Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Of Walking In Ice by Werner Herzog

I hate to admit to being underwhelmed by anything Herzog, but Of Walking In Ice just didn’t do it for me.  In 1974, Herzog walks from Munich to Paris, presumably because he feels that if he does so, he can help keep alive esteemed German film critic Lotte Eisner, who has fallen ill in France.  In and of itself that’s great.  Plus the weather sucks.  That adds drama.  Along the way he keeps a journal.  It is a diaristic ramble, to be sure.   He breaks into houses along the way to sleep.  That’s kind of cool in a 70s way.  There are definitely some prime Herzogian philosophical nuggets, but for me, it was pretty darned unfocused.  What kept me going was the scant page count.  I know I will be hated and hunted down by the lovers of cinema for this review.  But I’ll take my chances.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Black Hole by Bucky Sinister

Bucky Sinister is one of my all time favorite poets, both on the page and at readings. After years slugging it out in the poetry trenches, he’s just published Black Hole, his debut novel. Exciting stuff. 

Black Hole is fantastic.  Sinister would be the first to admit that it owes a debt to Philip K. Dick.  A Scanner Darkly jumps to mind, as Black Hole is drenched in drug-fueled sadness as we bear witness to a character losing his mind, and quite disturbingly, his hold on time. Black Hole features an ageing hipster, Chuck, with an insatiable appetite for drugs.  But the drugs that he dabbles in are new designer drugs, the side effects not quite known. Chuck has not quite figured out how to grow up. He’s a 40 year old drug addict who hasn’t given up the party. His friends are either dead or have grown up, shedding their punk rock leathers for family man garages. On top of that, his beloved Mission is undergoing a rapid change. In with tech, out with warehouses, squats, and Mission eccentrics. He's at a loss how to move into middle age. He's become the weird old guy at the party. 

Chuck is at loose ends, and as he dabbles with new designer drugs, he spins in and out of control. The drugs are making him black out.  When he awakes he seems to be skipping through time.  He time travels to the near past, forced to relive the mistakes and trials of his youth over and over again. He gets opportunities to fix his mistakes, but he’s not that smart or lucky.

Black Hole is at its best when it addresses how we approach middle age, especially for those who cut their teeth in the punk universe. What happens when you recognize that the world around you has changed, but you can’t figure out how or where you fit into the new order of things? Worse yet, what if you realize there is no place for you? 

How we approach change is central to Black Hole and as Chuck grapples with change at the personal level, he is confronted with a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. Black Hole becomes a great vehicle for exploring the current changes in the Mission.  No worries though, Black Hole is not shrill or didactic.  It’s equal parts funny and melancholy.  Sinister has been honing his chops as a stand-up comedian for the last ten years and Black Hole is full of funny.  It features a world where the nouveau tech crowd are clamoring to buy mini whales, the hottest status symbol pet on the market. It also laments a world where a crazy person, running around the Mission covered in feces, is no longer acceptable. 

Ultimately though, Black Hole is filled with longing and sadness. It’s a toast to a time gone by, a time that is being brushed under the carpet of history. It’s not a condemnation of the new Mission, but a rumination on how we experience change and stagnation. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Inherent Vice vs. Play It As It Lays

I’m on a 60s LA kick.  Just finished up Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays and Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice.  Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is on deck, which could serve as a nice capper to this run.

Play It As It Lays and Inherent Vice share a frayed vision of the 60s, but the similarities stop there.  Play It As It Lays is desperate, sad, and heartbreaking. It is steeped in melancholy.  If the 60s were supposed to be liberating and life affirming, the characters in this book never got the memo.  It’s a crashing dream.  We get snippets of the life of Maria.  Model turned actress turned Hollywood wife heading for a crack up.  All the booze, the drugs and loose morals do nothing but undermine her self-worth.  It’s a haunting book.  Play It As It Lays, written in 1970, seems ahead of its time in re-evaluating the 60s or certainly poking holes in the Eden-esque 60s mythology.

