I’ve been reading a lot of books and seeing some great films lately. Not every one of them is worth recommending, but here are a few of the favourites I’ve come across so far this summer.
Stoner by John Williams (1965) has exploded in popularity over the past year, having been branded as a forgotten gem of American literature by Ian McEwan along with some arts reviewers, bloggers, and columnists. I’m usually suspicious of high-brow hype, but I’m still pretty susceptible to it (see my experience reading The Goldfinch). The book follows William Stoner, a downtrodden-by-circumstance university professor who doesn’t exactly jump off the page with ambition to change his world. Life seems to pile up on him instead: he marries the wrong woman and meekly exists in cloistered academia. But near the middle of the book, things change for him significantly. Although the pacing is a little sluggish and Stoner’s challenges seem unremarkable, the straightforward style of Stoner is really inviting. It feels like the work of a writer whose ego is in-check and is willing to allow his character’s journey to carry the book. By the time I turned the last page, I was pleasantly surprised with the overall experience.
On the other end of the ego spectrum, I also read Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island (2005). This is the second book I’ve read from Houellebecq so I thought I knew what to expect, style-wise. But in contrast to The Map and the Territory (his latest translated into English), he pursues a more philosophical sci-fi concept that looms over the arc of a doomed affair. The primary narrator is a crass theatre professional who’s emotionally awakened by an intense sexual relationship with a young woman – all while he’s being befriended by a cult that believes in immortality through successively recreating a human life over and over through time. It’s a complex book that invites the reader to work a little, which I like. But as with The Map and the Territory, I’m constantly on the fence on whether Houellebecq’s smuttiness complements or detracts from his exploration of larger ideas. He’s an interesting author, so I’ll have to cue up his earlier work next (The Elementary Particles).
I still rent DVDs, meaning I physically go into a video store and select a physical box from a physical shelf. I like this kind of “analog” selection process that relies more on impulse or something catching your eye, a film that might be missed if you only chose what to watch based on what you’ve already watched. (To hell with your algorithms, Google/iTunes/Amazon.) Case in point: I went into my preferred video shop – The Film Buff on Roncesvalles Avenue in Toronto – and grabbed a copy of Like Someone in Love, directed by Abbas Kiarostami (2012). I won’t share any plot details because I think you should have the same viewing experience I did. But I will say that it’s a narrowly-focused story told over 109 minutes and has a great ending that leaves you with just the right amount of uncertainty. I totally fell in love with the small cast of characters.
The other film I’d recommend was a birthday gift from my parents. I mentioned to them that I’m always up for Criterion Collection films, so they sent me Italian director Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). It’s a staunchly anti-fascist film that’s a little dark and a little fanciful. The effect of Petri’s portrayal of an individual corrupted by his own conspicuous authority is pretty memorable stuff. Often, when a leftist filmmaker makes an overtly political film, the focus is on the heroism of the left in the face of a cruel and corrupt right-wing establishment. Investigation‘s power lies in how it criticizes fascism from within a singular character’s journey. It’s captivating stuff – plus the Criterion release comes with a couple of great essays and video interviews with Petri’s collaborators. Worthy summer viewing for film geeks.
Tumblr just told me I’ve been with them for three years, which is odd because I always forget I have a tumblr. Almost always.
I (infrequently) post my favourite sentences written by authors I love on worldentire.tumblr.com. Sometimes when I’m reading a book, a single line will leap out at me because of some unique feature. Maybe it’s alarmingly long or short and incisive. I’m always impressed by sentences that walk that fine line between genius and self-indulgent hackery. You can often tell the difference by reading it more than once.
I read these sentences dozens of times, trying to figure out how they were created. It’s like my equivalent to tinkering with a toaster in the basement. Why do these sentences grab my attention while thousands of others just float away as soon as I read them?
My first post is a good example of what I’m talking about:
Then they set out along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.
- Cormac McCarthy, ‘The Road’
There’s so much packed into these 20 words. It’s the small choices McCarthy makes that really fascinate me: he describes the road as “the blacktop”, which is a far more evocative image; there are few descriptive colours that could replace how well “gun-metal light” reflects the physical environment in The Road; the minor descriptive clause that McCarthy sneaks in the middle, “shuffling through the ash”, doubles-up on the apocalyptic imagery; and then the coup de grâce, “each the other’s world entire”.
