Kafka (1991)

"That's what you're trying to eliminate, isn't it?  
Everything that makes one human being different from another." 

Perhaps it says the most to admit that, even so soon, I wouldn't mind watching this again.

Hollywood and great authors rarely go together.  If that great author is Franz Kafka, one of my favorites, then the very concept is shaky and a good execution defies all odds.  Interestingly enough, Kafka makes up its own concept and just goes for it.  Somehow even the pickiest of critics can find something to like about it.

But can we talk about Jeremy Irons for a minute?  Portraying Kafka, he strikingly resembles Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, which is only a good thing.  More to the point, Irons is the glue that holds the show together.  The supporting cast is fine, the script is pretty good, yet he is the one who brings credibility to the setting.  His timidity and humorless perspective bring out the best parts of Gregor Samsa, Josef K., and the rest of Kafka's book protagonists, and fortunately he has few of their faults.

We follow Kafka through a tangled plot which, despite its problems, I must applaud for its attempt.  It places the author himself in various Kafkaesque elements, such as the Castle, Gregor's troubled relationship with his family, and the general unease from The Trial.  Then it combines them all under an umbrella plot of revolutionary terrorists plotting against a dictatorial government.

I would take issue with this, except that it makes a degree of sense, taking Kafka as a movie, which it is.  You have to give moviegoers a plot - beginning, middle, end.  Kafka manages to present Kafkaesque "monotony," if you will, in a more palatable and familiar format, without really sacrificing anything important.  Some may disagree, but I don't think this addition was altogether a negative.

The dialogue was the main disappointment.  There were times it didn't feel genuine, or it glossed over things such as the development of the female character, Gabriela.  This was when the Hollywoodization was most apparent (as an aside, there are exceptions to every rule: Lincoln, for example, had very well-written dialogue.)  Probably not so noticeable if not compared to the books...but that's what I'm here for.  :)

Production-wise, I enjoyed the soundtrack of Eastern European-inspired music and black-and-white cinematography.  That's kind of an understatement - the visuals were stunning.  The scenes of the office, streets, and Castle were properly cluttered and claustrophobic and eerie.  The chase scene down the elevator was way creepy.  Is it strictly Kafkaesque?  No, but it is cinematically Kafkaesque.

I'm not sure that I would recommend this film to non-Kafka fans.  It really depends on what you like to watch.  As a fan, I thought it was worthwhile, and in a sense, much less "dark" than the books themselves.  Dramatization takes some of the mystery out of it.  What you lose in psychological subtlety you gain in entertainment value, and that trade-off, in this unusual adaptation, turns out mostly for the best.

Content:  Rated PG-13 for some frightening scenes and a nude image.  One of the villains goes into a restroom to look at photos of female models.  A maniacal assassin chases people at night; one character seen in the distance is stabbed; a man is tortured off-screen...unsure if anything is later shown.  Near the end a man is shown strapped down while his brain is being examined, a little graphic.  Overall, comparable to some Doctor Who episodes, without the lightheartedness.  On a positive note: no profanity or language that I recall.  (Also, it is easy to anticipate scenes to fast-forward, if you are a bit squeamish like me.)

Disclaimer: I don't own the images in this post; they are used here only for illustrative/educational purposes (fair use). 

