Friday, November 21, 2014

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

a few notes on Peaky Blinders

(I'm just assuming no one has watched this yet.)

• It feels like a more stylish Boardwalk Empire except that, instead of Nucky Thompson, the main character is Jimmy Darmody

• It was the perfect decision, whoever made it, to place the Blinder's HQ at the end of a street lined with blacksmith forges. Everything is constantly glowing orange, sparking and smoking, as if you've entered a special wing of hell. (This works especially well with the music of Nick Cave, whose "Red Right Hand" is the show's theme.)

• It was a bad decision, whoever made it, to name the show Peaky Blinders. (Yes, I know it's purportedly based on the name of a Birmingham street gang "distinguished by their sartorial style." But those of you with Netflix reading this know it's also the reason you haven't watched the show yet!) I will admit, however, that the name isn't as bad as I first thought. What I mean is, one gets used to it rather quickly. (It's hard not to when one of the characters is so fond of shouting "Peaky Blinders!!!" every time he's soaked in alcohol or blood. Which is most of the time.)

• Violence in slow motion set to music is never a good thing—unless, perhaps, the music is Beethoven. (Fortunately this obsession wanes in season 2, which prefers slow motion as a lead in to violence, the first smash of a bottle or fist triggering a return to normal speed.)

• Cillian Murphy has never looked better

• Grace (Annabelle Wallis) is miscast. Something about her face, disposition, and style doesn't work for the time period being depicted. Some people simply don't fit into other eras.

• I like that the show has no reoccurring opening sequence, no well dressed man falling out of a sky scraper or strolling towards the ocean while whisky bottles wash up by his feet. The show starts—credits and Nick Cave do the rest.

• Tom Hardy, one of the best, most interesting actor / performers around, is in season 2! Unfortunately, he's underutilized. For now.

A comment on the following:

Though it's by no means the most egregious example, I despise it when dialogue is aimed at the viewer rather than a character in the scene. Of course they both know that the IRA murdered her father! It would be obvious to her that this incident is what he is referring to when he tells her not to let her personal history "cloud her judgment." There's no reason at all for her to explain what he meant, especially when, a few lines later, he says:

Which, assuming we're capable of inferring something, conveys the exact same information and does so in a way that makes sense in the context of their conversation! This is the kind of a thing that makes me give up on shows1. If the writers don't expect me to be able to infer something, how can I expect them to be able to surprise me? Mutual respect dissolves. Luckily for the show, I noticed that the first season was only six episodes, so I continued. And luckily for me, this kind of dialogue turned out to be rare.

A common sense rule: the longer the investment, the better the show has to be in order to continue watching it. (Let's get cute and call this the Law of Diminishing Reruns. Did you cringe? OK. Never mind. Forget it.) Advice to shows: shorter, or fewer, seasons! There is so much content these days that even the unselective must be selective, so think long and hard about whether your show is really good enough to sustain fifty or sixty hours, or if you're just reluctant to let go of the money that comes with a good thing. (Personally I'd like to start seeing things that fall somewhere between mini-series and series.)

Anyway—Peaky Blinders isn't the smartest of shows (there's a scene in season two involving a grenade that serves a dramatic function that makes no sense—just go look and see if the grenade is actually there, sheesh!), but it has other redeeming qualities: cinematography (begin the show to alleviate boredom and stay for the shallow focus and lighting), mood, some good character actors and acting (I forgot about Sam Neill, who does a great job), and a few good songs (all of them contemporary—which doesn't always work). And it's fun. You can even tell yourself you're learning about post WWI Birmingham, England while you binge-watch all twelve episodes.

1 The exception to this are shows that are highly acclaimed in circles I trust, or recommended to me by someone whose taste I trust. In which case I'll watch the first season regardless.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Black Cats Moments (II)

Mad Men (Season 07)

This BCM is not very noticeable in a capture, but during the episode the airplane moves in a way that creates a jarring dissonance between it and the background (an obvious green screen). The result is cheap, cheesy, and entirely unnecessary. In theses few seconds, Mad Men goes from being one of the best shot shows on television to having the aesthetics of your average soap opera. (Not that it hasn't crossed this line before!)

Previously: What is a Black Cat Moment?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

a real life conversation (I)

Setup: B. has lots of books. A. knows this.

A: I mean, who would collect books anyway? (Looks at B. playfully.)

