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Stephen Sondheim (1930-2021)

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  When I was a weird kid besotted with dreams of a life in the theatre, a life in New York City, far from the rural home I felt completely alien in, I thought I was the only person in the world who really loved Stephen Sondheim. I knew other people respected him, were interested in him — the shows for which he wrote music and lyrics were commonly enough produced that I got to see quite a few before I left home; I knew a couple professors of music and theatre at the local college who would talk with me about what they appreciated in Sondheim's work. But nobody I knew loved him. Nobody I knew listened to cast recordings obsessively, memorizing not just every glorious lyric but every single strange yet perfect note.  I was not (am not) a musical theatre geek — aside from a handful of shows, I've never been especially enthusiastic about the form. Something about Sondheim was different. The intricacy of the music and lyrics appealed to my more analytical/intellectual side; the unse

Unelevated to the Gallows: The Lords of Salem

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  A certain tendency in recent horror cinema: atmosphere is everything. The tendency shows itself in well-known works of art-horror such as The Witch and Hereditary , and it rears its head also in lesser-known films that live closer to the familiar traditions of horror stories ( The Dark and the Wicked and The Blackcoat's Daughter come immediately to mind). These are films of morbid and sometimes grotesque surrealism, films where story dissolves into association and characters are less people than figures in a landscape of mood. The mood is eeriness, unsettlement, and — more than anything else — ambiguity. Or is it ambivalence?  I am indifferent to these movies, which seem shallow and empty to me, and that sense of shallowness and emptiness is accompanied by a suspicion that the filmmakers are more interested in mood as a free-floating signifier than they are interested in the causes and effects of grief, trauma, pain. I am wary of this supicion, though, because it comes close

In the Jagged Flow

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Stan Brakhage, from "The Dante Quartet" (Life has become time-lapsed fragments. I began writing these reflections some weeks ago, trying to capture the halting, disorienting, jagged experience of pandemic time. It all crumbled and keeps crumbling, yet in crumbling feels oddly static.) Time tripped ahead this summer; I can barely account for June and July in memory, though when I look back over events in my work calendar, notes I made for myself, emails I sent, I see that plenty of things got done, read, viewed, written. This is pandemic time, chaos time, life unmoored. Eventually, we will get to look back at these years and what they did to perception. The constant uncertainty, the underlying fear, the vigilance, anger, bewilderment. "The lost year," I said to somebody, then wasn't sure quite when I was referring to, and that confusion only highlighted the loss. The lost year began ten thousand years ago and yesterday. "I haven't been in this room in tw

Alice Munro at 90

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Today is Alice Munro's 90th birthday, and her singular, extraordinary career deserves great celebration.  Munro's first published story, "The Dimension of Shadow" , appeared (under her name at the time, Alice Laidlaw) in the April 1950 issue of the student literary magazine of the University of Western Ontario, Folio . According to Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives by Robert Thacker, she soon began sending her stories to Robert Weaver ( "the best friend the Canadian short story ever had" ), who ran a radio series on the CBC devoted to Canadian short stories; after rejecting a few, Weaver broadcast a reading of "The Strangers" on October 5, 1951. Weaver encouraged her to keep writing and to submit her work to literary journals. Her first professional appearance in print was with "A Basket of Strawberries" in Mayfair magazine's November 1953 issue. Her first collection, Dance of the Happy Shades , was published in Canada in 1968, in the

Really Persistent: Kate Zambreno and Bo Burnham

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  1. Early in her new book, To Write As If Already Dead , Kate Zambreno notes that "Kafka's insurance firm was full of aspiring poets, a reminder that it is fairly commonplace to want to be a writer or poet. It is more unusual to stay a writer despite lack of status or outward success, to sacrifice sanity, sleep, positive well-being, health, to instead dwell in a life that is one of almost constant paranoia, oscillating between horror at invisibility and nausea at visibility." One of the things about Kate Zambreno's work that I particularly appreciate is the way it refuses to be positive and hopeful. (More than anything else, that's what links her to Jean Rhys , a writer she has frequently referenced overtly and covertly.) To Write As If Already Dead  makes the life of a writer seem just flat-out awful; it also makes the life of a mother seem flat-out awful. A mother who is also a writer? Sheer, unrelieved torture. Nevertheless, she persists. Zambreno's narrat