Sunday, March 21, 2010

Film: A Serious Man

It's taken me a while to catch up on my list of Oscar nominated films, but the other day I finally had the chance to see the new Coen brothers movie, A Serious Man. With their typically dark and satirical humor, Joel and Ethan Coen head back to their roots in this film to great success. Set in the late 1960s in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a Jewish suburb of Minneapolis where the brothers actually grew up, the film follows a Job-like character who, despite the many misfortunes and complications that arise in his life, tries to be a "serious" man and to find meaning in his suffering.

In contrast with other Coen brothers movies, the plot is simple, consisting of a series of unfortunate events heaped on the shoulders of a bespectacled and befuddled Larry Gopnik, a Jewish mathematics professor awaiting a decision from his tenure committee at the college where he teaches. Throughout the film, Larry attempts to deal with his impending divorce, his wife's overly-intimate lover, his brother's leaking cyst, his trouble making son about to be bar mitzvahed, all on top of a quickly dwindling bank account and an ever-mounting sea of troubles.

The simplicity is deceptive, however, for the film hides a subtle depth in its relation to the Job story from the Bible. In the midst of his grievances Larry turns to his Jewish faith for meaning, facing a slew of quirky personalities in his search for spiritual guidance.
In this way, Larry's trials not only provide some wonderfully clever humor, but simultaneously express sincere frustrations as to the nature of faith.

In my opinion, the best part of this film is the amusing, puzzling, and profound ending only the Coen brothers can conjure. But I won't spoil it for you. Go see this film for yourself. It's fantastic!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Film and Music: Oddsac

I saw "Oddsac" last night at a special Chicago screening. I am writing this the following day with a complicated predicament on my hands. The Arts Section is about recommendation and positive reviews, but even after I've given the film hours to sink in and digest itself, I'm still not exactly sure what it is I witnessed.

"Oddsac" is the product of around four years of collaboration between experimental indie band Animal Collective and video artist/director Danny Perez. The band has described the project as a visual album, meaning the sounds and visuals are equally important and completely rely on each other. For this reason, there will be no soundtrack of the film released independently of the visuals. This is where it gets tricky to talk about "Oddsac". This was an undoubtably tough project to undertake, but nevertheless, the difficulty in making the film should not dictate its success. So here's the big question: Does "Oddsac" work? For the most part, yes.

The biggest issue is that "Oddsac" isn't as consistent as it should be. When Perez opts for cinematic visuals with characters and scenarios, the film is an impressive and pretty amazing thing to experience. The visuals are intriguing, thought provoking, and imply some sort of narrative while interacting seamlessly with the music. When Perez throws minutes straight of swirling colors and flashing messes of light at you (and it happens a lot) it just isn't interesting. I understand that the tone is meant to be abrasive. I understand that they might not want me to enjoy looking at some of it. I'm ok with that, and I agree that intentional displeasure can send a powerful message, but it has to be worth it. I hate to say it, but these parts were a frustrating waste of time that could have been spent developing the overall theme in a more productive way.

Let's talk about the good stuff because there was a lot of it!

The music is huge. The majority of the soundtrack was recorded and written between the time when Animal Collective released "Strawberry Jam" and the close-to-flawless "Merriweather Post Pavilion". Because of this, much of the music was backed by "Merriweather"-esque electronic bass and beats while also showing off some of the guitar driven style from "Strawberry Jam". A song sung by Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) was paired with visuals of a vampire paddling a canoe at night. That scene alone made "Oddsac" worth watching. The grand finale was also pretty fantastic. The song was rather dark but danceable and was accompanied by visuals of some kind of freaky food fight with a monster.

I've tried to be vague about the content of "Oddsac" while still giving an opinion because I think it is best to see it without knowing too much. It is definitely eccentric with lots of weird surprises, and I want anyone who sees it to be as caught off guard as I was. It is important to point out that while it is far from perfect, "Oddsac" is worth seeing. Animal Collective fans will love the music, and some of the visuals are pretty stunning. It's probably going to confuse you and your brain might hurt afterwards, but its only an hour. Just roll with it!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Literature: "Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami

I am being perfectly frank when I say I haven't read a book as strangely wonderful as Haruki Murakami's "Kafka on the Shore" in a very long time. Murakami has become well known for a kind of "cool surrealism" (Zalewski) that encircles the reader in a complex dream world. With every turning page the possibilities offered by time and consciousness expand as Murakami blends elements of Japanese folk tales, Greek myths, surrealist aesthetics, classical music, and Murakami's own intensely philosophical narrative style.

