Thursday, February 26, 2015

Altman and Plimpton (Orally Speaking...)

An oral biography, in its assembled nature, due to the unwieldy fact of its very existence, is usually  nothing more than a shaggy beast of a book. You have hundreds of people collected together in print, commenting on someone of note, usually dead, in anecdotal form. Put that way, such a process of literary investigation sounds less like a project and more like a lark. This is the benefit of the form -- this feeling that what one is reading is not some sort of monetary assignment at all, but is instead just a goof. Its looseness liberates the very life under discussion.

ROBERT ALTMAN: THE ORAL BIOGRAPHY by Mitchell Zuckoff and GEORGE, BEING GEORGE George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals--and a Few Unappreciative Observers  are both books that are both perfectly suited to the form, because the lives under discussion were in and of themselves discursive, digressive, diversionary. They meandered here and there, and eventually assembled for themselves something very much that resembled a self.

Altman, one of the finest filmmakers of his generation, allowed his actors and environment to help him fashion his films; Plimpton, bon vivant, lover of fireworks and parties, founded the most prestigious literary magazine in America, then somehow found time to practically invent the category of 'participatory journalsit', hurling himself into various sporting, musical and artistic adventures so that we, as readers, could imagine what amateurs like ourselves would do in the same situation. Altman was our rambling guide to the raging unconscious of American life writ large on the screen, while Plimpton served as the continuous upper-class buffoon so that we might in his antics appreciate the pros all the more. Both gentlemen were solitary adventurers of the spirit  who took everyone else along for the ride.

Which is what a good book should do, too, and which these two veritable tomes amply do -- put us square in the passenger seat, comfortable and alert, and that's quite easy to do when you're guided along on the path by a veritable plethora of  engaging voices. Both of these books let their subjects' fanily and friends, enemies and colleagues speak for themselves, via their own recollections. This makes for enormously readable stuff. You can tell yourself that nothing was 'assembled', because the years flow by and the experiences add up with input from this lover, or that chum, and we can all pretend that there's no overarching editor behind the whole experience, because that would seem rather stiff. Altman and Plimpton, roughly of the same generation, lived lives that were anything but rigid, because both were immensely freewheeling, with a keen sense of glee, and their respective books revel in that uncanny energy they brought to their crafts, their almost reckless enjoyment of what their art should exude.

Reading both books within a relatively short span of time, I came away wondering: Where are the Altmans and Plimptons of today? We need more people like this -- those who alter the energy of a room and a culture simply by entering through a door partly open. Perhaps they both evolved out of a time that appreciated such immediacy more than this screened-in generation. Both Altman and Plimpton used their environments to augment their craft, but also expand the culture's underlying sense of what public space should contain. Reading and listening to all these myriad voices in a collective chorus of awe, I found myself missing men that I'd never met, wondering if I would, or even could, ever meet someone like them in my life, or if I should take it upon myself to fashion an existence that in my own individual manner resembled what they each brought to earth.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


Hideo Levy is an American author who writes in Japanese. Now based in Tokyo, he spent many years teaching at Princeton University, where he translated the famous, and poetic, Japanese historical chronicle 'Man'yooshu' into English. He has said more than once that 'language is a culture', words that are extraordinarily provocative in all the right ways. To immerse onself in a foreign language, irregardless of one's actual, physical locale, is to do battle with the essence of that culture itself. A language has its own rules, contexts, codes and sub-categories; it has implications, biases, nuances and prejudices. It has everything that exists in a real place with people, only the words by themselves create conditions that alter psychological states and impressions. Language by itself defines and creates the circumstances in which we reckon with its form. And through the folks that find a way to express the ephermal shape of their thoughts, we can witness both how the language shapes them, and how the people, in turn, mold the words to reflect the milieu from which they were born.

We all know this, instinctively, but we tend to forget it, cumulatively. Meaning, as time aggregates itself into the unwiedly mess of our lives, we use language reflexively, and persist in recognizing its impact in a manner that's almost offhand. Perhaps children are more attuned to the fabric of words, their placement and power, because it's all still new and unlikely, the whole combination of sounds.

On one of the house-league hockey teams that I played on as a child, we had an assistant coach who inserted into his speech an up-tilted 'okay?' after almost every sentence. This struck me, more than anything else, as amusing. Whether he was giving instructions, or telling us to keep our sticks on the ice, or informing us defencemen that we had to hover at the blue line just inside its margins to avoid a call of 'offside', a pleasant, inquistive  'okay?' was added to it all.

I didn't find it annoying, or peculiar -- just funny. I had never heard anyone do that before. Similarly, I had a good childhood friend who had a terrible stutter, and he was the first (and only) person I'd known who stumbled over his own words inside of every sentence that he tried to construct. That, too, I found 'funny' -- not 'ha ha' funny, but 'funny' as in odd, and unusal, and extremely unlikely, despite its obvious presence and nusiance to the rhythm of his life.

What I'm saying is, these kind of verbal tics were duly noted and examined, if only to myself, because kids tend to latch onto what's unusual, and they either mock it or roll it around in their skull like a mental gobstopper.

Later, after university, living in Toronto, a friend of my flatmate came to visit from Newfoundland, our easternmost province, and I was startled by the twang of his accent, its almost-Irish inflections. I had also never heard some of that slang before, nor his casual affectations. Whereas I would say 'buddy' or 'guy' at the beginning or end of a sentence when talking to somebody, he would say 'bye' -- a novelty to me, like a curious whistle.

Looking back, I can see that my childhood memories of my 'okay?'-obsessed hockey coach, and my young-adult recollections of that Newfound bloke, can both kind of be read as culture itself expressed through the awkward output of language.

By that I mean, my hockey coaches were, by and large, working-class guys, many of them more of then tha not employed by the giant GM factory in town, and their speech-rhythms and vocabulary were usually not sprinkled with excess levels of diction. They sounded like the people I grew up with, the friends of my parents, and ny own friends' parents. These coaches' southern Ontario accents and rather blunt jokes and hockey-playing tips were all of a piece, and that piece was the place that had given them a voice. Ditto with the Newfoundland dude, who stuck out in Toronto like the fisherman's lad that he was. Language and tone obviously arise from the awkwardly spun tapestry of our inital tangled roots.

Yet that's only part of language, and in some ways the most obvious part, the section that sees language as part of  'a' culture, rather than language 'as' culture. As a beast in and of itself, an idea which might be easier to assess if we can look at the complexities of its potential to enlighten and confuse in whatever written form it embodies.

If language is culture, full stop, as Hideo Levy maintains, than it's understandable that a certain misreading of that culture is inevitable at some point. A Japanese book I'm leafing through by Akio Namekata deals with the problems of English education in modern Japan, and as part of his thesis he discusses the complexities of the Japanese language, its nuances and implications that foreigners can never quite grasp. (This is a traditonal, even cliche argument in some quarters of Japanese thought -- that the Japanese language, and Japanese culture itself, is far too difficult for a foreigner to comprehend. Namekata was born in 1931, so it's perhaps understandable that he clings to this view.)

In Namekata's book, two of the most famous post-World War II translators of Japanese literature into English -- Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, both American -- are brought up for debate, and, to some extent, ridicule. Namekata quotes a few passages from Japanese literature that Keene has translated, pointing out that the American has misunderstood exactly who's referring to what, thus resulting in an English version of the text that is acutely misleading.

In a sense, such an error is not altogether surprising; the Japanese language is notorious for not needing a subject (i.e. 'I', 'he', 'she'', 'they', 'it', etc.) at the beginning of many sentences, so that determing exactly the gist of a topic can be an adventure indeed, even for an old Japan-hand. Namekata's point is that here we have the most revered translator of Japanese into English that has ever lived -- and even he is fucking up some pretty basic shit. Keene is not 'reading' it right, in the sense that he's not grasping the mood and atmosphere behind the words that would make the true meaning clear.

