Monthly Archives: December 1999

The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk

Little Brown, 1972-1978, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various

The Winds of War: Little Brown 1972, 885 pages
War and Remembrance: Little Brown, 1978, 1042 pages

As historians look back on the twentieth century, one single event will loom large over the period: World War Two. Born from the sum of world history up to that point and influencing latter human affairs forever, WW2 has, in a few years, reshaped geography, history, science and countless lives.

Actually, it’s misnomer to call WW2 “one single event” given that it was a conflict made of several elements not always linked together. As it took place over six years, it also contains far too much material to be simply resumed.

So you can imagine the built-in difficulties for Herman Wouk as he attempts to dramatize WW2 in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. The sheer size of the result (nearly 2400 pages all told) is an indication of the magnitude of the task.

Succinctly put, these two books follow the various adventures of the Henry family and their acquaintances, from 1939 to Pearl Harbour (The Winds of War) and them from Pearl Harbour to Hiroshima. (War and Remembrance) Initially, there’s Victor “Pug” Henry (waiting for a command assignment, but shuffled in a diplomatic role), his wife Rhoda (who might or might not be entirely faithful to her husband) and the three Henry children: Warren (promising naval aviator), Byron (devil-may-care wanderer) and Madeline (soon enough responsible for a radio show).

Love affairs, friendship, casual acquaintances and such soon expand this narrow cadre, with the result that we truly get a diverse sampling of the war from various point of view. One character always manages to be at the right place at the right time for most of the war’s events. Though the plot mechanics often threaten to overwhelm the narrative drive, Wouk must be commended for his solution to the size problem of WW2.

Unfortunately, there’s no solution to the size problems of the two books themselves. While a certain amount of padding is probably inevitable in 2,400 pages, Wouk more than overdoes it in this duology, inserting whole scenes of no narrative nor documentary impact and chapters than can be skipped without ill-effect. The Jastrows’ story, in particular, is more than obvious (and manipulative) in its ultimate denouement, and attempts to drag it out only annoy rather than inform.

On the other hand, maybe because of these fluffy passages, Wouk does manage to bring back dramatic tension to World War II. For contemporary readers, it’s a story of the past, a fixed sequences of events that lead to our reality. It’s all-too-easy to forget that the issue of the war was unknowable at the time. The Winds of War excels at showing the possible early outcomes of the war’s beginning; Germany invading England, the Allied powers suing for peace after Poland, etc… This sense of absolute incertitude is the strongest virtue of the first volume.

Wouk should also be praised for the passages presented as translated excerpts of (the fictional) General Armin von Roon’s military analyses of WW2 as interpreted from a German point of view. These passages are clearly written, and present an alternate perspective of the events, often more complete and enlightening that what the story’s protagonists see.

There are a few interesting storyteller’s tricks sprinkled throughout the second volume, such as the remarkable roster call of American airmen sacrificed during the battle of Midway, or a straight admission that a fictional character never existed, but was inspired by hundred of others who did exist. Most of these asides work.

Herman Wouk’s duology makes you not only understand the events of the Second World War, but also instill a certain emotion into them, whether it’s incertitude, suspense, devastation or loss. Both books deserve to be read, if only for fulfilling the second’s book title: War and Remembrance.

Trainspotting (1996)

(On VHS, December 1999) Choose this film. Choose visual dynamism. Choose densely textured construction. Choose a cult classic. Choose thick annoying English accents. Choose good acting by Ewan McGregor. Choose a darn funny film with unfortunate scatological vignettes. Choose yet another good English crime dramedy. Choose one of the most harrowing description of heroin addiction ever put to film. Choose life. You know you want to do that.

Swingers (1996)

(On VHS, December 1999) I can’t say I enjoyed this film as much as I should have. The initial misogyny of the film is hard to overcome (even though we’re supposed to see through it) and the protagonist comes off as a whining wuss for most of the story. There are some good scenes (as well as a few really good songs on the soundtrack) and the film eventually pulls itself together for a good finale, but it takes a long while to get there. The tribute shot to Goodfellas (long take of the protagonists entering the bar through the kitchen, etc…) is showy, but fun. Might best be seen in a group.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

(On VHS, December 1999) This film surprisingly sustains the viewer’s interest, even despite the limits of its small-town melodrama subgenre. Well-acted, decently written and nicely directed, it’s obviously not a subtle film: Every character has a huge problem, and the film is peppered with weepy moments. There are a few scenes that don’t seem to belong in the film. Still, it works well and effectively develops its structure. Not bad.

Sling Blade (1996)

(On VHS, December 1999) One of the disadvantages of viewing a film on video is that contrarily to a movie seen in theatres, it has to compete with doing the dishes, cleaning up, reading a good book, etc… For most of its duration, Sling Blade fought with all the other household distractions for a share of my mindspace, and usually lost. Only in the final few minutes does the film become interesting. One could blame my usual lack of appreciation for film about mentally-challenged protagonists, or the view that the film is pretty obvious early on, then drags for a full 140 minutes… Whatever the reason, even though it possesses undeniable qualities, Sling Blade just can’t compete with household distractions. That can’t be that good, mhhhm?

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

(On VHS, December 1999) This film was dangerously over-hyped to me, regularly turning up in “Best-of” list and being endlessly praised by both critics and trusted friends. I already knew that the basic story was solid; I had been very impressed by Stephen King’s original story. As it turns out, the film honoured both King’s story and its own near-classical reputation. You can tell it in many different fashions, but The Shawshank Redemption is a grrreat film, an instant classic (immediately earning a spot on my Top-100 list), a ****/**** film and a must-see. Great stuff, rent it, buy it, etc… You shouldn’t need much more than that to rush to your video store.

Scream 2 (1997)

(On VHS, December 1999) Pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve seen the original Scream. Out-of-nowhere plot twists, pop-culture references and wildly implausible action. The Whaaaat?-factor is fairly high. Rather more funny -but not that much- than horrific, though two sequences (the open-air cell-phone scene and the crashed car) stand out as being above-average. Many twists can be foreseen. Not as clever as it thinks it is. Moments of silliness, increasingly so toward the ending. Ends up as being more or less of the same quality than the first one.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

(On VHS, December 1999) In retrospect, a rather promising debut by a guy named Quentin Tarantino. It’s also surprisingly theatrical, for such an obviously cinematographic film. Steadily -though blackly- amusing throughout, with great performances by Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi. A solid rental.

(On DVD, February 2009) This talky crime thriller has aged pretty well, all thing considered. The dialogue gets better, the lack of action isn’t as surprising, and the cut-ear scene seems positively restrained given the excesses that Tarantino and his imitators have committed ever since. The 15-year-anniversary DVD edition is filled with interesting material, from interviews with/about the fascinating personalities involved in the project, a look at the impact of the film on the indie circuit and other assorted tidbits.

The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

(On VHS, December 1999) Is it possible to make an engaging film about a despicable character? Judging from this film, the answer would have to be yes. Despite being reprehensible, Larry Flynt is hailed by the film as being kind of an unusual hero, a living conduct for popular freedom of speech. Who would have though that a pornographer’s biography would make these points? Edward Norton turns in another great performance. (Has he ever been in a bad role?) We don’t get much insight in Flynt’s mind -maybe it’s better this way- but we do get outrageous courtroom antics. It’s worth it.

Mononoke-hime [Princess Mononoke] (1997)

(In theaters, December 1999) All things considered, a pretty good fantasy film marred both marred and bolstered with the typical qualities of anime. On one hand the visual inventiveness marks the film with stronger quirky individual scenes than the usual film. On the other, the often-jerky animation and other anime “tics” make it so that the film flows less smoothly than the standard Disney. The universe of Princess Mononoke is also presented as is, without any attempt at rationalization or structure. Don’t expect any kind of predictable logic; wacky solutions and features still pop up late in the film. Still, it’s an enjoyable fantasy for more mature viewers, and makes one wish for better material of this type.

Man On The Moon (1999)

(In theaters, December 1999) As someone with zero knowledge of Andy Kaufman, I approached the film as “Kaufman 101”, and I’m not sure I know more about the guy now than before. Okay, so he was a practical joker without an “Off” switch. Okay, so he manipulated people in order to get attention. Okay, so he didn’t care if people laughed or hated him. Well, I’m still waiting to understand why Kaufman deserved his own film. There is no bigger issue here than Kaufman (unlike in Milos Forman’s own The People Versus Larry Flynt, which made valid points about censorship and civil rights) and the result seems like a showcase for Jim Carrey’s mimetic skills (which are actually fairly good) than something we should care about. Kaufman’s “comedy” isn’t always conventionally funny, and even though the film tries to milk laughs out of the audience, there’s a level of discomfort that never totally goes away. The conventional structure of the film is a disappointment after the brilliant opening, and is full of holes that make this film seem like a spliced multimedia supplement to a pretty good (and far more complete) book. The other embarrassing screenwriting problems (several instances of “see now, never hear from again” situations, a useless girlfriend character, etc…) considerably diminish the worth of the film, until it’s hard to commend it as much more than a marginal video rental.

Ringmaster!, Jerry Springer and Laura Morton

St. Martin’s, 1998, 273 pages, C$34.99 hc, ISBN 0-312-20188-5

Okay.

I realize that it’s going to be impossible to review this book without saying it at least once: I like “The Jerry Springer Show”. I know it doesn’t make sense for a good, polite catholic boy like me to be a fan of one of the trashiest talk show in television history, but there you go.

Oh, it’s not like I haven’t tried to rationalize this odd preference. I like to say that it makes me escape from my dreary own boring life. I say that “The Jerry Springer Show” offers a variety of viewpoints, accents, attitudes and arguments that I’m unlikely to find anywhere else. I consider the show to be a good barometer for modern social morals. I think that Springer is a terrific host. The show is perfectly hilarious to watch in groups. And if you don’t like it without having watched it, you don’t know what I’m talking about.

WIth Ringmaster! Jerry Springer gets the chance to both describe his life so far and to give us a glimpse of the mechanics of his shows. As could be expected, his life is less interesting than his work.

Springer was born in London during World War II. He and his parents quickly emigrated in America after the war, and Jerry grew up in New York. He attended college in New Orleans where he discovered a passion for politics. After being a volunteer for political candidates, -and finishing both his military service and a law degree- he was elected on the Cincinnati city council in 1971. Forced to resign after a signed check of his was found in a whorehouse (yes, who would have thought it, a sex scandal), he nevertheless was elected as Cincinnati’s mayor in 1977, at the age of 36. The multi-talented Springer then went in journalism as a news anchor and reporter. After a few years, he began host his own show, which went from an ordinary interview format to the wilder entertainment we now know today.

All of this is told as an “interview with God.” Though Springer doesn’t skip out on the essential details, we too often get just that; the essential details. His reasons to step down as mayor are not fully explained, and the whole matter dismissed in a single sentence (“running for governor”) But Springer’s biography, of course, isn’t the real reason we’re reading the book. This reason, of course, is to know more about Springer’s day job, the “Jerry Springer Show”. There, the book truly shines.

“Where do they find these people?” is the traditional question most neophytes ask of “The Jerry Springer Show.” The book tells us that the show seldom, if ever, bothers to “find” guests: They receive nearly 3,000 calls per week/day on their phone lines, and the Springer producers call back the most intriguing stories.

“Is it true?” Here again, the book offers a few reassurances: In order to on the show, each guest is forced to sign a legal document making them responsible for the whole cost of a show ($80,000 US) in case they’re lying. Most stories are cross-verified. Each guest has to sign another document detailing twenty “surprises” they might be told during the show.

The mechanism of the show is also endlessly fascinating: Make-up artists, dentists and psychologists are employed by the show. They’ve got a prop and wardrobe department. They must book guests on different planes and different hotels. The security people are Chicago Police officers. The audience is carefully selected for balanced demographics and looks. (Older people are placed at the back in case of front-line mayhem.)

In short, this is the perfect gift for any fan of the show. Ringmaster! is co-written for maximum readability (don’t be surprised to read it in a single evening) and includes enough great anecdotes to justify your while. Non-fans of the show will obviously not be converted -Jerry attempts at instilling “respectability” are sincere but misguided,- but fans will lap it up with glee. Good fun.

Lone Star (1996)

(On VHS, December 1999) This is a study of a small borderline Texas town, and it packs in a lot of stuff in its running time: Murder, corruption, racial tension, broken families, illegal immigration, education, drugs, adultery, violence, gambling… and in two time tracks separated by thirty years, no less. And yet, it does so almost effortlessly, in a way that hooks you in and never seems too far-reaching. Good performances all around, even though some stuff could have easily been taken out of the film (eg; Joe Morton’s speech to the positive-testing recruit) without any ill-effect. The film features a who’s who of “gee-I’ve-seen-that-face-somewhere” actors: Elizabeth Peña (Rush Hour), Chris Cooper (October Sky), Kris Kristofferson (Blade), Matthew McConaughey (Ed TV), Frances McDormand (Fargo), etc… Good film, well worth the rental. The final line is kind of a perverse relief.

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

(On VHS, December 1999) There isn’t much to say about this film. Despite the inherent interest of young lesbian fantasy-writing murderers and director Peter Jackson’s usage of special effects, the whole film feels flat and obvious. Kate Winslet is notable in her screen debut.

The Green Mile (1999)

(In theaters, December 1999) A rather long sit. You wouldn’t notice it, however, if it wasn’t for the writer’s sadistic fixation on urination. Fortunately, both screenwriter and director keep thing moving at a good (if not rapid) pace, and the film is seldom boring. Tom Hanks turns in his usually good performances, and he’s supported by an able gallery of supporting actors. Despite the unashamedly manipulative nature of the film, the ride is a fun one, and The Green Mile stands as a fairly good, mostly innocuous adult fairy tale.