Capsule Recommendation: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon Squad consolidates both Jennifer Egan’s craft and capacity for psychological insight and verifies her as a consummate polyphonist. Her novel-in-stories describes a sustained discontinuous trajectory which toggles and stutters and strobes through narrative linearity, through modernist and contemporary storytelling convention, through time and memory and event and human betrayal and creative ambition until we appreciate that her book, in both formal innovation and in thematic engagement, is like the music it interrogates: a valedictory lament for the once-unnegotiable promises we’ve all made in the throes of a painful though purer youth.

A Visit from the Goon Squad  A Visit from the Goon_Squad #2

Egan’s novel is structurally kaleidoscopic, even if its stylistic accomplishments aren’t as conceptually audacious and sui generis as might be anticipated in a work of literary fiction such as this one, so oft-praised for its aesthetic virtues as to defy immediate critical comparison: in many ways, the reader is compelled to accept that each character presented throughout the course of Egan’s narrative is invested with a keenly-observed psychology, but it’s rare that the language employed to convey this interiority is used to individuate the characters in question. Continue reading

Capsule Recommendation: HHhH (a.k.a. Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich) by Laurent Binet / trans. Sam Taylor

Laurent Binet, escritor francés, galardonado con el Premio Goncourt.  Reinhard Heydrich

This is a profoundly troublesome book to review in short order because, for me personally (if you’ll excuse the intuitive knee-jerk redundancy), Laurent Binet’s HHhH assumes the status, or perhaps the infrequent and baffling honour, of being a work of literature I appreciate and recommend, with some qualification, despite a host of initial (and not insubstantial) misgivings I harboured during the reading process. In fact, I would say — without express inhibition — I love this book, but this reaction might be characterised as contradicting my initial evaluation of Binet’s material. In some ways (and for a more explicit context), this is a critical reaction I can only attribute to a few previous instances: I recall enjoying David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but felt that its entire second/middle act should have been excised entirely or revised thoroughly, and I grappled with my increasingly diminishing enthusiasms over Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, if only because I would have designated Murakami’s novel structurally and narratively unsalvageable, if not for the final/third book which somewhat redeemed the systematically flawed entity for me as a whole. What I can express, in framing Binet’s HHhH in this tendentious context, is that it is certainly the best of the three works, and that the authorial issues I encountered upon reading Binet’s book nonetheless retain a verisimilitude with those I reconciled myself to when reading both the Mitchell and the Murakami: in sum, Binet’s work improves itself unequivocally from about the final third on.

HHhH Binet  HHhH Binet #2

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Fell (dir. Kasimir Burgess; 2014)

Fell

I’ve begun to observe a certain categorical and identifiable representation of masculinity in contemporary Australian cinema, one inherently constituted by genre on the one hand, and imaginings of landscape on the other: Which is to say, Australian cinema has always been engaged in interrogating or perpetuating the mythos of the self-realised ‘outback bloke’ — though it required a Canadian dramatist, Ted Kotcheff, to dismantle the archetype wholesale in Wake in Fright — but a recent influx of tiny Australian pastorals of epic interiors have reclaimed the archetype for renewed audience fascination, by subjecting this human avatar to the violence of the land he professes to emblematise.

There must be something iconic, unassailable and inexpressible — “primal”, growls Thomas (a.k.a. Chris Alcott), one of two central protagonists in Kasimir Burgess’s riveting and loss-haunted début feature, Fell — about a man’s attempts to carve a channel wide enough to accommodate him in the topography of the Australian landscape, because this is a narrative of provenance which we appear collective-bound to tell. Writer/director David Michôd has probably assumed the status as the proverbial poster boy for rehabilitating this once-shunned storytelling tradition in Australia, and certainly there’s something to be said about Michôd’s conviction that the conditions of a particular landscape will compel dramatic impetus in a story about men. In many ways, however, Michôd’s The Rover is schematic or obfuscating — low-stakes, emotionally — where Kasimir Burgess’s Fell is mute but stormy with meaning. Continue reading

Fehér isten a.k.a. White God (dir. Kornél Mundruczó; 2014)

White God

Writer/director Kornél Mundruczó is an artist specialising in dualities, dissonance, contradictions. His new film, the Cannes Prize Un Certain Regard-winning White God (a.k.a. Fehér isten) — which I would contend constitutes something of a masterpiece, if one’s critical barometer is receptive to unclassifiable cinema which invests in a worldbuilding and an interior logic which never lapses or negates itself — is an exemplar, an instructive example best cited, of this directorial delight Mundruczó engenders in postmodern collision. As I watched White God in a darkened theatre, increasingly aware that I was being spellbound — enacted upon — by weird forces of wonderment and repulsion, transformative images electrified by human emotion, I quickly discerned that what I was encountering was so damn unlike anything else as to be self-incarnate, envisioned in a cultural vacuum, autochthonous. This is of course ridiculous: I don’t doubt for a second that, if pressed, Mundruczó would be seized or compelled to articulate and rationalise his authorial agenda by referencing a navigable constellation of cinematic (and pop.-cultural) influences. What I mean is not that White God is anything akin to a prelinguistic or originary artefact, because such an assertion would smack of intellectual posturing and a tendency to transcendentalise a byproduct of existing cinematic traditions, but that White God feels like something entirely disenthralled with comparison.

It is the Mundruczó affect: quieten the whispering mind to the extent that it is almost as if nothing else intrudes on the canvas but the images composed and strobing there; there is a bigness of vision, an ambition of scope and an aesthetic experience which is immersive and unpolluted by the legacies of predecessors. If I had to define it, I’d maintain that White God is like Wake in Fright for children. Continue reading

Love Is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs; 2014)

Love Is Strange

Sometime last year I listened to a podcast released for This American Life, and amongst the multilimbed miscellany which a weekly episode comprises of, a story addressing the issue of bureaucratic discrimination against same-sex couples galvanised my interest. It was — for want of a more discerning term, one less couched in journalistic jargon — the angle which engaged me: I understand and recognise and regret that, even today, LGBTQ couples (in addition to those whom subscribe to alternative sexualities or gender roles), be they married or involved in a de facto relationship, experience systemic prejudice in virulent and substantive ways, and this both saddens and angers me; but I don’t believe I heretofore ever appreciated the marginalisation and antagonism inflicted on gay couples in the specific context of the contemporary real estate market. I found the subject fascinating, in part, because of that very specificity: there’s a transdisciplinary appraisal at work, when a journalist interrogates the way in which an industry we take for granted in our communities devalues individuals on the basis of how they choose to identify. I’d been previously interested, for reasons abstract to myself, in the ways that the contemporary real estate market has (and continues to) ostracise and victimise people of colour — if I were honest, I’d concede that it likely has something to do with my admiration for the politicised insights about this subject unearthed in writer/showrunner David Simon’s Treme, and consequently, the Lisa Belkin-authored work of essayistic reportage on the New York public housing scandal of 1988, Show Me A Hero, which Simon next intends to adapt to screen — but the plight and the silent trivilialisation of the gay experience in the contemporary context of affordable housing is an issue I’d managed to elide from my thoughts. Continue reading

Mommy (dir. Xavier Dolan; 2014)

Mommy #1

There are things wrong — both narratively and structurally — with twenty-five-year-old Québécois enfant terrible and writer/director, Xavier Dolan’s Cannes Jury Prize-winning melodrama, Mommy, and it isn’t insubstantial or injudicious or petty to catalogue them, but it would be myopic.

As I experienced the full kinetic, high-octane assault of Dolan’s revelrous, near impressionistically-orchestrated vision, I came to discern that no amount of measured and exacting critical evaluation would satisfactorily accommodate the sheer ambition, dramatic impact, emotional and psychological generosity, gorgeousness and raw feeling that this film engenders in its viewers. At the film’s conclusion, the audience I saw it with erupted into applause.

Mommy is therefore almost impossible to judge or reduce or synopsise to the sum of its parts, if only because it succeeds organically and intuitively as a singular vision of aesthetic energy and combustion — to encapsulate or abbreviate its affect, is to assume an injustice against it. This is a work which, albeit embracing of clumsy melodramatic convention and a storytelling high-concept which initially feels telescoped and contrived, reaffirms that maxim of artistic discovery: the shock of the new. Continue reading

Life Itself (dir. Steve James; 2014)

Life Itself #3

To write about Roger Ebert is to follow in the footprints — or rather the footfalls, as his legacy is even now still reverberating in the ears of every matinee-prowling punter, fanboy, cinematic autodidact or professional film journalist — of a more inimitable commentator, a fiercer advocate, and keener viewer of film-as-an-artwork of affect and expression than you might ever hope to countenance or encompass.

It’s been said innumerable times over so that it’s now beginning to assume the well-honed burnish of immediate cliché, but Ebert was the Voice of Movies. He lived to engage with them, he lived to evaluate and demystify them, he lived to cheerfully disdain those he hated, he lived to champion and venerate those he loved, but most significantly, Ebert lived to substantiate the claims and validity of film discourse and film reception and film criticism — never to trivialise or condescend to it.

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