Reader’s Corner: Wilfred Owen’s War Poetry

German soldiers on the Western Front lucky enough to have been taken prisoner (Library of Congress)
German soldiers on the Western Front lucky enough to have been taken prisoner (Library of Congress)

This Saturday June 28 marked one of the year’s uglier anniversaries: 100 years since the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was gunned down in Sarajevo, helping to topple that teetering Rube Goldberg contraption of treaties and animosities that started World War I.

More books will be written about the causes of the war, the way it was fought, the aftermath, and so on. Relatively few of those books’ pages will have much to do with one of the war’s most important aspects: What it was like for the soldiers unlucky enough to have fought it.

For that, we could do worse than to look back at the great Wilfred Owen, a young British officer with the Lancashire Fusiliers who was killed in action just one week before the Armistice. From his mournful, furious Dulce et Decorum Est, about a soldier dying from a gas attack:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

The Latin in the last two lines is usually translated as “it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.” It’s a rather odious line from Horace that has often been taken seriously, most often by the sort of propagandists who like to get young men exited about going off to war.

New in Theaters: ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ Probes Activist’s Suicide

Aaron Swartz: 'The Internet's Own Boy' (Filmbuff)
Aaron Swartz: ‘The Internet’s Own Boy’ (Filmbuff)

Netzien Aaron Swartz’s suicide was a rallying cry for many in the tightly-wired community of online activists. The story of this 26-year-old’s short, dramatic, impassioned life makes up the new activist documentary The Internet’s Own Boy.

The Internet’s Own Boy is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Maybe it’s something about Boston. For the second time this summer we’re seeing a documentary hinging on bad behavior in the city’s federal law-enforcement community. Although Joe Berlinger’s Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger paints a damning portrait of prosecutor indiscretion, Brian Knappenberger’s melodramatic, idealistic The Internet’s Own Boyis more troubling. That could be because in Berlinger’s case, it’s hard to get worked up about the mishandling of a case against the screamingly guilty and murderous Bulger, whereas with Knappenberger the victim is a widely beloved 26-year-old Internet activist who hung himself, arguably after being zealously hounded by the government. That the film doesn’t quite prove, or try to prove, that (as one unseen voice has it) “[Swartz] was killed by the government,” it makes for disturbing viewing nonetheless…

You can see the trailer here:

Department of Weekend Reading: June 27, 2014

reading1

New in Theaters: ‘Whitey’ Gives its Subject Too Much Credit

whitey1
‘Whitey’ Bulger in his younger years (Magnolia Pictures)

whitey-posterJoe Berlinger has worked on some amazing true-crime documentaries over the years, not least the ground-breaking Paradise Lost trilogy. With Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, though, he (inadvertently or not) buoys the facetious mythology of Southie crime boss ‘Whitey’ Bulger as some noble gangster.

Whitey opens today in limited release and will probably show up on cable later in the year. My review is at Film Racket:

Fortuitously hitting theaters well before Scott Cooper’s fictional (and likely mythological) take on Bulger’s life, Whitey doesn’t try to be the feature-length nonfiction take on the South Boston crime lord. Instead, true-crime documentarian Berlinger zeros in on the sort of thing he normally does best: the trial itself…

Here’s the trailer:

Reader’s Corner: The Uses of Poetry, If Any

Poetry mosaic at the Library of Congress's Thomas Jefferson building (Library of Congress)
Poetry mosaic at the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson building (Library of Congress)

William Logan is a poet, though we shouldn’t hold that against him. He wrote with good-natured verve last week for the Times on his chosen metier and whether or not it really serves any purpose. In “Poetry: Who Needs It?” Logan’s summation of the current state of verse is notable for its directness, not to mention being just plain right:

The dirty secret of poetry is that it is loved by some, loathed by many, and bought by almost no one…

Does this matter? Is it a problem that schoolchildren who were once made to memorize at least some piece of doggerel (even if it was just something from Kipling) now encounter poetry only as that thing which they’re told is good to “express themselves”?

Probably not, but Logan’s proposal is a sound one nonetheless. Try teaching poetry again, he says:

Shakespeare and Pope and Milton by the fifth grade; in high school, Dante and Catullus in the original. By graduation, they would know Anne Carson and Derek Walcott by heart. A child taught to parse a sentence by Dickinson would have no trouble understanding Donald H. Rumsfeld’s known knowns and unknown unknowns.

If nothing else, it would beat learning all that horribly useful STEM curricula now the rage in our nation’s schools. Who knows? A few more dreamy and unemployable poets might lighten up the country.

New in Theaters: The Non-Musical ‘Jersey Boys’

The 'Jersey Boys' sing, sing, sing (Warner Bros.)
The ‘Jersey Boys’ sing, sing, sing (Warner Bros.)

jerseyboys-poster1If the touring production hasn’t played at a downtown theater near you yet, it soon will. The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys was already one of the most successful of the jukebox musicals that have plagued enriched Broadway over the past few years; and that was before Clint Eastwood (having a week or two off, apparently) decided to make it into a movie. One point for his unaccountably dull and strangely non-musical version: It has Christopher Walken.

Jersey Boys opened wide on Friday. My review is at PopMatters:

When Rob Marshall filmed Chicago, he didn’t try to jam Bob Fosse’s meta-narrative into a standard dramatic structure. Marshall understood that film viewers can accept, just as theatergoers do, that the characters will occasionally start belting out a song with full-band accompaniment against an instantaneously-appearing backdrop; reality be damned. Certainly he tarted up the whole thing with quick edits and spotlight razzle-dazzle, but it stayed true to the original show’s spirit. This is not the case in Jersey Boys

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Weekend Reading: June 20, 2014

reading1

Book Flashback: The Iraq War ‘Gamble’

American tanks patrol Baghdad on April 14th, 2003 (U.S. Marine Corps)
American tanks patrol Baghdad on April 14th, 2003 (U.S. Marine Corps)

thegamble-coverAs the ISIS campaign to topple Iraq’s government roars on, it seemed worthwhile to look back at the many books written on Iraq to see what predictions had been made about what could happen after the last American unit moved out.

I posted “The 2009 Book that Foretold the (Possible) Collapse of Post-American Iraq” at Re:Print:

For years, especially after the American troop drawdown, it seemed as though Iraq would muddle along in a chaotic but eventually stabilizing way familiar to many Middle Eastern countries with oil wealth. Although the bombings continued, it was possible to believe that the conflict was in fact done. What the recent events have proven is that [Thomas Ricks’s The Gamble] was right: the 11-year-old Iraq War is far from over…

New in Theaters: ‘Coherence’

Puzzling out the impossible from the improbable in ‘Coherence’ (Oscilloscope)

coherence-posterIn what could have been another apocalypse-is-nigh freakout, James Ward Byrkit’s highly cool Coherence drops a dinner-party full of yuppies into a hard-to-define sci-fi mystery after a comet passes over Earth and starts causing curious anomalies.

Coherence opens in limited release Friday. My review is at Film Journal International:

There are eight people in the dinner party, but the film is focused on Em (Emily Foxler) and her creeping dread. A dancer with a nervous streak, she’s first concerned by her phone’s screen spontaneously cracking as she drives to the dinner party. Once at her friends’ place, there’s a flurry of anxiety over the appearance of Em’s boyfriend drama-magnet ex-girlfriend. When dinner finally starts, Em starts talking about the comet, telling a story about a supposedly similar event in Finland during the 1920s after which people started acting … strange. It turns out somebody else at the table experienced a cracked phone screen too. Then the lights go out. And people start acting … strange …

Here’s the trailer; it actually manages to not give anything away:

Soundbooth: Dimension X

Ray Bradbury (NASA)
Ray Bradbury (NASA)

Once upon a time, before science fiction (in the form of monster movies and comic-book franchises) took over the cineplex, anthology shows on radio and television provided a steady diet of short tales of the fantastic.

Case in point was the short-lived NBC radio program Dimension X, which ran from 1950 to 1951 and advertised itself as “adventures in time and space, told in future tense.”

During the show’s tenure, they broadcast work by some of the genre’s greatest practitioners, from Isaac Asimov and Robert Bloch to Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein. Now, thanks to the memory machine that is the Internet, you can listen to some of those programs at the Internet Archive. Make sure to check out Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” originally collected in The Martian Chronicles and one of the greatest, saddest testimonies ever penned on the folly of war.

