All posts tagged “motorcycles


Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013)

11178828_800They call this sci-fi, but there aren’t any ray guns or warp drives, just so you know. There is possibly an alien, but we never find out for sure.

The movie is OK, I guess. The music is terrific, and the Scottish highlands are beautiful. Edinburgh looks like a dump and everyone who lives there should be sent immediately on mercy flights to the Costa del Sol and be caused to eat salad.

There’s a fine line between genuine intensity and fake portentousness, and this movie’s at least half an inch over that line, but there are things to like here, too. I appreciate above all the complete refusal to explain any of the odd things that happen. It’s not even a refusal, actually; it’s just a near-pure indifference. Odd and remarkable things just happen. That seems to me a pretty honest representation of how the world actually works.

In keeping with this spirit, early on there’s not much sense of what the main character’s motivations are as she goes about doing the strange things she does. Later, she seems to take a turn, and become suddenly interested in developing a sense of human intimacy instead of continuing to play her diffident part in a very slow and inefficient program designed to rid the earth of Scotsmen. These later movements reminded me a bit of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, where the angel decides he’d rather be a mortal human than an immortal angel. This is sort of like that, except the angel isn’t very nice.

Or maybe she is nice? It was hard for me to tell whether the main character’s actions, which seemed to involve luring men to oblivion, were being performed out of malice or mercy. Some of the fellows seemed to me to be thinking that getting naked with Scarlett Johansson, walking toward her as she backs away, Grecian-urn style, and then preserving the moment for eternity (in a manner of speaking) is perhaps not a bad way to go.

And yet, someone should tell Scarlett Johansson that staring at things and people with a blank look on her face isn’t acting, it’s boring. I’m reminded of another movie that I liked looking at but not thinking about, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, where Johansson is similarly vacant a lot of the time. Is it her own styleless style, or are her directors asking this of her? Why would they do that? It almost feels like a form of radical objectification: Here, beautiful woman, just stand here as stilly as possible and stare at this tree (or housefly or karaoke singer) like you don’t have a thought in your head, while I run my camera all over your body. Look at her up there on the poster. Is she cruel, kind, smart, stupid, violent, gentle, happy, sad, angry, content? No clue, and aside from maybe three or four instants of tiny character developments, the movie itself also keeps her interiority a near-perfect mystery. I would have liked to get a little bit more under that skin.


The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner (2013)

flamethrowercoverMany contemporary American novelists write novels to mansplain contemporary America to me which is one reason I tend not to read many contemporary American novels. Rachel Kushner starts racking up points with me from page one on the basis of her chosen subjects and settings alone; I cannot recall ever having read a novel set in the New York art world of the 1970s, industrializing northern Italy in the 1950s, or leftist Italian movements of the 1970s, much less all three.

The novel opens with our protagonist, Reno, a young would-be artist, using a fancy Italian motorcycle to make a mark on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Everyone else present is there to marvel at the power and force of machinery; Reno is there to make a drawing of impermanence. The novel ends (don’t worry; only the mildest of spoilers to follow) with an Italian would-be anarchist using a set of borrowed skis to make a mark on the side of Mont Blanc as he flees the police pursuing him for crimes he’s committed against the Italian industrialist family who manufactured the fancy Italian motorcycle aforementioned. You begin to see the layers of theme and association Kushner’s built up. The novel is about the rise of industrialized postwar capitalism, its early roots in Futurist fetishization of machinated speed, the ways in which its apparent hegemony was undermined by anarchic movements artistic and political, and the ways in which those movements began to fail.

At what point did modernity start to seem other than purely glorious? Everyone’s got a different answer for that, depending on where and when you come from. 1914, 1945, 1967 — you can make strong arguments for any of these, of course. You don’t hear hear 1978 very often, the year the Red Brigades killed Aldo Moro. Have kids these days ever heard of Aldo Moro, or Baader-Meinhof? There’s probably a band in Bushwick named Red Army Faction. God, that’s a depressing thought.

Anyway, apparently Kushner (b. 1968) is old enough to know and young enough to be able to reimagine those “years of lead” when the ideologies of the 1960s turned into the uprisings of the 1970s, and then everything went to hell.

I’m going on about politics because that’s the part most interesting to me, but Kushner’s evocation of the New York art world at this moment is actually the most entertaining part of the book. The implicit but never enforced idea is that the revolutionary movements in art going on at the same time as these attempts at political revolution and anarchism are just as exciting but finally just as overheated, under-baked, and doomed to be remembered more as zigs and zags of fashion than agents of actual upheaval. The characters Kushner creates in the Soho of the early 1970s are wonderful, and it’s fun too to guess who’s supposed to be representing actual artists of the time; I think I may have spotted William Eggleston? Can that be right?

There’s some unevenness in this book — some scenes can feel like they were only written because Kushner had to get someone from point A to point B — but there are some sequences that are genuinely thrilling in their cascades of association which seem both truly surprising and absolutely inevitable. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s the best work of contemporary fiction I’ve read in a long time.

I’ve got one other line of thinking that doesn’t make me very happy. Our protagonist Reno is a young woman from nowhere (Reno) trying to navigate all the sophistication and sophistry of the rich, the urban, the Italian, the artistic, etc. I wish she had in the end, or even the middle, found something to be other than a girl who looks to men to define her, and something to do other than react to situations. She begins the book with an idea about an art project; Kushner doesn’t let her do anything with it, and by the end, we’ve pretty much forgotten that she ever had any artistic ambitions at all. Is that supposed to be a comment on the fate of female artists of the time? That seems like an interpretive stretch. Anyway, I’m just saying that I felt more interested in Reno’s artistic aspirations than she seemed to be herself.