Similarly, Namekata cites a famous example from Edward Seidensticker's English translation of Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata's SNOW COUNTRY -- the opening line of the novel, in fact, which I often use myself with my students to point out the different ways that English and Japanese deal with the problem of 'subject'. For Namekata, however, it's not the 'subject' that's the problem, but what's left implied and unsaid which leads to some confusion-in-translation.

Here's Seidensticker's version, in English, of the opening paragraph of the novel: "The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky. The train pulled up at a signal stop.'

Pretty straightforward, right? The thing is, in Japanese, there's no mention of a train in the first sentence. It's just assumed that it would be a train that comes out of the tunnel, because, you know, what else would it be, right? You don't need to specify the damn thing. It's possible to write that first sentence in English without mentioning a train, instead merely indicating that a border had been crossed, an exit exited, a new region entered, whatever, but it would give the whole idea a kind of circumspection that doesn't exist in the original Japanese, an avoidance, maybe. Best just to call it a train and be done with it. I always found that idea intriguing -- that even the first sentence of a novel had to be recalibrated when rendered in a completely different tongue.

However, Namekata faults Seidensticker's translation, for reasons that I'd never thought about, and still don't entirely understand. He essentially says that, for a Japanese reader, it's clear that these observations -- the the train leaving the tunnel, and the earth under the night sky, and the train pulling up to a signal stop -- reflect the spirit and heart and interior life of the main character, nuances that are not captured in the English translation.

I'm puzzled by the idea that these rather functional observations in that first paragraph are peculiar to the main character, because they seem to be basic, even clinical renditions of physical actions. How could one emphasize that they are the specific observations of one particular person? And why is it necessary, since even in Japanese the subject (the main character) is not mentioned at all? According to Namekata, Japanese readers will somehow understand that these observations do, in fact, reflect the protagonist's character, his internal essence, whereas the Western translator neglected to pick up on this tone. He couldn't read the culture inherent in the text, in other words.

I don't truly understand what Namekata is getting at, but I don't disbelieve him, either -- if he's saying the Japanese are picking up on something in the text that Seidensticker, as an American, cannot even perceive, he may be right. This is just another example of how words, by themselves, can seem to enfold and display an entire culture's intent, hiding right there in plain sight.

Another puzzling example of the inherently cultural nature of language comes from another book I'm making way through by a Japanese writer named Sukehiro Hirakawa, who's examing Japan after World War II in terms of where the Japanese language has been, and where he thinks it should go. (This is what I'm sort of/kind of/a little bit understanding, anyway; Japanese is an extremely round-about language, and just when I think the topic is 'this', the text somersaults itself into a variant version of 'that'.)

At any rate, Hirakawa, as with Namekata, was also born in 1931, so he has a view of language, and Japan, that is in accordance with someone who hails from that era. The Japanese have a very different version of World War II history than the West commonly depicts; I won't get into whether it's 'right' or 'wrong', but the Japanese don't often see themselves as being entirely to blame when it comes to that conflict. Hirakawa takes issue with the very title of a relatively recent book of Japanese history written by an American, John Dower, named EMBRACING DEFEAT, which deals with how quickly Japan rebuilt itself after the end of the war.

According to Hirakawa, the English words 'Embracing Defeat' are extremely misleading, in that there was no widespread acceptance of loss, as such, and that those very words most likely come from those Japanese prostitutes who serviced American soldiers during the years of military occupation. I read that particular idea and went; "What the fuck?" Had to read the sentence two or three times to wrap my head around its contents, and I still don't think I'm getting it all, but Hirakawa seems to be implying that the very title of the book is setting up a sociological reading of the national situation that is akin to a whore cuddling up to her potential customer. Or something like that. Translated directly to Japanese, the book's name may have a more intimate connotation that brings to mind the prostitution of the time. Or perhaps the conciliatory tone of the title does not accurately reflect the true mood of the people.

Elsewhere in the book, Namekata also takes issue with THE RAPE OF NANJING (the translated title of which would sound just as blunt in Japanese as it does in English) by the late Iris Chang, which deals with the Japanesde military's rampage of that Chinese city during World War II. In the West, this event is pretty much recognized as being historical fact, a slaughter of innocents of almost epic proportion, in Japan, amongst many scholars, there's still the belief that much of the tragedy is exaggerated, if not invented ,and Namekata seems to fall in line with that view. If I'm reading correctly, he sees THE RAPE OF NANJING as being another case of Western historians dabbling in Eastern affairs without having the proper linguistic or cultural understanding to make their case clear.

The question of historical accuracy aside in that particular case, Namekata may have a small point, in terms of linguistic and cultural interpretation. When scholars write, in English, of events that happened in a foreign, predominantly non-English speaking country, it certainly helps if they speak, read and write the language well enough to assess just what the hell did go on. There are countless books about Asian history that I've skimmed through and wondered: "Does 'this' author speak 'that' language -- and, if not, can I trust what he says?"

Through the language, one learns the culture, and if you're delving into socio-political aspects of war and occupation, self-rule and coercion, public response and government intentions, to not be able to access and comprehend orginal sources in their native language is to not truly examine the issue at all. And, in the case of American translators Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, even if you do speak, read and write the language, there will still be accusations that the language by itself is not enough to comprehend the culture. The people themselves lie both in and outside of the words that they use.

Which brings me back to Hideo Levy's phrase -- that language, on its own, is a culture, of its own. The hockey coaches of my youth uttered words that not only reflected the environment in which they were raised, but also created a cadence of their own that created their own casual world; the Japanese books that I'm trying to understand now wonder if the Japanese language can survive as a force in a world dominated by English. The language arises from the people, initially, then shapes the people, subsequently. The words exist on their own, as almost physical things that create meaning by themselves, yet they are always balanced, if not anchored, by those who continually employ their usage, who twist it and bend it and hope that it won't break, or somehow break us in the process of simply trying to make sense of it all.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by Brian Moore

At various points throughout Brian Moore's 1976 novel THE DOCTOR'S WIFE, there were collections of episodes and incidents so embarassing and anxious for the characters that I started to physically cringe, the way I used to do as a kid while watching Jack Tripper get into trouble on THREE'S COMPANY. I had to turn away from the screen during those moments, and there were times, while reading this book, that I wanted slam the thing down. It's a testament not only to Moore's skill as a novelist, but also to the power that words can still have, that the concept of story itself can continue to muster, if we only allow give ourselves up to the lanuage of imaginary acts.

It's also the kind of literary novel that seems to straddle the line between popular fiction and its more snootier brethren. Brian Moore, who was born in Norther Ireland, and attained Canadian citizenship before eventually moving to Malibu, California, was considered by Graham Greene at one time to be the best novelist in the world, With this book, if you went just by the story you might be shaking your head at high praise such as that. The plot is nothing to write home about, after all: The wife of a small-town doctor in Ireland goes on a holiday in France, expecting her husband to arrive in a few days to join her, but instead she finds herself falling in love (lust?) with a young American tourist, and they begin an affair. And there you go.

Not much to it, right? Yet if we can argue (broadly) that literary fiction is more concerned with 'character' than 'narrative' (and I think we can), and that its focus tends to dwell on 'language' over 'plot' (which is the case here), then the novel is a shattering success at creating the kind of confident literature that simply does its thing.

Moore initially keeps his omniscient narrator's point of view on the wife, but gradually, over the course of the book, we shift to the perspective of her friend, her brother, her husband -- but never her lover. His motives and psychology remains as murky to us as they do to our heroine. Yet by giving all the other intimates in her orbit the virtue of open introspection, we can see how her actions, so relatively tame by modern standards, shatter notions of goodwill and expectations that lock so many peoiple in, and the wider world at bay.

The language is not overy fussy, just direct, yet there's nevertheless an abiding, understated elegance that comes when a writer knows just when to relent. Nothing is forced, and we quitely, relentlessly observe all the wrenching heartache of a woman who allows herself to relinquish an old life in favour of something more. This is the plot of a thousand and one Harlequins, true, but it's also the stuff of real life, and Moore's care for his characters allows this story to take on the emotional texture of your neighbour's secerts.

