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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (8/11/08) 11:22pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed a week, on account of not watching/reading much.]

Movies:  Persepolis
TV:  The Kingdom [Disc One]
Books:  The Tempest [Arden, 3rd edition], American Pastoral

This is the film based on the Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel of the same name.  In the novel's US edition, Persepolis covers her childhood in revolution-era Teheran, and Persepolis 2 covers her teenage years in Vienna and her subsequent return to Iran.

The first half of the movie -- the equivalent of the first book -- works beautifully.  I admit, I'm predisposed to like this section because Ms. Satrapi is, at this point, a clone of my sister.  If you tell anyone in my immediate family about a little girl marching around the living room chanting, "Death to the Shah!" -- and then, after getting chastised by her parents, merely whispering, "Death to the Shah!" -- you'll get the response, "That sounds like Katherine."

But there are less idiosyncratic reasons to like this first half, too.  Honestly, I think it works even better than the first book.  Granted, it's been a while since I read it, but I recall the book including a lot of exposition explaining exactly what was going on in Teheran at the time.  But this first half of the animated feature uses voiceover sparingly, and strips things down to just a story about a girl growing up in a time of social turmoil.  What she sees, we see.  If we know enough history to fit it into the jigsaw of 70s geopolitics, good for us -- but this movie is about a story that stands on its own.

And that's the other thing -- the story works as a story.  This is almost unprecedented for a biopic.  When a movie tells us about somebody's life, it tends to be structurally sloppy.  It's not about a character pursuing an objective, with all other action subordinated to either supporting that pursuit or hindering it.  Oh, they *try* to make the story work like that, but life rarely fits into that neat movie shape.  So you get subplots that wander off into space, or you get action that's paced wonkily, or you get supporting characters that serve no purpose except to be recognized by the audience.  A biopic tends to be a big, shambolic mess that's saved only by neat period detail, a powerhouse central performance, and audience goodwill towards the person portrayed.

But the first half of this story largely avoids those traps.  How?  I think it's because we know, at the start, what's going to happen in Iran -- or if we don't know, it gets telegraphed soon enough.  We see the government get more and more oppressive, we see her family getting more and more scared, and after a while, we start wondering if these people will even *survive*.  And that's good[1] because it means the story has a *question*.  We wonder how it will turn out -- will they be okay? or will they get thrown in a prison somewhere? -- and that maintains our interest, even if the plot proper wanders a bit.

But then the second half happens.  I didn't particularly like the second book because I'm old and crotchety, and I have little sympathy for stories about teen angst.  (See also:  book five of Harry Potter.)  And this second half was mostly teen angst.  While it does a good depiction of "OMG my boifrendz CHEETING on me mai life z OVER", I couldn't muster much concern. 

Also, the story was no longer new to me.  Growing up in Teheran:  take all the potshots at W. you want, but I don't know what it's like to live through that kind of harrowing theocratic crackdown.  Going through typical teenager stuff?  Sure, it was in Vienna.  Sure, it touched on cultural issues of being an outsider in Austria.  But I couldn't help thinking I'd seen it all before.

The worst bit was that the narrative drive from the first half was gone.  It became episodic:  this happens and then something else happens and then the story wanders over here and then... *yawn*.  There are huge tracts of voiceover to tell us how these patches of story fit together.  Sure, they employed the gimmick of putting a bit from the end of the story -- where Marjane (I believe) returns to France for the second time, leaving us to wonder how she arrives at that point -- but it didn't help.  ("Oh, she winds up... in an airport.  At some point.  How exciting.")

I can imagine the second half's stories working passably as self-contained episodes in comic books, but concatenated into a film they just don't add up to much.

Still:  worth watching, if only for that first half, and for the gleeful, surprising use of a contemporary pop song in the second.

The Kingdom
At some point I realized that I'd never watched a TV show that wasn't in English -- so I added The Kingdom to my netflix queue.  The Kingdom is Lars von Trier's Danish television miniseries about a haunted hospital.

First things first:  this show has closing credits that make me cheer out loud.  Why?  Well, they start out playing the theme music and scrolling plain white credits with a plain beige curtain in the background.  Then Lars von Trier saunters in wearing a bright smile and a naff tuxedo.  "Well, that was an interesting episode, wasn't it?  We've started kind of slow, but trust me:  it'll heat up soon."  And he goes on like this for several minutes, wondering what will happen in future episodes, suggesting questions for the audience to ponder, and so on.

I cannot describe why this is so wonderful.  All I know is it has something to do with the good-natured, chummy, almost lounge-y cheesiness that stands in stark contrast to the harrowing tone of the show.

The show itself is as far removed from Lounge Time with Lars von Trier as is humanly possible.  He's assayed the sort of horror that is less "OMGMONSTERS!!" and more "Hmm... that doesn't seem right."  The show is all about that slow build of tension, and weirdness, and doom.  You sense that things are going wrong, dangerously wrong, and most of the characters don't know a thing about it.

In fact, the show has a bit of a split personality, at least in the two episodes on the first disc.  You're not quite sure if it's a standard hospital drama with a 'supernatural' gimmick designed to draw in the genre crowd, or if the character scenes are just filler designed to ratchet up the tension 'til we see the next creepy ghost appear in the walls.  And that's perhaps the problem with the show -- neither half is all that original or compelling on its own.

I wouldn't say it's a great show, but it's certainly an interesting show.  Seeing the horror and hospital-drama elements play off of each other is interesting.  Seeing the various cultural quirks of the Danes is interesting.

And the directing style is especially interesting.  This show was made in 1994.  The very next year, Mr. von Trier would sign the Dogme 95 Manifesto, which included a "Vow of Chastity" consisting of ten rules filmmakers in the movement should follow.  The rules required on-location filming, handheld cameras, no artificial light, and so on. 

You can see some of this same ascetism in The Kingdom.  Sure, it violates Dogme 95 in all sorts of ways (most notably in its inclusion of genre elements), but it has lots of handheld work, lots of location shooting (or incredibly convincing sets), and it gives you that same raw, found-footage feel you might find in Firefly or Friday Night Lights.

And yet it still has a distinct style -- if you watch two seconds of footage from The Kingdom, you know you're watching The Kingdom.  Either the grainy, sepia-tinted, saturation-drained footage or the queasy Dutch angles would clue you in.  It's odd, and heartening, to realize that a unique look doesn't necessarily cost more money.

So we'll see how the rest of this plays out.  I doubt that this show is for everybody, but it's a real treat if you're looking for something different.

The Tempest [Arden, 3rd edition]
And so I continue my slow meander through the works of Shakespeare.  Most scholars believe The Tempest Shakespeare's last play[2], and this puts it firmly in that period where Shakespeare got... a bit odd.  It's like he had mastered comedy, he'd mastered drama, and now he was going to try something... different.

As the Reduced Shakespeare Company puts it (roughly), "... these are known as 'the problem plays' or 'the high romances' or 'the bad plays'".  Many scholars cite the influence of standard English morality plays and traditions on these late works, and that's perhaps easy to see in something like The Winter's Tale, which is as much about the changing of the seasons as it is about the characters tied up in the story.  And in The Tempest, Prospero acts like a morality-play God:  he has his plan, he knows how everything will turn out, and the characters just execute his arrangement for two hours.

And halfway through they break into a masque where the classical gods all sing to each other.  Yep, more of that old, OLD-time religion -- greenmen and harvest festivals and the like -- leaving its thumbprint on his work.

If it were any other playwright, my instinct would be to dismiss the play.  If your main character is just some guy sitting off to the side watching the plot play out like some elaborate music box... well, that's crap, right?  But it's Shakespeare, so I'll shut up, pay attention, and see where he's going with this.

Plus, The Tempest interests me because it comes closest to something I'd recognize as genre work in Shakespeare.  Yes, I know, Hamlet is a ghost story.  But really? you'd put it in the same bin as The Grudge and Scooby Doo?  And yes, Dream is a fantasy, but I always associate it more with farce than with (say) modern novels about dragons and sorcerers.  With The Tempest, some immature part of my brain is thinking, "Finally -- he gets off his high horse and writes about a badass magician who lives on an island."

As for the execution?  As usual for the Romances, I found it more 'intriguing' than 'compelling'.  There were bits and pieces of entertainment to be had, say with watching the drunks hang out with Caliban, or watching Miranda and Ferdinand go all googly-eyed over each other.  But I perceived no real danger, and only temporary, artificial conflict -- I always knew everything was going to go Prospero's way, so... what was at stake?

I was intrigued by how the play thwarted what I expect from plays.  "Oh, they're going to kill Antonio?!  Wow, I... oh, okay, Prospero's going to stop them.  *yawn*  And... wait, now there's a masque.  What the hell?"  Even if it's a bit of a busted mess, it's such a beautifully-written busted mess that it merits such close attention.  I kept trying to figure out how this play pretty much worked in spite of itself.

