“Modern Love” (From Carax’s Mauvais Sang)

Best/Worst Movie Titles of 2013

A brief disclaimer: I’ve never worked in feature film marketing, nor do I plan to. I don’t pretend to speak from any expertise here. I experience a gut-level reaction to words, an almost physical sensation. The reaction is especially strong to words or phrases spoken out loud, and is at times so severe I’ve wondered if I suffer from a minor form of synesthesia.

I’m constantly making mental note of the film titles that compel or repel me, and this year I’ve decided to type up a list. I’ll reiterate here and throughout the list that I do not intend to comment on the quality of the films themselves. This list is an attempt to comment on the titles on an aesthetic level alone.

Best titles:

blue_caprice_ver2Blue Caprice – I heard this title long before I ever knew what the film was and the two words were instantly drilled into my head. It’s a title vague and evocative enough to fire my imagination, but specific enough to make me wonder what the title refers to. Add to that the pleasure of the sound it makes: “Blue Caprice” is just a phrase that feels good when you say it or hear it. (as a side note: the title does in fact refer to the color and model of a notorious car driven by the beltway sniper. It’s worth pointing out that a very competent team of marketing people at Chevrolet probably spent weeks deciding on the name “Caprice” for its 1965 début; the Caprice went on to become one of the most popular cars in America. So it would be impossible to not count its success as a car title when considering its success as a film title in 2013).

Elysium – This is exactly the title studios should want for a big tent pole movie. It’s simple, one word, you can print it big on a poster/billboard/bus-wrap and it looks cool. Mention it to yr friends and they will know what yr talking about. It’s a brilliant single word title, sounds pleasing to the ear and feels good coming out of yr mouth.

In a World – What’s brilliant about this is that people who catch the reference immediately will know what they’re in for with the film, and people who don’t will still feel a sense of familiarity on an unconscious level, since they’ve undoubtedly heard these three words at the start of countless movie trailers.

The Conjuring – Great title for a horror movie. Doesn’t tell you anything about the plot but sounds definitively creepy and evocative.

Upstream Color – I’ve seen this film four times and I still have no idea what the title means. In all likelihood it’s a reference I’m not smart enough to catch, but it doesn’t matter to me at all. Whatever the case, it certainly sounds like it means something and upon hearing it I was instantly intrigued.

Simon Killer – Two words, each fairly innocuous. Call the movie Simon and it’s a yawn. Call it Killer and we’ve all heard it a thousand times in every language. But putting them together sparks something appealing.

Gravity – Another one word title, this time it’s a word we’ve all used before. Its use here as a title conveys the scope and importance of the film, but also its simplicity and relatability. The concept of gravity as a physical force affects every human on earth. And while the film offers a singular experience, the title suggests that it’s also one we can all understand.

The Iceman – Just sounds cool.

No One Lives – I cannot verify whether anyone in this movie actually does or does not live. Regardless, it’s a bold and eye-catching claim.

Only God Forgives – How this is not already the name of a successful Wu-Tang Clan solo record I’ll never know. It also should have already been the name of some pulpy novel by Jim Thompson or John D. MacDonald. I love the idea that Nicolas Winding-Refn thinks in such a perfect Venn diagrams of American pop-culture.

Worst titles:

Short Term 12 – I don’t want to bash on indies that don’t have dozens of high-paid marketing execs to design their titles and ad-campaigns. I’ve been told by many trusted friends that this movie is one of the best things that happened in 2013. But the title Short Term 12 is atrocious. I’d say it’s this year’s Margin Call. What the hell is a short term 12? I still haven’t seen it so I can’t tell you for sure. I could guess but nothing I can come up with makes the movie sound appealing. I can’t understand such a cold, institutional title for what was apparently a life-affirming character drama.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler – I don’t need to add to the pile here. And it’s not Lee’s fault that his last name ends with an S, but that’s just the cherry on top of everything that makes this title suck so bad.

The Way Way Back – I’ve had a hard time articulating why I hate this so much. It’s one of those titles that makes me feel like I just threw up in my mouth. Or makes me think of a 43-year-old white guy wearing a Run-DMC t-shirt. Neither makes me want to pay 15 dollars.

Girl Most Likely – To do what? What is likely about her? Why is this the title of anything? Is the entire movie a question about what she is likely to do? This tells me nothing and offers only confusion.

stoker_xlgFruitvale Station – I understand there is a real train station called Fruitvale and that this film is the story of something very tragic that happened there. It’s clear why they chose this title but it doesn’t make me not hate it. Back in the festival circuit it was called simply Fruitvale. But Fruitvale sounds like the name of a cheap online game, like Candycrush or Farmville. Adding the word Station helps a little but not nearly enough. One way to solve the problem would have been an overlong title like The Shooting at Fruitvale Station,  because at least then the title offers some reason to see the movie at all. It’s about a shooting, not a fun, fruity, train station. I think what they were going for here is actually the same effect that I mentioned earlier with regards to Blue Caprice or the same title method going back to something like United 93. The problem is those two true stories just happen to sound good and the word Fruitvale just plain sucks.

Stoker – I loved this movie but I didn’t know going in whether it was a horror movie or not. Are there vampires in it? Why is it called Stoker? This is a huge problem because these are questions most people just weren’t curious about answering and subsequently no one saw this movie. Stoker may be a great sounding word but it apparently wasn’t enough to catch anyone’s attention.

Berberian Sound Studio – Awesome movie. Total mess of a title. No one knows how to say it, and even if you do get it right, it still sounds dumb.

Cutie and the Boxer – I hate everything about this. The word Cutie is instantly cloying and just kills me. Beyond that, it sounds like a comic strip from the 1950s. Everything about it repels me.

Drug War – Was Crime Movie already taken or something? I doubt you could program a computer to come up with a more generic title.

Here Comes the Devil – I’ll file this under the Let the Right One In category of “Titles That Sound Like Game Shows.” I can just see the studio audience shouting in unison “HERE… COMES.. THE… DEVILLLLL!” Not really the best vibe for an apparently gnarly horror movie.

Charlie Countryman – Used to be called The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, which goes along with my least favorite title equation, The [Life/Death] of [Character I Don’t Know at All Yet]. It’s their own bad luck that Charlie Countryman is a horrible phrase. There was no saving this at all.

Labor Day – When I first heard it I assumed this was the third in the New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day trilogy of Hollywood bullshit. Apparently it’s some kind of serious, touching, coming of age story. But how would this bland bullshit title tell me that at all?

Oldboy – To be clear: I am not ganging up on the flop of the year here. I’m talking about the remake of the cult classic Korean revenge thriller, both based on a Japanese manga and all three titled Oldboy. What I mean here is, analytically, why is this action/thriller starring Josh Brolin, directed by Spike Lee called Oldboy? Obviously they are hoping to appeal to a broader audience than simply manga readers or Korean film experts. So I see no reason to adhere to the source material as far as the title is concerned. The word Oldboy is almost devoid of any connotative meaning which would actually make people interested in this as a film experience. In a vacuum, the word Oldboy means almost nothing–this guy is an old friend or a rascal of some sort I guess. This would be like titling the Great Gatsby movie Old Sport. I can’t imagine anyone paying to see a massive summer tentpole starring Leonardo DiCaprio called Old Sport, and by that logic, the failure of Oldboy doesn’t seem surprising at all.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – I don’t know for sure, but the story this film is based on may be the originator of this awful title equation [ed. note—it is]. But being the first doesn’t get you off the hook. Of course I take particular issue with the designation of this being about Mr. Mitty’s “secret life”. Of course what it implies is that this guy’s actual life is very boring, otherwise we wouldn’t need to hear about his “secret” life. I recognize that this is the part of the story, but all I can see are giant billboards with Ben Stiller’s face and the words Boring Guy underneath.

Benjamin Davis Collins is a screenwriter. You can read the titles of some of his screenplays here; he rounded up good/bad movie titles at Biblioklept in 2011. Check out a short film he wrote called This Must Be the Only Fantasy.

Late to Love: Bret Easton Ellis

In high school I bought American Psycho from Barnes & Noble and read it in a few weeks. I knew it was full of awful, horrible stuff that I would never be able to forget but I did it anyways. I was fascinated, revolted; I laughed out loud. I became that one guy that burst everyone’s bubble by telling them that the movie sucked or at least totally missed the point of the book (whatever point there might have been) and that it also left out every one of the funniest scenes, and, oh that the ending was total bullshit. People would ask me if I “liked” the book and I would evasively respond: “I don’t know if it’s a book one can actually like…” or “I don’t know if like is the right word…”—and just generally avoid making any kind of decision about the book, or its author, that prince of darkness Bret Easton Ellis.

But Bret Easton Ellis intrigued me. Later, when the film Rules of Attraction came out I saw it in the theater by myself and purchased the DVD. It was a much better film than AP, and that was satisfying to me in some way. I didn’t read the book, nor was I moved to seek out Less Than Zero, although at some point I found Glamorama at a used store and bought it for the heck of it, but I don’t think I ever even tried to read it. I was interested in BEE but only from afar. He had definitely scarred me with AP. It was a singular experience at the time and (to this day has maybe been matched only by Jerzy Kosinski with my combined readings of Steps and The Painted Bird). I wasn’t really looking to be haunted in that way any time soon.

I can still remember where I was when I heard about Lunar Park. I read about it at The New York Times, on the family computer at a friend’s parents’ house in Rutland Vermont. I saw that Ellis had a new book, skimmed the article, and saw mention of “meta” elements, the use of a character named “Bret Ellis” who was decidedly not intended to be the actual author of the book, but rather a sort of parallel dimension version of BEE who had settled down in the suburbs and had kids. This was all interesting to me and I made the mental note, “Read Lunar Park.” That was in August 2005.

Fast forward to May 2010. In the five years since Lunar Park came out everything about my life has changed. I am living in Los Angeles pursuing a career in screenwriting. I have been married for a year and I have an apartment and two cats. And it is in this apartment that I come across a VICE interview with the man himself, on the eve of the publication of his new novel Imperial Bedrooms. I find myself reading the interview and it dawns on me that I have never read or heard this man speak, I’ve barely seen photographs of him, and that basically everything I think I know about him has been pure conjecture derived from conversations over the years.

My idea of Bret Ellis as this detached, cynical, deviant creature is immediately thrown out the window by seeing pictures of him wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sitting at a desk. In some of the photos green palm trees can be seen behind him and it becomes clear very quickly in the interview that he now lives in Los Angeles as well. I end up reading the entire article and thinking that Ellis is just a guy like anyone else, not especially pretentious or malevolent, as he had been accused of being by people I had spoken with at times. And what’s more he made reference to “the Stephen King part” of Lunar Park.

My mind exploded.

What Stephen King part? I remembered and reinstated my mental note: “Read Lunar Park.”

And a few weeks later, as though on cue a beautiful hardback first edition copy of LP appeared at the used book stand at my neighborhood farmer’s market. I bought it on a Saturday morning and opened as I was cooking lunch, expecting to get a taste and maybe read a page or two while the food cooked. I ended up sitting on the couch for the entire day reading. That night I couldn’t wait for my wife to fall asleep so I could sit up late and maybe finish, and I started to do just that until I became so frightened by the story that I literally had to put it away until it was light outside. I had a little trouble sleeping that night but ultimately it was okay, and the next day I finished the book. Immediately I was on the phone telling friends to read it. I made several of my local friends borrow my copy and one-by-one everyone came back to me with the same positive report, and regardless of their previous experience or lack-there-of with Ellis’s writing, everyone who read it adored it.

My admiration extended past just the book or my experience reading it. It reconciled the past and my memories and suddenly I found myself saying “I like Bret Easton Ellis” or even going so far as to thinking of myself as a fan of his. I slowly started keeping up with his online presence, (going so far as even joining Twitter just to follow him) and I find the experience genuinely rewarding. Don’t get me wrong: he’s obviously a weird guy sometimes (anyone who could write the habitrail scene in AP would have to be I guess) and I don’t always agree with his randomly asserted opinions about books and movies (I disagree in particular with him about music: our tastes are just simply different). But overall, I think he has a valid and useful perspective on culture and entertainment. Perhaps some of the detractors still see him as the austere, decadent, nihilistic provocateur that I feared and resented in high school, but I have an impossible time jiving that notion with the man who tweeted recently that he had been talked into getting really stoned and going to see The Lorax.

And I guess this all ties in with his recent series of tweets that he is considering a pseudosequel to American Psycho. Suddenly, this proposition seemed so appealing. It’s been twelve years since I read AP, and in that time I don’t think I’ve ever opened it again, and now suddenly I find myself wanting more, hoping that Ellis decides to go through with it.

So yesterday in excited anticipation I went down to the farmer’s market and this time the used book guy had two beautiful paperback copies of Rules of Attraction and Less Than Zero. I bought them both. Even if Ellis does convince himself to write the Los Angeles Patrick Bateman story, it will be years before it will be published and in my hands, so I guess I need to relax and catch up on everything I missed out on so far.

Worst Review Tactics

“It’s like [name of thing you love]only so much better!”

Has this ever happened to you? A friend or a “professional” reviewer of books, movies, records, etc. tries to sell you on some new thing by citing a comparison to something you love and then insulting that thing by telling you this new thing is aesthetically superior, the platonic ideal only glimpsed at by the thing you already love, exclaiming, “You should be so pumped to abandon that thing you already love in favor of this new thing that I am suddenly telling you is the more appropriate thing to admire!”

What’s funny about all this is that the reviewer/friend is really only trying to connect with you, to personalize their recommendation within a framework they know you will understand. But often, by going this route, they inadvertently demean your love for whatever the thing is, and what ends up happening (for me anyway) is the exact opposite response they were trying to get from me:

I end up hating this new thing.

The earliest example I can remember happened in college when I was on the phone with a dear friend when he asked (unfortunately):

“Have you heard this album Michigan by this guy Sufjan Stevens? It’s basically like Jim O’Rourke’s Eureka but the songwriting and arrangements are way better”

And on that day, at that moment, I gave birth to an infinite unquenchable hatred for Sufjan Stevens.

And why exactly did this happen? Because my discovery of Jim O’Rourke, (which had occurred a year or so before that conversation) was as close to a life-changing event as is possible with the consumption of art. Jim O’Rourke represents the nexus of so many wide-ranging creative ideas and disciplines, the perfect marriage of avant-garde and pop, melody and dissonance, improv and structure, (etc.) that I was obsessed with him to the point that he became a kind of index of creativity for me; I sought out every band or artist he had worked with; I read every interview with him published on the internet; I even kept a running Word doc where I copied and pasted the titles of any book or movie or album (or anything) that he mentioned liking.

 A brief list of a few of my favorite things I learned about via Jim O’Rourke:

John Fahey

Tony Conrad

Dusan Makavejev

Robert Downey Sr.

Derek Bailey

Faust

CAN

Whitehouse

Arthur Russell

Merzbow

Ray Russell

Bill Fay

Van Dyke Parks

Kevin Drumm

Masayuki Takayanagi

Otomo Yoshihde

Keiji Haino

Judy Sill

Curt Boetcher

Nic Roeg

Luc Ferrari

Robbie Basho

Robert Wyatt

Ivor Cutler

Smog

Scott Walker

And the list can go on and on. Basically this man is my hero. And my friend knew this when he called me; maybe he didn’t quite know the depth and breadth of my love, but he knew as much as I was able to communicate verbally. And he certainly knew that at the time Eureka was my favorite of Jim’s albums. (I’ve since decided that Insignificance is the superior of that era of Drag City albums, although I prefer his instrumental, electronic or improve records to the songwriting ones in general).

So what was my friend expecting me to do in response to his absurd claims? Drop all my built up love for the guy who has had the biggest influence on my creative life and suddenly take up with some dude whose name I couldn’t even pronounce yet? At his insistence I picked up Sufjan’s album and listened to a few songs, but all I was really doing was picking it apart, looking for all the ways it simply did not stack up to Eureka. Because of course, how could it stack up? That’s an impossible proposition considering the circumstance. I’m even willing to say that in a “blind taste test” situation it may be possible that 9 out of 10 listeners would prefer Sufbag Stevens to my Jim but I don’t care, I was and am so biased it’s not even worth pursuing.

So why am I thinking of all of this now?

Well the other day a dear, dear friend of mine wrote an article for NPR music where he outrageously overpraised an upcoming album by singer/composer Julia Holter—and it has been driving me nuts for the week or so since he posted it.

I should preface by saying that my friend’s taste in music is among the sharpest most well-rounded of anyone I know. I take his word on basically everything and there is a reason he has this NPR job: he is better informed about music than almost anyone and he can keenly articulate his thoughts. So when he writes about an album, I almost always give whatever it is a listen—and in most cases I wholeheartedly agree with him.

