SUMMER HOURS (2008) is a French film about the Boomer dilemma of disposing of parental stuff that no longer fits in our lives—in this case, mother Edith Scob’s (of Eyes Without a Face) spectacular art collection and country house when two of the kids live outside France and the one stay-at-home has problems of his own. Well performed but slow and largely lacking in drama. “I want us to agree and to decide what’s best for everyone.”
BLAME IT ON FIDEL (2006) is a good dramedy about a French pre-teen girl whose comfortable bourgeoisie life is knocked for a loop when her father decides to commit to radical activism to make up for everything he never did growing up fascist Spain. Very nicely done; Gerard Depardieu’s daughter Julie plans the mother. “I know—Vietnam is where children are burnt with napalm.”
OWL IN LOVE by Patrice Kindl is the first-person story of a teenage shapeshifter whose obsessive passion for her science teacher (“Owls fall in love once—and mate for life.”) gets derailed by the odd experience of acquiring a human friend and by meeting another were-owl. Good, mostly due to the protagonist’s distinctive voice.
VIETNAM: A History by Stanley Karnow does a very good job following Vietnamese history through centuries of resistance to the Chinese, the Japanese (during WW II) and the French before America decided Indochina was the place to make a stand against International Communism. Karnow having been reporting on ‘nam since the stirrings of nationalism in the 1950s, he has the advantage of both institutional memory (“This is why reporters should save their notes.”) and contacts with a lot of key players in the years after the war (which taught him things he didn’t know—according to the North Vietnamese, the CIA’s Operation Phoenix really did cripple operations in the South). Depressingly familiar in showing clashing agendas, bad calls and missed opportunities leading to a war everyone would have rather avoided; well done.
GREAT FORTUNE: The Epic of Rockefeller Center by Daniel Okrent chronicles how a proposal John D. Rockefeller buy land for a new Metropolitan Opera building mutated into a plan for a massive office/retail/entertainment complex that provided the only work for the city’s architects, steelworkers and other workers at the height of the Depression. Despite an array of colorful characters and anecdotes, this didn’t work for me at all—I suspect it’s because I don’t really feel for Rockefeller Center as anything more than a big real-estate development (for me it has none of the cachet the Empire State Building does).
THE AFTERLIFE OF CHARACTER, 1726-1825 by David A. Brewer looks at what amounts to 18th-century fanfic as various writers offered the public Untold Tales of Falstaff, Gulliver, Pamela and now-forgotten figures such as Roger de Coverly. Brewer argues that the widespread popularity made it possible for readers to see themselves as part of (so to speak) a fan community and to imagine the characters had more life than we saw on the printed page. Unfortunately, this is written in dry-as-dust academese, and I can’t share Brewer’s surprise at people imagining the childhood of Falstaff, since it seems perfectly natural to me. I’m not sure if this means I’m just missing the point, or that Brewer’s responding, in part, to academic theories that Falstaff and Gulliver have no childhood (i.e. a fictional character cannot have any life experiences not in the book). Brewer likewise argues that fanfic is really quite different (the cutoff date in his title is because he believes Sir Walter Scott, by aggressively defending his right to sequels to his characters, killed the original fanfic concept in the 1800s), but he doesn’t make that case either.