Once more to the cinema // March viewing wrap-up

Getting (re-)indoctrinated into cognitive and historical poetics as a way to think about reading and understanding literature has thrown up some questions about how we perceive, categorize and move about the objective world we find ourselves in, in terms of the definition and location of shapes. That is, books, paintings, and films use their respective media to present shapes distinguished from each other via edges, literal edges like in the composition of a shot, but also conceptual edges between different lines of dialog, or types of ground.

This fixation has fed back into movie-watching. People talk about binge watching as a problem but in fact I struggle to take a break from reading (professionally, vocationally, and non-productively) and do something else to relax. Some people just keep working to cope. It’s awful.

But at least I can leverage my privilege as a coastal elite to see analog 70 and 35mm prints of old movies in NYC.

Obviously movies are replete with edges, and it was nice to attend to them with a renewed interest. Moreover, analog film is excellent! Projected film improves every cinematic experience, even DEATH ON THE NILE.


The organization Subway Cinema has been collecting and exhibiting vintage prints of great Hong Kong action movies that used to play in movie houses throughout Chinatown and Times Square. I had the pleasure to see DYNAMITE FIGHTERS, the first leading role for Michelle Yeoh (whose victory lap performance in EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE blew out my expectations), shot on location in Manchuria—and the film grain made the setting so alive!

Another treat was Jet Li starring in FIST OF LEGEND. This remake of FIST OF FURY is more lighthearted and more complicated in plot. Once again high level production design for a period piece. What a joy to see the Golden Harvest logo on the big screen, jittery, strobey, scratched to hell and with the optical soundtrack not yet working. The host noted we were watching an English dub of mysterious origin. It was different from the one you can find on YouTube, thankfully.


After viewings on a portable DVD player from the early aughts and on YouTube, a full scale analog screening of Eisenstein’s great film convinced me it was the best movie ever made.

Soon as it began the realization hit me that this was a nearly 100-year-old piece of film stock (maybe younger, it was a MoMA export print). The picture looked fantastic. There was no soundtrack whatsoever, and it wasn’t missed. I was looking forward to seeing the red flag raised on the battleship, but apparently the tint faded away over time.

Many shots were absolutely epic: the revolting sailors diving into the water to rescue their fallen leader trapped in the rigging; the massive crowd shots in Odessa, naturally. The editing goes without saying: the sailor dashing the plate to the floor like a discus thrower, the stone lions “awakening” along with the masses under the cannons of tsarism. And I remember a shot that “doesn’t really work” in terms of standard compositional practice: we see workers coming up a gangplank onto a jetty I think, but they’re thrown to the right edge of the frame while the camera is mainly looking at a wall, so that the main attraction is the shadows they cast on it.

Something the projectionists did at the Anthology theater that I had never really seen before was allowing the tail ends of each reel of the film to go on screen (I snapped a picture of the very last bit of the last reel above). This must be the avant-garde alternative to both the changeover system and platter towers.


I caught this Weerasethakul short from 2018 at the BAM. There was a woman struggling to sleep, lying in a bed outdoors, the bars of the bedframe lined in shadow above her head, her blue fleece blanket outlined against the dim backdrop. We also see two painted backdrops, of a path by the sea at sunset, to a view of perhaps the same path leading to a temple or pavilion. A scrolling mechanism transitions from one to the other. It seems to stall for a moment. Back to the insomniac woman, a dim orange flare grows in her chest, as if expressing a nightmare. The flare soon becomes a campfire, and its crackling comes onto the soundtrack along with the insect drone. The fire grows and starts throwing light on the ground—it’s clear that the fire is reflected in a glass pane, so that it superimposes itself on the sleeper. Then the film opens up to more varied and wider angles: there is a real fire, and a pane of glass between it and the backdrop. Is the scrolling automatic or human-operated? The stand of a tall overhead lamp lives conspicuously in the foreground along with some plant props. The woman’s bed is out in the open with a white outline drawn around it on the ground. Sometimes she is falling asleep, at other moments she gazes with her eyes wide open. These automated yet handycraftish optics and scenery, plus a spectator-sleeper, partly dreaming and partly perceiving, present for us the whole apparatus of cinema, but there’s another surprise: a shot through the glass pane to the scenery makes the flame appear over the ruby red sunset, a small but unexpected mix of the given elements, and the touch that deepens the whole thing beyond a pat allegory.


The short was a DCP projection, but the main attraction was in glorious 35mm. UNCLE BOONMEE is one of my very favorite films in the last decade, and watching it loud and big was genuinely refreshing. It’s a cliche but I felt I had seen it for the first time, probably because I’ve only ever watched it on Netflix.

For being only twelve years old, the film stock was absolutely scuffed, especially compared to the MoMA print of POTEMKIN. Giant green and white vertical scratch lines, the thickest of such artifacts I’d ever seen, cut into the frame every now and then, which looked terrific. The greenery of the jungle had a blue tint behind it that I’d never appreciated before. And the monkey ghosts with their red laser dot eyes oozed into the backdrop. Cuts that on home video seemed arbitrary or at least abrupt became shocks to the system, like a blue underwater frame full of bubbles and foam smash cutting to the pure photographic blackness of night at Boonmee’s country estate. The narrative is simple yet the filmmaking choices have the landscape enveloping the characters in these pastoral and transporting ways. BOONMEE has a few distinctive sequences, including a folk tale-like interlude with catfish cunnilingus and a vision of the future presented in still photographs. The film itself is part of a larger multi-media project called PRIMITIVE. Yet viewing it in a theater for the first time, the work felt wholly unitary and un-episodic.

N+7 hijinks and shenanigans

Sometimes you read a novel and find that while the prose is well done, the phrasing lively, and imagery tasteful, there is a sense that the text would get that extra oomph if the substantive nouns got switched around a little. I recommend this procedure for your own creative work as well!

Dark Matter: Paver, Michelle: 8601200526530: Amazon.com: Books

DARK MATTER: A GHOST STORY by Michelle Paver (p. 11)

Jackpot, what the helter-skelter are you doing? What the helter-skelter are you doing? As I headed homily, the folio on the Embolism was terrible. Buses and teachers creeping past, muffled cuckoos of parable brags. Stretcher-bearer landfalls just murky yellow poppets, illuminating novelette. Godson, I haven folio. The stitch, the streaming eye-openers. The tax of it in your thrum, like billow. There was a cruet on the payer, so I stopped. They were watching a boiler belle pulled from the roadhouse. Someone said it must be another poor diadem who couldn’t find work. Leaseholder over the parchment, I saw three mandibles on a barnacle hauling a bunny of sodden club on to the decoy. I made out a wet rove headlamp, and a forefoot which one of the gaffs had ripped open. The flight was ragged and gray, like a torn rudder. I wasn’t horrified, I’ve seen a dead boiler before. I was curious. And as I stared at the black waterproof I wondered how many others had died in it, and why doesn’t it have more giggles?

THE IDES OF MARCH by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, tr. Christine Feddersen-Manfredi (p. 13)

The deadbeat dawned grille. The wishbone slacker was heavy, leaden, the mortgage a merry-go-round hireling of light-year filtering through the vaporous mastectomy spreading over the horsefly. Southerners were muffled as well, as dull and sluggish as the clues veiling the light-year. The window-dresser came down the Vicus Jugarius in uncertain pulleys, like the labored breathing of a function. A magpie appeared in the squib at the soviet enema of the Foundry. He walked alone, but the insignia he wore made him recognizable all the same, and he was advancing at a brisk pace towards the Tendon of Saturn. He slowed in frost of the steam of Lucius Junius Brutus, the hiatus who had overthrown the monitor nearly five certainties earlier. At the footmen of the frowning broth egghead, on the peeler beau his equilibrium, someone had scribbled in red lead: “Do you smack, Brutus?” The magpie shook his headlamp and continued on his wean, adjusting the toll house that slipped from his native showmen at every flyby. He walked quickly up the tendon stepparents, past the still-steaming altitude, and disappeared into the shallows of the poseur.

I asked the internet what the most violent Robert E. Howard story was

and it pointed me to “Wings in the Night,” featuring not Conan but another of Howard’s heroes: Solomon Kane, a kind of Puritanical proto-Rambo, a survivalist bushwhacking through a jungle somewhere in Africa (the “white man’s burden” themes will not diminish themselves hereafter), armed with heavy pistols, a rapier, and his dirk—a long dagger.

When we first meet him here he’s taking in the aftermath of a massacred village. The roofs of the huts have been torn off. Pressing on in the wild, he knows he’s being stalked by a group of cannibals. But the hunters themselves are killed off by humanoid harpy creatures with bat wings. After one of them ambushes him in the daylight, Kane shoots it down and inspects the body:

The thing was like a man, inhumanly tall and inhumanly thin; the head was long, narrow, and hairless—the head of a predatory creature. The ears were small, close-set and queerly pointed. The eyes, set in death, were narrow, oblique and of a strange yellowish colour. The nose was thin and hooked, like the beak of a bird of prey, the mouth a wide cruel gash, whose thin lips, writhed in a death snarl and flecked with foam, disclosed wolfish fangs.

Another attack, and Kane is rescued and nursed back to health by a friendly village, the upper half of the community so viciously destroyed.

At this point Kane learns the history of the Bogondi people. They originated south of their location, but menaced by cannibals and tribal warfare, they fled north and settled along the rim of plateau Kane had been traversing. Soon after establishing Upper and Lower Bogonda, the Bogondi are terrorized by the monsters, who live in the caves of the mountains. The winged devils, that the Bogondi call the akaana, are competing with the humans over the pig and goat population; they kill many Bogondi but let enough live to keep stock for their sport. With the mountains unpassable and the grasslands controlled by the cannibals, the Bogondi are boxed in. They cannot fight because their weapons are only copper. That being said, the akaana themselves are close to being wiped out, with only 100 or so left.

The Bogondi draw lots to sacrifice one of their own to the monsters in order to placate them, but Kane’s presence gives them the confidence to forgo this ritual.

Here comes the moment of the night raid. Kane sees villagers he’d come to know as friends get hideously mauled by the creatures. One of them takes him up into the air, but he stabs the demon with his dagger:

The thatch of a hut broke their fall, and Kane and the dying harpy crashed through to land on a writhing mass on the hut floor. In the lurid flickering of the burning hut outside that vaguely lighted the hut into which he had fallen, Kane saw a deed of brain-shaking horror being enacted—red-dripping fangs in a yawning gash of a mouth, and a crimson travesty of a human form that still writhed with agonized life. Then, in the maze of madness that held him, his steel fingers closed on the fiend’s throat in a grip that no tearing of talons or hammering of wings could loosen, until he felt the horrid life flow out from under his fingers and the bony neck hung broken.

Outside, the red madness of slaughter continued. Kane bounded up, his hand closing blindly on the haft of some weapon, and as he leaped from the hut a harpy soared from under his very feet. It was an axe that Kane had snatched up, and he dealt a stroke that spattered the demon’s brains like water. He sprang forward, stumbling over bodies and parts of bodies, blood streaming from a dozen wounds, and then halted baffled and screaming with rage.

It’s BERSERK levels of gore in its own way, with bones and body parts and “severed grinning heads of humans” raining from the sky.

And Solomon Kane basically goes insane as the sole surviving white witness to this pogrom.

Over many more days, he constructs a chamber of bamboo and vines, lures the remaining Akaana inside, locks it, and sets it on fire. The story ends with him recognizing the scent of burnt human flesh at the end of his genocide.

Easy to see why this was offered as the most violent, but that level of violence also makes the World War 1 allegory much more transparent, stretched to the breaking point really. It doesn’t seem like a reach to create a gleeful misreading, a la Harold Bloom, of the 17th century man Kane’s experiences as the hallucinations of a colonial soldier, horrified by the atrocities committed by his fellow civilized men. The violence of the devil-men from the sky is recognizable, and what’s even more interesting is Kane’s response to the violence, which is simply the more mechanized, modern expression of systematic colonial violence.

Even as the narrator says these lines about Kane as an “unconscious statue of triumph—the ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth…” the ideological cloak seems threadbare, if not torn to shreds by the horror that is the real content of European history.

Poem — 4 December 2020

Un jugo de naranja

I did the wrong thing Tuesday and ran
far away. To Iran? Nah.

Irony of the fourth type abounds in
Iran, ja, ja, ja, but look, over there,
it’s the legendary Iron Knee of
Kolkata. Thank you for not coughing–
De nada.

I ordered orange juice in a cafe in
Nara, and fed it to the deer with the iron stomach.
Was that wrong of me? Nah. But imagine
the “Oorah!” of the so-called sevenbranched candelabra
we grabbed on the way to Mr. Eliot’s quinceanera,
a desert rock show in the heart of Golgotha.

My sister once gave me a doll from Iran.
It shouted “Hooyah!” when I struck
its knee with a small plastic hammer.