Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack, 1934-2008

I don't have a lot of time to devote to this, but I just wanted to point out that filmmaker Sydney Pollack died at the age of 73 from cancer. Read Glenn Kenny's remembrance of Pollack here. I think the comparison to Alan J. Pakula is an accurate one. Both made classical American films that usually lingered a little too long, but you never cared because they contained wonderful acting. Pollack's films were never concise and he never really made anything that was a huge box office hit, even though he was known as a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker. His films have a strange aura about them and the length of the films create a reverie that lets you know you are in the company of a storyteller who demands attention and dedication to watching his films. Two examples are with the wonderful thriller The Firm and its unconventional score, and the romantic comedy Sabrina which had no business really being anything but a love letter by Pollack to a bygone era of filmmaking. However, the films work, and even though both are waaaay too long for their respective genres, you don't mind because the acting is so great, and it has all the qualities of a classical American film (great art direction, cinematography, score, and wonderful supporting characters and performances). His films have a sort of hypnotic pull to them -- sometimes that pull works as in The Firm or Sabrina, and other times its a mess as in Havana and Random Hearts, but rarely are his films uninteresting -- the viewer is pulled deeper and deeper into a state of reverie by his films lulls and wandering. If you haven't seen any of Pollack's films, check out...

The Firm -- a long and sometimes flawed film, but saved by great performances (a staple of Pollack's films) by Gene Hackman, Gary Busey, and Holly Hunter. All wonderful, eccentric supporting characters; like the ones that use to inhabit Hollywood thrillers in the 30's and 40's.

Three Days of the Condor -- one of nine films Pollack would work on with Robert Redford. The film is classical in its handling of the espionage/spy genre and you can really see how the pacing of the film translated into a film he would later star in and produce Michael Clayton.

Sabrina -- it's nothing special but it's an interesting addition to his filmography and it has a great looking cast doing some great acting. It's long and would overstay its welcome if it weren't for how endearing the characters are and how good looking and old fashioned the film looks.

Absence of Malice -- one of Paul Newman's best performances and wonderful script. A classic and probably Pollack's best film.

The Interpeter -- a flawed film and not one of my favorites, but it's the last film Mr. Pollack left us with. Check it out.

Changing Lanes -- Pollack was also a great actor, who had one of those great gruff and distinct voices, and I am sure most people will remember him for his most famous films (Tootsie and Out of Africa), but some of his roles as an actor have been just as impressive. Case in point: a small film with big actors, Changing Lanes is one of the most overlooked and under-appreciated films of the last decade. Yeah, it's a little contrived and heavy handed with its moral message, but it is some of the finest acting you'll see, and I love how Pollack plays one of the most evil and reprehensible characters I have seen in film, and yet, his character is really good at convincing you that he's doing the right thing. A wonderful performance.

He was also the producer for tons of amazing and award winning films, my favorite being The Talented Mr. Ripley which sadly was directed by the late Anthony Minghella who also died this year. Pollack's attention to detail and patient pacing were evident in the film which contains the best performances you will likely see from Matt Damon and Jude Law.

He will be missed.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Playing Favorites

When my brother Troy suggested to me that we blog about our 25 favorite albums and movies, it got me thinking about the difference between 'favorite' and 'best'. I have kind of touched on this a little with this post about my taste in movies, and how that taste evolves over time. I also just explained in my post about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that that film holds a particularly special place in my film-going heart. It is the first film where I started to notice other aspects of filmmaking besides the action on the screen. What is the difference between 'favorite' and 'best' anyway? Is there a difference? To me it's the difference between something like The Virgin Spring and Aliens. Yes, those two films have nothing to do with each other, except for the fact that I hold the former in high regard. I would even place it on my list of the 25 greatest films ever made. Aliens? Probably not. But there are fewer films I can think of that I find more entertaining than James Cameron's hyper-kinetic action/sci-fi masterpiece. Which brings about another debate: are films by Bergman, Ozu, Fellini, etc. not entertaining? Can only big budget movies or genre pictures be called entertaining? And if so, is this a way that more serious film-goers simply explain the difference between the two in order to save their credibility? Is there a distinction between film and movies?

