Black Swan

[Screenshot]Here we have a cautionary tale about the dangers of adults living with their parents and not getting off enough. Or, more properly, a screwed up film about screwed-up people. Mostly just one screwed-up person, really, but I can’t help but think that most of Nina’s troubles come from living with her mother in a tiny New York apartment. It should probably come as no surprise, just based on Aranofsky’s track record, that this is psychologically pretty twisted: pretty much always his protagonists are horribly conflicted and tortured and ultimately self-destructive. Plotwise, this is kind of more of the same only with more enablers: the protagonists of Pi and The Fountain mostly went out and got headfucked while cooped up alone.

Even though the plot is arguably the same old stuff, it certainly feels much more sweeping in scope than Pi, and there’s good use of the ensemble cast, particularly Mila Kunis, who strikes a good note of heisenmalice *. This is a busy film full of interesting foils for Natalie Portman to bounce off of, some more subtly than others: Cassel and Hershey play pretty two-dimensional and cliched roles, but Kunis is if not subtle at least interesting, and Winona Ryder presents a more nuanced (if only for being largely offstage) perspective on the ephemerality of stardom.

Aronofsky’s cinematic aesthetic has always had a certain horrific beauty to it (less so in Pi, which was kinda self-consciously lo-fi), and on this front Black Swan didn’t disappoint. There’s a cold beauty pretty much throughout in the camerawork and scene-setting, a sense of loneliness and isolation pervading the scenes through cinematography and perhaps some audio trickery.

All in all, this film was probably worth the hype. I certainly found it haunting and creepy and affecting. Not exactly good medicine for the brain, but it gets lots of points for doing what it does so effectively. If you like ballet and want to continue liking ballet, you might want to watch that series about the girl who sometimes turns into a duck instead. But if you want a dark story about crazy people in the arts, this one’s for you.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

* It seems acceptable these days to use “heisen-” where a few years ago one might have said “quantum” and a few decades ago one might have merely used “uncertain”. But mostly I just like the word “heisenmalice”. Return to text

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust

Proust’s great literary classic À la recherche du temps perdu is well-known among those who haven’t read it for two things: first, that it is really fucking long (who is Tom Perdue, and why is it going to take 7 books to find him?), and second, that the enormous hundred-odd-page recollection at the beginning is set in motion by the narrator dipping a madeleine in tea and eating it (I have trains of thought like that too, but I don’t write them down). Among a certain class of intellectual in a certain generation (neither of which I belong to, I think), reading Proust or at least pretending to have read Proust was compulsory. So I borrowed a copy of Swann’s Way (in the Moncrieff-Kilmartin-Enright translation) and set off to be blown away by an extraordinary work of literary genius.

Six hundred pages later, I’m a bit torn. At this point I have no particular desire to read the other six volumes, for reasons which will probably become abundantly clear, but I can appreciate the craft. One thing I can definitely appreciate is Proust’s command of language, which I imagine even comes through well in translation: the structure at both the sentence and multi-sentence level is evocative and well-handles (despite a multitiude of subclauses which often muddles the grammatical structure and makes the reader slow down). On technical issues, this is a beautiful work in a superb translation, rich in sensory detail and in expository whimsy. That’s the sort of thing I like. My problem with it is that this this display of mastery is in the service of very little indeed.

For Swann’s Way (and, as I am given to understand it, the entirety of In Searth of Lost Time) has no actual plot to speak of, but is cast on flotsam and jetsam of memories. The first chapter, “Combray”, was almost intolerable, because it seemed to go nowhere. Things much improved in the second and third sections, “Swann in Love” and “Place Names/The Name”, both of which had a cohesive strand running through them. i’m afraid the rest of the volumes probably more resemble the first section, and its dreamy, pointless ramble through memory. But the last two chapters were very enjoyable indeed.

You might argue that I’m inconsistent: I pan “Combray” for its lack of cohesiveness, and enjoyed The Mezzanine for largely the same reason! That maybe gets to the point of how this book can be enjoyable to people who are not me; those who prefer a ramble through childhood memories of nature and family circles to musings about shoelaces and milk cartons might feel completely opposite to my impression. However, I found disentanging (and trying to derive meaning from) Proust’s memoryscapes to be exhausting. Some of that might be subject matter, some might be the complexity of the sentance and phrasal structure, some might simply be how extraordinarily long the work was. I didn’t find the first chapter enjoyable at all, but I could appreciate the craft.

