Saturday, April 30, 2005

Hairdressers are a Strange Breed

As I was passing through Oamaru yesterday, my only reason for stopping was to check out the screening times for Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, as it seemed to be an interesting way to break the journey. Since the next show was not for an hour or so, I decided to wander around to kill some time and just happened to walk past this hairdressers.

I'm not great at going to get haircuts, and so have no formal hairdresser to call my own. I did actually find one when I moved to Dunedin, we had a great conversation about trying to find old friends and stalking them, but by the time I went back for another cut, she'd moved on. The last haircut I had was damn near six months ago at Rodney Wayne's in Hamilton, and most people could not tell I'd had any hair off. Since the world was starting to disappear from my vision, people were starting to think (again) that I'm homeless and one student removed herself from my class because I was too far removed from her expectations of what someone in my position should look like, even I could acknowledge that getting a haircut was becoming an urgent need.

So, I've been looking for a hairdresser for a while. My normal mechanism for finding a one is to peer in the salon window to see what's going on: if they call the police because some scary man is hassling them, I take that as a sign that maybe that's not the place to get a cut. Yesterday, I was smiled at as I peered in: this was such an unusual reaction I had to flee to Smith City's Second Hand Centre for half an hour to gather my wits, but eventually I made my way back. A nice bright salon, lots of orange, timber floor, cool lighting and three women of about 85 lined up under the hair dryers, all being talked to as Mrs Cxxxx or Mrs Gxxxx.

Now everyone knows that guys have no fashion sense - we have metro-sexuals and Queer Eyes for the Straight Guys as proof of that. So, why is it that hairdressers even ask us "what would you like done"? My most undetectable and unsatisfying haircuts have always resulted from me giving precise instructions as to what is to be done, and the very best was the day I simply said to just do what she (I don't really do guy hairdressers) thought best. So, yesterday, I asked for my hair to be shortened to around collar length but when the questions persisted ("do you want it all cut to the same length?"), I left it to her expertise. I thin the outcome is OK: certainly, when I got back home, people were commenting on it, and not in a bad way, so it wasn't another invisible haircut. Oh, and it was a full wash and razor cut, took over half an hour and still only cost $10! Maybe she too thought I was homeless.

Of course, by the time I'd had my hiarcut and my soup at Emma's, the movie had started.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Getting Political

It is, after all, an election year and every man, his dog and every second woman is writing about politics in the blogosphere. So, I will add my voice to the fray: it may even be that a political party, stumbling on the verge of obscurity, might hear my voice and think "aha, a solid issue facing our society behind which we can throw our weight". So, with this post I formally announce the commencement of my campaign. I haven't quite arrived at the right name, but its coming.

I am sure many have seen the particular matter I am about to discuss, but have not seen the problem within. I myself was completely oblivious to it until I had breakfast In Astoria Cafe, Wellington, quite recently. That initial spark has led me to discover the widespread nature of this particular practice, which needs to be stamped out for the good of society. Rhubarb in Dunedin is another practitioner. This morning, I had lunch (a very fine bacon, basil and tomato soup with toasted bagel) at Emma's in Oamaru and they too had fallen into error.

All three cafes have two things in common. They pay a lot of attention to getting many things right: the decor, the food, the service, the ambience. As a result, whenever I go to either Oamaru or Wellington, I always visit Astoria or Emma's, whichever is appropriate at the time.

But they all engage in this pernicious practice which MUST BE STAMPED OUT. They bring out their wonderful breads to accompany their great food, and they give you an Anchor individual serve of butter, packed in plastic. How crass. There is never the right amount of butter and it just lowers the whole tone of the place. Giving a real serve of butter on an appropriate small platter would add that last touch of refinement.

There are sidewind benefits as well. I hate to think how many cafes, restaurants and hotels are dotted around New Zealand, each serving a certain volume of these things every day. That's a mountain of plastic being generated, just to introduce a sour note into the nation's breakfast. So, we'd reduce the production of hydrocarbons. Plus, and I know this is the real problem here, someone would finally have to come up with the ideal design for a suitable butter dispenser. Then people would need to make them, expanding the options for those unfortunate enough to be employed in minimum wage jobs.

As I was sitting in Emma's pondering my scrunched up former-butter container, I was thinking that I could start with a letter writing campaign - the advent of the cheap colour printer means that creating "Campaign for the Adoption of Venue-Appropriate Butter Vessels", or should that simply be "Better Butter Vessels: NOW!!!" letterhead is the task of a minute.

We would need some care to be taken: plastic one-serves of butter have their place, in low rent cafes with non-ironic formica tables and suburban coffee shops. We wouldn't want them to have pretensions to grandeur and opt for plated butter.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Heaven's Gate

(Dir Michael Cimino (1980), with Kris Kristofferson (Jim), Christopher Walken (Nate) and Isabelle Huppert (Ella)).

This is a movie reputed to be so big and so awful that it broke the film studio that made it (it was budgeted to cost $7.5 million, actually cost $44 million for a return of $2 million because it was pulled from screens after three days - the biggest flop to have been made at the time) and has inspired a reputedly wonderful documentary, Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of 'Heaven's Gate'.

So, when it turned up in Dunedin, I had to see it, to see why it was such a disaster. What I found was a movie that I really enjoyed and, what's more, one that the several people I talked to after the screening enjoyed as well. I'm told the French regard it as a masterpiece.

Even as I watched it, however, I could see where problems might arise. Take the opening 27 minutes - a scene showing Jim and another fellow, Billy (John Hurt), graduating from Harvard. A scene that was made after the rest of the movie was finished because Cimino thought there was something missing. As far as I can tell, its only point was to establish that Jim and Billy were at Harvard, and it was incredibly boring. We see Billy as orator, addressing his fellow students with an incomprehensible speech, then all the graduating students go outside and dance in two circles around a tree in the quad. That double circling pattern actually arises later in the movie, but I still can't work out its point. And Billy - he just shambles in and out of the subsequent action, generally drunk and spouting poetry, serving no point at all until he's shot dead.

My colleague could add some details to this opening scene: it was shot in his Oxford College while he was there. Unfortunately, Cimino needed a quad and the College had but three walls, so a false one was needed. A tree was also needed, around which the graduates could dance. The tree they brought in and planted had the misfortune to die and shed all its leaves, so someone had to procure a tree's worth of fresh green leaves and glue them on to the tree. Then, the scene had to be shot, over and over and over (apparently 50 times were not unheard of) to be "right". A more economical director could have established these two were at Harvard together in a 30 second bit as the credits roll - particularly as it served no point to the actual film! While Cimino is many things, being economical is not one of them. There are stories of the thousand extras all needed proper period costumes, how all the central characters had to have real life training on the roles they were playing so they'd be authentic. Then there were all the tantrums the director threw, just to make things run smoothly.

Anyway, once that was over things picked up markedly. The action is out in the midwest, Jackson County, Wyoming to be exact. Big country, leading to some wonderful cinematography. Big landholders have snapped up huge tracts of land but there is immigration - from all those "Go West, young man" types. They're setting up small-holdings by the hundred, on the land of the big land-holders. I've read about this in the past - apparently it was quite legal, but (a) made the big land-holders really grumpy and (b) the small bits of land were too small to provide a living, so made the little guys steal from the big guys, who were then even more grumpy. This led to the stockholders group having a meeting and making a list of the worst 125 offenders. $50 would go to anyone who killed anyone on the list. Again, this was legal, sanctioned by the President himself, but made for a certain amount of tension in the community. As far as I could make out, Heaven's Gate was the little township in the middle of all this.

