16 September 2017

The Shape of Water



Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water was the opening film of the mini-festival Telluride at Dartmouth, and so I got to see it a few months before it will be released generally. I love del Toro's work — even when it falls flat for me (Crimson Peak), it's nonetheless clearly the work of someone with his own vision and style. And when I am on the same wavelength as the film (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), the experience is overwhelmingly beautiful and moving. Indeed, that for me is the hallmark of del Toro at his best: real, unbridled emotion coupled with a visual imagination that is lushly inventive, and a sense for color the equal of any other director today.

Del Toro is also a master melodramatist, a common form not frequently mastered. In that sense, he's our Douglas Sirk, but without Sirk's irony. (Perhaps we could say that del Toro replaces Sirk's irony with fantasy: melding a classical sense of melodrama with the logic of fairy tales. Where irony both infuses and undercuts Sirk's realities, magic infuses and undercuts the basic reality in del Toro's worlds.) The Shape of Water may be his most classical melodrama yet. It's a beauty-and-the-beast (or fish & bird) love story set in the midst of Cold War America, and it's satisfying because it hits almost every plot point exactly as it seems it should. For anyone who's ever seen such movies, there's nothing particularly surprising in the plotting, and in this case that's a virtue, because you get to see the familiar performed by an expert with absolute confidence in his craft. It's a story about the little people, the marginalized and oppressed, seizing a chance to do some good in the world, and there's not a cynical note anywhere to be found. A fairy tale, yes, maybe, definitely; but one we sometimes need, one that is invigorating in a world that feels ever more filled with monsters. (I will never tire of Idris Elba's speech in Pacific Rim: "Today we face the monsters that are at our door...")

It's inaccurate to say that del Toro is the only expert here making hugely difficult tasks look effortless. One of the joys of The Shape of Water is that he assembled a team of actors and crew who are among the best in the world at what they do. The production design, the cinematography, the costumes, the special effects, the editing, the music, the acting — all wondrous, and not wondrous only because they're created by highly skilled artists, but because those artists all seem to be working together with a unified sense of their project. Every element of the mise-en-scene is carefully designed and intentionally used, with themes and ideas wending across the light, sets, props, and visual effects. (For a movie called The Shape of Water, of course water imagery is important, but the inventiveness with which it's used is really something to see.) Alexandre Desplat's music, for instance, is perfect not just because it's Alexandre Desplat, an accomplished film composer, but because it's exactly right for this movie. It's a movie that relies on its music for certain effects. But that's true for every element — to give just one example, the editing is often elegant, but almost by definition that tends to go unnoticed; now and then, though, editing can provide its own overt effects, and in The Shape of Water there's one cut (involving cornflakes) that caused lots of happy laughter throughout the big audience at Dartmouth. Just a quick moment, a little burst of joy in amidst the flow of the story and images. That's mastery.

04 September 2017

A Convex Mirror: Twin Peaks


That is the tune but there are no words. 
The words are only speculation 
(From the Latin speculum, mirror): 
They seek and cannot find the meaning of the music. 
We see only postures of the dream, 
Riders of the motion that swings the face 
Into view under evening skies, with no 
False disarray as proof of authenticity. 
But it is life englobed. 
One would like to stick one's hand 
Out of the globe, but its dimension, 
What carries it, will not allow it.


1.
John Ashbery died on the day that Twin Peaks: The Returned aired its final episode, a fact that will likely go unremarked in future Ashbery biographies and tomes of Twin Peaks exegesis, but I can't help coming back to it, not only because Ashbery and David Lynch are two of the most prominent surrealists in American culture (though of course no one term can sum up either, and I use it here as much as a gesture or a placeholder as I do anything else), but also because their prominence, which allowed them an audience and freedom unknown to most artists, was neither assured nor even entirely likely.

It was more likely that Ashbery would find some prominence in the small world of poetry than that Lynch would become a household name as a filmmaker, but you only have to think of how many poets of great originality, insight, energy, seriousness, and talent never reached Ashbery's level of fame, never made it into The New Yorker, were not the first living poet to be collected by the Library of America, etc. to realize that Ashbery's position was singular. Dan Chiasson just called him the "greatest American poet of the last fifty years", and I expect other people will do the same, because in a certain way that's a fact, not an opinion: his ubiquity in anthologies, his many awards, his centrality to academic study of contemporary American poetry, his ability to have his poetry books published by major publishers and reviewed by the most prominent book review publications — all of these, and more, signal that Ashbery is by consensus filling the role of "greatest American poet of the last fifty years". Somebody has to. And this is no critique of Ashbery, whose work I have often enjoyed reading. He seemed as amused by his canonization as anybody.

Nor is it a critique of David Lynch, whose work has meant a lot to me, to say he's one of the luckiest filmmakers in the history of cinema. Though his career and reputation have had plenty of highs and lows, how many other people are in a position to get a network like Showtime to spend millions and millions of dollars to make an 18-hour art movie — and by art movie, I don't mean just something that would play in arthouse cinemas, but something that as often as not shared more qualities with an art installation than with Dexter or Homeland. Sure, next to Andy Warhol's Empire, it's a thriller, but it's not next to Empire, it's next to Ray Donovan and boxing matches. (This is the one thing about Showtime's gamble that I don't get — clearly, their goal was to get people to sign up for Showtime, and it worked. It doesn't matter how many people watch a particular show, really; what matters is that people subscribe. But there's nothing particularly Twin Peaksy — even first-iteration Twin Peaksy — on Showtime, that I've found, so why would that audience stick around? I certainly see no reason to keep subscribing.) Lynch has been able to trade on the fluke success of the original Twin Peaks and his own reputation as a visionary director to do whatever the hell he wants, regardless of audience desires or studio executives' commands. And good for him! My only reservation about Lynch's unique position, which is the same reservation I have about Ashbery's unique position, is that it's unique. I wish a wider variety of artists were similarly free.

02 September 2017

My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye


Marie NDiaye's 2007 novel Mon coeur à l'étroit has now been translated by Jordan Stamp and published by Two Lines Press as My Heart Hemmed In. It is a strange, unsettling book, a tale told by a woman named Nadia whose husband receives a ghastly wound that he refuses to have treated, a woman who is being suddenly shunned not only by everyone she knows but apparently by everyone in the city of Bordeaux except for a famous writer she's never heard of, who appoints himself her husband's caretaker. She has an ex-husband who lives in destitution in their own apartment. She is estranged from her son, who once had a male lover (now a police inspector) whom Nadia might have been more in love with than her own child, and who then married a woman and had a daughter, Souhar, whose name Nadia detests.

The novel's first paragraph is in many ways its guiding idea:
Now and then, at first, I think I catch people scowling in my direction. They can't really mean me, can they?
Much worse than scowls happen, showing Nadia that yes, they do mean her — but how do they interpret her? What she means to them is very different from what she means to herself.

From the beginning, the narrative casts a spell because we want to know what is going on and why. Why are Nadia and her husband Ange so utterly loathed by everyone, and apparently so suddenly? Why is Nadia so oblivious to everything around her? Why does she get lost when walking around a city she's lived in for most of her life? Why won't Ange go to the doctor for his gaping wound? Is the famous writer a friend or foe?

18 August 2017

What Is To Be Done About The Social Novel?

Chernyshevsky in prison, painting by Gorovych (1953)

The new issue of Harper's includes a review-essay by Jonathan Dee that asks a question summed up by the writer of the headline as "Does the social novel have a future?" Ultimately, though, the essay is not so much concerned with that question as with questions of imagination and representation.

Dee reviews (or at least mentions) four recent books (three novels, one nonfiction account) which got him thinking about questions of what tends to be called "cultural appropriation" and the limits of fictionality. He admits he was skeptical of the idea of "cultural appropriation" until he read Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck and found himself thinking it's a good novel that also makes choices that he, when reading, grew uncomfortable with.

