Daily Postings
film : review

The Ruined Map

by Steve Macfarlane

Blunt yet intoxicating, James Gray's The Lost City of Z betrays its outsize ambitions and pained revisionism with every last scene

Few filmmakers' careers highlight the gap between critical consensus and the mass ticket-buying audience (or lack thereof) better than that of writer-director James Gray. Until now, Gray's films have taken place exclusively in New York City, concerning themselves with operatic themes: family dissolution, the cop-crook divide, longings for a better life compromised by the inevitable strictures of class, race, or religion. Gray loves little tweaks of fate that alter his stories' outcomes irrevocably—in his 1994 debut Little Odessa, it's a hanging bedsheet that manages to obscure a character's field of vision just long enough for the wrong person to get shot; in 2007's We Own The Night, it's a pummeling rainstorm (added in postproduction) that sees Joaquin Phoenix's Russian mafioso-cum-police informant unable to prevent the assassination of his deputy NYPD officer father (Robert Duvall). Whether these are desperate MacGuffins or rupture moments of pure poetry is very much the Rorschach blot by which Gray's auteurism can be judged. Just as diehards find this earnestness to be unrepentantly classical, I've struggled to see these movies rise above their tendency for the hoary or literal-minded. (Then again, as Duvall's aforementioned character offers: "You marry an ape, you don't complain about the stench of bananas.")

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literature : first proof

Keep Away from Things That Can Catch Fire

by Stephanie Chou

You stand outside your apartment waiting for it to burn or maybe not burn down to the ground, and think of your dead daughter's theory of the nought universes. It was a theory dreamed up during a neon summer away at church camp when she was twelve. You and your husband Mitchell are not religious people. But Beth had friends who went every year and convinced her it was more about water sports and friendship bracelets than the bible. Beth had one epiphany at camp: the theory of the nought universes. A nought universe buds from a time when you wish you hadn't done something. For example, she really wished she wasn't wearing overall jean shorts when she got her period in the middle of craft time. The accompanied nought universe was one in which fertility was far away like high school and learner's permits. One in which Beth finished making bracelets out of embroidery thread instead of holding her overalls under hot tap water (a mistake you'll tell her gently later, blood stains are best removed with cold water) in the campground's washroom hut.

You try to apply Beth's theory to your current situation. The fire alarm continues to blare, but you don't see smoke, don't feel heat. Tenants, the likes of which you have never seen before, spill out of the building onto the lawn and sidewalk. It is 10:32 at night, the sky is cloudy and the air is cold. A low fog has been hanging over the city. You are wearing two bathrobes underneath your down jacket. Someone close by lights a cigarette. Hours earlier, when you put on lipstick and leave the house to go meet your daughter's widower Jordie, the hallways smell like burnt rice. I hope there isn't a fire, you say aloud because you know no one will respond. Now you wish you hadn't said anything. What kind of nought universe did you summon with your hope?

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film : review

Laurie Simmons's My Art

by Judith Hudson

Taking cinema's portrayal of artists personally

We all lose eventually. In the meantime, we fight as hard as we can. Art, and especially movies can make us forget we will ever grow old, be poor, or get rejected. Laurie Simmons confronts age and loneliness head-on in her film My Art, which has its North American premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, April 22–30. No one is spared, but everyone has a good time with the struggle.

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literature : review

Gone Below

by J. T. Price

Life and death in a mining town in Kevin Canty's The Underworld

New Yorkers don't talk much about coal mining, and why would they? Dreams of city glamor, of museum galas and tailored finery, inherently repel any notion of what goes on beneath the surface of the earth or the question of how we power our twenty-four-hour light. Total darkness is a rare event. In his sixth novel, The Underworld (W.W. Norton, March 2017), Kevin Canty delivers us down into the darkness of a mine (unnamed, though based on a mine ironically called Sunshine) out in Silverton, Idaho during the 1970s. Mostly though, Canty renders lives above ground—both in Silverton and not far away in Missoula, Montana—and how they are changed forever by a disaster that results in nearly a hundred deaths. The aftermath of this tragedy finds nearly everyone missing someone, at the very least a steady presence at the local bar, if not a son, brother, father, or husband.

