Thursday, March 27, 2008

mini-spree of movie-watching

I was going to wait until I had seen No Country For Old Men before I made this post, but my cold is eating my head up and I am not planning on watching a two-hour long film that I may be too stupid to understand any time now.
Across The Universe

I can see that views on this film can be and have varied. It is not like Troy, which we unanimously agree is the dumbest film known to man. I will give it that. However, contrary to the views of several on my flist and among the upper echelons of film criticism in the American media, my disapproval of it is unbound.

This is not to say that it did not elicit highly emotional responses from me at several moments. If you have spent any part of your life in the company of the Beatles I dare you to sit through a sequence where the entire city of Liverpool comes out to sing 'Hey Jude' to a curly-haired dockworker without sniffling. I had to stop the film and cry my eyes out before I could go on. I don't want this to be held against me, though -- the rest of the film was a high price to pay for some old-fashioned emotional manipulation. I had so many problems with the film, I would be put-upon horribly to enumerate them all, but how about I highlight Bono covering 'I Am The Walrus.'


Old friends will know I am one of the few remaining adults in the world who can be reduced to tears by vintage U2; their Beatles' covers -- the Rattle and Hum version of 'Helter Skelter' comes to mind, as does the cover of 'Sgt. Pepper' they did with Paul McCartney at that massive pollutant of a concert during the G-8's failed climate change conference a couple of years ago? -- have been, in my opinion, among the most affecting in modern rock. Were fifty-year-old Bono to sing 'Running To Stand Still' in his ruined angel-voice today, I would assuredly suffer pangs. Bearing this in mind, his performance in this film was even more vexatious to me. Why will he play a Timothy Leary-esque character and perform 'I Am The Walrus' [in an American accent, at that] when he is old enough to know that he suffers from neither the bizarre, anarchic sense of humour nor the paranoia out of which the song was fashioned? It's not easy feeling embarrassed for Bono, but he forced me into it. I was like, aw, man, stop it. You don't look pimpin'. You look like a dork who won a contest to be in a Beatles movie.

Apart from this gargantuan travesty the music cannot be faulted for being what it is, one or two glaring inadequacies aside -- the 'Blackbird' moment is frankly infuriating, 'Let It Be' used in an isolated montage of the Detroit race riots was unpleasantly dissonant (were they trying to be inclusive of race issues? it did not work.), and it's more funny-peculiar than funny-haha that 'With A Little Help From My Friends' suddenly soars out of Ringo mode into the blues-and-soul Joe Cocker version. After all, everybody sings along with these songs; to puke and mewl at a Beatles cover would be akin to resenting the fact that people like to sing. Some of the sequences are, in fact, magnificent. The conflation of Vietnam's killing fields with Strawberry Fields, or 'Come Together' as a paean to the city of New York, for example, were marvellously-executed ideas. A post-Summer of Love gang of English youth grinding to 'Hold Me Tight' in the Cavern Club - fantastic. Were this a two-and-a-half-hour long interpretative installation of the Beatles' work I would be all over it.

But they have a story and characters, and I repeatedly found myself asking the screen, why? Why are you trying so hard? I understand that there may be an incredibly important story to be told by drawing parallels with the youth of the anti-war protests of forty years ago, and the situation in the States today, and I can even credit the idea that this story can be told through the work of the Beatles, but this is not that important story. This is like trying to recreate a Picasso canvas on a grain of rice with a blunt pencil*.

For me, there was too much of a cultural and structural lapse with what I know and care about, so it came across as loopy and emotionally uncommitted. I did sing along and all that, but it was a very 'because the sky is blue it makes me cry' feeling.

[Further, purely personal disappointments: The opening shot, of a boy sitting on the sands listening to the ocean waves, and then turning to the camera and singing the opening lines of the famously misogynistic 'Girl' caused major dissonance -- how can you have boy + ocean waves in a Beatles' song and not think of the heartbreaking 'Julia'? How can you have boy + golden-haired beauty + 'Something' and not think of George Harrison writing it for Patti Boyd?]


Romantic comedy about pregnant teenager. Jesus is involved. Nice.


Romantic comedy about pregnant teenager. Feminism is involved. Nice.

I loved Jennifer Garner in Juno. I thought she was pitch-perfect. The film is a definite E for Effort for fashioning such a sturdy, funny creature of circumstance with real space to make mistakes AND NOT MAKE THIS CHARACTER A MAN, and Ellen Page was fantastic. The script was not without its decidely-off moments, though, and the music was just tiresome. [Although I agree with about that one song by the whoever it was at the end. Michael Cera, so adorable]

Saved! was a hilarious watch, and I adored Jena Malone and Mandy Moore. [Plus, I'm an Almost Famous baby, and any appearance of Patrick Fugit in a film automatically ratchets its approval ratings high for me.] It was funny and heartwarming without being really bold or groundbreaking, and I dealt with that fine. I will probably watch it again, just for Patrick Fugit on a rainy night with Chinese food.

None of this obscures the fact that these films approach nothing like the supreme incandescent unimprovability of the best high school film ever made and my favourite movie of all time, Mean Girls, but I'm willing not to hold that against either of them.

Jeeves & Wooster

We have the Season One DVDs and have been working our way through them with much mutual warmth and appreciation ["WHERE IS SPODE? IS SPODE GOING TO BE THERE?" "No! BUT HAVE YOU GOTTEN TO GUSSIE FINK-NOTTLE YET?" We call as aunt to aunt, who in their turn call like mastodons bellowing across a primeval swamp, etc.]. Two things from Stephen Fry's remarkable hagiography of Wodehouse, which doubles up as his introduction to the 'Best Of Wodehouse' collection, come to mind: the first is his remark about the impossibility of adapting a narrative like Bertie's to screen. The translation from page-to-frame does lose a lot in this telling, and it's quite an achievement that the episodes remain crisp and sharp in spite of how skewed time and characterisation are by the Wodehouse narrative. The series is not as funny as I remember it from my days as a child in the early 1990s. But this is not to say that it isn't still hilarious.

The second is, of course, Fry's observation that in spite of the scorn Bertie receives from all quarters in his stories, it is hard not to see that the man is really adorable.

It would be a pity, however, to overlook the character of Bertie Wooster, who is himself a great deal more than the silly ass or chinless wonder that people often imagine. That he is loyal, kind, chivalrous, resolute and magnificently sweet-natured is apparent. But is he stupid? Jeeves is overheard describing him once as "mentally negligible". Perhaps that isn't quite fair. While not intelligent within the meaning of the act, Bertie is desperate to learn, keen to assimilate the wisdom of his incomparable teacher. He may only half-know the quotations and allusions with which he peppers his speech, but proximity to the great brain has made him aware of the possibilities of exerting the cerebellum.

Wodehouse's genius in the Jeeves and Wooster canon lies in his complete realisation of Bertie as first-person narrator. Almost all the other stories depend upon standard, impersonal narration. The particular joy of a Jeeves story comes from the delicious feeling one derives from being completely in Bertie's hands.

To which I can only add: he is, in the person of Hugh Laurie, also a singular object of -- admittedly questionable -- lust. But life would be boring if all of us went for the Oofy Prossers of the world.

Looking forward greatly to the last episode, which I am about to watch. It has Gussie Fink-Nottle's prize-giving speech at Market Snodsbury.

Thank you.


Saturday, March 15, 2008

'tophole' is an underused word in our times

Thanks to the cleverness of A, we have found ourselves in possession of some of the books that formed one of our common childhood obsessions: Elinor M Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series. Those acquainted with the Chalet School books will know that they are the story of the brilliant and charming Bettany girls, who set up a school in Austria when they are orphaned [well, twenty-four year old Madge does; the twelve-year old Joey is the school's first pupil] and embark upon a course of education almost fantastically exotic to anyone whose only other acquaintance with school stories has been the garden variety English schoolgirl stuff.

I had little to no memory of the details of the series, apart from that it was a cultural hodgepodge, and that they spoke French, German and English on alternating days as a matter of principle, and that a pleasantly high number of handsome, charming English doctors [male] abide in the Tyrol, apparently for the sole purpose of sweeping the ladies Bettany off their feet in later volumes of the series. It's all coming back fast and in delightful fashion nonetheless. For someone who thrived on school stories I take it as a personal failing, looking back, that I failed to integrate the word 'topping' successfully into my vocabulary. I must have been a very slow child. By page 29 of the first book, The School at the Chalet (1925), Madge and Joey have already described things as "topping" about four hundred times.

The books are also moral lessons in the fashion of Enid Blyton, and infuse their multiculturalism with a healthy awareness of the English prescriptions of doing things. On the first day of school Jo and Grizel [Cochrane, the unhappy unwanted English girl who comes away with the Bettanys to the Tyrol] walk down to the Seespitz landing with their new Austrian friends. The conversation that takes place is as follows:

It was a delightful walk, and they found each other very friendly, although shy Frieda only smiled and scarcely spoke at all. Gisela, Bette, and Gertrud were anxious to find out all they could about English schools, and they asked many questions. The two English girls found that they had read quite a number of school-stories, and were very ready to take in all they could on the subject of Prefects, and Head Girls, and games.

‘Then I understand that though most of you are very honourable, it is not always so,’ said Gertrud finally.

‘What do you mean? English girls always play the game!' cried Jo sharply.

‘But some cheat, and look at examination papers beforehand, and take what is not their own,’ returned Gertrud.

‘Tosh! I’ve never met any!’ declared Jo.

‘But it says so in the books I have read,’ persisted the elder girl.

‘But that’s only to make the story,’ explained Jo. ‘We don’t really do such things —honest Injun, Gertrud!

‘I should hope not!’ came from Grizel, who was walking a little in front with Gisela and Bernhilda.

Gertrud’s face cleared. ‘Ah, I see. I am glad, for I should like to think that all English girls are honourable. We are grateful to you, you know, for my father says that it is the great loans England has made to Austria that are making it possible for us to become a nation once more.’

Jo and Grizel neither knew nor cared about the loans to Austria, but they realised that the others wanted to be friendly, and they were ready to meet them half-way. They chattered on about school topics till they reached the Seespitz Gasthaus, where Bernhilda and Frieda said ‘good-bye’ to them.

The best thing about this exchange is that it ends with Bernhilda asking the girls to come "eat an English tea" with her family at the weekend*. Alumni of convent schools will remember that the only really important things about childhood are food and morals. [The healthy dose of nationalism is inseparable from personal morality. I have a very distinct memory of Sister Marion condemning in the strongest words possible for a nun of her character and calibre, the perfidious work of some unknown dissenter who, after the Republic Day celebrations, wrote 'THIS COUNTRY IS GOING TO THE DOGS' on a paper flag of India and left it to wither in the sun outside the school office.]

I am looking forward with unmitigated glee to reacquainting myself with the books, which are, as the Tyrol to the invalid [but spirited] Joey, rather a breath of fresh air after the more stultified atmosphere of St Clare's and Malory Towers, where the girls, if equally plucky, are rather more suspicious of foreigners, geniuses and men. The famed English spirit of adventure is very much more disarmingly captured in this pioneering work of Madge and Joey's. Earlier in the book Madge says to their elder brother, Dick [who is 'away in India' - the family have East India stock at four per cent, and all three Bettany children were born there]:

But oh, Dick! Supposing it isn’t a success! Supposing I fail!’

And so:

‘Tosh!’ he said easily. ‘You won’t fail! You’ve too much grit for that. Other people might; but you’ll go on! Buck up, old thing!’

‘But I’m so young,’ she said— ‘only twenty-four, Dick!’

He gave her arm a reassuring squeeze.

‘You’ll pull through all right! Keep your hair on, old girl! We’d better be getting back now.'

This is superior stuff. At the cusp of attaining twenty-four I only hope that my life is a little more full of people who can tell me to keep my hair on and push me off the deep end if I ever decide to start a school for plucky young girls.

I should start a school for plucky young girls.

I hope that my memory has not failed me and that the series goes on as it has begun: if so I shall keep you all updated on the histories of the Chaletians. At the very least the amount of food they've been putting away deserves honest and incisive documentation. Girls! Eating! It's a wonder these books have been allowed to persist in the face of postmodernity.

‘Simone,’ she said aloud, ‘I’m awfully sorry Grizel and I have been such beasts. I quite see we have been beasts, even though we didn’t mean it! Now I want you to mop up—here’s a hankie!—and come back with me, and we’ll start again. I’m sure Grizel will see it, and we’ll all be pally together.’

