New in Theaters: ‘Six Million and One’

 

My review of the new documentary Six Million and One is running now at Film Journal International:

Some of the most discomfiting imagery in films about the Holocaust comes not from wartime footage showing the savage effects on the prisoners or even the ghostly sites themselves. What creates the most emotional dissonance is more often the sight of these places of unbelievable butchery now sitting in well-manicured European suburbs, woven fully back into the fabric of everyday life. It begs the question: How does one live in the shadow of the unimaginable? In David Fisher’s emotional and acidic documentary Six Million and One, he digs into this question on a broader level, in effect asking: What is the point of memory? What and whom does it serve?…

Six Million and One is playing now in very limited release.

You can see the trailer here:

 

New in Theaters: ’17 Girls’

My review of the new French film 17 Girls is running now at PopMatters:

Like any good story about an epidemic, 17 Girls starts with a wholly unremarkable incident. High school student Camille (Louise Grinberg, one of the troublemakers in The Class) finds herself in a family way. But instead of hiding in embarrassment or trying to ignore her swelling belly, she flaunts it. Because Camille is the queen bee, her pregnancy begins to look attractive to her buzzing followers. Within months, bellies begin swelling all over town, and the girls are making plans for what they’re going to do with their babies. Among the things they don’t include in their agenda: not smoking or drinking while pregnant, or considering any of the complications that come with being a single teen mother…

17 Girls is playing now in limited release; make sure to check it out.

The trailer is here:

New in Books: ‘American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of The 1950’s’

My review of the nine novels in the Library of America’s new two-set volume American Science Fiction is now up at The Millions:

There was something in the air during the 1950s in America that bred an especially grand strain of science fiction whose like was never witnessed before and hasn’t been since. It was a heady concoction: postwar triumph and trauma, unprecedented technological advances, the true advent of mass media swamping the atmosphere, that pseudo-fascistic hum of nationalistic propaganda and blacklisting, and the incessant reminder that a mushroom cloud could end it all… like that. The new Library of America two-volume collection, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, dusts off nine lesser-known novels that illustrate the breadth and depth of what was happening in science fiction during that decade. With its crisply typeset cloth volumes totaling almost 3,000 pages, the sturdy box is a welcome reminder of past joys for some readers and a striking introduction to fresh futuristic wonders and Cold War chills for others…

You can also read essays on these novels by authors from William Gibson to Neil Gaiman at the Library of America site here.

DVD Tuesday: ‘Damsels in Distress’

It’s been a long time since the toga-wrapped revolution of Animal House and the whole National Lampoon “slobs vs. snobs” gauntlet toss. Long enough that in Whit Stillman’s long-awaited collegiate farce Damsels in Distress, his lead damsel can intone darkly about how at elite Seven Oaks college, “an atmosphere of male barbarism predominates,” and we are meant to think the better of her for saying it. It’s not that Stillman is trying to get away with some dire, Tom Wolfe-ian jeremiad about declining standards. Instead, he seems to want to upend the school-set comedy with his own brand of highly literate, quasi-conservative thoughtfulness (characters intoning about how much more interesting homosexuality used to be before wider societal acceptance, and so on) and splice it with a crisp and pastel-hued surrealism. It’s Dadaism for the preppie set…

Damsels in Distress is available today on DVD; check it out. My full review is at the AMC Movie Database.

You can see the trailer here:

The Modern Bookshelf: Neuroscience Goes Pop

 

Science is making incredible advances in studying the human brain, with ever-more powerful research methods allowing ever-more cranial secrets to be unlocked. Books are being written on these advances by the score, many of them promising to show how new developments will help people improve their lives. It’s an easy sell, starting with Malcolm Gladwell’s breezy and semi-insightful pronouncements on the one end and narrowing down at the other end toward books like Jonah Lehrer’s (discredited) Imagine: How Creativity Works.

As Steven Poole comments in his New Statesmen piece on this new mini-trend (which he terms an “intellectual pestilence”), anything that comes with a brain scan seems to have the imprimatur of irrefutable science on it, quoting a researcher who says: “people – even neuroscience undergrads – are more likely to believe a brain scan than a bar graph.”

Not the greatest danger, perhaps, but still, one should always be on the alert when writers come bearing exciting new studies (often wildly misinterpreted) that promise a new way to live. Per Poole:

The hucksters of neuroscientism are the conspiracy theorists of the human animal, the 9/11 Truthers of the life of the mind.

 

Reader’s Corner: George Orwell and ‘The Thinginess of Life’

As part of the effort over the past several years by various publishers to ensure the longevity of George Orwell, this past August a collection of some eleven of his diaries was released, with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens. Barry Gewen’s New York Times review doesn’t make it sound like the most engaging of reading, advising readers to take Hitch’s faint praise (notable from such an Orwell fan) to heart. In other words, there are a lot of things in these diaries that many people put in their diaries which aren’t meant to thrill the public (lists of animals spotted, far too much information about chickens).

But the review gives Gewen a chance to consider the many contradictions and attractions of Orwell’s writings, namely, his attention to the quotidian details of the everyday, the “thinginess of life.” This focus on grounded realities—as well as his natural aversion to authority—made Orwell healthily suspicious of abstractions and “isms.” Although a patriot, he despised much of the systems that constituted England: “Insofar as patriotism was equated with God, King and Country or, worse, the preservation of the British Empire, he was against it.” Gewen further notes:

What patriotism meant to Orwell was the ordinary things of his English life — heavy coins, stamp collecting, dart games, an irrational spelling system. In the essay “Notes on Nationalism,” a companion piece to “England Your England,” he said: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life.” It was around this same time that he wrote essays in praise of pubs, cricket, even (outlandishly) English cooking. He would lay down his life not for the grandiose abstractions preached by politicians and the clergy but for gardening and warm beer.

In other words, a patriot for humanity, and not a flag.

 

 

 

DVD Tuesday: ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’

 

It would be too reductive to say that Wes Anderson’s films are about people who don’t fit in. Yes, his characters are on the oddball end of the spectrum. But in Anderson’s better films (like The Royal Tenenbaums), he doesn’t fall prey to the common bugaboo of those artists who celebrate the unique. Namely, he doesn’t even bother creating an outside world to judge them for their curious behavior. There is no island of misfit toys for his characters to retreat to, because the whole that is visible doesn’t seem much different. Everybody doesn’t fit in, together…

The Royal Tenenbaums is available now in a beautiful new Blu-ray transfer from Criterion. Read my full review at PopMatters.

 

Trailer Park: ‘Wuthering Heights’

After a few nerve-scrapping modern realist dramas like Red Road and Fish Tank, the last project anybody expected British director Andrea Arnold to take on was a period piece. But that’s just what people will see in October, with her take on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. It’ll be interesting to see how audiences handle Arnold’s likely very raw take on a classic novel.

So far, though, the film’s been getting some notoriety from the fact that Arnold cast James Howson, who is black, as the anti-romantic lead, Heathcliff. Just like many people will likely forget how over-the-top melodramatic Bronte’s novel was, they will also likely forget that the author described Heathcliff as a “dark-skinned gypsy in aspect”.

You can see the trailer here:

New in Theaters: ‘The Master’

The Master makes what should have been long obvious now utterly clear: Paul Thomas Anderson can lay claim to being one of the era’s few American writer/directors afflicted with greatness. It is hard to think of another home-grown filmmaker who so consistently brings such psychologically astute scripting, and ability to coax nakedly revelatory performances from actors—that classically trained eye for widescreen framing—to each film he makes. The Master may not match the level of artistry or thematic intensity seen in There Will Be Blood, but it is Anderson’s most approachable film in years, not to mention his most vividly realized characters to date. There won’t be much else like it on screens this year…

The Master opens Friday in limited release and expands wider over the next few weeks. My full review is at Film Journal International.

The trailer is here:

Dept. of Literary Oddsmaking: The Man Booker Shortlist

The panel of judges in charge of determining what was truly awesome in literature this year and then awarding it the 2012 Man Booker Prize have announced the six novels that are making the shortlist. They are:

  • The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng
  • Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy
  • Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
  • The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore
  • Umbrella, by Will Self
  • Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil

Last year’s winner was Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, a particularly well-sculpted piece of fiction that was nevertheless several times too anemic in presentation for its own good.

The current bookies’ favorite—since people will, it seems, bet on absolutely anything—to take home the prize is Hilary Mantel’s bloody exciting and really close to perfect Bring Up the Bodies. That might not be entirely fair, since Mantel already took home the prize in 2009 for Wolf Hall, the precursor to Bodies. But nobody ever said literature was anything but a blood sport; albeit one waged in genteel, passive-aggressive fashion.

DVD Tuesday: ‘Where Do We Go Now?’

 

Filmmakers run all kinds of risks when they try to update the classics; for all the universality of some of the great dramas, they can fail miserably when downloaded into new and sometimes incompatible formats (witness what happens when studios try to dress up Austen and Shakespeare as candy-colored high school comedies). Nadine Labaki’s zesty Where Do We Go Now? has to navigate two minefields: updating Aristophanes’s Lysistrata and setting this comedy amidst modern Lebanon’s murderous religious strife. The result isn’t a new classic, but stands nevertheless as a potent and lively satire about how the violence of men tears societies down and the lengths to which women go to staunch the bleeding…

The Oscar-nominated Where Do We Go Now? comes out today on DVD. My full review is at AMC Movie Database.

 

Trailer Park: ‘Oz: the Great and Powerful’

Strangely, given both the rather towering presence that the film The Wizard of Oz holds in world cultural consciousness and the current mania for sequels and films based on proven properties, it’s been decades since anybody has tried to make another film based on the L. Frank Baum series. There’s over a dozen books there, filled with strange worlds and CGI-worthy beasties to turn into multiplex 3D and IMAX gold. The sour memory of Walter Murch’s then-failed but now 1985 cult classic Return to Oz  holds a powerful sway over studio heads, it seems.

But next spring, Disney (which holds film rights to the entire series) is getting back into the Oz business. Sam Raimi is at the helm of Oz: the Great and Powerful, with James Franco (who he directed in the Spider-man series) starring as the young Wizard, who gets swept away to Oz in a balloon years before young Dorothy is even born. There is some great potential here for a sweeping new kind of fantasy filmmaking, but also for an imagination-starved Tim Burton-esque detour into design and animation for its own sake.

Either way, the trailer is up now and shows that at least Raimi is borrowing the trick of using color stock for Oz and black-and-white for Kansas:

Reader’s Corner: Kurt Vonnegut

 

Next month, Delacorte Press is publishing the collection Kurt Vonnegut: Letters. Now, normally these sort of things are of interest only to the extremely engaged fan—those completists who just have to own every scrap of material written by a particular author. The “lost” letters of Edith Wharton, say.

However, the Delacorte edition promises to be something different. Among the items collected within its pages is this selection from a January 1947 “contract” drawn up by Vonnegut and his pregnant wife, Jane (the two had been married for sixteen months):

i. In the event that my wife makes a request of me, and that request cannot be regarded as other than reasonable and wholly within the province of a man’s work (when his wife is pregnant, that is), I will comply with said request within three days after my wife has presented it. It is understood that my wife will make no reference to the subject, other than saying thank you, of course, within these three days; if, however, I fail to comply with said request after a more substantial length of time has elapsed, my wife shall be completely justified in nagging, heckling, or otherwise disturbing me until I am driven to do that which I should have done;

Eminently reasonable, but just slightly cracked in execution. In other words, exactly what you would expect from the author of Cat’s Cradle—the sanest book on the insanity of modern life that you can find. Funniest, too.

 

New in Theaters: ‘Detropia’

“We are here at a critical time!” shouts a tent-revival preacher somewhere in the gloom of a rapidly downsizing Detroit. His is one of the many frightened, brave, saddened, still-fighting voices that Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady include as a chorus of the forgotten in their tragedy-tinted but clear-eyed look at what happens when a city’s reason for being up and leaves. Unfortunately, though the city is inarguably at a crisis point—in 1930, Detroit was the fastest-growing city in the world, and it’s shrunk by over 25 percent in the last decade alone—Detropia doesn’t show any evidence of a consensus on the solution…

Detropia opens this week in limited release and goes wider around the country over the next few weeks. My full review is at Film Journal International.

Dept. of Literary Expatriates: Henry James

Although Henry James remains today one of America’s most celebrated novelists, and his most famous characters were usually American, he was never precisely enamored of his home country. Much like how T. S. Eliot decamped from St. Louis quickly as he could for the more rarefied airs of London intellectual life, James didn’t see much of value in his home country—though, unlike Eliot, he would frequently write as an American abroad in the wider world.

Novelist Colm Toibin, in reviewing Michael Gorra’s new book Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece, pulls out this interesting bit from a piece James wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne just before The Portrait of a Lady. In it, a sweepingly dismissive James lists the things he sees as missing from American life that he sees as necessary for the novelist:

…no sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church . . . no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses . . . nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals . . . no Oxford . . . no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class . . . no Epsom nor Ascot.

To a baroque and class-obsessed stylist like James, the country’s comparative lack of history makes for a thin existence. To a degree, James is right, without that weight of civilization which he lists, it is difficult to create a certain kind of literary figure: i.e., those like himself. America did ultimately export the likes of Twain, Hemingway, Kerouac, Bradbury, and Bellow, who all did just fine without thatched cottages or cathedrals—but never could have written The Portrait of a Lady (whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your taste).