But in the first paragraph of this Julia Holter article, he pulls this shit on me, going straight for heart in the second sentence by referencing Scott Walker’s The Drift and Gaspar Noe’s film Enter The Void. My jaw dropped when he pulled those references; I may have spoken out loud to my wife, calling out to her in the other room, “Holy shit Lars just compared this girl to Enter the Void and Scott Walker!” Here’s Lars’s lede:

When the world is at the tip of anyone’s fingers, there’s little space for a true vanguard of sound. Think about it: When was the last time you heard or saw something entirely new? Experiences like Gaspar Noe’s film Enter the Void and Scott Walker’s album The Drift shook me to my core, and questioned my ideas of not only art, but also life itself. But trace the steps and you’ll find Ennio Morricone and Krzysztof Penderecki in Walker, or Kenneth Anger and 2001: A Space Odyssey in Noe.

One sentence further my heart was no longer the target; I felt that I had been kicked in the balls:

We’re a culture that recycles — no revelatory observation — but with Ekstasis, Julia Holter has created a radically new world from a crystalline Venn diagram of sound.

A “radically new world,” not recycled like Scott Walker or Gaspar Noe? So she’s more original than these mere recyclers? Well. Okay. I guess I’ll see about this.

And so with that attitude I approached the listening to Holter’s album, and I can’t shake the comparison, I can’t get past the bitterness, the sour taste in my mouth of having two of my favorite things evoked and then dismissed in favor of This Thing

I made it about halfway through Exstasis before I gave up. For all the grandstanding in the article, all I can hear is a younger Enya who is less interested in consonant melodies and who has probably seen Joanna Newsom live a few times–and even that description should sound cool to me! But it doesn’t. Lars’s overpraise acts as a numbing agent—sort of like when you eat pizza too soon out of the oven and it burns your tongue and you are doomed to taste less of the pizza for the rest of the meal, punished by the eagerness.

Am I crazy? Is this album really as good as Lars is claiming? I fear now I won’t ever be able to judge it accurately. All week I’ve been linking my friends to his article to try to gather responses from others to try to help me get a more holistic, less reactionary understanding of what is going on here. So maybe that’s why I was moved to write this article as well. Please tell me that I’m way off base and that Ekstasis is totally amazing or whatever. But if you harbor any love for Scott Walker or Gaspar Noé maybe just go ahead and avoid it.

Horse Movies Suck

So I hadn’t really put all the pieces together on this one until I found this wonderful article about Steven Spielberg’s stupid-looking new movie War Horse, basically paring the whole thing down as a gay metaphor. Hearing this Oscar-bait, bullshit family film cut down to size was bizarrely satisfying for me but I couldn’t understand why at first.

Or furthermore, why had I been so 100% dismissive of this entire movie from the moment I heard it announced like two whole years ago?

I mean Spielberg is undeniably a master filmmaker and is certainly responsible for two or three of the best American films ever made (The Terminal and Amistad obviously . . . oh, wait, I meant Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of The Crystal Skull and Jurassic Park: The Lost World . . . shit . . . I mean A.I. . . . oh never mind). And it’s not like this movie features dead-eyed, gross looking, CG-inflated cartoon characters, so what was driving my antipathy?

Then of course it hit me: Horse Movies suck.

Pretty much all of them. Horse Movies is maybe the worst genre in cinema history, with the possible exception of Poker Movies (but I’m still unpacking this, so I can get back to that). Why do I even know this though? How many Horse Movies can I even name?

Not that many: Black Stallion, Black Beauty, National Velvet (that was about horses right?), Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. And have I even seen any of these movies? Certainly not the two newer titles on that list, (those of the sub-subgenre: “Celebrity Horse Movie”) and I did somehow watch Wild Hearts Etc. with my wife at some point last year (it was an identical experience to my memory of watching it with my sister years prior; both times I’m pretty sure I was asked to leave the room by the end).

So what of the three old ones: Two Blacks and a Velvet? I have no idea what these movies are about, except that of course I do: they are about beautiful, powerful horses and the presumably young people who share a wordless bond with them. It is passionate. It is real. It is love. Pure and simple. I know this because all horse movies are about the same damn thing and also because I have some strange, unspeakable back-of-my-mind notion that somewhere in my childhood I was subject to abuses, of a cinematic kind, but apparently no less haunting, made to watch an endless stream of Horse Movies made for The Whole Family, because like every family in the suburban south mine loved horses.

Wait, no we didn’t. My Grandpa had been thrown from one as a child and suffers to this day from a fear of them that was passed down to me as a kind of darkly cautionary tale. “Don’t ever ride a horse,” he would tell me while I watched him fashion wooden swords for me out of scrap-wood from his garage workshop. As far as I know I have no memories of my father or mother riding or showing any interest in horses. So why of all movies did we gather around to watch Black Beauty on a Sunday night?

I have no idea.

All I do know is that I hated every minute of every one of those films. It isn’t something I think about very often, but reading that article sent me on quite a trip through the past. A past full of boring shitty memories of watching shitty Horse Movies.

War Horse looks like something I would have to watch with a babysitter when my parents had a party to go to or something. One of those times when they rent a movie for you as a surprise and you have that moment where maybe they are going to tell you it’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and then: nope, surprise War Horse. Have fun.

I should stop beating up on that movie though; it’s kind of unfair, especially since I haven’t seen it. I think I should attempt to focus instead on understanding why I hated/hate the Horse Movie genre. Obviously it all comes down to: taste in genre in any medium is so totally subjective it’s almost not worth attempting to understand or explain. Why some people have an endless appetite for reggae music and zombie movies is completely beyond me and obviously plenty of people would be equally baffled by my general enjoyment of free jazz and Space Horror (the genre of horror films that are all set in space, e.g. Leprechaun in Space and Event Horizon). So for me to say that all Horse Movies are in some ways the same is both obvious and redundant; of course they are, that’s what makes it a genre. All Boxing Movies are the same too, but I thought last year’s film The Fighter was totally amazing. So I will concede that there are people out there who just love all these Horse Movies that parents around world seem to jam down their kids throats year-after-year. These people want more more more. More horses! More shots of humans hugging horses and crying! I can only speculate what’s behind this reaction; if my own natural disinclination to theses films springs at least partly from an inherited fear of horses, then I must assume the opposite factor is at work in the hearts and minds of Horse Movie Lovers. These are people with a natural love of horses or people who perhaps have known the love of a good horse. (No laughing at that please. I am going to talk about Zoo later, but for now I still mean Innocent Love of horses).

So yeah, if you grew up around horses, or had your own horse, then I would bet that you get more out of Horse Movies than I do. If you’ve experienced this apparently near-mystical horse-human connection, then you are understandably going to be more affected by watching people like Tobey Maguire pretend to be having it as well. But as film genres go, some things are just more cinematic than others, and in my own subjective opinion certain things kind of automatically make for less engaging films. This is where the comparison to Poker Movies comes back. Poker Movies are really really really really really really really awful. Because poker itself is the most boring thing in the world to watch, unless of course you’re just WAY into poker, and if you are, you can spend hours watching those terrible celebrity poker tournaments because you can mentally project yourself into the game and sort of “play along” with them. Now, in most poker movies there is no actual poker going on, so the best you can hope for is that people who are way into poker will be entertained by just hearing their stupid familiar expressions — “Oh shit, he got two kings on the river” or whatever. Those of us who hate poker will be doubly bored because we have no intrinsic interest in the game, and we hate the terminology, (oh and you know that whole Poker Face thing? You know how in order to be good at poker you should be as blank and emotionless as possible? Yeah, you get it, watching actors act like they are playing poker means watching really expressive people NOT express anything for two hours).

So I’m taking the long way around here, but I think I just convinced myself that the Poker Movie is indeed The Worst Genre. Because while Poker and Love of Horses are both things that are totally un-cinematic, and interest in them in a movie is disproportionately dependent on the audience’s previous knowledge and/or experience (more so than say, boxing. It’s two dudes punching, easy to follow and grasp), at least Horse Movies have horses in them. Does it sound like I’m contradicting myself? See there are plenty of great, awesome, powerful, exciting movies that have horses in them, look at all Westerns, hell even Melancholia had some awesome horse sequences. Horses are beautiful animals and they look amazing up on the big screen, especially in slow motion. And horses as photographic subjects are wonderfully compelling, so it’s a very weird irony that movies featuring horses are great, but movies about horses bore me to tears.

Still: Someone should make a movie about a bunch of horses playing poker in slow motion. That would be the apex of both these genres. Throw some William Basinski music down for the score and I’d watch that all day long.

