Friday, October 7, 2016

Book Review: The Neapolitan Novels (2011-14) by Elena Ferrante

It's hard to know where to begin in describing or evaluating the four novels that comprise Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, so I'll start by declaring that the foursome are among the best works of fiction I've ever read. And here goes my plot synopsis: the story follows two women, Elena and Lila, from childhood to late middle-age, charting their intense, sometimes antagonistic, friendship, and their life in one of Naples rougher areas. Both women, to differing degrees, rise above their surroundings and backgrounds, but the struggle to do so is daunting and costly, So that describes about 9% of the novels.

The single feature that to my mind sets Ferrante above so many other writers is her single-minded devotion to subverting almost every expectation we have about how a fictional narrative is supposed to unfold. Very near the end of the fourth novel, The Story of the Lost Child, one of the two main characters says this:

Only in bad novels people always think the right thing, always say the right thing, every effect has its cause, there are the likable ones and the unlikable, the good and the bad, everything in the end consoles you.

The above quote succinctly describes the antithesis of the Neapolitan novels. Many novels and novelists are promoted as realistic or truthful or uncompromising, but within that realism, more often than not, there's a solid structure of cause and effect, and most problems or conflicts find a resolution. It's probably the most difficult thing for a novelist to do: put aside their omniscience and let characters and events sprawl out in all kinds of messy directions without providing any pat rationales or conclusions. Stories are really about endings, or at the very least summations, and to avoid this almost seems like a violation of the storyteller's craft.

Graham Greene once said that "a writer must have a sliver of ice in their heart," and by that standard Ferrante has an iceberg in hers, as she's absolutely merciless in showing the faults and frailties of Lila and Elena. The two of them make good, bad and foolish decisions, are brave, stupid, reckless, loving, careless, spiteful, generous, kind, and bitter, and Ferrante dissects, with forensic detail, every aspect of their thinking and emotions. The psychological depth she gives her characters is virtually unsurpassed.

Ferrante also weaves an metafiction element through her novels. Elena is the narrator, and a novelist, and there is much discussion of how personal narratives are unreliable or can even be shared by different people. By the end of the quartet it's even possible to question whether Elena or Lila has been the narrator.

The only bumpy part of the series comes at the end, when Elena moves back to Naples after years away. It's a questionable decision on her part, but why she doesn't leave again, given how rocky her life in Naples gets, seems odd. Also, her problems with her teenage daughters aren't fleshed out and feel gratuitously dramatic. Beyond that, the novels are astonishingly perfect, although their emotional intensity often becomes hard to bear. So take my advice and detox between each novel with some light reading--Dostoevsky, perhaps.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Film Review: Hell or High Water (2016)

If this summer's film slate of superheroes and reboots and sequels, all of them CGI-heavy, has tired you out, cast your eyes on Hell or High Water. It's a modern western set in the driest, most destitute corner of Texas that borrows tropes from the horse-powered westerns of yesteryear to tell the story of two brothers who rob banks to pay off the mortgage on their mother's land.

The brothers are Tanner and Toby. Tanner (Ben Foster) is a career criminal and all-around hell raiser. Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced dad who needs to pay off the mortgage on his late mother's land. The land isn't worth much, but the oil underneath it, which has just been discovered, is worth $50k a month. But if he can't pay off the mortgage the bank will get the land and the oil. Toby has not, we gather, been a good husband or father, so as an act of redemption he wants to put the land in a trust for his kids once he's cleared the mortgage. The amount he needs isn't much, but it involves robbing banks in a variety of flyblown towns across west Texas. Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is soon on their trail.

What's striking about this film is its conscious effort to harken back to the American filmmaking aesthetic of the late 1960s and early '70s. Films like Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands are obvious visual influences, also the use of local, non-professional actors in small roles. Director David Mackenzie has clearly absorbed the feel of those films and tried to bring them back to life, particularly in the handling of the brothers. Tanner and Toby are the kind of antiheroes that were common in the '70s. They aren't well-equipped in temperament or skills to deal with normal life and have ended up living on the fringes of society, which also makes them unconsciously anti-establishment, a key element of the films of that era.

