Monthly archives of “March 2009


Hell Is For Heroes, Don Siegel (1962)

Peckinpahesque in its steely indifference to violence (though not in its stick-simple cinematography). Featuring Steve McQueen on the brink of blossom, plus Bobby Darin, James Coburn, and — this is kind of weird — Bob Newhart, essentially playing Bob Newhart. He even does a couple of his telephone call shticks.


Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman (2008)

Totally messing with my own mind this morning, catching up with comments on spring break cultural intake. I thought BSG was going to be the highlight and it left me feeling like I’d eaten a whole bag of Chee Wees. From this movie, on the other hand, I expected to get the same kind of frotteuristic meta-pleasures I did from Kaufman’s earlier pseudo-avant outings, and hoo, was I wrong. This movie is a punch in the gut and a poke in each eye. Its difference from earlier Kaufman vehicles probably has a lot to do with the fact that this is the first time Kaufman’s directed. His fame till now has been based entirely on his writing, to which the descriptor “quirky” seems permanently affixed. This movie could have been merely quirky; the script would have permitted that. Behind the camera, Kaufman won’t let that happen. The leaps here — in time, space, emotion, idea — are frequently breathtaking and always substantive. There are moments which, incredibly, demand respectful cross-reference to 8 1/2. The instant this ended I wanted to see it again, and I don’t think that’s happened to me with any other movie made this decade. If the film has a flaw, it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman, who can’t quite keep up with all the different selves the script needs him to be. But seeing as Hoffman’s probably one of the five best actors alive, even this cavil feels a little like praise.

Hoffman plays an upstate theater director who gets a big grant and uses it to create a theatrical production which, as it assymptotically approaches total mimesis, gradually ceases to distinguish between art and life. Oh, OK, self-consciousness, postmodernism, got it, been there, done that. Well, yes, I guess I can’t argue with that, but somehow this feels different, it feels less like what and more like how. It feels, I’m extremely emberrassed to say, like I’m in this movie. Others have played with the fourth wall like this in the theater (Ariane Mnouchkine, for example), but in film it’s a bit more difficult, since there’s no there there for the viewer to move through. Kaufman’s solution, I think, is in his editing, which through its refrains and rhythms creates a kind of in-the-round effect, except it’s the drama that encircles the audience instead of the other way around.

I’m babbling. Sometimes a thing just works. Last semester I was reading the Duino Elegies with my students. One morning I happened to come across information regarding Cotard’s Syndrome and couldn’t help thinking that Rilke would have been fascinated. Being in a state of existence defined by your certainty that you don’t exist. Anyone afflicted with this syndrome might well have seemed to Rilke “angelic,” don’t you think? I brought the matter to the class and it made for a useful discussion. Watching Synecdoche, New York, I kept flashing back to this and wondering why, beyond the obvious, until I realized that Hoffman’s character is named Cotard, and early in the film, he quotes Rilke’s “Herbsttag.” See? I’m in the movie. Still babbling. See it, though, and write to tell me it’s pretentious reheated tripe. I won’t argue but I won’t agree either.


Battlestar Galactica, Ronald D. Moore (2004-2009)

Battlestar Galactica had its moments, but as a whole it was pretty dumb. Last night’s series finale was split neatly down the middle — one hour of spectacular battle, one hour of maundering philosophy — as if the focus groups couldn’t focus. Episodes here and there in the middle of the series that dealt with issues of human rights, torture, freedom of speech, the dangers and uses of centralized power, and so forth, had some substance. But please don’t tell me I’m the only one who queased out when Laura Roslin looked out the window of her flying Pacer at a flock of flamingos, muttered “so . . . much . . . life,” closed her eyes, and died. Please. Hari Seldon wanted better for we his children. (And when it comes to love? Rat Korga and Marq Dyeth make Caprica-Six and Gaius Baltar seem simpler and shallower than Archie and Betty.) Sorry to sound like a frakking pretentious git. I don’t have a prejudice against television, I really don’t. I believe great art can arrive through any medium, from theremin to car crash. I just get a bit vexed when people call treacle genius and put it on their syllabi. Did you see this? Couldn’t they have had those kids read The Plague instead?


Liliom, Fritz Lang (1934)

This story began as a play by Ferenc Molnár and has been remade many times in many forms, most famously by Rogers and Hammerstein as Carousel. Lang’s version is pretty straightforward: Liliom is a charismatic but crude carnival barker who breaks ladies’ hearts and dreams of glory. It’s all a bit too weepy and predictable for me, but there are some nice examples of Lang’s incredible facility as a director, particularly with regard to editing; some of his cuts take your breath away. The best part of this comes at the end, when, pretty much out of nowhere, Lang decides to turn what has been a straight-ahead story of realism in the slums into a fantasia. Doesn’t that happen at the end of The Kid, too? I think I remember angels flying around in Olvera Street.



L.A. Confidential, Curtis Hanson (1997). This has held up well. It’s no Chinatown, but nothing is. I had forgotten about the prostitutes who get plastic surgery to look like stars.

The Bad and the Beautiful, Vincente Minnelli (1952). Kirk Douglas is the epitome of Hollywood’s necessary evil: the producer. He makes it possible for three ambitious but flawed people — a director, an actress, a writer — to achieve greatness, but requires them to sell their souls along the way. They each begin by hating him, but then love him, then hate themselves, then hate him all over again. I remembered this as a bit more wicked and fun; on a second viewing it’s a little too mawkish. But it remains one of the great movies about movies, and a nice double-bill with L.A. Confidential. Especially good to watch them back to back in your hotel room at the A.W.P. convention.

Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov (1957). VN’s fourth written in English, based on his experiences as a visiting professor at Cornell and Wellesley. The depictions of departmental politics remain, I assure you, brilliant. But this is as much or more a novel about exile than it is about campus follies. The structural and narrative games here are nowhere near as complex or resonant as in Pale Fire or Ada, perhaps in part because VN was working closer to lived experience here. A brilliant read for a rainy afternoon in a college town. Don’t make the mistake I did and start underlining your favorite sentences; it’s easier to underline the handful that aren’t perfect.

What Goes On, Stephen Dunn (2009).
Mercury Dressing, J.D. McClatchy (2009).
One Secret Thing, Sharon Olds (2008).
Sestets, Charles Wright (2009).
Thousands of books of poetry published each year, and this is what the Old Gray Lady wants reviewed. If I hadn’t had to insulate the basement this winter . . . .

City Dog, W.S. Di Piero (2009).
The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation, Fanny Howe (2009).
Our Savage Art: Poetry and the Civil Tongue, William Logan (2009).
These ones I’ve been living, eating, and sleeping with for months. Review forthcoming in Poetry.

Key Largo, John Huston (1948). Wow. It had been years, and I’d forgotten. Here’s a picture that takes place almost entirely in two rooms — it started as a stage play, by Maxwell Anderson — but never holds still for a second. Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, and Lauren Bacall are mesmerizing to watch, and Lionel Barrymore and Claire Trevor play their supporting parts perfectly. Anyone who fancies the ear cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs a triumph of violent suspense should watch the scene here where Robinson makes Trevor, a former showgirl turned alcoholic, sing for a drink. Saddest thing in the world.