Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Poetry Review: Il canzoniere, Petrarch

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

All references and quotations are from:

Petrarch. The Poetry of Petrarch. Trans. David Young. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.

Petrarch (1304-1374) is perhaps the foremost example of a poet that English-language readers are supposed to know about rather than know. Most take their notions of his style from William Shakespeare's famous parody of his work in sonnet 130:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is more red than her lips' red:
If snow be white, why then her breast are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:

And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

One gets the idea. Petrarch describes his lady-love Laura in the most hyperbolic terms. Her eyes are like the sun, her lips as red as coral, her cheeks as red as roses, her hair fine and bright, her breath sweet, her voice like music--she's an angel who walks the Earth. It's not hard to find examples of these conceits in Petrarch's major poetry collection, Il canzoniere, and his unrequited obsession with Laura may strike one as adolescent and tiresome. As Shakespeare suggests, there's more of love in taking pleasure from someone's earthiness than in all the exaggerated rhapsodizing one can muster. The more hyperbolic the description, the more dishonest it is.

It's easy to be dismissive in the way Shakespeare encourages, but one should remember that Petrarch was responding to the challenges that came with being a poet in his time and place. Poets in his lifetime were popular entertainers, and that meant writing and performing love poetry. The work had to be in the traditions established by the troubadours and carried on through the Dolce stil novo poets. That meant hyperbolic treatments of unrequited love for an idealized lady. Petrarch was also working in the shadow of Dante, whose La vita nuova reimagined the conventions of love poetry in the most profound way: love for the idealized lady was the path towards learning love towards God.

Petrarch met those challenges head-on. His work has a grace that, among his predecessors, is second only to Dante's. It often shows a greater refinement, particularly in its development of conceits. Petrarch will often begin with a single trope and develop it into a conceit that defines the entire sonnet. An excellent example is poem 189, a sonnet that, thanks to Sir Thomas Wyatt, is perhaps the most famous of Petrarch's writings:

My galley, loaded with forgetfulness,
rolls through rough seas, at midnight, during winter,
aiming between Charybdis and sharp Scylla;
my lord, ah no, my foe, sits at the tiller;

each oar is wielded by quick, mad thought
that seems to scorn the storm and what it means;
an endless wind of moisture, of deep sighs,
of hopes and passions, rips the sail in half;

tears in a steady downpour, mists of hate,
are loosening and soaking all the ropes,
ropes made of ignorance, tangled up with error.

The two sweet stars I see by are obscured;
reason and skill are dead amid the waves;
and I don't think I'll ever see the port.

Using a ship lost in a storm as a metaphor, Petrarch dramatizes how lost he would be without thoughts of Laura to guide him. The opening octet depicts the scenario of sailing in the encompassing storm, and the concluding sestet describes the consequences: Laura's eyes, likened to the stars used to navigate a ship, cannot be seen. As a result, thought and ability are lost in the confusion, and the narrator describes the despair over never again finding security. The first line is elegantly developed over the course of the poem up through the conclusion. The skill and unity on display are very typical of Petrarch's sonnets, and many consider them the epitome of the form.

Petrarch competes with Dante by locating a potential weakness in his predecessor's work and developing his own material in a way that corrects it. The great innovation of La vita nuova is its reimagination of "courtly love." Dante's narrator is shown growing from a lovestruck adolescent to a mature adult aspiring to God's grace. But Dante couldn't dramatize the narrator's spiritual development with the poems alone. He had to link them using a prose narrative. Petrarch refuses to use prose to link the poems. The pieces are juxtaposed in chronological order, and the development is not spiritual. The evolution is more in the use of language. In any case, Il canzoniere contains the first sonnet sequence in Western poetry. It became the defining approach to lyric poetry in England, with Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare, Robert Herrick, and others following Petrarch's lead. (Shakespeare may have mocked Petrarch's stylistic excesses, but his lyric work is ultimately subordinate to Petrarch's approach.) Producing a sequence of poems describing one's love for a particular lady was a poetic tradition that was still being followed centuries later, as can be seen with such examples as William Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems.

Petrarch also escaped from Dante's shadow by rejecting the view of infatuation as a process in one's spiritual development. Unlike Dante's regard for Beatrice, Petrarch's expressed adoration for Laura never develops into anything more mature or profound. Many of the pieces that make up Il canzoniere are reflections, to one degree or another, of the descriptions in poem 157:

That always cruel and yet honored day
engraved its living image on my heart
in such a way no wit or skill can tell;
but I revisit it in memory.

Her gestures, marked with gracious pity, and
her bittersweet lamenting, which I heard,
made me unsure: a mortal or a goddess?
She made the sky grow clear and bright all round.

Her head was finest gold, her face warm snow,
her eyebrows ebony, her eyes two stars
where Love has never bent his bow in vain;

pearls and crimson roses formed the words
that gathered her exquisite sorrow up,
her sighs were flames, her tears were precious crystal.

Laura primarily exists as a linguistic canvas for hyperbolic description. In this sonnet, Petrarch expresses uncertainty about whether to consider her an earthbound angel such as Beatrice. He occasionally indulges in it in Il canzoniere, but it never leads to a more profound view of her, or of his feelings in the way Dante depicts in La vita nuova. It's just another opportunity for exaggeration.

What one is struck by throughout Petrarch's work is his extraordinary inventiveness. His descriptions of Laura may lack the sophistication one often finds in Dante's renderings of Beatrice, but they have a greater immediacy--describing a woman's eyes as "two stars," for example, is a comparison that needs little elaboration. It's brief and evocative. Petrarch also makes strong use of oxymoron, a technique one doesn't find in the work of his predecessors. An example in poem 157 is "warm snow." Others include poem 34's "fire freezes and there's burning snow" and poem 147's "cooling fires and shivering bouts of hope."

His punning on Laura's name is quite enjoyable. He often likens her to the laurel tree. It's a direct allusion to the mythological Daphne, the beloved of Apollo who was forever beyond the god's reach, and who Apollo honored with the use of the laurel wreath to confer distinction. In Petrarch's time, it had become the symbol of the accomplished poet. For him to effectively say his subject both inspires him and is the symbol of that inspiration's achievement is rather witty. The comparisons of aspects to Laura to gold (l'auro) and the breeze (l'aura) are also clever. His punning reaches an apex of sorts in the opening lines of poem 246: "L'aura che 'l verde lauro et l'aureo crine soavemente sospirando move (The breeze that softly sighs and moves among / the laurel's leaves and through her golden hair.)" He brings all three puns together and makes them work in tandem. It reflects what seems like Petrarch's infinite capacity for finding new configurations and contexts for the same words. It also explains why the language of his poetry never grows tiresome despite its repetition, which extends to his mastery of the sestina, the absurdly convoluted poetic form that Arnaut Daniel both invented and was confounded by. While Arnaut buckles in the face of the sestina's challenge, Petrarch manages an effortless clarity. He seems to write with the greatest of ease, regardless of the challenges.

