Monday, July 30, 2012

Book Review: School for Love (1951) by Olivia Manning

Ever read a perfect novel? One in which the similes and metaphors are all pitch perfect; not a single word or sentence is out of place or redundant; the characters are fully-formed and resonate in the real world; and the novel is neither too long or too short? School for Love is such a novel. This isn't to say that it's one of the world's great books, but if it's not in the Champions League of novels, it's definitely well up in the First Division.

The setting is Jerusalem in 1945, just after the end of the war, and a young orphan named Felix has temporarily come to stay with Miss Bohun, a distant relative, before shipping back to England. Also boarding in the house is Mrs Ellis, a young and pregnant war widow. Bohun is the leader of the Ever-Readies, a small Christian sect with a fundamentalist bent. Felix, like any polite, well-brought-up middle-class boy, assumes Bohun will always act in a well-meaning and honourable fashion. He's sadly disillusioned. In the weeks that Felix and Ellis spend with Bohun while waiting for a ship back to England, she doesn't miss a chance to make their lives just a little bit more miserable, not to mention trying to line her pockets at their expense.

Bohun is one of the great, yet petty, monsters of modern fiction. Manning shows that Bohun's holier-than-thou moralizing is, like patriotism, the last refuge of scoundrels. This is not a wildly eventful or dramatic novel, but it shows how tyrants like Hitler and Stalin can also come in more innocuous packages. Bohun is a narcissist, and her self-love stems from her belief that her adherence to Jesus makes her immune from committing the smaller sins. She's parsimonious, mendacious, vindictive, petty, vengeful, not averse to a minor swindle or two, and has a profound lack of empathy. Bohun sees her faith as a trump card to be played on any occasion when her honesty or ethics are called into question by others or even by herself. She's a personality most of us have met or worked with, and the ranks of evangelical Christians in the U.S. are absolutely stiff with this type of person. 

Mrs Ellis is pretty much Bohun's opposite. She's been badly treated by the war but hasn't allowed that to make her bitter or vicious. But she's not a saint. She befriends Felix, who falls slightly in love with her, and eventually loses patience with his dog-like affection and hurts his feelings. At least Ellis is aware that she's hurt Felix. For Felix, his sojourn at Bohun's is a coming-of-age experience that shows him that the adult world is a slippery and untrustworthy place.

School for Love, as mentioned off the top, is brilliantly written. Like other English writers such as Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse, Manning has a deceptively simple writing style that flows beautifully and delivers maximum results with a minimum of fuss. This is such a tight, elegantly-constructed novel it's a wonder it hasn't been filmed. I sense that there's an Oscar or a BAFTA waiting for the woman who gets the role of Miss Bohun. Manning's The Balkan Trilogy was filmed for British television, and the novels that make up the trilogy do belong in the Champions League of great novels.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Film Review: Kontroll (2003)

The Hungarian film Kontroll ticks all the cult film boxes: it's got loads of quirky characters; the plot is fanciful and mostly opaque; the humour is deadpan; the setting is unusual; and the ending is ambivalent. The fact that it succeeds has less to do with these qualities than it does with more traditional cinematic values: solid acting and excellent cinematography.

The story, such as it is, concerns a team of ticket inspectors on the Budapest Metro. Their job is to check that everyone on the metro has actually bought a ticket. It's a crappy job. The public hates them and doesn't  disguise their animosity. The team, as is the case in films like this, is a motley crew that includes the obligatory raw rookie, and, for the purposes of eccentric variety, a narcoleptic who passes out whenever he loses his temper. The team leader is Bulcsu, who is actually highly educated but has chosen to settle into this lowly job. We also learn that for the last few days (weeks? months?) he's been living in the metro, sleeping on platforms and never returning to the surface.

Our team is facing three challenges: they dearly want to catch a scofflaw nicknamed Bootsie who takes a keen pleasure in outrunning them; a rival team of ticket inspectors who taunt them; and a demonic figure who's taken to pushing people in front of speeding trains. Bulcsu also finds himself attracted to a woman who travels the metro wearing a bear costume. All these plot lines reach a conclusion of one kind or another, but it's clear that the director is mostly interested in creating an atmosphere and a look rather than constructing airtight plots.

The entire film has the feel of a dream by way of a fairy tale. In fact, it could even be that everything we see is being dreamed by Bulcsu. The fairy tale aspect comes from the "bear" who turns out to be a beautiful princess and leads Bulcsu up and out of the metro at the film's end. I suppose Bulcsu's prolonged tenancy in the metro could also be a political statement about communist-era Hungary, but that's just a wild guess.

