Saturday, February 28, 2015

Marek Krajewski, 'Death in Breslau' (1999)

Marek Krajewski makes good use of his professional training in linguistics and classics in Death in Breslau, the first in a series of novels featuring police detective Eberhard Mock. In Death, Mock has to find a way to work with Nazi officials as he tries to solve a bizarre double murder involving scorpions, strange inscriptions written in blood, and a revenge plot stretching back over seven centuries. The details of the complicated plot unfold gradually and satisfyingly over the course of the novel and also involve an Oedipal subplot that, remarkably, feels entirely unforced. But what really distinguishes this novel is its atmosphere (Breslau and its inhabitants are some of its most interesting characters) and its protagonist. Mock is well-named in the sense that in many ways he makes a mockery of any notion of professional ethics or honor. Although he is good at his job, he is best of all at protecting his own interests, even if that means sacrificing others. And yet, there remains something deeply appealing about his fatalism, something that is doubtless thrown into sharp relief by the context of a Nazi-dominated Europe sliding slowly into the horror of the World War II era. Given that context, the self-serving decisions and compromises Mock makes seem less heinous by comparison. For whatever reason, Mock’s survival feels like a kind of triumph, even though it’s purchased at a high price.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Michael Dirda, On Conan Doyle (2012)

This might be a controversial thing to say about a book that won a coveted ‘Edgar’ award from the Mystery Writers of America, but On Conan Doyle, by Michael Dirda, the long-time book critic for the Washington Post, is a bit of a mixed bag. Its strengths include its opening section, when Dirda memorably recreates the first time he ever read Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles as a child and there is much in this vein in the rest of the book about that most unfashionable of subjects, the love of reading. As a celebration of that love, On Conan Doyle works, and it’s just as valuable in encouraging its reader to look beyond the Holmes stories and novels and take in the rest of Doyle’s broad oeuvre. This is important not only because Dirda writes convincingly of the strengths of Doyle’s short fiction, his historical novels, his memoir, and so on, but also because Doyle himself felt (correctly) that Holmes’ success overshadowed his other achievements as an author. Where Dirda stumbles is when he discusses at (too) great length his participation in the Baker Street Irregulars, an illustrious company of Holmes fans to which he is obviously very honored to belong, as he should be. The problem is that Dirda’s pride at being a member of the club is not infectious and his lengthy descriptions of the group’s social events are self-indulgent and tedious, as is his reproduction of some of the (not very funny) writing he’s done for the Irregulars. Boyish enthusiasm can be charming in a boy, but in a man…not so much. Set that section of the book aside, however, and On Conan Doyle is a very interesting addition to Sherlockiana. 

Guy Boothby, A Prince of Swindlers (1900/2015)

Penguin has just republished Guy Boothby’s 1900 novel A Prince of Swindlers and it’s a must-read for fans of Victorian crime fiction and E.W. Hornung’s Raffles stories in particular. Boothby’s protagonist is Simon Carne, who we first meet living in India but who then moves to London, where he commits a series of daring and outrageous thefts from members of London’s high society. There’s an element of social critique in this conceit, in the sense that Boothby presents the nobility as profoundly gullible and, to all intents and purposes, defenseless against Carne’s charm, his ability to disguise himself, and his meticulous and detailed planning. At the same time, Boothby makes it difficult for his reader to romanticize Carne as a Robin Hood figure, because he is so clearly out for himself. While the plots lack the elegance and ingenuity of Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes stories, Boothby is clearly indebted to Doyle’s archetypal amateur detective for inspiration, and there is a nice element of self-reflexivity in the fact that one of Carne’s disguises is ‘Klimo,’ an eccentric private detective who investigates one of the crimes that Carne himself has committed! This reprint edition also comes with a very useful introduction from Gary Hoppenstand, who points out, among other things, the continuing appeal of the ‘gentleman thief’ figure in today’s popular culture.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Babadook (2014)

The Babadook is one of the most powerful and moving films that I’ve seen in years. It tells the story of Amelia, a woman whose husband was killed in a car crash as they were on their way to the hospital to give birth to their first child. Seven years later, she’s a single parent to her son Samuel but it’s clear that she has not recovered from the trauma of her partner’s death. Moreover, she feels deeply conflicted about having to devote her life to parenting Samuel, who has a number of behavioral problems. When Samuel starts complaining that the Babadook, a monster from one of his picture books, is living in the house and tormenting him, Amelia naturally dismisses his fears as a child’s delusion, but as the film progresses, she finds it more and more difficult to deny that the Babdook is real and wants to hurt them. At this point, director Jennifer Kent makes a very important decision that makes The Babdook so much more than a good genre film. Rather than filling the film with hi-tech special effects and thus producing a standard ‘creature feature’ horror film, Kent keeps the Babadook defiantly lo-fi, a product more of the increasingly unhinged imagination of Amelia than a ‘real’ monster. Although the film is genuinely frightening, our fear comes not from sudden jump cuts, copious amounts of gore, or vividly outlandish monsters, but from a close-up and unflinching look at the psychological torment that the lead characters have to endure. Consequently, although the exact meaning of the Babadook remains a matter for debate (and this is one of the film’s many strengths), for me at least it came to symbolize Amelia’s grief, a grief that she has denied for years and thus has never come to terms with, and which is threatening to destroy her life and her relationship with her son. The resolution of the film, in this reading, signals Amelia’s ability to finally mourn the loss of her husband and move on. Crucially, however, this does NOT mean killing the monster: the Babadook still lives, but it is confined to the basement of the house (i.e., the subconscious and/or the past) and although it still needs to be acknowledged, it has lost the destructive ascendancy that it had earlier in the film. The Babadook thus develops a number of complex ideas about the nature of emotional attachments, the difficulties of (single) parenting, as well as death, grief, loss, and memory. But none of this would make the film work in and of itself were it not for the two extraordinary performances that bring these themes to life: Essie Davis as Amelia and Noah Wiseman as Samuel are both amazing and their on-screen relationship is the most miraculous thing about this wonderful film. On a personal note, I also want to say that, as the son of a mother who struggled with depression throughout her life, and was often emotionally abusive, The Babadook made an even stronger impression on me than it might on others, not least because (and I know this sounds like a strange thing to say about this film) it is so true to life.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Berberian Sound Studio is that rarest and most delightful of things: a genuinely original movie. Directed by Peter Strickland, it features the excellent Toby Jones in the lead role as a sound engineer who travels to an Italian film studio to work on what is clearly a horror movie, although the director objects vehemently to that label. Part of the film's strength comes from the fact that we never see a single frame of the film that is being made and that Jones is working on; appropriately, we only hear it. This gives the viewer a lot of freedom to imagine what has been filmed, especially if one is familiar with the Italian giallo tradition of horror film that Berberian is clearly referencing. I hesitate to call it an homage to the giallo, however, precisely because Strickland's film is gore-free (and for that reason might disappoint a certain kind of horror fan). What we are treated to instead is a subtler kind of violence that pervades the whole film and the film-making process, seen most explicitly in the interactions between those who are in control of the making of the film (all men) and their exploited employees (all women). At first, Jones' character seems excluded from this dynamic, partly by virtue of his Britishness and partly because he has never worked on this kind of film before. As the film progresses, however, Jones becomes gradually infected by the atmosphere of violence that not only soaks the atmosphere of the studio but also seems capable of altering the nature of reality (for example, towards the end of the film, Jones' character begins (without any explanation) speaking Italian fluently). With a sense of helplessness, we watch Jones gradually turn into a kind of monster who is as willing and able to torment the women he works with as any of the other men. Most interestingly, Jones' transformation also starts to be reflected in the very texture of the film itself, as scenes repeat, Jones becomes a character in his own film, and the line between reality and illusion becomes ever more blurred. As a reflection on gender roles in horror film, and as a distinctly old-fashioned tribute to and warning about the power of film, Berberian has a lot to offer to viewer who is willing to look beyond the absence of blood.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Under the Skin (2013)

The premise of Under The Skin is simple: an alien visits Earth and preys upon single men. But what director Jonathan Glazer does with this premise is amazingly creative. First, in making the alien female, Glazer inverts the normatively gendered relation between predator and prey that underpins so many other films. Instead of women alone at night signifying as potential victims, now it is men walking alone who are under threat. One might think that casting a glamorous A-list star like Scarlett Johansson as the alien would work against this inversion, and in some ways it does. To the extent that the alien’s victims are so willing to go off with her because of Johansson’s conventional beauty, the film reinforces rather than subverts conventional ideas about sexuality and desire, rather than reworking them. But to leave the analysis there would be unfair to the excellence of Johansson’s acting. She gives an amazingly restrained and controlled performance, saying very little and emoting even less (which is doubtless why she did not win all the awards she deserved for this role). Part of the reason for this technique is to stress that she needs to do very little to ensnare her victims—these men are so cocksure (I choose this term deliberately!) that it never occurs to them that they could be in danger until it is too late. But the main reason Johansson exhibits such a limited range of emotions and facial expressions is to enable us to see our familiar world through the alien’s eyes. Because we receive no cues from the alien about how she is reacting to what she sees, everything familiar is rendered strange, enabling us to see it as if for the first time (although I must say that, as a British ex-pat living in America, I received the images of Glasgow through the lens of nostalgia, and didn’t really experience any estrangement). Were the film to finish here, it would be a very interesting take on some sci-fi conventions (especially as used by Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth) but not much more than that. But then the second part of the film begins, and that’s where Under The Skin becomes something extraordinary. The alien picks up her latest victim, who happens to have a facial neurofibromatosis. As one might expect, Glazer plays with the idea that both of these beings are, in a sense, alienated from the environment around them, but fortunately he does not stop there. After taking this man back to her house, where she has delivered her other victims, something happens to the alien, a shift in consciousness that is never articulated or explained, but that makes her let the man go and stop her search for further victims. At this point of the film, several things become clear: the alien has been accompanied by a motorcyclist from the beginning of the film, who appears to assist her, but who in fact we come to feel is supervising or even controlling her; he captures the man she releases and makes frantic attempts to find (hunt down?) the alien when she walks away from what amounts to her job. We also realize that the alien is, in some ways, as much a victim as the men she has been capturing; ever since the opening scene of the film (we realize retrospectively) she has been unable to exercise any free choice about who she is and what she does, and her attempts to ‘fit in’ to the simultaneously human and utterly alien world in which she finds herself are (sometimes comedically) hopeless. This is where the casting of a female actress in the role of the alien begins to signify differently and even more powerfully. If anyone felt that the inversion of the normatively gendered predator-prey distinction in the first half of the film was a little too tidy and glib, one cannot possibly say the same about the closing section of the film. By the time the alien dies, the phrase ‘under the skin’ has acquired multiple layers of meaning and we are left to process the meaning of what we have just seen. To say all this is only to scratch the surface of this extraordinary film—I haven’t even mentioned its moving and powerful score, and the images that feel like they’ve been burned into your head: the crying toddler on the beach, the point of view shot from one of the victims as the alien walks away above him, the simultaneously comic and tragic instance of coitus interruptus, and most of all, the alien’s last moments as she kneels on the floor of the forest: all of these moments and many more will stay with you long after the film has finished.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Rough Trade (1995)

Dominique Manotti's debut crime novel, Rough Trade (1995, Trans. 2001) is astonishingly assured. A police procedural set in the Sentier district of Paris in 1980, the novel has an almost impossibly complicated plot that, remarkably, does not spoil the book at all, for two reasons: 1. the complexity feels absolutely natural as the police uncover an international plot revolving around drug and arms smuggling that starts with their investigation of the murder of a 12-year-old Thai child prostitute; 2. the pace of the novel never flags. The reader keeps track of the course of the investigation by the way the novel is organized according to calendar entries (stipulating the time, date, and place of each chapter) and this gives us the feeling of moving inexorably through time and space at such a rate that we are content not to have mastery over all the details (after all, the police don't have such mastery!) and instead we hang on and see where the ride will take us. Despite the fact that there is so much going on in the book (there is also a major sub-plot involving the attempts of illegal Turkish garment workers to achieve legal status) Rough never feels too crowded; rather, we feel that the complexity of real life is being honored and represented accurately. The other striking thing about the novel is its complete lack of sentimentality--the police officers are not heroes in the conventional sense (some of them being just as, if not more, flawed than the villains) but the best of them earn our respect for their commitment to the idea of retribution, if not justice. Not surprisingly, the results of their efforts are mixed--some are punished, some get away; some questions are answered, but many are not. But that incompleteness feels just as satisfying as every other part of this novel.