TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT April 2009

TOP TEN

Michael Almereyda

Michael Almereyda’s films include Twister (1989), Nadja (1994), Hamlet (2000), and William Eggleston in the Real World (2005). His latest, Paradise, opened the 2009 Film Comment Selects series at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York this past February. A retrospective of his films will screen in June at Ballroom Marfa in Marfa, Texas.

  1. “HAROLD PINTER, ART, TRUTH AND POLITICS”

    I was unaware of Pinter’s speech until his New York Times obituary led to an online link to this video, made in 2005. Too ill to travel to Sweden to receive his Nobel Prize, the wheelchair-bound author has stationed himself in a London television studio, with an enlarged photograph of his younger self looming behind him. Using the merest of Pinteresque pauses, he shifts from professorial modesty to a livid excoriation of American foreign policy, bringing finely controlled rage to bear on his description of (pre-Bush) US sponsorship of carnage in Latin America. The dry growl intensifies as the rant morphs into a discussion of the nature of totalitarian language and concludes with a raspy poetry recital (Pablo Neruda, Pinter). A brave act of defiance—an unaccepting acceptance speech, unavoidably arrogant and a bit cracked. Why can’t all Nobel speeches be more like this one?

    Harold Pinter giving a prerecorded acceptance speech at the Swedish Royal Academy, Stockholm, December 7, 2005. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/Associated Press. Harold Pinter giving a prerecorded acceptance speech at the Swedish Royal Academy, Stockholm, December 7, 2005. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/Associated Press.
  2. ADAM THIRLWELL, THE DELIGHTED STATES (FARRAR, STRAUS, AND GIROUX, 2007)

    A thrilling, whirling consideration of literary tradition as a boundaryless, untamable process by which writers discover and reinvent the voices of their predecessors, often by way of imperfect translations. Quick, sharp chapters—and terrific full-page illustrations—give this book the giddy feeling of a collage. Thirlwell tracks relationships among the language, intuitions, and techniques of Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Laurence Sterne, Witold Gombrowicz, and Saul Bellow, and many others. Literary history, he explains, is “subject to jet lag.” And on page 315, just as you think he might be winding down, Thirlwell delightedly states: “At this point, it is also important to rethink the idea of real life.”

  3. JEREMY KONNER, DRUNK HISTORY VOL. 1

    “Hey, you’re giving me shit—we gotta duel,” Aaron Burr says to a doe-eyed, doomed Alexander Hamilton, played by Michael Cera in a colonial wig, cell phone in hand. Poignant string arrangements heighten the hilarity, but the YouTube video’s best special effect is narrator Mark Gagliardi, who mumbles his way through his account from a horizontal position on a couch, weighed down by the former contents of a bottle of Scotch. (I volunteer Adam Thirlwell as the narrator for a future installment, as the “drunk history” technique bears some resemblance to his time-bending book, and Harold Pinter is no longer available.)


    Jeremy Konner, Drunk History vol. 1.

  4. R. KIKUO JOHNSON, NIGHT FISHER (FANTAGRAPHICS BOOKS, 2005)

    A Hawaiian adolescence related in stunningly designed, ink-brushed, black-and-white comic-book panels. The deftness of the drawing is matched by the emotional detail of the writing. In my own distant adolescence, I spent long afternoons in the Hollywood home of Alex Toth, comic-book genius and champion grouch. When asked whether he had ever considered applying his graphic gifts to recording personal experiences, Toth always managed to deflect the question. Johnson, in his twenties, has elegantly cannibalized Toth’s style, internalized it, and released it like a genie liberated to work new magic (cf. Thirlwell, above.)

    Image from R. Kikuo Johnson’s Night Fisher (Fantagraphics Books, 2005). Image from R. Kikuo Johnson’s Night Fisher (Fantagraphics Books, 2005).
  5. MARCEL L’HERBIER, L’ARGENT

    Everyone’s talking about money, but it’s hardly a new subject. Based on the 1891 Zola novel of the same name—the story of a convulsive financial crisis wrought by corrupt brokers in Paris—this 1928 film is riveting thanks to the unmistakable, visionary brilliance of its director, L’Herbier: a man inexplicably confined to the shadows of film scholarship. You may recognize Antonin Artaud as a glitter-eyed bank secretary (!) or Brigitte Helm (the snake-hipped robot temptress in Lang’s 1927 Metropolis), but they, along with the monumental Art Deco sets, are upstaged by Pierre Alcover’s performance as a rancid financial wizard, a bulky, potato-shaped presence, like a Daumier drawing sprung to life.

  6. LARRY BURROWS: VIETNAM (KNOPF, 2002)

    A book of 150 photographs, mostly in color, many of them iconic images of the war, which Burrows covered for nine years before losing his life in a downed helicopter in 1971. The pictures are harrowing, of course—battlefields, air strikes, villages in flames, corpses, hospitals, wounded children. But to see them sequenced as one body of work, a chronicle of war and a record of one man’s experience, is to open yourself to a new rush of horror, pity, and awe. It’s hard not to wonder whether we’ll ever again see the US military documented with anything like this level of searing, comprehensive intimacy.

    Captain Vernon Gillespie Jr. contacting his base camp while Vietnamese soldiers burn down a Vietcong hideout, South Vietnam, 1964. Photo: Larry Burrows/Getty Images. Captain Vernon Gillespie Jr. contacting his base camp while Vietnamese soldiers burn down a Vietcong hideout, South Vietnam, 1964. Photo: Larry Burrows/Getty Images.
  7. ALIX OHLIN, BABYLON AND OTHER STORIES (KNOPF, 2006)

    Ohlin is an agile storyteller, with a tender fix on human strangeness. On occasion, she plays a dazzling narrative trick—teleporting characters into the future to show them suddenly dangling at impossible distances from their former selves, observing their own long shadows as if from the edge of a precipice.

  8. PETER THOMPSON, UNIVERSAL CITIZEN

    “The best filmmaker living in Chicago,” according to a friend who showed me Thompson’s VHS tape, a batch of short films available through Facets Video. That assessment is perhaps the least you can say about this under-the-radar master of concentrated, minimalist forms. For my money, Universal Citizen (1986)—a sly, sweet, fragmented travel essay shot in the Yucatán—invites comparisons with Jorge Luis Borges and Chris Marker. The Facets collection also features a particularly haunting portrait of the filmmaker’s father.

    Peter Thompson, Universal Citizen, 1986, still from a color film in 16 mm, 23 minutes. Peter Thompson, Universal Citizen, 1986, still from a color film in 16 mm, 23 minutes.
  9. FELA ANIKULAPO KUTI AND THE AFRIKA 70, “ZOMBIE”

    Two AM in a taxi heading downtown. I recognized the trumpet refrain and for the first time in decades asked the driver to please turn up the music. Rose had her head on my shoulder and the trumpets seemed to lift us across each intersection. Green light green light green light green light.

    Fela Anikulapo Kuti, ca. 1980. Photo: David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. Fela Anikulapo Kuti, ca. 1980. Photo: David Corio/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
  10. JOHN UPDIKE, “THE ASTRONOMER”

    I still find it startling that Updike, the all-encompassing noticer and recorder, is dead. I reread this old favorite (collected in The Early Stories: 1953–1975) to test my faith in his immortality and found it reassuringly perfect. A compact description of a young marriage, the story measures domesticity and religious belief against the vast uncertainties of friendship, memory, space, time, and the uncomfortable notion of a godless universe. “What is the past,” the narrator concludes, “but a vast sheet of darkness in which a few moments, pricked apparently at random, shine?”