Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Carsick: John Waters Hitchikes Across America

Nobody symbolizes the American Dream better than John Waters.  I’m sure I’ve said that before, but every time he makes a new movie, publishes a new book, or heads out on a new tour, I think it bears repeating.  Waters has managed to turn his perverse obsessions into semi-fame and semi-fortune.  At the time it would have been unimaginable that the guy who made Desperate Living or Female Trouble would ever sniff mainstream success. Waters has managed this feat without ever compromising or “selling out”.  In fact he seems to be getting more randy with age.  From his last film, A Dirty Shame, to his previous book Role Models, to his latest book Carsick, the tawdry tales keep getting more graphic.

The conceit of Carsick is pretty great.  Waters decides to hitchhike from Baltimore to San Francisco and document the proceedings in a book.  Carsick is divided into 3 parts; a novella where the idealized version of his trip plays out, a novella where his nightmare trip unfolds, and the final version based on what really happened.

The two novellas are pure Waters.  The novellas’ chapters recount each fictitious ride he receives along the way, and they play out like classic scenes from his movies.  In his “good ride” novella, Waters partakes in a bank robbery, becomes a sideshow freak at a hipster carnival filled with malfunctioning rides, reconnects with Edith Massey, and has a sexual encounter while in the passenger seat of a car in a demolition derby.  At 66 years of age, Waters still revels in shedding light on the weirdest subcultures and fetishes.  At one point he gets a ride from an “alternative librarian” distributing obscure genres of literature such as “womb raiders”.  “Are you familiar with that genre?” the librarian asks.  Waters replies, “You mean women who tell their husbands they’re pregnant when they’re not and then follow real pregnant ones, kill them, cut out their babies and take them home claiming they’ve just given birth.”  Carsick is a real joyride, let me tell you.

The brilliance of Carsick is that if you listed the characters he meets in the “good ride” version of his trip alongside the miscreants he meets in the “bad ride” version of the trip, you’d be hard pressed to figure out which people belonged to which novella.  Everybody seems like a renegade from a Pink Flamingos universe.  In the nightmare novella, his past literally comes back to haunt him. In one case, a killer he has made fun of in Shock Value is back from the dead, picking him up for a ride, and out to seek her revenge. It’s fun to watch Waters’ discomfort as he tangles with some of these fantastic creations.  

Waters’ actual hitchhiking experience is a far cry from either of his novellas.  The drama and tension revolve around mundane hitchhiking concerns.  Will he get a ride?  Will it stop raining? Will he have to sleep in the bushes?  Will he ever get out of Kansas? Waters seems humbled by the experience and comes across as grateful for every ride he receives.  Sometimes he’s recognized and sometimes he’s not, but he is actually coming into contact with big parts of America that he has never dared step foot in.  He shops at a Walmart, dines at Ruby Tuesday’s, and meets people he would otherwise never come into contact with.  It may not be as dramatic as the offerings in his novella, but dare I say, it’s sweet. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Now, Voyager by Olive Higgins Prouty

I can’t get enough of the Femmes Fatales book series on Feminist Press.  They’ve been reissuing classic noir novels from female writers.  I’ve started with the books that were adapted into films.  In A Lonely Place was haunting.  Bunny Lake Is Missing was dripping with gas light paranoia.  In many respects Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now, Voyager is a departure from those first two titles.  It’s not really a noir at all, but a classic 40s romance.  The book follows Charlotte Vale, a spinster aunt who embarks on a European cruise after a stint in a sanitarium where she was recovering from a nervous breakdown.  Courtesy of her caring sister-in-law, Charlotte has a new wardrobe and a new hairdo. Over the course of the cruise she starts to regain her lost-confidence, in large part due to her dalliance with the henpecked JD Durrance. There’s honesty to their blossoming romance.  Durrance has also suffered from a breakdown in his recent past and his married life is a shambles.  Now, Voyager’s strength comes from watching our two leads crawl from the wreckage of their lives, trying to find a place for themselves amidst a world that hasn’t been kind to them.  To be sure, Now, Voyager has some dark underpinnings. Their romance seems doomed due to Durrance’s marital status, and the threat of emotional relapse gives the novel a sense of disquiet, particularly once the cruise ends and each must return to their formerly lonely lives.  The first half of the book is a carefree escapade that gives way to the book’s second half and it’s more mundane realities.  It wasn’t part of my summer plan, but, hey, I just read a summer romance novel!

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Remains Of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Having just read a couple of pot-boilers and more modern pop-cultural novels, I was hankering for something with more of a classic feel and reached for Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.  I loved the subtle, teen sci-fi direction of Never Let Me Go, and was intrigued by Remains.  The novel is set in the 50s, the era when England’s great houses are coming to a close.  The book follows the manor’s head butler, Mr. Stevens, as he takes a road trip through the English countryside. Over the course of the trip he reflects back on his life of service to his employer, Lord Darlington.  Though at times a little slow, Remains of the Day manages to have an impact. Mr. Stevens is a fascinating case study of a life measured by one’s service to another.  Steven’s has placed a premium on his unwavering service to Lord Darlington and the running of the manor. As the book unfolds however, it becomes evident that his Lord ended up on the wrong side of history during WWII, with a dubious political track record.  Though Stevens can be proud of his life and the way he carried himself, his life increasingly looks a bit of a sham for his slavish dedication and apologies for a Lord who has not held up his part of the social contract.   Moreover, it’s clear Steven’s has made many personal and emotional sacrifices to maintain his standing as a top butler.  Given his Lord’s shaming fall from grace, coupled by the collapse of the whole manor system, there’s no way to avoid feeling a tinge of melancholy for Stevens and the life he lead.

