Monday, November 21, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings (dir. Travis Knight, 2016) is a wonderful work of film animation. Using stop action photography, origami, and digital effects, it creates a beautiful and compelling world. It was a pleasure to watch from beginning to end. The one weakness in the story was the story itself. It didn't always abide by an internal logic. There were questions one needed to ask about why certain characters did certain things. But perhaps I’m being too much of an adult and should not be asking those questions. Perhaps i should just enjoy the film. And I certainly did enjoy it. It's probably the best animated film I've ever seen. It gave me great pleasure; it was a wonderful fantasy; the music was compelling; the technology that went into the making of the film was incredible. The film was a work of great talent and imagination.

The two strings of the title refer to a three-stringed instrument, the shamisen, that the main character Kubo carries with him everywhere he goes. Even as a young boy we’re given to understand that he's a master of storytelling, and when he plays his instrument, origami paper figures that he's devised come to life and act out the story. Perhaps his parentage-- his mother was a deity and a great magician and his father a samurai warrior--explains his talent. This great work of film imagination is itself about imagination and about storytelling.

Obviously, Kubo tells a Japanese story. The characters are Japanese, the visual style of the movie is Japanese, the mythological characters named in the film are at least Japanese in nature if not in fact. I saw few Japanese names among the film credits. Several Japanese actors voiced important characters (one of them was George Takei, who played Capt. Sulu in the original Star Trek series). There were random names here and there of Japanese people who served various roles on the production staff. Frequently these names belonged to people who worked as apprentices. Does the absence of many Japanese names mean the film is inauthentic? Director Knight insists, with the support of the two Japanese actors, that the film tells a Japanese story. Not really. It's a film made by an American group of actors and filmmakers about Japanese characters set in Japan.  They’ve made it with what I would describe as sensitivity and respect and considerable background research. As long as we don't go too far in making claims about what this film is and what it isn't, I'm okay with that.

Eye in the Sky

Eye in The Sky (2016; dir. Gavin Hood) is a procedural film. It's similar to Zero Dark Thirty (2012; dir. Kathryn Bigelow). It focuses on a group of British intelligence military and government officers in the chain of command responsible for ordering a drone strike on a house in the Middle East where suspected terrorists are meeting. It suggests that surveillance technology has advanced to such a point that from a drone flying at an altitude of 21,000 feet cameras can provide a crystal-clear image of street-level activity. We see not only a full-size drone in this film, but also bird- and a cockroach-sized drones—all equipped with cameras and capable of flying quietly from one location to the next. The film raises significant issues about privacy. Is there any place in the world where we’re free of potential surveillance by governments or corporations or private individuals?

But the main concern of Eye in the Sky is not privacy. It shows us how government and military officers fastidiously seek to protect a nine-year-old girl who is selling bread on the street in front of the house they intend to strike. She's inside the kill zone, where there is a 65% chance she’ll be killed. Everyone from the drone pilot sitting in a closed room watching the girl at her table to intelligence and military government officers in a meeting room in London thousands of miles away is involved in the decision.

The main character is an upper-level military officer, Katherine Powell, played by Helen Mirren. She's been tracking one of the terrorists (a British-born woman) for five or six years, and for the first time she has her terrorist within her sites.  It is important to her that a strike be launched--not only to prevent terrorist attacks but also for her own satisfaction. Significant moral and ethical debates occur in this movie. Most everyone in the chain of command doesn’t want to make the decision to make the drone strike (and perhaps kill the girl) and instead seeks to pass the buck on to someone else. Even the order to the drone pilot to make the strike is delivered in words that seem to give him the final decision, though it really isn't his to make. This film is about is passing the buck.

