‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Thanks to the 1920 Club, I’ve the chance to explore the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. After reading his debut short story collection Flappers and Philosophers which was published in 1920, and now that the week of the Club read has passed, I continue with seeking out more of FSF’s works published in subsequent years.

BB Book CoverAs I can’t go to bookstores now, I turn to my shelves to see what I have in my stockpile, and unearthed this one which I’ve never read: A designer’s copy of FSF’s short story first published in 1922, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in hard cover and fully illustrated, a thin little gem hidden between thicker books. Illustrated by Calef Brown, published by Collins Design, NY, in 2008 when the movie adaptation came out.

What could have motivated Fitzgerald to write a story about a baby born as an old man then gradually grows younger and younger, creating an imaginary scenario that’s opposite of the human trajectory? FSF’s reply had been cited as thus:

‘This story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.” FSF seems to be offering a hypothetical answer with a question: Is growing younger necessarily more cheerful than growing older?

All along I’m aware of the premise of the story. So with much curiosity I open and read it through.

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First off, no need to use logic or your rational mind to wrap around this scientifically impossible happening. Just take it as a fantasy and let curiosity be the guide. The setting is 1860 and forward in Baltimore. Benjamin is born to Mr. Roger Button, president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, a well-off businessman and a respected figure in the community.

The baby is born with a long beard, “a man of threescore and ten”, in other words, 70 years old, with a ready-formed personality and full mastery of speech to communicate with his dumbfounded father, whose immediate reaction is this:

Mr. Button, sank down upon a chair near his son and concealed his face in his hands. “My heavens!” he murmured, in an ecstasy of horror. “What will people say? What must I do?”

Have you caught it? Indeed, what he’s worried is what people will say about this horrifically different offspring of his.

What follows is a story, while whimsical, is quite sad. Mr. Roger has trouble accepting this undefined being in his home. Fitzgerald’s storytelling is light humour with an acerbic tone. His father calls him Benjamin, albeit a more appropriate name in his mind at first was Methuselah. Benjamin ‘grows up’ being ostracized due to age disparity among his peers, barred from Yale University for his advanced age (I’m sure by now the system has changed). One good thing is, later he does find a young woman to marry, Hildegarde Moncrief, daughter of a general, for by that time the age gap though still large is overcome by love.

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But as years go by, as Benjamin becomes more youthful and Hildegarde much older, he begins to grow tired of her, and their relationship deteriorates. Some years later, he has  turned so youthful that his son feels uncomfortable to be seen with him and his grandson surpasses him in intellect. Eventually, Benjamin degenerates into a state without memory, a baby that responds to mere instinctive urges. Despite the lively book illustrations, this is actually a very sad story.

This curious case reads like a cautionary tale of Ageism that applies both ways: one can be discriminated for being too old, or too young. Fitzgerald could well be using a fanciful tale to depict the norms of social acceptance which seem to be strictly dependent on appearances. Further, in response to Mark Twain’s comment that first prompted the story, Fitzgerald seems to conclude that what an old man has but a baby doesn’t is the wealth of memory he has stored throughout the years. Without an iota of memory, does that make it ‘the best part of life’?

A cautionary tale? Maybe. A whimsical literary farce? That too. Definitely something that’s very different from FSF’s other realistic stories of the Jazz Age.

 

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Rashomon and other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

In participation of Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Bellezza.

Rashomon and Other Stories

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川龍之介 1892 – 1927) was an acclaimed early 20th Century Japanese author of the modernist style. Prolific in his short life, Akutagawa had written more than a hundred short stories upon his death by suicide at age 35. He is cited as “The Father of Japanese Short Stories”. The prestigious Akutagawa Prize established in 1935 was named after him to reward the best work of fiction by a new author. Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe and crime fiction writer Seichō Matsumoto are among the past winners.

Even though written in the early decades of the 20th century, the six stories compiled in this collection are surprisingly modern in their relevance. Further, despite the author’s gloomy outlook, a few of these stories are sprinkled with a touch of lively humour. The collection shows Akutagawa as an incisive depicter of the human condition and an astute observer of the human psyche.

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Here are the stories:

In A Grove –– This story and the next are adapted into the renown film Rashomon (羅生門 1950) directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa (黑澤明 1910 – 1998). The body of a murdered samurai is found in the forest by a woodcutter. His wife has been raped. What has truly happened, however, can’t be determined as the witnesses all tell very different stories. They are the woodcutter, a beggar, a priest, the wife, and the dead husband speaking through a spirit. Akutagawa presents the multiplicity of subjective point-of-views retrieved from memory. Can objective truth ever be found?

Rashomon –– “The Rashōmon” is the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was constructed in the year 789. When this story takes place, the gate is dilapidated and has become the hideout for thieves and robbers, what more, corpses are left there unclaimed. A servant who has just been let go is standing under the gate waiting for a break in the pouring rain. With no employment now, he struggles with the moral dilemma of becoming a thief or face the consequence of poverty, starving to death. What Akutagawa depicts after this is a dark reality of survival. Kudos to Kurosawa, he turns a chilling story into a film with a hopeful ending.

Yam Gruel –– Reads like a cautionary tale about the satiation of desire, but with whimsical touches and acerbic humour. Goi, a plain-looking samurai suffering from low self-esteem is the laughing stock of everyone, but he learns to live with the ridicules he faces everyday. Goi has one longing, the delicious yam gruel which his boss treats the samurais once a year. What follows is like a dream come true. He’s led to a long distance away on horseback by his boss to a place where he can have limitless yam gruel. But the result isn’t as he has expected. Why, when you have unlimited supply of what you desire, they will soon upset your appetite. Be careful what you wish for.

The Martyr ––  Christianity had a substantial influence in Japan during the 16th Century. With The Martyr, Akutagawa spins a tale about a boy named Lorenzo who is adopted by the Jesuits. Time passes and as he emerges into manhood, Lorenzo is wrongly accused of getting a village girl pregnant, resulting in his exile away from society. Later in a moment of crisis, Lorenzo’s real character prompts him to act by offering the ultimate sacrifice.

Kesa and Morito –– An early version of the popular genre we have now, psychological murder mystery as told by different narrators, again, multiplicity of POVs. The substance and motive for the crime is similar to “In A Grove”, adultery, love, hate, and lust, two internal monologues revealing Akutagawa’s grasp of the darkness lodged in the human soul.

The Dragon –– An ingenious take on fake news. Here’s the post the priest Hanazō makes up to play a trick on his colleagues, sticking a message board by the pond, it can well be a tweet today: “On March third a dragon shall ascend from this pond.” Retweets follow. Words soon spread, first local people then out to the whole province and finally to other provinces. So on March third, a humongous crowd gathers by the pond waiting to see the dragon king rise up. Here’s what Hanazō learns afterwards: if you have enough likes and followers, what’s fake will become true. Even when you confess you made it all up to begin with, nobody will believe you.

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Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Translated by Takashi Kojima. Tuttle Publishing, Singapore, 1952.

 

JLC13

 

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My previous Japanese Literature Challenge posts:

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013): The Love Hate Gap

This new adaptation loosely based on James Thurber’s 1939 short story was a highly anticipated year-end movie, possibly aiming for a spot in the coming awards season. It was released on Christmas Day, 2013, only to meet with disappointing critical reviews.

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Any movie version derived from James Thurber’s short story first published in the March 18, 1939, issue of The New Yorker is allowed plenty of room for reinvention, since the original story is only about 2,000 words in length. If you’re interested to read or reread it, here’s the link. The story saw its first movie adaptation in 1947, starring Danny Kaye as Walter Mitty.

In Thurber’s story, Walter Mitty is a man living with an overbearing wife. He intersperses his meagre existence with heroic daydreaming. Behind the wheel of his car driving his wife to the hair salon, he would zone-out and imagine himself a fighter pilot piercing through a storm. At another time he would cast himself as a world-renowned surgeon saving a dying patient on the operation table, or as an expert shooter, or a war hero.

Over the years, Thurber’s Walter Mitty seems to have turned from a fictional character into a concept. The daydreamer has gathered mass appeal. Walter Mitty the character unleashes the escapist in us. It takes us out of our mundane, ordinary life and catapults us to brave, new worlds. It empowers and makes a hero out of Everyman.

This recent movie version has taken up such a challenge with fine colours. Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works for LIFE magazine which has just been acquired, and a major downsizing ensues. The upcoming issue will be the last of its print edition. As the ‘Negative Assets Manager’, Walter Mitty is responsible for the cover. ‘Negative assets’ means, literally, the negatives of photo collection. And here’s the rub, the slide that is meant for this last cover is missing. Feeling responsible, Walter Mitty takes up the challenge to seek out its reclusive photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), who leaves his tracks in the remotest parts of the world.

Not quite a dramatic story arc, not quite a believable motive either, considering the digital age of the setting, seems an unrealistic task to conduct a real-life globetrotting search for a missing slide. But out of curiosity, I let the story lead and enjoy what comes next.

The arduous journey to find the mystical photographer offers me an array of visually stunning and surreal Walter Mitty-esques sequences. The initiation is when Walter Mitty jumps onto a moving helicopter in Greenland, upon imagining his love interest Cheryl (Kristen Wiig) singing ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, urging him to take flight. Other breathtaking scenes that follow include longboarding by an erupting volcano in Iceland (my favourite), scaling the mountains in Afghanistan, and playing soccer with Himalayan dwellers against the setting sun.

Soccer match in the setting sun

In the office, Walter Mitty is the target of bullying from the hatchet man of the acquisition Ted (Adam Scott). Walter is also the secret admirer of coworker Cheryl. Too timid to declare his love, he hides behind eHarmony to hopefully connect with her anonymously. After Walter’s adventurous journey to find the mystic photographer, he is transformed into a braver man; ultimately, his true colours shine through, fantasy fulfilled.

Shirley MacLaine plays Walter Mitty’s supportive mother, an endearing role. Together with Kathryn Hahn as Walter’s sister, they bring some normality into our protagonist’s life. The three offer a few heart-warming moments.

Now, mind the gap. From the reviews and audience feedbacks, it looks like this is one of those ‘love-it’ or hate-it’ movies. Here are the stats of approval on Rotten Tomatoes: critics 48%, audience:76% On Metacritics it is similar: critics 54% and viewers 76%.

Why the discrepancy? I must stress that there are critics who love it, and, audience who don’t. Not that this is purely a ‘critics vs. viewers’ kind of showdown. But we do see the obvious gap between the two groups. What accounts for the gap? Here’s my analysis and speculation:

Those who hate the movie, see Ben Stiller. They see this as a self-serving project of the A-list Hollywood star directing himself in a role that sends him to all the improbable heroic scenarios. They see the production as a self-absorbed ego trip. Unrealistic storyline, much ado about nothing.

