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Weekly Report Card 7: Nothing much happens in Paterson, and it’s transcendent.

February 22, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies No Comments →

Here is a poem by William Carlos Williams, the guiding spirit of Jim Jarmusch’s movie Paterson.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Williams wrote a very long poem called Paterson, about a city in New Jersey. It starts like this:

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river
animate a thousand automations.

The city is a man and the man is the city, and in the film he is played by Adam Driver. Paterson (no first name given) wakes up at the same time every day next to his wife Laura (Goldshifteh Farahani) and walks to work. Paterson is a bus driver. He listens to the passengers’ conversations but does not join in. He eats his lunch on a bench with a view of Passaic Falls. After his shift he goes home and has dinner with his rather flaky but delightful wife, listens to her latest plans (she wants to be a cupcake mogul and a country singer), then walks their bulldog, Marvin. He stops at the neighborhood bar for a beer. Then he goes home and goes to sleep. The following day his routine starts again, with slight variations.

If I knew I was going to watch a week’s worth of this I might have declined, and I would have regretted it. Nothing much happens in Paterson, and that is the point. Our bus driver (Adam Driver playing a bus driver named Paterson in a movie called Paterson, galaxies away from Girls and Kylo Ren) is a poet, watching and listening. Out of the ordinary, trivial details of daily life he writes poetry. He has a different way of seeing, which Jarmusch lets us experience. (In the morning Laura tells him she dreamed of twins, so everywhere he sees identical pairs.) Overheard tidbits make their way into lines of verse. His questions are mirrored and answered in the outside world.

This silence, solitude, reflection that the wellness industry has appropriated and sold back to us as “mindfulness”, this is where Paterson’s poetry comes from. This is not loneliness, this is creation.

I love this movie. Arrival and Paterson are my two favorite movies of the year because they pay tribute to the power of language.

Book: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (later)

Weekly Report Card 6: The harrowing beauty of The Pier Falls and Manchester by the Sea

February 15, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies No Comments →

Mark Haddon’s first book for adults (which children also loved) was The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time, which by being deliberately affectless (the narrator-protagonist has Asperger’s) reduced us to puddles of tears. The Pier Falls, a collection of stories, employs a similar very clear, pitilessly detailed style to destroy the reader. The title story is a minute-by-minute account of a disaster which kills dozens of holiday-goers. We look on in horror and fascination, and in the seconds that remain of these strangers’ lives we understand that they are just like us. Another story, The Island, retells the myth of Ariadne, the Minoan princess who helps Theseus to slay the minotaur, only to be abandoned by the hero on the island of Naxos. (The story of Ariadne really bothered me when I came upon it as a child in Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: How can a supposedly noble savior turn out to be an ungrateful asshole? As I grew older I learned the answer: Humans are like that.) Haddon’s version brings us face to face with Ariadne’s terrible loneliness. Unsought solitude is the curse shared by the characters in this collection, and while I would not recommend it to anyone in search of a cheerful diversion, I prescribe it to readers who are feeling glum, disheartened, depressed. (And, of course, fans of excellent writing.) You think you have it bad? Read this.


So that’s the unplanned theme of the week: awfulness and compassion. I direct you to Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, which feels like a fishbone in your heart that you can’t dislodge. Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a handyman who has endured unspeakable tragedy and cannot forgive himself. We see this silent, angry, broken person and somehow feel affection for him. For Chrissakes, Lee, come on. His brother (the ever-dependable Kyle Chandler) offers him the possibility of a new life, and his ex-wife and nephew (Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, both wonderful) want him to take it, but he’s locked up so deep inside himself that no light can get in. The amazing thing about Manchester by the Sea is that for all its bleakness it’s also funny. During the most awful moments there are bursts of humor that bring up the absurdity of being human. (“It’s not a good disease,” says the attending physician. “What’s a good disease?” “Poison ivy.”) Watch it.

Weekly Report Card 4: Best American Science-Fiction, The Finkler Question, and A Street Cat Named Bob

February 01, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Cats, Movies No Comments →

Books. The Best American Science-Fiction and Fantasy 2016, edited by Karen Joy Fowler. A fine selection which I enjoyed while I was reading it, but now all I can remember is the final story, The Great Silence by Ted Chiang. The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, the Booker winner from some years ago, about three friends pondering Jewishness comically and seriously, often at the same time.


The real Bob and Bowen

Movie. A Street Cat Named Bob is the true story of a homeless junkie in London whose life gets radically better after he is adopted by the ginger tomcat of the title. I’m the target market for this movie, and I expected it to be sappy, wringing tears out of every other scene, and putting the audience through all sorts of emotional blackmail. To my surprise it’s a solid, fairly realistic tale of a man close to rock bottom who finds the strength to climb out. Not because the cat gives him magical powers—although Bob the cat is so calm he has to be a Zen master—but because having to take care of another creature forces him to get out of his own head and think of somebody else for a change. If he can’t get his act together, how can he look after the cat?

