The Specter of Past Relationships in Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal-animals

*SPOILER ALERT – READ WITH CAUTION*

(Read With Caution could’ve been an alternate title to the film, by the way…)

Fashion designer turned director Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals has been ridiculously advertised as a schizophrenic film within a film that anyone watching any of the tonally different trailers would be hard pressed to tell you what the devil the thing is about. But one almost wonders if the strange advertising is all part of the Ford game? Look at Jake Gyllenhaal’s tipsy smirk plastered across your IMDB homepage…oh…and look…he’s taking a blue-eyed gander at the even bluer-eyed Amy Adams, all red tresses and smiles…America’s sweethearts. It’s all so fake. And all so wrong. Like much of the film. But also so symbolic. And borderline brilliant when it’s not absurd.

Ford’s opening credits of obese women doing some post-modern Burlesque (ah, what an art show!) will put some off with its Lynchian inspired weirdness (and there’s more sick touches interspersed throughout the film)…but it serves a purpose if you wisely invest in the film until the very end. It’s just one of many tricks the director pulls off here…like inserting a go-for-broke performance from…you guessed it…the ubiquitous – and if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times –  always amazing, Michael Shannon, into the film within the film on what seems like a total lark.

Nocturnal Animals is really much more straightforward than any encapsulated description of its plot would lead you to believe. Or is it? Simply put, it’s a psychological thriller about reading. In a grander sense, it’s about how the viewer (or reader) brings their own emotional baggage to viewing art. In a bizarrely humanist bent, it’s also an infinitely sad testament to the spectre past relationships and traumatic break-ups cast upon one’s ensuing life.

In the film (based on a novel by Austin Wright), a teetering-on-depression art gallerista named Susan (Adams, so delightfully complex and subverting all her norms in what is her second great performance this year after Arrival) receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal, who somehow both under-acts and overacts, Edward’s tottering emotions always subject to Susan’s sometimes melodramatic interpretations of his writing) that he has mysteriously dedicated to her. Continue reading

The Mother of All Others and The Secret History of Twin Peaks

NOTE:  The Secret History of Twin Peaks is presented by the publisher in old-fashioned collector’s edition format. It truly is a beautifully rendered book from a purely physical standpoint. I took a picture below of the book and its dust jacket on the “David Lynch” floors of the house we purchased in June…purchased mainly because we instantly fell in love with those floors!

the-secret-history-of-twin-peaks

Content-wise, the book is built for fans. If you are a novice to Twin Peaks, this is not where you should start. Watch the original series, then read this for some twisted back-story that will shade the colors of your perspective on what you just watched.

And now for the review…

Late in the game of Mark Frost’s fevered construction, Doug Milford (a retired Man in Black?) reveals to his protegé (the author of the dossier being reviewed by an unidentified FBI agent who has presented this “book” to us) that all that spooky weird stuff going on up there in the woods had revealed to him the mother of all others. In a way, Twin Peaks was always about “the others” – the lost souls, the tormented demons both internal and external, the abused, the forgotten, the forlorn, the troubled teens, the Log Ladies…all those spirits whispering in the wind blowing through the sycamore trees and whose sad tales found equal release in the hoots of owls as they did in the sad-sack songs of dreary-eyed chanteuses at The Road House.

In demented fashion, Mark Frost, the co-creator of Twin Peaks (along with the more shamanistically revered David Lynch) has taken a comical character, Doug Milford – the supposedly dumb, rich brother of the town’s eternal mayor who falls victim to a comely little gold-digger played by Robyn Lively – from the marginalia of the series and puts him at center stage (or is it off-stage?) of human kind’s grandest conspiracy.   Continue reading

Is Less More in Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall?

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

In Above the Waterfall, Les is a sheriff on the eve of retirement just trying to keep the peace…find some peace…in his small North Carolina mountain town. Becky is an environmentalist with the streak of a poet working as a park ranger and taking refuge in the natural beauty of her environs. While high-end resorts push natives (both human and animal) to the fringes, meth poisons the town’s less hardy residents. Ron Rash, while ever vivid in his descriptions of his Appalachian universe, attempts to go poetic minimalist here, alternating POV’s between Les’ fact-based fatalism and Becky’s yearning artistry. This attempt to balance timely sociopolitical commentary (meth came after the 2008 crash) with a timeless aestheticism (one wonders if Rash is working on an Appalachian Poetry side project) threads thin…the polar opposite of the epic gothic complexity of Serena.

Unlike the meth, much of the novel feels undercooked, as if it began as a short story that Rash later fleshed out, and those who enjoy his modern short stories will connect to this more than those who lean towards his period-piece and cross-generational novels (such as Serena, The Cove or his earlier One Foot in Eden). I fall into the latter group, and thus had mixed feelings for this effort, especially as it devolved into a not-so-compelling and seemingly manufactured “who-dun-it” concerning the poisoning of trout.

There were, of course, as is always the case with Rash, moments of genius that leave indelible marks.   Continue reading

Dickensian Louisiana

Oak Alley 20

“It was the best of times…it was the worst of times.”

New Orleans has always been a city of extremes, and our recent visit proved that in spades.  It’s a place of both high-class Southern charm and “9th Ring of Dante’s Hell” style debauchery.  For me, it was a second visit to the fabled city that has been both blessed and cursed, and for my wife it was her first time.  She was greeted on the first night with a Carnivale parade – who knew the season was so raucous even with Mardi Gras still weeks away?  We erroneously stayed on the main parade drag on St. Charles Ave at an otherwise nice hotel where Murphy’s Law ruled the roost.  The next evening, my wife was paid a visit by yee olde food poisoning courtesy of a French Quarter Jazz Club that was otherwise lovely (tip: drink, don’t eat, at a jazz club).  Meanwhile, I was suffering from a head cold that started a few days earlier during a work trip to Jacksonsville, Florida.

Buuuut…once we survived all that and spread our wings to more relaxed environs (the Garden District, City Park, a tour of some of the grand River Road plantations, and Algiers)…it couldn’t have been nicer. Continue reading

Sending a Scout to the Dark Tower in Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman Book Cover

Ever wonder what happened to Jean Louise Finch aka Scout when she grew up?  Well wonder no more.  It’s rare to witness a literary phenomenon, but Harper Lee’s long wondered about sequel to her iconic classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, is one such “once in a life-time” event.  In Go Set a Watchman, Scout is a young woman living in New York who comes home to the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama and witnesses nothing short of the shattering of her idol and father, Atticus Finch, when she catches him, along with her wanna-be fiancé, Henry, at an unseemly town hall meeting full of racist rhetoric.

“Oh dear me, yes. The novel must tell a story.” – page 188

By now the story behind the story has almost over-taken the novel.  Originally written before To Kill a Mockingbird, but returned to Lee by the publisher requesting she flesh out the childhood flashbacks of her protagonist and make something of that instead, Go Set a Watchman is both a prequel and a sequel (or a prequel sequel if you will).  When you read those flashback scenes, it’s easy to see why the publisher was more tickled by those, and perhaps the tone of the rest of the novel was too volatile at the time.  Lee has quite the gift for gab, and in her dialogue, which is both colorful and occasionally pedantic (Scout’s voice is clearly a vehicle for some impassioned politic views) she has crafted a book that is almost all talk.  Her dialogue perfectly captures place, time and feelings…it’s as if she has transported us back to the Deep South in the 1950’s at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement that would define a generation (a nifty almost post-modern trick as when she wrote this – this was now). Continue reading

I’m Bored First while The Heart Goes Last

The Heart Goes Last

I can’t help but express my disappointment for Margaret Atwood’s latest dystopian novel, The Heart Goes Last.  I was so excited when NetGalley sent me an advance Kindle copy as I was a huge fan of the MaddAddam Trilogy.  But I’m sad to report that Atwood, the sly mistress of speculative fiction, finally seems to be running on fumes.

The Heart Goes Last begins promisingly enough.  In the (not so distant?) future, a young couple, Charmaine and Stan, is living out of their car while the world around them has gone to hell after a financial collapse decimates most of the East Coast of the US turning it into one giant version of Camden, NJ.  But then the once hopeless couple sees a way out when they hear about The Positron Project in the planned community of Consilience.  Here, well-mannered prisoners mix with the desperate destitute (but otherwise law-abiding) masses who can’t find work.  The inhabitants take turns living in a planned community and a low-security prison, swapping time, houses and lives as they carry out tasks for the corporation that runs Consilience.

Atwood creates a golden opportunity to explore the slippery slope of our current privatization of prisons, but sadly the novel glosses over that as things devolve into the absurd and Charmaine and Stan’s tale becomes a silly sex farce (not too far removed from Woody Allen’s cringe worthy Sleeper) jam-packed with CEO’s gone mad, corporate conspiracies, wife swapping, sex bots (who in grand Atwood wordplay are branded Possibilibots), and Neuropimps  who erase all of your past hang-ups so they can imprint your sex drive onto anyone (who pays for it) or anything (there is a darkly humorous side bit where one minor character imprints onto a teddy bear). Continue reading

God Help the Reader in Toni Morrison’s New Novel

Toni Morrison God Help the Child Cover

It’s a strange, disturbing thing to read a contemporary Toni Morrison novel – a woman who has been at home for decades exorcising the demons of our collective American past.  Yet even in the present day, her characters are hung up on ghosts.  God Help the Child is a story, like all Morrisonian tales, woven in different voices, all tied to the cycle of abuse that starts in childhood and seems to never end.  There’s Sweetness, a mother who finds it impossible to love her too-dark child, Lula Ann.  There’s Bride, the reborn adult version of Lula-Ann, wielding her beauty like a scythe across the scorched western landscape.  There’s Booker, a man who refuses to let go of his dead brother who was brutally murdered when they were just boys.

At times, the abuse is overwhelming.  No one in this Morrison novel is left untouched.  It almost verges on melodramatic parody as each dark secret is revealed.  In some ways the novel comes across as a bourgeois version of Precious, where instead of an inner city girl, we have a fashionista – both surrounded by horrors that know no bounds.  Oprah and Lee Daniels must be drooling over this.

But Morrison refuses to let the reader get away that easily.  The novel can not be dismissed as artsy, exploitative trash.  The book is as insular, intimate and twisted as her A Mercy was expansive, remote and mangled (in oh so many beautiful ways).  Her handling of the surreal adds an otherworldly gravity to an otherwise modern tract.  Continue reading

My Favorite Novels

Mantlepiece Collection

Maybe it was reading The Telegraph’s list of greatest novels of the 21st Century (we’re only 15 years in, people!) that I found to be absolute bollocks…

Or maybe it was looking back on a post I wrote in this blog’s infancy (pre-spin, when it was just davethenovelist) where I listed what I proclaimed to be the Greatest Novels of All Time (which of course meant the best novels I had read up to that point in my life) and realizing how much I had read in the seven years since then and thinking about what that list would look like today.  How many new entries?  What would still make the cut, and would the passage of time have colored my opinion on significance, fondness and ordering?

Or maybe it was watching “The English Patient” episode of Seinfeld for the umpteenth time on TV tonight that got me thinking…damn, The English Patient…Ondaatje…that has to be one of the greatest novels ever, right?  (Spoiler alert: IT IS!)

At any rate…I’m keeping this one simple and asking you to share your own lists. 

What are your favorite novels?

Here are mine: Continue reading

Cold Comfort Reading with Canada, Deep Winter and The Kept

 

It’s been a brutally cold, occasionally wet, often frozen winter here in my next of the woods, though a far cry from the polar vortexed permanently deep snow-covered winter of last year.  It’s made for a great winter for reading…and my chapped hands found their way to three novels cold as ice, though only one, The Kept, haunts the imagination.

Winter Books - Canada

Things started out with a banal, arduous thud that was the literary equivalent of traipsing 100 miles uphill in three feet of snow to the top of a mountain with a horrible view.  Richard Ford’s Canada is a long drawn out affair (it’s not until about 300 pages through the 500+ page tome that we actually get to Canada) that tells you exactly what happened in the very first sentence and then proceeds to elaborate on it ad nauseam in repetitive memoir style. Twin brother and sister, Dell and Bern, at age 15, are thrown into a maelstrom after their previously thought to be stable and clear-headed parents rob a bank in a pathetic act of desperation. Bern runs away, while Dell (our narrator) is shuffled off to the middle of nowhere Canada where he meets some unsavory characters and witnesses a murder. Getting to the bank robbery was painful and lacked even a modicum of suspense, and I don’t know how many times the narrator had to remind us of his naivety (while Bern was more wild and worldly) as he goes from one horribly boring existence to the next shaped by brief criminal acts and the occasional weirdo. I’ve never met more boring characters or read about more bloodless crimes. Continue reading

Book to Film Adaptations I Would Love to See

2014 marks the year two of my favorite novels will finally reach the silver screen:  the oddly still kept under wraps adaptation of Ron Rash’s Serena (from Oscar-winning director Susanne Bier and staring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper), and Saul Dibb’s Oscar-baiting adaptation of Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (well- cast with Michelle Williams and Kristen Scott Thomas).  Which made me think…what other recent or favorite reads are ripe for cinematic plucking?

Heart of a Tiger by Herschel Cobb

Ty Cobb Sliding

A young boy in the 1950’s struggles to find hope and happiness under the harsh shadows of his rage-fueled father and alcoholic mother.  In his loving grandfather he finds refuge and meaning in life.

Sounds like a trite, sachrine, run-of-the-mill, triumph over child abuse tale…except for one thing.  That loving grandfather was none other than Tyrus R. Cobb – statistically speaking the greatest baseball player of all time; American myth; and generally regarded as a world-class mean-spirited son-of-a-bitch who drove his baseball spikes into opponents, beat up fans in the stands, and was a racist, alcoholic hell-raiser.  Part of his scandal are the tall-tales that have been taken as fact, and most people seem to forget that his savvy business mind (he was a great investor in the early days of Coca-Cola) allowed him to, in old age, be a great benefactor to many good causes – from giving no-strings-attached monetary gifts to down-and-out former teammates to a scholarship fund for impoverished Georgian kids that to this day continues to fund higher education for thousands of children.  He also apparently took a shining to the children of his loose-cannon son after the son died of a heart-attack.

Herschel’s Cobb memoir is colored through the lens of a kid who loved his grandfather, so yeah, there’s a bias, but a clever screenwriter could intertwine the uplift of the book with the more colorful moments from Cobb’s legendary playing days, maybe even glimpses into Ty’s own childhood – layers upon layers, flashbacks upon flashbacks – that could weave an epic character arc of a multi-faceted man who saw the darkness in himself, recognized the cruelty of others, and attempted to rescue his grandchildren from it all and stop the cycle of abuse.  Baseball, nostalgia, dysfunctional families, tortured childhoods and redemption – it’s the stuff of great drama.  Take an up-and-coming director like Jeff Nichols who is no stranger to the themes, put some make-up and a Southern accent on Michael Shannon so he can take the lead role, and voila…you could have a gritty, sentimental barn-burner on your hands.

I mean, c’mon, wouldn’t you love to see Michael Shannon utter this famous Cobb quote to his grandson?

“I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me… but I beat them and left them in the ditch.”

Continue reading