11/20/14

Blogging via a Twitter feed: Mike Nichols

 
Reading a tweet about someone you like. (beat) Realising the tweet is because they're dead.

Anyway: WOLF. Jack Nicholson's fantastic portrayal of line-editing a manuscript.

And Anne Bancroft, obv.

After THE GRADUATE swimming pools in movies were never the same.

Prior to that a swimming pool was CAT PEOPLE or just the edge with someone climbing out of it.

Anyway. Mrs Robinson was the pool.

He couldn't stay down there forever.

This was back in the day when movies had a subtext.

(Subtext)

10/29/14

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia is James Ellroy's 14th novel and the first in a third cycle: a prequel to his "L.A. Quartet". Again set in Los Angeles, it opens with a radio broadcast two days before the attack on Pearl Harbour and ends some 688 pages later on December 29, 1941. A family of Japanese has died by not-quite-seppuku and LAPD officer Hideo Ashida is on the case.

Also on the team is nearly everyone Ellroy has thought of. The novel includes characters from his previous seven "as significantly younger people." Central are the patrician fiend Dudley Smith, who never seemed young, and Kay Lake, who was also old but in a different way.

In an age of TV and movie prequels and reboots, the prospect of an origins cycle featuring younger characters must have excited Ellroy's publishers and anyone else who missed Star Wars Episode I. But the L.A. Quartet and the so-called "Underworld U.S.A." trilogy were not a strict sequence. They overlapped unpredictably. At their excellent best there was always a sense of the author digging wildly to get himself out of the last plot hole -- there was risk and haste and moral ugliness and more good work than you could shake a stick at. The Black Dahlia, White Jazz and American Tabloid are peaks: The Cold Six Thousand was hard-edged even for him; Blood's A Rover warmed things up.

In seeking to pre-determine those sprawling storylines, Perfidia feels subdued. We have always known where history was headed in Ellroy's stories but now we know where the characters are going as well. If they seem dewy and tearful (there is a great deal of weeping) perhaps it is because their creator is equally aware. The capitalised ephiphanies, the rhetorical hectoring of facts, the atrocities stacked up and in the plural: no matter how grotesque, Perfidia is wistful. Ellroy has transitioned from voyeur to architect; from heckler to team manager. Even the real-life characters feel like guest spots. (How do estate lawyers react to his gleeful smears? Poor old Barbara Stanwyck.)

Perfidia took me a long time to get through, not least of all because it's a pig to balance on the breakfast table. There is even more than usual to unpack in his sentences (ye gods) and the reappearance of characters sent me back to the bookcase. (The edition includes a five page dramatis personae.) The narrative is soothed at intervals by the diary of Kay Lake who writes in the purple style the author enjoys when he is not stapling verbs to nouns. (Remember how he camped it up in Silent Terror?) And there is a midichlorian moment involving Elizabeth Short: a stupid idea. He may or may not make up for this in the next two in the series. I will read them all.

-- Sunday Star Times, October 2014

Consumed by David Cronenberg

Director David Cronenberg has writer's credit on 33 of his 42 films. Consumed, his first novel, shares much with some of the works he has adapted: in particular J.G. Ballard's Crash (which Cronenberg filmed in 1996), William Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1991) and his 1986 remake of The Fly (1958), the entire franchise of which, kids, was based on a 1957 short story by George Langelaan.

This comes as no surprise. Over his career the filmmaker has sought out stories of infection, decay and the normalisation of afflictions, the sub-culture of which is often infiltrated by a couple. Sure enough, the intrepid investigators of Consumed are Naomi, a reporter, and Nathan, a photojournalist, each as functional as the Nagra and Nikon which they respectively wield. Naomi and Nathan record rather than respond, collecting experiences without being changed by them. Some reviewers have criticised the characters as two-dimensional but they sit comfortably alongside the Mantle brothers in Dead Ringers (1988) or Ted and Allegra in Existenz (1999): emotionally centered, even if the center is a bit off.

The first question one asks of Consumed is whether it's a screenplay or a novel. It's the latter (even if digital filmmaking means anything can built onscreen now). For much of Consumed Naomi and Nathan occupy separate locations, constructing a sequence of events rather than a driving plot. They have an open relationship, natch. Like the Marquise and the Vicomte in Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, they take conflicted interest in each others' conquests; like Cayce Pollard in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, they and the author rely greatly on modern connectivity. Lots of Skyping.

Naomi is investigating the disappearance of French philosopher Aristide Arosteguy, who has been accused of eating his wife Celestine, and Nathan has contracted a rare STD after sleeping with a cancer patient who has been shot through with radioactive pellets. (Kids!) Although Aristide's disappearance is set up as a mystery, this soon falls away. An authorial decision to break into the first person when the couple's exchanges begin to stall keeps the tale buzzing, its protagonists chronicling this horror and that in a jolly Steed-and-Emma sort of way.

Much has been made of Cronenberg's obsession with decay but very little with the necessary form of his subject: however shocking it might be at first, decay, by definition, tapers off. Consumed is built on this feature (or, perhaps literally, a bug), fading to a diminuendo that will be more challenging to a reader than its gore. Stylistically, it's is a fun read: Cronenberg the author takes tangible delight in precise description, especially the gross bits. But you knew that. His novel is an excellent footnote to his film oeuvre: a gleaming and swollen appendix.

– Sunday Star Times, October 2014

10/25/14

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Flash Boys opens in late 2008 on Spread Networks laying the straightest possible fibre optic cable between Chicago and New Jersey in an effort to reduce the trading time between two stock exchanges by five milliseconds. The connection will earn Spread $2.8 billion in rentals from traders who will use its advantage of five thousandths of a second to execute "flash" trades: to buy and sell shares in the time it takes traders on slower networks to press a key.

The numbers are dazzling but the principle is rock simple: if a trader is faster, he can beat others in the queue. As computers and software have improved in speed, the physical distance between exchanges has become the last mile. Flash trades rely on dedicated software (often adapted from open source) and hardware like Spread Networks' "Gold Route" to close the gap. It also helps that the majority of flash trades are made in exotically named "dark pools" -- exchanges where the transactions remain essentially secret. Whether high-speed trading is fair or not is part of a larger argument, especially if you employ Wall Street's tortured, relativistic language. But does the notion of secret exchanges give anyone pause? Isn't secrecy the weapon of capitalism's modern villain? The Enron? The terrible Madoff?

Lewis's most remarkable feat is to cut through the obfuscation and euphemism surrounding his subject and emerge firmly on the fence. While a lay-reader might call angry bullshit on the whole enterprise Lewis sees the debate as an opportunity to examine the market along capitalist principles. He uses the tools of fiction to describe lead "characters" (real people both named and anonymous) who believe a line can be drawn, not between but across the exchanges: a boundary that will regulate trading speed and ensure fair play. An honest working trader who cannot understand why his trades are blocked. A Russian programmer with an exceptional talent for designing financial software while himself having no interest in money. A financier who decides to set up a new stock exchange that blocks high speed trading. His youthful heroes come straight from the good-guy deck. Their fair-play solution? In part, coiling a length of fiber optic into a box to slow the signal down.

Many of the individuals' stories in Flash Boys turn on the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Is the author testifying to their patriotism or implying that, having survived one disaster, America is headed for another? Lewis's blindingly intelligent and well-written exposé ends with him contemplating the microwave technology that might outpace the Gold Route, but he stays mum about where it's taking us. Only the markets can decide.

-- Sunday Star Times, June 2014

9/15/14

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki is an engineer who designs railroad stations. Professionally concerned with ensuring the flow of commuter traffic, he has been personally devastated by the passing of relationships in his formative years. While growing up in Nagoya, he and four other high school students became as close as platonic friends could be. Aka ("re"), Ao ("blue"), Shiro ("white") and Kuro ("black") and Tazaki ("the only last name that did not have colour in its meaning") lived in each others' pockets until the day when the others expelled Tsukuru from the group. "They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn't dare ask."

Banished to Tokyo, Tsukuru falls into depression before, as per his aptronym ("Tsukuru" is written with the Chinese character that means "make" or "build") he sets about rebuilding his life. After a series of unfulfilling relationships he meets Sara, who prompts him to confront the mystery he has been trying to avoid: why did his friends reject him?

The premise of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is as direct as its prose. The novel was translated by Philip Gabriel, who also worked on South of the Border, West of the Sun. Any effect that he or fellow translators Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum has on Murakami's prose is a larger discussion: it's my impression that Gabriel smooths things out but the author's frankness still startles. Tsukuru can't picture Shiro "sticking her hand up the anus of a horse"; later, "These insistent caresses continued until Tsukuru was inside the vagina of one of the girls."

Tsukuru's dreams are also shockingly vivid and anthropomorphic, like manga. But it is only when the locale shifts to Helsinki that he becomes a foreigner. "Are you Chinese?" asks a local. "I'm Japanese," he replies: "It's nearby, but different."

Murakami's Finland is like Shusaku Endo's France in Foreign Studies (1965): uninformed, quaint, filtered through other fictions. The methodical tone of the action and the protagonist's tendency for conjecture and tangential self-examination is more than a little Auster-esque, as is the naming of characters after colours and the incidental mysteries. (What is in the box the jazz pianist carries with him everywhere? The answer may be a symbol of Tsukuru's ostracism.)

In a story of colours, music also assumes significance but, like a crime writer, Murakami makes easy reference to art and literature that may well have been enjoyed by someone not unlike himself. It's another casual touch in a novel lacking the conventional turns a marketing department might demand from someone whom the Observer describes as "the best author on the planet." Colorless Tsukuru has been written in spite of such hype. It's a graceful story of a life in transit. The novelist watches: his subject passes by.

– Sunday Star Times, September 2014

8/30/14

Cowboys


By way of civilised conversation with Paul Litterick, Stephen Stratford mentions that Wittgenstein was a fan of westerns. Who isn't? Simone de Beauvoir, writing in The Prime of Life:
I have mentioned elsewhere how Sartre steered me away from 'art films' and initiated me into the world of galloping cowboys and whodunits.
Sartre: always cool. She continues:
One day he took me to Studio 28 to see William Boyd in a classic Hollywood-type feature, the story of an honest, big-hearted cop who finds out that his brother in law is a crook. Big moral decision.
Simone de Beauvoir is probably being sarcastic here. Anyway:
It turned out that the curtain raiser to this effort was a film called Un Chien andalou, by two men whose names, Bunuel and Dali, meant nothing to us. The opening sequences took our breath away, and afterwards we were hard put to it to take any interest in William Boyd's problems.
The Prime of Life begins in September 1929. This is is early in the memoir and she is discussing films she saw over a two-year period. Although the synopses vary I think she's either talking about The Cop (1928) or Officer O'Brien (1930).

Boyd is most famous for playing Hopalong Cassidy, a character created in 1904 by author Clarence E. Mulford, a municipal clerk in New York. Originally written as a hard-drinking tough guy, Cassidy was cleaned up for later appearances in over sixty films and at least one TV series.
Boyd pic c/- Classic Images