Category Archives: Summer Posts

Summer Reading 22 (2)

Andres Barba, A Luminous Republic

This short moral fable concerns the sudden appearance of a group of semi-feral children in a small South American town.

Rafael Sabatini, The Sea-Hawk

An adventure romance from one of the best writers of that genre about an English petty aristocrat who becomes a Barbary corsair.

Ottessa Moshfegh, Lapvona

An exceedingly dark story set in the medieval village of Lapvona about a greedy lord and a stunted peasant boy.

First Day: 6/9 (HUM425)

I. Introduce the course (20 min.) (1:30-1:50)

1. What is the image/ visual culture?

2. “Atmosphere”

3. Housekeeping

II. The “gothic” exercise (45 min) (1:50-2:35)

1. Read the article

2. Discuss: What does the term indicate? What are its defining characteristics?

3. ICW1: One page: describe a setting/scene that fits the definition of “gothic.” Pay particular attention to ways of establishing or creating atmosphere.

III. Screen Dark City (1 hr. 45 min.) (2:35- 4:20)

IV. Break?  (20 min) (4:20-4:40)

V. Film Analysis: Introduction (45-60 min.) (4:40-5:40)

1. What’s my name? (9:54-10:37): cuts, camera angles, movment, etc.

2. ICW2: Tuning (37:32- 39:52)



Here’s a list of some of the films I screened this semester.

Oculus (2013): Pretty spooky in parts. The interwoven narratives are definitely confounding and the gore factor is relatively light. Writer-director-editor Mike Flanagan understands the primal magic of mirrors, which have the uncanny power of both doubling and distorting the world.

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003): Another “family” horror flick. I think it’s the intimacy of family relationships that make them prime terrain for disturbing films. Certainly the perversion of that intimacy and the violation of trust are linked to the gothic mode. Secrets, darkness, sudden aggression, the gap between perception and reality: all of these elements work to construct an off-kilter storyworld.

Gothic (1989): A Ken Russell film starring a very young Natasha Richardson as Mary Shelley. A relentlessly batty, hallucinatory account of one of the most famous house visits in English literature, when Polidori, Byron, and the Shelleys told one another ghost stories and Frankenstein was born. The print that’s available on dvd is murky and awful but it’s worth watching anyway.

His Kind of Woman (1951): If you’re a fan of Robert Mitchum then you’ll likely forgive him this over-the-top crime drama with the wooden yet sultry Jane Russell.

Twixt (2011): This is a beautiful looking film that loses energy as it moves along, but has the virtue of imagining a lengthy conversation with Edgar Poe (Ben Chaplin) about plot and narrative.

Poklosi (2012): A better-than-average Polish thriller that is concerned with the crimes of the past.

Faust (2011): If you can get past the opening autopsy, you’ll find this adaptation of the Faust legend is very engaging. Sokurov’s Satan bears a passing resemblance to the figure hallucinated by Ivan Karamazov as he suffers from a virulent “brain fever” in Dostoevsky’s novel. Note also the role that Sokurov’s cinema art seems to be playing in Russia’s efforts to assert its cultural presence on a global stage.

Wolf Hall (2015): I am a huge fan of Hillary Mantel’s historical novels, particularly Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. This miniseries is a really well-executed adaptation of both of them. Clare Foy is just remarkable as Anne Boleyn.

App (2013): I actually enjoyed this film. Cultural anxieties about new tech are usually pretty interesting to consider, and if App is fairly ridiculous it does have something to say about the subsumption of human consciousness into “social” media.

Noah (2014): Initially I was wary of this film but then I realized it was directed by Darren Aronovsky, who basically treats a Judeo-Islamo-Christian myth as science fiction. Check it out.

Pontypool (2008): This original take on the zombie flick picks up William S. Burroughs’s conceit that “the word is a virus” and transports it to strange places.


So Far

JG Ballard, Kingdom Come (UK 2006)

It’s all on the surface in Ballard’s final novel, a story set in the shadow of a massive shopping mall in the suburbs of London. Ballard, whose reputation as a chronicler of dystopian modernity was affirmed by David Cronenberg’s 1996 cult-film adaptation of Crash, explores the connections between consumerism and “soft fascism.”

Blind hunger for shallow pleasures, meaningless violence, conformity, and nativism: Kingdom Comer represents a world where the pathologies of capitalist culture stem from the commodity form. Ballard hangs his sociological insights on a reliable narrative of mystery and conspiracy. The son of an elderly man killed in a mass shooting lingers at the scene of the crime, the Metro-Centre, in an effort to discover who was responsible for his father’s death. His investigation brings him into contact with quasi-fascist sports clubs, roaming gangs of middle-class racists, and a vacuous celebrity-fuehrer.

