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Madness: David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

Some of the entries are set in stone from edition to edition, and that’s fine in most cases.

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Madness: David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film

The first edition of David Thomson’s magnum opus A Biographical Dictionary of Film came out in 1975, and it was filled with a young man’s strong opinions, flights of fancy, sensitive tributes to people like Howard Hawks, Max Ophüls, Jean Renoir, Carl Dreyer, Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, and surprisingly forceful condemnations of such citadels as John Ford and Frank Capra. In matters of taste, Thomson has been right about most of the important figures in the medium he has spent a lifetime chronicling, at least the ones he comes to praise. The book as it now stands in the just-released fifth edition is over one thousand pages; some profiles have come and gone with the years, while others stand mainly as they were in the original. There are a hundred or so new profiles in this version, and it cannot be said that Thomson has grown mellower with the years; he’s deeply skeptical of the “American New Wave,” as he calls it, which includes, for him, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, James Gray, Spike Jonze, Richard Linklater and (gulp) Kevin Smith.

Michel Gondry, unaccountably, did not make the cut, but the choices for inclusion in this book have always been idiosyncratic. There are all kinds of British character actors stuffed into this edition (for sheer Dickensian sprawl?), but no entries for Catherine Keener, Jason Schwartzman or Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Mike Myers makes the cut, so that Thomson can worry over American comedy, yet he doesn’t include Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Jennifer Coolidge, Ben Stiller, Anna Faris, Paul Rudd or Owen Wilson. For at least twenty years, Thomson must have heard that he needs to include Béla Tarr, but the maker of Sátántangó (1994) still has no entry, and no doubt Thomson has his reasons for that, yet Douglas McGrath squeezes into the dictionary (Thomson even writes favorably about McGrath’s truly deplorable Company Man {2000}!). This book is Thomson’s kingdom and he is absolute ruler of an ever-bulging collection of titles, careers, narratives, blind alleys, winners, steady workers and flamboyant losers. Even if you don’t know some of the people he’s writing about, the book’s Alice in Wonderland quality can lead you from entry to entry in a kind of fever to find the exit before you stay at the movies all day, or for the rest of your life.

He’s mistrustful of Darren Aronofsky; here he is on Requiem for a Dream (2000): “a study in narcotic breakdown that is as exultant with film’s drug as it claims to be disapproving of those who are chemical.” This is Thomson at his best, hitting the nail on the head in a way that flirts with being flowery but reins itself in toughly at the last moment. On the other hand, he calls Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) and The Darjeeling Limited (2007), “two pretty awful films, and I see no reason not to say that.” And that’s it. I have problems with those two movies, but a blanket dismissal isn’t exactly helpful; it’s both the limitation of a book like this and also the lure. More unsettlingly, when Thomson slams the recent work of Jonathan Demme and Michael Mann, he goes against all the good things he said about them in their main entries with a few added lines of total condemnation. Have they now betrayed their initial profiles in the book so completely? And where is the update on Mike Leigh, on Atom Egoyan, on Terrence Malick?

I’m always interested in Thomson’s God-like reiteration of certain descriptive words when he falls into a laundry list of career credits for actors; in the midst of a lot of titles that pass by with no comment, an actress is called “very touching” in one film, or an actor is “very good” in another film, or just “good.” These can be a bit mysterious, too; he’s not at all pleased with Cate Blanchett now, even though he made some rather large claims for her in the last edition. He writes that she’s “unbelievable and undesirable” in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2007). That’s harsh, yet I think I know what he means, for this is a criticism of fast impressions, mainly, but they usually hit their target. I haven’t seen Clint Eastwood’s Changeling (2008), but now I have to because Thomson has proclaimed that Angelina Jolie in that picture is “as bad as anyone has been.”

The different editions of this book can lead to pleasurably serpentine profiles; take the entry on Lauren Bacall, for instance. In his youth, Thomson paid tribute to Bacall in much the way he’s gone feverish for Nicole Kidman in recent years, but as Bacall aged and kept working with the same lack of expressivity that had seemed so erotic to him in her Hawks-directed youth, Thomson gets increasingly impatient with her. He wrote a cruel but correct impression of her behavior when she lost her Oscar in 1996, but now, in the final paragraph of this edition, he records how Bacall finally won a special Oscar yet wasn’t allowed on the broadcast itself. “No class!” he harrumphs, as if the spirit of the elderly Bacall herself has possessed him! Then again, further credits can get him into hot water, too. I was never sure why he was so hard on Julie Christie in her entry. (“She is, sadly, obvious in her efforts, lacking in either gaiety or insight and, most serious of all, gawky, self-conscious and lantern-jawed.”) Now that he is an admirer of Sarah Polley, however, he deems Christie “extraordinary” in Polley’s Away from Her (2006), as if through gritted teeth.

Thomson is obsessed with age, especially when it comes to actresses; he’s always worrying that some hot young thing is almost thirty, or another actress is ominously close to forty, or some starlet better get her act together before she hits the dread twenty-five. On Judy Davis: “No doubt, being past fifty shows—but she has been Lillian Hellman, Judy Garland and Nancy Reagan already. Be warned.” I love that, “Be warned,” as if watching Davis even past fifty (and “showing” her age), might be a dangerous thing. Yet his increasingly beloved Meryl Streep “has passed the age of sixty (without letting it look old).” This is an intriguing distinction, and it has to do, I suppose, with genes, diet, exercise and some judicious plastic surgery; we don’t want to look at wrinkles at the movies, apparently, especially if we saw a lot of the wrinkled person when they were young, and most especially if they were especially desirable in youth. Thomson on Catherine Deneuve: “She is still a leading player, very beautiful, but a touch dilute. It’s the loss of youth, of course.”

Some of the entries are set in stone from edition to edition, and that’s fine in most cases, but the entries that are being added on to can get somewhat broken-backed. The Meryl Streep profile, for instance, is a bit of a shambles at this point, mainly because it begins with a false start decrying her move into comedy in the early ‘90s; at this point in her already long career, that brief period looks like little more than a detour, but Thomson wrote the original piece in the middle of that period, so the main thrust of it now looks mistaken, or wrong-headed. Which is why, of course, Thomson is hedging his bets with so many of the young directors and performers he’s included this time around; it’s hard and perhaps foolhardy to make big pronouncements about promising film people who have only made a few movies and who might magnify or completely discount what they’ve done so far in subsequent work. Thomson most likely doesn’t have the time to re-write and re-think a lot of the pieces, but he is capable of it; the George Clooney entry has been entirely re-worked and deepened from the smaller one in the last edition. And of course the Nicole Kidman profile has been totally refurbished until it flashes red like the sign above the Moulin Rouge, but the sublime Mikio Naruse still awaits a real profile instead of a short feint at coverage.

Thomson turns with delight to new entries on people he can sum up, like Eugene Pallette, or recommend, like Boris Barnet. Here’s a new, concluding sentence for his Ingmar Bergman entry: “A phenomenal career, in which the famous anguish he suffered seems now like a balmy wind keeping him fresh.” On Aaron Eckhart: “He could pass as Robert Redford’s Mr. Hyde.” On Dustin Hoffman: “No one seems more retired while still working.” On Madonna’s directorial debut, Filth and Wisdom (2008): “It went to TV—to “On Demand”—but there was none.” He tosses bouquets to prickly independents like Viggo Mortensen, Samantha Morton and Ben Whishaw and gives the stink eye to crowd-pleasers like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. He wonders if Sean Penn will turn into Anthony Quinn (that one has me stumped). Against all reason, he defends Mel Gibson, Kevin Spacey and even M. Night Shyamalan. He thinks Kiefer Sutherland might be “the thinking woman’s Dennis Hopper.” He finally includes Lily Tomlin and is rather hard on her, though she’s central to two classic Robert Altman films and, by my lights, “very good” in The Late Show (1977), All of Me (1984) and Flirting with Disaster (1996).

