Thursday, December 29, 2011


"Something so trifling in single instances that no mathematical instrument, though capable of transmitting shocks in China, could register the vibration; yet in its fulness rather formidable and in its common appeal emotional; for in all the hat shops and tailors' shops strangers looked at each other and thought of the dead; of the flag; of Empire. In a public house in a back street a Colonial insulted the House of Windsor which led to words, broken beer glasses, and a general shindy, which echoed strangely across the way in the ears of girls buying white underlinen threaded with pure white ribbon for their weddings. For the surface agitation of the passing car as it sunk grazed something very profound." (Mrs. Dalloway)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Narcissistic Hermeneutic

Lists, right. Stacking things up and ordering them, slotting them into hierarchies of... what, exactly? It's certainly not a list of objectively great games. There are, objectively, better games in 2011 than Catherine. Skyrim obviously. But I still like Catherine better than Skyrim, if for no other reason than that it is out-of-its-mind bonkers and, at least in the North American market, absolutely unique. And Shadows of the Damned. Oh, gosh... Shadows of the Damned. I love that game the same way I love Bayonetta--guiltily. So I could have easily placed it on this list. But it's not a great game--not like Gears of War 3, with its polish and razor-fine production, each system operating in perfect harmony with the others, is a great game. But Gears of War 3 isn't on this list because I don't like it as much as I like these games. There are probably several rubrics out there for measuring a game's achievement, importance, or greatness, rubrics against which games can be evaluated and then fitted into a scheme, but the only one I've learned to care about (and the same goes for movies and television and books) is whether I like it. It's a narcissistic hermeneutic, I admit. But I don't care what the Metacritic score for Modern Warfare 3 is. I'd rather frantically push blocks around to form a path so I can escape from the gigantic demon-version of the girlfriend I cheated on (long story), or die over and over again banging my head against a boss until I figure out how to take him down, or neurotically scour every corner of a crime scene for that last little clue that will let me nail the son of a bitch to a wall. So, lists. Here's mine. Click images for trailers.

Occupy Skimpole!

"Why," he slowly replied, roughening his head more and more, "he is all sentiment, and--and susceptibility, and--and sensibility--and--and imagination. And those qualities are not regulated in him somehow. I suppose the people who admired him for them in his youth, attached too much importance to them, and too little to any training that would have balanced and adjusted them; and so he became what he is."

"Live, and let live, we say to them. Live upon your practical wisdom, and let us live upon you!" (Bleak House)

Friday, August 12, 2011


"Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." -- (Middlemarch, last paragraph)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Coarse Pattern

 Himmler and his daughter, Gudrun

This is the kind of photograph I can look at for hours. And after those hours I am no closer to comprehending the image than when I started. It's the proximity of contraries that troubles--the fact that a young girl sits on the knee of a man who helped redefine humanity's capacity for evil. And that she loves him. And that he loves her. It disturbs. Fate hangs heavy in this photograph. Was she always doomed to receive her father's coarse pattern and have traced upon her soul, "practically blank as snow as yet," the legacy of his evil?    

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


   He had left the theatre after the first kill. She had said she wanted to stay and see the rest. Something dark, something that lies hidden in most of us, had been activated in her, and she said she needed to see it to the end. It was important that she did. He had looked at her, more sad than upset, and said okay, but he wasn’t staying. He’d seen enough and knew where it was going and he didn’t want to see it. She nodded distractedly, eyes fixed on the screen. He had waited looking at her. She had turned and looked at him and then turned back to the screen quickly. Her eyes were big, taking in much. He said he’d be waiting outside. She nodded and he left. He wasn’t alone. Several others had got up and left with him, as if emboldened by his act to say they too had had enough and didn’t desire to go where the film was taking them.
   He stepped outside the theatre and lit a cigarette. He had seen his share of horror and knew enough about himself to feel himself balancing along the edge of something deep, something he had fallen into before and didn’t want to fall into again. He thought of some of the things he had seen, some of the things he had wished he hadn’t seen but that he had sought out anyway while in that trance that lasts only until the thing is done. What was it, he wondered, that called to them through these images? Because it certainly was calling.
   It was late and dark outside. It was a midnight screening. There were not many people out. The few that were moved quickly and with apparent purpose, as if wanting to get where they were going as fast as possible. Several other people were standing outside a bar down the street. They weren’t going anywhere quickly. He heard them laughing and it seemed genuine and he wanted to go over to them and join them. A few more people came out of the theatre, their eyes tightened aggressively. One of them was apologizing. 
   He kept hoping she would be among the fed-up but she wasn't. His leaving had probably only provoked her to endure what he thought she shouldn’t see. Down the street the people went back into the bar and he was left alone. He would wait. If she decided to come out he wanted to be here, waiting.
   They had read about the film on the internet. It was generating quite a bit of controversy and people were talking about it. Some were calling it brave, important, a searing allegory of contemporary society and its need to consume. Others called it trash, exploitation, not so much a flirting with but an actual courting of evil and a celebration of violence, humiliation, and degradation. On both sides, the same things that were always said were repeated. Things about censorship and freedom of expression; things about deterioration of morals and slippery slopes. Both sides sounded trite and tired to him and nothing anyone actually said comprehended the wounds such things could inflict. He didn't want such things banned. But he did wish they didn't exist. 
   She had convinced him they should see it. They were both students of literature, and both of them thought they should be committed to ideas of metaphor and transgression. He remembered she had said something about social justice but he couldn't remember why she had said it or how it could possibly apply. Someone had to say these things, had to shout these things to a dulled audience. It was important. The blood of it all was just a vehicle for the message. That’s what she told him and tried to tell herself. He had agreed, partly not to disagree with her but also because something inside him was tugging him towards it as well.
   But he should have known better. He had absorbed much of what horror as a genre could give to him. Most of it was nonsense, the ephemeral visions of violence that momentarily flash brightly over the eyes—attempts to provoke a primal reaction for a fleeting, almost narcotic experience of detached abstract feeling; a transgressive jolt of electricity pumped into an audience comfortably living without a day-to-day taste of real violence. To those who live without the constant threat of death or rape, both can be aesthetically pleasing exercises. Most of what he had seen had washed over him without leaving much of a trace, emotional or psychic. But then there were the other sorts of films, the kind that try to hurt you. Some of the images, some of the things he had seen, had scorched deep into him and become a part of him the same way a wound is a part of the body.
   He lit another cigarette. She hadn’t come out yet.
   He should have known better, should have warned her about what being hurt like this would mean and how these images linger. He liked to think he had learned a few things already. But she had wanted to see it, had sought it out, and he, having sought it out himself in the past, felt he couldn’t say anything, even as the worst of the things he’d seen played again in front of his eyes.
   He was a student of literature, like her. The movement from innocence to experience is one of those themes that recurs, he knew this. He had come to think that this movement could be forced without any actual event but vicariously, by witnessing it, even by witnessing it only at second-hand, or through the fictional visions of others.
