Saturday, November 29, 2008


I’m tired of books, but I’ve written about movies here before, so perhaps I should share the pleasant day of solitude I spent in Uptown on Thanksgiving eve, playing amateur film critic-cum-festivalgoer:

Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is a movie whose goal is to prove that its own narrative project is doomed to fail. I don’t know if that makes it a failure or a success, but it is certainly not a triumph. There would be no problem if the movie’s title was accurate, but in fact it is a misnomer. Upon winning a MacArthur Genius Grant, theater director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) designs a play in an abandoned warehouse that eventually comes to represent his entire life and every person in it. His ambitious (to say the least) theater piece is not a synecdoche but an example of the whole standing in for the whole. But art must be a synecdoche; one cannot represent the beauty (or agony) in every human life, but by showing the beauty in the lives of a few, one can show every other human life to be beautiful by analogy. Kaufman certainly understands this, but his movie is plagued by Cotard’s same system of representation in which everything is given equal weight and nothing is put into context. Cotard also realizes his downfall by film’s end, and seems ready to say that he wants to embark on a smaller project, but by then it is too late. His whole life has been consumed by something that was never going to succeed.

I’m perfectly happy to watch Kaufman play all the post-modern games he can devise. They are a bit perfunctory here, but probably enough to carry the movie if they were built upon something real and solid. Hoffman’s romance with Samantha Morton should be that real thing, and the suicide of one of his actors should be the point at which we realize that there are human beings underneath these kaleidoscopic identities. But both are as disassociated from reality as everything else in the movie. It requires a soliloquizing preacher to explain the tragedy: sad people hurtling toward the grave. There’s no authentic human drama in the movie to support this (quite affecting) speech. The end result is Adaptation with the life drained out of it, or Being John Malkovich with no surprises, an intentionally unpleasant movie that made me want to take better care of my body. Hoffman’s performance could stand to be less solemn, but then so could the movie. How about a laugh-out-loud comedy? It might have been doable (it’s a very funny movie at times). The whole thing needs a reworking, so Hoffman’s work is the best it can be under the circumstances. Tropic Thunder is the infinitely superior meta-actor comedy of recent months.

Not fifteen minutes after downing Kaufman’s acid, I walked into Milk, which proved to be the perfect remedy: my favorite movie this year, and the best biopic I’ve ever seen. It avoids the pitfalls of the genre precisely because it is a synecdoche: the man standing in for the movement. This is a human rights movie, dressed up in a number of satisfying ways: document of a scene, (dude-heavy) ensemble piece, history lesson, political expose. It’s a joyous experience, and only Gus Van Sant could have made it so (though Oliver Stone, who was originally attached to direct, would have known how to keep it from being overly solemn). Some have complained it does not evoke the same poetry as his most recent films. It is a poetic film, because it is so loving, but Harvey Milk was not a poetic person, so the detached, lyrical style of Paranoid Park or Last Days would have been a fatal flaw. Milk is an extrovert, so the film must reveal its intentions in every frame, as it does. I hesitate to look on Van Sant’s last four (fantastic) films as practice for this more conventional narrative, but he has at least learned when to use following shots. There are three here that come to mind: one is terrifying, one is beautiful, one is inscrutable. I’m in awe of his craft, but also of the fact that there are so many good actors in America.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Richard Van Nice

Sis sent me this article from today's edition of the Helena Independent Record. It's about one of my favorite places in Helena and the great guy who owns it. The article is surprisingly well done, and it doesn't lie: he really has read everything.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Never Hear The End Of It

It's been a long time. Currently:

The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts : I should add “by Henry Louis Gates,” as everyone in class is in a tizzy over whether his involvement with the publication of this recently discovered manuscript borders on the unethical. The narrative itself is a fine Gothic, with well-developed fictional devices and shades of House of the Seven Gables and its dead men’s curses (and apparently eerily similar to Bleak House at times), not nearly as inadequate as the unknown Hannah Crafts lets on.

Fire This Time: The Watts Uprising and the 1960s by Gerald Horne :
Horne has a peculiar writing style. I can tell he’s a true scholar because there is often no logical flow between sentences. He is also not afraid to reference Raymond Chandler, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, etc. when it suits him, but that is indicative of the ambitious and thoroughly contextualizing project of this book.

The Garies and Their Friends
by Frank Webb :
Here’s another antebellum African American novel that is very much beholden to Dickens—though I guess I’m inclined to find his influence in any work with a multitude of characters. The book’s politics are fairly ambiguous, though I think there’s a biting irony in its adjectives, its “Brutus is an honorable man” rhetoric. Unrespectable “respectable individuals” abound. One of my favorite moments of overstatement: a buffoonish cook described as the “reigning sovereign of the culinary kingdom.” And her poor ravaged cat!

Berlin: City of Smoke by Jason Lutes : Book Two! I’m really invested in this now. The first issue in this volume ends with four pages of a band in a Berlin nightclub. The panels are wordless and show the musicians in poses of performance. I suppose Lutes is trying to capture music in comic book form, and the attempt is interesting if somewhat baffling (am I supposed to recognize the melody?). The reactions of the audience are likewise difficult to read. But it is no surprise that Lutes is infinitely smarter than me.

Other recent reads:

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
by Hunter S. Thompson :
I was resentful of having to read this book, as it is such a high school cliché, but I’m not surprised that it is very entertaining. The book is littered with passé 60s drug culture lingo, but Thompson is a fine writer and has a strong sense of morality. It’s in his paranoia. And who ever goes east in American literature?

Our Nig by Harriet Wilson : Also “discovered” by Henry Louis Gates, another gift from him to African American lit Ph.D. students. Finds like this are what make the field so fashionable today, but that fact also makes it difficult to judge their literary qualities removed from their historical importance (and the authors are always so elusive). Is this entertaining? It is, and brutal, and vengeful, and well-told, with an evil villain.

The Coast of Chicago
is poetic prose (not prose poems) for the unpoetry crowd. “Pet Milk” is in my mind one of the weaker stories, though I do like the sense at the end that someone exists today who is you when you were younger. There’s a piece about an abstract movie that is intensely visual in a way that a movie can’t be. My favorite stories here are the ones that focus on wayward formative years in blighted Chicago, which Dybek clearly lived. He’s a masterful writer, though this collection isn’t united enough to stand alongside Winesburg, I guess because Chicago is not a small town. Still...fantastic stuff.

Other good things of late:

Rachel Getting Married
Secrets and Lies
The West Wing
Crystal Stilts
Julie Ocean
Seventeen Seconds
Barack Obama
Grain Belt