People who don’t read poetry love to complain about the difficulty of poetry. The argument that the struggle to understand a poem is itself pleasurable doesn’t work for most. It’s like telling someone who isn’t a masochist to turn into one.
Of course, that is an exaggeration. Consider it a product of my frustration with people who don’t want to engage with anything they don’t understand. The idea is alien to me. I’ll watch a film or read a poem without worrying about what it means/what I want it to mean. If I’m committed enough, interested enough, I’ll read it over, glimpse a few things more, and so on.
But there are some poems that reach out to you immediately. I wouldn’t say they’re simple (‘simple’ makes me think of ‘foolish’), but they’re accessible, moving. I’d say that for a good many of Michael Ondaatje‘s poems in The Cinnamon Peeler. I’d recommend the book to anyone who wants to start reading poetry for the first time.
I prefer Ondaatje’s poetry to his prose. He is strongest when he writes about family, his children and wife, and his best is still the erotic poem, ‘The Cinnamon Peeler’. After a while, unfortunately, the poetry becomes repetitious and meandering, and I lost interest several times along the way. Every few pages, though, you’ll find a gem. My favourites were poems which responded to Henri Rousseau’s paintings.
This was a month of nice reading. Nothing spectacular, but no major disappointments either. The Picture of Dorian Gray is an excellent example of the sort of thing you read in a train and then forget about. Lord Henry keeps spouting these delicious little aphorisms and you want so badly for them to be the result of philosophical genius, but they remain as they are — cute, trite and more or less amusing. A few will make you laugh out loud. I rather liked this one:
I like men who have a future and women who have a past.
Other than as a catalyst for Dorian Gray’s eventual downfall and the mouthpiece of Wilde‘s too-clever ideas of the world, Lord Henry is an unimportant character in the novel. So you’re left with Dorian Gray, who grows up unnaturally soon, and is for the most part, uninteresting for someone who is supposedly a sinner of the most decadent sort.
What surprised me more than anything else was the strong moralism of the novel. Reduced to its bones, it resembles the stories we read in those horrible Value Education periods in school, but in adult format with the clever lines, Gothic darkness and a homoerotic angle. Overall, I enjoyed reading the novel, but the aftermath (i.e., when you try to define what the novel offered you) was not spectacular. Maybe his plays are better?
The third and last book I read in April was Jane Austen‘s Sense and Sensibility — my least favourite of the four Austens I’ve read. It takes a while to get used to her characters; the first chapter with its long family history and details of who got what in whose will is very un-hook-like — the opposite of her delicious first line in Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Austen isstandard, compulsory reading requirement for all students of literature. (In fact, we even read her in school.) And some pretty standard things are said about her in the first couple of classes, such as, “The world of Jane Austen was very different from the one we live in now. Women could not work, except as governesses, etc, etc.” We’re told of the customs, of the kind of propriety required in good society, the ways of courtship and marriage. And then, inevitably, you’re told, “But even though her characters are of a different century and you come from a different country and culture, there are many similarities. You can, for example, compare some of the practices to arranged marriage in India, etc, etc.”
I don’t know what boys make of these yawn-worthy lectures, but many girls eat it up like candy. Especially if they’ve read/watched Bridget Jones’s Diary and are fida over Darcy (played, curiously enough, by Colin Firth in both the P&P BBC mini-series and the Bridget Jones movie; he can’t act to save his life, on top of everything). There has got to be a different way of deal with Austen in the classroom.
I went off track there. I meant to talk about this peculiar business of talking about money and wills in social gatherings. I didn’t notice it as much in P&P, Emma or Mansfield Park, where talk of inheritances and wealth seemed to occur in private, among family members and close friends, especially when they were referring to some new eligible bachelor. In S&S, however, there are moments when individuals are asked about their financial situation in public. I was embarrassed even as a reader.
I suppose I’ll have to re-read these books and some critical material to get at the heart of that. On the other hand, I could do with less Austen in my life.
My unexpected discovery of the month was a Spanish film made in the early 90s called Jamón, jamón, directed by Bigas Luna. A young (no one’s quite sure whether she was 16 or 18 when she acted in the film) Penélope Cruz and a very, very manly Javier Bardem play two parts of an intense and melodramatic love triangle, which is also a love rectangle, pentagon and octagon. In fact, one viewer describes it as a soap opera on IMDB, and they’re not kidding.
