Monday, February 10, 2014


When I was a kid we had a set of World Book encyclopedias, of the sort I'm not even sure you can buy anymore. I used to sit down and just read random volumes, usually starting with an article I had to look up and getting intrigued by the next one in alphabetical order. The same thing happens nowadays with wikipedia, but it's a little more thematic. With an encyclopedia the path was different and often I would find myself fascinated by a topic I would never have thought to look at. Rembrandt -> rhubarb -> RNA -> rock 'n' roll -> Russian. As a result I always had a bunch of facts and names and pictures floating around in my head, but I couldn't really place where I had got them from. In fact, for a long time I didn't know the name of my "favorite" work of art. I had stumbled on it one day, somewhere in one of those 26 volumes, and loved it instantly. I remembered a girl playing alone in the middle of a town square bathed by a harsh afternoon light, but not the name.

Art nerds may have already recognized the piece from my description: Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, painted by Giorgio de Chirico in 1914. (No doubt it had been the "D" volume where I encountered it.) Not sure why that particular image stuck with me. I'm sure I loved the cinematic drama of the scene and the palpable sense of menace. I had no idea who painted it or what it was called, but I carried the shard of memory with me for years. Of course, once the internet rolled around it took just a few quick searches to figure out who the painter was.

I've noticed that there is sometimes a disconnect between the critical opinions of my brain's higher and lower reasoning components. My conscious brain might decide that such and such book, movie, music, art is a favorite. And maybe it has good reasons for thinking that, but probably at least part of it is because it was recommended by a friend, or a critic said it was good, or I admire the author's life story, or I want to signal sophistication to my peer group, etc. And sometimes my lizard brain says, "no. what you really actually like is actually this other thing instead. see I'll show you."

This isn't even so much a "I like action movies but I pretend I'm really into Tarkovsky" sort of thing (although I do like action movies). It's more that certain works of art that I hadn't given much thought to just linger in the mind, coming unbidden into the forefront thanks to some subterranean resonance. I've been trying to pay more attention to that lizard brain, to actively remember art that lingers, as opposed to what is consumed, appreciated and forgotten. I'm trying to get back the feeling of that anonymous painting.

An example. If you've never seen Jim Sheridan's "In America" it's pretty good and well worth watching. It has strong performances from Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou (transcending a cliched "magical negro" role) and, especially, the two little girls. It's noways the best film I've ever seen (fore-brain speaking), but it has some nice moments. And there is one scene in particular that has lingered. The movie concerns an Irish family who has immigrated to NYC and one night they head to the fair and the father decides to play one of those carnival games where you throw a baseball through a hole and win a prize. The family is dirt poor and just scraping by, but he lets himself get drawn into a "double-or-nothing" dare after missing the first few throws, and pretty soon the price has doubled and re-doubled until the next missed throw will cost them next month's rent.

It's contrived, but damn if it doesn't pack a punch. For me it was a tremendous dramatization of the way we live -- all of us, not just poor immigrants -- perched on the precipice. We are all one moment of recklessness, or bad luck, or bad driving, or a slip of the tongue away from disaster. When I go to the top of a tall building to admire the view there is always one Evil Neuron in my head that brings up perverse thoughts of jumping. Watching this scene is like a five-minute conversation with the Evil Neuron. It makes me want to take a deep breath and hug my family members. (Unfortunately the scene in question isn't available on YouTube, but here's the trailer for the film.)

Here are some more lingerers. The two books that I have spent more time thinking about over the past few years are Little, Big by John Crowley and The City and the City by China MiĆ©ville. At the time I read them I thought "interesting but flawed" and now I can't get them out of my head. The same thing goes for Michael Winterbottom's film Code 46 (also starring, ta da, Samantha Morton), John Greyson's Lillies, and more. Oddly unforgettable, all of them.


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