Sunday, July 15, 2007

Paris Je T'Aime

I don't have a lot to say about this movie: I had read a few reviews from the usual suspects and had high expectations, but was ultimately not well pleased. The reason, however, is an unusual one. The film was actually 18 segments, all by different directors, with different casts, in different parts of Paris - like a filmic version of a collection of short stories. The general theme was "love, Paris style". Unlike a volume of short stories, however, when you're sitting in the theatre, you can't pause, you can't replay, you can't get up and have a drink. With a normal movie, you get embedded in the story, the characters and its all good. But having the equivalent of 18 short movies play in the same time was just a bit too relentless. I think when the DVD comes out, I'll have a better chance to think about each piece.

I don't have any problem with the quality of any of them: as I was watching, I was thinking that each could stand alone as a short film. But just 24 hours later, I'm having trouble with separating the various stories in my mind, and who played in which piece. Of course, some do stay in the mind. One had Steve Buscemi, playing yet another bewildered character. He's sitting in a Metro
station, reading his guide book, and every so often his eyes stray to the young couple making out across on the other platform. The guy gets up and mouths off at Buscemi: suddenly the girl is next to him, and it is Buscemi and the girl making out, in a fairly involuntary way on his part. Then the guy is in his face giving him a beating: the couple then wander off, making it clear that the whole thing has been a game they've been playing. poor old Buscemi doesn't utter a word.

A similar sort of bewilderment captures a young French guy working with a printing press. They've had some Americans come to visit - as they leave, this young American guy comes over to the French one, clearly smitten with him, gives his number, says how much it has meant to him being there and so on. After they've gone, the French guy is all "what was that about, I don't understand a word, I only speak French". Another with the formal "twist in the tale" you expect from a short story involved this older guy and a youngish woman - the way they were talking to each other, you'd think they were lovers, trying to get a bit of freedom away from her ball and chain of a husband. Not quite. There were a couple of quite strange ones: a hair product salesman who gets caught up with a Chinese run hairdresser - I'm tempted to think that there was a point to this one, but don't know what it was. It seems to end well:
Then there was Elijah Wood and the vampiress - done in Sin City black and white with red red blood - and the instant love between them. How does a vampiress show her love?

There were some very sweet tales of love as well:
The movie starts with a long-term lovelorn fellow, fighting for a parking space then finding a woman fainted outside his car. He's all gallant and saves the day. The young guy getting more and more pissed off with his mates cat-calling to any woman who walks past, except for the young Muslim: she they insult. But the young guy likes her, actually talks to her, and then her grandfather - mutual respect all round. The soon-to-be husband who can't make his soon-to-be wife laugh and doesn't get anything about her (how they came to be together, we'll never know) but who is inspired by the ghost of Oscar Wilde ("come back to my room and I'll give you something to laugh about" seems to do the trick).


Monday, July 09, 2007

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller, JR (1959)

A review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road somewhat sniffily said that it was covering old ground, ground that had been covered much better by A Canticle for Leibowitz. That is a book that had been circling about my consciousness for quite some time, so I thought I'd give it a go. I have to say that there isn't much of a connection between the two, except, of course, for the post-apocolyptic thing: they deal with their subject matter in very different ways. Canticle is less hopeful, yet funnier (although I'm not sure how much of the humour was intentional, and how much was just me). It is in three parts, roughly six hundred years apart. Four elements are common to each part: the Catholic Church, its Memorabilia, buzzards and the figure of the Wandering Jew, who is doomed to stay alive until the end of the world.

The title presented me with the same sort of problem Brother Francis Gerard was faced with in reading the Memorabilia. He is copying a blueprint of a "Transistorised Control System for Unit Six-B" but when he is asked what that might be, can only say "Clearly, it is the title of the document" or "the name of the diagram" which represents a
"Transistorised Control System for Unit Six-B" and so on. My understanding of what a canticle is about as detailed as his is of this Transistorised Control System (although looking it up, I see it is a small religious song, often quoted directly from the Bible).

Religion, particularly Catholicism is a dominant force in this book. In the 1960's there was a "Fire Deluge" - basically an atomic storm. The "princes of the Earth" had hardened their hearts against the Law of the Lord, decided it was better that all be destroyed than to have another prince prevail and the Lord God had suffered "the wise men of those times to learn the means by which the world itself might be destroyed". One particular prince was counselled by Satan into believing that using the sword of the Archangel wherewith Lucifer had been struck down would not destroy the world, and thus this prince "smote the cities of the cities of his enemies with the new fire". Over each city, "a sun appeared and was brighter than the sun of heaven and immediately that city withered and melted as wax under the torch, and the people thereof did stop in the streets and their skins smoked and they became as fagots thrown on the coals".

The text isn't all like this: I'm paraphrasing from an official church history of these events. The novel came out in 1960, when nuclear warfare was a very real possibility: it is even more so today, if only because there are more "princes" with their fingers poised. Out of this chaos came a man, Leibowitz who had previously loved the wisdom of the world more than that of God. With the failure of worldly knowledge, he turned to the Lord. The history of Leibowitz's subsequent life is less than clear, although he is known to have set up a community devoted to the preservation of human history, through its Memorabilia.

The novel starts 600 years later, an the abbey of the Order of Leibowitz, somewhere between the Great Salt Lake and Old El Paso. The Memorabilia is still intact, but the new 'culture' is still an inheritance of darkness, not ready to take over its heritage. The memorabilia is inscrutable, even to the monks. Civilisation has not been restored: what was the USA is now just a few isolated communities (including New Rome) with the central plains occupied by bandits. Because men of learning were responsible for the Fire Deluge, the remnants of mankind turned upon them in the Simplification, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers and the like. Those who survived these simpleton packs took refuge with the church.

Brother Francis is spending Lent out in the desert, but has a revelation. An old pilgrim shows the way to a Fallout Survival Shelter. This confuses the hell out of the good Brother, as he thinks a Fallout is some sort of monster: "half-salamander, because, according to tradition, the thing was born in the Flame Deluge, and as half-incubus who despoiled virgins in their sleep, for, were not the monsters of the world still called 'children of the Fallout'?" There is an odd sort of logic to this, and now he is worried that he has broken into the abode of fifteen of the dreadful beings! The Shelter turns out to be where Leibowitz (some sort of draftsman for the US military) had stored his documents, including various blueprints. Such has been the loss of knowledge that no-one knows what they are, and they are accorded religious significance. I couldn't work out whether this was some form of mockery of the Church of today, but on balance think it simply represented the loss of knowledge.

In the second section, light is starting to show, literally and metaphorically.
One hundred years earlier, the printing press was re-invented. The brothers in the abbey are still hard at work with the Memorabilia, and are able to work out sufficient of its meaning to construct a generator and rudimentary electric light. The Church itself is of course an important light - maybe the spark it has been keeping alive for twelve hundred years is about to gain traction? Elsewhere in the land, a collegium has been established, dedicated to research and learning. The main movement in this part is when one of its representatives goes to the abbey and studies the Memorabilia - finally, someone who can grasp most of its meaning, who can appreciate that it will be the source of a new revolution, one of Truth.

While there are still political problems, clearly his prophesy comes into being. In the final section, there are even space ships. Technology is not without its troubles - there are the minor ones, hilariously rendered, when the abbot is trying to use his so-called Abominable Autoscribe. More significantly, the nature of warfare has changed - nuclear weaponry is again available. The very existence of the Church has never been so threatened - although one possibility is to send a small part of the Order, with the Memorabilia, still faithfully preserved, off the planet. This last section is a little odd: there is a sustained debate between the abbot and a doctor over the merits of euthenasing those badly affected by Fallout.

And thus, I say The Road is a more hopeful work, in that at least we see the son go off with his new friends, who might be good guys. In Canticle we instead seem to have this inevitable circularity, a closed system in which the will to power of the princes will ultimately lead to a complete destruction of the earth. Maybe the space journey will see the Order re-established elsewhere, but they have been sent off with instructions never to return. The closing image of the book, is hardly a positive one. There has been mention of shrimps, whiting feeding on the shrimp, and a shark on the whiting:
A wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine whaite ash. the ash fell into the sea and into the breakers. The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood. Then they washed up the whiting. The shark swam out to his deepest waters and brooded in the cold clean currents. He was very hungry that season.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Pratt à Manger by David Nobbs (2006)

Not so long ago, I was reading Coupland: there's not a million miles between him and Nobbs, as his Reginald Perrin was equally caught up in the dreariness of being a worker bee and subjected to inane management. His other great achievement was to create Henry Pratt. I know I read of his life as a junior report in Pratt of the Argus but have no recollection of his life as a civil servant in the Cucumber Marketing Board.

