Sunday, September 26, 2010

Mistakes Were Made (Jonathan Franzen's Freedom)

(Warning: There be spoilers.)

The other night I attended a dinner party where my table found ourselves trapped with a young woman who couldn't stop talking. She was quite pretty, in an scarily fit kind of way, and it was no surprise to learn that she was an obsessive runner. She was a graduate student teaching a college-level course who regaled us with the tale of a former student that was recovering from a car accident, and whom she suspected might be suffering from a head injury because "he keeps leaving me comments on Facebook telling me how hot I look." Nobody was rude enough to inquire whether finding her attractive was a telltale sign of brain damage. But I couldn't resist offering a bad pun to an interminable anecdote about her having ran a midnight jogging path that led to a graveyard: "You must have been dead tired," I said.

So yes, she was a vain girl who had married young and needed to reassure herself that she was still attractive to any men (or women) within proximity. At the same time she seemed, deep down, genuinely nice and repeatedly opened up discussion to the more soft-spoken guests around the table, even if the conversation had a way of circling back to her. I kept watching her constant hair-flicking and blouse-tugging and wondered if these gestures were conscious or subconscious, a form of flirting or a hint of anxiety? Then I thought that the best thing about Jonathan Franzen -- whose new novel, Freedom, I had just finished earlier that day -- is his ability to illustrate scenes such as this better than just about any author around, as well as indicate that there may be more than one way to interpret them.

The characters in Freedom reflect Franzen's fascination with the contradictions that govern our lives. One of his protagonists, Patty Berglund, is a hyper-agreeable housewife who is revealed to be a cutthroat competitor. Patty's husband, Walter, is a socially conscious do-gooder, kind-hearted to a fault, yet also in possession of a mean streak and a slew of grudges. His best friend, Richard Katz, is a self-centered rock star whose contempt for his own nature to be a good person. The Berglunds' teenage son, Joey, finds new ways to cheat on his young, slavishly-devoted wife, only to despair when he accidentally swallows his wedding ring. The knife's-edge between grand ambitions and base impulses has always been satirical fodder for Franzen, and Freedom is often a very funny book, widening its scope to discourse on a global issue like Walter's obsession with overpopulation in one passage (he wants to set up a Farm Aid-type concert for the cause, called "Free Space") only to narrow its focus to Joey frantically sifting through his own feces to find his ring in the next.

Yet Franzen is less interested in mockery this time than in his previous works of fiction (The Corrections, Strong Motion, The Twenty-Seventh City), less concerned with dazzling us with his vocabulary (a sense I had while reading that was confirmed by this interview). He takes the hoariest of narrative devices -- the love triangle -- and takes us deeper into the contradictions and confusions of a person in love than any writer I've encountered.

Freedom begins quite cleverly, a thirty-page overture of neighborly gossip about the disintegration of the Berglund family that reads similarly in tone to The Corrections and Franzen's earlier works. We learn that Patty cracked up, Walter sold out, and Joey moved out of the house on estranged terms with his parents. One of the local gossip-hounds -- pithily described as having been "active with the SDS in Madison and was now active in the craze for Beaujolais nouveau" -- sums up the Berglunds (and closes the chapter) by declaring to her husband, "I don't think they've figured out yet how to live." So far, so farcical. But then Franzen switches gears and offers a lengthy block of narrative to Patty's therapeutic journal -- an autobiography written by Patty in the third-person (which sounds more confusing than it is), where she reveals her childhood growing up with a high-minded though emotionally distant liberal family in New York, her sexual assault in high school, her athletic talents channelled into college basketball at the University of Minnesota, her complex, ever-evolving relationships with Richard and Walter, mismatched roommates (the irresponsible, cool rocker and the hopelessly sensitive nerd) who nonetheless share a deep friendship with each other.

Titled "Mistakes Were Made," Patty's informal memoirs at first seem too well-written (too novelistic), until it becomes clear that she's supposed to a person in long denial of considerable gifts. I felt emotionally wrung-out by the end of "Mistakes Were Made" -- though, to paraphrase Patty, not in a bad way. It's a vivid document of familial neglect, marital compromise, romantic idealism, and sexual desire; it features some of the strongest writing of Franzen's career.

