2 comments

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940)

Wow, this is just a beautiful novel. I’m not sure what took me so long to get to it, but this was a nice moment to find it, when I’ve been doing so much driving around through small towns of the South, thinking about tribes and clans, fear of the outsider and the other, whether there’s any warrant for beauty without blood on it. When young Mick Kelly, McCullers’ avatar, wants to absent herself from the physical and cultural poverty that surrounds her, she retreats to a mental space she calls her “inside room,” where she imagines travel to foreign countries, playing symphonies she’s composed for appreciative audiences. I know that room! I’ve been living half my waking moments in it lately. (My preferred fantasy is making photos of the sea in Rotterdam, but you get the idea.)

Mick’s one of four major characters who orbit the absence at the book’s center, a man named Singer who is deaf and dumb. Singer, like The Brother from Another Planet and Chauncey Gardiner, has an obscure interior; he mainly (though not entirely — McCullers does give him one great obsession) serves as a screen for others to project their desires and fears upon. In addition to Mick, the type of sensitive kid who hides in the moonlit shrubbery to listen to music from a radio playing in a fancy house, there’s Jake Blount, a would-be labor activist who can’t persuade the town’s laborers to get as enraged about their oppression as he is. And Biff Brannon, the owner of the New York Diner who creates a safe space for misfits but can’t ever make a human connection with any of them. Most affecting of all is Dr. Copeland, an elderly black doctor with a kid named Karl Marx, who lives a life of uncompromising dignity and service in the tragically mistaken belief that self-respect will lead to respect from others. All four of these idealists are worn down, sometimes slowly and sometimes with sudden violence, by the brute realities of ignorance, indifference, contempt, and cruelty.

McCullers handles her plot, characters, pacing, themes, and all that excellently, but what I really admired here was the book’s openness of attention. Even as she’s running down some pretty programmatic themes — alienation, oppression, etc. — McCullers takes plenty of time, and plenty of pleasure, in describing the smell of the sun on the summer sidewalk, the goodness of delicious food, the feeling of being in an old body, or a young one. There’s a physicality to this world that helps it transcend being merely a brace of socialist parables. Loved it.

 

0 comments

Into the Inferno, Werner Herzog (2016) & Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, Werner Herzog (2016)

Herzog, in his mid-70s, continues to make excellent new work at an absurd pace. These two are ostensibly documentaries about volcanoes and the internet, respectively, but they work more like essays or poems which begin with the idea of something (e.g., volcanoes, the internet) and then spiral out associations from there. Into the Inferno has talking head scientists explaining how magma works and all that, but Herzog is perfectly happy, when visiting a volcano in North Korea, to spend a good chunk of time on North Korean politics and culture. So you’re watching along, enjoying the insights, and suddenly you ask yourself, wait, why am I learning about North Korean history in the middle of a volcano documentary? And then you’re like, whoa, hold on, is there some metaphor at work here? And by right about then, Herzog’s back to talking about magma, and the moment passes. Then all of a sudden he’s talking about cargo cults, and you’re like, wait a minute . . .

Lo and Behold is even looser in its organization and freer in its range of attention. We see the dingy UCLA office where a computer called up another computer for the first time, and we hear Elon Musk talk about connectivity, but Herzog also visits the National Radio Quiet Zone to talk with people suffering from electromagnetic sensitivity, conducts an absolutely devastating interview with the family of a girl whose gruesome death was photographed and shared on the internet by a couple of assholes in the employ of the California Highway Patrol, and — a favorite moment of mine — asks a young Carnegie Mellon student if he in fact loves the robot he and his team have designed. “Yes,” the student answers. “We do love Robot 8.”

