Tag Archives: film

Books Acquired Recently

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 1968. New York: Del Rey, 2017.

I have been wanting to read this book for a while. The only Dick I’ve read previously is The Man in the High Castle, which I love, so I’ve been meaning to explore more of his work. Today while I was grocery shopping I happened to be in the aisle where they have a book rack and I thought it would be interesting to see what kind of literature is currently viewed as popular enough to be worth stocking in such a venue. I was not expecting to find anything of interest, but there were two copies of the Blade Runner 2049 tie-in mass market paperback of Dick’s novel. The actual book title is in small print at the top of the cover, and “Blade Runner” is written in large red letters in the middle of the cover and on the spine, which also has the actual title in very small letters. So the book is a fascinating piece of marketing as well as, presumably, literature.

Wiebe, Rudy. Where the Truth Lies: Selected Essays. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2016.

Although this book came out last year, I did not hear about it until Paul Tiessen mentioned it last weekend in his presentation at the Mennonite/s Writing VIII conference. I ordered it immediately and it came in the mail today. It spans his entire career, so should be a rich reading experience.

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Books Acquired Recently

Adler, Renata. Speedboat. 1976. New York: New York Review, 2013.

Fox, Paula. Desperate Characters. 1970. New York: Norton, 1999.

I was recently reading The David Foster Wallace Reader, which includes a few syllabi from Wallace’s creative writing and literature courses. The syllabi are the best written, most thought-provoking ones I have ever encountered, and it is inspiring to see how Wallace took even this most mundane of genres seriously as a writing task. The syllabus for his contemporary American fiction course included several texts that I have not read before, including Adler’s and Fox’s, which I bought right away because if Wallace thinks they are important, they are.

Human, Charlie. Apocalypse Now Now. London: Titan, 2015.

A few weeks ago a colleague and I were discussing how Apocalypse Now constantly gets referenced in pop culture, and she mentioned this South African novel as an example. Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite films, so I decided to buy Human’s book to see what he does with it. It’s fascinating to have an African text dialogue with the film because the film itself is a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

These three texts were purchased from amazon.com’s network of independent sellers.

Swartley, André. Leon Martin and the Fantasy Girl. Newton: Workplay, 2014.

Swartley and I were in college together and we recently reconnected at a conference. He sent me a review copy of this novel, the sequel of which will be coming out this fall. Up until recently examples of U.S. Mennonite fiction were few and far between, but happily the field has been flowering as of late, and it is exciting to have Swartley play a role in this resurgence.

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I decided to see the movie Lucy today because the commercials I’d seen for it made it look like it would raise some interesting philosophical questions about what it means to be human rather than simply being a stereotypical action film, and I was not disappointed. I enjoyed it thoroughly; it was one of those rare art pieces that helps me touch the sublime. My mind is still buzzing from it.

I won’t go into too much detail about the film here because I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say that the major reason I liked it was because it dealt rather explicitly with two of my favorite theories: Walt Whitman’s idea that everything is connected and thus life is in a sense eternal (though not in a religious way) and Donna Haraway’s idea of humans as cyborgs, beings that extend beyond the boundaries of their physical bodies to encompass other elements of the world. At one point Lucy says “we never really die,” and this idea is never explained clearly within the context of the movie itself (I fear that most viewers will miss its significance), but in light of Whitman’s constant assertions throughout “Song of Myself” that we continue to exist after our bodies die in the natural world, the statement makes perfect sense. At the end of the film a character asks of Lucy “where is she?,” and she, for lack of a better term, texts “I am everywhere,” just as the 1855 version of “Song of Myself” ends “I stop some where waiting for you.” Likewise, the film explores Whitman’s idea of universal divinity as Lucy becomes a kind of secular Christ figure, connecting humanity back to the Big Bang and reconnecting with the first human, “Lucy” (for whom the title character is, of course, named), reminding us that we are all interconnected.

