Now Playing: ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’

Rinko Kikuchi goes to the Great White North in 'Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter' (Amplify)
Rinko Kikuchi goes to the Great White North in ‘Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter’ (Amplify)

Do you like Fargo? Chances are, even if so, you don’t know it as well as the titular anti-heroine of the Zellner brothers’ chilly odyssey of quirk, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. It might be one of the first great films of 2015.

kumiko-posterKumiko, the Treasure Hunter is playing now here and there. My review is at PopMatters:

She’s alone and obsessive, and her particular object of obsession is the Coen brothers’ film Fargo. Sitting night after night in her dingy apartment with only her adorable rabbit Bunzo for company, she pores over a worn-out VHS tape with Talmudic fervency, keeping a notebook full of scribbled clues that only make sense to her. Because of Fargo‘s famous opening epigraph—“This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987”—she takes it as a faithful transcribing of reality. That’s why she keeps re-watching the scene where Carl (Steve Buscemi) buries the suitcase of cash by a fence in a snowy field. In Kumiko’s mind, she just needs to get to Minnesota…

Here’s the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Today’s Prompts

The thing with writer’s block is that there’s no way to get around it but by writing. That’s where the prompt can come in handy.

At Poets & Writers, they have a handy resource that churns up a steady stream of prompts to get you going on that project, regardless of what it is, from creative nonfiction (always a tricky category) to fiction.

Here’s a few:

This week, take a straightforward scene you’ve been working on and insert an awkward mistake made either by a major or minor character.

Do you have a time period you routinely set your stories in? This week, choose a story you’re struggling with and reimagine it in a different decade or century.

This week, write about a time when you were out of your element, immersed in a community or culture that you felt was very different from your own. Observe your own behavior as an anthropologist would.

You might want to toss the results away when you’re done. But at least you’ll be writing.

New in Theaters: ‘While We’re Young’

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in 'While We're Young' (A24)
Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts contemplate their oldness in ‘While We’re Young’ (A24)

Noah Baumbach continues his filmic project with Ben Stiller on the agitations of middle age and disappointment in While We’re Young, playing now in limited release.

My review is at Film Racket:

Age is wasted on the old, especially when they want to be young again. When Noah Baumbach’s hit-and-miss comedy of urbane humiliation catches up with Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), they are stuck dead in middle age nowhere without a road map. A long-married couple doubting their comfortable but deadened relationship, they emphatically reassure themselves of their contentment. They don’t need kids to be happy, they tell each other, saying they are free to jet off to Europe at a moment’s notice. Well, probably not that soon. Maybe a month…

Here’s the trailer:

Department of Weekend Reading: March 27, 2015

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New in Theaters: ‘The Salt of the Earth’

One of Sebastio Salgado's iconic photographs in 'The Salt of the Earth' (Sony Pictures Classics)
One of Sebastio Salgado’s iconic photographs in ‘The Salt of the Earth’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

Given a brief Academy Awards run late last year, Wim Wenders’ magisterial documentary about photographer Sebastio Salgado is finally getting a proper theatrical release this week.

My review is at Film Journal International:

“A photographer,” Wim Wenders intones at the start of his elegantly respectful documentary on Sebastião Salgado, “is literally somebody painting with light.” This definition sounds grand, to be sure. But the act of creation that Wenders captures here doesn’t quite seem to resemble painting. Salgado’s work is in some ways the definition of high-concept photography. His rich, lusciously layered, black-and-white shots of teeming gold mine workers, refugees streaming across a desert, or a line of penguins flinging themselves off a glacier are so elegantly composed as to almost defy reality…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘White God’

 

'White God': The dogs are coming (Magnolia Pictures)
‘White God’: The dogs are coming (Magnolia Pictures)

Ever year the Cannes Film Festival awards the Un Certain Regard prize to a standout film. For 2014, that film was Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s White God, which is not about race or religion, but rather about what happens when people push dogs a little too far. Yes, it’s a metaphor.

