Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Note On The Impeachment Of Abraham Lincoln (Carter) And Shake Off (Hiller)


I make, try to, a distinction in fiction between writing and literature, whether what's written can be called literary. (If I had to articulate what comprises literary I think I could but it wouldn't be immediately easy.) So John Grisham's is writing, nothing wrong with it, and George V. Higgins's is literature. 

Anyway, I a little while ago finished Tom Wolfe's 700 page+ Back To Blood and I judge it literary, very literary. And I finished Stephen L. Carter's earnest 500+ The Impeachment Of Abraham Lincoln, which I judge to be writing. 

There's a clear intelligence, sincere, prodigious effort and much research behind Carter's story, and the impeachment trial itself is excellently done--maybe the best thing in the book--adroit, precise, and knowing, as a representation of that kind of legal proceeding, Carter being a Yale law prof. And there is a good idea running through the book, the complexity of history at any given time as opposed to our tendency to hagiography for revered figures like Lincoln.

But the writing is stodgy to the point of stiffness. By their manner of speaking, the characters are indistinct from each other. There is virtually no point of view layered into the omniscient narration. The characters are so weighed down by the formality of their speaking that they lose any semblance of flesh and blood reality. The novel has no voice, any possibility for which drowns in the artificiality of the prose.

But then again I just finished a shorter literary book I highly recommend, Shake Off by Mischa Hiller, about a Palestinian operative who lost his family in the Shatila massacre. From the first sentence on, a distinct literary voice presents itself. The writing is spare yet evocative, perfectly informal with sensitive first person consciousness  about colloquiality as fits the character. There is here too a great deal of background knowledge, particularly about spycraft, but there's nothing laboured or imposed about how it's woven into the narrative. 

I don't want to say much about this literary novel for fear of giving anything away. But I will say that underlying the increasingly hectic pace of events and relationships is the brilliant deployment of the theme that, I'd argue,  inheres in all, or virtually all, literary novels, the theme of self discovery, of identity, of coming to terms with who, how and what one is. 

I hit on this novel by sheer good fortune on a deep dive into a remainder bin. Hiller was totally unknown to me. No longer.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Notes On The Revenant


Spoilers: The Revenant, which we saw today.

1: I have some thoughts about the movie's ending and penultimate ending.  Where some complain about them, I think they work and have a forming sense of their implication. If anyone wants to talk about it, I'd be all ears, and, then, some mouth.

2: I've read critics complain about, among other things: 

a. the ambiguity in Glass's quest: is it driven by a deep instinct and desire to survive; or is it driven by a desire for revenge? My view is that this concern is overly binary and the two need not be split apart or prioritized. They are aspects of each other here.

b. there is no character development in Glass; he's the same man at the end as he is when he starts. I have two thoughts about this: one, where is it written a character has to change? That's an ungrounded prescription; two, I'd argue he does change, he is different at the end than he is in the beginning. God is either a big fat squirrel one can feast on. Or God is some kind of an overarching and supervening mystery in all things. "Vengeance is God's," Glass is told and learns. To my mind he acts out that lesson in his final bloody confrontation with Fitzgerald. 

c. the story of the movie is too simple, the movie is too long for such a simple, one dimensional tale. This criticism may be the most obtuse of all. Again, the demand for plot complexity is ungroundedly prescriptive, as is the assertion of a necessary relation between complexity and narrative length. As well how can anyone possibly think the narrative is too simple? The intersecting linear development of the plot strands belie any such claim as do the constantly shifting events Glass experiences. This criticism conflates the elemental with the overly simple.

d. via Richard Brody, the films effects are, in effect, effects, contrived or superimposed and without organic film life, all pressed into the service of the director wanting to fill in his view of this world and the world, which include a whole series of "issues." Here, I have the sharpest opposition to any of the criticisms I've mentioned. The constantly shifting images of the landscape, of nature itself, of the weather, all at times inhumanly savage and brutal, at all at times beautiful and beneficent seem to me to be cinematically alive and thematically perfect even as I continue to try to understand the full meaning of this great movie's theme.

e. the movie's ending is unsatisfying, too incomplete, too ambiguous. I can understand this concern but don't agree with it. I found not so much mystery and ambiguity in the ending  but rather the fulfilled completion of Glass's quest, his finding some just resolution of the meaning of his life, given the facts of it, and his place amidst all things both at hand and beyond him, which *may be* to say, in the movie's terms, his relation to God as this movie has Him.

Two final thoughts or questions:

How to say what vision of the world emerges from this movie, which is to ask: what is its theme, its metaphysics? Not so readily easy to work out and answer. But I think I have some inklings. 

And, what does "the willing suspension of disbelief" mean, if it's not simply a hoary cliche, in relation to this movie? We agree within ourselves to give in to the story *as if* it were real. But as we watch it, as I watched it, I at the same time was consumed by it even as here and there I registered some doubt and disbelief about this or that. I'm not sure why, but this particular movie, which I thought was great on seeing it, and which I think even more of as I think about it, raises the strange mental dialectic of ongoing immersion and occasional disbelief all at the same time.