There are certainly critiques available for Herzog’s documentaries. He prefers grandeur to details, poetry to prose, and so sometimes you get the sense that inconvenient data is being elided. He’ll let a MOOC proponent enthuse about the phenomenon’s potential, but won’t talk about the problems, for example. And some will be annoyed when he inevitably comes around to his portentous voice-over moments, which are so easily parodied. Ever since seeing Into the Inferno, I’ve taken to loudly announcing in a strong German accent that “Zee depthless abyss of molten lava reminds us zat all human endeavor iss futile.” Personally, I’ve for decades considered these Herzogian pronouncements a feature, not a bug.

0 comments

Ketchup

600 Miles, Gabriel Ripstein (2015). You can’t just point a camera at someone driving a car with golden hour light on their face and let it run for three minutes. It’s not suspenseful; it’s boring. A small story like this depends on effective characterization and unfortunately that doesn’t happen here. Too bad because we have a  dire need to see normal human Mexicans on the screen instead of just caricatures and thugs.

Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle (2015). So ridiculous it almost gets fun, but no. This is terrible.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain (2012). Really wanted to like this but the prose is so jumped-up it made me nervous like I’d had six cups of coffee. Someone told Fountain that there need to be three fancy whiz-bang usages per page in order to keep the reader’s interest, maybe? There was a point where I thought we were getting into Tim O’Brien-style magical realism, but then it turned out that I was just being asked to believe something totally unbelievable, and that bothered me. I guess Ang Lee made a movie out of this in super high 3D HD; I don’t get why.

Alabama in the Twentieth Century, Wayne Flynt (2004). I’ve been meaning to get to this for a long time. It’s an academic history from a university press, and thus unsurprisingly a little long on data and a little short on synthesis for the lay reader, but I still came away with a much better sense of the political, social, and cultural dynamics of my adopted home state. In a nutshell, it’s run by an oligarchy of major landowners and businessmen who by and large don’t give much of a hoot about the public good.  Which is more depressing: Watching my true home states in the Midwest devolve from their progressive labor-informed roots into paranoid right-wing madness, or living in a place that never had any progressive labor-informed traditions in the first place?

Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray (2015). Trucks with a lot of the Behind the Music clichés, sure, but they’re clichés because they’re so frequently true. It’s really a pretty good movie, well-acted and visually dynamic. As with all based-on-a-true-story stories, there are certainly robust arguments to be had about what got put in, what got left out, and what got made up. For example, there are some gestures toward acknowledging the violence against women perpetrated by the group, but IMHO not enough.

The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino (2013). I keep going back and forth on this one. It’s a classic imitative fallacy problem: Is the movie critiquing self-indulgence, narcissism, half-baked art, vacuous philosophizing, and bourgeois complacency, or is it an example of all of the above? Maybe both/and. It’s certainly delicious to look at, and I do find myself smiling an awful lot. Makes me feel both wistful and embarrassed to feel anything at all.

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012). Everyone said to watch this, but when I read about it I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to handle it. My solution was to watch it in several successive sessions, not all at once, which worked OK. It is so weird and heartbreaking and mesmerizing and horrifying and beautiful. It should never have been made and it’s a fantastic accomplishment. I watched it two months ago and I’m still not over it. It’s like Night and Fog crossed with 8 1/2. It’s about corruption and genocide and torture and power and all that. And it’s also very much about history and historiography, particularly how monstrous crimes get narrativized and thus normalized. So you have to grapple with abstract questions about historiography and representation and power while simultaneously grappling with very non-abstract realities of people killing each other in cold blood. It’s a lot to take. This really deserves thinking about at more length and in more detail but I’m kind of scared of it.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Göran Olsson (2011). Terrific footage shot by Swedish journalists forms the backbone of this documentary, and it’s fascinating and wonderful to watch. When the editors and director start trying to be synthetic historians the piece gets a little watery, since they are incapable of seeing their subjects as anything but totemic heroes. Never mind the commentary and absorb this instead as raw history; it’s fantastic.

 

 

0 comments

Zootopia, Byron Howard & Rich Moore (2016). April and the Extraordinary World, Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci (2015)

I swear, sometimes I can’t tell if I’m a total snob or a total goat. My standards are on the one hand absurdly high; on the other hand it appears I’ll put just about anything into my eyes. Cartoons (or “animated films”) are an interesting test. I can be and have been persuaded equally by the assertion that they are only for children and the assertion that people who think they are only for children are myopic snobs. Anyway.

Zootopia strikes me as very American and very much of the moment. It’s super preoccupied with proffering a morality, but it’s so desperate not to get anything wrong or offend anyone that its moral message becomes garbled beyond comprehension. It seems to be against discrimination, graft, prejudice, biological determinism, anti-intellectualism, unfair drug crime sentencing, racism, the police state, urban blight, and all sorts of other bad things, but the categories of who’s supposed to be bad, and who good, and who’s being represented as bad but is actually good only society has made him bad, etc., get totally out of hand. This fellow parses out the problems well and in detail. I’ll only add that the happy ending is that the bunny and the fox, supposedly blood enemies, become best friends. But they’re also both cops. I don’t get it.

April and the Extraordinary World is French to the core. Twilit, melancholy, witty, fanciful, open-ended. It’s concerned with utopia and dystopia too, but far less concerned with determining tidy moral categories, which ironically opens a path to a far stronger sense of moral imperative. There’s also an abundance of historical consciousness here, which I love. Not least, it’s a lot more fun to look at the spiky, messy, impressionistic world of this cartoon than the uncannily smooth and bright world of Hollywood animation. I like that there are a lot of pratfalls in this, too. One thing that makes a cartoon good for grownups is a certain enforcement of silliness.

0 comments

Amulet, Roberto Bolaño (1999)

41e7ncucp6l-_sx322_bo1204203200_So far the only things of Bolaño’s I’ve really dug have been By Night in Chile and Distant Star, which are terrific. I struggled to care about The Savage Detectives, and felt the similar ambivalence about Amulet, which is a satellite work to The Savage Detectives. Books where the main focus is hagiography of writers-as-writers always turns me off. I’m often interested in poems, but very rarely interested in poets.

0 comments

The Drowned World, J. G. Ballard (1962)

the-drowned-world-book-coverI’m thinking I might just read science fiction for the next four years. There are a lot of iconic writers I’ve never read, or read only a bit of (Butler, Delaney, Dick, Heinlein, Le Guin, et al.), and I confess I wouldn’t mind thinking about society and culture at one remove for a while, instead of right up close in the moment. Sort of like putting on a pair of psychological sunglasses, maybe.

I did read this novel before, a long time ago, but went back to read it again after recommending it to a student working on a story which takes place in a world where the seas have risen to the point that people are living underwater.

Much has been made of Ballard’s prescience; I’ll skip all that and make a few notes regarding the book on its own terms. I like it less than I remembered liking it. Probably when I first read it — in college, maybe? — I was mostly focused on its hypnotic thanatos. This time I got hung up on its repetitiveness (no synonym of “miasma” goes unused), and also the flat characters, in particular the one female character and the “Negro” characters, who are so flat they barely register. It does certainly, though, set in motion some interesting trains of thought. Not so much about human-made climate change and the perils of overdevelopment — there is none of that — but rather about the archetypal fiction of the cool, scientific, organized, rational North vs. the hot, irrational, chaotic South. It’s fun to think that a global catastrophe drowning the planet under 60 feet of water would naturally cause the British to deploy scientific research stations, and that the researchers would drink sherry in their off hours.

0 comments

Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev (2014)

4Extremely Russian. We meet an unremarkable, basically decent guy, and then watch as everything that could go wrong in his life does, all before a moody arctic backdrop of blue-gray mist, gray-green ocean, black basalt, winter-battered buildings, rusty machinery, and weak light from oil lamps.

Why would you put yourself through this? Well, if you are someone who doesn’t believe that the contemporary world is run by a transnational kleptocratic cabal, this might help you see the light. If you’ve already got that message, then you watch this for the spectacular acting and the grandeur of the landscape. I also think it’s just salubrious to sometimes take in some culture that doesn’t apologize for being serious. We don’t get a lot of that out of Hollywood.

