Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Books

Here it is, my annual list of books I read this year (previous editions: 2008, 2007). I decided to start including plays, something I've never done before, which is one reason that this list has 10 more books on it than last year's does. (I counted plays according to how they're bound when published: therefore No Exit and Three Other Plays counts as one book, not four.) 2009 was my first full year out of school, so if I was going to change the listing procedure, this was obviously the year to do it.

Links go to previous blog posts, if I've already written about the book; I provide brief comments if I haven't.

1. Shopgirl, by Steve Martin (novella). Recommended.

2. Wise Children, by Angela Carter (novel). Recommended, particularly for theater types.

3. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (novel, 2nd read). Recommended.

4. The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer (novel). Mixed feelings: while the premise is interesting (if the same one as Benjamin Button), the execution felt belabored... not a success, though not dreadful.

5. A Dead Man’s Memoir, by Mikhail Bulgakov (unfinished novel). Mixed feelings.

6. Cleopatra’s Nose, by Judith Thurman (essays). Recommended.

7. A Night at the Opera, by Sir Denis Forman (opera reference). Mixed feelings--yes I know that my previous blog post reads more like a "Recommended" but now I am more annoyed than charmed by the cutesy opera summaries. What can I say, my aesthetic tastes are in flux. Forman's writing about the actual music of the operas, though, is still valuable.

8. Mating, by Norman Rush (novel). Recommended. It features a lot of the elements I love most in fiction: an interesting setting (postcolonial Botswana); a wry, self-aware narrator; a story about a smart loner woman falling in love with an unattainable man; astute writing about group behavior/psychology; words that I have to look up in the dictionary. Original and thought-provoking.

9. Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, by Joan Acocella (essays). Highly recommended.

10. No Exit and Three Other Plays, by Jean-Paul Sartre (plays). Recommended. Of this collection, I was most intrigued by Dirty Hands, which is probably too long and talky to stage effectively, but makes for great reading. And No Exit is a classic. The other two plays in this volume are pretty tedious though.

11. Death & Taxes: Hydriotaphia and Other Plays, by Tony Kushner (plays). Mixed feelings: this is minor Kushner, so while I'm a fan, and might suggest that fellow playwrights should take a look at this collection, it probably doesn't have much to offer the general reader.

12. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett (novel). Mildly recommended: I picked it up because I'm an opera fan and it's a bestseller--and while it's solid, well-written fiction, it didn't amaze me, for whatever reason. I enjoyed it while reading it; but the best novels feel like they have deeper secrets to reveal, and this one doesn't.

13. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (novel, 2nd read). Highly recommended. So glad that I gave this book a second chance, and finally realized how heartwrenching it is. Perhaps it helped that I read it at a time when I was feeling hemmed in by Society, or at least by my job--because it is a very great book about compromises made and romantic ideals thwarted.

14. The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton (novel). Mixed feelings: while well-written and providing an interesting look at society and manners in the Gilded Age, it was a bit of a letdown after The Age of Innocence--episodic, and hard to care about the protagonist. Unusually for a novel by a female author, all the men come off better than the women.

15. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie (novel, 4th read?). Highly recommended: reading it as an adult, it's still inventive and delightful, but now the morals stand out a lot more. (this is the first fiction Rushdie published after the fatwa was declared). I bet this is the only children’s fantasy-adventure novel that features an attempted suicide bombing and a paragraph about the banality of evil!

16. 36 Views of Mount Fuji, by Cathy Davidson (memoir). Mixed feelings.

17. Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier (novel). Recommended: I basically agree with what Adam Gopnik writes in the intro to my Penguin Classics edition, that this is a young man's book and not all of it stands up to adult scrutiny, but its best parts are surprisingly beautiful, evocative and powerful.

18. Possession, by A.S. Byatt (novel, 2nd read). Highly recommended.

19. Le dieu du carnage, by Yasmina Reza (play). Recommended: though some people have dismissed this as a slick comedy, I actually got a chill when I read the last page and realized that I had seen human beings turn into animals before my eyes. Good writing there.

20. Timebends, by Arthur Miller (memoir). Mixed feelings.

21. Complete Short Fiction, by Oscar Wilde (short stories). Recommended. I tend to prefer the funny stories (see my post on "The Remarkable Rocket") but the sentimental ones serve to remind us that Wilde wasn't just a creator of aphorisms--he was more complex than that.

