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The cover of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Until August", with a stylized photo of the author waving to an audience.

Beautified Words: Reviewing “Until August” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

We listen to the dead; we read their work, listen to their music, teach our children of the long lineage of the humanities. We are familiar with posthumous publication: previously unknown work can come into the public sphere though various ways, including the auction of intimate artifacts. Eventually, it is history that is the heir, and it is upon this premise that large recognition sometimes finds ecstatic work, such as that of Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ten years after the author’s death, the heirs allowed publication of Until August (Borzoi, 2024) in an edition that also includes much commentary and the fascinating reproduction of the manuscript in revision. Categorized as a novel by the publisher, and as a novella in some reviews, the volume itself is a hardbound volume in a slightly odd trim size more often found in poetry and gift books than a work of some literary heft. There’s an interesting interplay between the lightness of the physical volume and the formidable reputation of the author, whose previous works have weightier physical presence.

Perhaps it is detrimental to an individual work to compare it to its siblings, works from the same artist, and reviews of Until August do contextualize this volume, with Max Liu’s commentary more about the circumstances of publication than the text, and ending with this damning conclusion: “Usually, an underwhelming posthumous publication or minor work by a major author…will delight fans. I do not believe this is true of Until August. Gabriel Garcia Marquez knew this and was right not to want it to see the light of day. His family and his publishers should have respected his wishes.” A slightly softer view was taken by Art Edwards, who opens his remarks on how titles can seem “monumental”, how “these titles offered a sense that the heart of literature beat strongly”. After a deeper look into the text itself, Edwards concludes that the work has a “portended tragedy” that is “the kind of pathos” expected of a Nobel laureate. And while the Kirkus review dismisses the work as “a lyrical rom-com”, another for The Guardian makes the assertation that the protagonists’ motivation “isn’t a psychologically complex sating of unmet appetites” and mentions the family relationship of the protagonist, as if the one is a de facto dismissal of the other. […]

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A stylized shot from Joe Carnahan's "Narc", depicting a murder scene in a teal-tinted winter scene.

The Brutal Record: On Joe Carnahan’s “Narc” (2002)

There are movies that overwhelm (even, at times, repel) us with their greatness, and there are movies that either pass through us like a soporific or delight our baser pleasures with inanities and/or the strictest adherence to certain handy, and crowd-pleasing, conventions. And then there are movies that inarguably fall in with none of these camps, and yet, because of their very distance from the extremes, seem to pass public appreciation somewhat unnoted, blipping into the limelight but for a moment before ending up in the bargain bin with the rest of the stale classics and poppy pablum.

Narc seems to belong to this oft-overlooked category, which is a shame, considering its merits as both a stylistic feat and an acting vehicle for not just Ray Liotta (a producer on the film, as well), who is predictably incendiary, but most of the supporting cast, especially Jason Patric’s troubled ex-undercover cop Nick Tellis.

Yes, for all its occasional bravura, Narc still follows a rather conventional track, and in this way its predictability (for plot and character) drags it down a tier from the more innovative examples of the crime/neo-noir genre. However, its attention-to-detail when it comes to the methodical process of criminal investigation, the realistic brutality of those who commit crime and (especially) those who police it, and its honing-in on the lives of its characters so as to avoid mere stereotype lifts Narc up into that field of art which, in spite of its limitations, invites meaningful engagement from an experienced and/or dedicated viewer. […]

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A shot from Robert Bresson's "L'Argent", depicting the protagonist (Christian Patey) being confronted about his counterfeit 500-franc note in a restaurant.

Less Is More: On Robert Bresson’s “L’Argent” (1983)

Robert Bresson is a master ascetic. In no other filmmaker’s oeuvre is value more clearly added by subtraction. In 1956’s A Man Escaped, he sets most of the narrative within the confines of a prison cell. He employs little music, no flashy shots, and no sophisticated editing techniques. Still, he manages to craft a more compelling experience than most prison-break movies because he does not tell his audience what to feel or try to distract them with excessive stimuli. What propels Bresson’s films to greatness is what he does not do. His refusal to partake in certain conventions shows viewers the superfluity of these tropes and how much more interesting it can be to play around them. This is an approach he never veered away from throughout his career, and which he refined in 1983’s L’Argent, a film detailing the events caused by the passing on of a counterfeit bill, and one of the best swan songs in cinema history.

