Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Hamlet (1940) by William Faulkner

Book Review
The Hamlet (1940)
by William Faulkner
  Often said to be the least Faulkernian of Faulkner's major novels, The Hamlet is book one of the so-called "Snopes trilogy."  If you come to The Hamlet after reading Faulkner's earlier works, you may have some of the same thoughts I had while reading The Hamlet, first, that Faulkner was tired of people "not getting" his books and wanted to write something that norms would understand. Second, that The Hamlet was not written as a novel at all but is rather four inter connected stories which take place in chronological order and feature overlapping characters.

  Unlike the Compson family, reoccurring characters from his earlier books whose declining gentility sets the tone for "early Faulkner," the Snopes clan is decidedly down market, share croppers with no fixed homeland who appear in the shared territory of all of Faulkner's books: Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi as economic migrants.  Yoknapatawpha County was based on the area around Oxford, Mississippi, and like all of his books the landscape is a major character. I lost count of the number of times Faulkner either describes something as decayed or uses a synonym for decay in reference to some aspect of the landscape.

 He also throws in a straight forward cow fucking scene, taking its place among the rogues gallery of mentally challenged characters in Faulkner books committing vile sex crimes.  I mean, I guess fucking a cow isn't that vile a sex crime but it just comes up apropos of nothing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind & Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present by Eric Kandel

Detail of Judith by Gustav Klimt

The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind & Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present
by Eric Kandel
Random House, published 2012

  The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind & Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present reads something like a 600 page New Yorker article written by a Nobel Prize Winner in neuroscience.  The main project of The Age of Insight is to create linkages between the way artists and scientists thought about the unconscious in Vienna around the turn of the century with more recent developments in brain science.  Kandel is not the first author to postulate that the mix of Freud, Klimt, Schiele and others represents a critical point in the transition into "Modernity." 

  In particular, the "art" chapters of this book very much track the ideas developed by historian Peter Gay in his books about Freud and Vienna. For a variety of reasons relating to the type of people and type of society in Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was fertile cross-pollination between art and science in a way that would become impossible with the increased professionalization of both areas later in the 20th century.  Kandel does bring in material on the scientific side that extends beyond the Freud heavy analysis of Peter Gay.

  His chapter on the Vienna School of Medicine and the role of Carl von Rokitansky in establishing a scientific basis for medicine after he was appointed the head in 1844 provides a much needed opening chapter for the scientific/artistic revolution to follow.  Kandel is up to speed on network theory and the recently popular idea that innovation comes from the interaction of small groups of specific individuals with common interests.  In late 19th and early 20th century Vienna, a transitory period where anti-Semitism was unfashionable and many restrictions were lifted on Jewish activity resulted in an influx of wealthy, sophisticated Jews into the Austrian professional and social hierarchy.

  Given the lengthy, multi-part title of the book, I was a little surprised that the word "Vision" or "Visual" didn't make it into the mix, since The Age of Insight is equally about sight and vision as it is about the unconscious.  After laying out a straight forward description of the expressionist art of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, Kandel plunges into a hundred years of neuroscience.  This is the area where Kandel spent his career, and the field where he became a Nobel Prize winner...and it shows.

   When it comes to the science concepts, Kandel shows an obvious command of the material.  His writing isn't dumbed down, but he does a great job of avoiding jargon.  Kandel's major concern is to make the case that thinkers like Freud and artists like Klimt and Schiele correctly anticipated deep truths about brain functioning that weren't proven true until the 1990s, when advanced neuroscience made it possible to fully image different parts of the brain and correlate it to particular activities.

  His insights are too numerous to catalog, but for anyone with an interest in 20th century art, aesthetics, science and the overlap between those subjects, The Age of Insight is a must read.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

La Ciénaga (2001) d. Lucrecia Martel

Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, made La Cienaga (2001)

Movie Review
La Ciénaga (2001)
d.  Lucrecia Martel
Criterion Collection #743

   After going a couple weeks without watching a Criterion Collection title on their Hulu Plus channel, I find myself idly wondering during quiet moments about what is new.  Only 416 Criterion Collection titles are on the Hulu Channel, and I've made it through 237 of those, more or less.  I think maybe 25 plus of what's left are the Zatoichi samurai series and I'm not watching all of them, leaving about 150 movies available. Most of those remaining are Japanese films followed by Italian and French films.  Of the non Hulu plus available Criterion Collection films, many of them are the best known American releases- Wes Anderson's movies, Repo Man, movies like that.  I'd say I've watched maybe half of those films.  So honestly, the project of viewing all of the Criterion Collection films is not especially complicated, if only because you can knock out more than half as part of a 7.99 a month Hulu Plus subscription.

