Movies – My Blueberry Nights

‘My Blueberry Nights’ is the first American film to be created by renowned Chinese director Wong Kar Wei, and, while I wouldn’t call it a successful film, I found it to be an interesting and watchable one.

Wong’s earlier films, which are all wonderful in their own particular ways, feature a sense of dark romance, and constant reassessments of the nature of romantic memory. They are also visually singular – whether they follow a single story line (In The Mood For Love, Happy Together), a series of distinct interconnected episodes (Days Of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels) or a constantly shifting abstracted melange of storylines and time periods (2046), they are all art-directed colorfully and meticulously, and few filmakers in the world have his refined sense of frame composition. They’re eye candy with real emotional substance.

I suspect that when Wong took on the challenge of shooting in America, he decided to keep the first film relatively small and modest. His story is a pretty indie-friendly road movie, following a heartbroken neutral protagonist, Elizabeth (the musician Norah Jones) as she leaves New York and a failed relationship behind to try to reconstruct her own self. Along the way she takes various waiting and/or bartending jobs, and encounters other notable characters along the way. At the end, of course, she returns to New York with a new, more confident sense of self and starts anew.

Early on, she pours her forlorn heart out to cafe manager Jude Law, who is amiably philosophical about the transient nature of life and love. It is he who serves her the metaphorical blueberry pie. Law is quite good here – truthfully grounded and unforced. Even after she leaves New York, we intermittently return to Law’s character – she stays in touch with postcards, and we meet Law’s own long-lost love in a nice cameo turn by Cat Power (credited to her real name, Chan Marshall).

In Memphis, Elizabeth (whose waitstaff nametags amusingly alternate as Liz, Beth, Betty, etc. as she travels) meets Arnie Copeland (David Strathairn) – seemingly mild-mannered, even-tempered beat cop by day, and bitter, drunken, self-punishing cuckold by night. He’s pining away for his wife, Sue Lynn (Rachel Weisz), who wanders into the bar from time to time to radiate pheromones at the male clientele and show up the jilted husband she’s separated from. It’s a pretty standard southern potboiler scenario, but it’s saved from outright tiresomeness by the rock-solid naturalistic acting chops of Strathairn, Weisz and veteran character actor Frankie Faison. Weisz’s character, in particular, feels like a contrived escapee from lesser Tennessee Williams, or one of the tawdry southern wives in Arthur Penn / Lillian Hellman’s ‘The Chase’. But she deftly presents the stock character, and the character’s function, while still investing it with some real substance and individuality, especially in a late scene alone with Elizabeth.

In Nevada, Elizabeth meets Leslie (Natalie Portman), a professional gambler with unreliable luck and big issues about self-sufficiency. ‘Garden State’ and ‘V for Vendetta’ are the last things I’ve seen Portman in; it seems a little awkward to compliment Portman on creating a Real Live Grown-Up character, but there it is. Her singular youthfulness is, obviously, a selling point in earlier films, but there’s no trace of eager post-adolescence here. Leslie is a fearless, hard-boiled veteran as a poker player – very Annie Duke. Only later, when dealing with her ailing father, do we see the cracks in her armor.

Each episode is a well-told story in-and-of itself. But Wong struggles with the overall tone. He’s surrendered his customary languid subtlety for a far more forthright sense of narrative and character. It feels like something he’s probably glad to have tried, fumbled at, and learned from. As awkward as his handling of serious Western actors is, he’s obviously given them as much room to move as they might have wanted. As for Norah Jones, she’s no actor, God bless her, but she’s not asked to do much, and she’s an appealing presence. Her function as the connecting through-line from episode to episode is well served, considering it’s a function that Wong hasn’t really felt the need for in his other films.

I find admirable failures to be just as rewarding, in a lot of ways, as genuine successes, and while I recommend this film, I’m not surprised that it may disappear in the next week or so. The summer blockbusters will push it out quickly, and the Saturday night 8:00 screening I attended in Chicago had a total of five people in the theater. But it’ll be on DVD sooner than later, and it’s worth your time.

