Friday, April 13, 2012

Short Take: The Battleship Potemkin

This review originally appeared on Pol Culture.

The Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is invariably included in lists of the best films ever made. Viewing it today, it more than justifies its stature. The story is about the 1905 mutiny aboard a Russian warship and the uprising in Odessa that followed. Eisenstein goes beyond setting the standard for “technical brilliance.” He tells the story with a cinematic fluency that would inspire envy in the best contemporary action directors. (Steven Spielberg, to pick one example, is clearly one of Eisenstein's most devoted students.) The individual shots are boldly composed, and Eisenstein has a dazzling sense of choreography: his understanding of how to orchestrate action in the frame so that it heightens or relaxes the pace is just about incomparable. And if this virtuosity wasn't enough, he takes things further with his bravura ordering of shots into a larger, more effective whole. (In film parlance, this rhythmic style of editing--an Eisenstein innovation--is called montage, and the picture’s use of it is still unsurpassed.) All five of the film’s sections are beautifully shaped. The Odessa Steps sequence, in which government troops massacre the rebellious city residents, is the most famous. But the most accomplished may be the section in which a martyred sailor is mourned on the Odessa docks. Eisenstein starts slowly, with somber views of the harbor before dawn. The sailor’s body is laid out for viewing, and an occasional passerby stops to pay respect. Lines of those grieving begin to form, and they grow into a procession in which the entire city takes part. The sailor is eulogized: the mutiny is identified with the budding revolution against the tsar, and the crowds are entreated to honor his memory by joining it. The sequence climaxes with the raising of a flag that signifies the solidarity between the townspeople, the ship’s crew, and the greater revolution. The tempo is masterful, and the progression from sorrow to triumph is astonishing. The other sections may not reach quite the same heights, but they’re breathtaking nonetheless. Eisenstein stages, shoots, and edits the film with the craft and dynamism that Beethoven brought to his symphonies. It’s a silent classic that needs no special pleading.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Short Take: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [Film 3]

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

With the series’ third installment, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the story of Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and his adventures at the Hogwarts School have been put in the hands of director Alfonso Cuarón. He is a filmmaking wizard, and the film is nothing less than magical. It is easily the best of the first three Harry Potter pictures. It looks more elegant from the outset: Cuarón and cinematographer Michael Seresin favor a darker, subtler palette than was used in the first two outings. The spectacularly composed visuals are alive with mystery and nuance. A romantic sensibility is at work. It can be seen in the gorgeous use of the Scottish landscapes where the film was shot, as well as in the emphasis on nature imagery. Cuarón knows there’s nothing more magical than the sight of an unusual animal or the signs of changes in the seasons. (He has particular fun with the giant, cantankerous Whomping Willow. The film’s most delightful bit is the shot where it shakes the snow off its branches--some of which lands on the camera lens. The most thrilling moment is the tussle with it during the pursuit of the story’s villain.) The visual bravura isn’t merely decorative. Cuarón is a storyteller first and foremost, and everything he does is in service to his material. Metamorphoses and the hidden sides of people’s lives are at the heart of the narrative, and his imagery reinforces this every step of the way. It also helps to render Harry’s increasing maturity and emotional complexity. The film is more intense than the first two pictures, but Cuarón does justice to the carnival aspects of the material. The students’ first encounter with a boggart is the slapstick high point of the series thus far. Emma Thompson’s scenes as Professor Trelawney run a close second. The picture also has its exhilarating side, such as with Harry’s flight on the back of the magnificent half-horse-half-eagle hippogriff, or the supremely satisfying moment when Hermione (Emma Watson) punches out the class king bee. The screenplay, adapted from J. K. Rowling’s novel, is again by Steve Kloves.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Fiction Review: "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller," Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert's short story reimagines a medieval legend with the classical elements of the tragic flaw, reversal of fortune, and epic setpieces. Its message of faith may be the author's most profound.

Gustave Flaubert's "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller" is part of the Three Tales collection. This review refers to the A. J. Krailsheimer translation, published by Oxford University Press.

Gustave Flaubert’s “The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitaller,” the second story in his Three Tales collection (1877), is a retelling of the story from a stained-glass-window picture sequence in Rouen Cathedral. But Flaubert makes it his own. Apart from the considerable revisions to the plot, he gives it the benefit of his incomparable eye for detail with both the characters and settings. He also proves a master of the epic setpiece; the climactic sections of each of the story’s three parts are unsurpassed as spectacle.

The story of Saint Julian resembles the Greek legend of Oedipus. Julian is a young noble who, upon hearing a prophecy that he shall murder his parents, flees his home to thwart this destiny. He builds a grand life for himself in another kingdom. Years later, his parents, who have searched for him far and wide, arrive at his doorstep. He is away on a hunt, but his wife welcomes them and puts them up for the night in her and Julian’s bed. When Julian comes home, he mistakes the sleeping pair for his wife and another man. Believing himself a cuckold, he murders his parents in a rage. After discovering the truth, he renounces his worldly possessions and devotes himself to penitence and good works. After his extraordinarily selfless behavior towards a leper, he is redeemed and ascends to heaven.

Flaubert’s changes to the Rouen narrative are numerous. The most noteworthy is probably the handling of Julian’s wife. In the original story, she is the widow of the lord he serves after fleeing his homeland. She also remains with Julian after he murders his parents, and joins him in his good works. Flaubert makes her the daughter of the lord’s concubine, and after the parents’ murder, she never sees Julian again. Julian’s good deeds in Flaubert are restricted to his being a volunteer ferryman and his aid of the leper. The original story has him building a hospital, where he and his wife care for the sick. Flaubert also omits the Devil’s efforts to tempt Julian after he is redeemed.

But Flaubert’s expansions of the story are far more significant. He complicates the central prophecy with an opposing one. After Julian’s birth, his mother is told he will become a saint. Suspense over how the prophecies will be reconciled adds a great deal of narrative tension. The acuity of Flaubert’s understanding of psychology is also on display. When Julian first hears the prophecy of his parents’ murder, he dismisses it. He only changes his mind after he narrowly avoids accidentally killing them. Flaubert recognizes that it is not enough to just hear the prophecy; it must be reinforced.

Most importantly, though, Flaubert makes the story play by the rules of classical narrative. It’s not sufficient for Julian’s woes to be the whim of fate. Flaubert gives the character a tragic flaw: an incontinent bloodlust towards animals. Flaubert makes it clear from the start how at odds it is with Julian’s virtue and piety. His first act of viciousness is when he bludgeons a mouse to death on the chapel altar. Julian’s indifference to the ugliness and borderline sacrilege of his behavior is made apparent. He treats it as a minor matter: one just has to clean up the mess. His bloodlust serves as the catalyst for the prophecy of the parents’ murder. A stag curses Julian with his dying words after Julian mortally wounds him, his mate, and their suckling fawn. Julian’s bloodlust is also key to the murder of his parents. His inability to make a single kill during the preceding hunt leaves him so inflamed that he is violence personified when he discovers them in his bed. As Flaubert writes before he enters the room, “Blood lust possessed him again; failing animals, he would have liked to slaughter men.” Julian’s flaw brings the prophecy down on him and, moreover, has him fulfill it.

The hunts in the story are awesomely horrifying. In the first, in which the stag is killed, Julian massacres every animal he encounters in the wood. Flaubert writes, “But Julian never wearied of slaughter, successively drawing his crossbow, unsheathing his sword, stabbing with his cutlass, heedless and oblivious of everything.” The most analogous scene in literature is probably in The Iliad, with Achilles’ rampage against the Trojans following the death of Patroclus. And even that may pale in comparison. The hunt before the parents' death may be even more terrifying for its irony. No matter how hard he tries, Julian cannot land a net, arrow, or cutting blow on an animal. Wolves, bears, birds, bulls, snakes, boars, squirrels, hyenas, wild cats--they gather round him and give chase. Julian is made to know the fear he has inflicted on their brethren.

