"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Review: A Dangerous Method

A Dangerous Method is a movie about 3 people - Freud, Jung, and Sabina Spielrein - who were all obsessed in some way or another with human sexuality. Specifically, the movie is about what happens when Jung and Spielrein become lovers after he cures her of sex-related hysteria. I believe it's safe to say this movie is about sex. Except that it lacks any hint of sexual energy at all - there is, in the tired phrase, just no chemistry between these three ghostly-looking people.

There were some things I appreciated about the movie, not the least of which was that it offered the opportunity to go out to the cinema. The costumes were lovely, especially the detailing on the selection of white blouses Keira Knightley wore throughout the entire film. I wanted a lot more of the conversations between Freud and Jung, where they hinted at the fascinating-to-a-college-student divergence between their theories. There were also quite a few moments when my friend and I laughed, although I'm not sure the jokes were entirely intentional. The audience of retired suburb dwellers didn't seem to think anything was all that funny.

But throughout the entire film, I constantly felt there was something missing. Somehow I couldn't sink into it at all because with every scene, I was plunged into the middle of something just in time for the crucial lines of dialogue and then ripped out again almost as soon as the actors had finished speaking. Only one scene contained any extraneous padding to it - before cutting to show Jung and Freud sitting in a café, the camera lingered for a few seconds over the waitress preparing a tray of tea - and it was so unusual, that I actually thought for a moment that the tea tray was a key plot point.

I've never more fully appreciated the value of atmospheric padding in a film. Vienna in this movie literally consisted of one street, one park, and one front door. But maybe (you might say) this was just a budget problem. You can't blame David Cronenberg if he doesn't have enough money for an aerial shot of Vienna. Well (I would respond), then I'd ask him to spend a little more time any other, less expensive set. None of the locations - the hospital, the apartments - got any kind of screen time in the absence of an actor saying very important dialogue. In other words, there was never a moment in the film where the audience was forced to wait, to observe, to reflect, etc.

To get back to my original point, this filmmaking fault is especially egregious in a movie about sex, because if anything creates sexual tension (not to mention emotional tension) in a movie, it's waiting. It's the time it takes for two characters to admit their mutual attraction, let alone act on it, it's the moments when the camera caresses the actors faces and bodies and lets us feel what their admirer is feeling. It's the weight of the forces holding the two people apart. But between Jung and Spielrein, there is only Jung's vague moral reticence, which he washes away easily enough when someone show up and tells him to give in to all his impulses. Every stage of the relationship proceeds as though by rote - they meet, they kiss, he goes home and mulls over his morals, they have sex, his wife subtly challenges him about his infidelity, he feels bad and wants to stop, the lovers are separated, the lovers get back together, the lovers are separated again, the lovers reunite as friends years later, end of movie.

It's just all too bad (hence the very long, slightly rambling post), because this could have been a very decent film if Cronenberg had been willing to let it breathe a little. Some of the buzz around it has called it crowd-pleasing, but I don't believe the crowds will be pleased because what people really want is a movie that plays a little hard to get, that hooks them before it gives them sex or moral quandaries or dramatic dialogue. Or at least that's what I want.

And now my tea's gone cold because I got so distracted ranting about filmmaking. Oh well! Time for a tea break, then.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Reasonably Good Expectations

Because I've been feeling a little down in the mouth and counting my blessings never really makes me feel better (just guilty for feeling bad in the first place), I'm going to count some things I'm looking forward to instead. And because my long-term future plans are high up in the air at the moment, I'm going to count little things that are coming up soon.

1. There are three good movies coming to my little local theater in the next two weeks. (Here in the SoCal suburbs, this is unprecedented.) The first one is A Dangerous Method, which hasn't gotten absolutely stellar reviews but seems interesting and dramatic and features two of my favorite faces-to-look-at-on-a-big-screen.
The second movie I want to see is Albert Nobbs, which I'm very excited about. I hope it lives up to my gender-bending, unusual hero expectations.
The third is Pina, the Wim Wenders documentary, which I hadn't dared hope would even come to the West Coast, let alone to this little podunk town.
[Really, I'm just pleased to have some excuses to go to the movies, because I LOVE going to the movies. I can't quite explain it, but it's one of my favorite treats. I also don't mind going to the movies alone, which I probably will do with a couple of these films - I quite like it in fact, because you can completely forget about yourself and sink into the darkness and the screen. I watch a lot of movies alone at college, but that's not quite the same, because at the end, when the credits music stops, you find yourself alone in a dark room. But in a movie theater, you emerge to find yourself with a bunch of other people who've just shared your experience, and that enables you to maintain the magnitude of emotion that the movie gave you, I think, instead of having it deflate immediately.]

