June 2019 Capsules

Blue Velvet (rewatch)
One of the keys to Blue Velvet is that, at least in the heightened collection of Americana that is Lumberton, Jeffrey is closer to a bad boy than when viewed from the vantage point of 1986 (or now). The earring is of course the tell-tale sign, but it is evident throughout: the slight unrecollection of Detective Williams, the appellation of “Ivy League” from Sandy’s jilted boyfriend, the approving comments of the high school girls. Lynch’s vision is less of total innocence corrupted and only partially restored than the exposure of that which was hidden in plain sight — like an ear only uncovered when searching for rocks to lob at a beer bottle in a fit of stifled discouragement. Sandy is the innocent (and luminous), but Jeffrey is something more undefinable and complex: the boy investigator, the lover of mysteries both benign and seductive, the detective *and* the pervert.

The Awful Truth
There are far too many standout scenes in this staggering masterwork, but perhaps one of the most representative of The Awful Truth‘s genius is one of its most seemingly direct, with its central couple and their farcical paramours (one of whom, Dixie Belle, holds this as her only scene in the film) together in a club. In purely narrative terms, this scene’s utility is to provide the inspiration for Lucy’s “drunken” performance near the end of the film, but it possesses a dynamic that speaks to the ensuing hijinks within the scene and through the rest of the film. McCarey isn’t necessarily subtle with how he conveys the prevailing relationships, but it remains both effective and hilarious: through much of the scene, the divorcing Jerry and Lucy are captured in a two-shot, while Leeson and Dixie Belle are shunted off into their own separate singles, a decision that enhances the spouses’ connection by way of discomfort at their present states.

In the spirit of the film, this initial situation is spun out further, with not one but two full performances. Jerry is in many ways the figure in charge here, remaining as the spectator, but just as important is the genuine sense of glee on Leeson’s face, the shameless committment of Dixie Belle, the sheepish embarassment of Lucy. And one of the film’s finest bits of subtlety is here, as Jerry moves seats, first to the space vacated by Dixie Belle, and then to Leeson’s. It is a mastery of space, an assertion of dominance, which plugs directly into the tug-of-war at The Awful Truth‘s core, and that he does it with a full grin makes it all the more pleasurable.

13th (1975): “Celluloid Guerillas” Show Notes

Table of Contents: Description, Corrections/Clarifications, Housekeeping, General, Main Slate, Ephemera, Recurring Directors, Recurring Countries, One-Time Directors, Debuts/Final Features, Festivals/Oscar Nominees, Shorts, Discussions By Length, Specifications

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Description
The thirteenth episode of the Catalyst and Witness podcast, devoted to exploring the films and format of the New York Film Festival, hosted by Ryan Swen and Dan Molloy. This covers the thirteenth edition of the festival in 1975, and features special guest Alyssa Heflin, George Eastman Museum film preservation graduate student and cinephile.

0:00-23:22 – Opening
23:23-1:30:07 – Part One [Conversation Piece to F for Fake]
1:30:08-2:20:05 – Part Two [The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser to Xala]
2:20:06-3:03:28 – Part Three [The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum to Compañero: Victor Jara of Chile]
3:03:29-3:49:41 – Part Four [Exhibition to The Story of Adèle H.]
3:49:42-3:57:22 – Closing

Corrections/Clarifications

  • N/A

Housekeeping

  • Hosted by Dan Molloy & Ryan Swen
  • Special Guest Alyssa Heflin
  • Conceived and Edited by Ryan Swen
  • Recorded in Los Angeles and Rochester on Zoom H4N and Sennheiser Microphones and MacBook GarageBand, Edited in Audacity
  • Podcast photograph from Yi Yi, Logo designed by Dan Molloy
  • Poster by Carol Summers
  • Recorded April 7, 2019
  • Released April 30, 2019
  • Music (in order of appearance):
    • Conversation Piece (opening night)
    • Fox and His Friends (another favorite)
    • F for Fake (favorite of the first section)
    • Xala (favorite of the second section)
    • Moses und Aron (favorite of the third section)
    • India Song (favorite of the fourth section)
    • The Story of Adlèle H. (closing night)

General

  • Selection Committee: Richard Roud (program director), Richard Corliss, Roger Greenspun, Arthur Knight, Arthur L. Mayer, Charles Michener, Susan Sontag, Henri Langlois (retrospective consultant)
  • Location: Alice Tully Hall and Avery Fisher Hall
  • Prices: 2, 2.50, 3.50, 5; for opening and closing night 4, 5, 7, 10
  • Films seen for the podcast:
    • Ryan
      • Seen before podcast watching period: F for Fake, Xala
      • Seen for the podcast: All available except Milestones; all rewatched
      • Favorite films: India Song, Moses und Aron, F for Fake, La Chienne, Fox and His Friends
      • Least favorite films: Black Moon, Compañero, Autobiography of a Princess
      • Rewatch Round-Up: Muriel, or the Time of Return (1st)
    • Dan
      • Seen before podcast watching period: La Chienne, Grey Gardens, F for Fake, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Xala
      • Seen for the podcast: All available except Autobiography of a Princess, Compañero; F for Fake rewatched
      • Favorite films: F for Fake, India Song, Fox and His Friends, Moses und Aron, La Chienne, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, The Story of Adèle H.
      • Least favorite films: Black Moon, Conversation Piece, Hearts of the West
      • Catch-Up Corner: Even Dwarfs Started Small (8th)
    • Alyssa
      • Seen before podcast watching period: Fox and His Friends, F for Fake
      • Seen for the podcast: All available except Compañero; F for Fake rewatched
      • Favorite films: F for Fake, Fox and His Friends, India Song, Xala, The Story of Adele H.
      • Least favorite films: Black Moon, Hearts of the West, Autobiography of a Princess
  • Discoveries of the festival: India Song, Smile
  • Unavailable films: Exhibition, French Provincial

Main Slate

Opening Night: Conversation Piece [Gruppo di famiglia in un interno/Family Group in an Interior] (1974, Luchino Visconti)
September 26, 9:00 {Avery Fisher Hall}
Released 1977
Retrospective: La Chienne [The Bitch] (1931, Jean Renoir)
September 27, 3:00
Released 1976
Fox and His Friends [Faustrecht der Freiheit/Fist-Right of Freedom] (1975, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
September 27, 6:00
Released 1976
Grey Gardens (1975, Albert Maysles & David Maysles & Ellen Hovde & Muffie Meyer)
September 28, 3:00
Released 1976
F for Fake (1973, Orson Welles)
September 28, 6:00
Released 1977
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser [Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle/Every Man for Himself and God Against All] (1974, Werner Herzog)
September 28, 9:00
Released 1975
Electra, My Love [Szerelmem, Elektra] (1974, Miklós Jancsó)
September 30, 6:15
Never released
Black Moon (1975, Louis Malle)
September 30, 9:30
Released 1975
The Wonderful Crook [Pas si méchant que ça/Not So Bad] (1975, Claude Goretta)
October 1, 6:15
Released 1977
Xala [Impotence] (1975, Ousmane Sembène)
October 1, 9:30
Released 1975
The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann/The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead] (1975, Volker Schlöndorff & Margarethe von Trotta)
October 3, 6:15
Released 1975
Hearts of the West (1975, Howard Zieff)
October 4, 9:00
Released 1975
Moses und Aron [Moses and Aaron] (1975, Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet)
October 5, 3:00
Released 1975
Autobiography of a Princess (1975, James Ivory)
And: Compañero: Victor Jara of Chile (1975, Stanley Forman & Martin Smith)
October 5, 6:00
Never released/Never released
Exhibition (1975, Jean-François Davy)
October 5, 9:00
Released 1975
India Song (1975, Marguerite Duras)
October 8, 6:15
Released 1981
Milestones (1975, Robert Kramer & John Douglas)
October 8, 9:30
Released 1975
Smile (1975, Michael Ritchie)
October 9, 6:15
Released 1975
French Provincial [Souvenirs d’en France/Memories of France] (1975, André Téchiné)
October 9, 9:30
Released 1976
Closing Night: The Story of Adèle H. [L’Histoire d’Adèle H.] (1975, François Truffaut)
October 12, 8:30 {Avery Fisher Hall}
Released 1975

