March 28, 2007

Lone Star

Lone Star
directed by John Sayles, 1996

This is just a lovely movie, in case you didn't know. It's by a director whom I admire a lot, and it's got one of those Altmanesque interweaving plotlines deals going.

It takes place, tellingly, in a Texas border town along the Rio Grande, loosely centered around the sheriff there investigating an old crime that his father may or may not have been involved in. But that's only a hook to frame the real themes on. This movie is really all about crossing borders.

National borders, borders between races, borders between generations, borders between truth and lies, the borders we put up between ourselves and the ones we love. I don't find many movies inspirational in the Disney sense, but this movie makes me feel hope in all its dangerous beautiful messiness. Full of so many moments of quiet bravery (sometimes misguided, sometimes not) that are so easy to connect with.

In a lot of ways, it's the acting that makes this movie work. Every once in a while, when the dialogue threatens to spill over into something preachy, it's the stellar performances that draw you back in and make it all so human. Even the minor side-characters who are only on the screen for five minutes are real textured human beings.

It's a movie worth renting and watching twice back to back, if you have a long rainy afternoon sometime.

March 25, 2007

Hardboiled Wonderland

The Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Haruki Murakami, 1985

Well this novel is one of my all-time favorites. Just finished re-reading it again last night. It was the first of many Murakamis for me (grabbed it off a bookshelf in Japan, actually), and has a special personal resonance for me right now as well.

I don't think I could do this book justice in a full-on review - not that I've written a real review here yet for anything else either - so instead I'm going to talk about a couple of aspects of it that are rolling through my head at the moment.

The first issue is that this book seems to have something of a bad rap in the criticism, and I've been trying to figure out why. I happen to think it's the very best of Murakami's novels, so the lack of respect sticks in my craw a bit. I'm sure some of the reason is the more in-your-face sci-fi/adventure trappings. I bet the two parallel story lines might strike some people as too precious. More to the point, I think readers of his more recent work would find this one long on Jungian concepts and short on the deliriously elliptical storytelling that's become his trademark. So perhaps looking back to this (slightly) more straightforward paired narrative, it's easy for readers to dismiss the book as simplistic or the work of a journeyman. Perhaps some people are just too scared to be the first to laud the book, worried that they'll be shown up by someone who understands it better?

That's one thing that makes this book different from some of the later ones. While I think it happens to be just as "unknowable" and fever-dream-derived as more recent work, it doesn't wear its unknowability on its sleeve. It has a structure and tone that give an impression of well worked-out tropes and dynamics, which we could all understand and articulate fully if we just spent some more time with it, and maybe worked out a few charts and graphs. Now I don't have a PhD in literature or anything, but I think I know this book well enough to state positively that it's as much of a beautiful transcendent mess as ones that followed. So don't be scared, people! Trust me, nobody "gets it" any more than you do.

One particular thing I noticed this time through: one gloss on the novel is to read it as an extrapolation on the workings of the mind of a detective. (Please note I am saying that this is merely a gloss, not some kind of key for understanding the whole shebang.)

If you haven't read the book, I hope I'm not ruining much by telling you that there are two parallel stories, and it emerges partway through that one of the narratives is taking place fully inside the subconscious of the narrator of the other. The professor who performed a special surgery to seal off the narrator's subconscious, says at one point that the narrator's subconscious was "well-plotted, even perfect. It could have passed for a novel or a movie." In other words, the narrator has an inner core which is simple, well-formed, and complete. This strikes me as an apt metaphor for the moral/behavioral center that the most famous hardboiled detective characters have (thinking of Chandler's Philip Marlowe here in particular, naturally). Mostly incorruptible, single-minded in his pursuits, and clinging to a morality that seems timeless to him, this archetype hardboiled detective keeps that core sealed off from day-to-day rigors and trials, both mental and physical. Like we see in many pulp heros, it's that core which is supposed to give a detective like Marlowe his strength. It's separated from everything else (like Murakami's narrator's subconsious), prized (ditto), frozen in time (ditto again).

I like the idea that one can interpret a lot of the novel as a big old extrapolation of this metaphor, but spun out in a thousand unexpected directions.

The other thing that struck me this time through in a more powerful way than on previous readings, was the whole "perhaps the dream is dreaming us" deal. Certainly, there's a good bit of doubt all the way through as to whether the End of the World narrative is actually the subconscious one. There's enough weirdness in both of the parallel stories to make either of them a likely candidate, if you ask me. It's never fully resolved in a pat way (thank goodness!)

