Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

31 August 2014

Short Conversations about A Game of Thrones (Book 1)


Me: When the commander of the Night's Watch tells Jon Snow not to do anything stupid, I hope for Jon's sake that he is less of a Stark than I think he is. But... nope. He did something stupid.
Catie: Hahahahahahaha. Yep. Absolutely. Some of the Starks will start turning smart, but, you know – old habits die hard. HONOR.
Me: Honor. Zzzzzzz. Yeah, really honorable to get everyone fucking killed.
Catie: Hahahaha. Everyone is like Ooooo Starks. And you: zzzzzzzz.
Me: I speak the truth. Being Ned's soldier means being dead.
Catie: Exactly.
Me: He can't keep anyone alive. Except his precious honor.

Catie: Favorite character so far?
Me: I like Tyrion and Daenerys. That bitch ate a horse's heart.
Catie: Correct.
Me: And the small council. I love all of them.
Catie: OMG Varys. Favorite.
Me: I fucking love Varys.
Catie: The actor in the TV show: greatest.
Me: And Petyr.
Catie: Yes!

Me: I have 10 discs left in the audiobook of the Game of Thrones and I can no longer stand Ned Stark. Maybe he'll get his throat cut in the next chapter and I'll be relieved of his stupidity.
Catie: Terrible.
Me: Catie, do you mean that Ned is terrible or that I am? I know you don't mean me. He is the most frustrating character I've encountered perhaps in all of fantasy literature.
Jeanne: You watch your mouth, Aaron Thomas.
Tom: But, but... honor!
Rick: He has so much honor.
Me: Ugh. His honor is getting all of his men killed.  

Me: Favorite moment of the book so far: when Eddard dreams that the king says Has your honor kept your daughters safe? I literally screamed with delight.
Catie: YES.
Me: And if Daenerys figures out how to hatch one of these motherfucking eggs I might buy everyone in the bar a round of drinks.
Catie: The egg situation gave me a hernia.

Me: For the record, I took no pleasure in Lord Eddard's execution. I was as shocked as the next guy, and I pitied him. But at least now he will stop getting his men and his family killed.
Jeanne: Haha. So logical. I was pretty upset.
Me: Yes. I can see that. But he totally had it coming. When he didn't take Lord Renley's advice and seize Prince Joffrey, I was like you moron.
Jeanne: Yeah. He's no strategist for sure, but I love him. ISTJ: can't reason with 'em.
Me: This kind of principled behavior I find so unbearable. Eddard is right but it didn't help Robert's kids, or his own kids, or his wife, or the realm. And he got all of his men killed. So what's the use of being right?
Jeanne: Well I totally appreciate your perspective, and I agree with a lot of it. But I see the value in his approach in that he stays true to himself. He couldn't have lived with himself if he did anything different. So while the consequences are devastating in this situation, ultimately he lives his values.
Me: Well, Ned should have seized Joffrey and made him his ward. That wouldn't have been a compromise. It would have simply been smart. Ned kept expecting everyone around him to play by the rules. Silliness.
Jeanne: So true. So true. People are not honorable.
Me: No. No they're not. In real life, as in Westeros.
Jeanne: Indeed.
Me: But one oughtn't to pretend that they are, then. A woman who bears children by her brother and pretends that they're someone else's in order that her son can be king is probably not the most trustworthy person in the world. Perhaps one oughtn't to think she'll act with honor.
Jeanne: Haha. You're right. Cersei has done many questionable things. As has almost every character in that book, and he knows of them! Sometimes Ned makes me think of Ashley's character in Gone with the Wind. The relic of a time passed.
Me: Yes! Totally. 

29 August 2014

Things I've Seen Recently (That You Might Wanna See)

I started watching Jon S. Baird's Filth thinking what have I gotten myself into? I couldn't really remember why I had moved Filth to the top of my queue, but there it was on top of my DVD player and so here I was watching it. (I probably queued it because of its star – James McAvoy – or because it had something to do with police corruption. I do love a good crime film.)

Anyway, Filth is a strange, surrealist kind of thing, around which I was having a bit of trouble wrapping my brain, until I remembered/realized that it was based on an Irvine Welsh novel. At this point I decided just to go with it. Filth is a surrealist satire of masculinity, policing, and (perhaps) Scotland more generally. It's about a man who is totally losing it, but sort of has no idea that he's anything other than the awesome specimen of masculinity he imagines himself to be. Baird's film, itself, keeps us in suspense about how much the main character understands about himself, or what he's up to. This works for a long while and is fascinating for most of the film's runtime.

