I’ve been putting off writing for weeks. The new school year, graduate school, a new job for Beth, and coaching yet another losing season of middle school soccer: time is tight.
Simone now talks in three and four-word sentences. She can say peacock—I have no idea why—as well as dinosaur, give me a bite, me a sip, and the spectrum of monosyllabic words. Her tantrums are few and far between, she always wants to wash her hands, and she can sort of jog backwards. She is, in a word, a delight. She has an internal life that we don’t quite understand; for instance, she gets very upset when Beth pulls her hair into a ponytail.
I’ve been in a writing funk, and haven’t been able to muster the energy to finish any of the longer pieces. (Or the latest novel, for that matter.) So, instead, here’s a roundup of the things I’ve been watching and reading.
Andy Robinson and Walter Matthau on the run from the law and at odds with each other.
Charley Varrick—Walter Matthau’s face tells the story of ten thousand, hangdog losers. His cheeks droop like melted wax. His eyes hang in his fleshy face like two unwashed stones. It’s a face only a mother could love, and he used it to create a fantastic career. I love watching great character actors age; they begin to deliver these lazy performances, where the lines are just right. Varrick is a small little crime caper, following low rent bank robbers through the southwest, hiding out from the mobsters they have inadvertently stolen from. It’s a Don Siegel movie, so it’s violent, a bit off-kilter, but also laid back. Check it out.
One of the best movies from the last few years, thrilling and beautiful and sad.
Blue Valentine—A fantastic, biting little movie about the disintegration of a couple, the devastating effects of miscommunication, and the end of things. Ryan Gosling and Michele Williams play a husband and wife who are at the end of their romance. They can’t communicate; they are each living a life they didn’t want and don’t quite understand; their attempts to resuscitate their marriage are, by movie’s end, almost laughable. The film is shot out of order. The importance of certain scenes sneaks up on you. The whole thing is saturated with a piercing and savage anger. It’s precise, edgy and challenging, a superb, muscular and rigorous piece of work, a drama that is sexy and thrilling, while maintaining all the concision of a Raymond Carver short story.
You don’t always need forty hours to tell a story. Sometimes less than two will do.
A very creepy movie about housesitting and maybe the end of the world.
House of the Devil—There’s a low budget trend in filmmaking, and it’s a good thing. Directors have to rely on moody atmospherics and good writing. The special effects machine is burning itself out. House of the Devil is a great example of this, a throwback to the 1970s horror movies. Small-scale, a few sets, a creeping feeling of escalating horror. It delivers the goods.
The West Wing: fast-paced and often funny.
West Wing—It’s becoming a matter of movies versus TV, and I’m not happy about it. Television has made immense strides in terms of quality, narrative and moral complexity. (I’m working on a longer entry on this.) The West Wing was one of the first quality television shows and its a hell of a political education. The show walks you through the backroom political process, usually through the main characters delivering speeches to the many ciphers that dance along the edges of the show. Aaron Sorokin wrote almost eighty episodes by himself, which puts him in the upper echelons of screenwriting. The actors are very good (Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and Martin Sheen are standouts); the show is tense, often funny; the only drawback is its tendency toward didacticism. Sorokin wants to convince the viewers that a tough but intellectually inclined liberal would make the best president. The show misses out on real dramatic potential because of this underlying conceit.
Sorokin’s style is akin to the Lubitsch rat-a-tat style of the 1930s screwball comedies. When he’s good, he’s great.
The musical score is, and this is being charitable, horrendous: cheesy and bouncy and both impossible to ignore yet impossible to remember. And when the show is bad, it’s terrible.
The show learns from its mistakes, dropping characters that aren’t working and moving past storylines that lack gravitas. But, this is a drawback, too, as the show whips past some storylines that could use a little time to marinate.
But overall it’s an enlightening glimpse into the world where policies are actually made (and broken).
A great singer on an intriguing show.
Glee—An education of a different kind, with so much to like and only a little to despair. The show has synthesized the history of musicals into a mashup of songs and styles ranging from the 1950s to the oughts. The song numbers range from the sublime—they deliver killer versions of “Baby, it’s cold outside,” “Teenage Dream,” “Cabaret,” and “Bills, Bills, Bills” among others—to the hokey (most of the showtune ballads).
Glee is flashy, sometimes saccharine, overly sentimental, and at times downright corny. It’s also clever, funny, exhilarating, and celebratory.
And for all its meteoric popularity, it’s misunderstood.
The show is less about acceptance than about resilience in the face of failure. But the failure is often unqualified and deserving; the characters are repeatedly defeated, admonished, embarrassed, humiliated and outright beaten. They aren’t talented enough.
It’s an intriguing character study of people who’ve failed. The first season understands this, focusing on the adults more than the children. Shuster, who never took a shot at anything beyond the small town where he grew up; Emma, paralyzed by childhood compulsions; Sue, a tyrant so emotionally clogged she bullies everyone out of existential self-defense.
The show returns to this notion of failure over and over. The overall effect is a pungent and even withering meditation on inadequacy, deficiency and lack of achievement.
The counterpoint to this theme is the show’s other main character, Rachel. She’s talented, ambitious, difficult, and driven, and unlike other shows and movies, it’s cleat that the writers of Glee don’t think this is a bad thing at all, but necessary and good. Without her devotion to her dreams, she will fail, and watching her frustrate and annoy the other members but then wow them with her talent is one of the show’s great pleasures. (The actress who plays her, Lea Michele, is an amazing singer.)
In season 2, Glee has fled from the yearnings and failings of the adults to the yearnings and failings of the teenagers. This is a mistake. The teenagers aren’t as interesting and they can’t be. They sit on the cusp of a world that will no longer protect them, and they don’t understand the thousand little failures and compromises that await.
Too many show tunes. Too many ballads. Too many repeating storylines. A touch of the afterschool special. All of Glee’s problems could be fixed by a shorter season and less episodes. My other problem is the filmmaking. The show has a style, with bold colors and lots of closeups of people’s faces, but it moves the camera too much. There are three fantastic dancers, but their numbers are cut into thirty or forty shots, when one or two would suffice. Tis a pity.
Still, like a good stage musical, when the storyline and the emotional lives of the characters intertwine with the emotional arc of the song, the show strikes a euphoric chord.
Books and comics:
I’ve been struggling with novels. I’ve started half a dozen: Achilles; The Remains of the Day; Leaf Storm (novella by Marquez); Ten Thousand Saints. But I keep stopping around page 50. So, I’ve turned to histories, comics, short stories and even poetry. (I’m making my way through Kanzantikos’s sequel to the Odyssey. So far, it’s great.)
God Against the Gods—Kirsch has written a concise overview of the conflict between monotheism and polytheism. It’s a great read. The two main characters in the book are Constantine and his great nephew Julian.
The story of Constantine is one of the best films never made. He was the illegitimate son of a noble and a prostitute. He schemed and fought his way to the rank of Augustus. (At the time, the Roman Empire had two major rulers and two minor rulers; Diocletian created this power-sharing scheme to protect the empire from weak rulers. He was a good leader, when he wasn’t torturing Christians.) Constantine battled his way to sole control, made Christianity the state religion, and then attempted to reconcile the various heretical threads into a single church. (He succeeded in a sense, failed in another.) As he aged, he realized his sons weren’t up to the task of running the whole empire, so he split it up between Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II, and then he died. His sons went to war.
Constantius II, go figure with a name like that, emerged victorious. He was weaker, more violent, more suspicious and more tyrannical than his father. He made paganism illegal, burned down places of worship, persecuted Christians who believed differently than he. (He was, by Catholic standards, a heretic.) Through grueling years of intrigue, he murdered or had killed his entire family, hundreds of people, leaving his two nephews, Galus and Julian. With Persia rebuilding itself for an attack, he attempted to raise both to the position of Caesar. He had Galus killed. But before he could dispatch Julian, he died.
Julian is an oddball in history. He was an ascetic, a scholar, a great field commander, and a formidable intellect. He was also fair, honest, decent and law abiding. He was all the things his family was not, and for his short reign, a very fine ruler.
But he was on the wrong side of history. He attempted to return to pluralism, reverting the state back to paganism, but not—and this is a key component to the story—making Christianity illegal. Killing by a tossed lance during a Persian campaign, Julian remains one of the history’s big question marks.
Thus endeth the brief history lesson. Gore Vidal’s Julian covers the story of the pagan emperor on the wrong side of history, and for those who are interested, it’s a great read.
A disappointing relaunch from my favorite comic book author.
DC new 52—Comics are, without question, on the whole the best they’ve ever been. The writing is inventive, cinematic. The types of comics are varied and diverse. The art has returned to the glory days of the clean 1970s style. But, monthly comics, on the whole, are losing readers. (I’ll write an entry about why later, but the gist of it is the two major superhero universes have become convoluted and have lost their sense of wonder and fun.) DC decided to do something drastic. And so far, the The DC comics restart has driven thousands of new buyers into the comic bookstores. It’s paid off. But it’s annoying. Comics that I would have bought have sold out, and demand has driven the price of the first printings up to 10 bucks a piece. I only got Action Comics, because Grant Morrison is the author, and it was a big letdown. The art was mediocre; the story was listless; the take on Superman a bit boring and banal. I’ll hang around for a few issues, but I didn’t like what I’ve read so far.
Great storytelling and clean lines.
FF—The current run on the Fantastic Four is a nerd’s dream, a science fiction phantasm with forty or so characters and a convoluted storyline. (Or rather, set of storylines. There are dozens of things happening at once: Sue Storm taking over the rule of a pre-Atlantis undersea kingdom; Galactus being killed in the future to save the past; Black Bolt taking over the Kree Empire; Doctor Doom losing and then regaining his dark intellect; and so on.) There’s alternate dimensions, the death of the human torch, Spiderman joins the team, and three evil Reed Richards from alternate timelines are attempting to destroy the earth. The stories are heavy on the scienceThe art, by Steve Epting, is superb.
Globe-trotting, superspy heroics
Captain America—Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America has been astonishing. The basic story has been to shift the plot away from Steve Rogers to his former sidekick Bucky. Brainwashed by the Soviets after the war, Bucky became an assassin called the Winter Soldier. Returned to full cognition, he takes over the Captain America uniform when Steve Rogers is “killed.” (Only three or four characters have ever stayed dead in superhero comics.) Steve Epting and Butch Guise, both great artists, have given the book a great consistent look. It’s the best run since Mark Gruenwald’s ten-year run starting in the 1980s.
The best monthly comic.
B.P.R.D.—The best monthly comic, bar none, and a kooky blast of Lovecraftian powerpop. The misfits from the edges of Hellboy here get their own title, a quirky team book following a handful of science and cult heroes attempting to prevent the destruction of the world by Cthonic spacegods. They’re losing, and the deformation of the earth at the hands of the cosmic villains has been amazing.
The biggest black hole in my life. For the last two weeks I’ve written one paper (it was glorious, but still only a paper) and a few pages of the newest novel. It feels like sinking into quicksand. It feels like ghost pains from an amputated limb. Some days I don’t think about writing at all. I can feel words receding. I can feel the story of the moment shifting like sand between my fingers. I have waking nightmares about lines of story leaking out of my skull.
Our dreams don’t implode, they die slowly, like wilting roses, or water dissipating in unfiltered sunlight.
Au revoir, faceless readers; there’s always more to come.
Me, chewing on writer's block and fighting back tears.