Posted by: Dan | December 27, 2017

December Reviews

Discussed in this post: 9 Books (The Influence of Cooperative Bacteria on Animal Host Biology; Beyond Words; Down Girl; Survival in Auschwitz; Desperate Characters; The Book of Sand; The Ruba’iyat; Classic Hasidic Tales; and Bone); 5 Movies (The Killing of a Sacred Deer; A Ghost Story; Song to Song; Loveless; and Star Wars Episode VIII); and 1 rant about David Attenborough.

Books

1. The Influence of Cooperative Bacteria on Animal Host Biology edited by Margaret J. McFall-Ngai, Brian Henderson, and Edward G. Ruby.

McFall

Many years ago, I learned the value of reading things I did not understand.  By slogging my way through material I could grasp only in part (if even that much), I could eventually come to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and a new awareness of new things that I couldn’t even imagine before.  The trick, I learned, is not overreaching and losing myself in a text that is completely incomprehensible all the time, but that is only incomprehensible for some of the time (and perhaps for an uncomfortably long amount of time).  Thus, for example, I was able to work my way through Heidegger, but I had to go looking for secondary literature when I started reading Deleuze and Guattari.  There was much about Heidegger that I didn’t get, but I got some (or at least I think I did) and a lot of that transformed me (and I then better understood some of the parts I didn’t get).  With Deleuze and Guattari, I basically didn’t get anything (A Thousand Plateaus, ftw) and so I needed to go for help and turn to the secondary, explanatory literature (which is always a risk since you’re now reading somebody else’s ideas about somebody else’s ideas).  Similarly, when it came to quantum mechanics, after perusing a number of options, the book I had to settle on was, literally, a book designated for dummies.

This series of essays edited by McFall-Ngai, Henderson, and Ruby, is a serious academic work and, falling as it does outside of my areas of study, I didn’t understand everything in it.  I didn’t grasp the importance of some of the organic chemistry, or many of the distinction between proteins and various genetic coding functions, but I think I was still able to comprehend all of the essays and the points the authors were making.  And, wow, was it worth reading because these essays opened my eyes to a world about which I knew basically nothing.  And it is a world that is central to who we are and it is wonderful and exciting and blows my mind.  This is the world of bacteria and the environments which act as their hosts (and often those environments are living organisms and those organisms/environments also relate to the bacteria as environments/organisms and all of this further feeds into both the eco-devo perspective on evolution and some Indigenous elements of spirituality – in terms of the interconnectedness of all things – which I’m digging so much these days).  Everything these authors look at – from the role of predatory starfish in an ecosystem, to the development of mammalian immune systems, to bacteria that aid squid in bioluminescence, to moonlighting proteins – leaves me wide-eyed with my mouth hanging open, amazed to discover myself in such a wonderful world.  This is one of the most awe-inducing books I’ve read not only this year but any year.

2. Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina.

Safina

I have really mixed feelings about this book.  On the one hand, it is full of marvelous information about a lot of animals (although it definitely favours species of animals that humans generally favour – crows, tigers, elephants, monkeys, wolves, and whales – while speaking naively condescendingly about plants or other forms of life), but it also full of a lot of fluffy filler that some of these writers feels like they need to include in their texts to pull the reader along.  Maybe this is necessary to create a bestseller in a market driven by readers of books like The Da Vince Code but, me, I’d rather the writer cut to the chase.  I don’t need to read a description of your buddy’s living room, as a part of your description of your buddy’s house, the location of which is also described in rambling prose, in order for you to tell me what your buddy knows about whales.  Just talk about the whales already.  Because, wow, when the talk was about the whales, it was enthralling.  So, yeah, mixed feelings.  I loved a lot of what I learned from it.  But it could have been 150 pages shorter.

(But, if that were the case, maybe then it would be classified as an academic text and never have become a bestseller and then all the people who read it would never have learned all these wonderful things about some of the other earthlings who live here with us, and who are, in many ways, kin to us, and that would be a real loss so maybe I should just take my snooty criticism and stick it in my ear.)

3. Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny by Kate Manne.

Manne

Kate Manne has written an urgently relevant, brilliant but accessible analysis of how patriarchy functions within our context (patriarchy being the name that applies to any situation where, all other things being equal, men are favoured over women and wherein that favour requires or, at the very least, expects women and men to play gender-specific roles).  Paying especially close attention to misogyny’s role in all of this, Manne defines misogyny as the “law enforcement” side of patriarchy (with sexism being the ideology providing the justification for these dynamics).  Thus, misogyny is designed to punish women who step out of line and who, in particular, refuse to play roles that are said to be women’s roles (notably nurturing men and giving priority of attention to male needs and words) or who challenge men in domain’s that are perceived of as areas set aside for male entitlement.  Brilliant discussions of “himpathy,” victim blaming, and other related subjects follow.  These include two critically important points: first, one need not dehumanize women to treat them in a misogynistic manner (in fact, part of why men want to possess women is so that women can engage in human-to-human acts of care, love, affection, and so on), one simply needs to view a woman as out of place, taking on an inappropriate demeanour or role, which, in context, is naturally viewed as immoral and quite possibly disgusting, to then do terrible things to women in order to punish them or correct them (and, again, in this context, these kinds of acts will mostly be understood as morally justified and appropriate); and, second, this means that misogynistic behaviour need not be caused by some kind of deeply rooted, albeit obscure, psychological illness but, rather, can be continually practice, affirmed, or reinforced by all kinds of people everywhere.   Reflecting on all of this after Trump’s victory over Clinton is simultaneously terrifying, maddening, and heartbreaking.  But Manne’s analysis is unflinching and, as things stand right now, there is little room for hope that the big picture is going to improve any time soon.  This is very highly recommended reading.  Hands down, one of the best books of the year.

4. Survival in Auschwitz (original title: If This Is A Man) by Primo Levi.

Levi

Primo Levi wants the reader to bear witness to his testimony and this is what I have done.  It is no easy thing to write of such a happening as ten months in Auschwitz, but it is, perhaps, ethically more challenging still for those called to bear witness to also write about what they reading.  However, I do think that in this age of especially explicit, smarmy, and self-congratulating neo-fascism, it is all the more important that we – especially “we” who are physically indistinguishable from the fascists and who benefit from the same structures they seek to reinforce and expand – it is all the more important that this we spends time bearing witness to accounts like Levi’s.

5. Desperate Characters by Paula Fox.

fox

This is another story I flagged some years ago after I saw it on a list of books David Foster Wallace used to teach American literature.  I’m beginning to notice some stylistic and thematic overlaps between those works.  Here, Paula Fox focuses on a middleclass couple living in New York City (they are dinks – dual-income no kids, although it seems that the wife, Sophie, has been having trouble being motivated to do much work lately).  Yet as the reader moves from the description of their lamps and dishware, to a party with other social climbers, to the broken windows of their summer house, there is a quiet creeping white decay, an understated prose, a mourning that verges on hysteria but does not manifest itself in immediately obvious or honest ways, and, perhaps, the sense that it wouldn’t be bad if all of this were washed away – by the Spanish speakers, the black folk, the poor rural whites, and the drunks staggering down the street at night – but that is not to be and there is always time for white folks to heal and figure out their marriages and to take another shot at it even as the last boarding house on the block closes up and another lawyer moves in and everyone starts commenting on how much cleaner the streets are now.

6. The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges.

borges

Half very short stories, half very short poems, I can’t say this collection stands up as well as more well-known collections (Ficciones, Labyrinths, and Collected Fictions).  The stories vary in quality (as Borges himself discusses afterwards) but he is up to his usual tricks and so, if you’re already familiar with him, they don’t quite pack the same punch as when you first come across him.  At the best of times, I struggle with short stories  but Borges’ are short enough (and the volume itself is short enough), that I was able to make it through and finished while I still enjoyed it.

7. The Ruba’iyat by Omar Khayyam.

khayyam

Life is short.  You don’t matter as much as you think you do.  Nobody missed you before you were here and, in no time at all, nobody is going to miss you after you’re gone.  Forget about it.  Drink wine.