The acting, too, is really great. Shirley Henderson in particular, is excellent, but the cast is very good all around, with lots of recognizable faces: McAvoy plus Jamie Bell, Eddie Marsan, Imogen Poots (who was Zac Efron's love interest in the recent rom-com That Awkward Moment), Gary Lewis, Jim Broadbent. Filth really is filthy, too, and McAvoy is suitably distasteful in the role, but I wondered about how satirical the whole thing really is. Baird's screenplay and direction not only satirizes everything about Filth's protagonist, he also sort of can't help loving him. I think Filth would actually like it if its main character actually were everything he imagines himself to be. This is an odd tack for a satire to take, and it is something that, after a while, began to grate on me as the film continued. It's all good and well to demonstrate how distasteful masculinity of the sort on display in Filth is, but if you also secretly think this kind of masculinity is cool, you kind of lose me.

A film I can recommend completely without reservation, on the other hand is Paweł Pawlikowski's Ida. The film is in black and white and is the story of a Polish orphan who wishes to become a nun. Before she takes her vows the mother superior requires her to see her only living relative, an aunt who is also a hard-drinking, chainsmoking judge. Ida's aunt tells her that though she was raised by Catholics she was born Jewish. She begins to tell Ida about her family and what happened to her family during the genocide of European Jews during the Second World War.

This film is so good that I want to give nothing else away. Pawlikowski's film is only eighty minutes long, but packs an enormous emotional wallop. It's also beautifully, gorgeously shot, and superbly performed. Ida's aunt is played by Polish film star Agata Kulesza and it is one of my favorite performances of the year: by turns funny, pathetic, witty, and heartbreaking.

Ida has been selected as Poland's entry into the Foreign Language competition for the 2014 Academy Awards, and it seems to me like a shoo-in. It's on DVD already, so check it out and get a jump on this year's Oscars. This is one of the best films of the year.

26 August 2014

Test, or, Monogamy(?)

It is an interesting choice to set a romantic narrative in San Francisco in 1985 - at the same time that Larry Kramer was creating the horror-film-slash-homophobic-rant called The Normal Heart. But Chris Mason Johnson's new film Test does that. Johnson's movie is about a dancer looking for pleasure (and maybe love), while also worrying that he might have AIDS.

There's sort of a lot to say about Test. First off, it is much, much better than Johnson's earlier film The New Twenty, and it is shot in an art-house style rather than the straightforward rom-com style of a movie like, say, That Awkward Moment. Test is about a dancer, and it contains lots of beautiful choreography and some beautiful movements on film. I loved all of the dance in the movie. Watching these men and women move is one of the true pleasures of Test. There are others, too. The film is about two people getting to know one another slowly, haltingly, and Test tracks this friendship/relationship beautifully, with the starts and stops that one would expect rather than (shall I compare it to That Awkward Moment again?) the sort of love-at-first-sight or hate-at-first-sight-but-we-all-know-where-this-is-headed formula to which we have all become so accustomed.

AIDS as a topic works well in Test, too, because the film is interested in what the effect of an epidemic has on passion, on intimacy, and on friendships. Instead of sending a message or telling us all how to behave, Test explores the effects of the plague on the bedrooms and lives of a few white men and tells that story. I racialize the men consciously: I'm not quite sure why all of the men in which the movie is interested are white. I'm not quite sure why Johnson's version of a dance company in the mid-'80s is almost completely white – especially since The New Twenty was so diverse. I found all of this whiteness sort of unnerving and (frankly) boring.

Mr. Risch
Test's protagonist, played by actor-dancer Scott Marlowe, is supposed to be a kind of (white) everyman, I guess, but he is so bland, so kind, so affectless, that I found him to be a bit of a cipher at the center of the film. Who is this guy? What is he about? What does he want? His foil Matthew Risch, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite: mysterious, troubled, wickedly funny, always grinning about something. Risch is totally compelling in every single scene. The film is about these two, but if Risch is onscreen, it's hard not to pay attention to him.

There are some other great things in Test. In a quiet moment, a dancer in the company (whose name we never even learn) clandestinely checks his torso for signs that he might be getting sick. This is beautiful storytelling – Johnson quietly indicates that his protagonist's questions and fears are shared by the men in his immediate circle, even if none of them talks about it together.

But the movie's politics in regard to the history of the AIDS crisis left me a little confused. At the end of Test, the protagonist chats with his lover and offers that AIDS has changed everything vis-à-vis the sexual revolution, that men will all have to try to be monogamous now, that that will be so very strange. But, maybe, he says to his lover, monogamy can be its own kind of experiment in possibility – like a test.

So. Does the film finally leave us with the solution to the spread of HIV by offering that perhaps we all just ought to grow up and get married? Is Johnson's solution to the AIDS crisis the same as Larry Kramer's (viz. if we could all just stop having so much sex, the world would be a safer place)? I am a little confused by the film's ultimate point of view. I object to the Freudian suggestion that AIDS caused queer people to grow up, leave behind the hedonistic ridiculousness of anonymous sex, and embrace the monogamous wedded bliss that every proper, adult neoliberal subject enjoys.

