Friday, March 30, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'Red'

The Book: Red

The Author: John Logan

How I Found It: I've recently become enamored of the actor Eddie Redmayne, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Ken, Rothko's assistant, in 2010. I was curious about the play's subject manner and his role in it, and decided to give it a look.

The Review: New York City, 1958 and 1959. Ken is the new assistant hired by Mark Rothko, famous painter of the 1930s and onwards. Rothko is abrasive, demanding, and very, very vocal. Ken is young, reserved, and not educated in the way Rothko would like. Still, he takes Ken--who is an artist himself--on as his assistant and lets him help around the studio, letting him do things like picking up takeout or helping with canvas priming (which, and he is adamant about this, is not painting).

As a year or so passes, Ken and Rothko, uneasy around each other at first, grow accustomed to each other's presence. Ken begins to educate himself with the texts Rothko constantly mentions, and takes it upon himself to challenge Rothko's firmly held notions about art and perception, while Rothko begins to draw Ken out and learn about his difficult past. As tensions reach a boiling point, Ken forces Rothko to reconsider his commission to paint wall murals for the Four Seasons restaurant, while Rothko begins to wonder if Ken is not, perhaps, what the future of art might look like.

I wasn't sure what to expect from this play. Was I going to enjoy it? More importantly, was I going to understand it? I don't know very much about art, and I was never particularly good at it. (I make pictures with words, I explain to those who ask if I can draw.) If I didn't understand much of anything about art, would I understand the message of this play? Would I be able to appreciate it?

As it turned out, I could, and so much more than I thought. Like Proof, a play about math that I had equal reservations in approaching, I didn't have to understand the subject matter in order to appreciate the very human, very affecting drama that played out here.

This is a play about two men that sounds all too familiar. It's an old trope, the young assistant who challenges the ideas of the old pro. Too often, the young assistant and the old pro form some sort of bond to compensate for a lack of parental presence on the young assistant's part. In some ways, Logan's play adheres to this trope--Ken's parents were indeed absent, though not of their own choosing, as becomes heartbreakingly clear in one of Ken's biggest moments--but in others, it's brilliantly subverted. Rothko and Ken's bond is never entirely easy; the volatility of Rothko's temper makes this impossible, and who says that Ken wouldn't want to unsettle him, provoke him into deeper thought, in any way he could? The play even sneers at the notion that Rothko is meant to be a father figure for Ken. Their relationship is deeper and more complicated than that trite summation.

Even if I didn't know much about art, I was surprised at how absorbed I became in its concerns. An intensely described scene of canvas priming (35-8) had me longing to have seen the play on stage; it's beautifully choreographed and must be a wonder to see staged in front of your eyes. I don't have much of an eye for color, and yet I was deeply moved by the scenes in which Rothko and Ken meditate on what meanings certain colors hold for them. For Ken, white is linked with the trauma of his past; for Rothko, red is what he clings to.
[on Matisse's "The Red Studio"]
Rothko: ... Such plains of red he made, such energetic blocks of color, such emotion! [Beat.] That was a long time ago.
Ken: It's still there.
Rothko: I can't look at it now.
Ken: Why?
Rothko: It's too depressing.
Ken: How can all that red be depressing?
Rothko: I don't see the red anymore... Even in that painting, that total and profound emersion in red... it's there. The mantel above a dresser, just over the centerline, set off by yellow of all goddamn things. He wanted it inescapable.
Ken: What?
Rothko: Black.
Ken: The color black?
Rothko: The thing black. [Beat.] There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend... One day the black will swallow the red. (28)
That imagery of colors, of what color could do to a person, really moved me--it's the same relationship I have with words, as a writer and a reader. Much as I could understand what math meant to Proof's Catherine by thinking of my own relationship to my work, I could understand how the color white could transport Ken back to a horrible time in his past. I could understand Rothko's fears of no longer seeing the red for the black.