I imagine this is a must read for anyone enamored with Downton Abbey.  I must admit that my reading of The Remains of the Day was informed by Downton, which sadly, informs the majority of my knowledge on that slice of English history.  

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

When I was young, I loved scary books.  I even remember being home alone one afternoon while reading Amityville Horror, and being so scared that I had to go sit in my mom’s car in the driveway to finish a chapter.  My fascination with horror was relatively short lived, but in the past year, I’ve picked up a handful of titles veering toward horror, gothic, and the supernatural.  Doctor Sleep (Stephen King), Night Film (Marisha Pessl), Prayer (Philip Kerr), We Have Always Lived In The Castle (Shirley Jackson).  It’s been fun.  With that in mind, I took a stab at Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane.  It’s a short tale about a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown for a funeral.  To escape the family for a bit, he wanders to the end of the lane where, by chance, he runs into an old acquaintance. Long forgotten memories of his childhood come flooding back. The bulk of the book takes place within those memories, where, as a 7 year old, he is imperiled by a shadow world that is using his body as a doorway into our world. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is quite moody, though not particularly frightening.  Amazon tells me that it’s geared toward adults, but to me it feels like it’s geared toward the young adult market.  I’ve got no problem with that because Gaiman is an excellent writer and the novel flows along quite nicely. For me the highlight was the frame story.  His middle-aged interactions within the adult world and his grappling with fragmented memories of his past rang true and strong with just the right amount of sadness and melancholy.

Monday, July 14, 2014

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

I just finished tearing through People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, a fascinating true crime read. The book recounts the case of Lucie Blackman, a twenty-one year old British woman who moves to Japan to become a hostess at a club in Tokyo. The book dives into the world of the Japanese “water trades”—the range of nightlife establishments, from refined to grubby, that cater to sexual exploration.  Blackman disappears a short time later, swallowed up by the Tokyo underworld, and Parry follows the case. People Who Eat Darkness is a great read, giving a glimpse into Lucie’s motivations for taking on such work in Japan. 

The book also spends considerable time exploring the trauma that her family and friends undergo as they search for Lucie in a foreign country with vastly different customs than their own.  As an American, one of the most compelling elements of the book is the insight into the Japanese criminal justice system. The path that the investigation takes and how the subsequent trial plays out are a far cry from how such a case would be handled in America or Western Europe.  People Who Eat Darkness was truly eye-opening on many levels.  Highly recommended.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Lime Twig by John Hawkes

As a college professor, I expose my students to a lot of culture (films, music, books, art).  From time to time, a plucky student insists that I must read a book or see a particular movie.  I’m glad to oblige, if it doesn’t involve too much of a time suck.  Recently, one student insisted that I read John Hawkes’ The Lime Twig.  He went as far as to procure it from the library for me. I’d read Hawkes’ Second Skin when I was in college, liked it enough, plus The Lime Twig was only 170 pages, so I was in.  

No question Hawkes is an excellent writer, laying out beautiful passages and turns of phrase.  The Lime Twig sets quite a mood amidst the desperate class of horse racing folk and petty criminals in post war England.  The Lime Twig is a caper about a stolen horse and the criminals and hangers on trying to get a piece of the action. For chunks of the novel however, the narrative is bit too opaque. Character motivations are often fuzzy and it’s hard to discern what’s driving the main characters.  Ultimately, I was left with beautiful scenes, but I’m not sure I always cared.  As I get older, I’ve become a little less enamored by experimental lit and novels that seem to go out of their way to hide the story.  An easy enough and intriguing read, but at times, unnecessarily frustrating.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Monuments Men

I approached The Monuments Men with a bit of trepidation.  I’m not the hugest fan of George Clooney, the director.  I love the politics of his films.  I love the intentions of his films, yet I don’t love the films.  To me they’ve come across as a bit preachy without the cinematic chops.

That said, I looked forward to a war movie about art and the importance of art in society an culture.  What’s not to like about that premise?  Ultimately, The Monuments Men experience was an odd one.  Am I glad I saw the movie?  I guess I am.  The story, about an international troop of artists and art scholars trying to save European classics from the hands of the Nazis was not a story I was familiar with.  I learned a lot.  But the movie?  Oy, what a mess. 

It was a movie that could not figure out what it wanted to be.  The tone and tenor of the piece was all over the map.  A plucky, feel-good 50s war movie? A witty, rapacious comedy a la MASH?  An emotional, Spielbergian drama?   It was a real mish-mash of styles that sadly never found its footing.

The editing was equally sloppy. There was lots of narrative confusion. In the big picture, characters are spread out over Europe on certain missions, yet they continually rendezvous and meet up.  As a viewer there’s no sense of timeline.  Did those missions take days, weeks?  Why do they reconvene only to spread back out again?  Was there a purpose to the rendezvous other than to have all the stars back together again?   And many individual scenes also seemed devoid of finesse, leaving potentially dramatic scenes flat and uninspired. I don’t want to hand out any spoilers, but one particular scene that was poorly handled was a scene in which a main character dies.  I’ll only say that there was basic narrative confusion as to the set up of the death, the circumstances of the death, and ultimately no drama to the death. 

The film was devoid of tension, which is just not acceptable for a war movie.  There should have been tension.  The Nazi occupation of France, the Nazi retreat and their scorched earth policy, the brewing showdown between the Americans and the Russian, death on the battlefield.   All those plot points are broached in the movie, but none seemed particularly urgent.  

A frustrating film to be sure.  At the end of the day, I felt like I often do when I see well-intentioned docs that aren’t well put together.  I’m glad I saw it, but I just wish there was more art in the filmmaking.