Note to the Reader

January 2, 2008

You may have noticed that there have been a lot of movie posts recently. We didn’t set out to become a movie blog, but, for better or worse, reviewing movies is a lot of fun and there will be (BLOOD!) more of them in the near future. We’re trying hard to post reviews for almost all of the year’s notable films (Check out The Year in Pictures page). But I know that many of you turn to the Salad for the variety of verisimilitude. Fear not, there are still plenty of things to piss off ibiteyoureyes, and with a transit doomsday coming to Chicago, how can the transit quill remain muted?

The Kite Runner is a good movie that in another year would be almost assured of a Best Picture nomination. It was gift-wrapped for the academy: a coming-of-age story, told against the background of global upheaval, with its politics and heart in the right place–and based on a best-selling novel, no less. But this is a different year, when things are more unsettled and our movies more unsettling. This year, a movie filled with so much sentiment seems out of place. If you’re looking for a movie to see with your family that isn’t exactly a family movie, The Kite Runner is a good choice; if you’re looking for a picture to make you think in a way you haven’t before, The Kite Runner is not that film.

The most important aesthetic decision made in The Kite Runner is the choice to film the movie in Dari. (If the use of Dari seems self-evident, just think of all the American movies made over the years that take place in English no matter where and when they take place.) This must have been incredibly challenging for the film’s German/Swiss director, Marc Foster, a man who has made his living making English language pictures (Monsters’ Ball, Finding Neverland). Clearly his multilingualism makes him more suited for the task than most directors working in Hollywood, but the task is no less daunting. Can we really expect a director to be able to gauge and manage performances given in a language he doesn’t know? Even though most viewers are reading the subtitles, we still depend on the timbre of the voices to guide or appreciation of the emotion and resonance. The sounds still matter, and little quirks of language like stresses are important for meaning. All of these things are lost to the director. We can only assume that something is lost in this equation, but the question is: how much? and was it worth it?

Certainly something is gained by using Dari. There’s an added sense of realism to the film, and the language is one more element to draw us into the movie’s world. In this case, it’s important for the filmmakers that we love pre-Soviet Afghanistan as much as the characters themselves. The decline-redemption narrative doesn’t work without it. Later, the language use helps fix us in the Genre of immigrant literature, with its frequent emphasis on diglossia (cf. Henry Roth’s excellent Call it Sleep). Characters switch back and forth between English and Dari, and language choice tells us something about the characters. Speaking Dari in America adds to our understanding of the characters’ sense of exile (or lack thereof).

But the language I’m most interested in occurs at the level of dialogue. What should be told in dialogue was a major concern of modernism. One of its major questions was, how much should be explicit and how much left open to interpretation. In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway questions Gertrude Stein about word choice, arguing for the “true words” even if they make the story “inaccrochable” (unprintable; taken from painting and the ability to hang a painting on a wall), and make the story harder to understand in the long run. Read the rest of this entry »

With apologies to our saladeer-in-chief I, Dr. Haverstam, will be making my return by way of yet another review of a picture show. Thankfully, however, we will make mention of Weimar culture (Gott zu dank) and I will make a New Year’s resolution to return to my twice-a-week form (b’li neder).

The Savages is a family drama about two estranged siblings, Wendy and Jon Savage (Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who reconnect in order to provide for their father who has come down with dementia. We never really learn their back story, nor do we really know exactly how and why their father was abusive and their mother (not in the picture) neglectful. And yet all of the baggage between Wendy and Jon (and between each of them and their father) is palpable, fleshed out by the way in which the two lapse into old roles and destructive behavior in the present. They undermine one another, seek love where it is not forthcoming, and are ultimately failing emotionally as well as financially. Ultimately, we know much about the Savage family history because of two superb performances by two incredibly talented actors and a judicious use of dialogue.

Like many disaffected and abused, both Wendy and Jon (is there a Peter Pan reference here?) are deeply engaged in the world of theater – Jon is a comparative literature professor who teaches courses on drama and is rushing to publish a new book on Bertolt Brecht. Wendy is a failed playwright who fears her work is whiny, middle class, and bourgeois. She uses a temp job to steal office supplies and apply for the Guggenheim and other such grants. Both are emotionally insecure and unhealthy. Jon’s Polish girlfriend is forced to return to Poland because her visa is expiring and Jon, at 42, cannot commit to marrying her. Wendy, at 39, is having an affair with a middle-aged married man who lives in her building. She takes anti-depressants and loves her cat and her lover’s dog more than anyone or anything else. An animal’s love is unconditional and easily earned.

On the one hand the movie is a salient look at the graying of America and the politics and economics of caring for elders. Jon and Wendy cannot afford to pay for luxury assisted living facilities and must come to terms with the more basic services provided by a nursing home in Buffalo. But what we know and feel about Lenny Savage, the father, is ultimately made ambiguous by his dementia and is unimportant. The death of the elder is much like the manicured grounds of the upscale assisted living facility Wendy attempts to scam her father into – both are really about the child and what it does to/for them.

In the end this is no family drama in the conventional sense. Both Jon and Tamara Jenkins, the film’s writer/director, are students of Bertolt Brecht, the German pioneer of modernist drama. Brecht (1898-1956) pioneered the so-called verfremdungseffekt or theater of alienation. The audience is never allowed to become overly involved with the characters emotionally, but rather is forced to remain removed and thus able to rationally judge their behavior. There is no dramatic climax, no catharsis and no real denouement to speak of. In the wake of their father’s death both Jon and Wendy take certain positive steps in making progress both emotionally and professionally, but certain behaviors are too entrenched to simply be overturned. There is an emotional realism to the family dynamic as it is portrayed here that is incredibly compelling.

At the very moment when Jon receives the call that his father is back in the hospital for what will be the last time he is teaching his class about the difference between dramatic theater and Brecht’s method. He hangs up the phone and takes a question from a student who asks him if he can explain the difference between plot, listed on the side of conventional drama, and narrative, listed under Brecht’s epic theater. The film, as one critic aptly put it, could well give you the answer. When all is said and done the strength of such a method is its weakness as well. What the movie lacks in story it makes up for in character development. What we lack in empathy for the Savages is what allows us to judge them appropriately. Is this a good movie? It all depends on where you hang your hat.