Monthly archives of “May 2009



Getting ready to teach course on terrorism and torture in June. Cheery summer reading/viewing:

Hany Abu-Hassad, Paradise Now
Albert Camus, The Just Assassins
J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale
Don DeLillo, Falling Man
Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden
Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah
Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony
Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Here’s hoping my students have strong stomachs.


Hangmen Also Die!, Fritz Lang (1943)

You could think of this film as the epitome of German exile influence in Hollywood during World War II; the story was written by Lang and Brecht (it was Brecht’s only American screenplay credit), and the score was written by the great Hanss Eisler, of whom many Billy Bragg and Wilco fans have sung, many probably unwittingly. The setting is occupied Czechoslovakia. The (very) bad guy is Reinhard Heydrich, who is soon executed by the underground. (Note that this takes place off-camera; we’re firmly in the hands of the Lang of M‘s bouncing ball and the Brecht of Verfremdungseffekt.) The remainder of the film is a veritable tutorial on the agonizing conditions of resistance and the manipulations of occupation. Are you a traitor if you betray one to save many? What about betraying many to save just one — your own father, or lover, or even simply the grocer across the street you’ve known all your life? Ostensibly a drama, and just dramatic enough to “sell” as a thriller, this is actually very much an epic in the Brechtian sense: we’re required at every turn to evaluate, consider, and critique. The movie feels somewhat mechanical in this respect — it’s Important, and knows it — but a half-century on, its questions about how to tell the difference between a traitor and a hero remain relevant.


In Bruges, Martin McDonagh (2008)

Whatever you think of McDonagh’s plays . . . Let me start that again. Martin McDonagh, the playwright, has here made a movie which is neither play-like enough to provide stage pleasures nor movie-like enough to provide screen pleasures. We shouldn’t be surprised. There’s only one playwright I know of — David Mamet — who understands the screen as well as the stage; the exception, I think, proves the rule. Remember Pinter’s awful Turtle Diary? Of course you don’t; no one does, for good reason.

I am sure that the cast and crew had a very nice time shooting in Bruges and drinking the lovely beer there, but the result of their effort is utterly lacking in fizz. The characters are one-dimensional caricatures, the plot manages to be both simplistic and creakily contrived (watch near the midpoint for the ten full minutes spent ginning up a reason why Farrell’s escape will be foiled at the climax), and whenever the director seems unsure of what to do next, he just points the camera at a nice old building or a canal with a swan in it, as if to say, well, at least it’s a pretty view, eh?

On a meta-note. The reviews for this film are so wildly over the top that it’s really worth thinking about why. Maybe people are desperate to believe that Europe still looks like this, when it really looks like this? Or everyone wants to get lost in Colin Farrell’s eyebrows? (I personally prefer him sans.) Not sure, but something’s fishy.


Good Bye Lenin!, Wolfgang Becker (2003)

Perhaps a bit too charming, but nevertheless effective and affecting. In East Berlin in early 1989, the gung-ho socialist mother of a doting son has a heart attack and goes into a coma. When she wakes up eight months later, the doctors say she mustn’t be agitated, but meanwhile, the world’s changed. Doting son goes to extreme — and ha ha comical — lengths to maintain the illusion that the GDR still exists. But as the charade goes on, it gradually becomes clear that it’s the son, not the mother, who is afraid to let go of the past and move into the future. A lovely instantiation of the idea that history isn’t a set of objective facts but a series of intentional constructions.


Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck (2007)

I don’t care for Boston, I don’t care for Ben Affleck, and I double don’t care for Ben Affleck’s sentimentalism for Boston, which makes it I think something like quadruple surprising that I loved this movie. Intelligently constructed, subtly acted, and, maybe most importantly of all, shot with a kind of this-can’t-go-on-it-will-go-on melancholy that suffuses every scene with grace and gravity.

A stray observation: You know what Affleck’s Boston reminds me of? The South, as I have gradually come to understand it. Neighborhoods are universes. Secrets are cherished. Appearances are everything. Smart of Affleck to have Ed Harris’s character hail from Louisiana, and to cast Mississippi’s native son Morgan Freeman as the movie’s top cop. Is Ben Affleck smart? Can that be? Must. Recalibrate. Prejudices. . . .

