The Master of Petersburg, J. M. Coetzee (1994)

Coetzee Master of PetersburgNot my favorite of Coetzee and not his best, but a remarkable book, amazing to me not least simply because he manages to accomplish here such a complex braid of the historical, the personal, and the imaginary without losing his head. It’s nervy enough for a novelist to take up Dostoyevsky as a protagonist and presume to present the Master’s interiority. Coetzee goes a good deal further by transposing elements of his own relationship with his son onto Dostoyevsky’s with his. He further presumes to write in manner instantly recognizable as Russian-esque, as if he’s working on a kind of stylistic etude. Scenes oscillate between metaphysical speculation and intense sensory realism; the eternal questions of class, religion, and revolution are constantly in play; a chained dog in an alleyway or a battered white suit in a musty valise become occasions of terror and pity.


Coming to this straight from Pelevin’s Omon Ra, I’ll say a word about sentences. In Pelevin the sentences always seemed to be slipping through my fingers, never quite meaning what they seemed, often seeming to mean something other or more. What a contrast to Coetzee, whose sentences seem built stone by stone, every one a kind of temple with the aura of having always existed. I know such authority is a species of illusion, or worse, but the tiny fascist in me (almost everyone has one) does thrill to it.


Omon Ra, Victor Pelevin (1992)

omon raThis is a brilliant and heartbreaking little novel which I first read years ago and enjoyed just as much the second time around. Omon is a postwar Russian kid who dreams of transcending the banality of his circumstances by becoming a cosmonaut. The Soviet state is happy to help him do so, since his desire dovetails perfectly with the state’s desire to project an image of achievement and glory to the world. In the end it turns out all parties have been deluding themselves and each other; transcendence and glory turn out to be induced hallucinations. In the sacred profane tradition of Gogol, the story’s both tragic and comic, naturalistic and fabulous.

And to extend that last point, from a writerly point of view, I marvel at the way Pelevin segues seamlessly from the realistic to the absurd and back again, so that as a reader, you find yourself in a sort of hall of mirrors, where the unbelievable seems inevitable and the simplest explanation impossible. I wouldn’t know for sure, but it seems a perfect stylistic match for what life must have been like behind the Iron Curtain.

My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski, Werner Herzog (1999)

Well, you have to have a serious predisposition for these two madmen to find any pleasure in this, and if you do have the predisposition, you’ve probably already seen this. It’s somewhat about the relationship between two quite thoroughly co-dependent collaborators, but it’s also a “making-of” documentary about Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, which is a lot of fun for nuts like me.


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.


The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro (1995). Limpid prose kept me reading all 9000 pages, but there’s not much there there.

Youth in Revolt, Miguel Arteta (2009).
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Edgar Wright (2010).
Cleverish enough, I guess. I like this Michael Cera fine, but why can’t the protagonist in these things ever be a girl?

Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham (2005). Cunningham’s a lovely writer sentence by sentence. The concept seemed too high-concept for me at first, but I grew into it and wound up enjoying this a great deal.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (2010). One of the last great showbiz workaholics.

The Decalogue, Krzysztof Kieślowski (1988). If you’ve seen it, you know. If you haven’t, you should.

Style Wars, Tony Silver and Henry Chalfant (1983). Terrific, fascinating documentary about the rise of graffiti and hip hop culture. Amazing to see NYC in the early 80’s and realize how much time has gone by. Provided me with at least one long-sought source for a sample I’d wondered about: “You only specialize in one thing, you can’t call yourself the all-out king.”

Foul Play, Colin Higgins (1978). Second only to Seems Like Old Times on my list of Hawn/Chase childhood favorites. One of those 70’s flicks that’s simultaneously total fluff and highly clever.

The Informers, Juan Gabriel Vasquez (2004). There was no reason not to like this, but for some reason I couldn’t engage with it.

Spies of the Balkans, Alan Furst (2010)
The Arms Maker of Berlin, Dan Fesperman (2009)
WWII espionage fiction: My annual holiday indulgence. A return to form for Furst, who seemed to me to be phoning it in the last few times. I blame Fesperman for not being Furst, but that’s of course unfair.

The Kids Are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko (2010). This isn’t perfect, but it’s very good, and it gives me a lot of hope. A reasonably serious and insightful story about a family of two moms and two kids going through a crisis of confidence, written and directed by an out Lesbian. Some might say that the achievement of the movie is that it doesn’t even matter that the parents are gay, that it’s just a story about a family crisis. That’s only about half true. The parents’ Lesbianism is integral to the story, but it doesn’t determine the story. To me, this seems like a tremendous achievement; the piece neither claims special status for the couple nor asserts that this couple is just like any other. The view of human sexuality on offer here is also refreshing. It ain’t Foucault, but it’s way more sophisticated than the permanent adolescence Hollywood usually peddles in the bedroom.

Ghostwritten, David Mitchell (1999)

I enjoyed this, but it’s uneven. Like Robert Altman and (sometimes) Jim Jarmusch, Mitchell likes to get one narrative rolling, then leave it behind and start an apparently unrelated one, only to show you, further on, that the first and second are actually parts of a whole. Then he introduces a third, fourth, and so on, each time providing a little jolt of pleasure when you recognize how each fits into the whole scheme. That’s fun, but here a lot of the connections seem arbitrary to me — maybe I’m missing something? That’s entirely possible — and some of the sections are a little formulaic, which is my nice way of saying boring. The author of the wonderful Cloud Atlas is hereby forgiven this early ho-hummer. (I haven’t read the new one everyone was chattering about a couple months ago.)

Homicide, David Mamet (1991)

People who rent this thinking it’s going to be a police procedural must sure get annoyed. Mamet’s first film, the indispensable House of Games, established his interest in the confidence game. His second, Things Change, was about the tensions between loyalty to one’s self, one’s friends, and one’s tribe. Both of those themes are present here, plus a new emphasis, on race, that has of course persisted as one of Mamet’s preoccupations.

All three of Mamet’s first movies employ Verfremdungseffekts to such extremes that they risk complete collapse. Here, the gun battles are absurd (Mamet could have saved some money by just putting up a title card saying “Gun Battle”); the dialogue, as is traditional in Mamet, is by turns histrionic and a stuttery mess; and many of the situations seem to be transpiring not in this world but in a world of archetypes and metaphors. I adore it. It occurs to me that it kind of feels like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy.