Monday, April 30, 2007

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind

This novel has been around a fair while now (published in 1985) and there has been a lot of positive commentary about it, but it is only recently that I managed to read it. Sure, I bought a copy back in the '80's and I vaguely remember stuffing it in the pocket of some jacket I can no longer find. But there has been a movie made of it and so various booksellers started the hardsell (not that the actual movie will get here until October). As it happened, I picked up a copy of the DVD while I was travelling and so we made Perfume my bookclub's official selection for April, with a viewing of the movie to follow pizza, wine and discussion.

Some comments need to be made specifically about the movie, in particular the odd things which happen when you buy movies from Vietnamese DVD shops. We were a little intrigued to see the blurb boldly state this to be a "swashbuckling space adventure" and curious about the Ashlee Simpson song that was promised as an extra, among other weirdities. Nothing prepared us for the sub-titles, however. We kind of thought they might be in poor English, but not so. What really confused us was to have, in a movie about a French fellow from the 1750's, references in the sub-titles to "Ash", "Linda" and "Scotty" and to trucks revving and the near constant exhortation "kill him!". Hah - we had the sub-titles for The Evil Dead. Initially distracting, we did have fun seeing how remote from the story the sub-titles got and only noted one spookily close correspondence.

By and large, however, the movie was a pretty faithful recreation of the novel, with one notable period excised and another changed quite markedly. One big disappointment: Jean-Baptiste spends seven years in a cave, grows hair down to his knees and an equivalent beard but in the movie this period and growth is truncated to a mere seven weeks.

The novel opens with Paris presented as a sequence of smells amounting to "a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women". The basic story is quite simple: Jean-Baptiste Grenouille ("frog") has a freakishly well developed sense of smell and no sense of morality, unless one counts a consciousness of one's own evilness. He is "gifted and abominable". He is also completely obsessed. His mother is a fishmonger, who has a habit of casually discarding her new-born babies among the waste of her trade. The only thing that saves our hero is the fact that she dies: he is noticed, and spends his early years living off the parish. He has to decide at an early age whether he will live or die: people don't like him, because they can't smell him, so living requires him to keep much of him secret from the world. He really doesn't seem to have much in terms of a presence: hardly talks, has very little internal life, he is just the single-minded pursuit of whatever his goal might be (something we really don't get told until towards the end). An important idea in this book is the way in which our own odour constitutes our identity, our very presence.

He is sold aged 8 to a tanner, for whom he is very useful because he manages to survive the diseases that normally kill and gains immunity. In his teens, on an evening walk, he becomes conscious of an unfamiliar odour, one which completely enchants him: it is that of a girl just on the cusp of becoming a woman. This is perfection. Because J-B is a complete smello-freak, his only way of being with her is to capture her odour: with a chilling lack of foreplay or regret, he kills her (it takes about three lines of text) and has her scent available to him throughout the rest of his life.

This first part of the novel did drag a bit (the movie ran through it fairly quickly) but it really came alive when J-B talked his way into a job with a perfumier. There is a lot of detail in this part about the perfume trade in France in the mid 18th century and about the making of perfumes: detail I found fascinating.
I have no idea if the author intended it to be there or not, is the way in which it embeds so many legal ideas. It creates what could be a case study in competition law when the old guard seeks to resist the new (and might even be suggesting that the new is the work of the devil). It explores the exploitation of workers, passing off of someone else's work as one's own, the copyright protection given to original works and the ways in which someone might misrepresent what one is selling.

Jean-Baptiste is a genius when it comes to making perfumes, either copies of others or new ones - his boss makes a fortune off him. I really enjoyed the clash between them: the boss has no talent, just a plodding methodology whereas J-B has no technique at all. He does, however, recognise the usefulness of technique, as he has ideas of his own as to the sorts of scents he would like to capture. Initially, these are innocuous - glass and door knobs, but he moves on to puppies (we had a couple of puppies watching the movie with us - I was careful to warn them of scenes they might find disturbing).

J-B's thirst to develop his abilities takes him away from Paris, but he finds within him a curious abhorrence of other people: hence the seven years in a cave up a mountain, where he can play back all of the scents he has ever encountered just as we might play back a movie. The mountain sojourn is terminated by an episode I still have trouble accepting: at the age of 25, he suddenly discovers he doesn't smell of anything. Huh? He has the finest nose ever and never noticed this before? This profoundly upsets him, causing him to go off and do something about it. First he is patronised by a local Lord with a whacko idea that the earth is bad for us (the bit that is cut from the movie) but ultimately he gets himself into a perfumery.

Here, all hell breaks loose! He has two ambitions - one to play around with various perfumes for himself, so that he can not only have a presence in the world but use it to alter people's perceptions of him. Second is to create the
über perfume, which involves essence of virgin - the novel really gives new meaning to the idea of virgin oil (and I think the movie takes this pun a step further). Here's where the murders anticipated by the title really start to happen: he needs 24 ordinary virgins as well as a very special one, Laure, who smells just like the girl who started everything off. And so the story runs on to its rather perverse end. I guess given the perverse nature of the tale, something weird had to happen at the end to cap it all off, but it was all a bit "what the...?".

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany

I've not read a novel quite like this one. That's a good thing - when an author comes up with something new. The author grew up in rural Western Australia, where her father was fruitlessly trying to farm. On a trip across Australia she applied, apparently on a whim, for a job as a park ranger in its Red Centre. Then she became an agricultural journalist. She writes of the land with grace, authority and respect.

As I was reading this, I was wondering how much of it was true. I mean, to use her own word, it is slightly surreal to think that the Australian Government responded to the impending depression by filling a train up with experts in agriculture and home economics and sending them out into country Victoria, calling it the Better Farming Train. Yet that is exactly what they did, and it is that story which provided the inspiration for the novel.

Jean Finnegan is the narrator (with an ability to narrate a couple of chapters where she was not present) and central character - she has been taken on to demonstrate the skills of being a seamstress to the rural women (roles are very traditional in this novel). Two men stand out - the gentle Mr Ohno, a Japanese expert in sexing chickens (he dresses very nicely, given his job: "immaculate in pinstrip trousers, a long swallowtail jacket, and a scarlet tie of the deepest scarlet"), and Robert Pettigrew, an English soil scientist. His party trick is identifying the source of soil by taste. Both eschew the company of the rest of the train, both are laconic in the extreme and both appeal to Jean. The first third or so of the novel is concerned with life on the train:
as it heads through the Mallee. There is, of course, a seduction scene, of sorts: Robert and Jean are working in the honey car, not really talking but before long there is an episode which concludes with "the sound of skin unsticking". They are never the most talkative of couples, but Jean seems to just fall in with his ways.

But the big story is about science versus nature. Robert has 8 rules for scientific living, which he wants to put into practice in the Mallee, growing wheat. These rules have a focus on fact and an avoidance of "mawkish consideration of history and religion". And so he and Jean start a farm, to be worked on scientific principles. Every year, a scientific record is made of the wheat yield, its quality and that of the bread made from it by Jean. Every year, the record tells a worse story. Relations between Jean and Robert break down (which is just as well, as the sex scenes are a little odd - as she's having sex, she's thinking about rules of good housekeeping; as she's housekeeping, she's thinking about sex) as his despair grows. Sure, science plays a part in farming but, at least in terms of the story told here, nature is a stronger force. (An alternative take would be that Robert was applying science with inadequate knowledge of the facts.) And so, while science would suggest increased productivity, this is thwarted by a variety of forces - mice which eat the crop, rain which fails to fall, a wind which blows the soil all the way to Melbourne, a schemer who rips off most of the farmers.

World War II is the final straw: it provides an opportunity for the few men who have yet to be sold up to sign on. Poor old Mr Ohno is still in the country but, being Japanese, is interred along with the musical director of the Viennese Boys' Choir, which just happened to be in the area when war broke out.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Hula Girls

I've seen Brassed Off and The Full Monty and I'm sure there's another in there somewhere that covers similar territory, but Hula Girls is far and away the most emotionally satisfying, even if it does have the most insane premise. Apparently there has been a string of similar movies made in Japan as well as a "hula boom": this movie combines the two trends. It is a very good thing I was alone when I saw it, as I spent most of it either on the verge of or in tears.

The setting is a coal-mining town in northern Japan in 1965: industry is moving away from coal fired production so the entire town is under threat. Most townsfolk have been involved in the coal mine for generations, so they have no idea how to face, let alone accept, this challenge. They cling fiercely to what they know so that, when a potential solution presents itself, they almost unanimously reject it. Mind you, the solution does seem so far out of left field you're kind of wondering of the word field has been re-defined. Imagine a town comprised of a mountain of coal, a mine and the sort of functional buildings used to house mineworkers. Plus, it is cold. Not exactly the sort of location to site a Hawaiian Centre, complete with palm trees, a troupe of hula dancing girls and a traditional Hawaiian steel guitar band. But it is going to employ 500 people and is a better idea than anyone else has.

Only four girls are willing to train as hula dancers. A teacher is produced from Tokyo: we never learn a whole lot about who she is, why she's here except that wherever she goes, people soon want her to move on. So the movie is not just about the journey of the 4 girls (and the others who join them) or the town, but also that of the teacher,
Ms Hirayama. Of course, none of the girls know anything about hula dancing, so they (and the audience) get a crash course in its symbolism and techniques:
They all struggle against their own incompetence and the hostility of the town to change, a particularly difficult transition for the town because these girls, through their dance, are being empowered and the old folks (men and women) don't like that.

I'll mention two particular difficulties. One is when there is a mine accident, and the father of one of the girls, Sayuri, is killed. Ms Hirayama is a traditionalist in her own way, and by her professional standards, the show must go on. But she has been changed by immersion in this town: "That was before. Now, we go home." It is the ungainly and tearful Sayuri who insists that she wants to dance - the town is furious, and sends Ms Hirayama away.

The second is concerned with Kimiko, the star dancer. Her mother has been against this from the start, thinking it is immoral, plus it is impossible for work to be fun, according to her value system. So, a lot of the movie is about her entrenchment, then gradual shift in attitude. Towards the end, the Hawaiian Centre is under threat because its palm trees are dying. Surprise surprise, it is too cold for them - but if they could borrow stoves from the townsfolk, they will be saved (including Christina - one fellow got a little too close to one particular tree!). The old guys are against it but Kimiko's mum finally makes a stand, and the show goes on, to a flamboyant finish:
I picked these two photos deliberately, because they brilliantly illustrate the change in mood in the town.

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Em 4 Jay

Jay: "I'm not useless, am I?" (as if he believes he isn't).
Em: "Yes. You are."

That kind of sums this movie up. Jay and Em are a young couple, living in Melbourne's St Kilda.
Instead of getting a job and working, they're both junkies. They've both had jobs, of sorts, in the past. I wouldn't exactly call them lazy, as they do work, after a fashion, quite energetically. It is just that their work involves doing live sex shows and, when that gets too tawdry for them, doing armed robberies of all-night stores. This is their job - they talk about being a success, there is a deadpan funniness to Jay's statement that they'll never get caught because they're too smart - not because that's what all junkies and criminals say in movies, but because he is quite profoundly stupid (Jay: "I have a fifth sense about things". Em: "Everyone has five senses"). Oh, and who robs the pizza place they have just had dinner in?

But like any business couple who start getting their first success, they want to celebrate: they go to one of St Kilda's tonier restaurants, where they're very conscious they don't really fit in but think if they act like they do, it will be fine. Unfortunately, they're doing drugs as they dine and by evening's end are sprawled backwards in their chairs, damn near unconscious.

It is an interesting relationship: there is never any suggestion that they'll break up (Jay only has to look at another woman and Em has a fit), but they seem to bring out and accept the worst in each other.
She's pretty negative about his abilities, and concerned that his robberies are getting more violent, needlessly so, but does nothing to stop him. And so he goes on his merry way, first getting a bigger knife and then, despite her telling him not to, a gun. It does look like there was a possibility of a turning point here: while he is on his mission to get the gun (which works to confirm their path into a bleak future), she is trying to re-connect with her sister. We now see Em through the sister's eyes: someone who is shaking uncontrollably. You get the sense that the sister might have tried in the past to pull Em out of her hole, but she's certainly not up to doing anything today.

And so the movie carries on to its pre-ordained conclusion. It is a joyless life being portrayed here, apart from when they're having sex, and the one rare time they manage to have fun, playing in a costume shop. The characters are very difficult to warm to, but I don't think we're supposed to: the movie is a fairly unflinching look at two losers. The two central actors are both fresh in Australian cinema (curiously, both played minor characters in Blue Heelers) but nonetheless gave a fairly compelling performance.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Suburban Mayhem

I rushed back from Invercargill (I spent the weekend down there for the Bluff Oyster Festival) in order to be in the Regent Theatre for the 8:00 p.m. showing of this movie - I am still not convinced I couldn't have just taken my time driving back and given the movie a miss. I am having a real difficulty in working out my take on Emily Barclay (In My Father's Den), who was its main protagonist - someone I could not like at all. I guess that that means that Barclay acted very well, although there were times I had trouble taking her seriously. There's a point where she has to threaten someone ("Withdraw that complaint in the morning, or I'll be back. And I won't be alone. I'm a Skinner. My brother's a murderer. I'll have your head cut off.") but it wasn't exactly threatening. (I have just come back from watching Christina Ricci in action, and there's no comparison between the two.) Barclay did, however, win an AFI Best Actress Award.

I am listening to an interview with the writer (Alice Bell (who, intriguingly, was a stunt double for Barclay) who is explaining her motivation for the movie - a series of murders by teenagers, and she started to think about people who simply have no boundaries. The movie starts out with the news that one John Skinner has been murdered, and takes on a semi-documentary approach to show how it came about. Katrina (Barclay) is his daughter - it soon becomes clear that she has absolutely no insight into the implications of her actions, no conscience: what she wants, she'll get, normally by using others.
I guess the real interest is in watching how far she's willing to go. She does have one good line: she accuses her dad of trying to brainwash her, with his kindness - as if that's a bad thing.

What she wants here is for her dad to die, not for the normal reason of a teenager "hating" her parents, but because she is totally obsessed with her brother. He is in jail for killing a shop-keeper (chopped his head off with a sword) and Katrina wants to sell her dad's house and use the money to get him out. She'd do anything for him, even have sex with a "disabled".

Her three assistants are her boyfriend (and father of her child) Rusty, the rather simple Kenny, and the innocent Lilya. Poor Lilya, she is so sweet but thinks that by hanging out with Katrina, her life will gain some sort of edge. Katrina is horrible to all three - Kenny keeps coming back for more, Rusty seems to take off in a huff (but does he?) and Lilya's dad intervenes to keep Katrina away from her (after Katrina has her babysit "for an afternoon" and isn't seen for days.

It is no spoiler to say her dad is murdered, given that it is revealed in the opening scenes, but there was an element of dark comedy in his killing. Katrina is in her bedroom, for once being somewhat parental, while her dad is being bludgeoned to death in the next room. Except that he won't die - there are these awful yells and groans, and his killer takes a smoke break with Katrina while working out a better strategy. On the whole, however, I didn't buy into it being a bleakly comic movie, as some of the reviews have billed it.


Friday, April 20, 2007

On Doughnuts

"I don't even like doughnuts," Nina says. "I mean, I maybe liked doughnuts when I was a kid, but now I think doughnuts are eaten by people who don't know any better. Like, the whole idea of the doughnut is to dumb you down. People, they eat the doughnuts and they can't think straight, and they have to take a nap, you know, and then they can't understand the forces that are working against them, like, they don't even know whether a doughnut is nutritious or anything, because how are you going to find out? The doughnut is a symbol of how people don't have any power, and so the doughnut has to go."

Rick Moody's The Diviners.


Little Children

I didn't know a whole lot about this movie before going in. I knew that it had had some talk during the Oscars, as one of its actors had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for playing some sort of child molester. I knew that he (Jackie Earle Haley) had been in some sort of movie years ago as a child actor but had dropped out of the movie business when worked dried up. The blurb mentioned that Kate Winslett was in it and I stopped reading - this was enough information.

The movie opens with talk of some sort of child molester moving into town (town here is some very nice place just outside of Boston) after being released from prison. It is never very clear exactly what it is he did; those who know about him are content to simply call him a pervert and treat him as a threat to the safety of their children. Maybe he is, we never really find out, and it is possible that his crime was nothing more harmful than to be a flasher.
Most of the film, however, is not about him. The main story starts with some yummy mummies in the park: they have seen a hot young man (whom they have dubbed the prom king) frequent the park but have never summoned up the courage to talk to him. They dare Sarah (Winslett) to get his number, and thus starts their affair. I wondered if the film was going to borrow from In The Mood for Love by acknowledging the desire which erupts between them but to never let them cross the line into sex. Indeed, at one point Sarah muses to herself that it would be delicious to sleep with him, but it is equally delicious to sit beside him in a shady spot near the pool in a state of innocence.But the point is that there are no innocents here (except the kids): not Sarah, not her new man (Brad), not Ronnie and definitely not Larry, the self-appointed guardian of this town who hounds Ronnie at every opportunity. He has a history worse than Ronnie's, who has never killed a kid. But loss of innocence does not turn one into Satan, it is merely a flaw. And so we do get to have a good look at these characters. Sarah has crossed the line, but wasn't she pushed by the rather disturbing behaviour of her husband? She's a pretty lovely lady, a former English grad student, and one who has a remarkable empathy for the plight of Madame Bovary (this is revealed at a book group meeting, where the range of opinions was as wide as in my own book group when we read it).

Ronnie is presented as a human being, one who is still loved by (and loves) his mum (and not in that gruesome way in the Epps family in
Bones), but one who is unutterably alone. There's a scene where he has gone to the swimming pool - maybe just to cool off, maybe to look at all the kids as they swim. His presence is enough to make everyone leave the pool, and he is left to swim in his flippers, mask and snorkel looking, not dangerous but pathetic. He actually managed at one point to be very sweet: his mum had decided she wasn't going to last for ever, he'd need someone to cook and clean for him, so she posted an ad on his behalf. This produced a rather tragic character (Sheila) with whom she went on a date. Breaking all the first date rules, she speeks about her various breakdowns and reveals a pretty shitty past at the hands of men: Ronnie actually has her feeling pretty good about herself but, unfortunately, he has intimacy issues of his own - no more dates.

And so the movie moves along, gaining momentum: we know that Sarah and Brad are heading towards a split from their respective spouses, we know that Larry is relentless in his pursuit of the bad guy and in a more conventional movie, our expectations would have been met. But as someone I saw the movie with said - we're all set up for closure and then it is denied to us, well the particular closure we thought we'd get anyway.


Aurora Borealis

I don't imagine this movie will set the world on fire, but it had a lot of heart. Ten years ago David (son of Ruth and Ronald, father of Jake and Duncan) died. Duncan (played by Joshua Jackson (better known as Pacey in Dawson's Creek)) has never really recovered. Everyone thought he had such promise ("best damn hockey player I ever saw") but he has spent the last ten years losing jobs, hanging out with his mates, and making a bit of money by letting his (married) brother use his pad to bring girls to. But now his grandad (Donald Sutherland) is in need - he has Parkinsons and the early signs of "A-Bomb" (Alzheimer's) are showing up. This seems to be the very catalyst Dunc needed: he gets a job in the apartment building his grandparents live in, so he can be there when needed, and he gets set up by his grand-dad with his home-carer, Kate (Juliette Lewis (the girlfriend in What's Eating Gilbert Grape)). She plays a similar free character here - she can't handle the fact that he has not only never left Minneapolis (even jokes about not knowing where St Paul is) but doesn't want to leave. It is where is mates are and, of course, his dying grandfather - I could certainly see why he wouldn't leave, particularly as he has this new, adult, relationship unfolding with granddad. It gets very adult, very quickly, when Duncan realises that all his grandfather wants to do is to die, and is quite happy to have his head blown off by a shot gun if that's what it takes because Ronald is all too aware of the loss of his faculties. The aurora borealis of the title symbolise this: as he sits out looking over the Minneapolis skyline, he sees the northern lights - something he did see way back when he did live up north. As the movie moves towards its conclusion, these lights become more real for him. I think the pitch was dead on here - never too sentimental but avoiding the problem in, say, Kenny, where the dad was unbearably gruff. The acting was superb from both of them. I have to mention the sweetest moment in the movie: Ronald and Ruth are sitting on their sofa, she's saying he should find some stuff to do, like dancing, as he used to do all the time. He confesses that he never really liked to dance, what he liked was to be close to Ruth, holding her hand, feeling her near him.

As for Kate, Duncan has a problem with her refusal to stay in one place, thinks she's just running away (although she did want him to leave with her, and is genuinely upset at leaving him). There was a wee joke at Minneapolis's expense: all she can think of to do in Minneapolis is to chase down Paul Westerberg (former lead singer of
The Replacements) for his autograph. Her time there will be complete when she does so. He does actually show up near the end of the movie, and she seems not to notice him. As for the end, it didn't come as a complete surprise, although the director did manage nicely to dodge a bullet (sorry).


Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Namesake by Mira Nair

I am so in love with this movie! Of course, any movie which starts with a train trundling across India is going to get my attention, but Mira Nair did such a good job of it, I can't help but love it. I had been a bit worried, after Monsoon Wedding, that it would be a little more "high energy" than my reading of Jhumpa Lahiri's novel. But while she necessarily had to cut big chunks out, the movie was a pretty fine translation overall, very subtle and understated.

Ashoke Ganguli goes home from New York, where he is doing a PhD in fibre optics, to find himself a wife, Ashima. It is an arranged marriage, so we have the rather novel experience of seeing them flirt, ever so gently, with each other after they are married and back in New York. They are one of the most lovely couples you could ever hope to meet, and spend their lives loving each other.

They have a son, Gogol (played by the fellow who played Kumar in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle), who is the central character, the namesake of the title. He has been so named in honour of Nikolai Gogol - a fellow who spent most of his life away from his homeland, just like the Gangulis. There's a brilliant scene where his dad is about to tell Gogol why he has this name but can see Gogol is uninterested and bites his tongue. You just know there's a lot of disappointment there, but this movie is never showy about its emotions.

Gogol is born in New York, and grows up more American than Indian - although a visit home to see the Taj Mahal does inspire him to pick architecture as his career. And so Gogol goes off with an American girl, Max, ("what kind of name is Max for a girl? is he a boy") and forgets about his parents, at least by Indian standards (where a daily update seems to be the norm). He really becomes part of Max's family, which makes for a very nice life for him. His name is such an embarrassment to him that he drops it. Poor Ashima reaches the point that her kids are strangers to her, completely foreign in their American ways (there are, however, some cute scenes where both she and Ashoke pick up some slang and sling it about).

But when Askoke dies, this is the catalyst for Gogol re-connecting with his Indian heritage and, at least most of the time, with his original name. Max can't get that he wants to be with his family, wants to undertake all of the ceremonial elements associated with his father's death, doesn't want her to be there when he goes back to India to spread his ashes ("That's something for the family to do." "Aren't we family?") But here is where living in America for 25 years shows its impact on Ashima - as far as I can tell (from other Indian movies and books), the normal Indian thing would be for her family to then look after her. Instead, she remembers the things she wanted to do before she got married, and gets on and does them. She's such a stylish and dignified lady, is Ashima, I just love her - that's her in the centre (below) alongside Ashoke:
My last comment is on the cinematography - I don't know much about filming technique, but this film was never very brightly lit, indeed it struck me that the lighting had been deliberately subdued, which added to the dignified tone of the movie. Of course, there were times when it broke out - we see the chaos of India, they have a couple of parties, when Gogol finally does marry, he and his wife even engage in a bit of bollywood style dancing.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Some Amiable Comedies

My strategy for finding DVD's to watch over Easter was hardly scientific: I started at the front of the store and worked through until I found 5 to qualify me for the "$10 for 5" deal, then found they were all $1 each anyway. One surprise was the near universality of the coming of age theme in the five DVD's I did pick out.

The one most focussed on a literal coming of age was also the one I knew least about yet enjoyed the most. In All I Want (aka Try Seventeen), Jones Dillon (Elijah Wood) is off to college. He rejects dorm life because his room-mate is odious; rejects college for unspecified reasons and lives in an apartment building where he spends most of his time typing letters out to his father (never sent because he has no idea who his father is) and hanging out with others in his building. Lisa (Mandy Moore) drops him like a hotcake when she finds out he's a virgin (he's only 17) but this doesn't phase Jane (Franka Potente). She's a very cool character, at least to a 17 year old: works in a music store, takes interesting photos, has an enigmatic quality about her. Thanks to her, Jones learns to deal with his mother, stops dreaming about his father and, of course, stops being a virgin.

At the other end of the scale was Alfie (Jude Law) - he was just awful: completely charming, has faking sincerity down to a t, is very pretty but thoughtless and selfish. He sleeps his way through half the women in New York, betrays his best mate, is someone sensible women know not to count on. I kept hoping something awful would happen to him, but all that really does is that, right at the end of the movie, he finally gets that he has nothing and has no idea what to do next. The most interesting thing about the movie was that Nia Long (his friend's girlfriend) showed up just after I finished watching it as the latest new lawyer on Boston Legal.

In between were 40 Year Old Virgin and Connie and Carla. It was interesting how the film equated being a virgin at 40 with being a total loser - Andy (Steve Carell) has no apparent friends, no social skills, and very geeky hobbies. But I really did like the the way that despite all the advice his workmates were giving him, he followed his instincts and went for Trish (Christine Keeler). Even better, when they finally got it together, he was able to say something incredibly sweet to her, about waiting for the special person, and her being it. Plus, the movie was simply lots of fun and not silly at all - could even be said to make some important social comment on the constant pressure to be sexually successful.

Connie and Carla is a less orthodox, and slightly silly, coming of age tale but certainly has something to say about being true to yourself. Connie (Nia Vardalos) and Carla (Toni Collette) are not very successful dinner-show singers in an airport restaurant. At least, that is, until they see someone who loaned them money killed by a Russian gangster and they have to flee - to a place which has no dinner theatre, no cultural activity i.e. Los Angeles. There they can't afford to show themselves because the gangsters are after them, but have to earn a living, so become drag queens as a way of hiding out. Problems arise when Connie falls for Jeff (David Duchovny): there's a classic scene where she's in full drag and kisses him. Poor guy simply doesn't know how to take it. But, hey, its a comedy so everything comes out fine.

Finally, not a coming of age thing, was Best in Show - it took me a wee while to get in synch with this movie, but once I worked out that it wasn't really about the dog show so much as about taking the mickey out of the entrants, I enjoyed it. The two lawyers (the Swans - Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock) reminded me of some of the more bitchy couples off The Amazing Race (although I thought their story about how they met via Starbucks was kind of cute). The guy doing the commentary to the dog show (Buck Laughlan) was so off the wall he was irresistible.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Jupiter's Travels by Ted Simon

A while ago, I wrote about the motorcycle trip by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman across Europe, as told in Long Way Round. They had been inspired by someone called Ted Simon, a fellow I had never heard of until mentioned in that book, but they made his trip sound worth reading about.

And thus I found myself reading Jupiter's Travels over the Easter break, in between watching amiable comedies and The Wire. He went a little bit further than McGregor and Boorman: his trip was a circumnavigation of the entire world, an amazing adventure. This was in the 1970's, so his mode of transport was not exactly technologically advanced: he had a 500 cc Triumph motorcycle. On this, he went all the way down through Africa and South America, then back up the other side of South America, around Australia, up through Asia and across Europe to where he started - a total of 63,400 miles! That's 100,000 kilometres, more or less. It took him four years.

His motivation? Many people ask him this as he's travelling; at one point he says he's going the trip to find out why he's doing it. Towards the end of his trip, as he's nearing home, the same question is in his mind:
It seemed to me that there were times during those four years when I did know, and these were the times when The Journey needed no justification.

Then I needed no better reason for the journey than to be exactly where I was, knowing what I knew. Those were the times when I felt full of natural wisdom, scratching at heaven's very door.
There is one memorable passage, as he's motoring through India, that so confident is he of his purpose that he can connect the dots of all the places he has travelled through and has become "a mythical being, a god in disguise":
There was an intensity and a luminosity about my life during those years which sometimes shocked me. I wondered whether it might be beyond my capacity to hold so much experience in conscious awareness at one time, and I was seriously afraid that I would see the fabric of the tapestry begin to rot before I had finished it. I thought I might be guilty of some offence against nature for which I would be made to pay a terrible price. Was it improper for a mere human to attempt to comprehend the world in this way? For that was my intention.
At other times, he wonders if he's getting it at all - particularly in large tracts of South America where he seems unable to make much contact with the locals. But his commitment to The Journey keeps him going, even when he hits a most pleasant episode in his life in a commune in Northern California - I am not convinced I would have kept going. But he seems to be a fairly restless spirit, one who is imbued with s strong sense of curiosity, as well as one who feels a certain amount of dislocation.

Most of the time, however, the book is simply some fine writing about an amazing journey - I'd say it is one of the greatest pieces of travel writing I've read. I think my favourite parts are all in Peru. I'm not sure how many days he had been in the country, but it wasn't until he went to a hotel, tried to buy some wine with his dinner and is told "it is forbidden to sell wine during the revolution" that he has any indication there was a revolution:
It was a serious matter. The police in Lima and Callao had staged a coup. Many had been killed. The tanks were out in the streets and the fate of the country was in the balance. So far the government had managed to survive. There were rumours of chaos and bloodshed in Lima, but the only noticeable effect in Chiclayo was that you could not get wine with your prawns.
He had of course built this dinner up in his mind as being something special, he had big ideas of all the things he'd be eating, but as he calls out items on the menu, is told "no hoy". He can only get prawns - "they were fried in bread dough, and the chef had forgotten to put in the prawns". Later that night, he and his mate have slung their hummocks between two telegraph poles:
As I was dozing off a faint creaking sound disturbed me, but before had time even to identify it, the pole came crashing down. My head was towards the pole, and Bruno was asleep with his head at the van end of the hammock. In the moonlight I saw the pole fall directly onto Bruno and the porcelain insulation strike his head. I was so horrified imagining the weight of the pole behind the sharp glossy knob that I did not even notice that I had fallen on the ground.

For a second he was deathly still as I struggled up in alarm from the tangle of bedding. Then he woke. He said that he had felt nothing. Astonished but relieved I began to consider what the police might think if they found their communications cut during a revolution, and we decided to leave the site rapidly. Pausing only to pull on our trousers and bundle all our loose things into the van we rushed off for another five miles. Then the bike blew a fuse and stopped, without warning, for the first time in the entire journey.
The next day they're fishing without success, when two policemen stop, red light twirling. Our hero is convinced it has something to do with the revolution and the broken pole, but all they do is confiscate a couple of fish off some local fishermen, giving an enormous one to our hero as they go. One final quote, of a different character, but from the same day:
Some of the time I sat and studied the crabs. They were small and lived in holes spaced about a foot apart. Around the holes was a curious pattern like the footprints of many birds, which attracted my attention. I waited to see what it was. After a while the crabs would start to emerge, popping their brightly coloured periscope eyes over the top, before daring to climb out. Almost invariably each crab had a small ball of sand tucked under one arm, reminding me of an American footballer about to make a run. Some crabs kicked the ball, others walked a little way and then broke it up. Either way they then went over the loose sand with their pincers, stamping it down to leave those marks I had noticed.

In front of me were three holes set to form a triangle. One crab sat confidently at the mouth of its hole watching the other two. When another crab appeared the first crab made a rush for it, but always failed to get there before the other had bunked down its hole again. After many unsuccessful attempts, the aggressor decided on a final solution. It filled up both the other holes with sand, stamping down on them until they had disappeared. I waited a long time to see if either buried crab would reappear but did not see them again.

I had no idea what the game was but, for all its strangeness, the episode had an uncomfortable familiarity.
I don't know how many countries he went through (of a total of 40 or more) where there was some sort of war or civil disturbance going on, but he seems to have had a fairly charmed existence. Until he hits Brazil, that is. There he is arrested and detained for nearly two weeks, with no satisfactory explanation as to why.

When I was reading it, I sensed he was a bit older than his mid-20's, but couldn't really get a handle on how old he was. It turns out from his website that he was 46, an age at which most people have some sense of where they might fit into the world and know what they're up to whereas Ted really didn't. The blurb on his book listed an alarming number of occupations and locations at which he practised them - I think the answer is simply that he is a born traveller. This seems to be confirmed by the astonishing news that early this decade, aged 70, he did the whole thing all over again!


The Wire

I had some sort of plan for Easter, which involved taking a drive, either south or west of here. But it also struck me that it would be kind of nice to get a pile of amiable comedies on DVD, some books and some food and just relax for a few days. I did in fact manage to find a number of such comedies in Blockbuster, but I made the fatal mistake of wandering over to the TV box sets before leaving.

There, I came across a copy of the first season of The Wire, a programme which is muttered about in various corners of the web in reverent terms as being the best crime drama ever made. I am not sure if it has ever made it to TV here in New Zealand, although it does strike me as surprising that there were five seasons made, starting in 2002: surely a programme of such longevity, if it did make it on to screens here, would have caught my eye at some stage? [Hah - I have looked at TV2's website, which refers to
it as being a "critically acclaimed new crime series" which "presents a drastically innovative take"... so of course they showed it on Tuesdays at midnight! There is no mention of any subsequent series.]

And so, I found myself watching thirteen hours of TV over the first couple of days of Easter: it truly is an engrossing show. Over on Salon last week, there was a bit of a dust up over House as the result of an article in which the author had claimed it presented a hospital as far more beautiful than any which exist in reality, and that it cruelly suppressed the rights of nurses (in that they simply don't exist on House). This produced a flurry of correspondence over the extent to which we expect TV to be "real". For my part, I don't need TV dramas to faithfully represent any particular reality: instead, they must create a believable reality. This, The Wire does in spades. Great acting, great scripting (even if it meant I didn't always follow the dialogue) and plenty of depth all conspire in this.

By taking an entire series to tell the one story, a lot of attention can be given to developing characters and their backstories. The entire 13 episodes are given to the efforts of a special unit of the Baltimore Police which has been set up to crack a drug ring - in particular to nab one Avon Barksdale. As a result, the show is partly a police procedural, loosely based around the use of a wire tap to bust the ring. At the heart of the unit are two outstanding police - Detectives Jimmy McNulty and Kima Greggs: she is gay, which is a nice way to sidestep any problems with romance intruding on their professional partnership. They've been brought in from different units, don't know each other: one of the joys of the show is watching them build up their trust in each other.

Another joy is watching the other cops find their niche: they're all regarded as no-hopers and have been off-loaded on to this unit as a way to get rid of dead wood. So we have Det Pryzbylewski who is famous for shooting up his own car, who only stays in the job because he has "suction": his father in law is a District Major (it took a while for me to get used to military titles being used in a police force). He spends a lot of time slacking off, doing word puzzles - but then coded information starts coming in off the wire and he's the one who cracks the code. We also have Lester Freamon, who sits in the unit making miniature furniture (for which he gets paid more than his salary!) and not much else - until the day he goes out very quietly and comes back with a critical piece of evidence. He takes on a fatherly role within the unit. The third character worth mentioning is their Lieutenant, Daniels: he starts out not believing and not being believed in but, given the option of stepping up or stepping off, he well and truly steps up - taking the interests of the unit all the way up the chain of command where necessary.

But it is not just a police procedural: an equal amount of time is given to the Barksdale gang and its operation within the western housing projects. They operate with a very tight set of rules, and as a result are very successful. Again, we get to see the people who comprise the gang as people, not just as evil drug dealers. Sure, there are some who are so focussed on the task that they are not much else, but there are several who are not. At a very early stage of the series, I was surprised to see a suggestion that D'Angelo Barksdale (the central character on this side of the fence, and nephew to the boss) might not be fully committed to "the game" and, sure enough, what he really wants out of life is to start over, to be given some sort of education and the chance to escape his family. His mate, Wallace, actually starts on this process - but there are rules and no tolerance for those who don't follow them, particularly when Avon Barksdale becomes aware that the police are getting close.

A third element is the political structure within which the police unit must operate. McNulty in particular is "real police": his mind is focussed at all times on the task at hand (to the point he has his kids trail a suspect they encounter when shopping). The problem is that to really bring the whole gang in, a long term view is needed, whereas the powers that be, who are all looking for career advancement, need quick results they can crow about. Thus, at several stages they order actions which deliver a lot of "drugs on the table" but actually impede overall progress. I think this aspect was the most important target of the show, which tends to honour real police, and cast those who get in their way in a bad light.

Of course, in many such shows, someone like McNulty would utlimately prevail and all the bad guys would find themselves locked up. While I was watching the finale, I was thinking that it kind of sucked, but have come to appreciate the genius of the end because it doesn't proffer any sort of over-simplification: instead, the conclusion is deeply compromised.


Monday, April 02, 2007

Two out of Three

When I left to go to Christchurch, I had a plan which involved doing three things (apart from the obligatory trip to Borders and various possible things): one did not happen but the other two were so much better than anticipated. I had hoped to catch up with Hera at the Wunderbar but when I presented myself there for her gig, I was informed that she'd just come in from overseas and was too tired to perform.

I had already had my mind blown, so that was probably just as well. I had gone along to the Madras Cafe to see something called "On the Bus" - four Maori writers on tour. I was particularly interested in seeing Kelly Ana Morey, as we have a shared Northland connection and her books sound like fun. I was not disappointed: as she said, the chapters in her books read like individual short stories, so it really didn't matter that I had no idea what On an Island With Consequences might be about. She read chapter 14, which was of a road trip ending in a kiss, in which the taking of a roll of film formed the framework for the narrative - the thing that really made this piece sing was the way in which she got the voices of the two young girls so right.

Speaking of singing, we had Hinemoa Baker there as well, who started with a brief waiata and then gave us several of her poems, the last of which was whenua (which I did not know meant placenta as well as land - she made use of the shared meaning). I'll need to make sure I pop in to the library to read them. Same with James George - he read from Hummingbird: I'm afraid his story was a little too dense to work well at a book reading, but when he was describing it, it did sound interesting.

But it was Apirana Taylor who was really outstanding, as much for his tales of poetic creation as for his poems. He told of an earlier reading in which he recited 50 poems in about 90 minutes, then felt the inspiration to sit down and write 20 more, something he had to do otherwise they'd be gone (despite the mounting toothache!). Even more astonishing: he had done two (or maybe three) readings earlier in the day before I saw him - they had stirred up the poetic rumblings once again, so in the two hours between readings, he wrote a longish poem. He read it out to us! Despite not being finished, it had the makings of being a fabulous comedic gem - initially about a pakeha who finds (her?)self in a waka full of Maoris going back to Hawaiiki, and then transforming into a modern tale of various iwi going by flying waka on the same journey. Despite the newness of the poem, he had voices for all speakers, and basically acted it out (no doubt his former life as an actor helped here).

The other major thing of my trip was a visit to the foodshow, which was very different to the humble little Oamaru one, mainly because for your admission money, you get given little samples at all the stalls - I ate lots of different sausages and cheeses, had some beer, became a regular at the coffee stand in the four plus hours I was there, tried some Louisiana BBQ sauce on a big chunk of steak, had an ice cream slice (it is a very long time since I've even seen these) and attended three cooking demonstrations. Alison Holst was all mumsy, and doing lots of product placement in her spiel. Julie Le Clerc was a bit vague (but made an interesting looking dish; tomato sauce over a mixture of pastas, rice and lentils). Peta Mathias - well, I've seen her lots of times on TV but never really got her, but live, she was a real comedian. It was Belinda Jackson, however, who stole the show - I don't think it was just the fact that she was giving us lots of wine to drink!

Apart from that, I meandered around Christchurch. I'm sure the people of Christchurch moan about their bus service, but compared to ours, it is a dream. A single ticket to ride almost any bus? Cheap all day fares? Unheard of in Dunedin with its three different bus companies and three different ticketing mechanisms. One thing I didn't like about Christchurch was having my car broken into - little of value was taken (some CDs, some beer, my bottle of Louisiana BBQ sauce) but I'd forgotten how much I hate the fact that some little punk has chosen to break into my car.

I have no idea what the story is with this:
There is not normally a Mig fighter jet in Litchfield Street, so it was a little surprising to see ones on my way to have breakfast (I must mention the Honeypot cafe - they gave me so much bacon that I'm sure they're involved in some pig smuggling operation that has gone awry and they're desperately trying to hide the evidence).

Home was via the Banks Peninsular, and Akaroa in particular - I'd never been out that way before, so I decided that since I unexpectedly had a car to drive, I'd pop out there. The peninsular is spectacular; lumpy land surrounded by numerous little nooks in the coastline. The road is forced by the landscape into having as many twists as a Harry S Keeler novel. Akaroa - very nice, in a Parnell-by-the sea sort of way. Not really my sort of place, but it did have good cafes and an interesting cinema.