A Quiet Place

A really great monster movie that’s focused, brief and doesn’t bog down with world building. More importantly, it avoids cliché apocalyptic tropes. Think for too long and there’s a lot we don’t know about this situation. But none of it matters. We care about the family and we follow their story through to the movie’s efficient and early end. Great work.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

For some people, writing—not necessarily being a writer—is essential to who they are and yet nearly impossible. They are only themselves when being someone else’s voice. It is paradoxical and crazy making, lonely and can drive you to drink. This movie captures that without being cute or making a joke of the real struggles and real emotions involved.

Oscars 2019

I got behind with the nominees this year. They all came out at once and it was just too much. So no opinions this year. I saw things I liked, Roma, The Wife, especially The Favorite. I’ll root for them but have no idea whether they should win.

Me, Gaming

I’ve gamed since I was a kid. Early on I’d played everything I could get my hands on, which wasn’t much, and always for consoles. The Atari 2600, a couple Nintendo boxes. The big turning point though was when my dad brought home our first PC. Freed from the console, my choices exploded. My games of choice? Early RPGs like Pools of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds.

When I went to university a few years later, my tastes stayed the same. Only now I was playing Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and a Myst-style puzzle game whose name I wish I could remember.

When Blizzard’s Diablo invented the action RPG, I was fully onboard and played it and its sequel alongside Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights.

What came next was Bethesda’s Oblivion, the first truly open-world RPG I’d ever played and easily the most immersive and absorbing. It had an invisible leveling scheme: you didn’t select skills and traits, you earned them based on what you actually did while you were playing. So no calling yourself a mage while sneaking around and shooting things with a bow. I lost hours working through the detailed character creation screens, generating various characters with different pasts, personalities and backstories. I spent a month wandering collecting herbs. When I discovered and captured a wizard’s tower, I wandered some more collecting materials to build features and to decorate it.

It was only after half a year or more that I remembered that there was a story and that I could (should?) figure out how to help the king’s heir and drive off the demon invasion. Soon I discovered the thieves guild, then the assassin’s guild. I rose up and became the Grey Fox. I allowed myself to become a vampire. It seemed there was nothing I couldn’t do in this world and that no matter how much I wandered or what I did, the map would never be exhausted.

I played Oblivion right up until I switched for the first time from a PC to a Mac. That switch shut down all non-Blizzard gaming but at the time that was fine: I was busy writing and the time I had to game I was eager to spend in World of Warcraft. The first expansion, Burning Crusade, had been a hit and my brother and sister were both playing. Wrath of the Lich King was about to launch, and we used it and the subsequent expansions to hang out for years.

Eventually though, around the end of Warlords of Draenor and after years and years of game play, I was getting tired of Warcraft. It was still great and I loved it, but I was bored. Garrisons and the dailies it took to sustain them were starting to feel like a second job. I wasn’t really having fun anymore. Looking back now, I can see that I’d just gotten tired of playing the same game —and importantly, the same stories—over and over again. But at the time, I thought I was getting too old for video games, that I’d moved on.

I was wrong.

Pushed by frustrations with my Mac hardware, in late 2017, early 2018 I made the rash decision to sell my MacBook Pro and build a gaming PC. The switch didn’t last, and I’m back to Mac for basically everything, but that leap back into and embrace of the word of Windows ranks as one of the happiest decisions I’ve made in years. It pushed open the gates as surely as that first PC sitting in my family’s den had done. I could play what I wanted which meant I could game again (rather than “play Warcraft“). And it has been glorious.

One of the first games I bought was Bethesda’s Fallout 4, this post is an unexpectedly long preamble to my ravings about my experience playing it. That will have to wait for the next post though.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Sirius Black has escaped from Azkaban and word is that he’s out to get Harry. In school, there’s the usual competition around the house points and the Quidditch Cup and the kids are learning real magic now (“Expecto Patronum!”). But bubbling throughout is the other stuff: a prof keeps foretelling Harry’s death, Malfoy’s working to have one of Hagrid’s hippogriffs executed, Dementors are conjuring up Harry’s memories of his parents’ death and, worst of all, Ron, Harry and Hermione aren’t getting along.

In the final chapters, everything swirls together so quickly my eyes hurt from trying to read fasterfasterfaster. Scabbers—who I spoke about over and over with my brother, always in admiring, loving terms—is a traitor! Sirius Black, after spending ten years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, is after the rat—seeking vengeance, yes, but also to protect Harry. The new Defenses Against the Dark Arts teacher, appropriately named Lupis, is a werewolf. He’s also a friend of Sirius and of Harry’s father, and he’s also out to catch the traitorous rat. In the final scenes, Hermione and Harry step back in time, saving Sirius, saving Hagrid’s Hippogriff, and saving Harry.

These books are plotted like steam engines, but what makes them come alive are the characters who feel like flesh-and-blood creations. Snape especially remains a mystery. At this point, I can’t see him being any good at all, and yet, I’m rooting for him.

Don’t be evil, Snape.

The Wife (2018)

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.

Edmond

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.

Incredibles 2

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?

Boy Erased

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…

Winter Creek

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.

Facebook. Gangsters.

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.

Peanuts, Shades of Magic

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.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

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.

The Shades of Magic Trilogy

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.

Weep, Shudder, Die: A Guide to Loving Opera

I grew up in a house that didn’t really listen to music even though I took violin classes when I was young and my sister played flute. The stereo I bought with money from my first job was the first in the house (that worked) and I didn’t know anything about what I liked or didn’t. At university, I learned to pick out basic chords on a guitar. More importantly, I took some introductory music theory classes taught by Suzanne Summerville, a teacher I adored and who invited me to study singing with her.

For the next few years, every semester, nestled in among all the history, math and political science I was taking for my very oddly constructed BA degree were the credited private lessons with Dr. Summerville. We met twice a week for an hour and I learned to make sounds on key and to work with an accompanist. I also sang in her university chorus and at recitals where she introduced archival music from her research. She was a specialist of the then much-less-known Fanny Mendelssohn (the sister of Felix) and for end-of-term juries, I always prepared German lieder—often Schubert, sometimes Wolfe—and American piano songs.

When I think back to my undergraduate studies, it’s those lessons that come first to mind because it was Dr. Summerville who, in our long rambling conversations about art and music, laid the foundation for what became my education. That she took me under her wing despite my utter lack of knowledge and extremely limited talent was a gift of love and I still wonder why she chose me to receive it. But then, she was a generous teacher, and I imagine I am not the only student who felt as specially chosen.

Anyway, I continued to sing casually after I left Alaska but stopped studying and no longer performed. Once I got to Montreal and moved into apartments with thin walls I mostly stopped singing completely. Instead I began to listen to vocal music—classical, yes, but also increasingly, and then obsessively, jazz. But recently classical singing has again become something I listen to often.

This renewed interest has roots reaching back years ago to when I was introduced to my first opera by a friend who offered tickets to see La Bohème at the Met Live in HD series downtown. I went and was astonished. Everything I loved about cinema and theatre were here fused with beautiful singing. I thought of opera as old-fashioned, maybe a joke and didn’t realize it could be so beautiful. I was overwhelmed and—to my surprise—reduced to exultant tears. Since then I’ve watched a half dozen of the Met projections, but no one else I know is more than hypothetically interested. So it’s been easy to skip buying tickets in favor of doing things that family and friends like and we can do together.

But I’m interested in opera! I enjoy it! So it annoys me that I don’t know anything and haven’t made an effort to see more. So finally, during winter holidays this year, I did a bit of research and decided that over the course of the year I was going to make a not-haphazard tour of a bit of the opera repertoire using the Met’s Apple TV app. My thought is to have something like a regular Sunday-afternoon opera. That’s my thought anyway.

Levine’s book is an introductory reference and one of the books I’ve ordered to help me figure out what to watch. It’s light and I read through all the framing materials in the early part of a morning. But the lists of works and brief contextual information is useful for where I am. I’ll have it at hand for the next few months I think.

Roma

Roma is beautiful and heartfelt. I enjoyed it a lot. Like good art often does, it made me want to make something of my own.

Roma is also a film made by someone steeped in a certain history of European art cinema. Rossellini and Fellini are the principle touchstones but there are others. What I can’t sort out is what purpose these touchstones serve. Citationality and influence are fundamental to art but here it’s unclear to me whether the film imagines a viewership that recognizes the citations and thinks through them intertextualy or whether it it includes them simply as signs in a performance of “quality” within a new mass distribution system.

