Thursday, November 25, 2010

Comedy by Committee

I had gone off on some hare-brained adventure to Whakatane that would put my late father to rest, but it was a bit of a disaster and the question was whether I should still watch a movie for my usual Friday deadline or postpone it until Monday. Might as well try some laughter, I thought, and ended up watching Due Date, another bit of a disaster about fathers and sons, in Tauranga.

Architect Peter Highman (Downey Jr) has just crossed paths with Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galafianakis) and his dog at an airport in Dallas, Texas. The latter has caused the former to be shot by a rubber bullet within the first 10 minutes of the movie, but fate and necessity have supposedly thrown them together, for Peter has to get to his wife in Los Angeles, who's about to have their baby. Ethan has to be at a meeting with an agent on the same day, same city.

All good and well. But aspiring actor Ethan has his father's ashes in a coffee tin and rather movingly convinces us that this was a very important person in his life. Yet, when Peter tells how his father asked him to wake him early one morning so that the old man could leave Peter and his mother, forever, Ethan starts laughing. It's a long and forced laugh and no one thought about cutting it.

It's a deeply false note in a movie whose trailer is a comic gem, whereas the real thing becomes tiresome in the extreme. Soon Peter will have a broken arm from a crash (Ethan falls asleep while driving), then he'll survive another crash in a mobile prison caravan that rolls head-over-end (Ethan again) at high speed because he's supposedly relaxed from pain killers, then he'll accidentally get shot in the leg (ditto) and hobble into hospital hours later, but will the child be his and blah blah blah.

The writers (four of them, including the director) of this mess clearly ran out of ideas and resorted to the old trick of inserting a car chase, though it's not featured in the trailer.

Then there is the little question of Ethan's sexuality. It seems like the committee wanted him to be gay - the pink hair brush in the back pocket, the half mincing walk, the ugly but cute pooch - but that it would never become an "issue" between him and Peter. So just avoid him talking about any significant other at all. He's just a camp, absentminded actor who happens to smoke pot for his glaucoma. Talking of which, Downey Jr is pretty camp when the movie starts too.

So there you have it. You can see Due Date in any small town in most countries across the globe, but I prefer the bit of footage I shot on my cellphone while getting drunk in Whakatane. What those good people say is much more funny and real than anything in the movie - and they made me feel welcome in their town and my new country.

Neil Sonnekus

* If you want to see a really good buddy movie try Martin Brest's 1988 Midnight Run with Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Medium is the Message

An old varsity connection recently requested that we become friends on Facebook and I noticed that the symbol or logo - as opposed to a photograph - he used to identify himself was a hammer breaking the Microsoft flag.

The hammer clearly denoted the communist one and the flag presumably represented evil capitalism. But it was a very hi-tech image and I couldn't help wondering why the world's second-most-vitriolic anti-Americans (the first obviously being radical Muslims) always happily employ American technology and/or actually live in the big Satan. They don't go and work in, say, Minsk, Chengdu or Douala and start a workers' revolt from there.

Seeing The Social Network will no doubt fuel their anti-capitalism because it doesn't paint a very flattering portrait of how the latest social revolution came about, one in which you are free to mention your sore nose or share the latest brilliant idea.

Students of Screenwriting 101 will also be delighted to point out that the film starts with a big no-no: a very long conversation. Ah, but the lecturer might reply, it's because David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) is directing: he can get away with it. Which is probably true.

His film also doesn't really have a protagonist. Instead its focus is on the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), the youngest billionaire on the planet. In that initial conversation he proves himself to be a completely charmless little misogynist. Sharp, but charmless, badly dressed and unattractive. So much so that his girlfriend tells him to get lost and doesn't change her mind when he becomes ultra-rich. Maybe the point is that in the world of business and/or IT there are only absentee protagonists.

Almost half of the film consists of lawsuits being conducted against Zuckerberg, surrounded by men and women in stiff grey suits according to their sex, while he maintains his shapeless jeans and those hideous single-strap plastic sandals sports people used to (or maybe still) wear.

What was his crime? Well, according to the film it's a bit of a grey area. It's not like he stole anyone's idea directly. Yes, there already was an electronic network connecting students on campus, but it wasn't being used to decide who's the hottest girl around, or which animal she resembles. For that, Mr Zuckerberg had the brains to write the program exclusively.

So, not a nice piece of work, our Mr Zuckerberg, about whose background we learn absolutely zip.

But every Bill Gates needs a couple of co-founders who will become faceless co-billionaires. Enter Sean Parker, the founder of the failed Napster and, according to the film, a real little shit. Justin Timberlake has become surprisingly adept at playing these morally vacant characters, but according to Vanity Fair the person he portrays so well is not such a turd.

Sure, he likes to party hard - and Fincher is a master at making that kind of American decadence look extremely attractive - but he knows how to sell and realise an idea and, according to the real Parker, "it's technology, not business or government, that's the driving force behind large-scale societal shifts".

What he neglects to say is that nothing just pops up of out nowhere and changes the world, but he doesn't come across as the spineless little slimeball that we see in the movie either. What he has, of course, is exactly what Zuckerberg doesn't, namely social skills, charm.

But if the real Parker is not being portrayed accurately, why should we believe that Zuckerberg is? What exactly would screenwriting heavyweight Aaron Sorkin (West Wing) and Fincher be trying to say? Obviously the film wasn't made without covering all legal loopholes, which Zuckerberg seems pretty good at finding, so what does this story boil down to in the end? A bit of business history, perhaps, a little mythmaking? Maybe not.

Someone playing the aforementioned Gates is featured in a cameo and we all know that the richest man in the world, along with the second richest, Warren Buffett, is giving away the equivalent of small countries' GDP to causes such as the eradication of polio and malaria, and the fight against HIV/Aids.

Judging by this film, one wouldn't be surprised if Zuckerberg were to sell all our personal details to the CIA or whoever else wants to watch us and has enough money, like those Chinese securocrats who think they're fighting a winning battle against a technology - and therefore consciousness - that renders them positively dinosaurian.

But at least The Social Network isn't one of those nauseating college romances, and maybe Fincher used the oldest trick in the cinematic book to convince Zuckerberg, whether face to face or not, that this film needed to be made.

Maybe he, like Parker, appealed to the young billionaire's desperate need for social acceptance, and this time round they both won, since the film is making a killing at the box office.

Neil Sonnekus


A Passage in India

Jaipur, Rajasthan's capital, is not the place to go to if you want to catch a glimpse of India's headlong rush into modernity. A fixture on the tourist circuit, it is best known for its pink-walled old city, its 18th-century forts, its traditional jewellery and technicolour textiles. But for a few days each January, the city provides a conduit to the people and debates at the very heart of contemporary literature.

Set in the grounds of a beautiful heritage property, Diggi Palace, the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival has grown rapidly in the past six years from a small, regional affair to one of international stature that has attracted the likes of Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan.

Last year, it attracted more than 20 000 people and more than 200 speakers. The five days of reading and panel discussions have become an increasingly important stop for writers looking to showcase their work, and for agents and publishers on the lookout for the Next Big Thing.

Crucially, though, it maintains its local feel. As anyone who has been to Hay knows, the problem with the major lit festivals is that they are usually just a vehicle to sell books and the closest they get to any excitement is when the author fluffs his lines while reading an extract from his latest work.

There's often a sense of "we must pull in the celebrities at any price" - as when Hay spent $168 000 to have Bill Clinton speak in 2001. By contrast, Jaipur has remained largely non-commercial. No one is paid a fee and, more to the point, the entire festival is free to attend. Instead of relying on ticket sales, the fest has managed to shame or cajole institutions like Merrill Lynch into becoming major sponsors, along with the usual suspects like the British Council.

To cap it off, excellent Indian cuisine is served to thousands of participants free of charge and superb live music is performed into the small hours every night. Authors mingle informally with the public too, while there is plenty of networking.

Jaipur is directed by the respected author William Dalrymple, and this January he's managed to attract Orhan Pamuk, JM Coetzee, Kiran Desai, Richard Ford, Anthony Beever, Jay McInerney, Mohsin Hamid, Monica Ali, Jung Chang, Fatima Bhutto, Candace Bushnell and Germaine Greer - to name only a few - to Diggi Palace, along with book lovers from all over Asia and abroad.

