Fixing History

Joshua Oppenheimer Screens His Groundbreaking The Act of Killing at IU Cinema ● by Brandon Walsh

War crimes are defined by the winners. I’m a winner, so I can make my own definition.

—Adi Zulkadry

How much of history is fixed, and how can we fix it? Joshua Oppenheimer approaches these questions in The Act of Killing, a frightening up-earthing of one of the largest killings in human history, retold by the men who committed the acts.

[Image atop this post: Director Joshua Oppenheimer.]

Following an attempted 1965 military coup, newly appointed Indonesian dictator Suharto responded with the massacre of at least 500,000 people labeled as communists. Political dissidents, union leaders, landless farmers, intellectuals, ethnic Chinese, and teachers, among others associated with the opposing party, were targeted and killed by the Pancasila Youth party, the Indonesian paramilitary assembled by Suharto. The U.S. government financially backed the insurgents, providing the resources (including weapons) to complete hit lists of identified targets.

Suharto elicited the help of local gangsters known for selling movie tickets on the black market, using the theaters as the base for their operations. These “movie theatre gangsters” were further motivated by a recent boycott of American films; the head of the Motion Picture Association of Indonesia was believed to be a CIA operative attempting to overthrow President Sukarno. Capitalizing on the gangsters’ love of American movies, they were authorized by Suharto to kill, effectively eradicating the grassroots base of the Indonesian left for generations.

Forty-five years later, the gangsters who carried out these killings survive, celebrated in their country as war heroes, happy and open to discuss their glory days. This is where The Act of Killing begins.

The film, a product of five years and 1200 hours of shooting, follows Anwar Congo, a flamboyant character who has an affinity for the films of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and most of all, John Wayne. Anwar recalls leaving the movies, dancing across the street to the building where they would use killing methods learned from American films. As he gleefully reminisces about his youth, Anwar and his accomplices create more elaborate reenactments, further showing their love for Hollywood spectacle. The result is a documentary that leaves its audience equally puzzled and horrified.

From "The Act of Killing"

Anwar Congo Dances The Cha Cha

Three years before filming, Oppenheimer found that while he was able to freely speak with the perpetrators of the crimes, the Indonesian military would intervene when he attempted to interview the surviving victims. At first defeated, he was encouraged by the local survivors to continue filming the killers. Oppenheimer speaks of the local support for exposing the genocide, “We need a film that exposes for Indonesians themselves … the nature of the regime in which they’re living, things that they already know, but have been too afraid to say … so that we can now articulate them without fear.”

This articulation comes from Anwar himself, hoping that he will leave his legacy by creating the film (especially for his grandchildren, with whom he’s shown watching the footage). Anwar succeeds, but not in the manner he intends. In a breathtaking scene, Anwar’s neighbor tells the story of how as a young boy he found his stepfather murdered, was forced to bury his body, and was soon disenfranchised to a slum where he had to teach himself to read and write. The men at the table, implicitly responsible for his strife, are forced to uncomfortably listen.

From "The Act of Killing"

Congo And His Grandchildren

In this way the film meditates on acting, action, and the human performance of violence. Early in the film, Anwar demonstrates on a rooftop how he killed over a thousand people. Moments later, he dances the cha-cha. As Anwar’s relives more of his past, the staging of his reenactments become more fantasized, a projection of his tortured dreams. When describing his pain, one of Anwar’s fellow executioners consoles him, dismissing the guilt he feels over the killings as a neurological disorder.

The film questions what impact the truth has now, generations removed from the killings. One reenactment involves an elaborate burning of a village, using dozens of extras. When one of the killers yells to cut the scene, he tries in vain to comfort a crying child, explaining that what she sees is not real. To an audience knowledgeable of the reality, this moment is especially chilling. Adi, a member of the death squad, questions the possible outcome of the film “succeeding,” saying, “Not everything true should be made public…. It’s not a problem for us. It’s a problem for history.”

In one of the final scenes, Anwar revisits the roof where he killed (afraid his white pants he was wearing before weren’t intimidating enough). Instead of laughing and dancing the cha-cha, he doubles over in disgust, attempting to vomit.

The Act of Killing approaches powerful and unpunished men, allowing them to put themselves on trial through the creative interpretation of their own memories. The act of watching the film is a surreal, painfully therapeutic experience, a piece that holds oppressors accountable and is equipped to recalibrate a national consciousness.

Joshua Oppenheimer will be present for the IU Cinema’s screening of The Act of Killing on Thursday, March 6, at 7:00pm. He will discuss the film and accept audience questions. He will lead a lecture earlier in the day at 3:00pm. The event is sponsored by Union Board Films and the IU Cinema.

[Brandon Walsh is an undergraduate senior studying and producing films at Indiana University.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

Photo Caption: Indonesian gangster Anwar Congo (left) dances the cha-cha on a roof where he killed over a thousand people in 1965 (Drafthouse Films)

Photo Caption: Congo watches the staged reenactments of his killings with his two grandchildren (Drafthouse Films)

Photo Caption: Director Joshua Oppenheimer (photo credit: metro.us)

Peter Bogdanovich

In the Vanguard of the New Hollywood ● by Craig J. Clark

In the lead-up to legendary film producer/director Roger Corman’s visit to Indiana University in April, the IU Cinema is presenting a series of double features by some of the more successful graduates of what is known colloquially as the “Corman School” of filmmaking. Their ranks include such luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Joe Dante, John Sayles, and James Cameron, but the first one to really make a big name for himself in Hollywood was Peter Bogdanovich, who was eager to move from writing about films to making his own when he went to work for Corman in the mid-’60s.

Bogdanovich’s first job was as production assistant on 1966’s The Wild Angels, which found him filling a number of roles (including getting thrown into a melee with the actors playing bikers — and the bikers playing at being actors) and impressing Corman enough to earn him the opportunity to direct his first feature. Corman had just two stipulations: Bogdanovich had to use footage from Corman’s 1963 film The Terror, and he only had Boris Karloff for two days since that’s all the work the star owed Corman on an old contract. Bogdanovich quickly developed a story with his wife Polly Platt (with an uncredited assist from iconoclast director Samuel Fuller) about an aging horror movie actor named Byron Orlok who is retiring because the kinds of films he’s known for (like The Terror) no longer scare audiences. As a counterpoint, they also followed a disturbed young man named Bobby Thompson, patterned after Charles Whitman, who methodically gathers a cache of firearms — and it’s not so he can go deer hunting on the weekends. The result, 1968’s Targets, remains one of the best “calling cards” Hollywood has ever been presented with.

“I know they will get me, but there will be more killing before I die.”

The first half of Targets is a slow build as Orlok shirks off his responsibilities, alienating studio executives, his lovely assistant, and hot young director Sammy Michaels (played by Bogdanovich), who has written “a hell of a picture” for him. Meanwhile, Bobby (Tim O’Kelly) buys a high-powered rifle, drives past the refinery where he’s going to set up shop the next day, and spends a seemingly normal evening with his family. (When he gets home, there’s a commercial about the late-night movie on TV, which just so happens to be Anatomy of a Murder.) At one point, he goes to a shooting range with his domineering father and even gets the old man in his sights, but Bobby loses his nerve and gets dressed down for his lapse. No wonder he waits until the next day, when his father is at work, to start his killing spree, gunning down his wife and mother, as well as the grocery boy who picked a bad time to make a delivery.

