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Monthly Archives: July 2010

Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist – I can hardly count the number of people who have recommended this book to me over the past few years, and even during the short day and a half that it was off my shelf and in my hand I had several people tell me how much they enjoyed it.  Unfortunately, I fail to see what is so compelling about the novel.  Its story is heavy-handedly allegorical and moralistic, endlessly talking over the most simplistic kinds of spiritual truisms.  Its central argument would run something like, “If you truly desire your destiny, the whole universe will conspire to fulfill it,” and this is about as profound as it ever gets.  It has almost no literary value and only the most superficial intellectual value.  Its sole quality, to my mind, is that it took me very little time to read.

Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé
– This is a remarkable book, and I hardly know what further I can say about it that would not immediately entail writing a thesis length treatise.  Let it suffice for me to quote a small section: “Novels are so many wedges which the novelist, an actor with his pen, inserts into the personality of the reader.  The better he calculates the size of the wedge and the strength of the resistance, so much the more completely does he crack open the personality of his victim.” In light of this idea, I can assure you that Canetti calculates very well indeed, and that his novel certainly cracked this victim’s personality widely open.  Either this will recommend the book to you as another willing victim, or it will not.

Russell Hoban’s The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz – In some ways this book reads like The Alchemist: parable-esque, ambiguously spiritual, and always trying just a little bit too hard.  It is somewhat better written, however, and its moral is somewhat less ridiculous, something like, “The only place is time, and that time is now,” but I was not much impressed on the whole.  I would take it over The Alchemist, but not over much else.

Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – There are many writers who try to emulate Hemingway’s famously terse and unornamented prose, but they generally fail because they mistake a lack of literary imagery for a lack of imagery generally, and they are unable to make the details of a scene or a character stand as images in themselves.  The result is a spare and impoverished prose, where Hemingway’s writing feels full and complex and complete even in its stylistic simplicity.  The difference is that Hemingway is continually choosing the facts and the details that produce an imagistic effect without the need for formalized and contrived images.  He does not need to draw parallels between bull fighting and the social interactions of his characters through metaphor or allusion.  He merely describes the bullfighting and the social interactions of his characters closely and in proximity.  His readers are left to draw the parallels.  It is not that he does without imagery, therefore.  Quite the opposite.   He raises everything, even the smallest detail, to play the role of the image, to make every fact as pregnant as a metaphor.

Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth – This is the novel that was supposed to have followed Invisible Man but was burned in a house fire and then rewritten for the next fifty odd years until it comprised thousands of type-written pages and countless more handwritten notes but still remained unpublished at Ellison’s death.  This is not the novel that Ellison would have published, however, if indeed he would ever have published a second novel it all.  It is what the editors of Ellison’s estate gathered together to publish on his behalf, a practice that often produces only garbage but in this case has provided for the world some truly remarkable writing.  That the form of the novel may be different from Ellison’s intent is almost irrelevant, because the characters, Reverend Hickman and Bliss/Senator Sunraider, are so wonderfully rendered and their relationship so powerfully explored that they would make a unique and valuable addition to English Literature whatever form their story took.  The prose too is beautiful, moving with a sureness and a polish born from fifty years of editing, finding at times the register of poetry, and drawing evocatively on the tradition of African-American preaching in the American south.  A truly beautiful work of literature.

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We have been cutting and drying herbs at our place (oregano, lemon balm, tarragon), and though this is a time consuming undertaking, it is one of those mundane tasks that leave plenty of time for thinking and conversation, and I quite enjoy the labour of it, particularly when friends drop by, not quite unexpectedly, as Don Moore and his family did the other day.  While the kids played in the back yard, Don began helping me prepare the herbs for hanging, and we talked, about the book that he is writing on post-9/11 film, about City of God, and about other things. These moments, when others are able to join the rhythm of the home, both practically and intellectually, gratify me very much.  They affirm in practical ways the truths I hold most closely.

Truth must be known, not as facts are known, but as lovers are known, partially, fleetingly, uncertainly, overwhelmingly, undeniably, impossibly.  It can be known only with a knowing that never defines or delineates or delimits, that never assures or guarantees or promises.  It can be known only so far as we are in it.  This is why we can never have the truth, why we can only ever be in the truth, and even this is beyond all guarantee.

