Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: We Are Sex Bob-Omb!

The bands that populate Brian Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim books, like all great fictional bands, are so well realized that you can hear them through their lyrics, through the way the sound is drawn coming out of their instruments, through the way the other characters react to the music.  Sex Bob-Omb is a noisy garage rock band, Crash and the Boys are an even noisier, surlier band (their songs are only seconds long). Every band has its own personality, and the music is essential to the story.

For a film adaptation, translating the experience of "reading the band" into hearing it can be a tough trick to pull off.  The worst reaction, I would imagine, would be for the fans to say "that doesn't sound like Sex Bob-Omb." Luckily, Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World sounds exactly like Scott Pilgrim, with the help of Beck and Broken Social Scene.  The soundtrack is pretty exuberant (much like the movie--full review coming Friday), and the songs written specifically for the movie are the strongest parts.  I particularly love Sex Bob-Omb's Garbage Truck.

If there's one criticism I have, it's that the soundtrack is missing some songs, like a few Legend of Zelda themes that are only in the movie (at one point, when Scott sees Ramona in the subspace highway inside his head, the Zelda "Great Fairy" music plays.  There, that's the geekiest sentence you will ever see on this blog.  At least until Friday).  But the songs that are on here more than make up for what's not.  This is one of those soundtracks that is much, much more than a collection of songs featured in the movie: it's a stand-alone album, like Karen O's soundtrack for Where the Wild Things Are, or one of Wes Anderson's. 

The one song I really wish they had included (and this is true for both the movie and the soundtrack) is one of my favorite jokes in the first comic book, when Crash and the Boys introduce a song: "This song is called 'Last Song Kills Audience,' and it'll be our last song tonight."  But as a whole, this album is so carefully put-together, and so much fun to listen to, that it's hard to dwell on any complaints.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Middlesex

Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex was one of those books I started to read while I was in college, only to be interrupted when the school year started up.  I enjoyed the two-thirds of it (approximately) I read several years ago, so this summer I reread it.  I actually think I liked it more than I did on my first attempt.  Maybe approaching it with more experience as a reader and a writer added to the enjoyment.  The voice of the narrator and the presentation of the story unfolding across several generations was a tough trick to pull off, and Eugenides definitely accomplished this feat.

The story is narrated by Cal Stephanides (born Calliope), a Greek-American raised in Detroit in the 1960s and 70s.  Cal begins the story by explaining that he was born twice, first as a girl and then, fifteen years later, as a boy.  The opening is half David Copperfield and half Tristam Shandy; We get hints of Cal's conception and birth, but before that story begins, the novel's action leaps backward and forward in time.  Forward to the adult Cal, living as a man in Berlin, and backward to the war between Greece and Turkey in 1919, where Cal's story began in his grandparents' genes.

I don't think it spoils anything too much to reveal that Cal's grandmother, Desdemona, and his grandfather, "Lefty" are siblings who marry one another (acting like strangers) while they flee their war-torn village. On a boat to America, Lefty pretends to court Desdemona, and they are married by the ship's captain. When they get to America, they move to Detroit, where they live with a cousin who keeps their secret.  Lefty begins to work at Ford's factory, and Desdemona eventually finds work with the Nation of Islam. They have a son, Milton, who joins the army to impress the girl he goes on to marry, and the family witnesses the rise and fall of Detroit in the 20th Century. They get into the restaurant business, starting franchises of "Hercules Hot Dogs" across the country (the hot dogs are sliced so that they "flex" when they're cooked). They make enough to move to the suburbs and join the upper middle class, and the parts of the story that take place in Grosse Point are about maintaining one's identity through shifting situations (a recurring theme through the book).

For the first third of the book, Cal is more of a presence than a character.  We see him as an adult, explaining his life in Berlin, working for the State Department, and he explains the genetic anomaly that made him a hermaphrodite. As the family's backstory unfolds, Cal interrupts, omniscient and wry, throwing in allusions to Greek myth and previews of what occurs later in the book.  I loved the narrative voice in the story, and having read both this novel and The Virgin Suicides, I think it's a voice the author is getting better with.  It's really engaging, and there's a warmth and intelligence behind it that draws you in and compels you to follow the story.

This is a very ambitious novel, as much about a transgendered character as it is about the experiences of American immigrants in the first half of the 20th Century.  It's about putting down roots in a place, transforming to become a citizen, and the idea of transformation echoes between each narrative unfolding over the course of the story.  Even outside the story of Cal's own transformation, the changes in Detroit (most notably the 1967 riots) affect the direction of the story.  Eugenides attempts to draw lines between past and present, personal and national history, and on the whole he succeeds.