For me, the references too often felt like winks or like a cribbed aesthetic. Neither are necessarily faults: winks are fun and the working within an established aesthetic—especially one this gorgeous—can be admirable. But I kept wondering what the references meant rather than what they pointed to or looked like. Roma—even the name is a citation—is not Nights of Caberia or Journey to Italy. It’s something else. It’s somewhere else. And I keep wondering if the Neo-realist intertext says anything about these characters and their stories or whether instead it simply marks them as “legitimate” by announcing that “these stories, these characters, this place are as serious and valuable as those stories, those characters, that place.”

I would like to see more films with the depth and beauty of Roma. As much as I love sci-fi, fantasy, the Marvel and DC behemoths, the thrillers and action-adventures, there’s a mammoth absence in the contemporary cinema. What I love and what I miss are those dramatic films that run the gambit from the earnest mid-budget quality films of studio subsidiaries to the small, sometimes cheeky sometimes ambitious festival independents of auteurs both new and established.

Roma offers me that kind of film and I really love it. Yet it also has the feel of a floor sample designed to showcase what streaming as a distribution and funding model might make possible for filmmakers. I’m not sure I buy what it’s selling in this regard (despite wanting to) but the fact that I perceive the sell so clearly and can see that sales pitch as the object of the intertextual references gives me pause.

Le Prénom

A joke gets out of hand when people, angry and lashing out, reveal thoughts, feelings and dalliances they’d previously kept to themselves. The baby name—which I expected to be the focus of the film—is simply a first step in a chain of events.

I don’t know if people outside the drama, meaning the people I pass by in the streets or work with or count as friends, have relationships that could survive exchanges like those shown here, but these characters do. And the fact that they do, feels life affirming. I think most people are too small to survive them with friendships intact.

…which is much too bleak and much too serious a comment for a film based on comedic theatre. Generically, the film will necessarily be about relationships made more sure by threats to their continuance overcome together. My tragic sensibility is out-of-step and misplaced…

Call Me by Your Name

I’ve never written about this film except in side comments made in other logs. Mostly this is because I don’t know what to say. The film overwhelms me and continues to do so each time I watch it. And now, a year and multiple screenings later, I’m still not able to separate myself from the experience enough to pull it apart. I simply love the look sound people and story of this movie and it touches me deeply enough that after all this time, I can still wind up in tears while watching it.

What I can say after my most recent screening, is that three moments stood out to me as capturing the moral or ethical stance of the film.

The first: the father’s rightly celebrated and nearly too beautiful and honest to seem possible talk with Elio on the couch at the film’s end. The father doesn’t reduce love to make it easier. Instead, he loves fully, offering himself up and showing as best he can by example and words why love’s worth the struggle and the pain. He points the way toward love, offers encouragement, but also leaves Elio the dignity of his own search and of his own way. The speech is lifted nearly word for word from the novel, but Michael Stuhlbarg’s and Timothée Chalamet’s performances in this moment make that speech on its own a work of art.

The second, again at the end of the film: as Elio returns from the train station, the young woman he had sex with while he struggled with his feelings for Oliver tells him she’s not mad, says as a question that they will be friends. Her love is not only about her and not only about need. Neither is his. They are for each other even if they are not everything for each other. So Elio responds “pour toujours.”

The third: a man and a boy in love but unable to speak except to pick and to annoy. Elio holds out the arm of a Greek bronze, asks “Truce?” Oliver shakes the beautiful bronze hand, says “Truce.” The boy, the man and the father end the day swimming together in the lake. They are people with bodies and feelings, minds and desires, finding their way to themselves and to each other through art and through the nearness of the world.

These moments capture I think something of the sensibility of the film. There’s more to say, surely, but I don’t know how to say it. Maybe later.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The world doesn’t need me to say anything about the Harry Potter books. In fact, when I mentioned to my brother that I was going to read them along with my twelve-year old niece who is right obsessed with them, he suggested I was probably the only person on the planet who hadn’t yet. When I told him I hadn’t seen the movies after the first two, I’m not sure he knew what to say and just told me the third was his favorite.

All of which is to say that I’m reading these books more-or-less fresh and without much to influence the experience other than ambient cultural knowledge. So what do I think?

This first book is definitely for children, which makes it a quick read, but the characters are well done and the tone genuinely happy. I laughed aloud more than once. So it’s good, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next.