Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review of The African Queen

After taking a break for spring and summer because of moving and getting settled into our new lifestyle, the AFI movie project continues unabashed for past sins. Number 65 is The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, directed by John Huston. It was originally a novel by C.S. Forster.

This is another one of those movies that is important because of its production rather than its entertainment value to modern audiences, I suspect. Its history is steeped in the McCarthy era, when suspected commies were being persecuted by the government of the United States. The African Queen got several prominent lefties out of the country to avoid McCarthey, simultaneously producing a patriotic pic they hoped would repair their reputations. At this time, going on location with bulky technicolor cameras was rare. Going to Africa to shoot on location in the Congo was unheard-of. The shoot was long and hard, with cast and crew falling ill and exposed to tropical dangers of all sorts. The film's release was triumphant, with Bogart winning an Oscar for best actor.

But its entertainment value? Sadly, it has not aged that well. The romance between the two main characters has a charming and silly quality which modern cinema lacks outside of comedies. But as for thrills and spills, modern cinema has learned much better ways to make us bite our nails. The special effects, which were cutting-edge in 1951, are outclassed: models and superimposed studio images. In a story more compelling, I could have suspended disbelief enough to enjoy it. But the story is not that compelling.

I did find it very interesting to observe the accents in this film. Back in the day, it was apparently not such a big deal to perform without mastering an accent. Katherine Hepburn's character, Rose, is from Northern England, but she performs it with her standard, clearly-enunciated half-Boston, half-English, half-Hollywood stagey lilting that was popular for starring females at the time. Humourously, Humphrey Bogart's part had to be rewritten because it had him speaking in a thick Cockney and he just couldn't do it. He was rewritten as a Canadian, but he plays it standard Bogey-style: "Nyah, I'm Canadian, see? Maa!" And yet he won an Oscar.

The African Queen is yet another selection from this list that was ground-breaking and important for its time, but sadly dated. One can appreciate it for its historical value, but the story, when the special effects which were mind-blowing in their day are stripped away, left me a little cold.
2 1/2 increasingly treacherous sets of rapids out of 5


Monday, September 20, 2010

Thinking Free

Fatherhood looms. As I contemplate in this lull before a storm of chaos in my life, I have been considering what makes a good dad. One thing that troubles me is what I will expect from my little daughter as she grows into adulthood.

I've seen enough real-world examples of what having high expectations of children does. Parents grow disappointed when their children don't measure up. Children get low-self esteem because they feel aren't good enough. Relationships are strained and nobody benefits.

Yet I have to be honest with myself: no matter what I do to curb my expectations, they will still be present. Perhaps that's not such a bad thing. After all, it was the expectations of our parents that made us all into the people we are, whether we learned from them or fought against them. I suppose the problem is how hard I will fight for my expectations and how quickly I will relinquish them if I see they are hurting my little girl.

And what are these expectations? I can encapsulate them. Please, please, please, o ye powers of the heavens, let my little girl be a free-thinker. Let her always have curiosity about the world and never stop learning. Let her horizons be fluid and ever-expanding.

That's it. I don't care if she becomes the Prime Minister or prefers to live quietly. I don't care if she becomes the first Catholic female priest or if she becomes a pornstar. I don't care if she makes a hostile takeover of Microsoft or if she joins a hippie commune. Just let her become those things because she wants to do it and makes an informed decision. When fate points her in a different direction, let her see the proverbial compass and follow a path to her own happiness.

Free thinking has nothing to do with inborn intelligence. It is not the result of high IQ. Rather, free thinking raises IQ. All that is required of a free thinker is that she never closes her mind.

What is a closed minded-person? Based on what I've seen, this person believes that after their official education ends, so does learning. At some point this person decides that they have learned enough to survive. After that, they put responsibility for their decisions in somebody else's hands, whether it be a church, a political party, the television or a family member. Or they continue making decisions based on their limited worldview without doubting themselves. Either way, self-analysis is rare.

I firmly believe that free thinking is something that anybody can do. It is an awakening. Yet awakened minds can be put to sleep. That is truly what I fear for my child. I am sure that with an upbringing in my household, she will learn to think for herself. But I am terrified that others she meets in her life may teach her to shut off her brain.

What puts minds to sleep? Dogma. To be properly effective, dogma must be backed with emotion. Some dogma is enforced by communities who use guilt, anger or disappointment to control their members. Others create their own dogma through life experience and fear of losing control keeps them from examining it.

All of this makes me very wary of the role religion will play in the life of my child. Martin Luther said it best: "Reason must be deluded, blinded, and destroyed. Faith must trample underfoot all reason, sense, and understanding, and whatever it sees must be put out of sight and ... know nothing but the word of God." Refreshingly honest, isn't it? This attitude is present in all religions to some degree or another and in some cases it is a point of pride. It is incompatible with free thinking. It also scares the fuck out of me.