Ephemera

  • A series of directors’ symposia (unscheduled)

Recurring Directors
Key: films in this iteration excluding shorts/omnibus/retrospectives, films in this iteration including, films in the festival up to this point excluding, films up to this point including, number of gala spots (when applicable), number of festivals with more than one film shown (when applicable); † indicates their last appearance, fraction in parentheses indicates number of features shown from oeuvre, features released in the eligible timeframe, features in oeuvre

  • Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet: 1/1/5/6/0/1
  • Rainer Werner Fassbinder: 1/1/5/5
  • Werner Herzog: 1/1/5/5
  • Miklós Jancsó: 1/1/5/5
  • François Truffaut: 1/1/4/4/3
  • Marguerite Duras: 1/1/4/4
  • Louis Malle: 1/1/3/3/1
  • Luchino Visconti: 1/1/2/2/1
  • James Ivory: 1/1/2/2
  • Volker Schlöndorff: 1/1/2/2†(2/22/22)
  • Ousmane Sembène: 1/1/2/2
  • Orson Welles: 1/1/2/2†(2/5/14)
  • Albert Maysles: 1/1/1/2
  • David Maysles: 1/1/1/2†(2/8/8)
  • Claude Goretta: 1/1/1/1
  • André Téchiné: 1/1/1/1
  • Jean Renoir: 0/1/0/3

Recurring Countries
Key: films in this iteration excluding shorts/retrospectives, films in this iteration including, films in the festival up to this point excluding, films up to this point including, number of gala spots (when applicable)

  • France: 6/7/81/97/11
  • USA: 4/4/39/52/2
  • West Germany: 4/4/19/20
  • UK: 2/2/19/21/1
  • Italy: 1/1/30/34/3
  • Hungary: 1/1/8/8
  • Switzerland: 1/1/3/3
  • Senegal: 1/1/2/2

One-Time Directors

  • Jean-François Davy
  • Stanley Forman & Martin Smith
  • Ellen Hovde & Muffie Meyer
  • Robert Kramer & John Douglas
  • Michael Ritchie
  • Margarethe von Trotta
  • Howard Zieff

Feature Debuts

  • Stanley Forman & Martin Smith
  • Ellen Hovde & Muffie Meyer
  • Margarethe von Trotta

Final Features

  • John Douglas
  • Stanley Forman & Martin Smith

Festivals

  • NYFF World Premiere
    • Autobiography of a Princess (?)
    • Compañero: Victor Jara of Chile (?)
    • Grey Gardens
    • Hearts of the West
    • The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum
  • Cannes
    • The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Grand Prix, FIPRESCI, Prize of the Ecumenical Jury)
    • Electra, My Love
    • India Song (Out of Competition)
    • Fox and His Friends (Directors’ Fortnight)
    • French Provincial (Directors’ Fortnight)
    • Milestones (Directors’ Fortnight)
  • Other
    • F for Fake (San Sebastian)
    • Moses and Aaron (Rotterdam)
    • The Wonderful Crook (Locarno)
    • Xala (Moscow)
  • N/A
    • Black Moon
    • La Chienne
    • Conversation Piece
    • Exhibition
    • Smile
    • The Story of Adèle H.

