The Oscars, for as long as I can remember watching them, have been a tangle of thorns. The bramble invariably bears fruit, but the berries are often difficult to reach, or worse yet, unripe. Last year’s Slumdog Millionaire was not the worst movie to win Best Picture—let us not forget Crash, Return of the King, and Million Dollar Baby, just to name three from this decade—but it was still green: a simple film in the basest sense, one that glanced at big themes like poverty and class warfare, but refused, ultimately, to scrutinize them. As I wrote in a review of a much better film last year (Cary Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre): Slumdog was a financial success for the same reason that it was an artistic failure: it skimmed, both cinematographically and emotionally, over its subjects. It purported to be about class struggle in India, and the requisite horrors of poverty. But instead it was a shiny, loud, and clean fairytale. Slumdog overcame tragedy, but the adversity dramatized was so disingenuous that the triumph seemed saccharine at worst, and shallow at best. A lot of people, though, must have seen Boyle’s allegory as fresh and optimistic, and the film rode that sentiment to the Oscars. The Best Picture award, expanded this year to ten nominees, seemed at first like an ecumenical gesture on the part of the Academy. I loved the idea that more small films, hypothetically, would get to stand beside the studio epics. And though The Hurt Locker and A Serious Man made the cut, so did Avatar, District 9 and The Blind Side, suggesting to me that the dilution of the category was more a wink and a nod to thoughtful filmmakers than a sincere unification with them. Where was A Single Man? Where was Antichrist? Why was Up nominated for Best Picture and Best Animated Feature? The Hurt Locker is another sort of film. It follows the fate of three soldiers in Iraq charged with disarming IEDs in Baghdad. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) replaces Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) after Thompson is killed in the line of duty. James is as unconcerned with danger as James Bond is with venereal disease, and he approaches his work with the spiritual calm of a man raking a rock garden. What is immediately evident watching The Hurt Locker is that the film is existential rather than polemical. The soldiers aren’t interested in why they’re in country. The other men on James’ team—Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are concerned only with surviving until they leave. James, on the other hand, seems captivated by his work and pursues it with the Platonic conviction that all labor is ethically sound if done excellently. Along with The Messenger, which I reviewed for The Millions, I saw The Hurt Locker as a testament to what “popular” cinema should strive to be. Just because I love Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and feel that, stylistically and ethically, it’s one of the most important films of the decade, doesn’t mean I expect it to ever find a broad American audience (it’s in black and white, for one, and for another, the actors speak German). The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, combined with the suspense of more traditional action fare (say, The Bourne Identity) the moral quandaries of Dr. Strangelove and the chauvinistic camaraderie of The Decline of the American Empire, all without delivering a simple message. In The Hurt Locker, war is both despicable and intoxicating. Some soldiers can’t wait to get home, and others dread leaving the battlefield. And yet it was popular amongst servicemen and critics alike. Emily Colette Wilkinson, who commented on my review “The Holy Trinity: Three Iraq War Films Define a New Apolitical Aesthetic,” wrote that her sister in Afghanistan loved The Hurt Locker. “It seems to have really connected with soldiers.” All of this is to say that, from a commercial and an artistic perspective, The Hurt Locker was a revelatory example of the kind of film that could be made near Hollywood, if not exactly inside it. If it were to beat out Avatar, somehow, the Academy Awards were no longer a circle-jerk (as a friend of mine so quaintly put it), but, if briefly, a coronation ceremony for some damned fine art. Before the show began, I was convinced that Avatar would win, though in retrospect that conviction came from the fact that everyone else seemed convinced it would. I have friends who enjoyed it, and I even lunched with two acquaintances a month back who thought it was not only the best film of the season, but perhaps the greatest achievement in cinematographic history. But, as my roommate Ty (who was born around the time Pete Rose broke Ty Cobb’s hitting