Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dark Materials

It wasn't intentional, but as soon as the holidays were over I started reading and watching much darker stuff than in late December. Though it wasn't the plan, but it's worked out to kind of suit my mood--it's freezing in my apartment (and outside of it), the war with UPS rages on, and I have way too much work. Also, I miss the days when everything was about tinsel instead of to-do lists--where are you, oh halcyon days of late December??

But of course, if something's going to be sad, it helps a lot if it's also darkly funny and searingly realistic. I went to see Up in the Air because it is being marketed as a snappy romantic comedy and (sue me) I like those. But though there are a few rom-com type scenes (a groom with cold feet, a cra-zay party where everyone gets drunk and lets their feelings show), those wind up looking strange and out of place in the midst of all the dark and searing.

This film is about a man named Ryan (played by George Clooney) who is hired for a day or a week by companies who want to fire some of their employees but management can't a actually face doing it. Ryan describes losing a job as one of the worst days of most people's lives--and in this film, you get to see that, over and over. Many of the dozens of newly fired folks are played by real people who actually *have* been recently let go. They improvise their lines, and the pain apparent made me want to look away, and unable to look away.

So the film is about how people relate to their jobs, how Ryan relates to his job, and to the women around him. He mainly *doesn't* relate to people in non-business relationships, until he meets a sexy lady in a bar, and that relationship somehow lets him engage with people like his sisters, his vulnerable young colleague, etc. So you see how this could have been an inspiring little love story, but I have been running around begging people not to see it if that's what they're hoping for.

The gooey middle of the story ends soon enough and the ending is a one-two punch that left my companion and I sitting like blast victims as the credits rolled and everyone else left the theatre. *Up in the Air* is a very good movie, but brace yourself.

There certainly are flaws in that film, despite my love for it. On the other hand, though in many ways grim, Denis Johnson's short story collection Jesus' Son is pretty pitch-perfect. Such immense clarity and respect he brings to even descriptions of suffering that I was really awed my the book, though again, I often wanted to look away. These are linked stories--they all have the same narrator, a young junkie of no fixed address with a string of unhappy girlfriends and a flexible relationship with violence.

The stories are likely what you'd imagine them to be, tales of deals gone wrong, confusion, suffering, gore, all with the hazy chronology and causality that comes from telling stories on chemicals. But there is an incredible beauty in these pieces, too, which comes partially from the narrator's fractured viewpoint and partially from the circumstances he finds himself in, quite unlike what most of us will ever see. I saw the film version ages back (it was pretty good, I think) and the most memorable part involved Jack Black as a strung-out hospital orderly, and a patient with a switchblade in his eye. That incident is found here in the story "Emergency," similarly striking but much quieter, much more ordinary in its strangeness and impossible beauty.

This is from the last piece in the book, "Beverly Home." The 20 pages of the story feel epic as the narrator takes a job in a nursing home, dates a dwarf, goes to AA, struggles to live what he imagines a real drug-free life would be:

"One day, too, when I'd passed through the lot and was walking along behind a row of town houses on the way to the bus stop, I heard the sound of a woman singing in her shower. I thought of mermaids: the blurry music of falling water, the soft song from the wet chamber. The dusk was down, and the heat came off the hovering buildings. It was rush hour, but the desert sky has a way of absorbing the sounds of traffic and making them seem idel and small. Her voice was the clearest thing coming to my ears."

So many people talk about how amazing this book is that I was daunted to read it--book almost never live up to that sort of hype. I am so glad this one did.

I'm, uh, gonna maybe do something cheerful now.



Fred said...

I agree with every you said about the movie. It's great, but I left gutted. Not at all what I thought I'd be seeing. People should be warned!

Laura said...

"Emergency" is one of my all-time favourite stories. I know you're not one for podcasts, but this one (Tobias Wolff reading the story) is too good not to share: