Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel)

Murakami is like the orphaned love-child of Raymond Carver and Franz Kafka. His characters have these spare, charged dialogues (like Carver) but in the context of very strange events (like Kafka). Ultimately, I admired this novel--smart, surprising, complex--but I'm more attached to Murakami's short stories (start with the book The Elephant Vanishes). He frequently creates an atmosphere that is mournful and haunting and very weird. I love immersing in that feeling for the span of a story and then being left lingering in it when I finish the story. But with a novel, when I have to enter in and out of that feeling each time I pick the novel up to read a little further, it diminishes some. But that's a fairly subjective response. Murakami maintains what he does in stories in his novels, it's just for me, I like that feeling compacted rather than extended.

For those who are interested, Murakami's short story "Tony Takitani" has been made into a haunting little film of the same name.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Conflict on Screen

My feelings about the movie Crash (I'm against it) are already well known. I could have agreed, though, with it winning some acting Oscars; it's well-acted. But Best Original Sreenplay, that might have pained me more than it winning Best Picture. John Gardner has a bit in Art of Fiction about how compelling it is to read/write a character who does the wrong thing for an understandable reason. I absolutely agree. That's conflict. For example, when Sethe tries to kill her children rather than have them returned to slavery in Beloved, that's a conflict that shreds me. It's an unbearable thing to do, yet I can imagine why she might. And you might note, that Beloved is one percent about that moment and 99 percent about the effects of that moment. So, for me, conflict in story-telling is often at its best when a character is conflicted and then the consequences of his/her actions form the plot.

The problem with a movie like Crash is there isn't actually any conflict. You have characters who are good in one moment and bad in the next. There is no narrative structure to that--no growth, no sense of being conflicted, and no real revelation about character (bad people do good things--duh). So Crash is dependent on multiple storylines and clever cutting (the one Oscar it did deserve was Editing) to keep the viewer interested. Now readers of this blog know that I like original narrative structures--I like collages, I like cuts and juxtapositions--but Crash fails to do anything with the structure that hasn't been done better in movies like Amores Perros. So for me it lacks style and content.

Brokeback Mountain, on the other hand, is interesting precisely because the conflict is NOT that Ennis and Jack betray their wives but rather that they betray each other (largely Ennis betrays Jack) by marrying their wives. So the bad choice for an understandable reason is to marry a woman when you are in love with another man. And therefore when Ennis/Jack betray their wives the viewer/reader is remarkably sympathetic to all involved--the men and the women. It's much better character-oriented storytelling (which to the Academy's credit did win its own Adapted Screenplay award). For those of you who are interested in story to film adaptations, I highly recommend you check out Annie Proulx's short story--which is lovely in its own right, but quite different in scope.

The problem with conflict isn't limited to the movies. Reality tv (which I was a big fan of when it began) has ceased to believe that conflict in storytelling is anything beyond fighting. The reason American Idol remains on top, while other shows are fading, is not because of the bickering of dear old Simon and Paula, but because there is a storyline (whose life will be changed) that viewers can project themselves into. I'm not against external conflicts (man vs man, man vs nature, man vs society ... remember those?) but literature lately has done very well with man vs self, something that's hard to depict on screen. But screenwriters/directors are failing to recognize that man vs man isn't bickering and finger-wagging.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Accidental by Ali Smith

I took a break from reading Murakami to read The Accidental (it was due back at the library sooner). I really really heart Hotel World, Smith's first novel (sad and stylish in one), and this novel is a nice move forward. More complexity, more plot, more cumulative feeling, but still with a voice and style that is fresh and semi-experimental. Smith is best at creating characters who can think in metaphor. E.g. "If Amber is a piece of broken-up jigsaw, too, Magnus thinks, then she is several pieces of blue sky still joined up." As a result the narrative voice can be quite varied since the metaphors don't come from it, but rather from the individual characters. It feels evolved out of Jeanette Winterson, but whereas at times a Winterson voice can get ultimately overbearing (see cancer chapters of Written on the Body), Smith has the luxury of being able to change-up regularly. But, of course, it only works because her story is about the kind of people who think things like the above.