But to call it a soap opera is to ignore its bathos, its nature as tragic comedy. The hint is in the title, which literally means “Ham, ham” (Bardem’s character, Raúl, works in a ham factory), the presence of the great corporate machine being an underwear factory, the heightened sensuality of all the relationships, the ridiculously Freudian mother-son love between Cruz’s first boyfriend (and the father of her baby) and his mother, and the parodic tone of the film. Luna seems to be poking fun at Spanish stereotypes, while not stooping to spoof anything (to my knowledge, anyhow) — the dustiness, the heat, the abundance of voluptuous women with immense sexual appetites, the bull fighting and machismo of Spanish men. Bardem is spectacular as the stereotype of Spanish masculinity, eating ham and chewing garlic to increase his sexual drive. And don’t miss his naked bull fighting sequence.
The balance of tragic and comedic elements, I thought, was just right. I was moved without feeling ridiculous, and was able to laugh without feeling guilty. Definitely something to try on, this film, but it’s not for everyone, especially not if you’re prudish.
I watched a fair number of pretty awful films this month. The Other Boleyn Girl, a period film on Henry VIII and the Boleyn sisters, was the worst, with its black-and-white, historically inaccurate version of the whole affair. Historical inaccuracy does not bother me as much as the stereotyping of characters and the bad casting (how am I supposed to believe that Anne is more beautiful than her sister when Mary is played by Scarlett Johannson and Anne by Natalie Portman?). The biggest joke is this bit of trivia I got off IMDB:
Natalie Portman (Anne) and Scarlett Johansson (Mary) say that their costumes were the biggest contribution to them knowing their character. Their dresses gave them good posture and the colors helped represent their personality. With Anne, her bold and simple colors show that she wants a main goal. Mary’s softer and much more complicated dress design shows that she is a more modest person and tries to be herself.
If costume colours had to keep the actors in check, I’m not surprised the movie was a disaster. The real culprit was the writing, of course: the movie is based on a dubious-sounding bit of historical fiction by Philippa Gregory.
The other disaster, I hate to say it, was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which everyone seems to like. Knowing the story behind the novel, I expected a stronger sociopolitical commentary. The little that was there in the film was fleeting, and for the most part, I got to see Benicio del Toro and Johnnie Depp acting silly and high. It’s too easy to say the onus is on me to discern some deep revelation from a bunch of pointless druggie footage. I say the onus is on you to make something that isn’t random and shallow.
There were some other films I could go either way on, like 3-Iron, described as a very Lynchian film made by Ki-duk Kim. I watched Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring three years ago and I quite liked it. Something about 3-Iron doesn’t sit right with me. Might be the oh-so-spiritual silence of the protagonist, a young man who breaks into the homes of strangers while they are on vacation, lives their lives for as long as he can without disturbing the environment or stealing anything, and moves on in this fashion until he falls in love. Then there was The Big Lebowski, which was entertaining, but didn’t hold me for long.
The three most stunning films I watched this month aren’t my discoveries, but boy, I wish they were.
The first, Série Noire, is a film by Alain Courneau and is based on Jim Thompson‘s hardboiled classic novel A Hell of a Woman. I noticed that the dialogues are written by Georges Perec — the same Perec who wrote Life: A User’s Manual, I wonder? I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of Thompson before; he seems to be a master of the crime genre and I can’t wait to read some of his novels.
The title Série Noire itself refers to a collection of crime/noir novels that were published by Gallimard. Patrick Dewaere plays Frank Poupart, an eccentric door-to-door salesman who seems constantly on the edge of insanity. In obvious financial trouble and a failing marriage, he moves steadily towards committing murder and robbery under the influence of 16-year-old Mona (Marie Trintrignant), a prostitute for her miserly aunt. The setting is of bleak, suburban Paris — perfect for this story.
I haven’t been able to find much on this film, except this fairly well-written piece in French. Here are some excerpts:
Il n’y a [pas] vraiment d’intrigue à proprement parler dans ses livres [c'est à dire, les livres de Jim Thompson] : nous suivons les déambulations d’un personnage qui s’autodétruit, et sème la mort et la désolation autour de lui. C’est ainsi qu’il est tout à fait caractéristique du roman noir, plus que du roman policier (bien que ces deux catégories soient largement mélangées dans la collection « Série noire » animée par Patrick Raynal, auquel le film fait explicitement référence en reprenant la même typographie que les couvertures des livres) [...]
Pour accentuer au maximum les traits noirs du film, les faire surgir de manière saillante (mais sans en faire trop), Corneau utilise beaucoup la musique. Outre la légèreté du jazz du début sur fond de banlieues (utilisé également à la fin), Corneau fait ressortir le désespoir et les rêves perdus dans la maison conjugale en y mettant une radio diffusant une musique enjouée [...]
On peut dire qu’il y a eu un style policier français, mais le film noir est avant tout américain. L’importation de Thompson et de sa petite boutique des noirceurs est à classer un peu à part. Les autres films policiers de Corneau (« Police Python 357 », « La menace », « Le choix des armes ») sont biens moins bons, et seul Melville parviendra à réaliser quelques chefs d’œuvres français dans ce style. On pourra également se délecter d’un « Ascenseur pour l’échafaud » de Louis Malle, dont les scènes d’errances nocturnes sous solo de Miles Davis sont magnifiques. Si ces quelques films sont très réussis (et « Série Noire » est le meilleur d’entre eux) on ne peut pas à proprement parler d’un style « film noir à la française ».
And here is my amateurish translation of the above:
There isn’t really a plot to speak of in his novels [i.e., Jim Thompson's novels]: we follow the ramblings of a character who self-destructs, spreads death and desolation around himself. This is more a characteristic of noir than of crime novels (although these two categories were largely mixed in the collection ‘Série noire’ animated by Patrick Raynal, whom the film references by using the same typography as on the book covers) [...]
Courneau uses music to accentuate as much as possible the noir elements of the film, to make them appear prominent (without overdoing it). In addition to the light jazz in the beginning and end of the film as part of the suburban backgroup, he brings out the despair and lost dreams in the couple’s home using a radio that plays light-hearted music [...]
One can say that there was a French style for crime films, but film noir is above all American. The import of Thompson and his small store of noir novels is a class apart (?). Courneau’s other crime films (Police Python 357, La menace, Le choix des armes) are not as good and only Melville managed to make a few French masterpieces in this style. One could also enjoy Louis Malle’s Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, in which the late night scenes of restless wandering with Miles Davis playing are magnificent. If these few films were very successful (with Série Noire being the best of them) we cannot really speak of a distinct style that is ‘French film noir’.
So that was was pretty interesting. Perhaps someone with a fuller knowledge of noir cinema would be able to comment (AR?).
By the way, does anyone else think France (and possibly other European/East-European countries) produce the best actors? I can’t find anyone from the US or India that match up to people like Dewaere and Rocheford.
The Legend of Suram Fortress is one of those panoramic films that physically leave you breathless. It was made by Sergei Paradjanov after 15 years of imprisonment, and retells in cinematic form a Georgian folk-tale about a fortress that keeps falling apart. One of the comments that was made after we watched this film that this was the first time anyone had seen a film that managed to preserve the quality of folk narratives. The film is a folk-tale as opposed to being about a folk-tale.
It’s a fairly difficult film to watch at first. The narrative is hard to follow; the characters are numerous; the performances very stylised. (I’m tempted to call it exotic, but the word is almost pejorative these days.) But you’re soon drawn in to the story and rich cinematography of Paradjanov’s tale.
The third and final film is Miklós Janscó‘s The Round-Up, which needs little introduction to anyone half-interested in film. I’m glad I got the opportunity to watch it.
Complete list: books (in order of completion)
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde, 1891, English (England) (novel)
- The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems, Michael Ondaatje, 1989, English (Canada) (poetry)
- Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, 1811, English (England) (novel)
Complete list: movies (in order of viewing)
- Série Noire, Alain Courneau, 1979, French
- The Legend of Suram Fortress, Sergei Paradjanov, 1984, Georgian
- The Big Lebowski, Joel Coen, 1998, English (US)
- Milk, Gus Van Sant, 2008, English (US)
- The Nanny Diaries, Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, 2007, English (US)
- The Other Boleyn Girl, James Chadwick, 2008, English (UK)
- Wit, Mike Nichols, 2001, English (US)
- 3-Iron, Ki-duk Kim, 2004, Korean
- Jamón, jamón, Bigas Luna, 1992, Spanish
- The Round-Up, Miklos Janscó, 1966, Hungarian
- Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis, 1994, English (US)
- Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam, 1998, English (US)
Complete list: short films (in order of viewing)
- Charade, Jon Minnis, 1984, English (Canada) (animation)
- Le château de sable, Co Hoedeman, 1977, French (Canada) (animation)
- Solar, Ian Wharton, 2007, English (UK) (animation)