peteg's blog


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At the The Cinemateque on a rainy but not too cold Vancouver evening, 8:10pm session. Their noir festival is coming to an end. This single feature set me back $CA11 and $CA3 annual membership which I probably won't get to exercise again; if I'd been keener I could have taken in the double feature for $CA14 + membership. This one gets a bit self-satirizing at times and things become twisty without much support: the main thread is the desperate search by an accountant from a small town in San Francisco and Los Angeles for his own murderer. Fun.

Nadeem Aslam: The Blind Man's Garden.

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Having broken my moratorium on new hardware back in July, I figured it was time I tried out some kind of ebook reader. To that end I bought a Kindle Voyager from Amazon a few weeks back, which got delivered on Wednesday past. Again on Pankaj Mishra's recommmendation, I extracted this book from the Chicago Public Library. Their game is to shunt you off to a third-party website and ultimately Amazon. In brief, the device is heavier than I hoped. The backlight is much stronger than I expected, and painfully white. Dries suggested cranking it down to the lowest setting, which helps. I've also found that the glass is annoyingly reflective when using the light in the ceiling. It works fine in sunlight. The interface is clunky but usable. A year since release, it still seems that the Voyage is unrootable.

This novel is brutally unsentimental. It is in some ways a complement to Pynchon's Bleeding Edge, examining the impact of 9/11 on the people living somewhat near Peshawar (specifically Heer), and how they conceive of Westerners (cf Shamsie's A God in Every Stone, set roughly eighty years previous). The conflict is multifaceted and internecine, with ambiguous connections amongst the players; the ISI (let alone the Pakistani military or civilian government) is shown to have only a tenuous grip on many of its (ex-)operatives, and their methods are rapacious and clearly unsound (whatever their desired outcome). Despite the language barrier some kind of mutual understanding arises an American special forces infidel lug and a local street-smart survivor who ends up at the pointy end of the narrative, more often than not. The women here are a long way from free, and romance is mostly of the thwarted, pining kind. Aslam is unflinching in portraying the aspects of Islamic doctrine that conflict with modern Western thought.

Aslam is sometimes very fine in the small, but mostly just lets the events speak in a tight, unyielding, keenly-detailed workman-like style that often approaches but never quite achieves the sustained crystalline clear-sightedness of Atticus Lish's. He ratchets the tension up in way that early-on made me think I'd missed something. Also he provides many motifs with meanings that I probably missed, such as the snow leopard cub: can these be tamed? I'm going to have to track down his earlier work.

I mostly finished this off on the plane taking me from Chicago to Vancouver for ICFP.

Four Corners

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Another freebie at the Chicago Cultural Center. 6.30pm. Cool-ish day that topped out under 20 degrees. This is a solid peace of Capetown gangland pseudo-realism / chess romanticism / growing up ghetto, the sins of the father and so forth. The humour certainly helped. A Southern hemisphere Gomorrah? I don't think there was any Die Antwoord on the thumping soundtrack, despite it being released in 2014.

Mike Leigh: Career Girls

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1997, post-Naked. Excellent cast: Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman are perfect leads, Andy Serkis is a coked-up futures trader, Mark Benton a young man undergoing mental disintegration. Starts off funny, aims for poignant, misses, and that's OK.


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Bradley Cooper falls for a mentally-unwell Jennifer Lawrence. Again. This is something of a slasher garbed in period dramatic costume. Quite well shot, and the editing was not as bad I was led to believe. The raw material by Ron Rash is probably the wellspring of the meh.

Manohla Dargis.

Thomas Pynchon: Bleeding Edge

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Where to start. Roman W. suggested this one. I extracted it from the Chicago Public Library, where it is filed under popular fiction, mysteries. I don't usually read mysteries, and for that reason I may not have properly engaged with that aspect of it. This is Pynchon's take on 9/11 (starting p316) and the financialization craziness of the years following. And, as Roman reminds me, of the years before, and the bursting of the dotcom bubble. He does a good job of spelunking through the internet of the day and Silicon Alley, with the odd anachronism which may be nods to his younger readers and the time at which he was writing this. His cyberspace somewhat evokes William Gibson and made me wonder if it was going to be Wintermute at the bottom of the deep web; instead it was dead souls. To me that space was mapped out more by the dying protocols (NNTP, IRC, gopher) than HTTP or VRML; now it would be Bitcoin and TOR, and hacking Facebook's APIs. Perhaps it's Minecraft. I don't know, but I'm sure its corporate.

Pynchon jumps around a lot, and doesn't try to justify his heroine's actions too much; on occasion he seems surprised at what he's got her doing. There is a boatload of American sentimentality and myth-minting, and insights into communities that I will never have access to. I wonder what Pynchon expected to happen once there was plenty; surely not anything as unAmerican as an end to unnecessary suffering. Dissing the yuppies while glamorizing the startup parties and strip clubs seems a bit cheap, and we all have our moments when we dream of this complexity evaporating (p465), leaving us in a state of bucolic grace, everything back to normal, but with an internet of unbounded content. Is a Russian mobster with a heart of gold so very different to the prostitute of cliché? Pychon offhandedly paints the social spaces of New York City as so intrinsically valuable that every extant subculture will be studied in the future.

Chicago gets a capsule portrait which doesn't go much further than the Loop. His image of women hailing cabs (p412), arm raised to an empty street, is pure Americana to me, as is the easy familiarity with concealed-carry handguns. There are plenty of geek tropes wonderfully pressed into descriptive service, sometimes so apt that I wonder how non-geeks even experience those things. Take, for instance, his description of an IKEA store:

Like millions of other men around the world, Horst hates the Swedish DIY giant. He and Maxine once blew a weekend looking for the branch in Elizabeth, New Jersey, located next to the airport so the world’s fourth-richest billionaire can save on lading costs while the rest of us spend the day getting lost on the New Jersey Turnpike. Also off it. At last they arrived at a county-size parking lot, and shimmering in the distance a temple to, or museum of, a theory of domesticity too alien for Horst fully to be engaged by. Cargo planes kept landing gently nearby. An entire section of the store was dedicated to replacing wrong or missing parts and fasteners, since with IKEA this is not so exotic an issue. Inside the store proper, you walk forever from one bourgeois context, or “room of the house,” to another, along a fractal path that does its best to fill up the floor space available. Exits are clearly marked but impossible to get to. Horst is bewildered, in a potentially violent sort of way. “Look at this. A barstool, named Sven? Some old Swedish custom, the winter kicks in, weather gets harsh, after a while you find yourself relating to the furniture in ways you didn’t expect?”

The whole thing is a bit overwhelming. Pynchon is a lot of fun, and I'm certainly going to keep ploughing through his other stuff.

Windy City Playhouse: Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight by Peter Ackerman.

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Goldstar ticket: $12.50 (house seating) + $4.00 service fee = $16.50, booked 2015-08-11. Beautiful cycling conditions, just a light and slightly cool wind later in the evening. I finished reading Pynchon's Bleeding Edge at Heritage Bicycles, and then hurried dinner at Royal Thai on Montrose, an adequate chicken cashew.

Got upgraded to "sit anywhere", so sat in the front row in a swivel seat. Not optimal, but all the seats had their drawbacks. It was perhaps two-thirds full, and the crowd mostly older than me. This is a clothes-on sex farce, and barely amounts to a piece of fluff. The first half had some spirit, but the second half chose not to cash those chips, perversely settling instead for repetition on the theme of "is he gay or what". I was unsettled as things became quite disconnected at some point, and I think the take-home was that everything is forgivable. The material pulls its punches at the end by not invoking the obvious racial slur, which would have further deflated things I'm sure, but perhaps given those on their date nights something to talk about afterwards.

I beat the Google bicycling hero benchmark for the route home, which probably means it's about time for autumn.

Tony Adler. Jacob Davis.

Citizens' Relief: Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter.

