Saturday, October 3, 2015

Don DeLillo, at The New Yorker Festival

Last night, at the Directors Guild Theater on 57th Street, New Yorker Fiction editor Deborah Treisman interviewed Don DeLillo. After reading a passage from Underworld, DeLillo responded to Treisman’s terse questions mostly at length, proving less cryptic than you might think.

While ubiquitous brochures promised this exchange would be recorded and posted on The New Yorker Festival’s website, I don’t yet see it there. I took notes, so below are transcribed fragments that I believe to be of interest. There are bound to be some discrepancies (in prepositions, punctuation, etc.) and elisions in this rush job, and I will correct these errors when that video appears.

“I’m not at all a paranoid individual,” DeLillo said. The audience laughs. “It’s true.”

On becoming a writer: “Writing has to become a natural thing. You have to wait, you have to be patient, and something will happen.”
“It took two years for me to believe I was a writer, and another two to finish [Americana].”

On starting a novel: “I start with something: Sometimes it’s a sentence, sometimes it’s an image.”
“Start writing at random, and see if one sentence connects to another.”

On note-taking: “I discover a note and I have no idea what I was referring to, and it becomes paper.” A brief silence, closed by audience laughter.

On the inspiration for Libra: “I had to go to Dallas to be sure, and I did.”

On the poetry of his descriptions: “It’s not my language; it’s the language these things came with.”

On re-reading Underworld: “I didn’t find passages I regretted, which is surprising for a book that length.”


Treisman: “You majored in Communication Arts.”
DeLillo: “You know why? Because it meant nothing.”

T: “You avoided press.”
D: “Yes, well, no. No one came around.”


On the Oregon massacre: “The gun is the motive as well as the weapon itself. The gun makes it possible for an individual to make sense of everything that is happening. ... It gives him a motive, gives him a sense of direction. The gun is a substitute for real life, and is the way he ends his life.”

"[Lee Harvey Oswald] was no longer thinking in political terms. … More than anything, the motorcade was passing his place of work. [The assassination was] something to assert his identity, to find his place in the world, to remind everyone that he existed.”

“Many of these young men have the same sense of being nowhere. .. Does he buy the gun to shoot twelve innocent people, or does the gun exist to begin with? What else would he do to find that disastrous satisfaction?”


“I certainly never, ever laugh at something I write, never. Some writers tell me they laugh, and this seems like an offense against the state.”

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Late, Late Summer's Writing Update

So it's been over three months since I've touched this site, but I have been busy. In addition to the links below, I have spent my days studying for GREs (the big test and English lit), traveling (Iceland, D.C., upstate N.Y., most recently Orlando), reading (loved A Little Life), tending to a local tech services job (it's easy), and developing a larger writing project still in embryo. Once GREs are over (late October), the plan is to focus on writing, pretty much solely. 

Still, I have been writing film criticism as of late, for The Ithaca Voice. I am proud enough of the work to share it below, and have bolded a stand-out:

For the Voice, I also wrote a preview of the Milestone Films retrospective now playing at Cornell Cinema, replete with interviews with founders (and friends, I should disclose) Amy and Dennis. 

Some bright former classmates of mine founded a blog, and I'm only going to share one post I contributed—a poem.

Then there's always Letterboxd, a site I don't use as much anymore, I'll admit, due to my rather shameful (for a self-attested cinephile, that is) rate of movie-watching these days. But I wrote short things on Ant-Man, A.I. and The Royal Tenenbaums that I don't think are worthless, so there.

Here's to more writing, and keeping ye few readers more up to date come autumn.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

R.I.P. Ornette Coleman

"It's like organized disorganization, or playing wrong right. And it gets to you emotionally, like a drummer. That's what Coleman means to me." 
— Charles Mingus, Down Beat, May 26, 1960

"[The day I met Ornette], it was about 90 degrees and he had on an overcoat. I was scared of him."
— Don Cherry, Jazz, December 1963

"[Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz] causes earache the first time through, especially for those new to Coleman's music. The second time, its cacophony lessens and its complex balances and counter-balances begin to take effect. The third time, layer upon layer of pleasing configurations -- rhythmic, melodic, contrapuntal, tonal -- becomes visible. The fourth or fifth listening, one swims readily along, about ten feet down, breathing the music like air."
— Whitney Balliett


"How can I turn emotion into knowledge? That's what I try to do with my horn."
— Ornette Coleman, Esquire, December 14, 2009

Coleman with Prime Time on the April 14, 1979, episode of Saturday Night Live

I had no clue what to do with "Lonely Woman," upon popping The Shape of Jazz to Come into my laptop three years ago, but this encounter would not be the last with Ornette Coleman. At the time, I didn't have much choice: I was interning at Milestone Films, writing the press kit (online here, for what it's worth) for a Shirley Clarke gem they unearthed, Ornette: Made in America, and to do my job right I needed to know this man. The more I read about him and by him, the less I, frankly, understood: Here was the pioneer of "harmolodics," a theory whose tenets still elude me; a man who almost voluntarily castrated himself; a reticent genius who lived through stints of violence and poverty without complaint.

All humans are indefinable, I suppose, but Coleman knew that, for him, only jazz could express those multitudes within — just not the jazz of Bird or anyone else he might have heard. His work, from Shape of Jazz to Come to Sound Grammar, sounds unlike any other record of its time, and despite the former's prophetic title, it has not been followed since. Coleman's innovations belong to him, and his son Denardo, and Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and his other immediate contributors — for a guy who alienated many colleagues ("Are you cats serious?" — Dizzy Gillespie, to Coleman's Quartet), Coleman was a supreme collaborator. I'd say that is what reifies his newness into some of the last century's hippest, finest, most meaningful music. Beyond Coleman's taxed, honest embouchure and unpredictable stops and starts, a song like "The Fifth of Beethoven" pulses with Haden's bass and Ed Blackwell's drums, all players locked in perfect sync if only still deciding where to go. 

I may never know Ornette, the man, but I now know his music, and that's a knowledge to be shared, disputed and studied still. For thinking and living through his art, Ornette Coleman leaves us with an image that will never gloss into stasis, always two notes ahead.

*If you don't already have it, Atlantic reissued Beauty Is a Rare Thing: The Complete Atlantic Recordings in March and it's on Amazon for a steal.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Last Column for The Cornell Daily Sun

Today's Cornell Daily Sun issue is the last of the semester, and considering I'm about to graduate, it's also the last chance for me to write for this paper. As luck would have it, my biweekly column coincided with this day. For sentimental purposes, I won't be copy-pasting it here, but I direct you to read my final column — the 46th, since January, 2012 — here.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

So Expert, Much Obscure, Wow.

Sometimes comedy hits so close to home it feels like horror. I was a fidgety wreck at Cinemapolis watching one scene in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, in which Josh (Ben Stiller) pitches his six-and-a-half-hour political documentary to a hedge fund bro. Trapped in close-up, Josh botches it, sputtering out undergrad filler (“prison-industrial complex,” “power structures in the global economy,” etc.) before closing with a Hail Mary to the heartland (“It’s really about America.”). The investor, bored as hell, asks, “So … what’s it about?” The horror of incoherence, at your ideas and the words you choose to share them with, is one I have felt many a time at home and at Cornell.
The unspoken reality in this movie is that Josh is a mediocre thinker and a lazy filmmaker, still stuck in that arrogant film student mode where the burden is all on the audience to comprehend the brilliance of your pièce de résistance. His documentary is boring (its footage is mostly of a renowned but colorless academic espousing his wide-ranging theory, in front of bookshelves or at an underlit dinner table), and it’s boring because Josh has no mastery of the rhetorical tools of filmmaking — like camera placement, sound or editing — that would involve the viewer, no matter how well-read he or she is, to care about the big issues his film tackles. Baumbach, on the other hand, is a subtle enough filmmaker to disclose Josh’s mediocrity without outright stating it, and one of the funniest, and trickiest, aspects of the film is how everyone lectures about the problems they see around them while remaining oblivious to their own. Can you relate?
Incoherence and obliviousness, together, make a distinctly modern comedic pair. Baumbach is not the first to venture into this subgenre of “cringe comedy,” as the Internet calls it, but he does not have a great deal of predecessors either. Of course we have all seen an intellectual caricatured as removed, dainty or impotent in an older film, book or TV show, but the manner in which Baumbach and Stiller render Josh’s esoteric babble engages more ongoing questions, like pretentiousness and privilege. In sustained, awkward close-up, Josh gives himself more than enough rope to hang any prospect of funding, and the discomfort we feel while watching him is sympathetic, if not empathetic, because words have, presumably, failed us all before. At the same time, Josh can spout this pseudo-intellectual nonsense in part due to his white male/Blue Steel privilege, which gave him an unearned soapbox long ago. He should really be trying harder, but still, damn, is he human.
Every thinker fears incoherence. You stumble upon an idea you think is novel, but then you must secure the argument, with the innumerable steps involved, in order to share it with the world. Otherwise your thought is just an abstract glob of noise. (I should know: I’m revising an honor’s thesis at the moment.)
“Noise-shaped air,” on the other hand, is a perfect phrase from the fourth season premiere of Armando Ianucci’s HBO comedy Veep, and it is used to describe the euphonic, fill-in-the-blank insincerity of a speech President Selina Meyer shares before Congress. Veep explores the other extreme of nonsense language — the political sermon — and how inane it sounds when spoken by someone like Selina, a woman with a preternatural gift for inventive vulgarity. I hope to one day buy a leather-bound book of her and the rest of the cast’s putdowns, because they are what make Veep the funniest show right now, but Selina’s facility with disingenuous but nonetheless effective public oratory elevates the show to conscious, critical heights. In the premiere, she riffs off a teleprompter glitch, which spells her presidential ambitions with the placeholder text left from earlier brainstorming: “FUTURE WHATEVER.” With conviction in herself and the drivel she is about to say, she sells worthless platitudes (“Whatever we have in store cannot be unknown. But given time, it can be understood. The past was once the future … ”) and her esteemed colleagues greet her noise-shaped air with rapturous applause.
In “The Universe,” one of their most popular sketches, Tim and Eric, from Adult Swim, make fun of a kind of language in between half-baked academic-speak and hollow, wowing rhetoric. Tim Heidecker, squeezed into a black turtleneck, talks about the wonders of the universe as intentionally crappy video effects whiz around him. “Picture a hot dog bun,” he says, as a hot dog bun fades on and off the screen. “And throw all the stars, the hundreds of stars, that there are in the universe into a … into a bag, and put the universe into a bag, and you, all of a sudden, they become, um … ” His face crumples into a pudgy frown as his tortured metaphor escapes him. I laugh every single time I see it.
Tim and Eric, premier parodists of white male pastiness, find funny the way self-appointed experts attempt to streamline their ideas, particularly when in extreme close-up. They share their so-called research with can-do cheer, living up to the democratic mission of popular science when they turn to metaphor or when Eric Wareheim says, “And us humans can’t even fathom the concept of that kind of time because it’s really really really really really really really really fun!”
But ultimately, Tim and Eric seem to say, incoherence is inherent to any discipline, if it truly is a discipline. True intellectual work requires logic, evidence and manageable innovation, yes, but it’s unlikely the casual reader can just walk in and comprehend a field written by experts. Communicating those big, important ideas should be done in a respectable way, without off-color humor … which is where Tim and Eric, Noah Baumbach and Armando Ianucci come in.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun.

Modest Mouse Concert Review

Modest Mouse
Barton Hall, Cornell University
April 19, 2015

Courtesy of Michelle Feldman // The Cornell Daily Sun

I wrote a review of Modest Mouse's concert at Barton Hall here. Of the three shows I've seen from them (also 2012 Governors Ball and 2014 at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester), this was the best, though I've been arguing with a few people who disagree...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