And even if the Ken and Rothko plot could be considered a cliche, I found myself taking the arguments the two men had, the points both of them would raise, and applying them to my own life. To me, this wasn't just some story of a young man pushing an older one's boundaries; it said something. This early speech of Rothko's had me almost embarrassed, as I could realize how true it was almost immediately after reading it:
Rothko: But do you like it?
Ken: Mm.
Rothko: Speak up.
Ken: Yes.
Rothko: Of course you like it - how can you not like it? Everyone likes everything nowadays. They like the television and the phonograph and the soda pop and the shampoo and the Cracker Jack. Everything becomes everything else and it's all nice and pretty and likable. Everything is fun in the sun! Where's the discernment? Where's the arbitration that separates what I like from what I respect, what I deem worthy, what has... listen to me now... significance. (10)
How many times have I run into this problem? How many times have I used the same word to express a multitude of feelings, an opinion that should be expressed in terms of greater variety? Hell, how often do I run into that sort of problem in these reviews? The fictional Rothko's words have stayed with me in the days since I read the play. I've tried to choose my words more carefully since then. I haven't thought this consciously about a work I've read and applied its lessons to my real life in a long time.

The tension between Rothko and Ken builds to an intensely emotional final scene, where Rothko's own vulnerabilities finally come to the surface. Ken has seen that Rothko is sometimes unstable, but never before has Rothko so openly admitted his fears about his life and his work. Ken has pushed him to a breaking point and it is all Rothko can do to be honest with him. I was moved to tears in a way I hadn't thought I could be other than by imagery of profound sorrow--mourning, really--or happiness. I closed the book and had to sit for a moment. To think, in the way we leave Rothko, just standing there, studying his paintings.

The play won acclaim in both the West End and Broadway, and even having just read the play, I feel that acclaim is well-deserved. It's beautifully written, thought-provoking, and avoids all those irritating little cliches that tend to turn one off of mentor/mentoree stories. If you're at all curious about this play or its subject matter, give it a shot. It's not that long; you could read it in about an hour. But hopefully, as I have, you'll be thinking about it for a whole lot longer.

Friday, March 16, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'He Taught Me to Hope: Darcy and the Young Knight's Quest'

The Book: He Taught Me to Hope: Darcy and the Young Knight's Quest

The Author:
P.O. Dixon

How I Found It: I think it was an Amazon recommendation (you should see when I log in; it's the weirdest mix of Jane Austen sequels and Doctor Who tie-ins). I checked out the summary and was intrigued by the notion of Darcy interacting with Elizabeth Bennet's young son; as I've said before, I love books that feature child characters, so I wanted to give it a try.

The Review: Elizabeth Bennet did one thing she thought she'd never do: go against her father's wishes. She married young to a man she loved and who loved her, and as a result found herself cut off from her family. Not long after her marriage to Mr. Carlton, he is killed in an accident, and Elizabeth is left pregnant and alone. Her son, Bennet Carlton, grows up with Elizabeth and his loving grandfather, until his grandfather dies as well and Elizabeth is forced to return to Longbourn. Mr. Bennet, wanting the best for Jane and his remaining unmarried daughters, presses Lizzy to consent to an engagement with Geoffrey Collins, Mr. Collins' surprisingly agreeable elder brother. Feeling obliged to accept him, Lizzy agrees.

Bennet, meanwhile, is stifled by the almost entirely female atmosphere at Longbourn and longs for an escape. Whilst roaming in the nearby fields, he is nearly trampled by a horse and his rider--and that rider is Mr. Darcy. Ben is an imaginative child who is particularly taken by the legends of King Arthur, and declares himself to be Lancelot. Darcy, playing along, calls himself King Arthur, and quickly becomes Ben's friend. Darcy recognizes the boy's isolation and does his best to keep engage Ben's active imagination, and delves further into Meryton society during his time away from his young friend.

Darcy is particularly taken with Mrs. Elizabeth Carlton, thinking she is married and not a widow, and that his suit is, thus, hopeless. Elizabeth is likewise interested in Darcy, but knows she is bound to her fiance. Despite this, their respective connections to Ben could eventually end up bringing them closer--and bringing each of them into conflict with the bounds of propriety and their own hearts.

Dixon did a lot of interesting things here, and it was certainly one of the more original alternate takes on Pride and Prejudice I'd ever read. First off, Elizabeth as a widow? What? You mean she wasn't involved with Mr. Darcy, at all, ever? Second, Mr. Bennet cold and distant to Elizabeth? How can this be? Third, is that Lady Catherine being nice?

These were the questions that I was excited to find answers to as I started and kept reading. And no, you didn't read that last sentence up above wrong; Lady Catherine is actually portrayed in a sometimes positive light in Dixon's tale. Recently, I was reading a post on Austen Authors about how your perspective on Austen's characters can change as you grow older. I was most interested by those people who condemned Mr. Bennet as they grew up, saying that they came to realize that he was not the warm and witty character adaptations would have us believe, that he was instead a disrespectful, irresponsible, and inattentive father. (Upon rereading Pride and Prejudice for my English Literature class, I kept this perspective in mind, and noticed that it aligned more closely with the man Austen presents us than I'd thought, though I am a little more forgiving of the man than most.) I wondered if Dixon had this sort of perspective in mind as she wrote her tale. Her characterizations are certainly interesting.

Lizzy and Darcy are slightly altered--Lizzy is more mature, slightly older than in the original; she has more regard for the consequences of her actions. Rather than turning down Geoffrey Collins, as she does his younger brother in the original story, Elizabeth keenly feels her obligation to her family (though the estate is not entailed, in this story) and makes her decision based on their considerations, not her own. Darcy, meanwhile, is openly caring and affectionate to Ben--a soft side that is, in most variations, only seen by Lizzy. I really appreciated Dixon's take on Darcy; he recognizes a little boy lost without male guidance, a boy who must doubtless remind him of himself upon losing his parents. Darcy's scenes with Ben frequently had me smiling, and I was pleased to see an original way to bring out Darcy's kindness and somewhat heroic nature.

The more drastic changes come in the characterizations of Mr. Bennet, Lady Catherine, Anne, and Charlotte. Mr. Bennet, as mentioned before, is colder and more vindictive, almost, than commonly portrayed, and I was somewhat disappointed to see that Lizzy, once his favorite, had entirely sunk in his regard, with barely any hope for redemption. Lady Catherine is kind to Elizabeth, having known the elder Carltons, and it was funny to see Lady Catherine's usual impertinence warring with her desire to be nice to Elizabeth. Anne and Charlotte's characterizations, however, struck me as mildly problematic. Both are portrayed as fairly scheming in their pursuit of a match--not to comedic extent, as is Mrs. Bennet in the original, but almost coldly calculating their chances at a good match. This, along with a pivotal change to Jane's fortunes, made me most uncomfortable about the story. Antiquated stereotypes of femininity were sometimes adhered to, to an almost hyperbolic extent--the scheming woman who wants only marriage, the passive woman who ends up domineered by her husband--and I just wished, I suppose, for characterizations that didn't hinge on stereotypes that are today uncomfortable. The style of the story is also sometimes rough--there is frequent repetition of phrases like "taken leave of his/her senses" that I wish had been cut down upon--but these are minor distractions from an otherwise well-told story.

Those issues with characterization and minor stylistic annoyances are minor blips in a tale I otherwise greatly enjoyed. Is it cheesy? Yes, sometimes, but there are few stories that feature child characters that aren't. I give Dixon credit for experimenting with her story, excising elements of the original (for example, Lydia and Mr. Wickham) in order to create a story that focuses on Lizzy and Darcy alone--and Darcy's rival, Geoffrey Collins. Some won't like that Dixon strays far from the original, but as for me, who loves the variations market but sometimes gets tired of all of them hinging on the same points (what if Mr. Bennet died? what if Darcy spoke up about Wickham sooner? what if something or other happened to make Lizzy and Darcy anticipate their marriage and engage in some sort of sexual activity?), I was pleased by her choice to create original characters and situations. Geoffrey Collins was someone I was so eager to pick apart; his good qualities and his flaws are gradually revealed to the reader, so that for a while, one wonders if Darcy is perhaps doing wrong by separating Lizzy from a man who seems so amiable, a man who wants to be a father to her son and who wants Lizzy to help him mother his daughters. Of course, we all know how it's going to end up, but the fun is in the ride, isn't it?

