Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Death of Stalin

Armando Ianucci's new film, The Death of Stalin, is the blackest of black comedies. How else can one treat Stalin's era, and his henchmen? The Central Committee, seen first fawning over their leader's every word and tasteless joke at a compulsory dinner, must be circumspect when it's not clear whether the man will survive his cerebral hemorrhage - every word they utter will be recorded and remembered, and used against them. The team of doctors rounded up to examine him (all the good ones having been shot or sent to Siberia) consult, then make noncommittal assessments of his condition. Beria pulls one aside to ask whether Stalin will live or die. Blanching, the doctor whispers that he will die. But then the Great Man sits up and begins to speak and point, and Beria's threatening gaze falls on the luckless doctor, who falls back on "Sometimes..." Then Stalin does die, and Beria is as happy as a man can be.

The Committee must have a leader, and the Constitution elevates Deputy Secretary General Malenkov, a man whose spine is nowhere to be found. The group muddle their way through their first meeting with forced unanimity, but the cracks are already showing. Khrushchev's ambitions are clear, they all fear Beria - the butcher in charge of the secret police - and the rest of them aren't sure which horse to back. As these powerful men bicker, play practical jokes, and scheme behind each other's backs, the halls of power are laid bare in all their tawdry borrowed splendor. These are small men - by what obsequious machinations are they in charge?

One cannot help drawing a short straight line from Stalin through Beria to their eventual successor, Vladimir Putin. The exercise of power may be more sophisticated now, but for the average Russian the outcome is the same - cooperate or be exiled or executed. Likewise, the revolving doors of men in favor and out, bear a striking resemblance to those at the current White House, where the petty tyranny of whim and short attention span holds sway.

There was nothing funny about the Soviet leaders, as there's nothing amusing about the Kremlin's current occupant, nor his lapdog-in-chief in this country. But satire, the darkest shade of comedy, might be the only way to give them the critique they so deeply deserve: to be laughed at.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Deep South, by Paul Theroux

Renowned travel writer Paul Theroux departed from his usual methods in his Deep South treks: instead of starting in airports and taking single-loop tours via public transportation, he aimed his car south from his Massachusetts home not once but four times, one per season, over the course of a couple of years. He met people who introduced him to others, and many he visited more than once. Instead of a traveler's singular impression, he dug in - the resulting chronicle offers us a granular view of the South.

Without judging the beliefs or inclinations of those he encountered, he immersed himself in what they think, what they want, meanwhile offering an outsider's perspective on grinding poverty, racism, and limits on opportunities that keep Southern society locked into a centuries-old dynamic enforced through banking, property ownership, and the shrunken coffers of governments and NGOs that could change residents' outlook.

Despite Theroux's renown, he was unknown in the South to all but a few - he found one avid reader and the man's writer friend delighted to make his acquaintance (and vice versa), but at the Arkansas Festival of Books, where you might think they'd have heard of him, he was greeted as "Mr. Thorax," his writing unfamiliar. He was simply a Yankee - an outsider - an object initially of suspicion, but when he pressed, a sounding-board for stories.

"I was the bystander or the eavesdropper, recording other people's pain or pleasure... No ordeals, few dramas...I breezed along, and this progress was a way of understanding how lucky I was, because the confinement that Southerners feel, their keen awareness of themselves as stereotypes - provincials and yokels, in literature, in life - is something palpable... No wonder the grotesque preponderance of the gothic and the freaks - the reality was too brutal to state baldly, unbearably so.  Critics and academics extol the South for the abundant wealth of its literature, the region encouraging a storytelling tradition. This praise seemed to me a crock and self-serving [emphasis mine]. The opposite was the case: there was not enough writing, and what existed, with a few exceptions, was insufficient. Missing was a coherent introduction for the outsider to the South that exists, the South that I saw... I say ignore the books and go there. The Deep South today is not in its books, it's in its people."

He found the two biggest drivers of poverty and resistance to change to be region-wide loss of jobs, and pervasive racism. Those he met, black and white, spoke of the furniture and carpet plants that had closed, their industries relocated to Mexico, the catfish farming now outsourced to Vietnam, and how those losses had hollowed out rural communities. The construction of the interstate had stranded towns off the chosen route, condemning them to decay. Theroux reflected on aid the US provides to countries like Zimbabwe, whose rural areas were no worse off than those he visited in South Carolina, Georgia, and the Delta, and wondered why churches dispatched missionaries to promote development in Africa, turning a blind eye to comparable conditions just down the road.

