Sunday, June 30, 2019

June Book Round Up

The Peripheral by William Gibson - Canon Worthy

The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History by Jill Lepore - Recommended

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard- Canon

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard - Canon Worthy

Peace by Gene Wolfe - Canon

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Phillip K Dick - Canon Worthy

Low Red Moon by Caitlin R. Kiernan - Highly Recommended

Gold Coast by Elmore Leonard - Canon Worthy

June Movie Roundup

Deadwood the Movie (2019) directed by Daniel Minahan - Highly Recommended

Godzilla King of Monsters (2019) directed by Michael Dougherty - Highly Recommended

Rocketman (2019) directed by Dexter Fletcher- Recommended

Leaving Neverland (2019) directed by Dan Reed- Recommended

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) directed by Drew Goddard- Canon Worthy

The Weight of Water (2002) directed by Kathryn Bigelow- Pass

Cameraperson (2016) directed by Kirsten Johnson- Highly Recommended

Cloud Atlas (2012) directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer - Canon Worthy

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) directed by Penelope Spheeris- Highly Recommended

The Decline of Western Civilization Part Two: The Metal Years (1988) directed by Penelope Spheeris -Highly Recommended

The Virgin Suicides (1999) directed by Sofia Coppola - Recommended

Blade II (2002)- Recommended

A Simple Favor (2018) directed by Paul Feig - Highly Recommended

Killshot (2008) directed by John Madden - Recommended

A Simple Favor (2018) directed by Paul Feig

Paul Feig is a surprising director. I saw Bridesmaids and thought it was really good for a big budget raunchy comedy, not my favorite genre. Spy, though, was a revelation. I based on the promotional materials, I was certain I would hate it. But the word of mouth was good, so went one afternoon for a matinee and was, relative to my expectations, blown away. So funny. Feig knows how to use Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham was just perfect. So it’s high praise when I say that A Simple Favor is the better film.

It wouldn’t be 100% accurate to call this a parody of Gone Girl style thrillers, but it isn’t quite inaccurate either. It is hilarious though. And an effective thriller. There may be one or two too many twists, but the movie had me grinning so hard that’s easy to forgive.

Anna Kendrick plays a tightly wound overachieving single mom who has a video blog dedicated to parenting tips. Blake Lively is a distant, inattentive parent who works as a PR person for a fashion company in nearby New York. Because their sons hit it off, they become extremely unlikely friends really quickly. Lively’s character disappears after asking Kendrick’s to pick up her child at school. Any more description of the plot would involve spoilers. Still, the plot of this is not the point. Kendrick and Lively’s performances are a joy to watch. This is an incredibly fun movie.

Highly Recommended

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Gold Coast by Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard is a canonical writer for me. He’s so prolific that it is hard to say which of his books I like best. I’ve read 41 of them, the only writer by whom I’ve hit that mark. If I had to choose today, I’d probably say Cuba Libre, City Primeval, Killshot, The Switch and this one. But that could change as I reread. I haven’t read Glitz in a decade and it was my favorite of his at one point. I probably could have included Riding the Rap, The Hot Kid and half a dozen more if I were writing this on a different day. In a recent conversation about Phillip K. Dick, a friend brought up the idea of the “style of no style,” that is a book that rests on its ideas, character and plot and considerations of writing style are at best secondary. Leonard takes the style of no style and makes it an art. He cuts out all excess words. I’ve often described Leonard to people as Hemingway with a sense of humor (not an original observation, but an apt one). He couldn’t have written Pale Fire, say, or Peace, but Nabokov and Wolfe couldn’t have written Gold Coast.

His books are generally character and dialog driven. There’s something that several characters want, and the plot is generally confined to what would these people do to get it. The dialog is stylized, and the most enjoyable this side of the Coens. You wish everyone in life talked as cleverly as his characters.

1980 was a great literary year. Strong work by my three favorite writers: Shadow of the Torturer (first volume of Book of the New Sun) and The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories by Gene Wolfe and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler (my favorite of hers). It also included two of Leonard's  best novels, this one and City Primeval. If that weren’t enough there was Godric by Frederick Buechner (which I used to read every year), A Confederacy of Dunces (one of the great comic novels), Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams. Finally, The Second Coming by Walker Percy and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (both of which I've liked in the past, though I'm not sure that I do any more). That’s a fine pile of novels, and Gold Coast is near the top of the heap.

A vindictive mob midlevel mob boss, Frank DiCilia, leaves his wife, Karen, with incredible strictures in his will. She caught him cheating a year or so before he died and said that she’d do the same if he kept it up. As retaliation she gets the proceeds of a trust fund on a monthly basis, but she has to live in the house they shared in Florida, and she cannot remarry or have a relationship with any other man. Several people are attempting to bilk her out of her money or to save her. There are three other major players in the book. Calvin Macguire, who beats an armed robbery rap in Detroit and relocates to Florida to work at a Seaworld like park. He meets Karen, falls for her and wants to save her. Ed Gross is her husband’s mob lawyer who is conflicted about following through on the terms of the will, but is enforcing it for now. There’s Roland Crowe, distant cousin to Dewey and Darryl from the show Justified, who is an all around overconfident psychopath who wants both Karen and her trust fund. He’s been tasked with scaring off any of Karen’s potential suitors.

