Wednesday, September 23, 2009



Spin by Robert Charles Wilson : I can’t tell yet if this belongs next to Atonement or Ender’s Game on my bookshelf. It’s a science fiction novel, and its central trio of characters, twin geniuses and the boy who adores them, is certainly snatched from the latter. But Wilson writes characters and dialogue better than any SF writer I can think of, and the book, while hard SF to the core, has literary ambitions and would hold up even in the absence of the author’s technical knowledge.

Three great things about Sir Marlon James’ The Book of Night Women :
—The way the theme of dreaming (for whiteness, for love) is handled makes me think that the author could write a great novel of teenage longing, even past the point that Lilith is told that dreaming is only for white people.
—Some of my favorite books are best appreciated as paths between intermittent great turns of phrase, and Night Women works on that level: the image of “uncanny fruit” is such a blatant anachronistic reference that it can’t help but laugh at, even as it loves, its own context; the slaves with “body twist into question mark like what Massa Humphrey write” is a line so great and theoretically overloaded that it will have to dominate conversation when this book is taught in literature classes.
—The ending is extraordinary any way you look at it, but knowing a little bit about the author’s writing process for this book also makes it quite funny: the narrator tells us this is “not the story me did plan to tell” (that’s true, from what I’ve been told); the last two lines in the book illuminate the editing process in a very clever way.

I’ve reacquainted myself with the comics section at the Lewis and Clark Public Library in Helena, which has (inexplicably) the best comic book selection of any library I’ve ever been to. More about what I found, next time…


The Informant! (2009) has an amusing voice-over narration that I initially took to be a critique of the amount of time that is wasted in an average movie. It takes so long for a character to cross a room, why not use that time to find out what he thinks about swimming pools! The narration serves a greater purpose later on, when the movie goes a lot further than you expect it to, and becomes a participant in what might be the greatest trend in storytelling this century, the subtle depiction of mental illness. Though not too subtle, as this is still a comedy.

Sugar (2009) is a wonderful movie that seemed to me to be a couple different types of stories seamlessly blended into one. I was more interested in the archetypal first half, and thought about how useful movies can be for showing the seemingly chosen paths of life. There are men in the Dominican Republic who end up in major league baseball; the path from one to the other is predetermined, and hardly requires a real character to dramatize it. The pitcher named Sugar is a real character, but at the outset he exists in a world where a few words of encouragement from a fellow player can turn everything around. The movie doesn’t indulge in false scenes of poverty and adversity, and that’s refreshing while it lasts. When the movie becomes a bit tougher, it still doesn’t lose its good cheer, and Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson) have a natural sense of filmmaking that holds everything together.

Twilight (2008) is pretty much dreadful, though it does have a very nice color scheme at times, and I can even imagine a great movie taking place in the Twilight universe, maybe with the same characters. If the filmmakers had scrapped every remnant of Stephenie Meyer’s horrible writing and realized that what she unwittingly does in her series is update 19th century British literature and 1980s British post-punk for today’s lovelorn teens, they might have been on to something. It would be refreshing to see a teen movie set in rainy, leafy and freshly framed tableaux, with a uniformly sad and pale cast, and twinkling guitar and synth washes heard on the soundtrack. Twilight has all these things, but they do nothing to affect its quality, since it is perplexingly bad in every way.

The esteemed David Bordwell has some wonderful things to say about Inglourious Basterds:

There is cinema that asks you to empathize with its characters. Then there is cinema that aims to thrill you with a cascade of vivid moments. There is How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Citizen Kane (1941). I think that Tarantino’s films mostly tilt to the vivid-moment pole, seeking to win us through their immediate verve, the way film noir and the musical and the action movie often do. The young man arrested by great bits from blaxploitation and biker movies sees cinema not as merely piling up cinephiliac references—though that’s surely part of it—but as a flow of tingle-inducing gestures, turns of phrase, shot changes, musical entrances. There can be pure pleasure in having time to see how actors move, or savor their lines, or simply fill up physical space by being centered in the anamorphic frame. Our fascination with Landa comes, I suspect, from the spectacle of a man who is utterly enjoying himself every second.


So I’m not convinced that
Inglourious Basterds lacks emotion. The emotions Tarantino aims for will arise not from character “identification” but from the overall structure and texture of the work. We are to be stirred, enraptured, astonished by a procession of splendors big and small. It’s the tradition (again) of Eisenstein, particularly in the Ivan films, but also of Leone and, in another register, Greenaway. Formal virtuosity isn’t necessarily soulless; it can yield aesthetic rapture.

