A Quest through ‘Infinite Jest’, Pt. 1

Main book:
Infinite Jest / 1996/ David Foster Wallace
[Pages 1 – 300.
Endnotes 1 – 102.]

Others referenced:
Underworld / 1997 / Don DeLillo
Catcher in the Rye / 1951/ J.D. Salinger
1984 / 1948 / George Orwell
Bleak House / 1853 / Charles Dickens

i. Why Read It?

There are some books that beg to be read. Cultural touchstones that single-handedly reinvigorate their contemporary public’s imagination, and publishing industry to boot. By this measure, 50 Shades of Grey should hold great appeal, and I suppose it does, in a perverse guilty-pleasure type way.

In the Venn Diagram of touchstone-books though, it’s that middle section where things get interesting. Where segments of ‘cultural effect’ and ‘enduring quality’ overlap. It’s a lonely cornerstone where precious few authors get to sit, especially as we narrow our focus to the last century or so.

Who qualifies? J.D. Salinger for Catcher in the Rye? George Orwell for 1984? Don DeLillo for Underworld?

It’s a tough debate. But it would be hard to argue against including David Foster Wallace’s epic and ironic tome Infinite Jest. Its sheer size is remarkable enough – 1000 odd pages, plus a couple hundred more tacked on in ‘Footnotes and Errata’. What’s particularly striking about Infinite Jest however is the size of its cultural impact.

As of 2016, it has sold more than 1,000,000 copies. It is a bestselling literary fiction novel – how many books can claim that? TIME included it on their 100 Best Novels since 1923[1]. Foster Wallace is credited with, among other things: typifying an overwhelmed public’s generational angst; influencing a generation of new writers; and meaningfully building on the work of his fellow American literary greats, DeLillo and Pynchon.

Reviews both at the time and since herald it as a seminal book. They are liberal in their use of the adjective ‘momentous[2]’ and it’s easy to see why. In terms of resonance, it was (and is) an undisputed ‘book-of-the-moment’, while its writer-ly construction and reader-ly effort to digest is monumental.

So. Let’s dive in.

ii. The First 100 Pages

All books, long books especially, take time to bed in. I look at it like a batsman’s innings in cricket. You need time to get used to the pace of the ball, the lie of the pitch.

In literature’s case, it’s the author’s delivery and outlook: their way of seeing the world and how they relay that experience, that takes a while to grasp.  And boy, is Foster Wallace a tricky bowler.

He serves up multi-syllabled words that will have you delving through the dictionary (a medical one at that). Acronyms abound (‘O.N.A.N.C.A.A.’; ‘N.A.A.U.P.’) for sub-divisions of fictional organisations. A litany of chemical substances is referenced, each one accompanied by a footnote detailing its composition, effects, and street-aliases. Wallace spoke of writing about ‘communities’ not specific characters, and we get that right from the off. There are more than a dozen personas whose lives are loosely linked by Boston, and tangential occurrences therein.

If you commit to the aforementioned footnotes, which you should for the full experience, you might need a magnifying glass. They are often lengthy, dense, and served up in eye-straining-ly small font.

Not to put you off, mind. Just be prepared for a bit of an early slog. I read Bleak House not too long ago, and Dickens’ grim 19th century patter was a stroll in the park compared to Wallace’s obsessive eye for detail.

Here’s the saving grace: the rewards are as vast as the intricacy of the task. The minute detail of the delivery makes for crystal-clear visual compositions (often very filmic). There are laugh-out-loud moments, from slapstick to black comedy, hidden in the dense paragraphing. Most of all, there’s an overwhelming sense of irony and tragedy, where characters are shown as bundles of teeming consciousness, raging against an isolating world which makes no sense. It’s a feeling which really kicked in, for me at least, around the 120-page mark.

iii. Pages 100 – 300

Familiarity with the ‘main’ characters sets in around this point. Boston spanning settings have boiled down to two key locations: the Enfield Tennis Academy and Ennet House (a drug rehabilitation centre). The rhizomatic plot seems to regulate its orbit around a few narrative bodies. One being the mythical release of ‘Infinite Jest’, a movie so entertaining it paralyses viewers with pleasure. Another one, a more general line, following the Tennis training of the director’s son Hal Incandenza, intellectual and sporting prodigy.

Director of the film ‘Infinite Jest’, James O. Incandenza, is an absent centre-piece to the jigsaw.  He committed brutal suicide by sticking his head in a microwave – a fact we learn through a traumatic discussion between Hal and his brother, Orin.

It’s a troubling revelation, typical of Wallace’s mercilessly bleak (yet funny) take on existence in modern consumerist society. The oft-hyphenated, double-barrelled nature of his descriptions soon reveal themselves to be a sales-patter pastiche of constant, never-ending marketing campaigns. The incessant selling of products reaches an absurd pinnacle in the novel’s internal calendar: its years revealed to have corporate sponsorship (i.e. Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, Year of the Big Whopper). The narrative voice speaks like consumerism and surface-deep culture has taken over its brain. The buy/sell dynamic has become the filter by which all stimuli is experienced.

I’ll confess it took this long for me to realise the book takes place in the near future. A discovery made harder, I hope, by the time-period Wallace uses being now rendered a 90s retro-futurist one to modern readers.  He gets some calls eerily right. Such as the selfie-obsessed narcissism of video-calling, where people spend half the time looking at themselves instead of the other person. Although in Infinite Jest, people’s self-image worries are taken to next-level extremes, hiring celebrity look-a-like avatars to play themselves in video correspondence.

One of Wallace’s prevailing themes is addiction. It seems you have to be addicted to something. Most characters use some Substance or other, while some use the cradle of regiment and ritual. Linked to this, you have to worship something. As he relates in interviews with Charlie Rose[3] and ZDF[4], Wallace maintains that society can kid itself it’s gotten rid of God, but impulses of devotion, subjugation and ritual are still there, embedded deep within our primate-aping psychological origins.

Addiction and Worship are similarly self-consuming, and beautifully dove-tail in Wallace’s descriptions of Tennis[5]. He makes Hal hitting the ball thousands of times a simultaneously superstitious, meditative and metaphysical experience. The tennis court becomes a mecca for clear-minded thought and organised chaos. As Norm MacDonald’s recent tweets attest, sport remains ‘the last untainted zone’ – a medium bereft of politics or scaremongering, where rules are plainly set, where human excellence can be distilled. I’ve come to savour the tennis sections the most – they are Wallace at his most breath-taking and effortless.

‘[kinetic beauty]…is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body’
      – DFW on tennis, in ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, PLAY Magazine

iv. Errata (Erratic Thoughts)

A few more things. Each character has an intelligence factor that is off the charts. They universally have vocabularies wider than Stephen Fry channelling Oscar Wilde. This community, disparately connected, is plot-able on a MENSA-level IQ-line of subjects. Perhaps there are a few anomalies. In what I’ve learned is the infamous ‘Wardine’ section, where Wallace inhabits the colloquialisms of a black, ghetto-raised woman, the language is notably toned down. Or again in the furtive prose which embodies a heroin addict in the throes of addiction. But even in these cases, the insights alone are far beyond normal human capacity.

So it’s hard to believe these aren’t just embodied versions of Wallace’s best ideas. Some have labelled him a show-off as a result. But I don’t mind it that much. It gives me more time with him. And it is getting easier to inhabit the world more fully as I read on, without having to pause and reflect on a complex idea (you get served so many you get used to them) or trying in vain to remember who a character is.

Join me next time, where I’m predicting the process will have become even smoother. At present, I’m hooked. I’m lugging this masterwork-cum-brick around with me like a flagellating monk mid-penance. But I guess you’ve got to be addicted to something, right?


N.B. There are a number of excellent David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest fan sites, including http://www.thehowlingfantods.com/dfw/ , a Wiki of sorts, and http://infinitesummer.org/, which includes along-the-way essays from a group who tried to read it over one (hopefully long) summer. Worth a look.




[2]http://www.badgerinternet.com/~bobkat/jest1a.html ; https://nplusonemag.com/issue-1/reviews/david-foster-wallace/  to name a few


[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkxUY0kxH80&t=2422s

[5] Wallace writes about sport like no-one else. Here he is on the beauty of Roger Federer: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html



The End of America: near-distance dystopia in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘The Mandibles’

Books referenced:
The Handmaid’s Tale / 1985 / Margaret Atwood
The Mandibles: A Family
/ 2016 / Lionel Shriver

Ideology, man. What a trip. Sounds like the study of lightbulb moments; actually, a way of umbrella-ing stories we collectively tell ourselves to make the world work. Stories of Religion, Money, Nationalism, and as Yuval Noah Harari unnervingly points out, Human Rights.

 ‘if you take a human being and look inside…you don’t find any rights.[1]
– Yuval Noah Harari, EconTalk podcast

Harari argues that shared myths are the only thing that enables large scale human cooperation. Capitalism, for example, is based on the enticing fiction that money has inherent value. While physical, concrete exchanges take place (of green pieces of paper for limitless types of goods), it is a system based on an arbitrary[2] series of human beliefs.

Changing the stories that society believes in is the basis for social change, moral progress, and in the most dramatic case, revolution.

In novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and The Mandibles, society’s internalised story is wrenched out from the communal unconscious and forcibly retold. Atwood creates Gilead, a military dictatorship which (re)installs morals and social practises from Christian fundamentalism. Here, women are reduced to breeding-facilitators. They are denied basic human rights. They are not allowed to read. Principles of liberty and equality are revealed as contingent on the ruling class’ taking part in ‘retelling’ their doctrines.