Reading it, I became amazed anew -- at the oddness of words themselves, how they could correlate with one another to create an alternate world. Here we have a novel that was published before I had even reached the first of my birthdays, by an author long dead, in an edition.that has probably been shuffled around the bedrooms of the globe for the past thirty years, yet it felt so immediate and true, intimate and wounding. Even as I'm studying the literary style of the writer, I'm sucked right into the world that he's melding, and a spell has been cast, and I feel all the while like a kid of fourteen wandering around the stacks of the library downtown, searching.

Monday, February 16, 2015

'The War That Was Lost' or 'The War That Was Finished': How A Single Japanese Character Can Alter Education

Given their relatively rapid rise from the (literal) ashes of post-World War II, the Japanese people have always been obsessed with the end of the war, and consquently its meaning for how they should consider their lives. Sometimes it's instructive to see how a culture teaches various aspects of history to its youngest citizens, which is why I'm leafing my way through a Japanese book written by Ryuichi Narita, aimed at students age fourteen and up, whose title roughly translates as: "The Way To Think About, And Learn About, Post-World War II Japanse History". One of the most fascinating arguments is expressed in one of the first chapters, and involves a knotty linguistic problem that probaby couldn't be replicated (or en be much of an issue) in English language materials. Maybe by looking at these two seemingly plainspoken phrases we might learn something about how the Japanese try to regard themselves and their past.

Because much of Japanese vocabulary is composed of Chinese characters that have a visual meaning completely independent of any phonetic pronunciation, it's relatively easy to combine these kanji together to create a new word, one whose meaning is quite clear to process and comprehend, even if you're not exactly sure how it's supposed to be said by your lips. (This is also why both Japanese and Chinese are so useful on Twitter; concepts that would require dozens of characters to express via English can be succintly summed up in these Asian tongues without too much fuss.) An early chapter here focuses on how, exactly, to define the period of time that occurred after the conclusion of the war, during the American occupation.

The chapter's heading, translated, would read something like: "The War That Was Lost? The War That Was Finished?"

Admittedly, in English, this chapter-heading reads (and sounds) rather awkward and confusing, but in the Japanese language, the distinction between the two terms has certain implications for how one should linguistically (and thereby historically, intellectually and even emotionally) process the events that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki's final booms of intent. 

"The War That Was Lost" requires seventeen alphabetical characers in English, but in Japanese, we need only two pictographs -- one representig 'lost'. the other representing 'war'. You slot those two babies together, and you get the word 'haisen', which literally means 'lost war'. The next part of the chapter in question, namely 'The War That Was Finished', is also composed of two Chinese characters, one meaning 'end', the other signifying 'war'. Combine these pair of kanji, and we're left with 'shusen', which translates as 'finished war'. 

So the chapter poses this dilemma: Is it better to refer to this war as a 'lost war', or a 'finished war'?

In English, such a problem most likely wouldn't even come up, because there's any number of ways in wihch one can refer to events that chronologically follow the conclusion of a war, and it's not all that important to rigidly define how such a period of time should be classified and represented. For example, the United States, by pretty much unanimous agreement, lost the Vietnam War, yet when historians, journalists, novelists or laymen refer to that time, they could choose to say 'post-Vietnam', or 'after the war', or any other number of rather innocuous expressions. The Japanese, too, have a phrase for 'postwar' -- 'sengo' -- which literally means 'after the war', and it's also in common usage in the media and textbooks, but there's a larger linguistic issue at stake regarding the problem that this chapter is gingerly trying to explore.

To wit, he Japanese language seems to require a kind of solidity and squareness that English does not require. By that I mean, the very nature of kanji (those pictorial characters imported long ago from China) implies a fixedness -- these images are pictorial, and they have distinct meanings. You join one 'meaning' with another 'meaning' and a third 'meaning' is created; it's a very logical, cohesive process, resulting in a rigid definition that allows no leeway or slant. It's thus ironic that Japanese is considered (rightly so) a very vague language, but it is, paradoxically, the concrete nature of their expressions that allows such ambiguity to surface. 

When you're language is flexible and loosey-goosey and can boogie-woogie like English, you can slip and slide all over the place, and in that relaxed mode of expression, any number of interpretations of thought can be processed and discussed. In Japanese, the use of kanji, more often than not, creates a kind of codified standard that says 'this means THIS', period. By employing these terms, one thereby becomes sort of stuck. It means what it means; it is what it is. Yet it's because of this solidity that one can then allow a door of interpretation to be opened, because ten different people might hear or read this same expression, and thus come away with ten alternate beliefs in what is being said. By being so broadly direct, the listener or reader is forced to ponder what other ambiguities might exist underneath such firmness.

So, for example, if the phrase 'lost war' comes to be known as the de facto means by which the Japanese language (and people) term that time in the past, that repeated emphasis of 'lost', as part of the fabric of the word, stresses something, by its very usage -- namely, the fact that Japan did, in fact, lose the war. The 'loss' becomes all important. Every time the term is employed, it will be 'lost' that is seen as part of the word, and thus, being a language that thrives on ambiguity, the reader (or listener) will necessarily wonder in each context that it's being used if this 'lost' aspect has relevance to the larger point being made. (Of course, this may all be happening at that subconscious level where language seems to dwell inside us.)

Similarly, if the phrase 'shuesen', or 'finished war', is more often employed, then the fact that Japan 'lost' the war is no longer as relevant to the greater points that are under dicussion. The linguistic implications of that one word, 'finished war', are that Japan may not have won the war, true, but it's the 'finished' part that's important -- not the fact that it was a defeat. 

These may sound like enormously fussy arguments to be made for a concept that pretty much means the same thing -- we are, after all, simply talking about words that refer to the end of a war. Yet they could have ideological or political ramifications, depending on who's using them. For example, if a particular Prime Minister of Japan is notoriously right-wing, and he chooses to use the phrase 'shusen' when talking about post-World War II society, wouldn't it be reasonable to assume that he's not so sure that in fact Japan's 'loss' should be stressed? Or, conversely, if a left-wing journalist repeatedly uses the phrase 'haisen' to explore that very same period of time, we might think that he or she is indeed emphasizing the fact that Japan lost that conflict. 

Again, all of these assumptions of ours (and theirs, the users of these words) would probably be existing on some unconscious level, but that might be the point of this chapter -- that kanji is such a visually striking element of linguistics that employing the proper Chinese character must be dealt with in a considered fashion. If children are being taught about their own country, and its own past, which aspect should be stressed -- the fact that the war was 'lost', or the fact that it was 'finished'? This is semantics (quite literally so!), but it also shapes in some ways how their citizens start to think.

I don't believe that Ryuichi Narita, the author of the book, comes to a conclusion one way or the other; like many Japanese books (and the tone of this one in particular), the ideas seem to be meandering and questioning, broadly exploratory and discursive, rather than firmly instructive one way or the other. (In the same chapter, he brings up the notion of 'destruction' and 'humiliation' -- that these were vocabulary children after the war habitually came to think of when considering Japan's post-war era, and it seems like Narita is stressing repeatedly the importance of language itself in how history is projected.)

Trying to understand how one culture teaches what it does. the extent of its self-introspection and objectivity and using which particular vocabulary, is a goal that right now is, admitteldy, a little bit above my pay-grade (in Japanese-language-comprehension terms, that is). My insights here might be far off the mark. Yet I do find the broader implications of 'lost war' and 'end of war' enormously interesting, both as examples of the Japanese language's dexterity and possibilities, and also as indications of how language and its usage can almost telekinetically connect to actual human responses, as well as link to those real emotional states of consideration that affect how one chooses to look at life as it was lived.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


AMERICAN GRAFFITI is now so far in the past as a movie that it's mere presence as a film has become a familiar, even innocuous emblem of the very kind of nostalgia it so helped to celebrate. We take it for granted. Yet considered again, it still seems darkly daring, ostensibly celebrating a carefree time in everyone's collective past, but constantly reminding itself and the viewer that this too shall pass.