It's definitely worth checking out, not least to see whether Tina Brown was right when she called it "the greatest literary show on earth".

Melissa de Villiers

* The Jaipur Literature Festival runs from 21 - 25 January 2011. For more details, go to:

Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Singular Man

Back in Johannesburg there was a little grey accountant who helped struggling artists because he was a good man and because he had always wanted to study literature. Cyril Fisher dutifully became an accountant, as his father had instructed, but many years later he got his degree in English literature by correspondence through the University of South Africa and proudly displayed it in his beige office.

The only other picture in that room I can recall is a photograph of his wife. She wanted to go to the Alps before they grew too old, but she became ill in Austria and was only going to go to one hospital and that was the Rosebank Clinic back in the City of Gold. After her operation the doctor made his inspection and angrily asked one of the nurses where the old lady's drip was.

Up the ill Mrs Fisher piped and said: "He's sitting right here."

How did I come to hear this story? Mr Fisher told it me, smiling fondly. So I can understand that a sweet old man like that might sit down in his chair one night, only a few months after his beloved partner had died, and simply expire due to a lack of interest, missing his beautiful wife, his heart breaking.

But I find it a bit difficult to process that a good-looking man in his mid-50s - and a professor of literature, to further tenuously link the above story - will decide to do himself in because his partner has died. Does it matter that he's gay? Well, this is one of the questions Tom Ford's adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel, A Single Man, asks.

Colin Firth's George describes his intention as somewhat "melodramatic", but he's going to proceed to blow his head off anyway, and he does so with all the obsessive attention to detail that probably made Ford one of the top fashion designers in the world. (Talent, of course, helps too.) A pathologist might have told the director that the barrel should aim at the brain, not the spine, but that's a minor detail.

Obviously we sit there wondering when George is going to do himself in, which adds a kind of languid tension to the whole affair.

More importantly, is Ford saying that gays are melodramatic? Maybe just a little, and then there's enough self-deprecation to balance it out with statements like "I'm English, we like to be wet and cold." But, as George says, he doesn't want to live in a world "without sentiment". Not sentimentality, mind, sentiment. There's a difference.

Who does George run to when he hears the terrible news of his lover's death in a car accident? He runs to Charley, played by a slightly heavier-than-usual Julianne Moore. It's a very beautiful scene. There is lovely music (by Abel Korzeniowski), there is rain, there is no speech and there is grief.

But she is his ex, even sexually. And, like so many fag hags, she is still secretly in love with him, still hoping he's going to turn straight so that they can have a "real" relationship, she later confesses - high on gin, wealth and indolence. Naturally it's a statement that infuriates him, but they are friends and he forgives her.

At worst, it seems like the film is aimed very much at a straight market, or at best wants to include it, for the many shots of a floating naked man never show what Keith Richards calls his todger, and even the poster suggests that this could be a film about the relationship between George and Charley. That really is secondary.

Moore's performance of a brash, superficial woman is spot-on and halfway towards what she should have been in Savage Grace. But where are his gay friends? He doesn't seem to have any, and this is not a criticism. One of the important things the film seems to be saying is that George might as well have been married and settled down in suburbia with his loving partner, Jim, played warmly and convincingly by Matthew Goode.

All they really wanted to do was live happily ever after. The only difference is that he's gay and can't stomach the straight neighbours' son, a little corporate soldier in the making. Yet he likes the little girl and so a portrait of a type starts emerging. He likes women, as long as he doesn't have to sleep with them, and he loathes the kind of straight men corporate America was breeding after the war. Fair enough.

And then there is a very telling scene where he walks with an admiring student and watches a man play tennis. There are the usual slow-motion close-ups on pecs and abdomen, but he's still a grieving man. He's not interested in sex right now, but he can still look, which is beyond straight or gay. It's just plain masculine. It's also incredibly gauche.

As for the suicide scene, it's one of the drollest bits of humour seen on film in a long time. George is so busy fussing about things - this feels like Ford the obsessive compulsive going on about details again - that he, well, see it for yourself.

