Tuesday, August 7, 2007

From Fugitives to Freakenomics

It is about time I wrote a “media review,” considering I just saw a phenomenal movie and have also recently finished reading a number of books. I will begin with the movie.

Because I am a Reader and not a Television Watcher, I have seen significantly fewer movies than most of my media-savvy peers. For example, I only just saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie a few months ago, during my stay in England. (My American friend/housemate Carl showed it in his room in honor of the new Turtles movie that had just come out. He and several other people were about to go see it in theaters, but he wanted to see the first and second “originals,” first.) Apparently, Turtles was a “classic” for everyone my age while we grew up—the original Turtles movie came out in 1990—and, subsequently, one I missed. Needless to say, I have “missed” a good number of movies throughout my life, and various people have taken a personal interest in seeing that these gaps in my media-awareness are sufficiently filled. One such person is my friend Ben.

One evening two summers ago, the two of us were discussing movies after having finished watching Cruel Intentions—apparently another “adolescent classic” that I had missed during junior high school. Actually, we were playing one of our more frequent games: “what-movies-has-Allison-not-seen.” Obviously, I was losing. Finally, we pulled out a movie guide my dad had bought several years ago and started flipping through, with Ben pointing out “great movies” that I “had to see.” Determinedly, he wrote down a list of 5 to “get me started:” L.A. Confidential (which I have yet to see); Terms of Endearment; What’s Eating Gilbert Grape; Platoon; and the one I finally saw last night, The Fugitive.

I’m ordinarily not a big action-movie fan. I tend to like movies that are more “brainteasers,” dramas, or comedies. (Some examples of what I’d consider a “brainteaser” movie are Unusual Suspects, Momento, and The Butterfly Effect.) However, The Fugitive might have just qualified as my favorite action movie.

Essentially, the plotline is not very complicated and very action-oriented: Harrison Ford—playing Dr. Richard Kimble—is unjustly convicted of murdering his wife. On the way to prison, the armored truck containing Dr. Kimble and other convicts crashes, and Kimble is set free. He goes on the run, with Tommy Lee Jones (who gives an outstanding performance as the chief investigator Marshal Gerard) intent upon hunting him down.

What I really like about this movie is the fact that it is not only an action movie, but also somewhat of a “brainteaser” or “mystery movie” as well. It is a “smart” action movie. A substantial part of the plot involves Richard Kimble trying to figure out who murdered his wife and why. However, Kimble not only solves this mystery, he also leads the authorities to the evidence he discovers and culprits he catches without being caught, himself. The setup and execution of this complicated plot involves a good bit of genius on the parts of the screenwriters. Thus, since I named the primary actors in this film (Ford and Jones), I must also name these worthy screenwriters: Roy Huggins, David Twohy, Jeb Stuart, and David Twohy.

I am always on the look-out for intelligent writers, and recently I have been reading a plethora of work from one such writer, Chuck Palahniuk. If you have read any single book by Palahniuk, it was probably Fight Club, and if you haven’t read the book, you have probably seen or at least heard of the movie. I never read that particular book, but about a year ago, a friend from Rochester mentioned to me that Palahniuk was one of his favorite writers and that I should try reading his novel Invisible Monsters. That summer, I did check out Monsters from the local library. I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, but I did not pursue reading any more of his work until recently, when I came across another person—a friend of my sister’s, in fact—who named Palahniuk as one of her favorite writers. She suggested a few titles to me, and I ordered them from the library.

Palahniuk has a very unique style. His writing tends to mix horror with satire, yielding books that are as intriguing as they are bizarre. He almost always writes in the first person, with arresting, often disturbed protagonists telling the story. In Lullaby, my first Palahniuk novel of the summer, the narrator is a newspaper reporter covering sudden infant death syndrome. During his investigations, he discovers that it is caused by a culling song—a magical incantation that has been written into children’s poetry books—and can be used to kill virtually anyone to whom the song is read. However, a real estate agent who sells haunted houses (without telling the buyers that they are haunted, of course, so that she can quickly resell them) also knows about this culling song and uses it to her advantage. Thus, a battle ensues, both internally and externally: how should the song be used? Should it be used? Who should have the right and responsibility to use it?

