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A stylized image of David Sedaris, American humorist and author of "Holidays on Ice". The original photo was taken by Harald Krichel.

Looking A Gift Book In The Mouth: On David Sedaris’s “Holidays On Ice”

Books are the best gifts, of course; however, the giving of a book can be a fraught experience if the recipient is not necessarily a devout reader. Yet there are times when gifts are also a sign of appreciation, a requirement in the social contract. In our times now, certain considerations must be made, and presenting a host with a gift card or a half-vinegar bottle of wine do not make the strong statement of being the most appreciative of the guests, the best guest, discrete but intimate. Books are quite intimate, as any reader who is a real reader knows, and giving a beloved book to a beloved friend is apple-pie-easy. Sometimes, though, the gift must be made to someone not so loved, maybe, someone who endlessly offends sensitivities, laughs loudly while others cringe—then David Sedaris is for you.

The required gift is usually associated with two holidays—the birthdays of friends and Christmas. Regardless of whatever spiritual beliefs a body might have, gifts are expected at Christmas. Fret ye not, good gentlemen, David Sedaris’s Holidays on Ice (1997) will serve you well as the gift book for people you aren’t sure you like. Although Sedaris is enough of a darling of New York City that multiple reviews are hidden behind the New York Times paywall, a review by Alexandra Bowman in DC Theater Arts (Nov. 2022) poses a conundrum—Sedaris as both “someone who writes for highbrow literati and presents himself as one” as well as being someone who presents “commentary on cultural issues [that] left a bitter taste in my mouth”. She further states that “some of the most memorable stories Sedaris told on stage framed women or people of color as the individuals we’re supposed to laugh at.” While some people might hold the view that this is punching down, and certainly cultural shifts effect what is comedic acceptability, Sedaris revealed that his goal is not particularly the social change sought by pure comedians such as Carlin, but motivated by “members of a secret society founded on self-loathing” (Naked, 85). Caustic authors are no surprise to experienced readers, and Sedaris’s pattern of trochaic language gives the impression of simple declarative sentencing. […]

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A stylized shot of the protagonist watching a lightning storm in David Lynch "The Straight Story".

Beauty in the Ordinary: David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” (1999)

Have you ever watched a film that made you wonder where it has been all these years? Alright, perhaps I do recall when this came and went in the theatres—I think the poster looks familiar, but admittedly, this isn’t the sort of film I would have gone to see at the time of its release. Furthermore, this has to be the most un-David Lynch film of David Lynch films, and yet the narrative is so simple and the character development is so good that I am left scratching my head. Sure, David Lynch is a director with talent enough to at least acquire obsessive fans—and I have seen several of his films, including Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive, and others. It’s not so much that any of his films are bad per se, just dull.

Granted, Lynch’s narratives tend to veer on ‘weirdness’ and ‘random shit’ happening just so someone can say how much ‘weirdness’ and ‘random shit’ happens, all the while neglecting to mention the lack in character development and arid dialogue. Honestly, I can’t say I have ever connected with any of Lynch’s characters, and I remain adamant when I say that having weird shit happen for the sake of weird shit happening offers an easy way to distract from shallow character development much in the same way that forced politics in bad art attempts to distract from clichés. But I digress. […]

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A stylized photo of African American poet Robert Hayden, in sepia tones, wearing his trademark thick eyeglasses under a cloudy sky.

READ THIS POET: Four Poems by Robert Hayden

If there is one common denominator that remains imperative when applied to literature and poetry specifically, it is the demonstration of craft. After all, anyone can write a political screed, but that doesn’t mean such a work is well rendered. Rather, to be presented with a skilled mind that has not only put great thought into each line but also has consideration for the reader—well, this makes all the difference. Thankfully, Robert Hayden was this sort of poet and person. An African American who grew up in the slums of Detroit, Michigan, he spoke adamantly of not wanting to neglect his history and experience, nor to be limited by either. Much of his career seemed to involve a need for his own identity—to write what he wanted, rather than what activists might have expected of him. ‘There is no black poetry or white poetry, there is only American poetry,’ Hayden states in this interview, dated March 1975, wherein he also notes his opposition to the way Black writing is presented—that is, as sociological works rather than literature.

Much of Hayden’s poetry found online are his more historical leaning poems involving the Black experience, e.g., “Middle Passage,” “Frederick Douglas,” “The Whipping,” and “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” among others (including his great boyhood classic, “Those Winter Sundays”). However, this essay will not be discussing any of those wonderful poems. Rather, I wish to address those poems involving his more personal experiences, as well as how he used nature observation for his distillation. Why should these fine works be overlooked? Alas, one such poem is “Ice Storm”. […]

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A stylized shot of actor Jesse Plemons wearing fatigues, red sunglasses, and a rifle in Alex Garland's "Civil War".

America Falls Flat: on Alex Garland’s “Civil War” (2024)

Alex Garland’s Civil War has already generated a decent amount of controversy not long into its US release—at least as much as its producers surely intended it to. It is an election year, after all, and with a not unsignificant number of Americans worried about the possibility of there being another civil war on the horizon, it is no wonder A24 would support Garland (the two having previously partnered on his 2022 gender-parable Men) to draw audiences whose grimmer curiosities might be piqued by an English auteur’s take on American self-evisceration, ideological or otherwise. Much of this controversy stems from dissenters’ claims that showing such a film now would be to irresponsibly stoke either viewers’ anxieties or their potential aggressions.

