Jun 302015

I stopped watching this series early on, and then, encouraged by my brother who loved it, and the positive attention it was receiving from people I read on the web, I pushed through to the end and finished it.

I understand the attention it received: it’s a good series. There are inspired moments both in the directing and the acting. The writing is also top-notch first-season work. Ultimately though, I couldn’t tolerate the violence.

Which got me thinking: what is it about the violence in this show that reads so differently from the violence of something like John Wick? I think there are two things going on.

First, the investment asked of me as I watch the violence in the two stories is not the same. In Daredevil, Murdock acts out of a sense of justice and morality. He is there to solve Hell’s Kitchen’s problems by doing what is right, what is needed. So in a sense, the show asks me to accept that sometimes, you need to beat the shit out of people, break their bones and joints, and even, sometimes, throw them off buildings, and I won’t go there. John Wick is very different. It is a film about grief and anger, and Wick is clearly not doing the right thing. The right thing was leaving violence behind in the life recalled (after its loss) at the beginning of the film. The film’s violence happens after a fall from grace and asks for nothing from me but basic empathy — yes, grief and anger can drive people to doing terrible things — and in exchange, it offers catharsis.

Second, the two stories link themselves to the world outside the story differently. John Wick builds a fantastic, genre-appropriate world that is vast but discrete and the narrative plays out within it in exaggerated but finite terms. Wick’s world is not “the real world.” Daredevil on the other hand — and this is a key aspect of Marvel’s emerging house style — presents its fictional world as an allegory of our world and the “necessary violence” of the protagonist as an insight into what’s needed to solve its problems. I think that view of the world is wrong, ugly, even perverse, and so the allegory ruins the whole show for me.

I’ve written about this same problem in relation to Jack ReacherArrow and Justified.

Jun 292015

The FlamethrowersEverything in Rachel Kushner’s book is carefully written—the words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters—and yet the ideas and action of the book live at the level of structure and arrangement. The stretch and strength involved in this level of work is astonishing and overwhelming. I thought of Another Country as I read it, which is a huge compliment.

That said, I can’t say that I loved this novel though. I don’t care about motorcycles and am not really interested in the dinners and parties of the New York art scene of the late sixties, early seventies. So content was a problem. I was also put off by the fact that the novel is extremely academic and unflinchingly cool. As a result, I found myself struggling to parse tone, which left me wondering sometimes what to make of the book’s more insightful comments. Did they belong to the protagonist, a character who remains stubbornly blank to me, shaped mostly by negative space, or did they belong to the narration itself?

I suspect these uncertainties are purposeful—the novel’s last word is “question” after all—but they are also extremely frustrating and as I wound my way through the story, I asked myself repeatedly if this book was worth the effort. What I know is that the novel is well-made and that its scope exceeded my first reading. I’d add that that is an experience I haven’t had for quite awhile in a contemporary American novel.

Jun 282015

John Wick

John Wick is violent, simple, and flashy, and so it feels very contemporary. Yet, it is also — in a way that reminds me of Reeves’s directorial debut Man of Tai Chi — a film with deep roots in 90s action cinema in Hong Kong and, so, a generic throwback.

Story-wise this movie is lean and seductive, imagining a complete world with minimal strokes. Information comes though casting, acting, set design, location selection, costuming dialogue, point-of-view — from all of the various channels the film has at its disposal really — yet there is little or no unnecessary duplication between them. The result is a rich story space that manages to feel roomy despite its intensity and limited scope.

Jun 272015

Lots of great political news coming out of the US Supreme Court this week, but the decision on health care had me thinking about literary theory. Specifically, this post by Nicholas Baglay and this one by Einer Elhaug, together make a nice point about meaning as a goal in interpretation and the purposeful destructiveness of stubborn textualism. Reading it, I was reminded of the distance I felt unpacking boxes after my recent move and flipping through so much of the critical work I was assigned in the mid-90s in graduate school.

What struck me reading about the dissenting arguments in the health care case was the way Scalia’s approach feels out of time but not in the way he believes: he seems like a product of the the heyday of academic deconstruction. De Man and Scalia (and Thomas to an extent) seem to me of a kind insofar as their textual processes create obstructive rather than enabling insights, and these obstructions bring whole enterprises to a halt, prevent movement, and enforce the status quo. The result too often is a link across fields between deconstruction and the ugliest of conservatisms.

