Best of Summer 2017: Climb On!

To wrap us this summer – and to combat the summer blues as fall quickly approaches – I have below catalogued a couple summer highlights. Enjoy!

The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits

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Tommy Caldwell recounts his adventurous life from growing up in Estes Park Colorado to becoming an an elite climber who, as of 2015, climbed Dawn Wall, an unprecedented feat on the granite of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Along the way, he recounts his riveting experiences: being held hostage for one week in Kyrgyzstan with three fellow climbers, a tumultuous divorce with fellow climber Beth Rodden, and the joy of falling in love again with his now wife Becca and the birth of their two children. What makes Caldwell’s memoir so memorable is his thoughtful voice that is both emotionally honest and jubilant. You can also watch his TED Talk. Tommy is a wise steward of his own suffering. Trails can make us or break us – the true test is how you recover, get back in the saddle, and kick some more ass.

 

When I was a teenager, failure was suffocating. Trying your hardest and coming up short can be psychologically and emotionally exhausting. But each time it happens and you begin anew you become better, inured to the feeling. In more recent years, failure has fostered in me a deep curiosity about the mysteries I had still to unlock. (235)

Meru

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By far the best documentary I have watched in a while. Although this was released a couple summers ago, it still resonates today, especially in light of Alex Honnold’s recent free solo of El Capitan. Meru tracks Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk and their two attempts to climb the Shark’s Fin route up Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas. What sets this adventure apart is the back story: they explore the depths of their own motivation and drive to climb and the risk it entails. Add the sublime scenery with a Jon Krakauer cameo and you have yourself a bona fide ensemble of thoughtful mountaineers who truly show you the marriage of passion and commitment in their vocational virtuosity.

 

You can’t just be a good ice climber. You can’t just be good at altitude. You can’t just be a good rock climber. It’s defeated so many good climbers and maybe will defeat everybody for all time. Meru isn’t Everest. On Everest you can hire Sherpas to take most of the risks. This is a whole different kind of climbing.

Jon Krakauer

 

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Land Ho! and the Vicarious Pleasure of Film

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In the playful indie Land Ho! Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson play two ex-brothers-in-law who travel to Iceland together to escape the ennui of retirement and experience a little adventure. The improvised performances by Eenhoorn and Nelson entertain as they explore the city and countryside of Iceland. Colin (Eenhoorn), a banker who is a bit melancholy after his recent divorce, and Mitch (Nelson), a retired surgeon who fizzes with vulgarity, provide a comic contrast of temperaments. Mitch pretty much plays himself as a brash, pot-smoking, expansive fellow with no filter, and Colin plays a more reserved, observant type.

Following the typical arc of travel-buddy films – exotic food is consumed, sublime scenery abounds – Land Ho! delivers the goods, with no false lines spoken by either character in performances that are largely improvised. They tap into the insuperably refreshing novelty of travel, and the movie becomes a vicarious, brief escape with these characters where the quotidian becomes an adventure in itself: eating, drinking, walking. Land Ho! jovially joins the canon of road movies as an effortless escape to Iceland with a meditative, comedic energy between Eenhoorn’s interior burn and Nelson’s expansive lust for life.

Want Not and the Vanity of Trash

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Take a moment and, wherever you are (home, office), look at the contents of your trash can. Maybe you have separate bins for paper and plastic, or, like many, you simply pile all of your trash into one can, classification be damned. It is so easy to throw it away – the rotten fruit, the clothing tags, the fast food containers – and never think twice.

In Jonathan Miles second novel Want Not (2013), he makes you wonder. Before I read the first paragraph, I pretty much knew what the main theme was: trash. The first epigraph (of three) from archaeologist William Rathje proved my assumption correct: People forget, they cover, they kid themselves, they lie. But their trash always tells the truth.

