Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mary Coin, a novel by Marisa Silver

--> Mary Coin is the fictional name given the woman in the iconic Depression photograph taken by Dorothea Lange; she became the face of Okies struggling to survive as migrant workers in California. Four story-lines carry Marisa Silver's novel to convergence: a professor in the modern era considers history and how images shape our perceptions, while also trying to connect with his estranged teenage daughter; the woman of the title grows up in Oklahoma then relocates with her young family to California where as opportunities narrow they move from cabin to tent to living in a car; a grower in California blinds himself to the consequences of below-subsistence pay for the pickers; a lame woman who has made a modest living photographing society ladies in San Francisco finds herself without clients, and takes a job with the WPA, traveling to migrant encampments to document living conditions.

In the novel, these different strands establish a tempo that eases us toward its conclusions, but I find only two useful: photographer and subject. The professor asks questions that in the end seem redundant, and the story involving the grower's family is smudged with the authorial fingerprints of Plot Device. Without those sections it's a much shorter book, and perhaps that's why they are included, but as editor I would have stricken them, and sent the manuscript back to Silver to reshape. The parts that work are profound; it seems unworthy to pad them with trivia.

The questions this book raises have to do with perception, and how we can and cannot affect how others see our lives. Silver's artistry is that, without asserting an answer, she lets us see the consequences. Do photographs lie, or mislead us? We think we know something about people by seeing their picture, but aren't we projecting our own ideas? What do we - can we - really know, just from a photo? When context is subtracted from the captured instant, aren't we at the mercy of our own experience and conjectures? A few sentences about the subject give us the illusion of empathy: surely we would rather believe a photo can make us feel more human, than acknowledge how isolated we are, how vast the gulf between my life as observer, and yours in one moment observed.

This photographed instant has its own trajectory. Even as the woman's life continues, largely anonymous, the photo becomes an icon: a rallying point for reformers pleading for migrant workers, an image that epitomizes a historic moment, an artistic statement that transcends both photographer and subject. Yet for her, it's a trap: some part of her is chained to that desperation. Even as she claws her way to a better life - her own home, her children grown - a glimpse of that picture tells her the rest of her experience is illusory: one shutter-click is all the world will ever know. It's a bitter irony: as time obliterates her and the progress she has made, the photo lives on, caught forever in hopelessness.

This book is also about women, and the added burden of being female in a world that limits what they can do. But they are strong, and stubborn: the photographer sets aside her work to be with her painter husband - but the drive to express her own vision finally frees her, and when she resumes, she understands more clearly what she wants her images to show. Mary Coin survives one catastrophe after another, because she does not give up - somewhere in her future her children will thrive; her persistence is the only force that will get them there.

By making these women characters not archetypes, this novel pulls us in without insisting we take sides. We can argue logically that Mary Coin should have had a smaller family - but she loves her children - if she could go back in time and prevent any of those seven pregnancies, we know she would not. We might think that the photographer - a woman, a cripple - would excite the sympathy of the migrant workers. She feels solidarity, that she's using her skill to help them - but no: they feel hostile toward her and her camera, her car, her life that can record theirs then go away. These unexpected attitudes animate the story. We're not reading a report, or a soap opera: these are real people, and their dilemmas don't have neat solutions.

Photography is distinct from other arts in that it gives the illusion of subtracting the artist from the encounter between viewer and image. When we see a painting, we understand it as an interpretation of a person, a scene, an emotional state. The factual nature of a painting is secondary, if it exists at all.  But a photograph supposedly shows something Real. That woman was not acting at being impoverished or hungry or hopeless - whatever we see on her face was really there. But what about the photographer? She chose to frame the recorded image. She considered the light, the background, the area of focus - and out of many pictures, she was seeking one that would express directly the impact she felt. Though we do not see her, it is through her eyes, mind, experience that we see the subject.

And once the picture has been printed and published, she has no more control over it than does the woman depicted. It comes to encapsulate her work. She intended her portfolio to stir politicians to action, to rectify the circumstances she captured - but its immediacy and pathos remain potent today, long after we have forgotten the specifics of that injustice. That's what art does - it escapes the limits of its creation, reaching us years or centuries later with a still-familiar truth about the human condition.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Boyhood - a Review

Richard Linklater's Oscar-nominated film Boyhood is not just a time-lapse snapshot of the lives of a family - it is an exploration of time itself, shrewd and philosophical while staying true to the ages of its characters.

We start with Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as a seven-year-old, and nine-year-old sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), living with their mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) in a small Texas town. Fed up with feeling stuck, Olivia packs up the kids and moves to Houston to pursue a Masters degree. Her ex, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), returns from Alaska and becomes a sometime presence in his children's lives. And they grow up, all of them, in a film shot over a ten year period. Samantha develops from a blunt-spoken (smart-mouthed) older sister, to a poised and confident young woman. Mason, Jr. survives the milestones of boyhood with the awkwardness, curiosity and half-step-back contemplation that help us to remember our own experiences: not just the times we were pretty sure we knew what we were doing, but the cringe-worthy assertions and blithe mistakes we have surely stuffed into a forgettory closet.

The standard narrative story-arc - conflict, climax, resolution - is missing here. What we get in its place is the flow of life told in moments - a camping trip, a drunken rage, an embarrassing haircut, being the New Kid at school, a teenage boy's heartfelt conversation with a girl he hopes understands him, the ways a marriage sours. Along the way, Mason, Jr. and Samantha learn about themselves and their parents. The film ends with Mason in college, visiting his mom at her new apartment.

"I like your mom," one of Mason's friends tells him.
"I like her too, but she's as confused as I am," Mason says in a tone of baffled worry: how can she have lived so long and done so much, and still have no idea what her life's about? The adults around him are more cautionary than positive role models.

The moments we see are scripted, but acting works hand-in-glove with the passage of time to create the film's impact. Arquette does the most masterful job, in my estimation - her character keeps trying, keeps failing, keeps choosing a new path and trying again. Her struggles and self-doubts, and her successes, prevent her from living a life on automatic pilot. Hawke settles into a role he finds comfortable and lets it expand around him, simplifying his character's life by dulling that hunger-for-answers. He's the happier of the two - because he's stopped asking questions?

Linklater has a philosophical bent: his 2001 roto-scope animated Waking Life examines dreams and ideas in a way that gives us dreams and ideas of our own. In Boyhood the actuality of time is the driver. This cinematic journey is a long trip to a destination we can name as a point on a map while knowing nothing about it, except that if we keep going, eventually we'll find what's there.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Bring up the Bodies - review

Hilary Mantel's Booker Award winning novel Bring up the Bodies continues the story, begun in Wolf Hall, of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to King Henry VIII. In that first volume, Mantel paints a sympathetic portrait of Cromwell, a blacksmith's son who through intelligence, alertness and luck has risen far, serving first Cardinal Wolsey, then after his death, appointed Secretary to the King. It was in large part his machinations that removed Henry's first wife, Katherine, and put Anne in her place. We have seen him as a loving husband and father, who lost his wife and both daughters to illness one devastating summer, who gathers into his household young men of promise, mentoring them to service in noble households where they report back on intrigues. He has a spy in his own house but doesn't worry - it's how news travels, alliances are made and careers improved.

This second volume opens with Anne Boleyn, now Queen (at great cost to England's standing in Europe, where the Catholic Church holds sway), becoming an impediment to Henry - he wants a son, but her only progeny is a girl, Elizabeth. Henry already has a daughter, Mary (child of the repudiated Katherine), as well as a bastard son. He wants a legitimate male heir. His eye falls on Jane Seymour, a virginal young woman with whom he feels he can succeed where Anne has failed him. But how to get Anne, crowned amid acrimony, out of the way? For this he depends on his advisers, none more than Cromwell.

And so the Secretary gathers gossip and witnesses to build a case against Anne - and her numerous family, who have profited greatly from her rise and intend to keep their wealth and honors. His allies are those put out of favor by the king's divorce of Katherine - which makes them his deadly enemies too - once he has engineered the ouster of Anne, they will have no further use for him. He has seen the deaths of those who loyally serve the king through his shifting demands, and knows he must act with especial care.