0 comments

The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov (1951-1953)

foundation-trilogy-by-isaac-asimovThis semester I’m teaching a class called “The Uses of History,” where students read works of literature that in some way are informed by specific historical events, and produce such texts themselves. (The secret of the class is that there aren’t any works of literature that aren’t informed by specific historical events. This secret generally becomes an open secret around week two or three, if all goes according to plan.)

When I teach this class, I find I think surprisingly often of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. I first came across the Foundation Trilogy when I was, I think, in junior high or maybe high school, and I found it the same way I found most everything I read before I left home from college, by picking through my father’s inexhaustible book shelves. Most of those books came from a book distribution warehouse where my father worked summers as a college student. Unsold books were sent back to the warehouse and their covers were torn off so they couldn’t be resold. I’ve never really understood how the system was supposed to work, but I guess the basic idea was that it was easier and more economical to render the books unsellable than it was to ship them back to wherever they’d come from. So most of my father’s library consisted of coverless classic paperbacks, from Augustine to Xenophon. But I remember that the Asimov had a cover. My dad must have paid for that one.

When I think of The Foundation Trilogy, it’s usually because of the narrative and thematic significance of a single character, known as “the Mule.” In the novels, a great galactic empire comprising thousands of worlds and billions of people is slowly collapsing. A team of talented social scientists known as “psycho-historians,” led by a man named Hari Seldon, can see this end coming, and can mathematically predict that millennia of bedlam, ignorance, and despair will follow it. Through unfathomably sophisticated sociological calculations, they devise a plan – the Seldon Plan – which will limit this dark age to a mere handful of centuries, after which a fresh civilization – the Second Empire – will rise. Asimov’s is an Enlightened technocratic fantasy of the purest type. The Seldon Plan represents the idea that science and rationality can – will! must!– solve the problems of chaos and pain. The drama of the novels resides in the unfolding of the Seldon Plan, and the frequent threats to its success. The greatest of these threats is the appearance of the Mule.

The Mule doesn’t look like much. When we first meet him, he’s presented as a disfigured and simpering clown. But he has a slight mutation which enables him to subtly bend the mental processes of others, and this capability permits him to conquer worlds, amass a great deal of power, and build casinos. (OK, the “build casinos” part was a joke, but it should be noted that the Mule chooses Kalgan, a vacationer’s planet with a strong resemblance to Atlantic City, as his capital.) Now to be sure, a petty warlord taking over a few planets is generally no big deal; such contingencies are well within the capacious and complex calculations of the Seldon Plan. But the psycho-historians soon come to realize, to their horror, that the Plan has not factored in the kind of mutant disruption the Mule represents. His appearance was wholly unpredictable and unpredicted, and the entire Plan is thus at risk of unraveling.

We humans have a compulsive habit of trying to impose narrative coherence on sequences of historical events, but such rationalizations, as the historiographer Hayden White has argued with such eloquence, are untrustworthy at best, and dangerously seductive at worst. They are inevitably influenced by (or even determined by) underlying ideological or moral assumptions and values, and are engineered to reassure us that the progress of history is orderly and tends toward coherence. It’s common, for example, for people to say that the Allies defeated the Axis powers in World War II because in the end, good must triumph over evil. Or that the Roman Empire fell because its people became lazy, decadent, and complacent. Those are satisfying stories. But history isn’t a story. The Mule represents for me, and reminds me, that any narrativization of history (or rationalization, or Seldonization, if you like), is always imminently and immanently subject to a jolt of the unpredictable, irrational, or perverse. This is such an important reminder that the character of the Mule has become a rather important totem for me, despite the fact that I haven’t read these books since I was a kid.

