Category Archives: Uncategorized

On Bolaño, Art, and Fascism

I’m doing a summer subscription drive. If you’ve found the content on this site valuable, make a small donation to sustain this website.

It’s rather fitting the my column on the cultural roots of fascism in America comes out amid the latest cluster bombing of bombshells from President Trump—the latest being the currently evolving story surrounding his son, Donald, Jr.’s, betrayal of America by colluding with the Russian government to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton during the summer of 2016.

To be clear, I am not at all arguing that our government is fascist. No one worth taking seriously is saying anything of the sort, for the simple reason that it’s not true. Our votes still matter, we still hold free and fair elections, we have a division of power in our government.

However, it’s clear to me that our culture is beginning to lean toward one that enables fascist government. That is, powerful politicians and their strategists are exploiting fears and hatreds to manipulate large swaths of the voting public. Anti-intellectualism has reached the point that a majority of Republicans now say that higher education is a bad thing for America. The Republican President regularly spouts enormous, grotesque lies that go far, far beyond the twisting of facts typical of any harmless, garden-variety politician in any reasonable democracy. And the Republican Party is now engaged in massive, racially inflected voter suppression efforts to help game the next election.

I would argue that these things are consistent with a culture of fascism. That is, a dangerous culture that makes fascist government possible, that we could say is a pre-condition of fascist government existing. As I explain in the column, this is where I have found Roberto Bolaño so instructive. As I have reflected on his books in the past year or so, it seems to me that he understood things about how the culture of fascism has infected the Americans and the West, and he put these things into his books. My column is an opening salvo into some of that territory.

Bolaño also opened up the very interesting overlap between fascism and art, a subject that I have not seen discussed very much (other than in Thomas Mann’s masterful novel Doctor Faustus, which is essential reading at any time, and especially these days). I discuss this a little in the column as well, although it is a very big question, and there is still very much to think about here. But it does seem to me that there is something going on, some overlap among art, the performances of the President and other partisan media personalities, and the embryonic Internet-native communications and social performances that we are all feeling our way through these days.

There column is here. I hope you give it a look.

Strong Recommend: Empire of Things by Frank Trentmann

I’m doing a summer subscription drive. If you’ve found the content on this site valuable, make a small donation to sustain this website.

I’m hoping to write a little more in-depth about this book down the line, but here’s a strong recommendation for Frank Trentmann’s Empire of Things. Basically, this is an extraordinarily thorough, compelling single-volume history of consumerism, starting in roughly 1500 and continuing up through the present day.

As a work of history, Empire of Things is mammoth and revelatory. But it is also a book that comments very much on the present day. Basically, Trentmann puts contemporary debates about materialism and environmental decay into the context of the 200 years or so that have formed the modern consumeristic world as we know it. This adds a very important layer to our understanding of these problems and how we can possibly solve them.

So, for that one reason, this is a really necessary read. In addition to that, this is just a plain fascinating book, with all sorts of facts and statistics from the last 500 years or so. It’s a very eye-opening read, one that puts the lie to a lot of received opinions and makes little-known histories visible.

There is lot of information in this book, and Trentmann knows how to turn this raw information into knowledge and narratives, which makes it very powerful. I strongly recommend this book as a big summer read. It will change how you look at our contemporary society.

Summer Pledge Drive

It’s that time where I ask you to pledge a few dollars if you like what you’re seeing at this site and at The Quarterly Conversation.

To make things a little nicer, I’ll send over The Missing Books to anybody who donates $15 or more. This will include the original edition of TMB, plus all new editions (one is forthcoming very soon!).

Let me (very briefly) talk about online content and subscriptions. This site and The Quarterly Conversation are free. The very idea and purpose of them—which is to create and spread high-value information for the good of the artistic community—defines them as free, open-to-all ventures. They don’t really serve their purpose if they’re paywalled, and they will never be paywalled.

