Archive for January 2011

Just Kids, or, How To Stay Friends When Your Lover Is Gay

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Just Kids is not a rock biography in the traditional sense; it's a manifesto on the birth of creativity, and how it emerges simultaneously with discovery of the self. This is not the Patti Smith of legendary Saturday Night Live satire; this is not the angry woman who essentially invented punk rock; the Patti Smith of Just Kids is a wide-eyed androgyne who escaped the backwaters to the big city, and faced every challenge with wit and grace.

Smith details the symbiotic and often tense relationship between herself, then-lover and future photography legend Robert Mapplethorpe, and the ever-morphing mystery of New York City. Apart from a pair of journeys to Europe to find the soul of Arthur Rimbauld, Smith remains, transfixed, in the center of the cultural whirlpool of the Chelsea Hotel, visited by playwrights, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and countless other dreamers, not to mention the burgeoning cult of Mapplethorpe. Shirley Clarke stopped in, Diane Arbus became the class historian.The only thing separating Smith from the rest of them? She was sober at the time, and she lived to tell the tale.

Everything about New York City was beautiful to her, even the parts that so many artists and aesthetes profess to disdain:

"The skyscrapers were beautiful. They did not seem like mere corporate shells. They were monuments to the arrogant yet philanthropic spirit of America."

Even in the most horrible, dingy and darkest corners of NYC, she finds poetry. Tell me that you are not at least marginally interested in visiting a rundown cafe she describes as "the Edward Hopper version of Dunkin' Donuts."

The picture we get of Patti Smith is someone who is impossibly erudite and incredibly well-read; did you know she worked in the trade of rare and valuable books for Scribner's before becoming one of the world's most legendary rock stars? Again and again, she provides little bits of cultural commentary that make me want to know her better, to converse with her, to find a way, against all odds, to befriend her:

"I didn't feel for Warhol the way Robert did. His work reflected a culture I wanted to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it."

That last statement eloquently expresses why I simply cannot connect with certain art, particularly Jonathan Franzen's Freedom (which I wrote about at length). Like me, Smith identifies with the 'mutinous spirit' of Zelda Fitzgerald. Could it be that I can be her? Smith didn't find success until she was 27; I am 26 now, there is still time.

I always felt that her music was something I ought to like rather than something I actually enjoyed. But now, understanding the context and the courage involved in creating her work, it's impossible not to marvel at Horses or its successors. And so a petite obsession is borne.

Jonathan Franzen - Freedom, or, Liberal Tropes Living in a Fantasy World




So this is the 2nd book I've ever read through on my wonderful new Kindle (hooray!).

Jonathan Franzen has vocally expressed his opposition to e-readers, saying that they spoil the experience of reading books. Having completed the novel, this is definitely an act of self-defense; the Kindle lets you highlight frequent examples of shockingly turgid prose, to spy every repetition, to easily go back and spot inconsistencies. Basically, it lets you be a close reader without the immersion-destroying activities of picking up a pen to mark the text.

It's been a week since I've finished the novel, in a 3 night burst that left me staying up until five in the morning and still getting up in time for work. I have to say, this is the way you should read it; don't try to savor it, for there is little to savor. Appreciate the ambition of Franzen's work, appreciate the scope, but still, don't dwell. Because there are a lot of problems.


The novel has a serious character problem. It's not only that the characters are completely unlikeable (though that's certainly true), it's why they're unlikeable. They're completely flat! One almost gets the sense that Franzen spent years crafting the particular world and circumstances that his characters will live in, and then dropped in a bunch of tropes to populate that world. So we're left with Patty Berglund, the unhappy housewife, Walter Berglund, the long-suffering husband, Richard Katz, sex-addled and universally adored rock star, and Joey Berglund, the golden son (we are meant to accept this at face value, despite the fact that there is literally no evidence whatsoever that Joey deserves that sort of adoration).

The characters even behave like stock characters; we watch as Walter, in the middle of a wrenching fight with his wife where she has clearly submitted to the futility of all things, rants for pages on end about the overpopulation problem, about the relative merits of dealing with that problem, with global warming, with bird extinction. Franzen expects us to believe that a man at the end of his tether is actually capable of constructing reasonable A>B arguments about policy options while in a phone screaming match with his wife.

A good chunk of the novel is in the form of Patty's 'autobiography.' The plot elements are interesting when taken on their own, but you never lose the sense that this is a man writing in a woman's voice; her thoughts and conclusions are what a man imagines a woman to think, rather than what she actually thinks. This is made worse because Patty is writing about herself in the third person, and frequently refers to herself as 'the autobiographer.' The psychic distance is just too great to care much about what she has to say, or to try and empathize with her.


Franzen also seems to have a little difficulty in treating his readers like they are living, thinking people (maybe the stock character problem is actually a representation of how he views all people in the world). Take this sentence, for example:

Walter was frightened by the long-term toxicity they were creating with their fights.

It's short, it's succinct, it says everything you need to know, and with poignance. It's a clear and uncomplicated metaphor, which is why it's vaguely insulting when placed in context.

Walter was frightened by the long-term toxicity they were creating with their fights. He could feel it pooling in their marriage like the coal-sludge ponds in Appalachian valleys. Where there were really huge coal deposits, as in Wyoming County, the coal companies built processing plants right next to their mines and used water from the nearest stream to wash the coal [...]...there was no way around the fact that when you dug up coal you also unearthed nasty chemicals like arsenic and cadmium that had been safely buried for millions of years. You could try dumping the poison back down into abandoned underground mines, but it had a way of seeping into the water table and ending up in drinking water. It really was a lot like the deep shit that got stirred up when a married couple fought: once certain things had been said, how could they ever be forgotten again?

