A Love Letter To Literature

The 50th Anniversary of John Williams’ Stoner

John Williams’s Stoner — which this month is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a tastefully geometric hardback edition from New York Review Books — is a quiet novel; a portrait painted in sober tones of the life of a somber, unremarkable man, a story that unfolds softly and with grace. The book treads along with William Stoner, from his birth and childhood on a small family farm in rural Missouri, to university where he is awakened to his inner life, on through World War I and the Great Depression, his years as an instructor, his marriage, the birth of his family, the destruction of it, and finally, inevitably, his death. It’s the stuff of Russian literature, and a novel that has become more necessary today than ever before.

But unlike the Russians, there are no great battles and very few untimely deaths. Stoner is no ostensible hero. He does not partake in the Great War. He does not crusade for his love or rage for justice. He is a scholar. He writes a meddling book of lit theory, lectures piously, marvels at his daughter, stands for the sanctity of literature. He is passive and, quite possibly, dull. At least from the outside. In other words, he is the exact opposite of what much of modern literature asks of its protagonists. Today, no story is sufficiently alive without a quirky, irksome narrator, an acerbic and stifled genius, an anti-hero.

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War Doc ‘Combat Obscura’ Is An Unflinching Microcosm Of War In Afghanistan

War is “boredom punctuated by moments of terror,” as the old adage goes. Boredom, however, has never made for a good film, which has led to a cinematic century of war presented as an exciting, if horrifying endeavor. And while some films (“Full Metal Jacket” and “Platoon“) edged ever closer to the ghastly reality, and others (“Jarhead“) captured the tedium, none seem to embody the stark duality as “Combat Obscura” so fully.

The new documentary opens with a list of disclaimers, chiefly that the film — which was shot by director Miles Lagoze and a few others while in Afghanistan in 2011 when Lagoze was a videographer for a Marine battalion — is not endorsed by the Department of Defense. “We filmed what they wanted, but then we kept shooting,” a title card reads. It can be assumed that what “they” wanted was propaganda: Marines as ambassadors, handing out chocolate, meeting with tribal leaders, and generally bringing peace to a wartorn country. And Marines as super soldiers using the best technology in the world to fight terrorism.

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‘Wrestle’: A Striking Examination Of Race, Poverty & High School Sports In Alabama [Review]

There aren’t many ways out of poverty. The socioeconomic constraints that pin families in place don’t often let up from one generation to the next. This, though, is the antithesis to the American Dream of upward mobility. And while we are gradually coming to terms with this reality—that circumstances at home and in the community and in society will prevent a great many from achieving even relief from grinding poverty—we continue to buy into higher education as an escape, a sort of rocket ship loaded with the possibility to launch people into the middle class. This fanciful belief belies that fact that college itself is untenable for so many for myriad reasons, from its unreasonable cost to the time it demands. One loophole, for a select few gifted students, is sports. Following in the footsteps of “Hoop Dreams” and “Undefeated,” “Wrestle” captures the hardships and hopes of four young men in Alabama as they fight for the scholarships that could change their lives.

Directed by Suzannah Herbert, alongside co-director Lauren Belfer, “Wrestle” is the story of one season at Huntsville’s failing J.O. Johnson High School during which four wrestlers, Jailen, Jamario, Teague, and Jaquan, compete for their spot at the state championships and for the future that comes with that glory. And while the kids’ courageous fight faces long enough odds as is, they, alongside their coach Chris Scribner, are also wrestling with race, mental health, drugs, poverty, and unstable homes. The point that “Wrestle” inevitably makes is that these kids and this story are not unusual. Certainly, they have talent as wrestlers, but the circumstances they are all fighting against are not unique.

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‘Honeyland’ Is A Haunting Portrait Of A Dying Way Of Life [Sundance Review]

There is an unassuming languidness to Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska’s anthropologic documentary about a rural Macedonian beekeeper, “Honeyland.” It’s a quiet and passive film that’s content to luxuriate in place and revel in solitude, which, in turn, both drags the narrative’s loose pacing and instills a certain natural structure that, once embraced, becomes almost mesmerizing.