The last scene, which turned out to be my favorite in the book, reflects on Cal's place in his family after he starts to live as a male. The story comes back to a Greek funeral tradition, mentioned early in the book, in which a man stands guard at the house.  It was a resonant way to end the story, and I'm glad that I finally finished reading this book, even if it did take a few years to get back to it. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Friday Films: "In Bruges," or, The Importance of Knowing What Kind of Movie You're Making

This week, I watched In Bruges, a movie that failed because it didn't know what kind of movie it wanted to be.  It begins as a kind of crime-comedy, but at some point turns into a tragic bloodbath that finds each of the major characters dead (well, one is unclear, but still).  And it doesn't fuse these halves together well enough to work.   

I enjoy dark comedy, and I think crime comedy is a great niche that hasn't been done to death.  Big Deal on Madonna Street, Pulp Fiction, even Guy Richie's first two movies, Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.  These are movies that manage to have the criminal elements and the comedic elements at somewhat of a balance: the trick is that they are primarily comedies, I think.  The violence and the crime are played for laughs.  Half of the Coen Brothers' movies run on this concept.

In Bruges focuses on Ray and Ken, two hit men sent to Belgium to wait for further instructions after a botched job.  They're supposed to act like tourists and try not to draw attention, but Ray is impulsive and bored and quickly finds himself mixed up with a drug dealer, her boyfriend, and a dwarf named Jimmy.  There's a great scene where Jimmy goes on a racist rant, leading Ray to karate chop his neck. Ken drags Ray around the city, sightseeing, and finally, their boss Harry calls Ken and orders him to shoot Ray.

In alternating scenes, Ken and Ray get philosophical about heaven and hell, and in a brutal flashback, the job that went wrong is revealed: Ray was assassinating a priest and shot an altar boy in the head on accident.  He is consumed by guilt, which Ken tries to assuage by telling him that he too has accidentally killed an innocent bystander.  Ray has increasing thoughts of suicide, eventually stealing a gun to kill himself.  It's almost like getting a glimpse into another, more dramatic movie.

Up until this point, the movie maintains something of a balance, although the flashback to Ray killing a child is so jarring that the movie loses its comedic momentum.  When Ken decides he can't kill Ray, he sends him away on a train and the movie really falls apart.  Ray gets sent back to Bruges by a credibility-destroying deus ex machina, just as Harry arrives to dispatch Ken.  From there, the movie gets a lot louder and bloodier, and the characters are kind of thrown aside in favor of a gunfight.  Harry even says "This is the gunfight," which felt so inorganic and outside of the movie itself that it almost didn't register in my mind as being an actual line of dialogue.  Everybody--minor characters included--get swept up, and some meet violent and pointless ends. 

The fact that the end of the movie is pretty much an action movie bloodbath isn't my big complaint, though.  There are many movies that end with (or contain) a huge bloodbath that I really enjoy.  Almost anything by Tarantino, for example.  Shakespearean tragediesFargo.  But these movies seem to arrive at it more organically, and I think that's why they work.  And they know what they are.  Kill Bill is a revenge-action-comedy, where things are so over-the-top that the director's intentions are very clear.  Same thing with Fargo, which is a dark and violent comedy all along.  But In Bruges just didn't work, because it didn't pick a side in any clear enough way.

I think a better movie would have focused more on Ken and Ray, without ever showing Harry.  As a voice over the phone, or a profanity-laced note left with the hotel owner, he was a much stronger presence than he was as a character.  It could have been a kind of criminal Waiting for Godot, instead of an uneven, patched together mess.  Or it could have gone the opposite direction and been a violent action movie all the way through.  But I never got the sense that anyone knew which movie they wanted it to be.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: New Albums?

It's late in the summer, which seems to be a slow time for new music.  I've been listening to the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack today, but not enough to have anything coherent to say about it.  Believe me, I tried. Come back next week for a review of that one. 

So no review this week, just a really funny piece from the Onion:

Desperate Pandora Employees Scrambling To Find Song Area Man Likes

Are there any albums out this week I should know about?  Or are things staying quiet until the weather cools off?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood's Year of the Flood, the second book in her dystopian "MaddAdam" trilogy, is almost more terrifying than the first because it's more familiar.  While the first book, Oryx and Crake, documented a not-so-distant future destroyed by environmental catastrophe and genetic experimentation, the sequel reaches a little further into the past, bringing the story uncomfortably close to our own time.  There are characters in this book who remember the old ways, who know the actions that have led to the destruction, and who may have the best shot to put it back together.

While the plague documented in Oryx and Crake raged through the world, a religious group known as the God's Gardeners were hidden away from society, convinced that the mysterious illness was the "waterless flood" promised by God in the book of Genesis.  This book explores the group's history and way of life, and the reasons they survived while so many others perished.  The two protagonists are Toby, a longtime Gardener holed up in a high-end spa, and Ren, a young woman who grew up as a Gardener and is quarantined in a sex club called "Scales 'n' Tails."  Atwood shifts between past and present in both characters' stories, overlapping until their paths intersect in the post-plague world.

