White Noise (1985, Don DeLillo)

DeLillo’s White Noise, in which the domestic drama, the academic satire, the apocalyptic drama, the crime novel, and the social satire meet and mingle, deals, among other things, with the difference and distance between experience and expression. This point is most eloquently written into the novel by DeLillo in his exploration of the representative nature of language, and the often severe [and, to our narrator Jack/J.A.K. Gladney, severely distressing] lack of a concrete connection between the signifier and the signified. The lack of Germans in Germantown is most distressing to Jack, as he searches in vain for them, and the hilarious conversations between Jack and his son Heinrich depict Jack’s anxiety over the absence of meaning in words. Jack is extremely keen to find meaning in words and convince himself of their intrinsic ability to act on the world. He is convinced that Hitler’s power came from the German language, he names his son Heinrich because he assumes it is an inherently powerful name. He even alters his own name to ‘J.A.K.’ because he did not believe that ‘Jack’ would be an appropriate first name for a pioneer of Hitler studies [the narrator’s occupation’s significance is fairly obvious, I should think]. It’s not just language that DeLillo connects to experience and expression. Déjà vu, one of the symptoms of contamination from the airborne toxic event which occurs roughly a third of the way into the novel, renders even past experience, which our characters are so eager to connect with, and are so dependent on, suspicious.

The novel is essentially about, with regard to the characters anyway, about how we deal, or fail to deal with the postmodern condition, with the representative nature of language, a nature we are now acutely aware of, with the construction of self by/from mass media, with the pretension of religion. The characters are in search of a time when language was concretely related to objective reality, when objective reality existed [or at the very least, was thought to exist], because they wish to find a beginning for their journey, which in the postmodern condition feels hopelessly illogical and fragmented. The characters are lost and hoping to find guidance, and they look to the past to find a starting point for a journey which even near its end doesn’t yet feel like it’s begun. Paradoxically, in spite of their search for the concrete, they don’t want to arrive at the one place they certainly know they will arrive at. The characters are obsessed with simulations and with the past. At one point, Jack looks at old photo albums with his wife, instead of having sex. Even the present is too much to deal with for the characters because it necessarily involves, bar the magical appearance of a pause button, the slow linear march to death. The characters also don’t wish to deal with death because they feel that there is a guided path to follow in life, even if they have not found it yet, while death is uncharted territory, with everyone who has been in the position to chart it obviously being literally incapable of doing so.

Jack repeatedly attempts to adopt the language and behaviour of other traditions to solve his problems, but his appeals to the past and planned fusing of it with the present repeatedly fails to achieve the desired effect. To escape the emptiness of his mundane life, Jack frequently attempts to find profundity [and occasionally does] in the mundane and materialistic [and the random]. Religion is not an option for Jack. It is seen as hollow, as outdated by most characters in the novel. The German nuns near the end disturb Jack so much because he finds that even their faith is lost, and that they have the same opinion of religion as he does. Even though religion is not an option, the faith of others was an unknown source of comfort for Jack. A faithless world is extremely distressing to him. The nuns’ [lack of] beliefs also marks another point in the novel where the lack of things to take for granted is a source of concern for the characters, and especially Jack. If we cannot even assume that ‘the dead’ are dead and ‘the living’ are living, what can we assume? [See the conversation between Orest, Jack, and Heinrich if you have no idea what I’m on about]

Dylar, the drug humans can take to alleviate the consuming fear of death, was most interesting to me in its relationship to language. On Dylar, a human can literally feel a non-existent hail of bullets. This does not give us a particularly comforting concrete association between the signifier and signified, however. Regardless of what the person on Dylar may feel like, the hail of bullets never actually materializes. The disconnect between language and meaning is even greater than ever, and the confusion, imprecision and even potential meaninglessness of language is acutely revealed. Jack’s existential angst can essentially be traced to his insistence on tracing a concrete relationship between word and meaning. Jack also cannot stand the fragmentation of the postmodern condition, and desperately seeks, as I described earlier, to seek a connection with a mythical past. Jack, stuck in a shrinking and unchangeably constricted world, seeks the mythic spaciousness of the past.

Jack does eventually have his epiphany. After shooting Mink and being shot [I’m disinterested in extensive summary here, there are plenty of plot summaries you can read elsewhere], Jack is released by that horrific pain from his self-absorption and his preoccupations. He is returned once and for all to the ordinary and the meaningless. He finally finds meaning in the postmodern world, but only after being snapped out of the past. He is forced by the parodic showdown between himself and Mink to confront and accept “the old human muddles and quirks” and feel “compassion, remorse, mercy,” emotions Jack had suppressed for so long in search of nonexistent profundity. Jack’s epiphany seems to me to come in the act of writing and not in the actual events he writes about, during which even after the violence he is as naive [during the conversation with the nuns] and dishonest about himself [he doesn’t admit to shooting Mink] as ever.

I think that there is some clarity in the final chapter, though I know that others disagree. The narrator of the last chapter, post-‘epiphany’ Jack, seems particularly content to live in the present. It seems to me that we can frame his contentment as the acceptance of mystery, confusion, fragmentation, as the acceptance of looking for beauty and meaning not in concrete relationships and clear-cut ideas, but in ambiguity and uncertainty. He chooses, finally, to adapt to a disorderly world. The incongruous and disruptive presence of Wilder’s tricycle on the highway in the final chapter is so because the pace of life is interrupted not by progression but by regression and innocence. Somehow, the cars all escape hitting Wilder, and all of a sudden the order of the road, the presumed truths are thrown into question, forcing the drivers on the highway to confront their concrete ideas of the world.  The final conclusion of the language issues the novel deals with seems to be that we must satisfy ourselves with language being an artful way to arrange the chaotic postmodern condition, that we cannot expect language to resolve our mysteries and fears, but that there is beauty in the puzzles themselves. Perhaps, DeLillo seems to be suggesting on a level broader than the language stuff, we ought not to seek indeterminable truths by the way of logic, or to surrender ourselves to technology, or to seek comfort in religion, but instead to find a different faith, the faith in mystery itself, the unknowable, the uncertain, the confused. Jack, who spends most of the novel pondering big questions, doesn’t even bother in the final chapter to find the meaning behind Wilder’s bizarre trip, instead simply starting to discuss, after relating that tale, the family’s visits to the highway overpass. Jack doesn’t discuss death in the final chapter. Presumably his near-death experience has ironically allowed him to progress beyond his consuming fear of death, death being, of course, the greatest mystery of all. How else can we interpret the final chapter, except to conclude that Jack’s newfound ‘faith’ in mystery is what finally frees him from his great existential dilemmas. The final three scenes [the highway, the sunset, and the rearranged supermarket] which comprise the final chapter are collectively a subversion of the notion that are in control of everything, even death. Once Jack accepts that he is not in control of death, that he has no solution to it, he is free. How ‘happy’ an ending this is depends on your worldview, and DeLillo’s is ambiguous based on reading the novel. Perhaps Jack is finally happy and free, but also terribly deluded, and not really free but rather trapped in a delusion, a construct which enables him to deal with the unfathomable reality and the very real existential issues we must confront in our lives. After all, Jack does not find a solution. He merely sidesteps the issue altogether, finding a way not to confront it.

House of Leaves (2000, Mark Z. Danielewski)

I think the most interesting stuff in House of Leaves has to do with labyrinths, and the ensuing design and structure of the book and so on and so forth. There’s also some trite stuff to do with all that, sure, and the book is less original and unique than some of its less experienced readers seem to think it is, but it’s still compelling in many respects, particularly its stylistic nature, which though many say it is distinct from the ‘story,’ whatever that is, claiming that this is an good story “pretentiously told” or some such rubbish, is really indistinguishable from its ‘substance.’