It all unravels in Leonard's inimitable style. It is Karen’s book, and she wins in the end. The way the book gets there is the fun part. In his later work, he leaned into humor more, and he’s great at that. This is funny at times, but is closer to straight noir. I’ve now read it three times, and expect to again at some point.

Canon Worthy

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) and The Decline of Western Civilization part 2 The Metal Years (1988) directed by Penelope Spheeris

“Such welcome and unwelcome things at once.
‘Tis hard to reconcile.”

Starting a post about the first two The Decline of Western Civilization with a quote from Shakespeare may seem incongruous. But I read Macbeth over the last weekend and the lines sum up my feelings about the nascent LA Punk scene depicted fantastically in the first of these part documentary/part concert films.

There is an undeniably appealing energy to the first. The anarchy of the movement feels at times like a perfect antidote to the consumer/conformist society they railed against. The groups depicted in the doc have various levels of commitment to anarchy and to their art. X seemed pretty focused on making it work. They were slightly more honest about their ambition to make it as a band. Black Flag seemed pretty focused on the music as well. Germs’ anarchy seemed to extend to the music to the point that the singer at least seemed to barely think he should perform. Fear, better musicians and performers, expressed that anarchy by being openly hostile to the crowd, spitting on and being spit on by them. These are Gen-X levels of performative authenticity, which makes sense as the youngest in the crowd were probably about the right age to be the first of that cohort.

Some seem more authentic than they would probably like in retrospect. While much of the anger seems justified, it can get aimed in just about any direction. The camera catches at least one swastika (painted onto a cast). One of the non-band interviewees expresses his racism very plainly. The mosh pit, or pogo dancing as they called it in the film, seems like a great way to get out aggression, and no doubt, for some it was. But the cavalier attitude toward violence against women is jarring to contemporary sensibilities. No doubt some of them felt their convictions deeply, but many were clearly in it for groupies as well. I’m very glad that Spheeris didn’t shrink from depicting that reality. The documentary is a great portrait of both what is great about punk and the unsavory aspects of it.

In the second film, all pretense of authenticity is out the window. This is pure excess. Despite being about real bands, and despite the genuine ambition of the various bands, this really felt like a companion piece to Spinal Tap. The documentary is amazing; I don’t mean that as a negative. I was once again genuinely surprised how close Tap came to capturing the reality of this brand of rock.

This time, there are interviews with the forbears of the hard rock metal scene, and most of the performances are from up and coming bands. I’m not well versed enough in metal history to know at what stage of their career Megadeth was when they performed, but they seemed the most authentic (and the best at their instruments) of any of the bands. Like the first, it works as both a concert film and document of a scene. An incredibly decadent scene.

The two films make an interesting pair. Speeris is clearly more sympathetic to the punks. The poverty of the punk bands makes a stark contrast with the opulence of the headbangers. While watching the first film, I thought of The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. Her anarchist society in that novel worked so well because of austerity conditions. The second film depicts her worst capitalist nightmare. I really loved both movies.

Both Highly Recommended.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Low Red Moon by Caitlin R. Kiernan

I made the mistake of reading the three novels featuring Chase Matthews and Deacon Silvey out of order (I know there are stories that feature him, and there may be a fourth novel, I’m not sure). Earlier this year, I read Daughter of Hounds, the first of her earlier period novels I’d read. I loved the later work (Agents of Dreamland, The Drowning Girl, The Red Tree and Black Helicopters) I read last year. I knew the earlier stuff was a little more straightforward in terms of plot, and wondered how the earlier novels could hold up to those later masterworks. I needn’t have worried. While I enjoyed the later work more, the loose trilogy of Threshold, Low Red Moon and Daughter of Hounds is excellent. I would recommend reading them in order, as Daughter of Hounds tipped me to one of the major points of the climax of this book. That knowledge is likely why I enjoyed the first and third in the series more. I look forward to reading them in the next couple of years.

Deacon Silvey is a psychic who has helped police solve crime in the past. He is a recovering alcoholic who drank because his visions gave him crippling migraines. Chase Matthews is a paleontologist and a strict materialist. As the novel opens, they are married and expecting their first child. There is a group of ghouls, ancient monstrous beings who live in house from Lovecraft (literally a house that appears in Lovecraft’s stories). They steal babies and raise them to do their bidding in a variety of occult scenarios. Two of these are characters in the novel. Early in his career Deacon thwarted one of these kidnappings. There is a woman who is half ghoul and half human. The ghouls do not accept these halflings in their number. She is going mad and becomes a serial killer. Since Deacon blocked one of their attempts at kidnapping a child, the killer wants to give the ghouls his child, hoping it will make them accept her.

The telling of the story is less straightforward than that summary. While these earlier novels are more straightforward than the later work, she is still more concerned with style than plot. She respects her readers enough to make them do some of the work. That’s not to say the novels are impossible to follow. They move along nicely. They are also quite bloody. There’s a heavy splatterpunk influence here. No hesitation to reveal gruesome details. The mythology is slowly revealed, almost in the background. The characters occasionally veer towards being too melodramatically goth (a tendency absent from her later work), but the writing and mythology more than make up for that. There is a twisted sort of awe that she evokes that is the real hook for me in her work.

