Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger is dead

This morning it snowed, and with the afternoon came the news that J.D. Salinger had died.

Now, let's be honest with ourselves. Those of us who really love Salinger don't love him for The Catcher in the Rye. We love him for his masterpiece: Franny and Zooey. If you don't understand that sentence, then please read this fantastic essay by Janet Malcolm.

Salinger was old. He was 91 and had sequestered himself off from public life, moving out to a secluded house in New Hampshire thirty years ago. It's no great tragedy or surprise that he's dead. But I will miss knowing he's there, just camped out in his house.

I love Franny and Zooey with all my heart. I don't love it openly, although I have listed the book on my facebook for nearly three years. My love affair with Franny and Zooey is not a public affair because people tend to shoot Salinger down for being too pretentious, too self-referential, too-white, too-something. I don't care; I'm white, and the problems presented in Franny and Zooey may be first world problems. This argument seems flawed. I don't read novels because of what "world" they belong to. I read them because they're good.

Salinger, to me, is one of the greatest masters of dialogue. When I listen to Zooey and his mom argue in the bathroom, it's like overhearing a real conversation. I can literally smell the cigarette smoke. The humor and sarcasm of these voices is exhilarating. I like to read Nine Stories on the train and when I'm forced to get out of the subway I'm always caught with a lump in my throat from needing to laugh and to cry at the same time.

I am constantly moved by the situation in Franny and Zooey because it reminds me of the way my brother and I interact, how we share tragedies by being related and attempt to buffer it off each other, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. While I haven't called Nicholas from another room pretending to be another sibling (that would be hard because it's only the two of us) I have called him, e-mailed him, and made gestures that siblings make in order to tell one's brother: I'm here, and I was there, I've been through it too, we're in this together.

And yes, like Eli Cash wants to be a Tenenbaum I think we all secretly want to be part of the Glass family, whether we admit it or not: part of their intelligence, their sheer obnoxiousness, their wealth, their neurotic quirks . . . the list goes on. Reading Franny and Zooey in Georgia I thought, oh what caricatures these people are. Upon moving to New York I realized they are anything but caricatures. People like this exist. I interact with them every day.

Salinger's ex-girlfriend said she knew of two unpublished novels he kept under lock and key, and a reporter who somehow managed to gain access to his house a long time ago wrote that there was an entire room filled with manuscripts. Salinger, as we all know, was notoriously private and hadn't published anything since 1965. God knows what might come out of that house - and who knows if anyone will be able to secure the rights to publish it.

When I need to get off my ass I turn to Franny and Zooey. Zooey's speech to Franny about the Fat Lady is a little heavy-handed, but all in all I pretty much agree with almost everything he says. And while Salinger's work may have been about the wages of alienation, he ended up creating some pretty incredible characters that lots of people relate to. No wonder he was so freaked-out and had to retreat to the woods. I think everyone's a little phony; it's unavoidable (and some, certainly, more than others). Whatever. These books, they jump and glisten, they're alive, and incredibly entertaining to read. I never get tired of them.

So cheers, Salinger.
You may have not liked us but we sure liked you.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wow, this is late! Dilettantsia's Top 10 Films of 2009

Some of my favorites, in a very particular order, i.e. #1 being the best.

10. Avatar
It was entertaining. I guess I have respect for the technology.

9. UP
I basically wept through this entire movie, and couldn't even bring myself to write a g-d review.

8. Julie & Julia
So sue me, I had a year of massive "what am I doing with my life" crises.

7. Bright Star
Absolutely stunning, gorgeous film by Jane Campion with wonderful actors.

6. Silent Light
One of the most eerie, strange, lovely experiences I've ever had in the movie theater.

5. Two Lovers
Fucking well written love story that's not stupid. Kudos!

4. The White Ribbon
I have a thing for deeply manipulative films that take place in Germany.

3. The Hurt Locker
You know what, I haven't even seen this but I know it's good.

2. Let the Right One In
One of the best vampire movies ever made, gorgeous and confident enough to play with gender stereotypes. God, I can't emphasize how excellent this film is.

