Showing posts from 2009

Introduction to Film Textbooks

I previously wrote (and wrote and wrote...) about what I was thinking when designing an intro to film class that I'll be teaching next term, and particularly when choosing the fourteen films to show during the 150-minute screening time outside of class.  That post wasn't complete, though, because an important other factor in the shape of the course is the textbook. When I got the assignment to teach intro to film, I'd never looked at a film textbook.  I'd be tempted to say, "When I was in school, we didn't need none of them overpriced, overstuffed, overacademic behemoths!"  And though it is true that the profileration of such textbooks is a relatively recent event, a handful of them are over thirty years old.  I just tended to get teachers who didn't want us to read much in film classes. I'm a fan of reading, though.  And I'm especially a fan of reading in an intro class, where a textbook gives interested students more information than

An Introduction to Film Class

Because a colleague is going on sabbatical next term, I've been recruited to teach an Intro to Film class at Plymouth State . I suppose they thought of me because I spent three years as a playwrighting and screenwriting major at NYU , so my CV has more film-related stuff on it than most other folks' in the English Department, which oversees this particular class (though it's also a class that's a requirement for the Communications department ... I'm staying happily ignorant of the politics and regulations that, in the absence of a specific Film Studies department, make particular film classes part of one department or another...). I've spent time on film sets of various sizes, know a few writers and producers and such, and even have a couple of friends who were real, live film majors in college ... but academic film study is a world I know only at a superficial level, so it's good this is just an intro class. And so I've spent more time preparing fo

Go Underland for the Holidays!

The great and glorious Victoria Blake at Underland Press has created a "Friend & Family" sale and let me know I could share it with all of you. Here's what you do: Go to the Underland website , order lots of books, and type in the code xmas09. This should get you 15% off your order. The more you spend, the more you save! I would recommend getting at least 5 copies each of Finch , Best American Fantasy , Pilo Family Circus -- well, heck, all of their books . You need at least one for yourself, two or three for various friends and family, one to donate to the local library or school, etc...

Robin Wood: 1931-2009

The news of film critic Robin Wood's death  came as a real shock to me because, in preparation for teaching an intro to film class next term, I've been spending a lot of time with his writings recently.  One of my projects, only vaguely justified by the class, has been to view or re-view all of Alfred Hitchcock's films, and Wood was one of the most important writers on Hitchcock.  Indeed, his Hitchcock's Films Revisited has been the book I've spent the most time with during my journey with Sir Alfred because it is richly provocative and unpredictable, and helped me reassess some films, such as Marnie , that I would otherwise have felt were minor. Hitchcock's Films Revisited is fascinating, too, because it is multiple books in one, and various parts think about, contradict, and, indeed, criticize other parts of the book.  After the original Hitchcock's Films was published, Wood's life changed considerably -- he had been a married man living in Englan

Charlie Darwin, Bewildered

December 18 1832 After passing through the straight of Le Maire at Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle anchored at Good Success Bay. Here Darwin had his first encounter with savages [sic] . He was shocked by the primitive way of life they led but was also fascinated by them. A group of four male Fuegians met the landing party. After an attempt to communicate with the Feugians the party presented them with some bright red cloth and the Feugians immediately became friendly with them. The natives initiated a dialogue by patting the crewmen on their chests. Apparently they had the most amazing ability to mimic the crew's gestures and even the words they spoke, often repeating whole English sentences back to them. Darwin was bewildered by all this.

Directors of the Decade

The ever-wonderful Matt Zoller Seitz has written a great feature for -- "Directors of the Decade: The Sensualists" . Actually, this is one of ten features Seitz is writing for Salon about "Directors of the Decade" , but for me this is the group that matters most, because it includes Hou Hsiao-hsien, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, and Wong Kar-Wai, some of my absolute favorites, though I had never thought of them as a group before.  Or maybe I have -- I've been thinking a lot recently about why Lynch, Malick, and Mann in particular appeal to me so deeply. (I love some of Wong Kar-Wai's films, too -- 2046 , In the Mood for Love , and especially Happy Together , though My Blueberry Nights proved nearly unwatchable and Ashes of Time , in either version , left me cold. Hou Hsiao-hsien I hadn't really thought of in relation to the others, and I'm least familiar with his work, having only seen Flight of the Red Balloon and The P

