Friday, March 30, 2012

Layover Thoughts on "A Million Little Pieces"

Nearly ten years after it was published, I finally read James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. The only reason I read it was because I happened to come across it in a used bookstore and it cost me all of .39 (.43 with tax). I felt sorry for the book and its author, who was humiliated on Oprah in 2006.

Alas, the book annoyed me right from the start -  its egotistical narrator, the pretentious capitalization of Important Words, and a prose style that was a slavish imitation of William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, though at least Frey admitted to these influences.

Despite the above strikes, I forged ahead and was surprised by some of the nuggets of wisdom, compassion, and humor. It's not a David Sedaris book, it's a story about an addict, so I wasn't expecting to laugh at all. It is pretty graphic in some parts. Unfortunately, these nuggets were buried in over 400 pages of repetition and silliness, and as we now know, a lot of embellishment. One of the reasons the book sold so well was that so many people identified with it. What a disappointment when Frey was forced to confess that a large part of it was a lie. And what a way to have to confess!

I'm the kind of person who jettisons items like books and clothing whenever I leave a place - a sort of physical and psychological unburdening. I brought A Million Little Pieces with me to the airport this morning with the intent to leave it there for someone else to read. So I did. On a chair at one of the gates near mine. Within minutes, an airport maintenance person came by, took a look at the book, and then promptly tossed it into the garbage bag she was filling with empty cups, wrappers, and other detritus. Even though I didn't enjoy the book all that much, I had hoped for a slightly better future for it, as I suspect Frey did when he wrote it.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Sky Turns, Le Quattro Volte, The Way

I saw a remarkable film yesterday called The Sky Turns (2005). The director, Mercedes Alvarez, returns after 35 years to La Aldea, the ancient village in northern Spain where she was the last child born. First settled by the Celtiberian people over 2,000 years ago, La Aldea was later occupied by Romans and then successions of the Spanish and Moorish populations. Today, only 14 older villagers remain. Part of the film is comprised of conversations they have with each other about the past, the present, and the future and include often-humorous anecdotes. These are juxtaposed with scenes of the gorgeous landscape depicting the passage of time through four seasons of the year 2003. Lending poignancy to the film, the intrusion of modern-day events show the looming gap between the the village's present and future, for instance, airplanes flying to Baghdad at the beginning of the war, enormous wind turbines being assembled, political campaigners, and plans to convert an ancient castle into an overpriced hotel. With all of these elements, Alvarez could have easily created a maudlin film. But she is too intelligent and subtle for that. The Sky Turns is a jewel.

The film reminded me a great deal of another film I saw not too long ago called Le Quattro Volte (2010), also about the passing of time, but in a small village in the southern Italian region of Calabria. A strong metaphysical, almost mystical theme infuses Le Quattro Volte. If you get the chance to see them, do so, and perhaps you will notice some similarities in tone and subject matter. In any case, you will not be disappointed.

The Way is a more commercial yet personal film about the passage of time, also filmed in northern Spain. Directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father Martin Sheen, the film tells the story of a father's journey to honor the memory of his son. It is also a tale of redemption. Both father and son follow in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims before them who have walked the 480-mile Santiago de Compostela for over 1,000 years. I found the basic story rather moving, but some of the characters were embarrassingly one-note and the music was overdone, to the point of detracting from the plot. Why do directors do this? I suppose they don't have faith in themselves or in the audience to "get" the right emotions and need to manipulate us to do so which is insulting. In stark contrast, I don't believe there was any music at all in The Sky Turns or Le Quattro Volte, or if there was, it simply added to what was already a hypnotic experience.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Love Crime and Other Stories

I've never really liked Kristen Scott Thomas in her English-speaking roles, with just a few exceptions: Mary Sharon in Prince's guilty pleasure film (for me) Under the Cherry Moon; Fiona in Roman Polanski's Bitter Moon; Sylvia McCordle in Gosford Park; and Lynn Lockner in The Walker. However, since her relocation to France decades ago, Scott Thomas has taken on a number of French-speaking roles in exceptional films. So far, I've enjoyed her in The Valet, Tell No One, I've Loved You So Long (she was magnificent), Leaving, Sarah's Key, and the latest one I've seen, Love Crime, a kind of Hitchcock by way of Polanski thriller that was quite creepy. In her French-speaking roles, Scott Thomas fascinates me in much the same way as Isabelle Hupert does; they share the same subtle nuances. I am anticipating Scott Thomas' upcoming roles in future films, whether French or English.

Monday, March 26, 2012


I'd like to thank a good friend of mine - a man - for encouraging an appreciation of several authors years ago, especially Stephen Jay Gould and Joyce Carol Oates. If not for my friend, I probably would not have gotten so hooked on the astonishing output of these writers. I mentioned that my friend is a man because it seems that JCO has been universally acknowledged as a women's writer. But I don't really know why. Her stories are scarier than many books I've read by male authors (with the exception of Henry James and Edgar Allen Poe) whose literature often pales in comparison when it comes to establishing tone and a distinct mood of dread and foreboding. Oates is fantastic. And Mudwoman, which I'm currently reading, is just the latest in this prolific writer's highly satisfying body of work. I have read many, many of her novels, short stories, essays, and poems and she never fails to astound me. I got to meet her awhile back when Zombie came out. Oates is a very frail-looking woman who does not seem capable of coming up with the horrific plots and characters in this book or the ferocity of Blonde, for instance. I admire her all the more for this reason.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Little Bit of Russia

I saw this great Russian film today, directed in 1959 by Mikhail Kalatozov with cinematography by Sergei Urusevsky, called Letter Never Sent. It's one of the eeriest films I've seen. The story is about a foursome on a mission to Siberia to hunt for diamonds for the Motherland. But it quickly becomes a story about survival, as one by one the expedition members drop off due to fires, cold, and other calamities. Through it all is an undercurrent of longing and love for those left behind as well as those right before their very eyes. I've never seen a camera get this close to a human face; it is very effective. The black and white images are often frightening.

Yesterday, I saw Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) directed by Louis Malle, based on the Andre Gregory stage directed version of the Anton Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya. The film captures one version of years of rehearsals of the play in a decrepit theater on 42nd Street, The New Amsterdam. It was never intended to be performed for an audience and was only reluctantly performed for friends and family of the cast. It is a fantastic experiment in Method acting and just acting in general. The film/play starts before you know it and evolves into a moving portrait of what it means to be human. David Mamet adapted the dialogue from a translation of the play and it works so well. I wonder if anything like this will be done again.


I've been pretty successful in adhering to a bike-riding routine for the past year and a half since I've been in the Chicago area. That is, every other day for 13 miles a day on this great trail that goes through the woods, during which I see all kinds of wildlife and generally enjoy being outdoors. Today was no exception. Because of the uncharacteristically warm weather we've been having lately, I went out yet again this morning and am pleased to report that the acacia trees have sprung leaves - I love their smell, which instantly transports me back to India; mockingbirds are here - my very favorite bird of all, didn't think they came to these parts; and a variety of flowering fruit trees, which I think are apple and possibly pear. So many frogs near the ponds and of course, red-wing blackbirds, whose territorial calls are deafening. I love it!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s

If you happen to find yourself in Chicago between now and June 3rd, may I recommend visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art? In particular, the show entitled This Will Have Been: Art, Love and Politics in the 1980s. There is much to like about it, but what I found most memorable were the pieces that showed the artists responding to feminism, AIDS, gay rights, Reagan-Thatcherism, the culture wars, appropriation of art works, and the outrageous commodification of the art market.

Highlights of this exhibition included: Candy Jernigan's Found Dope: Part II and Ten Kinds of Beans; Nan Goldin's The Ballad of Sexual Dependency; David Robbins' Talent; Sophie Calle's Shadow; Julian Schnabel's black velvet painting of Andy Warhol wearing a truss after the assassination attempt on his life; Doug and Mike Starn's Christ (Stretched); and Sherri Levine's appropriations of Egon Schiele drawings.

Postmodernism began to flourish during this time as artists challenged the traditional notion of the function of art. This exhibition served to shine a spotlight on the relative dearth of such commitment to political causes lacking in most art these days.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Films and Books I Loved This Week

For nearly two years, I've kept a log of the films I've seen and the books I've read. The tally is now at 400+ and 300, respectively. I haven't kept track of anything before that, but I imagine that the totals are in the thousands for both books and films. Maybe one day, I can make a decent living doing reviews.

Films: this week, I saw The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen. Aside from the one-note characters and the annoying tendency to over-music a film (we already know what we are feeling; there is no need to hit us over the head), the story of a father and son and a long trek (El Camino de Santiago de Compostela) to honor someone's memory was inspiring. I saw several other films this week: Cat People (I rewatched this remake with Nastassja Kinski and I kind of enjoyed it, although the 1942 original was better), 3 (an intriguing film by German director Tom Tykwer who also directed Run, Lola, Run, and Perfume - the latter based on the book of the same name), Margin Call (decent stars and terse story about the first 24 hours of the 2008 economic meltdown; it reminded me a bit of the mood in The Social Network), The Tempest (with Helen Mirren and loads of other good actors), London River (excellent, about an unlikely relationship that develops in the wake of the July 7, 2005 terrorist bombings in London), and finally, Protektor (an unusually stylized Czech film about a married couple who tries to cope with the Nazi occupation of that country, plus the assassination of "The Man with the Iron Heart," Reinhard Heydrich). On deck is Tom Tykwer's The Princess and the Warrior.

The books I've read this week and can heartily recommend include: Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists, 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You DieThe Portable Jung, and an excellent collection of short stories entitled Best European Fiction: 2012. On deck is Jeannette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Indeed.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Tenant

Thank you, Roman Polanski, for cheering me up considerably. You are accused of a terrible crime, yet I can't help but feel that you are a warm and decent human being, given your traumatic history and the compassion and humor that I have seen you display in many interviews. Not to mention your films. I have seen all of them, some a number of times, with the exception of Carnage, your most recent film based on the tedious Yasmina Reza play which I saw in London and absolutely did not like. Aside from the latter one, your films have always instilled in me a sense of calm, despite often disturbing subject matter. Why is this? I feel the same way after seeing Michaelangelo Antonioni films. They unsettle me profoundly, but I gravitate towards them anyway.

The Tenant (1976) is the last film in Polanski's so-called "Apartment Trilogy" series. The excellent Repulsion (1965), starring Catherine Denueve and set in London, and the equally fine Rosemary's Baby (1968), which I saw again in New York in 2009, were the first two films in this series. This afternoon, I finished watching The Tenant, set in Paris. Aside from the annoying dubbing of the party goers and other extras in this film, there is plenty to feel horrified and simultaneously compassionate about in this tale of a simple man who just wants to live a quiet life.

I must confess that one of the reasons I decided to post this entry to my blog after a long reprieve is that certain elements of the The Tenant reminded me so much of a wretched upstairs neighbor of mine in New York, a city to which I might return. Roman, would you be willing to provide guidance?