He observed the self-enforced segregation of society - black churches and white ones, black diners and white, black-majority towns and white ones, then met with a group of black farmers in an uphill struggle - despite crop sales, none could obtain a loan (essential for financing the tractors, combines, and other machinery necessary for farming more than a few acres) - no banker or loan officer - all of them white - were willing to believe that a black man could prosper at farming. Crop sales on thousands of acres meant nothing - the bankers had never heard of a successful black farmer, so they wouldn't make a loan to one.

This book was written before the 2016 election cycle, yet it seems attitudes in the South have not changed so much as hardened, as the ugly campaign gave rural whites permission to express their racist views openly. Theroux visited gun shows just after the Sandy Hook shootings, and noted the uptick in sales - fear of possible limitations on gun ownership prompted people to stock up.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Phantom Thread, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson

Reportedly Daniel Day-Lewis’s last film, Phantom Thread gives him ample opportunity to employ his bewitching eyes and occasional day-brightening smile to great effect as 50s English haute-couture designer Reynolds Woodcock. He and his sister Cyril, the marvelously icy, efficient, and ruthless Lesley Manville, run a successful business as dressmakers to aristocracy. Cyril oversees daily operations, leaving Reynolds free to design, to imagine, and to insert a little of himself into each garment.

The film opens with him at the end of an affair - the young woman pleads at breakfast for any acknowledgement, but he will not even glance at her. Cyril disposes of her. He goes to a seaside town for a change of pace, and at a restaurant is served by Alma, Vicky Krieps, a refreshingly vital young woman willing to be with him, but grounded enough in herself not to surrender completely to his tastes and demands. This of course makes her highly desirable - she carries her certainty the way he carries his secrets, and they make an excellent combination.

This film is about secrets. Early on, Reynolds reveals that in the labor of creating his mother’s wedding dress (to her second husband), he hid stitched words in parts of the garment. He continues to do that, in a way that suggests both a claim on the wearer and a blessing on her life. Alma can only match him by having her own secrets, and, satisfyingly, she does. Hers too are about exerting possession.

As their relationship deepens, she joins his corps of dressmakers, primarily as his model - it’s not clear what sewing skills she has in a business where every stitch is placed by hand. Cyril is always there. Alma is given a bedroom next door to Reynolds in the house that’s also their workshop, but that door between rooms is a barrier - Cyril ensures everyone knows their place. She and her brother are partners as deep as any married couple - their creative output depends on the fusion of their personalities in a common enterprise. It’s not a pairing that welcomes intrusion.

And yet, Alma is not content to be the model, the muse. She wants more - she wants a full relationship with Reynolds, including love and respect. Watching her conduct herself with enviable surety, the audience is in her corner - we want her to insinuate herself into that rigid couple, to earn a place in their small closed world. If Cyril is the canvas on which this story is told, and Reynolds the brushes, Alma is the paints, arranged by his hand but displaying colors that are hers alone. It is this balance that makes Anderson’s film brilliant.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Easy, a film by Andrea Magnani

Easy is a hero’s journey tale. Main character Isidore, “Easy,” is a fat Italian schlub who at thirty still lives with his mother. His brother Nico, the favored son, arrives for his birthday and receives a gift of a knitted sweater vest emblazoned with a huge 1. Easy’s vest has an equally huge 2 on it. Ouch.

But Nico has a problem. He’s a construction contractor, and one of his crew died onsite in an accident. The man was from Ukraine, and his body needs to be delivered there. The casket is sealed, the hearse is acquired, and Easy, who before he became a pill-popping catatonic was a Go-Kart driving champion, is given the task of delivering it. He is so passive that Nico must yell at him to get going before he finally starts the engine and drives away.

The Hero’s Journey, an archetypal human story, finds an ordinary person, gives (in this case him) a task he is not equal to, and forces him to undertake it. In the course of his journey the task becomes more difficult, and the man loses every advantage and guide he started with. He must learn to rely on himself, and to accept the aid of those he encounters. The essential task does not change, but his means for accomplishing it are so different from when he began, that it is only his loyalty to its completion that sustains him. The man able to meet the challenge is thereby transformed into a Hero. But for every hero there are countless people who fail.

I won’t spoil the film by spilling details, except to say that the director woos us with Easy’s plight: he soon leaves precincts where Italian is spoken, and must struggle with poor English or nod helplessly as people address him in Slavic languages. And slowly, his face comes to life, that blank look replaced by gentle bafflement and determination.

Monday, October 9, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

This elegant 2016 novel crosses time (1922-1954) in a very constrained space. The fellow of the title, Count Alexander (Sasha) Rostov, is under house arrest in the Hotel Metropol in the center of Moscow. Holding fast to his gentlemanly principles, he makes the best of his restrictions, in the process offering lessons to those around him of what living well consists of, and how it is practiced.  His “descent” from nobility lands him among the free spirits of the hotel staff; though their tasks are menial, they perform them with enviable grace and pleasure.