I haven't read the books Dee writes about, but I expect I would generally agree with his assessment of them, and his description of Erpenbeck's book made me quite certain I would dislike it for all the reasons he offers, and probably more. (I've complained about similar problems of representation particularly with fiction by non-African writers about African people and places, for instance.) I share his discomfort with the term "cultural appropriation", but not his slow awakening to the phenomena it tries to name — my problem with the term is with the term itself, which seems to me vague and also unnecessary when plenty of other more specific and meaningful terms are available; further, I don't like the idea of culture as property, something with boundaries that can be legislated and policed, something one person can own and another cannot. Better to be specific, to talk of stereotyping, ignorance, and assumptions that reveal themselves in a text, and to show how they work, what they do (a fine model for this being Delany's essay "To Read The Dispossessed" in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which shows exactly how Le Guin's assumptions about sexuality render her novel more narrow and less truthful than it might have been otherwise). Better to raise questions not of appropriation, but of power: of hegemonic speaking and subaltern silence.

05 August 2017

"Grade Inflation" as a Path to Ungrading

Cat Sidh, Flickr

At Jacobin, Ed Burmila writes about grade inflation as a symptom of the neoliberalization of education, pointing out that there is no group within contemporary higher ed for whom there is much benefit to a lowering of grades, and, indeed, there are many groups for whom a lowering of grades is at best inconvenient and at worst utterly undesireable.

This seems to me an accurate assessment, but it misses any sense of opportunity. Burmila laments the loss of meaning in grades and seems to yearn for a time when teachers were tough and gentlemen preferred Cs. There is an assumption within what he writes that grades and grade-point averages can be useful and meaningful.

I don't entirely deny that grades can mean something. But what they mean is obscured by the simplification of a grade: one instructor's C is another's B is another's D. Grades provide an alibi for us, they let us pretend we're seeing an assessment when what we're seeing is something so simplistic and reductive that it has just as much chance of being a distortion as it has of being a reflection of a person's accomplishment, knowledge, skills, or abilities.

Nobody wants to lie to students about their achievements or give them a false sense of accomplishment, and we should work hard to avoid doing so. Pretty much everybody wants students to build on their strengths and recognize their weaknesses so they can work on improving. In my experience, grades aren't a particularly effective tool for that. I've spent a lot of time and effort over the years trying to make grades meaningful, and I continue to do so, because grades are a fact of academic life for most students, teachers, and institutions. But again and again I find that the less I stress out about grading, and the less I think of grades as much of anything other than a very blunt, imprecise, summary measurement, the better I teach and the better my students learn.

31 July 2017

Shetland: Attending to the Consequences of Violence


From now on, whenever someone argues that their story or tv episode or movie or whatever absolutely couldn't possibly work without a graphic rape scene, I will think of episode 5 of the third series of the BBC show Shetland. The episode includes the kidnapping and rape of a regular series character. But we don't even see the kidnapping, only the moments leading up to it and then other characters' growing concern over the disappearance. She reappears, walking barefoot to a Glasgow police station, and at first there is relief: She's safe and she doesn't seem harmed. And then she tells the series' main character, DI Perez, that evidence will need to be collected. The rest of the episode and much of the final episode pay careful attention to her and her colleagues' work to come to grips with the event. The drama plays out through dialogue and restrained, thoughtful acting.

I tend to watch murder shows with dinner. I'm quite used to munching away amidst fictional gore. But as I watched this episode of Shetland, my dinner got cold. It was riveting, moving, and thought-provoking in a way more blood & guts shows are not. It grappled with the personal and legal consequences of sexual assault (and not just to this one character) in ways I don't remember seeing on tv before.