Hmm. I kind of feel like I completed my thought there, but I promised earlier to talk about Zoo, which is the notably huge exception to everything I have just said.  Zoo is the movie about the guys who have sex with horses and one of the guys dies because the horse-sex kills him. I wholly adore this movie and have watched it several times.

(And no, in case you are wondering there is not a bunch of graphic horse sex in the film; it’s a documentary made of voiceovers and sort of “unsolved mysteries style” re-enactments, none of which involve actual horse sex, with the exception of maybe two or three seconds of actual footage that appears very small in the frame, on a television set being watched by characters in the shot).

Why do I like this movie so much when I can’t stand all the other ones I mentioned? I think partly because it is more real and because it’s not a movie for kids, and also because it combines (an even more baffling) Love of Horses (these guys know the love of a good horse, right?) with my naturally felt fear of them. I think all of the kids movies about horses all feel like bullshit to me because they very obviously and rightly leave out all of the weird shit humans have going on with these animals. I mean, the sort of Freudian thing about little girls and horses is silly and cliché as any tired old “What does a cigar look like?” jokes your dad could come up with. We all know that there can be this weird sexual component to our interaction with horses, and if you’re at all like me you look at these things and see Giant Dangerous Animals, just as much as beautiful graceful creatures. So Zoo seems really vital to me as one of the only movies to really capitalize on all of that stuff, (I realize now that I have never seen Equus, doesn’t that have dark, sexual, horse stuff too?). And add all of this to the fact that Zoo is an exceptional story and a true story, so it’s that much more interesting. By exceptional I mean that it is precisely not the story of a normal kid who discovers a passionate connection with an animal. No, it’s the story about a group of guys who have sex with horses, and beyond that it focuses on the guy who died from it. So he’s a unique member of a unique group and this factor makes it interesting.

As a kid one is supposed to watch those horse movies and project one’s self into them, have a vicarious relationship with the black stallion for two hours, but because I was never all that interested in horses it didn’t work for me. I’m not looking to project myself into the story; Zoo works for me because the characters couldn’t be more different from me.

The true story aspect makes a difference too; take for instance The Horse Whisperer vs. Buck, (both terrible titles btw). I couldn’t be less interested in the Redford film, but the doc looked pretty fascinating. So I guess that’s the takeaway: When it comes to horses go documentary over narrative.

Read (And Not Read) in 2011

[Our West Coast correspondent A King at Night weighs in on the books he read—and didn’t read—in 2011. Where they fit, I’ve linked book titles to my own reviews, or Noquar’s, our Brooklyn correspondent. –Ed.]

All of the books I did read in 2011:

1. The Recognitions – William Gaddis

If more people were able/interested in surmounting this 960 page giant I think it would be roundly considered possibly the best American novel. But as it is Gaddis sabotaged himself by writing a book that is almost literally too good.

2. City of Glass – Paul Auster

I think this one was my favorite of the New York Trilogy, except that I didn’t think of separating them until I made this list. So really I read three books as three parts of the same novel. One which I loved and adored fully. It was my first Auster and a the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

3. Ghosts – Paul Auster

See above.

4. The Locked Room – Paul Auster

See above.

5. Bright Lights Big CityJay McInerny

Not sure why I read this one. I think I just had it sitting around and it read fast enough to keep me engaged. I’m also not sure why this was as apparently popular as it was upon release. I know he was friends with Bret Ellis, but it just seems like Ellis but kind of declawed. So maybe that’s a good thing for some people. The use of second person narration was cool, I guess you don’t see that very often.

6. Blood Meridian  – Cormac McCarthy

There is almost literally nothing I can say about this that will have any value. I should mention that it fully lived up to the years and years of personal hype I had built up for it.

7. Powr Mastrs vol. 2, 3  – C.F.

This is a weird comic book series a friend introduced me to. Apparently it is ongoing and I think I would like to continue reading it.

8. Point Omega – Don DeLillo

This was my first attempt at DeLillo and I’m pretty sure I chose it because of its minuscule length and awesome cover art. I was totally enthralled and blown away. So much so in fact that Point Omega gets the distinction of the being, so far, the first and only book I have actually read twice in a row. As in I finished it and then flipped back to page one and read it a second time and it was brilliant again.

9. In The Country of Last Things – Paul Auster

I didn’t fully love this as much as I did the NY Trilogy, but I think that is due to a certain lack of detectives and the New York setting. This book kind of reminds me of a big, sad Terry Gilliam movie. Auster is in my opinion the unquestioned master of that meta-text device where what you are reading is actually being written by the character in the book. (I’m sure there is a name for that, but I don’t know it).

10. The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

I’ll try and cut the hyperbole on this one. I don’t care what any people are saying about this book or the man who wrote it. My enjoyment of this and other DFW books is entirely a personal experience. He may in fact be the smartest novelist who ever lived or whatever but I’m not going to browbeat you into believing me, and somehow trying to make myself look good by extension. This book did things for me that no book (including Infinite Jest) has ever done and for that I am grateful. I’ll say no more.

11. Day of The Locust – Nathaniel West

What a weird, dark, little book this is. And why have I never been told that the name Homer Simpson is used prominently throughout? The end of this book was basically jaw-dropping and could be the best sequence Fellini never filmed. I hear there was a movie made based on this, but I think it supposedly wasn’t very good.

12. The Time Machine Did It – John Swartzwelder

This is the first book in a series written following Detective Frank Burly. And the ONLY reason I haven’t immediately read each and every one of them is because they are self-published by the author and therefore impossible to find used. And since I almost never buy books new it would be a huge price adjustment for me. So I’ll take them slow, but if the rest are as fun as this is I predict I will love all of them.

13. Ubik – Phillip K. Dick

Very enjoyable, packed full of ideas (as usual for Dick) and with a pretty engaging plot to tie it all together.

14. Carpenter’s Gothic – William Gaddis

Last time I was home visiting my family I discovered that a copy of this book in my mom’s bathroom. Apparently she had seen me post about Gaddis on Facebook and decided to take my word for it. She was about a third of the way through this relatively slim book but confessed to having a hard time reading it. She asked what about it appealed to me so much and I told her that I view Gaddis as maybe the greatest American writer who ever lived, but that of the three books I’ve read of his Carpenter’s Gothic is the weakest, (or the least amazing, maybe) but that, you know, good luck telling anyone to read a 700 page book written entirely in unattributed dialogue (JR) or a 960 pager about classical art. So yeah CG is more of a little experiment in storytelling (the goal was to tell a massive sociopolitical epic, but done entirely in one location, a house in the country outside new york) than it is an essential work. But if you want to wet yr feet in regards to Gaddis but won’t/can’t commit to his larger, better books, then this is a decent starting point.

15. Child of God – Cormac McCarthy

Totally awesome. I started reading it late at night after finishing the previous book and ended up sitting on the couch until 4:30am and did the whole thing in one sitting. That doesn’t happen too often with me and I can’t really account for why it happened this time . . . but yeah this is the most readable McCarthy I’ve read since The Road.

16. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer – Phillip K. Dick

This is the (sort of) conclusion to PKD’s VALIS trilogy, which I started reading last year. It was the last book he wrote and is I think a pretty wonderful swan song for a guy as freakishly imaginative as him. It isn’t even really sci-fi even, but more like “spi-fi” (the term I just made up for Spiritual Fiction) which is sort of what all of his latter work was I guess, and is a thing that really resonates with me personally.

17. Leviathan – Paul Auster

My fifth Auster of the year: I picked this up because it had a cool cover and I read it mostly on flights to and from a wedding I attended in Wisconsin. This is totally wonderful and probably my second favorite Auster novel (behind NY3). I think if I were to write a longer piece on PA I would probably use this book to talk about his interest in choosing protagonists who are frequently less interesting than a supporting character whom they idolize. And also his interesting views on marriage and adultery. It’s worth noting that the book is dedicated to Don DeLillo and upon seeing that I was inspired to pick up some more of his books and finally some of the others that were piling up on my shelf.

18. White Noise – Don DeLillo

I’ve had a copy for this for like ten years and somehow could never make it past the first two pages, even though they are a really good two pages. Honestly in this case I think it was the edition. I had one of those scholarly ones with all the annotation and stuff that make the book look twice as long and 10x more boring. And then I found the newly printed Penguin paperback and burned through it in like a week. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve read and was really a gateway drug into a binge of DeLillo that was incredibly fulfilling.

19. Running Dog – Don DeLillo

This was probably the least mind-blowing (and the earliest) of the DeLillo I read this year. But still a good time, slightly Pynchonian (Pynchonesque?) probably as a result of DD still finding his own voice at that point. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already pretty well-into DeLillo but for fans of his I think it would be a good read.