The most modern aspect of the film is its emphasis on the poverty and despair gripping this part of world. Billboards for payday loan  and debt relief companies dot the landscape, most businesses are shuttered, and the population seems either very old or very unemployed. This is Tea Party America, even though the film never makes any direct political statements along these lines. The bad guys, as in so many old westerns, are the banks, who are eagerly foreclosing on anyone and everything. A briefly glimpsed piece of graffiti at the beginning of the film neatly captures the film's political viewpoint: THREE TOURS OF IRAQ BUT I NEVER GOT A BAILOUT. Sadly, the film is content to just blame the banks rather than drilling down deeper to the politicians who are the banking industry's enablers. The western tropes are cleverly woven through the film, especially during a climactic bank heist that results in an impromptu posse chasing the brothers out of town, and, like the legendary James brothers, Toby and Tanner receive protection from some of the locals. Nobody likes banks.

But this isn't a perfect film. The character of Tanner is too much of a generic crazy cowboy, and Ben Foster overacts accordingly. Chris Pine as Toby is fine, but it's not a very demanding role since he's mostly asked to just look hurt or depressed. Although kudos to Pine or the director for the visual motif of Toby constantly hanging his head down as though literally beaten down by Fate. Only at the very end do we see him standing proud. There are some plot holes, and some awkward and superfluous scenes (did we really need to see Tanner bonking a hotel receptionist?) that mar what's otherwise a lean and efficient film. Part of the blame for that, aside from the script, might be due to the director being a Brit. This kind of gritty, regional story is hard for outsiders to get right when it comes to the details, and Mackenzie is sometimes tone deaf when it comes handling his Texan characters. On the plus side, you can count on Jeff Bridges getting an Oscar nom for best supporting actor.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Film Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

First the good news: Ghostbusters is funny. Not as funny as the original, but miles better than Ghostbusters II, a film almost no one cares to remember. What's made this film relatively unsuccessful (it's still grossed over $200m) is that while it succeeds as comedy, it fails as a film. The original version was funny and atmospheric, mildly spooky, exciting, and visually clever. The new one has none of those qualities. The ghosts were a major star of the first film, but in this iteration the spectres are like props tossed on stage for a group of improv comedians to riff on. That's OK to a point, but eventually you have to try and tell a story, develop an atmosphere, or create a sense of crisis or tension.

The fault lies with Paul Feig, the director. I saw Spy, his previous effort, and was astonished at what an incompetent director he is. He doesn't know where to put the camera, and many scenes feel utterly slapdash, as though he'd gone into the editing room and selected the worst takes on offer. He'd be fine directing a sitcom, but when it comes to features he's out of his depth. Another reason for the film's modest returns is that SFX ain't what they used to be, or rather, our enjoyment of them has changed. When the first Ghostbusters came out in 1984 the effects were ooh and aah-worthy. Audiences were only seven years removed from the SFX revolution that was Star Wars, and were eager for more of the same. By today's standards the '84 film looks a bit primitive, but at the time it was impressive. These days audiences don't view effects as anything special. Even middling budget films have great effects, so you can't expect to entice people with the prospect of seeing CGI ghosts. And the creative minds behind the CGI in this film definitely haven't done anything special. There isn't a single memorable entity, and the climax, featuring an unholy version of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade is annoying because it could have been brilliant if they'd used the actual balloon characters from the parade.

