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These endless summer days I ingest culture faster than I can process it. In addition to a lot of material about PTSD, which I’m reading for a writing project, this is what’s been passing in front of my eyeballs. 

White Material, Claire Denis (2009). Denis goes back to Africa. Isabelle Hupert makes me nervous. The politics here are a mess, totally confused. A good example of how sloppy thinking likes to masquerade as ambiguity. But it’s Claire Denis, so of course we must still love it.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010). Just letting the camera keep running on a lifeless scene doesn’t make it Cassavetes. This is a deeply boring movie.

Another Year, Mike Leigh (2010). Another heartbreaker from Mike Leigh. It’s not really a story so much as it is a kind of temporal vitrine, in which are displayed a half-dozen fully-realized characters, interacting with each other and trying to be alive.

True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen (2010). Lacks the Coen whimsy of Fargo, etc. and also the Coen fatedness of No Country for Old Men. Fine, but neither here nor there.

F for Fake, Orson Welles (1973). Sloppy, self-indulgent, self-important, gimmicky, dull. And that’s coming from someone who’s genuinely interested in and who has great patience for this theme. Poor old fucker.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010). Nice doc. Lots of fascinating footage of Village life in the 60’s.

The Fighter, David O. Russell (2010). Stolid family drama, worth seeing. Has the kind of genuineness and moral seriousness of purpose you rarely see at the multiplex these days. It’s about a hundred times less interesting than, say, Raging Bull, but I think contemporary audiences are so incredibly grateful when they’re not pandered to, they wind up thinking something like this is art for the ages.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay (1994). Perfect idea, poorly executed with slack, repetitive prose and a lot of unnecessary self-dealing.

Speed the Plow, David Mamet (1988). Dialogue perfection. Perfect dramatic efficiency.

Still Life: A Documentary, Emily Mann (1982). Really lively, allusive, slippery drama about the collision of eros and thanatos in the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran.

Lethal Warriors, David Philipps (2010). Philipps didn’t ask for this job; he was a sports writer in Colorado Springs when the “Band of Brothers” started coming back from Iraq and killing each other and others. Philipps does an admirable job of stepping up and becoming a real reporter, covering some of the saddest stories of the war. Good, thorough, clear reporting. See also the Frontline episode, The Wounded Platoon.

Louie, Louis C.K. (2010-). Makes Seinfeld look like Happy Days.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni (1975). Oh, it’s horribly pretentious and aimless and even sometimes irresponsible, but it’s also of course gorgeous and dizzying poetry. I had to go get my camera to take pictures of it. Then I had to spend an hour planning a trip to Andalusia. 

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Been clambering up this Alp since May. Certainly skimmed some of the later Settembrini discourses, but I genuinely enjoyed almost all of these 700 pages. Took extensive notes elsewhere. This is utterly worth your time. Read it while you’re young. What’s it about? It’s about a young man who decides — the verb is too strong — to absent himself from history.

Port of Shadows, Marcel Carné (1938). Oh, France. Merci pour Michèle Morgan.

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Zeitoun, Dave Eggers (2009). Eggers tells the story of a remarkable family in a very easy-going and simple voice.


Animal Kingdom, David Michôd (2010). Stark, crisp, finally melodramatic.

Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (2010). They should show this as a curtain-raiser before every war movie. War isn’t hell, or glory, or dramatic; it’s tedious, confusing, and random.

The Town, Ben Affleck (2010). I’ve never much cared for Affleck, but this is twice now that he’s turned in some really fine work as a director.

Howl, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman (2010). Wow, totally unwatchable! I made it up to the part where they’re on drugs and everything turns into an undersea cartoon or something.

Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy (2010). Sly and fun.

Friday Night Lights (2006-). Has there ever been a more emotionally manipulative show? This thing constantly makes me cry, even though there are precious few characters I really have any sympathy with. It’s weird.

The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998). I got weirdly hooked on this for a while there. Shandling is on the one hand hard to watch and on the other I can’t turn away.

