Game of Thrones, Season 1


I’d seen this season a long time ago and was uncertain about whether to continue watching the show. But by last Spring, I’d accepted that it had become a cultural phenomenon and that I should make an honest effort to see what it was about.

Because a friend had given me all of the books when he’d moved a few years ago and was cleaning his shelves, I decided that I’d read them over the summer rather than bothering with the adaptation. This plan was a bust. The books are well-written but, to my eye, are detailed beyond all reasonable bounds. Halfway through the first one, I realized that reading them would take all the effort and energy required to puzzle together a history of medieval England, but without the payoff of being true. So I dropped the series without regrets and without any nagging curiosity to pull me back.

I did have the first two seasons on my computer though, and so at the end of summer, I decided that I would start from the beginning, watch them both, and see what I made of them. And I’m glad I did.

The first season is much better than I remembered, and with the knowledge of the half of the book I had read providing context, I saw the places where the writers are making very clever choices about the adaptation. The omissions and elisions make the television series reasonable in a way the books struck me as not being. So absent a drastic change that pushes me away, it appears I’ve lined up my TV viewing for the coming winter.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One CoverReading this book was like sitting on the couch as a kid watching my brother play a level, waiting for my turn with the controller. It was also nearly as fun.

In other words, I really can’t say enough how much I enjoyed reading this thing.

The Dresden Files

summerknightI started Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files nearly two years ago, but as of spring I was still only through the first three books. Something about them was off, and I liked them but only in a very hesitant and uncertain way.

Then out of the blue, my mom told me she’d started a new series that was great, and yes, as you will have already guessed, it was The Dresden Files. So we talked. I told her I’d given up. She said it started slow. I said I’d read three. She said the fourth, Summer Knight, was the turning point.

Now this is a conversation that I’m familiar with from TV talk with friends. You say you don’t like something. Your friend says it’s great and gets better and, somehow, no matter how far you’ve pushed forward into the series, it’s always the next episodes or the next season that matters and that you’ve got to see. I’m never persuaded.

That said, I’d never had this conversation with my Mom and certainly never about books. She’s a voracious reader and has generous but reliable tastes. She also never pushes books on people, trusting that there are too many books to read anyway and people will find what suits them. But here she was telling me how much she liked this series and two things became clear: she genuinely found them fun to read and she was serious when she said everything gets better starting with the fourth book.

deathmaskscoverObviously, I agreed to read more and, to my surprise, when she came up to visit this summer, she gave me the next book as a gift. I read it immediately and discovered that, duh, Mom was right. (When is she not?)

It’s always risky to imagine what’s going on in a writer’s head but my sense of the fourth book was that it was written by someone who had discovered all of the sudden that what they were writing wasn’t awful and that they could enjoy making the story up. That’s a weird sense to have but I felt it very clearly and very strongly. This book seems to enjoy itself and that change makes all the difference.

So with Death Masks, the fifth book, now read (and yes, I liked it), I think it’s fair to say that I’ve found some winter reading.

Twitter Break

Dear Timeline,

First off, I just want to make it clear that this isn’t about you. We’ve had some rough times in the past, I know, but that was all about me and my bad judgement and we worked through it. I unfollowed those that needed it, followed those that did, even figured out your lists and used them to get my shit together. After that, we had a good run and good times. Real good times.

But ever since the conventions things have gotten pretty fucking intense and it’s to the point that I can’t take it anymore. You’re obsessed with the minute-by-minute back-and-forth of the most horrifying election in recent memory, and it doesn’t seem to shake you or wear you out, and crazy as it sounds, I love that about you. I do. It’s just that it never fucking lets up ever, and if I stay in the thick of it like this I’m going to wind up on blood pressure pills nursing an ulcer or worse.

And I’m not blaming you. I know I said I was interested in all this crap, that I encouraged you with likes and retweets, and more and more follows. Fuck, I even live-tweeted Republican debates in the primaries knowing I had maybe two active followers. It doesn’t get more “fuck yeah!” than that. You believed that passion was real, and I did too for awhile.

But now, months later and with the shit storm approaching category 5, minute by minute attention to the campaign is more than I can handle. I’m not cut out for it, and I need to step away, need a breather, need a break.

But please please please don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t about something you’ve done and you know I can’t quit you. I’m just deleting you from my phone because I can’t say no when I’m looking at you there, and I need to say no for at least a bit.

While I’m gone, I’ll be checking the morning headlines and the magazines. Please don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not a statement and not a competition.

It’s just bye for now,

A man is a man, and the modicum of reason he might have counts for little or nothing when passion rages and the limits of human being press against him!

–Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, The Sufferings of Young Werther

Folks can change their ways much as they want to. But I don’t care how many times you change your ways, what’s in you is in you, and it’s got to come out.

—James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

September Morning

The woods on Mont St. Hillaire have darkened and dulled to the hard green of late summer. They are ready now to crack apart into the bright yellow and brilliant orange of Fall. And so it is in the fields below.

The hay has been cut, the scrub tilled under, the manure thrown down. Dry corn rustles in the breeze, and here and there, lime has been spread across freshly turned soil, dusty and white, an early echo of late autumn snow.

In my neighbor’s garden, tomatoes dangle from the leafless stalks of wilted plants, gloriously fat and gloriously red. A pumpkin vine, clutching a trellis, props improbable fruit high into the air.

And the ducks fly overhead. And the river runs cool and clear.

The Power and the Pathos

Over Christmas this past year, the Beav and I passed through DC and stopped to see a temporary exhibit of Hellenistic Bronzes called “Power and Pathos” at the National Gallery.

The show was great, full of large-scale pieces arranged in context, and I learned a lot. But overall it wasn’t the show I expected to see. Nearly all the sculptures were of noble politicians or worthy citizens or well-born children. Fine. What struck me as odd though was that the presentation also felt very carefully straight.

Saying that may sound willful—I mean, why should sexuality come up at all?—but I’m serious. This was a show with numerous male nudes. Yet, it felt constrained the way a group of friends are constrained when they are picking a gay friend up from work but they know that person isn’t out to co-workers and so they are on best behavior hoping not to give the game away. Everything here was proper and intellectual and sexless. Even the herms! And after a bit, the silence about the physicality of what we were seeing began to loom.

My consolation: someone among the curators—maybe all of them even—realized the problem. They must have. And I know this because of the presentation of the final sculpture in the final room of the show. The “Idolino.”


He stood on a pedestal in front of a false wall hiding the exit, holding a familiar pose: head tilted to the side, weight balanced on one foot. His left arm hung loosely by his side, and the right was raised to his waist, palm out. The curators had lit him crisply from the front with two lamps, which cast two well-defined shadows on the wall behind him. And those two shadows stood there against the wall, one beside the other, holding hands. The effect was too perfectly achieved, too sentimental, and too gay for me to take it as anything but purposeful.

So standing there looking at the shadows and the sculpture and seeing them together as a whole, I thought: someone gets it and is offering art comment in the language of art.

Now there is nothing that irritates me more than when people torment one another, especially when young people in the prime of life, who could be most open to life’s joys, ruin the few good days for each other with antics and realize only too late that they have squandered something irreplaceable.

–Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, The Sufferings of Young Werther

Todd Haynes and the Woman’s Film

Over the past few months I’ve been watching Carol. Sometimes for the story. Sometimes for the photography. Once without sound. And it is as extraordinary as I‘ve come to expect all of Todd Haynes’s features to be. This is a dangerously high standard ripe for creating disappointment, and yet Haynes, who is to my mind the most consistently powerful filmmaker working in America today, consistently meets and even exceeds it.

Carol fits into that stream of his films that tells women‘s stories in stylistic terms that recall specific historical antecedents. This stream includes Safe, Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce. (The other stream that I see in his work tells stories about men, deploys a fractured, self-consciously mediated narration, and is preoccupied with the circulation and cultural use of popular art signifiers. It includes Poison, Velvet Goldmine, I‘m Not There, and the early short works.)

Haynes’s women’s films have each been one of the very best films of its moment and have been his most commercially successful films. Like the other stream, they are experimental—their stylization is intellectual, historically rich and signifies—but that stylization is also easy to bypass or to dismiss with terms like “beauty.” Their narration is also less fractured than those in his other stream of films, recounting coherent stories organized in relation to recognizable genres. So it is possible for casual viewers to watch these films “simply for the story” or to celebrate the actors’ performances or to class them as homage to a golden age of the silver screen.

