Sunday, March 15, 2015

2014's Film Favourites

Year-end lists are both awful and necessary at the time. Such lists allow people to become aware of cultural objects they might have missed, a strong possibility in an age of never-ending cultural production. There is just too damn much out there, and year-end lists aggregate cultural objects worthy of consumption. Perhaps this critic over here saw a film that’s worth seeing, but it wasn’t released wide enough for other critics to have had a chance to see it. Perhaps this critic over there champions a film less liked, but is able to articulate why this film deserves a wider appreciation. Year-end lists have their uses. They are imminently subjective, a personal statement, a manifesto of sorts from the critic: “these are the artistic objects I believe in.” Implicitly, the year-end lists are all very aspirational; readers of the list seek out new cultural objects to consume, in order to stay relevant or topical.

On the other hand, year-end lists are awful. For many consumers, the year-end list replaces the necessary hunt, the sheer fun and mystery of discovering things that perhaps nobody else has (or at least, no critic you follow). Since there is so much out there to consume, and people are extremely busy (work, family, etc), it makes perfect sense that consumers would outsource the labour of searching. Why go through all that work, especially when the point of cultural objects, the status quo says, is to distract you from work? Thus, year-end lists functions as consumer substitute, replacing the search function with an easy to digest list (ie the Internet’s favourite mode of article). Additionally, year-end lists are, by nature of their form, reductive. Film criticism should be a dialogue between object and critic; it should be more than a simple recommendation. Year-end lists strip the critic’s nuanced thoughts and feelings and reduce the dialogue to a simple yes or no. Or even worse, a ranking, as if cultural objects can be switched around in a system of equivalences. Scores and rankings should have no place in film criticism, and yet, year-end lists are the common publication; every critic does them.

I wish I could avoid writing a year-end list, but the logic of film criticism compels me, the logic of the Internet compels me. Also, I'm lazy.

My three favourite films in 2014, the first three I've listed here, used the affect of anxiety to great effect. While most movies use the rise and fall of tension -- as in tension only exists in the release of it -- these three films made me feel anxious throughout the running time. There's a subtle but important distinction between anxiety and tension. I'm glad 2014 was able to make me feel so at unease in the theatre.

Whiplash. Dir. Damien Chazelle. Right of Way Films, 2014. Film.

I'm confused that people read this film as some sort of inspirational sports movie, in which hyperbolically manic work can achieve some sort of greatness. The Chicago Reader published a woefully misguided reading of the film in which the writer argues that Whiplash celebrates the final sequence. I couldn't disagree more. For me, the only way to read the ending is to see it as mutually assured destruction of both of their artistic and professional careers. It's resolutely nihilistic in its climax.

In addition to the aforementioned feeling of anxiety, I was impressed by this film as a film. This couldn't have been anything other than film, which is kind of rare for most movies. Lots of other cultural objects can switch media without too much fuss, but Whiplash mobilizes the forces of editing, sound, performance, composition, and time to great effect.

J. K. Simmons' supporting performance was quite good, in that showy, actorly way. I've never been one for actors; famous performances have often left me cold. This could be due to my ignorance of the craft (I would never claim there isn't skill and craft involved in acting) but it might be more indifference in relation to the other technical aspects of film.

An anecdote from my viewing of Whiplash. During the sequence in which Miles Teller's drummer is first witnessing J. K. Simmons' ruthless coaching style, Simmons' character uses homophobic language to elicit reactions from his band. The scene has multiple functions: introduce Simmons' villainous behaviour, demonstrate the dynamic between band and conductor, and show how Teller's skills are woefully inadequate in the conductor's eyes. Most importantly, we the audience are shown that Simmons' style is outdated, offensive, and dangerous. In the logic of the scene, Simmons is not to be sympathized with. Yet, during this scene, each time Simmons said something homophobic, three young men in the theatre laughed. They tittered over his use of "pussy," they giggled when he asked if someone was going to cry. These weren't chuckles borne from an uncomfortable experience; they were laughing with Simmons. How astonishing. Though, perhaps this anecdote shows in the microcosm how easily people have misread the movie.

I had to remember to breathe during this movie. This wasn't tension in the sense that there would be relief. This wasn't suspense, in the sense that my expectation of the next move in the plot was suspended. This was pure anxiety. Rarely have I felt so uncomfortable in a movie theatre. I applaud the film for its ability to show me how to feel rather than demand.

