Dec 302016
 

I don’t know what I would have thought about this movie if I had seen it when it came out. I disliked Tom Hanks in it enough to find him distracting, and the first hour or so of the story’s jumping was incredibly frustrating to follow, not least because I couldn’t understand half of what was said in the 19th and 24th century sections.

And yet, as the first hour drew to a close, things began to fall into a rhythm, and I was hooked by the play between the stories and by Bae Doona’s and Ben Whishaw’s performances. I was also quite moved by the voiceover discussing the conventionality of our world. (I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if the speech was lifted from it.)

In actual fact I’ve seen the movie not when if first came out but months after watching Sense8, and as a result, everything about my experience of the movie stands in relation to this more recent show. Viewed in this light, Cloud Atlas feels like a test to me. Everything it attempts is worked out with more space, more detail, and greater success in Sens8. More importantly though, I can’t shake the feeling that the television series pursues a more fundamental formal experiment than the film does.

In the film, the different stories are connected genealogically as part of a larger narrative but remain distinct one from the other, like beads lined up on a string. The film’s experiment is to present these stories simultaneously as a collage rather than as a sequence. At the most basic level, this allows the climactic events in each of the stories to be presented together as the climax of the film. More ambitiously, this narrative collage encourages us to read the events in one story as relating to or informing events in another. To the extent that something like a karmic notion of cause and effect is in play (it is), the resonances created across stories are clearly thematic.

Yet, if I’m ruthless in looking at the movie, all of its narrative fireworks boil down to the fragmentation, intermixing and then juggling of multiple stories. Everything is taken to an extreme, yes, and the technical challenges involved are enormous and perhaps unprecedented in their scale. But the basic project is recognizable, even if it is virtuoso work. (To be clear: I love virtuoso work.)

It seems to me that Sens8 does something much more radical than the film. As I explained in an earlier post, the series uses classical Hollywood techniques (cross-cutting, etc.) to imagine and then to represent an entirely new mental landscape and an entirely new conception of character. The fact that that landscape and that conception of character have a stoner-esque “We are all connected” quality to them is less significant than the fact that they manifest without digital tricks. They’re the product of montage, the most fundamental process of cinema. The austere simplicity of this return to so basic a device is beautiful in its own right, but when set against the power of the effect it produces, the brilliance of what the Wachoski’s are doing shines.

Cloud Atlas is impressive, but Sense8 feels powerful and large. Here’s hoping Netflix sees the show through to its full five seasons.

 December 30, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Dec 302016
 

This is the second in Edmund White’s series of quasi-autobiographical novels and like the first, it follows a precocious and uncannily mature youth as he grows into adulthood.

Two threads of story stood out for me as I read. The first is the portrait of a youth as a budding artist. The youth knows he is a writer, an author. What he doesn’t yet know is what to do in order to author a story. He writes endlessly night after night, but he can’t figure out how to make something of it.

The second thread is a tale of sexual discovery. In it the youth has no idea who he is. What he knows is where to find men to have sex with. He trolls toilets endlessly, yet he is in turmoil because, although he recognizes a kinship with the men he meets, he doesn’t recognize himself in what he sees and defines himself against them. This leaves him incredibly alone.

These two threads of story mirror each other. In the first, the youth knows who he wishes to be but he isn’t sure what to do or how to act. In the second, he knows what do to, has the confidence to act, but suffers wondering what kind of person he is.

These two threads come together in the final pages of the book when the youth, now living in New York and playing out his efforts at sexual and artistic self-discovery in apartments in Greenwich Village and on the beaches of Fire Island, finds himself caught up in the Stonewall riots. These are iconic and historic events: in those nights of protest, a public queer community emerges onto the streets.

In the novel’s account of the riots the youth’s long search for voice and identity transforms into something transcendent. Without losing any of it’s specificity, the youth’s struggles take on the sheen of allegory. His discovery of public voice tracks the community’s, and the community’s, his.

 December 30, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 262016
 

George Michael has died.

He is the first man I ever saw wearing earrings, which mattered to me enormously as a young boy going to school in the Deep South.

I could link to any number of songs that I know by heart and that were important to me for all kinds of reasons that would seem odd or incidental to others.

The song I have in my head today is “Praying for Time.”

 December 26, 2016  Moments Tagged with:
Dec 232016
 

To the extent this movie is a TV episode blown up to two hours and with better effects, it’s a return to the pre-Abrams form. But in every other way, this movie is a repudiation of the values and sensibilities that in the earlier incarnations of Star Trek made me want to be a better person when I watched it.

What Abrams created and Justin Lin builds upon is a Bizzaro-Federation that I wouldn’t want to live in and leaves me nothing to aspire to. Call me a fuddy-duddy but I miss the calm good faith of Roddenberry’s utopia.

