Friday, November 25, 2011

(Review) Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia"

I watched this movie in the comforts of my friend Surya's living room on Thanksgiving night. We started it at midnight and we were already one bottle of Jack Daniels down and well onto finishing a second of Bushmills. After a day of drinking and feasting, we decided to actually go out to the movies and saw "The Immortals" (made by the creators of "The 300" and, we all agreed, surprisingly well done), so there was really no reason for us to even be awake, much less have the desire to watch a movie we both knew was going to be highly experimental.

Lars Von Trier is known, much like Terrence Malick, for making strange and beautiful movies with an often overbearing amount of darkness to them. This one comes not long after his much talked about "Antichrist," starring Willem Defoe, a movie I am now determined to watch within the next few days after having finished "Melancholia."

The movie is broken up into two parts; "Part 1: Justine" and "Part 2: Claire" and begins with Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) and her newly wedded husband stuck in the back of a limo trying to make its way up an incredibly windy dirt road. They are two hours late to their own reception and once they arrive, we get to see the intriguing dynamics of all the family members. For one, Von Trier doesn't really give us much background on any of the characters - we're simply along for the ride and if you haven't strapped in yet, you'll fall off during the first loop-de-loop. A certain kind of willing suspension of disbelief is needed as both my friend and I agreed - it felt like the married couple, and many of the guests themselves, were involved in incestuous relationships. This isn't explicitly stated, but there are a few spoken moments that lean towards this being the case. Perhaps this is an unintentional narrative slip, perhaps not. If there is any truth to it, it becomes completely irrelevant to the rest of the story, but we both picked up on an incestuous vibe and we're both very particular about spotting details like that, both in novels and in movies.

There is an unexplained despondency in Justine's character. She can't seem to will herself to be happy despite the fact that it's her wedding day. Her boss, played by Stellan Starsgaard, hounds her throughout the evening in trying to get a tagline for their new ad campaign, even putting his nephew on her as well. Her new husband acts like a man in love; he wants to make love to his wife at the end of the night, he wants her to be happy, and he wants the night to go smoothly. None of this happens and we see him leave his own wedding night when he falls into his own despondency because of her emotional detachment. The wedding was all in order to help Justine come out of her depression, but she can't raise up out of it, which ends up bringing everyone else down despite all the work and time that's gone into the event purely for her benefit.

In "Part 2: Claire," we're firmly in the viewpoint of Justine's sister, who was also her wedding planner. Claire, played by Charlotte Gainesbourg, is married to Kiefer Sutherland's character, an astronomer paying close attention to a planet that appears to be on a collision course with Earth. Kiefer constantly assuages her fears that the planet is not going to collide with them, but will rather come into their orbit and pass by without much fanfare. He even goes so far as to create a crude device for her - a stick attached to a coiled metal circle. When the stick is pressed against her chest and aimed up at the looming planet, she can see the size of the planet within; if the planet appears both inside and outside the metal ring, it's getting closer. If the planet's size is encapsulated completely within the metal ring, the planet is far way and possibly shrinking.

During this post-wedding time, Justine comes to live with Claire and her husband. Her depression has completely overtaken her and the overbearing mood brings everyone down yet again. It is only during the last twenty minutes of the movie, when we approach the climax, that Justine's mood changes into something less despondent and more calm. The blank look in her eyes becomes a kind of willing acceptance of what fate has to offer them all. What she has been depressed about can now be understood with more clarity.

I won't ruin the ending, but I will say this: Surya didn't enjoy the movie as much as I did, but we both agreed that it was fantastically quirky and rendered beautifully. The opening montage of images were, if not confusing, at least gripping. Von Trier has made an incredibly gorgeous movie, but the ending seemed to come too fast and without much in the way of resolution, so it fell a little flat for the both of us. Taking that initial response into account, however, that may have been the point to Von Trier's work. Time is precious. Family is precious. Emotions can be overpowering despite the moments in which we exist, despite the mood we're supposed to have during these times.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Paul Auster Is A Great Writer, But I Wish He Were Less Boring

I've been making an effort over the last year to read much more than I have in previous years. My finished list at this point only contains about 60 books, which is pretty pitiful. I've also been trying to read more authors that I've heard are good, but simply haven't read. On this list: Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, Gilbert Sorrentino, Steven Millhauser, David Mitchell, and finally Paul Auster.