For various reasons, advertising isn’t a sustainable income source on the Web. It doesn’t matter if you’re a huge, New York Times venture or a tiny literary blog, ads alone don’t suffice in the Web economy as we currently know it. (If you’re curious to know more, Josh Marshall does a good job of delving into the logic of this over here and elsewhere.)

It’s increasingly popular to use a hybrid ads/subscription model, where advertising gets some revenue from more incidental users, and where subscriptions are for the core audience who highly values a website, uses it a lot, and is willing to put up a little money to support it.

That’s basically what I’m asking for here with the summer pledge drive.

Let me share a little of what I’ve provided in 2017:

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve done 11 in-depth interviews with publishers, authors, and translators doing worthwhile projects. I’ve maintained my list of Interesting New Titles, one of the most high-traffic pages on this website. I’ve recommended tons and tons of books (both here and on my social media feeds—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). I’ve promoted crowdfunding campaigns for worthy new ventures in our literary world. I’ve edited and brought online two new issues of The Quarterly Conversation.

Based on how much of this content gets shared around the Web and visited here, a lot of people find this to be high-value stuff. If you’re one of those people who finds this useful, important, and beneficial to the community at large, a subscription goes a long ways toward enabling me to do more and more of this sort of thing.

If you’d like to subscribe, you can make a one-time-only donation or a recurring donation with the Paypal buttons below. You can also use the link to my Patreon page (at the bottom) to set up recurring donations.









If you’d like to back me at Patreon, I’ve set up a page here.

Interesting New Books — July 2017

I’m doing a summer subscription drive. If you’ve found the content on this site valuable, make a small donation to sustain this website.

Here are some new releases I’ve got my eye on this month.

As always, this list is taken from my Interesting New Books page, where you can find many more of the 2017 releases I’m watching out for. And you can follow me on Twitter for even more book recommendations.

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams. July 3.

On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor. July 4. Paperback release of a book you may have missed and should really give a look to.

Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility by Francesco Berardi. July 4.

The Invention of Russia: The Rise of Putin and the Age of Fake News by Arkady Ostrovsky. July 4.

Class, Race and Marxism by David Roediger. July 4.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor. July 11. His only novel.

The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat. July 11.

Moving Kings: A Novel by Joshua Cohen. Jul 11.

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðberger Bergsson. July 11. Reputed to be the “Icelandic Ulysses.”

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. July 11. Available for the first time in paperback.

Like a Fading Shadow: A Novel by Antonio Muñoz Molina. Jul 18.

History is Our Mother: Three Libretti: Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, The Magic Flute by Alice Goodman. July 18. You don’t need to like opera to love these brilliant libretti.

The Dark Dark: Stories by Samantha Hunt. July 18.

Vengeance Is Mine, All Others Pay Cash by Eka Kurniawan. July 25.

A Few Thoughts on Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled is set in 1864, three years into the Civil War, as a helpful subtitle instructs us at the beginning of the movie. The entirety of the film takes place at a secluded girls school in the Virginia wilderness, and there is a quality of Southern gothic here. This is one of those movies that, like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, mostly abstracts away the outside world to focus on the interiority of its small cast and the drama that they confront.

Things get started when the young Jane (played by Angourie Rice), out picking mushrooms in the nearby woods, comes across a wounded Yankee soldier. He has been immobilized by a gunshot to his lower leg, and he will surely die if Jane does not bring him back to the school. She of course does, tipping off a series of events that will comprise the meat of the movie.

Immediately, Miss Martha Farnsworth (played by Nicole Kidman), the middle-aged, authoritative doyen of the school, takes charge of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), secluding him in the music room and ministering to his wounds. There are some gory shots here of Farnsworth stitching the Corporal up, and she is immediately established as the powerful, worldly, gritty woman opposite Kirsten Dunst’s much more softer, more naive Edwina, who teaches in the school as Farnsworth’s sort of second-in-command.