Last month I decided to finally re-read the novels, and I’m glad to report that The Foundation Trilogy has held up wonderfully both as an entertainment and as a fertile ground for historiographical musings. I highly recommend it. Remember, though, that it is itself a story, not a history. Don’t let the fate Asimov assigns the Mule lead you into intellectual temptation. The good guys aren’t necessarily fated to win. The most intelligent and rational choices don’t always prevail. Against all reason, people are very frequently willing, even eager, to act against all reason. “The fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” Adorno and Horkheimer. My favorite Modernist catch-22. The better we get at rationalism, the better we get at madness.

On election night, Wendy had a bunch of women over to the house to watch the returns. Several of them brought their daughters. Someone made cookies with Hillary Clinton’s campaign logo embossed in frosting on them. The scene in the living room was noisy and chaotic, and I went upstairs to read the last few chapters of The Foundation Trilogy in my room, thinking I’d come down around the time polls closed in the Midwest, to share the champagne and – I was really looking forward to this, more than I’d even admitted to myself – to watch those mothers be with their daughters and those daughters be with their mothers. Instead, the Mule. I’m only surprised that I was surprised.

 

0 comments

Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt (2010)

meek_s_cutoff02
Great movie to watch the same week you discuss Hayden White’s “The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality” with a room full of smart graduate students. (I know: I have the best job ever.)

A group of settlers are headed for Oregon territory in their covered wagons. We think we know this history, because we know its story, and we know the story largely through the movies. There will be challenges — broken axles, hostile Indians, typhoid, etc. — but the wagon will eventually come over a crest, and the sun will rise over the fertile valley awaiting the plough and cross.

Except in this story, the narrative literally takes a fork. The settlers’ hired guide, Stephen Meek, diverts the group from the “main stem” seeking a short cut. After several weeks, the settlers (and, crucially, we too) become unsure about the trajectory of their narrative. Are they headed toward the expected climax, or have they gotten into a story that is all middle, with no end at all? In their confusion and anxiety, they reject Meek, their professional guide, because the story he’s telling no longer conforms to their narrative expectations. Meek reminds me of Asimov’s Mule. He not only disrupts this particular story’s predicted arc, he calls into question the possibility of narrative closure in general.

Reichart has the great good sense to let her “story” stop rather than conclude; any ending, happy or sad or surprising or reassuring or anything else, would have wrecked this movie’s accomplishment. This is a radical gesture for a western, since the politics of the genre’s narrative conventions usually demand resolution. What we have here is something that approaches a non-narrative representation of a historical reality, and, following Hayden White, perhaps a representation that thus avoids moralizing as well.

The other interesting conversation to have about this movie concerns the roles of women and men; if I weren’t in such a historiographical frame of mind this week that’s probably what I would have led with.

Oh, and I’d like to say just one other thing and then I really have to quit, everyone said this was like a Terrence Malick movie. I think that’s really shallow. Reichart’s deliberateness is rooted in completely different motivations than Malick’s. And no one gets to own a penchant for golden hour light on calico.

0 comments

Best of Enemies, Robert Gordon & Morgan Neville (2015)

26-buckley-vidal-ledeABC News, lagging in ratings, needed something splashy to draw in viewers, so they hired liberal Gore Vidal and conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. to debate on camera during the 1968 Democratic and Republican national conventions, knowing full well that these two masters of repartee would provide good entertainment. And entertain they did, as this excellently made documentary shows. One potential reaction to this story is to say, “Back then there were real intellectuals on TV, debating the issues, how sad that these days all we have is shallow demagoguery on the ‘real’ news networks, and the only serious journalists on television are, ironically, comedians (John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Larry Wilmore, Jon Stewart, etc.)” That’s not my take. Watch Vidal and Buckley “debate,” and you quickly realize that their discourse was all about contempt, point-scoring, sophistry, and adamant refusal to acknowledge the very humanity of the other. These guys don’t represent some prelapsarian alternative to our contemporary crisis of journalism, where noise masquerades as signal; they represent its beginnings. Super worth watching, especially between now and November 8.