Manohla Dargis on Women in Hollywood

Manohla Dargis may be my favorite mainstream film reviewer -- it's not just that she's got great perception of cinema as an artform of its own (too many reviewers treat movies like they're illustrated novels), but she's also an extraordinarily talented writer, one of the few film reviewers I'm happy to read simply for her sense of language and prose structure within the newspaper review form. Plenty of writers' expressive abilities have been deadened by the demands of writing multiple 800-1000-word reviews week after week, but Dargis still turns in more energetic and thoughtful reviews than not, and it's an impressive feat. In a recent issue of the Times , Dargis wrote an essay about women in Hollywood . The commercial American film industry remains an astoundingly sexist enterprise, and the sexism is systemic, as Dargis shows. Even if you think you know how bad the situation is, the statistics are breathtaking: Only a handful of female directors picked

Rain Taxi Auction

Rain Taxi Review of Books is a marvelous magazine, and they've just begun their annual auction , which is an event I always look forward to because of the wide variety of items they have to offer, including dozens of signed books. The new print issue of RT includes an essay I wrote about the work of Wallace Shawn , a playwright and essayist whose face and voice many people know from some of his iconic roles in movies and TV shows, but whose writing is vastly less known -- he's one of those writers who is more popular outside of his native country than in it. Aside from a couple short stories that are currently wending their way through the submission process, my major writings since this summer have been the Shawn essay for RT and the essay on Coetzee for The Quarterly Conversation . The effect of spending so much time reading and re-reading the writings of both men is obvious in my latest Strange Horizons column, "On the Eating of Corpses" .

00 Movies

Gawker is totally right -- "The choice of our favorite movie of the decade is one of the most important we as individuals can make." (And here I was thinking it was my choice of underwear that defined me -- but that's so '90s !) Everybody's making lists of the best of everything from 2000-2009 right now. I like reading such things when they're the personal preferences of individuals -- Richard Brody's film list is the most idiosyncratic I've encountered, filled with films I haven't seen and in many cases have never heard of, and of the ones I have seen, they aren't really films I'd put toward the top of my own best-of-the-decade list, were I even able to come up with such a list. And yet I loved reading Brody's list because his explanations worked together to create a sense of how he thinks about his encounters with art. Similarly, John Patterson's passionate essay on Terrence Malick's The New World as the single best f

School of Rogue

While listening to this interview with the great and glorious Werner Herzog, I learned of Herzog's Rogue Film School . It has some guidelines I thought more workshops might want to emulate: The Rogue Film School is about a way of life. It is about a climate, the excitement that makes film possible. It will be about poetry, films, music, images, literature. Excerpts of films will be discussed, which could include your submitted films; they may be shown and discussed as well. Depending on the materials, the attention will revolve around essential questions: how does music function in film? How do you narrate a story? (This will certainly depart from the brainless teachings of three-act-screenplays). How do you sensitize an audience? How is space created and understood by an audience? How do you produce and edit a film? How do you create illumination and an ecstasy of truth? Related, but more practical subjects, will be the art of lockpicking. Traveling on foot. The exhilara

Summertime and Coetzee's Countervoices

An essay I wrote on J.M. Coetzee's autobiofictional memoirs, including his latest book, Summertime , has been posted in the new issue of The Quarterly Conversation . (I'll note here that the title and the section titles in the essay are not mine: my original, preferred title was "Awakening the Countervoices in One Self: J.M. Coetzee and the Authority of the Author", but that's not really very descriptive, so I can see why the change was made. Similarly, I left the sections untitled, but I've titled subsections before , so it's more consistent this way.) Here's a taste: In its form and subject matter, Summertime has more in common with Elizabeth Costello and Diary of a Bad Year than Boyhood and Youth , but some of its central concerns are the same, and it is possible to see the John Coetzee who is the topic of Summertime as an adult version of the John Coetzee who is the protagonist of Boyhood and Youth (if we assume the protagonists of th

Under the Dome by Stephen King

Stephen King's new novel, Under the Dome , is a tremendously entertaining and often emotionally affecting story about, among other things, cruelty and pity. King has called Lord of the Flies " the book that changed my life ", and its influence feels especially strong here, where a Maine town is turned into an island when a mysterious, invisible dome suddenly covers it, and adults begin to behave like the children in Golding's novel. There are political overtones to the book, with the main villain, "Big Jim" Rennie, sounding an awful lot like Big Dick Cheney; with crisis turned into political opportunity; with fear used as a tool for consolidating power; with brutality replacing sense. These connections to the world outside the book are important, sometimes amusing and sometimes even insightful, but they're also obvious (intentionally so, I'd bet). More complex and interesting is the novel's narrative voice and how it relates to the revelatio

Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson

I must admit some surprise that the best book I've read about judgement, taste, and aesthetics is a book about Céline Dion . Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is not only thoughtful and well-informed, it is also compelling in every sense of the word. (It's part of the ever-surprising and wonderfully odd 33 1/3 series from Continuum Books .) I don't know where I first heard about Wilson's book -- probably via Bookforum -- but it's gotten plenty of press, including a mention by James Franco at the Oscars and an interview of Wilson by Stephen Colbert. The concept of the book is seductive: Wilson, a Canadian music critic and avowed Céline-hater, spends a year trying to figure out why she is so popular and what his hatred of her says about himself. I kept away from the book for a little while because I thought it couldn't possibly live up to its premise, and that in all likelihood it was more stunt than analysis.

Writing Advice from Cormac McCarthy

The Wall Street Journal just ran an excellent interview with the seldom-interviewed Cormac McCarthy , and I thought this advice was particularly sound: WSJ: The last five years have seemed very productive for you. Have there been fallow periods in your writing? CM: I don't think there's any rich period or fallow period. That's just a perception you get from what's published. Your busiest day might be watching some ants carrying bread crumbs. Someone asked Flannery O'Connor why she wrote, and she said, "Because I was good at it." And I think that's the right answer. If you're good at something it's very hard not to do it. In talking to older people who've had good lives, inevitably half of them will say, "The most significant thing in my life is that I've been extraordinarily lucky." And when you hear that you know you're hearing the truth. It doesn't diminish their talent or industry. You can have all that and f

Cat and Finch

Ms. P. Martha Moog thought about reading Finch , but decided against it when she discovered that the eponymous protagonist is not, in fact, a delectable bird. She very much liked the gun on the cover , though, and so dragged the book and one of our home decorations over the couch to spend some time with them. (She fancies herself a gun moll , I'm afraid. I keep having to confiscate her collection of Derringers .)



"Revelations" in Sunday Salon

My latest story, "Revelations", is now live at the Sunday Salon webzine. I'm particularly happy with this for a few reasons -- first because my friend Nita Noveno, one of the editors, asked me to contribute, and it's always nice to be asked to contribute to something, but also, and especially, because the Sunday Salon website reaches toward some of my own ideals for ways literature and the world can encounter each other. It's a site worth exploring and supporting. Here's an excerpt from the story to entice you (or warn you away)-- Olly and I spent much of our time together, though, because Olly liked to hear the stories I told her. At first, I told her stories about the things our parents were doing out in the world -- fighting evil witches and dastardly kings, working as spies for the government, flying in warplanes and bombing remote regions of the Earth. Olly didn't seem to understand these stories, but she liked them. As she got older, though, sh

What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About

Sorry, couldn't resist. Returning now to work on the aforementioned J.M. Coetzee essay, which is once again insisting on going in unexpected directions requiring more reading. (Paul de Man's "Autobiography as De-Facement" this morning. I know you're jealous.) No more blogging till it's done. Bad me.

Music and Oblivion

It's a sunny, cool Saturday morning up here in the wilds of New Hampshire, and I was filled with the desire to share some music this morning, but wasn't sure what. My recent discovery and obsession, Ted Hawkins ? Couldn't choose just one song. The most amusing song I've heard this week, Marion Harris's "I'm a Jazz Vampire" ? Tempting, tempting... But then a finished copy of Alan DeNiro's novel Total Oblivion, More or Less arrived in my mailbox, sporting its fabulous cover, and Booklist gave it a starred review , and for various reasons that will become apparent the minute you read a synopsis of the book, I couldn't get a certain Andrew Bird song out of my head, and then found this lovely video someone had created for it, and my choice of music to share with you this morning was pretty much made for me. Enjoy--

Jury, Meet Peers

Lizzie Skurnick: "I just want to say," I said as the meeting closed, "that we have sat here and consistently called books by women small and books by men large, by no quantifiable metric, and we are giving awards to books I think are actually kind of amateur and sloppy compared to others, and I think it's disgusting ." (I wasn't built for the board room.) "But we can't be doing it because we're sexist," an estimable colleague replied huffily. "After all, we're both men and women here." But that's the problem with sexism. It doesn't happen because people -- male or female -- think women suck. It happens for the same reason a sommelier always pours a little more in a man's wine glass (check it!), or that that big, hearty man in the suit seems like he'd be a better manager. It's not that women shouldn't be up for the big awards. It's just that when it comes down to the wire, we just kinda feel like

Eric Schaller and the Art of Illustrating VanderMeer

New Hampshire is a small state, so we only have a few daily newspapers. We're most notorious for the Union Leader , but the state paper that's won a Pulitzer (among other awards) is the Concord Monitor . And today the Illustrating VanderMeer exhibit that I helped put together at Plymouth State University got a big feature story in the Monitor , with a particular focus on New Hampshire's own Eric Schaller. The web version has the full text, but I was blown away when I opened up the paper and saw it was almost the entire front page of the arts section: And just a reminder that Jeff and Eric will both be in Plymouth on the evening of November 23 for a reading and discussion. Huge thanks to David Beronä and Jennifer Green at Plymouth State for their work in putting the exhibit together, and special thanks to the Public Relations department at the University as well for helping it continue to get great coverage. And if you haven't yet bought Booklife or Finch , the only


I had promised myself I would not blog again until I had finished x, y, and z, and while x and y are finished, z (an essay about J.M. Coetzee's memoir-novels) is beating me up and winning. But I'm going to pause in the fight for a moment and break my self-promise because today I discovered Aaron Bady's astoundingly excellent blog Zunguzungu via a marvelous post Bady wrote at The Valve about Chinua Achebe and the African Writers Series (a post that previously appeared on Zunguzungu). It's been a long time since I last encountered a blog where the excitement of discovery came from finding someone giving expression to inchoate thoughts I'd never quite found words for, but that happened again and again as I read through Bady's blog, especially the post "When Good People Write Bad Books" and this earlier Achebe post , referencing Norman Rush (whose Mating I adore, or, at least, I adored when I read it about ten years ago) to explore the idea of "g

Rude Words and Piracy: A High Wind in Jamaica and the Child Reader

Richard Hughes's first and most famous book, A High Wind in Jamaica , is one of the strangest novels I've ever read, which is really saying something. It's both delightful and disturbing in the way it presents -- in an unfailingly light tone -- children as amoral aliens. The novel is rich with irony, and it's not a satire so much as a relentless attack on sentimental notions of childhood. The possible interpretations of the novel are likely endless, but in many ways the book itself is about interpretation -- about the futility of trying to interpret a child's experiences and thoughts through adult eyes. (It's also worth noting that the novel was first published in the U.S. under the title The Innocent Voyage , which I'm rather more fond of than its better-known title. It was also once illustrated by Lynd Ward .) I was surprised this morning to discover an essay by British teacher Victoria de Rijke in a 1995 issue of Children's Literature in Educatio

Life of Book, Sound of Finch, Meer of Vander

Jeff VanderMeer has posted a picture of copies of the actual Booklife , which excites me very much, because it's a neat book (yes, I still say "neat"; deal with it) and includes a little essay-thing I wrote at the end (alongside various essay-things by more interesting and less conflicted writers than I). Full contents here. I'm planning to keep a stock of extra copies of Booklife always on hand to give to the various aspiring and aspired writers I encounter, because it really does get at some stuff that I haven't seen elsewhere, and, well, I kind of had an addiction to writers' guides for a decade or so, which makes me oddly and a bit ashamedly qualified to make a statement like that. (The thing is, most writing guides are really terrible. Really. But not all .) Booklife is one of the few books I've seen to really address the life part of it all, rather than just the craft, and it does so in a way that is generous and suggestive rather than pr