Sunday, August 31, 2008

Valse Avec Bachir

Unlike many, I have a great fondness for epic and self-indulgent films. So much so, in fact, that I almost prefer them to solid, plot-driven films like "The Visitor". As stated many a previous entry, when it comes to the question of style versus substance, it's style all the way. "Valse Avec Bachir" was breathtaking in this respect, difficult in others. I'm not sure whether it was a culture barrier (I saw this in a French movie theatre with French subtitles, so my knowledge of the plot might be a tad stilted), but by the ending credits of this well-paced 90-minute film, they were breathless. They sat through the entire ending credits, leaving me-- antsy, lost in Paris, extremely hungry--forced to stay the extra 5 minutes with them. I thought I heard a neighboring woman force back a sob at the end.

The themes are some of my favorite film archetypes: the (blurry) division between fantasy and reality, the absurdity and profoundness of human suffering, the anguish and trauma of war, the immense guilt following the realization of one's use as a political and military tool of war, the loss of human identity... but I'll stop before this becomes any more pretentious than it already is. I have an embarassing ability of "giving it all away" in movie reviews, so I'll keep this (relatively) brief. An Israeli man, twenty years after his obligatory service in the army and the war with Lebanon (in which he was a soldier), has forgotten all of his gruesome military past... that is, until, via a friend's account of a bizarre dream, his memory jolts, and all flows back to him. But is it real? Is he "making up" false memories? And how large of a part did he really play in the brutalities of this war?

I found it astounding that such a self-reflective, self-critical film can come out of warmongering, terrifyingly proud Israel (forgive me for the criticism, though I do love the country, very much). Details about the Israelis do not go unnoticed: reflections about the holocaust, the very Jewish look about their mothers and families (aquiline noses, thick dark hair of the Ashkenazi, light eyes, often a sad and surly expression). Then there are other details: a single soldier donning a yarmulke, a painfully slow application of the teffilin, a flashback of a mother frying latkes in a pan... I couldn't help wondering if the French, known for their antisemitism, would get these references. The main theme, the basic thesis underlying the story, was probably obvious to all: we have become them-- the murderers of our families, the brutal culture we have never been.

This depth makes it extraordinarily difficult to watch; I couldn't imagine anyone in my immediate family not bursting into tears, however much they claim to dislike animated movies. I, however, am more than a bit obsessed with cartoons and animation, and did not as much as tear up during the course of the film. Stylistically, it's astounding, shot in what I assume is the rhetroscopic film editing of Linklater fame in "A Scanner Darkly", and, less so, in "Waking Life". Most likely the film was shot normally, and the colors and scenery enhanced with computer animation. The animation is dreamlike, although stilted at times. It's extremely obvious when an action is drawn with the computer as opposed to shot on film; for example, a man dancing all-too-repetitively, two men with suspiciously even and baritone voices after a hit of a joint, which, though in Amsterdam, seems to have no more of an effect than a (tobacco) cigarette. Regardless, beautiful.

Also worth mentioning: the music. One of the things that make this movie so self-indulgent is how score/soundtrack-driven it is. It's a lot like the French movie "Heartbeat Detector" in this way, and, to some extent, Donnie Darko-esque (although nothing in "Valse avec Bachir" has anything to do with sulky superhero types, enormous rabbit costumes, or paranoid schizophrenia). But don't take my word for it: see it! There are only 3 reviews of the thing on rottentomatoes. For god sakes, people! Go for it!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Hipsters and the End of Civilization

My friend Jenny introduced me to this fantastic article:

I realized that this is the type of stuff I'd love to write if given the chance, a sort of quasi-Gonzo journalism. I occasionally read something that reawakens my high school love of journalism (unfortunately squashed by ivy league pretentiousness).

About hipsters in general: I don't really buy the somewhat melodramatic statement that hipsters are somehow the "end of western civilization" and the "end of cool." What the article talks about is more or less the "scene" of hip-ness right now, which is one brand of hipster, but does not acknowledge the softer side, the part that swept, sans-irony, into the urban mainstream.

