Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Movie: No Country for Old Men (2007)

This movie was praised as the best movie of 2007. It was a multiple oscar candidate (and winner) and the latest work of the Coen brothers (also known from The Big Lebowski, Fargo and more). Is it good? Yes it is, but it is a moviemaker’s movie, if you catch my drift. It is the kind of movie that will be shown as course material for movie students but naive or innocent theatre guests might stumble bewildered from their seats.

At the start of the movie it resembles a slow, standard action movie about a person shooting other persons. But it becomes a tense movie as it progresses. The Coen brothers know what they are doing and have complete control over every single shot, the way Quentin Tarantino has, only less obvious. It is also a very silent movie. There is almost no music, because music makes a movie more approachable and that is not part of the Coen’s agenda. As a result the whole cinema was dead silent, fixated on the screen.

What the Coens set out to do, is toy with the expectations of the viewer. Some might interpret the result as bad filmmaking, but the directors did it on purpose. Time and again they set up scenes, only to let them end completely different as expected from wellknown movie tropes. Systematically they tackled all the conventions of regular action movies, until the viewer loses all grip on what is happening. And exactly the same thing is happening to the main character. As the old deputee Tommy Lee Jones mumbles tiredly about how the world has changed, and how it doesn’t make sense any more, we know what he means. The Coens made us feel exactly like him.

Jones sums it up in his final speech just before the end credits roll. This movie is a rough country, and it made you, like Jones, and old man, unable to handle what is happening and there is no father out there to help you out. It is no country for old men.

IMDB: No Country for Old Men

Book: Mervyn Peake - The Gormenghast Novels

Consisting of:
Titus Groan (1946)
Gormenghast (1950)
Titus Alone (1959)

Mervyn Peake is not so much a writer, but more a painter. A painter of scenes and he uses words instead of paint. In broad lines he sketches a room, scrutinizes it from a distance, advances like a predator with his fingers raised high to strike upon his paralyzed keyboard, but when he reaches the keys he puts a few well-chosen words where they belong with a loving touch and a twinkle in his eye. Such are his chapters built up.

His chapters are sometimes not more than a single scene, or a single conversation. You can imagine that the Gormenghast novels do have an elaborate plot because there is simply no time and space for it. The book is already thick as it is. But it does not matter, for it is the atmosphere that matters. The tale is set almost entirely within a claustrophobic castle of enormous proportions, Gormenghast, with its mysterious shadows and creaks from old age, howling drafts, twisting alleys and stairs. The characters are near caricatures, grotesque but compelling.

Mervyn Peake created something wholly original by plunging the darkest chasms of his imagination and painted a surrealistic, macabre masterwork that somehow connects to deep roots of the subconscious. Gormenghast paved the way for gothic subcultures and its influence is clearly to be found in the Harry Potter novels. Some consider it to be one of the greatest works of the English language.

Reading Gormenghast is not easy. I cannot read for long stretches because the mood and darkness of the place becomes too oppressive, but I cannot stay away from it for too long because Peake’s descriptions have enveloped my mind. I have never been so fully immersed in another world.

No book can prepare you for the Gormenghast novels, because they are unlike anything ever written.

Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

Movie: The Fall (2006)

Director Tarsem Singh (better known from his movie The Cell, but never mind) has worked for years on this movie, which would become an ode to the beauty of the place of his birth: India. By choosing only the most arresting locations and using a minimum of special effects, Tarsem has made one of the most visually beautiful films of all times.

It soon becomes very clear that The Fall is indeed directed by the director of The Cell: surrealistic locations, bizarre costumes and fantastic landscapes. Many reviewers call this style over substance, but I do not agree with that condemnation.

This movie has two storylines: (1) the story of a stunt double, Roy, who ends up in the hospital after a failed attempt to impress his ex girlfriend. He meets the little girl Alexandria and uses her to steal morphine by telling her stories. (2) The story that Roy tells Alexandria. We see everything through her imagination and it is set in India. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice in the story that Alexandria misinterprets what Roy tells her.

The story is made up on the spot. As it progresses, Alexandria adds ideas of her own and it becomes a project of both of them. The way the story shapes itself is a pleasure to behold. The true heart of the movie is the interaction between Roy and Alexandria, and with it the interaction between the story they make up and the real world. It is a source of humor, tension, creativity, friendship and eventually the power to change the real world.

It is not all fun and games though. Roy needs to find his own redemption. The Fall has quickly become one of my favorites and I think I can watch this movie over and over again. If you like storytelling and visual spectacle, it is not to be missed.

IMDB: The Fall

Movie: Låt Den Rätte Komma In (2008)

Vampires seem to be hot these days. There is a new hype going on, named Twilight, after the vampire novels of Stephanie Meyer, in which uncertain teenage girls are powerless for the unbearable hotness of our secretive bloodsucking fellows. It is quickly becoming a franchise. But here is something quite different and extraordinary: Let The Right One In. A Swedish movie after a Swedish book.

It is a movie about children but it is not for children. The 12 year old Oskar gets bullied a lot and is altogether lonely, until he meets Eli, a girl of his age, and a vampire. They meet outsides in the evening in the cold snowy darkness of the Swedish winter. There is much more to this film. There are different storylines running in the back of it, in the deep shadows cast by trees upon the red snow.

It is a typical arthouse film with an icy atmosphere. The lonely, cold and dark Swedish landscape gives the movie a quiet, chilly feel. Sometimes the movie itself is rather quiet. The director shows a lot but dialogues are sparse. Music is used sparingly, but when used it is excellent. It is the kind of macabre movie that ends with a smile of happiness and that stays in the back of your head for the rest of the day.

Compared to this, Twilight is such a product. It is a very beautiful movie.

IMDB: Låt den rätte komma in

Book: E.R. Eddison - The Worm Ouroboros (1922)

The Worm Ouroboros is a curious book. Written 30 years before The Lord of the Rings, it is often seen as the Ring’s predecessor. And when Tolkien’s work was published, the comparison with Eddison’s book did not always go in Tolkien’s favour. Eddison too gives us a fully realised world, the creation of which began in Eddison’s teenage years.

Eddison believed in living life to the full, like commercials tell us today. All his characters are larger than life, glorious heroes and passionate villains. Houses are grand, the landscape is legendary, women are beautiful and glory is worth dying for. The book makes me feel like hitting my chest with a fist and let out a primordial scream, but it is not a primordial book. There is real philosophy behind it. Eddison believed in this world, and especially beauty, beauty of women and beauty of landscapes, is a real tangible thing in this world. At the beginning it sounds overdone, but it has a cumulative effect to the extent that you actually feel that you experience a world with a different set of values. Ancient Greek, or Viking. It is the only way in which the ending of the book would make any sense (I can say no more).

Add to this that Eddison is a fantastic storyteller. When the action starts, it is there to stay till the end of the book. And he tells his story in Shakespearian proze, which might be hard at first, but gives a wonderful feel to it. It will make you read the story in small pieces so you can savour it slowly and let the wonderful feel linger in your brain. (Here I must confess that I have read the Dutch translation, but even so, the book’s volcanic nature apparently has radiated through.)

So here we have scene after scene of beautifully crafted material. Our heroes are happily climbing an unclimbable mountain, while looking to tame an untameable animal to ride to a land which cannot be reached, while their country gets invaded by a perpetually resurrecting villain. Still the book is a flawed masterpiece, because it has some irksome failings. 1) The first 15 or so pages give an introduction about a guy that dreams about flying to Mercury and then disappears from the story, 2) All the nations have names like demonland, impland and witchland, but all the inhabitants are simply humans. Let us forgive and forget these quirks. Perhaps Eddison could not discard some of his teenage ponderings.

This book is a force of nature. It becomes the symbol of a philosophy that stays with everyone who reads it.

Book: Patricia McKillip – The Riddle-Master Trilogy

Comprising of:
The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976)
Heir of Sea and Fire (1977)
Harpist in the Wind (1979)

In the seventies, two writers, Patricia McKillip and Stephen Donaldson, had a close friendship and both set out to write their own fantasy epic. Donaldson published the first book of his Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and in the same year, McKillip published The Riddle-Master of Hed. I suppose the two would make a nice pair on your shelf.
Both authors claim to be inspired by Tolkien. But although McKillip admits so, her trilogy is remarkably original. Far more so than piles of epics that do not make such confessions. And although there is now available an excellent omnibus of all three parts, her story stays quite unread.

On with the review. McKillip’s writing is not just solid, but also lush and dreamy. At times quite descriptive, but always beautiful:

"The wind sped past like wild horses, pouring through empty rooms, thundering down the street to spiral the tower and moan through its secret chamber."

The book can be reread just for the richness of her writing. But let’s not forget her characters. Almost all of them are human. There are no Elves of Dwarves or Dragons in this epic. Only wizards and things-I-will-not-spoil-for-you. They have a very realistic feel about them. Especially in the second half of the story, the main characters are supposed to be romantically involved, but they quibble and whine and on the whole really get to know each other. Also the character Deth is one of the most interesting characters in the history of the fantasy genre.
The worldbuilding is very rich. During the story, McKillip makes the reader familiar with its interesting past in moments of creative brilliance. Also her idea of a magical land-rule remains fresh throughout the books and the riddle-society as an alternative to science or an historical institute feels utterly believable. And the story itself is epic alright. Battling armies, ancient powers, world-rule.

Are there no negative comments to make? Well, I didn’t like her use of names. Deth, Yrth, Hel, Hed. It sounds too shallow to me.