The movie directed by Roger Spottiswoode from the books by James Bowen gets a vital fact about cats right: the cat chooses you. Cats are genetically the same as their alpha predator cousins the lions and tigers, but they now use their formidable hunting skills to zero in on the humans who can feed and shelter them.


The movie Bob, played mostly by the real Bob

A movie about a cat is by nature cute, but this one refrains from piling on the cuteness. When we first meet Bowen, played with empathy and charm by Luke Treadaway (not Frankenstein from Penny Dreadful but his twin), his life is genuinely horrible. He’s filthy, hungry, sleeping on the street, competing with rats for food from the dumpster. You can feel his shame at the indignities he must endure. He could disappear any minute, and no one would care. (Fortunately the junkie does not live in the Philippines.)

A social worker (Joanne Froggatt from Downton Abbey) puts him in supported housing, which is where he encounters Bob. He also meets an attractive neighbor (Ruta Gedmintas from The Strain) who is, conveniently, a volunteer at an animal welfare clinic. But they are all minor characters next to Bob, played mostly by the actual Bob. Bowen’s life doesn’t improve instantly, he still has a lot of crap to deal with, but we watch him gain a sense of purpose and then the strength to meet that purpose. A Street Cat Named Bob works because it makes us believe that a man and a cat can save each other.

Weekly Report Card 3: Carrie Fisher, Angelina Jolie, Ben Affleck and the actor as writer

January 23, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies No Comments →

Books read: The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher; A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor (on Cappadocia)

I loved Carrie Fisher, first because she was my Disney princess, and then because she was a truthful writer who mined her mental health issues for comedy without belittling them. I thought reading her last book would be a proper goodbye to someone whose work struck sparks in the darkness. And now I feel bad for her because it seems like she never got over being an outwardly worldly but naïve and insecure teenager in love with an emotionally distant, much older, married man who, to paraphrase Fisher in another book, granted her the use of his penis. That he was playing Han Solo just makes it worse.

Supposedly The Princess Diarist was written because Fisher unearthed the diary she’d kept during the making of a low-budget space adventure called Star Wars. But the stuff from 1976 only consists of some poems—not too embarrassing—and entries describing her confusion and frustration over the non-romance. The first half of the book is her recollection of that rather mingy affair, the third quarter is the old diary, and the last is about how stars of beloved SF&F movies can continue to cash in on past fame at fan conventions. I assume that’s one of the reasons this book was written at all. But Carrison!

I’m glad Carrie Fisher had her service dog Gary Fisher in her final years because his affection and loyalty was never in doubt. If you’ve kept old journals about past amours, shred them now.

Movies watched: By the Sea, written and directed by Angelina Jolie; Live By Night, written and directed by Ben Affleck

The French seaside town is beautiful, Angelina Jolie is beautiful, Brad Pitt is beautiful, their clothes and accessories are beautiful, but they’re miserable for some reason that is vaguely hinted at till the end of the movie. What is their damn problem? Is it that they’re too beautiful for this world? And when the problem is revealed, you have to yell, “That’s it?!” and demand the two hours of your life back. It’s like Antonioni’s L’Avventura without the everything.

Live By Night has already been savaged by the critics, so I’ll be kind. Ben Affleck is a skillful director of taut thrillers. I enjoyed Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo very much. Live By Night, which Affleck himself adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel, is a gangster epic that takes place over two decades from Boston to Florida, and the director seems to be having a crisis of confidence.

The movie feels small and cramped. The characters talk too much, and then Affleck provides a voice-over that explains everything all over again. The tough-guy noir dialogue is soft-boiled, the cardboard crimelords are not particularly menacing, and the star looks tired and ill at ease. Did Batman burn him out? We could not help but notice that Affleck, who does not usually pass up the chance to display his torso (even while whisking embassy staff away from the Ayatollah’s Iran), kept his clothes on throughout the love scenes. Was he feeling a bit hefty? That, we understand. His disappearing Boston accent, not so much.

Weekly Report Card 1 and 2: A Bigger Splash, La La Land, Nobelists and ex-wunderkinder

January 17, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies No Comments →

In 2016 I was so distracted by the horror of the outside world that I read fewer books and watched fewer movies than I usually do. This was a mistake because I live in my head. I know one must be aware of what’s going on, but it’s not necessary to get the bizarre news as it happens or read vile tweets as they are posted. In my case it only leads to helpless rage, despair and catatonia, and I’m not even on the social media.