The film, however, for all its purported untimeliness, is too evasive, too pointedly nonpartisan, for these concerns to hold water. The title will likely evoke, for its US audiences, the war between the Union and the Confederacy in the 1860s, but its usage is more about the concept as such than about any particular instantiation. Garland, in simply transplanting the scenes that have played out and are still playing out in stages all across the developing world to the streets of New York City and Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C., seeks to explode any remaining “It Can’t Happen Here” sentiments without committing himself to any specific political stance. Not any, at least, stronger than a traditional, almost nostalgic, belief in the need for our institutions (government, economic structures, the media, etc.) to be safeguarded from the ravages of internecine conflict. […]

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Three side-by-side self-portraits by Jean Siméon Chardin

On Chardin: Greatness in Mediocrity

There’s hardly enough love and understanding for Chardin. It’s not a look that screams ‘genius’ or ‘radicality’. Such might be held against him—his lack of glamour. His ill-preparedness for survival.

Yet Chardin hasn’t been without his share of admirers. The encyclopaedist, Denis Diderot, wrote prolifically on his work. Manet, Braque and Matisse all cite Chardin as a major influence. And Cezanne, in his own typical way, praised him in a letter as an ‘artful devil’.

In life, Chardin was a time-tenured salon academician and businessman, with a permanent residence at the Louvre and a state pension. But he was also, for all his sophistication and studio-training, a functional illiterate who rarely left the city of Paris. There’s little evidence to suggest that he was any kind of intellectual or possessed a coherent aesthetic programme. It would simply appear that he painted what he thought would sell, and what could best showcase his talents. […]

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A stylized image of American Jewish painter Gladys Goldstein working on an art collage.

Feminine Touch: on Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore’s “Touching the Art”

To be a woman in the modern world is to be an acrobat of social expectations. In contemporary times, gender is such an eager subject that some cultures reveal the biological formations of flesh while the forthcoming infant is still in the womb. Women do have wombs, but a woman is more than her womb. When a woman wills herself to be more than her womb, she runs directly into her culture’s social expectations. For those who were born women, these social expectations are inculcated from the first gulp of air when they are gendered. The processes by which little girls are educated in their gender roles extends beyond dolls versus cars. Recent conversations about readily recalled moments of their girlhood from adult women include an attention to their hair not given to brothers (the pincurl for Christmas), required domestic tasks (Mom and I cleaned, the boys went outside), the presence of dresses and other diminutive replications of gender-specific adult costuming. This is so entrenched in our social expectations that we are surprised at any scrutiny of them.

When a woman wants to be more than a womb, she will bump up against these social expectations, these invisible Rules. Some of the interaction with the Rules will be external—her healthcare institutions, educational institutions, and geography will do much to influence how she moves about in the physical world. Her rights as a sentient being, as a citizen, will include these external interactions. If a woman thinks she can be someplace, it is because she was educated to do so, she was permitted to do so, or she fought to do so. Contemporary culture has stories galore of the first woman to do something, and how now many women can and how girls can aspire. […]

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A stylized shot from Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin", depicting an alien (Scarlett Johansson), in profile, at the beach.

Through the Void: on Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” (2013)

Jonathan Glazer might not be the greatest director still active, but his filmography is surprisingly varied, considering how relatively few films he’s made compared to the other top dogs in the business. His third film, Under the Skin, further estranges itself from the others in terms of its subject matter, and while it may be his weakest film (particularly in light of its finale) it still bears an unmistakable Glazer imprint, and, like Birth, manages to carry itself most of the way through in spite of an outlandish premise.

But not so outlandish, really. We’ve seen alien sci-fi before, but what distinguishes Under the Skin from other such movies is its distinct style. There is an almost Kubrickian detachment from its genre elements, an arthouse stylization that mixes a strong sense of formalism with authentic guerilla filmmaking.

Now, I’ve never been the biggest Scarlett Johansson admirer, and that’s not because I think she’s a bad actor—on the contrary, I’ve only ever seen her be passable to good. Maybe it’s simply due to the fact that I watched a lot of those Marvel blockbusters and I’m used to her being utilized as kickass eye-candy and not much else. […]

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Stylized shot of David Dastmalchian speaking to a live audience in Cameron and Colin Cairnes's "Late Night with the Devil".

Eyes on the Dream: David Dastmalchian in “Late Night with the Devil” (2023)

I often joke about how I enjoy horror films as ‘light entertainment.’ Well, it’s not a joke really, as I do view them as light entertainment, which in turn, results in a bemused expression from the listener. But they are light entertainment! However, what I mean is that I enjoy them for their attempts at suspense and eeriness more so than for anything intellectual, as the best horror will be able to at least build the viewer’s curiosity without resorting to clichéd jump scares and gore.

This is how I felt watching Cameron and Colin Cairnes’s Late Night with the Devil, starring David Dastmalchian as Jack Delroy, a 1970s talk show host for the late-night fictional variety show Night Owls. The show, mirroring many of the variety hours throughout the 1970s, can’t seem to reach Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show ratings. And while I do not find the film scary, it is at least clever in its delivery. With the orange carpet and the multi-colored striped set, the filmmakers did an excellent job detailing this era—combining character sketches, spinning wheels, channel interruptions, and words from their sponsors. While initially successful, over the years Night Owls’s ratings begin to drop, which resorts to Jack desperately pandering to more Jerry Springer-type routines. […]