Aug 14, 2007

Paul Auster / “The New York Trilogy” and “Oracle Night”

Though I think technically what Paul Auster writes is called detective fiction, he doesn’t go for the traditional formula – the mystery, the spying, the digging in the past, the surfacing of unexpected details, and then ta-daa!: the definite resolution – but rather for how these novels are written. We’re always talking about a detective story within (at least) another detective story, and that’s why “The New York Trilogy” has been described as meta-detective-fiction. Here are a few things that I had fun discovering and I enjoyed experimenting as anti-boredom/anti-dullness surprises in Auster’s books:

1.The traditional spying formula is turned completely upside down. In “Ghosts” (“The New York Trilogy”) the detective following a “suspect” realizes in the end that he is the one who is being followed. The reason? He's just a pawn in a game set up for inspirational purposes by a fiction writer.

2.A character pretending to be “Paul Auster” himself in “City of Glass” (“The New York Trilogy”), though in fact he is someone else. That was a fun fictional knack to use :)

3.The use of footnotes in “Oracle Night”. Probably intended to trim the story as much as possible and/or not have it too clogged with details. However, you could almost make up a whole new novel by putting together all footnotes. I realize this is not a novel technique in itself (I believe Camil Petrescu used in “Patul lui Procust” decades before), but I liked the way it is embedded in the mystery-story pattern.

4.The urban atmosphere. “The New York Trilogy” in particular reminded me of an episode from Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth”. Probably because they both happen in and around Brooklyn.

5.How each story features a character who at some point decides to walk out from his own life for no apparent reason. Leaves the apartment to drop a postcard one evening and ends up in a completely different city where he starts all over. Plus how these attempts almost always fail miserably. Not in terms of the character coming back, but rather not finding whatever he was hoping to achieve by taking a fresh start.

6.How Auster’s stories are always about other stories. There’s never a clear narrative line following “detective X hired by the Mrs. Y to find details on her missing husband”, but rather a series of digressions about the inner life of an auctorial “I”-voice or of the main character. In addition, these digressions do not lead to any clear resolution. It’s more like a mystery about a mystery that takes you inside the life of a number of characters. And what you get out of it is not a clear finale, not the feeling that the story started at point A and ended at point Z, but rather that you’ve experienced a large range of often unexplainable but so deeply human mindsets and feelings. And you’ll carry full episodes and bits of atmosphere with you for days on end.

Aug 10, 2007

The Weather Man

It’s almost hard to believe this movie comes from Gore Verbinsky – the mainstream, action-movie director known for box-office hits such The Mexican or Pirates of the Caribbean.

To me The Weather Man looks more like an Alexander Payne film (see an older post on About Schmidt). And that’s because it focuses on a rather ordinary fellow, whose life doesn’t really include anything spectacular. Except perhaps the fact that he occasionally gets hit by flying milkshakes :). He’s Dave Spritz, weatherman for a TV network – a job that makes him quasi-famous and hence sometimes a target for pranks from the part of people with a somewhat vicious sense of humor (implying semi-liquid food thrown on Mr.Spritz as he drives with his window open or walks on the street).

What would probably characterize this guy best is the phrase “good-enough-for-me”, which he doesn't utter as such but seems to be like a motto for the way he makes choices in life. He’s not unhappy. But he’s not happy either. He has a job where he works little and gets paid a lot. A former wife and two kids. A failed novel written some years back, now gathering dust somewhere in a drawer. Plus a famous-writer father who doesn’t have too much time left to live (and who’s played so well by Michael Caine). To put it simply, Dave Spritz didn’t quite excel in his personal life, but he is responsible for another type of “American accomplishment” (as Caine’s character so subtly underlines at some point). He is about to be promoted to a job in the national TV network, thus adding a few more figures to his annual revenue. Does this make him happier? The film doesn't really suggest that.

Though it received mixed reviews, possibly because the loose ends it leaves in the narrative might make it a bit unconvincing at times, I think it’s worth watching. And one of the reasons is this particular freedom it gives the viewer in terms of interpretation, this lack of any clear resolution (that in the end makes you wonder – was there any problem in the first place?). It might be a film which subtly criticizes a society who lately seems to equate money with happiness more than anything else. It might be about how we tend to be more and more spoiled in our constant search of getting everything as easy as possible, but always slightly unsatisfied with what we get. Or it might just be a funny-sad look at an ordinary case of latent depression, like most of Alexander Payne’s movies.

Aug 9, 2007

Luis Sepulveda / "Diario de un killer sentimental"

With the exception of Pablo Neruda’s poetry, I didn’t really see Chile on the world map of literature until recently, when I got a book called Diario de un killer sentimental by Luis Sepulveda. Though some literature aficionados tend to look down on the genre he is practicing – detective stories – to me his writing is absolutely seamless. In fact, lately I’m more and more convinced that this is really a genre which has a lot more in stock than first meets the eye. That is in part also due to some of Paul Auster’s work, but I will come back to this in one the following days.

With a life that makes up a great novel in itself, the Chilean novelist Luis Sepulveda has such a perfectly sharp and clear storytelling technique that it was impossible for me to leave the book out of my hand until the last line of the story. And the truth is this didn’t take so long in the case of Diario de un killer sentimental – a short detective story that follows a professional killer during his last mission before retirement. And even though I did somehow predict the ending in my mind – probably because my reading expectations were somewhat shaped in time by experiencing similar stories in films, where the narrative formula tends to be pretty repetitive – I absolutely enjoyed every page of Sepulveda’s story, his vividly cinematic descriptions and his razor-sharp authorial voice, flawlessly shaping a story in which not a single word is superfluous.

Aug 8, 2007

Aldous Huxley / "Brave New World"

It’s amazing to me how much insight into future social and economical tendencies could Aldous Huxley provide in the 30s, when he wrote Brave New World. I don’t think many other people back then could have predicted that a few decades ahead the key-word in societal behavior would become „consumption” (except Keynes, whose theories Huxley probably wanted to satirize a little bit), and that all individual efforts would be directed towards overarching hedonistic principles.

But apart from the visionary writing, what I probably enjoyed most is the parallel view Huxley builds between the ideology of the dystopian society he imagines and our current perceptions on „what is normal” (more or less unchanged since the 30s). He constantly shocks by challenging mainstream views on quintessential concepts that are in the center of our lives, such as family or culture, and presents an environment built in radical opposition to our own. Monogamy is a disgrace rather than a virtue (in addition, the concept of „family” is inexistent and women no longer give birth, because children are conceived by technological means); the use of light drugs is encouraged and at times even compulsory; social layers are enginereed in such a way that they preserve a perfectly balanced society, where everyone is happy and healthy.

On top of it all, Huxley has a hidden yet incisive sense of humor. It’s rather funny (in a dark way, of course) to realize that in a society where the sources of all unhappiness have been taken care of, literature is practically dead. Shakespeare’s plays, and drama in general for that matter, are primarily based on conflicts and when you can have everything solved with a pill of soma, the struggles of Othello seem really silly.

I think coming back to Huxley's work from time to time provides a very good and clear lens one could use in looking at the world around. And if this sounds rather prophetic, well, it's because it is :).

Aug 1, 2007

The Namesake: La mijlocul distanţei dintre Bollywood şi Hollywood

O mare parte a cinematografiei europene din ultimii ani şi-a dezvoltat ca marcă tematică sondarea conflictelor de valori sau a crizelor de identitate ce intră în sfera efectelor sociale ale emigrării (see Temenuga Trifonova's article). Strămutarea temporară sau definitivă a personajelor dintr-o societate în alta e urmărită în scenarii ale marginalizării şi ale eforturilor de adaptare în exil, în filme ca cele regizate de, printre alţii, Fatih Akin (Cu capul înainte) sau Michael Haneke (Cod necunoscut, Ascuns).