Set in '62, released in '73, George Lucas's second feature film looked fondly back on an era that was barely a decade in the past, but with hippies and free love and the Vietnam War in the interim, those ten years might as well have been one hundred or more. And now nostalgia as a force in TV and cinema has become so commonplace that it's hard to remember a time when the tone and style of this film wasn't perpetually with us. Yet AMERICAN GRAFFITI, in a very real way, created the way that we look at the past, at least cinematically, and on closer inspection, what's surprising is how dark the film's centre actually remains, its freewheeling tone constantly uprooted and shadowed by the uncertain future that awaits everyone once this night finally decides to be done.

Four friends -- the nerd, the student body president, the honor-scholarship academic, and the local street-racing thug -- wander around their small city during the evening before some of them will leave town. Heading on to colleg -- or not?  Not much of a plot. More than enough.

Everyone trying to hook up with girls, or break up with girls, or cruisng around simply in search of some girls. A constant parade of Fifties and Sixties tunes serving as the soundtrack, the local DJ WolfMan Jack in a way our omniscient narrator. Storylines intersecting and colliding,crosscutting from scene to scene in much the same manner that Lucas would do in the first STAR WARS, four years to come. The suspense pretty much pertains to: Will Ronny Howard go away to university, or stay here at home with his girlfriend? Can Richard Dreyfuss put away his fears of the future long enough to hop on the plane that will take him to college? The night is mostly one of prank-making and leavetaking, hooking up and chilling out, all underscred by the decisions that will have to be made by morning's first light. The frivolosness hiding everything.

As fun as it is, as light as it is, as rollicking and adolescent as the events of the film prove to be, there also exists a simultaneous world of impending adult issues and regret that looms over almost every scene. When Dreyfuss pops out of the gymnasium of his old school to share a smoke with his former teacher, the instructor teases some mild sexual innuendos to the giggling girls he chats with, then tells Dreyfuss that he too once left town, but only for a semester, he couldn't quite cut it. We then see another female co-ed awkwardly tell the teach that she needs to have a word with him, and there is the palpable sense that this dude is a creep and a perv. Just outside the exit-door of the good-time innocence of this homecoming dance, where young boys and girls harmlessly bop and get down, there's another, darker engagement going on, tentative and hushed.

Other adults in the film -- from stick-in-the-mud high school teachers, to a sloppy drunk shambling into the liquor store, to a sleazy car salesman, to authoritarian cops, to the clueless game-centre manager and his Moose-Hall friend who do not  seem to get that their currently being robbed, to the elderly couple who watch Terry The Toad violently  heave his booze, all seem vaguely buffoonish and clueless, existing in another, simultaneously existing world that has no place in the rollicking uncertainty that our lead characters dwell in; they have no fears or fun, are already dumbly rooted in place.

Then there's John, the drag-racer, who right from the beginning is already not quite buying into the supposed nostalgic glow of this film. He mourns how happening the strip was only a few years in the past, how the chicks were better looking; he later mentions how he can't stand all this new beach music; he worries that he's no longer number one on the strip. Everything is not what it once was. Even in the midst of the movie's nostalgia, there are those currently longing for yet another shot at the past. In one of the film's best, quietest scenes, he wanders around an abandoned junkyard with Mackenzie Phillips, his geeky teenage companion, and for one of the few times in the movie, there's no music at all, just some softly blowing wind, and the darkened husk of those cars visible in the shadows, as John mentions a few of those who've been killed in drag races, and how close he himself come in the past to checking out of this life. It's a short, stark scene, and one that makes even more thematic sense when we finally get to see the last title card on the screen.

For it's this sudden,moving ending that puts everything in this film into its proper place. And, having seen the film once, when you watch it again, the whole movie takes on this rather sad and gloomy disposition amidst all the ensuing horseplay. After barely surviving a drag race featuring our hero John and a young Harrison Ford, as the wide morning sky finally makes itself felt, Cindy Williams rushes into the arms of her on-and-off boyfriend Ron Howard, who vows that he won't leave her behind, not now or ever. John worries that he had almost lost the race from the start, but Terry reassures him that he's still The Man, to which John reluctantly agrees. They all say good-by to Richard Dreyfuss at the airport, who's boarding the plane that will take him to college, away for good from this godforsaken place which he can barely let go of. Howard tells him that he'll join him next year, but we all know the deal. All the collective threads of the film quickly come together and tie themselves up.

As the plane takes off, Dreyfuss glances out of the window and spots far down below the white car that just might contain the dream-girl he's been searching for throughout the whole film -- the beautiful blonde goddess who he's followed all down the night, who he convinced Wolfman Jack to dedicate a song to, who that very morning talked to him on the pay phone and told him that she'd be cruising the strip again the next night, she could meet up with him then. She represents a dream a vision, what he wants but can't have. (And, tellingly, earlier in the film, the head of the Pharaohs, the gang that pseudo-kidnaps Dreyfuss, indicates that he knows the chick, and she's just s a prostitute -- a possibility which Dreyfuss does not want to even consider, that what we most long for could be had for a quick buck.) Just as the illusion of the all-knowing DJ was revealed to be as something as basic and pedestrian as a funny beareded man in a back room sucking down popsicles, so, too, is this girl in the car something else that must be disembodied, and finally just left behind.

I could go on and on about the plainspoken yet evocative visuals of the film, its gorgeous compositions as cars on the move (and the make) cruise to and fro, its dynamic colour schemes, its mixing of background sounds and conversations that augment and enhance the real sense of a town coming alive in the night, but it's that final image that keeps bopping into my brain, the one that features high school photos of each of our leads, with short text informing us that one of them went missing in 'Nam, and another died in a car crash, and another now sells insurance in Modesto, and another is a writer in Canada. It never fails to get to me, those words.

We've just spent a hell of a long night with these folks, and suddenly, it's over, and we learn that the drag race is dead, and the nerd somewhere lost in Vietnam, the student body president is a square, and the intellectual probably a draft dodger. It's the real world, the adult world, essentially annhilating most of the dogged romanticism that had been so carefully rendered. All in a less-than-thirty-second bluntness of an ending. It's what makes the movie, this ending, this abrupt transition from Dreyfuss staring out of the airplane window at the sun to the plainspoken reality of what they would all come to be, as we witness the airplane itself as a mere speck in the sky. It's extraordinarily sad, and surprising, and it's the honest brutality of this ending, in stark counterpoint with everything that we've just seen, that made this film stand out in my teens as a harbinger and warning of what adult life might someday mean.

And whenever I think on this conclusion (which is more often than I should), it makes me remember a night when I was fifteen, in Myrtle Beach, hanging out with a bunch of strangers that we met from Port Perry, Ontario, a gaggle of Canadian kids goofing around down in the States on Spring Break, and we stayed up most of the night in somebody's room, laughing about silly shit, and I knew then that none of us would probably ever hang out again in that way, that, if we were lucky, we would just remember it at some point in the future as simply another fun night from our youth, one where the clear sound of the ocean waves lapping the shore seemed to get ever harder to hear as the morning crept close.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015


Sometimes you read a book for one reaon before being confronted with another. That Japanese paperback I mentioned a few posts back, the one where the dude is trying to convince his audience of the moral superiority of the Japanese people to their Chinese and Korean Asian counterparts, took a momentarily odd turn when the author revealed at the start of a chapter that he happened to be the first cousin of Ms.Yoko Ooo.

Ah. Hm. Okay. He went on to explain that her beau, John Lennon, was a diligent student of Japanese, and that his favourite word was 'okagesamade', which roughly translates as 'thanks to you', used when you want to convey a notion of gratitude to an individual or gorup (or quite often, it seems, to some invisibly generic group of societal benefactors). Above and beyond this little bizarre textual interruption of familial connections, I found it curious that, similar to most other Japanese publications, Yoko Ono's name was written in katakana, the script usually used for foreign words that have been transformed into Japanese. Japanese names are usually written using the Chinese characters of kanji, which makes it doubly odd to see a famous Japanese name rendered in such a a 'foreign' way.

