Thursday, October 16, 2008

Gertrude and Alice:
A book about Gertrude . . . and . . . WWII.

One would think a book entitled Gertrude and Alice would be about, well, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: either as individuals, or a portrait of their relationship. Or both! Unfortunately, Janet Malcolm's latest book is neither.

In spite of her notorious reputation, Janet Malcolm is a fantastic critic and journalist . While I was interning at The Paris Review, I had the pleasure of transcribing an interview between her and Craig Seligman, which whet my appetite for her work. The managing editor turned me onto her collected essays, called The Purloined Clinic, and when I found out she had written a book about Sylvia Plath (The Silent Woman), I was hooked.

Malcolm's infamous rep comes from her demonstrated ability to get people to say things they normally wouldn't tell a journalist. (See: Masson Case). Unsurprisingly, Malcolm puts said quotations to good use in her books on controversial topics such as the criminal justice system and psychoanalysis. She is unsparing in her biases. In the introduction to The Silent Woman, she unabashedly states her hatred for Plath's poetry. In many ways, to many people, this violates her integrity as a journalist.

But it is Malcolm's razor sharp prose and her analytical style which makes all of her essays and books intensely readable and thought-provoking. Even if you don't agree with Malcolm, her questions concerning truth and narrative are some of the most interesting and most important questions raised regarding the future of journalism and biography.

No doubt Gertrude and Alice began in the same vein as Malcolm's other endeavors. But for some reason, it goes awry in this book. First of all, there is little to no biographical information on Alice B. Toklas. Perhaps this is simply because very little is known about her. Obviously Stein is the major player in this book, and in the annals of history, but to entitle your book Gertrude and Alice one would hope both parties would be discussed. This slight is not only frustrating to Toklas' legacy, but also to the nature of Stein and Toklas' relationship.

Malcolm takes another path, asking the question "How is it possible that two Jewish lesbians were able to survive the Nazis?" During WWII, Stein and Tolkas lived in German occupied-France. Malcolm goes on to cite several reasons for their survival, mainly their friendliness with notorious Nazi sympathizers who happened to find Stein (albeit a Jew) very charming, and shielded her and Alice from any aggressors.

Of course this is a valid and frustrating suggestion, that Stein and Toklas could have been thriving while thousands upon thousands of Jews were murdered merely miles from their home in Bilignin. And while Malcolm makes a few attempts at deciphering Stein's indecipherable body of work, they are superficial attempts. After reading this little book, I was no more knowledgeable about Stein's writing or her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, but I was certain that Stein may have been a fascist and Toklas ended her life as a bankrupt, crazy old convert to Catholicism.

Of course discussing solely the positives of someone's life work or biography would be a crime. But to simply label Stein as a potential criminal (by association and denial), tossing off her contributions to modernism and not to mention to the careers of major artists such as Picasso and Hemingway, feels unfair, and dishonest . . . especially for those who may be approaching these women for the first time.

On her death bed, Stein asked Toklas, "What is the answer?" When Toklas did not respond, Stein then went on, "In that case, what is the question?" Stein may not know, but unfortunately, in this book, neither does Malcolm.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married has the potential to be a terrible movie. There's the whole hand-held camera thing. Then there's the "dead-kid" subplot. And to top it all off, there's Anne Hathaway of The Princess Diaries fame in the lead role. But when I read the reviews, which were, for the most part, great, I was intrigued.

Jonathan Demme, the director, is most famous for 1991's The Silence of the Lambs. He's also the man who brought us the stupid and unnecessary remake of The Manchurian Candidate. But then there's Philadelphia, so all is forgiven. In other words, Demme is a good director. This new film is an attempt at some sort of indie hit . . . but what Demme ends up with is a pretty good mainstream movie that touches on some hardcore angst.

Kym (Hathaway)'s first day back from rehab just happens to be the weekend of her sister (Rosemary DeWitt)'s wedding to a man she's never met. Chain-smoking through the house, Kym tries her darndest to avoid her sweet but overbearing father, her loveable and successful (she's getting her Ph.D.!) sister, and the sinking feeling that she's raining on everyone's parade.

At first, Kym comes off as a spoiled, awkward brat, whose addiction is probably based in some overall Salingeresque malaise. You know, some pretentious fucking white-ass emotional drama that really if she took a step back and looked around she could probably get over. Think Noah Baumbach, think New York intellectuals, think total and utter bullshit.

However, Demme takes a sharp turn away from Baumbach and towards Ang Lee's The Ice Storm in the revelation that Kym's addiction has caused the family more pain than one can possibly imagine. In one incredible scene, Hathaway really proves she's got more acting chops than we all thought when she describes how she cannot be forgiven for what she's done . . . and that she's not sure she wants to believe in a God who could forgive her. The emotional punishment and guilt seething through these characters is palpable.

Debra Winger returns to acting for the first time in nearly ten years in her performance as Rachel and Kym's estranged mother, and she does an fantastic job of unleashing all the subconscious, strained energy between the two realities: this family's life before Kym's accident and their life after the accident. And Bill Irwin's subtle and nuanced performance as Kym's father is absolutely heartbreaking, right down to the details. When he receives some unexpected good news from Rachel, his hands shake as he loads the dishwasher.

All said, the movie goes on far too long (there are several scenes of wedding-related activities that could be cut down by about thirty minutes in total); the ethic wedding explosion is a little over the top and frankly, boring. But the performances in this film are well-worth watching. The frantic bouncing of the camera juxtaposed with the quiet, rare familial gestures in this film are painful to watch. This is not a feel-good movie. But it is a lesson in forgiveness, which is perhaps one we could all stand to learn.