Otherwise, if you haven’t already, absolutely check out his earlier films, especially ‘Fallen Angels’, ‘In The Mood For Love’ and ‘2046’.

Books – A High Wind in Jamaica

For being written in 1929, ‘A High Wind In Jamaica’ by Richard Hughes exhibits extraordinarily modern ideas of moral proportion and/or ambiguity.

On the surface, it’s a ripping yarn about a family of chidren on a pirate ship. I haven’t seen the film version, featuring Anthony Quinn and a young James Coburn, but I suspect the wind-in-your-hair, salt-spray-on-the-high-seas exhiliaration was emphasized, along with a little “Ooooh, these pesky kids! Get outta the way!” comic relief, tempered by some potentially peligroso sobering moments. Or perhaps that’s unfair – perhaps a reader or two who has seen it can comment further.

Nonetheless, the book is a unique experience. The author narrates in third person, but his perspective is almost entirely from the childrens’ point of view, a limitation he sticks to with a few illuminating exceptions. So, invariably, the events of the story, and their effects on the behavior and feelings of each child, become a slow wash of accumulated details that never really spell out a distinct cause-and-effect narrative. The story isn’t obscured or laborious, but there’s a languid, dreamlike quality to the telling – everything you need to know is there, but you’ll sometimes feel the lightbulb over your head go on pages after a particular fact, idea, or characterization has been expressed.

The Bas-Thornton family lives on an estate in Jamaica, and their interaction with fellow British colonials and the ‘native’ population is amiable. The first few chapters, for me, evoked Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’ – heat, moisture, a sickly sweet overripeness, and an ungraspably sinister interplay of fecundity with decay and death. But Hughes is practical in keeping the overall tone light and eventful. Typhoons, tidal waves, and earthquakes are nonchalantly accepted as risks in this environment, but when a real hurricane and a real earthquake show up, the Bas-Thornton parents decide the children must be removed to England’s safer environs.
In short, the steamer the children embark on is soon set upon by pirates, and the children are taken on board the pirate vessel, almost as an oversight.

The pirates themselves, while apt to indulge in what we might consider pirate-like behavior – drunkenness, partying, and greedy opportunism – are a surprisingly level-headed, businesslike lot. Captain Jonsen and Otto, the first mate, are actually quite deferential to the childrens’ well-being. When Jonson fails to find them a hospitable drop-off in Santa Lucia, he resigns himself to their continued presence on the ship.

What transpires for the children in the course of their on-board existence is the really fascinating part of the story. Obviously, they are in very adult circumstances – not outwardly hostile to the children, but simply beyond their maturity and experience. How they process that, and what they become in the course of that, sets up some pretty rich moral dilemmas. Very adult, morally conflicting stuff happens, around them, to them, and directly because of them. Are they innocently oblivious to it? Are they repressing or blocking out a lot of it? Or is there an instinctive capacity in them to process and/or appreciate some pretty dark ideas – the Sam Peckinpah idea that the potential evil and cruelty of children is boundless? The dreamlike demeanor with which Hughes presents these events and ideas is cumulatively fascinating.

It’s a reasonably quick, long-afternoon kind of read – under 300 pages. Highly recommended.

Books – The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists

Apologies for my absence. I’ll get back in a posting rhythm here shortly. Thanks.

The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell was originally published in 1914, and has a laudable reputation as one of the seminal novels of working-class socialism. But I think another obvious reason it hasn’t been completely forgotten about, or unfairly marginalized for its politics, is that it’s just a really good book about really interesting, identifiable characters.

The book chronicles roughly a year-and-a-half in the lives of a house remodeling crew in a small town in England, Mugsborough (standing in for the author’s actual home, Hastings) – painters, paper-hangers, plasterers, etc. And while the characters, in the beginning, are fairly broadly drawn, with some given cartoonish surnames like Crass, Slyme, Sweater, Grinder, Didlum and Weakling, the accumulation of details within the ongoing lives of these men actually coalesce into a fairly complex, sympathetic and naturalistic portrayal of what their lives were like, and how uncannily similar they are to the lives you and I lead almost 100 years later.

I’ve done a bit of house remodeling myself, and a lot of the same kinds of tasks in different circumstances, so it was easy for me to identify with the mens’ attitudes about their work, and understand as well why, ultimately, no one is entirely about what they do for a living. These men, like a lot of us, live paycheck-to-paycheck, put their families first, and want to rely on the bigger social and political institutions around them to do right by them. They can see some options for making their lives better, some risks that may be worth taking or general attitudes worth adopting, but Tressel is quite eloquent about why they ultimately choose not to, and, in fact, work against their own self-interests. He’s sympathetic to their resistance to change, and acceptance of the status quo, because he understands how pervasively the larger socio-economic system discourages and defeats them.

The men are employed by Rushton and Co., and if Rushton and his immediate managerial cohorts are portrayed as somewhat villainous, he still does a good job of describing what has led to their unpleasant natures. There’s constant competition from the other remodeling companies to underbid each other, and real quality and craftsmanship are understandable casualties for all of them. The crew foremen must pinch, scrimp and save materials to make the low bids profitable, and they doggedly browbeat the workmen to get the most work in the least time for the lowest cost. And Tresell ultimately understands that these aren’t outrightly evil men – it’s just that the system rationalizes these attitudes as eminently practical. It’s nothing personal, just business, when Hunter, the foreman, dismisses a middle-aged worker in the dead of winter for little cause, or orders a coat or two less of paint in a room despite a contract that stipulates otherwise. But they’re all very civic-minded, despite the town being run by a group of ‘brigands’ who shamelessly look to their own personal profits and interests at the expense of the residents. And they all attend church, even though their own religious convictions should actually preclude most of the ways in which they run their lives and treat their fellow man.

Tresell seamlessly weaves his pro-socialist proclivities into the fabric of the larger story – how businesses do what they do because that’s how businesses work. Competition and expediency trump craft and merit. Workers create goods and provide services that they must pay a premium for to enjoy in their own lives. Those who bring in the business to create the production are disproportionately rewarded, while the actual producers are constantly compromised. Tressell uses the character of Frank Owen as a friendly mouthpiece to explain the disadvantages of How Things Are, and how, specifically, socialist attitudes might make things better. He later, smoothly, makes the transition to another workman, Barrington, who cannily illustrates the same concerns from an, ultimately, surprisingly different perspective.

While this may all sound pretty self-righteous and lecture-like, I have to emphasize Tressell’s graciousness and humanity in telling the story and relating the lives thereof. He really finds a balance in keeping his characters believable and compelling, while demonstrating his larger political points throughout. The plot never gets in the way of the story. There are small personal victories and triumphs and tragedies within the working lives of these men. There’s the local pub, there are the workmen’s children and wives, the town meetings, church meetings, elections, romances, betrayals, a company party – Tressell relates an entire, detailed world that’s no different from many aspects of our own lives today.

I know so many people these days whose lives are so similar to the lives paralleled in this book it’s almost scary. Most people I know work fifty and sixty hour weeks, and have trouble saving money and getting ahead without sacrificing time with friends, time with their kids and/or families, have trouble trusting their governments and religious institutions, and resign themselves. That’s just how things are, that’s how businesses, any businesses, have to work to succeed. That’s how I have to work, and keep working, because I’ve got a mortgage, I’ve got kids, I have a lifestyle to maintain. I wanted to help people, I wanted to create beauty, or a helpful product, but business is business and I compromised. Chase buys 100-year-old Bear Stearns for seven cents on the dollar and still needs 30 billion dollars of my tax money to make it worth their while? No problem. The Bush administration creates a mess – put the Democrats in charge of Congress. Nothing changed? Oh well. What did you think would happen?

Every age, every century or decade, is populated, in the broad sense, by people just like us, whether it’s the ancient Middle East or the court of Louis XVI or the colonial America of John Adams or Dickens’ London. And the world of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is just as scary, and daunting, and reassuring and hopeful, as any other great story about Us.

Printings are sporadic, but it’s worth looking for. Highly recommended.