Eye in the Sky is also about the care and concern the various individuals involved in the chain of command pretend they are showing for the life of the nine-year-old girl whom we see in one scene after another. Katherine Powell is apprehensive about the girl but more concerned about getting her terrorist. In the end, she pressures a mid-level officer to underestimate the risk to the girl—his low estimate allows the strike to occur. One might argue that the only truly false person in the film is Powell. But in another sense all of the characters are false. All show concern for the girl but not for the lives of anyone else. The film wants to show these people as exercising restraint and moral compunctions. It never questions the morality of the drone strike itself. Even if one feels that ultimately a strike is necessary to save lives, it is logical to assume that the film would at least question the legitimacy of drone strikes and kill zones and risks to an innocent population in general. That never happens. To me this is a significant failure, though perhaps one could argue that the film leaves such questions to be asked by its viewers. Moreover, by focusing on collateral damage, maybe it is suggesting that no matter how much technology and moral compunction one might apply in order to avoid inflicting harm, harm is the inevitable consequence.

Zero Dark Thirty did subtly question the mission that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. I don't think it argued that bin Laden shouldn't have been killed, but at least it questioned the act, and showed the main character Maya’s anguish over her involvement. In Eye in the Sky, only the drone pilot and his assistant seem anguished.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Anatomy of a Murder

James Stewart’s air of awkward befuddlement served him well in comedies such as Bringing up Baby (1938; dir. Howard Hawks), but it does not always work in Anatomy of a Murder (1959, dir. Otto Preminger), although in a sense he's reemploying the character he played memorably in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939; dir. Frank Capra).  However, befuddlement in his character Paul Biegler is a ruse: as a country lawyer pretending to be less capable than he is, he's sly.

The film is about the trial of an army lieutenant, Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), accused of murdering a bartender, Barney Quill, who purportedly raped Manion’s wife Laura (Lee Remick). Biegler defends Manion in the trial.

Much about the film is antiquated.  Elements that might have seemed daring in 1959 because of the frank presentation of sex seem old-fashioned if not retrograde. An example is the treatment of rape. Although Michigan law doesn't recognize a man’s right to kill his wife’s rapist, Biegler works this argument into his defense anyway because he knows it will have an impact on the jury.  The prosecuting attorneys would like to show either that Laura Manion was not raped or that she invited rape with her manner of dress and behavior. The film does everything it can to suggest that Laura is a wanton woman: she comes on to Biegler every time they meet, she leaves her husband at night to drink and dance at local night spots, and she flirts constantly.  She’s a Lolita-like vamp, and we’re encouraged to suspect her.  Her husband, Frederick, is unlikeable, gruff, and probably an abuser of his wife.  There’s not much to like about either of them.

The ambiguity of the law, of what is and isn't true, is at issue.  Biegler’s intention is to outwit the prosecution, not to demonstrate what is true or false. It's never clear that the accused Manion isn't lying or that his wife isn’t lying.  (In fact, we suspect that they concocted the rape story to justify the murder of Quill).

After the trial ends with a finding of innocence, Manion and Laura run off. It's not clear that Biegler isn't aware that maybe his client was guilty after all.  During the trial, Biegler used a phrase, “irresistible impulse,” to describe Manion’s supposed reaction when he learns his wife has been raped.  The irresistible impulse leads Manion to kill Quill in a fit of vengeful rage.  However, in the note he leaves for Biegler to explain his sudden departure, he writes that he was following an “irresistible impulse,” implying that it was all a deception. 

The film’s music is by Duke Ellington, who shows up as the pianist in a small jazz combo at a night spot Biegler visits.  Biegler’s fondness for jazz, which he plays on his piano, is the justification for the jazzy score.  Except for the small group of musicians Ellington plays with, the only black person in the film is on a wanted poster at the sheriff’s office.

