Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Sleeping With Other People (2015) directed by Leslye Headland Mini Review

The R-rated romantic comedy is not among my go-to genres. But Sleeping With Other People was written and directed by Leslye Headland who is one of the creators of my favorite piece of 2019 media so far, Russian Doll. So I rolled the dice on this one and I'm glad I did. It's stars Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie as two serial philanderers with commitment issues who meet cute-ish at a sex addicts meeting years after their first encounter in college. It's a romantic comedy, so you know where it's headed, but it manages to be charming along the way. The leads have believable chemistry and the supporting cast (especially Jason Mantzoukas and Andrea Savage) are uniformly good.

Recommended, if you like the genre.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan (Short Stories)

This is an unforgettable book. Several of the stories are now etched into my memory. In ways I’m comfortable with and deeply unsettled by. I read Kiernan for the first time last year.* The six novels I’ve read have all been on the spectrum of very good to masterpiece. But what it was that drew me to them was hard to pin down. Her short fiction, along with episode four the Weird Studies podcast.** helped me organize my thoughts about it.

Flannery O’Connor said, in Mystery and Manners, “ the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” She was talking about getting her “Christian concerns” across to a largely unbelieving audience. Kiernan is certainly not pushing for Christian concerns, but she does shout and draw startling figures. She uses the tools of what could be called splatterpunk or extreme horror to shock the reader into a sense of the numinous. This is as good a place as any to mention that I recommend this book only with a strong content warning. It can be brutal. Calling it torture porn would be a serious error, though there is certainly torture in many of the stories. She draws on the weird, the uncanny and the unexplained parts of human experience that once would have been described as encounters with Faery. Like the older fairy tales, these stories do not contain pat moral lessons. They do not pretend that when you delve into the subconscious (or the spiritual,or mysterious) that you will come out thinking you are a good person or that you live in a good world. They are deeply disturbing. But these shocks can get past the modern tendency to think only in scientific or economic terms and evoke a sense of awe and wildness. GK Chesterton and the Inklings were constantly trying to invoke this feeling, often as a Christian apologetic. Kiernan is not trying to push that sensation toward any ideological end (save perhaps to use it to chart depression). She just puts you in that state and forces you to sit with it.

The collection could be fairly described as literary horror. Or belonging to the weird. Several of them veer more into science fiction than I’ve encountered so far in her novels. Several could be called  Lovecraftian. Several deal with Faery. Several are in a noir mode. Several are uncharacterizable. One is the most messed up thing I’ve ever read. Nearly all of them tap into the numinous.

My favorite of the stories (I think), The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean, appeared at the heart of The Drowning Girl as a story written by the narrator. I really loved it in that context, but reading is its own really highlighted its greatness. It is the story of a young journalist interviewing the now elderly subject of a series of paintings of mermaids. It’s a perfect story. It would be equally at home in an anthology of weird or literary fiction.

Other standouts: Galapagos, which mixes weird slimy creeping horror and science fiction to incredible effect. Tidal Forces, which I can’t really describe without spoiling. The Fairy Tale of Wood Street, in which a lover is not what she seems, nor is the date movie. The Ape’s Wife, in which Ann Darrow becomes unstuck from a single timeline and tells the King Kong story from several perspectives, all hers. The Steam Dancer which is a strangely sweet steampunk story. One Tree Hill: The World as Cataclysm is a great Lovecraftian mood piece.

The Ammonite Violin is the most disturbing serial killer story (maybe most disturbing story full stop) I’ve ever encountered. Yet it has lingered with me for over a month (I read this collection over a relatively long period of time). This is not a story type I typically seek out but I can’t shake it.

This collection is decidedly not for everyone (again, a heavy content warning). But the writing is consistently good in several different modes. It deals honestly with depression, as anyone familiar with Kiernan would expect. It is truly unsettling. I’m certain I will return to many of these stories again and again.

Canon Worthy.

*Save for the odd anthologized short story. I know of at least one.
** Which didn’t mention Kiernan, just had some very good resonances.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran

It’s tempting to put Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt books in the slacker noir category, a term I think was coined by Chris Wade at Slate in 2015 when Inherent Vice came out. That film played like a more paranoid and overtly political version of The Big Lebowski. Claire DeWitt is certainly on par with those films comedically. In Bohemian Highway she has many open cases, one called the Case of the Missing Miniature Horses. She makes a note to “investigate equine suicide.” A bleaker joke than you might find in those films, but she can hold her own with Doc and the Dude. She is in a similar druggy haze throughout the books. What the DeWitt books have that those films don’t, is a better sense of what Claire is medicating herself against. The main case in Bohemian Highway is The Case of the Kali Yuga. The Kali Yuga, as Gran paints it, is the age of corruption (I’m sure that I don’t fully understand it). It is a corrupt age Claire lives and detects in and seeks to anesthetize herself to.

The two main threads of the story are, like City of the Dead the first entry in the series, a current case in her role as the self styled greatest living detective and one from her punk teenage years when she solved crimes with her two best friends Kelly and Tracy. The overarching mystery of the series is the disappearance of Tracy which broke Claire and Kelly. In the present she is hired by the sister of an ex-boyfriend, Paul, who has been murdered (this is The Case of the Kali Yuga). In the past. Claire, Kelly and Tracy investigate the disappearance of an acquaintance in The Case of the End of the World. Both take Claire to some dark places. There are reasons she is depressed. Despite its humor, there is a edge to the darkness in the DeWitt books that places them closer to the bleakness of an Ellroy or a Lehane.

Claire’s biggest influence in the books is the fictional Jaques Sillette, author of D├ętection, perhaps best described as a Zen Existentialist detective manual. Sillette constantly reminds his detectives that to seek the truth and to solve crimes will isolate them. No one wants the actual truth of their cases. He offers scant hope for happiness in the Detective life. For him “ the temporary result of denying the knowledge one already has.” His attitude towards mystery is that the detective must let herself be solved by her mysteries, for even when a case is cracked they will remain. It reminded me of CS Lewis’s bit about prayer not changing the mind of God, rather it changes the praying person (a formulation which works whether or not God exists).

There is a lot of humor in the book. Considering its bleakness there has to be. Behind the confidence of the unreliable narrator is a person who is attempting numb herself completely. She very nearly numbs herself out of existence. But the cases she pursues provide a purpose of sorts.
This is my second pass through the DeWitt books. Having reread City of the Dead and Bohemian Highway in relatively quick succession, I think I’ve pinpointed what drew me to them so powerfully last year. There is the humor, of course. And the absolute clear-eyed look at the darkness of the world. The honesty about depression. And the offer of some hope, faint though it may be. But what I love the most is the uncertainty. Near the end of The City of the Dead a character says, “That’s the thing about the truth, it’s never just what you want it to be, is it?” No one really wants their mysteries solved in DeWitt’s world; they want comforting fantasies. Certainty, even false certainty, is much more comfortable than learning to live with mystery. As much as she may try to deny it, this extends to Claire herself. This is what makes the books as wise as they are entertaining.
Gran as an author jumped way up my list of canonical authors last year when I read all six of her novels for the first time. I only put works in my canon if I’ve read them at least twice. Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is definitely in and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway could well join it with further rereading.


Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Miller's Crossing (1990) directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

The Coen Brothers are my favorite directors, and Miller’s Crossing is my favorite of their movies. When I first thought about constructing my personal film canon this was the second or third film in (after Groundhog Day and maybe The Third Man). It has everything I like about the Coens. Exaggerated characters. Highly stylized dialogue that is cleverer than people in the real world, but is more enjoyable than more naturalistic modes of speech. Ambiguous intentions and uncertainty. A warped sense of humor. A tribute to old Hollywood.

The opening scene is my favorite in cinema. The clink of two ice cubes followed by pouring and then Johnny Caspar’s voice (that of the late lamented Jon Polito) fades in delivering a glorious monologue about the ethics of fixing fights and killing bookies. In the background Tom Ragen (Gabriel Byrne) walks with his drink from the background to stand behind his boss Leo (Albert Finney). Though the focus of the exchange is between Caspar and Leo, Tom Ragen has a stare off with the Dane, who is to Caspar what Tom is to Leo. When Leo doesn’t give Caspar permission to kill a bookie, Tom flinches. He immediately sees that this is going to cause trouble. The film takes so many twists and contains so many double crosses that it takes (or at least it took me) several screenings to chart out exactly who is crossing whom at what point. Tom looks smart because he made it through, but he was luckier than he was clever.

The rhythm of the dialog carried me through those early screenings. Exchanges like “Intimidating helpless women is my job.” “Then find one and intimidate her.” or “You know I don’t like to think.” “Well think about whether you should start.” abound. So do lines like "If I'd known we were gonna cast our feelings into words, I'da memorized the Song of Solomon." Tom raises a glass to Chief O’Doole in the middle of a Prohibition raid on a club and says, “To Volstead.” Everyone delivers their dialog perfectly. Even the smaller roles are perfectly cast, but Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Albert Finney, John Turturro and above all Jon Polito do incredible work here.

Throughout the film, the characters are sure they understand the other characters' motivation and tell them about it. Verna, who is in love with Tom but is stepping out with Leo to protect her brother, the bookie, is sure she understands Tom. Tom knows exactly why Verna killed Rug Daniels (she didn’t). Caspar thinks he knows the Dane’s motivation until he doesn’t. The Dane is sure Tom’s not on the level. Chief O’Doole is constantly pointing out how no one’s motivations make any sense. But as Tom says, “No one knows anybody. Not that well.” He says that there’s “nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat.” And yet, chasing his hat is as good a description of what he does throughout the movie as any. Once the smoke clears Leo says he sees why Tom took the actions he did. Tom replies, “Do you always know why you do things, Leo?” Leo says yes, but he clearly doesn't. For all their confidence, the characters' certainty is unwarranted.

Uncertainty is a key theme throughout the Coens’ movies. After watching them for  almost two decades, it is hard to say how much that uncertainty is what drew me to them, and how much they shaped my own uncertainty.* Their willingness to let events be ambiguous is probably why people mistook them for nihilists for so long (an idea they mocked brilliantly in The Big Lebowski). It’s not that they have no ethics, they just admit that the ethical choice isn’t always clear. Caspar’s opening monologue is a great illustration of this. He’s ranting about the unethical bookie who’s selling tips on how he bets, and yet he’s there to ask permission to murder him. Throughout the film, Caspar talks about the ethics of the double cross and makes his judgments based on his perceptions of the character of the people around him. All of those people are murderers. The Coens are essentially asking what constitutes ethical behavior on the part of a person living in a system if that system is itself unethical. There is no clear answer to that question, and they don’t try to shoehorn one in. This feels uncomfortable, but it is honest.

For all of Miller’s Crossing's heavy thematic work, it is a lot of fun. It is a highly entertaining, often sad, often hilarious, always compulsively watchable tribute to Hammett style crime noir. The other ethically ambiguous gangster movie that came out that year, Goodfellas (a film I really love) doesn’t hold a candle to this one.

The Coens have made at least five or six movies that would count as another director’s definitive masterwork. Even with that consistency over the course of thirty plus years, Miller’s Crossing is, for me, their crowning achievement.


*I’d read enough Walker Percy and Frederick Buechner by the time I discovered them that they can’t take the whole blame.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller

I’ve had a copy of this on the shelf since I read Heller’s The Believers with great enjoyment a few years ago. That later novel chronicles a family of ideologues falling apart. It is acerbic and funny and had an understanding of what happens when ideology becomes more important than people that I’ve rarely seen in fiction. I bought a used copy of Notes on a Scandal at that time but didn’t pick it up until recently. I saw an online discussion about whether a gender-swapped Lolita could make for a good novel, and someone mentioned this had elements of that idea. Since this book deals with a female high school teacher in England who sleeps with a male student, I can see that comparison. Especially since both the narrator and the other main character are monsters. The narrator, though, in her total lack of self-awareness that is likely at least in part a put-on and masks a deep sorrow reminded me more of Kinbote from Pale Fire. That being said, it is unfair to just compare the book to Nabokov’s. It is a great work in its own right.

