Saturday, March 15, 2008

Thursday, March 13, 2008

GRAVES, AT MY COMMAND: The Cigarette Smoking Blogger replies to my post on Paglia; and "Blackadder" replies to my horror-anthology post with the awesomely-titled, "If Reanimating the Dead Is Wrong, I Don't Wanna Be Right."

I don't know that we necessarily disagree, although I need to ponder. My post was more about, "If you do a 'came back wrong' story, this is what I will need in order to feel satisfied by it."

Now, though, I really want to read stories about the returned dead in which they don't come back wrong--there are a lot of possibilities there, from an eerie coziness to harsh rejection of the "returned" by their terrified or resentful relatives to the kinds of issues I touched on in "Now and at the Hour" (PDF--something similar to the point Adam Greenwood makes at the Vox-Nova link). How did people treat Lazarus? What was it like for him, and those around him, when he came again to death?
I JUST FOUND the page at Ave Maria Press where you can order Faith at the Edge: A New Generation of Catholic Writers Reflect on Life, Love, Sex, and Other Mysteries ... a book I'm in. (I contributed a chapter on Gay Catholic Whatnot.)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

LEFT AND LEAVING: InsideCatholic has a whole raft (a big raft) of responses to or riffs on that Pew survey on Americans' tumultuous religious lives. The whole megillah (...yeah, no) is here; my contribution is here; the one I liked best might be Mark Shea's, here. Amy Welborn is hosting a thread with some responses to my piece and to the entire feature--worth reading, including/especially the comments critical of my approach.
SURREALPOLITIK: I have a review in the current Commonweal of the Philadelphia Art Museum's Lee Miller retrospective. The review is subscribers-only now; I'll let you all know if that changes.

Miller--possibly my favorite visual artist, ever--went from fashion model to war correspondent, but despite her immense range and talent has never had a major retrospective until this one. Lots of photos here. An old post of mine on Miller here.
Further communication with her husband seemed hopeless. Between them yawned the chasm that divides those who have consumed champagne before breakfast from those who have not.
--Helen Cresswell, Bagthorpes Haunted

Saturday, March 08, 2008

MORE FLIES ON GRAY VELVET: I should just give up and blogroll the Horror Roundtable, you know? This week's entry, on favorite horror locales, gets several terrific responses. (Someone else likes The Bat Whispers!!) I'm adding those Venice movies to my Netflix queue, pronto.

I also keep thinking about my if-only horror anthology. I'm going to talk more about it, which I hope will spark more comment or something rather than diminishing the concept. These are some thoughts on why I hooked each director to their especial trope.

Alain Cavalier, werewolf or serial killer: Therese is probably the best movie I've seen about a saint; and therefore it's a movie about the longing for Heaven, for theosis, for divinization. Werewolf is the opposite trope, man descended into animality rather than raised up into the Divine. I would love to see a werewolf movie with theology. Why is a wolf less terrifying than a werewolf? I think Cavalier could show us.

As for serial killer, Therese used tight close-ups and beautiful, high-contrast darkness/white light shots to convey an enclosed world with few, but intense, relationships. I'd love to see how Cavalier would convey a serial killer's world with many but shallow relationships, nothing below the surface except horror; or a world in which every other person is viewed, by the killer, as just another empty mirror.

Marc Cherry & Alfonso Cuaron, evil carnival: I, uh, loved Desperate Housewives s1 (and liked the next two seasons quite a bit), and also Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and also evil carnivals in all media, from Something Wicked This Way Comes (novel better than movie, though I like both) to "--And The Horses Hiss at Midnight" to Carnival of Souls to Siouxsie's Carousel. Also, I wanted some comedians.

Julie Dash, zombies or anything vodoun: I've said before that I prefer vodoun-style zombies to the Romero-and-after kind. There aren't too many of the kind of zombie movie I like, and all the ones I've seen have a colonialist overtone, even when they also incorporate implicit critiques of colonialism, as White Zombie does. Dash could do zombies without racism, or vodoun used in the way that Catholicism is used in The Exorcist. I'd love to see that.

Hirokazu Koreeda, ghost ship: I've seen two movies by this guy, Maborosi and Nobody Knows. Ghost-ship movies get much of their resonance, for me, from those images of the brooding, anti-meaning ocean, an unintelligible sublime that's the opposite of God. Maborosi proves that Koreeda (? not sure which is his surname, actually) could do that. Ghost-ship movies also require the contrast between the ocean outside and the tight, enclosed, human-infested spaces of the ship--"terra firma in inner man"--and Nobody Knows proves that HK could do that part too.

