Issue One: Sanctuary
Part One: The Walk
I hadn't yet read about the butterfly sanctuary on the day I was taking a walk, from my house in North Portland, to a cinema in northwest, a walk totaling nearly six miles, of which was somewhat spontaneous. It was the first sunny day in months, and I decided, upon waking, to take an hours long stroll, as it had been ages since I had walked with little intention. My destination was a matinee of the film Drive My Car, by one of my favorite modern directors, Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
Though I didn't know about the butterfly sanctuary, my journey did eventually lead me to an insect zoo which I had never heard of, a small building filled with a few tiny terrariums, some containing giant spiders, some African cockroaches, and my favorite, an enormous preying mantis which reminded me a bit of a warrior, bringing to mind the Japenese legend that dragonflies are in fact reincarnated samurai. There have been many days lying in the middle of a lake off Mt Hood, in an inflatable kayak without many people around, where I would watch the dragonflies and think about this legend, their wings looking somewhat like spears, and the way they moved seeming to symbolize the idea of attack; that is, in swift and coherent lines, unlike ants which seem to zig zag without direction, though of course we all know they are moving in a "hive mind," not unlike many of us.
The butterfly sanctuary is in Texas, on land that the US government, under Trump, wanted to build a wall on. When the sanctuary refused to destroy the natural habitat, built and sustained for decades, in order to violently place steel mesh as a gesture, that while largely symbolic, was in fact literally destructive, a gesture that initially even Republicans thought was extreme, Trump’s initial bid for an election scoffed at by the loyalists who now line up behind him, not unlike other authoritarian leaders throughout history, we often forget that such figures started off as jokes.
When The National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas made the decision to prioritize nature over forced architecture, right wing "trolls" began a rumor that this center, which, aside to being home to thousands of rare flying creatures, also is a refuge for various bees, was in fact a front for human trafficking. The fact that the first to state this was Brian Kolfage, the founder of We Build the Wall, did not disuay people online, nor did it prevent the lies to snowball, culminating in a congressperson attacking a worker of the sanctuary, and finally, the doors closing to the public, due to safety concerns. It doesn’t take much for lies to shift reality, lies being a term that the executive director of the sanctuary prefers we use, as, in her words, “As long as they’re called ‘conspiracies’, then it seems like there’s some plausibility.”
Marianna Treviño-Wright’s statement reminds me of a Russian tactic used on dissenters, which is to accuse them, without evidence of extreme things such as child pornography and rape. The idea behind this “strategy”, if we can soil that word, is that they will tarnish their reputation beyond repair, as one political refugee, who now lives in Europe put it, he is guilty until proven innocent, and innocence is almost impossible to prove.
Before the right drudged up centuries old slanders (human trafficking and child abuse was often an accusation used against Jewish people), they engaged in what now seems like a benign version of this, when they investigated “emails”, and despite evidence showing no wrong doing, they would continue the investigations, knowing that the guilt, though not accurate, would be impossible to shake off (and likely was one of many reasons why the election went to Trump, by just a handful of votes in a handful of states).
The left sometimes does its small versions of these as well, although it seems less forceful, and more about confirmation bias. When an almost year long investigation could find no concrete evidence of Russia colluding with Trump; it was still impossible for me to shake off the suspicion. And it still is.
Wild lies such as child abuse in a pizzeria or a sanctuary become easier to believe as the truth around us continues to blur and be obscurred online. I found evidence of this on my walk that day, when, hours after passing underneath a series of elevated highways, which looked like a cathedral, I made a last minute to decision to abruptly change my destination. Rather than catching a flick during this sunny day, I decided to grab a tea, and continue on to the river, where I wanted to sit down and read while watching the sunlight skim and reflect on the surface of the water, making it look like glass, which to me is a perfect impressionistic image to look upon in between pages of prose, the glittering dots of light that bounce off the water seem to be perfect for reflection, and they turn my emotions into a blank slate, which is the perfect state of mind to be while reading. The clearer your mind is, the easier it becomes to immerse oneself in another's feelings. Roger Ebert called cinema an "empathy machine" -- and while I agree, I feel the term is more descriptive of books.
While waiting on my tea, I sat near two people who seemed to be on a Tinder date. I couldn’t help overhearing when the woman asked her date if his tee shirt represented flat earth theory, and if he was indeed, a flat earther?
He replied allusively, somewhat shy and somewhat embarrassed, that to him, it was less about the theory of the earth being flat, and more about not taking modern science for granted. After all, we’ve been wrong about other things in the past, so why should we trust the reality we know now? He continued explaining the theory, and even though he claimed he was on the fence about it, he repeated online argument after online argument, and upon filling her in on the details, she responded with “thanks for sharing that with me.”
