Monthly archives of “January 2016


A Most Violent Year, J. C. Chandor (2014)

J. C. Chandor, lately of the awful Margin Call and, apparently, some movie I didn’t see where Robert Redford has a boat accident, has made a near-perfect little movie here. Oscar Issac and Jessica Chastain are great, the Sidney Lumet frosted gray New York light makes you shiver, the story — small timers trying to thrive in the big city — is smart and tight. A little bit of gratuitous and heavy handed symbolism toward the very end, but it can be forgiven after two hours of such seamless storytelling and creamy mise en scène.

I’m interested to see what Chandor does next. His first three are pretty diverse!


Joy, David O. Russell (2015)

joy-gallery3-gallery-imageDavid O. Russell is such an odd cat, isn’t he? The movies are uneven and often perilously close to sentimental, but I’ve enjoyed every one of them. I think he thinks in moments rather than stories, rather like a poet; perhaps this helps explain my attraction. What I remember, a couple weeks after seeing this during a rare trip to the multiplex with Wendy, isn’t the satisfying rags to riches narrative promised by the trailer, or the pedantic little essays about being yourself and staying true to your dreams, but the little quirks and eddies off to the side of the story, most of which are narratively or thematically unnecessary, but nevertheless the best parts of the movie. The taciturn Haitian plumber who comes to stay, the fake snowstorm outside the Texas toy shop, the paunchy and enraged would-be auteur QVC presenter, the homespun no-frills shooting range next door, the outrageously inappropriate wedding speech, Bradley Cooper’s mesmeric scansion of QVC’s commercial rhythms (OK, that last one is thematically necessary), and many more. Like Silver Linings Playbook, this movie pretends to be about a lot of Important Things, but it’s the weird little baubles strung on the string of its story that really catch your eye. I could do a whole thing here about America and better mousetraps and cable TV and second wave feminism, but I’d rather just think about Joy’s mother and the Haitian plumber poking their heads into a room, each with a bowl of soup joumou.


Just Kids, Patti Smith (2010)

8b1087fc_9780060936228_custom-a17e6811a0d8658b75998dc86873b2a4b060d9f2-s6-c30-1.xxxlarge_2xPatti Smith offers a self-portrait of the artist as a young woman, and the story of her famous friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, with appealing simplicity and humility. It’s always been what’s vexed and excited people about her, I think–the contrast between the primal wildness and impiety of Smith’s art and the sober, earnest, humble artist behind it. And then of course Mapplethorpe, whose work was so violently and willfully misunderstood and misrepresented that it may never recover and be seen for what it actually is.

Smith’s prose style is almost naive in its simplicity; she reports on the mad rituals of the 70’s downtown tribe without a trace of sensationalism. Not that the book’s a dispassionate ethnography, though–there’s not much reflection or analysis at all. It sounds more like Smith was a stranger in that strange land, just trying to survive and do her art. It mattered to Robert to see and be seen. To put it mildly. But not Smith; she was happy to have a job at a bookstore, a donut for breakfast, and paper to write or draw on.

If the book’s account and tone are to be trusted, it seems pretty bizarre that these two kids managed to accomplish what they did. It helped, of course, that they had no student loans and monthly rent bills in the low three digits. These days, a jejune poète maudit wanna-be with no money, no degree, no connections, no safety net, and vague artistic goals would last about ten minutes in New York before she was forced to move back to Jersey. Five.

It’s a lovely, sweet book, but weird too. I sometimes got a little frustrated with Smith’s decorousness and discretion, her refusal (or inability) to convey, or even much acknowledge, the enormously chaotic character of the historical moment she’s writing about. But that’s also what makes the story so sweet. It’s not a cultural history of 70’s NYC. It’s just kids.


C. D. Wright (1949-2016)

There’s no contemporary poet I’ve read as deeply or written about as much as much as C. D. Wright, who died this week, unexpectedly, at her home in Rhode Island. I admired her so much, for so many reasons. Most of all I admired her faith. She had as much faith in poetry as I’ve always wanted to have but have never quite been able to muster.