Did you get it? Did you understand the metaphor? Cause if not, Franzen not only expanded on it, but used another lazy simile at the end to remind you in case you'd forgotten! This is not entirely his fault; it's overwritten, and any decent editor would have attacked it with his red pen. But Freedom's editor dropped the ball repeatedly.

See here, a lazy writing device that never fails to drive me up the wall, the stuff of bad screenplays:

"I assume Joey's already taught you our house game?"

"Yeah, I totally suck at it," Joey said.

"[That's good, but let me explain all the rules anyway!]"


To make this novel seem modern and relevant, Franzen seemed to have occupied himself in the masochistic job of figuring out what the hell happened in the Bush administration. But I don't think I'm wrong in saying that no one cares anymore except to wonder who we can prosecute; that was an era of cynicism that has long been replaced by something else; something represented only tangentially in the Berglund daughter, Jessica. Jessica gets no time in the novel, despite being the only one who might actually speak to the realities of modern liberal activists; we are not so bothered by the tricks marketers and politicians use because we know what those tricks are, and therefore are not as prey to them. We are less willing to compromise our ideals; and we are more willing to use so-called 'tools of oppression' to our advantage, for better or for worse.

But instead of Jessica, we get a hundred odd pages of Joey's pointless, irritating, and retrograde perspective. We learn, in gratuitous detail, how often he masturbates, what he masturbates to, and the general state of his dick at any given moment. Representative sentence:

"His dick, in his boxers, bestirred itself again, as if to declare its upness for the challenge."

Boring and inane. In Joey's section, we are also subjected to the arrant stupidity that leads him to becoming a Republican toadie, which would be interesting if it didn't have the depth of a puddle. His roomate's dad is one of the higher ups in the Jewish Republican establishment, and somehow seduces Joey into it. That's it. That's the only explanation for why Joey turns his back on his family's core beliefs and commits some truly heinous acts later on (that and some inexplicable loyalty to a girl that he seems to hate, but marries anyway. Actually we spend a lot of time on that relationship, and yet we have no understanding for why we are expected to think of this as a happy marriage, or a relationship that would have, in any way, continued after high school. Franzen tries to offer explanation, but none of it rings remotely believable).


If I am excessively harsh on this novel, which I did enjoy at the end, it's because I cannot for the life of me understand the praise it has received. The first quarter is excellent, the last quarter is excellent, but the middle sags with pretension and pseudo-political nonsense. I haven't even mentioned the Richard Katz section, which, like the Joey section, the novel would have been better without. If I wanted to read about some aging hipster ragging on Bright Eyes fans, well, I don't. Nor do I wish to read about how boring and awful it is that so many hot girls want to have sex with him, or how mainstream success somehow equates to selling out your soul. Representative Katz quote:

"And now that his prophetic dick, his divining rod, was again pointing him in her direction, he was at a loss to recall why he hadn't taken fuller advantage of his opportunity with her."

I have a feeling this book may have rung more true to me if I were a college freshman, as it is filled with the sort of cod philosophy we would espouse in the dormitory hallways at 4 in the morning, high on nothing but caffeine and dreams. But just like our youthful musings, this novel seems to bear little relationship with the real world. And I am speaking as a disillusioned liberal about a book whose core theme is the disillusioning of liberals. In fact, if I didn't already know that Franzen was liberal, I might have assumed this novel was written by someone with a Fox News view of them; one without understanding or actual vision, just a bunch of assumptions and stereotypes.

If you feel compelled to read it, read it fast, so you won't feel like you've wasted tons of time on it. But that said, if you're in the mood for a doorstopper with socio-political commentary, there are other books I'd recommend instead. Vanity Fair is the first to come to mind.

Animal Kingdom, or, Never Kiss Your Grandma on the Lips Or She May Cut You

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Everything you need to know about the film is in the opening scene: 17 year old J sits watching Deal or No Deal as his mother sleeps, or so it appears until the cops show up. Turns out she's dead of a heroin overdose. J proceeds to call his grandmother, Jacki Weaver's fantastically disturbing 'Mama Smurf' Cody, to figure out what do next. She brings him into her lion's den, and so J ends up in a surreal home where the matriarch not only enables her criminal grandsons in their lives of crime, but forces them to kiss her full on the lips (eww).

J quickly learns firsthand how dangerous the Cody world is, as his terrifying uncle drags him into the family business even while the cops turn up the heat, leading to bursts of extreme violence at the most unexpected moments. Let's just say that until the credits roll, no one is safe.

Jacki Weaver plays everything close to the vest until the final quarter of the movie, where she finally shows her true colours (they run blood red). It is the performance of a lifetime, where you don't even realize how subtly she's manipulating her family until all is revealed.

Actually, all the performances are great, especially Ben Mendelsohn as "Pope," the scariest, most ruthless member of the family. Every look he gives speaks danger, even when he's just offering to lend an ear after tragedy strikes. You don't want to take anything from him, because the cost will inevitably be too high.

Guy Pearce appears in yet another minor role (seriously I think he signs to these small indies just so the films can get funding), in a mustache from another century. He's J's only hope, and once we find out exactly how limited that help is, we truly understand the hopelessness of J's situation.

If I have one criticism of the movie, it's that it wraps up a bit too neatly. It's not so bad as to undercut the rest of the film, but it's definitely improbable. That said, it's a great movie, you should go see it! Am most pleased that Jacki Weaver got the token 'out of nowhere' Oscar nomination.

Oscarbait 2010: Blue Valentine (2010), aka Marriage!Smash!



Blue Valentine can be adequately described with one word: brutal. Do not watch this if you are just embarking on a serious relationship. Don't watch it if your relationship is on the rocks. If you watch it when you're single, you might never enter a relationship again.

It presents a harsh reality that's all too real; sometimes there is no grand turning point when a relationship ends. Often it's just a steady chipping away by one against the other, until the very foundation breaks and the whole tree falls, smashing through everything in its way.

It has occurred to me of late that there has been a strange cross-pollination between mainstream and indie films, to the point where some indies like Kids Are All Right look as shiny as whatever Vince Vaughn tripe they're pushing down our throats. Similarly, you get mainstream films like The Town that pay a lot more attention to nuances of character than you'd expect in a mainstream action movie.

I've been missing that particular 'look' that indies of the late 90's and early 2000's had, not grainy exactly, but somehow gritty, a bit dirty, perfect in its imperfection. Random shots go out of focus when they perhaps shouldn't, fades and cuts seem to take just a little bit longer than they ought to. Everything is lit a shade too bright.

Something about that style of filmmaking makes the actors work harder; they can't act just with gestures, eyes or voices; every last bit of their bodies need to make a statement. It's poetry of sorts - just as every single word matters, every vibration is essential. I wish there were a term for this style (or maybe there is and I'm just ignorant). Blue Valentine is a great example of this; it's a very small movie with no fancy tricks but terrific actors, and still manages to loom so large in viewing and in memory.

We watch Michelle Williams as she steps onto the wrong train, a train which never seems to stop to let her off, or even stretch her legs. It's heartbreaking to see, as her journey moves forward in time, she loses her looks, her spirit and her very will to live. We don't even need to see her face to recognize this, it's in her posture. This is her story, from the first frame to the last, her attempts first to cope and then to escape.

And just so, Ryan Gosling's character grows up and becomes, well, horrible! He somehow becomes a vacuum, sucking the life out of everything around him at a velocity that's nearly impossible to break free from. It's not just his words, not just his actions, but something in his entire being makes it plausible that this is how he always faced life: looking for a way to take it for granted. He starts off desperately needy and transforms into desperately possessive. Who wouldn't break under that sort of pressure?

What makes the whole thing bearable, in the end, is that Blue Valentine is very much a story about these two people. It's not a referendum about the institution of marriage. It's not the grand story of the disillusionment that comes with age, when you learn that fairytales are not real. It's a close-up portrait of two people, one who is breaking at the seams, and one who is speeding up that process without even realizing it. This is the sort of movie that lives and dies on the strength of its actors, and they absolutely excel.

Videogames and Society: Thoughts on Call of Duty, Wii, and Loughner



Recent shifts in the cultural zeitgeist have prompted me to take another look at video games, which I had pretty much abandoned since graduating from high school. I played a lot in my teen years, but mainly to find something to do with my hands while listening to lots and lots of music. Like many of my generation, raised on videogames but not necessarily videogame nerds, my gameplaying ended with N64's social gaming masterpieces (back when 'social' meant actual friends sitting together in the same actual room) of Goldeneye and Mario Kart 64. After years spent memorizing every shortcut and possible cheat available in the two games (and yes, there are many), my Goldeneye interest abruptly ended when one of our merry crew took things a bit too far and memorized the hundreds of spawn points in the order they occur (multiplayer becomes pointless when one guy can kill everyone before you've finished dying).

I still had great affectation for the games I once loved, but it became clear then that there was little more that videogames could offer me. For years, the only things that improved were the graphics; nothing fundamentally changed about the gameplay itself. Games that did seem to offer something new only offered more in the sense of breaking societal boundaries (i.e. paying for prostitutes, shooting them dead and then getting your money back). Then they'd start using hit songs in the game soundtrack itself, but that was no different to what I'd done through hours of mindless Zelda: turned down the sound, put on the 80s radio station. Fundamentally the act of playing was no different. It felt rote, repetitive and uninteresting. And so began a long hiatus from video games. I occasionally busted out the N64 for nostalgia's sake, but otherwise I never felt like I was missing anything; video games were something I'd grown out of.


My interest was rekindled with the infamous Roger Ebert vs. World spat about whether video games constitute art, which is a frankly stupid argument given that literally anything can be considered art if you want it to be. But I was intrigued by how long this debate went on and how passionately the video game side engaged in efforts to defend their perspective against a man who has long been considered an authoritative presence on media old and new. To my mind, based on my decade-old, well past sell-by date knowledge of what video games constitute, I had the feeling that video games weren't art because they weren't transporting. But as I said, I was a dinosaur. It was time to leave my preconceptions at the door.

Our new ability to take mini-computers with us wherever we go means more people are playing videogames than ever before. At the end of the day, the new 'social games' are the same games that hardcore gamers were playing twenty years ago, except now you don't need to know how to connect an entire system (the horror!), adjust to a joystick, or, more importantly, shell out upwards of $50 to make you feel less antisocial even when sitting in a dark room. The same people who once thought Simcity 2000 was for geeks are now horribly addicted to Farmville and Mafia Wars, and they can continue to feed their addiction even when they're on the go. Games no longer make you an anti-social shut-in.