20. Libra – Don DeLillo

Two things in life constantly threaten to destroy me: The Zodiac Killer and JFK. There is always this looming sense that if I were to ever really, fully commit to researching either case I would be entering rabbit-hole I’d never find my way out of. This book was simultaneously the most tempting experience but also the most satisfying. Because even if DD had to invent some of this he still presents a version of the story that is totally plausible. So maybe it’s a placebo but at least I can sleep at night.

21. Underworld – Don DeLillo

It was all a rehearsal for this one though. This big guy had been taking up space on my night stand for months and I’d had a number of friends basically begging me to read it for years. When I finally got around to reading it I was pleased to discover that it is NOT difficult at all, it’s just long. There is a sort of genre of these “big, complex, post-modern(?)” type of books. It’s a thing that I have a weakness for: Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against The Day, The Tunnel, The Recognitions, JR, Infinite Jest, etc. And I mean while Underworld has some things in common with these books I would actually characterize it as almost more like a Norman Mailer book or something. Yeah, I’d put it somewhere between a more-sober Thomas Pynchon and a less-horny Norman Mailer. Does that make sense at all?

22. The Orchard Keeper – Cormac McCarthy

I was hoping for a repeat of my Child of God experience with this one. And while that didn’t quite happen I still enjoyed this book a lot. Major props to McCarthy for mentioning Melungeons in the first chapter, being descended from that obscure ethnic group myself, with my dad’s family from east Tennessee, I can tell you that that is exactly the type of super-esoteric, colloquial reference that he later got a lot of praise for utilizing in his more-celebrated western novels. I guess it’s just neat to see that as a part of his style so early and is further proof that he is not in fact a writer of westerns at all, but just possibly the best writer of any region, just wherever he decides to dedicate his interest.

23. Train Dreams – Denis Johnson

I love Denis Johnson so much. I don’t usually buy hardback books but when I saw this cute little book I knew I had to have it. It reads super fast and is really just a great little character piece, telling basically the whole life of this one particular guy. Johnson could write two dozen of these things and I would read every one of them. But he won’t because he’s busy doing whatever other random thing he decides to write brilliantly—-

24. Nobody Move  – Denis Johnson

—-Like this little crime novel he wrote. I don’t think anyone who was around when his first few books would ever have thought he would end up trying to write a pulp novel. I certainly wouldn’t have. But boy am I glad he did. This book was so totally fun to read, with some of the most enjoyable dialogue I’ve ever read in my life. It isn’t as tightly plotted as any of the Coen bros. movies that it reminds me of, but for sentence-by-sentence writing it was one of the best things I read all year.

25. Wild at Heart – Barry Gifford

I had seen the movie a few times and knew I wanted t try the book. I heard that Lynch wrote the script in six days and having read it now I can say that I completely believe that is true. It’s probably one of the closest adaptations I’ve ever seen and really I’m just stunned by how Lychian Gifford’s book already was. It makes so much sense that these two collaborated on Lost Highway and my only wish is that they would work together again sometime.

26. Travels in The Scriptorium – Paul Auster

So I guess with this one Auster officially beat DeLillo for the most-read author of the year prize. I wasn’t even intending to buy another one until I saw the cover of this and instantly knew I had to. Anything that is this visually reminiscent of Twin Peaks has to be good right? It ended up being a great, easy read, which I am learning is typical of PA.

27. The Bailbondsman – Stanley Elkin

This is the first novella is book of three called Searches and Seizures that I just bought the other day. I was sold when I saw that William Gass had a blurb on the back cover saying something like “the three books contained in this volume are among the greatest in our literature” to which I mentally responded “well jeez Bill, I guess we’re going for the hard sell today, fine, I’ll buy it, say no more.” So I’m not ready to agree or disagree with Gass on this one, but I can see why he would like Elkin’s style, which sort of reminds me of a funnier more playful version of what Gass does.

28. The Making of Ashenden – Stanley Elkin

The second novella in Searches and Seizures is shorter and packs a bigger punch than the first. It’s one of these things where if I told you what happens in the story you would probably want to read it, but knowing what happens would reduce the impact when it does happen, so just trust me and read it. The writing is just terrific and it’s really funny. Humor isn’t really a quality that I value in visual entertainment as much, but when someone can write literary fiction that actually has me laughing out loud I tend to think it’ s worth mentioning.

29. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July

So I was fully ready to finish the third novella in that Elkin collection until I found myself at a friend’s apartment cat-sitting on Christmas Eve and this book was sitting on the shelf. So in keeping with the name of this blog I just went ahead and stole it. I proceeded to read it very quickly and I laughed out loud more than I expected to (remember when I mentioned literary fiction that elicits laughter? This was like that too). I confess that I don’t read a ton of short stories, (a truth this list will generally attest to) but I found this whole collection just wonderful. It might also be that this is the only book written by a woman that I read all year. In the past few years I have generally been on a strict diet of books that fit loosely to the idea of “American Post-Modern Novels” but generally means “Books published after the 60s by white guys mostly from new york.” And while I am proud of the big reading accomplishments this focus has helped me attain, (how else does one read Gaddis if not through sheer force of will?) this slight, sad, funny, collection of contemporary short fiction written by a young-ish female writer has shown me that I definitely need to broaden my palate.

Some of the books I did not read in 2011:

1. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah blah blah blah blah blah blah glasses glasses glasses glasses glasses smug smug smug smug smug smug smug. I think I’ll let this one age a bit more before I attempt to read it. Granted his short “Breakup Stories” may literally be my favorite piece of fiction to appear in the new yorker in the past ten or twenty years… but, I have read the first page of The Corrections on three separate occasions (in three different sized editions, so now I know the physical copy is in fact NOT the problem) and each time I woke up in the spring, without having read the book. If I ever did decide to crack this one it would probably be in audio form, and maybe as part of a long road trip alone, specifically without a cell phone or cigarettes so that I would have nothing else I could possibly do.

2. 2666 – Roberto Bolano

I’m sorry Ed. I really am. It will happen, I swear it. But every time I pick this book up I am baraged by random four-part spanish sounding names that are indistinguishable for me, sample sentence: “What Jaun-Carlos Hernandez Jr. admired most about the poetry of Jullio Valdez-Herrara was the tactility of words. They leapt off the page with such precision and style that Jaun-Carlos was transported from the dusty villa where he sat to candlelit hut with a thatched roof, where revolutions are planned. He tried in vain to explain the power of the work to his professor Guillermo-Carlos Nunez but he scoffed at the work of Veldez-Herrara, calling it unworthy of the literary crown of the great Gabriell Marco San Flores.”

3. Suttree – Cormac McCarthy

After all the other McCarthy I read this year, I kind of thought I might just push on through with this one. I’ve been told by a number of people that it is one of his best. But the first page just stopped me dead in my tracks and I instantly knew it wasn’t the right time. No big deal, I’ll get around to it and then the border trilogy afterward.

4. Ulysses – James Joyce

Yes another year busy not-reading Ulysses. I feel I’m in good company on this though so oh well. It can’t really be that difficult can it? I enjoyed both Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest so my hope is that when I finally do get around to this big guy it will somehow seem quaint and easy. I’m sure that’s an exaggeration though.

5. Anything by David Mitchell

Because seriously fuck this guy. That Cloud Atlas movie adaptation is going to be a huge pile of shit too.

6. Middlesex – Jeffrey Euginides

This book has been haunting me for years, seemingly begging to be read and for some reason I am just 100% uninterested. But it has this weird habit of managing to show up on the bookshelves of people I like and trust, oftentimes sitting very close to other books I like. And sometimes these people tell me to read it. But it never seems very dire does it? No one is rapterous about this book and that makes me think that the Whatever-Prize sticker on the front is causing more people to read it than the actual urgency of the content. Somehow though last year Middlesex managed to get itself into a thrift store in the 50 cent bin, atop a pile of romance novels and pamphlets about Mormons. So now it sits on my shelf, tucked away on that hard to reach, shitty corner next to Cloud Atlas and whatever Dave Eggers books people insist I borrow but that I will never read (because: fuck that guy too). Sometimes though I hear a noise at night and when I wake up Middlesex is lying next to me on the pillow. So I’m pretty much going to have to read it at some point . . . not this year though.

