20 December 2015

Okay Readers

To touch upon one of the happier aspects of my unwanted but perhaps inevitable experiment with online dating, I've taken a survey of what women are reading in a five-mile radius of my domicile.

What is this scientific method? I scroll to an algorithmically-approved woman (whose eyebrows appeal) and click through to her profile. I swoop straight for the books section for close textual analysis and here, all too often, we lose the plot. But, if our tastes in authors are felicitous (and she reaches a height of no more than 5'8"), I message after a period of time between ten minutes and three weeks. 

An aside that emphasizes how much I care about literature: I mistakenly had a picture of my bookcase up as my main profile photo for a weekend, which is too on the nose even for me. 

As we say at my place of employment, let's put these issues in different buckets. 

Back button and recoil from keyboard cussing out OkC algorithms:
Ayn Rand

Just no:
Paulo Coehlo (my Christ, The Alchemist is the OkLady Bible*)
Tom Robbins (I never find a Michael Robbins fan)
Chuck Palahniuk (this is not just poor taste, it's passé poor taste)
Mary Oliver (poetry for non-poetry readers)
"I enjoy novels and non-fiction"
"I read over 20 books in 2015"
"I'm not used to reading but I love NPR" 
"Too many to name" (but if you had to try...) 

*Tangentially: my younger cousin's high school English teacher decided her class would read The Alchemist instead of The Great Gatsby....in a generation, we will have the country we deserve.

Deadly combinations:
Eat Pray Love and Lean In
Me Talk Pretty One Day and No One Belongs Here More Than You
Henry David Thoreau and Thich Nhat Hanh

Say no to hipsters and self-help.

I probably ought to be okay with but actually am not:
Jeffrey Eugenides (can Eugenides be the next guy we all agree sucks, now that we've turned viciously on Franzen?)
Haruki Murakami (is Murakami just grown-up Harry Potter? (somehow this is most damaging if they only list 1Q84))
Malcolm Gladwell (especially Outliers--at least read the filet of this overrated muppet)

Hardest call to make, on OkC as in life:
Raymond Carver (he often appears in an otherwise respectable list and I just want to tell her, "let's embrace Lish's other children, the Hannah, the Holland, my god the Hempel--we can do better than old Ray!")

Regularly occurring combo I almost get judgy about till I realize this is also me:
J.D. Salinger and Wes Anderson (oh aren't you precious with your kittenish Franny and Zooey cuddled up next to your Criterion of The Royal Tenenbaums--wait, shit!)

If you put an age range down to 25 you have to deal with:
Harry Potter (I can only hope there are fewer than two exclamation points after Potter and it doesn't appear at the exclusion of all other novels...and, anyway, don't the books have individual titles? can I at least get a hot take on how Prisoners of Azkaban is great and Goblet of Fire is trash?)

You think everyone is talking about this but OkEveryone is not:
Elena Ferrante (two months till I even found someone who listed it...and then she was too tall.)

For posterity, here's what I list:
In Search of Lost Time to White Girls. Autobiography of Red to Bluets. Sleepless Nights to Light Years. Wuthering Heights to Birds of America.* Another Country to The Emigrants.

*Combo added because a friend said, "why don't you put something down someone might have actually read?" That's right, Wuthering Heights is the most popular book I could think to list.

But let's keep it positive! On to the winners' bracket...

Piqued my interest enough I had to message:
Mary Ruefle 
Tess of the d'Urbervilles (went with the quote about the imperfect perfection of Tess's lips)
Raymond Chandler
Autobiography of Red (if I can't have at least one awkward cocktail (or--dare to dream--a non-awkward cocktail) with a woman who shares with me same damn obscure favorite book of poetry I'll quit the game) 

Through my astonishing condescension let me say, in the end, that I credit the folks who read anything in 2015. They're more worthwhile than those who list no literature at all.

Except for the Ayn Rand fans.

01 August 2015

Worse Than I Thought

As #WTTnation already knows, I have been writing less here not merely because of laziness and ennui but because of my exciting role as a film reviewer for the Sonoma Index-Tribune. Or, as I like to call it, THE paper of record for Sonoma county.

There is much to love about Sonoma, which possesses those beautiful, mustard-colored hills and an editor who is willing to publish my writing. But only two or three movies open there every week, which has resulted in a cinema-going transition from seeing mostly films that appear at Landmark Theatres to almost exclusively films that appear at AMC Theatres. This has been harder than I thought it would be.

While I'm quite pleased by how often I've been able to write about men not wearing their shirts, the treatment of women in most of these films is troubling. Had I not been to see them, I would have thought that these blockbusters were entertainments I might have enjoyed in the right mood. But to actually sit through these grating, two-hour-plus moneymakers is to see how repellant gender roles are across Hollywood.

While Mad Max: Fury Road and Spy are duly credited for Charlize Theron and Melissa McCarthy's badassery, the rest of the summer is a string of gendered insults, from the breasts-first roles for Alexandra Daddario and Sofia Vergara in San Andreas and Hot Pursuit to the grim celebration of co-dependent relationships in Insurgent to the head-smacking backstory of Black Widow's sterilization in Avengers: Age of Ultron....And, at the very bottom, beyond repellant and to the point of doing actual harm to viewers, is Jurassic World, which ought to be boycotted by sentient beings for the disgusting, demeaning, entirely unacceptable depiction of the Bryce Dallas Howard character (and her high heels). And I didn't even see Entourage

At any rate, here are all the reviews I've written since early March. After you've read them (they're so short—each one is just like reading 15 tweets in a row!), check out my ranking of the the first 21 reviewed films from best to worst (or, perhaps, least to most alarming portrayals of women). The titles are listed with the corresponding zinger I had the hardest cutting because of word limit restrictions for the column.