Nintendo Wii and games like Guitar Hero have revolutionized the gaming industry: all of a sudden, games weren't diversions or time-wasters so much as they were instruments of wish-fulfillment with minimum learning curves. You could finally bowl 300s even with your bad knee, you could play Stairway to Heaven on a plastic "guitar," you could be in a rock band without any of the talent, effort or personality problems both necessary and endemic to real rock bands or live sports. The Wii made video games into augmentations of the self, makers of identity. We'd seen this before very briefly and at a much smaller scale with the Dance Dance Revolution craze; being good at DDR actually made you popular at parties (at least in high school. In college it meant you'd surrendered to social death). And the Wii's ultimate death strike against the traditional video game? It was so easy to use that even your grandparents could do it.

Then I discovered the fact that for whatever reason, videogames have begun to be covered in the so-called 'intellectual' webmags I frequent in my darker moods. But more curiously, literary sites like The Millions started to write about them on occasion. Why? The usual reason: follow the brain drain to the money. Authors, musicians, and filmmakers have found the video game business more lucrative than traditional production models, resulting in a symbiotic relationship improving the games themselves and creating opportunity for artists to do what they love AND make money.


Naturally I became curious. What is this new artistic vanguard, and is there a role for me? Or are they just the same old games sold in even shinier packages? There was a simple and logical starting point, but it took some time for me to get to it.

My parents, like many others, had bought the Playstation 3 not to play video games, but because, for years, it was the best blu-ray player on the market. But that's where the best games lived as well. So I convinced my brother to grow his videogame collection, and we went to Gamestop for a cheap used copy of Call of Duty. We weren't ready to spend $60 for the latest version (Black Ops), but we got Call of Duty: World at War for $20.

I was transfixed from moment 1. I had just seen The Thin Red Line for the first time, and there was a poetic symmetry in experiencing wartime horror passively and actually getting to "be there." The story even began the same way: American soldiers fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific. And as visceral as Thin Red Line was, Call of Duty turned it up to 11. You feel very real terror when a grenade is ticking beside you. You feel the guilt and the perversity of shooting an already wounded enemy dead, just to make sure he doesn't stab you in the back.

Maybe it was because of The Thin Red Line that I was already primed and emotionally connected with the fear and terror and sense of futility that a soldier might feel when locked in deadly battle. Perhaps the movie did the heavy lifting, so the game automatically became more immersive. But I did know that it felt alarmingly real. The shots in the game were directed so similarly to those in the movie that the experience felt a lot like being an active participant. I am there, and I am interacting with Kiefer Sutherland, the American commander, and Gary Oldman, the Russian commander. It felt exciting and new.

In a more perverse symmetry, the day after I picked up a virtual gun for the first time in years, one Jared Loughner picked up an assault weapon and terrorized the nation. Predictably, the mainstream media trotted out the old canards about the 'culture of violence' gripping the country, and as usual the primary target was violent video games. We all know that the link is specious at best.

But here's the interesting thing: because the game was so immersive, so consuming, and so emotionally realistic, it made the truth, consequence and futility of violence very real. Just as the soldiers of so many wars past returned home with a complete abhorrence of violence, I too was absolved of any violent desire in real life.

I believe that is a truth of humanity that those of us who are not sociopaths reflexively recoil at situations of violence. And those people who put targets on a map of congressional districts have been divorced from real violence. As have those politicians callously making decisions about war as if they were playing a game of Risk.

So back to that question of whether video games could be considered art? If you subscribe to the David Foster Wallace theory that, in order for something to be considered art, it must reveal humanity to the consumer, then yes. I cannot argue that Call of Duty achieves that. And yes, I am aware that I chose another game to represent the opposite of humanistic decision making.


So, what I'm left with, is that there are two distinct and separate trends in the cutting edge of videogaming: video games as a way to escape or overcome reality, and video games as virtual reality. The former is more in line with what videogames have always been, but the latter seems new and distinct, with potential to create a whole new form of entertainment in the future.

There is a whole new world for developers to explore as their consumer base has suddenly exploded massively, and suddenly there's room for competition again between game creators, when the leaders of the pack had been long entrenched. It's exciting to see where it's going, and I will certainly be following along as I can, though the classic problem still exists: money.

But guess what. When I am in a position to build my own media center, I will be buying a Playstation 3. And I won't just be using it to watch dvds. oncominghope out.

Black Swan, or, Endless Closeup on Natalie Portman&'s Very Nearly Crying Face


Originally published for The 405
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Release date: 21/01/11
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey

Susan Sontag famously defined camp as “seriousness that fails.” I cannot think of a better way to describe Black Swan. All the story elements and talent were present to make a truly fantastic drama, but as in movies past, Darren Aronofsky shows more concern with showing his hand as a director than in creating a balanced work.

And boy is it unbalanced. Like Christopher Walken shouting “I need more cowbell” in the famous Saturday Night Live skit, it’s not difficult to imagine to imagine Aronofsky standing on the set of Black Swan and shouting, “I got a fever! And the only cure is more blood, more sex, more horror, more everything!” There were few quiet moments to let atmosphere build, no emotional base to build tension from. Clint Mansell’s ridiculously over-the-top score is certainly complicit in this, inspiring laughter on more than one occasion.

Also, Aronofsky seems to have no faith in the intelligence of his audience, hammering the film’s themes in with anvils for nails. For instance, Aronofsky shows Nina staring at her reflection on multiple occasions, accompanied by an overdramatic score. So, Darren, I guess you’re hinting at the dark duality of Nina’s nature? Just a wild guess?

