Coming Soon

Reviews or reflections on some or all of the following will be coming soon:


Open City
(plus perhaps some brief notes on Gertrud, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Die Hard, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, or On the Town, all watched in the lost week of summer travel prep and illness)

Joel Priddy's "Pulpatoon Pilgrimage"
Dashiell Hammett's "Red Harvest"


I have been feverish, weak and bedridden for the last few days, so I anticipate that in my near future there lurk a number of rather short reviews of movies I have seen and the book I have read in this absent time. I just wanted to write in quickly, however, to note my mad bibliophilous fervor for a few web ideas.

The first of my new enthusiasms is, a site that puts the catalogues of and its international brethren, the Library of Congress, and a bevy of university libraries to the service of cataloguing your personal book collection. The site is addictively easy to use, and will allow you as much privacy as you might wish about your information. Some of the Library Thing's best features, however, can only be enjoyed by the less than private - the ability to view the profiles and collections of those with libraries similar to yours, for instance, or access to all user reviews and ratings of any book in the system. The Library Thing will also crunch numbers for you in all manner of giddiness-inspiring ways: it will break down your library by language of publication or origin, by year of publication or date of entry; it will tell you if any of your books are owned by just one other user so that you can seek out the other misfits who were drawn to this strange corner of the literary world; it will even turn your list of authors into an alarming diagram which reveals that your snooty graduate school tastes will never outpace your secret love of mysteries and fantasy. At any rate, if you have a near-obsessive passion for books, it will undoubtedly provide you with many valuable hours of procrastination. (One negative should be noted, although it is undoubtedly necessary to the upkeep of the site: only the first 200 books you enter are free, after that you may enter unlimited books for $10 a year or a $25 lifetime membership.)

My second new obsession is the delightful , which periodically invites two established poets to participate in a verse agon: each poet is provided with the same "inspiration" from the moderator (usually a quotation), and is then given 15 minutes to compose a poem in response to it. What is so delightful about this idea is that readers can watch the composition process in real time, even after the fact, following each pause and emendation as the poem itself unfolds. Robert Pinsky is one of the poets scheduled for tomorrow's agon, and he seems full of enthusiasm for the venture.

The third (and last, for now) of my discoveries is the new reading group at online 'zine , which is devoted to the discussion of international works of different genres from the "Reading the World" publishers' project. The works they have lined up seem extraordinary: Mati Unt's "Things in the Night" in June, and Svetlana Alexeivich's very highly praised "VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL" in July. Each month a critic or editor from periodicals like The Paris Review, The Boston Globe, and The Believer introduce and moderate the discussion, which so far has been much more intelligent than the average discussion of literature in real or cyberspace, albeit also much less voluminous or active. I missed the first month, but have already ordered "Things in the Night" and can't wait to dive in.

Spain/Chicago, Scotland/Japan: The perils of adaptation in "Carmen Jones" and "Throne of Blood"

(It should be noted that all of my posts are reflections on films and/or books in their entirety, and may not be suitable for the spoiler-wary.)

Last night was Otto Preminger's "Carmen Jones" (1954), a curiously inert translation of Bizet's opera to the screen. The problem was not at all with the liberties this film took, but rather with its fidelity. I know we are all fond of "Carmen," humming its tunes merrily away day in and day out, but perhaps the resonances of meaning generated by translating the narrative from the dry heat of 1830s Spain to an equivalently arid series of American military camps, bars and boxing rings would be better served by venturing farther from the plot and musix of the source. As it is you can feel the actors (who include Harry Belafonte and the lovely Dorothy Dandridge, whom I am sorry to say I found rather unmagnetic in this role) and the writers straining against precedent, aching under the strictures of confining, ill-fitting plots and melodies.

This was not at all true of the more liberal adaptation of "Macbeth" I saw several days ago, Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" (from 1957, only a few years after "Carmen Jones" was released). First, some disclaimers: although I have seen "Macbeth" staged almost a dozen times, and am devoted to it as a reading experience, I have only ever seen one strong staging, oddly enough by a class of acting students in the found space of one of the Oxford college chapels. Perhaps it was something about the provisional quality of this performance, or about the contrast between the somber holiness of the space and the rottenness of the narrative, that gave this production the vitality that every other one has lacked.

As a result, it was not completely a surprise to me that I found "Throne of Blood" slightly underwhelming by comparison to the other Kurosawa films I have seen recently (Ran and Rashomon a couple of years ago, Seven Samurai and Yojimbo six months ago, along with the less compelling Hidden Fortress). The loss of Shakespeare's verse, with all its complexities, was surprisingly important to me, since I have always been a misfit English PhD (or perhaps a loyal Theater devotee) who admires Shakespeare as much for the complexity of his plot and character construction as for the intricacy and grace of his poetry. At times the substitution of visual poetry for literary was insufficient for my tastes, threatening to swallow the characterizations in boredom. But three moments were absolutely priceless additions to the long tradition of the Scottish play, and the last to the history of cinema:

1) The fact that Washizu and his wife Asaji (our feudal Japanese Macbeths, brilliantly played by Toshiro Mifune and Isuzu Yamada) plot the downfall of the Great Lord while surrounded on every side by walls soaked in a traitor's blood lends an almost theatrical claustrophobia to the scene, and both the play and film know that at its heart, this is a narrative about claustrophobia - the claustrophobia of success, of fulfilling your own fate and having to live within a blood-soaked destiny.

2) Kurosawa solves the famous problem of the Macbeths' (in)fertility (how subjunctive is Lady M's brain-bashing boast?), by having Asaji give birth to a still born child. The image, explicitly drawn out in the film, of her carrying the child dead inside of her comes to stand in for the entire narrative.

3) Mifune's brilliant, endless death scene cannot help but be compelling, horrifying, and also exhilarating to any viewer. The image of him trapped on every side by a ceaseless stream of arrows from the bows of his own men viscerally evokes the piercing claustrophobia of a joyless power. These are indeed "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."

"Carmen Jones" - **
"Throne of Blood" - ****

Casual Cruelties: Mike Leigh's "Secrets and Lies"

(It should be noted that all of my posts are reflections on films and/or books in their entirety, and may not be suitable for the spoiler-wary.)

Tonight I watched "Secrets and Lies" (1996), which is the first of Mike Leigh's films I have seen. I have tickets to see his play, "Two Thousand Years," this summer, so I approached this encounter with his work with interest, knowing that this was supposed to among his most accessible films. There is something fundamentally theatrical about the way the space between the actors is charged with layered meanings in "Secrets and Lies," particularly in the stronger first half of the film, when Leigh relies less on action and more on the potential energy of falsehoods long forgotten.

The film is a extensive meditation on the perils of fertility, set in the least sexual social landscape imaginable: the cool, airless rooms of (sub)urban London. Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), while engaged in a lengthily destructive relationship with one illegitimate daughter, is suddenly contacted by another daughter, Hortense, whom she had given up for adoption years before, sight unseen. When Cynthia shows up at Holborn Station for her first encounter with this long lost daughter, she realizes with some shock that, although she herself is white, Hortense is black.

The core of the movie is this exploration of how total strangers, with no sense of common history or experience, react when suddenly thrown into the most intimate of all possible human relationships. Leigh's particular skill involves excavating the infinite meanings perceptible in the details of everyday life. At first the mundane quality of the lives he is examining is unsettling, and even a little dull, but we are gradually wooed into the minor dramas that unfold with the appearance of every peripheral character. Cynthia's younger brother is a photographer, and each customer who appears in his studio performs a little masterwork of theatrical density. One woman has been in a devastating, career-ending accident, and the camera lingers on her lengthily as she sends the photographer a withering look in response to his conventional, double-edged expressions of sympathy.

"You can tell a lot about people by looking at their eyes," Hortense explains primly when asked about her career as an optometrist. Indeed all the most evocative moments in this film are filled with glances, outraged and sympathetic, averted and unreturned, but seldom affectionate and never, ever amorous. Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense is the most delicate wielder of the glance of any of the main characters, turning in a detailed, empathetic performance as a woman of superhuman patience thrown suddenly into a circus of inadequately suppressed familial pain.

The climax of the film, however, takes an overwrought turn towards the histrionic, betraying the aesthetic of minutiae for the melodramatic structural necessity of balancing Cynthia excessive fecundity with her sister-in-law's infertility. This is a minor flaw, though, in a otherwise finely wrought meditation on the casual cruelties of family life.

"Secrets and Lies" - ****

The world was all before them

What fit of madness was it that possessed me when I decided to start this blog? What could possibly have sucked me in at this very odd time, when a daily writing slog already awaits me? I have told my advisor that I will have a draft of my dissertation's second chapter to him on the first of June (although it hardly seems likely that he remembers), so I am now dutifully churning out three or four giddy, labyrinthine pages a day in preparation for that grim deadline.

I feel a particularly strong degree of dread about this initial post - it seems to me that all bloggers must fill their opening entries with banalities like this, asking themselves what they are doing in this particular corner of cyberspace and for whom they might conceivably be writing. This anxiety reminds me of a creative writing student I had this past semester who thought all of his best ideas were derivative, the most obvious possible responses to the prompts simply because they were responses that felt right and went smoothly. Whether this is one of my best ideas remains to be seen....

At any rate, at the moment I will treat this blog rather like a conveniently omnipresent journal (not prone to disappearance into the oblivion of closets and suitcases like more worldly, material, paper-and-ink journals) of what I read and what I see.

I suppose the motivating factor here is my love of lists, or rather, the slightly compulsive tendency I have to view any list as a personal challenge, which cannot ... MUST not be ignored for the sake of individual honor and the family name.

I have recently embarked on two rather lengthy lists. The first was sparked by my mother's purchase of a devilish book with the title "1001 Movies you Must see before you Die." Surely even the most anti-canonical of minds could not have failed to rise to that sort of a challenge. So about a year and a half ago I resolved to conquer this list, making my way through it chronologically from its very beginnings - the Adam and Eve of "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) and "The Great Train Robbery" (1903). I am now somewhere in 1944, entrenched in metaphorized war-time patriotism, although I must admit my addiction to TiVo, TCM, and IFC (and my newfound addiction to FMC, of all things) has led me slightly off the beaten path of perfect chronology.

It recently occurred to me that I should be making some sort of an effort to fix these movies in my memory by creating a chronicle, turning my rather extracurricular interest in cinema into a more literary effort, more decorous for an ABD in English (may I mention, rather pompously, that I am now slightly farther through my graduate program than David Duchovny ever got... Perhaps if I looked better in a red speedo, or could react more stone-facedly to gooey aliens who most closely resemble overripe blue cheese, then I would not be facing a daily need to write three more pages about the postcolonial passion for rehearsal drama.). I have also recently (about two months ago) started on a second list from a second devilish book, "1001 Books you Must Read before you Die," and this one promises to be more of a life-long commitment. This quixotic pursuit began when my friend revealed that she had written several of the articles in the book, and added (tauntingly, I thought) that it was surely impossible to read all 1,001 books in a single lifetime. I threw her a rebellious look.

After a year and a half of work on the Film list (and a lifetime of spectatorship before that) I have seen 410/1001. This number is a particular source of pride to me since after 8 years of higher education devoted to the study of literature, I have only read 146/1001 of the books. Notice how I put that observation in positive terms, cleverly disguising my profound shame and trepidation at the long literary road ahead.

The long and the short of it is that I hope to save these movies and books from the blur of rapid consumption to which they have currently been consigned by jotting down a few thought here from time to time.

Apologies for leaving you with a few lines of my least favorite poet (although they are my favorite lines of his):

"The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wandering step sand slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way."