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.


Damages, Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler & Daniel Zelman (2007-)

This is one of the most claustrophobic and nasty pieces of television I’ve ever seen. There’s not a single likeable character, everyone is a lying and cheating power-mad narcissist out to stab everyone else in the back and then self-justify. Worst of all, no one even seems to enjoy the overripe fruits of their iniquitous labors. The show is completely humorless and profoundly amoral. Watching it makes me feel dirty and ashamed, but I’m halfway through it now.

Treme, Eric Overmyer and David Simon (2010)

This started slowly and creakily. Ours is a household that loves New Orleans, and we were wary. Despite all the protestations precisely to the contrary we heard the filmmakers utter in interviews, it seemed to us the show was bogged down in a lot of explaining, pandering, cliches, and oversimplification. Its New Orleans is a place where everyone eats rice and beans on Mondays, everyone knows who Kid Ory was, everyone dances second line every other day. I’ve been watching The Wire lately, and they don’t make everyone in Baltimore eat nothing but crabcakes; I think N.O. gets singled out for this kind of overtypification simply because it seems, to people from other parts of the country, like something of a foreign country. I almost want to call the show’s vision of N.O. a kind of orientalism. I hope viewers realize there are square people who live there, too. There’s only one square person on the show–a dentist–and he’s been banished to Baton Rouge.

All that said, things did pick up and we wound up sticking with it, even developing an iota of affection for the initally hugely irritating and grotesquely caricatured Steve Zahn (as Davis). I don’t know if we’re going to make it much further, though. Looking over the remaining chararacters, I find that the only one I really want to know much more about is the one played by Wendell Pierce (Antoine Batiste). I am fervently hoping that the troubled couple of young musicians (Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Sonny (Michiel Huisman)) fall off a ferry as quickly as possible.

The Pacific, Jeremy Podeswa (2010)

You could write a dissertation–someone probably has–on how successive generations of WWII narratives–movies in particular–have shaped the way we remember these events. This vivid and dynamic miniseries succeeds as a story because it has, obviously, the unity of opposites in spades, and also some quite idiosyncratic and well-developed characters to care about. But it also intends to revise or enlarge some of our assumptions about the war in the Pacific, and it succeeds at that too. First, it introduces, among the more familiar locations like Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, some less familiar but nonetheless devastating and crucial battles, like those at Peleliu and Cape Gloucester on New Britain. Second, the series contrasts–gently, gently, ever so gently–the nonstop hellishness of fighting in the Pacific, which could sort of be like D-Day every day, with the different type (i.e., less hellish) of fighting in Europe. Third, and most notable, the series deeply engages with the fact of the psychological trauma soldiers experienced during and after the war. “Shell shock” here isn’t ignored, mocked, covered up, or glossed over: It’s pretty much front and center the whole way through, which seems as much to reflect our growing contemporary awareness of the ubiquity of war’s invisible wounds as it does the historical reality of the phenomenon.

Maria Bamford

I watched John Oliver’s New York Standup Show — I’m not a big fan of standup comedy, it just happened to be on — and I thought Maria Bamford was alarmingly funny, or maybe funnily alarming. At one point she did an impersonation of a female comedian doing a set of cliche jokes for a comedy club audience (my boyfriend this, shopping that, etc.), and it was really trippy, because everyone in the audience was laughing, but you couldn’t tell if they were laughing at the jokes, or laughing at the fact that people laugh at jokes like that, or some combination. Nice.

Lost, J. J. Abrams et al. (2004-2010)

I recently watched the entire first season of Lost while trapped in a hotel room for four days. I like that the show’s name is just one letter away from an anagram of “plot,” because it seems to me a great example of how plot can be manipulated in such a way that the reader is always yearning for coherence and conclusiveness without ever being, well, lost. The program’s narrative line works very much like one of those morphine drips they give to hospital patients in pain: The first time you push the button you get a rush of thick, sturdy narrative, but over time the coherence begins to crack and fissure. You start mashing at the button for another hit, but nothing comes, until just when you’re about to holler for the nurse (or switch in disgust to a rerun of The Office), WHOOSH, here comes another wave of totalization. The effect reminds me of Lyotard’s idea that knowledge isn’t a condition but a phenomenon: local, ephemeral, transitory. However, like many a “postmodern novel,” the show’s cleverness resides solely in its system, not in its effects, by which I mean that once you figure out how the plotting works, there’s not much more fun to be had, by which I mean I don’t think I’ll continue on to season two. Unless the temperature stays in the teens, in which case I might want to see me some more Hawaii.

UPDATE 01/28/10. Just a week and a half since I wrote this smarmy post, and I think I’ve watched something like 275 more episodes. I’m somewhere in season 43 or thereabouts. I am losing sleep, not sorry, pathetic, etc.


All blogging energy still going to Harriet at the Poetry Foundation, but here’s what’s up on the home front.

Drunken Angel, Akira Kurosowa (1948). Beautifully shot but plodding story of an alcoholic doctor (not unlike Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory) determined to treat a self-destructive mobster with TB in postwar Tokyo. A kind of allegory of Japan trying to muck out its stalls. There’s a bubbling miasma right in the middle of the neighborhood just to remind us of where and when we are.

I Live in Fear, Akira Kurosowa (1955). Patriarch of a large family in the smelting business becomes so obsessed with his fear of nuclear weapons he insists on selling everything and moving to Brazil. The family doesn’t want to go, also doesn’t want to disrespect papa. A lot of long anguished silences ensue. Still, it got to me; Mifune’s absolutely terrific as the terrified and terrifying protagonist.

The Making of a Chef, Mark Ruhlman (1999). Ruhlman goes to the CIA and writes about what it takes to make it. Lively and engaged journalism, great fun if you’re the kind of person who enjoys debates over how dark a roux should be used in the making of brown sauce, which I am.

House of Games, David Mamet (1987). I’ve probably seen this ten times and it’s still really. really. good. It seemed kind of antique when it first came out, and has aged beautifully. The big red convertible seemed Twin Peaksish before there even was a Twin Peaks.

The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst (2008). One of my many guilty pleasures. Read more than half of this on a day of LGA delays while listening to Radian on the iPod. Was almost happy!

The Dark Side, Jane Mayer (2008). Probably the most significant and comprehensive account of Richard Cheney’s efforts to secure unlimited and incontrovertible power for the executive branch, and the inevitable results. The accounts of Jack Goldsmith, Dexter Filkins, Seymour Hersh, Phillipe Sands, and others are certainly also worth reading, but this one is the one to read if you’re only going to read one, in my opinion.

Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise (2009). Yuck! Way too noisy. Sounds like high school students covering Can songs. Had to listen to Millions Now Living ten times before I was able to forgive the lads for this betrayal of my love.

Dying City, Christopher Shinn (2008). This rather lightweight play, which uses the device of identical twins to investigate certain dualities to be found in human nature, was, amazingly, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Weak.

A lot of drama in current rotation. Bert Brecht (esp. Galileo). Georg Büchner (I hesitate to mention this name, since I am loving this book so much I don’t even want anyone else to know about it. Do you ever get that way about a book? It’s a weird feeling.) Mark Ravenhill (wildly overrated). Suzan-Lori Parks (fantastic, esp. Venus, but all of it is terrific). Genet, Lorca, Peter Weiss. On deck: Edna Walsh, von Kleist, Wolfgang Borchert.

TV worth watching: Smith. You can only watch this if you have DirecTV, and there are only seven episodes. CBS produced and then killed it in 2006-2007. It’s very good; Ray Liotta’s character has a lot in common with DeNiro’s in Mann’s Heat.

TV which might be worth watching; I can’t really tell: Weeds. I find this show very disconcerting, but completely addictive. It’s so weird. What does it even mean? Cheech & Chong + Three’s Company + Good Fellas. Or something like that. I suspect if I lived in California, it would just seem like a reality show. As it is, I’m bewildered but fascinated.