Runaway

I forget how or why I decided I needed to read some Alice Munro, but I remember thinking she seemed like the kind of person I might take a chance on identifying with. Runaway is a very nice, surprising collection of essays, with individual pieces that I found moving and relatable, but on the whole, I’m not sure Munro is for me.

Munro has a way of building a beautiful world, dropping in incredibly sympathetic characters and then saturating that world with those characters’ crunchiest, least appealing traits. I’m with her when she introduces the characters, and even when she lets us get to know them a bit, but then she has this tendency to layer in details of the emotionally-unimportant or visually-repulsive variety.

I’ll first share a few of those pleasant, world-building snippets. Here are a couple simple, specific descriptions of the houses in a small town: “… with a yard full of firewood, lumber and tires, cars and parts of cars, broken or usable bikes, toys, all the things that have to sit outside when people are lacking garages or basements” and “… most of the houses are like those in the woods, each one in its own wide cluttered yard, as if they have been built within sight of each other only accidentally” (p. 50). See, that’s nice. This one is, too, even if it sounds a touch outdated: “That was what a girl should be, to be fallen in love with” (p. 164).

But Munro can go dark, too. At one point she describes rape as “being broken into,” which is at once beautiful and horrifying. And this passage on adultery, from p. 174, sneaks up on you: “And she thought it must be a relief to Maury to be driving down the highway by himself, rearranging his impressions of his Grace so that he could stay wholeheartedly in love with her.”

Now, onto the characters. Munro favors solitary women, to whom I’m generally able to relate, by bringing us into their vulnerability. “Tricks,” for example, in part details a woman’s attempt to spend the evening alone, treating herself to dinner and such. And “Trespasses” really nails how cliques inflict pain with exclusivity. Munro is also not afraid to extend her characters’ stories as long as necessary. “Juliet” is the focus of three of the short stories in Runaway, and “Soon” provides the immediate sequel to “Chance” that I didn’t even know I wanted. “Silence,” which wraps up the trilogy, is perhaps the most heartbreaking, since it deals with Juliet’s estrangement from her daughter. By the end of it, you feel completely connected to this fictional person’s life, and you gain a skeletal but profound appreciation for that part of motherhood that no one really talks about — communication.

So, finally, the annoying stuff. Munro leans on a comma-heavy stream-of-consciousness crutch, which I found difficult to read. And her blatant worship of the Canadian version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is rampant. Those two grievances can be summed up in one passage, actually: “Juliet knew that, to many people, she might seem to be odd and solitary — and so, in a way, she was” (p. 56). Here’s another one that made my skin crawl: “As she was herself by now, and Penelope, on the steps, even more so” (p. 98). To me, these types of ugly sentences completely negate the elegant ones she constructed elsewhere in the book. They’re like rough drafts inserted into the final version, and they took me completely out of the scene and story and into Munro’s possibly-neurotic brain. It’s enough having the stories themselves center around the aforementioned MPDG — but to have the narrator channeling it, too? I’m against it. I don’t think touchy-feely-type phraseology does any favors for the characters’ likability. It doesn’t add credible flaws to the characters; instead, it discredits Munro’s narrative voice. She couldn’t resist adding in-text footnotes that were better left unsaid, and now the stories are slathered with this mumbling, emotional excess.

Munro overshares without the commas, too. On p. 319, she attempts to summarize an entire gender, but it ends up falling incredibly flat within the context of the story: “Plenty of men never had a word to say about their lives, beyond when and where. But there were others, more up-to-date, who gave these casual-sounding yet practiced speeches in which it was said that life was indeed a bumpy road, but misfortunes had pointed the way to better things, lessons were learned, and without a doubt joy came in the morning.” This passage is clearly based on one person who existed in Munro’s life, and it would be much more effective as the character’s memory, rather than a sweeping generalization about men. I think it further discredits her voice; while she’s clearly a champion of women, I had a hard time believing this negative, out-of-nowhere stance about men. She seems much smarter than that.

