Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Structure of Scientific Revulsions

"A science that has not legitimated itself is not a true science; if the discourse that was meant to legitimate it seems to belong to a prescientific form of knowledge, like a 'vulgar' narrative, it is demoted to the lowest rank, that of an ideology or instrument of power." --Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition



Many months before my previous post, I realized (much to my personal chagrin) that my readings and writings have lacked attention towards female authors. My recent looks at Nella Larsen and Sylvia Plath aside, I've run a bit close to relying too heavily on the canon of "middle-aged white men." These reasons are just part of why I chose to read Katherine Dunn's 1989 novel Geek Love. In addition to mixing up the authors that I write about, an essay on this particular novel adds another piece to my ongoing looks at the benefits and grey areas of postmodern literature. Given the era in which it was published, some critics might hint that the classification should be "post-postmodern" instead. While this cannot be dismissed entirely, it would steer my initial thoughts into too many other directions. As I've said or hinted at many times before, the definition(s) of postmodern literature have a tendency to be too encompassing at times. I'm all for inclusiveness, but the umbrella can only cover so much, depending on the area of study. However, Geek Love lends itself to a strong area of postmodernism, namely the established (but still emerging) genre of 'magical realism.'

The novel tells the story of the Binewski family, traveling circus performers, led by the parents, Al and "Crystal Lil." Al inherited "Binewski's Fabulon" from his father, and the courtship between the two is revealed in an oft-repeated tale, with combinations of old-fashioned romance and the grotesque realities of carny life.

"'There I was,' said Papa, 'hosing the old chicken blood and feathers out of the geek pit on the morning of July 3rd and congratulating myself for having good geek posters, telling myself I was going to sell tickets by the bale because the weekend of the Fourth is the hottest time for geeks...when up trips your mama, looking like angelfood, and tells me my geek has done flit in the night, folded his rags as you might say, and hailed a taxi for the airport....

'I couldn't climb into the pit myself because I was doing twenty jobs already. I couldn't ask Horst the Cat Man because he was a vegetarian to begin with, and his dentures would disintegrate the first time he hit a chicken neck anyhow. Suddenly your mama pops up all for the world like she was offering me sherry and biscuits. 'I'll do it, Mr. Binewski,' she says, and I just about sent a present to my laundryman.'(Dunn 4-5)."

After their marriage, their children (including the deceased fetuses, encased in display jars) become performers in the family act, with Al believing himself to be an amateur scientist, supplying Lill with drugs and radiations with the intention of creating children with physical attributes necessary for a freak show. One child, Olympia (Oly) is the narrator of the story, and describes her conception in detail:

"I was born three years after my sisters. My father spared no expense in these experiments. My mother had been liberally dosed with cocaine, amphetamines, and arsenic during her ovulation and throughout her pregnancy with me. It was a disappointment when I emerged with such commonplace deformities. My albinism is the regular pink-eyed variety and my hump, though pronounced, is not remarkable in size or shape as humps go (8)."

Arturo the Aqua-Boy is the undisputed star of the "Binewski Fabulon." He's egotistical, pompous, and is the love object of his sisters and a revolving door of sexual conquests. He does his show from a tank, with flippers instead of arms or legs. Electra (Elly) and Iphigenia (Iphy) are piano-playing Siamese twins who later prostitute themselves to men looking for bizarre sexual adventures, and wage a passive-aggressive battle for Arturo's affections and approval. Fortunado (nicknamed Chick) looks like a "norm" (the Binewski's slur towards non-deformed people), but has the power to move items with his mind. The novel is divided into two eras. The bulk of the story recounts the history and downfall of the family and the entire act, and a smaller narrative details an aged Oly's attempt to save her daughter, Miranda, who unknowingly lives in the same boarding house (with a deaf, physically/mentally broken Lil serving behind the front desk, unaware that her daughter lives up the stairs). Miranda has the slightest defect, a small tail, but is otherwise beautiful and sought-after. She gains the attention of Miss Lick, a wealthy businesswoman who finances disfiguring operations for young women to realize their mental and self-supporting potential without having to rely on their sex appeal.