In Toby's story, we get some glimpses into familiarity: she grew up in a house with a white picket fence, in an idyllic country setting, before the growing suburbs, her mother's death, and her father's suicide due to financial troubles forced her to go into hiding with the Gardeners.  When she joins the group, she spends years convinced that she doesn't believe their teachings, even as she becomes one of their leaders.  When a dangerous man from her past learns she is a member of the group, she's forced to go into hiding, where she continues to act according to Gardener beliefs even in her new life.

Ren, meanwhile, gets taken to "the Compounds" (where the giant, evil corporations are based) as a teenager, where the Gardeners' beliefs are pushed out and she finds herself at odds with her mother as she grows up.  Through her backstory, we start to see familiar characters from Oryx and Crake, getting glimpses of the plot from another angle.  Her section is filled with sudden moments of recognition, where the events that led to the plague are witnessed by a character who is much less involved than the characters of the first novel.  In the same way that Toby and Ren's plots intersect and weave together (and apart) in the course of the novel, the way the Year of the Flood plot gets mixed in with Oryx and Crake's is really well-done and believable.

The novel departs stylistically from the first novel, which gives Atwood a chance to draw in her other interests (like poetry and religion) as she writes about the God's Gardeners and their leader, Adam One.  They're a (mostly) vegetarian group, mixing science and theology to arrive at a kind of theory of existence.  A lot of their beliefs make perfect sense, and I think Atwood's intention was to make the group a believable entity, a belief system that could easily take root.  They're mostly harmless, and their survival rate is much higher than that of the regular population.  I get the sense that in the final book, it will fall to their surviving members to decide how to handle the new species roaming the earth after the "waterless flood."  Each section in this book is named for a Saint's Day or a Feast Day, with named saints drawing in famous figures from religion and ecology in equal amounts.  There is a sermon by Adam One and a song, "from the God's Gardener Oral Hymn Book" before returning to Toby and Ren.  I can see how Atwood's hymns were inspired by William Blake, and her take on theology echoes his in certain ways.

I am really looking forward to seeing how she ends the trilogy.  At the risk of spoiling anything, I will say that the end of this book, which overlaps and expands upon the ending of Oryx and Cake, leaves the characters on the precipice of a new kind of world, one which they can remake or ultimately destroy.  Read Oryx and Crake first, and then check this one out.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Friday Films: The Kids Are All Right

Last Friday, I saw The Kids Are All Right, the breakout hit of the Sundance Film Festival.  It's about a lesbian couple whose kids decide they would like to meet the sperm donor responsible for their existence.  The donor is Paul (Mark Ruffalo), who owns an organic restaurant and rides a motorcycle, two facts that cause Nic (Annette Bening), the more practical of the moms, a lot of worry.  The characters slowly let Paul into their lives, where his presence starts to widen cracks in the family's foundation even as he becomes closer to individual members.

At first I was worried that the movie was painting its characters and its situations a little too broadly: Ruffalo's character seems at times like a caricature, and Jules (Julianne Moore) is a hippie type without steady employment, starting up a few businesses without any success.  Nic is a physician and uptight.  But as the movie went along, I realized that it was probably the director's intention to set things up in familiar patterns in order to destabilize them down the line.  But more on that later.

The kids are Joni, who is preparing to go to college, and Laser, her younger brother.  While Laser initially wants to meet Paul, Joni has an easier time befriending him.  When they tell their moms that they met their biological father, Nic and Jules decide to have him over for dinner.  He hires Jules to landscape his yard.  And then things get weird when Paul and Jules start sleeping together.  And there's the moment where the director, Lisa Cholodenko, starts derailing things.

There are a lot of touches in the movie that I really enjoyed, and a lot of messiness-as-directorial-choice that I loved.  Every time someone hooked up in the movie, there was this awkwardness about it that felt so authentic, and I thought the fact that there was a sense of unstaged awkwardness was a strong point of the movie.  It's not contained to characters getting together, either: the fights, the break-ups, even the dialogue: they seem completely authentic.  I've said before that I prefer the messy and honest, and that's why I liked this movie.  There were some things that could have been better-developed (Laser is under-utilized, maybe--he has a subplot that doesn't do much other than establish the fact that he kind of gets along with Paul, but most of the time he just delivers moody teenager one-liners), but as a whole I think it's an accessible, appealing film.

I think this movie comes along at an interesting point, politically, because it's about gay couples raising kids, and it takes place in California, and it's being released into a polarized climate.  And it's making a political statement through comedy, in a way that almost distracts you from the fact that it's making a political point.  The characters aren't just mouthpieces for an opinion.  I'm glad to see it's doing so well ($15 million in ticket sales so far), and I think we'll hear much more about it during Oscar season (I'm thinking Best Original Screenplay). 

