|Dimond Library, University of New Hampshire, November 2017, photo by MC|
First, I should say that I published less in 2017 than in any year since 2002 or so. I published no new fiction. For nonfiction, there was only an essay on John Keene's sentences for Emerging Writers' Network and two reviews for the print edition of Rain Taxi (of The World Broke In Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and The Year That Changed Literature by Bill Goldstein and Little Magazine, World Form by Eric Bulson).
The lightness of my publishing this year was a direct result of longer projects I was working on. Thus, while I published less, I wrote more than I have in many years. Yesterday, I turned in a rough draft of a complete dissertation to my advisor. At the end of the summer, I completed a draft of a novel, which I'm currently revising. I finished a long article on Virginia Woolf's The Years, which will be published later this year by Woolf Studies Annual. And early in 2017 I wrote a novella-length narrative about Woolf and anti-fascism; because of its length and form (not quite academic, not quite not-academic), it's basically unpublishable, but it was enjoyable work and I've cannibalized a few small parts of it for my dissertation, so I'm not complaining.
A highly productive year, then, but not one that was publicly productive.
It was also a productive year for reading, for movie-viewing and music-listening and general culture-imbiding. Partly, this was because I currently have a Dissertation Year Fellowship from the University of New Hampshire, so I haven't had to work as a teacher since last spring. I miss the classroom, miss the daily contact with students and the challenge of designing and implementing a curriculum, but I'm also benefitting a lot from having a break.
Here are some highlights, as I remember them. This chronicle is neither complete nor definitive, more a stream-of-consciousness meditation, and I have written it mostly for my own sake. In the interest particularly of bringing a sliver of attention to work that ought to get a lot more, I will perform this meditation in public, at the risk of making all my blind spots, bad taste, and human failures available to the masses. I live to serve.
(Four books I enjoyed that are not noted here because I wrote full posts on them: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle, The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge, Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou, and Age of Blight by Kristine Ong Muslim.)
Naturally, my reading in 2017 was dominated by work for my dissertation on modernism and the works of Virginia Woolf, Samuel Delany, and J.M. Coetzee. Reading anything that was not dissertation-related was a treat. I even managed to re-read a book, the greatest of all treats: Jeff VanderMeer's Borne, which was released in 2017, but which I first read in a draft (mostly the same as the published book) in 2016. I had been busy when I got the draft and read it very quickly, so it was nice to have a bit more time to luxuriate a bit with it when the novel was released . It's a marvelous novel, both aesthetically and intellectually beautiful, and also a perfect entry for someone new to VanderWorld — when it comes out in paperback, I will be sorely tempted to buy a box of them to give away to people as gateway drugs. And its companion novella, "The Strange Bird", is a gobsmacking masterpiece. I also enjoyed Jeff's story "Trump Land" at Slate, but because I have trouble even typing that first word of its title without wanting to puke, I need to move on to another topic...
My favorite book of any type published in 2017 was In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume I, 1957-1969 edited by Kenneth James and published by Wesleyan University Press. Because Delany is 1/3 of my dissertation, I have a natural scholarly interest in what's here, but I think I would be thrilled with the book even if it weren't so valuable to my current work. First, it's just beautiful as an object. Wesleyan went all out with production on it, and it's a lovely volume to have and to hold: the quality of the binding and printing is high, the interior design is pleasing and clear, and there are even illustrations. As a work of scholarship, it's stunning. I've worked in Delany's archives, I've read piles of his journals, and the thought of editing them into a book is daunting. Ken James selected passages thoughtfully, providing readers with a real experience of the journals while also mining their vastness for the material that is of the most value to someone other than Delany himself. The organization of the volume is brilliant, allowing a wide range of readers access to material that, organized differently, would be confusing for most. The book is a true feat of scholarship and a great gift to Delany readers everywhere.
For something completely different: bestselling popular fiction! When traveling, I usually read popular mysteries or thrillers. I didn't do a lot of travel this year, so only read a couple: Lee Child's Die Trying and Agatha Christie's The A.B.C. Murders. They were perfectly good reading for travel. (While Lee Child's books are often in my mind almost indistinguishable from each other, I nonetheless am a real fan of them, particularly for the efficiency of the action writing in his early novels. And I have a certain respect for the ability with which he takes a basically absurd premise and pushes it into ever-greater realms of absurdity without anyone apparently realizing just how absurd it all is.)
