Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Master - film review

So here’s a film review for a change, having seen The Master.

I don’t do many film reviews, mostly because there’s little reason to do so given the relatively small number of films that command our attention in comparison to books. Plus, books are more fun to review because they elicit wildly different subjective experiences, and monopolize a greater chunk of our time, per unit, in consumption.

I won’t bother describing the plot of The Master in any great detail. Suffice to write that a man leaves WWII an alcoholic and drifts a while before being taken in by the charismatic leader of a movement called The Cause.

Now, this is interesting, because a) the film is set in the 1950’s, and any movement called The Cause has manifestly not survived to today, so we watch the main character’s rapt involvement in The Cause with the constant apprehension that he is being had, and b) the technique of regression hypnosis that members of The Cause use to enable people to connect to past lives. We’ve seen it before. We think we know where this is headed. Except we don’t.

The Master subverts expectation at every possible turn. And as it does so, we, ok I, as viewer am reminded that, guru or no guru, sect or legitimate organization, helpful movement or large-scale fraud, these distinctions are interpretive and distort any image we may have of the internal workings of a closed society. And as the film developed, I realized that Paul Thomas Anderson, the director, had made a potent and clever choice: he wasn’t going to answer the obvious question of The Cause’s legitimacy.

And, making that choice, he took the film off the rails of a predetermined narrative. The rest is just humans doing as humans do, in the large range of personalities that thrive in such an environment.

There is a wife to The Cause’s head. You are confounded if you expect the self-erased, diffident, preening woman-child. We are presented here with a true queen, just a step back from the position of power and commanding it as much as he, albeit from the vantage of an ostensibly supportive role.

There are children, a son and a daughter, privy to the inner workings of the organization but also assertively developed individuals whose presence in The Cause is not predetermined nor cordoned off.

And of course there is the latest comer, the main character, struggling with himself, struggling with his past and the ghost of a woman he has loved and left for reasons that he himself cannot explain, and whose presence in The Cause is as much a surprise to himself as it is to us, ok me, the viewer. Because, of course, he is our proxy, he is us investigating himself through the lens of the organization, sincerely curious as to whether it is indeed possible that he can be cured of his internal strife through some revealed truth.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - book review

my rating: 5/5

This is a review not of the book, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again”, but the essay itself, which is contained in the book and accompanies a few other essays which I have not read.

This, hands down, the most powerful essay I have ever read. By that I mean that it resonated powerfully within me, and totally upended my conception of what first-person journalism could be. I’d already been profoundly wowed reading the account of eating lobster in his essay “Consider the Lobster” , but this, this –

One always expects a journalist to be critical. He or she are our eyes and ears in the field, there to ask the tough questions and scratch at official answers and accepted truths. David Foster Wallace here goes much, much further. Written as a memoir of a cruise vacation in the Caribbean, Wallace is as critical of himself as he is of his surroundings, and readily accepts that the surroundings themselves: the luxury, the ease, the service (oh my, the service!), the trimmings, all work terribly well in the first sense at providing an scarcely imaginable level of comfort to the people who go on these cruises. And they work on Wallace, and he graciously accepts his own weakness and malleability. But then he goes further, and shines an unforgiving light on what is being conveyed by the opulence of the ship: the subtext, that which is being picked up by his subconscious and making him sadder every day that he spends in his cabin on the Nadir and at all the myriad activities proposed for the fun and amusement of the passengers.

It’s an exploration of the self as much as the world of cruises, his self as an American tourist (that he tries unsuccessfully to escape from), his self as a self-proclaimed semi-agoraphobe, his self as a man of letters with pretensions of self-discipline incapable of foregoing cabin service…

An incredible read.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Le Grand Coeur - book review

My rating : 3/5
Jacques Coeur was a rich 15th Century French merchant. He made his wealth by trading with the great cities of the Mediterranean, and amassed such a fortune that he could afford to finance whole wars led by then king Charles VII to reclaim France from English invaders and against rebellious princes. That’s the historical fact part.

In this novel, the author sets out to flesh up Jacques and show the man behind the historical figure, propose a believable substance that could account for the multifarious opinions that France has held about him, at the time and since.

As such, I found it a little hard to swallow.

For one, Jacques is filthy rich, the richest man in France, but presents himself as someone who never cared for money and just saw it as a means to favour exchange with the orient and bring France kicking and screaming into the cultural limelight. To this I call bullshit: I don’t believe for a second that you can get filthy rich without enjoying filthy richness, at least to a point.

Also, his attraction to the Orient is explained by his having once seen a leopard.

I found this a little weak.

He is portrayed as an atheist, which I found to be difficult to accept from a 15th century merchant with little to do with philosophers and much to do with politics.

Then, there’s the matter of Agnès Sorel, the king’s first mistress, who a “close” friend of Jacques. We’re supposed to believe that their friendship went as far as sharing a bed on numerous occasions, all the while remaining chaste and brotherly.

No way. Does not compute.

Jacques’ star rises and eventually falls when his immense wealth sparks the king’s jealousy. He is accused of various acts of treason by scheming merchants and nobles close to the king and winds up brought to justice. Here, he shows himself noble to the end and barely even protests when they start to torture him. He then readily signs his confession and formulates a plan to escape, without bloodshed. It fails, of course, and in his escape he has a guard killed, but this is shown to be coincidental and the guard in question is described as a bad, bad man anyways.
I found the whole portraiture to be contrived. I understand that the author, born and raised in Bourges not far from Jacques Coeur’s palace, felt an innate kinship to the historical figure and wished to show Jacques’ valour and high-mindedness. I think a better approach would have been to accept the failings of the character and show the man blemishes-and-all.

About the writing style: I read the book in French, and the writing is pleasantly (and surprisingly) straightforward for a book written by a member of the French Académie. It’s a pleasant, though sometimes dry and mostly humourless, read.