Highly Recommended (though read Threshold first, or if you only think you’ll read one or two Kiernan books try The Red Tree or Agents of Dreamland)

Monday, June 24, 2019

Cloud Atlas (2012) directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer

I thought Cloud Atlas the book was unfilmable. I was wrong. I’ve read either 2 or 3 times, and one of the things I loved about it  was the embedded structure. The front half of several novellas then a whole, then the back half of those novellas. Each in a different style and each read or consumed in some way in the next. While it isn’t a didactic book in any way, it does, among other things, make a strong argument against nihilism by showing how people are interconnected.

The movie seizes on  and amplifies this interconnection themes. The Wachowskis keep the bit about each account being read or consumed in some manner in the next. But, as a film they had to alternate between the various threads rather than embed them completely. They managed to create forward momentum and keep it going and minimize the potential confusion. The three hour run time blew by.

The race swapping makeup in the various timelines was a controversy at the time, and since I thought it wouldn’t work anyway, I had avoided it for years. That makeup is cringey, and a misstep. But that is the only caveat I have for the movie.

This has surpassed The Matrix as my favorite of the Wachowskis’ work (I still need to see Jupiter Ascending, despite the hate directed towards it)to be completist. This is one I will return to again and again, I think.


Sunday, June 23, 2019

Cameraperson (2016) directed by Kirsten Johnson

Kirsten Johnston is a cinematographer with an extensive IMDB page. Cameraperson, she says at the beginning of the film, should be considered her visual memoir. She’s taken footage from the many documentaries on which she operated a camera in various capacities, along with footage of her family. These are the images that have stuck with her.

In Bosnia she worked on a documentary about the abuse of women during the war in the 90’s. She also caught some glimpses of bucolic life there in the aftermath. She films midwives and nurses in a birthing clinic in Nigeria. There’s a clip from Throw Down Your Heart, the only documentary that she pulled from that I’d seen, of music and dancing. Interspersed are bits about her mother’s decline and death due to Alzheimer's and her kids.

It all adds up to a really fascinating whole. Her job has been to hold an eye up to various aspects of her world. Annie Dillard, who I thought of early on in the documentary (likely because I’ve recently reread some of her work) said, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Kirsten’s days allowed her to reconstruct a look at her life.

The documentary brings up some vital questions. If you are constantly documenting the horrors of the world, what does that do to your psyche? That raises the further question of how to approach documenting pain that is not your own. What responsibility does the documentarian have to intervene? A birth in the Nigerian clinic was going poorly. It is unclear whether the child lived. They needed oxygen, but they had none in the clinic. In another clip, the documentarian Michael Moore (who I have mixed, but largely negative feelings toward) offers the interviewee legal help if he gets in trouble for his revelations in the documentary. Is that a good faith offer? Did he follow through? Was he obliged to make that offer given the subject could be facing jail time?

The film does a masterful job of giving insight to a cinematographer’s life, and the value and quandaries of choosing such a life.

Highly Recommended

Saturday, June 22, 2019

The Weight of Water (2000) directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Bigelow has become, over the past couple of years, one of my favorite directors. Near Dark, Strange Days, Point Break, The Hurt Locker and Blue Steel are all very good to great. I really need to rewatch Zero Dark Thirty, but I’m pretty sure I’d include it in the same category. I didn’t love her first film, The Loveless, but it has a great style and pushes back a little at the mythos of the biker movie, which I really appreciated. I generally don’t care for submarine thrillers, but K-19: The Widowmaker was good for the genre. Near Dark and Strange Days have some issues (the latter really toes the line of acceptability in portraying some really harsh realities), but are great films nonetheless. Point Break is, despite some atrocious dialog, one of the all time action films. Blue Steel is an incredibly effective thriller. The Hurt Locker is a movie that works both as a tense story and as a metaphor without being preachy. I say all that to indicate that I went into this one wanting it to be good.

The Weight of Water does not work as well as any of those, at least for me. The story follows parallel plotlines. The first, in the late 1800s, is about a murder of two women, the woman who survived the night, her husband and brother and the man who is convicted of the killings. This strand more or less worked as a slow building thriller. Sarah Polley is excellent as the woman who survived the night. The second strand is of a woman who is investigating the historical crime, her husband (a famous poet), his brother, and the brother’s girlfriend. They take a boat trip to the scene of the crime. This part didn’t work for me. The biggest issue was Sean Penn as the poet. It was difficult to take him seriously as a wounded poet. I’m not sure if replacing him would have fixed the movie, but it couldn’t have hurt. The second issue was the saxophone score, intended to be sexy but laugh-inducing in practice. The climax of the film is confusing, but not in the sense that it leaves unanswered questions. It’s actually hard to figure out what happened without rewinding. I will likely watch her other films several more times at least, but I’m unlikely to revisit this.

Pass on this one, but I strongly recommend Bigelow's other work, particularly Near Dark, Strange Days (with a heavy content warning), and Point Break.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

This is my fourth time reading what I consider my favorite among the 11 Philip K Dick books I’ve read so far (with the possible exception of A Scanner Darkly which I really need to reread). For twisting your mind around and turning it inside out, you could do way worse. His characters always seem on the verge of discovering some truth about some form of gnostic spirituality. There’s always a point after which you can’t be sure if everything is actually happening or if it’s a drug or illness induced hallucination. You can really break your brain on his books. They require a lot of thought. Sure the dialog and prose can be clunky (particularly if you bookend him by reading Gene Wolfe and Annie Dillard on the left side and Kelly Link and Caitlin Kiernan on the right, as I did this time), but if you’re reading PKD for the dialog you’re doing it wrong.

