Saturday, March 28, 2015

Striped With Love and Emblazed Tattoos

So I saw Birdman.  Man, that was bad.  And I mean, not just, "OK but overrated." But out-and-out bad.  Like, it had been written by a dim, bipolar college student who was high on bath salts.

So part of me is like, let's go to town on this.  Let's dissect it.  And then another larger, tireder part is like, why?  There's a great quote about Randall Jarrell lamenting how, as a critic, he spent far too much of his time beating and beating on clearly dead horses.  (Sorry for the animal cruelty image).  The point being: why spend so many pages and so much energy explaining and dissecting exactly what makes a failure a failure?  Why not expend your energy on praise?  Or at least, on art that is in the middle?  That is debatably good or bad?  Which Birdman, clearly, is not.  And it's true that Jarrell--who was a bit mad--could go on forever about some mediocre book that would sink into oblivion irrespective of what he or anyone else did.

And this is valid, I think.  And I bring it up because...  Birdman was just horrible.  I mean…my wife, who has a far higher tolerance for junk than I do (and I mean that not as an insult--but rather that she's way way more tolerant and forgiving, whereas I am predisposed, sadly, to just hate everything) wife, halfway through, announced she'd had enough.  (It was right after the absurd and bizarre lesbian moment between Naomi Watts and whoever the woman playing Keaton's wife was).  And my wife NEVER gives up on crappy art.  She's a positive person!

So the point is, I lie awake sometimes, now, enumerating all that's horrible about that movie.  I feel like, if called to a podium at some university and asked to talk for an hour on the subject "All That Was Bad about Birdman" I could go to town.

But should I?  And should I do it here?  I mean, it's effort, you know.  Effort I could use to make a chile colorado.  Or to memorize the kings of Judea (I'm reading The Bible, these days, too.  On which more later.)

Anyway… I mean, I know the Academy gives lots of bad movies awards (see Crash) and all that, but I just can't believe they'd be so bamboozled by such jejune and juvenile nonsense.  And there's a part of me that wants to launch into a 5000 word rant where I explicate and pore over every iota of its horribleness.  But then there's a much, much larger part that wants to just…move past it, as though it were a terrible accident on the freeway that I was happy not to be a part of.  And that's what I'll do, now.

 *  *  *

I'd never heard of Charles Baxter until a month ago.  Is that odd?  But then I read about him in the NYRB and now I've read four of his books.  And they're great!  I mean, really good.  Check him out, if you haven't already.  Criticism too.

 *  *  *

And here's another thing that's great: The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber.  I say that slightly provisionally, however; I'm only halfway through it.

But I mean…wow.  It's really making me happy.  But I don't want to talk about it, at all.  And the reason is, I think if any of you want to read it, you should know as little about it as possible.  The less you know, the better.  Not that there are a bunch of plot twists and exciting Usual Suspects-like reveals.  There aren't.  But…it has a quality of wonder and innocence and…whatever the opposite of cynicism is…that I absolutely love and respond to and want to praise.

And so I'll hope that the last 100 pages or so don't let me down and just say: go and read it.  And consider Phlebas, who was once as tall and handsome as you.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Jinx and Zeno

To anyone who is not watching, or does not plan to watch The Jinx on HBO--you are missing something great.  Maybe the greatest documentary I've ever seen.  And as if it wasn't great enough on its own--and the final episode was one of the most mesmerizing and amazing things I've seen on TV--Robert Durst, its subject was arrested on Saturday, the day before the finale. 

I won't say anything about the finale, though the articles currently in all the papers that describe Durst's arrest will all probably talk about it. (My advice: watch the show from the start, and don't read the articles till after).  But it was ridiculously good.  And gripping.  And amazing--name your superlative.  Just insane.  My wife loved it even more than I did.  We joked that she was going to have to quit her job and dedicate herself to full-time Durst blogging.


A long time ago I started but didn't finish Svevo's Zeno's Conscience.  For some reason I got it down off the shelf last week and have been reattempting it.  And, for whatever reason, it now seems to work for me, in a way it didn't last time.  I'm about halfway through at this point, just at the point where his relationship with his mistress Carla is about to end.  

A funny conceit for how it ultimately seems to fall apart: Carla implores Zeno, during their assignations, to let her get a glimpse, somehow, of his wife.  (She knows Zeno loves his wife and won't leave her, and she wants to see this woman to whom Zeno is so devoted).  Finally, worn down, Zeno directs Carla to a certain street on a certain day, when, he says, his wife can be seen walking to the store.  If Carla goes and stands at a certain spot, she will see her.

But, Zeno has in fact not told Carla how to get a glimpse of his wife, but of his sister-in-law, Ada (Zeno, it should be added, has first proposed to Ada, and then to another sister, Agatha, before finally settling on his actual wife--a third sister, Augusta).  So, Carla goes to the appointed spot and waits to see "Augusta", Zeno's wife. (Really his sister-in-law).  And when she does, she is so moved at the sight of the suffering on Ada's face, so affected by her palpable sadness, that she breaks off her affair with Zeno, in order to stop causing his wife so much suffering! (Carla assumes Ada/Augusta is suffering because she knows her husband is unfaithful).

And then, even another layer of twistiness to the plot, we learn later that Ada, the morning that Carla spotted her, had in fact just that day caught her own husband, Guido, in a compromising embrace with their maid.  So that Carla was, in fact, entirely 'correct' as to the cause of what was affecting "Zeno's wife", but only wrong as to the identity of the sufferer. 

That whole web of interations stands in pretty well for the workings of the book as a whole, whose guiding prinpcial is that conventional and expeted things happen but for odd and irrational and unconventional reasons.  Short on incident, though, it can sometimes lag--since almost the entire 'story', such as it is, occurs in Zeno's mind (the ratio of 'thinking about incidents' to 'incidents themselves' stands at about four to one) it can read a little slow.  And, to audiences long familiar with Philip Roth and Woody Allen and Seinfeld all the other 'artist of neuroses' some of what surely seemed original and exciting during Svevo's own time (he lived and wrote about a century ago) now seems a bit familiar.  But worthwhile all the same.

Rented Guardians of the Galaxy this weekend.  Had been lead to expect it would be a light fun thrill-ride type movie, but I found it pretty standard stuff.  Lots of fights and explosions with no story or character to really care about.  Blah.

Monday, March 9, 2015

March Update

I will post at least once a month--that's the plan.  How ambitious!

I'm reading…what?  Oh…Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  Recommended to me by a former pupil.  Actually kind of a funny story.  I'd been tutoring, on and off, the son of my boss.  When we started he was in 7th grade, and my boss basically just wanted someone to come hang out with him once a week and act as a sort of intellectual big brother.  We had some kind of purported weekly work--help him with math, I think--but he never actually had any math so we ended up just talking a lot.  Then I told his mother I thought it would be useful if I just gave him a bunch of stuff I thought would be useful for him to learn--maps of the world, world capitals, timelines of history--because his school, while good, wasn't challenging him enough.  So we would spend half of each session going over his 'assignments' from me--I'd have him fill out maps, or make him explain the history of the Reformation--and then for the second half of every hour (we'd only meet for an hour) we'd play Civilization together. (Which I justified to his mother--accurately in fact--in terms of how educational it was.)

Anyway… that was our first segment of time, and it lasted about three months.  Then he got busy with school, and I got busy with my burgeoning salmon-farming business, and we stopped meeting.  Then last year, she hired me again to help improve his essay writing--again, the school wasn't really giving him enough feedback (his teacher just gave him an A on all his assignments, seemingly without reading them).  So we read some eight-grade books together and wrote essays on them (Lord of the Flies, To Kill A Mockingbird).  And that was fun.  He's a very smart kid and generally we'd have interesting conversations about whatever.  Like, he would suddenly remark that he'd seen a special last night about the way the Chinese effected dynastic successions or something, and did I know that in China there was no tradition of philosophy, as such, because all the philosophers gravitated towards writing poetry. (Or something).  And then I'd respond in some way and we'd, you know, engage.  And I bought him a bunch of books to read, too.

Anyway… where was I?  Right, so that was last year.  But then this fall, his mom emails me and says that (NAME OF SON) has been asking about me, and now that he's in high school he doesn't really have time for tutoring--or need--but did I maybe want to think about having dinner with him one night, so we could talk?  Because she thinks he still needs intellectual mentoring, and what-not.  (I should have said that the father and mother have been going through an amicable divorce though all of this, but that he's not around as much).

So anyway, last month we went to dinner and chatted.  And it was interesting on many levels, though not maybe the most enjoyable dinner I've ever had (he talked a lot about video games--which he doesn't actually play, but which he does watch other people play on YouTube.  A lot.  Which seems odd to me.)

Anyway, long story short: he recommended the book, the Kahneman book.  And I'm reading it.  And though I feel a lot of it is sort of common sensical, and though I've already read so many reviews or essays about the book that at least 40% of it seems old hat by now, I'm still enjoying it.