Did Like

1. Far from the Madding Crowd
Matthias Schoenaerts is the finest shepherd in cinema history—he can mend my fence or cover my haystacks any day ifyouknowwhatImean. And his neckwear, my god in heaven!

1a. Magic Mike XXL
Though Jada Pinkett Smith’s MC is no McConaughey replacement, she does get the line, “We’re gonna see if there’s still some magic in that Mike.” And C-Tates responds as would any great, with a lil headstand bump and grind. 

3. Mad Max: Fury Road  
In case you’ve wondered what Rose Huntington-Whiteley has been doing since starring in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the answer is nothing. 

4. Inside Out 
Riley: Broccoli on pizza is delicious—what is WRONG with you?

5. Spy
Director of Photography Robert Yeoman is alternating between lensing Paul Feig and Wes Anderson pictures, how rad is that job?

Didn't Make Me Want to Die

6. Wild Tales
Pedro Almodóvar produced this but it's more schematic and neatly ironic than he would allow in his best films…despite the manic presence of the Argentine Bradley Cooper channeling bad weddings past. 

7. Furious 7
In their series of standoffs, Statham and Diesel develop a very Hamilton-Burr relationship, if the two Alexanders had the good sense to always keep each other alive for potential sequels.

Did Make Me Want to Die a Little

8. Cinderella
Fair criticism is leveled at Cinderella for accepting her fate as an altruistic servant but that role does include an expansive attic space—its monthly rent in the Bay Area would be incalculable, regardless of whether or not you’re locked into it. 

9. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Richard Gere is so wooden should have played a memoirist writing about his past adventures as a totem pole. [Fuck, how could I not have included that one? #regrets]

10. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation 
The only truly inspired moment in the film is casting Tom Hollander (the boob politico from the fantastic In the Loop) as the prime minister of England, though I give the filmmakers no credit for this coincidence. 

11. Monkey Kingdom 
Ah, what might have been if we were allowed to see the macaque polyamory or learn more about their rampant herpes infestations.  

12. Southpaw 
Despite the screeching melodrama, there are funny moments. A fellow ward of the state looks at the broken man and asks Billy's daughter, “Is that your dad?” and she replies, “I don’t know anymore.” LOLZ!

Oh God Why
13. Minions 
[No extra zinger here, all the words I had about this incoherence went into the review...and there eight films below Minions on this list!]

14. San Andreas
Director Brad Peyton (who cut his teeth in the disaster genre with Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore) chooses all cheesy vertical shots of toppling buildings and heaving chests. 

15. Ted 2
The level of discourse for this film is “Eff Scott Fitzgerald” jokes though, as with his Oscar hosting fiasco, MacFarlane would probably defend himself by saying, “This is all I ever do, it’s not my fault if people think it’s funny.”

16. Hot Pursuit
It’s the kind of film that makes one reflect, in amazement, “maybe Identity Thief wasn’t THAT bad.”

17. Insurgent
Director Robert Schwentke, who most recently helmed R.I.P.D., has thrown down a gauntlet of worst two consecutive films (well, there is screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who has chased Winter’s Tale with this dreck).

18. Avengers: Age of Ultron 
It’s the latest from schlock auteur Joss Whedon, who alternates Marvel films with Shakespeare adaptations shot in his backyard like a rich, Middle Aged sinner buying indulgences from the church.  

19. Ant-Man
The only remotely entertaining part of the film is Michael Peña’s monologues in which his voice inhabits other characters. The one of four screenwriters who came up with that idea gets to feel the least embarrassed about appearing in the credits. 

20. Jurassic World
Five screenwriters labored over the script, apparently being paid per insertion of the word “asset” as it relates to dinosaurs or human beings. “Asset out of containment!” shouted ad infinitum. 

21. The Longest Ride
Black Mountain College is shown as a place for rich people to look at artists like animals in cages and perhaps buy an abstraction by one of the elephants. As Nicholas Sparks, the Thomas Kinkade of screenwriters, has our plucky protagonist explain, “I love art, the culture it brings...”

So, I'm looking forward to the fall season I guess?

01 June 2015

Stupid Fucking Dead Man [White Elephant Blogathon]

[This year the WTT is participating in the White Elephant blogathon, coordinated by Philip Tatler of the Diary of a Country Pickpocket blog, wherein film writers exchange cult movies at random and write about whichever film they receive. Check out links to all the 2015 White Elephant pieces here.]

Dead Man was simply a bad draw. I have—let me scan that filmography again—never liked a Jim Jarmusch picture. Many people say that this is his finest film and I might share that opinion…but from me that’s not the same thing as praise. I tried to trade Dead Man to a white elephant friend of mine for Showgirls 2: Penny's from Heaven but he wouldn’t let me. Perhaps I ought to have tried harder to acquire something easily mockable across a thousand or so words.

My disaffection for Jarmusch bewilders. I like films that are black and white by choice. I like taking apart genre constructions. I like to laugh (but, perhaps crucially, I don’t embrace deadpan humor). I would go so far as to say I love much slow cinema of recent vintage—Our Beloved Month of August, Silent Light, Norte, the End of History are among my favorite films of the past decade. I’ve done Satantango and Shoah across multiple sittings. I wish Assayas’ Carlos were longer! 

But I also wish I’d been assigned Colin Farrell’s Dead Man Down or Sean Penn’s Dead Man Walking or 50 Cent’s Dead Man Running or Tom Everett Scott’s Dead Man on Campus. But plain old Dead Man has always been waiting for me, fated, at the end of the line for this stupid fucking white (elephant) man.

By not liking Dead Man, I find myself in all sorts of awful positions, like agreeing with Roger Ebert’s dismissal instead of throwing roses at its feet like many critics I respect. I'm heating my takes like an Amazon Movie Reviewer instead of a serious cineaste. I cannot find a friend who dislikes it and I've grown to believe that the movie is like a Magic Eye autostereogram that remains stubbornly 2-D for me alone. 

