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September Reviews

Discussed in some manner in this post: 8 Books (White RageThe Will To Power; Campo Santos; Bluets; The Red Parts; Selected Poems; Men in the Off Hours; The Man Without Qualities [Vol. 2]); 3 Movies (I Am Michael; Window Horses; It Comes At Night); 6 Documentaries (Oklahoma City; Bobby Sands; Mommy Dead and Dearest; Fire At Sea; Nostalgia for the Light; Rocco).


1. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson.


After Ferguson, with the memory of the 1999 shooting death of Amadou Diallo still fresh in her mind, Carol Anderson was struck by the ways in which public official spoke both of black rage and the restraint of generally white police officers (Diallo was shot 41 times while reaching for his wallet and, in response to this, Mayor Rudy Giuliani described the NYPD as the “most restrained and best behaved police department you could imagine” before going on to speak about “the community’s racism against the police”). So, yeah, lack rage and white restraint… something might be off with this narrative. And, indeed, something is off – very, very off, and Anderson traces a history of the United States of America, going back to the end of the Civil War, that is a history of white rage – a rage so great that is has, in fact, caused serious harm to the growth, development and global positioning of the USofA. This is a rage that is triggered by any black advancement and, as Anderson shows, it is ubiquitous, transcending any North/South divide. Hence, Anderson focuses upon moments that are taken in the dominant narrative as moments of advancement or triumph for black people (reconstruction, the great migration, desegregation of the classroom [Brown v. Topeka Board of Education], the civil rights movement, and the election of the first black President), and shows how white rage, operating primarily via legal channels, has viciously and systematically attacked, stalled, corrupted, or destroyed, most of these advances in large regions of the country. The result of this, in the end, is a considerably decimated USofA.

Given the rise of Trump, the unveiling of large white supremacist elements – across all class lines – in the USofA, and the many manifestations of white rage we are now witnessing, it’s hard to think of a more relevant history book to read at the moment.

2. The Will to Power by Friedrich Nietzsche.


It’s a strange thing that the philosopher most associated with the rise of Nazism (with Heidegger being the most Nazi philosopher), also has his fingerprints all over the most famous postmodern philosophers who, in general, are opposed to the kinds of power structures that can give rise to anything like Nazism. Reading The Will to Power one sees a lot of Foucault but also Deleuze, Massumi, Agamben (and, yes, Heidegger, depending on where one wants to situate him). However, one also sees his words all over the fascist ideology with its language of the herd reduced to cogs in a machine so that a truly greater species of man, not bound by outdated notions of good and evil, can arise and do, well, whatever they want but, presumably, it will be great.  It’s striking that both of these sides are so present in the same writer.  I would like to read a study about how this can be the case and what that says about both sides.

As I was considering this, I concluded that reading Nietszche is a lot like reading the Bible. There are parts that brilliant and insightful and can challenge the way you see everything in really important ways… and there are parts that are incredibly fucked up and would cause a lot of people to suffer horribly if they are taken at face value as truths to live by.  Beware any such text!  It must be engaged critically by those who sapere aude.

(That said, I was less into The Will to Power than I was into Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals. Perhaps it is because parts of it felt repetitive at this point.  Also, I tend to get bored when philosophers talk about art or music or aesthetics, as Nietzsche does for a good chunk of this text.)

3. Campo Santos by W. G. Sebald.


So, I actually read this book a few months ago and forgot to mention it in my reviews. It contains part of a novel Sebald was writing about a trip to Corsica and then some selected essays. I very much enjoyed the Corsican section and I was especially interested in the final essay where Sebald reflects upon his own writing, his strange sense of the connectedness of things seemingly far removed from each other that somehow, in a place, in a moment, overlap. And, for Sebald, there is more than just chance involved in this overlap. There is something of significance here, although what exactly that is, is hard to know. As he writes:

I have kept asking myself since then what the invisible connections that determine our lives are, and how the threads run. What, for instance, links my visit to Reinsburgstrasse with the fact that in the years immediately after the war it contained a camp for so-called displaced persons, a place which was raided on 20 March 1946 by about a hundred and eighty Stuttgart police officers, in the course of which, although the raid discovered nothing but a black market trade in a few hen’s eggs, several shots were fired and one of the camp inmates, who had only just been reunited with his wife and two children, lost his life?

Why can I not get such episodes out of my mind?

From reflecting on his personal writing, Sebald moves to reflecting on literature more generally: “A quoi bon la littérature?” he asks. “Perhaps,” he responds, “only to help us to remember, and teach us to understand that some strange connections cannot be explained by causal logic.” But, more than that, he ultimately concludes that although there are many forms of writing, only in literature “can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts and over and above scholarship.”