Oscar Nominees

  • The Story of Adèle H.: Best Actress

Shorts

shorts

Discussions By Length (Approximate)

  • 16:10 F for Fake (1:13:57-1:30:07)
  • 14:42 India Song (3:06:30-3:21:12)
  • 14:39 Fox and His Friends (48:07-1:02:46)
  • 13:27 Moses und Aron (2:39:45-2:53:12)
  • 13:13 Black Moon (1:48:51-2:02:04)
  • 12:21 Conversation Piece (24:21-36:42)
  • 11:23 La Chienne (36:43-48:06)
  • 11:09 Grey Gardens (1:02:47-1:13:56)
  • 10:43 Smile (3:28:05-3:38:48)
  • 10:13 The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1:31:06-1:41:19)
  • 10:01 The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (2:21:06-2:31:07)
  • 9:48 The Story of Adèle H. (3:39:53-3:49:41)
  • 9:37 Xala (2:10:28-2:20:05)
  • 8:36 Hearts of the West (2:31:08-2:39:44)
  • 8:22 The Wonderful Crook (2:02:05-2:10:27)
  • 7:30 Electra, My Love (1:41:20-1:48:50)
  • 6:51 Milestones (3:21:13-3:28:04)
  • 6:03 Autobiography of a Princess (2:53:13-2:59:16)
  • 4:11 Compañero: Victor Jara of Chile [One Person] (2:59:17-3:03:28)
  • 1:53 Exhibition [Unavailable] (3:04:36-3:06:29)
  • 1:03 French Provincial [Unavailable] (3:38:49-3:39:52)

Specifications

  • Luchino Visconti, Gruppo di famiglia in un interno, 1974, 35 mm, color, mono sound, 121 minutes, 2.35:1, Italian, Italy.
  • Jean Renoir, La Chienne, 1931, 35 mm, black-and-white, mono sound, 91 minutes, 1.20:1, French, France.
  • Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Faustrecht der Freiheit, 1975, 35 mm, color, mono sound, 124 minutes, 1.37:1, German, West Germany.
  • Albert Maysles & David Maysles & Ellen Hovde & Muffie Meyer, Grey Gardens, 1975, 16 mm, color, mono sound, 94 minutes, 1.37:1, English, USA.
  • Orson Welles, F for Fake, 1973, 35 mm and 16 mm, color, mono sound, 88 minutes, 1.66:1, English, France.
  • Werner Herzog, Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, 1974, 35 mm and 8 mm, color, mono sound, 110 minutes, 1.66:1, German, West Germany.
  • Miklós Jancsó, Szerelmem, Elektra, 1974, 35 mm, color, mono sound, 70 minutes, 1.66:1, Hungarian, Hungary.
  • Louis Malle, Black Moon, 1975, 35 mm, color, mono sound, 100 minutes, 1.66:1, English, France.
  • Claude Goretta, Pas si méchant que ça, 1975, 35 mm, color, mono sound, 112 minutes, 1.66:1, French, France.
  • Ousmane Sembène, Xala, 1975, 35 mm, color, mono sound, 123 minutes, 1.66:1, Wolof and French, Senegal.
  • Volker Schlöndorff & Margarethe von Trotta, Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann, 1975, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, mono sound, 106 minutes, 1.66:1, German, West Germany.
  • Howard Zieff, Hearts of the West, 1975, 35 mm, color, mono sound, 102 minutes, 1.85:1, English, USA.
  • Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, Moses und Aron, 1975, 35 mm and 16 mm, color, mono sound, 107 minutes, 1.37:1, German, West Germany.
  • James Ivory, Autobiography of a Princess, 1975, 16 mm, color, mono sound, 59 minutes, 1.37:1, English, UK.
  • Stanley Forman & Martin Smith, Compañero: Victor Jara of Chile, 1975, 16 mm, color, mono sound, 58 minutes, 1.37:1, English, UK.
  • Jean-François Davy, Exhibition, 1975, 16 mm, color, mono sound, 110 minutes, 1.37:1, French, France.
  • Marguerite Duras, India Song, 1975, 16 mm, color, mono sound, 120 minutes, 1.37:1, French, France.
  • Robert Kramer & John Douglas, Milestones, 1975, 16 mm, color, mono sound, 195 minutes, 1.37:1, English, USA.
  • Michael Ritchie, Smile, 1975, 35 mm, color, mono sound, 113 minutes, 1.85:1, English, USA.
  • André Téchiné, Souvenirs d’en France, 1975, 35 mm, color, mono sound, 90 minutes, 1.66:1, French, France.
  • François Truffaut, L’Histoire d’Adèle H., 1975, 35 mm, color and black-and-white, mono sound, 96 minutes, 1.66:1, French and English, France.

