Monthly archives of “February 2016

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My Struggle: Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard (2009)

my struggle“How important can it be that I suffer and think? My presence in this world will disturb a few tranquil lives and will unsettle the unconscious and pleasant naiveté of others. 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. I am absolutely persuaded that I am nothing in this universe; yet I feel that mine is the only real existence.” — E. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair

I was wary about this enormous Knausgaard thing when everyone started talking about it, as I’m always wary when everyone starts talking about something, but then I read this article, which I thought was really beautifully written, and I thought, yes, I need to give the book a try. I’m giving up after about 250 pages, which means I’ve read only 7% or so of Min Kamp‘s total tonnage. I’ve read the reviews about the book’s genius lying in its relentless commitment to evacuating artifice from the recounting of experience; I am called upon to appreciate its indifference to being appreciated. This seems to me a rather monumental example of the imitative fallacy, and I don’t think I’ll need to read 3,600 pages of it in order to understand that, any more than I need to take an hour to admire the brush strokes on a Warhol soup can canvas. Like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Daythe Knaussgard book makes me feel like if I were actually to read it, I’d be some kind of sucker. Goldsmith professed his intention to “cleanse myself of all creativity” through the writing of Day; Knausgaard ends the six-volume My Struggle  with a similar sentiment: “I am happy because I am no longer an author.”

Was he ever? If My Struggle is not just a conceptual work to be regarded rather than actually read, if it really is a novel written by an author to be read and experienced as art, then it is awful. I’m reminded of the ways that Boyhood bored and annoyed me. Like Cioran says, every ordinary human’s struggle seems imponderably significant to herself or himself. That’s natural enough. But to assert that struggle is relevant to others is adolescent narcissism, nothing more. I here expose myself to the charge that no life is ordinary, that we all of us contain inexhaustible galaxies of thoughts, sensations, ambitions, impressions, emotions, opinions, disappointments, passions. Fair enough, and a lovely thought.  I suppose it follows then that being trapped with any random human in an elevator for a month would be an inexhaustibly fascinating experience. Enjoy that. I’ll take the stairs.

And finally: There is something very male about both this book and its reception. It seems to me undeniable that My Struggle‘s success would have been impossible if it were not drawing on the mythic notion of the heroic male novelist. In other words, if a woman had tried to do something like this, no one would have paid a lick of attention to it, or if they did, they would be much quicker to call it what it is: monumentally narcissistic and dull.

 

 

 

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Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, Sally Mann (2015)

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I’ve been ambivalent about Sally Mann’s work for a long time — to put it kindly — and probably wouldn’t have read this if Wendy hadn’t gotten it for me for Christmas, but I’m really glad she did because I really enjoyed it. This is not to say that I’m any more enthusiastic about the work than I was, though. In fact, I’m probably less interested in the art than I was before, which was not much, but I’m a lot more interested in the artist.

I never had trouble with Mann for the reasons others did; the idea that she’s a child pornographer is ludicrous. I always thought she was more of a class pornographer, race pornographer, and history pornographer. The feral children eating homegrown food from roughhewn bowls and playing in the mud by the river seem to argue for the beauty and purity of an Appalachian noble savage existence, but always reminded me that those must be some pretty rich white kids to be getting their picture took with an 8×10 view camera, and that a lot of Appalachian kids are running around with no clothes not because of their parents’ theories on parenting but because they don’t have any fucking clothes.

Mann marches right into The Help territory in her memoir when it comes to her point of view on her race privilege:

“Down here, you can’t throw a dead cat without hitting an older, well-off white person raised by a black woman, and every damn one of them will earnestly insist that a reciprocal and equal form of love was exchanged between them … Cat-whacked and earnest, I am one of those who insist that such a relationship existed for me. I loved Gee-Gee the way other people love their parents, and no matter how many historical demons stalked that relationship, I know that Gee-Gee loved me back.”

It’s interesting, I think, how her diction gets all gee-whiz vernacular and her syntax turns baroque here; it’s almost like she’s trying to not quite say what she’s saying. Further, almost funny, certainly sad, is Mann’s description of her current project, which consists of hiring black men as models and then taking their pictures. Such a project seems unlikely to cause Mann or anyone else to learn much new about power dynamics between blacks and whites. Now, if she paid black photographers to take her picture, that I might be interested in.

Then there’s history. I’m sorry, I know this is an insane thing to say, but anyone that makes a picture of anything with wet-plate collodion process, especially south of the Mason Dixon line, is playing on the viewer’s deep, semi- or unconscious attraction to nostalgia and historical amnesia. Any contemporary collodion photograph, in addition to whatever else it is saying, also says, “Don’t you long for the old days, when things were simpler and everyone knew their place?” Everything that Eggleston did to prove that the South exists in Kodachrome color, and contains automobiles and swimming pools and freeways, can be undone or at least undermined by a single sepia Mann landscape of a mournful live oak in its misty shrouds of Spanish moss.

So I don’t seem to be such a Mann fan; why did I enjoy the book? I had no idea what a character she is! And it’s a lot of fun finding out. I’m almost sure I’d find her immensely irritating close up — she’s self-absorbed, histrionic, and touchy, the kind of person who would cause you pain and find a way to make it your fault rather than hers — but she’s fascinating to observe from a distance. Smart as hell, full of feeling, with deep gusto for a good story, and such a huge and powerful sense of ambition that I can’t help but feel awed by it. No matter how you feel about the pictures, you’ll find this an irresistibly weird and engaging memoir.

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Sicario, Denis Villeneuve (2015)

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I haven’t seen any of Villeneuve’s earlier movies, but now that I’m looking them up online, I bet I’m going to like them too. This one is pretty terrific. The narrative is generic. A naive and idealistic cop (the hardworking and dependable Emily Blunt) stumbles on a kind of Sonoran Chinatown, coming to realize to her horror that the cartels are everywhere, in everything, on both sides of the border. There is no here vs. there or us vs. them; good and evil are inextricable and sometimes even indistinguishable; etc.  Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro are the CIA cowboys who teach her how the drug war is really fought, with a little less Miranda and a little more torture than she’s accustomed to. The acting mostly consists of people looking at things intently with their teeth clenched and eyes narrowed,  but the photography and direction are Michael-Mann-level phenomenal. The opening sequence, in fact, reminds me of the opening sequence in Heat, which, as faithful readers will know, is about my favorite policier of all time. Fantastic tension in the editing, perfect flat washed-out Portra colors in the desert sun. Nice.

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Chuck Norris vs. Communism, Ilinca Calugareanu (2015)

Photography by Kev WilliamsSweet and satisfying documentary about the underground market in western movies on VHS tapes during the last throes of the Ceaușescu regime in Romania, when state censorship and secret police surveillance were at their Orwellian zenith. Irina Margareta Nistor is our unlikely heroine. A mild-mannered translator of state television programs by day, by night she dubbed into Romanian every triumph and every dog to come out of Hollywood in the 1980’s, over 3000 banned films all told. Everyone in Romania knew her voice, but none her face. Great story.