8. Classic Hasidic Tales edited by Meyer Levin.

levin

Hasidic folk tales have a very different flavour than a lot of other folk tales.  They are highly focused on secret words and powerful names and tend to lack the violence (often of a thinly or not at all veiled sexualized nature) that is often present in the folk tales told elsewhere across Europe.  The divine (singular) also plays a much larger role and the divine is understood much more positively than in other accounts (although the divine is also questioned a great deal).  So, for example, while reading German, Russian, and Icelandic folks tales, one can get a sense for distinctive flavours, even if they feel generally comparable, in terms of material written in Europe, these Hasidic stories feel especially unique.

9. Bone by Jeff Smith.

smith

An award-winning graphic novel, I read through the complete edition (twelve volumes in one) with my son over the course of the last month (he was excited to read something that has 1331 pages… we are similar in some ways… he is also currently blitzing his way through The Complete Far Side and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, and it gives me joy that I can share those with him now and that he will be able to read them in an entirely new way when he is older).  The story is fun and builds well although, I think, the way in which it is written and drawn for a male gaze was sometimes discomfiting (although I don’t want to misrepresent the book to the reader by making this comment since, for example, it doesn’t even come close to comparing with how the male gaze operates in a standard superhero comic book).

Movies

1. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.

lanthimos

It was with a mix of excitement and apprehension that I sat down to watch Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film.  I believe Lanthimos is making some of the most interesting and carefully crafted films out there (and his perspective is intriguingly different than many – although not as entirely unique as some reviewers claim), but sometimes the content is more than I can bear (i.e. Dogtooth, particularly when it came to the sex, was more than I could handle, but The Lobster was just about perfect for me).  Watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer was hard, too, especially as a parent of two young children, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that the sacred deer would be a child, but I made it through.  The cinematography and acting are all incredible.  I have always though Nicole Kidman to be a very good actor, Colin Farrell excels under Lanthimos’ direction, Alicia Silverstone nails her cameo, but Barry Keoghan, who plays the troubled teenager, Martin, really makes the movie and, along the way, offers us the most terrifying and sad spaghetti-eating scene this side of Gummo.

Of course, reviewers are keen to point out the parrellels that Lanthimos draws between this film and the Greek myth about the death of Iphigenia, a daughter whom Agamemnon sacrificed to appease the wrath of Artemis (and to prevent his entire family being murdered by his upset army), so that he could go on and wage the Trojan war.  The title makes the allusion clear, but the allusion is also present in the film itself as Kim, the daughter of the medical power couple, Steve and Anna, presents an A+ paper about that story in her class.  This lead me to spend a fair bit of time playing with the idea that Kim was actually the one pulling the strings the whole way, using Martin as the mentally-disturbed-and-traumatized-by-the-death-of-his-father fall guy… and it’s a really tempting hypothesis with some scintillating leads, but I don’t think I can make it fit.  The film tempts the viewer to come up with theories like these because there is some weird and inexplicable shit going on here – a surgeon has a patient die during a surgery (and maybe that surgeon was partly responsible for that death?) and the son of the dead patient now has the ability to cause all of the family members of that surgeon to die of some undiagnosable but nonetheless inexorably fatal medical condition, unless that surgeon takes matters into his own hands and kills one of his own family members.  In a world of medical experts – the very best of the best from multiple hospitals – this doesn’t make any sense.  And so we are wont to try and develop various explanatory theories, even though most reviewers simply conclude that Lanthimos leaves the mystery unexplained (just as he does not explain the dystopian metaphysics or social arrangements in The Lobster).  Only this time, I think there is an explanation.  Because I believe that this inexplicable, undiagnosable, terrifyingly horrible and seemingly magical thing haunting this film, is nothing less than the memory of justice in an age where ethics are dominated by the discourse of health care (which, as I have observed in detail elsewhere, is a discourse that most benefits the rich and powerful and, in fact, further entrenches and expands the scope of their wealth and power, while justifying the use of physical and other force on the bodies and lives of those experiencing poverty and oppression).

