25 December 2014

A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O'Connor

This is completely amazing. Funny, bizarre, and profound, Flannery O'Connor's prayer journal is more like a series of letters to God. Written while she was working on Wise Blood (which I have not read, but cannot wait to), these anguished missives somewhat paradoxically describe her efforts to be more spiritual. Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to ... I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside. O'Connor vacillates between asking God for things she wants, and asking God to help her be more selfless and not want things so much. Occasionally this results in absolutely hilarious formulations such as: Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don't let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it. And other times it verges on completely bizarre, as in one of my favorite moments: at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But throughout, it is intimate, complex, and completely spell-binding. Farrar Straus and Giroux did a lovely job with this edition -- although the introduction is meh (it has a borderline unseemly fascinating with O'Connor's death), the simple artwork on a pristine white cover feels very appropriate, and the inclusion of a facsimile of the entire original notebook is genius. If I had read this a week ago, I'd have been handing it out for Christmas like it was Halloween candy. Go get a copy, stat!

17 December 2014

Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Perhaps it is shameful to admit it, but I think this is one of the rare cases where I liked the movie better. Roman Polanski's recent movie, to be more exact, which is not a straightforward adaptation of the text, but rather, a story of a theater director auditioning an actress for a part in his adaptation of the text (meta meta, boioioioing). I really liked the movie, and it reinvigorated a long dormant intention to read the actual book (I once heard Malynne Sternstein talk about an inherent masochism of Eastern Europeans, partly in reference to this text, and I've been intrigued by the notion,  and tracing its manifestations -- there are many -- ever since). Indeed, the book is a curious little work, full of twists and turns and an intriguing late Romantic blend of cynicism and idealism. The problem is, the film is such an interesting perspective on the material, subtly illuminating both the continuities between the book's time and our own and also critiquing the story, both as a relic of a past time AND as an example of what seems to be a rather timeless tradition of portraying women. The book certainly provides ample fodder for the inquiry into gender inflected power dynamics of sexual and romantic relationships, and teasingly gestures towards  some ideas about the relationship between art and life, specifically in relation to love and passion, but the movie develops all these lines of inquiry much more fully. Plus, it's funnier.

But I recommend them both.

09 December 2014

Beyond the Lights

To be honest, I went to see this movie in large part because I wanted to support the director, and more broadly, to support films featuring people of color. I had heard a great interview with the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, on NPR (the film was actually initially brought to my attention by Linda Holmes, whom I trust implicitly and maybe sort of idolize), in which she talks about wanting to get rid of the term "black films" (they're just films!) but also how hard it is to get a film made if the central characters are people of color. So look, not to be all preachy about it, but if you, dear reader, want this to change (and I hope you do!), you need to start shelling out and seeing these movies in theatres. This is a somewhat dour preamble to talking about the movie, I know. But what with various efforts to raise awareness about how #blacklivesmatter this week in wake of all this horrific stuff in the news, I think it's worth pointing out that going to the movies can matter.* Pop culture shapes how people see the world. We need a broader variety of stories about a broader variety of people, and the only way we're gonna get them is by voting with our dollars. But anyhow.

When people say that a movie has heart, this is the kind of movie they're talking about. It's a deeply felt and surprisingly intimate movie, particularly in the love scenes. The story -- about a young female pop star negotiating the demands of fame, who falls in love with a police officer -- is an intelligent look at celebrity culture. It really drives home the intense sexualization of female stars, but manages to do so without ever feeling preachy, which is quite a feat.** Interestingly enough, though the film spends plenty of time appreciating Gug Mbatha-Raw's good looks, it manages to show you how her body is being commodified in a way that doesn't feel as if the film is also participating in that process. It does, however, indulge in quite a lot of ogling at Nate Parker, who is very pleasant to look at. It's funny, much as I appreciate the female body, I rarely enjoy it being displayed on the big screen, because there is so much ideological baggage that goes with it. But this movie reminded me of the pleasures of looking at a fine form, ie, Nate Parker's toned abs. I wonder if that's rampant hypocrisy on my part, or if the film actually produces a respectfully appreciative gaze.

Gina Prince-Bythewood*** clearly cared a lot about this movie. Part of that caring manifests itself as an unwillingness to be as ruthless in making cuts as she maybe should have: the film occasionally feels a bit baggy, and the story is trying to do a little too much. There's an attempt at parallelism in the plot that is intriguing but not particularly convincing in its execution. A domestic violence segment subtly but forcefully reminds viewers that such things do happen to young women in this situation, paradoxically by displacing them onto someone else. But that displacement also makes it seem a bit tacked on. Large chunks of the film, howver, are very well done, enough so that you're willing to give the rest a bit of leeway. In particular, Prince-Bythewood has a real knack for conversations: it's one of those rare films where the characters occasionally just talk about something interesting, rather than only discussing themselves or some aspect of the plot that needs to be moved along.**** Also, the sex scenes are fantastic.

Overall, a worthwhile and heartfelt film from a director that has lot of potential. Looking forward to seeing what she does next.

*Though admittedly, it sometimes feels futile, as anyone who tries to support women in movies can relate to. How much money did Bridesmaids make? And The Heat? And yet, and yet. Though there does seem to be a glimmer of hope on that front. Slowly slowly...

**Certainly something I haven't mastered, as my little preamble makes clear...

***If you search for her on Netflix, you won't find all of her movies in one place -- apparently the system is befuddled by what I presume was a post-marital name-change. I wonder how often this is an issue?

****I could swear I complained about this feature of movies -- and particularly romances -- in an earlier post, but I can't find it anywhere.