Smartly, Franzen segues from the brain-rattling Patty (who is, on the page, as alluring as she is borderline psychotic) to a chapter through the clear-eyed cynicism of Richard Katz, who responds to an unexpected burst of professional success by dropping out of the music biz and building decks for a living. Katz, who'd had a whirlwind affair with Patty years into her marriage and channelled his feelings into a hit album titled Nameless Lake (his name for the site of their dalliance), is certainly the most colorful character Franzen has even written, the unapologetic guy down the hall from your dorm room who scored effortlessly with girls he loathed (perhaps not unlike the one mentioned at the start of this review), often spotted spitting tobacco into a cup and engaging in intellectual heavy-lifting, from Pynchon to Kant. Amusingly described as resembling the sexiest dictator alive, Muammar al-Gaddafi, except possibly less deferential toward the opposite sex than a despot with female bodyguards, Katz is nevertheless beguiled by Patty -- who doesn't correspond to the "athletic chick" template he's accustomed to -- and devoted to his friend Walter:

Not that Walter was so ordinary himself. He was at once hopelessly naive and very shrewd and dogged and well-informed. And then there was the complication of Patty, who, although she'd long tried hard to pretend otherwise, was even less ordinary than Walter, and then the further complication of Katz's being no less attracted to Patty than Walter was, and arguably more attracted to Walter than Patty was. This was definitely a weird one.

Passages like this are so vivid and so ample throughout the first half of Freedom that the second half, when the Franzenigan plot at last kicks in, with its overtures toward the political and cultural events of the past decade (The Iraq War, neoconservatism, radical liberalism, the financial crisis, the body armor controversy, viral video), it felt to me like a failure of imagination from an author who had appeared up to then to be following his characters wherever they wanted to take him, only to resort to the lever-pulling schematics that have always been his M.O. Some of this is still amusing, as when Walter flips out during a speech for a land-for-jobs agreement between his corporate bosses and West Virginia plebians. Some of it is pretty tedious, namely two chapters devoted to Joey's shenanigans involving an unattainable Jewish-American Princess and an unwise purchase of malfunctioning military vehicles headed for Fallujah.

This checklist stab at relevancy is interesting in conjunction with recent criticism by authors like Jennifer Weiner and Jane Smiley accusing the media of gender bias with all the attention toward Franzen's work. There is certainly some truth to this (though I recall Smiley receiving plenty of publicity and awards for her execrable A Thousand Acres a few years back). Yet the most intimate passages in Freedom -- namely his leap of empathy writing from Patty's point-of-view -- also leave the sense that Franzen has beaten them at their own game. Had Smiley written about the girl at that dinner party, she'd have either given her one disagreeable trait and left it at that, or else let her seem nice but actually be viperous (in other words, a hypocrite). Franzen, on the other hand, would capture all the quicksilver contradictions within that person and develop them into a consistent whole. This is by far the strongest quality of Freedom. Yet ironically it's one which, had he stuck with it, would not have garnered the book the notices that it's receiving.

There are other problems. For all of Franzen's ability to get into the headspace into so many different characters, he continues to have a Woody Allenish grasp of ethnicity. (The author tries hard to flesh out Lalitha, an Indian woman who rejects her traditional upbringing by signing on to Walter's overpopulation cause, but she comes across as simultaneously a cipher and a saint.) Yet I don't want to magnify the book's flaws. Freedom is a fascinating novel, one that occupies a welcome space on bookshelves. It's also a welcome return to fiction for Franzen, whose last two books, How to Be Alone and The Discomfort Zone, were, respectively, a collection of nonfiction essays and a personal history. The Discomfort Zone, in particular, was written with a puzzling detachment that made you feel like you were witnessing a confessional behind a vitrine display case. Franzen seemed uncomfortable with straight autobiography; he needs the guise of fiction to strive uninhibitedly for truth.

