We should have known better: The best movies from the 2010s.

23 Dec

(part of this essay was adapted from The South Never Plays Itself, forthcoming from NewSouth Books. The book is coming out soon!)

1.
The decade is ending; pop culture still reigns supreme. Disney stands as an entertainment juggernaut, owner of 21st Century Fox, Marvel Comics, and Star Wars, and the movies from these franchise properties rake in more cash than the GDP of entire continents. We are inundated with superheroes and space opera. That’s the story of the 2010s.

Sort of. As critics deliver their best-of lists in music and television and novels and films, we look for patterns, themes, premonitions. Some critics look for takeaways. Others value the new. Some films will make almost everyone’s list: The Master, Mad Max: Fury Road, Boyhood, and Get Out. Some critics toss in a challenging movie like The Turin Horse—a great but grim movie, by the by—or some stylized, re-imagined noir like Drive. Some include well-made garbage, like Blade Runner 2049, or second-tier films from great directors; Moonrise Kingdom and The Hateful Eight, I’m looking at you. Most lists include The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie I regard with utter disdain: facile, lengthy, vile, and, worst of all, boring.

Some contrarians will elide popular/major releases altogether, as if the movies haven’t always been an uncomfortable mix of commerce and art.

The proliferation of streaming platforms has resulted in a cascade of content. Netflix and Amazon changed the game. Other companies followed. Movies that used to go straight to video now end up in your recommended list. Most are utter shit. Watching movies has become complicated, and the onslaught of choices is part of the problem.

What was this decade about, anyway?

In retrospect, the 2010s are hard to understand. We had the first black president; the continuation of two endless wars; a hardline, parliamentary Republican party roaring out of a much-needed healthcare overhaul; the proliferation of smart phones; the full transition to streaming content; the rebirth of a hostile Russia; the retreat of liberal democracies; spiraling refugee crises and a dozen, splendid little wars; and the election of greed incarnate in the United States. The promise of the 1990s—the multicultural, Internet-will-free-you-end-of-history—and the optimism of the Obama years gave way to full and total retrenchment. It is a delirious, glorious, punishing time to be alive. (As of this writing, the president has just kicked three million new people off of food stamps. Merry Christmas, eh?)

The bastards took over. And, if you were paying attention, the movies took notice.

Everyone seemed to be asking the same questions: Where are we going? What do we care about? Where does fiction end and reality begin?

Taking in an entire decade’s worth of films—eight thousand or so—is an absurd task. The Irishman should be on my list, as I can’t stop thinking about it. I haven’t yet seen The Parasite, helmed by my favorite living director, or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And I haven’t finished Marriage Story, but halfway through, it is flawless.

My best-of list appears in part 3—and I’ll understand if you skip ahead—but first I’m going to make the case for the movie that captures the zeitgeist of the decade most completely, not the best movie but the best film that shows what the decade felt like as we were living it: 99 Homes.

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2. Released in 2014, 99 Homes uses fiction to examine the fallout of the 2008 housing crisis, focusing on a working-class family run into the ground. It is a relentless, blood-chilling saga of the dark torrents of capitalism. Realistic, vicious, and heart-breaking, 99 Homes is set in a Florida of tourist-packed hotels and palm trees, corporate raiders vaping against a backdrop of beautiful, sun-drenched misery, and invisible working people, on the margins being gobbled up by invisible machines. The movie uses the same technique as The Messenger, taking a somber and sad situation but treating it as a thriller. And just like with The Messenger, it works.

The film opens with a dead-eyed Michael Shannon, playing a hardcase real estate/banking foreclosure handler named Carver, standing in the living room of a dead man’s house. The dead man has just committed suicide; he offed himself because Carver has just repossessed his house. The next scene has a construction worker named Nash (played by Andrew Garfield) who has not only not been paid for the last two weeks of construction work he’s been doing, he’s also been informed by a bored judge that his house, the one he grew up in, the house where his mother operates her hair-cutting business, is no longer his.

When Nash tries to plead with the judge he receives this stony response: “I have 40,000 cases just like this one.” And then the gavel.

He has his young son in tow, and the two of them both believe that they can appeal the decision, and that they have thirty days to do so. They are wrong.

What follows is one of the most harrowing scenes I’ve seen, a white-knuckle fifteen minutes where the police, acting as enforcers for the banking industry, force Nash and his mother (played by Laura Dern) out of their house on Carver’s orders, and then some local dudes remove all the furniture and belongings, leaving them on the front lawn, exposed to theft and the elements.

“You’re trespassing,” the cop tells Nash. Nash carts his family to a motel, where they join the swelling ranks of the other recently dispossessed.

Being poor sure costs a lot. No work, no prospects, no home, few possessions, and son to take care of: the walls around Nash get higher and higher and keep closing in. Is America a place where you can lose your home due to banking errors? Can an individual with connections to the banking establishment swoop in and steal your home? Yes.

To survive, Nash’s first job is literally to shovel other people’s shit. It’s a post-ironic display of 21st century suffering. He seeks out the only growth industry he knows, foreclosure, and ends up working for the very man who evicted him: Carver. He begins by doing work on a beautiful water-front house with rot setting in, but quickly proves himself in Carver’s eyes.

How’s the saying go? The third world is just around the corner. Here is a diminishing America epitomized in a Florida where dreams go to die.

Michael Shannon is the star of the movie, giving his rictus features over to a malicious, yet believable performance. He plays Carver as a world-weary, jaded hero of his own mind, an uber-mensch beyond good and evil. He’s seen it all, and refuses to acknowledge his role in the fuckedupedness of the whole shebang. He is obsessed with the bottom line, and full of loathing for the petulant, whining humans who crawl and beg all around him. He rebuilds Nash into a morally compromised person very quickly; in just a few weeks, Nash is armed, stealing from foreclosed homes, and evicting people in the same style he himself was evicted. Nash gets his home back—maybe—but at the expense of his soul, his decency, his moral sense. “Don’t get emotional about real estate,” Carver warns Nash, but what he’s really saying is, Don’t care about other people. There’s no money in it.

Carver is deformed, too, by the moral rot of the world around him. In a terrifying speech, an update of Gordon Gecko’s “Greed is good,” Carver lays out the whole stinking rotten mess: “Ask the banks why they gave them an adjustable rate mortgage. Ask the government why they lifted all regulations and turned a blind eye. You, the Tanners, the banks, Washington and every other homeowner and investor from here to China turned my life into convictions. . . . Do you think America 2010 gives one damn about Carver or Nash? America doesn’t bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out the winners. By rigging a nation of the winners, by the winners, for the winners.” Gordon Gecko lays out a vision of America as a vast panoply of interlocking businesses that is, in essence, a zero-sum game. There are winners and losers. Carver delivers a much more terrifying vision, an America that has losers and survivors, no real winners at all. Welcome to the 2010s.

Nash is propelled to the edges of the real estate, mortgage rates, and human decency. Nash and the people he devours all try to follow the rules and do the right thing. They hire lawyers. They file papers. They appeal to the decency of the courts. But they all lose their homes anyway. The threshing machine doesn’t just devour the guilty or the lazy or the unlucky; it gobbles up everyone.

99 Homes takes great care to how easy it is to slide into wrong-doing, to lie and cheat and steal and put your boot on the other person’s neck, believing that it isn’t actually impacting anyone. Everyone in the movie is caught in this giant machinery, whipping back and forth from helpless to predatory. We’re come so far from the optimism of the 1940s, or the 1990s for that matter, as to stretch our core beliefs that used to be the very definition of American. In many ways, the movie focuses on the burrowing maggots squirming beneath the perfect lawns in Blue Velvet. It’s grim and hard and impeccably made. And if the movie reduces itself into a tidy and too-easy single moral choice, it’s a Hollywood film attempting to dramatize a complex national tragedy.

Do people do the right thing? Can they? Is there any escape from the labyrinth of money and deceit? A superb examination of how good people are failed, 99 Homes offers no easy answers.

Near the movie’s end, Carver awakens a hungover Nash with a single line: “Good morning, Donald Trump. We got an eviction.”

An unscrupulous real estate agent, small pistol strapped to his ankle, vaping beneath a technicolor sky. This is Florida, America, civilization—vulnerable to the prowling jackals dressed up in non-descript clothing.

I hear you wondering, is 99 Homes entertaining? Yep. The pacing is superb; the movie rips along with set pieces, confrontations, and a ratcheting tension.

Other movies circled the same issues. The Big Short details the insiders who saw the coming crisis. The Queen of Versailles paints a portrait of how even the wealthy got walloped. Throw in Vice—where the shaggy, current manifestation of the deregulating beast kickstarted the crisis in backrooms and unofficial meetings—and Margin Call, and you’ve excavated the recent history that feels like it all happened 2000 years ago, and could happen again tomorrow.

Shannon’s Carver is the ultimate villain for where we are right now. He just doesn’t care. And he isn’t alone. Jeremy irons, in Margin Call, outlines how the boom-bust cycle works exactly as it’s supposed to in a chilling speech near the end of that icy film: “What, you think we may have helped put some people out of business today? That it’s all been just for naught? Well, you’ve been doing that every day for almost forty years.”

No one is innocent. How’s that for a coda for the end of the decade? We’re all part of a system that, despite whatever good things we think it does, tears people from their homes, shoots citizens in their cars, bombs the shit out of the middle east, routinely destabilizes central American countries, and, now, separates children from their parents, putting both pens and cages.

Our country is falling apart. We have a raging deficit, a minority party in power and the racist, nativist banshees we had trapped in our collective sub-basement howling through the body politic. We are in peril, and there are no superheroes to save us.

3.
On that happy note, here’s my best-of list, in no particular order:

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Once upon a Time in Anatolia—Funny, scary, beautiful, meditative, even sexy, this Turkish masterpiece follows a group of government officials driving around the countryside, looking for evidence in a murder. They find evidence, eat meals, argue over nonsense. They drive and drive. It becomes clear that some of the men are suspects, that no one is being perfectly honest, and they are looking for a dead body. Some movies seem to contain entire universes; this is one of them. As haunting a movie as you’ll ever see. The director followed up with the very fine Winter Sleep.