Jim represents the law in this area - he may or may not be the marshall, it is never made clear. What we do know is that he's there to do a hanging. Despite the Presidential sanction, he is very much on the side of the little guy, and he knows how much trouble is brewing. Nate, on the other hand, is the stock-holder's foreman and initially quite happy to do their dirty work.

Things come to a head thanks to Ella - she is a madame, but has a relationship of sorts with Jim: he's pretty reserved, may or may not love her, may or may not be unable to love thanks to some prior disastrous relationship - his wedding picture is a recurring image. He wants her out of there, but she's afraid of going. She's also in love with Nate - and stays in love with him, or at least willing to marry him, despite his henchmen killing all her women and raping her. Jim rescues her and shoots the lot, but that's not enough for her!

From this point, the movie gains momentum. Nate confronts his bosses, they decide he's trouble, and go after him, there are maybe 100 of them against him and his room mate. Once he's out of the way, they decide they'll just work through their list. Luckily word gets to the good folk of Heaven's Gate, leading to a pitched battle. Here, there was an echo of the dancing at Harvard: the stock holders are circled behind their wagons around a tree, with the villagers riding in a big circle around them. It might have been an ironic comment on the lack of civilisation here in contrast to Harvard - Cimino doesn't make the easiest to read movie, at times it felt like we were still just getting the tip of the ice berg.

Jim is completely wasted, and won't help the villagers at first, he's completely lost any energy or faith he might have had. But ultimately, he goes to their aid, using his knowledge of Roman history to construct armoured wagons, from behind which they can attack the stockholders. Their boss (played by by Sam Waterston), he's really evil, its been his idea all along to do this and he's shown no problem with shooting innocent men. Now he is all "I'll get help"; he slinks away and in a fairly bizarre twist, brings back the army which arrests the few stockholders who survive.

When all is settled and Jim and Ella are finally getting ready to go off together, she's all beautiful in white, there's a really horrible scene: a random gunman kills her. I have to say that this was really the second time at which I felt any emotional involvement with the movie (I think I actually said "oh fuck" when it happened) despite the fact that there was a fair amount of historical accuracy to the rest of the movie. The death list actually happened.

One critic has said the film is:
an enigma, as difficult to like as it is to dismiss. It is arrogant and it is beautiful. It is thematically clever and rhetorically dull. It is sensitive and it is condescending. It has enormous ambition and winds up with nothing to say. Eventually, it’s just sadly exhausting.
Another has said that thanks to this particular film there was quite a shake up in the movie industry as a whole, with directors losing complete creative control and becoming accountable to the financial managers and producers, so there wouldn't be any huge ego driven productions again.

I would actually happily go see this film again, despite its whopping near four hour length. I'd even watch the first bit, it might give me some insights into why it was there.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

I Am Charlotte Simmons

by Tom Wolfe

I started talking about this book the other day. I've just been asked what I thought of it and my snapshot comment was that while it had some moments that truly spoke to me, it was ultimately a very annoying, a very masculine book.

Charlotte is a mountain prodigy who, thanks to getting 100% on her SAT's, gets to go to a very prestigious university - DuPont. There she encounters a hugely stratified society in which there are three primary social groups within her reach. There are others - there's a lot of commentary on the attempts by the University to recognise the diversity of the student body and make everyone feel they belong but, on the evidence given in the book, it is not working at all. There's one social group, called the Trolls that even on her worst days, Charlotte is far too special to treat with anything approaching humanity.

So, for her, there are the jocks; represented by Jojo Johanssen, one of two white men on the basketball team; the nerdy brainy type, represented by Adam and the Millennial Mutants; and the privileged frat boys, represented by Hoyt Thorpe. Although, it must be said, there is one interesting thing about him in that he's not privileged at all, but simply passes as one, living off the money his mother scrapes together as a blue collar office worker. Quite how this magic trick is done is never revealed. Apart from that, there is nothing remotely interesting about this fellow - he does no work, drinks by the gallon, hangs around with his mates playing video games. But he's apparently well off and has an oft-mentioned cleft chin and a wonderful thatch of light brown hair, which positions him between Cary Grant and Hugh Grant. Plus, he beat up the body guard of the Governor of California - this is an important plot point.

Women are certainly present, but either as complete nobodies or as hangers on. I'm not even sure that Wolfe intends it, but he manages to get in a couple of really beautiful side swipes at Charlotte's vacuous room-mate. In full on didactic mode, his narrator is explaining the use of the three levels of sarcastic response to someone wearing a cerise top (so last year, don't you know) - Beverley and her mates are devotees of these three modes of sarcasm. Then, about 200 pages later, Beverley herself is revealed to be wearing a cerise top. But this might well be pure forgetfulness on our author's part. The one woman with any sort of credibility is Camille - but she only has credibility by having nothing recognisably feminine about her and meeting the men head on on their agenda. We see this when Hoyt and his pals try to destroy a rally for gay rights.

There were some great elements in this book. I loved the way that Jojo defied the conventions associated with jocks and walked away from the papers set up to give student athletes an easy pass, opting for papers in Philosophy and French Literature. And I could fully get the intense loneliness that that led to for him: his Coach missed no opportunity to deride him, his team members had no idea what he was on about and the groupies just wanted to score a star. So Charlotte, who had been the catalyst for this sea change in the first place, when she was contemptuous of him knowing the right answer but acting dumb to keep in with his mates, is his only hope.

I also really liked attending vicariously the lectures given by the Nobel Prize winning neuro-scientist, Dr Starling. My knowledge of that area is not going to cover a postage stamp, so Wolfe may have been feeding us a heap of rubbish, but it sounded good, as if Starling knew what he was talking about (which means that Wolfe must have).

And, of course, there was the scene when the mountain prodigy went home for Christmas - her parents and the teacher who had always supported her and her best friend from school were all there, all very keen to find out how things had been going for Charlotte. It all struck me as being very real.

But the central ideas in the book left a bad taste in my mouth. Wolfe opted for a train wreck style of novel - there is a collision with a huge fallout and, as soon as we meet the characters, we know immediately how they're going to behave as if they are on rails, particularly Hoyt and Adam. These two are really at opposite ends of the spectrum. There is a strong focus on Hoyt's masculinity and Adam's femininity - he's even said to be mothering Charlotte at one point.

So, as soon as Hoyt enters Charlotte's life and shows an interest in her (somewhat inexplicably - they don't even speak the same language) it is game on between them. She is offered some pretty incredible opportunities, opportunities we'd think that she'd leap at - such as to do some work with Dr Starling - but they're no match for Hoyt. He is simply the coolest guy ever. She seems to have forgotten that in one of the never ending intellectual discussions the Millennial Mutants had, they analysed the meaning of cool: Hoyt met not a single one of the criteria.

When he, she and two other couples go off for a frat house formal, we have the train wreck. She's totally out of the loop all the way as they drive to Washington, has no idea how to talk at the level the others are (because it is endlessly foul and inane). But, once there, she recovers her position not by anything clever she might have to say, but because she has bigger breasts and better legs than the other women and has this eye-popping dress to show it all off.

And despite this, it comes as no little surprise to her that Hoyt wants to have sex with her and that, contrary to her expectations, she doesn't actually have much control over the situation. Now Hoyt has always been one of those guys, his entire frat house is comprised of them, who as soon as he's had sex, he's had all he wants from a woman and loses interest. We know this from his attitude as soon as we meet him. So its straight down the line here: he "knocks the dust off her" so she bleeds, then he's getting dressed, saying there's no way in hell that he'll be paying the laundry bill and letting his mates into the room.

Of course, Charlotte is devastated - instead of being the "mountain prodigy", she's the "depressed girl", one who is no longer able to function, and there are lots of insights given as to how depressed girls view the world and what they need to come right. Medical science may as well pack up its bags and quit - the cure for a depressed girl is an authoritative male voice, giving the depressed girl step by step instructions as to how to go about her day. Pulease! So - poor Adam: he nurtures her for days and days, just holding her in his arms every night, that tantalising girl, the one he's so in love with, the one he wonders he should chance a quick grope with. Then the minute he exercises some authority, she's all better and out of his life, all worried about what people like Hoyt and his crew's hanger-on girls will think of her if they see her with Adam. Then when he needs her, she's able to give for maybe half a day before she's bored. This is all pretty nasty and unbelievable.

Of course, Charlotte can't go long without a boyfriend - what woman can? Hoyt is out of the picture - rather spectacularly and all because of his beating up of the Governor's bodyguard. Adam and his ilk are not good enough, so that leaves Jojo: the novel ends on the rather sour note that our heroine is no longer Charlotte Simmons at all, but Jojo's girlfriend. He's a nice enough fellow, but why does she have to finish as an adjunct?

And if I ever hear the phrase mons pubis or the word bango! again, I'll scream.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

How Not to Go to a Food Festival

I blame that coffee, the one I decided I need before hitting the road. Up to then, all was well, I'd packed my bags, attended my lunch-time meeting at work and it was all "ready steady go" and off to Invercargill. It was, after all, the weekend of the Bluff Oyster Festival and oysters have been in my blood for ever. My father had this ritual, when we lived in Southland, of buying a whole sack of oysters every season. In fact, our family's departure from Southland was connected to this ritual. I was only 3 at the time, and have no recollection of these events at all, but my father told me that once I was born, the game was up for him. As fast as he might have been in shelling oysters, I could eat them quicker. For my own survivial, we had to leave because, in a contest between oysters and my father's first-born, there was no guarantee that I would win.

But back to that damned coffee: I had to do it, have just one last coffee. One friend turns up and we talk so long that when she leaves me, I think I'd better have another coffee. Sitting far away from where anyone is likely to find me, someone does, someone with an urgent need to go to the loo but is embarrassed by the fact he has a young boy to take care of. "Can Joseph sit with you, I'll only be a few minutes." So Joseph sits with me, and another friend comes along - she and Joseph have a great conversation about playing cricket with jellyfish. She stays when he goes, then another friend turns up "you must want some ginger crunch, Barry. I'm buying".

And so it goes, until it is dark outside, making a drive down through the Catlins, where I'd hoped to see the 160 million year old trees, redundant. Ah well, I'll go tomorrow, I think. And yes, I did get away to Invercargill on Saturday, but not until well after noon, still with plans to go through the Catlins. I'll have to do that again - the tide was fully in, meaning the trees could not be seen. Plus, it was raining and so windy that my windscreen wiper, yes the driver side one, snapped off. And it was cold, so I hunched into my coat, turned up the Decembrists, the Fiery Furnaces and the Killers respectively and drove on.

In Invercargill is where the real rain started - it bounced off Webster's roof with such vigour that if the energy could have been harnessed, it would have kept my stereo going for a year. And I was supposed to sleep in that? Luckily, there was space for me in the nice warm Tuatara Lodge. I learned something I did not know in my stay there. When you hit Invercargill at around 5:00 on a Saturday evening in the middle of a rainstorm, there isn't a hell of a lot to do. Surprised me, that did. I walked the streets, insofar as there was cover. I checked out the offerings at the local cinema - dire. I had a pie, steak and oyster, where they cheerfully reduced the price to $1.50 "because I have no idea how long it has been sitting about". (So far, I survive.)

I went to the Zookeepers, where the staff was nice and Emersons was on tap but nothing on the menu appealed. I couldn't leave at that stage; I mean, you can't really, can you, when the staff have been nice, and they've brought you a beer that's been put on a tab because you've said you're going to eat. I was committed to the least unappealing item on the menu - mussels in a chilli broth (not that I don't like that as something to eat, it just didn't match my imagined dinner at that point). It left me wanting another dinner. By the time I'd had that, I was back in the hostel, with a wet evening stretching in front of me, and it was barely 8:00. Ah well, it gave me a good chance to read on through I Am Charlotte Simmons.

At around midnight, I got chatting to this fellow: it turned out that he's looking at leasing the shop outside my back window to start up some sort of cafe, so I could share ideas with him on what to do. He doesn't want to run a Malaysian cafe, unfortunately. Now that would be heaven, as we could have come to some arrangement under which he could pass roti and rendang and chicken curry and lattes out his back window to me, and I could pass home brew back through to him.

So, anyway, finally, I got to the Bluff Oyster and Southland Seafood festival just in time for lunch. What a let down - they've broken it, with their new vision of what it should be. I remember last year, stuffing my face on all sorts of goodies; 2 dozen oysters, (1 raw, 1 battered and fried) plus a hangi are what stick in the mind. This year - people couldn't even find the oysters. I know this, because I found the place selling raw oysters, stuck off to the side in a seperate little room. As I slipped them down my throat, one by one, people interrupted: "where did you get them?".

This year, they went all flash, inviting a bunch of restaurants to run stalls selling menu items and matched wines. The focus has broadened from oysters and the prices have sky-rocketed - $6 for a single oyster. So, I had a pleasant blue cod curry, some tempura shrimps, missed out on a scallop/monkfish/bacon/potato kebab thing, had a beer and left - only to find my friend of last night, who I'd encouraged to go to the festival, outside and equally disappointed. He hadn't even found the oysters, so I pointed him in the direction of a shop that was selling them and hightailed it for home - couldn't miss the Gilmore Girls. [So funny - it was the much talked about episode with Norman Mailer in it: Suki's all pissed off with him because all he does is sit in her dining room drinking iced tea, without buying any food and boy, does she let him know she's pissed off!]

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Porco Rosso

(Dir Hayao Miyazaki)

I've seen a couple of his movies (Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke) and have Spirited Away stashed in the back of my van (don't ask). I think there were four being shown as part of the World Cinema showcase, but this is the only one I managed to see. It was soooo cute!

The Porco Rosso of the title (which translates to the Crimson Pig) is a former Italian Air Force pilot, who has left under somewhat dubious circumstances and is now (1920's) a bounty hunter in the Adriatic - a rather curious Adriatic where almost everyone flies around in flying boats and where people are Greek or Italian but always speak Japanese. Thanks to some sort of curse, or his own disgust with the human race, he's a pig - there's a bit of talk about whether, with a kiss from the right woman, he'll be transformed into a man again. While there is a woman willing to do it, it never happens. Maybe she's not the right one - he's quite a solitary sort of fellow. With a name like the Crimosn Pig, there are going to be a few references to flying pigs ("I'm a pig. I must fly.") but they weren't too laboured.

