Are You Not Entertained? Books and Films

I’ve watched a lot of films and read a lot of books this past month, and many were okay, but I’d rather cut to the chase and share the best book, film, and television I highly recommend.

BOOKS 

The Shadow of the Wind is a 2001 novel by Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón and a worldwide bestseller. The story begins with 10-year-old Daniel in 1945 in Barcelona. Deep in a library called the “cemetery of lost books”, forgotten, out of print books are shelved and Daniel chooses from a choice of thousands The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. The book contains gothic elements with chilly descriptions of the temporal as well as the temperamental weather. Outlandish and believable characters like sidekick Fermín Romero de Torres whose clownish physical features melt with wise advice and passionate feelings for women contrast the rain clouds that seem to drip blood over haunted mansions. As the novel progresses, Daniel ages and he experiences love and becomes obsessed with the life of Julian Carax. In fact, Carax’s story parallels David’s so that the novel is structurally interesting. Above all, the novel is a mystery. It is beautifully written; most of the characters get their own flashback narrative where obsession becomes a major theme of the novel. It’s a true page-turner, a rare luscious novel that’s florid in style and exciting to read. 4.5/5. 

FILMS 

I watched several, but they were mediocre at best, so I don’t have any to recommend.

TELEVISION

 

Alias Grace was Margaret Atwood‘s 1996 fictionalized account of the notorious Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon), a servant who was convicted along with stable hand James McDermott (Kerr Logan) of the 1843 murders of employer Thomas Kinnear (Paul Gross) and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery (Anna Paquin). Grace leaves the prison every day to talk privately with psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan (Edward Holcroft) who falls in love with her. Grace retraces the steps of her life for him while he furiously takes down notes. His job is to determine whether she is insane or deserves to be set free after being in the penitentiary for fifteen years. The committee determined to set her free has paid Dr. Jordan to give a favorable report. This six-part series on Netflix is not to be missed.

Other than Paquin, the cast is refreshingly unrecognizable. Sarad Gadon is breathtaking as Grace and the acting by the ensemble is commendable. Margaret Atwood sits as executive producer while Mary Harron is the director. She did a marvelous job framing the landscape and switching camera angles from far to the minute stitching of the quilts. Favorite detail? The explanation of the quilts and what they represent. Here’s a great article introducing the females behind the series in NOW TORONTO ARTICLE FOUND HERE.

As Grace tells her story, the flashbacks are abundant, and I wondered if this overused device would kill the project for me. But by the conclusion of the series, I understood the purpose was to show the various perspectives from the trial, so that the audience wonders, “Is Grace innocent or guilty?” Grace is so charming and practical, you want her to be innocent. But flashback perspectives are so contrary, one wonders what really did happen?

I won’t ruin the climax of the final installment of the series, but my skin crawled. The dual contradictions and confusions finally made all the sense as the story came to a satisfying ending. Beautifully filmed, expertly acted, an exquisite script including the details of the life of females in the 1800s showcasing their conflicts and impossible oppression without preaching made Alias Grace the best television I’ve seen in years. 4.8/5. 

Another Pair with Gene Hackman

This is the second installment of my winter project of investigating the filmography of a male film star I know too little about. According to Allen Hunter’s biography, Gene Hackman, he grew up in his grandmother’s house surrounded by the unremitting cornfields of Danville, Illinois. He dropped out of high school, joined the Marines on a whim, and served from 1946-51. Acting school followed at the Pasadena Playhouse and the cementation of friendships with peers Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall. You can read about their unique 50-year-old friendship in Vanity Fair HERE.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) 

Warren Beatty produced the film and likened to the role of Clyde because he was a character who wanted to “be somebody’ in the uncooperative climate of the Depression. This motivation was the force behind Clyde; Bonnie coaxed that motivation. Clyde saved her from a boring life and she was willing to do anything for the thrills of their partnership. When her poem, “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde” was published, they had a national audience. Bonnie finally gets the passion she craved. The violence of the film pushed the envelope (a shot to the face of an apprehender smears blood on the getaway car) and the emergence of Faye Dunaway as the reckless Bonnie elevated the film to lofty heights. Dunaway reminded me of a young Bette Davis. The nuances, the body language, and her loveliness were exceptional. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen by a female performer. But wait. What about Gene Hackman? As brother Buck to Clyde, he gave an enthusiastic, convincing performance as did the rest of the cast, but no one surpassed Faye Dunaway. Fifty years later, the film still stands.  4/5.5  

If you like crime history, here is information about the FBI case of Bonnie and Clyde.