Coppola wastes no time in getting to the crux of the matter: this is deep in the Confederacy, where a Yankee soldier is certainly not welcome, but it’s been ages since Farnsworth and Edwina have seen a man, particularly a striking, muscular one like the Corporal. After tending to his wounds, Farnsworth declares her intent to wash the Corporal’s body (he is still passed out from his injuries), and predictably her hands continue gravitating toward a certain part of his anatomy.

There is also the young and sexy Alicia (Elle Fanning), a student in the school who is a young woman on the verge of sexual discovery and who is clearly intrigued by the arrival of a man in their midst.

For his own part, the Corporal realizes how precarious his position is, that Farnsworth can hand him over to passing mobs of Confederate soldiers at any time, so he contrives to stimulate the women’s fascination with him. Of course, part of his interest here is in his own sexual desires are clearly coming into play, even as he works to ingratiate himself with the woman as a act of pure survival. Part of the intrigue of these early scenes of the movie is to watch as these characters all strive to define their aims: they are all beguiled to an extent by the ripe sexuality that has suddenly appeared in their lives, but they also have other prominent motives that shape their acts.

It is in the movie’s first half that Coppola’s directing, which netted her the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Director award, is at her best. Virtually none of the film’s communication is done out in the open, instead coming across through doubled meanings, facial expressions, gestures, small acts, and the like. Coppola brilliantly teases out these threads, defining the principal characters’ traits and motives, all while giving an evocative sense of Southern manners and the complex situation of the Civil War. The movie is suffused by a profound aura of femininity, and one very much feels that Farrell’s Corporal is injecting alien elements into the school’s female realm.

On the whole the cast counts seven women all at differing ages form pre-teen to Farnsworth (which I would guess at about 50). Coppola puts together a fascinating and satisfying composite picture of girlhood and womanhood, and there are many small touches throughout that work together to construct a complete picture of femininity, particularly the sense of femininity that existed in the middle of the 19th century amid Southern antebellum culture. Clearly there is some revisionist intent to such a project, as one can’t but help compare the lives of these women to the lives of women today (there was much knowing laughter in the screening I saw), but one also gets the sense of constructing its own world, and one that is not typically seen on the silver screen.

In this way the movie proceeds toward its inevitable crisis point (spoiler alert). For motives that are not entirely clear, the Corporal has been leading Edwina on, to the point where he promises to come into her bedroom after a lush dinner that is meant to be the Corporal’s send-off out of the school and back into the world. Yet, it is obviously Alicia that he wants to bed. And this is where Edwina discovers him in one shocking moment of outrage and hurt, even as she has made herself beautiful and prepared herself to be taken by the Corporal. In the ensuring chaos the Corporal is thrown down a flight of stairs, and he freshly healed leg is broken open again. Farnsworth declares that the only way to save him is to amputate the leg, which she does. When the Corporal next awakes, he flies into a rage, taking the amputation as an act of revenge for him not choosing to come to Farnsworth’s bedroom.

It is in the concluding 30 minutes that follow this scene that Coppola’s The Beguiled begins to break down. The characters that have been so lovingly tended by Coppola now revert to types, caught up in the straightjacket of Farrell’s extraordinarily overwrought rage. So too does the plot, which had been ambiguous and alluring, and now becomes something along the lines of a thriller. The movie concludes with a fairly predictable trajectory, and we are left with something that, fortunately, ends before it does mortal damage to that beautiful first hour, but which still leaves us disappointed that a movie with such promise did not find a better end.

More than anything else, this concluding half hour feels too rushed, the mixture of motives and gestures that made the pre-amputation parts so rich are absent here, and the plot seems to move mechanically toward its solution. The great pleasure in watching The Beguiled is in trying to figure out just what everybody wants, what they are admitting to themselves and to each other, what they are hiding, how much of what they want they’re going to manage to get, and how this weird interlude that has taken control of all their lives will be solved. This is the brilliance of the film, and at its best it is truly great filmmaking. But all of that comes to an end once the Corporal turns into a rage-fueled caricature, where the nuance and mystery and balance of competing emotions is turned into a clear and obvious need to get rid of him by any means.

