May 25, 2013

If I Were Queen


I'd have fewer Anton Chigurhs nominated for Oscars and more James Kirks. It can't be easy to reproduce with such fidelity the personality, from facial expressions to body posture, of an iconic character with the naturalness and confidence that Chris Pine does in Star Trek Into Darkness. It seems like acting in another language would be: in addition to just acting, and all that entails, you've got to juggle this other task. Chris Pine does it brilliantly without tipping into camp, as do all of the other actors. The film has a great plot, script, and visuals, but a special award should go to whoever cast these movies.

May 18, 2013

Solar, by Ian McEwan


Solar is the type of novel I love: the extended tale of a smart fool, an egotistical clown who scrabbles to the top only to have his sins and foolishness catch up with him. The best of this genre is typified by Jane Smiley's Good Faith and Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, two novels I would re-read at the drop of a hat.

Solar doesn't quite reach their heights. McEwan's great line writing is an unwavering delight, and the plotting is great, if not as intricate and full as those other novels. The problem is his protagonist, the physicist Michael Beard, who is meant to be a flawed and somewhat comic fool. The great hat trick of this type is the novelist's ability to make you feel a complex blend of derision and, eventually, affection for him. It's that last bit that's the sticking point.

It doesn't help that Beard describes himself as physically grotesque, a lardball who can't stem his love for food and drink (and sex and reputation and money and leisure). And yet he has a constant stream of comely women at his beck and call, usually three or four at once, a vast and rotating cast over the ten years or so of the novel. I know that we, as readers, are supposed to have long accepted that young(ish) and beautiful(ish) women are attracted to ugly old men for their money and protection, but I can't seem to buy it. It just engendered a whole lot of eye-rolling---and a feeling of disgust, not just for the character but for the novelist.

The ending of the novel is problematic too. I'm sympathetic; endings are the hardest part of fiction. I once read a take-off on a writing seminar that advised students, if they got stuck, to just end it with "And then he got hit by a bus." Novelists have limited choices: death, satisfaction (romance attained, legal case won, mountain climbed), failure. Solar ends with a modern variant, what I call the moment of grace. The world is crashing down around the protagonist, but he steps out into the sunshine, feels the warmth and light that the universe is showering upon him, and for a moment is lifted above the worldly concerns that have consumed him for the entire length of the novel. It can be a truly touching thing, but here it just feels cheap and unearned, the moment-of-grace equivalent of that bus: "And then he felt love for a moment." Okay.

There's something about McEwan's writing of gender, too, that bothers me. Some readers complained that it's the same old Maileresque middle-aged man in crisis that we've had for decades on end now, but I need to actually read a Mailer novel before I can write "Maileresque" with authority. For me the women are reminiscent of Saul Bellow's, those shimmering presences on the sidelines whom the protagonist views with affection but distance, ready to expose their sadnesses and little humiliations. It truly makes me uncomfortable, probably compounded my dislike of McEwan's Saturday, which featured a home invasion in which bad things occur, but mostly for the women in the family. There's a similar scene in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace that still causes my face to make an involuntary moue of disgust. I don't experience these things as artistically challenging or a picture of harsh reality, but as a glimpse of a sick little part of the novelist's head. It pains me to even put McEwan in the same corner as Coetzee, because he's written some truly great books. I hope that he turns a corner with his next one.

May 4, 2013

The Impossible

The true story behind this movie is remarkable: the tale of one family's experience of the 2004 tsunami in south Asia. Many survivors of the tsunami have said how true-to-life the movie is. 

But beyond the story is equally remarkable filmmaking. J. A. Bayona directs with great finesse. The scenes before the tsunami are some of the most suspenseful I've ever seen because you know what's coming and Bayona uses sound and blackouts to create a sense of dread, even as the family is enjoying itself and sky is clear. Sudden noises in traffic. Turbulence on the plane. A view looking out at the placid ocean that cuts to black. We sense something underneath the surface that is threatening, and who knows which of these moments represents the one in which the earthquake, deep in the sea, actually occurred, setting this enormous tragedy in motion as tourists sunbathed and locals went about their day.

I expected the movie to be more about the main character, Maria (played by Naomi Watts), clinging to a tree for hours (which she did), in other words a chronicle of a single feat of endurance like 147 Hours. But the movie covered much more than just that awful time. It's the time before, the time during, and the time after, showing how the characters' endurance and consciences were tested for not just a few hours but for days, in complex, varied ways. The filmmaker packs so much into this movie: what it means to love, how humans operate in tragedy, what family means, the difficulty of making decisions with children when no decision is good. My favorite scene was when Maria and her oldest son, Lucas, have dragged themselves near a tree they think they can climb and be safe in case another wave hits. As they near it, absolutely exhausted and seriously hurt, they hear a child's cry. Maria starts to look for the child while Lucas begs her not to, to instead get to the tree and safety. "We're going to die!" Maria bends down to him, puts her hands on his face, and says, "If it's the last thing we do." And they go to find the boy.

May 2, 2013

A Handpicked Bunch of Delightful

A friend recently asked me for a list of my favorite reads, books that were not necessarily the best literature but that were simply wonderful to read. Here's my short list:

1.  Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley

This is the type of novel I like best: thick, juicy, filled with content. Smiley has written a lot of books like this, with big casts of characters of all types, comic, whimsical, philosophical, winners, losers, and satisfying, complex plots.

2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson.

This is a no-brainer. Compulsively readable, beautifully plotted, great characters, suspenseful. Everything a mystery thriller should be. Possibly the best book of its genre.

3. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett

Fun + Weighty + Inventive = Fiction Perfection.

4. Graceling, by Kristin Cashore

A YA fantasy novel that returns to its fairy tale roots and seems all the fresher for it.

5. The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold

Can a novel told from the perspective of a murdered child be "delightful"? Strangely, yes, in the sense that you love every minute spent in the company of these characters and the story is not mostly a tale of woe but a tale of resistance, pushing back, resilience, and the search for justice.