So I'll stop there, or maybe write some more another day. It's a gorgeous book, this one, worth reading again and again. Maybe the most majestically gloriously sad ending I've ever experienced.

Go read it.

March 23, 2007


Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Goedel
Rebecca Goldstein (2005)

Let me be succinct with this one: I really did not enjoy this book. The author is apparently a MacArthur fellow, but I guess even geniuses (genii?) are allowed a clunker now and then.

I hardly know where to begin, and in a way it feels like I shouldn't dig in so deep to make criticisms. The book is an attempt to interweave biography and philosophy, and seems to me it fails at both. I've never been much of a lover of the biography form in general, but the best ones do give you a sense of a stretch of history and one person's place in it. Not so much of that here. The author is very interested in talking about the Vienna Circle, the positivists, and especially a long side-track into Wittgenstien, but not in giving their philosophies and place in history more than the most cursory description.

The worst sin is that Goedel's mathematics, which is nothing short of revolutionary, is rendered boring here. I think it takes a serious effort to lose one's wonder about it, and to describe what it all means in such arid disinterested prose. It's disconcerting to read a book like this one and wonder if the author even really understands the implications of Goedel's work. On the flip side, I feel like she over-explains easier concepts like what theoretical mathematics is and how it fits into the contemporary academy.

There are the seeds of a few good books here. I suppose a pure biography could be illuminating (though as I mentioned, that wouldn't be my favorite option). Definitely a real exploration of how philosophy was forever changed by Goedel's mathematics would be exciting. The story of turn-of-the-century Vienna, with Goedel as a key character, or perhaps a side-by-side contrast of Goedel and Wittgenstien, would make for compelling reading.

As the text stands, it makes small forays into all these areas without making any of them interesting. Disappointing.

March 21, 2007

podcast adulation

In Our Time
BBC radio 4

This is not so much a real review as just a marvelling at how wonderful this radio show is. I am just a huge fan, and never miss an episode. If you've never heard it, go get the podcast (that's how I listen to it) and I guarantee you'll be converted instantly.

Each week the host and three selected panelists take up a certain topic and look at it from various historical perspectives, tracing the impact of a person or idea or movement through time. Some recent favorites that stand out in my mind: Indian Mathematics, Karl Popper, Microbiology, and last week's on English Epistolary Literature. But really every single episode is full of gems of information and concepts, floated through time the way only good historians can make interesting.

The host, Melvin Bragg, is sharp himself, and brilliant at keeping the guest historians focused but still having a good time. The invited guests are nearly always from universities in the British Isles, experts in their fields. Some take to the radio-panel format easily, and some don't, but they all bring a passion and enthusiasm that's infectious.

I feel so informed and tuned into the broad sweeps of history each time I listen. Go get this show so you can feel the same.

March 20, 2007

Casablanca and its music

directed by Michael Curtiz, 1942

I watched this movie on video for about the hundredth time recently - it's been a favorite for most of my life, as it is for many people. It's a nice cultural touchstone, almost like some 18th-century moral instruction treatise, but with more action and much cooler dialogue.

So you all know the basic plot, which is about the sacrifice of love for the greater good of humanity. It certainly plays out every psychological outgrowth from that core in beautiful ways, helped along by some nice acting. I've always enjoyed the side-stories of the smaller characters, like the Bulgarian couple hoping to escape, the machinations of Sidney Greenstreet's rival bar-owner, the Free French underground meetings of the business manager Carl, etc. They drive home the (Capra-esque) point that everyone has a story, all intertwine to some degree or another, and the Bogart/Bergman story is in a way just one story picked at random. This has the effect of drawing me in as a viewer. The stories are larger-than-life, yes, but not so out of scale that I can't relate (how much moreso for a viewer in 1942, I'm sure).

Anyhow, if the main idea is one of self-sacrifice (i.e., that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world"), nowhere is that borne out better than in the music.

Ah, Max Steiner, Max Steiner. So many great film scores, so much to enjoy. There's a lot more subtlety to this particular score than one might notice at first blush. Sure, there's the "battle of the anthems" scene, which works really well (the German patriotic song being drowned out by "La Marseillaise"), but to me that mostly serves as a hint that we should be listening to music to tell us other things in the movie as well.

