Dillard on Good Days and Good Lives

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading—that is a good life.

—Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Raylan

I loved the seasons of Justified that I’ve watched, and reading this novel is like hearing the TV from another room. So the writers and producers must be doing something right when it comes to the adaptation.

Ultimately though, however much I might enjoy watching something like Justified, my head just doesn’t work when it comes to reading the source fiction. Names don’t stick. I don’t notice the details that stitch together the ins-and-outs of what the bad guys are doing. Worse, I don’t care that I’m not able to make the links. For me, reading crime fiction means pages are flipped, words are read, but the plot just happens in a buzzing, oddly narcotic haze populated by shadows.

I think that the pleasure hard-boiled crime novels—like this one, like The Maltese Falcon—offer their reader is a chance to watch a blank figure of archaic masculine virtue struggle to do a difficult job in a modern world. This man is thrown about and put in danger, but he survives and eventually wins, and he does this through force of character alone. I imagine this is a fairly obvious observation about the genre.

What’s odd though is that, while I dislike reading this kind of crime fiction almost as a rule, I often enjoy watching it when it’s adapted to film or television. What’s going on?

My hunch is that the relevant difference is this: ogling a stylishly photographed strong, silent type of the sort offered up by crime fiction is good fun but identifying with one (which is what reading positions me to do) isn’t. In other words, I enjoy desiring Timothy Olyphant but find no pleasure in desiring to be a tough guy.

Caligula

This production featured incredible performances. By the dinner scene, Benoît McGuinnes had become a tour de force, and the other actors stayed with him straight through to the end. Over and over, I was caught off guard by natural effortless readings of lines that somehow struck me as unexpected or revealing. It was a great experience.

That said, I’ve never seen a show in which I hated the set more or felt more strongly that it was purposefully aggressive toward the audience.

The stage was empty except for a closed, black box that was raised up on row after row of construction jacks. This box was enormous: it was the same width and depth as the stage and it was high enough to take up half the available vertical space. As a result, it served as a roof over the actors’ heads throughout. There were only two places for action to be performed: at the very front of the stage (the only place where everyone was out from under the box) or further back, under the box. In the latter case, the actors were screened from the view of anyone not on the ground level, and for people in the balconies, watching the play often meant watching actors’ feet and hips.

So why was the box there? It’s tough to say because over the course of the entire production it is used in only two ways, both of them extremely brief. First, the box’s front wall opened during the first and last minutes of the play offering a brightly lit and blindingly white space where Caligula acted out his anguish and despair in private. The first of these moments was shocking and exciting. As it happened I thought it was effective. By the final moments, I’d changed my mind.

The second use of the box was more fragmentary. At three or four points during the performance, small panels opened in its front walls to reveal the dead Drusilla watching the action of the play silently from above. These moments were disconnected, distracting and largely without point. If I were to be less generous, I’d call them sentimental.

Neither of these two uses of the box—not even the first, which I liked initially—offers anything substantial enough to off-set the fact that it makes the actors act where most of their audience can’t really see them. As a result, the box feels hostile and arbitrary, a sense of things that makes me wonder why it was there at all.


One thought: the open box has proportions resembling those of a cinemascope frame; the panels opening onto Drusilla resembled video screens; the action only proceeds clearly when confined to the narrow (i.e. flat) space of the front of the stage. Are these hints that this stage is operating in relation to the cinema screen? It it inviting a consideration of mediation?

If so, the idea is too undeveloped to do any work.


Update here.

Larkin on Kindness in a Difficult World

The Mower

The mower stalled, twice; kneeling, I found
A hedgehog jammed up against the blades,
Killed. It had been in the long grass.

I had seen it before, and even fed it, once.
Now I had mauled its unobtrusive world
Unmendably. Burial was no help:

Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.

–Philip Larkin (via)

Stoplight Scene

The neighbouring village had a temporary stoplight for a few weeks as road crews did some work on the bank of the river. Seeing as how the village is a sleepy, stop-signs-only kind of place, the change—I could get caught by a red light! Grrrr!—felt big time and sophisticated, especially since the light wasn’t around long enough to actually become annoying.

Stopped one day last week on my way home, I stared out over the fields rather than at the river. My mind was wandering around elsewhere, and so I only realized how beautiful the scene was as the signal flipped to green. There were cars behind me, but I grabbed my phone and snapped a quick pic before taking off.

And no one honked.