22. Nobody’s Perfect, by Anthony Lane (movie reviews and essays). Highly recommended.

23. N.P., by Banana Yoshimoto (novella). To be avoided.

24. Back Back Back, Celebrity Row, & Outrage, by Itamar Moses (plays). Very mixed feelings: Back Back Back is solid, Outrage is messy but fascinating, and Celebrity Row... Without going into too much detail, let me just say that I helped workshop an earlier draft of this play at JAW/West 2005, and I really prefer the earlier version.

25. Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb (novella). Recommended: a wry, witty, autobiographically inspired story of being a Westerner working for a big Japanese corporation. A quick read, fun.

26. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami (novel). Recommended. I don't know if I "got" the ending, or maybe its 600 pages are a little less than meets the eye. But it is a real page-turner, nearly made me faint on MUNI, and redeemed Japanese fiction for me after N.P., so I am left with a favorable impression overall.

27. Waiting for Lefty & Other Plays, by Clifford Odets (plays). Recommended, particularly Awake and Sing!

28. Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (psychology/self-help). Recommended: an easy book to read and to agree with its ideas about what brings true happiness--the hard part is putting it into practice!

29. Sexual Personae, by Camille Paglia (literary criticism). Recommended: this book is sui generis and sometimes totally off-the-wall, but that's what makes it engaging and thought-provoking. I didn't always enjoy it, much less agree with it, but I know that I'll return to it.

30. The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth (novel in verse). Recommended.

31. Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn (novel in letters). Mixed feelings. I read this because the complete review made it sound like the best thing ever; and while it is undoubtedly clever, it's also a little cutesy, and didn't nourish me the way that good fiction ought to.

32. Complete Stories, by Dorothy Parker (short fiction). Highly recommended.

33. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Stories, by Truman Capote (novellas). Recommended. (Here are my posts on the stories "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "A Diamond Guitar," but I also want to mention "A Christmas Memory," which is gorgeous.)

34. Dracula, by Bram Stoker (novel). Mixed feelings: this is one of those novels that you read more for its historical importance than for its inherent literary qualities. The epistolary structure meant that I liked it better than Frankenstein, though.

35. Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace (essays). Highly recommended.

36. Sights and Spectacles, by Mary McCarthy (theater criticism). Mixed feelings: McCarthy proves that even in a theatrical golden age like mid-century America, there were lousy plays and contrarian theater critics, but she isn't very fun to read. And maybe she didn't know how to watch a play: her review of the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire doesn't even mention Marlon Brando, and how is that possible?

37. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan (novella). Recommended.

38. The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht (play with songs). Recommended: cynical, snide, and highly influential theater. I'm going to go see this in January!

39. Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan (novella). Recommended, at least if you're a francophile and are fascinated by precocious youth (Sagan was 18 when this was published). This book feels like part of the same sensibility that produced Brigitte Bardot and the Nouvelle Vague.

40. The Meaning of Sunglasses, by Hadley Freeman (humorous fashion advice). Mixed feelings: the trouble with "humorous" books is that they're never as funny as they're billed. Freeman thinks she's being kooky and opinionated, but beneath the fun turns of phrase, most of her fashion advice just comes down to common sense.

41. Life of Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht (play). Highly recommended. Perhaps Brecht's least "Brechtian" play, it is one of his easiest to feel real affection for (not just intellectual appreciation) and to be moved by. I plan to blog more about it next week.

42. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (novel). Recommended. Most surprising is how well Ishiguro writes about female adolescence and friendship. And how the book turns out to be an allegory for the human condition: hoping that art and love will save us, but knowing we cannot stave off the inevitable...

Even though I ended the year reading a bleak novel, I can't end this blog post on such a bleak note, so forgive me for also wanting to pat myself on the back for having read forty-odd issues of The New Yorker in addition to these forty-two books! Yes, I finally think I've figured out a method for keeping up with that magazine while also reading drama, literature, and non-fiction.

And I just bought way too many books at Powell's and in Vancouver over the holidays, so I look forward to reading them in 2010!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Northwest Passage

Quick note--tomorrow I am flying back to my hometown of Portland, Oregon, to spend about a week with my family. We are also planning to take a road trip to Vancouver BC for part of that time--my first visit there since I was five years old, so I am looking forward to it!

I don't know how much I'll be blogging--as you can tell, I'm a bit short of ideas these days, plus travel can always interfere. But at the very least, I'll try to post my annual run-down of all the books I read this year!

Happy holidays to you and yours.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Next Daniel Day-Lewis?

In 1986, Daniel Day-Lewis shot to Americans' attention when two of his early films, A Room With a View and My Beautiful Launderette, opened here on the same day. Critics and moviegoers marveled at his skill in playing two very different characters, a priggish Edwardian gentleman and a gay working-class punk.

And now I think I've just experienced something similar to what people felt when they discovered Daniel Day-Lewis. This week I caught up with two films that came out earlier this year, Inglourious Basterds and Hunger, which both feature a 32-year-old German-Irish actor named Michael Fassbender. And together they impressively showcase his talent.

In Basterds, Fassbender has a supporting role as Lt. Archie Hicox, an Englishman who, in civilian life, was a film critic. Thanks to his knowledge of German language and cinema, Hicox is selected for the special mission of infiltrating a Nazi film premiere. Hicox's first scene is a very funny parody of every war movie that features stiff-upper-lip, dryly amused British officers who say things like "jolly good, old chap"--so it requires the actors to do a kind of stylized comedy. Fassbender speaks with a wonderful lazy, aristocratic drawl--Quentin Tarantino asked him to model his characterization on the young George Sanders.

Then comes an audacious Tarantino set-piece. Hicox has traveled to France, disguised himself as an SS officer, and gone to a basement tavern to meet with a contact. But he didn't anticipate that the tavern would be full of genuine Nazis--which sets up a half-hour-long scene revolving around the question "Will Hicox be found out?" The whole sequence is tense, involving, and smartly written. Hicox is fluent in German and an excellent bluffer, but the Nazis think his accent sounds suspicious...

Though I don't speak German, I tried listening for what was the matter with Hicox/Fassbender's pronunciation. And it sounded as though the lazy, drawling vowels of his English accent carried over to his German! If I heard right, then Fassbender has impressive accent skills.

There are a lot of memorable characters and performances in Inglourious Basterds (Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Mélanie Laurent) but Fassbender holds his own. It's analogous to Day-Lewis' work in A Room With a View--a good supporting role that shows he can play an upper-class character in a period film, be funny, and stand out in an ensemble cast.

Fassbender's work in Hunger, meanwhile, shows that he can do raw, serious, intensely Method acting--the kind of thing that people associate with, yep, Daniel Day-Lewis. The movie is about the 1981 hunger strike in a Belfast prison among imprisoned IRA fighters, led by Bobby Sands (Fassbender). We first see Sands being dragged from his cell and forcibly given a haircut and hose-down. He lashes out at the guards, kicking and slamming into them--like an animal trying to avoid the slaughterhouse. None of Lt. Hicox's suave manners here.

The first part of Hunger is a grim, nearly wordless evocation of prison life. But then there's a long scene where Sands tells his priest that he intends to lead the hunger strike. If you thought the long conversations in Inglourious Basterds were bold, this one is even bolder: it has barely any cuts! There's a 16.5-minute-long take of Sands and the priest arguing as they face each other across a table, then about a 5-minute-long close-up of Sands, delivering a monologue about an incident in his youth.

We take for granted that theater actors will have the skills to perform long scenes, but it always surprises us when movie actors do. Hunger was scripted by playwright Enda Walsh, and this scene, particularly the monologue, is very theatrical--it sounds like an Irish play, not like a movie. As an additional hurdle, the 16-minute shot is backlit, meaning you can barely see the actors' faces. They must communicate everything with their voices, gestures and posture.

Fassbender plays Sands with an Irish accent that I found a little hard to understand at first (his natural accent is Irish too, but much lighter), and emphasizes his character's single-minded determination. Toward the end of the scene, though, I found myself wondering "If he's so determined, why does he need to talk to the priest?" The priest's objective in this scene is clear--to persuade Sands not to starve himself--but what does Sands want? Then I realized that Sands wants a blessing, but he's too proud to ask for it. And just then, the conversation ended; the priest gets up from the table, saying simply, "Goodbye Bobby, I don't think I'll be seeing you again." "No, I guess you won't," says Sands. The camera lingers on him for a few more beats and, for the first time, a hint of doubt and vulnerability enters his eyes. Heartbreaking.

