holding hands

December 22, 2009

The only things keeping me grounded at the moment are Nintendo games, Raymond Chandler and Saul Bellow. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. My tastes could be decidedly less wholesome, and no doubt they would be were I still in Melbourne, or hanging out in Tokyo with the boys. As for The Adventures of Augie March, I have rarely been so impressed by the density and scope of any work of art, and that it could be the product of a singular mind, calling upon nothing more but narrative skill and delicate observation of the intricacies of human existence just make it all the more inspiring.

It just feels so complete, as Bellow can address everything from nihilism to professional relationships to class struggles through the prism of middle American life in the 20th century with such clarity, and identifies hidden motivations, weaknesses, and agendas in every character it introduces, from lowly union foremen, the the numerous women who come and go, to the matriarchal Grandma, to Augie’s various mentors, and so on.

Not to mention that the plot and pacing are nothing short of immaculate; characters’ true intentions are only ever slightly hinted at so as not to prematurely spoil any eventual climax or create unnecessarily gratuitous tension where there need not be any. Nevertheless, through the strength of Bellow’s descriptions alone we feel like we know the characters well already, so that their actions never come as a complete surprise, either. Everyone is flawed, undoubtedly even more so than Augie himself in all his restlessness. And that’s the thing; it’s so human, it doesn’t romanticise except where absolutely necessary, life is unfair and it doesn’t shy away from this fact. Augie’s biggest struggle is between his desire to preserve his own integrity and the weight of his aspirations.

The thing felt like it lost steam over the last 100 pages or so; since Augie spends the entire first half of the book talking about Grandma Lausch and Einhorn, it seems slightly rushed when he joins the army, goes on three tours of duty, marries, and resolves with his estranged older brother within the space of a couple of chapters.

Anyway, after months of toil, I finally finished it a week ago, and I’m worried that whatever I get stuck into next will either be too lightweight or comparably far too existential and depressing. Options include Tender is the Night, Cat’s Cradle, The Trial, and Speak, Memory, something I’ve been threatening to read for years. I guess this is what happens when I try to prepare reading lists months in advance – my moods and expectations change, and then I feel like a petulant kid being forced into doing some kind of boring homework when I have to start a new book without an entire bookshop at my disposal.

I’m gonna go ahead and call this movie ‘death affirming.’ It’s almost perfectly acted and despite a fairly predictable ending, still works really well. The characters are well balanced, suitably eccentric when they need to be and yet always compelled by real and honest motivations, rooted firmly in compassion for their families and their fellow man.

Personally, I had no idea these kinds of professions were so scorned in Japan, and really, you would think that someone with such responsibility would at least be quietly respected, but apparently not. The movie’s greatest success is how it frames the deceased body as a vessel for transgression, as much for the living as for the dead. It really ends up being quite reverential, and some of the embalming (is that the right word?) scenes are painfully, wonderfully emotional, without any dialogue being necessary.

I wasn’t ever really sure where the cello-playing aspect was supposed to fit in, other than as a showcase for the lead actor’s obvious cello-shredding skills. But that’s OK, as it lent a nice subtle soundtrack to the proceedings.

All in all, a pretty good movie.

Haneke is a director who really matters. This guy makes films that are not only deeply disturbing, but very relevant. Think you know what a scary movie is? Go watch Hidden and get back to me.

Anyway, his new one The White Ribbon is quite a departure from his other films. For a start, it’s much broader in scope, is set eighty years ago and is shot in black and white. I guess many of the themes are familiar: guilt and shame, violence and repression; but given it’s historical context I think this film is even more salient than his other works, even if perhaps it’s not as purely entertaining or thrilling. Haneke has insisted that we’re not supposed to see the movie as simply a foreboding prelude to the atrocities of Nazi Germany and World War 2, but as a snapshot of ignorance, intolerance and terrorism in all it’s forms.

The acting is top-shelf, production values are through the roof, and to be fair there are some truly gripping scenes, but overall I just wasn’t as engaged for the whole duration, like I was with Hidden. This is serious, formal film making, and I fear it’s just too cool, too self-aware, too detached to ever really penetrate. Nevertheless, definitely not for the weak of heart or short of patience.

Also, it became clear to me as I watched The White Ribbon that the only German phrase I have remembered from my high school days is keine ahnung. That figures.

OK, enough of the heavy stuff. Raymond Chandler has been keeping me entertained and rescuing me from the depths of being-foreign-and-alone-at-Christmastime-related despair through the strength of his biting dialogue alone. Here are a few choice cuts from the first fifty or so pages of Farewell, My Lovely:

“His smile was as cunning as a broken mousetrap.”

“Suspicion climbed all over her face, like a kitten, but not so playfully.”

“She was as cute as a washtub.”

“It was Malloy all right, taken in strong light, and looking as if he had no more eyebrows than a French roll.”

“Dames lie about anything – just for practise.”

And, arguably my favourite so far:

“She’s a charming middle-aged lady with a face like a bucket of mud and if she has washed her hair since Coolidge’s second term, I’ll eat my spare tyre, rim and all.”

Man, people just aren’t as eloquent (or as charming, apparently) as they were seventy years ago. I seriously believe that our tendency towards email, in all its benevolent, automated glory, is hampering not only our literacy, but the very stuff of our interpersonal relationships. In the past, a scorned lover would compose page upon tear-stained page of hateful yet poetic hand-written prose in order to purge him or herself of heartache. Nowadays, retribution is as easy as uploading a photo to Facebook. Yikes! The sad thing is, even the retorts are borderline unintelligible.

But seriously. As recently as ten years ago, flirting with a girl involved carefully synchronised ‘chance’ meetings, a delicate dance of hints dropped here and there at measured intervals, and a whole lot of good timing and luck. These days, it’s as easy as dropping a text message: ‘hey. i wna ride u like a black mercedes.’ Charming, no?

Yes, my eloquence is slowly dying, and with it, my patience and tact. I only have myself to blame for this, and I feel the only proper remedy would be self-imposed exile from the internet, and more time spent with the likes of Chandler, Bellow, Nabokov and those countless others who express so much with so (comparatively) little.

I bought a snazzy little netbook computer! It’s an Eee PC 1005HA.

Inluded with the iPhone to give a proper sense of scale.

In fact, I’m using it right now. The rad silver colour is not available outside Japan, so TAKE THAT, WESTERN CONSUMER MARKET! What’s more, the construction feels way more solid than my pricey elite Dell machine. It’s running Windows 7, effortlessly installed off a 4GB SDHC card, and does everything I need, like typing, and wasting my life on stupid websites. Also, with the strengthening of the Aussie dollar, this stuff has become ludicrously cheap. Like $350 kind of cheap. Party!

On a more personal note. I’ve resolved to spend the winter break seriously improving my Japanese. The last couple of months (and in particular, the last month itself) have seen my conversation skills increase significantly, and although I still have more than my fair share of furrowed-brow, panicky ‘wtf was that word again!?’ moments, at least I can keep a conversation more or less going now. I mean, that is, as long as the person I’m talking to doesn’t get bored and give up. To them, it must be like talking to a toddler with learning disabilities.

I did learn something interesting lately though; according to one of my supervisors who studied linguistics at university, dyslexia is far less prevalent in Japan (and presumably also in China and Korea) than in the Western world. This must be something to do with both the form of their characters and their grammatical constructions. After all, it’s hard for most English speakers to imagine a first language where each ‘letter’ corresponds to an entire syllable; where words can be pronounced phonetically without any danger of misplacing stress or timing, and where an entire universe of meaning can be contained within one simple symbol, such as 空, or 人. The Japanese and Chinese don’t learn to spell, so much as they learn to paint pictures of the world through language. Likewise, reading isn’t a constant deconstruction of bunches of letters, or educated guessing at the appropriate phoneme; everything is there as it’s written, except in the case of an unfamiliar kanji character, where, upon encountering these new characters, a Japanese person will simply ask their neighbour,  どういう読むの? or この漢字の読み方は何ですか? (“How the fsk do you read this?”).

Furthermore, owing to the grammatical hierarchy of the language, the relevant reading for any given kanji is immediately apparent to any native speaker of Japanese; there is no guess work necessary. It’s pretty remarkable.

According to The Language Instinct, Japanese (and to an extent, Korean) are something like language orphans which have evolved separately, leaving behind little grammatical resemblance to other East Asian languages. This isn’t so hard for me to believe, because as I’ve said before, Japanese more or less resembles the exact grammatical inverse of something like English, and I’m sure this has a considerable impact on the structure of society over here, especially when compared with our own.

The main point I wanted to make when I started this huge theoretical rant, however, was that I’m at a point where Japanese people no longer feel comfortable gossiping about me in my presence, because they fear I might just be able to understand them. Pretty satisfying in one sense, although I was kinda enjoying being able to eavesdrop as I pleased.

Well, on that note, it looks like I’m gonna be all too alone for Christmas, and unless I get my act together and ask for paid leave, I’ll be sat at my office all day without any other kindred spirit (ie. lost soul) in sight to share the holiday with. I’m not a religious person, but I guess I am a pretty sentimental one, and despite all my misgivings about Christmas and the sham that it is, I do feel an unwelcome sense of isolation as the year draws to an end. It’s not that I’m depressed. There’ll be plenty of time for that come 2010. But I just kinda wish I had stayed in contact with more of you this year. So I’m sorry. I guess that’s it.

Stay tuned for my best and worst of 2009, along with the usual solemn reflections and empty promises, in the next edition!

So long.