Nightcrawler. Dir. Dan Gilroy. Open Road Films, 2014. Film.

Yes, Gyllenhaal's performance is top-notch, but for me the film's superior status is due more to the absolutely perfect car chase at the end of the film. Rarely have I seen a car chase so utterly lean, tense, and geographically clear. It's a masterclass in editing and blocking.

I'm also a big fan of the sequence in which he films the interior of the massacre in the mansion. It's a very anxious scene, despite its lack of clear action.

A friend commented that perhaps the film would have benefited from more of Bill Paxton's character, or more obstacles for the protagonist. I think if these had been included, the conventionality of the plot would have suffocated the leanness of the film, the crispness of Gyllenhaal's protagonist.

As with most movies, though, I didn't think this was perfect. Due to my education on editing at the feet of Steven Soderbergh, I imagined where I would easily trim 10 to 15 minutes of superfluous shots that have little or no narrative consequence. But I blame Soderbergh for making me think of editing in this way.

The Babadook. Dir. Jennifer Kent. Smoking Gun Productions, 2014. Film.

The third act is obviously less interesting than the rest of the film, but that's really the case with horror movies. What makes this movie stand out is the first half, a riveting and anxiety-inducing portrait of an impatient mother and an annoying child. Kudos to both actors for their full bodied performances. If you were on the fence about having children, see this movie; it'll convince you that procreation isn't necessarily life-fulfilling.

The Lego Movie. Dir. Chris Miller, Phil Lord. Warner Bros, 2014. Film.

Surprisingly adept at complex thought and thematic depth. I refuse to couch my admiration for this movie in cynical film critic snobbery disguised as disclaimer; this is a good film, regardless of its position as advertisement for toys. It's emotionally astute and thematically nuanced. How many films in 2014 can boast the same?

I saw this film once in my home city, in a theatre crowded with children choking with laughter, and then a second time in Albuquerque, NM. in an almost empty multiplex. The American theatre was a strange experience: there were 4 different commercials reminding me to turn off my phone and keep quiet during the film. 4 different prompts. Are Americans that terrible with film etiquette that they need redundant reminders?

Force Majeure. Dir. Ruben Östlund. Film i Väst, 2014. Film.

The funniest drama I saw all year. It's dark comedy not in the Coen brothers sense in which bad people do bad things but dark in the sense that these people are pathetic and deserve our pity for their awful behaviour. I'm still on the fence about the very final sequence on the bus, though I'm willing to admit that perhaps it is because I don't quite understand it. Why is the bus driver so reckless? Why is everybody else so passive?

Part of what I enjoyed about Force Majeure is the ambiguity of it all, especially the final ski day. At work, I asked those that had seen it if they thought the husband and wife colluded to reinstate the husband as patriarchal power in front of the children or if they thought only the wife was behind the subterfuge. There is no answer, of course, because if there had been an answer it would have been given to us. Ambiguity is something modern filmgoers (read: Americans) have real difficulty with. For example, see how people vociferously debate the final shot of Christopher Nolan's Inception. Over at Criticwire, Sam Adams writes of this trend:
the... tendency of... essays to treat their subjects less as a work of art than a puzzle to be solved. This kind of superficial sophistry used to be the domain of renegade nutters like the ones depicted in Rodney Ascher's "Room 237," but online communities -- Usenet groups, message boards, and now Reddit -- have provided fertile soil in which these theories flourish. Shows like "Lost" and "How I Met Your Mother" have played into and encouraged the phenomenon, sometimes at the expense of, or at least as a substitute for, the more substantial exploration of character and theme.
He later writes that, "[i]t's not only counter-productive but tone-deaf, a way of scrutinizing the subject without actually engaging it." In other words, this replaces the critical dialogue with the superficial joys of narrative. There's nothing inherently wrong with enjoying only narrative, but it's problematic when it's the only thing people enjoy about cultural objects.

David Bordwell (my current favourite film critic) writes of Room 237 that there is a danger in going too far down the rabbit hole to interpret. He writes that critics "tend to look for how something got into the film rather than what it’s doing in the film." I extrapolate from Bordwel: critical dialogue that guesses the filmmakers' intent has become de rigueur.

