So, I’m rather busy at the moment and I accidentally read too many books and watched too many movies in November. These reviews-that-aren’t-really-reviews will be even shorter and less adequate than usual.
Discussed in this post: 8 Books (Secret Path; Citizen; Imperial Ideology and the Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire; Picturing Paul in Empire; Empire Baptized; My Brilliant Friend; The Painted Bird; Hyperbole and a Half); 5 Movies (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House; February; When Animals Dream; Hour of the Wolf; Inglourious Basterds); 5 Documentaries (The Mask You Live In; Miss Representation; The Witness; 13TH; Sour Grapes).
1. Secret Path by Gord Downie & Jeff Lemire.
I know a lot of people read this book because Gord Downie was involved with it, but I was mostly excited to see Jeff Lemire taking up a story about an Indigenous boy who freezes to death when he runs away from the residential school where he is being abused (it’s based on the life and death of Chanie Wenjack). I’m a big fan of Lemire’s other graphic novels, especially his Essex County trilogy. Lemire does a really good job of telling a story with poignant images and a few well placed words. Secret Path doesn’t disappoint. I reckon you could get through it in about five minutes if you wanted to, but it’s the kind of story you probably want to take some time with.
In other news, I’ve never been a Hip fan but Gord Downie has really won me over in the last few months. Props to him for what he has done to use the fame associated with his dying to draw attention to settler colonialism and how it oppresses the Indigenous peoples in these territories.
2. Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.
I had been putting off reading Citizen for a little while but after Trump got elected (how long til we rewrite the calendar and refer to 2017 as Year One in the year of the Lord?), I felt the need to read some revolutionary black literature. Rankine’s poetry tells a story about the constant micro- and not-so-micro aggressions she experiences as a racialized woman in a society structured upon racism. She fits in with other contemporary writers like Maggie Nelson who are really blending genres (poetry, theory, narrative) in order to try and find more satisfactory ways of speaking about life. I dig it.
3. Imperial Ideology and the Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire by Clifford Ando.
Clifford Ando’s book gets mentioned a lot amongst scholars who are trying to read the New Testament in a counter-imperial or postcolonial manner. I figured maybe I should finally get around to reading it. I’m glad I did. It helps to paint a more complete picture (for me) of how things operated within Roman Imperialism and the Imperial Cult, not only in the first century CE but through the first few centuries (tangentially, related to my prior conversation-ish with Larry Hurtado, there is a fair bit of material in this book that problematizes his approach). Ando’s book came out in 2000 so a lot of his key insights have been incorporated into the work done by others but his project is substantial enough that there is still quite a bit to be gained from reading it today. If you’re into this sort of thing… which probably means you are part of the 0.0001% who geek out on this stuff like I do.
4. Picturing Paul in Empire: Imperial Image, Text and Persuasion in Colossians, Ephesians and the Pastoral Epistles by Harry O. Maier.
I very much enjoyed Maier’s book. Pretty much all of the readings of Paul that are engaging Roman imperialism in depth don’t engage the deutero-Pauline epistles (or only engage them in order to dismiss them – which I think can be a fair move to make given the differences between the uncontested letters and the contested ones). So, I was very curious to see what a reading of the deutero-Pauline texts might look like when it it informed by counter-imperial readings and postcolonial literature. I thought Maier did a great job of this. Although I have some suspicions about how he might read the uncontested letters (i.e. I think he sees Paul as more compromised by hybridity and his embedness within an context colonized by Roman imperialism than I do… although I find myself increasingly open to this position), but these suspicions don’t really relate to the focus of this book. I thought Maier’s examination of how the deuteron-Pauline texts both resist and do not resist Roman imperialism, and how they resist any simple classification as “pro-Empire” or “anti-Empire,” was very well nuanced and quite convincing (even if, at the level of practice, a lot of this does reinforce the imperial status quo). For Paul and Empire people, this is a really good book.
5. Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected 2nd-5th Centuries by Wes Howard-Brook.