This is all very simplistic and hunch-based but it makes me wonder a bit about academic queer theory, much of which has been, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, opposed to the normalizing political project that led to the Court’s recognition of a right to gay marriage. The value and importance of queer theory is difficult to exaggerate, and yet, I worry when it finds itself on the wrong side of so important an argument and worry too when it’s foundational critical approach seems to align it with the methods of Scalia’s side of the court.

ps–obviously there’s a lot of nuance needed here, but in broad strokes, this is the shape of my first thoughts.

Jun 262015

The museum at St. Hillaire has a small gallery space attached to the library and often shows interesting collections. This past Fall, they presented some of Ozias Leduc’s sketches and studies in an exhibit called “Les Traces d’Ozias Leduc.”

Everything on display was small scale and the entire collection could be looked at carefully in an hour or so, which made it a manageable in a way that large shows of preliminary materials often aren’t. I especially liked seeing the gridded studies Leduc made to position large paintings and murals.


Musee des beaux-arts de Saint-hillaire--Ozias Leduc

Jun 252015

A Wise Man's FearsI’ve tried three times, and I can’t get through this book. It’s the sequel to The Name of the Wind, which I liked quite a bit, but this time around I’m not feeling the love. There’s just too much business and too many words for too little pay off. Hundreds—and I mean hundreds—of pages in and the story is more-or-less exactly where it was a few hundred pages before the end of the first book.

Actually I’m not sure at this point what the story is supposed to be about: I thought it had to do with some murderous beasts of legend, maybe a king that had to be killed, but there’s none of that in sight right now. Instead, it’s endless open mic nights and homework assignments and not very much else. (Think Harry Potter at uni playing a lute.)

My thought: the book seems to be working toward an odd kind of anti-heroic realism despite casting itself in the framing narrative (and through its choice of genre) as a heroic fantasy. It seems to me that this kind of conflict between story and genre could be exciting, interesting. But here it’s not, or at least not right now: it’s just cancelling out all the momentum and dragging the story to a halt.

Maybe someday, I’ll give it another try, but for now I’m done.

Jun 242015

The MartianThis was a completely random purchase at the bookstore. I’d never heard of it but read the first few pages standing among the shelves and was drawn in.

The story is straightforward, directly written and completely captivating. I couldn’t read it fast enough, and by the end, I was in knots as (spoiler alert) the crew of the rescue mission were making impromptu adjustments to their flyby in a desperate attempt to slow down and scoop up the protagonist after his attempt to launch into a high orbit fails.

Just a great read … that I now discover is being made into a film and is popular enough to be the subject of jokes. Who knew?

Jun 232015

The first season of House of Cards was extraordinary television. Frank’s and Claire’s ambition, their intelligence and their controlled advance toward their goal launched the entire show beyond ordinary concerns and into a realm that recalled Shakespeare.

After sitting through the first few episodes of season three, that description sounds exaggerated to me: how could the show I’m watching now have been that good in that first season? It’s hard to believe because the subsequent seasons have shrunk down to mere roman à clef cleverness and posturing.

In that first season, Frank was a post-Nietzschean MacBeth unencumbered by conscience. Now he’s just mean, desperate, and listless. I’m so uninterested that I don’t expect I’ll even finish the season.

Jun 222015

On writingA great read, but the memoir is better than the writing advice I think although (or perhaps because) those recollections also feel riddled with tall-tales, which are I suppose in their own ways more interesting and revealing than the truth is likely to be.

The writing advice is great but also inevitably seems incredibly personal. Those who have found a way to write consistently and well, have found a way for them to do it, and as with most high level activities, there are too many factors in play for their success to leap contexts easily.

The image that haunts me appears in the early chapters. King keeps Bringing up a nail on the wall that he used to store rejection slips when he was young. It’s a powerful image for a focus and drive that barrels past everything in its way. I don’t have that. Saying “no, because I want this” is a kind of self-assertion that is not really in my repertoire of non-work skills.

Overall, King comes across as a pretty nice guy here but that nail and his stories about the sources for Carrie give me a pretty sure sense that we wouldn’t connect if we ever found ourselves chatting over dinner. It’s an odd reaction because I don’t typically read biographical works in those terms, but in this case, it’s where my mind went.