Sunday, November 18, 2012

80° in March

Observations on an 80° March Day

    "Oh, come on, guys."
    The voices drift over the summery air, blown with the dried leaves and the broken twigs, rising and falling with the severity of the wind.  Sometimes everyone is talking at once; sometimes all you can hear is a continuous clanging as the flagpole's wire batters against its slim frame, and the flapping of fully extended banners flowing in the chaos of the atmosphere.  Other sounds drift in and out on the breeze, as if through doors that are opening and closing.
    Lunchtime in the schoolyard.  It's March 12, but it is 80°, unusual for Chicago.  High school students in short sleeves lounge on the damp lawn in front of the imposing edifice of the school.  Small groups, mostly: twos, threes, occasionally something a bit larger.  Rarely is anyone alone; this isn't a time for loneliness.  One boy, dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt with something written on the back, crouches in the distance, huddled over a book, reading.  Eventually, he moves on, joining the group nearest to him, trying to maintain his stranglehold on schoolbooks and papers that suddenly have a life of their own and want to be free.  Holding them as he would a cat straining to leap out of his arms, he is absorbed by the group.
    Another boy, red crew cut, dressed all in blue, lies silently in the yard, contemplating the vista that surrounds him.  His body rests on his elbows; for all the world he looks frozen there, unmoving, some carved image made of marble or granite, a recumbent Thinker with eyes squinting in the sunlight.
    His blue clothing blends into the population of the lawn.  Blues and whites, khakis and tans, occasional grays and blacks, and a few dots of dull color--red, pink, yellow--dominate the yard, a testimony to the fact that it is, after all, still winter.  One girl, in a fluorescent green windbreaker, stands out--out of place, she walks into the obscurity of the building, into safety. The beach in May or June is the place for those colors: the reds and oranges and yellows then will be vibrant, the landscape itself dotted with them. Here the only bright color is the blue in the sky, a deep, rich blue mottled with wisps of transparent clouds rapidly flying to the north on the wind; even the freshly uncovered grass is not true to its nature, its surface a mixture of pale greens and the brown` remains of muddied fall decay. Nowhere is the spectacle of the flowers of spring, the tulips, the daffodils, the apple blossoms.  The trees too still cling to their autumn deadness, tiny shriveled brown balls of last year's crabapples contending with evanescent buds on their branches.
    "Oh, they're just so luscious."  Another voice in the wind.  Not the crabapples; she's talking about something else.  Boys, probably; she's looking at a group of boys tossing a football that wobbles and dives as it fights the wind.  One boy flies in the direction of the ball, arms and legs akimbo, reveling in the freedom from heavy sweaters and coats, his energy revitalized by the warm air.  Probably, like so many others, he has been sitting inert in front of a television set all winter; today he's soaring through the air as if newly alive.
    Others are alive, too, rescued at least temporarily from the drudgery of winter days when the snow, far from the source of joy it once was, long before, when a shovel was to play with on beaches, represented a chore waiting to be done, fathers’ and mothers’ voices badgering, admonishing, threatening.  Rescued from cold, air-tight rooms and dry, stifling air.  Rescued from the endless winter days of couch potato nothingness and joyless afternoons.  Rescued at least for the moment; no one on the lawn seems to be giving a thought to what tomorrow might hold.  Here a small group huddles in a malformed circle trying to keep a hackysack aloft, in defiance of gravity and the winds; the football still flies overhead, runners below moving in tandem with its erratic flight; two girls stand in the midst of a crowd, hand-wrestling, playfully trying to throw each other to the warm, moist ground, laughing as the breeze wraps their hair across their brows.
    Some choose not to do anything, standing on one spot of ground as if it were all they need in the universe; silently defending it against unseen intruders, they maintain control of their private Valhallas, their temporary spot in heaven.  One girl approaches me, looking for conversation.  The wind plays with her hair as we speak.  A gust lifts her loose white blouse nearly over her head; trying to maintain her poise, she stops it just before it leaves her vulnerable or embarrassed; the conversation continues unabated.  All across the lawn, shirts are blowing, staying on their owners’ bodies only by the sheerest of luck.  Overhead, the flags are stiff in the hard wind, like photographs on postcards; one expects to see “America” splattered across them in bold letters, or to hear the salute of an honor guard.  In the yard, a photographer sizes up prospects for images of his own.
    “Rob Lowe teaches him everything he knows,” a voice drifts in over the wind from the endless dull murmur of voices in the air.  Two girls discussing a new movie as streams of candy wrappers, papers, lunch bags, and other debris whisk past on the breeze; alive and with destinations of their own, they hurry past, trying to get there before the next cold spell catches them in the open.  For this is March, and 80° does not last in Chicago in March.  Cars cruise by in the drive, windows down, radios on, circling.  A lone teacher stands in the doorway, absorbing the warmth.  Handfuls of grass torn from the lawn fly through the air.  A barefoot figure in a flannel shirt, short hair, androgynous, eats ice cream near a tree whose branches are still dotted with bits of toilet paper from a late-winter basketball game.  The smell of wet grass is everywhere.
    More substantial clouds pass overhead: a perceptible chill.  I’m leaning against a tree, but it’s not much of a brace; moving, shifting, it tries to cast me off.  The football, blown severely off course, lands not far from where I stand.  Perhaps the spot will be snow-covered next week. 
    “Suck it up,” says a t-shirt.  March 12.  Nearly April; real summer can’t be too far away. 
    “Call me--no, don’t; I’ll call you.”



