March 13th, 2010

CRAZY HEART; Speak, Memory

CRAZY HEART; Speak, Memory

Last night we saw CRAZY HEART. It stars Jeff Bridges as an aging, alcoholic, country singer. This is the role for which he won the Best Actor Academy Award. The costars are Maggie Gyllenhaal as a reporter with whom he has a fling, and Colin Farrell as a younger singer whom he mentored, and who has become a big star.

The story is quite simple, really. Bridges' character, Bad Blake, is 57 years old, on the skids, He's playing the likes of bowling alleys in small towns in Texas and New Mexico. His protege, Tommy Sweet (Farrell), won't work with him any more, presumably in part because Blake is an alcoholic, in part because he hasn't written a song in three years. Blake sleeps with whatever woman comes on to him any particular night, he plays the same songs over and over with whatever local pickup band shows up. He's presented as being very talented -- except when he has to leave the stage to throw up. But he's a mess.

In Santa Fe the piano player introduces him to his niece, Jane (Gyllenhaal), who is coming off a divorce, has a four year old son, and is trying to make it as a reporter. She wants an interview, which she gets, but she also falls into bed with Bad. Blake also gets another chance with Tommy Sweet, opening for him in a big show in Phoenix, and things are looking a little bit better -- if he can write a few songs, he'll at least be back in the public eye as a songwriter, maybe get a chance to do another album with Tommy. And he's in love with Jane, and he likes her boy. But he's still an alcoholic, which leads to a couple of minor disasters -- a car wreck first, and an frightening incident in which his drinking causes him to neglect Jane's son. This, plus an abortive attempt to reunite with his own son, whom he abandoned at age four, finally push him to confront his own weaknesses a bit more head on.

I liked the movie. The ending is maybe just a bit too easy -- something like redemption seems to come too smoothly for Bad Blake. (Though that's not wholly fair to the movie -- it doesn't make things ridiculous, and he doesn't get everything he might want.) The acting is exceptional -- Bridges is great, so is Gyllenhaal. Though perhaps the best performance comes from the amazing Robert Duvall, in a smallish role as an old friend of Blake's who runs the Houston bar that is more or less Blake's home base. Duvall (long one of my favorite actors) just leaps off the screen. And finally the music is wonderful. Most of it is original (written mainly by T Bone Burnett), with some well-chosen older songs (including Townes van Zandt's magnificent "If I Needed You"). Bridges and Farrell do their own singing, quite creditably. (Or I assume they do, anyway Roger Love is credited as "voice coach".)

Vladimir Nabokov is one of my long time favorite writers. I'm not sure how I discovered him -- I suspect it was because Ada used to get cited as a "science fiction novel by a real famous writer". Anyway, as a teen I read a whole bunch of his short stories, mostly the emigré work collected in three volumes back in the day (Tyrants Destroyed, etc.), and I read Ada, then Lolita. Some time later I returned to him and read his other major English-language novels -- Pnin and Pale Fire, my two favorites, and also The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, Look at the Harlequins, and Transparent Things, plus a few of the emigre novels (originally written in Russian and later translated by Dmitri Nabokov): King Queen Knave, Invitation to a Beheading, Mary, The Defense. Outstanding work -- he's an amazing writer. (And clearly should have gotten a Nobel -- one assumes he didn't get one for political reasons.)

Speak, Memory is his autobiography. It was originally a series of pieces for the New Yorker, later assembled in about 1950 as Conclusive Evidence. It was revised twice, first for Russian translation, then again in 1965 or so as Speak, Memory. It covers his life from birth to about 1940, which is to say his "Russian" life, before he moved to the US and began to write in English. Nabokov came from an aristocratic family in the St. Petersburg area. His father, however, was a noted liberal, even spending time in prison for writing articles critical of the Czar. (He later became part of Kerenski's government, and after emigrating to Berlin was assassinated in 1922.) Nabokov was born in 1899. He had two younger brothers and two younger sisters. The book spends quite some time covering his rather idyllic childhood, including descriptions of a series of governesses and tutors, of trips to resorts in Europe, of his early and lifelong fascination with butterflies. (Besides being a brilliant writer he was an entomologist of minor note.) There are long sections about his ancestry -- his father's life, his uncle's, his mother's. He only briefly treats his siblings -- in particular, his immediate younger brother, Sergei, he confesses to find very hard to write about. (It seems that Sergei was homosexual, though Nabokov never says so directly, but hints at it, and Nabokov seems to feel some shame at not reacting very well to this discovery.) Sergei ended up dying in a German concentration camp -- to which he was sent at least in part for his homosexuality. (Also for speaking out against the German regime.)

After the Revolution, the Nabokovs escaped to Europe, living variously in Berlin, Paris, and Prague. Vladimir took a degree at Cambridge as well. He also began writing, usually under the name Sirin. In Speak, Memory he speaks of the emigre writing scene, but does not directly mention much about his own efforts -- except that he does say, after describing several significant writers, that he always took the greatest interest in one "Sirin". Interestingly, Nabokov writes essentially nothing about his wife in the book -- though he does address much of it to her. He describes two love affairs -- one childhood infatuation (aged ten or so) with a French girl while spending a summer at the beach, and then his first extended teenaged affair, aged 16 or so, with a girl named Tamara. But there is nothing about his later love life.

It's a beautifully written book, as one might expect. I found the first few chapters a bit slow -- the genealogy stuff, for example, didn't really involve me. But it gains momentum, and by the end is quite fascinating. And throughout, just gorgeous as to the prose.