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

28 October 2018

Will Glenn Close Finally Get an Oscar?

The Wife is fine. This is a story about a woman who is married to a very, very famous writer – perhaps the best writer of his generation. From the beginning of the film, however, something seems not quite right. The writer includes his wife in conversations when he can, and is always sure to thank her when he wins awards, but his wife seems unsettled, uncomfortable with recognition. Something is just off about all of it. He's not really a bad guy, either – he's played by Jonathan Price – he just doesn't seem quite aware of the fact that his wife is uncomfortable with his fame and accolades.

The plot of The Wife, such as it is, is very, very simple, and the movie has few surprises in store for its viewers. The trouble with this, is that The Wife is designed to be a movie that does surprise its viewers. There are at least two big reveals in the film (and maybe a third), but neither of them actually lands as a surprise. They both feel completely inevitable in The Wife's melodramatic universe.

Jane Anderson's script and Björn Runge's direction are what are at fault here. But what else is there in a film aside from acting and directing, you might ask?

There is Glenn Close, of course, who is going to try to score a well-deserved 6th Oscar nomination for this part (and an eventual win?).

The trouble is that the entire premise of The Wife feels contrived and, well, to put it bluntly, I found the whole thing completely preposterous. I just didn't buy it. Close is very, very good. But the movie simply didn't work for me. What does that mean for Close's chances? I tend to think it sinks them, but who knows. A nomination seems inevitable, but I don't this mediocre movie can pull of a win for her.

27 October 2018

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci is a great political satirist – I loved his 2009 film In the Loop – and The Death of Stalin is occasionally very, very funny.

Jason Isaacs is great, as usual, and Andrea Riseborough (as she is in almost every movie she's in) is best in show here, and Rupert Friend is also excellent. The other players are all great - Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, and Steve Buscemi.

Of course, because the film is describing life under totalitarianism, much of what we are watching is totally absurd (artists like Václav Havel and Sławomir Mrożek taught us this).

But Iannucci's film is uneven throughout. I found it hard to laugh at the people being senselessly assassinated by Lavrenti Beria and his men. It's designed to be funny, but it just didn't strike me as such. As I say, there was lots of funny stuff in the film, and the performances are great, but the tone seemed off to me. Totalitarianism in principle is very funny, and maybe if we were focusing only on bureaucracy I would have been able to enjoy myself more, but after all, many many people are being killed and tortured. I think it's sort of hard to oscillate between these two extremes.

Magyarok (Magyars)

Magyarok is respectable and moving. It's one of those post-1960s nationalist films that were made all over Eastern Europe during that time (Magyarok was made in 1978 and released in the US in 1981). At first I thought this would be a kind of you-ignored-the-Nazis-at-your-peril kind of movie, but it isn't that at all. Instead it's a powerful portrait of poor farmers in a small town in Hungary and what the war machine did to them.

22 October 2018

On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach just doesn't work. It's a little tragedy of a story, based on a novella by Ian McEwan, and I can see why this story about a tragic love affair would be deeply moving on the page.

On film, however, On Chesil Beach feels clunky, as though the director isn't quite sure which moments are the important moments. Because of this, the film speeds up and slows down at times that don't quite make sense.

The movie really consists of a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards so that the entire thing relates to the film's present in ways that are mysterious and should be intriguing, but the filmmaker doesn't alert us to this convention in any real way. And so because we can never really tell if we are watching a sequence before or after the film's present, this never even really registers as a puzzle we ought to be solving. In other words, I think the film is supposed to be a bit of a puzzle – what is the before and after of this love affair and how does memory play tricks on us when we love someone? – but the film doesn't mark these shifts in a way that makes clear sense at all, and so it doesn't work.

This movie has beautiful makeup and solid acting. But the direction and the writing are poor, I'm afraid.

21 October 2018

Faraon (1966)

Pharaoh (Faraon) is pretty amazing. The filmmaking is just stunning, and the plot is totally gripping. This is an extraordinary film about corruption and religious foolishness. I really adored it.

20 October 2018

I Set My Own Standards

I tweeted recently that I have been feeling minimized by some people in my life, treated as though my ideas were not valuable. This has been on my mind for the last week because of some interactions with colleagues and coworkers, and some of my friends have helped me think with clarity about my experience, so I think I'd like to write a little of this out today. In the first place, because I think many of my friends (and certainly my graduate students) in the academy have experienced similar feelings and, in the second place, because in some ways, I have found productive ways of moving past those feelings that others may find helpful.

The story is this:
I have a colleague who always treats me as though I'm a pretty face. Whenever I talk to this person I  feel slightly tolerated or looked down on. This person likes me, certainly, is happy to see me, we get along, etc. But when I am around, this person never fails to, for example, interrupt me when I am talking in order to say how cute I am or (this happened) call to me from across the room at a conference with the phrase "you're so hot". These are compliments, of course, or are largely intended as such. But the context in which these compliments are given is always a professional one, right? So they are compliments given out of context. I don't really want to be hot or cute in a professional setting, and each time this happens, it feels as though there is also a concomitant dismissal of me as a scholar. Something like "thank goodness we can at least look at him because he doesn't have anything to say" or like a man using the phrase "little lady" to speak down to a woman.

I talked with a friend about this and he wondered why this person had any power over me at all. "How interesting", he said, "that you let this person get to you".

The thing is that this person actually has no power over me. But this treatment taps into two larger sets of feelings. One is the general fear that many academics have that all of their ideas are dumb, and that they have nothing important to say. This very well may be true, and most of us worry that it is true a lot of the time. The other is a more general infantilization or condescension that I often feel where I work because of the way faculty who outrank me talk to me. I won't detail any stories about this, but suffice it to say that frequently faculty members with higher ranks will treat me as though I simply do not and cannot understand the particular problem we're discussing because of my age. Not everyone who outranks me does this, of course, but it does happen frequently. (Also, can we just note that I am not young? I'm younger, certainly, than some of my colleagues, but no spring chicken.)

How I Deal with This

In many ways, these feelings are basic to being a younger person in any field – inadequacy, stupidity, lack of seriousness – and the way I have dealt with these feelings is to set standards for myself that are different from those that others have for me. I have worked hard to develop personal standards and goals that are not attached to the people closest to me – my parents, my major professors from graduate school, and my colleagues at work. In other words, the first places I always look for approval are outside of my immediate circles.

Let me use writing as an example. I made very specific goals for myself in regard to which places I want to be published, what kind of writing I want to do, how many pieces I want out in the world, and when I want them done. These are personal goals, and I purposefully shifted them so that they were different from the goals of my colleagues, my College, my parents, and my professors from graduate school. In this way I separated what I want from what other people wanted of me. This might seem scary or dangerous when we think about tenure – about making sure that our work is legible for the other folks in our department or college or whatever, but I have found that my own goals and standards are actually much higher than my college's goals or standards. From the start of my career I have aimed at getting tenure not at the place where I worked but at a place where the requirements for tenure are much higher. This isn't because I wanted to leave my job; it was a way of shifting my standards so that I didn't feel as though I was working on someone else's timeline or for someone else's goals.

This means that my chief fear about not reaching one of my goals is never that I might let someone else down but rather that I might let myself down. My motivation for not letting myself down is very different than it is when I'm using other people as motivation. I am both more strict with myself and more generous with myself, and I also remove the wonder out of the equation. Are my parents, teachers, colleagues proud of me? Impressed with me? If I ask those questions I can never really trust or know the answer. If I ask those questions of myself I always can.

This is why it is important that these goals be concrete and achievable. It is important that goals are not nebulous. Other people's goals for us are nebulous. Our goals for ourselves must be graspable. We must know what achieving them looks like so that we can recognize (and celebrate) when we've achieved them.

I suppose I have more to say about all of this – and perhaps when I think of other things, I will write them here, but for now I think it is important to say that the fact that I have achieved a great many of my goals, that I have attained a position in my field of which I feel proud, doesn't stop me from occasionally feeling minimized or infantilized by those people in my life who treat me that way. But because I have my own goals, my own standards against which to measure my success, all it took was a little reminder from a friend that I am doing what I set out to do, and I was able to dismiss those feelings of inadequacy. In fact, because I set my own standards, I was able, mentally, to move quickly to a place where I recognize those other people's treatment of me as reflective of their own inadequacies and not about me at all.

19 October 2018

A Quote from My Coworker

Chari: It's like at the beginning of The Great Beauty when one of the Japanese tourists dies.
Aaron: Those tourists were Chinese, Chari.
Chari: ...I told you I was a bad Asian.

15 October 2018

Monday Haiku for J

i do not know how
but i need to stop hoping
that he will come back

One Small Step for Man

First Man, Damien Chazelle's new Neil Armstrong picture, left me pretty cold.

Oddly enough, this isn't because of Ryan Gosling, whom people insist on calling cold and reserved. I am not sure that I understand why everyone insists on referring to him as distant or standoffish when he gives such sensitive, heartfelt performances that – at least to me – feel open and vulnerable. And he smiles a ton in this movie. He is really enjoying himself here. It isn't as though he's doing that silly Jennifer Lawrence thing where she pretends to be very serious in a movie because she thinks "that's what acting looks like". In First Man, Gosling plays a man who has trouble connecting with others about things that are not aerospace or engineering. But it isn't as though he doesn't let the camera see his vulnerability or as though he hides from us what's happening with him. In fact, I think Gosling's performance is excellent. I loved Neil Armstrong by the end of this film. I felt for him deeply. The reason the film is cold is that Damien Chazelle seems to have intended it that way.

First Man is designed to be very specific about the technical elements of space flight. We get the astronout's perspective for several sequences in the movie, and these sequences are moments in the movie when we are supposed to be flying through space. But because we have a camera perspective that is limited by the astronaut's position, these sequences refuse to soar. They have no emotional pull and instead take on the kind of businesslike, keep-my-head-down-and-survive attitude for which Neil Armstrong was known. In other words, I'm saying that I understand what Chazelle was going for with these sequences, but they severely hamper the film's ability to connect with the audience emotionally.

As I say, the acting is not the problem. Gosling is great, and Claire Foy is very good, and the supporting cast – Jason Clarke, Christopher Abbott (love him!), Patrick Fugit (love him!), Kyle Chandler (love), Ciarán Hinds (love), Pablo Schrieber (love), Corey Stoll – they're all great. Little Luke Winters, who plays the Armstrongs' son Rick, is fantastic.

Christopher Abbott and Ryan Gosling
But the filmmaking is distant. It's not a warm film, and Chazelle seems to be keeping a respectful distance from his characters, as though they're a little too precious to be approached. What we learn about them is basically what we already knew: that they were the emotionally distant men of mid-century America who didn't know how to talk to their kids and gave their careers more affection than their wives but of course they were also deeply emotional men who had dreams of discovery and were willing to sacrifice their lives in quiet, unsung heroism. This struck me as mostly cliché, all the more so because it doesn't ask us to think with a new perspective about these men. In many ways it just tells us that although we might complain about these men a lot, and think they're sexist old dudes who didn't consider women, people of color, and the environment when they made their decisions, we should still be appreciative of them because they taught us all – take your pick – to dream, to look up at the sky and see possibility, to stand together and connect while we watch history in the making. Perhaps all that is true, but I feel like I've heard that song before.

There is a sequence near the end of act two that puts the space program in context, with an interview with Kurt Vonnegut where he's like why are we spending all this money to go to the moon when New York City needs infrastructure? This sequence even calls out the whiteness of the project by playing almost a full minute of a great poem by Gil-Scott Heron (performed by Leon Bridges) called "Whitey on the Moon":
I can't pay no doctor bills
But whitey's on the moon
Ten years from now I'll be payin' still
While whitey's on the moon
The man just upped my rent last night
'Cause whitey's on the moon 
No hot water, no toilets, no lights
But whitey's on the moon
But although First Man acknowledges this problem with the Gemini/Apollo projects, it doesn't have anything to say about it at all. It's as though by acknowledging the problems in such a nicely realized sequence, it can simply move on and go back to ignoring them.

I need to say another thing about this movie and my resistance to it. One of the reasons I had trouble connecting is that Linus Sandgren's photography is really unattractive. Now, maybe it's because I'm used to space movies being gorgeous to look at – films like Sunshine or Gravity or Interstellar, or even popular films about space like Rogue One or Life or Star Trek Beyond – or maybe it's because the most recent movie we all saw about the space race was the candy-coated Hidden Figures, but First Man looks ugly. The visuals at NASA are not beautiful at all, focusing as Chazelle is doing, on minutiae and the astronauts' real lives, and maybe I could excuse that in the name of authenticity. But then the sequences at the Armstrong house are equally unattractive looking. The film is just not shot lovingly. The whole thing feels distant, as though that really was 50 years ago and we simply cannot have access to it. (Also I hated the costumes.)

I think for First Man to work, we needed – in addition to the day-to-day banalities of being an astronaut – also a sense of awe about the moon. We needed access to Armstrong's desire for the moon. Chazelle's film references this repeatedly in the film. Armstrong stares at the moon and the moon stares back. But there is no wonder here, no clear communication of what is so amazing and cool about space travel. Only business-like exactitude. And I know that the point of First Man is that this is why those Apollo missions were successful: A regular, brilliant guy who did the right thing and kept his head down and got the work done is how the U.S. achieved this awesome thing. Fine. But we needed more access to the awe.

There are a few great sequences in First Man, and I liked the movie well enough, but I'm afraid it never really soars.

For Me and My Gal (1942)

For Me and My Gal is a fun romantic comedy with Judy Garland and Gene Kelly.

...And then it takes this very serious turn and becomes a war propaganda film. I sort of knew it would be, I guess. Any musical (jukebox or original) from 1942 is bound to be designed just to sell war bonds and sell the war, but this one sort of surprised me, mostly because it really is a strange turn for the film. This is a Busby Berkeley film, but not a Busby Berkeley film.

Oh, I think it is worth saying that Judy Garland and George Murphy are acting the hell out of this movie, and give actually deeply moving performances. For a nonsense Busby Berkeley war propaganda movie, it's quite astonishing. Their work is great.

The movie, on the other hand, is just a bit of jukebox fluff.

11 October 2018

The Closet and Its Protections: On National Coming Out Day and Love

On this National Coming Out Day, I am in a dormitory on the campus of Louisiana State University, having escaped Tallahassee for Hurricane Michael.

Today – because of all sorts of recent circumstances in my life – I am reflecting on coming out in new and different ways. George Chauncey tells us, in his extraordinary book Gay New York, that young gay men used to come out into gay society. That the phrase come out used to mean something like a debut, an introduction into adulthood or a marking of a new status in the community. Post Stonewall, with the arrival of gay politics and the invention of National Coming Out Day, coming out was coupled with protest and activism: out of the closet and into the streets was the common rejoinder. One came out in order to mark one's positionality as a member of a group of active gay people.

I am fond of both of these formulations of coming out. They both have an intriguing resonance for me, and they seem linked in several key ways to community, to making a statement, to self-definition.

Lately, though, I have been pondering our obsession with outing, with insisting that some gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and other non-hetero people publicly define themselves. I was struck especially by an extraordinary campaign by the actress Chloë Grace Moretz against the film Boy Erased in which Moretz trashed the film (which is about gay conversion therapy) because it was directed by a straight white man and stars a straight white man. Her own film, she said, "was directed by a bisexual woman of diversity". Moretz's position, leaving aside the questionable phrase "woman of diversity", is that one film is more authentic than the other because the roles are played by queer people in one and not the other and because one film is directed by a queer person and one is not. Maybe so, but sexuality doesn't really work that way. And who's to say who is gay and who is not?

I had assumed, for about a year now – at least since Lady Bird – that Lucas Hedges (who stars in Boy Erased) was not straight. This made me more invested in his career and more interested in his artistic choices. Moretz's accusation that Boy Erased had a straight man as its lead performer, then, struck an odd note with me. But he isn't straight, I thought. Who is she to say that he is or is not straight, especially when he has said nothing about it publicly? Worse yet, her statement seemed to throw the gauntlet down – actively to question his sexuality or to ask him to either defend or deny his heterosexuality. This is an unfair position either way, and it is the business of none of us – especially since the film is not about an out and proud young man but a boy who is actively trying to make a life for himself and is in fact negotiating the closet and the very serious risks of coming out. Sure enough, Lucas Hedges recently did come out as "not totally straight", a common enough formulation for young people these days. It would have been nice if Hedges hadn't been pushed to do that, though, and I find Moretz's position totally unacceptable. We don't know what Joel Edgerton's sexuality is either, thank you very much, and it isn't anyone's job to force him to confess it to us so that we can feel better or worse about enjoying his movie.