Similarly, with regard to Haraway’s idea of what it means to be “post-human,” Lucy literally becomes a cyborg in the RoboCop sense of the word, melding with a super computer before her ultimate meld with the universe. This post-humanness is the saddest part of the film, and is acknowledged by Lucy as such, because even though she breaks the restrictive bonds of what it is to be human, in doing so she loses her humanity, her selfhood, and is not given a choice in the matter. She is impregnated with her powers in a way reminiscent of the virgin Mary (i.e., it is not literal rape, but it is very close, and yes, Lucy is both a Jesus figure and a Marian one, but the film manages this double symbolism quite nicely), forced to do her best with her lot. Scarlett Johansson does an excellent job portraying Lucy’s other-than-humanness in heart-breaking, compelling fashion. By the end of the film, her character makes the viewer uncomfortable because as a post-human she has become objectified, and this objectification verges on exploitation, but at the same time Lucy recognizes her objectification and uses it for the good of humanity, so maybe it is okay. I’m still trying to process it. But that is a good thing because the best art refuses to offer easy answers, and this is why Lucy succeeds.


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Thoughts on Bill Hader Leaving Saturday Night Live and Endings in General

Bill Hader announced this week that he is leaving Saturday Night Live at the end of this season. While I got into SNL at the tail end of the Will Ferrell/Chris Parnell/Tracy Morgan-into-the-Tina Fey/Amy Poehler/Maya Rudolph days, Hader’s generation (Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig, Kenan Thompson, with Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen having been there a bit longer) was the one that I connected with the most as a fan, and now that most of it is gone, I feel a keen sense of loss that isn’t just tied to the show, but is also tied to the forthcoming transition in my own life into a tenure-track (and thus explicitly long-term) position. It is like the fun times are over and it’s time to go into a settled, middle-aged life of bourgeois despair. I haven’t watched the show regularly this season after the first few weeks because the new cast members just didn’t have enough verve to fill the gap left by Wiig’s and Samberg’s departures at the end of last season, and now that Hader is leaving my guess is that I’ll watch it even less. There’s still a lot of talent on the show, and the new cast members have certainly been getting better, but somehow it no longer feels like it’s mine. Endings are always also beginnings (and it feels like there have been a lot of these that I care about lately, most notably the retirements of Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul Scholes), and I feel like I should be excited for mine as one would think Hader is excited for his (he’ll have more time to work on his thus far promising film career), but it just makes me feel old.

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The Great Gatsby

I saw The Great Gatsby this evening–the first film I’ve seen on its opening night since The Return of the King, which shows how eager I was for it–and I was quite satisfied with it, 7.5/10. It is mostly true to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterful novel (much more so than many film adaptations of books), well-acted aside from Tom Buchanan’s ridiculous mustache, and visually pleasing. Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of Daisy is riveting. It is immediately clear why multiple men would fall in love with her. The same is true of Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Gatsby, which is helped in part by some luscious suits (I was covetous of nearly all of the clothing in the film; the green cardigan that Nick wears when he has Daisy and Gatsby over for tea is to die for). The soundtrack is spot-on: muted when it needs to be and at the forefront when it is appropriate. I especially appreciate the film’s use of “Rhapsody in Blue,” a quiet homage to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. The novel’s geographical setting is more important than many readers acknowledge, and the film does not make this mistake.

The film has two major flaws, both having to do with infidelities to the novel. The first is that the first half hour of the film uses a jumpy, fast-forward style which ends up muting the few snippets of dialogue that actually occur. It has the feel of someone fast-forwarding through the dialogue in a porn film to get to the sex scenes, which is a problem because when I am watching a film I actually want to watch the film, not just segments of it. As a result of this style, the pace of the first half of the film is very uneven, whereas the novel’s pace is smooth throughout–it builds tension through its language and its characters, not via cheap tricks. This aspect of the film is just Baz Luhrmann being Baz Luhrmann, but it doesn’t work as well here as it does in, say, Moulin Rouge. He could have achieved the same decadent effect with half of the amount of frenzied bits.

The second flaw is that Gatsby tells Tom that he and Daisy know each other. The two men are thus set up as rivals for the second half of the film to build dramatic effect, whereas in the novel Tom does not realize that Gatsby is a rival for Daisy until toward the end. This choice to make the competition overt for both men in the film destroys the book’s beautiful subtle tension and has the effect of making Tom a somewhat sympathetic character, which he isn’t ever in Fitzgerald’s version (nor should he be–he’s a woman-beating racist). Neither man is good for Daisy, but Gatsby is certainly better for her than Tom, and the film muddies this distinction. I understand that cinematic narratives require different moves than verbal ones, and both of these flaws stem from that difference, but if any film could do away with the necessity of narrative sign-posting it would be The Great Gatsby because probably eighty percent of its viewers in the United States will have read the book in school (it was assigned to me in high school, college, and graduate school, and with good reason!), and thus have some familiarity with the story and don’t need as much hand-holding as the film forces upon us.

Nevertheless, the film is worth seeing. I forgot how depressing the book’s ending is, how hopeless despite all of Nick’s admiration for Gatsby’s hopefulness, and the film does a lovely job of capturing this empty feeling. I love the novel because it always moves me, and the film did, too, which is the best recommendation I can give.

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Thinking About Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry

I am hoping to visit New York City sometime this summer, and go to a Mets game. Last night I dreamt that I bought tickets to this game, and that Dwight Gooden would be pitching. I thought to myself, “How impressive that Gooden pitched the first game I ever attended, and he’ll be pitching this one, too. That’s a pretty good career.”

Gooden is long retired, but two of the three parts of that dream statement are true. Gooden pitched the first Mets game I ever attended, a win against Atlanta in 1985 (an account of this game can be found in Davey Johnson and Peter Golenbock’s book Bats [New York: Putnam, 1986] on page 210). Although I was unaware at the time of the amazing season Gooden was having (I was only five, so didn’t really understand the concept of statistics; Gooden went 24-4 that year with a 1.53 ERA and won the Cy Young Award), I already knew his name, and I love being able to say that I saw him in person during one of the best seasons any pitcher has ever had. The first Atlanta batter singled, but that was about it. The Mets won 16-4, and Darryl Strawberry (whose name I also knew) hit a grand slam. Also, the lady sitting next to me in the stands gave me some cookies (the weird thin wafer sandwich kind with vanilla creme layers, which were my favorite at the time), and my father bought me a pennant and a set of Mets wristbands, one of which I had to give to my sister when we got home.

People, myself included, tend to forget that Gooden had a good career because after the successes of his first few seasons he was supposed to have a great career. This potential was destroyed by drug abuse and its consequent legal problems. But he went 194-112 with a 3.51 ERA over sixteen seasons–with a winning record in all but four of them–and was an All-Star four times. That is nothing to sneeze at. The same (all of it, alas) can be said for Strawberry’s career, in which he hit 335 homeruns over seventeen seasons with eight straight All-Star selections from 1984-1991.

I admit that when I think of both of these men I think about their disappointments first. Together, they were the Mets version of Anakin Skywalker: the chosen ones who failed to fulfill that role, falling victim to the Dark Side instead. But this attitude isn’t quite fair to them. Aside from their individual accomplishments, they played central roles on the 1986 championship team and 1988 division winners, when Strawberry should have been voted Most Valuable Player (though again, my first 1988-related thought of Gooden is about his failure to close game four of the NLCS, even though that was just as much Johnson’s fault for not taking him out as Gooden’s). They both seem to have found some peace in their turbulent personal lives, and it is time for us as fans to come to peace with their impressive careers as well.

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Zadie Smith on Music and Obsession

Zadie Smith has an article in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Yorker about her journey to appreciating Joni Mitchell’s work in which she also offers some thoughts on being a connoisseur of various art forms. Smith writes that she distrusts those who claim to be true connoisseurs of more than one form, noting that the novel is her obsession and that she can’t imagine having an equal affinity for another genre even though she enjoys music. She offers her ignorance of Mitchell’s oeuvre as an example of how devotion to one form results in what may seem to be embarrassing blind spots in one’s knowledge of another.