2. I'm looking forward to eating the rest of the spinach-pancetta-gruyère quiche I just made. For some reason, the dining hall food is really killing me this semester, so I made the effort to cook today so that I'd have something delicious to nibble on this week.

3. I'm looking forward to the rain that's forecast for tomorrow (although not to the heat wave that's arriving right afterwards). This has been an awfully dry winter, and some rain will do me and the earth some good.

4. One of my courses has assigned two stories from the complete Sherlock Holmes, and I'm very pleased for the opportunity to get back to the original after lapping up the latest three episodes of Sherlock this month. Speaking of which, I've been saving the last one, so I have that to look forward to as well.

5. And later in the semester, for the same course, I'll get to re-read one of my favorite books, The Remains of the Day. That counts as it's own separate bullet point.

6. Finally, I've just started a new book on tape - Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman - or more exactly, a radio adaptation of it. It started out a little jumbled, but I think I've got the hang of the story now and am in for 7 hours of good Russian novel time.

I guess that's all I got for now. I'm off to resist eating an entire quiche tonight.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Holiday Movies II: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Let's just say it's rare for me to get really drawn into a series of books the way I might with a TV show or a series of films. But boy am I hooked on John le Carré's Karla trilogy. I started the first book, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," in anticipation of seeing the new film adaptation, but the book itself has turned out to be a wonder. While I gush about it, here's some stills from the movie, which showcases some of the best British actors around lurking in fabulously atmospheric decors.

Le Carré is probably the first author I've read (with the possible exception of Ian McEwan) who truly manages to blend aesthetics with entertainment. I don't usually go in for plot-driven books because they're usually not very well written, and I'm a terrible snob. I'm more of a book-where-nothing-actually-happens kind of person - "To the Lighthouse," "At Swim-Two-Birds," etc. Recently, though, I've come to suspect that a good handling of plot, like a good sense of comedy, is the true mark of a great writer. I'm personally no good at plotting, but I'd give anything to be able to craft a story like le Carré.

Not only is the story of George Smiley and his end-of-career obsession with the Russian Karla utterly gripping, it is told in the most elegant way imaginable. Le Carré is a master of point of view - every so often, he'll take the perspective of a marginal character, an outsider to the action, who no writer in their right mind would trust with telling the story, but who ends up shedding exactly the right funny or human light on the dark world of spying.

He's also brilliant at balancing high stakes spy missions with utterly banal details about how the characters actually accomplish their jobs and what thoughts are going through their mind as they execute the most harrowing operations.

I was a bit too close to the book to accurately judge the movie, and they definitely changed a lot in adapting from book to film, which makes it hard not to sit through the movie thinking, But it wasn't that way in the book! I can say for sure, though, that they took an extremely bookish book (full of ponderings and inner monologues) and made it into an extremely filmic film. Some of the scenes, like the one above, where absolutely stunning as constructions of sound and image. The tension at certain points was incredible, even to someone who knew exactly what was going to happen.

I was also very impressed by the art directors' work in evoking the alternately drab and garish atmosphere of the era. From the interiors of Circus headquarters to the streets of Budapest, everything was filled with wonderful detail.

Finally, I loved some of the costuming details, particularly Bill Haydon and Ricki Tarr's coats - one pictured above, the other was a caramel-colored corduroy that just perfectly expressed Haydon and set him apart from the rest of the men in suits. His spectacles were wonderful too. Not to mention himself, played to perfection by Colin Firth, who I now believe is the acting equivalent of a superhero and can literally do anything.

One of the best additions (not in the book at all but almost should have been it was so good) was the MI-6 holiday party scene. It was perfectly in keeping with le Carré's genius of getting at the banal of super-secret spy lives. Who would have thunk that secret agents had Christmas parties? But of course they manage to imbue it with all the tensions and passions of the most perilous of secret missions.

I'm not sure they'll adapt any more of the trilogy, and I hope they won't, especially since they horrendously miscast Jerry Westerby (the hero of the second book, "The Honorable Schoolboy"), but in the meantime, I'm moving on to "Smiley's People," the final chapter, before going on to devour the rest of le Carré's blessedly extensive oeuvre.