I have always explained to people that film, unlike few artistic mediums, has the ability to change perspectives and make profound statements about life. It's the most interesting of art forms (to me) and I love nothing more than absorbing the philosophies and images of a Bergman or Fellini. But would I just pop in Cries and Whispers while I'm working on a crossword puzzle or cleaning the apartment? Probably not. It's a film that requires your utmost attention to its finely crafted details; simply it cannot be half-watched. A film like Aliens however can, and I would argue it can still be enjoyed the same as if you were giving the film your full attention.

Of course I am speaking primarily of my favorites; films I have seen time and time again, that for some reason keep me coming back for more. Some of these are just great films that I grew up with; others are more serious films that I have studied over the years. But I keep coming back to the debate that I faced a lot when I worked at a video store: can a 'heavy' film (like Bergman) be entertaining? I think it can, and I think most of his films are exhilarating experiences. Sure, not in the Steven Spielberg/George Lucas sense, but they unique and life altering experiences with film. They also consist of moments where the pieces seem to fit from other films. As you watch these classics and masters at work, one can see how other films have been influenced by, and utilized the skills that the Bergman's and the Fellini's used years before them. Understanding the referential aspect of film is only obtainable by watching movies that are often timed deemed 'too serious'.

That term bothers me, because there are plenty of bad movies made recently that people claim to love, but I would qualify them as 'too serious'. This can mean a number of things, but I mostly attribute this to the filmmakers thinking that their film is a lot more important than any other film released that year because they are making an important societal message. Films like Babel, Children of Men, Crash have garnered both a lot of praise and a lot of hate. I didn't necessarily find the first two films entertaining or important (although I could appreciate the craft that went into them), but I enjoyed Crash (I'm not ashamed, I don't care how much street cred I lose because of it) and found it extremely over-the-top operatic and entertaining. This is an example of a popular film that many average Joe movie-goers found to be both serious and entertaining. I would say the same about a film like 8 1/2, probably the best film I have ever seen, and coincidentally one of my favorite movies, too. It's a film experience unlike any other and I can safely say that I would enjoy watching the film (for as emotionally draining as it can be) at any time on any day. It's also a foreign film, and at times, quite serious. But I defy anyone who sees that movie to claim that it's not entertaining.

Now, the difference between 'favorite' and 'best' is a different argument. There a re a lot of movies that I want my friends, family, and girlfriend to see that they haven't. Some of my favorite movie moments don't come from the uber serious films I love and admire (and would gladly claim to be 'the best'); rather they come from films like Raising Arizona, The Weatherman, Casino, The Godfather, etc. These are the films that shaped me and helped me evolve into a serious film-watcher. These films ushered me through my apprenticeship with the medium and were the catalyst for me discovering the classics and the more challenging films from filmmakers like Bergman. If it weren't for these 'favorites' of mine, then I don't know if I would have ever watched anything by the aforementioned directors, or even directors like: Mallick, Ford, Lang, Murnau, Herzog, Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, and the list could go on.

I want to end with this: I touched on it briefly in my post on my taste in movies, that if it wasn't for John Woo's action pictures, or pieces of crap like The Last Boyscout, then who knows if I would be the admirer of film that I am today. I can think of countless films that I used to love when I was younger, simply because I thought they were cool, or had neat action sequences. These are the attributes I appreciate today as part of the referential aspect of film (like I mention in my review of Nightmare City) that can be seen in any film by Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino. I am glad I used to love a weird trashy Noir film called Romeo is Bleeding starring Gary Oldman. Seriously, I used to watch that thing all the time on HBO. Now I see the film for what it is, and it doesn't quite make the list, but it's still one of my favorites.

So why not just be a man and not worry about being some pretentious film connoisseur who dismisses these films as being nothing more than 'mere entertainment that doesn't have the capability to challenge me'? Well...I really don't care about that, and I would gladly (and do) consider a film like Raising Arizona as one of the 25 best films ever made. I make no apologies for loving everything about a film like Raising Arizona and placing it (albeit arbitrarily) ahead of films by Kubrick (who I don't like, save Barry Lyndon and 2001) or any other 'esteemed' filmmaker. But things get hazy after the few selections I consider to occupy both my top 25 'favorite' films and top 25 'best films'.

Do I appreciate the technique and influence of say a film by Eric Von Stroheim (I love The Wedding March)? Absolutely. But I much rather watch Peter Weller stab the dude from "That 70's Show" in the eye with a giant knife.

