11/15/19

French Exit is Nasty Fun


French Exit: A Novel (2018)
By Patrick de Witt
Ecco, 244 pages.
★★★★

It’s not easy to write a book with no likable characters, yet Patrick de Witt has managed to do so. French Exit is a black comedy that is nasty, satisfying, and funny.

Upper East Side widow Frances Prince is at the center of French Exit. She once turned heads, but is now a fading socialite whose deceased litigator husband would have made Roy Cohn seem warm and fuzzy. But at least Franklin Price made a lot of money. We’re talking a lot of money Frances was more than his match; her vanity ran deeper than his. She returned home one day and found Franklin had died. Damned if that was going to ruin her plans for a weekend ski trip. She went and reported his death when she got home! The tabloids trashed her and some of the upper crust ostracized her, but she simply didn’t care. She’s just sentimental enough to have an aged cat named Small Frank whom she insists is her late husband reincarnated. Don’t presume she treats him well.

Frances and her no-account so Malcolm live the life of the 1%: luxurious hotels, scattered secondary properties, lunches that cost a small fortune, fine furnishings, and enough expensive personal items to outfit a small museum. They are the sort who tell others–waiters, salespeople, hotel staff, lawyers–what to do in the belief that doing their bidding is what the little people were placed on earth to do. The only things Frances and Malcolm don’t have is an ounce of commonsense or an inkling of how to manage their resources.

The glam wagon’s wheels fall off when the family lawyer tells Frances that she has run out of money and, no, he can’t magically conjure any more. In fact, Frances needs to sell her assets just to survive. You would think this would be devastating news, but Frances isn’t one to let reality get in her way. She commissions a shady man named Ralph Rudy to sell everything and plots her next move.

Malcolm is less than useless in all of this, as he is a clueless man-child. He reminded me of Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, even though Malcolm is neither as crude nor as sloppy as Ignatius. Both, though, are mama’s boys, neither has any discernible life skills, and each is essentially unemployable. Frances treats Malcolm as she would a servant and he scarcely notices. Even his long-term girlfriend Susan has grown tired of his perpetual boyhood, but his too is lost on Malcolm; he has an uncanny ability–inherited from his mother–simply to ignore things he does not wish to hear. I don’t wish to reveal too much, so I will only say that Frances’ ‘solution’ to her dilemma is unique, involves traveling to Paris, and has nothing to do with things one would usually associate with the City of Lights.  

As earlier noted, there aren’t any characters in this book with whom you’d ever wish to meet. Frances is cruel, imperious, and implacable; Malcolm is an upper-class twit; Rudy is a sleazebag; and the entire Manhattan social circle that gads about Frances is insufferable. De Witt’s metaphorical sleight of hand trick is to immerse readers so deeply into the muck of Frances’ world that we keep turning the pages. To paraphrase an old adage, if you’re going to be outrageous, go whole hog. Frances is as exasperating as any human being can possibly be, but because she has no shame or filters and no one knows what she’ll do next, she’s also funny–in a dark way. Everyone else in her orbit is essentially along for the ride, including we readers. Before you know it, we start to care about Frances, even though you know that she wouldn’t give a damn whether anyone did or did not.

French Exit is odd to the very end. I would caution you to turn off your own discernment filters. There’s really no need to like anyone in the book, nor do you have to imagine how to bring them to their just desserts. They are perfectly capable of screwing up without your help.

Rob Weir  


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11/13/19

What if Martin Scorsese is Right?


Surely a work of art

“But is it art?” If you were making a list of history’s most overused questions, this one would be near the top. Nonetheless, there’s a reason why we ask it. Humans have RAM memory, but deep learning is linked to pattern recognition. Once we have patterns, we tend to assign labels to those patterns and the next thing you know, we develop genres and argue over whether Genre A is superior to Genre B.

Those influenced by postmodernism often tell us that judgments are subjective and that all genres are artificial constructs. They’re not necessarily wrong, but they do swim against the tide of pattern recognition. If someone tells me I should check out a particular YouTube musical video, the first thing I ask is, “What kind of music is it?” And don’t you do the same? And somewhere along the line, don’t you also make subjective judgments that elevate your favorite genres over those you don’t like?

Film director Martin Scorsese–who gave us films such as “Taxi Driver” (1976), “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988), and “Goodfellas” (1990)–recently raised ire when he declared that superhero movies, even when “well made,” were “not cinema.” They are, in his estimation,” “basically theme parks” and cannot be taken seriously as art. Those who love and make such films trashed Scorsese with such vitriol that another famed auteur, Francis Ford Coppola–known for films such as “Patton” and “The Godfather” trilogy–rushed to defend his colleague. In his mind, one simply cannot compare “X-Men” or “Spider-Man” to Scorsese’s oeuvre–and by extension, his own. He went so far as to call Marvel films and their ilk “despicable.”

Ouch! Both should have known better. When it comes to evaluating such things, the rule that generally prevails is: “I don’t know if it’s art, but I know what I like.” Most of us are fine with that until someone–a Scorsese or a Coppola–tries to tell us that what we like is not art. But what if Scorsese is right?

For years I have held to a distinction that has been around since Hollywood came into its own. That is, I divide theater offerings into the categories of “movies” and “cinema.” The first seeks to entertain us, the second to provoke or enlighten us. In other words, “cinema” is art and movies are not. Have you seen “Taxi Driver?” How about Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979), which I would rate as the greatest American film ever made. (And, of course the second statement provokes an argument!) I thought “The Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” were wonderful movies, but I don’t think they are in the same category as the aforementioned.

Hollywood has been of little help in the discernment game. If you don’t already know, the Academy Awards celebrate the industry, not the product you see on the screen. For every certified masterpiece it honors as Best Picture–such as “Gone with the Wind” (1940), “Casablanca” (1943), “A Man For All Seasons” (1967), “The Deer Hunter” (1979), or “Schindler’s List” (1994)–it has doled out hardware to pap such as “Rocky” (1977), “Terms of Endearment” (1984), “Forrest Gump” (1995), and “Slumdog Millionaire” (2009). I actually liked most of those of these, but they are movies, not cinema. In this century, I could make a case that of its Oscar winners only “Moonlight” (2017) is a great film–and this from a guy who ranks “Lord of the Rings” as among his favorite books and movies ever.

Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr recently came up with a third way of looking at things. Instead of movies versus cinema, Burr suggests that we put the flicks “into one of three baskets: Art, Craft, and Product.” Burr acknowledges that there is overlap, but he sees Art as “less interested in the comfort of the viewer than the truth of the experience,” whereas Craft is “more interested in the aesthetic and organic pleasure of the ride.” He cites “Chinatown” (1974) as an example of an art film and “Alien” (1979) as great craft. I’d add that 21st century films such “The Artist” (2012) and “Lord of the Rings” are wonderful works of craft. But what of superhero films? Burr argues that “Product” has a “market imperative to fill and doesn’t care how it gets there.” Another way of saying that is that they are designed to make money–like “La La Land” (2016) for instance. In my view, Venn diagram overlap happens with products/craft such as “Birdman” (2015) and “The Shape of Water” (2018), which were both well-done and box office boffo. (I loved both of them.)

Art
I like Burr’s formulation as it basically says that we should judge movies/films according to what they set out to be. But let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking the debate ends here. In any given year the very best films are often neither American-made nor smash hits. I could write volumes about films most Americans don’t see because they are subtitled, but let’s stay in the English-speaking world. Consider that the following did not win Best Picture Oscars: “Citizen Kane” (1941), “Vertigo” (1958), “Psycho” (1960), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Usual Suspects” (1995), or “American Beauty” (1999). To this I’d add that a Martin Scorsese film has never won and that is a travesty.

Let me end on another note of controversy. “Star Wars” isn’t art, but “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) surely is. Watch the first “Star Wars” and then view Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.” If you can’t see the difference, stick with Product. 


