Review Of Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred”

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Octavia E. Butler's Kindred

Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading a bunch of young adult literature. No, it’s not really art, but in most cases, that’s acceptable, as it has no pretense to anything higher than functional and didactic storytelling for kids. The plots are simple, the symbolism obvious, the moralizing heavy-handed, and the purpose, clear. Students learn something (although it has little to do with English) and, in the hands of a creative instructor, can be forced to think about it in radical ways, beyond the scope of the typically insipid ‘lessons’ such books offer. All of this makes me wonder about the intrinsic value of books like Kindred, which is essentially a kid’s book disguised as a serious work of art. In brief, it’s not a good novel, but it at least ensures good criticism, for it attempts many things and does them badly — a hallmark, I suspect, of teen books in general. Trash like Gayl Jones’s The Healing, for example, are so utterly devoid of art or idea, maundering around banal, plotless, and lazy, all-describing inner thought, that detailed criticism is gratuitous, while Kindred is, by comparison, a failure with some good ideas lost to poor execution. It’s more instructive to look at these well-intentioned failures as there’s something to learn here.

A very obvious problem is the treatment of ideas. Butler handles her themes so didactically and without nuance that Kindred simply can’t be real literature, only functional, moralizing prose. All it says of slavery, relationships, and racism is not only unoriginal, but banal and expected, as if it’s a text designed to socialize the reader into mainstream thinking on these topics. Again, think kids’ lit. A novel of sci-fi aspirations, it really isn’t, since the mechanism of nor reason for its only sci-fi element, time travel, isn’t explained, nor serves any real logical purpose, except, perhaps, as an excuse for the story. It’s a minor flaw, one that even great works could have, but given all the other problems here, it’s difficult to overlook. The plot revolves around a black woman free of personality named Dana, her obliviously white writer-husband Kevin, and Rufus, a stupid, one-dimensional white boy from the antebellum South whom Dana repeatedly saves from death. Dana, a struggling writer in the 1970s, disappears into the South for hours, days, or months every time Rufus is in danger, while her body, in this world, is unconscious for no more than several minutes at a time. She returns to her apartment precisely when her own life is threatened. Sometimes, she’s able to take Kevin with her by holding on to him once the dizziness sets in. She is disappointed every time, however, as Rufus, with whom she develops a motherly (but mostly unexplored) relationship, didactically grows into a violent, insensitive product of his era. Note the rich potential in these ideas and how a talented writer can shape them into profound art. Butler is not that writer, at … Continue reading →

Review Of Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage”

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Charles Johnson's Middle Passage (1990)

Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage (1990)

Although Middle Passage is one of the greatest novels ever written, it really wasn’t supposed to be, as Charles Johnson has the perfect set-up for dull PC bathos. The plot, the characters, and many of its ideas all imply cliché and utter failure in imitation of other failures. Just consider the synopsis and you’ll see what I mean. Rutherford Calhoun, a black New Orleans rascal and ex-slave, spends his days gambling, drinking, and accumulating debt. To avoid trouble and cut ties with his fat, religious, and pristine girlfriend, Isadora, he becomes a stowaway on what turns out to be a slave ship, the Republic. He has a transformative experience along the Middle Passage, returns home a changed man, defeats his enemies, and marries his now-slim and beautiful lover. It sounds disastrous, but it’s precisely how Johnson subverts these clichés and expectations that makes the novel so great. All details are calculated, the dialogue is rich and philosophical, and descriptions are full of humor, wit, and evocation appropriate to the scene and overall text. Nothing is forced or out of place. That Johnson veers so close to platitude and avoids it shows he’s conscious of what makes good writing. And that this is not Johnson’s first but second great novel (the first being Oxherding Tale) means he’s simply one of the best writers you’ll ever read.

The only ‘truly’ (i.e., prototypically) dense and complex character in Middle Passage is Rutherford. And this is not criticism. I use the word ‘truly’ with hesitation because there’s more than one way to create compelling characters, much less compelling books which may or may not have prototypical characterization. Other characters, however, do not necessarily grow, at least not in Rutherford’s varied and ambiguous directions. Again, this is not criticism, for at the very least, other characters are great archetypes, as in Shakespeare’s tragedies, who are stand-ins for unique ideas and serve clever counterpoints to Rutherford, who is prototypical, in that he’s unique, interesting, likable, has complex motives and behavior, and grows. He’s extraordinarily observant and educated, his own ideas playing off of the archetypes’, all of which is far beyond what’s expected of a former slave. As he experiences his terrifying ordeal, he changes, subtly criticizing himself via juxtapositions of scene and dialogue even he isn’t aware of. For example, although he complains of Jackson’s (his brother) “betrayal,” it’s eventually revealed this was nothing more than convincing their ex-Master, Chandler, to share all property equally with the slaves, rather than giving it to the brothers, for Jackson, in a beautiful, philosophical, and quotable speech on property and ownership, argues they are educated, healthy, and thus need less:

I know Rutherford has thought about this too. But it don’t seem right to ask for myself. I could ask for land, but how could any man, even you, sir, own something like those trees outside? Or take that pitcher there. It’s a fine thing, sure it is now, … Continue reading →

Review Of Mathieu Kassovitz’s “La Haine” And Stephen Verona’s “Lord’s Of Flatbush”: Which Losers Will Prevail?!

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Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine. (c) Criterion

Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine. (c) Criterion

Having just re-watched Stephen Verona’s The Lord’s Of Flatbush, I was shocked by two things. First, it’s simply an excellent little film. I was able to pick up on many details that eluded me when I was younger, which probably means that I’ve grown as a critic and artist. Second, it has garnered pretty average reviews, and although it deals with a similar problem – a few losers trying to grow out of adversity – it is vastly superior to Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (The Hate), which suffers for being precisely what Lord’s isn’t: didactic, heavy-handed, and unable to balance the film’s anomie with good narrative. La Haine simply goes on and on through pointless scenes and dull conversations where Lord’s makes this palatable by giving its characters depth, irony, and poesy – even if they themselves are too dumb and immature to see it. They get in, get out, and linger only to deepen things within their purpose. After all, a good director does not simply drop characters into a fictive world only to record every boring detail, like the endless string of corny jokes in Haine, or the all-alighting prose of a Toni Morrison. There needs to be a filter that guides whatever’s interesting and deep TO the screen, and only then can the viewer’s imagination truly play off of it. Thus, in Lord’s, it’s really a matter of economy, where Verona truly shines. Give the mind a few strong images, seeds, and threads, and watch them grow to peaks the director only hints at, which only seems to deepen the visual experience the longer you are away from it. La Haine doesn’t trust the viewer enough to be able to do this, and by trying to explain every cliché it throws at you, becomes its own worst explanation.

La Haine follows a day in the lives of Vinz, Saïd, and Hubert, three friends of Jewish, Arab, and African origins living in the housing projects a bit outside of Paris. After their friend Abdel is brutalized into a coma by the police, Vinz riots with the rest of the neighborhood, finds a police officer’s gun, and keeps in order to “get revenge.” The movie opens to some overlong footage of rioting while KRS-One’s “Sound Of Da Police” ridiculously plays in the background – Kassovitz really wanted to set the film against a hip-hop backdrop, even if, apparently, the clunky and obvious song choices make the artistry all the worse for it. But, La Haine is also “socially aware,” and what better way to express that idea than to shift to Bob Marley’s “Burning And Looting” for the remainder of the riot? Again, I don’t see how the director failed to mark the obviousness of these audio choices and, even worse, failed to amend them. Thus, just a few minutes in, we already get the basic problems that will plague the film’s remainder, which is especially frustrating … Continue reading →

Review Of David Ridgen’s & Nicolas Rossier’s “American Radical,” On Political Critic Norman Finkelstein

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Norman Finkelstein mid-argument.

Norman Finkelstein mid-argument.

“You don’t know what Norman Finkelstein is. He’s poison. He’s a disgusting  self-hating Jew. He’s something you find under a rock.” – Leon Wieseltier

“It takes an enormous amount of academic courage to speak the truth. Those who in the end are proven right triumph, and he will be among those who will have triumphed.” – Raul Hilberg

“You know the famous joke? A journalist goes around and asks a Russian, a Pole, and an Israeli the same question. He first goes to the Russian: ‘Excuse me, what’s your opinion on the meat shortage?’ The Russian says: ‘What’s an opinion?’ The reporter then goes to the Pole: ‘Excuse me, but what do you think of the meat shortage?’ The Pole goes: ‘What’s meat?’ He then goes to the Israeli: ‘Excuse me. What’s your opinion on the meat shortage?’ The Israeli replies: ‘What’s “excuse me”?’” – Norman Finkelstein

This joke introduces American Radical, a documentary by David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier, and in many ways defines both the film and the man within. It is pitch-black, and one only hears Finkelstein, who eventually fades in, inflecting and de-emphasizing select words, offering the right pauses, then ending it all on a smirk. It is not an arrogant smirk, nor is it a happy one. Rather, it is melancholy. Bitter. For a man whose work –  despite claims – is so rational and un-emotive, this is one of the few places where emotion has an outlet. Bergman once said: “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.” By contrast, Finkelstein lives in his work – plodding, mechanic, in the best sense of such words – and bleeds in his life.

Prior to going any further, I must write that I’m slightly acquainted with the subject of this documentary. I’ve met Norman Finkelstein on a few occasions, had an e-mail correspondence, and even spent a few hours at his apartment, having grown up in the same neighborhood (albeit forty years apart). I am both an admirer of his work, as well as intrigued – for better or worse – by the man, himself, as it is his plight, rather than his accomplishments, which might interest future generations when the Israel-Palestine Conflict is merely yet another name, another time, like so many others that have come and go, and will continue to do so for as long as we’re recognizably human.

Finkelstein is Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They eventually moved to New York, where Finkelstein was born, and taught him the sense of justice that he credits for his work. First coming to prominence in the early 1980s, Finkelstein exposed the hoax that is Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial, a then-popular book which argued Palestinians had little to do with Palestine, but rather had fabricated themselves into its history. This drew the ire and respect of scholars, readers, and wackos of all stripes. Yet it … Continue reading →

Lee Chang-dong’s “Oasis” (2002) And The Undoing Of A Narrative

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Lee Chang-dong's Oasis (2002)

Lee Chang-dong’s Oasis (2002)

I’m often amazed by how little respect the world shows reality, and, by extension, how little respect the people who inhabit this reality end up getting. This is especially true in how kids, the mentally retarded, transgender folks, minorities, the handicapped, and victims (both real and imagined) are treated in the world’s meta-narrative, which is the sum of every bias, policy, opinion, perception, artwork, and the like, available to us. They are at turns fetishized, sobbed over, exaggerated in importance, distorted, and otherwise demeaned by the very same people who claim to be giving them agency and respect. I mean, who wins, here? And how could “winning,” in such an arena, ever be construed as such, anyway, when the gain is so temporary and small?

Thus, in watching Lee Chang-dong’s 2002 film, Oasis, I was struck by how anti-Hollywood it was — that purveyor of the mess, above — in not only how it treats its subject matter, but also how it chooses to present the two main characters: a woman with cerebral palsy (Gong-ju), and a mildly retarded sociopath (Jong-du) who develop a relationship pretty much everyone disapproves of. Jong-du is seen doing all sorts of odd things: eating a block of raw tofu, asking school-girls for spare change, wrecking his boss’s motorcycle, leaving his shoes as “insurance” when he cannot pay for food, walking around in the cold with nothing but a t-shirt, climbing a tree to saw it off, and even attempting to rape his future girlfriend. He is not, then, some caricatured “harmless retard,” but a man with motives (limited as they are) and an unsympathetic streak. Gong-ju more or less stutters through the film, plays with light and glass, and, in a number of poetic little scenes, imagines herself as a perfectly normal girl, living the sort of life she sees others live. Given the meta-narrative described, however, one would think the film would take the banal angle, showing us how “deep” and “utterly complex” such people are, when in fact they are shadows of us, and our wants. It doesn’t, for the best art portrays reality as a corrective to such things, despite what may or may not be “wanted.” Nor are their disabilities glossed over, but are front and center for nearly two hours of oddities that must have taken some time to perfect without turning the two into circus freaks, or degenerating them — on the other extreme — into mere victims. One gets the feeling that they will go on, they will live, even if it’s not in the way that we desire or expect. The film, in short, is their turf; or rather, it is their turf as it gets eaten away by the outside’s bias and expectations.

That said, it is difficult to empathize with the characters, at times, a fact that Lee Chang-dong continually ensures. Jong-du is not exactly evil, but amoral. For the most part, the things he does do … Continue reading →