The Great Upheaval, 1910-1918

A few months ago, the Beav and I went to Toronto and saw The Great Upheaval, a show of works from the Guggenheim that was packed with kids on field trips. The exhibit was focused, coherent, and dense. Every work was major.  We spent a few hours and walked through it twice.

For me, the revelation was watching Mondrian transform himself into an abstract-expressionist. The three early works that caught my attention all showed an artist, who was essentially a very late post-impressionist, discovering the beauty of painted lines on a flat surface. In chronological order, the paintings were (images from the Guggenheim):

Summer, Dune in Zeeland
Summer, Dune in Zeeland


Still Life with Gingerpot I
Still Life with Gingerpot I


Still Life with Gingerpot II
Still Life with Gingerpot II

The first and last are just gorgeous, but the middle one, which is less beautiful, fascinates me. It’s so obviously operating in Cézanne’s shadow, yet it’s also attempting to create a complex matrix of lines which are not merely outlines. I look at it and I see something struggling–actually struggling–to become something new. And that makes Still Life with Gingerpot II feel like a triumph. 

(The painting of the dune–with it’s roughly horizontal lines and it’s solid blocks of layered colour–looks like it wants to become a Rothko.)

The Beav’s favourite was a painting by Chagall. He explained why, and I looked and stared–and the painting’s amazing! really it is–but I remain mystified. And, yes, I like the mystery. If our tastes were the same, I’m not sure museums would be so much fun.

Paris Through Window
Paris Through Window

We both agreed that this painting by a Russian we’d never heard of was one of the gems of the show:

Morning in the Village after Snowstorm
Morning in the Village after Snowstorm



The Living End

The Living EndA key movie of the New Queer Cinema that, somehow, I’d never seen. And it’s quite good, especially now that the passage of time has left its “cool” to operate so clearly as a sign rather than as a pathetic appeal.

If the film were a wine, we’d probably say something like, “Time has softened the tannins allowing the structure to come forward.”

Games, Genre Films and Books

Why is there so much genre film logged here? I’ve asked this question before and thrown out a tentative answer. But I’m wondering again because the movie logs keep posting while my book logs pile up as drafts backstage.

Well, the thought I had recently was that the genre movies I’ve been watching are like games. There are rules in genre films, even if only roughly defined. So when I watch one, I’m less interested in the overall quality of the thing than I am in the “moves” it makes–usually narrative but sometimes visual. It doesn’t make sense to describe these moves as “good” or “bad”; they have a purpose, aim for an effect and so, are simply “better” or “worse” than the other available options. Seen in this way, I really do think that some of the pleasure of watching a generic blockbuster, especially one that is guaranteed to be terrible, is the pleasure of rooting for an underdog. It’s about noticing good moves in a losing game. (cf. Keanu Reeves)

I suppose I’d like to think that it’s also good practice for a criticism of craft as distinct from a review of a work.

Book logs are different. I rarely read genre fiction anymore, and when I do, my choices are quite specific. If I’m going to read 300-400 pages of something, I’m going to read to fill blanks in the literary history I carry in my head. Or I’m going to follow certain lines of that history into the present. That’s what I’m interested in and what I like.

But there are no easy responses to this kind of reading. Often, I don’t know what to make of a book until weeks or months after I’ve read it. Which makes “logging” it difficult if I want to say anything other than “I read this.” Same for gallery shows and theatre.

So the blog conundrum continues…

Who Owns the Future

Who Owns the FutureI read Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget a while back. His latest book, despite appearances, moves him to new territory.

In his earlier book, Lanier was concerned about technological definitions of innovation and progress. His goal was to convince tech users, developers, and entrepreneurs of the value of individuals and of the emptiness of the crowd. It was a technologist’s book about technology.

His new book, although grounded in technology, is a fundamentally political book framed in economic terms. He raises an alarm about the business model dominant among tech companies, one he defines as a race to develop server services that monopolize and monetize individuals’ information. He criticizes these servers for selling information generated by real people but without paying those people and for offloading (or making invisible) the risks and responsibilities their activities create, activities that he believes make the world worse. In the last half of the book, he proposes what are ultimately regulatory solutions based on his sense of technological realities (and possibilities).

The solutions Lanier imagines are fascinating (if at times fanciful or politically improbable). I just wish he wrote better. It’s very hard to read beyond his diagnosis of the problem. But it’s the possible solutions that matter.

HTML: Handwriting or Book Printing?

Is HTML like handwriting or like book printing? I can’t decide.

If it’s like book printing, then writers complete their manuscript and, after it’s edited and polished, send it off to be “published.”

But this seems wrong to me because not being able to layout pages or make links as casually as I jot notes on paper for a post like this one makes me feel like my students trying to handwrite an exam.

My students haven’t really learned how to write efficiently by hand. They keyboard. So anytime they have to write by hand, they are handicapped, and what they write in these situations expresses not what they know or can figure out or can imagine, but instead, what they can write down in the available time.

So here’s the question: if HTML is like handwriting, how do you “learn to write” when you have a real job and real work to do?

What is the book you turn to to learn something more than syntax or to find something more than a dictionary of available commands? Which book says “To make workable, modern pages, you should know this and think of your page (or site) in this way?”

Or is the answer just “Learn DreamWeaver or Flux”?

Funny Boy

Funny boyI picked this book to replace Swimming in the Monsoon Sea on a course reading list and expected the difference to be minimal. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The prose here is crystalline and understated, yet the novel’s structure is meaningful and carefully controlled. And the characters breath real air.

Looking back from the final pages, it’s clear that nearly all of the central issues of the book are introduced obliquely or in outline in the first chapter. The rest of the novel’s wandering, casual episodes glide back and forth across that same terrain, filling it in, marking out contrasts, in layer after narrative layer. (It’s a bit like those 19th-century oil portraits that build up their subject in layers of wash that hide the individual brush stokes but bring the complete work alive across depths.)

On a personal note, I had a chance to pick Selvadurai up from the airport earlier this year, but at the last minute, I got a call letting me know the whole thing had to be called off. If I get the chance to meet him again, I’ll be pushier. Because I’m now officially a fan.

Confessions of a Mask

Confessions of a MaskThis is the first book I’ve read by Yukio Mishima. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what I found was completely disorienting. Mishima is something like a Japanese Jean Genet: a gay man exploring abjection during a particularly repressive historical period. But he’s also very different culturally and in terms of class.

The novel plays out in scenes set before and during World War II, and it concludes in the months following the bombing of Hiroshima. Although the novel has nothing to do with battle or soldiers, the war sets the tone of the scenes and organizes the lives of the people from whom the protagonist is cut off by his emerging sexuality. What’s more, the war seems to stand in allegorical relationship to that sexuality, and the protagonist perceives violence–especially martial violence–in explicitly sexual terms.

When I finished this novel, I thought I was done with Mishima. It was a dark and alienating book. But it is also a powerful one that feels major. And soon, I found myself at the library, standing in the stacks reading the first pages of The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. I checked it out and now appear to be in for the long-haul. Mishima’s writing is difficult, heavily patterned and strange, but it’s also controlled. And I’m curious.


The book has four chapters each self-contained. The first tells of the protagonist’s infancy, his time living with his grandmother, and his fascination with the violent deaths of knights in fairy tales.

The second tells of his precocious sexual desires and their formation in response to Guido Reni’s painting of Saint Sebastian. (The young protagonist is looking at this painting the first time he masturbates, a scene that reminds me of moments in Mario Vargas Llosa‘s In Praise of the Stepmother). Later the protagonist describes his crush on an older boy by recalling a moment in which the boy strips to the waist and does pull-ups, a posture that echoes the painting and reveals, to the protagonist’s great delight, his armpits.

The third chapter tells of the protagonist’s flirtations with a friend’s sister during the final years of the war. This experiment is his effort to understand his desires and their connection to the feelings he sees the people around him experiencing and the relationships he sees them maintaining. From it, he discovers that he is 1) attracted to men and 2) not attracted to women (two facts that today we take to be synonymous).

The final chapter tells of the protagonist’s brief, post-war flirtation with the same woman although now she is married. The novel concludes with these two having a drink in a seedy dancing club. As they sit both knowing that by bringing her here the protagonist has ended their affair, the protagonist watches a muscular bare-chested thug and fantasizes about tying his hands above his head, stabbing him delicately with a knife, and watching the blood run down his side and onto his pants.