March 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

I’m getting further behind, aren’t I? *sigh* And wait until you see April’s recap, when I get that one written (hopefully I’ll be motivated to get it done during the break). After the jump, reactions to Joyeux Noel, Where the Truth Lies, The Lookout, All About My Mother, Langston Hughes’s autobiographies, Zora Neale Hurston’s first novel, The Eight by Katherine Neville, and more!

Movies

Joyeux Noel
This was recommended to me by Rick Gibbs–which reminds me, I never did e-mail him my thoughts like I was supposed to. Bad Jandy! Anyway, it was already on my list due to its good showing at the Oscars a few years ago, but it was fairly low down on my list, due to my perception of its probable sentimentality. The story is pretty simple: On the European front of World War I, the Germans, French, and British (a mostly Scottish brigade) are trenched up within a few hundred feet of each other fighting over a roughly triangular batch of no-man’s-land. It’s Christmas Eve, and the three groups end up tentatively calling a cease-fire and celebrating Christmas together, soon realizing that they’re not that different after all and forging friendships. Of course, this creates problems when Christmas is over and they’re supposed to start shooting each other again. Rick didn’t like the ending, but I’m not sure why–I won’t give it away, but I felt it was appropriate and realistic, and I don’t think I would have done anything differently in the film. Still, it wasn’t a great film, just a rather good one–it did what it tried to do, did it well, was a little predictable, and didn’t bowl me over.
Above Average
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Where the Truth Lies
Canadian director Atom Egoyan sort of has a niche in high-concept, eroticized thrillers, and this one fits in there pretty well. Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon play two performers/best friends in 1950s Hollywood whose friendship dissolves after the death of a young actress which may or may not have been a murder in which either Firth or Bacon or both may or may not be involved. Confused yet? Alison Lohman plays an author who is trying to write a biography of one of them (I forget which) and ends up playing the detective role as she tries to discover the truth behind the girl’s death. The film is made up of a series of flashbacks told from all three characters’ points of view, showing how memory and/or deception make it almost impossible to discover what actually happened to the doomed actress. That part is intriguing, and the mystery is well-done. The erotic parts fit less well and are rather distracting, I think, from the actual story. Not to mention the fact that they make thinking about Lohman playing the adolescent lead in the recent Flicka (which was made AFTER Where the Truth Lies) distinctly uncomfortable.
Above Average
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The Lookout
A gem of a little movie that slipped under the radar…it might still be playing near you, and I suggest you give it a look-see if it is. The lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt was one of may great things about last year’s Brick, and he brings a similar quiet intensity to The Lookout. He plays a young man injured in a terrible car accident, and between the brain-damage from the accident and his guilt over causing the accident, which killed three of his friends, he’s kinda messed up. His attempts to live a normal life are interrupted when a man approaches him, claims to have known him in high school (this may be true, it’s hard to tell) and offers him the chance of a lifetime–get rich by acting as a lookout on a bank robbery. It’s much more focused on Gordon-Levitt’s character and his struggles to figure out who he is and where he fits in the world now than on the robbery itself, but the thriller aspects are definitely there. It’s really well-balanced and while it isn’t the heady experience that something like Brick or Memento is, it’s very good at being what it is, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Well Above Average
IMDb

All About My Mother
One of Pedro Almodóvar‘s most acclaimed films, and it definitely deserves it. Manuela and Esteban have a wonderful mother-son relationship until he is hit by a car and killed, leading her to return to her home town of Barcelona as she deals with her grief. I had a few sentences here describing the rest of the plot, but it’s pointless. The plot isn’t what matters. Like his most recent film Volver, it’s about returning home, reconnecting with the past, and moving on into the future. It’s about looking past appearances and finding what’s real. Being an Almodóvar film, several of the characters are transsexual (for some reason he has that in nearly all of his films)–that’s not really horribly important to the film except as indicators of complexity and defying convention and expectation; I mention it really only to warn against choosing this for family movie night. With the amount of multitasking I tend to do, a movie that grabs me and forces me to pay attention and forget everything else is pretty special. This one did that in spades.
Superior
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Books

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Can you believe I’ve never read Frankenstein? Yeah, neither could I. I read Dracula several years ago, and I think my subconscious somehow though that meant I had also read Frankenstein. But no. But I have now! And let me tell you, if you are planning to watch the 1931 Boris Karloff film and use that as the basis of your book report instead of reading the book, you’re going to flunk. It’s almost completely different. (I can’t vouch for or against the 1994 Kenneth Branagh version.) The story details Dr. Frankenstein, a young man whose scientific interests lead him to try the unthinkable–the creation of human life. He is successful, but he flees his terrible creation. Several months later, the creature catches up to him and tells him all about how despite learning to read and becoming rather cultured, everyone he tries to befriend rejects him–leading the creature to hate mankind and wreak vengeance for having been created. It’s a lot darker than the film versions have been, and a lot more morally ambiguous. Who bears the blame for the murders the monster commits? Frankenstein for creating and abandoning him? Or the monster, who does seem to have a sense of morality? It’s more ethical dilemma than horror story. The writing is a bit over the top, in gothic novel style, but the underlying questions are still weighty.
Well Above Average
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The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes’ first autobiography The Big Sea covers his youth and life up until 1930; though he didn’t live exclusively in Harlem, he has a large section devoted to life in Harlem that has become a major source for the lifestyle during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The book as a whole is very readable and enjoyable. He’s every bit as good a prose writer as he is a poet, and he’s able to capture his life and the lives of those around him with perfect clarity. I Wonder as I Wander covers the 1930s, focusing on his tours around the south the promote his poetry and his trip through the Soviet Union, which was very influential on a lot of his leftist poetry of the time. In addition to being highly enjoyable snapshots of the time period and the life of a black poet at that time, they’re also interesting examples of the autobiographical genre. The Big Sea was written in 1940, some ten years after the end of its narrative, and you can sort of feel him manipulating events based on his feelings ten years later. Similarly, I Wonder as I Wander was written in 1956, fifteen years or so after the time period it describes, and you can see even more clearly him gliding past the controversial elements of his involvement with the Communist Party in the early 1930s. By the 1950s, he had rejected extreme leftism and had been through the McCarthy hearings, so he was under some pains to distance himself from his earlier self. It makes for an interesting tension, especially if you know more accurate details about his life from, say, Arnold Rampersad’s definitive biography.
The Big SeaWell Above Average | WorldCat | Buy at Amazon
I Wonder as I WanderAbove Average | WorldCat | Buy at Amazon

