January 30, 2009

The Reader: Complexity Through Ambiguity

I've been meaning to comment on the film The Reader for quite some time. It's one of those films that kicks you in the stomach. You feel the pain of it for days after. But before I pass commentary...

I read Joyce's Dubliners a month ago. Good book, the kind perfect for literary criticism though I suspect not as relevant in contemporary short-fiction. Joyce present his characters as normal folk, in normal circumstances--without pretenses. This simplicity is deceptive actually, because the reader feels lulled by the seeming lack of action and winds up glossing over certain nuances, or a careful crafted sentence that explodes with epiphany. I certainly did. But those moments when I was the perfect, captive audience, Joyce skillfully brought his complexity to light--revealed. Of course, Joyce is responsible I think for a lot of what is taken for granted in short-stories now. The ambiguous ending, the internal arc of a character, the simple but loaded gesture--all found in his works, though one could argue in rawer form.

Moving from Joyce to The Reader means taking the themes of complexity through ambiguity and placing them on the screen. Not always an easy task, though I suspect film is more suited for this. One perfect scene and all the facets it incorporates can flawlessly reveal several pages of literature--in the right hands, that is. The Reader begins with a somewhat taboo tryst between a youth and an illiterate, middle-aged woman in post WWII Germany. The first act focuses almost exclusively on this, creating what I perceive as a genuine, though complex, love between the two people. You know the woman, played by Kate Winslet, is hiding something. Her actions suggest this, though no reference is made to give credence.

By act two the proverbial bomb has been dropped--Winslet's character has Nazi affiliations. The story moves from the comfortable love affair to darker waters, the kind that warrant certain judgments to be made. What makes this film remarkable is the complete empathy given to all the characters involved. Stephen Daldry (who also directed The Hours) presents his characters as human beings capable of horrific acts, not horrific human beings who act according to their nature. And the distinction can be made (and should be). Most war films do not engage in presenting the enemy as complicated, loyal humans--especially WWII films. The enemy is this vague, oppressive shadow, a faceless wall of flesh that swallows bullets and bombs and speaks through a gaping maw of sharp teeth. Daldry rejects this--or at least draws this from the book and uses it to his advantage. He reveals the lunacy of black-and-white morality, the notion of the monster and instead injects sympathy in unlikely, but completely believable ways. The sympathy is huge, and the ending is so painful, so frighteningly lonely because the moral high ground one is normally inclined to take lies shattered at their feet.

One should note that most critics missed this about the film. They wanted the "horrors" of the holocaust, they wanted their traditional monster. The Reader never denies these things, it simply tries to add a complexity lacking in other films of similar subject matter.

In a previous post I lamented the lack of good films this year. But in the past month or so, I've managed to watch several films that make up for all the garbage. The Reader is at the top of this list.

January 21, 2009

Overheard Conversation

I'm in the gym, doing gym-related activities (crying, groaning, staring at other fit people), and I happen to hear the following:

Woman: I just think that for someone with advanced education like myself, I have to push the limits you know. I'm really goal oriented. *does several push-ups* I should write a book about all I know.

Man: Oh, I'm a writer.

(It's important that I mention I started listening more intently here.)

Woman: Yeah? Well, I'd write my book from the psychology perspective. Y'know, how people think and stuff.

Man: Right.

Woman: What do you write?

Man: Advanced Fantasy, like Tolkien. It helps me center myself.

Woman: Oh. Well, I only read hard facts material. No fantasy, sorry.
*she turns back to her push-ups*
*guy gets up and leaves*

(I do one final stretch, barely suppressing a fart)

Question: why does every guy I run into, who claims to be a writer, work on fantasy? Yes, I get it. You like Carpathian forests with strange homo-erotic gnomes running around, rubbing themselves on whatever coarse-hided object happens to be in close proximity. Notice the girl's reaction, the wrinkling of the nose, the once-attentive gaze now looking elsewhere. Maybe there's a clue in there for you, buddy.

Like Tolkien. What does that even mean?

January 15, 2009

Tobias Wolff on Bergman, Faith, Doubt, and Aesthetic Influence.

Best quote from Wolff's short article (read it):

"We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives."

I've never heard of churches showing Bergman films.

January 12, 2009

Ingrid Newkirk and PETA

I watched the interesting, rather grotesque documentary, I Am an Animal: The Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA. The only reason I'm commenting on it is because it's been stuck in my brain ever since--thanks in part to my moral/ethics class at Kwantlen. The documentary followed PETA founder, Ingrid Newkirk, through her daily activities, from the grassroots level to the more controversial, international campaigns. We all know about PETA right? Probably more famous for having celebrities pose nude for their cause than anything else. But let's not forget throwing buckets of red paint on fashion models wearing fur coats or setting up strategic protests in front of high-end fur stores. PETA is a strange mix of narcissistic publicity and well-intended morality.

In John Vaillant's The Golden Spruce, the point is made by the author that as consumers, North Americans take an ignorant, and therefor superficial satisfaction with the products we buy. We never consider the means and components involved in a product's manufacturing. He's speaking of wood products in this case, but it completely translates to our consumption of food as well. I've met some pretty intelligent people who seem completely retarded when it comes to food. They'll eat anything, almost in hedonistic fashion--in complete hypocrisy to their intellect. At times, I fall into the same camp.

What made the PETA documentary so effective was the behind-the-scenes look at fur hunting, slaughter-houses, farms etc. The kind of stuff a lot of you probably have already read about in Fast Food Nation. I watched footage of wolves being killed by having their heads stomped on, only to be skinned alive and left bleeding on a heap of likewise treated animals. Gore everywhere, I watched pigs killed by farmers with crowbars, cattle being left to die in six inches of blood. It created a visceral response, one of repugnance and anger. Anger because when I watched what people were doing to these animals, the unnecessary savagery of it, the satisfaction they seemed to get from it, I recognized a quality in them I could not reconcile with my own ethics.

Here's the rub: we can argue to the death about whether or not meat is healthy for human consumption--and I love the taste of meat. But, the real question, and there is no way getting around this, is can a thinking person, one who considers them self moral and considerate and conscious of the world around them, consume products from companies that allow these sorts of practices? The answer is, of course, no. Even if the argument can be made that the footage I saw was of isolated events (which I doubt), the same question is still raised.

To be fair, PETA has always made the fundamental mistake of passing a sort of universal indictment on the meat industry. I grew up close to farms, have seen cattle butchered for meat, and it was not the horror show I saw in this documentary. It was civil and clean, bearing no resemblance to the assembly-line mechanism PETA indicts. And there are plenty of farms like the one near my childhood home. But this doesn't actually justify eating meat does it? It would be the same universal error I claim PETA makes. I can't say that my childhood experiences are enough for a blanket endorsement of slaughterhouses nation-wide. Each side of the argument has its exceptions.

No, the real answer lies in being aware of where my food comes from. As I said before, I've always eaten meat--though it's mainly chicken and fish these days, and I've never spent a lot of time thinking about its source, about the process it goes through to get to my dinner plate. The HBO documentary convinced me I need to be more conscious in this regard.

January 7, 2009

Spring Semester 2009

Course load...or is it coarse load? Probably both.

Advanced Screenwriting - a nice way of saying, this is as far as you can go before realizing there is no career in this.

Short Fiction Seminar - the next installment. Love the instructors here, Aislinn Hunter is far too intelligent for her own good. Or maybe that's me being intimidated by her immense brain.

Confronting Moral Issues - Take last semester's deductive reasoning (formal logic) and place it in the context of current ethical situations: abortion, euthanasia, should Harry be allowed to attend class naked. That sort of thing.

As Socrates puts it: I know I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing. Sums it up, I think.

January 3, 2009

Movies of 2008

To echo my friend Sam, 2008 has not been an outstanding year for film. I was uncertain whether I would even be able to comprise a list or not this year. Thankfully, the "let's-get-these-out-in-time-for-awards-consideration" group managed to bulk up an otherwise meager collection. Here are my favorites, this year in order:

1) The Wrestler - Darren Aronofksy's film about a washed-out professional wrestler (played by Mickey Rourke). A more tragic hero you will not find. No romanticizing here. Rourke moves his character through the film like a dying quarter horse. Painful to watch at times, but the story invokes so much empathy without manipulation. The acting is genuine with only a few exceptions of contrivance (oddly enough both of the scenes Rourke was given permission to re-write in his own words).

2) Slumdog Millionaire - A close second for me. High marks for one of the most original stories I've ever come across. Setting, characters, music--everything works together. Danny Boyle (director) works magic in this one...and the child actors are outstanding. The only reason I place it second is because I'm a sucker for pared-down films that feel raw around the edges. This one is more polished than The Wrestler, but probably the best under-dog story since Rocky.

3) In Bruges - Usually I run in the other direction when Colin Farrell is in a film, but with Ralph Fiennes in it I had to check it out. The trailers do not do the film justice. Humor aside, the story works through themes of tragic and grief in a bizarre mix of contrition and violence. Best dialogue in any film this year.

4) Religulous - Not a perfect film by any means, but I admire Maher's tenacity. He puts those unanswerable questions to the major world religions and gets some hilarious results. His conversation with a priest outside of the Vatican made the entire film. To hear the priest concede to so many of Maher's points, in such a funny manner, was a pleasant surprise. Maher shoots himself in the foot a little, sometimes going for the cheap laugh or repeating himself ad nauseum. In some ways he's a bit of a one-trick pony. Still, one of the better films this year.

5) The Bank Job - Bit of a surprise for me. Must have been the impeccable retro 70's setting. No anachronisms that I could find. Great dialogue, good--albeit slightly predictable plot. It's one of those smooth films you don't realize you like so much until the end.

I know I'm supposed to mention Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Whatever. Good, not great, in my mind. Dark Knight actually got dull for me on the last viewing, though I thoroughly enjoyed it the first two times. Iron Man was a bit better, but the whole "battle-of-the-robots" bit was silly and anti-climactic.

Other films I wish I could have watched in time for this post: Doubt, Revolutionary Road, The Reader, The Class, Burn After Reading, Nothing But The Truth.

Sadly, I have to confess falling out of touch with international films this year. Chalk it up to parenthood, I guess. Von Trier was supposed to release Antichrist--a Creation story only with Satan creating the world. I've heard nothing else about it. Frustrating for me as I enjoy foreign films.

There you have it. Agree or not.