The film's assorted quirks, oddities and eccentricities represent the boilerplate standard in cult films. What's different here is that the acting is first rate. Cult films usually suffer from wonky and/or erratic acting (click here for my list of the Top Ten Overrated Cult Films), but Kontroll seems to be populated by the cream of the local acting community. If you're a Hollywood talent agent reading this blog I heartily recommend that you make a scouting trip to Budapest with the Kontroll cast list stored in your iPhone. The cinematography might be even better than the acting. I say this because the Budapest Metro doesn't look like the most photogenic subway system in the world, but the cinematographer, Gyula Pados, manages to make it look mysterious, dramatic, and beautifully stark. That's quite an achievment given that he does it simply through clever lighting and shot framing. Kontroll is too long and too pleased with its own oddness, but it's always entertaining and great to look at.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Book Review: Partitions (2011) by Amit Majmudar

Over the short lifetime of this blog I've frequently touted Rafik Schami (my reviews here, here and here) as a writer whose fiction provides some background to the whys and wherefores of the Arab Spring. Majmudar does something in a similar vein in Partitions, a novel about the cruel, chaotic and bloody division of Imperial India into three separate countries in 1947. Majmudar's novel isn't political in tone or outlook, but the horrors he so artfully describes go a long way to explaining the past and current tensions between India and Pakistan.

Partitions is plotted like a thriller and written like an epic poem. The novel follows four individuals caught up in the two-way exodus that preceded the creation of Pakistan. Muslims are heading west to resettle in land that will become Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs are fleeing east to India. All the refugees are preyed upon by murderous sectarian mobs, as are those who choose to stay on the wrong side of the border. Hundreds of thousands of people would eventually be killed in the upheavals surrounding Partition. The four people at the centre of the novel are Masud, a Muslim doctor; Simran, a Sikh teenage girl; and two Hindu boys, Keshav and Shankar.

All four characters face death on more than one occasion, and their progress to safety is fraught with tension and harrowing episodes of violence. It's in this regard that Partitions reads like a thriller: characters are left in cliffhanger situations and frequently leap from the frying pan into the fire. The novel has an epic poem quality thanks to the author's audacious decision to make his narrator a ghost. Yes, a ghost. The spirit is that of Dr. Jaitly, the father of Keshav and Shankar. He died months before Partition and he now watches over events, flitting from place to place like a Greek god in The Iliad to observe events and, on occasion, to make ineffectual attempts to intervene in the life and death struggles he witnesses.

Majmudar's decision to make the narrator a ghost is a bold one. Some readers are going to find that this is a distracting or ridiculous narrative device, but I think his intention is to give the novel a voice of humanity and empathy that's divorced from a sectarian viewpoint. Jaitly the ghost sees horrors in a way that Jaitly the mortal would never be able to. Having a ghost as a narrator also lends itself to Majmudar's finely crafted prose. Majmudar is a poet as well, and it shows in sentences like this one describing Masud standing beside a column of refugees:

The family is staring at him. A gentleman heron perfectly still against a background of shuffling migration.

Jaitly has an impressionistic view of what goes around him, conveying violence and distress and hatred with finely-formed, terse descriptions that seem all the more powerful for being brief. Another writer might have gone for lengthy, gritty descriptions of the various horrors of  Partition, but the economical, poetic approach seems to work better in this case. And on a purely aesthetic level there's no disputing that Majmudar is fine writer.

The only problem I had with Partitions is that the ending brings together the four characters in a symbolically convenient manner that's a bit too cozy and predictable. That aside, Partitions is yet another world-class novel from the Indian sub-continent. In the last few years just about every novel I've read from that region has been better than the last. Here are my reviews of novels by Manu Joseph and Yasmine Gooneratne, and although I haven't reviewed it yet, I have to mention Sujit Saraf's The Peacock Throne, which may have to rate as the Great Indian Novel.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Book Review: Brushback (1998) by K.C. Constantine

If you've never heard of mystery writer K.C. Constantine you can probably blame the man himself. Constantine began his series of mystery novels set in fictional Rocksburg, PA, in 1972, and until 2011 he avoided publicity and interviews with the single-mindedness of a J.D. Salinger. That's a pity because he's a writer who deserved a much higher profile.

Rocksburg and its environs are to Constantine what Yoknapatawpha County was to William Faulkner. K.C. loves and hates Rocksburg. He has a love and respect for the hard-working Italian and Hungarian immigrants who settled the area and built its steel mills and coal mines, and he has a red hot hatred for the politicians at all levels who have slowly and consciously let the local economy slide into Rust Belt oblivion. Like Faulkner, Constantine is fascinated by his own "little postage stamp of soil" and over the course of 17 novels he introduces us to a very wide variety of its citizens.

Most of the Rocksburg mysteries feature Mario Balzic, the town's police chief. Balzic is not so much a detective as he is the town's confessor-in-chief. Rocksburg's citizens are an exceptionally talkative bunch and Balzic is adept both at listening to them and at drawing out their stories. Balzic doesn't solve crimes through forensic evidence; he talks and listens and talks some more and teases out the motivations that lead to murders. Constantine eschews the evidence side of detection because he's more interested in creating a portrait of the people he grew up with.

Constantine's writing style is best described as regional vernacular. His novels consist almost entirely of dialogue, and they're rich in the slang and accents of western Pennsylvania. And Constantine isn't interested in crisp, tight dialogue. Constantine writes duologues that wander off in all directions, with asides that can last for a sentence, a paragraph or a page. In this way, layer by layer, he builds up his portrait of people whose lives are defined by hard work and blue collar pleasures. The dialogue is always pungent, frequently humorous, and always respectful of the characters. It's normally the case that when an author writes dialogue for a working-class character we're meant to be amused or appalled by the tortured syntax, the dropped g's, and the grotesque malapropisms. Constantine, as Faulkner did, puts poetry and truth into the words of his townspeople.

