Very briefly discussed in this post: 4 books (October; The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating; Ema, the Captive; and The Unbearable Lightness of Being); 3 movies (Hyenas; I, Tonya; and My Life as a Zucchini); and 1 documentary (One of Us).
1. October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville.
There are certain moments in history that are so rich and thrilling and contradictory and confusing and fascinating and heartbreaking and inspiring, that trying to write about them in anything less than 1000 tightly packed pages (with the margins blown out and the smallest font possible deployed) seems like a disservice. I have always felt this way, for example, about those who tried to write their own narrative account of the life of Jesus (from Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ to John Dominic Crossan’s “revolutionary biography” of Jesus, they all just end up feeling like fan fiction to me). Thus, although I know many scholarly Lefties who are pumped about Miéville’s book on the Russian revolution, I came to it with a sense of trepidation (it is so much shorter than Franco Venturi’s truly magisterial Roots of Revolution, which looks at the history of Russian populist and socialist and and nihilist and reformist and imperialist movements as they built up and tore down and shed their skins and built up again over the 19th century). I tried to keep an open mind but it felt like Miéville hardly scratched the surface in his whirlwind journey through the first ten months of 1917. His focus was almost exclusively on Petrograd and a few of the key players there although there is no end to others who come and go (with the expectation, I imagine, that the reader will already have some knowledge of these people and events). Other places and happenings may receive a paragraph here and there but, for the most part, they are mentioned once or twice and then vanish. It’s a flawed but valiant effort – which, I suppose, is in keeping with the subject matter at hand — and while I enjoyed reading it, it wouldn’t be me “go to” suggestion for reading about the Russian revolution. This one, I think, was written for the fans.
2. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey.
Elisabeth Tova Bailey suddenly came down with an unidentified infection that altered the mitochondria in the cells throughout her body and left her unable to get out of bed for several years. One day, before her friends had mostly drifted away and went on with their lives, a friend brought her a snail on a potted plant because, her friend thought, Bailey might find some companionship with the snail. She did. And the story that follows – of illness, of friendship, of snails (and snails, it turns out, are wildly fascinating little creatures) – is a gift to all of us. Life, all life, the life all around us, is full of beauty and wonder and little things that make you gasp and laugh with joy — you just have to look for it. If you haven’t started looking, it’s not too late. We need this wonder, and the gratitude it inspires, now more than ever.
3. Ema, The Captive by César Aira.
I’m not really sure what to do with Aira. His “Portrait of a Landscape Painter” was so fabulously good (and “Ghosts,” too, was a fun and unique experience) but Ema, after starting well enough, quickly drifted off into a story that was slightly too disjointed, hollow, and going nowhere with nothing, for me to find it very enjoyable. I know that not editing or planning ahead is kind of Aira’s thing when it comes to writing but, in this case, I don’t think it worked. I’ll probably try one more of his stories before moving on to others (I mean, the guy writes like 90 stories a year so filtering through all of those to try and get to another “Landscape Painter” seems a little daunting).
4. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.
Kundera has cast a long shadow, even though I don’t see his name mentioned much these days. From Conor Oberst’s song about Tereza and Tomas to Ildikó Enyedi’s film, On Body and Soul, the unbearable lightness of being lingers on. As for me, I like Kundera’s voice. I like the brevity of his chapters, the digressions he allows himself, and the ways in which he weaves philosophical reflection with parallel narratives operating on different timelines. I like that Kundera thinks that he likes love and understands loneliness even though I have problems with his presentation of those things. He expresses a longing, a resignation, a struggle, a refusal, and an expression of thanks that many of us share even if we negotiate it differently (indeed, how can anyone be expected to consistently and adequately negotiate such contradictory things every day, all at once?). I enjoyed this book.
1. Hyenas (1992) directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty.
Continuing with my foray into African cinema, I decided to watch Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Senegalese adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play, The Visit (although I felt it could have equally been a Senegalese adaptation of Greek tragedy). On one level, this is a story of vengeance and justice and the lies, greed, and cruelty that are often just below the surface of the lives of highly praised and well respected civic and moral authorities. On another level (and this is what I think really makes the movie great – apart from Mambéty’s technical prowess and the glimpse it also provides us into another world – and sometimes what is glimpsed is breathtaking, like the young person dancing when the bull is killed), this is the story of colonization and how the colonizers don’t only colonize and transform a land, they also colonize and transform the people of the land, their sense of justice, of right and wrong, and of who they are and where they belong in the order of things (or, at least, a good many of them – although, of course, this transformation usually takes place at the end of a gun or at the end of a period of prolonged and enforced starvation). Thus, when the wealthy woman (Linguère) who was once grievously harmed by the protagonist (Draman) returns to the village of her youth (a village where everyone is abjectly poor and in desperate need of help) and offers them millions of dollars (along with fair rides, new boots from Burkino Faso, Cuban cigars, and top notch fans and refrigerators from Europe) to kill the man who nearly killed her (and who ultimately forced her into a life of prostitution leading to her literal dismemberment), the villagers respond: “We are still Africans. We are civilized people. We won’t kill for money.” But Linguère knows that those who own everything (and she has already bought the lands of and around the village because it is rich in oil and other resources but has not get begun to drill or mine in order to keep the villagers poor and unemployed) can afford to wait for those who own nothing to (die or) change their minds. Thus, when Draman is finally summoned to Court (after the town turned out to watch him depart only to prevent him from getting on the train because they were saying farewell to him – one of the best scenes in the movie, in my opinion), we know how it is going to end. This was a very well done film. If others have recommendations to make from the world of African film, I’m happy to hear them!
2. I, Tonya (2017) directed by Craig Gillespie.
I struggle with the mockumentary-ish, biopic genre of film and often think the movies that deploy it are overrated (recent examples include Kate Plays Christine and Casting JonBenet) but, because I, Tonya received such consistently glowing reviews, I decided to check it out. I’m mostly glad I did. The film heavily favours Tonya Harding’s version of events but, given her life, her mother, her husband, and all that she suffered, this feels appropriate (even though it might not be 100% truthful… although it might be pretty damn close… which leads to the bigger question of how we go about understanding truthiness when evaluating this kind of story and why truthiness is a thing that matters her – I’d like the hear Nancy Kerrigan’s thoughts). That said, I didn’t like some of the ways in which Gillespie told this story. I felt that a fair bit of the violence was played up for shock value (Tonya’s husband smashes her face through glass on not one but two occasions — the first time against a hallway mirror, the second time against a picture that was hung behind glass). I also thought the way in which Gillespie had characters break the fourth wall was used in a sporadic and inconsistent way that felt less and less useful as the film progressed. He gets away with it because Tonya Harding’s story, especially as told by Tonya and the people who were close to her, is fascinating. I have mixed feelings about this.
3. My Life as a Zucchini (2016) directed by Claude Barras.
For those of us situated on the colonized lands of Turtle Island, it is sometimes very refreshing to watch children’s movies from other nations, particularly nations where English isn’t the first language. My all-time favourite of suc films is probably Song of the Sea but, if one really wants a kids’ film that is not only non-Disney but anti-Disney, one need look no further than Kirikou and the Sorceress (A Cat in Paris and Nocturna also come to mind). I feel like Barras’ film sits somehwere between Song of the Sea and the latter films. My Life as a Zucchini is a stop-motion animation made for kids, that tells the story of a boy who ends up at an orphanage after he accidentally kills his drunken mother and where he meets several other kids who have survived abuse, abandonment, and hurt. It deals with adult themes (which, it should be noted, children have to deal with all the time), and does so in a way that doesn’t dumb them down. But it also doesn’t rush to show everything that is implied or spoken about (Barras is no Haneke and thank god for that). The characters are very real and no attempt is made to romanticize the gentler ones or villianize the rougher ones. These are children learning to live, survive, thrive, function, or simply look someone else in the eye, in all the messy ways that we learn these things – sometimes hurting each other, sometimes helping each other, nobody arriving with a map or a guidebook, nobody anything less than a human child. I thought this was a great film. It made me uncomfortable at a few points (I didn’t know where it was going to draw the line at times both in what it showed and what topics were discussed by the characters, but I think it did an excellent job drawing lines where it did and the discomfort felt appropriate not exploitative), and my appreciation for it only grew the more I thought about it. Recommended viewing.
1. One of Us (2017) directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady gave us Jesus Camp back in 2006 (a film that caused even Christian Bible College students to pause and exclaim, “woh… what the fuck is up with that??”) and now offer an equally disturbing glimpse into an Hasidic Jewish community in New York City. They know how to find stories about the darker sides of faith communities (and all faith communities have their darker sides and, among these darker sides, all of them have elements involving the physical, sexual, emotional, and intellectual abuse of women and children and the communal protection of the powerful men who abuse others). These stories, once found, can practically tell themselves (as, for example, took place when Chrystal Moselle stumbled onto the Angulo brothers whom she portrays in The Wolfpack). You don’t need a lot of technical prowess to make a movie with this group of people and have it be a hit. For the most part, I felt Ewing and Grady packaged everything together fairly well (although the “reveal” of the appearance of one of the characters felt somewhat contrived). That said, while their focus has shifted from white, bougie Evangelical Christians in the American South to Hasidic Jews in New York City, One of Us still feels like a sequel to Jesus Camp (which, tangentially, puts a fun little twist on Christian supersessionism). Jesus Camp focuses on children who are being exploited and abused or trained to abuse others and One of Us looks at what becomes of those children when they become adults – some go on to abuse others in horrible ways, and others go on to leave the community of faith at great personal risk, suffering terrible losses along the way. This is not a happy story and, for those with any experience of a community that seeks to close itself off from the outside world, it is an all-too-familiar story. Not that the so-called “outside world” is any better (patriarchal violence is neither limited to the religious nor to the sectarians). However, what I think this illustrates is the way in which any community with firmly entrenched hierarchies of power, wherein a large number of people are dominated by a small number of people who are not accountable to anyone, well, any community structured in this way is doomed to fail to live up to its ideals and will, inevitably, become a place where the most vulnerable are abused, exploited, drained dry, and then cast aside and left for dead. The solution, in other words, isn’t atheism. It’s anarchism.