Karloff & Bogdanovich

Boris Karloff and Bogdanovich on the set of Targets.

At about the same time Bobby is cleaning up his mess, Orlok and Sammy, who stayed up late drinking together, regain consciousness and Orlok reluctantly agrees to make the drive-in appearance. This is followed by one of the most harrowing sequences in the film. In broad daylight, Bobby climbs up to the top of a tower by the highway, lays out all of his rifles and handguns, and calmly starts shooting at the cars driving past. It’s only after police arrive on the scene that he flees, winding up at the drive-in theater, where he lays low waiting for it to get dark. Then, while The Terror unspools and Orlok waits to go on, Bobby begins firing at the gathered crowd, thus confronting the outmoded horror star with real-life terror. It’s a chilling climax no matter how prepared you think you may be for it. Bobby’s last line, after he’s subdued, is “Hardly ever missed, did I?”

“Won’t be much to do in town with the picture show closed.”

After the twin assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., audiences weren’t prepared to embrace Targets when it was first released in 1968, but it went on to win a cult audience and the attention of Bogdanovich’s would-be peers. Some of the latter were Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blauner, whose BBS Productions bankrolled his 1971 follow-up The Last Picture Show, which probably would have taken home Best Picture that year if it hadn’t been for The French Connection. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, who collaborated on the screenplay with Bogdanovich, the film is best seen in its director’s cut (included in Criterion’s America Lost and Found: The BBS Story set), which adds some shading to its depiction of a small North Texas town in decline.

Shepherd & Bogndanovich

With Shepherd On The Set Of The Last Picture Show

The Last Picture Show is the kind of film that changes depending on how old one is when they see it. If you’re college-age or younger, you’re more likely to relate to the characters played by Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Randy Quaid. As you get older, though, identifying with the characters played by Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Eileen Brennan and Clu Gulager will give you a much different perspective on the events in the film. Then there’s Ben Johnson’s turn as Sam the Lion (a powerful performance that earned him a well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), who so thoroughly embodies the soul of Anarene, Texas, that a great deal of its life and vitality dies out along with him.

“I think a slight mistake has been made somewhere.”

How much enjoyment one gets out of 1972’s What’s Up, Doc? is almost entirely dependent on how much leeway you’re willing to give Bogdanovich to recreate a style of comedy that was already several decades out of date when he decided to take a swing at it. A romantic screwball comedy that’s chock full of door-slamming, suitcase-swapping, and identity-assuming, it pairs up Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand as, respectively, a nebbishy musicologist in San Francisco for a conference and the born troublemaker who gloms onto him and refuses to let go. As exasperating as this is for the absent-minded O’Neal, it’s even more distressing for his high-strung fiancée (Madeline Kahn, making a whopper of a screen debut), who quickly finds herself displaced by the wily Streisand.

In the interest of making things as confusing as possible, screenwriters Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton (working from a story by Bogdanovich) toss four identical plaid overnight cases into the mix that two sets of people are after for different reasons. (It all starts with one, though, which contains top-secret government documents that whistle-blower Michael Murphy plans to leak to the press. Sound familiar?) There’s also the intense competition for a $20,000 grant being awarded by young philanthropist Austin Pendleton, which O’Neal’s unscrupulous rival Kenneth Mars aims to steal out from under him, and Randy Quaid returns from The Last Picture Show as a fellow musicologist watching from the sidelines. As one might expect, the whole shebang culminates in a madcap chase up and down the hills of San Francisco that goes on for quite a while and lands everyone concerned in court, where everything finally gets sorted out. To hear O’Neal tell it, though, it’s just as convoluted as it ever was.

“Just because a man meets a woman in a barroom don’t mean he’s your pa.”

The roll Bogdanovich got on with The Last Picture Show and What’s Up, Doc? (still his biggest commercial success) continued with 1973’s Paper Moon, his second black-and-white period piece. Set in the Midwest during the Great Depression, it stars Ryan O’Neal as a Bible-peddling con man who’s saddled with a nine-year-old girl who may or may not be his daughter (played by Tatum O’Neal, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her troubles) when he drops by her mother’s funeral to pay his respects. His first instinct is to get her out of his hair by putting her on a train, but she has other ideas. Furthermore, she proves to be right invaluable when she inserts herself into his con, which targets the recently widowed.

Something of a chip off the old block (if, in fact, she is a chip off his block), Tatum is so great with figures that she knows exactly how much money they have at any given moment. She also knows exactly what to do when voluptuous dancer Madeline Kahn joins them on the road and is an immediate drain on their bankroll. Together with Kahn’s teenage maid (the wonderfully deadpan P.J. Johnson), Tatum hatches a devious scheme that succeeds in getting rid of Kahn, but there’s no returning to business as usual for the maybe-father-and-daughter team.

From "Paper Moon"

Tatum & Ryan O’Neal In Paper Moon

Like What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon was photographed by László Kovács, who manages to make Depression-era Kansas look almost inviting. It was also Bogdanovich’s last film to have the benefit of Polly Platt’s impeccable production design work since they were divorced by the time it was released. Platt’s touch was definitely missed when he moved on to his adaptation of Henry James’s Daisy Miller the following year with his then-muse Cybill Shepherd in the leading role, but that, as they say, is a story for another time.

[Paper Moon and Targets will be screened at the IU Cinema on Saturday, March 15. Other double features in the “Hollywood Rebels: The Art and Legacy of Roger Corman” series include Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Corman’s The Terror (which Coppola worked on without credit) on Saturday, March 8, and Joe Dante’s Matinee and Piranha on Saturday, March 29.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

Boomers Manifesto

● by Ray Zdonek

I’m a baby boomer and I’m proud of it. For years I’ve been waiting to have someone write something positive about us, actually, ever since Tom Brokaw immortalized our predecessors in his best-selling The Greatest Generation, a book about that generation that grew up during the Great Depression and fought World War II. Yes, I’m on Medicare now and was quite surprised to find out that the Greatest Generation built a health plan for elders with gaps in it, such that I have to pay considerably more for a “gap” policy and a prescription plan than I do for Medicare itself. Worse, I have to buy these policies from private, profit-seeking insurance corporations. Why nobody is interested in correcting Medicare and removing the gap is totally beyond me. To get a halfway decent rate I had to join AARP, and so I receive that organization’s magazine every month, which often has helpful and informative articles; so when I saw an article advertised on the cover of the December 2013 issue called How the Boomers Changed America, I thought perhaps I had found a kindred spirit in the author, political writer and humorist P.J. O’Rourke. But, all he gave us credit for was being great consumers and in making our wars a little shorter in length. Well, Mr. O’Rourke, I beg to differ.

While the baby boomers may not be “great,” I maintain that we have been good for America, and in fact essential, if we are to save the planet from ecological disaster and/or socio-political totalitarianism. But wait…, I have proof! In fact, let me count the ways.