Richard O'Brien, sometimes they come back: Heh, this was more random: I wanted O'Brien, because he's awesome and hilarious, and I wanted "sometimes they come back" because I'm obsessed with it yet find few examples of it done the way I want.

Pet Sematary (novel, not movie) was amazing, King's best work; but most "came back wrong" stories rely on an over-easy assertion that it's wrong to cheat death without any sense of why that might be true. My most blatant example of this is the Buffy episode right after "The Body"--I can't remember the title, but if you've seen it you know the one I mean--where there's an explicit conversation about why bringing back the dead might be wrong, but you never get anything beyond, "Uh, it might not work."

Pet Sematary, I think, actually shows the protagonist's confusion of love with self-comfort and self-projection from fairly early on in the story--what he wants back is only partly the dead beloved. Mostly he wants to stop hurting--which is incredibly sympathetic... but not quite the same thing. And so it makes sense to me that he gets back nothing but a familiar skin filled with projected horror. It resonates with CS Lewis's observation, in A Grief Observed, that death replaced the real and surprising beloved with cliched, sentimental, self-projecting and predictable memories and fantasies of her: It's just false to say she "lived on in his memory."
THE REAGAN HORROR PICTURE SHOW: Shock Treatment. This is "the other Richard O'Brien movie," basically: a quasi-sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And if you're thinking there's a reason lightning didn't strike twice, you're right--but Shock Treatment is still immensely, totally fun, and you guys should see it! I loved it.

It opens with a fairly tame satire of feel-good television and local boosterism, at the Denton (Home of Happiness) TV station. Even at the start, three of the most notable aspects of the movie are in place: The tunes are incredibly catchy (I have "Denton, Denton U.S.A.!" ringing in my head right now...), the style is '80s rather than '70s (it's incredibly fun to hear O'Brien tackle the first hints of MTV pop and New Wave), and the satire is much broader and more open than in RHPS. Rocky Horror isn't fundamentally satirical; Shock Treatment is. I'm guessing that's one reason the much more protean RHPS is the one that became a cult hit. You would definitely not find lyrics about Denton's "tolerance for/the ethnic races" in Rocky. Similarly, there's a later, really fun song, which ends with the lines, "Faggots/are maggots!/Thank God I'm a man," which: too broad for Rocky by a country mile.

Its themes are almost eerily '80s in their specificity: marital breakdown (Brad and Janet are in trouble, and the shock treatment of the title is intended to make Brad a better husband), anxieties of masculinity, and the nexus of consumerism and televangelism. This is a much more bourgeois movie than Rocky. (And, sadly, much less gay.) It's less sexy, too, with the exception of a brief, fondly perverse interlude between O'Brien's character (not Riffraff) and Patricia Quinn's (not Magenta).

Random note: Susan Sarandon was replaced by Jessica Harper as Janet. This works not only because Harper is good enough to handle the fairly blank role, but also because her voice is much darker and huskier than Sarandon's, which is a fun, unexpected interpretation of Janet's changed personality after marriage. She's certainly not an iconic actress like Sarandon; but she doesn't have to be.
PROBLEM W/LINKS: For a while now, using the "copy shortcut" function to create links to a specific blog post here has produced something with a tail that looks like this: ...#7726700524016777480#7726700524016777480

when it should look like this: ...#7726700524016777480

Does anyone know how to fix? People have been linking to me, and the links take you to the top of the month's archives, rather than anchoring to the specific post they want to cite.

(Also, of course, if you're linking to me, you can erase the extra tail manually when you create the link. My apologies for the inconvenience!)
"SHE TREATS POEMS LIKE PICTURES": Unqualified Offerings gives a more charitable, and quite interesting, reading of one of the problems I had with Sexual Personae. Comments also interesting.
"APHRODITE TRIED AND FAILED": Elizabeth Hand, Generation Loss. I would have loved this book in junior high.

Partly, that's because I could recognize good prose! Generation Loss is a lit-suspense novel about a washed-up junkie photographer (the awful title is a photo-jargon term, not that that's an excuse) who travels to darkest Maine to interview a reclusive artist, and stumbles into a decades-long, "the '70s were evil"-style mystery surrounding an abandoned artists' colony. The descriptions of Maine's harsh beauty are terrific--some of the best nature writing I've read in a while--and the metaphors and assorted prosy flotsam are frequently great. The use and rhythmic recurrence of symbolism (the vicious fisher cats, the snapping turtles...) reminded me of Stephen King, which from me is a big compliment.