Miles explores how Americans deal with their trash through three different stories: 1) Talmadge and Micah, a young freegan couple who met at Burning Dan, squat in an abandoned building in NYC. Along comes Tal’s old college buddy Matty to squat with them, the serpent in their garden. 2) Professor Elwin Cross, NJ resident who teaches at Marasmus State College and who is recruited by the government to help create a landmark for a waste site in New Mexico to last 10,000 years. 3) Dave and Sara, along with their daughter Alexis, living an life of hyper-consumption. Dave is a debt collector, and Sara is a widow (whose husband died on 9/11), her daughter Alexis a confused adolescent with a secret.

The nucleus of the novel is Micah, who Miles layers with the most depth by diving deep into her back story halfway through the novel: her youth in Appalachia with an eccentric father and an absent mother. Back story is one of Miles’s prime gifts as a writer; he develops most of his characters through back story, moving from the present and past through seamless flashbacks. Another strength of Miles’s is voice. He captures the East Coast urban slang of his characters. In the opening scene, as Talmadge is scrounging through the trash in a back alley, a man accosts him for some money and, after realizing what Tal’s doing, preaches:

Incorporate. That’s how you change shit, man. Not like this. This is just provocatization. You got to twist it from the inside. You gotta get up inside it to where you can cut the wires, you know what I’m saying? . . . . Nothing happen in this country without the I-N-C-period, you understand?

After reading the opening scene, I was afraid the story would be a whiny, pro-environment-green book, the characters mere mouths for Miles’s politics. But, again, Miles moves deeper. The man can write. Want Not is compulsively readable. Part-time jobs notwithstanding, I would’ve gladly read the novel in one day. Miles kept me on edge with his jumping from story to story, making me wonder if any of the characters would cross paths. Though the stories are obviously related by theme, they don’t intertwine much, but when they do (near the end), it’s similar to the characters in the movie Crash: the timing is perfect and, although contrived, still moving.

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To give you a taste of Miles’s fine prose:

And the hunger: the everywhere night-and-day hunger that seemed to her so impossible – how could so many be so hungry and contaminated, yet the earth still be spinning, the newspapers publishing, the factories factory-ing, the lovers loving, the preacher’s preaching? How could God justify this lopsidedness, with endless Hamburger Helper granted to one side of the world and what looked like nothing to the other? . . . . It can’t be like this but it is; it must change but it can’t.

The heart of Miles’s message: how futile it all is. The waste, the global inequality, the hunger, desire itself. Throughout these pages, I heard the voice of Solomon whispering, “All is vanity. All.” Following the internal thoughts of Micah as she sees poverty in India, this passage ties into an obsession of mine: theodicy. The possibility of a loving God despite the presence of evil and suffering in the world. Why must there be starving children in the world, especially when in places like the USA there is a glut of food? I sympathized with Micah’s conclusion: “It can’t be like this but it is; it must change but it can’t.” However, I do think it can change, at least on a smaller level: you and I thinking more about how we use our trash and how we live our day-to-day lives.

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Want Not has everything I like in a book: thoughtful and well-written, engaging plot, well-developed characters, a message between the lines. If you’re curious about Miles and his life, he has his own web site. His authorial photo on the book jacket is itself indicative of his theme: the trashcans on either side of him. Most reviews I’ve read rave on Miles’s novel (Dave Eggers: “a joyous book, a very funny book and an unpredictable book, and that’s because everyone in it is allowed to be fully human.”), and I agree. Again, the prose itself is smart and gripping, and the lively characters made me think about how I live my life and how I’ll at least think twice about what I throw away. I anticipate Miles’s next novel.

Calvary and Ennui in a Broken World

My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it. Like so many others! We can see them being eaten up by boredom, and we can’t do anything about it. Some day perhaps we shall catch it ourselves – become aware of the cancerous growth within us. You can keep going a long time with that in you.

George Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest

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“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned.”

The St Augustine quote prefacing John Michael McDonaugh’s Calvary sets the grave tone for what turns into an odd, darkly comic glimpse into the life of a small town priest, played with consummate skill by the hirsute, Brendan Gleeson.

In the opening scene, Father James Lavelle (Gleeson) sits and listens in his confessional booth as a man issues a twisted threat: because he was abused by a priest as a boy (and because that same priest is now dead), the victim declares that he will kill Father James next Sunday, down on the beach. He states his logic: to avenge the sins of a bad priest, he will kill a good priest, Father James.

In the week leading to his eventual encounter, Father James visits his parishioners. What a strange mix of people they are: an atheist doctor, an aggressive African car mechanic, a sexually frustrated young man, an imprisoned cannibal (who, handcuffed to a chair, tells Father James what human flesh tastes like), a disillusioned butcher, a flirty woman, an aging writer, and an apathetic millionaire abandoned by his wife and kids, who, to express his apathy towards material objects, urinates on a Holbein painting.

No one really respects Father James. Actually, most everyone he interacts with in the film is either hostile or sarcastic towards him. Everyone is more or less interested in themselves. Still, Father James presses on.

Fortunately, James is not completely bereft of comfort. He has his dog Bruno and his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly), who arrives with bandages over both her wrists. She expresses her frustration with James for leaving her after her mother’s death; she feels abandoned.

The pressure only continues to build against Father James: after the death threat, his church is burned down, and finally his canine companion Bruno is murdered, brutally sliced in the throat. The darkness is alleviated by frequent shots of the Irish countryside: the green and grey landscape shimmers, the ocean waves heave.

Brendan Gleeson is an actor I intend to follow more closely after watching Calvary. He pretty much carries the film through its bleak, grotesque landscape. His fleshly physique stands as a bulwark against the insults and taunts of his parishioners. He is the one good man that, though far from perfect (he struggles with alcohol), possesses more than a modicum of charity and benevolence towards his flock, as abrasive and – again – odd as they are. Watching Gleeson’s body move and his facial expressions shift, you can sense his struggle. And you think, here is someone who can act. He doesn’t even have to say a word.

Near the end, Father James says to his daughter, “I think there’s too much talk about sins, not enough talk about virtues. I think forgiveness has been highly underrated.” After watching Calvary, you will feel the same. There is little virtue and forgiveness, yet there is also a refreshing lack of faux holiness. Father James is not some prim saint like Francis, beckoning the birds with his sermons. Neither is he a spineless priest. He is simply a flawed, human priest who does his best to minister to his parish.

There are hints of literary depth, with a reference to Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest from one of the characters. The aging writer has a copy of David Gates novel Jernigan, a novel about a NJ suburbanite so numb and disillusioned that he shoots his own hand, simply “To see what it would be like.”

Watching James interactions with his parishioners, you come to see – almost too much – how true Thoreau’s phrase is: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The characters in Calvary are drenched in ennui; they lead lives of a strange desperation. What will satisfy them? Nothing, it seems.

Like Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) in Malick’s To the Wonder, Father James helps you see how lonely the priesthood must be at times. And yet the effort to love – selflessly, unconditionally – is rarely portrayed in film. Calvary, with Gleeson’s sublime performance, makes a worthy effort.

 

The Great American Movie?

What do you think has become of the young and old men? / And what do you think has become of the woman and / Children?

They are alive and well somewhere…

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

faces-of-masonThere is much chatter on the idea of the Great American Novel, a book that represents everything America hopes to be. Or, simply, a book that is America (my vote: Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion). Or, perchance, the Great American Poem – see above. Here’s an idea: the Great American Movie. I suppose the notion of either a Great American book or movie (or poem) is absurd, but it’s a fun concept to play with, and fine fuel for ambition. The striving to create something great. Enter film auteur Richard Linklater.

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I was first introduced to Richard Linklater through his trilogy Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013) with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine. In nine year intervals, Linklater traced Jesse and Celine from their early romantic twenties to married with children. Thus, Linklater bypasses the typical bells and whistles of Hollywood, instead pursuing the quotidian and the simple, mysterious passage of time. It follows then, after portraying two lovers over a period of 18 years, that he would try to tackle the whole of youth in one film. And so thus: Boyhood. A cinematic bildungsroman whose likes we’ve never seen before.