However, Bordwell softens his approach by ending on an optimistic note, appealing to the history of "puzzle movies." He writes:
the implication being that puzzle movies are inferior forms of cinema. Yet I don’t see a good reason to scorn them. Assuming that films often solicit our cognitive capacities, I don’t see why artists shouldn’t ask us to exercise them. Cinema takes many shapes, and one critic’s puzzle (“Rosebud,” “Keyser Söze”) is another critic’s mystery.
I'd like to think that Bordwell, as in much of his work, is arguing for a more well-rounded approach to film. Just as he expends academic energy working with critically lauded films that are "high art," he also appreciates and studies "low art" such as Mission: Impossible 3. The film should ignite the critic's affective and cognitive powers in interpretation.

Unfortunately, it seems that the current paradigm of online film fan criticism consists of brute force solutions applied to films that aren't even puzzles in the first place. Nolan, a filmmaker I have such mixed feelings about nowadays, "cautions, audiences shouldn’t approach his movies like puzzles to be solved. 'What I’ve found with my movies is, people who sit back and relax and try to enjoy them as a ride, they understand and enjoy them much more'" (here). This statement from Nolan is worth unpacking, but that's another discussion for another day. Ambiguity in film seems utterly verboten, according to fans. They must crush any ambiguity with theories, endless theories. Every culture website I visit seems to have the same story: "New Games of Thrones trailer confirms/denies/implies a major fan theory!" Who the fuck cares about fan's theories? Endless speculation about the future of the property is part and parcel of the logic of blockbusters (of which I've written about a lot). We're trained to only look forward, that the object we want exists just out of our grasp. This tight logic refuses ambiguity. The object must remain the object in order for it to be the object of our desires.

Perhaps this is why I've grown so attached to Force Majeure. It is a film that rewards and defies expectations of convention. It uses ambiguity, not just narrative ambiguity, but moral and tonal ambiguity in order to tell its tale. Are we meant to laugh at them? Are we meant to pity them? Both?

The Guest. Dir. Adam Wingard. Hanway Films, 2014. Film.

From the John Carpenter typeface (Albertus, hello!) to the climax set in a hall of mirrors, The Guest is a film about its influences, rather than about its subject matter. So rarely has pastiche been done so well. The strobing synth soundtrack recalls Refn's Drive while the climactic shoot-out is heavily indebted to De Palma's chiaroscuro setpieces. Everything is colourful and fun to look at, while Wingard keeps action clear and focused. It's genre done extremely efficiently.

I've written before about the pleasures of genre (here, here, and most relevant, here) and The Guest mobilizes a lot of what makes the fulfilment of genre so satisfying. Watching the beginning of The Guest, we are introduced to a number of details that prime us, that identify the genre of the film and thus the expected conventions. These expectations might be thwarted, temporarily. When the expectations are fulfilled, we are satisfied. To borrow from music, this is the appoggiatura, the dissonant note that makes the return to the melody all the sweeter.

The Guest operates within its genre not in a reactionary way, but a loving way. Jonathan McCalmont writes about genre that:
Genre is like a long-suffering parent. Endlessly forgiving and endlessly patient, it responds to its children’s professions of hatred with an affectionate pat on the head and a mug of hot chocolate to calm them down. You can scream, “I hate you! I wish you were dead!” at genre till you are blue in the face and genre will still be there when you need your next film financing or a convention circuit for your book tour. There is nothing heroic or original in transgressing genre because that is precisely what it is there for. So perhaps we should look upon genre not as some cartoon tyrant that artists can easily defeat but rather as a part of what makes up a work of fiction no different to language or lighting or pace.
Here, McCalmont is writing about a film mobilizing the conventions of the art-house drama to great effect. With The Guest, the conventions are being used to replicate an 1970s, 1980s lean tight thriller. Instead of childishly transgressing the genre boundaries, petulantly, Wingard and his crew lovingly dedicate themselves to the effort. When we are introduced to the premise of the film, we know one of two things: either Dan Stevens' character is lying or there has been a switch in identities. Wingard doesn't waste time prolonging the reveal; after the first act of the film, Dan Stevens is revealed to be exactly what the audience expected him to be: insane. We are then treated to wondering if there will be an additional twist, as modern genre films such as this have taught audiences to question everything up until the end. The proliferation of twist upon twist upon twist is tiring, The Guest seems to say. The film does what it says on the tin: a lean, taut thriller that wastes little time. There's the teen that suspects but her parents won't understand, there's the mom that falls for the stranger despite evidence to the contrary. At no point does any of these conventions feel exhausted. Rather, there's a glee in every frame: "can you believe we get to do this thing for a living?" The same sense of fun permeated You're Next, though The Guest is a quantum leap in quality, both in staging, framing, pacing, and colour.

Everybody knows nowadays that films are orange and teal. Every major Hollywood film seems to have the same colour palette. It's especially noticeable the higher the budget. Michael Bay's Transformers films are the most obvious examples to point to, but most Hollywood films traffic in this palette. Either that or a drab grey. Over at Cracked (ugh I can't believe I'm linking to Cracked), Dan Seitz writes of the orange and teal paradigm:
here in the era of easy digital color correction, they've taken this so far that you get that ridiculous two-color system, where every room is bathed in blue and every human looks like he has a bad spray-on douche-tan.

To be fair, it's not necessarily laziness per se. Your average colorist has to grade about two hours of movie, frame by frame sometimes, in the space of a couple of weeks. It doesn't take that many glances at the deadline bearing down on the calendar before you throw up your hands and say, "Fuck it. Everybody likes teal and orange!"
The theory is that most actors fall in the range of orange and the complementary colour for orange on the colour wheel is blue. Putting the complementary colours together creates contrast. Contrast has a visual pop that catches the eye. Unfortunately, when all movies fall within this drab trap of orange and teal, this contrast loses its pop quickly. The Guest, thankfully, has a nice bright colour palette. It's fun to look at. There are oranges, red, pinks, purples, blues, greens, from subtle to neon. Colour has its own syntax within film. Here, The Guest provides a well rounded palette. I suppose part of my infatuation with this film is just the sheer variety of the palette. I'm so starved of rich lush colours that I'm willing to grasp any film that gives me more.

Starry Eyes. Dir. Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer. Dark Sky Films, 2014.

A combination of body-horror films and Satanic cult horror movies, Starry Eyes does a hell of a lot with a tiny budget. The lead performance is revelatory, and the inevitable third act bloodletting is actually interesting to watch and thematically apropos -- as opposed to the vast majority of horror's third act which is to abandon tension for spectacle. Starry Eyes should be commended for its restraint without being a sleepy slow-burner that goes nowhere (I'm looking at you, Ti West).

In conversation with a friend (the same one as in the convo about Nightcrawler), we discussed the inability of horror films to sustain tension in the third act. Very few horror films really land the ending. They often sputter, flailing about in gore and sound as a replacement to the scares so carefully laboured over in the first two acts. Slasher films are excellent examples of this inability to maintain suspense or fear. Last year at Halloween, I saw, for the first time, Prom Night from 1980. I enjoyed the sequences of stalking despite the fact that they're clumsier versions of what Carpenter did so well in Halloween (1978). However, I grew restless during the climax, which seemed to be a disco dance sequence. Unless the filmmakers wanted to draw a parallel between the choreography of dance and the staging of murder sequences, in which case, the film is a masterpiece. Though, this is highly doubtful. Instead, Prom Night squanders any tension or suspense by having the killer get hit on the head by the protagonist. It's anticlimactic and thematically empty. There's no parallelism in regards to the opening sequence (the best part of the movie) in which a child falls to her death (I mean the best part in the sense it's well made, not in the sense that a child dies). This is why I found the ending to Starry Eyes to be so enjoyable; the climax comes organically from the decisions made by and actions of the protagonist. Instead of a Grand Guignol spectacle of blood and gore, the filmmakers keep the tension by confounding our expectations. It's a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.

Part of what draws me back to Starry Eyes is the little bits tucked away in the corners. Often, I'm attracted to films that fill in their world and make it either believable or memorable (a great example would be Shane West and his use of henchmen). Starry Eyes does some interesting stuff with the protagonist's friends that doesn't detract from the momentum of the plot, but fills in the world a bit more with life. These details are a subtle but important element horror writers should remember.

Honourable Mentions:

Honeymoon. Dir. Leigh Janiak. Fewlas Entertainment, 2014. Film.

