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Ketchup

Once school lets out, I start consuming culture faster than I can respond to it, so I need to quickly catch up with notes on a few books and movies.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead (2016). I was really disappointed by how disappointing this was; it sounded so terrific in the reviews. The fantastical/speculative elements don’t engender much surprise, the characters are wooden, the set pieces go on too long and belabor their points, the movement through time and space is frequently herky-jerky and confusing, and worst there’s an air of bland, austere dutifulness hanging over the whole enterprise. I don’t think I’m someone incapable of appreciating a novel of ideas, but I guess I do like a little style thrown in after all.

The Sympathizer, Viet Tranh Nguyen (2015). This was terrific, a timely tour de force for our era of heightened consciousness about who gets to speak for whom in literature. This slyly provocative novel features a double agent whose identity, politics, and identity politics are so scrambled he himself can’t say where he really belongs. The subtle arguments about nationalism, culture, and determinism come wrapped in a crisp, lively, dead-on rendering of the period. Smart and fun so rarely go hand in hand.

Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad (2014). Enjoyable and informative; I knew Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys suffered from mental illness, but I had no idea that he was so cruelly manipulated by his manager. Big props to the art director here; the movie’s a joy to look at and makes you feel like you’re in late 20c L.A.

Gimme Danger, Jim Jarmusch (2016). Jarmusch’s love letter to the greatest rock and roll band of all time. A bit more my speed than the Beach Boys. Iggy for President! He’s like if Bernie Sanders jumped into the mosh pit. You hear “I Wanna Be Your Dog” about a thousand times over the course of this movie and it is AWESOME every time.

Twentieth Century Women, Mike Mills (2017). I don’t know how he does it, but he does — this movie is as sweet and wistful as can be, and somehow less triggering than Beginners, which apparently annoyed me pretty bad. Do all the grand emotional turbulences between kids and parents, parents and lovers, kids and kids really just amount to a bunch of well-off over-educated white people wringing their hands? Yes, of course. But feelings are still feelings, people! Did you know Mills is married to Miranda July and they have a son named Hopper, who’s five? Once he’s old enough to skateboard over to Frances Bean’s house for a cup of matcha, that kid is going to be the most indie kid who ever lived.

Shame, Steve McQueen (2011). This Paul Schrader movie was somehow directed not by Paul Schrader but by Steve McQueen. Of McQueen’s three features to date (the other two are Hunger, about Bobby Sands, and 12 Years a Slave, about Solomon Northrup), this is the only one I’ve been able to bring myself to watch, and that’s saying something, because this one’s not exactly Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. McQueen sure has a thing for abuse. Shame features a kind of sexual shark, played by Michael Fassbender, who very literally has one thing on his mind. We see him have every variety of modern urban intercourse and none of it seems much fun at all. Predictably, he fails to get it up only once, when he meets a person — a charming and ingenuous co-worker — who registers on his tiny consciousness as a subject rather than an object. It’s all profoundly sad, but I’m not sure it’s profound.

South and West, Joan Didion (2017). You only need to check this out if you’re interested in the rural South and/or you’re a Didion fanatic; I’m both. This isn’t even really a book, it’s just a bunch of jottings Didion made on a one-month road trip from New Orleans, up through Mississippi and Alabama, in the summer of 1970. There are flashes of insight, and some classic Didion images, but most of it is pretty shallow and predictably stereotypical. I find this oddly gratifying, that the South seems to have stymied my hero’s normally inexorable acumen . . .

I’m remembering that last year at this time I was reading the Ferrante books and it was perfect. I miss them.

I’m also reading essays on photography by Robert Adams; I’m not so sure about them. He’s a bit given to hagiography of his heroes. The more I read prose by photographers the more I realize that it’s awful rare to find a photographer who can write for a damn.

 

 

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Anomalisa, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson (2015)

1401x788-068-ANOMALISA-008RLike most everything Charlie Kaufman does, this is so wrong yet so right. The sad and simple story could come from Updike, or maybe Dreiser, or, if it were a little funnier and not so very American, from Chekhov. The author of a half-baked but successful book on marketing arrives in Cincinnati (starring as the epitome of flyover country: “See the zoo!” “Try the chili!”) to give a paid lecture to a convention of phone bank managers. He’s an utterly typical disappointed mid-life crisis type, unhappy with his perfectly fine family, desperate to feel like he’s still attractive. He calls up an old flame who lives in town and invites her for a drink; when he propositions her, she rightly chews him out and leaves. Desperate, he hooks up with a naive telemarketer who sees him as a celebrity: just his type. After they fool around, he gets histrionic and hyperbolic and decides she’s the love of his life, he’s leaving his wife, but of course she isn’t and he doesn’t. There’s a little bit more — some kind of paranoia about invisible forces pulling strings in the basement — but that’s just normal Kaufman neurotic epiphenomena. It’s all pretty straightforward, right? Sure it is.