What stood out:

1. Gene Wilder‘s bit-part facial expressions. “Step on it, Velma!”

2. Blanche (Estelle Parsons) screaming; a most annoying character and perfect antithesis to independent Bonnie. Parsons won the Oscar for her role. I love her final scene when the Sheriff coaxes information with false sympathy. She is blind and bandaged and clueless til the end. Awesome role.

3. The opening sequence with Faye Dunaway, bored, restless and naked. Bonnie and Clyde sizing each other up in a matter of minutes, each cool and confident.

4. The famous ending directed by Arthur Penn. I liked the hard cuts, the montage that revealed the final thoughts of Bonnie and Clyde, and the sequence of events to their end.

Scarecrow (1973) 

What is best about the script of these unlikely friends is the 180 degree flip-flopping of their characters. (Lion) Al Pacino and (Max) Gene Hackman are allowed the space to give full-bodied performances. While the story-line was dull at times during its first half, it more than made up for any lags by the last half. Lion’s phone call to his estranged wife Annie was heartbreaking, and the anticipation of Lion’s fall was painful. Max goes from an unlikable character to someone who has benefited from a sincere friendship. It has been compared to Of Mice and Men; if Steinbeck’s classic engages you, you would no doubt enjoy Scarecrow.  4.5/5. 

What stands out:

  1. Watching a young, kindhearted Pacino (instead of later scene-chewing roles) teach the irascible Max a better philosophy of life even though the script seemed heavy-handed at times.
  2. Watching Hackman’s Max change. Usually Hackman is hard and mean and stays that way. It was great to see such a fine transformation. I smiled broadly when I found out why he slept with the shoe under his mattress. When Lion asks him why he picked him to be his partner since he trusts no one, Max responds, “Because you gave me your last cigarette. And you made me laugh.” The chemistry between the two characters was real and showcased great acting .
  3. I loved that open scene with the stormy sky and gold wheat field. The across the highway exchange was wonderful.

In the Heart of the Sea

Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) Man vs. Nature

NATHANIEL PHILBRICK  specializes in U.S. maritime history and combines his engrossing story-telling sensibilities with fine research. In 2000, his nonfiction National Book Award Winner, In the Heart of the Sea, inspired the 2010 PBS documentary Into the Deep directed by Ric Burns and narrated by Willem Dafoe. Next came the recent 2015 Ron Howard film, In the Heart of the Sea, starring Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Holland, and Cillian Murphy. Of course, Herman Melville wrote the classic Man vs. Nature classic, Moby Dick, in 1851 about Captain Ahab’s obsession for revenge against the mighty Sperm whale. All four versions of the sinking of the whaleship Essex combine the history of Nantucket and the Romanticism between the sailor and the sea and his ship. All versions are worthy ways of spending your time and will enhance your knowledge of Colonial America.

The History 

The 50 by 30 mile stretch of land off Cape Cod became the heart of the whaling industry from approximately 1620-1865. Until the advent of kerosene, the highest quality oil used to make wax candles and light lanterns were from the rendered oil of whales. Dug out from the bulbous head of the Sperm whale, the Spermaceti oil could fill 34 barrels and was most valuable. At first, the Wampanoag and Nantucketers stripped and boiled the blubber from the drift whales which had been stranded on shore. Over the years, sailors ventured further off the coast to deeper waters and discovered pools of Sperm whales. It evolved into a two hundred year industry and sailors became more than hunters. The ships became floating factories for processing and storing the oil. They became merchants and explorers, too. For one to five years, sailors set off on voyages in search of whales to fill the empty barrels lying on the belly of their ships. From Nantucket, the Westerlies pushed them toward South America. They rounded Cape Horn and floated up the coast of Chile to the Galapagos Islands and kicked out into the expansive Pacific Ocean in search of the migratory pools of Sperm whales. According to scholars on the PBS documentary, Into the Sea, “By 1775, 360 whaling boats went out to hunt the whale; 15 came from Nantucket. Fifty percent of the profit of exports in New England came from the whaling industry.” I don’t think it can be stressed enough how important the whaling industry solidified the economic success of the burgeoning northern colonies. Consider that the South had cash crops (tobacco, rice, indigo, cotton) while the North had whales. It is interesting to consider that both regional ends vanquished mammals for their economic success – whales in the north and slave labor in the south. 

New Bedford Whaling Museum, Harpooning the Whale

The Romance

The culture of a sailor and his life onboard a ship was a mixture of extremes. Boredom, while waiting to spot the whale. Then,  “Thar she blows!” followed by the rambunctious attack with harpoons aimed for the lungs, the pull and the stabbing, the gross “flurry” as the whale drowns in her own blood, the shout from the crew, “Chimney’s afire!” and then the three-day processing of peeling off the blubber, melting of blubber, the furnaces stoked and the smells and the slime of oil glistening the faces of the sailors as if they labored in the pits of Hell. Ghastly.

Remember to factor in the religious temperament of the 17th and 18th-century colonist whose explanation of the workings of the world were inextricable with the Bible and Divine Providence. That is, the sailor, the captain, and her ship were “vessels of exoticism, traveling around the globe in the pursuit of conquering the Leviathan, a sea monster from the Old Testament.” The whale was considered evil; man’s conquering was a noble feat. Surviving a voyage was an adventure for the crew and the officers; it defined manhood. The beauty and wildness of nature attracted the sailor. The horizon blended water and sky into a location of unearthliness. There was no time or place. Out in the Pacific Ocean–it must feel to what astronauts feel out in space–one is a speck, surrounded by infinity, overwhelmed with fear and awesomeness.

The Film 

After watching the film five times, I am in admiration of Ron Howard. He followed Nathanial Philbrick’s book with the attention to detail that mirrored the historical climate from the book. The true voyage of 1820 combined an unnatural pairing of the first mate, Owen Chase, (Chris Hemsworth) the “fishy” second-in-command whose natural instincts and assertiveness commanded the respect of the crew, while Captain Pollard (Benjamin Walker) was more a “social” leader, seeking suggestions, and thereby perceived too passive.

Where Ron Howard might have lost a few critics and fans for lulls in the action was the overarching narration of the telling of the story from the perspective of an older Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who was a cabin boy during the sinking of the Essex and the 90 days lost out at sea. Fighting the shame and guilt of sins committed staying alive, Nickerson is paid by a young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) to share the survival story and strange actions of the angry 85-foot Sperm whale, Moby Dick, who “stove” the Essex.

By including this line of narration, Howard blends the history of the story with the American Romantic classic, Moby Dick. Philbrick’s book centers on the recently discovered diary from the 1990s of the cabin-boy, Nickerson, to add a fresh twist to the long staple, Owen Chase’s account of the disaster, written months after the 1820 disaster. Howard respects this and gives life to the orphan boy who found himself at 13 on the voyage of a lifetime.

Ron Howard is criticized for his sappy interjections in an otherwise interesting plot. It’s his Achilles Heel. In this case, while devoting his film to a logical, realistic account, he incorporates the Man vs. Nature elements of the novel Moby Dick by bestowing anthropomorphic qualities to the whale. It’s the climax of the film, so I can’t specifically say, but it is the flaw of the film for me that brings my rating down a notch. I will hint at it: when man and beast come eye to eye, they come to an understanding.

In Nathaniel Philbrick‘s account, the whale struck the ship and was never seen again. The film version embellishes the history by embracing Melville’s book. Those that love Herman Melville and the personifications found in the literature would not have issues with the personification of the whale in the film. If you want a realistic account of events, the climax might feel far-fetched. Does it work? You tell me.  4/5.

American Experience: Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World DVD 

Parker, Hershel, and Harrison Hayford (eds). (2001). Herman Melville, Moby-Dick. A Norton

     Critical Edition. Second Edition, New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

     ISBN 9780393972832

Philbrick, Nathaniel. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex., 2001. Print. 

ISBN-10: 0141001828  ISBN-13: 9780141001821

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