The last part of Hunger returns to near-wordlessness--Sands has no more dialogue, but it's still riveting, because now the movie is about the effects of a two-month-long hunger strike on the human body, and Fassbender starved himself down to about 130 lbs for these scenes. Like I said: intense commitment to the role. I don't think actors should win prizes just for gaining or losing weight, which is why in this writeup I focused on Fassbender's acting in other scenes, but it's undeniably compelling and frightening. I mean, it can't have been pleasant for him to lose the weight, but he was under medical supervision and never at risk of death--yet watching Hunger, you're sure you're seeing a man on death's doorstep.

So, after this, I have vowed to keep Michael Fassbender on my radar screen. It doesn't hurt that he is a handsome guy with a great smile (that didn't hurt Daniel Day-Lewis, either) but he's also got an incredible range.

Incidentally, the Toronto Film Critics' Association just announced that Hunger and Basterds tied for their Best Picture prize. If you couldn't tell, I highly recommend both movies. Both are unconventionally paced and structured. Both are full of moments and images that will stay with me for a long time. Quentin Tarantino has a showman's instincts and Steve McQueen, the director of Hunger, has an artist's eye. Tarantino leaves you exhilarated and drunk on movie love; McQueen leaves you shaken, stunned, and wrung-out (the only movie I can possibly compare with Hunger is The Passion of Joan of Arc). So I guess these movies represent two opposing ideas of what cinema can do--or maybe just two different flavors of art.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Boom," The Most-Produced Play in America

I'm being a lazy blogger, so you get another way-after-the-fact write-up of a play that is now closed. BUT! The play in question is boom, by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, which just happens to be the most-produced play this year at American regional theaters--so it is obviously worthy of your attention, and if you live somewhere other than the Bay Area, there's a chance it might be coming soon to a theatre near you!

I was pretty impressed to learn that boom is 2009-10's most-produced play. Usually that honor goes to a recent Broadway hit that can be done with a small cast and limited budget--with extra credit if the play won the Pulitzer: Doubt, Proof, I Am My Own Wife. boom had a small New York production at Ars Nova in 2008, but that doesn't seem to have set the American theater world afire. Yet somehow, productions of it are springing up around the country.

I saw boom at Marin Theater Company--which added an extra layer to this feel-good story of the little play that could, because Nachtrieb* is a local writer who grew up in Marin County.

Nachtrieb admitted in the playbill that practical concerns obviously have a bearing on boom's popularity: it needs just three actors and one set. The nice thing about boom, however, is that its premise perfectly justifies the small cast and single location. These days there are a lot of "small-cast, one-set plays" that require all of the actors to play multiple roles and require the set to be a nondescript heap of platforms that can stand in for a dozen different locations. This is certainly a valid way of making theater, but it sometimes suggests that the playwright's vision has outstripped his limited budget and he has had to compromise in order to make his play "produceable." boom makes no such compromises.

At its most basic level, it's a variant on the old "two incompatible people trapped in a room together" situation. The characters are Jules, a scientist convinced that a giant comet is about to slam into Earth and annihilate the human species, and Jo, a college student, whom Jules lured into his reinforced bunker under false pretenses so that she can survive and help repopulate the earth. The problems? Jules is socially awkward, gay, and a virgin; Jo is sarcastic, hates babies, and has a mysterious medical condition. And then the comet does slam into Earth. And the real problems start.

That's also about the time that the structure gets more complex and the third character enters the play: Barbara, a middle-aged woman who periodically interrupts Jules and Jo's story to talk to the audience, treating us as though we are watching a presentation in a science museum. No longer is it just a "two people trapped in a room" play. There's a great twist at the end, which also affords directors and designers some intriguing possibilities for staging the play (i.e. how much do they want to telegraph the twist?). Most productions of a play like Doubt are going to look very similar to each other, but I could imagine two equally valid productions of boom that took very different approaches to the material.