Many of the film’s problems lie in the script. Considering that this movie has been fifteen years in the making, it’s shocking that lines like “I want you to go home and touch yourself,” didn’t set up a cheese flag to anyone involved. Other gems: “the only person standing in your way is you,” and “YOU BEEEEET MEE!” and “Did you suck his cock?,” all delivered with 100% seriousness.

Vincent Cassell is unfortunately blessed with the worst of the script as the director of the Swan Lake production. Take, for example, his expository intro: “You all know the story of Swan Lake [but don’t worry, I’ll tell you anyway!]”. Poor Cassell does the best he can in an abjectly silly role that chiefly consists of reminding Natalie Portman’s Nina that her white swan is perfect but her black swan sucks. Which is apparently all it takes for Nina to spiral out of control.

Young Nina Sayres (I say young, but the way the character behaves, you can’t tell if she’s 12 or 26 years old) cries her way through the oh-so-terrible world of bitchy ballet dancers and hard-driving directors. She is so weak, it is impossible to believe that she made it to the top of this intensely competitive world without losing her mind years ago, a weakness in the film that is nearly impossible to move beyond. Nina never once shows a deep and abiding love for her art, only an unexplained need to make it to the top.

While this is the first time I’ve seen one of Natalie Portman’s films and not thought that she is in fact the worst thing about it, I’m not sure that her ‘constantly on the verge of crying’ facial expression warrants any awards attention, especially considering that 2010 produced a glut of strong female performances. So where’s all the adulation coming from? Call me cynical, but the male-dominated world of film criticism seems to have been endlessly aroused by Portman’s masturbation scene and a completely unnecessary lesbian hook-up with Mila Kunis’s “Black Swan” character. (It should be said that everytime Kunis turns up, the movie improves tremendously).

I kept waiting and hoping for the sort of brilliance you get in the movies Black Swan clearly aspires to, namely All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard. In the end, it borrowed the story from the first and the grotesque horror from the latter, with a dash of Polanski weirdness thrown in, creating in the end a Frankenstein's monster lacking the heart of its forebears.

But despite the numerous problems I mentioned, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the ride, as incomprehensible as it was. Winona Ryder hams it up as the aging dancer that Nina replaces, Barbara Hershey adequately translates Piper Laurie’s character from Carrie to this film, and as I mentioned, Mila Kunis lights up the screen. Arm yourself with the knowledge that Black Swan is just a b-movie dressed up in its Sunday best, and while you will frequently be covering your eyes in horror at the film’s more grotesque elements, at least you’ll have some fun.

Casting News of WiN! Regarding Dark Knight Rises

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News of wondrosity!

Anne Hathaway has been cast as Catwoman.

Anyone who knows me, or follows this blog, knows the high regard in which I hold her, which is doubly astonishing given that I used to hate her.

But some question whether she has the requisite darkness and/or sultriness for the role, to which I will answer you with two homework assignments:

-If you don't think she's dark, watch Rachel Getting Married
-If you think she can't play terrifying, I refer you to Brokeback Mountain.

I can't wait!

Thinking About High School Reading



It's been one of those days, the kind of day that happens once a year - we reminisce about high school.

This poem has nothing to do with high school, but for whatever reason, the reminiscences that I have with my high school friends always seem to come back to one influential English teacher. Influential how? It's hard to explain.

She made us read Heart of Darkness, and we all hated it, but after six months of discussing it, we fucking loved it. We understand every word choice, every emotion, every intent written within the text. We will never see the words "little sticks" again without imagining ourselves under assault by a team of people who have the unfortunate bad sense to fight guns with bows and arrows. We are still personally offended when someone writes it off as literature that supports empire, when we know that it is the ultimate anti-colonialist text, if you would only let it oxidise for a moment.

I've been struggling with this Poem of the Day column. On the one hand, it has been one of the most popular series here on The Oncoming Hope. On the other hand, I worry that I've just been showcasing poetry that's already popular, and not giving a voice to other writers. I love a lot of poetry. Some of it (a lot of it) you would have already read, so am I adding anything by putting a soft-beam lens on it?

But then, I think to myself, how many of us bother to read any poetry after high school? We were forced to do it then, so we forced ourselves to find styles we liked, just to make the study tolerable. But I've been finding that with poetry, as with music, I actually continue to enjoy some of what I convinced myself to like when I was sixteen. When you think about how much time we devoted to working hard in high school (for many of us Americans, I still wonder if it might be the hardest we worked in our lives) -- then for god's sake shouldn't we enjoy it when we're older?

Writing Tools: Scrivener

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Guest Post by: Lumos_Aeternum, otherwise known as "Most Honorable, Venerable, and otherwise Deplorable Peter"

My friend, the owner of this most excellent blog, has given me a chance to post about things of interest on here - whether my access will be removed quickly remains to be seen. I figured I would start somewhere close to my heart, a tool I've used for the last year in my writing, Scrivener.

In the past, I've primarily used OpenOffice Documents to write. It isn't as pretty as Word, but has most of the functionality,'s free! (open source). For writing fiction, though, you only really need space to put down your thoughts. At least, that's how I once thought about it.

Enter Scrivener. This was once a Mac only product, but no longer! I'll get to that near the end. It has many features I probably won't use much, at least not at this stage in my writing. It is a product designed simply for the process of writing in an organized fashion. As such, it doesn't kill itself to provide a million different formatting options like Word would (although the export tools are remarkable). Instead, this beast is packed with tools to help you plan and organize your thoughts, ideas, chapters. It has index cards on virtual corkboards that you can move about if you need to reorder something.

It was this aspect that had me wary of trying it out. I was a bit more of an off-the-cuff writer, at least until I neared the end of a story. When I first heard about Scrivener, I had reached a part in my work-in-progress where I found it difficult to keep things straight (location names, random characters, themes I began in chapter one that I forgot to carry forward). I wondered if these tools could help with that, and I was happy to discover that It really has.

My latest novel attempt (begun during National Novel Writing Month) was pre-planned within the application. I had a map of my fictional world scanned in and added character descriptions and information about the political situation in the different nations my characters would visit. When you're in the trenches, seeking to tell your story, wasting time and momentum trying to figure out what color hair your main character's cousin had is counterproductive.

Another nice feature, for me, is the ability to go into Full Screen Mode. I can escape from my desktop and all of its marvelous distractions. It even lets you determine how strong the fade is on the background. So, if you want to see your wallpaper in the background, you can. This is something I've wished for for ages with Word, but they took their own sweet time. So if, like theoncominghope, you find concept art for Tron: Legacy a useful point of reference for the scene you're working on? You can literally make it surround your words.

Of course, it costs money. Not something to laugh at in these times. I bit the bullet and bought a copy last year, because the free trial made it clear that this was a program I would and could use to my advantage. Also, having won National Novel Writing Month, I got 50% off. I think that's a pretty sweet deal.

Recently, they have come out with a new version for Mac. I haven't used it, but they have added some interesting features that might entice me to upgrade. Also, for you non-Mac users, there is good news, finally! The creators of Scrivener have developed a Windows version (sorry Linux gurus, I feel your pain). The Windows version is in Beta at the moment (free to try out), and will be available for sale early this year.

There are other, and free, applications out there, some of which they mention at the bottom of this page

And here's a final thought: no matter what tool you use to write, just get out there and write. That is the key. Write, write, write!

Poem of the Day: Richard Brautigan's "Group Portrait Without the Lions"

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I have lots of erudite thoughts about this poem, which I would love to share, but then I'd be depriving you of something awfully funny, and occasionally awful. I discovered it randomly and loved it, so I hope you do the same. I can pretty much guarantee that I'll be writing more about Richard Brautigan (he's a forgotten figure of the 1960's, someone whose reputation was unfairly tied up with the beats), but for now, you ought to read this poem (or set of poems, not sure how to describe it.)
available light
Part 1

No party is
without you.

knows that.

The party
starts when
you arrive.

Part 2

Robot likes to sleep
through long lazy summer afternoons.
So do his friends
with the sun reflecting
off them like tin cans.

"Fred Bought a Pair of Ice Skates"
Part 3

Fred bought a pair of ice skates.
That was twenty years ago.
He still has them but he doesn't
skate any more.

"Calvin Listens to Starfish"
Part 4

Calvin listens to starfish.
He listens to them very carefully,
lying in the tide pools,
soaking wet
with his clothes on,
but is he really listening to them?

"Liz Looks at Herself in the Mirror"
Part 5

She's very depressed.
Nothing went right today,
so she doesn't believe that
shes there.
Part 6

This morning there
was a knock at the
door. You answered it.
The mailman was standing
there. He slapped your

Part 7

She’s glad
that Bill
likes her.

"Vicky Sleeps with Dead People"
Part 8

Vicky sleeps out in the woods
with dead people but she always
combs her hair in the morning.
Her parents don't understand her.
And she doesn't understand them.
They try. She tries. The dead
people try. They will all work
it out someday.

"Betty Makes Wonderful Waffles"
Part 9

Everybody agrees to

Part 10

Her mother still living
is 65.

Her grandmother still living
is 86.

"People in my family
live for a long time!"
—Claudia always used to say,

What a surprise
she had.

Part 11

Every night: just before he falls asleep
Walter coughs. Having never slept
in a room with another person, he thinks
that everybody coughs just before they fall
asleep. That's his world.

Part 12

Morgan finished second in his high school
presidential election in 1931.
He never recovered from it.
After that he wasn't interested in people
any more. They couldn't be counted on.
He has been working as a night watchman
at the same factory for over thirty years now.
At midnight he walks among the silent equipment.
He pretends they are his friends and they like
him very much. They would have voted
for him.

Part 13

Molly is afraid to go into the attic.
She's afraid if she went up there
and saw the box of clothes that she
used to wear twenty years ago,
she would start crying.

"'Ah, Great Expectations!'"
Part 14

Sam likes to say, "Ah, great expectations!"
at least three or four times in every
conversation. He is twelve years old.
Nobody knows what he is talking about when
he says it. Sometimes it makes people
feel uncomfortable.

Reading Flannery O'Connor: The Barber

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"It is trying being a liberal in Dalton," begins "The Barber," the second story from O'Connor's masters thesis.  It's all too easy to relate to this story; the story of the educated Southern integrationist faced with all the ingrown racism and insensitivity of the ignorant. Naturally the topic of politics comes up when he's least able to escape - trapped in his tormenter's chair, half lathered and half shaven.

The protagonist gets angrier and angrier as he fails to find the right words or the perfect cutting phrase to disarm his mob of opponents. He then makes the ludicrous decision to go home and write a speech to convince the barber and other patrons of their ignorance and stupidity in matters of race and politics. And naturally, the whole episode ends in complete and utter humiliation.