Coppola’s The Beguiled is something along the lines of a feminist reclamation of the 1971 film of the same name, starring Clint Eastwood. Instead of basing the film around the male character, as the Eastwood The Beguiled does, in Coppola’s the women become the stars, and the world evoked is a feminine one, not a macho one. This is a fascinating idea, and one appreciates the many touches that turn this film from a male point of view into a female one, but ultimately the ending of Coppola’s The Beguiled feels too over-determined to leave a viewer with a lasting impression or a final conundrum to take with you out of the theater.

During my viewing of The Beguiled, the film often reminded me of a couple of movies that left this one weak by comparison. The first is Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, about a pre–Civil War band of naive settlers who are somewhat captive to their macho leader, Meek. As with Coppola’s film, this is something along the lines of a feminist reclamation of a Western macho narrative—the world of women definitely dominates Reichardt’s film, and there is a strong female character who comes to define its plot. But, notably, Reichardt goes much further, engaging the historical narratives that surround Meek’s Cutoff to a much greater degree, and never letting the film resolve into a clear sense of right and wrong.

The Beguiled also made me think of Robert Altman’s 3 Women, a film very much about feminine identity and solidarity, and one whose three principle female characters are set against a male interloper. As with Coppola, Altman very creatively uses the landscape in 3 Women to open up the characters and their traits, and he is also able to open up the female world to the eyes of the viewer. Where Altman overcomes Coppola is in the ending, which opens up the film’s possibilities instead of concluding them, never reverting to type or convention.

On the whole I would probably recommend The Beguiled. There is very much to like and discuss about it, and the visible texture of the film is magnificent. I only wish that Coppola had let her film find the ending that it wanted, instead of assigning it a conclusion that follows typical Hollywood convention.

Quarterly Conversation Issue 48

Features


The Rules of Attraction: On Roger Lewinter

The Rules of Attraction: On Roger Lewinter

Arriving in elegant, bilingual editions beautifully translated by Rachel Careau, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love in Solitude are the first two books by Roger Lewinter to be published in English. Although written in the 1980s, these works seem anything but dated. Instead they feel immune to literary fashion. They exert the fascination of something done carefully, even exhaustively, for its own sake rather than to please anyone else. Each book is composed of a number of short sections: you could call them vignettes, or anecdotes, or prose poems. The ones in Story of Love in Solitude stand by themselves; those in The Attraction of Things cover various periods in the narrator’s life.


The Apostles of The Culture Industry: Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries

The Apostles of The Culture Industry: Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries

Initially, the Frankfurt School set out to understand why the communist revolution had failed among the rank-and-file of Germany’s working class. Their project would grow to encompass the root causes of fascism, the authoritarian underpinnings of capitalist ideology, and the cultural machinations of commodity fetishism that would engulf the Western world in the twentieth century and beyond. The task of crafting an engrossing, rigorous historical biography about a group of notoriously difficult Marxist philosophers, social theorists, and cultural critics is no small feat. That is precisely the task Stuart Jeffries set for himself in The Grand Hotel Abyss, which serves as a sort of group biography of a very specific time, place, and elusive cultural moment that many (outside of graduate philosophy programs) are not aware even existed.


(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times

(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times

DeLillo speaks powerfully to American obsessions: our anxiety at being alive, our fear of death, the way in which our efforts to transcend ourselves in some meaningful way are stymied by a culture that both engenders and entraps us. The question now, in 2017, is whether his work can help us analyze the unprecedented political situation we find ourselves in today. I’ve been living in Berlin for over thirty years. Live outside your native culture long enough, and you begin to see it as a sort of double exposure in which your sense of family and identity and belonging is overlaid with a strange, shape-shifting disturbance pattern in which everything seems normal until it suddenly doesn’t, and you begin to see the country from a foreigner’s point of view. For as long as I can remember, America has enjoyed its superpower status, exporting the products of its creative industries around the globe, often through aggressive means, and showing little sustained interest in the cultures of other countries. Lawrence Venuti, the translation theorist, has spoken of “a trade imbalance with serious cultural ramifications” resulting in “a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described—without too much exaggeration—as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.”


