A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

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.

TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS
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.