The unreliable narrator is probably my favorite literary device. It allows a character to present themself in what they think is a positive light while a closer look shows how much they’re lying, either to the reader or to their self. Notes on a Scandal is the story of a friendship between an older teacher with dubious intent and a younger teacher who slept with one of her students. The older woman narrates. She sees herself as her friend’s defender and magnifies her role in her friends life. The tone is acerbic and funny. At times you almost find yourself on her side. Then you remember that she’s defending a child molester and you shiver. As much as the real victim of the story is the boy, after the story plays out,  you see that the narrator is also a predator of sorts. The story begins after the crime has hit the news cycle and it is immediately obvious that in the wake of the scandal she is now manipulating her now vulnerable friend. She says of another character at one point, “There are some people in whom you can detect the seeds of madness.” It is unclear the extent to which she sees her own madness. But it is there. The book has the arc of a life-invasion horror thriller a la Misery or Single White Female. The fact that the victim of that thread of the story is as much a predator and as self-deluded as the narrator makes for a highly ambiguous exploration of morality.

The point seems to be some combination of, to quote Victor Lavalle, “What lengths will people stretch to believe they’re still good,” and making the reader question their own goodness. Heller is very good at giving her characters genuine moral insight, almost without their knowing it. The narrator says late in the book, "It seems to me that an enormous amount of vice--and virtue for that matter--is a matter of circumstance…. Evil will out, my mother used to say, but I rather think she was wrong about that. Evil can stay in, minding its business for eternity, if the right situation doesn’t arise."* This evil in question is actually one of the few times the narrator did something right in the book, and yet she is not wrong.

Underneath the more eye grabbing elements of the story is a genuine current of sadness. It has real insight into loneliness, which in a different story would be more obviously tragic.

Reading The Believers prepared me for Heller’s brilliant, funny, acerbic prose, but this is the better book. It could have easily been a cheap, salacious, topical cash grab since teachers sleeping with their students was in the headlines at the time of writing. But the way she approaches the material allows her to gets at some real insight into human behavior. But the book wears that insight lightly. It’s a compelling read.


*Spoiler- The narrator is the one who outs her friend’s crime. That you as a reader genuinely feel that as a betrayal rather than the obvious right thing to do, is a testament to Heller’s skill as a writer. The evil in the quote is that betrayal, yet in isolation the line is true. Just perfect execution.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Tim Powers, a fantasy writer I love, talked, in some context I’ve forgotten, about magical realism in relation to fantasy. He said that in magic realism fantastical events happen and people treat it as commonplace but that in fantasy they have, to his mind, the more realistic reaction of being shocked and scared. I think that both reactions can be used to good effect. I thought about that exchange while reading Autumn of the Patriarch. In this novel the fear is baked in. It’s the air the characters breathe. Nothing fantastical can surprise them because it fits so well into the general climate of absurd fear in which they live.

This is the fifth Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel I’ve read, and the one that was the most difficult to get on its wavelength. It took me about 70 pages or so to figure out how to read it and what he was trying to do. Once I did, I really loved it. The prose is designed to disorient the reader. There are page long sentences. It is written in a stream of consciousness style that switches from consciousness to consciousness, often mid sentence. The story, such as it is, consists of life under the reign of a truly heinous Caribbean dictator. He is extraordinarily long lived, and it seems as if his tenure will never end. The people think he dies several times, but he comes back and takes vengeance on any who were happy he was gone. Stream of consciousness is a mode I only enjoy if it serves some function in the work. This qualifies. The switches of perspective from the collective people, to the dictator himself, to his short lived wife, to his mother, to others serve to illustrate the absurdity of life in a dictatorship. It also puts the reader in the mindset of the people for whom fantastical and horrible things have become commonplace. The language induced disorientation also enhances the impact of the crimes of the dictator by putting them in a different context that is harder to dismiss than a more matter-of-fact depiction; for instance, from a news report from a distant land.

Content and spoiler warnings on this paragraph: The dictator keeps a zoo/market in his palace. He has a harem of women who he treats as poorly as the animals. He’s a rapist. He shelters deposed dictators from other countries. He fathers 5,000 children. He rigs the national lottery. He kills the thousands of children he used to rig the lottery. He sells the Caribbean Sea to America (!), which of course takes it to Arizona. His enforcer kills thousands of perceived enemies and brings the heads of the victims to him in bags. He lets his mother literally rot to death.

(End of spoilers)

I am certain that I did not get everything out of this book, and will have to read it at least a couple of more times. It is a 250 page disturbing prose poem to the victims of dictatorship. It is not an easy read either in form or content. But it is very worth the effort.

Highly Recommended.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Johnny Mnemonic (1995) Directed by Robert Longo

Last year I saw Strange Days for the first time and declared it the most cyberpunk movie ever. Then someone reminded me of Johnny Mnemonic. It’s been over a decade since I last saw the latter. I didn’t remember much except for Keanu Reeves, the general cyberpunk milieu and that amazing laser garrote. While I’m pretty sure I like Strange Days more, Johnny Mnemonic definitely takes the “most cyberpunk” crown, at least among movies I’ve seen. This is fitting for an adaptation of a William Gibson short story.

In the age of Martin Shkreli (easily identified if you google the phrase AIDS medicine guy, if you’d forgotten his name as I had), it’s easy to forget that big pharma has been a problem for decades. Even if the evil corporation is a movie cliche at this point, it is very easy to hate Pharmacon.

