Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Jayne Mansfield’s Car. 2012.
When I think of John Hurt, I see King Lear’s Fool in that definitive film production. I see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I, Caligula and even Hell Boy, all interesting films with Hurt in interesting roles. When I think of Billy Bob Thornton, I hear him saying on a late-night talk show that his first film was Chopper Chicks in Zombietown (I think that was the title of the B-movie). But from now on, Thornton’s name will be inextricably linked to Hurt’s for me, for Jayne Mansfield’s Car is a film I found insightful and emotionally engaging. The screenplay was written by Thornton and Tom Epperson, and Thornton directed the fine cast, which included Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, Hurt and Thornton.

Set in the 1969 conflict over the U. S. war in Vietnam and the problem of America’s conscription of young men, this is a story of the traumatic effects that war can have on generations of men in a family. Never heavy-handed, the story shows the struggle of men to connect in meaningful ways with family members when their measure of a man’s worth is war heroics. The contrast between the emotionally damaged heroes and the more healthy family member who did not go to war is striking.

This thoughtful, nuanced film is in contrast to another film also presenting, in part, the effects of war: Source Code. Released in 2011, this film has equally good acting—Jake Gyllenhaal always brings intelligence and sensitivity to his roles—but the story glorifies the trauma of a war hero. Whereas Jayne Mansfield’s Car lets the audience decide whether war service can give meaning to the lives of veterans, Source Code slaps the audience with the glory of war, service, and death.  

Monday, April 27, 2015

Michael Kriesel’s “Aleister Crowley Lipogram”
When I read “Aleister Crowley Lipogram” yesterday in the North American Review, all I could say was “perfect,” and not just because Kriesel’s poem is so playful with erasure, including erasure of the underlying narrative. It is evocative of all the promises that the occult, the mythic, the mystical, the poetic make. It reminds us of why I “stray.” The poem received The 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize. https://northamericanreview.wordpress.com/james-hearst-poetry-prize/
Lexicon. Max Barry. 2013.
Lexicon is a sci fi novel with a truly interesting plot line and enticing premise for writers, literati, etc, for English prof/poets like me. Think of it, a secret society of poets who have learned to influence—more accurately, learned to manipulate—others through knowledge of some basic personality types and use of special words and word sequences upon them. The characters Will and Emily come off as the usual kind of characters in sci fi, but that’s OK because, as is typical for sci fi, the plot and ideas involved keep one reading. And for me, Barry’s language style is quite fine . . . a fine sci fi thriller.  

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Difficult Fruit. Lauren K. Alleyne. 2014.
A collection of poems by a Trinidad/Tobago writer who emphasizes the losses . . . and hopes that women often experience. This is a set of poems I keep coming back to in 2014-15, to study their form, to experience their moods and textures, to struggle with the violence that the speaker reflects on and works through. I was privileged to meet Lauren at the national PCA/ACA conference in 2014 and hear her read from the collection. I am particularly interested in the disturbances in memory and time that are represented.
In Paradise. Peter Matthiessen. 2014.
A novel set in 1996, with several characters gathering at Auschwitz-Birkenau to bear witness to the dead, confront their own demons or escape from them, and generally grapple with the implications of the Holocaust within the human community. A Zen retreat at the death-camp complex is the setting for the novel, and the central character is an American journalist, D. Clements Olin, who comes to the retreat not to bear witness but to study a Polish writer who committed suicide after surviving Auschwitz. As always, Matthiessen’s prose takes my breath away. I will miss this writer, who died shortly after the publication of the novel. In Paradise invites us to reflect on our spiritual identities, our cultural responsibilities, and the gift of love that sustains us in the most horrific of times.
C. D. Wright Poetry.
C. D. Wright is one of my favorite poets, and through 2013-15 I have been re-reading Just Whistle: A Valentine, Deepstep Come Shining, One Big Self, and other poetry selections in her collection Steal Away.  Somehow I began reading what I would call Wright’s “Neo-Romantic Sublime Gothic” poetry in the context of David Shields’ Reality Hunger. Wright is especially adept at exposing the  indeterminacies of contemporary life through figures of the Sublime and Gothic, such as “July by lotuslight,” and “ghost hair nestled in streamers” (Deepstep). Shields in Reality Hunger reminds us that we’re still thrilled by that which is culturally familiar, when it is made to slip jarringly toward the new, beyond clich├ęd image/idea/language (82 #240). As I read Wright’s poetry aloud, I am thrilled by the disruption of the heightened diction of Gothic otherworldliness and by the rebuff to Sublime “intimations of immortality” through her raw diction, like “cane slashing through the grass” and the image of lightning striking a lake, causing a swan to explode as her “five cygnets sizzled on the surface” (Deepstep). Thus, raw lines of poetry are interlaced with Sublime Gothic language. Might we be thrilled by the mixing of the Gothic and the raw, by language that is made to fail in its approach to the Sublime?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Philomena. Director Stephen Frears. 2013.
A fine performance by Judy Dench as Philomena Lee in the film version of this retired nurse’s quest for her long-lost son, whom she was forced to give up in the early 1950s. Steve Coogan also offers a solid performance of the journalist Martin Sixsmith, who initially involves himself with Philomena’s story as a “human interest” piece . . . but soon finds that she and her situation test his values and beliefs, especially as he encounters the Catholic sisters of the abbey in Roscrea, Ireland, convent and orphanage who oversaw Philomena Lee’s pregnancy and the adoption process. Part of the humor in this otherwise sad-themed film hinges on the contrast between Philomena’s strict Catholic views of the evil of premarital sex and her exclamation of how pleasurable the sex actually was with her partner in sin. The secular side of Philomena is underscored in scenes where she frankly, even clinically, discusses her son’s homosexuality and death by AIDS in the mid 1990s. The Catholic/secular contrast is most obvious as Philomena views videos of her son’s adult life with his partner. Her joy at seeing evidence of her son’s happiness as a gay man lightens the mood of the film and adds biographical depth to the real Philomena Lee. The bio flick’s focus on complex human personality is evident, also, in the relationship between Philomena and Martin, she with her working-class Irish background  and he with his Oxford education and career in BBC journalism. Martin Sixsmith feels he’s come down in the world as he is fired from his job and forced to freelance as a human-interest storyteller. As the pair fly from Great Britain to the U. S. to find Philomena’s son and encounter a former colleague of Martin traveling in the first-class section of the plain, Philomena says, “just because you’re in first class doesn’t mean you’re a first-class person.” She also checks Martin’s anger, directed toward the sisters of the orphanage for having taken her baby from her, forced her into four years of labor to pay for her room and board during her pregnancy, and accepted money from wealthy American couples as they sought children for adoption. Martin sees the sisters, especially one Sister Hildegard, as purely evil, exploiting a teenage girl and her child for profit. But Philomena’s refusal to assign blame to the sisters and her willingness to accept responsibility for her behavior and choices remind Martin, and us, that Hildegard’s motives are ideologic, very much a part of her socialization.