It is precisely in times like these that novels and films are essential to survival. To ensure that I do not slacken in my reading and viewing, I’m starting a weekly scorecard. I urge you to do the same. File under sanity maintenance.

Week 1: Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney and A Bigger Splash by Luca Guadagnino.

Precious is the word, as in precioussssss. This is a seriously overwritten book about well-to-do people who feel poor among richer people. Oh, the humanity. Typical sentence: “Inside, she’s confronted with a vast creaking stairway composed of ancient oak planks that recedes as it ascends in front of her, each floor taking her farther back into the building, until finally she finds herself on the top floor, where the door stands ajar.” Wow, he just described how stairs work.


A Bigger Splash: Emotional Rescue

(I saw Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back on the plane—every time Princess Leia appeared I felt like bursting into tears.)

Ralph Fiennes is hilarious in A Bigger Splash as a loud, disruptive, middle-aged music industry guy who turns up uninvited at the Italian island retreat of his rock star ex (Tilda Swinton) and his ex-friend (Matthias Schoenaerts), dragging along a young woman (Dakota Johnson) whom no one believes is his daughter. Trouble ensues. Since The Grand Budapest Hotel Fiennes has been in a comic phase (See Hail Caesar) and it’s unleashed something wild and unpredictable in this serious thespian.

Week 2: A Strangeness In My Mind by Orhan Pamuk and La La Land by Damien Chazelle

Reading Pamuk in Istanbul is an incredible experience. Combine with a visit to his Museum of Innocence and you can sit in the van for the rest of the trip (But don’t).


An exhibit from the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.

La La Land is beautiful to behold, Emma Stone graduates from her protracted ingenue phase to break your heart in her final audition song, Ryan Gosling’s frustrated jazz musician is so real that you want to kiss him and punch him in the face at the same time, and that Last Temptation of Christ-like montage nearly killed me. I wish the composers had listened to Sebastian’s rants about jazz and used more bebop. But though I am also partial to Bird and Monk, I know that jazz isn’t dying, it’s simply moved on. You got a problem with Miles?

Near the end of an epically terrible year, remember the good things that happened.

December 21, 2016 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Current Events 22 Comments →

xmas-card-2-1
Doctors of the World Reality Xmas cards designed by McCann London. ’tis the season to give a damn.

2016 has been HORRENDOUS, and it still hasn’t stopped sucking. Surrounded by such gruesomeness, we tend to lose all perspective. We even start thinking that this horror is normal. Well, it isn’t. This will pass—we don’t know how long it will take, but it will. In the meantime there is something we can do. We can live AS IF the world is a good place, AS IF people are kind, AS IF honesty, decency and justice prevail. This is not denial or airy-fairy optimism, but a form of resistance based on our favorite instrument, irony.

From Letters to A Young Contrarian by Hitchens:

Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd, realised that “resistance” in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the Central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living “as if” he were a citizen of a free society, “as if” lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, “as if” his government had actually signed (which it actually had) the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights. He called this tactic “The Power of the Powerless” because, even when disagreement can be almost forbidden, a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid.

And this stratagem sounds like something out of Clueless! Later in the same chapter:

The process often involved an inversion in the usual relationship between the ironic and the literal. The “People Power” moment of 1989, when whole populations brought down their absurd leaders by an exercise of arm-folding and sarcasm, had its origins partly in the Philippines in 1985, when the dictator Marcos called an opportunist “snap election” and the voters decided to take him seriously. They acted “as if” the vote were free and fair, and they made it so.

No matter how recent history is revised and spun, no matter what disillusionment followed, it was the right thing to do.

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While we poke into the wreckage of 2016, we should remember that it wasn’t completely dreadful, even if it feels like it. Hey, gravitational waves were detected. There’s Proxima B and SpaceX. There were wonderful moments in pop culture.

In our personal lives, it can’t have been all dire. Everyone had small victories and big victories. Let’s acknowledge them, and allow ourselves to gloat a little. Tell us about the good stuff that happened to you this year in Comments. I have three things:

1. After two and a half decades of stopping and starting, I finally wrote a novel I didn’t shred.
2. After a lifetime of trying to get my hair to behave, I got a hairstyle I like. (Jay Lozada is a genius.)
3. After a ten-year absence, I visited New York. My timing was off: I figured that by the time I landed, the celebrations would be on. The opposite happened. But New York was exactly the way I wanted it to be: thrilling, tough, slightly scary, vigorous (if somewhat shellshocked), thought-provoking, and also strangely kind. (Lav Diaz said that when he was penniless and without prospects, he would take refuge in the New York Public Library and it became his school. He’s learned something.)

You?