I started with Leviathan after having done some research into the man and heard from many that this was a good one to start with. The night I settled in to begin the book, I had planned on finishing most of it as it was a relatively short novel at 275 pages. The first paragraph had me hooked:

"Six days ago, a man blew himself up by the side of the road in northern Wisconsin. There were no witnesses, but it appears that he was sitting on the grass next to his parked car when the bomb he was building accidentally went off. According to the forensic reports that have just been published, the man was killed instantly. His body burst into dozens of small pieces, and fragments of his corpse were found as far as fifty feet away from the site of the explosion." 

Pretty gripping, right? And it was...for about ten pages. We find that the narrator was friends with the deceased and we join up with him to figure out what led up the events before the FBI can solve the case. But what follows for at least the next 120 pages is merely backstory upon backstory upon backstory. I finally had to quit the book halfway through because, while the prose is incredibly strong, I kept falling asleep. It didn't matter what time of day I opened the book, everything that followed the mention of the explosion was such a snooze-fest that I stopped caring. Worse still, I forgot that the narrator's friend had been blown up by a bomb of his own making.

This is not a good thing, to forget the inciting incident of the story laid out before us. Paul Auster's prose here is solid and easy to follow, but he seems more interested in getting into the relationships of the characters rather than the reasoning behind why someone would want to build a bomb on the side of a highway. There's a case to be made that the two are completely intertwined; relationships can help illuminate the reasons for a character's behavior, but when the story takes such a huge detour, the story suffers because of it. There's not much in the way of present action to offset the retelling of the past in any substantial way. This makes the whole point of the bomb intro completely unnecessary and exploitative, as if it were merely a gimmick.

But wait, you might exclaim, how can you slam a book when you didn't even bother finishing it? A valid question. Perhaps the story rights itself after the place where I chose to stop, but after other people told me to try The New York Trilogy, and I read it, I have no doubt that I made the right decision. I'm not sorry I stopped reading the book, but I am sorry I bought it.

The New York Trilogy is a set of three stories described as such:

"City of Glass" - As a result of a strange phone call in the middle of the night, Quinn, a writer of detective stories, becomes enmeshed in a case more puzzling than any he might have written.

"Ghosts" - Blue, a student of Brown, has been hired by White to spy on Black. From a window of a rented room on Orange Street, Blue keeps watch on his subject, who is across the street, staring out of his window.

"The Locked Room" - Fanshawe has disappeared, leaving behind his wife and baby and a cache of extraordinary novels, plays, and poems. What happened to him and why is the narrator, Fanshawe's boyhood friend, lured obsessively into his life? 

These sounded like more my speed. They felt off-beat enough to keep my attention and seemed to have a kind of authorial playfulness to them that Leviathan most assuredly did not. On top of that, they were all a third the size of the novel, so I didn't think I'd have to worry about losing interest as fast.

"City of Glass" turned out to be a fairly engaging story. A man gets a phone call from a husband and wife who are scared that the man's father has returned to kill them. The couple believe Quinn to be Paul Auster, a private detective Quinn can't seem to find. Quinn decides to act like the main character of his own detective novels in order to find out exactly how dangerous this father may be to the couple. What emerges is a very strange tale of biblical allusions about the Tower of Babel, language, and one man's getting wrapped up in the mind of his own character. There wasn't much of a conclusion to this one, which was disappointing as it had a lot of promise, despite it being the longest of the three stories (158 pages). Where Leviathan failed in investing me in the characters, "City of Glass" completely had me interested in the interconnectedness of those involved. But again, the ending fell way flat for such an interesting premise.