 December 23, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 232016
 

I’ve used Suffusion as the theme for this blog from the beginning. It was always a bit overkill—you can tweak anything and everything—but it let me make my blog personal and I stuck with it.

For the past few months, I’ve been forced to live in iOS. Suffusion can handle that no problem, but the mental shift has been a bit of a challenge for me. Drastic change that throws everything up in the air will help.

So I’ve installed a new theme. It’s simple and clean, but nothing worth tweaking is tweakable. That’s odd—I like to tinker—but it also feels a bit like clearing the pipes. Which is always a good thing, even if, in the end, the change turns out to be temporary.

 December 23, 2016  Moments Tagged with:
Dec 222016
 

This adaptation of the first half of Leviathan Wakes is an odd combination of imagination and shyness. It leaps forward, building the world in detail but pulls back from the narrative, hitting the main events while fiddling with the character relationships that wove them into a story in the book.

Nothing here is great, but nothing’s a failure either. Instead, everything feels provisional, like a long test run made before the decision to commit. I like the choice of actors for Holden and Avasarala, and think Miller has the most unexpected and effective haircut I’ve seen in a while. Surprisingly, that’s enough to have my hopes up for season two.

 December 22, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: ,
Dec 222016
 

I have a complicated history with this show. I over-invest in the best parts, and gripe about the rest.

The best parts are easily identified: anything centering on the gloriously bitchy Pam or on Eric or on Lafayette (*snap*) or on Jessica (“I’m a virgin again!”) qualifies. These characters represent (or in some cases aspire to) a sophisticated and fashionable cosmopolitan ideal that I love.

Across the seven seasons of the show, this ideal has survived in a narrative space nestled between two other strata of society. Above the cosmopolitan, sits the soulless bureaucratic, commercial and political interests of the Vampire Authority, the Fellowship of the Sun and the various Senators and Governors that come and go. These interests operate like weather. They set conditions the cosmopolitan characters work around and cope with. Occasionally they kick up a storm and do damage. The cosmopolitans can’t escape this strata but keep their heads down and try as much as they can to do their own thing and to stay out of sight.

Beneath the cosmopolitan ideal are the provincials. They’re Bon Temps and they know little about the world. They mistake folksy common sense for wisdom and often wind up tolerating the inevitable ugliness of ignorance.

A folksy character like Sookie is, at her best, open-minded and full of unspoiled life. At her worst, she is just the small-town outsider’s version of open-minded and acts like a square and a scold. The show, which is deeply Rosseauian in its approach to noble Bon Temps (a stance that comes from the source novels) usually doesn’t distinguish between these two ways of being and treats them both as “spunky.” This is deeply annoying. 1

The provincial is not simply a function of place though. Bill is, to my mind, the worst of the rubes and nearly unbearable to watch. He’s seen the world, and yet he rejects it, choosing instead to embrace folksy values (from a previous century) and weds them to extensive political ambitions. Worse he speaks continually about love. He’s awful.

The cosmopolitans are nothing like Bill. They know how to live (even those who are dead) and aren’t fooled by the folk or sucked in by the organizational tools. They are fabulous.

 

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m rooting for Sookie, Jason, Sam, Tara and the rest of the gang. And I adore Arlene. But face it: she lives in a small world, and she and her friends are all convinced that remaining small is a kind of victory.

In my True Blood, a series that exists only in my head, events take place in the bigger world we’d find if we followed Jessica after she got over Hoyt and left Louisiana or if we visited Pam and Erik in their new digs in Tokyo or maybe Hong Kong.

In that world, I am Ginger.2

 

 December 22, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 202016
 

I’m not a fan of teen or young adult fiction. I’ve got nothing against it, but it has never been my thing. So imagine my surprise when MTV’s Teen Wolf shut down my life with a bout of binge watching that spanned three seasons and lasted the better part of a week. How could this happen?

Well, what I discovered after watching the first episode is that Teen Wolf is the gayest straight show I’ve seen in years and it is howlingly, talk-out-loud-to-the-TV good. Sometimes I even have to stamp my feet and clap.

I mean these guys—and it is relentlessly, undeviatingly a show about guys—seem to live in their school’s locker room, and when they are overcome, born down, and need to have long deep conversations about the troubles in their lives, they prefer to have them bare chested in towels with the other guys on the team (although sometimes older guys in leather coats also drop by the school to talk with them in the locker room). When the guys get dressed and go elsewhere, which they sometimes do, it’s usually to class, but even there, they have long deep conversations, usually about very secret things that no one else must learn. And while they talk—and they talk at length, spun around in their chairs and hunched together—the teacher goes on and on, clueless, at the front of the room and the nearby students pay no attention at all.

