Sunday, March 15, 2009

Ahead of the New Yorker curve ... yay!

This week's New Yorker has a long and obscure history of the vampire myth. About a month ago, for no apparent reason, I went on a vampire-watching tear myself. Well, not so much a tear really, as a little brace of vampire movies---F.W. Murnau's (1921) silent original "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror" and Werner Herzog's 1979 remake "Nosferatu: The Vampyre".

Murnau's original is often rated very highly among vampire buffs : ) ... but for me, it's little more than a curiosity. Herzog's movie, however, is top-notch. Klaus Kinski plays a maniacal Count Dracula. Isabelle Adjani is Lucy (I think that's what her name was) and the whole movie rises to the crescendo of the Count slavering over her pale nape. Aside from truly sinister and terrifying opening scene, this movie is an artfully dark take on the classic story rather than a gore fest.

All of this is pretty strange stuff, and I find the mythology pretty hilarious (not just Herzog's movie). Does the vampire myth really resonate so deeply that it deserves repeated treatment (according to the New Yorker, Warhol, Coppola, Polanski, Herzog ... all made vampire movies) and then this extended critique in the New Yorker? I got bored and didn't finish the article.

Monday, March 9, 2009

In other rooms, other wonders

Daniyal Mueenuddin writes with a certain old-world charm. His prose is florid, almost overly so. Almost. Just when you think he's let a sentence drift too far afield, he reels it back in with a light touch, often producing remarkable sentences with several little sparkling flourishes. Here's one example:

The next evening, when I drove through the gate of my house, a
sagging wooden affair once painted green, once perhaps in colonial
days a swing for little English children, I found an old man
standing by the portico with the timeless patience of peasants and
old servants, as if he had been standing there all day.

Here's another:

The ancient valet greeted Murad with affection, one of the old
school, corrupt, running the household for profit, taking a cut
from the cook, the drivers, but nevertheless proudly indulgent of
his master's ordered purposeless day, the master's hand which had
never turned to work, and his connections with the old Lahore

I spend several enjoyable hours this past weekend drifting through these sentences that form a loosely connected collection of stories about the remnants of a feudal Pakistan.

Mueenuddin's stories have an overwhelmingly feminine quality, and I don't mean that they will only be enjoyed by a female audience. For starters, very objectively speaking, Mueenuddin's frames six stories about women, in between two short ones about men. And even then, poor Nawabdin Electrician, the every-man of the first story, is the father of twelve girls, saddled with the impossible burden of twelve dowries! But, more than anything else, it's Mueenuddin's affinity for careful crafted women characters, all coping in their own way with being on the wrong end of familiar and frustrating power equations, that give this book its spirit.

I am impressed, but not yet entirely convinced by Mueenuddin's talent. For one, the trajectory of his characters are a little monotone. They cope, then hope, then fail, all rather too quickly. For this loosely connected set of stories, this works well enough (the connectedness being a nice device to convey the familiar, small world
of an Indian/Pakistani city). Despite being enjoyable, I'm not sure what Mueenuddin's point is---impressionist semi-documentary makes for a pleasant read, but I could have used a little more commentary in the sub-text. I can't help but wonder if Mueenuddin is equipped to tackle more weighty, substantial characters.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The traumas of public speaking, or Mueenuddin flounders at Elliott's Bay

I've come across some of Daniyal Mueenuddin's short stories in the New Yorker. So, when I heard that this talented young Pakistani writer was visiting Seattle and reading from his first book at Elliott Bay Book Company, I had to check it out.

A surprisingly large crowd (~35 people) were waiting for the writer to take the stage. After the host of the proceedings fluffed his name, Daniyal took the stage, visibly flustered. It took an agonizing couple of minutes for him to get out his first coherent sentence. Poor guy, I felt for him. I too get nervous before I speak in public, but not nearly quite as badly as Daniyal.

So, he stumbles through his reading, answers a few questions, and is uncomfortable throughout. Until the very end when it seemed like his real self came through a bit, with an almost shouted exclamation to go out and read his book. Seems like a really nice guy. It's clear he doesn't at all like speaking in public, which is a shame.

The first few pages of his book read really smoothly and I'm optimistic about the rest.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Ox-bow Incident

Made in 1943 by William Wellman with cast that includes Henry Fonda and a young Anthony Quinn, this lesser-known western is a classic. The story is about a lynch mob mistakenly hanging three cowboys on suspicion of cattle rustling and murder. Of course, all of this is thinly veiled criticism of the South. Even the head of the lynch mob is this bombastic old confederate major who stubbornly wears his old army uniform.

All of this is fine and it's a well-made movie, if a little preachy at times. But what caught my attention was a seemingly offhand but creepy remark at the very end of the moralistic end to the story.

Although very much part of the lynch mob, Henry Fonda's one of the silent objectors to the lynching. After reading the dead man's last letter, Fonda gets on his horse to deliver the letter to the man's widow. As if that's not bad enough (I mean reading the letter), Fonda, who had been jilted by an old lover a few scenes ago, says something to the effect of "someone's got to take care of that woman". Weird. Doubly weird when it follows an exchange in which Fonda has just collected $500 in a kitty for the dead man's wife and some banter goes on about what an enormous sum of money that is for a man stupid enough to get himself lynched.

So what's Fonda doing? Following the money? Chasing after a dead man's wife to fill the void left in his own love life? Or, repenting for having been a silent bystander to the crime by assuming responsibility for the widow.

For me the whole movie hangs on this last scene. And from the heavy handed treatment through the rest of it, I've got to wonder if Wellman really intended for this effect.

Cool movie either way. Check it out!

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Adiga's Optimism

Aravind Adiga won the Booker prize recently for his novel (or maybe novella) "White Tiger".  A couple of weeks ago, Adiga's "Elephant" appeared in the New Yorker. It's the story of a cart puller in a small town in South India who rails against his fate as a member of India's downtrodden masses.

The Elephant is an interesting little character study. Seems plausible that this was warm-up for White Tiger. But it is plodding and morose and lacks the fire of White Tiger. Hmm ... now that I say that, maybe that's partly the point. The cart puller is a slow and lumbering, the white tiger sparkling and fierce.

I've heard some complaints about recent depictions of India's class divide in the west---White Tiger, Slumdog Millionaire etc. In its most cynical form, the complaint is basically that these depictions are negative and take away from India's image as a burgeoning world power. 

I differ ... Adiga's view is so much more optimistic than those who have come before him. Take Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance", for instance. This is the turgid saga of some poor villagers who come to a big city India to make their fortune. Their plight is horrible, but they wallow in their fate, unquestioningly. Adiga makes the same point---India's downtrodden masses are unimaginative cattle. But he seeds their herd with vicious, outraged iconoclasts who challenge the status quo.

Reminds me of that Kamal Hasan movie called "Indian". Except, there, Senapathy Bose was a vigilante fighting the Man ... corrupt cops and government officials. Adiga's characters flail out against individual oppressors---upper class Indians (myself included) who help perpetuate this class imbalance. What if Adiga was translated and published in Kalki, or similar Indian popular magazines? Would that put a spark in the tinderbox? Nah ... probably not. 

Bataille's fearsome fantasy of eyes, eggs and testicles

This one's not for the faint-hearted: I read Georges Bataille's Story of the Eye yesterday. 

Bataille's perverse surrealism is not just shocking, it reaches down below into the subconscious and wrenches something way down in there. Scary stuff. 

The idea of starting with the eye, so obviously connected with ego, dominance, arousal and everything else metaphysical, and then reducing it to a purely physical fetish object ... that's a superbly wicked and an (inspiringly!) bleak view of reality. From there, the free associations to eggs, testicles and corpses seem just mundane.

I reached Bataille from "The Past is a Grotesque Animal", a superb track on of Montreal's 2007 "Hissing Fauna ...". I'll have to go slowly to keep my sanity, but more Bataille seems inevitable. More of Montreal too.

Roger's scared of losing

I stayed up till 5:30am last night watching the Australian Open final between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. A tense match with many spectacular moments. But, the quality of tennis was erratic from both players and this match fell far short of their classic at last year's Wimbledon. 

Until last night, I was a firm Roger Federer fan. Convinced that he played a finer form of tennis than anyone else I had seen, I really wanted to see him break every record out there. But, you can't be the best ever if you're afraid of losing. Roger tigthened up horribly at every crucial point in the match. And for the first two sets, he just didn't have the confidence to hit through his backhand. It was horribly painful to watch a great champion reduced to this ... sort of like watching Tiger putting with the yips in the final round of the Masters. 

Nadal didn't play consistently great tennis either. He was handed breaks of serve on a platter. But, he never puts himself under that terrible weight of expectation that Roger does and Nadal fearlessly hit through one tight spot after another.

Roger better not get to 15 (or even 14) majors without getting through more stern tests. I.e., without having to conquer his inner demons and figuring out a way past Nadal.