As L’Argent begins, a young man from a well-off family (Marc Ernest Fourneau) enters his father’s study to request his monthly allowance. When he asks for more, his parents refuse, so the kid attempts to pawn his watch to a friend, who gives him a forged 500-franc note. The viewer is immediately struck by the performers’ unusual acting style. Bresson preferred to think of his actors as “models,” non-actors who deliver each line with a poker face, defying the scenery-chewing approach prominent in most films. One would be tempted to call these performances wooden were it not for the fact that this approach allows the audience to imbue character motivation and engage with the narrative on a more intimate level. This is the film’s first example of how the French auteur adds depth to his work by simply abstaining from what most filmmakers are doing. […]

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A stylized shot from Chantal Akerman's "News From Home", depicting a 1970s New York City skyline and red buses, as reviewed by Jessica Schneider for the AUTOMACHINATION literary magazine.

Metal, Stone, & Zip Codes: On Chantal Akerman’s “News From Home” (1976)

Oscar Wilde once said something like, ‘Criticism is the highest form of autobiography.’ Or rather, what he actually said was, ‘the highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.’ The rest can be attributed to my misremembering.

Admittedly, I do believe that criticism is the highest form of autobiography, as in, what one thinks is good or bad in the arts can say more about how that person thinks than is realized. As example, if romance novels and spy thrillers drive you, then you’re likely not going to be very interested in James Joyce. Furthermore, if you think the ending of Saving Private Ryan with old Matt Damon asking his wife to ‘tell me I’m a good man,’ before the film ends with the American flag is deep filmmaking, then you’re probably not going to enjoy Andrei Tarkovsky.

This brings me to Chantal Akerman whose films, in my mind at least, resemble the poetry of Adrienne Rich in their lackluster quality and pretension. Coincidentally, those who praise Akerman are likely to praise Rich because both are academic darlings who engage in joyless, meandering art that involves ideas better expressed by others. I have seen three of Akerman’s films, the first being Je tu il elle, Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, and News From Home. Of the three films, I enjoyed News From Home the most, largely due to my not remembering the first two.

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An autographed sepia photo of the Australian poet, Judith Wright, sitting with a sun hat as an older woman.

Refractions of Reflections: on Judith Wright’s “Naked Girl and Mirror”

From time to time I come across some thoughtful commentary about the absence of solid examples of masculinity in modern culture. Any discussion of positive role models is less common than that of its ‘toxic’ counterpart—and is often portrayed by those who fail to embody it. It makes sense that this would have negative effects on young men. But it also seems to me that young women are dealing with a counterpart sickness—one of surfeit. You can binge for hours without ever being satiated, if what you’re consuming lacks substance. Even the most intrepid attempts at “validation” wither when untethered to reality, and so much of what’s held up as models of femininity is shallow and incoherent.

But then consider the issue of “representation” in general. Fair enough, as it’s undoubtedly important: both in terms of who gets to have their work taken seriously, and in what subject matter gets taken seriously. In the sense that insofar as art can distil aspects of reality with a unique power, it’s just nonsensical to arbitrarily exclude whole domains of life from this. But one of the issues with an excessive focus on representation creeps in here, as quality art just can’t be subjected to a quota, and have this result in anything constructive. Inevitably, laziness sways, and it is simply much easier to quantify how many authors published by a certain press have vaginas as opposed to penises, than it is to tease out the particulars that distinguish a masterpiece from a mediocrity.

The consequences? On the one hand, considering how many of the proverbial Dead White Males were themselves trivial, literarily speaking, what harm is there in adding a few more living, be-melanined, or female dull equivalents to their number? The other problem is a little subtler, based on not who gets to write, but what gets written about. Why should representation be aspirational? The idea that art has a duty to present some kind of wholesome moral message (nuance need not apply) seems omnipresent these days. Even putting aside the fact that it’s been proven throughout history that the greatest works tend to chafe against the pettier needs of their times—well. Yet an excellent poem (for example) can offer a vivid representation of life through being able to capture more of its layers and complexities than is possible through any other means. Enough talking about this. Let us look. […]

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A shot of Julie in Chantal Akerman's "Je tu il elle", depicting her head resting against a window as she looks meditatively at the viewer.

Leaving, Waiting, (Not) Doing: on Chantal Akerman’s “Je tu il elle” (1974)

The woman occupies an emptiness—spare furnishings, glass doors, a dingy bathroom—and it occupies her. There has been a separation, and an exile, likely self-imposed (“And then I left”). She arranges and re-arranges the furniture, lies in silence, disrobes and walks around naked. She writes letters to someone and, copying and re-copying, obsesses over their details. In her nakedness, she flirts with exhibitionism when a faceless man skirts the windows of her room. And she devours spoonfuls of sugar out of a bag, staring out the window, or at nothing, until the sugar is a pile on the floor.

There is activity, agency, even, but of a stifled and confused sort. More than once, the behavior shown onscreen contradicts the narration of her voice-over. They are small deceptions, but clear ones, and a nice touch of Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s to show the fickleness, the inner dissatisfaction, of the character.

I am largely unfamiliar with Akerman’s filmography, and Je tu il elle is my first of hers. I, of course, knew the name, even before the minor controversy surrounding Sound & Sight’s catapulting of her Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) to the No. 1 spot on their Greatest Films list. I’ve never seen that particular film myself, but critics I trust deem it a tedious mediocrity, so I came to Je tu il elle with my analytic hackles up, somewhat. […]

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A black and white photo of Piet Modrian set against one of his colorful yet lesser-known paintings eschewing parallel lines.

Transcendental Interviews: Piet Mondrian on Higher Beings & Inner Fascists

ETHAN PINCH: Some people find your artistic statements a little bewildering.

PIET MONDRIAN: Such as?

PINCH: Well, in 1943 you wrote: ‘Only now I become conscious that my work [sic] has been merely drawing in oil colour. In drawing, the lines are the principal means of expression. In painting, however, the lines are absorbed by the colour planes; but the limitations of the planes show themselves as lines and conserve their great value’.

MONDRIAN: And what’s the problem with that?

PINCH: Well, you’re using terms that are extremely narrow.

MONDRIAN: Perhaps, but the relationships I’m talking about are concrete. I’m pointing out that an apparently confined set of visual propositions is actually doing something.

PINCH: But it doesn’t seem very helpful in the way you’d expect of a normal artist’s statement. […]

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Poetic Pragmatism: on Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Shampoo”

Too often young writers fall into the nebulous trap of attempting to be philosophical or spiritual without any practicality to ground them. As example, it’s not uncommon to see young poets write about clichéd themes with indistinct language, as their verse falls within familiar, tired tropes ultimately resulting in some limp attempt at poetry. Again, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to approach a poem, mind you, but when starting out, it’s typically better to start small, e.g., write about how much you enjoy drinking a cup of coffee, or what you notice while on line at the grocery store, or simply the pleasure you feel (for the gluten tolerant) when eating a bagel. Furthermore, it is important to keep mindful that all these pedestrian events can be philosophical if rendered well.

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is regarded as a 20th-century poetic darling, who wrote much in the same vein as Marianne Moore, albeit less cerebral. Despite her thin output, Bishop managed to create several successful poems evoking a child-like eye, such as “The Map,” “The Moth-Man,” “The Moose,” “Questions of Travel,” and “In the Waiting Room,” among others. Her verse can be gentle and comforting, unpretentious and inviting, with all the while her narrative unfolding quietly and uniquely. Readers should be encouraged to study her Complete Poems (again, a thin output compared to many other poets), but her poetic approach can nonetheless offer some aid to the otherwise lost, disillusioned writer. […]