   He thought of all the things he had seen and tried to remember something beautiful. But he was worried about her and suddenly all he could remember where horrible things, things that she might be seeing right now. He wanted to go in and get her, at least sit with her, but he didn't.
   In the abstract, he wasn’t opposed to horrible, violent images. They served a purpose; or, at least they could serve a purpose when they are harnessed to some sort of moral vision; or, lacking that, when they were at least presented as wrong. The world could be a genuinely horrible place. For people around the world this was true. Lives and bodies were consumed daily to gratify the appetites of those for whom people were not people, but things to be played with, chewed up, consumed and discarded. He remembered reading a news story about a dictator that kept a house of virgins he had taken who he would rape and then murder. People should be reminded about this because often they forget the cruelty humans are capable of. And stories, he thought, and especially images, are strong ways of reminding people. He tried to think of an example of this moral horror. But all he could think of was how in the most extreme cases, such as what she was watching now, death transcended whatever message that had provided the pretence, which now lay soaked underneath the blood. Nihilism would be one thing. But the lurid gaze transfixed by blood does not believe in nothing; it believes in blood.
   Maybe it was different in books where you didn’t actually have to see it, where terrible images remain blurry in the imagination and so can be more readily arrested by more intellectual concerns. But he knew that books could wound, too.
   The film was over and people were coming out of the theatre. Most of them were silent. Some were joking and laughing too loudly. The silent ones left quickly. He recognized two people from the university, a professor and a student. They were discussing the film’s political metaphor. The professor was excitedly elaborating his ideas of rape and murder as social metaphor.
   “Society both celebrates and condemns sex, see, glorifying it at the same time as it condemns those that dare to enjoy it, a vicious, nasty practice that kills what it loves. Humans are often fundamentally ambivalent about these things. And did you notice the way she stopped screaming after the first couple of minutes? Or rather, how her screams of pain becomes screams of pleasure? That’s important, see. At some point, she gave in to the pleasure of it despite what society says of such things, enjoying a rape, see, indulging the natural impulses that society had forced her to sublimate, that’s important. But at the very moment that she gave herself over to the natural drive and came, see—it’s important that she had an orgasm, you see that?—at that very moment, he begins to stab her over and over again, a penetration that punishes her enjoyment of the other penetration. She had been made a sexual object. But at the moment when she refused to accept objectification for another’s pleasure and chose to enjoy the experience for herself, he again objectifies her, this time in a literal sense, making her a corpse. But she’s still coming as she bleeds, as if refusing to accept his punishment. Even when she's finally dead she still has an expression of bliss on her face. It’s rather beautiful, see, when you think of it. It’s a refusal to be what society tried to make her be. And, of course, it must all end in death, because that’s what society does, it kills.”
   The student was nodding, but perhaps too vigorously, as if she wasn’t convinced but wanted to appear more sophisticated about these things than she felt at the moment. She was trying to fit together the things he was saying with the images she had seen. But the allegory of it all wasn’t what she remembered. She remembered individual shots, the way the camera lingered too long, the twists of pain and terror that spiral through the soul. She remembered the humiliation. Her face was white and there was a nervousness about her eyes. He caught her eye and she recognized him but didn't acknowledge him. The professor hailed a cab and they got into it together, the professor still talking about how beautiful it was. Every time I see it, he was saying, I’m more and more convinced that it’s important.
   He watched them drive away and felt depressed.
   Finally she came out. She was one of the last and he knew she had sat through the credits as those around her had left until finally she was alone. She looked smaller now but maybe that was only his imagination. She came up to him and didn’t say anything. He asked her how she was and she shrugged. She stood in front of him not saying anything and looking at his shoes. Finally he put his arms around her and she leaned into him and started to cry softly, just small little tears, nothing excessive or sharp. Then she was quiet and he kissed the top of her head, saying that he was sorry. She had received the wound she’d wanted, and it had hurt more than she thought it would.
   He took her hand and they walked silently to the car and drove home.