After a few skirmishes over some kidnapped uber-cute schoolgirls, the story line settles into place. Our man Porco is up against the "Federation" (of Pirates, air-borne, of course), and they set their hired gun, the US flyboy Donald Curtis (heh - I thought I recognised the name, he's a character actor from the 1940's who played the villain), on to him to shoot him down - which he does. So, its off to Naples to get the plane fixed, where he meets the 17 year old Fio - grand-daughter of the boss of the air-plane fix-it shop (voiced by Kimberley Williams of Father of the Bride fame). She's sharp and smart - after all, she's the one who has to design the repair job on the plane and then get the work actually done. The men are all "useless" and can't be relied upon, so its a job for the women folk. Given the time frame - 1920's - it is likely that the men have actually been committed to other tasks. There are various references to the growth of fascism in Italy, that ends up closing in on Porco.

Fio gets everything finished and wants to go back with Porco - she's designed a cute wee hidey-hole into the fuselage for herself and all; he can't refuse. Just as well, because she saves his bacon (sorry!). They get back to his island hideout, to find themselves surrounded by the Federation - the boss of which first wants to smash up the plane and then "mince the pig" - Fio is the one to stand up to him, and shame him into doing neither, by referring to the honour among pilots etc. But the pirates want something - they get a promise of a re-match between Curtis and Porco: if Curtis wins, he gets to marry Fio, so there's lots at stake.

Their dogfight is a fiasco - thanks to Fio sitting in her little spot in the plane, she's bent the gun mechanisms. Neither Porco nor Curtis have any armament at all and they soon run out of things to throw at each other so, as you do, they landed and had a fist-fight as well. Like the Simpsons, which makes full use of the animation, this fight took full advatnage of the fact that there no actual humans about to get hurt, and they really socked into each other, with hugely distorted faces the result.

I really like this movie, it left me feeling warm, and wishing I'd had time to maybe see Nausicaa.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

So tired, what with the World Cinema festival winding to a close (of a planned 20 odd movies, I may have got to little over half) and not one, not two, but three publishing deadlines crowding my calendar at the moment. One down, one nearly complete and, luckily the third is a re-hash of the first and can wait until after the weekend's festival devoted to oysters.

But is it Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons I wish to write about at present. This is a book which has garnered a lot of commentary, some of it flattering (including from President Bush) and some of it not. The general sentiment expressed in one of my book groups is that they adored the title character but the book itself is deplorable. I'm only about a quarter of the way in, but want to pause and collect my thoughts together at this stage. On the whole, I think he's doing a lot that I personally like in this book, but there is one particular tic I really hate. Here are two examples, from the same paragraph on page 112, where the narrator is telling us about one of the characters, Hoyt:
He was fourteen when he first scored, as the expression went.
[His manner of dressing] only made him hotter in the eyes of girls at Greenwich High - "hot" being the comparative degree of "cool" in teenage grammar.
The explanation of the terms is plain strange. For whom are they included? Did Wolfe learn that "hot" means "cool" as he was writing this book? That would be pretty tragic and add fuel to the claims that he is not well qualified to write a book about a freshman student at a swanky University. [Plus, he's really talking about teenage vocab rather than grammar anyway.]

The book is cluttered with these little explanatory side notes, but only in parts, which creates a very strange feeling.

That aside, I am actually quite excited by this book. The general idea is that Charlotte is a brilliant young woman, who managed to get a perfect SAT score despite growing up and being educated in some hick high school in North Carolina. Her parents are very straight; she is too, but there are hints that she has some aspiration to loosen up. She has already been able to get some perspective on her parents, as uneducated and not exactly broad minded.

Her University, Dupont, is mentioned in the same breath as Harvard. Wolfe does tend to lay his characterisation on a bit thick, so that the people we're meeting are implausible as being insufficiently nuanced - the jock element on campus (basket-ballers in particular - we've already had a fairly detailed account of black-white relations between team members), the privileged white kids with their sense of entitlement, the girls (who are all pretty much "slutted up" to use Charlotte's expression) and the poor but smart young jew. But there are a couple of characters with a bit more going for them - Hoyt passes for a privileged white boy from Boston, but the reality is that his dad is a white-collar crook who was found out and left, leaving Hoyt to be supported by his mother who works as some sort of accounts clerk. Then there is JoJo - a big-noting basket-ball player who only has to point to get whatever chick he wants. But his secret is that rather than getting through his classes on athletic merit, he is actually doing some of the work - such as reading Madame Bovary and answering questions (until his peer group shut him down and he plays the fool).

So, when he meets Charlotte, she's totally cold to him, because she's seen through him, knows what he is capable of but won't do because its not cool. In fact, this is quite a theme Wolfe has developed, about how uncool it is to actually want to succeed academically at one of the country's leading academic institutions. So, poor Charlotte, who has only come to Dupont for that reason, is at a loss. At her High School graduation, she had looked over her former class mates and recollected how she had been shut out of the cool crowd because "she not only gets perfect grades but cares about it" and because she wouldn't engage in their foolishness - drinking, pot, sex, drag racing. "Why should she be an outcast for not doing stupid, aimless, self-destructive things?" But then at Dupont, she thought, she'd find " people like herself, people who actually have a life of the mind, people whose concept of the future is actually something beyond Saturday night".

At the stage I have reached, its not going so well, as the people here seem to be much like the people back home, but with less discipline and more money. She's had to pull out of her second year French literature class because she's "over-qualified" by virtue of her ability to read in French.

So - it is pretty broad brush stuff, quite a lot like Steinbeck, but I'm enjoying it so far, although I really dislike many of the people I'm meeting.

Edit: I have now finished and there's more here.

Friday, April 15, 2005

So, both Harvestbird and Limegreen have thrown down this challenge; I'd be churlish not to comply. Mind you, in some quarters, there are one or two inhabitants who would contend I am a churl, but that's a different story. Here goes:

1. You're stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be?

This is hard - one of:
Vikram Seth's masterful A Suitable Boy - a huge sprawling novel which covers so much ground in the search for a husband, and taught me so much about Indian Constitutional Law on the way through - if you can only take one book with you, may as well make it be one about everything. Seth quotes Voltaire: "The superfluous, that very necessary thing..."; or

Fyodr Dostoevsky's The Idiot featuring Prince Myshkin. Dostoevsky's idea in creating Myshkin
was that he would be the "perfect man" in evolution, rather than as a finished product. Thus he might get things wrong, bumble along, but his overall trajectory is to do and be good. Some characteristics, as written by his author are "self-mastery from pride, a frenzied desire to
solve his own problems, someone who is filled with profoundest compassion and forgives mistakes." His author believes "A man who has always been humiliated and insulted usually possesses infinite generosity and love"

Possibly the latter.

2. Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

Yes, at least two I can remember. My very first was on Pippi Longstocking - the strongest girl in the world. Who could resist? Much more recently, there was Kakoli (or, as her friends know her, Kuku) Chatterjee in A Suitable Boy. It is a story in which Lata is in search of a husband, and one possibility is Amit Chatterjee - a darkly moody poet. Kuku is his sister, and she's great, very sharp.

3. The last book you bought is

Herzog, by Saul Bellow, since he died and all last week, and his Augie March was so great.

4. The last book you finished is

Eva Trout, by Elizabeth Bowen. Oh dear, I really don't like that thought. Here's what I said to my book group about her:

"Poor Eva"?? She's a freak, I dont like her one little bit - other people grow up with disordered backgrounds and they don't go out of their way to screw up other people. She was about to get her freedom from Iseult and Eric [her foster parents], only had a month or two to wait, but can she? Oh no - quite gratuitously, she constructs some sort of disagreement and leaves, with all the consequences that had on their tottering relationship. Not just that - she creates the idea that Eric has fathered her child, just to add insult to injury, made worse by the fact that Eric and Iseult can't have one.

Then she buys a baby! What? This baby has been stolen from whoever its parents are and is what exactly to Eva? A way of explaining her disappearance? A fashion accessory? Does she, can she love him? Why did she do it? As soon as there is some sort of indication that Jeremy [the baby] might actually be able to communicate with anyone other than herself, she stages some huge disappearing act, conscripting poor Henry [a young fellow she grew up with] in the process. She is manipulating him, not the reverse - he really loves her, the poor fool, but can't actually believe it will work - no wonder really, given her track record.

And then there is Constantine [her guardian] - what has he done, exactly, that is so bad? When Eva tells him he's really unhappy with Iseult, he does the right thing, and has a meeting with Iseult to alert her to the situation. She has the vague idea that he might have been dipping his hand into the Trout fortune, but this thought doesn't actually seem to go anywhere. We never get the full story of his history with Willy [Eva's late father - her mother was burnt to a crsip by flying rather too close to the Andes], but after reading about Eva, I'm actually willing to take his word for it that "A Trout, of any kind, is a liability" and that "in any dealings with Eva intelligence if anything is a handicap".
Can I put the one before up in its place - that was great: Shirley by Charlotte Bronte.

5. What are you currently reading?

More weird books. One because of my 19th century book group: Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest, who was Germany's answer to Madame Bovary. Mark Dunn's Ibid: A LIFE / a novel in footnotes, which has two odd premises. Its main character has three legs. Plus, through some sort of publisher's error, the novel has actually been lost and all that is left are the footnotes.

Then there's poor old Moby Dick, stalled on page 441. Do I count Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari and William Gaddis's JR? They're both sitting upside down, opened to a particular page, the actual page I did read to. But they've been that way a while now. Is it a year? Could be.

6. Five books you would take to a desert island:

So what I want to do, and I think I'll cheat a little by counting multiple volumes as one book. I'd take:
Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle - it is huge and it is great, but finding time to read it is so hard.
George Perec's Life: A User's Manual
Mark Z. Danielewski's A House of Leaves - another book I have lacked time to read, and which is reputed to be endlessly rewarding
Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote - there has to be at least one classic, right?
And the final book would be by one of those impenetrable philosophers, since I'll have the time to get to the bottom of what they're on about - Derrida, Schopenhauer, Heidegger or the like.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Breaking News/Dai si gein

(Dir Jonnie To, Chinese (Hong Kong) with sub-titles (mostly), 2004)

Imagine a street scene. Its not a flash street, just a small side street in down town Hong Kong. Something's going down, but we don't really know what - we can see two men in a car, talking in code with people on their radios, as they watch three men. Then all hell breaks loose, the three men are joined by a fourth and they're shooting. Their weapons cause foot long jagged flames, and those bullets sound like they're hitting spots not far from where we are sitting. We realise the two men in the car were policemen (Inspecter Cheung turns out to be one of the main characters), and they're joined by reinforcements. Lots of them. In a Police van, which the four gunmen steal and get away. Until they're stopped by traffic. More policemen. More shooting. Policemen in uniforms are surrendering and being shot dead anyway. Then the four gunmen make a final getaway, by steaing an ambulance, leaving someone stranded on a stretcher.

That's the first seven minutes of this movie. Afterwards, the gunmen hole up in a labrynthine apartment block while the Police do their best to smoke them out - there is the CID (the good Inspector Cheung and his team half a dozen) and the OCB led by a very ambituous Inspector Rebecca Fong - there are something like a thousand (!) cops deployed in her assault on the building. Then there is the UCD (?), a sinister group, dressed in black body armour and face masks.

But there is more going on in this movie than the bringing of these criminals (and another pair who just happen to have been in the building as well) to justice or the turf wars between Cheung and Fong. The title gives this away - Breaking News. Thanks to the street fight, the media has got hold of the story and the cops are not looking good. So, most of what Fong is doing is playing up her response for the media - sending in 1,000 cops in bus after bus makes for an impressive sight. Then you put webcams on all the cops and select what is going out to the public. Hell, why not put a sexy soundtrack behind scenes of the cops going after their men.

But the crims aren't beyond playing that game too - they've got their own footage, in which they're winning, setting explosions off that are killing more cops. And they're holed up in an apartment with web access. Then, to show they're real people as well, they cook lunch, a really nice lunch it was too, and broadcast images of them sitting down to a joyful meal with their hostages.

Of course, with the kind of manpower the Police are throwing at the crims, you never really expect them to get away. And yet, the two leaders of the two groups get a lot further than you might expect.

Les Vacances de M. Hulot

(Dir Jacques Tati, 1952, black and white, French with sub-titles - winner Prix de la critique internationale au Festival de Cannes)

Here's me thinking that Jour de Fête was funny. But after spending an hour and a half with the good Monsieur Hulot, I know I was mistaken. I was with a colleague and his early-years teen-aged daughter - right from the opening images, they were simmering with laughter. It took me just a couple of minutes longer than them, and I was away. At two points in the movie, I was on the point of tears, it was so funny - Tati is a master of timing and of developing gags. He just uses small devices but through repetition and building up a large number of small layers of gags, makes something that is enormously funny. I mentioned the bee scenes in Jour de Fête, so that we came to recognise what was about to happen every time somewhere went down a particular stretch of road. In this movie, he had multiple recurring gags - such as the door that made an odd muted clunk sound every time it swung to, except for the one or two times it didn't, or the clunk sound came at the wrong time. It doesn't sound funny on paper, but it is Tati's genius that it becomes funny. And unlike, say, Cleese or Atkinson he doesn't milk these, or work his gags to the extreme, or make them go to any kind of logical end. They were just there as part of the tapestry of the movie, just as the very attractive woman who was obviously amused by M Hulot was, and might have responded to a romantic overture on his part. Some movies would have exploited that plot possibility, whereas she was just there as part of the environment. Then there was the older couple, who were present in most of the scenes, just wandering through, but Tati didn't actually do anything with them, not right till the end. Then, the woman "is bare-footed and looks in the small puddles. "Oh, a shell!" she cries, giving it to her husband. He takes it, looks at it and throws it away behind him. "Oh, another one! Get it, it is splendid!" And he throws it again like all the previous ones. We can hear a tragic "floc". It is funny, it is sad, it has been lived. Nevertheless it is short and Tati is already at the next sequence." There were many of this sort of casual additions to the movie.

In fact, there was no plot at all. There were bits of the movie that didn't even connect, except that they added to the amusement and the theme development. Its a movie about M Hulot taking his annual holiday at Le Hotel de la Plage. So, the movie starts at the railway station, with numerous completely incomprehensible announcements over the loudspeaker (again, not sub-titled to make the point) and potential passengers rushing from platform to platform on the off-chance that's what they heard the announcer say was the right platform. But our friend M Hulot doesn't go on holiday by train - he takes his Mr Magoo style car, that's continuously threatening to simply expire or explode, but only lets him down once or twice.

Once at the hotel, the fun starts. Apparently they just filmed around the actual guests and let them be in the background. M Hulot is as clumsy a fellow as you could hope to meet, walking around in an ungainly fashion (a review in the NY Times in 1954 described him as a "a long-legged, slightly pop-eyed gent" and "the amiable butterfingered nitwit bouncing around a summer hotel") but not very aware that he's causing havoc. There's one great scene where he's playing ping pong, and several times fails to hit the ball, meaning it is out among the guests in the room behind him. Instead of asking them if they've seen the ball, he simply moves them about as if they're furniture. At one point, there are two tables full of guests playing card games - one fellow is tabling a card but thanks to Hulot's moving him about, his card goes into the wrong game, leading to a fist fight. Hulot, meanwhile is back playing ping pong.

Other notable scenes are where Hulot is simultaneously having a raging row with a horse that really hates him and trying to stop pizza dough from stretching out so that it hits the ground, a time when his car really does let him down and leaves him stranded in the middle of a funeral (with his spare tyre-tube, covered in autmnal leaves, mistaken for a wreath and carried off by an officious guest) and the final extravagance, when he manages to set off a shed full of fireworks. I damn near pissed myself, when he was trying to fill a watering can with water, from a garden sprinkler as it went round and round. Oh, and the different ways in which every single guest in the hotel was woken up each night. Oh, and that damn boat - it was a sort of old-school kayak that folds in the centre, and did so with Hulot in it.

So, of course, when Hulot is going off to play tennis, we just know he's going to be crap. Particularly when we have seen him buy his tennis racquet and be given instructions on how to use it - including this very strange action, in which he held it face down and jerked it forward and back again, just as if he's using a trowel to put bread dough in an oven. But he's brilliant - no one can even answer his serves, let alone have an extended volley with him. But there was a point - because in doing this, Tati was skewering the kind of guy who makes a big show about how great a tennis player he is: Hulot should never have been able to beat them.

My over all feeling when coming out of this movie was of how warm-hearted and endearing an account it was. I will probably be buying it.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Jour de fête

(Dir Jacques Tati, 1949, colourised, French with sub-titles)

What a hoot! If you love Mr Bean, Frank Spencer or Charlie Chaplin, then this may be your sort of movie. Even if it is complete nonsense from start to finish, there is sometimes a need for nonsense. The title refers to the fact that it is the day of the fair in a little French village. The film opens by having us follow this cart, being towed by one of those little old Farmall tractors with the two front wheels together and pointing slightly inwards - there are five wooden horses leering over the back of the cart and scaring the local animals. This is the ferry-go-round and movie house arriving for the fair.

But the star of the film is Jacques Tati himself, playing the central character Francois, the local mailman on his bike. (As an aside, now that I've seen this movie, I suspect that the mailman in A Very Long Engagement is a homage to Tati.) He's not a very good mailman, as he is far too easily distracted - by the pub, by the fellows he knows around the place, by the needs of the community for something other than a mailman. So, fairly early in the piece, he is co-opted to direct a bunch of workmen in putting up the flag-pole - because he's so "orgainsed" and in control. Of course, he's not that great, and takes a huge number of whacks on the head in increasingly strange ways. This and the alcohol he consumes in drinking games he feels he must win (his competitors slow him down a bit by swapping whatever he had been drinking, maybe wine, for cognac) lead to his increasing wobbliness and incoherence - for the entire centre part of the movie, this is best expressed by simply not giving sub-titles for anything he said. Among the many funny scenes, one that stands out is when he's delivering a telegram - when he finally works out that it requires urgent delivery, he gets to where it is supposed to be but as he makes his introductory bow, the old lady's goat snatches the telegram from between his legs. Its that sort of movie.

One other character deserves a special mention - a bee, whcih occupies a certain part of the road - we learn to recognise that whenever someone goes through that part, they'll be attacked by it.

But things change for Francois when he watches a documentary film about the greatness of the American mailman, where its all about efficiency, regularity and rapidity. There, they have helicopters to deliver the mail or, out in the big country, mailmen hang below aeroplanes to do their work. This inspires our Francois to adopt the principle of rapidity - he never stops to talk, in fact he never even stops to deliver the mail, but instead slaps it on whatever surface that presents itself (such as a bald head). There's this great scene where he has hooked his handlebars to the back of a truck, so that he can be sped up, and is using the tailgate of the truck (which is laying flat) as his mail sorting office - maximum efficiency, don't you know, that's what its all about.

But, nothing can last for ever and within about 24 hours, Francois is back to his old habits - he stops delivering mail to help some haymakers and is then off to the pub.


(Dir Tony Gatlif)

I'd never heard of this director until I watched this movie, but as I watched it, I became more and more curious, because of his obvious love for music. In fact, not only did he direct the movie, he also created much of the music that added up to a stunning soundtrack. But when I get back to my computer, I see that I have in fact already seen a movie by him - Swing - In which wee Max develops an understanding of gypsey culture and guitar playing. He is also famous in certain quarters for Latcho Drom, a movie I have never seen.

Exiles has, at its heart, a road movie. Zano is an Algerian in Paris, completely cut off from his roots - the film opens with him staring out of his flat window over the rooftops, no doubt imagining a different life, because he turns to his girlfriend, Naima, and says "lets go to Algeria". As you do. Naima is harder to work out - for the most part, she seems pretty banal, trivial even, interested solely in her own immediate pleasures. So, when she's in a bar one night, she thinks nothing of slinking off with another man just because he gives her the eye. But there might be reasons - they're not well explored, but it is suggested that she is even more rootless than Zano, with absolutely no expectations. Living for the immediate moment makes sense in that situation. I've said that she's his girlfriend, but I may have over-stated it: we see nothing at all of their prior relationship and only learn that they have a shared history of making porn flicks. Zano doesn't know her well enough to have been told her birthday. It may even be that by the end, she does find a connection within herself, is grounded. If she is, it is music which does it for her.

So, anyway, they are ostensibly walking to Algeria, but we see very little of them actually walking - trains seem to be the preferred mode. They jump a train to near Seville, not Seville itself because the ticket collector is on his way to check their non-existent tickets. They spend some time picking fruit around seville, and having sex among the (I think) nectarine trees - gorgeous images in this part in particular, with the lush green leaves, the brilliantly red-skinned fruit and two beautiful people playing with each other. Seville, it turns out, is something of a staging post - they meet several Algerians working the fruit fields making their way to Paris because, there, you can get fake work papers. So, there's a nice point being made about our heroes doing the reverse, going to Algeria from Paris for their specific dream of getting in touch with their background. As they get closer to Algeria, they meet more and more refugees flowing the other way.

Their trip is otherwise fairly straight-forward, apart from stealing a ride in a van onto a ferry that's not going to Algeria at all, with a consequent need to take a long ride through near desert in a ramshackle bus that breaks down, after which they're smuggled across the border. The two things that stand out throughout their journey are the scenery and the music - in all the pubs in Seville, we see these impromptu gatherings of musicians just jamming. The back seat of the bus has three or four musicians to provide a live sound track for the trip. When thy don't have live music, Zano and Naima are both plugged into their respective discmans - giving Gatlif and his musical collaborator, Delphine Mantoulet, a chance to show off their music. I think this was deliberate - but as they approach their destination, there is less and less reliance on this recorded music and local live music predominates. This culminates in the final main scene - there's a gathering of musicians - a handful of percussionists with little bongo type drums held on their shoulders, a fellow with something not much bigger than a ukelele but with a much deeper sound, and various female voices, ululating rather than singing. Their tempos starts slow and reaches the orgasmic. Naimo is more and more feral in her dancing - she completely lets go and is controlled by the music. I really do think that this is showing her developing a connection with her roots: after all, it follows a scene in which she's told that her vacancy is down to being entirely groundless.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Bad Education

(Dir Pedro Almodóvar, with Gael García Bernal as Ángel/Juan/Zahara, Fele Martínez as Enrique Goded and Daniel Giménez Cacho as Father Manolo. Spanish with subtitles, 2004)

I've been watching Almodóvar movies for years, and this one is quite a departure. For a start, his movies always involve some put-upon long-suffering woman and her twisted relationships. There are virtually no women at all in this movie, and the only relationships of any significance are gay ones. Also, it is a step into the film noir territory (which reminds me - there is a cute wee scene in which two of the characters have time to kill, and find themselves at a film noir week - they come out and think the movies are all about them). The other well known name involved in the movie is, of course, Gael García Bernal (Y tu Mamá También, Amores Perros and the Motorcycle Diaries).

At the centre of the movie is childhood sexual predation. Juan's brother Ignacio has Father Manolo as his literature teacher and school principal - his voice had not broken at that stage, so Ignacio must have been around 10 or 11. That doesn't stop Father Manolo from desiring him and getting hugely jealous when Ignacio falls for his school friend, Enrique. The good father's response is to get a promise from Ignacio to do whatever is wanted if only Enrique is not expelled.

Almodóvar, however, goes for a fairly complicated structure and makes the movie be much more than simply about child abuse. The movie starts with an adult Enrique, now a film maker, one who is struggling to come up with an idea for a film. In comes "Ignacio" with a story he's written, partly of their childhood and partly an invention of what might have happened. There's a sort of flash-back, in that the movie then picks up the fictional part of the story - Zahara is a female impersonating cabaret singer who, with his mate, isn't too concerned about the moral problems associated with going home with a punter and robbing him. Zahara is in the process of doing this (after a cute scene in which her punter falls asleep in the middle of receiving a sexual favour) when he realises it is Enrique.

This then prompts a further flashback, back to when he and Ignacio were school boys - we get to see their love, and the dodginess of Father Manolo. So far so good - but then the story develops a fair few twists and turns, I really don't want to give the game away and saying any more would do that. One thing I can say - the movie gains an extra layer of time. Enrique is busily shooting a movie of this story - using the same characters and sets as we have seen in the flash back, when in walks the real Father Manolo - a pretty tragic figure by this stage. But he is morally bankrupt throughout - Ignacio is not the only fellow he goes after. And I guess I can say there's some nice blackmailing going on, a murder, drugs, quite a bit of shagging, identity swaps and a fairly hard to accept inability on the part of the other characters to see through the disguieses adopted. It's quite a ride!

For those interested in such things, there is a fair amount of a nude Gael García Bernal to be seen in this movie. Heh - what a surprise. For those who are not, he is still very much worth watching - he has to play several roles in the movie and is clearly its star, around whom the other characters only really had bit parts to play. The other standout feature is the filming - the movie starts with a very cool series of splash screens, largely made of red, black and white and I've seen the cinematography described as "luminous" elsewhere - certainly, there are plenty of earth tones, its a very warm movie.

Blues Film Collection

Martin Scorsese has organised a series of seven movies, each made by a different director, documenting that director's vision of blues music. For some reason, Clint Eastwood's Piano Blues is not destined for a cinematic release, but is out on DVD. Of the six that have been released, three are being shown as part of the World Cinema Showcase in Dunedin. Missing in action are:
  • Godfathers and Sons which explores the heyday of Chicago blues and juxtaposed with contemporary hip-hop;
  • The Road to Memphis featuring BB King and other Memphis originals;
  • Warming by the Devils Fire about the director's upbringing in a religious home where blues was seen as “the devil’s music”.
First to be shown is the one directed by Martin Scorcese himself, Feel Like Going Home. In this movie, Corey Harris takes us on two journeys. The first is into the roots of the Mississippi Delta blues scene, looking at musicians like Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Taj Mahal, Lead Belly and Muddy Waters. Good stuff, even if I had seen bits and pieces of the footage in previous movies. But then Harris shifted the action completely, by taking us to Mali, in order to demonstrate it is the source of African-American music. There, we meet and listen to snatches of music from Salif Keita, Habib Koité and Ali Farka Toure. I'm a little ashamed of this, but I actually lost track of who was who here - there was one artist with whom Corey spent quite a lot of time talking and jamming, both doing acoustic blues. I think it was Ali Farka Toure. The point of this particular jam was that they were both playing their guitars, playing the same tune - but they'd switch singing duties. Harris would do some of a John Lee Hooker number (such as Catfish Blues) but then Toure would cut in with a song of his own, but to the same music.

I'll update when I have seen the other two.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


(Dir Jules Dassin (1954) with Jean Servais (Tony), Carl Möhner (Jo) and others)

As I watched this, I thought of Tarantino, particularly as it closed to a very Tarantino-esque end. I don't know if Tarantino ever saw it, but I rather suspect he did. Dassin is responsible for another crime noir movie - the Naked City. Apparently with this one, in order to maintain the bleak mood throughout, he refused to do any shooting whenever the sun came out. It is a classic - tightly plotted, suspenseful, brilliantly cast, gritty.

Tony is just out of jail, after serving five years for a jewel heist. He plays briefly with the idea of going straight, but circumstances (including a massive loss at cards and the fact that his girl, Mado, has hooked up with another crim, Grutter) lead to him agreeing to run a fairly daring heist on a jewel shop. He assembles his team - Mario, Jo and César - and makes a plan. Watching them first plan and then execute the heist could almost work as a training film for wannabe jewel thiefs, back in the day. Tony checks out the jewellers, to see what sort of safe they have and what alarm system, as well as observing to see what kind of night time activity surrounds the shop. After a lot of trial and error, he discovers that filling the alarm with the contents of a fire extinguisher will muffle its sound.

Then there is the actual doing of the job - it takes them pretty much all night, after everything has queitened down. We get to see it over the course of a 30 minute in which everyone is committed to dead silence. Very impressed at the sartorial standards employed - three of them were suited up, Tony even had a bow tie. With only a small amount of police interference, they manage to get away with 240 million francs worth of (pretty crappy looking) jewellery.

That's when the fun starts. Following the essential rule of every crime story, there should never be a clue without it having some significance. Sure enough - we are told as soon as we meet
César that he finds women irresistable. Despite being told to stay at home while the jewels are peddled, out he go he must, with a gewgaw for whatever gal he might pick up. Of course, the one place he goes to is the night club run by Grutter - who, as soon as he sees the ring, is able to connect our friend Tony to the job. So - it becomes thief against thief, and Tony's team isn't exactly invulnerable to torture. The weakest link (and we know this, because we see right at the begining that he is a greenhorn) is Jo - he has a wee boy who can be kidnapped.

Given the inevitibility of where this movie is going, and I guess where it has come from, it is no surprise that it culminates in a showdown between Tony and Grutter, after each has eliminated every member of the other's team. Except Jo's boy, that is - there is a scene that would have otherwise been hilarious when Tony is driving the wee boy back to his mum - the kid is acting up with his toy gun, holding up Tony, passersby and basically being a real pain.

It is hard to say that this is a showdown between any sort of good and evil, given that Tony is really no better than Grutter - Mado made the wise choice when she walked away from both of them. And yet, my sympathies were with Tony, I wanted him to succeed after all the careful planning and hard work he had put in to take the jewels. Ultimately, however, no-one won.


(Dir Mike Nichols, with Natalie Portman (Alice/Jane), Julia Roberts (Anna), Jude Law (Dan) and Clive Owens (Larry))

I don't have a lot to say about this movie, as it left me largely un-moved by the shenanigans of the characters. First no-one is together, then "Alice" and Dan get together as do Anna and Larry. There is a small amount of humour in how Larry and Anna meet - Dan is on the interweb in some chatroom, pretending to be Anna and gets into some pretty puerile sex talk with Larry. They agree to meet at the Aquarium, which it just so happens is where Anna is sitting. So, some interesting play with identity - Larry is full of references from his sex talk and Anna, of course, has no idea what he's talking about.

But then Dan "loves" Anna, so of course they have to get together, and damn the consequences. Not that I cared for either Larry, who was pretty much a jerk, or Anna. In only a couple of scenes could I summon up any affection for Dan - right near the end, he seemed like a decent enough fellow for a bit, but then he turned out to not be. At least he could recognise that his need to know, his need to have the truth, made him an idiot - I could admire him for that, but then he couldn't handle the truth (if, in fact, it was given to him - I rather suspect he was not).

Which brings me to the only character I could feel anything for. "Alice" turns up in London (ex USA) as a waif on an expedition. She meets Dan thanks to a small car accident - it was kind of cute, the way he went with her to the hospital, stayed with her, then when it came time to part, he did so formally, only to wheel around and come back for her. She loves him, perhaps needily. Once Dan goes after Anna, "Alice" returns to her former work as a stripper. The best scene, not because of her near nudity but because of the way she played it, was in the strip bar - Larry has come in for a bit of fun, recognises her and wants to break through her professional mask, get her to tell him something "real". She insists her name is Jane, but never drops the mask: since Larry knows her as Alice, it never occurs to him that that might have been the mask and that this is the truth. So, she keeps saying she is Jane, he keeps throwing money at her and shows he really isn't a pleasant fellow at all.

On the whole, pretty pedestrian.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Vox, by Nicholson Baker

I should put an R18, "sexual content may offend" warning on this post.

I first became aware of Mr Baker's work when he published Mezzanine, a novel recounting someone's lunch hour. Then I read the Fermata, a novel in which the main character is (a) extremely pre-occupied with attractive women, (b) has the ability to stop time for everyone but himself and (c) has no moral qualms preventing him from taking advantage of the situation. It is a few years since I read that - the dominant memory I have of the book is of the main character taking advantage of the fermata he can create to insert vibrators into unsuspecting (at least at first, they become grateful) women. Very much a male fantasy novel, at least until the tables were turned.

Vox had its 15 minutes in the sun when it was revealed to be the reading matter relied upon by President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky to assist them in their affair. The entire 170 pages are simply a conversation between a man and a woman who have met on a phone chatline (Vox2) and are speaking to each other at $2 a minute. They do worry at one stage about how much its costing: she suggests she should phone his home number, but he is worried that she won't, or will write his number down wrong, or will mis-dial, or some other thing will happen to prevent them continuing their conversation. So, they keep talking.

Their pre-occupation is with sex - the book starts with what must be a classic in this sort of conversation: "what are you wearing?". Within a page, she (we don't learn until the very last page that her name is Abby) has told him (Jim) of a chemise she wore while having sex that had become so stained as a result that she had to take it to a dry-cleaners: it came back with more stains than it went in with.

So, they talk to each other about sex - no matter what else they might talk about, and they do talk about a whole bunch of things (such as lingerie catalogues, the technology used to operate drive in movies, paint colours) the central motif of every conversation is sex. But it is a very particular sort of sex, as they talk about the things in their lives and in their fantasies that lead them to come. I don't recall any accounts where either of them have sex with a partner - the closest is the night that Jim and a workmate, one he's been lusting after for ever but who, in turn, has her eye on another fellow, watch some porn. They sit side by side on his sofa, watching the movie she picked, under the frilled blanket she specified: as the movie progresses, they get more and more aroused and then, seperately, masturbate. Every step, starting with Jim's request of his workmate to write him a personal's ad that will lead to a woman sitting under a blanket watching porn with him, is minutely documented.

So too are their fantasies, as they tell each other about them. Poor Jim can't even go into a bookshop without having a bit of a problem:
"I went into this used bookstore one time, just to browse around. But it wasn't really the kind of place I thought it was going to be, it had hardly any old books, what it had was recently published pre-enjoyed books. Shelf after shelf of these things, big thick historical romances, super neatly shelved, sometimes five or six copies of the same book side by side ... but even though there were multiple copies of these books, they weren't identical, because every one of them had been read. They looked handled. All of their pages were turned. And turned by whom? Turned by women. My heart started going. I had entered this enchanted glade. I took a historical romance off the shelf, and I felt as if I were lifting a towel that was still damp from a woman's shower. The intimacy of it! ... hundreds of female orgasms could be inferred from the books themselves - you didn't need to invade anybody's privacy, you could just hold any copy and think of a woman holding it open with one hand. It was all there in the pliability and the thumbed-ness of the book itself - it practically shouted at you 'I have been near a clit as it underwent two orgasms.'"
This thought gets Jim off. He's weird! But so is Abby.

But, at the same time, there is a particular form of restraint. As they tell each other these stories, they do themselves get aroused but they hold off, they don't actually do anything sexual, they even keep their clothes on for the most part. So, there is this control at work, until right near the end. Abby says:
"... I heard your voice and liked it."
"Thank you. Yours is nice, too, you know. Very smooth."
"Thanks. I just had it waxed yesterday. Shall we, do you think, should we perhaps come soon?"
"Yes. You're absolutely right. Are you naked?"...
There's a kind of dignity to all this - because now their fantasies merge, they fantasise him finding her and them having sex, still documented in minute detail. And it is this dignity and the masterful way in which Baker writes that stops this novella ever simply being a piece of dirty writing, or even erotica. They both acknowledge the others who had phoned in just to talk dirty and how that was sad, and that they have met in each other someone in whom they can confide and have real conversation - because they have both found someone of genuine interest to the other. This book celebrates that - so what if they want to talk about sex? Time went so far as to say "Nicholson Baker is a subatomic physicist of fiction, a quantum suburban Proust".