test out a counterfeit 500-franc note. The boys head to a photo shop and buy a frame, paying with the fake bill and even getting change back. When the shop owner returns, he spots the fake but decides to pass it and some others off onto someone else so he doesn't have to eat the loss. He therefore pays the gas man, Yvon (Christian Patey), with the fake bills, which results in the man being arrested when he attempts to use them in a restaurant.

Throughout this sequence, Bresson tightly frames hands as the money is passed to each new person. The figures on the bills are the nearest the film comes to a close-up of a face; Bresson's synecdochical representation of humans in a commercial world are the hands that allow us to fork over cash for goods. Though Bresson's framing drains the film immediately of any verve, the rhythm of the editing generates tension over the risky game of hot potato the characters play, each one in danger of being caught using counterfeit money until the oblivious one falls prey to the accumulated greed and self-centered behavior of the rest.

But for this initially innocent man, the inadvertent crime is but the start of a spiral into money's power. Which is not to say that money didn't already rule his life, however; Yvon merely had an understanding with money. As an oil company employee, he's on the front line of sending money into the most profitable industry in the world, and for that he receives enough to support his wife and young child. But Patey is just as dead-eyed and posed as the rest of the non-professionals littering the film, maybe even more so. When he must defend himself over the counterfeit charges, Yvon protests his innocence in flat deadpan, and he does not even flare with rage when the clerk of the photo store, coached to deny Yvon ever coming to the shop, slightly shakes his head at the police.

This action cements Yvon as the ostensible lead of the film, as the rest of L'Argent follows the aftermath of this swindling and how it drastically alters the course of the man's life. Greed the film shows in abundance, but Yvon embodies another deadly sin, pride. Resentful of being taken for guilty, Yvon ignores the needs of his wife and child and refuses to apologize to his boss, prompting his dismissal from the oil company. Instead, he falls in with a criminal gang who hire him as the getaway driver for a bank heist. In 1959, Michel got by as a pickpocket; in 1983, Yvon has to rob banks. Inflation, it seems, affects even the movies.

(In a sidenote, my favorite part of the bank robbery is the manner in which it is introduced: an older gentleman with his face buried in a newspaper obliviously walks into the midst of a police blockade of the bank, looking up with a face that betrays mild surprise as he sees cops kneeling behind squad cars with guns drawn. Without saying a word, the man slightly picks up his pace and briskly walks away from the situation. It is by far the most energetic, emotionally charged part of the film.)

Yet for such a personal upheaval, Yvon's turn to high crime is so calmly presented that this development seems but a natural progression for the man. Bresson even manages to fluidly tie Yvon's progress to that of the clerk who denied knowing him after taking money from the photo shop owner. The young man, Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), resents the owners for making him lie; having committed one crime in perjury, he finds it easier to commit others, chiefly skimming from the top by charging shop customers than the products are supposed to be marked and pocketing the difference. When the owner confronts him, Lucien calmly says, "I thought dishonest people had an understanding. As with Yvon, Lucien's wounded pride gets him fired, but unlike Yvon, Lucien takes care to bring copies of the store and safe keys with him. Lucien is no more animated than Yvon, but he makes for a more abrasive doppelgänger. Both men naturally progress to crime because of the capitalist system that sways them, but Lucien, who receives benefits from that system to maintain order, rebels more consciously. And when the former clerk arrives in prison, Bresson uses the same shot setup of him getting off the bus that was used to show Yvon entering prison.

With his steady editing, Bresson establishes what is an odd series of events as logical, though the punctuative effect of the cutting gives each new twist an even more severe impact. In the absence of music, the editing takes on the effect of its own fright cues, its jumps occasionally startling for their jarring of still frames and still action. To maintain a lack of blunt action, Bresson elides over what would be the centerpieces of other films: locked in solitary confinement, Yvon receives Valium each day to calm him. But when the guards leave, the camera stays behind to show Yvon spitting out his dose and adding the pills to a collection he's hidden. The next shot is from his old cell where his bunkmates watch out bars to see an unconscious Yvon loaded into an ambulance.

This elliptical approach to editing, which leaves out the action but leaves no doubt as to what happened, somehow proves more disturbing than watching Yvon scoff a fistful of pills would have been. This is even more true of his actions post-release, which Bresson stages with horrifying subtlety. Before leaving prison, Yvon spots a knife in the kitchen. Upon his release, he follows directions to a hotel, where the couple who owns the place silently greet him. The door closes, and the frame cuts to Yvon coming downstairs to wash blood off his hands and take off a blood-splattered coat. He subsequently follows an old woman home after watching her make a withdrawal at the bank, and Bresson cruelly teases a hint of redemption in the woman's kindness toward him. But when Bresson later cuts to the family dog barking at night and follows the animal's whimpering trajectory around the house after a lamp-and-axe-toting Yvon, that momentary hope for grace extinguishes.

The moral of the story is simple: Bresson bypasses political commentary on capitalism to go straight to "money is the root of all evil." But the framing of these Raskolnikovian scenes belies any trite summary. Though Bresson's camera is so tranquil and distanced, he intimately conveys the sense of money's pervasive influence in society and, by extension, the human psyche. There's some form of tradeoff everywhere, including prison, where goods are exchanged secretly but with no real obstacles. Perhaps that's why counterfeiting is treated so seriously among the characters: counterfeiting exposes the empty, symbolic meaning of money, threatening to unmake every aspect of civilization by eroding its foundation. In prison, Bresson frames the visiting room in such a way that it's hard to say which side of the dividing glass holds the true prisoners.

When Yvon enters the old woman's bedroom in his climactic crawl through the house, he asks her, "Where's the money?" The question speaks not only to his literal greed but his violent disconnect with what he thinks money is and what he (like everyone else) knows deep down what it truly is. He never receives an answer, and L'Argent ends on one of the most nihilistic notes of any film ever made. Money continues to rule all, and no one can see through its aura. But what makes the ending truly insidious, truly hopeless, is the inevitability of it. Pickpocket and Au hasard Balthazar are no less carefully controlled, but their downbeat endings are regretful, giving off the sense that it might all have been different if even one thing didn't happen as it did. There's no sense of regret or sadness in L'Argent because there's no sense that anything could possibly have turned out another way. That makes the conclusion all the more terrifying: this is the endpoint of capitalism, and Bresson won't lie to the audience by suggesting there's an alternative way of life that might win out.

