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Sunday, January 31, 2010

In Defense of Holden Caulfield

As you surely know, J.D. Salinger died this past week, and it surely would have annoyed him how much media attention that attracted. A large percentage of the reporting has been of the respectful or laudatory type that we expect when a notable person dies, but to a surprisingly large collection of critics, pundits, and know-it-alls, the death of Salinger, at age 91 and after a decades-long withdrawal from public life, seemed a fine time to trash the man's literary reputation and his "reclusivity" (the definition of a recluse is someone who won't give the media whatever they want; media people don't understand why people don't like answering their questions, because they never have to answer them), mostly through a misreading of the man's most famous work, The Catcher in the Rye. Besides being in bad taste (even at 91, a man's death is still not something to be treated frivolously) this broad, generalizing dismissal of Catcher is something that I feel needs to be addressed. Salinger doesn't need and wouldn't welcome any words I could offer in his defense, but Holden Caulfield might.

I first read The Catcher in the Rye when I was 13 years old. I say "first" because I've read the book several times since, although admittedly not recently enough to quote extensively for this little composition. It and Huckleberry Finn are the only books I've ever read more than twice. And yeah, that first time, and maybe even ever other time I read it in my teenage years I had the typical reaction that some critics love to mock or more ridiculously, regard as psychopathic. I though I was Holden Caulfield and everyone one else was "a goddam phony." I thrilled at his adventures and misadventures, and I too wanted to erase all the "fuck yous" carved into park benches and knew there wasn't enough time. I thought of several people I knew who seemed like Stradlater.

(I wondered, at 13, whether those people who were like Stradlater ever read Catcher, and if they did, if they realized they were like him, or if they too cast themselves as Holden. Holden is something of an everyman, despite his seeming alienation.)

I remember the first time I even heard of anyone not liking Catcher. I was honestly surprised. An English teacher told me that when she taught in a largely African-American school, the children there had resented Holden Caulfield. They looked at his wealth, at his advantages (all those fancy prep schools) and they saw that hated figure, the "poor little rich boy" and they disdained him.

This reaction seems prevalent in adult readers of the novel as well, even those who enjoyed the novel in their more vulnerable adolescence. To adults, Holden seems whiny and possibly even dangerously antisocial. They bemoan his refusal to take action or be responsible.

A lot of people's defense of Holden just centers on the fact that he's a teenager, and well, all teenagers are like that, which may be true but feels ineffective as a defense, since it limits the book to teenagers, and limits teenagers to trifles unworthy of serious books. Other people try to defend the book by claiming Holden is clearly insane, and thus mark the book as groundbreaking for being narrated by a psychopath. This also feels inadequate. Too many people around Holden's age feel similarly for me to be entirely comfortable with branding Holden worthy of commitment.

There is one thing I never see in any of the "takedowns" of Holden Caulfield or Catcher as a whole, and I wonder if people are reading the same book that I read. People look at the fact that he's a rich kid who goes to prep school and disqualify him as a potentially interesting figure. The fact that he seems depressed and alienated despite privilege aggravates some people to no end. People seem to think that money makes people happy, despite basically the entirety of human history proving them wrong. Everybody's got problems, whether life gives them to you or you make them for yourself. So to say that Holden should just shape up and get over it is fairly ignorant and decidedly insensitive, even ignoring (which you shouldn't) the fact that HIS LITTLE BROTHER DIES!

Does no one remember this? Do people think all Holden's parents money should excuse him from being sad? Yeah, he's a rich kid, but he's a young boy who's going through a difficult period of life for anyone, and he's doing it while simultaneously trying to come to terms with the death of his beloved brother Allie.

