Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Monuments Men

I approached The Monuments Men with a bit of trepidation.  I’m not the hugest fan of George Clooney, the director.  I love the politics of his films.  I love the intentions of his films, yet I don’t love the films.  To me they’ve come across as a bit preachy without the cinematic chops.

That said, I looked forward to a war movie about art and the importance of art in society an culture.  What’s not to like about that premise?  Ultimately, The Monuments Men experience was an odd one.  Am I glad I saw the movie?  I guess I am.  The story, about an international troop of artists and art scholars trying to save European classics from the hands of the Nazis was not a story I was familiar with.  I learned a lot.  But the movie?  Oy, what a mess. 

It was a movie that could not figure out what it wanted to be.  The tone and tenor of the piece was all over the map.  A plucky, feel-good 50s war movie? A witty, rapacious comedy a la MASH?  An emotional, Spielbergian drama?   It was a real mish-mash of styles that sadly never found its footing.

The editing was equally sloppy. There was lots of narrative confusion. In the big picture, characters are spread out over Europe on certain missions, yet they continually rendezvous and meet up.  As a viewer there’s no sense of timeline.  Did those missions take days, weeks?  Why do they reconvene only to spread back out again?  Was there a purpose to the rendezvous other than to have all the stars back together again?   And many individual scenes also seemed devoid of finesse, leaving potentially dramatic scenes flat and uninspired. I don’t want to hand out any spoilers, but one particular scene that was poorly handled was a scene in which a main character dies.  I’ll only say that there was basic narrative confusion as to the set up of the death, the circumstances of the death, and ultimately no drama to the death. 

The film was devoid of tension, which is just not acceptable for a war movie.  There should have been tension.  The Nazi occupation of France, the Nazi retreat and their scorched earth policy, the brewing showdown between the Americans and the Russian, death on the battlefield.   All those plot points are broached in the movie, but none seemed particularly urgent.  

A frustrating film to be sure.  At the end of the day, I felt like I often do when I see well-intentioned docs that aren’t well put together.  I’m glad I saw it, but I just wish there was more art in the filmmaking. 

Dream #9 and Other Thoughts About David Mitchell

I like David Mitchell. Of modern writers, I think, hands down, he is one of the best.  Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet are two of my favorite novels of recent time.  Black Swan Green is a fantastic British coming of age novel set in the early-to-mid 80s and The Thousand Autumns, is a historical fiction of epic proportions that reads like a beautiful classic.

That said, I found Cloud Atlas quite frustrating. Cloud Atlas was composed of vaguely related stories that hopscotch across time and space.  Each story, in and of itself, was stellar.  However, the way the novel jumps from one story to the other, I found frustrating and unnecessarily difficult.  No sooner would you sink into a gripping story, then you would get whisked away from it for hundreds of pages. Eventually you would return to it, but the momentum was shot.  

As I get older, I’m not as interested in these challenging, post-modern styles of writing.  I want me some old-fashioned page turning.  Challenge me with ideas. Challenge me with stories and plot lines I’ve never before seen. Challenge me with daring thematic concerns.   But flashy, stylistic flights of fancy leave me cold and distanced from the story.
For me, Dream #9 falls into the Cloud Atlas camp of Mitchell’s work. There are flashes of brilliance, but ultimately it was a slog to get through.  The first 80 pages were particularly frustrating. I would have bailed if weren’t Mitchell.  The book opens with the main character, Eiji Miyake, camped out in a cafĂ© at a Tokyo business complex.  He’s been estranged from his father and is now set to drop in on his father unannounced. He’s moved from rural Japan to Tokyo to bring this plan to fruition.  For 80 pages he fantasizes about how this meeting will unfold.  The fantasies are endless (80 pages worth). It’s a novel that refuses to get started.  Given the dream like nature of the opening, one doesn’t actually learn that much about the characters, their conflict, or their back story. I had to keep reading the dust jacket to assure myself I’d get out of this never ending scene. Ultimately the novel does move on.  There are some great scenes, but the book moves in fits and starts.  Similar to Cloud Atlas, I enjoyed it while reading it, but I never had much desire to pick it back up once I set it down.

I still think Mitchell is an excellent writer and look forward to the next novel, but as far as Dream #9 goes…I read it, so you don’t have to.