With a set-up like this, boom is a very funny play (another reason that theater companies like it). But what I admire most about it is that it manages to go beyond being funny, or even being clever, and make a statement. Lots of people could write ninety minutes' worth of funny scenes between Jules and Jo, trapped in their science lab/bunker--it's a solid premise and the characters have a lot to argue about. But fewer writers would dare to do as Nachtrieb does, and end the play with a monologue that gently but sincerely states the theme. The monologue doesn't just wrap up the play--it expands the play and makes you realize that it is much more than a three-character drama. It makes you feel good, even a little awed, about being human and alive on this planet and the product of evolution. Sometimes I think writers these days are afraid of sincerity, afraid that people will make fun of them if they dare to suggest a moral to their story. So the ending of boom feels like a risk--and Nachtrieb pulls it off.

I went to see boom with a writer friend of mine who was trying to put together an entry for the STAGE Competition for plays about science and technology (the deadline was today--I hope he made it!). Afterward, we agreed that boom is an excellent example of a play about science and a good one to take as inspiration. And actually, I am in the middle of reading Brecht's Life of Galileo, perhaps the granddaddy of plays about science, and it is affecting me similarly to the way that boom did--making me grateful to live on this planet, and to be gifted with reason, curiosity, and confidence in science.

That boom's success has given me increased confidence in the programming choices of American regional theaters, however, is even better.

*I know people who know this guy. I sat two seats away from him at a show I went to earlier this fall and chatted with his brother. I'll probably meet him one of these days. So I feel weird referring to him as "Nachtrieb." But I'd also feel weird referring to him as "Peter." Oh, what to do? Should I get all initialey, like people do for David Foster Wallace, and start referring to him as PSN?

Photo from Marin Theater: Jules (Nicholas Pelczar) tells Jo (Blythe Foster) about his new theory.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nigerian Night

In the evenings I like to cook and eat dinner while watching the reruns of the previous night's Daily Show and Colbert Report. Last night, for the first time, Colbert featured a performance from a Broadway show: the cast of Fela!

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Fela! - Zombie
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

Fela! is a musical about Afrobeat superstar Fela Kuti. And as fate would have it, as I watched the Fela! performance today, I was cooking the only West African-style dish in my repertoire: the Minimalist's Peanut Soup with Chicken and Yams.

I very much recommend the recipe and it would certainly be good fuel for a night of shaking your hips to Afrobeat! And I think I'm going to call it "Fela Soup" from now on, because I'm a fan of giving recipes catchy/unique names, rather than ones that are just lists of ingredients.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"On Chesil Beach": Caught in a Bad Romance

Three years ago, The New Yorker's Winter Fiction issue printed a lengthy except from Ian McEwan's novella On Chesil Beach, which was about to be published. I eagerly looked forward to it; at the time, McEwan's Atonement was my favorite novel in the entire world.

Among the many virtues of Atonement is that it is one of the great love stories of modern literature, with one of the few sex scenes that doesn't seem like a candidate for the annual Bad Sex in Fiction award. As a bookish but secretly romantic teenager, I found the scene between Robbie and Celia in the library to be extremely seductive. It's not gratuitous, either--it has to be genuinely sexy in order for the novel to work.

So when The New Yorker advertised their Chesil Beach excerpt with some titillating tagline like "Ian McEwan narrates a 1960s wedding night," I secretly hoped for another Atonement-quality sex scene. Well, the joke was on me. As the very first sentence of On Chesil Beach proves, this is a story about bad sex, told in painstaking detail--an anti-erotic tale.

Last week I finally read On Chesil Beach in its entirety--it's a short work, 39 thousand words--and I can't help but feel that McEwan is deliberately repudiating his earlier novel. It would be a very typical thing for him to do--as Atonement proves, he's a master of pulling the rug out from underneath the reader. There are enough parallels between the lovers in Atonement and the lovers in Chesil Beach for me to think that McEwan expects the reader's memories of Atonement to provide a subtext for the events of Chesil. Both works are set in the past and teddibly English. In both cases, the characters having sex are just out of university. The girl is extremely virginal, the boy slightly (but only slightly) more experienced. The girl is from a cultivated upper-middle-class family; the boy is a working-class striver whose intelligence is his ticket to higher social status.