As Shakespeare demonstrated, Petrarch's work may invite mockery at times, but his work is as much an epitome of the Western medieval poetic tradition as Dante's. La vita nuova reimagines love poetry in the most profound manner, while Il canzoniere seems gloriously frivolous. Dante aimed for sophistication of thought; Petrarch aimed for sophistication of language, with playfulness a key component. One may rate La vita nuova the greater work, but there's no getting around the fact that it is Petrarch who has had the greater influence. Perhaps seriousness in the arts doesn't count for that much after all.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Comics Review: Night Fisher, R. Kikuo Johnson

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

R. Kikuo Johnson's debut graphic novel, Night Fisher, is a fluidly told slice-of-life treatment of prep school adolescents in contemporary Hawaii. It's probably going a bit too far, as the jacket copy does, in describing the book as a coming of age story. The book ends with the protagonist, seventeen-year-old Loren Foster, at a crisis point and with an uncertain future, rather than as a newly mature young man. But it's a modestly affecting portrait of bourgeois teen anomie just the same.

The reader is introduced to Loren as he comes home from an all-night fishing jaunt. There's a complete absence of human connections in his life. Motherless, and with no brothers and sisters, he lives alone with his dentist father in an affluent neighborhood in Maui. Loren and his father have little rapport, and he doesn't have much of a social life, either. He's still awkward around girls, and there seems to be a growing chasm between him and his best friend Shane, who stood him up on the fishing trip. Everything is school, school, school, but he's avoiding thinking about what's next for him after he graduates from the local prep academy. One evening, Shane calls Loren up out of the blue, and he introduces Loren to the world of crystal meth, empty thrill-seeking, and petty theft.

The most striking aspect of the story is Johnson's visual treatment. The art style is very similar to the approaches of Alex Toth, Paul Pope, and David Mazzucchelli: frequent use of deep-space compositions, loose but highly knowledgeable draftsmanship, and painterly ink brushwork with stark contrasts between black and white. Night Fisher is an absolutely gorgeous book to look at, but its visual appeal never takes precedence over dramatic values. The panels are always compelling in narrative terms. Johnson is especially deft at rendering character nuance; he takes one right into the heads of Loren and the other characters with his observant, elegantly understated figure attitudes and facial expressions. His sense of setting is also exceptional; the lush, detailed panels strongly convey both the Hawaii milieu and the sense of oppression Loren and his peers feel.

However, Johnson's storytelling skills are far stronger in visual terms than they are on the literary side of things. Like Jaime Hernandez, whose work the book most recalls, Johnson has a good ear for characters' voices and a strong sense of narrative flow. But he's also like Hernandez in that he doesn't seem to know how to craft a story in terms of dramatic conflict; there's no dynamic in the narrative, and nothing has any lasting weight. The story ends just as it comes to a boil. The book reads smoothly enough, and it's never boring, but it has no staying power. The story drifts away as soon as one closes the covers.

But this is Johnson's first effort, and one can attribute Night Fisher's failings to a lack of experience. The ambition and execution are such that one fully expects him to learn how to pull a story together so that it builds in intensity--so that it has some lasting resonance for the reader. Johnson is a first-rate cartoonist in so many ways: he sees the artwork as a narrative tool, he has a superlative sense of how to dramatize individual scenes, and he even demonstrates a strong degree of technical inventiveness. He's definitely a cartoonist to watch, and I look forward to reading his next book.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Film Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is about hero worship, and it depicts Ford (played by Casey Affleck) as the archtypical fanboy. He romanticizes Jesse James (Brad Pitt), collecting and obsessing over dime novels that feature the famed outlaw. It becomes clear that while growing up, these fantasies were the only real company he had. Relating to other people is largely beyond him; he can't deal with anyone without fidgets and fibs. He's profoundly aware of his inadequacy; his only security comes from the aura he sees around Jesse James, and one can tell he hopes one day to be the source of such an aura himself. With the help of his brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), who's a member of the James Gang, Ford joins up with his idol. Jesse finds the tongue-tied young sycophant alternately amusing and annoying. At one point, he asks, "Do you want to become like me, or do you want to be me?"

Ford's relationship with Jesse, which went from idolatry to a disillusionment that led Ford to murder him, might make for an interesting film. But Dominik, working from a well-regarded novel by Ron Hansen, doesn't provide it. The film is a shapeless meander, and at two hours and forty minutes, it is tediously long. The first half, which depicts the collapse of the James Gang until only Jesse, Ford, and Charley are left, is a near-incomprehensible mess. The scenes don't seem to build into each other, and many of the characters are so poorly differentiated it's hard to tell them apart. The second half, which deals with Ford's betrayal and eventual murder of Jesse at the behest of the Missouri governor (James Carville), is much clearer, but Dominik doesn't give it any dramatic momentum. The only thing driving the movie is the anticipatory dread one gets from the knowledge that Ford will inevitably gun Jesse down.

One wonders if Dominik even thinks he's telling a story. His approach to the material appears modeled after Terrence Malick's work. The film's interest in narrative seems less about dramatizing it than in using it as a taking-off point for poetic visuals. Malick can get so caught up in his Romantic imagery that he loses sight of the story he's telling, but his tropes are generally quite inventive. With Dominik, it's one hackneyed image after another: repeated shots of clouds rolling by in fast-motion, and wind blowing through wheat fields. Dominik is also repetitive and unimaginative when it comes to setting up scenes. I lost count of how many times he opens one with figures in long shot against a landscape, with the camera pulling back until we see that we're looking at them through a window, and then it keeps pulling back until we see that they're being watched by another character. He doesn't even make competent use of voiceover narration; it often just redundantly describes what the film is showing. Cinematographer Roger Deakins and the set and costume designers give the film an austerely elegant look, but the scenes are so poorly conceived and staged that it seems like dressing a chimp in Armani.

However, the austere compositions work to create some dynamism with Casey Affleck's performance as Ford. The refined look of the images creates a strong counterpoint with Ford's squirrelly awkwardness, and it emphasizes how out of place he is and how uncomfortable he is inside his own skin. Affleck's performance also finds an effective contrast with the steely-eyed wariness Sam Shepard gives Frank James in an early scene. But I don't feel Affleck's performance, while strong, deserves all the plaudits it's received; it feels a little too deliberate and mannered. Tobey Maguire, who would seem a better choice for the role, could have managed the part with considerably less ostentation. It's surprising to read about the film's production history and discover that he wasn't even considered.

Brad Pitt convinces one of Jesse James' charisma, but he can't pull the disparate strands of the character together. His Jesse becomes increasingly unravelled over the course of the film, with growing fears of betrayal from every corner. He has no idea whom he can trust. But one can't reconcile the paranoid displays and emotional outbursts with Pitt's larger characterization; they seem to come out of nowhere, and one watches them with a mixture of surprise and embarrassment. James Carville has a strong presence as the Missouri governor who wants Jesse James killed, and Alison Elliott gives some snap and urgency to her line readings as Ford's sister Martha, but the other performers don't make much of an impression.

Ultimately, Andrew Dominik seems undone by hero worship of his own. He seems so enthralled with the idea of recreating Terrence Malick's tone that he gave little attention to understanding how Malick's effects are achieved. He's oblivious to his inability to effectively work in that mode, and he didn't develop the story or the characters enough to catch him if he failed. At the beginning of the film, Ford says, "I got qualities that don't come shinin' through right at the outset." One can almost hear Dominik saying this in his own defense, but what Dominik seems to think are his qualities don't come shining through at all.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Film Review: American Gangster

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Ridley Scott's American Gangster opens with a horrifically brutal prologue. One sees a man tied to a chair, beaten bloody, and having gasoline poured on him. The film's protagonist, played by Denzel Washington, looks on and lights a cigar, throwing the lighter onto the man and immolating him. He then unloads an automatic handgun into the burning body. The character's appearance seems discordant with his actions: he's well-groomed and wearing an elegantly tailored suit. One waits and waits to see how this shocking opening fits in with the rest of the film, but one never finds out. It perversely sets the stage for the film in this: American Gangster is one dramatic set-up after another with no follow-through.


The film is based on the true story of Frank Lucas (Washington), a Harlem crime boss who in the 1970s became the biggest importer and distributor of heroin in the U. S. The narrative follows the arc of his rise to power and fall, interweaving it with the story of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an incorruptible New Jersey police detective and eventual district attorney who headed the investigation that brought him down. Along the way, the film contrasts the orderliness of Lucas's life with the messiness of Roberts's, and one sees both men's frustrations in dealing with the corrupt narcotics investigation unit of the New York City police department. The film ends with Lucas and Roberts as allies, with Lucas helping to bring down the corrupt elements of the NYPD in exchange for a lighter prison sentence.

Ridley Scott does a superficially professional job of directing: the action is clearly and often lavishly staged, and there's his trademark attention to detail in the cinematography and production design. But the film's scenes don't seem shaped to get anywhere. The problem may be partly in Steven Zaillian's script: the story's events progress logically, but they never build any narrative intensity. Every time the movie seems to be setting up any kind of dramatic turn--a conflict between characters, a suspenseful twist--it gets dropped almost immediately. There's an attempted hit on Lucas's beauty-queen wife, but nothing comes of it. Lucas brutally beats his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) after Huey's carelessness leads to a shakedown by the police, and nothing comes of that either. Roberts coerces an underling in Lucas's organization into wearing a wire, and Scott and Zaillian don't even bother to create any suspense over whether the fellow might get found out.

The biggest wasted opportunity comes with Lucas's confrontation with Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) over Barnes' diluting Lucas's product before putting it out on the street. The film sets up a striking contrast between the dignified Lucas and the obnoxious Barnes, who's portrayed as a petulant, drug-addled buffoon. The scene ends inconclusively, and one expects Lucas to have Barnes killed. Audiences would have relished seeing him go down, in no small part because Gooding quickly reminds one of why he's the single most annoying actor working. But again, nothing comes of it. One can argue that it wouldn't be factually accurate, but given the romanticized portrait of Lucas and the fabrications about Roberts' life--he and his first wife didn't have a child together, so there's no basis for the custody fight the film shows them engaged in--would changing the facts in this instance really have mattered? Scott, Zaillian, and Gooding take serious liberties with their portrayal of Barnes, anyway. I don't think anyone would guess from what's shown here that the character's real-life counterpart was the inspiration for the Wesley Snipes character in New Jack City, or that he was such a smugly insolent media magnet that Jimmy Carter made it a priority for the Justice Department to bring him down.

There isn't one memorable performance in the film. Denzel Washington fares best, partly because of his natural charisma, and partly because his reserve contrasts strongly with the other performers. He's a nobleman among the riff-raff. But there's no shading in the performance, and no dynamic driving it. The only interesting effect he manages is Lucas's tendency to threaten people with such understatement that it come across as a joke. One laughs, but one feels dread as well, as he's so earnest that it's obvious he isn't kidding. Russell Crowe does a creditable job, and there's not a false note anywhere in his portrayal, but there's no dynamism either. Scott has assembled some terrific performers for the supporting cast, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Carla Gugino, and Ted Levine, but it's easy to forget they're even in the film. (The waste of Ejiofor, one of the most interesting actors to emerge in the last few years, is all but criminal.) Ruby Dee earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her performance as Lucas's mother, but it's obviously a career acknowledgement. The only scene where she makes any kind of impression--when she sharply warns Lucas to be prudent in seeking revenge against his enemies--isn't anything one hasn't seen a hundred times before, and there isn't anything particularly distinctive about it here.

The film reminds one a great deal of Michael Mann's 1995 film Heat. The structure is largely the same: the lives of an ace police detective and an elegant master criminal are depicted as contrasting parallels, and the lines of their narratives build independently until they ultimately intersect in the the film's climax. But Heat gives one what American Gangster doesn't: suspense, dynamic characters, and a story that seems developed instead of summarized. American Gangster is a handsomely realized production, but its good looks are only skin-deep.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Poetry Review: La vita nuova, Dante

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

All references and quotations are from:

Dante. Vita Nuova. Trans. Mark Musa. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

The first major work of Dante (1265-1321), and his principal contribution to lyric poetry, is La vita nuova, which collects thirty lyric poems that Dante composed between 1283 and 1292. There are twenty-five sonnets, four canzoni, and a ballad. However, it is more than a collection of poetry. The poems are situated in a prose commentary in which Dante tells the story behind each piece. He also provides an explanation of the individual poem's structure. The full work was completed in 1294, at which point Dante began performing readings for audiences. Its achievements are many. Many see it as a prelude to Dante's Divine Comedy, arguably the greatest Western literary work since the Classical period. La vita nuova also set the stage for the work of Petrarch, and in so doing helped shape the traditions of European love poetry for the next several centuries, particularly in England. Beyond that, the work is the culmination of the medieval European traditions in lyric poetry, as reflected in the troubadour movement, the Sicilian School, and the Dolce stil novo.