I wrote briefly about Fernando Meirelles’ City of God several weeks ago, but the film has remained with me strongly since then, and I have found my thoughts returning to it again and again, particularly with respect to how the camera lens might represent a kind of critical distance that enables Rocket, the protagonist, to survive the Rio de Janeiro slum where he lives.

It is Rocket who narrates the film, so from the beginning the very structure of the story places him behind the camera as well as in front of it, allows him a vantage point from beyond the the events of the film, behind the lens of the film in a sense, from which to offer the order of a narrative.  This sense of distance is reinforced by his narrative style, which seems to deliberate between many narrative possibilities, telling the audience that he must tell the story of this person before the story of another can be told, or returning to tell the same story but from a different perspective, all of which makes Rocket appear to be the agent of the film, located somewhere behind or beyond it, guiding and directing its images.  Even the cinematography reinforces this effect, freezing into photograph-like still shots when Rocket introduces the characters, so that he seems not only to determine the images that will appear, but also to freeze them, like a photographer, forcing the audience to rest on a single frame rather than to continue uninterrupted through the imagined space of the film.

All of this cinematic apparatus reinforces the way that Rocket’s character interacts with the rest of the people who make up the slum where he lives, the City of God, a place ruled largely by gangsters and hoodlums and financed largely by drugs.  Rocket remains always at a distance from this life, even when attempts to join it, and this distance is symbolized by his desire to be a photographer.  Even before he actually has a camera, he still seems able to put his life at a critical distance in a way that the other characters are not.  He is able to see his world through a lens for which the camera can only become a physical extension.

Even the other characters recognize that Rocket is different in this respect.  When Little Ze, one of the gang leaders, is offered a camera in exchange for some drugs, he is about to refuse until he is reminded of Rocket’s love of photography, and he takes the camera as a gift for Rocket.  Though Little Ze has no use for the camera himself, he recognizes that Rocket is able to use it in a way that he himself is not. Similarly, in a later scene, another drug lord wants pictures taken of his gang, but no one is able to work the camera, so he has Rocket come and take the pictures.  Rocket has a knowledge of the camera that no one else has, just as he has a use for the camera that no one else has, the implication being, perhaps, that the others who live in the City of God do have some access to the critical distance represented by the camera but lack the ability or the knowledge to use it.

Eventually, it is Rocket’s camera that enables him to escape the City of God, as his pictures of the gang war are picked up accidentally by a newspaper, and he is then given the opportunity to be a photo-journalist, an opportunity on which he makes good.  There are obvious practical reasons for this, of course, since his skills with a camera give him an advantage over many of the other characters who are skilled and trained only in poverty and violence.  Even so, Rocket escapes the City of God as much because of what the camera represents as because of what it means as a practical skill.  He survives because he is able to maintain a critical distance, a critical lens, between his life and himself.  He is able to step back from the poverty and the violence enough to make meaning of it, to frame it in a picture, to narrate it in a story, and it is this ability that actually saves him.

It is my intuition that there is a real truth in this, a real truth in the idea that an ability to look at one’s own life with a certain critical distance, with a critical distance not separable from an artistic and narrative and meaning-making impulse, is crucial to surviving the evils of one’s world, whether that world be a Brazilian slum or a Canadian suburb.  This critical distance will not guarantee a more accurate perspective on one’s world, of course, because it is always an act of creation and narration.  Neither will it guarantee an easier or better life in one’s world, because it is always an act of resistance and critique.  It will, however, I believe, I hope, as such things can be judged, offer the possibility of surviving what is evil in one’s world, and such survival is worth whatever cost it might entail.

The woman’s black blouse is loose and shapeless and long over her bright pink pants, over the breadth of her fat hips.  The neck is open enough to show a deep and wrinkled cleavage, and a gold ankh on a chain is dangling there, a symbol of something she does not know and does not care to know. “If you like these cabbage rolls better than mine, dear,” she declares, though no one has said a word about the cabbage rolls, or even managed to sit down from the buffet for that matter, “then you can come here to eat and save me the grief.”  She breaths a wounded sigh and sits.

Her husband says nothing, only sets his tray down, seats himself, runs his hands through his thin colour-washed hair, but the other woman, dressed in leopard print polyester and too-large plastic-gold jewelry, hastens to offer assurance. “Of course not, Susan dear,” she says , “I think your cabbage rolls are far better than any buffet. And Frank thinks so too, don’t you Frank?”

Frank is wearing a short sleeved dress shirt over the hunch of his thin shoulders.  Its abstract patterns of brown on cream seem chosen to match the liver spots that speckle his baldness.  “I didn’t even get the cabbage rolls,” he says, “so how the hell would I know?”  He leans his face almost to the edge of his bowl and begins fiercely spooning soup.

“But if you had ordered the cabbage rolls,” his wife persists, “I’m sure you would’ve preferred Susan’s.  There’s really no comparison.”

Frank’s spoon is momentarily interrupted.  “But I didn’t order them, did I Margaret?  Because I don’t like cabbage rolls.  And I’ve never even eaten Susan’s cabbage rolls, so,” he raps his spoon on the table, “how the  hell would I know?”

Margaret removes her cutlery from the paper napkin wrapper and arranges them deliberately beside her plate, as if this is the only satisfactory response to her husband’s affront.  “Well, I was just trying to be nice to poor Susan about her cabbage rolls. The least you could do is be a little nicer too.”

Frank’s spoon resumes its labour.

“Well,” announces Susan, brightly, as if she has heard nothing at all of this exchange,”I think the rice in these cabbage rolls is a little overcooked, don’t you Stu?  And there’s no sour cream in them either, so there’s really no chance you’ll leave me for these poor little cabbage rolls, is there?”

Stu makes a noncommittal motion with his head, somewhere between a nod and a shake.  He begins eating his roast beef and mashed potatoes, leaving his cabbage rolls untouched.

Heidegger says, “Every thinker thinks one only thought,” and again, “The thinker needs one thought only, and for the thinker the difficulty is to hold fast to this one only thought as the one and only thing that he must think.”

This idea of the one only thought reminds me of Kierkegaard when he says that “Purity of heart is to will one thing.”  Of course, it would not do to conflate Kierkegaard with Heidegger here, and it would be very hasty indeed to assume that willing one thing and thinking one thing are necessarily related, but I am tempted nevertheless to say that thinking one thing might require a certain purity also, not a purity of heart perhaps, because the heart’s purpose is to will, but a purity of mind.  If purity of heart is to will one thing, then perhaps purity of mind is to think one thing.  Perhaps holding fast to the one only thought is just such a purity.

Would it be too daring to suggest now, as I deliberately refrained from suggesting just a paragraph ago, that the one only thing to be willed by the pure heart and the one only thing to be thought by the pure mind are one and the same?  This is, I think, an audacity that would remain unjustified even after much patient work.  Even so, I will say it, unjustified as it may be, and I will say also, though it dares much more, that a purity of heart and a purity of mind require each other to become fully what they should be.

Yet, how does the thinker come to think this one only thing, come to encounter it, come to recognize it?  Will it consent to be named?  If I was to give it a name, if I was to call to it by name, to call it love, perhaps, or to call it hospitality, or to call it justice, or even, surely in a moment of great rashness, to call it God, how much would these names, one or another, deform the one only thought that I must hold fast, the one only thought that these names try but fail to name?  Is this why Heidegger goes on to say that the thinker must keep saying the one only thought in the manner that befits it, in a manner that lets the thinker be claimed by it?  Is it that the thinker must keep saying, again and again, in whatever ways seem best, this one only thing that is always the same thing?  Is it that this one only thing must claim the thinker precisely because the thinker can never claim the one only thing?

How then does the thinker hold fast to this one only thought that must be thought, and must be said, but can never be claimed, like a desire, a discipline, a lust, a commandment, a will, a need, a perseverance?  How is it that we are to think this one only thing?

George Lucas’ THX 1138 – I will say in advance, by way of warding off abuse from those who are truly devoted, that I am actually a fan of the Star Wars franchise, even in its current bloated and unwieldy state.  However, I would also say, after watching THX 1138, that the staggering success of Star Wars has perhaps prevented Lucas from reaching his true potential.  THX 1138 has a much better sense of style and atmosphere than Star Wars does, and it creates a more emotionally and intellectually engaging world, a world that remains engaging despite, or precisely because, Lucas avoids the temptation to define it too far.   The world of THX 1138 remains unexplained in many respects, even at its conclusion, relying on its visual force and its characterization to make it compelling, so it escapes the long explanations and the grievous contradictions that distract from other science-fiction film worlds, many of which, like the later installments of Lucas’ own Star Wars franchise and like the Wachowskis’ Matrix films, could have been greatly improved by less explanation and more filmmaking.  THX 1138 reminds me strongly of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris in this respect: both allow the film world to remain mysterious to the characters and to the audience, so that there is a structural tension and suspense that informs each scene.  Lucas accomplishes this filmic tension well in THX 1138, which makes it all the more disappointing that his films since have mostly been content to follow the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, albeit with great success and with considerable technical innovation.  It is not that I dislike the Star Wars films or the Indiana Jones films.   I quite enjoy both.  I just feel like there might have been something more in Lucas, something more aesthetically original and interesting that never got a chance to be explored.