“Honeyland,” as it begins, is a sort of documentation of a disappearing way of life. Hatidze Muratova, a 50-something woman, is, along with her ill mother Nazife, the last true resident of their rural village. Hatidze spends her time caring for her bees — which she keeps in the stone walls of old structures and in the rocks of cliffs instead of modern bee boxes — and for her mother. Her approach to beekeeping is deeply spiritual and environmentally conscious. This consciousness, though, is not the progressive sort. Instead, it feels rooted in deep tradition and respect for both the bees and the natural world itself. Though she sells her honey in markets in Skopje, Macedonia’s capital city, she refuses to collect more than half of her bees’ honey at a time. Some for us, some for them, she says, time and again.

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Grand Jury Prize Winner ‘One Child Nation’ Uncovers A Traumatic History [Sundance Review]

From 1979 until 2015 China controlled its population through its notorious one-child policy. The name, in more than one way, is a misnomer. In theory, a one-child policy simply limits the number of children a family can have to one. But the reality of the policy was far more devastating. Not only were women given forced abortions, but they were often sterilized against their will, while children were taken from families and sold to orphanages. It is this deeply troubling and incredibly complex reality that Nanfu Wang’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner “One Child Nation” sets out to explore.

Wang, like so many millions of Chinese in her generation, grew up under the shadows of the one-child policy. Propaganda and cultural indoctrination kept her from questioning the policy or its fallout until, after years of living in New York, Wang had her first child. The birth of her son, Wang explains in voiceover, got her thinking about the policy, which had been so ingrained into Chinese society as to be almost invisible—a harsh law that was unquestionably enforced but that nonetheless went unquestioned.

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‘Midnight Traveler’: Refugees Reclaim Their Story In Harrowing Documentary [Sundance Review]

The democratizing power of technology gives everyone the tools and platform to be heard. It has, at times, worked miracles — many claim Twitter and Facebook were integral in coordinating the Arab Spring, while the ubiquity of smartphones has allowed the documentation of human rights violations committed by dictators around the world (and in Syria in particular). But, it could be argued, these same technologies have done nothing to affirm the agency and humanity of those from marginalized and oppressed countries — their photos and videos are co-opted by international media organizations (both those friendly and hostile) who use them to create their own narratives (both those truthful and not), and Facebook and Twitter do what they do to harvest data and sell ads.

This messy dynamic is one reason the new documentary “Midnight Traveler,” which premiered recently at Sundance, is so refreshing. With “Midnight Traveler,” Afghan filmmaker Hassan Fazili, alongside his wife Fatima Hussaini, uses technology in a desperate and tenacious attempt to reclaim his family’s agency after they are forced to flee Afghanistan and make the illegal and perilous journey to Europe.

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Netflix’s ‘Fyre’ Doc Is A Fascinating Study Of The Man Behind The Infamous Music Festival Disaster [Review]

Behind every great disaster is a fascinating story. And, as our society continues to amass more ways to document our every interaction with Instagram and other social media tools, these great stories become easier and easier to tell. “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened,” a new Netflix documentary about the infamous musical festival catastrophy in the Bahamas, is a perfect example of this new era in storytelling where even the most damning interactions are intentionally filmed — because if it didn’t get shared online, did it actually happen?

‘Fyre’ isn’t constructed around unraveling a mystery and it doesn’t pivot on any unforeseen twist. The film is built from the assumption that everyone knows how this shitshow ends. From the beginning, the calamity awaiting this doomed festival looms amid every interaction with and beneath every decision of Fyre’s notorious founder — Billy McFarland. This dread also haunts the faces and stories told by the principal characters who McFarland roped into his fantastical dream. ‘Fyre,’ then, is like watching a car crash in slow motion. There is no question of how awfully this thing will end for everyone involved, but it is hard not to be captivated by the devilishly charming ringmaster who continually tightens the rope around the neck of his own business. This includes hiring videographers to document his every move — whether it be on a tropical island paradise or in a New York penthouse while, quite literally, committing fraud.