Literature as restitution. I don’t know what to think about this idea. However, it’s interesting reconsidering Sebald’s oeuvre in light of it.

4. Bluets by Maggie Nelson.


Maggie Nelson appreciates the power of a well-placed quote and her own writing is eminently quotable. It is sometimes difficult to tell if she is writing poetry or prose but, whatever it is, the text flows and the pages turn and it is hard to stop reading until you get to the very end. In Bluets, she stands next to Wittgenstein and Goethe and meditates upon (her love of) the colour blue, but also lost love and being a friend to a friend whose body was decimated in an accident. And sex and pleasure and pain and Schopenhauer, too. It’s a well composed book and Nelson continues to be one of my favourite contemporary writers.

5. The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson.


Maggie Nelson’s aunt Jane was 23 years old when she was murdered by a serial killer (in what later became known as The Michigan Murders). The killer was never caught and, 35 years later, Nelson was about to publish a book of poetry about her aunt’s life and death, when the police contacted her to say that they believed they were on the verge of cracking the case and were about to arrest a fellow based on a DNA match. And so begins The Red Parts which follows Nelson and her other family members (mostly her mother), not only through the trial but in and out of different seasons of their lives. It is a sad and wonderfully woven story.  All her books are recommended reading.

6. Selected Poems by T. S. Eliot.


A friend reminded me that I had not read “The Wasteland” and provided me with a copy of it and then I fell in love with T. S. Eliot. A number of his poems are probably some of the most well-known to any English student but, thankfully, I had not read them until now because, reading them as I did now, they did lovely things with me. Highly recommended reading.

7. Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson.


I began reading Anne Carson’s writings before I first discovered Maggie Nelson and I think they have a number of similarities. Carson verges more into poetry and Nelson verges more into prose but I find myself feeling a similar way reading both of them (and it’s interesting that they both have done texts oriented around a colour theme). This was my first time reading a straight-up poetry collection of Carson’s (previously I’d read a poem-novel, Autobiography of Red, and a poem-essay, The Albertine Workout). I did not enjoy it as much as when she writes in a more sustained manner around a specific theme (or cluster of themes or narrative). I do still want to read Red Doc>, her sequel to Autobiography of Red.

8. The Man Without Qualities (Vol. 2) by Robert Musil.


I quite enjoyed the first volume of The Man Without Qualities; I appreciated Musil’s playful seriousness and the insights that came with it. I was much less satisfied with Volume 2 (and, to be fair, Musil had retracted a large portion of it in order to continue editing it prior to publication, only to die before being able to complete the text). The text was much more narrowly focused on the protagonist and his relationship with his sister (whom we do not meet until this volume). In my opinion, it lacked much of the complexity, diversity, and richness (especially when it came to portraying the socioeconomic and political contexts inhabited by the central characters as Europe slides into total war while they look for just the right spiritual or political or both or neither event to bring about a celebration of peace) that made the first volume so appealing.


1. I Am Michael (2015) directed by Justin Kelly.


I Am Michael is based on the story of real-life Michael Glatze, who was an advocate for gay rights (having worked at XY Magazine in San Francisco and then gone on to co-found Young Gay America) but who, after a health scare which prompted a considerable amount of anxiety about death (and appears to be tied to his desire to be reunited with his parents, both of whom died while he was a teenager – his father, while walking on the beach with him when he was 13, his mother after a battle with cancer when he was 19), converted to Evangelical Christianity and renounced homosexuality, claiming that it did not actually exist. He married and became a pastor. The short documentary, Michael Lost and Found is also about him and his relationship with his former partner, Benjie Nycum (I’ve heard it’s very good and an important compliment to this movie but I haven’t watched it).

James Franco (well known for supporting the LGBTQ+ community) does okay in this film but I thought the strongest performance was from Zachary Quinto (who played Benjie and who is openly gay). Unfortunately, apart from Quinto, I didn’t think the movie as a whole was particularly strong. Also, after doing further research, I found it bothersome that Kelly neglects to mention any of Glatze’s explicitly and vehemently racist views that came to light when Obama was elected. It does make me wonder a bit about the Michael whom Kelly is trying to present. It seems to me that he is trying to create a “balanced” picture that is respectful to both queer communities and Christian faith communities (which, it should be noted, need not be mutually exclusive, and perhaps that is part of Kelly’s goal–trying to find some common ground between these groups?). In order to do this, the racism is filtered out. This is unfortunate, given that so much of the film is oriented around questions of “identity” and what things constitute or count as “identity markers” and what things are not.  Whiteness, and white rage against blackness, apparently didn’t merit mentioning.

