Friday, September 28, 2012

(Review) Don DeLillo's "Cosmopolis"

I picked this one up finally because I saw that it was being turned into a movie (starring 'Twilight' actor Robert Pattinson) and I always prefer to read the books before the movies. I'm hoping to dig into "Cloud Atlas" next before it comes out.

Don DeLillo has been pretty hit or miss with me for awhile, but I tend to like his style more than his substance. The first book I read by him was "Point Omega," which I thoroughly enjoyed and, subsequently, picked up more of his books thereafter. "Mao II" (which I reviewed HERE) started off well enough, but seemed to spiral out into a kind of far-fetched idealism about the power of the written word. I tried to read "Libra," a multi-voiced novel about the assassination of JFK, but got 200 pages in when I realized I honestly had no idea what the book was about and was bored to tears. It meandered terribly.

Regardless, I still have more DeLillo to read. Not because I think he deserves a chance to win my full readership back (though he does), but because of lines like this found in "Cosmopolis":

"It would be a breach of trust, he thought, to ask if she had a cat, much less a husband, a lover, life insurance. What are your plans for the weekend? The questions would be a form of assault. She would turn away, angry and humiliated. She was a voice with a body as afterthought, a wry smile that sailed through heavy traffic. Give her a history and she'd disappear."

This is a wonderfully apt internalization of the main character, Eric Packer, in regards to one of his business underlings. Eric Packer is himself a kind of ubermensch, the guy money men listen to when he speaks. His net worth is unmentioned by specific number, but he is one of the few who ride around in stretch limos in what can only be described as a near post-apocalyptic economic crash. The population is destitute, the streets are overcrowded with anarchists and protestors, a large funeral procession for a global rap star, and the President's motorcade. Packer lives in a highrise apartment that cost him $141 million dollars while his limo is decked out in the latest technology; no-touch screens, a hidden bathroom, opera lighting between the windows, a full bar, and a wealth of seating for anyone that rides with him.

He is married to Elise Shifrin, a poet who is also immensely rich (due to family inheritance rather than business acumen). They've been married a month and still she refuses to to have sex with him. Packer's hyper-ego allows him to have sex with other women who aren't his wife along his travel through the city to get a haircut (the stated main objective of the book), but still his desire for Elise is tangible. She is the one thing in the world he cannot control, cannot simply take and make his own regardless of their relationship status. She remains unattainable, which draws him in further.

And this seems to be the main thrust of the book; Packer gets what he wants not because he takes it, but because he has the intellect to do so. His mastery of the ebb and flow of the stock market has made him unimaginably rich and yet the story revolves around his complete, abject failure of predicting the yen market. He leverages all his money against it, finds a way to move all of Elise's fortune to his own in order to leverage more against it (making her destitute in the process), and finds out that he is being hunted by an ex-employee (the reason for all his bodyguards).

The book takes place over the course of a single day and by the time we get to the final scene where Packer comes face to face with his "assassin" (who has little journal-like entries scattered throughout the book), the result is, like many of DeLillo's other endings, flat and without much in the way of any real kind of resolution. I don't mind open-ended final scenes; I think they can bring about really interesting discussions between readers of the same book with different interpretations. Though with the last few books I've read, this seems to be DeLillo's modus operandi and it can frustrating when it feels like it's all the time.

Throughout the entire book, the idea becomes increasingly more clear - Eric Packer is something of a sadist, both sexually and personally, but the crumbling of the entire world around him leaves him speculating on his own idea of passion, particularly that he doesn't have any. He treats underlings like peons, he treats the women in his life like objects to be thrust inside, and he feels that it is only through losing all of his money intentionally that he will actually feel alive. There's some truth to this kind of emotional transformation in a book, but it's hard to say when this kind of realization occurs since the story takes place over the course of a day.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book, and I'll continue to read more of DeLillo's work until I latch onto another piece that rivals the feelings I had coming away from "Point Omega." I can see Pattinson playing the role of Packer easily, but I'm always curious to see the directorial bent that emerges between the translation from page to screen.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

(Review) Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris"

We've all been asked at one point or another if there's an era we'd have rather visited, rather existed within...and I can't recall a single answer where someone said "the current one." I'm sure there are people out there who relish in the technocratic ways of the new millennium, but I'm certainly not one of them. I don't think the vast majority of people are, if we were to poll them. Perhaps this has something to do with the nature of history - we already know the outcome, we already know the significance of the people and things that occurred. They've since been exalted into the public mythos and somehow elevated into the lexicon of the now.

But this is the kind of question Allen poses to his main character Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson). Gil is a Hollywood screenwriter unhappy with the work that has made him successful. He has completed a novel that he won't let anyone read (not even his fiancee Inez, played by Rachel McAdams). The couple are in Paris supporting the expansion of Inez's father's company. Neither of her parents like Gil and Gil isn't especially taken by either of them, but the tension is pretty old hat for the traditional dynamic between potential son-in-laws and parents.

Gil wants to move to Paris after the wedding, but Inez wants to move to Malibu. Gil wants to walk through the rainy Paris streets, Inez hates the rain and prefers driving. Gil wants to enjoy the night air of Paris, Inez wants to go clubbing with an old (annoyingly know-it-all and pedantic) friend and his wife. The dissimilarities between the couple become more and more obvious (and increasingly uninteresting) the longer the movie plays out, but also lead Gil to question whether Inez is the right woman for him.

There is also the matter of Gil time-travelling back to Paris in the 1920's. And meeting a slew of passionate, creative, genius-level behemoths in the world of the arts: Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald (and his wife Zelda), Hemingway, Man Ray, Dali (played by Adrian Brody), Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Juan Belmonte, Gertrude Stein (a gregarious Kathy Bates), Luis Bunuel, T.S. Eliot, Matisse, Gauguin, and Degas.

Needless to say, Gil is floored. Not only has he been given the strange and opportunistic chance to visit his desired era, he's meeting some of the generation's most notable, most notorious denizens who have changed the face of the respective arts that they practice. He also wonders if he's fallen in love with Picasso's mistress, Adriana (played by Marion Cotillard) who also wishes she had been born in a different era. Different paths leading to different pasts are apparently littered across the streets of Paris...but only after the clock strikes midnight.

This was the first Woody Allen movie I've ever seen, but I enjoyed it. This could have easily been a two and a half hour movie with a little more in-depth and subversive discussion of the main themes. The whimsy and magical nature of someone inexplicably being pulled into a completely different era is never explained, but it didn't have to be. Paris itself has been described by generations of people as being a magical place (itself a mythos in our historical lexicon), but we tend to know what Gil will end up doing about his life, his novel, and his fiancee by the end of the film. This was a completely enjoyable film and some of the best parts for me personally were Hemingway's quotes delivered with deep gusto and machismo by Corey Stoll.