Coming Soon: ‘The Unknown Known’

Rumsfeld: 'The only things that are lasting are conflict, blackmail, and killing.'
Rumsfeld: ‘The only things that are lasting are conflict, blackmail, and killing.’

The_Unknown_Known_posterErrol Morris’ riveting new documentary is a feature-length interview with none other than the Bush era’s greatest poetic dissembler, Donald Rumsfeld. The Unknown Known has been playing festival dates recently and is going to hit theaters on December 13.

My early review is at Short Ends & Leader:

In The Unknown Known, Rumsfeld shows time and again why he’s a perfect subject for another of Morris’s documentary investigations into American military adventurism and hubris. For one, he’s the sharpest verbalist of the three. For another, he’s willing to tangle with other points of view; though not necessarily concede an inch of ground. If the film can’t compare in the end to 2003’s The Fog of War, that’s because Rumsfeld doesn’t appear to have had the come-to-Jesus moment about Iraq that Robert McNamara had about his role in the disaster that was the Vietnam War. Given the placidly combative figure presented here, that moment will probably never come…

Here’s a look at the trailer:


Department of Holiday Reading: November 28, 2013


From the Stacks: Lynne Cheney’s Feminist Novel

sisters-novelPrinceton professor, literary critic, and feminist theorist Elaine Showalter has written and opined on everything from how to teach literature to the psychological basis of modern hysterias. She was also, as a member of the Modern Language Association, a skirmisher in those not-at-all-missed culture wars of the early-1990s when the MLA pushed back against charges that the National Humanities Council was using conservative ideology to vet grant applications. The NEH’s chair? Lynne Cheney, wife to the former vice president and mother of the two battling Cheney sisters.

So it came to Showalter’s surprise back then that such an ideologue like Lynne Cheney had, in her earlier incarnation as a pulp novelist, published a novel about battling sisters that could actually be considered … feminist. Showalter wrote in the New Republic about the dissonance between anti-feminist scourge Lynne Cheney and the Lynne Cheney who had a PhD in English and wrote a trashy novel about strong women working together.

…I thought it was ultimately a metaphor for the profound differences between women, and the impossibility of achieving total sisterhood. But Cheney sees empathetic identification as the essence of sisterly behavior. “The hardest thing any human being can do,” a woman in the novel declares, “is fully to acknowledge the actuality of another. To admit, truly admit, that their thoughts, cares, their ardors and aversions, are—or were—as real as our own.” When Sophie understands this idea, she realizes that she and Helen were not so different after all. If Liz and Mary Cheney read Sisters as they were running towards the future, I hope they remembered these lines. If these two professional, Republican, married-with-children twigs on the Cheney family tree can’t get along, who can?

New in Theaters: ‘Narco Cultura’

'Narco Cultura'
‘Narco Cultura’

narcocultura-posterIn the new documentary Narco Cultura, photographer and journalist Saul Schwarz looks at how the popular narcocorrido music scene revels in and glorifies the splashy lifestyle and ultraviolence of Mexican drug cartels.

My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:

Schwarz splits his murder ballad of a film into two narratives. One is his splashy on-the-road story about Buknas de Culiacan, one of the star bands of the Los Angeles narcocorrido scene, and its leader, Edgar Quintero. A bright-eyed entrepreneurial spirit, Quintero goes beyond just telling stories about the cartel wars taking place just over the border. He happily takes requests directly from the narcos themselves, who are obsessive followers of the scene and eager to get a popular song to burnish their rep. When the crowd sings along to Buknas’ songs, the artistic distance between singer and subject seems practically to disappear…

You can see the trailer here:


Reader’s Corner: A Pynchon-less National Book Awards

Once, Thomas Pynchon cameo'd on 'The Simpsons.' Or did he?
Once, Thomas Pynchon cameo’d on ‘The Simpsons.’ Or did he?

So here’s who didn’t show at Wednesday night’s National Book Awards dinner at Cipriani in Manhattan: Thomas Pynchon. Never mind that his Bleeding Edge was one of the finalists for fiction, the man just doesn’t do award ceremonies. Or interviews. Or much of anything, besides you know, living and writing.

goodlordbirdJames McBride (The Color of Water) took the fiction prize in an upset win for his Good Lord Bird and George Packer very deservedly won for The Unwinding (my review is here).