Life has now moved on for our Henry - he is now 60, in his third marriage (albeit to his first wife) and is running a caf
é in Soho. His various friends are still around him, life is good. It is a fairly amiable sort of book, more inclined to gentle humour than to riotous laughter, which is fitting because now that he's finally grown up, Henry is a fairly amiable sort of chap. Well, he's almost grown up - the book opens with him being just a little tongue tied when an attractive young woman comes into his cafe, and he still tends to dwell on possibilities with other women despite a very good marriage.

Like Reggie, events get away on Henry more than a little. The attractive stranger wants him to be on a TV quiz show: he's going to be a bit of rough in amongst the chefs from swanky restaurants. He's a surprising success, and gets invited onto several other shows before being the star of his own - this is a show which actually sounds kind of nice. It is shot in his own cafe, he cooks and has various guests, mainly his old mates, in for a chat. It is a huge success, and so naturally there are Henry Pratt tablewear options available in kitchen equipment shops, Henry Pratt food lines in supermarkets, a couple of books and so on (at least these items sound rather more useful than the typical product lines in Grot). Initially reluctant and professing not to care about it, Henry starts to enjoy his minor celebrity status as 'the People's Chef' and, as a fairly heavy bit of foreshadowing tells the reader, this is his undoing.

All is not sweet in Pratt land: he has an enemy. He is convinced it is a fellow guest on the quiz show, Bradley Tompkins, who has had it in for Pratt every since their first show together. In fact, Pratt has two enemies, but never pays enough attention to the other, which is the main reason for the enmity. Someone is slashing his tyres, organising for large loads of horse manure to be deposited on his front lawn and the like. Henry had a nice humility about him, his motto is "never forget where you come from" (having the ghost of dead Aunt Hilda with her oh so eloquent sniffs helps keep him on track) but the fame goes to his head - even his wife starts to think she'd better not venture any criticism against him.

It is when Pratt starts using his celebrity status and grand-standing (about families having a moral duty to eat together, or for people to cook properly, or to use chickens that had not been farmed in a factory) that his enemy goes for the coup de grace. He gets set up beautifully: made to think he is advertising a free range chicken growing place, it is actually one of the battery hen places he had been lambasting. Now the press and public are all agin him. Poor fellow - he thought he might have finally stopped being "funny little Henry Pratt". Luckily his wife gives good counsel: he'll always be that fellow, and so long as he remembers it, that will be his salvation.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

This is a bold book to write in today's political climate. It starts off as a fairly conventional hardboiled detective novel:
Nine months Landsman's been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered. Now somebody has put a bullet in the brain of the occupant of 208, a yid who was calling himself Emanuel Lasker.
Detective Landsman is a bit down on his luck, as is evident from living in such a flophouse. His sister was killed a wee while ago in a plane accident, his parents are dead (for 23 years, Landsman had thought it was something he said which brought his father to suicide), his marriage has broken up, his kid was stillborn. To make matters worse, his ex wife has been promoted and his now his boss. All fairly consistent setting for a detective novel and, indeed, the plot is determined by Landsman's efforts to find the killer of his fellow resident: he feels it his duty to do so, given the guy was killed in Landsman's home. He fairly shortly hits opposition from his boss: for reasons I'll mention in a moment, all current files need to be closed within two months, and opening a new one is not an option. That doesn't stop the good detective.

But this novel is also an alternate history, speculative fiction even. One premise is that Israel never happened. At the end of World War II, about two million "yids", predominantly from the Ukraine, formed a community on an island off the coast of Alaska, on a place called Sitka. (This is a real place, to quote its website, "Sitka is thought to be the most beautiful of southeast Alaska cities. Nestled on the west side of Baranof Island, it is flanked on the east by majestic snow-capped mountains, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean." Apparently FDR floated the idea it be used as a Jewish colony.) They wanted to form a self governing nation there but instead were given a sixty year period, as a kind of favour by the US government. At the time of the novel, this period has about three months to run, before "Reversion": very few people have any idea what the future holds, but it looks dismal. And so Landsman's unauthorised inquiry takes him into the heart of "black hat" territory, that of a particular sect of Hasidic Jews, the rebbe of which is also a sort of Jewish Tony Soprano (only much fatter):
Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe's frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favour of classifying the rebbe's massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn't make any difference in what you see.
No - the prose is not always this elaborate, which is just as well, but Chabon can turn it on when he wants to.