Ostensibly the show is about Scott Macall’s struggles to adapt to his new life as a werewolf, which we are made to understand is complicated and difficult because of all the excitement and adventures it forces him to deal with.  But this is just window-dressing. At it’s core, this show is a gloriously off-kilter exploration of 21st century masculinity and the problem of becoming a man.

The show’s model of successful masculinity is a minor recurring character, a gay man named Danny who is handsome, does well in school, has a job, has a fake ID, goes to parties (and knows what to do when he’s there), has an older boyfriend (not from school), and most importantly (given the frustrations of his classmates) has sex without being hung up about it. In short, he’s an openly gay high school student leading a secret life as an adult. Everyone in the school knows it, everyone likes him, and even the popular kids text him. What’s a straight guy to do when faced with this paragon of masculine success?

If you’re Stiles—Scott’s best friend and the best thing on the show—you worry about whether or not Danny finds you attractive.

If you are Scott you fall for the new girl in school, Alison. Scott has a problem though: when he becomes excited, especially when he becomes emotional, he risks turning into a flesh-eating monster. So what happens if he and Alison get serious? Fortunately for Alison, it’s the guys on the lacrosse team that get Scott’s heart racing, so they are the ones forced to deal with the violent, hairy beast. Scott wants to keep things together out on the field though, so he needs a way to stay calm even when the other guys are giving him a hard time. Enter Alison! It turns out that if Scott thinks of Alison, sweet perfectly coiffed Alison, his heart slows, the heat fades away, the beast retreats. She is his anchor, his true love, his cold shower.

This is so perfect I could die.

Camp aside, I think this first season is still fascinating stuff.  It sets out to be a boys-becoming-men tale but the content of the masculinity they’re after is up for grabs and largely unpoliced which makes everything a bit like a fun-house mirror: familiar but out of whack. The show is not a revolution or a political intervention. It’s carnival, an old-fashioned critical concept, but apt I think. Teen Wolf is a grotesque and it’s full of (or at least provokes) a laughter that eats away at the powers that be. In later seasons, I think it begins uneasily to realize it. But more on that later.

 December 20, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 132016
 

Earlier this Fall, I hurt my shoulder and elbow. Right shoulder, right elbow, and yes, I’m right handed. In the worst weeks, I couldn’t find a comfortable way to sit for more than a half hour or so and could barely hold a book to read. Writing by hand for more than 20 minutes was basically signing up for night-long pain, sitting at a computer for more a five or ten minutes was worse. Healing has been painfully slow.

So what do you do when your work and a great deal of your leisure involves reading, writing or sitting still to watch something and suddenly all of those things become competitors for pain-free time in a zero-sum game?

That’s the unexpected experiment I’ve been running chez moi since September. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Work plays trump cards. When I have a stack of papers, all available handwriting time is spent there. Same goes for keyboard time: when assignment sheets or grade entry or email has to be done, nothing else is done at my computer.

My iPad has served as a lifeline to my non-work, digital worlds because I could use it without aggravating my injury. So in the past few months, I’ve had to discover how to make an iPad do real work for me in a way I’d never had to make it do before. Living on an iPad (as opposed to just using one casually on the couch) is not just a device switch though. It demands a different state of mind. I love the physical realities of interacting with iOS, but the virtual realities on the other side of the glass slab are like trying to talk to someone who likes Bill Compton or polka. You can understand the words but not the spirit behind the thing. I want a file system (DevonThink to Go helps with that) and RTF (Devon again, sortof), but I miss Nisus Pro and Tinderbox, both staples of my virtual life. (So many of TBX’s map, outline, text and link functions seem perfect for the iPad’s direct interaction that its absence is a bit haunting.)

And blogging? It turns out that I love the wordpress web interface. I open it on my desktop and I start writing. Open the mobile version and the various iOS stand-ins I’ve tried and, nothing. Maybe it’s the loosey-goosey feel of things without a keyboard, or perhaps the absent file system. Whatever the reason I’m still trying to adjust to the dashboard on iOS.

So what is the point of all this rambling?

As virtual as I am day-to-day, as digital as my work has become, I’m a bodied creature. Physical states matter.

I don’t think I’d taken that into account before quite the way I have done recently.

 December 13, 2016  Moments
Dec 082016
 

The heart changes, and it is our worst sorrow; but we know it only through reading, through our imagination: in reality its alteration, like that of certain natural phenomena, is so gradual that, even if we are able to distinguish, successively, each of its different states, we are still spared the actual sensation of change.

–Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way

 Proust on Reading Change  December 8, 2016  Commonplace Book Tagged with: