Archive | July, 2014

Interlude 1: Another intercoursing poem. This time involving Miller, Rimbaud and Bergman.

31 Jul

(Another poem. Not sure why I’m writing these. Something clicks, usually when I’m walking my dog at night. Then I bang it out. And here’s my first attempt, if you’re interested)

 

I Don’t Want To Intercourse Miller, Rimbaud, or Bergman.

1.

Poetry should be simple and direct.

Like a hammer.

Or an axe.

Poetry should leave a mark.

It should cleave.

It should cut.

It should bash.

Poetry is a medieval weapon.

Ancient and atavistic.

Crude and cruel.

And weirdly enduring.

 

And so here I am,

No lover of poetry.

Yet at it again.

2.

Henry Miller wrote, “I was born hungry.”

(Me, too, Henry.)

I have a love/hate thing with Miller.

Some of his books are fantastic.

Some of them are terrible.

He writes with a large appetite.

He writes of poverty and tits and cocks and derangement.

He is one of the finest poets of the gutter.

He didn’t publish his first book until he was 43.

(Think of that!)

 

When I was 30, I read Tropic of Cancer.

I was floored.

I was intrigued.

I was entranced.

 

Miller loved Rimbaud.

He loved poetry.

He loved wine.

He loved women.

 

I don’t write like Henry Miller.

3.

Arthur Rimbaud wrote “No more hymns.”

(There’s something about that line.)

Goddamn him.

I read him, can’t shake him.

I read about him, can’t understand him.

He was poor.

He was raped.

He had a scandalous affair with Verlaine.

He wrote A Season in Hell at nineteen!

He wandered Harrar after midnight

stoned out of his gourd.

He wrote poetry of a new kind

Love and hate and beauty and disgust in equal measure

standing outside of other poetic traditions.

He had style! He had verve! He had élan!

 

When I was 27 I read Illuminations.

I was elated.

I was astonished.

I was bewildered.

 

He loved Baudelaire.

He loved danger.

He loved money.

He loved I don’t know what.

 

I don’t write like Arthur Rimbaud either.

4.

Ingmar Bergman.

Critics tell you to watch Persona.

Okay, fine.

I would start with Wild Strawberries.

Or The Magician.

I love Hour of the Wolf.

I think Shame is a goddamn masterpiece.

I adore Cries and Whispers.

 

He made bad films too.

I think The Still-Life of the Marionettes is a disgrace.

I think The Serpent’s Egg is miserable.

 

When I was 19, I saw The Seventh Seal.

I was riveted.

I was confused.

I was horrified.

 

Knight: Have you come for me?

Death: I have been walking by your side for a long time.

 

Cinema was born.

Bergman isn’t safe. He isn’t easy. He isn’t nice or kind.

He’s Ibsen and Strindberg on celluloid:

Or, as Diane Keaton says in Manhattan, “Okay, I get it, God’s silence!”

 

God’s silence.

I get it.

Or I don’t.

Two words that encompass centuries of art.

Most of fiction.

All of cinema.

 

He loved women.

He loved the stage.

He loved Kierkegaard?

(This is a guess. Or a dumb joke. Or both.)

He loved himself.

Ingmar Bergman wasn’t a writer. Not really.

Or, more accurately, not first.

 

(And I don’t write like him.)

5.

Who was Henry Miller?

The sainted assassin.

The sexist pig.

The great bald-headed fucker of women.

The derelict.

The horny goat.

The alchemist on paper.

The expatriated American.

The magical author of the Tropics.

The miserly author of Moloch.

Miller is funny.

Miller is knowing.

Miller is worldly.

Beneath the rough exterior, he was probably a nice guy.

He died happy at 88.

Heart attack in California.

His life teaches us something. Not sure what.

6.

Who was Arthur Rimbaud?

I don’t have a goddamn clue.

Satan incarnate?

The bringer of light?

A drunk

an arms dealer

a seducer

a home wrecker

a bastard shit-heel

a French refugee in flight from his own country.

One of the few in-born geniuses of literature.

Rimbaud is searching.

Rimbaud is searing.

Rimbaud is scary.