   What have I learned?  A LOT about European art films of the 1950s and 1960s.  Even more about Japanese film from that same time period.  Less about smaller national cinemas and underappreciated American independent and genre films.  Nothing about mainline Hollywood hits.  If you were to predict the trajectory of future additions to the Criterion Collection, I would say that "World Cinema," especially films from non-traditional film industries, is likely to be the biggest area for growth.

  For a good example of both the present and future of the Criterion Collection, you could do worse than La Ciénaga (2001) by Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel.  Portraits of dysfunctional upper middle class families are a subject near and dear to the heart of the Criterion Collection and "serious" film makers everywhere.  It has been that way from the beginning of European art film and it probably mirrors the larger cultural interest in Freud and family psychology that dates from the beginning of the 20th century.

   La Ciénaga sits firmly in the tradition of the disintegrating "European" bourgeois family, though here the family is Argentinian.   Although the accompanying essay on the Criterion Collections' website situates Martel among a tradition of 'new Argentinian' filmmaking informed by the economic turmoil of the 1990s, I saw this film as a fairly straight forward regional take on this larger genre.  To her credit, Martel employs a diffuse and elliptical film making style that lessens the familiarity of the milieu, but to me the pleasure was in an artist doing a nuanced take on an already popular number.

  Fans of dissolute bourgeois families and their drama will enjoy La Cienaga, for those not in that category, it will be the filmmaking technique that jumps out.  This technique is best expressed as "hazy" and "gauzy"... it reminded me of a less polished variation on the films of Sofia Coppola.  There isn't a main character at all, unless you count the decayed vacation home in which the action takes place.  This house is like the embodiment of the locations in novels like Under the Volcano, where the geographic landscape mirrors the decrepitude of the characters.  In particular, the unclean, murky green pool on the back patio of the house is like a psychic tumor hovering just off screen.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Show Review: Benjamin Booker @ The Roxy Los Angeles, CA.

Banjamin Booker, solid at The Roxy last Thursday

Show Review:
 Benjamin Booker
@ The Roxy Los Angeles, CA.

   As I texted to an old friend last week, Coachella is a place of DEAD DREAMS, so I'm stoked not to be there.  It doesn't mean I'm uninterested in the proceedings.  We've got Apple TV and you can watch the streaming You Tube channels using "Apple Play" and the quality is quite good.  I'm comfortable asserting that I'd rather watch Coachella on my couch then actually be there.  Coachella brings with it a panoply of warm up gigs, gigs in between show weekends and post-Coachella tours, and so I found myself at Thursday nights warm-up gig for Benjamin Booker at The Roxy in Hollywood.

 Benjamin Booker is another artist managed by Monotone, the company my gf works for- she doesn't work with Benjamin Booker, but I know his manager and he is a cool guy.  Seeing the working of the music industry at this level of professionalism is eye opening, largely in a positive way, though the nameless horror is always close at hand.  For example, seeing a show in Hollywood, where the nameless horror practically stalks the street.

  Fortunately the show was on a Thursday so Hollywood wasn't in full flag.  The Roxy is a decent sized room (500 capacity?) with not one but TWO separate VIP sections overlooking the main floor.  Colin Hanks was there.  This was my second Colin Hanks sighting (Queens of the Stone Age Halloween Show.)  Benjamin Booker played a crisp, energetic set.  I'd heard he was suffering from strep throat but you couldn't tell, and he didn't complain.  Booker fairly exudes a level of professionalism far beyond his place on the indie league table. 

  His music is a mixture of trad rock, punk influences with a distinctive mini-set of fiddle based folk tunes providing the punctuation to break up the sameness of his standard sound.  Booker plays as part of a three piece- he plays guitar, then a  bassist and a drummer.  The bassist and drummer both also play the fiddle for those bits.  Booker's voice is gruff, I sense that his delivery was no doubt impacted by the strep throat, but that his vocal style lessens the difference between how he sounds sick and how he sounds well.

  He wasn't particularly mobile on stage, but he exudes star-level charisma.  The audience was super excited to be there.  They left happy and enjoyed the show.    The bottle service menu for The Roxy was hilarious, but I would probably think ANY bottle service menu at a rock club is hilarious.  Benjamin Booker is no doubt on track for a major label or equivalent career and has the potential for real staying power.  He needs some hits though because I didn't hear one last night.

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