State of the Union

The Boy Is the Father of Whatever: Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”

Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood" © 2014 - IFC Films
Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood" © 2014 - IFC Films

About an hour and a half into Richard Linklater’s memorable new film, my notes say, “This is RIVETING.” Exactly one hour later, as the movie finally ceased (“ended” is too strong, too decisive), I breathed a sigh of relief. What went wrong to turn the movie from startling, luminous journey into boring, platitudinous slog?

Linklater’s movie has gained a lot of press for one of those gimmicks which hide deep meaning under their showy surface, like the delays in Hamlet. Linklater shot the movie over the course of 12 years, so that as Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grows from age five to freshman year of college, Coltrane grows with him. So does sister Sam and her actress Lorelei Linklater. The device offers a fresh, striking way to show continuity and discontinuity in our lives: No matter how many homes, friends, even family members we shed, our faces are very hard to entirely leave behind.

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Carrie White Will Never Die: “Carrie: The Musical” at the Studio Theatre

Carrie is the only book I ever put down because I knew I was too young for it. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade and I was staying with cousins, taking the opportunity to raid their bookshelves. I flipped idly through the book’s opening, got to the shower scene (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), and–for once in my life–realized I was in over my head. The combination of nudity, menstruation, and sadism, all happening to kids just a few years older than I was, overwhelmed me. I’m not ready for this, I thought.

Part of Carrie’s power is that it’s a story about the universal experience of not being ready: for change, for moral responsibility, for life after high school. It’s a story which speaks to the boy sitting in jail, the girl staring at the pregnancy test waiting to see if the second line will show up. We treat youth as a Las Vegas of the soul, but what we do in our youth is as irrevocable as what we do everywhere else.

Spoilers for Carrie–the book, movie, and musical–below.

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Geishas By Gaslight: Kobayashi Kiyochika at the Freer Gallery

Sumida River by Night, Kobayashi Kiyochika; Japan, 1881; Woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Robert O. Muller Collection
Sumida River by Night, Kobayashi Kiyochika; Japan, 1881; Woodblock print; ink and color on paper; Robert O. Muller Collection

The Freer Gallery named their show of wood-block prints by fin de siecle Japanese artist Kobayashi Kiyochika “Master of the Night” (on display through July 27th), but night is ancient and Kiyochika’s work is distinctly modern. His prints show a world in transition. Some of the street scenes might almost be Victorian London; even the rickshaw used to pull a geisha through the night turns out to be a recent import, an innovation. Many of the scenes show people in traditional kimono mixing with bowler-hatted men in Western suits. This was Tokyo, the new capital city, hurrying toward the twentieth century.

Kiyochika’s haunting, color-washed night scenes show him to be on par with Edward Hopper as a poet of artificial light. The show opens with his 1881 “Sumida River by Night,” in which far-off windows glow red, and their light glimmers on the dark river. Gray dusk, slender black trees, and two silhouettes, a kimono-clad and a man in a mix of traditional and Western clothing. Kiyochika’s skies are swathed in slate-blue, gray, and mauve; or they’re jewel-toned, like “Teahouse at Imadobashi by Moonlight,” with its peacock or turquoise sky, glinting water, and drooping fronds. His moons are enormous, surrounded by halos of glowing red or white. He loves to portray light on water: light filtering through umbrellas and broken into shards on the pavement, light caught and gleaming in a river. “Rainy Moon at Gohanmatsu” is a title which gives the general mood of many of these pieces.

The perspective is typically somewhat remote. We’re observers, not participants. The people are usually silhouettes; if they do have faces, these faces are turned away from the viewer. The mood is one of longing, watching–a hushed, secluded feeling in which people mostly fail to connect with one another or with the viewer. It’s a nostalgic feeling, sweetly melancholy, with that characteristic modern edge of alienation. The rain which falls so frequently in these pictures not only lets Kiyochika play with light; it also isolates his people as they run past huddled under their umbrellas.

“Distant View of Ichinohashi Bridge from Sumida River’s Embankment” is a stellar example of this mood. In silhouette, two runners pull a geisha in a rickshaw along the riverbank. Although their running legs and forward-leaning bodies might suggest urgency, the moon glows serenely and from the right side of the frame yearning, curving branches stretch overhead. These curving lines soften the angular lines of the runners and make the scene feel quieter, somehow muffled.

Kiyochika depicted steamboats and warships—more light on the water, this time from cannon fire—and 1879′s propulsive “View of Takanawa Ushimachi Under a Shrouded Moon” shows blood-red smoke coming from a locomotive. The train’s headlights make an artificial dawn. Kimonos under telegraph wires, gas lamps partly hidden by crooked pines. Soot-gray clouds drift in the background. It’s easy to make a firefly-filled night out on a pleasure boat look beautiful, and this show will give you some lovely images of that; but Kiyochika was also capable of 1881′s “Taro Inari Shrine at the Akasuka Rice Fields,” in which a lone figure wanders away (or approaches) under a high full moon. The trees are sparse and bare, the buildings are falling apart, and there is only this small anonymous person under the starless sky. Read More…

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Before #YesAllWomen, There Was The Gift of Fear

I had the vertiginous experience of reading Gavin de Becker’s 1997 bestseller The Gift of Fear in the midst of the reporting and reaction to the killings at UC-Santa Barbara. I read Gift for the same reason as hundreds of other women: A close friend told me to. And there’s a reason the book gets passed along. It’s pushy, it’s overstated, it’s flawed—but it’s a powerful guide to recognizing potential violence and listening to your intuitions.

It’s also a sketch of how relations between the sexes go wrong. I’d give it to girls for their protection; but de Becker also explains clearly why some of the strategies with which well-meaning guys often try to get girls’ attention backfire, because they take place in a context where women fear violent assault. There’s sharp commentary here on how men are conditioned to feel entitled to women’s attention, and how they’re trained to overlook the exact kind of violence and harassment that sparked the #yesallwomen hashtag discussion.

The tone of the book is mostly empathetic and reassuring. De Becker (a security expert who is quite willing to let you know about the presidents, celebrities, and CEOs he’s worked for) is trying to give you permission: to listen to your fear, to say “no” and expect that to be respected, to notice when you’re being hustled rather than trying to talk yourself out of your intuitions. There are a lot of common-sense notes—for example, the person you choose to help you is more likely to be genuinely well-intentioned than the person who seeks you out at a vulnerable moment and offers you his help—and good, clear descriptions of pressure tactics that attempt to extract concessions from others by playing on our dislike of confrontation, our desire to be nice, or our feelings of reciprocity and guilt when someone forces a favor on us.

The book deals with harassment that lacks any kind of sexual edge, e.g. the man who becomes enraged when an employer rejects his business plan, and de Becker suggests that these situations have more in common with domestic violence and other violence against women than it might appear.

You have to get over a certain slickness in the presentation. The thing was clearly written to be a bestseller. De Becker strains to connect grabby stories about presidential assassination attempts to more local-news horrors of stalking and rape. Gift is a page-turner for sure, but you’ll notice that there are no stories where intuition ever turns out to be wrong.

There’s no mention of race in the book, which is important because racism warps our intuitions. De Becker alludes to the fact that cultural messages can misinform our intuitions and lead us to fear the wrong things, but he doesn’t get specific, and the absence of any discussion of racial mistrust really leapt out at me. He uses the decision not to get on an elevator because you don’t like the look of the guy who’s already inside as an example of rational fear, which made me think immediately of that old, sad urban legend about Stevie Wonder’s dog Lady. Casual encounters between white women and black men are shaped not only by the context of violence against women, but by the context of racial violence; we mistrust one another or misread one another’s signals against the backdrop of that violence. Read More…

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Every Day Is Like Sunday: Rediscovering Wilfrid Sheed’s “The Hack”

Don’t call Wilfrid Sheed’s 1963 The Hack a forgotten Catholic classic. I don’t want it to be dismissed so easily.

Sheed was the scion of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, the Catholic publishers and apologists; he knew that pre-Vatican II world of professional religion from the inside. The Hack is a satirical tragedy about Bert Flax, a man who supports his wife and five children by writing pabulum for the lower levels of the Catholic press: angels with cotton-candy wings, Irish-surnamed Fathers playing improving outdoor games with hearty children, sub-Chestertonian cutesy polemics. Over the course of a particularly harrowing Advent (in a nice touch, it isn’t ever called Advent but always Christmas) Bert slowly realizes that his work–and perhaps his faith–have always been childish, sickly-sweet, and unreal.

The Hack comes from a specific immediately pre-Vatican II subculture, but its emotional and spiritual concerns feel totally at home in our mommy-blogging, #soblessed performance culture. This is a book about meta-emotions: what we feel about what we feel. It’s a book about knowing yourself utterly inadequate to the mystery of God, but not knowing how to express that without tinsel and puff; and about the duty we feel to manufacture and display the correct emotions. You have to stay strong for the children! You’re an inspiration.… You should be grateful, you should be present in the moment, you need to really feel it.

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How to Stop Time: Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive”

Sony Pictures Classics
Sony Pictures Classics

There’s a lot to love about this swoony, drifty vampire flick, a sensual opium dream which unfurls in a lushly-colored musical haze. Tilda Swinton was born to play a vampire, with her giant sepulcher-face full of bones. She’s magnetic, as are the cityscapes, a bleached-white Tangiers and half-abandoned Detroit.

The blood=drug equation isn’t subtle, but there’s a subtler, haunting motif of music and nostalgia as ecstatic drugs in which we lose ourselves. The vampires are drunk on their own pasts: They knew Lord Byron! They knew Detroit when it meant power and pride. I often find that music opens a door in the mind, a door which leads back to the unresolved, regretted or longed-for past. This use of music as time-machine can become a way of fleeing from the present-day self, its loves and responsibilities; this is a theme which Only Lovers hits hard, in its depiction of Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton, I’m as sorry about these names as you are) as vampire lovers who profess devotion but spend most of their time on separate continents.

I didn’t find these vampires likable or particularly entrancing, unlike their richly-textured settings. They’re connoisseurs. They can tell the make and date of a guitar by stroking it; Adam, with his elitist resentment, is a half-step away from posting YouTube comments-box rants about sheeple. There’s a satirical edge here: the vampire as hipster, as Miniver Cheevy with a LP collection. But the movie isn’t contemptuous of its subjects. Adam’s endless knowledge eventually becomes boring; but the sensual pleasure the movie takes in the shapes and surfaces of musical instruments, the autumnal crackle of a vinyl record or the squeaky stutter of cassette tape, transmits itself to the viewer. I loved the steampunky bit with Adam’s jury-rigged, century-spanning Skype setup.

I did feel a lack of tension or propulsive force. That’s very form-follows-function—the vampires themselves ooze ennui and exhaustion, which is their right as Europeans—but it is, how you say, not much fun. I would have liked more fear of death (what do they think is waiting for them, once they finally give up clutching at one more lifetime?) or maybe I’d like to be less fully embedded in the jaded, detached vampiric worldview. I suspect other viewers will consider these aspects to be features rather than flaws. Only Lovers is a powerful depiction of the opiate pull of music, and the thanatostalgia which comes from too much hopeless love of the past. I would’ve adored this movie in high school, mostly for the wrong reasons. I’m so glad to grow older, as the song says.

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Hideous Strength: “Degenerate Art” at the Neue Galerie

Leave it to the Nazis to make charity posters into advertisements for power-worship.

In the late 1930s the Nazi regime created a traveling exhibition which contrasted Fuhrer-approved artworks with “degenerate” works produced by modernists, New Objectivists, and other riffraff. The exhibition was a bizarre contrast to the book-burning and art-destroying we might expect from a totalitarian regime. Instead of preventing people from seeing the art at all, the Nazis encouraged them to view it—but sought to control the viewers’ responses by creating a context in which the displayed art would evoke revulsion or consternation. The totalitarian art was displayed with plenty of light and space, centered in the galleries or on the walls, while the “degenerate” art was crammed together and surrounded by graffiti-like reminders of the regime’s aesthetic judgments. The current show at New York’s Neue Galerie, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” showing through June 30, doesn’t completely replicate this heavy-handed curatorial approach, but it gives enough hints (and striking photos of the Nazi shows) that viewers can get the point.

And what’s perhaps surprising is how much you really can learn about Nazism from this art show. There are pieces which would puzzle contemporary viewers who aren’t steeped in the arguments over abstract expressionism and ideology: What’s so threatening about a sleek Bauhaus armchair? What did Vasily Kandinsky’s interstellar circles ever do to Hitler? But the overall picture which emerges from the Neue Galerie’s show is of a regime which worshiped strength and hated weakness. Although the Nazis reviled artists for “mocking religion,” the religion most clearly displayed in their preferred artworks was not the cult of Jesus but of Mars.

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A Stillborn Child Leads to a Murder Charge—With Threat of Life in Prison

In 2006, 15-year-old Rennie Gibbs became pregnant. She tested positive for marijuana and cocaine during her pregnancy. Her daughter Samiya was born a month premature, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. An autopsy on the child found traces of a cocaine byproduct, and Rennie was charged with what Mississippi calls “depraved heart murder,” a second-degree murder charge used in cases when an unintended death results from an act “eminently dangerous to others” committed with a “depraved” disregard for human life.* Gibbs’s case has wound its way through the legal system, and it is still unclear whether she will go on trial this spring; but if she does, Gibbs, now 23, will face the threat of life in prison.

These are the facts. Heartbreaking personal stories lie behind them, and broader societal stories as well. The story of Rennie and Samiya Gibbs is a story of a prosecutor with a cavalier approach to evidence; a story of scapegoating and the inability to accept tragedy; a story of the police state created by what Jim Henley calls “the war on some drugs”; and a story, too, about legal attempts to protect the unborn. “We can love them both” is one of the more inspiring slogans of the pro-life movement. What would loving them both look like, for Rennie and Samiya? I’m pretty sure “life in prison” is not the answer.

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All Noir Is Reunion: “Veronica Mars,” The Movie

"Veronica Mars," Warner Bros.
"Veronica Mars," Warner Bros.

When we talk about the TV renaissance, we should talk about “Veronica Mars.” The 2004 “high school noir” show’s extraordinary first season mixed weekly casefiles with a season-long arc—two arcs, actually. Veronica starts the show as a suddenly bereft and embittered California teen: Her best friend has been murdered, her father lost his sheriff’s job when he fingered a local corporate bigwig for the crime, she lost all her friends in the aftermath, and when she tried to show defiance by going to a party where most of the people hated her, she was roofied and raped. Our tiny blonde sleuth spends the first season trying to solve her friend’s murder and her own assault.

Veronica (Kristen Bell) is half Philip Marlowe, half Buffy Summers. But she’s Marlowe without the isolation—her relationships, especially her warm and (mostly) trusting relationship with her father (Enrico Colantoni), are central to her character—and Buffy without the self-pity. She’s a wisecracker whose cynicism covers up a “marshmallow” heart of empathy and longing. The show’s first season explored the spiraling consequences of seemingly minor sins; the callousness and confusion which allow crimes to be committed right under everybody’s noses; and the way kids cope, or fail to cope, with parental legacies of violence and despair.

The next two seasons couldn’t sustain the psychological acuity of the first. Season Two has some great moments (the stadium demolition intercut with gang leader Weevil’s sacramental confession is a highlight for me) but a deep streak of stupidity and caricature; those problems only deepened in Season Three. The show’s final episode is the only good episode in the third season, but it’s pretty great: an achingly sad portrayal of perseverance, defeat, and failure in both the eyes of the world and the court of one’s own conscience. (Uh, spoilers? It’s noir, it doesn’t have a happy ending.)

Veronica’s fans were fierce, and clamored for more Mars. Hence this new movie, in very select theaters (it’s only playing in one location in D.C.) due to a Kickstarter campaign. I don’t really mean it as a criticism when I say that the movie plays as a much longer version of the final episode: In an age of TV that feels like a movie, the “Veronica Mars” movie feels like TV. Read More…

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Coming Out Catholic: The Movie

At the Level Ground film festival the other weekend, I got to see “Desire of the Everlasting Hills,” a truly moving and well-made documentary—and an example of the movement I described in my “Coming Out Christian” piece.

“Desire” lets three gay or same-sex attracted Catholics tell their stories. It’s not confrontational or argumentative; the overall tone is tender and reflective. I saw it twice, and it evoked both laughter and sniffles from the audience.

And the stories seem perfectly crafted to disrupt conventional ideas of “ex-gay” narratives. At first Paul seems like your central-casting disco kid, who fled a life of promiscuity. Rilene’s the lonely woman neglected by men, who is seduced at a low point in her life by a predatory lesbian. And Dan had a boyfriend, but began to find himself falling for a woman—his chance to have a “normal” life and a family. So far, so frustrating. But the movie is startlingly well-paced (its “plot twists” got gasps and exclamations) as we learn that these three lives are anything but pious paint-by-numbers cartoons.

There’s so much to say about this film! Director Eric Machiela’s use of nature imagery is perfectly-timed and poignant. (The saccharine piano music is the only major aesthetic flaw.) It opens a bit defensively, with the three subjects talking about how they just want to be known and not judged, but once we settle in to hearing their stories the movie finds its rhythm. I wanted to know so much more about all of them; I wanted to hang out with them. There are tart words from Mother Angelica, “the pirate nun,” and tender memories of the good old nights at Studio 54; there’s fondness for the Church and fury at God; financial upheaval, a miserable peace sign, self-sacrificial gay love, and a Good Friday buzzkill from John Paul II himself.

There are some fascinating theological contrasts: Paul’s most direct experiences of God come when he is being rescued or spared something he expected to be unbearably painful—the most intense example comes when he’s on the way to the doctor to learn his HIV status—whereas both Dan and especially Rilene see God’s hand most clearly in the losses and humiliations of life. (For readers of my AmCon piece: I was struck by how unembarrassed Dan and Rilene were by their own loneliness and suffering. It’s a part of life, to be approached with the same passion and good humor as other parts.) I think this movie would challenge any Christian—no matter their church affiliation or views on sexual ethics. It shows the wild diversity within orthodoxy, the sheer weirdness and unpredictability of faithful Catholic lives.

“Desire” beautifully shows common human experiences such as longing, loneliness, the loss of a loved one, the slow building of a lifelong love, and the attempt to reconcile religious faith and romantic love, experienced from a unique perspective. These stories are as richly textured as a nineteenth-century novel, suffused with hope and mystery, and told just about as well as I can imagine. I’m not sure how to get a copy, but you can try Gorilla Pictures or Level Ground—it’s worth making a real effort to find this thing.

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