White God is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. That hasn’t always proven correct with some performers, who could look forcefully into a camera and still reveal nothing about themselves or the character they are inhabiting. The same problem presents itself in Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, only this time the eyes in question aren’t those of human actors, but canine ones. Eyes are important in this film because the story has so little to offer; about all that’s left to engage with are the dogs who spend a good amount of time peering soulfully out of the screen. And that’s before they rise up against their human oppressors…

The trailer is here:

Writer’s Desk: Finding Time

writing1“Where do you find the time?” That may be one of the questions writers hear the most. It’s heard just about as often as “Where do you get your ideas?” and is possibly as hard to answer.

The most likely response is, “I have no idea.” Every writer tries to carve off little pieces of time here and there. But none of us live in a vacuum. Family, work, joy—There are lives to be led, after all. Because of the time crunch difficulty, advice can help.

Here’s some time management ideas that Fast Company gathered from people who took part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo):

As a single working mom of two, [Toni Morrison] carved out a few minutes to write before bed. She cranked out The Bluest Eye in that time.

I absolutely refused to go to sleep until I’d written 500 words. This was a ridiculously small goal for each night but I found that this was my own personal ‘hump.’ If I could get to 500 I could usually get to at least 1,500

When you have a big goal, you may need to turn down opportunities or invitations, or let go of a few responsibilities. Sometimes people feel guilty about this, but people who care about you will likely support you, especially if there’s an end in sight.

It’s not always about inspiration. Sometimes it can be about what you’re willing to give up. How important is writing to you in the end? If you’re not sure about how to answer that question, you may have your answer.

Readers’ Corner: Cervantes Found

cervantes1It looks as though the grave of the Western world’s first true novelist might have been found at a 17th century convent in downtown Madrid. According to NewsHour:

Cervantes died the same week as William Shakespeare in 1616. He had requested to be buried at the convent where he was found. Luis Avial, the georadar expert on the team, said at a news conference on Tuesday that Cervantes’ remains will be reburied at the same convent, after a tomb has been built…

Cervantes didn’t just create the modern novel with the satirical mock-epic (and bestseller) Don Quixote—Japanese noblewoman Murasaki Shikibu is normally credited with penning the first novel, The Tale of Genji, in the 11th century—he also lived a life that most novelists could only dream of.

One of the more notable episodes came when the larger-than-life writer’s years of incarceration by Moorish pirates was put to an end in part by a ransom paid by the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians, the order of nuns whose convent ultimately became his resting place.

Weekend Reading: March 20, 2015

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In Books: Richard Price’s ‘The Whites’

The Whites-coverEven though The Whites was technically published under Richard Price’s genre pen name Harry Brandt, the publisher didn’t even bother leaving his real name off the thing. It might be a crime novel instead of straight realist fiction and a couple hundred pages shorter than his usual. But the style is unmistakably that of the writer who brought such lived-in detail to novels like The Wanderers and Lush Life and his scripts for The Wire. This time, it’s just a little tighter, more razored. So in short: great stuff.

My review of The Whites is at PopMatters:

Fitting his moniker, Billy Graves is a cop working the night shift. Exhaustion is his permanent state, eyes falling out of his head from the damage being done to his circadian rhythms. All the caffeine in the world, those long-after-midnight energy-drink bodega injections, can’t keep his thought processes straight. As a result, he’s a little slow on the uptake when things start getting squirrelly. But, then, maybe he always was on the slower side…

You can read the full first chapter here.

New in Theaters: ‘Jauja’

 

Viggo Mortensen (right) in 'Jauja' (Cinema Guild)
Viilbjørk Mallin Agger and Viggo Mortensen in ‘Jauja’ (Cinema Guild)

Jauja, a ghostly pseudo-Western set in the wilds of late-nineteenth century Argentina and starrting Viggo Mortensen, is opening this week in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

Given a précis of what Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja is ostensibly about, some might imagine they’re in for a South American updating of The Searchers. But even John Ford—who would have been happy to have a stolid leading man like Viggo Mortensen in his company—at his pokiest was never this unconcerned with story. Alonso is happy to let his scenes spool out at their own unhurried pace, captured in the old-fashioned boxy Academy framing. This can lead to some gorgeously observed tableaus but also stretches of dry tedium, hemmed in by a layered and mannered aesthetic…

Here’s the trailer:

In Books: Ursula K. Le Guin is Right About ‘The Buried Giant’

buriedgiant-coverIn Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant, the author of Remains of the Day takes on a different kind of period setting: A fantastical yesteryear in which ogres roam the land, King Arthur is only recently departed, and a great dragon threatens the land.

