May 31, 2012

The Great Happiness Space

This is a fascinating documentary about host clubs in Japan. Host clubs are nightclubs for young women with money. They are staffed entirely by good-looking young men who essentially flirt with and play boyfriend to the girls who come to the club. It's a lucrative business, and the filmmaker, Jake Clennell, does an amazing job of revealing layer after layer of psychological insight into the staffers and the customers. He creates almost a mystery or suspense structure to the film as you learn surprising facts about both.

One interesting facet is the stress that the guys suffer from the day-in-day-out effort of being entertaining and pretending to be into the girls. The guys were surprisingly sympathetic, but to be on, to essentially be acting, for hours at a time takes a toll on them. It made me think of the work real actors do and what it takes to become someone else so fully. But at least with actors, everyone is in on the project, working together.

It also brought up questions of ethics. The girls are aware that they are paying for the boys' time and presence, but the boys are misleading them as well, pretending that they may be interested in something more, a real relationship. The entire dynamic is complicated by other facts that are revealed as the movie progresses, and some of the guys burn out not only on the stress and effort but their own moral queasiness.

May 30, 2012


This Argentinian film tells the story of Cristina, a teenager who finds out that, as a newborn, she was stolen from her disappeared parents during Argentina's Dirty War of the 1970s. It's not as put together as The Official Story (another, older film on the same topic) but it's extremely affecting.

May 29, 2012

Add to Your List of Best Cinematic Sex Scenes

The scene between Michael Fassbender's character and his coworker in Shame. It may end on a sad note, but it shows what great acting and great chemistry can achieve.

May 23, 2012

Three Words to Eliminate from Our Critical Vocabulary

Critics and readers fall into movements just as artists do. We rely on expressions that feel clever and current when we're expressing them but are really cliches in the making and lazy in the extreme. Here are three:

1. Just. As expressed by Hugh Laurie, defending the repetitive format of House (and the blues and opera and literature and all art), "If you preface your critique with 'just,' you can diminish and undermine the most complex structures."

2. Solipsistic. J. T. Bushnell writes in the latest issue of Poets & Writers that this is the go-to adjective of dislike for most critics of fiction. It's funny; find a website that features reviews of novels and search on it. You'll find a results list that looks like this:  ". . .  a solipsistic tendency . . ."  ". . . falls into the solipsistic error . . ."  ". . .  solipsistic in the extreme . . ."

3. Whiny. Used to dismiss all memoirs and most narrative art by/about women who are not poor. 

May 22, 2012

Extra Lives, by Tom Bissell

The best thing about this book, subtitled "Why Video Games Matter," is that it does a "close reading" of some of the biggest video games of the last few years. Much like a critic analyzing a sonnet, Bissell asks of each game  "Why does this work?" (or not). It turns out that video games have the same narrative challenges of any work of literature or film:  pacing, character, internal consistency (or the illusion thereof), transitions, mood, landscape. And it adds the components of sports: too easy and it's boring; too hard and it's no fun.

May 15, 2012

Some Good Writing about Acting

In honor of the end of House, Hugh Laurie wrote a column for Entertainment Weekly. He has some great stuff to say about acting and making film that works. He talks about the ensemble, how they worked like a chamber orchestra with "perfectly satisfying intervals, cadences, rhythms." And how much of modern acting is allowed to be sloppy, with the expectation that skilled editors will patch it together into something smooth. But, he says, "that could never have worked for House. The door to Wilson's office had to close between the words "malignant" and "melanoma," to punctuate the moment, not a half second earlier or later. The cap of the pill bottle had to snap jut before the patient turns his head from the window, or the moment would fail." Laurie, a professional musician as well as actor, continues his music analogy: "But enough with the looting and more than enough with my tooting. There were so many great horns in the brass section, far more than I can mention here" and goes on to mention costar Robert Sean Leonard and others.

I also like when he writes about the criticism that House was formulaic. He notes that formula is endemic to any human endeavor. "All blues songs are the same, all operas are the same, all games of basketball are definitely the same (to an English eye, anyway); in fact,  everything is the same, including critics, if you don't pay attention to their differences."

But here's my favorite passage of all:  "If you preface your critique with "just," you can diminish and undermine the most complex structures."

May 9, 2012

Twenty Years of Editing

Have taught me several things:

* Writing skill tends to be uniform within disciplines.

* Statisticians and textual critics are the best writers.

* Educators are the worst.

May 8, 2012

Hay Porn

Gawker recently had a great little piece titled "Verlyn Klinkenborg Must Be Stopped." For those who don't know, Klinkenborg is a New York Times heavyweight who writes a column called The Rural Life. He published a book under the same title that I read about a year ago and that I absolutely love. The Gawker article by Hamilton Nolan is really funny as he picks apart Klinkenborg's latest column on the topic of mud.

The funny thing is, I both wholly agree and wholly disagree with Nolan. His critique has you chuckling with recognition and my first reaction to The Rural Life was that it was yet another example of "hay porn."  Hay porn is what I call a newly popular form of nonfiction in which an obviously highly cultured writer describes his or her life in a rural community with an emphasis on how rich it is, how hardworking the people are, how profound the connection to the land, how simultaneously mundane and profound the sacrifices it requires. The writer is out there mending fences, keeping an eye on his new calf's health, and rubbing the loam between his fingers before coming inside to read Seneca, while you, reader, are playing videogames and eating Lean Cuisines. Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle is just one other entry in this burgeoning catalog.

Hay porn also delights in the particular and, to most, obscure language of farming and the natural world. It's poetic terms like "snow-matted goldenrod" and "deep, night-bright, iridescent black." But it's also, lest we mistake the farming life for a pastoral flight of fancy, "coiled larvae" and "quarter-sections of soybeans."

I have to say, though, that once I got over my defensiveness and my sense that the author is handing out what Jonathan Franzen calls a "backhanded boast," I found Klinkenborg to be wonderful. This is his life, after all. He's a wonderful writer, too, and I could fill a page with examples of his wonderful turns of phrases. But, more than that, following a mind that observes the natural world carefully makes you observe the world more carefully. Nolan mocks Klinkenborg for writing about stuff that no one knows about or cares about, but, once you start reading, you realize you do know about it. When he writes of March that "In every ditch, every hollow, a cold, sepia brew of last year's leaves was steeping in a basin of discolored ice," you know exactly what he's talking about; you see it in your own yard every winter. When he talks of an overcast day promising snow and says "by noon dusk seems to be in the offing" you can picture that too. And these recognitions make you feel included in the rich world of natural rhythms that he conveys. Because you are—you are part of that rich world.

This is what great literature does. It gives weight and significance to our experiences. That significance might be illusory, but it doesn't feel so when you're looking at the stars.

May 4, 2012


It's while playing Monopoly---at least for someone of my generation and background---that a child first learns that the universe is indifferent to their fate.

May 3, 2012

Women in the World

I have to plug this article in Foreign Policy for turning a light on a situation that is too often dismissed: the status of women in the world. This is THE revolution, the human rights challenge, of the twenty-first century.

May 2, 2012

"The Battle of Okinawa" by Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi

This work of art resides in the Sakima Art Museum on Okinawa, where one of the bloodiest battles of World War II was fought, at great civilian cost.

May 1, 2012

"The Golf Links"

In honor of May Day, and yesterday's Poem in Your Pocket Day, this poem by Sarah Cleghorn:

The Golf Links

The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.

Sarah Cleghorn was a Christian Socialist born in 1876. She published her first book of poetry in 1917.