B: I don't collect books.

A: Right. (Laughs.)

B: I don't. I buy books for reading and researching. I'm a reader. A collector is someone who buys things for a reason other than use.

A: Then why do you keep the books after you've read them?


B: I have a collection, yes, but I'm not a collector.

A: Sounds like you're splitting hairs.

B: Let me put it this way: If I'm a book collector then someone with a stocked refrigerator is a food collector.

A: That's completely different!

B: You only think so because you don't read. (Pause.) Actually, you're right.

A: Thank you.

B: No, I mean they're different in a way that makes my point stronger. Because I can assure you that if a meal was still food after someone ate it, they wouldn't flush it down the toilet!

A: What on earth are you talking about?

B: I'm trying to explain to you why I keep books after I read them.

Long pause.

A: You eat books!?

B: (Sighs.) Yes!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


An excerpt from Dino Buzzati's masterpiece, Il deserto dei Tartari (1940)—the biography of us all. The text is altered somewhat; I have changed "Drogo," the main character, to "you" in order to make the excerpt work better as a stand alone piece.

"Up to then he had gone forward through the heedless season of early youth—along a road which to children seems infinite, where the years slip past slowly and with quiet pace so that no one notices them go. We walk along calmly, looking curiously around us; there is not the least need to hurry, no one pushes us on from behind and no one is waiting for us; our comrades, too, walk on thoughtlessly, and often stop to joke and play. From the houses, in the doorways, the grown-up people greet us kindly and point to the horizon with an understanding smile. And so the heart begins to beat with desires at once heroic and tender, we feel that we are on the threshold of the wonders awaiting us further on. As yet we do not see them, that is true—but it is certain, absolutely certain that one day we shall reach them.

"Is it far yet? No, you have to cross that river down there, go over those green hills. Haven't we perhaps arrived already? Aren't these trees, these meadows, this white house perhaps what we were looking for? For a few seconds we feel that they are and we would like to halt there. Then someone says that it is better further on and we move off again unhurriedly.

"So the journey continues; we wait trustfully and the days are long and peaceful. The sun shines high in the sky and it seems to have no wish to set.

"But at a certain point we turn round, almost instinctively, and see that a gate has been bolted behind us, barring our way back. Then we feel that something has changed; the sun no longer seems to be motionless but moves quickly across the sky; there is barely time to find it when it is already falling headlong towards the far horizons. We notice that the clouds no longer lie motionless in the blue gulfs of the sky, but flee, piled one above the other, such is their haste. Then we understand that time is passing and that one day or another the road must come to an end.

"At a certain point they shut a gate behind us, they lock it with lightning speed and it is far too late to turn back. But at that moment you were sleeping, blissfully unconscious, and smiling in your sleep like a child.

"Some days will pass before you understand what has happened. Then it will be like an awakening. You will look around incredulously; then you will hear a din of footsteps at your back, will see those who awoke before you running hard to pass you by, to get there first. There will be no more laughing faces at the windows but unmoved and indifferent ones. And if you ask how far there is still to go they will, it is true, still point to the horizon—but not good-naturedly, not joyfully. Meanwhile your companions will disappear from view. One gets left behind, exhausted; another has outstripped the rest and is now no more than a tiny speck on the horizon.

"Another ten miles—people will say—over that river and you will be there. Instead it never ends. The days grow shorter, the fellow-travelers fewer; at the windows apathetic figures stand and shake their heads.

"At last you will be all alone and there on the horizon stretches a measureless sea, motionless, leaden. Now you will be tired; nearly all the houses along the way will have their windows shut and the few persons you see will answer you with a sad gesture. The good things lay further back—far, far back and you have passed them by without knowing it. But it is too late to turn back; behind you swells the hum of the following multitude urged on by the same illusion but still invisible on the white road.

