reading adventures, 2008

So yes, I’m pretty damn proud of this list, if I may say so myself.  After the dismal reading year that was 2007 (exactly 13 titles), it was my New Years Resolution last year that I was going to double that number over the course of 2008.  Well, I accomplished that, and then some.  And already on course in 2009 to go way above and beyond that…

But more than that, last year I feel in love with reading again–and that, of course, is the most important thing.

* denotes a poetry collection

The Trojan Women – Euripides
Homosexuality and Civilization – Louis Crompton
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Blithedale Romance – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Three Sisters – Anton Chekhov
The Celluloid Closet – Vito Russo
Beowulf
Ecclesiastes
Movie Wars – Jonathan Rosenbaum
Autobiography of Red* – Anne Carson
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho* – Anne Carson
As You Like It – William Shakespeare
Moving Places: A Life at the Movies – Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Beauty of the Husband* – Anne Carson
A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
Uncensored: Views and (Re)Views – Joyce Carol Oates
The Wasteland and Other Poems – T.S. Eliot
Kora and Ka (with Mira-Mare) – h.d.
Les enfants terribles – Jean Cocteau
Sexual Personae – Camille Paglia
Sex, Art and American Culture – Camille Paglia
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
The White Paper – Jean Cocteau
Say Uncle: Poems* – Kay Ryan
The Bell – Iris Murdoch
Vamps and Tramps – Camille Paglia
The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973 – 1982 – Joyce Carol Oates
The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews – Joyce Carol Oates
Catcher in the Rye (re-read)- J.D. Salinger
With Love and Squalor: 14 Writers Respond to J.D. Salinger – K. Kotzen and T. Beller, eds.
Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall – Richard Barrios
Dancing Ledge – Derek Jarman
Something Bright, Then Holes* – Maggie Nelson
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
Seven Notebooks: Poems* – Campbell Mcgrath
The Art of Memoir: Then, Again – Sven Birkerts
The Holy Innocents: A Romance – Gilbert Adair
Sea Change* – Jorie Graham
Stroke: Poems* – Sidney Wade
A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930 – 1960 – Jeanine Basinger
Rock Harbor* – Carl Phillips
Art and Sex in Greenwich Village: A Memoir of Gay Literary Life after Stonewall – Felice Picano
Watching the Spring Festival: Poems* – Frank Bidart
The Lost Saranac Interviews: Forgotten Conversations with Famous Writers – Joe David Bellamy, ed.
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist – Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Against Interpretation – Susan Sontag
Arkansas: Three Novellas – David Leavitt
The Tether* – Carl Phillips
The Witches – Roald Dahl
Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles – Katie Roiphe
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Franweiler – E.L. Konigsburg
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
An Acceptable Time – Madeleine L’Engle
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

The books immediately ushered onto my “most-loved” list: Autobiography of Red, Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, Brideshead Revisited, Against Interpretation, Little Women.

Honorable Mentions: As You Like It, Sexual Personae, Les enfants terribles, The Name of the Rose, Say Uncle: Poems.

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thoughts on 2008

My Ten Favorite Films of 2008:

01) Chansons d’amour (Love Songs) / Dans Paris
02) Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
03) Une vielle maîtresse (The Last Mistress)
04) Le Voyage du ballon rouge (Voyage of the Red Balloon)
05) Les amour d’Astrée et Céledon (The Romance of Astree and Celedon)
06) Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeais)
07) Were the World Mine
08) Twilight
09) Savage Grace
10) Guest of Cindy Sherman

I suppose it kind of goes without saying—if distribution dates somehow continue to be the main criterion of composing a list like this, well, I offer up this one as a particularly absurd mess.  Look no further than the two films that crown the top of the list: by most accounts, Dans Paris should be a 2006 film; Chansons d’amour, on the other hand, would legitimately count as a 2008 release.  The problem with such clear-cut analysis: I first got to see Dans Paris, which never appeared theatrically in San Diego, upon its DVD release in the middle of 2008.  Chansons d’amour, on the other hand, I saw late in 2007 at TIFF and if I had composed a list in 2007, it list would have been given pride of place on the top of that one. And on and on we go, rather ridiculously—how long exactly are we planning on carrying on this exercise in futility?  Perhaps if it wasn’t taken so seriously it wouldn’t seem so absurd, and I guess it’s that spirit I bother offering up this list at all.

Looking at this list, compiled after several revisions, I had to admit it startles even me.  Twilight gracing the same list with several legitimate Art-with-a-capital-A (in the best possible sense) type of films?  Something as innocuous and disposable as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist?  That icky incest film with Julianne Moore that everyone hated?  Really?

So it seems.  It seems that my film viewings habits and general cinematic sensibility is turning into something downright schizophrenic—objectively this looks like a laughable mash-up of the lists of an overly pretentious artfag and a 15 year old girl.  But in reality it might just be that I’m simply becoming more capricious in my cinematic discrimination (example: what do The Dark Knight, Frozen River, Clint Eastwood and most the films currently playing at the San Diego Landmark theaters all have in common?  I couldn’t be more disinterested if I tried!).

I don’t know, is that a legitimate means to dissect this list?  To delve into my two warring personas—the glutton for Art and this more juvenile desire to make a kind of intense emotional connection with what I’m watching?  I guess a good way to view this list is that these are the ten new(ish) films I developed the biggest, most lasting crushes on in 2008—the ones that would bubble up unexpectedly into my consciousness, catching me off-guard and kind of compelling me to love them in ways that I can’t exactly explain in a rational way. Perhaps it’s that lack of affection that’s at the root of why Milk, which inspired more thought and pondering than a good number of films on this list, ultimately failed to make the final cut.  It might also help explain—at least to me—why there are also films that ended up on this list that initially I didn’t much care for.  It was simply that they kept revealing unexplored facets in the weeks, sometimes months after watching them.

Cinematic crushes.  That also helps get to a growing preoccupation with what I’ve come to call “the little things around the edges,” the often rather inconsequential details or moments in films that I rarely see recognized in the film criticism I read but I find resonate and stick with me a lot longer than the things I’m told are worth focusing on.  Christophe Honoré, in his giddy, almost foolhardy abandon and cinematic experimentation, is already a master at this—both Chansons d’amour and Dans Paris are cinematic miracles composed of moments and emotions that at first seem haphazardly strung together but later reveal themselves to possess the same kind of oddly beautiful randomness of daily life.  Despite the stunning extremes from which Chansons d’amour begins and ends, it’s the film on this list that most seems to mimic the beautiful/horrible/bizarre random trajectory of daily living and the sense that every moment possesses the potential to cobweb in countless unthinkable directions; if Dans Paris is more traditionally plotted, it is simply bursting with vivid moments of emotional truth (the endless love/hate push-and-pull between parents and their grown offspring) and the inevitable human reaction to latch onto objects to create an identity (silly songs, cherished childhood books, store window displays).

La voyage du balloon rouge and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, in radically different ways, also share many of Honoré’s preoccupations.  Most commentary of Hou’s film have focused on its dazzling aesthetics (which are admittedly impressive), but the real lightbulb moment for me was when my friend Ali(son Smith) wrote some thoughts about how the way Binoche’s character lives “encapsulates Paris” and among many things the film turns out to be a really poignant portrait of urban living (characterized by, to quote Ali again, “much living in little space”).  It’s up there with Chansons d’amour in the way something resembling real life emerges from carefully collected individual moments.  Nick and Norah, on the other hand, is much less successful, inevitably succumbing (given its origins) to a more cookie-cutter, consumer-minded approach—and to be brutally honest, it has some truly awful sequences (that whole exchange in the studio room) and the central courtship is certainly sweet but also a bit bland.  Rather, its the secondary characters that bring the film vividly to life: Ari Graynor pulls off this astounding comedic turn that comes out of nowhere (my favorite performance of the year) and Nathan Lee can have I Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, as I emphatically agree with Lisa Schwarzbaum that in a quietly revolutionary way the film shows, in a way I’ve never really seen before, how for people under a certain age gay and straight lives and romances and friendships parallel and intersect each other, and, more importantly, that’s simply the way it is.  I have a feeling that this film could very well have chipped away at “the otherness” of homosexuality in the minds of its unsuspecting audience in a way many were hoping Milk, in its more bombastic manner, would and probably couldn’t.

Keeping with the young love, Were the World Mine and Twilight, the former a unruly labor-of-love type of film that only manages to hold itself together through the love and sweat and unbridled passion and conviction of those involved; the latter is a polished, meticulously calculated tween juggernaut.  Were the World Mine is kind of unapologetically a “root for the underdog” Billy Elliot yarn with an honest-to-god gay boy at the center this time around; Twilight’s chaste romanticism is kind of unintentionally ruptured by the homoerotic undertones associated with the vampire tradition, and a big part of my odd fascination with it is how little would have to be changed to  turn this into a gay coming-of-age story (it also helps that male beauty hasn’t been so shamelessly objectified since Casino Royale).

Operating (unsurprisingly) on a completely different plane is Catherine Breillet and Une vieille maîtresse, where the violent sexual potency of young love is placed front and center, a startling but necessary flipside of the coin to platonic puppy-love films like Nick & Norah, Were the World Mine and Twilight.  This is also a quality which also separates Breillet’s film from the two other vivid French literary adaptations on the list: Ne touchez pas le hache and Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon.  Both are supremely accomplished films by master filmmakers nearing the end of their careers; both also center around the travails of romantic coupling, but where Rivette slyly dissects social conventions through what initially seems a rigid, qualité française theatricality, Rohmer swings to the opposite end of the spectrum, not parodying its idyllic pre-modern pastoral setting but unironically serving up romantic hijinks until it culminates in a buoyant, giddy crescendo that only Honoré’s films are able to match.

