A Bend in the River, V. S. Naipaul (1979)

This is the first Naipaul novel I’ve read, and I found the experience quite disorienting, in ways both pleasurable and upsetting. I think my upset is what will persist, and that may be a good thing.

I’m well accustomed to literature which travels a predictable path of indignation regarding the injustice of European colonialism. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything, though, that so fully encompasses the complexity of the relationships between all the various players in a colonial situation. The shorthand version of colonialism — wealthy European whites exploiting poor African blacks — conceals a plethora of more nuanced and complicated relationships. That seems a pretty self-evident thing to say, but I don’t know of another text that brings it to the fore as forcefully as this. Instead of the basic master/slave dynamic, we find here highly complex systems of classes within classes, exiles within exiles, powers within powers.

An ethnic Indian trader prospering on the east coast of Africa moves with his mixed-race slave to an interior African country which was recently decolonized by a European power and is now tipping into a civil war sponsored in part by European interests and partially by ethnic and class divisions within the aboriginal culture. Everything that’s wrong with colonialism (slavery, oppression) and all of its benefits (clean water, electricity) are on display. Everything that’s wrong with independence (kleptocracy, recapitulation of colonial power structures) and all of its benefits (a sense of common destiny and self-determination) are on display. Human relationships are a hall of mirrors. “Everyone is a villager,” and everyone’s a kind of slave. As Naipaul puts it more than once, “It wasn’t that there was no wrong and no right. It was that there was no right.” He has no respect for any of the systems on offer, imperial or revolutionary or anything in-between, and his analysis of how the different constituents of the river town exercise, cede, and accumulate different forms of power — economic, political, sexual, emotional — is nuanced, precise, and persuasive.

All this is an easy sell as far as I’m concerned. I’ve written myself about what seems to be the sad inevitability of revolutions turning back into empires. The discomfort enters for me, though, because it does sort of seem like Naipaul is especially contemptuous of the revolutionary part of the cycle. There are passages here which remind me of Shelby-Steele-like rhetoric, which seem to accuse the oppressed of abetting their oppression, and that kind of thinking makes this white boy fidget with discomfort. It may well be a productive upset, though, because one thing I can say for sure is that few pieties about colonialism can survive a careful reading of this book.

Ketchup

These endless summer days I ingest culture faster than I can process it. In addition to a lot of material about PTSD, which I’m reading for a writing project, this is what’s been passing in front of my eyeballs. 

White Material, Claire Denis (2009). Denis goes back to Africa. Isabelle Hupert makes me nervous. The politics here are a mess, totally confused. A good example of how sloppy thinking likes to masquerade as ambiguity. But it’s Claire Denis, so of course we must still love it.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010). Just letting the camera keep running on a lifeless scene doesn’t make it Cassavetes. This is a deeply boring movie.

Another Year, Mike Leigh (2010). Another heartbreaker from Mike Leigh. It’s not really a story so much as it is a kind of temporal vitrine, in which are displayed a half-dozen fully-realized characters, interacting with each other and trying to be alive.

True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen (2010). Lacks the Coen whimsy of Fargo, etc. and also the Coen fatedness of No Country for Old Men. Fine, but neither here nor there.

F for Fake, Orson Welles (1973). Sloppy, self-indulgent, self-important, gimmicky, dull. And that’s coming from someone who’s genuinely interested in and who has great patience for this theme. Poor old fucker.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010). Nice doc. Lots of fascinating footage of Village life in the 60’s.

The Fighter, David O. Russell (2010). Stolid family drama, worth seeing. Has the kind of genuineness and moral seriousness of purpose you rarely see at the multiplex these days. It’s about a hundred times less interesting than, say, Raging Bull, but I think contemporary audiences are so incredibly grateful when they’re not pandered to, they wind up thinking something like this is art for the ages.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay (1994). Perfect idea, poorly executed with slack, repetitive prose and a lot of unnecessary self-dealing.

Speed the Plow, David Mamet (1988). Dialogue perfection. Perfect dramatic efficiency.

Still Life: A Documentary, Emily Mann (1982). Really lively, allusive, slippery drama about the collision of eros and thanatos in the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran.