The Uncanny Self : On Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments

The Uncanny Self : On Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments

“Aphoristic thinking is notebook-thinking,” Susan Sontag observed in her journal in the spring of 1980, “produced by the idea of keeping a notebook.” She had been kicking around the concept of the notebook-as-form for awhile, as well as attempting to locate the defining characteristics of aphoristic literature, while working on an essay about the writer Elias Cannetti, whose aphoristic style she very much admired. That year was punctuated by the death of Roland Barthes, another fiercely epigrammatic writer whom Sontag held in high esteem. In the essay she would eventually publish on Barthes, she wrote: “It is in the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding; a bid to have the final word is inherent in all powerful phrase-making.” The aphorist, for Sontag, is always moving towards the last word, and the aphorism itself an attempt to say all there is on a subject in one fell motion. Aphorisms are effective precisely because they seem to contain the truth in hard, diamond-like kernels; a good aphorism can’t be parsed.


Zipping Up the Elephant Suit: Jonathan Lethem’s Latest Quartet

Zipping Up the Elephant Suit: Jonathan Lethem’s Latest Quartet

With A Gambler’s Anatomy, Jonathan Lethem has written yet another quite ambitious novel that challenges American fiction’s low tolerance for thinking-as-art. This now makes four in a row that have either risked sinking from bravura and scope or have appeared too light and clever on the surface to be matched seriously with earlier feats. For instance, rather than Chronic City being a kitschy map for traversing Web-dominant culture, it tries to salvage what’s left of the literary and humane while honoring skeptical avant-garde traditions that inherently distrust the novel form. Up until The Fortress of Solitude, admirers could content themselves, to a degree, with parodied tributes and deconstructions of old styles without having to imagine the positive role Lethem charted for novels in the future. As described in his essay on White Elephant and Termite postures attempted as a novelist, his books in recent years puzzle through this dialectic of positive and deconstructive values, and A Gambler’s Anatomy continues the course.



Reviews

Compass by Mathias Énard

Compass by Mathias Énard


It’s with no small amount of urgency that Mathias Énard’s Compass, an engrossing meditation on the cultural and historical tension between Europe and the Islamic world, arrives from New Directions in a gorgeous translation by Charlotte Mandell. Winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt, Compass is a post-Orientalist novel of ideas that locates the Western canon—Flaubert, the sentimental, if reckless, traveler detailed above, but also Borges, Liszt, Heine, Hugo, Goethe, Balzac, and many more—inside an intricate tableau of Eastern cultural influence and exchange. I call it “post-Orientalist” in the sense that Énard’s characters, a group of aging academics, are all working in the shadow of Said’s screed, in search of the theory’s new critical horizon.


Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin


Despite its fervid storyline, Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is the product of clear calculation and restraint. The narrative is tightly packed, the cast of characters narrow, and the logic addictive. From the first lines the reader enters into a murky alternate reality, pursuing that sublime moment of clarity that constantly eludes capture.In fact, the book feels more like a protracted short story than a novel. This is unsurprising, given Schweblin’s immense talent for the short form. Before the 2014 publication of Distancia de rescate—Fever Dream’s original Spanish title—Schweblin published two short story collections, El núcleo del disturbio (2002) and Pájaros en la boca (2009), for which she won the Casas de las Américas Prize. Through short stories, Schweblin established herself as a writer of the strange and eerie.


Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Hemming Flames by Patricia Colleen Murphy


With “Losing our Milk Teeth,” the opening poem of Patricia Colleen Murphy’s award-winning collection, Hemming Flames, the author announces from the outset that we’re in for a thrilling ride—thrilling as in thriller as much as the acute pleasure of reading masterful poems. Hemming Flames is by turns terrifying, uncanny, and sometimes lunatic, in the ways lunacy charts (if it does chart anything) the unpredictable and uncanny. There is also a wry and blunt humor here, a consciousness latching onto what will carry it through the traumas of an imploding family.


On Gabo Conquering the World

My latest column is up at Lit Hub this week, “Why is One Hundred Years of Solitude Eternally Beloved?

I found this an interesting question to ponder, as One Hundred Years of Solitude turns 50 this year (apparently it happened right on May 30), and it has had astonishing success in terms of translation and sales, success which far outstrips the other Latin American authors García Márquez is typically classified with (Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar).

I get things started off with a possibly apocryphal anecdote about García Márquez. The more and more I’ve thought about this bit since I published the article, the stranger and stranger this seems as a thing to do:

There is an oft-told anecdote that cuts to the heart of this writer’s greatness. As he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude, he would regularly meet with his fellow great Colombian author Álvaro Mutis, updating Mutis on his progress by narrating the latest events from his novel. There was just one problem: none of what García Márquez told Mutis actually occurs in the book. He had effectively made up an entire shadow-novel while in the middle of writing one of the most imaginative and jam-packed books in the history of modern literature. This is a measure of how many competing realities existed in García Márquez’s voracious mind.

And, as always, the column ends with some reading recommendations. As much of the column deals with how One Hundred Years is a narrative that could only have come from Lain America, the reading list covers other narratives that I feel are particularly Latin American in nature and that have contributed much to our world’s collection of necessary stories.

Love in a Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (tr. Edith Grossman)
The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector (tr. Idra Novey)
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (tr. Ruth L. C. Simms)
Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)
Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine)
Seeing Red by Lina Meruane (tr. Megan McDowell)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (tr. Megan McDowell)
Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra (tr. Carolina De Robertis)

Some Thoughts on Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits

Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut, The Fits (2015), is one of those movies wrapped around an impossible-not-to-speculate-about mystery that seems to destine it for cult status.

Sitting comfortably between realism and allegory, the movie is negative capability at its finest. It starts with Toni, a tomboyish 11-year-old girl who is seen training fiercely with her older (but still teenage) brother to be a boxer. They are inside a gym that seems either to be part of a school or a community center, and they are both Africa-American (as is virtually every character in this movie).

One day Toni becomes intrigued by girls training to be dancers in an adjacent gym room, and when she decides to try out for the dance team. She is not a very good dancer at first, and she is clearly intimidated by the slightly older girls, who in addition to being much better dancers are also much more accomplished in the ways of hair, makeup, fashion, and other forms of beauty that make up a big part of the adolescent female identity. Toni is clearly intrigued (and even begins making some attempts to emulate the older girls), but she also feels the pull of her brother as role model, and still very much feels more at home in the boxing ring than n the dance floor.

The Fits seems to be headed in a clear trajectory: it will map the push/pull of masculinity and femininity in a girl’s life as she discovers her adolescent identity. And indeed, just as this movie seems to be slipping into complacency, Holmer throws us for a loop: in the middle of practice, one of the dance team’s leading girls is suddenly thrown into a seizure. 911 is called and she is carried off on a stretcher.

As Toni and some other girls her age continue to battle the questions that come with incipient adolescence, the outbreak of what is termed “the fits” continues. One by one, each of the older girls experiences her own seizure. Toni and her young friends can only surmise that they are next, and, right on schedule, one by one they experience their own fits. The movie concludes with an eerie, musically choreographed, slow-motion, and quasi-first-person point of view scene as Toni—who is last of all—finally succumbs to the fits.

