29 January 2013


part of Jacques Derrida's last library
Various items...

I recently saw two of the more controversial movies of last year, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty. I don't feel compelled to say much about the former — it's fine for a Steven Spielberg movie, and wanting it to be more than a Steven Spielberg movie seems to me to be an error. Yes, I would have preferred, say, Charles Burnett's Lincoln or Alex Cox's Lincoln or Cheryl Dunye's Lincoln or even Guillermo del Toro's Lincoln, but what we got is Spielberg's Lincoln, and so we should not be surprised that every moment of possible emotion is squeezed through John Williams's typically John Williams score, or that there are lots of faces making faces, or that it is a white savior movie, or that it exemplifies the tradition of quality in Hollywood cinema. What we should be surprised by is that it is not worse — it is easily, to my eyes, Spielberg's most interesting and least annoying historical film. That may have something to do with Tony Kushner's script (PDF) ... but then, Kushner wrote the execrable Munich, so who knows. In any case, the performances are generally compelling, and it's nice to see the great Thaddeus Stevens get some acknowledgement after more than a century of general abuse; Tommy Lee Jones's performance as Stevens is a hoot, and yet not a caricature. On the film's fetishization of compromise and its hatred of radicalism, I'm with Aaron Bady ("It is, in short, a barely veiled argument that radicals should get in line, be patient, be realistic"), although I also wonder what we would make of the film had it been released ten years ago in exactly the same form. An impossible question, of course, but perhaps an interesting thought experiment, given how Lincoln wrestles with the idea of "war powers".

War Powers could be an alternate title for Zero Dark Thirty. I have nothing to say right now except that I found the film fascinating and deeply unsettling, but to be able to show why I think it is a devastating and subversive movie I have to wait till I can dig into its details on DVD, because so much of its meaning and effect for me came from specific shots and cuts. Some excellent writing has already been done about it, though — here are the essays that have most fit with my experience of the film:

  • "Zero Dark Thirty: Perception, Reality, Perception Again, and 'The Art Defense'" by Glenn Kenny, which masterfully demonstrates why Glenn Greenwald's attack on the film as pro-torture is inaccurate and deceptive. Arguments about how all sorts of things are represented in the film can be legitimately made, I think, but Greenwald seriously distorts what is on screen to fit his thesis (which he had to do, because by the point where he actually saw the movie, he had too much of an emotional stake in the film being what he wanted it to be for him to ever say it was not what he wanted it to be).
  • Manohla Dargis's review for The New York Times is a model of intelligent newspaper writing.
  • "The Monitor Mentality, or A Means to an End Becomes an End in Itself: Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty" by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky is a fine beginning to understanding what is actually on screen and the implications.
  • "A Brief Remark on Zero Dark Thirty" by Steven Shaviro is as insightful as we've come to expect from Shaviro. He's been writing about Kathryn Bigelow's work for many years, and his perspective is helpful. I anxiously look forward to his further writings on the film, because even with this "brief remark" he's delved more meaningfully into it than most other writers.
  • Most recently, Nicholas Rombes has published "Zero Dark Thirty and the New History", which looks at the relationship between the film and concepts of history: " Zero Dark Thirty is about how some historical events remain so hot and dangerous that they cannot be treated directly; it would be like staring into the sun. Instead, such histories can only be approached in an administrative, almost bureaucratic fashion, and in such a way that suggests history remains, at the end of the day, a tangle of zero-sum stories, usually competing with each other for legitimacy."

I also recently saw Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning and Detention, two interesting films that make a mess of genre expectations. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is as much a horror movie as an action movie, but a horror movie more akin to the works of David Lynch than the average splatter film. (I could have lived without all the fight scenes being sped up, however.) Detention is even better, a mad mishmash of teen comedy, absurd sci-fi, and slasher movie. For me, it was the second most consistently delightful film of last year, after Moonrise Kingdom.