This article resonated with me because I have had a similar relationship with literature and music. Books are my obsession, but another smaller obsession is my fascination with people who have obsessions about something, especially music. I have always been a little jealous of them. Smith describes coming across a Talking Heads album in a record store and being “gripped by melancholy, similar perhaps to the feeling a certain kind of man gets while sitting with his wife on a train platform as a beautiful girl–different in all aspects from his wife–walks by. There goes my other life” (33, Smith’s italics). This passage expresses my feelings about music perfectly. One of my favorite fictional/movie characters is Rob from High Fidelity because of how obsessed he is with both music itself and its physical manifestation in records (though unlike Rob, who owns a record store, I could never run a bookstore because getting rid of the books would be too painful even though they would only nominally be “mine”).  I enjoy music, but I rarely listen to it because I have little time to do so. I am unable to listen to it while multitasking except for when I wash dishes or, sometimes, cook, and the vast majority of my free time is spent reading.

My version of Smith’s ignorance of Mitchell (whom I, too, have little experience with, though I like the work of hers that I’ve heard, and have had “River” [the title of which, I admit, I had to look up online] in my head for the past few days) is my lack of interest in Prince. I know everyone thinks he is great, and I have tried to listen to his music, but it just doesn’t click for me. I suppose this would be an argument against the idea that there is a universal standard of aesthetic quality.

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Alfred Slote’s Jake

There’s a new short film on grantland.com by Jonathan Hock about Alfred Slote’s children’s novel Jake, with a great introduction by Bill Simmons here. Like Simmons, I read Jake and one of Slote’s other novels, Hang Tough, Paul Mather, over and over as a boy. They were perfect because they used baseball, something which I and many other American boys were passionate about, as a channel through which to teach us about the difficulties of life. I picked up the books because they were baseball books, but, in hindsight, I kept going back to them because they taught me about compassion. Apparently they are now out of print, which is a tragedy. They are timeless.

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master

I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master last night, and while I’m still processing it, here are a few initial observations and reactions:

It is not as good as Boogie Nights, which has the memorable characters of The Master while also having a more engaging plot, but there is more nudity.

It might be as good as Magnolia, and is definitely better than Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood.

Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams all give outstanding performances. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a physical performance better than Phoenix’s in that his character is always a searing presence on the screen, and how his body (and especially his face) moves is more memorable and important than what he says. It is rare for me to feel that Hoffman gets overshadowed because he is my favorite actor, but in this film, he does. With that said, if Hoffman ever starts a cult, I will be powerless to resist joining. I used to think of Adams as Jim’s annoying girlfriend on the first season of The Office, but now I will think of her performance here.  The quiet violence of her character (which erupts most memorably in a scene where she gives Hoffman a handjob after warning him never to let her find out that he is having sex with other women) is a nice contrast to the bravado of the men’s. The three performances are so good that they almost act as a detriment to the film itself, as the whole gets overshadowed by its parts.

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UHF and the Loss of Cultural Memory

Last night for some reason I was thinking about Weird Al Yankovic’s 1989 film UHF (the film’s imdb.com page is here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098546/). It occurred to me that this film would completely baffle my students because they would have no idea what a UHF dial is, having grown up solely with remote-control televisions and cable (my college’s economic demographics are such that it is fair to assume that virtually all of my American students’ families could afford cable). The UHF dial was quickly becoming a thing of the past when the film was released; it is an ode to a dying cultural artifact. Now the film functions as a piece of historical documentation as well as entertainment.

On one hand, the idea that the UHF dial will be completely forgotten once my generation is dead seems insignificant. The variety of programming available on the UHF frequency is multiplied on cable (the film’s eponymous theme song’s assertion that “You can watch us all day, you can watch us all night, you can watch us any time that you please. You can sit around and stare at the picture tube ’til your brain turns into cottage cheese” is more true than ever), and the convenience of remote controls is wonderful. It is also quite possible that by the time I die televisions themselves will be a thing of the past because we will get all of our visual entertainment through computers. The technological progress since UHF‘s release is a good thing.

But on the other hand, the loss of any human knowledge should be mourned. (Nicholson Baker’s excellent novel The Mezzanine articulates this idea much more poignantly than I do here.) Our lives are enriched by understanding how far we’ve come, and when knowledge of the past disappears we are all poorer for it. It is especially scary when one realizes how quickly this knowledge can disappear. If we are not careful, it does so without any conversation, without any acknowledgment that it is occurring. We lose it before we realize it. I know about UHF dials, but it is not like I discuss them with others, so in a sense this knowledge was already dead because I was keeping it boxed up, but I am trying to resurrect it via this post.

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