Wednesday, May 6, 2020

SX11

Out of the 39 entries available from the SXSW 2020 Film Festival on Prime Video, I've watched 23 so far. Free access ends tonight, and I plan to catch as many of the shorts as I can. Here are my Top Picks from the ones I've watched.

For Documentary Features, the standout is My Darling Vivian, dir. Matt Riddlehoover, about Vivian Liberto, Johnny Cash's first wife and the mother of his four daughters. An interesting look into her life without devolving into a hagiography, it includes great interviews and archival footage.

I watched 2 of the Narrative Features, and neither one was outstanding. For Narrative Shorts, here are my favorites so far:

Broken Bird, dir. Rachel Harrison Gordon - engaging story about a biracial girl who gets distracted by disco on her way to womanhood.
Daddio, dir. Casey Wilson - it's always good to be reminded just how talented Michael McKean is as an actor.
Dirty, dir. Matthew Puccini - nice love story that navigates around the shit of life.
Reminiscences of the Green Revolution, dir. Dean Colin Marcial  - this was a surprisingly beautiful film that does a lot in just a few minutes.
Soft, dir. Daniel Antebi - wow with that cinematography and just a tiny glimpse of a life.
Still Wylde, dir. Ingrid Haas - affecting story with talented actors.
Vert, dir. Kate Cox - interesting twist on coming to terms with who you are and who you love.

For Documentary Shorts, I'd recommend the following:

Betye Saar: Taking Care of Business, dir. Christine Turner - straightforward focus on an amazing artist.
Broken Orchestra, dir. Charlie Tyrell - innovative storytelling, though I wanted less talking heads and more of the music.
Modern Whore, dir. Nicole Bazuin - sex positive look at contemporary sex work in the age of #metoo.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Review: A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira

https://sublunaryeditions.com/store/index.html?product=926years

Not really a question: is it any wonder that I began this book while flying to California, the place where palm trees first took root in my imagination.

But a question: what if history were more than (anything but) a list of battles and dates? What if history were a living thing, one that promises to to be more than just its mundane existence? A touchstone, a point of reference rooted in the ground and in the imagination? Such are the questions that underpin A Luminous History of the Palm.

Across its 57 pages Sequeira delineates the various incarnations of this most fruitful of symbols. It becomes health and wealth before transforming into weapon, home. She traces its appearance from ancient Judea to the rice fields of Thailand. She witnesses its manifestations as chimera, star, a succession of frond-like waves, a symbol of time and of the zodiac. She measures the height of their god-like gazes, offering, no, not enlightenment but a share in their own luminous natures. At its most playful, it's simply a puzzle book where the reader searches for a hidden tree on every page.

This book is a meditation in the best sense, not just on the palm but also on the art of translation, of crafting fiction. Is it any wonder—again: not a question—that Sequeira devotes her book to the tree that shares its name with the open hand.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Wonder Years: A Review of 926 Years by Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster

https://sublunaryeditions.com/store/index.html?product=926years

A few weeks ago I received a circular in the mail for a real estate company. The business had been around for a few decades but it boasted having hundreds of years of experience by simply tallying the work years of its individual employees. I straight away recognized the mathematical fallacy. This kind of creative accretion operates in the new book 926 Years by Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster, and published by Sublunary Editions.

The book comprises twenty-two short(er) stories. Each features a person, a character, whose age ranges from 8 to 81. (There are two who are 54. The characters have an average age of 42 and a median age of 35.5. ) Adding their ages together, you arrive at the misleading sum of 926.

Tempering this total "age" of the book's title is a quote from Victor Klemperer's war diary, translated by Martin Chalmers, that serves as the book's epigraph: "It is said children still have a sense of wonder, later one becomes blunted. —Nonsense. A child takes things for granted, and most people get no further; only an old person, who thinks, is aware of the wondrous."

You promptly begin to wonder, if you are a thinking person of a certain age, whether such pure accumulation, per Klemperer's claim, grants one the wondrousness of old age. As if to let slip the fact that the authors are on to you and your sly ways, the first story begins, "The child is dying." It's a grievous tale about the convenient lies parents tell themselves and their children about a god's mercy. And then the next: an even older man, this one "great," who seems to know the magic trick of dying well. But in the meantime….

And another and another. The stories amass. They are compiled. But like real estate experience, it's sheer arithmetic and accumulation. And childlike wonder, no matter one's age, still gets taken for granted, stunted—blunted, no matter the number of years you manage to put behind you. It's up to you to figure out what it all adds up to.

