All posts filed under “2000s

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Influenza Playlist

Being sick loosens the customary strictures of my TV ethos. Normally, oppressed by my needs to maximize efficiency and minimize shame, I mostly try to watch things I haven’t seen before and things that aren’t total garbage. But six days on the sofa with the flu lends license to revisit old things and wallow in crap.

In addition to random episodes of various television shows, a Green Bay Packers playoff game, a Crimson Tide championship game, the Golden Globe Awards where Meryl Streep talked about how we need to protect journalists and insulted MMA, and dunes of additional flotsam (I discovered my Apple TV can stream every Simpsons episode ever, which is good to know), here’s some of what I can remember watching in living DayQuil-vision over the last week.

Once Upon a Honeymoon, Leo McCarey (1942). Carey Grant and Ginger Rogers try to conduct a playful romantic comedy amongst the Nazi intrigues leading up to WWII. Featuring a scene where they’re mistaken for Jews and confined to the Warsaw ghetto. One of the most schizophrenic movies I’ve ever seen.

Being There, Hal Ashby (1979). Revisited for obvious reasons. Ashby, working off a script byJerzy Kosiński, posits that a complete idiot uncomprehendingly reciting snippets of TV advertisements could rise to political power, but he doesn’t quite dare to get Chauncey Gardiner all the way into the Oval Office, he just hints at the possibility. Outrageous satire then, business as usual now.

Caddyshack, Harold Ramis (1980). This amused me less than I thought it would. I didn’t remember how much of the comedy turned on sexism. The Chevy Chase character has held up better than the Bill Murray character, I think.

High Fidelity, Stephen Frears (2000). This wasn’t as fun as I remembered, either, and for sort of similar reasons. The movie proposes the girls as existing only to thwart or satisfy the boys. The boys are the only characters whose problems actually matter, and they’re all a bunch of assholes. It was fun seeing all the posters in the record store, though. The Silos! God. The year 2000 was a lot of years ago all of a sudden! Amazing how little consciousness of hip hop these boys have.

Rushmore, Wes Anderson (1998). Very nice, but really all I can think about it what a quantum leap it was from this to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which is so infinitely better.

His Kind of Woman, John Farrow (1951). Uneven and claustrophobic romance/noir suffered a lot of production problems and it shows. But I’d watch Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell hang wallpaper, and Vincent Price is a hoot.

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015). You know, I got about eight hateful minutes into this and turned it off. It’s just boring. Probably unfair.

Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986). Hasn’t lost an ounce of weirdness in thirty years. You can’t imagine it being made today. There’s something so frank (forgive me) about its presentation of depravity. It doesn’t wink at itself, or us; it doesn’t say, “Ooh, look how naughty and outré I am.” It’s just like: Look at this.

The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, David Briggs (2015). Notice how both this documentary and the article I mention below mention “secret rules.” I’ve been abstractly terrified of the Internet for some time now; since the election it’s not very abstract. (I squarely blame the Trump presidency on the Internet, period.) I came across this documentary on Netflix and I’m glad I watched it. Math has never been my strong suit, but the cheerful Oxford don explains algorithms in terms even I could understand, and I feel I have a glancing knowledge now of how, for instance, Google search works. Pretty fascinating.

The Secret Rules of the Internet,” Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly (2016). I so wish we had Orwell with us to see what is happening to the nature of public discourse. This article really got me thinking about how we’ve increasingly ceded authority and standards for truth to the radical flatness of the Internet, where information moves because of money and/or ideological agenda, and the truth is completely optional. Meryl Streep was right; we need to support real journalists now more than ever.

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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.

 

 

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Where I Was From, Joan Didion (2003)

Subject: Author Joan Didion with her Corvette. 1971 Photographer- Julian Wasser Time Inc Not Owned Merlin-1381191
One way of describing Didion’s genius (there are many) is to note that she always permits, even invites the subjects she endeavors to report on to report on her as well. Didion knew growing up that she was from an old California family; as she got older she realized there is no such thing. In Where I Was From, she explores the cultural, social, and economic histories of the state with her characteristic mix of brilliant synthetic summary and piercing detail, and gradually begins to incorporate her personal experience, seeking to understand not just a set of historical phenomena, but her own identity as well. It is thrilling.

There are so many moments and passages I could single out for their clarity of thought and elegance of expression, but as a would-be writer myself, I’ve got to call out Didion’s perfect and insane decision to devote a chapter of this book to a critical analysis of her first published novel, Run, River (1963), which Didion wrote about her home and family in California while she was homesick living in New York as a young woman. First, who does that? Second, her critique is remarkably clear-eyed and unsparing, considering her close connection to her topic. But more, the move is a dramatization of the fact that while we may tell ourselves stories in order to live (to quote Didion herself), the stories of ourselves we tell ourselves ain’t always quite correct. As a result, it’s sometimes necessary to look back at those stories and, if not revise them, have a look at why they made sense at the time, and how their usefulness has failed to endure. This is a great insight on Didion’s part, and it dovetails beautifully with her thinking about California. Is there any other place in the world where the actual and the imagined are so indistinguishable? Maybe one moral of this book is that we are each sort of Californias unto ourselves.

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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.

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Ketchup

KetchupCan’t keep up the full-blown posts while school’s in session. This isn’t everything seen, heard, and read this semester — just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001). Hundreds of terrific sentences and a lively yarn. Is it now always necessary that every novel has to be about both what it’s about and also about novelists?

Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2015). This made me so mad but now I’m having trouble even remembering it. I think it had to do with the fact that it was masquerading as being all Jaron Lanier philosophical when really it’s just about grubby horny boys wanting to look at sexy naked girls without feeling bad about it. Two choices available to female-coded beings in this world: slave or murderer. See my commentary elsewhere regarding those recent Scarlett Johansson movies; she’s the queen of this kingdom, and Luc Besson is its Don King.

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Errol Morris (2011). Manic, obsessive, repetitive, and great investigation of photography’s truthiness and its consequences. Particularly astute on the ways photographs can be put to use as political propaganda.

Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists, ed. Robin Hard (2012). I didn’t like Diogenes as much as I thought I would. His inconsistencies irritate me. Turns out I’m more of a Seneca guy. What are you going to do.

Dialogues and Essays, Seneca. Still working on this. Not as immediately accessible as Marcus Aurelius but I’m warming to it.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. I love this like I love Montaigne; their spirits are so close. (My understanding is that Montaigne oddly doesn’t seem to have known Aurelius — a pity.) The Staniforth translation is the best. The Robin Hard one may be “better” for classicists but it’s awful for human consumption.

Welcome to Me, Shira Piven (2014). A little Truman Show, a little Nurse Betty, a little To Die For. Doesn’t quite hold together, is too one-note and too relentlessly committed to despair, but it’s still a smart movie.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Suzan-Lori Parks (2015). If you’re struggling to write a play about a soldier come home from a war and you find out that your favorite living playwright’s new play is titled “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” you have some kind of mixed feelings. But the main feeling here is satisfaction, since this is one of Parks’ best.  I admire her so much. I’m particularly impressed that she’s getting less and less obscure, but isn’t losing any of the fundamental ambivalences that make her work so provocative. This work is every bit as incisive and destabilizing as, say, The America Play, but I can also imagine this one put on by a high school drama club, whereas earlier work was a bit too far out for that kind of venue. Wonderful, wonderful piece; wish I could have seen it at the Public.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty (2015). Beatty reminds me of my good friend Jeffrey McDaniel, such a fecund imagination that he’ll never use one clever metaphor when three have come to mind. The novel works as a crazy comic satire on contemporary race relations, politics, poverty, capitalism, Los Angeles, and also as a sort of fictional beard for Beatty’s more essayistic commentaries on all of the above. I sometimes wish Beatty didn’t feel the need to stuff every single sentence with as many jokes as possible, but all that candy is laced with enough acid that I suppose it balances out in the end.

Also reread Roth’s The Radetzky March  and The Emperor’s Tomb this fall, for fun.  

Also reading more Simon Stephens plays.

TV: Sandy convinced me to watch Orphan Black. It’s pretty dumb but I did watch the whole thing. It’s kind of ironic that here you have a show with all these strong female characters, but only one actress getting work! Also watched the Netflix series Narcos, FX’s The Americans, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Also re-watched the entire span of The Wire and thought it’s holding up very well. More and more, I find I watch fewer movies and more series. This depresses me a little, but I don’t know why.

Listening: Nicholas Jaar, Claude von Stroke, The Juan Maclean, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Maya Jane Coles. Utterly in love with my absurdly expensive Spotify subscription.

Looking: Thinking a lot about August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing, and this post from Blake Andrews on “docutrinity.”

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Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, Margaret Atwood (2008)

9780747598718More than a year since reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, my head’s still spinning trying to come to grips with the concept of debt, which once seemed very simple to me and now seems deeply nebulous. Just recently, I was trying to recommend that book to a friend and found myself unable even to explain what it was “about.”

Atwood’s book, which started as a series of lectures and reads very conversationally, might be a better place to start than Graeber. It’s not nearly as detailed or researched, and there’s a much lower ratio of mindblowers-per-page, but it’s also far more approachable and comprehensible.

Unsurprisingly, Atwood’s particularly good at exploring the ways debt appears in literature, with shrewd and lively analyses of Middlemarch, Faust, and — of course — Dickens, particularly A Christmas Carol.

Breezy, smart, recommended.

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Teju Cole, Every Day Is for the Thief (2007)

81HtWazT5IL._SL1500_Cole was born in the United States to Nigerian parents, moved to Nigeria as a young child, then moved back to the U.S. for college at 17. Some time later, I’m guessing in his late 20’s, he returned to Nigeria to visit relatives, and this book seems to be a product of notes taken on that trip. It’s billed as fiction but has few of the usual trappings of fiction. It very much reads like a lightly revised set of journal entries.

Like many, I found Cole’s Open City (2012) pretty intriguing; I compared it to Sebald, which is mighty high praise. In that book too, which was also billed as fiction, a narrator who bears a very strong resemblance to the book’s author mostly walks around thinking about things and transcribing his encounters with friends, strangers, and places both familiar and un. The quality of the reflections in Open City were far more complex, nuanced, and historically conscious, though, than are those in Every Day Is for the Thief.

I’m going to try to be nice about this, but a not very nice analogy keeps coming to mind. The narrator of this earlier work (published well before Open City by a Nigerian press; republished, one imagines in some haste, by American and British houses after Open City‘s success in order to capitalize on the author’s moment in the sun) spends a lot of time complaining about corruption in his semi-native land, and is particularly disgusted by the fact that everyone in Lagos — policemen, gas station attendants, deliverymen, museum guards — seems to expect substantial baksheesh for performing little or no real service. Well, I paid $17.95 for this book and got 162 pages of pretty jejune and petty prose. In a large font.

I don’t blame anyone for being young. I’m sure that when Cole took this homecoming trip and wrote in his notebook, “At times, the absurdity makes one laugh. Other times, the only possible response is a stunned silence,” he believed he had achieved a genuine insight. But the book is filled with similarly immature and sometimes even inane specimens of weak wisdom, written in a stilted high style so as to attempt to make “one” sound more authoritative than “one” actually is. “One” is particularly put off by the narrator’s persistent contempt for average people, and the unexamined pleasure he derives from discovering cultural institutions — a fancy bookshop, a fancy music conservatory — which suggest to him that perhaps the country isn’t completely benighted after all. It never occurs to him, or at least he never lets on if it does, that such institutions (like similar ones in every country) can only be sustained because of the existence of a hyper-wealthy class which in turn depend upon economic inequality.

I liked Open City but did have a nagging sense that there might be less there there than I was projecting onto it. As often happens when I encounter flâneur narrators, I wondered whether the text’s apparent aimlessness was a thoughtful and meaningful construct or simply the result of compositional half-assery. In the end I gave the novel the benefit of the doubt, but reading this earlier work casts something of a pall on the later. I’ll be very interested to see what comes next from Cole.

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William Eggleston in the Real World, Michael Almereyda (2005)

It’s dangerous to learn too much about the weird puny humans behind the artworks you love. Bill’s a little lovable in this, but he’s also petulant, selfish, drunk, and stupid.

I was interested in his process, though, which seems to involve taking a billion pictures and then guessing which of them are wheat and which are chaff. I say “guessing” advisedly; the resistance to valuing wheat over chaff is exactly at the heart of Eggleston’s achievement in much the same way it’s at the heart of John Ashbery’s. I’ll also go so far as to say that just as you can’t write a contemporary American poem without invoking Ashbery’s presence or absence as you do so, you can’t take a contemporary American photograph without similarly admitting or excluding Eggleston.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention the recent lawsuits involving Eggleston’s estate making additional prints of images that were supposed to be limited editions. These cases seemed to me delicious and hilarious in their irony. Eggleston is all about surfeit.

Finally it was interesting to realize, watching this, that though the South remains in many ways foreign and mysterious to me despite my dozen-odd years here, there are some character traits, attitudes, social strategies, and modes of dissimulation I have come to recognize as characteristic of a certain set of the populace here. Men both dreamy and mean, lost and ambitious, needy and oblivious, mournful and contented. And the inscrutable women who mix their drinks and then pretend to scold them for being drunk.

Anyways. It made me a sad in the best ways.

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Comfort of Strangers, Beth Orton (2006)

First time through you could be excused for thinking this sounds like background music at Starbucks. But Orton is truly protean, and here she is hitched up with the insanely brilliant Jim O’Rourke on the boards, and every song here rewards repeated listenings; they get weirder and deeper the more you listen. What I love best is the way songs just end when they’re done doing what they set out to do. That’s a hard skill for a poet to learn: When to eschew finishing in favor of ending.

I’ve loved Orton for more than a decade. I believe that if she had decided to promote herself harder, she could have been a superstar. She didn’t, and I think she’s probably stayed sane and happy as a result. I hear that she’s got a new one coming, at last, in 2012. I’m excited, but I haven’t minded waiting.

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Encounters at the End of the World, Werner Herzog (2007)

In which the NSF flies Herzog to Antarctica so that he can ask a penguin researcher, “Does a penguin ever go insane when they have simply had it with the colony?” If you love Herzog, this will tickle you pink. Dour laconic condemnations of civilization, breathless Caspar David Friedrich-esque romantic ejaculations in the face of ineffable landscapes, a fascination with damaged and fragile characters that comes across as both exploitative and sympathetic at the same time (the scene with the traumatized man who “escaped” from something he can’t even talk about (East Germany?) and proudly shows Herzog the rucksack he has ready at all times, should he need to escape again, is without question my favorite moment in this film), and always, always, the magnetic attraction to oblivion. When Herzog talks about the dangers of diving under the ice, or how easy it is to get lost in a blizzard, or the way a penguin will sometimes become disoriented and start walking away from rather than toward the life-giving sea, you understand very clearly that he doesn’t dread these disasters; he longs for them.

Herzog continues to make fiction films, but more and more his best attention seems to be directed toward documentaries. (Which, after all, is the more interesting movie, Grizzly Man or Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans?) Might it be that for a mature artist, the claptrap of artifice begins to seem an impediment rather than an aid to the realization of one’s dramatic — and even aesthetic — goals? Discuss.