The obvious, basic readings of Geek Love revolve around the twisting and polarizing notions of "family values," which Dunn consistently challenges and turns inside out. Given the solitary nature of the family business, Al and Lil cannot rely on ultrasounds, so the actual births reveal if the children are worth keeping. In their world, a healthy, normal child is cause for great sadness. Before Chick's mental powers are revealed, Dunn writes the scene of his normal birth with touching sadness. By this point in the novel, the reader is fully involved in the offbeat workings of the Binewski lifestyle, and it's almost impossible to not feel equally upset at the birth of a child with no apparent defects.

"'It's true, Lil. There's nothing. He's just a regular...regular baby.' And then Lil's face is wet and her breath is bubbling nastily. Al is darting at me where I am holding Arty up in the doorway, and Elly and Iphy are pulling on my arm, and Al says, 'You kids fix some supper for yourselves--get, now--leave your mom to rest.' And Lil's soggy voice is crying, 'I did everything, Al...I did what you said, Al...What happened, Al? How could this happen?' (64)."

The lives of the Binewskis are written in a style of Shakespearean tragedy, taken literally. The definition of tragedy involves the downfall of a character due to a moral flaw, and the moral shortcomings of the family members are presented as graver than their physical shortcomings (which, in the world of the novel, aren't shortcomings at all). Arty's personality is written especially well, with his selfishness and magnitude growing so powerful that it's inevitable that he will have a serious downfall. His ability to draw crowds leads to a massive cult following, with people traveling with the circus as pilgrims in the "Arturan Cult," going so far as to self-mutilate in order to achieve physical "perfection." The slight and obvious nods to religious fervor and cult followings are explicit, and again, is written to highlight Arty's personality as opposed to his physical state. Anyone with excellent vocal delivery and a "believable" enough message can inspire shocking acts.

Dunn's writing style is vivid, but the idea of personality supplanting physicality can also apply to the prose. Take away the grotesque and the bizarre nature of the characters, and the novel becomes a standard family saga, complete with asides, sketches, rises, and falls. This is not to say that the characters aren't compelling or unique, but the fantasy elements have a tendency to cloud the plot. The future setting, in which Oly plots to stop Miss Lick from changing her daughter, is much too forced, with just enough unanswered questions to be irksome instead of suggestive for further thinking. Returning to Geek Love's place in the postmodern movement, one can point to the almost gleeful mixing of genres. The novel is equal part tragedy, saga, and science fiction. However, despite Dunn's ability to separate the gawkier areas from the sensitive character studies, there is an almost too straightforward bent, which becomes all the more glaring when matched up to the intention to create a novel that's supposed to be anything but straightforward. But, in another example of opposites, there's just the right amount of sweetness and simplicity to render the tale compelling. I'm curious to see how Dunn mapped out her earlier novels, and in her future works, if they do follow the same intangible patterns, a little more balance will undoubtedly strenghten any intentionally varied narratives.

Work Cited:
Dunn, Katherine. Geek Love. Copyright 1989 by Katherine Dunn.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Between the Sheets

(NOTE: The cited passages are Not Safe For Work).

This new decade is not even a month old, yet the intangible notion that we're in a new era is undeniable. Even during the waning months of 2009, retrospectives were being written and discussed, whether in the media or in private conversations. This is only natural, this almost instinctual desire to analyze and to quantify, whether it be a list of the best films or albums of a given era, or to remember the beginning of said era before iTunes, Facebook, and the like. Some people have christened (most of) the past decade as the "post-9/11 era." For the purposes of this piece, it also seems to be the "post-metrosexual era." Thankfully, this tired phrase seems to have been put to rest. The novelty of it was downright embarrassing, to think that men who weren't ashamed of emotions or intelligence had to be defined by a borderline homophobic term, instead of being called "men" or "human beings."

Back in October, I made the claim that Michael Chabon's Manhood For Amateurs, a collection of essays directly or indirectly related to masculinity, was one of the best books of 2009. I still stand by that, and was thrilled at the time to find that Chabon was equally adept at writing non-fiction as well as fiction. My admiration for the book also went beyond formats and styles; as I originally wrote, "Chabon's writings prove that personal essays can discuss masculinity, sexuality, and drug use in an intelligent manner, retaining all aspects of quote/unquote manliness and not making the writer come out looking like a pig." There was no way to know this at the time, but the release of that book might have kicked off a renewed interest in masculinity studies, especially in the realm of literature. This month has seen the publication of two essays that have sparked discussions on the modern notions of male sex and gender expectations. Katie Roiphe's "The Naked and the Conflicted" (The New York Times, January 3rd) compares male writers' depictions of sexuality between two different generations. To a lesser extent, but still providing some intriguing passages, Molly Lambert's "Men In Revolt" (This Recording, January 11th) analyzes masculinity (or lack thereof) on a much broader cultural canvas.