In the near future technologically modified couriers can smuggle data in their heads, like living external hard drives. They have to give up some of their long term memory to do so. Keanu is such a courier looking to get out of the game, get his memory back and buy his way into the high life. But Udo Kier, in full-on Peter Lorre mode, brings him back in for one last run. Of course there is too much data (300gbs!) and he will likely die of data leakage if he can’t get the information out of his head. Along the way he teams up with Jane, who wants to be a bodyguard and has been technologically modified for the job. But she is suffering from Nerve Attenuation Syndrome (NAS), a prevalent tech-induced disease in the world of the movie. The film becomes a race to get the overload of data out of his head while dodging Pharmacon, the Yakuza and Karl, the Street Preacher, a technologically engineered supervillain played by Dolph Lundgren who sees himself as an instrument of God’s wrath. Johnny and Jane find help from Henry Rollins’ Spider, a doctor who is part of group fighting both Pharmacon and NAS, a hacker dolphin named Jones and a group of resistance fighters called Lo-Tek led by Ice-T’s J-Bone.

The look of the film, like many dystopias, is noir squalor by way of Blade Runner. The visualization of the internet is pure Gibson; an alternate virtual reality world. It is rendered in, by today’s standards, primitive CGI. But that aesthetic is actually perfect for the material. I don’t think better graphics would have improved the movie at all.* Nor would have a more accurate prediction of what tech would be used (though it came really close to predicting the interface used for most VR experiences**). It is utterly charming when J-Bone tells the world to fire up their VCRs to make sure they record the data that is broadcast by satellite dishes at the end of the film. The story is well constructed, even if much of the dialog is stilted. Again like Strange Days, the ending almost veers into wish fulfillment. That didn’t ruin the film at all for me, though. This may seem like blasphemy, but I think Johnny Mnemonic is on par with, or maybe even better than The Matrix, a movie I really love. This is no mere trial run for Keanu’s more famous Cyberpunk turn, which was what I had considered it before this rewatch. It’s a great film in its own right.


*Since I only paid a dollar for the dvd I watched, it seems churlish to complain that it had been “modified to fit  your TV.” I do feel like I missed out, though, and I liked the look of the film well enough to eventually buy a copy that hasn’t been altered.

**That I played Beat Saber for a half hour or so after work today on the HTC Vive in my library makerspace actually enhanced my viewing experience, despite having “better” CGI than the film.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Origin Story: A Documentary (2019) directed by Kulap Vilaysack

I knew of Kulap Vilaysack from her appearances and the times she's been mentioned on the podcast Comedy Bang Bang*. When I saw that she had written and directed a documentary about her life (available on Amazon Prime), I was immediately in. I was in no way emotionally prepared for it.

The film opens with a series of illustrations and voiceover in which Vilaysack describes a fight her parents had one night when she was fourteen. She defended her dad, and her mom lashed out and told her that her dad was not her real dad. The film is about her, now in her early thirties, trying to come to terms with not knowing that sooner, of having been lied to, of having been abandoned by her biological father and her attempt to track him down.

Her parents were refugees from the “secret war” in Laos during the Vietnam War period. The film sees Vilaysack have it out with the family she knows, meet family members she doesn’t know and take a trip to Laos to meet/confront her father. It is not a happy film, but it is a satisfying one. Even hearing someone else say essentially the same thing yesterday, I was very surprised at how candid she was in what she revealed. It couldn’t have been easy. The resulting film is well worth watching. To say much more would be to spoil it.


*One sidenote: Vilaysak’s husband Scott Aukerman, host of CBB, has been very tight lipped about his personal life, so it was nice to see that he seems to be a decent guy.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Girlfight (2000) directed by Karyn Kusama (Mini-Review)

As a rule, I don’t like boxing movies. There have been exceptions (most notably Raging Bull), but the genre doesn’t interest me. But I do like Karyn Kusama movies. I had seen all four of her later features. The live action Aeon Flux movie is better than it’s reputation. And Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation and Destroyer is a great three film run which places her among my favorite directors. So despite its genre I looped around and watched her debut feature, starring Michelle Rodriguez as a young boxer.

It’s a clever touch to name her boyfriend Adrian. The opponent in the final boxing match is an even cleverer trick. In some ways it’s the typical narrative of a boxer from a tough background who overcomes. But it really won me over by the end. The final act does a really good job of dealing with male ego. Do I like Kusama's later movies more?* Yes. But that's more a reflection of my attitude towards the boxing genre than the film's quality.

Highly Recommended

*With the exception of Aeon Flux, which is better than its reputation, but still my least favorite Kusama movie.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (with spoilers)

Pale Fire is my favorite novel. If my personal canon could contain only one book, this would be it. This is my 11th time reading it (once sometime before 2002 when I started logging my reading, once in 2007 and once a year since 2011). It is now tied with The Moviegoer, Godric and Til We Have Faces as the book that I’ve read the most as an adult. That being said, I feel at a loss to write about it. Is it a great author thumbing his nose at professional critics? Is it a bored poet making up a maniacal neighbor in order to create a different form of art? Is it a meditation on grief and suicide? Is it a comedy? Is it the story of a king in exile? It could be any or several of those things. I find something new in it each time I read it.

The book consists of two parts. The first is the final poem, Pale Fire, of a famous poet, John Shade, primarily about his relationship with his wife as they deal with the suicide of their only daughter. The other is an introduction to and annotations on the poem by his neighbor, Charles Kinbote, who managed to get the right to edit and annotate it for publication after being present at Shade’s murder. The notations largely express frustration that the poem was about Shade’s daughter. Kimbote believed throughout the poem’s composition that it would be about the exiled king of Kinbote’s home country, Zembla, who escaped imprisonment by revolutionaries and the gradual approach of Shade’s killer. Kinbote believes the murderer was an assassin sent to kill the king. The notes twist the poem into a highly entertaining novel. It is clear early on that the neighbor is suffering from some form of mental illness. Gradually it becomes clear that he believes himself to be that exiled king now teaching at the same school as Shade. The notes only begrudgingly refer to the actual content of the poem and as book progresses, they become more and more detached from the lines, at times using a single word as a launchpad for the next portion of his story.

