Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Jackie Chan, Dragon Lord

Jackie Chan’s 1982 Hong Kong martial arts movie Dragon Lord is strictly for the aficionados. When it works, Chan’s trademark blend of comedy and action is a welcome change from the overheated melodrama of Bruce Lee, but the comedy elements of this film are so puerile as to be embarrassing. There are a couple of stand-out fight sequences, as you might expect, and fans looking for a transition film between Chan’s early kung fu comedies and his later action-oriented movies might find it interesting. On the whole, though, this film is memorable for two pieces of movie nerd trivia: the opening scene (involving a pyramid fight) set a new world record for the number of takes needed for a single scene (2900!!) and this is the first of Chan’s films to feature a ‘blooper reel’ at the end (an idea Chan supposedly took from The Cannonball Run). The trailer features some interesting behind the scenes glimpses of Chan at work.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan

One of my favorite moments in Gary Shteyngart’s second novel, Absurdistan (2006), comes when he makes fun of himself and his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook: “Let me give you an idea of this Jerry Shteynfarb. He had been a schoolmate of mine at Accidental College, a perfectly Americanized Russian √©migr√© (he came to the States as a seven-year-old) who managed to use his dubious Russian credentials to rise through the ranks of the Accidental creative writing department and to sleep with half the campus in the process. After graduation, he made good on his threat to write a novel, a sad little dirge about his immigrant life, which seems to me the luckiest kind of life imaginable. I think it was called The Russian Arriviste’s Hand Job or something of the sort. The Americans, naturally, lapped it up.” The joke is funny partly because the two novels have so much in common: a schlemiel as a protagonist; over-the-top humor; larger-than-life characters, and an obsessive concern with the various meanings of Jewishness in both multicultural America and a thoroughly globalized 21st century. With all this said, there are significant differences between the two novels, too. Whereas the subject of Shteyngart’s first novel was, to a large extent, America, and its problematic and overdetermined embrace of the immigrant, this novel’s protagonist, Misha Vainberg, is in a state of exile from the United States, even though he yearns to return. Given this fact, the type of fictional central Asian republic that formed only part of the setting of Debutante’s is front and center in this novel. Through the titular Absurdistan, Shteyngart conveys his complex feelings about Russia, his country of origin, the experience of displacement from both one’s home and adopted cultures, and the murky depths of realpolitik, a subject that is explored with an uneasy combination of pathos and comedy. I say ‘uneasy,’ because initially the move from comedy to violence, as the situation in Absurdistan worsens rapidly, seems awkward and jarring. But this is where the concept of ‘absurdity’ does such important work for Shteyngart and it’s in this respect that I kept thinking of Chester Himes as I was reading Absurdistan. Although they’re very different writers, both use absurdity to achieve similar ends: to combine comedy and violence in such a way that their readers can feel what it means to be buffeted by history and randomness in a way that’s both tragic and ridiculous at the same time. It’s this paradoxical combination of emotions that Shteyngart makes his own.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Sarah Weinman (ed), Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives

Sarah Weinman’s anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read in years and an absolute must-read for anyone interested in mystery and suspense fiction. Featuring stories by Charlotte Armstrong, Barbara Callahan,Vera Caspary, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Miriam Allen DeFord, Celia Fremlin, Joyce Harrington, Patricia Highsmith, Elisabeth Saxnay Holding, Dorothy B. Hughes, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Millar, Helen Nielsen, and Nedra Tyre, the book focuses on tales originally published between the 1940s and 1970s that are all examples of domestic suspense, i.e., stories that are located in that liminal space between the two extremes of the hard-boiled and the cozy mystery. Weinman’s introduction explains why this type of mystery has fallen from favor, and their reappearance in print is truly a cause for celebration. You’ll find neither private eyes nor female investigators of the Miss Marple type here. Instead, we’re presented with a range of young, middle-aged, and older women (Weinman makes a fascinating decision to order the stories by the age of their protagonist) who all confront examples of violence and conflict, sometimes as witness, sometimes as victim, sometimes as perpetrator, and sometimes as a mixture of all the above. The composite picture that emerges of women’s lives that most other writers would regard as too trivial to write about is gloriously complex in its ambiguity, ambivalence, and open-endedness. Never has the quotidian appeared more vividly than in this collection. Highlights for me included Patricia Highsmith’s first published story, “The Heroine” which demonstrates just how good she was right from the beginning of her career, and “The Purple Shroud,” by Joyce Harrington, a writer I’m embarrassed to say I had never read before but whose work I will be seeking out immediately. And that is another of the pleasures of this book: it opens up a new world of reading even for those who consider themselves aficionados of suspense fiction. We are all in Sarah Weinman’s debt and she is to be congratulated on a magnificent achievement.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