My last complaint is about a paragraph on p. 61 that details what happens in the bathroom stall when a woman is on her period. I’m all for erasing the stigma around menstruation, because it happens to exactly 50% of the population. But Munro combined words in that graf that didn’t need to be combined. I considered bringing you all down with me and writing a couple of those word combinations here, but I’ll spare you, so long as you promise not to think periods are gross, because they’re not. (They are, but only those of us with XX chromosomes can say that.) I wish she would have spared me.

I’m open to reading more Munro, but I’ll need a pretty good argument for it first. For now, though, I’ll respect her female-driven fiction from afar — far south of the Canadian border.

Serpico

Only Al Pacino can play a real person more as himself than as … themself.

Pacino interprets Serpico as some sort of Italian hippie, a guy who’s seen more than you’ll ever see but also has a huge teddy-bear dog named Alfie. A cop who can play the game, but doesn’t know when to stop playing it. A man with sex appeal and psychotic tendencies. Whatever the magic combo is, it works — maybe an obvious statement, considering how nominated and awarded the film was when it came out in 1973. But the fact that its intrigue — and the true story behind it — still holds up is a testament to Pacino’s performance and Sidney Lumet’s direction.

Of course, because I’ve been lax to update this here blog, the details of the movie have escaped me, as I watched it a few months ago. What’s stayed with me, though, is how un-melodramatic the movie was, despite its premise. Serpico transitions from regular cop to plainclothes detective, dealing with unfathomable amounts of stress as he gathers information about corruption within his own department. He struggles to convey his emotions about it to the women in his life, who aren’t particularly important to the film (and maybe not to him) but seem relatively normal, given how weird he is. Yet none of those struggles seem out of his grasp — Serpico the man, the character, whomever, is always in control, somehow, even though he might given the lax, unpredictable impression that he isn’t. He can handle himself just fine — it’s the rest of the world that he finds challenging.

Serpico is a magnificent movie, and maybe the first one where I thought Dustin Hoffman might have rubbed off on him instead of the other way around. The signature Pacino madness is there, but with a bit of Hoffman’s soft lovability. The result is something you should watch, if you haven’t already.

10 Cloverfield Lane

After receiving a recommendation to see this movie, a friend and I made the pretty quick decision to Nike it. (Just do it.) I hadn’t seen Cloverfield, I knew I was getting outside my comfort zone by watching something potentially terrifying, and … actually, I didn’t know much more than that. It was all a big question mark, but every once in awhile, you have to walk into a movie theater not knowing anything.

I’m so glad I did. 10 Cloverfield Lane is thrilling and suspenseful — not actually horror, which I still am not into — and creative and thought-provoking. It really only has three main characters, and it leaves you as a fly on the wall the entire time, wondering what the hell you’d do in the situation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Michelle, a woman who gets into a car accident and finds herself in a fallout shelter with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) and Howard (John Goodman). In the span of an hour and a half, she deals with trust, doubt, survival, pain, fear, triumph and defeat. It’s an intense experience, and while I think the movie could have been drastically different with a different actor in the role, she played the “everywoman” in a way that I’m not sure any other actress could have pulled off. That first adjective I listed, trust, is something that actors seek readily out of their audiences, but she didn’t. She didn’t try to get anyone to like her throughout the course of the movie. Her character was focused on figuring out how she got there, why she was stuck in there and how she was going to get out, and pandering to a paying group of numbskulls was out of her jurisdiction. It felt refreshing, honestly, because in the process of not giving a shit about any of us, she made us like her more. Or she made me like her more, at least.

She also held back a lot, probably on purpose, because showing too many cards in a potential hostage situation is never a good idea — or so I’m told in the movies, anyway. As the movie progresses, we learn just how evil and twisted Howard is — he’s convinced there’s been a chemical outbreak and that everyone above ground is dead — but he’s also incredibly adept at playing mind games and finding just the right wording to keep his captives both incredibly close and at an (un)comfortable distance. You’ve probably never seen John Goodman like this before, and you’ll probably never want to again. He’s a two-face, at once fatherly and caring while also holding Michelle and Emmett’s life in his hands. My movie-going friend made an astute observation about him after we left the theater, which was that evil and right are not mutually exclusive in his case. Not that they are all the time, but he’s a wonderful example of complex, subtle writing. A bad character who draws you in for a reason you’re not even sure about.