The film is slow, clocking in at 2 hours 40 minutes.  The acting is flat.  Stewart is his usual self.  Remick is Remick. The film was made at a time in her career when being Remick was quite enough.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others, by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press, 2016), is about the 20th century philosophies of phenomenology and existentialism. It integrates explanations of philosophy with biographical information on the principal figures in these movements: Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and others. It examines the philosophies of the 19th century and earlier, with special attention paid to Kierkegaard and Hegel, which provided the foundations of existentialism, and quickly moves to the 20th century. It’s written for a lay reading audience. By that I mean an audience of intelligent readers who can deal with complex ideas on a relatively high level. I often found myself losing track of the philosophical discussions. This was especially true for phenomenology, not so much for existentialism. For the most part, I grasped the general gist of the matter: phenomenology Is a philosophy of the self, experience, and consciousness. Existentialism concerns the freedom of the individual to act and live in defiance of the world. However, different references often give divergent definitions of phenomenology.
I grew up in the era of existentialism. The counter culture and protest movements of the 1960s and 70s were existentialist movements, though few of the participants could explain why or were even aware of the fact (include me in that proviso). Although I never studied their ideas in much detail, I knew about Camus and Sartre and to a lesser extent about de Beauvoir, Heidegger and others. I read Camus's The Stranger and The Plague and Sartre’s Nausea. In a loose sort of way I regarded these figures as models of how to live and be in the contemporary world, as models of the artist. At some point I became interested in Heidegger, perhaps because of the titles of his works, especially Being and Time, and also because I felt he might be an influence on the novelist William Faulkner.
Heidegger is an especially problematic figure. For about a year under the Nazi regime he held an administrative position as rector of the University of Freiberg,  a leading German university.  He was a member of the Nazi party. In 1934 he resigned his post and returned to his hometown and sought to live a private life. His letters and private papers give evidence of his involvement in Nazism. He never renounced his membership in the Nazi party. He wasn’t judged fit to teach until four years after the end of the second world war. He didn't talk much. Goodwell describes his writing style as complex and impenetrable, like his personality.
Bakewell views Simone de Beauvoir as a central figure in existentialism. She regards her book The Second Sex not merely as a founding document of modern feminism but as a major work of existential philosophy. Although she was for most of her life involved in a deep professional and private relationship with Sartre (it was sexual for less than a decade during the 1930s), she was an independent thinker, not an acolyte. At the same time, she and Sartre read and commented on each other’s work--they were major influences on each other.  They worked together on a daily basis, often sitting next to one another as they wrote. Clearly de Beauvoir and Sartre were part of an important philosophical movement which she helped form.
Sartre and de Beauvoir were prolific—in addition to their works of philosophy, they wrote plays, novels, journalism, biographies, political commentary, literary criticism, memoirs. Sartre wrote so much, especially after the war, that he probably damaged his health and even the quality of what he wrote.  In the later, politically activist years of his life he decided not to revise first drafts: he regarded revision as bourgeois. This is an opinion I do not hold myself and which I will not share with my students.
For its discussions of the lives and personalities of the major figures in existentialism, At the Existentialist Cafe is a fascinating book. Existentialism seems to me today to be a profound and still pertinent explanation of our place in the world, of our freedom to choose the course of our lives.  Many scholars of philosophy, and perhaps many philosophers, view existentialism as a movement that ran its course back in the 20th century and that has been supplanted by new forms of philosophical thinking. It’s difficult for me to conceive of existentialism as a movement that is mainly a matter of historical interest, and that no longer offers a way to live. But such is time and the short spans of human life.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond, by Christophe Galyard

I have read a number of books in which writers attempt to explain complicated concepts of modern physics, Einsteinian relativity, quantum physics, string theory, and the like. These writers employ different strategies in their attempts to make comprehensible to an intelligent lay reader complicated concepts. Most of them don't succeed. One of the most difficult concepts in Einsteinian relativity is the concept of time dilation. Time dilation refers to the idea that if you travel at an extremely high rate of speed, say, 95% of the speed of light, time for you slows down. Or to put it another way, time seems to pass in a normal fashion for you but in the world through which you're traveling it speeds up. This means for instance that if you travel on a rocket ship for a year at 95% of the speed of light, when you return to your starting point you'll discover that eight hundred years have passed while for you only one year has passed. I understand what time dilation is, but I don't understand why and how it works. It's been proven repeatedly through various experiments. It's a fact that it works, that it exists. I just want to understand why.

Christophe Galfard, the author The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond (Flatiron Books, 2016), invites the reader to imagine that he is sitting at night on the beach with friends looking up at the stars. Suddenly his mind leaves his body and soars up into the cosmos. From this perspective the reader oversees the history of the solar system which ends billions of years hence in the sun's explosion. We plunge into the core of the sun, visit black holes, study atomic particles up close, learn about atomic structures and quantum forces.  During these visits Galyard shows the reader how different physical principles work.

The premise of the book: that by understanding the scientific principles of the universe, Newtonian physics, Einsteinian relativistic physics, quantum physics, string theory, and the like, mankind will one day have enough Information to be able to ensure the survival of the human race into the future before the sun explodes.

This strategy does work in a certain way. The author succeeds better than some others In making these concepts comprehensible. But I found his strategy condescending, inviting the reader to pretend that he is soaring through space or shrinking to a minuscule size and traveling around with quarks and electrons and protons and various other particles. In essence, it insults the reader's intelligence. Moreover, Galyard spends so much time setting up these journeys and joshing with the reader about what he’s learned that he denies himself the opportunity for explaining his subject in more depth. What I want from a book like this is clear writing and careful explanation of difficult concepts, not pandering.

Each chapter tackles a different aspect of cosmology: moving from the solar system to the universe to atomic particles and quantum particles to black holes and the Big Bang and string theory.  An introductory note promises that the book will use only one equation (E=MC2) and that the reader will take a “journey through the universe as it is understood by science today.  It is my deepest belief that we can all understand this stuff.”

I appreciate Galyard's attempt to explain difficult concepts, but his strategy is sometimes cloying.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Introduction of Roy Blount

Good afternoon.  I’m privileged to introduce to you a writer who since the late 1950s has been a prominent journalist, humorist, sports writer, novelist, dramatist, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio and television actor, screenwriter, and poet. I’m speaking, of course, of Roy Blount, who tomorrow will be inducted as a new honoree in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame (the induction ceremony is tomorrow morning at 10:00 in this room).

Mr. Blount was born in Indianapolis but raised in Decatur, GA.  He began his career as a newspaper journalist, earned degrees from Vanderbilt and Harvard University, served two years in the army, worked for several years for the Atlanta Journal, was a staff writer for Sports Illustrated, and has been an independent writer for the last 40 years, during which time he has published some 23 books of commentary, humor, fiction and history.  These include a book about Robert E. Lee and another (presciently?) about the first woman president.  He’s been published in virtually every prominent American magazine I can think of.  He’s been widely anthologized.  Two of his best known books are About Three Bricks Shy of a Load (1974) about the Pittsburgh Steelers, which has been called by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post one of the ten best books about sports ever written, and Crackers: This whole many-angled thing of Jimmy, more Carters, ominous little animals, sad singing women, my daddy, and me (1980).  He’s written many other equally distinctive books since then.  He appears frequently on Prairie Home Companion, and I saw him last week on television present comments at the Mark Twain Prize ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. He has also written the best and perhaps only poem I’ve ever read about grits.

Roy Blount is one of the most important and active figures in American writing, journalism, and humor at work today.  I am pleased to present him to you.  He will speak on the subject of “Where I’m Coming From . . . .”

November 6, 2016, Georgia Writers Hall of Fame 
Special Collections Library, Univ. of Georgia

I drew for this introduction from the New Georgia Encyclopedia entry on Roy Blount by Lesa Carnes Corrigan (, his web site (, and common knowledge.

Friday, November 04, 2016

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover

A distinctive camera technique in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, directed by Peter Greenaway in 1989, are long tracking shots that move slowly and methodically from the dining rooms of the restaurant where the film takes place to the kitchen, or in the reverse direction. The dining rooms are ornate and primarily decorated in red hues, and in them sit elegantly dressed diners on plush seats. We see a number of these shots throughout the film, set to rhythmic music one might associate with the Baroque.

There are only a few films I can compare this one to. It reminded me of Fellini Satyricon (1969), with its Hogarthian characters, physical gluttony, excess, scatology, and broadly comic moments and people. It reminded me even of Bahz Luhrmann who in such a film as Moulin Rouge (2001) tried to make art out of lushly ornate and romantic settings and characters and popular music. Luhrmann's film was more uplifting and superficial than this one, with its dark and gruesome depths.

“Excess” is one term for describing this film. It's fascinating to watch, so intricately detailed as it is in both mise en scène and character. But it's a cruel film, and it doesn't give much pleasure. Unless you like sex scenes in a refrigerated room where uncarved sides of slaughtered animals hang over the lovers, or cannibalism, or the abuse of a child, or the seemingly endless sadistic ravings of a narcissistic and abusive maniac and bully. His name is Albert. He owns the restaurant, which in some manner or other he stole from the previous owner.  In the first scene, Albert and cronies drag that owner from the restaurant, force him to strip naked, beat him, cover him with excrement, and force him to lie on the ground while dogs lick and otherwise molest him.  This is just one example of Albert’s behavior.

This is a Jacobean revenge drama. It might have seemed daring and tottering on the edge of what was wild and acceptable in 1989 but today those sensational aspects verge on the banal--excepting the cannibalism and various scenes of torture.

At first I felt fairly indifferent to this film. But it has an undeniable power, a kind of ritualistic momentum that gathers force and propels us towards an ending we should be able to predict given the models on which it is based but which comes as a surprise after all. Then it's merely disgusting, comic, and apt. But there's gratification in that moment too because Albert, the center of cruel darkness and destructiveness, gets his comeuppance. Is this art? It’s made with dramatic and cinematographic skill. Is it pornography of a certain sort—a pornography of epicurean excess rather than of sex? (The sex is fairly tame, mostly involving the entwined naked bodies of the lovers). Is it pornography that verges on art, or art that verges on pornography? I'm not sure. Any statement of praise I make about it leaves me feeling dirty.

The antiseptic detail of the men’s and women’s restrooms reminded me of the ornately severe bedroom near the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and of the general scenic design and décor of Clockwork Orange (1971).  The long dining table at which Albert and his changing array of friends dine night after night iconographically suggests (in what must have been intended irony) Leonardo’s The Last Supper.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

On the Road with Del & Louise: a novel in stories, by Art Taylor

On the Road with Del & Louise: a novel in stories, by Art Taylor (2015), reads like a novel.  There are episodes, but they’re hardly distinct stories.  The subtitle may reflect how the novel was written, as a series of stories that were later joined together. Taylor’s book follows in a long series of American road novels (and films), but only two-thirds of the narrative actually seems like a road story, and most of the novel is stationary, in New Mexico, Los Vegas, and North Dakota. The point is significant because in most road narratives involve accumulating layers of experience and knowledge. In this novel, Del and Louise gradually realize that they love each other, but this happens because of the time they spend together, not the places they visit or the roads they travel.
The narrator in On the Road with Del and Louise is a Southern stereotype.  We see everything through her eyes—she reacts as a sheltered, simple, somewhat conservative woman trying to break out of the life and personality her upbringing gave her.  I had difficulty believing in her dimwitted nature.  Louise’s narration is the main problem with the novel.  She’s a young woman on the run, mostly from her mother.  She’s not especially smart or sophisticated, and she tries diligently to spout homespun witticisms and humor.  But there’s no real self-awareness in her.  For a time she reminded me of Edna Earle in Eudora Welty’s short humorous novel The Ponder Heart, but Edna Earle was a brilliant and often wicked narrator.  Louise, who does have her charms, is none of these things.  She grows increasingly tiresome as the novel moves along.  In the end, she doesn’t seem authentic.  She makes decisions that don’t make sense and involves herself in problems from which she seems unable to extricate herself, when in fact the solution is often obvious.
Her companion Del is something of a mystery who is never fully explained—he seems to have abandoned an academic career or at least academic aspirations (he’s well-read and has an advanced vocabulary which constantly confuses Louise).  Del is more interesting than Louise.  While we come to know just about all there is to know about her, Del remains puzzling and never fully explained.  We learn that he has recently taken classes and may in fact have a degree.  Is he a graduate student who has given up on his studies?  What turned him to crime? He carefully plots out his crimes, usually petty thefts and robberies.  He’s timid, quiet, unrevealing of himself.  He’s also secretive, a trait that endangers his relationship with Louise.  He loves to use multisyllabic words, and he almost always uses them correctly.
The last third of the novel abandons the episodic “on the road” structure.  Del and Louise return to her North Carolina hometown, where they prepare for marriage, try to placate Louise’s mother, and investigate who is trying to sabotage their wedding.  The last third of the novel was such a departure from the first two-thirds that they created a problem in coherence. The last third of the novel, compared to the rest of the book, seems amateurish. It becomes a detective story.  Louise and Del have come home to her mother’s house to get married.  But someone is trying to sabotage the wedding.  Someone ruins Louise’s wedding dress, steals wedding gifts, slashes a tire on Del’s truck.  Who is the culprit?  Both Del and Louise set themselves to finding out.  It could be anyone—maybe Louise’s old boyfriend, or her two best girlfriends from high school, or her mother, who doesn’t like Del.  He obsessively tries to secure fingerprints from all the people they suspect.  He’s also afraid that the town sheriff, whom he has called in to investigate the slashed tire, may discover his criminal record.  This never happens—and there’s no explanation why. It’s implied that the sheriff knows about Del’s past but doesn’t choose to reveal or act on what he knows.
The novel is mildly entertaining until it comes to rest in Louise’s hometown and from there on it’s a slog.

Richard Pryor: Here & Now

Richard Pryor: Here & Now (1983; dir. Richard Pryor) is the comedian’s last concert film. He talks to a New Orleans audience about how he's been off drugs and alcohol for seven months and the new perspective his sobriety gives him. He feels good about himself, but also slightly off balance. Pryor was especially effective handling hecklers. He ignored some hecklers. Others he incorporates into whatever bit he's working on: sometimes he belittles them. Sometimes you can tell that they bother him. There's a lot of give-and-take with the rowdy audience he's talking to-- people call out to him, ask him questions, one person reacts to something he says with a loud and angry “Bullshit!” and he takes all of these comments in stride.  He playfully makes fun of people looking for their seats.

Pryor had an uncanny knack for inhabiting the persona of characters he created. In this film he takes on the character of an old man talking about his experiences in California. He also inhabits the persona of a junkie. In the bit the junkie shoots up and reacts to the drug and then gives a monologue about life and talks with the imaginary person who apparently sold him the drug. In the end, the junkie shoots up a second time and falls down on the floor unconscious, maybe OD’d. It's an uncanny and disturbing performance. The audience is quiet and doesn't quite know what to make of what Pryor is doing.

Race doesn’t isn’t the central subject of Pryor’s comedy in this film, but it’s always an undercurrent.  There’s no overt anger towards white people, but, again, anger is a strong and implied undercurrent. The characters he creates are often the victims of economic or social oppression (the old man, the junkie). Talking about drugs, Pryor observes that white people don’t get upset about drugs in the black community, but the first time drugs impact one of their children, they start talking about drug epidemics.

I can't think of many comedians today who come close to being able to do this kind of comedy. It’s performance art as much as it is comedy.  Pryor was a great comedian but he was also an accomplished actor, mainly on stage in his own routines. He also seemed to me a fragile person on stage.  He leaves us unsure what is going to happen next. We don’t know whether he is going to break out in a furious rant, or fall to pieces. That explosive uncertainty was part of his appeal. It's easy to understand, as much as we can regret it, how he burned himself up not only literally, but psychologically. His loss was a real loss. This film makes clear how talented he was.