A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

NOTE: WRITTEN ON APRIL 26, 2016

And in that moment, the longing he’d felt for Sasha at last assumed a clear shape: Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there–his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet. The fantasy imbued him with careening hope.

Alex felt an ache in his eyes and throat. “I don’t know what happened to me,” he said, shaking his head. “I honestly don’t.”

Bennie glanced at him, a middle-aged man with chaotic silver hair and thoughtful eyes. “You grew up, Alex,” he said, “just like the rest of us.”

Alex closed his eyes and listened: a storefront gate sliding down. A dog barking hoarsely. THe lowing of trucks over bridges. The velvety night in his ears. And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.

A sound of clicking heels on the pavement punctured the quiet. Alex snapped open his eyes, and he and Bennie both turned–whirled, really, peering for Sasha in the ashy dark. But it was another girl, young and new to the city, fiddling with her keys.

-Selections from pg. 339-340 of A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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What is this book about?

At first I thought it’s simply about life and people, in all their glorious shades of messiness; snapshots of humanity. A chapter focuses on a character or a group of related characters in a period of time in their lives; the next chapter hones in on a secondary character mentioned in the previous chapter but during a completely different period of time in their life, providing some sort of backstory glimpse into that character’s future. Many chapters feature insight into both past and future. Essentially, the book is a non-chronological scrapbook of the lives of multiple distantly related, very flawed, very human characters.

Take Sasha for example–the klepto who spent her late teenage years wandering around Asia and Europe, filching wallets and goods, scrubbing floors, sucking off older men, and when desperate, wiring her worried parents for more money in order to survive. Though she always retains at least a bit of her rebellious streak, she finally comes back to the States at 21 and starts studying Business and Music at NYU, where she befriends a very confused boy with self-destructive tendencies who soon dies in a drowning accident, and dates the boy she will marry and have two children with much later in her life, after she gets fired post many years of service as the assistant of a prominent music producer because of her klepto tendencies, and after many years of dating and sleeping with random guys–Alex, among them (they had one date when Alex first moves to New York. He annoys her, but they sleep together anyways). By the time she has had her family, Sasha has calmed down and become a responsible human being, a loving wife and mother.

Sasha’s story starts with a story told with her as the central character. She’s 35, still an assistant for Bennie at Sow’s Ear music production, in therapy seeking help for her kleptomania. The story describes an unmemorable first and only date with Alex. Many chapters later, Sasha’s story resurfaces in a chapter focusing on Rob, her college best friend who drowns. From Rob’s story, we get a glimpse of the college Sasha–less cynical and jaded, still full of hope. College Sasha scorns drugs, whereas the next glimpse of Sasha clearly does not. Via her uncle’s story of when he was sent to Italy to find a post-high school pre-college Sasha who has run away from home to wander around Asia and Europe, we get a glimpse of a wilder more reckless Sasha, stealing and sucking off older men to survive. And finally, through her daughter’s PowerPoint deck retelling, we get a vision of a tame Sasha–a loving wife and mother of two who teaches her children to love and appreciate music, but without all the sex and drugs and rock and roll (and stealing of her youth).

Sasha’s story was of one who slowly grows up (though not completely successfully). Many of the other characters do not.

When late in the book “goons” are finally mentioned–”Time’s a goon,” Bennie says to Scotty–I feel good that my analysis of the book is almost correct. The book is about time, specifically the lives of people across different periods of time in their lives and in society.
But the last chapter completely threw me off guard. It’s told from Alex’s point of view, set in the future. In the 2020s at least, 2030s more realistically. Whereas the other chapters seem to capture very real portraits of humanity, this one seems like satire on the way that society is moving: everyone is glued to their phones, babies especially (dependence on technology, short attention spans); babies become the next most important target audience (the media is targeting increasingly younger demographics); bloggers are immensely powerful and shamelessly promote the opinions of whoever gives them money (the rise of bloggers and the ethics of sponsorships); words like “connect” and “transmit” are outdated (pace of technological advancement–transmission of information becoming increasingly instantaneous) and “identity” and “friend” are rendered meaningless (falsity of social media); texting language changes, curse words disappear from the vocabulary, and tattoos and piercings fall out fashion (generational fads–the self-righteousness of newer generations)–the satire is endless. This chapter seems like the only overt commentary on society; everything else seems to be more about the self-destructive choices that we make (so there’s some other chapters that can be construed as commentary, for example the one centering on La Doll/Dolly and her far-fetched experience trying to make money after her fall from grace, but this one is more rooted in reality than in a futuristic society obviously satirizing society today). But I suppose even through the satire, Alex’s story is still very relatable and rooted in the human experience of going back on your morals to get ahead, and longing for the past when everything was still before you–hope, not cynicism on the way the world worked. And that’s ultimately what this book is about. Loss of the starry eyed hope of youth.

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I’m back!


It’s now July 15, 2016. I’m a little over one year out of college, currently working in tech consulting. It’s been a learning experience–there are positives, and obvious negatives. My passion for movies has slightly waned, though every so often I get excited about films again. The last movie I saw in theaters was Pixar’s Finding Dory (Andrew Stanton, 2016). It was excellent. Call me blasphemous, but I liked it better than the other animated powerhouse of this year–Disney’s Zootopia (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush). Sure, Zootopia was more sophisticated, daring, and culturally important–it’s a children’s story preaching the dangers of racism, super relevant in a time when racial profiling is tearing the country apart. But for all of Zootopia’s cleverness, I loved how Finding Dory sought, very simply, to tell a good story and tell it well.A sweet yet nuanced tale about love, family, friendship, and never, ever, giving up. It was unpredictable, funny, heartwarming, visually striking, extraordinarily creative, chockfull of memorable characters–in short, everything that I’ve come to expect from Pixar (though truth be told, even though I expect Pixar movies to be brilliant in every aspect, they don’t always turn out that way. Hey, a 100% hit record is damn near impossible to achieve). Honestly speaking, expectations may have also biased me against Zootopia (I expected great things), and for Finding Dory (I went with friends who were visiting because it was pouring out, we had an awkward 2.5 hour gap with no planned activities to fill, and those two wanted to go see it. Otherwise, despite my love of Nemo, I wasn’t planning on every seeing Dory because frankly, I couldn’t see how a fish with short-term memory loss could carry an entire movie without becoming extremely annoying. Let’s just say Dory wasn’t my favorite in Nemo–though I did quite enjoy her whale calls. Sorry).

Anyways, this post wasn’t supposed to be about Zootopia vs. Finding Dory. It’s supposed to be my welcome back post to this blog. A post to define the purpose of this blog (for me to document and digest at least some of the movies/TV shows/books that I consume, to work on my writing, and to preserve a record of how my writing and tastes change over time) and describe the types of content I will be posting here (I’m going to say NOT reviews, but reflections. Or analyses. I will more likely than not spill the beans on the ending of a movie or TV show or book. I actually have a bad habit of doing that in real life when recommending something to someone. And sometimes I’ll post quotes or other little tidbits. Basically, I’ll post whatever I want to, thank you very much).

As I was going through past entries, changing the visibility of my freshman summer-postings from private to public, the list-lover in me ached to go back through AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list and mark all the movies I have seen, to date.

AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (2007 updated list):

1)      Citizen Kane

2)      The Godfather

3)      Casablanca

4)      Raging Bull

5)      Singin’ in the Rain

6)      Gone with the Wind

7)      Lawrence of Arabia

8)      Schindler’s List

9)      Vertigo

10)   The Wizard of Oz

11)   City Lights

12)   The Searchers

13)   Star Wars

14)   Psycho

15)   2001: A Space Odyssey

16)   Sunset Boulevard

17)   The Graduate

18)   The General

19)   On the Waterfront

20)   It’s a Wonderful Life

21)   Chinatown

22)   Some Like it Hot

23)   The Grapes of Wrath

24)   ET The Extraterrestrial

25)   To Kill a Mockingbird

26)   Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

27)   High Noon

28)   All About Eve

29)   Double Indemnity

30)   Apocalypse Now

31)   The Maltese Falcon

32)   The Godfather Part II

33)   One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

34)   Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

35)   Annie Hall

36)   The Bridge on the River Kwai

37)   The Best Years of Our Lives

38)   The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

39)   Dr. Strangelove

40)   The Sound of Music

41)   King Kong

42)   Bonnie and Clyde

43)   Midnight Cowboy

44)   The Philadelphia Story

45)   Shane

46)   It Happened One Night

47)   A Streetcar Named Desire

48)   Rear Window

49)   Intolerance

50)   The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

51)   West Side Story

52)   Taxi Driver

53)   The Deer Hunter

54)   MASH

55)   North by Northwest

56)   Jaws

57)   Rocky

58)   The Gold Rush

59)   Nashville

60)   Duck Soup

61)   Sullivan’s Travels

62)   American Graffiti

63)   Cabaret

64)   Network

65)   The African Queen

66)   Raiders of the Lost Ark

67)   Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

68)   Unforgiven

69)   Tootsie

70)   A Clockwork Orange

71)   Saving Private Ryan

72)   The Shawshank Redemption

73)   Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

74)   The Silence of the Lambs

75)   In the Heat of the Night

76)   Forrest Gump

77)   All the President’s Men

78)   Modern Times

79)   The Wild Bunch

80)   The Apartment

81)   Spartacus

82)   Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

83)   Titanic

84)   Easy Rider

85)   A Night at the Opera

86)   Platoon

87)   12 Angry Men

88)   Bringing Up Baby

89)   The Sixth Sense

90)   Swing Time

91)   Sophie’s Choice

92)   Goodfellas

93)   The French Connection

94)   Pulp Fiction

95)   The Last Picture Show

96)   Do the Right Thing

97)   Blade Runner

98)   Yankee Doodle-Dandy

99)   Toy Story

100)           Ben-Hur

Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014)

When I first heard about Boyhood, I was impressed, yes, with the film’s 12 years of shooting time, though not as much as the average viewer. Two years ago, I interned at Rada Film Group, the production company behind American Promise, a documentary that much like Boyhood, filmed a young boy from the age of six to the age of eighteen. My exposure to the feat of 12 years of filming at Rada frankly blunted my reaction to the immense amount of time and effort invested into Boyhood; While I was intrigued to see a fictional compilation of 12 years of film, the concept wasn’t actually novel to me.

Having said that, Boyhood is the most impressive movie I’ve seen this summer–and I’ve seen some great ones, including Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur. It’s an anthology of one boy’s childhood, a compilation of moments both formative and revelatory–allowing viewer to see the events that shape the characters, as well as the results. The simple chronological structure chosen for the film is perfect–when combined with the filming style, watching Boyhood feels like watching a child grow up and transform before your eyes: it’s child development for the impatient. Even with the inclusion of recognizable actors such as Ethan Hawke (playing the boy’s dad) and Patricia Arquette (the boy’s mom), the film feels real; a mixed bag of momentous occasions and the more mundane; silences, gregariousness, and one-word responses; happiness, awkwardness, and fear.

Besides allowing you to experience the growth of one boy into a sensitive and artistic young man, Boyhood also invites you to reminisce about your own past, through the evolution of fashion and music unfolding on the screen. The long hair sweeping over the eyes, ever so carefully brushed to the side and flipped upwards reminded me of the boys in middle school; Sheryl Crowe’s “Soak Up the Sun” took me back all the way to elementary. Boyhood, thus, not only gives you the thrilling experience of watching one boy’s physical and emotional evolution over 12 years in 166 minutes, but also allows you to relive a little bit of your own.

The Up Series (1964-current, Michael Apted and Paul Almond, UK)

I just finished watching 21 Up, the third episode of the Up Series–an incredible documentary following the lives of 14 individuals from a variety of backgrounds and circumstances from age seven onwards. The first episode, 7 Up, was released in 1964, and ever since, an episode (of seemingly increasing length) has been released every seven years. The series is up to 56 Up–meaning the documentary participants are now over 56 years old, given that 56 Up came out in 2012–and I’m excited to see where life has taken these 14 individuals.

Some observations I’ve had about the series so far:

(1) At first it seems as if you’re seeing nothing more than 14 people grow up in front of your eyes–not terribly exciting, given how many people you watch doing that already in your daily life. But this documentary is so much more than that–it not only explores 14 individuals, but 14 individuals from very diverse backgrounds. It’s interesting to see how bright little Neil Hughes from the Liverpool suburb becomes a squatter, while shy little Nicholas from the country makes it out of farmland and into Oxford. It’s interesting to compare the three rich little boys from the prep school diverge on their paths and opinions–while John and Andrew seem to be as snobbish and privileged as ever as they age, Charles grows increasingly critical of social inequities and eventually ends up at a less prestigious university than John and Andrew.

The series provides an illuminating perspective not only for comparison purposes between the children–how did the rich kids turn out in comparison to the poor ones? How are their perspectives on similar topics different? How do they express themselves? What are their values?–but also for comparison purposes within each subject–how do their viewpoints change over time? It’s different from watching those around you grow up, because whereas you often don’t have the opportunity to interview them all at once on what they think about a variety of subjects (and you often forget what they believed before), here you get to dig deep into the minds and beliefs

(2) see changes in film

Cache (Michael Haneke, 2005)

A supremely stylish thriller. The ending adds a new element to the unresolved mystery that’ll keep you thinking for a while after the movie is over, but only should you spot the clue which is not distinguished from the remainder of the very busy composition. A fun ending that rightfully doesn’t overshadow the rest of the movie, as some endings are wont to do (for good or for bad).

L’enfant (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 2005)

L’enfant was my introduction to the Dardenne brothers. The 2005 Cannes Palm d’Or winner was a striking reminder of what film can do: introduce viewers to unfamiliar circumstances and experiences, or provide new ways of looking at the familiar.

The film is shot and directed in such a way that it seems as if someone followed the two main characters–Jeremie Renier’s Bruno and Deborah Francois’s Sonia–with a camera, and covertly filmed this pivotal segment of their lives. It appears so real, so authentic, that the Dardenne brothers’ incredible achievement in capturing a young couple’s reaction to having a child is easy to brush over. And in fact, I initially did.

But as anyone who has stood in front of a camera, or even known a camera is directed his way, knows, it’s almost impossible to not seize up before a camera, to not become extremely aware of your every move. To be able to capture life as it is actually experienced, as this film appears to do, is then an impossibility. Just look at reality TV as an example. Even if left unscripted, when is it ever truly real?

L’enfant doesn’t seem like real life only in style, plot, and characterization, but also in its impressive presentation of its subject matter. Though at initial read, l’enfant, the child, in question seems to be Bruno and Sonia’s new baby, as the viewer sees more of Bruno and Sonia’s very different reactions to becoming parents, it becomes obvious that the true child is Bruno, and this film is not about how the baby radically changes Bruno and Sonia’s lives, but about the immaturity of these two adults.

The subject of adult childishess is very easy to turn into a joke. (Adam Sandler comes to mind.) But Bruno and Sonia are not gross, hyperbolic characters, but completely believable childish people: Bruno stealing for a living and spending every last Euro he has instead of saving up for the future, Sonia playing along with Bruno’s games, staying with him even though he abandoned her while she was in the hospital, biting him and wrestling him and screaming playfully as he chases her. L’enfant shows Sonia and Bruno’s growth in maturity. Sonia’s comes quickly, triggered by Bruno’s ultimate act of selfishness in selling their baby, Bruno’s taking more time. Their growth is incomplete and especially in Bruno’s case, not straightforward–Bruno’s display of maturity in turning himself in when his adolescent partner in crime is captured by the police isn’t completely heroic as it was shown that he had nothing to lose and even some stability to gain from being in jail–but the imperfection, the messiness, the ambiguity render this peek into a young couples’ lives all the more real.

 

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, USA, 2013)

My immediate reaction to Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring was that it was a silly and superficial film. Underneath its stylish veneer – the absence of sound during some scenes, the use of slow motion during others – the movie was nothing more than an amalgam of  party scenes, nightclub scenes, beach scenes, closet scenes, and celebrity home break-in scenes. Designer names made up a good 1/3 of the dialogue, celebrity names another 1/3, and “Marc, chill out” the final third, while the images were dominated by racks of clothes, shoes, and jewelry, garish furniture, shiny cars, and cocaine. Basically, the film pandered to today’s viewers’ attraction to the glitzy and glamorous LA lifestyle, a thought which is only further supported by the addition of Emma Watson to the otherwise little-known cast. Aside from Ms. Watson’s ability to attract a large, young audience for the film, and her ability to look gorgeous in a range of designer duds, the choice of Ms. Watson for the role of Nicki Moore, one of the principal characters in the film, seems inexplicable because of Ms. Watson’s struggle in reproducing an American accent. Now I’m not saying that I’m any better at assuming an English accent than Ms. Watson is at an American one, but I’m not the one who has been cast as an American several times now.

But in retrospect, I realize I dismissed Ms. Coppola’s film as shallow without considering that the superficiality of the Bling Ring, the real-life gang of celebrity-obsessed teens who burglarized celebrity homes for designer clothes, cash, and drugs, was exactly what Ms. Coppola sought to capture in her film. The heavy sensation of grossness I felt after watching the movie – the same feeling I get after cooping up on the couch all day watching reruns of Friends while tearing through containers of Christmas cookies, or from watching a bad rom-com on Oxygen channel on a lazy Saturday afternoon – basically, the feeling of purely hedonistic indulgence – was, perhaps, intentional: Coppola’s reminder to her youthful audience that the superficiality, the greed, the celebrity obsession demonstrated by the beautiful youths on the screen is utterly unproductive and frankly pathetic. And while Ms. Watson’s American accent was kind of distractingly exaggerated, it actually ultimately worked. The overly-girlish, self-conscious softness in Watson’s accent accentuated the self-absorption and ignorance existing in the Nicki character, completing the picture of just how shallow these teenagers really were, though I still prefer the less exaggerated (but definitely not understated) performances of Claire Julien as the edgy Chloe and Taissa Farmiga as Nicki’s giggly sidekick Sam.

I originally dismissed The Bling Ring because it failed to explain the likely troubled home lives of many of these teens, but I see now that I was missing the point. While these kids may (or may not) have come from troubled backgrounds, The Bling Ring explains that ultimately, they were produced by today’s avaricious, attention-seeking, celebrity-worshipping society. The saddest testament to this valueless and unproductive society that Coppola identifies is that the member of the Bling Ring on whom Watson’s character is based got her own reality TV show as her criminal trial was unfolding. Instead of punishing an individual who broke into homes and stole in order to fuel her hedonistic lifestyle, this moral-less society rewarded her with attention, further blurring the lines between right and wrong.