7. Zodiac – Robert Greysmith

Bought it at the Farmer’s Market book stand and held it like a dark version of Willy Wonka’s golden ticket or some kind of box that when opened unleashes Chaos and Evil into the otherwise peaceful world. Right now I have a wife and an apartment and two cats, but I’m pretty sure I would somehow lose all of that the moment I cracked this book. Part of me is delusionally convinced that if I just dedicate my life to the cause that I could solve the Zodiac mystery. NOT reading this book has kept me from indulging that dark obsession for another year.

8. The Beckett Trilogy

Read ten pages or so and just felt like I wasn’t smart enough. Give me a few years and I’ll try it again.

9. Anything by Dennis Cooper

This dude sounds intense and disturbing, but also maybe really awesome. I heard about him first while googling interviews with the band Whitehouse and found Cooper’s blog and a massive post he did on them. Anyone who likes Whitehouse has to be okay right? Well at least I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I plan to get ahold of some of his books but I have no idea where to start, or where to find a bookstore that will give them to me in a plain brown paper bag so I don’t feel weird taking the bus home, as though by holding a Dennis Cooper book I’m sending some strange signal to all the secret sexual deviants around me every day.

10. Crime Wave – James Ellroy

Because I thought it was a novel when I bought it and since I have never read Ellroy I didn’t want to start with a collection of essays.

11. Paradise – Donald Barthelme

I am thrilled to still have a rainy day Barthelme novel left. So as much as it sounds hilarious I am going to hold off reading it for as long as I can.

12. Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

Granted I read it three years ago, but every year that I don’t re-read it I get sort of sad. I live vicariously through the one friend every year who reads it for the first time, and every time I listen to them rave for an hour I get it in my head that I’ll snatch it up and give it a quick once over. But when faced with the actual commitment involved I never do it. One day, one day.

Reading The Tree of Life

I saw The Tree of Life four times in the theater this year. Few things made me happier than those experiences of sitting and soaking up that movie. Conversely, few things this year were as frustrating and draining as all the conversations I inevitably found myself in after the movie, where some asshole put me on the spot, demanding that, since I loved it, I was supposed to explain it to him or even somehow make him not hate it, or at least justify myself, as though I am a paid museum tour guide who must explain the importance of the Mona Lisa at the drop of a hat. But because I’m a sucker, and easily convinced to talk, I almost always took the bait and would stand there, in whatever bar or party and spend far longer than said asshole had really intended, earnestly trying to convey my personal enjoyment of this movie. It was all pretty useless in retrospect. I guess I can’t always know everyone’s intentions, but I’ll guess nine of ten times it was more like a worthless political discussion, as though someone walked up to me and said “I’ve voted Democrat for ten years, convince me to vote Republican in the next ten minutes.”

I’m winding up to something here.

So basically I saw the movie four times and talked about it for god knows how long, thought about it for at least twice that length, and I honestly do think I have come across a few things: call them “ideas” or “perspectives” that I actually think can help make the movie more enjoyable, or possibly more coherent, or something.

At the risk of sounds incredibly defensive (can you tell I’ve been in yelling matches about this already?) I will preface all of this by saying that obviously it is only my opinion. Terrence Malick has done us all a huge favor by completely staying out of the conversation about this or any of his films. I think this is a favor because it allows me to have my opinions without there being any definitive source out there to contradict it. The movie is only what is up there on screen and all my thoughts about it are basically derived only by the amount of time spent actually watching it. So I do not intend to speak for Terry or presume to know what he would say if I could ask him to verify all of my ideas or whatever. You get the point.

And there will be spoilers . . . I guess. Can you actually spoil this movie? Does anyone give a shit at this point? There are dinosaurs—oops! Sorry. Spoiled that Big Surprise. Anyhow, yeah I will be talking about key details from the plot, so be prepared for that.

The quickest, easiest thing I can tell you I learned about The Tree of Life by watching as many times as I did is that there is a simpler more coherent synopsis one could give the film that would sort of situate the story in a different way for most viewers. Just as a reference this is the official synopsis (from Apple trailers):

From Terrence Malick, the acclaimed director of such classic films as Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick’s signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.

This sounds fine and all, if a little intimidating. If you saw the movie I imagine you saw all of that stuff in there. It was certainly “impressionistic” enough and I agree that Brad Pitt played the father. But in terms of setting up the viewer for the “story” I’m not sure this is as fast as it could be and it’s certainly not going to fend off any accusations of “pretension.”

Instead, try this one out:

“On the anniversary of his brother’s tragic death a man goes about his day flooded with memories of his childhood and thoughts about mortality and the afterlife.”

The images and characters in The Tree of Life exist simultaneously as both literal and symbolic elements in a complex narrative, and I’m not saying that the movie should be boiled down to something as simple as my one-sentence summary above—only that it can be. And that for all the people that so excessively badgered me about this movie “Not having a story,” here it is:

Jack (Sean Penn) wakes up. It’s a shitty day, the shittiest day of his whole year, every year: it’s the day his brother died (substitute this for: the day they found out he died, or for his brother’s birthday. The movie is obviously unclear and any of them could work). It’s been nearly twenty years since that tragic death but it hasn’t gotten any easier. His wife knows what day it is too and even though they’ve been having their problems recently, she can tell she should back off today and give him his space. So they spend that morning sort of avoiding each other, neither sure what to say and eventually Jack sits down to do the only overtly emotional action he ever brings himself to do on this day: he lights a candle in memory.

So he heads to work that morning with the weight of all this on his mind; it’s his own personal 9/11, the biggest single event that helped shaped his life. He loved his brother but their relationship was complicated. And Jack has a good memory. As the oldest of three boys Jack can remember what it was like to be the the sole recipient of his mother’s love. He experiences flashes of the conflicting happiness and subsequent jealousy after the birth of his first brother, and now,  as an adult man with his own life and his own problems and his own job, that memory makes him feel like an asshole.

He’s an architect at a major firm in Dallas and they just landed a big city contract to redesign the public transportation system or something and Jack is in charge of the whole thing. In fact, he’s got a lot of important meetings coming up and plenty to think about that doesn’t involve reliving the past. Because who wants to be dealing with fifty years of history when you’ve got work to do? Never mind your coworkers rattling on about their problems and the general chaos of the office, with so much going on it’s a wonder he can get anything done.

A little while later he’s about to head into an important meeting when his phone rings. If all the rest of it weren’t enough now here’s this: The Call. The one he gets every year on this day, the Low Point: His Father. The guy is pushing 80 at this point, living in that huge house there on the coast with plenty of money from the patents he eventually sold, eating at the country club with the rest of his pompous old friends but on this one day you’d think he was a monk wearing burlap and whipping himself. What does he get out of this? Every year he calls and every he says the same line,

“Do you know what day this is?”
“Yeah dad I know what day this is.”
“He was a good boy.”
“Yeah dad he was great.”
“Playing Bach on the guitar when he was eight years old, don’t see that everyday.”
“No I guess not.”

And on and on and on . . . why can’t he just focus on the good things he’s had in life? The guy has had a long career, a beautiful loving wife, and hell, it’s like he doesn’t have two sons still living! Christ, look at me? Am I not good enough? Look at everything I’ve done in life, everything I’ve accomplished, and yet if I had died at 19 would he mourn this much for me?

But in the meantime he has a meeting with the senior partners. He’s trying to be polite with his dad, and sensitive to the man’s pain but business is business. So he cuts him a little short.

“Dad I really want to talk to you but I really have to go.”
“Oh I see this isn’t important to you.”
“No dad it is, but I’ve got to go in a meeting right now.”

The secretary walks up to him and tells him that they are all waiting for him inside.

“Listen dad I gotta go.”

And there, he hangs up on him and goes into the meeting. Of course his mind is elsewhere. Like usual, talking to his dad has brought out all the worst thoughts in him. Even though in his daily life Jack tends to affect a calm, peaceful demeanor, talking to his father brings up some of the darker thoughts in his mind. He remembers all the pain and confusion of his childhood, the soaring emotions and chaos and frustration, the simultaneous guilt and innocence that everybody must feel at that age, right? I’m not alone right? I’m not the only one who thought about killing his father, I’m not the only one who hurt his brother on purpose, I’m not the only one who said horrible things to his mother, or who stole, or who lied . . .

So Jack sleepwalks through the rest of the day. He’s on autopilot, but for the most part his coworkers can’t even tell. Jack’s good at this; he’s had practice being a human. He’s learned to control the volatile emotions of his youth, the reactionary side of him; the side he associates with his father has been muted in his adulthood and he chooses every day to try to be more like his mother, to keep things to himself and attempt to be kind to people. Which is why for all his anger and frustration, as much as he doesn’t want to go there again, he calls his dad back and apologizes for his earlier behavior. He sucks it all up and takes a little more of the old man’s trademark passive-aggressive bullshit. “This guy never changes” Jack thinks to himself. But despite everything Jack loves his father and knows that in his own stubborn way his father loves him. So they say this to one another over the phone, they reconcile for now, as they’ve done so many times before, son forgiving father, father forgiving son.

