Tuesday, February 26, 2013

German Book 2

WG Sebald is another of the seemingly countless writers I've always intended to read but with a good chance that I never actually would.  His books have been described as using an idiosyncratic almost-collage approach complete with cryptic photographs that may or may not have anything to do with the text.  Then again his work is also described something to do with memory (the almost laughable blurb on the cover calls him "memory’s Einstein") and that sounds quite unappealing.

As it happens Vertigo (1990, English 1999) fits both descriptions though fortunately not in such a bland way as that might sound.  It’s so effective that I’ll likely read all his other books as long as they’re somewhat similar to this one.

Might as well look at the not-quite-collage technique.  The book opens with a biographical (or is it fictional?) account of a soldier during Napoleon’s march through the Alps who then embarks on a series of romantic adventures.  Turns out his name is Beyle and nowhere (at least that I remember) does Sebald remind readers that this was Stendhal's real name.  As far as I know this story is true - at least it sounds like the little I remember from Stendhal's life. 

It turns out that this section is related by the novel’s narrator who then tells us about his uneventful visit to Vienna and his unmotivated travels afterwards.  Throughout the book we get a distanced account from the narrator (little direct dialogue, not much in the usual detailed description of actions) and then more disconnected hstorical or literary pieces (there’s a “Dr. K” for instance).  Most collages rely on the disjunction created by the elements rubbing against each other but Sebald works more towards an integrated flow - actually "collage" may not be the right term.

The narrator is eventually heading to his hometown but it’s unclear exactly why.  None of his memories build to a great revelation (unless of course I completely misunderstood some subtle aspect of the book) and he doesn’t meet many people from his past.  It’s not a dramatic homecoming. 

I didn’t get a sense of vertigo from the book but Sebald does create a hazy, unsettled mood, almost as if this is a very long prose poem.  The bits from other people’s pasts and the famous photographs work into or against the main narrative don’t fit together like the near mathematical formulas many how-to-write-a-plot (or worse screenwriting) instructors would tell you.  Vertigo is actually a book I wanted to read again after finishing it and that’s pretty uncommon.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Assorted viewing

Big Fan (Robert D. Siegel 2009) - This is one of a few recent comedies that appear to have been made as comedies only because there was production money doing that as opposed to the more sober films they actually are - think of Observe and Report, Due Date or even Bridesmaids.  Still, Big Fan is probably the least comic, in fact about the only thing that would have even caused it to be labelled a comedy is the presence of Patton Oswalt.  Instead it's a stark, even blunt look at fan thinking and disillusionment though more complex than merely a fall from celebrity grace.  Oswalt effectively negotiates a tricky role while director Siegel favors an almost distanced style that avoids melodrama.  Like the films mentioned earlier something of a minor classic and deserves much more attention than it received.

The Adventures of Gerard (Jerzy Skolimowski 1970) - I had no idea that anybody made a film of Conan Doyle's Gerard stories and Skolimowski seemed like a nice choice.  The result, though, is something of a wreck with a confusing story, strained comedy and an overall feel of a home movie.  I have a feeling that there were production troubles or possibly just another attempt at quick multi-national money and nobody was too invested in the film.  For curious Conan Doyle fans only.

Rare Exports: From the Land of the Original Santa Claus (Jalmari Helander 2010) - The IMDB lists a different subtitle but mine is what's actually on the print.  This Finnish effort has an unusual idea about the origin of Santa Claus but takes quite a while to get around to using it.  It's not padded exactly but does meander more than necessary.  Perhaps it's needless to point out that the original short included on the DVD is much more effective.  Perhaps worth a look if you're looking for a darker Christmas story (that really doesn't have much to do with Christmas) but I wouldn't suggest making much of an effort.

Cop Hater (William Berke 1958) - An adaptation of the first of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels made shortly after the book's appearance.  It's actually fairly close to the original though it almost inevitably feels a bit tidied up.  Some of the less pleasant human motivations are toned down and the procedural aspects reduced to brief bits - probably more in the interests of telling a quick story than in any deliberate lightening of the book.  Mostly b-movie bluntness and certainly no lost gem though at least not boring.

Hot Cars (Don McDougall 1956) - I have a feeling that this was either intended for TV or was a low-budget shot at easy money (sort of how Hitchcock shot Psycho with a TV crew).  In any case it appears to be the only theatrical release for prolific TV director McDougall and the entire thing feels like TV.  It has the same even lighting, sets that look like they would push over and actors who run through dialogue with little inflection or variation.  The story about a man who gets pulled into a car theft ring is handled with few distractions.  It does have some nice location shooting, a somewhat imaginative finale in an amusement park and the presence of Joi Lansing (who has little talent but a cult following due to a couple of wild Scopiotones).