26 October 2012

In his review of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt, John Banville writes:

The Dream of the Celt is, like its subject, stout-hearted, well-intentioned, tender, and somewhat naive. It is not in any real sense a novel, but is, rather, a biography overlaid with a light wash of novelistic speculation. It is an exoskeletal work, in that it wears its research on the outside. The author has read widely and diligently on his subject, but the material gathered, instead of being absorbed organically into the narrative, is presented to the reader in the form of raw data. The forays that Vargas Llosa makes into Casement’s thoughts and dreams, although warmly sympathetic, are less than inspired. The novelist has fallen in love with his subject, which is admirable, but his amatory approach does not help the novel.

Vargas Llosa would have done well to remember Henry James’s repeated injunction to himself in his notebooks: “Dramatize! Dramatize!” Yet Casement’s story is so absorbing, and the background against which it unfolds is so fascinating, that the reader will be swept along regardless of the novel’s flaws as a work of fiction. In The Dream of the Celt, for all its shortcomings, Mario Vargas Llosa has done an inestimable service to the memory of a great man.

I found this to be a strange conclusion to a review of a novel; Banville seems to forgive Llosa for writing an underwhelming novel, because he has delivered to us compelling historical information.

I was thinking about this in relation to ARGO, which I saw last week.  I enjoyed it, I recommend it; but I was also left thinking that the film could have been so much better.  The material was fascinating, and dramatic; the film delivered the action but gave us, I thought, very little character.  Since it was conceived as a narrative feature, not a documentary, I wanted to see artistry and history working together to create for the viewer an experience.  It sort of did that, but not fully.

I guess what I’m feeling is: if you’re going to work with the dramatic forms — narrative film, novels — then do it!  Your material alone won’t carry you.  A great concept is just half the hog.

15 October 2012

My monthly column at The Common, “Annals of Mobility,” is up today.  For this second installment, I write about mobility as adolescence, and the moral implications thereof — through the eyes of Wes Anderson, Wendell Berry, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Esther Freud.

7 October 2012

Checkerboard Films’s documentary James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime, will be screening at the Hamptons International Film Festival today — the film’s US premiere (and my first film credit)!

More info here.

24 September 2012

I had the privilege of seeing The Culture Project’s 10th Anniversary revival of The Exonerated.  I missed it the first time around, but I remember hearing much about it.  A friend of mine was at the time working in Alabama as a defense attorney on death row cases, and she’d urged me to see it.  I’m glad I had this second chance.

 

The idea that people are wrongly accused for capital crimes is now, if not “well-known,” much better known than it was in 1992.  So the impact of the play may not have been as strong as it would have been had I seen it 10 years ago.  And yet still… maybe the measure of its success as art, in addition to documentation, is that I walked out of there feeling a lot of different things simultaneously:  grateful, for my freedom and my life; moved and inspired, by the enlargement of soul that these “characters” demonstrated after losing so many years of their lives, after losing, really, their very lives; frightened, that we live in a society whose justice system is so deeply flawed; ashamed, of my pettiness and limits of character; envious, of the depth and breadth of love these people, these exonerated, had given and received throughout their struggle.  It would be foolhardy to imagine that I would become a different person after seeing the show, but I do truly feel changed, in some invisible but significant way, for seeing it.

The cast rotates (brilliant for publicity, and for the show itself), and we had the good fortune of an amazing group, including Chris Sarandon, Stockard Channing, Delroy Lindo, JD Williams, and a non-rotating cast who performed impeccably.

Related, filmmaker Errol Morris spoke on this week’s “On the Media” about Jeffrey MacDonald, a man sentenced to death 30 years ago for the murder of his wife and daughters.  Morris is convinced that MacDonald is innocent and has written a book about it, a revisionist history, A Wilderness of Error.  Will this be THE THIN BLUE LINE 2.0?

13 September 2012

A wonderfully written double-review in this week’s NYRB of the summer’s two best movies — Benh Zeitlin‘s BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD and Wes Anderson‘s MOONRISE KINGDOM.  I wish Geoffrey O’Brien‘s piece was not pay-walled, though.  Perhaps one can register with the NYRB for free?  I hope so…

I feel stronger about BEASTS than about MOONRISE; I am reminded of an interview with U.S. Open Champion Andy Murray on Charlie Rose the other night, where the phrase “complete game” kept coming up.  Murray’s opponent, Novac Djokovic, has power, athleticism, consistency; but Murray has variety, nimbleness, the full array of skills.  BEASTS is sprawling and intense, fantastical and hyper-real, equally emotional and physical in its approach to the spectacular; the film’s action, for me, feels integral — both cause and effect in relation to the characters and the world Zeitlin conjures.  The action in MOONRISE feels at times (especially at the end) like a mere vehicle to showcase Anderson’s imaginative reach, as manifest in visual and verbal style.  Both films, at any rate, well worth seeing.

I am teaching a course of the literature of childhood this term; and writing/thinking constantly about “sense of place,” as an editor at The Common.  So both these films, and O’Brien’s review, hit all kinds of chords.  Will be writing more about all of the above soon…

8 September 2012

A belated posting of some photos I took in Germany — at Documenta13, an art fair in Kassel.

The exhibits are spread out all over town; we’d been walking a long time.  It was hot and muggy.  A friend had recommended stopping at Apichatpong Weerasethakul‘s  installation, which involved hammocks.

We were all over that.

The experience was, dare I say it, magical (if you’ve seen Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, this will not seem surprising).  I am sure there is a more sophisticated analysis of the artist’s intentions, but the simplicity of Lie still, look up, for an over-busy urbanite, was profound in itself.

2 September 2012

Chris Kenneally‘s SIDE BY SIDE  – a documentary about The Death of Film and The Takeover of Digital is well worth seeing. If for no other reason than to marvel at how our little Keanu (Reeves) — the film’s co-producer and on-screen interviewer — has grown up.

Most fascinating for me was witnessing the passion with which our contemporary masters — David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Steven Soderbergh, George Lucas, James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Lars von Trier, David Lynch, Lana and Andy Wachowski — along with a handful of talented indie filmmakers, spoke about the good and the bad of digital’s ascendance.  At the core, it seems to me, is the question of control — with digitization came unlimited manipulability of the image, as well as flexibility: without the physical encumbrances of film and film cameras, cinematography has become a whole new thing, and for some, that whole new thing is miraculous, while for others, it is no longer Art.

I was also intrigued by the discussion of pacing: it used to be that you’d shoot a full day and wouldn’t know what you had until the next day, when the crew got together to view the “dailies,” after the film was processed overnight.  You also took many breaks throughout the day to reload film magazines.  With digital, the shooting process changed drastically — for directors, cinematographers, actors (and later, for the editors and colorists).  Everything happened faster, and continuously.  Everything that was shot could be viewed, by the entire cast and crew, immediately.  The camera kept rolling and rolling, because why not — the pressure to conserve precious, expensive film had disappeared from the process.

We all know movie making has changed; SIDE BY SIDE details those changes and how everyone involved in the process has been affected.  The film is making me think about the process of art-making, about the fundamental relationship between an artist and her materials, her media — about what it means, really, to be “free” to create meaningful art.

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