Monday, March 26

Steven Spielberg: Munich

An act of American obliviousness sets in motion the events of Munich. At the 1972 Olympics, a group of American athletes stumble across some Palestinian men attempting to get past a gate. Used to the sight of small bands of men from different countries roaming the area, the Americans jovially call out to them and ask what event they're in. Blind to the tense, apprehensive faces of the men, the athletes show them in and depart on friendly terms. But before the Americans are even out of range, the group is already pulling out new clothes and weapons to storm the hotel room holding the Israeli Olympic team. They do, and everything else plays out on the actual newscasts recorded over the next 18 hours. It ends, of course, with Jim McKay's infamous declaration, "They're all gone."

But despite the film's title, Munich does not end with the conclusion of its heinous massacre; it's only just begun. In fact, Munich may not even be about the aftermath of the killings in the titular city. Released in proximity with the 9/11-conjuring fever dream War of the Worlds, Munich serves as the more thoughtful, severe follow-up to the notion of a terrorist attack and society's response to it. Spielberg's reenactments of news crews frantically assembling outside the hotel, scrambling for any new updates as their presence only worsens the situation, is as indicative of Spielberg's true aims as the final shot showing the New York skyline with the World Trade Center still standing in the middle of the frame. Munich may be about a specific event and the fallout from it, but the director clearly wants us to apply the lessons the movie teaches to more current issues of terrorism and counterterrorism.

If War of the Worlds captured the pandemonium of a shock attack, Munich details the ways that both sides react to an act of aggression. Spielberg lays the groundwork early by showing Israelis and Arabs watching the archival news footage plays on TVs. Wails of agony greet each new report, with Arabs mourning the news of authorities killing the Palestinian radicals and Israelis weeping over that horrible, final update. The grief and rage of those watching is palpable, and before anyone has time to speak any lines of outrage and agony, the director establishes a bedrock of righteous fury on both sides of the Israel/Palestine divide that ensures no peace will come of this atrocity.

Indeed, Spielberg soon depicts the plotting of vengeance by the Israeli government. As newscasters read the names of the dead athletes with grave sympathy, Spielberg intercuts shots of Israeli agents making a list of their own, rattling off names of those suspected of orchestrating the attacks. Prime Minister Golda Meir looks at the assembled photographs and tells her advisers "Forget peace for now." Blood must pay for blood.

Meir and her top advisers devise a plan to eliminate 11 targets supposedly linked to the attacks, matching the number of slain Israeli athletes. To lead this mission, they bring in Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), Meir's former bodyguard and a member of Mossad. His handler, Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), calmly lays out the unbelievably dangerous task for the man and assigns his team, gently but firmly shoving the man—who appears to care about his expecting wife more than the massacre—into participation.

But the plan betrays warped logic from the start. On face value, the Israelis have the moral high ground in their outrage, but they soon discover that their plot to fight terrorism with terrorism is, surprise surprise, as illegal as regular ol' terrorism. Already strong-armed into the mission, Avner is then made to resign from Mossad and sever all official ties with Israel; they even strip him of his pension so that he no longer exists in any payroll. If Israel sees Operation Wrath of God as justice, why must they conduct it clandestinely?

Further delving into the sinister politics surrounding the mission, Avner quickly learns that his heritage played as big a role as anything in his selection. Though he cannot officially take credit for the mission, Avner's status as a "sabra," a natural-born Israeli citizen, is instrumental in his placement at the head of the team. The government may not be able to claim him, but it will want the Arabs to know that a true son of Israel is after them. But before Avner recognizes this, he first interacts with a Ukranian-born Israeli in charge of supplying the team with cash. (I would call him a quartermaster, but the man behaves more like an usurer.) Despite the man's status as a naturalized citizen, he talks down to the sabra, calling him a "Yekke" because of his family's German lineage. The government knows of his family's roots in Europe, of course; that is as much a reason they chose him as his being a sabra. Yet in this moment, Spielberg shows a dark reversal in ethnic distrust. Germans with even the faintest traces of "Jew blood" in their family trees were arrested under Hitler, and now Jews with traces of German in them are mistrusted by other Israelis. In the old man's gruff rudeness is a taste of the overriding nature of this mission: the justifiable anger and pain stemming from horrors committed upon Jews threatens only to turn Jews into what they hate.

Interestingly, however, the actual squad assembled for the planned assassinations lacks much of the bloodthirst of its organizing bodies. Avner looks forward to completing the mission solely so he can return to his wife. His detached professionalism is shared by Hans (Hanns Zischler), the document forger; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), a Belgian toy-maker turned demolitions expert; and Carl (Ciarán Hinds), an ex-soldier who cleans up the assassinations. Only Steve (Daniel Craig), a South African Jew who serves as the getaway driver, displays any burning desire for revenge, spouting such platitudes as "The only blood I care about is Jewish blood." (I wonder what it says that a man from another land where the native population is forcibly kept in ghettos by a West-backed minority is the one who most ardently supports the mission). Christopher Hitchens mocked the character in passing, but I think he missed that Spielberg does too. Late in the film, Steve complains, "I'm the only one who actually wants to shoot these guys!" In measured tones, Carl responds, "Maybe that's why we don't let you do it. Your enthusiasm."

Nevertheless, the team's professionalism slowly deteriorates over the course of the film as the stress of the mission and their investment in it fluctuates. Not that it was ever particularly great: Avner takes no pleasure even in the first killing, ambushing an old Palestinian in Rome and visibly trembling as he asks the same questions repeatedly to prolong the situation before he and Robert pump him with 11 bullets. Avner celebrates shortly thereafter, but there's a perfunctory nature to his toast that suggests he's breaking out wine just because he could use a strong drink.

Things only get worse from there. Robert's explosives never seem to work properly, being either too weak or too powerful. In one case, the damn things don't work at all. The desire to minimize collateral damage and the deaths of innocents leads to a harrowing scene where the team must coordinate the bombing of a target in Paris without killing the man's wife and child. A truck obscures the car holding Robert, preventing him from seeing the man's daughter return to the hotel and pick up the rigged phone meant to kill her father. They manage to stop Robert just in time, though once the girl leaves again, they set off the explosive without compunction. It's a brief show of moral superiority to terrorists who put civilians in harm's way, but this doesn't last. A raid on Beirut leaves many bystanders dead, and the ease with which the powers that be justify the deaths erodes their supposed righteousness as the team is repulsed by the outcome.

