Thursday, March 31, 2011

DARK, DARK MY LIGHT: Lake Mungo turns out to be a Blair Witch-ified version of Pet Sematary--King's best novel, if you ask me and I know you didn't--a cruel and sad meditation on grief. We are so convinced that there must be reasons; and I loved Lake Mungo for its insistence that no reason could ever be as big as the loss.

Lake Mungo is also about proof. It's about the difference between knowing something happened and knowing what happened. (The imagery of linear streetlights along the highway vs. randomly- or divinely- or fate-placed stars is intentional, I think.) For a while I worried that the twists upon twists would solve the mystery rather than deepening it; that didn't happen.

This is a big, sad movie which uses every inch of its genre.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


She is one of my most beloved children's authors. Everybody has a unique list of favorite DWJ novels. I'll talk a little bit about mine, here, and also try to indicate what made her writing so fantastic overall.

Fire and Hemlock. What's odd is that I've never managed to keep the plot of this retelling of the Tam Lin/Thomas the Rhymer legends straight, even as I started to consider it one of Jones's best books. It's longer and "older" than most of her stuff--shading into adolescence, rather than firmly embedded in childhood--and there's erotic tension appropriate for the age group. The girl, the "Janet," is self-dramatizing and unpleasant in a way I am pretty sure I was at her age! This is a much less moralistic tale than The Secret Garden (which I also love) but the exposure of the protagonist's flaws is equally unsparing.

Dogsbody. A bullied girl finds solace in her pet dog... who just happens to be the personification of the Dog Star, Sirius, sent to earth to learn humility and reclaim the weapon used by his beloved and treacherous Companion star.

DWJ is often at her best when she's showing a fractured and barely-mended family in which the children have to bond together despite one another. A lot of people have noted how self-absorbed the parents in her books often are, how neglectful or actively harmful. And here we get to see two "blended families": Kathleen and her cousins (her father is an imprisoned Irish terrorist), and Sirius and the cats of the household. We see how the "insiders" have become defensive and cold as a result of the father's neglect and the mother's bullying; we see how the "outsiders," Kathleen and Sirius, bargain for small concessions; and we see, I think, how even the ferocious mother is a real person, with real emotions, whose tragedy is precisely that she exists in her own world and doesn't understand what she's done to her children (and her cats!).

I love this book so much. I identified very strongly with Sirius, with his uncontrollable temper and his sense of how humiliating it is to have to relearn one's place in the world. This is one of the books which shaped me as a person.

Cart and Cwidder. Another patchwork family. Political tensions between north and south (I'm pretty sure those were the terms--?) force itinerant singer Clennen and his kids to make nice with bratty Kialan and his brother, sons of a northern rebel. Again I seriously overidentified with Kialan. He's just so awful!--and yet Jones seems to understand what it would feel like to be the kid who is always doing or saying the unhelpful thing, when everyone around you is being intensely responsible and you feel incapable of matching them. There's an immense amount of wonder in this book, as well, with mountains moving and ancient legends fulfilled.

Witch Week. One of her funniest--even though it includes scenes in which a child imagines what it will be like when he is burnt to death for witchcraft! The backdrop of this story is incredibly dark--it's set at a boarding school in which almost all the children have lost family members to witch-hunting, and all of them fear that they might be next on the fiery agenda--and yet the tone is "school story" and hilarious. Insightful (I used a diary code similar to Charles's when I was a teen) and bittersweet. The adults are unhelpful, but less actively-harmful than in most of Jones's books.

The Ogre Downstairs. Maybe her most forgiving book--although she's a forgiving author, in general. Stepchildren need to learn to work together to manage a magical chemistry set. Tons of fun (the bit where they gild the horrific wedding gifts is priceless), moments of genuine wonder in between things like chocolate bars wandering down the hallway, and huge amounts of sympathy for everyone involved, even the stepfather who is the "ogre" in the title.

Witch's Business. Published in the UK as Own Back, Ltd. A rare Jones with explicit discussion of class conflict! But again, kids band together despite intense personal dislike, and through compromise and sympathy they defeat the adult enemy. Plus, they run a revenge-for-hire business!

