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A still shot from Andrei Tarkovsky's "Mirror" (Zerkalo) (1975)

Contained In Captivity: On Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” (Zerkalo)

I open this essay unsure how to approach it—I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film Mirror about a dozen times, and each viewing is different. Each is a separate experience and yields something new. I find myself mentally revisiting certain scenes over others, but then in rewatching, my mind will rearrange into whatever I am feeling at the time. Perhaps, then, this is the best way to interpret this memorable film about memory, where it captures just how the mind drifts between past and present and often interchanges people’s faces with that of one’s dream. Reality and dream—is there a difference? To Tarkovsky, they are one and the same, as the director admitted that he often utilized his own dreams as an inspirational source for his films. And his films really are the closest one could get into being inside another’s dream. Decades pass in moments and then the past returns and then some occurrence in present day alters the viewers—we come to remember another’s memory and so on.

The film begins with a television screen—this gateway into fantasy—where the viewer, presumably the speaker (named Alexei), is witnessing on film a young man with a stutter—he is undergoing treatment at the hand of a nurse, and the film, which involves so much of the mind, begins with the body. ‘Your hands are tense,’ she says. ‘Lean back,’ she instructs, continually coaching his physical form. Then, in some hypnotic attempt, the young man is cured of his stutter, wherein we are then transported to another form of ‘hypnosis’— that is, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s dream. All this occurs before the title credits roll.

Margarita Terekhova is the actress who plays both Alexei’s mother as well as his ex-wife, Natalia. ‘I always thought you resembled my mother,’ he tells her. ‘When I imagine my mother, she always has your face.’ This is an insightful move on Tarkovsky’s part, as how often have we thought of someone only to imbue another’s face from memory onto them? That the scenes move back and forth between Alexei as a boy in 1935 pre-war to that of present day, only adds to this element of passage. Life and time are interchangeable. Our minds are just the onlookers, the photographers left to interpret what we’ve witnessed. […]

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A screenshot of the protagonist from Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven"

The Grace of Spectacle: On Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” (2005)

Straight out of the gate: Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven is not a great film. It’s not near-great. It’s not even that good. It is seriously flawed and oftentimes disappointing. However, I argue that despite its flaws, Kingdom of Heaven is not garbage, nor even very bad. My judgment: Kingdom of Heaven is a so-so film with a weak screenplay, subpar acting from its male lead, and some glimmers of what could have been a great film. I also argue that although many rightfully skewer the film for its historical inaccuracies, historical in/accuracy is not the end-all-be-all criteria for evaluating historical films. In addition, I argue that the film’s saving grace is its look, and Ridley offers the viewer enough of a spectacle that Kingdom of Heaven rises just above the murk, however stained.


It is 1184. The film opens in a gloomy, miserable France, where we are introduced to Balian (Orlando Bloom), the protagonist. He is the resident blacksmith, ex-soldier, as well as a widower (his wife having committed suicide after the death of their infant) and wears an “expression” of bleak, handsome indifference which may or may not alter in minute degrees during this three-hour-long epic. He has a half-brother (Michael Sheen), a sniveling, greedy priest, who wants Balian’s property for himself. He half-asses the burial of Balian’s wife, which will later prove his undoing.

The events of Kingdom of Heaven are kicked off by the arrival of a crusader named Baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) with a cohort of other warriors, including a Hospitaler (David Thewlis). Godfrey reveals himself to be Balian’s father, and asks him to join their journey back to the Holy Land. Balian refuses, and the crusaders leave. Miffed by Balian’s stolidity, his brother admits to beheading the corpse of his wife, the “true” punishment for a suicide, in an effort to enrage Balian into leaving. Of course, it backfires, and Balian murders him via impalement and burning. […]

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Three images of Carl Sandburg, including a bust of the poet.

The Grit and Dirt of Carl Sandburg (Four Poems Analyzed)

The first time I read Carl Sandburg I was in high school wherein the words, ‘Hog Butcher for the world,’ composed the first line of text, which is of course the first line to his famous poem “Chicago”. I recall not knowing what to make of the poem upon my teenaged read, as I always preferred to reexamine poetry multiple times. But I always remembered it. The poem puts me in mind of Upton Sinclair’s well-known novel The Jungle, which is also set in Chicago, and both Sandburg and Sinclair share a love for exposing the political underbelly of culture. It has been argued that Sandburg is a Neglected Poet in that, while his reputation is not obscure, it perhaps should be grander than it is.

At his best, Carl Sandburg is an excellent poet that does not steer away from the grit and dirt of life—the life of the struggling poor, or just his love of city and nature. At his worst, he can at times veer into preaching cliché (however minimally) and his lesser poems don’t hold the heft as those of someone like Robinson Jeffers or Wallace Stevens. But while Jeffers and Stevens are more philosophical, Sandburg is more social. […]

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A simulated, dramatized seppuku ritual in Japan, which the author contrasts with wokeness

Our Age of Atonement: Seppuku, Sarah’s House, and Wokeness

The Winchester Repeating Arms Company made about 720,000 copies of  the .44-.40 Winchester rifle and carbines between 1873 and 1923. It killed a lot of people; it was the “gun that won the West”; Jimmy Stewart had one in a movie; it was a legend. The Winchester Company made a lot of guns and made a lot of money for Oliver Fisher Winchester, and when he died in 1880, he left his estate to his wife Sarah, an estate worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which she needed when she moved West from New Haven.

Her daughter died of a wasting disease, and with her husband’s death, one can only imagine her heartbreak and depression. A medium, supposedly channeling her late husband, told her to move and continually build a home for herself and all the spirits made incorporeal by Winchester weapons. By way of expiation for past wrongs, building a house is not in the same class as disemboweling oneself, yet Sarah was no samurai, but a heartbroken widow.

When she moved, bought land in San Jose, California, and proceeded to use a part of her vast fortune to build…and build….and build. Originally seven stories before the 1906 quake (now just four). The house is a hodge-podge of architectural wonderments, with windows overlooking other rooms, stairs which don’t go anywhere, much less to Heaven, and odd-sized risers for the staircases. It is expiation in Queen Anne, Late Victorian style. It is hara-kiri with hammers, paint and nails. […]

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Mountain vista of Iceland, where Halldor Laxness wrote "Independent People"

The Little Flower: Discussing “Independent People” by Halldor Laxness (1934, 1935)

Independent People (or, Sjálfstætt fólk) by Nobel-laureate Halldor Laxness is difficult to classify for me on the axis of x = literary quality and y = political statement. Usually favouring one arm of the axis means a sharp decline in the other, and the whole discussion in favour of y tends to be from white men who still wear skinny jeans, performatively love Maya Angelou and think we should move towards a “resource-based economy” but can’t really explain why.

Often the discussion in favour of y makes the case that cultural expression is the battleground of mass opinion, and that an artwork’s political thrust should move society towards a more progressive bent. To them I would point out that most people who voted for Trump probably loved Star Wars, a series of movies about fighting Nazis.

However, this leaves me in a difficult position when talking about one of my favourite books, because on the surface it’s very political! In this way it’s similar to The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck, a book it shares many qualities with, not least the quality of succeeding at being art (arting?) while having pronounced political elements.

But there have been novels about going down an escalator, a man locked in his house sampling various sensory experiences, a man completing jigsaws, and a novel about crawling through infinite mud. Subject is mostly unimportant in any serious discussion about quality. It’s a success simply by using political elements knowingly and with intent; as an inciting incident in the case of Grapes, and as an unstoppable force in Independent People. […]

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Eve Babitz, naked, and Marcel DuChamp, clothed, play chess in public.