record and was named, somewhat ironically, after the great, morally bankrupt Cobb) put it, to paraphrase, the Avatar champions were confusing spectacle with good storytelling. Avatar was a miracle if you saw it stoned in 3-D IMAX and ignored the performances and the dialogue, but a disaster if you paid attention to the actors and the lines they delivered. A technological marvel does not a best picture make, one could say. Avatar deserved every special effects award it got nominated for. But how, phenomena aside, can a film that garners no writing or acting nods possibly be an appropriate candidate for Best Picture? Fundamentally, shouldn’t a great film be an amalgamation of writing, acting, photography, and direction? The Hurt Locker was nominated, in addition to sound editing and mixing, for acting, writing, photography, and directing, as well as for the overall product. Avatar, on the other hand, was up for sound, special effects, cinematography, and directing, but received no acknowledgments whatsoever for its screenplay or the actors—digitally rendered or otherwise—who brought those stale lines to half life. This polemic (for what else could you call my assault on James Cameron?) may seem a little cruel in the wake of the awards. Avatar, as it turns out, lost to The Hurt Locker on all the narrative fronts, and some of the technical ones, too. It won for best special effects, cinematography, and art direction, but The Hurt Locker won Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Perhaps I’m in shock still, and expect to read in a few days that all of Kathryn Bigelow’s accolades got rescinded and heaped upon the Na’vi. But I think my unrest, or at least my disbelief in The Hurt Locker’s success, is grounded in my fear that the 82nd Academy Awards were an anomaly rather than the birth of a trend. Last night’s ceremony was, undoubtedly, an unprecedented victory for small films. The Hurt Locker cost $14 million to make, and Avatar $2 billion, if I’m misremembering my figures correctly. And James Cameron doesn’t lose many contests he’s expecting to win, especially to his ex-wife. My hope, in the end, is that the incessant hype around Avatar didn’t simply annoy voters until they voted against it, out of nothing more than spite. My dream is that the republic of Hollywood, in its lovely dresses and tailored tuxedos, realized that a poor story poorly told papered over with handsome colors and textures is still nothing more than a poor story. Avatar has revolutionized, one suspects, the way big movies will get made in the future. But it did nothing to illuminate the human condition. The Hurt Locker, though, will haunt moviegoers long after Cameron’s virtual camera technology is commonplace on Monday Night Football broadcasts. Avatar is the new technological benchmark—which means it’s transient. Eventually something will surpass it. The Hurt Locker, conversely, like any true work of art, is permanent.
The great English broadcaster Ray Hudson once said of the great Argentine footballer Juan Román Riquelme, “Look at him, so languid, look at him walking. He’s like a big, beautiful zombie, Riquelme. He just strolls around…like smoke off a cigarette.” Hudson values hyperbole over precision—or at least succumbs to the former—for he suffers from a sort of fanatic epilepsy when he works. Hudson told me, “When that spotlight’s on you, and you’re calling a game, you’re in the moment, instantaneous, and the selection of words, phrases, and anecdotes are improvised. There’s very little time for actual thought. There’s very little time for reflection on what you’re actually going to say.” And Hudson’s quips, spontaneous and unedited, have gained him a reputation as one of the most notorious announcers in all of sports. Hudson made his career first as a soccer player—for Newcastle United in England, and later for various teams in the defunct North American Soccer League. But he is best known for announcing the modern game for GolTV. Commentary for a soccer match, more so than in any other sport, is like the musical accompaniment to ballet. Therefore as a broadcaster, Hudson is comparable to the conductor of an orchestra playing in the pit beneath a stage of dancers; he adds context and emotion to the drama. No wonder, then, that he often likens footballers to beautiful women. “I’m telling you man,” Hudson once said of FC Barcelona’s seventeen-year-old striker, Bojan Krkic, “this kid could be the best thing on two legs since Sophia Loren.” Unlike most American sports, soccer is a fluid game, with frequent changes of possession and few clear, numeric statistics to evaluate. Soccer is improvisational, whereas American football is regimented. In football, plays are designed then executed, to greater or lesser success. In soccer, players practice formations and then improvise within a spontaneous framework. Therefore soccer, whose action is as constant as light, requires a reactive, jazz-like call. “Most people,” Hudson said, “have no concept of how challenging and demanding it is to call a game. I mean, we’re seeing those pictures the same second you’re seeing them.” There are few numbers to pore over, so the color man’s broadcast, if done well, strives, not to investigate the efficacy of a play, but to transliterate excitement. “When it gets into the red zone,” Hudson said, “when it gets into that area where something truly special might develop, that’s where I come out of the long grass. That’s when it’s showtime for me. And that preparation takes on its own dynamic. If it’s an intoxicating game that has all the ingredients for a beautiful, hot stew, then what are you going to do?” Stylistically, Hudson is a compositor of metaphor. Like the critic and memoirist Anatole Broyard, who describing a lover once wrote, “Her waist was so small, it cut her in two, like a split-personality, or two schools of thought,” Hudson is disinterested in, or even incapable of, inventing basic similes. His description of a goal scored during a meeting of the Mexican and Argentine national sides—“Heinze jumps up like Rudolf Nureyev, beautiful, [and] stabs it home. But it’s Riquelme, man… [His movement is] impossible, like pouring a pint of beer into a shot glass”—suggests, if not a frenetic mind, an uncontainable one. His mouth can’t always keep up with his brain. “It’s not within me,” Hudson said. To be pedestrian with any of my descriptions. I’m just incapable of it. I mean, you hear me now. Once you start me, you cannot stop me.” I asked him to tell me about the most exciting match he ever announced, and he thought immediately of the 38th round of the 2007 La Liga championship (judging by Youtube views, it is also his most famous). Hudson’s announcing is passionate to the point of violence. To give a little context to the game, Hudson was the color analyst, and Phil Schoen the broadcaster, for Real Madrid’s season-ending match at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. The morning of the 17th, Real Madrid was tied at the top of the table with its perennial political and sporting rival, FC Barcelona. Earlier in the season, in their head-to-head match-ups, Madrid had taken four of six points from Barcelona, beating the Catalans at home and drawing away. This meant that if by day’s end both teams were victorious in their matches, Madrid would win the league. Both clubs kicked off simultaneously. By halftime, Barcelona was laying waste to Gimnastic 3-0. Madrid, on the other hand, was trailing 0-1 to Mallorca at home. If the result stood, Barcelona would win the title. But then in the 68th minute Madrid scored, leveling their match. In the 78th they scored again, taking the lead. When Jose Reyes scored two minutes later, he confirmed Madrid’s victory, and with it, the title. “The world was watching,” Hudson remembered, “and you felt something historical was going to happen. Also in that game, there was a good bit of jousting between Phil [Schoen] and me, because the camera kept cutting to these people in the stands, these Hollywood celebrities. I remember in particular for that game Tom Cruise [and Rafael Nadal] were there. And Phil kept going on about Tom Cruise while this gladiatorial fight to the death was happening before us.” As we talked, Hudson’s voice began to rise. “And I got so incensed that I nearly lost it.” Recapping the match live as time ran out, Hudson said of Madrid’s goalkeeper, Iker Casillas, who by his estimation had saved the game, and who had cried in joy after the definitive third goal got scored, “That’s why you see those beautiful tears from a man whose heart is bursting.” The camera, here, cut away to the crowd, where Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were kissing triumphantly in the stands. Perhaps to annoy him, Schoen asked if Hudson’s comment were directed at Cruise. Hudson screamed, “Would you stop talking about tennis players and stupid Hollywood actors, Phil! It’s the gladiators out there, man.” Then, with great disgust, Hudson went on: “Tom Cruise. Give me a break. If he smelled a soccer jockstrap, he’d faint dead away.” Between his playing and commentating days, Hudson has seen countless goals—and many magnificent ones—but one in particular stands out above them, as Real Madrid’s definitive game in June 2007 rises in his mind above the other matches he’s called. Ronaldinho, the Brazilian striker who played his best football in Barcelona, once scored a goal against Villa Real that during the match, along side other hyberboles (“As electrifying as a hairdryer thrown into a hot tub” ) Hudson claimed was tantamount to religious art. Hudson described the goal to me this way. “It was an overhead kick, at an angle, just into the corner of the box, and I called it, if I remember correctly, ‘A Bernini sculpture of a goal, that rivals the Ecstasy of St. Teresa.’ Now, there are probably two people around the United States tuning in who had even heard of Bernini. But for me, it was that good. And in my opinion, instances like that need to be compared to something monumental, to something of an exquisiteness completely unique. And that sculpture came immediately to mind.” He went on: “[During the replays] there was this one wonderful shot of the defender who had been the closest to Ronny, who had just seen this goal, and he was simply stupefied. I described him like Lot’s wife, turning to salt. And then the next second the camera cut away to this little blonde boy in the stands, this little cherub in a Barcelona shirt, and he started smiling. I remember saying, ‘His big bright eyes have just grown the size of saucer plates. He’s never seen anything like this in his life, and he never will again.’” I did not grow up a sports fan. I played soccer and baseball, and later golf, but my father, despite coaching a number of teams I played on, didn’t watch games on TV. By the time I got to college, being a sports fan seemed primitive to me. I fancied myself an artist. Entertainment, I thought, should be a strictly intellectual pursuit, so I watched a lot of emotionally vacant French films, and read a bunch of calamitous, dystopian novels. Back then I thought of Bande á parte and Blood Meridian as the pinnacles of culture. Then in October of 2002, I was staying at my parents’ house. I’d dropped out of college in New York two days before the start of my sophomore year and returned to California. I was drinking too much in Brooklyn, but more significantly, my girlfriend lived in my hometown. Fittingly, though, a month after I got back, she left for school in Irvine. Finding myself alone and acutely depressed one Saturday evening, I turned on the sixth game of the World Series. The Giants, who because of their proximity to my hometown I’d been a nominal fan of as a boy, led the Angels until the seventh. But with one out in that inning, Dusty Baker pulled his starter, Russ Ortiz, who to that point hadn’t allowed a run. The reliever, Félix Rodríguez, promptly gave up a three run homer. In the eighth, the Angel’s third baseman, Troy Glaus, doubled in two more runs. The Giants lost. The next night I watched the seventh game, which was a sort of underwhelming catastrophe. By the third, all the runs that were to get scored had been. The Giants almost rallied in the ninth, getting two men on with only one out. But Kenny Lofton flied out to right-center to end the Series, in favor of the Angels. I broke down in tears. It’s the only time, before or since, that I’ve cried over a game. But that loss, and my illogical reaction to it, proved to me that sport has the capacity to evoke, or at least unlock, genuine emotion. Since then I’ve been a dedicated fan—first of baseball, then of soccer, and finally of mixed martial arts and cycling. As a writer, sports provide for me a finite dramatic stage where a protagonist and an antagonist attempt metaphorically (though in fighting sometimes literally) to kill each other. The plots of the stories, if I’m being reductive, are repetitive. But the distillation of competition, thematic and actual, is the stuff of art. One night in Boston, after the Oakland A’s (I am, again, a geographical fan) got swept by the Detroit Tigers in the 2006 American League Championship Series—a defeat that ruined my mood for the remainder of the playoffs—I felt inspired to write on my wall when I got home from the bar, “If I’m not allowed to care terribly about a game men play, neither should I be affected by anything else man invents.” This is why I like listening to Ray Hudson. He takes sports even more seriously than I do. If, for me, soccer (or baseball or cycling or football) is a representation of human struggle, and is in that sense a means to dissecting and then producing art, for Hudson the game itself is the end—and therefore art itself. “What an absolute scientific goal again,” he once said of a Riquelme masterpiece. “[It’s the great Argentine] who is the Einstein of it…Stand up! Get out of your sofas and applaud if you’re a football fan, because the poets just wrote a sonnet to all of us.” Soccer, for Hudson, is the conflation of science and art, equal parts spontaneity and technique. But when I spoke to him, he was rather dismissive of his role as a broadcaster. “I’ve never had much foresight into what I’m doing. Literally, when the lights go on, I just get out there and tap dance my way through it… I use my very minor knowledge of the English language, and my passion for the game, to accentuate a match.” When everything is said and done, though, the novelist only strives to accentuate the world around him. He observes and he comments. And if that commentary is sufficiently careful and emotional, he commemorates the action permanently.