Four Lions, Chris Morris (2010). This seemed like a bad idea. I had to check. It was.

The Next Three Days, Paul Haggis (2010). This was tight and gripping. Haggis knows what he’s doing.

The American, Anton Corbjin (2010). Lifeless.

The Social Network, David Fincher (2010). Eh.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick (1964). Every other year or so.

Marwencol, Jeff Malmberg (2010). Very nicely done.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct, Jean-Francois Richet (2008).
Mesrine: Public Enemy #1, Jean-Francois Richet (2008).
The French are so easily seduced by even the most caricatured image of the outlaw. Richet thinks he’s showing us Mesrine’s pathos but all that really comes across is how much he worships the man. Still, this is super entertaining and great to look at.
The Way Back, Peter Weir (2010). Almost absurdly epic. Absolutely worth the afternoon.

Colonel Chabert, Honore de Balzac (1832). Superb.

Salt, Phillip Noyce (2010). I can’t remember anything about this now.

Cold Souls, Sophie Barthes (2009). Anything with Paul Giamatti is worth a look, in this case only barely.
The Tourist, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (2010). 
The Green Hornet, Michel Gondry (2011).
Two incoherent and atrocious payday films from relatively interesting directors. It’s almost like they’re trying to be as contemptuous of you for watching this dreck as they can be.
Fair Game, Doug Liman (2010). This is the dramatization of the Plame affair and one of the best films I’ve seen about the Bush administration’s post-9/11 rush to judgment. Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are both terrific. Highly recommended. 
Even the Rain, Icíar Bollaín (2010). Nice conceit, nice try, but it turns out a muddle.
Etc. etc. etc.

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Sometimes the rate of my consumption of culture outpaces my capacity to reflect upon it. Here’s what’s passed through my head of late:

The Wire, David Simon et. al. (2002-2008). I believe this displaces The Sopranos as the best television I’ve ever seen. If you’ve seen it you already know what I’m talking about; if you haven’t seen it, you should. There were of course some passages that were more successful than others–I for one found the invented serial killer idea too clever by half–but on the whole this is a masterpiece. I was very sorry when I ran out of episodes, but then I realized that this story is of course far from over; all you need to do is read the Sun paper now and then and imagine the episode Simon would have wrought from the day’s news. Here, this one took me about forty seconds to start scripting in my head.

Just Before Dark, Jim Harrison (1999). What a pleasure to read Harrison’s collected nonfiction about Leelanau by a lake just northeast of Muskegon on a July afternoon.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, Joan Didion (2006). What a pleasure to read Didion’s collected nonfiction in the air over California’s central valley. Old and new favorites. Too bad this edition’s pages are so thin.

The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil (1930-1942). Oh my stars. I’m only on page 500 or so of the some 1200, and I’m going to have to put this away now that school’s started, but I feel like it’s OK not to read this straight through, and I also, frankly, feel like I’ve mostly gotten what’s on offer here, namely deliciously incisive diagnoses of a grand society striding confidently toward the edge of a cliff. I can’t think of any other novel that so decisively nails the 20th century’s disastrous obsession with progress. “With a little attention, one can probably always detect in the latest Future signs of the coming Old Times. The new ideas will then be a mere thirty years older but contented and with a little extra fat on their bones, or past their prime, much as one glimpses alongside a girl’s shining features the extinguished face of the mother; or they have had no success, and are down to skin and bones, shrunken to a reform proposed by some old fool who is called the Great So-and-so by his fifty admirers.” Paging Ross Perot.

The Ghost Writer, Roman Polankski (2010). Whew, Polanski’s just oozing decadence these days. This is supposedly a thriller about a CIA plot to, you know, take control of everything, but Roman can barely be bothered to flesh out any of the absurd plot points; he’s too busy setting up beautifully lit shots of fog and sad adulterers. Beautiful photography, but not really a movie. The amazing house on the beach at Sylt receives more attention from the director than do any of his stars.

The Green Zone, Paul Greengrass (2010). Essentially a continuation of Greengrass’s Bourne movies, in that Matt Damon takes on the entire corrupt U.S. military-industrial complex and wins. This one is purportedly set in the “real world,” though, namely Baghdad’s green zone. The movie is absolutely absurd, but the takeaway for the action movie crowd at the mall is that their government lied to them about Iraq, and that’s a truth I’m delighted to see promulgated as widely and effectively as possible.

Who Killed the Electric Car?, Chris Paine (2006). Muddily structured but useful. I really had no idea this was going on when it was going on.

The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke (2009) does for 20c European history what Bergman’s so-called “trilogy of faith” (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) did for God. Namely, shows it to be incomprehensible and cruel, but absolutely beautiful to look at in luminous black and white. Go back and look at those Bergman films, though, and then look at this again, and see if you don’t feel, as I did, how creepily clean Haneke’s images are. Maybe I’ve been spending too much time in Lightroom, but The White Ribbon feels like a masterpiece of post-production as much as anything.

Colorado Territory, Raoul Walsh (1949). Walsh remakes High Sierra as a western, with Joel McCrea in the Bogart role. Nice enough for a Sunday afternoon, particularly if you like Virginia Mayo, which I do, but a minor Walsh by any measure. I like the hideout in the ruined village of Todos Santos.

Bad Day at Black Rock, John Sturges (1955). Sturges also directed The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and The Eagle Has Landed, among many others. Notice a theme? Manly men in conflict with other manly men. This one fits. A strange and small picture, in which Integrity (played by Spencer Tracy) squares off with Deceit (Robert Ryan) and comes out ahead. Atmospheric and nice to look at for a while, but finally the claustrophobia that Sturges is trying to engender just turns into tedium.

A Single Man, Tom Ford (2009) has its affecting moments, but is mostly, probably predictably, an exercise in style. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the style brings pleasure. Some here does–lots of beautiful California summer light, lots of fantastic bric a brac to ogle–but someone really should have steadied Ford’s hand on the post-production dials; the gimmick where he keeps making people pale when they’re sad and rosy when their faith in humanity (and/or libido) is restored is tacky and emberrassing.

Band of Brothers, various authors (2001). The Pacific is way better, and do you know why? Because this is pre-9/11 triumphalism, and that is post 9/11 realism. That’s oversimplifying, but really, the difference is amazing. In Band of Brothers, PTSD is represented as tough luck that befalls the weak. In The Pacific, it’s clearly shown that those who appear not to have PTSD are the truly weird ones. Like I said, The Pacific‘s a great example of how our understanding of historical realities is shaped by our present historical circumstances. So is Band of Brothers, unfortunately.

Music in rotation: Tosca, Up Bustle & Out, Jazzanova, Cal Tjader

Three Novellas, Joseph Roth

We have here “Fallmerayer the Stationmaster” (1933), “The Bust of the Emperor” (1935), and “The Legend of the Holy Drinker” (1939). I suppose the last of these is the most famous (partially because Roth died not long after writing it and partially because it seems to offer autobiographical insights), but my favorite is the middle one, which sums up Roth’s keen sense of the social, political, and cultural dynamics of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in a single bittersweet parable. All three short pieces are well worth the read.

Rendezvous, William K. Howard (1935)

Delightful vehicle for the always-enjoyable William Powell and a feisty newcomer by the name of Rosalind Russell. Pretty lively for a spy picture of this vintage, featuring lots of good humor as well as some cleverly thought-through espionage bits. Russell isn’t great yet, but it’s fun to watch her knowing that in a scant five years she’ll be Hildy Johnson, one of the greatest comic roles ever played.

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On sabbatical and taking my notes elsewhere, but here’s what’s been passing in front of my eyes.

Tarabas, Joseph Roth (1934). Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. A parable of eastern Europe’s transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries.

The Good Soldiers, David Finkel (2009). Up close account from embedded journalist during the “surge” of 2007. Mayer and Hersh remain the most impressive political accounts of the Iraq war; this book demonstrates better than any other I’ve read what it’s like to fight in Iraq.