It Follows Review

It Follows
Directed by David Robert Mitchell
Released in 2014

Somewhere north of Detroit, Jay (Maika Monroe) is treading water in her family’s above ground pool when she spots an ant crawling up her arm. Her expression is almost blank, lifted by a slight, dreamy smile — she could be thinking of her date with Hugh (Jake Weary) that night. She gently lowers her arm into the water and with it, the ant, which now squirms. Whether or not the filmmakers fished it out after completing the shot, the character that is “Ant” surely drowns. Jay meant no malice, nor is this scene the first in the portrait of a college-age psychopath. She probably meant nothing at all in the mere lowering of her arm. But death, miniscule as it may have been, resulted from that simple motion, and death will soon in turn follow Jay as a meaningless, inexorable force.
It Follows is an unusual and unusually memorable horror movie in that its monster is Newton’s first law of motion. Well, if you’re going to be picky, actual people assume the role of the monster, some of them innocuous in appearance and others not so much, like a creepy old lady in a hospital gown or a seven-foot-tall man without eyes. The monster cycles through so many dissimilar identities that the only constant is the way it walks — slowly but steadily — toward the person it has isolated to kill. It can be easily outrun if that person pays attention to his or her surroundings, and so becomes a paranoid wreck. But the monster cannot be stopped. In lieu of an effective opposing force, the person can pass the curse by having sex with someone else, and even then if it kills — in painful, gruesome fashion —the next person it will come back for the one before.
Jay is the lucky one chosen by Hugh, a handsome out-of-towner always looking over his shoulder, to next bear this terrifying burden. They have tender, consensual sex in the back of his car, gratifying for both involved. After, she talks of love in measured, shameless terms before he crawls on top of her and clasps a chloroform-soaked rag over her mouth. In an agonizing long take, her eyes dart in terror before she falls limp. She awakes tied to a wheelchair in an empty parking garage, where Hugh describes her raw deal. “All you can do is pass it on to someone else,” he says. For proof, he shines a flashlight on a nude woman walking toward her from a distance, and allows the figure to get real close before wheeling Jay, who is wearing only a bra and underwear, to temporary safety.
What may read as a convoluted update of the “Dead Teenager Movie,” to use Roger Ebert’s term for the slasher films primarily concerned with ogling at and then dismembering promiscuous young women, is instead a sly, nightmarish contemplation of mortality. David Robert Mitchell, who wrote and directed the film, suspends his characters in a dreamlike haze that downplays the logic, or lack thereof, of the monster’s behavior and the violent ends its victims meet. Jay’s emotional state, which ranges from bliss to knee-buckling helplessness, takes precedence above all, expressing not just a vulnerable body but also a maturing intelligence that for the first time grasps the inevitable outcome (take a guess) that meets all bodies, not just those stalked by naked weirdos. By foregrounding his protagonist’s inner life and cutting often to the talented, convincing Monroe in close-up, Mitchell instills It Follows with a sense of existential dread that lingers long after the credits roll.
Thankfully, Jay does not struggle alone. As she seeks a way to dispose of the monster once and for all, Jay is joined by her sister, Kelly (Lili Sepe); her friend, Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who snacks and reads Dostoevsky off a clamshell e-reader; the sexy, Johnny Depp-type neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto); and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), the boyish childhood friend who has long had a crush on Jay. The film captures a low-key camaraderie between long-time friends who realize they don’t have many more years of bumming around left. That togetherness is what keeps Jay going, as it does for all of us.
A pistol figures prominently in the final act, which is disappointing. Bullets are as fatal as Nerf darts in good horror, as anyone who has seen Halloween knows. John Carpenter directed that 1978 classic, and he is the unmistakable influence behind Mitchell’s style and Disasterpeace’s brooding synth score. Mitchell deigns to one jump scare (hey, Texas Chainsaw has one too), but for the most part he and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis engender fear from staring at still, seemingly (hopefully!) inanimate objects (i.e., a closed closet door) or having a figure simply walk from the background to the foreground. Mitchell finds the most horror in corrupting the familiar, and thus evoking the uncanny, which leads naturally and unpretentiously to questions of mortality, public versus private space and deceptive surface appearances.
It Follows’ creepiness is hard to shake because its world is so close to normal, so open to growth and pleasure without shame. Gun flailing aside, these young adults are smart enough to recognize that this monster is undefeatable. It is a force they must find a way to ignore for as long as possible until they are ready, one day, to face it on their own terms.
This article was written of The Cornell Daily Sun.