2. Window Horses (2016) directed by Ann Marie Fleming.


A fun animated piece, Window Horses is also based upon the true story of a young Vancouver poet who self-publishes a book of poetry and then ends up being invited to a poetry festival in Iran (and then we learn that this is the story of a Chinese-Persian Canadian girl and her long lost father, connected as they are to recent Iranian politics and the much older Persian history of poetry). It’s all quite well put together and never gets very heavy or overly involved in either the characters or the politics. It feels like a ninety minute stroll in a pretty garden.

3. It Comes At Night (2017) directed by Trey Edward Shults.


Krisha, Shults’ debut film about a family struggling with a member who bombs in and out of the lives of others, wreaking havoc, due to a dependence upon alcohol and pills, contains many elements of a (very well done) suspense-horror movie. So, I was excited to see Shults continuing to explore families, but in a post-apocalyptic setting wherein some kind of plague is devastating the human population (and, presumably, animating the dead?). I also like how the setting was not a focus of the film but, instead, was present in a manner that contributed to the audience feeling the same sense of isolation, distrust, and paranoia, that the characters in the film feel. A lot of good horror doesn’t need big budgets, horrendous monsters, or all kinds of special effects to work. A lot of good horror invests in characters and practices a considerable amount of restraint about what it shows or doesn’t show. Much of what is good about this film is how the two families that end up shacking up together in order to try and survive in a remote house, don’t know how much to trust each other. Both families are terrified that the other family might betray them or inadvertently jeopardize their safety (and each family has a child to care for) and so is infused with a deep distrust but a longing to be able to trust.  What I like about Shults’ presentation is that he doesn’t answer a lot of these questions as to who is trustworthy and to what extent. Even at the very end, when everything explodes, the question remains as to who got the plague from whom or from what and who actually had it at all.

The film poses two problems. First, the challenge that parents face in devastating situations – can we survive and protect our child alone or must we trust others to try and survive this? Which is the better choice and how can one know how to make it? Here, the parents make the choice to trust and then regret it. But there’s no reason to think that making a different choice would have produced a better result for their son. Second, speaking of their son, it’s interesting that the parents are doing everything they can in order to protect him and guarantee his survival, but he is so monumentally traumatized by everything that has occurred that it’s hard to know what that survival is worth.  When is survival not worthwhile and how can one make the decision for another person?  I’m not sure if this is a question that can be answered.

Still, It Comes At Night (like the other non-documentary films I watched this month) fell short of my expectations. All three were okay… nice… meh… but none really floated my boat.


1. Oklahoma City (2017) directed by Barak Goodman.


Going in to watching Oklahoma City, I already knew that Timothy McVeigh was an Iraq war veteran who became appalled by what the American government was doing to innocent people in that war (and elsewhere in the world) and who was trying to bring a sense of that tragedy and war (mixed with some vengeance) back home (it was his way to continue to fight against bullies, as he had tried to do throughout his life). What I didn’t know, and the dots Barak Goodman does a great job of connecting in this film, is how McVeigh and his actions (as well as the actions of Terry Nichols), tied into White Nationalist, neo-fascist and proto-alt-right movements and struggles going back to the 1970s in the USofA. Waco became an emblematic stand for many people in those (often violent and terrorist) movements and so McVeigh detonated his bomb on the Anniversary of the final raid on the building which led David Koresh to initiate the mass suicide of the Branch Davidians. This is an important part of American history, all the more relevant now.

I was completely unaware of McVeigh’s association with these groups. I thought he was acting with a certain implacable logic against American Imperialism (“Bombing the Murrah Federal Building was morally and strategically equivalent to the U.S. hitting a government building in Serbia, Iraq, or other nations” and so “Whether you wish to admit it or not, when you approve, morally, of the bombing of foreign targets by the U.S. military, you are approving of acts morally equivalent to the bombing in Oklahoma City;” therefore, even after they executed him, he noted that the final score would be “168-1”), but he was actually concerned that the American Government was becoming too big, and too Socialist. In other words, he fits much more in the trajectory of the Tea Party than revolutionary Anarchism.