   I have a long history with horror films, much of which I have enjoyed. There are, however, things I wish I had never seen but that can't be scrubbed out of my mind. There are things that I refuse to see but that, nevertheless, still activate an impulse inside me that desires to see them. 

Saturday, June 4, 2011


Noon in the Hayfield, detail (1897) by Sir George Clausen

     "Tess was no insignificant creature to toy with and dismiss; but a woman living her precious life--a life which, to herself who endured or enjoyed it, possessed as great a dimension as the life of the mightiest to himself. Upon her sensations the whole world depended to Tess; through her existence all her fellow-creatures existed, to her. The universe itself only came into being for Tess on the particular day in the particular year in which she was born.
     This consciousness upon which he had intruded was the single opportunity of existence ever vouchsafed to Tess by an unsympathetic First Cause--her all; her every and only chance." 

Monday, April 4, 2011


"But oh, mesdames, if you are not allowed to touch the heart sometimes in spite of syntax, and are not to be loved until you all know the difference between trimeter and tetrameter, may all Poetry go to the deuce, and every schoolmaster perish miserably!" - Vanity Fair

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Saint Agnes

Agnes was the daughter of a Roman noble. She was very beautiful. Many men lusted after her. But she was pure. Though her parents were not Christians, her nurse, a family slave, was, and it was through this slave--through this shimmering sliver of a Providential design plotted through the motions of an uncaring empire that bought and traded in human lives, through this more-than-mother who loved her dearly despite being the daughter of her masters--that Agnes learned of Jesus and the Gospel and became a Christian. She dedicated her life, her blood, her virginity to Christ. But Phocus, the son of the Roman prefect Sempronius, fell in love with her. He offered her riches; he tried to seduce her. She refused them, refused him. She told him that she already have a Lover, and that this Lover was a better, more powerful, and more rich Lover than he could ever be. Rejected, and enraged, Phocus left. Lust consumed him. He could think of nothing else. But when he discovered that she was a Christian, he was elated and thought he'd found a way to possess her. Diocletian was emperor at the time, and he had ordered the persecution and execution of Christians. Christian blood flowed through the empire, choking the ground, crying out to Heaven. Phocus, assuming she would much rather give herself to him than face an empire's wrath, denounced Agnes as a Christian to his father, and she was brought before him to answer the charge. She freely professed her faith. Sempronius then gave her the ultimatum: make sacrifices in a Roman temple or be executed. She was steady; she did not hesitate. She chose execution. She would rather bow her head to an executioner's sword than to a pagan god. She was condemned. But a Roman law stood in the way, apparently. Virgins could not be executed. It was considered inhumane. Sempronius therefore, in deference to the law, ordered her stripped naked and dragged through the streets to a brothel, where she could be raped in preparation for her execution. It would not be right, after all, to execute an innocent, and so such would be this empire's tender observations of decency. This happened. This is a thing that happens in this world. But it did not happen as Sempronius imagined. As she was being dragged naked through the street, her hair miraculously grew and provided a natural covering and protection for the virgin from the eyes of all those who watched. And there were many who watched. She was thrown into the brothel. An angel appeared and gave Agnes a garment to cover herself. God does not abandon His beloved; the shape of His comforts and tokens of His love, however, are not often recognized in this world. Because this world means something else to Him than it does to us. And so though He may not spare us the trials we must face, His grace is the sort that allows us to face those trials with dignity, knowing that a loving bridegroom stands ready to embrace us at their end. Grateful, she wrapped herself tight, terrified but steadfast in her faith. Men lined up to rape her. Word spreads quickly, especially when youth and beauty are being offered up, and there is never a shortage of people willing to do this, not then and not now. But when they were admitted into the brothel and saw her... well, accounts vary. Some say that any man who looked at her was immediately struck blind; others say that they simply looked at her and did not dare to touch her, so beautiful, so pure, and so young as she was.

She was very young, after all. She was only twelve years old. Entire empires die for things like this. Worlds will burn for things like this.

The men began to flee the brothel. Phocus, who was outside, mocked them, ridiculed them for their weakness, for not being able to rape a small, defenseless child of twelve. See, it was not enough for him that she be violated before being executed; he did not simply want to find a way to overcome a bothersome law; he desired that all the filth of a dying empire penetrate every part of her and erase her intolerable purity. Having once loved her--loved her, that is, in the vulgar, contracted, animal way which was all a mind like his was capable of--and having been once rejected by her, that love turned, and he now desired that no such thing as her exist. So he himself entered the brothel. He would rape away that purity; he himself would smear his stain onto her innocence. He pushed through the crowds of fleeing men and entered the chamber where she was kept and when he saw her he was struck immediately dead. Just like that. But Agnes, though she had no worldly reason to, prayed for him and he revived. I imagine he must have been terrified. I imagine he could not look at her. Sempronius could, however, and he immediately accused her of witchcraft and decided they should dispense with the prohibition on executing virgins. Though Phocus now pleaded with his father to spare her life (perhaps because he, like Pilate's wife, now knew that something awful was happening), she was nevertheless tied to a stake to be burned alive. And here again accounts vary. Some say the wood would not burn no matter how hard they tried to light it; others that it did burn but that the flames refused to touch her, that they actually bent away from her as if the very elements of this world recognized and reverenced her purity, so that she stood--inviolate and inconsumable--within a crown of flames. Sempronius was enraged; Phocus, again I imagine at least, must have fled and spent the rest of his life contemplating the meaning of what he had witnessed. But maybe he did not do this. Maybe he remained insensible, the terror of his encounter with the Divinity through the intercessions of that Divinity's beloved bride gradually fading until it was only an uncomfortable memory, a shining possibility of redemption now reduced to a cancer in his soul. But I do not know what happened to him; I can only imagine. But at the scene of the burning, the living Agnes, the young girl, the betrothed of a Great Lover, would not die; her flesh that man could not touch was not touched either by flame. Eventually, as Sempronius's rage, and probably his terror, increased, and as the mobs that had gathered to cheer on and witness the utter destruction of a young girl gradually began to understand that something terrible, something awful, something holy and beyond their comprehension was happening, and as their long-dead and now too-late pity finally turned towards the innocent girl, the Roman officer in charge, probably fearing that Sempronius's rage would fall on him, drew his sword and cut off her head. And so Agnes died. A child of twelve was martyred for her faith--a faith that could not be staggered, could not be humiliated, could not be unsteadied, and above all could not be touched. And from this dark world and into the arms of her Great Lover she soared.

At her trial Agnes said "To Him I have given my faith; to Him I have commanded my heart. When I love Him then am I chaste, and when I touch him then am I pure and clean, and when I take Him then am I a virgin. This is the love of my God."

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

127 Hours

Gotta say: it's contending with Alice Creed right now. Bless him, Danny Boyle does not disappoint. For him, the human suffers, often in extreme and grueling circumstances, often to the point of despair... but ultimately survives, endures, hopes. While not as visceral, or quite as devastating-slash-triumphant, as the remarkable Slumdog Millionaire (a movie that returned Boyle to the kinetic, bursting-at-the-seams, lusting-after-life energy he'd harnessed in Trainspotting), 127 Hours continues the aesthetic and thematic direction set in that movie: one motivated by hope, spun through with life, and held together by an abiding conviction that the "human spirit," ambiguous a term as that may be, or clich├ęd as it has been by more cynical artists, has the capacity to overcome and burst its way upwards towards redemption.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Alice Creed

The ridiculous "grippingly twisty thriller" quote on this poster notwithstanding, this is my favourite movie of 2010 (unless I'm allowed to count the North American releases of either The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or the Red Riding trilogy). The less you know about Alice Creed going into it, the better the movie plays. In fact, don't even watch the trailer. Watch this movie cold.


"And indeed, my dear, I know not how to forbear writing. I have now no other employment or diversion. And I must write on, although I were not to send it to anybody. You have often heard me own the advantages I have found from writing down everything of moment that befalls me; and of all I think, and of all I do, that may be of future use to me; for besides that this helps to form one to a style, and opens and expands the ductile mind, every one will find that many a good thought evaporates in thinking; many a good resolution goes off, driven out of memory perhaps by some other not so good. But when I set down what I will do, or what I have done, on this or that occasion, the resolution or action is before me either to be adhered to, withdrawn, or amended; and I have entered into compact with myself, as I may say; having given it under my own hand to improve, rather than to go backward, as I live longer." -- Clarissa