That last part has stuck with me from the moment I first read it years ago. He could have easily written “each the other’s entire world”, which is a minor change, but it turns the phrase into a pop-song cliché. Reversing an all-too-common sentiment of “entire world” into “world entire” creates an instantly memorable construction and achieves a kind of poetic connection between the characters McCarthy’s referencing. So you have the combination of “blacktop”, “gun-metal light”, “ash”, and then a vivid expression of a powerful interpersonal bond. It’s amazing stuff because it so perfectly encapsulates the essence of what this book is all about.
[click to continue…]
I’ve had a good run of movie-going success lately. I’ll pretty much see anything at my favourite theatres, TIFF Bell Lightbox and the single-screen Revue Cinema in Roncesvalles in Toronto, but it always feels even better when the films that I check out on impulse turn out to be great.
Case in point: I was early for a screening at TIFF, so I changed my plans and watched Ida instead of a new 35mm print of L’avventura – a film I’ve seen many times before and own on Criterion Collection. I didn’t look up anything about Ida; I just went in and hoped for the best. Despite what The New Yorker’s Richard Brody says about it, I enjoyed myself and left the theatre thinking that I should do this more than I already do.
A similar thing happened when I bought a ticket for Under the Skin the other night at the Revue. I knew a little about it, and I wasn’t particularly moved: Scarlett Johansson is an alien who somehow seduces or disappears dudes in Scotland. Meh. I don’t generally trust trailers, and this one seemed to be deliberately trying to throw viewers off the scent of a film that might be a generic and predictable sci-fi snorefest.
Too many movies are marketed with “arty” promises and rarely deliver. Instead of hinting at larger themes beyond the immediate grasp of a story’s characters, we get bloated speeches with heavy-handed moralizing jammed into famous people’s mouths. (I’m looking at you, Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise.) But Under the Skin exceeded my expectations by far. A reviewer wrote about how Johansson is finding some artistic success in undermining the “gorgeous starlet” branding that’s been forced upon her by Hollywood, as evidenced by this film and Her. I agree that she’s appearing more shrewd in her career choices, which I love.
Director Jonathan Glazer has done something impressive here in blending a kind of serial-killer procedural with a more philosophic exploration of what it means to be human – and that exploration is driven by a non-human about whom we know nothing. There’s no overwrought explanations of what planet she comes from and what her purpose is in picking up men on the streets of Scotland. The setup just is. You can buy into it or not.
It’s an active-viewing experience, meaning Glazer doesn’t hold your hand through the plot or the at-times disorienting visuals. You’ll definitely miss out on dialogue due to some thick Scottish brogues and there may be a sequence or two that you want to watch again. But those aren’t strikes against the film in my book. I don’t mind working as a viewer, as long my work amounts to something in the end.
After the memorable final scene sequence of Under the Skin, I think it does.
I recently spent a week at a sweet mini-cottage near Penetanguishe, ON (my temporary work space pictured here). For the whole time, I sat in front of my computer without the distracting compulsion to be online all the time. Well, the compulsion was totally there but the wifi, alas, was not.
The result was a big chunk of writing on two separate projects, each at different phases of development. With the Edmonton International Fringe Festival approaching (where my third play will premiere), I had to get moving on another revision and push things further towards where I want this project to be. That meant applying notes from my lovely director Sabrina Evertt and one-and-only actress Tara Pratt, while also solving some nagging problems that I had noticed as well.
Once that was finished, I moved onto a more difficult task: writing as much as I could handle for a new fiction project. It may be a novel or it may be a bloated short story. I’m still not sure. But it’s rare for me to have the peace and quiet to focus on creating something new in a type of writing that’s outside of my comfort zone. I gave myself a strict rule to do zero editing, which is something I can easily do in small chunks of time throughout my week. These few days were solely meant for figuring out the project’s overall concept, the trajectory for each character, and also the style of language. The only way I know how to do that is to create a crappy first draft.
I can safely say my first draft is indeed crappy, but it’s there – and it wasn’t before. If I get to do another week of writing in seclusion this year, I’m going to be sure to bring more chips.