Literary and Cinematic Hat Tricks

Anil's Ghost: A Novel

“Most of the time in our world, truth is opinion.” – pg 101, Anil’s Ghost

In the chaos of war-torn Sri Lanka in the 1980’s, a Sri Lankan born forensic anthropologist trained in Britain and America, returns to her homeland on behalf of a human rights group and teams up with an archaeologist to solve the mysteries of unidentified skeletons, as likely to be remains from an ancient burial site as they are to be the recently desecrated and burned corpses of victims of terrorism left in a jungle ditch.

While reading Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost, a novel so rich in immutable sadness and beauty I’m not even sure what happened at the end, only that it was beautiful and sad and unforgettable like the very best and weird dreams are, I started to think about the run Ondaatje was on when he published it. Most artists are lucky if they produce one great work in their lifetime, and the masters can typically eek out three great works if they are prolific enough over many decades. It’s absolutely staggering to think that Anil’s Ghost came directly on the heels of In the Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. There is absolutely no doubt that this tryptic represents Ondaatje at the very height of his literary prowess, and his ability to churn out these three masterpieces one right after the other is something of a miracle. How many novelists or film auteurs have performed this hat trick, having produced their three greatest works sequentially? I scanned across my favorite authors and filmmakers to see if anyone matched Ondaatje (realizing of course this would be a highly subjective exercise based on my own opinions), and I would dare my fellow writers, readers, and film buffs to do the same and see what they come up with… Continue reading

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Coming Through Slaughter and the Evolution of Michael Ondaatje

Buddy Bolden

Above: the only picture of Buddy Bolden (top, second from the left)

Coming Through Slaughter, a piece of poetic historical fiction that attempts to channel the mysterious genius and insanity of jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden, was Michael Ondaatje’s first novel (published in 1976) though one must use the term novel loosely. I had the pleasure of seeing Michael Ondaatje speak at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month, and he touched briefly on Coming Through Slaughter, and how it was a bridge between his earlier poetry and his later more refined (though still free flowing and organic) novels.

Along with Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje is probably my favorite living novelist. Coming Through Slaughter shares some stylistic and thematic traits with Morrison’s 1992 masterpiece Jazz (one of my favorite novels of all time). Both attempt to lyrically copy the cadence and spirit of the music in written form, but while Morrison’s work features many voices riffing on each other, Ondaatje’s is a singular voice that goes on a solo performance into madness. Morrison’s novel is slinkier, like forgotten notes from a dozen songs cat-pawing through a moonlit room whispering their spooky secrets. Ondaatje’s type of jazz is more gritty, virulent, like an unending trumpet blast ear-worming into the sweatiest, dirtiest, darkest spaces. Continue reading

My Favorite Film Scores

It’s been two weeks since I experienced it in the theater, and I still can’t get Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk out of my mind.  It’s the best film of 2018 and one of the best of the decade, by the way.  I encourage you to see it in a theater with someone you love and then tell everyone you love about it.

One of the big reasons it continues to haunt me is Nicholas Britell’s extraordinary score.  The themes he created (especially “Eros” and “PTSD” and “Hypertension”) ear-wormed their way into the ever-present background music of my mind, and when they work their way to the forefront…Barry Jenkins’ images, James Baldwin’s characters, the performances, and most importantly, the feelings all come rushing back.  When I first heard “Eros” in the theater in the context of a poignant love scene, I instantly thought, “This might be one of the best film scores of all time.”  Then there was “PTSD” like a hammering heart building up to a panic attack in the background of that scene where Fonny’s friend, fresh from prison, slowly reveals his thoughts on his brief stint in prison and the worst part of it…the fear.  It’s echoed later in “Hypertension” when a racist cop harasses Fonny and Tish outside an Italian market.  You feel the fear not just through the characters, but through Britell’s music.  I knew right then, indeed, Britell had composed something for the ages.

My favorite film scores often mirror (and elevate) my favorite films.  They can’t be extracted from the context of the film they help breathe deeper life into.  When I hear the music in my head, images and feelings from those beloved films rush through me.  Memories from my life at the time I first saw the film, or from ensuing years where thoughts of the film or revisits punctuated pain, joy, and transitions often mix with the memories of the film.  All of it forming a rich tapestry or sound and images and feelings. Continue reading

My Favorite Novels

Mantlepiece Collection

Maybe it was reading The Telegraph’s list of greatest novels of the 21st Century (we’re only 15 years in, people!) that I found to be absolute bollocks…

Or maybe it was looking back on a post I wrote in this blog’s infancy (pre-spin, when it was just davethenovelist) where I listed what I proclaimed to be the Greatest Novels of All Time (which of course meant the best novels I had read up to that point in my life) and realizing how much I had read in the seven years since then and thinking about what that list would look like today.  How many new entries?  What would still make the cut, and would the passage of time have colored my opinion on significance, fondness and ordering?

Or maybe it was watching “The English Patient” episode of Seinfeld for the umpteenth time on TV tonight that got me thinking…damn, The English Patient…Ondaatje…that has to be one of the greatest novels ever, right?  (Spoiler alert: IT IS!)

At any rate…I’m keeping this one simple and asking you to share your own lists. 

What are your favorite novels?

Here are mine: 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

The Study of Film through Seinfeld

We thought we were watching TV, but the TV was watching Film.

“I hope you’re watching the clothes, Elaine – because I can’t take my eyes off the passion.” – J. Peterman on The English Patient

And no show in the history of the television medium has been more passionate about film than Seinfeld – yet another reason the sitcom has weathered the test of time and is still funny to this day.  Tied to its central conceit of being a show based on observational humor surrounding the minutia of ordinary lives, Seinfeld‘s keen observations on how film defines a culture, has the ability to rescue us from our own suffocating mediocrity, and how one’s taste in film can shape their character is one of the big reasons I still watch in endless re-loop episode after episode after episode.  And I dare you to name another defunct show that is still quoted and discussed on a near daily basis in offices across the country.  It’s because like the greatest of films (or the worst deserving of ridicule), through Seinfeld, we learn about ourselves – and more importantly – how to laugh at ourselves.

Seinfeld‘s greatest running gag was its references to fake movies – the most famous of which was probably Rochelle, Rochelle – an art-film about “a young woman’s strange erotic journey from Milan to Minsk.”  It was first featured in one of my favorite episodes of all-time, the charming almost now period-piece-like, “The Movie” where the gang haplessly tries to meet up at the cinema for a showing of CheckMate (a high-class thriller of political intrigue we are to assume).  Continue reading