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art : oral history

James Little

by LeRonn P. Brooks

James Little has worked nearly half a century at mastering the craft of painting. While our conversation here delves into his painterly "alchemy"—he mixes all his own paints and uses beeswax as varnish—it also documents a life in painting. Born into a family of artisans with high expectations in a segregated Memphis, the artist learned the value of hard work, creativity, and persistence. His experimentation with the transformative properties of his materials reflects these emphases, and his search for excellence mirrors the work ethic of the community that raised him. This is to say that memory has its textures and its colors—their own connotative ends; Little's paintings demonstrate a quest for the perfection of craft, but do not covet certainty despite the precision with which they are ordered. His paintings are guided by intuitive responses to form, color, and feeling. This approach is not overly calculated, though its complexity may suggest so. His expression is personal—visceral exchanges between memory and its hues, between emotion and the logistics of its use, between logic's place in the fog of the human heart, and the ways that rationale can be envisioned as painterly "surface." Here, to speak solely of order is to imply, in some way, process, but this implication does not necessarily suggest the course of a method as the ends of his labor's purpose. Little's "purpose" cannot be narrowly defined by his methods nor is it all a simple matter of procedure.The imagination has its own speculative ends and its interchanges with the world are, in Little's paintings, as vibrant and curiously bedecked as any prism thread with light. What follows is a conversation about artistic vision, practice, and the importance of perseverance. It is a document concerned with valuing painting as of form of experiential evidence, and the imagination as a vivid context for human worth, history's propositions, and a life's purpose. 

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literature : interview

Fiona Maazel

by Tracy O'Neill

"Comedy is a great vehicle for spreading the bad news about who we are. It's also a mercy killing of the resistance that springs up whenever we're forced to look at ourselves."

A Little More Human (Graywolf, April 2017) is Fiona Maazel's third novel, and there is nothing little about it. Maazel's big, brazen voice and extravagant plotting were already evident in her earlier novels, Last Last Chance and Woke Up Lonely. In her latest, Maazel dives into the moral complexities at the interstice between man, medicine, and machine, which is to say, on some level, between life and death. Improbably, and wonderfully, she does so with a mindreading cosplayer, an ailing marriage, a financially-motivated seduction scheme, a blackout involving some sore genitalia, and a shiny institute for sometimes creepy medicine, the Sarah Snyder Center for Enhancement Technology, known mostly as the SCET.

The joy of reading A Little More Human lies in the play between kooky humor and melancholic characters. Maazel's energetic prose is juxtaposed with the terrifying questions she asks us to confront: Is it possible to really know ourselves or another? What are the dangers of seeking knowledge, and when does that knowledge stop resembling wisdom? Does being human mean hurting those we love most? The inability to answer these questions hurls Maazel's characters into tragic and comedic outcomes. In the end, the question of how to live a life is probably best addressed by the character who tells his daughter, "Don't be so hard. Not every problem can be fixed. Just stay."

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music : interview

DeForrest Brown Jr. & Bill Kouligas

"How do you draw information out if you aren't involved and in love with it."

Berlin-based record label PAN has become something of a premier platform for multidisciplinary sound and visual art projects. Working with conceptual artists like Mark Leckey and James Hoff or various avant-garde and club producers, this expansive catalogue releases both vinyl and interactive browser-based works. Bill Kouligas, who runs the label, chats here with DeForrest Brown Jr.—a New York-based music writer and media theorist who has worked with Triple Canopy, Rhizome, and ISSUE Project Room, where he will be curating events this upcoming season. Brown's first program, Quantum Natives: Grace Nexus, premieres this Saturday, April 15, 2017.

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art : interview

Postcommodity

by Rob Goyanes

"Moving bodies generate this system. They create, supposedly, some justification to play this market out."

The US-Mexico border, like most borders, is mostly conceptual: a space more often imagined than physically there. The artists that comprise Postcommodity are indigenous to lands that used to belong to Mexico, and to many peoples before that—Raven Chacon, from Fort Defiance, Arizona, raised on a Navajo reservation; Kade L. Twist, a Cherokee raised in Bakersfield, California; and Cristóbal Martínez, a Mestizo born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In two recent works, Postcommodity explores the border as a poetic complex, a militarized marketplace of state and non-state activity—a place to administer and to trespass.