Towards the end, the movie adopted some supernatural elements, which I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never been huge into the sci-fi genre, yet after about 10 seconds, I totally bought it. The movie itself already feels like it’s in a supernatural world, given the supposed biohazard outside and the confined nature of the fallout shelter. And besides, Michelle ascends to this level of knowledge at that point that feels almost godlike. She surprises herself with her abilities, her reflexes, her inner power, and it would make sense that supernatural forces were at work alongside her.

Hey, they drew me into the movie theater, anyway. Hope they have the same effect on you, because this one is worth the thrill.

An American in Paris (the movie and the play)

If you haven’t indulged in any format of this lovely work, let me warn you: You’re going to be conflicted.

An American in Paris is a lovely piece of art, any way you consume it, but as a female in the year 2016, I couldn’t help but cringe. (And I’m the type of person who lets anachronisms go, because it’s not like they knew any better when they were making the movies, sheesh!)

The cringing mostly happened whilst watching the movie, which I did in preparation for seeing the play. The movie will make you fall in love with Gene Kelly, no matter your gender or sexual preference. He’s deliciously charming and talented and graceful. Watching him perform throughout the movie, I felt exactly like the woman in the background of this screenshot, which is to say, delirious because my smile was too big. (Here’s the full scene, by the way.)

cafe

Anyway. If you think about Gene Kelly and his character, aspiring artist Jerry Mulligan, too much, that’s when things start to get unsettling. See, Kelly was around 40 when he played Mulligan, and the girl he was going after was … let’s say too young. Lise (Leslie Caron) is beautiful and intriguing and doe-eyed and all that, but the age gap is too great to be sweet. And Mulligan, for all his attempted sweetness, is also pretty damn pushy as he’s courting her. I didn’t feel that Jerry and Lise were in love, because I never really saw them together in a way that made me think so. The entire time they were living in a fantasy — which, yes, is the point of the movie — but their love seemed based on nothing at all. Superficially, though, they seem to have a nice time together.

Meanwhile, the story gets tragic for other characters. Jerry straight-up steals Lise from his friend, Henri (Georges Guetary), who is engaged to her. And he jilts Patricia Clarkson lookalike Milo (Nina Foch), his sugar mama, essentially. And then there’s ol’ Adam (Oscar Levant), because everyone needs a bitter musician friend to boost their ego. Adam was my favorite part of the movie — besides the incredible dancing, the Gershwin tunes and the insane black-and-white party they all attended — because he seemed to be the only one with any clarity and logic to his thinking.

The play clears up a lot of the movie’s ambiguity, though Jerry and Lise’s relationship still seems pretty tenuous. In the Broadway production I saw — which was lovely and mesmerizing in its own way — all three men are after Lise, and we meet Henri’s parents as a way of gaining more insight into her ingenue background. She’s an aspiring dancer in the play, too, and a confirmed Jew who’s forever indebted to Henri’s family for getting her out of a bad spot. She’s got actual loyalty to deal with, rather than an overwhelming sense of proto-MPDG, which seems to be her sole motivation in the movie. Her dilemma of which man to choose — Jerry or Henri, because even though Adam is given a shot, he never really had one in the first place — seems grounded in reality.

So here’s what I’ll say. Both are worth taking in, at the very least for the divine spectacle of choreography to Gershwin soundtrack. You know all these songs, but you may not have known that they were from this movie. They’re timeless, even if the production itself is starting to show its age.

The Fortress of Solitude

For the record, I still like Motherless Brooklyn better. There’s something decidedly less self-aware about it. Fortress is painfully, blatantly self-aware — and this matches the main character, Dylan Ebdus, always over-analyzing his actions. Motherless‘ main character had Tourette’s, so he had zero self-awareness. Yet it all makes sense in the end, and it speaks to Jonathan Lethem’s incredible talent.

Fortress of Solitude took awhile to grow on me, but it eventually did. It really was the self-awareness that built a barrier. And the pretentiousness. The number of times that the word “ailanthus” was mentioned — and I still refuse to look the word up, though I know it’s a kind of tree/plant/flower — made me want to hurl, and the pride with which White Guy fetishized Black Brooklyn was nauseating. But I’m also approaching this book from a 2016 perspective, where WGiBB is done, cooked, over, annoying automatically. Back in the 70s, when this book was taking place, gentrification wasn’t even simmering yet, and there wasn’t any telegraphing when it’d boil over. It was new and actually fresh. The eyerolls I’m applying to it are nuanced and layered, unfair and uninformed.

Even though I didn’t grow up remotely close to Brooklyn, I still feel a bond with Dylan. He experienced an intense kind of reverse-racial bullying, which I am thankful I didn’t experience, but I was bullied, too. So many of us were that it’s impossible not to connect to a retelling of it, no matter the context, especially when it’s done well. See, for me, it wasn’t about the physical aspect. Though girls can be physical with their bullying, it’s not as common. It’s about the psychological, about making the bullee feel consumed by the buller, and that’s exactly what Lethem does with respect to Dylan and his oppressors. In addition to being a body to beat up, Dylan is fodder for their fucked-up brains, and yet part of him enjoys it, so he doesn’t exactly retaliate like he should. He craves their attention, and that’s the way they want it.

Lethem also has this wonderfully casual way of mentioning milestone moments, both positive and negative ones. You’re embroiled in the details of a scene, and all of a sudden you realize Dylan’s mother is gone, or Dylan’s become best friends with Mingus Rude, or Dylan’s just had his first real sexual encounter, or the years have just passed swiftly and smoothly. It’s all very matter-of-fact and organic, but the origin of it all is hazy, and that’s okay. There’s always so much focus in fiction on Milestone Moments, when in reality, they happen and that’s it and we sort of forget how they happened. They blend in with everything else.

We really feel like we grew up with Dylan the whole way — the first half of the book plugs through his childhood in third-person perspective, which is akin to how any kid with feelings feels at that time, outside looking in, self-aware but not world-aware. And the second half is in first-person, self-aware as much as humanly possible, infinitely reflective on every little thing, as is the adult way. Dylan is obviously Lethem channeling himself and his childhood experiences, as it’s hard to believe Dylan is a real kid sometimes. But his life is easy to relate to, in spite of its specificity and undeniable hipness. His best friend is an enigma, and yet Dylan is one too, trying to uncover his own identity in the shadow of someone else’s whom he’ll always covet. The supernatural element of the book — the magic ring — feels entirely, completely sensible, even in the context of this very stark, real world. Because there’s a supernatural element to every kid’s being.

Lethem also has a way of characterizing stereotypes one encounters in one’s life in ways that they haven’t been characterized before. His cynicism cuts deeply, uniquely. For Dylan, Arthur Lomb is that friend: “Positioning, positioning, Arthur Lomb was forever positioning himself, making his views known, aligning on some index no one would ever consult” (p. 126). Moira is that girl: “Moira and I were a couple for two weeks from that night — an eternity at Camden, where rehearsals of adulthood were rendered miniature by a compression of time and space” (p. 387). Home is gentrifying before his eyes: “Brooklyn’s bepissed your blonde destiny” (p. 267). Popular culture is dulling before his eyes: “I flashed on a vision of a world dotted with conferences, convocations, and “Cons” of all types, each an engine for converting feelings of inferiority and self-loathing into their opposites” (p. 345), and “Football was an arrangement of failures, a proving how unlikely most things were” (p. 75), and “My black jeans were like a smudge of ash or a daub of vomit in this cream-and-peach world” (p. 322). Lethem and Dylan are critical, sharp observers, ready to slay.

[Even descriptions of daily minutae have this depleted, beautiful poetry to them: “If the Etch A Sketch and the Spirograph had really worked they would probably be machines, not toys, they would be part of the way the adult universe operated and be mounted onto the instrument panels of cars or worn on the belts of policemen,” (p. 9) and “The squirrel moved as an oscillating sequence of humps, tail and spine bunching in counterpoint” (p. 17), and “The bicycle … would be downstairs again, leaning in the hallway like a stuffed animal, a blind chrome elk loaded with his parents’ expectation and Dylan’s dread” (p. 43).]

