Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Dangerous Method

Dir.  David Cronenberg, 2011

This should be a gripping, dramatic story.  A gifted psychotherapist; a beautiful, brilliant, but psychically scarred patient; an illicit love-affair; sexual perversion; and a deeply intellectual and viscerally father-son conflict between the two defining figures of psychotherapy that resonates to this day.

Yet it leaves you surprisingly cold.  The characters are ultimately not likeable or those you could care about.  Jung seems frigid and ironically out of touch with his own feelings; his patient seems spoilt (and overacted by Keira Knightley); and Freud seems like an ossified, obstinate, pomposity.  The protagonist is Jung, played with great finesse by Michael Fassbender, but it seems all technique and no heart.  And the Jung/Freud debate is ultimately just a side-show.

Any one of the major plot elements could have been used as a way to pry open the hearts and minds of these people, and their repressed fears, rages and perversions -- and hence ours.  Instead the film becomes a hodge-podge of sentimentality, pretension, and costume drama.

Feb 2012

A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism

A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism
Peter Mountford, 2011

Gabriel, an employee of a rapacious American hedge fund on his first assignment, goes to Bolivia to sniff out opportunities for financial leverage, posing as a freelance journalist.  A left-wing populist wins election as President, and its not clear when or how he will nationalize Bolivian natural gas companies.  If Gabriel can find out, it will not only give his employer a lucrative financial edge, but secure Gabriel's tenuous position at the hedge fund and start him on the road to being wealthy for life.  What will Gabriel sacrifice in his quest?

Gabriel is not just a mindless "sales guy".  He is sensitive and understands the nuances of the ethics and political economy of the situation.  Moreover he is under the shadow of his mother, a purist leftist who fled the regime of Pinochet, eventually ended up in California, and through immense struggles made herself into a Professor at a prestigious university.  The intellectual, ethical, and personal stakes for Gabriel are high.

We watch Gabriel struggle through his self-doubts, insecurities, rationalizations and cynicism.  There are brief lessons on Bolivia's sad history of failed revolutions and dashed hopes, of the repeated rape of the country by foreign interests and local elites.  It's a familiar story in its broad outlines, echoed throughout Latin and South America, but Bolivia's case seems particularly acute for the awful blunders of some of its erstwhile leaders.  Unlike many of the foreign press corps, Gabriel knows this history well and viscerally understands that the country is at the threshold of a great opportunity, now that finally a strong, committed, visionary leader has been elected.    

In the end Gabriel is defined by the four women in his life: his mother; Fiona a hard-edged, world-weary reporter for the Wall Street Journal; Lenka, the young and beautiful press secretary of the President-elect; and finally Priya, his manager at the hedge fund, whom he fears, loathes, and yet whose approval he desperately craves.  This is the "young" part of the "young man" of the novel's title; this is indeed a man who has not found himself yet, and has had no father figure to guide him.

In fact, my complaints with the novel are really around the use of the women as stand-ins for the political conflicts, and sex as the vehicle for plot twists.  This seems shallow and, even for someone with Gabriel's background, a bit too convenient, and too close to a Matt Damon or Tom Cruise movie.

Nonetheless, the novel seems dead-on in its description of the wearying life of the expatriate press and IMF/World Bank reps, who are always metaphorically in Joan Didion's or Pico Iyer's airport lounge, always booked on the next flight out.  The machinations of the hedge fund also ring true, as well as the brief glimpses of the President-elect's office and strategy.  La Paz is almost a character in the novel, its geography and terrain a defining part of the action.  For these alone, the novel is worthwhile.  The writing is generally good, although occasionally slips into a sophomoric sentence.  And the last few scenes of Gabriel in Bolivia are truly moving.

Feb 2012