Here’s the full list of finalists:


  • Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
  • James McBride, The Good Lord Bird
  • Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge
  • George Saunders, Tenth of December


Also at the dinner was E.L. Doctorow, who received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (nice title, that). According to the Times, Doctorow gave the evening a resolutely analog spin:

[Doctorow] cooled the mood down with a somber speech on technology, government surveillance and the Internet. (Somewhat uncomfortably, and Google were sponsors of the event.)

“Text is now a verb,” Mr. Doctorow said. “More radically, a search engine is not an engine. A platform is not a platform. A bookmark is not a bookmark because an e-book is not a book.”


New in Theaters: ‘Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?”

It depends what you mean by 'happy'
It depends what you mean by ‘happy’

istheman_poster-296x478What’s the best way to make a documentary about a philosopher? Sit down and talk to him. Better yet, if you’re Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) chatting with Noam Chomsky about life, the universe, and everything, animate the whole thing.

Is the Tall Man Happy? is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:

[Michel] Gondry’s lovably sincere and chatty Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? starts by telling how he came across [Noam] Chomsky after seeing films on him, like the epic 1992 dissertation on his media critique, Manufacturing Consent. At first, it seems like Gondry is going to overplay the worshipful naïf card in his narration, interrupting himself, acting nervous, and highlighting being out of his depth: “As you can see, I felt a bit stupid here.” But Gondry’s natural charisma takes hold of the conversation. Instead of trying to boil down Chomsky’s dense linguistic and political viewpoints, Gondry and he simply talk philosophy…

You can watch the superb trailer here:

New in Books: ‘Dallas 1963’

The morning of November 22, 1963, JFK told Jackie, "We're heading into nut country today"
The morning of November 22, 1963, JFK told Jackie, “We’re heading into nut country today”

dallas1963-coverLeading up to today’s 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, dozens more books have been written on the killing itself as well as his legacy. This adds to the whole bookstore’s worth of titles already out there. Incredibly, there are still new and worthwhile takes to be found. Dallas 1963 is a case in point. Tackling neither the assassination theories that have sprouted hydra-like in the last half-century or the Jackie-burnished legend of Camelot, it focuses on one thing only: the virulent right-wing hatred waiting for JFK that day in Dallas.

My review of Dallas 1963 ran in today’s Barnes & Noble Review; here’s part:

A well-spoken Democratic president whose background and ethnicity raised reactionary suspicions. A new government health care plan denounced as anti-American social engineering. Accusations of treason and talk of insurrection. Militia-like groups recruiting members. A powerful media machine waging all-out warfare on the president and his allies. In Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis’s electric, frightening urban political history Dallas 1963, the authors don’t need to draw parallels between the conservative panic that erupted during John F. Kennedy’s presidency and the fears currently inflaming the far right wing. It’s all right there on the page…

There’s an excerpt from Dallas 1963 at NPR here.

Reader’s Corner: ‘Ulysses’ and Slack-Jawed Dubliners

James Joyce and Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, 1920
James Joyce and Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, 1920


Sylvia Beach was one of those fantastic Lost Generation figures who worked diligently in the spaces between literary figures like Hemingway and Fitzgerald but doesn’t get remembered nearly as often. Likely that’s because booksellers —she ran Paris’ famous Left Band expat hangout Shakespeare and Company—never quite get the same attention that book authors do.

Beach was also a smart businesswoman. Trying to drum up some sales for in James Joyce’s forthcoming Ulysses, she wrote to George Bernard Shaw in 1921, asking whether he as a fellow Irishman, would be interested in pre-ordering a copy. Shaw’s negative response was swift, definite, and for the ages:

To you possibly [Ulysses] may appeal as art … but to me it is all hideously real: I have walked those streets and know those shops and have heard and taken part in those conversations. I escaped from them to England at the age of twenty; and forty years later have learnt from the books of Mr. Joyce that Dublin is still what it was, and young men are still driveling in slack-jawed blackguardism just as they were in 1870. It is however, some consolation to find that at last somebody has felt deeply enough about it to face the horror of writing it all down and using his literary genius to force people to face it….

I must add, as the prospectus implies an invitation to purchase, that I am an elderly Irish gentleman, and if you imagine that any Irishman, much less an elderly one, would pay 150 francs for such a book, you little know my countrymen.

(Hat-tip: Steve King)


Now Playing: ‘Caucus’

'Caucus': This man also wanted to be president
‘Caucus’: This man also wanted to be president

caucus_poster_bachmann_v011Once upon a time, in the land of Iowa, there were people who thought that Rick Perry might become president of these United States. It was a strange time, the 2012 GOP Iowa caucus, and something that you really wish that Hunter S. Thompson had still been alive to see and write about.

In the meantime, there’s Caucus, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about all the sun-baked, deep-fried, conservative weirdness. It’s playing now in limited release. My full review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:

The 2011 Iowa State Fair captured in AJ Schnack’s Caucus has a frozen-in-amber quality. Just a little of those butter sculptures, livestock demos, and toddling families baking in the bright prairie sun go a long way. What stands out are those interlopers stalking the fairgrounds, grinning and gripping any who come within range, cameras and recorders buzzing like flies. There’s something highly alien about mixing these politicians’ bright and buffed ambitions with the laidback surroundings. It makes for some surreal flashes in the film, like the hippie protesters drumming in the distance, or when an announcer booms out an introduction for “the next President of the United States…Michele Bachmann!”…

The trailer is here:


New in Theaters: ‘How I Live Now’

Saorise Ronan lost in the war zone in 'How I Live Now'
Saorise Ronan lost in the war zone in ‘How I Live Now’

howilivenow-posterMeg Rosoff’s phenomenally successful young-adult novel How I Live Now follows a spoiled punkette American teen who is sent off to her British relatives’ farm for the summer just as, unbeknownst to her, war is breaking out. Saorise Ronan stars in this punchy adaptation by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) that doesn’t quite hold together but is more than able to hold one’s attention.

How I Live Now is playing in limited release. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:

In most stories about groups fighting for survival, Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) would be among the first to die. When the eye-rolling New York teen shows up at her step-cousins’ house in the English countryside for an undesired summer holiday, she works overtime at alienating everyone. She’s a germophobe who doesn’t consume wheat or dairy and is annoyed at being asked to do anything but put her headphones on and curl into a self-excoriating ball of black neurosis. In other words, the worst person to be stuck with in a ramshackle bohemian house where the dishes don’t get done often. Also, not somebody you would want to have to try and survive World War III with…

You can watch the trailer here:

There’s an excerpt from the novel here.

Writers’ Corner: S.J. Perelman

perelman1S.J. Perelman specialized in a particularly adroit style of urbane humor, which he deployed for decades at the New Yorker and in the occasional Marx Brothers script (the latter of which earns him automatic inclusion in any writers’ Hall of Fame).

He also had some salient advice for writers, not necessarily about the act of writing itself, but what writers had to look forward to in their choice of such a “shabby-genteel” career:

My vocation, it may have leaked out to you, is that of a writer, which means that I sit in a hot little room stringing words together like beads at so many cents per bead. It’s shabby-genteel work and, on the whole, poorly paid, but I’m too fragile to drive a brewery truck and I’m too nervous to steal … In the poolrooms I frequent, it has often reached my ears that the chief advantage of being a writer is that it allows you to sleep late in the morning. Don’t believe it. You can enjoy the same privilege as a night counterman in a cafeteria, and, what’s more, in that job you can always bring home stale Danish pastries for the kiddies…

in-my-opinionThat comes courtesy of a book called In My Opinion: The Seventeen Book of Very Important Persons. Apparently back in 1966, Seventeen magazine had an advice column frequented by the likes of Perelman, Philip Roth, Pete Seeger, and Joan Crawford (?!). Maybe teenagers read back then.

(H/T: Embarrassing Treasures)


New in Theaters: ‘Aftermath’

Jerzy Stuhr in 'Aftermath'
Jerzy Stuhr in ‘Aftermath’

aftermath_us_poster_1_lgFor almost a decade, Polish filmmaker Wladyslaw Pasikowski has been trying to produce a drama based on the real-life story of a village where Polish Catholics conspired in 1941 to murder  hundreds of their Jewish neighbors without any help from the Nazis. After the film, Aftermath, was released, right-wing pundits, determined to ignore the past, lined up to denounce it as “anti-Polish” and untruthful.

Now playing in limited release, Aftermath is a powerful drama, if unevenly executed. My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:

One of the most shocking things about the controversial-in-Poland film Aftermath is just how depressingly un-shocking it is for anybody with even a passing knowledge of the Holocaust. This isn’t a criticism of writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski’s work. Instead, it’s a sad commentary on just how off-limits aspects of the past apparently remain for some in Poland. History, this grim and tension-laced mystery suggests, can seem easier to bury than acknowledge. But it never goes away—as the death threats that one of the film’s actors received clearly show…

The trailer is here: