Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sunday Odds and Ends (Film - The Frozen River) (Books - Moonheart and The Good Doctor)

The film Frozen River opened recently in New York. There have been a number articles singing the unsung praises of the the lead actress, Melissa Leo, like this one in the Times. She's one of the many good actors out there who work all the time in film, in television, on stage, and you don't necessarily know exactly who they are. This is a little gem of a film - Leo's character, Ray, lives in a trailer with her two sons in upstate New York, near the Canadian border. With an absent husband who is addicted to gambling, a job at the dollar store, and a lack of ability to make good decisions, she is always a paycheck away from disaster. A relationship develops between her and a Native American woman (Lila, played by Misty Upham, pictured above) that gives Ray what she believes is an opportunity to better her life, and her life is materially grim, so she takes it and the tension that grips this otherwise quiet film begins. This is a film that belies expectations - expectations about friendship, expectations one might have about people living in trailers, expectations about the lengths people will go to better their circumstances. It is quietly and intensely acted. The work of the two women, along with Charlie McDermott, who plays Ray's 15-year-old son, is excellent. There are some scenes of unbelievable suspense - not the shoot-em-up kind, the kind where you can't make a sound. If this great little indie comes your way, be sure and see it.

Every so often, I get the hankering to read another of Charles de Lint's original fantasy novels. They're odd, joyous books - Moonheart is the third of his I've read. In them realistic, recognizable characters living slightly fringe-y lives (a bit like the characters in Anne Tyler's novels) in contemporary Ottowa encounter some evidence of a mythic-paranormal world and their lives are forever changed. In this one a young woman is orphaned by a car accident and raised by a very wealthy uncle. They work in an antique shop of wonderful old junk and live in a rambling house that functions as a sort of commune for people who live other than conventional lives. They encounter a bone disk in a box of junk that has sat in the back room of their shop since 1976 (this book was written in 1984). The trouble is that this disk had apparently recently been stolen from a collection of artifacts that are tied somehow to a mysterious powerful old man, Thomas Hengwr, a teacher of the Way. This teacher once released a young folk musician, Keiran, from jail who, in return, becomes his apprentice and learns the way. Keiran returns to Ottowa sensing something is amiss with Hengwr and begins being followed by a secret squad of police who investigate paranormal phenomena....I can just tell Keiran is going to end up living at the rambling house because there is something very...not normal about this house. Anyhoo, you get the idea. It is the plots that I always end up coming back to de Lint for. His books have a comfort to them - the characters are involved in art and arcane artifacts, they like Celtic folk music and brew many pots of tea and live in unusual houses, or on gorgeous wooded islands. These are very curl-upable stories but de Lint's writing is, especially in this particularly early novel, not sophisticated. Fluid, yes, it gets the job done, but he seems to have a hard time making choices - if he sets out to describe the desk of a character, we are treated to an paragraph-long list of artifact with no apparent discrimination - no prioritizing. Everything, it seems, is important, down to the brand name of the tape recorder playing the folk music of an artist I have never heard of. I'm sure in 1984 the fact that the tape recorder was an Aiwa may have had some significance, but now it is lost on me. He also seems to never have met a cliche he didn't like. Particularly his dialogue - it is written like bad television:
"They need some place to be," he'd replied. "Lord knows, the House is big enough. They come for the same reason that you and I and the regulars stay. To get away from the world outside for awhile."

"I can't deny them that. They're like us, Sairey. Different from the norm. And, as this is a place where difference is the norm, they can relax. There's no need to try and fit in because everything fits in here."


"You don't know how easy a place like this would be to burgle," he told Sara.

'"But if someone really wants to," Sara said, "a locked door or latched window isn't going to stop them. And besides, anyone's welcome here anyway."

"Not anyone, " Blue insisted.

"Well, Jamie's never turned anyone away."

"The House makes its own decisions about who stays and who goes..."

That is the House, with a CAPITAL -H. Okay, so they speak a bit like 1970s TV. A bit silly, yes, but if you're a fantasy fan, particularly a sub-genre known as Urban fantasy, the selling point of de Lint is original plots that stray from formula, and lovely characters. They are warm and joyous books and I needed a comfort read.

In a more literary part of the forest, John Self himself recently recommended Damon Galgut, a South African novelist who I had never heard of before. My library came up with his The Good Doctor in short order and I hadn't read but a single page yesterday before I knew I was going to like this book. In it, an idealistic young doctor comes to do a year of service in an isolated hospital run by a staff jaded by years of deprivation and disappointment.

I was sitting in the office in the late afternoon and he appeared suddenly in the doorway, carrying a suitcase in one hand and wearing plain clothes - jeans and a brown shirt - with his white coat on top. He looked young and lost and a bit bewildered, but that wasn't why I thought what I did. It was because of something else, something I could see in his face.

He said, 'Hello...? Is this the hospital?'

His voice was unexpectedly deep for somebody so tall and thin.

'Come in,' I said. Put down your bag.'

He came in, but he didn't put down the bag. He held it close while he looked around at the pink walls, the empty chairs, the dusty desk in the corner, the frail plants wilting in their pots. I could see that he thought there'd been some kind of mistake. I felt sorry for him.

This is the kind of writing I expect from a short story. Compact - it chooses exactly which details are most important to know. It wastes nothing. The first page and a half accomplishes character description, setting, and backstory all tightly packed together so that you are hardly aware he is accomplishing anything:

The room was in a separate wing. We had to cross an open space of ground, close to the parking lot. When he came in he must have walked this way, but now he looked at the path through the long grass, the ragged trees overhead dropping their burden of leaves, as if he'd never seen them before.

We have past and the future wrapped into those three sentences. So exact are they, I seem to perceive details never mentioned. Something about the description has me feeling heat and hearing the drone of insects. I feel myself squinting in the sun. And every so often he uses words just beautifully enough to remind me that he is writing, the ragged trees overhead dropping their burden of leaves - I love the burden of leaves because it evokes the fact the branch is dragged down without explicitly saying so. Lovely writing. I didn't get into bed until after midnight last night, but I find now that I had read two chapters before going to sleep. I'm really looking forward to reading more of this one, although I won't have much time as I'm meeting friends at MOMA today. There is so much on at the moment I'm not sure what I'm going to see - an architecture exhibit, Joseph Beuys, Kirschner and the Berlin Street, or the big Dali show. Hmmm.

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