Matterlightblooming and Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the Bardo

In an ancient cemetery on a hill near Washington D. C. the dead-who-know-not-they-are-dead rise from their sick boxes at night to cavort, cajole, console and wonder, wander, ponder. They have developed their own culture, their own shadowy cadence of “living” in this self-inflicted purgatory, patiently waiting for some sign to know what to do next, while fellow spirits vanish in the matterlightblooming and others join them in fresh sick boxes, an eternally spiraling phantom world of temporary inhabits…ships passing in a melancholic feverishly nightmarish harbor where the waters are haunted by memories of thier life in that other place from before they so long for…

One such spirit is left dispirited by another (who committed suicide)…exclaiming…

“You did not give this place a proper chance, but fled it recklessly, leaving behind forever the beautiful things of this world…Forgoing eternally, sir, such things as, for example: two fresh-shorn lambs bleat in a new-mown field; four parallel blind-cast linear shadows creep across a sleeping tabby’s midday flank; down a bleached-slate roof and into a patch of wilting heather bounce nine gust-loosened acorns; up past a shaving fellow wafts the smell of a warming griddle (and early morning pot-clangs and kitchen-girl chatter); in a nearby harbor a mansion-sized schooner tilts to port, sent so by a flag-rippling, chime-inciting breeze that causes, in a port-side schoolyard, a chorus of childish squeals and the mad barking of what sounds like -” (p. 140-141)

Apparently in George Saunders’ purgatorious bardo, every ghost is a poet…and a grammarian champion of the semi-colon. Saunders’ ghosts go through the metaphysical motions, getting bawdy like Shakespeare in their regaling of tales and nihilistic like Beckett’s Godot waiters…waiting, for something…someone…to rock their boats. Continue reading

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Let’s Have a Chat Upon Arrival

arrival_02

The arrival of Arrival in American theaters couldn’t have come at a more poignant time just after the most contentious and draining of elections. In cinema there has always been a fine line between entertainment and art, and the greatest of films are often rendered great through the cultural lens through which they are viewed.  I (and I’m sure many others) might read too much into the fact that the alien’s arrival on Earth occurs on an otherwise calm, fine Tuesday in Autumn. Fear and rioting ensues.

In steps a linguist (Amy Adams) and a scientist (Jeremy Renner) to help the US Government figure out why the aliens are here…and most importantly, do they mean us any harm? One of the central themes of the film is the importance of communication…cutting through language barriers to find common ground and how we have to work together to avoid disaster. One of the other central themes of the film is that the most common of grounds might be grief. It’s all at once timely, hopeful and a little bit sad.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s melancholic and seemingly always tracking camera (the opening shot scans under a dark ceiling stretching out toward the dull light coming through a window overlooking a beautifully serene lake) sucks you in from the get-go while Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” plays on the soundtrack before Amy Adams’ philosophical and heartbreaking voice-over begins. I breathed a deep sigh (of relief), as I knew instantly we were in the hands of a master at the height of his craft. Richter’s music has been used in many films before this, but here it sounded new. When not employing the Richter theme, master of minimalist tension Johan Johannsson seeps under the celluloid skin with nerve-shattering precision. Meanwhile, cinematographer Bradford Young’s use of light and color compliment Villeneuve’s probing eye. And all three – artist, musician, and cameraman – work cinematic wonders in those slow-burn scenes of our wondering wanderers wandering down that dark tunnel to the light…and the otherworldly conversation at the end. Continue reading

Well, He’s No Solomon…in Love & Friendship

Love & Friendship

Mild-mannered, well-groomed, high-stakes, period-piece social satire reigns supreme in Whit Stillman’s sharp film adaptation of a “lost” and incomplete Jane Austen novella.  Austen simply titled it after her conniving, widowed but still lively anti-heroine Lady Susan (played with perfectly vivacious high-brow snark by Kate Beckinsale), but Stillman plays on Austen’s “Blank & Blank” template and renames it Love & Friendship.  The title itself a rouse, much like the import of debutante season in Stillman’s Metropolitan.