And with what’s left of his day Jack thinks about all of this: about forgiveness, about redemption, about pain and suffering. About how he isn’t even unique in any of this, how he can spend his entire day completely consumed in himself and his own pain—but isn’t he just one person? Doesn’t everybody have this same experience every day in some way? Sure, this may be the anniversary of his brother’s death, but what significant day is it to any one of the other six billion people on this earth?

The entire planet had to be formed and every living organism had to evolve and change and grow over millions and millions of years to create the perfect set of circumstances that would put Jack in this very moment—but that’s true of everybody, any body. And somewhere in all of this there’s hope.

And just like that, it’s six o’clock. Where did all the time go? Jack steps out into the world again, in the middle the swirling chaos of life and is amazed by everything that can happen in a day, even if it’s all internal—and is there really any difference between the internal world and the external one anyway?

*    *    *

Wow, what a non-story that was. I can’t believe those characters were so one-dimensional. Sean Penn’s inclusion in the movie really was pointless, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t you rather have had his role cut out entirely? None of those images really fit together in any meaningful way did they? I mean each taken on its own may be pretty and all, but I for one would prefer it if the film coalesced into something more grounded and specific. Like I said before, I like stories in my movies, I don’t want just a random sequence of images.

Okay, obviously I am being a sarcastic asshole in that paragraph. But if you happened to be one of the people who said one of those sentences to me I hope that looking at the film through the perspective I outlined might aid you in getting over some of your issues.

Of course that is assuming you even want to get over your issues. Maybe you would rather persist in using this beautiful film as a punching bag for the rest of your life. I guess I can’t stop you there. But if you want to argue with me and tell me that my version of the movie is not what was up on-screen when you saw it, I will tell you that I didn’t see this version of the The Tree of Life the first time I saw it either. I didn’t quite see my version of it the second time, but by the time I finished it for the fourth time I swear to goodness that the “story” I told you above is exactly the “story” I saw and still do see in this film. And unlike some bullshit Christopher Nolan DVD special feature that “unlocks all the secrets of the film” I have no “objective” source to tell me I’m right or wrong—mine is only an interpretation, but I think it’s one that the film can support and certainly one that answers a lot of the criticism.

As a film-goer, I am more than happy to watch a random sequence of beautiful images (seeing Baraka projected in 70mm remains a favorite viewing experience for me). When I saw The Tree of Life the first time I was absolutely ecstatic with my experience and needed nothing more from the movie than what I got. It is no exaggeration to say that I could have watched a two-hour version of the creation of the universe section, with no dialogue or characters and still have been happy and moved. I don’t give two shits if there is a “story” in The Tree of Life. Which is partly why my early arguments about the film were so fruitless, imagine this conversation over and over:

Them: Why did you love the movie?
Me: Because it was beautiful.
Them: But it had no story.
Me: Maybe you’e right but I didn’t need one.
Them: But if it doesn’t have a story, then it must be a bad movie.
Me: I disagree with you. I thought it was great.
Them: Well I disagree with you because I hated it.

And because of these arguments, I was more surprised than anybody when I found my version of the “story.” It was something that occurred naturally, and I guess I want to stress again that I still think the movie supports layers of meaning, but when I think about the movie now it is almost entirely in these terms. The film doesn’t even seem abstract to me at this point. It’s kind of like Mulholland Dr. in that way, (although I think David Lynch did that film specifically as a mystery to be solved) where, once I figured out how the film works, I never quite see it as the random, crazy, seemingly unconnected series of scenes it appeared to be upon first viewing, (even though in the case of Mulholland Dr. as well, I was totally fine with that).

In some way I kind of resent that it all comes together so easily. I kind of like an endless montage of beautiful images with no story, (although hell even Koyannisqatsi and Baraka seem to each have a thesis; it’s not like the director grabbed clips with his eyes closed). There is a larger, more complex discussion to be had here about the human brain and pattern recognition and our basic, innate desire for Order instead of Chaos and how our brains will basically create order, even where there seems to be none, just basically so that we don’t go crazy.

Which when you think about it is sort of what my version of The Tree of Life is all about anyway. It’s just a day in the life of this one guy, and his desperately trying to come to terms with the chaos of his mind, to give it a structure and an emotional arc, some kind of resolution, if only to just get through it all.

And I do think we all do this. I think every day of our lives is more like The Tree of Life than it is to The Dark Knight. When your life appears to you as a fragmented mess of images and memories and music and sadness and glory and guilt and love, you just deal with it—what the hell else are you going to do? Like Jack, you get through your day and move on. But when you are confronted with that same chaos in the form of a movie, you have the freedom to just throw it away, toss it out of hand and never think twice about it. But allow me to suggest in all humility that there is  more to enjoy in The Tree of Life in subsequent viewings. Maybe you can find a different story than I did. Maybe even a better one.

The Myth of The Vollmann

  • Europe Central: 832 pages
  • Imperial: 1344 pages
  • The Royal Family: 800 pages
  • Rising Up and Rising Down: 3352 pages

I still hesitate to believe that William T. Vollmann actually exists. Has anyone ever read one of his super-long books? Can we prove that somewhere around page 700 of Imperial that the text doesn’t just become

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for the next 600 pages? How can we prove this if no one has actually read it? Can we prove that somewhere someone actually read Imperial (and I mean all of it)? What about that seven-volume first edition of Rising Up and Rising Down? Sure we all know about it, but has anyone actually SEEN the thing? I don’t even mean OWN it, certainly not that, none of you OWN the first edition of RURD. Oh heavens no, but have any of you seen it in person, to verify for me its actual existence?

It’s sort of like those kids who had pet monkeys when you were in elementary school, always someone’s cousin, or their neighbor’s friend from another school; sometimes the story was accompanied by a thumbprint-smudged Polaroid of the creature, clutching lovingly to some human torso. But did you ever actually see it? No never. Not once. And anyone who says they did is part of the conspiracy. Sure, maybe somewhere in Mexico someone has a monkey for a pet, but not here, no way, and certainly not your cousin. And look, I agree that it’s a weird thing to lie about, but that’s part of what makes good liars good, it’s some sort of weird emotional long-con that you are complicit in by listening to them.

Why would someone lie about writing a 3000 page book about violence? I have no idea. And why the hell would the same guy write 800 pages about Shostakovich and the Russians during World War Two? You got me. It’s a brilliant scheme in a way. If Vollmann is lying about something, then he has avoided attention by writing books so long and esoteric that NO ONE can prove or disprove their legitimacy.

Of course, whatever game he’s playing at, it isn’t money.

I contacted Mr. Bob Amazon (the guy who started Amazon.com) and he confirmed my suspicion that literally no human has ever purchased a copy of either Imperial or The Royal Family. When asked if physical copies of these books were actually housed in an Amazon facility somewhere, just in case someone ever actually did buy one he hung up on me.

So, I’m thinking this thing goes deep, deeper than any of us ever imagined. Obviously Dave Eggers is involved somehow, either as the mastermind behind the whole thing, or just another pawn like the rest of us. I emailed Mr. Heartbreaking Jerk himself, asking if even he of all people can claim to have actually read all of Rising Up and Rising Down, and in return I received an auto-reply, something about the volume of emails he receives blah blah blah—the point is I think I scared him, and now I know I’m on the right trail . . .

The funny thing with all of this is that I’m pretty sure there is no hoax going on. I have no reason to think William T. Vollmann is anything but a real guy, a weirdo dude who writes epically long books that no one reads. But if you read about his life at all it sounds more made up than any of the recently famous literary hoaxes. Maybe only that old asshole with his holocaust apples can really claim to have a bigger imagination, because neither James Frey nor JT Leroy can hold a candle to this (straight from Wikipedia):

In his youth, Vollmann’s younger sister drowned while under his supervision, a tragedy for which he felt responsible. This experience, according to him, influences much of his work.

What? Really? So he’s literature’s own Batman, The Dark Knight . . . or, wait for it: Vollman!

And I’m not even going to get into all the crack smoking with prostitutes and moving to Afghanistan in the 1980s. But I will talk briefly about his “hobby” of aimlessly train-hopping, which he apparently chronicled in Riding Toward Everywhere (a book whose existence I can confirm, as I bought it as a gift for a friend). Honestly though, that’s his hobby?