I liked this movie, but I didn't love it. It is badly in need of a trim, and the cinematography is pretty lacklustre considering the possibilities of digital film and the location. However, the two performances are stellar and the screenplay's commitment to the premise is laudable. The film relies on the rather scary premise that you don't really know your loved ones and that you never will. It's an intriguing idea that is really followed through. The filmmakers cleverly use parallelism in the form of another couple to suggest the darker aspects of marriage. As someone who was just legally married (back in August), I found the material quite compelling. I'm also a huge fan of the exceedingly nihilistic ending.

Other films I saw in 2014 that I have thoughts on:

Birdman. Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu. New Regency Pictures, 2014. Film.

In his book 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory, Nicholas Rombes writes:
that the choreographed unfolding of reality in digital long-take films such as Time Code, Russian Ark, and Ten is considered a stunt or an experiment only serves to show how deeply montage and rapid editing have become the dominant visual grammar of our lives.
Rombes could have easily added Birdman to this list without thinking twice. It seems part of the film's critical success is due to the gimmick (2014 seemed a year of film gimmicks) which is that Iñárritu chose to shoot it in as few shots as possible. Supposedly, this is a moment where form meets content considering the film is about the staging of a play. Yet, people fell all over themselves to congratulate the filmmakers for their boldness in using long-takes. "The staging is complicated," they say, "and thus must be praised!" Too bad the rest of the film isn't quite as virtuoso as its camera movements. The film within these long-takes is an experiment with tedium and pablum. Birdman panders to the Hollywood elite by giving them a movie about art or whatever lets them feel less guilty for churning out countless blockbusters in a ruthless attempt at profit. Birdman lets them feel as if art is still possible in the current paradigm. Sure, why not.

The long-takes are an extension of this pandering; the "stunt" is bold and resolutely contrarian when compared to the fast cuts and montage editing of blockbusters. Still, as Rombes astutely points out, it's utterly intriguing that we consider long-takes to be stunts. Later in the introduction to 10/40/70, Rombes talks about how the long-take is far more subversive than the hegemonic fast style. He writes:
In what might be the supreme irony, it turns out that the re-emergence of realism in the cinema can be traced directly to a technological form that seems to represent a final break with the real. For doesn't the digital -- in its very process of capturing reality -- break with the old photographic process upon which classical cinema was built? Doesn't the digital remove us even deeper from the real world?
He opens up this possibility only to close it by referring to our lives as the ultimate long-take, interrupted only by blinks (cuts) and sleep (fade-out). The long-take is closer to reality, Rombes argues because it strips film of the illusion of artifice. It's an attempt to use the artifice of the stunt in order to dive further into the real. The technological possibilities of digital film have allowed for longer takes (bigger hard drives) that take the viewer "deeper into natural time."

Though, perhaps Birdman doesn't fit entirely within Rombes' schema due to the fact that Birdman takes place over 7 days but has a running time of an hour and a half. Bordwell writes of Birdman that the film:
plays it straight. Like a normal movie, it uses sound bridges and night-to-day transitions to skip over stretches of story time. The film is a clear-cut example of the difference between story time (the years of Riggan’s career and the others’ lives), plot time (six days), and screen time (about 110 minutes).
Emphasis mine. If you follow the link, you'll be entertained with shot-by-shot breakdowns about how utterly formulaic and conventional this movie truly is. All of the recognizable stylistics of conventional editing are contained within this film. It's Hollywood ego-stroking masquerading as avant garde, or edgy, or bold filmmaking.

I'm reminded of Jean Baudrillard. In the book, Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? he writes of the disappearance of the human in a technologically oriented future present. The best example, he believes, is the digital photograph replacing the analogue. He writes:
the photograph that has become digital, being liberated at a single stroke from both the negative and the real world. And the consequences of both these things are incalculable, though on different scales, of course. This marks the end of a singular presence for the object, since it may now be digitally constructed. And the end of the singular moment of the photographic act, since the image can now be immediately erased or reconstructed. And the end of the irrefutable testimony of the negative. Both the time-lag and distance disappear at the same time, and with them that blank between object and image that was the negative. The traditional photograph is an image produced by the world, which, thanks to the medium of film, still involves a dimension of representation. The digital image is an image that comes straight out of the screen and becomes submerged in the mass of all the other images from screens. (37)
Digital film, no matter the style, has taken the form of ones and zeroes. There is no variety in content as the medium of delivery is the exact same, he argues. Differences in imagery is superficial and cosmetic; no matter what, the image is made up of ones and zeroes. All images are made of ones and zeroes and thus all images are the same, lost in an ocean of similar ones and zeroes. Soon, he writes, everything will be a "single continuous flow, a single integrated circuit"  (40). If only Baudrillard had seen Birdman, he could have written about the monotony and sameness of the film, thanks to the long-take, the single continuous flow.