And now for the Leslie Jones portion of my review. When it came out that Jones, who is black, was playing the one Ghostbuster who is self-described as not knowing about "this science stuff," the social media reaction was swift and merciless--once again, critics said, Hollywood racism dictates that blacks can't be thinkers. They can provide the muscle or "street smarts," but it's the whites who do the heavy intellectual lifting. The critics were right. Casting Jones as the single non-academic Ghostbuster is liberal racism at it's worst. In interviews defending this casting decision, the filmmakers sound pleased with themselves just to have given a black woman a major role, but the lazy racism becomes apparent when you realize that Melissa McCarthy, who's made a living out of playing women who don't know much about "stuff," has been promoted to the holder of a post-graduate degree. Apparently if there's a black woman in the cast McCarthy has to get an educational upgrade. But the casting decision that annoys me almost as much is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus isn't in the cast. How can you do an all-female Ghostbusters reboot without using America's funniest female actor? Oh well, perhaps they can squeeze her into the sequel to replace Jones' character, who'll be off attending night classes to get her university degree.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Book Review: Number 11 (2015) by Jonathan Coe

There's a Christmas hamper quality to Jonathan Coe's writing--a really superior Christmas hamper, the kind Fortnum & Mason's sells, or the ones Billy Bunter lusted after. In both Number 11 and its prequel, The Winshaw Legacy, or What a Carve Up! (1994), Coe artfully and fluently combines multiple plot lines, a score of characters, elements of tragedy, farce, comedy, social commentary, and a touch of the the polemical (my review). And in Number 11 Coe does all this while also slipping from one literary genre to another without, as it were, grinding the gears. This novel begins with a subtle pastiche of an Enid Blyton-ish story, then adds an epistolary quest tale, a Holmesian mystery, and ends with something that smacks of Dr Who. As a purely literary experience, Number 11 is almost overstuffed with pleasures.

Rachel and Alison are the central characters, and we meet them at age ten when they're staying with Rachel's grandparents while their mothers are on holiday together. The pair aren't really friends at this point, but after an Adventure with a Mysterious Stranger, the two form a bond that lasts, with some major detours, into adulthood. From this point on the narrative resembles a Venn diagram. The centre circle contains a set of Winshaws, a family of media barons, industrialists, and politicians who define themselves by how savagely they can remake Britain into their own avaricious, graceless, cruel and wanton image. The Winshaws were at the centre of the previous novel, but here it's their influence that's being felt--it's now the Winshaws' Britain, and everyone else is trying to eke out a living in it.

Coe uses his wide cast of characters to give us micro and macro views of what modern Britain has become. There's a failed singer who's lured into a dreadful reality show; an Oxford professor whose husband meets with what could be called death by nostalgia; an insufferably wealthy trophy wife whose architectural ambitions lead to disaster; a Katie Hopkins-like columnist who fabricates a story that sends a woman to jail; and a range of more minor characters who all have their role to play in illustrating the decline and fall of the social welfare state.

Although Coe has a lot to say about the state of the UK, Number 11 is not an editorial or opinion piece dressed up in literary finery. His writing is witty, psychologically acute, elegant, and he's not too proud to throw in the broadest of jokes occasionally. Coe is also acutely aware that his kind of comic writing does little or nothing to influence the political climate. In a section of the novel dealing with the murder of some stand-up comedians, he even argues that political satire can actually be counter-productive since it provides the illusion of lively opposition to people like the Winshaws (I actually wrote a piece on this very subject which you can read here). Another idea explored in the novel is that the speed and variety of modern communication is a poisoned chalice. A simple typo on SnapChat breaks up a friendship, and the cynical editing of a TV show almost ruins a woman's life. But Coe is not a Luddite. A sub-plot detailing a man's search for a lost film that he saw as a child in the 1960s is a warning that retreating into rosy memories of the past is not a healthy option.