There are so many ideas crammed into Three Stigmata. It’s a future in which global warming keeps everyone indoors, except the rich on vacation at the poles. Humanity has colonized the solar system, but the people live subsistence level lives in hovels (they call them hovels!). There is a draft to send eligible people to these colonies, as the conditions are terrible, yet if humanity is to survive the heat death of the planet, they must go to space. The drafted colonists use a drug called Can-D. It puts their consciousness into essentially a dollhouse with two characters, Perky Pat and her boyfriend. The experience is real, though  you have to buy the layout and the dolls in order to experience it. There’s a brisk business in miniaturized household items for use in the layouts. It’s a communal experience as there are only the two characters and when Can-D is chewed together everyone goes into one character or the other. A sort of religion sprouts up in which people argue about whether or not they are literally translated into Perky Pat or whether it is a hallucination (a transubstantiation). There is Evolution therapy that makes people smarter, though it affects their appearances. It starts to get weird when an entrepreneur who was out of the solar system, Palmer Eldritch, comes back changed from his encounter with aliens from the next system over (or something else). He brings with him Chew-Z (Be choosy. Chew Chew-Z!), which offers another order of experience, and a competing religious experience.

The setup allows PKD to examine his themes of drug induced religious experience and variations on the theme of gnostic Christianity. I’m not entirely sure I understand the intricacies of his religious thought. I am sure that it is an incredibly entertaining ride, which I will return to again.


Saturday, June 15, 2019

Peace by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is my favorite writer. Pale Fire is my favorite novel, but if any book unseats it, it is likely to be one of Wolfe’s standalone masterpieces, The Fifth Head of Cerberus or Peace. There is a group of books I read every year, and both of these are going on the list for the time being.* Wolfe writes very tricky books with unreliable narrators, so it often takes a couple of readings to begin to understand what is happening. This was my second pass through Peace, the first time was in 2009. I will not pretend to fully understand it on this reread, but I will likely spoil a couple things in this post.

I was introduced to this novel by Neil Gaiman’s blog, so I went into it knowing that at first pass it could seem like an older man, Alden Dennis Weer, writing about his life in beautiful prose that gradually revealed how unpleasant he was. With a closer reading it is clear that it’s a ghost story/haunted house narrated by the ghost. And a murder mystery, in which the number of murders is unclear (though I hope to figure that out with further readings). The narrator seems guilty of at least a couple of them, and towards the end of the novel he commits an even worse crime.

There are stories within stories all told by narrators at least as unreliable as Weer. There are fake books. There is mad science happening under the auspices of a successful orange powdered drink company (it seems like Tang, but the founder’s first name is Julius!). There are carnival workers from an old school freak show who deliberately maim or poison their children to make them fit in the troop. There’s a bookseller who is likely an ancient being. It’s the type of book that will yield more with every reading.

He buries clues to the complexity of the narratives in seeming asides like, “Have you never thought as you read that month's may lie between any pair of words?” (He used the same technique regarding the uncertainty of elapsed time between chapters or even paragraphs and lines to great effect a decade later in the Latro books.)  The first line references a tree falling, and it is two hundred pages into the novel before an offhand conversation reveals the significance of that. He sneaks in great insight into human communication, as in this bit where Alden’s aunt made a joke about cutting the rope that her suitor was rappelling from then telling him she would have stopped him if he tried, and asked if he realized this: “If I had been older I would have told her I did, and I would - after the fashion of older people- have been telling her the truth. I had sensed that cutting the rope was only a joke; I had also sensed under the joke there was a strain of earnestness, and I was not mature enough yet to subscribe fully to that convention by which such underlying, embarrassing thoughts are ignored- as we ignore the dead trees in a garden because they have been overgrown with morning glories or climbing roses at the urging of the clever gardener." This is a good insight, but as Weer is gradually revealed to be a murderer and probable sociopath, it becomes more sinister.

The prose is some of Wolfe’s best, rivaling that of the first novella in Fifth Head of Cerberus. Peace might be his most Nabokovian book, though of course he was way more likely to admit to working in genre fiction. Wolfe uses unreliable narrators as skillfully as the Russian emigre.  In an interview somewhere Wolfe said that all narrators are unreliable, and either implied or said outright that he was just more honest about it. Wolfe uses that technique in nearly all his work. It is part of what makes them such a pleasure to reread.

Wolfe’s recent passing is incredibly sad, but he left an unparalleled body of work that rewards and even requires multiple readings. I’ve read well over half of it.  I’m paralyzed between wanting to plow through the remaining books and to go back and just dig deep on a couple or three of them. This is firmly in the dig deep category.


*The others I currently read every year are Pale Fire, Moby Dick, Wild Seed by Octavia Butler and Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood. I’m considering which Kelly Link collection to add to the list. I suspect Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard and one of the Claire Dewitt books by Sara Gran may join the list

Formerly on the read every year list (and now on the read every once in a while list) are: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Godric by Frederick Buechner and Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard

This book was very important to me about 17 years ago. Between the late nineties and 2002 I read it 2-4 times. I only started keeping a log in 2002, so I’m not sure how many, other than it was more than once. The stance of ecstatic prose about the wonder at the natural world as fodder for worship was catnip to me at the time. As I said in my brief notes on Holy the Firm last week, I tried to bend that worship into a christian shape. While Dillard clearly comes from a high(ish) christian church background, she did not share my younger self’s scruples toward other religions. She more often used biblical allusions or quotations than those from other religions. But she also quoted the Koran and Buhddist texts as well as all manner of completely secular sources. This troubled me, but I couldn’t help but love the book with some reservations.