While one of the great pleasures of reading O'Connor is the fun she makes of ignorant rednecks, there is equally an element of frustration reading such stories (or perhaps that's just my own frustration coloring my reading of the story). Maybe it's because race seems to have re-entered the national conversation in such heinous ways (There's no KKK in Barbour land!). But at least this story is quite funny, in the sense that you want to laugh even while you grit your teeth.

Books Challenges 2011


Yes! Challenges for 2011! I did not know this was a thing that people did online until I read Laura Miller's wonderful post.

And you guys know me; I've never met a swimming pool I haven't jumped into headfirst.
So here are my first ambitious ambitions for 2011. I'll be adding more with time, and I hope you all play along. As time goes by, this post will keep track and link to all reviews on the books in question.

Chunksters are books 450 pages or longer. There are multiple levels on this challenge, and I'm so tempted to go for the gold, but i'll be good. I'll do the Plump Primer, which commits me to six books 450 pages or longer.

As for this lovely challenge, I'm opting for the Struggling the Addiction level, which commits me to 10 works of historical fiction this year.

1. Patti Smith - Just Kids (yes, it counts. It's 70's punk history).
2. Cassandra Clare - Clockwork Angel


100+ Books Challenge! Just what it says on the tin.
1. Junot Diaz - Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
2. Patti Smith - Just Kids
3. Phonogram (Graphic Novel)
5. Cassandra Clare - Clockwork Angel

On Censoring Huck Finn (seriously?)


Mark Twain on Huck Finn:

"A book of mine where a sound heart and a deformed conscience come into collision and conscience suffers defeat." - Notebook #35 (reprinted in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Univ. of California Press, 2003)

An Alabama publisher will be releasing an altered version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where certain objectionable words will be replaced with placeholders. We'll get to the others in the postscript, but lets start with the most egregious. The 215 (!) uses of the word 'nigger,' are to be replaced by the word 'slave.'

Just think about the two words. 'Nigger' is specific. When a white person says it, it hits like a crack of the whip. We all know what that word means, who it refers to, and what its implications are about American society and racial attitudes past and present. But slave? 'Nigger' reveals of its user a powerful, institutionalized hatred and a complicity with the evils of Southern society. Slave does not. 'Slave' certainly implies dehumanization, but the word doesn't refer to one specific type, era, or object of chattelry. In today's modern culture, 'slave' just as equally calls to mind indentured servitude in the Roman Empire as it does contemporary sex trafficking in Eastern Europe and Russia.

So what you're doing is taking a specific and awful human experience and subsuming it into a still evil but more broadly drawn human condition. And to do that, you have to minimize the impact of history.

When you change the word 'nigger' to 'slave,' it's not just political correctness run amok. It's second guessing the aesthetic choice of the original author. Changing that word does not in any way change the theme, the meaning, the overall point of the novel. But it does harm its authenticity. Changing that word would have us believe that somehow Huck is a magical being in Mississippi who managed not to be raised with the same values and patterns of speech that everyone else in his social class was. Changing that word undermines the aesthetic authority of the author. Changing that word fundamentally undermines the poignance of Huck's journey and eventual enlightenment.

You are taking a story about how one boy learns that love and friendship are more important than the expectations of society, no matter how much cultural and legal pressure that particular society places on him. These internal conflicts make Huck Finn who he is; they make him complex, dynamic, and eternally memorable. But to do that, you have to show that he is part of the society. The transformation is hollow if he is already born somehow 'better' than everyone else; enlightened without any experience to justify that knowledge.


1. As for correcting "injun" to "Indian." Again an aesthetic voice. The author chose to depict the dialectic form of the word. It's the way they pronounce it, for godssakes. And still do, in the South. Correcting this is like correcting all usage of the word 'ain't.'

2. And as for changing "half-breed" to "half-blood." Are you kidding me? That word is plastered through all seven books of that other beloved children's series: Harry Potter. Who says it? The racist Malfoys and their flunkies. These words are intended to shock us. We are meant to feel the full impact of their use. It gives us context for a world in which hatred and intolerance were ingrained into the very psyche, and to pretend that didn't trickle down into language is a fallacy.

3. At the end of the day, it is not the word that offends us. It's the entire sensibility of dehumanization. If you are offended by the word, you are missing the point.

On the Last 2010 Episode of Fringe

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No Fringe for a couple of weeks yet! So naturally I had to rewatch the Marionette episode to rev up. And I found yet another thing to love about Fringe - despite being a genre show, it's so honest about humanity. I've always admired how it doesn't dwell on melodrama, because in reality, most people don't, at least not after a certain amount of wallowing. So when this episode came out, the drama was fully earned.

Prior to Marionette, all the facts were set up; there was a rush against time. No time to be overcome by emotion. Lesser shows would skip this part of the narrative (the emotional fallout), or would consign it to a throwaway line in the next episode. But as Fringe never addressed the emotional toll on their characters in an in-depth way before (at least not Olivia), it was earned. And it was handled brilliantly.

I didn't notice the first time around, but just as Peter doesn't conceal the harsh truth about Faux-livia being in some way...better than Olivia, Olivia doesn't hide to Broyles that Broyles that his now-dead  doppelganger led a more fulfilled life with a wife and son. At first I may have cried, "oh the insensitivity!" but now I realize that it's probably for the best. It's better to give the whole truth when they're receptive to the whole truth, than to have a stray detail snap back hit them in the back of the neck when they least expect it.