The plot hangs on his relationships with a nine-year-old girl whose impulsive curiosity draws him into friendship, and later her six-year-old daughter whom he raises as his own child. If one were to voice complaints about so charming a tale, one might bring up the ease with which the Count adapts to his shrinking privileges - it seldom takes him more than a moment, an hour, or a day, to adjust. Why, one might wonder, does he not only remain alive while most of his aristocratic peers have been murdered or shipped off to Siberia, but drinks in the Metropol’s lovely bar with international journalists and the occasional diplomat? One might carp about the buffoonery of the apparatchiks who made the existence of so many Russians so unlivable, or quibble with the characters, so easily sorted into “good guys” who have deep, useful skills and joie de vivre, vs. “bad guys” who are petty, vindictive, and lack soul.  And above all, how, in such a finite space, is Rostov able to keep his secrets, the keys to his vitality?

I won’t spoil the story by answering those challenges. But I will say that it is such a delight to read this fluid prose, and to appreciate this kind well-mannered gentleman, that one forgives Mr. Towles for allowing the Count a better life than he could so easily have endured. The appeal of the novel rides in no small part on its philosophical asides, for example:
For however decisive the Bolsheviks’ victory had been over the privileged classes on behalf of the Proletariat, they would be having banquets soon enough... [H]aving gathered around a grand circle of tables, the new statesmen would nod their heads in order to indicate to a waiter... that yes, they would have a few more spears of asparagus.
For pomp is a tenacious force. And a wily one too.
How humbly it bows its head as the emperor is dragged down the steps and tossed in the street. But then, having quietly bided its time, while helping the newly appointed leader on with his jacket, it compliments his appearance and suggests the wearing of a medal or two.”

The hotel itself is as important a character as anyone who passes through its revolving doors, and in the Count’s company we explore it from boiler room to roof, back stairs and front suites, the finest restaurant in Russia, and a ballroom where the Soviet assembly argues details of policy. Its position overlooking Theater Square guarantees visits by performers and artists, international tourists, diplomats, and spies. Its legacy as a premiere hotel is grounded in its capable staff: doorman, seamstress, and barber; chef, maitre d’, and headwaiter; and concierge, bartender, and conductor of the late-evening ensemble, to name but a few.

Towles’s understanding of Russia is essential to the book, and through his characters paying homage to their culture, offers us a taste of Russian soul.
“ 'But with Chekhov and Tolstoy, we Russians have set the bronze bookends on the mantelpiece of narrative. Henceforth, writers of fictions from wheresoever they hail, will place themselves on the continuum that begins with the one and ends with the other. For who, I ask you, has exhibited better mastery of the shorter form than Chekhov in his flawless little stories? Precise and uncluttered, they invite us into some corner of a household at some discrete hour in which the entire human condition is suddenly within reach, if heartbreakingly so. While at the other extreme: Can you conceive of a work greater in scope than War and Peace? One that moves so deftly from the parlor to the battlefield and back again? That so fully investigates how the individual is shaped by history, and history by the individual?' ” [The Count, enumerating to a German challenger Russia's contributions to the West]
The author is too modest to place himself in that pantheon, but by honoring writers and poets throughout the book, he elevates his own chances.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This multi-layered novel is, among other things, an homage to books. It opens in Barcelona in 1945 with a ten-year-old boy’s visit to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a repository of what may be the only extant copies of books modern and ancient. Wandering this labyrinth, young Daniel Sempere (the Latin semper means “always”) chooses The Shadow of the Wind, a 1935 novel by Julian Carax.

"I couldn't help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot." 

We are reminded of the library of Borges, an analogue for infinity; of The Pile of Forgotten Works in Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar; and of the warnings of Ray Bradbury whose stories so often turn on how diminishing readership dooms both books and writers to oblivion.

Daniel, swept up by the story he has chosen, seeks to learn more about novel and author, but soon encounters layers of secrecy - someone is destroying every copy of every book Carax published - his may be the only one left.  About Carax himself, little is known - he lived in Paris, having fled Franco’s Spain, but perhaps he returned to Barcelona to be with the woman he loved.