He was carried through the desert on a stretcher.

At the end of his life he was obsessed with money.

He died in a hospital with one of his legs amputated.

His life teaches us nothing. Just suffering and blackness.

7.

Who was Ingmar Bergman?

Christ-haunted. Hell, just haunted haunted.

A womanizer.

(And you can see it in his movies, if you look.)

A great stage director.

A middling novelist.

A wonderful screenwriter.

A magician, a knight, a squire, a wolf.

Death on the beach in a silly cowl.

A Swedish exile inside his homeland.

Chilly inside.

Bergman is wintry.

Bergman is driven.

Bergman is beautiful.

He spent the last decade of his life isolated

in a stone house

on a remote island.

His life teaches us the value of emotional distance.

 

Two womanizers and something . . . else.

Two sad, lonely, driven men and something . . . else.

Great men, yes, but not good men.

Not people to emulate.

 

I do not want to intercourse Henry Miller.

I do not want to intercourse Arthur Rimbaud.

I do not want to intercourse Ingmar Bergman.

8.

I don’t sleep well.

I worry.

I fret.

I ponder.

I ruminate on unlived lives.

(I don’t wander foreign cities drunk on cheap wine.

I don’t write and direct my own films.)

My imagination creates chimeras with enormous fucking teeth.

I always thought children would erase the dark pieces inside.

 

They don’t.

I have two daughters.

I’m a bigger wreck now than before.

At night I hear screaming children through the whir of the fans.

I hear gunshots, the rumbling of detonated nuclear warheads.

Long-limbed assailants with sharp hooks for hands.

Motorcycle gangs from some ridiculous B movie.

Masked men running up the stairs.

Once I woke up to the sound of a woman being strangled.

I ran out to save her and found a dark, empty apartment.

I’m a mess.

 

Bergman writes poetry with film.

He adds to my worry.

He offers so little solace.

Rimbaud writes poetry with words (before negating it with his life).

He adds to my worry.

He offers so little redemption.

Henry Miller writes poetry with prose.

He doesn’t add to my worry, although he should.

The second line of Tropic of Cancer says it all:

“We are all here alone and we are all dead.”

 

 

 

 

 

National Book Award winners, number 30: 1974’s A Crown of Feathers, by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

28 Jul

In 1974, Isaac Bashevis Singer won the National Book Award for his superb, humane, and thrilling short story collection, A Crown of Feathers. It was his seventeenth book. The award was split with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.

Singer is a magnificent talent, a writer I’ve given short shrift to for years. I’ll go into why in a minute. This collection is powerful, elegant, evocative. His prose is diamond-hard, sometimes folksy, sometimes charming, always powerful. He wrote in Yiddish, and then helped translate his own stories into English[1].

His life is the life of an immigrant. He carried his Judaism with him, but felt disconnected to any country or place. Europe had betrayed him; America never fully welcomed him. He ended his days in Miami, amongst other aging New York transplants. (There’s something sad about Singer wearing the garb of South Florida excess.)

The stories are touching and humane, yet unsentimental. A common refrain in Singer’s stories is, “Who invented the world?” His characters question God, history, the wind. For Singer’s god is the god of ice storms and blood sacrifices, the maker of Leviathans and tigers, the wind of knives and the great deluge. What can man do in the face of such avaricious indifference?

Marvelous, heart-rending and humane.

Marvelous, heart-rending and humane.

Singer can be relentlessly punishing to his characters. In the title story, a Jewish woman named Aksha lives fifty years of joyless fear before dying, as tough yet rewarding a reading experience as Flaubert’s A Simple Heart. Her sin is denying the Jewish faith. Her penance? A lifetime of extreme suffering.

Here he is, detailing the dissolution of Aksha, in “A Crown of Feathers”:

 

“For the remainder of the night, Akhsa was neither asleep nor awake. Voices spoke to her. Her breasts became swollen, her nipples hard, her belly distended. Pain bored into her skull. Her teeth were on edge, and her tongue enlarged so that she feared it would split her palate. Her eyes bulged from their sockets. There was a knocking in her ears as loud as a hammer on an anvil. Then she felt as if she were in the throes of labor. ‘I’m giving birth to a demon!’ Akhsa cried out.”

