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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Michelle Wildgen (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): I spent February in a hell of winter’s making, but also watching Argo and realizing that at least some of its gut-wrenching tension comes from the fact that it exploits something we all know and dread: the endless string of checkpoints in air travel. Except instead of getting somewhere twelve hours late, the stakes are ever so slightly higher. Still, between that and the terrifying opener juxtaposing the paper-pushing embassy with the protests raging right outside, I was gripped. Also, Coach Taylor has a cameo, and I like to support him for aesthetic reasons.
I also joined the millions of incredulous Downton Abbey watchers who kinda can’t believe we’re watching this ridiculous show. I have an issue with repeating storylines in a show that is merely 3 seasons in, and 6-episode seasons at that. But it has its pleasures: watching Lady Mary reveal her inner conservative, seeing the word simper so flawlessly embodied by Cora, and Robert almost redeeming himself with his one-liner about kissing at Eton. Almost. This week I’m reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home, and while it’s too soon for a full report, I am hooked into the narrative, which is expertly peppered with little family mysteries—my very favorite kind.
Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): Hungarian photographer André Kertész said that, “Seeing is not enough, you have to feel what you photograph,” and the stunning book of his black and white photographs, On Reading, attests to his sensitivity to and keen insight into his subjects: people reading in public places and sometimes private rooms. Daily life is captured in its intimacy, humanity and grit–from Paris to parks, from Tokyo to the tops of garbage bins and lots of places in between, made beautiful by Kertész.
Diane Chonette (Art Director at Tin House): Lately I’ve enjoyed watching the World Rally Championships (WRC). Now I wouldn’t exactly call myself a gear-head (or a petrol-head, as the Brits say), but I do get a real thrill from watching these cars skid around curves at harrowing speeds as they are skillfully manipulated by their drivers and navigators. Rally Sweden took place earlier this month and I watched aghast as these cars flew through the frozen forests of Sweden at speeds unfitting for the conditions. Fans of the sport line the course, particularly where they are assured of some huge air, and swill vodka straight from the bottle while cheering heartily as cars leave the snow packed surface for a second or two before gaining grip again. It is truly exhilarating. This is one of those sports where skill and luck go hand in hand. There’s still a lot of rally left, so if you haven’t watched before, you might be surprised by how captivating it can be.
Tony Perez (Managing Editor, Tin House Books): Leviathan, Directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. There’s no question that film festivals bring a broader audience to movies that wouldn’t normally get them (the woman behind me bitching throughout the movie clearly thought she was in for a Sci-Fi Peter Weller vehicle). I can’t imagine many scenarios where a theater as large as Cinemagic would be turning people away for a non-narrative, dialogue-free documentary about deep-sea fishing. Score one for PIFF! The woman behind me aside, the audience–based on their applause and murmuring as we exited the building–seemed to have an experience similar to the one I had: we were entirely immersed in the images, sounds, violence, and movements on and around this North Atlantic vessel. Shot on eleven different cameras from myriad perspectives on and off the boat, it was one of the most visceral sensory experiences I’ve had with film. I highly recommend seeing it in the theater if you get the chance.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): I cannot recommend PBS’s documentary Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom strongly enough. Wolverines have never been more charming than they are here, as they gnaw straight through moose skeletons and rocket their way back and forth across the snow-packed Tetons and eat the gloves of those who love them. Only the wolverine scientists featured in the film seem capable of surpassing them in both likability and quasi-idiotic fearlessness. In my favorite moment, one biologist describes how really what he’d like to do is be a wolverine: “Bite what I wanna bite, climb what I wanna climb.” They’re all clearly nuts, and I want to be one of them.
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer, Tin House): This month, I’ve been watching all of Twin Peaks for about the millionth time, practicing a sort of masochism by forcing myself to savor only one episode an evening. Of course I love the mix of twisted, surrealist slapstick and soapy drama, but more than anything, I’m charmed by Agent Cooper’s genuine delight over just about everything and, especially, his love for a fine cup of black coffee, a slice of homemade cherry pie, and the lovely Audrey Horne. I’ve also been binging on documentaries. I recommend all of these: Brother’s Keeper, Dark Days, God’s Next Army, and How to Survive a Plague.
Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): A few weeks ago I watched Errol Morris’ 1999 documentary, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. Morris has an amazing ability to pull me into stories and introduce me to characters I would normally try to avoid. Mr. Death follows the career of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., an unlicensed engineer with an unusual specialty—the design and repair of electric chairs, lethal injection systems, gallows, and gas chambers. At the start of the film he is depicted, if not wholly strange, as at least trying to do something he believes in. Leuchter sees himself as a crusader, trying to humanize the end of life experience for those put to death. He tweaks machines to injure less, kill more quickly. He suggests hanging paintings on the wall of the execution chamber to try to calm inmates. And, as is often true with Errol Morris’ films, there is a twist to this already bizarre story. After asked by Holocaust denier and convicted menace Ernst Zundel to inspect facilities at Auschwitz, Leuchter’s career takes a surprising and disappointing turn—down-bound from the moment Leuchter crosses the border into Germany. While Leucter is lost in a fog of arrogance, where his opinion reigns supreme, Errol Morris’ telling is clean, crisp, and reserved in judgment.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): Like my colleague (and rival), Mr. Perez, I also attended the Portland International Film Festival. Going in, almost all of my attention was focused on Something in the Air, the latest from the great Olivier Assayas. Rather than list all the reasons that film disappointed me, I would rather focus on what was without question the highlight of the festival (and my cinematic year so far), Pablo Larraín’s NO. Using vintage video cameras to shoot the film (Larraín wanted to match the look of the actual 80’s ad campaigns the film centers around), the neon vibrancy on screen plays perfectly off the cool detachment of the protagonist, a never-better Gael García Bernal. Larrain’s decision to center his movie around a politically apathetic character only heightens the stakes. And where a lesser director would feel the need to crank the tension dial past 10 in order to hammer home the point that this is real life on screen, Larraín trusts the material enough to keep the pulse of his film steady, even as the euphoria of a dictatorship’s demise fills the streets. It is rare that a film can still excite you weeks after seeing it, but I just can’t get NO out of my blood.
Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): The best reading experience I had in the month of February was a live reading. Mary Szybist’s second poetry collection, Incarnadine: Poems, was released by Graywolf this month, and since Szybist is a local poet (and Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop faculty member and a personal friend), I had the pleasure of attending her book launch at Powell’s. Hearing her reinterpretations of the Annunciation and her observations of motherhood (there is a particularly haunting poem about a mother who threw her two children off a Portland bridge) in Mary’s own lovely voice was a wonderful way to experience the work. But the next-best thing has been lingering over them at my leisure, and I encourage you to do the same.