So I purpose the question to you: is there a difference between your favorites and what you consider 'the best'? Can serious film be considered entertaining? Would you rather sit through Spielberg or Bergman? Burton or Murnau? Is there a difference?

*I will explain more of these differences and better articulate some of these thoughts when I roll out my 25 favorite movies in the next couple of weeks. Also, look on Troy's blog for the same thing. My top 25 favorite albums will follow after that. Enjoy, and feel free to add your own list on your blog.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"You have chosen wisely": Or Why 'Last Crusade' is the Best Indy Picture

There is a certain style of illustration that appeared in the boys' adventure magazines of the 1940s - in those innocent publications that have been replaced by magazines on punk lifestyles and movie monsters. The illustrations were always about the same. They showed a small group of swarthy men hovering over a treasure trove with greedy grins on their bearded faces, while in the foreground, two teenage boys peered out from behind a rock in wonder and astonishment. The point of view was always over the boys' shoulders; the reader was invited to share this forbidden glimpse of the secret world of men.
The following excerpt is from Roger Ebert's 1989 review of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, my favorite Indy film. What strikes me about the opening to Ebert's review is that I was like those 'greedy grins' and as the treasure trove of my first Summer blockbuster unraveled in front of me I soaked up every pulp-tastic moment the film offered. Of course I didn't know what pulp was in 1989 (except of course that icky stuff I didn't like in my OJ), and the grin didn't appear on my bearded face (although it does now just thinking about the film), but rather, I was as young and green as Young Indiana sitting in the only good theater Salem, OR had to offer in 1989, I became mesmerized by the action and the comedy and the rats and snaked and skeletons and tanks and Nazi's and Holy Grail's. Yup, that was a lot for a seven year old kid to remember...but I do. I remember it all. And it was at that moment that I became obsessed with film.

I would return with my brothers at least four more times to see the film, sometimes waiting in a line that wrapped around the building. There was really only one good theater in Salem and 'back then' (I swear I'm not that old) a film would play for months, because there wasn't another equally huge blockbuster waiting to open the next weekend. You were allowed to let the film linger in your imagination and on lazy Summer afternoons when you were tired of replaying the scenes in your head (my favorite at the time being the one from the library where they search the catacombs of Venice to find a missing tablet) you could take a bus down to the movie theater and not worry about the film being bumped because they need to use five of their ten screens on the latest Narnia movie. But I digress, why is it that I love Last Crusade so much more than the other Indy films? I think most of it has to do with what I explained above, the nostalgia factor plays a large role, but also now being older (and bearded) and wiser about film I can see a film that seemed like a lost art -- the last of its kind as the cynical cinema of the 90's was about to take over the movie theaters -- where fedoras and whips didn't seem goofy and Nazi's chasing after the Holy Grail didn't seem silly. It was big time movie making in its purest form.

What makes Last Crusade stand head and shoulders above the other films is not just the set pieces and exciting action sequences (especially the tank scene, which, allow me to be seven again, is totally bitchin'), but also the chemistry between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, who plays Indian's father. The way Spielberg treats this relationship is something right out of those mystery books I used to read as a kid: "Encyclopedia Brown" or "The Hardy Boys." In these novels kids go out and meddle in the business of thieves and con artists eventually bringing them to justice, all the while the parents, usually, sit at home and wish their kids the best of luck. It was the perfect form of escapism for a seven year old boy as through these characters there weren't any adults getting in the way of your business. You, as a kid, were allowed to do adult detective type work. Watching the film now (and perhaps when I was younger) I noticed this distanced, yet still loving, relationship between father and son.

In addition to this great familial relationship, there are some familiar faces from Raiders that return here. The machine-gun-like dialogue and back and forth between Indy and his father also exists between the hilarious Denholm Elliott as the aloof Dr. Marcus Brody and the jovial Sallah is back, played wonderfully by John Rhys-Davies. The supporting cast is important and gives the film that 1940's feel, where there was as much emphasis on the supporting characters -- and usually the most memorable characters sprang from these groups of misfits -- and their interaction with the stars of the film. Spielberg wisely gives Elliott and Rhys-Davies equal laughs while sharing the screen with Ford and Connery. This too had an impression on me as I was able to see the importance of an entire cast. It wasn't just Indy that I was glad to be (re)visiting at the theater that Summer, but also the entire supporting characters.