But it is also possible that I read the film wrong, that Johnson does not present monogamy as a solution to anything. Maybe Johnson simply gives us a new shade in the history of pillow talk: a brand new pick up line. In the age of AIDS, perhaps the cleverest way I can ask my lover if he wants to be exclusive is to talk about how safe it would be for both of us if we only had sex with each other. Upon reflection, this is how I'm going to read the film's final minutes. In this new world, AIDS becomes simply an obstacle/asset in the search for connection. It is a health crisis, yes, and everything else that it is, as well, but it is also a mere backdrop, a set of rules or codes that sets a scene for what's really important – connecting with the people in our lives be they lovers or friends or one night stands.

Did I say I loved the dance sequences? I did. They are lit beautifully, too, and a true pleasure to watch.

21 August 2014

Tilda Swinton Is a Vampire

I found Jim Jarmusch's new film Only Lovers Left Alive rather painful. It is in fact excruciatingly boring.

Which is sort of weird, because it involves Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and John Hurt as vampires. And I love vampires – not as much as I love dragons, but vampires are one of my favorite mythical creatures (perhaps it is the long association in literature of vampirism with lesbianism). Also, it should be noted that the once-famous twitter handle @NotTildaSwinton, which created a sensation in the summer of 2012 (and then again in the summer of 2013), imagined the entirety of this film in a much cooler way than its actual execution, with tweets such as:
  • I once waded the entire length of the Nile. I lost an arm to a hippo, but won it back in a game of Charades. I am stronger for it.
  • Uncoil from a tree branch and silently lower yourself on a creature of prey. Instead of attacking, whisper "You are safe" in its ear.
  • I am, have always been, and will forever be, negative 1 years old.
  • I spent a decade with my mouth agape–birds tucked away by my gums; mating, birthing, dying. This was back when I only had three mouths.
  • Of course I have received splinters. I do not remove them. Small branches emerge from me and bear fruit in the shape of my face.
  • A tingle in your scalp. Do you feel it!? It crawls down your neck, along your extremities and back to the base of your skull. Bless.
You get the idea. Utter genius, in truth. And, of course, almost totally believable when you think about how Tilda probably understands her own ontology.

Tom/Adam and Tilda/Eve
Tilda is awesome/crazy. But Only Lovers Left Alive is not. In fact, it's kitschy nonsense – trying way too hard to be cool, and way more earnest than it ever ought to have been. Jarmusch's film takes its time, and takes that time doing, well, next to nothing. This is supposed to be a character study, but we learn little about the characters or their feelings, or their ways of being in the world. Jarmusch is content, instead, to make little jokes about the couple's third wedding, back in the 19th century, or about how old Tom Hiddleston's dressing gown is. Zzzzz.

Oh, hang on. I forgot to tell you that their names are Adam and Eve. No joke. And we find out in the film's first ten minutes that Eve's BFF in Tangier is none other than Christopher Marlowe, who, apparently, wrote the entirety of William Shakespeare's oeuvre after he faked his own death. (You will be relieved, perhaps or perhaps not, to find out that Only Lovers believes Kit Marlowe was a homosexual.) And so the film is peppered with little lines about how Shakespeare was a "zombie philistine" or how Adam used to play chess with Lord Byron or have sex with (of all people) the eighteenth-century feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. I read all of these little allusions as heavy-handed in-jokes for history buffs. It is possible that their purpose was more by way of character study, but they are so numerous and always so silly – Adam apparently once composed an adagio and asked Franz Schubert to pass it off as his own – that I couldn't really understand them  functioning as anything other than humorous little colorations. There are, in fact, so many references to Shakespeare's writing actually being Marlowe's that one might mistake this for a film like Roland Emmerich's Anonymous, with its absurd theories about the "real" Shakespeare.

In truth, this kind of thing happens a lot in Only Lovers, so if you're into that...

The film is otherwise plotless, although it spends a great deal of time musing about what a waste humans are, what a mess humankind has made of the world, how little we understand about true wisdom, forgiveness, pleasure, etc. I don't disagree with any of this necessarily – we do tend to make a mess of things – but all of these platitudes are delivered with relentless smugness, and an exhaustion with the world that comes from having lived, oh, you know, four centuries. I have a feeling I'd know a lot more about wisdom, forgiveness, and generosity if I were 500 years old, as well. And anyway neither Jarmusch nor Tilda herself is actually that old, and so perhaps they ought to give the rest of us a bit of a break.

I will say one good thing about Only Lovers Left Alive, there is a great deal of footage of the city of Detroit at night. Adam and Eve drive around the semi-abandoned city and think about abandonment and loneliness and such things – not that they have anything to say about it. The images in these sections of the movie are just gorgeous – eerie and beautiful and mysterious. I felt almost like I was trespassing. Further, these night treks into Detroit provided what was for me the only exciting moment in the film. This place will rise again; there's water here, Eve says. When the cities in the south are burning, this place will bloom. It might be literally the only thing of interest in the film's entirety.