Mingus Rude, though, inspired completely different ways of thinking in both of them: “Leave it to Mingus Rude to recuperate their differences for his own purposes, for Robin Hooditry in art’s cause” (p. 145). Around Mingus, Dylan wasn’t cynical, at least not initially. He shook up something intangible in Dylan’s demeanor, something that not everyone gets to experience, it seems. Mingus’ shitty situation bred a wisdom that then sloughed off on Dylan, who shared them with us:”You could grow up in the city where history was made and still miss it all” and “The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn’t” (p. 259″, and “Each institution carries previous incarnations, like sluggish rivers with another century’s silt at their bottoms” (p. 465).

But perhaps my favorite line in the book comes from the beginning, when Lethem’s adult wisdom still overpowers Dylan’s kid ignorance. This line is so evocative to me, so exemplary of youth and innocence: “They gathered wide-eyed as though warming at a campfire of their own awe” (p. 47). It captures the unintentional egotism of youth, too, the idea that nothing’s more important than what’s happening right now, and that’s a takeaway from the book, too. No matter how insignificant things may be, they’re significant in their own context, in their own little world, in their fortress of solitude.

All Is Lost

All Is Lost is not a comforting movie, or even a movie worth watching twice, but it’s an incredibly important one. It sews together incredible themes, brilliant camerawork and a once-in-a-lifetime acting performance from someone you’d both expect it from and still be blown away by — Robert Redford. (I was pissed Christian Bale got nominated in 2014 for American Hustle, just because of his unnecessary weight gain and general smugness, but now I fully understand the uproar. Bobby Reds deserved that nod over him, no question.)

Within the first few minutes of clicking “play,” I was already stressed out and a little nauseous. You know the solitude is looming — it’s in the title, after all — and you know the ocean is basically the globe’s own biggest weapon. Yet the unexpectedness begins early, too. Redford — who I’ll keep referring to as such, because his character’s name is simply “Man,” and I have no doubt the actual Redford would behave identically in real life — is a prepared person, but “prepared” is sort of insulting, actually. He’s an Eagle Scout inside of an ER Technician. He makes MacGuyver look like a clown. (Okay, most people do.) He is a nautical genius, a professional seaman, a true captain. He’s thought of everything. He has waterproof pants. He knows how to ration. He can tie knots. He can purify saltwater. And most importantly, he can keep his shit together.

The script for this movie intrigues me to no end, possibly even more so than the finished product, because it’s gotta be a dreamy haze of description. There’s no dialogue, as Redford isn’t the type to talk to himself to keep company. He’s a student, figuring out the minutae of a sextant in his spare time, rather than bawling into his empty bean can. Yet even with his stoicism, his sternness, he still expresses such nuance and depth of emotion that you truly can’t imagine anyone else playing this role. He survives insurmountable challenges to keep himself alive, and without uttering a word, he builds a history for himself that we can see plainly on his face. When he writes that note, and chucks it into the ocean, it’s the first sign of remote weakness he allows — and it’s not weakness so much as relief. He lets himself stop trying, because he’s done all he can to stay afloat, literally. It’ll rip your heart out.

I’m even more curious about J.C. Chandor, the director, because he’s got a pretty diverse C.V. to date. Between this, A Most Violent Year and Margin Call (which I shoulda seen), he’s proven himself in three very different genres. He’s got an IΓ±arritΓΊ thing going on, or maybe a Lee. He puts his own color palette on the film — blues, grays, harsh warm shades — but he knows when to let the genres do the talking, too. I’m stoked to see what he comes out with next.

And, while I’m at it, a semi-non-sequitur. A recent episode of The Last Man on Earth, “Pitch Black,” also touched on the concept of being marooned on a boat — except here, there’s a comedic bent, a post-apocalyptic setting, and an extra guy. Yet the sentiment is still so strong — there’s something incredibly unifying in that type of terror. It’s hard to imagine reacting differently than Redford or Mike (Jason Sudeikis on LMOE). Both of them stayed at the top of their intelligence (to borrow a phrase from improv) and did exactly what they thought was right to survive. In the case of Sudeikis’ character, he abandoned his compatriot. In the case of Redford, he abandoned himself. I won’t give away either ending, though. You’ll have to watch.