Feb 212019
 

My favorite scene in this adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel is basically every scene where Glenn Close is speaking quietly and sparsely to a man who doesn’t realize he’s not the smartest person in the room and who is not catching on to what Joan Castleman is carefully not saying.

The choice to rely on a journalist to carry the historical content of Joan’s narration in the novel is clever and well done. It leaves Close the freedom to expose the difference between being unseen and being effaced, between standing off to the side and being pushed there. The film zeros on that subtle emotional distinction and in a brisk, focused hour-and-a-half shows a fiercely intelligent and grounded woman refusing to become a thing defined and moved about by others. She refuses too to love one bit less than she feels. It’s a beautiful performance of a beautiful character.

Feb 212019
 

A light but cleverly done movie about the composition and first performance of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Nothing ever bogs down, the performances are lively, and the direction hews a balanced line between creation and hagiography. The digital landscapes of 19th century Paris are beautifully done.

This film is a better biopic than something like Bohemian Rhapsody.

Feb 192019
 

A movie that crafts a portrait of a strong woman by turning three of its characters—the father, the daughter, and the son—into clichés ready-made for epiphany. Surely Elastigirl and Void don’t need the help? I mean, why would Pixar stack the deck in this way?

Feb 192019
 

A boy named Jared is the son of a pastor and doesn’t seem as into his high school sweetheart as she is into him. He also has a tendency to look a second too long at other boys. At university, he is raped by a friend, and his assailant, afraid Jared will speak out about what has happened to him, tells Jared’s parents he’s gay. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Jared uses this moment to admit that he might be and agrees to go to a conversion camp. There everything is obviously terrible and abusive and Jared seems to see this and to reject the whole idea of conversion pretty quickly despite some early talk about wanting to “change.” Eventually he tells his mother he wants to leave the camp, that he is who he is, and the mother takes him away and works to convince his father to accept him as he is. The boy then moves to New York, finds love, and writes the memoir that becomes the basis of the movie.

I found this movie to be devastating but not, I think, because of the movie. It’s the subject and the bald presentation of the religious world view that makes conversion camps possible that got to me. The people in this film really are living in a different world, and it is a world where a rapist can catch his victim and bind him into silence by confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness in the moments following the assault. It’s a sick world in which religious delusions distort everything and it’s a world tied to particular places, especially the South. (In the film, Arkansas.) I’ve been inside this world, and I’m not convinced there’s any way to show the people living there that what they see and believe isn’t real or good. Watching the film, knowing what I was seeing was true was devastating.

The film itself though—the dramatic narrative performed on my screen—had a point of view problem that manifested as a third act problem and it’s hard for me to see a way around these. Jared’s story has very little drama. He’s oddly untouched throughout. He embraces a gay identity as he enters the camp and leaves because the camp wants to change that identity. The film has to show the camp and what happens there because without those images there’s no reason for the film really, but there is no drama in those scenes, only horror because the boy isn’t there to struggle. He observes. He witnesses. Like the film, like the viewer, he knows what he is seeing is wrong and that the people around him are misguided. The only question is how long he’ll put up with it.

To the extent the film generates drama it involves the mother and to a lesser extent the father, both of whom must confront the consequences of their beliefs and both of whom must change in the final act for the film to come to a proper end. They do change. Yet because the film focuses on the boy, their change happens off screen and out-of-sight. The problem this causes is captured nicely by the film’s trailer. The film clearly is being marketed as a dramatic (if saccharine) social issue film, but in order to generate sellable drama, the trailer has to rely on footage of the parents drawn almost exclusively from the final moments of the film. Again, I don’t see how the film gets around this without jettisoning its source, and ultimately, as flat as the film is, the horror of what it does show is enough to make it powerful. So ultimately, the film is what it is, dramatic problems and all, and what it is isn’t terrible.

Gloomy and bland as everything else is, there are two visually beautiful moments in the film. These are:

  1. Jared standing in front of a photograph of a male model—it’s an ad at a bus stop—and he reaches out and places his hand on the man’s face, then steps back, and, angry, throws a rock shattering the glass; and
  2. Jared staying over at a ridiculously gorgeous young artist’s ridiculously gorgeous apartment, but doing nothing except chastely staring into each other’s eyes in bed together.

The film knows these are pinnacle moments of beauty and sets them off as such in the narrative. The marketers do as well: both are given pride of place in the trailer.

For someone watching from Quebec, the film had one additional loop of interest. Let’s call it the “Xavier Vortex.”

First, cinematic wünderkid and world-class sex-pot, Xavier Dolan plays a deeply fucked up resident of the conversion camp who is always there to say something creepy and damaged to Jared. Second, the artist Jared spends the night with—named Xavier, but not Dolan—is played by Montreal actor Théodore Pellerin.

So the quebecois invasion of Hollywood continues apace…

Feb 182019
 

Last weekend we had the first sunny days in weeks (but it felt like months). So the Beav suggested we go walking on the river. Now, I know the ice is solid at this point. The snowmobiles are running up and down daily. But I lived in the heat too long as a child to be comfortable on frozen rivers and lakes and wasn’t keen on the idea.