For the last five years, movies about America’s various Middle East conflicts have been, broadly speaking, polemical, didactic, and forgettable. Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which grossed all of $65,000 domestically and received stateside critical acclaim comparable to Surfer Dude, typifies, at least statistically, this first generation of contemporary American war films. Then in July came The Hurt Locker (the Father), and in November The Messenger (the Son), whose hands-off approach to desert warfare politics signaled, shall we say, an aesthetic sand-change. Neither Katheryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) nor Oren Moverman (The Messenger) spent much time moralizing about the war; they exchanged national horrors for personal ones, and the results have been revolutionary. As I wrote in an earlier review of The Hurt Locker: The Hurt Locker is not a sentimental portrait of brotherhood (the soldiers bond by drinking and punching each other in the stomach). And yet somewhere within the first half-hour I found myself wishing I were with them in the desert. The soldiers’ work is arduous, to say nothing of deadly, but Staff Sergeant James’ (Jeremy Renner) approach to defusing his bombs is elegantly simple. He appears at peace working, and that calm amidst one of the tensest dramas in recent film history is intoxicating. He is not so different from the poet striving to write a clear image. Two films, though, do not make a movement any more than solid and liquid represent the states of matter. But Brothers, Jim Sheridan’s semi-masterpiece about the aftermath of war, appeared last Friday, and like the Holy Ghost—that gaseous limb of the set—completed the trinity. The Hurt Locker and The Messenger document, with almost mutual exclusion, the poles of deployment. The Hurt Locker, save for ten minutes near the end of the film, takes place in Iraq. Conversely The Messenger, excluding a brief flashback to an army base near Baghdad, plays out in the United States, following around two soldiers who deliver the news of combat deaths to next of kin. Brothers attempts a synthesis of these two stages. It is the most ambitious of the three films, and accordingly the least successful. Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) gets shipped off to Afghanistan, where his helicopter is promptly shot down. Back in the States, his young wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), both believe he’s dead, and in a moment of mutual need one night strike up a pseudo-chaste affair. They do nothing more than kiss, but that’s enough. Whether out of desperation or something more permanent, they fall in love. Then one afternoon Grace gets a phone call. Captain Cahill was captured, not killed. He’s alive, well(ish), and shipping home. This scenario should be an equation for great filmmaking, and Jim Sheridan delivers no shortage of drama (cabinets are smashed, guns are waved). But Captain Cahill’s arc—specifically his imprisonment in the mountains—feels somehow gratuitous. Though the events that take place in Afghanistan are the cause of Sam’s psychological break, Brothers could have been a much more powerful film if the cameras hadn’t crossed the Atlantic with him. In The Messenger, for instance, all the violence takes place offstage, leaving us to imagine the trauma overseas, but forcing us to watch the domestic horror as family after family loses a child. Oren Moverman, whether due to budgetary constraints or simple good taste, doesn’t recreate the battlefield on screen. The great revelation of The Messenger happens on a couch. Near the end of the film, Staff Sergeant Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson) sit in a living room, and Montgomery tells the story of his last firefight in Baghdad. A lesser performer than Foster might have failed to convey, through anecdote, the gravity of losing your men in war, so one could argue that Brothers didn’t have the talent to pull off such a narrative coup. But Sheridan’s movie is full of astounding, subtle acting. Tobey Maguire is as menacing silent as he is loud, and at times he gets very loud. It seems ironic, therefore, that Sheridan, who inspired some of the most extraordinary performances of the last twenty years (Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot is almost unbeatable, even by Lewis’ other egos), didn’t trust his cast to do the heavy psychic lifting. Sheridan is more comfortable at the dinner table or in the kitchen than he is in a burning helicopter. Therefore the dramatic inconsistencies between his staging of his Afghani and American scenes lie in his inability, or at least lesser ability, to illustrate violence effectively. Following that logic, it might not come as a surprise that the most harrowing scene in Brothers is not when Cahill hides from a sniper under a rocky outcropping, or falls from the sky in a burning airship, but rather when he meets the young son of Private Willis, a Marine he watched die in Afghanistan. The boy crawls out of the family room, where Willis’ widow and Grace are talking. From all fours the boy stares at Cahill. This tension between man and infant is more terrifying, and more saturated with complex guilt, than anything Sheridan conjures up on the battlefield between soldier and terrorist. No doubt the success of that scene, and for that matter all of Sheridan’s domestic scenes, has something to do with visual patience. During a meal, Sheridan’s camera isn’t dynamic. But when a scene is supposed to be hectic, like in the mountains of Afghanistan, Sheridan directs his lens hectically. Conversely, The Hurt Locker, a far superior action film to Brothers, induces anxiety through stasis. That film’s most tormenting scene—a man approaching an Army checkpoint wearing an explosive vest—does not utilize music or manipulative editing that might detract from the impending horror. Thus The Hurt Locker’s violence unfolds, instead, with the visual calm of a conversation. If Sheridan had shot his war like Bigelow shot hers, or like he did his Thanksgiving dinner, he’d deserve to stand alongside Bigelow and Moverman as one of the best directors this year. But Sheridan does succeed (though still not as well as Bigelow or Moverman) in removing most of his personal political perspective. Perhaps not since Franklin J. Schaffner made Patton has a director—or in this case three directors—abstained from commenting on the ethics of war so thoroughly. Granted, Sheridan makes a caricature of the Afghani tribesmen who kidnap Captain Cahill, but you certainly couldn’t convict him of demonstrating liberal bias. If anything, his depiction of the enemy is flat and narrow; and at least publicly, that’s the conservatives’ characterization. War is in the end too devastating and too personal to expend much energy concocting a general morality lesson. Bigelow, Moverman, and Sheridan aren’t lionizing battle, but neither are they condemning it. Nations fight, they seem to be saying, our men and women bleed, and everything beyond that is a distraction. For that objectivity alone, all three of these films deserve to be lauded, if Brothers a bit more reservedly. Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone may arrest the trend next spring (March is historically a bad month for film releases), but for now we have a renaissance on our hands.
In “Where We Must Be,” the first story of Laura van den Berg’s debut collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, a young woman, Jean, is driving north to Washington. After a wasted summer in Los Angeles, during which she failed to find acting work, she passes through one of the redwood forests in Northern California. A sign beside the road advertises, “Actors wanted,” so she leaves the highway and follows a dirt road. Stationed in the cul de sac is a mobile home that functions as an office for a man who arranges “encounters.” Tourists from around the country, Jean discovers, are willing to pay for the opportunity to get chased through the woods by Bigfoot. In a moment of desperation and humiliation, she auditions, stomping around the trailer in costume, “bellowing and shaking [her] arms.” The man hires her immediately. “Where We Must Be,” like most of the stories in this collection, concerns a folkloric animal. The protagonists, or their loved ones, are obsessed with these monsters—the Amazon’s mapinguari, Lake Michigan’s mishegenabeg, the Congo’s mokele-mbebe—but no beasts manifest physically. We see Bigfoot, but only as a costume worn by an actor. Unlike Karen Russell’s St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, where humans interact with bizarre creatures in an otherwise literary setting, van den Berg’s freshman effort is far from a fantastical work, indexing fabulism without ever adopting its tropes completely. And this peripheral treatment of the absurd may signal a change in contemporary letters. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline arguably borrowed an aesthetic engendered by Donald Barthelme and Don DeLillo (or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for that matter), but George Saunders’ 1997 collection repopularized the critical viability of comic fabulism in the 21st Century, setting off a string of imitators. And though there are some young, stalwart realists—Jhumpa Lahiri, and more recently, Josh Weil—for ten years the lion’s share of new books getting buzz in the literary circles have contained something outlandish. Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude has flying children; Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned features vikings. There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with the fabulist trend. But in practice, a lot of the work that falls into the post-modern, ironic sub-genre lacks real weight. Simply being clever is no doubt easier than balancing ingenuity with pathos. Shakespeare’s jokes released tension, but he didn’t found his plays on them. At her best, Laura van den Berg manages to establish an equilibrium between concept and poignancy. It doesn’t appear she trained to be a realist—there aren’t a lot of camps instructing such writers these days—but she may end up a champion of the movement. There are certainly times when What the World seems structurally transparent. Van den Berg is a well-disciplined storyteller, but in some of the stories the sum of the parts isn’t much more than the sum of the parts. She always introduces her conflict early, then provides a subplot, an accessible over-arching metaphor, and finally a turn. But in “We Are Calling to Offer You a Fabulous Life,” for instance, about a young woman working in a Manhattan mask store and sleeping with her married boss, the various planks get hammered into place but the surface doesn’t feel sanded. There’s something inorganic about the unfolding of the narrative, as if van den Berg were a politician delivering her catch phrases from the stump; she’s on message, but the tenor of the delivery lacks passion. On the other hand, “The Rain Season,” about a woman who retreats to Africa after her house burns down in Chicago, borders on masterful. “The Rain Season” is one of six stories featuring monsters—in this case mokele-mbebe, the amphibious African jungle reptile descended, as legend has it, from the sauropod family. In the village where the narrator teaches, the monsoon season is impending, and so is civil war. The townspeople spread the rumor that mokele-mbebe has left the forest and killed a farmer, and in deference to tradition, draw the monster’s image in the soil to ward off additional invasions. Van den Berg does nothing specifically to exoticize the setting, but even in a book by a native African, like Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Them, the sections of the continent ravaged by disease and violence are the ideal breeding grounds for magic. When the hills are full of rebel soldiers who loot, rape, and kill indiscriminately, why shouldn’t the jungle contain a creature with the head of a hippopotamus that devours children? Yet in “The Rain Season,” mokele-mbebe is not a distraction from the human story. Rather the legend is a cultural articulation of fear, and the way van den Berg handles the relationship between fable and fact is pitch perfect. In a collection that can feel at times numbed by grief and loss, “The Rain Season” rises above distress, even approaching sentimentality. Normally I’d be opposed to a story at whose core are piteous children (“The Rain Season” contains a near saccharine scene: a semi-orphaned student gives his teacher a beautiful, handmade object), but as a counterpoint to the tragedy encapsulating the rest of the tale, a little maudlin gauze feels not just permissible, but necessary. Before the book’s release, Barnes & Noble chose What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us for its “Discover Great New Writers” series. Undoubtedly, this is a boon for Ms. van den Berg. But more importantly, if her collection continues to gain traction, realism and sincerity, like some rough beast borne on slow thighs, may have finally reemerged from the forest. Van den Berg is writing a novel, now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in that book she discards the surreal elements altogether. She doesn’t need them.
