Monday, March 21, 2022

The Power of the Dog, a novel by Thomas Savage

This 1967 novel, recently made into a film, is truly Western, and if you don’t know what that means, this is a good place to start. Writers such as Wallace Stegner, Ernest Hemingway, Annie Proulx, Willa Cather, and John Steinbeck are quintessentially Western – and so is Thomas Savage. He draws heavily on personal experience, growing up in Idaho and Montana on ranches, observing the predominance of landscape and weather to the experiences of people living there. 

For The Power of the Dog, he creates a family, the Burbanks, wealthy cattle ranchers in Montana. The elder Burbank, whom they call The Old Gent, has retired with his wife, the Old Lady, to a hotel in Salt Lake City to escape the harsh winters and isolation of the ranch. In 1925, brothers Phil, now forty, and George, thirty-eight, are marking their twenty-fifth year of running the operation, dividing duties and still sharing their childhood bedroom. 

But they are as different as two men can be: Phil is smart, shrewd, observant, skilled – and mean. All his powers he turns to crafting the perfect cutting remark, whether to a ranch-hand late for breakfast or to any non-white person daring to elevate themselves to equal status: Jews, Indians, Mexicans, he despises them. George, on the other hand, is a little dense, a plodder, but sociable and reflexively kind, giving others the benefit of the doubt. 

Phil manages the ranch hands, the cattle, the haying operation. While he likes to spend evenings in the bunkhouse, he sets himself above the cowboys, and they know it. Otherwise, he is isolated, answering to no one, going off alone, keeping his thoughts to himself. When George marries, Phil considers the woman unsuitable, and torments her with the intention of driving her off. She is a widow with a bright effeminate teenage son, another target for Phil’s scorn and derision. 

I won’t say more about the story, just observe how insightfully written it is: "[George] knew all there was to know about love, that it’s the delight of being in the presence of the loved one.” and “Doors, doors, doors, doors; five outside doors in the house, and [Rose] knew the sound of the opening and closing of each one.” 

Phil is not without humor – he muses on parties the Old Folks hosted, always awkward affairs with guests terrified lest they blunder socially, the conversation dominated by some subject happened upon then worried to death till it was time to leave: “Phil referred to that as the Cabbage Dinner, and it was one of the last parties that the old Burbanks ever attempted. But there had been others – the Mud-Hole Dinner and the Grizzly Bear Dinner.” 

I haven’t seen Jane Campion’s movie, but I highly recommend the novel.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Drive My Car - a film review

You could call this film “Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima” in echo of Louis Malle’s “Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street” as another way of exploring Chekhov’s play about futility and despair. Ryusuke Hamaguchi doesn’t get his actor/director to Hiroshima until well into his story, but arguably he could have started with a recently-widowed man taking a job with a community theater – a two-month respite from a soured life in Tokyo. 

Hamaguchi starts, however, with the marriage of Yusuke Kafuku (Kaf-ku?) and Oto – she is a successful writer for television who gets ideas during sex, narrating them to Kafuku who later recites the stories back to her so she can write them down. One day he comes home from a cancelled flight to find her having sex with Koji Takatsuke, the popular young star of her series. He says nothing, and they are unaware of his intrusion. He quietly leaves, bottling up whatever this discovery stirs in him. 

Adding to the weight of this secret is Takatsuke’s appearance in Hiroshima to audition for a part in “Uncle Vanya.” Everyone at the theater assumes Kafuku will play Vanya, which suits his age and temperament, but instead he casts Takatsuke in the role. A surprise of another sort awaits Kafuku – due to a previous car accident in which a guest actor injured someone, Kafuku cannot drive his beloved red Saab. A driver is appointed – if he won’t accept Misaka his contract is null. So she becomes his driver. 

At first he is uneasy – he’s used to rehearsing lines while driving – but she assures him she doesn’t mind, he should do whatever he is accustomed to. And he does. Her silence and expressionless mien make it easy for him to work on the play from the back seat, without noticing her – she is unattractive, dressed in jeans, work shirt, and a shabby sport coat. But gradually he becomes curious about her; she takes him to the refuse center where she used to drive a truck, and bit by bit her story comes out. 

Again we see the power of Chekhov to move people. Takatsuke flounders as Vanya, and we learn he is in Hiroshima to wait out a scandal. Paparazzi snap pictures of him any time he’s in public, and he chases and assaults them. Takatsuke describes himself as empty, and Kafuku concurs – he chose not to play Vanya because to act well, he must open himself to the depths of the character, and he is unwilling to accept that vulnerability. But Takatsuke carries himself aloof from Vanya’s interior, which makes his acting suffer.

This film explores the hierarchy of theater, in which the director stays apart. The actors have a group bitch session after a reading all found unsatisfactory, but Kafuku has already left. The actors stay in Hiroshima, while his hotel is an hour’s drive away. The producers are there to smooth things over and enforce their set of rules. 

The Korean woman with the role of Sonya is mute, and plays her part using meticulously expressive sign language, which her husband translates to the cast and director. The actor playing Vanya’s young wife speaks English and Mandarin, Takatsuke speaks only Japanese. Chekhov would approve of this multi-lingual cast who cannot comprehend each other’s words. Humans failing to understand each other is the essence of his work. 

My only quibble is that the viewer has to know "Uncle Vanya" for the film to have full impact. In “Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street” we see the progress of the play – the cast is rehearsing, with takeout coffee cups and street clothes, but the lines are Chekhov’s, and finally it dawns on us that we're watching the play – we don’t need sets, costumes, props. In “Drive My Car” the focus is on the lives of director, actors, and driver – the moving moments of the play are adrift from its full story.