The conventions of the work of Dante's predecessors are all present in La vita nuova. There's the male protagonist undone by love, as well as the hallowing of infatuation. There's also the characteristic treatment of the idealized female object of the protagonist's desire, who is seen as a divine presence come to Earth. In the canzone featured in chapter XIX, Dante describes his poetic self's beloved Beatrice:

The mind of God receives an angel's prayer
that says: 'My Lord, on earth is seen
a living miracle proceeding from
a soul whose light reaches as far as here.'
Heaven, that lacks its full perfection only
in lacking her, asks for her of its Lord,
and every saint is begging for this favour.
Compassion for his creatures still remains,
for God replies, referring to my lady:
'My chosen ones, now suffer peacefully,
and while it pleases me, let your hope stay
with one down there who dreads the loss of her,
who when in hell shall say unto the damned,
"I have beheld the hope of heaven's blessed."'

Dante never falls into mawkishness, though, largely because he treats his poetic self's love for Beatrice as a process in spiritual development. It is here that he most goes beyond the achievements of his predecessors, who have no coherent theory of love guiding their work. (Guido Cavalcanti tried, but the flailing about of Donna me prega demonstrates how short he fell of the goal.) Dante treats romantic love as a crucial step in one's spiritual growth, the culmination of which is one's capacity for divine love. At the end of La vita nuova, he writes, "may it please that One who is the Lord of Graciousness that my soul ascend to behold the glory of its lady, that is, of the blessed Beatrice, who in glory gazes upon the countenance of the One who is through all ages blessed." In essence, Dante presents the love for Beatrice as a transcendent path to the realm of God.

The most significant aspect of La vita nuova is its structure, but the quality of the individual poems is almost as remarkable. Dante matched or surpassed the work of his predecessors here. At times, it almost seems it was his primary goal. In chapter XX, he presents a sonnet that provides a definition of Love, and it appears written in competition with Guinizelli's "Within the gentle heart love shelters him," and Cavalcanti's aforementioned Donna ma prega. Dante alludes to Cavalcanti's piece in the framing text, and he directly references Guinizelli in the poem itself, calling the earlier writer "that wise poet." But he is not engaged in an act of homage; he is asking the reader to consider his work with the other poets' in mind, an implicit request for a comparison. Beyond that, though, Dante's aim seems to be to offer a definition as straightforward and clear as possible. He creates a simple allegory: Love is a king whose home is the heart, with Love sleeping there until a worthy lady is seen, and desire awakens him. This allegory is easily understood, and there's none of the convolutedness that characterizes the Guinizelli and Cavalcanti pieces.

Dante also bests his predecessors in his use of language. The principal technique of medieval poetry is hyperbole, which might seem the most unsubtle of all descriptive language. But Dante is careful to modulate the exaggerations, and he often uses them to render a subject indirectly. A superb example is the first sonnet in chapter XXVI:

Such sweet decorum and such gentle graces
attend my lady's greeting as she walks
that every tongue is stammering then mute,
and eyes dare not to gaze at such a sight;
she moves benignly in humility
untouched by all the praise along her way
and seems a creature come from heaven to earth,
a miracle manifest in reality.
So charming she appears to human sight,
her sweetness through the eyes reaches the heart;
who has not felt this cannot understand.
And from her lips it seems there moves a spirit
so gentle and so loving that it glides
into the souls of men and whispers, 'Sigh!'

The exaggerations that describe the woman directly are quite abstract--"such sweet decorum," "such gentle graces," "she moves benignly in humility"--and they invite the reader to project into the words and create an image in their own minds. The reader is told how to think about the woman's manner, not what physical aspects of her to consider. The more concrete exaggerations never apply directly to the woman: Dante depicts the reactions of those around her--they stammer, fall mute, and are afraid to look upon the woman. The reactions render the woman as much as Dante's characterizations of her qualities. The different approach to the descriptions creates a counterpoint that Dante uses to render a scene that dramatizes his view of the woman as an earthbound angel. His use of personification is extraordinary as well. In characterizing the woman's voice, he identifies it with a spirit that travels to men's souls and whispers. While the spirit's actions are clear, its characterization is abstract ("so gentle and so loving"), and Dante identifies the spirit's final action with a feeling most everyone has had. Every aspect of the sonnet is conceived and executed in terms of dramatic effect and emotional resonance, and Dante's figurations have a delicate, concise perfection to them--everything is just so, and it never fails to be just so right.

The insistence on dramatic intensity is why Dante's allegories are so much more powerful than other writers'. Allegory is most commonly used to illustrate intellectual concepts. However, Dante uses it to achieve emotional effects. Take this passage from the sonnet in Chapter VII:

Now all is spent of that first wealth of joy
that sprang to earth from Love's bright treasury;
I live in poverty,
in writing's place comes insecurity.
And therefore I have sought to be like those
who cover up their poverty for shame:
I dress in happiness
but in my heart I weep and waste away.

The starting point is clearly an allegory--a personification of Love has given the protagonist a gift of joy--and Dante builds a reversal from it: joy has turned to sadness. The trope used for sadness is poverty, and it is consistent with the tropes used for happiness ("wealth of joy," "from Love's bright treasury"). The emotional effect is created by Dante's insistence on relating the terms of his allegory to everyday experience. He sets it up through simile; the protagonist likens himself to those who are materially poor. However, the key touch is the observation that the poor are embarrassed by their state and will strive to maintain pretenses--such as with the clothes they wear--that conceal it. It's conduct that almost anyone can identify with--who hasn't found themselves behaving similarly at one time or another? Dante then identifies the pathos of that circumstance with his protagonist, who declares he will maintain a happy façade despite his sadness. Dante's poetry avoids the failings so common of allegory: it never seems aloof, and it never gets lost in its abstractions. Dante knows creating an emotional rapport with his audience is key.

La vita nuova is a work that makes one wonder about the coolness many well-read people have to Dante's writings. (He's considered a writer's writer, which means that it's generally only other writers who revere him.) I believe most people owe their antipathy to their experience with reading the Divine Comedy; the translations into English often lose the force of the original Italian, and many teachers get so preoccupied with the epic's allegorical aspects that they lose sight of the drama. La vita nuova seems a much more accessible introduction to Dante's work; it's simpler and more emotionally direct. It's also more rooted in adolescent experience, which makes it easier for younger readers to relate to. Most English-language readers have to learn to love Dante; La vita nuova would seem a work where the learning isn't required.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Comics Review: Big Numbers 1 & 2, Alan Moore & Bill Sienkiewicz

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Note: Bill Sienkiewicz has written an essay about Big Numbers, published here. In it, he describes the demanding and ultimately onerous process for creating the art in the first two issues, as well as his decision to ultimately walk away from the series. His reasons for leaving were far more complicated than my speculations here. Please read the essay below with this in mind.

A few weeks ago, I came across a blog posting by Frank Santoro about Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz's unfinished Big Numbers project from the early 1990s. (One can read Santoro's post here). Santoro's main focus is on Sienkiewicz's art, which he heavily criticizes for a lack of fluidity and repetitiveness of layout, but some of the digs are aimed at Moore as well, such as calling the series "impenetrable to read," and describing the experience as "trying to make your way through a crowded funeral parlor."

This certainly didn't jibe with my memory of the series, so I pulled the two published issues out of storage and read them again. All I can say to Santoro is that his taste is a lot different than mine, but then "a quiet European film of a comic," as Santoro calls the series, is something I might happily embrace. Big Numbers, based on the two chapters (of a planned twelve) that appeared, is an intricate, delicately written work with beautifully expressive art. Moore and Sienkiewicz achieve a lovely melancholy in their portrait of the people in the book's fictional Midlands community, and it's a shame that Sienkiewicz burned out on the project after two issues, leaving the series unfinished. Given Moore's consistent knack for contextualizing his sharply realized characters in the society around them, Big Numbers stood a good chance of being one of the finest community portraits found in any narrative medium. One could also see it holding its own with From Hell, Watchmen, and V for Vendetta.


Big Numbers 1, page 35. Click image for a larger view.


According to Moore, the ideas guiding his vision of the book were derived from chaos theory, a view of dynamic systems that rejects the notion of randomness. Based on the issues of Big Numbers that were published, it appears his intent was to use the theory to account for human alienation. The characters are inevitably depicted as locked inside their own heads, and unable to find rapport with others despite their best efforts. Their lives are defined by patterns and routines. When those routines intersect, they inevitably bounce off each other, creating tension. Everyone talks past everyone else, and Moore and Sienkiewicz take care to render the pain felt at being unable to make connections. Emotions are in flux, yet behavior remains the same. After a while, one gets the feeling that behavior remains the same because the emotions are in flux; it's the only way of imposing order and control on one's life.

Take the sequence reproduced above. The three characters are Mrs. Gathercole and her two adult daughters, Christine and Janice. Christine is a successful author who's just returned home to work on a book, and Janice is a welfare worker whose husband is hospitalized in a vegetative state. Mrs. Gathercole, whose appearances throughout the series make clear her habit of being polite and friendly at all times, mentions to Christine that she's bought Christine's book. She says she thinks it's lovely, but it quickly becomes clear from the conversation that she's talking about the cover rather than the writing, which she hasn't read. Mrs. Gathercole's inclination to pay compliments conflicts with Christine's inclination to seek a certain sort of compliment, and one can see the pain in both women: Christine is hurt because her mother has no interest in her work, and Mrs. Gathercole is hurt by her realization that she's insulted her daughter. And throughout it all, one follows Mrs. Gathercole's routine of preparing tea in the foreground, which she uses to reimpose order in this upsetting circumstance. Two patterns of order conflict, flux results, and a separate pattern of order asserts itself to dampen the flux.

Moore and Sienkiewicz give readers a couple of dozen characters to follow in Big Numbers, and every scene is a variation of this dynamic in some way. What's remarkable is that despite this, every scene is distinctive in its own right, and every character comes across as a unique personality. This is helped in no small part by Sienkiewicz's exceptional artwork, which combines strong character design with extraordinarily subtle and nuanced rendering, most of it done in pencil. The depictions of emotion and gesture are delicately precise, and the tonal quality allows one to lose oneself in the individual images. The page layouts are conservative--they often consist of cinematic-style pans across an image tier--but they serve to reinforce the series' quiet rhythm. That may be the difference between Santoro and I: he looks for immediacy, and I look for resonance. Sienkiewicz's trademark expressionistic tendencies occasionally assert themselves, but he always keeps them in service to the story and the characters.

Restraint is not a tendency I associate with Sienkiewicz, and the project's demand for it on his part may be why he burned out on it so quickly. He and Moore are not natural collaborators. Despite Moore's claims that he shapes each project in accord with the artist's strengths, he inevitably treats an artist he works with as a pair of hands. The legendary degree of detail he includes in his scripts can easily serve to intimidate. Sienkiewicz's nature favors eclecticism and spontaneity; his first impulse is to experiment. He needs the sort of collaborator he had with Frank Miller on Elektra: Assassin and Daredevil: Love and War: someone he can bounce ideas off of, and who treats him as an equal when it comes to shaping (or changing) a work's direction. He's the sort who would chafe under the taskmaster scripts of a writer like Moore. It would have been a miracle for a project like Big Numbers, with its expected length of 500 pages, to not go off the rails with these two, and a miracle didn't happen.

One can't help but wish that it did, though. A key story point in the series is the construction of an American-style shopping mall in the Midlands setting. It would have been fascinating to see Moore's view of the inevitable clash between U. S. and British culture, and one develops an affection for the book's characters--one wants to see how they and their relationships develop. There's been talk of producing and completing Big Numbers as a BBC mini-series; if one can't have more of this marvelously realized comic, a television series might be the next best thing.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Film Review: Atonement

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Note: My review of Ian McEwan's original novel can be read here.

A few weeks back, in my review (click here) of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, I highlighted the observation that artists seem to fall in two categories: dramatists and illustrators. Dramatists put their skills entirely at the service of the material. Illustrators, on the other hand, use the material as a stage to flaunt their technical ability. Joe Wright, the director of Atonement, seems to fall in between the two camps. Like the novel, the film is divided into four sections: a fateful day at an English estate in 1935; the horrific retreat of the British military at Dunkirk in 1940; an episode in London before, during, and after the events at Dunkirk; and an epilogue set in the present day. Wright and his scenarist, Christopher Hampton, do a fine job of reimagining the latter two sections for the screen. They even manage the trick of fixing the novel's awful ending while remaining true to it. But their treatment of the first two episodes are the product of an illustrator mentality: lavishly presented, technically astonishing at points, but dramatically inert.

To be fair, I don't think any filmmaker could have successfully adapted the 1935 section, which takes up the first half of the novel, and stayed true to McEwan. It tells of the young lovers Cecilia and Robbie (Keira Knightley and James McAvoy), and how their romance was horribly thwarted by the resentful, jealous actions of Cecilia's thirteen-year-old sister Briony (Saoirse Ronan). McEwan's rendering of this episode is distinctly modernist. The narrative is presented through the shifting points of view of the three main characters, and the different perspectives are carefully developed and orchestrated to build the events to a climax. But a film has almost no choice but to present the narrative in objective terms, and neither it nor the characters are particularly interesting when seen from the outside. Wright and Hampton are faithful to a fault, so the plotting and the characters seem thin. James McAvoy has given audiences fine, layered characterizations in such films as Becoming Jane and The Last King of Scotland, but the film's Robbie offers him nothing to work with. He's a handsome, amiable blank. Keira Knightley makes a stronger impression, but once one observes that Cecilia is headstrong and beautiful (at least from the neck up), that's it. These lovers are a dull pair, and the opening section often leaves one stuck admiring the production design and the scenery.

The only dramatic interest in the first part comes from Saoirse Ronan's performance as Briony. Straight-backed, her face as tight as a drum, Ronan marches through the family manor with such determination--and so little wasted movement--that when she comes to a closed door, one doesn't know if she's going to open it or knock it down. Ronan successfully renders the single-minded, hyper-controlled manner of this lonely, alienated thirteen-year-old, and it gives her the foundation for an extremely strong characterization. One can always feel what her Briony is thinking, because it always comes across as a crack in her prim façade. This is true whether it's Briony's annoyance with another girl's efforts to one-up her, or her curiosity and shock when she walks in on Cecilia and Robbie having sex. The tenacity of her machinations against Robbie, which end with him unjustly being sent to prison, is completely convincing, and it creates the first half's only suspense. One watches with dread wondering if she'll actually succeed.

The Dunkirk section, which features Robbie five years down the road as a British soldier, follows his efforts to join the troop evacuation. It is the weakest part of the film. It's dramatically shapeless, and the events from the novel that could give it some urgency have been largely truncated. Wright has received a great deal of acclaim for an extended Steadicam tracking shot that travels among the groups of soldiers at the Dunkirk beach, but the reason it's so conspicuous is that there's nothing else of interest going on. Brian De Palma, who's the master of this kind of setpiece, always puts the audience inside the characters' heads. In the magnificent Grand Central Station scene in his Carlito's Way, one is completely caught up in Carlito's predicament, and the sudden-death approach to staging and shooting only adds to the urgency. Wright's setpiece is a marvel of logistical planning and execution, and it may be the most elaborate shot of this sort ever attempted, but it's a textbook example of a movie director thinking like an illustrator. Wright gets so caught up in the camera choreography that he forgets he's dramatizing a story.

He finally gains his footing in the London section. It's loaded with incident, and told through the eyes of a single character, so Wright and Hampton aren't trapped by their inability to approximate modernist prose effects. It also has a strong narrative line: the 18-year-old Briony (played by Romola Garai), learns humility and caring through her experiences as a London nurse. This leads her to seek reconciliation with Cecilia and Robbie, who've since been reunited, and to atone for what she's done. The film takes one fully inside Briony's guilt over her actions. The scenes of the hospital overwhelmed by the Dunkirk wounded, as well as the confrontation with Cecilia and Robbie, have all the intensity one could ask for.

Wright and Hampton's assurance extends to the epilogue, and they tweak McEwan's wretched closing revelation just enough to make it work. In the novel, McEwan reveals that the preceding narratives are the elderly Briony's fictional reimaginings of the events in 1935 and 1940. The "real" Cecilia and Robbie never had the happy ending of sorts that's shown. McEwan is obnoxiously offhand about this, and the revelation of Cecilia and Robbie's actual fate is confined to a single sentence. Wright, Hampton, and the film's producers must have realized that if they'd stayed true to this, they were risking riots in the theaters. They give us the ending McEwan should have. Cecilia and Robbie are treated with dignity, and their plights are recreated for the audience in flashback. The film also ends on a sweet, romantic note that McEwan may have felt himself too sophisticated to provide: we see Cecilia and Robbie frolicking on the Sussex beach, happy in the elderly Briony's fantasy of what might and should have been.

The modifications made to the ending point to what might and should have been for the movie as well. Wright and Hampton should have realized that attempting to recreate the novel's opening sections and remaining true to McEwan's treatment was folly; they needed to reimagine it in their own terms. Once McEwan's masterful prose rendering is removed, there isn't enough left to merit interest. When one sees that flashy Dunkirk setpiece, one wonders if Wright was so overtaken by creative boredom that he kept himself occupied by creating logistical challenges for himself. His imagination comes to life in a more laudable way when he takes it upon himself to solve the dramatic problems McEwan created with the novel's ending. One wishes he'd approached the entire film in the same manner. As it is, Atonement is an erratic piece of work, though a good complement to the book it's taken from. Its failures only make the novel's successes shine brighter, and it succeeds most where the novel lets one down.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Fiction Review: Atonement, Ian McEwan

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The first half of Ian McEwan's 2001 novel Atonement is perhaps the most virtuoso treatment of "that one fateful day" in contemporary fiction. It takes place during the summer of 1935 at a British estate in the Surrey Hills. The property belongs to the Tallis family, and the first character encountered is the family's youngest member, the thirteen-year-old Briony. She's a lonely, emotionally neglected girl: her sister Cecilia, 23, has spent most of the last few years at Cambridge; her brother Leon, 25, works as a banker in London; and her father, a highly placed civil servant, is almost never at home. Her mother is the only family member who is part of her daily life, and all too often her mother retreats into the bedroom, perpetually complaining of migraines. All Briony has is her fantasy life, and she whiles her time away writing stories and plays. Her three cousins, the fifteen-year-old Lola and the nine-year-old twins Jackson and Pierrot, arrive to stay during their parents' divorce, and they offer no comfort; Briony finds Lola a threat to her sense of status and security, and the twins disrupt whatever peace and order the household has to offer. But it is Briony's rivalry with her sister that, by morning the next day, throws the family into upheaval and tears it apart.

When the reader first encounters Cecilia, she is in a state of transition. She's finished up her coursework at Cambridge (being a woman, no degree is forthcoming), but she's disgusted with the family situation, and she contemplates starting a life for herself away from home. This is complicated by her tense, tentative relationship with Robbie Turner, the son of the family's housekeeper, who's the same age she is. Robbie's education, from English grammar school to Cambridge and now, apparently, to medical school, is being financed by her father. She's known him since they were seven, and she finds herself frustrated by the distance she keeps from him, and the distance he keeps from her. Her one goal before leaving home for good is to resolve whatever it is that is at issue between them.

McEwan deftly renders the apprehensiveness the two have around each other, and there's no mistaking the two are on the cusp of romance. Things escalate while Robbie is doing some landscaping work on the grounds. Cecilia comes out to put some water in a vase from the fountain, and Robbie accidentally damages the vase. Pieces from the rim fall into the fountain, and Cecilia impulsively strips to her underwear to retrieve them. He's completely taken aback by her action, partly because he feels punished by her refusal to let him help, and partly by the arousing sight of her emerging, her underwear all but translucent, dripping from the water. He can no longer deny his desire for her; he sends a note of apology for what happened, but he accidentally sends a version including a few wayward lines about his sexual fantasies of her. She confronts him in the household library that evening before dinner, and before they know it, they're passionately having sex against the shelves.

They're interrupted when Briony walks in on them. McEwan has resolved one source of tension in the story, but he uses it to develop a greater conflict. Briony also saw the scene at the fountain, and she read the--ahem--intimate note when Robbie gave it to her to pass onto Cecilia. Briony's insecurities have made her very controlling in how she deals with people; she's patronizing when she senses someone's in need, and her jealousy and anger towards Cecilia manifests itself in concern for her sister's welfare. She convinces herself that Robbie assaulted Cecilia, and that he's a threat to her well-being. McEwan builds this narrative line to a crescendo. Later that evening, the twins run away, and during the search on the grounds, Lola is attacked and raped by a member of the dinner party. Briony interrupts this as well, and although she doesn't clearly see the assailant, she becomes certain that the "maniac" Robbie is the culprit. When Robbie returns to the house that morning with the twins in tow, he's arrested for the attack on Lola, and Briony makes the note and library encounter with Cecilia known to everyone. We subsequently learn that Robbie is sent to prison on account of Briony's accusations. Cecilia, furious at both her own humiliation and the unjust treatment of Robbie, disowns her family, vowing never to speak to them again.

McEwan presents all this with the skill and assurance of a prose-fiction master. The individual chapters are told from the points of view of the different characters, and the portraits painted by their thoughts, memories, and views of their own and others' actions are exceptionally vivid. This is thanks in no small part to McEwan's gorgeous, rolling prose style, which presents everything in terms of conflict, no matter how small or large. Every sentence seems designed to keep one in anticipation for the next. The characters' arcs in the story are also extraordinarily well-developed, whether they are secondary characters or the leads. The unhappiness that compels the twins to run away progresses just as clearly as the attraction between Cecilia and Robbie. McEwan's treatment of Briony, in particular, is superb. Her insecurities are immediately apparent, as is her resentment of Lola when she feels her cousin is trying to get the better of her. One can see that resentment express itself as patronizing concern when Lola expresses her vexation at managing the twins. McEwan's handling of Briony's relationship with Lola prepares the reader for the dynamic of her attitude towards Cecelia after the library scene. This sets the stage for her climactic accusations against Robbie. McEwan's extraordinary skill leaves one breathless in anticipation for the novel's second half.

The latter parts of the novel are nothing short of astonishing, but that is meant ambivalently. The second half is divided into three sections: one dealing with Robbie's experiences as a British soldier during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940; Briony's experiences as a trainee nurse in London around the same time; and a coda featuring Briony in 1999, now in the twilight of her career as a writer. McEwan completely abandons the orchestrated approach to narrative development that he used so brilliantly in the novel's first half. The Dunkirk and London episodes relate only obliquely to what's come before, and one often feels the references to the first half are shoehorned in. Confused, one looks to the coda to tie everything together. It does, but with a stupid postmodernist narrative conceit that leaves one wanting to fling the book across the room.

This is not meant to denigrate either the Dunkirk or London passages. The Dunkirk section, in particular, is one of the most striking depictions of war I've encountered in prose fiction. Robbie has been granted a pardon in exchange for enlisting, and he's had a brief reunion with Cecelia before heading off to serve. She maintained a correspondence with him throughout his time in prison, and she's committed to being with him after his hitch is finished. The thought of her is what keeps him going. We see the terror he and the other soldiers have of running out of provisions, their uncertainty over whether the French villagers they encounter are friendly or hostile, and, most horrifyingly, their panicked scramble to dodge the repeated German bombing and strafing runs from the air. There's no heroism to be found in trying to help the French; Robbie tries to help a young mother and her child escape the bombing, but the mother freezes, and she and the child are killed. The best the soldiers can hope for is to maintain their own humanity, which Robbie and two troopmates do when they help a RAF soldier escape a lynching from the other infantrymen. The section ends inconclusively; Robbie appears to have made it to safety, but as the preceding events demonstrate, there's no telling when or how danger will strike again. The scenes in London, which center on the desperate efforts of the London hospitals to handle the influx of casualties from Dunkirk, are almost as compelling. They also provide a happy ending of sorts to Cecelia and Robbie's relationship, as well as an opportunity for Briony to atone for what she's done to them.

Compared to the depictions of Dunkirk and the London hospital, the 1940 finale with Briony, Cecilia, and Robbie is given so little weight that it seems like an afterthought. McEwan appears to have been so committed to his depiction of England's early days during World War II that he's lost track of the story. One can't help feeling the book, despite the strength of the war passages, has gotten terribly off-track in its second half. One feels dread when one sees what McEwan has put at the end of Part Three:

BT
London, 1999

It means exactly what one thinks. McEwan confirms in the coda that what we've been reading all along is the adult Briony's fictional meditation on what happened that fateful day in 1935, her speculations on Robbie's experiences in Dunkirk (she's in a correspondence with one of his fellow infantrymen), and her falsifying view of her experiences in London. (The "real" Cecilia and Robbie have no happy ending.) One wants to scream.