The sympathy and interest Constantine has for his working-class characters is pretty much unique in American crime fiction. The working-class world in most mysteries is usually just a breeding ground for crimes and criminals. Constantine makes the working class the heart and soul of all his novels. This is another reason that his novels have flown under the radar. The working-class is almost a taboo subject in the U.S.: no one wants to be identified as a member of it or even be reminded that it exists. It takes a certain courage to write a whole cycle of novels that revolve around a social class most readers ignore or feel frightened of. Constantine even likes to discuss the issue of class, particularly the way in which America's ruling elites have ignored and harassed the working class.

Having praised Constantine I now have to knock Brushback. This novel is one of the last in the series and it's pretty weak. There is barely a plot and the dialogue has lost a lot of its punch. What's worse, Constantine's commentaries on class and politics have become straightforward editorializing. Brushback still has strong elements, but it's not the equal of the first eight or nine novels. I can't really recommend Brushback but it's a reminder of how unique and brilliant the balance of this mystery series is.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Book Review: The Dark Side of Love (2004) by Rafik Schami

By the time I finish writing this post, or by the time you finish reading it, the odds are good that President Assad of Syria will have fled his country or will be swinging from a lamp post. Syria looks certain to be joining the lengthening list of Arab countries that have shown their dictators the door and/or the business end of a Kalashnikov. One of the best ways of understanding how all this has come to pass is to read the works of Rafik Schami, a Syrian-born writer living in exile in Germany since 1970. Schami, an Arab-Christian, writes in German and has scooped all the major German literary prizes. Only a few of his novels have been translated into English, and the finest of them is The Dark Side of Love. It's also the novel that does the best job of giving some cultural background to the so-called Arab Spring. I first read it just before I started this blog, but now seems like a good time to review it.

The Dark Side of Love is a multi-generational saga of a blood feud between two Christian families in Syria. The story begins in the early 1900s and ends in the late 1960s, and along the way Schami introduces dozens of characters and almost as many sub-plots. If this sounds dense and daunting, it isn't. Schami is a storyteller in the same class as Dickens. He can create memorable and interesting characters with no apparent effort, and their stories, all looped around the central theme of the feud, are never less than fascinating. Schami's story is basically serious and, in parts, tragic, but the novel is also shot through with moments of beauty and humour. Schami is also unafraid to send his story off in some unusual directions, most notably, for example, when one of the major characters has a sexual interlude with a donkey. That's right, a donkey.

The Dark Side of Love is nothing less than a combination MRI, X-ray, and CAT scan of life in Syria, from high to low, in the 20th century. What we learn from this is that Syria, like many other Arab countries, is a  country in name only. People in Syria take their identity from, and are only loyal to, their family, clan, tribe, religion and sect, roughly in that order. The state falls into the same category as the weather: unpredictable, frequently unpleasant, and beyond the influence of man. Until lately. It's clear that these scabrous regimes have lasted as long as they have largely because the citizenry have tried to live their lives without being noticed by or involved with the powers that be. It's always been the safest way to go through life. Once the state goes too far, however, tribe and clan loyalties provide a powerful rallying point for revolutionary forces.

Don't give a toss about Syria? That's fine, because this novel can be enjoyed entirely without any knowledge of the history or politics of Syria. My only problem with the book is the title; it sounds far too much like something Danielle Steel might have written. For my reviews of Schami`s other novels, The Calligrapher`s Secret and Damascus Nights, click here and here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Top Ten Films Begging For A Remake

Normally I'm opposed to remakes and reboots. It's not that the concept offends me, it's just that so many remakes were either pointless, like Gus Van Sant's Psycho, or turkeys on steroids like The Haunting. The odds of a successful remake seem to be very low. Despite that fact, I'd love to see someone take a crack at these films, some of which I've included simply because it's shocking they haven't already gone through the Hollywood recycling machine.

10. The 10th Victim (1965)

In the near future bored sophisticates enter a game in which they hunt each other and then in turn become hunted. The whole thing's legal and televised, and the government uses it as a form of population control. This Italian film sounds dystopian, but it's really a black comedy and it comes with a double dose of 1960s style. Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress provide beauty and cool, and the soundtrack has one of those maddeningly catchy tunes Italian films of the time specialized in. Running Man was a bit like this, but it's a wonder Victim hasn't been given the full Hollywood makeover.

9. The Magnificent Seven (1960)

There's supposedly a remake of this classic western in the Hollywood pipeline. The bad news is that Tom Cruise is attached to the project. I'm guessing that means the other six actors will be riding ponies just to balance out the height differential.  A straight remake is a bit pointless; what astonishes me is that no one has updated the concept to seven American mercenaries defending a Mexican town against drug cartel baddies. Wait a minute...that sounds good...hands off, Tarantino, it's my idea and I'm copyrighting it first thing tomorrow!

8. The Dirty Dozen (1967)

I know, I know, Inglourious Basterds was a de facto remake of The Dirty Dozen, but it didn't have the purity of the original concept. Not to mention that it was a self-indulgent load of shite. Given the success of Saving Private Ryan you'd think someone would be game for another stab at this action classic.