Tristan Foster's Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father (Transmission Press) was easily one of my favorite books last year, so I was excited about this collection. I spent an excessive amount of time trying to determine which of the authors penned each story, making assumptions about what each writer might be familiar with regarding the cities and geography mentioned throughout. There are worse ways to read a collection of short stories. But, alas, some numerology cannot be unraveled. And regarding cities and geography, the book could easily have been, instead of accumulated years, stockpiled miles.

This collection is a field of stars with no predetermined constellations mapped out. It shimmers in the void and pulls you in with its spectacular gravity.

Friday, January 17, 2020

The Plat Thickens: A Review of John Trefry's Plats

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In his Meditations, Descartes cites watching people bundled in winter dress at a distance as an example of the gap between perception and judgment:
If I look out of the window and see men crossing the square, as I have just done, I say that I see the men themselves…; yet do I see any more than hats and coats that could conceal robots? I judge that they are men.
The narrator in John Trefry's Plats dismisses Cartesian judgment altogether, relying on the lie of perception that would reduce others to pure color and form. But perhaps that's not quite right: Trefry's narrator, who himself is not quite fully human, and by "human" I mean possessing judgment and individuality, seems to require scare quotes. He is not so much a narrator as sheer narration itself: a near-endless barrage of perceptions that he can't quite adjudicate to save himself:
What you feel in the darkness isnt consistent with any physical possibilities, if you knew the shape of your body or where it lay. It is diffused and adrift. Your senses burn where they shouldnt, amidst you, all of it is you and you are filled with so much vague geography. In the rolling black shiver that fans through you the touch is consistent, liquid ice, or oil asymptotically kissing freezing. You dont reach final states. You remain on the verge. It is so still and so uniform that it touches you completely at once, with the same anesthetic pace across your unfolded perception, a perfect unreflective blackness from which your own extents, in the way that you want them, are not visible or present. You feel the coldness describing them, but they are gone.
The text relies on idiosyncratic punctuation. It forgoes hyphens, apostrophes, and even most question marks even while retaining a rather elevated diction. That is, the text reveals itself in a depleted, exhausted state while still operating under the pretense of literature.

It took me a few years to work up the stamina and courage to read this book. Every time I would open it, and I opened it repeatedly, almost every time I finished one book and was trying to decide on another, I'd see the intimidating blocks of tiny text in a seemingly endless repetition of structure and form. Each paragraph, each page, every eleven lines mirroring all the other paragraphs, pages, and blocks of eleven lines—a structure that doesn't seem to allow for progression and development.

It is as if Trefry took Blanchot’s literary experimentation to an extreme, scraping away the conceits of literature, of plot, of character, of theme, etc. until literature shows itself as literature in a state of diminishment. Literature as the erosion of what is literary. But Blanchot wrote abbreviated tales that barely amount to a collection of short stories. Trefry's "novel" is 156 pages. Here, too, the scare quotes are befitting.

If a novel does away with the elements that make up a novel, then what does that leave on the page? In the case of Plats, I'd say it is mostly setting and style. At least those are the two main elements that stick with me. In this way, Trefry comes close to fulfilling Artaud’s dream of a theater of pure mise-en-scène for Plats accedes to the primacy of place and props while dismissing those other literary conceits. It is called, after all, Plats and not Plots, for it most definitely concerns property, pieces of land, and architectural features to the detriment of diegesis.

The text harnesses the dissolution of character into props and the subsequent dissolution of props into setting, but it's a setting devoid of actual context. Plats takes place in a landscape formed by the deformations of character and narrative. What's more, the context provides no causal relation. It is utter sedimentation, as if accrual could stand in for development:
I promote the insistence that these phenomena of light and the manifestation of the cavernous formations are reflections. Through the atmospheric theatrics of vapor an emptied environment allows the surface characters of sheen and glimmer to prevail. These are subtle performances, the edges of characters. Little light reaches into the shallow dips of fingertips where I pool. My presence is far too sparse and oblique. In a downcast vista I receive distant and detached twinkles traveling through liquid gauze. Each drift of my milky cloud, growing more distant from the touch of the lipid light, has resulted in a softer rendering of the heaped body. I settle to await the transubstantiative dawn. I submit to the pliability of dew.
Or to put it another way, this is not development in the form of traditional narrative but development in the form of city planning: a cancerous growth that repeats tirelessly, reducing all difference to a blanketing a-topic sameness of place. Literature as accretion that raises parataxis to an ideology. There is no evolution, growth, or progress. It's a sedimentary storytelling that renounces all the qualities of what goes into a story.

For at least a quarter of the book, I called Trefry’s bluff and read across the pages instead of down them. That is, instead of reading Paragraphs 1, 2, and 3 on the left-hand page before going on to Paragraphs 1, 2, and 3 on the right-hand side, I would read both Paragraphs 1, then both 2, and then both 3, which seemed to make stronger connections among the otherwise seemingly unrelated paragraphs.

Reading Plats was like induced amnesia, though perhaps it didn't help that I read the book while recovering from the worst concussion of my adult life. It made reading a type of forgetting, and as soon as I was able to pretend that I no longer knew what literature was supposed to be, I was able to embrace it for what it was.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

The Top 10 North Texas Play Productions of 2019

I attended 46 theater productions this past year, all of them in North Texas. Later this week TheaterJones will publish my year's highlights list, in which you'll be able to see which of these productions I named the best. But since I didn't have the time or space in my article to talk about the field of contenders, I thought I'd post something here.

I saw some incredible work, and I'm proud to be a critic, journalist, blogger, activist, and supporter of the arts in this region. My list is alphabetical by playwright's last name, and I'm including some basic comments with links to my reviews.
  • Caryl Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You and Here We Go by Second Thought Theatre — Two one acts by probably the most important living playwright today, and also the first time I've seen a production of Churchill's work. I've only recently started seeing Second Thought, and to make it up to them, as well as to acknowledge their skill and artistry, I'm allowing them two places on my list. Their next season looks amazing.
  • Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot by Forth Worth Community Arts Center — My review. One of my favorite plays by one of my favorite group of actors. This is maybe only the third time I've seen this show live. Interesting interpretation.
  • Guillermo Calderón's Villa (trans. William Gregory) by Teatro Dallas —I love Teatro. I saw my first Teatro production in 1989, which was also when I fell in love with their artistic director Cora Cardona. This was an intense play based on the aftermath of the Pinochet regime with an outstanding cast and interesting set.
  • Blake Hackler's What We Were by Second Thought Theatre — I felt shell shocked after watching this hard-hitting family drama by a local playwright, but the script was gorgeous in a brutal sort of way, and it was acted by a strong ensemble.
  • Samuel D. Hunter's The Few by Resolute Theatre Project —My review. Another great cast performing in the first Hunter play I've seen. I actually requested to review it just because of its director and because I'd heard so much about Hunter. The technical aspects were as flawless as the acting. I hope to see more by the playwright and this theater group.
  • Matthew Paul Olmos'  so go the ghosts of méxico, part three, a poet sings the daughter songs by Undermain Theatre —I've been attending plays by Undermain since 1988. Everything they do is interesting even if I may not like a particular show. Olmos's work is exquisite; he's one of my favorite playwrights, so it was great to see this show premiere here with actors who I know and like. Another gorgeous and brutal work.
  • Peter Shaffer's Equus by Lakeside Community Theatre —My review. Outstanding direction by Adam Adolfo, whose vision was revelatory. One of my favorite plays. Strong cast with good technical aspects.
  • Sam Shepard's Buried Child by Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre —My review. One of the first plays that fired my imagination. I'm a die-hard Shepard fan, though I finally got comfortable with the fact that he was a terrible person in spite of his writing skill. Amazing actors. Good direction and set.
  • Sam Shepard's Fool for Love by The Classics Theatre Project —My review. Another Shepard play, but this time by a new group on the scene. TCTP has easily become one of my favorite theater groups in their first full season. And their production of Tennessee William's Summer and Smoke could easily be on this list, but I had to cut a lot of shows to stick to the top-10 format. I can't imagine a more perfect cast. Great technical theater. Stellar production overall.
  • Steve Yockey's Reykjavík by Kitchen Dog Theater —My review. I didn't think I'd be interested in this show, but it captured my attention. Good cast. Fabulous design. And I trust Kitchen Dog. I've been seeing their shows since I can't remember when, back when The MAC was actually on McKinney Avenue. I hate that I only caught this one show by Kitchen Dog this year, but it was a memorable production.
North Texas is a rarity in that it sustains so many mid- and high-tier local theater companies. Some cities, even larger ones, do not have the thriving theater scene that Dallas and Forth Worth (and all their suburbs) have, so the trick is to to continue to support it and to not take it for granted. I'll do my part.

Please check out my year-end article on TheaterJones to see which of these ten outstanding productions I named the best of 2019.