2. Bobby Sands: 66 Days (2017) directed by Brendan J. Byrne.


Drawing from the diary that Bobby Sands kept while he was dying, 66 Days looks at the IRA hunger strike that cost him and nine other inmates their lives. It also looks more deeply into the struggle of the Irish at that time, drawing (mostly uncritically) on voices from both sides. I enjoyed the movie. Ever since watching Hunger (Steve McQueen’s best film, imo), I have been quite inspired by Sands. Still, he chose the struggle over his family (and one can thinking of many reasons to do this and they are all very rational and logical and, really, irrefutable) but I found I couldn’t do that (reason and logic end up with you – as in Bobby Sands – or others – as in the kids in the daycare the the Murrah Federal Building – dead). I chose life and being a father. I would have liked to hear Sands’ wife and son interviewed in the documentary. I wonder how they remember him.

3. Mommy Dead and Dearest (2017) directed by Erin Lee Carr.


Claudine “Dee Dee” Blanchard gave birth to Gypsy Rose Blanchard in 1991. Dee Dee then used the medical system and her authority as a mother to horribly abuse Gypsy, forcing her to sleep with a breathing machine at night, forcing her to be fed through a feeding tube, forcing her to go out in public in a wheelchair even though she could walk, pulling all of her teeth out, getting her hopped up on a ton of different medications for her physical and mental health, and also leading her to believe she had cancer and a disease that would kill her before she reached adulthood. Apart from Dee Dee (and what Gypsy learned about herself as she got older and realized she was not as sick as her mother said), nobody knew the truth, and Dee Dee was able to exploit the situation to get free trips to Disneyland, local speaking engagements, and a home via Habitat for Humanity. This lasted for twenty-four years (although Dee Dee always hid Gypsy’s age and presented her as much younger) and, moving through many doctors and specialists, all but one (who suggested Dee Dee had Munchausen by Proxy but who never bothered following up on his concern) seem to happily go along with each new course of treatment for Gypsy. This is appalling and doesn’t get as much attention in the documentary as it deserves (which focuses much more on the inter-familial relationships between Gypsy, her father, mother, and extended family – a whole documentary could be dedicated to examining this medical care question). Instead, the focus falls on the murder – because in the summer of 2015, Gypsy had conspired with her boyfriend (a seemingly psychopathic Nicholas Godejohn – whom she met on a Christian dating site, obvi) and he came to her house at night and murdered Dee Dee with a knife. It isn’t long before the teens are caught and Gypsy pleas out to a ten year sentence (which she views as better than living another ten years with her mom, plus, given that she will be in her early thirties when she gets out, this also gives her many years of life to still live). Godejohn is still awaiting trail for first degree murder (due to requesting a trial without a jury and then changing his mind and asking for a jury after all—his lawyers claim he has autism).

The documentary raises hard questions about “justice” and its possibilities and limits, as well as moral questions that cannot be answered within the domain of the Rule of Law. It also raises troubling questions about cycles of abuse. Watching Gypsy in the documentary I couldn’t help but admire her ability to escape from the abuse… but I was also struck by how her means of escaping seemed to mirror her mother. Even in her interactions – with her dad and his partner, with the documentary Director – it’s hard to read her, to know what’s going on inside her, or to feel like she isn’t still performing and playing a role. It made me think of many people I have known and, I know, I know, where there is life there is hope but sometimes, all too often, we break others in ways that can never be made right or restored or healed.

It’s important to be kind to each other. And gentle, too. Especially with our children.

4. Fire at Sea (2016) directed by Gianfranco Rosi.


There are many ways that one could make a documentary about African refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean and trying to gain admittance to Fortress Europe (we all remember the 2015 picture of Alan Kurdi, the three year old boy from Syria, lying dead on a beach in Turkey). Rosi’s presentation is more circumspect than refugee porn but, I think, gains a certain power because of this. We don’t see the 250 people who drown on the boat the coastguard could not find in time, we don’t see the doctor clipping the fingers and ears of the dead, but we hear the way his voice shakes when he recounts the story, and we see the truth of the dreams that haunt him on his face and in the tremor in his hands when he speaks of not knowing any other way of being human other than trying to care for the refugees.

Much of the film – the processing of the refugees by military personnel in hazmat suits, the centre where they are placed on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa (a very different world than the one shown in The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) – felt like Alfonso Cuarón’s version of Children of Men (which remains one of my favourite films). The resemblances were uncanny. And terrifying. But, at the same time, Rosi counterbalances this with a presentation of the lives of some of the locals on the island – a diver, a boy who hunts with a slingshot and requires an eyepatch to correct his lazy eye and who gets seasick despite being a descendant of sailors, a disc jockey at the local radio station, and so on. It’s not always clear how the two parts of the documentary fit together, or are intended to be read in relation to each other but, I think, that’s part of the point. How do these worlds collide?  Can they?  It’s unclear if such contact will be permitted regardless of how many die.

