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?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

...And Ladies of the Club

..And Ladies of the Club is a journey through time. Much is being made of Richard Linklater's new film Boyhood whose characters, filmed over a decade, grow up in real time. This novel uses the full lifespans of its characters to tell not only their stories, but to illuminate the times as they lived them.

This tome came out in 1984 as a supermarket best-seller (hundreds of thousands of copies), the first published work by Helen Hooven Santmyer, age 88 when it went paperback and hit the big time. I read it then, and recently a book group member chose it. We allowed ourselves 2 months to read it (1433 pages!) but even so, I fear I am the only one who made it to the end.

The book is well worth reading. Santmyer follows a group of women in a small Ohio town from their college (we would think of it as high school) graduation in 1868, to the ends of their lives in the early 1930's. In that span we get history as people lived it (depressions, issues of race and class, politics, the powerful impact of war on the lives of veterans) as well as changes in transportation, communication and expectations. She is a fine writer, expressive and clear, using well-crafted sentences to tell her saga.

The primary character is Anne Alexander Gordon, whose father is a doctor, and who marries a (Civil War veteran) doctor, then their son becomes one, and against the odds of his upbringing, her grandson does as well. Anne believes most deeply in a life of joy, and through her struggles she is always able to find it in unexpected places and people.

The other principal is her best friend, Sally Cochran Rausch, whose husband, an ambitious Civil War vet, becomes the town's leading citizen. He buys a decrepit rope-mill and builds the business through economic surges and crashes. Union organizers can get nowhere with his loyal workers - he demonstrates during crises that he considers it his duty to look after them. Sally is a sensualist, taking pleasure in being a gracious hostess, filling her house with music, family and friends, and holding grand parties. She is a snob, but loyal and strong.

The Club of the title is the Women's Club, formed when Anne and Sally graduate, as a way of advancing literary life in their community. At first, only high-status ladies, teachers and ministers' wives are invited to be members, but over time the group's cliquish tendency gives way to recognizing the intelligence and scholarship of lower class women, even avowed Socialists.

Characters are finely-drawn: we see generational continuity, and the foibles and mistakes of the heart that cloud futures. But we also see the enduring comfort of long friendships, the sparks of sudden love, mischievous children, adults who make the best of second-best. 

Well done!