Inherent Vice, on the other hand, fully plays into that myth.  Free love and free drugs abound.  Surf music is on the radio, rock and roll is in the streets, and revolution is in the air.  But this is a crime novel, so not all is well.  A Cointelpro sting, a drug ring, and a bizarre real-estate scandal threaten the stoners’ surf paradise. However, Pynchon’s characters remain oblivious to the menace, having a rollicking good time.  They all are just too stoned to be too concerned.

Plopped down in 1969, months after the Manson murders, Inherent Vice is a hazy, drug-fueled noir.  It owes a huge debt to Raymond Chandler, but floats in a psychedelic fog. I loved it at times, but at other points the haze got a bit thick.  With an intensely convoluted plot, filled with oodles of characters, the narrative slip slides around in a cloud of pot smoke, oft times obscuring the narrative.  At some level that approach leaves you with some impressionistic scenes, but with so many plot turns to keep track of, confusion ensues.  Interestingly, I heard an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson, who adapted Inherent Vice for the screen last year.  I have yet to see the movie, but he talks about using Robert Altman’s 1973 adaptation of The Long Goodbye as a model for his film.  This completely informed my reading of Inherent Vice.  Altman’s take on Chandler is narratively challenged and heavy on vibe.  It’s elusive and hard to pin down.  I was never the hugest fan, but the mood of that film has stuck with me years after viewing.  Though I didn’t love Inherent Vice throughout, it actually has fueled my interest to take in the movie.  It seems ripe for the screen, a dizzying visual ride, prone to slipping in and out of the narrative fold.  I can get behind that.

On a side note, I haven’t read Pynchon since college.  I loved him then, but haven’t read any of the comeback novels.  I couldn’t help being struck by how wacky and goofy Inherent Vice was.  Great heaps of Carl Hiaasen craziness abound in these pages.  So my question is whether Hiaasen’s books are hugely influenced by early Pynchon or whether Pynchon has succumbed to influences by more modern writers?  And speaking of modern influences, there a bit of James Ellroy and bit of The Big Lebowski floating around in this Inherent stew.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

The hype was thick.  My Facebook feed full of friends raving about the new Mad Max.  I saw it.  I liked it.  It had beautiful cinematography.  So many breathtaking,  impressionistic landscapes.  Perhaps they were all crafted digitally. Who cares, they were stunning artistic achievements.  There was great art direction.   I’m not a car guy, but I loved some of the vehicles.  Definitely some Big Daddy Roth inspired muscle.  There were some fun chase scenes, perhaps bordering on Hanna-Barbera Wacky Races silliness.  Was it feminist?  I suppose it was. Though, for me it was feminist the way animated kids movies are environmentalist.  In other words, some light exploration of the issues at hand.  I’m not complaining.  That’s good.  Better than the alternative.  But is this a deep movie that really talks about gender issues?  Not really.  Is it a 2 hour over-adrenalized car chase? Yup. Did I stop caring at some point? Sure. 

Did I like Mad Max?  Why not?  It had some moments. I did love the fact that the soundtrack was so loud it oblterated much of the dialogue.  I once saw Cliffhanger in Italy without subtitles.  I loved it.  Had I heard the actual dialogue, I'm sure I would have been horrified.  Did I like Tom Hardy grunting his way through the script? I did.  It reminded me of Timothy Spall in Mr. Turner.  Hardy is no Spall, but I like movies with lots of grunting.  

Mad Max was fun.  But it was no Snowpiercer, which I might argue operates in the same pedal-to-the-metal vein. For that matter, last night I watched the Rifftrax take on Sharknado, and that got much more of a rise out of me than Fury Road.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard. Believe the Hype?