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literature : review

Now You See Them, Now You Don't

by Micaela Morrissette

Reliable uncertainty in Deb Olin Unferth's Wait Till You See Me Dance

Deb Olin Unferth, in her fiction collection Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, March 2017), has her own, cruel twist on character development. Her characters undergo conventional arcs, changing for good or ill under various pressures. But her readers lag behind. Even as a character becomes something new, the truth about her old incarnation has just begun to surface. Our loyalties are distressed, our sympathies torn, our perspectives trifled with. Peripheral characters become protagonists while narrators are exiled to the outskirts of their own tales. A single character may be played by multiple character-actors, across stories or within the same piece. A clip-art image of innocence, such as a child entranced by a garden of flowers, seems a vision of sociopathy. These stories are deceptions in action: time-lapse photos of the self.

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film : interview

Salomé Lamas

by Matt Turner

"Questions that once belonged to the cinematic institution have been set upon the world of spectacle we live in today. These questions belong to all of us now."

Though less than thirty years old, Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas has already developed an impressive, diverse portfolio of films that fit loosely into the ever-widening bracket of non-fiction. Produced for different purposes and at varying lengths, these films have had her travel around the world, visiting increasingly marginal geographies to produce reflexive, experimental portraits of peoples and places at the fringes of existence. The location for her second feature, Eldorado XXI, must surely be the most extreme yet. Set 5500 meters up in the Peruvian Andes, the film investigates the mining community of La Rinconada y Cerro Lunar, the highest elevation permanent settlement in the world. Beautiful and tragic in equal measure, it's an atmospheric, vivid document of a struggling society; but also maybe the most fully realized example of the methodology of converting theory into practice, or experimenting practically upon conceptual ideas, that connects all of Lamas's films.

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literature : review

Hoaxing History

by Hayden Bennett

Obscuring the past to get at truth in Paul La Farge's The Night Ocean

In the Autobiography of Howard Hughes, the eccentric tycoon relates the time he visited Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, and Hemingway wanted to play fish. "One of us would have to be a marlin," he writes. "One of us would have to be a fish. And we would have to fight."

Not many people know the story because it's not true. Howard Hughes never went to see Hemingway, nor did he write the Autobiography. It was authored by a journalist named Clifford Irving, and he went to jail for it. Not for writing it, exactly, but for forging a fake passport and sending his wife in a disguise to Zurich to deposit McGraw-Hill's $750,000 advance under the Hughes family name.

Irving aside, most hoaxes are cheap tricks. But in the hands of an artist, and the context of a novel, the structure and logic of a hoax—truth and fantasy blurred together—can achieve something powerful. In Paul La Farge's new novel The Night Ocean (Penguin Press, March 2017), fiction is used to illuminate questions about history that can't definitively be answered. Exploring this absence of knowledge, La Farge makes the book trace an outline of what's missing. The ultimate effect is a complicated and beautiful demonstration of people trying to live and love in a world of unknowns.

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literature : first proof

One Poem

by Hannah Rego

Across the window, I could reach out & scale down rungs of light. Earlier, by the sidewalk, a man held a ladder up to nothing & kept it stable for another man to test his feet on. Construction workers rebuild an arsoned house across the street most of the week. They dog whistle at me like I'm a part of my body. Like I'm a body & I forgot that. Like I forgot the last 3 years. Imagine 3 years without contact. Imagine I wake up at noon on your kitchen floor & make coffee for everyone. I hand each friend a mug, non-dairy creamer, bag of sugar & they pass around a spoon. I'll mix up yours for you I say. I'm being helpful. I'm helping you. I stir in too much sugar. It's a difference you can notice in the room.

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film : interview

Kevin Jerome Everson

by Jordan Cronk

"I don't make films for the audience, I make them for the subjects, and I try to position those subjects and the camera so that there's a element of generosity between the two."

Ohio-born, Virginia-based Kevin Jerome Everson is one of America's most prolific and unpredictable filmmakers. Over a span of fifteen years and upward of 100 films, Everson has worked at a near tireless pace, framing largely anonymous images of working-class African Americans through an impressionistic aesthetic palette that is equally informed by street portraiture and observational nonfiction. From his early work with found footage to the vividly rendered suburban and inner-city social vignettes, Everson—who's currently a professor at the University of Virginia—has continued to move nimbly between academia and the avant-garde.

