Friday, March 27, 2009

Reading: Yu Hua

In the film The Interpreter, we get an inside view of the world of simultaneous translation at the United Nations. Nicole Kidman, who for her part learned an invented African language for an invented African country, has to listen, process and translate as the original speaker talks. For Yu Hua’s appearance at the Philadelphia Free Library, Chinese woman, certainly less tortured than Kidman’s character, and several shades more perky, took on the job adroitly, punctuating her translation with the time-honored time-buying words well and umm. Let's face it, though: I worked as a freelance translator (my specialty: Vietnamese) and totally sucked at it.

So as Yu discussed his newest novel, Brothers, I accepted without complaint long pauses as the translator parsed questions and answers back and forth. Interpreting is a different skill set than translating; interpreting means working on-the-fly, trying to capture mood, tone and nuance in an immediate situation. And I’m not sure all those came through, despite the interpreter’s best efforts. Oftentimes, when Yu spoke, the Chinese-speaking audience laughed, and we English speakers waited breathlessly to hear the joke. (Yu, after all, is known as a great satirist.) And yet, what we heard in English didn’t seem as funny. Perhaps there was some slippage. Or perhaps humor doesn’t translate well—which is often the case.

Still, she cheerfully translated when one audience member asked a long, rambling question—well, less a question and more an observation of how the world works and how the world should work, and why isn’t the world working the way it should?, and wouldn’t it be great if…—stopping the speaker at certain points to digest what he had to say, and possibly saving the rest of us from more grief. Yu himself indulged the question, addressing what he saw as the number one issue facing China today: poverty.

Indeed, Yu spoke eloquently (via cute translator) about the difference between bootlegging his book in China and in the U.S. In the U.S., he said, the issue is rightly one of copyright, and seeing that his hefty tome costs $30 retail (but worth it), recouping those losses is worth it. In China, however, illiteracy is a pronounced problem, so if bootlegging promotes access to reading material, then so be it. It reminded of Connaught Square in India, where I bought a bootlegged copy of Midnight’s Children. Does Rushdie need those few extra cents of royalties? And how would I feel if that was my book being photocopied and poorly bound?

Yu’s talk took place at the Independence Branch in Philadelphia, at 7th and Market, the designated Chinese-American/gay and lesbian branch, as it has sections specifically devoted to those communities. Power to the people, I say. Maybe well-stocked and fully-funded libraries should be the real solution to China’s illiteracy issues.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Movie: Sheitan

Sheitan has plenty going for it. For instance: attitude. As the first full-length from the Kourtrajmé collective (though Kim Chapiron is the named director)—best known for their hip-hop inspired short films—Sheitan demonstrates a no-holds-barred attitude when a title card announces, “Lord, don’t forgive them, for they know what they do.” It’s like Jean-Luc Godard in baggy jeans. Kourtrajmé’s anarchic energy attracted the attention of Vincent Cassel, who plays the maniacal, giggling groundskeeper Joseph. His wide-eyed portrayal of a man who may or may not have made a deal with the devil is another thing Sheitan has going for it.

The movie centers on a post-racial crew (an Asian, a black African, a light-skinned Muslim woman, and the main character, Bart, who’s as whiny has any other white suburban kid) who just want to have a good time—which includes picking fights, shoplifting, and driving away from the pump without paying. When they meet Eve, a pouty-lipped sexpot, she suggests, “Let’s go to my place in the country,” and—well, you know what you’re in for.

But not really. Sheitan bucks traditional backwoods stalk-n-slash for something more amorphous and loose. Kourtrajmé has previously disdained narratives, but when you’re not Chris Marker, achieving it with some sort of cohesion is a lot harder than it sounds. The director/writers move the film in any number of directions at once, milking creepy dolls and doll parts for all their worth. But bizarre plot deviations and perverse goings-on don’t necessarily build suspense; instead of building to a climax, Sheitan sort of accretes.

As if to compensate for this lack of narrative tension, Sheitan piles on the hip-hop attitude. And although linking hip-hop to the French riots might be short-sighted, the anti-social behavior in which our less-than-sympathetic characters partake have a hip-hop soundtrack, more a vent for their own strangely misdirected anger, rather than a means of authentic self-expression.

But fidelity to the strictures of hip-hop, however, isn't an excuse for misogyny. I know, it’s almost redundant to criticize a horror film for this, but given the filmmakers’ staunch anti-establishment stance, you’d also hope that they’d rebel against patriarchal structures, rather than falling prey to them. Their simplistic views of female sexuality seem too willfully narcissistic, and the sight gags involving female genitalia and childbirth seem particularly childish. The women in the film are little more than cyphers, and while Roxane Mesquida plays the siren effortlessly, compare this to her work as a fully-fledged seductress in À ma soeur! If you want a provocateur, try Catherine Breillat on for size. Jerking off a dog just isn't the same thing.

There’s also a strange queer subtext to Sheitan—which seems to codify this masculine ideal. When Joseph shows an unusual interest in Bart (inviting him to go skinny dipping, thrusting his nubile red-headed niece at him, having Bart climb on his shoulders), Bart insists that he’s “not a fag,” even as his compatriots tease him about Joseph’s advances. Plus: Vincent Cassel in wet underwear.

Wet underwear aside, Sheitan offers a thrilling, if confusing ride, willing to throw in camera-tricks and narrative jumps to shock the viewer. But, as we all know, the devil is in the details.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Reading: Wells Tower

Every year, there's room for one or two "next big things" in the literary world. Wells Tower has already reserved his spot for 2009. A recent issue of Poets & Writers had a feature on him, and all the folks from Farrar, Straus and Giroux at his book launch seemed smitten with his short-story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. And meeting Wells in person, you can't help but be overcome by his sweet demeanor and good humor. Plus, he's got an awesome name. I dare you to say it without adding a little James Bond inflection to it.

Also, I finally discovered the difference between a reading and a book launch. At a reading, someone reads, and nobody gets drunk. At a book launch, nobody reads, and everybody gets drunk. While the former is more intellectually satisfying, the latter is more physically satisfying. A little bird told me that FSG has permanently banned the presence of Crisco from its book launches.

So at Moe's in Brooklyn (replete with a portrait of Moe from The Simpsons, natch), we revellers enjoyed free Mediterreanean food -- a full-on dolma feeding frenzy -- bathed in atmospheric red light. While I sat in a row of dislocated fold-down theater seats and jealously guarded the tapanade, Mr. Towers circled the room and charmed the heck out of people. Cheers!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Movie: Artifacts

Given how the Belgians have always been the butt of French jokes, much in the way the Polish are worldwide, you can't blame them for trying to capitalize on the "French horror" craze. The director, Giles Daoust, admits as much. He wanted to make a quick, low-budget sci-fi/horror film. And while he gets the "quick" and "low-budget" parts of the equation right, the sci-fi and horror aspects don't quite make it through. Artifacts tries to engage the viewer in a mystery—why are these good-looking young friends meeting tragic ends? But as the mystery deepens (they don't know each other at all! they have metallic "artifacts" embedded in their chests! their exact doubles are trying to kill them!), the film stumbles and falls flat on its face.

To be fair, some of the film's shortcomings are readily apparent early on. The writing, in particular, is strained. Exposition is delivered in the awkward ways possible: an overhead conversation in a police station elevator, for example, or a helpful radio news report. And before twenty-five minutes have elapsed, three characters have met their doom, as if there's a quota to be met. (Helpful hint: if you're alone in your apartment, and you see something writhing in your bed, it's best not to pull back the covers.) We're concerned for these people... why? Things don't get better towards the end, when guns magically appear by bedsides, and we finally get an explanatory figure, Carl Francken (found via Google, of all things). But what he has to say is rather ridiculous and frustratingly fails to explain anything whatsoever. Indeed, the explanation makes things more muddled. Maybe the writer tries to say something about the nature of identity (as doppelgängers are an effective metaphor for this). But, really, it feels more like the writers—Daoust and co-director Emmanuel Jespers—simply said, "Oh well, we'd better wrap things up with an anti-climactic chase scene."

To Daoust's credit, however, he milks the doppelgänger aspect of the film for all the creepiness it's worth. The closed-circuit television shot of a woman entering a building twice is appropriately eerie, and the boyfriend who doesn't know where he keeps the coffee establishes a bit of tension—despite being telegraphed from a mile away. There's also a genuinely cringe-worthy moment that involves the physical extraction of the artifact—the director's concession to gore fiends. As well, the low electronic screeching that permeates the soundtrack works overtime to establish atmosphere, which, perhaps, matches the film's low-fi quality of digital video.

The film certainly tries to be ambitious despite its miniscule budget, but in the end, a surfeit of ideas and the failure to consider those ideas fully sinks Artifacts. The film itself becomes one of those nasty little artifacts: a screechy, metallic annoyance that you would prefer to have out of your body.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Reading: John Wray

Readings are generally genteel affairs. With John Wray, however, all of those niceties disappeared: people walked in and out willy-nilly (sometimes nudging their way forward), people fought for seats, people wobbled and toppled into one another, and Wray spoke through a megaphone, a device you usually associate with political agitators or street preachers. Though you could chalk this up to the fact that the reading took place on the last car of the L train during rush hour, I'd argue that it's the decline of civility in Western society.