That story is also a mystery - she died young, perhaps at the hands of her father who forbade her to see Carax and may have locked her up to enforce his will. As Daniel reaches his late teens, his life begins to parallel the writer’s, with a love affair kept secret from the girl’s disapproving father. Daniel’s obsession with Carax grows, and his quest is interleaved with the rightists’ grip on Spain, and the danger to writers and artists arising from their intolerance. A deserted mansion offers clues and a trysting place, but this very place resonates eerily with the death of Carax’s amour. Dangers of all kinds, political and otherworldly, beset our young hero. Unlikely alliances - with a drunken bum who turns out to know a great deal and has survived the worst the regime could inflict; with his own father, a bookseller; with a woman whose husband published Carax’s books; with reprobates and colorful characters from society’s dregs - aid his search, but the more he learns, the more he puts himself and those he loves at risk.

Tight plotting and powerful adversaries keep the suspense at a boil - I read the book in two sittings, which enabled me to keep track of a cast of dozens and the turnings of fate that ensnare them. Zafon does a masterful job tying up every loose end, often in surprising ways. Equally evocative are his intimate descriptions of Barcelona, a city I now feel I have sojourned in, and would like to visit bodily. The impacts on society of the political struggles in Spain are vividly illuminated - without getting mired in timelines and elections, Zafon creates an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty leavened by the ascension of cruel men - we understand that writing is a perilous pursuit, and curiosity about the past possibly fatal. 

A good story offers a satisfying resolution, and The Shadow of the Wind delivers on this promise. If you want to curl up with an engrossing book, this one’s for you!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean

Norman Maclean's carefully researched and even more carefully written book Young Men and Fire recounts the tragic death of thirteen young smoke jumpers in the August 5, 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana. Maclean is better known as the author of A River Runs Through It, but if the power of nature colliding head-on with strong young men heedless of mortality moves you, this is a book you must read.

A "perfect storm" of conditions engulfed the lives of sixteen young men, of whom only three survived. Two of the thirteen casualties were so badly burned that they died soon afterwards in a hospital; the rest perished in the conflagration that turned a dry windy steep grassy hillside into a pyre. Maclean walks us through information as reported by the survivors, as concluded by Forest Service investigators, as postulated by fire scientists, and as gleaned first-hand by Maclean and his Forest Service ally Laird Robinson, with whom he visited Mann Gulch numerous times over a period of years, experiencing on his final trip the scorching parched conditions that prevailed on that fateful August day, where the grass on the 78 degree slope was so slippery that his boots could find no purchase - and yet he calculated that the speed of the young men trying to outrace the fire reached "375 yards in about two minutes... 562 feet per minute, or six and a half miles per hour... a slow jogging pace [that] would have been almost beyond reality to maintain for 375 yards on a slope where I had to crawl with gloved hands on a hot August afternoon."

The principal controversy about the firefighters' actions was the decision of their foreman, when he realized they could not outrun the flames to safety, to light a fire near the top of the gulch. Through the roar of the flames his crew could not hear him, but thinking he was crazy, they ignored him, fleeing instead toward the top of the gulch. Only the two fastest among them reached the ridge-top and crawled through a rock crevice to the next gulch, and survived. But Wag Dodge was not crazy. He lit a fire then lay down in its ashes, a wet handkerchief against his face pressed to the earth, and the fire swept around the burned patch his small fire had created, and so he was not consumed in the horrific heat of the main fire.

The lessons imparted by vegetation, wind, and terrain provide a sense of inevitability to the rapid blow-up of the fire; the lessons of poor communication, a crew not acting as a team, and an unfamiliar leader show us the human failures compounding the tragedy. The fire conditions were unavoidable - the human conditions were not: "...the greatest loss was the loss that came in morale and organization in turning a crew around and retreating from the fire. The training schedule of Smokejumpers includes no class on how to run from a fire as fast as possible.  
    The fire was having no organizational problems. It was gaining speed all the time."

To study tragedy is to hope to learn from it, to prevent such loss when circumstances align again, and this is Maclean's mission. A longtime resident of the Montana mountains in the area near Mann Gulch, the author was well-suited to this investigation. The Publisher's Note prefacing the book states: "Young Men and Fire was where, near the end, all the lives [Maclean] had lived would merge: the lives of a woodsman, firefighter, scholar, teacher, and storyteller." When he died at 87 the book was still incomplete, but he had done the hard and thorough research, tracking down the survivors, learning how mathematical models of fire predicted its behavior based on fuel type, wind speed and direction, and fuel moisture content, and sharing his thoughts with those he expected to correct him. Above all, he was unwilling to have those thirteen smoke jumpers die uselessly; surrounded by their ghosts he pushed himself to his physical and mental limits to understand every factor in their deaths, and to share that knowledge.

He succeeds brilliantly, turning recitation of the crew's final moments into a heartbreaking convergence of human limits with a speeding conflagration. These hard-won facts do not support the story - they ARE the story, in as compelling a narrative as you will find. Read it and weep.