56 Up (2012)

There is so much one can say about the Up series of documentaries, but in this post I’ll confine myself to a few observations about the latest installment, 56 Up (2012). This film was the first in the series for quite a while to vary the order in which the participants appeared. For a long time, Neil appeared last while Tony appeared first, and now they are switched. I’m not quite sure what impact these changes have on our perceptions of the participants and their relation to each other (if any), but I liked the change of format. One of my favorite things about the series as a whole is how much the original intention of the series (to show the continued dominance of the class system in contemporary British society) has changed, partly because the nature of class privilege (and the manner in which it is expressed) has changed so much since 1964, but mostly because the series’ participants have insistently talked back to Michael Apted and have resisted his attempts to make them personify one tidy category or another. The self-referential dimensions of the series have increased with each episode, to the point that many of the participants now spend a lot of their time talking about their feelings about participating in this project. 56 Up embraces this fact more than previous episodes, as we see when Suzy and Nick are brought together and talk about their experiences with the show. My favorite moment in this particular episode comes right at the end when Apted remarks that Tony seems quite racist, something that Tony vehemently denies. It’s such a symptomatic moment because race is so rarely mentioned in the series at any time. The sea change in Britain’s population since the 1960s, the extent to which it’s become a multicultural society, is what has blindsided the Up series most since it began (even though it was underway in 1964). In that respect, this series is, in many ways, increasingly a memorial to a Britain that was, rather than the Britain that exists today.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Gary Shteyngart, The Russian Debutante's Handbook

In a few weeks, I’ll be hosting a conversation with writer Gary Shteyngart as part of the Buffalo Humanities Festival. In preparation for that event, I'm rereading his work, beginning with his first novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, published in 2003. Shteyngart is an amazingly inventive and original winter and this coming of age story featuring his unprepossessing protagonist, Vladimir Girshkin, showcases the full range of his talents. It's a big book in every way--over 400 pages long, with multiple locations, and a dizzying array of characters--and yet at its heart the book's concerns are quite simple: what does it mean to be an American for an immigrant? Can an immigrant ever feel at home in America? Or anywhere else, for that matter? Of course, these are deceptively simple questions that have been tackled by dozens upon dozens of writers and Shteyngart does justice to the complexity of his themes. What's most original about the book is his use of humor; this, combined with his incredible eye for detail, make him a master satirist. And yet he's also capable of writing without sentimentality and with genuine pathos about the need to be loved and to belong and in this regard, there's something curiously old-fashioned about his writing. Although the novel maintains a running dialog with the American tradition of immigrant fiction, trying more often than not to make fun of it, the overall impact of RDH is to remind us of the timelessness of the problems and challenges that the expatriate faces when trying to understand her or his adopted country. It's inevitable that in this 'kitchen sink' of a book, into which Shteyngart throws everything, some parts work better than others, but on the whole it's an extraordinary first novel and should encourage anyone to read more of his work.
As you can tell from the gap between this post and the previous one, the reality principle showed up and kicked me in the head! With everything else going on in my life, posting every day is clearly not going to happen, so I will confine myself to posting whenever I can. Hopefully, this will prevent further kicks to the head. I've decided to keep the original blog title and description as a reminder of the temptations and dangers of hubris!