Seventeen years on from my last pass through it, I find it no less moving than I did then. I’m no longer concerned with making it fit into an ideology. I look askance at some of the more purple sentences than I did then. But, according to the 25th anniversary afterward so did she. If the book has a flaw, it’s that tendency towards occasionally overwriting. The prose, for the most part, though, is outstanding. In that afterward, she also addresses something that always bothered me; Pilgrim is obviously a longform work, yet it is marketed as an essay collection. The same misapprehension persisted to Holy the Firm, her next, much shorter, book and most subsequent work. I prefer Holy the Firm, perhaps because of its brevity, but both are masterful work.

For two years, Dillard lived next to Tinker Creek near Roanoke Virginia. She read heavily and stared at nature. She used a phenomenology* of nature as a spiritual practice. She recorded these experiences in psalm-like prose. Without hewing to any particular religion (though more often than not using Christian language) she argues for the discipline of seeing. Or at least training oneself to see. Nature becomes a means of focus for meditation on the spiritual, though the deity she describes is often profligate and cruel. Dillard’s world is as tough as those of Cormac McCarthy or Werner Herzog. The universe is as indifferent to humans in her work as in theirs. Hers allows for beauty more explicitly than theirs though. In her phrase (I’m pretty sure it was from Holy the Firm, but since I read them so closely together I’m not sure) there is often a canary perched on the skull. In this she succeeds where many religious writers fail. She doesn’t gloss over the harsher aspects of nature. She grapples with the pain and cruelty of the world with an honesty uncommon among religious writers. This makes the spiritual musings much easier to take.

Lately I’ve been thinking and reading about the weird and uncanny as a category. I’ve become more of a reader of horror fiction of that vein than I’ve been in the past. This book, especially the chapter on Fecundity is as strange and unsettling as anything in those books. The natural world is seething and strange. As she says, half of the life in the world is trying to escape from the other half all the time. The living are rarely unscathed.

I’m more willing to admit that she occasionally overwrites in this than I would have in 2002. Still, it really holds up.


*Sarah Bakewell, in her excellent history/biography/philosophical summary At the Existentialist Cafe, summed up phenomenology as “describing phenomena.” That is, the practice of philosophizing about things themselves and the experience of them rather than from more abstract reasoning.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Leaving Neverland (2019) directed by Dan Reed

This is a tough watch. Two victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Michael Jackson talk in clinical detail about what happened to them as children. It’s not the kind of thing that I feel comfortable writing about, but I was completely convinced by the story. Gut wrenching. I understand where people are coming from when they say that a person with that much money could be the target of some kind of grift, especially since there were people who denied that it happened, but at some point you have to look at the pattern.

The tricky thing is Macauley Culkin’s continued denial that it happened to him as well. That seems to be one of the main things that got Jackson his acquittal in that last trial. I’m not saying Culkin is lying, like Wade Robson felt he had to for years. It is entirely possible that Jackson didn’t abuse Culkin. That does not mean that he didn’t abuse the others.

One of the hardest things to deal with is how completely the families had been won over by Jackson. His power, influence and talent were undeniable. And apparently he could be charming as well. The gateway to a lifestyle he provided them would tempt anyone. Still it’s hard to wrap my head around letting children sleep in the bedroom of an adult stranger. That thought haunts the family interviews. The effects of this on the families is a secondary heartbreak to the actual abuse, but it is nonetheless heartbreaking.

This is not something I can easily recommend, especially to people who may have had similar abuse in their pasts. But it is a wrenching, deeply angering and convincing story. If you can stomach detailed accounts of abuse and are on the fence as to whether Jackson is guilty or not, I’d say watch it. Otherwise I’d say pass, though not because of the quality of the production.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Rocketman (2019) directed by Dexter Fletcher

Biopics are not a genre I gravitate toward, especially biopics of musicians. They generally share the same arc: a brief bit about childhood usually centered around dismal parenting, discovering the gift, becoming famous, abandoning their friends/original management, crashing and burning usually because of drugs, then some stab at redemption or at least presenting the subject in a flattering light). Even the “warts and all” variety of these things tend to gloss over the worst parts of their subjects lives and are emotionally manipulative in the worst ways in manufacturing that redemption. So Rocketman had some major hurdles to clear for me. And it really did in certain moments.

What convinced me to see it, was the description of the fantasy/magic realism scenes by some online friends. The film seemed to be offering something different, so I thought I’d give it a shot, and I’m glad I did. While it does suffer from most of the cliches listed above (the parental relationships were particularly too on the nose), it is nonetheless a good film. Taron Egerton’s performance is great, especially in the section that contains the title song. I really appreciated the framing device of him telling his life story to an AA group, gradually dressing less stage-y as he gradually gets more honest with them.

But what really elevates the movie over most biopics is the fantasy musical numbers. I am relatively unfamiliar with John’s music beyond hearing the hits, but this made me want to listen to more of his work. The filmmakers use the songs to really great effect. The decision to film it as a musical rather than going for realism with performance of the hits was the best thing they did. I can imagine watching this when it comes out on streaming and just fast forwarding to the musical sequences. I could also see the film growing on me with further viewings.

Even though the basic story is the same as Ray, Walk the Line, etc, the execution was better than usual. Unlike something like A Beautiful Mind, they actually didn’t elide Elton John’s sexuality, which was refreshing. This is a better than average biopic, and I’m glad that I saw it on the big screen, where the magic realist musical numbers really shone.


Saturday, June 8, 2019

Godzilla King of Monsters (2019) directed by Michael Dougherty

I went into this movie with zero expectations. I had not read anything about it; I hadn’t even looked at it’s Rotten Tomato score (which is suspiciously low, having checked it afterwards). I’m very unfamiliar with the previous movies. I’m sure that I watched the immediately previous, only because the couple of flashback scenes in this reminded me of it. I’ve seen, in my childhood, a couple of the older movies, but I’m not sure whether or not I’ve ever actually seen the original. I wonder if wrestling with how it fit the older movies might have caused the critics to receive this poorly. Yes, the dialog is cringe-worthy at moments. Yes, it could have benefited from going for an R rating rather than PG-13. Yes, trying to do this material as science fiction rather than fantasy is more than a little funny. Yes the motivations of Vera Farmiga’s Dr. Emma Russell seem suspect. But if you’re watching a giant monster movie for the dialog and airtight motivations you’re doing it wrong.

Having little baggage from the previous movies, I experienced it as a largely successful attempt to make an occult-free materialist version of Lovecraft’s Old Gods stories. Instead of arcane rituals we have meddling scientists. It doesn’t work as science fiction exactly, but as a metaphor for science giving us something we can’t control (IE nuclear weaponry), it works very nicely. If you pretend the science is magic, it works even better. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Weird as a category lately, which I think primed me for this. Having just wrapped up a reading of a Caitlin Kiernan short story collection helped as well.* The images of the monsters on the big screen (I’m glad I caught it in the theater!) were awe inspiring. I’ve come to terms with the fact that movies like this are largely cartoons, and the CGI is not as distracting as it might have once been.

With more thought, I’m likely to put Us by Jordan Peele or Deadwood the Movie ahead of it on the best of the year list from among the admittedly few 2019 releases I've seen so far, but I can’t say I’ve had a more enjoyable moviegoing experience this year.

Highly Recommended.

*For an R-rated mix of Lovecraftian horror and science fiction, I’d highly recommend Kiernan’s award winning short story Galapagos, her novella Agents of Dreamland, and the novel length sequel to Agents, Black Helicopters.

Edit: After reading a lot of Lovecraft, I realized that he is actually a materialist.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

There was a time in the early aughts when I got a lot of flack from certain friends because I was always flogging the work of my three favorite writers at the time: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Annie Dillard (and to a lesser extent Frederick Buechner). I’m endlessly hopeful that people will like what I like, sometimes in face of evidence to the contrary. I didn’t manage to convince many of them to read the books. Over the years my affection for O’Connor remained more or less the same, even if other authors (Gene Wolfe, Octavia Butler, Elmore Leonard, Vladimir Nabokov, Kelly Link, Cormac McCarthy (for a time)) eclipsed her. I still like aspects of Percy, but I’ve grown cooler towards him over the years. As for Dillard, I nearly forgot her; or rather, I didn’t return to her as often as Percy or O’Connor. I reread The Writing Life a couple of years ago after remembering the line, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Otherwise it’s been over a decade since I read any of her work.

I’ve been planning to reread Pilgrim at Tinker Creek soon, having recently purchased the audiobook. This brought Dillard to mind and I remembered an online friend including Holy the Firm among his favorite books. I pulled it off the shelf to read a couple lines. I read the entire thing in one sitting. It’s short, so that’s not some great achievement time commitment wise. But the book is a marvel.

Dillard’s writing is Psalm-like. It is in an ecstatic mode intended to evoke awe at nature, often turning that towards God. That is what attracted me to her writing at the time. What discomfited me was how her God never really fit squarely with Christianity. As she said in a later work, For the Time Being, she was spiritually promiscuous. Much of her work seemed borderline pantheistic. Like Frederick Buechner, she dealt very frankly with doubt. I last read Holy the Firm at 2002. At the time I was devout and a stickler for orthodoxy. I was just then learning to doubt and feeling the first rumblings of the unease with Evangelicalism that ultimately led to me leaving it. I wasn’t entirely ready for the book at the time. Reading it again now without the need to try to squeeze it into an orthodox shape was a profound experience.

The three essays here contain some indelible images. A moth flies into a flame. A plane wrecks and injures an innocent child. From these Dillard crafts what are essentially prose poems. They are worth reading just for the prose. But her act of looking so closely at these images forces the reader to observe their own surroundings in a similar way.

I will not wait seventeen years to read this again.


Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History by Jill Lepore

"History is an endlessly interesting argument where evidence is everything and storytelling is everything else."

Through the three books I’ve read by her, the most prominent common theme that I’ve seen is narrative. She’s very concerned about the stories we Americans tell ourselves about our history. In the 60’s and 70’s, historians very rightly started to shift focus away from the great men and onto the more marginalized groups in history. This is necessary work. On the part of academics there was an accompanying, less healthy, move away from trying to write for the public at large. This was evident as the nation prepared to celebrate the Bicentennial:

“Historians mockes the Bicentennial as schlock and ts protests as contrived but didn’t offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. That left plenty of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business.”

This book deals with the the ways people over the past two and a half centuries have used the Founding Fathers (a term coined by Warren G. Harding in 1916) to bolster their politics. The tactic was first used before all the founders had even died, and has since been used by people across the political spectrum. Around the Bicentennial many leftists used the Boston Tea Party metaphor to protest Nixon. More recently, of course, the contemporary Tea Party has been a prime group of other people that had room to get into the history business by virtue of academics abandoning the field. Their version of what the founders wanted is often at odds with the record. Lepore argues, convincingly to my mind, that their form of originalism is much closer to fundamentalism than an attempt to actually study, understand and learn from history; it is, in fact, anti-historical.

The next Lepore book I intend to read is These Truths, which I understand to be her attempt to write a narrative history of the US that is more bound by the historical record, that, while acknowledging the atrocities in our history, does not frame US history as a mere parade of wrongdoing. This, according to a colleague in the History department, has been controversial. But a key part of Lepore’s argument is that History is, and will always be, an argument. The record is often too sparse to fully understand the motivations of a single historical personage, let alone a group with viewpoints as divergent as the founders. Whether she ultimately convinces me that the narrative she offers is the answer, I am very grateful that she makes the attempt. Over the course of three books, she’s already shifted my opinions on other books I’ve read (Ron Chernow’s Washington is exhibit A). She’s changed the way I think about narrative history. Like she said, there’s plenty of room for almost anyone to make any historical claims. Anyone trying to push back against that tendency, or at least pushing people to think more critically about it, is well worth reading. And if they have the style and wit of Jill Lepore, all the better.

Recommended. (Though I would recommend The Story of America: Essays on Origins more highly. It brings up many of the same themes, but covers more territory.)

Monday, June 3, 2019

Deadwood the Movie (2019) directed by Daniel Minahan

Deadwood is my favorite TV show. The first time I attempted to watch it, it was too dark and too vulgar for my tastes. It was too frank in its depiction of the realities of the times. It was too harsh. But I couldn’t shake it. Eventually I returned to it and it grew in my estimation. It’s dark, but so are people. I started to catch the poetry and humor in the dense profane dialogue. On my second full viewing I started to see how it wasn’t just the story of how society forms out of chaos, though it certainly is that. It’s also the story of how a certain type of capitalism can wreck society. It’s a story about how people deal with depression. It’s a story about anger, both repressed and open. It’s a story about love, both sanctioned and not. It’s a story about people who, with a few notable exceptions, are not wholly evil or wholly good. It’s Shakespearean, McCarthian story. It’s a story about how women and minorities were treated. It’s a story about the complicity of the well-intentioned. It’s a story about joy. It’s a story about death. It is an hilarious story and a tragic one.

The characters are indelible. Doc Cochrane, a materialist who prays for an ailing preacher to be released from his misery with a fervor that the preacher himself cannot muster anymore. Trixie, a whore whose heart is not golden, rather fierce and ill-disposed to let her station define her even as it confines her. Joanie Stubbs, Calamity Jane and Alma Garrett who are depressed, but to quote Sufjan Stevens, for good reasons. Seth Bullock whose anger initially seems righteous but burns at a constant temperature regardless of circumstance. EB Farnum and Richardson who play the Shakespearean fools to perfection. And Al Swearengen, who begins the show as its antagonist and becomes its heart in his brutality, his unflinching understanding of his own nature, his grasping at power, his tactical brilliance, his knowledge of his limits, his unexpected occasional softness and his delivery of the most filthy iambic pentameter you’re likely to hear.

There are lines from the show I think of on a near weekly basis. From Swearengen, "Kid yourself about your behavior and you'll never learn a f***ing thing." or “Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair or f***ing beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man… and give some back.” Or EB Farnum, "I begrudge that pervert his capacity for happiness.” Or Cy Tolliver, “Will we next be shocked by rivers runnin' or trees castin' f***in' shade?” Or Francis Wolcott, “I am a sinner who does not expect forgiveness, but I am not a government official.” Or George Hearst,  “When I say, ‘Go f*** yourself, Sheriff,' will you put that down to drunkenness or a high estimate of your athleticism?”

The previous paragraph alone should indicate why I never recommend this without the heaviest of content warnings. But if the poetry of profanity exists, Deadwood is its primer. It was cancelled too soon. The ending of season three was widely seen as disappointing as the show didn’t end on its own terms. But with further thought and multiple viewings I came to love it. In the final episode all the main characters were complicit in a truly heinous act. Swearengen’s delivery of the last line, about a character who was distraught over that act was a perfect summation of the show: “He wants me to show him something pretty.”

All that is to say I went into the decade-late movie capstone with high hopes and a fear they wouldn’t get it right. I needn’t have worried. While a fourth season would have in all probability been more satisfying, I can’t imagine a better two hour wrap-up.

The main arc of season two is the gradual approach of George Hearst, unbridled capitalism incarnate. Circumstances force uneasy alliances between characters who hate each other but who must join forces to fight for their livelihoods. Hearst appears in the final episode of that season. The third and final season was largely taken up with the townspeople trying and failing to oppose him. It culminated in an act of murder to save the life of a beloved character. All of the ostensible good guys were complicit. The thing I most wondered about the season that never happened was how the various characters would deal with that complicity.

The movie picks up on both the fight against Hearst and that complicity, though necessarily in less detail than a season would have provided. Likewise, there was less time spent with each character. The time they did get was well spent. They looked believably 10 years older and their actions were consistent with their past. There were “blink and you miss them” cameos from Garrett Dillahunt and Jim Beavers, whose characters had died previously. The dialog is worthy of the show, even if it's not quite as good. My favorite line is from Doc Cochrane; “All bleeding stops eventually.” All in all it was a worthy sendoff.

The show is definitely in my canon. As a continuation, the movie is in as well, though I’ll need more time before I decide whether merits inclusion in its own right. I suspect it does. I’ve already seen it three times.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

The Peripheral by William Gibson

I started late with William Gibson. The first of his novels I read was Pattern Recognition. The fact that I didn’t have the decades of memories of Neuromancer is probably one reason I think The Peripheral might be his best book (Neuromancer is the only one I’ve read twice, and it, the Blue Ant books, and The Difference Engine are probably next on my list). Another reason might be that Gibson primed me to like this one by describing this as akin to the TV show Justified, but set in the future. That’s not a bad comparison. There’s one character who seems to be modeled on Boyd Crowder. In one of the two future timelines that comprise the novel the characters live in an economically depressed area in southern America and try to scrape by both inside and outside of the law.

The thing that most disposes me to this book, I suspect, is that in that hardscrabble future the characters use makerspaces. I run a makerspace at a library, so this automatically put the book on good footing in my eyes. In the book, the technology, 3D printers and the like are sufficiently advanced that they can make almost any technological object. This includes smartphones that several characters use to play virtual reality games professionally. At the behest of bored rich people. Far from some of the more prominent Twitch users, these folks are barely scraping by. Flynne, one of the two protagonists of the book, uses it to buy her mother’s meds. The tension between wealth and bohemia that runs through all of his work is on full display here. In Gibson’s words “the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

That future is sometime later this century. The other timeline is in the next century, post- an initially unclear apocalypse. In that time reality TV has “merged with politics and then with performance art.” Wilf Netherton is a publicist who is working with Canadian secret service. Figuring out the way in which these two timelines merge is part of the pleasure of the novel, so I won’t say too much. In the beginning, Flynne is operating a drone in that alternate future from her timeline all the while thinking she’s playing a game. She witnesses a murder. Solving that murder, and figuring out how the two fit together provide the forward momentum of the book.

Gibson knits his future with some interesting strands: Speculating out from algorithms that currently used to game the stock market based on the difference of microseconds. People scraping by with what they can fabricate themselves. Eking out survival wages playing virtual reality games. The use of smaller and smaller drones which allow for nearly miraculous feats of engineering. Many parties competing in the market of near ubiquitous surveillance. Body modification/posthuman theory. Much of this will seem familiar to readers of Gibson’s previous work.

In that milieu, Gibson tells a compelling story. It took 70 or 80 pages to establish the the worlds, but once it did the book is hard to put down.  Blurbs are often misleading or an author doing a favor for another. That said, I think that Cory Doctorow nailed it in his when he said it “features all the eyeball kicks of Neuromancer and all the maturity and wit of Spook Country.” It is a great novel.


MILD SPOILER: One of the things I liked best about the book is its refusal to go for simple explanations. In the strand that farther into the future, there was no single event that caused the apocalypse. The Jackpot, as it was called, was the result of many factors, environmental, economic, cultural and political. This is something many apocalyptic books don’t seem to understand.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

May 2019 Book Roundup

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Jill Lepore (first reading) - Canon Worthy (review)

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (yearly reread) - Canon (review)

Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (first reading) - Canon Worthy (review)

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller (first reading) - Canon Worthy (review)

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran (reread) - Canon (review)

The Very Best of Caitlin R. Kiernan (first reading) - Canon Worthy (review)

The Peripheral by William Gibson (first reading) - Canon Worthy (review)

May 2019 Movie Roundup

Meeks Cutoff directed by Kelly Reichardt (first viewing)- Canon worthy (review)

Captain America: Civil War directed by the Russo Brothers (rewatch) - Recommended

Spiderman: Homecoming directed by Jon Watts (rewatch) - Canon Worthy

Avengers Endgame directed by the Russo Brothers (rewatch) - Canon Worthy

Tank Girl directed by Rachel Talalay (first viewing)- Canon Worthy (mini-review)

Old Joy directed by Kelly Reichardt (first viewing) - Canon Worthy (review)

The Matrix directed by the Wachowski Sisters (rewatch) - Canon Worthy

Girl Fight directed by Karyn Kusama (first viewing)- Canon Worthy (mini-review)

Aeon Flux directed by Karyn Kusama (rewatch) - Recommended

Origin Story directed by Kulap Vilaysack (first viewing) - Recommended (review)

Johnny Mnemonic directed by Robert Longo (rewatch) - Canon Worthy (review)

Anthony Jesylnik Fire in the Maternity Ward (first viewing) - Pass

Matt Braunger: Finally Live in Portland (first viewing) - Recommended

John Wick Chapter 3 Parabellum (first viewing) - Recommended

Miller's Crossing directed by the Coen Brothers (rewatch) - Canon (review)

The Lonely Island Presents: The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience directed by Jorma Taccone (first viewing) - Recommended

Sleeping With Other People directed by Leslye Headland (first viewing) - recommended (mini-review)

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide - Canon

Deadwood (movie) - Canon Worthy