We could start anywhere, but let’s start with the basics — that is, health. In the 1950’s healthy, natural food and fitness were the purview of California health gurus like Jack LaLanne and some select athletes. Remember, baseball stars were doing ads for Lucky Strikes in Life magazine during this period. Knowledge of herbals existed only in certain Native American cultures and in America’s big-city Chinatowns. We discovered them, including the most notorious herb of all — marijuana, the scourge of a liquor industry that fought it tooth and nail. Now, with our encouragement, the society-at-large is starting to learn the herb’s medicinal qualities and put them to good use. If recreational consumption makes a person a little less competitive, combative, selfish, and stressed from overwork, I say that’s a good thing. Mindfulness meditation presents us with the same goals. Be here now — less is more. As for fitness, like a lot of my generation including Forrest Gump, I started running; for me it was in 1981 at the height of the jogging craze, and I continued on for thirty-plus years. That running explosion was us, too. And the mountain bikes, of course. We practically invented marathons and iron man competitions.

Take social interaction. We were the Jimi Hendrix generation, and racism was totally uncool with us. We white kids weren’t threatened by the blacks anymore, at least not without having a good reason. No, we began to see, especially working-class boomers like myself, how much we had in common with black Americans. This racial tableau played out against the backdrop of the carnage of the Vietnam War, which caused most of us to look left, rather than right, in the political arena. What else for a generation of idealists? I’m sure there were many among the World War II generation’s power elite that bitterly regretted educating so many of us, but the damage had indeed been done. We were living together out of wedlock and experimenting in communal living situations, black and white, rich and poor. By the time of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, the cat was already out of the bag. Egged on by Beat Generation pioneers like Allen Ginsberg, whom I started reading in junior high, we blasted the rigid conformity of the 1950’s: the dress codes and hypocritical churchgoing, the red-baiting and wife-beating, the segregation and disdain for minorities of all sorts. Primarily, we questioned authority, and many of us protested the war machine in Washington as well, saying we were not okay with the conformity, violence, complacency, and hypocrisy of Western Civilization in the  1950’s — we wanted to make the world a better place. And we knew it was possible. Nixon’s tapes reveal that the young protestors demonstrating outside the White House did, in fact, have an impact on the President. Who knows how many lives were saved, both American and Vietnamese, by those kids in the street? No, the World War II generation said that we spit on the soldiers coming back from the War, as they got off the plane. Except, that never happened — not once has it ever been documented.

It was probably inevitable that we boomers would explore spiritual dimensions, as well as political and social ones, especially after the introduction of psychotropic drugs like pot and LSD. What the World War II generation saw as hedonism and escapism was really more seeking than anything else, seeking to discover the essence of ourselves and our place in the universe. Yeah, and maybe even learning something about the meaning of life. We embraced the natural world, and enjoyed echoing earlier, simpler times with our grooming and dress. Some traditions, especially exotic ones, interested us, like Native American belief systems and Hinduism. Others directed those same energies into atheistic political groups instead, but always with the goals of peace and economic justice. Maybe they used the words “mind” or “heart”, instead of “soul”, but who’s to say they’re not the same thing.

The reconnection with nature is the crucial thing. Whether it’s mountain-biking for fun or getting arrested on a Greenpeace ship, the baby-boomers got it when it came to the natural world. The first Earth Day was in 1970, after all. We may be too far down the climate change road by now to prevent massive disruption to food supplies, water, and other resources, but if we survive, if we prevail, it will be in no small part the result of the boomers’ basic love of the earth, how we blew the whistle on the polluters and the exploiters, and how we taught our children to follow in our footsteps. Without us, all power today would likely be produced by coal and atomic fuel.

I’m not saying some of my generation didn’t sell out and go in with the World War II camp. Money talks — bullshit walks. Weekend hippies! I say. My friends haven’t changed too much, except for the wrinkles. They’re kind of on the left — by that, I mean they’d rather go to prison than vote for a Republican; they’re for things like Medicare for All, voting rights, a woman’s right to choose, living wage legislation — stuff like that. I think I have a lot of friends.

All in all, it’s been a grand ride so far. I wouldn’t choose any other time to live my life, even if I could. To those generations that have followed ours, I say sorry you missed it, for it was a special time of hope and courage, struggling for light, as we were, under the shadow of the Bomb. But it’s not too late for you to start your own fire, your own revolution; the challenges are great, and you are sorely needed. Just take a long look over that wall of mediocrity and despair, and boldly choose your path. Make history, sure — how could you not? But make it with intelligence and always with compassion.

[Ray Zdonek is a Bloomington poet and novelist. His most recent publication is The Killing Floor, from Amazon Kindle Books.]

The Ryder ● February 2014

Michael Swidler

The IU grad produced The Gabby Douglas Story ● by James Stout

She was the young girl who kept our eyes glued to the screen during the 2012 Summer Olympics.  This month her life story premiered on the Lifetime channel. The Gabby Douglas Story depicts the experiences that led her to become the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions. Sydney Mikayla portrays Gabby as a child and Imani Hakim from Everybody Hates Chris portrays her as an Olympic athlete.

Michael Swidler is an IU grad and a co-producer on the film. While in Bloomington he organized film festivals and directed and worked on many short films as well as radio and web-formatted television. After graduation he moved to LA, interned a few different places before taking a spot at Braun Entertainment Group as a development executive and assistant. James Stout spoke with him for The Ryder.

[Image atop this post: The real Gabby Douglas.]

James Stout: Was The Gabby Douglas story always intended as a made-for-television film?

Michael Swidler: The made-for-television film medium is getting a resurgence; it might be the best medium for this story. Although when I watch it now and see how good it is, I think “Man, if only we had made this a feature you know? But I think as far as getting a movie made and getting a movie made fast — we wanted this to be made relatively quickly — it takes on the average about eight years to get a feature film made. This film was a pretty quick turnover, a little over a year.

Stout: What are you working on now?

Swidler: We’ve got some great projects lined up for both the small screen and the big screen. I’ve been with the company for three years and this is the first project we’ve gotten going although we’ve had a couple of close calls, but it’s kind of how the business goes. We have projects that have been in development for seven years. We have projects that we have the rights to, like remake rights to a horror classic which we’ve been trying to make for over 30 years.

Stout: How has your experience at IU helped in your professional career?

Swidler: I think for me at Indiana, we didn’t have a film major which was okay. You know it allowed me to have four years to discover what it is I wanted to do, and it forced me to be patient and go through all the trial and errors of trying to be a business student and then being in Telecom, and then going from there as far as what aspect of telecommunications and the media I wanted to work in. It taught me that in four years you can truly figure out if you focus hard and you work hard towards it and you experience things, internships, jobs and all that stuff that goes into a four year period you can accomplish, and that is figuring out what the heck you want to do with your life. I’ve been out here in LA just over four years and, I am very thankful that I got the job that I got and that I’ve been able to experience what I’ve been able to experience.

Stout: What was it that made you want to work in the film industry?

Swidler: You know I’ve always been kind of a salesman — it’s always been my strength is being able to sell someone a scoop of ice-cream or a Cajun Étouffée over a bed of rice or a burger and fries. I’ve always been into movies.  It’s always been my escape. Some people read books. Some people start families. For me film represents a great temporary escape from reality at a not very expensive price. It’s story time. I like to sell people on stories.