Not art


Rob Weir

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11/11/19

The Chessman Completes Peter May's Lewis Trilogy

The Chessmen  (2013)
By Peter May
Quercus, 306 pages.
★★★★


The Chessmen completes Peter May’s Isle of Lewis trilogy and it does so with panache. It opens with an epigraph from Omar Khayyam:

‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays;
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.

This is both an overview of the book’s central mystery and wordplay that evokes Lewis’s most-famed export. The Lewis chessmen are 78 game pieces carved from walrus ivory in the 12th century, a time in which Lewis and surrounding islands were controlled by Norwegians–Vikings, if you will. They were unearthed in Lewis in 1831, but none actually reside there anymore; the bulk are in the British Museum in London and 11 others are on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. They are so expertly crafted that a recently discovered piece sold for nearly a million dollars.

Lewis may not have any of its namesake chessmen, but reproductions abound there and one of this novel’s characters, John Angus “Whistler” Mackaskill is busily carving giant replicas for an on-beach match for an upcoming island gala. Whistler also happens to be one of Fin Macleod’s oldest friends–one who has saved his life twice. The book opens with Fin and Whistler camping out. They awake to a shock. The entire loch (pronounced ‘lock’) near where they pitched tent is gone! How does an entire loch disappear? It’s called a bog burst, a subterranean geological phenomenon in which a fissure opens and either sends a lake’s contents underground or rushing to a lower body of water. That’s freaky enough, but not nearly as much as looking across the drained bed and seeing an intact private plane resting in the mud. Fin wishes to investigate, but Whistler knows immediately what it is. His nickname comes from having played penny whistle and flute in Amran, an up-and-coming band–think a Scots version of Steeleye Span. Mackaskill recognizes that the plane is that of the band’s lead guitarist/songwriter, Roddy Mackenzie, who has been missing for 17 years. Whistler quit the band before it became famous, but he has little stomach for gazing upon his old friend’s skeletal remains.

What happened to Roddy is just one of several threads in a novel with as many moves and countermoves as a chess match. There is the fact that Fin has just taken a new job: security chief for the Red River Estate, a fish and game preserve for rich toffs. Protecting the domain of the upper crust isn’t exactly Fin’s m├ętier, but he needs the work and he has respect for Sir John Wooldrige, the owner of the estate. Sir John has always had the wisdom to look the other way when locals poach fish and stags. Alas, Sir John is in failing health and his snooty-nosed son, Jamie, is now in charge and orders that Fin to put a stop to local custom. That’s more than a challenge, as the worst offender on all of Lewis is his old buddy Whistler, who knows the terrain better than any ten men combined and is rather pissed at Fin for taking the job in the first place. Whistler’s view of things in best summarized by a rhetorical question raised by Scots poet Norman MacCaig: “Who possesses this landscape? The man who bought it or I who am possessed by it?”

Toss in Whistler’s busted marriage, his dead ex-wife Seonage, a resentful punked-out daughter Anna, the ex-communication trial of the Rev. Donald Murray, more on Fin and Marsaili, a missing fanciful chess piece (the “Beserker’), and several shocking murders and one has all the earmarks of a page-turner. We again have flashbacks to Fin’s youth–especially the days when he was a young blade on the make and served as an Amran roadie with “Strings,” “Skins,” “Rambo,” Roddy, and the beautiful Mairead with whom everyone was in love/lust. Some of the sections on music put me in mind of Andrew Greig’s The Electric Brae, though they are less poetic.

The Chessmen also takes us back the Fin’s boyhood–when he was tight with Donald and other lads who liked to hang out and smoke by the water until they were admonished by an old man who told them the story of the Iolaire, a World War One vessel that wrecked offshore and sent more than 200 returning Lewis vets to a watery grave. It is small details such as these that breathe as much life into May’s novels as his central mysteries.  I am sad that the trilogy has ended, though I gather May has a new novel set in Harris and Lewis. I shall be checking on that one soon–as well as May’s Enzo Files series.

Rob Weir