All this postmodern theorizing makes it sound like I hated the film; I didn't. I just felt this immense apathy for it, an holistic apathy that transcended any affect on the spectrum of like or dislike. I feel a tremendous exhaustion in regards to this film and movies like this. I suppose this is why I've been slowly teaching myself film studies, in an attempt to learn how to watch movies. Perhaps, like literature, I've reached my limit for sameness, for the crumbling ruins of realism.

Interstellar. Dir. Christopher Nolan. Syncopy, 2014. Film.

As with many things I'm deeply excited about, I quickly lose patience when I see little to no development or improvement. I love Doctor Who but I'm slowly losing patience with the monotony of it. Nothing has changed and nothing will change. It's tiresome. The same can be said of Christopher Nolan. My appreciation for Nolan has had a precipitous drop recently thanks to rewatching The Dark Knight Rises and seeing Interstellar in the theatres. I really disliked Interstellar. A lot.

Nolan just does not have the directing skills to maintain the level of sentimentality this film hinges on. His skills reside more in setting up complicated sequences. Notice I did not write "executing" those complicated sequences. Interstellar throws in absolute stark relief the fact that Nolan is unable or unwilling to use establishing shots to determine the geography of scenes. His depiction of space (ironically in a film about space) is worrisome and inept. At no point are the dimensions of the spaceship clear.

Also tiresome is Nolan's reliance on exposition. Characters aren't characters, but rather vehicles for dumping poorly articulated information in the audience's laps. This is problematic in a film that hinges entirely on the power of love to transcend time and space. How are we supposed to care about these characters and their journey when Nolan seems unable to sketch them as human, with desires, traits, beliefs? It's a sad state of affairs when the robot in the film is more human than the humans.

Nolan spends so much time (169 fucking minutes) setting up a closed time travel loop that's obvious from the first ten minutes of the movie. Instead of putting in all this effort about black holes and spaceships and whatnot, all this noise, constant noise, he might have spent some time refining the characters and shaping them, or showing me why they love each other or why Coop would decide to leave his family five minutes after learning about this suicide mission. Ugh.

I can't write any more about this movie. I hated it. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

February Reads

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid
The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White
Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

A quote from The Twyborn Affair to demonstrate White's absolute command of language:
Maisie had been let live in the attic of a house belonging to a rich benevolent queer, who was in the habit of siphoning off some of her rougher trade. On her patron's death, the house became the subject of endless legal wrangles, with Maisie a forgotten part of it. On the ground floor, in what had been the dining room, there was a claw-footed bath lying on its side, for no reason Eadith had ever heard explained. All the lower part of the house was unfurnished, the stairs uncarpeted and dry-rotten, rickety banisters with whole sections of the uprights missing. Only on the attic floor did life return, in a flowering of crochet and knick-knacks, the lank bodies of empty dresses hanging half-hidden by a faded cretonne curtain, face powder merging with spilt flour, tea becoming grit on an unswept floor.
I liked White's novel, the triptych structure, the play with gender, the rather casual dismissal of the possibility of trans phobia. It's not a novel rooted in absolute realism, but rather an idealized realm with little consequences. Despite this lack of realism, White accomplishes better indictments of the Australian middle class than Tsiolkas could ever hope to come close. Of course, the targets of Tsiolkas's and White's ire are different and temporally disparate. Yet, both make these grand sweeping statements about the hypocrisy of Australia's bourgeoisie, so they bare comparison.

