East of Eden

I’ve read The Pearl.  I’ve finished 80% of The Grapes of Wrath.  But I’ve never tackled any of Steinbeck’s other works.  Then came my book club’s pick for July, East of Eden.  I didn’t realize how long it is until I plucked it off the shelf at my library.  I was excited (I love long books) but also worried (bad long books are grueling reads).  Sadly, my worries paid out more than my excitement.

EdenThe first chapter opens with a brilliant setting of the topography and geography of the Salinas valley and West-Central California.  Having been to the Salinas valley and lived in Central California, Steinbeck painted it exactly as I remember.  One can tell from reading it that he has a connection to the place.  How else can you capture the beauty and the essence of it?

But then the whole thing fell apart.  There were chapters that did not forward the plot.  I’m still trying to figure out why he felt he needed to include them and the random details they shared.  And the way in which he wraps up the entire tome with a neat ending was aggravating. I ended up giving it a 3 out of 5 stars.  I just feel that he seemed to be writing to impress himself.  He even goes so far as to include a character named John Steinbeck into the plot.  Yet this isn’t non-fiction.

There were moments of brilliant artistry that made me want to give this a five stars. What ends up being a modern retelling (twist?) on the Cain and Abel story ends up being a meander through philosophy, California history, Steinbeck’s own life, and religion. The lack of organization and the odd way Steinbeck writes women kept me from really appreciating this book. I’m glad I read it, if just for the moments Steinbeck captured California and some of the characters.

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton (2015) has been on my to-watch list since its premiere this summer.  Sadly, I was never able to see it in theaters, but I was lucky enough to just get it sent to me thanks to Netflix.  Before I get into the nuts and bolts of the review, I think it would be good to give you some background on my relationship to the film.  I was born and lived in California for a good part of my life, so I had heard of NWA, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Tu Pac, and Snoop Dogg.  However, it wasn’t until I was 13 and living in Washington state that I actually started listening to their music.  By that time (1997), Ice Cube wasn’t making music, Dre was producing, Tu Pac was dead (but still making albums?), and Snoop Dogg was doing his thing.  I was more familiar with a lot of the cultural events surrounding the film’s era, that of the Rodney King riots in 1993.  I was actually living in Ventura county at that time and remember seeing the events unfold on the television.

What impressed me with this film is that it morphed from being a film about a group of friends in Compton trying to make it big to adults looking to settle into careers, and find out what matters in life.  There was a lot of people who buzzed about this being a “black” film, which always bothered me.  We don’t label movies that feature white individuals as “white” movies, so why should this apply to minorities?  Sure, I’ve never lived in Compton and never had to navigate drugs and gangs, but that’s not the only focus of this film.  For me, the film shifts the focus from this subculture and instead shows us how each one of the individuals reacts to becoming adults and professionals as well as reacting to volatile current events.  That’s where I feel the universal access lies.  I can relate to those life situations and am therefore able to sympathize and relate to the conflicts and the characters.  Obviously that’s not to say that I’m boiling down all of the conflicts regarding the music industry, but that’s my job as a viewer is to try and find the theme of the film and dialogue with it.  The actors and directors should be telling their stories in such a way that I’m able to access this universal theme without watering down their stories. It’s not an easy job, but movies that can transcend entertainment and reach universal access to their viewers are art in my books.  After all, isn’t art supposed to be the artists interpretation of life around s/he?

Having viewed the film, I’m very disappointed it wasn’t nominated as a Best Picture.  To think that events in the early 1990’s are echoes of what we are STILL dealing with today is exactly what art-as-film should be doing.  By ignoring this dialogue with our contemporary culture I feel that the Academy is ignoring an important analysis of our society.  Shame on them.

I highly recommend this film.  Before you view it, just know that the film was produced by several individuals who are the subjects of the film, so there’s some editing to make them look better than I’m sure they actually were in real life.  However, I didn’t get the feeling that they were telling a story that was fake.  I do think the message the film leaves us with is so pertinent to our discussion of race relations.  It also makes a good cultural piece along with Beyonce’s “Formation”.  If I were teaching a cultural literacy course, I would teach these to as part of a unit.  I would probably also add Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing as well.