7. Mister Johnson (1990)

Virtually no one has seen this film, and that's a good thing. It's about a British colonial officer in West Africa in the 1920s who's trying to build a road through the bush. He's both helped and hindered by Mr. Johnson, a native who is a product and victim of colonialism. The novel this film is based is by Joyce Cary, and it's brilliant; one of the first and best novels about the corrosive effects of colonial occupation. The film is barely mediocre, despite Pierce Brosnan in front of the camera and Bruce Beresford behind it. If any youngish black actor wants to earn himself an Oscar, get this remake done in a hurry.

6. Gormenghast (2000)

This is actually a four-part BBC mini-series based on Titus Groan and  Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. The Beeb threw all kinds of money and talent at this project and they got it completely wrong. They gave it a Felliniesque feel which was totally off-base. The novels are hard to define, but I'll try by saying that they're kind of a collision between Dickens and Lewis Carroll. What's really missing from this mini-series is the humour of the original books, which are often LOL funny. And to do the books justice you'd need a series that's at least twice as long. Here's my review of the original novels.

5.  Troy (2004)

This plodding toga epic is based on Homer's The Iliad but manages to prune out all the best bits. More specifically, the film does away with the supernatural influence of the gods on the battle for Troy. That's a bit like making a western without horses. In Homer's story the gods are constantly interfering in the battle, and given the state of CGI these days I don't see why a remake shouldn't give them lots of screen time.

4. Excalibur (1981)

I don't actually mean this particular film needs to be remade, I'd just to like to see one film about King Arthur that doesn't suck like a Dyson vacuum cleaner, Monty Python's version excepted. Think about it: every attempt to dramatize this legend has gone down in flames. King Arthur, First Knight, and, going back to 1953, Knights of the Round Table have all put a blot on the record of everyone who participated in making them. The worst of the bunch is Excalibur, but only because John Boorman was an otherwise talented director. To be fair, Excalibur did have the late, great Nicol Williamson giving an intriguing performance as Widow Twankey Merlin.

3. Sands of the Kalahari (1965)

This is an odd one. A small plane crashes in the Kalahari desert and the survivors are menaced by a large band of baboons. The survivors also fight amongst themselves for who will be, in simian terms, the silverback male. It's a great idea for a film, but the execution was very B-movie. The worst decision was to have Stuart Whitman, a beta actor, play the alpha male. A decent male lead and some CGI would work wonders for a remake of Kalahari.

2.  Red Sun (1971)

If you're like me you're continually wondering why there aren't more westerns featuring samurais. It's a puzzlement. In fact, there's only one: Red Sun starring Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune and Alain Delon (my review here). Jackie Chan did martial arts in the old west in Shanghai Noon, so I don't see why we can't have a samurai kicking cowboy ass on the prairies. It's a better idea than Cowboys & Aliens.

1. The Naked Prey (1966) 

Actor Cornel Wilde turned to directing as his B-movie career started to wind down and he produced this classic about the hunter becoming the hunted. Set in Africa in the late 1800s, Wilde is a hunting guide, who, along with the hunters he's guiding, is captured by angry natives. The guide's clients meet sticky ends (really grisly stuff for 1966), but because the chief respects the guide he's given a slim, but fighting chance to escape. He's stripped naked and given a brief head start before being pursued by spear-wielding warriors. And the hunt is on. The story is beautifully simple and it's told with brutal efficiency. It's not without it's faults (Wilde was in the same acting class as Stuart Whitman), but it begs for a remake with a bigger budget and some dialogue that's a bit sharper. I'm not only one who loves this film: it got the official film geek seal of approval by being released as part of the Criterion Collection.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: The Scorpion Signal (1980) by Adam Hall

In the spy thriller genre, Adam Hall never got the respect he deserved, probably because his spy, Quiller, fell between the twin poles of Fleming and Le Carre. A Quiller thriller isn't as over the top as the former, nor as realistic as the latter. Hall is, however, a better writer than either one. Quiller, who never uses a gun, is an expert driver, pilot, martial artist, and has the Bureau's highest rating for being able to withstand torture. The Bureau, a special section of the British Secret Service, is Quiller's employer and is tasked with the hairiest assignments. What distinguishes the character of Quiller is his almost clinical ability to analyze his own physical and psychological reactions to stress, danger, fear, and violence. These passages have an almost Proustian attention to sensory details that might strike some readers as strange, but there's no doubt they set Quiller (and Hall) apart from the common herd.

Hall is also an exceptional writer of action sequences, often using a sudden, jolting stream-of-consciousness technique that generates a real feeling of excitement. The Scorpion Signal concerns a rogue British agent who may be plotting an assassination attempt on the Russian president, and, like almost all the Quillers, the tension doesn't let up until the very last sentence. Reading a Quiller is a text book exercise in how to write a thriller that's both exciting and a credit to the profession of writing. Hall puts sentences together in the same way Enzo Ferrari crafted parts to assemble a GTO. His muscular prose is a wonder of efficiency, flows beautifully, and with a few, deft words he can artfully sketch a character, a place or an emotion. Lee Child (my review of Worth Dying For is here) writes equally compulsive thrillers, but, in keeping with the automotive metaphors, his prose is more of a Detroit muscle car: loud, brash, and not very elegant in the corners. 

