Archive | July, 2015

Interlude 1. Whiplash. Hard To Be a God. BirdMan. The Drop.

31 Jul

I’ve seen a number of very fine movies recently, all made with supreme skill and confidence. But the technique in three of the four movies cuts into any type of moral or message, overwhelming the movie’s ideas. It’s a weird trend, the directing acumen outshining the writing, but here we have three excellent movies that are, on close inspection, missing something essential. Or at least, they seem to be.

Whiplash—The film follows a music student at a top New York music school. He falls under the tutelage of a verbally abusive teacher, and the two wage a psychological war.  The music is excellent, and the director knows how to pace a film; there isn’t an inch of fat. Whiplash offers three dynamite performances—Miles Teller and J.K Simmons, of course, but also a very fine minor role for Paul Reiser. I didn’t just like it, I loved it, I had a great time watching it, and the tension is close to unbearable. The movie feels alive in a way that many movies don’t. But the teacher, played by J.K. Simmons is tyrannical, insulting, dismissive, punishing and utterly unredeemable. Okay, fine, yet the movie seems to side with him near the end. It’s a disconcerting and discomfiting movie, for the message seems to be arguing for the asshole school of artistry—an artist has to be driven, talented, and lucky as well as selfish and cruel to have any chance at greatness. That’s a bitter pill to swallow. Assured ambience and atmosphere, stunning lighting and acting, unforgettable set pieces—the film is festooning with technique—but what is the movie saying? Is art bad?

Excellent and vibrant and alive. But what is it saying?

Excellent and vibrant and alive. But what is it saying?

Hard To Be a God—is dripping and oozing film technique of a different kind, a hybrid of Bergman and Tarkovsky and Cassavetes and Burroughs and some Euro-trash fantasy knockoff from the 1980s. And more than a little of Orson Welles’s The Trial. So, before I say anything else, let’s be clear: Hard To Be a God is tasteless, crass, revolting, repugnant, often nonsensical, hinting at profundity but never achieving it. It’s also utterly compelling, stunningly executed, and beautifully photographed. The director seems to be rehashing the same territory as The Man Who Fell To Earth (itself quite a an overrated clunker), that people lose track of their self-purpose through hedonism. Life is cheap. Man is a runty animal. And, I don’t know, without modern sewage removal our dwellings would smell bad.

The conceit is astonishing: scientists in the future discover a planet just like ours, on the cusp of the Enlightenment. The scientists ingratiate themselves in the local populace to study and record the coming advances, only the enlightenment never happens. It’s just the grindhouse of the middle ages, religious persecutions, plagues, riots, holy wars, purges and horrid sanitation.

Welcome to the sludgy wasteland. Now die.

Welcome to the sludgy wasteland. Now die.

Hard To Be a God offers little exposition outside the first few minutes. I think the scientists have installed themselves as the ruling class, including Rumata, who has set himself up as the son of a god. Rumata’s quest is to drag the humanoid alien race into modernity without interfering too much. He tries, in vain, to save poets and scientists and interesting people from the various pitfalls but the world is such disarray around him he spends much of the movie wandering in a drunken daze. Another human, Reba, has set himself up as a kind of Colonel Kurtz for the entire world. Rumata projects violence, always claiming to cut off ears for fun, but when he’s attacked he works hard not to hurt anyone. But the crumbling society he is trapped in has such cheap notions of life that his ideals aren’t just tested, they’re proven completely and utterly false. He sees disemboweling, defenestration. He witnesses people being scalped, beheaded, raped, hung, burned at the stake, ripped apart by medieval devices. But he spends most of the movie sniffing various garments.

The movie unfolds with long, uninterrupted tracking shots. The sets and the art design are unfathomable; the movie feels like you are wandering lost in some god-forsaken outpost of a dying world. The sound and the actor’s blocking are unparalleled. But much of the movie is crowded with excess, with clunky backgrounds stuffed with hanging innards, quivering buttocks, pig heads and blunt spears and all manner of rusting metal. It’s beautiful to look at, yet unflaggingly ugly. A neat trick in and of itself, I suppose. But the movie is three hours long.

I’m glad I watched this movie, but it’s a far cry from the great films of Bergman (Wild Strawberries) or Goddard (Alphaville!) or Tarkovsky (I would watch Andre Rubilev five more times before I watched this again) or Fellini (La Dolce Vita forever!) or any of the other great directors. It’s exquisite filmmaking in service to a boorish and abhorrent worldview. That. Is. Utterly. False. People are always striving to build things. Our own middle ages produced Milton, Boccaccio, Dante, the Celestina and so many other grand cathedrals and works of art. Here, the human animal has never been so goddamn repellant.

 

Birdman: Or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)—Yet a third astonishing, bravura technical accomplishment, the entire film appearing to be one extended take (a la Russian Ark, which actually was one take), the passage of time and the warp of physical space more elaborate than the fabled early stage performances of “The Alchemist.” Stunning tracking shots and a delirious lead performance from Michael Keaton—you can’t take your eyes off of him—combine with a weird mashup of Raymond Carver and magical realism and Hollywood blockbuster and 1930s screwball comedy. And it all works. Mostly.

But, again, what is the movie saying? There’s an angry critic and an existential teenager and a pretentious method actor and the backstage machinery of a play. It’s funny and thrilling and anxiety-inducing. It’s a thunderous experience—I loved watching it, I could hardly breathe with anticipation—but the reverberating echoes make less sense as I gain distance. One critic called it a faux art film. This seems harsh and weirdly unfair. But, the movie’s cynicism near the end cuts into much of what I was watching. (I won’t give it away, in case you haven’t seen it, but the narrative breaks down in a tremendous manner.) It’s the third movie that overpowers you with a brash and awesome spectacle of cinema. But it feels disconnected and divorced from the reality it’s supposed to be mirroring. Work hard and you can be sort of rich? Acting is a punishing and often facile profession? Hollywood is vacuous, money-driven place?

Stunning. And maybe pointless.

Stunning. And maybe pointless.

The Drop—Which brings me to my favorite of the bunch, the least conspicuously artful, yet the most measured, the most patient and probably the best of this esteemed little list. (An opinion that will certainly rankle my fellow cinephiles.) The Drop is a little crime movie following two cousins, James Gandolfini and Tom Hardy, who run a little dive bar that holds money for the mob. They are robbed, there’s twists and turns and some dead bodies, but I won’t give any of the plot mechanics away. The Drop has courage, however, to attempt real human emotion against a noir caper plot; you care about the characters and you understand them. The acting is superb; Tom Hardy gives a nuanced, subtle and heart-breaking turn as the not-too-capable bagman in a lonely, violent world. The lighting is top-notch. And the movie has intimations of a sinister creepiness, the twilight zone invading a semi-normal life. Only, here, it’s believable. These are people living with one foot in a netherworld and violence is stalking them. The film’s argument—in this world, you can be decent, you just cannot be weak—is laid out in a clear, unnerving manner, and the surprise ending reveals itself to have been the inevitable conclusion of the story, you just didn’t see it coming. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Excellent, elevated filmmaking that seems simple, but isn't.

Excellent, elevated filmmaking that seems simple, but isn’t.

 

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NBAW, part 38: 1975’s The Hair of Harold Roux.

29 Jul

(Have been writing like a banshee, but have neglected the blog a bit. More to come over the next week and a half, some movie reviews, a True Detective season 2 rant, and other miscellany.)

1.

In 1975, Thomas Williams won the National Book Award for his fabulous academic novel of the 1960s, The Hair of Harold Roux. Williams split the award with Robert Stone’s The Dog Soldiers.

Roux begins with an English professor, nearing middle age and with children of his own, suffering from writer’s block, self-doubt, and existential unease. His name is Aaron Benham. He’s facing a long weekend alone, as he’s mistakenly forgotten a family trip and his wife has left him behind. His star pupil, named George, is nearing the deadline for his dissertation, and George cannot seem to gather the strength to finish it. Another former student, named Mark, has gone missing, and Mark’s mother has asked Benham for help.

So Benham attempts to help George and save Mark, at the expense of taking care of his own family. Here’s an early interaction between George and Benham, on why George won’t finish his dissertation:

“. . . I think I may be going off my nut, and I don’t like it, Aaron.” His eyes are still unfocused. “I mean I can’t shake it. It’s like my head’s in a vice and all the assholes of the world are turning the goddamn handle. We haven’t learned lesson number one. Maybe we don’t even know what it is. But we’re killing the world, Aaron. . . . That’s psychotic, man, and I think I’ve caught it and what’s the use? How can you not think about something, Charles? Nerve gas, radioactive wastes that have to be kept refrigerated for eight generations or else, not to mention being located in earthquake zones. Television fucking outright lies, brain rot, money worship, rivers in hell that catch fire. . . . And the whole stinking race is born of rape. . .”

“So why bother finishing your dissertation?”

“Oh, that. I don’t mean that. I don’t know, maybe so. But everything is dying, so what does anything matter? . . . . We’re deliberately killing ourselves!”

“I am the asphalt; let me work.”

“Yeah.”

“Get your dissertation done and then worry about all that.”

 

And if all of this sounds like the stuff of a good novel, there’s more, for the bulk of the story follows a novel inside this one, Benham’s manuscript titled, of course, The Hair of Harold Roux.

It’s a clever, perhaps too clever, way of dealing with the knotty challenges of writing compelling stories about real people; you occlude through the distance of fiction. Benham’s manuscript details an incident from his college years—his fiction is almost entirely autobiographical—where his alter-ego, Allard Benson, seduces a Catholic school girl named Mary. Benson leads Mary to believe he’ll marry her if she sleeps with him.

This interior story is rich and complex and lovingly detailed, with a dozen or so other students moving around the edges of the plot. One of Benson’s friends is a young man named Harold Roux, a comedic, pathetic, prematurely aged student who wears a ridiculous hair piece and refuses to acknowledge he’s balding. He’s so sensitive that he even walks funny so that a strong wind won’t knock it off. Harold loves Mary, while Allard is screwing Mary’s roommate, and Allard juggles the feelings of the other characters against his own desires with astonishing self-rationalization. The saga plays out against the burgeoning student radical movements of the 1960s.

The manuscript story grows so compelling, that when the novel switches back to Benham the writer, it’s a bit boring. It’s clear, as the novel progresses, that Benham is using the novel to work out past transgressions. But his current predicament—being alone in the house with his memories and too much drink—is so much less compelling than the flashbacks.

The novel grows in power as you read it, becomes more intriguing, more arresting as the pages pass. I was elated to find, near the end, that Williams was a novelist of the first order. And here I had almost given up around page 30.

2.

Williams was a major rising talent in the 1960s, and is now largely forgotten. He is similar to Wright Morris, a feted author and winner of numerous recognitions, short stories in The New Yorker, reviews on the front page of major publications, blurbs from top authors and on firm critical footing who has, somehow, slipped into the dustbin.

Which is a shame, for on the basis of Roux[1], Williams is a major talent. He’s funny, almost unruly in his savagery, sexy, raunchy, clever, thrilling and fun to read. Here he is, describing Benham trying to make a little extra money working on a boat chartered by rednecks:

“The boat moved gently beneath them, and the smell of the cove was powerful: that salty compound of life and rot, chemical, natural, speaking of the dense life of the sea. Through the clamshells on the mud bottom, and crabs moving sideways over white strings of fish parts someone had thrown out.

“. . . When the bus finally came, it was three-quarters of an hour late, having had a flat tire, and the troops had obviously been at the booze. They filed slowly out the front door, a little too careful on the steps. Some carried spinning rods and tackle, but most carried, with many grunts and deep breaths, cases of beer, plastic coolers, and cardboard boxes of food. The logistics of the operation were complicated.

“. . . They were men from their late twenties to early fifties, but all their aces, beneath their story hats or long-bulled caps, were equally blasted, the younger haunted by the finalities of the older. Except for the starved, thin bodies of the burnt-out, gut-troubled types, most were soft-bellied. Though thin elsewhere, they carried a feminine roll over the hips, and navels or pale hairy mounds of flesh were visible between T-shirts and low-slung belts, or between the gaps of printed sport shirts. . . . Flesh colors were tones of gray; they must have all worked indoors, and in their evenings . . . the television set above the bar must have chrome-tanned them into its own metallic tones. They were shades of green, or bruised blue—all on the side of the spectrum away from blood and life, toward the dank, the enclosed.”

You can read that final descriptive paragraph half a dozen times and marvel at the economy, the concision, the humor, the dread, the worry, the anger and the skill. Marvelous stuff.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

A very fine, sexy and funny novel. Just with a bad title.

So he writes well. There are some clunkers here and there, flush up against the brilliant writing, but he has plenty of talent.

There are reasons why Williams slid out of view, although they all rest on a number of conjecturing suppositions. But here goes.

He has no one big book. I said this before, but a magnum opus goes a long way to securing an author future readers. (Think Moby Dick or Catch-22.) It provides an entry-point for fans and ballast for college literature courses. He didn’t write any autobiographical coming of age novels, either (To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Black Swan Green), which, when written well, gives a writer a chance at a coveted spot on high school required reading lists.

He’s similar to other writers. In this case, with the academic setting, he’s writing in a very specific genre, crowded with masterpieces. Herzog is an academic novel, of sorts, as are John Williams’s Stoner and Bernard Malamud’s The Good Life—three of the great novels of the twentieth century. Roux fits with this company, with more than a little of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom added to the mix. Only Williams, as good as he is, and he is a very fine writer, isn’t quite up to the level of these other novelists.

There isn’t a riveting story about Thomas Williams the man. (Cheever was a bisexual drunk; Norman Mailer an ass-worshiping wife-beater; Flannery O’Connor was a death-obsessed cripple who probably never went on a real date; James Ellroy was a homeless drug addict; Katherine Anne Porter was blinded in one eye by an abusive husband; and so on.)

Williams also comes out of the college writing programs/workshop tradition. This doesn’t endear him to future readers. There’s something overly worked out in his prose.

And, I don’t know, the title? It’s a bad title. All of his titles seem forgettable—A High New House, Town Burning, The Followed Man—or just badly weird: Whipple’s Castle, Tsuga’s Children. Ugh and double ugh.

Perhaps its random fate. Faulkner was almost forgotten. Don Carpenter was forgotten. Some make it, some don’t. Not very cheery, but perhaps that’s all there is.

 

3.

The Hair of Harold Roux revolves around Benham’s moral ineptitude, and the casual treachery of his fictional alter-ego. Aaron Benham is complicit, self-loathing, lazy, cheating, rationalizing creature, a lumbering armchair philosopher who ignores his wife and forgets family gatherings. His fictional creation, Allard, is somehow worse, nearly inhuman in his callousness, devoid of even a modicum of empathy, conniving and mean-spirited. If Roux has any major flaws, it’s in the nasty disregard both of the main characters have for other people.

And, well, we’ve seen this type of character before, the womanizing intellectual. In fact, despite capturing the campus life of the sixties rather well, Williams fills the pages with themes so common in American literature they’ve become tropes: Philandering intellectuals, constantly rationalizing their choices; an undercurrent of biology to the proceedings, men aren’t meant to be monogamous, etcetera; and writing fiction as the hardest job there is[2].

Williams—and Robert Stone—beat out a number of fine novelists for the top award, including Donald Barthelme, Gail Godwin, Joseph Heller, Toni Morrsion, Vladimir Nabakov, Grace Paley, Philip Roth and Mark Smith, who was nominated for his underground Death of the Detective.

[1] The novel was re-issued in 2011, and there seems to be some renewed interest in Williams’s other novels.

[2] Which is patently absurd.