The Phoenix

phoenix“They have also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I myself have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed it is a great rarity, even in Egypt, only coming there (according to the accounts of the people of Heliopolis) once in five hundred years, when the old phoenix dies. Its size and appearance, if it is like the pictures, are as follows. The plumage is partly red, partly golden, while the general make and size are almost exactly that of the eagle. They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible, that he comes all the way from Arabia, and brings the parent bird, all plastered over with myrrh, to the temple of the Sun, and there buries the body. In order to bring him, they say, he first forms a ball of myrrh as big as he finds that he can carry, then he hollows out the ball, and puts his parent inside, after which he covers over the opening with fresh myrrh, and the ball is then of exactly the same weight as at first. So he brings it to Egypt, plastered over as I have said, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun. Such is the story they tell of the doings of this bird.”

Herodotus, people.

I haven’t kept up with the blog in about a year. I’ve been in mourning for a failed writing project and obsessed with photography. Like a beaten dog slinking back into the yard, I am slowly returning to the written word, and I resolve to keep up with my reading, viewing, and listening here in 2013.

Some scraps from the unpublished posts of 2012.

Open City, Teju Cole (2011) I’ve wondered what an American Sebald would sound like. Cole provides a useful and provocative redirection for the question. The ways Cole thinks through history, space, literature, memory, and tone are consistently provocative, but as in Sebald, the overall impression remains one of stillness. A deceptively simple novel. I want to read it again in a year.

I wanted to like HHhH more than I did; it seemed unnervingly slight, too playful. I enjoyed Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was amateurish but affecting. I had to switch off a number of movies for intolerable violence, including Savages and Lawless. This is unusual for me; either the violence is getting worse or I’m getting less tolerant or both. In Moonrise Kingdom I saw Wes Anderson beginning to imitate himself and it made me sad. Cronenberg’s Freud movie was stupid; I don’t think Cronenberg has one single thing left to say and as such his attachment to Delillo’s Cosmopolis makes a great deal of sense. Almovodar’s The Skin I Live In was awesome and irresistible. That one I could go on about. The superficial level of the film being “about” identity politics — you could certainly lead a rousing discussion about the performance of gender in the film with a room full of students — but what really fascinates me is its crazy structure and pacing, like a 19th century generational novel crossed with TMZ.

Plus a bunch of other stuff I’m sure, but like I said, in 2012 I mostly spent my spare time watching photography how-to videos on YouTube and wondering if I’d ever write another word. I’m going to try to keep up this year. I’ll also post some photos from time to time, I think.


Blogman’s Holiday

I’ll be blogging at the Poetry Foundation’s web site for the next three months and for money! So I may be here less. This is probably a disappointment to no one but me. I’d be grateful if you’d post comments regarding the genius of my posts over there, to trick my new employers into thinking that I’m earning my pay.


Getting ready to teach course on terrorism and torture in June. Cheery summer reading/viewing:

Hany Abu-Hassad, Paradise Now
Albert Camus, The Just Assassins
J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale
Don DeLillo, Falling Man
Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden
Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah
Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony
Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Here’s hoping my students have strong stomachs.


Wanted, Timur Bekmambetov. The Da Vinci Code meets The Matrix meets La Femme Nikita. Is AJ all that? Yes, she is.

The Question, Henri Alleg. More bravery in a month than I’ll muster in my life.

Shaun of the Dead, Edgar Wright. Documentary about contemporary English culture.

The Namesake, Mira Nair. Hackneyed narrative transposed onto inscrutable culture attempts to pass as original.

Strategic Air Command, Anthony Mann. Weird one from the great Mann. Made just two years before the Beckettesque desolation of Men in War, this film’s a hymn to the constant nuclear vigilance of the SAC. Some of Mann’s usual darkness definitely creeps in around the edges, but on the whole it’s pretty sleepy.

Operation Crossbow, Michael Anderson. I heart cable WWII flick. George Peppard infiltrates buzz bomb factory. Double crossing and Sophia Loren.

The Thin Man, W. S. Van Dyke. A marriage to aspire to. Makes your liver hurt just to watch.

White Heat, Brenda Wineapple. Delightful account of the correspondence between Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. My review is here.

Bush’s War. Brilliant, comprehensive documentary from Frontline covering the Bush administration’s machinations from 9/11 to now. Watch it online. Costs only your time and your lunch, which you’ll lose.

Film History 101

My consort never had occasion to take a film history class in school, and has wearied of not being able to make pretentious references to Godard like the rest of us pedants. So she’s requested a short course, and I’ve spent the weekend putting together a syllabus for us. Posted here for reference, and also so that I’ll stop fussing with it. Comments as we go along! Should be a summer’s worth of fun. With thanks to Gilberto Perez, whose “Art of Film” course, which I took exactly twenty years ago, changed my life forever for the better. The list below uses Perez’s syllabus as its spine.