This is revealed in the spaghetti-scene when Martin summarily tells Anna that having these events befall Steven’s family, after the death of Martin’s father, “[is] the only thing I can think of that’s close to justice.”  Anna is appalled by this message, she cannot fathom it.  She just wants her family members to be healthy again and, apart from that, nothing makes sense to her.  The same incredulity applies to the surgeon, Steven.  When Martin breaks the news to Steven regarding what is happening to Steven’s family, Martin says the following: “That critical moment we both knew would come someday.  Here it is.  That time is now.”  Steven does not comprehend what Martin is talking about but, essentially, Martin is making reference to the idea of a judgement day, a weighing of deeds, the rendering of justice.  Hence, he goes on to say that because Steven killed a member of Martin’s family, Steven must now kill a member of his own family to “balance things out.”  Here, too, Martin is talking about justice but he is calling someone to account is has never been accountable to others because it is he, Steven, who is the great giver of life.

Thus, what follows in the film can only be understood as impossible and absurd.  There is not explanation for it.  But it is critical to realize that things are experienced in this way because the events posits a power that is greater than the very rich and the very powerful – a Justice capable of holding them accountable, a Justice that can force them to experience what they have made others experience.  Of course, not only do differences of wealth and power usually make such things impossible but the medicalization of everything also tends to remove the possibility of any kind of justice like this.  This is especially in hospitals — which, in Lanthimos’ vision, now resemble some combination of cathedrals and space stations, wherein waivers are signed for everything, experts are to be trusted absolutely in their areas of expertise, everyone is just doing the best they can and surgeons never kill patients (patients are already considered dead, the surgeons can only give them life — although an anesthesiologist may contribute to the cause of death, says the surgeon, but the anesthesiologist says that anesthesiologists never kill patients because its always the surgeon who is in charge) and the whole environment is completely sterilized of any notion of justice or accountability beyond what is clearly written in the contract and demonstrated by the watch one wears, the house one lives in, and the cars one drives.

It is unthinkable to Anna and Steven that there might be a reckoning, or that they might be forced to make a decision they don’t want to make, or lose someone they love, simply because one of them took a loved one away from someone else.  This is so unthinkable that they experience the whole thing as entirely unjust and view Martin as an almost Satanic monster to be captured, beaten, and abused with the hope that he will stop everything from happening (but, I think, Martin is not the cause so much as the messenger – and, generally, this is how people with wealth and power and something to lose treat messengers of justice).  Thus, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is about how the memory of justice can only strike us as a monstrous impossible possibility in a world where health care has become the most prominent tool used to entrench, naturalize, and expand hierarchies of wealth and power, while simultaneously justifying the application of brutal and sometimes lethal force to the bodies of people experiencing poverty and oppression.

2. A Ghost Story (2017) directed by David Lowery.

lowry

Mostly just an excuse to take some cool shots of a person in a great ghost costume in some really moody locations, although it does throw in some efforts to meditate upon time and how it flows or encircles those left haunting, this movie plays surprisingly well.  I had read about the film awhile ago but decided not to watch it because Casey Affleck is such a dick but then I forgot that Casey Affleck was in it and watched it and, thankfully, he dies pretty early on. The film isn’t really driven by plot (which was mostly predictable), but I liked the mood, and there were a few events that prompted me to make happy startled noises (the first wave from the window, and what happened immediately after the line, “I don’t think they’re coming back anymore” was spoken both come to mind) and I like it when a seemingly predictable movie can make me react that way.

However, the motif of haunting a space over time was especially problematical because time, here, is narrowly enclosed within the history of white people.  As you will see in the film, there is, literally, no history of the space of haunted land, prior to the arrival of white people.  Indigenous peoples who had lived there for thousands of years seem to never exist, except in one scene where they can be heard off camera and the results of their actions can be seen on screen.  As if the ghosts haunting America are the ghosts of loving white men who didn’t get to say proper farewells to their lovers, and not the ghosts of the millions of Indigenous people who came before us and who were slaughtered, enslaved, and uprooted in order to make this white habitation possible.  Nor does it suggest that the land might be haunted by the ghosts of millions of black folks who have lived in bondage in the USofA from its founding moment until its present.  Ugh.

A Ghost Story is a hipster film and, in fact, it captures some of what I like about hipster aesthetics.  But it also starkly represents the fundamental whiteness of so much of hipsterdom, tied as it is to rich white girls wearing native headresses at Coachella, overpriced grad-school Nipster (Nazi-hipster) aethetics of the alt-right, and, more generally, the total obliteration and excision of Black, Indigenous, and other people of colour from history as everyone, everything, everywhere, is covered over by a great white sheet.

3. Song to Song (2017) directed by Terrance Malick.

malick

I put off watching this movie for most of the year because I have found Malick’s recent work to be increasingly unimpressive and derivative of his earlier much better work (I feel like he peaked at Tree of Life and has steadily declined since then).  Then, I noticed that one reviewer put Song to Song into a list of best films this year and so I figured, what the heck, I’ll give it a shot but, oof, was it a slog to get through.  One can only deal with so much existential angst coming from the uber rich – an existential angst the feels as heartfelt and meaningful as their garden parties or concerts or sex – before you move from feeling sympathy to fighting an overwhelming urge to join some kind of queer Maoist revolutionary unit plotting to overthrow the Western world.

4. Loveless (2017) directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev.

Zvyagintsev

There is no doubt that Zvyagintsev’s last film, Leviathan (2014), was both a tour de force and a stinging criticism of the corruption of the Russian State (wherein politicians, capitalists and clergy all find ways to enrich themselves by preying upon the more vulnerable members of society).  Hence, many occidental critics have also hailed Loveless as a devastating presentation of contemporary Russia but here I think the critics are overreaching as, it seems, they are want to do when it comes to things that are related to Russia these days.  As far as I can tell, overcoding this story with a political allegory is as extraneous and silly as, for example, evangelical Christians looking for Christian parallels in The Lord of the Rings or the Star Wars franchise.

Because what Loveless offers to us is a stunning – and stunning in part because it is so muted, so taken for granted, so worked into the everydayness of life entirely permeated with capitalism and big tech – presentation of adults who are never cruel but always self-absorbed, adults who are doing what everyone is supposed to be doing but who are, essentially, utterly lost and adrift and and so far gone that they don’t even realize that they are.  They don’t have time to realize that they are.  Long work hours, fleeing to moments of relief and pleasure when those are possible, and the ubiquitous presence of screens, all work together to ensure that nothing can ever be thought about too much.  But the result of this isn’t just the smooth functioning of society – it also results in the persistent and sustained devastation of children – here captured, especially in the first half, by the absolutely heart-rending performance of Matvey Novikov, the unwanted twelve year old child of the couple who are divorcing.  I have never before seen in film such a moving portrayal of what it is to be an unwanted child.

Thus, although there is not doubt that Zvyagintsev’s film has a distinctly Eastern European feel to it, I think what he portrays is much more universal.  Most people aren’t cruel.  Most people are self-absorbed for as much time as they are allowed to have to themselves in the rat race of bullshit jobs, long work hours, the requirement that all adults are always working, and the desire to try and get ahead and possess or experience what everyone is supposed to want to possess or experience.  Most people are so far lost that concepts like “lost” or “found” no longer make any sense.  And mostly it is children who pay for this, time after time, generation to generation.  Nobody is especially likeable, nobody is especially villainous, nobody is paying enough attention (and, really, how could they?), but everything is going to hell, everything already is hell, and one only gains admittance to this hell if one can first survive a devastated childhood.  Not every child can survive.  Those who do — can you blame them for the adults they become?

Zvyagintsev’s brilliance is that he shows this to us so that we feel it, instead of just having a character tell us about it so that we know it in our minds but not with our hearts.  Definitely one of the best films I watched this year and recommended viewing.  A new favourite director for me.

5. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) directed by Rian Johnson.

Star_Wars_The_Last_Jedi

I walked out of this movie feeling what I mostly feel when I watch a blockbuster action movie these days… meh.  Going to a film like The Last Jedi after watching a film like Loveless is kind of like reading E. L. James after working through Simone de Beauvoir.  The characters feel flat, the dialogue feels obvious, there are a lot of things moving around really quickly with some big bangs, and it’s hard to be able to think very much about any of it as it happens because it all happens so fast and then it ends (as far as I can recall, the two thoughts I remember having during the movie were “hmmm, I wonder if Snoke’s throne room was inspired by Dario Argento?” and “is that tall stormtrooper the tall lady knight from Game of Thrones and what the heck is the point of this tall stormtrooper character?” … not some of my most exciting thinking).

So, I was pretty set to toss the film aside and not think much about it at all, but then I noticed there was a major feud between the critics and the fans as to whether or not the movie was any good.  So, upon doing some further reading – and finding this review to be especially useful – I came to the conclusion that Rian Johnson actually was up to something pretty cool with this film and what it does with the Star Wars franchise, its hierarchies, and its ideology.  That makes me respect Johnson more, even though the whole movie still feels pretty meh to me.

Documentaries

1. Life Series (2009) narrated by David Attenborough.

Attenborough

I am not in the habit of reviewing series that I watch but, having watched a lot of the David Attenborough nature shows (Planet Earth I and II being the most obvious standout examples), I have a bone to pick with him.  The series themselves are visually stunning.  Absolutely amazing, fill you with wonder, all the feels, etc.  It’s incredible what people can capture on film these days.  The world is an amazing place.  But good ol’ David Attenborough, well, he’s got a different view on the world.  According to him, the world may look wonderful but everything, absolutely everything, revolves around an out-dated Darwinian model that evolutionary scientists no longer accept today.   Specifically, according to Attenborough, all forms of life are defined by selfishness, violence and deceit, driven by the ultimate goals of survival and reproduction by any means.  To illustrate how this ideology operates, let’s take one example from this series.

While looking at the lives of plants, Attenborough focuses upon a type of flower that has evolved in such a way that only a single species of hummingbird is able to get at its nectar and assist it with pollination.  Thus, this flower and bird have a very close relationship.  The flower provides the bird with enough nectar to feed it for a short while and the bird looks after the flower so that it can keep eating the nectar.  As far as I can tell, especially if we take an ecological developmental view on this (which I believe we should), the nature of the relationship between the flower and the bird is symbiotic.  They have a close and mutually beneficial relationship.  But this is not how Attenborough describes the matter.  Instead, he argues that the flower transforms the bird into “an addict” – never giving it enough to fully satisfy its hunger (is there any food source that ever fully satisfies anyone’s hunger??) and so forcing the bird to come back time after time, thereby making the bird into its “slave,” where it will not spend the rest of its time in bondage to this flower which now dominates it like a cruel and heartless master.

This is nonsense.  It is the ranting of a fundamentalist who clings to an outdated system of beliefs and who is so wrapped up in them that he will only ever see things that confirm what he already believes.  Everything, stripped down to survival of the fittest, has to be interpreted as an act of violence or an act of deceit.  As if mutual aid hasn’t been an even larger factor in survival (it has been).  As if species don’t find ways to work together and get along and respect or enjoy each other (they do all of these things).  As if other beings can’t be altruistic (they can, and often are).  As if we don’t, in many ways, all contribute to the wellbeing of all (we do).  Not to say that selfishness, violence and deceit don’t exist in the world (they do), but they are far from the only thing in the world and they are also far from being the most important thing.

So it’s too bad that Attenborough speaks the way that he does and poses as though he is offering us scientific insights when, really, he’s about as informed and up-to-date on evolutionary biology and ecology as a late night preacher on TV is informed about… well, pretty much anything.  So enjoy the series, enjoy the beautiful visuals, take in the wonder, but don’t get overly concerned about the ways in which the old white British dude is telling you to interpret what you see.


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