Norwegian Wood (film)

How I missed those loving arms

It’s easy to have bad ideas. One such idea was “Let’s make Norwegian Wood into a movie!”
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami’s breakout novel, has in my uninformed opinion influenced Japanese cinema culture in the 24 years since it was first published. The nostalgic student romance genre has been essentially perfected as an art by a long series of directors – some distinctive, some interchangeable, but many worthwhile.

The same can’t be said of Anh Hung Tran, who has taken only the bad lessons and excesses of so much student melodrama and fashioned them into a movie that is not only superficial, but deeply unsatisfying. I don’t see how anyone who has read the book could be pleased with this result but, more than that, it is a failure of the cinematic form. Dull and soporific when it isn’t being irritating and shrill, there’s nothing here to recommend.

Beginners

No one on this poster is this happy in the film itself.

Beginners is the sort of movie that I’m required by law to love, but I couldn’t. Emotional distance is a huge factor in too many contemprary movies: fundamentally broken characters who don’t care about fixing themselves, choosing instead to fixate on their moping don’t make for particularly interesting movies. This is not to say that you can’t make films about depression or depressed characters, just that, like any other film, you should work on making them engaging in at least some regard.

That Beginners tells such a personal story makes its distance unforgivable.

Oliver (Ewan McGregor) is recovering from the death of his four years out of the closet father Hal (Christopher Plummer).He meets Anna (Mélanie Laurent, who still hasn’t learned to pick them after Inglourious Basterds), an actress, and they kind of have a relationship but kind of don’t. The film features parallel story lines of the last months of Hal’s life and the beginning of Oliver and Anna’s relationship.

Mike Mills wrote Beginners in response to his own father’s coming out. You would think this would endow the movie with a degree of feeling, but it doesn’t. The whole exercise is remote. Oliver’s mother is represented in flashbacks reminiscent of Harold and Maude; Oliver tries to trace his melancholy to his parents’ presumed loveless marriage, but the answer is much simpler: he’s a sad sack, endlessly waiting for a lion.

It’s easy to blame your parents for everything, especially when you deliberately don’t seek parts of the story that make sense of their emotions and actions. The childhood flashback sequences of this movie don’t particularly prove anything except that Hal felt absent and Oliver misses his mother. These scenes are quirky but offer little. The film’s whole structure doesn’t make much sense; the parallels aren’t easy enough for us to draw, and what Oliver is doing always feels the same regardless of whether his father is alive or dead.

Periodically the film is broken up by Oliver’s illustrations of the history of sadness. These are for his job, where they prove profoundly unsaleable. They were drawn by Mills himself, and they seem too pithy to really reflect what is supposed to be fighting to release itself from Oliver. At other times the film tries to force collages of “these were the days”, utterly failing to set the scene and continuing to take the audience further and further away from the film and from Oliver himself.

Ultimately Oliver’s depression becomes the entire content of the film: that his father was gay and died seems incidental; that he can’t connect and commit to a potential girlfriend is symptomatic but irrelevant.  Depression can feel like your life has become a total blank, and largely meaningless to you. It can be frustrating. Oliver is undeniably frustrated; he can touch but he cannot feel. Mills has injected this melancholy into the very marrow of Beginners, resulting in a film that is bland and tasteless.

It’s disconcerting to feel this disconnect: dead and dying parents are supposed to be a safe way to get audiences to discover their emotions. Christopher Plummer attacks the role with gusto, but it’s always presented through the filter of Oliver. He is shown feeling grief, but we feel nothing. We’re given the memory of this grief, but it is the grief of a man looking at himself and thinking “where did I go wrong?”. I would dearly have liked to feel sad that Hal had died, but Mills never let me.

Any movie with a gay theme and a big name cast like this is going to get a special kind of attention from the outer limits of media. Beginners has been well received, and that’s the mystery: there’s really nothing to it. We’re bathing in misery which is only occasionally leavened by imagined subtitles from Oliver’s dog.

Beginners has nothing to say about romantic relationships, nor does it explore the particularly fascinating reality of a man finally allowing himself to be gay at 75.  A guy is sad, his father was happy. Guy continues to be sad, maybe thinks he shouldn’t be sad any more but he’s not sure.

You don’t have to like Beginners. It’s not really that good a film, tackling important and interesting issues in the least engaging way possible. Mike Mills was perfectly suited to make this film but he failed his material, gazing so far into his own navel that he disappeared into it.

Norwegian Wood

 

When people see that you’re reading Norwegian Wood, there are two possible responses: “What’s that?” and, of course, “Isn’t it good?”

Ah, the sixties. They were a time. I think, despite my constant exposure to Japanese film, that this is my first time reading Japanese literature. I would like to think that, while this novel is apparently part of a larger canon of sixties student reminiscences, it has been heavily influential in the field of Japan’s romantic drama film industry. That’s precisely what it is: a heavily evocative mood piece about a guy who finds it very difficult to strike any kind of mood at all.

While this is my first foray into reading Japanese literature, it is exceedingly clear that Murakami’s work has been influential in the now common cinematic genre of “sixties student romance”. While a lot of those films have more of the melodrama about them than anything else, they have been touched in some small way by Murakami’s words.

Upon hearing the Beatles tune “Norwegian Wood”, Toru Watanabe remembers his student days and the women he knew, how they affected his life. One in particular, Naoko, may well have been the woman for him … But we know from the first page that it was not to be.

Murakami’s voice, in the translation at least, comes across as strongly evocative of the era it describes. Large swathes of Japan look the same today as they did in the sixties and one could likely do a Norwegian Wood tour of Japan if they so desired, but they don’t need to; Murakami’s is skilled enough to make the reader believe that they’re remembering their own late teens, albeit at a cold remove.

For all his lyricism, Toru is undoubtedly a blank cypher of a character. Not particularly talented in any field, he’s defined by his relationships with the women around him: he is a sponge with no self-esteem, equipped to absorb stories and carry on without an idea of his own self worth. He has no stories of his own to tell people, so he either discusses The Great Gatsby (to minimal success) or his hard-done-by roommate (whose departure he mourns because he now lacks the inspiration to generate new funny stories).

So Toru is at his best when the women in his life are relating their own journeys to him. They have done things, they feel things, that Toru has never allowed himself to engage with. It is with them he is able to relax, but also with them he gets too uptight to manage. He’s not as functioning a member of society as he would have you believe.

Where the book deals sensitively with mental illness, it is merciless on the subject of narcissism. We realise that we don’t have to like Toru because, despite his self-loathing, he is completely oblivious to anything that doesn’t directly involve him. Midori, one of the book’s four women, has a different brand of self-regard that both complements and conflicts with Toru’s own.

Were it not for the constantly looming spectre of suicide, Norwegian Wood could likely represent the sixties student life of just about anywhere. There is a unique Japanese nature to the experience but, despite some very specific situations, it does feel that it contains a universality, albeit one that took 14 years to be dispersed universally. Due to Toru’s detached nature it’s difficult to have an emotional response to the material; it’s like reading through a fine gauze curtain, occasionally taking pause at a particularly impressive passage.

Murakami has ultimately produced an artfully rendered work of slightly broken humanity. Isn’t it good?

Oscars 2011 Post-Mortem

For at least the past decade, the Oscars have been the same every year: a boring ceremony lacking in spectacle or pageantry that drags too long and ultimately disappoints. The excitement generated by the Oscars is never actually justified by the show that we end up with. It’s been the same for the longest time, and I can’t remember when it was last great. My most vivid Oscars memory is Billy Crystal’s intro to the movies of 1998, and my most violent Oscars protest was seeing Brokeback Mountain for a second time instead of watching the ceremony as a way of boycotting Crash (what an outrage).

 

But no, the Oscars are not a good show any more. We’re going to keep on doing it ad infinitum, and we’re going to find excuses for the severe lack of entertainment occurring. By the time we got to the In Memoriam phase of the evening, a lot of people on Twitter were saying that it should have contained “90% of the show” or at least James Franco and Anne Hathaway. Now, this isn’t fair. Franco and Hathaway did the best they could with what they were given, but the ceremony is so bloated that regardless of their performances people will just blame them for every shortcoming.

Observe Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin last year: a lot of people hated them, even though they were kinda funny. The identity of the host is mostly irrelevant, although some, like Jon Stewart, are undeniably worse than others. They simply don’t matter.

The hosts show up at the start of the show and introduce the evening, and then they occasionally come out just to remind you that they’re the hosts. Because they’re the sole focal point of the show (and this year they couldn’t even stick to their weird conceit of “let’s celebrate Gone With The Wind and stuff” beyond a few seconds), people focus on them. We blame Franco and Hathaway for the lack of momentum, for the rigidity of the system.

If we’re Ricky Gervais we somehow make it all about ourselves, writing a bizarre script suggesting that all of the jokes would be made at our own expense rather than talking about movies – a fine way of doing oneself absolutely no favours beyond the salvageable damage of the Golden Globes. One would think Gervais would be smart enough not to personally attack Franco and Hathaway, but … he’s not.

 

So let’s ignore the show. The show was boring, beyond a few key speeches. Let’s look at results!

 

Let’s just say it felt like a weird night. I didn’t make a lot of concrete predictions, but the only real upset was the romping home of The King’s Speech. Because The King’s Speech is both a late-2010 upstart and a British production, it’s been getting a lot of flack from people who think that it should have been roundly ignored. The Social Network had, of course, been the big favourite. That someone would dare make a film about the dreaded monarchy of the UK set in a time when the symbolism and power of the throne meant considerably more than it does today was an affront to steadfast and true American patriots and small r republicans the world over. The Nazi smear, popularised a couple of years back to throw the scent off Kate Winslet, proved ineffective.

While you should prepare yourself to weather a huge storm of backlash the likes of which have not been seen since Slumdog Millionaire, keep in mind The King’s Speech is actually a well crafted boutique or cottage film. I don’t mind it winning Best Picture, because this was a strong selection of ten and the movie was very good indeed. Firth definitely deserved his Best Actor nod, although it could just have easily found its way into Bridges’ hands. Many have railed against its direction, but I think that everything was perfectly measured. It’s not that strange a selection, but I would have expected Best Director to go to someone more flashy, like Aronofsky or, more likely, Fincher.

 

What went wrong with Fincher? I should make it clear that now The Social Network did not end up the winner I feel kind of sad for it. It had all of its hopes riding on it and it’s sad to see it punctured. It’s amazing what a difference 24 hours can make, but I’d like to see it again. Now that it doesn’t have the official overall backing of the Academy maybe I can appreciate it for what I always knew it to be: a well made movie about awful people that I thought was okay if nothing special (I’m listening to the Academy Award winning score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross right now and frankly it’s not doing that much for me). Poor kid.

At least Aaron Sorkin won his award, even if his source material for adaptation was surely very loose indeed.

 

The Fighter’s contingent was the obvious pairing of the rather boring Christian Bale and the ultra-mother Melissa Leo. Bale failed to surprise and the truest victory would have belonged to John Hawkes. Leo redeemed her dull if entertaining victory with the best speech of the night, because it’s always fun when someone forgets that American ears are too delicate to process profanity without opening a portal of sin and immorality in the mind. Leo’s speech almost justified a victory that should have gone to any one of the five in the field – although it would have been really nice to see Jacki Weaver take that stage. All of the clips that they showed for the other actresses were standard issue, but Weaver’s excerpt from Animal Kingdom was electric.

 

The Blackest Swan of them all was of course Natalie Portman, the most foregone conclusion of the entire event. I think that we won’t see a lot of performances like this one in attempts at Oscar bait simply because of the physical and emotional demands entailed. It would have been nice to see Nicole receive recognition for Rabbit Hole, but all of these actresses save Bening deserved the award, so I have no regrets.

 

The last film deserving of mention is, of course, Inception. It took away some technical awards and I guess you can’t say fairer than that. It was a movie of fine tuning and physical crafting.

 

The Oscars as a ceremony left me feeling empty, a sensation that I experience every year but conveniently allow myself to forget so that the magic of Oscar can live in my heart. The results, however, are not terrible. I can get behind these statues … and far away from school children singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

 

Oscars 2011: Woody’s Roundup

The Oscars! The one night of the year when everything is grand. This year they have corrected the error of having to scrounge to find ten Best Picture nominees to present a pretty good spread. I’m hoping for some upsets, because if everything plays out the way it has been going, I will be sorely disappointed. Let’s go into the hopefuls in the categories that I care and know about!

Mistborn: The Final Empire

 

When it comes to fantasy, “accessibility” is a watchword. So often, good ideas are buried so far beneath dry prose and leaden world building that they are scarcely given a chance to surface.

It’s not so much a problem of an impatient reader as it is the impenetrable density that some authors thrive on.

 

Brandon Sanderson does not believe in making the reader wrestle with his prose until the story gets interesting or until the bitter, bitter end; instead, he presents something readily palatable and understandable. I will admit that my knowledge of the fantasy canon remains minuscule, but I would suggest that Mistborn: The Final Empire, the first in a trilogy, is a good book for beginners and veterans alike.

Maybe the Moon

Maybe The Moon is Armistead Maupin’s biggest deviation from type in his career. The first non-Tales book he wrote, it’s a paean to a departed friend and gives Maupin a chance to reveal a different voice. This voice can be charming, but it eventually gives way to a second hand anger that belongs to an entirely different book. It’s hard for me to know what to make of it, even a week later.

 

Cadence Roth, at 30 years old, stands 31 inches tall and the best years of her acting career are already behind her. Maybe The Moon is presented in the form of a diary documenting her attempts to revitalise her career, find love and reconnect with old friends.

I Am Number Four (novel)

Young adults! Why do we write fiction for and about them? All they care about is pretty girls and punching bullies! Or pretty boys and standing up to bullies, possibly through punches, as the case may be.

The point stands: your average teenage boy or girl is easily the worst candidate for saviour of the universe, yet we place the burden on them all the time. When someone who isn’t a slave to their hormones could more easily save the day, children burdened with “destiny” have to take on the elements and win.

So too is the case with I Am Number Four, a cynical exercise in teen pandering and film tie-ins: the worst possible person is charged with the most important task. We identify with him because we too go to school and have overwrought feelings for girls! Dive in!

I Shall Wear Midnight

I’ve finally done it. I’ve run out of unread Discworld books. No more Discworlds until the next one. This used to be the case with me all the time from 1998 to 2006, but the flavour of “no more Discworld for now” is different in 2011.

I Shall Wear Midnight is not the final Discworld book, and nor should it be read as such. It is possibly not even the final Tiffany Aching book, but it certainly brings this part of her story to a close.

A lot of people don’t like Pratchett’s “Discworld books for Younger Readers”, because they don’t consider themselves “younger readers”. As it is a long established fact that the only people who read Discworld books are eleven year olds named Kevin (“I am an eleven year old named Kevin and so is my wife”), these people need to stop cutting off their noses to spite their faces.

Mary Ann in Autumn

Michael Tolliver lives! … Again!
A three year gap is significantly less than eighteen years. On top of that, this is the first Tales of the City book that I have read contemporaneously. Do you have any idea how strange it is to shift from Maupin speaking to people who predate me to him speaking directly to me, the world in which I’m living? It’s a stretch.

I think that Tales of the City books work best as capsules of their time, which of course means, except for Sure of You, they improve with age. That Maupin now speaks of Twitter and Facebook with varying degrees of understanding feels strange to me. Did readers thirty years ago think that D’orothea and DeDe’s involvement with Jonestown was simply bizarre (well, it was by default, but … more bizarre?)?
All this is not to say that Mary Ann in Autumn is a bad book or disappointing. For me, at least, it is essential for its service in returning Mary Ann to her figuratively ancestral home. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I tell you how badly betrayed I felt by her in Sure of You. Mary Ann is not absolved of her sins, but it seems she may well be redeemed.