Deepstep Come Shining and One Big Self are the major works for me. Partially, no doubt, because those were the ones I came across first, and at a time when my sense of what poetry was, and what it’s for, was changing rapidly. I remember reading Deepstep for the first time and just laughing out loud at the audacity of it. You can just riff like that, just drive around and say what you see, love what you say, say what you love, and see what you say? My deeply internalized belief in poetry as first and foremost a form of rhetoric dissolved in the acids and syrups of those lines, which seemed genial and occult at the same time.

And then One Big Self. Here was the same technique — notice, speak, circle back, connect, repeat — but deployed in public rather than private, in a real prison occupied by others rather than the self-occupied imagination of the poet. I didn’t think you could do that. I’m actually still not sure you can, or should. (See elsewhere in today’s Times for an analogy.) But she just did it. That’s the faith I’m talking about. Doing it anyway, not because you trust yourself, but because you trust poetry.

I’ll never trust it as much as she did, but she helped me begin to persuade myself that believing in the stuff didn’t necessarily make me a sucker. I’ve never been the same, and I’ll always be grateful.


H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (2014)

150309_r26195-945Helen Macdonald’s beloved father died unexpectedly, she plunged into grief, she acquired and trained a goshawk, the process of the successful training aided the process of successful mourning, and she wrote a book about it.

That’s the received line here, and it’s all true, but the book’s actually quite a bit more interesting than that “Hawk Pray Love” summary suggests. Chief among these is Macdonald’s decision to pack into her book a biography of T. H. White, and an analysis of his own book The Goshawk. It’s amusing to find that NYRB now calls The Goshawk “the predecessor to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk,” as if the earlier work somehow derives from the later, instead of vice-versa. Amusing, but to the point, too, since I think Macdonald’s decision to make a literary connection with White is an important symbol of continuousness for her. “Someone came before me, then I lived, someone will come after me” is crucial mantra for one in the throes of grief.

As for the hawk–she’s called Mabel, but answers to combinations of frozen chicks and whistles–well, the hawk is magnificent. Macdonald writes beautifully about the training and the relationship she develops with Mabel. You could imagine such a story going horribly awry, with trainer and hawk “becoming one” and accounts of hunts written from the point of view of the hawk. Macdonald commits no such crimes; she’s relentlessly clear-headed and unsentimental as a writer, even when (especially when) she’s experiencing moments where she’s hopelessly muddle-headed and sentimental as a human.

This book succeeds beautifully as a memoir, a natural history, a biography, and a work of literary analysis. Quite a feat–I enjoyed it very much. I’ll read The Goshawk next, but FYI I wish I’d read it first.


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert (2014)

81HiLi7irkLYou can probably relax about those new year’s resolutions, folks. Kolbert’s brisk, oddly chipper account of previous mass extinctions and the current one unfolding in not-so-slow motion is a terrific and informative read, and also had, for me, an unexpected liberating effect. Reading it reminded me of reading my beloved Cioran: “Although I feel that my tragedy is the greatest in history–greater than the fall of empires–I am nevertheless aware of my total insignificance.” This probably isn’t the response to Kolbert’s work I’m supposed to be having; it’s certainly not Sierra Club approved. But I don’t think you have to be a thanatophiliac to walk away from this book feeling less like buying a Prius and more like having a nice walk with a good friend, followed by a big martini. The jig is so, so up.

Besides death, the book’s other great underlying subject is time, which is so much harder to talk about. Death has so many wonderful qualities — visibility, insistence, surprise. Time’s like air, a dream. Invisible, indifferent, repetitive. We can never know enough of it to get a sense of its entirety. Which is longer, two million years or two hundred million? We think we know, but we have no idea.

Anyway, sorry, kind of going off the deep end there. Super read. Get it as an ebook and save a tree.