No question that the Karl Ove Knausgaard hype is in full effect.  The Norwegian memoirist is everywhere from guest writing spots in The New Yorker to the lecture circuit.  For those not in the know, Knausgaard has penned a massive memoir called, of all things, My Struggle.  It’s a six volume odyssey, each volume clocking in around 600 pages.  I just finished Book 2 and, if I’m honest, 1200 pages in, I’m still not sure what I think.  In fact, after Book 1, I decided that I wasn’t going to commit to the full monty.  But a couple stellar reviews by friends, and coming across it on the library shelves (shocked that it wasn’t checked out), I decided to give Book 2 a go.

My struggle with Knausgaard is this - On the one hand, he’s an excellent writer.  His prose has flow. He’s easy to read.  He continually gives great insights into the little moments of life, all the while struggling over larger philosophical conundrums.  

On the other hand, the narrative structure of these books is all over the map.  There isn’t a conventional narrative thru line.  There are thematic thru lines, but if you’re looking to sink into and be pulled along by a swiftly rushing narrative current, Knausgaard will frustrate.

Book 2 is all about parenting. Knausgaard struggles with the perception of himself as a stay-at-home father.  He struggles with his wife as they deal with parenting challenges.  Though he dives head long into parenting, it cuts against the life he wants to lead as an artist. This dichotomy is at the heart of Book 2.  He has to fight to carve out a space that allows him to write.  As I read Book 2, it vividly brought back many of the challenges and triumphs of raising young children. 

But the narrative is loose.  The book opens at a kid’s birthday party.  We’re at that party for a good 80 pages, and suddenly we slide into ruminations on Kanusgaard’s own childhood, and suddenly we careen into his first meeting with his wife, and all of a sudden we’re finding about his leaving Norway to come to Sweden.  Some of these narrative excursions are 10 pages, some 50 pages.  You never know how long of a ride you’re in for.  You never know if a thread will come back. 

For all the great writing, and there is plenty, sometimes the book is hard to pick up without that solid narrative thread to pull you in.

Will I read Book 3? It might be a game time decision.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I Didn't Go See The Replacements

I loved The Replacements.  They were one of the most important bands in my life during my college years.  But at some point, I checked out.  Listening to them made me sad.  The I’m In Trouble 45 is one of my all time favorite 45s. I didn’t own it, but I played it on the jukebox every time I went to Joe’s Starr Lounge in Ann Arbor.  I loved Hootenanny.  I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was when Let It Be came out.  I even loved the When The Shit Hits the Fans cassette.  When Tim came out, I wasn’t ready to dismiss them solely for the fact that Tim was a major label release.  Tim has its moments and contains some great tracks, but the production is awful, as are some of the songs.  The album version of Bastards of Young paled in comparison to the live versions they had been playing prior to the release of that record.  Not that I listened to their subsequent records all that closely, but they never did it for me when friends put them on.  I guess I liked the earlier stuff, the Bob stuff.   I loved that The Replacements shook the hardcore trappings of Sorry Ma, and found their pop and rock voice.  But the poppier/rockier direction of Hootenanny and Let It Be was infused with the hardcore and metal that pulsed through their DNA. The Replacements were a band that could move from the emo beauty of Within Your Reach to the hardcore stupidity of Run It to the perfect amalgamation of noise and song in Hayday in a matter of a seconds.  There was a level of unpredictability from one song to the next.  Post Let It Be, that unpredictability and the excitement it brought disappeared for me.  Yes there are good songs in the post Let It Be universe, The Replacements always had good songs.   But that reckless rock and roll excitement was gone.  The Replacements were a great band, and then they weren’t.  And that makes me sad whenever I listen to them.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon

Just tore through Kim Gordon’s bio, Girl In A Band.  It’s a good read. It’s a quick read.

As a bio, it hits all the stages in her life, but it does so with a light brush.  It’s not a drama-fueled bio à la Mary Karr. It’s not as philosophical, nor does it delve as deeply and shed a light onto a specific time period like Patti Smith’s Just Kids.

At times it feels like a hit and run overview, but within that, it’s all good. The book is very much about Gordon’s development as an artist and her quest to live the artistic life.  I use the word “artist” consciously, because though Gordon is best known as a musician, it’s her interest in other art forms that serves as her wellspring.  To be fair, Sonic Youth always came across as “arty”.  I always liked that about them.  Gordon doesn’t shy away from this conceit.  Her inspiration comes from folks like Mike Kelley, Dan Graham, and Gerhard Richter.

The book is framed by the dissolution of her marriage, and that story gives the book its arc.  Gordon has moved on from Sonic Youth, is starting new bands, has re-focused her energies on her art career, and is moving towards a different stage in her life.  That change is lurking everywhere in Girl In A Band.

For those looking for the comprehensive Sonic Youth tell-all/tome, this is not it.  Gordon takes the stance that the band’s history has been well documented elsewhere.  She moves through the band’s career by devoting chapters to specific songs and/or albums that resonated with her.  It’s not the broad view that she takes, but the more personal glint into the world of Sonic Youth.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  It does leave you wanting more stories and insights, but what’s on the page is strong.

Gordon is pretty open talking about the challenges and triumphs of rock and roll parenting, as well.  Though she doesn’t regale the reader with story after story, her take is insightful and heartfelt.

Finally, art is the core for her.  It informs her work as a musician and artist throughout her career.  Personally, I love when artists take their inspiration from mediums that are not their own.   This is Gordon’s m.o., so I loved that aspect of the book.  If I have any complaint is that the photos in the book aren’t that strong, and the book is devoid of any telling photos of her artwork.  As much of a fan as I am, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know her work as a fine artist.  She talks enough about it in the book, that some photos would have been nice.

Small quibbles for sure. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Some Quick Thoughts About TV

Peaky Blinders—Let’s talk Netflix Original deep cuts.  When I was first laid up with my bad back in December, I cruised through this British Series.  Set in the 20s, it focuses on the mean streets of industrial Birmingham.  It’s a melting pot of trouble.  Commies, cops, IRA, and The Peaky Blinders, the local gang, are all doing battle in this hardscrabble universe filled with young men deeply scarred by their experiences in WWI. It’s a far remove from Downton Abbey.  There are flashes of excitement, especially when the show gets political, as it does at the outset.  Will the factory workers fight for their rights?  Will they embrace a socialist movement? Will they embrace revolutionary moment? Or will they fall into the hands of the local gangs, offering a quick buck.  Unfortunately, as the show develops, politics become an afterthought, and the show’s plot turns toward simple gang warfare.  Not bad, I just feel that the politics of England between-the-wars carries with it a seed of originality that simple gang warfare fails to bring.  I did stick out for both seasons.

Veep—OK, I’m four seasons late to the party here, but this is brilliant funny stuff.  Never watched it, but then I shot an Evening with Veep for San Francisco Sketchfest this year and I was intrigued.  I had no idea that Armando Iannucci, one of the creative minds behind I’m Alan Partridge and In The Loop was behind this.  The writing is great, as is the acting.  Full marks here.

House of Cards—Watching House of Cards and Veep at the same time is a bit surreal, since the plot lines are nearly identical, featuring Vice Presidents climbing the ladder to the Presidency.  A shocking number of plot points start converging.  The two shows represent an interesting exercise in taking similar broad plot points and creating two very different experiences. Enough of that, let’s talk House of Cards. I loved the first two seasons.  Now that I’m more than halfway through season 3, I can’t say I’m feeling it so much.  The first two seasons focus on Frank Underwood’s rise to power.  His end game becomes clear and is the driving force of the series.  Now that he is fully in power in season 3, the show seems to lose focus.  As President he seems rudderless.  Other than maintaining power and flaunting his power, he seems adrift with no political agenda.  It seems odd to me that someone who is a career politician, who was so focused on achieving the Presidency, would get there and then have no clear policies that he wants to enact.  As the season progresses, he pushes policy through, but it all seems so reactive as opposed to proactive.  It strikes me as a bit of lazy writing.  Given the strength of the writing and acting in the first two seasons, I’ll play out the string, but I’m starting to think the five hour investment I have in front of me could be better spent. 