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‘Making A Murderer Part 2’ Is Full Of Riveting Family Drama But Light On Answers [Review]

If you watch “Making a Murderer” looking for answers, you should know by now that you’ve come to the wrong place. The first season of Netflix’s cultural phenomenon was, on the surface, all about answers. Or the lack thereof. Or the search for them. But, over the course of the 10 episodes, which premiered in 2015, answers are few and far between. Of course, this is exactly what makes the show so appealing. There are so many questions — about the horrific murder of Teresa Halbach, the details that don’t add up, and about Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey — and so few solutions. On top of that, the answers that do surface tend to contradict every fact that came before. The show, created by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, is a mystery of the messiest kind. And unlike the orderly truths we’ve come to expect from cinema, after carefully following the twists and turns and bearing witness to the grisly details of a young woman’s murder, there is no reward of justice or logic waiting at the end.

‘Part 2,’ which hit Netflix with all 10 episodes available now, is more of the same — for better or worse. The show, once again helmed by Ricciardi and Demos, picks up where the first season left off and keeps following the same grueling and repetitive theories, ostensibly in search of ever-elusive answers. One thing, though, shadows over every new update in the lives of Steven, Brendan, and their family: “Making a Murderer.” The show, which became a pop culture staple, was obviously well watched in Manitowoc County, where Brendan and Steve are from. More importantly, the show’s central issue — the guilt of two men versus the corruption of an entire local legal system — fell neatly inside a preset political debate, leaving many to develop fierce and firm beliefs about the case. In Manitowoc County, this tension boiled into hostility. For those involved, the national attention appears to have made it even less appealing to give any ground or concede even the most minor faults. The fight, as seen in season two, was even more entrenched, with even more lives and reputations on the line.

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Charles Ferguson’s Timely ‘Watergate’ Doc Is Routine But Vital [NYFF Review]

It’s been a hell of a week. A divided, partisan country ripped at the seams and what was once a split has become an unnavigable chasm. The protracted and ugly Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh turned into a culture war — left vs. right, men vs. women — when a courageous woman came forward with sexual assault allegations against the nominee and instead of a thorough investigation from the FBI, the country was given a contentious set of hearings Thursday. And while it might seem naive or Coastal, it’s hard to imagine that anyone out there didn’t already have an unyielding opinion that was only exacerbated throughout this whole, repugnant process.

From the depths of this collective despair, it’s hard to see the light on the other side — some sort of unifying kinship that allows us to no longer detest (or at least lack respect for) our neighbors, though it is easy to remember less contentious times (both those fueled by war and those that just simply weren’t batshit crazy). It is therefore easy to forget that this level of chaos has consumed our government and our country before: Watergate. The scandal of all American scandals, Watergate truly was the sort of Constitutional crisis that people claim is encroaching today. This impossible-to-miss parallel is a good portion of what gives Charles Ferguson’s new six-part docu-series “Watergate” its urgency. It’s also what is most likely to glue you to your seat for 260 minutes of this thorough and engaging, but generally uninspiring, film.

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Buster Keaton Crashes Through Exalting Doc ‘The Great Buster: A Celebration’ [Venice Review]

Few, if any, forms of art have changed as fast as cinema. From the beginning, it was married to the greatest boom of technology the world has ever known. From the Kinetoscope and the Lumière Brothers to the birth of studios to talkies to color to 3D and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Movies have always been changing as fast as they could be made, which, generally speaking, has left audiences rapt. But this avalanche of change — like the gloriously unhinged avalanche in “Seven Chances” — has had little regard for the norms and the people in its way. Buster Keaton, the indelible king of physical comedy danced around the boulders in “Seven Chances” but was thoroughly bulled over by the changing industry. While his legacy remains intact, the arc of his career is one of painful, if humble, desperation. But while “The Great Buster: A Celebration,” a new documentary about Great Stone Face, covers the arc of his life, it aims for simplicity, for a celebration of his unrivaled talents, and often fails to explore the complexity of the very man at its center.

Keaton was born into a pratfall. His family was a touring comedy troupe and the young Buster was on stage before he was two. He transitioned into films under the guidance of Fatty Arbuckle before rocketing to fame as the director and star of his own two-reel shorts. Stardom came quick, of course, and Keaton was soon writing, directing and starring in his own features, most of which he made during the 1920s. His fall, though, began in 1927, with the birth of sound. That alone might have been a storm Keaton could have weathered, but he also signed a disastrous deal with MGM that robbed him of his creative agency, divorced his wife (who changed the last names of his children), and sank into alcoholism. That he bounced back to rebuild and sustain a reputable, if, at times, unworthy-of-his-former-glory career, is no small feat.

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