A Sort of Book Review (But Not Really): LINCOLN IN THE BARDO

Being obsessed with my own mortality, perhaps Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders may not be the best choice when I decided to take a break from mystery novels, my literary equivalent of “comfort food”. However, I had read a lot of favorable press  on the Saunders book and I was curious.

Bardo, according to Tibetan Buddhists, is a kind of existence between death and rebirth. The Lincoln of the title refers not to the town car but U.S. President Abraham Lincoln himself.

The novel, which takes place during one momentous night in 1862 in  a Washington DC cemetery, depicts President Lincoln, unaware of the fact he is being watched by ghosts, grieving at the graveside of his young son, Willie, who has died of a fever. 

Lincoln - cover

And here’s the kicker: the ghosts who serve as narrators for the majority of the novel are not  aware they are dead. (Any relation to the current administration is strictly a matter of chance.) The ghosts refer to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and the planet they inhabited while alive as “that other place”. There is a middle-aged man who was about to consummate his marriage to a much younger woman; a conflicted homosexual brooding about a lost love, an elderly clergyman and a coarse and rather vulgar husband and wife duo  (There are other ghostly voices, too,  including the late Willie Lincoln!)

Let me be honest or as I  refer to it, my literary equivalent of hara-kiri. 

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George Saunders and his best-selling book

I was unfamiliar with the works of George Saunders. Judging from some of the names on the back of the book, though, Mr. Saunders is a short story master (Lincoln in the Bardo is his first novel). No less a literary luminary than Dave Eggers wrote that Mr. Saunders is  “… no one more essential to our national sense of self and sanity.” (in other words, “A Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius” or something like that) and Zadie Smith claims” not since Twain has America produced a satirist this funny.” (Her claims may be”greatly exaggerated.”) The publishers have also recruited such literary lions as Khaled Hosseni, Lorrie Moore and (gasp!) Thomas Pyncheon to write blurbs on the back cover of Mr. Saunders’ debut novel.  So who am I, a mere English major, to argue about Mr. Saunders brilliance, both as a short fiction master and a novelist?

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Incidentally. a website called openculture.com (which I am familiar with) has assembled a collection of Mr. Saunders’ vaunted short fiction, The New York Times online video section has a ten-minute video inspired by Lincoln in  the Bardo, a feature film version is in the works (good luck with that! ) and interviews with Mr. Saunders are available online on various sites including youtube. 








But then it might have been Fettucini ….

I recently saw Da Nada (oops! sorry! wrong film) … I mean, La Strada at one of those Free Film Nights sponsored by the local library. Giulietta Masina as the naive waif stuck in an abusive relationship with a loutish circus strongman played by Anthony Quinn is both adorable and heart-breaking (it is easy to see why director Federico Fellini fell in love with her and asked her to be his wife.) And I hafta think it was a shame Mr. Quinn couldn’t summon up the same passion and regret his character shows in that classic final scene in La Strada in some of his later Hollywood vehicles.

There must have been a problem with the subtitles, though. Because although the film I saw was in Italian with English language subtitles, there was a swarthy Mediterranean type next to me who kept laughing at dialogue I didn’t think was particularly funny. Like I said, there must have been a problem with the subtitles.

Or …

It May B All Greek 2U: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Judging from some of the comments online, not everyone “gets” the films by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos and his screenwriting partner, Efthymis Filippou.

I’ll admit it. Watching the twisted family dynamics in Dogtooth (Oscar nominee – Best Foreign Film – 2009) was kinda bizarre.

The duo’s follow-up film, The Lobster (Oscar nominee- Best Original Screenplay- 2017) is even harder to figure (Colin Farrell, playing against type, is a lonesome, socially awkward bachelor, who checks into a special hotel where residents have 45 days to find a mate among their fellow guests or be transformed into an animal of their choice. His brother, who failed the test, has been turned into a dog.)

The latest effort, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Winner – Best Screenplay – Cannes Film Festival- 2017), is, I am informed, inspired by Greek tragedy. Mind you, a person would have to be sharp to pick up on this. The title of the film, as it was explained to me, dates back to Iphigenia in Aulis by the 4th century BC playwright Euripides. And, of course, there is a random reference to Iphigenia in the screenplay.

Deer - poster

One critic has suggested that Lanthimos has traded in “theatre of the absurd” for “theatre of cruelty”. Certainly Sacred Deer is a heavy watch. (Even Colin Farrell, portraying a heart surgeon who makes a fatal mistake , has told an interviewer that he was “f—-ing depressed” while shooting the film.)

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Colin Farrell in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

The cast also includes Nicole Kidman.

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Does this woman have a portrait in the attic a la Dorothy Gray? (Or is that Dorian). No matter.  She gives a deeply committed performance as usual.  Barry Keoghan (you may have spotted him in Dunkirk) is especially spooky.

Deer - Keoghan

The film starts out slowly at first and gradually tightens like a noose around your neck on its way to its remorseless, chilling conclusion. Yikes!




RANDOM MUTTERINGS #3 – The Needle and the Knitting Done

I saw a familiar face staring out at me from the cover of Vogue Knitting. Admittedly Krysten Ritter looks a little more relaxed than she does in her day job as Marvel’s Jessica Jones, now streaming on Netflix. (Maybe Ms. Ritter is thinking of that scarf she has just created.)