In typically industrious fashion, he has this year brought new and recent work to the Rotterdam and Courtisane film festivals, New York's Whitney Biennial, and the film program at Knoxville's Big Ears Festival, where a selection of shorts were shown alongside a new installation that cast four otherwise unrelated films in something like a study of twentieth-century American consciousness, linking both industrial evolution with corporeal decline, and traces of early cinema with unknown reaches of a medium in flux. Shortly after Big Ears, I spoke with Everson about these wide-ranging programs, his ever-restless practice, and the nuances of the artist-audience relationship.

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literature : interview

Constance DeJong

by Jennifer Krasinski

"We were relegated to Chick Lit, romance novels, our subjects were love and motherhood and other sexually-defined things. Modern Love mocks that, to some degree. It pushes back."

Words disappear and reappear in the world all the time, and if one is a writer, one exists in part believing books have a cosmic timing all their own. Writer and artist Constance DeJong initially published her first major work, the novel Modern Love, in 1975–76. Serialized as five chapbooks, she designed, printed, and distributed it herself, then released a "proper book" through her own imprint, Standard Editions, the following year. She also performed the book—not as a reading or play, but as a kind of mark of narrative in time. Later, her texts spun into sound installations, audio objects, talking photographs, and other books. While DeJong continued to carve her very own space in literature and art, Modern Love fell out of print.

When I was first given a copy I must confess that the title turned me off. Kind of cheesy, I thought. After all, what's a more overwrought, exhausted subject for a novel—for anything, really—than love? And yet, I read it. And then, I loved it. The supple, groovy slipstream of her prose; the collapsing of time, voice, and genre; her recasting of the limited roles fictional characters are made to play. Now, in 2017, it seems nothing less than a masterpiece.

This month, Modern Love is being republished by Primary Information and Ugly Duckling Presse. For the occasion, DeJong and I spoke about the book's origin, and how language and text are central forces from which all of her many projects spin. Hybrid creators like her can be difficult to define, to name, and as we chatted, I told her I would try to come up with something, a way to describe her practice without the crutch of commas or hyphens or slashes. I still haven't found the right words—which, truth be told, says precisely everything about her.

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art : review

Baseera Khan's iamuslima

by Terence Trouillot

Exploring Muslim femininity through the politics of love

At a time when draconian measures are being implemented to deny Muslims entrance into the US and white mansplaining increasingly has the audacity to criticize and define the cultural identity of Muslim women (e.g., Bill Maher, who on his HBO show Real Time, supported the meme "A woman should be… whatever the fuck she wants," then lambasted those who dress in burqas), it's no wonder that Muslimas feel unfairly portrayed and scrutinized by conservatives and liberals alike. As author and activist Samila Ali solemnly points out, "the only women it seems permissible to judge and even ridicule today are Muslim women."

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literature : review

Innocent Intellect

by Rachel Riederer

Heady fun in Elif Batuman's The Idiot

There's a gate at the edge of Harvard Yard that separates a block of freshman dorms from Massachusetts Ave. The street-facing side is emblazoned with higher-ed propaganda: "Enter to grow in wisdom." Selin, the protagonist of Elif Batuman's semi-autobiographical novel The Idiot (Penguin, March 2017) walks through this gate her freshman year and proceeds to stumble, study, and email her way toward this wisdom. Few novels, if any, do such a thorough job of representing what runs the risk of offering the driest depiction of school: a student's relationship to the material she's learning. Selin's conversations with friends are peppered with their discoveries about literature, philosophy, and math. And these are not just background details for the "real" drama. The process of learning is a plotline of its own. Batuman recreates lectures and course readings alongside narrations of class exercises and discussions.

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literature : from the editor
literature : interview

Patty Yumi Cottrell

by Amina Cain

"I knew from the moment I sat down to begin the book that I wanted something gray and drab and portable and contradictory."

In Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, the debut novel by Patty Yumi Cottrell out this month from McSweeney's, the reader is introduced to Helen Moran, who decides to investigate the suicide of her adoptive brother. This sounds very serious, of course. By this description you might think you know where the novel is headed, but it's going nowhere you might have imagined. The novel is serious, especially in how far it drops into loss and absence, into how hard it sometimes is to simply be alive, but it manages, in striking ways, to carry other registers of feeling and actuality. And it happens to also be funny. As Lindsay Hunter put it, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace had me opening my mouth to laugh only to hear sobs come tumbling out.