And the novel stars two really horrible women who are nonetheless charismatic and compelling. I mean... Cass, the washout, is the only person who knows that her ex-girlfriend died in the World Trade Center on 9/11; she sees missing-person flyers for her, but doesn't tell the woman's family what happened. I'm amazed that I nonetheless wanted to read about her, rather than just growling, "Yeah, whatever, Hand, you think you're so edgy" and hurling the book away in disgust.

There are hints of Donna Tartt territory, "looking for ekstasis in all the wrong places," although this book is just much less intelligent than The Secret History. And several of the book's themes or elements are things I really love: "out of the past," photography, and characters who are worthless until they're needed, to name three.

What ruins the novel is its underlying worldview. One of the central ideas of the book, introduced very early, is that this is the story of how Cass dealt with one of the defining moments of her life: the moment when she didn't fight her rapist. (I think this is paralleled to her 9/11 awfulness, above, and resolved in the same later sequence of actions; I really don't like this parallel, but as prose, it's done pretty subtly.) I'm... really interested in reading about responses to violence, and in fact, this question is the reason I kept reading when, early on, the prose was all cussy and attitudinal.

But this is a story of redemptive violence--albeit one without the usual American echoes or photonegatives of the Gospel. And it turns out that while I'm deeply drawn to stories of redemptive violence, I can't stand those stories when they're presented with moralizing and death-fetishism, both of which are strongly present in the book's climax and denouement. (If you read the novel: the two places where the phrase "Good girl" appears? Haaaaaaaate.) Or to put it another way, stories of redemptive violence work as tragedy. They don't work, at all, as a gothed-out Girl Scout Handbook.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

LATE-NIGHT DOUBLE FEATURE PICTURE SHOW. I watched One, Two, Three and You Can Count on Me last night. Very scattered thoughts follow.

One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder satire on Coca-Cola exec in divided Berlin) wasn't really my thing--lots of rapid-fire yelling to make the script seem wittier than it is. Hanns Lothar, as the exec's assistant of dubious wartime background, was terrific, stealing scenes from James Cagney left and right. (So to speak.)

But the opening scenes really worked for me, because of their bad taste. I mean this: The humor in the movie is often really skin-crawling in its breezy evocation of the Nazi and Soviet terrors. It isn't usually very witty, unexpected, or penetrating humor--stuff like, the Coke exec's wife responds to her husband's demands with a wry, "Yes, mein Fuhrer"--but it's really, really tasteless, and that's exactly the right move. It's the humor of a society rebuilt on bad conscience, harsh power differentials which nobody talks about unless they need to make threats, and a ferocious need to look away, to focus on the surface rather than any underlying horrors. The jokes in this movie are the opposite of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. It's a terrific atmosphere, and I think I'm hoping for something similar when the first season of the new Battlestar Galactica finally surfaces in my Netflix queue.

You Can Count on Me is a comedy-drama with about 10% of the former to 90% of the latter. It's small-town realism about a brother, a sister, and the sister's son, all of whom (and really all of the other characters) are adrift and seeking a purpose, something greater than a mere escape.

I want to say I Netflix'd it because Terry Teachout said it was such an accurate picture of small-town life. I'm certainly not the person to ask about that aspect... but I usually don't like realist movies, and I liked this one a lot. The characters and their dilemmas are believable and compelling; the movie is almost two hours long, but never seemed to drag. The director's commentary, which I watched afterward, is only intermittently interesting, but it did explain that the director doesn't share certain perspectives which nonetheless get portrayed with quiet tenderness in the movie.

I don't know that I have anything interesting at all to say about this movie, but it was very good. And it continues my Matthew Broderick streak--I have never yet seen him in a bad movie!
"THUS WE KNOW THE SQUID'S SECRET GENDER.": Sexual Personae. I'm developing a theory that you can tell more about a work of literary criticism by what doesn't appear in its index than by what does. One tendril of this theory posits that any lit-crit work is fundamentally unsound if it devotes more than two sentences to de Sade and not a one to Pauline Reage (our true nouvelle Heloise). I find both the theory and its subtheory ( to speak) vindicated by Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae, a big, weird, brilliant, silly book that sometimes seemed more lacuna than presence.

This is a big-idea book, revolving around the opposition of mother-nature-chaos and son-reason-linearity-order. (And yes, I know that's an oversimplification, but I'm trying to give people some sense of what they're getting into, here....) Each of the sexual personae turns out to be one attempt among many to negotiate or conquer this opposition.