But this Cromwell is a loathsome man, using his power to take revenge on those who dishonored Wolsey after the Cardinal's death, making them the means for removing Anne. In some accounts of this fascinating period in English history, Anne Boleyn is a sympathetic character, but in Mantel's telling she is not only an adulterer but incestuous, and even as the executioner's blade swings, imagines herself redeemable, that Henry will let her retire in peace.

Having spent formative years in Italy, Cromwell learned from masters about manipulation, extortion and torture, tools he puts to effective use in the intrigues he must put in motion. Now we see the man in harsh light - he is kind when it costs him nothing, but he is without scruples, letting his position dictate what he must do, not pushing back against the cruel methods required. Even as his enemies grow more numerous, he will serve his king as demanded. Henry expects the path to be cleared quickly to his next desire, so his minions use whatever means they think they must, to achieve that end.

Cromwell observes: "He once thought... he might die of grief... but the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone."

Mantel's next book will surely chronicle Jane Seymour's failings as a bearer of sons, and perhaps the author will take us further in the succession of Henry's queens, along with the end of Cromwell. We have seen the man's good side and his ugly one - which will win out? 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Denver Film Festival - Viktoria

It's been a long time since I've seen such a visually exquisite film. Every frame is a breathtaking still. If you're after a narrative - beginning, middle, end, with a nicely-tied-up conclusion - Viktoria, the debut film by Bulgarian Maya Vitkova, is not for you. Cinematographer Krum Rodriguez, who brings her expression to life, is one to watch - what arresting imagery!

Three generations of women are featured: Boryana, daughter of a silent (eventually we learn: mute) mother, lives with her husband in the mother's apartment. In 1979 the film opens with Boryana longing to leave Iron Curtain Bulgaria - but she is pregnant, and the connection who arranges escapes will not risk her passage. Though her husband is thrilled, Boryana  tries to miscarry. Still, Viktoria is born - with no navel. The baby is hailed as a Socialist hero, and her parents are given a car and a new apartment. You might think Boryana would be happy to live away from her mother, whom she despises, but she asks the Party chief if she can have the money instead. No deal, but Viktoria is the Party chief's godchild, lavished with gifts and privileges, spoiled and nasty because the other children don't dare touch her. As Viktoria gets older, she loses her hauteur - when the regime fails and the Party chief cannot protect her, she learns to live a more normal life, finding love with her grandmother, who communicates through embraces and notes.

A sampling of images:
A poster of Venice becomes the city: night falls, and lights wink on in the buildings.
Milk emptied from a packet onto the ground puddles, slowly soaking in, a close-range image showing the bubbles, earth receiving, grass stubble emerging as the milk absorbs.
Viktoria bicycles at night down a forested path, each streetlight catching her features, then her forward motion returning her to darkness.
Boryana, driving the red car on the day she and her lover attempt to emigrate, comes to a roadblock, a camera shot from above of a circular-patterned dark stone plaza with red car in the center, white cars converging from three directions.
Another time, the husband drives with a neighbor woman (his refuge after Boryana's rejection), the windshield reflecting trees and sky, giving us glimpses of their contented faces.
After the grandmother's death, Boryana, her husband, and Viktoria struggle up a long snowy slope and stand at the top, the landscape black-and-white except one sunset-rosy cloud.

Symbols: blood, milk: red, white. Boryana, 6 months pregnant, lies in the bath, and blood begins to seep from her and spread through the water. She has nosebleeds, as does Viktoria. Viktoria lies dreaming, and a snaking line of blood curls from where her navel should be, up to her red phone (her personal hotline to the Party chief). Viktoria wears a red coat and carries a red satchel to school. The car Viktoria's parents are awarded is red.

When Boryana is far along in her pregnancy, she abruptly craves milk (before this, we see her consume only cigarettes and Coke), and when she has drunk all the milk in the house, accuses her husband of using too much in his coffee, thereby depriving her. But Boryana's breasts are barren - in one sequence she dreams of a fountain of milk exploding from one nipple - her husband is the one who nurses the baby, with a bottle.