And, really, the second and third sections are well worth the read.

See also: Wikipedia.

Inception

[Screenshot]I am largely impressed with Christopher Nolan; his films usually have some element of the puzzle-box and some element of the thriller in a pleasant combination (OK, I’ll admit The Dark Knight was devoid of puzzle-box elements but still was a nice ride). In many ways, Inception was more of the same, with mostly straight-up action thriller and a certain element of the cerebral. I can’t help but feel a little cheated by the sheer arbitrariness of some of the rules of the central plot contrivance (I shall dub this now-all-too-common plot element “Harry Potter syndrome” although there are plenty of prior examples of it). The relative time rules are pretty bizarre, the internal gravity rules are really rather capricious, and the whole “dying wakes you up, except when it doesn’t” thing didn’t quite work from my point of view. Cobb’s motivation confuses me too: given that his children are in the care of a sympathetic character, spiriting them out of the US should not be rocket science.

Despite my reservations about its central conceit, though, I actually quite enjoyed this film, although with so many films nowadays, the sheer sprawl of the thing rather drove down the enjoyment-per-minute-of-running-time ratio. There was a great deal I liked: the acting was mostly excellent, the visual effects appropriately fantastic, and the conceit of hostile manifestations of the subconscious was well-integrated and thematically appropriate. Leonardo DiCaprio’s done much to redeem himself as an actor, and both Gordon-Levitt and Page acquit themselves well; most of the other acting is not particualrly inspiring but doesn’t really need to be; the core characters create the psychodrama effectively and they steer clear, to my relief, of the most obvious pitfall of casting the new inquisitive female team member as a romantic interest for the lead, althoguh having her plumb his psyche skirts the edge of this problem. The visual effects provide a similar restraint: there’s no lack of fantastic and impossible shots to point up the unreality of the worlds explored, but they’re used sparingly enough for the gimmickiness of it not to ever become problematic. In short, I’d qualify Inception as an intelligent and dense work that largely avoids the self-indulgent pitfalls so common of directors who have been found to be clever. I’m not sure if it’s my very favorite work of Nolan’s — I actually very much enjoyed the structuring and design of Memento — but it’s certainly a film I can respect.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

Confessions of a Mask, by Yukio Mishima

It would be monstrously unfair to compare this book, which is unambiguously literary, with the less artistically ambitious Strings Attached, but having read them in close proximity (purely by accident; I’d been meaning to read Mishima for some time), it’s worth noting that they’re both, at their core, novels of gay self-discovery. That may be where the comparison ends, because Confessions of a Mask is dense and obscure and possibly semi-autobiographical.

There are events and a plot to the book (namely, World War II, as seen from a Japanese civilian point of view) but it’s mostly a psychological and cultural snapshot: a picture of a specific individual in a specific culture. There is an ball of intertwined ideas woven around the sexual kernel of the story: primarily conceptions of virility, as appearing in the culture-at-large and filtered through the consciousness of the narrator, and their expression through military service, athletics, and patriotism, which is where it becomes clear that this story’s not just a character sketch, but also a reflection of the larger culture of the early Showa, where these exact virtues were also given significant prominence.

Our nameless narrator, however, has pretty skin-crawling fantasies built around these notions, with the ideas of sacrifice and martyrdom resolved into a certain degree of sadism, and his explicit fantasies are rather horrific. As far as I can tell, they’re supposed to be distressing (and presumably they are either not autobiographical or Mishima was sufficiently self-aware to know their effect on other people), and present a sour, unhealthy side to the nationalistic fervor of the time. Digging homoeroticism, or even homoerotic sadism, out of virility-worship is pretty easy, really (see also: the American military, American football), and it’s a pretty cheap satire nowadays. But in 1948 Japan, maybe a dark twist of a sexual conception of nation’s military attitudes was what was needed.

On the other hand, Mishima would eventually become infamous (and die) trying to instigate a return to those glory days, so maybe reading it as a condemnation of the pervasive culture isn’t quite right. No matter what the take-home message is, it’s a starkly compelling view of a character whose impulses, desires, and duty drive him apart, and the way he interacts with a culture which expects a particular character and is not equipped to tolerate anything else.

See also: Wikipedia.