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau
Yay for non-required reading! This little bit of language play tells a very simple story: A man on a commuter train sees another man get into a brief altercation with a third passenger. On a later trip the same day, the first man sees the second man talking with a friend on the street. That’s it. No, I’m serious. Okay, there are descriptives of dress and facial features which I have not mentioned. After depicting this brief narrative, which is hardly even a narrative, Queneau spends the rest of the book retelling it in different styles, like “Subjective,” “Blurb,” “Onomatopoeia,” “Alexandrines,” “Cockney” (which is partially the translator; it was originally in French, so this would’ve been a sub-dialect of French), “Philosophic,” etc. The chapters range in interestingness from fascinating and hilarious to a few that are unreadable, because their “style” is to shift the letters around or separate the words differently, which might be interesting if you were a linguist or something, maybe, but I mostly skipped over those. Overall, the book is an intriguing experiment in the influence of style on narrative, and it’s a fun way to kill a few hours (it’s not very long).
Above Average
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Quicksand by Nella Larsen
Yeah, this was my least favorite of all the books we read for the Harlem Renaissance class. Helga leaves the black school where she teaches because the administration doesn’t put any value on being African American, but tries to emulate white culture as much as possible. Her subsequent travels take her to Chicago, New York, and even Denmark for a while (her mother was Danish), and then back to the deep south. There are some interesting bits, especially in the differences between being black in America and being black in Europe, but the ending depressed me so much I was looking for the nearest bridge to jump off.
Below Average

Passing by Nella Larsen
I enjoyed Passing much more than Quicksand. “Passing” refers to a member of one race successfully pretending to be of a different race. Claire is a very light-skinned woman with black ancestry who passes as white to the extent of marrying a white bigot and he never knows the difference. Her childhood friend Irene is too dark to physically pass, but the title is ironic, because Irene is an upper-class African American–of the class and temperament to imitate whites in terms of societal structures. Meanwhile, Claire tends more and more throughout the book to want to revert to her African American upbringing–so is it really Claire or Irene who is “passing”? The idea of there being a black societal hierarchy that is separate but parallel to white society is also found in Jessie’ Fauset’s There is Confusion (which I reviewed last month); I hadn’t really thought of this existing before, so seeing more of its intricacies was interesting. Plus, both Irene and Claire were intriguing characters. A small, slight book, but insightful and engaging.
Above Average
note: Quicksand and Passing are usually bound together, as in these editionsWorldCat | Buy at Amazon

Jonah’s Gourd Vine by Zora Neale Hurston
The first of four novels Zora Neale Hurston wrote…we read all four for the Harlem Renaissance class. This one was my least favorite of the four. Hurston had sort of a strained relationship with her African-American contemporaries. She was a very good and fairly popular writer among whites as well as blacks, but she was also an anthropologist and a proponent of Negro folk culture, and her use of dialect caused a large faction of progressive African-Americans to turn against her, believing she perpetuated negative stereotypes. Like, for example, the main character in Jonah’s Gourd Vine, who becomes an important man in his community through his skills at preaching (Hurston saw preaching as a form of art–she didn’t have much use for religion, outside of the use she could make for it for her writing, which was considerable), but is felled by his promiscuity. It feels like the first novel that it is–not quite ready for prime-time, and the ending feels like she wasn’t quite sure how to end it. Still, after several novels in a row that were directed mostly at “the Negro problem,” it was a little refreshing to read one that was just about people.
Average
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The Eight by Katherine Neville
More non-required reading! And very enjoyable non-required reading, if I do say so. Computer expert Catherine is hired to go to Morocco to work for OPEC (it’s set in the early 1970s); little does she know that her presence there has actually been orchestrated as part of a huge, on-going game of chess that has been going on since the reign of Charlemagne–a game in which the players are seeking a chess service made for Charlemagne that contains a secret too powerful to let it fall into the wrong hands. In a parallel story, two nuns try to keep the service safe during the French Revolution, ending up intimately involved in the political intrigue of the time. The story is reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code (which is name-checked on the cover of the newest edition), but it’s actually, I don’t know, well-written–and, I don’t know, historically pretty accurate. It changes a couple of French Revolution events in order to involve our nuns, but nothing serious. I had great fun actually recognizing all the people the book mentions from my European Romanticism class! :) The secret the service is hiding is a bit of a letdown after all the conniving that went on to get it, but the ride to get there was so much fun that I’m not complaining.
Well Above Average
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