Spielberg never lets the audience forget that what these men are doing is secretive, even seedy. The roaming camera at times feels more like that of De Palma than Spielberg, moving outward from targets to spot all of the voyeurs watching over them as each assassinated is orchestrated. Furthermore, the director's love of bright backlighting has never been more thematically telling, casting the team in deep shadows that offers visual obscuration to match the deliberately vague sketching of the characters. A point of criticism among the film's detractors, the forgettability of the team allows Spielberg to more easily present these pro-Israeli fighters alongside the Palestinians with whom they come into contact. When Robert poses as a journalist to set up the aforementioned phone bomb in Paris, he jots down the idealistic screed of the man's rant, which doesn't sound that much different from some of the more bullish speeches of the other side. Robert is only incensed by the talk, but the distance left between him and the viewer permits the audience to rise above the relativistic outrage on both sides to see how similar they really are.

Later in the film, Avner even gets to have a conversation with a PLO member when the team poses as leftist radicals to avoid a firefight with the Palestinians hiding in the same apartment complex in Athens. Their chat is somewhat contentious, with Avner boldly arguing for the validity of a Jewish state and nearly blowing his cover, yet the two ultimately have a revealing exchange of beliefs. Avner, who amusingly calls himself "the voice in the back of [the man's] head," asks if all the bloodshed is worth the scarce patch of desert these fighters have only heard about from their forebears. The question is deeply ironic, given the risks Avner and his team take for the same bit of land, and Ali firmly points this out. He says the Palestinians will remain in their camps and continue to fight until the world stops ignoring them, even if it takes generations. "How long did it take the Jews to get their own country?" he asks Avner, whose response is snappy but deflated, mournfully aware of what this will mean for the prospect of peace in his lifetime. For a brief moment, the two sides frankly admit their implacable stances in terms that are human and sympathetic, not warlike and self-justifying.

It's a tiny, all-too-quickly forgotten breakthrough in an exchange that has been going on since the start of the team's actions. When pro-Palestinian forces begin to respond to the squad's killings with more terrorism of their own, Hans rightly deduces, "We're in dialogue now." Contrary to the views of those who consider Munich a lazy equation of Israeli and Palestinian actions, Spielberg routinely stresses the disproportion of each response to emphasis the overall meaninglessness of this terrorism/counterterrorism conflict. The initial selection of exactly 11 targets to correlate to the number of Israelis killed soon becomes a farcical stab at 1:1 "justice" that falls apart when the assassinated targets are replaced by others who will eventually need taking out as well. And even if they stick to the original 11, the bloodshed won't end there. Hans laments after a few months of work that the team has only managed to kill seven targets (one of whom wasn't on the original list) while their own actions have prompted bombs and hijackings that left hundreds dead. Spielberg isn't trying to cast both sides as equally bad, merely asking whether a sense of moral superiority is worth the endless killing.

That he cannot see any end to this conflict makes Munich one of Spielberg's darkest films, second perhaps only to the epic antihumanism of A.I. So twisted is the film that one of its most chilling, hopeless moments is also one of its most aesthetically tranquil. Following his seedy French informant, Louis (Mathieu Amalric), to his family estate in the French countryside, Avner falls into conversation with Louis' father (Michael Lonsdale).

Papa is a fascinating character, a man who's made millions off of selling information in various conflicts and has picked up a hatred for governments because of it. Crystallizing the film's point about the waste of nationalistic fury and righteous wars, Papa mentions fighting in the resistance to overthrow Vichy and the Nazis, only to be greeted by Gaullists and the double-whammy of the Soviet Union and America. He then criticizes his pompous, fashionably Marxist children for dressing like factory workers without doing labor of their own or supporting Algeria but not truly caring for anyone in that nation. These lines wouldn't be out of place in a Godard film, with is ironic given that the French auteur has more or less cast Spielberg as the bogeyman for everything wrong with American cultural output (and, by extension, America as a whole). With this scene, Spielberg expands outward beyond merely the Israel-Palestine turbulence, deepening the feeling of disgust with armed conflict

Though when it comes to pitch-black despair, nothing compares to the murder of a Dutch assassin to avenge her killing of Carl. Throughout the film, Avner and the others have occasionally broached the subject of being sent to kill people not directly tied to the Munich massacre. At first, Avner places his trust in the government that passed him these names, but his mounting doubts nag at him as the film wears on. The assassin, however, must die solely because she has wronged these individuals. When they track her down to a houseboat, the men kill her horribly, using zip guns to put two holes in her chest and throat as she strips to tempt them. This scene is straightforward in the script, with the action over in a flash and the grim coda not much longer than that. But Spielberg draws it out, not having the woman die quickly but instead stumbling around, wheezing through the hole in her jugular vein as black blood spurts out with each thin hiss. And when Hans puts one final round into her skull, he refuses to let Avner close her open housedress, leaving her naked and blood-soaked as they depart. This moment plunges the film into almost nihilistic horror, severing whatever thin ties still held these men to feelings of moral justification and precipitating the downfall of the team. It's bleak, harrowing stuff, miring the film in a complexity that ranks the film among the director's most important works.

The only hiccup I can think of lies in the vague presentation of Avner's connection to the mission. He is constantly having visions of the Munich attack (which he did not witness and which was not captured on television), though he never seems to be particularly enraged by the Palestinian attack. Thus, he must be occasionally reminded of it via those odd interspersions of the massacre reenactment footage. It almost serves as a metatextual dose of Jewish guilt, prodding Avner into caring about his nation's wounded pride and murdered sons even as he displays a clear disdain for the thought of vengefully killing the sons of other countries from the start. But Spielberg's is a cinema of scrutinizing the faces of his characters, not what they see. He has a gift for infusing an objective frame with the subjective emotions conjured by those images, less so for diving into a character's headspace the way that a Scorsese or De Palma can. Todd McCarthy made a valid point when he said the film needed to implicate the audience in the assassin squad's actions, though I think his criticism applies best to these scenes, not the masterful detachment of the more objective action.