"At this moment you are sleeping in the third redoubt. You are smiling in your dreams. For the last time there come to you by night the sweet sights of a completely happy world. It is as well that you cannot see yourself as you will one day be—there at the end of the road, standing on the shores of the leaden sea under a grey, monotonous sky. And around you there is not a house, not one human being, not a tree, not even a blade of grass. And so it has been since time immemorial."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

affinities XXI

Castle in the Sky (Miyazaki, 1986)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, 2010)

(See also previous post)

Monday, October 20, 2014

affinities XX

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) / Princess Mononoke (1997)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Three stills from various Bill Morrison films that I took from a trailer for the upcoming retrospective Compositions.

bill morrison film, experimental, found footage

bill morrison film, experimental cinema, decay, found footage

bill morrison film, experimental cinema, decay, found footage

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Alice Listening to Her Poetry and Music (George Segal, 1970)

From Agnès de ci de là Varda (2011)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

affinities XIX

1 & 3: War with the Newts (Karel Čapek, 1936); 2 & 4: Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov, 1955).

A few pages before this section in War with the Newts we're introduced to a character named "Jens Jensen," which also brings to mind Lolita (Humbert Humbert). It's not too much of a stretch to imagine that Nabokov read Čapek's book, quite popular in its time and shortly thereafter.

To those interested in reading Čapek excellent satire I recommend the Osers translation. Many of the funniest passages lose their spark in Weatherall's version.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

"The most ominous cultural divide lies between those who chase after their manufactured illusions, and those who are able to puncture the illusion and confront reality. More than the divides of race, class, or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or non-believer, red state or blue state, our culture has been carved up into radically distinct, unbridgeable, and antagonistic entities that no longer speak the same language and cannot communicate. This is the divide between a literate, marginalized minority and those who have been consumed by an illiterate mass culture."

—Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009)

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

A Tennessee Williams anecdote, co-starring John F. Kennedy & featuring Gore Vidal. Or: Three Men and a Gun Part II

From Gore Vidal's Palimpsest (1995)

"When Jackie [Kennedy] heard that we were in Miami, she asked us up to Palm Beach for lunch. The Bird [Tennessee Williams] had no idea who they were but took my word for it that Jack was running for president. We arrived an hour late. Jack was firing a rifle at a target on the lawn. He was not a very good shot; and I was as bad as he. The Bird casually took the rifle from him and shot three bull's-eyes, 'Using only my blind-eye,' he cackled.

"Jack knew exactly how to flatter authors. Always say you admire their least successful work. He praised Summer and Smoke, and the Bird began to find him presidential. He also found him sexually attractive.

'Look at that ass,' he said thoughtfully as Jack led us into the damp, moldy-smelling house.

'You can't cruise our next president.' I was stern.

'Don't be ridiculous. The American people will never elect those two. They're far too attractive.'


As we left, I told Jack that the Bird had found his ass attractive.

'That's very exciting.' Jack grinned."

Sunday, October 05, 2014

"The Imagination is not a State: it is The Human Existence itself."

Above: Manoel de Oliveira (1905 - ????)

From Agnès de ci de là Varda (2011)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Peas and Guacamole or: Why You Will Die Alone

"There's no getting away from it ... If a man were to rummage in his past, he'd find material in it for a whole different set of lives. One day, either by mistake, or because he felt inclined to, he chose just one of them and went on with it to the end; but the worst of it is, that those other lives, the ones he might have lived, are not entirely dead." —Karel Čapek, The Stamp Collector  


In the Seinfeld episode "The Engagement," Jerry and George, thinking they've done nothing noteworthy with their lives, vow to change by becoming more serious and responsible. Being typical Normals, this does not mean, say, quitting their respective jobs and building a monument to William Blake's mythical hero Los, but rather traveling the remaining nine yards down the field of modern life. In short: marriage, family, and taxes always in before the 15th. After some contemplation on a pier where he observes the happiness of couples strolling nearby, George runs home to ask his girlfriend, Susan, to marry him. She accepts. Excited (because he's supposed to be), he returns to Jerry's apartment to share the news with him and gauge his reaction (George isn't fully convinced that his proposal was a good idea and wants some outside validation). After congratulations are exchanged and excitement is shared, George asks Jerry how things are going with his current girlfriend. Jerry answers nonchalantly, telling George that he just broke up with her. "Why!?" George asks, feeling betrayed by what he perceived to be their pact to change their lives. "Because," Jerry responds, "she ate her peas one at a time!"