Thomson has developed a liking for the domineering Frank Langella, and especially a starring vehicle he did in 2007, Starting Out in the Evening: “a great film that slipped by in a time when so many of us were complaining that there were no good films.” This was the same 2007 that saw the release of There Will Be Blood, Zodiac, No Country for Old Men and many, many other worthy films, yet Thomson is hung up on this rather ham-handed, overlong drama about an elderly writer and his involvement with a young female fan. Thomson is sometimes overly skeptical of the new offerings of a still vital medium as that medium moves to TV, DVD and the internet; his book is now overloaded with titles of “indie” films that have never been properly released but still float out there in the ether as rumors, or notions. This is a major book, filled with flaws and triumphs, giggles and tempers, gags and longings and childlike wonder and reprimands and regret. If there is another edition in ten years time, I would hope that Thomson will find it in himself to be less grudging, more open and more intoxicated with the movie-mad delight that still courses through the best of his new entries. These entries add more to the book’s Xanadu clutter, but what could be more movie-like and cheering than that?

The hidden narrative of this dictionary charts the progress of an Englishman who pines for America, becomes fully American, and then becomes disenchanted with this country and its money and its movies until he pines again for cast-off Britain and books. In his introduction, Thomson writes that, “Faulkner, Joyce, Proust, and on and on, have done better than the best movies.” It seems strange to me to use the last fruits of a long-vanished literary modernism as a cudgel to beat the movies, but Thomson has never claimed to be reasonable. Writing about Kevin Spacey’s wretched vanity project, Beyond the Sea (2004), he finds that it is “clinching evidence that this man is mad,” and Thomson has admiration for such madness because he feels it in himself. I’ll end this with my favorite addition to this fifth edition; writing about the composer Michel Legrand, and particularly his musical “roulette theme” for a Jacques Demy/Jeanne Moreau movie, Thomson writes, “I wish whenever this book is opened, the spine played the opening piano from La Baie des Anges. Madness.”

David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film will be released on October 26 by Knopf.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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Mike Nichols: A Life Reveals the Vulnerability and Humility of a Legend

Mark Harris’s seductive biography understands Nichols as a wizard of process.

Chuck Bowen

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Mike Nichols: A Life

Two anecdotes that bookend Mark Harris’s Mike Nichols: A Life offer a key to the essence of its subject. In the first, Nichols, born Igor Michael Peschkowsky, says that when he was sent to America at the age of seven to escape the Nazis, he knew only two sentences of English: “I do not speak English” and “Please do not kiss me.” In the second, potential collaborators of the aging titan of theater and film, playwright Beau Willimon and actor Jake Gyllenhaal, recount running into one another at a party and discovering that Nichols cried at the same time when telling each of them, respectively, of seeing a production of The Heiress. Each story indicates Nichols’s control over the impressions he makes on those around him; he was determined that people see his power as well as the vulnerability and humility that was both performative and authentically rooted in feelings of dislocation and insecurity.

Or, simply, Nichols knew how to play a room, which is a requisite for a mover and shaker in any field, especially for a celebrity of his stature who came to know everyone and who was taught—in the wake of the success of the revolutionary sketch comedy of Nichols and May—how to live extravagantly and cultivate a knowing, cool-kid aura. As Harris has it, “playing the room” became not just a networking tool for Nichols, but essential to his process of directing and shaping material. Nichols spoke to his collaborators in sharp aphorisms: While directing the 2004 film Closer, he told stars Julia Roberts and Jude Law that a kiss was like the hippo scene in Walt Disney’s Fantasia, “everything balances on just the toe.” And Nichols combined the sketch instincts he honed with Elaine May with the method acting he learned from Lee Strasberg to inform plays and films with a behavioral minutia that enriched, and at times usefully distracted from, the plots themselves. If one wishes to consider Nichols on auteur terms, this attention to behavior would be the best element on which to seize.

Harris doesn’t exactly feel the need to make a case for Nichols in such a fashion, as Mike Nichols: A Life refreshingly lacks the defensiveness and superiority that can define cinephilia, which tends to regard notable film direction as an act of conjuring performed by a single person. Harris, who’s married to Tony Kushner, who wrote a handful of Steven Spielberg films and whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America Nichols adapted into a stunning miniseries for HBO in 2003, understands the machinations of show business on a granular level. Much of this seductive biography is devoted to the act of corralling various egos in the service of a project and the tap-dancing such endeavors entail. Nichols’s early experience in sketch comedy and improvisation allowed him to invent and reinvent, sometimes on the fly, the personality necessary to bringing a project across the finish line. Harris understands that film and theater direction is most broadly and immediately management, and so Mike Nichols: A Life often plays as an intense and glamorous workplace comedy.

The creation and reception of every Nichols project—Nichols and May, dozens of theater productions, and all of the films from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Charlie Wilson’s War—are covered in Harris’s book. As one might expect given the milieu, ego and alcoholism and other addictions are something of a leitmotif here. Walter Matthau was reportedly a great actor and terrible human being, often deliberately sabotaging the insecure, alcoholic Art Carney on the first stage production of The Odd Couple. On the play Plaza Suite and the film Day of the Dolphin, George C. Scott was considerably more volatile than Matthau, another alcoholic with a penchant for disappearing from sets for days-long benders. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s schedules on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had to be set in accordance with their lunches and drinking, ballooning the film’s budget, though their raw, pseudo-autobiographical brilliance led to a searing, unforgettable film—still Nichol’s best.

These and many other stories, including those of Nichols’s various struggles with prescription pills and cocaine, aren’t relayed merely for gossip. Harris captures how personalities inform the artistic process, particularly how Nichols’s devotion to reinventing himself from outsider to insider was rechanneled into an ability to hone scripts at a biological level. (Many Simon plays, especially The Odd Couple, were dramatically rewritten, sometimes in days.)

Mike Nichols: A Life reads much faster than its 600-page length would suggest, as Harris’s crisp, funny, empathetic prose essentially glides one through Nichols’s life and career. In fact, this polish is redolent of a Nichols film, which means that you may wonder what else might have been revealed had more space been made for gritty details. Nichols’s early brush with whooping cough, which led to an allergic reaction to a vaccine that made him preternaturally and forever bald, is offered up as a perhaps too-pat explanation for Nichols’s determination to fashion himself as a powerful man of the world. And certain productions—particularly a staging of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly with Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, and William Hurt—sound so contentious and fascinating that they practically demand a book for themselves. Nichols’s various setbacks—bad movies, bad plays, addictions, caustic behavior—are often acknowledged but also quickly brushed over. Mike Nichols: A Life consciously follows a rise-fall-rise-fall-rise arc, with a qualified happy ending waiting in the wings.

As in many a Nichols film, though, there’s more anguish here than might initially meet the eye. The book has a haunting, beautifully intangible quality. We’re occasionally allowed to feel as if we’re catching true glimmers of Igor, the wounded, lonely Jewish boy who forged himself into a hybrid of Cinderella and Gatsby. A highlight of the book, perhaps its core, is a routine that Nichols does with May called “Pirandello” in which they play children who emulate the arguing of their parents, with an anger that purposefully overtakes the sketch to reflect the performers’ own intimate, passingly romantic, rivalrous, merciless, loving tensions.

This obsession with autocratically blending artists’ demons with shtick is nakedly evident in May’s own films as a director, which are taken more seriously than most of Nichols’s own. But Harris understands that such laceration also figures in Nichol’s sensibility, from the painful, minutely observed moments in The Graduate to the bleakness of Carnal Knowledge. After discarding the overt stylization of his early films (the conscious pleas for auteur approval in other words), Nichols buried his occupations, namely his sense of alienation, underneath deceptively smooth and placid surfaces, a stratagem that paralleled the awkward and anxious immigrant he hid underneath the somewhat smug, peerlessly witty, have-it-all smoothie with the penthouse and too many Tony awards to count. Harris allows “Pirandello” to linger over Mike Nichols: A Life as a Rosebud, as a portrait and a mirror hiding in plain sight. Harris understands Nichols as a wizard of process, spinning neuroses into art that, at its best, danced on the fault lines between the personal and the commercial.

Mike Nichols: A Life is now available from Penguin Press.

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The Ephemeral Lightness of Being: Dorthe Nors’s Wild Swims: Stories

Nors weaves striking imagery throughout her stories, leaving us to intuitively make sense of how everything fits together.

Seth Katz

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Wild Swims

Dorthe Nors’s Wild Swims is a small book in a literary market that skews big. Publishers and prize committees salivate over double-decker novels like Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire and Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, and the conventional wisdom is that short stories and novellas don’t sell. Small books almost constitute a genre unto themselves. Bookstore-publisher City Lights has maintained its Pocket Poets series since the 1950s, and New Directions has published major works in wafer-thin “Bibelot” and Pearl editions.

Yet many fiction publishers are either loath to publish a small book or they don’t know how to market one. Sometimes, an established writer can get away with a low-overhead nonfiction cash-in: Random House turned George Saunders’s 2013 graduation address at Syracuse University into a $15 pamphlet, and recently Michael Chabon republished his acclaimed GQ essay in a slim volume about fatherhood called Pops (after dashing off a few new pieces to fill out the page count). But in fiction, and particularly for less well-known writers, a small book can be a commercially risky endeavor.

It’s all the more impressive, then, that Nors has carved out such a distinctive space for herself in European literature. Though she’s published novels, she’s best known for, and most excels at, the short form. Her first collection, Karate Chop, held 15 stories in 90 pages. Her U.K. publisher, Pushkin Press, paired it with the novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (also 90 pages), while Graywolf Press, in turn, brought out Karate Chop on its own and yoked Minna to another novella, Days, in a volume called So Much for That Winter. The 14 stories in Wild Swims (originally published in Denmark in 2018) total 128 pages. To have a career making small books, which often comprise even smaller parts, is refreshingly anomalous.

Obvious but superficial overlap exists among Nors and two giants of the experimental short story, Lydia Davis and Diane Williams. But where Davis plays with voice and form, and Williams is more of an imagist, Nors is most directly concerned with characters and situations, even if she doesn’t dramatize them in a traditional way. Her protagonists often appear in a state of static reflection: staring out a window at Pershing Square in L.A., standing on the edge of an abandoned fairground, gazing up at the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Sometimes we learn what circumstances that brought these people to these moments, but Nors’s stories progress in associations rather than drawing straight lines between narrative points. Wild Swims opens with “In a Deer Stand,” in which a husband fleeing domestic strife winds up with a broken leg in the middle of nowhere, waiting either to be rescued or eaten by wolves. As he thinks back on his last conversations with his wife, Nors writes, still in present tense: “Her hands cupped over her knees, and he hasn’t seen her cry in years. She didn’t cry when her mother died. Her face can clap shut over a feeling like the lid of a freezer over stick insects. He had some in eighth grade, in a terrarium, stick insects. […] His biology teacher said that putting them in the freezer would kill them.” Nors weaves such striking imagery throughout her stories, leaving us to intuitively make sense of how everything fits together.

What Nors does have in common with Davis and Williams, aside from a proclivity for brevity, is an intense consciousness of language. Occasionally she pulls back a bit, challenging herself to write a more naturalistic story a la Raymond Carver, where events unfold in linear order and the prose calls less attention to itself. Successful examples of that include the quietly devastating “On Narrow Paved Paths,” in which a woman tends to her terminally ill friend, and “Compaction Birds,” a glimpse of a widower’s loneliness and desperation. But Nors’s best stories and sentences metaphorically conflate disparate narrative realms, as when she takes us from the baking sidewalks of L.A. to the frozen lakes of Canada with nothing more than a comma in “Pershing Square.” Nors’s deft touch gives rise to her unusual way of structuring her stories; in the hands of a less refined prose writer, it would all seem a mishmash.

These translations can occasionally sound stilted, but one imagines this to be intentional (Misha Hoekstra is Nors’s preferred translator). For example, “And she can remember that the one brother had to borrow some socks in order to sleep. These days she thinks of him often, when she herself is going to sleep. She has a pair of socks on right now.” Nors isn’t interested in mere euphony, but in using language to capture ephemeral moments of being. Her tone always comes through in translation, though inevitably, some nuances are lost to English speakers—especially banal cultural references pertaining to different areas of Denmark.

But this never hampers the accessibility of Nors’s stories, because her work is engaging on multiple levels. One hopes, then, that the author’s influence can spread far and wide. Some younger North American and European writers, such as Nicolette Polek and Katharina Volckmer, have lately joined the small-book tradition, and if the 2020s bring a rise in the popularity of small books, it will be a trend worth celebrating.

Wild Swims is available on February 2 from Graywolf Press.

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A Fresco of Departures, Real and Imagined: Abdellah Taïa’s A Country for Dying

Taïa’s novel intertwines various tales of the wretched of the Earth leaving their country in order to die in another.

Diego Semerene

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A Country for Dying

The figure of the queer child is the backbone of Abdellah Taïa’s novels. When his protagonists are grown-up, their reminiscing takes them back to childhoods marked by an almost naïve hunger for the smothering world. Like the children in many a Béla Tarr film, they’re too watchful of adults not to be aware of the miserable destiny that awaits them. For Taïa’s characters and for himself, from his harrowing early years in northwestern Morocco to an adulthood of perpetual foreignness in Paris, the only card ever left in the deck is the bittersweet power to leave: “Exile. Hope. Hell,” as he writes in his latest novel, A Country for Dying, recently published by Seven Stories Press in a translation by Emma Ramadan.

Unlike so much queer autofiction, the book is less concerned with actual lovers, or sex itself, than the detritus following their departure. In the instances where Taïa recounts sexual acts, it’s only to document their failure. Someone wants it but the other doesn’t; someone wants it and doesn’t at the same time, then is forced to do it anyway. His lovers aren’t his muses, women are: a nosy neighbor, a bakery cashier, his sisters and aunts, singers (Warda, Lata Mangeshkar, Oum Kalthoum), and actresses (Nargis, Soad Hosny). About halfway through, A Country for Dying breaks into an ode to Isabelle Adjani. It’s an ecstatic detour along the lines of Roland Barthes’s homage to Greta Garbo’s sharper-than-a-mask face with “two faintly tremulous wounds” for eyes. Adjani’s face is, in Taïa’s words, similarly haunted, and just as indelible in its whiteness: “The world ends. Adjani continues.”

Taïa’s lovers are thus mostly supporting characters, mere stepping stones for a subjective assessment, portals that take him back to earlier experiences of violence. Taïa is disarmingly unafraid to revel in the sensuality of trauma, even if, or specially when, it involves the impossibility of consent and children’s early experiences of the body. In A Country for Dying, a child gets her hair dyed by a male hairdresser. When the man pulls her hair very hard, she likes that “little violence.” It reminds her of her father’s hands: “Large. Never-ending.”

In the book, the queerness of children inhabits wistful adult women, cis and trans alike, who work as playful stand-ins for Taïa’s autofictional self. These are characters who never stop dreaming of an elsewhere, in search of a more bearable life through cinema, through music and through migration. The novel is a fresco of departures, imagined and actual, intertwining tales of the wretched of the Earth leaving their country in order to die in another.

Desolation follows these characters wherever they go: Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, India, Indochina, France. The world may seem hopeful in its endlessness, but in Taïa’s literature characters often live in trapped quarters. From the can-of-sardines family home with rooms with no walls and no paint where the young Abdellah sleeps amid the bodies of his many sisters in Salvation Army—which Taïa remarkably adapted for the screen in 2013—to the nosy neighbor’s suffocating studio of Rue de Turenne in La Vie Lente. In A Country for Dying, the protagonist is Zahira, a sex worker in her 40s and lover of Indian movies with a penchant for getting “dirty, broke immigrants” as clients, who she hosts in her 195-square-foot flat. For Zannouba, Zahira’s trans best friend who’s on the verge of getting gender confirmation surgery, the body itself is like a can of sardines squeezing the soul dead.

A Country for Dying is filled with imaginary letters, dialogues, and soliloquies where Taïa completely foregoes dialogue tags. Some of the most beautiful moments here emerge when dialogue turns into all but a string of poetic lines, and it becomes pleasantly unclear who the speaker and addressee are. These instances embody the to-and-fro of Taïa’s style, where an adult is always one feeling away from becoming a child again. We may not know who’s speaking but we know something ancestral is being written, or rewritten, in a way that recalls the dialogic narration in Manoel de Oliveira’s Visit or Memories and Confessions. In De Oliveira’s film, the voices of a disembodied man and woman emerge from the objects of a house that’s anything but small, but they’re just as wounded by the ravages of time, and state-sanctioned violence, as Taïa’s characters in their suffocating habitats.