If I have abandoned my usual rule of avoiding spoilers and summarized the general plot of The Fits, it is only because I have little doubt that knowing what happens in this film cannot undermine the strangeness and mystery of seeing it and the pleasure of attempting to figure it out. One likely explanation for these seizures—mass hysteria—is the one that Holmer herself said intrigued her to originally create this film. Of course there are many other plausible explanations, and part of the fun of the film is mapping its allegorical surface onto whatever you are bold enough to argue for. Ultimately, what makes The Fits such a success is that this central mystery is in service to expanding the film’s interpretation of Toni’s life and the situation of herself and her friends. Holmer put it well in an interview with Vogue:

You were inspired by real examples of these fits of hysteria. Any in particular?

I was doing research, and one of the stories that came up was about a more recent case. I started to think back on historical cases, like the dancing disease. As I researched, a pattern emerged. It was not exclusively female or adolescent, but that was the trend. I started to think about why.

What was the dancing disease?

It was in the Middle Ages, I think in mainland Europe. Hundreds of people were struck by this mania. It was really fascinating to think about dancing, which is such a powerful intentional release, being something uncontrollable, from this other area of consciousness.

I think that the dancing disease may have actually been poisoning. But some people who weren’t poisoned also came down with symptoms, because of how we look to each other. It’s why we smile when we see someone else smiling. We want to belong. There’s something really powerful and simple in that.

This is not a horror movie, but you co-opted horror tropes (movies like Carrie came to mind).

Why lend that element of creepiness to what is ultimately, I thought, a very good-hearted movie?
We’re saying that there is power in collective identity. And it should not be conflated with conformity. There is that fear, though, and it’s real. What Toni is struggling with is fear of herself. Not knowing her own body, desires, insecurities, limits. That’s what adolescence is about. It’s pretty scary.

The entire film is really about putting the audience in Toni’s headspace and physical bodily space, and that’s fraught with anxiety and tension.

In other words, to only imagine this film as a sort of poetic allegory would be to shortchange it. The Fits has a very strange texture: for one thing, it almost exclusively takes place at the gym. Although a few parents are mentioned, we never see any of the children’s family or authority figures (there are one or two shots of administrators, but that is it), and any vestige of life outside of the gym is almost totally effaced. In addition to that, the dialogue here is very minimal, in particular Toni’s dialogue (she is a remarkably shy, quiet girl), and what replaces it are the beautifully kinetic movements of her and the other children’s bodies throughout the movie. This is all toward creating Toni as a fascinating and singular character, one that is intriguing enough to hang the movie on and that defies the stereotypes that film generally brings to child stars (particularly ones who are members of disadvantaged minorities). While the film does not ignore these aspects of Toni’s character, it also does not reduce Toni to them, letting the talented Royalty Hightower instead inhabit Toni as an individual person who communicates her character with her entire physical presence.

The film also has a very pleasing visual texture. For a movie that largely takes place in a handful of rooms and hallways, Holmer manages to keep the imagery fresh and surprising. She gives Toni rich spaces to maneuver through, and her camera manages to let her and the other characters define these spaces with their movements without over-embellishing what is happening on the screen or otherwise getting in the way.

The “talked about” central aspect of The Fits will, of course, be the titular fits, but there is very much else here to see this central mystery through. And it is these other layers of complexity that ultimately make this movie more than a typical, B one-trick-flick and that make these 72 quick minutes watchable again and again.

The Fits was made on a very tiny budget—reportedly just under $170,000—and one could very easily see this film alongside such other minimalist cinema, such as Richard Linklater’s Slacker (budget: $23,000 in 1991), that allowed original, quirky, and idiosyncratic directors to establish their name in film circles and gain access to greater and greater sums. I very much look forward to seeing Holmer work on a larger and larger canvas, and I will greatly anticipate what she does next.

Two Views of Richard Diebenkorn: From Figuration to Abstraction

In the spring of 2015 I was in London, where I had a few days to aimlessly stroll, browse the bookstores, and examine the world-class art that is all over the city (and still largely free, even in these austere times). One of the things I discovered entirely by accident was a retrospective of the American artist Richard Diebenkorn.

I don’t recall where I first heard of Diebenkorn, but the name and work had stuck, for as soon as I saw the name I could conjure up one or two of his figurative canvasses. I immediately went in to see the art, spending a couple of hours. At that point I thought of Diebenkorn as a figurative artist, the landscapes being the images that had most stuck in my mind.

I also knew that he had done some portraiture that I enjoyed very much.

What I did not know about Diebenkorn was the painting in the “Ocean Park” series, which were to make his biggest reputation internationally, and which were wholly abstract. These I came to at the end of the exhibit, and stare and stare as I might at them, they left me cold.

I didn’t know what to make of them, although recently—two years after I first viewed Diebenkorn’s late abstractions—I had the opportunity to try looking at them again.

Diebenkorn was known for having three major periods to his work: an early abstract phrase, a middle figurative one, and then the late work, which again became abstract. When he was a young artist, Abstract Expressionism was the dominant form, so it was natural for him to start there. But he grew disenchanted with what he felt was a straightjacket on his work, so in the 1950s he abandoned it for figurative work, by no means an each decision at the time.

Diebenkorn was a California artist, living almost his entire life in various parts of the state, and he was deeply influenced by the work of Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse, among others. It is said that Hopper’s influence can be seen in his figurative work—I see it most in the mood of the pieces, the deep contemplation that his subjects generally seem immersed in, the somewhat distanced feel that the viewer has from the scenes.

It was in 1966, after a move form the Bay Area to Santa Monica, that Diebenkorn abruptly became an abstract painter once again. In an interview quoted at the MOMA exhibit, he explained it, “Maybe someone from the outside observing what I was doing would have known what was about to happen, but I didn’t. I didn’t see the signs. Then, one day, I was thinking about abstract painting again. . . . I did about four large canvases—still representation, but, again, much flatter. Then, suddenly, I abandoned the figure altogether.”

As he returned to abstraction, he became most famous for his Ocean Park series. These are said to be in part influenced by Matisse’s French Window at Collioure, which the painter pushed into an abstract direction when he blacked out the view through the windows, leaving four rectangles of color.

Looking at Diebenkorn’s entire body of work last weekend at the SFMOMA’s major retrospective (which brings in several paintings of Matisse’s to better show the influence), I had a chance to survey Diebenkorn’s entire body of work in an hour and a half. To my surprise, I found myself pulled in most powerfully to the late abstractions, although my appreciation of the middle-career figurative work very much remained. Clearly the desire to resolve the geometry and the palette of the figurative work remains (you can almost see a Diebenkorn landscape in the one below), but this is also clearly very different work form the figurative paintings.

I wonder what had changed in my mind in the two years between my first experience with this work and my second. What I was struck by when I viewed these works a second time are their clean lines: the outlines of the shapes have none of the Impressionistic fuzziness that characterized Diebenkorn’s figurative phase. Also it seemed that the angles of the lines—always on the sharp side—here grow most refined and dynamic of all. What can’t really be seen in these images is the texture of these paintings, which is very rich and again highly refined, especially when considered against the texture of the middle works. They seem to me to be communicating in a very cool, controlled, quietly elaborate, ascetic language, a feel not that different from the minimalist work pioneered in the 1970s. For instance, something like this:

As to myself, I can say that my life in the space between spring 2015 and spring 2017 corresponded to some significant (although gentle) identity shifts, as well as new directions in my work as a writer and in the sorts of books that I most admired and enjoyed reading. The shift from Diebenkorn’s middle to late work makes sense to me, even if I can’t give a very satisfactory explanation of it right here in this small space.

THE SURRENDER

The Surrender is Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning his lifelong desire to be a woman.


LADY CHATTERLEY'S BROTHER

Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


THE LATIN AMERICAN MIXTAPE

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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