I won’t write too much about this book because I’m just wrapping an interview with Wes and so I’m using that as an excuse to not write too much here. Empire Baptized is the second volume of his two part project that began with Come Out, My People! It’s a pretty damning presentation of how rapidly and wholly the early Jesus movement becomes compromised and incorporated into imperial ideologies, practices, and ways of being in relation with others. It’s a good counternarrative to a lot of the neoorthodox reappropriation of the so-called Church Fathers as guides or seemingly supreme authorities in matters related to Christian faith. The Church Fathers were pretty troubling people. Here, one of the things that struck me (and I don’t get into this in the interview so I’ll mention it here), was the contrast between Wes’ presentation of how the Church Fathers thought and acted in relation to wealth, poverty, property accumulation, and economic matters. When I was younger, I was pretty heavily impressed by Justo González’s book, Faith and Wealth: A History of Early Christian Ideas on the Origin, Significance, and Use of Money. I thought González did a really good job of showing how economic mutuality (the form of proto-communism discussed in Acts 2 and exemplified in the Pauline Collection) had a much longer lasting impact upon the early expressions of Christianity than a lot of Western pro-capitalism Christians might be comfortable recognizing. However, contra González (although not explicitly), Wes argues that a lot of the charitable practices and the discourse related to faith and wealth, found in the Church Fathers is really about consolidating power and formalizing and reinforcing essentially oppressive patronage networks – precisely the sort of thing that the sibling-based economic mutuality of Paul and his co-workers tried to resist! It’s an interesting counterpoint, although I’d like to go back to González again to if perhaps there is more of a middle ground to be found here. Anyway, more to come when the interview is posted.
6. My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels Vol. 1) by Elena Ferrante.
Wow, Ferrante! She’s like an antidote to Knausgaard that I didn’t know I needed until I read her. Her storytelling flows so smoothly it’s easy to miss the talent it takes to write in that way. I really enjoyed this book which is the first in a four part series of kinda-sorta-not-really-but-totally autobiographical-ish books. It’s fantastic and I can’t wait to read the second volume (fair warning: volume one ends on a cliffhanger so you’ll want volume two at hand to begin as soon as you finish the first… I wish someone had given me this warning!).
(By the way, if you’re wondering about the cover, as I did, check out this amazing article — props to David D..)
7. The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński.
So, from a very exciting novel to maybe one of the most depressing stories you’ll ever read, if you choose to read it, which, you know, I wouldn’t really recommend because there’s a lot of pretty graphic and sustained violence, and maybe that reflects what Kosiński experienced or witnessed or heard about when he was hiding from the Nazis as a child in Eastern Europe (and maybe it doesn’t), but it doesn’t necessarily mean I want to dwell on them all in detail. Granted, it’s a well-written story (even if there are questions as to how much of it Kosiński wrote), and granted the voice in which it is told is a compelling and somewhat haunting voice, but I can know that, in war, children were tortured in horrible ways in front of their mothers – and then their mothers, too, were tortured in horrible ways – without reading a book that strings together all of these horrible events, one after another, through the eyes of a child. Not that everything is horror here. Some folks are nice to the child – notably, the German soldier and the SS officer who refuse to kill him but set him free, as well as the communist soldiers who take him in – and that’s the thing that, perhaps, struck me most about the story. It’s a story about a Gypsy (or Jew?) hiding from the Germans in Eastern European villages during WWII, and yet the Germans hardly appear and when they do, they are nice to the child, and all of the horrors and sexual abuse and malicious acts of violence, done simply for the pleasure of engaging in malicious violence against another living thing, are performed the regular, everyday folks. The monsters aren’t the Nazis or the Commies. The monsters are the men going out to work, the married women who want to possess their men, the kids coming home from school, and basically any one of us and possibly all of us. Kosiński, some say, was a monster, too, but he killed himself before that story played out.
8. Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened by Allie Brosh.
I borrowed this book from a friend in order to have a quick, fun, something to read. It’s a collection of picture stories told by Allie Brosh from her blog, “Hyperbole and a Half.” It was amusing but also sometimes something more in the stories it told about life and the struggle to make sense of the world and others and one’s self (and dogs… especially dogs) as a child and then as an adult with a brain that seems to work differently than the brains of most people. For the most part, I enjoyed it.
