Monday, January 23, 2006

Match Point (Woody Allen 2005)

This has been getting rave reviews of the return-to-form variety so I wish somebody would send me a DVD of the version that critics have been seeing because it’s certainly not the one released to the country at large. In fact, Match Point looks like the work of a first-time scriptwriter who practically just paginated the outline. The opening laboriously sets up the situation before the film plods step by step through your basic conflict, character quirk and other elements of rudimentary writing. There’s no depth to anything: the characters either say exactly what they mean or obviously lie. And then towards the end when it looks like there’s a dramatic (well, really “dramatic” since few people will care by then) choice, Allen employs a major cheat and just has a mostly well-behaved young lad commit a double murder. So much for being a film for grownups. Allen might just as well have walked on-screen himself and said they all lived happily ever after or that they all died in a bomb explosion. It’s not like the murders were out of character for the protagonist because he’s pretty much a blank throughout (though Nola the girlfriend seems like two different people just played by the same actor; it’s really hard to reconcile the Nola at the start with the Nola at the end and even harder to imagine how she ended up with an apartment full of books in just a few weeks). I suspect he was intended to be blank but so what? If so I’d expect more substantial surroundings (Being There, Alice in Wonderland) or better yet Waugh-ean satire of total blankness. There’s a moment with Chris and Nola in a bar towards the beginning where it looks like Allen is toying with the idea of these two outsiders cynically climbing up in the social world but that must have been my imagination. And the seduction-in-the-rainy-field scene similarly seems like there’s a chance for a pull-out-the-stops flood like the operas that appear sporadically but really Allen doesn’t have that in him. So where else could it have gone? You might have contrasted Chris has shallow sensualist (wealth and power at home, blonde girlfriend out) with the similar tendencies of upper-class Tom. Or what about Nola as Sister Carrie in London? Or considering the blatant Dostoevsky reference perhaps either tormented psychology or Bresson-style aloofness? Or tell the story in five segments, each from the viewpoint of a different character? Just anything but what we got.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

recent reading

Garry Wills Henry Adams and the Making of America (2005) – This is an odd one. It’s basically a book-lengthy synopsis of Adams’ seven-volume history (reprinted by the Library of America in just two thick ones) with incidental glosses, kind of the largest-ever Cliffs Notes. I have the suspicion that this was something Wills had been teaching and saw the opportunity for a quick book (despite however long actual writing time it may have taken) and as a bonus he got to drag up some academic debates that the rest of us won’t particularly care about. The opening few chapters are a biographical overview that seems primarily focused on criticizing anybody who’s liked the Education and then historians (listed by name) who downgrade Adams’ histories. Since the story Wills is telling, which is really the story Adams told which is really the early history of the country, is a fascinating one the book isn’t boring but neither is it the best place to approach this. I’d hoped for more about the actual process of researching and writing history or possibly even more a textual analysis which is present but in a definitely secondary position.

Will Ferguson Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan (1998) – Found this at the library when looking for another book (Peter Carey’s slight Wrong About Japan which clearly would never have been published if it didn’t have a famous writer’s name on it) and thought I’d read it for purely informational purposes. It turns out to be exactly the type of travel book I love, a tiny bit eccentric but not to the point of unrealiability and prone to digressions at any moment (here including propagation of cherry trees, volcanoes, sumo, castle building, Japanese prepositions, kamikazes, caste systems, bathing habits, the nonattractiveness of museums, weather, et cetera). Even better Ferguson has a sharp, laugh-out-loud sense of humor—I later learned he’s Ian Ferguson’s brother— so even if at times he falls into a Dave-Barry-straining-for-effect approach that’s not much of a flaw considering his high batting average. He successfully keeps tendencies towards prose poetry on a tight leash and has a clear ear for the assorted characters he meets, most unforgettably a former POW who learned English from a kind-hearted or simply bored GI. In fact the only real problem with the book is that it ends on something of an unnecessary cliffhanger: Did Ferguson lose his job or not? Perhaps appropriate for art movies with Bill Murray (anachronistic I know) but inquiring minds want to know this final bit. In any case, highly recommended.

Edmund Wilson To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History (1940) – Though Wilson is one of my favorite writers I realized recently that I’d never read two of his most famous books: this one and Axel’s Castle. It didn’t take long for Axel’s Castle which is more a collection of sometimes inspired insights than a sustained argument. This one, though, took a bit longer since it’s more a start-and-stop story which eventually grinds to a halt when it gets to Trotsky; Wilson apparently needed a bit of distance. His description of Marx reminds me in some respects of Guy Debord which may be where Debord picked up or at least justified his haughty, combatative attitude (Debord’s private life has always seemed creepy if not downright suspcious to me: using revolutionary ideas to justify an aristocratic existence tends to undermine his claims, though on the other hand he’d probably have claimed that my American WASP upbringing blinkers me). The real hero of the book is Engels who comes across as the most likable, well-rounded and sheerly human of this parade of socialists. Now I need to find a biography of Engels to find out how accurate Wilson was (& oddly there aren’t many in my local university library, perhaps a result of Engels’ perennial second-banana status). And I’m curious about Michelet’s histories which are hard to find and may not have been thoroughly translated into English.

Michael Stephenson (ed) Battlegrounds: Geography and the History of Warfare (2003) – I’m not sure any of the contributors were told what this book was supposed to be about. The 33 battles and sieges are described in standard popularized history style with only some passing comments generally made about geography or terrain. How much did being fought on a plain affect Little Big Horn? Not entirely sure, or rather I do have some ideas but the author of that chapter only bothers to toss out a few bits of info while covering the battle itself. In fact, this entire battle-centered approach isn’t the best way to approach the topic which is more one of details and the big picture, tactics and strategy. Single battles are just too specific or if anybody wants to show otherwise they’re not writing for this book. Despite the “history of warfare” promised there’s no historical thread to see how the same problems were tackled over time. Essays or surveys would have placed the subject in more context though of course it would make the book less appealing to casual readers. That may also be why for a book on geography published by National Geographic it’s light on maps and entirely missing photos or other visual documentation. Each chapter does have a map from roughly the same historical period where possible but apart from visual appeal these rarely help understand the text. (Though without them I wouldn’t have known that Churchill’s The River War originally had gorgeous three-color maps; my reprint edition only has blurry B&W.) As simply a collection of battle pieces the book is fairly quick reading—though Gary Gallagher’s Civil War chapters are turgid to the point that they can safely be skipped—just don’t expect to discover much about geography or history or warfare.

Kenneth D. Alford Nazi Plunder: Great Treasure Stories of World War II (2000) – This is another book I saw by chance on the library shelves but with much less successful results since its sloppy copy-editing and shoddy writing are some of the worst I’ve ever seen from a major publisher. It actually went through two publishers since initial publication is given as Savas Publishing before Da Capo picked it up, presumably for a paperback edition though it’s hard to imagine what Da Capo was thinking. The book is mostly bare-bones stories, almost anecdotes really, that tumble out like some other wedding guest has grabbed your collar and wants to tell you all this instead of some tomfoolery about an albatross. There’s no overall organization and despite a few footnotes it’s skimpy with documentation (the chapter on the Amber Room goes through historical background and several theories before bothering to source a minor point). There are are lot of interesting photographs though the reproduction is generally fuzzy. Though it doesn’t seem entirely fair to point out that Alford has no historical training—he was a computer technician and bank VP according to one bio—that does seem to be why there’s little of substance despite some undeniably interesting stories. I do wonder if anybody at Da Capo bothered to read this first (Savas appears to have been fairly close to a vanity press). There are basic errors such as incorrect captions (check out p92 where the page’s actual text even contradicts the captions), conflicting dates, misspellings, incomplete punctuation, etc. What about where Alford (p118) gives the date of the famous Nefertiti bust as 3316 years old? He apparently is the only person who knows the exact year of its creation. I also like where he describes some paintings (p157) as having “a high historical value (about $1,000,000).” This unconscious collapse of money with history is typical of why the book is of little value or interest.

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Writing today

A standard-issue comment about anthologies is that they’re “uneven” but Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times (2005) seems almost intended to elicit that comment by editor Kevin Smokler. There’s a piece by Dan Kennedy that’s so worthless that I would have considered it unpublishable if, in fact, it hadn’t been published. There’s also a tedious poem by Nico Cary, a meanderingly pointless collaboration by Kelley Eskridge & Nicola Griffith, and unforgettably a memoir of sorts by Paul Flores that seems like a spoken word artist parody complete with howlingly awful examples like “My language is STRONG like struggle.” Only it’s depressing to realize he’s completely serious. Some of the mildly interesting pieces seem tossed off. Douglas Rushkoff tries to promote the brave new cyberworld but anecdotes are not evidence; I think he’s more or less right overall--and is pleasant enough anyway--but even I’m not convinced by the piece. Tara Bray Smith covers marginalia (fascinating for somebody like me who simply can not write in a book, any book), Robert Lanham does an amusing even if completely obvious satire on the McSweeney’s crowd and Michelle Richmond’s remembrance of her MFA years deserves expansion. The real surprise for me is Paul Collins talking about reading decades worth of Notes and Queries, mainly because I had stumbled across N&Q a few years ago and thought that nobody except its contributors ever knew about it. Now I want to investigate it more thoroughly: Library here I come…