For dissertation work, I read some basically forgotten novels that ... were somewhat less tedious than I expected them to be, though the fact that they are forgotten is not at all surprising or even especially disturbing: Vera Brittain's Honourable Estate and Phyllis Bottome's The Mortal Storm (also a film, which I tracked down, and found more engaging than the novel overall, perhaps because it only required an hour and forty minutes of my attention). As examples of 1930s fiction, these books are fascinating. But fine examples of the art of the novel they are not.
As a Christmas present to myself, I took advantage of a sale NYRB Classics had and picked up a bunch of their reissues of Henry Green's novels. This, too, actually counts as dissertation work, since Green was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press (mostly, but not entirely, after Virginia Woolf's death). Indeed, I found a blatant slander against Leonard Woolf on the back of one of them: "Caught was censored at the insistence of its publisher, Leonard Woolf, when it came out in 1943." This is not true! Poor Leonard; he always gets dumped on by people, and is, in my view, underestimated and undervalued. Anyway, while Caught was censored — for a few strong words, I think, though I haven't looked at an earlier edition to compare — it was at the insistence of the printer, not anyone at Hogarth, and Green put his foot down about what sort of changes he was willing to live with. Most of the work with Green on editorial matters was done by John Lehmann, who writes about the incident in Thrown to the Woolfs and not only never blames Leonard, but writes, "Needless to say, in such a crisis Leonard was wholeheartedly on my side [against censorship]." (And Lehmann and Leonard had an often-contentious relationship, so there is no reason to believe Lehmann would want to provide cover.) That's page 117 of the Holt, Rinehart, and Winston hardcover of Thrown to the Woolfs if anybody wants to look it up. I've also checked a couple of studies of Green, since at least one had access to Green's correspondence, and none contradicts Lehmann. Sadly, what Lehmann considered "needless to say" does need saying because somebody at NYRB Classics just assumed Leonard Woolf was a prudish, censorious ass, and so the statement ended up on the back of the book.
Nonetheless, Caught is magnificent. I prefer it to Party Going, which I also read at the end of 2017. As I read it, I remembered trying to read Party Going probably ten or fifteen years ago, finding it dull and pointless, and giving up on Green. I'm glad I read Caught before Party Going this time, because though I can't say I find Party Going especially compelling even now, my desire to keep reading Green is strong because of Caught.
For dissertation research, I was only going to read the latter part of Alison Light's Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, but because it was so captivating, so well researched and well written, I read the whole thing. It's an absolutely essential book on Woolf, but also valuable for anyone interested in British culture of the first half of the 20th century. Light's account of Woolf's correspondence with Agnes Smith brought me to tears. In the late 1930s, Woolf struck up a correspondence with Smith that would last for the rest of Woolf's life. Smith was an unemployed weaver from West Yorkshire, who, after reading Three Guineas, wrote to tell Woolf that she ought to look beyond just the lives of, in Woolf’s words, “the daughters of educated men” and look to the lives of the lower classes. In her long first letter, Smith laid out the details of her own life and struggles, saying “those problems you outline affect the working woman in a far greater degree. For the daughter of the working man – the working woman – is and has been as much under family dominance as the daughter of the educated man – being such a one myself I speak from experience.”
Smith’s letter prompted Woolf to reply immediately that she had focused on the class she did because it was the only one she could write about from experience. I can't resist quoting Light:
More letters were exchanged, and photographs of their homes, and some warmth grew between them, though they were never on first-name terms. Woolf asked her to come and visit; Agnes returned the invitation. […] In the autumn of 1940, Agnes imagined a reversal of roles with Virginia staying a week in her workman’s cottage, writing during the day, since Agnes now had war work, and then getting the meal ready for the worker’s return: “It would be very nice to find you waiting when I got in at night.” […] In these dark months, as Virginia felt increasingly useless, it is a pleasing fancy to imagine that cooking Agnes’s dinner, feeling wanted and appreciated, might have saved her sanity. In November, Agnes signed off affectionately, “Cheerio, my dear,” hoping that Virginia wasn’t too tired and worried by the bombing. “But don’t stop writing so long as you have anything to say.”Anyway, I recommend Mrs. Woolf and the Servants even if you don't care about Woolf. If you do care about Woolf, then it's one of the very few books about her that are, I think, absolutely essential.