Saturday, March 22, 2014


Today I finished Megan Abbott’s 2012 novel Dare Me. The second half of the novel was just as good, if not better, than the first. Among Abbott’s achievements here are developing one of the most complex and nuanced fictional renditions of friendships between teenaged girls that I’ve ever read; having three characters all of whom are complicated and detailed enough to be the book’s protagonist, but who all share the stage in a perfectly syncopated, even symbiotic, manner; balancing the requirements of the murder narrative with the other elements of the book, so that the novel finishes with a doubled sense of resolution—one of which is the whodunit, and the other of which consists of the crisis points of the relationships between the main characters, and finally, getting me to take cheerleading seriously! The last point sounds flippant, I know, but I’m quite serious. Abbott is never patronizing toward her cheerleader characters and she communicates vividly and convincingly just why this activity is so important to these characters. And above all, in cheerleading—both its mechanics and its dramatics—Abbott finds a perfect metaphor for conveying the depth and intensity of the emotional investments we make in both ourselves and others.

I also finished Karla Oeler’s A Grammar of Murder: Violent Scenes and Film Form. In this closing section of the book, Oeler addresses the argument that genre films not only represent violence, they also inevitably “deform the real violence they reference.” Oeler’s answer to this objection is to address the genre pastiche film, concentrating not only on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man but also, and in some detail, the films of Stanley Kubrick, of whom Oeler says, “we would be hard pressed to find another filmmaker who pushes both violence and stylization…to such extremes.” In the context of discussing The Shining, and in particular the scene where Danny writes the word ‘murder’ in reverse and then his mother recognizes the true form of the word when she sees it in the mirror, Oeler writes “It is in this mirror, where the reversal of the word ‘murder’ is reversed, thus negating a negation, that we can locate an allegory for the mechanics of genre pastiche in terms of the way it registers historical violence. If genres themselves distort and displace the real violence entailed in colonizing the United States or in conducting the cold war, genre pastiche, like the mirror in The Shining, is a negation of that distortion. The pastiche of genre, in other words, does not seek directly to reinscribe the violence that has been excluded, but to represent the occlusion that has taken place.” In her conclusion, Oeler provides a tantalizingly brief discussion of Hitchcock, and my only complaint about this otherwise fascinating and thought-provoking book is that she had said more about a director so central to her project! But it’s always a good sign to finish a book and be left wanting more.

I also watched John Borowski's 2014 documentary Serial Killer CultureAs you can imagine, there are an awful lot of films out there about serial murder, but they focus overwhelmingly on the killers. There are very few films that study murderabilia (or the collecting of serial killer artwork and artifacts) from the point of view of the collector and the broader fascination with serial killers as a whole. Serial Killer Culture is easily the best film made so far on this subject. There are several things that made this film particularly interesting. To begin with, Borowski lets the interviewees speak for themselves. The absence of voiceover is a very smart move on Borowski’s part, not least because it’s so rare to have collectors speaking frankly on film (because they’re so used to being condemned for their interest in serial killers) that you really want to hear what they have to say in their own words. Then there is Borowski’s decision to include himself as one of the film’s subjects. His achievements in the making of serial killer documentaries (on H.H. Holmes, Albert Fish, and Carl Panzram) are considerable and deserve to be acknowledged. But what I really like is the diversity of examples of serial killer culture Borowski includes—not just murderabilia collectors, but also artists, musicians, and even the organizers of a Jeffrey Dahmer walking tour are all part of the film, and although this range inevitably just scratches the surface of what is a huge culture industry, Borowski does more than anyone so far to give us a sense of the diversity of this phenomenon. Finally, Serial Killer Culture is valuable for suggesting directions for further research in this area: we’re told that serial killers are popular all over the world, but why is this? The majority female audience for true crime and serial killer culture is noted at several points in the film, and yet all the collectors and (nearly all the) interviewees in the film are male—why? Borowski’s film is, and will remain, an indispensable reference point in answering these and other questions.