What I'm Reading (and More): Quarantine Edition

Well, folks…we’re all hunkered down, now officially. I hope everyone is staying well. It’s also been a while since I did one of these posts, so it seemed like a good time. Feel free to share your own updates in the comments!

Reading

Silence

Finally read Silence by Shūsaku Endō! It is not a book one enjoys, but I did appreciate the challenge of deciphering the message (or losing my voice attempting to). You can watch the video review here.

TL;DR version: The book is gut-wrenching and, as I put it to another reader, “psychologically horrifying.” The writing style is masterful, from the use of silence as a motif to the mix of tenses/perspectives which create distance between the reader and the protagonist. I feel the surface message is unbiblical, but I also believe there is a second, more nuanced way to read it, where rather than view it strictly from Rodrigues’s eyes, you view the sequence of events holistically and see his flawed thinking. This gives the novel a level of depth that makes it worthwhile, especially for Christians.

What next?

I ought to read Yōko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, because I have it on ebook from the library for eight days. However, Silence was so emotionally draining, I’m thinking I’ll take a break from fiction. I’ll probably read one of my exploration nonfiction books, like The Lost City of Z.

Watching

Gaslight

The other day I watched Gaslight (1944) with my family. This is an Ingrid Bergman film, about a young woman who marries a handsome stranger and bad things happen (ya don’t say?).

It is a verrryyy slow film. I couldn’t help wishing Alfred Hitchcock had directed it. On the other hand, it has a level of artistic restraint that I did appreciate and which Hitchcock never seems to be able to leverage. So, overall, it was an ok film. Charles Boyer’s character made me want to punch the screen, but Ingrid excels in this genre and made me stick it out. Also on the plus side, the plot reminded me of Charlotte Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Fortunately (?), Gaslight is not nearly as bloodcurdling as that short story.

Listening

I started my personal blog back up, so have been journalling there about the shutdown, plus music recommendations and funny videos.

I’ll share this song now—“Vancouver Waves” by August and After, a calming song for times like this.

Listen on YouTube

Vertigo and How to Steal a Million – Two short reviews (spoiler-free)

Recently I saw these two classic films for the first time: Vertigo (1958) and How to Steal a Million (1966).  On the surface, they have really nothing in common, so I thought it would be a fun challenge to compare and contrast them.

Vertigo


Vertigo is an Alfred Hitchcock film, considered by many reviewers to be his masterpiece.  James Stewart plays a retired detective, Scottie Ferguson, who is commissioned by his friend to follow said friend’s wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) around San Francisco, to determine if she’s become possessed with the spirit of her great-grandmother.  Matters become weirder when Scottie finds himself falling head over heels for the chilling but attractive Madeleine, who also seems to have a thing for him.  Scottie, unfortunately, suffers from vertigo and a fear of heights, which threaten to jeopardize his task and Madeleine’s life.

Let me just say I have mixed feelings about Hitchcock films.  This is how I’d rank the ones I’ve seen so far (best to worst):

  1. Rebecca
  2. Strangers on a Train
  3. The Wrong Man
  4. The Man Who Knew Too Much
  5. Vertigo
  6. North by Northwest
  7. The Birds
As you can see, the popular ones I don’t care for very much.
Vertigo actually started out very promising, but somewhere around the halfway mark, it got very slow and tedious.  The plot is predictable and, at times, unduly macabre.  As usual with Hitchcock, I did find the cinematography to be stunning – with shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco as they looked in the 50s – but it wasn’t enough to carry the film through.  There’s only so much disbelief you can suspend, with an unlikely romance and one or two gaping plot holes.

How to Steal a Million

Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn?  That was all I needed to know.

How to Steal a Million follows an art forger and his loyal daughter Nicole (Audrey Hepburn) who will do what it takes to keep her scoundrelly dad out of jail.  That includes staging a faux burglary to prevent a particular sculpture from being tested for authenticity. Enter Simon Dermott (Peter O’Toole), who claims to be an expert burglar.  With great reluctance, he agrees to take on Nicole’s challenge and break into a high-security museum to “steal” her father’s own statue and save the family honor.
This was the dumbest, cutest, cringiest movie I’ve seen in a long time. (I guess that’s what rom-coms are?  I don’t usually watch that genre.)  O’Toole manages to make a creepy role extremely charming, and Hepburn’s cute innocence outshines even her chic wardrobe (designed by Givenchy and made rather a big deal of).  I’m pretty sure nobody except these two could play such lovable dorks.
As it is, what starts out as a cute comedy turns into a long-winded, tedious ordeal, during the greater part of which the two are trapped in a broom closet and exchanging risque jokes.  Again, rom-coms aren’t exactly my thing, so I was disappointed when the plot kind of fizzled out in the second half.

Lessons Learned

Here’s my takeaways from these two films:
  • If you’re going to make a movie – or write a book, for that matter – that is really unbelievable, your best outlet is comedy.  Tragedies have to be plausible for me to care.
  • Great actors/actresses can make bad films watchable.
  • A story should never start out more exciting and engaging than it finishes up.
  • Sometimes Amazon reviewers and I don’t see eye-to-eye.
  • I should probably stop watching Alfred Hitchcock films (but I know I won’t).
Thoughts…recommendations?  I’d be curious to hear if any of you like Vertigo.  It’s the kind of film where I at least understand its popularity.  I just didn’t care for it personally.  How to Steal a Million is pure fluff and I’ll probably watch it again, to my great chagrin.  

"My Kinsman, Major Molineux"

Fields Hawthorne Ticknor ca1863 byJWBlack
Portrait of James Thomas Fields (1817-1881),
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864),
and William Davis Ticknor (1810-1864).

Over on Instagram, I’d mentioned I’ve been getting into Hawthorne’s short stories again.  He’s a favorite author of mine, and when I read the collection Twice Told Tales (already five years ago, wow!), I was blown away by the craft of his shorter works.  I finally broke down and bought the complete Tales and Sketches, and for my first reading chose “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” one of the more famous ones.

The story is set up simply enough: a young man and clergyman’s son, Robin, sets out one day to seek his fortune.  More specifically, he leaves the countryside and arrives in Boston in order to get in touch with Major Molineux, a relative who had once offered to help him get started in life.

It’s a dark, gloomy night in Boston.  Robin goes from door to door, inquiring for his kinsman.  Everyone laughs at him, while he wanders through the streets looking for at least one towns-person who will listen to him seriously.  Finally, he meets a man who tells him to wait by the church, because Major Molineux will soon arrive.  Shortly after, Robin hears the voices of a crowd in the next street.  When they at last turn the corner, he is unprepared for what he sees.

For such a simple, subtle buildup, this story ends with a punchline I was not expecting.  I’ve left out the ending to avoid spoilers, but in short, it was disturbing.  At the same time, this twist opens up the story to a larger realm of questions, just as it closes this peek into Robin’s life.  This is what makes Hawthorne’s style so powerful, even as it seems fairly conventional on the surface.

Have you read any of Hawthorne’s short stories, and if so, what are your favorites?