Screening Room: ‘The Exorcist’ and True Evil

Turns out that besides being a young preacher, scourge of the empowered classes, and essayist whose words could scorch the hair right off your head, James Baldwin was also a crack film critic, when he wanted to be.

devilfindswork1In The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky pulls out a choice quote of Baldwin’s from his mostly ignored 1976 book The Devil Finds Work. Here, he writes about one of the decade’s two most influential horror films (the other being Halloween, just as trashy but not given as much critical deference at the time):

The mindless and hysterical banality of evil presented in The Exorcist is the most terrifying thing about the film. The Americans should certainly know more about evil than that; if they pretend otherwise, they are lying, and any black man, and not only blacks—many, many others, including white children— can call them on this lie, he who has been treated as the devil recognizes the devil when they meet.

It’s one of the reasons people hate critics, and why at least some critics (of a level with Baldwin) can actually be construed as necessary to the culture. Few people want to think about the evil that surrounds them every day; they’d rather go to the cinema and be treated the indulgent thrills of imaginary threats (demons, and the like).

The critic who reminds us of our short-sightedness is rarely rewarded for doing so.

In Memorium: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

onehundredyearssolitudeThe Nobel Prize-winning novelist, journalist, fabulist, realist, radical, magical Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away today at his home in Mexico City, at the age of 87.

You will read many books in your life without coming across one with a more perfect beginning than that of Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, fragrant as it was with the promise of the wild and ravishing pages to follow:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Many novelists from Isabel Allende to Mark Helprin worked from a similarly evocative template as Marquez’s, what became known as magic realism. But almost none were able to marry as Marquez did the ravishing heights of imaginative leaps with that bone-deep fatalism born out of his study of Latin American history and politics.

In other words, Marquez proved that in fiction sometimes a flight of fantasy tells the truth better than purported realism. The fact that he wrote like his life depended on it was just a bonus for us readers.

Reader’s Corner: Shakespeare in America

Shakespeare's statue in Central Park (Library of Congress)

Shakespeare’s statue in Central Park (Library of Congress)

Given how many of us have happily or miserably worked through at least a couple Shakespeare plays in school, not to mention the frequency with which those plays are revived on Broadway and in touring companies everywhere, it’s amazing to think that there was a time when Shakespeare was actually more present in American life than today.

James Shapiro’s new book, Shakespeare in America, tells of how in the early nineteenth century, a quarter of all dramatic productions on the East Coast were Shakespeare’s. To be even moderately cultured, one had to know a few of the soliloquies by heart. To get an idea of how deeply rooted the Bard was in American culture, consider this anecdote, related in the New York Times review of Shapiro’s book, which occurred in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1846:

To distract the troops, a theater was hastily constructed and a production of “Othello” put into motion. James Longstreet, the future Confederate general, was originally cast as Desdemona, but was judged too tall for the part. The shorter Grant took his place. “He really rehearsed the part of Desdemona, but he did not have much sentiment,” Longstreet later recalled. In the end, Grant was replaced by a professional actress at the insistence of the officer playing Othello, who, Longstreet wrote, “could not pump up any sentiment with Grant dressed up as Desdemona.”

It’s a far cry from the classics-averse mood of the present. But, Shapiro notes, that could be in part because of one thing America has now that it didn’t two centuries ago: great home-grown playwrights of our own.

New in Theaters: ‘Joe’

Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in 'Joe'

Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’

Once upon a time, Nicolas Cage was an actor of some repute, if not always solid decision-making skills. A few years of Bruckheimer extravaganzas and brooding big-budget misfires, not to mention the occasional Satanic comic-book movie, killed most of that promise. However, in David Gordon Green’s new Southern noir, Joe, Cage makes an honest attempt to get back into that thing they call acting.

Joe-poster1Joe is opening this Friday in a few theaters, and should expand wider soon. My review is at Film Journal International:

A whiskey-slugging melodrama that wears its considerable heart on a tattered sleeve that smells of last night’s cigarettes, Joe is David Gordon Green’s most dramatically assured story to date. An adaptation of the Larry Brown novel, it stars Nicolas Cage in a non-showy comeback role as Joe Ransom, one of those guys who everybody in his small town knows at least a half-dozen good hell-raising stories about…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: Ideas Box

Once upon a time, the local library’s bookmobile would stop by schools to give kids access to newer books than they had in their own school’s (usually meager) library offerings. Theoretically, that still happens, at least in the few counties that haven’t eviscerated their library system’s budget.

That basic idea appears to have been taken by a Paris-based group called Libraries Without Borders and morphed into a frankly cool-looking thing called the Ideas Box that could be easily packed into cargo containers and dropped into refugee camps. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The so-called Ideas Box, designed by Philippe Starck, contains 15 tablet computers and four laptops with satellite Internet connections; 50 e-readers and 5,000 e-books; 250 printed books; a movie projector, screen and 100 films; chairs, tables and board games.

“We can rebuild ourselves by reading,” said Mr. Starck, who noted that he had educated himself by studying books rather than attending school. He designed the boxes in bright colors and said their arrival should feel like Christmas. “Inside, it’s not toys, it’s doors—doors to an open mind, thousands of different universes.”

In February, the first two Ideas Boxes arrived in refugee camps in Burundi, in partnership with the United Nations refugee agency, and plans are under way for boxes to serve Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.

You can donate to Libraries Without Borders here.

Here’s the video:

Reader’s Corner: Bookpub

 

This idea seems like it was a longtime coming. Take the micro- (or nano-) brewery concept that’s been gathering speed across the country, particularly throughout the Midwest, and combine it with reading. Books and beer.

Per the Indianapolis Star, University of Michigan English major Jason Wuerfel is starting up a certain kind of awesome with his new “Books & Brews” storefront:

A personal touch isn’t the only thing setting Books & Brews a part from the competition. All of the beer served in the bar section of the store is brewed on site by Wuerfel. The bookpub owner (yes, I just coined the term bookpub) also is channeling Willy Wonka by allowing folks who pledged $500 or more to the project’s Kickstarter fund to help design a brew, name it, make it, and put it on tap…

Yes, he made all the furniture himself.

(h/t: The Roundup)

Reader’s Corner: The Monastery Library in Admont

The Admont Benedictine Monastery was established in Austria in the year 1074 and is still a going concern. Impressive enough. But add on to that the existence of its stunning Baroque library, finished in 1776. Inside its glorious assemblage of bright walls and frescoed ceilings, the library contains tens of thousands of volumes, including 530 incunabula (books printed before 1500).

The Admont’s builder, Joseph Hueber, was a man of the Enlightenment, who believed in beauty of all kinds:

As with the mind, light should also fill the room.

(h/t: Fodor’s)

New in Books: ‘The Sixth Extinction’

Men standing with bones of a mastodon, which were likely hunted to extinction by humans in North America over 10,000 years ago (Library of Congress)

Men standing with bones of a mastodon, which were likely hunted to extinction by humans in North America over 10,000 years ago (Library of Congress)

book-sixthextinction-kolbert-cvr-200According to scientific writer Elizabeth Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophoe), there have been five waves of mass extinctions in Earth’s history. They all had natural causes. In the current epoch — called by some researchers the Anthropocene in recognition of humanity’s transformative effect on the planet’s ecosystems — there is another wave of species disappearing, and it’s because of us.

The Sixth Extinction is on sale now. My review is at PopMatters:

In Kolbert’s account, the Anthropocene is marked by accelerated change and disruptions recalling the natural calamities of the past. In other words, humankind is the new asteroid. There’s the ocean acidification and increased carbon dioxide concentrations destroying everything from frogs to coral reefs (increased “biotic attrition” in one of the book’s more memorably clinical terms) … Interlocking webs of travel networks make continental boundaries meaningless, mixing flora and fauna together at higher rates of speed, dooming even more. The result, Kolbert writes, is much the same as the pulses of “megafauna” extinctions that started occurring some 40,000 years ago when humans began sweeping across the Earth and wiping out megaherbivores like Cuvier’s North American mammoths. “It might be nice to imagine there once was a time when men lived in harmony with nature,” Kolbert notes dispassionately. But “it’s not clear that he ever really did”…

You can read an excerpt of The Sixth Extinction in Audubon magazine.

Another victim of the Anthropocene: the passenger pigeon (Louis Agassiz Fuertes, c.1910-1914)

Another victim of the Anthropocene: the passenger pigeon (Louis Agassiz Fuertes, c.1910-1914)

The Beat Report: New Kerouac Novella

hauntedlife1Not long after Jack Kerouac and his friends were wrapped up in the David Kammerer murder, he started work on a World War II novel called The Haunted Life. He only made it a little ways into the story (which was to have been a multi-volume work) before losing it, supposedly in a cab. The pages were rediscovered a few years back and have just been published; here’s a few lines:

“You’’ve been reading John Dewey.”

Dick moved off down the hall: “It’s fact. What the hell good is life if you don’t live it to the bone? Jack London was a great liver, Halliburton, even Herodotus . . . there was a man! To hell with college! Did I ever advise you to go to college?”

Peter grinned.

“No,” said Dick. “you let circumstances drag you along. Be like Hamlet . . . baffle circumstances.”

It’s hard to imagine Kerouac writing a war story, and what has survived looks more conventional and clunky than his later speedy improvisations — somewhat like how Williams S. Burroughs moved from the Hemingway-like prose of Junky to the surrealisms of Nova Mob.

There’s an excerpt here.

In Books: ‘The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking’

book-triptoechospring-olivialaing-cvr-200Late last year, the British writer Olivia Laing published The Trip to Echo Springs: On Writers and Drinking. It’s a rambling and discursive but smart portrait of a half-dozen writers and their struggles with the devil’s brew (Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald). Laing takes her title from a line in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and indulges in more than a few Williams-ian flights of writerly fancy along the way. Given her twinned love of these writers’ work and her impatience with the romanticism of the drunk author, it’s well earned.

My essay on the book and the author-alcohol phenomenon, “The Drowning Pool,” is at PopMatters:

More than anything else, this is a book of pain and beauty, the former constant and the latter fleeting. It’s awash in water and the attendant metaphors, from the lapping waters of Carver’s rough-and-tumble Pacific Northwest towns to the rivers of glorious and damning booze all of her subjects sluiced down their throats. Laing stabs at and occasionally hits the subject that lies behind it all: Why write and read, after all? Reading the passages left behind in a notebook that lies by Carver’s modest grave, she is awed and lets the reader be awed by “All these anonymous suffering strangers… putting their faith in stories, in the capacity of literature to somehow salve a sense of soreness, to make one feel less flinchingly alone”…

You can read an excerpt from The Trip to Echo Springs here.