Lethal Warriors, David Philipps (2010). Philipps didn’t ask for this job; he was a sports writer in Colorado Springs when the “Band of Brothers” started coming back from Iraq and killing each other and others. Philipps does an admirable job of stepping up and becoming a real reporter, covering some of the saddest stories of the war. Good, thorough, clear reporting. See also the Frontline episode, The Wounded Platoon.

Louie, Louis C.K. (2010-). Makes Seinfeld look like Happy Days.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni (1975). Oh, it’s horribly pretentious and aimless and even sometimes irresponsible, but it’s also of course gorgeous and dizzying poetry. I had to go get my camera to take pictures of it. Then I had to spend an hour planning a trip to Andalusia. 

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Been clambering up this Alp since May. Certainly skimmed some of the later Settembrini discourses, but I genuinely enjoyed almost all of these 700 pages. Took extensive notes elsewhere. This is utterly worth your time. Read it while you’re young. What’s it about? It’s about a young man who decides — the verb is too strong — to absent himself from history.

Port of Shadows, Marcel Carné (1938). Oh, France. Merci pour Michèle Morgan.

The Parallax View, Alan J. Pakula (1974)

In honor of this week’s public release of the Pentagon Papers, it’s heroic journalism week here. We begin with this paranoid classic. The relentlessly louche Warren Beatty is pretty improbable as a crusading journalist, but the pure weirdness of the story is ample compensation. As usual in Pakula, banal and efficient modern spaces — parking garages, convention halls, office buildings, airports — intensify the horror and dread. This was made at a time when Americans were just getting used to living with the idea our leaders lie to us as a matter of course, but were still capable of being scandalized. Pakula captures the zeitgeist with verve.

The Day of the Jackal, Fred Zinnemann (1973)

Just doing my homework in anticipation of Olivier Assayas’s upcoming Carlos, to which I’m looking forward despite myself. This is a very straightforward procedural and nothing to write home about. Its potentially explosive political implications are assiduously suppressed in favor of the cops and robbers storyline. The fun lies almost entirely in getting to see all these delicious shots of 60’s Europe.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1974)

Completely satisfying emotionally as a love story, yet at the same time so critically astringent, there’s no way you could call it a melodrama. A lonely widowed German charwoman of a certain age and a Moroccan guest worker fall in love. The forces of hatred, fear, and misunderstanding besiege them from both outside and from within. Love wins, but not until Fassbinder’s made it clear that, as Wittgenstein put it, “love is not a feeling; love is put to the test.” Utterly convincing, fascinating to look at. This was of course inspired by Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, but does that look like Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson there, eating dinner together? No, it does not. Everyone in Fassbinder’s movie looks like a human being, which is part of what makes this picture so affecting.

Marathon Man, John Schlesinger (1976)

God, the 70’s were so WEIRD! This is an incredibly strange movie. Dustin Hoffman’s father was a victim of history (blacklisted during the McCarthy purges). One of his sons (Roy Scheider) has grown up to be a — God, I don’t even know what he’s supposed to be, I think a CIA agent slash bagman for fugitive Nazis living in South America slash mobster. His other son (Hoffman) is a graduate student in history, writing a dissertation about “the role of tyranny in American political history.” Yeah, um, better buy some extra typewriter ribbons, pal.

The plot here is hard to figure exactly, but I do know that it is extremely paranoid. Everyone–students, professors, businessmen, cops, government officials, bankers, and especially dapper elderly Germans–is lying, cheating, stealing, and, sometimes, performing dentistry without anasthetic. Furthermore, Schlesinger’s apocalyptic Manhattan would make Travis Bickle’s look good to Carrie Bradshaw.

It’s all very washed out and depressing, yet I will say this: Movies were perhaps a bit more willing, at that moment in history, to go ahead and be washed out and depressing. Nothing’s any less effed-up now than it was then, yet it’s almost impossible to imagine something this effed up making it into production today. We still have plenty of critique and paranoia at the multiplex, but it’s a lot slicker, more digestible, and easier to look at than it used to be, don’t you think?