As good as Hall was, The Scorpion Signal was effectively his swan song. He wrote ten more Quillers, but they became formulaic, and Hall's right-wing politics began to make distractingly polemical appearances. The most action-packed of the Quillers is The Kobra Manifesto (1976), but possibly the best is The Tango Briefing (1973), in which our hero must deal with a shipment of nerve gas that's gone missing in the Sahara. Hall, whose real name was Elleston Trevor, was an absolute writing machine. He wrote under eleven different pen names and produced dozens and dozens of books in virtually all genres. As Elleston Trevor he wrote The Flight of the Phoenix, which has been filmed twice. I don't think the Quillers are still being printed, but there seems to be a good supply in used book stores. Now if only used book stores were in good supply

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Film Review: Polisse (2011)

Just about exactly half of Polisse is a very good film. The good half is a documentary-style look at the Child Protection Unit of the Paris police. The film touches upon a half-dozen or more cases involving everything from child abduction to incest. These cases are supposedly based on actual events, and they have a raw intensity that's both painful to watch and fascinating.

The bad half of the film is really, really crap. When we're not being introduced to cases of child endangerment we have to follow the private lives of the nine(?) members of the CPU. Their lives consist of two parts angst to three parts shouting. And screaming. And waving their arms. It's tiresome beyond belief. And all of it's being done to illustrate the moss-covered cliche that cops are affected emotionally by the horrors they have to clean up after. That's probably true but it's been said in a hundred different films and TV shows before this one. The only saving grace is that almost all the actors give great performances.

The blame for all this falls completely on the director. She goes by the single name Maiwenn, and she also co-wrote the screenplay and takes a supporting role as a journalist tagging along with the CPU. This sub-plot has her starting an affair with one of the CPU officers. The affair is pointless and dull and only seems to have been included to give Maiwenn some time in front of the camera, which is doubly unfortunate since Maiwenn is a lousy actor. I can only recommend this film if you keep one finger on the fast forward button on your remote.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Book Review: Oblomov (1859) by Ivan Goncharov

Nobody does psychological insight like nineteenth-century Russian novelists. Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov and Turgenev liked to take characters and pass them under an electron microscope of analysis and evaluation. Not for them the flash and dash plotting of Zola or Balzac; the Russians settle down with one or two characters and peel away their layers as if they were onions. One of the best, if lesser known, examples of this is Oblomov. The main reason for its relative anonymity is, I'm guessing, that Ilya Oblomov, the character under dissection in Oblomov, is not, at first glance, wrestling with the big existential questions writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy liked to challenge their characters with. Oblomov is simply lazy.

Oblomov is in his early thirties and owns an estate with 350 serfs. He hasn't been to his estate in many years, and instead lives in St. Petersburg off the income he derives from the work of the serfs. By any measure Oblomov's a parasite. What's worse, especially for him, is that he's indecisive, a prevaricator, bone idle, racked by uncertainty, hesitant, lethargic, irresolute, and unmotivated. In short, he's a bundle of passively negative qualities. In the brilliant opening section of the novel, set over the course of a typically uneventful day in Oblomov's life, we see him demonstrate every one of his negative qualities. Oblomov basically wants to live in a kind of endless daydream of quiet comforts, good food and discreet pleasures, and to that end he avoids any actions or decisions that threaten to break the bovine trajectory of his life. Even Oblomov's serf/manservant, Zakhar, is profoundly lazy.

Oblomov's best and only friend is Stolz, who decides to rouse his friend out of his waking slumber by putting him in the orbit of Olga, a bright young woman who sees that underneath the inertia Oblomov is a kindly, good-hearted creature. Slowly, Oblomov comes out of his shell and falls in love with Olga and she with him. It looks like Oblomov is going to turn the corner and become a functioning member of society and a husband, but his indecisiveness and fear of taking action takes hold once again and he begins a long, slow decline into a near-vegetative state and an early death. Along the way he ends up in the clutches of embezzlers, marries his lower-class landlady, and finishes his days in a ramshackle house in the suburbs. Olga ends up marrying Stolz.

The power and charm of Oblomov comes from the fact that the title character lies inside each and every one of us. Everybody has an inner Oblomov dying to lie down, have a bit of a nap, mull things over, put off making a decision, have one more cookie, think about getting started on a project, and, well, you get the picture. Few of us wrestle with the demons Dostoevsky throws at his characters, but most everyone fights against Oblomovitis (as it's termed in the book) on a daily basis. I've read Oblomov three times over the years and one of the reasons I do so is because it's more motivational than a gross of Tony Robbins CDs.

Oblomov isn't just about a ridiculously lazy man. Goncharov makes it clear that Oblomov is a by-product of serfdom. He and his immediate ancestors have been made rich, fat and useless by having serfs available to do everything, up to and including putting their socks on for them in the mornings. In Goncharov's  view, serfdom is a curse on both the serfs and their owners. Goncharov provides the antithesis to Oblomov in the character of Stolz. Stolz is a constant go-getter, always working, learning and traveling; filling his life with knowledge and experience. Rather pointedly, Goncharov makes Stolz half-German, apparently indicating that Russians need to take a more European approach to life. Just to further underline his point, the author makes all his male Russian characters idlers or schemers.