Recommended viewing.

5. Nostalgia For The Light (2010) directed by Patricio Guzmán.


Nostalgia for the Light is my favourite film I watched this month. Focusing upon the Atacama desert in Chile, it weaves together a surprising number of themes. Because the Atacama desert has the thinnest atmosphere of anywhere on earth and, because it is so dry and lacking in humidity, it makes a wonderful vantage point to view the stars and so, astronomers and astrophysicists and scientists from around the world have gathered there to try and look back to the dawn of time and understand the origins of everything. At the same time, because of this climate, the very newest technology exists side-by-side with ruins, mummies, and rock carvings that go back hundreds or thousands of years. And the graves of Europeans who came later to mine the desert, dot the landscape like abandoned movie sets. Not only this but mothers, widows, and sisters of those disappeared by Pinochet, taken to concentration camps he set up in the Atacama Desert, or buried in mass graves there, wander the desert digging, looking for the bones of loved ones, wanting to bring them home. And so we move from the stars to ancient llama herders to the Pinochet regime to technological innovations to the eye of an artist who memorized his every step in the camps so that he could reproduce, in sketches and drawings, one day, what was forever obliterated from any other record. And all these things belong together, and all these things are each other, and each is the Atacama, and us, too.

6. Rocco (2016) directed by Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai.


It is difficult to talk about pornography. It’s a complicated subject matter because of the way in which power, subjectivity, money, exploitation, patriarchy, feminism, empowerment, and rape are all mixed up together. Often people who have been involved in pornography have very class specific experiences (a woman in law school acting as a cam girl to pay tuition vs. a fourteen year old seduced out of a group home and then forced to perform sex acts on camera in a pimp’s stable) and this leads to very different perspectives on things like decriminalization, legalization (and how these things are pursued), as well as more general questions related to morality, sex, gender, and how we go about structuring our life together (i.e. politics).

Furthermore, it is especially difficult to talk about pornography via film (I do think McLuhan was really onto something in terms of how the medium shapes the message, although I think most everyone has forgotten this now as we run from technological development to technological development and confuse innovation with value). But perhaps it is unfair to suggest that Demaizière and Teurlai are making a film about pornography. They are, after all, making a film about a porn star and, as they make clear from their opening shot (a close up of Rocco Siffredi’s flaccid penis in the shower with water and soap washing over it), they want the film to be interpreted and experienced as art, even if it is unclear where art ends and pornography begins (or vice versa) or why that distinction even matters.

But what do we learn about Rocco? Well, that he has an ambiguous relationship with his penis. That he has a reputation for being massive (~8.6 inches, I believe) and rough but, when we see him conversing with his costars, in Demaizière and Teurlai’s presentation, he always seems to connect with them in a surprisingly open and intimate way (which, some people say, give The Italian Stallion the certain je ne sais quoi that sets a truly great pornstar – and Rocco has been making pornographic films for decades – from the hoi polloi who enter the porn industry and are gone in a matter of weeks). That he is both a master of his trade and a probable sex addict. That his cousin, who seems a surprising advisor for setting the scene, directs many of his films because, although Rocco tried to get him into the business, his cousin was unable to perform on camera when the time came – and we learn that this surprising affliction effects more men than one might think). That he is married to a beautiful woman who is presented as classy and totally accepting of his line of work (and who, the documentary neglects to mention, met Rocco as an actress on a porn shoot). That he loved his mother, a devout Italian Catholic, and he carries her image with him everywhere (and that part of the reason why he got into porn is because it gave him a lot of money and, coming from poverty, he wanted to give his mother, in her old age, a better life than she was able to give him in his youth). His mother died, and not knowing how to handle his grief, he relates a story about having sex with one of his mother’s 70 something year old friends.  And we learn that his younger brother died in the room he shared with Rocco when they were children and that Rocco was there and witnessed this and that this, somehow, indelibly shaped his perception of the world. In other words, we hardly learn anything at all. But we learn far, far less about his coworkers – from the ones who are new and wanting to make a name for themselves who say he can do anything, to the one who has to stop and cry for a moment because it has been a hard week with anal every day, to others who express more trepidation, excitement, flirtation, but some (but not all) of whose smiles waver after he leaves the room and they prepare for their scene, to those who snuggle up with him awhile afterwards and talk about their hopes and dreams as he smiles and shares tidbits of wisdom like a demigod or guru or legend – they are little more than props around the central man, his joys and sorrows, the life that he has lived, the life that he is living, and his cock.

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