(I suppose it is also worth mentioning that some folks I know have accused Senator Lindsey Graham of being gay and closeted. Accused of being gay – it's an interesting way of putting things. To my way of thinking, Graham deserves our contempt for his actual politics not for his perceived hypocrisy, his perceived queerness, or his perceived closetedness. His relationship to his own sexuality is of no interest to me compared to his reprehensible political positions. And we should all be careful of attempting to out Senators or accusing politicians of queerness. Graham is hardly the only Senator who might be accused of hiding his sexuality.)

This summer I broke most of my rules and dated a closeted Christian guy. He is a really special man whose relationship with the closet was way more complicated than I understood then or understand now. He hadn't told anyone about being gay, and he has no intention of telling anyone that he is gay. His relationship with his family, his relationship with his religion, his relationships with his friends, and his relationship with his workplace all demand his heterosexuality. Those relationships make no room for the possibility of him being anything other than heterosexual. He doesn't want to come out, but, of course, how could he want to do something that would jeopardize and possibly destroy his relationships with everyone he loves, with everything he knows, with everything that gives him value as a human being? The closet, in other words, is a demand that his society makes of him. Closets are created by homophobia, by a restriction of options for queer people. And so I am arguing that queer people owe nothing to those closets. There are no rules for how queer people ought to interact with those closets, for what they ought to do in response to those closets. Queer people did not make the closets and they owe the closets nothing. It is not my job to judge how a person deals with a closet she didn't make in the first place.

Has this man's choice been heartbreaking for me? Certainly. But it is his job to decide what he thinks will make him happy or what he thinks is right. And it is not my place to impose my version of what I think will make him happy onto him. Most of us rebelled against our parents' versions of what our happiness ought to look like. I have no desire to replicate that same system in reverse when it comes to someone I love.

Being queer is very difficult for a very large number of people – and I think sometimes those of us who are out and proud forget how hard being "out" can be. What I want, on this National Coming Out Day is to try not to privilege the "out" position. For some of us, the closet is saving our lives. For some of us, the closet is (merely?) saving our careers. For some of us, the closet is saving us the headache of having to deal with relatives who ask too many questions. The queer people in our lives deserve our love no matter what relationship they have with the closet. Let us love each other with fierceness and generosity.

08 October 2018

A Star Is Fine

I saw A Star Is Born last night, and I'm here to report that it's fine.

The far advance buzz was that this movie was going to be a disaster. I had also read that Lady Gaga was awful in the movie (this from a particularly hateful set of blind items that I read all the time because I am a crazy person). I was pretty prepared for the movie to be really bad (and I expected to skip it entirely) until last month when Star started playing at festivals and everybody – including the critic from Vanity Fair – said it was great. Everyone seemed to love this movie, and everyone started saying it was going to win Best Picture, that Gaga and Bradley Cooper were shoo-ins for Oscar nominations, that the whole thing was incredible and fresh and great.

A Star Is Born is not all of those things, but it is good. Cooper (who directed!) is using a slightly re-written version of the 1976 Barbra Streisand–Kris Kristofferson film. (The 1954 Judy Garland–James Mason film is a remake of the 1937 Janet Gaynor–Fredric March movie. The first two are set in Hollywood; the more recent two are set in the music industry.)

The music is great in this film, and it is shot well. It is also filled with some excellent supporting performances from Anthony Ramos, Ron Rifkin, Dave Chappelle, and especially Sam Elliott. (And a small dose of fabulousness from Shangela – the real winner of RPDR All Stars 3, but that's another story.)

Bradley Cooper is, honestly, brilliant in the film, and because he is such an excellent actor, the film succeeds in many ways. He is open and available to the camera, even when he is playing drunk or closing off from the other characters. One feels one has access to him. He is truly superb in this, and his small gestures, gravelly voice, and bad habits all feel lived in, fiercely inhabited. He's just great – a perfect, grounding, "authentic" foil for the high theatrics of Lady Gaga's personality.

Gaga brings with her enormous baggage, of course. She has been a huge pop star, and she is also a fashion icon at this point. So her appearance in the movie is weighted down by this. How do you play this young woman as a kind of authentic, honest person who loses her way, when the person we know from the television is already this outsized, over-the-top star? Cooper mostly does a good job of dealing with these problems, but once Gaga's character becomes a famous pop star, it felt impossible to me that she had never been one. The whole thing feels so tiresomely inevitable. Her voice is excellent, and she powers through some great original songs that all work to great effect. These are the movie's best moments, I think – the moments when I was totally on the movie's side. When Gaga's singing, A Star Is Born is doing great.

The rest of the Gaga performance is almost non-existent. Honestly, it looks to me like they've edited around what was probably a fairly stilted or over-the-top performance. If you look carefully, you'll notice that the movie focuses much more on Cooper's character than it should. In many ways, Gaga's character disappears for sections of the movie. This is fine, because Cooper is so damn good, but the movie's simply not about Gaga's character. And this seems to me like a corner into which the director was backed by a performance that didn't quite work. There are, for example, no typical fight scenes between the two. She never really lays into him at any point. In most of her big emotional scenes Gaga cries quietly while looking at another actor. And she has no monologue in which she deals with what happens at the film's end (the usual Oscar-bait scene). Instead, the film's emotional payoff arrives with a speech from Sam Elliott and then a song from Gaga. As I said, the songs are great, and she does a great job connecting us emotionally through music, but I think she should thank the film's editor for her performance.

A Star Is Born is good, but more than anything else the whole thing just feels sort of tired, like the movie's main character – who spends much of the film trying to escape, drinking too much, and passing out – or like a movie that's been remade three times since 1937. Everything in A Star Is Born is cliché, and this, of course, is because it has had time in the last 80 years to cement itself as a cliché. All its plot twists are expected, all its emotions familiar. In other words, it's not that Cooper's film isn't good. It is. It's just that the whole thing felt a little empty to me – as though we were all going through the motions, audience included. There's this moment in act two when Gaga's manager looks over and says "You've been nominated for three Grammys including best new artist" when I thought Well that came out of nowhere and then thought Of course she got nominated for three Grammys. Everything that happens in this film felt contrived to me. It's a fairly well done bit of business, and it has a superb central performance, but it's just business as usual.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey: in Conversation with Joseph Cermatori

Last month, my friend Joseph Cermatori and I read Thornton Wilder's 1927 novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey together (just for context, Wilder was thirty (!) when he wrote the novel and he wrote Our Town in 1938). I want to post my conversation with Joe about Wilder's novel – mostly this is because I got to talking with a friend who had also recently read The Bridge of San Luis Rey and because Joe is so smart with his questions that I thought this might be a fun read for folks who know the novel. Both Joe and I were deeply moved by the book, and our conversation goes in all sorts of directions. If you haven't read the book, this conversation might not mean much to you, but, then, if you haven't read the book, get started. It's incredibly good.

* * *
I think what's sort of nuts about this is that when I started reading The Bridge of San Luis Rey I was like: This is this Pulitzer Prize winner? Like, for what? I am (obviously) skeptical of the Pulitzer anyway, but as we began I was sort of mildly surprised that this won.

Oh I should also say that I saw – maybe about 2 or 2 months ago – the 1944 film version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey with Akim Tamiroff (the 1929 one is hard to come by, apparently). Tamiroff played Uncle Pio and was the only redeemable part of the movie, which was essentially a love triangle between the Perichole, Manuel, and the Viceroy – which is clearly a complete rewriting of the novel, in which Michaela and Manuel didn't fall when the bridge fell and sort of escape off into loving one another and move to Spain or some shit. In any case, I expected the novel would be completely different, but I was surprised at just how different.

Joe, there's just so much good stuff to talk about. I think, though, the first thing to say is that the Esteban–Manuel relationship is so queer and beautiful, and (maybe I've been reading too much Bersani, but) this is clearly a way for Wilder himself to deal with his homosexuality, to imagine a relationship between men in which a woman intrudes but where the relationship between the men is something else, something deeper, greater, more important. I was heartbroken during this sequence. Especially the end in which Esteban attempts suicide and fails: "Esteban fell face downward upon the floor. 'I am alone, alone, alone' he cried. The Captain stood above him, his great plain face ridged and gray with pain; it was his own old hours he was reliving. He was the awkwardest speaker in the world apart from the lore of the sea, but there are times when it requires a high courage to speak the banal. He could not be sure the figure on the floor was listening, but he said 'We do what we can. We push on, Esteban, as best we can. It isn't for long, you know. Time keeps going by. You'll be surprised at the way time passes." I mean, it is just so much. For Wilder to say that the banal is life-saving, the banal is what allows us to continue. A cliché, maybe, can be a reason to live, and we must choose that.

It's interesting that Michaela is the character that the 1944 film focuses in on: she is not the character who interests me most, and she is certainly not the figure to whom Wilder most attends. The chapter is called Uncle Pio, and it seems to me that Wilder is dealing with the kind of relationships he would often have with younger people in his life. (He doesn't write Stein about any of these relationships, and perhaps I do not know enough about this, but I am thinking of Montgomery Clift, specifically). Or maybe I am thinking of myself as a teacher/parent. I am nothing like Uncle Pio in my treatment of my boys, I don't think, but what Wilder is exploring here is a very different kind of love, the kind of paternal affection that is selfless in so many ways because one knows that one cannot be repaid, that the beloved cannot return your love in a way that fulfills the lover, because she must grow up and be her own person and that can be a very deep bond, but it will never be a kind of love that is like partnership or that fulfills the romantic needs of someone like Uncle Pio (or me).

But I haven't yet spoken of the Marquesa, and yet I think it is so important that Wilder begins with the Marquesa (and that Pepita becomes such an important figure by the end of the novel). Because the Marquesa is messy. She loves so inappropriately. She is so selfish and jealous with her love, and also such a liar. She refuses to be honest about the realities of the world, about how her daughter treats her. She is so unhappy, drunk, etc. And yet... the book is so merciful to her. The book wishes, actively, for her happiness, and I think believes fundamentally that this woman can be happy if she can love her daughter without denying her daughter's bullshit. I adore the scene in which the Marquesa is kind to the Perichole, not knowing that Michaela has insulted her. She is simple and human with her, treating her like her daughter, and like a great actress. It's a humorous sequence, but also so masterfully designed, since we know nothing of Michaela yet – only know her humiliation as it sits next to the Marquesa's own humiliation.

And then there is the abbess, Doña María. The final chapter of the book really shook me. And I, like you, just put it aside and cried and cried. The wisdom that Doña María acquires by the end of the book is simply staggering, and it strikes me as generous in the extreme but also self-reflexive and beautiful. I began crying when the Perichole comes to visit and is finally able to cry in Sister María's lap.

It is perhaps to be expected in a novel from this period, where things are expected to fit together, and I suppose I expected Doña Clara's visit to the abbey at the very end after the Perichole has visited. But I was not prepared for the abbess's wisdom: "All, all of us have failed. One wishes to be punished," she tells Doña Clara. "One is willing to assume all kinds of penance, but do you know, my daughter, that in love – I scarcely say it – but in love our very mistakes don't seem to be able to last long?"

"Now learn," she commanded herself, "learn at last that anywhere you may expect grace."

I just can't handle this. It is more than I feel I deserve. It is such a generous, merciful perspective on the world.

And that he, finally, ends with Doña María's perspective on the world, with the effort to continue to love Manuel and Esteban and Pio and Pepita and the Marquesa and little Jaime is just stunning. That at the end of the novel he forgives María and Clara and the Perichole, who have been so unkind or unjust or just foolish. It's almost too much to bear. There is so much generosity in the book, as Wilder imagines a world filled with people who act foolishly, perhaps, but are trying very hard to make a way in the world. He understands them and their stupid decisions, their insensitivities and petty selfishnesses. And he forgives. Rather than dwell on those, he focuses on loving them. Near the end of the book, Doña María "accepted the fact that it was of no importance whether her work went on or not; it was enough to work. She was the nurse who tends the sick who never recover; she was the priest who perpetually renews the office before an altar to which no worshippers come. [...] It seemed sufficient for Heaven that for a while in Peru a disinterested love had flowered and faded. She leaned her forehead upon her hand, following the long tender curve that the soprano lifts in the Kyrie. 'My affection should have had more of that colour, Pepita. My whole life should have had more of that quality. I have been too busy,' she added ruefully and her mind drifted into prayer."

It's an entire reimagining of what life could be: a reconception of a life lived with grace and forgiveness and love. Wilder asks us to see past the petty nonsense that annoys us or that we see as weak or pathetic or insensitive. He asks us to love in a disinterested way, if we can: to approach those in our lives by trying to see their needs for love. It's an extraordinary request.

I suppose I should stop there. This is a lot. I haven't talked enough about Esteban, probably. That section meant a great deal to me. And the writing is beautiful – that's worth saying, too.

It's the end of the book, though. He ties everything together so perfectly and with such elegance. It's a superb novel.

* * *
I'm so glad – and not surprised – that we're on the same page with this lovely little book. The Esteban–Manuel material at the center of it really is its beautiful, beating, queer heart, just as you say. From a psychoanalytic standpoint, I think it certainly must have been a way for Wilder to deal with his repressed sexuality; but it also bears remembering that Wilder himself was originally a twin to a stillborn brother, and that this loss haunted him throughout his entire life, so there are many levels of autobiography on which this material resonates. But however you slice it, this chapter packs a serious emotional punch. When Esteban takes on Manuel's name, trying effectively to become his lost brother/love object, it became almost too much for me. I started sobbing during that section and almost didn't stop until the end.

With the Marquesa and with Uncle Pio, I think you're definitely right about Wilder's interest in selfless love that can never fully be repaid – love that defies the notion of indebtedness. It's a new economy of love. "But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them" seems about as succinct a summary of this love beyond debt as one could hope for. Any love that might have been lost is restored and redeemed, all debts forgiven. This is both a reflection on a sort of idealized parental love, to me, and a deep part of Wilder's philosophical theology... But I think it's also about a certain kind of queer love. I don't know what more to say about it than that. What queer doesn't know the special feeling of a certain kind of love – from adolescence, and infancy – that can only expend itself endlessly, without hope of being re-compensated? I feel like I'm slipping into Bataille's terminology here (it's just because it's almost midnight, probably). Do you know Sondheim's Passions, Aaron? It features a superbly Sondheim-ian (i.e. queer) form of longing in the romance between the characters Giorgio and Fosca: "Love without reason / Love without mercy / Love without pride or shame / Love unconcerned / With being returned / No wisdom, no judgment / No caution, no blame." (And Fosca is her own mess, in this musical.) Your description of the Marquesa put me in mind of those lyrics. She's a drunken wreck, particularly in that fabulous scene with the Perichole: a bit like a totally sauced version of Lady Bracknell, whom Wilder always longed to play onstage, ever since that time in his boyhood when Amos Wilder forbade him to do so at school...

Mercy must factor meaningfully into this whole concept of selfless, endlessly giving, limitless love. You write that the book is merciful to the Marquesa, and in that way the narrative is enacting its own radically inclusive love. Wilder's ending really reminded me of the ending of Shakespeare's late romances: everyone has suffered an irrevocable loss, everyone has behaved badly, everyone has taken everyone else for granted, and the survivors (e.g. Leontes) are wracked with an unforgivable guilt, and yet... they have to forgive themselves and accept forgiveness and move on.

"Now learn," she commanded herself, "learn at last that anywhere you may expect grace."

Just as you say, it is so so unbearably good. Like the scene at the end of The Winter's Tale or something, when the statue suddenly comes to life. I think it's right what you say about Wilder focusing on loving his characters: he has this compassion for them that is very familiar from Our Town. Death puts an end to everything, and yet life just keeps going on, and there is beauty in that. You write:

It's an entire reimagining of what life could be: a reconception of a life lived with grace and forgiveness and love. Wilder asks us to see past the petty nonsense that annoys us or that we see as weak or pathetic or insensitive. He asks us to love in a disinterested way, if we can: to approach those in our lives by trying to see their needs for love. It's an extraordinary request.

Yes, I love this! But, can real life ever be lived in that way? Sounds somehow so unrealistic. Is there a queer ethos here too?

More theology: the whole book seems a meditation on the question of predestination to me, or on special providence. Was the bridge's collapse pure accident, or purely intentional? Was it a random catastrophe, or was it pre-ordained, pre-intended, perhaps to teach the characters something? Is there meaning in the suffering in the world, or is it all emptiness and grief? These are such old, old philosophical questions. They are pertinent to my interests in the baroque (note the year: 1714), but I won't belabor those interests here. I think Wilder seems to be embracing a twofold possibility: yes, that everything is empty and meaningless, and yes, that everything is plentiful and meaningful, all at once. The bridge's collapse is both sheer bad luck and a kind of fate, a necessary eventuality "intelligently designed" (as it were) to be interpreted meaningfully by the survivors. And the meanings are all those that you've already spelled out, the meanings that the Abbess and Perichole and the Marquesa's daughter come to accept. I think you get a glimpse of this both/and theology in a pair of passages which I can juxtapose here, both of which have to do with the night sky:

"There was a silence. Her [Camila's] eyes were resting on the star that seemed to be leading forth the whole sky in its wonder. A great pain lay at her heart, the pain of a world that was meaningless." (at the end of Uncle Pio chapter)

But then:

"Throughout the hours of the night, through there had been few to hear it, the whole sky had been loud with the singing of those constellations." (at the end of Marquesa chapter)

In this novel, the world is shot through with a kind of divine, musical grandeur, I think, but the characters are incapable of hearing it or understanding it. The singing of the constellations binds them together each to each, just as love binds the characters to each other and to the entirety of the universe. The difficulty is that, like Emily in Our Town, the characters can't realize this love, this music, this sacred fullness while they live. They go about (as Simon Stimson says) deaf and blind to the beauty around them. That's their tragedy but also their humanity. That's what makes them in need of forgiveness, and also, so richly deserving of it.