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Goldstar ticket: $10.00 + $3.75 service fee = $13.75, bought 2015-08-09. A beautiful night to ride over to Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art near the corner of Chicago/Milwaukee. (These guys improbably control the domain I had a Revolution Brewing WIT (wheat beer? — ale with spices) in a can. This being early in the run, there were only three audience members, which was a shame. Apparently there there 25 on opening night this Thursday past. Citizen's Relief consists of the actors Simone Jubyna and Mike Driscoll who self-direct. Both donned English accents. Simone as Rebecca is suitably arch and somewhat robotic/medicated. Mike as Devlin is creepy in his reassured, unreflectively stolid British self absorption. The material, perfect for a simple set and this pair of actors, is a somewhat unsettling not-quite-dialogue that jars with domestic banality. Vintage Pinter, in other words.

New City Stage. Justin Hayford at the Reader.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

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David S suggested this as something by Spike Lee worth seeing. Brooklyn, 1989, a boiling hot summer's day, so what are you going to do but open up a fire hydrant and set fire to the neighbourhood pizzeria? Lee himself puts in an agreeably ambiguous piece of acting, those eyes assessing, judging, playing the angles, presenting both the MLK and the Malcolm X view of things. Danny Aiello gets some help from John Turturro in representing at the Italian outpost, and flirts hamfistedly with the communalistic Joie Lee. She goes MIA when things get scorching. That's Samuel L. Jackson on the radio, making it with his voice only, and not too much MFing swearing. Lee struck some gold with the Korean shopkeepers, especially the wife, who somehow identify as black and are eventually deemed sufficiently black for their store to survive. Mostly this is a portrait of how the races mix, for the climax is a (relatively) uninspired take on the seemingly eternal killing of black men by police. I never realised that Michael Franti sounds so much like Chuck D. Time to add Public Enemy to the never-shortening list of things to check out.

Roger Ebert: four stars as a "great movie" in 2001. Vincent Canby at the time.

K'na, the Dreamweaver

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A freebie at the Chicago Cultural Center. 6.30pm, packed with oldies and hangers-on from the local Philippines consulate. Part of a series of a series of screenings of international (marginal) movies. Some charming naivety, but mostly just naivety. It was a beautiful night for cycling, even with mild headwinds.

Their blurb:

Dir. Ida Anita Del Mundo, Philippines, 2014, 85 min. On the Mindanao islands, the young T’boli princess K’Na discovers the gods have chosen her to be the village dreamweaver. As such, she has the ability to weave together the local warring tribes, but to do so, she must give up her one true love. Special Jury Prize winner at the Cinemalaya Festival, this mythic tale beautifully intertwines themes of passion with tradition and duty. Filipino, Tagalog with subtitles.

New York Times.

Ron Rash: Nothing Gold Can Stay

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Rash always gets solid write ups in the New York Times. Here is Janet Maslin on this one. Every story parks us in North Carolina, often the Appalachians, the odd nod to Chapel Hill and education. Almost all are, at heart, get-the-eff-outs, and that's not something I need to read more about. On the positive, I was pleasantly surprised by his reference to The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy as some kind of must-read for those coming of age, though it comes in an uninspired tale of youthful intellect squandered by drug addiction. The last — Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out — broke the mold and was therefore the most successful. Elsewhere Rash is unfailing in technique but merely toying with variations on tired themes, and all the drop-you-in-cold introductions and twisty endings can't make up for that. (For instance, Something Rich and Strange struck me as a complement to one of Raymond Chandler's well-mined pieces. But maybe that's all that comes to mind about dead girls in rivers. And Bruce Springsteen canvassed similar escapist, wastrel topics as this collection from his more-northerly vantage.)

I didn't realise that Rash wrote the original material and the screenplay of Serena, which got universally panned.

Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49

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A non-scifi suggestion from David S. Roman W. suggested I instead commence my Pynchon campaign with Bleeding Edge. Always late to the party, I hedged my bets by borrowing both from the Chicago Public Library, and went with the shorter. Pynchon is so of his time, and sometimes so obscure, that there's a wiki to help you trainspot his references. (I made no use of it however.) He may leave us hanging, unlike a bloke taking a Brody, but the wiki does not. Is this some kind of meditation on the American founding mythologies, or a precursor to Fear and Loathing in all its world-weary glory? (Like the latter it contains a fragment of the American Dream, before the squashing of the recreational drug culture got serious in the later 1960s.) I think the thing with Pynchon is that you don't have to choose. Just so long as you like shaggy dog stories, in this instance told from the perspective of competing postal services. Which makes me wonder what the Coen brothers would have made of Inherent Vice.

I was all set up to be let down by the ending, and wasn't.

The Big Knife

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As full of zingers as a Howard Hawks, and it seems quite amazing that something so scathing and ultimately nihilistic got made by Hollywood. Rod Steiger is awesome, in the full on mode that Brando and Pacino brought to the Godfathers. It's a shame he has so few scenes. Jack Palance gets loads of great lines. Not so much fun as trainwreck.

Smiley Coy: What's she doing here? [apropos Charlie's sort-of separated wife]
Charlie Castle: Cheap serf labor... I pay her by the lifetime.

The Gift

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$12.64 at the AMC River East 21, 4.45pm session. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, for otherwise I would not have bothered seeing something starring Rebecca Hall (after her abysmal capitulation to Woody Allen in Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Jason Bateman is fine in the lead, and Edgerton deals himself perhaps the toughest hand in playing the damaged Gordo. Why did he want to tell this story? It has some antecedents in Lantana, of misfaith in marriage and recovery from trauma. It was totally unclear to me why the leads got hitched; is she so unreflective/absorbed in her interior decorating that she doesn't see his bullying until it cannot be ignored? It indeed subverts expectations at every turn, and only really disappoints when it doesn't.

Stephen Holden.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer. (2015)

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Extracted from the Chicago Public Library. I feel like we saw the same movies: Apocalypse Now, Once Upon a Time in America, Fight Club, Infernal Affairs, 1984, right up to the last bit of torture porn, which must have been Zero Dark Thirty or some other flag waver that I drew the line at. Yes, the Vietnamese I met in St Louis called Chicago chick a go (p66). Nguyen consciously, with occasional ostentatious bravery, nibbles on the (white man's) hand that feeds: he keenly observes (p180) that Country is white man's music which sounds like a fine analysis until Google tells you that Country has been called "the white man's blues" and we're back to watching the same movies. The General's army, assembling east of L.A., are rag-tag space monkeys. The mole was not played by Tony Leung, nor the General's apparently luscious daughter by Maggie Cheung. The clash of civilizations (p250) is tired and wants to retire. (Dr Hedd is a pastiche of horrorshow cold warrior intellectual armchair generals.) He struck a chord on the topic of American happiness (p245):

So, [Englishman Hedd] said, are you happy? It was an intimate question, nearly as personal as asking about my salary, acceptable in our homeland but not here. What was worse, however, was that I could not think of a satisfactory answer. If I was unhappy, it would reflect badly on me, for Americans saw happiness as a moral failure and thought crime. But if I was happy, it would be in bad taste to say so, or a sign of hubris, as if I was boasting or gloating.

I agree with Andrew X. Pham that it was a compelling read. I'm less certain that it was audacious. See Nam Le on ethnic lit.

Philip Caputo wrote a lengthy review at the New York Times. I think I enjoyed the overwriting more than the writing.

It later won a Pulitzer for fiction.

The Poor Theatre: Take Me Back at Collaboraction, Flat Iron Arts Building.

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$16.00, bought 2015-07-22. 2pm, which is a little early for a matinee. The closing session. Hasty lunch at the Subway near the corner of Division and Halsted. Quite pleasant cycling weather, especially with pumped-up tyres. I saw The Paranoid Style in American Politics in the same theatre recently. This company put on Edgar and Annabel a while back, with Dillon Kelleher starring in both. Alex Fisher was Matchbox in Desperate Dolls; here she plays a natural/neutral highschool sweetheart. Susan Monts-Bologna (as the mother) and Juliana Liscio (small-time partner in crime) were new to me. It was a good production with good actors with polished but not great raw material (from Emily Schwend); it's far too easy for Southern Gothic to slide into sentimentality, or small-town woe-for-those-who-never-escaped (from Muskogee, Oklahoma in this instance). Far better to take it to the limit.