The only problem with Coe's fiction is that it doesn't move at the speed of politics. The Winshaw Legacy seemed outrageous until Tony Blair and David Cameron came along, and Number 11, which was published less than a year ago, would undoubtedly be a much different novel if it had been written in a post-Brexit vote world. Fortunately, that means we're almost certain to get a third novel in this series, one in which Coe shows how the vulturous Winshaws plan and profit from Brexit. I look forward to it already. I even have a possible title: Wrexit.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Gialli Good Fun

You simply can't beat a giallo film for tawdry entertainment value. Gialli were one of the staples of Italian cinema from the late 1960s to the mid '70s, offering a lurid mix of violence, sadism, voyeurism, sex, and deeply twisted plots. They were what Alfred Hitchcock might have made had he let his freak flag fly. In Italian, giallo means yellow, and the films were given this name as a reference to a publisher who reprinted English mystery/thriller novels with distinctive yellow covers. The films themselves owe a big debt to Hitchcock, Psycho in particular. Many of the films feature heavily disguised killers who attack beautiful women (always with bladed instruments) for a variety of warped or mercenary reasons.

Exploitation elements aside, gialli deserve appreciation for their cinematic qualities and enthusiastic attempts to befuddle the audience with devious plots. These were low to middling budget films, but they certainly tried to put on a good visual show. The interiors and women's fashions in gialli are usually the epitome of '70s style, which is both good and bad, but always eye-catching and/or eye-watering. The musical soundtracks are a mix of the weird and the overblown, and even a big name like Ennio Morricone did work on some gialli. What really keeps these films worth watching are the plots. The producers couldn't invest much money in stars or stunts, but they certainly urged the scriptwriters give it their all. The mystery at the centre of each giallo may be highly improbable, but the plotting is often surprisingly clever and keeps the audience on board, which is crucial since gialli also suffer from some pronounced defects.
You don't watch these films for the acting. Or the dialogue. Some performances are respectable, the remainder range from wooden to overwrought. Interestingly, it's usually the women who give the better performances. The men often seem more interested in modeling their turtleneck sweaters (a fashion staple in gialli) than doing any actual acting.

So the reason for this post is that I recently got a Roku attachment to my TV, which means I can stream films from YouTube onto the big screen, and the first thing I did was have a giallo film festival with myself as the guest of honour. Herewith are some of the better ones I've seen.

Death Walks on High Heels (1971)

Did I mention that gialli often have ludicrous titles? This one starts out as a standard story of a beautiful woman pursued by a masked madman, but then gets progressively more complicated and surprising. When the mystery is finally unraveled you'll be applauding the scriptwriter for his amazingly intricate and logical, if  bizarre, plotting. The acting here is mostly over the top, at times leading to unintended laughter, but everyone attacks their roles with gusto, especially the actor who utters the immortal line, "Porco!" when confronted with a transvestite.

Who Saw Her Die? (1972)

The young daughter of a sculptor living in Venice is murdered and he tracks down her killer. The plot isn't much to speak of, but the location photography is stunning. The director, Aldo Lado, was from Venice and he clearly knew all the best locations for capturing the spooky oddness of the city. I can't help wondering if this film somehow inspired or influenced Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now which came out a year later.

Death Walks at Midnight (1972)

Another Byzantine plot from the director of Death Walks on High Heels. This time a fashion model witnesses a murder in the building across from her apartment but can't prove that it actually happened. There are some plot holes in this one, but it's still very intriguing and the look of the film is '70s to the max. A sidenote: based on all the gialli I've seen, 80% of the Italian female population at this time were models with the remainder strippers and/or homicidal maniacs.

The Case of the Bloody Iris (1972)

If you're going to dive into the giallo genre you have to see at least one starring the gorgeous Edwige Fenech. Fenech is to Italian B-movies of the '70s what the Virgin Mary is to Catholicism. She starred in gialli, cop movies, horror films, and lots and lots of sex comedies. In Iris she wears a variety of improbable outifts, including body paint, and spends the rest of the time forgetting to lock her windows and doors, thus allowing maniacs access to her at all hours of the day and night.