Super 8 (2011). Director J. J. Abrams
Set in 1979 and filmed in the Spielberg style of that period (Star Wars 1977, and later E. T. 1982), the film has great comedic moments, as when one of the kids in the film comments on drugs being bad, such an overstatement in the scene because, in contrast, the kids are in grave danger from both the Air Force and a nocturnal, subterranean alien creature that hunts humans as its food source. Watching Super 8 here is 2014 flipped me back to the 70s, the style of it being just realist enough not to be too cheesy, yet bursting with special effects and the kind of wave-crashing romantic movie music that Erich-Wolfgang Korngold introduced in the 1930s. It was as if Super 8 was actually filmed in 1979, in anticipation of the boy/alien high adventure of E. T., where the sublime alien ship rises above the earth before disappearing into the sky, where the grandeur of that ship is matched in mood by the tight hug between the child and his parent, that sublime human family bond, as it were. Even the moments of comedic relief are true to the period, a la Star Wars . . . or is it the earlier TV series Star Trek that delivered one-liners in the middle of life/death struggles?


Inspector Morse: The Dead of Jericho (1987)
I never watched Inspector Morse when it appeared on television during the 90s. It was Inspector Lewis and especially the prequel Endeavour that caused me to see the first Morse episode, in which Morse and Lewis start to work together. I can see how in 2012-14 the writers of the prequel and Shaun Evans developed the earlier Morse, with his high intelligence, his moody awkwardness, his tendency toward alcoholism, his unorthodox police methods, and his disregard for authority. What a combination of motives: Morse’s eagerness to find the truth and comfort the wronged even as he’s overwhelmed by melancholic doubt in his own character, by doubt in the character of humanity. For me, however, the most interesting element is the tangled motives for murder that Morse puzzles over as he listens to operatic and orchestral greats. And I enjoy the well-placed use of morse code: It “punctuates” the wistfulness of Endeavour with wry knowledge of a disappointing world.  

Friday, May 16, 2014



Beginners. Dir. Mike Mills. 2010.

The simple story of an aging father (played by Christopher Plummer) who finally comes out as gay after his wife dies. The emphasis is on the fears his son has developed growing up in a family where he could tell his parents were not happy. The son (played by Ewan McGregor) struggles to feel and trust in the happiness that loving another person brings. His girlfriend (played by Melanie Laurent) has similar deep-seated doubts. As the father slowly dies of cancer, leaving behind a dog with separation anxiety, the son learns to make a commitment to another. The father’s gay lover (played by Goran Visnjic) furthers the son’s progress by his emotionally open and honest manner. The element that adds profundity to the film is the son’s voiceover as a series of ad-based images from the 1960s flash on the screen. These are images of smiling children, nuclear families, everyday consumer objects like cars, public restrooms where closeted gays had trysts, combined with the son-narrator’s declarative statements pointing to what happiness was supposed to be and what was at stake for men who did not live up to the consumerist, hetero, breadwinner role for men.