8.31.2009

The Best Tarantino Film Ever Made. (Almost.) SPOILERS, read at your peril.



Over the weekend, I saw Inglorious Basterds and keep thinking about it. I think it's best of Tarantino's films and would be a perfect film except for one minor detail.

The film concerns, as you'll see in the trailer, a special "Apache"-style military unit headed by Brad Pitt who drop into occupied France to kill and terrorize the Nazis behind enemy lines. Most of these scenes feature Tarantino's trademarks: extensive expositional dialogue that borders on dadaist; scenes of sudden and intense violence; film genre shorthand like regional dialect tics, racial and ethnic profiling, etc. All this is to say it's very entertaining.

But this film is really two films at the least--maybe three. A parallel story concerns Jewish refugee Shoshannah, sole survivor of a massacre in which her family died in front of her at the hands of German SS officer Hans Landa. Shoshannah resurfaces in France as Emmanuelle Mimieux, owner of a Paris cinemateque that, through the amorous intents of an ardent Nazi hero, becomes the site of a German propoaganda film premiere drawing the highest ranking members of the Nazi party.

Mélanie Laurent as Shoshannah is amazing. She is cold, heartless--a crowd-pleasing femme fatale, almost--but she has not completely abandoned her humanity. As Frederick Zoller, the Nazi hero who wants to get with Shoshannah-as-Emanuelle, becomes more and more intent on seducing her, she finds herself seated at a lunch table with Joseph Goebbels and--yes--Hans Landa. Tarantino has really refined what makes a situation tense and suspenseful for an audience, and this is one example. And when Shoshannah takes her revenge, splicing into the German film a close-up of herself telling the Nazis she's about to kill them, Tarantino achieves a kind of artistry his prior movies have really lacked. As the cinema burns, Shoshannah's face flickers over the smoke at the front of the house, ghostlike and eerie.

The other standout is Diane Kruger as double agent and German film star Bridge von Hammersmark. Although her role in the film is brief, she makes a lasting impact through her convincing duplicity--even the audience wonders if she's truly a double agent or not throughout her scenes, up until the very end. Oddly, she reminded me of Kate Winslet in this role, a comparison I liked but that isn't 100% accurate. Her cross-cutting between effusive and self-possessed starlet and cunning double agent is done deftly and beleiveably, giving even more credence to her character's success in the film industry.

Chrisopher Waltz's portrayal of Hans Landa was also fantastic. He was one of the few truly horrifying characters in the entire film, menacing mostly because of his affability and openness to getting the job done with everyone's support. Nicknamed "The Jew Hunter" for his ability to seek out and destroy hidden Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, he could easily have been a charicature of an evil, mindless killing machine. But he is not. Probably made even more evil for his ability to draft and redraft the "truth," so to speak, he discovers a way even to rewrite history.

Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz was another enjoyable performance. Quiet and merciless, Stiglitz looms in his scenes with menace and hatred for the Nazis, erupting in sudden fits of violence that are as justified as they are horrifying.

If you've read about the film at all, you've probably caught wind of some kind of big risk Tarantino took with the script--and with history. While Hitler does attend the film premiere and, like the rest of the guests, is locked inside, the audience can't help but believe he is going to escape somehow. That Tarantino is tackling his first true story leads us to this. And then Hitler is machine-gunned to pieces by one of the Basterds, ending the war. It's an odd moment. Logically, we know this isn't true or possible, and so our suspension of disbelief is broken. But honestly, was it even there? Going into a Tarantino film, we're expecting things to be offkilter, but I think Tarantino's only mistake is crafting stuch a stunning, classic film that is truly powerful and moving--then undercutting it with its cartoonish redraft of history.

One article I saw wondered if Tarantino had the "right to rewrite history." I don't know if that's fair. Steven Spielberg used Nazi villains over and over in the Indiana Jones movies, technically rewriting history, you'd suppose. Hitler even shows up in the first Jones film, signs and autograph, and then moves on. Certainly that's a rewrite of history, yes? So why is killing Hitler, which most Americans living at the time would have liked to have done, seen as a faulty narrative device?

Totally recommend seeing this if you haven't.

8.24.2009

Four Degrees of Separation

At the wedding reception this weekend, I was introduced to a woman from DC, who was friends with a couple of my friends. She was a DC native and had lived in Minneapolis some time back and came to know my friends who'd gotten married.

"Charles, this is Jessica. Charles used to live in Minneapolis," our introducer said. (Some of my Minneapolis friends call me Charles.)

"Where do you live now?" Jessica asked.

"DC," I said.

"Me too. What part?"

"Silver Spring?"

"Me too. What part?"

"By the Metro."

"Oh my God, me too. I live right off _________ Avenue."

"Me too!" I said.

"In [Apartment Complex}??"

"Yes!"

We swapped building numbers. Turns out she is in the building behind me in the exact same apartment complex. We had to fly 1200 miles to meet neighbors.

Later, we talked about my connection to the U.

"You lived in Middlebrook Hall? When?"

I told her.

"You didn't know I___ K_____, did you?"

I explained that he was the senior RA when I was there.

"I moved to Minneapolis because I was in a relationship with him," she said.

My life just does not seem to have six degrees of separation. Further evidenced by the fact that nearly everyone at this reception seemed to have a connection to another guest's college roommate. The two of them lived two doors down from me in that dorm.

8.23.2009

Dear Minneapolis,

You are so much fun, but you are ruined by nine months of sunless skies and subzero temperatures.

Love,
Charlie

8.17.2009

The Worst Thing I Have Ever Seen

On Saturday night, Beau and I drove up to Olney Theatre to see A Passion for Justice, a one-man show about Clarence Darrow.

It was a bit of a drive. We found ourselves out of the city and onto what seemed like country roads--twisty, turny, with dense woods. This is where we saw two deer standing in a yard. I looked out his window and saw them for a split second before a row of trees hid them.

But then we saw a bit of roadkill in the road. Our weekend in NY state we saw roadkill every tenth of a mile--opossum, fox, deer, you name it. But this was small, golden. It appeared from under a big Suburban in the next lane over. We thought it was dead until it wagged its tail.

Then, it lifted its head. It was a dog. A small, beautiful dog. It lifted its head and howled. It cried the kind of cry that comes from unimaginable pain made suddenly imaginable.

It was the worst sound I have ever heard.

The Four Kinds of Women You Can Find on Reruns

Blanche, Suzanne, Samantha

Rose, Charlene, Charlotte

Dorothy, Julia, Miranda

Sophia, Mary Jo, Carrie

8.15.2009

The Collagist is Go

Dzanc Books's new online literary magazine The Collagist is alive today. Editor Matt Bell explains in this letter:

"Looking at this list of contributors, I am so blown away by the size of their talents, the scope of their accomplishments, by the potential of the future words each has yet to unleash upon the page. I can't thank these writers enough for gifting our debut issue with their words, and I truly hope you'll enjoy each and every piece collected here.

As long as I'm thanking people, I'd also like to mention some of those who made this first issue possible:

Steve Gillis and Dan Wickett at Dzanc Books, for extending their publishing venture past the printed page and onto the internet, and for allowing me the honor of editing this new publication. Dzanc was created to publish and promote literary writing, and, to me, The Collagist is in some ways a recognition of the fact that while their book publishing arm necessarily deals in full manuscripts, there is still a calling for Dzanc to find ways to publish and promote individual pieces by a wider population of emerging and established writers."

Check out new poems from Oliver de la Paz, Christina Kallery, and me!

8.14.2009

A Riddle

Q: When is a book of poetry 8.5" x 8.5"?





A: When it is The First Risk, coming atcha Sept 24, 2009.

8.12.2009

The Surprisingly Intricate Art of Scenic Painting

Beau and I were in New York (not city) in part to go visit one of his former instructors at a place called Cobalt Studios, an arts and education organization that both creates backdrops for professional theatres and also trains scenic painters in the art.

We got a tour of the rustic facility, which is located on a roughly 150-year-old farm house in White Lake. Students who study scenic painting there live in a--well, rustic--farm house on the property and study in another building--maybe a barn?--on the property. It is virtually in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by dense trees and visited by deer throughout the morning and evening. It was truly an idyllic place to visit and spend time.