So what's the deal here?

A few years ago in Japan, browsing around a bookstore in the boonies with a Japanese supervisor, I noticed for the first time that Yoko Ono's name, in the title of a book, was rendered in katakana. I asked my boss why this was so, given that she was not only Japanese, but from a rather prominent family at that. My supervisor looked puzzled, muttering words to the effect of: "Well, she left Japan a long time ago."

I understood that many Japanese who live abroad for most of their lives are often culturally ostracized (to varying degrees of exclusion), which I could sort of understand, given that it's hard to stay prominent in a group-oriented culture when you're away for so long from the hub of that group, but I couldn't quite figure out why that should result in one's very name being depicted in characters usually chosen for distinctly foreign concepts.

I didn't get that much of an answer, and it's a phenomenon that I've occasionally noticed now and then in the Japanese media. Kazuo Ishiguro, for example, noted literary author of REMAINS OF THE DAY and WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS, also has his name depicted in katakana, despite his Japanese roots (and very Japanese name). However, he left Japan by the age of seven, was raised in England, speaks little Japanese, and cannot read or write it at all. That his name is not written in Chinese characters sort of makes sense, since he is truly, for all intents and purposes, a foreigner. And sometimes in the Japanese press katakana can be used as a stylistic device, to look 'cool' or 'offbeat', but such an advertisint gimmick is usually limited to pop stars or facile media 'idols'. So what's the deal with Yoko?

Maybe it's because, long ago, decades ago even, Yoko Ono became much larger than her roots, even exceeding internationally her own esteemed clan. As a romantic partner of one of the Beatles, who were, and remain, extraordinarily popular in Japan, she sort of transcended the noble family background that she emerged from, and as voluntary exile in America for decades, the media must have at one point decided that she was jow less of an ordinary Japanese person, and more like a symbol, a representative of a particular time and its mores.

In that context, from that point of view, abandoning her kanji makes some sort of sense. 'Yoko Ono' is a familiar enough Japanese name -- both the first name and surname are not all that uncommon -- but written in katakana, her name takes on a heightened, even eccentric flavour, a traditional Japanese moniker is now depicted in a script that accenuates the foreign flavour of her life.

That's what I'm guessing, anyways. Pure spitballing. I actually don't have a clue if I'm right. It' simply fascinating, to me, that the very nature of the Japanese language contains the innate capacity to alter the visual means by which one's own given name comes across in its linguistic form. Katakana, a phonetic script crafted to deal with the influx of foreign words from afar a few centuries ago, is not nearly as old as kanji, whose history dates back to ancient China, but it still strikes me as bizarre that the language can readily be adapted to alter the most basic representation of one's own self-expression. English as a language doesn't have such mutant powers.

And this whole discussion (or monlogue?) came about purely because of an anecdotal offshoot in the book that I'm reading. It's strictly tangential to the author's main thesis, but I'm gradually learning, and appreciating, that it's the backroads and dead-ends of life that allow one to stop and assess.

Monday, February 09, 2015


I was alternately moved and fascinated throughout the first few hundred pages of 2009's WHERE MEN WIN GLORY, Jon Krakauer's account of former NFL player-turned-solider Pat Tillman's bright life and sad death, but it was the description of his friendly-fire killing itself that combined those two feelings into a sick kind of weight. Not only was Tillman instantly shot dead by multiple rounds of close fire by his own fellow men, but his brain was literally ejected from his crumpled cranium, leaving the rest of his face looking like a withered ballon. To read a passage like that, after examining, in detail, the life of an actual person who held fast to his own brand of honour, made me actuely realize once again that life plays no favourites in the rewards it hands out. The book is simultaneously a biography of the man and a chronicle of the American military involvement in two wars of dubious choice and we see through these pages the means by which the most personal aspects of one's character can combine with the indifferent goals of larger states than ourselves.

Pat Tillman gave up a lucrative career in the National Football League to sign away three years of his life as an Army Ranger, and the book examines not only the arc of his life, but also parallels his upbringing with the American army's multiple escapades in Afghanistan and Iraq. Narratively, such an alternating style of approach adds a gathering sense of impending doom, each non-descript example of a California boy's suburban upbringing quickly counterbalanced by an examination of Soviet and C.I.A. policy in dusty Middle Eastern backwaters. Even as we see his personal and professional success, we also know what darkness with come.

Tillman was a fireplug of a kid who learned life-lessons early on, serving a short period of jail-time for beating up a fellow high-schooler soon before graduation. He ended up playing football in university, despite his small frame, and earned a place on the Arizona Cardinals professional NFL team, drafted in the low-rounds. A few years later, when his talent had increased, his playmaking skills fortified, he received an offer from another team for over nine million dollars, but Tillman turned down such a lucrative contract, remaining loyal to the team that had chosen him when he was an unknown, even though his salary would be little more than five hundred grand. As an observer points out, no professional athlete has ever turned down such a shitload of coin out of his own sense of loyalty. Such uncommon adherence to principals was a harbinger of the kind of integrity that would lead him to quit professional football to join the military soon after 9-11.

That the book charts his familial and professional life contemporaneously with American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq is a quiet masterstroke of storytelling, letting us as readers witness how real-world political events inevitably coincide with the humans they affect from afar. Such a technique also allows us to see the political terrian that Tillman grew up in, the archetypal Americana atmosphere of bravado and pride that enabled him through the crucible of sports to concoct his own kind of morality that would eventually do himself in.

Despite his voluntary decision to enter the army, Tillman was not some blind patriot, and his own journals, retrieved after his death, let the reader know almost every step of the way his personal struggle to reconicle his chosen miltary path. Quoting Emerson and Thoreau and Homer, Tillman seeks to assure himself that he's done the right thing, that his individuality is justified and upheld. Upon joining the military, he's rather disheartened to discover that his fellow soldiers are mostly nienteen year-old fuck ups. It's not what he thought it was supposed to be. After war is declared in Iraq, he wonders just what the hell he's doing there, what their occuption of that country is truly all about. We see a man who has made a decision, who sticks with it, who still believes in a kind of martial honour that enables him to act patriotically -- but we also read, through his own words, his critiques of the miliatry, its pettiness and pointlessness. Ultimately serving in Afghanistan, which is a little more palatable to his sense of justice, he eventually emerges as someone who is glad he has served, but boy does he want to get home for good.

Which he doesn't. Killed by friendly fire, the book does a remarkable job of showing how, for over two months after his death, the American military brass did everything in its power to prop him up in death as a national martyr, lying to his family and the country about how he truly met his end. We can see a military-industrial complex that does not practice what it preaches, that does not honour its own codes, that is willing to forgo common decency for the sake of wartime p.r. The final fifty pages of the book plainly demonstrate the ultimate irony of Tillman's death -- that this patriot who grew up believing in the values embedded in him by his family and country, who refused all media interviews when joing the army, who struggled to do the right thing in a cause he did not precisely believe in, was ultimately used as a pawn by the very forces he so longed to uphold. The indignities his physical and spiritual self suffered after death are both banal and disgusting in their bureucratic contempt.

One doesn't have to believe in Tillman's (or his country's) cause to gain a feel for the man, and a sense of  regret for the pointlessness of his death. The book gives us the detailed upbringing of an American boy who strove to uphold the (supposed) virtues of his country, only to have the institutions that he fought for and died for twist those ideals into slick propoganda.

Near the end of the book, Krakaeur quotes a fellow soldier who helped carry Tillman's corpse in a bodybag from his death-site in the mountains of Afghanistan. At one point, the body sort of falls completely in half, its upper and lower parts diassembling, making the whole thing pretty hard to carry as one. Something like that, anyways. The details have left me. I almost had to put the book down right there. Such a physically descriptive detail tends to stick in one's craw. Only pages before, I was reading one actual man's own private words about his increasing urge to escape the squabble of combat and make the long way back to his wife, and now I learn that the body behind those longings kind of squished in on itself and basically oozed apart. This book's overarching themes -- namely, for me, the grand ambitions of war, and the fiercely (or bored) nationalistic soldiers who pursue moral worth in its name -- came tangibly clear to me in that scene, and kudos to Krakauer for including such awful and actual examples of what can come to pass in this life.  