Girls—I’ve been mixed on Girls.  I like Lena Dunham. That said, the show, at times has irritated.  I dug season 1.  Season 2 made my skin crawl a bit.  I skipped season 3.  I’m digging Season 4.  I find myself looking forward to each episode.  Isn’t that the draw of TV?  There you have it.  Have I mentioned how every time I look at Lena Dunham, I think of 90s underground filmmaker, Sarah Jacobson?  I think Dunham, whether she realizes it or not, took the mantle Jacobson was blazing before her untimely death, and has run with it.  I think Sarah would be proud to see someone like Dunham strutting her stuff so boldly on TV. That thought makes me happy.

Togetherness—I’m a big Mark Duplass fan.  I really enjoyed the first season of Togethrness, which features a married couple moving in different directions after becoming parents.  It seems real. It seems heartfelt. It seems wounded.  The characters aren’t always sympathetic, but they are not in a good place.  The side story of the directionless sister and the best friend, who is an out of work actor, feels real as well.  What happens when you approach middle age and all your hopes and dreams seem forever out of reach?  Togetherness goes there and it’s good stuff.

Hockey—I watch a lot of hockey.  The Sharks, my team, are a bit of sideshow this year. They’re offering up as much drama as some of the shows on this list.  As the regular season comes to an end, and it becomes increasingly likely they won’t make the playoffs, I keep watching.  I suppose it’s the masochist in me.  Sports fans understand. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The One I Love

The One I Love slipped in and out of the local theaters with little fanfare, and that’s a shame.  With a little more time, it could have caught some mild indie fire. Similar to Mark Duplass’ new and highly recommended tv show Togetherness, The One I Love features Duplass and co-star Elizabeth Moss as a young, struggling married couple.  The film opens with the two in therapy where it’s quickly evident that they are growing estranged from each other.  Their therapist, played by Ted Danson, insists they go on a weekend retreat. He’s got just the spot for them.  Duplass and Moss head off for some rest, relaxation, and reconciliation. They smoke some pot, they have some sex, and things are going well until things get weird.  

Mild spoiler alert to follow.  The idyllic start takes a sudden turn when the couple realizes that they are not alone.  Worse than being terrorized by strangers, the people they find inhabiting the cottage are idealized versions of themselves.  Whenever Duplass retreats to the guest house on the property he meets a kinder, more tolerant, more sexy version of his wife.  When Moss enters the guest house, she meets a more easy going, less cynical, less bitter version of her husband. She’s reunited with the man she fell in love with years earlier. Confronted by their doppelgangers, the couple runs, but then are sucked back to explore the possibilities.  Duplass wants nothing to do with this house of mirrors, but Moss, who is clearly more wounded by their disintegrating marriage, feels that regardless of the bizarre nature of this occurrence, it represents possibilities worth exploring.

The One I Love sets a great tone.  It’s got a bit of austere sci-fi creep, with hints of The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and late night 70s B Movies like Magic.  It also owes a debt to John Frankenheimer’s Seconds.  But there’s dark comedy floating about as well. Only one of them can experience a doppelganger at a time.  They have to hash out the ground rules for this trust exercise. It’s funny stuff.  Obviously insecurities arise. Sometimes they are played for comedy, other times for melancholy.

The One I Love is streaming on Netflix and worth 90 minutes of your time.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Red Army

I love hockey. I love documentary.  I was pretty excited to check out Red Army, a doc about the standout Soviet hockey teams of the 70s and 80s.  For a fairly small release, Red Army was receiving plenty of hype from a variety of mainstream sources, which further wetted my appetite.  

Growing up playing hockey in the 70s, the specter of the Red Army team was ever present.  They were the enemy.  Though they were the evil empire, there was no denying that they were awesome.  They kicked Canada’s butt.  And though the Americans beat them at Lake Placid, any one in the know realized that had that game been played ten more times, the Russians would have won them all.