In a way, therefore, On Chesil Beach is McEwan performing an act of literary criticism on himself. "You were turned on by my sex scene in Atonement?" he seems to say. "Don't you realize that that was fiction and fantasy? Here's how it really would have happened."

Anyway, On Chesil Beach is a well-crafted anti-erotic narrative about the wedding night of Florence and Edward in an English seaside hotel. The central problem is that while Florence loves Edward, she is repelled by anything sexual (even French-kissing), and knows she is powerless to articulate her fear and disgust. Edward is aware that his bride hasn't liked physical affection, but he assumes it will all change now that they are married, and is eager to lose his own virginity. On that night, however, everything goes wrong in the worst possible way; from the start, the atmosphere in the chilly and antiseptic hotel room is one of unease.

McEwan fills out the novella with some flashbacks about how Florence and Edward first met, their respective upbringings, etc. I was not as fond of these parts--they are straight narration (the omniscient McEwan telling us "Edward's mother was like this" or "Florence's string quartet was like that") with little action or dialogue to enliven them. In these passages, the characters feel artificial, constructed to represent ideas about sexual attitudes and class divides in 1962. But Florence and Edward come to life whenever McEwan is describing their thoughts, feelings, and actions on that fateful wedding night. (Similarly, I tend to think that the best parts of Mad Men are when the writers explore and deepen the characters' relationships, not when they go "Oh my god, the '60s!") Their conversation on the beach toward the end of the novella, in which almost every line of dialogue has either Florence or Edward saying the worst possible thing they could say at that moment, is especially well done. Atonement is about one big, horrible lie that ruins a life; On Chesil Beach is about how lives can also be ruined by an accumulation of little mistakes.

At first there seems to be no explanation for Florence's sexual unresponsiveness, but eventually the narrator hints that Florence's father abused her when she was younger. (I wasn't just imagining this, either: according to a recent New Yorker profile of McEwan, this was even more blatant in earlier drafts.) Not sure I agree with this choice; it seems so pat, like a diagnosis. I think I'd be more interested in reading about a woman whose fear and abhorrence of sex wasn't linked to childhood trauma--at any rate, that would be more original. This also means that the narrator is unreliable or disingenuous: the first line of On Chesil Beach says "they were both virgins," but maybe Florence isn't a virgin, right? And if we can't trust the first sentence, can we trust anything else the omniscient narrator says--though he seems so perfectly candid?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Requiem for the 4-Sutter

MUNI, San Francisco's transit agency, has just had to make some very severe cutbacks and today it eliminated several bus routes. So I thought I would take a moment to say some words in honor of one of the dearly departed buses, my favorite bus in the whole city: the 4-Sutter.

I don't ride the 4 anymore; living in the Inner Sunset, my lifeline is the train, the N-Judah. But during my first four months in San Francisco, I lived on Sutter Street, and quickly discovered how the #4 could take me downtown in comfort and style.

Everyone knows about the California Street bus (three blocks north of Sutter); everyone knows about the Geary Street bus (two blocks south of Sutter); but the buses that run along Sutter itself seem to be the city's best-kept secret. Though part of their route goes through the Tenderloin, they are the cleanest, least smelly buses in town, and I can't once remember encountering loud or weird people on the #4.

So the 4-Sutter and its companion bus, the 2-Clement, felt like my little secret. Imagine, I had only just moved to San Francisco and I already had discovered one of its hidden gems! My delight only grew when, after a month, I got hired at an office downtown and discovered that the terminus of the 4-Sutter was right outside of my office building! After work, the 4 could take me all the way out to Green Apple Books for some browsing, and then back to my apartment on Sutter Street--the three most important places in my life, all on one bus line and for the price of a monthly MUNI pass. This was urban living at its finest.

(The 2-Clement, I should note, lives on, but it's not as good as the 4 because its route is longer, and therefore it gets more crowded. Also, some of the buses that run along it are the horrible newfangled kind with the uneven floors. It will take you to where the 4-Sutter went--which is the reason that MUNI has no remorse about eliminating the 4--but it won't be the same.)

San Francisco is a compact and not particularly scary city--if I had moved to New York I would have had some moments where I felt that the city was going to eat me alive, but I've never felt that way about S.F. All the same, it's never easy to move to a new city and learn to make your way around it, especially if you have led a largely suburban existence prior to that.

So, rest in peace, 4-Sutter Bus. You made life a little easier for a young woman just starting off in this glorious city, and for that, I will always be grateful.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Films of 2001

I wrote the other day, "I think 2001 is the year I became aware that movies could be art and not just entertainment." And specifically, I think three films that came out that year are what did the trick.

The first, and most important, was Moulin Rouge, which came out in June. (I was almost fourteen--the perfect age to go completely nuts for it.) I already loved musicals, but I had never seen one like this. I thought it was brilliant, dazzling, enthralling... in fact, it was so important to me that I am having a hard time blogging about it. Suffice it to say that I may have seen it more times than any other movie, because it's the first DVD I ever owned-- i.e., it's the movie that spurred my parents to buy a DVD player the following Christmas. I love it in a way that surpasses explanation, and you'll just have to believe that this movie is part of me.

Last week, I rewatched Moulin Rouge for probably the fifteenth time. Then a few days later, I rewatched The Royal Tenenbaums for the first time since it came out at Christmas of 2001--and that's what got me thinking along these lines in the first place. As I wrote a few days ago, I loved Tenenbaums when I saw it in the theater, though I couldn't really explain why at the time. But now, I think it's because (like Moulin Rouge) it was so original, and so clearly an aesthetic experience.

The third of these movies, also released at Christmas of 2001, was Amélie. I've seen that one an intermediate number of times--maybe three or four. It's actually the first French movie I ever saw. A bit of a cliché, I know... and indeed, Amélie has been criticized for pandering to cliché notions of "Frenchness" instead of providing a more complex, less nostalgic view of Paris. But, just like Baz Luhrmann's Montmartre and Wes Anderson's New York, Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Paris is a fantasy world.

So in the span of a few weeks at the end of 2001, I was watching Moulin Rouge repeatedly on my new DVD player (I loved all the special features!) and seeing The Royal Tenenbaums and Amélie. While I didn't make note of it at the time, that had to have had an impact on me.

These three movies all fall into different genres, have different thematic concerns, etc., but at the same time, something seems to link them. They are all obsessively made, and obsessively stamped with their director's personality. All three directors pay great attention to the formal and aesthetic elements of their films: controlling the costumes, sets, cinematography, even the color palette! They create their own worlds: you can say "Anderson" or "Luhrmann" or "Jeunet" and picture exactly the kinds of movies that each man makes. These films are the work of fanatics.

Did I love these movies because they spoke to something that was already in my soul, or did they mold me into the person I am today? That's perhaps the most important question, but I can't answer it. However, if the only thing you knew about me is that, at the age of fourteen, I loved Moulin Rouge, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Amélie, you'd probably be able to paint an accurate portrait of my personality now, eight years later. From my love of these movies, you could predict that I am a romantic. An aesthete. A lover of beauty. An auteurist. A francophile. An idealist, a fantasist, an escapist. An admirer of cleverness and audacity, but only when combined with a sentimental heart. You might even predict that I'd become a writer myself (note that both Moulin Rouge and Tenenbaums feature characters who are playwrights!).

And also, because these three movies taught me that artists could become known for their voice and style, they might have contributed to my becoming a writer. In 2001, I enjoyed writing, but I worried about my lack of ability to come up with interesting and unique stories. That's what I thought writers did: construct plots. I was reading a lot of fantasy literature at the time, and thought I liked it because it always had an exciting and fast-paced plot.

But these three movies are distinguished by their style, not their story. Moulin Rouge has a clichéd plot, and knows it, and therefore it puts it onstage and strings it with sequins and makes it sing and dance. The Royal Tenenbaums is a dysfunctional-family dramedy--a well-worn genre. But, love it or hate it, it's a lot more memorable than dozens of other dysfunctional-family dramedies, because of its unique style. Amélie is a series of anecdotes and character sketches that hangs together only because everyone is so charming and so darn French. So these movies might have made me subconsciously begin to realize that plot isn't the most important thing. (I also began to understand that I loved fantasy novels not for their plots, but for the worlds they created.) Voice, mood, style, soul is what I look for in art.