In the Loop
, Armando Iannucci (2009). Not as fun as I thought it was going to be; the jokes are repetitive and eventually predictable. I was fixated on the mise-en-scène, which sometimes felt like that ersatz-documentary kind of The Office vibe and other times like a cool Michael Clayton slick.

Office Space
, Mike Judge (1999).
Idiocracy, Mike Judge (2006).
I was pleased to see these at last, after having realized how often they get referenced. They’re pretty dumb, but fun.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
, Phil Lord & Chris Miller (2009). Charming cartoon about believing in yourself and not wasting food.

The Curtain
, Milan Kundera (2007). A history of the novel, an argument for its importance, an education on nationalism, an intellectual memoir, and, here and there, a manual for being human. I stopped underlining because I was underlining everything.

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert
1830-1880, Francis Steegmuller, ed. (1980 & 1982). Went here at Kundera’s behest. Delicious, wicked, vital.

The Hurt Locker
, Kathryn Bigelow (2008). Yes, good, fine, and all the more reason to love Bigelow if you didn’t already, but kind of a disappointment for me, since I’ve been reading so much nonfiction about the war, and I chafed a bit at seeing the soldiers’ experiences shaped into a narrative and invested with pathos. The terrifying thing that Finkel (vide supra) makes so clear is that just because a tour of duty elapses over linear time, that doesn’t mean it’s a narrative. He shows how the soldiers struggle with that fact; when they’ve got a month left in their tours, they’re aching to have a sense of the story of the year, of progress made, crises resolved, etc., but that’s not how it works. All that said, this is a terrific movie; my complaint is basically based on the fact that it’s a movie, and that’s really not fair.

Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror, Peter Jan Honigsberg (2009). Repetitive, smug, and unnecessary if you’ve read Philippe Sands’ Torture Team. A great disappointment. Massively dull and technocratic one minute, puffed up with bombastic indignation the next. Ugh. Big regret that I got it in hardcover.

Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty, Tony Hoagland (2010). My thoughts here.

Also:
The Long Meadow, Vijay Seshadri (2004). Mannerist, but I like it.
Squandermania, Don Share (2007)
Deniability, George Witte (2008)
Factory of Tears, Valzhyna Mort (2008)
National Anthem, Kevin Prufer (2008). This is a terrific book.
On Crimes and Punishments, Cesare Beccaria (1764)
War Bird, David Gewanter (2009)

Knight Without Armour, Jacques Feyder (1937)

Sat down with this only because I’m always willing to spend a couple hours with Marlene Dietrich; little did I know it would harmonize so well with Camus’ Les Justes, which I’ve just read with my summer school students. Indeed, the film’s second act begins with a revolutionary throwing a bomb into an aristocrat’s carriage.

This is a wonderful movie, a brilliant illustration of the literal meaning of the word “revolution.” Callous aristocrats are driven from their estate by the Red army, which then lines up Tsarist sympathizers and guns them down. The next day the estate is retaken by the White army, which then lines up Socialist sympathizers and guns them down. The male lead is an upper class Brit send into the revolutionary organization as a spy who then become himself politicized, but then later rescues an aristocratic woman imperiled by the revolution. As always, the poor are forced to pledge ideological allegiance to whomever is holding a gun to their heads; sometimes they have to change their politics three times a day.

As a side note, it’s interesting to see a historical drama which was made at a time closer to the events it depicts than it is to the time at which you’re watching it. Does that make sense? In 1937, the revolution was just twenty years old, and there’s a strange sense, watching these scenes, of how palpable and immediate those events were at the time the film was made, which serves to reinforce how vague and distant those events are to us today. I can’t quite put my finger on this sensation. It’s the double remove, perhaps, of watching a historical historical drama. Somehow it lends the representation an uncanny sense of the real.

Blah blah blah. See it not for the sake of my metahistoriographical maunderings but for Marlene Dietrich in soft focus, hiding from her pursuers under a bower of fallen leaves in a birch grove. And for the shellshocked station master announcing the arrivals and departures of invisible trains.