In Shriver, narrative change is forced by a failing economy. The US national debt reaches astronomic levels. An alternative world currency is created. The ‘Bancor’ becomes more secure than the dollar, and soars above it in conversion rates. Blind faith in currency begins to erode. As hyperinflation hits, citizens hoard physical objects to trade: medical supplies, food, tools. Newly printed Dollars feel plastic-y, inauthentic, crudely clad in garish-green (a little like post-Brexit bank notes, whose remodelled, small, rubbery nature seems intertwined with Britain’s ‘exit’ from exalted nation status). Promises of pensions, potential wealth stored in government bonds, and even agreements to pay employees for past work are revealed as contingent parts of the modern Capitalist system. People’s promise to repay debt only holds if faith in the currency remains. Without the fictional medium, the narrative falls apart.

Both Atwood and Shriver’s dystopias extend from the worst caprices of contemporary society. Atwood critiques Puritan-influenced conservativism, where appeals to ‘return’ to old morals are used to justify elitism, austerity measures and gross inequality. Shriver focuses on ballooning national debt, hand-wringing attitudes to international issues, and the cognitively-dissonant contortions of late stage Capitalism.

Handmaid’s is prescient enough to warrant a modern-day Hulu adaptation, which surrounding press has sought to label the first ‘post-Trump TV show.[3]’ It is Trump’s America that Atwood herself describes as most in danger of embodying Gilead[4]. The Mandibles takes the celebrity-takeover of politics to blackly comic new levels: Judge Judy on the supreme court, Schwarzenegger taking a run at the Presidency, Strictly Come Dancing stooge Ed Balls installed in Britain’s Prime Ministerial position. Crucially, it’s the Nationalist narrative which takes the biggest hit in both novels.

“We lived in the gaps between the stories”
– Offred, The Handmaid’s Tale

In Handmaid’s, America has become synonymous with an overbearing male aggressor[5]. It is a brutally efficient patriarchy suppressing its citizens through subjugated classes. And, through a postscript from future scholar Professor Pieixoto, we learn Gilead is the ‘North Korea’ of its contemporary world: bottom of the pecking order, keeping its citizens in near-poverty to compete on the international stage. It conducts business in terms of veiled masculine rivalry with other nations: who has the best morals? The biggest guns? Internally, its authoritarian regime betrays an insecurity on the world stage: brutality and dominance overcompensating for a sliding national status. Remind you of another administration? Whose leader ran on isolationist grounds, but continues to throw weight around in willie-waving, war-mongering fashion[6]? One who just took away $880billion in healthcare funding for its nation’s poorest citizens[7]? Make Gilead great again, right?


The Handmaid’s Tale, art by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Shriver sequesters America from the rest of the world too. References to flourishing countries overseas, where the Dollar-alternative ‘Bancor’ currency has taken affluent hold, include China inheriting superpower status. Chinese tourists swamp New York streets, taking advantage of favourable exchange rates. Mega-Hooverville settlements spill over from Central Park. All personal Gold reserves are called in by the government. The devaluing of the dollar effects not just the country’s material wealth, but the characters’ sense of self-worth. Their soft power is melting. They are being dressed down, de-masculinised.

Atwood and Shriver are arguing that Nationalist narratives foster division, short-sightedness, and corruption. In an unholy hybrid with masculinity and Capitalism, Nationalism is a mega-ideology which spells bad news for peace-loving humans.

New states in Handmaid’s and Mandibles form a vacuum where ultra-nationalist experiments are given free reign, whose test subjects are drawn kicking-and-screaming from ‘the land of the free’. These novels do not discuss the end-of-the-world as much as the end-of-America. Their dystopias deal with the crumbling USA empire; oft prophesised in fiction, but whose morals, Constitution and cultural standing in the real world seem more at risk than ever. We await the arrival of America’s future with Atwood and Shriver’s conceptions in mind. Neither are optimistic regarding the Republic for which it stands: one nation overwrought, incapacitated: sans Liberty, injustice for all[8].

Read more…

Margaret Atwood: http://margaretatwood.ca/

Lionel Shriver: https://www.harpercollins.com/cr-103190/lionel-shriver

Sam Harris, ‘Waking Up’ Podcast feat. Yuval Noah Harari:  https://www.samharris.org/podcast/item/reality-and-the-imagination

[1] http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2015/10/yuval_harari_on.html

[2] In the sense of ‘it could have been otherwise’, not ‘randomly assigned’

[3] http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/features/the-handmaids-tale-tvs-most-chilling-trump-era-series-w478718

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/10/books/review/margaret-atwood-handmaids-tale-age-of-trump.html?_r=0

[5] ‘The Missionary Position’: Feminism and Nationalism in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Sandra Tomc: https://canlit.ca/full-issue/?issue=138-139

[6] See American interventions in Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea.

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/yes-house-republicans-the-heartless-health-care-vote-will-define-you/2017/05/05/86994c02-31cc-11e7-9534-00e4656c22aa_story.html?utm_term=.ba36dc2b6886

[8] https://www.sos.wa.gov/flag/pledge.aspx

“What a Dump”, a review of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’?

Venue: The Harold Pinter Theatre
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by James MacDonald

Being sat up in the Gods has its benefits. Especially in the case of Edward Albee’s 20th century classic, where a sole set sits stoically for the three-hour, behemoth duration. A God’s-Eye view of James MacDonald’s version of ‘…Virginia Woolf?’ also seems especially fitting. George (Conleth Hill) and Martha’s (Imelda Staunton) living room is squared off by chequered tiles, leaving a sunken shag-pile carpet section in the centre. As the sadomasochistic couple drive needles into each other’s soft spots like pin-cushions, their marital parlour games appear like orchestrated manoeuvres: as in Chess, or ‘total war’ as George puts it. The people/pieces reveal their moves from above. Here, battle-lines are drawn in lino and the shagpile-square-cum-sparring-pit.

The 60s living room with doll-house figures striding about it calls to mind David Lynch’s Rabbits. And there’s a Lynchian quality to seeing Albee’s masterpiece with a live audience, whose laughter becomes more unsteady as the piece plunges deeper into cruelty and trauma. It begins to sound like a laugh-track gone wrong; ill-timed, individual members singled out. MacDonald’s version is a particularly funny one, making the break from drinks-party to deathly lament in Act Three even more jolting.

‘[George] made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me, and must be punished for it.’
Martha, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Another curiosity of sitting in the highest circle: you’re afforded a privileged view of some characters’ most exposed moments. E.g. Laments to a Godless sky, profiles of relaxing reclines on the sofa, floored drunken splay-outs like crime scene murder outlines. Despite there being only four characters, the number of caricatures, wall-to-wall dialogue and sheer decibel-ic intensity ensures the room always feels full.

Of the two married pairs, it’s the elder who steal the show. Staunton bestows an animalistic desperation to Martha’s ‘braying’. Despite having Bouffant hair à la Liz Taylor, she foregoes glamour. She truly ‘busts a gut’, ‘howls it out’; George’s remarks on her claws and brute strength barely seem like exaggerations. Staunton peacock-struts about the stage like an ADHD meth-addict gone cold turkey. Her voice must be ravaged by the end (how does she do this every night?): she drags it through high pitches of peril, mockery and fury. There’s a mirthless edge hidden deep within her laughter. Her almost schizophrenic switches in character give Staunton full-reign in range-deployment. One minute she’s croak-cooing in childish baby-talk, the next minute banshee-screaming, before morphing into chaise-longue seductress. Oh, and her soliloquy at the beginning of Act Three is an absolute knock-out (cueing up pin-drop silence from the previously riotous crowd).

‘we take our tears, and we put ‘em in the icebox […] and then we put them in our drinks.
– Martha, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

How to compete with that? Conleth Hill as George does a pretty good fucking job. His voice is like a cross between Alfred Molina and Bradley Whitford in The West Wing. At times, his hunched gait and crumpled suit – coupled with some ill-informed pontificating – conjures a more depressing version of Ed Balls, or a pouting Trump in a world where he had no inheritance with which to bleach himself upon public life. Hill brings a slapstick comedy to George that I’ve not seen before. His dramatic handball swings, elaborate arm crosses and mime-like posturing give George a clownish physicality, embodying his wife’s insult-moniker.

George’s clowning soon loses its lightness of course, his faux-playful snapdragons aimed at Martha standing in for poison-darts. Their home in New Carthage burns down just like the old colony. This is a slow-mo car crash, where the audience’s rubbernecks are held by a ceaseless brace. It is exhausting enough to watch – performing it must come with a real risk of ‘busting a gut’.

‘Am I losing pages?’, a review of The Treatment

Venue: Almeida Theatre
Director: Lyndsey Turner
Written by: Martin Crimp

Almeida Theatre is attracting some of Britain’s brightest acting talent. It’s not hard to see why. While the likes of Andrew Scott and Ben Wishaw, recent recruits in other productions, are here absent, the aura of quality and electric potential is certainly not.

Almeida’s theatre space itself strikes an interesting balance between big spectacle and the atmosphere of a cosy, closed environment. The Treatment benefits from this cross-purpose. It is a play about cities and the myriad characters that haunt their streets. The writing and theatrical space here manage, like all modern cities, to be intimate and anonymous, lonely and alienating at the same time.

Which city do we focus on? Somewhere in America, but it doesn’t matter much. ‘Metropolis’ is enough. It’s size and spectacle is suggested in futuristic sets and transient spaces clad in grey minimalism; further amplified by fragmented writing where characters often talk over one another, and staging which places walk-on extras in most scenes.

As a result, the background is rarely allowed to rest. A Japanese restaurant, a dumpster alley, a Tube station: all locations teem with other human life. Figures flit by in private conversation, on the way to meetings, mini-dramas glimpsed in seconds-long vignettes. We are constantly made aware that the main stories focused on are arbitrary, to an extent, just a handful among many others.

Which narratives do we pay attention to? Which ones bring us the most pleasure? How do you define that pleasure – is it the most salacious, dramatic or meaningful personal stories that are the most worthy? While this isn’t a story about the press, or even celebrity culture, it contains messages that ring true in the real world, echoing across an increasingly sensationalist public sphere.