Consider the climax of these taunting visions of Munich, in which images of the tarmac shootout are intercut with Avner making angry, distant love to his wife. The implication is obvious: thoughts of his mission and its fallout have corrupted the last bastion of love and solace Avner had. He's wanted to return to his wife and child for so long, but the horror came home with him. But the already clichéd use of mashed up sex and violence would have been more potent for actually including images of the team's actions, not Black September's. As it is, Avner is "haunted" by an event he did not witness, and the blame is inadvertently cast on the Palestinians for starting all this when, as the rest of the movie bears out, it's Israel's response that tears the man apart. The sex scene is surrounded by scenes of Avner in abject terror of Mossad coming for him, and the use of the Munich footage lacks the power of what bookends it.

But perhaps the final-act paranoia explains this artistic choice. Everything finally collapses near the end, with Avner left so ragged by his experiences that maybe he does at last dwell on Munich, wishing it undone if for no other reason that it might have spared him the torment, not the athletes. The righteous speechifying of both sides previously demonstrated how revenge and plotted murder gnarls one's national mindset, but Avner's complete breakdown examines the more intimate effects of such policies. Furthermore, Avner's initial detachment from the mission, his view of the assignment as just that, makes his spiral all the more tragic. This is not a man undone by his own bloodlust but that of others, forced onto him until he snaps under the strain of someone else's rage. In that context, the repeated use of the Munich footage actually works, again as a visualization of a nationalistic form of Jewish guilt that strips him of his own humanity in service of a meaningless revenge scheme.

This is made more personable by a scene with Avner and his mother, who naturally plays the role of the guilt-inducing Jewish matriarch. Aware that her son is traumatized by what he's done, she makes vague references to her experiences in the Holocaust and of losing her family. She does not even have to refer to the Shoah by name for Avner to suddenly avert his eyes in shame and inherited grief. This scene precedes the cut-up sex scene with Avner and his wife, yet it perhaps holds the key to what follows. If Avner uncomfortably shifts at the slightest reminder of the Holocaust, suddenly the use of the Munich massacre in his headspace is not so bad. Spielberg could have inserted frames from Schindler's List in-between the couple making love, and the effect would be the same. A distraught Avner almost tearfully asks his mother if she wants to know what he's done, and she instantly responds, "Whatever it took." Then, she continues, almost oblivious of her own son: "Whatever it takes. A place on Earth. We have a place on Earth at last." In her stubborn oblivion is the face of Israeli insanity, the centuries of Jewish persecution having warped an entire people into single-minded focus. There is sympathy in Spielberg's treatment of this madness, but he recognizes it as madness, nonetheless.

Where Saving Private Ryan found childish nobility in suicide missions, Munich argues for more peaceful solutions. There is an understanding in Munich of the futility of conflict, and not just in the modern context of wars without clear borders. Recall Louis' father speaking of trading one dangerous power for others. For every terrorist Avner and his team kill—if they are even terrorists—another enemy shall replace him, and on it goes in perpetuity so long as each new terrorist is given a fresh reason to hate Israel and in turn gives the other side new reasons to plot the next round of strikes. Nothing hammers this home like the aforementioned final shot, settling on the World Trade Center in a grim reminder that the efforts of Avner et al. to rid the world of terrorists did little to stop the tide of violent, attention-grabbing atrocities. In that shot is also a warning to Americans of the folly to which they are committing themselves by demanding vengeance for the fall of those towers. Six years after the film's release, it would seem as if we still haven't listened to its message.

Sunday, March 25

Steven Spielberg: War of the Worlds

It's just as well that War of the Worlds was hobbled upon its initial release by the lingering effects of Tom Cruise's infamous couch-jumping whatever. If Americans were going to let a stupid thing like that distract them, who knows how they might have reacted if they realized what all the movie had to say about 9/11 and the still-raging debate over Iraq. Even the conclusion of H.G. Wells' original novel, forecast in the opening credits expanding outward from single-cell organisms to humanity and even the cosmos, reflects the pitfalls of the War on Terror. "Occupations always fail!" declares a mad character late in the film, and one gets the distinct feeling he isn't just talking about invaders from Mars.

But War of the Worlds is, for the most part, not a commentary on the War on Terror so much as snapshot of what inspired it and how the national emotions of panic, grief, rage and bewilderment contributed to it. There's no criticism here; that would come with Spielberg's other 2005 film. No, War of the Worlds' primary aim is still to function as a blockbuster, but in its finely detailed, occasionally surreal construction is an almost therapeutic attempt to recreate an event fresh in the nation's mind, all the better to study it and to (hopefully) make a more informed decision than we did when that day actually happened.

Though Catch Me If You Can served as the non plus ultra of Spielberg's pet themes of absent fathers and confused children, War of the Worlds finds a new angle from which to approach that well-explored subject matter. Cruise may have sent the marketing department up the wall before it was all over, but his was an inspired casting choice. Spielberg presents the actor, then still America's everyman, as not merely a neglectful dad but a willfully repellent one. Cruise's Ray arrives home from work to find that he's late for picking up his kids from his ex-wife (Miranda Otto), and he offers no apology for his misunderstanding of their meeting time. Alone with the teenaged Robbie (Justin Chatwin) and young Rachel (Dakota Fanning), Ray proves to be uninterested in his children and almost willfully unconcerned with their lives and well-being.

In these opening scenes, Cruise is nearly at his most unpleasant, surpassed only by his misogynistic event speaker in Magnolia. In a hopelessly outdated and transparently thin attempt to interact with Robbie, Ray makes his son come out for a game of catch. The contentious lines they exchange slowly increase the force of each throw, until Robbie makes the mistake of mentioning him mom's new husband. Cruise's face doesn't change, but he throws the baseball so hard that one doesn't need to hear the resulting thud of the ball hitting Robbie's mitt or see the boy wince to feel the oomph behind the toss. Ray spares but a modicum more affection for Rachel, snottily reacting to her ordering takeout from a health food place and largely ignoring her.

By presenting Ray as such an unlikable figure at the start, Spielberg emphasizes that what is about to happen can affect anyone, and also that it can profoundly change people. The director forecasts the oncoming horror in ways that should be obvious to everyone: news reports bring updates of strange storms in other countries that trigger EMP blackouts, rendering whole areas without electronics. But that is the rest of the world, and no television that shows these reports stays on for very long before someone changes the channel or turns off the set. And when one of those storms forms over New York, Ray observes that the wind is blowing toward the storm clouds with a tone of mild curiosity. Even when lightning rains down on the area (without accompanying thunder), he and others continue to mill about to see what is going on. Naïve and sheltered, the Americans congregate around an opened crack in the ground, totally unperturbed until the ground begins to quake and splinter, and finally cave into a giant hole.

The next hour and 45 minutes display Spielberg at his visceral best, twisting the formal prowess he normally uses for elegant, graceful depictions of wonder and optimism into a device for conveying sheer and utter terror. From the giant hole in the ground emerges an enormous tripod, a war machine that barely has time to stretch out fully before it begins slaughtering people and destroying buildings. Ray only just manages to get away, running back to his house to grab the kids and steal a van that's been repaired after the EMP blast. As Rachel shrieks "Is it the terrorists?!" New York is reduced to embers behind them.

The connections between the alien invasion and 9/11 and the War on Terror range from the literal to the abstract. The machines, buried for however many millennia, obviously reflect underground sleeper cells, dormant until a surprise attack. Their heat rays turn people into ashes, which blanket Ray as beams cut through those around him. The image of Ray literally covered with the dead recalls horrible images of people covered in the dust and debris cloud of the falling towers, while downed airplanes and crumbling buildings only hammer home the horrid sights of that awful day.

In broader terms, the aliens elicit basic, deeply felt emotional responses. Every time a tripod happens upon Ray's location, the frame almost literally shudders with fear, while the sense of not knowing what's happening or where one might go for safety pervades every frame. There is also the anger, the instant thirst for reprisal that overrides any strategy, even sense. Robbie begins to wear a look of perpetual fury on his face, itching to strike back at the invaders despite the hopelessness of the situation. As with terrorists, the aliens are impervious to the best of our military technology: the aliens have even better technology that renders them invulnerable to attack, while the terrorists' organization makes might an irrelevant factor in the equation. Robbie represents so many people in the wake of 9/11, so ready for payback that they never stopped to consider what kind of conflict they'd be getting into, or what might happen to them when they did.

Spielberg frames all of this with surprising formalism, flecked with even more surprising traces of surrealism. After spawning an entire generation of clumsy knock-offs with the gritty, close-up handheld cameras of Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg offers a check to his legion of copycats by capturing visuals no less wrenching and instantly felt despite their careful, classical composition. Occasionally recalling the love of old genre fare that informed the Indiana Jones series, Spielberg employs some shots that have an almost storybook quality to them, as if he'd brought an illustrated copy of the book to life. One scene that particularly sticks to me takes place at a ferry as throngs of people push toward the overloaded boat, only for telltale warning signs to precede the emergence of a tripod behind everyone. As the machine lets out one of its booming horns, the camera cuts to frame it looming over the Hudson as mist swirls over the bright lights around the pier. It's a gorgeous shot, and one that freezes my heart every single time I see it.

As for the surrealism, Spielberg tops even the grim oddities of Empire of the Sun. That film included a memorable scene of Jim wandering around his ransacked neighborhood in Shanghai, abandoned luggage cast aside and clothes strewn across the ground as if their wearers had been raptured out of them. Spielberg resuses that offbeat, troubling image on a larger scale here, as tripods snatch up prey and send clothes falling gently to the ground like giant snowflakes after using up the people inside them. The director even perverts his personal use of close-ups in a shot where Rachel heads out of her brother and father's eyesight to use the bathroom by a river, only to see bodies drifting downstream. As sunlight bounces off the clear water, Spielberg pushes in on Fanning's face as the golden light flickers over her stunned features. The flicker almost gives the shot a feeling of an old silent film, and Fanning's overwhelmed shock a tinge of Expressionist horror.

There's also a shot late in the film after Ray discovers that the aliens are spreading a red weed everywhere that they fertilize with liquified humans. As he stumbles out from a hiding place, Ray walks in front of a broken wooden fence looking out into a (literally) blood-soaked horizon. It's a shot that might have come out of Johnny Guitar, a beautifully grotesque, madly stylized Western panorama as striking as it is disturbing.

Another disquieting element of War of the Worlds is the frank manner in which it suggests, like any good monster movie, that the other survivors can be as bad as the creatures. When Ray reaches the Hudson ferry, he and the kids are forcibly taken from the van by a crowd of people who want it even though there's nowhere to run. And when the tripod rises up over the ferry, the soldiers on-board instantly call for the ferry to take off, callously stranding hundreds to be massacred to make a futile attempt at getaway. But the true personification of the insanity of those left behind comes in Tim Robbins' delightfully named Harlan Ogilvy, a man who would be perfectly at home in a George A. Romero zombie film. Driven out of his mind by his family's death, Harlan shares Robbie's absurd dream of taking the fight to the aliens; armed with a shotgun, he is only infinitesimally less hopeless than the unarmed boy. As Harlan slips deeper into madness, Ray slowly realizes that he will need to deal with the man to keep Rachel safe. When the situation comes to a head, Spielberg treats us to one of his darkest shots, again staying in close-up on Rachel's face, a blindfold over her eyes and her fingers jammed in her ears as she sings a lullaby to herself, as Ray murders Harlan in the next room. Were it not for a certain scene in Munich which I will later discuss, this would be the single bleakest, most unsentimental shot in Spielberg's entire canon.

These gut-wrenching moments, combined with the technical perfection of practically every moment (Spielberg's decision to use as much live-effects as possible, as with Jurassic Park, makes the CGI that much more lastingly great) would cement War of the Worlds as one of Spielberg's greatest achievements, if not one hiccup. Yep, you guessed it, it's the ending. Spielberg retains the gist of Wells' ending for better and worse: it's fitting that he should still attribute the downfall of the invasion to bacteria against which the aliens have no immunity. It was a brilliant touch in the original novel and one that fits seamlessly here as a lesson about a technologically superior force inserting itself into an unfamiliar environment where the elements can defeat even the strongest foe.

But the other part of Wells' ending, the unlikely reunion with characters presumed dead, is harder to defend. Robbie's awkward return is simply senseless, and it robs the film of its somber implications regarding his headlong rush into death. When he leaves Ray and Rachel, he doesn't do so on the best of terms: there are things left unsaid, and the expectation of his death in the sudden conflagration spoke to all the lives cut short by that patriotic swell of enlistment and the unquestioning deployment into the Middle East. For Robbie to just show up, totally fine, at the end and allow a proper reconciliation between father and son is one of Spielberg's most glaring moments of dishonesty, denying the painful reality for a tacked-on bit of cheer that ironically seemed to piss off everyone. But with Spielberg's next release, even this tiny shred of optimism would be ruthlessly purged from all discussion of our current climate of war.