If you want to get the best of this book, I'd suggest starting with the chapters on Spenser and Dickinson and then seeing if you want more. I really love both authors, and was not sure I wanted Paglia getting her lipstick all over them, but her readings in those chapters are terrific--violent, erotic, brash, but always rooted firmly in the awesome texts. I think there may have been one minor problem with the Spenser chapter--it's been almost a month since I finished the book, so I may be misremembering, but I vaguely recall insufficient attention being paid to The Faerie Queene as a narrative progression rather than a series of episodes or incidents--but in general, these were fantastic, challenging chapters.

Paglia is better at picking her battles than many academics working the same Everything Is Either Phallic Or Vaginal territory. Several times, I found myself saying, "Oh, c'mon, you're just being trendy with that reading--this bit really isn't about daemonic lesbians or whatever"... but then she'd quote a few more passages from the same work, and I'd have to say, "Uh... you know, she's kind of on to something here." That didn't always happen--her reading of De Profundis as Wilde's sentimental return to his mommy is just infuriatingly bad, more on this in a moment--but it happened often enough that I'd say she earned the benefit of the doubt with me.

My real problem with Paglia, I think, is that she and I consider different things interesting and important--worth taking the time to explore on their own terms and as fully as possible. I summarized this to Ratty as, "She'll go to the mat for the belief that cats have rich inner lives, but she doesn't seem to think the Crucifixion is worth talking about."

I'm pretty sure her lack of attention to the Crucifixion is related to her disdain for King Lear ("obvious"--well, yes, Camille, torture is generally obvious, that's kind of the point of torture) and to the bathos of her utterly annoying misreadings of Wilde. (I will say that her take on The Importance of Being Earnest is fun and mostly right. Her failure, which is large but not devastating, is that she doesn't take the play as a narrative of conflict and resolution. Paglia points out lots of interesting things about that conflict, but she swerves around the fact that it is resolved, and that it would be a much less satisfying play without that resolution.) Paglia's unwillingness to consider suffering and powerlessness as points of view is as ideological as any Randroid's. You can see it in her oh-so-edgy approving use of the term "fascism"--seriously, lady often sounds like a repressed homosexual with a crush on a skinhead, and it's not a good look for her--and it genuinely warps her criticism.

I feel like I should mention the strenuous overwriting, so... here I am, mentioning it. "The real honeyed crotch in which we all drown is the womb-tomb of mother nature"--that's a completely random example from the page opposite the squiddess--there's one of those on every other page, and you just have to resign yourself to it. I'm tempted to say that this stuff got into the book because Paglia was trying to import the techniques of classroom performance into writing, and written lit-crit requires different performance techniques; not sure if I'm giving her too much credit, there.

...Finally, the title of this post is entirely within context. Respect, y'all.

Comments, criticisms, howls of execration? Email me with your chthonic and/or fascist insights....
PRAYING WITH LIOR. This looks pretty fascinating:
An engrossing, wrenching and tender documentary film, PRAYING WITH LIOR introduces Lior Liebling, also called "the little rebbe." Lior has Down syndrome, and has spent his entire life praying with utter abandon. Is he a "spiritual genius" as many around him say? Or simply the vessel that contains everyone’s unfulfilled wishes and expectations? Lior – whose name means "my light" — lost his mother at age six, and her words and spirit hover over the film. While everyone agrees Lior is closer to God, he’s also a burden, a best friend, an inspiration, and an embarrassment, depending on which family member is speaking. As Lior approaches Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony different characters provides a window into life spent "praying with Lior." The movie poses difficult questions such as what is "disability" and who really talks to God? Told with intimacy and humor, PRAYING WITH LIOR is a family story, a triumph story, a grief story, a divinely-inspired story.


I'll try to see it if it comes to DC. Link via Amptoons.
"...The world of today is one in which religion, if it is to mean anything at all, must seem to have been invented by Bunyan and had teeth put into it by Dostoyevsky. This means that only those who have been indescribably wicked in the past can hope to be religious in the future: indeed, I would go further, and say that the only road to Rome nowadays is via Moscow. There are alternative by-ways: many intellectuals, for example, have a soft place in their hearts for drunkenness, moral cowardice, sexual quiddities, and other non-political vices, which, if practised frantically enough, serve, they say, as adequate preliminaries to the religious state. Some o fthem even argue that the two states are inseparable and that the man most likely to succeed is he who carries prayer in one holster and a really good vice in the other, firing each according to whim. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the old-fashioned notion of religion as a sort of everyday affair in which everyone can join has quite gone out: the only devout ones today are those who really have something to be devout about."
--Cards of Identity

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

FIVE FLIES ON GRAY VELVET: The current Horror Roundtable asks participants to name the five directors they'd want to do a horror anthology flick. (Via Sean Collins.) I decided to do five non-genre contenders; can't sleep, so added suggestions for possible tropes, as well. I genuinely would love to see every single one of these.