When you remember Allie's death, as so many socioeconomic-obsessed readers don't, The Catcher in the Rye becomes a portrait of a singular person with singular problems. It's not some defense of teenage angst, it's not some polemic condemning the phonies of the world, and it's most certainly not some coded message to assassins. It's a story of a boy who can't handle his brother's death. So get off Holden Caulfield's back. He really doesn't need the stress.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Fortress of Solitude

Contemporary literary fiction can tend to feel very repetitive. Everything is outsized characters in outlandish situations that span the globe and usually involve sex with both genders. Absurdity and hysteria can overwhelm the prose, and talent can be drowned in the process.

However, Jonathan Lethem's 2003 novel avoids these pitfalls for the greater part of its 500 or so pages. Despite the protagonist Dylan Ebdus's modest travels, the novel has a real understanding of the importance of place. Lethem knows Brooklyn better than any sociologist, and it shows in his exploration of the transformation of black and Puerto Rican Gowanus Heights into gentrified Boerum Hill. The Ebduses are one of the first white families to move in, as Dylan's mother has noble intentions of raising a race-blind child, even if that means letting her son get bullied and ostracized at school. Dylan's experiences in the public school are torturous to read but to Lethem's credit they feel very real.

Dylan struggles to fit into the games played by the non-white children of Dean Street, and finds grudging acceptance due to his talent at a bottle-cap game named scully. Real acceptance seems imminent when Dylan befriends Mingus Rude, the mixed-race child of a coke-addicted soul singer on the outs from his famous band.

The friendship between Dylan and Ebdus also has quite a bit of truth in it, despite some admittedly unlikely occurrences, both sexual and aerodynamic. There are the requisite betrayals, real and imagined, in any childhood friendship, and Lethem brilliantly depicts the unevenness of the duo. Dylan needs Mingus infinitely more than vice versa, and both children know it. Indeed, Mingus seems cruel when he leaves Dylan on his own in the hallways at school.

The peripheral characters remain firmly fixed in the background, and the novel is low on subplots, but these are not faults in light of the strength of Dylan and Mingus as characters.

The novel's obsession with soul music is daunting to a non-expert such as myself, but you get the sense that Lethem really does know what he is talking about, which is probably good enough.

I had two major problems with the plot of the novel. The first was the poorly explained and too infrequently mentioned absconding of Rachel Ebdus, Dylan's mother. It feels too much like a minor event, and its ramifications are indiscernible. The second problem is that the end of the novel is overwhelmed by quirk in a way the rest of the novel just isn't. I should explain with a mild spoiler. At some point in the novel, Dylan and Mingus discover a magic ring which initially bestows the power of flight, later switching to the power of invisibility. Remarkably, this remains subtly done until the end, when it figures in a major way into the story's ho-hum resolution, which I won't spoil in this space. I think the inclusion of real superpowers into the narrative was an unfortunate and unnecessary choice, borne out of a misplaced desire to be hip and edgy. What Lethem and so many others fail to realize is that when everyone is hip and edgy in the same way, it fails to stand out anymore.

The Fortress of Solitude gets a 7.2 out of 10 for strong characters, a vibrant setting, and a lot of truth. It loses points for not being true to itself.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

The current film adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, while not inspiring me to make a trip to the movie theater, has inspired me to reconnect with one of my favorite fictional characters. I have been sporadically making my way through the Grenada Television adaptations of the Conan Doyle stories, starring the magnificent Jeremy Brett as the great detective, and I have been seeking out other film adaptations to place on my Netflix queue. I have seen several of the old Basil Rathbone movies, and while Rathbone portrays the character admirably, I have never enjoyed those movies very much. They suffer from weak scripts and logical gaps in the plot, an unforgivable error in a Sherlock Holmes story.

In my searching I came across a movie I couldn't believe I hadn't encountered previously. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is a 1970 feature directed by Billy Wilder, who in a previous post I put forth as my suggestion for best director of all time. How had I missed a movie about one of my favorite characters, by my favorite director?

The answer is because the movie was something of a flop and a disappointment upon its release. It also features no real stars, the original plan to cast Peter O'Toole as Sherlock and Peter Sellers as Watson being scrapped early on. Robert Stephens plays Sherlock instead, and gives him a bit more wittiness and more fun than most incarnations. At first he didn't seem like a good fit, but his performance grew on me as the film went on. Colin Blakely's Watson would have been better without the constant over-acting and attempts at comic relief, but was not too much of a drag on the story. The only ancillary character to really stand out is Christopher Lee's Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's influential brother.

The script is very strong, which you would expect in a Wilder movie, co-written with his recurrent partner I.A.L. Diamond. There are several knowing nods to the original stories, and some slight poking fun, but of the sort done by people clearly in love with the original material.

The set-up is that, fifty years after his death, the effects of Dr. Watson are unsealed and found to contain accounts of Holmes' cases thought to be too sensitive for publication during the author or the detective's lifetimes. The movie tells two of these stories. The first is an odd choice, it is essentially one long, drawn-out gay joke that isn't funny at all today and couldn't have been a screamer even forty years ago. After a prologue in which the famous pair argue about cocaine and other matters, they curiously receive two tickets to the Russian ballet. Turns out the aging ballerina wants her child to be brilliant as well as beautiful, and thinks Sherlock's genes will do the trick. Holmes is only able to get out of it by telling the lady's interpreter that women "are not his cup of tea." Hilarious, I know.

After that dreadful opening though, the movie really picks up steam. The second story feels more like an authentic Holmes story, featuring fantastically strange and disparate elements. A woman with no memory shows up at 221B Baker St, and deduction leads Holmes to suspect she is looking for her husband. The man is a mining engineer hired to design an air pump for a shady outfit called Jonah, Ltd. which turns out not to exist. Along the way, the story expands to include missing midgets, smuggled canaries, and the possible existence of the Loch Ness Monster. It all to comes to an interesting, logical, and best of all, unexpected conclusion. It feels like a real accomplishment by Wilder and Diamond that they were able to pen something in the style of Conan Doyle and make it feel original at the same time.

The story behind the movie is also rather interesting. This was supposed to be one of the biggest movies of 1970, and also one of the longest. Wilder's original cut was well over three hours, and told four unique Holmes stories. But the studio lost a lot of money, and they wanted this to be a bigger box office hit, which meant cutting it down to two hours. Two of the stories were jettisoned, and the film was lost. The DVD includes a deleted scenes section, but because the original film wasn't preserved, these are pastiches of still photographs, a few audio recordings, and at times, shots of the actual script. Two of the deleted scenes were really quite interesting, and would have been much better inclusions than the painful Russian ballerina section. One of them features an incredibly puzzling set up: a dead body in an upside-down room. The other features Holmes allowing Watson to try his hand at solving a case, with hilarious results. Apparently, the decision to cut these was not Billy Wilder's, but rather that of the editor, Ernest Walter.

Anyway, I found this a very interesting film, deserving a much better reputation. It is not among Wilder's best, but I don't think the man was capable of making an uninteresting film. This one gets 7.8 out of 10. If they'd left the right stuff on the cutting room floor it would have scored even higher.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Gentlemen of the Road

I don't have too much to say about Michael Chabon's slim but passably entertaining adventure story, Gentlemen of the Road. While I was reading it, even when I was enjoying it, I kept wishing that Chabon would write something nearly as good as Kavalier and Klay again. This is a much smaller story, one which might have deserved its original, and more frivolous title, Jews With Swords.

Yep, you read that correctly. The setting is ancient Khazaria in the year 960A.D. The story concerns two travelers and con-artists, a mopey, hat-loving physician named Zelikman and an axe-wielding African giant named Amram, as they are roped into helping an ill-tempered rightful heir whose family has been murdered and whose position has been usurped. Along the way they encounter a number of whores, hangers-on, deadly mercenaries, and elephants.