Joel’s History of Film to 1980 or So

In the Beginning
Lumière et compagnie – Poulet (1995)
La Voyage dans la Lune – Méliès (1902)
The Birth of a Nation – Griffith (1915)

The Clowns
The Kid – Chaplin (1921)
Sherlock Jr. – Keaton (1924)
The Gold Rush – Chaplin (1925)
The General – Keaton (1927)
Duck Soup – McCarey (1933)

Europe Between the Wars: Expressionism, Revolution, Surrealism, Decadence, Anxiety
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari – Wiene (1920)
The Battleship Potemkin – Eisenstein (1925)
Un Chien Andalou – Buñuel / Dalí (1928)
The Blue Angel – von Sternberg (1930)
M – Lang (1931)

The Last European
The Grand Illusion – Renoir (1937)
The Rules of the Game – Renoir (1939)

Hollywood: The Golden Melting Pot

Film Noir
Fury – Lang (1936)
High Sierra – Walsh (1941)
Double Indemnity – Wilder (1944)
Out of the Past – Tourneur (1947)

Stagecoach – Ford (1939)
Winchester ’73 – Mann (1950)
The Searchers – Ford (1956)
The Wild Bunch – Peckinpah (1969)

The Greatest Generation
It Happened One Night – Capra (1934)
Bringing Up Baby – Hawks (1938)
His Girl Friday – Hawks (1940)
The Shop Around the Corner – Lubitsch (1940)
Sullivan’s Travels – Sturges (1941)
Citizen Kane – Welles (1941)
Casablanca – Curtis (1942)
Shadow of a Doubt – Hitchcock (1943)
To Have and Have Not – Hawks (1944)
Letter from an Unknown Woman – Ophüls (1948)
All About Eve – Mankiewicz (1950)
The African Queen – Huston (1951)
Singin’ in the Rain – Kelly/Donen (1952)
Roman Holiday – Wyler (1953)
Vertigo – Hitchcock (1958)
Some Like It Hot – Wilder (1959)

Hollywood Becomes Sentient
Sunset Boulevard – Wilder (1950)

Freud in the Suburbs: The Tranquilized Fifties and Beyond
Rebel Without a Cause – Ray (1955)
All That Heaven Allows – Sirk (1955)
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul – Fassbinder (1974)
Far From Heaven – Haynes (2002)

La politique des auteurs: International Cinemas

Italian Neorealism
Rome, Open City – Rossellini (1945)
Bicycle Thieves – De Sica (1948)

Pather Panchali – Ray (1955)
Aparajito – Ray (1956)
Apur Sansar – Ray (1959)

Tokyo Story – Ozu (1953)
Ugetsu – Mizoguchi (1953)
Throne of Blood – Kurosawa (1957)

Hiroshima mon amour – Resnais (1959)
The 400 Blows – Truffaut (1959)
Breathless – Godard (1960)
Jules and Jim – Truffaut (1962)
Masculin féminin: 15 faits précis – Godard (1966)

L’Avventura – Antonioni (1960)
La Dolce Vita – Fellini (1960)
8 ½ – Fellini (1963)
The Conformist – Bertolucci (1970)

Persona – Bergman (1966)

Knife in the Water – Polanski (1962)
The Decalogue – Kieslowski (1989)

The 70’s: America Gets Interesting Again
The Godfather – Coppola (1972)
Pink Flamingos – Waters (1972)
Paper Moon – Bogdanovich (1973)
Chinatown – Polanski (1974)
Nashville – Altman (1975)
Taxi Driver – Scorsese (1976)
All the President’s Men – Pakula (1976)
Apocalypse Now – Coppola (1979)

Women (Sometimes) Get to Direct Movies Too
Meshes of the Afternoon – Deren (1943)
The Bigamist – Lupino (1953)
Fast Times at Ridgemont High – Heckerling (1982)
Born in Flames – Borden (1983)
Vagabond – Varda (1985)
Chocolat – Denis (1988)
Salaam Bombay! – Nair (1988)
Daughters of the Dust – Dash (1991)
The Piano – Campion (1993)
The Apple – Makhmalbaf (1998)
Boys Don’t Cry – Pierce (1999)
Frida – Taymor (2002)
Lost in Translation – Coppola (2003)
Yes – Potter (2004)
Letter from an Unknown Woman – Xu Jinglei (2004)
You and Me and Everyone We Know – July (2005)


Autumn. Reading to write reviews, teach, research, keep my head above water, but no time to blog.

Adrienne Rich
Natasha Trethewey
Graham Swift
Michael Ondaatje
Sigrid Nunez
Hayden Carruth
Alice Notley
W. G. Sebald
Srikanth Reddy
Christian Wiman
Wendy Rawlings
D. M. Thomas
W. D. Snodgrass
Lots of books about torture

Haven’t been to the movies in more than a month.


Is it possible that Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman have died on the same day? It’s going to be a long week of sleepless nights for film critics expected to generate posthumous appreciation essays.

I can’t begin to express my admiration for either of these two titans. When I was in college and beginning to discover movies as an art form, I wrote earnest, rapturous, and no doubt ridiculous term papers on them both. These years later I still need to watch L’Avventura or The Seventh Seal from time to time, particularly when my head gets too full of all the wonderful kandy-kolored klaptrap that passes for culture these days and I need the big black and white broom of an austere auteur to sweep me clean. And if you say that makes me pretentious, I say that makes you a sucker.