JUPITER ASCENDING feels like the Wachowskis remade THE MATRIX in space for the Young Adult Market. Especially for girls. This is not a bad thing. It's just a thing. Not my kind of thing, necessarily, but I don't mind that I saw it. It's bright and shiny, with some fantastically intricate chase sequences, state-of-the-art special effects, the whole gleaming shebang. Watch it on a big screen, if you do. Just don't expect anything radically new, unless you happen to be a pre-teen under ten. It could rock you a little, considering.

In a recent interview with, the Wachowskis raised a very good point that illustrates their ambition in regards to this film. Aside from sequels and remakes and prequels and video-game and novel adaptations, why hasn't there been, other than AVATAR, any original world-building in American cinema? 9-11, rhat's why, according to these two sibling writer-directors. People want what's familiar, and it takes a whole lot of mental energy to invest in something cinematic that's novel and ntricate.

It's a notion I hadn't thought of before, and I almost buy it, but I don't think JUPITER ASCENDING necessarily is that 'new thing' that we need. Mostly because, as slickly entertaining and eye-popping as it is, it also feels like a highlight-reel or medley of SF hits of the past. You have a crew right out of STAR TREK, and cityscapes and creatures cribbed from THE PHANTOM MENACE, and plot twists that harken to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and British-accented space-officials from the deck of the Death Star, and intergalactic family dynamics that echo feuds found in Marvel's THOR films, and a central story of an unsuspecting heroine's awakening to her own dynamic importance that feels like it's lifted right out of the heart of THE MATRIX. (Also made by the Wachowskis.) So what we get is not necessarily something new in the leat; in fact, it's familiar enough to feel pretty safe.

Yet, perhaps I'm being too harsh. Similar to THE HUNGER GAMES, this could be a benign gateway drug for young girls just getting into SF. It might serve to instigate discussion of the genre's brighter lights. The Eighties, after all, gave us TRON and THE LAST STARFIGHTER, and FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR and STAR WARS, and probably a dozen other films I"m forgetting that featured young males in the lead diligently derring-do. All of these recent SF/Fantasy films navigating a teenage heroine at the centre of the narratives who must wield great responsibility to unearth their trule role is kind of a twist on a tradtionally male realm of enchantment. That they're nothing new for us all doesn't necessarily mean there's nothing new in them for some.

JUPITER ASCENDING has a scale and ambition, visually, that makes it worth watching, with amiable performancess (and the requistie great-baddie scene-chewing), and there's some intriguing notions of Earth history in connection to other-worldly black-markets that make the story unfold with varying degrees of suspense and amusement. For a science-fiction fan above the age of, say, twenty-two, there's probably not much here other than its effects that will cause you to geek out in astonished glee, but for a girl who's just starting to like exactly this kind of stuff, it might make her chatter all the way home in the backseat of the car as she looks up at the moon that races right alongside her night's ride.

Saturday, February 07, 2015


For my Japanese-language study, I'll sometimes purposely choose a non-fiction book that looks kind of kooky. The one I'm currently meandering my through now at my own erratic, not-quite-understanding-much-of-anything pace, has a title that roughly translates as: "Why Is That The Chinese And Koreans Have No Heart?" There's a glut in the market recently of books attempting to explain why China  is so angry at Japan, and why Korea is furious with Japan, and why both of those countries know nothing about recent history, and why the whole 'comfort women' -- i.e. 'sex slaves' -- issue is truly a red herring, and this book that I'm reading  is one of those type of strange deals. And, not unexpectedly, it's all kinds of odd.

I think the Japanese language itelf, and the way that it's assembled into readable, understandable, fundamentally narrative forms, allows for a lot more digressions and side-routes than English permits. You're supposed to be a little vague, and somewhat off-kilter, leaving the reader to infer what real point is being made. The result, however, usually in non-fiction books, is that you can find yourself early on in the text traveling down some pretty funky back-raods.

For some reason or other this particular author, a sprightly seventy-nine year old by the name of Hideak Kaze, has decided that one of his opening chapters should be utilized to point out the moral deficiencies of the Chinese by way of their food. Yes, that's right -- their fucking food. I'm neither an expert in cooking or the Japanese language, but his arguments seem to imply that the way the food is prepared is proof of their moral weakeness. 'As one would expect,' he writes, 'the difference between the Japanese and Chinese culture in food is also because of the difference in their spiritual cultures.' He goes on to point out that just as their food is heavy and gaudy in its preparation and taste, so, too, are the people rather loud-mouthed and obvious in their everyday conversations.

The entire enterprise of the book is so obviously racist and bizarre right from the get-go, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that a chapter on food turns into an investigation of morals, but I think the fact that I actually laughed out loud at a few of his ideas has to do with a larger issue, a deeper one, the notion that it's very easy in Asia, even expected, to group people completely together by dint of their homeland.

In Canada, or America, or England, we're used to multi-cultrualism, and while ethnic groups themselves are acknowledged to have their own special quirks, there's still an overarching nationalism that (in theory) tends to link us all up. In Asia, nationality is directly tied (for the most part) to ethnicity -- meaning, you can pull out your brush and paint in broad strokes about an entire country's people as representative not only of the state, but of their own intrinsic bloodline.

For it's blood that matters over here, the liquid origins of one's self. (I just about shit my pants the first time I went to get a video-card  in Japan when, on the application form, they asked me for my blood type. When I told them I didn't know, this resulted in a few confused minutes of bewildered consultation between staff, before the manager agreed I could still become a member.) You can diss an entire culture's cooking, and, by doing so, you're slamming not only the state as a force, but all the people within who make up its ever bleeding heart. Blood rules in Asia.

I can't imagine a pseudo-academic book designed for popular consumption in the West entitled: "Why The French And Germans Have No Heart' -- especially if, like this writer, you studied at Yale and Columbia Universities, and worked for the Encylopedia Britanica Corporation! -- but perhaps there's an underlying assumption in Japan that everyone (meaning non-Japanese) is truly different, so a writer can get away with such xenophobic intentions. Or maybe this book issimply more on the far-right fringe of nuttiness than I'm willing to admit.

I don't know. I do know that I'm curious to see where this book goes from here. If Hideaki Kaze firmly believes in his wizened old age that a country's cooking is truly a source of its spiritual acumen, I can only imagine what other bizarre suppositions he's waiting to expose in the next two hundred pages when it comes to Korea. The notion of the 'other' will always take us to places extreme in ourselves.

Friday, February 06, 2015

Atom Egoyan's THE CAPTIVE

 Atom Egoyan's recent movie THE CAPTIVE makes him feel even more like himself. It got shredded and mocked by the critics last year during its premiere at Cannes, yet, for me, the film is in its own way a throwback to Egoyan's triumphant run of the Nineties, where movies like THE ADJUSTER and EXOTICA illustrated what an unusual sensibility he can bring to the Canadian screen. Of his past decade-and-a-half of movies, the only ones I haven't seen are ARATAT or ADORATION, but I'm probably pretty safe in saying that, with THE CAPTIVE, snooty-Cannes-critics aside, he seems more in tune with his own peculiar obsessions than we've seen in some time.

There is nothing particularly original about a story involving the disappearance or death of a child -- indeed, this is the third time that Egoyan's dealt with this topic, after THE SWEET HEREAFTER and last year's DEVIL'S KNOT -- but there's a brew going on here that feels suitably off-kilter and tart, a nicely aesthetic confusion for one's touchy palate. Somebody should, if they haven't already, write a Master' thesis about 'detachment' and 'abstraction' in the films of Egoyan (and his Canadian-cinema older brother, David Cronenberg), because there's a distancing to his stuff that, when it works, only adds to the notions of unsettlement that he's continually trying to provoke.

In brief, this movie is a domestic drama, overlapped with a police procedural, then seasoned with whatever the fuck Egoyan's always going on about regarding our voyeuristic impulses -- a favourite obsession of his, one whose inclusion here feels odd and distracting, yet hey, that's the pont. (I think.) Like in Cronenberg's films, there's an abiding weirdness at work that you can never quite figure out. The acting and pacing sometimes seems off, but you can't put your finger on why; the dialogue, as spoken, is either stilted or spot-on; the story either too vague, or perpetually right on the button. Egoyan's either always not trying enough, or simply too hard, and often both efforts emerge at the same time. It's hard to make sense of what he wants us to think.

As it should be. This is the proper combination for him, this uncertain mixture of tones. It makes it impossible to discern if the movie is exactly working, per se, but more and more as I age I don't want a movie to work -- I want it to breathe. Sometimes those gasps of breath might be muted, even suffocated, and at other times they might emerge as a rough sort of bark, but it's that uneasy exhaltation of air that his films at their best bring that makes me sit up straight.

There's much to admire in some of his more 'mainstream' films, but I like Egoyan best when you're never quite sure if he knows just what the hell he's up to. You can almost feel him trying stuff out, artistically, searching for the proper tone, sometimes even in the same scene. There's a moment three-quarters of the way through THE CAPTIVE that seems like it would be a definite game-changer, narratively-speaking, in terms of where the plot has to go -- but nothing comes of it. Never mentioned again. I don't know if a subsequent scene was left out of the final edit, or if Egoyan never intended to follow-up on those implications. Its omission was a real head-scratcher for me, but then I just thought: "Well, it's Egoyan -- he's funny that way."

I wasn't sure what I'd just seen, or why it was there in the first place, but on a deeper filmic and philosophical level, his films have always been obsessed with the nature of observation itself. Why do we watch what we do? What do we get out of it? What happens when we're not watching?

This film is filled with people looking at screens, or through windows or windshields, watching cars coming or going, or else they're simply studying each other, trying to suss out intentions, The cumulative effect kind of got to me near the end, and I had a curious sensation I haven't had in some time while watching a film; I started to get uncomfortable with me as a viewer (and person?) watching them do all this watching. I don't know if Egoyan had this effect in mind, but he sure put in mine.

Another aspect of the film that I loved (which is admittedly personal), was that it was great to see Canada play itself, to see Niagara Falls and Ontario feature so prominently as a character, the winter weather a part of the narrative turf of the story. Rarely do Canadians get to see their own stuff on the screen, and to see this familiar terrain of my youth paired with Egoyan's own creepy aesthetic provided a welcome frission that augmented its creep. Add in a crew of prominent Canadain actors -- Ryan Reynolds, Scott Speedman, and Egoyan stalwart Bruce Greenwood -- and the movie itself felt more 'Canadian' as a result.

Is there truly anything 'Canadian' about THE CAPTIVE? I would say yes, in that its entry-point into an ostensibly 'thriller' narrative is subdued in comparison to what a mainstream American approach would look like. Egoyan gives us perpetually-jovial Ryan Reyolds, but saps him of all the pretty-boy charm and flippant jokes that he's made his whole career out of; he upends any suspense by interjecting scenes designed soley to set up moods of discontent -- in the characters, and probably the viewers, too. There are gobs of emotion scattered throughout the movie, but everybody's trying to suppress, to not reveal their own passions, and for mild-mannered Canucks, what's more Canadian than that?

Again, I don't know if the film 'works, and I can sort of get why nobody at Cannes gave it much of a go, it being at times subdued and lurid, over-the-top and plain dull, an amalgamation of pseudo-European arthouse ambitions with genre-picture suspense, but Egoyan's films have always included, at their core, a dispassionate and clinical vibe that seems to examine humans with a reserved mode of detachment, and it's this emotional disconnect that's often going on that paradoxically drew me in here. (This film is about how we end up watching each other, and why, for what means, and because no character truly allows anybody else in, why should I as the viewer receive a free pass? ) Even when the characters are full of quiet rage and despair, we're somehow not emotionally allowed to truly synch up with their pain, as if as a director Egoyan's always saying 'just wait'.

THE CAPTIVE awkwardly, yet doggedly, builds on the previous themes of Egoyan, and to what end I'm not sure, but the very last shot of the film ended up moving me just a bit,,unexpectedly so, and I wondered why, exactly, and if it was even supposed to be meant as sentimental, or was I just reading it wrong. As the screen cut to black, leaving me with those lingering questions, I eventually mentally shrugged, thinking: "Hey, it's Egoyan." It was good to think that thought, and mean it. It's been awhile.


Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng's novel THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS is as delicate and comfortingly elegaic as its tile, even as it deals with the most terrifying and lingering elements of nationality and memory, war and forgiveness. Narrated by a recently retired female judge, a strong-willed Malay of Chinese descent, the book has the kind of warmth and generosity, openness and tenderness that often seemingly emerges from only women writers, and so I was a little stunned, after finishing, to discover that the author was, in fact, a man. (Go figure.) There's this kind of traditionally feminine spirit he's tapped, a feeling of forgiveness, that bleeds through the whole book, and an approach to detail that illuminates its grand and troubled themes.

Tormented by aphasia, a neurological condition which means that one can sometimes no longer make sense of alphabetical letters on the page, the narrator commits to put pen to pater while she still can, remebering in detail her disturbing years as a teen -- a time that was spent in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, after which she struck up an unlikely friendship (are there any other kinds?) with a Japanese gardener who stayed in Malaysia past the end of the war, and who also, long ago, had worked in the gardens of the Emperor of Japan. What follows is a narrative that painfully tries to explore how we can forgive and forget -- which makes it sound maudlin and mediocre, the stuff of a thousand clunkly memoris, but the subtle grace of the prosem and the soul-killing pain of these events, combine in an artistic elixir that soothes as it stings.

Eng uses his main character and her Japanese friend as metaphors for what many Asian countries have  had to grapple with since the end of that war -- namely, how do you move on and reconcile the irreconcilable? Issues of war-time forgiveness and inter-nation animosity would have held no interest for me, at all, fifteen years ago, but living in Japan, Cambodia and the Philippines has sort of sensitized (or at the very least interested) me to these kinds of issues.

Japan, China and Korea are swept up in a kind of perpetually antagonistic state of eternal sniping; the idea of 'saving face' is fucking huge in Asia, and no country wants to give in, or even appear that might be doing so. China and Korea have not forgiven Japan for its wartime atrocities; Japan does not seem to educate its young people well about all the shit that went down. All sides, at least in my view, have points worthy of contention. Yes, Japan, in many respects, has done a piss-poor job of reconciling with its war-time imperial ambitions. (However, Japan is also such a group-think environment that those who have done legitimate research into what actually went down are not usually guaranteed the widest of audiences.) Yet China and Korea will not let anything go. Do England and France contine tu shut out Germany due to the sins of the past? No. They've moved ahead. Because what other choice do we have? We're talking about events that occurred almost a century ago. At a certain point, one has to move on.

Yet, inside of these intensely political and national(istic) arguments reside actual people and their tangible pain. THE GARDEN OF EVENING MISTS does a good job of illustrating the complexity of moral capitulation. Can you truly befriend a person from a country who has inflicted such harm? Can we trust what anyone says? What do we owe to our fellow citizens, to strangers, to the past? And what should we give to our own furture?

These are all important, but rather ephemeral topics to establish any real narrative grounding, but Eng creates a portrait of a Malaysia post World War II in which these ideas are populated by real characters in pain. If you know a little bit about the Emperor of Japan, or Japanese gardening, or the Chinese in Malaya, or wartime history, you'll be more than intrigued, but you don't need to know much to get something from this book. There is a steady, even abiding sense of sorrow that percolates through every page and its prose. This can, admittedly, sometimes get a bit tiresome; how many descriptions of mountains and insects and the sun slowly setting does one need to read in a single story?