He sat alone at the side of the road as cars whisked past, stirring up the dust around him.  The evening had grown darker, heading toward the deepest part of night, the part that he disliked the most, the part when they came out.

If only he had been able to stay with his brother.  That would have been so simple.  But he had been there for less than a week when it happened.  Of course it happened.  It always happened. He had not been able to go more than a few days without the shaking and the breakdowns in years; why had he believed that he could make it this time?  And the terror on his little niece’s face when she found him shaking and drooling in the hallway, speaking those odd words he always did at those times…  He didn’t blame Joseph for asking him to leave.  He’d have done the same.

The cars kept on moving past.  He really should not have been sitting so near the highway, he knew.  He reached for his pack, shoved the water bottle back into it, and shambled to his feet.  Slowly he slipped down the embankment to the base of the hill, looking for some kind of shelter as the sound of the passing cars receded.  Above he could see stars coming out.  There was danger in stars.  When there were stars, there were others.  No one ever believed him about the others, but he knew they were there, and they were the ones who brought on the attacks.

He cut through some tall prairie grasses, hoping that he would not end up in a swamp of some kind.  The highway sounds were almost gone now, and he had no real idea where he was any more.  On a small patch of low-cut greenery in the middle of the dense grasses he stopped, opened his pack, and removed a tightly rolled up piece of fabric.  Unraveling it, he threw it over himself and lay his head on the pack, listening to the sounds of the deepening night. 

The insects now had risen to the point of a kind of shrieking, blending with the low pitched croaking of frogs somewhere in the reeds and the darker undertones of winds that moved almost silently through the prairie.  And there was something else, too, something that he almost missed.  Something very high up in the aural range, almost beyond the limit of hearing.  A hissing. 

He snapped upright and looked around, hopeless to see anything in the darkness.  They were here.  How they had found him he had no clue, but they had.  And he had no clue also where he could run or in what direction.  The hissing grew louder and more distinct, overwhelming the insects and the other sounds of nature.  Quickly, he shoved his blanket into the pack and tried to stand, but instead, as the hissing grew and something finally came and stood above him, he fell back in the green space, drooling, shaking, broken, finally knowing he truly was as alone as he had always felt.

film review: two dragons

Two Dragons: 
A Comparison of Fincher's and Oplev's Versions of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

Two questions have haunted David Fincher’s much-anticipated American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: will it be worth the wait? and is there really a reason to make it in the first place?Well, now that it is here, it’s safe to say that the answer to the first is that it most definitely was worth the wait: it is a relentlessly dark movie about relentlessly dark people with mysterious and dark histories. And it is brilliant. As to the second question, which begs the notion of whether Fincher could add anything new to the visualization that the 2009 Swedish version did not (other than a far greater budget), I was willing to bet that America’s greatest stylist could manage to make it his own in some sort of way. And I think I’d win that bet also.

Fincher’s take on the first book of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy turns out to be less Se7en and more Zodiac, not so much the thriller as the pulsating, slowing unwinding, inexorable mystery, which is exactly what Larsson’s book, with its vast complexities of financial malfeasance, familial discord, and cryptic clues, is in the first place. The director begins, as the book and the Swedish film both do, by presenting the acute reason for trying to unravel a cold case now 40 years old, the arrival of a birthday gift. What follows this brief moment is a title sequence, over Karen O’s cover of “Immigrant Song,” that is surreal and haunting and rather frightening as it sets up some of the uglier backstory in enigmatic, Rorschach images. Once free of this nightmare, though, Fincher moves somewhat more conventionally.

Using a palette of white and gray and light gray and dark gray and several other shades of gray, (to which he generously adds some sepia when he moves indoors) Fincher shows us a part of Sweden trapped in a never-ending frozen state that one character not too inaccurately calls “the North Pole.” Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish film, opted for a less restrictive palette, even allowing (gasp) sunshine to penetrate his Hedeby Island. Not so Fincher, whose island is in a snowstorm when Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) arrives at the behest of the patriarch of the powerful Vanger family, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer) to try to solve the mystery of his niece’s disappearance forty years ago and it never seems to stop. The one notable exception to the dull color scheme is the bright, modern sharpness of the home of the Martin Vanger, the missing girl's brother, and Fincher has his own ironic reasons for that choice. The otherwise ubiquitous dull gray is reflected in the life that the Vangers are living, shut up on what might once have been their island retreat but now has become more of a prison: practically none of them likes any of the others and no one speaks to anyone else, the perfect self-punishment for what Henrik calls “the most detestable collection of people that you will ever meet.” It also reflects the painstaking search for the answers here. They do not swoop in conveniently: they are pieced together slowly from old photographs and opaque diary entries and decades-old hotel receipts. This is real investigative journalism, even if it is aided by a tech whiz with access to anything she wants.

Plummer does what he can with an undemanding role, and Stellan Skarsgård shines as one of the members of the Vanger clan, but Craig’s performance is revelatory. In every film he is in we see his strength as well as his vulnerability, and both are at play here. Blomkvist comes to Hedeby on the heels of a trumped-up libel conviction, and in Craig’s face and eyes can be read his character’s ambivalence about whether he even goes on writing. While Michael Nyqvist portrays this character well in the Swedish film, his performance remains oddly distant from the viewer: we do not get a chance to live inside of Blomkvist’s mind as we watch him go through his difficulties (which include attempts on his life). The result is something that we can believe and appreciate and even enjoy, but that does not seem complete. Craig’s far more emotional, more vulnerable performance gives us that intimacy. When he has been shot, the audience can feel the pain of the wound. When he realizes—too late—that he has made a terrible mistake, it only takes a glance at a knife to show us the horror he is feeling.

The biggest question going into this film, of course, was whether Rooney Mara’s performance as emotionally damaged hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander could be anywhere near as strong and memorable as the already-iconic one created by Noomi Rapace in the Swedish version. The answer, with no offense to Rapace, is absolutely yes, but it is complicated. The two actresses and their directors create the character in very different ways. Rapace, who allows more of the natural feminine of her face to remain visible and unshadowed, for all of her smallness and thinness stays distinctly female throughout the film. Even in the most horrific scene (in both films), the rape and revenge sequence with her “guardian,” she manages a small feminine smile as she finishes her revenge telling him not to move or what she is doing to him “won’t look nice.” Her vulnerability comes from being a young woman in a man’s world, a woman who has been hurt many, many times by many, many men. When she gives herself to Blomkvist in one scene, it is a brief, entirely sexual encounter, over the second it is complete.

In contrast, Mara hides more of her face in shadow through the angles in which she turns her body, behind her forbidding piercings, and (most notably) behind an ever-morphing head of hair that either pulls attention away or covers part of it intentionally, leaving herself more unknown, more of a mystery. She is a riddle: her clothing gives nothing at all away of gender; her lifestyle gives nothing away of the genius she possesses. The only part of Mara’s Lisbeth that lives on the surface is her anger. It is always right there, waiting to explode. Mara’s Lisbeth is a wild animal keeping herself in line by sheer strength of will. She has developed a tremendous capacity for compartmentalization; otherwise she would certainly be institutionalized. It is never clearer than in the revenge scene. Rapace’s Lisbeth cannot wait to zap her assailant with a stun gun; Mara’s has a plan and will carry it out as dispassionately as possible…until she gets him trussed and vulnerable, the way he had her. Then she can let the animal loose. And no sweet tones in her voice when she tells him not to move or it won’t look good. She practically hisses it.

Nonetheless, within a few scenes, she’s in bed with a woman. And within not too many more scenes, she’s in bed with Blomkvist. Compartmentalizing: it has become as natural to her as her photographic memory or her hacking skills. It helps her survive. It can be argued that Rapace shows this capacity too, but not to this extent. And that is one of the defining distinctions between the characterizations.  Another is the sheer urgency of Mara’s characterization, as well as her clear vulnerability, which comes out in many places during the film. Mara’s Lisbeth is vulnerable for a different reason than Rapace’s though: she has methodically destroyed the feminine within her unless she wants it there, so now she is vulnerable because she is the unwanted. What she has made herself into is exactly what society does not want. Both actresses are small and thin, though each shows herself capable of putting up a good fight, and it seems clear after watching both of them that whicheverhad come first would have been seen as the archetype for the character.

I’ve read reviews online that find fault with Fincher for his use of the book’s final chapters (which bring to a conclusion the convoluted and fairly arcane financial matters that got Blomkvist into trouble at the book’s start), which Oplev’s version merely glossed over. But, although it does seem a bit of an anticlimax, I won’t fault him for this. I’d rather fault Oplev for cutting the entire relationship between Blomkvist and his partner at Millennium magazine, Erika Berger (Robin Wright), an error that caused no end of havoc in the subsequent films of the series. I might question a pretty significant alteration to the ending that readers of the book with notice right away and wonder why Fincher felt it necessary. (Oplev managed it.)  But the bottom line is that this big budget American version of the Swedish popular novel is well worth seeing, whether or not you’ve seen the Swedish version. Here's hoping audiences reward Fincher's effort so that we can see what he does with the considerably less confining storyline of the second novel.

monologue: apples and cheese

Monologue: Apples and Cheese

I’m walking through the supermarket.  It’s Monday evening and I need some bread, some cheese, maybe a few apples.  I like apples and cheese in the evening with a glass of wine; it calms me, especially on Mondays.  Mondays are the worst.  I know: how stereotypical of me:

“I don’t like Mondays.”  Wah wah wah.  Nobody likes Mondays.  Nobody.  I’m not sure who the fool was who invented them, but I do know that he should be strung up by his balls.  No, better: put him in a prison where it is ALWAYS Monday.  Always a million years until the weekend.  Always fighting your eyes to get them open when all they want is the kind of sleep you had on Sunday.  The week is perpetually just starting, just getting underway.  And you perpetually wish it would hurry up and get over with, get you back to Saturday.

Of course, that’s those of us who can’t stand what we do for a living.  I hear some people actually like their jobs.  But don’t lie to me: even you people who don’t hate work hate Mondays.  You might start out all rah rah rah and whoop de doo, but it can’t last long.  It’s a self-defeating mentality.  It’s Monday, you say, so I can do it all!  But whatever  problems are a part of your life just get intensified because everyone assumes you have a whole week, after all, to deal with them, so why not pile them on?  Another issue to tackle?  Another account to handle?  Another file to clear out?  Why not?  I have a whole week.  I can take on the world.  Sure, I’ll work on some of Joe’s backlog.  Add them to the pile.  It’s Monday; I have forever.  Little Marie’s clarinet concert is Wednesday night?  Of course I’ll get her there; what could stop me?  There’s plenty of time to get straightened out before then.  Plenty of time.

But there never really is.  That’s the problem.  Monday bleeds into Tuesday and suddenly it’s Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.  And the time you thought you had when the week began simply vanishes.  And you crawl into the weekend broken and exhausted like everyone else, oozing from the slime that you created yourself from your own self-destructive false optimism.  It’s not a pretty picture.

Nothing is ever pretty on Monday.

But it is Monday, just the same, and I’m walking through the supermarket.  I have my freshly baked sourdough baguette and some Jarlsberg cheese and some Granny Smith apples—the only kind worth eating, the kind that is tart and firm and crisp and when you bite them they answer back with a loud snap and your mouth contorts and waters to dilute the sourness and the aftertaste is so clean.  I have my apples and cheese and bread and I’m just trying to get out of here before anything happens, just trying to get home to pet my cat, Muffin, and open a nice Pinot Grigio and sit in front of the TV and eat and drink slowly so I can savor every bite and every drop. 