22 July 2017

Against Academic Conferences


There's a lot I love about academia — more than I dislike, or I wouldn't be about to start my 5th year toward a PhD — but it is an often vexing world, particularly to those of us who've spent a lot of time outside it. If you've never gotten outside the groves of academe, you're likely to internalize academic practices and not simply think that they're normal, but be utterly convinced that they're acceptable and even, perhaps, the only way to do things. Academic publishing, for instance, is even more whackadoodle bonkers and exploitative than trade publishing, and back in the days when I only knew the world of trade publishing, I wouldn't have thought such a thing was possible. Most academic publishing makes trade publishing look positively noble, generous, and big-hearted.

A recent piece by Pamela L. Gay on "The Unacknowledged Costs of Academic Travel" got me thinking once again about one of the things I most dislike in academic life: traveling to conferences.

15 July 2017

Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou


A hazard of doing intense academic work all about novels and novelists and The Novel and the novelties of novelism, etc. etc. etc. ad noveleam, — as I have been doing for a few years now — is that you stop being able to enjoy novels. (Or maybe not you. Maybe this is just me. I long ago learned that I cannot binge on particular genres, whether novels or stories or poems or essays. After working as the series editor for the three Best American Fantasy anthologies, for instance, I hardly read any short fiction for a few years.)

I didn't realize I wasn't enjoying novels until recently when, after not enjoying yet another book that had been highly praised and/or recommended by friends, I asked myself what the last novel I actually enjoyed was. I had to think long and hard. The answer: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, from February. (Before that, Garth Greenwell's What Belongs to You, December 2016.) Not that long ago, but given how many novels I read or tried to read after Darnielle's, it felt like a looooong time. Sickness can mess up any sense of time, and when you're book-sick, days feel like weeks, months, years.

Anyway, that's all over now, at least for the moment. After tossing one book after another aside, I more or less randomly picked up Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated by Karen Emmerich. I liked the bright pinkish-purple cover and the title, so I thought I'd give the first few pages a shot.

Reader, I hardly put the book down until I was done with it.

It's not that I thought it was the greatest novel ever written. I enjoyed it, admired much of it, but like many books, its later chapters can't live up to the promise of the earlier. The elements that unambiguously worked, though, really appealed to that readerly pleasure center, whatever it may be, and that's what I want to outline here. The parts of the book that didn't work for me were the final two chapters, and I didn't realize quite how much they didn't work for me until I'd made my way through them and could reflect on the novel as a whole. And by "not work" I don't mean they were terrrible; there's much of interest in them, but the feeling of disappointment and even frustration was acute because everything leading up to those last 50 pages felt just about perfect. In a mediocre book, those final chapters could have been the best things about it, but this is not a mediocre book.

14 June 2017

Watching Fassbinder Now


I've written a lot about Rainer Werner Fassbinder here at The Mumpsimus, and a few years ago created a video essay about his early films when Criterion released five of them as part of their (apparently discontinued) Eclipse series of bare-bones releases. I keep meaning to write more about RWF, to create new video essays (on Fassbinder and the recently deceased cinematographer Michael Ballhaus; on queer Fassbinder), and I will eventually, but for now I simply want to point out that U.S. viewers, at least, now have access to a big selection of Fassbinder films via TCM's new streaming site, Filmstruck, which replaced Hulu as the home to Criterion's streaming service.

I'm giving Filmstruck a test ride, and so of course have delved into the Fassbinder titles. (And I'm not alone in that: here's a good new piece from Brandon Soderbergh on them.) There's quite a lot that hasn't been available in the U.S. for a while, most notably Querelle, which is streaming in a beautiful print that really conveys the vivid colors that are such a feature of the film's design. I've dreamed of a full Criterion edition of Querelle for years, as many of its home video releases have been of low quality. With luck, the availability of Querelle on Filmstruck signals a possible, eventual full Criterion release, which would be valuable simply for the addition of extra features, something Querelle really would benefit from, not only because it's a tremendously strange, even alienating movie, but because there's a documentary that makes a natural companion to it: Dieter Schidor's The Wizard of Babylon, made during Querelle's filming and including interviews with members of the cast and crew. (New essays, etc. would also be helpful — I would to see, for instance, Steve Shaviro write a new essay on the film, since his take on it in The Cinematic Body is so great, but he's moved beyond a lot of what he wrote in that book since.) Anyway, it's great to have Querelle available in all its vivid, languorous glory.