As in the most superior of Austen or Stillman works, high society types are on display in all of their entertaining mannerisms and foibles.  The two authors separated by centuries seem a perfect marriage, as humor both scathing and dry, bites and blows across the posh manners, country estates and London townhouses where Susan plots to find both her and her daughter (Morfydd Clark) rich husbands to secure their futures.  Never do the characters seem aware of their preposterousness, as if all of life is a parlor game, and their scruples (or lack thereof) never are challenged even as gossip and innuendos challenge their lot and plot. Continue reading

Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is Everything that is Wrong with Modern Shakespeare Adaptations

Macbeth

In an unnamed tented wilderness (seriously, you could’ve convinced me these people were living in Mongolian yurts) some psycho (Michael Fassbender – all grit and style, no substance) starts killing people to become king while his libidinous, depressed wife (Marion Cotillard – wasted) pines for their beautiful Guns-N-Roses music-video-style-photographed dead child (buried…or burned…in the opening scene).  Eventually the action moves to some moodily lit chapels and castles where I finally realized the growling and whispering actors were speaking with Scottish accents (except Marion Cottilard – who spoke with….a….what the eff accent?)

Macbeth is allegedly an adaptation of my favorite Shakespeare play and I had no idea what was going on most of the time.  Kurzel’s adaptation (which incidentally has some 1980’s big-hair metal band meets Game of Thrones style cinematography from the otherwise talented Adam Arkapaw that could fool someone into thinking they are watching something dreadfully artsy) is completely incompetent.  For the most part, the film is slavish to Shakespeare’s language (when it’s not cutting key lines), which seems like a good idea (umm, considering Shakespeare’s dialogue is like the best dialogue ever written in the English language) except for the fact it is spoken by otherwise award-caliber thespians with absolutely no sense of feeling or nuance or wit or…well…anything. Continue reading

God Help the Reader in Toni Morrison’s New Novel

Toni Morrison God Help the Child Cover

It’s a strange, disturbing thing to read a contemporary Toni Morrison novel – a woman who has been at home for decades exorcising the demons of our collective American past.  Yet even in the present day, her characters are hung up on ghosts.  God Help the Child is a story, like all Morrisonian tales, woven in different voices, all tied to the cycle of abuse that starts in childhood and seems to never end.  There’s Sweetness, a mother who finds it impossible to love her too-dark child, Lula Ann.  There’s Bride, the reborn adult version of Lula-Ann, wielding her beauty like a scythe across the scorched western landscape.  There’s Booker, a man who refuses to let go of his dead brother who was brutally murdered when they were just boys.

At times, the abuse is overwhelming.  No one in this Morrison novel is left untouched.  It almost verges on melodramatic parody as each dark secret is revealed.  In some ways the novel comes across as a bourgeois version of Precious, where instead of an inner city girl, we have a fashionista – both surrounded by horrors that know no bounds.  Oprah and Lee Daniels must be drooling over this.

But Morrison refuses to let the reader get away that easily.  The novel can not be dismissed as artsy, exploitative trash.  The book is as insular, intimate and twisted as her A Mercy was expansive, remote and mangled (in oh so many beautiful ways).  Her handling of the surreal adds an otherworldly gravity to an otherwise modern tract.  Continue reading

The English Patient vs The English Patient vs The English Patient

“There are stories the man recites quietly into the room which slip from level to level like a hawk…She entered the story knowing she would emerge from it feeling she had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back twenty years, her body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.” – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

The desert of the mind is a seductive place.

The desert of the mind is a seductive place.

At age sixteen he was just beginning to learn of the world. There were things beyond…art houses in the city where stories from foreign lands and birthed in independence flickered in the animated darkness before communities of the willing. Amongst the suburban sprawl of his homeland across the river, the purveyors of these urban establishments spawned a megaplex like no other where established fare mingled with independent films and cross continental tongues whispered hotly in the darkness of small air-conditioned screening rooms smartly furnished. It was here his parents took him one night to see The English Patient.

Closing in on his 34th year on this earth and looking back (somehow having circled back to this suburban sprawl now naming a spot his adjacent to that very megaplex which has passed through as many hands as he has homes), he longs for those innocent days…that wonder of experiencing something on-screen he had never experienced before – a painterly, carefully constructed, flawed and blistering work of art splashed across a silver screen. A romance with the cinema was born then as he watched the elliptical tale of human frailty and survival against the backdrop of the world’s greatest war.

Continue reading

Cat Fight: Fiona Apple and Brandi Carlile

The sailors say, “Brandi, you’re a fine girl…”

Fiona! Don’t look away!

It seems like just the other night I was telling a friend, “I’m really not that BIG of a music guy.”  Yet here I am writing about music again because in my head Fiona Apple and Brandi Carlile are having a huge Seinfeldian cat fight.  MEOW.

Both ladies seem to have been conceived in the womb with music in their heads and are known for their startlingly unique vocal abilities, and both have new albums (their fourths) that dropped this June, but that’s about where the similarities end. 

Though she’s roughly my age, it seems like Fiona Apple has been around forever and still to this day is the epitome of big-city, sad-eyed, late 1990’s grrrrrl angst.  It’s as if when she was a naif she decided to respond to the Grunge movement of the early 1990’s by scatting and writing the most densely complex lyrics only to be sung as if Nabokov’s Lolita was crooning old standards.  She defies categorization, and she’s probably one of the only artists working today who can still be considered “alternative”….ah…remember alternative music?  Meanwhile it’s hard to believe Brandi Carlile (not much younger than Apple) is delivering her fourth studio album as well, as she still sounds like a breath of fresh air coming out of nowhere (the wilds of Alaska I’m told) and is the epitome of small-town, folksy-countrified-rock that brings to mind flannel shirts before they were grunge, wading in cool creeks, skipping rocks and the 1970’s.  Fiona Apple is a tempestuous storm raging atop the surface of the sea while Brandi Carlile is still waters running deep. Continue reading

Coming Home in Toni Morrison’s New Novel

Frank Money.  I can’t think of a better, more ironic, name for the hero of Toni Morrison’s new novel, Home.  In only 148 short pages (somehow I picture Toni Morrison on that old game show Name that Tune proudly declaring, “I can name that tune in zero notes!” like she could divine what the song will be; and she herself does not waste a single note, syllable or word when she composes) she takes us Home – to an emotionally and psychologically damaged Korean war vet trying to find his way back to Georgia to rescue his little sister from some deep trouble.  More so than any past novels, this one is about as straightforward and accessible as a Morrisonian narrative can get, though there’s a brilliant little conceit where between chapters Frank Money is speaking directly to Morrison and reveals some gut-wrenching secrets.

As she paints for us Frank Money’s journey, Morrison gives us glimpses into the lives and mindsets of people marginalized by society and peppers her tale with those signature Morrison observations, including one passage that playfully argues the only logical response to Truman dropping that atom bomb was for the subculture to create bebop and scat.  There’s also a great little episode where Frank Money is taken in for the night by a good Samaritan whose young son (a precocious and determined math wiz) interrogates Frank about his time in Korea and ultimately how if felt to kill a man, and how Frank’s responses color the boy’s view of this strange guest in his house.  The boy’s “deep” his father had warned Frank…but when asked what he wants to be when he grows up, the boy responds to Frank succinctly, “A man.” (pg 33) Continue reading

Memories, Incidents and The Cat’s Table of Tall Tales

My favorite piece of short fiction to appear in The New Yorker last year was hands-down Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table – a poignant and evocative piece about an eleven year-old Sri Lankan boy’s coming of age on the high seas while sailing on a rowdy cruise ship (The Oronsay) to boarding school in England. 

I was overjoyed to discover it was part of a larger novel released in October of last year.  I was puzzled to find the story that appeared in The New Yorker was not a straight excerpt and had instead been parsed and elaborated on in long form during the first half of the novel of the same name.  In this extended tale, the full twenty-one days of the early 1950’s voyage are realized and a parade of new characters traverses the decks. 

The Cat’s Table refers to the not-so-enviable table in the back of the dining room where the young boy (Michael) sat along with two other boys (the wild Cassius and the sickly Ramadhin) and a rag-tag team of adults including a jazzy wisdom-spewing washed-up musician (Mr. Mazappa) and a mysteriously quiet English bird-lady (Miss Lasqueti).  The unsupervised trio of rascals have the run of the ship, exploring every nook and cranny and soaking up every story and incident from the revolving door of worldly adults in the their midst.  Mystery and adventure, but also misfortune and melancholy soak the ship as it heads half-way across the globe touching on Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Continue reading

I’ll Never Get Out of This Book Alive

I pride myself on always finishing a book, no matter how arduous it is.  There have been plenty of bad juju page-turners I’ve eagerly slogged through over the years…cough cough  – The Da Vinci Code – cough cough  – The Ruins.  Hell, I even got through the vile piece of trash that was Clive Barker’s Mister B Gone.  I don’t know if it’s the writer or the masochist in me – but I always finish a book. 

Well…almost always.  Some books I just can’t seem to pick up after putting them down – those anti page-turners.  Some of these may actually be good books but just not my cup of tea, and I struggle to return to them when a Raymond Carver collection is sitting on my shelf or the latest issue of The New Yorker has just arrived. 

Right now I’m suffering through a double whammy with two novels that couldn’t be farther apart in theme and style -Steve Earle’s new psychedelic Baby Boomer ode to the 1960’s, I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive; and the uber-classic big thick novel that is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  Despite my most valiant efforts, I can’t seem to finish either one of them, and I fear they may join my short list of dun dun dun…. Continue reading