December 29, 2012

Solipsistic Pop 4

On a whim I ordered this annual collection of British comics, each year with a different theme. This year's, volume 4, was maps, and I love it so much I had to share. Here are some images from the two-color volume (plus the cover in blue).

December 21, 2012

Peter Jackson's Hobbit Problem

There are two films inside The Hobbit, battling for supremacy. This is the one I was hoping for:

And this is the one I mostly got:

Many critics have already knocked the film for being too like The Lord of the Rings, but it's a fair complaint. Part of the problem is that we've seen nearly nine hours of The Lord of the Rings already. We've seen the fellowship hiking in grand vistas:

And the spectacular deeps of Middle Earth lit with fire:

And the bulging, grotesque, fearsome opponent:

The noble warrior:

This would be a problem even if the movie was faithful to the source material, but of course it isn't. You can see that Peter Jackson has attempted to incorporate some of the charm of The Hobbit in shots like these:

In the humor of the troll scene:

And in Martin Freeman's admirable turn as Bilbo:

But it's not enough, not nearly enough. Because what he did was essentially start with the Lord of the Rings template, and then append to it moments of charm or humor. If instead the movie had been imagined from the ground up, as something fundamentally different than LOTR, it could have really been something.

All of this is essentially a fan's problem, though—I wanted the movie to capture more of the feeling of the book and it didn't happen. A bigger problem is the movie's weaknesses as a movie, not just an adaptation. An easy target is the set design, which often looks more cheap and fake than some videogames. I disliked Jackson's rendering of Rivendell even in The Fellowship of the Ring, but it's never looked worse than here:

Then there's the dismal storytelling. There are many individual shots in The Hobbit that are spectacular: the showdown in the trees, the goblin kingdom—scenes of great beauty and power in and of themselves. But you can't have a movie that is nothing but great scenes. The movie is too heavy. Every scene is packed with drama or charm or grandiosity or danger or poignancy or whatever it is that is being picked from the a la carte menu. There's no filler. As I said to my viewing companion, it's as if every minute of the movie has a soundtrack. There are five or so musical themes (drama, charm, grandiosity, danger, poignancy), and every minute of the film must be assigned one of them. 

The heaviness is a textural problem because it's boring to stay at the same level of intensity throughout. Moments of lightness (Bilbo in the Shire) and potential slowness (Bilbo in Gollum's lair) are cut away from so quickly or frequently that you never adjust, never start to feel immersed in a different, slower rhythm. 

Even worse, at some point the grandiosity and poignancy start to feel unearned. I remember distinctly feeling this for the first time in The Two Towers. Early on Aragorn is presumed lost in a battle, as his stunned friends watch him fall over a cliff. They return to the castle, but shortly Aragorn is seen waking up in stream, getting up, and making his way back to the castle. In a beautiful shot, he comes up to the massive doors of the castle and puts all his remaining strength into pushing them open, upon which his friends and allies rush to greet him in amazement. It's a great shot. Filmmakers like Peter Jackson have really learned how to film monumental moments and vistas like this. But Aragorn's journey took all of  . . . two, three minutes of screen time? We didn't experience a long, arduous journey, nor a castle's grief at his loss. These are summarized in the visual image of the doors; the monumentality of the door scene replaces the actual journey rather than serving as the capstone for its portrayal. 

Perhaps Jackson is afraid to bore us by portraying Aragorn's trudge back to life. Or perhaps he's a sucker for these great shots and can't bear to cut any of them, despite their lack of supporting structure. But this replacement of earned emotion—earned through the time spent on a journey or time spent with a character, and replaced with a visual summation—is a shortcut that Peter Jackson turns to more and more often. The visuals ask us to feel wonder, but the story hasn't taken us there. 

December 19, 2012

True Enough

Christopher Beha, in his New York Times review of a recent novel, makes a good point about fiction writing. As one who cheerleads for the preeminence of story, even over fine prose, I have to concede his point:

"It’s a truism that genre boundaries are collapsing. In fact, there’s been a great deal of talk about how much 'serious' fiction writers can learn from writers of young adult novels or mysteries. This is all to the good. But now it might be time to set aside our reverse snobbery and admit that many genre writers have something to learn themselves, which is how to write. It may be too much to ask that a book like 'A Pimp’s Notes' contain more sentences worth reading twice, but it seems reasonable to ask that it contain fewer sentences not worth reading once."

December 17, 2012

The Female Thing, by Laura Kipnis

I read this book because Kipnis is a somewhat well-known feminist academic and I wanted to be familiar with her work. In it, she looks at the dilemmas of being female and the ways in which progress has been both positive and troubling. But the book's a slog, for several reasons.

First of all, she seems to be writing from about thirty years back. The book was published in 2006, but her evidence (she cites, for example, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus) and her arguments ("the leitmotif of today's 'You go, girl!' sisterhood is blanket scorn for the male sex") are way passé.

She's a Freudian and sees human behavior as subconscious compensatory actions.  So we have statements like this:  "Of course, husbands and babies have been the traditional—and not entirely unsuccessful—mechanisms for assuaging any nagging sense of female incompletion." And "It's the psyche's job to transform the body into metaphors that encapsulate social relations." I kept writing "IS IT??" in the margins.

Her idea of what's going on with women also seems wildly inaccurate. I can't figure out if it's because she's writing what she knows (i.e., this is what her friends are like) or what she imagines (i.e., this is what she imagines people who aren't her friends are like). For example, she describes two dinner parties: One is composed of married people where the women are constantly rolling their eyes and making cutting remarks at their husbands' stupidity. The other is composed of single women who express how badly they want a traditional man who's take-charge and sexy. And, again in the margins, I write: "Where are these dinner parties she's attending??" Everywhere it's duality: women are either stay-at-home moms or careerists, shrews or repressed.

Kipnis argues that women experience a deep sense of incompletion, which they look to men to fill and which men are singularly unable to fill. I'm not convinced, though, that this sense of incompletion is specific to women or particularly Freudian. Don't we all have a sense of incompletion in life due to being, you know, human? Kipnis tosses off a passing reference to "pair-bonding" as one possible response to our longing, but it doesn't seem to occur to her that many people do indeed find pair-bonding to be fulfilling. Yes, there's lots of divorce and misery in relationships, but the world is also filled with people who are happy together, raising children, cheering at soccer games, laughing in the car as they run errands, snuggling up at night on the sofa. It's like a world that she has no familiarity with. And the idea that a woman could be fulfilled, not by "men," but by a particular man—because he's good company, understands her well, is able to be intimate, shares her sense of humor—never occurs to her.

It would help if her writing were better. She writes in a very common style these days, combining academic discourse with great informality. I like this style when done well; it's the kind of writing you find on Jezebel and other blogs and websites. But for a whole book? It gets old. And she's not good at it. The style depends on wit, but Kipnis has the mechanics of the style without the wit. Here's an example of her being clever, in this case regarding women's concern about their looks: "The latest: extreme makeovers, extreme plastic surgeries—and consider having yours done on national television!" Yikes. That's corny.

December 8, 2012

The Worst Best Movie You'll Ever See

I'm not sure Ang Lee or Yann Martel intended this response, but about a third of the way through Life of Pi, I thought to myself, "I hate God."

That should tell you a little something about this movie. It's about the Great Mystery: how life is so beautiful one moment and so horrible the next. Pi is a teenager who is stuck on a boat with four animals after his family is lost in a shipwreck. One evening he watches in wonder as a whale rises out of the iridescent sea:

Another evening he watches in horror as a zebra with a broken leg is mauled by the hyena on board. Does the beauty balance out the brutality? Does the brutality nullify the beauty?

I wept more or less continually throughout the second half of the movie, but it's an undeniably great film. So the question is: Is the pain worth the beauty? You'll have to decide.

Me, leaving the theater after viewing Life of Pi.

December 3, 2012

Anna Karenina

In the annals of great cinematic collaborations—Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro,  Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, Hitchcock and blondes—a new classic is taking shape:  director Joe Wright and actor Keira Knightley. Wright directed her in both Atonement and Pride & Prejudice to amazing effect, and now Anna Karenina makes it three.

Keira Knightley is the perfect Anna to my mind: almost impossibly, effortlessly beautiful and charming. I mean, seriously, just look:

Knightley is an amazing actor, able to convey great emotion with great naturalness, so I had no concerns there. More worrisome to me, after viewing the first trailers, was the casting of Vronsky. Aaron Taylor-Johnson did not appear to be the charismatic powerhouse I was expecting; he looked more like a callow youth, a lightweight. But he was an admirable Vronsky: he had chemistry with Knightley and a sneaky gravitas underneath that blond mop.

The surprise of the bunch, though, was Matthew Macfadyen as Oblonsky. It took me a good twenty minutes to figure out why he looked so familiar, and wow—what a performance. Macfadyen usually plays characters who are quiet or intense, so his bonhomie and comic turn were a revelation. I left thinking that Macfadyen could be the British Tom Hanks, a kind of Everyman in looks, able to play any type of character.

Kudos, too, to screenwriter Tom Stoppard. Anna Karenina is a long, complex novel, and its greatest achievement is its realistic psychological detail. Stoppard's ability to condense the plot is impressive enough, but he also manages to include some of the most important psychological moments of the novel, even if it's just two lines of dialogue, one minute of screen time. For instance, Levin is given to lengthy philosophical churning in the novel—always personal, never just abstract, but still a matter of just thinking. Toward the end of the film, a field worker tells the spiritually skeptical Levin that he needn't be so loyal to reason, that he didn't, for example, pick his wife out of reason. And you can see a light go on in Levin's head. He recalls (in a quick flashback) the moment that he laid eyes on Kitty and knew he had to have her, and he sees the truth in the field worker's statement. In that moment he's freed from his slavery to a strict rationality, and he discovers a path to spirituality that doesn't feel dishonest to him: a simple recognition that love is a miracle, a great and by no means natural presence in the world. He rushes home to tell Kitty of this revelation, because that's what true partners, true spouses, do: they share what's going on in their heads, and cherish the fact that someone cares. Levin arrives home to see Kitty playing with their baby, and he gets caught up in it, suddenly not feeling the need to explain his revelation. In the span of a scene that can't be more than two minutes long, Stoppard manages to fold in three important aspects of the novel: Levin's spiritual struggles, the intimacy and partnership that make a marriage good, and the psychological vagary that is one of the hallmarks of the novel, with characters taken with a feeling or idea one minute that feels stupid or unnecessary to them the next.

The most amazing aspect of the film is Joe Wright's direction. Anna Karenina is the great novel of realism, and yet Wright eschews realism completely in his adaptation. The entire film is presented as a series of tableaus or little plays presented on a stage. There will be a party on a stage, and characters will leave via catwalks that represent street life, with vendors and passersby populating the rafters. A toy train set will stand in for the train that takes Anna to Moscow on that first fateful trip. Even outdoor scenes like the horse race are presented as dramatic spectacles, with the horses running across the stage and onlookers watching from the balcony:

Set designs (holla to production designer Susan Greenwood) are self-consciously stagey and artificial, like this one of the train station:

Or this shot of Anna toward the end of the movie, which has become more melodramatic and operatic in style:

The cinematography is super rich and, well, cinematic, not naturalistic but uber aesthetic. Take a look at this amazeballs shot of Vronsky at the train station. If you maximize the image you can see how utterly gorgeous and stylized the shot is:

The only break in the artifice comes when Levin is in the countryside, which represents a more authentic way of life for Tolstoy:

One of my favorite scenes was the ball scene in which Vronsky and Anna first appear together in public and Kitty recognizes that Vronsky has lost interest in her. The attendees engage in an utterly fake form of ballroom dancing but one that serves the story brilliantly. The dancers' hands weave back and forth, signaling entanglement for Anna and Vronsky. For Kitty, foisted off on old men and straining desperately to catch sight of Vronsky, those weaving arms are a cage that keep hemming her in, not allowing her to escape and reach out to Vronsky, to pull him back from Anna's orbit.

There are lots of other visual touches, like the way Anna is increasing pictured with a veil or railing shadows on her face, making her looked trapped or caged:

And one repeated image is that of the crenellation at the edge of the main stage, which frames the stage and marks off the dramatic space of representation. This image reoccurs in almost every location, from the train station to the bedroom, where it forms part of the footboard at the end of Anna and Karenin's bed. You can see it at the bottom of the first image in this blog entry, and I'll repeat it here in the theater poster:

Wright and the actors do a stupendous job of combining the stylized visuals with acting that is still realistic, surely not an easy thing to achieve. Joe Wright has always had a flair for dramatic shots, like this one from Atonement:

Or this one, whose artificiality in the set design is quite deliberate:

Fans of his adaptation of Pride & Prejudice will remember that amazing scene when the servants close up Netherfield, lofting white sheets in the air to drape over the furniture, as the camera backs farther and farther out of the room, onto the balcony, and finally outside the house altogether and the servants finally close the shutters, signalling the shutting down of Jane's hopes. The backing up of the camera through the window and out past the balcony created the same kind of framing that is so prevalent in his Anna Karenina.

It's encouraging to see Wright's outside-the-box adaptation alongside the Wachowskis' adaptation of Cloud Atlas. Maybe a new era of experimentation in relatively mainstream films is brewing.

November 25, 2012

The Woman in Black

A truly wonderful, old-fashioned ghost story. And what a great performance by Daniel Radcliffe.

November 23, 2012

The Dead Hour, by Denise Mina

I've read a lot of mysteries series over the years, and Denise Mina's featuring young, female reporter Paddy Meehan is turning into one of my favorites. She's fat and querulous, and how often do you see that in a crime protagonist? Mina has the gift of interesting yet plausible plotting, and she writes compelling scenes and showdowns; you can't predict how they go, but every step feels right when it happens. The scene of Paddy at the review board investigating police conduct in The Dead Hour is perfect. I like too how these stories are small. She's not bringing down the country's biggest multinational or the vice president, so her courage feels even greater and more necessary.

November 17, 2012

Breaking Dawn Part 2

I'm a Twilight fan, so I'm not sure how someone unenchanted would react to this film. But if you have a soft spot for the story, Breaking Dawn 2 is a pretty phenomenal conclusion to it.

Bella is good and vampiry, the humor is back, and the big showdown with the Volturi is a knockout. I was lucky enough to watch it with the perfect crowd: a Saturday afternoon matinee the first weekend, with a theater about half full. Nobody talked throughout, or lobbed jokes at the screen, but the audience reacted to all the big scenes with clapping, horrified gasps, and even outright shouting in complete unity. It was pretty cool. I hope the people involved in making the film have the chance to watch an ordinary audience seeing it for the first time.

November 15, 2012

Elmore Leonard's One Plot

Crime writer Elmore Leonard oh-so-deservedly won the National Book Award's lifetime achievement award yesterday. If you've never read one of the master's novels, pick up Get Shorty, Maximum Bob, or Killshot immediately and get cracking. The truth is, Leonard is one of those writers you don't have to be choosy about. I've never read a book by him that wasn't fantastic.

Martin Amis introduced Leonard at the NBA ceremony and gave this description: "Whereas genre fiction relies on plot, mainstream fiction famously only has about 12 plots. . . . Mr. Leonard only has one plot: all his stories are retellings of Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale, in which death stalks the land, disguised as money."

November 12, 2012

Pretty, Pretty Candy

You're not going to catch me regretting a Daniel Craig Bond film. I will gladly spend two hours with Craig, Dench, and the cinematography of Roger Deakins (who created such cinematic beauties as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men).

But the story and script? Pfft. It's hard to care about a film in which MI6 blunders its way to disaster the entire movie. Skyfall had something going with its plot, which raised interesting questions about M's morality and her relationship with those she mentors; but the writers are so afraid of portraying her as anything but tough-as-male-nails that she's not allowed a single moment of humanity or affection. And with a genius psychopath on your tail, would you really use a flashlight to cross a field at night? I'm a suburban freelancer, but even I know not to give away your position like that. The idea of defending Bond's childhood home with old-school materials found in the basement was a good one, but ended up resembling Home Alone more than Bond.

These kinds of things might be forgiven if you had a smart script, crackling dialogue, great action scenes, but Skyfall has none of these things. And while I know Bond girls are doomed to a gruesome death, the self-sacrificing behavior of Severine and her quick and brutal disposal were more disturbing than usual.

Luckily Naomie Harris provides a warm addition to the cast, and Craig and Dench are not only great actors but stars, people who are inexplicably engaging to look at for hours on end. So while I would rank Skyfall far below Casino Royale, and even below Quantum of Solace, it will do

November 11, 2012

Storm King Art Center

One of the best things about sculpture is how it gives you new eyes for the world around you.

Photos from Storm King Art Center and the New Jersey Turnpike.