Side note:  again, it's a vast relief to read a *third* edition Arden instead of a *second* edition.  The introductions are different like night and day.  Third editions have lucid prose about the play's background and its history of performance and criticism.  Second editions have mind-numbing, grammar-twisted essays that tell you in exhaustive detail how (say) a dozen historical records indicate the play was written in 1609, while a dozen others point to 1610.  Maybe I'm just not hardcore enough to properly appreciate the dry, look-at-me-I'm-smart prose style or the snoozy content of a Serious Lit-Crit Essay. 

In any case, this intro does a great job of sketching out major critical approaches to the work (feminist, post-colonialist, Freudian), its long performance history (fun fact:  for about thirty years it was always performed as a musical), and the few bits and pieces we can work out about how it came to be in the first place (additional fun fact:  the original Folio edition of the play came from a transcription by a scrivener named Ralph Crane, who tended to throw in breezy stage directions).  And it did all of this in a way that did not make me want to gouge out my own eyes, which I certainly appreciated.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Why do I keep doing this to myself?

To explain:  every so often, I step back from my usual diet of nonfiction, Shakespeare, graphic novels, and sci-fi to read a great modern literary novel.  Last time I tried this, it was late 2006, and I wound up reading The Corrections.  This experience was unpleasant.  But inevitably I came back around to thinking, "Hmm.  Why don't I try reading something respectable?"

The thought occurred to me after I saw American Pastoral show up on numerous "greatest novels of the last twenty-five years" sorts of lists.  And I saw it was available on Audible, with award-winning narration by Ron Silver.  So I downloaded it and dove right in, not even paying much attention to what it was about.

And I got into the story, and the similarities to The Corrections made me feel a bit uneasy.  Oh, it's another novel about an upright, uptight, stalwart family of middle-to-upper-class white people, and we spend the whole novel watching forces, forces that they never quite understand, destroy them utterly.  In The Corrections it was the patriarch's Alzheimer's; in American Pastoral it's that the daughter blows up a local store to protest Vietnam.  Either way, it's like spending 500 pages peeling off a Band-Aid.

And again, like The Corrections, I can recognize some of the brilliance of the novel.  I see how sharply-drawn the characters are, and I respect how the novel takes deep into the state of mind of the protagonist (the father), following every twist and turn as he tries to rationalize his daughter's actions.

I just never wanted to get to the next page, and only listened through the whole thing out of my usual stubborn refusal to leave a book half-finished.

Maybe I'm just too used to screenplays and short stories.  With novels, it's easy for me to get peevish towards all the plot meandering.  Roth bounces back and forth through time, and it isn't so much telling a story as filling in a mosaic.  We get a panoramic view of the family's slow destruction, but it doesn't quite *go* anywhere.  There's no spine, no central objective, nothing to hold the thing together except the thematic material and the elegiac tone.  You couldn't ever ask "How will it turn out?" because there wasn't really a question in there. 

Is literary fiction supposed to work like that?  I guess so.  I mean, it won a Pulitzer, right?

Or maybe I'm annoyed with the whole Weathermen fetish.  Between this and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I'm starting to wonder if all novelists have a secret desire to don a beret and throw bombs at the government for its inexcusable wrongs against fashionable liberal causes célèbres.  Maybe, when a novelist chronicles these underground rebels in exquisite detail, it gives the novelist the frisson of seeing people die violently for having the audacity to disagree with the novelist's beliefs.  (I would call this "the Left Behind effect".)  I just can't manage to feel giddy and excited about terrorists, even the ones that agree with me in the broad strokes of their smug, reductive worldviews.

I know I was annoyed with the long, expository discursions.  A story would try to get itself started, and then I'd find myself in an exegesis about glovemaking every bit as ponderous as the cetology chapters of Moby Dick.  "Oh.  Now I've wandered into an obscure wikipedia entry.  Oh-kay...."

And I guess that same quality, in the broad strokes, was what annoyed me the most.  It isn't about narrative.  It's about exposition.  It's about describing all these demimondes of glovemaking and Jains and the Miss America Pageant.  It's about dinner-party arguments about what the incursions of 60s counterculture Really Mean, or about a dyspeptic surgeon questioning Seymour Levov's tenuous construction of the Self.  But it ain't about a story, 'cos there ain't a story there.

But if you don't really want a story in of a novel, then this should be okay by you.  The philosophy is philosophical, the prose is gorgeous, and hey, you even a scene or two thrown in, gratis.

Now I'm hoping I can fight off this urge to read novels for another year and a half.

For next time:  starting off Fooled by Randomness; more Mad Men; more The Kingdom

More Beethoven piano sonatas at work.  Just not listening to much music lately.

[1] ... for the story, not for the characters, of course.
[2] ... or at least the last play he wrote alone.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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