of Maine

Peter Handke’s Slow Homecoming
May 1, 2009, 6:01 pm
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The dried shore mud at his feet had broken up into a far-flung network of almost regular polygons (for the most part six-sided). As he examined the cracks, they began little by little to work on him, but instead of fragmenting him like the ground, they joined all his cells (a void that he hadn’t noticed until then) into a harmonious whole. Something that rose from the split surface of the earth struck his body and made it warm and heavy. Standing there motionless, looking out over the pattern, he saw himself as a receiver, not of news or a message, but of a twofold force received on the two levels of his head. On his forehead, he felt the bone disappearing, simply because he had no other thought than to expose this obstacle to the air; and the surface of his face from the eyes down seemed once again to acquire the characteristics of a face; human eyes and a human mouth, each for itself but not separated by consciousness; and he actually felt that his lowered lids had become receiving screens. His head bent lower and lower, yet the meaning was not despair but determination: “The decision rests with me.” Raising his eyes, he was prepared for anything; with every look, even into the void, he would have met other looks; indeed, he would have created them.

The murmuring of the stream – and once again the bushes were murmuring as gently as on the summer day when he arrived and gained his first intimation of the river landscape.

The man who rose from the ground was not ecstatic, only appeased. He no longer expected illuminations, only measure and duration. “My face an unfinished sketch – when will it be complete?” He could say that he enjoyed life, accepted death, and loved the world; and now he saw that, correspondingly, the river flowed more slowly, the clumps of grass shimmered, and the sun-warmed gasoline drums hummed. Beside him he saw a single yellow willow leaf on a flaming-red branch and knew that after his death, after the death of all mankind, he would appear in the depths of this countryside and give form to all the things on which his gaze now rested. The thought gave him a blissful feeling that raised him above the treetops; only his face remained behind, now a mask “representing happiness.” (And then there was even a kind of hope – disguised as a feeling that he knew something.)

pp 45-46


Synecdoche, New York
December 23, 2008, 9:19 pm
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Yes, of Maine is still (not yet) working on the big year-end wrap-up, though it will – despite the glut of (to these ears) Great Albums – be pretty sunshiney, diverse, and hopefully somewhat illuminating.

In the meantime, I’ve seen a few movies. They all had their problems, but some were better than others. Here’s the first one.

Synecdoche, New York (director Charlie Kaufman)

It’s reasonable to guess that Synecdoche is intended to be Kaufman’s magnum opus – after relatively dipping his toes in metaphysics, death, people playing actors playing actors, etc., in previous films (most great: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), Kaufman goes pretty whole hog here – but with a mind this obsessive and restlessly conceptual, it’s hard to say for sure.

And those grand designs actually sort of the problem with Synecdoche. It is: phenomenally acted (by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emily Watson Samantha Morton (oops), and Michelle Williams, in particular); not nearly as confusing as the reviews make it out to be (the story has its abstract moments, but it’s almost completely linear); fixated on morose issues (death, sickness, loving people you aren’t with); and very well realized (good, sometimes great, set design).

It is also: the apotheosis of Charlie Kaufmanism. Why is this a problem? Because we already know too much about Charlie Kaufman.

Suppose a plot summary is in order. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, an ambitious/pretentious (hard to tell) stage director in the midst of a dying marriage (to Catherine Keener), with child, and what feels like a self-actualizing case of hypochondria. Cotard is surrounded by portents of doom – he sees himself in cartoons on television, his home is soundtrack by blasé readings of international disasters – and tries to “do the right thing” most of the time, but this leaves him morose and wanting. When his wife and child leave him, time in the film begins moving more quickly, spanning decades in about an hour and a half: Cotard wins a MacArthur grant and falls for a box office manager (played by Samantha Morton), and then falls for one of his actresses (Michelle Williams). Cotard sets out to make a play about “everything,” which winds up being a play about anyone and everyone he sees, which then winds up a play about characters portraying himself and the people around him managing the play about everything, and so on and so forth. What begins with good intentions – a sweeping, universal statement, theater at its most direct and pure – becomes increasingly solipsistic. (The set of the play becomes a series of sets within sets; after a while, it’s entirely removed from the outside world, which by the way is falling apart amid riots and some sort of war. Honestly, it’s all pretty neat.)

Synecdoche’s concept is certainly original and (again) well-realized, but too many of its most important tics are familiar. Morton’s character – charming, seductive, a bit dangerous – reminds you of Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine. Keener’s sort of an amalgam of her and Cameron Diaz’s characters in Being John Malkovich, ambitious but frumpy. Hoffman is often as pathetic as Nicolas Cage’s Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, without the funny altar ego. Hoffman’s Cotard Malkoviches himself later in the movie.

The film, while successful in its ambitions, is just too ambitious to be successful. Many critics have written eloquent or even moving reviews of Synecdoche, New York; these reviews invariably praise how “about everything” the film is, about you and everyone around you, how you live and act and judge and so on. It makes for moving prose, but Synecdoche isn’t confident enough in its audacity to go five minutes without hammering those themes to death. Literally. The film won’t leave you thinking about how to live a better life; it’ll leave you glad you’re not living Caden Cotard’s.

Just to be clear…
December 9, 2008, 5:38 pm
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There will never be a Sorry dude. post about Fleet Foxes. That’s one critical consensus we will not be getting behind.

Chris Adrian, more books
December 8, 2008, 3:31 pm
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It’s been up on the web for a while now, but I finally got around to perusing the NYT’s 100 Notable Books of 2008 yesterday, and was pleased to see Chris Adrian’s recent book of short stories, A Better Angel, on the list. As you may recall, I ditched this blog for a couple months to write a very lengthy review of it (which I may post soon, once I abandon the idea of submitting it to other publications). The title story, one of the better ones in the collection, is freely readable here.

In other news, the Literary Event of the Season is now complete. Commentary coming tomorrow or Wednesday.

New Andrew Bird Song
October 6, 2008, 9:06 am
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Morning, all. Due to a really fun weekend, no time to make this blog original again today. BUT, this is surely the next best thing. The first track from Andrew Bird’s forthcoming (late January of ’09) album, Noble Beast, debuted on Pitchfork this morning. “Oh No” is pretty standard, if a touch slight, Bird, but note some promising developments. That persistent buzz of electric guitar, the way Bird’s vocals sound both more considered and loose, the layers of background vocals.

The news story associated with the premiere also notes that Bird has a new live album available on his website. And go figure, it’s for a Montreal show I purchased tickets for last year and couldn’t go to. If something prevents me from getting to his Portsmouth gig on Wednesday, a reckoning there will be.

Friday errata, and more to come.

– Well, we’re a little time constrained today, so my overeager deconstruction of this song will have to wait until next week. Regardless, Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, guys. Big name, big talent, and a heck of a grower of a self-titled album.

– It’s a very good day to visit Pitchfork in general. They give a nice rave to the Vivian Girls album, which is finally available in stores. (Do wish they’d stop addressing albums in the context of the hype machine they’ve helped to create, though.) More obscure but no less exciting, can’t wait to check out The Week That Was, a band featuring Peter Brewis of UK indie pop band Field Music, who released what I’d argue is the most underrated album of 2007, Tones of Town. This sounds… just as good.

– At the frequently hilarious Intensities in Ten Suburbs, acclaim for David Bowie’s portrayal of Nikola Tesla in one of Chris Nolan’s pre-Dark Knight near-masterpieces, The Prestige. Always happy to read about the film, which seems to be quickly establishing a sort of cult status.

– Browsing the website for one of my favorite quarterlies, Cabinet, it turns out they have a bountiful art and web art section. Click here and select the first option, a neat map art project by Jackie Goss about the development of maps of the United States. Can’t wait to delve further into this page.

– A smart pan of the new, bloated Of Montreal album at Dusted. Better yet, a review of the new, punk as fuck Marnie Stern album, which I haven’t listened to much, but it’s definitely a big step forward from her last one, which I didn’t “get.”

– The venerable, recently deceased alt-country magazine No Depression is back in action, on the web.

– Lastly, this one’s important! A sobering, inspiring endorsement of Barack Obama by the editors of the New Yorker. (Not that they need to convince their readers or anything…) Also, it’s Barack and Michelle’s 16th wedding anniversary today.

Ballast, John McCain’s reptile tongue.
October 1, 2008, 10:08 am
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Please note that there is a link to an Otis Redding song at the bottom of this post. I just can’t listen to it until I paste some of these links. Such is the power of my work computer…

– Personal update: I have finally submitted my entry to the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s young book reviewers contest. I am very tired but look forward to having a social life again. Or, not having a social life, and reading a new book.

Ballast, the debut, Sundance-award winning film by Lance Hammer, is out in New York today. These reviews are worth scanning for a couple reasons: the film sounds a decent amount like George Washington, one of the better debut films of the decade (hypnotic tone, haltingly beautiful photography, etc.); and its director turned down distribution through IFC (the studio that’s doing simultaneous theatrical and on-demand cable releases) and opted to release the film himself. Just the sort of underdog behavior we’re taking a shying to these days. And we always crush on Manohla Dargis at the Times when she has a crush on a movie.

– At the awesome election polling blog FiveThirtyEight – yeah, nerd alert – Sean Quinn uses his knowledge of poker to psychoanalyze John McCain’s peculiar “tongue jut.” Easily the most unusual post I’ve ever encountered on this site.

– For its 25th anniversary, Vanity Fair is making lots of lists. Here, vote for one of the 25 best book covers (ever, not of the past 25 years, which we don’t understand). Honestly, half of these are kind of ugly, but they get better as you scroll down. (It’s also worth noting that there’s probably never been a greater disparity between how awesome a book cover is and how bad the book is than with Augusten Burroughs’ latest memoir. The phrase “latest memoir” should not exist.)

– In a bit of political maneuvering that I support, Apple is “threatening” to shut down the iTunes store if they have to pay higher royalties. That they’re willing to use their clout to aid a cause that will benefit lots and lots of websites is heartening.

– At the Village Voice, Rob Harvilla nails the problem with bands playing albums front-to-back, especially their best albums. Case in point: Built to Spill.

– And wow, listening to Otis Redding this early is really not good for my a.m. hypersensitivity problem. I’m gonna go find a hankie.