If Oblomov was just a singular, eccentric character the novel would be no more than a farce. Goncharov is also using the character to symbolically describe the inertia and backwardness of Russia itself. Stolz urges Oblomov to take an interest in current events, and, on the odd occasions he does, mention is always made of the French and British inventing, exploring or getting into scrapes with other countries. Russia is notable by its absence. Part of Oblomov's lassitude stems from the fact that he's asked himself the question, what is life for? He senses and even realizes that the only true answer is a life of activity and achievement, but at a certain level he sees all that rushing about as being essentially meaningless. If one's working to earn earthly comforts, why not skip the work and wallow in the comforts? In this sense the novel does tackle one of the big questions: is industriousness meaningful or just a way of marking time?

Goncharov should also get credit for presenting his female characters with far more depth than is usually found in nineteenth-century novels written by men. Olga is shown as a complex being, and the description of her married life with Stolz is startling because the author takes great pains to show that she and her husband are true partners in the relationship. That's pretty enlightened for 1859. This brings up the only flaw in the book: the overly long description of Olga and Stolz's courtship and marriage. This section of the novel is thinly disguised editorializing, and it's a bit of a slog to get through. Putting aside this slice of the novel, Oblomov is funny, maddening, fascinating, challenging, and an overlooked gem of Russian literature.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Film Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966) and The Day of the Jackal (1973)

I'm reviewing these two films together because they work brilliantly as a double bill; in fact, The Day of the Jackal is effectively a sequel to The Battle of Algiers. The latter film is justly regarded as a modern classic. It's a superb piece of agitprop that uses a documentary style combined with a cast of thousands that's more appropriate for a David Lean epic. Algiers, which is based on actual characters and events, is about the conflict between the French military and the FLN, the armed group fighting for Algeria's independence from France in the 1950s.

It would have been easy for director Gillo Pontecorvo to create a pure work of propaganda in which the black hat French are seen oppressing the white hat FLN and the Algerian citizenry. On one level that story exists in the film, but what makes Algiers so brilliant is that Pontecorvo is even more interested in showing the mechanics and philosophy behind terrorist and counter-terrorist activities. We see how both sides scheme and strategize, and how success on both sides is mostly dependent on intellectual ability.

The even-handedness in Algiers is also seen in the fact that Pontecorvo does nothing to demonize the French. He shows their arrogance, brutality and casual racism, but he doesn't make it melodramatic. And in one memorable and terrifying sequence we witness the horror of terrorist bombings carried out by the FLN against French civilian targets. It would have been tempting to downplay French suffering, but the film faces it head on. Similarly, we see Algerians ruthlessly tortured and killed by the French, and yet the film stops short of sentimentalizing their suffering.

The best example of the objectivity in Algiers is the character of  Colonel Mathieu, the leader of the French paratroopers who eventually crush (temporarily) the FLN in Algiers. Mathieu is presented as a cerebral professional who goes about his dirty business in the most efficient, effective way possible. He fully realizes his methods are brutal and that he's part of an irreversible historical trend (the end of colonialism), but he does what France expects of him. He's matched on the FLN side by a group of commanders who have to counter French firepower and manpower with cunning and an ability to mobilize the Arab population in mass protests. If there's a problem in this objective approach it's that Mathieu becomes the most compelling character in the film. He's played by Jean Martin with icy cool, and because of his strong performance it creates moments in the film when we're actually hoping for the French to win. Such is the power of charisma. And this is where the link to The Day of the Jackal comes.

The Day of the Jackal was directed by Fred Zinnemann, an old pro from Hollywood who'd done films like High Noon and Oklahoma! It's pretty obvious that Zinnemann saw Algiers and tried to adapt its style to a more mainstream production. Jackal is set in 1963 and is about a fictional assassination attempt on French president Charles de Gaulle. The organizing group behind the attempt is the OAS, a terrorist organization made up largely of ex-French Army officers looking for revenge for de Gaulle's decision to grant Algeria independence. Like Algiers, Jackal is based on actual historical events, although the character of the assassin is fictional. The conflict in Algeria links both films, but a more obvious connection is the actor Jean Martin. In Jackal he plays Wolenski, an ex-paratrooper acting as the chief bodyguard for the heads of the OAS. The character is what Algiers' Col. Mathieu may well have become in 1963, and it's Zinnemann's clever way of acknowledging the influence of Pontecorvo's film.

Zinnemann's directing style in Jackal is more polished than Pontecorvo's, but he does give the film a documentary feel. We follow the Jackal (the code name for the assassin) as he methodically plans the assassination and goes about acquiring the items he needs to perform the deed. At the same time we see the efforts of the French police, led by the bloodhound-like Commissioner Lebel, as they use the most minor clues to track down the Jackal. Each step in the two separate processes is fascinating to watch, and as the two plot lines converge the tension keeps ratcheting up. Because of this documentary approach, the threat to de Gaulle seems very real even though we know he was never felled by a bullet.

Jean Martin looking sharp as Col. Mathieu
Like Pontecorvo, Zinnemann doesn't try and demonize his villain or lionize his hero. The Jackal (played by Edward Fox) is a professional doing a difficult, dangerous job, and he goes about it with skill, charm and determination. In one key scene the Jackal kills a woman he's been sleeping with. Using only body language, Fox suggests that he regrets having to do this. As in Algiers, the easy choice to make a villain look more villainous is avoided. And thanks to Fox's muscular charm, by the end of the film we're pretty much rooting for him to kill de Gaulle, or at least be foiled in the attempt and make a clean escape. Lebel is not presented as a macho supercop. When we first meet him he's tending his pigeons, which was nerdy even in 1963. Lebel is a civil servant, no more and no less, but he's just as good at his job as the Jackal is.

Wolenski being tortured by the French secret service.

Jackal is also a great-looking film that skips around various eye-catching European locations, all of them filmed in an understated but glossy style that adds some warmth to what is basically a very cold-blooded story. And keep an eye out for a freeze frame of a woman crossing a street that mirrors a freeze frame used in Algiers. Of the two films The Battle of Algiers is clearly the one that will always have a more prominent place in cinema history thanks to its masterful and innovative blend of agitprop and entertainment. Jackal doesn't offer innovation, but it has to rank as one the most well-made and exciting films of the 1970s,

Friday, July 6, 2012

Book Review: Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (2010) by Graham Robb

There's no shortage of books about Paris. From tourist guidebooks to histories to memoirs about living in the City of Light there's a book for tout le monde. This also means there isn't a lot to say about Paris that hasn't been said many times before. Graham Robb gives it a good try, but he's not entirely successful. Parisians is basically an anecdotal history of Paris that touches on some of the least known and most mysterious aspects of Paris's history. Robb attempted something similar with The Discovery of France, the story of the country's incredible range of landscapes, and how for much of French history this rich variety was unknown to most of its citizens. It's a brilliant book that's witty, illuminating and constantly surprising.

Robb tells his pocket histories in story form rather than as straight historical essays. I can't say that that choice adds anything to the book except added length, which may have been Robb's intention. Some of the stories offer some remarkable information, such as the assassination attempt made on Francois Mitterand that was, in all probability, a fake organized by Mitterand to give himself a higher political profile. That's a good story. On the other hand, do we need a story about Napoleon's first trip to Paris? There is absolutely nothing new to be told about the man. About half the Paris "stories" are compelling, but the rest just add minor details to some very familiar historical figures and incidents.

Speaking as a francophile, I have a high tolerance for just about anything written about France and the French. I watch the Tour de France just for the scenery and (fingers crossed) the epic crashes. I draw the line at Johnny Hallyday, but beyond that I'm game for anything from Asterix to Zola. That said, Parisians had a hard time holding my attention.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Film Review: Duck You Sucker (1971)

There comes a point when film directors, especially the best ones, begin repeating themselves. And some even end up producing unintentional parodies of their own work. David Lean fell to earth with Ryan's Daughter, an overblown, overproduced flop that brought an epic scale to a pipsqueak of a story. Fellini's final few films, especially And the Ship Sails On and City of Women, felt like clumsy homages to the Fellini style. And Stanley Kubrick's detached, cool style reached a spectacular dead end with Eyes Wide Shut, a film about sex that barely had a pulse. Duck You Sucker is Sergio Leone's swan song as a director of westerns. It's an ugly way to go.

In the Man With No Name films Leone redefined and deconstructed the western. He took a genre that was on its last legs and blended in some elements from folklore, mythology and religion, and then added a wholly original look and sound. But after three films there really wasn't a lot more Leone could do with the western. In Once Upon a Time in the West, his fourth western, Leone tried his hand at a film John Ford might have recognized, and ended up with something that doesn't satisfy fans of either director. Once looks good and sounds good, but the plot is ponderous, slow-moving and confused. It's really a film that's held together by a handful of striking set-pieces and one wickedly entertaining performance by Henry Fonda as the antithesis of every western character he'd ever played.

With Duck You Sucker it's clear Leone is running up the white flag on his enthusiasm for the western. Even the ever-reliable Ennio Morricone stubs his toe with a score that veers wildly between cloyingly sentimental and perversely odd. Duck is unashamedly political in its ambitions. The story is set during the Mexican Revolution and centres on Juan, a roguish brigand who leads a gang consisting of his numerous sons. Juan teams up with an ex-IRA bomber to crack open a bank, but they're sidetracked into fighting for the revolutionary forces. Leone takes the view that the little guy (represented by Juan) always gets screwed in any kind of revolution, no matter who is leading the forces of revolt or what their aims are. This is an unsophisticated and unoriginal idea, and Leone certainly doesn't develop it with any kind of imagination. It's clear this aspect of the film was his reaction to the stormy political climate in Europe, and Italy in particular.

Politics is only one of the problems in Duck You Sucker. Rod Steiger as Juan delivers one of the hammiest performances in his long and jambon-filled career. His performance also moves him into a tie with Al Pacino in Scarface and Speedy Gonzales for worst attempt at a Spanish accent. James Coburn, as John the IRA bomber, does a Lucky Charms Irish accent, which is bad, but not as awful as the flashbacks he finds himself in. These flashbacks give us John's backstory, which is presented without dialogue but with a lot of soft focus and the worst music Morricone ever created. The backstory is a grisly bit of sentimentality: poor John has to shoot his best friend who's a traitor to the cause and is also one-third of a romantic menage a trois he and John are involved in. The third member is a girl, just in case you were wondering.

