Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Book: J.D. Salinger - The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Please excuse the following obliquatory slimy introduction. This is one of the most famous American novels of all time and has permanently claimed a high spot on all those all time top lists. The author, J.D. Salinger, recently passed away so his masterpiece is suddenly in focus again. It’s one of those books that get ruined because students have to read it against their will on schools, but it is actually an exhilarating read for everyone older than fifteen. End of introduction.

The Catcher in the Rye is about a loudmouthed teenager named Holden, who has some real problems with the adult world. He is no child anymore but wants to protect all that is childlike and innocent, that what he has lost himself. But the adult world waiting for him is fake, phony, a goddamn joke. For about 24 hours we look through his eyes while he tells us how he raves like a cussing madman through the streets of New York, disliking everything that crosses his path.

Holden is a worst case teenager and we all recognize some part of ourselves in him. His memoir is funny as we sympathize, because yes, we have been there and we know the world can be phony place, and we admire his skill to dislike almost everything. But his view of the world is also a bit of a trap that pollutes your own, because it isn’t very optimistic. It isn’t the answer to life, but Holden has yet to learn that fact.

J.D. Salinger delivers it all in sharp, witty, crystal-clear prose. Holden is a unique character, and one of the best ever written. The story feels straightforward, simple, but the writer is a master of dialogue and hides just beneath the surface a depth and complexity that you don’t even consciously notice upon first read. It is easy to read and to relate to, funny and sad. It will not leave you unstirred.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Movie: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

To explain a film like The Imaginarium, a reviewer invariably turns to describing the unusual style of the director. Terry Gilliam is the director, and anyone familiar with his movies (try Brazil, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or the more disturbing Tideland) knows that he is unconventional, but always tries to present something wonderful.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is Gilliam as we know it: a patchy film, quick and chaotic, a bit troublesome to follow or to get the hang on, and filled to the brim with imagination. Occasionally it looks like Gilliam tries to tell more stories than the two hours permit, throwing in whatever came to his mind at the time. My guess is that this movie is Gilliam’s ode to storytelling, much like Big Fish was Tim Burton’s, but Gilliam’s is a far more trippy experience. To explain the story would take another page, and, on screen as well, remains a bit hard to digest.

In the end, this film will probably go down in history as “Heath Ledger’s last film”. He died before completing his scenes, and halfway in the movie his role is filled by no less than Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell. This is done quite seamlessly as we jump from imaginary world to imaginary world. They all give great performances, as do all the members of Parnassus’s team. You will probably not be transported into a world of wonders, but if you like your films to be unpredictable, vivid and visionary as a feverish dream, the Imaginarium is waiting for you.

IMDB: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Monday, February 8, 2010

Movie: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

A jolly adventure based on the famous book by Roald Dahl, complete with talking foxes, beavers and badgers in an English countryside of the Wallace & Gromit variety. It is not all fun though, there is drama too and familiar family problems. Before you watch it: you should know that this is a movie by director Wes Anderson, and Wes Anderson has a very unique style.

The ingredients of an Anderson movie are a bit as follows. His characters are witty, quirky, and often recognizable as stereotypes. His movies are very quotable. Then there is the settings and atmosphere. Every cameramove, every little piece of background has been taken care of and is often colorful and elaborate. Sometimes he contructs enormous sets to make his camera float over it, such as a house where the wall is cut away. Finally, to top it all off, Anderson has a strange sense of humor. His movies balance in a confusing way between comedy and drama. All of this goes for Fantastic Mr Fox as well. Once you get used to his style, it can be quite entertaining, so try it out.

Some like that stuff, some don’t. But perhaps all his movies so far have had more in common in style with animation than live action, and now is the first time that Anderson really turns to animation. And what kind of animation does he chooses? Stop-motion. Thats the way clay dinosaurs were made from the 1930s King Kong movie. But he succeeds bravely with an enormous production of top quality. Anderson is still growing as an artist and Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of the best animations of the year.

IMDB: Fantastic Mr. Fox

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book: Richard Dawkins - The Greatest Show On Earth (2009)

The Evidence For Evolution, as the second title goes. More than 30 years have passed since Richard Dawkins wrote the influential The Selfish Gene and followup books, and established himself as a brilliant scientist and educator. That was the start of his journey into popular science writing, ending up with the controversial The God Delusion. Any man changes over three decades and Dawkins’ journey is deeply reflected in his books.

Even though Dawkins explains that this book is not about The God Delusion but about science, The Greatest Show On Earth is hardly a return to the dense and high level The Selfish Gene. His stories have become simpler, using more words to explain less information, and sometimes are on the brink of being pedantic. Especially when the science he presents is interspersed with comments to and about creationists and the like (although, as a biologist, I must say that his chapter about Missing Links and likewise nonsense was very entertaining, yet also highly distressing that he needed to include it). His increasing passionate way of reasoning may have its origin in the tradition of British intellectials, but I am afraid it does not help Dawkins and instead impassionates the countermovement.

One could say that Richard Dawkins has “evolved” according to his environment during the last 30 years and is now conducting an “evolutionary arms race” with creationists. His clear reasoning is still there, and Dawkins remains one of the world’s foremost scientific minds and educators, but reading The Greatest Show On Earth is not unlike stepping into a crossfire where one is forced to pick a side. But I suppose that is what Dawkins set out to do.