(h/t to Jacket Copy)

Department of Weekend Reading: June 13, 2014

reading1

New in Theaters: ‘The Rover’

Robert Pattinson in 'The Rover' (A24)
Robert Pattinson in ‘The Rover’ (A24)

therover-posterThe latest movie about what happens after society falls apart is The Rover, a bloody and spare Australian revenge Western set in a burnt-up stretch of the outback where a gun is the law.

The Rover opens in limited release Friday and then goes wider on June 20. My review is at Film Racket:

Most post-apocalyptic vengeance stories like The Rover at least flirt with nihilism. But this is normally just window-dressing there to throw a little grit under the wheels of something all too familiar. What makes David Michod’s hot, percussive, jolting film stand out from the after-the-fall pack is its realization of just how far its protagonists have fallen, even compared to the tattered remnants of civilization around them…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘Night Moves’

Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard in 'Night Moves' (Cinedigm)
Dakota Fanning, Jesse Eisenberg, and Peter Sarsgaard in ‘Night Moves’ (Cinedigm)

nightmoves-posterA trio of environmental conspirators try to blow up a Pacific Northwest dam in Kelly Reichardt’s superbly quiet but tension-laced new film, Night Moves, which is playing now in limited release.

My review is at Film Racket:

The green activists plotting to blow up a dam in Kelly Reichardt’s sublimely nervy new film don’t talk about why they’re doing it. By the time the film catches up with them, the trio has already set their minds on a plan of action. They talk shop here and there, one grousing about all the golf courses being built in a dry climate, another about how the oceans will be dead from pollution by 2048. But there’s no deeper investigation into the why of what they’re about to do or whether they should do it. They just know that the dam, that hulking concrete symbol of humanity domineering nature, must come down. “It wants to come down,” one says dreamily. The introspection comes afterward, with a vengeance…

Here’s the trailer:

Now Playing: ‘The Immigrant’

Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Immigrant' (Weinstein Company)
Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix in ‘The Immigrant’ (Weinstein Company)

theimmigrant-posterThe newest lovesick melodrama from James Gray is a gorgeously-shot period piece about an immigrant woman (Marion Cotillard) caught between two dueling performers (Joaquin Phoenix, Jeremy Renner) as she desperately tries to free her sister from quarantine on Ellis Island.

The Immigrant is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket:

James Gray’s relentlessly, intoxicatingly melodramatic period love triangle The Immigrant starts on a passenger ship docking at Ellis Island in 1921 and never gets much further than the teeming tenements and seamy fleshpots of Lower East Side. It’s a claustrophobic story, appropriate to the heated-up emotions at play and the specter of a poisoned, dangerous Old World waiting for the heroine should she fail to find a place in the New. Like Gray’s other New York potboilers like We Own the Night and The YardsThe Immigrant is a stubbornly old-fashioned lovesick tale in which the bonds of passion and family are stretched to their snapping point…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Citizen Koch’

Madison, Wisconsin, ground zero for the Koch brothers' political campaigns. (Variance Films)
Madison, Wisconsin, ground zero for the Koch brothers’ political campaigns. (Variance Films)

citizenkoch-posterYou would think that a hit-job documentary about the Koch brothers—billionaire conservative villains par excellence—would have been something of a slam-dunk. But Citizen Koch, for all the surrounding it for having been supposedly yanked from PBS (which receives a lot of money from David Koch), is a disappointingly toothless thing.

Citizen Koch is playing now in limited release; not on PBS. My review is at Film Journal International:

Citizen Koch has passion aplenty, but it begins as a well-starched and solidly structured argument about the dismantling of campaign-finance reform. It’s smartly and entertainingly told in the by-now standard format of attack documentaries: stringing together television news footage for a pulse-pounding narrative and cutting away to talking-head interviews for context. Instead of jumping all over the Kochs from the start, the filmmakers lay out out how the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for increased corporate donations to political advocacy groups. Former Wisconsin senator and campaign finance reformer Russ Feingold calls the decision a “huge power grab” by corporations, who were now freer to support or attack politicians of their choosing…

You can check out the trailer here: