A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

While I'm Away ...

I know, I know. I haven't been keeping things up over here. But I should have some new stuff soon. In the meantime, I have kept up that little sidebar box headed "Stuff worth reading" because ... you know, because it's really stuff worth reading.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Poll Tactics

The pollsters seem to have got my number. Since I first posted about being surveyed a couple of months ago, I've been called by a poll asking questions about the candidates for the California Assembly from my district, and then last night I got a call from the Rasmussen pollers.

It was a robopoll -- press one if you're a Republican, two if you're a Democrat, and so on. So since I had nothing better to do at the time, I sat there beeping out my answers to a variety of questions having to do with the election. It started with my opinion of George W. Bush, which I was happy to give -- even though I wished there was something more emphatic than a number five ("highly unfavorable") I could punch in. Something like 911.

And then, curiously, the robovoice asked my opinion of "Governor Brian Schweitzer." At first I thought I had misheard, and that the voice was having trouble pronouncing "Arnold Schwarzenegger," but I was pretty sure that there was a Brian Schweitzer who was governor somewhere (turns out, it's Montana -- I don't read Daily Kos for nothing), so I punched in "no opinion." So now I wonder if Rasmussen got its wires crossed somewhere and really thought they were calling Montana, or if the question was just thrown in to see if I was paying attention.

Anyway, I got to choose between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and then between Obama and McCain, and then the questions turned to hot button issues, like whether I was "pro-choice" or "pro-life." I bristled a little at this one, since I don't think that to be pro-choice is to be "anti-life." And sure enough, the poll asked if, knowing that McCain is "pro-life" and Obama is "pro-choice," I still wanted to vote for Obama. I did.

And then the pollvoice asked whether I thought "illegal" -- i.e., undocumented -- immigrants should have driver's licenses. I do. I don't want anyone
who hasn't passed a driving test out there on the roads where I'm driving or walking. McCain, the poll informed me, opposes such licenses, and Obama favors them. Do I still want to vote for Obama? Well, sure.

The whole business left me wondering if Rasmussen -- which I gather is not a particularly highly regarded poll -- was twisting the questions toward McCain. Early in the survey, I was asked which of several issues (e.g., the economy, immigration, moral values, etc.) was of most importance to me. I beeped that the war was uppermost. But there were no "McCain favors staying in Iraq, Obama wants to get out" questions.

So was I being push-polled? I don't know, but it sure felt like it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I'm Back. Did You Miss Me?

Sheesh! I didn't realize it had been that long since I posted. Truth is, I've been working on the infrastructure of my other blog and neglecting this one. Plus, I haven't published any new reviews lately. And, well, my life isn't exactly crowded with incident, and I don't have anything new to say about politics. (Other folks have, and I've provided some links to it in the "Stuff worth reading" box.)

I did notice today that Jane Smiley's novel Ten Days in the Hills has just come out in paper. So here's my review of it that ran when the book first appeared.

By Jane Smiley
Anchor, 544 pp., $14.95 paperback

It’s an old trick: You put together a group of people in a semi-isolated setting such as a country house or a vacation retreat and see what happens. It’s worked in everything from Chekhov’s plays to Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game to Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (and its source, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night).

Jane Smiley also has something even older in mind: Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which ten Florentines escape the plague-threatened city for ten days. She seems to have approached her new novel, Ten Days in the Hills, as a kind of “thought experiment,” letting the story grow out of the characters. What would happen if a pair of lovers, Max and Elena, were joined at his home by Max’s daughter and Elena’s son, plus Max’s ex-wife, Zoe, and her current lover? And what if you added in Zoe’s mother and three more of their friends? And set the novel at a time of political and social tension?

And what if you made Max a movie director, Elena a successful writer of how-to books and Zoe a famous movie star? And what if you put Max’s house in a spectacular hillside setting in Pacific Palisades? And instead of plague, made the threatening event the Iraq war, setting the novel at its beginning in March 2003? And made Elena a staunch opponent of the war, and one of Max’s friends just as strongly in favor of it?

What would you get? You know already: a lot of talk and a lot of sex. Something for everyone.

Or not. The trouble with the talk is that so much of it is predictable. It’s Hollywood, so they talk about movies and food and real estate and the quest for eternal youth. But Smiley has been an outspoken critic of the war and the Bush administration, blogging on both at Huffingtonpost.com, and the passages of debate between Elena and Max’s old boyhood friend Charlie are so filled with the by now too-familiar pros and cons of the Iraq misadventure that they bring the novel to an eye-glazing halt.

At least there’s the sex, which Smiley is generous with. Max is having a little dysfunction problem, brought about in part by the standstill in his career, so Elena is solicitous in her attempts to arouse him. Zoe is nearing the end of her relationship with Paul, a New Agey “healer,” so she checks out Elena’s son, Simon, a handsome and sexually adventurous young slacker who has recently shaved his head so he can play the role of a phallus in a student film. Simon is happy to get it on with anyone, female or male, who’s willing. As for Max and Zoe’s daughter, Isabel, she’s been having a secret affair with Max’s agent, Stoney, since she was a teenager.

At the midpoint of the ten days that these ten characters spend together, the whole ensemble is invited to the fabulous but somewhat sinister home -- Shangri-la crossed with the Hearst Castle -- of a Russian entrepreneur (read: gangster). The Bel-Air estate is filled with secret treasures, including a hitherto unknown Vermeer and what may just be the actual Amber Room that vanished after being looted from the Russians by the Nazis.

The Russian proposes to bankroll a film version of Gogol’s Taras Bulba that would be more faithful to the story than the 1962 Yul Brynner/Tony Curtis clunker. Max is trying to decide between directing this epic, to be filmed on the steppes of Ukraine, and a two-character movie about a man and woman talking and making love -- a kind of NC-17-rated version of My Dinner With Andre.

The satiric potential is obvious, and Smiley exploits it. Yet she also gives her characters depth and plausibility, which works against merely using them to lampoon Hollywood fads, excesses and attitudes. All of them, even the movie star and her guru, are smarter and more self-aware than we expect them to be, which makes it harder to poke fun at them. The ten days we spend in the hills with them aren’t wasted, and there are some brightly comic moments, some poignant ones (as well as too many dull ones). But as the saying goes, “fish and visitors begin to smell after three days.” Like the characters themselves, we’re glad when the visit’s over and we can get on with our lives.