(Photo:Katie Roiphe)

Roiphe's essay argues that, despite feminist critiques against postwar male sex scenes in literature, writers like John Updike and Norman Mailer were injecting undeniable emotions into their works. On the flip side, today's generation of male writers is beset by a lack of sexual focus in the written word, leaving much more to be desired, but with the same sexism tucked away in less blatant passages. "In the early novels of [Philip] Roth and his cohort there was in their dirty passages a sense of novelty, of news, of breaking out. Throughout the 1960s, with books like An American Dream, Herzog, Rabbit, Run, Portnoy's Complaint, and Couples, there was a feeling that their authors were reporting from a new frontier of sexual behavior: adultery, anal sex, oral sex, threesomes--all of it had the thrill of the new, or at least of the newly discussed (Roiphe)."

She doesn't condone any of the sexism or misogyny that was apparent in these works. However, she offers an anecdote about a friend who threw away a copy of Philip Roth's The Humbling, because "the [sex] scene was disgusting, dated, redundant." Personally, I'm more up-to-date on the writers whom she dubs "our new batch of young or youngish male novelists." In lieu of fantastically described sex scenes, the opinion is that no sex (or heavy innocence) is the prevailing style. Molly Lambert is blunt in her assessment: "Maybe this is the worst kind of criticism to give these practitioners of the new earnest manhood, but god is it boring." I feel that Roiphe's only true error in her piece is her assumption that today's male novelists are "too cool for sex," and the brevity of Lambert's essays fills in where Roiphe leaves off. It's also where the two women split into different, but equally relevant arguments: Roiphe is tired of the hidden sexism that prevails today, whereas Lambert has little patience for male writers who, despite a wealthy of literary talents, falter in their abilities to create vibrant, realistic female protagonists. This view is personal to me, because I'm about to start writing a short story with a main character who is female. Years ago, I made feeble attempts to write characters with makeups and backgrounds that were foreign to me, with the hope that I could write different viewpoints in strong fashions. Granted, my writings at the time were horrible, but even now, as I've matured as a fiction writer, it's disheartening to realize that even the professionals struggle with basic writings on the opposite sex. For all of the focus on the more positive aspects of masculinity (i.e. Chabon), there are still problems like these. Lambert's advice to male writers is "write a male character, then give them a female name." This is either completely sound or completely saddening.

But let's get back to sex. The unmentioned area is quote/unquote transgressive fiction, itself a sometimes shady definition. If the postwar novelists were trumpeting a new sexual landscape, then it was only for the mainstream. Some writers had been doing it all along, away from (at the time) popular consciousness. He likely doesn't have any fans in the feminist ranks, but Charles Bukowski's writings revealed sexual lives that were just as revealing, if not as "journalistic" as Roiphe would claim for the likes of Roth and Updike. The primary difference is that Bukowski didn't write with any true enthusiasm, only stark reality, a reality that was probably too much for some readers in the 1960s, even with the new stories about oral sex and threesomes.

"here was this old horny-looking freak, glass of schnapps in his hand, double-lensed glasses. just like the old-time movies. he appeared to be having a visitor, a young thing, almost too young, looking flimsy and strong at the same time.
she crossed her legs, flashing all the bit: nylon knees, nylon thighs, and just that tiny part there where the long stockings ended and just that touch of flesh began, she was all ass and breast, nylon legs, cleanblue laughing eyes...(Bukowski 39)."

Here is a sex scene from Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City. He's one of the best "youngish male novelists," and while he doesn't avoid sex, it's not the main focus of his works:

"The insatiable Hawkman debased herself elegantly to him night after night, in positions and attitudes the involuntary recollection of which he found overriding his senses throughout the days between. For instance, now, here, at the gala. At two that same morning he'd had Georgina swinging in a rope chair she'd had installed at his whimsical suggestion, hung from a bolted hook on her ceiling, her legs spilling over the sides of the mesh seat in which her splendid bottom lay helpless to his savage ministrations. The situation was wildly odd and erotic, Georgina's hands bound behind her as she rotated in the squeaking device, head turned courteously to one side, ever and absolutely the aristocrat no matter how fiercely he worked to defile her. He'd heard her murmuring as she climaxed, 'The best, the best, the best...(Lethem 129)."

Bad? No. Lacking? Possibly. Sadly, I don't have the passage available for immediate citation, but this scene reminds me of a quote by Jonathan Franzen. His opinion was that he generally disliked sex scenes in novels, and I'm sure a passage like Lethem's might fall into that category. While Roiphe makes an excellent assertion that literary sex can't be defined as pornography, since the sole aim of pornography is to arouse, has today's sexualized culture made sex in novels...well, less sexy? The short answer is no. Objectifications aside, Roiphe's main argument is that as the veteran writers have gotten older, the sex scenes have airs of being written casually, as space fillers, not with the daring that was commonplace in the mid 20th century. To me, a poorly written sex scene is just as bad as a poorly written argument, or a poorly written conversation on culture. Sexuality is just one part of the human condition, and if one is going to write it, it needs the same devotion and craft as any other action.

"Anyway, if Katie Roiphe is underwhelmed and unoffended by the sexually neutered males of Brooklyn fiction, she should check out this vast cultural wasteland called the internet. The best writing about sex is currently being done by people who are smart/stupid enough to date and write about it (Lambert)."

Lambert admires Chabon's essays, but criticizes him for writing some passages too tidily. My above respect for Chabon's views on masculinity should be taken with the understanding that it's non-fiction, albeit creative non-fiction. If the best writing about sex is being done by serial daters, then there needs to be an understanding that it's a modern form of journalism, not literature. There's still potential for young writers to explore sexuality in the written word with honesty, respect for women, and the power to incite emotions and maybe just a hint of arousal. Roiphe's opening paragraph provides a quote that makes for an excellent conclusion to my piece:

"For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation, we are awfully cavalier about the Great Male Novelists of the last century."

Forgive me if this is too obvious, but the fact that any written accounts of sexuality can cause stirs and essays, it's a sign that literature is not even close the brink of annihilation. Books may be on the fast track to more digital formats, due to technology and environmentalism, but the core values--entertainment, provokings thoughts and discussions--are not waning. Even if today's novelists are too chaste for someone's liking, there's still the untapped potential for new views on sexuality. As part of the human condition that novels have been grappling with since the beginning, it still makes for new discussions.

Works Cited:

Bukowski, Charles. The Most Beautiful Woman In Town. Copyright 1983 by Charles Bukowski.

Lethem, Jonathan. Chronic City. Copyright 2009 by Jonathan Lethem.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Distant Deeps and Skies



(WARNING: SPOILERS)

Back in June, I wrote a brief write-up of the Jonathan Lethem short story "Ava's Apartment," which was a combination of scenes from his latest novel, Chronic City. Looking back on that early review, I now find my bombastic praise and hyperbole a little embarrassing, but a few of my assertions hold true. Lethem is still among my favorite writers, even though I've added only one more of his books to my readings. As I read Chronic City, I was anxious to see how "Ava's Apartment" fit into the longer work. In spite of my enthusiasm, a small voice in the back of my head still expressed some trepidation about New York being a setting for another novel, seeing that it's been used hundreds of times in both great and mediocre hands. However, Lethem's 2003 novel The Fortress of Solitude used Brooklyn as its backdrop with evocative and wondrous effect. Since his latest work has been available since October, these past few months have revealed that critics are amazingly divided. Depending on whom you ask, Chronic City is either the best or the worst entry into Lethem's bibliography.

The novel is both straightforward, yet wildly complex, with a few characters dealing with a myriad of events, lives, and experiences. Chase Insteadman is a former child sitcom star living off of royalties, engaged to Janice Trumbull, an astronaut living in a doomed space station, her love letters to Chase being popular readings in New York's tabloid magazines. Chase meets the acquaintance of Perkus Tooth, a migraine-plagued former music critic whose life revolves around heavy marijuana use, conspiracy theories, and a burger joint. Richard Abneg is a relatively prominent city official who's somewhat wary of his new acquaintances yet cannot help but get caught up in their obsessions and unravelings. His lover, Georgina Hawkmanaji, is a wealthy socialite who, at first glance, wouldn't seem to be one to fit in with the group, but does so seemlessly. Oona Laszlo rounds out the eccentric cast, so to speak, becoming Chase's lover and working as a ghostwriter.

Taking a step back, a mental catalogue of Chronic City's events, places, and theories make for a unique potpourri of plot points. An escaped tiger is wreaking havoc in Manhattan, causing subway delays and building destructions, and the panic is an apt metaphor for post-9/11 hysteria. Perkus Tooth is a walking encyclopedia of possible conspiracy theories, his migraines and drug use either a cause or a mask of his mentality. He believes that the New Yorker magazine uses subliminal fonts, that Marlon Brando is still alive and holds the answer to a series of revelations, and is obsessively attempting to acquire a chaldron via marathon eBay auctions. Janice keeps an impossibly optimistic view of her dire situation, her love letters to Chase being both incredibly romantic as well as casual about the impending doom of the inhabitants of her space station. Biller, a homeless "friend" of Perkus, is the creator of a "Sim City"-like online world, a universe of avatars and deceptions that blur the already fragile lines between reality and fantasy.

These characters and plot points are varied and shrouded in mystery, but Lethem does an incredible job of holding them together with precise details. It's a combination of contemporary urban mysteries and old-fashioned, detailed storytelling. In one early chapter, Chase describes the view of a church outside his apartment window:

"Against a white sky the stones of the church are gray-brown. They're smutched, like scraped toast. Against blue, the stones reveal an earthiness. Sienna? Umber? In sunset, the church nearly looks blue. Darker stones are bricked at right angles, lines of mortar visible between them, while lighter stones form the tight-jointed and apparently seamless triagular spires which cluster, one atop the other, each crowned with a small stone cross, nesting toward the single highest cross at the peak (Lethem 124-125)."

These quiet, detailed passages are a wonderful contrast to some of the faster-paced scenes, written with equal precision, but a hedonistic urgency. In this passage, Richard is helping Perkus in trying to win an online bid for a chaldron:

"Unspeaking now, Richard scrambled to bid. He got it up to thirty-four thousand, a heroic labor of blunt hairy fingers, tooth-grinding jaw visible even through his beard. His white shirt was widely stained under the arms and stank fiercely. The effort took two minutes, more. At forty-eight seconds another veiled bidder drove it to thirty-six thousand, then another, with five seconds to spare, took the jewel at at even forty grand. I think we all three groaned as if gutshot (161)."

The characters are exceptionally well-written, with each one bordering on intentional stereotypes without fully going into their expected roles. Chase understands his status as a marginally famous figure, and is agonizingly self-centered, much to the chagrin of the other characters as well as the reader. However, he shows flashes of love and care that are consistently lurking below his egocentric exterior. Even though he's mired in an affair with Oona, there's no doubt that he is genuinely falling for her, and both sides understand that it's a fling, with Janice looming, god-like, in the space above. Perkus is one of the most intriguing characters in recent fiction, equal parts aging hipster, conspiracy theorist/drug enthusiast, and, as it's revealed, hopeless romantic. As hinted at in "Ava's Apartment," his former living space is blocked off, forcing him to take shelter in an apartment complex intended for stray dogs. With such new surroundings and priorities, he seems to take a drastic turn, but his mentality continues its crumbling, and his downfall is written beautifully and painfully.

However, Perkus's deterioration is where the novel seems to break away, either for better or for worse. Lethem constructs the narrative as an intentional blend of storytelling and mystery, and (SPOILERS) Perkus's death is immediately rendered as a possible murder and/or conspiracy. The blend of realism and alternate realities is a slow trickle up to that point, but then the floodgates open, turning every understanding on its head. Another example is the tiger. At the first, the story is set up with the implication that Manhattan is dealing with an escaped tiger. In the middle, it's revealed that the "tiger" is actually a cover, that the real cause of the problems is machinery gone awry underneath the city streets. Then, towards the end, Chase and Richard see an actual tiger in the pre-dawn hours. This one plot point alternates between reality, conspiracy, and then back to reality. What makes it intriguing (as opposed to unequivocally infuriating) is that it's a sign of nothing else being true in the novel. In addition to this spin, Lethem continues to write with careful detail, injecting his beautiful passages into what should be intense confusion:

"At the corner of Eighty-fourth we came upon the giant escaped tiger, moving silently along the side street to cross Lexington there, heading east, away from Central Park. We froze when its long streetlamp-foreshadow darkened the intersection, so stood rooted like statuary in our deep footprints as the creature padded to the center of Lexington's lanes, under the dangling yellow traffic lights which shaded the great burgeoning white-and-yellow fur of its ears and ruff now green, now red, the procession of timed stoplights running for miles beyond through the calming storm (433)."