For Taïa, the pain and the hope that the possibility of love triggers takes us back to the childhood home. And for Zahira, that home is located in Taïa’s hometown of Salé, Morocco, just north of Rabat. The book begins with what we may call the spectral occupation of that home’s second floor, which becomes the refuge for Zahira’s sick and dying father, a “circus lion suddenly old, in a cage suspended in midair,” defeated “with his vanishing virility.”

Zahira’s words flow seamlessly from first-person narration to her thoughts being directed to the dead father in short and disarmingly simple sentences. So simple that in the few instances when Taïa writes more abstract terms like “unconscious,” “commodity, or “anathema,” they feel like a jump cut in the text. We are inevitably conducted back to the intimacy of poetry rearranged into prose: “My nose smaller. My cheeks hollowed. And all around my head, fire.” These are the pillars of Taïa’s writing: small spaces, small sentences, small moments.

The poetic register of A Country for Dying is wrought by an eventfulness triggered by the tiniest things that just keep on echoing generations later: a memory, a song, a stranger. In one particularly poignant, and ever so fleeting, sequence in the book, Zahira visits the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris for the first time late at night with Mojtaba, a wounded Iranian man she takes in for a month before he disappears. It’s almost closing time, but instead of leaving, Mojtaba tells her that they should stay to enjoy the gardens alone in the wee hours—and they do. “The French are gone,” he tells her. “The garden is ours.”

A Country for Dying is now available from Seven Stories Press.

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Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks Honors PTA’s Ambiguities

Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work.

Chuck Bowen

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Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks

The title of Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is misleading, evoking what the author refers to in the book’s introduction as “…cheerleading—the stroking, in prose, of already tumescent reputations.” While Nayman clearly reveres one of the most acclaimed and mythologized of contemporary American filmmakers, he’s willing to take the piss out of his subject, sveltely moving between Anderson’s strengths, limitations, and the obsessions that bind them, fashioning an ornate and suggestive system of checks and balances. Like Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, Masterworks pushes back against the simplistic, bro-ish language of adulation, and attending backlash, that often obscures a major artist’s achievements. In the process, Nayman achieves one of a critic’s loftiest goals: grappling with a body of work while honoring its mystery.

Masterworks is uncomfortable with the modern iteration of auteurism, which has been corrupted from its French New Wave origins by being utilized as often macho shorthand that denies the contributions of other craftspeople involved in a film’s production. (At the end of the book are several essential interviews with key Anderson collaborators, such as producer JoAnne Sellar, cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer Jack Fisk, and composter Johnny Greenwood.) Seeking to refute the Horatio Alger element of a particular auteur worship, in which a body of work is discussed chronologically, with a filmmaker’s maturation noted with easy retrospection as a kind of manifest destiny, Nayman assembles Anderson’s films in chronological order according to the time periods in which they’re set. The book opens with 2007’s There Will Be Blood (the director’s fifth film) and penultimately concludes with 2002’s contemporary-set Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s final (to date) curdled valentine to San Fernando Valley, as well as his first psychodrama with a loner at its center. Nayman only deviates from this concept once, as 2017’s Phantom Thread, Anderson’s eighth and most recent film, is saved for last and presented as a culmination of a blossoming sensibility.

This structure creates a fascinating temporal zig-zag that mirrors the chaotic, uncertain highs and lows of creative work. Masterworks moves us forward in the timeline of Anderson’s America while the filmmaker himself leaps all over the place in terms of artistic control. The wrenching ambiguity of 2014’s Inherent Vice, in which Anderson fluidly dramatizes the psychosexual ecstasy, despair, and hilarity of corrosive commercialist annihilation, gives way in the book to Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights, which Nayman astutely sees as a virtuoso primitive work, an epic that (too) neatly bifurcates pleasure and pain into two distinct acts while disguising its sentimentality with astonishing camera movements and a tonal instability that’s probably equal parts intended and inadvertent.

Control is the theme of Masterworks. Nayman charts, again in a nearly reverse order, how Anderson reigned in his juvenilia—the self-consciousness, the overt debts to various filmmakers, the wild mood swings—to fashion a tonal fabric that still makes room for all of those qualities, only they’re buried and satirized, existing on the periphery. The essential valorizing of Jack Horner, the paternal porn director of Boogie Nights, eventually gives way to the richer, more fraught examinations of obsessive pseudo-father figures like Daniel Plainview, Lancaster Dodd, and Reynolds Woodcock, of There Will Be Blood, 2012’s The Master, and Phantom Thread, respectively. Anderson’s films toggle between valorizing and criticizing men of industry who’ve, with a few exceptions, made America in their own neurotic image.

As these characters grow in complexity, their ingenues also evolve in nuance, becoming less fantasy projections of Anderson’s own desire to prove himself than startlingly unique expressions of rootlessness and ambition. Boogie Nights, which Nayman calls a two-and-a-half-hour dick joke, even sets the stage for the ironic phallic references of the other films, with their plunging oil derricks, broken glass toilet plungers, and, well, Woodcocks.

No critic has written so perceptively about Anderson’s mutating aesthetic as Nayman does in Masterworks. Most immediately, it’s a pure, visceral pleasure simply to read Nayman’s descriptions of imagery. On There Will Be Blood, he notably writes the following: “Emerging and descending at his own methodical pace, he’s an infernal figure moving in a Sisyphean rhythm, and the trajectory of his movements—grueling ascents and sudden, punishing drops along a vertical axis, punctuating an otherwise steady horizontal forward progress—establishes the visual and narrative patterning of the film to come.”

Such “patterning” is an obsession of Nayman’s, as it should be given the films under consideration, and he shows how Anderson buried the overt psychosocial daddy and women issues of Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia into an intricate formalism that’s complemented by a new kind of instability: unconventional, unexpected ellipses in the narratives that underscore a sense that we’re missing something in the psychology of the protagonists, in the America that contains the characters, and perhaps even in Anderson’s understanding of his own work. The obsessive nature of Anderson’s bold often “lateral” imagery is also enriched by the endless twins and doppelgangers that populate his films, suggesting that he’s chewing, with increasing sophistication, a set of preoccupations over and over, gradually triumphing over his fear of women as he sees his men with escalating clarity. Nayman uncovers many twins and cross-associations that have never personally occurred to this PTA obsessive, such as the resemblance that Vicky Krieps’s Alma of Phantom Thread bears to the many dream women haunting Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in The Master, or how the mining of oil in There Will Be Blood is later echoed by the exploitive plumbing of minds in The Master.

Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses—especially the bold leap 15 years in time near the end of There Will Be Blood as well as the two-year jump near the beginning of the filmmaker’s 1996 feature directorial debut, Hard Eight—implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work. Some people believe that Anderson uses such devices to write himself out of corners, excusing himself from the task of building relationships or establishing in more detail the contours of the history informing the films, while, for his admirers, such flourishes are suggestive and freeing—excusing not only the author, but the audience from thankless exposition so as to skip to the “good parts,” the moments that cut to the heart of the protagonists’ and Anderson’s demons. Nayman understands Anderson to be fashioning a cumulative hall-of-mirror filmography that highlights an America in elusive, surreal, even daringly comic fragments. Or, per Nayman: “His later films are masterworks that don’t quite fill their own canvases, drawing power from the negative space.”

Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is now available from Abrams.

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Bestiary Poetically Raises a Coming-of-Age Tale to the Level of Myth

K-Ming Chang’s debut novel is about the echoes of yesterday butting heads with the realities of today.

Alex Eaker

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Bestiary

At 22 years old, K-Ming Chang writes with a wisdom well beyond her years. With her debut novel, Bestiary, she charts her characters’ experiences in a world defined by myth, beauty, and pain. Chang, a poet and Kundiman Fellow, has been anthologized in publications like The Best New Poets and the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and her prose doesn’t fall far from the poetic tree. That’s very much evident in her intense focus on language, use of blank space, and the visceral images that she conjures throughout the book. As she traces her characters’ lives, marked by poverty, abuse, immigration, war, queer love, and magic, we’re tasked with embracing myth and confronting certain hard truths.

One legend that Chang incorporates into her story is that of Hu Gu Po, a tiger spirit who takes the form of a woman and munches on children’s toes. After hearing the story, Daughter awakes the next day with the tail of a tiger growing from the scab on her lower spine—a reminder of the abuse that she suffers. From here, a world of magic intertwines with these characters’ stark lives: a brother who flies away from his father’s fists; a grandfather who gives birth to a rabbit; an aunt whose touch turns everything blood red.

Then there are the holes that Daughter digs in her family’s yard that spit out handwritten notes from her grandmother, Ama. Along with Ben, a neighborhood girl who Daughter falls in love with, the pair spend their days translating these notes. Slowly, the history of Daughter’s family begins to unravel as Ama’s letters reveal more and more about their past in Taiwan and their immigration to America, a past that Daughter wasn’t there to witness. Daughter becomes the connection between her grandmother and mother, the translator of these histories, myths, and symbols—the bearer of dark secrets she must choose to either act on or relive.

As Bestiary untangles a complicated family lineage, the influence of Maxine Hong Kingston is felt. Indeed, Chang’s combination of folklore, mythology, family history with the experience of assimilating to a new culture is a nice nod to Kingston’s most famous works. An easy comparison to make, yes, but that isn’t to say Chang is a copycat, only that she uses similar tools to effectively tell her own story. Her experience as a poet is ever-present in the novel’s prose—in how shockingly perfect her line breaks are, how every simile forces you to pause for a moment, how she uses tools like blank space in Ama’s letters to develop character and voice. The reader can sense every stutter on the page, every instance where translation is lost.

It’s as a modern story of American assimilation, queer love, and coming of age that Bestiary is most resonant. From working in chicken coops to sharing a bed with your mother and brother, the novel is also about an immigrant family’s struggle to survive, to find a better life than the one left behind in another country. The family may use myth and magic to explain their surroundings, but they cannot escape the reality of poverty, of a mother needing to clean feet at a nail salon and a father sending checks from the mainland so they can pay their rent.

Chang’s mix of the real and the surreal allows for a sense of hope—a world where boys can fly off rooftops and girls can grow tiger tails to defend themselves—while also presenting a vivid story of abuse and assimilation within one’s family, and within the larger scope of one’s country. Bestiary is about the echoes of yesterday butting heads with the realities of today, and the work of a young writer whose stories I hope will continue to grab us in the years to come.

Bestiary is available September 29 from One World.

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Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas Is a Stellar Anatomy of a Film

Honoring fact as well as fiction, Kenny mounts an ambitious mixture of cinephilic essay and true-crime exposé.

Chuck Bowen

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Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas

The challenge of critiquing art is to effectively render its soul to the reader, through a discussion of aesthetics and the culture that informed it. This isn’t an easy task, especially on a week-by-week, deadline-driven basis, which begets generalizations and perpetuations of myths, particularly when the artists in question are legends.

Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, for one, has been analyzed to death, and its reviews often center on the film’s virtuosic camera movements, violence, blasts of rock music, and debates as to whether Scorsese condones the outlandish and barbaric behavior of his characters. These reductions have led to the film’s mischaracterization, in certain circles, as a “bro” movie—a masturbatory ode to guy’s behaving badly. Thankfully, critic Glenn Kenny’s extraordinary Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas offers a great deal more nuance than that on the film’s 30th anniversary.

As in his prior Anatomy of an Actor: Robert De Niro, Kenny displays a shrewd grasp of detail here. He doesn’t reduce Scorsese, De Niro, actor Joe Pesci, producer Barbara De Fina, Wiseguy author Nicholas Pileggi, real-life prosecutor Ed McDonald, and the various real-life mobsters that appeared in Goodfellas to the status of legend-hood. Rather, he portrays them as gifted, tormented human beings, centering on their professional processes.

Along the way, Kenny foregrounds an oft-neglected element of Goodfellas’s greatness: its microscopic, docudramatic sense of atmosphere and character behavior. Anyone who understands that Scorsese is more than a wham-bam director of gangster dramas knows that Goodfellas has as much in common with the filmmaker’s 1974 documentary Italianamerican as it does with his 1973 breakout feature Mean Streets. Kenny certainly grasps this relationship, and he offers many anecdotes pertaining to the selection of props, the fine-tuning of sets, line deliveries, and camera movements, and the many other ways in which Scorsese and his collaborators invested the narrative with the texture of everyday life.

Goodfellas is based on the life of Queens gangster Henry Hill, who, as the film states at the end, went into witness protection as his cohorts were killing each other to protect themselves from prosecution for various crimes, most spectacularly the Lufthansa heist, in which over five million dollars was lifted from J.F.K. Airport on December 11, 1978. Honoring fact as well as fiction, Kenny mounts an ambitious mixture of cinephilic essay and true-crime exposé.

Made Men has a fluid, intuitive structure that recalls, yes, Goodfellas, as Kenny merges an intricate analysis of the production with off-kilter anecdotes about Hill and the gangsters in his and the film’s orbit. One tracking shot near the start of Goodfellas that takes viewers through the Bamboo Lounge, introducing Hill’s unofficial “family,” features real-life dirty cops, mobsters, and enforcers, all of whom Kenny sketches in quickly and vividly. McDonald, who participated in this book and played himself in Scorsese’s mob epic, arises as a notably memorable voice, a take-no-shit veteran who nevertheless remembers the violent, alcoholic, yet self-preservingly charming Hill with affection.

Kenny’s painstakingly reveals the rich, bottomless precision of Goodfellas. In Pileggi’s Wiseguy, Hill says that his future wife, Karen (played in the film by Lorraine Bracco), had eyes like Liz Taylor’s, or so people said. In the film, Henry says that he thinks she has eyes like Liz’s, which suggests that the movie-drunk Scorsese couldn’t bear to deny his character such an opinion, or awareness. The sociopathic Tommy (played here by Pesci) makes a reference to The Oklahoma Kid that’s complemented by Kenny with a description of Lloyd Bacon’s 1939 film and an analysis of what Tommy misremembers about it. Such episodes reveal how artists merge themselves with material, even if they didn’t generate it.

As Scorsese has said in the past, his depiction of Hill’s life was informed by his childhood experience of watching gangsters’ activities in Little Italy, and this curiosity—and perhaps yearning for power—is the ultimate source of the film’s obsessiveness and controversy. Kenny spoke with Scorsese and Pileggi for Made Men, among many other of the film’s collaborators, and Pileggi says that he and the filmmaker took separate shots at streamlining Wiseguy into a script and uncannily opted to cut the same portions. Pileggi’s rise from an anonymous writer to a beloved source of gangland gossip is documented in the book as well; for one, he used to frequent a mafia restaurant that even adopted some of his family’s recipes.

At a trim 379 pages, Made Men feels astonishingly completest. Kenny has read Hill’s various cookbooks and watched other movies, now mostly forgotten, about the Lufthansa heist. Included in the book is the recipe for the sauce that Henry makes for his brother during the film’s frenzied final act, which Kenny says is great if you can handle the meat sweats. After a 150-page passage that takes Goodfellas apart scene by scene, breaking down its rhythms, revealing it to be simultaneously expressionist and objective in its approach, Kenny springs an analysis of every song used on the soundtrack, detailing which portions are heard and the histories of every one and what they reveal about a vast intersection between cultures. It’s a mind-blowing music seminar compressed to less than 30 pages.

“…when Goodfellas brings up the [Sid] Vicious “My Way” it is one of those moments you wish you could experience unspoiled over and over again. It’s a shock, because Scorsese, while certainly a rock-n-roll person, is not (his fondness for the Clash notwithstanding) a punk person so there’s some surprise that he pulled it out. But it’s one of those things that feels so right—the tossing of this self-aggrandizing procession into the trash. Anka is right—Vicious is sincere, in a sense. When he sings, “Regrets, I’ve had a few/but then again/too few too mention,” he means it, man (as his Sex Pistols bandmate John Lydon/Johnny Rotten would put it), but he divests the words of the pompous solemnity Sinatra’s version relies on. Burn it all down. Throw the egg noodles and ketchup at the wall. Fuck it.

Passages like this one refute the impression that Scorsese’s condoning his characters—an idea that Kenny detonates throughout Made Men. Time and again, Kenny underscores the venality of these characters, which Scorsese emphasizes again and again in the film, and which led to test audiences being disgusted with Goodfellas ahead of its release. The film, like Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, confuses people who feel comfortable being preached to, and who mistake the exhilaration of aesthetic with a jubilation for the characters. Scorsese dramatizes his and, by extension, our craving for power, gratifying our fantasies of reach and influence, and then upsets expectations by pitilessly showing the cost of such entitlement, as in the gruesome murder of Billy Batts in Goodfellas or the brief, jolting shot of a suicide in The Wolf of Wall Street, moments that are both prominently featured in Kenny’s book.

Like other films that have been misread as merely and emptily overwhelming audiences with vicarious thrills, such as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Goodfellas is powerfully glamorous. It represents a former nerd’s (Scorsese’s) attainment of sensuality and power via the fashioning of a ferocious stream-of-conscious tabloid rock-star style—a director-as-star gesture that has been aped endlessly for three decades. The film is a significant, troubling work of art in part because Scorsese is willing to indulge and examine his own unsavory idolizations; his dream to be a “player,” per this book, is inseparable from the on-screen Hill’s striving for the same.

Frank Vincent’s Billy is brutally murdered in the film, but the disposal of his body is shrouded in a car’s rearview lights, which suggests, as Kenny states, the lighting of an Italian horror film. Which is to say that even the ugliest sequences in the film are beautiful and kinetic. Kenny doesn’t entirely grapple with this contradiction, though he brings Goodfellas down to Earth with his own unforgettable rendering of Hill as an over-the-hill schemer. No one else has seen this magnificent, agonizing, unmooring movie with such piercing clarity.

Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas is available September 15 from Hanover Square Press.

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The Appointment Is a Bitterly Comic Unburdening of a Conscience

Katharina Volckmer’s debut is a warning shot fired across the bow of the modern novel.

Seth Katz

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Katharina Volckmer, The Appointment

The monologue-as-novel has a venerable lineage, but this unusually demanding form is perhaps most closely associated with the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, whose hermetic, invective-laden works hypnotize and suffocate in equal measure. Katharina Volckmer, whose The Appointment is in this tradition, must not be surprised, then, to find comparisons to Bernhard in every review published thus far of her debut novel, especially given her German background. At the same time, The Appointment represents a struggle to break free from one’s haunted national roots, as the narrator, like Volckmer, is a German expat living in London, and the novel was written in English.

The nature of the titular appointment is revealed only gradually, turning the reader into a sharp-eyed detective looking for clues. The first one is the novel’s salacious subtitle, The Story of a Jewish Cock, which appears only on the title page, lest the book be banished from the shelves of respectable bookstores. And the next one comes just a few pages in, when the narrator describes the head of Dr. Seligman (the Jewish gynecologist to whom her monologue is addressed) between her legs.

Things are clarified soon enough, but the novel’s chief pleasures lie not in its initial mysteries, or in its eventual, often unsurprising revelations, but in its bitter, Bernhardian comic tone, as in a riff about the city of Nuremburg, now reduced to holding an annual conference on the development of washing machines. Over the course of 130 wide-margined pages, the narrator’s stream of talk wanders from a disquisition on dry German bread and its deleterious effects on oral sex to speculations about Hitler’s repressed feelings of inadequacy: “Have you ever thought about the Führer in his pyjamas, Dr. Seligman, waking up with messy hair, stumbling across the room looking for his slippers? […] I can see the swastika-themed bedsheets and matching pyjamas, everything down to his breakfast bowl.” (According to Volckmer, the novel has yet to find a publisher in Germany.)

There are moments where Dr. Seligman seems to interject, but his dialogue is never represented on the page—only the narrator’s answers to his occasional questions. Writing in such a diegetically rigorous mode presents a particular challenge when it comes to parceling out basic exposition. A conventional first-person narrator might offer an unprompted description of the exam room, its furnishings, and of Dr. Seligman himself. Here, such details—Seligman’s male-pattern baldness, the picture frames on his desk, the room’s red velvet walls—must be salient enough for the narrator to comment upon them aloud.

Volckmer’s elegant construction never draws attention to such writerly maneuvers; physical descriptions, hints about Dr. Seligman’s practice, and information about other characters mentioned throughout accumulate naturally and never feel shoehorned in. Likewise, Volckmer’s unfussy sentences rarely impress but never distract or interrupt the book’s flow. At a time when so few novels are published of which even that much can be said, Volckmer’s “mere” competence—her avoidance of clunky similes and unwieldy syntax—is refreshing.

So, too, is her gleeful provocation, which, like that of Ottessa Moshfegh, is never in service to glib nihilism or amorality. In fact, this is a deeply moral book, one that, beneath the graphic sex talk and raucous vitriol, is concerned with contemporary Europe’s historical trauma, the oppressiveness of traditional gender roles, and one’s personal responsibility to the past. It remains to be seen what kind of career Volckmer will have, but consider The Appointment a warning shot fired across the bow of the modern novel.

The Appointment is available on September 1 from Simon & Schuster.

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For Stephen King, As Well As His Fans, If It Bleeds Is a Coming Home

King can still write a horror story that scares and delights in equal measure.

Neil McRobert

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If It BleedsStephen King’s writing suggests that kindness, some brief contentment, can be found in the most terrible places. Yes, many of his tales are black to the bone—The Shining and Pet Semetary offer no illusion of hope—but more often than not, King’s interest is on the warm-heartedness and compassion that defies the darkness at the edge of town. There’s both a warmth of character and a reassuring familiarity to his worlds that mitigates the horror within.

The same can be said for his latest collection of novellas, If It Bleeds, which feels like a coming home, both for King and the reader. Each of the tales is a return to well-trodden ground for King, but for the most part, they’re written with such charm that the old-fashioned feels refreshing in its sincerity. And, indeed, sincerity is a key feature of these tales. The titular story, which revisits Holly Gibney, the sleuth who evolved from sidekick to heroine throughout the Bill Hodges trilogy and The Outsider, is the collection’s longest and least effective. For one, it distractingly echoes Holly’s previous outings, marrying Mr. Mercedes’s baroque criminality to The Outsider’s pulpy sci-fi horror, never really doing anything new with either strand. The monster itself is nicely drawn, but a chapter devoted entirely to tracing its appearances throughout recent history reads like a pared-down version of Pennywise the clown’s backstory in It.

King never reads less like himself than when he’s writing about Holly Gibney, who’s interesting but rarely believable. From novel to novel, her quirks, which suggest that she may fall on the spectrum, have been either exaggerated for effect or retconned if they get in the way of plotting. She’s a rough approximation of an autistic personality, and her artificiality weakens the story as a whole, which is made more obvious by its proximity of the other novellas in the collection. Where they are classic King—horrid, yes, but full of humor, humanity, and authentic local color—“If It Bleeds” is a well-honed exercise in mechanical storytelling.

“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” could be lifted from any of King’s early collections. It owes an obvious debt to the EC Comics and Twilight Zone reruns that the author has credited as his early inspirations. The simple plot concerns 12-year-old Craig’s friendship with his eponymous neighbor and the gift of an early-model iPhone that disrupts their lives and afterlives. The tale is set in the early aughts, yet it has such a timeless voice that the phone already seems an uncanny, anachronistic object, even before the supernatural shenanigans kick in. That isn’t a knock, as the juxtaposition of tone and technology is what gives the story its edge.

King, an avowed critic of cellphone ubiquity (most notably in Cell) is clearly making a point about the handset’s damaging influence, and not a subtle one. But there’s a freewheeling whimsy to “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” that elevates it beyond the modest sum of its parts. Regardless of the year in which it takes place, the story concerns a world of school dances, bullies, dollar scratch cards, and a young boy happy to spend his afternoon reading to an old man. In such a world the crude morality at the heart of the tale makes emotional sense.

If “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” calls back to King’s early pulps, then “The Life of Chuck” is a fair representation of his later experiments with literary fiction. The story is told in three distinct parts, each one working within a different genre as King takes the reader on a reverse tour through moments of Chuck’s life from the cusp of mortality back to his childhood. The first is an apocalyptic nightmare tied to Chuck’s impending death via a neat metaphysical trick, while the last looks at his childhood in a uniquely haunted house. But it’s the middle section that gleams brightest as a piece of emotionally driven, nostalgic character work, the kind of writing that King most often succeeds at when working just outside the horror genre.

We encounter Chuck in early middle age as his path crosses with a lonely young woman and a street musician. Their brief meeting isn’t life-changing or even particularly significant, but it’s the impermanence of the moment that gives the vignette such poignancy. The rules of Chuck’s world are temporarily suspended and the story, peculiarly for King, offers an unreservedly positive moment of human engagement. “Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” is exhilarating in its sensory minutiae, yet it never loses sight of its overarching emotional theme. King is able to conjure joy from such small incidents that the reader is left wondering quite how the trick was done.

And if writing is some kind of magic or strange alchemy, then the final story in King’s collection explores both the light and dark halves of that enchantment. “Rat” sees that stalwart of the author’s fiction—the writer-protagonist—sequestered in a cabin in the woods. Drew is there to write a novel, something that carries significant risk, as earlier attempts have driven him close to madness. While everything goes well at first, soon storm clouds (both literal and figurative) begin to gather. An ill-advised handshake and the presence of a strangely talkative rat turn the tale of a writer’s angst into a Faustian bargain.

“Rat” is King’s best attempt at conveying the pressure and claustrophobia of the writing process since Misery. We feel Drew’s excitement at the blank page and the endless possibilities it offers. It’s a call to creative arms. The first 30 pages may leave you longing for a cabin in the woods of your own, so as to be free from the obligations of a normal life. King writes with absolute clarity about writerly frustration, likening it in one memorable image to Drew’s son, Brandon, choking on a tomato. “This is like that,” he writes, “only stuck in my brain rather than my throat. I’m not choking, but I’m not getting enough air either. I need to finish.”

As Drew begins to “lose his words” and his options narrow, both creatively and in terms of survival, “Rat” transforms into a Poe-esque tale of madness, isolation, and obsession. Anyone who’s ever poured all their efforts into a personal, creative project will recognize Drew’s loss of perspective as the novel becomes all-consuming.

Whether “Rat” has a happy ending or not is open to debate, but as a conclusion to If It Bleeds the story demonstrates that, happily, King can still write a horror story that scares and delights in equal measure. Each of these stories is a pared-down, or even recycled, version of a horror the author has unearthed before, but they’re told with such verve, confidence of voice, and, yes, warmth that you find yourself creeped out and comforted at the same time.

If It Bleeds is now available from Scribner.

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Love Is Political in Tomasz Jedrowski’s Debut Swimming in the Dark

The separate yet sometimes inextricably linked spheres of politics and desire make for doomed bedfellows in Jedrowski’s debut novel.

Richard Scott Larson

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Swimming in the Dark

The separate yet sometimes inextricably linked spheres of politics and desire—especially when it comes to queer sexuality—make for doomed bedfellows in Tomasz Jedrowski’s Swimming in the Dark, an intricately structured coming-of-age romance between two young men living under the autocratic rule of the Polish United Workers’ Party in the early 1980s. The novel is written as an address, with its narrator, Ludwik, referring to his former lover, Janusz, in the second person as he recounts the highs and lows of their affair, as well as the ideological differences that led to its end. Ludwik has been in the United States as a political defector for a full year when he begins to tell his story—a year since he has last seen Janusz—and he follows daily news on the radio of escalating political strife at home in the present even as he looks achingly back into the past, wondering what might have been.

The novel begins with a confession. Nine years old and on a religious excursion with others his age, Ludwik tells of how he developed a close kinship with—and first real crush on—a Jewish boy named Beniek. During a party on the last night of the trip, when the lights suddenly go out without warning, Ludwik finds himself on a dance floor in the dark, pulling Beniek’s willing body against his own. But when the lights are thrown back on and everyone can see what he’d done, he experiences for the first time the familiar marriage of desire and shame.

Beniek’s family abruptly moves away following the trip, and Ludwik later comes to understand, during secret listening sessions of Radio Free Europe broadcasts with his mother and grandmother, that the PUWP had turned on Poland’s Jewish population, implicating them in the country’s involvement in the war and forcing them to flee. Ludwik’s sexuality is thus connected to politics from the start, represented in a carefully and skillfully constructed montage of linked scenes chronicling both his sexual and political development in turn: “Beniek’s departure spelled the end of my childhood, and of the childhood of my mind: it was as if everything I’d assumed before had turned out to be false, as if behind every innocuous thing in the world lay something much darker and uglier.”

After an encounter years later with a man in a public park leads him to think that submitting to what he believes is deviance will lead only to a life of loneliness, Ludwik vows to conceal his sexuality at all costs, renouncing his desires and choosing to live instead through books, which were “armor against the hard edges of reality.” And when he overhears a conversation between two obviously gay men at a speakeasy, he’s prompted to seek out a copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. He eventually reads the book himself, and he feels immediately projected into its world: “It felt as if the words and the thoughts of the narrator—despite their agony, despite their pain—healed some of my agony and pain, simply by existing.”

Ludwik reads Giovanni’s Room over a course of days otherwise spent doing grueling manual labor at a work education camp, where he later begins his courtship with Janusz after spotting him enjoying a solitary swim in a river. Eventually, Baldwin’s novel becomes a bridge between them, its fictional world of pain and fear creating a shared space allowing for the possibility of love. Upon their release from their work assignments, the two spend an almost dreamlike few weeks camping together in the woods, exploring the nature of desires they’d mostly kept hidden and out of sight until then. But the first glimmers of strife between the two men, who are otherwise blissfully in love, surface in conversations that enter the realm of politics.

There’s a tendency toward the figurative in the novel’s language that sometimes feels forced, but the claustrophobic interiority of Ludwik’s psychological turmoil elevates Swimming in the Dark to startling and moving heights. The looping in of Giovanni’s Room as a meta text also deepens rather than deflects from Jedrowski’s central themes. Reflecting on the impossible choices facing Baldwin’s protagonist, Ludwik explains at one point that “suddenly the narrator’s pain didn’t soothe my pain anymore. His fear fed my fear. I was like him, David, neither here nor there, comfortable in no place, and with no way out.”

“I should have known you’re one of them,” Janusz says when Ludwik brings up the prospect of leaving Poland for the West in search of freedom—freedom from the state, freedom to live a life of choice. Janusz would rather follow the rules and participate in the system, corrupt as it might be, rather than take the risks associated with rebellion. And when they return to Warsaw after their time alone together, Janusz to begin work with the PUWP and Ludwik seeking a possible future as an academic, the disparity between their two political views—amounting to a disparity between how they envision possible futures for themselves—only escalates.

There’s danger in staging ideological difference as the basis for dramatic conflict in a fictional narrative, because the possibility of reconciliation and resolution hinges so completely on the notion that characters must renounce their views—or not. But in Swimming in the Dark, there’s little hope for Ludwik that Janusz is going to suddenly transform into a revolutionary, as he quite purposely builds a comfortable life for himself within existing constraints. And so instead of staging a political impasse between two men in love as a tragedy, Jedrowski adroitly provides readers with the pleasure of observing the development of a personal politics, Ludwik’s coming of age less a coming-out narrative than one of gradual radicalization.

In the end, Janusz is drawn not as a patriot blinded by the propaganda of his government, but as a man unwilling to risk everything for the uncertainty of a future elsewhere—and he serves as a necessary foil for Ludwik’s developing political perspective as the novel’s protagonist and narrator, whose own resolve is only strengthened by witnessing Janusz’s consenting negotiation of the only future available to him without radical action. The novel’s indelible complexity ultimately lies in its representation of a mind in conflict with the body.

Swimming in the Dark is available on April 28 from William Morrow.

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Books

Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing Is a Humble and Crabby Confessional

For Allen, his new memoir is a form of retreat-as-attack, or perhaps vice versa.

Chuck Bowen

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Apropos of Nothing

In his memoir Apropos of Nothing, Woody Allen goes out of his way to portray himself as an average Joe who got lucky, resisting his reputation as a brilliant artist and intellectual even as he recounts one triumph and extraordinary encounter after another. As one might expect, the book is rich in name-dropping, such as Allen being complimented by Tennessee Williams and Federico Fellini, arguing movies with Pauline Kael, and hanging between jazz sets with Cary Grant. These events, and many others, are described by the 84-year-old legend in a curt, matter-of-fact, somewhat amusing understatement, as if to say, “That’s life.” There’s a witty sentiment on nearly every page of this book, but Allen’s chilly approach to his own story feels alternately humble and crabby.

This slim memoir offers a general once-over of the Woody Allen narrative, starting with his childhood in Brooklyn. Allen’s father was a hustler who indulged his children and spent more than he could make, while Allen’s mother sacrificed likeability for the sake of maintaining domestic order, a dichotomy that leads to one of the book’s most poignant observations: “Sadly, even though my mother was a much better parent, much more responsible, and more mature than my not-so-moral, philandering father, I loved him more. Everybody did.” Apropos of Nothing has several such startling lines, revealing the occasional emotional benefits of Allen’s direct, plain-stated prose. Such writing underscores the book’s pervading and often unexplored sadness, suggesting the fuller autobiography that might’ve been.

It is, however, refreshing when a memoir or a biography skips yards of obliging genealogy so as to get to the material that motivated one to buy it in the first place. Allen has a sense of what you want from him, in terms of the glories and the terrifying still hotly contested nadirs of his life. After a childhood of bickering parents, baseball, magic tricks, and dreaming of life as a Manhattan playboy like a character out of a vintage Hollywood romance or noir (a dream that he would realize on his own terms), Allan Konigsberg began writing one-liners for city columns, eventually christening himself Woody Allen and rising rapidly through the ranks as a comedy writer. Allen would ride into the city, knock out 50 jokes a day for a publicity firm, who would attribute the lines to various celebrities, and for this task he was out-earning his parents combined. Soon he was writing for TV, working for legends like Sid Caesar with up-and-comers such as Mel Brooks. Not long afterward, new manager Jack Rollins was helping Allen refine a stand-up routine. This is one of the better portions of the memoir, as Allen bothers to communicate the work of honing a personality via one performance after another.

Throughout Apropos of Nothing, it’s difficult to distinguish Allen’s intended tongue-in-cheekiness from his callousness, especially when the neuroses of his second wife, actress Louise Lasser, are anchored primarily from the scrim of how they affected him. Allen’s descriptions of women are generally dated and tasteless, probably to willfully spite the Woke Police, and one of the worst is directed at Lasser: “Then, a few days later the madness subsides and she’s pound for pound the best female in the world.”

As Allen checks off his various dalliances and relationships—his rendering of Diane Keaton is reverential, though he’s characteristically murky on the actual textures of their collaboration—he also works his way through his dozens of films in passages that alternate from the sublime to fortune-cookie thin. Allen pushes back hard against the notion of himself as an auteur, noting the many ways that everyone on a production has shaped his voice, while demythologizing himself with tales of his aesthetic as a result of accidents. His propensity for his long master shots springs from his allergy to rehearsing, while chapter headings in his films have sometimes served to bridge gaps that couldn’t be solved by editing.

Allen also recounts the many times that films have drastically changed shape, from the abandoned two-narrative structure of Sleeper to the entirely re-shot September to the dramatically re-cut and re-shot Annie Hall. His openness to admitting these setbacks refutes the image of the auteur as an all-mighty god and dreamer, and these stories are refreshing and encouraging to hear from an artist of Allen’s magnitude. (On September: “A drama that asks the question: Can a group of tortured souls come to terms with their sad lives when directed by a guy who should still be writing mother-in-law jokes for Broadway columnists?”)

Yet even the passages devoted to Allen’s films are vague; he has little interest in discussing his process apart from a few anecdotes, and many of the actors he worked with are written off with a pat adjective, usually “terrific.” This affected indifference is part of Allen’s average-Joe routine, his apparent conviction that, though he’s writing a memoir, little of this material is worth mining at length—hence the book’s all-too-appropriate title. But this naïf routine is a charade, as evinced by Eric Lax’s Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking. In that indispensable interview book, Allen goes into plenty of detail on his craft. For instance, he discusses his collaboration with Keaton thusly: “That’s why Diane Keaton always came out funnier in the movies I played with her, because I’d write all the jokes for myself—and I can do jokes nicely and get my laughs—but she was always funny in the scene because her stuff was always character. I’m going through a movie like Annie Hall glib and facile as a comic, but she’s going through as a character.” Such specificity, such an admittance to the gods of process, is only fleetingly present in Apropos of Nothing.

This cool, reductive voice of Allen’s is revealed to serve a purpose. Far from a definitive account of Allen’s working life, Apropos of Nothing is a response to the elephant of Allen’s legacy: his cheating on Mia Farrow with her 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, and Farrow’s subsequent accusations that Allen molested her seven-year-old daughter, Dylan, whom Allen had adopted, in 1992. This material composes a third of Allen’s book, and his fury serves as a counterpoint to the plaintive prose, lending his accusations an authority and credibility that might be lacking if his style were more heated. Allen portrays Farrow as a monster, who bore and adopted children out of vanity, collecting them like expensive pocketbooks, only to abuse them physically and psychologically. He alleges that Farrow plucked Soon-Yi from a Korean nunnery at the age of five, berating her when she didn’t learn English quickly, terming her “retarded.” Another child was locked in a shed, others were put to work as servants, and implications of mental health crises were ignored. (Smugly, spitefully, Allen says that it’s no wonder one of Farrow’s children committed suicide.)

Allen alleges that Farrow said to him that she would get revenge for his affair with Soon-Yi, cooking up the allegations concerning Dylan. There are many stories here of Farrow “brainwashing” Dylan, drilling into the child’s head a story with shifting details. These episodes are of an extravagant awfulness, giving Apropos of Nothing a shocking, lurid power. Many of Allen’s allegations against Farrow have been echoed by Soon-Yi as well as another of Farrow’s children, Moses. Allen finds it ironic that his son Satchel, now the acclaimed journalist Ronan Farrow, would castigate NBC’s downplaying of the Harvey Weinstein scandal while himself seeking to minimize Soon-Yi’s version of events in New York magazine. However, Allen makes many unsubstantiated accusations himself, implying that Farrow was sleeping with a judge and a clerk of the court during their trial.

Of all the hearsay on both sides, there’s an intrinsically important fact: After two elaborate investigations, Allen has been found guilty of nothing by no court except that of public opinion—an opinion that generally thinks Soon-Yi, to whom he’s now been married for over 20 years, is his adopted daughter. Allen worked unimpeded for decades after the Farrow accusations only to be blacklisted again recently in the wake of Me Too, a necessary movement which has nevertheless led to notions of guilty-until-proven-innocent and of all indiscretions as career-ending. The younger stars who’ve said they’ve regretted working with Allen—Greta Gerwig, Timothée Chalamet, among others—certainly knew of the accusations when they signed on to work with him, but they couldn’t have known that those accusations would matter again, especially to their own careers. Given this context, Allen’s bitterness is more than understandable, but it has curdled his empathy. These episodes aren’t so much dramatized as rattled off in Apropos of Nothing, and the book would be far more powerful if Allen had been able to rouse himself, as an artist, to identify with Farrow’s rage at his affair with Soon-Yi. (He says merely that Farrow’s initial reaction to the affair was “correct.”)

Even Allen’s anger at Farrow, and modern society’s hypocrisy, isn’t mined as fully as it might’ve been; he essentially shrugs it all off, ending his book with a sigh of “fuck it.” Imagine what Norman Mailer, another acquaintance of Allen’s, might’ve done with this material’s vast intersection of politics, sex, evolving mores, pop culture, and demons, including those of this filmmaker. Allen is a great artist, but he’s so close to this material that he seems to have felt the defensive need to pull back from it. Apropos of Nothing, itself more or less banned from this country, is a form of retreat-as-attack, or perhaps vice versa.

Apropos of Nothing is now available from Arcade.

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