"Kafka on the Shore" is a particularly ambitious tale, weaving together the story of Kafka, a young teenage boy running from his own Oedipal prophecy, and Nakata, an old man who suffers from a mental disorder inflicted in his early childhood. As their stories progress, the seemingly impossible blooms around them: fish rain from the sky, humans speak with cats, spiritual concepts take on the physical bodies of characters from commercial advertisements, and souls leave their respective bodies to commit transgressive acts.

The book is dense, complex to the point that Murakami's publishers launched a website shortly after publication as a way for readers to submit questions to the author personally as to how to understand the novel. Several themes are clear: the redemptive power of music, the potent and painful bonds of family, the influence of the past on the present. And yet the novel manages to complicate even these, turning them every so often so that "boundary line[s]" begin to "waver," "metaphors transform," and we are left confused, with no "center... to hold on to" (Murakami). Instead, as Murakami himself has said, "'Kafka on the Shore' contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead... these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape... To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution" (Murakami).

Despite its intricacy, or perhaps because of it, "Kafka on the Shore" is no less than entrancing. Reading it is a true experience, one in which you find yourself enveloped in a spiritual, philosophical, and psychological state of un-knowing. Led to question the nature of time, self-awareness, and the existence and limits of reality, this book seeks to bend you, to allow your mind to live in dreams. Finally, when you reach the end of the journey, having come through the labyrinthine entanglement that is this novel, you find yourself in a moment of complete release, as if you were standing on the "edge... of a brand-new world" (Murakami).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Literature: "Girl With Curious Hair" by David Foster Wallace

It’s rare that I throw books. I abuse books all the time, sure, leave them dog-eared and bent and spine-cracked and pen-marked, but rarely do I turn them into projectiles, launching them across the room in anger or self defense or what-have-you. Upon finishing Girl with Curious Hair, David Foster Wallace’s collection of short stories, I pitched that sucker at the carpeted floor of my semester-abroad-Dublin-apartment as hard as I could, in a fit of relief and devastation and anger and just about everything else one can feel.

I’ll say this: I didn’t love every second of this book. But I loved this book.

Wallace is best known for his goliath novel Infinite Jest, but in many ways just as complex and gratifying, are his short stories. First off, the man has a way with words. There are bits of prose in this collection that will leave even the most jaded, world-weary 20 year old English major breathless and tongue-tied. Not only that, but each story comes from one drastically different narrator after the next. John Billy is an old-west tall tale that’s being recounted in a saloon by a good old Oklahoma boy who says things like “was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed,” while the title story, “Girl with Curious Hair,” is told from the perspective of a sociopathic Los Angeles aristocrat who speaks with a kind of dictionary-English that makes evident the influence Wallace has had on the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, etc.

Over the course of these stories, we hear from an Eastern-European grandmother, a teenage lesbian, Lyndon Baines Johnson, an MIT “poet of technology,” a middle aged television actress on Xanax, Los Angeles punk-rockers on LSD, a divorced account executive, and, of course, Alex Trebek, among others. Each voice is crafted carefully and fully, treading bleary lines between the hyper-realistic and the surreal.

The aspect of this collection that’s at once infuriating and enriching, I think, is just how smart Wallace is, and how fond he is of making the reader work for a reward. Interlaced through the book are theories on linguistic philosophy and the nature of perspective that take a few readings to even understand grammatically, and Wallace doesn’t shy from taking risks like throwing in stories within stories within stories, or having the pieces in the collection range in length from one page to one hundred and forty pages. That’s right, the last story in the collection, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way,” is almost half the book in and of itself, and is a spiraling, almost plotless foray into metafiction and literary philosophy. It’s tough. It’s tough by design. But it’s worth it.

While, in moments, this collection can be almost excessively difficult, it’s also hilarious, beautiful, thought-provoking, and absurd. And where it’s difficult is where the book really draws you in, Wallace forcing you to work through the problems he’s working through, to be as confused and engaged with the mediated and ever-evolving world as he is. This is clearly a labor of love for both the writer and the reader, but I promise that it’ll leave you looking at the world in a very different way from when you embark on it. You may want to throw the book at something. I’d encourage it.