Wow, this got so many raves, and it’s such a dog. I use the term advisedly, to ruthlessly mock the writers of this film for trying to pass off a cancerous chocolate lab as a metaphor for the American economy.
The script is relentlessly pedantic, all the performances seem drowned in valium, the pace — ironically, since this is supposed to be about spectacularly dramatic events — is grindingly glacial. I apologize for the adverbs.
This is the first Naipaul novel I’ve read, and I found the experience quite disorienting, in ways both pleasurable and upsetting. I think my upset is what will persist, and that may be a good thing.
I’m well accustomed to literature which travels a predictable path of indignation regarding the injustice of European colonialism. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything, though, that so fully encompasses the complexity of the relationships between all the various players in a colonial situation. The shorthand version of colonialism — wealthy European whites exploiting poor African blacks — conceals a plethora of more nuanced and complicated relationships. That seems a pretty self-evident thing to say, but I don’t know of another text that brings it to the fore as forcefully as this. Instead of the basic master/slave dynamic, we find here highly complex systems of classes within classes, exiles within exiles, powers within powers.
An ethnic Indian trader prospering on the east coast of Africa moves with his mixed-race slave to an interior African country which was recently decolonized by a European power and is now tipping into a civil war sponsored in part by European interests and partially by ethnic and class divisions within the aboriginal culture. Everything that’s wrong with colonialism (slavery, oppression) and all of its benefits (clean water, electricity) are on display. Everything that’s wrong with independence (kleptocracy, recapitulation of colonial power structures) and all of its benefits (a sense of common destiny and self-determination) are on display. Human relationships are a hall of mirrors. “Everyone is a villager,” and everyone’s a kind of slave. As Naipaul puts it more than once, “It wasn’t that there was no wrong and no right. It was that there was no right.” He has no respect for any of the systems on offer, imperial or revolutionary or anything in-between, and his analysis of how the different constituents of the river town exercise, cede, and accumulate different forms of power — economic, political, sexual, emotional — is nuanced, precise, and persuasive.
All this is an easy sell as far as I’m concerned. I’ve written myself about what seems to be the sad inevitability of revolutions turning back into empires. The discomfort enters for me, though, because it does sort of seem like Naipaul is especially contemptuous of the revolutionary part of the cycle. There are passages here which remind me of Shelby-Steele-like rhetoric, which seem to accuse the oppressed of abetting their oppression, and that kind of thinking makes this white boy fidget with discomfort. It may well be a productive upset, though, because one thing I can say for sure is that few pieties about colonialism can survive a careful reading of this book.
So what’s this all this, then? Sort of an Irish Hal Hartley movie, you might say. Makes not much sense as a whole, but the parts are fun: the mood is engaging, there are some craic flights of dialogue here and there, and the whole thing moves along briskly enough, so sure.
Interesting to sit down with Wendy to watch this. The first murder makes her gasp and I realize it’s not even registering for me as an act of violence, since this is a comedy at heart. I wonder how many murders I’ve seen on the screen.
Some people get excited when their favorite bands try new things — they’re showing their versatility! they’re growing! — but I am not one of those people. I want my favorite bands to provide a steady supply of new songs that sound exactly like, but different from, the songs I already love. These gentlemen understand that, and they have my gratitude.
Jesus, between this and Beginners, I’m starting to wonder whether I need to personally go out to Los Angeles and slap everybody. I adored You and Me and Everyone We Know, and I think Miranda July’s a delight in every way, but here’s a deadly example of how quirky can very quickly render out as tedious. Or maybe — here’s the relentless fear — I’m just getting too old? Have had my fill of quirky? I can in fact well imagine seeing this in 1988 alongside, say, Betty Blue, and experiencing it as soul-scouring. Was I blind then or am I deaf now?
Ach, that’s all nonsense talk. If I’m old, I’m old enough to know that daddy things go in cycles, the way that Kanye West is just ampin’ like Michael, and what we have here is Stranger than Paradise for the new ones same as Jarmusch put Godard in Sandusky for us. No harm, no harm! But no joy. I was glad the cat died; it was creeping me out.
Must be said: As ever with July, the details persist: I completely buy the kid digging a foxhole in the backyard, and answering, when queried about where she’ll pee, “I’ll do it here. Like a soldier.” Also a plus is that no one is rich. And also I loved the guy who put the old blowdryer on Craigslist. Actually, I’m realizing now that I enjoyed the first 45 minutes a lot more than the second.