Bend Sinister – Vladimir Nabokov

Time Reading Program, 1947
Not just the name of one of my favorite Fall albums,
but Nabokov’s first novel in English. I had only read one other Nabokov before this (Lolita, of course, in 1995) and reading Bend Sinister reminded me of his mastery of language. The novel follows the philosopher and instructor Krug, having just lost his wife to illness, and living with his precious son in a society that is slowly growing into a Soviet-style totalitarian state, run by none other than a former schoolmate from childhood they used to call the Toad. Obstinate, Krug believes his intellect and position will keep him from harm, even as friends and family are disappeared around him. By the time reality intrudes and his child is threatened, it is too late. The Soviet state (how familiar is this system after reading (some of) Solzhenitsyn!) is presented in all its banal but surreal glory, yet this is in no way a realist novel, as Krug disappears in a landscape of dreams, ideas, thoughts, as does the novel itself, with Nabokov’s wordplay (in English, so incredibly developed) making a kaleidoscope of sentences. The supporting characters often seem to be half-anagrams of Krug’s name, or variations on a set of letters at least. One chapter is devoted to a intriguing, but ultimately facile re-thinking of “Hamlet”. Nabokov appears on and off as a godlike character, toying with his characters, and Krug starts to become aware of this. For some reason, the overlapping realities reminded me of “The Singing Detective,” though Nabokov came first, obviously. There’s even a section that reminds me of Dennis Potter in interview in which Potter talked about past and present running simultaneously together, like sprinters on a track. Here’s Nabokov:

Do all people have that? A face, a phrase, a landscape, an air bubble from the past suddenly floating up as if released by the head warden’s child from a cell in the brain while the mind is at work on some totally different matter? Something of the sort also occurs just before falling asleep when what you think you are thinking is not at all what you think. Or two parallel passenger trains of thought, overtaking the other.

There’s plenty to read about Nabokov and this novel on the web–Zembla is the main repository of scholarly work. I discovered that there was even a film version made of the novel, though unless someone like Peter Greenaway was making it, I can’t imagine how true to the story it could be.
Note: Again, for a first novel in English, the vocabulary stretched my brain to its limit. Check out this list of words I had to look up:
megrim, triskelion, selenographer, amorandola, Keeweenawatin, mnemogenic, velvetina, ruelle, pauldron, salix, cardiarium, dolichocephalic, decorpitation, noumenon, eidolon, kurorts, deoculation, yarovization.
(The problem with Googling unknown words: every fifth word turns out to the name of a literary journal.)

How the Irish Save Civilization – Thomas Cahill

Doubleday, 1995
Enjoyable pop-history of how Ireland rescued higher learning and humanist Christianity during the Dark Ages.
The book wastaken with me on my recent San Francisco trip as reading material. I finished a few days after I came back. This was the first of Cahill’s history quintilogy (the other volumes looking at Jesus, the Jews, and two other as of yet unwritten subjects), and it’s a good primer for studying Irish history and/or early British literature. Cahill backs up at the start and talks about St. Augustine (the first autobiographer in the West), then gets around to the savior of Ireland, St. Patrick, who, though he didn’t chase the snakes out, did convert the natives from a warrish paganism to a calmer Christianity without causing the country to implode in corpses. Just for that he should be admired. But he also brought with him a promotion of learning, and very humane idea of how the church should interact with the populace, and (most importantly) a love of books and an inspiration to text copyists, who rescued as many Latin books they could and went ur-Kinko’s on them.
Cahill often relies too much on quoting songs and poems at length when only a line or two would do, but he makes his case. That the Irish would later come to be known as a lesser people by the English is a major tragedy, and a prejudice that can still be felt (to put it mildly).

The Hills Have Eyes

Dir: Wes Craven
Craven’s second film, and one based on the Sawney Bean legend,
the 17th century family of cannibals that preyed on hapless travelers near Edinburgh. (You can hear a great rendition of this legend on Snakefinger’s “Night of Desirable Objects” album.)
Unfortunately, this wasn’t as horrific or downbeat as I’d hoped from a 1977 horror film, just sort of quaint and low budget. There’s only two moments where the film breaks through its genre safety zone, the first being the camper attack on the family in which the older sister and the mother is shot, the younger sister raped (or rather dry humped for ten seconds), and the baby kidnapped. This trades in its “afraid of the dark” scare tactics (of which there are too many) for terror and violence–scary marauding loonballs don’t need fancy tools to kill, a gun does just as well. (This reminded me again of how short and ultimately non-terrifying slasher films would be if the killer had a machine gun.) The loose handheld camera presents the chaos well. The second moment is the finale where the brother-in-law (Martin Speer), a Sonny Bono lookalike, stabs to death the cannibal Mars in revenge for the death of his wife and for kidnapping the baby. And keeps stabbing, plunging the knife over and over into the guy’s chest. Wes Craven wants us to see this as a sort of critique of how savage we all are underneath, but the circumstances stop this from being ethically dubious (it’s not like he’s going to perform a citizen’s arrest on the guy). If, on the other hand, the brother-in-law had taken it out on one of the more innocent members of the cannibal family without provocation, we might have had to think a bit. In this case, I’m with Mr. Bono all the way.
This was the Anchor Bay re-release and once again, Anchor Bay is the company to beat when it comes to horror DVD. No matter the quality of the movie, they always assume somebody is a huge fan and throw in lots of documentary extras. The making-of doc reunites most of the cast (except, strangely, Speer) and they talk about what was a quite rough shoot in the desert. Craven, as usual, is a very pleasant guy, very smart (“Last House on the Left” is a remake of a Bergman film, for example, just much more unpleasant), the son of fundamentalist Baptists who didn’t get to see much film in his early years and who gave up a doctorate degree to get into filmmaking. I was never much a fan of Freddy Krueger, but if you’ve never seen it, “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare” is self-reflexive, smart, and quite dark.