For one thing, there's a fluidity between the diegetic and nondiegetic (within the world of the movie and without) music, most promenently the switch from Sam playing "As Time Goes By" on the bar piano for Rick right there in the frame, to the flashback it triggers, which is underscored with a full orchestra out of the frame. The "As Time Goes By" melody comes back in various forms through the rest of the picture, beyond the flashback scene, often distended in rhythm or re-harmonized, but always as a fragment of something bigger. It's as if the melody can't be pure any more, is struggling to find a new way to exist in the altered landscape.

And of course it all culminates with the final music cue as Bogart and Claude Rains walk off into the fog. The "As Time Goes By" theme starts, then elides with the opening bars of the Marseillaise. The energy and generosity of love, transformed and transfigured to political action.

How awesome.

March 16, 2007

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes WereWatching God
Zora Neale Hurston, 1937

This is one of those novels that I always wanted to read, but never got around to till recently. I admit that it took me a while to get drawn into its world, which is basically an emotional journey. It has the varied trappings of a coming-of-age story, a picaresque slice of life, a fable, and a social critique, but what makes it special is the emotional depth and resonance of the main character Janie. The story is told with great reliance on "big fat symbols," but draws life from them rather than suffering under their weight. Focused down tightly on Janie and the events over a few decades of her life, the narrative actually gains strength from its narrow tracking of her developing mental landscape. It's a character study drawn out over time, and it's the inner life of the mind, with its special rhythms and contours, which is the author's prime target.

The real grace of the book for me is in its language, which manages blend the earthy and the sublime in ways that I haven't experienced in other literature. For example:

"…love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore"

That's really good writing, focusing on inner emotional truth. Chick lit? spare me. Oprah seal of approval or not, this is a singular achievement.

March 15, 2007

Harry Potter and Goetterdammerung

Heh yep I'm not the hugest Harry Potter fan in the world, but I've started to follow the fandom a little recently, and I've read most of the books. Today I'm going to jump on the HP bandwagon, because really it's not a force to be ignored.

I'm very intrigued by the impending final book in the series (it was announced recently that it will be coming out this summer) for a few reasons. The main one is that there's a really delicious kind of tension in the overarching plot of the series, which I think is a very rare thing in genre literature that's aimed at children. I can summarize it with two statements: the character of Harry absolutely must die in the last book, and he absolutely cannot die in the last book. In some ways, it's a tension between form and content.

Everything in the poetics of the series, everything in it's fictional cosmology, points Harry towards death: self-sacrifice in the name of love, balancing of the scales, fulfilling destiny, your usual hero's journey stuff. But then you have to take a step back and realize that all that takes place within the framework of a fantasy adventure novel for children, and that genre demands that the hero vanquish adversity and live on.

So I think the author has set herself up with a great challenge there. I'm sure she's had the ultimate resolution planned out from early days, but the genius of it is that she's played these two sides against each other so nicely that it's a complete mystery (to me, at least) how it will resolve in the end. I tend to think that there won't be a gimmicky ending relying too much on magic as a deus ex machina, and I also tend to think that it won't be something cheap and unsatisfying. Hopefully I'm not being overly optimistic on those two counts.

One way for it all to unfold would be to follow a Jesus narrative, having Harry die and be reborn somehow, a transfiguration through love. I could see this working, but on its face it seems too easy, almost to the point of being a cop-out, getting a twofer in order to satisfy both sets of contraints.

Since intergenerational relationships play such a strong role in the later books of the series (yes that's why book 5 was my favorite), I'm thinking it could be something more along the lines of the Ring cycle. A cataclysmic reckoning that erases the old and ushers in the new. Then again, perhaps that's too grand for books which have basically been human-scale all along.

In any case, I have to say I'm looking forward to reading it, just to see how the tensions get resolved. I also admit that there's something special about feeling part of a monumentally huge group of readers who'll all be reacting basically simultaneously to the same printed words. That doesn't happen too often, so you have to savor it when the opportunity arises.

bloggity blog blog

So the plan here is to post little reviews and thoughts provoked by literature, film, music, and probably a bunch of other stuff too. I am overeducated, I have opinions, and I think typing stuff out here will help me organize my ideas a bit better. It's all about ME ME ME, in other words. Really, ain't all criticism like that? For the most part, I'm gonna try and throw my own ego into the mix along with everything else and see how the spices blend.