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Jan 15/12

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Artist (Movie); The Ides of March (Movie); The Forgotten Waltz (Novel)

The Artist (Movie) written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius; starring Jean Dujardin, Brnice Bejo, James Cromwell, John Goodman

Sometimes, nothing you hear about a movie appeals to you. A black and white silent movie? Get serious! But everybody’s raving about it so much that you feel you ought to give it a try. In this case, I can’t help feeling that a lot of the fuss is about people congratulating themselves for enjoying something unusual, something non-mainstream. Mind you, I have to admit that the idea looks good: you wanna make a film about a big star of the silent movies who has trouble adjusting to the advent of the talkies – so why not make it a black and white silent movie? Sounds like an ingenious artistic decision.

Trouble is, silent movies offer very little opportunity for character development. If all you can get from people is what they can convey with their faces and bodies, the experience may begin to wear a bit thin well before the movie’s 100 minutes are up. What becomes particularly grating is the jaunty music striving mightily to keep you interested. Often, I have problems with music that’s obtrusive in movies but usually it’s just a matter of an intrusion here and there. In this movie, the annoyance is constant.

Still, there is some interest in seeing how a movie can tell a story with so few words. Probably there are no more than about fifty flash cards, or titles, whatever they’re called. That would average out to one only every couple of minutes. And the story has its touching moments, in its portrayal of the relationship between the older actor (Jean Dujardin) and a young woman (Brnice Bejo) who started as an extra in one of his movies and went on to become a star of the early talkies. Some of their scenes have real poignancy, even without dialogue. Another actor who conveys a lot simply by his face is James Cromwell in the role of a butler/valet. John Goodman, as a producer, also manages to create a dynamic character without speaking.

Otherwise, there’s far too much mugging and grimacing. Talk about actors telegraphing their feelings! One of the main impressions you get of the silent era is that the most important attribute if you wanted to become a star was to have masses of dazzling teeth. You also learn that it’s really helpful to throw in a dog as a major character to occupy a fair bit of screen time; even in the talkies, after all, dogs can provide lots of entertainment without having to say much.

But I’m thinking that the classic silent movies were much shorter than this one. Didn’t they talk about features as "four-reelers?" That would make them less than an hour, by my calculation.The Artist is far too long to sit through something that comes to such an unsatisfying conclusion. Maybe this flaw isn’t directly due to the film’s silent nature, but it fails to deliver on one of the most important points for any drama, other than a tragedy: the hero doesn’t solve his own problems. Somebody solves them for him. Any beginners’ writing course will tell you that’s just not on.

Capsule comment : an interesting experiment that wears thin.

 

The Ides of March (Movie) written by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon; directed by George Clooney; starring Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Max Minghella

These guys must have known somehow (Search me!) that the Democrats weren’t going to be fielding any candidates in the US primaries this year. Otherwise, this movie might look redundant juxtaposed with the real thing. Here we have George Clooney as a sitting Governor who’s running for nomination as the Democratic candidate for the presidency. He’s the dream Democrat – all the right answers on the environment, women’s rights, gay rights, distribution of wealth, etc. We don’t see much of his opponent for the nomination but we do see lots of the opponent’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), who’s trying to woo the Clooney guy’s press spokesperson (Ryan Gosling) to switch sides.

That’s just one of many fiendish machinations, in so far as I could follow them. The wheeling and dealing are dizzy-making. Double-crossing, triple-crossing, quadruple-crossing, for all I know. Blackmail too. A New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) ups the pressure by threatening to reveal damaging stuff if people don’t tell her what she wants to know. People are always hitting each other with deadlines: you have to make up your mind by 3 pm tomorrow! (Not an exact quote, but that sort of thing.) The hyped atmosphere isn’t made any more realistic by dialogue that tends to be a) overloaded with exposition, as in the first part of the movie when much explanation is required to get our bearings; b) impossibly cute, clever and ironic, as when Ryan Gosling’s flirting with a young intern, played by Evan Rachel Wood; or clichd and platitudinous, as in: "You’re playing in the big leagues now. When you make a mistake you lose the right to play!"

The backroom boys in the white shirts and ties all look great, very committed and up-to-the-minute, but there have been more convincing movies about behind-the-scenes US politicking. Here, I couldn’t help feeling a bit distanced from all the Americana, the rah-rah about the Presidency, as though they’re talking about the race to be King of the World. What’s even more damaging to the movie is that everything turns on a dark secret about somebody’s private life. It’s one of those incidents that’s tragic for the people involved but, when it’s dragged into a story like this, it looks corny and overly-familiar. Thus, a faintly sickening whiff of melodrama pervades the premises. You end up watching a story that clicks along well enough but you don’t feel you’ve learned anything new or important about people; the movie hasn’t taken you to any place new. Do we really need to be told that the world of politics is sleazy, hypocritical, mean and cynical, and that bad language abounds therein?

Not that the actors don’t do their best to keep us watching. Paul Giamatti’s counterpart is Philip Seymour Hoffman as head of the opposing candidate’s team. Those two guys are a couple of the most interesting actors in the business today. Either one of them can make any scene fascinating. A spectacular example would be the one where Mr. Hoffman tears a strip off Mr. Gosling. I kept thinking Mr. Gosling looked too young and ingenuous to be shouldering his character’s heavy responsibilities but, ultimately, his relative innocence turns out to be one of the points in contention.

As director, George Clooney has made some good decisions. Notably, one scene where something very important happens but all we see is a luxury van lurking in an alley. The use of over-lapping or ellipses is very effective. The abrupt, unexpected ending works beautifully. But Mr. Clooney hasn’t given himself nearly as good a role as the one he plays in The Descendants. There’s not much to say about him as the sitting governor except that he’s so charming, intelligent, witty and devoted to his wife that you figure he’s too good to be true. And you might be right.

Capsule Comment: Not as good as it looks.

 

The Forgotten Waltz (Novel) by Anne Enright, 2011

It’s beginning to seem that Anne Enright’s novels are always going to have some element in them that bugs me. In The Gathering, her winner of the Man Booker prize for 2007, it was the harshness of her tone and her world view. (See the review on DD page dated May 4/08.) Now, The Forgotten Waltz confronts me with this quandry: is it possible to enjoy reading a book but not to like it very much?

There’s no question that this tale about adulterous love makes for a compelling read. The first-person narrator, Gina, one of the participants in the affair, speeds through the events in an engaging and convincing voice. You can’t help getting caught up in this Dublin woman’s story. The fact that she gets mixed up about chronology, that she’s sometimes not exactly clear in her memory of how things came down, helps to make her sound like a real person talking, somebody whose presence you can feel.

And yet, you may not feel entirely sympathetic to her. When it comes to women caught in adultery, this lady isn’t much like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, or even Lady Chatterley. Those ladies mostly had rotten marriages and boring lives. You can see why they sought love and companionship outside their marriages. Not that it excuses the affairs, but it makes it easier to forgive them. Not so with Gina. She has a good marriage and she loves her husband. They have lots of fun together. So it’s a little harder to be indulgent about her extramarital affair.

Then, when she’s well into it, she makes a remark that begins to suggest that we’re dealing with a supreme egotist here. She says something to the effect that, if her husband had really loved her enough, he would have known that something was wrong when she started the affair. Huh? At another point, she says that she doesn’t have any ill feelings towards her lover’s wife, that, in fact, the affair doesn’t make for any connection between the wife and her. Sorry, but I think there is a connection, in that the wife has a prior claim that Gina’s infringing on.

And yet, you’ve got to give Gina, a certain amount of credit for the fact that she doesn’t try to win your sympathy. Maybe that’s the difference between a contemporary woman writer and the 19th century male writers of the novels mentioned above. They seem to have thought a woman could never have an extramarital affair without tremendous extenuating circumstances. But Ms. Enright seems to be saying: it happens, guys, deal with it! She doesn’t even try to present the lover as some irresistible dreamboat. He’s only mildly attractive. (Gina's deceased father, in a three-or-four page description, comes off the page much more vividly.) At one point Gina throws up her hands, so to speak: "I just don’t know how to explain it."

However, knowing that we’re in the hands of such a good writer as Ms. Enright, we can trust that Gina will have some very interesting things to say about this experience. In her idiosyncratic way, Ms. Enright offers swatches of prose that merit comparison with some of the best writings about passionate love:

It was also beautiful, this game of not touching: that is the thing I am afraid to say about myself and Sen – how beautiful it was, how exquisite the distance we kept between us. And when I saw him one afternoon standing by the printer, lost in thought, with the light falling over his shoulders, it was as though the same light had jabbed me in the chest.....

Whether you approve of the affair or not, you can’t help admiring this way of the woman’s expressing some aspects of it:

And there was no solace in his absence, either. When he was gone, I thought about nothing else....I wondered where he was this minute, and what he might be doing. I thought about a future together and wiped the thought, fifty, sixty, a hundred times a day. It was all such an agitation. But somewhere in the gaps – in the certainty of seeing him after the lift doors opened, or in the shock of his voice nearby – a stillness hit, a kind of perfection. It was very beautiful, this desire that opened inside me, and then opened again...

This comment about a phone conversation strikes me as a unique observation on one of the modes of love:

I am listening to the space he occupies, I am listening to his breath, to the timbre of his voice, that is the same to me, almost, as the texture of his skin. It has the same effect. Or better. I am closer listening to him than touching him.

Wisely, Ms. Enright doesn’t get into much detail about the sex between the lovers. Rather, she conveys the varying moods of their couplings. Here’s a particularly effective follow-up to them:

When I think of those hotel rooms, I think of them after we left, and only the air knew what we had done. The door closed so simply behind us; the shape of our love in the room like some forgotten music, beautiful and gone.

Convincing as all this talk about love may be, the point of the book, ultimately, isn’t so much about love as about certain consequences. The old saying comes to mind: "Now that you’ve made your bed, you have to lie on it" The final sections of the book constitute an account of how Gina, accepting that she has made her bed a certain way, is now learning to lie on it. And that turns out not to be as simple as it sounds. In following Gina’s steep learning curve, Ms. Enright takes us to some places we might we might never before have visited in fiction.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com