Red Army is a pretty entertaining doc focusing on more than just the formation of the team.  It’s a glint into the Soviet political system and the industrial sports complex of the Cold War era.  If you came of age in that era, there was no question that sports were a battleground that often stood in for political battles.  Red Army acknowledges the Soviet necessity for fielding standout sporting teams to do battle on the international circuit. 

Political machinations aside, at its core, Red Army showcases the trials and travails of the Red Army team members. Their training regimen was nuts. Players trained for 11 months out of the year, rarely spending time with their families.  As a result, the Soviets played like a well-oiled machine.  Each player was in complete sync with his line mates.  The highlights of the team on the ice in Red Army are astounding. The Red Army’s starting five were absolute wizards.  Their playmaking skills were a true thing of beauty.  I assure you that you won’t see hockey of that caliber on a Tuesday night tilt between the Panthers and Jets.  But their machine like dismantling of their opponents also turned them into communist automotons in the eyes of Western observers.  Red Army does a great job of humanizing the players.  

The documentary revolves around star defensemen Slava Fetisov, who would later go on to win a bunch of Stanley Cups for the mighty Red Wings.  Fetisov was the team leader and the first player who bristled at the authoritarian yoke of the team and head coach Viktor Tikhonov.  Fetisov’s desire to emigrate and jump ship to the NHL leads to punitive treatment from the team and the system that he lead to international glory. 

While we now take for granted the international flavor of the NHL, it’s easy to forget the resistance put up to Soviets playing in the NHL.  From the “their coming for our jobs stance” to the general distrust of commies in our midst, the transition of these Soviet stanouts to the NHL was incredibly difficult for the players and their families.  Not only were they isolated by language, culture, and style of play, but many NHLers didn’t want them here.  Fetisov, along with teammates Alexei Kasatonov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov were pioneers in bringing the Russian game to the U.S, but their transition was far from idyllic, often being viewed as foreign pariahs.

I definitely had a couple quibbles with the film.  The majority of the big picture cultural/political perspective comes from Western analysts. I found it odd that a film so intent on showing a Soviet perspective, left the bird’s eye view of the political perspective in the hands of Western critics.  I know the Western perspective of the Cold War.  I wanted an Eastern Bloc perspective.  Granted the players do shine some light on the matter and that’s when the film shines.  I loved the Red Army teammates talking about their first trip to Canada and being overwhelmed by all the shopping options and their excitement at buying lots of blue jeans.  More of this, please.

The other oddity in the film is how much of the film is dependent on Fetisov.  All the reviews I read prior to seeing the film talked about how Fetisov’s story was at the core of the film, but I had no idea how truly focused the film was on Fetisov.  I’m spitballing, but if I had to guess, Fetisov represents 60-70% of the interview time in the film.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a doc so heavily reliant on one interview subject.  Had the film been called The Fetisov Story, I guess I’d accept, but for a film covering a broader landscape it comes off a bit odd.  The film contains interviews with Fetisov’s defense partner Alexei Kasatonov, goalie great Vladislav Tretriak, and forward Vladimir Krutov.  But their interviews were worthy of fourth line grinder ice time. These guys were some of the greatest to ever play the game, but they weren’t allotted top line minutes in the interview column.  Nowhere to be found were star forwards Igor Larionov and Sergei Makarov.  I’m sure there was a reason no interviews were secured with those two amazing forwards, but given their prominence on the team and their successful NHL careers, their absence was felt.

But quibbles aside, Red Army is absolutely worth checking out.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Gulag: A History & My Promised Land

For the past month I’ve been laid up with a herniated disc.  Two weeks of being bed-ridden were followed by a little spine surgery, which has been followed by a couple more weeks of spending a lot of time lying flat on my back.  I haven’t tied my shoes, washed dishes, or worn big-boy pants in a month.  I have, however, done a lot of reading and a modicum of viewing.  In the next couple of days, I’ll be rolling out what I’ve learned.

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum
Looking down the barrel of a surgeon’s knife, I decided to tackle a 500 page tome on the Soviet prison camp system.  I figured that a) not being able to move would help/force me to plow through this bitter and brutal history, and b) from a personal perspective, I figured that though I was laid up and facing a surgery with potentially scary side effects, that I would be reminded that things could always be worse.  Reading Gulag: A History, there is no question that things were worse.  Gulag is an exhaustive look at the history, the inner machinations of, and the politics surrounding the gulag.   The gulag was the soviet prison system.  Driven by Stalin’s political paranoia, the system filled up with millions of Soviets.  Though there were some hardened criminals, many of the prisoners were arrested on dubious pretenses.  Indiscriminate sweeps of Ukranians, Poles, Balts and Jews landed many innocents in the gulag.  The system was also filled by political prisoners who were accused of being enemies of the state. The gulag was not only driven by Stalin’s paranoia, but there was the false hope that the gulag could be an economic engine for the foundering Soviet Union.  Prison labor was slave labor that the Soviet Union hoped could mine precious materials from the land, build vast public works projects, like canals, fell timber, and help drive the economy.

Applebaum, who penned the excellent Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, does a great job discussing the politics that brought on the birth of this prison system, looks at the leaders and administrators who ran the system, and how the system transforms as Soviet Politics transform.  Though the gulag was at its peak between the 1920s and 1950s, Applebaum traces the dissolution of the system through Glasnost and looks at how the prison system transforms through the 80s.  Gulag also traces the life of the prisoner from arrest, transport to the camps, and acclimation to the camps.  It focuses on the types of work, the types of rewards and punishments.  It looks at the life of the guards, and it looks at the possibilities of escape.  Gulag also looks at and differentiates the types of prisoners from political prisoners to hardened criminals to peasants whose arrests were brought on because they bristled at the notion of forced collectivization. Regardless of their point of origin, life in the camps was brutal.  Food was scarce, tools to do the work were rudimentary to non-existent, clothing was threadbare, living conditions were frightening, there was violence amongst the prisoners and between prisoner and guard, and if you were placed in a northern camp above the arctic circle, life was mighty cold. In short, it was a brutal life.

One fascinating element is the number of memoirists who emerged from the gulag.  Each chapter is lead off by a beautiful poem or piece of writing encapsulating the chapter to come.  I found that to be a nice touch.  Gulag is worth the read.  But be forewarned, it is long.  At times it feels like a very detailed master’s thesis. Applebaum is an excellent writer who is at her best when she takes the long view, analyzing and looking at the big picture.  She kills it in the intro and the epilogue.  At times though, the body of the book feels like a long list of atrocities.  It’s a list that people need to hear, but when your done, you will feel release.

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit
While mired deep in the Gulag my dad sent me Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.  I picked it up, read the first chapter and was hooked, and thus began my pas de deux, simultaneously reading two historical books.  I rarely read two books at once, but it was quite enjoyable.  The gulag by day, Israel by night.

My Promised Land is an enthralling look at the history of Israel and the Zionist endeavor.  Given the current state of politics, Israel and the Occupation are hot potato topics.  There is much anger and vitriol, and courtesy of social media like Facebook, a lot of ranting and raving. Everyone has an opinion, but I always wonder how much people really know about the situation.  I certainly know a bit of the history of the Middle East, but I’ll be the first to admit that I have large blind spots, and a perspective informed by being from a family whose grandparents came from Poland and the Ukraine to help settle Palestine in the 20s.  I think everyone, regardless of political stance, could probably stand to know more about the situation, myself included.

I loved My Promised Land, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to gain some perspective on current day politics and the history that got us to this moment in time.  It is by no means an exhaustive look at the history, but Shavit looks at critical moments and events in Israeli history, explores them deeply and tries to relate them to today’s conflicts.  He does so as someone who believes in the State of Israel, but someone who sees big flaws in the State and its politics.

Shavit is a Haaretz reporter, and a peacenik who squarely comes out against occupation.  That said he is proudly Zionist and believes in the necessity of the state of Israel.  The book starts by looking at the Zionist movement of the early 20th century and how its fueled by the hostility towards European Jews and the coming holocaust that will wipeout 6 million Jews. Against this backdrop the necessity for a Jewish homeland seems paramount.  Shavit spend a lot of time looking at the early Zionists, their fierce determination, their collective spirit, their relationship to the land and to the Arabs in the land.  At the crux of My Promised Land is Shavit’s realization that if one believes in the necessity of the Jewish State, displacement of part of the Arab population is wrapped up in that belief.  Though we spend so much time focused on post-1967 occupation, at the core of the challenge of modern Israel is 1948. Zionism was all about finding a safe haven for Jews in a hostile world, but the ultimate and unfortunate byproduct of that desire was the displacement of an Arab population.  The book continually circles back to this premise and Shavit spends much time trying to understand this dichotomy.

The book is a fascinating history of the development of Israel from its 20s roots to its modern complexities.  My Promised Land looks at the various waves of Jewish immigration and the political movements that have shaped Israeli politics and culture.  Shavit continually looks at all those movements though the lens of where we are at now politically.  He looks at key moments of the early Zionists, he looks at key battles in 1948, he looks at the budding prosperity of the 50s, the nuclear program of the 60s, and the critical wars of 1967 and 1973.  Interestingly he points to the failures of the Yom Kippur war as the turning point in Israeli politics, at how that defeat and the ensuing political malaise gave birth to the settler movement.  He interviews key players in the early settler movement and explores the Occupation. He explores the peace movement and looks at his time as a soldier in Gaza in 1991.  He also spends time trying to understand the ultra-orthodox movement and how shifting demographics and economics are continually affecting modern Israel.

This was a great and eye opening read that delves deep into Israeli history and the Israeli psyche.  No matter what side of the political debate you’re on, I’d highly recommend My Promised Land.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Movies: I Saw A Lot of Them in 2014

I saw a lot of movies this year, and I really liked a lot of them.  Maybe I'm going soft in my old age.  In any event, here's a list of my faves in a vague sort of order.

Birdman                              Innovative vision
Snowpiercer                        Visceral gut punch
Boyhood                              Indie brilliance
Interstellar                          Epic grandeur
Alan Partridge                     Classic comedy
Jodorowsky’s Dune             Mad passion
Selma                                 Longest standing ovation I’ve seen in a theater

Big Eyes                              A subtler, more mature Burton
Gone Girl                             Hollywood at its most satisfying
Mr. Turner                          I love Mike Leigh
Force Majeure                     Swedish ski trip from hell
Obvious Child                      Fun indie with a bit of bite
Mood Indigo                       Gondry creates a wondrous and frightening world
Regarding Susan Sontag     Words matter
The Punk Singer                 Punk goodness
Chef                                    Sweet Indiewood bordering on cloying
Citizen Four                        Required viewing

We Are The Best                 Punk cuteness
Grand Budapest                  Wes Andersony
The Imitation Game             A bloodless war movie for braniacs

Los Angeles Plays Itself       Not as great as the hype promised, but well worth it
Life Itself                             Not as great as the hype promised, but well worth it

Trip to Italy                          Satisfying yet wanting a little more
Galapagos Affair                   Satisfying yet wanting a little more
Magic In The Moonlight       Satisfying yet wanting a little more
Whiplash                             Good, except when it wasn’t
Godzilla                                I like Godzilla movies and I liked this one

Frank                                  Great at times, not great at times
Ida                                      Great at times, not great at times

Edge of Tomorrow               Blockbuster that entertained

Still wanting to see: Nightcrawler, Babadook, 20,000 Nights On Earth, Wild, PK, Finding Vivian Maier, Land Ho!