Another odd feature is that the murder victim might be, is pretty much taken to be, Messiah - there's one born every generation, apparently, but circumstances have to be right for him to take his place. One such circumstance involves the birth of an unblemished red cow, which brings to me a part of the book which had me howling with laughter. Landsman and his partner, Berko, are on the case - it has taken them to a remote spot in Indian-occupied Alaska. They're quite thoroughly confused to find that there is some sort of secret base there devoted to farming cows - something which Landsman sees as beyond any vision of any promised land any Jew might have had. So, they're looking at these cows, they're Aryshire (white cows with red patches), Landsmen is resisting the urge to lean on the electric fence, when Berko says something: "She's not a white cow with red spots,' Berko says with finality. 'She's a red cow with white spots." He leaps over the electric fence:
The cows react to the intrusion with complaint and protest but little in the way of emotion. Berko makes straight for the one that's bothering him, marches right up to it. It shies away, lowing. He holds up his arms, palms outward. He speaks to it in Yiddish, American, Tlingit, Old and Modern Bovine. He circles it slowly, looking it up and down. Landsman sees berko's point: this cow is not like the others, in contour or coloration.
The cow submits to Berko's inspection. He puts a hand on its crop, and it waits, hoofs spread, knock-kneed, head canted at a listening angle. Berko ducks down and peers at its underside. He runs his fingers along its ribs, up its neck, to the poll of its head, then back along its flank to the tentlike rigging of its hips. There his hand stops, in the middle of a white patch of hide. Berko raises his fingers of his right hand to his mouth, moistens the tips, then rubs in a circular motion against the white patch of the cow's rump He takes his fingers away, contemplates them, smiles, frowns. Then he lumbers back across the field and stops at the fence, opposite Landsman.
He holds up his right hand as if in solemn parody of the salute of a cigar store Indian, and Landsman sees that his fingers are streaked with flakes of white.
'Fake spots,' Berko says...
'So,' says Landsman, 'what are you saying? The cow is wearing a disguise?'
'That's what I'm saying.'
'Somebody painted white spots on a red cow.'
'So it appears.'
'This fact has significance to you.'
Now's where the bold bit comes in: a further necessary circumstance for the Messiah is that the original Temple (i.e. on Temple Mount in Jerusalem) needs to be restored - one small problem being that the site currently houses the Al Aksa Mosque. Now there's a Temple Mount website which suggests it might be targeted by Islamic terrorists, who would blame Israel and thus give justification for war. Chabon is playing with this notion - but Israel doesn't exist. Instead, he has fundamentalist Jews and "mad yids" doing the deed, but at the behest of the American government (or, at least, a "divinely inspired mission of the president of America"). And that takes us to a bitter pun - there's an American fellow called Cashdollar pulling various strings. When everyone works out what has been going on, Bina (Landsman's boss) says:
I always knew they were there. Down there in Washington. Up there over our heads. Holding the strings. Setting the agenda. Of course I knew that. We all knew that. We all grew up knowing that, right? We are here on sufferance. Houseguests. But they ignored us for so long. Left us to our own devices. It was easy to kid yourself. Make you think you had a little autonomy, in a small way, nothing fancy. I thought I was working for everyone. You know. Serving the public. Upholding the law. But really I was just working for Cashdollar.
There's much more to enjoy in the novel - the details he gives of this made up city, the idiomatic language he creates, where English is populated by many Yiddish words (a review in Slate compares it with Burgess's Clockwork Orange) (there is also the American language - very profane) and the character of Landsman himself - deeply flawed he may be, but he's a good man, it just takes him a while to find his mojo. Solving this crime is very important for him at a personal level, as he finds a form of redemption. I need to talk about chess to explain this - the reason he thought he'd caused his father's suicide was that, after years of his father trying to engage Landsman in the game, he finally had enough and told dad (in a letter) he hated the game, just didn't get it. Two days later, dad was dead. Most of the characters are chess obsessive - the deceased had adopted the name of a chess guru and had a chess game set up beside his death bed. Landsman knew this was an important clue in solving the case, and while he could memorise the location of the chessmen, he couldn't "read" them. His breakthrough, both in solving the crime and in his own life, came when he finally got the message given by the board. (I suspect I have similar limitations in reading this novel, in that there's probably a lot of references someone more knowledgeable about Jewish history and aspirations would pick up.)

One thing I haven't seen explained is the title. He's a policeman, part of Sitka central police force. It is only when he has his badge and gun taken from him that he pulls out a membership card for the Yiddish Policemen's Union (he's been a paid up member for twenty years) and then only uses it once anyway.