Also? This is what humans do, I think. They either lie sociopathically (it's a word, damnit, and if not, then don't tell me), or they tell the whole truth because they can't help it. White lies are a form of cowardice. There's an urgency, in some cases, to provide as much information as possible. Like when a man feels guilty about an affair and that guilt compels him to confess. It's not just enough to confess, he has to confess every last awful detail; to him it's just a matter of twisting the knife a couple of centimeters further when it's already 2 inches in.

Yes, this is an act of self-preservation on his part, but for the recipient? It means you get one big, bad wound, all in one go, and let it heal. Otherwise you risk reopening the wound again and again, or God forbid, create new ones.

2010 In Movies: Classics Edition

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It's been a great year for me and the classics. It's frankly ludicrous that I haven't seen some of these before, but hey, now I have lots of material for the dormant Filling the Gaps series. In every case, it's been easy to see why they're in the canon; they still seem to provide points of reference for many modern films (generally because they're better crafted).

I went through a phase in 2005 when I tried to watch all the movies on AFI's top 100 movies list (released back in 2001 if I recall correctly. And no, there's no such thing as Google). I made it to On the Waterfront and quit. Not because it wasn't terrific, which it was (That song lyric from "Rattlesnakes" finally made sense: "She looked like Eve Marie Saint, in On the Waterfront.") But the real issue was, 2005 was my last year at the good old University of Texas. And probably the year I had the most fun, and also the least time. Which basically meant that blocks of stationary hours for films were not given much priority in my schedule (much being relative - I think I still managed about 20 movies that year).


Chinatown was the first movie I saw after questioning the internet gods: "Hey [insert google/imdb/] what movie do critics and movie fans seem to refer to all the time that I've somehow been deprived of seeing?" I saw it six months ago, and even now, certain images from the film seem to manifest in my head when I least expect it. It's not difficult to draw a line between Chinatown and this year's Somewhere: both Roman Polanski and Sophia Coppola managed to uncover the contradictions and the ugliness of California, that shining state universally considered a kingdom of glamour.

Most of the time, when there's a particular 'classic' that I haven't seen, there's a reason. Not necessarily a good reason, but reason sufficient to create mental blocks. There wasn't one for The Godfather. To this day, I'm still not sure why I'd never seen it before. But I finally did, and was treated to a healthy combination of warmth, humor and violence (this seems to be the magical troika that Hollywood has been searching for ever since, and achieved only rarely).


This category of 'necessary' was created purely for one movie: Sunset Boulevard. You know when people talk about movies being 'important,' and you wonder what the hell they mean by that? Watch this movie. It's a touchstone for so much that has come since, which is especially striking since it's a tale of transition about what came before, when silents were thrown out in favor of talkies.

If the world ends tomorrow, and alien archaelogists want to understand what the 20th century (and probably 21st century) obsession with movies was all about, they just need to see this movie. It has everything: the conflict between art and money, the fear of getting old, bizarre and total subservience to celebrity, the banality of eccentric obsessions, and the cruelty that comes from delusion.

The real reasons I'm glad to see this movie? One, 2010 was the 50th anniversary of All About Eve, and apparently a favorite critical pastime is to compare the two (I think it's apples and oranges, but whatever).  Two, it reveals Black Swan for being the superficial and incoherent b-movie that it is.


I saw Notorious well after I started this blog, but for some reason I couldn't write about it. I think I loved it too viscerally, even though there were problems with the narrative. So I employed a childish solution to this intellectual conflict - I covered my eyes and went "It's not real if I can't see it! It's not real if I can't see it!" And if I think about it enough to write about, then I'll see the flaws and cracks. And I don't want to. Because I loved it. A lot. I think it has my favorite ending of any movie ever.

It may seem counter-intuitive to put Annie Hall under the heading of "Guilty Pleasures," but it seems that in my generation, you do feel like you have to justify why you would watch (let alone enjoy) a Woody Allen movie. But I maintain that so many movie tropes were actually created in this movie, and were effective at the time (albeit overused now). Also it's hilarious. See it now.


I finally saw Shawshank Redemption, after rejecting it with every fiber of my being. You can read the original review to find out why. It was one of the less essential films I saw this year, except to check it off a list (and it is on many lists, for some reason I don't understand). But I wasn't bored by it, and Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman kept things rolling along in an eminently watchable fashion. I also liked that there weren't easy answers in it, and that when this movie came out, that was still acceptable. (The counterpoint to this is The Kids Are All Right, where many are turned off by the ambiguity, but I tend to think ambiguity makes drama more honest.)

The other modern classic 2010 gifted me was Wall Street. Watching this became necessary, as I realized that it may be another few years before this particular version of douchebaggery becomes relevant again (and oh, how relevant it is to the past year). Wall Street provides strong insight into the mentality of a certain type of financial professional - the ones that pursue money, more money, at any  cost. While a lot of the chicanery used in this film died when the internet came along, it's not difficult to imagine this sort of manipulation is still bubbling along under the surface, harder to trace.


It's great, I feel like I've crossed some longstanding obstacles, and now I can get into the real oddities that dot the history of film (to be honest, I think I skipped straight to the oddities and passed the canon by. See, for example, my unending love for Belle de Jour and other Luis Bunuel exotica. Actually, Belle de Jour is another example of what Black Swan tried to be and yet failed miserably. It seems that trashing Black Swan may have become my new I Hate Garden State. But to be fair, this time it's not Natalie Portman's fault.) 

I've already got a long list of classic films to look forward to: just over the next couple of weeks, I'm planning to get through The Leopard, Meet John Doe, Lady Eve, and many Bette Davis films. I've also got sequels to look forward to. But I think 2011 is going to be a great year for me and classic film.

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