Then he suggested we walk up a side creek he’d been wanting to canoe with his sister in the summer. This sounded less ominous: slower shallower water awaited if we broke through (which we wouldn’t and didn’t). This became our day.

Feb 182019
 

I haven’t used Facebook for a few years now and don’t trust the company or Zuckerberg at all. I don’t have regrets: I actually hated listening to people I know all sounding the same and doing the same things as they chimed in endlessly to each other’s posts on my newsfeed. But the costs of dropping out of the service are real. I have friends and family who mostly don’t communicate off Facebook. Absolutely everything they do is there. And that’s makes it hard to stay in touch.

Anyway, all of that is preamble to a link to TechCrunch’s article about the UK Parliamentary committee’s report on their investigation into the company and it’s service. It sounds like the committee members are actually trying to do their job without being bullied and dumb-talked into submission by Facebook. They call the company out for lying, obstructing, for playing like gangsters and basically, for acting like that asshole who thinks they are smart enough and clever enough to get away with anything by talking bullshit with straight-faced irony.

It says something about the state of US politics (Republican politics mostly) that I find a functioning committee working to govern both surprising and refreshing.

Feb 172019
 

My mother never could watch the Peanuts holiday specials on TV when I was a kid. She said the voices were all wrong and she couldn’t bear to have them clashing with the ones she’d heard in her head when she read the comics.

This morning, writing about the Shades of Magic trilogy, I went looking for V. E. Schwab’s blog. On its front page I found this image, a cartoon cut-out of Alucard Emery.

Alucard Emery (via)

Here’s the thing: this is so completely not my Alucard and the resulting dissonance what my eyes see and what my mind saw is not pleasant. And yet, oddly enough, it isn’t entirely unpleasant either. In weird way, I kind of love knowing this cut-out exists. (The boot bandana!) But wow, this is so very much not my gay wizard pirate.

So maybe I finally understand why Mom couldn’t bear Lucy’s voice.

Feb 172019
 

Two thoughts.

Despite what I wrote earlier, I remember skimming the first two books in this series over the course of a couple evenings in a friend’s home the summer of 2000. I also saw the first two (or three?) movies. Reading this book, I remembered a couple of the scenes. But now that I’m done and starting the third book, I’m excited. The rest are all new.

That matters because, second, Rowling is a good writer! In these first two books a world has been created, a deep problem set-up (which I can figure out nothing about beyond Voldemort is bad and is coming back), and a whole host of living and likable characters have been introduced. I like Harry, Ron and Hermione. I like Dumbledore and Mrs. McGonagall, and like disliking Snape and hope he won’t be a bad as he seems. Most importantly, the children here are doing their best and their blind spots are real, their fears understandable, the courage they find believable.

So I’m looking forward now to reading fresh for real. It’s exciting.

Feb 172019
 

I read the first of these books, A Darker Shade of Magic, a few years ago on a plane going somewhere. I loved it—and was unexpectedly horrified by the cruelty of life in White London—but I was also very much in the throws of my initial struggles with reading fantasy and science fiction. (More on that soon probably.) So I read it, loved it, put it aside and left the trilogy unfinished.

Eventually, maybe the following summer, I checked the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, out from the Bibliotheque Nationale and began reading it by the river. Its scope and focus had changed, the world and the problems it faced had become orders of magnitude larger and its opening chapters were near perfectly constructed. My own problems were, however, still frustratingly similar: 120 pages in, I decided that summers were better spent reading books I didn’t have the time for in winter because of the concentration they required and put aside this book unfinished. This on its own amounted to clear evidence of foolishness, stupidity and a deep illness of the mind and soul, but (or perhaps thus) it took time to work through and get over it.

When I did finally tear up the hedge—sowed and cultivated in grad school and then carefully tended during those tense years before tenure—that kept the science fiction and fantasy novels I loved out of the wondrous garden of Literature, the final two novels in the trilogy were near the top of the list of books I set out to read.

I loved the series. The world is complex but appealing, and the magical tournament of the second book was great. There is darkness running through everything though—literal and metaphorical darkness—and the costs of surviving it are high. People lose things and people are lost. By the end, I was sorry to be done.

Here’s the important insight that sorrow left me with though: the sorrow was about the people and their relationships. The characters had been sketched out in a combination of realist description and of magical traits and action that were at root metaphorical and the portraits that emerged were not simple cut-outs. Two men enter the story in love by divided by a break-up one doesn’t understand. Both are powerful and confident (but for different reasons), both are confused by the actions of the other, both need each other and try ineptly to find their ways back across their broken hearts and very concrete social situations. And their friends and family, good people but none of whom understand (or in some cases know) what has happened between them, wind up part of a fight and making things harder. When the two earn their relationship back, it was glorious and felt real. And this relationship was very much a side plot until the last book.

The other relationships were just as rich, just as complex and, in their variety, they what make the novel work, not the magical rivers, the overlapping Londons or bleeding but badass wizards. These relationships can be amorous. They can be friendly. The one between the two male leads is fraternal: a sad and ruined older man finds himself a villain, first against his will but then freely in order to do good, but in his rough and brutal way takes care of a younger man, equally powerful but naive, helping him grow to the point where he can survive after they have saved the world. And there are so many more people and relationships in this book. This is great writing and great imagining and I loved it from first to last.