Still, a brilliant marketing move by the folks at FSG for Wray's new novel, Lowboy. One representative had a roll of Lowboy stickers on her arm like a giant spool of toilet paper. The crowd gathered at the far end of the 8th Ave. and 14th St. stop, a gang rumble of hipsters. But we were headed to Williamsburg, after all. And who doesn't love a well-appointed hipster boy? On the train, Wray read the opening of his novel, moving from one side of the car to the other, graciously allowing room for oncomers and get-offers. Just as the train started to pull away from 8th Ave., a guy yelled obscenties from between cars at someone still on the platform. In the six stops to Bedford Ave., Wray didn't make it too far in his reading, but there was a playful tone to the experience: Lowboy, which deals with a 16 year-old paranoid schizophrenic boy, makes the New York City subway a major set piece.

At Bedford Ave., the crowd shfited to Spike Hill, where Wray read another section of Lowboy, this time accompanied by a friend plucking suspended notes on his electric guitar. He read a letter written by the title character to his mother, emphasizing the ways in which paranoid schizophrenics wrap their heads around certain ideas and facts and then concoct a grander narrative around them. He managed to plug Dogfish Head, on tap at Spike Hill and flowing free for the crowd, by replacing Schlitz with it in a dirty joke. I think, however, that the passage works better on the page than read aloud. As Wray explained, letters of this sort have all sorts of strange typographical emphases: words randomly capitalized, words underlined multiple times, words in all caps. Part of the fascination is trying to uncover the thinking behind the emphasis. But, as strange and defamiliarizing as the language was, as read by the tall, calm and (presumptively) sane John Wray, the narrative voice sounded suspiciously like a guy who had just come off the subway.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Movie: They Came Back (Les Revenants)

George Romero has so thoroughly changed the popular conception of zombies that it's difficult to even think of the word without bringing to mind Romero's particular creation. Whereas cinematic zombies were once a colonialist construction—think voodoo—flesh- (or brain-) eating undead have become the norm. Anthropophagous zombies have even made their literary mark—and I'm not even talking about the Jane Austen zombie novel. So with zombies becoming the status quo, what's a French auteur to do?

Robin Campillo, who has written some of the more interesting French films of the last decade (Time Out, Heading South, and most recently, The Class), takes the director's helm for Les Revenants, his debut feature. Campillo jettisons Romero's conception of zombies, but the cultural baggage that remains creates a lingering unease. They're dead; of course they're up to no good. As Campillo starts the film with long shots of the dead, streaming out the cemetery and walking down the street, the dead remain almost as impassive and inscrutible as the living.

Campillo also sets out an interesting metaphor: the zombie as immigrant. Early in the film, as the Red Cross shepherds the newly un-deceased quarters where they can be catalogued and identified, one city council member remarks that their living conditions are like that of refugees. And, the fears that one assigns to newcomers to the country increasingly become assigned to the zombies. How can we give them all jobs? Why do they congregate together? What do they want? Campillo addresses these fears with a light touch: surveillance cameras mounted upon weather balloons keep track of the undead residents. And let's hear it for undead civil rights: in one mordantly humorous scene, the members of city council are assured that the balloons only register the lower body temperature of the zombies, and not their faces. Still, one panoramic shot, the camera does a 360, showing not only the balloons hanging low in the sky, but also the stone-faced (and primarily elderly) zombies. No speedy clamboring for human flesh here!

Towards the end of the movie, however, it becomes clear that zombies do, in fact, have an ulterior motive, and in a scene that seems prescient, Campillo depicts them blowing up cars (hints of the Paris riots again). The zombie as foreign infiltrator/terrorist? Not surprisingly, the Army appears with a plan to quell the zombie uprising once and for all. They got your civil rights right here.

But the zombie-as-immigrant is only a metaphor. Les Revenants seems more concerned the process of grieving. The ways in which people come to terms with their grief—whether parents reunited with their young son or an elderly widower with his wife—becomes the central issue. How does a woman return to life, so to speak, with a husband that she previously thought lost to her forever? Can people return to normal even if there is nothing normal about them? Jonathan Zaccaï plays the dead husband in question with an impassive face and steely blue eyes, but as he begins to regain his memory, that mask begins to quiver.

The ultimate goal of the zombies, however, remains opaque, and the ending feels tossed-off, as if Campillo is unsure of how to conclude his what if. But having established such a heartbreaking set-up—the scene in which two parents slowly wait as their returned son slowly comes into focus for the first time conveys such overwhelming grief—one can cut Campillo some slack for copping-out at the very end. After all, this is a movie that's all about letting go.