But this was not what Simone wanted. Truth to tell, she had conceived a violent affection for Jo, and Grizel, with her vivid prettiness and more obvious qualities, repelled her. So she sobbed on, while Joey sat, nearly distracted, and not knowing what to do.

‘Simone, I do wish you’d stop!’ she said finally. ‘Do stop crying, old thing! I’ll do anything I can for you; honest, I will!’

Simone made a big effort. ‘Will you be— my friend?' she choked out.

‘Of course I will! I am! We both are!’

‘No; I mean—my amie intime! Oh, Jo, if you only would, I think I should be happier! Grizel makes friends with everyone. Gisela Marani loves her, and so does Bette Rincini! I don’t want her; I want only you! I love you so!’

Anyone less sentimental than Joey Bettany it would have been hard to find; and now she sat rigid with horror while Simone made this little speech. Her first impulse was to say, ‘Don’t be so idiotic!’ but you can’t do that when a person has lifted a pathetically tear-stained face to you, and is looking at you with eyes full of a doglike affection. At least you can’t if you are like soft-hearted Jo, who promptly hugged the younger girl, saying, ‘Righto! we’ll be pals. And now, do mop up, there’s a gem!’

Oh, those precious days of summer.

* - That English tea is one of the things that has to this day remained emblazoned in my memory as the very height of sophistication. Frau Mensch, mother of Bernhilda, asks Joey and Grizel if they will drink "Thee mit Citron oder mit Rhum," and Bernhilda has to step in and tell Mamma that the English girls will not take tea with lemon or rum, but "Thee mit Milch." Fantastic, fantastic.

Monday, March 10, 2008

i accuse this city

Of being one of compulsive dahi-sweeteners.

In Bombay you would get both varieties at will.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

book thoughtz

March has started well wrt books. I've had time on my hands lately, and not the slightest inclination to write. Here's a book log:

Juggling, Barbara Trapido

Reading Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, planted her firmly in my list of favourite novelists. Temples of Delight and The Travelling Hornplayer did nothing to pitch her out thence, and now I've read Juggling, the novel that connects Temples and Hornplayer, although each book is a stands alone, too. And -- I don't know how she does it. I really don't. Her books are slight, flippant, defiantly masochistic narratives by and about brilliant but frustrated women, full of humour and self-deprecation and an insane need to balance out the cold facts of every story she tells with an awareness of its opposite -- there's no sex without death, no grief without laughter, no success without compromise anywhere in her books. Her wit sparkles; her ability to choke you with sadness does, too. There's a certain amount of chatty subversiveness in her books that I find quite feminist, but her writing is generally too self-conscious to be really political [and it's self-conscious enough to be vaguely apologetic about that, too, I think].

She is also an accomplished critic. Music and literature are central to her novels: Temples of Delight is a re-telling of The Magic Flute; The Travelling Hornplayer leaned heavily on Schubert's "The Beautiful Miller's Daughter" song cycle. Juggling is structurally modelled about and concerned with Trapido's palpable love of Shakespearean comedy. It is a novel improbably full of girls who are not what they are said to be, boys in the midst of crippling identity crises, startling co-incidences, and unfinished stories. I had problems with the stubborn whimsy of Hornplayer, but thankfully Juggling is a lot more like Temples of Delight in its clarity and compassion.

I was looking for Trapido on the Internet and I found an interview in which she was asked how she felt about her being compared to Jane Austen. Before pointing out that it was kind of lame [although Trapido, bless her, would never use the word 'lame' to mean anything other than someone ill-disposed to walk] how every woman writer who wrote novels about women invariably received that compliment, she said:

I think I sense in her, a woman prone to depression who uses the force of her intelligence to hammer the unbearableness of life into a shape so perfect, that the dexterity of the artifact forces the story into upbeat mode and leaves the reader thinking, "a happy ending—hurrah!"

Which is kind of what she does, too.

Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon

Now here is an author who will use the word 'lame' at every given opportunity. I've been enjoying Chabon's work more and more as he grows older and cooler -- I can't believe The Final Solution got the bad rap it did, because it accomplished, if not to perfection, then to something exceeding expectations, what it set out to do, which was to tell the damn story. I couldn't believe Kavalier & Clay got the near-universal critical critical worship it did either, to be frank - and I say this as a flag-waving K&C fangirl - because it relied, imho, a little too heavily on the fact that geeks now rule the world, and will consequently adore stories about geeks and their geek obsessions, and was, while superbly-written and emotionally sound, still a little fearful of getting on with telling the damn story.

And oh, Michael Chabon, if only you had left the afterword out of Gentlemen of the Road, how admirably you would have succeeded in your sole goal of telling the damn story, because it is the best attempt at storytelling I have seen you make yet. It's like you've pared down every writerly tic, every attempt at "showing" character and history, every impulse to bung in some "revealing" dialogue, some significant poetic parallel, some attempt at demonstrating the marriage of romance and realism AND JUST GONE FOR THE STORY OMG. THANK YOU. Jesus Christ, that was a good book. A fun book. And a very Chabon book in its concern for -- emotional justice? [I don't know how else to describe it]. I can't even begin to imagine how bloody hard it must have been to write.

Yet, for some reason every review I've read has been a reflection of the four-page afterword Chabon wrote to the book, in which he talked about his motivations re: writing a book about Jews with swords etc. and other stuff you knew he's always been concerned about his writing. This afterword attempts in no way to alter your perception of the book. Yet every other review in the papers started off on some variation of the words, 'OMG, Chabon has written a Jewish book about Jewish people with Jewish swords. What is he trying to tell us?' Um, he's told you that in the afterword already. In the Village Voice this reviewer actually took umbrage at Chabon having the temerity to be a Jewish writer about Jewish people and not at all being like Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud and being just like Jonathan Safran Foer. Which was totally uncalled-for, I thought. It is a Jewish novel, but not one that happens to have some adventure thrown in as background to all the omg!forrealz stuff. It's not even that his biggest success is about getting Jews to go adventuring -- it's that he lets it happen in this gentle, distant, totally unlaboured way so that both the Jewishness and the adventure just about sink into each other. And that has got to be the biggest benefit of his coming along this far in his quest to just, simply, merely, only tell a good story.

Oh, and it has some lovely old-school illustrations -- very much out of the cut-price Arabian Nights schoolbooks they used to study a few generations ago.

I loved it, and I can't wait to find a copy of Yiddish Policemen's Union now.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy.

I haven't read this book since I was about thirteen, so when I started on it I suddenly remembered that the final third of the book relies heavily on 'Reuben the Jew' and was seized with a sudden terror -- what if memory had failed me and I was about to read something with a section as disgusting as that pawnbroker scene in The Grand Sophy? I am relieved to say that this was not the case [although the book is no shining beacon of fin-de-si├Ęcle ethnic tolerance, either]. And, in fact, I enjoyed this every bit as much as you could imagine. I mean, come on. He kisses the steps! And the balustrade! 'Cuz her feet rested there! And he can't let her know because he's so proud and she's so fine and they're too cool for each other, and she tries to save his life and everything! They were, like, the Posh & Becks of the eighteenth century, you guys.

leading fashion and society in europe
a little imagination and you can almost see his lace jabot and her fichu, see?

Basil, Wilkie Collins

Needed a cup of tea and a quiet lie-down after this. It's hysterical and depraved, and all the sexual underconfidence and incestuous confusion is almost like reading DH Lawrence [or, erm, one of the Rossettis]. It is also, sadly, not half as much fun as his later work, although his sneaky obsession with putting together the most ridiculous things in a normalising kedgeree of first-person narratives and newspaper reports and letters and a multiplicity of voices is all here. In fact, it's almost impossible to believe that the guy who wrote this went on to become the coolest cat ever and Dickens' best friend and the writer of those big awesomesauce novels that set Victorian society's ears on fire. It is easy to believe that the guy who wrote it was on drugs, and possibly a virgin.

I do not recommend it if you are a. - easily shocked b. - not interested in the Victorians c. - likely to fly into a rage at antiquated sexual sterotyping of women. I do recommend it if you are a. - interested in the Victorians b. - interested in Wilkie Collins c. - interested in the really batshit insane d. - have tea-making facilities on hand for when you finish it.