Dark Comic Novel for Dystopian Times

Book: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart – It takes a lot to make me really laugh with delight, especially in these dark days for America. Yet from the very first pages, this widely acclaimed novel had me bursting out with not just chuckles but guffaws (causing a strange glance or two my way when I was reading it in public).

Shteyngart extrapolates from current affairs to create a near future America that feels all too probable, even ominous, yet he manages to make his version of future shock rib tickling in its tangible absurdity. Plus he weaves into that milieu a genuinely touching yet equally amusing romance. Truly a tome for our times that for all its dystopian edge is full of heart and even hope, albeit touched with melancholy. In short, an insightful delight that I’ll follow with his highly praised previous works.

Documentary Film: A Letter to Elia – Careful readers of my columns will have already noted my affection and admiration for Martin Scorsese, who wrote, directed and appears in this homage to fellow director Elia Kazan, known for classics like On The Waterfront, East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire and Splendor in the Grass.

This PBS American Masters episode is further proof that Scorsese occupies an Olympian position in contemporary cinema as not just the greatest director of our day but also a true lover of the art form and sagacious guide to its riches. As with his appreciation of Italian films, “My Voyage to Italy,” he interweaves his salute to Kazan with his own experience of falling in love with the magic that can manifest on the silver screen, and enhances our understanding of how story, characters and technique are utilized by truly great filmmakers to profound effect and raise some movies from entertainment into great art. And the artfulness and significance of what Kazan accomplished not just as in film but also as a stage director, writer and founder of the Actors Studio overrides his notoriety from appearing before the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1952 during the Red Scare and naming names. The ripples of that continued to affect his prestige even when Kazan was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1999. But it would be a sad mistake to dismiss his work due to that sad episode, and Scorsese makes that case with aesthetic force and genuine heart.

Movie: In Bruges – For its setting alone in the picturesque and historical Belgian city in its title, this 2008 black comedy by a first time director is highly notable, feeling almost like a mini European vacation (especially for those of us unable to currently enjoy one). And the evocative place provides both a telling context and contrast to its tale of two English hitmen — wonderfully played by Colin Ferrell and Brendan Gleeson — hiding out after a botched job back in London.

The friction of their interactions with each other, the city, and the cast of odd yet very real characters they encounter plus the dangers and decisions created by their profession provide a piquant blend of drama, humor, romance and violence that is wonderfully rich, amusing, touching and fateful.

It’s a “small movie” with great impact on the soul, imagination and conscience.

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2011


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