I don't have much to report for recent reading here, mostly because I've been reading books such as Change and Continuity in the 1984 Elections, which is marvelous, but, well, nothing I'd recommend to get you through the long winter months. I've also just begun reading Derrida: A Biography by Benoit Peeters (god bless interlibrary loan!), which is thrilling and revelatory so far (100 pages in). I had long believed Derrida made a living well into his twenties as a construction worker, but it turns out this is just another example of one of the many mistaken beliefs I have clung to.

I very much enjoyed Adam Green's profile, "A Pickpocket's Tale: The Spectacular Thefts of Apollo Robbins" at The New Yorker recently.

Also, two poems by Suzanne Buffam: "The New Experience" at The Poetry Foundation and "Ruined Interior" at Boston Review.

Finally, a new term has started at the university, so I'm back to teaching. Here are the syllabi for my classes, if you're curious: Murder, Madness, Mayhem (English Department course that I'm making into a course on dystopia and fascism this term) and Outlaws, Delinquents, and Other "Deviants" in Film & Society (Communications & Media Studies course that I've making into ... well ... something).

07 January 2013


Oliver is not impressed with Rambo
I've promised myself to devote the month of January primarily to work on a book manuscript (about 1980s action movies and their relationship to the Reagan presidency) that a certain academic publisher is interested in. Thus, I need to get work done. The internet looms as an endless temptation, and I am more than skilled at losing hours to idle surfing. I've also got other writing assignments that need doing, classes to prepare for, etc.

So I'm signing off at least until February, barring interesting announcements or cosmic events or just an overwhelming desire to violate my own resolutions. (It usually happens.) I will also likely be only slowly or vaguely responsive to emails, etc. Please don't take it personally. I've got three weeks in which to get real work done, then life returns to its normal craziness.

05 January 2013

Django Unchained and "Accuracy"

I really didn't intend to write anything more about Django Unchained, at least not before viewing it again, but I found Jelani Cobb's essay at The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog annoying, and I know from experience that there's just no getting rid of an annoyance until I write about it. So here we go...

Cobb's essay is well-written and thoughtful, which is more than can be said for many attacks on Django Unchained, but it is fundamentally flawed for reasons Cobb pooh-poohs as aestheticizing or art-for-art-saking or just callous and insensitive: it's not a movie about actual history as Cobb defines it, but a movie (partly) about the representation of history in movies.
The film’s defenders are quick to point out that “Django” is not about history. But that’s almost like arguing that fiction is not reality—it isn’t, but the entire appeal of the former is its capacity to shed light on how we understand the latter.
This statement is infuriating in its reductionism and simple-mindedness. First, no, the entire appeal of fiction is not its "capacity to shed light on how we understand [reality]". Fiction has a multitude of appeals — the beauty of form, the pleasures of imagination, the basic entertainment that comes from escaping into a non-reality, the joys of complex thought inspired by stories, etc. There are, I suppose, metaphysical questions of whether we can ever think about anything that is not in some sense reality, but such questions make a concept like "unreality" pretty much meaningless, and I don't think that was Cobb's intention.

04 January 2013

"The Way We Name Things Is Important, Ma": On the Short Stories of George Saunders

The recent, wonderful profile of George Saunders in The New York Times Magazine by Joel Lovell reminded me that one of the first book reviews I ever published was of Saunders's first two story collections. It appeared in English Journal in the May 2003 issue. (They insisted, despite my protestations, that I send them my own dustjackets for the hardcovers of the books so that they could scan them. They promised to return them. They never did. Also, the published the piece as by "Matt Cheney", even though the manuscript and everything else used my full name, as I prefer for my byline. Thus did I discover some of the perils of academic publishing.)

I'd forgotten about this review, and it reads to me as if written by somebody other than myself, but for the sake of completism or the historical record or posterity or something, here it is, a review I wrote, according to the original computer file, in September 2002:

02 January 2013

Strange Horizons 2012 in Review

New Year's Eve fireworks, 2012; photo by Matthew Cheney

I have a small contribution in the grand collage that is the Strange Horizons reviewers' "2012 in Review". Well worth taking a look at for the huge, wonderful variety of writers' interests and enthusiasms.

Happy new year!