But nothing is ever simple on a Monday.  And when I get to the checkout line, standing there debating between the regular checkout with its one customer or the express “10 Items or Fewer” lane that already has just about everyone else in the store standing in it, when I am dredging up my mostly forgotten high school math to find some equation to calculate which lane would be faster—if Cashier A scans her one customer’s 214 items at a rate of one every five seconds and Cashier B scans 10 items or fewer at a rate of one item every 45 minutes, thus creating a backlog of people with 10 items or fewer that winds up Aisle 12 and into the freezer section, how many minutes until Cashier B is replaced by Cashier A’s pet beagle, who could probably do a better job—when  I’m staring at the Chunky Monkey Ben and Jerry’s melting in the cart of the woman in front of me and thinking about asking her if she’d like to share it right here, when my Monday gets more complicated.

I see you.

You are one aisle over, near the coffee, exactly where you always are when I don’t want you to be.  I see you standing there contemplating which brand to buy, engaged in an apparently all-consuming interior debate about the relative merits of Folger’s and Maxwell House.  I’ve never known why you do that—you’ve bought Folger’s every time as far as I know—but there you are, picking up one can and then the other, reading the labels you’ve got to have memorized by now, even sniffing them, as if you can smell anything through the tin. 

I can’t be here.  You have not seen me yet but you will, and if you look up it will destroy me.  I step out of line, putting the ever-growing queue of “10 items or fewer” people between us.  I stare at the other checkout, but it’s even closer to the coffee aisle.  For a second I consider just walking out with my bread, cheese and apples, but I can’t do that.  I can’t shoplift.  I can’t do anything like that.  I even give back extra change at places like McDonalds when the cashier makes mistakes.  It’s not that I’m so damn goody goody or anything.  It’s penance I think.  For all the times I did so much worse than keeping money that wasn’t mine or stealing an evening snack.  So I don’t walk out with my food, but I have to leave.  I have to.  Seeing you there unnerves me.  I put down my shopping basket and leave without anything, never looking back at you but knowing anyway that you have indeed seen me.  You must have.  When I am out on the sidewalk, though, I look through the window to the aisle where I saw you and you are no longer there.  I look up every aisle in the store and I don’t see you.  I let my eyes stop on every person in the checkout lines but none of them is you. 

Suddenly I want to find you again.  I’m desperate, frantic.  I run back into the store, up and down each aisle.  I don’t know why I do it but I absolutely have to see you.  I look in produce.  I look in baked goods.  I even try the fish market (though I don’t know why: you have always hated fish).  In the coffee aisle I stop and stare at the Folger’s and Maxwell House, trying to make you appear there, trying to see you holding those cans up to your nose.  But you are not there either.  I start at one end of the store and go up and down each aisle again, this time calling your name as I go.  Other shoppers look at me as if I am insane.  I just keep walking, keep calling.  But you are not there.  You are gone.

My basket is where I left it and they’ve opened two more lanes, so I pick it up, go into one, and pay for my groceries.  Walking home, I rip a piece from the end of the baguette and eat it, allowing its crisp sour crust to dissolve slowly in my mouth.  Why do you always disappear?  Why can’t I just talk to you?  Why does it always frighten me so when I see you there buying the coffee that I remember you drank way too often?  Why can’t I just once see you and walk straight over and say I’m sorry

I’m sorry for the way I treated you.  I’m sorry for the swearing, the lying, the temper tantrums.  I’m sorry for the way I accused you of trying to walk all over me, to use me; I’m sorry for misinterpreting your love for a kind of weakness.  I’m sorry for the hurt it must have caused you, the infinite pain of knowing that someone you love dearly, someone who by every right and obligation should love you back, should hate you so much. 

I’m so very sorry I ever hated you.

There were so many reasons I could have listed then, so many…  But I can’t think of a single one now.  I remember things I did though.  I remember the day I went through your closet and tore huge holes in your favorite sweaters.  I remember burning your ties in the kitchen sink.  I remember throwing things in anger: plates, cups, knick-knacks, one time a tennis trophy, one time a table lamp.  One time the whole table.

I remember too that last day, the day you finally sent me away, the look in your eyes, the emptiness there, the hollowness. You were all out of tears; nothing stained your cheeks. Maybe you cried more later on. I know I did. I did then and I do now, though the light rain that has begun masks my tears as I walk back through familiar streets to sit alone with my apples and cheese and a glass of wine and Muffin, who doesn’t care what kind of coffee we buy.