It’s not the easiest fit for Ishiguro, who never quite seems comfortable in his own setting. He continually holds the reader’s hand, taking them aside for background notes on what they are witnessing instead of just letting the story flow. The flatness of his language, which was more appropriate to the subject of a novel like Never Let Me Go and its story of stunted humanity, here keeps the reader from ever engaging with his deeper, fascinating-in-theory themes of memory and selective amnesia.

When Ishiguro was interviewed about working in a different metier than he was used to, he seemed uneasy that readers might think of the novel as being fantasy. Which, of course, it was. You wouldn’t think that authors would still hold such prejudices against genre, given how porous the borders between literary fiction and fantasy and science fiction have become. Just see the reaction to Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road a few years back. Now everybody can play.

Ursula K. Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness) took exception with Ishiguro’s defensiveness, as well as his seeming nervousness, “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

Le Guin is right in her judgment. Ishiguro’s inability to commit to the wild strangeness of his story kills any joy or mystery the reader might have found in it. Perhaps the natural chilliness of Ishiguro’s prose makes it a better fit for certain other types of genre writing (again, like he was able to deliver much more powerfully in the mournful science fiction of Never Let Me Go).

The Buried Giant is fantasy. It’s just not very good fantasy.

There’s an excerpt from the novel here. You can also see Ishiguro reading from it here.

On the Media: ‘The Jinx’ and Confessions

thejinx-posterCuriously enough, there is actually a precedent for the news that broke over the weekend with a blockbuster HBO documentary playing an outsized role in an ongoing media sensation of a criminal case.

Decades before Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx played a (as yet not fully clear) role in the arrest of the perennial murder suspect and troubled millionaire Robert Durst, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s true-crime classic Paradise Lost (about the West Memphis Three) bumped up against the realities of an ongoing criminal investigation. While filming the proceedings, Berlinger was given a bloody knife that was similar to the murder weapon:

Berlinger told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on Monday that he immediately went to HBO, and together they decided to turn the knife over to investigators, even though it put their film at risk.

He said he would like to think that he would reach the same conclusion today, but noted the increased pressure to make films as entertaining as possible.

It’s not entirely clear what responsibilities the filmmakers of The Jinx had when confronted with potential evidence of Durst’s culpability some time ago. But the fact that Durst wasn’t arrested until just the day before the miniseries’ last episode on Sunday is being seen by some as a media-manipulated event.

I reviewed the first couple episodes of The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst for PopMatters here.

 

Writer’s Desk: Orwell’s Reasons

George Orwell at the BBC (1940)

According to George Orwell, he played around with writing from a very early age. A patriotic poem here, some comic verse there. But it wasn’t until he read Milton as a teenager (always a dangerous combination) that the fire was well and truly lit.

In the essay, “Why I Write,” Orwell lays out the four “great motives” for pouring one’s heart and soul into the often tedious manufacture of prose:

  1. Sheer egoism—”Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.”
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm—”Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed.”
  3. Historical impulse—“Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”
  4. Political purpose—“Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

You might not agree with all these reasons; though it is difficult to argue with all books being political to some degree or another. But it is Orwell, so attention must be paid.

 

Reader’s Corner: Eisenhower and Book-burning

Nobody associates Dwight Eisenhower with much of anything literary or particularly high-minded. After all, his presidency was typified by pragmatism and political small-ball more than grand oratory and lofty goals.

But, then there was the graduation speech he gave at Dartmouth in June 1953, six months after taking office. According to Jim Dwyer, it started off in the usual way: platitudes and bromides. Pleasantly dull as a summer’s afternoon. But other matters were afoot. It was the age of Joe McCarthy, after all. Just a few days earlier, it had been reported that books by politically suspect authors like Langston Hughes and Jean-Paul Sartre had been purged from libraries run by the United States Information Service in Europe.

Dwight Eisenhower (c.1954)
Dwight Eisenhower (c.1954)

With that in the background, the president made a sharp detour: “Don’t join the book burners!” He exhorted those in attendance:

Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency … We have got to fight [Communism] with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. They are part of America. And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them at places where they are accessible to others is unquestioned, or it isn’t America.

With sentiments like that, what’s not to like about Ike?