Much about Fassbinder's work remains remarkable — his extraordinary productivity, the great number of masterpieces, the ingenuity — but what consistently amazes me is the force and immediacy of his best work. I have no way to tell whether his films feel as radical now as they did when they first appeared, but they very much feel radical now. They unsettle common-sensical aesthetics and assumptions (those ideas of what a movie should be and do, how actors should act, how sounds should sound, how images should be made), but more than that they utterly scoff at conservative values and liberal pieties both. Thomas Elsaesser writes well about this in Fassbinder's Germany: "Fassbinder's 'strong' female characters (Maria Braun, Willie in Lili Marleen, Lola, Veronika Voss) refuse victim thinking, not least because it presumes to create empathy at the price of exonerating them from a responsibility which no solidarity among victims can efface. But the status of victim also locks the subject into binary reciprocity, which ... Fassbinder's cinema constantly tries to break open, radicalize or displace. As a consequence, it may be possible to see the utopian dimension in Fassbinder's films about Germany not primarily, as [Kaja] Silverman argues for Berlin Alexanderplatz, in the ideal of masochistic ecstasy, but in the insistence — here true to the tradition of the anarcho-libertarian credo Fassbinder always professed — that the couple as a love relationship can only exist when it recognizes its place in other circuits of exchange."

There is nothing safe when entering Fassbinder's oeuvre, nothing easy, nothing predictable. That, for me, is what makes it a worthwhile, necessary adventure. It's particularly valuable now; no filmmaker I know of so effectively dissects the ways that personal power and political power intersect, synergize, exploit, and oppress. That's an analysis the contemporary world needs more than it ever has. Fassbinder's work adds dramatic and aesthetic force to such an analysis, and in its structure puts us as the audience in the position of having to both think and feel our way through the problems he highlights. It's no surprise that Brecht was a significant influence on Fassbinder when he was young; his genius was to fuse Brecht with melodrama, the French New Wave, queer culture, and other influences, creating films that live long beyond their immediate moment.

Most of the movies I discussed in my post on where to begin with Fassbinder are available at Filmstruck. Though I wrote that five years ago, and have spent much more time with the films since, as well as seen various folks encounter them for the first time, I think the basic recommendations are still solid. Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and The Merchant of Four Seasons remain excellent starting places.

01 June 2017

Notes on Theory of the Novel by Guido Mazzoni


I've spent the last couple of weeks reading — almost devouring — Guido Mazzoni's Theory of the Novel, recently translated by Zakiya Hanafi from the Italian (a very clear translation of a complex text; not reading Italian, I can't vouch for its accuracy, but it's one of the most readable works of academic theory I've ever encountered). I'm still working through where I agree and disagree with Mazzoni, but however my thinking evolves regarding his ideas, the book is unquestionably impressive and thought-provoking, and particularly valuable in how it develops and clarifies some of the classic concepts in the field from Bakhtin, Lukács, Erich Auerbach, and Ian Watt (among others). The only other recent book I've read that seems almost as clear and logical on similar topics is The Rhetoric of Fictionality by Richard Walsh, a less ambitious, less fulfilling, and less elegant book than Mazzoni's, but useful in filling in around some of Mazzoni's edges, since Mazzoni, like most writers and theorists, occasionally does a bit of hand waving to get around the paradoxes created by the concepts of fiction/nonfiction.

For a good basic overview of Mazzoni's main ideas, see Alberto Comparini's review for the LA Review of Books and M.A. Orthoffer's review for The Complete Review. Here, I want to simply make some notes on things that stuck out for me on a first reading, and to offer a few quotations from the text. (I'll put page number citations in not from a desire to be all fancy-pants academic, but because it's tough to excerpt Mazzoni's ideas without doing some violence to them, and interested readers really should read the quotations in context.)