Monday, November 20, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A father and his son travel south in a post- apocalyptic future seeking safer and warmer climes in Cormac McCarthy’s remarkable new novel The Road. They travel by roads, guided by an old, weathered map, avoiding wandering clans of cannibalistic “bad guys” in the words of the child. They’re armed with a pistol with two shots left and meager provisions stuffed into two knapsacks and a shopping cart.

The journey story is not new territory for McCarthy. From the Kid in Blood Meridian to John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins in All The Pretty Horses to Billy Parnham in The Crossing, it’s been the journey that has defined much of his best work. The father in The Road shares the same sense of duty and responsibility as these others. Though the hardships of each are singular and unique.

Many scenes of The Road contain abject terror as when the pair encounter these “bad guys.” The ruthlessness of the actions is coiled within compact paragraphs of stunning depth and matter-of-factness. The absence of psychological insight into why some choose to embrace evil while others choose not to only adds to the fear and dread. This same refusal to look inside a man’s capacity for evil is what makes the Judge in Blood Meridian so terrifying a presence.

Other passages serve as a placid travelogue of how they spent their days. The description of their provisions or of the fixing the wagon or of cleaning the clothes are so mundane that they are rendered beautiful because of the gray canvas of the world in which they inhabit. The story is episodic and straightforward. Days turn to night. Miles disappear behind them. They hunger. They find ways to cope with the cold.

The gentleness and the patience of the father in the face of such hardship is a test of endurance. The father and son share a can of coke rescued from an upturned soda machine. They ride the wagon down a slope into the wind. The father marvels at the child’s turn of a phrase. Where’d you learn that, he asks.

There is heft to the words here - this is Cormac McCarthy after all – but it doesn’t plum the depths that his previous work does. Whereas in Blood Meridian or the Border Trilogy, the world was in a transformative state, wilderness was tamed, and the industrial age was in ascension, the world of The Road has been transformed in finality. The reason for what happened to the world remains unsaid. The relics of the old world remain to be burned or pillaged. But no new system is ready to replace it. The battleship gray sky that blots out the sun, the gray ash that whirls in the winds: these are the new known world. The child was born after the transformation. This is the only world the child knows. And it is, perhaps, in that knowing where the hope of the novel lies.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Prestige

Christopher Nolan, the director of the impressive The Prestige, is no stranger to obsession. In Memento a man with short-tern memory loss is obsessed with finding his wife’s killer. In Batman Returns he visits the obsessions of comic book’s most narcissistic obsessive. In The Prestige Nolan documents the dueling obsessions of two rival magicians. The obsessions differ in reason and magnitude, but at its heart, each is equally destructive for both men.

Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) begin their careers together as magician assistants in late 19th century England. Angier is more the showman; Borden is more the daredevil risk-taker. Their professional rivalry turns personal after a tragic mishap on stage happens to Angier’s wife. The two men begin their own careers: Angier performing as “The Great Danton” and Borden taking the moniker, “The Professor.” A new trick introduced by Borden, “The Transported Man” is the skeleton that the meat of the rivalry grows on. Angier’s sabotage is revenge for the earlier transgression. Borden’s is done for professional gain.

The story unfolds with past events mixing with the present. It is deftly balanced and orchestrated not unlike a great magic trick. The story contains The Pledge – a trick’s set-up; The Turn – a trick’s climax; and The Prestige – a trick’s finale and surprise. The audience is treated to the full knowledge (I think) of the story’s Prestige. The sharpest turn of the movie is that the rivalry ends without a clear resolution as to which magician defeats the other. I would write "which magician wins” but after a while it’s clear that winning and losing are not factors in this rivalry.

The plot is serpentine and deep. I wouldn’t characterize it as full of “twists” though there are plenty of twists to be had. It avoids the gimmicks that are involved in modern “twist” movies. The new discoveries are fully cemented to the story. The movie asks us to pay attention from the first scene to the last and to soak up the details and work out the resolution for ourselves. In many ways I was able to foresee where it was going. But ultimately, I was simply set-up for the next Turn, for the next level of obsession that haunted each performer. Like every good magic trick, every time I thought I had it down, The Prestige delivers another “aha” moment.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


There are moments of poetic beauty in Babel: two Moroccan boys standing on a rocky hillside fighting the wind; a deaf Japanese teenager navigating a rave; the dialogue between an American husband and the Moroccan tour guide talking about their families. Moments like these – and many more throughout the film – render these ordinary occurrences without the metaphorical weight that would drag down lesser works. The span of the film is maybe 4 or 5 days linking three stories connected by varying degrees of threadbareness and all involving some form of miscommunication or, perhaps, better viewed as incommunication.

I can understand that some viewers may find the trappings of the film’s conceit to be heavy-handed. I can also see how some may dismiss it all with a shrug. I fall somewhere in between. That these stories exist side by side and do not necessarily overlap is a strength. They all find their momentum without being informed by the other: two boys playing with a new rifle while they should be herding their goats shoot an American women traveling on a tour bus in Morocco; the Mexican caretaker in San Diego needs to travel to Mexico for her son’s wedding; a deaf teenager in Japan deals with her flowering sexuality and the recent death of her mother. The true magic in these stories is that we pick up their lives at the moments we are introduced to them and leave their lives the moment the arc ends. Previous events are hinted at. Fates after the fact are ambiguous. In between the camera of director Alejandro González Iñárritu treats each unfolding tale with such natural evocation of the essence of life, which enchants us with the minutia of a Mexican wedding celebration or the workings in a small Moroccan village.

That these ordinary events are made beautiful is no major feat. Artists of all stripes have acheived this throughout the ages. But to render these ordinary moments with such deftness, respect, clarity and realism is, well, extraordinary.