Alain Cavalier: werewolves; or serial killer
Marc Cherry: evil carnival (grar! actually he's a writer, of course, not a director--so okay, he'll write this one--why not get Alfonso Cuaron to direct, he seems all evil-carnivalish)
Julie Dash: zombies, or anything vodoun-related
Hirokazu Koreeda: ghost ship
another writer!: Richard O'Brien, because he's been on my mind, and I need him and Marc Cherry to balance this otherwise quite depressing line-up: Sometimes They Come Back

(Admittedly, I've only seen one film each by Cavalier and Dash--Therese [the 1986 one] and Daughters of the Dust, respectively--but I know what I like.)

Another inzombiac thought: Wouldn't (selected episodes from) the Metamorphoses make a great horror anthology?? Actaeon and Narcissus are the ones I thought of first, but you all should feel free to chime in with more possibilities, comments, elaborations, etc.
"Why, if one day Beau disappeared, how I would take on! I would search for him in every house in England; whenever I saw a man I would go up as close as possible to him and stare into his eyes, listen to his voice, study his walk and ways! I would sound alarms all through the country, and never rest until I found the man in whom Beau was hidden."
--Cards of Identity

Monday, March 03, 2008

KITCHEN ADVENTURE: SOUP IS GOOD FOOD. In which I make an onion soup.

Day One: Make steamed broccoli in the microwave, using the juice from a lemon. Eat that! Put the broccoli bits and bobs and the squozen lemon halves in a pot, barely cover with water, add some dried bay leaves, and make stock: Bring to a boil, then simmer about 40 minutes. You want a very lemony stock. Refrigerate overnight.

Day Two: Slice some onion. (I used one large yellow onion for one person.) Put water on to boil. Saute the onion with chopped garlic until it's browned but not burnt. I cooked it in a mix of butter and olive oil; I'm sure you could use just butter, not sure if it would work as well with just oil. This part required more stirring than I'd anticipated--this is not really a soup you can make without paying any attention.

When the water boils, add some pasta--I used fusilli, which were a perfect shape, small and stubby and ridgy. Small shells might also work well. You don't need a lot of pasta. Cook until you're about halfway to al dente, then drain the pasta and put it in the pan with the onion. Add enough stock for the pasta to soak it up and keep cooking. (I added stock twice--added more when the pasta soaked up the first schloop of stock.) Add a lot of black pepper, and cook until the pasta is ready. Pour soup into bowl, top with grated Parmesan cheese, say grace, and plant your face in the bowl.

the verdict: This was delicious. A great balance of onion, garlic, pepper, lemon, and Parmesan. I admit that it was more labor-intensive than I'd expected, so I'm not sure how often I'll make it (it isn't at all difficult--I'm just lazy), but it tasted great.

bonus tip: In general, you can get great results from pasta sauce by 1) cooking the pasta only halfway, 2) draining the pasta but reserving a couple cups or so of its cooking water, 3) putting the half-cooked pasta in the saucepan, and 4) cooking it the rest of the way in the sauce and as much of the reserved cooking water as you need to keep the sauce from drying out. This I learned from Christopher Kimball, "The Kitchen Detective," in Year's Best Food Writing 2004. He says: "The pasta and sauce will likely look drier than normal but will be moist and flavorful upon tasting."
CLOTHES READING: I have a review of the Met's "blog.mode: addressing fashion" show, at the Weekly Standard. Unfortunately, it's only available to subscribers, so I don't actually know if they used my "fashion lolcat" line.... The rest of the article is better than the opening, I think.
"...But we know, don't we, that many an atom bomb is merely a Mrs Finch? Think of her as a piece of film, wedged deep in the unconscious. We cannot eject her, so we place behind her the powerful light of guilty evasiveness, which projects her upon the screen of the outer world, distorted into the likeness of a bomb. Thus we rid ourselves of an internal mother, by transforming her into an external explosive."

"Then the atom bomb does not exist?"

"Some of my colleagues say that it doesn't: they lump it in with the other internal problems, like road-accidents, industrial injuries, cancer, death, and so on. Personally, I'm a middle-of-the-road sort of man: I believe that machinery, and motor-cars in particular, are intrinsically dangerous. I even claim that they have the power of moving quite often in a direction opposite to the one demanded by their victim's neurosis...."
--Nigel Dennis, Cards of Identity (this maybe isn't the best quotation, but I'm really, really enjoying this book)