They stood up, the guy standing up first, and the woman shortly after. They were an odd pair — one being somewhat athletic with gym shorts on, and the other being a bit more reserved and shy looking, with a white sweater and jeans. They stood at a distance that implied some kind of hug, but the man was either too shy or embarrassed to offer more than his hand, and who knows if she would have accepted an embrace anyway. (Probably not). When he asked if they would meet again, her answer was predictably noncommittal.
As if by design, as they walked out, the barista called out my name, placing my tea on the counter. I walked to the river, where I did stare at the water, while a man my age wearing baggy shorts talked loudly on his phone about money, and before I had a chance to judge him harshly, he got off the phone and began scribbling in his notebook.
Every time I walk on the west side, I always seem to run into writers.
( an “artist” s
a t e m e n t )
When I walk outside, I am aware of the apocalyptic background that stirs in our subconscious, which seems scary and strange. And yet, I can’t help my eyes from focusing on things that have no relation at all to this supposedly scary time we live in. When I see a cathedral of freeway above my head, slicing into the clear blue sky, as someone rides their bicycle in silence near me, the stories that shock and unnerve us seem to dissolve into a new background, leaving a new foreground that might be just as fragile, but somehow seems powerful and infinite, to me at least. It makes these political and human things I obsess over appear almost meaningless, which paradoxically, makes it more fun to think about and critique.
This “blog” or newsletter is about three things: books, movies, and walks. It is meant to be an informal, and casual habit, to go in harmony with the essays and short stories I am writing, writings that explore these topics in deeper or more literary ways, perhaps… This, however, is not meant to be that exploration. This is meant to be something ephemeral, perhaps as ephemeral as the internet it resides in.
PART TWO: REVIEWS + HIGHLIGHTS
One of my personal sanctuaries has always been the cinema. When I enter a movie theater, and share an artistic experience with a group of strangers, there is a suspension of both time and reality that becomes almost mystical, to me at least. Unlike conspiracy theories, this type of reality suspension seems to enhance the world around me, rather than diminish it. I believe that’s one of the things Ebert meant with his aforementioned quote.
Drive My Car is a perfect film for this style of immersion. With shots and scenes lasting extended periods of time, it would be easy at home to pause it and take breaks, or to look down on your phone, while the camera meditates on a word or an image. But if you did this, you would lose much of this experience, as this movie not only lives up to its hype, but transcends it. The length is part of it. When the credits roll 40 minutes into the movie, we are shocked to find out we’ve just finished a prologue of sorts, before jumping into the next 90-100 minutes, which will explore grief, identity, writing, and art, through the meta lens of a theater production. If this sounds heady on paper, then is shows one of the astonishing things about this film: how human and engaging it is.
What makes Drive My Car so unique and masterful is its combination of deep text and human “authenticity” (for lack of a better word). The movie works zoomed in or zoomed out. One can simply watch on a “two dimensional” level, and enjoy the storyline and character arc. Or one can dive deep, seeing reflections and portals within the script of the movie, the script of the play the characters are acting in, and most importantly, the things left unsaid.
Unlike theater, cinema can show worlds through an actor’s silence. The dialogue in this movie is both reserved and revealing. It is an emotional masterwork, incredibly touching. It is also visually revealing. (It is no mistake that his wife is in silhouette for nearly the first two minutes of the film).
I’ve been a fan of Ryusuke Hamaguchi since last year, when I watched his second film “Asaka I and II". He renders his own vision on things, and though one can see his influences, its hard to know what to compare the movie to. At times I thought of Polish director Kieslowski (who’s movie Three Colors: Blue I rewatched the night before), but I also thought of Bergman, Eric Rohmer, and the South Korean director who I love Hang Sang-soo.
It is a surprise audience hit — though it hasn’t found a huge audience, one senses it will continue to find more people, and everyone in the small theater I viewed it in that afternoon seemed to love it. You could feel an electric current through the audience during the closing credits.
(Note: I wrote the first draft of this before the Oscar nominations came out. The movie is nominated for best picture, which should expand its audience greatly).
As I mentioned, I also re-watched Kieslowski’s 90s film Three Colors: Blue , which coincidentally explores many similar themes: grief, art, creativity, meaning. Not only that, but it shares a similar tonality: realistic dialogue and interactions, with rich characters, but letting them inhabit a world of visual beauty. In my viewing experience, most movies with “authentic” dialogue lean heavily on realism, relying on a sort of lo-fi aesthetic of visuals. (Think Noah Baumbach or Richard Linklater, who don’t want us to notice the lens shooting the actors).
Both Drive My Car and Blue, however, don’t ignore the visual side to storytelling. Blue in particular has visual metaphors in every scene, to the point of making each image a statement on Juliette Binoche’s subconscious. A striking example of this, more so than the blue chandelier that hangs from her apartment, is a scene in which she dips a sugar cube into her coffee cup. The filmmaker goes into an extreme close up of the cube, and we watch the white square slowly change color, before it drops and dissolves.
There is a video interview with Kieslowski where he explains that he wanted this shot to last exactly 8 seconds, long enough to have meaning but short enough to not bore the audience. They tested sugarcubes relentlessly until they found one that timed perfectly to the director’s stopwatch. Why did he care so much about this shot? Because, he said, he wanted us to see what was going on in the character’s perception.
Kieslowski and Hamaguchi are rare directors — visual philosophers and cinematic poets. It is very hard to pull off what they attempt, as most attempts seem pretentious or alienating. It takes a lot of love for humans and trust in an audience.
The short story Drive My Car is based on is by Haruki Murakami, and only about 20 pages long. It is good, but nowhere near as incredible as the movie. I re-read the story that night, in late January, a month in which I finished a record for me of six books. (Before you think this is from discipline, I should note that my increase in reading was due largely to three things: healing from my throat hospitalization, time off work, and time off from drinking).
The longest of those books was Crime and Punishment, and the shortest was the memoir Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen. Originally published in Denmark, in the late 60s, its the first of a trilogy that was reissued in English last year by FSG, a dependable publisher of great “literary fiction.” (I hate that term).
Every sentence in the short book simultaneously sparkles and stings at the same time. It is transfixing and gorgeous, yet incredibly painful. Like watching glaciers melt. In other words, a destructive force that somehow inspires a feeling of wonder.
One could open the book at random and find a beautiful sentence.
The first page I open: “She stands there, covered with hundreds of shiny sequins. They fall off as easily as her own frail happiness.”
The next random page I flip to has this: “People with such a visible, flagrant childhood both inside and out are called children, and you can treat them any way you like because there’s nothing to fear from them. They have no weapons and no masks…” (page 29)
Okay, one more time. I swear I’m not cheating, but I open the book to page 63, and the top of the page is a sentence I remember writing down in my notebook, one which I thought was a highlight. “Time passed and my childhood grew thin and flat, paperlike.”
INTERMISSION : QUOTES (and phrases) I’VE WRITTEN DOWN IN MY NOTEBOOK
“All our language is woven from animal hair.”
Robert Bly (from a poem)
“… splashing in a fake sea of colored paper.”
Nona Fernandez (from The Twiligth Zone)
“There is a mistiness and a chord vibrating in that mist”
(Dostoevsky, a character describing what he likes about youthful writers)
“And the future will come, and it will have the red eyes of a devil dreaming.”
Nona Fernandez, again.
“I will die in orchids”
(A character in a Joan Didion essay)
PART FOUR: INVENTORY
01/07: The Word Pretty. Elisa Gabbert. 2018. US. 5 stars
01/11: The Night Abraham Called to the Stars: Poems. Robert Bly. US. 5 stars
01/13: Crime and Punishment. Dosteovsky. 1866. Russia. 5+ stars (masterpiece status)
01/19: Childhood. Tove Ditlevsen. 1967. Denmark. 5+
01/30: The Trip to Echo Spring. Olivia Laing. 3 1/2 stars.
01/01: Le Havre. 2011. France. 3 stars
01/02: Dune. 2021. US. 4 1/2
01/15: My Dinner with Andrew (rewatch). US 1981. 5+
01/16: LA COLLECTIONNEUSE. France. 1967. 3
01/20: The Card Counter. US. 2021 4 stars
01/22: Three Colors: Blue. (rewatch) France. 1993 5 stars
01/23: Drive My Car. 2021. Japan. 5+
01/29: Close-Up. 1990. Iran. 4 1/2
(image above is from Close Up)
Reviews of two books that blend fact and fiction: When We Cease to Understand the World (Finished after starting this “issue”) and The Twilight Zone by Nona Fernandez. Might include the film Close-Up, which also mixes the two.
Appendix / Epilogue: a walk & a review, from a journal entry, probably better written than any of the above:
On The Trip to Echo Springs, by Olivia Laing.
First book I finished in 2022 that I didn't rate 5 stars, but this book was special to me, and so I'm going to type up what I wrote in my journal the day I finished it... This is halfway into the journal entry (with some edits/additions)
My Mom was a huge help to me during those intense weeks, in which I felt like a sailboat caught in a thunderstorm. I remember telling her about writers who drink, how I want to write again, yet how deep our cultural attachment is to the idea that writers should be drinkers. How I always imagine the archetypal writer (or artist, or poet, or musician), alone at a desk, whisky in one hand, cigarette in the other. The alcohol creates a lubrication that allows the page to move more rapidly. It was a rainy morning when I was on the phone with her, and I was on a long walk home from a coffeeshop. My cup had upside mountains of dried amber coffee near the lid, formations of where it had dripped out. I was standing in the yard of an old school. There was a dog nearby.