50 Book Pledge #10: Geoff Dyer — Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room

I received a review copy of this for Spectrum Culture, which I requested the second I heard about the book's existence. It didn't disappoint: Dyer's incessant rambling and personal anecdotes actually capture the spirit of Tarkovsky's masterpiece more readily than a more deconstructive monograph might have done, connecting with the film on an emotional rather than intellectual level. Tarkovsky would have approved. I'll have more to say on the subject in my forthcoming review but, for now, know that I highly recommend it, despite the occasional bit of superior dismissal on Dyer's part (not for Stalker, but seemingly for everything else ever made in the world).

Saturday, March 24

Reading Diary: Finnegans Wake

Reading Log

Book I, Ch. 1-4

I had not planned on keeping a running journal of my reading of Finnegans Wake, James Joyce's final, most elaborate opus, the way I did for Ulysses. However, as I begin to struggle—and I mean struggle—with the Wake, I figure it might do me good to keep a record of my thoughts in some vain attempt to organize what little I've managed to eke out of it so far. It may well be that this journal comes to resemble Robert Falcon Scott's Arctic diary, but damn it I need to do all I can to even start with this book.

I imagine I'll write posts by chapter as I did for Ulysses, though my first entry might consist of the first four chapters as I don't know that I've understood enough of any one of them to have enough thoughts for individual articles. I am slowly, ever so slowly, getting into the rhythm of the novel, even laughing aloud at times, and I plan on getting the famous Skeleton Key companion to give me a bit of a boost in understanding the basics. Worry not, Joyceans: I am not so foolish as to try to "get" Finnegans Wake. But as with Ulysses, I need a more solid foundation before I can slip into Joyce's nocturnal, panlingual orgy of shifting foci and character names and his free-associative wordplay. Still, despite my occasional flashes of pure, seething rage at the impossible density, I am curiously drawn to each page, rereading passages not merely out of necessity but because I can sense the music in them calling even to a tone-deaf id-jeeot like me. As much as I grapple with each page and eventually move on clueless as ever, I have the vague notion that, should I ever make it out to the other end, I'll be a devoted fan. But I suppose we'll see, won't we?

50 Book Pledge #9: Suzanne Collins — The Hunger Games

I feel toward this book and its subsequent adaptation the way I do about Jurassic Park: both have amazing conceits and advantages unique to each form of the story, yet neither fully succeeds. The film cuts a lot of the book's waffle, but it fails to further develop, or even just reflect, the book's lack of celebration in the Games and its disgust with the waste of life to sate the rich and maintain order. On the flip side, Collins' longer novel utterly fails to clarify the layout of her imagined world, and her use of first-person perspective seems a way to avoid having to define anything outside Katniss' narrow experience. The excess of the novel has barely anything to do with character or environment, instead wasting pages on useless anecdotes, even in the midst of the games where Katniss' survival instincts are momentarily cast aside to let her dreamily reminisce.

Nevertheless, the book's worth reading for Katniss, who pushes back strongly against the "Bella-fication" of young female characters. Collins does give in to a vague love triangle, with Katniss thinking of her friend Gale and dealing with Peeta's maybe-not-so-fabricated-as-it-seems infatuation with her in the arena, but her concern for both boys comes secondary to her independence and willpower. I'm sad that I found an only marginally more interesting world in the text than I did in the film, but I imagine I'll keep reading to see more of this striking character.

Friday, March 23

Mary and Max: Present Perfect x Simple Past

This is a marvelous Australian animated movie for adults. A bit sad, though. It is about two very unlikely pen pals. There are several scenes for grammar practice. This one is perfect to contrast the use of the simple past and the present perfect tenses.

A. Read the sentences taken from a letter Max is writing Mary and try to guess whether you should complete the blanks with the simple past or the present perfect tenses of the given verbs.

1. I ____________ (choose) the same numbers for nine years. 3, 5, 6, 9, 11, 12.

2. I _____________ (have) many different jobs during my life.

3. My first job ______ (be) collecting subway tokens in the subway.

4. I __________ (work) at the frisbee printing machine in my third job.

5. In my fourth job, I _____________ (get - neg) paid much but ________ (get) free cookies and coffee.

6. _____________ (you - ever - be) hang gliding?

7. _____________ (you - ever - be) a communist?

8. _____________ (you - ever - be) attacked by a crow or a similar large bird. When I __________ (be) nine, a crow _________ (attack) me on my way to school.

9. I _________________ (teach) myself to read two pages at once.

10. I have to go now. I __________ (tell - neg) you about my 7th job, in a condom factory.

11. I _______________ (eat - never) sweetened condensed milk.

12. I ________________ ( use - never) a condom.

B. Watch the movie segment and check your answers.

C. Work in pairs.

1. Have you ever had a pen pal? Why (not)?

2. Is it a good idea to have pen pals? Explain it.

3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having pen pals?

4. Do pen pals have to like the same things? Why (not)?

5. Are pen pals real friends? Or it just a fantasy?



Answer key:


1. have chosen 2. have had 3. was 4. worked 5. didn't get / got 6. have you ever been 7. have you ever been 8. have you ever been / was / attacked 9. have taught 10. haven't told 11. have never eaten 12. have never used

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

The characters of The Hunger Games all have dirty fingernails. This is the primary insight to be intuited from director Gary Ross' incessant close-ups on the dirtied children culled from futuristic districts to fight each other to the death in a lasting reminder of the cost of rebellion. Sadly, fingernails are about the only thing I could make out in frenzied maelstrom of splintered images Ross assembles in sub-Bourne fashion. He's dealing with tricky material—the grisly killing of adolescents for sport—and forced to deliver a PG-13 rating to boot. He responds with a form of compromise: he gets to show teenagers dying horribly by making their demises so utterly incoherent that one cannot be sure anything's happened at all until the camera shows the tiniest splash of blood.

The shakycam mania of Ross' direction frustrated me more than usual because, to my surprise, I found myself engaged by the material. I haven't yet read Suzanne Collins' source novel, though I went straight to the nearest bookstore afterward to pick up a copy. Perhaps in her prose I'll find a more nuanced treatment of the themes, one that gives any kind of space to the material and lets the true horror of the titular games sink in rather than be roughly pushed along with all haste. And if nothing else, I'd like to get a fuller portrait of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the insipidly named but instantly memorable protagonist who seems to be locked into opposition with certain sexist trends in young female characters as much as she is 23 other teenagers.

Lawrence mines the Ozark-hardened toughness of her Ree Dolly from Winter's Bone in portraying Katniss. The two characters even share a certain common ground: both come from rural, hilly areas suffering from extreme poverty, and both must care for their young siblings and deadbeat mothers after losing their fathers to the harsh realities of their homes. The Capitol's deliberate neglect, even punishment of District 12 does not seem too exaggerated a change from the neglect shown to our present Ozarks. (After reading the start of the book after seeing the movie, I see that District 12 is actually set in what was once Appalachia.) One look at this young woman, even before we see her effortlessly shooting down birds with a bow, and it's clear she is independent, resourceful and strong.

So emotionally tough and protective of her family is Katniss that when her 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), is selected to compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games, Katniss makes a nearly unprecedented move in volunteering in the girl's place. The event where this takes place, the Reaping, is the film's highlight. When Ross cuts to third parties in the rest of the film, he tends to show the audience the Capitol perspective, that of the screaming, bloodthirsty mob rapturously tuning in to the violence. But the Reaping is quiet and grim, the air static with fear as a tarted-up member of the Capitol (Elizabeth Banks, unrecognizable with so much powder and eye shadow on that she can barely open her eyes) takes the stage to pull a male and female name from bowls. Despite the speed with which the film arrives at this moment (to say nothing of everyone knowing what's about to happen), the calling of Prim's name is a gut-punch, to the point that one cannot recover in time to cheer for Katniss stepping in for her sister. The respectful silence that meets Katniss' sacrifice is likewise more powerful than the wildest cheering of adoring Capitol fans.

It's the one dose of somber maturity before the film moves into the disgusting realm of the Capitol and the lesiure class that resides in it. The Hunger Games themselves are clearly extracted from our current fascination with violent sports and reality television. Before the Reaping, Katniss' friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) says, "If no one watches, they don't have a game," but his words sound naïve even in this world, where so many already say the same of the Kardashians or Charlie Sheen. "It's a television show," cautions one character, and it certainly functions like one. When Katniss and District 12's male tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) arrive at the Capitol to begin training, they are mentored in fashion and personality as much as survival skills and combat; the slogan of the Hunger Games is, "May the odds be ever in your favor," but it soon becomes clear that winning the hearts of the public can help tip those odds. All that's missing is Ryan Seacrest cutting to a series of increasingly infuriating commercial breaks.

These pre-Games scenes in the Capitol (as well as returns to the Capitol during the contest) mercilessly skewer fascination with unknowns thrust into instant celebrity and the way that the government utilizes that simpering mob love to maintain order. Some of the best scenes involve Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), the gamemaker, and President Snow (Donald Sutherland), discussing the implications of Katniss' resonant popularity. Crane, who thinks of the ratings, loves the attention she gets, arguing, "Everyone loves an underdog." "I don't," responds the tyrant instantly, and for obvious reasons. So long as the Games are a cynically jubilant affair emceed by a stiff-coiffed, bleach-toothed crowd-pleaser (Stanley Tucci), they keep the crowds docile. But when players start breaking the rules and influencing viewers, everything can change.

If I say that I enjoy so much of what goes on outside the limits of the arena more than the Games themselves, that is because, again, the event is shot so spastically that it is impossible to get anything out of them. By using the flurry of editing and handheld close-ups to prevent the audience from getting a disturbing, full view of a child's death, the director also robs the carnage of its emotional impact. He's right to think that actually seeing a child be murdered by others his or her age would be repellent; that's the point. Instead, the violence is divorced from its meaning, allowing the film's audience to largely play the role of the gawking Capitol crowds watching on their own big screens, rooting for their favorite to emerge the champion.

Compare the visceral rush of the carnage in the area to Woody Harrelson's character, Haymitch, a former winner of the Games. Some of the other kids fighting against Peeta and Katniss are presented as so haughty and sadistic that one can only hope for their deaths, but the ostensibly comic bitterness and alcoholism of Haymitch shows the endpoint of victory in these Games. He's the only true insight into the psychological effect of murdering up to 23 people for the delight of a crowd, and he's presented as comic relief.

It makes me pine for the wonderful finale to the Harry Potter film franchise, in which Rowling's post-battle celebration was replaced with a solemn mourning for the dead and a vacant, ragged sense of relief tacitly shared among the survivors. It displayed a respect for the dead sorely needed here, not merely to give the deaths weight but to underscore Katniss' efforts to rise above this abhorrent system. Even the act of defiance that closes the 74th Annual Hunger Games lacks the force it should because of the meaninglessness what's happened in the arena. Ross ends up treating Katniss not as the character she is but the icon she's become, and in so doing he robs The Hunger Games of the darkness and tension it is clearly meant to elicit. There should be no sense of joy in Katniss' quest, even if she makes it out of that arena alive; sadly, The Hunger Games is so ready to rejoice in its protagonist's victories that it wastes its terrific premise.

Thursday, March 22

My Night at Maud's (Éric Rohmer, 1969)

As my first experience with Éric Rohmer, My Night at Maud's struck me instantly with its gift for dialogue. As highbrow and probing as the speeches in any Godard film, the conversations herein are nevertheless more natural and relatable. Each character eloquently delves into philosophical and moral questions yet never seems arch or artificial. Instead, the sharpness of the writing and delivery makes words that wouldn't be out of place in My Dinner with André feel more at home in a Billy Wilder picture.

So enthralling is the dialogue, in fact, that it can be easy to miss the brilliance of Rohmer's accompanying direction. At least, I assume it's easy to miss, because everything I'd heard about the director's work stressed the uniformity of his narrative setups and aesthetic style, and even the vague words of praise I'd heard passed around on social media and forums seemed to be defensive rather than exultant. But I found a delicately masterful aesthete, capable of what may well be the most elegant ability to reflect a character's point of view I've ever seen. The possessive in the title does not signal that this film is autobiographical, but My Night at Maud's is so effortlessly presents the perspective of its protagonist that it truly begins to feel like a first-person account.

That account belongs to Jean-Lous (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a Catholic who drives around the Clermont-Ferrand area to attend Mass on Christmas Eve. Rohmer films the man's quotidian routine with long takes that nearly reminded me of the sometimes-excruciating shots in Antonioni films until I felt a warmth from them totally absent in the Italian's pictures. Rohmer doesn't hold his shots to stress any kind of disconnect or alienation; he merely gives one's realistic schedule its due. If anything, even less happens in this film than, say, Red Desert or L'Avventura, yet My Night at Maud's never lags despite its oscillation between these banal transitions and static, lengthy conversations.

Just watch the way Rohmer's camera establishes Jean-Louis at Mass. Rohmer frames the priest in long shot, throwing the magnificence of the cathedral behind him and letting the surrounding drown out his words in its echo. The aesthetic distance prioritizes the material splendor over the words of the Mass, giving an insight into the nature of Jean-Louis' faith.

But Jean-Louis does fancy himself a true Catholic, not the cynical Jansenist he sees in the writing of Blaise Pascal. Rohmer communicates this even before he shows the protagonist reading Pascal's Pensées in a shop: while still at Mass, Jean-Louis' attention drifts from the priest to a young blonde woman, Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault) in attendance. The camera lingers on her as she listens to the sermon, the medium shot visualizing Jean-Louis' narrowed focus. Jean-Louis does not seek her out after Mass to speak with her, but he does not need to: he is in love, and he knows instantly he will marry her.

Rohmer communicates all this without dialogue, though he soon enough addresses everything suggested visually via a series of probing conversations. Jean-Louis runs into his old friend Vidal (Antoine Vitez), a Marxist, and the two begin catching up via a philosophical discussion. Discussing his beliefs, Jean-Louis clarifies his aversion to Pascal's wager, finding his version of faith too cold. Ironically, the secular Marxist adheres to Pascal more than the Catholic; Vidal swaps religion for history and believes because he must. Even the non-believers must put their faith in something. Around this time, Godard was throwing himself into Maoism in the hopes of finding some sense to the world, but with the utmost graciousness and only the quietest irony, Rohmer gently points out that no one principle of belief can address all of life's complexities.

All these ideas come to a head when Vidal invites Jean-Louis with him to the house of the titular Maud (Françoise Fabian), a divorcée for whom Vidal clearly has a thing. This sequence takes up a large portion of the film, dominated by a polite but combative testing of beliefs exchanged between Jean-Louis, Vidal, and the atheistic Maud. Fabian instantly changes the dynamic of the film, irresistibly seductive less for her gorgeous looks than the speed with which she registers Maud's piercing understanding of Jean-Louis and Vidal. A glint in her eyes early into the three-way debate reveals she has both men completely pegged, and her input, though less pompously phrased and delivered than the declarative statements of the other two, carries an edge of victory.

Complicating matters is a snowstorm that strands Jean-Louis from returning home that night as a smiling Vidal leaves to go to his nearby home. The glee on Vidal's face as he leaves Jean-Louis with Maud is palpable, but why? Is he testing his friend's boasts of loving the mystery girl he saw at church above all others, proving the naïveté of Jean-Louis' obsessively pure behavior? I thought so at first, which made Maud's interpretation feel like a personal admonition. It's not about Jean-Louis at all, she argues, but her: Vidal is in love with Maud but knows she isn't interested, so he needs an excuse to hate her. This isn't the first character insight she's spoken aloud, but it is the most devastating. With a single line, she reveals a character's entire motive and decisively undercuts all his posturing. And the man's not even there!

Jean-Louis, of course, is, and Maud takes her time peeling apart Jean-Louis' own pretenses. Wearing only a long nightshirt (and, later, nothing), she cannot help but chuckle when the man, who stays despite his polite protests, says that a man in love would never be tempted by another. She bluntly tears through his façade, telling him that all that matters to him is his respectability, which prevents any meaningful attachment as he's so focused on how he is perceived that human connection means less for its personal contact than for how it increases his spiritual standing. At one point, Maud asks Jean-Louis if he'd like to be a saint. He responds, "Not at all," but Rohmer has precisely arranged Trintignant in front of a lamp that throws an aura around him as he stands before the otherwise drab, gray wall. Though the camera faces Jean-Louis, the moment almost feels like a POV shot. Jean-Louis may deny his aspirations to holiness, but the director slyly reveals the man's image of himself.

It's crucial to note that Maud's teasing and seduction of Jean-Louis is not meant to be cruel or even empowering in that tired way that an idiosyncratic female character often serves no other purpose than to spur a man's self-realization and development. Maud has her own complexities and wants, with her own sense of loneliness and lack of fulfillment that is distinct from the men's but no less real or recognizable. But neither is she enamored of Jean-Louis in the way he is of Françoise: her interest is just that, and it's up to Jean-Louis to do something about it. He nearly succumbs to the temptation, but pulls back at the last minute. The next morning, he seeks out Françoise and asks her out.

There's an undeniable comedy in Jean-Louis' nervousness and his desperation to keep up appearances, but Rohmer also inserts flecks of sadness and hope into the character relationships. Whenever Jean-Louis is in Françoise's apartment, it's bathed in white light, glowing around the woman until the frame starts to suggest she's radioactive as much as angelic. He does not truly see her, only what she means to his image. Françoise even mutters a few faint protests at the speed with which Jean-Louis begins planning their lives together, but she finds herself going along with his love. Her acquiescence only further proves to Jean-Louis that their marriage is fated, even as he himself makes the conscious decision to avoid a relationship with Maud to "help" that predestination along.

The film's coda, set a few years in the future on a beach, introduces a contrivance into the dynamic of Jean-Louis, Françoise, and Maud. It's somewhat out of place in a movie that otherwise feels so naturalistic, but the sudden understanding of how Françoise herself has a connection to Maud adds a literary twist of irony that reminds the audience this was all carefully arranged. But in a touchingly poetic final moment, Jean-Louis, Françoise, and their young child running into the water. It's simultaneously painful and exhilarating, as hope is wont to be, and it's hard to say whether Jean-Louis has at last embraced the present and forsaken his preoccupation with the propriety of things or if he's just running into the sea in an attempt to distance himself from reality. Given the multifaceted depth of Rohmer's writing, the truth likely incorporates both readings, and many others besides.