The Maltese Falcon

I don’t like crime fiction. I knew this, and this book—which is as weird to me as The Sound of Music was to a young David Lynch[note]Tracking down the source and will update when I have it[/note]—confirms it.

I mean it’s great in a tough guy and dames kind of way. And if that’s your thing, cool.

I just don’t care.

At all.

Nocturnal Animals

According to cliché, there’s no “I” in team. There is however an “i” in “poise” and that “I”—let’s risk pretension and call it an eye—makes a “pose” something admirable and beautiful.

Tom Ford’s second film is magnificent and moving. It offers a cool and expansive but also a carefully self-conscious regard upon popular and art spectatorships.

I loved this movie and truly don’t understand what (other than bile) could have kept it from being a darling of the award season alongside the equally ambitious but very different (because sincere) Moonlight.

…maybe that was the problem: this is a personal movie about “the personal” but without ostentatious sincerity.

Exhibit A: this is how Tom Ford dressed for work:

Iron Fist

Iron Fist was a comic character I loved when I was a kid even though he was marginal and even if I didn’t have many issues with him in them. The issue where he was killed (back when people died in comics and stayed dead) completely upset me. So I have some bias toward buy-in when it comes to the Netflix series.

Oddly though, I’m not feeling it, which means that, of the five seasons of television springing from Netflix’s and Marvel’s collaboration I’ve liked only Jessica Jones. That’s not a great record. (And I’ve really not liked Daredevil.)

I’m not done with (and not binging) Iron Fist though so maybe things will turn around. For now I just want to note for future reference that the thing that drives me crazy with the series so far is the sense that Danny Rand isn’t so much a character as he is a mash-up of various possiblities of how to imagine the character.

Contradictory responses and desires are one way to generate the illusion of depth and complexity. But here, the variations in character traits read as confusion because they so often manifest at moments when the shift enables a plot development. So Danny’s naive but menacing when he needs to be misunderstood enough to be confined to a mental hospital, but he’s controlled and cagey when he needs to suddenly have money and cultivate allies. And the difference between the two feel less like personae adopted by a complex character than alternative versions of the character, each appearing when necessary to advance the plot.

This interaction between plotting and character development makes sense, but I hadn’t thought of it so directly before watching the initial episodes of this show.

So maybe more to come about the series…

The Revenant

The Beav: “C’est n’importe quoi…”

Me: “Yep”

I’m not at all sure what the appeal of this story is supposed to be. What pleasure does it think it offers? To my eye, it’s just carefully shot wretchedness from start to finish.

And speaking of shots, that last one? Leonardo is no Jean Seberg.

(Yes, I’ve clearly found this movie extremely annoying.)

Snowden

Oddly boring and ponderous movie. Yet its style—the color, the editing, the script—is all over the map. Everything but Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s performance feels one misstep shy of out of control and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour (2014) is the better film by orders of magnitude.

I miss the Oliver Stone of Natural Born Killers. Nothing he’s done except JFK has ever come close to its level of lucid insanity. And nothing he’s done—nothing at all—comes close to the earned confidence of its anarchic beauty.

Western Politics, Take Two

When first writing about Hell or High Water, I skirted talking politics except for an oblique reference to Trump’s supporters, but the movie wears politics like a badge. Billboards and graffiti announce the horrors of debt like a drumbeat through the first hour of the film. Characters ruminate over the situation in conversation. The point is clear. Jobs are gone in small-town America. The financial crisis has pushed families to the brink of poverty and is tearing them apart in the process. Smelling blood, the banks, mad with greed and shameless despite having caused the financial meltdown, have rushed in to snatch people’s homes and land. Losing these, the families lose the last of their hope.

The film’s solution to the characters’ economic problems is simple: if people could only get out from under the thumb of the banks, if the debt that is crushing them were wiped away, they could fend for themselves. This libertarian world view is perfectly suited to the western as a genre, and the film plays out its story in these terms. The brothers—talented, industrious, and clever enough to accomplish wonders if given a chance—rob the bank swindling their family out of their ranch and pay off their debt to that bank with the money they steal. Their debt paid, they live off the fat of their land. (Well, it’s oil, “Texas T”, not fat, but same difference.)

Unsurprisingly, the film insists upon the morality of the brother’s actions. They may be violent, but that violence counts for little: one brother is a bit crazy and has been ruined by childhood abuse and prison; the other doesn’t want the violence even if he points a gun around. Likewise, their string of robberies is defined as somehow not quite theft: they steal only what they need to be free from the bank’s clutches. At one point, they share a bit of it with a single mom struggling to pay rent, but they don’t waste it on prostitutes, and they aren’t looking to accumulate personal wealth. In other words, they are not really thieves. They are doing what they have to do to save their family and to give their kids a chance at the American Dream.

The western is a genre perfectly suited for this clannish, libertarian view of the world, and this film is as pure a western as I’ve seen in a long time. The sheriff even rustles up a posse at the end. And so, despite all the talk in interviews and reviews about the interesting moral ambiguity of the film, I don’t buy it. The moral stakes of this film are generic and clear: eastern interests and their local agents are ruining families and the law can’t solve the problem. So a virtuous gunslinger has to step in and do what he can, and the local law-man understands, whatever his office compels him to say or do. This is Pale Rider/Liberty Valance 101.

The problem with all of this is that however satisfying the idea of the solitary man taking matters into his own hands and doing what needs to be done is (and it’s very satisfying, especially when filmed as well as it is here), the problems these characters face are bigger than a bank loan, and their solution is more complex than paying it back.

Part of the film’s achievement is that it seems to know this on some level. The oil found lying under the family ranch waiting like a miracle to make the protagonist’s sons wealthy and secure is a lucky break. The fact that it is luck highlights the fact that the ranch itself is just fields of grass too dry to raise cattle. The protagonists aren’t robbing banks to save a family farm. They’re robbing them to hold onto a winning lottery ticket.

The early presentation of the mother’s deathbed likewise undercuts the political fantasy. Her colon cancer gave the the bank an opening to swoop in and gives emotional grounding to the sons’ efforts to save her land. But it’s fair to ask if paying off a reverse mortgage offers a reasonable solution to the problem of falling sick? Obviously it does not.

The film flatters viewers by suggesting they’d be fine if left alone, but in reality cowboy libertarianism encourages them to ignore (and perpetuate) their misery by escaping to a world in which real solutions—universal healthcare, improved infrastructure, human-scale agricultural practices—don’t exit and would appear horrific if they did.

Generic Hollywood fictions are entertainments. They have few political obligations and when they address the political, their “politics” will often be risible. By motivating character with economic frustrations and reaching aesthetically toward “seriousness,” Hell or High Water invites consideration of the political underpinnings of the western. These generic politics are a dream and are beautiful, but if you look carefully through the cracks in this film, you can also see they are exactly the opposite of a way forward.

Teen Wolf, Season Five

The show has been changing bit by bit each season, and at this point it’s become something completely different from what I first started watching.

Stylistically this season draws on steampunk and medicalized horror for its aesthetic. The steampunk worked and, when combined with a cleverly deployed flickering camera effect, was genuinely creepy. The horror element turned around medical experiments being performed on various kids by reckless pseudo-scientists bent on “improving” their subjects. The kids don’t understand and are often unaware of what is being done to them, and the resulting story, which I think gestures toward contemporary debates about the medicalization of youthful behaviour, was disturbing and, at times, unpleasant.

Thematically the show is preoccupied for a long stretch with the challenges (and attendant dangers!) of literacy. The scary center of the core plot is a book. Anyone who reads it has their mind opened to reality. Because reality is so different from what the young readers think it is, the change they experience makes them feel nuts. This is an unbelievably perfect allegory of the risk students accept when doing homework.

The anxieties resulting from the medical and educational plot lines often play out in the school’s library, which appears as an important setting for the first time this season. Members of the pack keep finding themselves there, and nothing good ever happens when they do. It’s just violence, mayhem and death.

Photo Apocalypse

In December 2016, I was breaking up my much-too-large iPhoto library and creating archives for the pieces when my iMac died in a dramatic multi-day tantrum. It started with random shutdowns and crazy screen behavior that was bad enough to send me updating backups right away. Things got worse fast though and soon I was struggling to transfer large files in the time between restarts.

It was chaos, I was panicked, and when the dust settled, I’d lost every photo I’d taken from 1999-to 2015. My iCloud backups had already been pared down as part of the archiving and weren’t any help in restoring what I’d lost.

It’s hard to say how traumatic this was: I’d been using my iPhone’s camera as a journaling tool since my 3G. Now all of that history was gone.

Machines break, but wow, do I ever have my hate on for that iMac.