Justin Hayford at the Reader. Jacob Davis is less gushy. Scott C. Morgan observes the excellent sound design.

Shaun the Sheep Movie

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$12.00 at the Icon Showplace, 4.35pm screening. A new claymation from Aardman? Hold me back! Unfortunately I think we're past the point of diminished returns; this one is sometimes funny but not as clever as Wallace and Gromit. OK, I'm asking too much. I haven't seen the TV series either, and things might work better in smaller concussive doses.

Neil Genzlinger pretty much spells it all out.

The Prophecy

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A suggestion of erstwhile roomie Robert, on the strength of Christopher Walken. Ultimately more cutter than cookie amongst the pre-millenials; easily outshone by even Arnie's effort. It's nice to know that Lucifer (Viggo Mortensen) is on our side. Elias Koteas is not much of a leading man. Stoltz is identikit Pulp Fiction. There are two sequels, probably even less essential than this.

Leonard Cohen: Beautiful Losers

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From the Chicago Public Library. Execrable. I note that it was published before his first album was released. There is the odd decent turn of phrase and insight that he later became known for.

Maps to the Stars

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A recent David Cronenberg, and as you might expect, a bit strange. Mia Wasikowska reprises something of her role in Stoker, and it's a shame there was no room for Matthew Goode here. It got a little too much Boogie Nights and not enough Magnolia on the Julianne Moore front for me. I'd hope Robert Pattinson can find roles with more personality than the boy-toy he plays here. John Cusack effortlessly plays the soulless shrink.

A. O. Scott. Dana Stevens. Anthony Lane points to The Big Knife featuring Rod Steiger as something with more teeth.

The Ruling Class

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Another suggestion from David S:

In this movie, Peter O'Toole plays the new Earl of Gurney (the last one died wearing his naval uniform and a tutu in a fit of autoerotic asphyxiation). He also happens to think he is Jesus. His idle rich family try to change his disposition so that he won’t embarrass him when he goes to the House of Lords. Then things get weird. Great send up of the toffs with lovely musical numbers.

More at Wikipedia. I enjoyed it. Clearly of its day: the post-"I'm Jack" sequence nods to A Clockwork Orange's "I was cured alright!" and presages The Shining, and concerns around the AC-DC messiah (electro-convulsive therapy) also aired in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. O'Toole at his fruity best. Mike Leigh's A Sense of History is marginally more respectful.

Making Rain Productions: Coronado at the Cornservatory, 4210 N Lincoln.

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Goldstar ticket: $10.00 + $3.75 service fee = $13.75, bought 2015-07-14. Lunch was so-so Vietnamese chicken curry noodles at Simply IT followed by an attempt at snoozing next to the golf course at Belmont Harbor which was stymied by vast numbers of biting insects. Loads of dragonflies also, which don't seem to bother humans. Dinner was Singapore noodles at Asian Mix Cafe, similarly meh. Warm but not too humid for long bike rides.

This is something like the Dennis Lehane version of Gone Girl. The acting was quite solid but the scene changes were frequent and momentum-destroying; the play is cut up like a modern movie. The use of physically-dissimilar actors playing the same characters in different threads was an effective way of prolonging the mystery. The title had me going because I thought it referred to the actual locality in San Diego, whereas I think Lehane's Coronado is everywhere small-town USA, somewhere affected by hurricanes, with enough unsavvy trailer park residents to sustain a livelihood from insurance scams. The compromised shrink was little more than a cliché. The Gone Girl herself was a bit too controlling, to no particular end; her raw need was enough. The source material garnered a damning review in the New York Times.

The Cornservatory is one of those "shopfront" theatres a long way from the Loop, in this case up Lincoln (and not Broadway), and it typically hosts comedy. I rode home via Lincoln/Damen/Clybourn, trying to avoid the bros of Lakeview, lit by a big full-ish moon.