Davide Longo, The Last Man Standing (Italy 2008)

Slow to start but relentless, this vision of social collapse can be difficult to read because of the depravity of some of its characters. On the other hand, a qualified optimism suggests to the reader that the demise of institutions doesn’t necessarily mean the end of community.

Jens Lapidus, Never Fuck Up (Sweden 2008)

Lapidus’s second novel, like his first (Easy Money) a virtual stylistic clone of James Ellroy’s crime stories, is set in a multi-cultural, divided Stockholm where “Yugo” crime bosses and Iraqi dope-slingers mix with privileged “Svens” and rogue cops. Like Ellroy, Lapidus hovers at the cusp of parody; at certain points the narrative is so hard-boiled it risks petrefaction. Still, this is the literary equivalent of watching a crime film, immersive and vivid.

Thierry Jonquet, Mygale (France 1984)

A bizarre and disturbing novella about a twisted plastic surgeon, his beautiful victim, and a naive yet brutal cop-killer. Existentialist themes of identity and vengeance hint at the possibility of an allegorical dimension, though unlike Jean-Patrick Manchette, Jonquet seems unwilling to fully politicize his story.

Maurizio Ascari, A Counter-History of Crime Fiction: Supernatural, Gothic, Sensation (UK 2007)

A great piece of scholarship on crime fiction, one that contradicts standard accounts of the genre which locate its inceptions in Poe’s “tales of ratiocination.” Highly recommended.

Lagging the Popgeist: Submarino (Denmark 2010)

As you’d expect from an alumnus of Dogme 95, Thomas Vinterberg’s Submarino employs light deftly as a means of emphasizing dramatic content. There are several remarkable scenes– an improvised baptism, for example, and shots of a man in the grip of addiction– where set lighting is key to the audience’s response. Notably, however, Vinterberg has chosen not to adhere to Dogme 95’s purist admonition to use only natural light sources as he did in 1998’s Celebration. As a result, this aspect of the mise en scene is textured by contrasts: the saturated flash of television sets in an electronics store window counterpoints a pale grey afternoon sky or the sickly fluorescence of a pub men’s room.

Submarino‘s story is fairly unsparing: two brothers raised by an alcoholic mother briefly encounter each other as adults after years apart. The eldest, Nick, has just been released from prison, while his younger brother (who is referred to only as “Nick’s brother” or “Martin’s father”) struggles to manage a heroin addiction as he raises a son. A quiet foreboding accumulates as the plot advances (and regresses), one that made me think of Requiem for a Dream. Indeed, if there is an obvious criticism to be made of the film at the level of content, it is that Submarino‘s characters suffer far too much. The parallel with Aronofsky’s Requiem— especially one of the physical forms this suffering takes– seems more of a repetition than a correspondence. This echo could be down to the source material, a novel by Jacob Bengtsson that has yet to be translated into English. Not to be cryptic, but once you’ve seen both films you’ll see what I mean.

Still, Vinterberg offers the surviving characters a shot at redemption. And if he does so quietly, almost tacitly, the final sequences of Submarino lighten a burden the audience has been compelled to share.

Reading and Screening

Here’s a reading list and a filmography for those lassitudinous days of summer.

Books I read Spring semester when I should have been doing other things:

David Peace, Nineteen Seventy-Four

I’d set this crime novel against anything written by James Ellroy or Massimo Carlotto in terms of its terse syntax and hardcore violence. The basis (with the other books from the Red Riding Quartet) for a series of recent film adaptations. Peace’s four novels have been celebrated as “an occult history of Thatcherism” (i.e. neoliberalism).

Continue reading

Edward Snowden and the Ethics of Truth Telling

“The individual responsible for one of the most significant leaks in US political history is Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old former technical assistant for the CIA and current employee of the defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton. Snowden has been working at the National Security Agency for the last four years as an employee of various outside contractors, including Booz Allen and Dell.

“The Guardian, after several days of interviews, is revealing his identity at his request. From the moment he decided to disclose numerous top-secret documents to the public, he was determined not to opt for the protection of anonymity. “I have no intention of hiding who I am because I know I have done nothing wrong,” he said.

“Snowden will go down in history as one of America’s most consequential whistleblowers, alongside Daniel Ellsberg and Bradley Manning. He is responsible for handing over material from one of the world’s most secretive organisations – the NSA.”

The Surveillance State III

“The Obama administration is invoking an obscure legal privilege to avoid judicial scrutiny of its secret collection of the communications of potentially millions of Americans.

“Civil liberties lawyers trying to hold the administration to account through the courts for its surveillance of phone calls and emails of American citizens have been repeatedly stymied by the government’s recourse to the “military and state secrets privilege”. The precedent, rarely used but devastating in its legal impact, allows the government to claim that it cannot be submitted to judicial oversight because to do so it would have to compromise national security.”