"Ghosts" failed where Palahniuk's Fight Club succeeded. An existential story about (another!) detective of sorts, the reader finds out that Blue is essentially paid (by an unseen White) to follow Black. White (who is posing as Black) turns out to simply be another side of Blue, but it's not necessarily explained how or why. Blue is engaged to a future Mrs. Blue, but gives up that life in order to take on this job. He is happy, hasn't much to complain about, and lives in a pre-paid, furnished apartment across the street from Black's so that he may keep a constant vigil on his movements.

Auster builds up great tension by having Blue dress up and act as different people in order to engage Black in conversations throughout, even having him dress in homeless garb (a mimicry of a long stretch of pages in "City of Glass") to try and eke something out of Black. There is the rumination on Blue's part about men not living the lives they should be living, but there's never much of a conclusion to this one, save for Blue's ending the case in violence and running away. He never even really contemplates going back to his fiancee, who he mentions a few times, but not often enough for us to think he genuinely loves the woman. What few twists appeared in the text weren't terribly interesting and I saw one or two coming from a long way off.

In "The Locked Room," the unnamed narrator is called to the home of an old boyhood  friend. The friend has gone missing, leaving behind a pregnant wife and a collection of writings that are apparently so good, they need to be published. Told from the perspective of the unnamed narrator, there is a strange lack of dialogue, despite these brief moments being the most interesting parts of the story. Auster is great at telling us what other characters think and how they feel, but coming from such an in-depth first person point of view, I feel like I'm being made to assume the narrator can read minds. This lack of actual dialogue between characters ends up making the story feel more like a monologue than a short story. There aren't a lot of successful or interesting stories that take this approach; dialogue is pretty damn important when you're dealing with a cast of more than twenty characters.

The exposition is more telling than showing; he breaks down each new character mentally by describing them physically, but then speculates on their emotional states. It's a bit much as 80% of the story is told through narration rather than conversation. I realized thirty pages into this one that this is what annoys me most about Auster's writing - there is not enough true, on-the-page interaction between his characters in order to make believe these events actually happen. Considering the mental states of the narrators he's created thus far, I'm able to buy the premise of each story, but not necessarily the exposition or the conclusion.

The narrator ends up filling the gap that his friend Fanshawe leaves behind; he becomes confidante, and then lover, to Fanshawe's wife. He becomes father to Fanshawe's child and eventually becomes Fanshawe's biographer, a bit of the story that feels unhinged and ridiculous, especially when we watch the narrator focus in on a stranger in a Parisian bar, call him Fanshawe, then chase the man through the Paris streets before getting himself pummeled by the stranger.

Even more strange, just before this scene, Auster writes that the narrator of "The Locked Room" is also the author of "City of Glass" and "Ghosts," but it's done so off-handedly as to make the reader think "well, that must have been an afterthought because it doesn't make much sense yet." There's a little mention of some connective tissue later on in regards to previous stories, but it's just that; a mention, not enough of a thing for one to look backwards through the text in search of answers.

I'd rather not ruin the ending, but the final scene ends up leaving a lot to be desired. After 134 pages, my initial reaction was "and?" The psychology at play doesn't quite seem to jive, but coupled with the drawn-out monologue-like prose (I often felt like I was plodding through a literary desert), the whole piece feels self-indulgent for the sake of being self-indulgent. On a sentence level, the writing is strong. Very strong. Auster has a wealth of great lines and sections throughout. But on a story level, the writing leaves me feeling empty; I lose my connection to EVERY character involved and rather than swing towards one or the other side of the emotional pendulum, I find myself sitting motionless right in the middle, uninterested in the plights or rationalizations of these characters.

I would not recommend Paul Auster to anyone who wants both strong writing and strong storytelling. Based on these two books, he's at his best when in the middle of dialogue, but there's not enough of it on the page to warrant reading more of him.


Monday, November 14, 2011

The Hunger Games

I had the great pleasure of reading a trilogy of books this year called "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins. Geared more towards young adults, the trilogy consists of "The Hunger Games," "Catching Fire," and "Mockingjay."

I had heard about them and seen them in the bookstore, but it wasn't until my good friend Andrew hyped them up to me that I decided to buy all three at the same time. Andrew's taste is usually pretty spot-on with literature, so I figured if he liked them as much as he was saying, they had to be good.

And I'll be damned if he wasn't right. Each book sits at about 400 pages in length and I read all three in less than as many days. I was so engrossed in the characters and the story that I was half-tempted to call in sick that Monday morning just to finish the third book. I didn't answer the phone, I didn't watch any television, I simply read. There are only a few other sets of books that prompt me to read so voraciously: Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series and, honestly, J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series. While King is geared more towards adults and Rowling more towards much younger readers, Collins' "Hunger Games" sits somewhere in that nice middle area appealing to both.

Set in a strange kind of post-apocalyptic world where the United States is broken up into 12 districts (the 13th is all but completely destroyed), the basic premise is that of a lottery system set up to take two children from each district, put them in a constructed wildlife arena, and broadcast them all fighting to the death until only one remains standing.

While many of the post-apocalyptic tropes are used (overarching government control/domination, separation of classes, and one or more characters "raging against the machine"), these all work. The subject matter is nothing new, not by a long shot, but it's all in the delivery and Collins delivers a truly gripping and engaging story based on two main characters, Peeta and Katniss.

I have lent this trilogy out to friends to read. They in turn gave it to others to read when they were done, and those friends gave it to others when they were done. I just recently got a replacement trilogy back in the mail...which is to say, everyone who's read this has loved the hell out of it. There are certainly some logical gaps in some places and there are places where the writing could be much stronger, but this is overall one of the most compelling sets of books I've read in a very long time, despite being written for younger readers.

Hollywood has recently bought the rights to turn this into a movie and, while I was dubious at first, the full trailer for the movie has been released. After seeing it, I have to say...I'm super excited to see the transition of this one to screen. Of course I'll probably have a few issues after finally seeing it, but based purely on the trailer below, the feel of the movie almost directly corresponds to how I envisioned the books while reading them. You should really go out and buy these books immediately. When you get home, you should read the hell out of them. You won't be disappointed.


Friday, November 4, 2011

Jealousy In MFA Programs

Google says that there are nearly 130 MILLION unique books in the world. Even assuming a +/- 10 Million difference, that's a lot of people writing a lot of stuff. As much as I hate to quote the guy, Chuck Palahniuk (via Tyler Durden) says that "you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile." (Fight Club)

And really, there's some truth to this. Both pre- and during my time in an MFA program, I'd come across articles about the relevance of the MFA program and whether it homogenizes writers or waters them down to the point of being irrelevant. My response? That's nonsense. Absolute, pure, ridiculous nonsense. Here's why.

A.) The relevance of an MFA program to a writer should be the same as a medical program to an aspiring RN - the skills and tools needed to progress in those particular fields should be the ultimate aim. if you're not pushing yourself, no one's gonna do it for you.

B.) My own experience (1 of several hundred MFA in Writing programs) is that it does the exact opposite of homogenizing writers. I had the distinct pleasure of being given the reins to control my own writing. It was as if my professors were saying "It's not perfect or pretty yet, but here's how we can get you in the right direction to where YOU want to go." I came into the program with an already skewed style of writing, but I was never told to tone it down unless it was in the service of the story. 

When I arrived, my prose was all over the place. I was trying to dazzle my fellow workshoppers with often confusing and flowery language that was, most likely, only covering up a mediocre story at best. As the semesters went on, both in workshops and in seminars, I was shown a plethora of ways that I could play with my text in a way that made my story worth reading and also allowed me to put my own personal signature on the piece; you knew you were reading my work in many instances.

And of course everyone has their own style. Some people lean more traditional while others, like myself, prefer to push boundaries to see how far we can stretch a story before it blows up in our faces. There's no one school of thought on this that's better than another. I enjoy just as much traditional writing as I do experimental writing...if the story is there. Each writer comes to the table armed with their own level of talent and drive and willingness to listen to other writers who may not like a piece for this or that reason. Like the publishing industry, you're not gonna please all the people all the time. That's just how it goes.

So when I hear about programs across the country that seem to have a higher than should-be-normal level of jealousy or snarkiness sneaking through their ranks, it irks the crap out of me. There's no way I can look forward into the future and predict that my books will sell any better than someone else's. There's no way I can tell someone "People will hate this and they won't read it." I think the "Twilight" series is a great example of this; I think the writing and story are complete crap, but the movement off the shelves speaks to a different truth than what I cling to.

I suppose what I'm getting at is that I don't understand a jealous writer. I've seen some people give worthless comments on a piece simply because they thought they were a better writer or they didn't like the author of the piece, which I find more than a little petty. I've read good writing and I've read great writing. I've read bad writing and I've read stuff that I think will never see the light of day, but in each instance, I can always find something that's worth giving positive feedback on. This isn't a "make everyone feel like a winner" kind of mentality, but there should be a balance in a moment of critiquing. For every negative thing you found in the piece, find one positive; at that point, it's up to the writer to determine how they take the critique. The weaker ones that can't take the honest criticism will bow out while others will be bolstered by it and push harder to make the work better.

Bottom line: when critiquing a colleague's work, don't be a douche. There's no reason to act as such and it only makes you look like an uneducated, jealous writer - the worst kind. You might be a better technical writer, but someone else may have the better story. You might get the better book deal, but someone else will sell more books. Once the writing is done, it's out of our hands and up to the public to decide, which can be scary and exhilarating at the same time. And we've ALL got plenty of work to do on our own...


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Hum in Kansas City @ The Record Bar (11.04.11)

These cats have been a favorite of mine since I first heard their (only) radio song "Stars" back when I was a sophomore in high school. Densely layered, effects-heavy guitar work mixed with some pretty strange, and often cryptic, space-essenced lyrics made for music more interesting than a lot of what was being played on the radio at the time. I was fortunate enough to be living in a city that got reception from the indie-rock station near the campus of the University of Kansas (R.I.P. 105.9 the Lazer), so I got plenty of Hum, Soul Coughing, Morphine, Elastica, early Deftones, and I think I even remember hearing Quicksand once or twice, which shocked me.

"Downward is Heavenward" - 1998
This album quickly made my top 10 favorite albums of all time. From front to back, this album gets listened to in one complete sitting. No tracks get skipped and all get turned up very loud. Some of my favorite memories are attached to this album, but specifically driving late at night on Highway 10 heading back into Kirksville, MO, my old college town. I'd be driving with Ben and Scott (or even alone sometimes) and we'd put this album on during the hilliest, darkest highway I've ever been on. Perfect album for driving on a star-lit roller coaster of a backwoods highway.

"You'd Prefer An Astronaut" - 1995

Released the year I moved to Kansas City, this was Hum's breakout album. Their song "Stars" was all over the radio at the time and, typically, it's the only one that ever gets played on the radio despite them having a solid discography of songs to choose from. It took me awhile to really get into this album as it was my first taste of them and the style of music, but eventually became a mainstay as well. While I prefer their last album more, this one has some great tracks on it regardless.

"Electra2000" - 1993

I used to cruise the local Best Buy for new music all the time. Every once in awhile I'd find a new album or early EP from a band that I'd just gotten into and this was one I stumbled across during one of my forays through the music section. A very different and earlier style, it's heavy and chunky, but damn good. You can definitely see how the band's sound progressed from 1993 to 1998. They kept the heaviness, but cleaned it up, made it pristine, made it louder and fine-tuned everything from top to bottom. A solid album despite it being less meticulous and more gritty compared to their last two.

"Fillet Show" - 1991

To this day, I still haven't listened to this one all the way through, I'm ashamed to say. We (my friends and I) didn't even know this one existed until we came across a cassette version on eBay. Ben bought it, but I don't know if he's still got a copy or not. The beautiful thing about the digital age is that someone else had a copy, uploaded it, and now the rest of us can enjoy the early works of the band too. I should probably give this one a spin for the flight home this weekend.