Tsiolkas's novel is one I liked and hated simultaneously. I found the novel's determined stern grasp of realism to be rather boring, indicative of a wider trend of boring realism, an orthodoxy that threatens to bore the shit out of me. It doesn't help either White or Tsiolkas that I read Gravity's Rainbow in the same month, a clear masterpiece that stretches the form. Perhaps I chose my second novel by White to read poorly; maybe I should have read Voss, his alleged modernist masterpiece. I suppose my impatience with realism comes from the irritation that writers working in the realist tradition refuse to acknowledge that realism, like any literary method, is an artifice. They purport to present the world "as it is." Ugh. Over at the London Review of Books, Tom McCarthy astutely refers to this trend as
the naive and uncritical realism dominating contemporary middlebrow fiction, and the doctrine of authenticity peddled by creative writing classes the world over.
I'm not going to repeat myself, as I think I've laid out my thoughts as they currently stand already. I will however add an additional possible reason for my recently developed allergic reaction. I work in a bookstore and in today's economy, bookstores live by the sale of shit, pure shit. Pablum such as The Rosie Project, All the Light We Cannot See (a novel infuriatingly calculated for upper middle class white people in their 50s), Still Alice and others sell well enough that we can stay afloat, selling the odd gem to the odd customer. I've maintained in the past that cultural trash has its place, genre fiction is nothing to dismiss, and that the phrase "guilty pleasure" is specious and unproductive to cultural engagement. The issue that I have is when our cultural consumption consists solely of trash. One wouldn't eat McDonald's every day, so why would one read trash day in day out? Part of what makes these novels trash isn't their cheap prose but their commitment to a servile niceness, a bland unctuous deception that trades formal exploration for infantile emotions. These novels pander to a surface emotional life. They mobilize the tired elements of Literature the Market: language, artifice, and grammar, in order to facilitate a tiny spectrum of affect. These are novels for people who don't really need or want to feel anything deeper than short bursts of pleasure, quickly forgotten and replaced by other short bursts.

Literature, or rather, art in general, should make the consumer feel something and hopefully recognize something of their own affective life reflected by the work. This isn't to say that art should be relatable; this is to say that literature should deepen and expand one's emotional palette. Most of what we sell in this bookstore is pandering shit. It frustrates me not that they are reading this pablum, this wide swath of literature that coddles the inner emotional life, but that they could do so much better. People are incredibly smart, vastly more intelligent than the Internet would have you believe. The market of literature is harshly underestimating the emotional depth and intelligence of the average reader. Mainstream culture is infantilizing people. We should demand better of our art.

Of course, I sound like a sanctimonious pretentious asshole when I say all this, but at this point in my life as a critic, I mean well. I don't want to browbeat, and certainly, I've learned to rein in my judgement, or at least learned to transfer my judgement from the individual (pubescent arrogance of taste) to the wider patterns of consumption that demand this trend of realism to happen. Who am I to judge the individual who works hard every single day, who comes home tired and exhausted, and who wants to unwind with something easy and comforting? People are already dehumanized and ground down by the machinery of labour that I don't need to add to it. I'm not even better than the vast majority; I thoroughly enjoy my cultural trash (I am a Doctor Who fan, after all, the trashiest of trash). Yet, I want better for myself. I want to expand my tastes, improve my cultural vocabulary, and deepen my emotional lexicon by engaging with art. Yes, I'm echoing a classic Victorian adage of art by asserting than a dialogue with art is necessarily self-improving, something many other cultural critics have resolutely rejected. However, I'm less interested in the intellectual stimulation of art than I am in the emotional stimulation. A frequent and lively engagement with art can only increase empathy. I'm inspired by Steven Pinker's hypothesis that the epistolary novel increased empathy by introducing people to emotional lives outside of their tiny worldview. How can this ever be a bad thing? For me, art is always aspirational.

This means, of course, going outside of my own tiny worldview and attempting to engage with art that challenges my own assumptions, whether that challenge be formal or emotional. How challenging can The Rosie Project be? How can it increase any empathy when it's pandering pablum designed to elicit the most juvenile of emotions? There's something to be said about how going outside of one's own worldview can lead to voyeurism, but perhaps that's a discussion left for another time.

In summary, realism bores me because it's infantilizing. I want art to shake my foundations and change my world. Realism is a boring artifice that in its current mode can only pander. Thus, this month is full of books that are simultaneously enjoyable and boring. Next month, I hope to read something more challenging, emotionally speaking.