This is why, for all the speculation about possible meanings of the title and how many characters are based on real people, what Freedom is really about is the creative process itself. Patty's autobiography is seen on two occasions -- the first time as therapeutic navel-gazing, the second time with conscious and considerate attention directed toward a reader (Walter) -- and the difference is enormous: reflective, I'd suspect, of Franzen's own inner tension between writing for a readership and writing for himself. Richard Katz, too, reveals distinct sides of his art: the Nameless Lake album, written for himself (in which Katz conceals Patty's presence in his songs by making her a composite with another woman, as I suspect Franzen does with his literary characters); and then another instance near the end, for a particular listener, that becomes deeply touching.

There are a number of false endings in Freedom, poetic moments where another author may have seen fit to wrap things up. Yet Franzen keeps going, and to his credit the final passages work like a balm on all the anxiety generated before it. I'm not sure that Freedom completely convinces with the love showered on so many of its characters, but it's still a relief when it comes.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"I say, are you sure this is the way to Porlock? By the by, what's that howling? My my, look up at that full moo-!"

Last year, responding to a post pimping The Man From Porlock's 2nd anniversary, online pal Ryan Kelly asked whether the occasion might technically constitute a birthday instead? I replied that it probably was more accurately a birthday but that there were elements of a marriage as well. That's my tongue-in-cheek way of saying that maintaining a blog is a commitment -- or wait, what's the preferred term these days? Ah, yes: an investment -- but one that continues to be a blast in what is the longest, most serious, most enjoyable relationship I've ever had running. So, what the hell, I'm calling it an anniversary: my third.

One of my resolutions this year was to see and write about more international films, a long-standing blind spot of mine. Looking back through a year's worth of posts, I'm pleased to see reviews of A Christmas Tale, Il Divo, Irma Vep, Goodbye Solo, Sin Nombre, Red Cliff, 35 Shots of Rum, Loves of a Blonde, Army of Shadows, Broken Embraces, and Vincere among them. Nowhere near Ed Howard territory; but for this moviegoer, not bad. Another goal was to become better acquainted with film history, which led to a lengthy piece on Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, followed by a five-part series on Pictures at a Revolution. I was pleasantly surprised by the response toward both of these topics, as well as toward an "Altman Tournament of Champions" that I began purely as a goof only to keep going all the way to a Final Four. And I was delighted that much of the attention derived from either links or tweets by two of my favorite writers, Tom Shone and Roger Ebert. Thank you, both: I'm deeply honored.

In truth, though, I'm thrilled whenever anyone takes the time to post a comment, so this is where I thank all of you: Steven, Jason, Edward, FilmDr, Adam, Kevin, Hokahey, Fernando, Jake, Ed, Jeremy, Tom, Ronak, Greg, Ryan, Dan, Farran, Larry, Stephen, and Stephen, and anyone else I've neglected to mention. Or, if you've never commented but are a regular reader, you have my gratitude as well. Nobody has ever asked me, "How long do you plan to keep blogging?" but if anyone did my answer would be: "As long as it's still fun." Thanks, to all of you, for making it fun.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Feeling Heat (The Town)

Warning: Spoilers.

Having recently disparaged The Red Riding Trilogy as "a compendium of cliches," it bears asking, Gentle Reader, why am I willing to give The Town a pass for offering more of the same? Is it because: a) I'm a sucker for heist movies; b) I adore the cast; c) the summer--hell, this year--has been so abysmal for movies that I'm willing to overpraise one that's merely efficient; or d) I feel compelled to defend Ben Affleck, a likable schlub who has made some interesting career choices and raised his game in the years since breaking it off with J-Lo, even though some critics still can't seem to let the Gigli era go. (Charles Taylor's summary of that film remains the most sober: "It isn't a crime against humanity. It is merely bad.")