These mix-ups and twists are intentional, since Lethem is too good a writer to make his narrative unintentionally vague. It's ultimately up to the readers to decide whether or not the various changing climaxes are left vague to spark further thought, or if it's a sort of postmodern mess. I enjoyed this novel (although I feel that The Fortress of Solitude is much better), but I can't shake the view that Lethem, as skilled a novelist as he is, painted himself into a corner. Despite this, his passages and characterizations alone are worth the price.

Work Cited:
Lethem, Jonathan. Chronic City. Copyright 2009 by Jonathan Lethem.

Friday, January 8, 2010

All-Star Ballots and Bullets



I don't write about sports that often, with my last handful of writings being devoted to books on sports. Rarely do I feel compelled to write about athletic goings-on; reputable sports blogs are plentiful if one needs information, updates, trade rumors or (sadly) gossip. For example, I kept my readings/awareness of the recent Tiger Woods scandal to a scant minimum, and not for a second did I consider any kind of write-up about it. First of all, I have no interest or knowledge about the game of golf, not that the sport had anything to do with his infidelities. Secondly, on personal principles, anything that would normally provide fodder for US Weekly would have to have a major under-the-radar, relevant cultural spin for me to devote time to it on this blog. My focus is on books and media, not 'flavor of the minute' whisperings. If that keeps Chicago Ex-Patriate from ever being a well-known blog, well, then I'll still sleep very well at night.

However, the recent developments of the Gilbert Arenas gun scandal have been on my mind a lot lately. Reports and summaries can be found elsewhere, but here's a brief recap: Arenas, an All-Star guard for the NBA's Washington Wizards, has been indefinitely suspended for bringing guns to the Verizon Center, the Wizards' home arena. His initial claim was that he did so to get the weapons away from his house since he has a newborn daughter. Since then, sources have revealed that he did so due to a gambling dispute with teammate Javaris Crittenton. Supposedly, the two men pointed guns at each other in the locker room, with Crittenton supposedly going so far as to load and cock his weapon before pointing it at Arenas. After this initial fallout, Arenas has joked about the incident via his Twitter account, and a photograph is circulating online, apparently showing him pointing imaginary guns at his teammates during a pregame warmup. (Click here for the full details and statements. This summary was written using this information.)

The suspension was given on Wednesday by NBA Commissioner David Stern. The logistics are not to be questioned--had one of the weapons gone off and injured/paralyzed/killed someone, it would have become the most dubious, tragic incident in American sports history. However, the story brings up a plentiful amount of sociological issues. The seemingly obvious issue, aside from the risk of death or injury, is the NBA's attempt to distance itself from hip-hop culture. To me, the fallout between Arenas and Crittenton goes beyond the idea of street culture being a problem in professional basketball, and occupies the shadier, problematic "virtues" of masculinity. If another man slights you, you slight him back. If he's in debt to you, you threaten him. If he draws a gun on you...the example can go on until the sobering end. Yes, guns are a part of the street culture that Stern is trying to clean up in the league. A lot of people may think that this is a racial issue. However, Jason Whitlock, arguably my favorite sportswriter and racial commentator, doesn't believe this to be a case of black and white; in a recent column, he made the claim that it's a case of Arenas and Crittenton being fantastically stupid. However, the underlying idea of masculinity gone awry plagues all sports and athletes, black or white.

"Although it is clear that the actions of Mr. Arenas will ultimately result in a substantial suspension, and perhaps worse, his ongoing conduct has led me to conclude that he is not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game. Accordingly, I am suspending Mr. Arenas indefinitely, without pay, effective immediately pending the completion of the investigation by the NBA."--Commissioner David Stern

The word that jumps out the most to me in this statement is "fit." This is in likely reference to Arenas' mental fitness, since he's taken to Twitter and his sense of humor in downplaying the severity of the incident. Even before this, he's been well known as a fun-loving, slightly eccentric athlete, and playing in the Washington, D.C. market, he isn't the most highly visible All-Star. His personality draws just as much attention as his game. Sports history has had its share of quirky, eccentric athletes, from Satchel Paige and Casey Stengel of the earlier days to Barry Zito and Dennis Rodman of recent years. It's when problems and scandals arise that these quirks take on new dimensions, becoming possible masks or fronts for deeper issues.