The Ryder ● February 2014

Cinema Substitute

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Her ◆ by Brandon Walsh

With romantic drama driving so many mainstream Hollywood plots, it’s surprising that few care to chart the sordid trajectory of many romantic relationships. Audiences today generally know what they’re getting into when the terms “romantic comedy” and “romantic drama” appear, and the associations tend to be negative. I’d venture to say most Hollywood films are uncomfortable resolving heartbreak without a clearly defined material payoff, which usually comes in the form of sex with Jennifer Aniston.

Then there are films like Spike Jonze’s Her and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — two longitudinal studies of passionate males falling in and out of love in a near-future where technology romantically intervenes in ways both liberating and self-destructive.

In Her, Theodore Twombly falls in love with his operating system named Samantha, a sentient being with complex human emotions. Charlie Kaufman’s tightly scripted Eternal Sunshine questions whether it’s possible for Joel Barish to erase all memories, painful and joyous, of an extended relationship with a woman named Clementine using a fantasy version of electroshock therapy.

From "Her"

Theodore Twombly installs his OS (Samantha) in Her

Her follows a real relationship with fervent wit and sincerity, less concerned with science fiction formalism. Eternal Sunshine’s frantic structure tells a love story in reverse, beginning with heartbreak, rehashed arguments and lingering unhappiness, and traveling back through the moments of unbridled joy that come with the early stages of love. In Her, similar moments with his ex-wife torture Theodore, to the point that he purchases Samantha, a comfortable alternative to what has brought him unspeakable heartbreak.

The films implicitly comment on an age where many of us connect with one another through media, to the point that minor plot changes could ground the films in a realm of uncomfortable reality. The shock therapy of Eternal Sunshine could be replaced with deleting one’s online presence, a blinding to images and words loaded with personal and potentially romantic meaning. Samantha in Her could be replaced with a meaningful online bond with another, not having met in-person and facing the challenges at a vague distance. The more we become involved in the input of our own identity, the more technology challenges our standard measurements for intimacy.

The insatiable desire for companionship runs though the films, a quality unidentifiable as it is silently corrosive to the heart. In Her, Amy Adam’s character describes love as “a form of socially accepted insanity.” Gondry’s entire film plays with the idea of love as the result of brain damage. Yet, these jokes intend to describe the cultivation of romantic love as an intensely spontaneous, subjective human experience that can’t be replicated (as Samantha does) or easily defined (what I see as the defined and marketed intention of most romantic comedies). Theodore speaks with Samatha about the strangers he encounters throughout the day, saying, “I imagine how deeply they’ve fallen in love, or how much heartbreak they’ve been through.” It’s with this outward empathy that we’re able to care for Theodore, in a way audiences can feel distanced from Kaufman’s inward-thinking hero, one of the film’s two thoroughly-defined characters.

[Photo atop this post: Joel Barish’s memories of Clementine are erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.]

Both films hope to remind us to absolve the past in order to make new and meaningful relationships. When Joel and Clem fear they will face the same frustrations over again, they simply say, “Okay.” Likewise, Theodore is unable to escape the memory of his ex-wife. He writes to her, “I just want you to know that there’ll be a piece of you in me always.” Eternal Sunshine and Her portray relationships as a predictable affair, a story we’re bound to repeat, but are equipped to face their anxieties with honesty and compassion.

[Brandon Walsh is an undergraduate senior studying and producing film at Indiana University.]

The Ryder • February 2014

King Lear: Once Upon A Time In Britain

◆ by Tom Shafer

[IU Theatre’s resident dramaturg speaks with guest artist Henry Woronicz (pictured above) about his experience, past and present, with Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy.]

When one reads a brief introductory summary of the plot, the play almost seems like a fairy tale.  Shakespeare based King Lear upon his earlier drama, The True Chronicle History of King Leir and His Three Daughters, Gonorill, Ragan, and Cordella, published in 1605. In fact, late-19th century folklorists noted the parallels between King Leir’s Cordelia and Cinderella, which they classify, folklorically, as Type 501, “The Persecuted Heroine.”

Sooo, Once Upon a Time….

Lear, the King of Britain, having decided to retire, stages a kind of popularity contest among his three daughters: “How much to you love me?” he asks. Gonerill declares her deep love and admiration, and is awarded a portion of the kingdom. Regan, the next daughter to answer, tells him, “I love you as much as Gonerill, but more,” and is granted her portion.

King Lear turns to his youngest daughter, Cordelia, who says only “I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more nor less.” He erupts into rage and disinherits Cordelia, giving over her “share” of the country to Regan and Gonerill.

Appalled at Cordelia’s treatment, the Earl of Kent strongly objects and asks Lear to reconsider. For his troubles, he is banished from the kingdom. With his Fool and retinue of one hundred knights, Lear takes his retirement, planning to spend his time enjoying the perquisites of power and basking in the love professed by Gonerill and Regan.

Things do not go as planned, and Lear finds himself tolerated rather than revered. The unfortunate king is stripped of almost all his company: cursing both Gonerill and Regan, he finds himself abandoned on the heath, accompanied only by the disguised Kent and the wise Fool. A storm is coming up, and Lear, now as homeless as the poorest of his subjects, is sent into the rain and wind and madness.

King Lear is a rare Shakepearean tragedy with a double plot. Paralleling the story of “Lear and His Daughters” is that of the “Earl of Gloucester and His Two Sons,” the elder Edgar and the younger bastard Edmond. Edmond convinces Gloucester that Edgar plans to commit patricide, which results in Edgar’s exile into the very same heath (and storm) now occupied by Lear, the Fool, and Kent.

Tom Shafer: Why do you think Edgar is the hardest role in [King Lear]?

Henry Woronicz: Why do I think Edgar’s the hardest role in the play? Because half of what he says people don’t understand. He’s got all of that flibbertigibbet stuff. Half of what he says is kind of feigned madness. In Shakespearean times or terms or playwriting, he goes off into these cultural references that are from the thirteenth century. So it’s a tough one, he spends a lot of his character time in disguise. I think it’s a very tricky role, very difficult role. The part of King Lear, I think, is pretty straightforward.

TS: Is [Lear] mentally unstable from the start? Is he a foolish egomaniac? I guess the question is, here, before the rehearsals start: have you laid out a path for the character, or are you going to wait to see what happens?

HW: My general work method is to wait somewhat to see what happens. I’m certainly familiar with the play; I’ve been in it four times.

TS: Oh, have you done [the role of] Lear? 

HW: This is my first Lear. I’m a little young for Lear, you see. The tradition is that you always get a couple under your belt while you can still play it. I think you’ve outlined the two major tracks that you have to choose from: he’s either just a mean, cantankerous S.O.B. from the beginning, which he partly is, but it’s always seemed to me, from the text, that there’s something going on inside him already. His daughters mention that, that he’s become forgetful. And there’s that lovely scene, right after he left Goneril in a huff, and he and the Fool are on the road, and he seems to be talking about Cordelia when he says, “I did her wrong.” He doesn’t really reference who the ‘her’ is, but you get some sense of that. And the Fool is trying to kind of coax him a little bit into smiling and maybe learning something about what he’s going through, and Lear also says at that point, “Let me not be mad, let me not be mad. Keep me in my right mind, I would not be mad.” I think that’s always been a significant moment for me because it seems to be fairly early on in the play, and he has an awareness that something is slipping in his mind. Something’s slipping. I think that’s kind of there from the beginning.