John Hillcoat’s The Road – I watched The Road on Father’s Day, and it was a powerful film experience for me.  I had already been thinking about what it means to be a father and to be a son, so perhaps this deepened the emotion that the film produced in me, but I think I would have found it impactful even apart from this added dimension. Though I do have some reservations about the plot, especially with the assumption that hunger and lack of social structure would suddenly cause mass numbers of people to overcome millennia of taboo and become ravening cannibals, the film is tightly structured and well acted, and it achieves a very satisfying and coherent aesthetic vision.  Rather than posing the question of how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, it poses the much more considerable question of how to raise children to be moral human beings in a world that no longer has a standard of morality.  It is not so much about the survival of humanity as it is about the survival of what makes humanity human.  I recommend it very highly.

Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD – I confess that I am not really a fan of martial arts movies.  While I am not immune to the coolness factor in watching some of the stunts, I usually like a plot and some characters to go with this sort of thing, which means that my exposure to Jean-Claude Van Damme has been limited and mostly forgettable.  JCVD, however, is another sort of film altogether, and while I would stop well short of calling it great cinema, it explores in a thoughtful way the relation between the film star as person and as actor, and it does so with a nice balance between humour and poignancy.   The central scene in the film is indicative of the whole in this respect.  It begins with Van Damme being lifted mysteriously into the rafters of the building where he is a hostage.  He then addresses the camera and the viewer directly with a kind of confession, beginning with the claim that the movie is for him, and ending with him saying, “I truly believe it’s not a movie.  It’s real life.”  The moment is surreal.  No explanation is offered for it.  Yet it stands as a remarkably moving and original scene, and it alone is reason enough to see the film.

Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert
– The wit and irony of this surrealist attack on the Catholic church in particular and on organized religion in general make it a most entertaining film, and it is well short of an hour in length, so it feels like the visual equivalent of a short-story: brief, structured, and pointed.  It is abruptly cut at times, but is otherwise a very nice bit of filmmaking and is sure to spark a conversation among those who see it with you.

Alex Proyas’ Dark City – There is much about this film that I liked very much.  I only wish that it had been able to avoid alien intervention in order to make its plot work.  It needed its villains to remain mysterious and unexplained.  It needed them to remain more metaphor than reality.  It needed there to be no way out of the city.  It needed there to be no Shell Beach.  It needed, in short, to have the intellectual courage really to explore the possibility that our lives are constructed more by external forces than by our own will and free choice.  It is an entertaining film in many respects, but it is much less than it could have been.

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God – This is a truly remarkable film.  Its subject is engaging.  Its acting is strong.  Its story is seamless.  Its cinematography is inventive.  To me eye at least, the film has no flaws.  It is what a film should be.

Rémy Belvaux’s Man Bites Dog –  I will need to direct my remarks about this film to two different sorts of viewers.  To most people I would suggest that the brutality and the grotesqueness and the purposeless of the violence of the film will make the it almost unwatchable, and recommend that they give it a very wide berth.  Even the cover picture will likely offend them.  On the other hand, to the sort of people who are willing to approach this violence with the irony and the detachment in which it is directed, there is no film quite like it.  If you think you are one of the second sort, do watch it, but you have been fairly warned.

Albert and Allen Hughes’  The Book of Eli –  I gave this film a chance, despite the trailer and despite the word of mouth reviews, but I should have known better.  The few action scenes do not distract sufficiently from the bland plot, the indifferent acting, and the unendurable dialogue.  The ending, which promised all along to be painfully sentimental, was made even worse by also falling into the kind of cloying, self-congratulatory, vaguely nationalistic religiosity of which only Americans seem to be capable.  There is very little about this film that justifies the time it takes to watch it.