Friday, September 21, 2012

Funny as damnit

I discovered P.G. Wodehouse back in 1980, when I was living away from my parents for the first time. I had a job I didn't especially like, was living with a roommate I didn't especially like, had broken up with a boyfriend, and I didn't have a car. Things seemed a bit on the dark and gloomy side. Then I discovered Wodehouse through his novel Full Moon and found myself laughing out loud on practically every page. Within a couple of months, I had a better job, a car, and a new boyfriend with whom I eventually moved in. Clearly, Wodehouse changed my life!

I got on a bit of a Wodehouse jag, reading 3 or 4 novels and some short stories, and over the years I kept buying his books, and have accumulated over 20 Wodehouse volumes. But my guilty secret is that I that after that first rush, I quit reading him. He is a very witty writer, but his plots are all the same. In his most famous series, Jeeves is a valet to young rich gadabout Bertie Wooster and is constantly getting Bertie out of all kinds of scrapes, mostly involving wriggling out of unwanted engagements with young women. His other famous series involves escapades among the rich and the servants (and often, some prize pigs) at Blandings Castle. I would find myself laughing quite a bit, but then I'd get to page 40 and realize that the story was going in the same direction as all the others, involving characters I couldn't keep track of and didn't really like. Funny as damnit, as Bertie might say, but I'd get bogged down, close the book, and never pick it back up.

Last month, I bought a Wodehouse reprint (many if not most of his over 100 books, written between 1915 and 1974, have remained in print), Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, read it all the way through and enjoyed it. This time when I hit page 40, I realized that the plots and the characters don't really matter very much--what matters is, as a quote on the cover from Simon Brett says, the way Wodehouse plays with language. More to the point in the Jeeves books, it's the narrative tone of Bertie Wooster, a jackassedly unreliable narrator who gets everything wrong but who, thanks to the intervention of Jeeves, comes up smelling like a rose by the end.

Here is Wooster on his own image: "'Wooster,' those who know me have sometimes said, 'may be a pretty total loss during the daytime hours, but plunge the world into darkness, switch on the soft lights, uncork the champagne and shove a dinner into him, and you'd be surprised." Describing himself leaping in the air to get away from a snarling dog: "A cat on hot bricks could not have moved with greater nippiness." I now find myself wanting to say things like, "Well, I'll be dashed" and "Got to leg it home" and "She was what-the-helling all day" in casual conversation. My favorite Woosterism is using initials, sometimes confusingly. He refers to the Woosters' being able to "take the rough with the s." and it took me a minute to figure out the s. was the smooth. Pouring oil on troubled w. was a little more obvious.

Now that I've decided not to worry about plot or characterization, I may be at the beginning of another Wodehouse jag. I'm watching some of the Jeeves and Wooster shows from the 90s with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry (pictured above) and a colleague of mine at work who loves Wodehouse has decided to read some Wodehouse along with me, so we'll have our own little 2-person book club, laughing our a.'s off and ignoring the real world.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

From Space Oddity to Major Tom's a junkie

When I was a teenager, David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust was one of my favorite albums. It was mysterious, it was science-fiction, it was gender-bending, and it rocked. So I was quite interested in a new book, The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s by Peter Doggett. The format of the book is rather unusual: it's essentially a song-by-song analysis of Bowie's entire recorded output of the decade, presented chronologically, with sidebars for albums analysis and biographical information. Each song has a number (like an opus number) for easy reference, and Doggett includes a section in back covering most of Bowie's pre-1970 work as well.

Having recently read a decent Bowie biography recently (David Bowie: Starman by Paul Trynka), I was looking for this book to complement that a stricter focus on the music. Some of the individual analyses are interesting, and when he sets up the context well for specific albums (the Berlin albums with Brian Eno, for example), it can be downright compelling reading. But the book occupies a strange place, stuck between being a reference work and a narrative. At times, as with the Ziggy Stardust and Eno eras, Doggett does get a good narrative arc going, but at other times, particularly during Station to Station and Young Americans years, the story stutters along in fits and starts. He also misses, or maybe deliberately omits some well-known facts about the songs (like the origin of "TVC-15" involving Iggy Pop's girlfriend disappearing into a TV set). Interesting, but too quirkily hit-or-miss to be essential.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Coen Brothers in Norway

OK, once again I try to revive this blog. I don't seem to have the energy to write long critical analytic posts about books, TV and current movies anymore--must be using all that juice on my classic movie blog. So here I re-commit to posting shorter entries on the media I consume, right after I consume it--though I have a lot of movies from the past year or so to work in as well. First up is Headhunters, a Norwegian film based on a bestselling novel by Jo Nesbø. Roger (Aksel Hennie), a guy who does executive headhunting, is also an art thief on the side, largely so he can keep living beyond his means to impress his lovely wife (and his mistress). When he headhunts Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), former head of a GPS company, he finds out that the man has a rare painting which had been was stolen by the Nazis, so in the grand tradition of crime films, Roger decides to pull one last big heist then call it quits. Of course, it turns out to be not so easy; Clas isn't quite what he seems to be and he soon turns the tables on Roger, perhaps getting help from the wife and the mistress, not to mention the aforementioned GPS company.

With narrative whiplash, dark and gory comic setpieces, and characters you shouldn't like but do, this feels very much like a Coen Brothers film, particularly Blood Simple, which for my money is still their best. This film isn't quite that good, but it's much more interesting (and more perversely fun) than the DVD box art makes it look. It is not an action/adventure hit-man movie with Jason Statham. It is a quirky crime-cum-noir indie film with a good cast and an unusual setting (Norway). I have to admit the main reason we watched this was because of the presence of the ridiculously comic-book-handsome Coster-Waldau (above), who plays Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones, and he is indeed very good, as is Hennie. I suspect the inevitable Hollywood remake might feature Aaron Eckhart as Clas and Steve Buscemi as Roger, and they would be fine, but don't wait, go get this one, especially if you like your crime films darkly funny, fairly bloody, and a little scatological.