He has much in common with Bernard Malamud. Both write about racism, oppression. Both write with terse elegance, folksy humor, and dark spiky surprises rattling around in the sentences. Both carried the terror of the Holocaust inside. The horror of history for the Jews is a reoccurring theme. So is the indifference of god. Here, in “A Day in Coney Island”—a fabulous story—he has a character contemplating the world, as he stands on the brink of deportation back to Poland and certain death in 1942:

 

“…even if I survived, how would another novel or story help humanity? The metaphysicians had given up too soon, I decided. Reality is neither solipsism nor materialism. One should begin from the beginning: what is time? What is space? Here was the key to the whole riddle. Who knows, maybe I was destined to solve it. 

“. . . . I closed my eyes . . . . Through my eyelids the sun shone red. The pounding of the waves and the din of the people merged. I felt, almost palpably, that I was one step from truth. ‘Time is nothing, space is nothing,’ I murmured. But that nothingness is the background of the world picture. Then what is the world picture? Is it matter? Spirit? Is it magnetism or gravitation? And what is life? What is suffering? What is consciousness? And if there is a God, what is He? Substance with infinite attributes? The Monad of Monads? Blind will? The Unconscious? Can He be sex, as the cabalists hint? Is God an orgasm that never ceases? Is the universal nothingness the principle of femininity?

“ . . . . I opened my eyes and walked towards Brighton. The girders of the ‘L’ threw a net of sun and shade on the pavements. . . . No matter how space and time are defined, I thought, it is impossible to be simultaneously in Brooklyn and Manhattan.”

Fantastic writing, a great mixture of ponderousness, intellectual heft and hard-edged in-the-moment reality. There’s humor too, despite the looming darkness, and all of these things, with a swirl of urbanity and a touch of shtetl wisdom and there you have Singer. Plus the possibility of sex. With a soupcon of Jewish mysticism.

Singer felt like a refugee, and many of his stories deal with other refugees, struggling to maintain dignity and identity in alien shores. Many of the stories follow a narrator listening to the tales, anecdotes, recollections and wisdom of other characters, immigrants carrying their history and culture with them into the bright promise of early 20th century America.

2.

I confused Singer with not one but two other writers: Isaac Babel, who I want to like but haven’t yet found affection for; and the intriguing but thin Isak Dinesan, who is female and Danish[2]. I combined all of them into a cute, schmaltzy writer of children’s stories and little comic fables. (I’m not proud of this.)

Like other Jewish writers, he’s more prominent in Jewish circles. Which is a pity. For Singer is a writer of great descriptive power and moral weight.

Singer was born in Poland in 1902, and he didn’t come to the U.S. until the early 1930s. He belongs to the enormous first-generation and second-generation Jewish-American/Eastern Europe wave of talent into the U.S. that includes Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, Nelson Algren, Isaac Assimov, Frederick Busch, Robert Bloch, Stanely Elkin, Harlan Ellison, Nora Ephron, Ira Levin, Irving Stone, Edna Ferber, Gordon Lish, Leon Uris, J.D. Salinger, Andrea Dworkin, Budd Schulberg, Nathaniel West, Elie Wiesel, Richard Price, Woody Allen, Chaim Potok, David Goodis, and Ben Hecht. This same heady cultural stew produced most of the great Hollywood writers and producers, and many of the great Broadway writers, too. Hell, standup comedy has its roots in the Yiddish theatre.

The point is that American intellectual history—including 20th century fiction—is in some sense defined by Jewish-American writers and thinkers. And Singer is rightly placed at the forefront of this immensely important, and rich, subculture of American letters. Many of our writers, Jewish or not, draw from the well he and Bellow and Roth and Malamud dug.

3.

Singer wrote with a keen insight and economical concision, moral weight and a questing, often religious intelligence.

For the early seventies, he was a man out of his time. The trend was towards playfulness, deconstruction. It was the era of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. Of silly wordplay and the smashing together of high and low brow culture. Of ironic distance and the refusal to draw moral absolutes. Singer stands against all of this, and it is a testament to his writerly skill—Donald Barthelme was one of the judges—that he won the to award. Of course, Pynchon shared the top honors with him, which is as it should be.

He won the award over the young postmodernist turks, like Thomas McGuane (not my cup of tea, really), John Gardner (ditto), Tim O’Brien (a very fine writer), and Toni Morrison (my feelings on her are too complex to go into here).

Gore Vidal published the very fine historical novel, Burr. Rita Mae Brown released Rubyfruit Jungle. Jerzy Kosinski published The Demon Tree. Cormac McCarthy released his grim, ultra-violent backwoods saga, Child of God. Kurt Vonnegut published one of his stranger novels, Breakfast of Champions. Jerome Charyn released Tar Baby.

Around the world: Milan Kundera published Life is Elsewhere. J.G. Farrell released The Siege of Krishnapur. J.G Ballard, Martin Amis, Graham Greene, and Mario Vargas Llosa all published novels.

An impressive year for fiction, but Singer deserved the top award. I will read more of him, and soon.

 

[1] Some critics say he’s better in Yiddish, some say he’s worse. The consensus is his Yiddish is looser.

[2] Ah, the human brain. I used to confuse Lee J. Cobb, George C. Scott, and Rod Steiger. Also, Jean Genet, Andre Gide, Celine and later the filmmaker Jean Jeunet. I would feel dumb about it, only other people do this, too. For years, Beth thought that Annie Proulx was Annie Dillard, and she hates Dillard, and thus would badmouth Proulx and neither of us read her. Now, we both love Proulx. Funny, how a mistake of memory can deprive people of pleasure.

National Book Award winners, number 29: 1967’s The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud.

19 Jul

1.

In 1967, Bernard Malamud won the National Book Award for his harrowing, thrilling, astonishing novel of anti-semitic oppression, The Fixer. It’s one of my favorite novels, and as dark a page-turner as you’ll ever read.

The story follows Yakov Bok, an embittered, povery-stricken, viciously angry Jewish man living on the outskirts of Kiev. Near the end of the Russian Empire, Yakov works as a fixer, receiving payment in noodles and potatoes and eggs. He cannot save anything, he cannot do anything other than toil. He reads a little at night. He has no friends. His maligned wife abandons him before the novel begins. So against the advice of his father-in-law, his only friend, he sets out for Kiev. He has terrible luck. Here’s how we found out about his family:

 

“His own father had been killed in an incident not more than a year after Yakov’s birth—something less than useless: two drunken soldiers shot the first three Jews in their path, his father had been the second. But the son had lived through a pogrom when he was a schoolboy, a three-day Cossask raid. On the third morning when the houses were still smoldering and he was led, with a half dozen other children, out of a cellar where they had been hiding he saw a black-bearded Jew with a white sausage stuffed into his mouth, lying in the road on a pile of bloody feathers, a peasant’s pig devouring his arm.”

Malamud is rather strangely characterized as a writer of fables, of little magical comedies. Re-read the passage above and see if that description fits. He is a writer of the first magnitude, a writer of moral fictions, a writer of great books that are also thrilling to read.

Yakov creates a new life for himself in Kiev, by lying about his identity. But his new life doesn’t last long. A Christian boy is found murdered, and the Russian police decide it is the work of Jewish killers. Yakov is arrested.

Most of the book is a prison novel, one of the greatest ever written. With brutal, precise, and harrowing prose, Malamud follows Yakov as he is intimidated, tortured, beaten, maligned, and humiliated.

Much of the novel follows Yakov interacting with his jailers, and you keep hoping he’ll make some type of connection. He doesn’t. Malamud is strict, exacting and unsentimental. There are few moments of kindness and little understanding. The guards are ignorant, cruel and superstitious. They beat him, starve him, poison him. One guard points a rifle at Yakov’s genitals every few days. Another douses him with cold water.

In a lesser writer’s hands, this would all be wearying. But the prose. It crackles. It spits. It burns. Each page holds surprises, twists, astonishments.

Great, great, great, but also punishing.

Great, great, great, but also punishing.

Malamud doesn’t just torment Yakov. He disassembles Yakov. He flattens him. Yakov ends up in solitary confinement, and here Malamud writes some of the greatest prose, with Yakov alone in his tortured thoughts, trying to make sense of his situation, trying to parse some moral rightness out of it:

 

“He tried to recall the biology he had studied, and reflected on as much of history as he could bring to mind. They sat God appeared in history and used it for his purposes, but if that was so he had no pity for men. God cried mercy and smote his chest, but there was no mercy because there was no pity. Pity in lightning? You could not pity anything if you weren’t a man; pity was a surprise to God. If was not his invention. . . . He recalled things from the Scriptures, in particular, fragments of psalms he had read in Hebrew on old parchment. He could, in a sense, smell the Psalms as well as hear them. They were sun weekly in the synagogue to glorify God and protect the shtetl from harm, which they never did.

“. . . . He thought of himself pursuing his enemies with God at his side, but when he looked at God all he saw or heard was a loud ha Ha. It was his own imprisoned laughter.”

Insightful but unforgiving. And yet, the greatness of this novel lies in Yakov’s ultimate refusal to accept leniency in return for larger condemnation of his people. Malamud finds redemption in the torture. It is a magnificent feat of writerly skill. In the new introduction, Jonathan Safran Foer says that after finishing The Fixer, he felt “castigated but inspired.” That’s just about perfect.

2.

Yakov’s sins are understandable and few. He desires a life for himself beyond the filthy confines of the little Jewish settlement where he was born. He pretends to be Goy. He misleads a few Russians. He is angry and bitter. He denies the existence of god, claiming to be a freethinker. For this the entire apparatus of a murderous state is brought to bear on him. He is subjected to enormous suffering, held in a bureaucratic stasis pulled straight from Kafka.

Some critics feel that Malamud is punishing Yakov for his sins. This is precisely wrong, a terrible interpretation. Yakov is a victim, and although he plays into the oppressor’s hands with his minor deceptions, he is being buffeted by the immense forces of history that have left the Jewish people in the crosshairs. Yakov’s story is based on a real-life crime.

 

“. . . . But Israel accepts the covenant in order to break it. That’s the mysterious purpose: they need the experience. So they worship false Gods; and this brings Yahweh up out of his golden throne with a flaming sword in both hands. When he talks loud history boils. Assyrian, Babylonia, Greece, Rome, become the rod of his anger, the rod that breaks the head of the Chosen People. Having betrayed the covenant with God they have to pay: war, destruction, death, exile—and they take what goes with it. Suffering, they say, awakens repentance, at least in those who can repent. Thus the people of the covenant wear out their sins against the Lord. He then forgives them and offers a new covenant. Why not? This is his nature, everything must begin again, don’t ask him why. Israel, changed yet unchanged, accepts the new covenant in order to break it . . . . the purpose of the covenant, Yakov thinks, is to create human experience, although human experience baffles God. God is after all God; what he is is what he is: God. What does he know about such things? Has he ever worshipped God? Has he ever suffered?”

Here we have Job with the God of the mysteries, the flashing teeth in the dark clouds, the maker of the tiger and the leviathan, the punishing Old Testament dragon who holds humanity in his mouth.

Malamud later in his career took this thinking to its bitterest conclusion with his final novel, God’s Grace, a companion to The Fixer. Grace has the last man on earth try to build a new society with talking monkeys while God looks on, a face in the clouds, inscrutable, unknowable, mocking. In both novels the protagonists strive to do something more than survive, haunted by failure, besieged by suffering. How do we go on? We go on.

Or, as Yakov thinks to himself near the end of the book:

“My God, what have I forgotten? I’ve forgotten nothing.”

Finally, The Fixer is one of the few novels Don Draper is shown reading in Mad Men. Why? An interesting question.

3.

The Fixer was the best novel of 1967, and just about of any year, but it beat out some notable works.

Paul Bowles (see here) published his potboiler, Up Above the World. Louis Auchincloss released The Embezzler. Truman Capote published his non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, which remains one of the highlights of the decade. Daniel Keyes published the seminal, if now rarely read in its entirety, Flowers for Algernon. Larry McMurtry released The Last Picture Show. Thomas Pynchon published his fascinating, and frustrating, novel of postal conspiracies, The Crying of Lot 49. And, one of my favorite authors, Philip K. Dick, released three novels, including the intriguing Now Wait For Last Year.

Around the world, immense novels appeared. Mihail Bulgakov’s The Master and the Margarita—a hotly debated, love it or hate it type of novel if I’ve ever read one—surfaced. John Fowles’s The Magus, one of my favorite novels, was put into print. Jean Rhys published her best-known work, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Leonardo Sciascia, Mario Vargos Llosa, Patrick White, Margaret Atwood, Kingsley Amis and Chinua Achebe all published notable books.

But, The Fixer holds a special place, a novel that is both good and great, punishing and relevant but also paradoxically fun to read, the kind of book that can change your life, leave you feeling cleansed. I cannot recommend it enough.

Interlude 3: The Counselor, Anonymous, Her, Magic Mike and Jesse James.

3 Jul

(Still writing and rewriting, tweaking, in the guts of a manuscript, pouring as much gasoline as I can into the sentences, always looking for electricity. And, to be honest, I’ve been struggling with the first absolute of writing, “Apply ass to chair.”)

1.

The Counselor isn’t a film. It isn’t a Cormac McCarthy[1] novel either. It’s a fatalistic information system, with little context, bad music, and an invisible plot.

Ridley Scott is too reverent of McCarthy’s script. I’m certain—I read some of the treatment when it was published in the New Yorker—that the screenplay is a good read. But on screen it’s both too slow and yet too short, and in the end, incoherent and stupid.

The script is too tidy. Anything mentioned in the first half becomes manifest in the second. There’s lots of sermonizing. Ominous portents. Silly warnings. Little speeches. But they don’t feel connected to anything. Some scenes go on too long. Others are cut short. Still others are in the film for no real reason, while important scenes that would have established the characters and mood are missing. As it is, the movie feels like an indie art film gone horribly wrong. Or a big budget movie where the producers ran out of cash midway through production and said, what the hell, let’s just slap what we have onto the screen. Fuck it.

Michael Fassbinder, a fabulous actor, looks lost. Cameron Diaz is horrid. Penelope Cruz tries hard but has a thin role. And Javier Bardem isn’t sure what kind of character he’s playing, a wolf, a dangerous man, a good friend, a worried lover, a hustler, so his performance stumbles out like a hot mess. Brad Pitt does fine, but his character is ill-defined, too. Rosie Perez is great, but why is she in the movie?

It looks good, but it isn't. So very, very bad.

It looks good, but it isn’t. So very, very bad.

They all stumble their way through the film, interspersed with shots of a sewage truck carrying twenty million dollars worth of dope. The pieces seem to fit together, but under the barest scrutiny the movie falls apart. It makes no sense. Large chunks of story are absent. The catalyst for the action is invisible. People talk, and then people start dying. The scenes are lacking basic dramatic tension, as well as humor. (Which fans of McCarthy, like me, will find shocking.)

And the cheetahs. Lots of shots of two goddamn cheetahs. We get it: man is another predator; it’s a kill or be killed world; blah blah blah. Cameron Diaz, to further drive the point home, has a gold incisor, cheetah paws tattooed on her back, and wears a variety of predator patterns on her skin-tight dresses and bikinis. Her last lines are, and I’m not making this up, “I’m famished.”

I could denigrate the movie for days. The plot is thin. Fassbinder plays a lawyer in Texas who decides to buy into a drug deal. The deal goes wrong. And the hammer falls. On everyone. Brad Pitt gets his head cut off. There, I just saved you two hours.

2.

Anonymous is a horrid film too, and predictably so. The movie begins with the premise that Edward de Vere secretly wrote all the plays of Shakespeare—the movie posits that he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a child of twelve!—but couldn’t tell the world because, well, it involves Queen Elizabeth not having an heir. Among other intrigues.

I don’t have to defend Shakespeare, there are dozens of better-equipped people than me doing so, but the movie with this kind of ridiculous conceit should be fun. Loads of fun. Oodles and oodles of guilty pleasure kind of fun.

It isn’t. The scenes are muddled. The acting is, on the whole, horrible. Which feels ironic somehow—actors playing actors playing characters, something in there should be watchable—but it isn’t really played for anything. The whole movie operates as an argument against Shakespeare (they make him a drunken fool, a craven knave, and a coward to boot) being a writer, and for de Vere being well, the world’s greatest human. Suffering for his art.

Um, no. And this movie stinks.

Um, no. And this movie stinks.

Ben Jonson is in it. So are Thomas Dekker and Christopher Marlowe. But unlike Shakespeare in Love —which is fabulous and witty, playing with the historical figures while sneaking in anachronistic wordplay—this movie has them in the film to be beaten, knifed, chased, and then deliver the occasional pithy line. It’s the rare movie I didn’t finish and didn’t want or need to.

In the final tally, the movie exists as a (falsified) jumping off point for snobs who believe Shakespeare couldn’t be the actual author of the plays because he wasn’t rich. If middle-brow, faux snobbery is your thing, go forth and enjoy.

Rubbish.

3.

Her is two films, one of them fantastic, one of them wretched. It all depends on what baggage you bring to it.

The movie isn’t complex; the story is the plot is the movie. A lonely, damaged man falls in love with a disembodied artificial intelligence. Joaquin Phoenix plays the man, and it is a fascinating performance, humbled, wounded, and bare, a fascinating counterpoint to his superb turn in The Master. (See here) Similarly raw, but decent and kind and introverted. Scarlet Johansen plays the artificial intelligence, and she conveys a vast range of emotions through her voice. It, too, is a marvel.

The movie has a fantastic look, vaguely futuristic, with a sharp costume design. And to lovers of twee aesthetics and minimalist mid-century furniture, the movie is a wonder.

Critics loved it. Most responded to its whimsical tone, its beauty, it’s patient storytelling. Her has been compared to 2001, which is both absurd and somehow just right.

Good performances. Check. Good visuals. Check. Intriguing premise. Check. Great music. Check. What isn’t to like?

 

A movie full of astonishing beauty, yet flat and unsatisfying.

A movie full of astonishing beauty, yet flat and unsatisfying.

Oodles. The movie is thin, mealy-mouthed, overly optimistic, confined by its absurd premise, philosophical in a sophomore in college sort of way, and kind of, well, offensive. There’s no real action, and very little conflict, so the movie trusses up the proceedings with beautiful exteriors. People walking. The movie reduces human experience to sex and love, and to me seemed a champion of mediocrity. (Phoenix’s job is writing love notes for other people. The other characters repeatedly comment on his writing talents.) There’s something artificial and stuffy about the movie’s ending.

A generous reviewer would call it touching and gentle. A tougher viewer would see it as torpid and slow. Hopeful humanism or spineless psycho-babble?

During the movie, I leant to the former. I gave Jones the benefit of the doubt. But as the movie trudged on, with no real twists or electricity, I grew weary. And with fifteen minutes to go, Beth brought it into stark relief, saying, “This is the worst, most self-indulgent movie I’ve ever seen. I would rather watch The Wolf of Wall Street again.”

Then, “Last year was a terrible year for movies.”

I can’t disagree. Feeling torn over this one, for sure, but I don’t ever want to watch it again.

4.

Steven Soderbergh is an immeasurably talented director with an immense bag of tricks. But his emphasis on lighting, angles, lenses, and so on has left him with an uneven career; for all his cinematographic wizardry, he often loses the story in his movies. Thus, he’s made some very fine films, including Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich (I know, some people hate it) and the two-part Che. But he also made the remake of Solaris[2], the absolute stinker The Informant!, plus the oddly lifeless movies The Good German, The Girlfriend Experience and Behind the Candelabra. He has great films in him, but he hasn’t really made many. But even his bad movies have little moments of electricity, bright spots of spontaneity or life. Which always leaves me hoping he’ll fulfill on his early promise.

Magic Mike might be his best movie, a summation of his strongest qualities, a fascinating film that is equal parts Boogie Nights and Dazed and Confused. The lighting is astonishing, bathing all the actors in alternating bronze gauzy sunlight and fuzzy, tawdry halogen. The script is meandering, pleasant, funny. Matthew McConaughey delivers another superior performance, rounding out his great turns in Mud and True Detective, and the rest of the cast is great, too.

 

Loads of beefcake, yes, but also a great movie with subtle performances.

Loads of beefcake, yes, but also a great movie with subtle performances.

The film follows a group of male strippers in Tampa, focusing on Channing Tatum, who plays an ambitious furniture maker who can’t get a leg up. He has cash, he has talent, he has sex appeal, he’s smart and capable, but he can’t quite put a life together. He’s hemmed in by the expectations of others and the often, unseen barriers in our society. He’s drifting, only he doesn’t realize it. McConaughey plays the charming but unscrupulous club owner, who plays the father-figure to his band of dancers but only so far as they benefit him. He’s a smiling rake, with plenty of panache, but at a crucial moment in the movie he lets Tatum see beneath the façade, and it’s a dark, brutal place indeed.

 

The movie straddles the fence between bump and grind fun times and the darker, druggier aspects of the nocturnal life. It ends with a simple, elegant maxim: pursuing pleasure isn’t bad, it’s just unsustainable.

A very good film, soured only a touch by a late little spurt of moralizing. One I’d watch again.

5.

But the best movie I’ve seen recently—including Jersey Boys (I liked it), Trumbo (inexplicably moving), Klown (hysterical), Upstream Color (hard to forget), Star Trek Into Darkness (boo), World War Z (better than I expected), Il Futuro (quite good, if difficult to describe), Simon Killer (sexy and disturbing), Three Outlaw Samurai (yes, pretty good), Friends with Money (excellent and diamond-hard), The Horseman (engaging but thin), Prisoners (smashing), and the television mini-series Top of the Lake (fantastic), all of which seems random, when I look at it, and more American-centric than my usual habits—was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Wintry, chilling, beautiful, haunting, challenging, bleak, thrilling—this noirish western follows the last days of Jesse James (played to the hilt by Brad Pitt) as he stalks his former gang, sliding ever deeper in paranoia and depression. Pitt plays James as a murderous, untrusting bully, unsure of his way in a changing world. In his bank-robber perambulations, James comes across Bob Ford (played by Casey Affleck), an amoral kid who has adored James since he can remember. Ford’s older brother, Charlie (played by Sam Rockwell), falls under James’s sway, too. Jeremy Renner and Garrett Dillahunt play low-rent outlaws, and Paul Schneider delivers a bravura performance as a lusty, high-falutin’ cut-throat. Rounding out the cast is Sam Shepard, who plays Frank James as a terse, all-business gunfighter.

 

An astonishing film.

An astonishing film that will haunt you, if you can sit through it.

The various characters pursue, flee, lie in wait for each other; Jesse James is an information system, too, closed off and insular, off-kilter, astral. As the film progresses, Bob Ford turning colder, meaner, steelier, while James grows increasingly paranoid and erratic. And yet, in a very moving performance, Affleck’s Ford simultaneously becomes more anxious, vulnerable and exposed. He wants to kill James, but he isn’t sure why. For prosperity? For money? To save his own life? He can’t decide if James is his hero, his friend, or his enemy, and the movie sustains a vicious tension for much of its running time. James suspects Ford wants to kill him. Or does he? It’s an astonishing display of terse unease for the better part of an hour.

The scenery is breathtaking, each shot is framed with a painterly beauty, and the script is excellent. The movie would have been a fine western, but it has a peculiar third act, following Bob Ford as an actor, re-enacting his murder of Jesse James for huge crowds. Charlie plays James on the stage, and the haunting, elegiac tone of this last little bit pushes the movie into weirder, richer territory. Past the edges of the genre. Past the expectations of the viewer. Into something stony and vivid, like stepping into a cave painting.

Some critics argued that the movie was a cautionary tale about fame. This is an absurd interpretation. The movie is about real people, living wild, violent lives, and the surreal horror of inhabiting the memories of your own life, like a ghost draping over your own skin.

One for the ages.

 

[1] Whom I love and admire.

[2] Just really, really bad.