My instinct, which I must fight, is to try to shelter her from religion. It's not that I don't want her to have religion. I just want her to come by religion because it was her own decision, not because of somebody else's tradition or negative emotions. If she converts, I want her to convert in such a way that we can discuss religion without her getting upset because she hates to look inward.

Such a small and earnest wish: let her be a free thinker. Yet also so potentially devisive and destructive. It scares me. I must never stop loving her, no matter who she becomes. But I also must never stop challenging her. From the moment her little fingers wrap around my thumb and her muscles flex against it, to the childish moment she asks me about God, to the teenager-moment she says she hates me and my heart breaks, to the moment I she visits me with her own children, to our last moment when we say goodbye forever, I will never stop loving her and challenging her. As blog is my witness, her old man will never stop nudging her toward enlightenment, nor holding her when she needs it, as long as he has elbows.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review of "An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: A Novel" by Brock Clarke

Sam Pulsifer is a self-described bumbler. His bumbling led him to prison when he was a teenager when he accidentally burnt down the Emily Dickenson house, killing two people. When he is released from prison, he discovers that he has received fan mail from people who want him to burn down other writer's homes. After Sam has successfully put his past behind him, these letters and his accidental arson return to destroy his life.

An Arsonist's Guide to Writer's Homes in New England: A Novel is written by Brock Clarke and starts off wonderfully. The first chapter is filled with chuckles and promise. Then it lost me.

It is said that you have to like any book that you've read cover to cover. You've spent so much time reading it that even if you didn't like it you invent justifications as to why you wasted your life. I now know that's not true. This book managed to keep me vaguely interested with the promise of solving a mystery until the very last page. However, the journey was not very enjoyable and the mystery resolved in an unsatisfying manner.

I will admit that my non-enjoyment of the book is partially my fault. As the story unfolds and all the characters who know about Sam's arson unanimously agree that he burned the Emily Dickenson House on purpose, I began to believe that Sam Pulsifer is an unreliable narrator. As in, I believed that he did burn down the Emily Dickenson House on purpose and is in deep denial. As a result I read between the lines, found meanings that weren't there and laughed at Sam's foolish attempts to justify and hide his pyromania. Then, about three quarters of the way through the book, after much frustration and confusion about what was really going on in the story, I discovered that his past crime was indeed an accident and he is not a pyromaniac. It was disappointing and I felt pretty dumb. After that, the story seemed to be shallow. Once again, it was totally my fault for making connections that weren't there, but the disappointment lingers. That's a warning to you if you ever pick up this book: don't make the same bumble I did.

Then there's the other issue, one related to the interplay between humour and drama. I like my comedies a certain way. If a story is comic, I do not want to have too many moments of seriousness. The story of An Arsonist's Guide is ridiculous and that's good. Many of the characters are ridiculous and that's good, too. However, Sam Pulsifer's reactions to the silliness around him are realistic and understandable, even if they are cringe-worthy. The results of the uncomfortable situations into which he is thrust are usually not funny, but painful. When Sam interacts with other realistic characters, there is no comedy: only sadness and loneliness. The book is promoted as a black comedy but I really don't see it. A comedy ought to lift my spirits because I've had several good laughs, even if those laughs are ignoble and mean-spirited. This book left me feeling depressed and sorry for its bumbling protagonist.

Is this my fault again for not having a well-developed sense of humour? Maybe, but I doubt it and in this case I don't care. My book review, my opinion. Fuck off.

Final impressions: this book strikes me as the sort of comedy that a person who likes "literature" would enjoy. One of the hallmarks of modern literature is bleakness and depression. Please pardon the expression, but An Arsonist's Guide seems like a silly story with funny characters that was left out in the literary sun and spoiled. You can look at it and pick out bits that you like but it's sour and leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.
1 1/2 smoking ruins out of 5


Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Zoey wants to explore ruins. Sort of. My twelve-year-old niece mentioned it in passing as something we could do while she's visiting us in Harris. She thinks it would be creepy, and therefore fun. I'm not entirely sure that she was serious when we discussed it, but I was. I know that a ghost town called Valley Centre is located on Highway 768, so on the sunny Saturday before she is scheduled to leave Harris, Zoey dons proper exploring shoes and an embarassing shirt of mine that we don't mind getting dirty. We leash the dog, board the Mazda and drive the gravel highway looking for someplace "creepy".

The old Hillview schoolhouse is locked and, despite Zoey's urging, I am unwilling to force the door. We peer inside basement windows at a plastic Christmas tree and octopus boiler, then decide to move on. Set against the golden hills in the distance is a brown grain elevator. I am reasonably certain from my memory of Google Maps that Valley Centre is located on 768, but the distant elevator is north of the highway. Then again, Google Maps also thinks there is an Indian Reserve to the east of Harris and the Stonebridge neighborhood in Saskatoon is called "Stonerideg". We decide to check it out.

It is not Valley Centre. According to the faded paint on the elevator, it is Bents. I stop the car on the hill to prevent the undercarriage getting scraped by weeds on the disused track into town. To our right is an abandoned house with smashed windows and flaking white and red paint, beyond that is a cluster of wooden buildings greying with age. To our left is the elevator.

"Oh my god," says Zoey. I feel the same way. I had expected to explore some toppling farmhouse with outbuildings filled with old paint. This find is scarcely believable. Such places exist.

We decide to avoid the nearest house because it looks the most recently-occupied and for some reason I find this unnerving. We follow the track to what was obviously once the general store. We tell the dog to sit and stay outside the door. I enter first, partly because I have no idea how stable the structure is, partly because Zoey is skittish.

For an abandoned ruin, this store is surprisingly sound. It is dark inside but light leaks through broken panes. Where on tracks more beaten an old building like this would be thoroughly ransacked and looted by boozing teenagers and people like myself and Zoey, the Bents general store is surprisingly intact. Stock still sits on the shelves, including a display of women's shoes. Old appliances and cabinets lie open everywhere. In places the floor is plastered with ancient paper and piles of swallow shit.

A counter with a porthole in the wall separates the general store from what looks like a post office in a rear room. Tiny cubby holes are labelled "McNaughton", "Wylie" and other local family names. Here the layer of paper on the floor is thicker. Zoey discovers a pamphlet promoting John Diefenbaker's Conservative government from 1962. I smile to myself as we sift the papers and discover personal documents from the late fifties and early sixties. Confidentiality was apparently not a huge issue when this office was abandoned.

The dog is now whining and circling the building. Before we leave, Zoey searches the women's shoes to find a pair that match as a trophy. By now, any fear she felt in exploring this place has vanished. So has her search for identity: the need to prove herself as a good person, a bad person, or a pretty girl. In this desolate yet beautiful place, I am also seeing Zoey for the first time. She is adventurous and free-thinking and I am secretly pleased.

We stash a load of loot at the car and then head toward the first house we saw. Hundreds of swallows wheel around the old TV antenna. Inside are drooping light fixtures, swallow nests, wood panelling, a used bar of soap and signs for an auction sale.

Judging from the No-Name shopping bags lying on the bathroom floor, this house was abandoned in the late eighties or early nineties. The whole town of Bents must have been auctioned off in this way. The last resident of Bents, probably an octogenarian, lived in this house on the edge of this rotting town, watching it collapse. At last concerned family members or death pried them from this home and their life was auctioned for a pittance. If ghosts exist, one surely stares from the windows of this home, watching the remains of Bents slowly vanish beneath the grass.

The next house we explore is in worse shape. In the living room a rusty pram is sinking into the floor. Zoey and I have found the creepiest thing we will see today. As we are leaving, we discuss why it was so creepy. I tell her, "Icons of youth in the midst of death are always creepier than just death." She agrees.

Zoey can't help posing every time she sees me readying the camera. I try to secretly photograph her without much success as we search the grain elevator. The elevator shelters an enormous scale, old machinery for scooping wheat and rotting bowls full of screws and nails.

A sturdy-looking ladder leads to an upper floor. Zoey wants to climb it. I forbid her to do so. When she asks why, I tell her it's because I don't know anything about architecture and I wouldn't want to be the one to tell her dad that she was crushed when a grain elevator collapsed on her. She says, "So, if I was your kid you wouldn't have a problem with it?" I confirm.

Outside the elevator is a graveyard for farm machinery. As Zoey and the dog clamber around in it she speculates on the function of various contraptions. She believes that the tractor she is sitting on might still run. "Alright," I say, not wanting to shatter any fantasies. Zoey's mind is open and imagining possibilities in this place and I don't want to spoil it. Just by being here she's discovering volumes about the lives of long-dead Saskatchewan and I don't even have to say anything. I am proud of her again and keep my thoughts to myself.

As evening approaches the sky turns radiant and high clouds paint strange patterns in the eerie blue. It occurs to me that this moment is of such shocking reality and beauty that it is to be treasured forever. In my adulthood, I can recognize these moments as they happen, but when I was a child I had no idea. Now I have only scattered memories and regrets that I didn't pay more attention. I hope that Zoey will remember this moment as I will.

On our way back to the car, Zoey wants to get a picture of herself riding on a rusty swing set. It's awkward but she manages to take a seat and pose. The symbol is painful. There she is, a girl poised on the edge of maturity, the toys of childhood becoming uncomfortable, her youth vanishing as surely as Bents is vanishing. In twenty years she will be a freethinking woman and Bents will be but piles of windblown, grassy timber and iron.

All things must change and have their beauty. But for now my niece, this town and the prairie that surrounds us are perfect. I thank God that I remembered to bring the camera to capture them as they were in this moment.