If you’ve paid the slightest attention, you know that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is kind of a big deal. Filmed over a period of twelve years, it traces Mason Jr.’s growth from age six to eighteen. What makes it so compelling and groundbreaking is the fact that, instead of using multiple actors to portray Mason’s youth, Linklater used the same actor, Ellar Coltrane, whose youth we literally see unfold before our eyes. It’s fascinating to watch.

(Coincidentally, Linklater initially planned to titled the film 12 Years, but then there was McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. So, taking inspiration from Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, Linklater settled on Boyhood.)

Mason Jr. is the son of Olivia (Patrica Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Linklater veteran: Ethan Hawke), a divorced couple. Mason also has an older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei), and the two are more or less raised by their mother, with occasional and frequent visits from their father, the fun-loving, feckless parent who drives a sports car and plays the guitar. At a baseball game, they ask, “Dad, do you have a job?” Meanwhile, Mason and Samantha move with their mother from stepfather to stepfather: first, Bill the psychology professor who we soon learn is a physically abusive alcoholic, next the Iraq/Afghanistan veteran Jim who also has an affinity for alcohol. Eventually Mason Sr. sheds parts of his ‘cool dad’ persona by trading his sports car for a minivan and marrying again, but he still plays a large, vital role in Mason Jr.’s life. But the strongest character, as well as the best performance, comes from Patricia Arquette as Olivia; to me she holistically embodies Steinbeck’s strong woman: “I believe a strong woman may be stronger than a man, particularly if she happens to have love in her heart. I guess a loving woman is indestructible.” Arquette’s character Olivia possesses this indestructible love.

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Covering such a substantial swath of time, it is only natural that Boyhood is just short of three hours. It doesn’t feel that way. Linklater presents a seamless impression of Mason’s youth, moving in an episodic manner from scene to scene. The movie is practically an archetype of American boyhood: Mason flipping through a lingerie catalog with his friends, camping with his father, encountering bullies in the high school bathroom, working as a busboy, getting a girlfriend and breaking up, and, finally, his entrance into college. Best of all: his discovered skill and passion for photography. I can only agree with Matt Zoller Seitz in his superb review of Boyhood – tempus fugit, time flies:

It’s all a blur. The blur is indescribably moving. We’ve seen people age in movies and on TV programs—the kids in the “Harry Potter” and “Up” series, for instance, and little Ronny Howard on “The Andy Griffith Show,” and Kiernan Shipka on “Mad Men”—but we’ve never seen it happen in such a compact span of screen time. That’s what makes “Boyhood” singular. There is no other work to which one can directly compare it without distorting pop culture history. This movie is truly its own thing

Boyhood is at turns comic and melancholy. It is also sui generis, a unique masterpiece. For me, at the ripe age of 25, the whole three hours was pure nostalgia. Near the end, one of Mason’s teachers chats with him about his plans for college and says, “Don’t forget to floss!” Fine advice for any high school graduate (and also an echo of Baz Luhrman’s “Don Forget to Wear Sunscreen”). Watching all the adults counsel to Mason – his photography teacher, his boss at work, his father – you soon come to learn that, yes, indeed, advice is a form of nostalgia.

More moving is the scene when Mason is packing his things in his truck, about to leave for college, and his mother urges him to take his first photograph. He is apathetic – and his mother Olivia breaks down in tears, saying, “I just thought it would be so different.” Time, expectations, life itself: is anything what we expect it to be? Not really, not in the least. The same goes for Boyhood: it’s not quite what you expect. You think: A director who filmed the same cast over a period of twelve years – what fun! And yet, to actually see the physical changes, most starkly in Mason himself as his voice changes and body grows, along with his sister Samantha, but also in their parents Olivia and Mason Sr. who develop slight wrinkles on their face, is nothing short of astonishing. No make-up, no wigs, only the passage of time.

What makes the movie more than a documentary is Linklater’s gift for long takes of dialogue between characters. As much ground, and time, as he covers, the film never feels rushed. You wonder, along with Mason, What is normal? Mason asks his father, What’s is all about? He replies, “We’re all just winging it.” Yet all along one senses that Linklater himself is doing the opposite: he is taking his time. He has patience. He trusts characters and dialogue to carry his films, and it works. Perhaps his greatest strength is patience. The most essential minimal ingredient for any artistic endeavor.

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So, is Linklater’s Boyhood all it’s cracked up to be, a true magnum opus, a shot at the Great American Movie? I think so. I felt so. Near the end, Mason is hiking with his new college buddies in Big Bend, a tad buzzed from a hash brownie. He sits down and chats with a girl on the nature of the present moment: how it is always now (another title Linklater considered). She replies that the carpe diem/seize the moment cliche is wrong; or, rather, that the reverse is also sometimes true: sometimes the moment seizes you. Sometimes a film seizes you, gently, slowly, unexpectedly. Such a film is Boyhood.

A True American Trickster

14_03_kirn_eventWalter Kirn echoes Capote’s In Cold Blood in his riveting memoir Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade, meditating on his friendship with the child kidnapper and murderer Clark Rockefeller (real name: Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter). In a contemplative first person narration, Kirn’s traces the path of their friendship. How did Clark deceived him, Walter, an alumnus of Princeton and Oxford?

Because Clark is a man of many masks: Chris Chichester, Charles Smith, Chip Smith – these are just a few of his pseudonyms. Kirn first met Clark in 1998; he drove a handicapped dog from Montana to New York City for Clark. Clark first claims to be a “freelance central banker,” and later other faux professions arise (art collector, physicist, Quaker). The real Clark, Gerhartsreiter, was born in Germany and at age 18 traveled to the US as an exchange student. Walter eventually learns that Clark is a man of multiple convictions: in 2009 for parental kidnapping, assault, and battery; in 2013 for first-degree murder.

As the facts accumulate, Kirn sees who “Clark” really is: a liar and a murderer. He realizes his own capacity for egotism while mazing through their encounters; he wanted to believe Clark was Clark because he liked to associate with the aristocracy. When he asks Clark his secret to manipulation in a jailhouse interview, he replies: “Vanity, vanity, vanity.” The epigraph from Patricia Highsmith captures the enigmatic character of Clark best: “He was versatile, and the world was wide!”

The kidnapping, which made international news and later inspired a TV movie, exposed Clark Rockefeller as a fraud, the most prodigious serial impostor in recent history. It also connected him to a lineage older, and in a certain fashion richer, than that of the founding family of Standard Oil: the shape-shifting trickster of American myth and literature. . . . He’s the villain with a thousand faces, a kind of charming, dark-side cowboy, perennially skipping off into the sunset and reappearing at dawn in a new outfit. (75-76)

A Great American Story

matthew20thomas20photo20and20book2007212014If literature’s primary goal is to cultivate empathy, then Matthew Thomas’s latest (and first) novel We Are Not Ourselves (2014) succeeds. It is not a great American novel – it is a great American story. A character-driven novel, WANO tells the story of Eileen Tumulty, a first generation Irish American in New York City. She aspires to rise above her working-class parents. After marrying the promising academic Edmund Leary, her father says, “If you’re not in a house by the time I’m dead, I’ll haunt you from my grave.”

Thus, the American Dream becomes Eileen’s Dream: buy a house, raise a family. Though over 600 pages, WANO reads quickly with the average chapter length of three pages. Thomas’s highly polished prose makes for a smooth read, but this is not a light read. Ed’s descent into dementia at age fifty is an honest, unsparing portrayal of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s. He becomes a chastened Lear, his mind a lump of sand slowly sinking through the sieve.

We watch Eileen struggle to care for him and raise their son Connell. The relationship between Ed and Connell is one of the more moving father-son dynamics I have seen portrayed in literature recently. Eileen herself proves to be an unbreakable female protagonist whose life we see unfold over a period of sixty years. Thomas has written a moving, unsentimental family saga that creates a rare empathy for his chararacters, imperfections and all.

Life, she thought, was like that sometimes; for years, things were a certain way, and then in an instant, almost without conscious thought, they weren’t that way any longer, as if all the hidden pressure on their having been the way they’d been had found release through a necessary valve.