‘A true story over which we have complete control’
 – Jennifer, The Treatment

The city is the real star, the facilitator for endless human drama. The Treatment seems to refute the city’s possible neutrality though: it is repeatedly implied as a corruptive force, where mental health issues are made into performance art for the street. We bear witness to soliloquising, car-boot-salesmen-cum-artists; to frantic policemen imploring the public for aid. The city provides a stage, but no guiding hand.

Narrative-wise, the focus lies on authenticity and reproduction. We follow two producers (Show-runners? Studio executives?), whose job is to mine true stories from the public, for televisual retelling to a wider audience. Except, some stories need a little embellishment. Jennifer (Indira Varma) asks testimony-provider Anne (Aisling Loftus), who volunteers her own story of marital abuse, if it wouldn’t be more ‘believable’ if there were more struggle. Or more conflict, more violence, etc. In augmenting eye-witness testimony for dramatic purposes, The Treatment calls into question all personal narratives: how much do we keep secret? What emphasis do we give to elements in our own stories? Is it still fundamentally true if we exaggerate for effect?

A slippery slope ensues. Everyone’s narrative is questioned television the producers. As the play rolls on, we are less and less sure of each character’s back story and intentions. Is Anne telling the truth about being held hostage by her husband? Does producer Andrew really have heartfelt feelings for Anne? Is Simon, ostensibly Anne’s husband, who he says he is?

The trustworthy, genuine exception that proves this deceptive rule is a blind taxi driver, who freely admits his deficiencies but struggles on regardless. He does not seek recognition or validation, surrendering himself (and his passengers) instead to the whims of universal chance. There is something of Tiresias – the blind oracle in the Odyssey – about him. It’s as if we descend into his eternal night between scenes too: the Almeida’s lighting vanishes completely during transitions, plunging the audience into unnerving total darkness.


Ben Onwukwe as the wise, blind Taxi Driver

‘We don’t often meet real people here. The realness was burned out of us’
– Andrew, The Treatment

A few minor quibbles. The lack of any television or film cameras, when this is supposed to be a story about filmic adaptation, seems an oversight. At the least it’s a missed opportunity: plenty of interesting material could have been harvested in putting Anne in front of the camera. The adaptation of her story is denied flesh here. Instead, we are informed in reported dialogue of the film’s construction and subsequent success. The Treatment also ended on a bittersweet note for me. The final, climactic scene, is one of the play’s most effective: the narrative symbols seem to distilled and fully coherent for the first time, while the visual spectacle is sincere and spine-chilling[1]. And then it ends. Whether I was slow on the uptake, or just need a repeat viewing, on first time around it felt like the meat of the matter had just been served up. This unresolved hunger after a series of dynamite lines, fine acting and elegant staging deserved a more resounding conclusion.

Book tickets here.

[1]  I’m trying to give away as little as possible.

‘Nowadays the world is lit by lightning!’; a review of The Glass Menagerie

Play: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
Venue: Duke of York Theatre, London

‘From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been…evolved.’
— Charles Darwin, The Origin of the Species

Springing from a simple set, floating on water and empty space, John Tiffany’s version of The Glass Menagerie manages to bewitch. Through simple forms it elegantly spotlights the beauty and tragedy of Williams’ soul-searching words. We are greeted with simple props – a grilled set of fire-escape stairs receding up to infinity, a faded gold gramophone, a matching sofa and separator, and not a lot else for the bared-down cast to revolve around. The lighting is warmed by memory for the most part, occasionally broken by reality’s harsh moonlight.

This harder blue serves to isolate the narrator, Tom (Michael Esper), who is understood to represent Williams himself in this, his most autobiographical of plays. Tom is the only character who even sparingly adheres to the world as-it-is. He is granted 4th-wall-breaking soliloquys, where he acknowledges the untruth of his (Williams’) retelling. Tom and his family mostly inhabit closeted worlds of their own making. As his mother hysterically decries – ‘you live in a dream’. She may as well be talking of herself.

Dream-worlds here take many forms. Tom and his sister use ‘the movies’ as cesspools of escape, despite their mother’s flagrant disapproval. For her part, Amanda (the mother, Cherry Jones) constructs a reality where her crippled daughter Laura (Kate O’Flynn) might find a budding husband. Amanda’s escapism is hard-fought, forged in the harsh context of single parenthood in the Great Depression. Laura’s fantasy pivots around her glass menagerie of animal figurines, nurtured in a glowing box to which she frequently retreats her gaze. It is a small, simple world that she can control.

Tiffany presents a tableau of deception, drawn along both family fault-lines and inner divisions, where characters lie to themselves just enough to get by. The outside world, fittingly, is jet black – a non-entity, walled off by denial and Tom’s incomplete memories. Tiffany has the characters use phantom props (silverware et al suggested by gestures in the air), loosing themselves further from the real world’s concreteness.

“Time is the longest distance between two places.”
– Tom, The Glass Menagerie

                The first act sets Cherry Jones’ mother figure, Amanda, centre stage. Her rounded Southern syllables fill the theatre with the weight and pace of molasses. While Laura ritually winds her gramophone, Amanda’s motor-mouth needs no winding up. She is resourceful, magnetic, and loves her children entirely too much. Her offspring’s troubled faces are cowed by the light of her clinging, tender expectations.  Like Blanche DuBois, Amanda convinces herself that a poetic Southern drawl and tireless bluster can conjure a tolerable world. Predictably, she is painfully mistaken.

The Glass Menagerie’s second act eventually tears down those imaginary walls. But before a traumatic finish, there is a beautiful scene of whole-hearted catharsis where the forever scarred real world is briefly plastered over. It is Williams setting right his own mistakes. Haunted by leaving his own crippled sister to die, he lets Laura be reunited with her childhood love. Gentleman caller Jim (a bashful Brian J. Smith), teaches her to dance, while she introduces him to her glass figurines. It is a powerful, rose-tinted moment, where a playwright can atone for his sins, where theatre’s redemptive artifice shines brightest: showing itself as a prism/vacuum where the clock can withstand being turned back. Williams grants his lost sister a moment of exquisite happiness, glimpsed in the refracted glass of fantasy.  While events may conspire against her (in Laura’s reality-bound counterpart and the play’s devastating climax), it is in this dance that Williams pours his heart, and it’s where I’d prefer to leave mine.

The Blacker the Berry: Race relations in ‘Get Out’ and ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’

Films discussed:
Get Out
(Peele, 2017)
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
(Kramer, 1968)

Six Degrees of Separation (Schepisi, 1993)
OJ: Made in America (Edelman, 2016)
Moonlight (Jenkins, 2016)
13th (DuVernay, 2017)

‘Civil rights is one thing. This here is somethin’ else.’
— Tillie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Meeting bae’s family is never easy. In-law jokes don’t span world culture for nothing. But what stokes the flame in that teeming-couple kindling is the unspoken question on anxious parents’ lips: are they like us? Now, class can be a slow-burner for division, a simmering pot brought to the boil over time. But there’s nothing more incendiary than the immediacy, the elephant-stomping-in-the-room evidence, of race. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, we find preserved a Hollywood-sanitised treatment of the interracial marriage question – quite the scandal in Western 60s society. It’s central situation, a black boyfriend brought home to meet all-white parents, is mirrored in this year’s Get Out. The difference in genre and tone of these films, pivoting around the control variable of a shared plot, tells us a lot about race relations: their portrayal in social circles and the media, how a film’s outlook changes based on the racial background of the team behind it, and the public’s shifting reaction when faced with its controversial stimuli.

Beyond the subject matter, here’s how the films line up:

  • Guess had a white director, Kramer, Get Out a black one, Peele.
  • They were made almost 50 years apart – 1968 and 2016.
  • Both feature successful black male lead characters: Sidney Poitier’s seminal Doctor, John, and Daniel Kaluuya’s promising photographer, Daniel.

… and most crucially, genre:

  • Guess is a family comedy/drama. Get Out is a psychological horror.

Guess’ Hollywood stars, clichéd supporting cast and pastel colour palette preserve its status as a ‘light’ affair, smoothing the rough edges of controversial subject matter – made in the shadow of the ‘interracial couple’ issue, a union which horrified (conservative)Western society. In Get Out, the film itself is horrifying – perhaps more accurately reflecting the outrage, 50 years on, in black communities that have borne witness to repeated police man-slaughter (Martin, Garner, Brown, Scott and more) and endured unfair treatment under the law more widely.

A lot has certainly changed in half a century. The subject matter films are permitted to cover has widened considerably, for example, and may account for some of the films’ differences. But the most striking difference is the genre shift. It’s made possible by a black director, who can draw on the personal experience of too-eager, white condescension.

As Peele says in interview, ‘it’s clear we’re far from a post-racial society’. A fact blatantly obvious especially in light of the Ferguson/Baltimore race riots, whose extensive world press coverage was only halted by election season. But this factual reality[1] is suppressed by sheltered, societal elites, the purported ‘tolerant’ mass, who found their harmonious narrative brutally torn down in riots that marred Obama’s last days in office. The overwhelmingly white elite targeted by such protests is often stereotyped as having friends-in-high-places: establishments of education, politics and law. The privileged might cultivate these connections by frequenting middle-class lawn parties, with pearl-marbled water features and breezy gazebos. One such white-washed family affair is prominent in Get Out, whose guests seek to plaster over racial divisions with platitudes. ‘I’d vote for Obama a third time if I could’, Bradley Whitford’s Dean says, in cringey earnest.

Get Out’s power to shock derives from its refusal to hide behind such PC phrases, exposing the falsity in sanitised ideals of multicultural society. Faced with frank discussions of ‘superior genetic makeups’ and the climactic reveal of horrific, racially-motivated murders, these pandering party platitudes are spotlighted for what they are: isolating attempts at appearing ‘normal’ and ‘inclusive’. They imply a loftiness in the speaker, reeking of condescension rather than genuine attempts to make cross-racial connections.