EXCEPT EVERYONE IS A PUPPET.

There’s some other formalist funny business going on here — many of the characters (again, PUPPETS) have the same faces and voices, which I guess symbolizes something about something — but the overwhelming main thing about this movie is, obviously and thunderously, that everyone is a puppet, causing the viewer to have to ask him/herself at every single moment, regardless of how touching or pathetic or funny whatever is happening on screen may be, “Why is this happening at all?!”

It’s one thing to do the Svankmajer or Brothers Quay stop-motion puppet thing with texts like Alice in Wonderland, Faust, or The Street of Crocodiles — texts congenial to the grotesque and uncanny — but why would you shoot this sad little Updike story like this? People, it took two years! Some days they shot for twelve hours to get 12 frames! That’s half a second of screen time!

So inevitably and quite deliciously, the movie possesses an extraordinary Verfremdungseffekt. The story presents itself as pure naturalism; the ostentatious, even aggressive display of artifice completely thwarts any possibility of submitting to the narrative dream.

How does that insistence on the artificial map onto the movie’s narrative, and vice-versa? I think there’s a reading to be made there, something along the lines of the way that the customer service guru character is a sort of construct unto himself, a surface alluding to depth without possessing any, but I’m still in a swoon and not inclined just now to unpack this any further. Wonderful night at the movies.

 

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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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Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino (2012)

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It’s funny–the memories I have of Inglorious Basterds don’t align much with what it turns out, upon investigation, I wrote about it. My memory of it was that it made a cartoon of Nazism, which discomfited me. I also remember arguing with my friend Harold about that; he enjoyed the catharsis of the comic revenge fantasy, and believed, if I recall correctly, that I was being a sanctimonious spoilsport and prig.

This is basically the same movie as Inglorious Basterds, except this time the comic revenge fantasy is directed at slavery instead of the Final Solution. Again we find Tarantino making extensive reference to B-movie history, ginning up auteur-esque gestures (e.g. a lengthy scene where Django’s mentor explains the difference between playing a character and being a self), completely failing to demonstrate a capacity to edit himself (this thing could have been cut by a third), and running through probably a hundred barrels of stage blood.

I tend when watching violent movies not to really see the blood. I don’t like blood, for one thing, and for another its appearance in a film is usually just a kind of notation, signifying that violence has occurred. Do you notice whether it’s a puddle the size of a pancake or a puddle the size of a manhole? I don’t — who cares? But you can’t miss Tarantino’s blood any more than you could fail to notice the lights on the Sunset Strip. It doesn’t trickle or ooze, it explodes in Hawaiian-Punch-colored geysers. Look on the poster — it’s everywhere!

Despite its striving after effects and affect, and its predictably cartoonish, weirdly pornographic vision of slavery, I enjoyed this. Harold was right; there’s some shameful but deep atavistic pleasure in seeing the hero tortured and knowing the torturer, within the hour, is going to meet an elaborately painful end.

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The Whistleblower, Larysa Kondracki (2010)

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So a first time female director wants to do something meaningful, and hits on an extremely dramatic story which should have been torn from the headlines but which was actually pretty much swept under the rug.

True story: A good cop like Kathryn Bolkovac could, in the late 90’s, get hired as a contract peacekeeper in postwar Bosnia and expect to make a lot of money. What she wouldn’t expect is to find that the contractor she was working for was using UN resources to run a human trafficking ring for fun and profit. Bolkovac, astounded and horrified, tried to expose the ring and got fired. She sued and won and some progress was made though this sort of thing almost certainly continues to happen.

Not the most innovative filmmaking you’ll ever see but kudos to everyone concerned for making it happen and possibly helping to raise some awareness.

 

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Redeployment, Phil Klay (2014)

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This collection got a good review in the New Yorker earlier this year, and since it’s subject is one I’ve been interested in, I got hold of it and read it this summer. I’ve kept up pretty well with the journalism from the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The literature of a war takes longer to emerge.

It’s a strong and admirable collection, but it’s not a great one. The stories are straightforward, sometimes even programmatic enactments of the awful conflicts our returning soldiers face, without much aesthetic ado. That’s fine, and honest, and valuable, and I was very pleased to learn that Klay’s just taken home the National Book Award for 2014, since the attendant rise in sales will likely bring this subject matter into the lives of a lot of people who haven’t yet come to understand the challenges veterans face today.

But if you’ve been tracking those challenges through the myriad nonfictional sources (e.g., Thank You for Your Service, David Finkel; Lethal Warriors, David Philipps; Homefront, Richard Hankin; and so many excellent public television documentaries), Klay’s book will likely feel pretty flat in comparison.