The history of the Washington Wizards organization lends itself to both intense irony and slight hypocrisy. Abe Pollin, the late team owner, changed the team's name to the Wizards from the Bullets due to inner-city violence in the D.C. area. Since the gambling has taken a back seat to the violence, it has to be noted that the former Wizards Director of Basketball Operations, Michael Jordan, had a very well known penchant for gambling problems, whether on team planes as a player, on golf courses, or in casinos. Yes, guns completely change the significance of the Arenas scandal, but one wouldn't be too far off in guessing that, had this happened to Jordan in his prime, or during his brief playing career with the Wizards, a lot of people would have looked the other way. But that's what six championships and being the face of a league will buy you--much more forgiveness and wiggle room. When it comes to sports, winning is everything. And that adds another twist to Gilbert Arenas' problems. As of this writing, his team is 12-22, in last place in the Eastern Conference's Southeast Division. In the past few years, Arenas has been injured more than he's been on the court, and the Wizards haven't even come close to being a serious championship contender. Literally, this scandal is the last thing that the organization needs.

Options include voiding Arenas' contract or trading him after his suspension and legal problems are cleared up. If his contract were to be voided, time would prove that he'd quickly be picked up by another team. Of all the other players in the NBA, Arenas should look towards Lakers forward Ron Artest. If Artest can mature, win the confidence of Stern, and insist on being a role player for a championship contender (he's fully embraced Isiah Thomas' Secret, as explained by Bill Simmons in The Book Of Basketball), then coming back from a gun scandal should be no problem for Arenas. It's the surrounding problems--Arenas' lax attitude, his team's poor performance--that add a lot more to the main issue. Once those clear up, and he becomes committed to leading a winning team, it will have the makeup of a wonderful comeback. We've seen it before, and we'll undoubtedly see it again.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Plural Visions



As I screened A Single Man (fashion designer Tom Ford's directorial debut), I couldn't help but notice similarities between this new film and the 2005 Ang Lee feature Brokeback Mountain. Yes, the obvious link is that both films deal with gay characters in exceedingly homophobic eras. Going beyond that, both were adapted from original works by acclaimed authors who have a tendency to fall below mainstream consciousness. Both films have stunning lead performances that completely defy expectations. In 2005, Heath Ledger proved that he was a serious actor, not just a teen heartthrob. In A Single Man, Colin Firth shows that he can do much more than play the standard uptight British romantic lead. But most importantly, A Single Man owes a debt of gratitude to Brokeback Mountain. It was bound to happen sooner or later, but Ang Lee's masterpiece had led to mainstream dramas featuring homosexual characters at the forefront, ones who defy stereotypes and aren't featured as comic relief. In short, they're--what a novelty--human beings.

A Single Man (based on the 1964 novel by Christopher Isherwood) depicts a day in the life of George Falconer, a British professor teaching in early 1960s California. His morning routine is steadfast, organized, and meticulous, but the overall atmosphere is tinted with crippling depression. In a series of flashbacks, the audience learns that Jim (Matthew Goode), George's lover, was killed in a car accident months before. George's sadness has obviously been going strong since then. Without much fanfare, his morning routine includes an unloaded handgun and the organization of his papers and financial documents; he's going to commit suicide. He makes evening plans with Charley (Julianne Moore), and goes to teach a course on Aldous Huxley. One of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hout) senses a lot lying below the surface of George's rigid exterior, his homosexuality being just a part of this. George's conversations and interactions with Kenny, intimate flashbacks with Jim, an evening get-together with Charley, and a brief conversation with a Spanish male prostitute, reveal varying depths of alternating happiness and sadness.

This film offers quite a few areas of further discussion, from the acting to the production. An essential starting point is the performance of Colin Firth. My above description of his tendency to play "uptight British romantic leads" was a little tongue-in-cheek, but his performance as George completely opens up his range. He's understated, closed-in, but at the same time completely natural; the scenes requiring outbursts are perfect, since the audience never doubts the emotions that are almost literally simmering beneath the surface. The character of George is required to be isolated, but also more open when he has to be (interacting with clerks, teaching his class). This range is pulled off impeccably. One of the many key scenes involves his Huxley class. Firth gives a stirring lecture on the fear of minorities, with the Cold War and Communism being the likely intentions, given the time (as well as snippets of radio and TV broadcasts slipped into the film). However, the true, unspoken intention is homosexuality. Tom Ford does an excellent, careful job of camera angling in this scene, alternating between shots of George's lecture and the obviously gay students in the class.