Footprints on the Moon (1975)

This is the outlier in the giallo genre. It begins like many gialli, with a beautiful woman facing a seemingly impossible puzzle: she appears to be missing two days from her life. It's soon clear that this isn't any kind of exploitation film. Florinda Bolkan plays the lead character and she's a superb actress. More importantly, the cinematographer is Vittorio Storaro, the genius behind the camera on films such as Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now, and Woody Allen's latest, Cafe Society. The look of the film is amazing, and the story is an elegant, mysterious, subtle attempt to visualize a kind of waking dream. There's no big pay-off to the film, but it's a crime that it's not more widely known or available on DVD. Are you listening, Criterion Collection?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Book Review: The Lie Tree (2015) by Frances Hardinge

Part of my job at the Toronto Public Library involves selecting books for shut-ins, a few of whom are teenagers. This means I regularly spend time combing through dozens of thumbnail descriptions of young adult novels. That translates into a lot of stories about dystopias, mental illness, broken homes, and the paranormal. Most YA novels are written for girls, and one trope that seems to be common to many of them is that girls can and should kick ass, metaphorically and, in the case of dystopian and paranormal lit, literally. In short, there's  a strong and healthy feminist streak running through contemporary YA writing.

Frances Hardinge's novels have all featured underage heroines who get things done through grit, bravery and smarts. So far, so normal. What sets Hardinge apart (far apart) from others in her field is her rich, inventive prose, and you can read my gushing praise of her writing here and here. In The Lie Tree she tries something a bit different. Whereas her previous novels were firmly and fully in the fantasy wing of the YA building, this one has is more grounded in reality. But not entirely.

The story mixes together archeology,  the debate over Darwin's theory of evolution,  and a murder mystery in a late-Victorian setting. The heroine is Faith Sunderly, the teenage daughter of  Erasmus Sunderly, a reverend with who has lost his faith and replaced it with a mad passion for archeology. On a trip to Asia he acquired the eponymous plant, which grows when it's told lies, and produces a fruit, when eaten, that reveals secrets. This is the most fantastical part of the story, but the tree exists more on a symbolic level than as part of a fantasy world. Faith's father is murdered (it looks like a suicide) and she must investigate the crime.

The plot synopsis makes it sound just another example of YA historical fiction in which a plucky heroine proves that the "fairer" sex is no to be taken lightly. Hardinge goes beyond all that by giving her novel a psychological depth that's missing from almost YA titles of this type. Her focus is on the sheer mental torture suffered by women who have wit, talent, intelligence and ambition, but are denied the chance to use their skills at every turn. Faith isn't the only woman caught in the webs of Victorian social strictures. Her mother must play the coquette to acquire a new husband after the death of Erasmus.Faith is initially shocked at this, but by the end of the novel realizes that her mother is doing the best for herself and her family given the limited arsenal she has to work with. Without an income to fall back on, a middle-classwoman must be wed. The fantasy elements are deftly handled, but what makes this book stand out (and covered Hardinge's mantelpiece with awards) is its examination of the psychological toll exacted on people who are denied basic rights by virtue of their gender. And on that basis The Lie Tree also carries a lot of contemporary resonance.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being Ron MacLean

Ron breathes the clean, white, air of the country.
I'm usually good for only one sports-related blog post every year, so there must be a great disturbance in the force for me to dash off my second on the subject this year. The disturbance is the news that George Stroumboulopoulos, after only two seasons as the host of Sportsnet's Hockey Night in Canada, has been dumped for the muppet man he originally replaced: Ron MacLean. The perceived reason for the change is that ratings for HNIC have gone down in the last two seasons. Sportsnet figured Strombo was just the young, hip, urban, cool cat who'd pull in a different, and broader, demographic. Apparently the fact that Canadian hockey teams have largely sucked over the last two seasons (I'm looking at you, Toronto) and that the game itself has become progressively less entertaining didn't factor into Sportnet's understanding of the ratings slip. Nor did they pay attention to the fact that although they changed the host, the supporting cast of dull, witless, cranky, reactionary, inarticulate colour commentators and analysts has never been tampered with. No, it was all George's fault. But I don't want this to be a blog about what's wrong with HNIC (you can read my post on that here), or why I think Ron MacLean is a puerile, narcissistic, self-important twat and a craven, simpering, enabler of Don Cherry's bigotry. No, what I want talk about here is that by canning GS and resurrecting RM, Scott Moore, President of Sportsnet, has effectively stuck a big sign on the metaphorical front door of Sportsnet that says, "Whites Only."

A bold statement, I know, but bear with me. The Golden Horseshoe area of Ontario, which encompasses Toronto, and the cities of Vancouver and Montreal (and their suburbs) represent the bulk of the population of Canada. These areas are highly urbanized and very multicultural, especially Toronto and Vancouver. These three areas drive hockey viewership in Canada, and their essential makeup is enthusiastically unrepresented on HNIC. Look at the faces on HNIC and it's pretty much wall-to-wall middle-aged white guys. There are two token women, and two visible minority men who get even less airtime than the women. Compare and contrast with any local TV news crew in any of Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver; diversity, diversity, diversity.

The resolute whiteness of HNIC (and this also applies to every other hockey broadcast in Canada) is, on one level, simply a reflection of hockey culture in North America. The cost of playing hockey for kids and teens is now so prohibitive it's become difficult for anyone but the overwhelmingly white middle and upper-middle classes to participate in it. Look around the NHL today and you see only a bare handful of visible minorities playing the game. Sportsnet isn't responsible for who is or isn't playing the game, but through their choices in on-air personalities and the editorial tone of the hockey broadcasts, Sportsnet is sending a clear message about who they think the game is for and about. And that brings us back to Ron MacLean.

MacLean might be a crap host, but he's the perfect choice if, as it would seem, Sportsnet is only interested in going after the suburban/rural, conservative, white male in the age range of 40 to dead. Ron launches into a bromantic paean whenever he gets to talk about the small-town roots of this or that player. The gushing gets even more torrid if the player is from the Prairies, which, in the minds of Ron and his on-camera cohorts, seems to be the abode of the gods. If a player is from Saskatchewan or Alberta, Ron is sure to mention that "They raise them tough out there" or "He's a good Saskatchewan boy" or "Those long western bus rides build character." Players from the cities don't get any extra praise, unless, of course, they have an Irish last name, which means we're bound to hear either "He's a tough Irishman" or "He's a fine broth of a lad." It's enough to make you gag on your soda bread. And if you're a visible minority the message is clear: don't bother playing or watching hockey...we don't want you.

As though to underline its commitment to an aging, white demographic, two years ago Sportsnet gave MacLean his own show, Hometown Hockey, which saw him hosting NHL games from a different suburb or small town each Sunday. The idea of celebrating places where the vast majority of people don't live seems odd and/or foolish when you're in the business of pulling in viewers. Sportsnet markets the show as a celebration of Canada and Canadians, but the sub-text of the show is that white, non-urban Canadians is who hockey is for. Visible minorities are in the majority in both Vancouver and Toronto, but  good luck seeing any on Sportsnet hockey broadcasts. Too bad they didn't have the foresight to move to a Newfoundland fishing village or a Manitoba farming community.

I'm part of that aging, white demographic, but I work in Toronto with a very diverse group of people, many of whom are young. They talk a lot about basketball and soccer, even baseball, but the subject of hockey is pretty much left to us old guys. Is this what Sportsnet wants? For some of these young Canadians hockey is as remote and irrelevant as jai alai or Australian football. Hockey broadcasting bears a large part of the blame for this situation. Instead of reaching out to the next generation of sports fans, they have turned their backs on them, almost thumbed their nose at them, with their ceaseless and mawkish love affair with a Canada that hasn't existed for at least a generation. Strombo was a weak choice to pull in new viewers, but bringing back MacLean to front Sportsnet's marquee hockey broadcast probably puts HNIC on the black diamond slope to ratings oblivion. And it's what they deserve.