Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Her Last Death


Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg, is a readable, shocking memoir by a daughter about her mother.  This mother's identity revolves around her sexuality--and by extension, so does her daughters' (for Sonnenberg has a sister).  Men, drugs, fashion and a lifestyle filled with the famous, fabulous and well-connected characterize Sonnenberg's upbringing.  Extended vacations in Barbados, where a wealthy grandmother owns a home complete with full staff, long trips to Venice and Paris, fashion and rock shows are all part of the experience.  Sonnenberg's mother, though, is both drug-addicted and ill and has no idea how to parent without ego.  At eight, she takes Susanna to her first gynecology appointment; at twelve she is fitted for a diaphragm.   Dramatic, engaging, manipulative and dishonest, Sonnenberg's mother, and the author's love-hate relationship with her, form the spine of the story.  Sonnenberg's life choices turn her both towards and away from her mother, and her mother's example.  She is behind every move, especially when Sonnenberg has a child of her own.
This book was well-written, and like the author's mother, frequently engaging.  Finally, though, what does such a memoir have to teach us?  I  puzzled over this question again, as I did after reading The Glass Castle a sensational memoir by Jeanette Walls, a tale of a childhood raw with deprivation the hands of extravagantly intelligent, self-absorbed, mentally ill parents. (I consider that last statement as possibly redundant, as being mentally ill is perhaps synonymous with self-absorption.  How else to be when locked in the prison of your own  mind?)  There is certainly a voyeurism, and the pleasure of escape (for those of us with sane parents) and the peculiar pleasure that horror can sometimes bring.  The ethical dimensions of such reading is problematic.  Why am I reading this? Is it to obtain knowledge of another?  If so, is this the sort of knowledge that maybe Levinas would consider a form of violence?*  I think I know something about these authors having read their stories, but what does that mean?  The compulsion to turn the page to in these books is troubling.

Yet perhaps there are insights to be had that are separate from the voyeuristic pleasures of the autobiography.  The writers here are the ones with the most to gain through the homeopathy of the blood-letting, the telling of the trauma.  Sonnenberg's most reflective moments are the most literarily rewarding.  Moving beyond the recitation of her mother's antics and abuses, it is becoming a wife and mother that forces Sonnenberg to distill her experiences and break through into something new.   Recalling a moment in which her mother behaved in a way that was uncharacteristically nuturing, drying her and wrapping her in a towel after a bath, S repeats the scene with her own child, writing  "I stored this gesture....I yielded to an instinct."  Sonnenberg learns how to parent selectively, fighting to find her path.  Instructive here is the consideration of how much we learn from those who raise us and in examining what come to us innately.  Maybe that sort of reflection is what these memoirs have to give.

*I almost resisted the urge to put this in; I am not well-versed in critical theory.  These are questions worth considering, however.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Hunt

The Hunt (Jagten)Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's latest offering is Jagten ("The Hunt"), a meditation on community, trust and  fear.  Kindergarten teacher Lucas, living in the small Danish village where he was born  is accused of sexual abuse of a student, who happens to be the daughter of his best friend.   Fab Danish actors Mads Mikkelsen and Thomas Bo Larsen head up the cast.  Mads Mikkelsen may be one of the most distinctive looking actors on the planet and yet he disappears completely into the role of Lucas.

  Many will remember the infamous McMartin Preschool case from the 1980s in Manhattan Beach, California.  This case resonates with echoes of that, including fictitious subterranean rooms and manipulative psychologists.  This film is not about child abuse, however. Like the McMartin case, it is about hysteria, media manipulation, and much more.  A child's remarks (rooted in a number of things that happen over the course of several days) are heard, expanded upon and then acted on.  The adults here are indicted by their well-meaning, but ultimately unthinking actions. The "hunt" that follows is terrifying in the smallest and largest of senses, as Lucas is presumed guilty, because "children don't lie"; the desire to protect the innocent creates hysteria in the village, as most of the community turns against Lucas in violent and sadly predictable ways.  The tragedy of this is the degree to which Lucas is rooted in this community and the people around him.  His isolation becomes extreme and is contrasted with scenes of domestic harmony during the Christmas season when the action takes place.  The camera moves us in and out of doors, looking through windows and stepping through thresholds with the characters as Lucas moves in and out of his position in this place where he and his family have always lived.  The film is framed by seasons and by actual hunts for venison--a continuous play on the ideas of being bound to time and place.

The Hunt resonates in no small part because it reveals the fragility of the communities to which we belong. We might believe that our friends will stand by us, give us the benefit of the doubt, not turn on us, but that faith is not always rewarded.  The ending of the film--an ending which some critics have argued is "unearned"--is largely symbolic, representative of the unpredictability of human relationships.  Even in our natural, familiar environment, the terrain can become suddenly dangerous.
This film struck a chord, because the instigation for the events is eerily similar not just to the McMartin case, but to something that happened to me when I, too, was a kindergarten teacher.  A child reported to his father that I had taken him, alone, into a classroom and asked him to take off his pants.  I had wanted to spank him without clothes on, this child said, and I had asked if he liked it, and if his father did it at home.   The father immediately went to the principal.  I was utterly baffled and distressed by the allegations.  Unlike Lucas, however, I worked for a supportive and astute administrator  who understood that 1) children do lie, and many lie easily and lie often and 2) young children often have difficulty distinguishing between reality, wish, and dreams.  The whole thing was over quickly and nobody called the police.  For me, it was a heart-stopping couple of hours.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The novels of Tana French

     I am a wholly indiscriminate reader: I read almost everything, often without plan or purpose.  This month, I have been reading mysteries, which I normally eschew, since I don't care for the genre much.  So many mysteries are formulaic and often end with a "suspenseful" chase scene or showdown with a killer.  Bo-ring.  Nothing is more enervating to me than a chase, in books or films.  Don't know why.

   This brings me to the writer I've currently been reading, Tana French.  She has written four novels, three of which I've devoured this month: Broken Harbor, In the Woods and  The Likeness.   All three are detective novels, all three center around detectives who work in Dublin (French is Irish, though she has lived all over.  That sentence may be confusing).  No chase scenes.  No lingering, violent encounters with criminals.  A crime, detectives at work and the solve.  The solve isn't always wrapped up successfully, though.  There are a number of unsatisfying ending and difficulties.  This is a strength, for French is concerned with the psychological motives of the criminals and, most importantly and closely, the detectives.  Each novel is told in the first person by a different detective on Dublin's murder squad.   These detectives have histories, often with one another.  The result is an uncomfortably close look at the inner workings of the people who have the very strange job of investigating crime.
    These books are slow-paced; each day is rolled out for us.  French's writing is painstaking and builds to a psychological realism that is compelling.   She works a complex plot, and complex characters rich with detail.  The reading, though, is smooth and engrossing.  French's writing is fantastic structurally, but also so good on the sentence level.  She establishes a voice and a rhythm, and puts it together elegantly.  Here's a snippet from The Likeness:

This is the part I didn't tell Sam: bad stuff happens to undercovers.  A few of them get killed.  Most lose friends, marriages, relationships.  A couple turn feral, cross over to the other side so gradually that they never see it happening until it's too late, and end up with discreet, complicated early-retirement plans.  Some, and never the ones you'd think, lose their nerve--no warning, they just wake up one morning and all at once it hits them what they're doing and they freeze like tightrope walkers who've looked down.  This guy McCall: he'd infiltrated an IRA splinter group and nobody thought he even knew what fear was, till one evening he phoned in from an alleyway outside a pub.  He couldn't go back in there, he said, and he couldn't walk away because his legs wouldn't stop shaking.  He was crying.  Come get me, he said; I want to go home.  When I met him, he was working in Records.  And some go the other way, the most lethal way of all: when the pressure gets to be too much, it's not their nerve that breaks, it's their fear.  They lose the capacity to be afraid, even when they should be.  These can't ever go home again.  They're like those First World War airmen, the finest ones, shining in their recklessness and invincible,who got home and found that home had no place for what they were.  Some people are undercovers all the way to the bone; the job has taken them whole.

Read all at once French's novels can begin to seem formulaic. That's OK. The formula is a good one.  If you enjoy detective novels, French's are a satisfying diversion.
 See more at tanafrench

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Beautiful Boy


This book scared the shit out of me.

Beautiful Boy is David Sheff's account of his son's drug use and addiction to methamphetamine.  By turns heartbreaking and life-affirming and frightening (at least two of these are really overdone and trite phrases, but I'm writing fast) I found this book riveting and exhausting.  What would you do if your child stole and lied to get drugs?  How far would you go to make sure that child was safe?  How many times would you search for that child, find him, and get him to rehab?  In Sheff's case, as many times as it takes.  I cannot say I wouldn't do the same thing, though I have long believe that there are no interventions, just addicts who are finally ready for recovery.  Sheff does a good job of portraying the agony of parenting an addict, an agony I'm afraid many of us could imagine.

Termed a "fiercely candid memoir", Beautiful Boy started to seem a lot less candid when I read the memoir by  Sheff's son Nic.    Tweak recounts Nic Sheff's descent into addiction, starting with drinking at age 11.  The divorce and shared custody that only get some play in Sheff senior's book hold far more importance for Nic. What in BB is just a relationship with a woman that doesn't work out turns out to have been very important to the young Nic, who feels that a brother was taken from him.  Illuminating, yes.  Unfortunately Tweak isn't very well written.  A compilation of harrowing experiences isn't enough on its own to make it worth reading.  Nic Sheff seems to want to sensationalize  his experiences to some degree.  The writing suffers from this, and from Sheff's youth.  Despite the honest depictions of his actions, I found Tweak dull reading.

One lesson I take from both books is this: your understanding of any given experience is incomplete.  Or maybe it is this: we don't really know our children, or what affects them, or how.  It is humbling to come to see this.  I wonder how honest D. Sheff is, by eliding what seem to be seminal experiences in Nic's life, and then being utterly mystified and how this all happened.   This is not to condemn Sheff's parenting; I am going to assume that Sheff was probably doing the best he could at any given time.   There do, though seem to be some no-brainers here.  First, stay in the same town as your kid, if at all possible.  You need to put your own desires on hold when your kids are very young.  Don't start and stop relationships and don't get serious with a new partner too fast and too readily--they are a time and energy suck and your children get confused.  Isn't this basic?  That said, it's all easier said than done.  Do I think any of this cautionary advice would have helped David be a better parent, and somehow have saved Nic from his addiction and spiral into mental illness?  No idea.  Do I think that David Sheff was paying close enough attention all the time?  No.  But what am I missing in my own parenting?  When I look at my children, do I have any idea what harm might befall them?  Do I have any idea what they are thinking or feeling?  I cannot answer those questions affirmatively, nor can I see my own mistakes clearly.  I can just hope my kids will be okay.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Camera Lucida

I read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida on the recommendation of a photographer friend.  I was writing about a series of photographs from my own life and she insisted I read it (Thank you, Diana!).   Barthes puzzles over photography in general, but also why we are attracted to, or fascinated by particular photographs.   Some of this has to do with what Barthes identifies as the studium as the content, the subject, the meaning, as separate from the  punctum or that which draws us to a photo, "pierces" or attracts us.   This to me poses a  question: why exactly are the photographs of ourselves, and of loved ones (particularly loved ones who are no longer with us) so entrancing, so magnetic for us?  There is an obvious answer to this, yes, but there is something more at the core of it. Looking at photos on the computer the other day (an exercise which is never quite as satisfying as a photo album, or a physical photograph that I hold in my hand) I noticed that my children are most interested in photos of themselves. This is natural.  The young are self-consumed, and why not?  They are new, and they are beautiful.  My youngest came running across the room when he spied himself on the screen; never are my children more attentive than when contemplating an image of their prior selves. Says Barthes:    
I am the reference of every photograph; and this is what generates my astonishment in addressing myself to the fundamental question: why is it that I am alive here and now?...It is this kind of question that photography raises for me: questions which derive from a “stupid” or simple metaphysics (it is the answers which are complicated: probably the true metaphysics).
Looking at photographs is not the same, though, as contemplation in the mirror, something else I have seen my children do (more now that they are teenagers), something I did when younger, something I avoid now.  Photography is something different, for as Barthes puts it, "[w]hat the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially."  

This may only partially answer the questions to why we are fascinated or drawn by certain pictures, or what evokes the punctum ["A photographer's punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)."]  Barthes looks at photographs.  He discusses them, discusses what he sees, but also what he feels as he sees.  What is the photograph designed to elicit in the viewer?  What makes the response to an image?

As I read Barthes I did not realize that he was winding around the topic of grief, of loss, of what photos represent: both presence and absence.  There is that which was, and to have a photograph is, in his words, to “  “   Presence and absence, of course, are at the heart of loss, and it is loss that leads to grief.  It so happens that an essay I am working on---the essay that prompted my friend to lend me this book---had to do with photos of my dead father.  Barthes leads his discussion in Camera Lucida to a single photograph, a photograph of his beloved mother, whom he had lost not long before.  This photo, and its subject (for Barthes would separate these two things) seems to be the instigation for this meditation.  While I loved the book all along the way, here I found a kinship with Barthes in his search for a picture of his mother, in all the pictures of his mother, for a photo that he recognizes.   This is the word he uses, and though Barthes wrote it in French, the etymology of "recognize" is “to know” or "to know again" and this is what Barthes expresses: in this particular photograph, the essence of his mother is apparent to him, he sees and knows her, in ways that he does not in other photographs.  Nonetheless,

The photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been.  The distinction is decisive.

Therefore, when I look at a photograph of my father, it does not tell me that he is gone, only that he was.  I search through photos, looking not only for these representations of what has been, but for one that is, truly, my father, one that expresses this “essence”.  There are so many photos, but there is one I stumble across, randomly assigned to a box filled with unsorted pictures from the 1980s.  Luckily, I wrote dates on many of these, or am able to approximate years through certain clues.  This one is taken less than two years before his death.  He is standing in the garage and has turned to look at me and by the look in his eyes he has just told a joke, or is about to. Equal parts mirth and mischief, it is a look I recognize ( a look I know, have known, did know) well.  It is his very self captured there.
 “Contrary to these imitations, in Photography I can never deny that the thing has been there.  There is a here superimposition here: of reality and of the past.”

I find in Barthes simple truths that are simply elusive.  Presence and absence: this is simple, is it not?  What lies beneath that simplicity are the daunting questions of our existence. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

What "Dynasty" never did for me


Something I've noticed after devouring the first two seasons of "Downton Abbey" is the reliance on the postal service.  This is important to me, as in the days before electronic communication I was an enthusiastic and inveterate letter writer.  I wrote letters to my brother, my friends, people I'd met on my travels and my heart beat with excitement at the arrival of the mail each afternoon. Those days are long gone, but I watch with admiration, as the Crawley family breakfasts each day while reading letters that have arrived via the morning post.  There are more letters in the evening post, and when one arrives, everyone drops whatever they are doing to open the letters.  What's more, everyone is constantly dropping whatever they are doing--and in the case of the Crawleys, I realize it's not so much--to go off and write to someone.  Even if that someone lives in the neighborhood.  ("We'll have them come to tea.  I'll write to them at once.")  Characters, from the lowliest house maid, to the Earl himself, are seen reading letters and writing them with daily frequency.  This reading and writing extends into the social arena: letters are frequently being discussed, read aloud, and shown to others.   There is frank curiosity expressed when letters arrive: a look of anticipation and expectancy crosses every face as letters are opened.  Rarely do characters take their letters and leave the public space, unless there is a secret to be kept.  The epistle as presented is surely to provide verisimilitude in "DA" and also to provide plot movement.*  I found inspiration in it. I wrote not one, but two letters in the past day.  I am hoping it takes, as several times in the past few years I have taken up the banner of letter writing, decrying the overreliance on email and facebook and urging my friends to write, on paper, with pen.  I am, once again, looking towards the letter box with happy anticipation, an emotion my email inbox has never quite elicited.
   I am also inspired by "Downton Abbey" to begin dressing for dinner.  I won't, of course.  It's all I can do to keep from putting my pajamas on before 8 p.m. and crawling into bed to get prone with The New Yorker, but I'm inspired nonetheless.  Having those fabulous clothes would help that inspiration along, naturally, as would a maid to help me dress and do my coiffure, a cook to make the dinner, a butler to serve it (dear Carson!), and a kitchen crew to make the mess vanish.  A woman can dream, can't she?

*I've thought a bit: could letters be considered symbolically here?  The answer is probably not.  While the writing in "DA" is probably better than the typical Harlequin Romance, I cannot spend another moment considering the writer's intent here.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Academy Awards--who cares, anyway?

Award season is here again and I am drawn to see the lists, see the films, see the dresses.  After all, that's what award season is about.  I thought it would be fun to put together my totally biased, uninformed, and useless look at the nominees for best film this year.

Lincoln will probably win.  I cannot object; I loved it. Tony Kushner's script is nothing short of wonderful; it  operates as historical document and primer on political efficacy.  As always, Kushner writes with an expansive ethical imagination; language and idea blend seamlessly and his characters are rounded and fully human.   Steven Spielberg apparently knew when to get out of the way, as his usual heavy-handedness was mostly out of sight, though a few moments were a bit overly illustrative, such as everything post-Ford theater.  I believed that the film was ending the moment Lincoln walked down the hallway on his way to the fateful place; it would have been the perfect finale.  While I'm editing/kibbutzing, Day-Lewis ought to have been allowed the entire the 2nd Inaugural, one of my favorite pieces of American political speech.

Silver Linings Playbook does for--or to--the mentally ill what other American films have done for the Irish.  Aren't they wacky and charming?                                                                                           Don't you want to be a little Irish?--or in this case, a bit bipolar?  Especially if you lose a lot of weight and get buff, speed read classic literature, learn to dance and get a hot chick?   I don't, but I did wonder why we don't see more of Julia Stiles; I would love to see her and Jennifer Lawrence as sisters again.  Sure, the acting was great and the script was episodically clever. I liked this movie while I was watching it, but felt a little dirty afterwards.*
Beasts of the Southern Wild   Loved it. Said so.

Amour  I made a plan to see this film but couldn't bring myself to go, given the subject matter, my place in life, and other depressing things.  A conundrum:  this film is nominated in both best picture and best foreign language film categories. How do you vote?  What gives?

Argo  Well-crafted, expertly paced and acted, good, almost old-fashioned movie-making about an interesting tidbit of history.  Alan Arkin slayed me.  This was a pretty perfect film that immersed me in the action, except for the odd moment of gratuitous cheesecake--if you saw the film you know just what I am talking about  (but Ben Affleck looks good with his shirt off).   A great opportunity to see fabulous and wacky fashion from the 1970's, though on that note, Argo is a distant second to Mary Tyler Moore reruns.

Django Unchained  Skipped it!  Thank god for trailers.  Without knowing this was a Tarentino production, I was rolling my eyes before the preview was half over.  Would there be blood?  Would there be plenty of swearin'?  My overwhelming response to everything Q.T. has ever made is profound boredom.  If he ever makes a film that is worth my time and money I'll get to the theater on a flying pig.  Maybe.  Since my good friend J. liked the film and I trust her absolutely, I may change my mind.

Les Miserables   I escaped the stage version and I'm hoping to escape this one, too.  While watching the trailer I was overcome with vertigo and had to leave the theater.  Manohla Dargis said it best in her review of  Les Miserable, which she characterized (charitably, in my opinion) as "overly busy" and yes, I know I didn't see it. "By the grand may instead be raising the white flag in exhausted defeat."  See the full review here: ‘Les Misérables’

Life of Pi   Not for the credulous or easily motion sick. I hated it--though my children, and everyone else I know, loved it.  Life of Pi relies heavily on pretty visuals and a good startle response in the audience--a sort of cheap thrill.  Was it all the God talk that put me off?  Pi saying "I submit!" in the face of roiling storm had me rolling my eyes.  Does Pi truly believe,ought we truly believe, that God sends us trials to overcome, and is watching us all the time?  I enjoy a fairy tale as much as the next person, but I experienced tremendous difficulty suspending disbelief for this film.  Maybe it was the amount of healthy looking flesh our protagonist boasted after all those months on the open sea.  What I really think is that so much of the film was digitally created (including the beautiful tiger) it was rendered, for me, lifeless and pointless.  Everything is spectacular in the digital age, and therefore, nothing is spectacular.   Our young actor, perhaps, had trouble really bringing his suffering to the fore when he was all alone on a stage, acting with nothing, being with no one.  I find in this a poignant irony: looking into the sky (the face of God?) and the depths of the sea (the soul of a tiger? Pi himself?) there was, behind all that was seemingly profound, nothing.  A pity, since I liked the novel very much.
     A creepy coincidence: the framing device kept reminding me of Slumdog Millionaire, another film I hated. The same actor who plays the police chief in that film plays the adult Pi here--and initiates the flashbacks in both films. Did this affect my viewing? Could be.  The film also kept reminding me of that Tom Hanks movie, where he is stranded on an island after being shipwrecked and every minute feels like fifteen.  And sometimes, oddly, it reminded me of "Gilligan's Island."  Perhaps I am being churlish. Or perhaps I ought to have heeded the subtle warning before the film ever started: all the trailers were for animated children's features.

Zero Dark Thirty   Brilliantly crafted, perfectly edited, well-written and incredibly absorbing, this movie may be the best of the bunch.  The scenes of torture have been argued about--and there's good reason to, given that Bigelow does give the impression that torture yielded good information. It didn't.  Yet these scenes are beautifully structured (read: disgusting, horrifying and awful in every way.  I hid my eyes for most of it).  The rest of the film is suspenseful and the acting terrific.   At over two and a half hours, it never, ever dragged.  I did, though,  find myself suspicious that the character of Maya had  fabulous hair throughout much of the film, until the near end when it takes a beating by helicopter.  When did she have time, obsessed as she was with Osama Bin Laden, to create those lush curls, that carefully tousled yet perfectly set ponytail?  I vowed to replicate at least one of these looks.
    A good review of the film and the controversy around it is found in Rolling Stone wherein Matt Taibbi discusses the inaccuracies in the film.  This is important, because of Kathryn Bigelow's claims of "journalism"; Taibbi also gets the closing scene absolutely right.

A great resource on torture and why it doesn't work:  Research|Penn State: Research Unplugged