McEwan may think he's being clever, and that the late Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man are applauding in whatever deconstructionist hereafter they've found themselves in, but all he's accomplished is to undermine everything he's presented to the reader. That's not to say that this sort of metafictional tactic is automatically invalid, but when it works, it's invariably used for comic purposes or to resolve the mysterious aspects of the narrative up to that point. Unless one has a reasonably acute understanding of literary technique, the Dunkirk and London episodes may not come across as particularly discordant relative to the first half. The happy ending for Cecilia and Robbie, and the righting of injustice, always hangs in the air. McEwan tantalizes audiences with that happy ending, and unless he's got a conclusion that's equally compelling, he owes it to audiences to provide it. Audiences do not respond well to having the rug pulled out from under them in the manner McEwan does here; one has to look no further than the hostile reaction to the infamous "It was all a dream" season of the Dallas TV series to understand that. People expect an author to honor the emotional commitment they develop towards the story and the characters, not to treat that commitment with contempt. Perhaps McEwan underestimates the power of what he's put on the page; it's hard to believe he would undermine it like this if he respected it. Or maybe he identifies too much with the young Briony with regard to Cecilia and Robbie: his own insecurities drive him to tear the good and positive down.

Note: My review of director Joe Wright's film version of the novel is here. It expands on issues I discuss above.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Film Review: Away from Her

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Away from Her, writer-director Sarah Polley's adaptation of the Alice Munro short story "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," is a remarkable debut feature. It's a film that, unseen, one approaches with trepidation. The original story (featured in Munro's 2001 collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage) is constructed around the experiences of an elderly man whose wife has developed Alzheimer's. But Munro isn't especially interested in the material's dramatic possibilities; she uses it to create a meditation on how, regardless of our idealistic notions of love, romantic relationships are always rooted in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It's a contemplative, extremely literary piece, and Munro's effects are far too abstract for a filmmaker to even consider trying to translate successfully. In order for the story material to work onscreen, the filmmaker would have to focus on its melodramatic aspects, and the potential for an adaptation to degenerate into a disease-of-the-week movie is enormous. But Polley is canny enough to transcend the material's pitfalls. She keeps the histrionics to a minimum, and the extraordinary sophistication she shows as a scenarist and filmmaker allow her to pull the film off.

The story's two main characters are Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie), a retired couple living in a lakefront house in the Canadian countryside. As the film begins, we see Fiona begin to show the early stages of Alzheimer's. It gradually gets worse and worse. She goes from putting a skillet in the freezer to walking aimlessly through the nearby town, initially unable to recognize Grant after he comes looking for her. For her safety, they decide to admit her to a local upscale nursing home, but there's one catch: once she's admitted, Grant will not be allowed to visit her for 30 days. He grudgingly accepts, but once his month-long banishment ends, he returns to the home to find that Fiona no longer remembers him. Further, she has developed a close relationship with a mute, wheelchair-bound man named Aubrey (Michael Murphy). Grant's dedication to her turns him into an unhappy daily observer of the new relationship. After Aubrey's wife (Olympia Dukakis) decides to take her husband back home, Grant is faced with a horrible dilemma: either reintroduce Aubrey into Fiona's life, or watch her mourning for their relationship destroy her mind completely.

Sarah Polley is best known as an actress. Her most notable role is probably the teenage bus-accident survivor in Atom Egoyan's adaptation of Russell Banks' The Sweet Hereafter. Egoyan is listed as an executive producer of Away from Her, and Polley appears to have been following his artistic lead in making the film. The style is remarkably similar to that of The Sweet Hereafter: the flashback structure, the carefully composed photography, and the even, deliberate pacing. She and cinematographer Luc Montpellier have put together a great-looking movie. The imagery has a remarkable graphic fluency, and it's never static or emptily pictorial. Everything in the movie is carefully thought out in terms of effect. She even brings off such Munro flourishes as the skunk lilies metaphor and the recurring motif of the street sign for a conservatory. That said, one never sees Polley coasting on Munro's work. She gives the story a structure that's distinct from the prose version, and she considerably fleshes out the narrative with material of her own. Everything, though, manages to feel all of a piece.

Gordon Pinsent carries the emotional weight of the movie, and he brings it off with aplomb. His Grant has a quality one sees in more than a few older men: a devil-may-care attitude that suggests there's a little boy in him that's never grown up. Pinsent has his best moment when he smartmouths a teenage girl visiting the home when she mistakes him for one of the residents. Grant used to be a college professor, and Pinsent makes one immediately see that he'd be popular with his students; he can both identify and parry with them. But Pinsent also makes one feel the depth of Grant's love and commitment to Fiona, including both his concern and his determination to do what's right by her. He is the focus of every one of the film's scenes, and his presence is never anything but welcome. Pinsent captures the contradictions in the role and delivers a beautifully realized characterization.

Julie Christie's widely fêted performance earns its plaudits. No actress has ever aged as beautifully as Christie has onscreen, and it may be that her visible age is what makes her look so extraordinary--there's a poignance in seeing those remarkable features and watching the youth slip away. That quality makes her a perfect choice to play Fiona, and she builds the performance from her other natural attributes. The key element in her characterization is her poise. There's an elegance to Fiona at all times, and Christie uses it to heighten the discords of the character's panic and fear when she realizes she's in a situation where her memory brutally fails her. When Fiona is asked what she sees in Aubrey, she replies, "He doesn't confuse me." Christie makes you feel both Fiona's sense of comfort and the terror that feeds it. Her emotional shifts are remarkably delicate and fluid as well. No word in the critical lexicon is more abused than "lyrical," and I do what I can to avoid it, but no other word better captures the grace and heartbreaking beauty of Julie Christie's performance.

The film has flaws. Grant's musings on past extramarital affairs are a key part of Munro's original story, but they're the hardest part of the story to do justice to. Spelling the circumstances out to the degree Munro does would just bog the film down. Polley apparently recognized the problem, and she jettisons the details--references to the infidelities are generally quite oblique. But she also appears to recognize the thematic importance of the affairs, so she tries to compensate with new material that makes clumsy reference to them. Christie makes a confrontational scene on the way to the nursing home work, but I don't think anything could have saved the ugly scene where the home's head nurse jumps to conclusions about Grant and tells him off. Munro implies that Grant begins an affair with another woman after Fiona moves to the nursing home, but Polley makes it explicit, and unlike Munro, she can't make the relationship make sense. In the original story, Munro makes it clear that there's a commonality of background that attracts Grant to the woman. He sees himself having married someone like her if his life had taken a different direction when he was younger. But in the film the two initially have nothing but antipathy for each other, and beyond a pathetic mutual neediness, there's nothing that brings them together. There are also some grotesque bits involving the other nursing home residents in the latter sections of the film. The worst involves a former sports announcer who walks down a corridor giving a play-by-play on another character's emotional distress.

But these complaints are quibbles. Sarah Polley is a remarkable filmmaking talent. The picture has been made with an extraordinary precision, but every emotion on the screen seems freshly felt. She does a wonderful job of orchestrating the story material, the actors, and her visual treatment. She makes the story her own, and the film is a superb complement to the work that inspired it.