April 26, 2008

Harold and Maude

Harold and Maude
directed by Hal Ashby, 1971

Well this was a thoroughly enjoyable movie, with a wicked sense of humor and that particular late-60s/early-70s aura of Significance, tempered with a light touch.

I suppose the big surprise in the film for me is its warm humanism. Judging from what I'd heard about it in the past, I was expecting a lot more heavy-handed morality and a soundtrack of axes being ground. To be sure, there's plenty of that going on, but at its heart this is a story of two idiosyncratic individuals, and it's no small feat that it finds ways to undercut the potential for grandiosity most of the time. Makes sense that the title of the movie is the names of the two characters.

The San Francisco and Bay Area locations are a huge attraction for me as well, of course. In fact, the more I think back on it, the more I think that the setting plays an important role (I can imagine a New York-based version, but it would require a more somber tone, to the detriment of the drama). The director spends a lot of time on the settings, letting the surroundings sink in and inform the scenes: the cold ornateness of the mansion, the artificially sculpted cemetery grounds, the crashing power of the pacific ocean, the cozy warmth of Maude's trailer, etc.

And the all Cat Stevens soundtrack? Well, it kind of reminded me of the zither music in the Third Man, to tell you the truth: sometimes beautifully fitting, sometimes very distracting, all the time energetic and amateurish. Oddly memorable, just like the rest of the movie.

April 18, 2008

Somewhere in Time

The Time Traveller's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger, 2003

OK, so let's get the bad news out of the way first: this is a very poorly-written novel. The prose is the kind where sometimes you find yourself wincing and feeling embarrassed for the author. Big ideas are largely absent, and the small ideas flare out quickly for the most part. The characters, relationships, evocations of time and place, are all of the kind one might find in a freshman creative writing seminar at a tiny liberal-arts college in the midwest.

Now let's get to what I like about it.

This story is a romance, and when it remembers that it's a romance, it can be excellent. The sci-fi time-travel angle is a natural set-up for exploring the myriad temporal aspects of what love is (how people are bound together over time, the feeling of "fatedness," the sense of flashback and flashforward inherent in long-term relationships, the way love is linked into biology, etc., etc.). Of course, I wanted a lot more of that - that's what makes the book special and gives it unique angles on such ideas - but the glimpses that are there do tantalize.

I'm also intrigued by a couple of the side characters, though that may be because the characters that are dwelt upon for the longest attain a certain drab similarity to each other. The author doesn't seem to want to dwell on the sadness in the minor characters, even when that's their most interesting aspect (every family is miserable in its own unique way, as we know). Perhaps it was the right choice to focus on the two main characters - it is a romance after all, and the book is just the right length as it is.

Reading the book was an interesting experience, because I felt I was reading a "treatment" of the theme of the novel the whole time, instead of a novel. Never full invested in the text itself, I'm sure it's partly my own imagination getting the best of me, but I kept envisioning different directions the story might have taken, different ways ideas might have been developed and investigated. All this, of course, points to just how compelling the germinal idea is.

I read that there will be a movie version, and I will be interested to see another "treatment" of the story in that medium. Meanwhile, I'm happy to have read the book first.

April 11, 2008


This has always been one of my favorite passages in Song of Myself. Something about it is speaking to me today, so I thought I'd share it here. This sense of leaning toward the future and how that emphasizes the potentialities of the present, restless contradictions just part of the whole, and why am I trying to write tepid prose about it when you can just read the lines?

The past and present wilt--I have fill'd them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day's work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

April 02, 2008

Eat It Up

The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan, 2006

Well I'd been thinking about reading this one for a while, and when someone was lovely enough to loan the book to me recently, I dug right in.

The book is about food, the food industries, and our relationship to what we eat. Rather than get into the specifics of the topics, though, I want to talk about the author's prose style, tone, and structural choices, which to a large extent carry the book.

If you've read here before, you know that I'm not much of a nonfiction reader (unless it's music-related stuff). This kind of work really makes me rethink my stance on nonfiction, though, because Pollan manages to do things that really good fiction does: talk about what it means to be human, illuminate some of the complex web of societal relationships, imaginatively exemplify ways of being in the world, bring to life modes of thought and emotion.

At its base, this is a work of journalism: a (mostly) first-hand investigative report on the way we eat and the supply-chain that keeps the supermarket shelves stocked. It's also a personal story about the author's education in such matters and his experiences along the way. One aspect of poor nonfiction writing is the use of personal experience as a mere "hook" to make the big dry subject seem human-scaled, or worse, to provide a kind of comic relief from the weightiness of the larger ideas. There is none of that here. On the contrary, Pollan deftly uses his narrative passages as a springboard into reflection and, yes, even philosophy. We are always focused in the true subject matter of the book, just approaching it from different angles.

The author's job is made easier, of course, by the fact that cooking and eating are things we all do daily. The main structural conceit at play here - that Pollan is describing the whole story (personal and political) behind four meals that he eats - provides an opportunity to engage each of his four topics with varying mixtures of memoir, literature survey, first-hand account, conversation, science reportage, interview, recipes, etc. True, a couple of the attempts fall flat (one chapter in which Pollan has an imaginary conversation with the author of a book on vegetarianism struck me as particularly stilted), but even the less-than-stellar passages carry the thread forward. There are rich and cogent arguments being made here, and they have an immediacy to a reader who will eat many meals during the course of reading the book.

And make no mistake that this is a fascinating, multi-layered topic, very worthy of the deep exploration here and then some. It's a breeze to read and full of fun conversation starters, in addition to being impeccably well-written and well-researched. It's made me think twice about everything I have been cooking since the very first chapter.