Some of the book is just affecting on a purely gut level (analyzable intellectually, but just sort of most effective if you don’t really think about it). Zampanò being known to us only through his writings and the recollections of those who met him is pretty creepy and effective. Danielewski is clever to cast doubt on the reality of the existence of The Navidson Record, offering ‘evidence’ both for it being real and for it not being real, not only because it affords the reader the chance to get lost in further labyrinths of their own making, the labyrinths of interpretation and the labyrinths of Zampanò’s and Truant’s psyches (or psyche, hmmm?), but also because the lack of certainty is again effective and unsettling on a very basic gut level. The consequences being the same regardless of the authenticity of The Navidson Record is interesting for several reasons I don’t care to write about, but the most important should be pretty apparent: the reader can be affected by fiction the same way, or even more, than she is by reality. What applies to Truant applies to us. The rules of the book’s world are unsettlingly close to those of reality, robbing us of the comfort of fiction, the assumption that it doesn’t really matter because it’s not real.

Danielewski’s as interesting as he is trite with the use of labyrinths as metaphors, here. The labyrinth in the house reflects the characters’ psyches because they build it with their mind, it is the labyrinth of their mind, and if more than one of them is in it, it is the labyrinth of their collective mind and its collective preoccupations. At all narrative levels, the book is ultimately about navigating the maze of the self, which is sort of trite. Still, not as trite as the conclusion we reach in which Karen and Navidson, after navigating their inner mazes, meet each other at the end of the labyrinth, after overcoming their own personal minotaurs. Their wuv brought them together, safely out of their individual labyrinths. Blegh. Ugh. Ick. Danielewski ain’t Borges, baby.

Zampanò creates his own labyrinth, that much is clear. His House of Leaves is literally labyrinthine in structure and in content, a maze of fact and fiction, of the relevant and irrelevant, of dead end footnotes and others that lead the reader to much textual exploration. The published version as gathered and sort of edited by Johnny Truant, the thing we’re reading, is actually a maze already half-navigated. The trunk Truant finds is a massively disorderly jumble of writing on any number of surfaces, a labyrinth which Truant himself navigated just to be able to present us with the labyrinth that is the published final product. Truant’s psyche is in itself labyrinthine, and the character superbly well-drawn through the footnotes and appendices. The style and content of the Truant footnotes can sometimes seem like a riff on Ellis or Palahniuk, but Truant is a better character than those guys ever came up with, and with a much more compelling psychological profile. Besides, Danielewski proves competent at a number of prose styles here, so there isn’t the nagging sense that maybe he can only write like a fucked up fifteen year old fantasizing about his craaaaazy future life. Maybe the whole book is Truant’s navigation of his own personal labyrinth, that of his self and mind, maybe The Navidson Record was made up by Zampanò, but Zampanò was made up by Truant, not that Johnny would agree with that take on things. There’s a reasonable amount of evidence to support this interpretation, but that’s a whole academic research paper, and I’m just trying to write informally about some shit that’s in my head right now.

Even the potentially-fictional-not-that-it-matters Navidson Record, the film I mean, is a labyrinth, described as such by Zampanò. We are guided in interpretation of it, but also given a thorough run-down of what actually happens in the film, hence we are also invited to get lost in the labyrinths of our own interpretations of wtf is going on in that damn movie, let alone that damn house. The movie doesn’t even allow us a good view of htf the house really looks, apparently, what with all the jump-cuts and what not. It’s all promise of a definitive answer but no resolution, an inescapable labyrinth of interpretation.

Zampanò strikes through any mention of the myth of the minotaur and its interpretive relevance, because, and here Danielewski gets trite again (but it’s okay because the pretty, red, struck-through minotaur-related text is pretty fucking awesome to read), presumably, there’s no need for a physical beast in this labyrinth with (even made of, possibly) so many psychological demons for the characters (and us, probably) to deal with.

