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.


Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies (2009)

Ha! I’ve been fussing at the old rosary of whether activist drama has any usefulness whatsoever, and then I stumble across this play in which the author shrewdly avoids the need to answer that question by instead simply stating it. It’s an exquisitely and numbingly honest setup: Two idealists are racked with doubt about their ability to change the world. Making themselves and each other miserable. One of them decides to just give up. The other one decides to just keep trying. They both remain racked with doubt and miserable. The end!

This is a great example to pull out when you hear someone complaining that such and such a movie, novel, play, etc. is “formulaic.” Life is formulaic!

Ruined, Lynn Nottage (2009)

The use of rape as an instrument of war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most horrific ongoing crises in the world today. Lynn Nottage and Kate Whoriskey traveled to the DRC and heard the stories of many rape victims first-hand. Nottage used this material to write this play, which Whoriskey directed.

I can think of few other examples of works of art which so vividly demonstrate the problem of the representation of human depravity. That problem being that on the one hand, one wishes to see terrible crimes brought to light, in hopes that once exposed they will be ended and punished, but on the other hand one despairs to see the indescribably horrible described, since any such description inevitably minimizes the scope of the crime.

Nottage’s play succeeds for me in theory, because it draws attention to a crisis which is not receiving enough attention. But it fails in practice, because it turns that crisis into a narrative, with types for characters and a classic Freytag pyramid for a plot, and so provides a coherence, structure, catharsis, and sense of resolution which the reality in the Congo does not possess.

I’ve been asking this question of myself for twenty years, and I know I sound like a broken record, a whiny American bourgeois, a useless intellectual who would have been shipped out on the first train to the pig farms during the Cultural Revolution, but the question persists regardless, namely, how does the politically-engaged artist ensure that the audience won’t feel they’ve already done something to help just by experiencing the art?

Enron, Lucy Prebble (2009)

Can you tell I’m trying to find a play or two to use for my “Uses of History” course this fall?

It seems clear that Prebble’s play loses more than most by just being read on the page rather than seen on the stage, since apparently the production itself is a real extravaganza of dance, music, zippy high-tech effects, and so on. Spectacle is no doubt an appropriate mode for this story, which is all about the use of smoke and mirrors to occlude reality. The play itself is loose and lively, with lots of fast-paced short scenes stitched together, rather than long lugubrious capital-D dramatic scenes. I’d have to see it to say much more, but this seems to me a promising mode for coping with the problems of depicting historical realities on stage.

In my comments on David Hare’s The Vertical Hour, I opened up a little vein regarding Anglo/American relations as played out, so to speak, through the vector of theater. Add this to that, filed under Interesting and Unexplained: Prebble’s play was a smash hit in London but absolutely bombed when it moved to Broadway. Thoughts?

Venus, Suzan-Lori Parks (1996)

I only read this, I didn’t see it. That’s an image from a Public Theater/Yale Rep production directed by Richard Foreman.

I really loved Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, but this one was a big disappointment for me. It was disappointing in an interesting way, though, namely, it’s a vivid instance of the imitative fallacy: Parks makes a spectacle of Saartjie Baartman as she attempts to condemn those who made a spectacle of Saartjie Baartman. I rush to make clear that I well understand that Parks has created her spectacle out of sympathy, while Baartman’s captors acted out of ignorance and cruelty. Still, this is a play which makes little to no effort to empathize with Baartman’s plight; instead, she is set down on the stage, presented for our consideration, and talked about. Which is to say, she’s made a spectacle of.

Elizabeth Alexander wrote a book of poems about Baartman, and Barbara Chase-Riboud wrote a novel about her, and those works, like Parks’ play, also seemed to me sadly flat. I commend all three authors for trying, since this is a story which exemplifies in microcosm so many forms of repugnant injustice and prejudice–racism, sexism, and colonialism, for starters–and so, I think, is an important one to tell. But it seems that when a particular situation is so overwhelmingly blatantly obviously horrid, artworks which try to represent it often just sort of point at it and say, “Look. Look how horrid.” Which of course we already know.

But does that mean Baartman–or Auschwitz, or My Lai, or Emmett Till–shouldn’t be represented by artists? Certainly not! I’m just saying that artists who pick up subjects like these have set themselves up for some serious challenges, to say the least.

The Vertical Hour, David Hare (2006)

Didn’t see it, just read it, but I think it’s as much meant to be read, as the characters spend a lot of time reading off position-paper type speeches along the lines of

People who blame materialism blame it because they feel it doesn’t nourish them. And you could say it’s true: materialism, by definition, isn’t heroic. In the West we no longer prize heroism. People no longer want to do dangerous, outstanding things. All they want is to live as long and as comfortably as possible. And so this new Western ethic of survival, simply surviving as a human being–merely surviving–as though the world were everything, and the manner in which you live in it secondary–seems to other people, other cultures . . . well, ignoble.

This and much like it is delivered not in a classroom or on a political talk show, but at dinner. I sometimes host dinner parties, and I think many of my guests might well hold opinions not dissimilar from those expressed above, but I can’t recall any of them fulminating quite so explicitly over wine and salad, as if they were explaining the world to a sixth-grader.

That said, I found myself quite enjoying the way Hare manages to leaven his extended flat political speeches with a fairly bubbly Albee-ish family drama, wherein a creepy but brilliant father playfully bats at his faithful but dull son’s lover, a Yale professor who’s so desperate to do the right thing at every moment that she almost never succeeds.

I’m sure much hay was made of the fact that the men are British and the woman American — Hare offers commentary throughout on the different ways in which the two nations do power, war, gender, politics, education, medicine, et. al. — but that sort of thing both bores me and makes me feel sorry for the British, because when they they appear so bent on defining themselves on the basis of their differences from us, as they so often do, it just makes them look pathetic. (A hint for the Commonwealth: The opposite of affection is indifference, not disdain. We know you love us “underneath.”)

Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama, David Mamet (1998)

“What comes from the head is perceived by the audience, the child, the electorate, as manipulative. And we may succumb to the manipulative for a moment because it makes us feel good to side with the powerful. But finally we understand we’re being manipulated. And we resent it. Tragedy is a celebration not of our eventual triumph but of the truth–it is not a victory but a resignation. Much of its calmative power comes from that operation described by Shakespeare: when remedy is exhausted, so is grief.”

“Drama doesn’t need to affect people’s behavior. There’s a great and very, very effective tool that changes people’s attitudes and makes them see the world in a new way. It’s called a gun.”

“The purpose of art is not to change but to delight. I don’t think its purpose is to enlighten us. I don’t think it’s to change us. I don’t think it’s to teach us. The purpose of art is to delight us: certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It’s no more elaborate than that.”

“I don’t believe reaching people is the purpose of art. In fact, I don’t know what ‘reaching people’ means. I know what Hazlitt said: It’s easy to get the mob to agree with you; all you have to do is agree with the mob.”


“The avant-garde is to the left what jingoism is to the right. Both are a refuge in nonsense. And the warm glow of fashion on the left and patriotism on the right evidence individuals’ comfort in their power to elect themselves members of a group superior to reason.”


And many more bossy but glossy little gems.