I read some novels and story collections this year that got excellent reviews, as well as support from people I know and like and trust, and which made it onto best-of-the-year lists. Some were fine, a couple even better than average, but I disliked more than I expected, and, indeed, was shocked that people gave them such praise. The hype machine for books is working so hard these days that it warps our expectations, I fear, and I no longer particularly trust even the recommendations of people of sound mind, people unconnected to the engines churning out daily lists of the 576 Books You Have To Read By The End Of The Week, the bubbling, babbling blurbage of "Brilliant!" and "Iconic!" and "The Best!". It must never be admitted, it seems, that the vast majority of books aren't even mediocre — that mediocre is an accomplishment. And then we, as readers, harried and harrassed by the hypesters, feel somehow a failure if our response to a book is a perfectly common and even kind one of: "It was fine. I'm glad I read it, but it's not something I will cherish or even perhaps remember a year from now."
While generally I find myself more impressed by writers outside the United States these days, writers less beholden to American ideas of what fiction should be and do, even writers from outside the borders of this ever-declining empire were less than fulfilling for me this year — see, for example, my ambivalent response to My Heart Hemmed In by Marie NDiaye. This, I hasten to add, says more about my own aesthetic mood than anything else.
Perhaps because they are less puffed by the pushers, older books seem to provide more of what I want from literature these days. Aside from the various older works I read/re-read/re-re-read for dissertation research, some of my greatest reading joys this year were Dostoevsky's Devils, Hardy's Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd, and Dickens's Barnaby Rudge.
Devils [aka The Possessed] I read in Michael Katz's translation for Oxford after having previously tried to read translations by Pevear & Volokhonsky and Andrew MacAndrew. It's a book I've bounced off of for years, despite having read Dostoevsky's other major novels (and some minor ones) with great pleasure. I had to conquer Devils, though, because of its importance to J.M. Coetzee, so I forced myself to wrestle with it. Having finished it, I can't say it's a novel I particularly like — certainly not with the passion I have for Crime & Punishment or Brothers Karamazov — but once I figured out more or less how to read it and at least some of what it seemed to be trying to accomplish, it became intellectually compelling. It's not a book I look forward to re-reading, certainly not to the level of Dostoevsky's other major novels (even The Idiot), but it's a book I'm quite happy finally to have read. It's also highly interesting just in a technical sense, given how Dostoevsky creates a portrait of a small community and all the tensions and intrigues that lead to an almost apocalyptic sense of tragedy within that community. As a portrayal of ideology, paranoia, and how people profit (or die) from ideology and paranoia, it's unlike anything else I've ever read. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that many, many passages were a slog to get through. (Still, to my point above: Not a slog in the way most new novels can be a slog. There is always with Dostoevsky such a sense of a profound — if often bizarre, obsessive, even insane — imagination and intellect shaping the material.)
Hardy I read because I am under-read in Hardy, having only finished reading Jude the Obscure previously. (I started Far from the Madding Crowd once before but didn't get far.) I was reading him because I wanted to think through his connections to Woolf and Coetzee (who quotes Jude in Disgrace). Woolf's father commissioned and first published Far from the Madding Crowd, essentially launching Hardy into fame, and Woolf met him late in his life. He was one of only two writers I can think of who was alive when she was for whom she had only praise (the other was Proust). When I first read Jude many years ago, I found it unrelentingly depressing, and I perceived Hardy as building a kind of clockwork world to inflict pain and suffering on his characters, the George R.R. Martin of his day. That was not my experience reading it this time. It had a less powerful effect on me, but I appreciated the novel's subtleties more. Much of the writing is stunning, and while I still feel something about the book is unconvincing, it was still a deeply engaging reading experience. Far from the Madding Crowd I read soon after, and enjoyed it greatly, despite its occasional awkwardness. I expect in 2018 to read the rest of Hardy's major novels, probably culminating with The Mayor of Casterbridge, Woolf's favorite.
To get myself up to steam on Hardy, I also read around in various biographies: Michael Millgate's is the recognized authoritative biography, but I only read a bit of it, as it is awash in detail; Claire Tomalin's reads well and is a good way to get a sense of the forest beyond the trees; Ralph Pite's I also found had interesting parts, and is a nice balance between Tomalin and Millgate, even if he's a bit too much of a psychoanalyst for my taste. And a few works of criticism. Irving Howe's book on Hardy was a pleasant surprise. There's an elegance to older criticism that has mostly been lost, it seems to me, in contemporary literary criticism, even as valuable insights and information are offered by more recent work. Not only is Howe's book a pleasure to read, it's also not a bad starting place in thinking about what Hardy's novels are up to.
I thought of Hardy a lot, too, when reading a bunch of short stories by David Constantine in the late winter/early spring, because Constantine seems to me to have a certain inheritance from Hardy (as well as D.H. Lawrence). Whether that inheritance is real or just my perception, I don't know, but I will say that aside from Hardy there is no writer whose descriptions of the English countryside I would rather read than Constantine's. I had read Constantine before, but returned to him with a certain obsessiveness for a few weeks after watching the film 45 Years, based on his story "In Another Country", which is for me one of the great short stories in English in the last 50 or so years. I was, as I wrote here, disappointed with 45 Years, particularly its script. It's not a bad movie, it's just not remotely as great as its source material, and the changes writer-director Andrew Haigh made in how some of the material works made no sense to me and shifted the story's emphases away from what seemed most interesting, mysterious, and evocative toward something much more banal. Anyway, to banish my disappointment, I returned to Constantine's stories, which are all stunning, and soon I had happily forgotten 45 Years.
For nonfiction, there were the two books I reviewed for Rain Taxi, which were both to some extent disappointing, though in opposite ways: Little Magazine, World Form has some remarkable information but is rather tediously academic, especially in its later chapters; The World Broke in Two is biographical journalism that could have benefited from more contact with the vast academic work on its subject matter. To be honest, World Broke in Two really annoyed me, and I tried to soft-pedal my annoyance in the review, but I will mention it here: It's a book that rehashes biographical material on four very famous, highly canonized writers, with only the barest attention to what they actually wrote, which is why those writers matter. Also, we do not need pedestrian biographical writing on Woolf and Forster when they are the subjects of two of the best biographies written in the 20th century (Hermione Lee on Woolf and P.N. Furbank on Forster), and for that matter Lawrence and Eliot aren't entirely lacking in good biographies, either, particularly Robert Crawford's Young Eliot, which goes up through 1922. Also, there's no reason to include D.H. Lawrence, whose life story doesn't intersect well with the others in the year the book covers, 1922. Also, there's no need for a book only about 1922 that's just biographical journalism. (There are already good academic books about literature and 1922.) Also — no, I won't go on. Pick up a copy of Rain Taxi for my more developed thoughts. (Little Magazine, World Form is at least valuable for a small audience, undoubtedly so. My disappointment there is just that Bulson is a strong enough writer that he didn't need to limit the book so deeply to that small audience.)
I read plenty of better works of nonfiction in 2017. John Berger died at the very beginning of the year, and, in mourning, I returned to his essays, which I've been reading ever since I first encountered The Success and Failure of Picasso when I was a sophomore in college. (I've never really been able to get into Berger's fiction. I'll keep trying.) Verso's Portraits and Landscapes collections are essential, and Selected Essays remains a pretty good overview.
I remain in mourning for Stuart Hall, and, aside from the (hideously expensive) Cambridge Edition of the Works of Virginia Woolf, the ongoing publishing project that most excites me is Duke University Press's Stuart Hall: Selected Writings. The second book in the series, Selected Political Writings, was a great balm after the 2016 election. I devoured it and Familiar Stranger: A Life Between Two Islands within moments of their publication, and look forward to returning to them (along with 2016's Cultural Studies 1983) many more times.
Also from Duke is Kadji Amin's Disturbing Attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History, which I read quickly, primarily seeking out what was relevant for my writing on Delany, so I look forward to returning to it with a bit more leisure and time for thought. It raises important questions for queer studies, and will be a book anyone studying Delany in particular will want to wrestle with.
Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP's Fight Against AIDS by Deborah B. Gould is a book I spent a lot of time with, amazed at the depth of material she found, particularly her mining of archives of gay newspapers and magazines from the 1980s. Gould not only details much that doesn't get into other chronicles, but she also has a real talent for expressing complex ideas in ways that are comprehensible and not reductive. It's definitely an academic book, but I think it also contains much of value for a non-academic audience, and its exploration of how emotion and social movements work together (or at odds) is extremely valuable.
Coetzee's newest book, Late Essays: 2006-2017, came out just days ago in the U.S., but was released in the U.K. in the fall. It's a similar book to Stranger Shores and Inner Workings, a collection of occasional pieces, mostly essay-reviews and introductions. One of the most substantial essays in the book, and perhaps the best overall, is "Eight Ways of Looking at Samuel Beckett", though I found most interesting the introductions to books published in Spanish by El Hilo de Ariadna as part of a series of books called "John Maxwell Coetzee's Personal Library". Coetzee is a very good introducer, informed and efficient. Indeed, his essay on Beckett's Watt (the subject of his dissertation) is the best introduction to that rather difficult text that I've ever encountered. There are some surprises, too: I did not know that Coetzee has a fondness for Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, though it makes sense, and his introduction shows why.