1. I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (2016) directed by Oz Perkins.
Stories with time loops really trip me out. A lot. Time in general trips me out. Start doing circular things or looping different times together and I end up lying in bed wide awake all night trying to figure out what the heck, man. What the heck? Anway, fun fact, the director of this movie is the son of Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates in Psycho). Anthony Perkins died from AIDS-related pneumonia when Oz was still quite young. His wife, and Oz Perkins’ mother, died on American Airlines Flight 11 on September 11, 2001. So the Director has experienced a fair bit of personal loss and sorrow. I think some of that comes through in this film which is probably more about creating a certain feeling than it is about telling a perfectly coherent story (or so I told myself at 4:30AM when I was still trying to understand how time works). It does a good job of doing that, with the “thrill” or “horror” in the movie relating not so much to sudden frights or apparitions but to dark, empty rooms, reflections in TV screens, and phone cords that are overextended, building up a constant sense of fear… but, I think, not so much fear of this or that boogeyman but, instead, fear of death in general. I reckon a lot of people can identify with that feeling. That said, I thought the climactic scene when the horror bursts forth more vividly was very well acted… shout out to the vintage scream queens on that one – like Janet Leigh in Psycho). Jess and I enjoyed this movie enough to look up Perkins’ earlier film, which was pretty highly rated amongst the film scenesters. So on to that…
2. February (2015) directed by Osgoode Perkins (also called The Blackcoat’s Daughter).
While, I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House was all about tapping into death anxiety, February is much creepier in a traditional thriller sense (and it also contains a Psycho shout out with one scene showing a woman’s feet in the shower as water goes down the drain). Perkins does this very well and I very much like how his films don’t really on special effects or gore to create these feelings (there is more physical violence in this movie than in the other one but Perkins’ use of violence reminds me less of a traditional horror movie and more of how Benicio del Toro uses it in Pan’s Labyrinth. I also liked the ending a lot. It shows but doesn’t explain and leaves it up to the viewer to determine how to make sense of it. I came up with a reading that I like quite a lot but I don’t want to say what it is because I don’t want to spoil the ending for others.
3. When Animals Dream (2014) directed by Jonas Alexander Arnby.
Scandinavian indie/art movies playing creatively with old horror themes? Sounds great! I came to this hoping for something like Let the Right One In, but for werewolves (I’ve been trying to make sense of werewolves these days and the role they play in our social imaginary – moving on from vampires and zombies since I kinda have those figured out now). Unfortunately, When Animals Dream didn’t really meet my expectations (and there is a pretty much completely unnecessary simulated sexual assault at one point when two fellows pretend they are going to rape the female protagonist and I didn’t see that coming and it really rattled me and I had to turn the movie off and start it again another day, skipping that scene). It did have some great shots (hard not to have great shots in that part of the world) and I liked a lot of how it was paced (I seem to go in for slower paced horror type movies these days and the indie scene is churning those out these days), but it didn’t seem to come together in a way that really rocked my socks. I also felt like it wasn’t entirely original in what it did with the werewolf motif (or, at least, was much less original than what my favourite vampire movies do with vampires). The theme of a young woman coming of age via a werewolf transformation seems already well-established in the genre (Ginger Snaps, eh?), although I reckon there was something of a reversal when that theme was first deployed (since werewolves often seem to function as an analogy for predatory male sexual behaviour – remember that Looney Tunes cartoon when Little Red Riding Hood is followed by a wolf in a convertible and the wolf is clearly a man licking his chops thinking about sexually assaulting the child? Wtf, right?).
4. Hour of the Wolf (1968) directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Now this, this was a very fun movie. Werewolves, okay, but much more, too, as one might expect from Bergman. So much fun with it – dreams bleeding into reality (or not?), a lover one beginning to have the same waking nightmares as her loved one, a cottage on a remote island, a wealthy family of, um, well, that’s hard to say, and a woman who can’t take her hat off because if she does, her face comes off, too. It’s all very well done and well shot and when I think about just wanting to have a lot of fun and be entertained by a movie, it’s the kind of movie I want to see.