Liar Game

[Screenshot]Liar Game is glorious. It kicks The Manga Guide to $MATHEMATICS_DISCIPLINE in the nads and steals its lunch money. Artistically, it’s not much to look at: it’s passable but not great. But it has terrific fun storylines. You know all the crazy “you know that I know that you know that I don’t know whol Kira is” headgame shit in Death Note, and the way everyone skirts around the rules and comes up with clever ways to rules-lawyer the Death Note to their advantage? Liar Game takes all that and adds a generous helping of mathematics to it. So if you like your comics fiercely analytical, you’ll love Liar Game. There’s probabilitiy, game theory, and a shitload of psychology. And it’s all held together with interesting characters and a solid frame story (which at present seems to be built on a rather contrived foundation, but figuring out the contrivance underlying the LGT is, apparently, one of the major long-term revelations in the story, so we can reserve judgment on that one).

See also: Wikipedia, Anime News Network.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare, by G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s best known for the Father Brown novels, but apparently he was capable of peculiar psychological and surreal novels. I first became aware of these predilections of his from an entry in an IFComp several years back which purported to adapt one of his novels, but I harbored a desire to read this one based mostly on the praise of non-asshole evangelist (which is damning with faint praise; really he’s an excellent essayist and apparently a gentleman) Fred Clark.

It’ s a quite unusual book, and quite short, but almost exactly the right length for spinning out the particular conceit it is built around, which is exploration of antagonistic opposites in society, specifically seen through the lens of conflict between anarchists and order. Although perhaps “anarchy and order” is more accurate, since the anarchists of the story are (self-consciously) ridiculous 19th-century caricatures more about throwing bombs than about individualistic philosophy. The “police vs. anarchists” framework is really just a metaphor for any sort of dochotomous struggle: good and evil, dark and light, etc. Much more about this story would be spoilers, althoguh several of the twists are foreseeable from pretty early on; by the eighth chapter the broad tenor of the encounters to come should be obvious, but the book manages to keep such foreknowledge from being disappointing by developing a narrative style which manages to keep reasonably taut and suspenseful (in spite of the lack of cause for suspense), and at times, quite humorous. Chesterton’s witty, and he’s not afraid to show it in descriptions or in dialogue. All in all, it’s a fresh, entertaining, and not too long story, and I fear to spoil some of the better bits by sharing too much.

See also: Wikipedia.

Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger

I didn’t know much about J.D. Salinger except for his famed hermitage and The Catcher in the Rye, which I read in high school. I vaguely expected Franny and Zooey, his second-best-known work, to be pretty similar. In some ways it is: it’s the story of a person (or people, in this case) burdened by a feeling that they’re much smarter than everyone around them. But I find it more interesting in some ways, because while Catcher is the story of a disaffected teenager, Franny and Zooey focuses on college-educated adults, i.e. my people, so they’re caught up with academic concerns, which calls to mind some of my own thoughts and experiences on the subject: namely, what does all of their learning do for them, in the long run, and why has knowledge not led to happiness? Sometimes it does seem like the whole purpose of a college education is to feel superior to those around you.

And then again maybe not, anymore. In some ways F&Z feels like an artifact of its time, when colleges were havens of liberal-education full of people who honestly believed that they were seeking ascension into a Higher Plane of Knowledge, as well as prodigals who sought four years of dissipation (and people who score pretty high on both axes). These days, pretty much every college seems to serve a fairly vocational purpose, althoguh not the way vocational schools do, teaching skills particular to an occupation. Rather, a lot of schools (and I may be biased by the students I see, and saw at UCSD) seem to essentially serve to rubber-stamp students, sending them on into fields not necessarily related to their degrees, but with the requisite validation of their basic competence. Now as then, the knowledge learned in schools may not have much to do with actually living a life worth leading. But now people are either more honest (to be cynical about it) or cynical (to be honest about it) about the actual utility of their labors.

So while the particular social structure Franny and Zooey plumbs is a bit of a creature of the past, the fundamental question of what the point of it all is remains. And for a member of the overeducated class like myself, it’s a pretty interesting one. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have much in the way of answers, just an exploration of that particular corner of angst rather than an actual thesis. Nonetheless, if you’ve had enough education to harbor a desire to read this book, it’d probably serve to, if nothing else, to illuminate your own feelings and attitudes.

See also: Wikipedia.