In the summer, they run an intensive scenic painting program that really pushes students' skills as far as they can go. The things they created really shocked me for both their elegance and their false-realness. And that might be the paradox of scenic painting--those artists are tasked with creating realistic-seeming facsimiles of real things, or to evoke the essence of a time and place, often creating three-dimensional images that are flat, filled with approximated shadows and textures.

I saw shockingly real-looking hand-painted portraits of hanging drapes, of marble carvings, of piers with seagalls flying overhead.

I told Beau later, I didn't realize this was like, a thing.

He asked, How did you think it worked?

I said, I thought they were printed. By machines. They always look so real.

He said, That's the art.

So I was humbled by their talents and vision. We had the chance to chat with some of the current summer students, who were kind and hilarious, and also very talented.

The next time you're at the theatre, I hope you'll consider the careful hands who painted the intricate set pieces and backdrops.

8.10.2009

Storm King

Although it sounds like some kind of supervillain or maybe a kind of hurricane-recovery clean-up service, Storm King is actually a very high profile outdoor sculpture museum featuring some significant works from the 40s-90s.

Beau and I dropped in during our recent trip to NY, and we had the good fortune to visit with his art history teacher, who filled in a lot of context about the different works and artists we saw.



The museum, which I think is about 500 acres, featured this long, snakey stone wall, hand-built, which wound around trees, dove into a small pond, and emerged from the other side to climb a hill and run right up to the edge of the highway at the museum's edge. The craftsmanship was remarkable, but so was the wall's meditation on shape, space, and scale.



I was pretty excited to encounter a Roy Lichtenstein piece in the museum. I love pop art, especially pop art inspired by cartoons and comics, and this piece, called "Mermaid," uses one of Lichtenstein's core iconographies and places it in a context I'd never encountered before. Although it's "just a canoe," it evokes images of ships with sculpted prows.



The most interesting installations were from Maya Lin, who, in her early twenties, became famous when her MIT thesis project, rejected by her faculty, became the accepted design for the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. At the time, Lin suffered the vitriol associated with the memorial's construction, including the ridiculous criticism that such a monument should not have been designed by an Asian American. If you've ever visited the memorial, you know it is among the most powerful monuments in the nation's capital for its stark simplicity and meditative use of space.

"Wavefield," one of her projects at Storm King, is a large plain of sculpted dunes growing over now with grass and wildflowers. Throughout the year, the installation looks different, but from high vantage points it does replicate the rhythm and scale of waves (the "waves" crest at about 10' high at their highest point and about 6' at their lowest). Currently, you can walk through the valleys between crests, but due to the soil's fragility, guests are asked not to walk along the tops of the dunes until they've had a chance to become more firmly rooted with flora. It's an interesting piece--one I found myself thinking about over the entire weekend.

Lin had a few really spectacular installations in Storm King's only gallery building, including a scaled-down version of a another wave-related project that used shorn 2' x 4's to make wave shapes on a gallery floor. There was also a plaster model of an iceberg and a map of the Hudson River constructed onto a blank wall using lines and groups of pins. Upstairs, I saw this, which I loved:



A series of glass "drops," which seem to be holding their shape at the preicse moment of impact before the meniscus explodes and the water flattens.

There were many significant modern pieces there, including "Black Flag"--my favorite in the museum (Beau has the photo of me under it) and a remarkable vertically-cantilevered piece that I didn't realize was held off the ground until we drove by it (too late to get a snapshot!). It's probably the best sculpture garden I've been to, although I will always love Klaes Oldenberg's Cherry-and-spoon fountain in the Walker Arts Center Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis.


For those keeping track of such factoids:
Total miles driven so far in August: 2,000.
Total miles driven in my entire first year of living in DC: 6,000.

8.06.2009

I'm that guy.

I woke up yesterday with a serious case of klutz-o-saurus-ness. In the course of about an hour, I nearly dropped two glass things onto other glass things that could have shattered and sent shrapnel deep into my arms and chest (two separate events) and also tripped.

In the past month, I have tripped over my dog no fewer than three times, of which one time caused me to throw an arm against my bedroom window, which--fortunately--did not shatter or simply let me fall through it.

Knowing me is to know that at any given moment, my body is covered in small bruises, scrapes, and cuts. My body bruises with such willingness that a well-intentioned/fliratious pinch can leave a lasting mark. And my bruises are nothing if not artistic: rich purple, midnight blues, pale greens and yellows.

I have sprained my ankles 8 times. On one especially unforunate occasion, I sprained my right ankle trying to catch a rebound in gym class, fell, and then sprained my left wrist trying to catch my fall.

I was once passed the ball in basketball by my coach and I caught it with my face.

Probably my worst klutz injury was when I went to my high school friend's cotillion. Running into her house in the dark, in pouring rain, I was unable to see the two-foot high cement block wall between the door and me. Before I even realized something was wrong, I was face-down in a puddle on the other side, my shin scraped so deep that the white of the bone was exposed beneath rivulets of blood.

I trip somewhere in my office at least once a day. Always witnessed by one of my staff members.

I routinely choke on my own spit and end up in a coughing fit or stumble over my own shoes. While I'm wearing them. And often, nearly fall.

Interestingly enough, I've never had a car accident.

8.05.2009

The burning question might be more of a burning itch the poetry world should get looked at

Things I could have assumed about my future before going into an MFA program:

> All it would prepare me to do is teach college.

> I would never look back at approximately 95% of the poems I wrote during those years.

> Although I would learn to put together a book manuscript, I would not write a publishable until I'd written three more manuscripts.


I feel like I was one of the fortunate ones in the end. I had no idea what I was doing when I was applying to programs, and I ended up working with some very student-centered faculty in an expansive, multi-aesthetic embracing program where we were encourage to be colleagues, not competitors, for most of my time there (some external factors did intervene in the end).

I also plunked down an embarrassing amount of money in order to fund that degree. I had a lot of personal debt and went from earning a slightly-above-measley salary in the corporate world to earning room, board, and a miniscule stipend.

It's no fun thinking about poems when your car loan creditor has your phone number on speed dial, and when you're wondering if you'll wake up one morning to discover your only mode of motorized transport in a huge car town has been repoed.

So when I took out student loans, it was partly to pay my tuition, yes, and it was also an attempt to move all of my high interest credit card debt into a consolidated low-interest loan that I will pay off until I've completed my dutiful 10 years of service in the government/nonprofit sector--the only good thing George W. Bush did while leading this country.

But when I consider my life following my MFA, I can say with certainty that I would not have the job I have now, nor would I have amassed the many years of leadership and management experience I gathered to get this job, nor would I have gotten the job at ASU that allowed me to get (almost) another master's degree for free while I worked there that directly contributed to me getting this job.

I call it "Buy one Master's, get one free!"

And when I think about a comparison of "lost wages" from leaving the corporate world versus what I've now earned since, my degree program--and related job experience since--directly contributed to more than earning back anything I gave up. (Except the debt! But thank you, Direct Loans.)

But what about my happiness factor, doing something I love in an industry I love, versus doing something I was kinda interested in for a huge, hulking, soulless corporation that built pretty buildings?

That seems like a no brainer.

But I think most of my relevant education about poetry and writing came after my MFA. My MFA taught me how to devote myself to writing. I used that learned devotion to read voraciously and engage with other writers, and to take myself seriously.

And, well, I can think of at least one non-university place you can do that, for a lot cheaper than the cost of an MFA...

8.03.2009

It's not too late anymore...

...for you to read Matt Bell's The Collectectors, which is now available free via Issu in a special extended version.



Bell's prose chapbook tells the story of two very strange brothers whose home becomes both a sanctuary of beloved objects and a repository of needless things over the course of their lives. Bell's short, lyric sections alternate between lists and inventories and brief narrative passages with confidence and ease, braiding the tale page by page.

It was a fun, interesting, and compelling read--and, I hope, a preview of what's in store when Bell releases his first short story collection in the near future...