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Melancholia—Lars von Trier’s stunning end of the world tale begins with a wedding and ends with the destruction of everything. Maybe. Great art has to maintain mystery, and this movie does it with spades. Two sisters reckon with a rogue planet heading towards earth’s orbit. One embraces the end with sinister humor. The other resists. What sounds grim is often funny and thrilling. Unforgettable.

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The Master—Another movie that contains multitudes, a film the befuddled audiences initially and, just like There Will Be Blood has grown in stature. A rich and complex tale of hubris, madness, trauma, religious mania and the formation of a cult. A lonely, isolated veteran attempts to make his way through the world after returning from World War II. He can’t. He ends up in the hands of a L. Ron Hubbard figure, who uses and is used by the wastrel. Multiple viewings pay off; Amy Adams steals the movie, but on first viewing she barely registers.

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The Social Network—The beginning of the end, eh? David Fincher and Aaron Sorokin join forces to deliver the docudrama about Jeff Zucker and the foundation of Facebook. In Fincher’s always capable hands, the business decisions of a fledgling web platform takes on the air of an epic, world-shattering horror-tragedy which, in retrospect, is exactly what it was. Filmed with technique and brio.

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Springbreakers—Harmony Korine’s fascinating movie is both a wild crime jaunt and probing meditation. Four college coeds head to Florida for spring break. To pay for it, they arm themselves and rob a bank. Korine ruminates on hedonism, violence, American pop culture, and the way our country eats the youth. Unpredictable, with bizarre tonal twists and turns and a superb performance from James Franco, Springbreakers—which is also absolutely gorgeous—feels like the exclamation point to the end of the American empire.

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Hereditary—Toni Collette’s finest hour, and the most unsettling horror movie I’ve seen in 15 years, perhaps longer. Trauma has taken hold in a beleaguered family, and the psychotic atmospherics heighten the overwhelming feeling of dread. Usually in horror movies, the family offers safe haven from the world’s monsters; here the family is the danger. The director, Ari Aster, followed up with Midsommar, itself a pretty damn good horror movie. It Follows was my horror movie runner-up.

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Force Majeure—An austere, European art movie offering profound insights into masculinity and attraction. Also, it’s funny. A family goes on a ski trip. In a moment of weakness, the husband, Tomas, abandons his family out of fear of an avalanche. (He also, hilariously, grabs his phone first.) It turns out to be a false alarm, but Ebba, his wife, feels betrayed and bewildered by her husband’s irrational fears, as well as his inability to confess his weakness. He cannot admit to any cowardice. She begins to despise him. What follows is sort of a comedy, sort of a drama, kind of a horror movie, kind of a sociological treatise, and absolutely unforgettable.

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The Square—Director Ruben Ostland’s follow-up to Force Majeure, The Square tells the story of a museum curator who, through the course of the movie, loses his cell phone, has an affair, and runs afoul of an unscrupulous performance artist. Exquisitely filmed, with superb scenes, what could have been a one-note takedown of the pretentious art world is something much more complex, how mystery and enigma can enter a life. Uncompromising and dark, the film feels like something Michel Haneke might have produced, if he had a sense of humor.

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Frances Ha—The definitive statement about growing up and getting older. Frances is in her late twenties, still living like a college student, trying to fulfill her dreams of being a professional dancer, and hoping to keep her friendships in amber. Filmed in stunning black and white, the story of Frances’s disillusionment and reconstitution is a wonder. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach deliver the best movie of both of their storied careers.

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Get Out—Lightning in a bottle. Director Jordan Peele, famous for his sketch comedy show Key & Peele, presents a fabulous horror movie about white desires and black bodies. An urgent, and still relevant social message is rattling around in here, not that it matters. The movie is a funhouse thriller that works under your skin but is fun to watch. Perhaps the movie that best presaged our current miasma of systemic racism, white privilege, and the suburbs.

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Winter’s Bone—The little movie that could. Adapted from a very fine Daniel Woodrell novel, Winter’s Bone follows Ree Dolly, a teenager living in the Ozarks, as she is confronted with a stark choice: prove her missing father is dead, locate him, or lose the family property due to bond. Ree enlists the help of her terrifying uncle, Teardrop, and what follows is an astonishing family crime drama, filmed on location in the backroads and trailer parks of Arkansas. A tour of rural hell.

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The Act of Killing—The 20th century in miniature. Backed by documentary icons Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, this unsettling documentary follows two men responsible for ghastly atrocities after a coup in 1960s Indonesia. Their names are Anwar and Adi, and the movie consists of flamboyant re-enactments of their brutality. The director, Oppenheimer, pushes them to participate first as themselves and then, later, as the victims. Anwar in particular moves from jocular apathy towards his crimes to an existential despair; the act of playing his former victims tears the fragile psychic protections he had erected. The mass murderer transforms, in front of our eyes, into a human being.

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Birdman—A love it or hate it movie. I love it. Raymond Carver meets magical realism meets the bizarre acting career of Michael Keaton. Riggan, an aging actor, bets everything on a stage show that he is producing, directing and starring in. Things are not going well. A difficult co-star, his angry, formerly drug-addicted daughter, and a menacing alter-ego that no one else can see, Riggan is headed for an epic failure. Filmed in what appears to be a single take, Birdman is the brainchild of Mexican superstar Alejandro Innaritu, part of the wave of Mexican directors (including Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro). A dynamite comedy that is cynical and wild, held together by excellent performances. Innaritu followed this up with another superb film, The Revenant.

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The Grand Budapest Hotel—Wes Anderson’s finest movie since Rushmore, which is high praise. A hotel story replete with affairs, hijinks, hidden rooms, art thieves, henchman, dandies and killers, this 2014 movie manages to be fun, light, and airy while also delivering a somber, meditative rumination on the vanished world of pre-war eastern Europe. Ralph Fiennes gives the performance of his lifetime as a dapper concierge juggling schemes and affairs and the innerworkings of a grand hotel. The plot? Too byzantine and ridiculous to recount here. A dazzling confection.

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Hell or High Water—A caper-western hybrid that honors the roots of both genres with superb visuals and great scenes. Two brothers, one facing financial catastrophe, the other recently released from prison, embark on a bank-robbing spree, attempting to save their family farm and stave off disaster. Meanwhile, a Texas ranger (played by Jeff Bridges), seeks to outsmart the two thieves. What follows is a series of feints, ambushes, and robberies. Weirdly, it reminds me of Lonely Are the Brave. To people who say they don’t make ’em like they used to, I point to this movie right here.

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Midnight in Paris—Woody Allen’s best movie since Crimes and Misdemeanors. Owen Wilson plays Gil, a struggling writer on vacation in Paris with his fiancée, Inez (played by Rachel McAdams). Gil is nostalgic for the world he never knew, and one night is transported back to the 1920s. He rubs shoulders with the luminaries of the Lost Generation, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Porter, Dali and more. He is drawn more and more into the past, while in the present-day his fiancée is entranced by a blowhard academic (played to the hilt by Michael Sheen). A fabulous little movie about the weight of history and the downside of living in the past.

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Inside Llewellyn Davis—A misinterpreted little gem. Traumatized by the suicide of his former singing partner, folk singer Llewellyn Davis loses a cat, records a dumb song, gets beaten up, and travels to Chicago, among other things. The tone is downbeat, yet the movie crackles with a superb cast, great music, and a title character who is self-sabotaging. Every decision he makes is somehow the wrong one. Audiences mistook Davis’s trauma for misanthropy. The Coen Brothers best movie since No Country for Old Men.

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A Most Violent Year—The gangster film is alive and well. It’s 1981 in New York City, and Abel Morales runs a trucking company. He’s ambitious and talented, but he has a problem: someone is hijacking his trucks. Each theft sets him back thousands of dollars, and his wife, Anna, wants to strike back and use her family’s mob connections. Abel is being investigated by a district attorney with political ambitions, and Abel’s company rests in the balance. Oscar Isaacs and Jessica Chastain were two of the dominant actors of the 2010s, and here they crackle as the married couple living on the edge of the law.

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Moonlight—Steeped in the history of cinema, possessing a singular vision for his movies, and armed with not just top-shelf skills but also impeccable taste, director Barry Jenkins seemed to appear out of nowhere with this 2016 tale of a closeted gay black man living in poverty and on the edge of crime. Told in three distinct sections—young child, teenager and mid-twenties adult—this beautiful movie covers an astonishing amount of territory, while also telling a touching, intimate love story. And, yet, the movie is so rich, that this description doesn’t really cover it.

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Computer Chess—A bizarre, and very funny, lo-fi experiment. A group of early eighties computer nerds converge on a convention hall to pit their primitive artificial intelligences against each other. A comic, and quite gentle, chaos ensues. Filmed with cheap, early eighties equipment, and handled as though the proceeds are a local access TV special, the movie has a lot to say, about where the Internet really came from, what computers are actually good for, and how unsocialized polymaths shaped our culture from the fringes. An antidote to the three-hour special effects extravaganzas.

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You Were Never Really Here—My nod to the never-ending noir, crime and underworld films, always a proving ground for new directors. Joaquin Phoenix plays a traumatized mercenary named Joe. Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. Joe takes care of his elderly mother while grappling with the myriad demons of his past, and the suicidal thoughts that plague his present. Like any good noir, Joe is double-crossed on a job, and sets out to get revenge. An excellent movie with top-notch directing, a great musical score and yet another unforgettable performance from Phoenix, who killed all decade.

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Rust and Bone—One of my favorite movies, by one of my favorite directors (Jaques Audiard), and when I describe it to people—a bare knuckle fighter and a woman mauled by a killer whale fall in love—I always hear the same thing, that the movie sounds preposterous. It isn’t. It’s exquisite. An unsentimental love story that is brutal, sexy, unabashedly romantic and thrilling. Audiard went on to make Dheepan and The Sisters Brothers, both vastly different from Rust, both of them excellent.