The answer, of course, is all the above. The Town is a heist flick with all the fixings. There's The Leader who wants one last score (Affleck); The Girl he unwisely falls in love with (Rebecca Hall); The Hothead who may fuck everything up (Jeremy Renner); The Man Of The Law hot on their tail (Jon Hamm); The Big Boss who won't let The Leader off the hook (Pete Postlewaite); The Father with whom he has issues (Chris Cooper); The Damaged Goods Ex who could ruin everything (Blake Lively); The Secret From The Past that returns to affect the present (Ma!); and the titular Town itself, Boston, which Affleck knows like the back of his hand. Nearly all these elements were also present in Michael Mann's Heat (which took place in the director's darkly glittering L.A.), and The Town unfolds as a kind of Heat, Jr., only with a filmmaker less interested in elevating cliches to mythic archetypes than he is at uncovering the hardscrabble humanity beneath them. In truth, Affleck lacks the chops to even try what Mann accomplishes. Yet his endeavor -- to make an entertaining movie that depicts his hometown with all the affection and misgivings he clearly feels for it -- has its own integrity.

It's no secret that actors are often the worst directors. Most have no eye, no sense of rhythm or timing (I'm looking at you, Jack Nicholson); and they're either vain enough to have statues erected in their own honor (Kevin Coster/Postman Syndrome) or so in love with their fellow thespians that they indulge their worst impulses (Sean Penn springs to mind). In his first film behind the camera, the engrossing crime drama Gone Baby Gone, Affleck showed no egotistical protectiveness toward his stand-in, brother Casey, in the lead role. (It's revealing that the most heroic moment in that film went to Michelle Monghan's selfless attempt to save a child from drowning, shot thrillingly from overhead as she plunged into the sea.) Although, in The Town, Affleck occasionally falls back on familiar visual tropes (clouds racing overhead, etc.), he has an intuitive sense of where to put the camera, of understanding what matters in a given scene.

What matters most is his character's relationships with Hall's bank manager, whom his crew kidnaps at the start of the film, and with Renner's hair-trigger-man, who once saved Affleck's life and did several years' hard time for it. Affleck knows he's working with a pair of tremendous actors, two of the best up-and-comers in the business. Both Renner and Hall have feelers that turn their characters into bundles-of-nerves: the former expressing the matter-of-factness of a man who would rather be killed than go back to prison, the latter conveying the trauma of a woman who remembers being released on a beach while blindfolded, told to keep walking until she feels the water on her toes, and expecting to fall over a cliff instead. Between Hall's remarkable work here, as well as Monaghan and Amy Ryan's breakout roles in Gone Baby Gone, Affleck, unlike many male filmmakers, has proven himself a sensitive, generous director of actresses.

In The Town, along with the aforementioned twosome, against-the-grain performances are delivered by Hamm, playing his FBI agent as a suavely malicious careerist rather than a fire-breathing eyeball-bulger (he has a great scene where he casually explains to Lively's drugged-out barfly the length of a dollar bill); Cooper's imprisoned Daddy-O, filled with wounded pride for his son; and Postlewaite's capo, who owns a flower shop (a witty front) and whose physique functions as a withered temple of malevolence reminiscent of William Hickey in Prizzi's Honor. Affleck cannot compete with such a high-caliber cast and wisely doesn't try. Yet he's become a much sturdier onscreen presence, realizing that he can trade on natural affability and get his hands dirty without losing audience goodwill.

The Town has a draggy middle patch, wherein too many exposition-building scenes are strung together when, in truth, an action sequence interspersed between would have been more apropos. (Individually the scenes are fine; I just envisioned re-editing the order while watching them.) When the action arrives, though, it's crisply staged, filled with humorous flourishes. One heist, where the crew wears nun's habits and masks, ends with an unexpected sight-gag that made me laugh out loud. And the climax -- a daring raid inside Fenway Park -- is a homage to the thrilling bank heist in Heat that spills into the streets: not up to Mann's verisimilitude (that's a tall order), yet visceral enough to be worthy of its own comparison. Most movies fall apart so dreadfully in the homestretch that I give The Town points for finishing strong (aside from an unfortunate image that's like an unintended nod to his sibling's directorial debut). When he holds his own in a final confrontation against an expert veteran performer, the scene transcends its own compelling narrative terms and becomes, like the rest of the film, a statement from Affleck to his most dismissive critics: You've hit me with your best shot, but I'm still here.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Please, Procedural (The Red Riding Trilogy)

(Warning: spoilers.)

The acclaimed
Red Riding Trilogy, a sprawling, ambitious triptych based loosely on the "Yorkshire Ripper" murders that terrorized northern England in the late-70s and early-80s, contains the most easily distracted pursuit of a serial killer I've ever seen in movies. All three parts -- subtitled, respectively, 1974, 1980, and 1983 -- begin with journalists, police officers and/or legal solicitors doggedly committing themselves to cracking the case, only to get sidetracked into foolishness. I haven't read David Peace's quartet of novels on which Red Riding is based (one, 1977, was eliminated for the production), but his characters apparently haven't seen enough movies to know that they shouldn't dally with colleagues, psychics, or mothers of victims; that those they trust the most will ultimately betray them; that it's unwise to leave an emotionally fragile person alone for a few hours before an attempted getaway; and that those at the highest rungs of power are always guilty. Red Riding is another "fact-based" film saga that's really a compendium of cliches. And there isn't enough momentum in the entire five-hour narrative to propel us through the contrivances without noticing.

Not that there aren't virtues scattered throughout. Andrew Garfield (set to star in Marc Webb's 500 Days of Spiderman), turns his cub reporter in 1974 from a callow hotshot into a dangerous obsessive. His intense affair with a brittle Yorkshire woman (Rebecca Hall, filling in a sketch of a character) whose red-coated daughter was snatched and killed, her body fastened with swan's wings, is depicted with two or three grainy, jittery love scenes too many (the first installment was directed by Julian Jarrold, another Paul Greengrass imitator without the finesse). But Garfield gains in stature following each brutal pummeling he receives from the henchman of the local zillionaire (a stocky, swaggering Sean Bean) and the vicious, corrupt Yorkshire police force. He pulls off a shockingly cathartic climax with conviction: it's the most persuasive transformation in the entire series.

James Marsh's 1980, the second installment and the one focused most on the hunt for the real-life killer (parts one and three offer a fictional counterpoint, which becomes confusing), features Paddy Considine as the detective assigned to lead the investigation, a possibly unsound decision given his efforts to ferret out the thugs with badges from the previous movie. One of them, a wiry redhead with black holes for eyes, is played by Sean Harris as a twitchy psychopath in the Robert Carlyle tradition (think Begbie in Trainspotting). Harris energizes every scene he's in, yet the character is so overtly malicious you wonder why anyone with a note of caution would turn his back on him for even a moment. Although Marsh has been praised for offering "the most cinematic" of the three films, I found 1980 inert and rhythmless. Like its protagonist, the movie is caught between a serial-killer story and a police-corruption story and can't make up its mind which it wants to pursue.

The final chapter, 1983, has been roundly panned as the weakest of the trilogy, but for most of its running time I was grateful that the series was finally getting to the point. Anand Tucker directs with the smooth visual acuity he brought to Steve Martin's Shopgirl (a movie that I otherwise don't think works): several wide shots of Yorkshire convey its forlorn, industrial landscape; and he pulls off a risky moment where an apparition of an abducted little girl runs past a congregation of TV news crews and passers-by: it's what The Lovely Bones could have been. Still, it stumbles. David Morrissey's weak-willed, morally compromised detective from the first two films abruptly grows a spine; while his counterpart, a low-rent public defender (played by the likable Mark Addy, the paunchy male stripper from The Full Monty), suddenly finds his conscience. These unlikely heroes join forces for a howler of a climax, the kind of last-minute 180-degree turn that Altman skewered at the end of The Player. (All it needs is the accompanying dialogue: "What took you so long?" "Traffic was a bitch.")

The Red Riding Trilogy isn't a disaster by any means; individually, each part holds your attention. But like so many docudramas it seems to be receiving (and expecting) praise for slogging in its own solemnity. In contrast, Bong Joon-ho's Memories of Murder and most of David Fincher's Zodiac were far more successful at conveying the red herrings and red tape of a criminal investigation in a way that made them compelling and exciting. They were a hell of a lot livelier to boot, without ever losing their sense of unfolding horror. Red Riding is a procedural without process.