Power of Three. Children from three species (basically fairy/normal, human/Giant, and fishything) must band together to lift a curse. Includes some really powerful scenes of what it feels like to be waiting to be caught, as a kid; learning the weakness of the adults whom you love; and discovering that your place in the world is simultaneously more important and much more unpleasant than you realized.

The Homeward Bounders. Probably the saddest children's story I've ever read. Jamie "walks the bounds," crossing the lines between universes, and meets the ferocious Helen and the seemingly-servile Joris (Joris? can't remember how his name is spelled). Includes some of Jones's most horror-show moments, like Helen's cannibal hand or the mud-colored soldiers' uniforms. The awesomely funny bits, like the pantomime horse or the cricket game, only make the final lines more heartbreaking.

Howl's Moving Castle. This is just a confection. Young Sophie is cursed to live as an old woman; she goes to work for rakish wizard Howl, and becomes entangled in his bizarre puzzlebox of a life, as he tries to work free of a curse of his own. A charming, funny, magical book, with John Donne and a soap-operatic scarecrow and lots of hats.

Charmed Life. Typically absurd magic (the evil dough stuck to the floor is especially memorable) with a terrifying older sister who is willing to sacrifice almost anything for power. As always with Jones, childhood is no refuge.
PASOLINI IS ME: What's the difference between a stereotype and an archetype?
HUNGOVER OWLS. I have no words. Via TKB I think.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

EASY READER: I'm pretty sure the Arena Stage production of At Home at the Zoo is about as good as it could be. Not entirely--the actress who plays Peter's wife can't quite get past how obtrusively written her dialogue is--but mostly this is as good a production as I can imagine.

It's also recognizably Albee. He wrote the second act as The Zoo Story, his first play. Decades later he wrote the backstory, which serves as Act One. First act is marital overcommunication, which is the same as miscommunication and anticommunication, with lots of male sexual inadequacy and passive-aggressive insistence on precision, and an overall sense that love is committee meetings punctuated by emotional violence.

Second act is... well, put it this way: My mother got in trouble for reading The Catcher in the Rye in school. I was assigned it. It's entirely possible that The Zoo Story would work, emotionally, for someone in the got-in-trouble generation; I'm not sure it can work for someone in the assigned-it generation. Its specific forms of rebellion have become predictable. The Zoo Story has been assimilated.

Edward Albee is ferocious, and he's been able to keep his edge--The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?: Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy is as fierce and challenging as anything I've seen, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (I'll see the Arena production next week) is still razor-sharp despite being one of his earlier plays. I'm hugely grateful to Arena for doing an entire series of, I think, every Albee play there is. I'm so excited for the rest of them! This particular play is just not the right place to start with him.
ECSTASY AS SOLACE: I really liked this quote from Fr. Alexander Schmemann, found via Wesley Hill:
Secularism is a religion because it has a faith, it has its own eschatology and its own ethics. And it “works” and it “helps.” Quite frankly, if “help” were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centered secularism helps actually more than religion. To compete with it, religion has to present itself as “adjustment to life,” “counselling,” “enrichment,” it has to be publicized on subways and buses as a valuable addition to “your friendly bank” and all other “friendly dealers”: try it, it helps! And the religious success of secularism is so great that it leads some Christian theologians to “give up” the very category of “transcendence,” or in much simpler words, the very idea of “God.” This is the price we must pay if we want to be “understood” and “accepted” by modern man, proclaim the Gnostics of the twentieth century.

For it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity, help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help poeple by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death i order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer “insufficient help,” but precisely because they “suffice,” because the “satisfy” the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed, better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die — and not just live — for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely an enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained.


So here are some random thoughts prompted by this quotation. Take home what resonates with you and discard the rest as the styrofoam peanuts of my stupidity!

One thing I like about this quote--I like a lot of things about it, but this is one--is that it may seem to contradict Augustine's famous line about how "our hearts are restless 'til we rest in Thee," and yet I really don't think it does. Just as the Desert Fathers often seem to contradict themselves (let alone one another!) because they're addressing very different seekers with radically divergent needs, weaknesses, and longings, so I think Schmemann is simply not addressing the same kind of person Augustine is. I suspect each of us is a Schmemann-addressee some of the time and an Augustine-addressee some of the time, although we'll sway more toward one end or the other (I'm much more an A-a, I think), so here are some scattered thoughts about Christ as comforter and as troubler of the waters.

First, Christ always stands against contentment. If you're satisfied you aren't a philosopher, let alone a Christian. Christ, like the James Bond franchise, tells us that The World Is Not Enough.

Sometimes we really need to hear that! Sometimes we are content to cultivate our gardens, to love the people we want to love and turn away from the shadow of death. An immense amount of basic, boring, necessary good gets done in the world by people who are contented... and yet that should never be enough for us.

Then there are those of us for whom the inadequacy of immanent beauty and everyday love is all too obvious. We're like the people in the AA slogan, for whom "one drink is too many and a hundred isn't enough." We're like the people in Chesterton's punchline, which was instrumental in my conversion: "The man who enters the whorehouse is seeking God." We're like the Bagthorpes, in Helen Cresswell's terrifically sardonic children's series, whose family motto might be Too Much Is Never Enough.

It's easy for those who can suffice themselves on the incredible loveliness of this life to look down on those of us who can't. They can accuse us of ingratitude and of pretension; who promised us a life in capital letters? And so they can remain where they are.

And it's easy for those of us who do feel that both ourselves and the world are radically insufficient to make do with "cheap grace," in the form of politics or alcohol or art or psychoanalysis, all of which are well enough in their own right and legitimate sources of insight and/or ekstasis but none of which are as big as the need. All of these possibilities are erotic in some sense, but none are as erotic as religious devotion. (But then, what is?) And so we, too, find a million ways to remain where we are.

Or to summarize this entire post in two sentences: A life without unconditional surrender is banal. Only in devotion to God can the ecstasy of surrender marry the solace of ethical love.
The town happens to be asleep right now, the mayor has problems with his heart and lies spread-eagled in his bed, his dentures in the glass of water beside him; in musty rooms omnipotent fathers sleep in nightshirts beside their wives. In the woods above town animals are waking. The actor is saying: Sad to say, you don't know real vodka. The real pure stuff turns everything you see a blue color.
--The Rebels

Thursday, March 24, 2011

KITCHEN ADVENTURES: SPREAD THE LOVE. I had a ridiculously tasty lunch the other day.

Anyway, ingredients (use the amount that seems right to you): sourdough bread, garlic, fresh ginger, crimini mushrooms (button and shiitake would also work), cream cheese, olive oil, and a bottled sesame-ginger sauce I bought at the Whole Foods corporate-charity sale.

What I did: Finely chopped the garlic, peeled and finely chopped the ginger, and finely chopped the mushrooms. Heated olive oil in a pot. Put a big thick slab of sourdough in the toaster oven. When the oil was very hot, dumped in the garlic, ginger, and mushrooms.

When they were deliciously fragrant, I threw in a mess of cream cheese and some of the bottled sauce. This all got hit with the immersion blender until it was smooth and creamy with a few bits of mushroom still visible.

At this point the sourdough was nicely toasted, so I put it on a plate and topped it with the cream cheese mixture.

the taste: Incredible! Lush, with that ginger-mushroom medley I adore. I didn't need extra salt (although you might), given how many of the ingredients were premade, and I usually throw extra salt on everything. The only slight issue was that I found it very hard to judge how much cream cheese to use, so I ended up with at least 1 1/2 times the amount I really needed to thickly coat the toast. That's okay though--I really did not mind basically eating some of the spread with my fingers. It is that good.
STILLTASTY. Very useful website for letting you know how far past the sell-by date you can keep all manner of foodstuffs. Via YumSugar.
"Please be so gracious as to remember that the last days are here."
--Mr. Zakarka, in Sándor Márai, The Rebels, tr. George Szirtes

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I WOULD NEVER SAY "I TOLD YOU SO," OH, BUT TONY... I TOLD YOU SO: Some aphorisms of Don Colacho, as I discover a blog. (...For the theological ones, I feel duty-bound to note that Christianity complicates everybody's aphoristic wisdom a.k.a. self-image, so if you want to argue with an aphorism it might be better to sit and let it steep in you and figure out the ways in which it might be true. Or to put it another way, I don't think "Don Colacho's" point is actually that he's right about Jesus.)

#2,966: Superficial, like the sociological explanation of any behavior.

#2,964: A noble society is one where obeying and exercising authority are ethical behaviors, and not mere practical necessities.

#2,956: The modern clergy believe they can bring man closer to Christ by insisting on Christ’s humanity.

Thus forgetting that we do not trust in Christ because He is man, but because He is God.

#2,953: Historical events stop being interesting the more accustomed their participants become to judging everything in purely secular categories.

Without the intervention of gods everything becomes boring.

#2,952: If we are ignorant of an epoch’s art, its history is a colorless narrative.

#2,949: Where the law is not customary law, it is easily turned into a mere political weapon.

#2,942: The secret longing of every civilized society is not to abolish inequality, but to educate it.

#2,938: Baroque, preciosity, modernism, are noble failings, but failings in the end.

#2,937: An individual is defined less by his contradictions than by the way he comes to terms with them.

#2,936: The modern clergy, in order to save the institution, try to rid themselves of the message.

#2,932: After having been, in the last century, the instrument of political radicalism, universal suffrage is becoming, as Tocqueville foresaw, a conservative mechanism.

#2,931: Religion is socially effective not when it adopts socio-political solutions, but when it succeeds in having society be spontaneously influenced by purely religious attitudes.

[I'm stopping after one page, but this is fantastic stuff. Even the punchlines with which I actively disagree are fierce.]
RIOT CABARET: Really enjoying Sublimity Now's guide to acts similar to Tom Waits. Skewing farther toward the cabaret genre, I think she should try Agnes Bernelle ("It Was Me," maybe?) and the sublime Marc Almond.

Especially liked "The Man on the Burning Tightrope"--
He could have been somebody
He could have been somebody else
It could have been so much worse.

--and this quick refrain from "Old-Fashioned Morphine"--
Sister, don't get worried,
Sister, don't get worried,
Sister, don't get worried,
Because the world is almost done.
The so highly acclaimed “dominion of man over nature” turned out to be merely an enormous capability to kill.
--Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 474

I can't believe I have evaded this author for so long. Huge thanks to Sublimity Now for the link.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

>HOLY CATS THIS LOOKS GREAT. I was already kind of excited for this aliens-vs.-the-council-estates flick, but now I want all of it, right now.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

THE FLYING MONK: Daniel Mitsui is running a series on "Early Catholic Aviators"--like, really early.
The first known serious flight attempt in world history occurred about a thousand years before the Wright brothers, in western England. Then, a young Benedictine monk leapt with a crude pair of cloth wings from a watchtower of a church abbey at the beginning of the 11th century. This monk, known to history as Eilmer of Malmesbury, covered a furlong - a distance of approximately 600 feet - before landing heavily and breaking both legs. Afterwards, he remarked that the cause of his crash was that he had forgotten to provide himself with a tail.

the rest of that entry!

and another!
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.

--Isaiah 6-7

Thursday, March 10, 2011

TRUST FALLS: My Inside Catholic column, on trust, mistrust, and conversion. I'm honestly not really satisfied with this one, but you all might find something interesting or useful in it--and there is fire, so hey. Please ignore the headline, which is a sardonic hangover from a completely different earlier draft.
While Noboru wandered through private dreams Tsukazaki stood at Fusako's side, and the heat of his body in the sultry chart room was beginning to oppress her: when the parasol she had leaned against a desk clattered suddenly to the floor, she felt as if she herself, fainting, had fallen.
--Yukio Mishima, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, tr. John Nathan

Thursday, March 03, 2011

I SWAN TO MAN: Some thoughts on the Matthew Bourne Swan Lake, as viewed via Netflix.

First, I loved this. It had a lot of images I want to stow away in my mental Mombi gallery of heads. The look of this production is iconic for a reason! The opening dream sequence replaces the "bright boy called Death" with a mature swan/man, in a little boy's dreams--a really stunning, disturbing, enthralling image. Adulthood, aggression, masculinity, otherworldliness and the sublime are all offered as possible candidates for "the monster at the end of this book," all shifting and iridescently fluid, identified with one another and yet distinguishable.

The intense longing conveyed in the park/lake scenes was especially fine and poignant, and I loved the eye-patched woman in the final "society" scene. I've never seen a traditional Swan Lake, so I don't know to what extent matching the most iconic music to moments in which the lovers are parted or are yearning for one another is typical, but it was really amazing. The plangent, familiar music becomes eldritch when it expresses nightmare rather than dream, liminality rather than immersion.

I was strongly reminded of both the strengths and the weaknesses of Derek Jarman's Edward II. The "looks" of the two productions are similar. The faint hint of misogyny is common to both--though much more prominent in the Bourne show because he has so few roles for women. Both Jarman and Bourne don't present a madonna/whore dichotomy... more of a dictatrix/flapper dichotomy. (Did Margaret Thatcher really do so much psychological damage?) The roles for women in Bourne's Swan Lake are as follows: 1) Maria Motherissueskaya, 2) Ditzie Doritos, 3) Butterfly Ballerinas whose art is cheap and obvious (unlike the subtle work we're watching now!) and 4) Eyepatch of Awesome.

And the sense of thwarted erotic hunger is of course preeminent in both productions. Jarman's work is much better because he chooses to express anger rather than self-pity, and politics rather than pop-psychology. Nonetheless if you are glad you saw his EII you should probably see this show too.

Speaking of pop-psychology, this production was really swilling the cliché. The swans are coming from beneath the bed! He looks at his reflection and drinks from a flask to demonstrate his pain! I'm really conflicted about this, since a) ballet, like opera (like horror, like genre in general), is already stylized and so cliche is always imminent, and
b) I'm pretty sure I fell in love with figure skating in large part because it married actual artistry so completely with vaudeville tawdriness, sawdust and stardust. (Oh, why not, here's more Christopher Bowman.)

So if we're simply mining pop-psych for immediately compelling, intelligible hieroglyphics of melodrama, then I support that 106%. (Not just 100%, because I am beyond reason.) But the Bourne production seemed to me to swing occasionally into self-seriousness, an attempt at actually representing the inner consciousness of a conflicted gay prince, and this I found a bit Oprah-ish or insistent.

And so we return to our sheep (or our feathers)--there are so many sequences of this production which I found amazing. I loved the drunken staggering outside the bar. I loved the pursuing-retreating-captured dynamic after the ball.

But let me end by comparing this disc, unfairly, to two live performances.

First: I don't think I could have really understood this production before I became a fan of the Synetic Theater. Their provocative, intermittently tawdry, undeniably brilliant and idiosyncratic interpretations of classic works through dance helped me develop a modern-dance vocabulary. They were able to show me, as if teaching me sign language, how there is no one-to-one correspondence between dance and Shakespeare and yet a dance troupe can convey all the complexities and ornaments of Antony and Cleopatra. (This month their King Lear opens and I am LITERALLY JOE BIDEN bursting at the seams to see it!) Gestures aren't words, and yet a dance sequence can be a paragraph.

And second... a few days after I saw the Bourne Swan Lake via Netflix, I saw the Mariinsky Ballet (if you remember Reagan then you, like me, may know them best by their Soviet-era name, the Kirov Ballet) perform "Giselle."

Look, I know it's not fair to compare the Mariinsky to anyone. And yet the shocking precision of their movements--despite a radically silly storyline, despite sequences in which the ballerinas had to hop across the stage--the grace and the illusion of effortless gliding were simply unparalleled. They took us into another dimension, another kind of consciousness (I KNOW how foo-foo I sound! I can't think of any other way to put it!), simply through their razor-sharp control. Their technical prowess made them so alien that they didn't have to rely on their interpretation of the story for sublimity.
HOLY CATS! (Sorry.)

I haven't watched the linked YouTube video, since I'm pretty sure it would freak me out even at age 32.
APPARAT CHIC Can this be real? Via PES.
"Yes, I'm cured," she said sadly. "I shall never be green again. It was lovely while it lasted."

"It's nice grown-up, too," Grant said comfortingly, and went away down the stairs.

--Josephine Tey, To Love and Be Wise