Archive for July, 2009

Saramago: Five Films

Posted in From Saramago's Notebooks on July 23, 2009 by jkiparsky

Five Films
(Jose Saramago, July 23, 2009)
(Originally published as “Cinco filmes” on “O Caderno de Saramago”

I was asked to recall five films. I didn’t have to worry about whether they were the best or not, or the most famous, or the most-cited. It would be enough that they had struck me in some particular fashion, as we are struck by a look, a gesture, a tone of voice. It was not difficult to choose them, on the contrary, they came to me in a completely natural fashion, as if I could not have thought of any other thing. Here they are, then, but the order in which I name them is not and should not be taken as a classification of merit. In the first place (one of them had to open the list), “The salt of the earth”, by Herbert Biberman, which I saw in Paris at the end of the 1970s, and which moved me to tears: the story of the strike by Chicano minersand their brave wives shook me to the deepest parts of my soul. To follow it, I mention Ridley Scott’s “Blade runner”, which I also saw in Paris in a little theater in the Latin Quarter a little after its world debut and which, at this point, doesn’t seem to promise a great future. About Fellini’s “Amarcord”, nobody has any doubt, there was an absolute masterpiece, for me perhaps one of the best films by the Italian master. Next comes “The rules of the game” by Jean Renoir”, which dazzled me with its impeccable production, the direction of the actors, with its rhythm, its polish, ultimately with its “tempo”. And, to finish, a film that leaps to my memory as if it came from the first night of the stories by the fire, “Pat & Patachon as Millers”, those sublime (I’m not exaggerating) Danish actors who made me laugh (I was six or seven years old) like nobody else. Not Chaplin, not Buster keaton, not Harold Lloyd, not Laurel and Hardy. Anyone who hasn’t seen Pat and Patachon doesn’t know what they’ve missed….

(Translated by Jon Kiparsky, July 23, 2009)

“The first night of stories by the fire” – literally, “como se viesse da primeira noite da história dos contos á lareira”. I’m assuming he means something primeval, that this comes from way back before the dawn of time, but perhaps there’s a better explanation.

Pat & Patachon – I’d never heard of them either, but searching around I find that they were a comedy team duo, apparently in the early German film industry. Apparently they were Danish, according to Saramago, all I know so far is that the clips I’ve found are hilarious. Here’s one. And you don’t need to understand the German….

Simply Awful: The Last Templar (Raymond Khoury)

Posted in Books on July 17, 2009 by jkiparsky

I am typically not one to give up a book before I’ve finished reading it. Sometimes, however, I make an exception. When I reach page 28 of a novel, and can already declare it to be simply and thoroughly awful, I feel justified in giving up. So I’m proud, in a way, to say that I actually gave Khoury an extra 22 pages to convince me, before turning to the end to verify that the obvious ending was the one that he chose, and then closing the book with a resounding thump and listing it on Bookmooch – where it appears on three wishlists, so I expect I’ll be rid of this wretched mistake of a book before noon on Saturday.

I picked the book up on a whim from a book exchange shelf at an office I was working in for a few days – how bad could it be, I remember thinking. I found out, I think, just how bad the contemporary (post Dan Brown) thriller can get. I won’t list all of the awfulness I found in the few pages I read, but I’ll list as many highlights as I have the stomach for:

Beginning with the prologue:
1) Style
The style is simply bad. Rhythmically, the opening of the book is a cliché, sufficiently so that I took it for a parody at first. Here it is, I think fair use will cover this:

“The Holy Land is lost.
That single thought kept assaulting Martin of Carmaux, its brutal finality more terrifying than the hordes of fighters swarming through the breach in the wall.
He fought to block the thought, to push it away.
Now was not the time to lament. He had work to do.
Men to kill.”

This was probably a fresh and exciting pattern the first seven or eight times it was used, but today it is simply a sign that a writer has memorized the Way to Write a Thriller, and the first thing is the Gripping Intro. Notice the structure: Simple declarative sentence, compound sentence establishing the scene, shorter compound sentence establishing mood, two declaratives establishing character’s single trait, sentence fragment to take us into movie mode.

2) Movie Mode
Sure enough, what follows is the first scene from the worst quest movies you’ve ever imagined: Martin of Carmaux fights boldly on the losing side as the hordes of bad guys overwhelm the simple, pure Christians, defending the Holy Land from the people who live there. Basically, this is Aliens, but with Muslims. (Clearly, Khoury is trying to make life easy for the scriptwriters: The first 30 pages of the book have two made-for-Hollywood set pieces and a few establishing shots, and the ending gives another set piece and a closing shot.)

3) Hackneyed Cliché #1: The Leaving of Acre
After the fight scene, we retreat to the sanctum sanctorum, where the Ian McKellen character, dying from a poisoned arrow (curse those infidel heathens!), gives him the book’s McGuffin and sends him off in the last boat leaving. Everything about this scene is a cliché, from the purpose (set the modern portion of the plot in motion) and the tone (clash of impulses, Martin is caught between obedience to a superior and loyalty to his buddies) to the dialogue and the writing. For example:
“Martin felt nausea rising in his throat; his face clouded as he struggled for words. ‘I will not desert our brothers,’ he stammered. ‘Not now – not ever!’ ”
The nausea, the facial meteorology, the “struggle” for words, the speech impediment (was that the struggle? the Stuttering Knight might actually be interesting…), and the words themselves, all are in this passage because they’d sounded good somewhere else. The only words here that are not clichés are the character’s name and “he” and “as”. It’s all like this.

4) Details, details.
Since we know that the bulk of the story has a modern setting, we can assume that Khoury read Hammett and figured if it worked once, it’ll work again. Okay, stealing a plot’s nothing new. But did he have to name the getaway ship “The Falcon Temple”? At first it makes no sense, then it conjures up images of Han Solo and company leaving the rebel base on Hoth, and then you realize that it’s Khoury’s acknowledgement of his source, and you realize that this is only page four and the book is already really, really bad.

5) Thud, thud, thud went the symbol
“…Martin of Carmaux slowly and reluctantly turned his back on the land of his birth and stared ahead at the storm that awaited them.”
Of course there was a storm. There would have to be.

And then the real story begins, and it’s all downhill from there.

6) Where are the cops when you need them?
Ignoring reality to make a scene work is okay, but this is just too obvious. How do you figure that four guys on horses in a crowd of people are anything but an easy target for the (mysteriously absent) armed guards?

7) Freud was not a novellist
Introducing your characters by listing the sources of their psychological damage is a profoundly lazy technique, though I suppose it’s one well-suited to the Oprah Age.

This goes on, and on. The archaeologist who doesn’t recognize a bit of grade-school Latin, but remembers it well enough to type it into … what’s this? “The most powerful metasearch engine in her links toolbar”? Is this, perhaps, Google? It’s hard to believe that Khoury wrote this in 2005, about ten years after this stuff became as ordinary as breakfast cereal. (“She poured herself a bowl of the most advanced toasted grain flakes that her supermarket carried”)

Then there’s the FBI guy who’d “always felt he could make a difference.
No – make that known. And would.”

Let’s leave at this: Khoury would be a fine writer, if he could manage to do characters, or dialogue, or exposition, or plot. Even one of those would be a start. As it is, it’s simply awful. And a New York Times Bestseller. As the man said a long time ago, bury the rag deep in your face, for now’s the time for your tears.