2019 Reading Log

1. Augustus (1972, John Williams): 12/23/18-4/21/19 (on-off)
In a certain sense I don’t know if I’m entirely fit to form any coherent thoughts on this monumental work, considering my prolonged and very scattered engagement with it. But it seems fitting, in a certain way: it is a book of transience, looking backwards at memories only mostly remembered, even as those who bear witness to history pass before their time. The years pass, only highlighted truly by the denotations in the headings, and the voices thin one by one until the subject himself speaks, and his own voice is as distinguished yet as fundamentally poetic as the rest. A fitting final work, then, encompassing a life and a nation with unimaginable grace.

2. The Savage Detectives (1998, Roberto Bolaño): 4/22/19-6/23/19
It’s an understatement to say that this permeated and swirled around in my consciousness for the two months I read it, and probably will for a good long while after. Finishing it at around the same time as my experience with La Flor, a work of comparable scope and artistic lineage, if not ultimate intention, does certainly color it, but in many ways this colossal work seems even more mysterious than when I first started it. The structure certainly points to a fundamental aimlessness, when a person becomes further unmoored from an already rootless existence, as the regimented structure of the days disappear and a testimony can be split into many parts and take place over the course of a single night or decades. In a sense, this almost combines the intentions of the previous two books I’ve read (Invisible Cities and Augustus) and transforms them, anchoring itself in a time, space, and movement simultaneously real and imaginary. But the anxieties, the raucousness, the desperation are all too real; what truly punctures is not just the two (or three) lost souls at its center, but the fates of so many characters that feel just as key as the rest. Whether ending up dead or cocooned within a life far less radical (for good or ill), no one can escape the progression of time, the march of the decades. When your goal is unexpectedly fulfilled with little fanfare, where can you go, what can you do?

3. Three to Kill (1976, Jean-Patrick Manchette: 6/23/19-6/24/19
Didn’t necessarily expect the political edge to this, which becomes an inflection through the course of the narrative but rears its head at unexpected moments, but it pairs perfectly with the ruthless cool of this, the loving detail given to the process by which men engage in vicious exchanges. Like many of the great artists, and like his central character, Manchette’s facility with time is extremely adaptable, and his chapter structure bears this out: the longest chapters both feature spans of long months and the course of a night, and sometimes they last less than two pages, all the better to convey the clipped yet melodic nature of his prose. Calling this bloodless wouldn’t be correct, but a steeliness emanates off of every sentence, a total confidence that thrills.

March 2019 Capsules

Transit
The central conceit, of an environment where the anachronistic elements are essential to the frissons of the whole endeavor, is brilliant, but even more impressive might be Petzold’s restraint and careful deployment. Transit never comes off as overbearing in this — or indeed any — regard: there are no intrusions of technologies that could not have been replicated in the 1940s. The effect is so much richer in this withholding; because the situation is so carefully etched and the stakes so closely tied to a specific time, one can very easily forget the present-tense trappings. But when a modern car trundles into view, or a soldier in an American uniform and an assault rifle stands guard, the effect is continually vivid and bracing, never unsurprising, but never *just* a reminder that what is past is present.

A telling sign, and just one of many moments that shows that Petzold completely understands what he’s accomplishing: Georg lights his cigarettes with matches, not a lighter.

Last Year at Marienbad (rewatch)
As much as any one of the elements in Last Year at Marienbad, Resnais understands the inherent uneasiness and ethereality of his constantly moving camera. It glides past people, emphasizing the spaces around the figures rather than the statuesque forms themselves. In many senses, the people are nigh indistinguishable from the background themselves, and yet to say that Resnais gives them no inner life would be wholly inaccurate. The snatches of conversation, the particular glances or looks that they have on their faces, suggests the possibility of infinite stories, even past the multiple manifestations of the central relationships. It is a limitless film, consisting of hallways and memories leading to everywhere and nowhere.

February 2019 Capsules

Céline and Julie Go Boating
Perhaps the most elegant metaphor for cinema ever devised, and crucially Céline and Julie Go Boating lacks a *visible* camera (which would localize its aesthetic concerns too thoroughly); Rivette’s supreme intelligence is such that theater and cinema, to an even greater extent than in his past films, mesh through his deftness of both staging and editing, as each new shot choice or repetition creates its own associations. Plus, what image of a moviegoer is more relatable than the two women staring slack-jawed at the screen, occasionally giggling or gasping in disbelief?

Blackhat [rewatch, first time director’s cut]
Impossible to state how much the inclusion of the ship denied harbor by the effect of the rising soy prices does to establish the world in which Blackhat moves: it is one set by nebulous rules and regulations, where the fate of innumerable people can be turned by the whims of a ghost in the machine.

Only a ghost can kill another ghost.

January 2019 Capsules

The Mother and the Whore
Will go into this much, much further on the podcast, but it’s so difficult to quantify why this film functions as perhaps the epitome of what the French New Wave birthed. Is it that it simply exemplifies the principles of the Nouvelle Vague and pushes them to their logical conclusion? Or is it that Jean Eustache is just more attuned to his characters, more deft at sifting through the inherent effects of prior political associations and affiliations on present relationships? The answer probably lies to some degree in both, but perhaps most important of all is that the Nouvelle Vague — in many ways like Gilberte — acts as a phantom that shadows The Mother and the Whore without necessarily tangibly affecting it. What is apparent is the film’s openness, manifested in forms that register in the narrative as both positive (the indelibly etched relations) and negative (the frankness, the frequent crassness). All of these are inherent to Alexandre, Veronika, and Marie as they exist as people (and, it must be inferred, Eustache and his real-life lovers), and that lack of filter, that willingness to confront the morass of humanity head-on, is what feels so shattering about this monumental work.

November 2018 Capsules

Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
One of the most subtly yet immediately poignant moments in this masterwork comes midway through the film, when Jeanne is drinking coffee in a café. After she finishes and pays, she puts her elbow on the table and pauses, looking to her right with that placid yet fundamentally unreadable expression that she wears for nearly the entire film. It is the first — if not the last — time that the next step in her routine is not readily apparent to the audience, when she is given the chance to stop and ponder. Its brevity (it lasts less than twenty seconds) and its placement both within a larger shot and a larger sequence (she has just bought some yarn to continue knitting a sweater for her son) is emblematic of everything that this film accomplishes, everything that it evokes and embodies.

October 2018 Capsules

A Star Is Born
Yes, “The Man That Got Away” might be the greatest musical number ever committed to film, but one sequence seems to capture the spirit of this extravagant, devastating masterpiece even better: “Born in a Trunk.” (Complicating this of course is the fact that “Born in a Trunk” was filmed after Cukor had finished his involvement with the film, though this only strengthens its connections to the machinations of Hollywood.) The medley of songs from numerous genres indulges in all the abstraction and expressionism possible in the American film industry, lunging through vividly contrasting set after set, with the only connective tissue being Garland’s voice and physicality. It is blatantly, gloriously unclear whether this is some part of Vicki Lester’s star-making role or a mental projection of her thinking on her past life through said role – notably, the Academy ratio of the film-within-the-film expands to CinemaScope in the span of a cut. Comparisons to Gene Kelly’s repeated intonations of “dignity, always dignity” or even “Broadway Melody” from Singin’ in the Rain are there, of course, but the lines between role, performer-in-a-role, and performer are even further blurred. And throughout, it is so clear that Vicki Lester is the real deal, that she must shine and diminish all around her. This is the film in less than 15 minutes; what makes it what is is the two and a half hours left: not one second is anything less than vital.

September 2018 Capsules

Hahaha
I can’t say if this technique is totally unprecedented in film, but Hong’s decision to render Hahaha‘s present-day scenes exclusively in black-and-white stills – à la the “previously ons” in Out 1, interestingly enough – and voiceover is at once a remarkably and counterintuitively lovely choice and so indicative of the general playfulness that marks his entire work. Though Moon-kyung says that he and Joong-sik stick to the pleasant parts of their scattered recollections, the film frequently goes down the thornier and more melancholic avenues that characterize Hong’s work, often within the same scene. In this light, and given the connotation that black-and-white and voiceover often have in more conventional films, the present almost function as the memories in this film, fragmented and constructed more out of sensations and glances than anything else. Though it will likely be the last time these friends meet for some time, it feels as if it is already passing into the recesses of their minds; what matters more is the small city of Tongyeong, and the people and places that inhabit it. A faintly ridiculous dream with a long gone admiral-hero, a piano piece, numerous scraps of poetry, the sensation of holding someone close: these are the good things in life.

2018 Reading Log

1. Stoner (1965, John Williams): 7/29-8/2

Difficult to accurately judge just how much this is colored by my absurd absence from reading for these past few years, but this is almost impossibly expansive and moving, covering such an expanse of time (almost cradle-to-grave) in both expanses and skips. Williams’s sense of conveying the almost compartmentalized nature of Stoner’s existence is so cannily divided into focusing on different characters and the events that transpire with them, and yet his approach can’t be reduced to as simple a statement as that. Characters are introduced and then reappear in a startling different context – Finch rather unexpectedly becomes perhaps the fifth most important character, Katharine is introduced in an almost curt manner – and throughout it is apparent that all involved in Stoner’s life are intertwined, perhaps in the most subconscious and buried ways. Stoner’s parents are (to the best of my recollection) not mentioned past the halfway point, and yet the indelible impression that their decaying, dirt-caked lives made on their son and the reader endures. And through it all, art is couched as both salvation and damnation, altering Stoner’s life (for better and worse) at every turn, defining his way of existence while ensuring its continued state of quiet desperation. Stoner is at once devastating and fulfilling, tracking the development and sustained intellect of a singular mindset, observing as it ebbs and flows according to the rhythms of a life that is at once ordinary and extraordinary. Nothing short of revelatory.

2. Tropic Moon (1933, Georges Simenon): 8/8-8/23

Perhaps the most destabilizing element of Tropic Moon is Simenon’s preference for plunging the reader in media res at the start of more or less every chapter, then doubling back to give some context (necessary or not). This happens with regularity, true, but it never fails to dole out a few jolts. Indeed, this tendency is emblematic of the whole book’s careful, more than a little horrifying approach, taking as a given its sweltering setting and organizing an examination of both milieu and intruder. What most stuns is that Timar’s (and Adèle’s, and Bouillox’s) character never truly changes past his first introduction; rather, he deepens and becomes more complex as the heat forces his character to evolve to the atmosphere – that is, until he can’t bear it anymore. He is no coaster; where others survive, he falls.

3. Invisible Cities (1972, Italo Calvino): 9/7; 11/26-12/22
Invoked Hong’s “infinite worlds possible” maxim when raving about this magnificent book, and the comparison isn’t entirely inapposite: there is a certain quality that Calvino evokes here, founded upon the notion that each of this cities could all be real or all be false, all projections of Marco Polo’s native Venice or Kublai Khan’s fantasies about his empire or some combination or non-combination of the two, and it’s entirely to his credit that nothing is resolved. Like the men at its center, there is neither resolution nor total denial, instead a complete state of odd, often beautiful contentment and continual discovery. Invisible Cities‘s final exhortation is as close to a definitive, concrete statement as the book comes, yet it explicitly prescribes searching — a continual, never totally completable task — as the solution, which Calvino does with endless variation and complexity, while laying out his ideas for all to see.