Lullaby examines the ideas that knowledge is power and with power comes responsibility. It pits social responsibility against humans’ addictive desire for power and control over one another—in this case, the power over life and death. Meanwhile, amongst all of these philosophical question, Palahniuk mixes in a variety of wacky characters (aside from the narrator and the real estate agent, who are bizarre enough) including a necrophiliac, a witchcraft-practicing secretary, and a hippie animal rights activist.

My next Palahniuk book of the summer was entitled Choke. Again, this novel grapples with the idea of power, particularly power over life and death. The narrator/protagonist of the story is a medical school dropout who fakes choking to death in multiple restaurants every night in order to enlist monetary support from his rescuers—who do this to uphold their moral self-images, he claims—so that he can keep his mother alive in a nursing home. However, he refuses to invest in a feeding tube to help her health improve, because he resents her for wielding power over his childhood. (This resentment is developed by a series of flashbacks in which he is a foster child and his mother randomly appears and kidnaps him from his foster parents.) Meanwhile, the narrator attempts—but fails—to achieve sexual gratification by coupling with members of sex addiction support groups. Thus, throughout the novel, the reader is never quite sure whether the narrator is a sex addict himself, or whether he is just futilely searching for a sense of fulfillment in the absolutely wrong places.

As a reader, I was also never quite sure what the “main” purpose of the novel was. That is, I was never quite sure what “overall storyline” I should be following. While the title of the novel implies that its premise centers on the narrator’s nightly choking escapades, surprisingly little time is dedicated to this aspect of the story. Most of the narration deals with the narrator’s mother (both in the hospital and within flashbacks), the narrator’s friend and roommate (a prior sex addict who obsessively collects rocks in lieu of indulging his sexual addictions), and the narrator’s various sexual encounters. Also—and this may sound impossible, but it is how I felt reading the book—the narrator seems impassive and frantic at the same time, as if he is paranoid while also being emotionally numb. How Palahniuk achieved this combination is a mystery to me, and although I didn’t care for this novel as much as Monsters and Lullaby, I was still impressed by it.

My final Palahniuk novel of this summer was called Survivor. This story is told by the alleged “sole survivor” of a religious cult. It sets up the story with the narrator explaining that he is on an airplane destined to crash and is telling his life story to the plane’s “black box” (the indestructible part of the plane that records all activity up until the point of impact). The rest of the story culminates to this moment in the narrator’s life. Again, as with most of his novels, Survivor grapples with concepts of power over others and power over life/death. The narrator sets up a false suicide hotline so that people contemplating suicide or even just having a bad day call him. Then, he encourages them to kill themselves. Meanwhile, he is expected to kill himself, because the colony of the cult to which he belonged all killed themselves, and so every member of this colony existing in the “outside world” are expected to kill themselves, too. Eventually, he is believed to be the last survivor of this cult, a position which elevates him to celebrity status until his surviving brother and Fertility, the sister of a boy whom the narrator encouraged to commit suicide early in the novel, arrive to “save him from himself.” What I found most interesting in this novel is the way it explores the many ways in which humans can slowly kill themselves without acknowledging or even necessarily intending self-destruction. Is there really a difference between blowing your brains out, asking your brother to bash your face in with a rock, or taking steroids while starving your body, undergoing ultraviolet tanning, and shooting your face full of Botox to fulfill an “ideal image”?

The latest book I finished (yesterday, in fact) is called Freakenomics by Levitt and Derber. Let me begin by saying that I have never taken an economics class, nor have I ever been remotely intrigued by the field. However, this book was recommended to me by a variety of people relatively recently, so I figured I should check it out. It is the least economic-y economics book I have ever read. Honestly, I think (without being able to directly reference the book) that the entire thing was written without citing one single numerical statistic. Basically, the book shows that by using concrete data (i.e. numbers generated by real-world circumstances), you can find an answer to even the most bizarre questions. Take the title of a few chapters as examples: “Why do Drug Dealers still live with their Mothers?” “What do School Teachers and Sumo Wrestlers have in common?” “What Makes a Perfect Parent?” My personal favorite had the least interesting-sounding name: “Where have all the criminals gone?” (The answer is, they were never born. Crime went down not because of an improving economy or improved police forces, but because abortion was legalized in the famous case Roe vs. Wade. Fifteen years later, all of the babies who would have been born into circumstances that would have led them to lives of criminality were…nonexistent. Or, as pro-life activists would claim, dead.)

I’ve never been much of a nonfiction buff, but if there is a nonfiction book worth investing time in, this one is it. It almost makes me want to study economics. Almost.

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