The style is meant to be reminiscent, and subtly (perhaps too subtly) parodic, of the adventure stories of the late 18th and 19th centuries. (Think Samuel Johnson's Rasselas and Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days) There are a number of little details Chabon gets right about these kinds of books, from the lengthy and absurd chapter titles, to the obscurity of vocabulary and the convoluted dialogue, but overall the effect is unmemorable. Chabon's characters, even the main protagonists, don't jump off the page.

There is something slightly off with the plotting of the novel also. Chabon's set pieces seem too straightforward and unexciting. This is strange coming from the guy who set a huge chunk of Kavalier and Klay in an abandoned military station in Antarctica and built a whole novel out of chess-obsessed Alaskan Jews.

To get to the point, this is an inessential read, even in the author's own body of work. While it obviously took a lot of effort to research and talent to compose, the question I found myself asking most was Why?

Giving him some points for the strength (and mercifully, the brevity) of his prose, I'll give this a 5.1 out of 10.

Next? I picked up a copy of Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, which I've been meaning to read for some time. If the book club gets back up and running though, that may interfere.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Up in the Air

In a way, the fact that Up in the Air is considered by nearly all reviewers one of the two or three best films of the year is sad. Not that it isn't a very good movie, but there should be dozens of films of this quality released every year. The things that make Up in the Air stand out from a crowd are solid actors well cast, a polished script, and a talented if over-meddlesome director. Call me crazy, but that hardly sounds like an unreplicable process. And yet people are amazed.

But I'm not going to hold Up in the Air responsible for the rest of Hollywood. This is a fine film, one that I hope gets the wider audience that is so often denied to movies which are aimed primarily at adults and which do not feature superheroes. Clooney is his charming and engaging self as Ryan Bingham, a man who feels at home on an airplane and finds some dignity in firing people in person for a living. Vera Farmiga (The Departed) plays his female counterpart and in every way his equal. They meet up when they can in high-class hotels around the country and have believable chemistry. Anna Kendrick, who is apparently from the Twilight series, plays a hot-shot Cornell grad who impresses Clooney's boss (Jason Bateman) with an idea to fire people via video chat and save a ton on travel expenses.

The byplay between Kendrick and Clooney was my favorite part of the movie. Clooney's world of frequent flyer miles and handshakes is outdated, but Kendrick's plans seem horrifically impersonal and cruel. When her boyfriend breaks up with her via text message, Clooney can't help but point out the similarity to firing someone over the Internet. It's a good line (one of many in the script) and a good point besides. When the two of them are on the road together, with Clooney trying to show Kendrick that what he does (and more importantly, how he does it) has value, the movie really soars. (Forgive the airplane pun.) Kendrick's acting is superb in scenes where she tries to fire people, especially at a factory in Detroit where Bateman makes her fire people by chat even though they are there in the next room.

The film's topicality is perhaps the biggest boon to its Oscar chances, but they are not pure Awards-bait, and scenes highlighting the harsh nature of business and the rough economy are well-handled and seem more sincere than one might expect. One of the buildings Clooney visits is practically hollowed out, there are desks missing and the receptionist bursts into tears at the sight of them. It's a really haunting image. There is also the much-discussed use of real people, all of whom have been recently fired, in montages throughout the film. It says something to Reitman's talent that this doesn't distract from the film or feel as forced as it could have.

Without spoiling the movie, I will say that I enjoyed the way the movie handled the budding relationship between Clooney and Farmiga. It seemed different and, though I predicted it, the resolution felt more organically determined than cliche. I also thought the ending was interesting. Though it might be considered open-ended, I feel very strongly towards one possibility. I'm not sure if that says something about me or the movie, but I liked it.

Up in the Air is a professionally made, thoroughly competent, well-written and well-acted movie. If that's enough to win Best Picture so be it. Here it earns an 8.1 out of 10.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

I resisted seeing Inglourious Basterds when it was in theaters, and not just because of objections to its disregard for proper spelling. I had read some negative reviews which threw around such weighty phrases as "moral relativity" and "troubling violence" and assumed that the film was just over-stylized gore and not worth my time. I was very, very wrong.

While it's true that Tarantino's film ignores any questions about the meaning of it's title characters quest to scalp 100 Nazis each, it does so knowingly and cheerfully. Tarantino is telling a comic-book story of inherent good taking on inherent evil. There are no "good Nazis" in this movie, a dreary war movie cliche of recent times, when Hollywood seems to try and tell us that "deep down, we're really all the same." Tarantino says "Fuck that" and it's really fun to watch him do it.

The film is beautifully shot, right from the incredibly tense opening scene featuring Christoph Waltz's Col. Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa conversing with a French Dairy farmer about the characteristics of the Jews and the quality of his milk all while trying to suss out whether or not the farmer is hiding Jews under his floorboards. (He is.) Waltz is terrifying in this scene and in his others throughout the film. He creates an unease in the other characters and in the audience despite seeming polite and even charming on the surface. Even when he lets Shosanna Dreyfuss escape his gunmen, it seems somehow an act of cruelty. It's an astonishing performance, and it's easy to see why there is so much Oscar talk surrounding Waltz, despite this being his first English-language film. (Waltz displays fluency in four languages as Landa, German, English, French and Italian, the last in an incredibly funny scene in the movie's fifth and final chapter.)

Next we're introduced to Aldo Raine and the Basterds. Pitt's Southern barking is comical but in a fun way, and the rest of his all-Jew unit are basically just there to terrify an equally cartoonish Hitler.

The real treats in the movie outside of Waltz and Pitt are the two leading ladies of the picture. Melanie Laurent is terrific as Shoshanna, a largely understated role. After escaping death, Shoshanna is a theater owner who is pursued by Germany's version of Audie Murphy, a war-hero turned film star. At first repulsed by his pursuit, Shoshanna decides to play along when the actor gets his movie's premiere switched into her little theater. The possibilities that come to her mind are too good to resist. She decides to try and kill all Nazis in attendance by setting fire to highly flammable 35mm film. She also films a movie of her own for the Nazis to watch as they burn.

Laurent's face expresses so much hurt, fear, and intense resolve. She is the figure the audience roots for, and there is mind-numbing suspense in watching her try to put her plan into action.

The other female role is that of German actress/spy Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Troy's Diane Kruger. Kruger is intoxicating in her introductory scene, a rendezvous with the German-speaking members of the Basterds (including Hugo Stiglitz, a psychotic ex-German soldier, and a British film expert sent in to help the Basterds blow up Shoshanna's theater on their own.) The meeting is thrown into chaos by the presence of a group of German soldiers celebrating one of their own becoming a father.

This scene is a testament to Tarantino's capabilities as a filmmaker. The scene is quite lengthy but the tension never lets up as the Basterds slowly give themselves away as impostors. The interview between the German commanding officer and the British Basterd is especially gripping. Kruger gamely tries to keep the plan from dissolving, charming the other soldiers into believing whatever lie she manages to concoct on the spot, but even she can only keep it up for so long.

The film's ending, when von Hammersmark and the remaining Basterds gamely limp into the movie premiere and Shoshanna and her black projectionist lover struggle to put their similarly-oriented plans into actions, is thrilling and surprisingly suspenseful. Tarantino has managed to create a world where anything is possible, damn the textbooks.

Inglourious Basterds is a beautifully shot, well-written and exceptionally acted thrill ride. There are maybe a few spots where Tarantino's flourishes serve to detract, such as Samuel Jackson's thankfully sporadic narration, but overall this is a masterwork made by someone with a clear love of movies and perhaps an overconfidence in their abilities. (It's no accident that film relies so much on movies for it's plot and resolution.) This is a great movie, 9.6 out of 10.

Next? I think I'm dipping back into Wes Anderson with The Darjeeling Limited, unless I finish the Chabon beforehand.