Week in Review

  • Films Watched: Nosferatu dir. by F.W. Murnau; 28 Up dir. by Michael Apted; Vers Nancy dir. by Claire Denis; Me and You and Everyone We Know dir. by Miranda July; Los Angeles Plays Itself dir. by Thom Andersen
  • Books Finished: The Public Burning by Robert Coover; Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction by Amy Elias
  • CDs Purchased: Until the End of the World (soundtrack) by various artists; Me and You and Everyone We Know (soundtrack) mostly by Michael Andrews

With apologies to Nick Hornby. While reading The Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” columns from The Believer, two things occurred to me. First, Hornby’s columns are essentially blog posts by another name: they’re written in the first-person, they’re chronological (especially once collected in book form), and they’re unified by a single topic. Second, like Hornby, I could chart the course of my life by pacing slowly through a library full of books, CDs, and DVDs.

Because Long Pauses is essentially a notebook, a diary, and an archive, all in one, I’ve decided to give this “Week in Review” idea a shot. Granted, seven days from now this will all likely have taken on the smell of a deadline, but for now, it seems a fine way to spend a Sunday morning. If I stick to it, the Song of the Moment feature will probably be absorbed into the weekly review, Borg-like.

As I mentioned a few days ago, Miranda July’s first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, left quite an impact on me, though I sense the effect waning somewhat. I worry that, when all is said and done, the film’s message is only slightly more nuanced than “carpe diem,” though, really, as far as messages go, that’s a pretty good one, especially when handled with a certain grace. July has a deep, deep fondness for her characters and a child-like wonder about the world in which they live. As a storyteller and filmmaker, she’s ambitious in the best sense of the word, and her ability to capture something of the beauty and fear (often simultaneously) that characterize love and life in the modern world is something special. Maybe the best compliment I can give the film is to say it doesn’t feel like it was made in America. “When I call a Name” is the opening track from Michael Andrews’s fine soundtrack, which reminds me a bit of those Brian Eno Music for Films albums.

Nosferatu is the latest entry in my Great Films series. I watched it last Sunday after a long weekend that involved two trips to the emergency room, an overnight stay in the hospital (for Joanna), and very little sleep. Which is to say that Nosferatu is an almost perfect film to watch in a waking dream state. Murnau’s brand of expressionism is so organically “uncanny,” and Max Schreck’s performance is so utterly alien. It’s my new favorite Dracula, bar none.

Like any great essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself is almost too rich to be eaten in one bite. I want to watch it again before commenting at length, but three quick points for now: 1) It made me want to watch Blade Runner again. 2) It made me want to track down the films of Charles Burnett, Haile Gerima, Billie Woodberry, Julie Dash, and other independent black filmmakers of the 1970s. 3) I love the idea of looking for documentary moments in narrative films, an idea that was raised in Ross McElwee’s Bright Leaves, as well. (Doug has a really great essay on Los Angeles Plays Itself, by the way.) I’ll return to the 7 Up films and the Denis short in later weeks.

Seeing only two titles on the “books finished” list undersells the size of my accomplishment, I think, considering that the novel weighs in at 534 pages and the other is a book of critical theory. The next chapter of my dissertation, ostensibly a tight reading of The Public Burning and E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, is actually about the rise of the academic Left in the 1970s and 1980s and the political problems of postmodernism. Elias’s book posits that “history is something we know we can’t learn, something we can only desire,” which she wraps into discussions of “the Sublime,” the traditional historical novel (think Walter Scott), and post-1960s American fiction, in particular those novels she calls “metahistorical romances.”

Did I mention that Elias is on my dissertation committee? Or that her book was blurbed favorably by Linda Hutcheon? Or that in her preface she thanks Hayden White for his encouragement, advice, personal generosity, and kindness? (I know those two names mean, like, nothing to most people, but if you’re working in history and postmodern literature, they mean a lot.) The Public Burning comes up quite a bit in Elias’s book as an example of an avant-garde metahistorical romance, which is quite a nice way of describing it, I think. Its voice alternates between first- and third-person (the former from the p.o.v. of Vice President Richard Nixon), and Coover also cuts into “Intermezzos,” which take on various forms: a poem pasted together from snippets of text from President Eisenhower’s public statements, a dramatic dialogue between Ike and Ethel Rosenberg, and a mini-opera sung by the Rosenbergs and James Bennett, then-Federal Director of the Bureau of Prisons.

The novel reaches its climax in the middle of Times Square, where all of American history has come undone. Betty Crocker, Uncle Sam, and the nation’s Poet Laureate (Time magazine) are all there to witness the Rosenberg execution, as are the Republican Elephant, the Democratic Donkey, Cecil B. DeMille (who’s producing the spectacle), Walt Disney (who’s selling souvenirs), and fighting bands of patriots and redcoats. Elias (via Soja, Jameson, Frank, and Foucault) would describe the scene as an example of spatialized metahistory: “What one gets is a view from above, a critical view akin to the perspective of aerial photography, flattening out time, space, and history in order to map them.” The question for my chapter is this: “What does this mean for a ‘real’ politics of the Left?” I’m intrigued by the line that ends Elias’s second chapter:

The humanities [English and philosophy departments, for example] not only take seriously the challenge to history in fantasies and novels; they have forcefully asserted that history is fantasy and fiction allied with power, and have thrown down a gauntlet to the social sciences to prove otherwise.

That “prove otherwise” puts an interesting spin on the debate, I think.

That covers everything from this week except for the Until the End of the World soundtrack I picked up used for $7, proving once again that spontaneous buys are seldom good buys. I think I’ll enjoy these songs more when they show up randomly in iTunes. They don’t make for a very cohesive or compelling album.