My name is Jonah Bromwich and I live in New York City and write about music, books, movies, random pop culture, and sometimes, the world. I started this blog about a week before I graduated college in 2011. As of now it's for any thoughts that I feel are worthy of blogdom. I will try not to write about things I know nothing about.
Don’t be surprised if you come out of the Coen brother’s newest movie a little bit confused. Sure you understand that the chronology was switched around, that we are ending where we started. But if that’s the case, then why did we just have to sit through two hours of movie?
Of course, many movies these days play around with chronology. But not many of them are quite so empty as Inside Llweyn Davis, the brothers’ second film to attempts to sneak the Odyssey into a music-centric period piece. Unlike the previous attempt, O Brother Where Art Thou (200), the new movie is almost entirely directionless. Its eponymous protagonist, played competently by Oscar Isaac, is a talented singer who can’t seem to find any success. He barges around various apartments in New York City, relying on the charity of friends and strangers alike, and refusing to confront an increasingly messy life.
Though Davis is a full-blooded character, sweet and quick-tempered, he isn’t given much to do. He’s just, as he puts it, “existing,” and his existence itself isn’t compelling enough to rope a viewer in for two hours. The beginning of the movie is fun—it’s great to see Davis running around sixties New York, chasing cats, getting yelled at by a one-note Carey Mulligan and playing music. (I’m generally a fan of Mulligan but either she’s not at her best here, or has just been given a rote part to play—she basically just curses and sulks a bunch, with a Coen brothers snap to her dialogue that feels like a parody of the brothers’ better movies. She’s angry at Davis for the entire movie until suddenly she’s not, and there seems to be no particular reason why her feelings change). The set details are perfect and the movie looks great; and the songs are lovely and fun to hear. What’s best about the opening is how perfectly vivid the Coens manage to render the period; it transcends Mad Men’s vintage stuffiness and makes the people of mid-century Greenwich Village come alive.
But when Davis takes a trip to Chicago, (mostly to see if his solo record has reached an influential business guy, though his departure is abrupt and somewhat nonsensical) the movie loses its thread entirely. John Goodman and Garret Hedlund are not elements of the story but cartoons. (Goodman is funny and distracting. Hedlund is atrocious, a laughable stereotype. A shot in which he stands posed against a gas station looks to be taken from Beat School 101—it’s not the only time in which the movie seems like a parody of itself.)
As Davis’s journey becomes more futile, we become less interested. This is a function of a meandering second half that sees him with no goal—the climax of the movie passes, unremarked upon, and the movie keeps on going. Fans of the movie have either tried to ascribe meaning to the emptiness of the second half or simply lauded the movie for its honesty in showing what the life of a real musician is like. But that honesty comes at the expense of a clear narrative and as the movie starts to lag, its charms fall away.
Notes: Clues to the movie’s aimlessness can be found in this New York Times article, which airs out the creation of a slapdash plot built around period cues from Dave Von Ronk’s memoir and hints that the Coens may have been far more focused on soundtrack (great) and setting (great) than they were on story.
Love this picture by the artist Istvan Banyai, of Pooh getting tossed from McSorley’s. Predictably, Piglet is no help.
If some sadistic teacher assigned you The Crying of Lot 49 when you were an undergrad, you know how difficult it can be to read Thomas Pynchon. Never mind whether or not you liked the book. Even die-hards will grant that it’s a struggle to keep track of half a hundred names, places and obscure bits of information that may or may not hold the key to the entire novel. There’s more to miss in those slim 183 pages than in the entirety of War and Peace.
That’s the price you have to pay as a reader to duel with one of the few authors capable of rendering the macro-contemporary world in all its complexities, ironies, and minute details. (Ok, macro-contemporary, I’m super obnoxious, right?) I guess what I mean is that, there are a good amount of authors who can write a character sketch and make it breathe, but there are very few—Pynchon, Delillo, maybe Franzen—who can build the fictional world that surrounds their characters to the point where it feels as vivid as our own. The world ends up mattering way more than the characters, or the plot that brings them out into it.
Pynchon has been able to make that magic happen since he began writing fiction, and he does it again in Bleeding Edge, writing about late-capitalist New York, the internet, September 11th and his old favorite—conspiracy theory—with an impressive, and yeah, unique, combination of snark and grace.
The main character in Bleeding Edge is the wise-cracking, semi-divorced, self-proclaimed-yenta, Maxine Tarlow, a combination of Mickey Spillane, Dorothy Parker and the matchmaker from Fiddler on the Roof who runs a small fraud-busting business on the upper west side. Maxine is sucked into a whirlwind of intrigue that includes the requisite cast of Pynchonian characters (supremely evil web geek, mafioso in a venture capitalist’s clothing, ruthless veteran of the South American juntas and possible love interest and murderer, a code geek with a foot fetish) and the requisite Pynchonian confusion about what the hell it is our hero Maxine is actually looking to do. Ostensibly, she’s put on the trail of the company hashslingerz, owned by the evil Gabriel Ice who may or may not be funneling money to the Middle East, but she’s also pretty interested in who killed a harmless web geek named Lester Traipse who was sucked into Ice’s world. And as the book moves along, the love-interest/murderer, a Nicholas Windust, rears his head, just in time to see the towers fall and the suddenly post-9/11 world come sharply into view.
Of course, after 9/11, that entire plot becomes secondary, as it was always meant to do. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, seeing as it takes until page 316 out of 477 pages to get to the first plane. But trust me when I say that Pynchon nails everything about that day, and afterward. He ducks the mediated, communal view that we’re all so used to in favor of a reminder of what the day was like on an individual level. He does it without showboating, without milking the moment, without being exploitative in any fashion. Here’s the plane hitting:
“Maxine heads for work, puts her head in a local smoke ship to grab a newspaper, and finds everybody freaking out and depressed at the same time. Something bad is going on downtown. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” according to the Indian guy behind the counter.
“What, like, a private plane?”
“A commercial jet.”
Uh-oh. Maxine goes home and pops on CNN. And there it all is. Bad turns to worse. All day long. At around noon, the school calls and says they’re shutting down for the day, could she please come and collect her kids.”
And that’s the scene. Our hero does what we did, and Pynchon is able to bring the day alive again by reminding us of that, rather than grandstanding. Only later does the poetry come, dispersed amongst single pages and again, never overdone. There are descriptions of various events following the initial shock, a family argument split down the middle between pro-conspiracy and pro-Israel, an acknowledgement of the fact that IRONY was blamed by some for the tragedy and other all-too recognizable moments. Pynchon manages the politics, the conservative hysteria, the liberal backlash to the conservative hysteria, the radical theories, with a total mastery, reminding us how frantic we all were, how desperate to deal with it. It’s positively uncanny and makes the entire book worth reading.
That’s the best part of Bleeding Edge and unfortunately, not all the material rises to match. No one yet has managed to write about virtual reality without seeming ridiculous and Pynchon doesn’t manage to pioneer anything on that particular subject—several drawn out scenes in a deep web environment known as DeepArcher are some of the clunkiest in the book. We are reminded again and again about the collapse of the first tech bubble, and while Pynchon gets in plenty of smile-worthy gags around this fact, it becomes old fast. There are also a couple of moments in which Pynchon does that “look, my characters are predicting the future” thing that can be so obnoxious. Here’s Maxine’s buddy, Reg: “Someday there’ll be a Napster for videos, it’ll be routine to post anything and share it with anybody.”
Kind of irritating. But the details of the turn of the century (like Napster) are there in full, beanie babies and Pokemon and Dragonball Z characters, techspeak, fashion choices, everything. And Maxine, who pairs classic New York attitude with gumshoe panache is a great tour-guide, even when we’re not sure exactly what it is she’s giving us a tour of.
By the end of the book it becomes a bit clearer. New York, the city that has lately become “the-greatest-city-in-the-world-to-publish-an-obnoxiously-long-farewell-letter-to” was already in deep trouble before the towers fell. The place was teeming with money and tech and the money-hungry whether tech- or otherwise oriented. You come away from Bleeding Edge feeling that it’s all just so familiar, not because 12 years isn’t really all that much time (because hey, that’s half my life) but because despite the trauma, we really haven’t learned much of anything since.
Notes: Best advice I ever received on reading Pynchon: underline all proper nouns and take a note of the introduction in the margins. Yeah it’s annoying to read with a pen but it’s better than frantically searching through two hundred pages to try and find a seemingly meaningless character who has suddenly become central.