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art : review

Fred Eversley’s Black, White, Grey

by Claire Barliant

Cosmic Objects

Art writers and curators often do somersaults to avoid talking about "energy" or any other New Age-y terms that may arise when writing about the California-based Light and Space movement. Light and Space has much in common with its East Coast cousin, Minimalism: stark, geometric forms made from industrial materials like luminous plastic, often polished to high-gloss effect. But while Minimalist artists resolutely rejected any possibility of illusion during the '60s and '70s, Light and Space artists had a more relaxed relationship to the oddities of perception. Still, curators steer the focus toward the production of these works rather than delve into any potential mystical or cosmic associations. And I get it—the manufacture of these works is intriguing, since sculptures by John McCracken or Larry Bell look less like things made by human hands than monolithic alien spacecraft of the like seen in sci-fi movies such as Kubrick's 2001 and, more recently, Denis Villeneuve's Arrival.

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film : review

On Digital Sand

by Rachel Ellis Neyra

Agnès Varda's aesthetic tides change, inviting us to switch positions of viewing, knowing, and feeling, for old narratives to wash away and new portals of sensation to open up.

A trio of self-portraits hang in a hallway at Blum & Poe Gallery's solo exhibition Agnès Varda: a silver print mosaic (1949/2012), from when the artist was twenty-one; a silver print of the artist's profile in the foreground of a Gentile Bellini painting, where a row of men's caps mime Varda's signature Dutch-boy haircut (1962/2015); and a digital photograph Autoportrait morcelé (2009), the artist's face in pieces, reflected in square shards of mirror. When Varda cracks herself open, there are beaches.

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literature : interview

Belle Boggs & Mike Scalise

"The perceived aversion to a male-centered illness narrative had to do with antiquated ideas about who should and shouldn't be vulnerable to a failing body, and what that vulnerability means."

I've known Belle Boggs for years, first as a teacher then as a wonderful fiction writer, and in 2012 our respective forays into memoir coincided—both of us pulled to personal stories by events that overtook our ability to clearly process much else, in our writing lives or elsewhere. For Belle, it was the journey of childbirth, or, more accurately, natural childbearing alternatives and the evolving influence of birth culture, which she channeled into the sprawling, hopeful, and moving book The Art of Waiting (Graywolf Press, 2016).

My book, The Brand New Catastrophe (Sarabande, January 2017), details a health disaster in my early twenties with acromegaly. The illness first amplified, then destroyed, my body's ability to produce hormones. Belle and I both embarked on stories about our bodies betraying their nature, and I thought often of her while writing my own, wondering what mysteries she'd uncovered. We'd both been turned into bloodhounds searching for our bodies' true purposes, and it was surprising, with our respective cases closed, to compare notes on what we solved, and what we didn't.

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music : portfolio

Field Recording

by Lea Bertucci

On a crisp morning in March, we approach the site. It appears in the distance on the windswept beach just as the sand gives way to dunes. The ocean roars to our right. The structure itself is buried beneath decades of sand accumulation and covered with seasonally dormant plant life. The point of entry yawns in the dunes—a square black aperture interrupts the otherwise organic landscape and leads us underground.

We enter the structure, which appears as one long corridor initially. As we explore further, we realize there are auxiliary chambers off this main corridor. Four rooms of distinct sizes and shapes reveal themselves as our eyes adjust to the darkness.

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literature : first proof

From Such Small Hands

by Andrés Barba

It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls. They used to say: do this, do that, and we did it, we turned our hands, we drew, we laughed; they called us the faithful city, the enchanting city. We had proud eyes, strong hands. People thought we were just girls then. We used to touch the fig tree in the garden and say, "This is the castle." And then we walked to the black sculpture and said, "This is the devil." And then we'd go back to the orphanage door and say, "This is the mountain." Those were the three things: castle, devil, mountain.                

That was the triangle you could play in.

And there was the hall mirror.

And our summer dresses.

And the night they changed our sheets and it felt so good to climb into fresh-smelling beds.

And the days we got sanjacobos for lunch: breaded fried ham and cheese.

It was as if we were all one mouth eating the ham, as if our cheese was all the same cheese: wholesome and creamy and tasting the same to all of us. The cheese was happiness. But then we had class after lunch, and it was long. And the time between lunch and class, and then between class and break time, passed slowly, suspended in the air.

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