And oh, it was a fun ride. Darcy's rivalry with Collins was hugely entertaining, as was Ben's part in the whole tangled mess. Ben, for his part, is not amused with Collins, and indeed assigns him the name of a Camelot villain. He'd much rather his mama, Guinevere, fall in love with King Arthur. King Arthur would love that, too. But Guinevere needs convincing, and so convince her he must. It was nice to see a Darcy who was slightly more open about his affections--this Darcy does not reveal himself in a letter; he instead proves himself to Elizabeth through his kindnesses to her son and his steadfast devotion to them both.

For those who aren't purists, who are curious about a take on Austen that strays far from the well-beaten path, but does so through new perspectives and intriguing original characters, I would not hesitate to recommend this story. And for those who want more, should you finish the story and crave it, Dixon's holiday story The Mission, featuring the characters, is available through most ebook retailers. It helped smooth out some of the minor quibbles I had with the ending as well as gave me more time with Elizabeth, Darcy, and Ben, and for that I was quite pleased.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In Which Trai Reviews 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close'

I apologize for the incredibly long break, everyone--as often happens, I am a college student with little time to read, let alone sit down and review, as new semesters start, and I had to save my backlog for when I had more time (namely, now!). Here we go!

The Book: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

The Author: Jonathan Safran Foer (husband of Nicole Krauss, whose book A History of Love I reviewed in 2010)

How I Found It: I was interested in the film adaptation, and curious to read the book when I learned that Krauss, whose book I'd really liked, and Foer were a literary power couple! And thank you to the fine folks at Kobo who offered the ebook at a discount during a sale, which prompted my purchase! :)

The Review: Oskar Schell is an interesting young boy. Others might call him odd. He can be socially tone deaf and perhaps too imaginative for others. Tests to figure out whether he has Asperger's proved inconclusive, and Oskar's parents and grandmother were left to figure out how to engage with and teach their child about the world.

Oskar's dad, Thomas Schell, seems to have found the perfect ways. He engages with Oskar through games (such as "reconnaissance expedition") and imaginary stories, like when he tells Oskar that New York once had a sixth borough. As a result, Oskar is closest to his father, a jeweler whose own father left the family before he was born.

Oskar and his mother are devastated when Thomas is killed in the 9/11 attacks, leaving his mother and grandmother grieving and Thomas adrift without his touchstone. An accident in his father's closet one day leads him to discover a key in an envelope marked BLACK. Oskar is mystified by this key and convinced that it is a clue in a last expedition set up by his father. He then decides to go to see every Black in the five boroughs, searching for the truth behind the key, wondering what it could possibly mean.

This book is not for everyone, I think I'll say right off. It can be construed as gimmicky. There are pages upon pages of pictures taken by Oskar in his journeys interspersed with the narrative. There's a numerical cypher that goes on for pages and pages that I tried valiantly to read (not even to decode!), only to stop when I thought my eyeballs would bleed. There's even the general premise of a post-9/11 story, which some argued was too soon to be taking on when Foer published the book in 2005. Those who think the book sounds too cutesy or like a cheap gimmick had better stay away; you'll probably feel exactly that if you were to read it.

I was somewhere in the middle. I sometimes wasn't a fan of Foer's technique (the pictures got tiring, especially when the same ones came up several times, and the aforementioned numerical cypher was too clever for me), but I appreciated the story and found it ultimately touching, if mostly sad. The book had a deep emotional core that resonated with me. Interspersed with Oskar's narrative is the tale of his grandparents--Thomas' father explaining why he left his son before he was even born; Thomas' mother telling her side of the story, her history with Thomas' father. Their story is one of love and loss, just like Oskar's. Both stories are about fathers and sons, about the search for human connection.