If the film has a saving grace it's that Leone does manage to work his visual magic in several set-pieces.  Some things get blown up real good, and there some crowd scenes around a railway station that are brilliantly shot and choreographed, but beyond that Duck You Sucker feels like the work of someone who's going through the motions. At this point in time Leone was only competing against himself and it clearly wasn't a fight he had much energy for. Click here for my review of Leone at his peak with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Eight Actors Who Should Fire Their Agents

Legendary agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar. His white Persian cat had the day off.
One of the mysteries of the Hollywood universe is how some good actors consistently end up in cruddy films, and yet others somehow miss out on that one big film that would catapult them to superstardom. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in their agents. It is, after all, the modern-day Irving "Swifty" Lazars who vet the scripts and directors before ringing up their client to let them know that, fingers crossed, they're going to be getting the lead in Police Academy vs Predator. Clearly, the best career advice for the following list of actors is to dump their representation and find some other way of finding roles; the Magic 8-Ball might be one option.

8. Mira Sorvino

Let's see; beautiful Mira is fluent in French and Mandarin Chinese; she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard;  she won an Oscar in 1995 for Mighty Aphrodite; and since then she's done...nothing, Nothing worthwhile, that is. Her IMDB CV since Aphrodite reads like the contents of a DVD sale bin at Wal-Mart: a lot of schlocky action films and others that are probably part of some film tax credit dodge. If it's true there's a conspiracy against brainy women in Hollywood then Sorvino is the poster child for it.

7. Clive Owen

Poor Clive Owen; it seems like yesterday he was on the short list to be the next James Bond, and now he's stuck doing the action films Daniel Craig turns down. Shoot 'Em Up, The International,  Derailed and Killer Elite represent the stuff star actors do on their way up or down. Owen is in his prime and he really only has Children of Men on the plus side of the ledger. And he'll have to win at least two Oscars to make up for King Arthur.

6. Matthew McConaughey

If Clive Owen's problem is too many action films, Matthew's curse is too few. This is one of the most macho, virile actors around, and just when you think he's going to become the next big he-man actor he turns around and does some desperately witless rom-com.   U-571 was followed by The Wedding Planner; Reign of Fire by How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; and what does he follow up The Lincoln Lawyer with? Magic Mike! A chick flick about male strippers! The only way forward for Matthew is for he and Clive Owen to switch agents and thereby rescue two careers.

5. Eddie Murphy

Some might say Eddie is his own worst enemy when it comes to picking roles, but the issue here is that he's a fine comic actor who's consistently been willing to whore his talents in any jerky comedy that came with a big paycheque. Check him out in Bowfinger and The Nutty Professor and you see someone who has a Peter Sellers-like ability to create and inhabit fully-realized comic characters. Most comedians play one character the entirety of their career (step forward, Adam Sandler), but Murphy can do much, much better. It's time for Eddie to stop letting his posse choose his scripts.

4. Alec Baldwin

If any actor deserves to get a mulligan on their career it's Baldwin. Turns out he's one of the best comic actors around, but until 30 Rock came along he'd been wasting his time trying to play it straight and macho in dire efforts like The Getaway and The Shadow. His agent was apparently blinded by Alec's leading man good looks and figured comedy was beneath him.

3. Geena Davis

She can play it sexy, tough or funny, but apparently she can't survive her agent's decision to put her in Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight. That pair of bombs effectively ended Geena's place on the A-list, and since then she's been reduced to playing a supporting role to a CGI mouse in three Stuart Little films. Her agent couldn't find her at least one rom-com?

2. Steve Martin

It's possible that Steve and Eddie Murphy share the same agent, because Martin can also be accused of wasting his talents in a string of family-friendly comedies like Father of the Bride, Cheaper by the Dozen and Parenthood. And there's no explaining his participation in the jaw-droppingly racist Bringing Down the House. Steve was once a wild and crazy guy, and his early films, The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, and The Man with Two Brains, reflect that persona. Perhaps Steve spent too long working at Disneyland in his youth, because he's played things pretty safe for a long time now.

1. Jeff Bridges

This might seem like an odd choice, and it's definitely too late in the day for him to switch agents, but it seems to me Jeff could have had a much more spectacular career. He's possibly the best actor of his generation, but somehow he's never got the big hit or the big role. His agent certainly tried. Bridges got the lead roles in films that were supposed to be big, like King Kong, Starman, Tron and Heaven's Gate, but they all turned out to be different flavours of turkey. Take a moment to imagine if Jeff had had Harrison Ford's agent. Jeff Bridges as Han Solo? as Indiana Jones? Those films would all have been even better with Bridges on board. In fact, most any big film of the 1970s and '80s would, in my opinion, would have been better with him in it. It could even be a drinking game: you and your friends name any random quality film from the last 40 years, and if a majority agrees that the film would be even better with Bridges at the top of the bill then everyone downs a shot. You'll be falling down drunk in no time.