While Seinfeld clearly exaggerates (I hope) the reasons and circumstances under which relationships corrode, it's rooted in the very real difficulty of getting to know and accept another person. Though the core characters seem to be looking for love and long term relationships, none of them are actually capable of the demanding work that meaningful relationships require. Nor are they willing to dive headlong into the various forms of pain that inevitably accompany even the most successful human bonds. They're too selfish, petty, insecure, scared, and generally intolerant to ever hope to find happiness with another of human being. It's not so much that they are incapable of having a relationship with any particular person; they are incapable of having a relationship with anyone at all, period. (Finding some kind of "deal-breaker" trait in others is of course a defense mechanism that allows them to mask this deficiency and hide it from themselves.) I would argue that the four characters on Seinfeld aren't even friends in any meaningful sense. Aside from using one another to assuage boredom and loneliness, the main function of the group is to act as a self-reinforcing buffer against outside ways of viewing people and the world.

"Breaking up with someone for eating their peas one at a time" is for me the defining thrust of the Seinfeld universe, emblematic of the mentality it mines for humor. I was thinking about this mentality while watching Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said (2013), a film that functions as a grand rebuttal of relationships as depicted in Seinfeld. In fact, it seems to be consciously engaged in commenting on this.

I wonder if 
Holofcener, with an eye towards irony and critique, cast Julia Louis-Dreyfus with this in mind? Her character in Enough Said can be seen as an alternate—or quasi—Elaine Benes, someone who grew up in different circumstances and around a different set of people but who can still feel the pull and influence from that sitcom universe.


In Karel Čapek's short story, The Secrets of Handwriting, a specialist in interpreting handwriting named Jensen comes to town to perform a show where he will demonstrate his prowess to the press. A skeptical newspaper editor sends a reporter named Rubner to cover the event, telling him to make sure everything is on the up-and-up. If possible, the editor tells him, "check the results yourself."

At the show, Jensen gives some details behind his "scientific" methods and asks for a manuscript from the crowd. Rubner, who had been waiting for this moment, happily supplies Jensen with a letter, which he then proceeds to analyze. Immediately Jensen recognizes it as coming from a woman's hand but, before continuing, asks Rubner if the letter was written by someone he knows. Rubner informs him that it was written by a stranger, and Jensen happily continues in full candor.

A pitiful human being wrote this letter, he informs the crowd. She lies habitually, he says, and she's not very smart. She's also untidy, superficial, has commonplace interests, is slothful, overly fond of her comfort, cares for nobody but herself, is a complete fraud, and talks so much that she "reduce[s] any man to a flabby-minded state." Also: the way her commas slant suggest treachery. "To put the matter figuratively," Jensen explains, "I would say that she is capable of stabbing anyone in the back." But she never will, of course—she's too lazy!

Upon returning home, Rubner's wife asks him if he's hungry. He snaps back at her. "The only thing you care about is food. All your interests are commonplace. It's so degrading, this everlasting chatter... That's how men get reduced to a flabby minded state." It turns out that the analyzed letter, as any decent reader of the tale will have guessed, was written by Rubner's wife. Nothing she does from that moment on goes uncriticized.

After he's finished berating his wife, who weeps ("The tyranny of tears!" Jensen explained earlier), Rubner meets with the editor who he informs of the astonishing results of Jensen's reading. So as to not look and feel like a fool, Rubner frames everything as though it happened to someone else when recounting the story.

"[E]very word of [Jensen's analysis] was true," Rubner informs Mr. Plecka, the editor. "The funny part of it was that [the husband had] lived happily with her for twenty years and had never noticed a thing. After twenty years of married life with a woman he hadn't discovered a tenth part of what Jensen spotted at the first glance."

Mr. Plecka is less surprised by Jensen's talents than he is by the daft husband who "never noticed anything all those twenty years." Rubner offers an explanation:

"Well, you see ... the woman was so smart at pretending to be what she wasn't and then the man was quite happy with her. When a man's happy like that he doesn't notice things. And besides, you see, he didn't know about these scientific and exact methods. It's like this: a thing that seems white, when you look at it with the naked eye, is all the colours of the rainbow when science has a go at it. Experience means nothing at all. Nowadays exact methods are the only thing a man can depend on. [...] An analysis like that is the only thing that will show what's inside [someone]."

As with much of Čapek's work, the real target here is deference to science, technology, and fads (Jensen's work is called "psychometric graphology") to the point of disregarding your own observations and experience. But aside from this wry critique, the story demonstrates how one's 
perception of others—even of "reality" itself—is very much an imaginative act. Out of a multitude of ways to view and interpret his wife's words and actions, Rubner filters everything through the toxic cloud of traits attributed to her by Jensen. Even the world he sees when he looks around has been altered and recast. After noticing some fabric sitting on the table, he scolds his wife: "What are these rags doing here?" To which she informs him, with a gasp, "I'm mending your shirts." But this explanation only causes him to rip into her for being ostentatious in her display of housework, confirming Jensen's analysis that she "rules the roost" with much fussiness and false importance. There is no turning back. "She" has been permanently transformed by Jensen.


In Enough Said (medium strength spoilers follow), Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Albert (James Gandolfini) hit it off on a date and begin seeing each other regularly. As this takes place, Eva befriends a woman, Marianne (Catherine Keener), who constantly complains about her ex-husband whenever they hang out. Understandably, Eva builds up a very unfavorable view of the man being described, a wholly unpleasant and loathsome slob. He's been on various diets, Marianne informs her, but has failed every time—something that's indicative of his general character: a loser who will never change. Eventually Eva finds out that the "horrible slob" Marianne has been complaining about is in fact—yes—Albert, her current boyfriend. And after this realization she begins to see him—who she had up until then liked very much—through the eyes of his ex-wife.

Gee, he's kind of a slob after all, isn't he? Eva thinks to herself. Will he ever stop eating? How many failed diets has he been on, exactly, and what's the deal with him not being able to lose weight? Also, if you don't like the onions, Albert, then don't eat the fucking guacamole, moron
sheesh! Etc. With all of this on her mind, Eva berates Albert all night, passive-aggressively commenting on his weight, making fun of the fact that he doesn't have a night table (which Marianne found absurd), and many other petty things. Albert has been fully transformed from the man she was falling in love with into a figment of Marianne's imagination. If Albert wasn't good enough for Marianne, some part of Eva most certainly thinks, then why would he be good enough for me?

Later, while offering an explanation as to why she allowed Marianne to poison her relationship with Albert by continuing to listen to Marianne even after realizing that Albert was her ex, Eva suggests that it was perhaps a defense mechanism. As an ex-wife herself, Eva wanted to make sure not to marry "the wrong man" twice, and to aid her in this she decided—for lack of better reasoning—to allow Marianne to vet Albert for her vicariously. In this sense, Marianne functions as a link to, and reminder of, Eva's past life as an unhappy (ex)wife.

In another sense, Marianne functions as a catalyst,
turning Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Eva into Seinfeld's Elaine Benes. Just as the main characters on Seinfeld reinforce one another's tendency to cut everyone down whenever they fail to harmonize with the group's definition of what's normal and acceptable (thereby keeping them in stasis), Marianne has planted a refrain in Eva's head that tells her that the way someone eats guacamole belongs in the category of "things that matter." Do I allow the way he eats peas guacamole to spiral out of control and doom our relationship? (Catherine Kenner also—for a more literal link to Elaine Benes and Seinfeld—played Jerry's girlfriend in an episode from 1992 called "The Letter." A happy coincidence that one can't read too much into; Keener appears in all of Holofcener's feature films.)

Eventually, after realizing that her behavior and mindset exclude any real chance she'll ever have at happiness, Eva decides to become more conscious of—and therefore more active in—forming her view of the world. She does not "decide" this through any leap of reason or logic; t
he essential component in this shift is Albert. Had he not had the confidence and self respect to respond as he did to Eva's behavior, Eva would still be doomed and in stasis. Perhaps they would even be doomed together in an unhappy marriage, a plausible idea that demonstrates how two people can have many possible futures together. Everything depends on which world they choose to live in.

It's not just that the Jensens and the Mariannes, the Jerrys, Georges and Elaines of the world encourage one another to filter reality through various kinds of toxic smoke. Rather, they are the toxic smoke. Thus Eva, in order to move forward, must sever her ties with the bitter Marianne (
Albert is then free to be Albert)
 and the superficial Elaine (guacamole is free to signify nothing important). And since, as Čapek's story highlights, "reality" is largely an act of collective imaginationafter doing so the world Eva inhabits begins to look a bit more like the images she decides to place in her head. Indeed, it even begins to conform to those images. 

Above image is for those who have already seen Enough Said—meaningless otherwise. (Ironically, I found the
  capture on a blog that refers to this guy as a "douchebag," thereby missing the entire point of the character in
    the film, if not the film itself.)