Perhaps I'm being a bit defensive. Many hipsters are self-denying about their hipster-ness in general, and get defensive if somebody insults them with the statement. This, I think, is where the journalist went wrong. He was overwhelmingly accusatory. But one has to wonder: why is the very word "hipster" insulting? Punks do not find their label insulting. Even bougie (my Louis's shortened form of bourgeois) hippies aren't necessarily insulted in the way hipsters are. I remember a day at Columbia, sitting on the lawn with several kids who, though probably not the hipsters described in the article, still had a bit of the "look" described in it. One girl pointed to a kid in a purple hoodie and an ironic mustache, giggling and motioning to the other that she found him attractive. The other girl smirked and made fun of him for being "such a hipster."

Ah, the irony, the self-denial! There's something fascinating in it. What used to be working-class is now adopted into the chic elite. Even Mary-Kate Olsen and the like are molding and being molded by the trends of Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the lower East side.

A few of my hometown non-Columbia friends are a little confused by the denomination "hipster." So here's a short list I've compiled of things that, though not exactly making you a hipster by default (coke use = drug addict, not hipster; PBR = poor construction worker OR hipster), are being cycled in the hipster "trend":

1. Pabst Blue Ribbon beer
2. Parliament cigarettes
3. coke (the drug, not the brand)
4. colorful, enormous ray ban sunglasses, or the cheap Walgreens variety
5. "ugly chic" a la American Apparel
6. messy do-it-yourself hairdos/cuts
7. extreme skinniness
8. irony of all shapes and sizes
9. skinny pants
10. Reeboks over said skinny pants
11. ironic mustaches/ironic facial hair in general
12. Buddy Holly-esque glasses (often non-prescription)
13. colorful hoodies
14. blogging

Yet there's another element of hipster-dom ignored by "Hipster: The Dead End of Western Civilization." The aforementioned 14 are more or less part of the "scene," yet numerous people who don't give a damn about artsy parties, irony, or ugly things in general are lumped into another category: indie. Indie culture sparked from independent music and film, from a complete disavowal of all things expensive, trendy, or cool. Indie clothing-- to me, anyway-- is simply pretty, and often inspired. Here's a list of things that define things as "indie":

1. vintage and secondhand clothing
2. clothing inspired by various decades long past, like the '20s, '40s, or '60s (or, if you're me, the women in Godard movies from the '60s and '70s)
3. indie music, especially baroque/chamber pop (
4. scarves and keffiyehs (worn non-ironically)
5. flats
6. Converse shoes (also a trend with the pop punk, punk, and emo movements)
7. bangs (guilty as charged)
8. overlapping patterns
9. Rivers-Cuomo-from-Weezer glasses (as opposed to the more scenester Buddy Holly variety mentioned above, these are simpler and quieter, neither yelling for attention nor making a "statement" of any sort)
10. nerd culture (comic books, video games, etc)
11. vegan/vegetarianism
12. social awareness (including an interest in politics)
13. obsession with organic and free-trade things, a la Trader Joe's or your local farmer's market
14. classic rock (this is why the neighborhood Wicker Park in Chicago, extremely "hip" and unfortunately gentrified, was described by a friend of mine as "where all the hipsters hang out to play acoustic guitar on their porches and listen to Bob Dylan."

I'm not sure if I'm alone in distinguishing these two breeds of hipster, but I'm more than confident that a delineation exists. Or maybe it's just to make myself feel less guilty about blogging profusely, being obsessed with my mom's old Soviet clothing, and digging the French New Wave.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I've been reading more non-fiction than usual this summer, so I decided to complete my round of non-fic with the infamous "Freakonomics." This isn't quite a review, just a little blurb. For one, it's a short book. Aside from bonus material in the back, the bulk of the book is less than 200 pages. Even for somebody like me that detests econ, I thought it a fun read. The trouble with this book is when to decide to wholeheartedly believe Steven Levitt, and when to doubt his research. Personally, I ate it all up. Levitt is an argument magician, a linguistic con-man. He will make you believe anything, and not just from a good prose style. He will make you believe it because it is true, because it is what the stats show, what the facts depict.

For instance, take his stance on crime. To Levitt, the fall of crime in the '90s is about 50% due to the consequences of Roe v. Wade. I completely believe him: fewer unwanted babies mean fewer troubled youths mean fewer criminals. The logic is brilliant. But as we all know, causality and correlation are two very different things, and to say that Roe v. Wade CAUSED the drop in crime is a bit problematic, although highly believable. But that's just me.

Other than that, a highly interesting book. It will make you see the world differently, allowing you to see the more complex, enigmatic, and surprising insides of our candy-coated world. Like the cover depicts, an apple skin might house an orange. You'll never look at politics, society, or economics the same way again.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Brideshead Revisited

Confession: I have a soft spot for English dandies. Hence, the obsession with Oscar Wilde, late Victorian poetry, and bowler hats. Love love LOVE bowler hats. So, lit nerd that I am, I went to see Brideshead Revisited for free at my local Landmark.

My coworkers made fun of me relentlessly. For someone so adamantly against the upper classes, I suddenly had the urge to see a bunch of obnoxiously wealthy British people deal with their obnoxiously wealthy British problems. I was, in fact, the only employee who saw this movie. And, strangely enough, I liked it.

Based on Evelyn Waugh's novel, "Brideshead Revisited" is, above all else, about Catholicism. Waugh was writing in the tradition of many Victorian poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins or Coolidge: a (gay) dandy who, upon discovering Catholicism, is consumed by guilt due to his sexual preference. It's an oft-recurring tale. The original title of the book was "Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder," and according to my beloved Wikipedia, "Waugh wrote that the novel "deals with what is theologically termed 'the operation of Grace', that is to say, the unmerited and unilateral act of love by which God continually calls souls to Himself".' So the book is about the protagonist's eventual conversion to Catholicism.

The movie, however, is far more ambiguous about Catholicism. Ryder, self-proclaimed atheist and ambiguously-sexed dreamboat (Matthew Goode, who will soon play Ozymandias in the upcoming Watchmen film!), befriends a flamboyant dandy in his first year at Oxford. The dandy, Sebastian Flyte, introduces Ryder to his wealthy family, including his sister Julia. A love triangle ensues, complicated by immense Catholic guilt from the Flyte children: self-proclaimed "sinners" and "heathens." Instead of being Catholic, the film is instead critical. We see characters driven insane by guilt, by their unstoppable desires. The film seems to wish all Catholics were of the Italian breed, as voiced by the Flyte father's Italian mistress: "Us Italians are different; there's not so much guilt. We follow our hearts, and then confess after." If only all Catholics were so lighthearted. After "Brideshead," Catholicism is one rabbit hole I wouldn't like to fall into, thank you very much.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


I am becoming more of a comic book nerd every day. This past week I finished the "Watchmen" series, by far one of the best graphic novels I've ever read. I finished the entire thing in about 36 hours, pausing only to haphazardly rip tickets at the movie theatre and eat. But the rest of the day was devoted to "Watchmen." When asked about Watchmen, I could give a very pretentious response: it's about human suffering, political power, the meaning of an individual human life, humanity vs. "super-humanity," etc. A less pretentious plot summary: a league of superheroes from the mid 20th century retire. Thanks to one of the superheroes, the United States won the Vietnam War. It is a re-imagining of the early 1980s in New York City, as the new generation of superheroes grow paranoid and misanthropic when faced with the suffering in the world. The story begins when one superhero is found murdered.

Usually I'm not even a fan of superhero comic books. But this is Watchmen, considered by many to be the best graphic novel/comic book of all time. There isn't even much action in it-- it is all brooding, all politics, all imagination. I love it. It isn't a "superhero" comic-- it's about individual human experience. There isn't any magic in it, no fantasy to speak of. It's a science fiction re-imagining. It is every nerd's idea of comic book perfection.

I'm a little wary, however, of the director of "300" making a live-action movie of "Watchmen." The two are completely incompatible. Frank Miller v. Alan Moore? There really is no comparison. Frank Miller is all style, while Moore is both style and substance. One absolutely cannot make a shallow version of "Watchmen," and frankly I'm worried about the state of cinema. My fellow movie nerds agree: it's a big risk, and Zack Snyder had better follow through. "300" is a cool movie, but not a good movie by any means. It is pure style. "Watchmen" can't be pure style. It wouldn't be "Watchmen."

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Everything is Illuminated: Review

I was probably the last of my college class to read "Everything is Illuminated," Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel. I was, to say the least, behind my game. I have yet to see the movie with Elijah Wood, but I usually avoid watching the movie before reading the book anyway.

Let me get to the point. This book completely blew me away. "Everything is Illuminated" is, in one word, devastating. In the good way. In the it's-so-painful-but-so-well-written-I-can't-put-it-down-for-the-life-of-me good way. It was at once scattered and painfully organized. It was personal and overwhelmingly human. I cannot praise Jonathan Safran Foer enough. I honestly cannot comprehend any human being who isn't equally affected by it.

Some quotes, to prove my point:
A segment from the perspective of Yankel D., who has been awarded the baby girl Brod by lottery:
"This is a kiss. It is what happens when lips are puckered and pressed against something, sometimes other lips, sometimes a cheek, sometimes something else. It depends... This is my heart. You are touching it with your left hand, not because you are left-handed, although you might be, but because I am holding it against my heart. What you are feeling is the beating of my heart. It is what keeps me alive."
-p. 43
Sometimes the writing is hilarious, especially from the perspective of Sasha, Jonathan's (the book Jonathan, not the author, although the difference between the two is debatable) Ukrainian interpreter, and his horrible ostentatious English, and the way Sasha always refers to Jonathan as "the Jew," because I kid you not, Ukrainians refer to Jews like this to this day, like some sort of diseased animal. But what else is new?
"'Would you like to do the Electric Slide with me at a famous discotheque tonight?" I asked the waitress. "Will you bring the American?" she asked. Oh, did this piss all over me! "He is a Jew," I said, and I know that I should not have uttered that, but I was beginning to feel very awful about myself. The problem is that I felt more awful after uttering it. "Oh," she said. "I have never seen a jew before. Can I see his horns?"'
-p. 106-7
Sometimes I was amazed at the poetic way the sentences were structured, or even the images conjured by a single sentence, like this one:
"The minutes were unstrung. They feel to the floor and rolled through the house, losing themselves."
-p. 139
If I had infinite time and resources, I would want to draw this. It's an appealing image, both beautiful and sad, which is what most good art is. Beautiful. And sad.
But this is my favorite:
"Jews Have Six Senses
Touch, taste, sight, smell, hearing... memory. While Gentiles experience and process the world through the traditional senses, and use memory only as a second-order means of interpreting events, for Jews memory is no less primary than the prick of a pin, or its silver glimmer, or the taste of the blood it pulls from the finger. The Jew is pricked by a pin and remembers other pins. it is only by tracing the pinprick back to other pinpricks-- when his mother tried to fix his sleeve while his arm was still in it, when his grandfather's fingers fell asleep from stroking his great-grandfather's damp forehead, when Abraham tested the knife point to be sure Isaac would feel no pain-- that the Jew is able to know why it hurts.
When a Jew encounters a pin, he asks: What does it remember like?"
-p. 199

I understand that there is no real biological or psychological difference between ethnicities or nationalities, but something about this rings true. Why is it Jews are so focused on memory? And it's true, what he writes, about the sixth sense of memory; I just haven't realized it before. Maybe this is why many of my non-Jewish friends weren't affected by the book, while I was close to tears in many a chapter. Maybe there's something to it. Maybe "Everything Is Illuminated" could be considered a Jewish book.
Next up, the movie version, with the lead singer from Gogol Bordello playing Sasha. Exciting!