Of course, I read or reread many books about Coetzee last year. The one that stands out is the most recent, J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Narrative Transgression by Alexandra Effe, which is concerned with a lot of the elements of Coetzee's work that most appeal to me, and does a fine job of digging into the how and why of his writing. I hope Palgrave will bring out an affordable paperback of it, as I would like to own a copy for myself, rather than rely on the library; this is perhaps the highest praise I have for an academic study, most of which I am more than happy to return to the library stacks. The collection J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus: The Ethics of Ideas and Things edited by Jennifer Rutherford and Anthony Uhlmann is a good start at wrangling with Coetzee's most recent novels (which I've written about, inadequately, here and here). I also spent time with Jan Wilm's The Slow Philosophy of J.M. Coetzee, which benefits from access to Coetzee's archives, although I wished there was more in the book drawn from the archives and less trying to justify the (I thought gimmicky) idea of Coetzee and "slow reading", or arguments about whether and how Coetzee's novels are a form of philosophy, a question I have no interest in. Nonetheless, there are good insights scattered here and there in the book. It's not as interesting for me as Effe's, though, which is the best academic study of Coetzee's work that I know of since Carrol Clarkson's magnificent J.M. Coetzee: Countervoices.
Movies & TV
A landmark moment of 2017 for me was when I watched one of the absolute worst movies I've ever seen in my entire life, A Quiet Passion. Not only is it a terrible portrayal of one of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, it's pure cliché as a biopic and insufferably mannered overall, like an especially dull Saturday Night Live parody of a pretentious art movie, leaving the poor, hapless actors at sea, their clothes more lively than their performances.
Interestingly, despite my loathing, A Quiet Passion made it onto multiple best-of-the-year lists. Seriously. And not just the list of Richard Brody, whose taste is so often different from my own that I'm frequently convinced he must be some sort of weird Andy Kaufmann comedy act pretending to be a movie critic, but also Manohla Dargis, a critic whose taste more often aligns with my own. (Her colleague A.O. Scott put it on his list, too.) The Guardian made it #43, while Slant ranked it #2 and Reverse Shot made it #1.
Let me say again: A Quiet Passion is one of the worst movies I have ever seen in my entire life. I have no way to bridge the gap between myself and the people who love the movie because it's not a gap, it's a chasm, a universe. The last time I felt this way was when I met someone who thought Prometheus was a good movie. I owe that person an apology, because compared to A Quiet Passion, Prometheus is one of the greatest masterpieces of the cinematic art, and I would gladly watch it 10 times in a row right here and right now than ever have to be subjected to A Quiet Passion ever again ever ever ever.
C'est la vie. De gustibus non est disputandum. So it goes.
The biggest positive media event for me was Twin Peaks: The Return. I wrote at length about it, so won't say anything here except that it holds up in my memory, that I've re-watched a number of episodes, and I plan to re-watch the whole in order soon. I didn't entirely expect this — it's sometimes so slow that I didn't think I would want to subject myself to the whole 18 hours again, but I'm very curious to see the effect of the entirety now that I know where it ends up — I'm curious to see, for instance, if the episodes after 8 and before 16 or so still feel like treading water. My anticipation, my desire for something — anything! — to be resolved (and for Dougie Jones to just go away and give us back Agent Cooper!) may have affected my viewing of those episodes.
I ended up watching more TV in 2017 than I do normally, and I'll try to remember some of it below. I expect the reason I saw more TV than feature films is because of the routine I got into when working on my dissertation: I would break from writing around 5 or 5.30 to make dinner, which generally took an hour (unless I was feeling lazy or had leftovers), then watch an episode of something while eating, before a bunch of reading before bed. (This is exactly the opposite of my routine when I was younger. I used to write late into the night, and did most reading in the mornings. I still sometimes read in the mornings, but I no longer tend to write at night.) Movies simply took up too much time in this routine, whereas individual episodes of shows worked well.
Thus, I missed a lot of 2017's movies. Of the ones I saw, I enjoyed Baby Driver, Get Out, Lady Bird, I Am Not Your Negro, War for the Planet of the Apes, Okja, The Bad Batch, The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I wouldn't put any of them on a list of all-time favorites, but I enjoyed watching each, and a few are ones I would be happy to see again. (The only one I bought on Blu-Ray was Baby Driver. I doubt I'll want to own any of the others, as they do not include as many impressive car chases.) So far, I haven't seen a 2017 movie that gets anywhere close to the effect on me of Moonlight in 2016. That's no slam. It's a rare year when any film affects me as Moonlight did.
Of pre-2017 movies I saw, many of the best were on Filmstruck, which I find I use nearly as much as Netflix now. Indeed, if I hadn't fallen into a routine of TV watching, I would have used Filmstruck more than Netflix this year. This is not entirely surprising, as Netflix and other big streaming services now focus more on recent and new programming than they do on older films, so those of us interested in the older and/or more arthousey must go elsewhere, and Filmstruck is well positioned to fit that niche, as it's a partnership between The Criterion Collection and Turner Classic Movies. Early in the year, Filmstruck had a bunch of Fritz Lang and Francois Truffaut films that I hadn't seen, though now most of the Lang and many of the more obscure Truffauts are gone, sadly — I hadn't realized they would disappear so soon, so didn't watch as many as I would have otherwise. I have a pretty good Lang collection already, but things like Truffaut's The Green Room are extremely rare, and I was an idiot not to watch it while it was available. Live and learn.
I've bounced around to see a bunch of different things on Filmstruck, e.g. Bertrand Tavernier's Deathwatch, based on D.G. Compton's The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. Not a film for the ages, by any means, but interesting enough, and this time I did manage to see it before it disappeared. Aside from having access to big collections of great filmmakers' work, this has been the pleasure of Filmstruck for me — trying out movies I've never heard of, or only heard rumors of, or never got around to because I wasn't sure they were quite my thing. I've started a bunch of stuff, gotten 25 minutes in, and decided to move on. It's fun to tour around that way.
Filmstruck's collection of my favorite director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is quite good (including a wonderful print of Querelle, of which it took me years to find a DVD that was even tolerable), but it's all stuff I already have, whereas their collection of another favorite of mine, Kenji Mizoguchi, includes a few films not easily available otherwise, and which I hadn't seen before (e.g. Utamaro and His Five Women). I watched a bunch of Mike Leigh films, which seem to go on and off Filmstruck a lot — I remember there being at least one more there than there is now, but it's still a good collection, nonetheless, and I don't think his breathtakingly great Secrets & Lies is otherwise available in the U.S. Similarly, their collection of Renoir feels smaller than it did before, but it still includes Toni, which is tough to find. I first watched the restored print of Tarkovsky's Stalker at Filmstruck, too, as it was available a few months before the Criterion Blu-ray, which I picked up during one of their 50% off sales. The restoration is a revelation. I loved the film even when I first saw it on a very washed out VHS copy 20 years ago, and I owned the old Kino DVD, but to see it in the restored version is a revelation, one of my favorite viewing experiences of the year.
Speaking of Criterion and favorite viewing experiences of the year, their new Blu-ray of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon is more than I even hoped for. The supplements are magnificent, far better than anything on any previous releases (yes, I have them all ... what?), and the quality of the image — which really really really matters with this movie — is beyond even Criterion's normally high standards. I expected Criterion to do a great job with this film, but I didn't know just how great it would be. More of a surprise from them was Orson Welles's Othello. I'd seen a version of it before that I didn't think much of, and the idea of watching Welles in blackface didn't exactly appeal to me, but I gave it a shot on Filmstruck and was stunned at just how compelling it is, even with my discomfort with Welles's make-up. During the Criterion sale, I picked up a copy of the DVD for the supplements and the alternate cut (which aren't on Filmstruck), and was glad I did so, and glad, too, that Criterion went out of their way to make sure the supplements addressed issues of race and representation. It's no Chimes at Midnight, but then, few things are. On the other side of things, it's not the dull mess of Mr. Arkadin, either.
As for TV, which I mentioned above, one of the highlights for me beyond Twin Peaks was the second season of Sense8, which continued to be wonderful in the ways the first season was, though less surprisingly so, since part of the power of the first season was just how unexpected it was. I adore the show. Similarly, I loved Shetland, which I hadn't encountered before this year. The fourth season of Peaky Blinders gave me much pleasure, and I was pleased to see them doing some interesting things with the women this season, as they've often struggled to figure out how to make the women more than just sidekicks and sex objects. I feel some guilt for loving the show, because fundamentally it's a celebration of sociopaths and its appeal is as much power fantasy as anything else, but it's well acted, well filmed, relatively well written, has great music, and I do love it, and look forward to the next season eagerly. Also on Netflix is Dark, a German show that I discovered this fall on a friend's recommendation. It's well filmed and well acted, but what most captured me was how smartly surprising it is in plotting — each episode complicated the plot and situation, but did so in a way that never, for me at least, felt gimmicky or manipulative. It just felt like an ever-more-complex world unfurling, and that made it thrilling. The panoply of characters in various timelines got a bit confusing by the middle of the series, but by the end it felt like the confusion was not only (mostly) cleared up, but in fact had been used well as part of the show. They've positioned themselves for a very big change in the next season, and I'm hoping the show's creators can keep it still feeling intelligent, surprising, and emotionally affecting, rather than it becoming, say, Lost.
In a different mode, the newest season of The Great British Baking Show to play here in the U.S. (not the newest in the U.K.) gave me much pleasure, as the whole show has. Genevieve Valentine nailed its appeal to me. (Also, I like baking. But at a much more amateur level. And without such strict time constraints.) Similarly, Amazon's Jean-Claude van Johnson made me endlessly happy. I didn't expect much from the show, but I adore Jean-Claude van Damme and have watched more direct-to-video movies starring him than anybody else, so I was pleasantly surprised that the show not only appealed to my JCVD fandom but also was entertaining for its own sake. The half-hour format works well, the scripts have a good sense of when a particular gag is getting stale, and van Damme is a master of both not taking himself seriously and of absolutely committing himself to a role and giving it all he's got. A real delight.
I watched Mindhunter on Netflix, and while I do like David Fincher's work generally, something about Mindhunter just fell flat for me. It was fine, but the problem was that it feels like it's trying to be Hannibal with less style, panache, and surrealism, like they said to themselves, "What if Hannibal were more realistic?" This is unfair to it, of course, because there can be other FBI shows than Hannibal, but ... well, I guess I just don't particularly want another FBI show other than Hannibal. Or The Greatest American Hero. Either one is fine by me. But something halfway in between the two? Not really my thing.
The Deuce on HBO was ... okay, I guess? I always give David Simon a chance, because Homicide and The Wire are among my favorite things in the universe, but nothing of his since The Wire has really held my interest. I didn't mind watching The Deuce, and found myself somewhat interested in a few of its characters. The heterosexual porn industry isn't of much interest to me, so in some ways I was surprised that I didn't completely fall asleep during the show. I did wish they'd do more with their gays. (Or gaze.) I was pleased they had a lot of women directors and writers, so while depicting a highly misogynistic milieu they didn't always fall into replicating the misogyny. They seem to have done some research into the world they depicted, which is not surprising with Simon and his group, but still, it would be easy for the show to fall into a kind of exploitative cliché that wouldn't be of any value, and I thought they generally avoided that. I'm still not entirely sure why the show exists, or what it exists to do, but the first season felt like a prelude to something, and I will admit some curiosity about where it is going. Also, I kind of want the nice gay bartender to get his own spin-off show, and so I've got my fingers crossed that he'll be more prominent in the next season...
Toward the end of the year, I was getting a cold and spent a day pretty much lying on the couch, during which, somewhat unintentionally, I watched all of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It was delightful, especially because I was fighting off a cold, so didn't bother to think about whether I cared about historical anachronisms (I don't, generally, but I do know something about late-'50s/early-'60s New York, and so sometimes things become difficult to just brush off as fantasy). I was completely captured by Rachel Brosnahan's performance. She was one of the best actors in House of Cards, though I stopped watching House of Cards after a couple seasons, and it was fun to see her showing real range here. I don't know if the show is actually good, or even something I want to revisit, but I did enjoy it greatly while watching.
Eight albums new to me (seven new in 2017) particularly held my interest through the year: Sillion by Johnny Flynn, Masseduction by St. Vincent, Trouble No More by Bob Dylan, Semper Feminina by Laura Marling, Land of Doubt by Sam Baker, Richard Thompson's Accoustic Classics II and Accoustic Rarities, and, from 1991, Jodi Savall's recording of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos. (Yes, I know, I'm a boring music consumer. For a more exciting and informed list than mine, see Ted Gioia's.)
Savall's recording of the Brandenburgs was a revelation to me because 1.) I didn't think any recording of those very familiar concertos could possibly make them sound new to me, and 2.) I love some of Savall's other recordings (Orient & Occident especially), so was surprised I hadn't known he recorded the Brandburgs until I was looking for something else. Previously, I'd been happiest with Concerto Italiano's recording, which does a nice job bringing out the brass in ways that made the recording sound less stuffy, more alive than many others. I liked some of the pacing and tone of Savall's recording, but I wasn't completely and totally won over until the first movement of the fifth concerto, which in even some of the best other recordings can sound like someone is banging their forehead on a harpsichord keyboard. Not here. Here, that movement is thrilling. I almost stood up and clapped in my living room all by myself when I first heard it. Also: the flutes aren't annoying. I'm not a big fan of flutes. The instrument too often sounds either breathy or shrill to me, and neither is a sound I enjoy. The flutes here are really lovely. Though I am no musical expert, and go purely on what I enjoy listening to, so any real musicians or musicologists could completely disagree with my assessment, in my opinion, if you're looking for one recording of the Brandburgs, this is the one to get, as it is well balanced, classic in approach, but not dead. And it makes a couple of instruments that I otherwise don't enjoy enjoyable. (But do seek out the Concerto Italiano, too, even if just for those marvelous horns! The first movement of the first concerto in their recording always gets my heart racing, even as I've heard it a hundred times now.)
I spent a lot of time in 2017 listening to two other Bach recordings in particular, and might as well mention them now, though I bought them before 2017: the cello suites performed by David Watkin and the 2-piano version of the Goldberg Variations performed by Tal & Groethuysen. I think Watkin has become my favorite performer of the cello suites, which are my favorite Bach compositions, which is to say my favorite music ever created by a human being. One performer of the cello suites is not enough, given the infinite possibilities in the work, and there are plenty of good recordings out there, some quite different — I'm quite fond of Pierre Fournier, Ditta Rohmann, Anner Bylsma, and Jian Wang as well, and have a sentimental fondness for Yo-Yo Ma's first recording of the suites, since those were the first I heard, and that recording began my obsession with them. The two-piano Goldbergs is just a lot of fun if you know the one-piano versions almost by heart, as I do.
Johnny Flynn is a good songwriter, and his previous albums have some wonderful songs on them, but Sillion feels like a step forward for him, much as Sam Baker's Land of Doubt feels like a leap forward for him (an even more impressive songwriter, with marvelous earlier albums, but Land of Doubt is a thing unto itself). The first three songs on Sillion in particular ("Raising the Dead", "Wandering Aengus", and my favorite on the album, "Heart Sunk Hank") make a fine set, but there's not a bad song on the album, and it really holds together nicely.
Masseduction and Semper Feminina are beautiful, exciting albums by artists I've been following for a while and yet have never fully embraced, despite passionately loving a handful of their songs. Laura Marling's "Rambling Man" is among my favorite songs of recent decades, and St. Vincent's "Birth In Reverse" and "Bad Believer" I adore. Among others. But Semper Feminina is an album I just kept listening to over and over, never really separating its songs, and Masseduction, too, although in that case songs like "New York" and "Happy Birthday, Johnny" floored me. These two albums made me glad to have ears. I'm overly sensitive to many sounds, and often wish I could hear less well, so that really is saying something.
Richard Thompson is one of my favorite living musicians of any sort, and his series of Accoustic Classics are great fun. Accoustic Rarities is a particular favorite this year because it includes him performing the Fairport Convention classic "Sloth", which is normally performed with multiple voices and electric guitars. I saw him perform a version of the song alone and with an accoustic guitar in Lebanon, New Hampshire that bascially reduced me to tears, and I'd never paid much attention to the song before. I despaired of ever hearing him do a solo accoustic version again, but he recorded it for Accoustic Rarities, and I will forever be grateful. It's not as stunning as when I heard him live, but few things could be.
Dylan's Trouble No More is not an album I expected to listen to more than once or twice. I am a Dylan completist, so I knew I would buy it (not the deluxe set — even I have limits, Bob!), but it's material from my least favorite period in his discography other than the current torch song/Sinatra/standards/whatever one. I find the current phase boring; the Christian music, though, as represented on the studio albums, was awful. Those were bad albums. Just bad. Some of the songs themselves were pretty good, as later recordings showed (either by Dylan or, more often, other people), but the albums were slack, lackluster, clumsy — signs of things to come, in fact. (Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, and Down in the Groove are generally best left unspoken about.) But dang, Trouble No More is pretty good. These are songs that Dylan really needed to perform live, it seems. The band is phenomenal, one of the best, if not the best, he ever had. The performances are energetic, passionate, even fun, which is not a word I would use with the studio albums of that era. I don't think Trouble No More is going to play in heavy rotation in my house, but I certainly don't mind listening to it, and even actually enjoy quite a bit of it, which is not what I expected to say when I first heard this was going to be the next release in Dylan's "official bootlegs" series.
Still, I will admit that what I'm most looking forward to is an official bootleg of the Blood on the Tracks years, my favorite Dylan period. It's good to have something to hope for. Hope was not an easy emotion this year.
And so ends 2017.
|image by Inspirobot|