And now on to some of the best shit: the physical aspects of the novel. The different labyrinths we as readers are invited to navigate are marked by distinct fonts, which is even more interesting because we’re constantly being invited in each labyrinth to enter another labyrinth, often leading to dead ends and often to page upon page of exploration. At certain points, we’re even told to re-read passages we’ve already read, much like we might find ourselves returning to a familiar point in a physical maze. Or you could just choose to ignore the guidance of the footnotes etc. and just make this book into your own personal labyrinth, navigate it any way you wish to, but you’re risking getting seriously lost in the book’s convolutions. Not that following the structured narrative is much better. It’s very easy to lose track of what you were reading after being taken on a trip by one of the cursed footnotes. The novel physically duplicates the form of a labyrinth in its structural design, not only in the placement of words and sentences, but even ideas and themes. The book itself is a textual reflection of that strange hallway in the Navidson house. The text itself even mirrors (in ways too complex to discuss without elongating this ‘review’ or whatever it is to thesis-length) the actual narrative events, on those really gorgeous near-blank pages. Danielewski forces us to flip forward and back through the book, up and down, right and left. We twist and turn as if in a real labyrinth, looking for a way out (with the reading experience, I guess this would be some Truth or End, which we’re trying to reach through the endless diversions). Danielewski, through the uncertainty of the fictional reality of that which affects his characters, has already created a world with rules uncomfortably similar to reality’s, but furthers this by using typography to make reading House of Leaves itself an, er, unheimlich experience.

Danielewski, with House of Leaves, has come close to really using the potential the form of a novel offers, which most authors, even the truly great ones, the ones much greater than Danielewski himself, fail to use. For that, this novel deserves the attention it receives. Some of the exuberant praise may be unwarranted, and there are several problems I had with the novel overall which keep it from ranking with the greats, but I don’t really want to talk about that stuff. On a single page of House of Leaves, we can find multiple stories side by side, we can find colours and graphics which sure are pretty but are also relevant and mean something, we can find a truly intense page jam-packed with content and food for thought. Alternatively, we can find a page with one word, ‘snaps,’ let’s say, a page reached after much dizzying book-spinning, a page so pregnant with meaning that it may as well be a full chapter in another author’s book. The right adjective to describe Danielewski’s House of Leaves is ‘admirable.’ ‘Meticulous’ also works.

Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries (2003, Michael Rymer/Ronald D. Moore)

The endlessly hyped, highly acclaimed ‘reimagining’ of 70’s camp SF classic Battlestar Galactica was unleashed on genre fans and the rest of the viewing public in 2003, introduced by this miniseries which leads into the television series proper. Ronald D. Moore, the man responsible in part for some of both the best and worst Star Trek we’ve seen, was the main creative force behind the reimagining, and that’s not surprising at all once you’ve watched the miniseries. It’s quite like Ron Moore Trek, but unfortunately not the best of it. Fortunately, it’s also not too much like the worst of it.

The miniseries is essentially an introduction to the characters and world of Battlestar Galactica, and setup for the series proper. It also stands on its own as a story of people having to get along and find a way to cooperate for survival, after humans have become nearly extinct on Not-Earth, destroyed in a wave of nuclear attacks by Cylons, a robotic ‘race’ created by humans, who eventually (obviously) turned on them. Forgive the simplicity of that summary, I don’t wish to describe the full events of this three hour long miniseries.

The miniseries has a grating visual style. Both the design and the video cinematography are annoyingly, self-consciously… ugly? The writing suffers from a similar self-consciousness. The writing is fairly adolescent. The characterization and the motivations we are given which advance the plot are convincing, but simple, shallow, and largely uninteresting. While a miniseries about the aftermath of the near-extinction of humanity probably shouldn’t be comedic, it is excessively grim, much like its visual style is. It has not even the slightest inkling of a sense of humour. If you’re going to be so serious, so ‘dark,’ the writing ought to sparkle. The characters ought to be really convincing. We should feel the weight of the story.

Battlestar Galactica, the miniseries, is too self-serious, it isn’t interesting or sophisticated enough to earn the right to such grimness. The characters don’t hold as much weight as they need to for this tone to work. The story feels melodramatic and silly, not affecting. Worst of all are the attempts at profundity, or at least at discussing and exploring serious concepts. The failure of these attempts don’t bode well for the series proper, which has been praised for a ‘mature’ handling of Serious Issues and Important Questions. I sincerely hope it does that better than this miniseries does, or at least offers more engaging storytelling than this miniseries offers, as this miniseries is essentially dull people having dull conversations, and dealing dully with questions and concerns that ought to be intriguing. The miniseries never does more than lay there and just flop around like a dead fish, it never really takes off, making it quite an unpleasant three hours overall. Still, there is promise here, and Baltar and Number Six are interesting.

Que la bête meure/This Man Must Die (1969, Claude Chabrol)

After  a number of fairly mediocre efforts released in the early to late sixties, French auteur Claude Chabrol got back on track with the excellent Les Biches, and followed that film with Que la bête meure, an intensely involving revenge drama which puts the emphasis on the psychology of the main character, and the ethical and moral implications of the film’s events, rather than action and violence.

The movie opens in typical revenge thriller fashion, with a child being killed in a hit-and-run, and his father vowing to track down, and kill, the perpetrator. Slowly but surely, and masterfully, Chabrol alters the routine course of the revenge movie. All the main players find each other relatively quickly, and the movie thrives on the suspense of their interactions. Outside of the contrived and convenient manner in which the clue that sets the story proper in motion is discovered, the screenplay largely avoids serious pitfalls, and the dialogue is as sophisticated as the direction, as perfectly orchestrated as the camera in building tension and drama carefully and gradually.

After employing a very mobile camera for Les Biches, Chabrol takes a different approach for Que la bête meure. Que la bête meure is less stylized and more natural, with the shot composition never feeling as contrived as it sometimes did in Chabrol’s immediately preceding effort, although there is some very good and very deliberate work. Chabrol uses close-ups to great effect, particularly in a scene late in the film, set on a sail boat.

One of the striking features re Que la bête meure is that while it deliberately builds suspense, it refuses to work as a thriller, and this is most clearly seen towards the end of the film when we get the standard twists but they’re played so subtly and are so low-key that the viewer’s attention isn’t really drawn to them. The plot doesn’t really matter here, the film is about much more, it’s about ethics, about human nature, and Chabrol does well to apply these questions to the characters so that we are never far removed from the emotions they are going through, in particular the main character Charles, played by Michel Duchaussoy.

After a string of disappointing Chabrol efforts, the last two years of the sixties saw the release of two essential Chabrol films. Que la bête meure is not a perfect film, and it may not even necessarily be a great film, but it is engaging, enjoyable, intelligent, and far from empty. It also has that nagging tendency to stick to one’s thoughts after a viewing.

Polytechnique (2009, Denis Villeneuve)

Two of the three most popular IMDb comments on Polytechnique are absolutely appalling. The most popular one is simply nothing more than a misogynist tirade, a torrent of woman-hating bilge. It is exactly the reason that remembering as we do in Canada this great tragedy, that reminding everyone of its horror, is necessary. Are you aware, dear reader, that Men’s Rights Activists celebrate Saint Marc Day on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women? Yes, Saint Marc, because being so pathetic, so weak, so imbecilic, to blame your life’s failures on feminists, that’s sainthood for ya. The other of the two horrific comments just in the three most popular ones is one of the most intellectually bankrupt and factually misguided pieces of trash I’ve had the misfortune of reading, and it’s really a shame because it’s written by a person who ought to know better, and who is traditionally one of the more astute critics on the IMDb.

Polytechnique is a fictional reconstruction of the events. It’s similar to Elephant (both of them), and I maintain my belief that this is the only appropriate way to treat the Polytechnique massacre. It, wisely, does not attempt to moralize about, you know, something like the cause of this event. Thank heavens it doesn’t do that. The last thing we need is someone else justifying the evil of Marc Lepine’s act, and taking the logically unjustifiable leap from “Marc believed he was marginalized by misandrist attitudes” to “Marc was in fact marginalized by misandrist attitudes.”

Some critics argue that Polytechnique isn’t worth much, because it doesn’t tell us anything about the massacre. It doesn’t help us understand more about the reasons behind Marc’s actions, it doesn’t explore much of anything surrounding the events. At most, the movie comments through its characters on the nature and amount of hatred in our world. In Canada, where we like to think we have progressed well beyond such attitudes, whether it be race hate or hatred based on sex, gender, or sexual orientation, events like these will be there to remind us of how hate bubbles underneath the surface of even our so open and tolerant society. These criticisms are worthless, and baseless. The film offers plenty of food for thought. It is confrontational, not philosophical.

Polytechnique is a formally elegant and intelligent reminder. One may take from it what they wish. It avoided two of the major potential flaws a film about the massacre may have had: ending up as an attempt to ‘understand’ the massacre by honouring Marc Lepine’s absurd, hateful words as gospel, as reason to believe that is what did in fact cause his actions, and it also largely avoids being infested with false sentiment and cheapness. The choice to film in black and white gives the film a questionable aesthetic quality, considering its nature, considering the violence on display. The film still works, and it is as good as any film about the massacre could have been.

The Goodbye Girl (1977, Herbert Ross.

Note to readers: take your prescriptive grammar nazism elsewhere.

Circumstances. Circumstances can be funny. Neil Simon thinks so. Neil Simon comes up with pretty contrived movie circumstances in which he sets up, and finds, the comedy in his writing. Is ‘contrived’ really much of a criticism when discussing this sort of comedy? Probably not. Anyway, we end up with this woman, who is I guess the lead character, maybe the co-lead, or maybe Richard Dreyfuss is the lead, I don’t know, anyway, the woman is Paula, played by Marsha Mason, and Richard Dreyfuss, he ends up in her apartment. Well, it’s not her apartment, it’s actually his apartment, but she was there before he was. So it’s weird. Marsha Mason has a daughter, Quinn Cummings, who is pretty great for a child actor in this role. Richard Dreyfuss is weird, like, he meditates and plays his guitar nude and shit.

Basically, a romance between Marsha Mason and Richard Dreyfuss unfolds, and the viewer is expected to go awww on cue, she is expected to go aaaah on cue, but Neil Simon’s cues are so goddamned obvious, man, it’s just not that much fun. The snappy dialogue? It’s good. That’s all, it’s good. It’s not special. Herbert Ross does what he does with every movie he ever directed, he does a decent job. The difference between a good Herbert Ross movie and a bad one is just the screenplay. The Goobye Girl, by The Great Neil Simon, is really just sort of lame and dull a lot of the time, with some great individual scenes.

It’s very New York-y. That’s enough for some people. Some people just like New York so much that New York-y movies with New York-y characters just do it for them. Man, I don’t know, maybe Neil Simon is awesome and I’m just delusional, but this is what I call, to borrow an acquaintance’s parlance, ‘a yuk-yuk movie.’ A giggle here, a giggle there, a yuk-yuk here and there. It’s all too lightweight, too flighty, too inconsequential. There’s no reason to really care about these characters. There’s a few moments where the humour is really clever and you go, ‘woah’ and go ‘shit, that was good,’  but most of the time it’s what your 67 year old high school English teacher in that sweater whose favourite writer is Dickens, whose favourite song is some Frank Sinatra take on a standard, whose favourite movie is, I don’t know, Shane, it’s that guy’s idea of a really… swell? rom-com.

To people who are just more hip to the hip shit and shit, this shit’s just dull.*

*syntax sic, taken as such from the imbecilic portion of my mind, located in my lower intestine.

The Big Heat (1953, Fritz Lang)

Regarded as one of the greatest of the late entries in Film Noir, Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat offers thrills, suspense, drama, action, sharp dialogue, violence, brutality… Most of the whole package, but falls just short and just where it matters the most. Unfortunately, the movie really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The screenplay, while featuring typically sharp and enjoyable exchanges between the characters, just doesn’t hold much weight. The characterization is cheap, obvious, and heavy-handed, the story is a weak, lame excuse for some admittedly exceptional individual scenes, and the characters’ motivations are maudlin and disinteresting. The faults don’t end at Boehm’s screenplay, as Lang drastically over-does some absolutely crucial scenes, especially those involving the lead character’s home life, which ideally would form the emotional core of the movie, but instead are predictable and lead to disengagement from Bannion’s (Glen Ford) emotional journey in the film. The scene which is designed to really get things going and jolt the audience into rapturous attention instead feels obvious and contrived. Ford’s fine in the role, everyone in this movie is just fine, and nobody’s remarkable. The film’s worthwhile only for certain individual scenes and exchanges, and is noteworthy for the brutality and violence on display. On occasion, the noteworthiness and worthwhileness intertwine, most notably in the infamous scenes involving very hot coffee.