The Goldfinch

I have just put down Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch having read the final 50 pages in one sitting of constant wrestling between competing desires: to speed through to its conclusion, and to savour its every last word. The final chapters have left me a little stunned, entirely in awe of how sublimely they are written, and—not to put too fine a point on it—elated; glad simply to be alive and to have been so touched by a work of art.

The final moments of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding had a similar emotional upswing that quite literally sent a shiver up my spine, but Tartt’s execution is more sustained. At the end of her 850 page novel she’s bold enough to have her narrator elucidate the emotional truth of the narrative, and somehow it not only works but is thrilling in a way it has no right to be. It’s a trick only a writer of Tartt’s talent could even consider attempting, the poor execution of which would undermine all that had come before. The effect of its resounding success is to leave the reader feeling as though they have been struck like a bell - something of the work itself vibrating out and through them. Personally I don’t think I’ve felt that upon completing a novel since I first read Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion.

I can’t recommend The Goldfinch strongly enough. Read it around Christmas when some of its most important passages are set, when the evenings have grown short and it’s snowing outside. See if there isn’t something there that will be a light and a warmth to you.

iA On The Pain of Thought

I once heard a game developer say that "games aren't released, they escape". That same perfectionist drive also seems to sit behind how Oliver Reichenstein and the folks at Information Architects feel about their blogposts.

Whenever a new piece does arrive it’s worth the wait. Case in point: a new post, titled ‘Putting Thought Into Things’ was published today; here’s a particularly smart couple of paragraphs:

I fully recommend reading the whole thing over at iA.net

Boyhood

Richard Linklater is one of those rare film directors whose output I’m always compelled by; there’s a meditative streak to the best of his work that I’m really drawn to. It’s there in the stoned, brink-of-adulthood ruminations of SubUrbia (1996), and the hypnotic, dreamlike conversations of Waking Life (2001). For all of its visual flamboyance, its that same philosophical bent that drives 2006’s (much underrated and under-appreciated ) A Scanner Darkly. And where Linklater’s love for language and ideas really blossoms, of course, is with the Before… trilogy (…Sunrise (1995); …Sunset (2004); & …Midnight (2013)): a cinematic triptych that has a special place in my heart - its characters re-visited every nine years and almost exactly that same distance removed from my own age so that it feels oddly personal, like a visit from the ghost of relationships future.

Not having any knowledge of Boyhood (2014) until shortly before its release, I had a hard time picturing how cinema could match Linklater’s Before… films for the powerful pull of watching a life unfold. (The works coming closest to this in recent years are less grounded, more synesthetic pieces like Malick's (stunning) Tree of Life (2011) and—in some odd, diagonal way—Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006).) And yet, all this time, Linklater was playing himself at his own game: shooting Boyhood piecemeal over more than a decade he has put together exactly the kind of beautiful, human narrative showcased in the Before… films, but without allowing himself to cut away for the best part of a decade between sequences. Boyhood is interested in its characters in the same way as the Before... pictures and Waking Life are, and as too few other films seem to be. All of the drama plays out at a relatable level and is all the more powerful for it: no car chases, no gunfights, just the vividly rendered ups & downs of a simple life. (Or, rather, the first couple of decades of one - somewhat greedily I find myself hoping that the project will continue on and I'll be sitting down for Manhood in 2026.)

I was so happy at this year’s Oscars to see Spike Jonze take home a richly deserved award; come March next year Linklater should also have a statue on his mantlepiece. Two easygoing auteurs with a penchant for modest personal exploration - a decade or so ago they seemed unlikely winners. But time, as Linklater’s oeuvre will inform you, has a funny way of changing things.

When Hulky Meet Spidey?

Even if you’re not hugely into comics there’s a good chance you understand why you’ll never see Superman arm-wrestle Thor, or Batman and Iron Man having a conversation about who’s richer and has cooler gadgets. For the longest time there have been two major players in the world of comics publishing—Marvel & DC—and in each case the two characters fall on either side of that divide. The Avengers brings together multiple Marvel characters, and the upcoming Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice will see DC’s two titans on the same screen, but never the twain shall meet.

What might be less clear however, is why certain Marvel characters never seem to run into each other on the silver screen. The Avengers movie, and the solo adventures of all its constituent members (plus the S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show), are happening in one continuity. It’s fun to watch that universe grow, and look for cameos and references across the films, but to a fan of the comics it’s frustratingly obvious to see the film-makers run up against the limits of what they are permitted to show or even reference. Put simply, it’s a drag to know you’ll never see any two of Hulk, Wolverine and Spider-Man in the same frame.

The mystical force that keeps these universes separate is something more powerful than the Infinity Gauntlet, or the Tesseract, and far more insidious even than the Aether… it’s the immutable power of copyright law! Whilst Marvel owns all the rights to the use of its characters in print and on TV, the film rights are a different and more complicated story. Believe it or not there was a time in the distant and murky past (the 1990s) when superhero movies were not a permanent fixture of the box office. The Batman movies of the day were unsuccessful both as action films and in the camp comedy they reached for, and Jurassic Park (1993) and Independence Day (1996) set the templates for the summer blockbuster. It was in this climate that Marvel began selling movie rights to its characters. Spider-Man went to Sony, X-Men went to Fox, and both grew successful franchises out of what they had bought. So successful in fact that Marvel took the decision to begin producing their own films based on the properties they retained, beginning with Iron Man (2008).

Under the guidance of Avi Arad and Kevin Feige, the series of films that introduced Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, and then assembled them for Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) has become the second highest-grossing film franchise in history. Now well into its ‘Phase Two’ and with releases allegedly planned as far ahead as 2028 Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has become as reliable and regular a source of entertainment as the comics themselves.

However, having struck deals for licensing out some of their most popular characters, Marvel—acquired by Disney in 2009—find themselves in a strange position: for all of the epic, dimension-hopping scale of their film series there remain some simple things they cannot do. Things, I’m willing to bet, many of their creatives dearly want to do. The relationship between Spider-Man and Hulk is long-running comic book gold, and it probably stings the writers as much as the fans that we don’t get to see it on screen. It probably makes the accountants weep too; think how much money an X-Men / Avengers cross-over would make! Who wouldn’t want to see what happens if Iron Man runs into Magneto?

But it’s not just the inconvenience - we’re now starting to see the fragmentation of these universes. The character of Quicksilver, seemingly unanimously considered the highlight of Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), is also glimpsed at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). The concepts for the character in each case are clearly different, they’re played by different actors, and what happens to one will have no bearing on what happens to the other. This is seemingly permissible by a quirk of the agreement Marvel has with Fox: Quicksilver (and his sister Scarlet Witch) are the children of Magneto, and therefore part of the X-Men continuity owned by Fox, but both—in print—have served as long-term members of the Avengers and hence are fair game for on-screen use by Marvel. With Avengers: Age of Ultron releasing in 2015, and X-Men: Apocalypse hitting screens in 2016, the two competing versions of Quicksilver are likely to prove somewhat confusing to moviegoing audiences. Good luck explaining copyright law to the seven year-old who doesn’t understand why one Quicksilver hangs out with Wolverine and the other isn’t even allowed to say his name.

It’s not impossible, of course, that this tangle can be undone. If enough money changes hands we could yet see a cinematic conceit bring together characters from the separate universes. So the idea that we might one day see a Hulk & Wolverine fastball special isn’t completely dead, but I wouldn’t hold my breath… unless I was Namor the Sub-Mariner… the rights to whom seem to be with Universal Studios, along with Howard the Duck. So there’s your next big team-up blockbuster I guess.

Incognito

It's not the big ideas at work in Incognito that hook you; they’re swirling in there, amidst the cast of variously-accented characters, the parallel plots of brain theft, sexual identity, and memory loss, but fittingly they're only a part of the play's make-up. It’s the emotional truth of it that sticks the landing.

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Loss is the currency that most of these stories trade in: loss of memory, but also loss of identity (in more than one manner), loss of certainty, loss of control. Nick Payne's play works to keep the ground beneath its characters constantly shifting. There is no surety here in a life's work, or in a lifetime's self-perception. Like memory itself Payne shows us through overlaid examples that everything we know and cherish (including our selves) is a gestalt of ceaselessly shifting pieces: infinitesimal, unknowable elements that comprise life at the scale we recognise it. What happens when we are, knowingly or unknowingly, confronted with that reality is the crucible of Incognito. That the play draws poignancy and humour from this difficult place is testament to a finely balanced text and some truly astounding performances.

Accents are the shortcut to understanding which of the half-dozen or so characters played by each actor is before you at any one time, but the art goes deeper - each incarnation imbued with a unique posture and set of mannerisms. The retinue brought to life by Sargon Yelda in particular runs the gamut from broadly comic to authentically haunted. It's a dizzying masterclass and breathtaking to behold.

The staging also has its own tics. The brief transitions between scenes swell here with piano and there with birdsong - the chatter of starlings that form the play's central metaphor: persons and lifetimes as the temporary arrangements of circumstance. There is no explicit nod to it in his play, but it makes one wonder whether Payne has any interest in or affinity for Buddhist thinking.

"Our brains are constantly, exhaustively working overtime to deliver the illusion that we’re in control, but we’re not. The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but it's ultimately an illusion. There is no me, there is no you, and there certainly is no self; we are divided and discontinuous and constantly being duped."

Here the Buddha and Payne's Martha Murphy agree, and it's perhaps this that made Incognito feel a warm play to me where it might also be open to the allegation of pessimism about the human condition: the narrative construction retains the courage of its conviction, and bears out the truth that fleeting beauty is no less beautiful.