Thursday, April 30, 2015

Film Review: '71 (2015)

If you want to make a decent thriller these days, your first step to success is to make sure your budget is low. The lower the better. A budget that wouldn't pay for Robert Downey Jr's per diem on The Avengers: Age of Ultron is ideal. Minuscule funding means your film can't rely on extravagant action set pieces or big stars like, uh, Robert Downey Jr. Instead of those two crutches, your film will have to focus on character and plot, on the writing, in other words. '71 is a beautiful example of this.

The story is set in Belfast in, of course, 1971. The Troubles have reached a full, rolling boil, and a raw group of Brit soldiers have been sent out into a Catholic area to provide protection for a group of RUC officers (the Protestant-dominated police force loathed by Catholics) who are conducting a raid on a house. A riot ensues, one soldier is killed and another, Pvt. Gary Hook, becomes separated from his platoon and must go on the run through enemy territory. Hook sticks out like a sore thumb thanks to his accent and uniform, and nothing has prepared him for this kind of situation. The action takes place over one night, and Hook becomes the prize quarry for two different IRA groups, a trio of ruthless MI5 men, and his own platoon.

The hunt for Hook is deftly handled. The different groups looking for him have motives that aren't immediately apparent, and the double-crosses and deaths soon begin to mount. The different narrative strands are kept coherent, and thanks to the low budget, there's no time wasted on pointless relationships or redundant background information. In short, the strength of '71 lies in the script's efficiency and attention to detail. One standout example of this is our brief intro to Hook. Before he arrives in Northern Ireland we learn (or infer) from only a few brief scenes that Hook is from a poor background, has no girlfriend, and his only relative is his young brother who's living in an orphanage. This intro gives us a rooting interest in Hook, but it stops well short of an assault on our tear ducts, which a fatter, lazier film might have done. Even minor characters are given a polish that makes them more than predictable storytelling pawns. The platoon's commander is initially presented as a bit of an ineffectual, upper-class twit, but at the end he's got more backbone and more of our sympathy. And what might be the most memorable character is a Protestant boy, who can't be older than ten, who has been transformed by the Troubles into a menacing, pint-sized Liam Neeson.

What gives the film a lot of its tension is that Hook is played by a relative unknown. Put a big star in this role and the audience knows he's going to survive until the end. Stick a nobody in the role and now we're not so sure. Also, I wonder if calling the soldier Hook isn't an ironic nod to the Pvt. Hook in Zulu? The latter film is about heroic empire-building, while this one is about an empire falling apart. And that brings us back to the budget. A Marvel-sized payroll would have given us superfluous characters, action scenes that went on too long, and preening superstars. A low budget, like living on a low income, forces filmmakers into smart and creative choices. They can't paper over plot holes with money. The French film industry has been cranking out smart action-thrillers like '71 for years, and I can only wish there were filmmakers doing the same.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Book Review: American Rust (2009) by Philipp Meyer

This is Meyer's debut novel, and I'm so glad I read his second, The Son (my review), before this one. The Son is big, bold, self-assured and its few flaws are the result of too much ambition. American Rust reads like a novel created by a committee tasked with putting out a literary version of a multi-part New York Times piece on life in the Rust Belt. That Meyer is a good writer isn't in doubt; he writes sharp dialogue, his characters (the male ones, anyway) are rugged, edgy and painfully real, and his descriptions of landscapes, urban and natural, are superb. The problem here is that his novel doesn't have the ambition to be more than just a literary litany of what ails Pennsylvania's coal and steel towns.

The two central characters are Isaac and Billy, best friends, both barely out of their teens, and both unsure what to do with their lives. They live in Buell, PA, and like every other town in the region it's been economically devastated by the death of the US steel industry. Those who aren't unemployed are working for minimum wage or are living a semi-criminal life. Isaac steals some money from his crippled father and decides to hit the road to California by hopping freight trains. Billy, an ex-high school football star, opts to accompany him for no better reason than it seems like a good idea at the time. They are an unlikely pair; Isaac is a weedy brainiac and Billy is a jock with a penchant for violence. They've barely started on their journey when they have an altercation with three homeless men that ends with Isaac accidentally killing one of them by way of defending Billy. A few days later Billy is arrested and charged with the murder, which he doesn't deny in an act of self-sacrifice to give some meaning to his selfish and wasted life. Isaac, meanwhile, goes on the run. Isaac's and Billy's fractured families are drawn into the story, but it's at this point that the story runs aground. The novel is told from the POV of a half dozen or so characters, but what's missing is a compelling narrative. Once Billy's arrested the story drags its feet as we hear from the different characters and their stories of despair and struggle in the heart of the Rust Belt. The only tension or narrative momentum is provided by Billy's stint in jail as he awaits trial and faces the wrath of prison gangs. The writing in this section is excellent, but it could just as well have been dropped in from a standard crime fiction novel.

American Rust is brimming with sympathy for its beaten-down characters and the region that's become an industrial dust bowl. What's missing from this story, what makes the novel so frustrating, is that Meyer shies away from bringing politics into the story. The plight of people in the Rust Belt is entirely the result of a series of ruinous political and economic decisions made by politicians and corporate executives stretching back decades. Meyer barely hints at the factors that impoverished this region. It's akin to writing a novel set in Vichy France and not mentioning the war or the Nazis. The virtually apolitical outlook of the novel isn't unusual in American literature. European writers, especially in the crime fiction field, enthusiastically bring politics and big business into their stories. American writers can't seem to get past their nation's religious belief that the individual and the individualism is everything. They don't seem happy with the idea that a character can be a hopeless victim or puppet of forces beyond his control. Or perhaps they feel that the nuts and bolts of politics and high finance don't have a place in literature. Nineteenth century writers such as Zola, Balzac, and Trollope happily took on these subjects, but the only American of that ilk that comes to mind is Gore Vidal.

Meyer's novel ticks all the boxes when it comes to mentioning issues like drug abuse, unemployment, underemployment, municipal underfunding, poor healthcare, and so on, but without giving these issues any historical or sociological context, Meyer is doing a disservice to the very people he so clearly sympathizes with. The people in the Rust Belt know they've been victimized by politicians and big business, but in American Rust this catastrophe is almost presented as a natural disaster, something that happened for no rhyme or reason.

The committee feel to the novel comes from the inclusion of far too many stock characters and tropes from modern literary fiction. There's the suicide of a mother that damages the children; the Ivy League woman who can't resist the manly charms of Billy the jock; the embittered father, broken in body and mind; and the young, tortured genius who's just too sensitive for this world. And does anyone actually ride the rails these days? Last of all, it has to be said that Meyer is poaching on literary territory created and mastered by K.C. Constantine (my piece on hiin is here), who wrote a series of crime novels set in Pennsylvania's coal and steel country. Constantine, however, was not afraid to bring politics into the mix.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Book Review: Iron Gustav (1938) by Hans Fallada

The eponymous anti-hero of this novel is Gustav Hackendahl, the owner of a large fleet of horse-drawn cabs in pre-World War One Berlin. As his nickname implies, Gustav is hard, unyielding, and largely devoid of any emotions, excepting rage when his will is thwarted. Not a person you'd pick for father of the year, and that's the tragedy at the heart of the story. Gustav has a wife and five children, and this sprawling novel charts the decline and fall of Gustav and his family (and Germany) from 1914 to the early '30s. Gustav has no love or even affection for his children. The only reason he seems to have had a family is so that he'd have people to honour and obey him.

The war begins the ruin, financial and otherwise, of the Hackendahl family. Gustav's horses are requisitioned, his eldest son joins the army, and the other children make life decisions that will take them far away from their father. One daughter, Eve, becomes a prostitute, the middle son a corrupt politician and speculator, the eldest daughter a nurse, and the youngest son drifts from school to long-term unemployment as Germany staggers through the post-war era of economic chaos and political upheaval. Sounds like fun, right? The genius of Fallada is that even though he's describing a cascading series of calamities, defeats and crises afflicting the Hackendahls and Germany, his writing never swerves into mawkishness or sentimentality. The tone throughout the novel is bitter amusement at the ways people can willfully and enthusiastically fuck up their lives and their nation. Fallada points out the political and social reasons that help push the Hackendahls over the edge, but he doesn't let the individual characters off the hook for some terrible personal choices. Fallada also allows for sheer, dumb, bad luck to enter into the story as it does in the real world.

As in his masterpiece, Alone in Berlin (my review), Fallada shows an uncanny gift for describing life on the edge. The physical and psychological pains of being unemployed and/or destitute are something he had first-hand knowledge of, and he writes about the subject with a kind of morbid joy, like someone attentively picking at a large and clingy scab. Fallada is telling the story of an entire epoch in German history and he does it through the prism of Gustav. The qualities that Gustav most prizes--stubbornness, pride, self-sacrifice, patriotism, obedience to authority--are the very ones that send his children off on orbits that mostly end in death and disaster. Gustav's prized qualities are also shared by the pre-war state, which makes his eventual decline all the more inevitable in the context of the post-war Weimar Republic.

Iron Gustav was originally conceived of as a film project, and there is a cinematic quality to certain parts of the novel that helps make it one of the most readable and, dare I say it, enjoyable tales of calamity I've ever read. It's hard to describe this novel without making it sound like a sure cure for happiness, but writing this incisive and energetic, even on a dismal subject, is always a pleasure.