Guest of Cindy Sherman serves as representative of my experience helping program the San Diego Film Festival, one of the bright spots in a unbelievable amount of shit I had to sift through and endure during that process.  It didn’t even end up playing at the festival, and I have no idea if it’ll surface again (though, happily, IMDb is showing a limited release slated for the end of March) but this funny/sad doc will probably be positioned as an insider look at a notoriously reclusive artist even though it’s no PBS “meet the artist” affair—it’s really the inadvertently captured portrayal of the creation and collapse of a romantic relationship.

And finally, Savage Grace, perched at the end of this kind of ridiculous summation like a pariah—an odd, unloved and unlovable film that I won’t even try to pretend I “got.”  It’s here because it haunted me—not the uncomfortable sex stuff, really, but its dislocation, the way it kind of throws both its characters and audience into these unmoored spaces, forcing all of us to grope through this hopeless labyrinth together when we all seem pretty aware that there’s no way out.  It’s the kind of film where answers are demanded, and, rather perversely, none ever come.

A few honorable mentions are in order, because it pained me to leave out My Bluberry Nights, Jump! and Lullaby Before I Wake, all films I also developed considerable crushes on; also the films I “merely” admired for various reasons: Milk, Paranoid Park, Stellet licht, The Rape of Europa and Anita O’Day: Life of a Jazz Singer.

And for fun, a few other misc. 2008 goodies:

My Ten Favorite Non-2008 First Viewings:
01) La pointe courte (1954)
02) Vampyr (1932)
03) Innocence (2007)
04) Garden of Earthly Delights (2004)
05) Who’s Camus Anyway? (2005)
06) Lady Chatterly (2007)
07) Les enfants terribles (1950
08) The Last Holiday (2006)
09) Salome (1923)
10) Syndromes and a Century (2007)

My Ten Favorite Performances from 2008:

01) Ari Graynor, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
02) Asia Argento, Une vieille maîtresse
03) Juliette Binoche, Voyage du balloon rouge
04) Kristen Stewart, Twilight
05) Emile Hirsch, Milk
06) Clotilde Hesme, Chansons d’amour
07) David Strathairn, My Blueberry Nights
08) Chiara Mastroianni, Chansons d’amour
09) James Franco, Milk
10) Rachel Weisz, My Blueberry Nights

Ten Most Swoon-worthy Boys (for Chance):

01) Robert Pattinson, Twilight
02) Jonathan B. Wright, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist
Louis Garrel, Chansons d’amour and Dans Paris
Eddie Redmayne, Savage Grace
Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet, Chansons d’amour
Nathaniel David Becker, Were the World Mine
Fu’ad Ait Attou, Un vieille maîtresse
James Franco, Milk
Daniel Craig, Quantum of Solace
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

lacking just a little minnelli magic

Watching two Vincent Minnelli classics, The Band Wagon (1953) and The Pirate (1948), in quick succession revealed something important for me: when sticking to a cohesive narrative—Meet Me in St. Louis, The Clock, Some Come Running, even lesser effort like a Madame Bovary, he’s virtually unparalleled in the Hollywood studio system. But when he succumbs to his burlesque impulses, as in Band Wagon and The Pirate, I struggle to retain my interest. The latter, less well-known, more of a (queer) cult item, is a bizarre little trifle—someone featured in the featurette (Gene Kelly’s former wife, I believe) commented that it plays like a massive in-joke, and I think that about sums it up.

I can see how someone on its wavelength could find it absolutely irresistible, but it more or less eluded me, and instead was left watching something with infinite potential that never quite finds a way to coalesce into something genuinely memorable (except, perhaps, for the shock of Gene Kelly showing up in one fantasy sequence in black cut-offs that make boxer-briefs look modest). It’s also Minnelli at his most stylistically unrestrained, and not in a way that appealed to me—the antiquated burgundies, golds and roses fly somewhere past mere kitsch to into the realm of the downright tacky. And god, after suffering through one performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh” it sure took a lot of restraint to not take advantage of the stop button when mere minutes later it is served up once again…

Clearly, The Band Wagon is the superior film, though it too ultimately left me underwhelmed as well. The first half is good, actually very good, except perhaps for Astaire’s (very intentional) wet dishrag of a performance—when he’s not dancing I just don’t find him an interesting enough screen presence to carry off extended mopiness. And I clearly had the wrong reaction—which is obviously more indicative of my personal taste than anything to do with the film itself—in that I was more interested in seeing a revamped version of the Faustian Follies instead of the famous, folksy Mickey-and-Judy “let’s give ‘em a show!” segments that follow (to the apparent adoration of all). But there are moments of grace that show up occasionally and are as dazzling as anything to be found in Minnelli’s filmography: the screen comes alive during the buoyant camaraderie of the “I Love Louisa” sequence, the gravity and geometry-defying gymnastics of the background male dancers in the “Girl Hunt,” the visual pleasure of Cyd Charrise’s “18 mile-high legs” (Liza Minnelli’s characterization), pretty much any time the crackerjack Nanette Fabray is given a good quip to toss off. But what really got me: the scene on the stairs where Astaire and Charisse meet and immediately have a fallout and Charisse has on a pair of kelly green satin gloves that shimmer against her diaphanous black dress. God, I remember thinking to myself—that is cinema!