Whether or not Invictus—Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming film about South African rugby—manages to sentimentalize apartheid, the 2009 film season has already been defined by gritty, emotional realism. Kathryn Bigelow’s anti-epic, The Hurt Locker, was the first fictional film on the Iraq War to approximate the conflict psychologically. Save for David Simon’s HBO miniseries Generation Kill, only The Hurt Locker achieves verisimilitude; sitting through the picture in the theater must feel something like serving in country. More recently, Lars von Trier’s harrowing, and ultimately, despicable masterpiece Antichrist, was at least as unwatchable, to those who haven’t suffered such a loss, as losing a child is unimaginable. Lee Daniels' second feature, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, (the novel was adapted by Geoffrey Fletcher), does for life in the ghetto what Bigelow did for modern war, and von Trier for filicide. At the start of the film, Precious (Gabourey 'Gabby' Sidibe) is sixteen, illiterate, obese, and pregnant with her own father’s child—for the second time. She’s a quiet girl in the initial scenes, and when we first hear her speak it’s in voiceover. Though she may be piteous—in fact, there may never have been a character more deserving of sympathy—her tone isn’t pitiable. Precious lives in her imagination, and it is only in her fantasies that she finds sovereignty. At home with her mother, she is a slave in the truest sense: she’s an indentured servant and a source of income for her master. Welfare is the lone industry in the film, and the greater the recipient’s need appears, the larger the monthly check. For Precious’ mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), to survive without working, she must keep Precious—and whatever issues from Precious—under her ward. Before a visit from their social worker, Mary’s mother brings over Precious’ first child, whom Mary, on paper, claims as her own. The girl is a product of incest and afflicted with Down syndrome. She’s called Mongo, short for mongoloid. We’re never given her real name. Precious is, throughout, a film about perverse subjugation. Mary profits from her control over Precious (the fuller the house, the greater the yield), but the gains themselves are dependent upon stasis. If Precious leaves the house, Mary can’t eat. Precious, therefore, is a resource and a crutch, and as any head of an empire, Mary fights violently to keep her progeny in the commonwealth. In an early scene, after a counselor from Precious’ school stops by the apartment building to conference with Mary, thinking she’ll be reported—for abuse and neglect, ostensibly—Mary attacks her daughter, throwing at her whatever she can find, in this case a shoe. Later, she throws a television. The film is in many ways unbearable to watch, and because of that all the more necessary to see. But unlike Antichrist, for instance, which was relentlessly horrific to no purpose (and still astounding in spite of that), Precious strives to alleviate misery. Precious moves to an alternative school where she meets Ms. Rain (Paula Patton), who commits herself wholeheartedly to Precious’ resurrection. What keeps this plot point from turning saccharine, though, is the fact that Precious herself may be past saving. Even if she were to earn her GED and go to college, by the end of the film, one feels, as an observer, that her psychic wounds are too deep to close. How can she, for instance, tell her son about his father? Precious is the preeminent victim of her circumstances. But at the same time, excepting a few intense moments of introspection (the grandest one being the final encounter she has with her mother at the welfare office, a scene that may be the most terrifyingly cathartic of the year—surpassing even Charlotte Gainsbourg’s self-mutilation scene in Antichrist) she doesn’t dwell very long on her plight. And that she remains optimistic in spite of everything is either this film’s greatest flaw, or its triumph. If it’s the latter—and I would argue it is—Precious is much more than an exposé of poverty or an argument against government aid. It earns its optimism, if only because the labors necessary to achieve that hope are so awful. When Precious leaves the welfare office, carrying her son, and holding her daughter’s hand, I thought of the close of Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. After the execution of the innocent deserters in that film, the surviving soldiers sit in a mess hall. A beautiful young woman comes out onto the stage. The men jeer her as she begins to sing. But soon they stop. They’re unable to summon more insults. The beauty of her art, for that moment, eliminates their horrors. Similarly, Precious’ love for her children wipes away, temporarily, the mess of her circumstances. Lee Daniels, by making this film, trained his eye—subjective as that eye may sometimes seem—on a family whose abhorrent situation, terrifyingly enough, isn’t unique. For many audiences (even those familiar with the fourth season of The Wire), Precious ought to come as a sickening shock. Despite its dream sequences and fantasies, it is overwhelmingly real.