Viktoria regularly visits her grandmother, and the old woman gives her packets of milk to take home. But Boryana has demanded no milk be brought into the apartment, so after leaving her grandmother, Viktoria pours the milk onto the ground. After the old woman's death, Boryana comes to her apartment and cuts the night-dress off her, then gives her exposed body a loving sponge-bath, much as the grandmother bathed Viktoria earlier. As Boryana washes the belly, she finds a scar running from her mother's navel to her right side. Is this why Viktoria had no navel? Is this scar the reason mother could not love daughter, for three generations?

Near the end, after the grandmother's death, Boryana stands in a rain of milk, high contrast to her black hair and dark clothes. Thwarted in expressing it, nevertheless these women do finally love each other - at the end Viktoria sends a postcard to Boryana from Venice, telling her it is only 1243 km away - which brings us full circle to Boryana's musing at the beginning - though the poster she treasures is of the Statue of Liberty, her first longing was to escape to Venice.

If you get a chance, see this film. Leave your expectations at home, come with your eyes and ears open, your heart receptive. Let the images wash over you, and be glad for film festivals - likely your only chance to view such beauty on the big screen where it belongs.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hiroshima Mon Amour

A beautifully restored version of Alain Resnais' 1959 black-and-white film Hiroshima Mon Amour is making the rounds, and you should see it. In a time of noisy, violent, in-your-face cinema, step into a story with a jarring reality - stones that burned in the 10,000 degree A-Bomb blast, iron that melted, people whose hair fell out and skin sloughed off, deformed babies and disfigured burn victims - presented calmly. The horror is not in gore, but in realization that humans did these things to each other.

Intercut with these images is the lovemaking, in a Hiroshima hotel room, of a French woman and a Japanese man. Gradually their story unfolds: she is an actress, finishing an international film about peace; only last night did she invite him to her room, and tomorrow she returns to Paris. They are in love, and yet she intends to leave. She describes herself as a woman of dubious morals, then jokes she is dubious of morals. Both say they are happily married.

As he questions, she talks about her youth in Nevers, a French city on the Loire. During the war, she and a German soldier fell in love, and met wherever they could. On the day France was liberated someone shot him, and as she lay with the dying man she was found out, her hair hacked off, humiliated and scorned, and descended into madness. Two years later, restored to sanity, she made her way to Paris and never went back, and blocked out the experience.

Marguerite Duras, who won the Prix Goncourt for the script, asks us to think about memory, about how forgetting is both healing - allowing us to continue with life - and ravaging - we lose what matters most when we can no longer bring its details to mind. The touch of a lover's hand, his warmth, their full hearts - when these fade, we lose something precious. Not to remember is not to have lived.

The French woman makes a gift of her secret loss to this stranger/lover, this Japanese man she will never see again, and in the process he allows her to re-experience that first momentous love. When she tells him she has never shared this story with her husband, the Japanese man is thrilled and elated - only he holds this potent memory, feels its power over her. Through her last night in Hiroshima they sit in a tea-house where he plies her with beer while she confesses, then we think maybe she will stay with him - we know it's impossible and they both agree it's impossible but so is love: surely there is a way to sustain this experience They want it, we want it for them, we know it can't happen.

Many masterfully-composed images benefit from the restoration - the patterns made by overlapping palm fronds against the sky while the lovers fill the foreground; long dolly-shots through a series of high-roofed market buildings; a vertical bar of light reflected off the river behind her as they sit in the tea-house; the peeping of frogs, that same soundtrack in her Nevers memories. Hiroshima Mon Amour touches heart and mind profoundly - see it on a big screen.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Unbroken, by Lauren Hillenbrand

Lives don't often provide the satisfying arc we appreciate in fiction - Unbroken does. The first third is an adventure, the middle half is sheer torment, and the end is redemptive.

In 1936 Louie Zamperini was an Olympic distance-runner, drafted before he could fulfill his dream of winning the 1500 meters in 1940. He served in the Army Air Corps in the Pacific theater in WWII, escaped the wreckage when his plane crashed in the ocean, and spent over 40 days in a raft, living by ingenuity and luck amid sharks, on what meager food and water they could capture from sea and sky, only to land emaciated on a Japanese-occupied island where he and his surviving crew member were taken prisoner. He spent the next two horrific years interned first in a secret interrogation camp then in two notorious POW camps where he endured unimaginable torments at the hands of cruel men.  