Din acest punct de vedere, pelicula realizată de Mira Nair după bestseller-ul lui Jhumpa Lahiri – The Namesake (în română: poreclă, supranume) – pare foarte “europeană”. Asta cu toate că regizoarea are o istorie în cinematografie situată undeva între capitala indiană a filmului – Bollywood – şi cea americană – Hollywood –, mai degrabă decât în Europa. Producţii ca Mississippi Masala (1991) – cu Denzel Washington în rolul unui personaj de culoare, neagreat pe motive rasiale de părinţii indieni ai fetei iubite – sau Nuntă în vremea musonului (Monsoon Wedding) (2001) – în care sunt explorate dramele familiale din jurul unui mariaj aranjat în New Dehli – au pus numele Mirei Nair pe listele cu nominalizări şi premii ale festivalurilor internaţionale de film. Însemnele de recunoaştere ale producţiilor ei? Tematic, toate urmăresc personaje prinse între cultura indiană/orientală şi cea occidentală. De obicei e vorba de prima sau de a doua generaţie de emigranţi în încercarea de a-şi defini o nouă identitate prin dimensionarea distanţei dintre cultura ancestrală şi cea a societăţii de adopţie. Stilistic, reţeta de succes a filmelor lui Nair e tempoul răbdător al camerei de filmat, poposirea asupra detaliilor şi aprofundarea semnificaţiei lor simbolice prin puterea imaginii, mai degrabă decât prin aserţiunea explicită.

O privire succintă asupra coordonatelor de mai sus e suficientă pentru a decreta existenţa unei compatibilităţi creative între Mira Nair şi scriitoarea Jhumpa Lahiri. Aşa cum a demonstrat în colecţia de povestiri distinsă în 2000 cu premiul Pulitzer, Interpretul de maladii, şi apoi a confirmat în The Namesake, autoarea americană provenită dintr-o familie de origine bengaleză arată la fel de mult interes pentru personajele ce îşi construiesc identităţi transnaţionale, pe o axă împărţită între Orient şi Occident. În plus, ea îşi modelează stilistic construcţiile narative cu aceeaşi răbdare menită să consolideze punţi de empatie între cititor şi personaje. Filmul produs în urma colaborării dintre Lahiri şi Nair, The Namesake, apare ca o poveste întinsă considerabil în timp şi care dezvoltă două straturi narative de amploare. Pe primul se aşterne povestea lui Ashima (interpretată de actriţa bollywoodiană Tabu) şi Ashoke Ganguli (Irfan Khan) – un cuplu indian format în mod tradiţional în urma unei căsătorii aranjate de familii, şi care apoi se mută în Statele Unite. Pe al doilea e urmărit Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn), fiul celor doi, surprins în încercarea de a-şi defini o identitate transnaţională ca newyorkez de origine bengaleză. Faptul că filmul explorează spaţiul aflat între două culturi e confirmat şi de scenariul bilingv, locaţiile de filmare situate pe ambele continente, precum şi de distribuţie.

Mărimea poveştii şi abundenţa detaliilor esenţiale pentru atmosferă reprezintă marea provocare în ecranizarea unei astfel de naraţiuni de tip bildungsroman. Şi din păcate, îngrămădirea a câteva decenii din viaţa lui Gogol Ganguli şi a familiei sale în două ore de proiecţie nu pare a fi întotdeauna punctul forte al lui Nair. Multe aspect importante se pierd pe drum. De ce Gogol decide să facă un viraj radical de la cultura americană la cea a părinţilor săi după moartea lui Ashok, tocmai când părea că se identifică perfect cu valorile occidentale? Care e semnificaţia numelui său, pe care se pune atât de mult accent în film, inclusiv prin titlu? Ce e atât de special în transformarea lui Gogol într-un tiz aliterativ al scriitorului preferat de Ashok? Aflăm că la mijloc e un accident de tren legat mai degrabă printr-o coincidenţă de una dintre cărţile lui N.V. Gogol, dar până la urmă e greu de decis de ce Ashok îi acordă atâta importanţă.

În concluzie, stilurile lui Lahiri şi Nair converg cu succes, iar asta e evident în multe cadre luate separat. Dar privit în ansamblu, filmul The Namesake pare adesea o cronică grăbită, ce vrea neapărat să puncteze anumite idei – greutatea adaptării, disconfortul situării perpetue la mijlocul distanţei dintre două culturi diferite, solitudinea ş.a. –, dar petrece prea puţin timp construind argumentaţia emoţională din spatele lor. Rezultatul e o peliculă ce aduce uneori prea mult cu stilul melodramelor uşurele produse sub marca Bollywood.