I meant to say something similar when I called the movie “self-contained” and “free of context,” and the idea of this type of filmmaking (composed of what Jim Emerson calls “movie-movie moments”) has influenced my thoughts about everything I’ve seen in the days since.

One of my new favorite movies is Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and it’s an audacious experiment but also a great entertainment if you can appreciate it as a movie-movie, a collection of gestures, framings, etc. I liked it on that level, and also for the amount of time it allowed me to uncover meaning in the gestures. The film follows a widowed mother as she performs her daily tasks. It would be needless to say more; just know this: you will watch her wash every one of those dishes. It’s hardly empty time though. I found myself often wondering: Who is she doing this for? Is she taking pleasure in this moment?

It’s astonishing the way the movie took over my mind. It establishes a routine, and the variety possible within the routine (when supremely controlled Jeanne drops a napkin by accident, I felt it must have been planned by the filmmakers). Change creeps in. The ending is a shock, and perhaps too unsubtle, even if filmed in a way that doesn’t strain the formality of the preceding hours. I was more interested in the moment when she throws out a cup of coffee, then makes a new pot and throws that out too. She’s never had good coffee! She’s not taking pleasure in anything! There’s much more that happens, and three-a-half-hours in which to discover that anything is happening at all. It’s in a way the most interior movie I’ve seen, even though all the formal choices keep us far way from Jeanne’s mind. How many movies give you time to ponder the things that happen in them? Give me a book!

I don’t want to knock the nifty plot of Eyes Without A Face (1960), but I can’t understand why it doesn’t spend more time pondering the mask that hides a disfigured face, and the eyes that peer through. There’s a whole lot of aesthetic rapture to be had in that image, and such unbearable longing in those eyes, but the movie doesn’t quite take advantage.

I initially understood The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966) to be a collection of ravishing gestures, but maybe just because I didn’t want to be bothered with a history lesson. You don’t have to know French history to appreciate the movement of the actors in relationship to one another, but it helps. Still, the best moments are those of silence and suspended action, the sniffing of the Cardinal’s stool, the painterly compositions of characters learning the news of his death. These moments bring us closer to the human experience, and a world where people care dearly about their fellow creatures.


Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs : Can I just say, “This is Yo La Tengo, so this is good”? But it’s worth noting that this is a considerably more insular album than their last one (even if the two tracks leaked before its release, “Here to Fall” and “Periodically Double or Triple,” suggested another set of genre-trotting muscle-flexing). Well, I’m glad no one has been taking issue with the band’s latest retreat. The album’s quietude means that Georgia Hubley is its star. Tracks two through four are standouts, although on closer listen, I can’t be sure that Ira Kaplan doesn’t sing “Avalon or Someone Very Similar.” The couple’s voices have taken on a lot of the same qualities over the years, so when they sing in each other’s registers, who can say who’s who? “Nothing to Hide” is a great addition to YLT’s fuzz pop canon, and indicates that the band’s ambitions will remain modest and never exceed good taste. All you need to create a great slab of musical art is a lover and a record collection.

I’ve been listening to a smattering of new singles from Slumberland Records, and taken together they would be the album of the year. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is the label’s current flagship band (like Crystal Stilts last year and The Aislers Set earlier in the decade), and rightly so, but a lot of these new songs by virtually unknown bands seem to promise impossibly better debut albums. Devon Williams, hopeless romantic and cassette enthusiast, plays synth-infused lovelorn pop in the Jeremy Jay vein, and “Who Cares About Forever” equals instant heartache. The Faintest Ideas are pure frantic pop bliss. George Washington Brown are a Lo-Fi 2.0 band, but come a lot closer to Bee Thousand, as if by accident, than any other band has even attempted in recent years. The other bands are Brown Recluse, The Champagne Socialists, Liechtenstein, The School, and Sic Alps.

I had to leave my 60-disc CD player in St. Paul. I never found an album that sounded better from its speakers than OMD’s Dazzle Ships; it would seem a lot of care went into the 2008 remaster. Now I’m back home and have my daunting CD collection all in one place for the first time in years. Since my collection is due to expire in the coming weeks, I was thinking of listening from A to Z, revisiting lost treasures, and recording my thoughts about this noble era that has come to an end.

1 comment:

aaron said...

Agreed about "Sugar", which I just watched. I think blogging your entire CD collection is a great idea, but then I think that guy who is tweeting 1000 album reviews in 2009 is on to something great. The Beatles post seems like a good idea from any perspective.