Of course, you’d be agonized, too, if you were Jessica Jones. your brother and father died in a car crash when you were a child, you’ve recently discovered  your mom (played with ferociousness and femininity by Janet McTeer) is still alive, although not exactly in the way you remember her, your best friend (Rachael Taylor) is jealous of your superpowers and you have been experimented on by a misguided , some might call him  mad,  scientist (Callum Keith Rennie).

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Yes, she’s troubled but then she is a Marvel Comics character (Hey! That’s part of the appeal) and Ms. Ritter has definitely committed herself to the lead role with  commendable results.

As for Ms. Ritter herself, you can see the kittenish side of her onscreen personality as she tries to teach late night talk show host Stephen Colbert how to knit and the bored, I’d-rather-be-knitting side on something called Build (it doesn’t help that the interviewer, who looks almost as bored, mistakenly calls the chief villain in Season One of Jessica Jones  “Kilgore” instead of Kilgrave.) 

Random Mutterings #2 – Marvel vs. DC

I recently finished reading Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50 Year Battle Between Marvel and DC, Reed Tucker’s meticulously researched (well, meticulously researched,by my standards but then I am not “an aging fanboy” or a comic book cultist). Probably my favorite quote is not from the book but the blurb on the back cover from, of all people, SNL alum and talk show host Seth Meyers: Reed Tucker masterfully dissects the REAL issue dividing us as a nation.” 

arnold s. book cover

I don’t have a dog in this fight but I confess to reading Batman comics as a youngster (and I have seen all of the Tim Burton and Chris Nolan films as an adult. ) Still, if someone held a gun to my head and forced me to choose, I would probably have to pick Marvel. I still remember the guilty thrill I got when the bugler in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos mentioned Miles Davis in a speech balloon. Okay, the comic was set in WWII and Miles didn’t start recording till the 50s so it was kinda anachronistic but it was still kinda cool. (Ironically, Sgt. Fury is one of the few Marvel comic book series NOT to be turned into a movie – although I thought Ah-nold would be perfect casting in the abortive project mentioned in Slugfest.  Sam Jackson as Nick Fury just doesn’t do it for me.)

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Arnold S. would have made a great Sgt. Fury

But whaddya think about the book? (Who Cares?)  It was informative, entertaining and reminded me of those long ago days when I watched all those movies and read  all those comic books and graphic novels (still looking for Frank Miller’s DARK KNIGHT RETURNS) unquestioningly.

Arnold S. Sgt. Rock

And then there is Todd MacFarlane and all that background info on Image Comics ……

Random Mutterings #1: They Don’t Know Jack About Taylor

…. Looks like they are turning one of my favorite fictional tough guys into a pussycat. They’ve even given Jack Taylor (played in the TV series and the movies by Iain Glen …. I guess they couldn’t afford Liam Neeson) a girlfriend. (Siobhan O’Kelly has replaced Nora-Jane Noone but the movie has kept the character’s name, Kate Noonan, and presumably used the replacement as an excuse to involve Jack and Kate in a relationship.)

Author Ken Bruen is obviously so chuffed they are making his novels into TV and movie stuff that he doesn’t care whether the screenplays take radical turns away from his novels. He even refers to Iain Glen in one of his novels and has a cameo role in a movie based on  a book.) One thing hasn’t changed from the novels, though. Jack is still letting people down. (He promises to be there to lend support prior to Kate’s cancer surgery and arrives late. Sure, he has a good reason. There is always a good reason. Isn’t there? )

Reviewers who have praised the books as “hard-boiled fiction” are not just whistling an Irish jig. The novels may be too dark for the movie and TV types. But, yes, at the risk of using the cliche, I liked the books better.

Jack Taylor
Iain Glen as Jack Taylor -A Real Pussycat


When Elle Wanted to Be Un Homme

I have always regarded Elle Fanning as the youthful essence of cinematic femininity (check out The Beguiled or Somewhere) but in  3 Generations she depicts a teen-age girl who for reasons of her own wants to transition into a boy. (The film was originally entitled About Ray).

3 Gens - Elle 3

Director Gaby Dellal says she got the original idea for the film from a man who was moving furniture for her sister. “I said, ‘How are you?’ and he said, ‘It’s been a tricky day today because my daughter’s just told me she wants to become my son,” the director told NYLON magazine. ” I had never come across any transgender people at that point, not directly, and so I was fascinated. Not only was he open, he was very adjusted by it…. He was so proud of his child and so positive about him, and that’s what really inspired me.”

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Elle Fanning as Ray

3 Generations also explores the effect of Ray’s decision on the adults around her, including her single mom (Naomi Watts) and grandmother (Susan Sarandon).

Ms. Dellal defends her choice of casting Ms. Fanning in the title role (“I’m so proud of her characterization and her enormous amount of work and sensitivity to the character that she was playing …. NYLON) but the UK-based filmmaker told VANITY FAIR’s online newsletter HWD DAILY that if she was making 3 Generations now (the film bowed at Cannes in 2015 but was probably shot much earlier) she would have cast a trans actor in the lead role.

3 Generations is not without its flaws (scoring 47 out of 100 on Metacritic) but, as Darren Ruecker writes in wegotthiscovered. com the film “will hopefully inspire discussion and reflection among people who may have never been exposed to trans issues, and that alone makes it valuable.”

3 Gens - poster