“So Mr. Vollmann, when you’re not hanging out with prostitutes in Cambodia, smoking crack, dodging bullets in Bosnia, spending 20 years writing a 3000 page book about violence, running around in the desert with a rebel army, or any of your other notable pursuits . . . what do you do for fun? How does William T. Vollmann relax?”

“Oh you know, I hop trains and just go where they take me.”

What? How do we know that Vollmann’s entire “career” isn’t the longest viral marketing campaign ever for a Wes Anderson movie that’s coming out ten years from now?

I’m not really heading towards anything conclusive or coherent here. I have no big point and the answer to all of my questions is that I should just devote the next few years of my life to actually reading these books instead of doubting their existence. But that would take 1) time and 2) money. Maybe I should turn it into some kind of art project and get funding on Kickstarter or something. Or maybe I could get review copies somehow.

Actually I just looked on Amazon and I see that Imperial is no longer the $40 book it once was. A new copy in paperback will run just $3.23 and with that free prime shipping I could be reading this thing by Friday.

So I just did it,  it is on its way, but we all know I’m not going to actually read it, right? It’s gonna go on the shelf next to Europe Central and the abridged copy of RURD and it will damn well stay there until, I don’t know, I become the omega man or something and I literally have nothing else to do and no one to talk to and no pointless articles to write and nothing to do with my boredom besides consume 1300 pages about border-crossing by a guy who looks like a serial killer.

The Best and Worst Film Titles of 2011

The Best Film Titles of 2011

The Tree of Life: Solid, evocative, stately.

Melancholia: Simple and meaningful, but also easy to remember.

Star Watching Dog: I have no idea what this movie is, but I love this as an idea or as an image, or as a plot for a film. It makes me want to find out which of those three it actually is. If I’m lucky it will be all three.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: This has the right kind of loaded evocation to it. It’s great as a long-but-not-too-long title.

Tyrannosaur: Awesome. One word with a huge amount of weight, probably the best title of the year except for the obvious problem that it probably confused people into thinking the film was about dinosaurs. But other than that it doesn’t get better than this.

Your Sister’s Sister: I don’t really know what this means. Is it wordplay? Is there plot relevance? It makes me want to know though.

Another Earth: A brilliant combination of two words that manages in three syllables to open up hours upon hours of thoughts and possibilities.

Outside Satan: I would compare to the previous entry. A great two words that sounds good and suggests a lot of weird things, many of which I can’t quite put my finger on. Definitely makes me want to see what happens in the movie.

I Am A Good Person/I Am A Bad Person: Maybe it’s too long. And maybe it’s totally confusing. But I would watch something called this for sure.

The Rabbi’s Cat: Well it sounds like I know upfront two things I can expect to see. And I like both of these things.

The Catechism Cataclysm: Alliteration sucks. Here’s an exception that proves the rule.

Blackthorn: I would buy a cut of meat called Blackthorn, I would buy a bottle of wine called Blackthorn, I would vacation in a mountain city called Blackthorn, I would buy an album from a doom metal band called Blackthorn. Blackthorn would be a good word for many things. This time it is a movie.

Gingerdead Man 3: Saturday Night Cleaver: Double puns! Really? Okay fine, sure. It’s better than all the Air Bud titles combined.

Red State: Two evocative words, a sort of double-entendre but still easy to remember.

The Future: I would eat a burger called The Future, I would name my car The Future, I would name my dog The Future, I would love for my friends to give me the nickname The Future. So yeah I would watch a movie called The Future.

I Melt With You: Memorable and emotional, it tells me nothing about the film in any literal way, but it gives me some kind of sense of expectation.

Hobo With a Shotgun: Perfect. Truth in advertising; we’re all on the same page here.

***

The Worst Film Titles of 2011

Margin Call: What the hell is a Margin Call? Why would I voluntarily pay for anything called Margin Call. It sounds like something your accountant would suggest, but that’s why you hire that guy: to deal with boring stuff like Margin Calls. I would rather be watching a good movie than worrying about a Margin Call. If there are two things, and one is called Tyrannosaur and the other is Margin Call, which do you think I will be buying?

Hugo: Hugo is a stupid little word and I don’t like saying it or hearing it.  The only thing worse is the original title, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Gross. Cabret is far too close to Cabaret and Cabaret is least appealing noun I can think of.

Weekend: Wow, title your indie movie the same thing as a famous art film. Always a good idea when your only potential audience is the miniscule slice of people who know this. Watch for the director’s next small festival hit, sure to be called The 400 Blows.

The Brooklyn Brothers Beat The Best: Alliteration is the worst.

A Beautiful Belly: Further proof of the above sentiment, only this one is also gross sounding. The only way I can even imagine saying this out loud is if it was the humorous name of a menu item at the best BBQ joint in Atlanta or something.

The Skin I Live In: I blame the second-language aspect here, but something about this sentence is annoying.

Martha Marcy May Marlene: AKA Marble-Mouthed Nonsense. I will concede that this one may be actually brilliant, as everyone who sees the film seems to universally love the title after the face. Still, there is definitely something idiotic about giving yr film a title no one can remember.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.: I hate seeing this written down, I hated typing it, I hate hearing it out loud and I can’t imagine speaking it. There is a weird kind of perfection here. Three words that are just fine on their own, but somehow in this order they make me want to die.

Take This Waltz: And shove it.

No One Killed Jessica: Oh well that’s a relief, you had me worried for a second there. I guess I can skip watching the movie altogether and go eat some lunch or something.

Water for Elephants: This sounds like part of some little piece of wisdom like “pearls before swine” or something, except that you think about it for five seconds and realize that it isn’t and that it’s just dumb sounding.

Twixt: This is one of those words that maybe girls under the age of 16 could get away with saying. Or like the name of new line of sexy dolls, like the new Bratz or something.

Soul Surfer: Soul Surfer sounds like the shittiest tattoo idea possible.

The Beaver: This immediately undercuts the notion that it can be at all serious by virtue of the obvious vulgar connotations. Unless of course the writer only chose the word “Beaver” because he thought it would be such a riot to see it written everywhere and to have serious actors say it a million times for two hours. So either way what we have here is totally ignorant or absurdly immature. Count me out either way.

Our Idiot Brother: If I wanted to watch a shitty ’90s sitcom I would have stayed home.

This Is Not A Movie: Yes it is.

Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins: This is so stupid that maybe it belongs on the “Best” list. Nah, maybe not.

Cowboys & Aliens: This and Hobo With a Shotgun are two sides of the same coin. This side is the shitty one that loses all the time.

I Am Number Four: The only way this could be worse is if it was I Am Number Two.

Green Lantern: The discussion surrounding this movie’s failure brought up a lot of valuable points: 1) Ryan Reynolds is The Worst, 2) The movie was a piece of shit and 3) Martin Campbell is not an auteur. But the big point I think everyone missed is that The Green Lantern is also just a stupid combination of three English words. I don’t care how long he’s been a comic book hero, please compare the title of this movie to the other famous DC tentpole franchises: Batman and Superman. And please analyze the various connotations involved in three titles: One is a man who is also a bat, alright cool. The other is a man who is super, yeah alright I bet he’s pretty tough. This is a lantern that is somehow green… is this meant to surprise or excite me? “No shit!? All my lanterns are blue, this guy must be AMAZING!” Even The Green Hornet is a better title because it has the word Hornet in it and everyone knows that Hornet is basically the coolest word in all of entomology, with the obvious exception of “Scorpion.” No movie with the word Lantern in the title will ever gross 500 million dollars, unless preceded by the words “Harry Potter” or “Twilight.” Lanterns suck and somehow this fact is known deep in the hearts of all Americans.


A Good Old Fashioned Orgy: The obvious sarcasm just tells me right away that this is insincere bullshit.

Straw Dogs: As the title for some weird VHS tape you find at the video store and rent on a lark only to be blown away by how gnarly and intense movies were allowed to be in the ’70s: Yes Straw Dogs is a great title, and it’s implacable weirdness somehow fully encapsulates everything strange an unnerving about that movie. But as the title for a contemporary product on the market for people who have no built-in context I can’t imagine anything worse. It might as well have been called Marble Lanterns, it would have done just as well.

Another Happy Day: Either the movie is actually about a succession of days that are happy, or it is very obviously the exact opposite. Both options annoy me and put me off for different reasons. They could have called it Are We Having Fun Yet? and it might have been a bigger hit, but that is equally stupid and probably taken already.