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Thunderbirds Are GO, David Lane (1966)

Amazing! I had no idea! Thank you Turner Classic Movies! Cold war paranoia in marionette form! Plus really weird sexual humiliation undertones! Plus outer space nightclub dream sequence! And no one ever stands up or walks! If people need to go somewhere, like even just across the room, their chairs just sort of slide over there! What’s particularly giggle-inducing is how seriously all the characters take themselves. As if they are trying to compensate for the fact that, as marionettes, they are inherently ridiculous. F.A.B.!


Beate Gütschow at Sonnabend Gallery (May 2 – Jul 31, 2009)

Four hours in Chelsea, probably fifty galleries (about half the time, all you need to do is walk in, swivel yr eyeball holder on its stalk, and walk back out), and this, surprisingly, is the show I can’t forget. Surprising because I usually find the work at Sonnabend too brainy and cold for my taste (which is saying something, because I’m actually quite attracted to brainy and cold, just not this brainy and cold), and when I walked into the gallery my first impression was oh dullsville, more clinical German black and white photographs of architecture. But once I stopped to look, I realized that these pictures have more in common with De Chirico’s half-classical, half-romantic dreamscapes than they do with the neue-Neue Sachlichkeit of the Bechers. I mean, where the hell is this place? Brasilia? Lebanon? Sana’a? Baku? The answer, it turns out, is maybe partly. Gütschow assembles digital collages from a collection of images (whether taken by herself or borrowed from others I don’t know but would like to) to form brutalist urban spaces (and previously, I’ve since learned, natural spaces as well, in an earlier series) which upon first glance seem documentary but upon closer inspection are clearly constructed and impossible. By playing tricks with depth of field, Gütschow makes us feel claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time. By sprinkling the images with ominous tokens — a burnt airplane fuselage, a group of figures squatting in the shadows — she adds a subtle but powerful political tint to our impressions. I wouldn’t want to live with these pictures, but I did find them hugely satisfying both formally and conceptually.

Other shows I enjoyed:

Hannah Starkey at Tanya Bonakdar. Thrilling technique, sad people.

Taner Ceylan at I-20. “Enjoyed” is probably not the right word, but I have to give some credit for brute force.

John Copeland at Nicholas Robinson. A little embarrassed to admit my pleasure, since these are probably really sentimental and hacky, but I’m a sucker for just about any form of Blue Velvet-esque dark undersides of the American dream.

And this year’s winner of my “When I Hear the Word ‘Culture’ . . .” award, bestowed upon the most overrated and undertalented artist I discover on my annual pilgrimage to Chelsea, is . . .

Adel Abdessemed at David Zwirner. Pompous, lazy, and one-dimensional. What a waste of space.


Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, August Wilson (1984)

I know theater is literally, by definition, histrionic. Still, it’s frustrating that when I go to see a Broadway play for the first time in I don’t know, twenty years, and I very deliberately choose what I’ve been assured by reviews is a serious piece of literature, what I get is a lot of anguished howling, comedy broader than a barn door, and I’m sorry, but a fairly cheap and predictable catharsis. Also, when important things are going to happen, there are thunderstorms.

Three things saved the evening. First, simply, the material. The horrors of slavery are often represented in art and history, but we see, hear, and think a great deal less about the pathos of its aftermath, when (ostensibly) free people found that their new lives, though certainly better than the old, were defined by dislocation, uncertainty, alienation, and deracination. While the characters in the play represent these problems a little too programmatically for my taste, it’s undeniable that they do represent them, and that there’s value in that.

Second, the soliloquies. The play’s dialogue is for the most part strictly purpose-driven: it advances the plot and/or lays out the themes. But in some of the longer speeches a genuine poetry — earthy but ambiguous, believable but weird — bubbles up and gives you the shivers.

Finally, just being there. Noticing when someone missed a cue. Each moment of the performance coming into existence and disappearing forever. The smell of sulfur when someone lit a match. Bodies in the seats, bodies on the stage. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed just being there.