J. Hoberman wrote, “This is the Western Andrei Tarkovsky always wanted to make,” more praise that chilled me to the core. Jarmusch himself is quoted as “not liking” Westerns. You don’t say! The director might as well superimpose his arched white eyebrows onto every frame of the film. I read a couple compare and contrast pieces tying Dead Man to The Wild Bunch, which made me all the bitterer that my fellow white elephanter did not write down that other off-the-top-of-my-head-cult-Western that treats gun violence in an opposite (that is to say, entertaining) manner.  

To watch Dead Man I sat as straight as I could in a kitchen chair—the futon was too risky, no matter how assiduously I'd caffeinated. Perhaps I ought to have burned cigarettes between my fingers all evening like a long haul truck driver..

At any rate, this film, Dead Man, which mocks attempts at introduction. Ohioan Bill Blake (Johnny Depp, who was doing that placid/reactive shtick long before Pirates) is heading West in an awful suit and no great hurry. He is or is not an unwitting reincarnation of William Blake, the poet and painter and Romantic and alleged early adopter of the free love moment and writer of that one poem you might have read about “The Tyger.” 

The arch opening sequence has Blake falling in and out of sleep on the train from the Erie to a town with the not-at-all-on-the-nose name of Machine. Jarmusch gives a full fadeout each time Depp nods off in his seat, as if the camera is closing its eyes too. And, every time he wakes up, there is an establishing cut to the gears of the train that, in a television serial, might increase excitement but here only roused my first tetchiness with the director’s methods.

Blake is on the rails for many days or, if you go by the growth of his beard, no time at all. Because this is a scare quotes Western and because it is aggressively slow-paced, Jarmusch helpfully punctuates most sequences with gunshots to help keep you awake. I tripped over them like the multiple snooze buttons on my alarm clock. The first fusillade is from men massacring buffaloes out the window of the train and these offhand gunshots go on throughout the film, every ten minutes or so.

I want to praise Crispin Glover, the soot-faced train fireman who accosts Blake with the one quote I take from the film: “Why is it that the landscape is moving, but the boat is still?”

The rest of the supporting cast in the film is mostly familiar faces with longer hair than usual: Billy Bob Thornton’s like barn hay, John Hurt’s appropriately lank, Gabriel Byrne’s in dignified waves, Iggy Pop’s hanging under a bonnet, etc. But none of these cameos satisfy as much as Bill Murray riffing with GZA and RZA in Coffee and Cigarettes. I mean, I also really enjoy Michael Madsen’s performance in the “Black Widow” video but I don’t require an entire film of such ham sandwiches.

Allow me to get even fussier: I hate Robert Mitchum’s presence in Dead Man. He plays the Machine factory magnate who tells Blake that he won’t be getting the position in the accounting department hed been promised. His chewy scene with Depp is the ultimate degradation of beef-it’s-what’s-for-dinner era Mitchum, who looks much the worse for wear (as they say, your jowls never stop growing as you age). He spouts sub-Louis L’Amour clunkers like “The only job you’re goin’ to get is pushing up daisies from a pine box,” and parodies the indelible glower of his youth.  


Mitchum is one of the best and most important actors in film history. It is simply unacceptable to depict him before an ironic oil portrait of himself with a cigar and a shotgun to bring him down to size. If an artistically irrelevant figure like, say, Johnny Depp wants to appear in a film standing next to an ironic oil portrait of himself, he can do so. But I repeat: Robert Mitchum should not be brought down to size by Jarmusch or anyone else. 

And there are so many more slow minutes after the Mitchum sequence left me so embittered! Mostly it’s Depp getting shot in the chest (very gently) and meeting his traveling companion for the duration of the film: a man called Exaybachay/“He Who Talks Loud But Says Nothing”/Nobody (Gary Farmer). Nobody is full of droll lines like, “stupid fucking white man,” which are accurate if not terribly creative (Blake is out there in the forest spooning fawns, after all). Watching their sequences is like watching all the interminable two-characters-walking-together-through-the-woods scenes from a whole season of Game of Thrones at once, without the benefit of interruption by roaring dragons or upmarket whores.

They are playing a long game of who said it: William Blake or a Native American sage? It’s sort of fun but not the same thing as good writing. “The eagle never lost so much time as when he submitted to learn from the crow,” could be Blake or a Blackfoot or could be an aimless non sequitur.

Another sonic irritant is the jagged soundtrack provided by Neil Young, his electric guitar and his electric guitar’s reverb. His riffs are incomplete thoughts, random ten-second bursts I Chinged into two hours of film (when put all together, the theme is rather good). 

In defense of Jarmusch, I think the main problem with the dialogue could be William Blake, dead poet. My second punishment, after the film, was reading this guy afterward.

Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are born
Every Morn and every Night
Some are born to Sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.

Digital commons provide thousands of lines of Blake that oscillate between nursery rhyme claptrap and fortune cookie hoo-ha. I read from “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” and got as far as I could before I was too discouraged to continue. “The crow wish’d everything was black, the owl that everything was white. / Exuberance is Beauty. / If the lion was advised by the fox, he would be cunning.” Right then. If “Auguries of Innocence” is any indication, Blake might be a most excellent writer AND illustrator of Hallmark bereavement cards. “Joy and woe are woven fine, / A clothing for the soul divine. / Under every grief and pine / Runs a joy with silken twine.”

But back to the film (I must constantly guard against calling it Deadpan). More horseback riding, more crispy Robby Müller cinematography, more tedium—there is no threat that Blake will be caught by the bounty hunters sent after him. He cannot die until he reaches the sea. At some point he gets face paint and a way cooler coat...passes some totem poles...I swear I was awake the whole time...

When they arrive at last at the inky, Styxian body of water, Nobody says, “I prepared your canoe with cedar boughs” and, after that one nice shot of his arm dripping blood into the water, Blake floats off into eternity under one more staccato burst of gunfire and jangling guitar. I think I’m supposed to feel whoa that’s deep man but instead I want to have Jarmusch to tell me something I don’t already know.

I’m a dead man. That’s why I spend as much time as I can on writing, because my end is as certain as William Blake’s—the bullet is in my chest already. I just want to die having read better poetry and seen better films than this one. I only wish is that, after the film ended and I finally slept, I had kept better track of my dream world, its mood and pictures, taking note of whether the landscape moved while I laid still.

31 March 2015

My Life with Stuart Dybek (A Song of Fire and Ice)


I have problems listening to podcasts. I have problems finding times when I’m just listening—I don’t drive and I don’t exercise much. I have problems taking on too many arts-related projects at once and not finishing any of them. I have bookmarks in too many books, months-deep stacks of magazines and too too too many open tabs.  

My friend F.C.L.P. recommended a podcast of the Stuart Dybek story “Paper Lantern” and, after two reminders, I decided one night to listen to it so I would not be a disappointment to her and so I could click the X and expand each tab in my browser to greater than half-inch width. 

I hesitated in part because it was a New Yorker podcast. And I’m the worst kind of “I don’t read New Yorker fiction” snob (e.g. I’m delighted that Alice Munro finally decided to give it a rest). This is a criticism of Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor and the first voice you hear on the podcast in question. I did not know who the reader was—ZZ Packer—but pictured a flowing beard and rock star voice. The evening I finally decided to listen I felt dour, that F.C.L.P. had given me a homework assignment.

(For those who share my podcast aversion, please read the story I’m going to talk about. You can tell this link is legit because of the handwritten bibliographic citation at the bottom.)

I pressed play and stood in my kitchen putting together a plate of cheese bread and hummus, chopping a carrot and thinking that, as an adult, there ought to be something more. At first “Paper Lantern” seemed sophomoric, a George Saunders-lite story about some lab coat-wearing science bros working almost ironically on a time machine.

But then, as the men walk through the frosty fog and enter a restaurant called Chinese Laundry (and I sat down for dinner myself), I started to listen at greater attention. The menu is so vast that it can never be fully explored, an infinity of characters written by an unknown poet. Swallows nests from the South China Sea, five fragrance grouper cheeks. It’s chinoiserie so well done I had to smile.

Still, Dybek uses clanking dialogue for the first big moment of change in the story: “Say, did anyone turn off the Bunsen burner…” The men pile back into the snow to see if they’ve set their laboratory ablaze and then the story starts behaving like a speeding car on a long patch of ice—moving forward but all over the road, with the constant threat of the back end getting ahead of the front. I started to nibble my carrots more carefully, to reduce the crunching in my ears. After discovering the lab is indeed aflame, the narrator locks us into the story for the duration: “I remember how, later, in another time, if not another life, I snapped a photograph of a woman I was with as she watched a fire blaze out of control along a river in Chicago.”

This picture is the backdraft into the narrator’s memorable trip from Chicago to Iowa with the woman in the photo. With her, he experiences an indelible night, one of the few in our lives we get to keep, one of the stars that makes up the constellation of our lives. Dybek writes, “Maybe that’s what falling in love means—the power to create for each other the moments by which we define ourselves.” I muttered, “fuck off Stuart, that’s too good.”

ZZ Packer’s voice, which is much better than the voice of anyone in ZZ Top, mirrors Dybek’s line about the woman riding in the car and “the intimate, almost compulsive way she seems to be speaking.” The mood turns erotic. I was fairly vibrating by the time I heard “the elastic sound of her panties rolled past her hips, the faintly wet, possibly imaginary tock her fingertips are making. ‘Oh, baby,’ she sighs.” I dropped the cheese bread. And then: “‘Baby, take it out,’ she says.” My guy Dybek got them to put “Baby, take it out,” in the New Yorker! I lowered my head until it was a centimeter off the desk, close to the computer speakers.

And then, as we’re all right on the edge, Dybek drops a wonderful, teasing digression on the syncopated licks of Bix Beiderbecke (one advantage of the podcast is that someone has to pronounce Beiderbecke for you). It’s a portal deeper in time to a way back sound, where the patchy radio reception is not the only thing causing static.

The couple is further interrupted by a semi-truck swerving past the car, overexposing her in its high beams—“her hair flares like a halo about to burst into flame.” The trucker is our voyeur—in the pre-Internet-porn-era, this was something indelible in the night, burned into his brain. The man and woman escape long enough to fuck on a checkered tablecloth he kept in the trunk (a pattern sexualized from my childhood reading of All the King’s Men, Jack Burden tearing strips of dishcloth to hold together Anne Stanton’s pigtails).

The flashback ends with the scientists back at the office, now lurid with flames. “‘Look at that seedy old mother go up,’ a white kid in dreadlocks says to his girlfriend.” “‘Fires get me horny,’” is her gauche reply. The language itself is super-heated, “gorgeous transvestites of Wharf Street,” “open hydrants gush into the gutters, the street is seamed with deflated hoses.” As he works a funnel of sparks into a whirl of snow, I realized Dybek had given us a prose poem capped with a show-stopping final image: “a paper lantern that once seemed fragile, almost delicate, but now obliterates the very time and space it once illuminated.” The fire of memory is raging but, like cold hobos in the snow, we come toward it, edging closer to the Dybek.


After texting a series of satisfying but insufficient emoticons to F.C.L.P. (exploding volcanoes, open flames, devil faces) regarding “Paper Lantern,” I remembered how Dybek came into view at another time, if not another life. “If I Vanished” was an obsession of mine in the summer of 2007. Like “Paper Lantern,” it is a story about an almost bewildering number of things—it’s the projection into the night made by your headlights, forming an ever-receding gate you’ll never reach. 

With Gmail’s excellent search functionality, I can start from the beginning of my relationship to “If I Vanished.” On July 20, I chatted my friend K.:

and it occurs to him that sometimes one stops listening to a beloved masterpiece in order to continue to love it.

I read Dybek this weekend -- loved the imagined conversations, and it’s madding to imagine watching a whole boring movie for another person, for one line that isn't even there.

And my favorite bits: “The yellow Blockbuster sign subtracts itself from the night”
“the gate of snow that retreats before his headlights”

The next result in my archives reveals that the story was recommended to me by my friend A., who worked at the university library and used to walk copies of literary magazines out to me, where I sat at the front desk of the Literature department. I wrote him:

Kick ass piece.  Your recommendations have been gold so far. That whole going to Blockbuster sequence was some of the most beautiful stuff I've ever read. The Blockbuster sign subtracting itself from the night is great -- no fear of the name brand age in which we live.  Then he caps it with the flake and music note “gossamer arch” across the avenue.  On fire Stuart!  And I love this, “and it occurs to him that sometimes one stops listening to a beloved masterpiece in order to continue to love it.” So fucking true of any masterpiece, written, musical, human...

Telling biographical details emerge—I used to put two periods between sentences. I used to be quicker to anoint things the greatest. I channeled Hardy and said “madding” for “maddening.” I did not properly hyphenate or em dash. My first fixation was on the “beloved masterpiece,” though I did not bother to listen to the one Dybek references in the story, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” (back then I was too busy with the similarly-titled song by Death Cab for Cutie). What I was missing then was a woman I thought of as a performance artist constructing the troubled masterpiece of her life. This woman who had vanished, who has gone on vanishing, who reemerged after I read “If I Vanished” the first time only to vanish again, who is a shadow across the passenger seat in my waking late night dreams.

Where “Paper Lantern” might give you a hankering for Chinese food or automotive autoeroticism, “If I Vanished” is likelier to have you up to the wee hours going down various. Dybek presents Jack: “Tonight, his missing her has assumed the guise of curiosity, and curiosity is preferable to feeling her absence.” The woman—Ciel—is another one of these people, stellar, between which we draw the lines for the constellation of our life.

At many author events, I’ve mocked people who ask the writer some variation of the “how did you write it” question—but I admit this is my main concern about “If I Vanished.” In what order did the strands of the story occur to Dybek? I guess it was about vanishing at first, the idea that someone could vanish from your life in an instant, blow out like a paper lantern, gone in 30 seconds flat.

But what about the idea of a line of dialogue from Open Range? Did the film matter at all to Dybek or was it always a ruse? Did he have a fascination with Kevin Costner, the neo-Western, with the mixed bag of reviews, the venom and the admiration for this deliberately old-fashioned picture? And then the nude images possessed by Ciel’s ex, the hidden sub-folders of them. Was the genesis a fascination with homemade porn? Or did the story start from the piece of music by Mussorgsky? And I think the doppelganger Dunkin’ Donuts vignette must have come at the end, the image Dybek knew could draw all the pieces together. But what if that was actually the beginning of the whole story, the doughnut girl and the cab driver and their last meeting in the middle of the night?  

An interesting time capsule aspect of the story is that back in the mid-aughts Blockbusters were a) open and b) open till midnight. By the time I read “If I Vanished,” I was already on Netflix, adding films that still languish in the lifelong middle of the queue. The kid manning the Blockbuster in Dybek’s Chicago shoots Jack a dirty look from behind the counter—he is a familiar figure from “Paper Lantern,” the white dude with rusty dreadlocks, probably wishing his pyrophiliac girlfriend would stop by to while away the closing shift.

I wish I had visited a Blockbuster store in 2007, so perhaps I would have that memory to tether to Open Range, which I rated on Netflix but could not recollect as I reread the story. Did I see the film and rate it or give it two stars so the site’s algorithm would stop presenting me with Kevin Costner’s face? Did it vanish from my mind or was it never there? I felt like Jack—overwhelmed by “an impulse to replay the whole dull film.” So I did.

The key to Dybek’s story, or perhaps its MacGuffin, is a question supposedly posed by Annette Bening to Costner, “what would you do if I vanished?” Ciel asks Jack the same question and it never leaves him.  The author gives himself completely to the delirium of connections made when you sink deeper into the past, replaying old times over and over.

Open Range is at best an amiable background piece to flit in and out of while searching the internet in other open windows. It’s a film to which I can never pay full attention. I will cycle through it again the next time the story comes into my life, listening for that word, “vanished,” making a winter night of it. Dybek is right—at 2 or 3 AM there are self-luminous electronics still flickering on the miniblinds of my apartment building, the one next door, “lit not by the halo of a candle but by a bluish glow.” All of our eyes squinting, burning—the internet is but a literalization of the infinite gateways of art. Is this man, Jack, a writer? He has a schedule like a writer—blue nights, blue lights. 

But before he can start there’s the Dunkin’ Donuts, another illuminated sign subtracting itself from the night. “The trays of frosted doughnuts look like replicas” is Dybek’s perfect description of the flawless sugared jewels, the lines of color and shape so gorgeous Andreas Gursky should do a print of it. Inside the shop, Jack feels “as if he’d stepped into a scene of infinitely repeated takes,” a sequence in which a cab driver who resembles Jack orders a Bavarian Crème and chats with the woman who works at the shop before disintegrating back into the streets. 

Then there are the copies of a nude Ciel stored in her ex’s hard drive. Jack found that he could only take her nakedness in glances—he doesn’t have a photo of her but the ex has many. These pictures appear in flashback within a flashback, her trip through a door she did not expect to find. When she asks the ex to delete the photos he protests, “You think erasing a replica will erase reality?” She tells him to empty the trash too.

For Jack the imagined conversations between Ciel and her ex are secondary to the imagined conversations he has with her directly. “These conversations with her have continued since she vanished. He wishes he could make them stop, but they’re growing more frequent, as if the lengthening of her absence had made the phantom dialogue between them more compulsive.” This is what I’m talking to myself about when I’m walking down the street or standing in the shower at the end of a long evening.

Jack is sucked back to first question, the homepage of the story: “What would you do if I vanished?” He riffs some shitty, cowboy-Costner answers but then, “On a night in winter, I’d pass through the arch of a Great Gate of Snow and on the other side I’d be back in time in the city when it was ours.” Later, he gives what I would guess is the real answer to her question, to Dybek’s question: “After a while, I’d do nothing but go day by day without you. Sometimes I’d remember something you said, and have another one-way conversation. I’d walk around secretly talking to you, wondering where you were and what you were doing. I’d tell myself that wherever you’d gone I wanted you to be happy.”

Ciel says, “You need to work on a better answer.” But that is such a good answer, that answer makes me want to be a better man! For a long time it troubled me that she would not accept any of his replies but, then, how can mere words conjure a person who has already vanished?


My friend F.C.L.P. is interested in portals—she is one of the few people I know who could perhaps make it to the other side of the Great Gate of Snow. She’s told me a little about how Dybek’s writing can be related to Lacan’s Objet petit a, the untranslatable object cause of desire (at least according to the Wiki page I’ve consulted). It’s infuriating, the way she has patience for podcasts and reading Lacan. She even told me something about Derrida as it relates to the stories but I don’t think even Wikipedia can break him down simply enough for me.

It’s also upsetting that in 2015 no one has the decency to properly vanish. You think they’re gone forever and then, one email match later, Instagram or LinkedIn suggests that you reconnect with your old friend. Sure, it’s still him or her but the pictures are always wrong, never the ones from back then, the ones you took.

“I burned them,” says the man says of the photographs in “Paper Lantern.” And this is the amazing thing about living 20 years ago—in 1995 you probably only had hard copies of photos and they could be lost irretrievably if you kept them in a file cabinet at work and then left the Bunsen burner on while you ate fish-fragrance-sauced pigeon from the Chinese Laundry.

You will never have the luck to let go of the photographs you have now—in 2007 you might have not backed them up but today it’s all in the cloud. We do not have to create the Time Machine because Apple has done it for us. Nothing is deleted, just buried slightly deeper. At any rate, you can’t erase what actually happened, as Ciel’s ex said.

As I consider the time spent on this essay, the time spent remembering this man’s remembering, the money spent on this computer, for what is, essentially, memory, I remember how Lydia Davis breaks it down: “You can’t measure it, because the pain comes after and it lasts longer.”

Sometimes on a hike I haven’t taken before, or can’t remember having taken, I step under a familiar arrangement of trees, three on left side and four on the right, with their branches meeting over my head. This sets my mind working and after I cross underneath the boughs I come out somewhere else entirely.


I’m a savorer. As a kid I portioned out my Halloween candy into the new year and often threw half of it away because it was stale. I’ve only read the two Dybek stories discussed in this piece. I am like Proust and his madeleine, afraid that the effect is dissipating with each bite. But my friend J.R. tells me I must read “We Didn’t” next. Let’s read it now and see where it takes us. 

19 January 2015

Best of 2014

Allow the WTT to quote the WTT this time last year:
I am comforted by patterns. 2013 confirmed that in even-numbered years the Giants win the World Series and in odd-numbered years all the best films come out. 
All I'm saying is don't doubt science or my rectitude. Madison Bumgarner gave one of only two onscreen performances I couldn't live without in 2014. (Spoiler alert: If I had not spent a stray Sunday afternoon watching a four-hour Filipino film I might not have even had the will to generate my traditional "Best of" post.)

In 2014, my rapidly eroding patience with our cinema found words in T.I.'s summer jam "No Mediocre."

As is often the case with rappers, you have to see past the T&A, the veneer of misogyny and get to their artistic concerns. T.I. is tired of mediocre shit being praised for greatness and I'm right there with him. As he scans the Billboard Top 40, I scroll down the vista of movie listings, unmoved by the indistinguishable B-average prestige pictures that Rotten Tomatoes encourages one to see (which one is The Imitation Game and which one is The Theory of Everything again?). If what's left for me to love is American Sniper, Boyhood, Interstellar, Gone Girl, et al, I'm at sea, I'm Robert Redford last year--all is lost.

Best Supporting Actresses

The finest seven minutes of actressing in a supporting role were lip-synched by Emma Stone on Jimmy Fallon but I suppose I ought to confine myself to film performances. In Listen Up Philip, Elisabeth Moss's humorous cat ventriloquy is as necessary as oxygen between Jason Schwartzman's wannabe Philip Roth and Jonathan Pryce's Philip Roth. Minnie Driver does some excellent scene-chewing in Beyond the Lights, possibly because her jawline is so pronounced it appears she has mandibles on her like a stag beetle. I'll take a stab at rating the female performances in Inherent Vice which, as far as I can tell, exists only to provide zany supporting roles: 1. Joanna Newsom's voice, 2. Jena Malone's teeth, 3. Katherine Waterston's nipples, 4. Maya Rudolph's wig, 5. Hong Chau's eyeliner (though, in the end, Jeremy Renner wore it better in The Immigrant). But the finest performance is in Ida--Agata Kulesza gives us a character of sublime brilliance and self-hatred, an ideal foil for the young nun at the center of the story. Kulesza makes us feel the utter necessity of pushing the self-destruct button.

Best Supporting Actors

(Best supporting actor is a tough race but worst supporting actor is easy: Christian Slater in Nymphomaniac. Good god, that tree metaphor...)

I admire The Lego Movie because, in a film that is otherwise full of absurd cartoon characters, Will Ferrell gives a stunning bit of vérité as President Business, who would stroll to election in 2016 if only he were a real person. Because I like the occasional nod to actual Oscar candidates, I support J.K. Simmons in Whiplash--I found real menace there, remembering my own arrhythmic terror, not knowing whether I'm rushing or dragging. "Not quite my tempo, no worries." Credit has to be given to Neil Patrick Harris in Gone Girl--you really appreciate his throat being slit (though perhaps that was more about my giddy realization that the film was almost over). To return to the sketch comedy drive-bys of Inherent Vice, props to Josh Brolin, who brought actual heft to the film--I guess I'm voting for his haircut and pancake ordering style. The ultimate kudos go to the genuine chills provided by Stranger by the Lake sex panther Christophe Paou and his fine, fine mustache.

Best Actresses

As with Suzanne Clément in Laurence Anyways last year, Angeli Bayani's performance in Norte, the End of History is so immense I can't even deal. Bayani hit that Falconetti level and may now ascend directly to heaven. Prepare yourself by rewatching The Passion of Joan of Arc, then stream Norte, and then give yourself a couple weeks to recover. Elsewhere, Marion Cotillard's life is somehow even more fucked up in Two Days, One Night than it was in Rust and Bone, even though she didn't have her legs bitten off by an orca. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and her subtly-metaphored theme song "Blackbird," impressed in Beyond the Lights (even if the film is somewhat undone by the fact that her exploitative, faux-Top-40 single "Masterpiece" is a much better song). Charlotte Gainsbourg dragged the second half of Nymphomaniac to some semblance of competence. Congratulations as well to the three young Swedes (Mira Barkhammer, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne) who star in We Are the Best! and elevate what would be a by-the-numbers indie with their closeup camaraderie and hair-based bonding.

Best Actors

I'll just get it on the record here: I think Miles Teller is going to be a great one and Whiplash will be one of his early landmark roles. Macon Blair looks alarming as a bearded and blood-soaked hobo and somehow even more frightening as a pudgy and clean-shaven junior insurance salesman on the lam in Blue Ruin. Still, Blair is handsomer than Timothy Spall, who made a grabby, smudgy, don't-give-a-fuck-y Mr. Turner. In Cannibal, Antonio de la Torre is an exquisite table manners and savage display of appetite type of a guy. He makes me want to be a better man or at least wear better suits (overall he seems like a chill dude and I wouldn't fear him eating me at all). But I'll give the prize in this tepid year to Ralph Fiennes, who at least takes on a big role like a dang ole movie star in The Grand Budapest Hotel.  

Best Pictures 

(But first, a confession of blind spots (I mean, blind spots to films that might have made this list, not blind spots like Into the Woods): Actress, Goodbye to Language, Horse Money, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Winter Sleep.)

12. Two Days, One Night - The Dardennes have done it--they've made another film that's exactly as good as all of their other movies. This is praise that is also a criticism. Though perhaps if the directors had selected for Cotillard a white tank top rather than a salmon one this would be a couple of spots higher on the list. I still hold out hope that their next Cannes darling will feature hot Franco-Belgians fucking without consequence and eating decadent snacks.

11. Lucy - ScarJo's Lucy is a piece of meat, a human being based on a lecture by Morgan Freeman, conflated via intercuts with an antelope, spattered with blood on her cheetah-patterned coat, intergalactic fireworks before her eyes, following Romy Schneider into L'Enfer or Gaspar Noe Into the Void, restructured genomes like the finest graffiti, her limbs disintegrating into frosted doughnut sprinkles, strings of Matrix code tethering us to our cell phones, the cosmos of Luc Besson, the skin tag spots across Freeman's face. I got my eleven dollar's worth just for Lucy's excellent, direct summation of her motivation: "Someone put a bag of drugs inside me and I need you to get it out."

10. Citizenfour - On 26 December, 2014, I was politically radicalized because of this film. I'm done voting for presidents from the major political parties in the United States. Conscious Americans are all on a path like Edward Snowden's, where the day comes and we have to tell our loved ones, "I can't really speak out loud here." The documentary is depressing on two levels: we are fine with living in a surveillance state and we can't even be bothered to watch this crucial documentary about living in our surveillance state. As always, holler at your boy if you've got a lead on Norwegian citizenship. 

(This feels a little too serious for the WTT so I'll add this: the way Snowden's hair stuck up in the back drove me nuts. I know director Laura Poitras felt the same way because she included a scene of Snowden fussing with his 'do before going on the lam, perhaps for the rest of his days.)

9. Whiplash - Much as this list gives me a chance to allow only one Hollywood film in the top dozen, Whiplash afforded learned critics the ability to reveal themselves as jazz as well as film snobs (talking about you, Richard Brody, hilariously eager to expound upon all the things he's heard and you never will). For those of us who don't know any better, the film delivers pithy artist-at-work kicks and a climax as audacious as the last 15 minutes of The Red Shoes.

8. The Naked Room - This is a documentary film of relentless closeups, shots you'd expect to see in hostage videos, circumstances not unrelated to the children brought before the camera in this anonymous hospital in Mexico. Near the end of the film, one severely depressed teen, Hayde, is asked to promise that she will not hurt herself when she leaves the office but cannot state the affirmative. When she breaks down, she raises her arm to brush the tears from her cheeks and we see for the first time her left wrist wrapped in heavy gauze. It is a heartbreaking moment of grace. She wept, I wept.

7. Mr. Turner - There have been many great metaphors for what Timothy Spall looks and sounds like in his title role. I'm going to go with a lowland tapir in rutting season at the Brookfield Zoo (indelible childhood memory). A big thank you to Mike Leigh who, across decades of good work, continues to remind the viewing public that people over 40 still have sexual intercourse. The brilliance of this film, as with Topsy-Turvy, is not just in the climax (though shouting "The Sun Is God!" on your deathbed is a solid way to go out) but in the diminuendo that sketches the aftereffects of Turner's death, the shittiness for all of us lesser lights when the master's show is over.

6. Rich Hill - Tracy Droz Tragos' documentary is full of Malick, great following shots of cartwheeling kids and nighttime photography of fireworks hanging in the air above Rich Hill, MO. And much of the dialogue is as pungent as Kit's Badlands line, "I'll give you a dollar if you eat this collie." The three boys at the center of the story have surprising areas of knowledge. Harley explains that "you can get mango on food stamps." Appachey (that astonishingly American name!) expresses a stunning career plan: "I was thinking of moving to China...and becoming an art teacher." And Andrew says, wiser about his life in deep poverty, "I have no say in what happens; they're the parents, I'm just a kid." After watching this documentary you'll want to keep up with these boys as much as I do.

5. Ida - Pawel Pawlikowski made the most composed film of the year--without upsetting Wes Anderson I would buy a book of postcards of the shots from this movie first, from the mist on the rural fields to the grill work on dingy hotel windows (note the name of the cinematographer Lukasz Zal). The performances are also excellent: the aforementioned Agata Kulesza's Wanda as the long lost aunt to Anna/Ida, dark of eye, dimpled of chin, the Jewish nun, and the jazz musician (Dawid Ogrodnik) who charms them both, sort of a Polish Pattinson playing "Naima" by John Coltrane. It's the music you'll hear for the rest of your life, saving souls in a nunnery or drinking yourself to death in a Lodz apartment. 

4. Stranger by the Lake - Apparently the only sexy movies this decade are from France, far away from the Hollywood's flaccid, anti-dream factory. The death spiral attraction between Christophe Paou and Pierre Deladonchamps emphasizes the lengths to which I need to step up my mustache AND chest hair game. The film revels in the claustrophobia of only ever being at the lake and never indoors. The delirium of lust and cum in the afternoon is slowly replaced by fear in an endless dusk, enough to make the rabbit wish to be caught. Strangers builds to a climax that made my hair stand on end. A voice calls out, "I won't hurt you."

(Gillian Flynn and David Fincher are assuredly already plotting a ruinous Hollywood remake.) 

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel - The seventh best Wes Anderson film is still the third best film of 2014--it was that kind of year. Bu that doesn't mean Grand Budapest isn't excellent. As Ralph Fiennes' M. Gustave knows, the rudeness of Wes Anderson haters is merely an expression of their fear. I can only offer a rueful smile at someone who would take something as sumptuous, as beautiful, as well-crafted as a cake from Mendl's and say, "I don't like it, it's too sweet." 

2. Under the Skin - Scarlett's Johansson's Renaissance year allowed me to revisit a WTT post from 2008 (before the tabloids had even settled on ScarJo as a nickname!). It's a time capsule of my early approach: more pictures, more discussion of boobs. What's happened since? A tragic amount of films with colons in their titles. Iron Man 2, The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the impending drivel called, and I don't exaggerate: Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War. This lucrative dross is interspersed with failed comedy vehicles He's Just Not That Into You, We Bought a Zoo, Chef and Hitchcock (that was supposed to be funny, right?). She's had, for ten years, a distinct inability to pick auteurs (Jon Favreau does not qualify). 

In popular conception, actors read scripts (or actors' assistants read scripts) to select their next films but what I'll always wonder is why they don't just choose by director. Juliette Binoche works globally, with the finest directors, and has had the best career of anyone in the past 25 years. How difficult is it? When Johansson finally arrived at Besson and then Jonathan Glazer this year there was a respite from the suck.

Like Stranger by the Lake, Under the Skin will discourage you from spending time on rocky beaches.
The best parts of the film are documentary, with non-actors being talked into a van by a very attractive someone they don't know is Scarlett Johansson. The ridiculous, porn setup dialogue shows us the bottom line--a Celtic fan will get into a car with ScarJo for any reason. The sexy voice, the trashy clothes and dull men willing to go to their death after that ass. A gorgeous sadism pervades the piece, as if Frederick Seidel decided to direct a picture. When her 20-film deal with Marvel expires, I hope ScarJo will take a ride with more auteurs.

1. Norte, the End of History - For director Lav Diaz, a four hour film is shortform. But this is slow cinema so good that I didn't need to check my cell phone, I didn't need to urinate. Norte is not just the longest film on the list but the most profound and, moment to moment, the most beautiful. Diaz begins with an adaptation of Crime and Punishment but far exceeds Doestoevsky in artistry. 

To quote Fabian (Sid Lucero), the film's protagonist, whose murder of a moneylender is the least of his problems, "How can I be at peace with the world's shallowness?" Joaquin (Archie Alemania) goes to jail for Fabian's crime and leaves his wife (the Falconetti-channeling Angeli Bayani) to survive without him.

To select a single sequence to set the mood: a long shot of a window propped open pre-dawn, insects whispering, a cock crowing, the putter of a motorbike that stops and allows a woman out, bags of vegetables piling on a cart, a dog observing, a younger sister appearing, a cooperative effort. A cut: the sky is lighter, bluer but it's still early, we look over the river as the women arrange the vegetables on the cart, trying to work the kinks out of their sore shoulders, a goat wanders by, a young daughter appears to help, they discuss the dawn of another day, their endless work.

As I wrote in my notebook many times, wow, wow, WOW. The digital camera is so crisp and bold you can't believe there aren't special effects involved. But it's just the blockbuster of Diaz's imagination. In the last hour you might ask yourself, as Ian Darke has deep into World Cup stoppage time, "how much more of this can their possibly be?" but the payoffs keep coming. This gorgeous suffering, this epic accomplishment.

Lav Diaz: no mediocre.