The importance of human relationships really struck me as I read through the book. Oskar has difficulty relating with people, but his quest to find every Black in the five boroughs brings him in contact with all manner of people. There's a Mr. Black not far from him who has a card catalogue of every person he's ever known with a one-word description of them. That alone showcases the importance of human relationships--that one Mr. Black goes so far as to catalogue every person he's ever formed a relationship with or felt connected to in some way. Mr. Black joins Oskar for part of his quest, and one Black they come to has passed away--she was a waitress at the Windows on the World restaurant who perished in 9/11, just like Oskar's father. It was episodes like this that served to show just how connected people can be in such a large city, a theme the movie played up.

If the book is not for everyone, the movie isn't, either. It was condemned by some critics as maudlin and overdone. For me, it was one of those rare movies I preferred to the book. The movie did away with some of those gimmicky things that bothered me about the book, and made some adaptational choices I felt streamlined the story and made it work a bit better than Foer's occasionally overstuffed tale.

For a start, Thomas Horn's turn as Oskar was touching as well as exceptionally forceful and driven. I'm really curious to see where this kid goes in the future. Eric Roth, the writer of the screenplay, chose to downplay the more noticeable of Oskar's characteristics that could indicate Asperger's. He was portrayed more as having anxiety in social situations and being slightly phobic of certain triggering things (briefcases, foreigners, etc.) after 9/11. The elements were there, but not dwelt on; Oskar's personality is left to stand on its own, without harping on a possible diagnosis. Horn was both charming and touching, and gave Oskar life that didn't always come off on page, for me, as Oskar in the book was sometimes a bit too outrageous and unbelievable. Paring down his character a bit was a wise choice, in my opinion.

Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock did extraordinarily well. Tom Hanks' scenes with Horn were full of warmth and you could really see the bond between Oskar and Thomas. Thomas' games are here shown to be a bit more than Oskar's narration in the book has us believe; they are Thomas' way of getting his son out into the world to talk to people. Hanks has few scenes with his on-screen wife, but the best is undoubtedly the emotional phone call between them where Linda realizes Thomas is at the World Trade Center. We don't see all that much of Linda, but her scenes with Oskar are well-played, if sometimes tough to watch, as both of them lash out in their grief. The increased focus on Oskar's mother as opposed to her role in the novel was something I appreciated, especially towards the end of the film; I felt she was portrayed in a slightly more forgiving light, and that her and Oskar were shown to have potential for a better future understanding of each other.

(I thank Roth for taking out the subplot involving Linda dating again; as it was portrayed in Foer's novel, it contributed to the unfortunate portrayals of moving on after grief wherein children are hostile and cannot accept that their parent has found someone else. It is realistic, but often is the only type of situation shown, and often portrayed as somewhat insurmountable, with tensions remaining between the second partner and the child[ren]. This was the case with Foer's novel and it was one of the things I wasn't happy with.)

Oskar's grandparents' story is not shown at all, but elements of the presence of elders in the story still remain. The scene where Oskar's grandmother lies on the floor with him following the 9/11 attacks made me cry; Zoe Caldwell did well. Mr. Black, he of the card catalogue, is conflated with the grandmother's mysteriously silent lodger, played excellently by Max von Sydow. He never speaks a word, but his expressive face and scribblings on a notepad are enough to get his message across. von Sydow's Oscar nomination was well-deserved.

Overall, I preferred the movie to the book, as it toned down the more hyperbolic elements of Foer's story, and let the more human, realistic elements speak for themselves. The book, however, is not without merit; I recommend that anyone who saw the film without reading the book give the book a try, as the story of Oskar's grandparents lends greater depth to the story, a half without which Oskar's story isn't whole. Though the book and movie are not for everyone, I recommend them to anyone who wants to read about grief and recovery, and about the human connections that bind us all together.