Slate came out with a video slide show of machinima, which I wrote about earlier.

I'm still more compelled by the medium as an idea than I am by any actual works.


Top Ten Movies of 2006

I made a list. I made up the numbers just now.

1. Pan’s Labyrinth (9.2): a tuber manages to elicit more sympathy than anyone in Babel.

2. Little Miss Sunshine (8.2): compelling characters can carry a loose plot any day.

3. Brick (7.9): so damn cool I couldn’t help myself, even if it leaves us cold.

4. Borat (7.6): a pornography of comedy; not deep or cutting, really, just funny.

(tie) Volver (7.6): middling Almodovar is still better than almost anything else.

6. The Departed (7.3): Martin knows what he’s doing.

7. Inside Man (7.2): Spike knows what he’s doing.

8. Children of Men (7.0): lame exposition followed by some serious exhilaration.

(tie) Apocalypto (7.0): a visceral chase set in the jungle; nothing more, nothing less.

10. The Last King of Scotland (6.8): Idi Amin, in the flesh.

Movies I haven’t seen: Inland Empire, The Queen, Half Nelson, Shortbus, etc.



(How embarrassing that my headline post for going on three months was about The Last Kiss. Rectifying that.)

Ys, the latest album from Joanna Newsom, a folky harpist/songwriter with a warbling voice and a Nabokov penchant, is really quite amazing. I lack the musical vocabulary to describe it sufficiently, but imagine medieval ballads refracted through Appalachia sung by a cross between Bjork and Dylan animated by a fascination with language play. A few lines:

Peonies nod in the breeze,
and while they wetly bow
with hydrocephalitic listlessness,
ants mop up their brow.

This bit and the next few stanzas ("motherlessness") remind me of the fruitful (and mimetic) awkwardness of Thomas Hardy, and the ways in which Newsom weaves words on and off beat heightens the connection, at least to my mind. (Comparisons to other authors might be more productive, but I haven't seen anyone else mention Hardy.) Newsom's elevated language is grounded in both arresting, concrete images (such as the one above) and emotionally affecting moments (not a moment of irony, as far as I can tell). The album is five songs and fifty-five minutes long, and, even though I've been known to enjoy difficulty for its own sake, I think I'm right in saying that it pays off extended attention.

Why don't you just go buy it, and I'll stop jabbering?

(Many thanks to Zach, whose enthusiasm (he intends to propose to Newsom, I gather) initially lead me to good ol' Joanna.)


The Last Kiss

(In which I discuss The Last Kiss, a film written by Paul Haggis (Crash, Million Dollar Baby), based on an Italian movie (L’Ultimo Bacio), starring Zach Braff (Garden State, Scrubs) and Jacinda Barrett.)

(Because I saw a movie before the release date, I figure I should review it.)

The Last Kiss is a movie about Marriage, or, perhaps, Commitment, in much the same way that Crash is about Race, but without being driven to the operatic grandeur that carried and hampered the latter. This downscaling makes sense. While race is a question of groups, of the tension between populations, marriage, unless you find yourself under the tutelage of Warren Jeffs, is about only two people at a time. It is inherently a more intimate topic. But this intimacy, not to mention much plausibility, is strained by the Crash-like compression of relevant events necessary to address an idea from all possible angles in feature-length time, as it appears Haggis again tries to do here. The movie packs in five couples in various degrees of coupledom: from the pair married thirty years struggling with boredom and fatigue to the newlyweds who do nothing but fight over their new child; from the recently broken up to the recent sexual infatuation.

The central figure is Michael (Braff), who is in a state of confusion after his girlfriend Jenna (Barrett) becomes pregnant. He is terrified at the thought of his future being determined, of living a life with no more surprises, as we are told several times.

When the movie opens, Michael and Jenna are sitting in a car and Michael tells Jenna that he loves her and wants to be with her and have a child with her. A vehicle with an ad featuring a beautiful female model pulls next to them. We see, from Michael’s point of view, the juxtaposition: the woman he knows so well, so specific with her freckles and tics, next to an airbrushed possibility. This is the emblematic image of the movie, and we can forgive the weighty directorial hand because the moment arrives as a joke, its bluntness brushed aside by laughter.

Enter Kim (Rachel Bilson): a flirtatious and beautiful college student. Kim shows up at a wedding, of all places, as if by magic or the hand of a clever screenwriter, merely to offer Michael a way to temptation, and it is here in the relationship between Michael and Kim, when Michael is offered his imagined possibility, that the movie most grievously falters. To his credit, Braff manages to express as much bewilderment at the fervent attentions of this coed hottie as the audience feels. The development of their flirtation moves along inorganically, Kim following him at the wedding all the way up into an isolated treehouse, as if he cannot elude the thought of her, as if she herself were not a real person but a nagging doubt personified, which indeed she is.

Despite its weaknesses, the film is successful on many fronts. Braff is better funny than furrowing, but here he pulls off pathos solidly, and the acting all-around is strong. The mix of comedy and drama seems just right: the bursts of laughter in the midst of pathos are of the most satisfying sort, and audiences certainly find it easier to sympathize with a character who makes them laugh. Life, after all, is neither farce nor tragedy, but a bit of both. For the most part, the film eschews schmaltz in favor of interactions that feel honest and complicated, if not always organic.

Implicit comparisons to Garden State are inevitable, so best just to go ahead and make them explicit. This is a somewhat grown-up version of Garden State: it is more serious, less whimsical, and more about entanglement than estrangement. But these are works out of two different minds, despite the attention both pay to Mr. Braff’s comedic expressions of confusion and aimlessness: the comparisons should not be given too much importance.

And if you enjoyed the Grammy-winning Braff mixtape that was the Garden State soundtrack (I did), you might want to give a listen to the selection I gather he put together for this movie: they’re pretty much indistinguishable.

The Last Kiss opens at the Toronto Film Festival on the 10th, then for wide release on the 15th. I attended a “word of mouth” pre-screening loosely connected with Northwestern, Braff’s alma mater, at which Braff himself introduced the film. He was hardly informative, but certainly entertaining.

Speaking of word of mouth, everyone should go see Little Miss Sunshine, which is the funniest movie I’ve seen in a while.


Library Thing

(As though I needed another reason to not-write.)

Illya introduced me to LibraryThing, an online community built around a cataloguing application. You list the books on your shelves, others list theirs, and you look over one another's shoulders. I've always been one to put a lot of stock in the books I see in friends' libraries, as insight into both the friends and the books, so it makes sense I would be drawn to a site that allows construction of personae out of nothing but loaded bookcases.

My bibliophilia undoubtedly began in my father's bookshop (buy books here), where even my pre-literate self coveted the precious objects, a green cloth Hobbit with flame-colored dragon cover rising readily to mind, the treasure beneath flaring nostrils a poor approximation of, I supposed rightly, the riches within. That edition sits, read and reread but more than reading material, on a child-eye high shelf among other classics of my elementary days, just beneath Stevens' Palm at the End of the Mind and Berryman's Dream Songs.

"Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?"
--Walter Benjamin, "Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting"

(This blog has an inordinate number of quotations collected from Benjamin; fitting, I suppose, as he was such a collector himself.)

You can find my books listed under the name hangedloneloon; the catalogue is far from complete, but growing.


Translation is Diabolical

I have just begun to read Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography Speak, Memory. The author wrote his novelistic memoir in English, and, in the process of translating that English into Russian, reworked the original, necessitating alterations to the initial English.

From Nabokov’s forward:

“This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task, but some consolation was given me by the thought that such multiple metamorphosis, familiar to butterflies, had not been tried by any human before.”

The image of translation as the productive agony of the stages of larval metamorphosis immediately brought to mind Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator.”

“Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.”

Here is Nabokov, the diabolical lepidopteran linguistic alchemist, presiding over maturation and birth simultaneously, in an incestuous loop. No wonder I like his style.


Pynchon Amazons Pynchon?

According to Slate: "Last week, Amazon.com put up a page that listed Untitled Thomas Pynchon at a svelte 992 pages and bore a description purportedly written by the master himself." The description was promptly removed. (But you can still preorder the hefty untitled tome for $22.50 (you save 37%) for delivery in December.) A retrieved version of the text can be found here.

Now, what's the deal? Conspiracy theories: a) Pynchon is generating buzz (see also his "appearance" on the Simpsons); b) Amazon just jumped the gun; c) there's no book at all; d) the novel will reflect the nature of the deceased description: Pynchon is parodying his own writing (this would be postmodern pastiche taken to a whole new level, no? ); e) (this and the following are my contributions to the fray) Amazon, being a blundering monolith, sent Pynchon's editor a request for a description, and someone (the author himself?) sent a snide reply, which was posted to, and then removed from, the Amazon site; or f) someone at Amazon was having fun.

I smell a rat.

Any which way you shake it, I'm a dithering idiot in anticipation of the book.

Although, to be honest, if the author-blurb is real (a real what?), then I'm a little skeptical.

We'll see.


Everything converges in a single frame

I just read Watchmen by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and it confirms my earlier hypothesis that the graphic novel is the ideal form for the screenplay. Further, it complicates that hypothesis: not only do the sequential frames of a comic book naturally expand into the film sequence, but the film sequence itself has contributed a potent visual syntax to its static sister medium. (And this syntax, of course, makes the transition from book to screen all the more organic.)

On the second to last page of Watchmen proper, we see the minor character Seymour emerge from "Burgers 'n' Borscht" (a final, hilarious, unification of the two Cold War combatants). Across the street, barely visible in the frame, is a placard advertising the two most recent movies by Tarkovsky: The Sacrifice, which deals with averting a third world war through the self-sacrifice of an individual, and Nostalgia, which is also the brand name of the book's fictional and oft-recurring perfume. I was surprised to see this allusion, and more surprised that it forced me to invest with new meanings details I had merely passed over or thought strange.

I have little experience with the graphic novel, and granted Watchmen is considered by many to be the apex of the art, but I found in the layering of visual and textual elements (to a degree almost impossible in the fleeting frames of film) a suggestion of the possiblities for artistic expression in hypertext, or in the hyperlinked realm in general. (I owe this observation somewhat to John Stilgoe, who connected graphic novels with Windows operating systems in a lecture I attended.)

It seems to me the future of hyperfiction lies in this direction, parallel to the comic book, as opposed to the primarily textual. (An answer to Jim's discussion of hyperfiction?)

Apologies for the scattershot.