Out and about (August 2008)

Out and about (august 2008) 02 I’ve been missing my Monday deadline for the last couple of weeks, but it’s because I’ve been working on some other deadlines (for pay), about which I’ll post more when the time comes. But don’t fret. I’ve been doing plenty of reading lately, and here’s the best of what I have found.

On more than one occasion, I’ve written that the mighty Zadie Smith is at least as good a literary critic as she is a novelist. Here she is, once again making my case for me, with a long assessment of Franz Kafka that actually manages to say some new things. It’s ostensibly a review of a new biography but her piece is so much more than that.

Speaking of writers who glare hard at darker matters, Guernica features a superb interview with Luc Sante—essayist, translator, editor, and blogger extraordinaire:

"First of all, working out a problem provides for necessary friction, without which writing is pointless. It also makes for a process. I go through the sequence of my reactions in chronological order, trying not to leave anything out, since even the smallest details can contribute—I suppose in a sense it’s like detective work, possibly combined with court procedural. These things help me to understand the matter at hand, if only subjectively, but they do not guarantee a resolution—which may not be the point anyway. I may circle round the matter, sift the ashes, exhume the cadaver, lay everything out on the examination table—but that may still leave a core that I can’t quite penetrate. I’m relieved when that happens, in fact. Anything I can resolve fully is likely to be insubstantial."

Sante’s nonfiction explores the seamy, grimy, undiscovered corners of city life, and weaves them expertly into the core of everyday life and large-scale cultural events. David Simon and Ed Burns’s TV show The Wire has done much the same thing on a fictional level. Somehow, I missed Mark Bowden’s substantive essay on the show’s merits and (few) demerits, which originally appeared back in January. Shame on me.

One of The Wire’s significant successes is the sheer number of multifaceted, intriguing black characters who appear onscreen, and who are allowed to evolve, show complexity, and mold the intricate web of plots. One of its significant failures, which gets resolved gradually as the seasons progress, is its relative lack of realistic women onscreen. Still, there’s more black women in the show than are probably in the last ten American movies you saw. Over at Living the Romantic Comedy, Billy Mernit wonders why that it is so. If you scroll down the comments box, you'll see that I add my two cents and then some.

Dark themes reign supreme in American cinema and TV, and that’s trickled down to our summer blockbusters. Using The Dark Knight as a case study, Orchard Letters (also a knitter) explores the evolving definition of “hero” in American popular culture, and finds it getting bleaker.

Bleakness and darkness, of course, are always part of the horror genre. Still, Michael S. Smith finds cause for celebration in the ghost story El Orfanato [The Orphanage]. In a three-part essay on the film, he declares that “I’ve seen few films in recent years that have compelled me as much as El Orfanato to rethink repeatedly what I’ve seen on screen (including the ultimate usefulness of one particularly disturbing image) and to revisit a film solely to reconsider its emotional and existential implications.” Here it is: part 1, part 2, and part 3. Go read, now.

David Bordwell wonders what it means to be a cinephile, and if any women are as actively cinephilic as men.

If anyone’s going to make me a true cinephile, lately it’s been Guy Maddin and the rejuvenated Woody Allen. (Watch that be a jinx, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona turn out to be a dud.) Here’s a great interview with Maddin as he discusses Brand Against the Brain! and his recent masterpiece My Winnipeg. At the Onion’s A.V. Club, Woody Allen opens up for a thoughtful, honest conversation.

At The American Scholar, William Deresiewicz ponders the (many) disadvantages of an elite education… Rachel Toor offers a sharp rebuttal.

Taking apart some more pretensions, Randy Nakamura fires a full blast at steampunk design. In doing so, he fails to acknowledge that a) its roots that extend beyond Victorian nostalgia, and b) its connections to punk culture via its DIY aesthetic. Anyway, there's lots of caustically funny, acerbic points made throughout the essay (which features illustrations), and the comments section is fired up.

Last but definitely not least, basketball lover and National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie offers up “61 Things He Learned While Testifying during the Seattle Supersonics Trial.” He tried valiantly to save his beloved team from being whisked away to Oklahoma City. He failed. In his failure, though, he reveals some important and hilarious truths.

That is all.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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5 Responses to Out and about (August 2008)

  1. Michael says:

    Walter, you might have seen this already, but Zadie Smith’s got a piece on Forster in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books (two articles in NYRB in less than a month … not bad!). Here’s the URL: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21692
    And many thanks for the links to my posts. :)

  2. Thanks, Michael. I had skimmed the article this afternoon–it’s a long one–and am finding it enjoyable. Speaking of Forster, did you ever finish A Passage to India? And did you ever see David Lean’s film adaptation of the novel?

  3. Michael says:

    Yeah, I finished A Passage to India, although it took me far longer than I had expected (that’s no reflection on Forster, though). I greatly admire his use of language and his relatively acute observations of character, cultural habits, physical appearance, and so on. I can’t quite figure out if the book is ultimately critical of imperialism or just critical of certain kinds of imperialists, but either way I think it’s an accomplished work of fiction. I’ve never seen Lean’s adaptation, but I was talking to a couple of people who have seen it (and who know Forster’s novel), and they told me the film falls a bit flat. Have you seen it?
    Also, I’m curious to know if you’ve got an opinion about John Steinbeck. I’m planning to pick up Cannery Row this week. I recently tried East of Eden but didn’t get far (by that I mean, the first five pages or so), and the only other Steinbeck I’ve read is Grapes of Wrath, but that was a long time ago (either high school or junior high) and so I don’t remember a thing about it.

  4. I’ve only seen snippets of Lean’s Passage to India, when it showed up on TCM during a “David Lean” month. It’s sumptuous and stately, but somehow seemed less intimate and character-driven than the novel. Of Steinbeck, I’ve only read his novella The Pearl, which I was assigned in high school. The moral seemed fairly obvious and the language simple, so it had the resonance of a fable, but I don’t know if that’s characteristic of his work as a whole.

  5. Michael says:

    Your description of Lean’s adaptation is pretty much how I’d imagine it. A quick look at the Steinbeck entry on Wikipedia shows that he wrote The Pearl after The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. I’d be interested to know if the qualities you found are, indeed, characteristic of his other work. I think I’ll give Cannery Row a try. It’s relatively short, so if it ends up not being my cup of tea, I can get through it relatively quickly.

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