Thursday, October 21, 2004

About Schmidt

(Louis Begley, 1996)

I haven't seen the Jack Nicholson film of the same name and am unlikely to: although I understand he makes a fine Schmidt, the film is a complete re-write. Schmidt is facing up to life after retirment from the law firm which gave him a certain power, after the death of his wife and in the face of his daughter's (Charlotte) marriage to Jon, a young Jewish lawyer who was Schmidt's protege. He is brought face to face with the fact that while he has an enormous house he can bequeath to Charlotte and Jon, he has no meaningful relationship with his own daughter and has been demonised in his law firm as a scary old anti-semite. Wierdly, the author in interviews has disclaimed any intent to write about Jewishness and yet my bookgroup saw it as one of the dominant themes.

I have to say that there are problems in attributing Scmidt's lack of warmth for Jon (it isn't even as strong as dislike) to the fact that he is a jew. Partly it simply reflects his lack of warmth for anyone - he is undiscriminating in his inability to be affectionate (and how affectionate do you expect near retired commercial lawyers to get anyway?) - but it has a lot more to do with their lack of any kind of shared interests or values: Schmidt is an atheist, he despises Jon's lack of interest in anything intellectual or cultural (Jon has apparently never read a book in his life), his focus on money and material well-being (a bit rich, given Schmidt's worries about the house and contents although, to be fair, he does want to give most to Charlotte), his desire to live in the Hamptons and Schmidt doesn't agree with the choices Jon makes as a laywer - bankruptcy litigation.

Begley's stated intent was to write about the lack of connection Schmidt has: his only friend is an equally old fellow, Jewish as it happens. But unlike other lifelong friendships , where people just pop in and out of each other's life, here it is almost by appointment only. In fact, that is how Schmidt mediates many of his communications - rather than talk to Jon, he'd talk through his secretary (and would have liked to have still been in work so that "my people can talk with your people"). You begin to wonder about his choice of wife - Mary did not like being touched, let alone enjoy any kind of sexual activity (there are a couple of pretty off scenes where she's asleep and Schmidt has his hand up her skirt, trying to provoke a reaction). And yet, there were affairs - most one nighters not needing any kind of involvement, but there was the extended thing with the housemaid and is, at the time of the story, an unfolding relationship with the unbelievably young and beautiful Carrie, who he meets at the local diner/restaurant. Of course, being well under half his age and with a companion of sorts of her own, this will never be a full blown connection and you just know its not going to end well for Schmidt.

So, it is too simplistic to see the book as any kind of polemic, it is too reflective and Schmidt willingly faces up to the crap in his life, examines them, tries to accept the truth of what he is told about being an anti-semitic ogre, tries to do his best. He is too complex a character to dismiss as his daugher has, and I think that might be one of the major points of the novel: that while people will have some disagreeable characteristic, it is both wrong and dangerous to simply regard that characteristic as the entirety.

There is a sequel, Schmidt Delivered, which I have not read. I do know it involves Schmidt going off to Florida with Carrie and her man (who becomes Schmidt's nurse and handyman) and that as an old man, he finds it had to hold on to Carrie.

Pop Matters Review
NY Times Review
Author Interview

Cuba and the Night

(Pico Iyer, 1995)

I first came across Pico Iyer when was in Nepal, several years ago: his "Video Nights in Kathmandu" was in all the bookshops. Not entirely sure why I haven't read that one. Anyway, since a trip to Cuba is back on the agenda and a fellow in my book club has mentioned Mr Iyer, I thought I'd check this one out.

It is a novel, rather than travel writing, but so well does he create a believable Cuba that I found myself looking for the website of the photographer protaganist of the novel before having a Homer moment and remembering it is fiction. Richard is a freelance photographer, has been to all the difficult places in the world and done a marvellous job of portraying human misery. He's in Havana for a bit of light relief, musing on the energy and unpredictability of the place and his own open-ness to whatever might happen. What happens is Lourdes, a young Cuban maiden - he falls in love with her. Or does he? Certainly we get to hear all about his growing love for her, his feeling that he is in way too deep, as well as lots of details of the physical details of their love life: the way they can only have sex secretly, must act chastely in public, in fact must have cover when in public to avoid problems with gossips and the police.

So, in comes Hugo - a school teacher from England who is assessed by Richard on the first page: "I thought the pasty faced guy in the gray sweater must be a Bulgarian at first, he dressed so stylishly". Nice. Poor old Hugo comes in for a fair amount of disparagement from Richard, for not being as cool or alive as Richard. Of course, there are the normal questions raised about just how alive Richard is, he who has no fixed home, whose only access to life is via the camera shutter, who makes much of his love for Lourdes but always finds excuses for not rescuing her from Cuba (I'm American, its complicated, I have a wife...). He says something about using the camera to find the truth, but I wonder about that. I never really got what Lourdes saw in him and, of course, it may well be that she was using him all along anyway.

Of course, things turn to crap anyway - Richard has this elaborate plan to marry Lourdes off to the englishman, Hugo, and once she was out of Cuba, he'd take her off Hugo's hands. But then there is a scene with one of her friends, Cari, where Richard takes lots of dodgy photos that turn out to be his best-selling yet and where it seems that Richard might have raped Cari - the detail is very glossed over. Meanwhile, Lourdes and Hugo are in England: she has brought him to life in ways he had never thought possible and she has never seen herself have that reaction on anyone, most specifically not on Richard. At least Richard has the ability to see this has happened, when the pressure gets too much for him and he goes to collect his woman.