Those who love the movie, or find it entertaining and enjoyable, see Walter Mitty. They see the daydreamer, the self-defeating underdog going on a series of life-transforming adventures. They see the Wlater Mitty of today, a tiny screw in the humungous economic machine, dispensable, unappreciated, the tireless worker saving the day. They see love requited; they see dreams fulfilled.

What if… What if this whole production is Ben Stiller’s Walter Mitty fantasy realized? Why should we mind? Anyone too high on the A-list to have no need for a Walter Mitty moment?

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Related Links: 

CLICK HERE To read the short story by James Thurber, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, published in The New Yorker, March 18, 1939.

CLICK HERE to read an article detailing the LIFE magazine covers in the movie: “Walter Mitty and the Life Magazine Covers that Never Were”. 

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Munro and Movies

Thanks to the Swedish Academy, Alice Munro doesn’t need a blockbuster movie to raise awareness of her works. Described by The New York Times as ‘Master of the Intricacies of the Human Heart’, and with her story settings mostly in rural counties and small towns, the 82 year-old writer must have known how the small and intimate can have far-reaching effects.

The short story as a literary form too must have gained importance and legitimation overnight now that Munro is honored as Nobel Laureate. The novel isn’t the only peak of the mountain of literary pursuits. Readers too, can now be totally comfortable with reading ‘just a short story’.

Back to movies, with our contemporary mega, blockbuster culture, it sure looks like the general public need to see a movie before knowing about a literary work. While I don’t like the idea, I’ve to admit that could well be the case nowadays. But for Munro, can anyone name a full feature movie that’s based on her short stories?

Right. Actually there are four. Edge of Madness (2002) is relatively unknown. Another one interestingly is an Iranian film, Canaan, which won the Audience Awards–Best Film at the Fajr International Film Festival in 2008. A better known adaptation is Away From Her (2006). It remains one of my all time favorite films. The most recent completed production is Hateship Loveship which premiered at TIFF13. I regret missing it when I was there in September. A film based on her story ‘Runaway’ is currently in development.

With Munro winning the Nobel, hopefully we’ll have the chance to see a general release of Hateship Loveship. So there you go, Munro could well be helping to reverse the trend: the writer promoting the film.

To celebrate Munro’s Nobel win, I’d like to repost in the following a review of Away From Her which I wrote in 2008. The film was directed by the young and talented Canadian actor/director Sarah Polley, who was nominated for an Oscar for her adapted screenplay based on Munro’s short story ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’. Julie Christie received an Oscar nomination for her role as Alzheimer’s afflicted Fiona.

You can read Munro’s story ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’ now online, thanks to a timely reprint by The New Yorker.

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AWAY FROM HER: A Short Review

How can you turn a good short story into a full length movie without compromising its quality? By turning it into a screenplay written by an equally sensitive and passionate writer, and then, through her own talented, interpretive eye, re-creates it into a visual narrative. Along the way, throw in a few veteran actors who are so passionate about what the script is trying to convey that they themselves embody the message.

Sarah Polley has made her directorial debut with a most impressive and memorable feat that I’m sure things will go even better down her career path. What she has composed on screen speaks much more poignantly than words on a page, calling forth sentiments that we didn’t even know we had. As Alzheimer’s begins to take control over Fiona, what can a loving husband do? Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent stir up thoughts in us that we’d rather bury: how much are we willing to give up for love? Or, how would we face the imminence of our loved ones’ and our own mental and physical demise?

Based on the story by Alice Munro, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, Polley brings out the theme of unconditional love not with your typical Hollywood’s hot, young, and sexy on screen, but aging actors in their 60’s and 70’s. It may not be as pleasurable to watch wrinkled faces hugging and kissing, or a man and a woman in bed, bearing age spots and all, but such scenes effectively beg the question: why feel uncomfortable?

Why does love has to be synonymous with youth, beauty, and romance? It is even more agonizing to watch how far Grant is willing to go solely for love of Fiona. Lucky for us, both writers spare us the truly painful at the end. It is through persistent, selfless giving that one ultimately receives; however meager and fleeting that reward may seem, it is permanence in the eyes of love. And it is through the lucid vision of a youthful 28-year-old writer/director that such ageless love is vividly portrayed…. Oh, the paradoxes in life.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Dubliners by James Joyce

This is my fourth and final instalment for Ireland Reading Challenge 2012 hosted by Carrie of Books and Movies. What first attracted me to this newly published edition (August 2012) by Modern Library was its cover. I’m very fond of Modern Library’s classics in trade paperbacks, mainly because of their elegant covers as well as the size of the type. Interesting how type size has become a factor for my reading enjoyment in recent years… ok, no more elaboration on that.

While Joyce’s later works Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are considered iconic works of 20th C. literature, for some reasons I have no desire to take up the formidable challenge of deciphering them. But Dubliners, a collection of short stories written in his early 20’s, looks to be a much more manageable task.

With this new edition comes a new introduction, written by the Booker Prize winning author John Banville (The Sea, 2005). For me, two points stand out in his introduction. First is that Joyce himself had indicated that Dubliners could well be his best work. An admission that he might not have wanted to be publicized.

Second, Banville has slipped into a sentence an implied definition of ‘greatness’ in a literary work. Here’s it is, as he talks about the story “The Dead”:

It is indicative of the greatness of this story that after nearly a century of critical commentary and scholarship dissection it remains an enigma.

If the inscrutable is used as a qualification of greatness, then there are a few great ones in this collection.