It's surprising how little screentime Julianne Moore has as Charley, but it's the type of short performance that's bigger than its minutes. Charley is a sort of British Blanche Dubois, growing older, still maintaining an undeniable sexiness, but with slight hints of age. Her opening scene shows her in bed without any makeup, and it's an unsettling contrast when we see her later on in the film, made-up and dressed very seductively. Cigarettes and gin are the unspoken culprits of her aging, and her dialogue reveals a touching midlife crisis: she understands that she's getting older, she's lonely, and her attraction to George is more out of the want for stability than any actual romance. She know's that he's gay. At one point, she casually calls him a "poof," and the effect is shocking. It's the only spoken gay reference, slur or otherwise, in the film. She and George have been intimate before, but the dialogue reveals the reasons for this: if he were heterosexual, his career would provide the stability that she craves. It's very likely that he slept with her either out of pity or as an early attempt to combat his homosexuality.

Nicholas Haut's performance as Kenny works exceptionally well. His looks and ability to see George for who he really is might hint at the intention for audiences to think that one of them will be seduced outright. However, despite the obvious attraction, Kenny works as a sort of sounding board for George as they share views on life and experience. Curiously, this intellectual connection leads to what turns out to be the poorest part of A Single Man--the ending. Matthew Goode does what he can with limited flashback scenes as Jim. The stability of their relationship is presented as comfortable and loving. There is an age difference, which is discussed in a particular humorous scene, but there's no denying that had George died first, it wouldn't have been any less devasting. The key is their personalities; Jim would have dealt with this devastation in a much different manner.

If one had to "rank" the importance of the people involved in this film, either in front of or behind the camera, the top three would not be complete if it didn't include cinematographer Eduard Grau. It's not an overstatement to say that his work adds layers to every scene. The colors and shadows, not to mention the sometimes "grainy" shots, are full evocations of the 1960s, creating a wonderful, sometimes subliminal feeling that the film was shot in that era, not in the 2000s. Some scenes are marked by slight color changes, from full color to a sort of tinted, sepia tone. These normally indicate emotional shifts in the action, and are done tastefully. Instead of being distracting, they're still noticeable, but essential to the changes in the film. Given Tom Ford's eye for detail as a fashion designer, and the fact that he's a first time director, one wouldn't be faulted for assuming that he'd "overdirect" and add too many visual flourishes. Thankfully, Ford and Grau keep these to a minimum.

A particularly great example is the conversation between George and the Spanish prostitute (Jon Kortajarena). The backdrop is both a billboard for Alfred Hitchock's Psycho, with emphasis on Janet Leigh's eyes, as well as a smog-tinted Los Angeles sunset. The scene is both a reference to the era, with Grau's cinematography and the set design, but also (as my friend Eric pointed out) an homage to Pedro Almodovar. Tom Ford lets it be known that he's not a complete newcomer to film. The scene is shot perfectly, with little touches that work as tips of the hat to established and historical directors. For the most part, Ford lets the actors do their jobs, and he supports the performances with excellent uses of camera shots. A lot of the focus is on the eyes of the speakers, creating a close, almost claustrophobic tightness, but also allowing the given actor's face to fill in subconscious details.

This was one of the best films of 2009. It's nowhere near perfect (again, the ending defies expectations, but unlike the rest of the film, the defiance doesn't have a postive effect). Some of Ford's shots, namely a few of George's nightmare sequences, seem too intentionally "cinematic." But the film as a whole is elevated by some of the best cinematography in recent memory, as well as the inspired casting. The veterans (Firth and Moore) are exceptionally terrific, and the lesser known actors (Hout and Goode) hold their own. Also, it's another step in the right direction for homosexual depictions in film. Years ago, this film very well may have been a cultural landmark, but now, it's a moving portrait that emphasizes human frailty and love, regardless of any viewer's orientation. The signs may point to this being an "art film," but this award season, it will be getting a lot of mainstream attention.