1. Inglourious Basterds
Tarentino, Nazis, and a Jewish girl taking revenge. The purest energy, the finest details.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The White Ribbon

When I saw Michael Haneke's last film, Caché, over three years ago, I was enraged and confused. I had nightmares; I couldn't sleep. After that experience, I became a Michael Haneke convert. Like one of my favorite writers, Thomas Bernhard, Haneke is Austrian. Haneke, like Bernhard, strikes me as a artist who wants to explore the genesis of evil, an evil that can and does run through every society, regardless of ethnicity or history. His auteur has to do with exposing and attempting to explain the evils of humanity itself.

He will give you all the tools to embark on this task, but don't expect him to give you all the answers. After we left the theater last night, one of my friends remarked, "is that ending supposed to be conclusive?" The answer is no, I don't think it is. Here is Haneke describing this lack of explanation in an interview with Roy Grundmann from Cineaste magazine:

"The language-bound arts already circumscribe this freedom considerably, because they are forced to name things by their name. But what is named by its name is artistically dead, has stopped breathing, and can only be recycled in discussion. Film exacerbates this further . . . . I always say, a film ought to be like a ski jump, but it is the viewer who must do the jumping. But to enable the viewer to do so, the jump has to be constructed in a certain way. One has to find a construction that lets the viewer fly--in other words, that stirs the viewer's imagination."

The White Ribbon, Haneke's latest, won the Palm D'Or for 2009 at Cannes. It's a remarkable, beautifully-made film. It takes place about a year before the break-out of WWI in a small German village. Most of the children are raised in a strictly Protestant upbringing, where innocence is king and punishment is brutal. Abuse of all kinds and nasty intentions harbor barely below the surface, behind closed doors. A series of violent events take place: the town doctor's horse is felled by a wire strung from tree to tree as he's coming home one night, a woman falls through a rotten floorboard and dies, the Baron's son is strung up and beaten, and a young retarded boy is stabbed in the eyes. The perpetrator of these crimes is unknown. The Baron asks for everyone's help in finding the criminal, as it must be someone from within. "One of us," he says.

The film is narrated by the town's schoolteacher in old age, as a voice-over, but Haneke also chooses to show us plot points the schoolteacher couldn't have known about. However, he acts as our guide, someone we can trust throughout this ordeal. His story is largely relegated to his love for Eva, the teenage nanny to the Baroness' children. Eva is from another town (actually the one where the schoolteacher grew up) and in that way they are both outsiders.

The children, however, are products of this community. They walk about town, traveling in a pack, curiously inspecting the crime scenes. They are the ultimate observers, watching and listening to their parents. However, it becomes abundantly clear to us (and to the children) that their parents do not practice what they preach. There is a growing, seething rage in this town--it bleeds out of the adults and multiplies in strength through their children. When they act out, by not being home for dinner one night, the Pastor ties a white ribbon to his eldest children, as a reminder of their sin and hopeful reminder of their innocence as children. This badge, worn in shame, is eerily reminiscent of another kind of forced symbol to come.

I think the assumption that Haneke hopes to describe these children as children who would grow up to be Nazis as adults works very well. Most critics who have seen the film have leaned towards this explanation and I think it makes perfect sense. After all, in the closing scene, four men step up to the altar with flowers in their lapels - they are the first joiners for to defend Germany in WWI. And behind them, in the choir, singing like angels, are their heirs, the men and women who would "defend" Germany in the inevitable future.

Haneke resists this explanation when questioned about it, saying that he means the film to be more about Fascism in general, not specifically German Fascism. Regardless, The White Ribbon is a fascinating study of a society on the precipice of murder and ultimately, self-destruction. The religious and conservative rules that line the foundation to this history of violence cannot be ignored, and forces us as viewers to wonder which is the true threat: the evil outside that we fear and shield our children from, or in the enforcement of these "rules" the ultimate evil - the evil that comes from within us?