Dubliners compiles fifteen short stories. In order of their arrangement, they cover the point of view of childhood, adolescence, to adulthood, yet they share similar themes based on love and loss, life and death, religion and conscience. It’s interesting as I caught myself while reading that I did not see the characters so much as residents of Dublin. They appear borderless. Their particular location and life situation might be tied to Dublin and Ireland at a certain point in time, but the issues they have to deal with transcend boundaries.

A twist that the stories seem to share is: people are not what they appear. Often, the picture presented in the first part of a story leads to an ironic ending. Further, below the surface of a character, there are unfathomable depths of feelings, conflicts, memories, longings and desires. Joyce’s superb writing takes the reader with him as he peels off layer after layer to show us the human soul… but not devoid of charm and humour.

Most of the stories are swift and short, some maybe like scenes and vignettes, their descriptions and character depictions sharp, precise, and succinct. The last one ‘The Dead’, the one that Banville notes as an ‘enigma’ in the introduction, is the longest with 55 pages, the highlight of the whole book.

Here are my favourites:

An Encounter – sometimes a most unlikely stranger can help us see ourselves a bit more clearly.

Araby – famous story that many of us might have read in school, adolescent infatuation, missed chances and the uncontrollable happenings in our everyday life.

Eveline – One may feel discontent with one’s claustrophobic life, but given the chance to escape, freedom may just be too risky a choice to make.

A Little Cloud – Yes, the grass is always greener on the other side, but some people may just be destined to stay in less green pastures… Our lot, is it by fate, or, by choice?

A Painful Case – Anna Karenina in short story form… well, maybe just a coincidence.

The Dead – A 55 page and by far the most gratifying story for me. Joyce sets the stage with a Christmas party and presents some lively characters, slowly focusing on Gabriel, a loving husband, and maybe drenched in a bit too much self-importance and confidence.

All’s well until the twist comes at the last 10 pages. A song at the party resurrects his wife’s memory of a young lover who died for love of her at 17. As the husband excavates his wife’s long past story, he comes to a humbling self-realization. His initial passionate sentiments for her change to jealousy but finally turn into a greater clarity of what love is.

I must quote this last sentence of the story, don’t worry, no spoiler, I’ve already given you that, but just for the beauty of the prose, and the meaning that runs silent and deep:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Here is my take on this ‘enigma’ of a story…

as the snow falls upon all
it is love that connects
among the living
and with the dead.

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Dubliners by James Joyce, with a new introduction by John Banville. Published by Modern Library, NY, Paperback Edition, August 2012, 249 pages.

My other reviews for Ireland Reading Challenge 2012:

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Everything in this Country Must by Colum McCann

Everything In This Country Must by Colum McCann

This is my third installment for Ireland Reading Challenge at Books and Movies. And just recently, I’ve come across another interesting reading event, so I’m using this review as well to participate in the Irish Short Story Week Year Two at The Reading Life.

A book compiling two short stories and a novella, Everything in this Country Must reaffirms my admiration for Colum McCann’s spare and powerful writing.

McCann is the author of the 2009 National Book Award winner Let The Great World Spin. In my review of that book, I noted how he’d intricately woven together seemingly unrelated stories against the backdrop of the Twin Towers, crafting a moving tribute to NYC.

Before NYC, McCann had written about his home country Ireland. Everything In This Country Must (2000) is a poignant portrayal of how the political turmoils in Northern Ireland during the 80’s affect the three young protagonists in each of these stories. All the short pieces in the book are masterfully rendered, immediate, sharply focused, intense, minimal yet deeply charged. Above all, I’ve appreciated, as with Great World, McCann’s insightful metaphors.

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Everything In This Country Must: Short Story

Nightfall, cold and raining. A man’s favorite work horse is near drowning with its forelegs caught in some rocks at the bottom of a flooding river. He gets his 15 year-old daughter to help him hold the horse’s head above water with a rope while he frantically dives into the water to get its legs out, but to no avail. He desperately needs help.

Soon enough, an army truck passes by. A few British soldiers quickly jump out to help. O what plight! The wrong people coming to the man’s aid. These soldiers remind him of the loss of his beloved. Despite his protest, they save the horse. The daughter now is torn between her gratitude towards the soldiers and her father’s anger.

Of course I will not tell you everything about this story. You must experience it yourself. Then you’ll be amazed how in just fourteen pages, McCann can depict a human flood of hatred and rage that can drown any living soul, and slap you with a haunting end that leaves you cold like night.

Wood: Short Story

With his father stricken ill in bed, a young boy helps his mother to secretly work in the family mill to earn some money, cutting logs and refining them to make poles which will then be used to hold political banners for the Protestant marches. The boy knows that his father, despite being Protestant, disapproves of these marches. That’s why he knows he has to do this stealthily, yes, to protect the pride of his father who now lays in bed unable to work, but maybe even more importantly, so not to betray his political stance. Mother and son toil in secret, turning raw wood into polished poles. The boy loves both parents, his loyalty a dilemma between reality and ideal.

And all this time the wind blows obliviously, swaying the oak trees behind the mill. “The trunks were big and solid and fat, but the branches were slapping around like people.”

Hunger Strike: Novella

Kevin is a new arrival to a Southern seaside town, living with his mother in a caravan by the shore. The move apparently is an attempt of his mother to get away from the political conflicts in the North. Kevin’s father had been killed in an accident some years ago. Currently his uncle, an IRA member imprisoned in Northern Ireland, is one of a group of inmates holding a hunger strike. Some have already died.

The uncle’s ordeal disturbs 13 year-old Kevin deeply. While his mother wants to give him a better life away from the turmoil, Kevin is emotionally entwined with his uncle’s struggle. The boy vicariously partakes in the hunger strike, counting the days, noting closely the deterioration of his uncle’s health, and even secretly dumps his own food away.

An older couple with a yellow kayak live close by. Kevin observes that they paddle in sync, they move and rest in perfect harmony. Their calm and quiet life is a huge contrast to his. Later, the couple befriend him. The old man teaches him how to paddle:

The blade should never go too deep into the water or else too much energy would be used. And there should never be too much of a splash when the paddle came out — it should look as if the sea had hardly been disturbed.

A hopeful new beginning for Kevin seems to ensue, but the situation continues to deteriorate in his hometown in the North, and with the plight of his uncle. The waves inside Kevin is just too rough for smooth and quiet paddling. A sea undisturbed belongs to the apathetic, and sometimes splashes are called for. McCann’s description of a tormented young life is both visual and haunting, and propels us to a poignant and heart-wrenching end.

~~~~ Ripples
(yes, exactly my point)

Everything in This Country Must by Colum McCann, A Novella And Two Stories, Picador U.S.A., 2000, 150 pages.

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For my other Ireland Reading Challenge posts: 

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

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A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: Who can know it?”  Jeremiah 17: 9, The King James Bible

I’m delving into Flannery O’Connor like mad, looking for violence. It all started with my stumbling upon this YouTube clip of Father Robert Barron’s movie review of Coen Brothers’ acclaimed movie “Fargo.”

I was bemused to hear him compare Joel and Ethan Coen’s films to Flannery O’Connor’s stories, for in them we can find violence juxtaposed closely with humor. It has been years since I read O’Connor’s stories. After watching “Fargo” again the other night, I thought, I must read more of Flannery O’Connor, this time in a different light. I want to experience how this is true. I’m curious to find out how and why a deeply religious female author would instil violence in her stories. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories is a good source for my purpose.

Within the ten stories in this collection, I’ve encountered shocking and disturbing scenes that if being shown in cinematic light today could match what’s on screen, not only physical violence, but malicious deceits, verbal abuse, nasty and mean motives leading to disturbing actions.

Here are some of the scenes: Leading the pack is “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, where a family of six from baby to Grandma is killed by an escaped convict The Misfit and his men. In “Good Country People”, a deceitful young man posing as a Bible salesman outsmarts a woman aiming to seduce him, overpowering her and robbing her prosthetic leg.

Or how about these scenes: A grandfather denies knowing his young grandson in the face of danger in an unfamiliar city in “The Artificial Nigger”. A stranger gaining the trust of an old woman and later marrying her deaf-mute daughter but ends up abandoning her and driving off with her mother’s car and money after the wedding in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”. Children setting off a wild-fire and endangering a home and its occupants out of revenge, jealousy, or plain malice in “A Circle in the Fire”. Almost all the stories depict human depravity in a shocking way, albeit intermingled with humor. But often, for me, the humor does not compensate for the disturbing and grotesque. From what I’ve read in this collection, O’Connor could well have written the movie “No Country for Old Men”, except she would have sprinkled with a dash of sardonic fun.

But why? If for anything but to show the depravity and the hypocrisy among supposedly ‘good country folks’, and by extension, all humanity, O’Connor is most successful. Like the choir boys turned savages in The Lord of the Flies, what we are is largely circumstantial, the author seems to point out. O’Connor is very bold and direct in conveying this message. She does not cover up the dark side of human nature but exposes it. By so doing, she points to the need for redemptive grace.

In “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”, we see at the moment of imminent death, the grumpy Grandma looks at The Misfit in a new light, realizing that her existential predicament is not much different from the criminal’s. She says to The Misfit:

Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children! She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.

But her epiphany comes too late for herself.

The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.

While we see the murder of a seemingly innocent old woman, albeit hypocritical, O’Connor delivers the verdict of our human condition ironically by the words of The Misfit:

She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.

I find too, that violence in O’Connor’s stories are not gratuitous. It’s a situation, an action that comes as unexpected, and with that, O’Connor deftly tips the balance. These shocking acts usually serves to shatter the status quo of her characters, challenge their world view and convictions. O’Connor does not go about describing the grotesque in gory images, rather, in a matter-of-fact way. We only hear gun shots from afar when the other members of the family are killed. And for the Grandma, The Misfit “shot her three times through the chest.” These mere seven words send out the eerie and shocking effect of cold-blooded murder without having to dwell on the explicit.

Likewise, in “A Circle in the Fire”, it’s a few sardonic words from the disgruntled kid Powell that send chill down our spine as he lights up a match to set fire to the dry wooded area outside Mrs. Cope’s farm home:

Do you know what I would do with this place if I had the chance?… I’d build a big parking lot on it…

Powell told his two companions. Seeing this, the slow-witted daughter of Mrs. Cope’s runs home excited, shouting:

Mama, Mama, they’re going to build a parking lot here!

Yes, a likely scene and dialogue from a Coen Brothers movie.

But it is O’Connor’s own words that is most revealing in pointing out the reasons behind the violence:

In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.  Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.

And violence is never an end in itself:

We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is bad thing and meant to be an end in itself.  With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself.  It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially…

In reading (and movie watching, for that matter) we need to find and catch that glimpse of grace. With this, O’Connor had also set a standard for a good screenplay:

Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.

It is the “intrusion of grace” that the violent act is set up for. Without the Grandma’s final epiphany and the gesture of reaching out to The Misfit, O’Connor had said, “I would have no story.”

The writer sure knew a bit about the human heart.

***

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

NocturnesNocturnes is a recently published short stories collection by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Booker Prize winning author.  Like a song cycle, the five stories are arranged with a common motif, alas, the loss of romance.  They take place mainly in Europe, in some romantic settings, like Venice.  The cycle begins and ends there.  Music is the essential backdrop.  It is the common thread linking the various ways the characters attempt to salvage lost love and revive relation stalemates.

Nocturnes is a light read.  The theme could be dealt with seriously, but Ishiguro apparently tries a very different rendition.  I had expected him to depict dreamscapes as he had done with his previous works, such as The Unconsoled, or While We Were Orphans, but I had not expected laugh-out-loud, hilarious scenes.  Unlike the serious tone of The Remains of the Day, we see Ishiguro in a comedic styling.  And, despite the meditative title, it’s not the classical music of Chopin that he has invoked, but Broadway, jazz, Irving Berlin, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, and yes, ABBA, just to name a few.

The quintet is composed of ‘Crooner’, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, ‘Malvern Hills’, ‘Nocturne’, and ‘Cellists’.   They touch on a basic question:  Is a marriage finished with the loss of romance?  Is revival even possible after lovers have fallen out of love?

Kazuo Ishiguro

‘Crooner’ is poignant in depicting a once hot, now aging American singer trying to offer a last bit of love to his wife before the inevitable end.

‘Malvern Hills’ has a similar story line, but carries additional sadness in that the dispassion extends to the couple’s only son.

‘Nocturne’ offers an interesting perspective on Beverly Hills’ image-driven quest of the rich and famous, and the up-and-coming. It offers some real fun and sardonic humor.

And ‘Cellists’, well, I really don’t know what to make of it, a story about a cellist who is not a cellist…

The most hilarious scene is in ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’.  In the story, the main character has to cover up a mistake he’s made with the excuse that ‘the dog did it’. So, it’s canine method acting that he has to  take up instantly.  It is in such incredulous scenarios that the dreamscapes of Ishiguro emerge.  But this time it is more like merging reality with comedy romp.

Considering the motif of this literary quintet, Ishiguro’s humorous and sometimes farcical way of dealing could well have offered his readers a fresh perspective on the subject matter.  While Nocturnes may be a good pick for a beach read, I admit that I miss the poignant and pensive mood of The Remains of the Day.  I wish too that Ishiguro would re-visit his previous style in his future work, for his writing can be most subtle and incisive, heart-wrenching without commotion.  I missed such tonal expressions here, and the resonance they could have evoked.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009, 221 pages.

***

Photo credit: Jane Brown, www.list.co.uk/article/ 17435-kazuo-ishiguro/

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

How many movies have inspired you to read the original book or story right after you’ve watched it? You might think of films like The Kite Runner, Atonement, or Away From Her. But a cowboy flick?

Yes, it sure did for me. And while I’m still looking for Elmore Leonard’s book Three-Ten to Yuma and other stories to read his short story, the source material for this film, I can’t wait to write the movie review. It’s also timely because of the recent release of the DVD.

This is one film that should have received a lot more attention at the Oscars. It got two nominations, one in Original Score, the other in Sound. Well it did get a nod from the Screen Actors Guild for an Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture nomination. It’s also a nominee for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (Ben Foster) Satellite Awards.  But if it’s being touted as the best Western since Unforgiven, then why aren’t there any more commotion? Anyway, I’m here to stir some ripples.

This is a modern remake of the highly acclaimed 1957 movie with Glenn Ford. I missed that one. This new version sees Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Ben Foster and Peter Fonda join hands to create an action movie with a heart and mind. In a way, it’s one typical western, with gunslinging outlaws, headed by the notorious Ben Wade (Russell Crowe), aided by his despicable right-hand man Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), a defenceless cattleman (Christian Bale) and his family, and a few lawmen pathetically trying to enforce some sort of law and order.

I’m captivated by the riveting sequences and twists of the plot leading to the engrossing climax at the end. Anything typical is only a backdrop for the ultimate moral dilemma it sets up for its main characters. Basically it’s a duel of will and conscience for Crowe and Bale. 15 year-old Logan Lerman is right on a par with these two veteran actors.

The movie surprises me with the intense and deep depiction of psychological battles, internal conflicts, and moral choices one has to make in the face of life and death. Its fast action scenes, effective camera works and great acting from the whole cast mask the deeper issues the story is challenging us to ponder: What makes a man? What is the most important legacy a father can leave to a son? I say mask because you think you’re just watching, but actually you’re thinking. How we need this kind of movies these days. The poignant ending is what makes the film beautiful and rewarding.

From Jane Austen to Elmore Leonard…it’s all about life.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Away From Her Movie Review

Update March 4: Away From Her won 7 Genie Awards last night in Toronto, Canada.  Among them are Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

In light of all the awards Julie Christie is garnering in this Awards Season, first winning the Best Actress Golden Globe, then getting an Oscar nod, and just now winning the Screen Actors Guild’s Best Actress Award all for her role in Away From Her, plus director Sarah Polley’s Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, I’m re-posting here my review of the movie I wrote 8 months ago in May, 2007.  For those who missed the movie released in theatres last year, it’s timely to read the review and watch the DVD of this beautiful Canadian film, in preparation for the Oscars coming up February 24, 2008.

