The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson (2012)

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In There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson got earth’s most intense actor into the role of a megalomaniac and essentially just let the camera watch Daniel Day Lewis volcano all over everything. Here he does the same with another great slow-burner, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, though the results here are even more diffuse in terms of plotting. Joaquin Phoenix plays the Master’s acolyte and foil, and does terrific but often overcooked work; you get the sense that Hoffman is not the only three-named intensity-monger that Phoenix is bending over backwards to impress. It’s an engaging movie to look at, but as with There Will Be Blood, I wind up feeling there’s a certain emptiness to the endeavor. So many of the scenes feel like exercises in a Strasberg seminar; there’s a great deal of emoting, but not a lot of emotion. Part of the trouble is that the movie is so fearful of being about anything specific that it winds up not being about anything in particular. The wish to belong, the lure of alcohol, rationalism vs spirituality, male friendship, PTSD, American vacuity . . . they’re all toyed with as themes, but Anderson puts down no significant bets on any of them. So you’ll remember people laughing, crying, shouting, fighting, and kissing, but not why.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, Benh Zeitlin (2012)

beastin' on crab - _DSC8525.NEFI was pretty sure I was going to hate this and sure enough I did. It’s a straight-up noble savage number which reassures us that poor southerners are stupid, drunk, stubborn, dirty, fearful of modernity, and anti-social, but also of course magical, poetic, natural, and authentic. The fact that the movie was shot handheld on 16mm is a nice formal corollary to the film’s thematic depravities; just as Zeitlin would have us believe that these utterly inauthentic stereotypes somehow represent something essential and fundamental about the people of southern Louisiana, so too does he hope that his use of antique technology will lend an air of authenticity to the shamelessly shallow and ridiculous characterizations he parades before us. The whole thing pains me all the more because I’ve grown to so love the culture of Louisiana myself over the last ten years, a love made pointed and profound by my constant recognition that I will never fully understand the place. The nerve of this carpetbagger is impressive, I’ll say that much. His film company is named “Court 13,” after an empty squash court at Wesleyan he used as a film set for his undergraduate projects. That’s a true story!

Listen, bell hooks taught me to read at Oberlin College in the spring of 1989 and she can speak to all this far more wisely and deeply than I can, so if you want the straight dope check her out right here.

Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist (1810)

Michael-Kohlhaas-320x373Von Kleist is an author I’ve often heard referenced — in particular I remember that Rilke’s Duino elegy about the harlequins owes Von Kleist some kind of debt I forget — but had never read. Thanks to the good people at Melville House Publishing and their lovely editions of novellas like this one, I’ve at last been inspired.

This is a relentless little story which quite nicely maps onto a lot of contemporary issues and quandaries. Here’s the question in a nutshell: To what extent is it acceptable to commit injustices in the course of seeking redress for injustices? You could ask this of the prisoners of Guantanamo, and you could ask it too of Michael Kohlhaas.

Kohlhaas, a prosperous citizen, is done wrong by a nobleman, who seizes two of Kohlhaas’s horses under the guise of some bogus regulations. When Kohlhaas tries to pursue redress through legal channels, the nobleman’s friends in high places see to it that the petitions are squashed. Then Kohlhaas, enraged — one must imagine him played by Klaus Kinski at this point — takes matters into his own hands, terrorizing the countryside in an effort to force the ruling classes to make him whole.  From here events swirl into ever-tightening circles of moral hazard and illogic, where it is increasingly difficult to say who is in the right, or what “right” might even be. The funhouse claustrophobia and panic reminded me strongly of Kafka’s The Trial, and I was not surprised to find out with a little research on Wikipedia that this novella was a favorite of Franz’s.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo (2012)

11869272There’s the subject, and then there’s the form. The subject of this book exhausts and depresses me. It’s about a few residents of a slum in Mumbai and the various social and political factors that impede them from improving their lot in life. Their situation is terrible. They lack adequate water, sanitation, and food. They subsist by scavenging in the garbage. The institutions that ought to serve and aid them — police, government, courts, schools, charities — in fact do them more harm than good, exploiting their labor and extorting their meager resources. It’s terrible, but not terribly surprising; we know full well that situations like this exist all over the world.

 

What is surprising is the form of Boo’s book. It’s not a study or a history; it’s a story. There are no statistics or interviews with experts or extended analyses of causes and effects. Boo spent years in this one relatively small slum, interviewing and re-interviewing the same residents, and tracking the particular setbacks and advances they made in their individual lives. The questions of how or whether these particular examples might be used inductively to fuel broader conclusions about poverty in general is not here entertained or answered.

 

The effect, for me, was disorienting in two ways. First, because the book follows the narrative arcs described by the lives of persons, those persons felt like characters to me, rather than humans. Second, their stories seemed radically decontextualized. I wanted to know more about what was going on in the city around them, the slums around them. I wanted to know more about the history of the country, the political situation, and so forth. At the same time, I realize that my sense of having no context is analogous to the contextless-ness of the slum dwellers themselves, who have few means of understanding what’s going on in the world outside the slum.

 

This is a good book but a strange one. I am having a hard time assessing the nature of my reaction. I guess another way to put it is that I wanted Bertolt Brecht to have written it. It needs a dash of the alienation effect, so as to ensure that I don’t think of humans as characters or vice-versa.

Stoner, John Williams (1965)

ImageThis novel has been recommended to me by a number of  friends over the years. One of these was so passionate about the book that she claimed to have purchased a case of copies from the publisher to hand out to people; my copy is the one I accepted from her with gratitude and amusement. I have a feeling there’s a kind of genre for this book, the pellucid, perfect, one-offs which seem absolutely seminal to those who have read them, but which retain an aura of being somehow unknown, or under-known — Housekeeping, The Ginger Man, A Confederacy of Dunces, Mrs. Bridge . . . I don’t know, I’m probably making no sense.

Here’s Stoner: Son of a dirt farmer in late 19c Missouri is sent to the new university in Columbia to learn agriculture. Instead he falls in love with literature. This is the signal moment in the book from which all else follows, and it requires a leap of faith, because our hero seems to have not an iota of self-consciousness, indolence, or voluptuousness, all of which I thought were required in order to give one’s life over to literature. Stoner has a one-dimensional loveless marriage to an inexplicably depressed woman, a one-dimensional forty-year antagonism with his department chair, a one-dimensional love affair with a graduate student, a one-dimensional fondness for his one-dimensional daughter, and then dies of cancer. It’s not very exciting. In fact the plot is unimaginably dull. None of the characters, Stoner included, has any psychological depth — or at least none is revealed to us — and none of them do anything remotely interesting or surprising.

So what’s the attraction? I think the book has two potential audiences. Sentimentalists may enjoy the story of a man who never really understood a thing about himself, the world, or anyone else, but maintained a stalwart dignity from cradle to grave. Writers will be fascinated by the writing. The prose here is transparent in a way I can’t figure out how to describe. I don’t feel like I’m reading when I read it, and I don’t know how Williams does that. There are occasional infinitesimal gestures of lyricism at moments of extremity — sex and death — but by and large the prose has the solidity, gravity, and smoothness of granite. I can’t say I loved this book; on the contrary, it stirred perhaps no emotion at all. But I can see why a prose stylist like my friend would buy it by the case to hand out to students and writer friends, as a specimen.

The Master of Petersburg, J. M. Coetzee (1994)

Coetzee Master of PetersburgNot my favorite of Coetzee and not his best, but a remarkable book, amazing to me not least simply because he manages to accomplish here such a complex braid of the historical, the personal, and the imaginary without losing his head. It’s nervy enough for a novelist to take up Dostoyevsky as a protagonist and presume to present the Master’s interiority. Coetzee goes a good deal further by transposing elements of his own relationship with his son onto Dostoyevsky’s with his. He further presumes to write in manner instantly recognizable as Russian-esque, as if he’s working on a kind of stylistic etude. Scenes oscillate between metaphysical speculation and intense sensory realism; the eternal questions of class, religion, and revolution are constantly in play; a chained dog in an alleyway or a battered white suit in a musty valise become occasions of terror and pity.

 

Coming to this straight from Pelevin’s Omon Ra, I’ll say a word about sentences. In Pelevin the sentences always seemed to be slipping through my fingers, never quite meaning what they seemed, often seeming to mean something other or more. What a contrast to Coetzee, whose sentences seem built stone by stone, every one a kind of temple with the aura of having always existed. I know such authority is a species of illusion, or worse, but the tiny fascist in me (almost everyone has one) does thrill to it.