My mom had just been talking to a friend about AA and how it incorporated spiritual and religious aspects into the idea of quitting and regaining control. She wondered if I should research it, as I was taking a break from drinking, to clear my head and process things (the raging storm in my head). The idea of AA seemed a little extreme to me, but we chatted about that anyway and I told her about the church I had gone into on Christmas day, my first service in years, the cathedral next to the grotto, an outdoor religious sculpture garden, intended to highlight nature and meditation.
The day after this conversation, the sun was out, and so I took a longer than usual jog. Once done, and during my walk back home, I glanced at what they call a "little library" in Portland -- a sort of birdhouse looking structure filled with free books; mostly junk, such as old textbooks, children's books, how to start a business, etc. Even though its rare to find something good, they are still nice to look at it, as each is different, and represents a sort of passion project of the homeowner. Also, its interesting how they sort of organically sprout up, with no order, each one somehow inspiring others.
To my surprise, I saw the name Olivia Laing on the spine of one of these free books. I had read half of her essay collection "Funny Weather" and kept glancing at her newer collection at Powells. (I've been obsessed with the format of essays recently -- it seems to provide so much freedom and exploration). I had never heard of this book, and when I picked it up, barely glancing at the cover, I almost immediately put it back, as anything out of the ordinary somehow feels unreal, interrupts our reality, and perhaps its in our nature to just keeps things at a more mundane status. (The way, say, when a later love interest first locks eyes with you, you don't really register or believe it. I don't, at least). Once I realized what I was doing, or not doing, I read the back description, and was shocked that this was a book about alcoholic writers, one which explored how the drink ruined many of their lives, and one which explored the history of Alcoholics Anonymous. The day after a lengthy talk on this.
It felt like a gift from the universe. It still, in fact, does.
It focuses on six writers, only one of whom I'm an intimate fan of (Raymond Carver). Aside from him, its also about Fitzgerald, Hemingway, John Cheever (who I've never read), Berrymore (who I would love to read), and Tennessee Williams. Its split into small biographical sections for each one, and structured both chronologically as to the years they lived, and geographically, as Olivia Laing goes on a quasi road trip (via trains and planes) through the U.S. , visiting important places for each of the writers, and interweaving her own history of drinking. The result is ambitious and interesting, and often, especially with the later writers, heartbreaking. (Especially Berryman, who tried multiple times to sober up, who was writing a novel about his experience in AA which he wanted to be like Moby Dick in its encyclopedic density. He quit writing the novel, one assumes because he realized he'll never stop drinking. Upon quitting the novel, he killed himself.) Despite that tragic story, the one that elicited the most tears from me was Raymond Carver, who did successfully quit, and said something like "The thing I'm most proud of in my life, more than writing, in quitting alcohol. I'll always be an alcoholic. Now I'm a non-drinking one."
Yet the book itself didn't quite grab me. Something about the writing felt a little forced or staccato or something; and I just couldn't dive deeply into the prose the way I like to. I've been on a roll reading phenomenal books lately (Tove Ditlevson, Elisa Gabbert, Dostoevsky), and this lacked the energy I love. Still, as a piece, its almost musical in how it lets various parts and stories slowly create a wider whole. And it helped me reinterpret not only my relationship to alcohol (and perhaps things that feel like alcohol, dating for example, or socializing constantly), but it helped me reinterpret my relationship to the cultural image we all have of the drinking writer, or of self-destruction as romance, or if not romance, as some form of integrity, an idea rooted perhaps in the world wars, when drinking might have seemed like a form of protest almost, of identity. Yet our images of artists and writers and musicians are all grossly out of date; and don't reflect our own cultural traumas (such as climate change, the internet, the pandemic, etc... This is something I want to write about and explore further).
Immediately after finding the book, and by sheer coincidence, I ran into two close friends who were on a walk. We chatted and I briefly showed it to them, before our conversation went into the holidays, their recent travels, movies we've seen and haven’t seen (they recommended Don’t Look Up, which I had not yet watched). We never mentioned that one of the two friends had been sober for four or five years now at least, never mentioned his struggles or his salvation, a salvation which culminated with his meeting and marrying M, who always walks side by side with him, wherever they go and whenever I see either of them. I find the struggle of writers and artists to be so mythical, otherworldly, even, that I forget about the struggles which happen to those right in front of me.