Naked Chess: A Meeting of Hearts and Minds (Eve Babitz, Marcel Duchamp)

This is a picture of Eve Babitz playing chess with Marcel Duchamp (she’s the one with no clothes) in the Pasadena Art Museum ( now the Norton Simon Museum).  She was a 20 year-old L.A. community college student in 1963, already a prominent player in the Hollywood, glamour, party scene.  He was, well, he was 76 year-old Marcel Duchamp—the man who painted the amazing, kinetic “Nude Descending A Staircase” (1912), the man who placed a urinal in an art exhibit, the man who put a mustache on the Mona Lisa with the title, L.H.O.O.Q., which, when said quickly, and the French letters are said phonetically, sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul” (“she has a hot ass”  or “hot in the ass”, a French vulgarism referring to a woman’s prediliction for sexual adventurism).  Duchamp was very fond of puns and wordplay and this is one which has been living in infamy for a long time.  He was considered, along with Matisse and Picasso, as one of the three artists who helped define the revevolutionary developments in the plastic arts at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

Eve Babitz was very fond of, apparently, everything.  She referred to her lifesyle more than once as “over-boogie.’  If you saw  the movie “Boogie Nights” you have a small ideas of her larger life. She lived hard and fast, from a smouldering kiss, at 14 years of age, from Johnny Stompanato (an “afilliate” of the Cohen crime family in Los Angeles, and before he was stabbed to death by Lana Turner’s daughter) in  in his car, to Jim Morrison of The Doors, to Harrison Ford, to Steve Martin (to whom she suggested that famous white suit), to many others.  But she wasn’t just a party girl with a wild and restless spirit, but an accomplished author, with a sharp eye and felicitous writing style of fiction and non-fiction (I loved her “Slow Days, Fast Company”). Her  millieu was the 60s and 70s in L.A., Hollywood, and vicinity—here was Igor Stravinsky’s goddaughter hobnobbing with the glitterati and having a grand old time—her very own, willful time.  In her Introduction to her wonderful essays, “I used to Be Charming,” there is this quote at the top of the first page: […]

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A sculpture with a quote from Gwendolyn Brooks

Choosing Wisely: A Case For Gwendolyn Brooks (4 Poems)

Poetry is a fascinating art because there are so many ways to succeed (and likewise fail). As example, a Gwendolyn Brooks poem succeeds differently from that of a Yeats, Rilke or Crane. She manages to capture the ‘ordinary’ and insert it into a form or rhyme most memorable. She somewhat resembles Hazel Hall in this way. While very different poets in their own right, both Brooks and Hall tackle the average and everyday in such a way that is insightful and memorable. They both contain phrasings that ‘hook’ readers, leaving us longing for more. Kurt Vonnegut, with his spare, poetic writing of Saab dealers and Holiday Inns within Midland, Ohio—the dullest city imaginable—might be the prose equivalent.

I don’t recall the first time I read Gwendolyn Brooks, but I can say that there isn’t an instance when I didn’t know her work. (I believe I read ‘We Real Cool’ for the first time in high school.) The first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize (back when they meant something and went to writers of quality), she has since cemented herself as an important writer within American Letters. Her verse is clever and musical—wherein her poems possess great synergy. Seemingly plainspoken, yet intricate and intelligent, her verse tugs with her deft pull of words. A master of sonnets and couplets, her rhymes are natural and internal—they move with the reader.

Now, onto the poems. […]

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A still from Shohei Imamura's The Insect Woman

On Shohei Imamura’s “The Insect Woman” (1963): Cycles, Transitions, Ellipses

The first time I watched Shohei Imamura’s 1963 classic The Insect Woman, it took me a few seconds to understand why its strange ending works. As there were only two or three minutes of the film left, I kept looking at its runtime, thinking “How the hell will this movie end?”, and then it did.

It ends in an ellipsis, but not the sort of cliffhanger one would normally think. It is not like the one closing Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which immediately makes sense, as there is a hovering hint of disaster that would be missed were that film “resolved”. Instead, The Insect Woman ends where one would least expect it; in the middle of a long walk the main character is taking. Not only does there not seem to be a logical conclusion to the events in the narrative, but there is no closure at an emotional level, neither.

The reason such an ending works is that Shohei Imamura’s film is about cycles, found between generations, without origin or completion. Were the film to conclude more traditionally, its themes would not be as hard-hitting as they are. Life does not have beginnings or endings as much as it has “transitions”, and although Imamura’s film is, like all art, artifice, it commits to framing this reality. It may be because of this commitment that, although the film sometimes seems like a stream of tragedies in the life of its main character, it never overwhelms nor devolves into melodrama. […]