Guess, on the other hand, makes palatable the controversies of its time. Kramer, the white director, achieves this through a light tone, a jaunty soundtrack, and of course, the casting of the peerless Sidney Poitier. Guess also features Poitier’s parents to balance the teams, a luxury not afforded to Get Out’s Kaluuya, who is isolated and alone in a white wilderness. Poitier, however, seems perfectly at home in pasty provincialism. As he says to his father: ‘…you think of yourself as a coloured man. I think of myself as a man.’


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner …. John’s parents arrive

Are we to read this as akin to OJ Simpson’s race-relinquishing efforts (as argued in the excellent documentary OJ: Made in America)? Where the ghetto-raised quarterback used his star power to rub shoulders with old, white, Long Island golfers, as if to rub off his ‘blackness’? Where white advertising executives found they didn’t mind giving the first black man TV sponsorship, only if it was OJ?  To the point where, when asked about his race, Simpson would reply ‘I’m just OJ?’

“Yeah, I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, y’know?”
― Chris Rock

Simpson’s egotism is an extreme example. But Poitier’s lone stance as black pinnacle among 60s Hollywood stars has led some to label him a ‘token’ example of diversity (also accused of this phenomenon: Denzel Washington in the 90s, Will Smith in the 00s). As a side note – masculinity in these films is fascinating. It might be a mistake to draw parallels between Get Out and Moonlight, given the proximity of shooting-schedules, but it seems serendipitous to say the least that we have two black male leads who weep openly during these films. This is a surprisingly rare phenomenon on screen, and lends both Moonlight and Get Out’s characters a humanity missing from, say, Poitier, whose anguish is usually expressed in blustering fury, a resolute manliness, a muscular sharpness in tone. In any case, the topic of black masculinity and class is rich and far-reaching, far better explored by more qualified people than me, in films like Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Here Will Smith’s character impersonates Poitier’s son to gain access to the home of a wealthy white couple.

There’s something to it. It’s a thread which runs through all these films – the nomination of ‘successful’ members of the black community, ordained and elevated, as it were, to inhabit white society. Albeit, Kaluuya’s elevation doesn’t last long. The white folks soon try to rid him of identity completely, colonising his brain with dominant parts of theirs, as they have done with countless other African-Americans. But maybe that’s the point. In Get Out, we have the horrifying manifestation of cultural whitewashing laid bare: middle class white Americans laying traps for the most desirable members of the Black community (‘Black is so in fashion’), then proceeding to leech off their youth, talent and potential (very relevant: Netflix doc 13th, which argues biases in the American justice system has led to the massively disproportionate imprisonment of blacks: a network akin to a modern-day slave trade).

Get Out’s jump-scares, ratcheted tension, unnerving string sections and nightmare dream sequences are horror tropes translated from personal experience. Guess, while headline-making at the time, is shown to have its outrage shackled by the domestic drama genre, filtered through a white director, stereotypes exposed in the light of present day. Despite being filled with murder, malice and disfiguring hate, Peele’s film is more relatable. It’s portrayal of race relations is darker, something lovers cannot surpass, but ultimately seems more realistic.

Pretty unnerving innit.

[1]  One has to distinguish this from ‘fake’ reality these days.

The Look of Silence (Oppenheimer, 2015) W/Q&A by Louis Theroux

‘Human capacity for evil depends on our ability to lie to ourselves’

Joshua Oppenheimer, 2015


If technology has a ‘bleeding edge’, so does cinema. Films like ‘CitizenFour’, the Edward Snowden documentary, provide an analogous case for art, where the story’s telling poses substantial risk to filmmakers and their participants. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s diptych exploring the 1965 Indonesian genocide, The Act of Killing (2012) and its current companion The Look of Silence, we have a much bloodier, sharper edge.

It is the edge of a machete which Amir Hassan and Inong wish they had brought back with them to Snake River, so that they might re-enact their killing of innocent people more faithfully. It is the double-edged sword of memory, on one side repressed by the victim community, on the other, glorified and revelled in by the perpetrators. It is the veiled edge of government threats to the filmmaker and his subject’s family, who in daring to question the actions of a military dictatorship which committed genocide in the 1965-6 ‘revolution’, confronts a government which still rules today.

Oppenheimer’s subject is Adi Rukun, who discusses the murder of his brother, Ramli, with those who remember his death. Amongst them are his parents, his uncle, and most strikingly the men who murdered Ramli and a million others like him. Each party’s reluctance to talk is an attitude forged in 50 years of silence, enforced by victorious killers who continue to live amongst their victim’s families.

Both sides agree, the past is past, and at times we doubt alongside Adi that he might be mistaken in disturbing rested soil. But as he digs deeper, the necessity of revisiting the past becomes clear. In images mirroring those of Hassan and Inong, who Adi sees revisit Snake River on a small television at the film’s beginning, Adi and his uncle retread the same ground. The killers’ retelling is one of jovial observations and wistful remembrance, two old friends debating the details of shared experience. The victim’s response is the polar opposite – solemn, praying of their Gods to let the dead rest peacefully. In a later clip from the same video, the killers make peace signs and pose for pictures next to the site of Ramli’s death.

The murderers are shown to appreciate beauty, in nature – as they stop to admire a flower – and in human art – as they draw pictures to remember the massacre. As Louis Theroux observed in his introduction to the film, the ‘weirdest thing about weird people is how normal they are’. His quote is supposed to make us relate to the abnormal, and see ourselves in their supposed ‘otherness’. But after Oppenheimer’s film, empathy becomes a bitter pill to swallow.

Adi’s considered, pensive persona is all the more remarkable as a result. He is a man of quiet intelligence, who knows when to hold his tongue, but whose indignation is palpable as he conducts his interviews. Oppenheimer revealed afterward that Adi actually shot one sequence in The Look of Silence, where his father finally loses the memories of his family, his home, and his dead son; crawling around his room shouting ‘this is not my house!’ As Adi explains, this is moment it became too late for his father to achieve closure – where the victim and aggressor are both lost in the passage of time.

Adi looks on, with quiet reserve and enduring compassion

Adi looks on, with quiet reserve and enduring compassion

Oppenheimer shows us multiple methods of engagement with the past, and here the victims/perpetrators are in unlikely communion. Neither wishes to delve into what has already happened. Adi’s parents say there is ‘no use raising it now’. His uncle says ‘remembering is asking for trouble…the world has healed.’ On the flipside, these comments carry the threat of further violence. Amir Siahaan assures Adi that if he ‘keeps making it an issue, then the past will repeat itself’. In a moment which signifies the danger of the project, Siahaan asks his brother’s name and subdistrict, which Adi refuses to grant him for fear of repercussions upon his family. We are reminded of the singular nature of Oppenheimer’s project: cinema has never before captured a victim’s interview with murderers while the latter is still in power.

In a gracefully observed metaphor, Adi conducts eye examinations on his murderous interviewees. Their refusal to see through another’s eyes are in parallel with their declining powers of sight. Oppenheimer later explains the practical use for this mechanism, which decreases the risk of violence and threats by putting the interviewee in a weakened position. Their words, Adi hopes, will speak for themselves. He is proved right. Their statements are fraught with hypocrisy, changing goalposts at will, redefining sentences uttered as recently as several minutes ago. It the behaviour of unopposed victors, used to inscribing the past in accordance with their temperament. There are small victories to be had against them here, in succinct, oxymoronic lines like ‘Your questions are too deep… I know nothing of politics’ (this from a man who specialised in identifying ‘communists’); or most strikingly ‘Luckily I drank human blood, or else I’d be crazy now’ (highlighting the stomach-turning practise of the perpetrators, who believed it gave them the mental toughness to overcome personal atrocity. In a further level of irony, it appears to have worked.)

In these sequences, Oppenheimer holds close to the faces of both sides; Adi’s quiet mask of defiance questioning old men of power, who faces may twitch, but none flinch. These men have no trouble inhabiting the past. Neither does Adi’s father, who in his centurion senility claims he is 17 years old and sings of sexy girls who catch his eye. Oppenheimer claims after that, in some way, ‘the genocide is still happening’, and it’s not hard to see the why. The past has become a place for the infirm or the insane.

Both sides invoke God on their side. One asserts the perpetrators will suffer in the afterlife, the other abdicates their individual morality in pursuit of a higher calling (in this case, the ‘communist’ purge). Adi, who remains religious and exemplifies extraordinary strength in forgiveness*, seems ultimately discontent with this divine displacement. The younger generation of Indonesia more widely is increasingly willing to challenge the old order, and encouraging sounds were made after The Act of Killing was released to record audiences in Indonesia. Unthinkable even 10 years ago, The Look of Silence even received backing from two Indonesian government initiatives.

The Look of Silence is a tremendously brave act of political filmmaking. It highlights the vacuum of responsibility created by the governing officials’ continued rewriting of history in modern Indonesia. Instead of providing an objective account of the massacre’s effects, Oppenheimer structures the film like a poem. He uses layered metaphor to explore untouched levels of memory, which manifest themselves in a mother’s restrained grief, in Adi’s unspoken resilience and, most shockingly, in gross caricatures animated by deluded men of power. It is a mark of the film’s timeliness and the genocide’s continued atrocity that Adi and his family have been relocated 1000s of miles away from their aggressors, and that the cast list is dominated by the label ‘anonymous’.

Amongst the pain, there are reprieving moments of beauty: in Adi’s giggling little girl, symbol of hopeful youth and brighter futures; in the luscious scenery of Indonesia, which (in the manner of 12 Years a Slave) provides beatific counterpoint to instances of unthinkable human brutality.  In terms of cultural effect, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was said to lift a cultural embargo on speaking about D-day and its atrocities. The Look of Silence is in the process of creating another moment of collective remembrance. Though this time, cinema aims to set the record straight, to shatter half-a-century of silence and usher in some form of closure to the victims that remain before it is too late.

Adi's mother works her garden, a haunted place of beauty

Adi’s mother works her garden, a haunted place of beauty



Q: ‘Do you forgive your brother’s killers?’

Adi: ‘If I was vengeful, it would be the same feeling which drove people to slaughter.’