Surely chemistry between actors isn't enough to elevate a film, many of whom think is a lesser retread of Raiders, as the best of the series? Ah, but you would be wrong. Where Raiders and Temple of Doom seem most memorable to me for specific scenes -- whether it be melting faces or monkey brains -- Last Crusade's story remains vividly ingrained in my memory, and admit it, the drinking-from-the-wrong-cup scene (and the crazy skeleton Julian Glover turns into) is a lot cooler than a melting face, especially when the knight guarding the grail (played by Robbert Eddison) quips: "He chose poorly." Everything from the opening with young Indiana to the placement of the fedora on his head as we transition to an older Dr. Jones. From the library in Venice and the underground filled with rats, to the exciting boat chase and the zeppelin ride where Indy and his father escape via a plane connected to the zeppelin or when they are shot down by 'enemy fire' in one of the more comically inspired scenes of the series. How about the book burning where Indian comes face to face with Hitler? What about the hilarious scene where Indy and his father are tied together in a chair in a burning room, revealing one of the more inspired moments of the film (Connery's naivety is perfect and gets one of the bigger laughs as they make their escape from the Nazi castle). Or the rousing and unmatched ending with the last guardian of the holy grail (and the awesome series of tests Indy has to take to get there). All of these are wonderful scenes, moments that outshine anything from Raiders or Temple of Doom, and they are all connected and given more weight because of the connecting storyline involving Indiana and his father.

All of these moments and images have stayed with me over the years, because as I states earlier, this was the first Summer blockbuster I had ever seen. It would lead to a life of becoming obsessed with film as I subscribed to Premiere magazine and Entertainment Weekly, in hopes that I could learn more about what went on behind the camera, not to mention when the next big movie would be released. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was the catalyst for my intense interest in movies (which lead to my intense interest in, if I may be pretentious for a moment, film) and shaped what kind of movie-goer I would become. It has moments that remain exhilarating and hilarious. Even after five viewings in the theater I remember buying the video right away and watching it every other week. I was crossing a threshold and growing up. The Hardy Boys were being replaced by the more grizzled Indian Jones, and for the first time it wasn't just the action that was keeping me entertained. I started to remember the film for the scenes of dialogue and interaction between characters. Now instead of reliving moments of action in my head, I was memorizing pieces of dialogue. Looking at the film today, Last Crusade still seems to be the one Indy film where it is evident that everyone is really savoring the banter and enjoying every moment on screen together.

When I see the trailers for the new film I am not disheartened or worried they will ruin something they should have let die with Last Crusade; rather I am antsy and anxious. I can hardly wait. I feel seven years old again. For me, the film has already succeeded. There's not a moment in Prince Caspian or Lord of the Rings or any Summer blockbuster to have come out since that can match the escapist spectacle that is the end of Last Crusade (I mean come on, when he throws the dirt on the invisible bridge and he has to take the leap of faith...that rules!), and neither of those films can match the wit or pacing of a scene like where the tank rolls through the desert. Harrison Ford's facial expressions (not to mention Connery's premature eulogy when they think Indy has gone over the cliff with the tank) are pitch perfect in their comedic timing and the use of pantomime works better than most action pictures cheesy one-liners.

Last Crusade is filmed in a traditional style that would be construed as 'boring' by todays standards, and leads me to wonder what people will think of the newest installment. In a time where facts and realism are so important for many movie goers, you have to wonder if the days of Indy are long dead. This is one of the main reasons I am so looking forward to the new film. It will remind me of (and please forgive me) a more simpler time, where one movie played on one screen and stayed in theaters for half a year. Where a film didn't have to be labeled as camp if it decided to reference 1940's mystery magazines and pulp novels. Today every kind of escapist film gets labeled as postmodern or camp or is said to be making a statement about some kind of bygone era of Hollywood. In 1989, as a 7 year old, that meant nothing to me. I am looking forward to Crystal Skull because it will make me feel that innocence again. It will remind me of a time before I had seen the uber-referential Pulp Fiction, and a time before I knew who Frederic Jameson was and what his essays on nostalgia and postmodernism meant.

In this post 9/11 world where cynicism and nihilism (elements I like in certain films, don't get me wrong) seem to seep into every weekend movie releases, isn't there a need for someone like Indy more than ever? I cannot wait for the wry humor, the exhilarating action sequences, seeing the fedora again, the iconic whip, Cate Blanchett in that black wig, and more than anything I am looking forward to the escapism, to the nostalgic joy ride I anticipate the newest film will take me on, where I will plop down in my seat and grin greedily with my bearded face as I remember all of the memories of my last experience with Indy in the theater.

*This entry is part of the Indiana Jones Blog-a-Thon created by Ali Arikan over at his blog Cerebral Mastication. Check out the rest of the Blog-a-Thon entries here.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Meme means breast in Turkish?

Well according to Cerebral Mastication's Ali Arikan, who tagged me for this particular meme, it does. No I am not going to be writing about breasts or Turkish breasts for that matter, but here all the simple rules of this particular meme:

1) Pick up the nearest book.
2) Open to page 123.
3) Locate the fifth sentence.
4) Post the next three sentences on your blog and in so doing…
5) Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

So there ya have it. The book I have next to me at the moment is John Banville's The Book of Evidence which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989. If you've seen the hilarious French faux-doc "Man Bites Dog", then you can get a good idea of what this novel is about and how it treats its main character, Freddie Montgomery, a man who kills because...well...he can. I wasn't too hot on this book when I started it, but it has really started to grow on me. Here Freddie is explaining the questioning process:

I am merely another name on a list. They are mild, soft-spoken, stolidly deferential, a little bored. I respond to their questions politely, with a certain irony, smiling, lifting an eyebrow -- It is, I tell myself smugly, the performance of my life, a masterpiece of dissembling.

Thanks for the tag Ali...and for the rest of you...tag you're it (okay that was too easy):

Troy Olson's Elusive as Robert Denby
Larry Linebaugh's To Infinity and Beyond
Kennettron 5000
Phillip Kelly's Phil-Zine
Mr. Holman's True Life: I'm a New Yorker?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Who is Hugo Stiglitz?

By popular demand (and for those wondering just who in the hell Hugo Stiglitz is) more Hugo Stiglitz!!! The Nightmare City trailer is wonderful. Just click on the 'continue reading' link to see a slew of wonderful Hugo moments in some truly awful (read: wonderful and brilliant) Italian and Mexican films. Enjoy!

here is the trailer for Nightmare City be careful -- NSFW -- contains lots of boobs.

Here's another video that is hilarious. Someone put together some of the best moments from Nightmare City with funny sound effects and a cliche zombie checklist. The best is the opening scene where Hugo shows that he knows how to please the ladies. Folks!

Here's another one...again NSFW...in fact just assume they are all that way. This is for a wonderful jungle movie called The Treasure of the Amazon where according to IMDB he plays the boat captain. You don't get to see him in the preview (at least I couldn't find him) but this gives you a good idea of the kinds of movies he was in (he made like three of these a year). This has all of the usual jungle/cannibal goodies in it: hooks going through body parts, eyes gouged, lots of zooms and stock footage, a scene directly stolen from The Beyond where instead of spiders chewing apart the dudes face, you have crabs. Troy donwload this movie! It has Donald Pleasence!

Here he is saving some kids from zombies in Cemetery of Terror. I could only find this in Spanish. But really...how important is the dialogue. But look at Hugo go!

Here is our hero Hugo showing his love for felines in The Night of 1000 Cats. Hmmmm? A metaphor for how he treats women? This could be interpreted in a couple of ways...I'll leave you to deconstruct it. Also, it is worth noting that except for Nightmare City all of these are written and directed by the same hack director of Mexican cinema Rene Cadona Jr. Hooray Rene!

Another survival film. This time what we in the states would come to know as Alive this film by Rene Cadona Sr. was made in the early 70's and called Survive. Perhaps this was Hugo's attempt at serious cinema.

Here he is in a Mexican Jaws rip off. Are you getting the hang of it? Nothing these hack filmmakers or actors made was original. However, this is probably my favorite trailer on here because it is everything that is wonderful about film trailers from that era. I love the narrator's explanation of Susan George as "the girl who came to the island to have fun". Very concise. And Hugo "as a rich young man looking for romance and adventure". Ha. This looks wonderful. "But the Tintorera changed everything!" or "The lived for laughs and love, until the Tintorera struck." Watch and enjoy!

I hope you enjoyed this brief glimpse into Hugo's career. There are many more films that are all equally as awful as these, I was just too lazy to keep looking on You Tube. But there are other films like Cyclone and The Bermuda Triangle that are all essentially the same thing: stranded people struggling to survive who have to stave off the creepy jungle creatures like snakes and spiders and end up resorting to cannibalism to survive. All in an attempt to show that we are no different than the 'savages' that inhabit the jungle. Ah good 'ol 1970's Italian and Mexican cinema...quite progressive, eh?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Book of the Month, May 2008: Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Now, I must say that in my prepubescent stage of literature knowledge I am certain there are thousands upon thousands of people more qualified to talk about literature in an engaging way than I could ever hope. My degree is in Literature, so I have four years of digging through weighty tomes and literary theory under my belt (postmodernism being the one I am well versed in), but I am not much of a writer, and I fear that writing about such literary giants is out of my league. I am only 26 and have evolved from The Hardy Boys to John Grisham and James Patterson to Ernest Hemingway and Elmore Leonard to Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman to Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. All are books that I look at through different lenses, and in now way am I saying that one is better than the other (although I guess I am, since this evolution of literary tastes is shown in an order that can be easily deconstructed as “what I liked when I was too young to know better” to “what I know is good right now”), but I am hoping to highlight some books each month that showcase some of my favorite authors and what it is that they do so well. I will mostly be able to convey how the novel affected me emotionally and the obvious elements of why I think it is a great book, not just based on its technical accomplishments, but also its readability. I hope that comes through as I do these but we’ll see…let’s give it a go shall we?

It is hard to fathom the genius of Salman Rushdie. I have never encountered anything like him before; and that goes for any medium, be it film, art, music, or whatever. He is the Quentin Tarantino of literature (even though some would argue that is Elmore Leonard, but bear with me here) a genius who writes grandiose novels with oddball characters and situations that deal with supernatural and irreverent to the seriously political and historic. He dabbles in postcolonialism, feminism, postmodernism, and an uncanny ability of bringing India to life. He is extremely referential, conjuring up images of pop culture and Bollywood to make a serious point by implementing elements of the artificial and absurd. He is a cinematic writer, everything you read you feel as if you could see it unfolding in front of you as if he were showing the storyboards to his latest film project. He is postmodern to the core, yet he is not, as many anti-postmodern literature lovers would say, irresponsible. His postmodern elements exist for a reason. They always add to the story and heighten the emotion, they are never the story (say like a Dave Eggers novel) and they exist only as unconventional rebuttals to an all too serious worldly debate.

That debate is usually about the calling into question of politics and love and religion and history; which in postmodern terms are what Jean-Francois Lyotard called ‘the grand narrative.’ Rushdie wrestles with ‘the grand narrative’ in a lot of his novels, mostly by using the fantastical to make his points. In Midnight’s Children, his second novel, he tackles the heavily emotional and tumultuous theme of postcolonial India in the moments before, leading up to, and during her independence. Rushdie likes to undercut a lot of the uber serious themes that plague the front pages of our daily news, but again, he is not childish or irresponsible, but rather by tackling these elements of ‘the grand narrative’, he is allowing the reader to enter a world where flying carpets are normal and invites the reader to cross that threshold which allows them to put on a different lens and see what things look like through cracked and smudged glasses.

I don’t know if I will ever read a novel as brilliant as Midnight’s Children. There is a reason is won the “booker of booker’s” (the best novel in the last 25 years, essentially) as it is a novel that revolves around the most formidable time in India’s history all told by one unreliable narrator Saleem Sinai. Saleem is like most postmodern narrators, the relayer of information for us not in the know, he is a narrator who forgets facts is unsure of exact moments in time, and as we come to see, isn’t even really who he says he is (which is a brilliant touch by Rushdie, because when this information is sprung upon the reader it forces them to re-imagine how the previous 300 or so pages went). Always morphing like the snakes that Saleem references throughout, the novel is a beautiful allegory for life with one simple truth: life has its ups and downs. Saleem plays a game called Snakes and Ladders and the metaphor is clear: for every up there is a down, and for every down there must be an up. Never before have I been touched by a novel in so many different ways.

I googled Midnight’s Children so that I could put a good plot synopsis up here, and I found a really good example from Mac Fenwick of Trent University from the Literary Encyclopedia webpage. In no way did I write any of what is below (I always have problems summarizing things which I explain in my post for “Snow Angels”):

Midnight’s Children has been compared in its scope and execution to works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Like them, Rushdie’s novel presents an encyclopaedic exploration of an entire society through the story of a single person. It is able to do this, in part, by merging with the novel form a number of non-Western texts such as the Sanskrit epics, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata and, most consciously (and not unproblematically) The 1,001 Nights. The narrative takes the form of fictional autobiography as Saleem Sinai, born at the precise moment of Indian Independence at midnight on 15th August 1947, reflects upon his life and the history of his “twin”, the newly formed nation of India. In order to do this he constructs a narrative that is a heterogeneous mixture of the different traditions from which it takes its inspiration. Throughout the story, Saleem seeks to uncover or discover the connections between the personal and the national, the individual and the societal, as he strives to “give meaning” to his life and, somewhat more problematically, to the history of India from the period between World War I and the Indian Emergency (1975-1977) when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the Constitution and democracy all but collapsed in the country. This connection between Saleem and his national “twin” is a difficult one, and from the outset of the narrative Saleem feels that he has been “handcuffed to history” rather than liberated.

(Me again) This theme of being ‘handcuffed to history’ is throughout Midnight’s Children, and even though it may sound like it is too daunting of a task to read this book, I implore you to not be turned off by the historical data. In no way is Rushdie’s account of India’s history banal, but rather (surprisingly for me since I am not a history buff) by placing this unreliable narrator smack in the middle of India’s most crucial moments, Rushdie actually heightens the interest one might not normally have in such historical information. The reader becomes somewhat of a detective themselves, trying to piece together the truths and non-truths of Saleem’s story, as he mentions that he is ‘literally’ falling apart. He has cracks all over his body and his limbs are close to falling off. This coincides with another major postmodern theme: fragmentation. All through the novel there are characters seeing things through slits or holes or just certain body parts, and of course, the obvious example just mentioned, Saleem’s cracks on his skin. This all leads to the one moment where Saleem, handcuffed to history and cracking and breaking apart will be trampled to dust…he will become one with history and embedded into the dirt of Bombay. Like Whitman who told the reader to look under their boot to find him because he was in the ground and all around (that’s a paraphrase, hehe) so too does Rushdie invoke this kind of imagery, because since Saleem is the child of India, then it is only appropriate that he literally become a part of India.

Midnight’s Children is a book that is all at once spiritual, philosophical, absurd, grotesque, vulgar, metaphysical, magical, and just plain perfect. Rushdie slides these themes in place like he’s Tom Cruise solving a case in "Minority Report." At any given moment the novel can make you laugh out loud with its absurdest postmodern elements, or make you cringe with its graphic details of a society brutalized by colonialism. It also has wonderfully comic and sweet moments between the women and the men which shed humorous light upon its more serious postmodern feminist theories. Midnight’s Children is a book that is 100% satisfying to the intellect and is also 100% emotionally satisfying. The novel is heavy in theme (and weight, the book is 560 pages) and 75 pages should be your daily limit, but that is not to say that the novel is not a great entertainment. There are many moments where you will want to keep reading, no matter what time of night it is, and there are others where you will feel so weighed down by the sheer force of Rushdie’s brilliance (not to mention all of the information about India he throws at you) that you must simply take a break from the memorization of dates, figureheads, and character names.

You don’t have to be as enamored with the literary theory as I am to enjoy this book. It works on both levels and there is a reason why it is my inaugural Book of the Month selection. The novel is insanely popular with both casual readers and literary nerds such as me, and I really hope you run out and give it a shot. I am reading it for the second time right now, and am enjoying it even more the second time around. It has taken me awhile to revisit the novel because of how emotional the ending of the book is. It’s a novel that contains magic carpets and stark realism, children born at midnight with extraordinary powers like telepathy and mind reading to documentary like dealings of a postcolonial India. For all of the great literary devices Rushdie uses and for all of the postmodern, postcolonial, and feminist theories one can excavate from the novel, the only thing I can think of to describe this book to new readers is something so cliché that it works because this novel puts me at a loss for words: it’s a page turner.