White Nights in October

Оз. Соколиное

For my next read after Brothers K, I returned to White Nights and Other Stories, which includes several Dostoyevsky short stories translated by Garnett.  This collection was a mixed bag; in spite of that, I give it a cumulative 4 out of 5 stars based on enjoyment level.
  1. The first and feature story is White Nights, a very romantic, fanciful sketch about unrequited love.  Previously, I had read some quotes from it online, and reading the entirety, I was not disappointed.  The ending was so depressing, but the story itself was bittersweet and thought-provoking.  Recommended if you want to read Dostoyevsky in a nutshell.
  2. I skipped Notes from Underground, having already read it.
  3. A Faint Heart was a psychological mystery, reminiscent of Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener" which I read in September.  (Not to sound like a broken record, but it is worth mentioning that Dostoyevsky's so-called "existentialist" themes are sometimes compared to Kafka, as was "Bartleby," and I think I must have a knack for finding this genre everywhere!)  It was very intriguing and also depressing.
  4. A Christmas Tree and a Wedding centers on a minor character from "A Faint Heart" - at least, I think it does.  Either that, or two characters share the exact same name.  This Yulian Mastakovitch reminded me of Totsky from The Idiot.  I really have nothing else to say, except the story made me sick, and also, that Dostoyevsky is very good at portraying evil characters going about their "everyday" disgusting pursuits. 
  5. I got a bit lost reading Polzunkov - not quite sure what it was about. 
  6. A Little Hero was another strange plot, about a boy who has a crush on an unhappily married woman.  Kind of a coming-of-age story, borderline inappropriate, vaguely Dickensian.    
  7. The last story Mr. Prohartchin is about an eccentric old man and his irrational fears.  Definitely Dickensian.  Not gripping, but one of those interesting, obscure sketches that gives you a good idea of "life back then."
It was fascinating to read Dostoyevsky on a small scale.  I felt his social commentary came through pretty strongly, and he is good at short stories, in the sense he can get you to care very quickly about the characters.  The plots were hit-and-miss, yet overall I'd recommend this book.  In fact, with Notes from Underground, it's an excellent introductory volume to this author.

The Brothers Karamazov - 11 & 12 (Conclusion)

Kuindzhi Evening 1885 1890

I finished The Brothers Karamazov this past weekend.  From the last two parts, "Brother Ivan Fyodorovich" and "A Judicial Error," I was left with no particularly strong feelings or impressions.  It was a struggle to finish - ultimately, I rate the book 3.5 out of 5 stars, leaning towards 4 on Goodreads (which still doesn't allow you to have "half" a star.)

Thinking back over this book journal - which I am glad I kept and am sorry to see end - I feel the first half of the book was very strong.  The religious chapters and scenes at the monastery were honestly my favorites.  Parts III & IV, which is to say books 712, were not so interesting, despite being highly sensational, as you come to expect from Dostoyevsky.

Incidentally, this mirrors my reaction to The Idiot.  I gave that one a better rating of 4.5, and I have to say I liked that book better...I'm not sure it is a better book, but its treatment of similar themes was more compelling.  Anyways, I also thought the first half of The Idiot was excellent, while the second half seemed over the top.

If that weren't enough, as I recollect now, Notes from Underground went south - pardon the pun - in the second half, too.  Now I will have to try Crime and Punishment again, which surely gets only better in the second half (I hope?).

What happened in The Brothers Karamazov?  What is this enigmatic Russian classic about?  And why was it disappointing?

I think I was expecting more of the human element.  You might wonder how a book about every dirty detail of a family could be lacking in that area, but really, it isn't a character-driven novel.  When you read The Idiot, you get inside Myshkin's head.  You empathize with Nastasya, and you fear Rogozhin like a personal enemy (well, nearly!).  That didn't happen in BK, because Dostoyevsky intentionally wrote a social commentary.  The endnotes say it, of course, but it's quite obvious throughout.  He wanted us to get acquainted with mentalities, philosophies, and contradictions - not people.  The characters are, for the most part, means to that end.

This wasn't what I was expecting, hence the disappointment.  The ending was incredibly abrupt, and so any interest invested in Alyosha or Ivan or Katrina was not given a satisfactory conclusion.  In retrospect, it makes sense.  I'm not saying BK isn't a great novel.  I do think that, for the modern reader, Dostoyevsky said more, and with more subtlety, in his earlier work The Idiot.  Sometimes the best commentary is implied and not outlined.  The main thing The Idiot didn't have were the subplots about the monastery and the schoolboys, which, again, were my favorite parts in The Brothers Karamazov.