What stuck with me the most, though, was the fact that so many pivotal scenes took place around the dinner table.  The first scene with all of the major characters together, the scene where Nic learns of Jules' affair, the scene leading up to a conflict between Nic and Paul: these are all around the table.  Even the poster is an image of the characters having dinner together.  I think it's the director's statement on her family values: the kids are all right, like the title says, because they have a functional family and support and they, you know, eat dinner together like a family, and I think she's saying that these things are more important than the gender or sexual orientation of the parents.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows

I will preface today's post by saying this: John Prine is awesome.  His songs are so good that Kris Kristofferson said they (other country and folk songwriters) would have to break his thumbs.  He co-wrote the "perfect country and western song" ("perfect" because it contains mama, trucks, prison, getting drunk, and trains).  He's a country singer who the other country singers look up to; the same goes for folk singers.  He has a hell of a sense of humor and an equally sharp sense of storytelling, which comes out in songs like In Spite of Ourselves and Spanish Pipedream.

This summer, a John Prine tribute album, Broken Hearts and Dirty Windows, came out, and it's outstanding.  It has tracks by the Avett Brothers, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Old Crow Medicine Show, and many others.  There's such a strong feeling of admiration on every track, not only for the man who wrote the songs, but for the songs themselves.  The artists all interpret the songs only as far as bending them to their sound, and I think the album is better because of it: to diverge too much would take away from the song, while trying too hard to adhere to the originals would make the covers seem pale and boring.  So by my criteria, there are some perfect covers on this album.

Really, I don't have much more of a review than that.  I've had this album on repeat for a few days now, and I intend to keep it in heavy rotation--in all of its twangy, tongue-in-cheek glory--for the foreseeable future.  Even the weaker tracks are saved because the songs themselves are so good.  And the good tracks are incredible.  So for today I'll leave the deep thoughts on John Prine to Bob Dylan, who said this (please read this next part in a Bob Dylan voice):

"Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about “Sam Stone” the soldier junky daddy and “Donald and Lydia,” where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that."

One last thought on the tribute album: if you switched the adjectives in the title, it probably would be just as true to Prine's work.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Fiction Mondays: The Lacuna

I'd never read Barbara Kingsolver before (even though The Poisonwood Bible is supposed to be excellent), but when I heard about her most recent novel The Lacuna, it sounded like something I had to check out.  I originally bought it as a Christmas present for my girlfriend, who is a big fan of Frida Kahlo, a major character in the book, and she raved about it.

The story moves from Mexico after the first World War to Washington, DC during the Bonus Army era, back to Mexico for Frida's rise to fame and visit from Trotsky, and finally back to America in the wake of his murder, where the protagonist comes under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It's a whirlwind plot, all centered around a character named Harrison Shepherd, a writer who began as a cook in Mexico and came to work for the U.S. State Department, transporting paintings during World War II.  Kingsolver doesn't tell the story in the usual way, though: the story is presented through journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, and archival notes that record Harrison's journey around the continent.  Through this method, she presents a character whose internal world is constantly hidden away from his public life.

The title of the book describes this disconnect, and the word "lacuna" is used throughout the novel in a variety of ways.  The first is simply a cave in a cliff: a missing piece that Harrison follows as a child to discover a tucked-away Aztec ruin.  But it also means a missing piece of a manuscript, and in the case of Harrison, it's a missing notebook that documents Harrison's expulsion from school (for "improper acts" with another boy).  Throughout the book, the idea of the lacuna appears in a variety of ways: letters between characters where the reader only sees one half of the conversation, or a statement made over and over that the most important piece of a story might be the piece that's left out.  In trying to reconstruct his life through his letters and diaries, Harrison's stenographer, Violet Brown, hopes to fill in that piece.

This is an unabashedly political novel, as much about Communism and World War II as it is about art and fiction.  In fact, the driving force is how these things become intertwined.  It's Harrison's association with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera that initially exposes him to Communist ideas, and the same association that brings him to work for the State Department, moving artwork from Washington, DC to Asheville to keep it from being destroyed during the war.  And it is in part the same association that brings him under scrutiny during the Communist "witch hunt":  When Harrison becomes a well-known novelist, his history in Mexico is discovered, as is his association with Trotsky and Rivera.  By the time his trial is underway, it doesn't matter that Trotsky opposed Stalin.  All Soviet Communists (in the eyes of the committee) are the same.  The politics in the novel aren't contained to history, though, and there was a great line about how the radio made it so that the loudest talkers, and not the most knowledgeable, ended up finding the widest audience.  If this isn't Kingsolver calling out pundits, I don't know what is.

The format, telling the story in a less direct way, is risky, and for this book, it pays off.  Considering how important the public portrayal of Harrison becomes as the novel goes on, approaching from the viewpoint of his diaries, intermingled with real newspaper clippings, embedded the story in the real world as well as his emotions.  And getting a lot of the story told in Harrison's voice makes for a really engaging read.   I think it's a challenging feat to pull off, and there's a chance your readers will lose the plot between journal entries, but I think Kingsolver is a talented enough writer to give you the story that lives in those gaps, and I think that's what this book is really about.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Friday Films: The Casablanca Effect

This week, a pair of interesting columns popped up in the New York Times and the Washington Post talking about the current cinematic landscape, particularly in terms of romantic comedies.  Over at the NYT, Maureen Dowd has a conversation with author Sam Wasson, wondering how romantic comedies went from Bringing up Baby to The Bounty Hunter.  A valid concern, I'd say.  In the past ten years, romantic comedies tend to be the same old thing, reheated and reconstituted to pretend they're not the same old thing.

In the Post, Jen Chaney argues that there have been a few romantic comedies in the past that break the mold and end up changing the genre enough to be interesting and enjoyable.  She cites (500) Days of Summer and Up in the Air, both of which I really enjoyed.  To that list I would add one of my favorite movies, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  I don't know if that really counts as a romantic comedy, but it's a movie about two people falling in love, told in reverse.  But what don't these movies have?

Happy endings.

Spoilers ahead, if you haven't seen these movies.

In "(500) Days of Summer," we are warned right up front: "this is not a love story."  It's about a relationship, about the course of falling in and out of love.  Sure, the ending has Joseph Gordon Levitt meeting a girl and the possibility of another story (visualized by resetting the "day count" back to "1"), but the real plot is about getting together and falling apart.  "Up in the Air" is about a closed-off man opening up and getting hurt by a woman he falls for.  And even though the two characters get together at the end of "Eternal Sunshine," we all know it could be a very turbulent path.  I believe an alternate ending had them erasing each other and meeting, over and over.

What does it mean that the better romantic comedies have a streak of cynicism, of admitting that things just don't work out like they do (for lack of a better phrase) in the movies?  Maybe they're a reflection of their time, or maybe it's just a way of going against the crop of lame and boring romantic comedies that keep on popping up, year after year.  I really don't know for sure.  But I know it's not the first time there have been a lot of romantic comedies where people don't get together: the 1960s had a ton.  Sam Wasson even talks about Annie Hall, a movie that works so well because they don't end up together. 

I'm not trying to figure out why these movies tend to be better--I guess I'll just sum it up as "The Casablanca Effect," where there's something more honest and more identifiable without that happy ending.  The idea is that the story continues offscreen, which somehow becomes more romantic.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: The Suburbs

For the past few weeks, I've been hearing individual tracks from the Arcade Fire's new album, The Suburbs, on the radio.  To be honest, I wasn't overly impressed.  The songs were okay, and some of them were great a few minutes in, but there was no single that completely wowed me.  I was worried, because the band's earlier albums, Funeral and Neon Bible, are some of my favorites.  I stopped worrying when I heard the whole album, though.

I've read a lot of music critics who talk about the album as a dead object, an artifact of the pre-iTunes world.  "People put their music on shuffle," they say.  I am paraphrasing.  But the new Arcade Fire album disagrees.  Like the Decemberists' Hazards of Love, "The Suburbs" is a long-player, an album designed to go together as a whole.  And when I finally listened to it as that, I felt like I understood what they were doing.

The first track, the title track, is like a statement of the album's themes:

"Kids wanna be so hard
But in my dreams we're still screamin' and runnin' through the yard
And all of the walls that they built in the seventies finally fall
And all of the houses they build in the seventies finally fall
Meant nothin' at all"

The spread of the suburbs vs. the fear of the bomb is, I think, the driving idea of the album.  A landscape of poorly-built houses that keeps on expanding, but toward what?  And what happens to the people who keep on building and expanding these suburbs?  I know these aren't exactly new themes, but I think this is the first record that does real justice to these ideas.

My current favorite track on the album, "City With No Children," touches on something that was present in the opening tracks of "Funeral," the idea of a neighborhood after the adults have gone.  In this song, the kids from that album have grown up, and the neighborhood is a wreck.  There's an allusion to the Sermon on the Mount, with the idea that the meek shall inherit the earth and the mourners will be comforted.  The narrator of the song, and the whole album, seems to look around for that comfort, distraught over the suburban sprawl he has inherited.

I don't think any band uses setting in their songs quite like the Arcade Fire, and the new album really expands on that, asking what happens when the landscape becomes too much to bear, when it takes on a life of its own.  The album is huge, its themes and images spreading out as it goes on to encompass the regrets and nostalgia of its narrator.  It ends with a look back and the statement that "If I could have it back, all the time that we wasted, I'd only waste it again."  Sure, there are allusions to natural disasters, atomic cataclysm, and abandoned neighborhoods scattered throughout the album, but the resounding point of the album is that the most destructive force, the element that obliterates the memories and forces the narrator out into a more terrifying world, is time.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Work in Progress

As promised last week, today I've got parts of a new story, fresh out of editing.  I think I'm becoming a better editor, and as a result my stories are getting leaner and (I think, at least) better.  Here's the opening of a story, currently titled "The Wolf," about two men who hear from their long-absent mother only on holidays, and what happens the day they don't.  The title is only temporary, until I think of a better one.

Sam stood by the kitchen counter, slicing a loaf of Italian bread into half-inch cubes when Dave came in holding the blue three-ring binder. Sam kept cutting, as though this task required his complete concentration, and didn’t look up at his brother until he had chopped most of the loaf and swept the cubes into a glass bowl. He carried the two ends, which he had not diced, to the table. He sat down and handed one to Dave.

“This is good bread,” Dave said, sinking his incisors into the round piece and tearing it like it was a piece of meat. “It’s really crusty and chewy.”

“It’s from the bakery in town. Need any butter, or olive oil?”

“No, that’s all right. Plain is fine.” Sam looked across the table, not yet starting on his bread. He had a habit, carried over from childhood, of watching Dave eat first, at least for a minute or two. It was strange, like seeing himself eat. Once, when he was very small, Sam even managed to convince himself that by watching his twin, he could fill his own stomach.

Dave had let his hair grow long and his beard had filled in, so they didn’t look like each other as much as they once had; for Sam, it was like seeing what he would look like if he lived outside for half the year, without regular access to hot water or a barber. It wasn’t that Dave looked dirty—the Park Service expected him to be presentable and professional—but Sam could see his discomfort in dress shoes, his glances into the backyard like he could not wait to get back out. Sam took a bite of his bread and looked at the tabs sticking out of the binder, each of them labeled. He wondered if it had gotten much thicker than the year before, or if it was just his imagination: considering the information inside, he wouldn’t be surprised if he dreamt it into a larger, more mythical collection.

“Do we have to break out the binder already? That can’t wait for dessert tomorrow?”
The binder is Dave's record of everything they know about their mother, from the phone calls to photographs of strangers who might be her.  This next scene is Sam's last memory of her before she left, and is one of my favorite scenes.

Rhea sat them both on the kitchen counter, the spot where she always placed her sons when she prepared them to leave the house; every morning she would have them sit there, Sam on the left and Dave on the right, to inspect their faces and fingernails.  It was the same counter where she gave them haircuts, looking from Dave to Sam to ensure her work was even.  Tonight, she sewed their shirts together, a seam that began two inches above the waist.

“Don’t move,” she said.  “If you wiggle around, the stitches might come undone.”  She took an ashtray from the kitchen table and examined the cigarette she had left there a few minutes earlier.  Satisfied that it was still lit, she took a long drag and regarded her sons.  “I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner,” she said. 

She finished sewing and tugged at the seam a few times before standing up straight, pleased with her work.  “Get your pillowcases,” she said.  “And hop down together, would you?  I don’t want to have to sew you up again.”  The twins shuffled off of the countertop and shambled, conjoined, down the hallway.  When they returned, Rhea told them they were going with the neighbors, that she would see them when they came back later that night.  She kissed each of them on the forehead and said she loved them, shepherding them outside.

Three hours later, after an evening of wandering the neighborhood with Margaret, the woman next door, and her children, the boys returned home to find their father sitting on the porch, drinking whiskey from an empty jam jar printed with Tom and Jerry cartoons.  The porch light cast sharp shadows across the lawn, the only illumination on the dirt road.  Sam knew almost instantly, before Margaret even put her hands on their shoulders, that he would remember this moment for the rest of his life, the exact instant he and his brother, fused at the waist, transformed into pair of motherless freaks.

So that's about the first half.  I'm really happy with it so far, but like I said, the title is giving me some problems.  I am open to suggestions.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Films: Some Thoughts on "Repulsion"

This week, I watched Roman Polanski's Repulsion, a horror movie about a young woman left alone who loses her mind.  I would never argue that Polanski isn't a great director, and I think he excels at horror.  Whether it's Repulsion or Rosemary's Baby or Knife in the Water, he is able to isolate his characters and create a slow-building sense of paranoia that overwhelms and causes them to see monsters.  Sometimes they're there, and sometimes they're not. 

In this film, an unstable young woman named Carol, who is terrified of men for a reason that is never explicitly explained (more on this later) finds herself alone in her apartment when her older sister goes on vacation.  She starts to have delusions of break-ins and sexual assaults, which jumble together with reality, causing her to attack a suitor and barricade herself in the apartment.  Her grasp on reality deteriorates, and she begins to see hands coming through the walls to grab her and phantom-men who assault her in her bed.  It is suggested, at least how I read it, that she was sexually assaulted as a child and had never confronted this fact.

While I was watching the film, though, I have to admit I had a hard time separating the film from its director.  Isolation, madness, and horror: these have some resonance in Polanski's life.  There's also his recurring theme of the young, innocent woman with sexual demons following her.  If you know about Polanski's life (and I think most everyone knows something about it), this might strike you as a little uncomfortable.

But regardless, Repulsion is an excellent art house horror film.  The cinematography is really impressive, as are the special effects (creepy hands coming out of the walls in particular)  The depiction of the descent into madness is really believable and terrifying.  For the first half, things move slowly and methodically, subtly ratcheting up the tension, until finally there is a moment where everything comes unhinged.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: A White House Tribute to Paul McCartney

Tonight, PBS will air a new In Performance at the White House, a concert celebrating Paul McCartney as he's awarded the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song (he's the third person to ever receive it).  The ceremony actually took place about a month ago, and included performances by Emmylou Harris, Stevie Wonder, and many others. 

I love that these performances are occurring at the White House, because let's face it, they didn't happen there for eight years.  Even the first Gershwin Prize concert, honoring Paul Simon, took place at the Warner Theater, a few blocks from the White House.  So I like that they're bringing them inside, because it makes it less like the administration sees itself as above the popular culture of the country.

So by way of a preview, here is a video of Jack White at the concert, performing McCartney's "Mother Nature's Son."  Enjoy, and tune in tonight.  I hear Obama joins in for a big "Hey Jude" sing-along. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Fiction Mondays: Arkansas and an Update

Last week's book was John Brandon's Arkansas, a novel that exists somewhere between literary fiction and neo-noir.  Or maybe it doesn't exist between them at all: it's a blend of the two.  The book follows Kyle, Swin, and Frog, three characters involved with the drug trade in the South whose stories run towards each other and intersect violently.

Swin Ruiz is a college dropout who still considers himself something of an intellectual.  When he runs out of money, he finds himself working with Kyle, who isn't the brightest, but is more suited to a life of crime.  The two become drug runners for Frog, who installs them at a state park where the ranger is his employee.  They never meet Frog, but he's an important character, with a significant portion of the book allotted to his backstory.  Every other chapter is written in the second person, forcing you to identify with Frog, whether you'd like to or not.

Swin and Kyle spend their days at the park, working for the ranger, Bright, between runs.  He's a strange character, with a collection of half-empty whiskey bottles and a box full of burnt bones in his house.  They have to do random work around the park between visits from Bright's other boss, a woman who dresses only in pink and gets a cut of the drug money.  While they're kind of idling around, Swin meets Johnna, a nurse who he begins dating.  The narrative, which is kind of loose and episodic, threatens to slow down at a few points early on, but the sections with Frog drive things forward leading to the moment things go wrong for Kyle and Swin.

You could say the idea behind the second half of the novel is that a criminal can be undone either by his stupidity, by emotions, or by chance.  When Bright is killed by a runaway, Swin and Kyle do their best to carry on without him, but neither one knows enough about the situation to really lead.  Everything they do leads Frog to suspect their motives, and as his backstory races toward its intersection with their plotline, you just know things are going to end poorly for them.  I guess the big surprise is what becomes of Frog at the end of the novel--if Kyle and Swin are destroyed by their own stupidity, Frog is nearly killed by his emotional investments in his employees.

But maybe the idea isn't just about what destroys the characters, because it's also about what saves them.  Kyle and Swin, Frog and his closest employees: they are family, in a strange sense.  Kyle and Swin realize this late in the novel and know they are the only ones they can depend on, to carry on their stories and to protect one another.  Frog is almost driven to madness when he realizes this about his own story.  If there's any redemption for the characters, it's through the people they have randomly wound up with. 

Brandon's writing is really engaging because it is so spare.  He seems to only want to give you enough to have a complete image of these characters, and his description of their actions and their internal monologues is at times off-putting because it is so clear and to the point.  Putting Frog's sections in second-person was a really wise decision--he would be a really difficult character to identify with in third-, or even first-person.  Brandon has a new book, out this summer, called Citrus County.  Based on the strengths of Arkansas, it is definitely one to check out.

Now, the update: I am going to post sections of a new story here next week!  It's one I've been editing for the past week, attacking with red pen.  And I'm really excited about it.  Check back here next Monday for at least part of it.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Friday Films: Inception

Last Friday, as the heat index crept upward, I went to a matinee of Christopher Nolan's new film, Inception.  It seemed like the perfect way to beat the heat for a few hours, to duck into an air-conditioned theater and watch an action movie.  I expected a good movie, a summer action movie, but I had no idea I would emerge from the theater, two-and-a-half hours later, with my mind completely blown.  I couldn't stop talking about the movie all weekend, telling anyone who would listen that they had to see it.  Like The Dark Knight, Nolan takes the idea of "summer action movie" and turns it to his purposes, producing one of the smartest action movies I have ever seen.

The plot revolves around Dominic Cobb, a dream-thief who is able to steal information from his subjects' subconscious.  He has been exiled from his home and kept away from his children, and he's offered a chance to go home if he can accomplish "inception": planting an idea in a subject's mind.  He assembles his team, which includes a chemist, a forger, and an architect, to go into the mind of a corporate heir and convince him to break up his father's company.  Their plan involves a dream within a dream within a dream, which will allow them to plant the idea deep in the subconscious.  It also allows Nolan to toggle between several layers of reality, each with their own rules of physics and time.

This aspect of the movie was one of my favorite parts: Nolan made the rules, and then he told his story within them, and I love when a science fiction movie does this.  He explains, enough that no one should be lost, how time works within a dream, and how going deeper into the dream-world (another "level" down) affects the movement of time.  Physical effects are also felt at deeper levels.  So in the first level of the dream, as a van falls off of a bridge, the gravity in the second level kicks off.  And this fall, which takes only a few seconds in real-time, takes significantly longer to get to the next levels, allowing the characters to do what they need to at the lower levels.

Through the film, Cobb's dead wife, Mal, keeps showing up in the dreams.  She operates as something of a wild card through the film, with Cobb's guilt over her death making her into a vengeful specter throughout the dreams.  She arrives just in time to cause chaos during Cobb's missions, and the movie lets us know, through Ellen Page's character Ariadne, that the success of the inception mission depends on Cobb confronting Mal in the lower levels of the subconscious.  I love that I just got to write that sentence in a review of a summer blockbuster.

This is a movie that could have very easily been a confusing, sloppy mess.  When you're dealing with dreams and actions that take place largely in the imagination, and a plot that warps notions of time and space, it's pretty simple to let the fact that it is all a dream allow you to dismiss logic and order and have some sloppy writing.  Instead, Nolan set the rules, and he played within them.  The movie made perfect sense according to its own logic, and that's really what I want out of a science fiction film like this one.  I've heard there are some critics who think that the dreams in the films were too orderly, but I think that was a choice Nolan made to have a really cohesive film, and I prefer it to the latter, something that could have turned out really navel-gazing and dull.

I believe Inception will be a movie worth watching again, because the director's other movies become more layered and complex the more you watch them.  Once you know the twist in The Prestige, you notice all of the clues scattered throughout the movie.  I'm interested to see what kinds of surprises the director tucked into the dreams onscreen here, and what other layers we'll see on the next viewing.  Maybe he intends it to work like a recurring dream, where you remember just a little more each time.  I wouldn't put it past him.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Musical Wednesdays: Summer Music Edition

I'm just going to say it: I don't really have a topic for today's post.  I thought about opening with a joke about not being at the Pitchfork festival and decided against it, and I thought about listing what I've been listening to this summer, but I came up a bit short.  But it's my first week back, and I can't really be out of musical topics, can I?  So here we go.

One of my favorite newer records right now is American Slang, by the Gaslight Anthem.  They are a band from the New Jersey shore, and they really embody the idea of that (and I mean the old idea, the broken-down splendor of Asbury Park and the shadiness of Atlantic City).  They're channeling Springsteen, and their first song I heard, "Old White Lincoln" throws out references to Tom Waits and sailor tattoos.  There's something not quite nostalgic about the lyrics, as though they were already trying to hold onto a time that passed.  The new album's title track has some amazing lyrics ("They cut me to ribbons and taught me drive/I've got your name tattooed inside of my arm) and to me, it feels like summer.  The band is touring with the Hold Steady later this year, but nowhere convenient for me to see them.

The other album I'm really loving this summer is Brothers by the Black Keys.  It's more Motown-influenced than their earlier records, and I love that they're moving in this direction.  I still can't believe sometimes that there are only two people in this band, because they have such a full sound and their songs have a wider range than some much larger acts.  Plus, I like the fact that they're geeks who play incredibly bluesy, soulful music.  Standout tracks on the new album include "Ten-Cent Pistol" and "Tighten Up."  And "Next Girl."  And "Sinister Kid."  The whole album is worth listening to, and then worth listening to on repeat.  There's also a deluxe vinyl edition.

So that's it for today.  Hopefully, now that I'm living in a city, I'll be able to go to more shows and report back.  The lead singer of Dr. Dog is playing a solo show at the end of August, and the Avett Brothers are playing up in Bethlehem around my birthday.  Either show would be a great end-of-summer show, I think.