All posts filed under “Miscellaneous


Ketchup 2017

I’ve got a phone, a tablet, a laptop, a desktop, and a TV in my house, and any one of them is capable of delivering torrents of video from a variety of sources. A fly on my wall would note my oddly contradictory responses to this cornucopia. On the one hand, I’m an indiscriminate Hoover, in that I’ll start watching just about anything. On the other hand, I seem to have become increasingly discerning, or distractible, in that I am rarely sufficiently engaged to finish anything. I watched one third of The Young Pope, only to be distracted by the appearance of the new season of Orange is the New Black, which I got halfway through before being suddenly struck by an inexplicable need to see all of Bertolucci again, a project I abandoned almost immediately after reading somewhere that I should instead be watching Paolo Sorrentino’s movies, which reminded me that I never finished The Young Pope, but when I tried to go back to it I somehow instead spent a whole week watching the first twenty minutes each of a hundred subtitled European cop shows on Netflix.

I’m grateful that there are a lot of interesting things to watch, but this lurching from one thing to the next is unpleasantly disorienting. I don’t like it when I’m at the gym in the morning and I literally can’t remember what I watched the night before. (It’s possible that my sense of being overwhelmed and confused by this tsunami of content is exacerbated by early onset CRS.) I don’t like the sense of having so many things unfinished. It’s begun to affect my reading habits as well. I only ever used to have one book by my chair; now there are six.

So some New Year’s resolutions for 2018.

  • I’ll finish what I start, unless it’s awful, in which case I’ll abandon it quickly and decisively, never to return
  • I’ll watch more movies and fewer TV programs, which have a way of just burbling on forever
  • I won’t watch anything so wholly without merit that it doesn’t warrant at least a brief comment on this blog

Before beginning this new program, I should quickly note some cultural products consumed this fall which I haven’t written about here and likely won’t. This is by no means a complete list; this is just what I can remember off the top of my head this morning.


  • Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan (2017). Just watched this with Shrode when he came through town on his way to New Orleans. Impressive, exhausting.
  • Force Majeure,  Ruben Östlund (2014). If this doesn’t convince you that rich people are insufferable I don’t know what will.
  • Landline, Gillian Robespierre (2017). Charming but not as good as Obvious Child.
  • The B Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, Errol Morris (2017). O sublime. I had a very profound but kind of hard to explain reaction to this movie.
  • The Accountant, Gavin O’Connor (2016). I saw this on a plane I think. I remember it because the guy’s an accountant, but also, like, has guns.
  • Gold, Stephen Gaghan (2016). I am still a Matthew McConaughey fan, despite everything.
  • The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman (1983). I like Sam Shepard’s mysticism.
  • The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), Noah Baumbach (2017). Good lessons about how not to be an artist.
  • Okja, Bong Joon Ho (2017). Wonderful. I wish I had the gumption to be a vegan.


  • Sailing the Wine Dark Sea, Thomas Cahill (2003). It was fun and useful to read this while teaching my classics class on Homer, Virgil, and Ovid this fall.
  • On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, William Gass (1976). Preparing to teach this alongside Maggie Nelson’s Bluets in my spring class on reiteration. It’s knottier than I remembered.


  • A Very Secret ServiceJean-François Halin (2015-). This is on Netflix and it is really disorienting, in a good way. It’s like Get Smart meets The Battle of Algiers
  • Patriot, Steven Conrad (2015-). This is on Amazon and I don’t know what to say about it except that I love it when Kurtwood Smith talks about piping.
  • Mindhunter, Joe Penhall (2017-). As I scroll through my viewing history on Netflix and Amazon, I see that I have in the past year or so started watching approximately one thousand drama series of various stripes, but seen through to the end maybe half a dozen, of which this was one. Not perfect, but strong characters, good writing, engaging mise en scene make it worth it IMHO.
  • Ozark, Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams (2017-). Another series I went the distance with; I’d go most anywhere with Laura Linney.
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David. I had never really gotten into this; I watched it all this fall.
  • The Deuce, George Pelecanos and David Simon (2017-). Meticulously researched and I love the idea of it but it’s really pretty flat in practice (just like Treme was).
  • Vinyl, Rich Cohen, Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese (2016). Just atrocious.
  • The Young Pope, Paolo Sorrentino (2016-). As with Sorrentino’s movies, I feel like I’m too American to really appreciate it, but I love it.
  • Vice News Tonight. I have become a devotee of this show; it’s the only TV news I can bear to watch.
  • Justified, Graham Yost (2010-2015). I was really surprised by how much of this I watched. I watched a lot of it. It certainly trucks with a lot of stereotypes about Applalachia, but in a weird way even just to see that part of the world represented on TV felt weirdly like something positive. That, plus so many nice performances kept me on this for a while, though not all the way.
  • Ballers, Stephen Levinson (2015-). This is just horrible, horrible. I watched it all. Probably the most shameful thing I did in 2017. I don’t even know why I did it.

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.



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.”


The Phoenix

phoenix“They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I myself have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there (according to the accounts of the people of Heliopolis) once in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies. Its size and appearance, if it is like the pictures, are as follows. The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible, that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry, then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then of exactly the same weight as at first. So he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun. Such is the story they tell of the doings of this bird.”

Herodotus, people.

I haven’t kept up with the blog in about a year. I’ve been in mourning for a failed writing project and obsessed with photography. Like a beaten dog slinking back into the yard, I am slowly returning to the written word, and I resolve to keep up with my reading, viewing, and listening here in 2013.

Some scraps from the unpublished posts of 2012.

Open City, Teju Cole (2011) I’ve wondered what an American Sebald would sound like. Cole provides a useful and provocative redirection for the question. The ways Cole thinks through history, space, literature, memory, and tone are consistently provocative, but as in Sebald, the overall impression remains one of stillness. A deceptively simple novel. I want to read it again in a year.

I wanted to like HHhH more than I did; it seemed unnervingly slight, too playful. I enjoyed Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was amateurish but affecting. I had to switch off a number of movies for intolerable violence, including Savages and Lawless. This is unusual for me; either the violence is getting worse or I’m getting less tolerant or both. In Moonrise Kingdom I saw Wes Anderson beginning to imitate himself and it made me sad. Cronenberg’s Freud movie was stupid; I don’t think Cronenberg has one single thing left to say and as such his attachment to Delillo’s Cosmopolis makes a great deal of sense. Almovodar’s The Skin I Live In was awesome and irresistible. That one I could go on about. The superficial level of the film being “about” identity politics — you could certainly lead a rousing discussion about the performance of gender in the film with a room full of students — but what really fascinates me is its crazy structure and pacing, like a 19th century generational novel crossed with TMZ.

Plus a bunch of other stuff I’m sure, but like I said, in 2012 I mostly spent my spare time watching photography how-to videos on YouTube and wondering if I’d ever write another word. I’m going to try to keep up this year. I’ll also post some photos from time to time, I think.


Blogman’s Holiday

I’ll be blogging at the Poetry Foundation’s web site for the next three months and for money! So I may be here less. This is probably a disappointment to no one but me. I’d be grateful if you’d post comments regarding the genius of my posts over there, to trick my new employers into thinking that I’m earning my pay.



Getting ready to teach course on terrorism and torture in June. Cheery summer reading/viewing:

Hany Abu-Hassad, Paradise Now
Albert Camus, The Just Assassins
J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale
Don DeLillo, Falling Man
Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden
Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah
Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony
Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Here’s hoping my students have strong stomachs.



Wanted, Timur Bekmambetov. The Da Vinci Code meets The Matrix meets La Femme Nikita. Is AJ all that? Yes, she is.

The Question, Henri Alleg. More bravery in a month than I’ll muster in my life.

Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright. Documentary about contemporary English culture.

The Namesake, Mira Nair. Hackneyed narrative transposed onto inscrutable culture attempts to pass as original.

Strategic Air Command, Anthony Mann. Weird one from the great Mann. Made just two years before the Beckettesque desolation of Men in War, this film’s a hymn to the constant nuclear vigilance of the SAC. Some of Mann’s usual darkness definitely creeps in around the edges, but on the whole it’s pretty sleepy.

Operation Crossbow, Michael Anderson. I heart cable WWII flick. George Peppard infiltrates buzz bomb factory. Double crossing and Sophia Loren.

The Thin Man, W. S. Van Dyke. A marriage to aspire to. Makes your liver hurt just to watch.

White Heat, Brenda Wineapple. Delightful account of the correspondence between Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. My review is here.

Bush’s War. Brilliant, comprehensive documentary from Frontline covering the Bush administration’s machinations from 9/11 to now. Watch it online. Costs only your time and your lunch, which you’ll lose.


Film History 101

My consort never had occasion to take a film history class in school, and has wearied of not being able to make pretentious references to Godard like the rest of us pedants. So she’s requested a short course, and I’ve spent the weekend putting together a syllabus for us. Posted here for reference, and also so that I’ll stop fussing with it. Comments as we go along! Should be a summer’s worth of fun. With thanks to Gilberto Perez, whose “Art of Film” course, which I took exactly twenty years ago, changed my life forever for the better. The list below uses Perez’s syllabus as its spine.

Joel’s History of Film to 1980 or So

In the Beginning
Lumière et compagnie – Poulet (1995)
La Voyage dans la Lune – Méliès (1902)
The Birth of a Nation – Griffith (1915)

The Clowns
The Kid – Chaplin (1921)
Sherlock Jr. – Keaton (1924)
The Gold Rush – Chaplin (1925)
The General – Keaton (1927)
Duck Soup – McCarey (1933)

Europe Between the Wars: Expressionism, Revolution, Surrealism, Decadence, Anxiety
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Wiene (1920)
The Battleship Potemkin – Eisenstein (1925)
Un Chien Andalou – Buñuel / Dalí (1928)
The Blue Angel – von Sternberg (1930)
M – Lang (1931)

The Last European
The Grand Illusion – Renoir (1937)
The Rules of the Game – Renoir (1939)

Hollywood: The Golden Melting Pot

Film Noir
Fury – Lang (1936)
High Sierra – Walsh (1941)
Double Indemnity – Wilder (1944)
Out of the Past – Tourneur (1947)

Stagecoach – Ford (1939)
Winchester ’73 – Mann (1950)
The Searchers – Ford (1956)
The Wild Bunch – Peckinpah (1969)

The Greatest Generation
It Happened One Night – Capra (1934)
Bringing Up Baby – Hawks (1938)
His Girl Friday – Hawks (1940)
The Shop Around the Corner – Lubitsch (1940)
Sullivan’s Travels – Sturges (1941)
Citizen Kane – Welles (1941)
Casablanca – Curtis (1942)
Shadow of a Doubt – Hitchcock (1943)
To Have and Have Not – Hawks (1944)
Letter from an Unknown Woman – Ophüls (1948)
All About Eve – Mankiewicz (1950)
The African Queen – Huston (1951)
Singin’ in the Rain – Kelly/Donen (1952)
Roman Holiday – Wyler (1953)
Vertigo – Hitchcock (1958)
Some Like It Hot – Wilder (1959)

Hollywood Becomes Sentient
Sunset Boulevard – Wilder (1950)

Freud in the Suburbs: The Tranquilized Fifties and Beyond
Rebel Without a Cause – Ray (1955)
All That Heaven Allows – Sirk (1955)
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul – Fassbinder (1974)
Far From Heaven – Haynes (2002)

La politique des auteurs: International Cinemas

Italian Neorealism
Rome, Open City – Rossellini (1945)
Bicycle Thieves – De Sica (1948)

Pather Panchali – Ray (1955)
Aparajito – Ray (1956)
Apur Sansar – Ray (1959)

Tokyo Story – Ozu (1953)
Ugetsu – Mizoguchi (1953)
Throne of Blood – Kurosawa (1957)

Hiroshima mon amour – Resnais (1959)
The 400 Blows – Truffaut (1959)
Breathless – Godard (1960)
Jules and Jim – Truffaut (1962)
Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis – Godard (1966)

L’Avventura – Antonioni (1960)
La Dolce Vita – Fellini (1960)
8 ½ – Fellini (1963)
The Conformist – Bertolucci (1970)

Persona – Bergman (1966)

Knife in the Water – Polanski (1962)
The Decalogue – Kieslowski (1989)

The 70’s: America Gets Interesting Again
The Godfather – Coppola (1972)
Pink Flamingos – Waters (1972)
Paper Moon – Bogdanovich (1973)
Chinatown – Polanski (1974)
Nashville – Altman (1975)
Taxi Driver – Scorsese (1976)
All the President’s Men – Pakula (1976)
Apocalypse Now – Coppola (1979)

Women (Sometimes) Get to Direct Movies Too
Meshes of the Afternoon – Deren (1943)
The Bigamist – Lupino (1953)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High – Heckerling (1982)
Born in Flames – Borden (1983)
Vagabond – Varda (1985)
Chocolat – Denis (1988)
Salaam Bombay! – Nair (1988)
Daughters of the Dust – Dash (1991)
The Piano – Campion (1993)
The Apple – Makhmalbaf (1998)
Boys Don’t Cry – Pierce (1999)
Frida – Taymor (2002)
Lost in Translation – Coppola (2003)
Yes – Potter (2004)
Letter from an Unknown Woman – Xu Jinglei (2004)
You and Me and Everyone We Know – July (2005)



Autumn. Reading to write reviews, teach, research, keep my head above water, but no time to blog.

Adrienne Rich
Natasha Trethewey
Graham Swift
Michael Ondaatje
Sigrid Nunez
Hayden Carruth
Alice Notley
W. G. Sebald
Srikanth Reddy
Christian Wiman
Wendy Rawlings
D. M. Thomas
W. D. Snodgrass
Lots of books about torture

Haven’t been to the movies in more than a month.



Is it possible that Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman have died on the same day? It’s going to be a long week of sleepless nights for film critics expected to generate posthumous appreciation essays.

I can’t begin to express my admiration for either of these two titans. When I was in college and beginning to discover movies as an art form, I wrote earnest, rapturous, and no doubt ridiculous term papers on them both. These years later I still need to watch L’Avventura or The Seventh Seal from time to time, particularly when my head gets too full of all the wonderful kandy-kolored klaptrap that passes for culture these days and I need the big black and white broom of an austere auteur to sweep me clean. And if you say that makes me pretentious, I say that makes you a sucker.