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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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American Honey, Andrea Arnold (2016) and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Amy Heckerling (1982)

American Honey: Two hours and forty-three minutes of Ryan McGinley‘s Instagram feed, if he still has one. Or two hours and forty-three minutes of Larry Clark’s Tulsa updated for the century of Fetty Wap and fracking. Well anyway it’s definitely two hours and forty-three minutes. It is way too long and self-indulgent; I really wonder how Arnold got away without having to edit more. I’m thrilled when she cuts away to a dog wearing a superman cape in the parking lot of a crap motel. Pow! Super memorable image. But then a minute later she cuts to the dog again. And after another minute she cuts to it again, and stays on it for a good thirty seconds, while it has a pee. The movie’s full of this kind of overkill. No bee, butterfly, beetle, or grasshopper on Arnold’s set failed to get filmed, and not one of them wound up on the cutting room floor. The first bug crawling up a weed in the hazy honey light of a Kansas sunset adds to the atmosphere. The tenth makes you want to call Orkin.

The star of this movie is the cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who we get to know very intimately, as he draws a great deal of attention to himself. His story is deeply tragic. He can’t hold the camera steady, never learned to focus, and has a pathological obsession with lens flare. I sentence him to watch a week’s worth of Peckinpah — no, better, Cassavetes –to learn that you don’t have to jitter the camera constantly to infuse your mise with unease and spontaneity.

The movie’s formal failures are real and dispiriting, but what depresses me most is its content. Initial appearances suggest that Arnold’s primary goal is to celebrate the joys of American youth culture — getting high, getting laid, singing along to pop songs with your friends, eating junk food, falling in love, spoofing grownups, above all driving around — but that she also wants to expose some peculiarly American strains of loneliness, danger, and fear, through her depictions of poverty, abuse, and waste. I approve of both these messages! But unfortunately, Arnold drastically underrealizes both. The joy parts don’t seem very joyful at all, mostly because the kids on the mag crew whose adventures make up the plot of this movie don’t really seem to give much of a damn about each other. Their solidarity of purpose consists mainly of sharing joints and hooking up, and further we come to understand that they are explicitly in a zero-sum competition with one another, because if you don’t generate profit, you get dumped. So much for sticking it to the man; these kids are near-perfect little capitalists. Meanwhile, Arnold’s depiction of the dark side of these characters’ situation is so misguided it falls off a cliff into a chasm of irresponsibility. We do see children living in poverty and under threat of abuse, but the mag crew, our footloose heroes, never suffer any of the very real tragedies that their nonfictional counterparts do. If you live like these kids, bad things happen, such as rape, human trafficking, assault, drug overdoses, hunger, untreated illness, unintended pregnancies, police harassment, etc. We see none of that in American Honey. Arnold’s is a world where a teenager in a bikini can get into a car with three strange men, or a lonely truck driver, and not only have nothing go wrong, but make money and have fun. It’s absolutely insane.

It was late when I finished this, but I stayed up a little longer to watch some of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. This movie, thirty four years old, does such a better job of conveying both the joy and the terror of being a teenager in America it’s not even funny. Literally, it’s not funny. Sure, there’s a lot of dated, goofy stuff in there. But you’re remembering the wrong stuff. Sean Penn is fun, but Jennifer Jason Leigh’s story is the real one here. Her highs are transcendent, and her sorrows are crushing. I think the main reason the emotional contours of Heckerling’s story are so much more satisfying is that the relationships between the kids — whether healthy or unhealthy — seem real, rather than simulated.