TS: And it’s fearful. I mean, you have to search for that sense of desperation.

HW: Yeah, exactly. But I think those are the two big choices for the Lear track in the beginning. And Lear, like a lot of the major tragic characters, then becomes reactive: things happen to him, and the drama becomes: “How does he respond?” And we watch an elderly man who was used to living his life in a certain way with certain expectations, we watch him fall apart and lose his mind, then come back together. I was reading an interview recently with Frank Langella, who was getting ready to do his first Lear…he said he’s always avoided the role. He’s never felt that interested in it, because the take was always “this is about the guy who falls apart.” But he’s now come to look at it as “the guy who finds his way back from falling apart.” I think that’s certainly part of the story.

[King Lear, directed by Fontaine Syer, opens on February 28th at the Ruth N. Halls Theatre with set design by M.F.A Chris Rhoton, costumes by M.F.A Julia Whalen, and lighting by M.F.A Lee Burckes.]

The Ryder ◆ February 2014

RetroRyder: Bloomington Katmandu

Home Is Where the Art Is ◆ by Filiz Cicek

[A blast from the past from the pages of The Ryder.]

Some of us never leave the place we are born. Some of us are forced to leave; some of us leave by choice for a place far away; and some of us are permanent, post-modern cultural nomads.

Local, international, exiled and nomadic artists were asked to choose or create art representing what they call “home“ for BloomingtonKatmandu, which will take place on May 28th at the Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist Cultural Center. The show is meant to reflect the impermanency and the mobility of the 21st century’s ever-changing geographical, emotional, and physical borders that we humans cross daily.

The Dalai Lama smiles at oppression with compassion; being exiled from Tibet by China in 1959 freed him to claim the world as his home.. The self-proclaimed “simple Buddhist monk” goes home daily when he says his mantras. He acts as a politician, cultural warrior, and ambassador of peace. He even champions women’s rights in a Tibetan Buddhist way. And he is terribly worried that Tibetan culture might disappear. For when in exile, Tibetan culture is his home. At a meeting in May 2010, he said he wants to turn the TMBCC (founded by his late brother, Thubten Norbu) into a university where Tibetan history and language can be kept alive, along with other cultures and languages.

Art is my home, and like many transnational artists, I consider myself a post-modern nomad. I don’t have an art factory like Andy Warhol; wherever I go, there I am, artist within.

Like countless others before me, I’ve chosen to journey away from my native land of the Caucuses Mountains to make a new home in what I lovingly refer to as “the cornfields.” As a feminist artist who is no fan of organized religion—and has in fact been critical of its treatment of women in my artistic and scholarly work—I set out to take secular art to the temple with intentions of paying homage and subverting and transforming.  I have been living at the TMBCC the past eight months, researching and preparing. Combining the nomadic Buddhist monk’s mobile thangka tradition together with Bulgarian artist Christo’s temporary large-scale environmental works, an exhibition of prints, paintings and photographs will be displayed on long cloths hanging from the library ceiling as temporary walls and borders. Different aesthetic traditions from distant lands will be hence fused.

It was an artist from the rice fields who help inspire the exhibit’s theme. Prianka Rayamajhi’’s journey to home photos of Katmandu-Nepal express how it feels to be neither here nor there, a familiar theme for immigrants and their children. Another migrant artist, Svetlana Rakic from Serbian Bosnia, has tackled this very topic in her recent exhibit in Berlin, Here and There. Here is both Bosnia and Bloomington, where she now lives. There is former Yugoslavia. Like her passport, the country where she grew up has expired, so to speak, with the political winds of change, deconstructed and destroyed by war. It only exists in Rakic’s memory, but it flows through her art.

She now lives in bosoms of nature and paints houses and trees, branches and roots. Long, thick, strong red roots, which are determined to reach across the ocean for the nourishment from her native land. And big yellow branches, joyful with sunshine. Rakic says, “Trees can grow anywhere….Home is not a geographical location, but rather a place that could be anywhere, a place in which we feel at home.” Her work reflects “the flow of life from here to there” and the symbolic merging of unity of the two.

As the proverb goes, when two hearts fuse as one, a barn will be their love palace. Prince Siddharta left his palace and made himself at home under the Boddhi tree. For Virgina Woolf as well, nature was a temple. Dale Enochs will erect a lovers’ statue mimicking one of the stupas. Prayer wheels will host number 5 and 7. Vinicius Bertons Brazilian street signs will be spread throughout the grounds. Una Winterman’s photograph of her old Kentucky home is both haunting and grounding. For her traveling family, it is a place of reference, she explains, even if it no longer exists. Weather permitting, Sarah Flint will sing by the creek, with Russell Rabwork’s eco-art as her background. Salaam will take stage under the big oak tree. In the library, Japan-born James Nakagawa will superimpose archetypal architecture from different continents. Jeffrey Wolin then will showcase a collaborative piece with his son, re-visiting all the places he has lived, with the use of Google map and narrative. We humans cross continents daily, through the Internet, Facebook and Twitter. We topple real-life dictatorships and create cyber-communities.

Then there are those artists who never left home: David Ebbinghouse will create a temporary yurt from fallen branches, paying homage to nomads from Nanook of the North to the Mongolians. Those who came from other states to call Bloomington home—Amy Brier, Diane Knoll, Hannah Shuler and Shu Mei Chen—will dwell outside by the pond and the temple with their sand in time and porcelains by the pond.

Paintings, sculptures, installation and music will come to a close with poetry and dance.

Whether in one‘s native land, chosen home, or one of exile, home is increasingly more of a state of mind in the 21st century. We create and escape into multiple identities on any given day. A human identity, spiritual identity, professional identity, gender identity, paternal and maternal identity and so on.  It is through these identities that we exercise compassion and fascism. Home is then where we feel safe. We store those moments in our memory; they change color and texture in time.

Home is then where we feel safe. It is the dandelion wine made with friends, the smell of lover’s shirt, a mother’s lap to a child. Home is in the soap bottle from a night in hotel room. Home is a wedding ring on a soldier in Afghanistan. It is a favorite song to a Moroccan living in French Banlio. A kimono to a Japanese American.   It is a headstone among Cypress trees for Nazim Hikmet, a poet in exile in a small Anatolian village. A grave for Sarah Baartman at the foot of a South African hill, where the air is cool and the sun doesn’t burn. It is a valley full of flowers to a bee. The snow capped mountains for the pumas and the lions.  Home is where our heart beats, free. We all are born with that feeling. Home is within.

[Filiz Cicek is a Turkish-Georgian-born American artist and organizer of Women Exposed. Her work has been exhibited in major galleries and museums in Istanbul, New York, California, Chicago, and the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. She also teaches a Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Culture class at IU. After meeting the Dalai Lama in May 2010, Cicek created BloomingtonKatmandu.]

The Ryder ◆ April 2013

THE BEST OF 2013: 13 Films For ’13

A Provisional List Of The Year’s Best Films by Craig J. Clark

For the third year running, I have been tasked by The Ryder with providing a summary of the year in film. As ever, it’s difficult for me to compile a proper year-end list when there are still so many major films that I haven’t been given the chance to see. Among the ones that didn’t make it to the Bloomington area by press time are the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, David O. Russell’s American Hustle, Spike Jonze’s Her, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Asghar Farhadi’s The Past, and Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. Even after removing those from the equation, though, there are still plenty of great films left for me to pull together a baker’s dozen that are worth seeking out, either at home or (in some cases) still in theaters.

One thing that hung over the first half of the year, cinematically speaking, was Steven Soderbergh’s impending retirement from film directing. If he sticks to it, that would make his last domestic release Side Effects, a solid medical thriller in the same way Haywire was a solid actioner and Contagion was a solid disaster film. Side Effects was merely a warm-up, though, for his true swan song Behind the Candelabra, which premiered on HBO in the States, but actually screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and has been shown in theaters virtually everywhere else in the world but here. Anchored by Michael Douglas’s flamboyant performance as Liberace – one that extends beyond mere impersonation and finds the beating heart beneath all the sequins and razzle-dazzle – and Matt Damon’s take on hunky up-and-comer Scott Thorson, who finds himself caught in the glitzy showman’s orbit, Behind the Candelabra is a compelling portrait of a closeted entertainer and his overwhelming need to see himself reflected in the beaming faces of his (invariably) younger lovers.

From "Frances Ha"

“Frances Ha”

Summer brought with it the usual conflagration of big-budgeted blockbusters and star-driven spectacles, but I was more taken with the intimate character studies of Frances Ha and Before Midnight. Filmed on the streets of New York in luminous black-and-white, Frances Ha is an unabashed love letter to the city and to its lead actress, Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Noah Baumbach. As an understudy for a cash-strapped modern-dance troupe who is struggling to hold onto her dream of dancing professionally, Gerwig’s Frances has a lot of growing up to do over the course of the film, which is why it’s so gratifying when she finally comes into her own.

While Frances is trying to find her place in the world, Céline and Jesse, the protagonists of Before Midnight, have settled into an uneasy partnership that threatens to dissolve during an evening of no-holds-barred self-examination. Returning to the characters they previously played in 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke continue to compel us to care about them as a couple, raising the stakes in a way that feels organic to the story, which they once again concocted with director Richard Linklater. If they plan on keeping to this schedule, I look forward to seeing where the two of them are in another nine years.

From "Before Midnight"

“Before Midnight”

The closest analogue to the Before trilogy is Michael Apted’s Up series, which has been checking in with the same group of Britons every seven years, starting when they were seven years old in 1964’s Seven Up! Over the years, some of the participants have dropped out and then dropped back in again, but 13 of them made themselves available to Apted’s camera crew when it came time to make 56 Up. (As is sometimes the case, one who’s been absent since 28 Up returned mostly to garner some free publicity for his band.) Taken individually, the Up films may not seem that revelatory, but their true power lies in the accumulation of detail as each installment builds on the ones that came before it. And I’m not ashamed to admit that the way each one ends with a replay of the closing moments of Seven Up! never fails to bring me to tears.

The capacity of human beings to be moved by the plights of strangers (or not, as the case may be) is at the heart of Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing, which examines the fallout from Indonesia’s anti-Communist purge following the military’s 1965 coup. Cannily, Oppenheimer does this by telling the story of Anwar Congo, a gangster-turned-executioner who’s more than happy to demonstrate his wire-strangling technique for his camera. “This is how to do it without too much blood,” he boasts, but when he’s shown the footage later on he’s not impressed because it doesn’t look realistic enough. When Congo’s given the chance to do some re-enactments with the help of actors, makeup artists and the like, though, he starts to recognize just where his bad dreams come from. The result isn’t always a pretty sight, no matter how baroque some of Congo’s fantasies are, but the birth of a conscience is a rare thing to capture on film.

Another rarity in the world of film is the work of multi-hyphenate Shane Carruth, who went nine years between his debut, 2004’s Primer, and his follow-up, this year’s Upstream Color. Like Primer, Upstream Color is designed to be the sort of film that one needs to see more than once in order to fully grasp everything that’s going on, but it can also be appreciated for its hazy, dreamlike atmosphere. This is a quality shared by Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, which stars Toby Jones as a soft-spoken British sound engineer who’s summoned to Italy to supervise the mix on what he’s dismayed to learn is a horror film. On top of that, the longer he works on “Il Vortice Equestre” (or “The Equestrian Vortex,” which doesn’t have all that much to do with horses), the less Jones is capable of distinguishing between it and reality, leading to a break in the film that matches his mental state. I guess seeing yourself dubbed into Italian can have that effect if you’re not prepared for it.

From "Upstream Color"

“Upstream Color”

While the protagonists in Upstream Color and Berberian Sound Studio have a difficult time adjusting to the circumstances they find themselves thrust into, the dangers of living in the past are ever-present in Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, in which his co-writer Simon Pegg gets his old mates back together 23 years after they failed to complete The Golden Mile, a twelve-pub crawl in their hometown. In the years since, his mates (whose ranks include uptight real estate agent Martin Freeman, soulful property developer Paddy Considine, weedy car salesman Eddie Marsan, and teetotaling corporate lawyer Nick Frost) have managed to grow up and become productive members of society, so they’re reluctant to give it another go, but as the oft-repeated refrain goes, there’s no point in arguing with Pegg. The perfect film for anybody who enjoyed the first two parts of the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz), The World’s End also pulls off its “end of the world” scenario with a lot more heart than Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s similarly apocalyptic This Is the End, which has its moments, but was less interested in combining them into a satisfying whole.

From "The World's End"

“The World’s End”

One of the nastiest surprises of the summer came right at the end of it with the belated release of You’re Next, a well-plotted home-invasion horror film that had the misfortune to come out a few months after The Purge (which should have been purged from multiplexes). Unlike a lot of its impatient ilk, You’re Next eases the audience into its milieu, introducing us to the potential victims and their attendant quirks before a trio of thugs in animal masks descend upon them with an array of sharp weaponry at the ready, prepared to pick them off one by one. Once the games get underway, we discover just how thorough the hunters are — nobody can get a signal, their cars have been disabled, the power is cut — and how surprisingly resourceful one of the would-be victims is in an emergency. Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett keep the surprises coming, though, making it impossible to predict who’s going to be next or how they’re going to get it.

The last four films on my list are all recent enough releases — and are garnering enough attention from various critics groups — that I probably don’t need to go into too much detail about them. Interestingly, three are about how individuals hold up when they’re dealt an unlucky hand. J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost is a compelling tale of survival starring Robert Redford as a highly resourceful yachtsman whose boat is damaged beyond repair in the middle of the ocean, but in the gritty-determination department he’s matched by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts set adrift in orbit after their ship is struck by space debris in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity. They’re all trumped, though, by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the wrongfully enslaved freeman in the pre-Civil War South who goes from one untenable situation to the next in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. In comparison, Bruce Dern’s borderline-senile would-be sweepstakes winner in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska doesn’t have it so bad, now does he?

Craig J. Clark’s Top 13 of 2013 (listed alphabetically)

  • The Act of Killing
  • All Is Lost
  • Before Midnight
  • Behind the Candelabra
  • Berberian Sound Studio
  • 56 Up
  • Frances Ha
  • Gravity
  • Nebraska
  • 12 Years a Slave
  • Upstream Color
  • The World’s End
  • You’re Next

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: The Year In Film

Much Ado About Mud And More by Robert Singer

2013 has been a truly bountiful year in cinema, with plenty to offer for both the casual filmgoer as well as the seasoned cinephile. With so many wonderful films to have been released this year, it can be difficult to choose which were the overall best. I myself am a huge comic book and sci-fi geek making it temping to compile this best of the year list: Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Man of Steel, and Star Trek: Into Darkness — and just call it a day. Conversely, I’m a cinéaste and lover of independent cinema, tempting me to make a list that looks like this: Upstream Colour, Europa Report, Mud, Gravity, Much Ado About Nothing, Twelve Years a Slave, Blackfish, Dallas Buyers Club, Frances Ha, etc. But as in years past when I have compiled my list for The Ryder, I’ve found it best to go with a list of the films that I found to be the most enjoyable of the year. So, without further ado, the Most Enjoyable Films of 2013.

Man of Steel Zack Snyder, director

The temptation must have been great for Warner Brothers to come up with a darker take on Superman after the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Producer Nolan, writer David Goyer, and director Zack Snyder were wise enough to key in on the fact that what makes Superman so great is the hope he inspires in all of humanity and in turn, Superman is inspired to do more and be more by those he protects. Henry Cavill makes us believe that he is Superman in much the same way that Christopher Reeve did, but with a bit more nuance and angst. The film is visually splendid with many of the flashback scenes evoking the majesty and poetry of a Terrence Malick film, while Snyder’s masterful understanding of the visual language of comics invests Man of Steel with some of the greatest super-powered action set pieces ever filmed.

Much Ado About Nothing Joss Whedon, director

A far cry from 2012’s The Avengers and Cabin in the Woods, Joss Whedon’s modern take on Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy is a hilarious delight and Whedon’s most mature film to date. Filmed over 12 days in Whedon’s home with many of his friends and Whedonverse alums, Much Ado About Nothing boasts the best and most underrated ensemble cast of the year. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are electrifying in their roles as the rivals-turned-lovers Beatrice and Benedick while Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk provide hilarious turns as two buffoonish and inept detectives.

Mud Jeff Nichols, director

A folksy coming of age story evocative of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mud follows 14-year-old Arkansas buddies, Ellis and Neckbone, as they cross paths with outlaw Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who is in hiding. The boys strike up an unlikely friendship with Mud, as they become his accomplices in evasion. What follows is a deeply rewarding Southern Gothic fable that is as whimsical and hopeful as it is dark and suspenseful. Between Mud and 2011’s Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols is emerging as a truly unique voice in American cinema, turning simple stories about ordinary people into tales that feel much larger and mythic in scale.

[Photo of Ellis & Neckbone from “Mud” at the top of this post.]

Gravity Alfonso Cuarón, director

The word that comes to mind most upon viewing Gravity is ‘awe.’ Awe at the beauty of Earth, awe at the infinite scope of the universe, awe at the breadth of the human soul. Director Alfonso Cuarón meticulously crafts a film of such intense visual splendor that one might worry that the story or development of character would get lost. Not to worry — Cuarón is at the height of his prowess as a master filmmaker. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney turn in exceptional performances, especially Bullock who gives us a heartbreaking heroine for the ages. The 13-minute long continuous opening tracking shot may just be the greatest tracking shot of all time, beating out the famous “uprising” scene from Cuarón’s Children of Men.

Europa Report Sebastián Cordero, director

In the near future, a private space travel company sends a crew of six to the icy moon of Europa, orbiting Jupiter. Their mission is simple: to uncover evidence of life in the frozen seas beneath Europa’s patches of ice. This impressive indie sci-fi thriller is one of the best and most believable films about space exploration ever made. From its clever use of the found footage aesthetic to its grounding in hard science, the film goes to great lengths to convince the viewer that they are watching a very real space expedition. The performances in the film are likewise grounded and believable. As month after month passes by for the crew, the anxiety and feelings of isolation become more and more palpable, culminating in a truly stunning hold-your-breathe spacewalk scene that rivals that of the other space travel film on this list. Once the crew lands on Europa, they are already completely altered by the struggles of their journey but still resolved to carryout their mission. The film takes a powerful turn here as the crew faces new and deadlier struggles on the alien world, culminating in what is a truly astounding climax that simultaneously fills the viewer with hope and dread.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

THE BEST OF 2013: The Year In Fiction

by Justin Chandler

If 2013 proved anything, it’s that the novel still has a place in today’s fast-paced consumer culture. The rights to Garth Risk Hallberg’s first novel sold at auction for $2 million dollars, or that three first-time novelists received six-figure deals at the London Book Fair. The fact that more people are reading books than ever before is only bittersweet because it means more people are writing books than ever before too. There’s just no time to experience all the great things that 2013 had to offer. One of my biggest regrets of the year is that Richard House’s The Kills remains unread. But here’s to hoping there’ll be plenty of time to read when we’re dead. Either way, here are five very diverse books that you really ought to check out (preferably before 2014’s bounty arrives).

Mira Corpora Jeff Jackson (Two Dollar Radio, 186 pages)

Mira Corpora is the first-person coming-of-age account of Jeff Jackson. The author? No? Or maybe, because if not, who’s the one narrating the tiny chapters on writing that are wedged between the episodes of his life? But surely, probably, hopefully not the author.

Book Cover

The novel follows “Jeff” through an early childhood of orphanages, foster homes, and brief stints living with an alcoholic, abusive mother. At 11 years old Jeff finally runs away, into the wilderness, where he finds other wayward children who’ve created a primitive community without adults. Though he has some very formative experiences, Jeff ultimately leaves this community behind, and readers next find him living on the streets, alone but called out to from graffiti on the walls and mail that miraculously finds its way to its addressee, “The Kid in the Alley behind the Chinese Place on 1st Avenue.”

The summary so far may sound simple and harmless, but it isn’t. Mira Corpora is overflowing with fear, with the threat of violence, and the possibility that however close Jeff comes to creating some semblance of home, it might at any moment be torn away.

These fears come to a head with the appearance of Gert-Jan, an ominous German who accosts Jeff on the streets, informing him that he, Gert-Jan, knows someone who can cure Jeff of what ails him. What is that? We — and Jeff — don’t know. But in the next chapter we’re introduced to a nameless sex-slave version of the novel’s central character, ostensibly cured, who is now called “the body” and has only two phrases it can utter: “Thank you” and “I’m sorry.”

And this is like only halfway through the novel. It’s terrifying, and trippy, and you’ll likely read the thing in one fevered, nightmarish sitting.

But nestled in all the dark and hideous acts and thoughts is a sense of hope, I think. Told from the perspective of the young, the disenfranchised, the victimized, the homeless and orphaned and too, mortal, born with a body of flesh and blood and subject to the terror of being alive without your choosing, the book can be read as a striving — in its darkness, in its many refusals — toward a life of fullness and freedom. This striving is both the terror and the hope of youth, an insatiable hunger for union as the world expands to reveal how very large the gaps between yourself and everyone else are. There’s a feeling, reading these pages, that despite everything that’s happened to Jeff, anything — someone he’s just met, or a mixed tape from a complete stranger — might give the chance to come back to life, to begin again, forever fresh, gone but returning, newness itself a sort of grace.

Orkney Amy Sackville (Counterpoint, 224 pages)

Orkney tells the story of a professor on his honeymoon with a former student nearly forty years his junior. The bride has chosen the Orkney Islands as their getaway, and their island is largely uninhabited, giving the whole novel — which details the two weeks that comprise their honeymoon, each chapter devoted to a day — reads as a very intimate portrait of the beginning and possibly the end of a marriage.

Richard, technically still on sabbatical, is supposed to be working on a compendium of the various enchantment narratives he’s been studying his entire career, but for much of their vacation he can’t do more than stare longingly out the window at his wife, thinking back on the few brief encounters they had before he asked her to marry him. When he’s not reminiscing, he’s watching her, jealous of anyone or anything that might potentially steal her away from him. As she walks the shore, passing across the frame of his window, or sits on the beach, contained and stilled, searching for nothing in the nothing gray of the sea, Richard longs (even in the midst of it) for their time together to never end. Each night they come back together to make love and attempt to get some rest, the wife despite her nightmares of drowning and Richard despite his worrying over her. By the end of their stay together, small cracks are beginning to show in the armor of Richard’s idyll, though these signs in no way prepare the reader for what’s to come.

The novel is subtle and layered. That they are practically the only two characters in the book, and given that Richard’s first-person account creates such distance between his bride and the reader, it becomes hard in some ways to tell how the relationship works, just what’s at stake, whether what we’re reading is a story of true love, depraved misogyny, or an enchantment story not unlike the kind to which Richard has devoted his life.

This is a quiet book, one that should be read with care, when time is not of the essence. Don’t force your way through it. Float across the pages as if riding the sea. It’s ruminative, meditative, and it deserves a slow and careful reading. Also, it probably wouldn’t hurt if you read it by the fire.

Byzantium Ben Stroud (Graywolf Press, 192 pages)

Because I’ve been working on a novel of my own, most of the books I’ve read this year have been novels. I missed out on a lot of good story collections, but I didn’t skip over this one, and I’m glad for that.

Byzantium contains ten stories that vary widely both in terms of time and place. The title story takes place in the 7th Century AD, and follows the son of a deceased general who’s offered the chance to reclaim his family’s lost nobility. This opportunity, as any in this collection, comes with a price — if the narrator wants to serve the empire, and reclaim that nobility, he must castrate a seemingly innocent, possibly miraculous monk whom the current emperor fears is a threat to his rule.

Here, as in many of the stories in this collection, what’s really at stake goes deeper than the outward struggles. The reader consistently finds Stroud’s characters torn between two worlds, as if they’re nearly resigned to the life they’ve been offered but feel still called to another version of life, one more genuine and harmonious but far more difficult to navigate. Their choice, as well as the meandering ways they attempt to delay or forego that choice, is what these stories really want to show us.

This is nowhere more obvious than in Amy, a story that comes later in the collection. A foreign-exchange professor teaching in Germany for a semester (and “fleeing a failing marriage”) runs into an acquaintance from high school. A strange and pitiful affair—if it can be called that—ensues and escalates, despite the narrator’s wishes, and by the end of the story our narrator has not only lost his chance with Amy and his wife, but seems in some ways content with this, as if his loneliness were not only his fault but what he wanted all along.

Don’t let my penchant for the more lugubrious stories in this book fool you. If Stroud casts a wide net in terms of time and place, the net he casts for tone is even wider, and there are plenty of moments that will leave you pleasantly surprised, even laughing. It’s an incredible first collection, full of stories where characters struggle to tell their own.

We Need New Names NoViolet Bulawayo (Reagan Arthur Books, 304 pages)

This coming of age story begins in Zimbabwe and follows the path of Darling and her friends as they run amok in a shantytown called Paradise, stealing guavas from the rich, daydreaming of America, and growing into an awareness of the instability of their lives.

Bulawayo

NoViolet Bulawayo

Throughout the first half of the book we are given glimpses of the unimaginable difficulties of being a child in an impoverished and war-torn country, and reminded constantly that Darling’s aunt in America will someday soon be taking her to live there. When the aunt finally comes through on her promises, Darling’s America is not quite the one she’d envisioned. The celebrities and fancy cars are still very far away, and worse, what Darling has lost in leaving Zimbabwe seems incalculably greater than the safety and privilege she has gained in coming to the USA.

Bulawayo’s ear for voice is incredible, and Darling’s story is sincere and moving, but probably the most powerful force in Darling’s narrative is a prevailing question that haunts it: what can activism do? What does it mean to give voice to suffering? Just what can activism do when it is so far removed from what it is trying to help? Often, what masquerades as activism becomes commodified, another badge to be worn (think here of TOMS’ “One for One” concept, or The Gap’s “Red” campaign) rather than a sustained investigation into poverty and suffering. It is the commodification of caring that appalls Darling throughout her time in America, the pity  that revels in the cruelty and poverty witnessed rather than making any concerted effort to understand and overcome.

Bulawayo’s novel is one of the few places where the voice being heard isn’t an uninvited, indifferent observer, commenting on the suffering the way a connoisseur might a sip of wine. As Chipo, one of the children Darling left behind, says while they are Skyping together some years after Darling has left Zimbabwe, “But you are not the one suffering. You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No, you don’t, my friend, it’s the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it’s us who stayed here feeling the real suffering, so it’s us who have a right to even say anything about that or anything and anybody.”

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul Bob Shacochis (Atlantic Monthly Press, 640 pages)

While the preceding books were in no particular order, I have to admit that I’ve saved the best for last. And my god is it good. Shacochis’s second novel, 20 years in the making, is the type that defies summation and demands you experience it first-hand. And I demand you read it first-hand too, if I’m allowed to demand something. Because it’s so damned good, part of me doesn’t want to talk about just on the principle of you experiencing it on your own. But I’ll give it a try anyway.

 Shacochis

Bob Shacochis

The Woman Who Lost Her Soul begins with Tom Harrington, a human rights lawyer, being asked to accompany a relative stranger down to Haiti to investigate the inexplicable murder of Renee Gardner. Turns out Harrington not only knew the deceased but was intimate with and betrayed by her, though she was known by another name at the time. Harrington’s search for justice is carried parallel with his reflections on their time together, and by the end of the first of five books that comprise the novel Harrington has uncovered far more than he’s solved, leaving readers with a strangely satisfying anti-climax.

But what seems an entire story in and of itself turns out to be only one of the final turns of the screw, as the next book takes us back fifty years to Croatia, at the end of World War II, to explore the beginnings of a struggle Harrington was barely able to even glimpse. It’s here that the story finds its chronological beginning and its seed, and for the next four-hundred pages what opens itself up to the reader is a beautifully rendered blend of mystery, history, and family drama.

What makes the novel so amazing is that in dealing with all of these subjects it is able to transcend them too, to achieve an aboutness that is beyond the bounds of its content. The novel is more than merely what happens: in its closeness and depth and its attention to acute details, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul ends up being about both a fully-realized individual and everyone who has ever lived. It’s great, and more than that, it’s one of those rare great books that might just be for everyone.

The Ryder ◆ January 2014

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