Away From Her

Away From Her (2006)–How can you turn a good short story onto the screen without compromising its quality? … By turning it into a screenplay written by an equally sensitive and passionate writer, and then, through her own talented, interpretive eye, re-creates it into a visual narrative. Along the way, throw in a few veteran actors who are so passionate about what the script is trying to convey that they themselves embody the message. Such ‘coincidents’ are all happening in the movie Away From Her.

Sarah Polley has made her directorial debut with a most impressive and memorable feat that I’m sure things will go even better down her career path. What she has composed on screen speaks much more poignantly than words on a page, calling forth sentiments that we didn’t even know we had. As Alzheimer’s begins to take control over Fiona, what can a loving husband do? Julie Christie and Gordon Pinsent stir up thoughts in us that we’d rather bury: how much are we willing to give up for love, or, how would we face the imminence of our loved ones’ and our own mental and physical demise.

Based on the story by Alice Munro, ‘The Bear Came Over the Mountain’, Polley brings out the theme of unconditional love not with your typical Hollywood’s hot, young, and sexy on screen, but aging actors in their 60’s and 70’s. It may not be as pleasurable to watch wrinkled faces hugging and kissing, or a man and a woman in bed, bearing age spots and all, but such scenes effectively beg the question: why feel uncomfortable?

Why does love has to be synonymous with youth, beauty, and romance? It is even more agonizing to watch how far Grant is willing to go solely for love of Fiona. Lucky for us, both writers spare us the truly painful at the end. It is through persistent, selfless giving that one ultimately receives; and however meager and fleeting that reward may seem, it is permanence in the eyes of love. And it is through the lucid vision of a youthful 27-year-old writer/director that such ageless love is vividly portrayed….Oh, the paradoxes in life.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

***

Congratulations Julie Christie!

Julie Christie

Update Jan. 28: Julie Christie has just won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress for her role in Away From Her last night in L.A.  Congratulations again!  

Update Jan. 22: Julie Christie has just been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Away From Her, and Sarah Polley for Best Adapted Screenplay.  Sarah:  Dreams do come true! For a full list of Oscar Nominees, click here.

A glamourless Globe for Best Actress (Drama) went to Julie Christie, how fitting!  A no-nonsense recognition for some no-nonsense acting for her role as Alzheimer sufferer Fiona in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her.

Once described by Al Pacino as “the most poetic of all actresses” Julie Christie’s movies have been cinematic icons of an era: Darling (1965), Doctor Zhivago (1966), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), The Go-Between (1970)…Yet, at 66, she has downplayed her achievement and shunned the attraction of fame and celebrity.

Christie has long avoided the glitz and glamour of stardom, appearing in only a selectively few films, evading the limelight that could have been hers.  In an interview with the New York Times last year at the release of Away From Her, she was asked about her name as a legend. Christie responded:  “I have no connection with that person at all…that person has gone.”

The British actress could have it all, if she had embraced such a life, but she chose to devote her time and passion to social activism and political causes.  Living almost reclusively away from the public eye for the past decades, Julie Christie just might not show up at the Golden Globe ceremony even if there were one. 

…but then, she probably would though, for her young Canadian friend Sarah Polley.  Christie wouldn’t want to miss the chance of bringing honor to Polley’s directorial debut, having met her while filming No Such Thing (2000) together.

Polley wrote the screenplay Away From Her, based on Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.  As she was writing, she had in mind Julie Christie and Canadian veteran actor Gordon Pinsent playing Fiona and Grant.  At first, expectedly, Christie turned her down. But finally, Polley’s persistence over the years paid off.  At 28, Polley was inspired enough to pull together two veterans in their 60’s and 70’s to make a film about old age, love, loss, and Alzheimer.

 

Sarah Polley 

 

Sarah Polley once said about Away From Her in an interview:

“I don’t’ think that there’s any chance that I would get nominated. I mean I really hope that the actors have a shot at it …it would be such a dream come true if they were acknowledged…”

In a recent interview with The Toronto Globe and Mail, Polley felt ‘strange’ and ‘surreal’ about the recognition the $4.5 million production has received.

Of course she was delighted with Christie’s win, she also added:

“If there’s any note of reluctance on my part – of not enjoying all of this fully – is that Gordon’s performance is also stunning … and I just don’t want his work in the film to be undervalued.”

Ooh…it’s satisfying seeing the humble exalted…To both Julie Christie and Sarah Polley, Congratulations! I hope to see more nominations and awards coming your way at the Oscars.  

Lust, Caution: The Original, The Translation, The Movie

Let me jump on the bandwagon and join in the discussion of the latest Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000; Brokeback Mountain, 2005) movie. Lust, Caution has garnered much praise and recently won the Golden Lion at the 64th Venice International Film Festival.  Before my review, I’d like to offer some background here relating to the original short story on which the film is based, as well as its translation.

THE ORIGINAL

Eileen Chang 1920 - 1995“Lust, Caution” is a short story written by Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), a writer born 1920 in Shanghai. Chang attended the University of Hong Kong from 1939 to 1941, majoring in Literature.  As the Japanese invasion advanced to Hong Kong, Chang had to cut short her education there and return to the then Japanese occupied Shanghai in 1942, where she began her vigorous writing career.  In a few short years she had gained popularity as a novelist, short story writer and essayist.

Eileen Chang had been compared to Eudora Welty and Katherine Mansfield, and was considered one of the few eligible contemporary Chinese writers as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.  In 1952 she went back to Hong Kong and continued to publish, finally moving to the United States in 1955. A year later she married the scriptwriter Ferdinand Rehyer.  After Rehyer’s death in 1967, Chang continued to be prolific as a writer and translator of her own works, many of which had been turned into screenplays.  The more well known ones include Red Rose White Rose (1994), and Love in a Fallen City (1984), garnering numerous nominations and awards.  Apart from writing, Chang had also taught at Radcliffe College and UC Berkeley.  She lived reclusively in the latter part of her life and in 1995, died alone in her apartment in Los Angeles.

Chang’s style is crisp and explicit, her choice of words sharp and sensual, her subject matter contemporary.  Considered progressive in her days, Chang boldly dealt with the dichotomies of eastern and western cultures, tradition and modernity, and inevitably, male and female power relations, love and betrayal.  “Lust, Caution” the short story exemplifies her style and encompasses these subject matters.

In ‘Lust, Caution’, Chang has demonstrated that she is a master of story-telling.  Her talent lies in her succinct and incisive descriptions, the economy of words.  It is this feature that the 39-page short story is so compelling and memorable.  The story moves swiftly, effectively spilling the thrill and suspense, and bringing its reader to an intense and hard-hitting climax and ending.

Following the succinct style of Eileen Chang, here’s a synopsis of the story.  Wang Chia-chih, a university student, was recruited by a group of amateur student resistance to play a role in the assassination of Mr. Yee, the head of the secret police in the collaborative government in Japanese occupied Shanghai during the 1940’s.  Her mission was to seduce Mr. Yee and gain his trust, setting the stage for her fellow resistance members to strike.  Throughout the story, Chang intertwined the elements of love and lust, loyalty and betrayal, mass patriotism and individual desire to effectively move the story to an explosive climax.

lust-caution-chinese-book-cover-larger-size.jpg

The Special Limited Chinese Edition I have is some sort of a movie tie-in edition.  It includes the 39 page short story, printed pages of Chang’s orginal handwritten manuscript, an article written by herself in defence of her story against a critic, and another short story published posthumously.  It is published by Taiwan’s Crown Publication, just freshly out in September, 2007.  If you read Chinese, this is a valuable collector’s item.

THE TRANSLATION

Lust Caution English TranslationThis movie tie-in English edition (New York: Anchor Books, 2007) is aptly translated by Julia Lovell, professor of Chinese history and literature at the University of Cambridge.  True to the style of Chang, Lovell’s translation is succinct and incisive, moving the story swiftly and thus enhancing the suspense and intrigue.

I find her Forward particularly helpful in that she included her own insight on the characterization, furnishing her readers with the essential background to Chang’s own life, which paralleled the protagonist Wang Chia-chi.  Her discussion on Chang’s writing style and the political realities during the Japanese occupation of China in WWII is particularly useful for one to appreciate the story.

Lovell’s commentary is lucid: “…[the climax and ending] give the story its arresting originality, transforming a polished espionage narrative into a disturbing meditation on psychological fragility, self-deception, and amoral sexual possession.”

This little book includes as well an Afterword by director Ang Lee, and a provocative essay by screenwriter/producer James Shamus, who also teaches at Columbia University.  A good read on its own.  If you read English, this is a keeper.

THE MOVIE

Lust Caution

I must admit, I had read the story in its original Chinese version twice and the English translation once before I went to see the movie.  Whether this could have affected my opinion can well be a possibility.  I went into the theatre with high expectations after reading the numerous reviews and comments from LC fans.  I was also aware that a movie should be judged on its own merits as a different artistic genre from the literary work.  After all, I had written on this topic in my post Vision not Illustration.

As a Chinese film director, Ang Lee has the advantage of visualizing Eileen Chang’s story as an insider, one who is in touch with the language, and the sociocultural and historical background.  Armed with these qualifications, Lee has successfully created an appealing atmosphere of nostalgia and exotic visualization through cinematography and symbolism.  He has laid out for his viewers a delectable visual feast.

But maybe because of his very attempt at perfecting the mood and setting up in details the scaffold of the story, Lee (or should I say the screenwriters James Schamus and Hui-ling Wang) had taken a bit too much time in the process.  I feel the 158 minutes could be shortened to keep alive the element of suspense. Further, being an experienced and talented director as Ang Lee, I’m sure if he so chooses, he can think of different ways to portray passion and possession without explicitly telling so by mere graphic eroticism scene after scene.  Ironically, the raw erotic displays may have robbed the viewers of the very emotions the director has intended for them.  I long for the swiftness of Eileen Chang and the subtlety of Wong Kar Wai as he did with In the Mood for Love (2000, also with Tony Leung).  Especially when one considers the laconic and intense climax bursting out at the end, the earlier part of the movie seems to be disproportionately long and off-balance.

As far as the delectable feast goes, the period costumes and setting, the cinematography, as well as the performance by the highly skilled actors Tony Leung and Joan Chen are all laudable and must be given credits.  As a first time actor, Tang Wei is proficient in capturing the ambivalence of conflicting emotions and longings as Wang Chia-chih.  American born singer/actor Lee-Hom Wang is adequate as an amateur student resistance leader.  Ironically, just because of his lack of experience in acting fits well with his role, depicting the raw naivety of the young patriots of the time.

Despite the concerted efforts of the cast and crew and the well intentions of the director, the film is bogged down by a script that ought to have been shortened by at least a half hour to bring out the element of suspense, and keep the integrity of the spy-thriller genre.  In her defence of the brevity of description in her story, Eileen Chang wrote, “I never underestimate the critical thinking skill of my readers.”  If the screenwriters had marked her words, the film would have been much more effective and gratifying.

~~2 1/2 Ripples