There's even a bit of toilet humour when he literally sits on one, still wearing his tie, watching the neighbours.

Should a straight man play a gay man? There is a camp (pun only half intended) that says it's a no-no and they have a point, much like we don't expect to see a white man playing Othello anymore. But an interesting thing happens with Firth. He is one of the most "natural" actors around, yet here he seems fraught with contradictions, tension; even his gait seems awkward, contrived. It's either a happy accident or a very clever bit of casting.

But what the film does manage to achieve, after all the artifice, is something quite touching. It manages to surpass its own "gayness", its own neuroses, melodramas and deprecations, and boil down to a grieving man (this is not giving the plot away entirely) who can finally give up his sentimentality without forfeiting his sentiment.

In short, it's a moving portrait of a man whose mildness, in the final analysis, is very different to that of the kind and late Mr Fisher.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week, The Social Network

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Real Slap's Still in the Closet

I wanted to like this book. I really did. It sounded so intriguing. Reviewers either adored it or hated it - there seemed not to be a moderate reaction among them.

And then there were the prizes. Not only did the novel win Christos Tsiolkas the Commonwealth Writers' Award for Best Novel 2009, it made the Booker longlist this year as well.

Stephen Romei, editor of The Australian Literary Review, called it "a rare quadrella in publishing: a page turner that sells a lot of copies, gets great reviews and then wins literary awards".

So where did we go wrong, The Slap and I?

Okay, there's a dynamite narrative hook at the start - the slapping of a brattish four-year-old (who is still being breastfed, incidentally) at a barbecue in suburban Melbourne.

Within a day the parents of the slapped child have the slapper arrested. But then the plot broadens, spooling out over nearly 500 pages in its ambitious attempt to lay out modern, liberal, multicultural Australia across the rack.

Several factors traduce the book's ambitions. There's the soap structure, for starters; with each chapter, Tsiolkas shifts his point of view to a different character who was present at the barbecue - a Greek immigrant in his 70s, an ex-hippy-turned-suburban-mum, an adolescent girl in the first flush of love, an Aboriginal convert to Islam.

Most of these characters are unpleasant in a wide variety of ways, but that's not the problem - they're cardboard cutouts that talk in cliches. Although suburban violence and anger is one of the book's key themes, everyone seems to get angry in exactly the same tone, even in the same words. Perhaps this is Tsiolkas's point, but the repetition means he doesn't make it very effectively.

Characters are constantly describing how they long to smash their fists "into the face staring back at him" or to smash the kid against the wall", or "to smash a cricket bat...once, twice, a hundred times into the little fucker's head, made him pulp and blood."

Or, just for variation: "Harry did not take his eyes off the cunt. If he could only smash his fists into her pretty face."

Then there are the sex scenes, which are cringe-making. This is porn sex, really, a seemingly endless loop of thrusting cocks, grateful cunts, moans and groans. No matter how hardcore the experience, Tsiolkas's women lap it up - after one particularly relentless session the man apologises to his wife and she meekly replies, "but I like making love to you."

Tsiolkas, who is gay, told an interviewer from the London Times that he relied on advice for these scenes from three women writer friends, one of whom read an early draft and told him: "The women are orgasming like men. Women don't come that quickly. Dial it back."

Blimey. So this is the dialled-back version.

And the prose is too often clunky. On holiday in Indonesia, one character is struck by the "gentle smiles" of the locals, the "cheer and fearlessness of the children". Or: "She did not look her age but looked fantastic."

Somewhere within The Slap there's a thoughtful state-of-the-nation novel trying to get out, one that highlights the casual racism that lurks within Australian culture; the tensions within an uneasily assimilated multicultural society; the contradictions of liberalism.

But the quality of the writing too often lets it down. And, although Tsiolkas assembles a diverse cast, what he doesn't do is make their ethnicity or class count for very much, or investigate in any detail these different worlds.

He's good at plot twists and turns, and that's what kept me reading until the end - on that level, the book delivers the same kind of satisfaction one gets from a well-crafted airport thriller. But "a tour de force...a novel of immense power and scope"? (Colm Toibin)

Slap me and wake me up. I must be dreaming.

Melissa de Villiers