Thursday, January 21, 2016

Book Review: The Vienna Melody (1944) by Ernst Lothar

Now this is what I call a national literary epic. In this case the country is Austria, and like any NLE worth its salt, the action of the novel takes place over several generations and is bound up with key historical moments in the country's past. The setting is Vienna and the central characters are members of the Alt dynasty, a haute bourgeoisie family who have lived in an imposing home in one of Vienna's better districts since the late 1700s. The Alts made their fortune as piano makers to the stars, as it were; Mozart performed The Magic Flute on an Alt piano. The Alt home at 10 Seillerstatte is really a small apartment building that holds several branches of the family, all of whom are well-connected and respected in Viennese society.

The story begins in 1888 with Franz Alt, heir to the Alt piano company, marrying Henriette Stein, the daughter of a university professor and an opera singer. The other Alts are mildly scandalized by this union. Henriette is half-Jewish and, what might be worse, Franz wants to add a fourth floor to the Alt house to accommodate his new bride. Henriette is not in love with Franz, she's simply marrying because that's what's expected of her. She's actually having an affair (platonic, so far) with Prince Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On her wedding day Rudolf kills himself and his mistress at Mayerling, the country retreat of the Habsburgs. This symbolic event marks the beginning of the decline and fall of both the Alt family and Austria over the next fifty years.

Henriette's first child is Hans, born in 1890, and it's Hans and his mother who become the main characters in the novel. Henriette is a rebel against the stunted, circumscribed emotional lives of Vienna's upper classes. Her tragedy is that her rebellion finds expression in an adulterous affair that ends in a fatal duel, and, what might be worse, a love for her four children that isn't shared out equally. The children she loves most are Hans and her last child, Martha Monica, the latter being the result of her illicit affair. Hans is also a rebel, although, like his mother, a rather ineffectual one. He doesn't want to join the family firm but can't really find a place for himself in the defeated and ruined Austria that emerges after World War One.  Both characters sense and want change, but, like their country, they're trapped in the amber of tradition, social respectability and obedience to authority.

Lothar is a wonderful writer, and it seems odd this book isn't more famous. He's able to switch effortlessly from micro to macro views of Vienna and Austria, the characters are brilliantly realized, the plot is inventive and unpredictable, the era's political changes are smoothly described, and he even manages to incorporate actual characters from history such as Hitler and Freud without any awkwardness. He also created two exceptionally fascinating female characters in Henriette and Selma, Hans' wife; in fact, the pair of them are probably the most interesting and complex characters in the novel. It's also a nice touch that the Alts are in the piano business, since, in symbolic terms, music represents the heart of Austrian culture. The Vienna Melody would also be a great companion piece to The Transylvanian Trilogy by Miklos Banffy, an epic about the Austro-Hungarian Empire set in the decade before World War One.

A word of warning: I read the Europa Editions (picture above) translation of The Vienna Melody, and it was absolutely stuffed with typos. A world record, in fact. Misspelled words, transpositions, words repeated, errant capitalization, it had a little bit of everything. This was either the product of a corrupted Word file or a proofreader suffering a nervous breakdown. It was quite distracting, so if you can find it from another publisher, go for it.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Film Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

It's about time someone made a good Star Wars movie. It's taken nearly forty years, but director J.J. Abrams has finally made an entry in this franchise that I could watch without wincing. To be fair, The Empire Strikes Back was pretty good, but that was because George Lucas handed the directing chores to Irvin Kershner, an old pro with a solid, if unspectacular, filmography. Three of the next four films were directed by Lucas and the results proved that George was something of an alchemist; he was able to turn the base metal of his negligible talent into box office gold.

As you may have guessed, I've never cared for the Star Wars films. I didn't see the original film until 1979, two years after it came out. I was twenty-two, had one year of film school under my belt, my favourite directors were Sidney Lumet and Sergio Leone, and I may have been a film snob. When I finally saw Star Wars I was astounded by the special effects and utterly gobsmacked by the bad acting, rubbish dialogue, and spastic action sequences. The subsequent films directed by Lucas added more proof to my conviction that he shouldn't be allowed near actors, a typewriter or a Panaflex camera.

The Force Awakens is, more or less, a reboot of the first film in the series, with the Death Star being upsized to a Death Planet. The Empire (now called the First Order) is a firm believer in the "go big or go home" adage when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, although after this latest expensive setback they'll probably be considering using Death Uber. Anyway, if you've seen the first one you've pretty much seen The Force Awakens. What makes this one such a pleasure is that is everything about the film that requires imaginative skill is done with wit, energy and professionalism. The acting is almost uniformly excellent, the script is smart, witty and lean, and Abrams, unlike Lucas, knows how to choreograph the non-space action scenes. The actors are led by Daisy Ridley as Rey, who I like to think of as Keira Knightley 2.0. That's a compliment. John Boyega as Finn, the renegade strormtrooper, was a revelation to me. I hated him in Attack the Block, but here he steals just about every scene he's in. Harrison Ford is reliably grumpy and cocky. And all the actors get dialogue that's blissfully unclunky and frequently funny

One aspect of the previous films that remains untouched is the determined avoidance of anything to do with sexuality or romantic relationships. The Stars Wars universe is a chaste universe, almost Victorian, in fact. Across the seven films in the franchise there's been some mild flirting, a very few kisses, and only one out and out romance: the union between Annakin and Padme that results in Luke's birth. This last episode is also notorious as perhaps the most badly written, acted and directed section in any of the films. You get the feeling Lucas hated having to film this subject matter. Not that Lucas is a prude. His American Graffitti is all about rambunctious teenage hormones. What Lucas probably realized was that part of the appeal of his films was that they offer a universe free from the angst, terror, tension and embarrassment of desire. This is a universe in which the characters (and the audience) only have to be concerned with issues of bravery, loyalty, resourcefulness, and derring-do. No one worries about being popular or loved. I think this is the ingredient x that made these films such a massive hit with the 8-24 demographic. Star Wars was, and is, their "safe place," a world that offers a holiday from the scary land of personal relationships.

There are some problems. The latest R2D2 iteration, a droid called BB-8, apparently comes with an algorithm that forces it to do something cute every second time it appears on screen. This got old very fast and for the next film I hope our lovable little droid is clubbed into scrap with the cold, dead body of an Ewok. The chief bad guy and Darth Vader fanboy is Kylo Ren, who (SPOILER AHEAD) turns out to be the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia. This seems like a colossal case of bad parenting, but the whole issue is kind of glossed over. Oh well, every family's got to have at least one world-destroying megalomaniac with a helmet fetish. Finally, Oscar Isaac gets the role of Poe Dameron, a gung ho fighter pilot who whoops and hollers as he goes into combat. You get the idea that his role will be expanded in the next film, but what they're starting with is pretty poor. Poe is a grab bag of cliches, and it wastes Isaac's talents in a big way. Also, what's up with that name? Am I missing some in-joke or connection to Con Air? The Nicolas Cage character in that film was named Cameron Poe. Is this a hint that Cage will be the big reveal in the next film? Will he be pulling off a helmet and announcing that he's somebody's long-lost relative? Please let him be Han Solo's younger, crazier, weird-ass brother--Charlie Solo.