I think the part where I burst into tears most painfully was near the end of the Esteban chapter, when the Captain imagines the ghost of his dead daughter: "He looked at a line of the Andes and at the streams of stars crowding forever across the sky. And there was that wraith hanging in midair and smiling at him, the wraith with the silvery voice that said for the thousandth time: 'Don't be gone long. But I'll be a big girl when you get back.' Then he went within and carried Esteban to his room and sat looking at him for a long time." Another nighttime scene, another scene of painful, unrecoverable loss, and another scene of love making it possible for us to endure past tragedy....

Last – I read it quickly, and wasn't sure I fully understood it when I did read it, but does the Marquesa actually go into a Velazquez painting in chapter one, or was that just her drunken imagination? Can you clarify that passage for me at all?

Those are my thoughts. This one was fun and really memorable. It was an emotional week for me to be reading it: Rosh Hashanah put me in mind of my dear friend Dustin's death five years, and there were other sad things going on around these parts I won't trouble you with. But it's such a joy to have you as a close friend, and to get to read a few things with you every once in a while and exchange thoughts.

* * *
You ask if life can ever be lived with love that is disinterested. You say that it seems somehow unrealistic and ask me if there is a queer ethos in there somewhere. I don't know, Joe. I am trying to think about this deeply right now – as I try to let go of the man I loved this summer. He is not ready for me to love him; he feels a great amount of guilt about gay sex and homosexuality in general. As a practical matter, I am not sure I can love as the Marquesa begins to do at the end of the novel – without needing anything in return. But also I am reading Byung-Chul Han's The Agony of Eros at the moment, and he begins his book with the thesis that love is negation. Eros, he says "sets into motion freely willed self-renunciation, freely willed self-evacuation. A singular process of weakening lays hold of the subject of love – which, however, is accompanied by a feeling of strength. This feeling is not the achievement of the One, but the gift of the Other." In other words, Han sees love the same way as Wilder, I think.

And this is not a matter for practicalities – otherwise love becomes merely "a simple pact of pleasant coexistence" (this is Badiou from the intro to Han's book). It is, rather, a challenge, a dare, a goal toward which the lover ought to strive.

I love your note about stars and the music of the spheres. I, too, was deeply struck by the line about the singing of the constellations.

As for the Marquesa entering the Velazquez painting... she says that she does. She says, too, that Velazquez himself helped her into it. And that she had a nice, long chat with the painter and the two adult subjects of the painting (apparently the "brat" in the painting was not part of the conversation). The Marquesa also says that she might spend her next evening inside of a Titian. Neither a Titian nor a Velazquez seems to me a comfortable place to spend an evening, but to each her own...

* * *
The question you're raising seems less about disinterested love (sounds like a super Kantian formulation)... and more about a kind of love that denies the self-interest of the lover. (Take that, Adam Smith!) At least, that's the kind of love I think we're talking about seeing in the Marquesa. She's an unusual character, in this regard, because she also has such an outsize sense of self, and the lovelorn letters she writes to her daughter are also opportunities for a certain kind of self-dramatization... all of which the narrator duly notes (as do the fictional, scholarly readers of her letter archive whom the narrator occasionally mentions). But still, there is a kind of – well, should we use Bersani's term here – a certain kind of self-shattering we see with the Marquesa. She is literally going to pieces with unrequited love for her daughter or love that can only be requited once it's too late, posthumously. I think again there is a kind of queer philosophical theology here that Wilder is exploring in the most dissimulated of terms, but let me get back to your question.

By calling the Marquesa's love unrealistic, I don't mean that I find it deficient in literary realism. God no, especially given all the material about stepping in and out of a Velazquez painting. I mean only that it seems like a kind of ethical ideal Wilder is imagining, one that isn't possibly attainable every day of the week in the practice of real day-to-day life. But still, what are ideals for, if not for orienting us toward some vision of how we'd like to live, how we should be trying to live? Life is messier than fiction, of course. An ethos is still valuable even if it's unrealizable, maybe most valuable when it is unrealizable. And I think we should remember, the Marquesa's love is different from the Abbess's recognition about love at the end. The Marquesa's love is all about excessive, hopeless expenditure; where the Abbess – who comes to recognize that "all those impulses of love return to the love that made them" – puts into practice a kind of love rooted in humility, acceptance, simplicity, and the mundane... The Abbess's more workaday vision of love seems to have deep roots with her political sympathies, with her desire for a utopian future of greater human equality. I think the novel puts those two loves into tension, they are two different kinds of self-sacrificing after all – just because the Abbess and the Marquesa seem like two powerful anti-types. (More on this below.) But there may be some dialectical synthesis between the two that can be obtained, conceptually and practically.