Kinbote personifies critics who put too much of themselves into a critique of the work at hand. On one level, the last line of Kinbote’s introduction, “To this statement my dear poet would probably not have subscribed, but, for better or worse, it is the commentator who has the final word” is true. But often works get criticized for things they are not even trying to do, and then the criticism might say more about the critic than the work. Pale Fire mocks this mercilessly. Kinbote, though, is an unreliable narrator. He says in the introduction that "without my notes Shade's text simply  has no human reality at all." He tries to build the case that Shade was a dear friend whose attempts at writing an epic of the escape/exile of the Zemblan King were stymied by his wife who had it in for Kinbote. Kinbote's madness shows through, though, and the reader will look past Kinbote's intent and understand how unsettling he was to everyone around him. Shade's poem does have human reality. So two plausible readings of Pale Fire are that authorial intent matters, or that it doesn’t. Here I may be reading myself into the text by saying that more likely he’s making the argument that I would make: authorial intent matters up to a certain point, more than most contemporary critics would admit, but it can only go so far.

On this reread, as I followed Kinbote’s attempt to force his theme into Shade’s work and his stalker behavior, I couldn’t help thinking of the toxic internet fandom of things like Star Wars or the MCU. None of them get to edit and annotate the official release of Endgame, but there is a little bit of Kinbote’s mania and total lack of self awareness there.

Nabokov was famous for not taking strong public political stands beyond a general anti-Lenin and Stalin stance. In Pale Fire, Kinbote says at one point that “art creates its own reality” and that seems to be a fair assessment of Nabokov’s attitude towards his work.  Nabokov had good reason to hate the Soviets. He lived nearly all of his adult life in exile in the wake of the October Revolution. His father was for liberal reform, but was not Bolshevik and so the family had to flee Russia. There are too many layers of fictionalization to imply a one to one relation to Nabokov’s life. It’s hard, though, to read Kinbote’s narrative of a person being driven to madness and suicidal ideation by exile without seeing some parallel.

I still haven’t talked about how funny the novel is. Or how it can work as straightforward escape/crime story. Or how it treats Kinbote’s homosexuality as normal. Or how the poem could stand on its own, even if it would likely not be as revered. Or how there’s a great argument about the existence of God, and if Nabokov has the madman arguing for faith he still has him argue relatively well. Or how Nabokov is one of the best prose stylists ever. Or how it doesn’t excuse Kinbote’s behavior, but it does take his mental illness seriously, and has more pity for him than Nabokov usually does for his characters.

Lolita is Nabokov’s most famous book because of its scandalous subject matter, and it is a great novel. But Pale Fire is his masterpiece and it’s not even close.


Thursday, May 9, 2019

Old Joy (2006) directed by Kelly Reichardt

Reading Wendell Berry’s fiction over the past few years has made me question some of my life choices. I would be utterly lost for at least the first few years if I took off and tried to live in the woods. I am extremely poorly equipped for that. But there are works of art that really make me wonder why I chose a career that placed me inside a bureaucracy. Wendell Berry’s work. Annie Dillard’s. Robinson Jeffers’ poetry. Add Old Joy to that list.

This is the second of Reichardt’s movies I’ve seen (the first being Meek’s Cutoff) and she is two for two. She works at a deliberately slow pace; in this case a clear attempt to pull the viewer out of the noise of everyday life. The plot, such as it is, consists of two male friends whose paths have diverged to the point that their friendship is nearly impossible as they enter middle age. They go into the woods and are mostly silent around each other as they realize the futility of nostalgia and the possibilities that are cut off for their relationship going forward.

The movie is about realizing that as time passes one must move on, or at least can’t go back, but there’s enough space to read a lot of different meanings into it. Watching it I missed hiking in Umstead Park in my old home in Raleigh. That thought is drenched in a nostalgia that is not helpful. It did make me realize I need to find a place to hike here in my new(ish) home if for nothing else to get outside of my head. The movie left me somewhere between wistfulness and intending to get away from bureaucracy and noise, if only for a little while, very soon.

Canon-Worthy for me. Pass if you don’t like movies with little plot.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Current Reading

I’m usually juggling several books in a given time. I try to make sure they’re different enough that I won’t get them confused. Here’s the current lineup:

I’m roughly halfway through Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is my fourth book by him and the one I had the hardest time finding its wavelength. It honestly took me 70 pages to figure out how to read it, but now that I have I think it is very good. I will likely have to reread it in the next couple years, but I expect to finish my first pass this week or weekend and will get a full review up at that point.

Caitlyn R. Kiernan is quickly becoming a favorite author. I read at least one short story by her, years ago, in the Sandman inspired anthology that I read shortly after my first time through Sandman. I really don’t remember much about that book. It really deserves a reread, especially since it has not only a Kiernan story but one by Gene Wolfe. I may have read other Kiernan stories at some point, but I discovered her in a real way for the first time last year. I’ve now read 5 of her novels including the masterworks The Drowning Girl and The Red Tree. Others could join that category with rereading. I’ve got 6 more stories to go in her collection The Very Best of Caitlin R Kiernan. So far this has been great. Some really fantastic stories here, including The Mermaid of the Concrete Ocean which is among the best stories I’ve ever read. It’s included as a story written by the narrator of The Drowning Girl and it works equally well in that context and on its own. It also includes The Ammonite Violin, which is one of the most messed up serial killer stories I’ve ever encountered in any medium. It’s incredibly well done and I haven’t been able to shake it. I hope to finish this collection over the next couple of weeks and will get a full review up then.

I’ve started my annual reread of Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. If my canon could only contain one work, this would be it. It works on several levels, but on this time through, I’m thinking of Kinbote’s obsession with the poet John Shade and his insistence on reading his own, perhaps delusional, story into Shade’s final poem as a great metaphor for toxic internet fandom. I expect to finish it this weekend. I will attempt a review. Even though this is, I think, the ninth time I’ve read it, I still feel sheepish about writing about it. I’ll give it a shot, though.

I’ve got a longer term plan to reread the Essays of Montaigne. I read them back in 2013, but I burned through them way too quickly. I’m reading  more slowly this time,a few each week, and hopefully will be able to get more out of them. Most recently I read “A Trait of Certain Ambassadors”, “Of Fear” and “That our happiness must not be judged until after our deaths.” The Ambassadors essay had a good insight to not trust people who opine too heavily outside of their areas of expertise. It did have a little too much of a capitulation to authority for my taste, but it subverted that by the end by talking about how certain ambassadors were able to essentially manipulate the experts and their bosses. The biography of Montaigne that I recently read talked about how he often undercuts himself with uncertainty and saying seemingly conflicting things even in the course of one essay. That was certainly on display here. “That our happiness…” was essentially a restatement of Solon’s axiom “Call no man happy until he is dead.” A uncertain essay on stoicism. This is definitely not a work to read quickly. I’m satisfied with my current pace, at which I expect to finish the Essays sometime next year.

I’m still enjoying In Defense of Sanity, an essay collection by GK Chesterton. His essay “On Running After One’s Hat” is a clever, perhaps too glib, meditation on making the best of a circumstance. He’s really on to a good idea, though, in that the stories we tell ourselves can really affect our wellbeing. Still, it does seem a little insensitive towards people who can’t just cheer up, or have been through some kind of disaster. That being said, it is funny and has some good insight. The next essay, “Woman”, is definitely a head scratcher. It is of its time in the sense that Chesterton seems to be saying that women belong in the home. Even on a point that I disagree with him on like this one, he has some interesting things to to say. In this case, that essentially no one is really free except the very rich. I don’t always agree with Chesterton, but always find reading him agreeable, He always gives me something to think about in a slightly different way. I suspect I’ll work through this collection over the next month or so.

I’m trying to work my way through Learn Python the Hard Way, but honestly I haven’t made progress in it in a while.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Tank Girl (1995) Mini-Review

Exhibit gazillion in studio interference messing up a movie and ruining a female director's career. It is a train wreck in a lot of ways. But it's also kind of a delight. Lori Petty as Gwen Stefani as Bugs Bunny driving a tank through a low-rent version of an R-rated Mad Max future. Also there are vigilante human/kangaroo hybrids. And it's almost a musical. I can't exactly call it good, but I really loved it.

I rated it Recommended when I initially saw it, but it has stuck with me all week, so I'm raising that to Canon-Worthy (5/10)

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore

I thought that the first book I read by Jill Lepore, The Story of America: Essays on Origins was, at least in part, a trial run for her one volume narrative history of the US, These Truths. That may still be true, but it could equally be a trial run for this excellent biography of Jane Franklin Mecom, the younger sister of Benjamin Franklin. Many of the essays in Story of America were clearly drawn from the same research. In that book she, in part, makes an argument that writers of narrative histories, especially biographers, tend to overstate what can actually be deciphered from the recorded facts, but that narratives are the way to get people to read history. It is therefore important to both use a narrative, but to do it in such a way that the author is not making up parts of the story wholesale. She particularly takes Washington biographers to task for the recreations of his emotional state that are nearly completely absent from the record. I looked forward, then, to what she would do with the life of Jane Franklin, who is well documented for a woman of her day, but next to the papers left by her famous brother, there is very little.
I really appreciated that in addition to the requisite works cited list, she wrote an epilogue that did a deep dive on her methodology and the way that the records she is using made it through to the archives in which she found them. The major portion of these records consist of her handmade Book of Ages in which she recorded the births and deaths of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and what survives of her correspondence, chiefly with her brother.

What Lepore does with this is brilliant. She holds herself to the same standard as those she’s called to task for their inventions. She doesn’t say that Jane felt something that she couldn’t reasonably deduce from the letters. This is in some ways a biography of Benjamin as well. But rather than allowing his story eclipse hers, Lepore uses them almost as a case study in the opportunities afforded a brother and a sister born into similar circumstances and what they could reasonably make of their lives during that time period. She frames it as a real life version of Virginia Woolf’s thought experiment about Shakespeare’s clever imaginary sister. What emerges is in some ways a critique of the Great Man version of history. But rather than saying that biographies of someone like Benjamin Franklin are useless, she says that they are incomplete. Seeing the lives of the “great” means little without the counterweight of the lives of everyday people. In this case, that particularly refers to the difference between the lives of men and women in the Revolutionary period.

And even in the scant evidence available Jane Franklin’s personality comes through, particularly in the later parts of her life for which a greater number of her letters survived. The book works as both the story of Jill Franklin’s life, a story of Benjamin Franklin’s life that is more complete by the contrast with his sister’s and as a theory of how to think about history in a more well-rounded way. All of this is contained in a narrative that is supported by the evidence and makes, in combination with Lepore’s wit, for an entertaining reading experience.

Highly Recommended

Saturday, May 4, 2019

April Book Roundup

The Black Swan by Nicholas Nassim Taleb (first time reading)- Recommended

How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Questions and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell (reread)- Canon-Worthy

Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (reread)- Canon-Worthy

Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford (reread)- Canon-Worthy

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead (reread)- Canon

No Immediate Danger: The First Volume of Carbon Ideologies by William T Vollman (first time reading)- Recommended

The Story of America: Essays on Origins by Jill Lepore (first time reading)- Canon-Worthy (my review)

April Movie Roundup

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) (rewatch)- Canon-Worthy

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) (rewatch)- Canon-Worthy

Bringing Up Baby (1938) (rewatch)- Canon-Worthy

Spiderman: Into The Spiderverse (rewatch)- Canon-Worthy

Vagabond (1985) (first viewing)- Canon-Worthy

Atomic Blonde (2017) (rewatch)- Recommended

Destroyer (2018) (first viewing)- Canon-Worthy

Chigago (2002) (rewatch)- Canon-Worthy

Southland Tales (2006) (first viewing)- Recommended

The Hurt Locker (2008) (rewatch)- Canon-Worthy

Aquaman (2018) (first viewing)- Recommended

Avengers: Endgame (2019) (first viewing)- Canon-Worthy

Blade (1998) (rewatch)- Recommended/Canon-Worthy

Friday, May 3, 2019

Favorite Movies by Year

A few years ago, I made a list of my favorite movies by year (assuming I've seen a movie from that year going back to 1921 as a procrastination tool back when I was supposed to be doing a grad school assignment. I updated it recently:

1921- The Phantom Carriage
1922- Haxan (runner up: Nosferatu)
1923- Safety Last!
1926- The General
1927- Metropolis (runners up: Sunrise, The Lodger)
1928- The Passion of Joan of Arc
1930- Animal Crackers
1931- M (runners up: Dracula)
1932- Trouble in Paradise
1933- Duck Soup
1934- The Thin Man
1935- The 39 Steps
1936- My Man Godfrey
1937- A Day at the Races
1938- Bringing Up Baby (Runner up- The Lady Vanishes)
1939- The Rules of the Game
1940- His Girl Friday (Runner up- Night Train to Munich)
1941- Sullivan's Travels
1942- Casablanca (Runner up-Cat People)
1943- Shadow of a Doubt
1944- Arsenic and Old Lace (Runner up- Double Indemnity)
1945- Children of Paradise
1946- The Big Sleep
1947- Odd Man Out
1948- Unfaithfully Yours
1949- The Third Man
1950 Harvey (Runner Up- Rashomon)
1952- Singing in the Rain
1953- M Hulot's Holiday
1954- Rear Window
1955- Ordet
1956- The Searchers
1957- Wild Strawberries (Runners up: Throne of Blood, The Seventh Seal)
1958- The Magician
1959- North by Northwest
1960- The Virgin Spring
1961- The Hustler
1962- Cleo From 5 to 7
1963- Charade
1964- Dr. Strangelove
1965- Repulsion
1966- The Good the Bad and the Ugly (Runner up: Daisies)
1967- The Producers (Runner up: Quatermass and the Pit)
1968- 2001: A Space Odyssey
1969- Army of Shadows (Runner up: The Magic Christian)
1970- Le Cercle Rouge
1971- Harold and Maude (Runner up: McCabe and Mrs Miller)
1972- The Godfather (Runner up: Cabaret)
1973- The Wicker Man (Runner up: The Friends of Eddie Coyle)
1974- Mr. Majestyk (Runner up: Godfather II)
1975- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Runner up: Picnic at Hanging Rock)
1976- Mikey and Nicky
1977- Smokey and the Bandit (Runner up: Star Wars)
1978- Gates of Heaven
1979- Alien (Runner up: Wise Blood)
1980- The Empire Strikes Back (Runner up: The Fog)
1981- Time Bandit
1982- The Thing (Runner ups: Blade Runner, Burden of Dreams)
1983- The Right Stuff- (Runner up: Videodrome)
1984- This is Spinal Tap/Blood Simple
1985- Better off Dead
1986- Manhunter (Runner up: Castle in the Sky)
1987- Raising Arizona (Runners up: The Princess Bride)
1988- My Neighbor Totoro
1989- Do the Right Thing
1990- Miller's Crossing
1991- Barton Fink
1992- Unforgiven (Runner up: Candyman)
1993- Groundhog Day (Runner up: The Piano)
1994- Barcelona/Quiz Show/Ed Wood
1995- Strange Days
1996- Fargo
1997- LA Confidential (Runner up: Grosse Point Break)
1998- Out of Sight
1999- Being John Malkovich
2000- O Brother Where Art Thou (Runner up: Sexy Beast)
2001- The Royal Tennenbaums (Runner up: Waking Life)
2002- About a Boy
2003- Matchstick Men
2004- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2005- Serenity
2006- Pan's Labyrinth (Runners Up: Volver, A Scanner Darkly)
2007- No Country For Old Men
2008- In Bruges (Runner up: The Hurt Locker)
2009- Inglourious Basterds
2010- Winter's Bone (Runner up: The Social Network)
2011- Tree of Life
2012- Bernie
2013- Life of Crime
2014- Calvary (Runners up: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice)
2015- The Witch (Runners up: What We Do In the Shadows, Mad Max Fury Road)
2016- Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Runners up: Arrival, Hail Caesar)
2017- Blade Runner 2049 (Runners up: Get Out, Phantom Thread)
2018- Annihilation (Runner up: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs)
2019 (so far)- Avengers: Endgame/Us

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek’s Cutoff moves at a very slow pace. Given that the last three films I’d watched before it were Blade, Avengers: Endgame and Aquaman, which were all good (or, in the case of Endgame, great) in their own ways, I was in sore need of something slower and more meditative. The film makes great use of silence. No one speaks for the first seven minutes of the film, and then it is a child reading scriptures almost in place of the absent soundtrack as work goes on around him in the camp. That length of time is no record to be sure, but it did give me space to adapt to the film’s approach. I definitely thought of the work of Willa Cather several times while I watched it, not least because of this silence. Despite the slow approach, the film does a remarkable job of creating tension as the situation of the characters becomes more dire.

Most westerns are at least in part commenting on the myth of the west, and this is no exception. There is little to no romance in its outlook toward either what the west represents, or the violence that most western films traffic in. I’m not sure how many other westerns I’ve seen in which no one is shot. Like many of its revisionist counterparts it feels sweaty and grimy. The people in the tiny wagon train clearly do not belong in the desert. They stand out against the empty skyline.

The film doesn’t make any heavy handed statements about European Americans encroaching on land that isn’t theirs, but it does certainly illustrate how much these particular pioneers don’t belong. Like The Witch, my favorite movie of 2015, the film uses this lack of belonging to several different ends. Among other things, both films illustrate how difficult the depicted times were to live in for anyone, but then go on to show how it was especially hard for women. That both films do this without feeling in the least preachy is a testament to both filmmakers’ skill.

Early on, the wagon train's guide, Mr. Meeks himself, is revealed to be an opportunistic blowhard who lied about knowing the way to their intended destination. When a mostly silent Native American shows up, he is taken prisoner. He largely serves to reveal the foolishness and prejudices of the white people in the caravan and how completely out of their depth they are. They ultimately decide to keep him around to help them find water, and much of the film’s action stems from the various responses to him, nearly all negative, from the others. I’m not entirely sure what to make of his character. There’s a lot of ambiguity built into the film, especially around him and the ending, which I won’t spoil.

The acting is uniformly good. Everyone is well fitted to their characters. I can see why the Coens thought to cast Zoe Kazan in The Gal Who Got Spooked.

This the first Kelly Reichardt film I’ve seen, but I’ll watch a couple more at least. If this is representative, then I’m likely to be a fan.

Highly Recommended

On Chesterton's Family Essay

I discovered GK Chesterton when I was a devout Christian. I read his book Orthodoxy at least five times during college and in the years immediately following. I also read The Everlasting Man once, The Man Who Was Thursday several times, The Club of Queer Trades (short stories) once and various essays, including a previous stab at the book I’m reading currently, In Defence of Sanity. This last is a best of collection; 67 essays from the 5,000 or so he wrote. I made it approximately halfway through that time. Recently, despite the fact that I am now an agnostic, I find myself referencing Chesterton in conversation fairly often. He could really turn a phrase, and was consistently able to invoke a sense of wonder at the paradoxes he saw around him. Paradoxically, I use a paraphrase of his answer to the question of what made him convert to Catholicism when I’m trying to explain how I lost my faith: It wasn’t one single thing, rather a gradual accretion of a lot of different things that added up to me being a different person with a different worldview.

If I saw an essay titled “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” written in our day, I would likely toss my phone aside and run the other way. If I couldn’t avoid it, I’d brace myself for a right wing screed. In Chesterton’s hands, while I certainly do not agree with every jot of his argument in the piece, the title belongs to a trenchant and often funny account of how much harder it is to care for the person next to you than it is for people in general:

“It is exactly because our brother George is not interested in our
religious difficulties, but is interested in the Trocadero Restaurant,
that the family has some of the bracing qualities of the commonwealth.
It is precisely because our uncle Henry does not approve of the theatrical
ambitions of our sister Sarah that the family is like humanity.
The men and women who, for good reasons and bad, revolt against the family,
are, for good reasons and bad, simply revolting against mankind.
Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable,
like mankind. Our youngest brother is mischievous, like mankind.
Grandpapa is stupid, like the world; he is old, like the world.”

I may not agree with Chesterton wholly, but I find him a great spur to thought, and an entertaining writer.

As a side note, I think I caught something I had never noticed in his work before. Chesterton is a man of his times in many ways, but I caught a whiff of disdain for or at least a complicated relationship with the Imperial system he wrote in (early 20th century England). I’ll be interested to see how that plays out in the rest of the essays in this collection.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Story of America: Essays on Origins by Jill Lepore

The Story of America: Essays on origins is an excellent collection of narrative essays about American history that add up to a history of the way Americans have thought about their history over the years. Over a broad range of topics (essays on the history of presidential campaign biographies, on the history of murder, biographical sketches of Washington, Franklin and Poe, among others) she tells very good stories based on documentable records with great wit and prose. Like a story suite in fiction (say City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer or A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan) each essay stands on its own, yet contributes to an overall understanding.

From this book, and from a couple of interviews with her I’ve heard/read/watched I get the sense that part of her project as an historian is to take narrative history back from journalists and/or bring narrative back to academic history. It’s easy to take the record and impose a narrative on it. As she says in her essay on the history of murder in America: “It’s hard to say, because Roth had wandered into a no-man’s land between the social sciences and the humanities. After a while, arguments made in that no-man’s land tend to devolve into meaninglessness: good government is good, bad government is bad, and everything’s better when everything’s better. Correlating murder with a lack of faith and hope may contain its horror, but only because, in a bar graph, atrocity yields to banality.” Into that no man’s land many biographers have strayed and overstated themselves. In her essay on Washington, she points out how little can be determined about him as a person based on the record, particularly about the state of his emotions and his relationship with his mother, and yet how biographers consistently make strong statements about both. She calls Ron Chernow to task for this (I’ve read his Washington with great enjoyment, but she’s right that he essentially made up what he put into his book about Washington’s emotions. He’s too thorough for me to not recommend Washington, A Life, but if you do read it take those portions with a grain of salt). In her essay on Kit Carson and the West and dime western novels, she takes Hampton Sides similarly to task for inventing wholesale (with good motives) the internal monologue of the Native Americans in his story (I haven’t read Sides’ book and therefore can’t speak to it). The task she’s set herself is to construct narratives that can actually fit the historical record while maintaining the driving readability of the big popular narrative histories that populate the bestseller list. She accomplished that in these essays. The next book of hers I intend to read is her biography of Jane Franklin, sister of Ben. I will be paying attention to how well she rides that line in a longer form.

The essays on the history of presidential campaign biographies and of presidential inaugural addresses are fantastic. She described the typical plot of the former: “Parties rise and fall. Wars begin and end. The world turns. But American campaign biographies have been following the same script for two centuries. East of piffle, west of hokum, the Boy from Hope always grows up to be the Man of the People.” She is witty and incisive. The book is made of great parts that add up to an even greater whole.

This is a Canon-Worthy book. I have only read it once, and I have a rule that books only go in my canon if I’ve read them at least twice. I am highly likely to read this again, and when I do I will be surprised if it doesn’t go into the Canon.