Then you glance again at the title, at the quiet pulse of place invoked by those simple words, and you realize, or at least I did, that sometimes the way best way to approach the human heart and its endless emotional and historical offshoots is through suggestion itself, a slight sketch here and there.

Monday, February 02, 2015


(slight spoilers below)

Is AMERICAN SNIPER amoral? Immoral? A give-me-a-fucking-break ode to bullshit American military jingoism, or a measured and accurate portrait of a soldier at war? Given all the online hoopla over the thing, and its incredibly successful run at the box-office, I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was hoping it would be a kind of a Rorschach test of a film, letting us observe, then report, on what we think we just saw. That's pretty much what I found, and in the spirit of that approach, I'll let you know what I think, but if the film is doing its job, you should feel something else.

Chris Kyle, Bradley Cooper's character, occupies almost every frame of the film, and it's only through the tight little world of this self that we witness the events of  his life. From a father teaching his son how to hunt, to dinner-table lectures on manhood requirements, to Sunday sermons at church, to outrage over terrorist acts against America glimpsed on cable TV news, to fierce Navy Seal training, quickly followed by the rigors of war punctuated by homefront tension, it's clearly (and solely) Chris Kyle's view of war that we follow, one that we necessarily judge as we must.

There are films that endorse and advocate their particular views of its subjects. (BIRDMAN comes to mind; you do get the tangible sense with that movie that the filmmakers involved do not take the most favorable of views towards the super-hero culture that has transformed cinema.) Is AMERICAN SNIPER one of those flicks? You tell me.

What I saw was a war movie, told from a particularly American point of view, about one man's immersion in the fiercely brutal ways of his duty. We don't see any war protesters, or Iraqi characters independent of the American occupation. There is an Iraqi sniper who is at least as good at his brutal craft as his American counterpart, but we get no sense of his political aims, his homelife, his inner life. All the Iraqis are either targets, or potential ones. This is Chris Kyle's world. We're watching it with him. Feeling it with him. When his wife complains that he's not there for his family, he barely seems to understand what she's getting at; when his soldier-brother in Iraq says to 'fuck this place', Kyle's bewildered reaction illustrates how myopic his sense of the war has truly been. After one of his fellow soldiers expresses futility at the whole point of the war, and after this same soldier's widow, at his funeral, reads a letter he wrote wondering when all this need for 'glory' would end, Kyle doesn't seem to take in what such an emotional protest is about. Or does he? Eventually, he too, tires of war, is ready to go home, does not want to fire at another child who is picking up a weapon of his own. This doesn't stop Kyle from later teaching his own son how to hunt, which, for some viewers, could be proof that all of this violence he's inflicted hasn't meant much at all. Or, for others, it might mean that Kyle is simply carrying on the noble tradition that he's upheld throughout the course of his life, teaching manly virtues via the way of the gun. Yet this is Kyle's story, period. How you regard that depends.

This may not be enough for some people. What about the families of the one hundred and fifty people he killed? Don't they deserve a voice? Haven't their deaths earned a response to this one-sided look at that terrible war? They certainly have. Yet this film is about that man. About what war does to an American who finds notions of virtue and honor in military endeavours. You could ask, and maybe rightly so: Who gives a shit about the oh-poor-me, maudlin inner moaning of a man who ruthlessly kills for a living? And by merely depicting such an experience, giving it a visual voice, does it not automatically imply sympathy with his cause?

I'm not so sure. We are observing here. If you view the American military and its adjuncts as a noble, even spiritual effort to protect and safeguard the citizens it claims to represent, this movie, from first scene to last, could be read as a realistic look at exactly what it takes to become what a soldier is supposed to embody. There are emotional side-effects to the process, yet a dignity still endures. However, if you think the whole military-industrial complex that's insinuated its way into American life is a dehumanizing brainwash of a farce that enlists people with low-education and minimal awareness of the complexity of international events, well, that's all on display here. Every scene shows us how this particularly American military male is gradually grown and dismantled; each development in the story can be read as cowardly and pathetic, or heroic and ennobling, depending on what you, as a viewer, bring to its artifice.

It's interesting that the film bookends itself with the main character's attempts at portraying cowboys. Chris Kyle admittedly couldn't cut it as a real one, as we watch him in the beginning getting thrown off a bucking bronco at a rodeo, so he joins the military as another way to man up. In his final scene of the film, he mockingly pretends to be an old-time cowboy with his wife at their home, complete with a fake-sherrif's badge and Old West style six-shooter. Begging the question: Does anything ever change, in the character or the country? In the character of the country? Clint Eastwood, the filmmaker, formerly Clint Eastwood, the quintessential cowboy, now showing us an American male who can never let that part of himself go, no matter what hell he's been through? What's Eastwood, the director of such thoughtful war dramas as FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, trying to say here about the nature of his countrymen? This John-Wayne-bravado, embodied by Kyle, is either the best of American might and virtue, or a stunted kind of sick growth. That this playful, inherently adolescent cowboy-trait in him continues to endure at the end of the film, just as it was present at the very beginning, can be read as Eastwood insisting that no real lessons have been learned in the least, or else it could also be viewed as a steadfastly moral kind of courage maintained and extended. Cooper's portrayal gives us the man as he is, and we have to have the honesty bring to this film our own selves as we are.

Again, I think you can be both conservative or liberal (or a bit of a mixture of both), and come away from this film either very impressed or appalled, with multiple reasons to back up your point of view. It has the complexity of moral art to me. Everybody's watching the same movie, but the subject of war, and Americans at war, allows us to enter into the confines of this narrative with our own emotional and political baggage.

By even deigning to show the emotional conflicts of an American soldier, isn't one trivializing his multitude of murders? By depicting his domestic disturbances, isn't Eastwood simply dramatizing a reality that's ignorant of the real damage that's been done due to the actions of this man and his family that we're watching suffer? That each scene carries with it these inbuilt contradictions allows a portrait of a man to be painted that enables the viewer to decide for himself what tints and hues to acknowledge.

There's a dramatic clarity to each scene that paradoxically enables ambiguity to puff up. I believed Bradley Cooper was macho and heartfelt and suffering and prideful. I don't necessarily think those feelings are warranted or noble, admirable or proper for the real man he's portraying, but, as a viewer, one can observe and understand a character's experience without deeming it 'moral' or 'right'. There's a deceptively generous latitude to this whole movie's ambiguity-by-sheer-observation aesthetic that I feel has been overlooked by all sides in their rush to proclaim political loyalties.

This idea is never more present than in the final moments of the film, where reality intrudes into this dramatic narrative. The end-credit sequences features what looks like home-video footage of real-life events, and one could argue that it's the ultimate example of flag-waving American nonsense, hero-worship of a moron of a man who did nothing but kill. (And kill, and kill, and kill, and kill, and kill.) The celebratory glorification of a maniac who destroyed hundreds of non-American lives. You're entitled to that view. Hell, I might even agree with most of it. Yet I watched that final sequence, and I mostly thought to myself: "Yes, this sure is how some Americans tend to celebrate their fallen soldiers." It is what it is. (And this sudden reversion to the more primitive feel of video footage allows the audience to subtly see once again how the concept of 'heroism' is sneakily transmitted and transformed by by televisual means.)

Is Eastwood glory-worshipping here? Metaphorically (and literally) pumping the music up just a little too much? Giving one final, emotional outlet for gullible observers taken in by this tale to tear up and indulge in rah-rah military overkill? Or is such a scene simply a given, an authentic reality, the final photographing of how his countrymen emotionally react to those soldiers who have fought and died in their names? To not depict it at all would be to omit the real stuff of life. I looked at all of those American flags hung over highway viaducts, and watched oversized pictures of the actual Chris Kyle proudly displayed at his memorial service, and, while I won't speak for you, or how these particular scenes might make you feel, I can tell you what I fundamentally thought, as I did for much of the movie, as I did when figuring out how to approach this character as a man, which was something approaching neutral, something primarily observational, a refrain that sounds something like: In the world according to Chris Kyle, this is most likely what happened.