The rebuilding of Japan into an ally against the communist countries of Asia required the US to turn a blind eye to Japanese wartime abuses, so it is a revelation for anyone younger than the generation who fought them, to read about the deliberate starvation, ghastly medical experiments and calculated barbarities that claimed the lives of many POWs and twisted the post-war existence of the rest. From our comfortable distance of hindsight we decry the use of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but this story bolsters the contention of members of the war generation, that use of this shocking new weapon was the only thing that prevented a full-scale invasion of Japan, to end that war.

During the castaway section, when one of the ever-present circling sharks leaps from the water attempting to grip "Zamp" in its maw, we feel a thrill - what an adventure, what a feat of survival. But when after many days in their small raft, starving, the men are spotted by a plane (rescue! at last!) then that plane strafes them, passes, and returns to strafe again, the reader feels jolted by the world's injustice. And that's only the beginning, the first step into their long hell.

Incarceration is a terrible ordeal, gripping and appalling, and Hillenbrand tells it vividly - the men's starvation, illness and thirst, the small measures of defiance that bring on added punishments but keep their wills alive, the whole twisted world of prison camp commanders and staff in which the POWs' rations are sold off on the black market while the dregs of the military wield absolute control. These men's experience is more Holocaust than The Great Escape.

But we, like Zamperini, do finally achieve peace. Barbarity wasn't invented in the wars being fought now - it is as old as human altercation. This book is as powerful an argument in favor of diplomacy and peace, as you could find. War is not a heroic enterprise, War is Hell. We do well to remember that when we clamor for vengeance, for matching destruction by "our enemies" with our own.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Zero Theorem

Terry Gilliam's new movie The Zero Theorem returns again to the cosmic questions that must plague his sleep, and to a vision of a not-far-enough-distant future where a dazzling mix of bright busy noisy public spaces contrasts with the cavernous decaying church where our hero Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz) sleeps upstairs amid the organ pipes. He works as a programmer for Mancom, the organization which watches everything and controls everyone. But he is really waiting for a phone call, a voice on the line that will tell him why he exists. Which is why he exists: to wait for the call. Samuel Beckett would love this movie.

Qohen's supervisor makes him attend a party where, stepping into a quiet room, he meets the Master (Matt Damon); he also meets Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), a call girl whose enticements he rebuffs: "I don't like touch." These encounters change the pattern of his days: The Master recruits him to work on the Zero Theorem in a perfectly-Gilliam space with old mosaic floors and iron circles and the hoses and tubes so familiar from Brazil, all surrounding and feeding some gigantic machine, the nerve center of this highly-controlled-in-chaos society. Here Qohen meets Bob (well, the Master's 15-year-old son, played by Lucas Hedges, who calls everyone Bob because he can't spare brain power to remember names), who explains that everyone is a tool.

Qohen is given permission to work at home (where he wants to be, in case his phone call comes). His computer screen looks like a giant smart-phone, and using a video-game controller he manipulates equation-cubes in a vast structure where sometimes they fit perfectly and he achieves Upload, but other times cause avalanches or explosions of already-constructed areas. Bob visits to explain the Zero Theorem - that we are nothing and to nothing we return, so nothing matters. Bainsley shows up. Bob tells Qohen she's a tool, but Qohen thinks maybe she really does like him, as she claims. She gives him a Virtual Reality suit he can wear when he visits her website, and they have virtual interludes in a tropical paradise, just the two of them - and Qohen's isolation begins to crack.

Surveillance is constant, which we're reminded of by black-and-white camera-eye sequences. Gilliam's vision is a chaos of speeding, flashing, blasting - as if the world were a combination Times Square and game arcade. The mash-up seems futuristic, but the elements already exist: targeted ads, cameras everywhere, blind constant pursuit of money, sex, drugs and drink. No contemplation, no silence. Are we there yet, Terry?