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The Trip—Two actors playing versions of themselves travel around England’s poshest restaurants. They sit and eat. They talk. That’s the movie. But Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden, superb mimics with razor-sharp comic timing, invest the movie with wit, charm, dash, and the result is a rich and complex character study. Michael Winterbottom directs, and intercuts the two riffing and bickering with shots of the preparation of the food. There isn’t a clear metaphor and there doesn’t need to be. The Trip to Italy follows, and Coogan shifts his ruined roué into a man trying to be a good father, while Bryden begins fucking up his life. The third film is The Trip to Spain, probably the funniest of the three. The movies are a piece with Tristan Shandy, and taken together you have a sense of both men, their egos, their support structures, and their shortcomings. Each film has Coogan and Bryden dueling with impersonations, including Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, and Roger Moore. Hysterical, yet melancholy, too. They are filming a fourth movie, as of this writing.

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Too Many Cooks/”This is America”—Alongside La Jetee, the finest short movies ever made. Too Many Cooks is ostensibly the credits to a 1980s sitcom, only the music never ends. The cliched ’80s shows all appear, including cop dramas, science fiction, soap operas and sitcoms. The grating repetition seems to be the point, but a predatory presence invades, warping all the proceeds into a cannibalizing blood feast. When you think you’ve figured it out, it twists into something new, offering a sinister view of American pop culture as a weapon. “This is America” begins as a music video for pop culture wunderkind Childish Gambino. But it is so rich in metaphor and visual ideas, so complex in its layers of irony and symbolism and meaning, I watched it over and over. It deals with the place of black people and black culture in America, and how violence is rewarded. The things that seem important aren’t. And, the result of centuries of violent oppression is a generation of black children indifferent to their own suffering and the suffering of others. The two films together paint a terrifying picture of America and its future. If you aren’t nervous, you weren’t paying attention.

The Failed Mystics.

2 May

Reader, 

we do not know each other. 

So, whose voice do you hear in your head?

(It isn’t mine.)

 

1. Augustine, the Manichee

The kingdom of light holds no tension.

It was violated by the darkness

thrusting, grunting, growling

Fecund darkness

spreading, infecting, tainting.

 

The light cannot defend itself.

The dark can only attack.

The result: our world.

Fleshy meat sacs

encasing divine fire.

 

Good doesn’t fight; it doesn’t have to.

The darkness burns its own power.

Goodness is weak, 

but this weakness makes it strong. 

 

My ghostly, pale-faced brethren.

Eradicate desire.

No sex, little food, joy in the pursuit of the divine. 

Seek to release

that inner fire. 

Mortify the body.

Reject the flesh.

Don’t eat mushrooms.

Don’t eat snails.

Don’t clean thyself with too much vigor. 

Austerity! 

Don’t whisper it.

Yell it out over the desert sands. 

***

Focus on evil.

Follow the chain of events

from any evil act back to its genesis. 

Everything comes from something.

We’re left with one of two terrifying conclusions:

Evil comes from god

(and therefore some aspect of god is evil)

Or evil exists. 

Independent and alive.

One way lies fear, the other terror. 

If an aspect of god is evil,

Then he is not all-good.

If evil exists independently,

Then he is not all-powerful.

Don’t you see?

We are trapped either way.

Evil is at the heart of existence. 

***

We live in the great era of conflicting ideologies. 

Arians. Manicheans. Platonists. Pagans. 

All engaged in the same struggle:

How to free the soul?

 

Our exterior decline 

Reflects our interior exaltation. 

We burn off our youth

by pursuing the divine.

 

Pleasure ages us.

So does work.

 

Prayer is the pursuit of the serene. 

Blessed silence. 

Okay okay okay.

It all sounds so silly

when I write it down.

I don’t know what I believe.

Maybe nothing.

Maybe my time here

is wasted in pursuit

of wisdom

when the truth lies

down another road. 

 

2. Seneca, online.

Great Jove,

What—

What are they doing?

Nero’s balls

the bull and the dragon

we never dreamed

by the torchlight of Rome

that Venus and Bacchus would rule the world.

 

This is cause for a celebration.

Endless saturnalia

orgies of the finest skin.

My cup runneth over. 

 

To think the future 

has built a religion

around the sacred ecstasies

of hole and mouth

stick and prick

snake and cave.

What’s that line?

“Lord, give me chastity. Just not now.”

***

Is there an end to desire? 

When is our lust finally slaked?

I watched two thousand hours

of grand fuckery

wondrous grotesquerie

Sodom’s delight

a banquet of cock and cunt

a gallimaufry of dick and pussy

undreamed of my Caligula or Nero. 

 

But. 

None of it was new. 

None of it was fresh. 

None of it lasted.

To be human again

to taste the future flesh

to romp and rump.

Would I squander my unearned years?

***

The Egyptians venerated the flesh

—even shit—

They mummified the rich out of love.

They pulled the brains out 

through the left nostril,

unraveling the lobes with a metal hook.

They pickled organs.

They cured and salted the skin. 

 

A lengthy process.

You can tell what a society values 

on how people spend their time.

Future humans will wonder 

why we spent so much time doing our taxes?

And how we could possibly

have imbibed so much filth?

 

I’m procrastinating. 

Avoiding the truth.

I wanted power.

There, I’ve said it.

I wanted to shape the world.

What I wrote didn’t matter.

But what I did? 

I empowered Nero.

I helped him kill his enemies.

That’s my true legacy. 

 

My eyes are failing.

The glowing screen is fading. 

This glorious machine is turning dark. 

I wonder about my country

my empire

my body of work.

How much of it will last?

Which is really just a way of avoiding the only question that matters:

Do I believe in something more than death?

 

3. Thoth, the man. 

Open your eyes

to the baleful glare of Osiris.

Feathered, owlish, beak-mouthed

god of judgment and the underworld.

Your heart rests on a scale

weighed against a feather. 

And who among us lives without regret?

 

Shit and fuck and whatever. 

Who has time for mythology anyway?

Really, who fucking cares?

 

What’s that line about poetry: 

Poetry can be dangerous.

 

Rumi said that,

hundreds of years after I died.

But that isn’t the end of the line.

Poetry can be dangerous, he said,

because it gives the reader the illusion

of having experienced something 

without going through it.

 

Poetry, 

says the world’s greatest poet,

isn’t real. 

***

I began life as a man

but was turned into a god.

I started the mystery schools

and gathered the curious

to my side. 

We studied. 

We wore white robes.

We recorded aphorisms

gleaned from the world’s sages. 

 

But time corrupts. 

My body died.

My essence was transmogrified

into a moon god

with a baboon’s head. 

 

I tried to capture the wisdom

of my visions and dreams

on tablets of emerald stone.

None of it survived. 

It was burned

in a great conflagration

started by Roman soldiers

During the time of Caesar. 

 

But do not despair:

I can recreate all my wisdom 

all my studies

all my toil

with four simple words:

 

Forget.

And start over. 

 

4. Polybius leans against an oak tree. 

I saw them first.

The empire of Rome.

The wretched glory

the crucified thieves

and the eternal phalanx.

I worshiped a mountain god

who loved women. 

A small creature who rarely answered prayer.

Rome

—that giant mouth—

masticating city states into a meal. 

There is no endgame for empires.

They rape and kill and conquer.

Then they disappear. 

Replaced by another. 

It’s a link of chains

one regime bound to another.

 

The Mongols

thought blood was sacred.

To wrap an enemy in a sack

and crush them beneath a grand party

was the ultimate honorable death.

All the butchers’ enemies

squashed and smashed.

 

Spare me such glory. 

 

This tree is old.

The branches are gnarled.

The roots run deep.

It will outlive me.

It will outlive everyone alive at this moment

and most of the empires and city-states. 

What would it tell us,

if we could hear the tree’s talk? 

 

Perhaps there are no answers,

only questions.

I can’t see into the future

but I can study the past.

 

5. Me, the apostate. 

Fast forward a thousand years. 

I biked to the train today

The roads were icy

my hands were cold

Snow battered my eyes and face.

I locked my bike

ascended the ramp to the train. 

And I waited.

 

The sun was hidden.

The sky was beautiful and grim.

I tried to take it all in.

The orange heat lamps glowing orange.

Everything cold and bronzed.

Everything was what it was. 

Everything is what it is. 

Not metaphors.

Not symbols.

Just the sky and the heat lamps 

and the train and the people and me. 

 

I wanted to write a novel or a long poem

about people losing their faith.

They had it

the burning spear

the red-hot rock

and then it was gone,

leaving only an ashy imprint

a shadow. 

 

I imagined:

Augustine as a Manichee

Seneca watching porn

Thoth turning into the idea of a god

Polybius realizing history meant nothing

 

But the poem folded in on itself

became self-aware

became not about belief and its opposite

but the ironic expression of belief.

With these lines, 

the poem failed. 

 

Who can express a simple thing?

This is a chair.

This is a heart.

This is the end.

This is a sparrow.

This is a lonely, red balloon.

 

All of these statements are false. 

All of the above is true. 

 

Conundrums and paradoxes.

Who cares who cares who cares

What do they prove?

What do they mean?

 

Reader, 

we do not know each other. 

So, whose voice do you hear in your head?

(It isn’t mine.)

***

You could say that writing 

led me to a melancholic agnosticism,

where the act of creation has no real double

and feels divorced from the divine.

It isn’t inspired.

It isn’t pretty or fun.

Writing is work.

A strip-mining of the imagination. 

 

Somewhere along the way

morality was marbled in 

with aesthetics

with emotions

with literature and stories and film.

Not black and white

but rainbow-colored.

Complex,

and independent from an all-knowing god. 

 

Meaning:

We have to figure shit out for ourselves. 

 

It feels weird to make declarations

in my own voice

—the one you are hearing in your head—

revealing my own beliefs without a buffer.

 

Writing does so much 

and so little

at the exact same time. 

 

So, a few simple truths

that we can all get behind:

Life be cluttered

Life be busy

Life be complicated

Life be one dreary thing after another

(But who wants any of that etched on our tombstones?)

 

Not Jehovah

The demon who pretends to be god.

Not the patriarchs,

Dirty, old men.

Not Thoth,

who probably never existed.

And not Augustine

who turned his back on the flesh.

Not Seneca,

who couldn’t see beyond ambition.

And not Polybius,

who is almost lost to history.

 

Irony irony irony irony irony

The demi-urge of the present world. 

***

So this is in memory of the first humans.

Worshipers of fire and the sun,

rivers and stones and leopards and beetles,

sex- and death-obsessed

people, just like us, living their lives

with the essentials always on their minds. 

pure,

but not innocent.

 

They were cruel and brave and dumb and brilliant.

They prayed to wind and sand

sunlight and lightning

gods with alligator heads

cat-headed saviors

and snakes that swallow the moon.

 

You could say 

that we now have it backwards

Innocent

but not pure

living our lives

with the essentials erased

replaced with distractions

that signify nothing 

but consume the world. 

 

Our gods are not based on animals anymore.

***

The early poets

worked without forms.

They used words like crude tools,

spears and hammers.

 

Imagine!

The courage it took

to write with no audience

and no antecedent

just the roar of imagination

against the tribal fears. 

 

When you read this

if you make it to the end

if you survive the pretensions

the droll anti-ironic ironies

the historical flim flammery

I hope

that in some bizarre way

the voice you hear 

when reading these words

is now your own.

New poem: The god of dancing stars.

1 May

(Simone is 8. Pearl is 6. I am 41. The days and weeks and months are passing. Another birthday is here and with it another poem. I’ve neglected the blog for months, working on three different book projects, all of which are looking good.)

The god of dancing stars.

1.

The Greeks believed

Hermes carried

dead souls to the afterlife.

His winged feet allowed him to split

into a thousand selves

almost everywhere at once.

He carried jokes, pranks, tricks, gags.

He’s a vicious laugh.

A sneering terror.

 

The Greeks saw Dionysus

as the god of wine and revelry,

but also of ritual, madness and fertility.

His followers stripped off their clothes

and tore people limb from limb.

He’s a laugh, too.

Only the laughter hides tears,

and tormenting ecstasy.

 

Hermes is cruel.

Dionysus is deranged.

Which god do you pray to?

The god of drunken madness or the god of laughing tears?

 

Please don’t answer with Zeus.

Patriarchal rapist who cracks the earth with lightning.

Or Hera.

Displeasure and vengeance in equal portions.

Not Apollo.

Arrogance and rapaciousness

cloaked in sunshine.

Not Athena.

Wisdom skulking in the gloomy shadows.

There are no new gods.

Is this the source of human misery?

 

2.

When I dance, I dance.

Montaigne said that.

Hard to do.

I find

in getting older

that I know so little about myself.

I don’t sleep well.

(The bad never do.)

I watch too many movies.

I find myself consumed with worry.

Unexpected tears.

My daughter said to me just yesterday,

“Daddy, I’ve never seen you cry.”

I’ve hidden too much from the world.

 

When I eat, I read.

When I drink, I talk.

When I walk, I wonder.

The world is so exquisite.

But I don’t want to see it.

Life is a gift I often reject.

 

3.

As a child, I was motivated by joy.

As a teen, by loneliness.

As a young man, by fear.

Of death

Of obscurity

Of missing out on the exotic thrills of the world.

And now? By sadness.

 

I romanticized bad behavior.

I wanted to be a Bukowski, or a Miller.

A rake with no conscience.

No consideration of others.

It never fit.

I never tried.

I have a shroud of goodness

cloaking my tarry insides.

It’s a burden. Many have it.

I want to help, be useful.

But the wolves of resentment

bite those helpful heels.

I often feel good but not kind.

Is there a god of kindness?

There’s a major deity of charity somewhere.

Some goddesses of peace.

But most ancient people

did not consider peace or love

the highest ideals.

This seems important.

We live in conflict with ourselves.
I used to value kindness.

Now I’m not so sure.

What does it mean

And what does it matter?

A few seconds of empathy

in the torrents of time?

I remember,

as a teen

I stopped a prank on a friend.

Others put pepper in his coke.

He didn’t thank me.

Instead, he spit in my drink.

I tried to be kind

and he didn’t care.

I was horrified, wounded.

Yet somehow,

as I get older

he seems to be right.

What does kindness get you?

 

4.

The ancients dominate my imagination.

Duty and cruelty a jumble.

River gods morphing into nymphs

nymphs birthing heroes and godlings

heroes slaying monsters

and the gods appearing once again.

A circular celestial dance.

 

When a king died,

His servants were often buried with him.

That’s all they thought about individual suffering.

Individual people just didn’t matter.

The concept wasn’t codified.

There were gods

and there were men

all subject to the same solar vicissitudes.

 

Prometheus had a brother

Epimetheus, husband to Pandora.

A titan who loved humans.

Prometheus was good and kind,

yet he ended up tormented in Hades,

his liver a regenerating feast

for giant birds.

Epimetheus is forgotten.

His name means afterthought.

 

Hercules was a grand destroyer.

A hunter-god from prehistory.

Reconfigured into Zeus’s son.

Killer of the world’s monsters,

Every child knows him.

I suppose he’s a hero.

 

The point:

Hercules is remembered.

Epimetheus isn’t.

What does that say about the value

of meekness and decency?

 

5.

So.

To the ancient thoughts.

The Epicureans:

Live simply,

seek pleasure,

die well.

 

The Stoics:

Accept your fate,

choose tragedy,

die well.

 

The Skeptics:

Nothing from nothing.

And the non-engagement.

Who knows? (not me.)

 

There’s never been a cult

or philosophy

dedicated to kindness.

And why would there be?

Who cares for caring people?

Really—who gives a fuck?

 

Jesus was close.

A loving spirit.

But even he

railed on of the gnashing teeth

the fiery pit

and the sword in his mouth.

 

Meanwhile,

Pascal died at 39

—a younger man than I am now—

of a brain hemorrhage.

What does his wager say about that?

 

6.

Dance is magic.

An ancient ritual.

Dionysus arriving.

I wake up most mornings

ringed by mental illness.

A castaway treading water

in a cratered sea of volcanoes.

The sludge and suffering of others.

I don’t visit Dionysus very often.

And he rarely arrives.

 

Hermes saturates my world

While Ares buttfucks Kronos with our president’s dick.

Athena has retreated to the dark side of the moon.

Apollo tweets while Pan is disembodied in the world.

 

Smiling is an act of courage.

Survival an act of defiance.

But what does anything matter,

in our black iron world?

 

What’s that line in Lear?

Break, heart!

Or in Magnolia?

The goddamned regret!

 

7.

Life is often waiting

in doctor’s offices

or for the bus

Magazines are a poor window

to view the world.

I sometimes see another life

inside my own.

Writing ad copy and asinine features

approving photo spreads

and fretting over site visits.

There’s more money in it,

more prestige.

But when did I ever worry about finances?

Always. And never.

For we all sit at the oily feet of Mammon.

We all live in Mammon’s world.

 

8.

Mammon.

The god of money.

Ancient deity of greed and ambition.

A fish-footed god with death in its eyes.

America’s god.

A middle east transplant

shrouded in Christ’s raiment.

I cannot pray to Mammon.

But he is ever-present.

The fallen demiurge

Incarnate whenever money changes hands.

 

We live in the era of Mammon.

Hermes and Dionysus

have been hounded

by torches and stones

harried into tidepools and caves

by Mammon’s followers.

The goddesses are all drowned.

 

This world is a vale of tears.

Saint Jerome said that.

(The patron saint of librarians.)

With the passing years it’s hard to deny.

Sadness is a futile emotion.

No one cares.

The goddess melancholia gives no devotion.

Who prays to the god of tears?

 

9.

I can’t think of any sad gods.

Jesus wept, but once.

Buddha is always smiling.

Odin and Thor and Freya

maim and murder.

The reptile gods of Egypt fuck and dismember.

Where is the god of tears?

 

Sadness is a force, too.

Like water.

Boring through stone

through erosive drip drip

of millennia.

Sadness is useless,

but it matters. It shapes.

It pulls. It devours.

 

10.

One cold winter day,

I sit alone in a theater,

yet surrounded by children.

Sobbing as a make-believe family

euthanizes their dog on screen.

The ice, the iron

have frayed.

My heart is too close to the skin.

Tears flow freely.

The drip drip drip of sadness.

Goddamn the movies.

Goddamn myself.

 

11.

I would sacrifice to Dionysus freely

give up something of myself

to redirect the world’s attentions

from the tarry talons of Mammon

over to the panicked delight

of the god of song and wine.

But I can’t see a way past

Ba’al and the thorny gates.

 

12.

Frank Bidart says it best:

It can drink till it’s sick,

But it cannot drink till it’s satisfied.

Preach, brother Bidart.

That’s life, mine and yours.

Some days,

I wonder:

Do America and I suffer from the exact same illness?

A malady of lost belief?

Drinking for sickness

and not satisfaction?

 

What we don’t eat dies anyway.

Tis a hard fact,

And only one among many.

Born to die.

Born to suffer.

Imperfect machines.

Conscious of our consciousness.

A circular maze with no exit.

Thoughts breeding thoughts breeding thoughts.

While the arm moves before the brain wills it.

Humanity is Mammon.

Greedy reactions to the outer stimuli.

 

13.

On bad days,

I conceive of a new god.

A lonely, sad creature.

Slouchy and melancholic,

Capable of minor miracles

Often smiling in its gaseous cosmos

But incapacitated by despair.

My new god has a single

redeeming feature.

It cries empty tears.

 

On other days, I say:

Fuck that noise.

Anyone can weep.

Anyone can be sad.

Living with laughter is the brave calling.

The rejection of Mammon requires joy.

 

Maybe I worship Hermes after all.

Mercury, god of the in-between.

Hermes—even if you are only an idea—

I beseech thee.

My god of dancing stars,

Laugh for us, your miserable worshippers.

And then,

with Dionysus by our side,

let’s all dance the night away.

Forty Crows in Paris. A poem for my birthday.

27 Apr

(I write one of these every year, and why should turning forty be any different?)

Forty Crows in Paris

1.

Walking the streets of Paris,

I run into Picasso.

Sun-burnt

Wind-burnt

sandy-dusty

fidgety-edgy

and charcoal-eyed.

He smiles.

I worship a god with a bull head, he says.

Pigeon-wing arms

Crucified over an altar of satin-covered wood.

Huh, I say.

The heart is a ventricle labyrinth, he says.

We are often lost in its chambers.

There is a bull in all men.

The bull-man shares my face.

And at night, he says,

I dream of the minotaur.

Okay, I say.

I have some wisdom for you, he says.

Please, I say.

Love thyself first of all.

No, Pablo.

Then you’ve failed, he says.

Okay, I say.

But never marry.

Too late, I say.

This makes him angry.

Doe-eyed women.

Wolf-bitches in heat.

Kali, destroyer of artists.

Astarte, breaker of men.

His mouth is foaming.

I wave him away.

And off he goes.

 

2.

Picasso.

Impossible at restaurants.

Lover of bullfighting, brothels, women.

Hater of entanglements.

Despiser of interruptions.

Painter of Christs, myths, nude women.

Painter, sculptor, cruel genius.

Bull face half-hidden from the world.

Bulls are wild creatures

of pure id

snorting charging

holy in many lands.

Energy,

Often unfocused,

Goring others with sharp horns.

A symbol of creative destruction.

Picasso:

Pagan hero

praying to broken stones.

 

3.

I leave Pablo behind,

And move along the boulevards of Paris.

Cobalt skies

Sun with perfect heat

sculpted faces radiated

streaks of self-righteous indignation.

The French obsession:

How to be good in a godless world?

I meander through the royal gardens.

I stroll past the Seine.

I trot over to the Left Bank.

I see Simone de Beauvoir sitting under a tree.

She waves me over.

Bespectacled, raven-haired

Thin lipped, high cheek-boned.

Hands sharp like knitting needles.

I worship the first crow, she says.

Creator of all existence.

Midnight wings covering the cosmos with speckled night.

Metaphor? I ask.

She shakes her head.

Don’t worship anyone but yourself, she says.

I don’t know how to do that.

All men do it, she says.

I was speaking through you to your daughters.

Hairy-cheeked men.

Simple-minded and direct.

Zeus and Odin.

Rapers of earth and sky.

Imprisoners of women.

Always misunderstanding everything.

I’m a man, I say.

She shoos me along.

 

4.

Simone the unheralded.

Namesake of my eldest.

Philosopher-queen

Writer of great novels

Existentialist par excellence.

She saw the strictures of the father-world.

The demands that partition a woman’s consciousness.

In bondage to child-rearing,

Home-making

Cooking cleaning

Belittled or ignored.

Entombed in invisible prisons.

Simone!

Lover of life and men.

Neither bull nor wolf.

A being of pure mind.

Wise and wonderful

But worshiper of nothing

Empty voices dissipating into cold, sterile air.

 

5.

I walk on,

My shoes touching the streets of Paris,

But my thoughts anchored in the past year.

2016.

Eater of the great.

Jim Harrison died.

David Bowie died.

Debbie Reynolds died.

Prince and goddamn George Michael.

Died and died and goddamn died.

Amidst the political grotesqueries of my home country.

What the fuck is happening?

In Luxembourg Gardens,

A single crow picks grubs and worms

While my daughters run amok.

Crow the wise.

Crow the lonely.

Crow the portentous.

Dark omen of

Death war mystery

 

6.

Crows were thought to ferry the souls of the dead.

Black bird wings

Cosmic undulations

Souls tiny pebbles in the crows’ beaks.

The pebbles tossed into a giant heap

Melted in a vast smelter

And cooling in an endless semi-conscious sea.

I liken crows to a single year.

They appear,

They make a little noise

Then they fly away.

I am now forty.

Forty years.

Forty crows.

In Paris.

7.

I watch too many movies.

Tis a sickness.

No substitute for wisdom.

Just a tired, bleary-eyed deity,

That is almost self-aware.

The other day,

A character asked:

What is your spirit animal?

What is mine?

I feel a magic connection to wolves.

An affinity with crows.

A psychic corkscrew with bulls.

I feel love for elephants.

And, sometimes late at night,

I reverberate prayers to Ganesha,

The remover of obstacles.

He of the elephant head.

Bulls, crows, wolves, elephants—

Totems of my cloudy mind.

I write and read and work,

Believing that it means something.

Trump says it doesn’t.

 

8.

Okay, politics and poetry

Not the friendliest combo.

But ask a wolf like Trump:

How to be good?

He has no answer.

Wolves don’t care about goodness.

Wolves don’t understand decency.

They hunger and thirst

And go about chomping on things with bloody mouths.

Trump inhabits the father-world.

Cynical and vile.

Billionaire pickpockets

Out to stripmine our very souls.

Prostrate before a dank cave,

Invisible coal dust

Filling their nostrils,

They worship a jade-green snake

Swallowing its own tail.

I don’t begrudge them their selfish

Shallow, superficial meanness.

But these ghouls don’t believe

In any kind of future.

They want to consume the present.

And that, I cannot forgive.

 

9.

From there to here.

I’ve left Paris behind.

Returned to the States.

I turned 10 in Florida.

20 in Alabama.

30 in Iowa.

Now 40 in Illinois.

Forty years.

Jesus Christo.

Twenty-two years of writing?

Carter Reagan Bush Clinton Obama

And now Trump.

I never know where a poem is going.

They zig.

They zag.

They sputter.

They spark.

My antennae cogitate in a zippered buzz.

My thoughts collide like loosed atoms.

Today it’s the bull.

Yesterday the crow.

Tomorrow the wolf.

Picasso and Beauvoir never go away.

Trump will.

Not fast enough.

Not without scarring.

Not without pain.

But he will go away.

Until then,

It’s the search for small gods

With totem heads.

A new decade begins.

Ganesha, I’m still here.

Let’s remove these obstacles.

Or a new god,

Crow-headed

Animist, small-scaled

Housebound, perhaps,

Listening only to my neurotic fears

Powerless but present

Here to vitiate the father-world’s powers

Until De Beauvoir can reincarnate

And lead us back to the Crow’s delight.

Poem fragment, started on november 14

27 Apr

(Wow, I’ve been out of pocket. I’m working/writing/striving, while staving off bitterness, frustration, and anxiety. Mostly succeeding. This is the first of two poems. The second—my annual birthday poem—is forthcoming.)

 

Fragment of a poem from November 14

No nonono

My head

My gut

My heart

My bones

hollowed out

blanked out

redacted out

No nononono

 

How—

Why—

What—

 

I cannot begin.

Our linguistic centers are fracked.

We’ve marbled our own thoughts.

Digging through our nerve centers with too many images.

This man.

I don’t understand.

 

Philip K. Dick wrote a short story.

“Faith of Our Fathers.”

It tells of a future

Where the people of the U.S. are

Controlled by a tyrant who isn’t real.

The leader is a machine.

Or an alien invader.

Or an evil god.

The revolutionaries want to poison the leader.

They fail.

 

I can’t help but think on it.

The leader who isn’t real.

A machine.

Or an alien invader.

Or an evil god.

I seem to have lost the ability to understand other people.

 

Philip K. Dick had a re-occuring line in his novels:

The empire never ended.

Brother, ain’t that the truth.

The same buttheads keep slouching towards Bethlehem

And blotting out the sunny skies.

Gingrich, Guliani, Bannon, where doth thou reside?

In an ice cave?

In a sand-packed crypt?

In a stained glass echo chamber?

Doesn’t matter.

We can smell you.

The stench of brimstone wafts from your backsides.

 

And how, Mr. Gingrich,

Have you lived this long?

Your face a mask of soggy skin

Dripping off your bones like hot wax.

What primal event started you on this course?

(The Big Bang?)

 

And what drives ye,

Oh Guliani?

What moves the rickety machinery forward,

Into the breach?

What infernal energy source heats your brow?

I can see the occult magic in your crazed eyes.

You . . . sold your soul, didn’t you?

(To Mammon.)

 

And how do you defecate, Mr. Bannon?

Do you squat and squint your bleary eyes?

Red-faced, slack muscles clenching?

Do you squeeze your velveteen rabbit

And dream of werewolves shorn of hair,

Pink-skinned babies scrubbed clean?

Penises that work?

 

Okay, okay.

Cheap shots.

Age and infirmity,

The specters that haunt us all.

 

Philip K. Dick had a vision.

That the Roman Empire was still in power.

That the empire never ended.

That we were all living in a virtual reality prison,

Constructed by our Roman overlords

Hiding the world we live in.

We are, he argued, trapped in invisible chains.

He saw robots and aliens as presidents.

Our leaders manipulating reality with arcane technologies.

Rewriting reality with words.

It all amounted to the same thing:

We are not in control of our own lives.

 

Enter Trump.

Trumpie. Drumpf. Troomp.

Immune to the slings and arrows,

Elected somehow because of his immense shortcomings.

People want this?

A billionaire bully

With verbal diarrhea,

Who runs out on contracts

And games the bankruptcy laws?

Troomp. Troomp.

 

When did America become a nightmare?

(This poem has no end.)

2016: A year of disrupted reading.

3 Jan

(2016 was a terrible year for me and for our country. A series of professional setbacks jarred my writing, sapped my resolve and left me an inner stew of rancor and resentment. As above, so below. The sinister election cycle and the ghastly result haven’t helped any. I’ve neglected the blog, too, although I have a dozen or so posts in various states of decay. But I did maintain my reading log, and here it is, 2016, with notes and annotations. I also read The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and a smattering of monthly comic books. Around November I stopped keeping track of everything I was reading, and a few books slipped off the list. The most memorable novels I read were probably The People in the Trees and The Painted Bird. Anyway, here’s to a new year.)

 

Trying It Out In America: Literary and Other Performances—Richard Poirer’s essays on writers and writing, focusing on Whitman and Mailer and others, is funny, well-written and intriguing.

 

The Seven Madmen—Roberto Arlt’s astonishing novel of murder, madness and social instability. A down on his luck inventor decides to kidnap an insane friend to help fund an insane man, known as the Astrologer, who wants to destabilize the world to bring back an age of mystery and magic. Sounds funny, but reads as tragedy. Excellent and unforgettable.

 

Crow—Ted Hughes, y’all! His astonishing poems concerning the origin of good and evil, centering on a sometimes sinister creature named Crow, who is part Lucifer, part Pan, part Amerindian totem. Haunting stuff, and a great place to start for poetry neophytes. (A category I will probably remain in the rest of my life.)

 

The Armies of the Night—Norman Mailer inserts himself into this extended piece of new journalism, “history as novel,” as he calls it, and “the novel as history.” It’s a great companion to other books on the sixties, and Mailer’s abilities are on display. But it feels a bit dated. I keep coming back to Mailer (and Burroughs) even though he as often as not disappoints.

 

Exiles Return—Malcolm Cowley’s revisiting of the Lost Generation—their values, their ambitions, their triumphs and failures—is a masterpiece of criticism, belief and biography. I’ve wanted to read this for years.

 

Mapuche—Argentinian crime novel about a detective obsessed with the disappeared. Pretty good, solid stuff, if maybe not quite as strong as it sounds. A transvestite is murdered.

 

The Thirsty Muse—A critical and literary history of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O’Neill through their alcoholism. Pretty damn good stuff.

 

The Hundred Days—Joseph Roth’s novel of Napoleon’s return from exile is interesting, if a major letdown compared to His masterful The Radetsky March.

 

Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s—A solid history of the Lost Generation and their adventures and travails in Paris. Really enjoyed this one.

 

The Movie Book—I can never read enough overviews, histories, anecdotes and biographies about the movies and the people who make them. Great photographs.

 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—Junot Diaz’s polyglot novel traces a cursed family from the Dominican Republic, back and forth in time. This novel is many things, most of them enjoyable, some of them profound, but the pop cultural references and the occasional light touch barely conceal the anger.

 

Breaking and Entering—Joy Williams’s novel follows a married couple who break into vacation homes in Florida, as a way of adventure and relaxation. Stunning prose; she makes it all look so easy. (She’s kin, writer-wise, to Ellen Gilchrist.)

 

A Little Life—Hanya Yanagihara’s epic tale of trauma and sadism with little moments of kindness is compelling to read, but the engines are mucked with narrative torture-porn. She can write and write well, but the punishing, relentless torment of her abused man-child is . . . hard to understand. Why write a 750-page novel about how grim and shitty life is? Thomas Bernhard does this in 100. Still, unforgettable.

 

Three Hainish Novels—On a recommendation, I tried these novels from Ursela Le Guin. I shouldn’t have. The ideas are fine but the writing isn’t for me. There’s a couple of hours I’ll never get back.

 

The Story of a New Name—Elena Ferrante’s second novel of a sour friendship in the violent, mafia-controlled poor sections of Naples. Lean and superb.

 

Captain America: Loose Nuke—Writer Remender finds his groove with this third arc of his Captain America run. (His first two involved Cap trapped on another earth, with Arnim Zola in control. A great idea, but poorly executed.) Remender uses Nuke, the great cipher of Marvel comics, a stand-in for American foreign malfeasance, weakness and strength, depending on the author.

 

Terrorist—Moving and compelling comic portrait of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who killed Franz Ferdinand and inadvertently started World War I. Great, haunting art and a firm presentation of the background conflicts in the Balkans. The best book on the subject since Hans Koning’s Death of a Schoolboy.

 

Best of Enemies—Comic history of the first order, about U.S. relations with the Middle East. Insightful and excellent.

 

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds—The cover lists Alan Moore as the writer but he isn’t. He’s more of a story consultant, and it shows. Old characters from his late-90s run of Wildstorm comics make their appearances here, but the pacing is off and the story isn’t clear. Would probably unread this if I could.

 

Bacchus: Immortality Isn’t Forever—Eddie Campbell, underground comic artist extraordinaire—kicks off his long-running series of Bacchus in the present-day with moody art and a light, narrative touch. Not for everyone, but intriguing.

 

The White Hotel—A strange companion, of sorts, to Nabakov’s Pale Fire, a novel with poems, surreal catastrophes, and a case file written by Sigmund Freud. Perhaps not as great as its underground reputation—and inferior to Pale Fire, but most novels are—but still a good read. Pretentious weirdness.

 

Love Me Back—Fierce and stunning debut novel, about a troubled waitress and her navigations through an often sinister and traumatic world.

 

A Brief History of Seven Killings—Marlon James won the Man-Booker for this explosive crime novel based on a real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley. James captures the rough and tumble terrors of Jamaica by utilizing the pidgin English of its people.

 

Solo—Wright Morris, a very fine writer now mostly forgotten, wrote a memoir of his time in Paris before World War II. He was young, hungry and alive, and this is one of the better books about the joys and risks of travel.

 

The Voyeurs—Graphic novel that is hilarious and self-lacerating, an American woman’s journey with her boyfriend to Paris. Similar to Peepshow.

 

An Imaginary Life—David Malouf’s novel of the ancient world follows Ovid and a feral child. Ovid has been banished to the edge of the empire by Augustus. There he tries to civilize a wild child. Short, lyrical, memorable.

 

Between the World and Me—Te-Nahesi Coates’s letter to his son outlines the dangers his son faces in America. It’s a very fine book, more of an extended essay really, that is touching and angry. The sections about his own experiences with police are jaw-dropping.

 

“The Great God Pan”—Arthur Machen’s short story I’ve been meaning to read for almost a decade. Atmospheric and intriguing, yes, but written in the Victorian style that I have less and less patience for as I get older.

 

“The Killers”—Gots to read it as often as you can, Hemingway’s perfect short story about two hitmen waiting to murder a boxer, while Nick Adams is held hostage with a black cook and the owner. So good.

 

The Oxherding Tale—Making my way through Charles Johnson’s oeuvre, and this is a funny—laugh out loud funny—novel about a mixed-race slave child who is educated by a free-thinking weirdo intellectual. Part renunciation of Candide, part picaresque romp.

 

Memorial—poet Alice Oswald invigorates the dead from the Iliad in a haunting and majestic 80-page poem. An absolute stunner.

 

Bacchus, volume one—A phone book, and a rich, strange, diverting, digressive comic book that follows the aging god of wine through essays, history, and gang-land violence. Eddie Campbell is fun, but not easy. For fans of literature and comics, here you go.

 

The Farmer’s Daughter—Jim Harrison’s latest novellas, and there quite good. My favorite is The Games of Night, a werewolf story in typical Harrison fashion, as a metaphor for sex and fishing and hunting and meat-eating.

 

The Long Home—the great William Gay’s first novel, and it’s a great and ghastly southern gothic, with loads of humor thrown in. Gay is a master of funny, deep south dialogue.

My vote for the most disturbing novel of all time.

My vote for the most disturbing novel of all time.

The Painted Bird—Jersy Kosinski’s World War II novel follows a lost child wandering through the Polish countryside. Kosinski paints one horrifying atrocity after another. One of the hardest, meanest, vilest novels I’ve ever read. (And I’ve read 120 Days of Sodom, The Story of the Eye, The Story of O, and My Dark Places.)

 

Avengers: Time Runs Out, vol. 1.—Hickman’s beginning of the end. He uses cosmic dangers to turn the super-intelligent characters—Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Mr. Fantastic, Hulk, Tony Stark, and a handful of others—from heroes into world-destroying monsters. It’s a grim and in its way terrifying feat, but Hickman pulls it off.

 

Avengers: Time Runs Out, vol. 2—The second installment, and it pits an aged Captain America against the Illuminati, the cabal of elite Marvel heroes who are destroying other realities to save the earth. Hickman is my kind of nerd: he uses Starbrand.

 

Uncanny Avengers: Avenge the Earth—Remender is a solid writer, but Acuna is a great artist. The storyline follows Thor’s failure, the destruction of the earth by one of the Celestials. The X-men are shunted away to an alternate timeline, where the children of Kang rule. But Kang has a trick up his sleeve, a way to save the old earth, by erasing everything that’s happened on their new planet. Convoluted, grim, but rewarding. (Not for new fans.)

 

The Getaway—One of the few Jim Thompson novels I haven’t read. It’s a crime caper gone wrong, with a quick double cross after a bank job and a surreal, violent journey into Mexico. Sam Peckinpah made a movie version that was pretty damn good.

 

Joe Sacco: Journalism—A collection of Joe Sacco’s shorter pieces. He’s an excellent journalist, and his work is a great argument for more comics journalism.

 

The Monster Show—David J. Skal’s history of horror movies (and to a lesser extent, horror fiction) shows time and again how atrocities in the real world impacted the presentation of horror tropes. I’ve come across most of it all before, but still a damn good book.

 

Area 51—comic reportage on the government testing site that is shrouded in mystery and, apparently, the air force likes it that way.

 

Winter’s Bone—Woodrell’s very fine crime novel follows a young woman looking for her missing meth-cook of a father, across a wintry Arkansas haunted by violence blood feuds and bloodshed. Great stuff.

 

Robert Altman: Jumping off a Cliff—For research, but worth reading. A careful study of Altman, his methods, his friends and collaborators, his victories and failures.

 

Junkets on a Sad Planet—Tom Clark’s biographical poems about the life of John Keats. I wanted to like it more than I did.

 

Palefire—diverting graphic novel about a young woman’s night at a party and her crush on an angry dude. Not bad, but . . .

 

Watermelon Wine—research, but excellent. Frye Gaillard wrote this in the 1970s, about the country music scene in Nashville, and how big money invaded the angry, hillbilly and mountain music.

 

Winners Got Scars, Too—I’ve owned this book for 15 years, was never sure what it was about, and never read it. Until now. It’s the story of Johnny Cash, zipping back and forth in time. Pretty damn good, if a bit straight-forward.

 

The Patrick Melrose Novels: Bad News—I read the first of these a few years ago. It’s brilliant, funny, devastating, about young Patrick Melrose and his horrid, rich family. I was so upset by the first book I put it down. Now I’ve picked it back up. Acerbic doesn’t begin to describe the rancor and rage hiding beneath the cleverness and wit.

 

West of Everything—Brilliant examination of western films and novels by Jane Tompkins. Picked this up at random, and enjoyed every minute of it: personal, academic, historical, a spicy and pungent book.

Pollock writes with a pulpy love of trash and excess.

Pollock writes with a pulpy love of trash and excess.

The Devil all the Time—Donald Ray Pollack’s first story collection, Knockemstiff, knocked me on my ass. This, his first novel, is similarly strong, grotesque, masculine. A very fine writer who shoves the reader into the gutter.

 

Patience—Daniel Clowes time travel fantasia is beautiful, cruel and fascinating. One of his better books, which is saying a lot. I can’t stop thinking about it.

 

The Trial—Mairowit’z graphic adaptation of Kafka’s best book. His notes are excellent, and informative.

 

Eat this document—Dana Spiotta’s subtle story of two ex-radicals living new lives after an act of terrorism twenty years prior. Spiotta is a strong writer, and does great work comparing the radicalism of the 1960s with the weird rebellion of the early 1990s.

 

Lovecraft Country—Matt Ruff riffs on America’s racism, pulp fiction from the 1930s, and the contemporary horror literature scene. Reminded me of Victor LaVelle’s Big Machine.

 

Animal Man, vols. 1-3—Grant Morrison’s self-reflective run on Animal Man remains not only one of his greatest comics, but also one of the best interrogations of morality, fate and responsibility in fiction. It’s getting better all the time.

 

Warning Shadows—Gary Giddins essays on film are chewy and delightful, intriguing and fun to read. I loved this book.

 

Where All Light Tends to Go—A southern noir, or Appalachian noir, that’s pretty good stuff. An eighteen year old man-boy works for his meth-kingpin father. Then it all goes to shit.

 

The Sellout—A dense, complex and funny as fuck novel about a black man in contemporary Los Angeles who ends up owning a slave. References galore, and a brisk pace that doesn’t hide the seething anger at all. Went on to win the Man-Booker.

 

Country: The Crazy roots of Rock n Roll—Nick Tosches being Nick Tosches. A rumination on and rooting around in early rockabilly and country music stars, stitched together with first-class research and Tosches demon-dog sensibility.

 

The History of Rock ’N’ Roll in Ten Songs—I’ve been on a kick lately, reading books on music and musicians. I enjoy Greil Marcus’s writing as much as anyone’s, even if I don’t always agree or even quite understand. He has a strange lyricism, a chewy way with words, that grips me. Here he roots around in the lesser known songs that often resulted in big hits.

 

Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh—An astonishing biography of Tennessee Williams, one of the best I’ve ever read, sexy, erotic, heart-breaking. A must-read for everyone interested in theatre, fiction or wild lives on the periphery.
Killing Yourself To Live—wunderkind Chuck Klosterman’s personal journey visiting the sites where rock stars died, only it’s really an odyssey through his fuckups, relationships, tastes.

 

Beatlebone—Kevin Barry’s follow-up to his acclaimed City of Bohane follows John Lennon over a four-day crack up, as he tries to visit his own personal island. An astonishing marvel of a novel.

 

The People in the Trees—Hanya Yanihagarah’s first novel is a compelling, sinister experience. A Nobel-prize-winning anthropologist is accused of sexually molesting his adopted children. His defense—and the novel­—is his life story, layered with intimations of psychopathic impulses and a bizarre disaffection for fellow human beings. Excellent stuff.

 

The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend—the story behind the story, with the captive narratives of the 1830s and 1840s, on up to John Ford’s drunken misbehavior on the set. A good, solid book.

 

The Fifth Beatle—graphic biography on Brian Epstein, with beautiful art, if a bit sloppy storytelling.

 

In a Lonely Place—Dorothy Hughes’s absolutely smashing crime novel from the 1940s—and a damn good film from Nicholas Ray ten or so years later—follows Dixon Steele, a psychopath and murderer, as he meanders through Los Angeles in the post-war years. What makes it so good, besides the spare and clean writing, is Hughes places the reader’s sympathy with Steele, showing is repulsive, but identifiable, self-rationalization and self-pity.

 

A Manuel for Cleaning Women—Lucia Berlin’s autobiographical stories are straight-forward, brilliantly written, heart-breaking and wonderful.

 

Paper Girls—Brian Vaughan’s newest science fiction comic, and it’s a fun ride. Papergirls, who delivery newspapers, run afoul of a war between time traveling factions in the suburbs of the 1980s. Great fun.

 

Showman—Had this book for a long time. Film critic and historian David Thomson covers the life and films of David Selznick, the brilliant, contradictory, self-sabotaging movie producer who made Rebecca and Gone with the Wind, among other films.

 

The Expendable Man—Dorothy Hughes’s mid-century crime masterpiece, a tour into the dark corridors of American justice, where a black man is accused of murdering a white woman.

 

Father of Lies—A very disturbing novel by Brian Evenson, his first, about a pastor in a church who is hurting his parishioners, but he doesn’t see it that way. Reminiscent of Jim Thomson, in a good way.

 

The Bad and the Beautiful—An interesting overview of 1950s movie culture, with the gossip rags as the narrative through-point for the book. Douglous Sirk, Charles Loughton, Burt Lancaster, Kim Novak—an intriguing book, if perhaps not quite the overview of the decade’s movies that it seems.

 

I Lost it at the Movies—Pauline Kael’s best book? Probably. A collection film reviews and essays, including her devastating, and hilarious, take-down of La Notte, La Dolce Vita, and Last Year at Marienbad.

 

The Dick Gibson Show—Stanley Elkin’s superb, and very strange, story of a man’s love affair with radio, and the pitch and timbre of people’s voices, including his own. Similar to Pynchon, although with more syntactic control.

 

The Great Movies III—Roger Ebert’s astonishing last collection of film essays, every bit as good as part II, and a very fine piece of writing. I loved it.

 

Negative Space: Manny Farber at the Movies—Hard to describe, as it hasn’t dated well, but a precursor to most of the great American movie critics.

 

Post Office—Charles Bukowski’s first novel, a very funny, bitter exploration of a working man’s life, and how he hates his job. A great place to start with Bukowski.

 

Women—Bukowski’s pornographic novel about his relationships with different women, when he is in his fifties and beginning to build a reputation as a poet.

 

The Trip To Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking—Olivia Laing’s excellent history cum travelogue of the hard drinking of a handful of great writers, including Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. Unforgettable; Laing is a masterful storyteller in her own right.

 

The Paper Menagerie—Fantastical short stories from Ken Liu. Read most of them, and like a lot of fantasy writers nowadays, he is a controlled and talented stylist.
The Reivers—Faulkner’s last novel, a picaresque journey involving a stolen car and horse racing. Pretty good, pretty funny, a meandering little thing.

 

Intruders in the Dust—Two-thirds a good novel, one-third a didactic piece of butt. A black man is arrested for the murder of a white man, and a white teenager—who loathes the African American man because he once did the white boy a favor—who tries to prove his innocence.

 

Sanctuary—Faulkner’s gothic potboiler, one that he was embarrassed of and tried to rewrite. The result is odd; it feels trashy, but it’s written in an often dense and opaque style. Not sure what to make of it, really.

 

The Looming Tower—Should have read this years ago. Lawrence Wright’s epic reporting on the formation of terrorist groups in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and how these often educated men became involved in a foreign war in Afghanistan, and how their hatred of the Soviet Union turned toward the U.S.

 

The Hero’s Journey—Transcriptions of interviews with Joseph Campbell. His erudition, and his eccentric interpretations, are legendary, and rightly so.

 

“The Swimmer”—One of John Cheever’s most haunting short stories, which is saying a lot. A middle-aged man decides to swim home through the backyard pools of his neighbors. It sounds silly or droll or dumb, but it is none of these. It’s magnificent.

 

Storm of Steel—Picked it back up in October—it’s amazing. Junger’s memoir of being a German soldier in World War I might be the best book about that war I’ve read.

 

Barbarian Days—William Finnegan’s astonishing memoir of a life consumed by surfing. The writing is jaw dropping.

 

Mississippi, 1964—Dispatches on the civil rights movement from here and there. An interesting and diverting piece of writing, with some great anecdotes.

 

Innocents and Others—Dana Spiotta’s fractured novel about artists, filmmaking, success and purity is a very fine, very thoughtful piece of work. She’s always good.

 

The Flamethrowers—Rachel Kushner’s novel about art, artists, motorcycles, business and Italy is intriguing and worth reading.

 

<Trump won the electoral college around here; my reading life, along with every thing else, was disrupted; I read four or five books here but can’t quite remember what they were. I think I read two other Brian Evenson novels, but that might have been last year>

 

It Can’t Happen Here—Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, not a good novel at all, but chilling, about an American dictatorial takeover by a tough-talking non-politician.

 

The Plot Against America—Philip Roth’s very fine counter-factual novel, where Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt on an anti-war, anti-Jewish platform. A very fine, very disturbing novel about how quickly American politics can go wrong.

 

The Death of Jim Loney—James Welch’s near-perfect slim novel about an American Indian’s last days. He is deranged by the past, and alienated by the present, meandering towards a bitter end. Excellent.

 

Dead Man’s Float—Jim Harrison’s last collection of poetry is beautiful and soothing, like swimming in a cool creek on a hot summer day. His same obsessions—horses, fishing, sex and food—are infused with an end of life acceptance of death and suffering.

Three movies: Annie; God’s Little Acre; Creed.

28 Aug

(I’ve neglected the blog. I’ve been busy working on a book. More details to come.)

Annie

Dig the rabbit hole of American pop culture, a remake of a 1980s movie, itself an adaptation of a Broadway play, it based on a 1950s radio serial (called Little Orphan Annie), which in turn was adapted from a 1940s comic strip. What we’re dealing with isn’t even a bastardization, but rather a mollusk-type creature that has crystallized into shit. This movie is terrible.

One, of all the participants, only Jamie Foxx can sing. The rest are either augmented by backup singers, auto-tuned, or tinny and weak. They cut some of the original songs and added a few. The new songs are forgettable, lazy ditties that I forgot immediately after the movie ended.

Two, there’s no dancing or choreography, but more on this in a minute.

Just a really, really bad movie.

Just a really, really bad movie. Look at their faces.

Three, it’s a sanitized version of New York City, and a vision of foster care so bleached of hardship it resembles summer camp. The whole point of a story involving an orphan being adopted is to juxtapose the misery with the hard-earned happiness. That . . . doesn’t happen here.

The original isn’t a classic. It has an excellent first fifteen minutes, and then becomes alternatingly facile (smile and the world’s problems will be fixed), bizarre (President Roosevelt orders Daddy Warbucks to sing in harmony), and disturbing (Carol Burnett slides into a dirty bathtub filled with rotgut gin). But John Huston directs the original, and he doesn’t evade any of the toughness of orphan life. Annie rescues the dog Sandy from boy who are planning, in all likelihood, to set the dog on fire. (In the remake, Annie sees the dog on the streets and later adopts her from the pound. What the hell is the point of that? Where’s the blear, the reeking poetry?) Both movies celebrate wealth as a lifestyle, although in the original, Daddy Warbucks is a war profiteer of sorts.

But here’s the rub: the new version refuses to see any of the danger in childhood, and removes any kind of tension or terror. The original has Tim Curry as Rooster, and he’s a hustler turned murderer who, in the final scene, chases Annie up an elevated train trestle, intent on dashing her on the train tracks. Curry is a charming rake and a terrifying monster. The remake has Annie in a car, with her fake parents, being pursued over city roads by Jamie Foxx and company in a helicopter. There’s never any danger at all. The tension is Annie being in a car with strangers for fifteen minutes. Who cares?

Even the story has been simplified. Annie is in foster-care, under the not so watchful eye of Ms. Hannigan, played by Cameron Diaz. Stacks, a cellphone mogul, is running for mayor. He’s faltering in the polls, mainly because he doesn’t like other people. He saves Annie one day, it’s caught on video and uploaded to youtube, and his malevolent aid, played by Bobby Cannavale, urges him to foster Annie during the election. So far, so interesting.

But the movie isn’t about politics, or encroaching technology—there’s a scene where Stacks takes Annie on a helicopter tour of his semi-hidden cellphone towers, and it’s supposed to be beautiful; it’s not, it’s horrifying—it isn’t about anything, other than, I don’t know, how much better it is to be rich. I don’t need to watch a shitty musical to have some sense of that.

The new film spends most of its time celebrating new technologies, in a way that I found disturbing. Annie becomes an online celebrity through a fake twitter account. The windows in her room aren’t windows at all, but rather screens which she can choose the artificial backgrounds. I could go on, but I won’t. Everything is simulated and false. And this is her life getting better!

Fewer songs, no dancing—the onscreen musical might be a lost craft. But what the fuck? Why not start over, rename the orphan, cut the songs, build your own characters? Or spend a few bucks on good songwriters? I’m baffled, and can’t think of another movie that has nothing on its mind other than cash and money. It’s also a huge waste of what should have been a great African American showcase. Case in point: Tracie Thoms, an astonishing singer and actor, plays Annie’s fake mother, and not only does she have no songs at all, she’s only given two or three lines. Why? What the hell is going on? African Americans have contributed so much to music and dancing in American culture, why the hell would anyone make a musical, repurpose it with African American leads, and have no singing or dancing of any note? It’s heinous enough to feel like a white conspiracy.

One of the most cynical and corrupt movies I’ve ever seen.

 

God’s Little Acre

An old Anthony Mann movie from the 1950s, and it’s a strange hybrid of drama, period movie, western, noir and comedy. The movie follows a family led by Ty Ty, played by Robert Ryan, who owns a large piece of perfect farming land. He could be a successful farmer, but instead of growing things he digs for mythical gold his grandfather supposedly buried on the plot. He’s been digging for fifteen years, systematically ruining his land with giant holes, and contributing nothing to nobody. He’s embroiled two of his sons, and one of their wives.

Fascinating mid-fifties movie that has been mostly forgotten.

Fascinating mid-fifties movie that has been mostly forgotten.

Ryan is a marvelous actor, and he combines madness and dreaminess in a way that is believable. He’s driven by an impossible dream, in some ways he’s a precursor to Harrison Ford’s Allie Fox in The Mosquito Coast, attempting to do the inconceivable. Ryan’s career is astonishing; he steals scenes in minor roles, and expands the lead. His great performances include The Naked Spur, where he plays a mouthy, sinister murderer; Crossfire, where he’s a terrifying anti-Semite who bullies everyone around him; Bad Day at Black Rock, House of Bamboo, Lonelyhearts, The Professionals, Billy Budd, the list goes on and on. He’s perfect as Thornton in The Wild Bunch, a gunman who admires the men he’s betrayed and despises the band he’s allied with. If you watch him in that movie again, he’s stony and hard, but all as a thin casing against his immense loneliness. Ryan’s last film was Frankenheimer’s screen adaptation of The Iceman Cometh, and he’s an absolute marvel. His rage and anger shine through his haggard face like a radioactive skull. (The movie is astonishing, with Frederic March, Lee Marvin, and Jeff Bridges.) There’s always something serpentine and coiled about Robert Ryan; he’s eternally lethal.

God’s Little Acre has a number of surprises: Michael Landon plays an albino. He’s handsome and intriguing onscreen; you can see how he became such a big TV star. Buddy Hackett plays the dumb, smarmy, Pluto Swint, who is obsessed with Ty Ty’s youngest daughter, Darlin’ Jill. Rex Ingram, one of the great black actors of the classic Hollywood era—known for his role of the Djinn in Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad—plays Uncle Felix, and has a great calm performance that is funny and sad at the same time. Near the middle he points a shotgun at Michael Landon. “You’re not going to shoot me,” Landon says. “No,” Ingram says, “I’m not going to shoot you.” Pause. “But this shotgun will.”

Finally, the women. Fay Spain, Tina Louise and Helen Westcott play Darlin’ Jill, Griselda and Rosamund, the wives of the various men in the movie. They each bring a rich complexity to what are often one-dimensional roles. Clever, adaptable survivors. Sexy as hell, too.

The movie juggles all the characters with taut and lean directing. Ryan is surprisingly funny. At one point, he apologizes to one of the female characters, saying, “Our family . . . ain’t known for its politeness to women.”

The movie hints at rampant adultery, and plenty of backwoods intercourse, but also has a subplot involving unions and workers’ rights. It’s an ambitious movie, juggling the comedy and tragedy with a large cast of characters, but little plot.

The atmosphere feels noirish, with the black and white photography and the hints at danger and derangement, as well as looming doom. Mann paints God’s Little Acre in chioaroscuro tones. There’s a touch of Deep South mysticism. It all adds up to something, I’m just not sure what. It isn’t great movie, but worth seeing, a fascinating and enthralling little movie.

 

Creed

This is how you make a white franchise into a black movie; I loved this. Ryan Coogler followed up his excellent, heart-breaking docudrama, Fruitvale Station, of a young black man murdered by police with the next installment of the Rocky franchise, moving the action to Apollo Creed’s bastard son, Adonis. Creed died—killed in the ring at the hands of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV—before Adonis was born, and his mother died soon after. He is dumped into groups homes and foster care, and spends his childhood fighting.

Hell to the yes.

Hell to the yes.

The movie begins with Creed’s wife, played by Phylicia Rashad, adopting him out of juvie. Michael B. Jordan plays Creed, and he’s a fabulous actor. It’s hard to see him through his absurd physique, a musculature rivaled only by Carl Weathers in Rocky III, but his performance is excellent, nuanced and strong. He has an astonishing face for movies; he’s handsome, but with hard, angular features. He carries the movie.

Adonis leaves his home in Los Angeles, quits his high-paying job, and moves to Philadelphia, where he seeks out Rocky Balboa, aging, at the end of things, a lonely owner of a restaurant. Adrian and Paulie are dead. Rocky is resistant to Adonis, who asks for guidance and training. Rocky doesn’t want to contribute to another boxing life. But Adonis persists, and soon the movie is perfectly in the trajectory of the other films. Training, hardship, psychological toughness, and the vanquishing of inner and outer foes.

The boxing movie is alive and well—Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter were both excellent, and The Wrestler might as well be about boxing, and is probably the biggest visual influence on this movie—and here Coogler has an astonishing sequence in Creed’s first professional fight, a single take, lasting close to four minutes, with the boxers slugging, jabbing, feinting and dancing in and out of frame. Creed is notable for lots of things, the first boxing movie with a black protagonist since The Great White Hope, for one, and the performance by Stallone that is calm, unglamorous, and steady. I wish the film had allowed Adonis and Rocky to knock around a bit more, develop a relationship as opposed to allow the audience to assume their affections, but it’s a very fine piece of that sub-genre of sports movie, the boxing film.

The final fight has our black hero fighting a white champion in an all-white crowd, in England. Filmed with supreme technique, and filled with the terror of violence, the finale plays out without irony or sentimentality.

Somehow, Coogler has repurposed the boxing movie, scoring his points but also maintaining the integrity of the film, turning a burned out franchise into a genre masterpiece. I goddamn loved it.