Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Children of the Corn (1984)

One night a long time ago, my Dad and I sat down to watch a film called Village of the Damned. From the moment I first saw the creepy kids, I knew this film was going to terrify me and so I got up to leave the room. My dad stopped me and said, “You should stay and watch the film because what you can imagine will be far more frightening than the actual film.” I thought about it for a moment and decided that what he said made sense and so I stayed. Big mistake. It was very sweet of my dad to give me so much credit, but there is NO WAY I could have imagined so much terror! I didn’t sleep for two weeks. This is all by way of explaining why it took me so long to watch Children of the Corn, the 1984 film adaptation of Stephen King’s short story. I had expected it to be filled with frightening children and I had no wish to repeat that viewing experience from my childhood. It turned out that I had nothing to worry about, partly because the film would be more accurately titled The Young Adults of the Corn. As we all know, blond-haired alien kids are exponentially more terrifying than rural Nebraskan juvenile delinquents in pseudo-Amish garb. The acting is sub-par at best and the special effects are, well, not very special. It just goes to show that nothing can substitute for atmosphere and understatement—if only more film directors today would get that message. And just in case you’re wondering, no, I still haven’t watched Village of the Damned again!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Sherlock, The Empty Hearse

I never thought I would miss Moriarty (or to be more precise, the rather annoying actor who played him) but that’s exactly how I felt after watching 'The Empty Hearse,' the first episode in Season 3 of SherlockThe competition between the great detective and his nemesis gave the earlier episodes a focus and without that, I felt that this episode was entirely too pleased with itself. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has always had a high opinion of himself, of course, but in this episode he was positively smug and I couldn’t help but feel that the show itself succumbed to the same smugness, so pleased with its own success that it couldn’t be bothered to come up with a decent plot (a subway car filled with explosives under the Houses of Parliament on Guy Fawkes night? Really?) or to develop the character of Lord Moran AT ALL. Moreover, although on the whole I like the changes that this show makes to the original source material, there’s no getting away from the fact that it gets the relationship between Holmes and Watson all wrong. Anyone who’s read ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’ knows that Watson is delighted when Holmes returns. The hissy fit that Sherlock’s Watson throws may be understandable in some ways but it takes too much attention away from the story (what there is of it) and places too much emphasis on the friendship between Sherlock and John. Please, please, please do not let this show become a bromance!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure

Can I be perfectly honest? Halfway through Gary Shteyngart's memoir, Little Failure, I realized that I much preferred his novels. The wildness of the comic imagination that defines his fiction was largely missing here, even though this book is often very funny (as we might expect from one of the funniest writers working today). And in case you think comparing fiction and memoir is like comparing apples and oranges (which of course it is, at least to some extent) I should mention that one of the things the reader who is familiar with Shteyngart's novels takes away from Little Failure is something we suspected all along, namely, that he is the ultimate subject of his fiction and he has mined his own life extensively for raw materials that he sometimes transforms and sometimes hardly changes at all. Consequently, a feeling of déjà vu haunts the reader until we get to the parts of Shteyngart's life that are not covered in as much detail in his fiction: his time at Oberlin College, his life after graduation, and how he got started as a writer. He treats these times with the same combination of self-effacing humor and uncomfortable honesty that defines the book as a whole, but he saves the best for last. The book concludes with a description of a trip back to St. Petersburg, the city of his birth, that Shteyngart took with his parents in 2011. It's at this point that one realizes that Little Failure, again like his fiction, has always been as much about his parents and his relationship with them as it is about Shteyngart. That balance between humor and pathos, that wonderful ability to write about emotions, above all love, without sentimentality that appears so often in his fiction works to great effect here. As this interview indicates, Little Failure was a huge success and it will hopefully bring even more readers to his fiction. Will this success spoil the 'little failure' Shteyngart? That's the first question I'll ask him when I meet him later this month.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

In many respects, Gary Shteyngart’s third novel, Super Sad True Love Storyis very similar to The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan. Once again, Shteyngart’s main protagonist, Lenny Abramov, is a nebbish who seems pitifully underequipped to deal with the world around him. As with his earlier novels, Shteyngart describes that world with what has become his trademark combination of exaggerated humor, absurdity, and biting political satire, a combination that often threatens to exceed the author’s control, but which he in fact pulls off beautifully. And once more, the novel is something of a bildungsroman, as the protagonist, who in many ways is painfully immature (despite being in his late 30s), struggles to grow up and achieve a measure of success, independence, and happiness. With all this said, there are a couple of aspects of this novel that make it a major departure for Shteyngart. For example, locating the novel in a near future where America has been reduced to a virtual subsidiary of China, the only global superpower left on the planet, allows the potential targets of Shteyngart’s satire to grow exponentially: consumerism, our addiction to networked information, the way that information defines who we are and how we relate to other people, the dominance of global corporations, the violence that underpins social order, and our overweening narcissism all come in for their fair share of criticism.Typically for the incurably romantic Shteyngart, the one potential bulwark against the escalating chaos that he portrays so vividly might seem to be love, but this is where he makes another major innovation in his writing. In his previous novels, Shteyngart’s protagonists hog the entire stage in first person narratives that reduce everyone else (even their love interests) to bit parts. In Super Sad, however, Lenny must share the stage with Eunice Park, his Korean girlfriend, as the novel alternates between Lenny’s diary entries and Eunice’s social media outpourings to her friends and family. This gives the reader a distance from the male protagonist that Shteyngart's other novels do not possess (or not to the same extent), thus lending a very interesting new dimension to his work. Some readers may feel that Shteyngart is more successful at realizing one character than the other (no prizes for guessing which!), but doubling the narrative voice in this way makes this novel, at least for this reader, the most enjoyable and ambitious undertaking of Shteyngart’s career thus far.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Jackie Chan, Dragon Lord

Jackie Chan’s 1982 Hong Kong martial arts movie Dragon Lord is strictly for the aficionados. When it works, Chan’s trademark blend of comedy and action is a welcome change from the overheated melodrama of Bruce Lee, but the comedy elements of this film are so puerile as to be embarrassing. There are a couple of stand-out fight sequences, as you might expect, and fans looking for a transition film between Chan’s early kung fu comedies and his later action-oriented movies might find it interesting. On the whole, though, this film is memorable for two pieces of movie nerd trivia: the opening scene (involving a pyramid fight) set a new world record for the number of takes needed for a single scene (2900!!) and this is the first of Chan’s films to feature a ‘blooper reel’ at the end (an idea Chan supposedly took from The Cannonball Run). The trailer features some interesting behind the scenes glimpses of Chan at work.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan

One of my favorite moments in Gary Shteyngart’s second novel, Absurdistan (2006), comes when he makes fun of himself and his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook: “Let me give you an idea of this Jerry Shteynfarb. He had been a schoolmate of mine at Accidental College, a perfectly Americanized Russian émigré (he came to the States as a seven-year-old) who managed to use his dubious Russian credentials to rise through the ranks of the Accidental creative writing department and to sleep with half the campus in the process. After graduation, he made good on his threat to write a novel, a sad little dirge about his immigrant life, which seems to me the luckiest kind of life imaginable. I think it was called The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job or something of the sort. The Americans, naturally, lapped it up.” The joke is funny partly because the two novels have so much in common: a schlemiel as a protagonist; over-the-top humor; larger-than-life characters, and an obsessive concern with the various meanings of Jewishness in both multicultural America and a thoroughly globalized 21st century. With all this said, there are significant differences between the two novels, too. Whereas the subject of Shteyngart’s first novel was, to a large extent, America, and its problematic and overdetermined embrace of the immigrant, this novel’s protagonist, Misha Vainberg, is in a state of exile from the United States, even though he yearns to return. Given this fact, the type of fictional central Asian republic that formed only part of the setting of Debutante’s is front and center in this novel. Through the titular Absurdistan, Shteyngart conveys his complex feelings about Russia, his country of origin, the experience of displacement from both one’s home and adopted cultures, and the murky depths of realpolitik, a subject that is explored with an uneasy combination of pathos and comedy. I say ‘uneasy,’ because initially the move from comedy to violence, as the situation in Absurdistan worsens rapidly, seems awkward and jarring. But this is where the concept of ‘absurdity’ does such important work for Shteyngart and it’s in this respect that I kept thinking of Chester Himes as I was reading Absurdistan. Although they’re very different writers, both use absurdity to achieve similar ends: to combine comedy and violence in such a way that their readers can feel what it means to be buffeted by history and randomness in a way that’s both tragic and ridiculous at the same time. It’s this paradoxical combination of emotions that Shteyngart makes his own.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Sarah Weinman (ed), Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

Sarah Weinman’s anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read in years and an absolute must-read for anyone interested in mystery and suspense fiction. Featuring stories by Charlotte Armstrong, Barbara Callahan,Vera Caspary, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Miriam Allen DeFord, Celia Fremlin, Joyce Harrington, Patricia Highsmith, Elisabeth Saxnay Holding, Dorothy B. Hughes, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Millar, Helen Nielsen, and Nedra Tyre, the book focuses on tales originally published between the 1940s and 1970s that are all examples of domestic suspense, i.e., stories that are located in that liminal space between the two extremes of the hard-boiled and the cozy mystery. Weinman’s introduction explains why this type of mystery has fallen from favor, and their reappearance in print is truly a cause for celebration. You’ll find neither private eyes nor female investigators of the Miss Marple type here. Instead, we’re presented with a range of young, middle-aged, and older women (Weinman makes a fascinating decision to order the stories by the age of their protagonist) who all confront examples of violence and conflict, sometimes as witness, sometimes as victim, sometimes as perpetrator, and sometimes as a mixture of all the above. The composite picture that emerges of women’s lives that most other writers would regard as too trivial to write about is gloriously complex in its ambiguity, ambivalence, and open-endedness. Never has the quotidian appeared more vividly than in this collection. Highlights for me included Patricia Highsmith’s first published story, “The Heroine” which demonstrates just how good she was right from the beginning of her career, and “The Purple Shroud,” by Joyce Harrington, a writer I’m embarrassed to say I had never read before but whose work I will be seeking out immediately. And that is another of the pleasures of this book: it opens up a new world of reading even for those who consider themselves aficionados of suspense fiction. We are all in Sarah Weinman’s debt and she is to be congratulated on a magnificent achievement.