5. Inglourious Basterds (2009) directed by Quentin Tarantino.
I lost interest in Tarantino years ago. I actually dislike him for a lot of reasons, although when I was young and stupid I used to like him a fair bit. Granted, he knows how to tell a story and, granted, he can be really clever and, granted, he can put together some amazing scenes and he has a distinctive and spell-binding voice that refers back to all kinds of diverse sources, but I just can’t get into most of his fantasies about sex and violence. However, a friend had recently discovered Tarantino and was figuring out what she thought of him so I watched Inglourious Basterds with her. It didn’t do much for me. (Although Ebert gave it four out of four stars? Which, I guess makes sense if you appreciate this as art but, dammit, I’m always bring ethics into the picture.)
1. The Mask You Live In (2015) directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
The Mask You Live In is a very important documentary. It explores masculinity and how boys learn to “be a man.” I think it is extremely relevant and I think pretty much all men in our culture would benefit from viewing and discussing it. Both in tone and content it reminded me a fair bit of bell hooks’ book, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. It recognizes that patriarchy and male violence is a massive problem, but it presents the topic in a manner that is open to men and particularly sensitive to boys and the ways in which they, too, are victims of patriarchy and male violence (learning to be a man in our culture usually requires a boy to destroy at least a part of his soul). This is highly recommended viewing.
2. Miss Representation (2011) directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
Having enjoyed The Mask You Live In so much, I thought I’d check out Newsom’s earlier film that focuses upon girls growing up in patriarchy. I think my expectations were probably too high. It was full of a lot of useful information but it didn’t necessarily stand out in any way from the handful of other films I have already seen on this subject. Good, but just didn’t rock my world like The Mask You Live In did.
3. The Witness (2015) directed by James Solomon.
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City. The man who killed her, stabbed her for awhile, then left the scene, then came back and stabbed her some more. It took quite a bit of time to kill her. Later reports said that more than 30 people witnessed this assault but did nothing to help her. It turns out that these media reports weren’t actually all that true (although there was some truth in them) but the story sold and a whole little industry of awards and profits and studies built up around it. A lot of this comes out due to the investigations done by Kitty’s brother, Bill, who himself has seen a fair bit of trauma – he lost his legs in Vietnam, having chosen to go to war because he bought another line the media applied to the Vietnam war: evil happens because good people sit by and do nothing. Bill lost his sister and then, as a result of that, lost his legs. It’s a pretty devastating story. And not just for Bill. Apart from the whole exposure of the media, part of what this documentary does very well is show the waves of devastation that a single act of violence can produce, not just in one life, but in many, many lives. Kitty was one person and she was murdered and her parents and her siblings, and also the son of the murdered and his extended family, have never been the same again. One act, one person taken away from the rest of us, and there is an wave of shock and grief and loss that spreads exponentially in the lives of others. When I think about all the traumas and losses and sudden deaths that people are experiencing everyday, I find it kind of amazing that we’re holding it together at all.
Then again, it’s kind of questionable as to how well all of this is being held together…
4. 13TH (2016) directed by Ava DuVernay.
This film is a fantastic look at the new Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander’s term) and the prison-industrial complex as a part of the white supremacist culture of the USofA. It’s damn good. Unfortunately for this move, though, this is the last review I’m writing in order to finish this blog post and I just want to get done. So, yeah, just go watch it yourself. It’s on Netflix.
5. Sour Grapes (2016) directed by Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas.
I have a feeling that Bill Koch (yes, one of the Koch brothers, but not Charles or David so I guess he has that going for him…) may have funded this documentary as a bit of a “fuck you” to the guy who ripped them off by selling them bogus wine. Koch comes off as a pretty likeable guy, even if his wine cellar does look like a crypt where he probably goes to kick it with Nosferatu and others who live off of the blood of the rest of us. So, yeah, I feel like he might have been involved in the production. Still, it’s a fun little romp through the world of uber fine wine and a scam artist who gets to the core of it (the consumers, including Koch originally, are fooled but it’s the producer – Laurent Ponsot, who makes some of the very best wines in the world – who catches on to the game). Also, it reminded me of this really great song by Puscifer.