Apart from this storyline, the other major feature of the book is its presentation of Cuba the country, reflecting the author's background as an essayist and travel writer. Reading it certainly hasn't diminished my interest in going there although it does seem to be a fairly expensive endeavour from New Zealand.

Powell's author interview
Salon piece
Post-Modern Tourism

Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Station Agent

Thomas McCarthy (Dir); Peter Dinklage (Fin), Patricia Clarkson (Olivia), Bobby Cannavale (Joe) and Michelle Williams (Emily)

When I went to this movie, I was convinced it was an Italian effort. I'd known about it for quite some time, noticed its run was finally about to end and finally made it to the closing session. Pretty much nothing had stuck in my mind about it except that it involved a fellow who tried hard to get away from people and a guy who was always needy and in his face. While that was kind of right, the only thing Italian about the movie was Joe's ethnic background (actually, he might have been Cuban anyway).

This is one of those beautifully realised American movies which take a tiny corner of America (Newfoundland, NJ to be precise) and sets down some odd people to see what happens. None of the actors were at all known to me, except Emily, who was played by the same actress who played Jen in Dawsons Creek (as well as a surprising number of other characters: As I watched the movie, I was reminded of the Straight Story. Although there was nothing in terms of storyline to connect the two, they seemed to share a sensibility.

Fin is a dwarf - there is no getting round that and it plays a part in the development of the story. His boss in the model railway shop dies and leaves him a disused railway depot out in Newfoundland. This becomes a refuge for him - it does not trouble him that "there's nothing out there, nothing at all". In fact, there is a fellow (Joe) selling coffee and ice cream in his front yard. The way things develop between these two is brilliant - the film really captures the way that many solitary people have of viewing the world, of seeing those who interrupt their solitude as beneath them, as vulgar buffoons. Certainly, this is the first impression we gain of Joe - he is very enthusiatic, has trouble with boundaries and just might be a moron. But slowly, his depths are revealed, he starts to share in Fin's interest in trainspotting and walking the right of way (i.e. along railway lines).

Olivia is another character to whom solitude is vital, she is dealing with the death of her son and break up of a 17 year marriage, but again Joe is blind to her wish to be left alone. He invites her along on the walking trips with Fin, and they gradually open up to each other, as well as accept Joe in their midst. The whole movie, really, is the flowering of these to broken people - giving an appropriateness to the location of the movie.

But it is more subtly done than simply have Fin and Olivia get together: that may or may not happen. I for one am so glad that the movie didn't opt for the simple resolution: all we see is the three of them having a drink together on Olivia's verandah. For all we know, they might become a threesome, Fin and Olivia might become a couple, the three of them might just glide along in contented friendship or maybe Fin and Emily might start to see each other. There is simply no way to know. One thing we do see is that Fin and Olivia both get to see how locked in their solitude they have been and get to recognise a need for others: when Fin tells Joe to leave him alone and is taken seriously, this creates quite a hole in Fin's life.

Emily's place in all this is a little more obscure. She is the hot young librarian, and yet another of the characters who warms to Fin despite his apparent belief that dwarfs are an object of derision. Her main function seems to be to trigger a breakdown Fin has in the local bar, when he becomes convinced all are laughing at and talking about him. This leads him to at least wish he could take his own life - he lays down and goes to sleep on the train tracks - which is a major turning point in the movie.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Salad the Silent Killer

What a great title, it comes from a chapter in Jeffrey Steingarten's collection of essays about food, The Man Who Ate Everything. The guy is a complete food geek, one with an apparent distaste for salads and other greens, very much a meat eater. Being a long standing food editor of Vogue (he is, in fact, seeking an assistant I see), you might think he's a bit of a snob, only ranting on about where you might get the latest poncey food. That would be a long way from the truth - there were many more food topics with which I was comfortable than I found to be outside my realm of interest. I really loved the way he'd get so intense about things and yet be just that little bit stupid: he was making a coconut layer cake, when his eggs separated from the batter. This provoked a complete ransack of all his food books and the use of several foodie helplines, to try to work out what to do. On the way through, he finds all sorts of other problems and their alleged remedies, putting many to the test (not, I hope, in the few hours he was purporting to make the cake). Nothing gives him the precise answer, but he did find some partial remedies.

So, that's the intense aspect. The stupid aspect is that he was randomly talking to some person, no expert or anything, and they said that when their eggs separated, they just ignored it and carried on. Somehow, after thinking he might be the first person in the 100,000 years of cooking, Steingarten thought he was the first to hit this problem yet, within a matter of weeks, it happens again. He tries just ignoring it, and the cake came out perfect!

I didn't read everything, the salad chapter for example, as it was a semi scientific account of the lurking evils within our lettuces, and skimmed others but some chapters I found completely absorbing. I mentioned his efforts with "primal" bread last week - he had similar attempts to get the perfect french fry, tomato ketchup, mashed potato, kobe beef (this one actually saw him take a journey to Japan, so he could find it at its source) etc. Chips, apparently, are best cooked in horse fat: at least one Michelin 3 star chef swears by it, another by goose fat. This provoked some nostalgia for the days when McDonalds actually had excellent fries, by using beef fat - very much anathema to today's health conscious version of Maccas.

Other tales I liked were about his attempt to find the cheapest diet that was still edible, his month of living on meals made from recipes on the backs of boxes (the oldest being from 1802, for Macaroni Cheese), his incredible feat of pig eating when he was the rib Judge in some Memphis Barbecue competition (he claims to have eaten 400 ribs in a week!) and his various voyages to find out about the local cuisines in places as diverse as Tunisia, Japan, Alsace and the Pacific Northwest.