I've been thinking much more about the notion of sacrifice recently, also as it pertains to queer love. Maybe it's because I just heard a great talk by Patrick Blanchfield about how the political theology of "sacrifice" fueled the myth of John McCain as a great American statesman, which in turn allowed him to help set the militaristic terms of who and what elsewhere should be chosen for sacrifice to the U.S. war machine. But how does it all pertain to Wilder's novel? Your quote from Han seems appropriate, but something in me (Nietzsche??) feels uncomfortable with the idea of queer love as an invitation to self-sacrificing. In a gay marriage context, that idea brings us too close to the old Victorian heteronormative cliché of the "Angel in the House." And of course, there is a certain kind of historical queer fiction (here I'm feeling my Heather Love oats) that is rooted in impossible desire, culminating in self-sacrificial violence: The Well of Loneliness, The Children's Hour and all that, in which the queers are mostly just tragic beings and they need to die tragically because of their tragic love: end of story. But I don't think that's what Wilder's exploring really, and it doesn't seem like what you're after either.

It seems important for Wilder (and for you) that the sacrificial dimension of love examined in the novel takes place at the threshold of impossible absence. The Marquesa would sacrifice anything for her daughter to love her back, but her daughter is already gone off to Spain, never to return. It's a hopeless sacrifice: the blessings it would seek to obtain are rooted in an immeasurable absence. If her daughter had stayed in Peru in the first place, we wouldn't even be talking about any of this. Even more so with the Abbess: she gains recognition into the unlimitedness of love only after the bridge collapse, when Esteban and Manuel are gone, never to return. For both women, self-sacrificing becomes a way of coping with absence, living with it, putting it to work. The Abbess seems better at sublimating it to the rhythms of life, investing her love little by little in daily action – all for the purposes of survival – where the Marquesa is just a complete, embarrassing mess. Don't we queers know both of those options all too well?

I guess also, for me, when you describe love as both self-negating and a source of strength, you seem to point to a vision of love as a kind of heroic ideal. The hero who has to sacrifice himself to gain the kingdom for others... This seems like a deeply stoic approach, maybe another arrow in your quiver of queer stoicisms? There is also a kind of messianism here, which of course in the Christian tradition is the highest ideal of love. Dying willfully to take away the guilt of the other. At the end of the book, the Abbess seems to be putting that sort of Christianity into practice: being Christ to others, the humble servant, day by day, or at least trying to be. The Marquesa seems like the opposite ideal – the would-be noblewoman. But maybe the two extremes are secretly connected, two masks of the same heroic character...? With Han and with Wilder, I'm wondering now: does love ask something heroic of us? And, especially, for queers, can loving be a heroic trial of some kind, and if so, under what circumstances?

* * *
Joe, I think you've hit on exactly what I'm talking about with the Marquesa. I don't think it's a realistic kind of love, but then I am not sure Wilder is interested in the practical. He is more interested in (and this is your word) the theological. But I think perhaps you are misreading what I mean about the Marquesa's affection for her daughter – or maybe your read of the book is different from my own. I see the Marquesa's love for her daughter as very selfish. She presents her daughter only with her own need. She loves her, to be sure, but she begs her daughter to look at her kindly, to give her love in return, to appreciate her love for her. But Doña Clara is only unkind to her mother, only returns her mother's affections with coldness.
But what I think that the Marquesa learns on the nights before her death is that there is a different kind of love for which she should aim – this is the disinterested love of which I spoke earlier. I think what the Marquesa learns is that she needs to love her daughter without expecting anything in return. Now, I do not really think that this is the kind of love that a lover could have for a beloved, but it is perhaps a good way to think of what parental love might look like. This is the love, after all, that Uncle Pio finally demonstrates for Michaela, a disinterested love that asks for nothing in return, nothing at all.

Your questions about queer love and heroic trials I will leave for another day.
As for queer stoicisims, I think you've got me pegged.

* * *
You can find Joe on Twitter (@jcermato) and Instagram (@mnemonictheater).

05 October 2018

The Party (2018)

You know, now that I have finished this film I think that The Party was supposed to be funny. It was not. And actually I didn't really figure out that this theatrical little melodrama was a comedy until about halfway through. In any case, it doesn't work. And The Party? This is the title? I believe that it is supposed to have a kind of double meaning, whereby the title also refers to an unnamed political party, but The Party hasn't anything at all to say about politics. This film has Kristin Scott Thomas in it and also includes a lesbian subplot – otherwise I would have shut it off after 30 minutes.

02 October 2018


This is a funny, smart, fever dream of a movie about Spanish colonialism. It is a biting, vicious satire, and I laughed rather a lot, but I can't say I am sure where it took us, really. Zama's visuals are stunning, and I think it hits its mark. I'm just not sure it's aiming as seriously as I wish it did. Still, I enjoyed the hell out of it.

The Rider

Chloé Zhao's film The Rider is an intriguing piece. Zhao has used untrained actors at the center of her drama of a young rodeo rider who is coping with a head injury and has been told never to ride again. The Rider is beautifully shot, has been reviewed well by many critics, and has a haunting, intriguing score by Nathan Halpern.

This is a true story, then, in many ways. The main actor in The Rider, Brady Jandreau, plays Brady Blackburn, and his dad Tim and sister Lilly play versions of themselves.

But this is The Rider's central failing, too. Because the actors aren't trained actors, the film lacks the kind of emotional pull it could have. Zhao's film is shot gorgeously, and she's given us a beautiful portrait of the Dakota land on which the Blackburns live and a set of lovely images of what it means to ride and be free and to take in the landscape on the back of a horse. But the actors can't quite drive home a scene, and the emotional impact of The Rider is stunted by the actors' inabilities to open up to the camera.

The Rider, to be sure, has lots to recommend it – particularly visually, and in a beautiful performance by Cat Clifford (who also plays a version of himself) – but it just doesn't land in the way it aims to land. This is partly a script problem and partly an actor problem, but it never quite gets where it wants to go emotionally.