(This is not possible to do for the films in the other stream of films. Despite focusing on and even celebrating popular entertainments, each offers choreographed but heavily distanciated assemblages of narrative fragments, usually drawn from several disparate stories. Shifts in media format, wide-ranging and extended allusions, and, perhaps most famously, breaks in conventions regarding actors and performance create real obstacles to casual viewing. Concentration and attention to the question, “What am I to make of all of this?” is required. That these films make that question and the cultural subjects‘ efforts to answer it part of their content—these films are very much meta-fictions—adds an additional layer of complexity to an already daunting experience. As a result, first viewings of these films can feel overwhelming.)


Carol is a perfect example of Haynes‘s approach to the woman‘s film. The photography, costuming and music are gorgeous; the story is subtle, nuanced and deeply moving; the performances create people and suggest entire lives; and the final cut, taken as a whole, evokes and breaths life into an earlier moment in American cinema. In other words, see above.

What I‘ve been thinking about though is the way that Carol reimagines and transfigures what a melodramatic drama might be. Genre is fundamentally a conservative practice. Even (especially?) when perceived as shared ritual, generic forms introduce difference or change in order to recuperate it as a new instance of the past or of an original. Ideologically, it is concerned with preserving a community. In his woman‘s films, Haynes seems to be exploring the extent to which generic conventions can be used otherwise.

The roots of that experiment can be found at least as early as Safe, a film that is organized according to the conventions of the melodramatic television genre Haynes has called “the disease of the week movie.” In Haynes film, the story of a woman‘s struggles with unexpected illness does not affirm the values of love and courage and family as it would in the ordinary televisual fare; it chronicles instead the way in which that illness makes palpable the woman‘s alienation from her social circles, and how that same illness offers a signifier that she may use to create a new social identity with other sick people. This film still feels to me like a first attempt to determine what‘s possible in melodramatic genres and how far they can be stretched.

Far From Heaven takes the experiment much further by grafting complicated and interlocking stories about racism, sexuality, and feminism together in a single film and by submerging them completely into a uniform and self-consciously anachronistic aesthetic. I love this film, and once I‘ve sunken into it, it’s moving and sincere. The fact that it is critical of the gay man’s assertions of masculine and racial privilege even as it offers sympathy for his struggles to come out in a homophobic world is incredibly powerful. But ultimately, although characters struggle to break free of their social cages, in the end, the community‘s norms prevail: the gay man disappears and the interracial affair ends in resolute tears. In this, the film feels more like a performance of a genre than its appropriation.

Mildred Pierce—the mini-series Carol builds directly upon—marks a departure from these earlier efforts. Mildred has history—it’s an adaptation of James Cain‘s novel and operates in relation to the classic Joan Crawford film of 1945—and yet it aims at something like a socially situated, melodramatic realism. Haynes claims in interviews that this realism is present in Caine‘s novel (which I haven‘t yet read); when I watched, it reminded me of Theodore Dreiser. (My initial response to the series captures how difficult I initially found this shift in tone.) This approach to melodrama is not alien to the history of the Hollywood woman‘s film–it‘s there in Stella Dallas and in the 1930‘s adaptation of Imitation of Life–but it is very different from the dominant form of the woman‘s film that reaches its peak in the opulence of Douglas‘s Sirk‘s work. So Hayne‘s recuperation of this strain feels like reinvention or transformation.

Carol picks up Mildred Pierce‘s experiment. In it, Haynes synthesizes the powerful melodramatic pleasures of Far From Heaven and the subtlety and historical specificity of Mildred Pierce in order to create a film that suggests an experience of the world. Navigating through the brutal details of this social reality, the film also discovers an authentic basis for it’s characters’ happiness and suggests the possibility of meaningful change. How is this achieved? Simple: the sound, the image, the montage, the production design and the script each contribute, all of them, in nearly all their details.

The result is a film that delivers both the emotional and ethical pleasures of socially conscious, realist drama and the aesthetic pleasures of philosophically (post-)modernist works. It suggests too that the viewing strategies appropriate for the meta-fictions may be necessary tools for viewing this movie.