The set piece that ends with Julian’s redemption carries the most impact. It reaches more profound emotions than horror at one’s violence or fear for one’s safety. It dramatizes the struggle to do good at all costs, and it is, by turns, epic and intimate. The effort to ferry the leper across the river is a battle against nature itself, with Julian facing hailstones, gale-force winds, and waves likened to mountains. The temptation is always there to give up, but Julian does not relent. In the story’s words, “realizing a momentous issue was at stake, a command not to be disobeyed, he took up the oars again.” The challenges of the river in some ways pale to what comes next. Julian takes the diseased passenger into his hut. He gives the leper food, only to see afterward that “the table, the bowl, and the knife handle bore the same spots as were to be seen on his [the leper’s] body.” Julian allows the man to sleep in his bed. He even embraces him to keep him warm. The awareness of disease and possible infection is repeatedly reinforced. Flaubert brings the scene to as worthy a climax as he did with the other two set pieces: Julian’s consummate selflessness redeems him.

The story is structured as a series of reversals. A young man who has it all abandons it for exile in the face of a curse brought on by his own viciousness. He regains prosperity only to abandon it again after the curse’s fulfillment. And then, when he has nothing but his capacity to give--and does not falter in it--he gains more than he ever had. It’s a story of faith that in some ways exceeds “A Simple Heart,” its predecessor in the Three Tales collection. Faith can do more than see one through the challenges of life; it can atone for one’s greatest flaws and the crimes that are borne of them. “Saint Julian” lacks the poetic artfulness of “A Simple Heart,” but its message may be more profound.

Reviews of other works by Gustave Flaubert:

Friday, April 6, 2012

Short Take: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [Book 3], J. K. Rowling

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

With Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban, the third book in the series, author J. K. Rowling appears to be striving for a more cohesive and intricate narrative than she attempted in the first two outings. Unlike its predecessors, it doesn’t feel broken into distinct sections. The day-in-day-out of Harry Potter’s third year at the Hogwarts School feels all of a piece with the climactic adventure passages. There are multiple narrative threads: the search for the fugitive Sirius Black; the misadventures with the Dementor prison guards seeking him; the fate of the maligned hippogriff creature; the secret of the new Dark Arts professor; the travails of Ron’s pet rat Scabbers; and the mystery of how Hermione handles her impossible course load. Rowling does a fine job of weaving them all together. One wishes she was able to create more resonance out of her efforts at narrative doubling. The Sirius Black and hippogriff story arcs have similar thematic elements. Although they come together plot-wise, they don’t play off each other as well as one might hope. But through it all, Rowling keeps the characters firmly etched and the reader turning the pages. It’s hard to ask for more from a storyteller.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Short Take: Young Adult

This review was originally published at Pol Culture.

With his fourth picture, Young Adult, director Jason Reitman’s batting average goes from perfect to .750. It’s a cruel, repellent film, and it curdles on the screen. The screenwriter, Diablo Cody, who collaborated with Reitman on Juno, appears to be working off her resentment of the popular girls she knew in adolescence. The protagonist, Mavis (Charlize Theron), was a glamour-girl prom queen in high school. Now 37, she’s alone, divorced, and flirting with alcoholism. Her career as a writer is at a dead end. She’s spent the last few years ghosting a series of young-adult novels, and the books have run their commercial course. One day, after receiving a birth announcement from her high-school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson), she decides to return to her hometown. Her goal is to break up his marriage, and get him back. The film demeans Mavis by turning her into the opposite of what she was in her teens. Now she’s the infatuated loser being humiliated by the futility of her romantic pursuits. The glamorous hauteur and fashion sense that made her a queen bee now mark her as a misfit. She was once the center of attention, and now the only friend she can find is a pudgy, geeky classmate (Patton Oswalt) whom she barely noticed while they were growing up. The scenes with Oswalt are by far the easiest to take, partly because he’s an open, amiable presence, and partly because they’re the only time Mavis isn’t making a complete ass of herself. But the film is just using his character against her, too. The romantic turn their relationship takes is treated as the moment Mavis hits bottom, and the film completely forgets about him afterward. Reitman isn’t in bad form. His staging, tempo, and sense of location are fine, and he gets good work from Theron and the rest of the cast. He’s just not able to get past the ugliness of Cody’s material.