Waiting for Guffman

Dir: Christopher Guest
What do you mean, you’ve never seen ______?
I often get this. For a bloody film critic, there’s a lot of stuff I just plain haven’t watched. I’m perpetually playing catch up. In fact, just this weekend I got this Jon, who thrust a copy of Ozu’s “Floating Weeds” at me in disbelief and disgust. For this film it was the video store guy saying to me, “Guffman again, eh?” and me saying no, I, um, haven’t seen it.
So most of you know Guest’s mockumentary of a community theater performance, a tribute to the small town of Blaine, Missouri, put on by the town populace under the directing eye of ex-New Yorker Corky St. Claire (Guest). The entire film was improvised along certain narrative guidelines, and again suggests that it is Second City, not the desperate comics of SNL (although many come from SC), that spawned the best comedians in the ’80s. There’s always been something infantile about Saturday Night Live, with its petty jostlings for movie projects superceding the work at hand. Second City, especially SCTV, always seemed more of a group effort, and you can still sense that togetherness when two or more appear in films together. Fred Willard always makes me laugh, but he doesn’t steal scenes. He was great as the oblivious announcer in Best in Show, and his character in WFG is buffoonish without being a caricature. I wonder how some of SNL’s best and brightest would be in a future Guest film? Will Farrell is good at cartoon characters, but could he present a three-dimensional person?
The DVD features about 20 minutes of extra scenes, and witty commentary from Guest and Eugene Levy.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Dir: Blake Edwards
By absolute coincidence, I wound up watching a second film this month based on a Capote novel,
although you couldn’t get further apart in tone. I tried to watch this film once before and jumped ship after bloody Mickey Rooney turned up with his buck-teethed Jappo atrocity. Two words for you, Mr. Rooney: Internment Camp. May you be haunted forever by the ghosts of Manzanar. (On the other hand, the Japanese may get as offended by this as “Rising Sun” (i.e. they don’t). And they love Audrey Hepburn more than we do.)
That out of the way, the rest of the film was cutesy-cutesy, with plenty of charm from Audrey Hepburn, though her dialog was a bit laden-down with exposition and rang a bit flat. But then again, as her agent O.J. (played wonderfully in two scenes by Martin Balsam) notes, “she’s a phony, but she’s a real phony. She believes in it.” That’s probably good advice for watching the film. Both Hepburn and co-star George Peppard were about 32 when they filmed this, they look so much older than that.
Good friend Mr. C reminded me that this film influenced the rest of the ’60s that followed, as Miss Golightly was a template upon which many a female molded themselves. (Poor Mr. C, that must have been agony.)
I actually choked up at the end, with its rainy-street reconciliation, but that was from my empathy for the lost cat “Cat” who got chucked out the taxi by a petulant Miss Golightly and was (temporarily) left to fend for himself in the downpour. If my wife was here (she’s on a business trip) she would have been sniffing too. That is, if she hadn’t snapped the DVD in two upon the appearance of Buckteeth.
(Great Mancini score, though I’ve never been a fan of “Moon River,” the song Hepburn plays on guitar while sitting on her fire escape. Something about the line “my huckleberry friend” rubs me the wrong way.)

The Piano Teacher

Dir: Michael Haneke
Similar in effect to Almodovar’s “Talk to Her,”
this French film based on a German novel comes at us like a dangerous, erotic love story, while actually delivering a scary study in creeping insanity. We’re too busy slotting the characters into their genre-determined space that we don’t notice what’s actually going on (and in this way we mirror the experience of the young man who falls in lust with the title character, Erika, played by Isabelle Huppert.
However, that Erika is slightly off her nut is shown in the first scene, where, returning home late to the flat she shares with her mother, she is berated for being a wanton libertine until violence ensues and she beats up mom a bit. Yikes. I’ll wait in the hall, thanks.
As other critics have noted, we enter the film after the breakdown has happened. We’re just around to watch the unraveling. Her cocky, assured, but talented student Walter (Benot Magimel), doesn’t know this–he just sees the repressed wild thang hiding behind the librarian outfit. When they finally explode together halfway through the film, its a desperate display of control and masochism. This, also, has been proceeded by a subtly filmed piece of psychotic violence, as a very jealous Erika makes sure a young pianist (in her mind, her rival) doesn’t play for a whole year. I’ll let you find out how that happens.
Well, the film goes on from there, culminating in a series of unpleasant sex scenes that show just how far apart are the goals of these supposed lovers. It’s not a film that you’d love to watch over and over again, but it is smart, brave, completely nuts, and features a wangdoodle of a performance by Huppert, who goes places many actresses would not. There was also a part of me that found the whole thing amusing, in a “sexual futility is funny” sort of way. But that’s just me.
The American DVD has been cut, though I’m not too sure where. There’s a strange fade/edit during the locker-room blowjob scene, and my friend Jon mentioned a disturbing self-abuse scene that was not on my copy. So shame on whoever released this DVD for being wimpy.

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 2001
Saying that The Corrections is a tale of a nuclear family coming together
for one last Christmas–the father is slowly dying of Parkinsons–is like saying Ulysses is a story about two guys wandering around Dublin and only meeting in the evening. Jonathan Franzen’s amazing novel made me laugh many times, not just at his humorous turn of phrase, or his ability to cut to the heart of an absurd situation, but his absolute skill at jumping back and forth in non-linear time in a fresh way, of spinning the reader round until familiar situations and locations are rendered strange and wondrous. It’s a laugh at the deft slight-of-hand that he’s perfected.
The Lamberts were once a traditional Midwestern family, but their three children who have flown the coop, leaving a large, empty house, a mother who obsesses over Christmas and a father who is slowly losing his grip on reality. The eldest child Gary, is a successful businessman/depressed alcoholic with three kids and an awful, manipulative wife (Franzen gets in good digs at the generation of hassle-free parents raising sonofabitch children); middle child Chip is a failed professor and scriptwriter who is gamely hanging on to his youth and who leaves for Lithuania to join the dot-com revolution; finally, youngest daughter Denise is a famous chef whose sexual shenanigans have been a constant disruption in her life.
Each section of the novel is devoted to one of these five characters, but freely jumps about when it needs to. Although comic, it’s also tremendously sad, but not in a maudlin way. Characters have epiphanies, but are usually in no state to change anything. Or they continue on their merry way.
The novel brims with three-dimensional characters to such an extent that I started to dream about situations in the novel as if I was sorting out events of the past day. Even more peculiar, there is a scene in the last part of the book where Gary, staying in his childhood bedroom, has a late-night hallucination that he can’t leave the room because of the horror that waits for him in the hallway. He is forced to pee in a commemorative beer stein. It was only after putting down the book, falling asleep, and eventually rousing myself from a similar troubled non-sleep that I realized that the sequence suggests that Gary has the gene that is causing his father’s dementia (father’s basement, indeed, is full of empty coffee cans full of urine.) But it’s again to Franzen’s credit that he doesn’t signpost this foreshadowing. I mentioned this to my friend (who was the one to recommend the novel) the following day and he hadn’t caught it either. I suppose the novel would hold up to several rereadings, and Franzen seems to be making allusions throughout to the Chronicles of Narnia, among other things. But I can’t remember enough about the books to get it all.
I meant to highlight phrases that I liked, but I got into the book so much I just forgot. I will, however, leave you with the one I Post-It noted: “Soon they were engaged and they chastely rode a night train to McCook, Nebraska, to visit his aged parents. His father kept a slave whom he was married to.”
The novel is full of such turnabout sentences, and as such was a delight to read. Apparently, there’s much consternation over Franzen’s novel-writing style and/or his attitude to his characters. Just read the bloody book like I did.
(Check out this Franzen interview at

Party Girl

Dir: Daisy von Scherler Mayer
If it weren’t for Parker Posey, this film wouldn’t have much going for it,
an irresponsible-youth-gains-maturity tale played out in a series of sketches. She plays Mary the titular party girl who lives day-to-day throwing rent parties in New York and waltzing around in fabulous clothes. There’s trouble in the opening moments where we’re not even shown how great these supposed parties are, before she is arrested for possession of a joint and sent out to get a real job. She does this by working for her godmother in a neighborhood branch of the NYC library.
There’s a lot of cutesy-cutesy running gags about the Dewey Decimal System and a rather bland romance with a bland Lebanese falafel vendor. A subplot, featuring Mary’s DJ roommate and his burgeoning spinning career, goes nowhere. As does a scene where they get in the shower together (she’s late for work, he jumped his place in line). They kiss and nothing happens. Too many scenes are like this, suggesting plot twists but dropping them by the end of the scene.
Apparently, the film has a minor cult following, which I suspect is based around Posey’s performance, which is always watchable, even though her character isn’t the most likable or her character arc that fulfilling.
(This was another random library pickup from their DVD shelf. Can’t win ’em all.)

Crazy Like a Sarcoptic Mangy Fox

Baltimore mystery animal case solved! It’s a mangy fox.

Baby Mystery Animal Caught, Identified
The mystery may be over as one of the creatures roaming through central Maryland was finally captured on Saturday.
According to the veterinarians at Falls Road Animal Hospital, the animal was a male red fox. However, Dr. Michael Herko — a vet at the animal hospital — and the man who caught the fox say it is not the mysterious creature videotaped in July, but a relative.