Staff Picks: Good Guys, Goose Fat, and Ghosts of Mars


Kristen Roupenian. Photo: Elisa Roupenian Toha.

There was a time when I found online dating apps addictive. It was a guiltless game: arbitrarily judging prospects by a series of photos, a far-fetched emoji or two, and a pickup line purloined from some seedy Internet forum. Does he like cilantro? (He should not.) Does he travel? (He should.) It’s no secret that the methods of modern romance have long been under fire. In retrospect, it’s equally unsurprising just how many people Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person”—the New Yorker story that inundated the Internet last December—resonated with. In that story, Roupenian shows she has a disconcertingly accurate eye for the ways we misjudge and miscommunicate our desires in today’s perfunctory dating culture, often to catastrophic ends. Her forthcoming short-story collection, You Know You Want This, is destined to be even more devastating. Roupenian sets the scene in “The Good Guy,” one of her eleven new stories in the collection: “It was almost existentially unsettling, that two people in such close physical proximity could be experiencing the same moment so differently.” Her characters verge on being uncomfortably relatable—trying to break up with someone in an Olive Garden, obsessing over whether bug bites are actually bug bites—before they start to spiral out of control in pursuit of humanity’s nastiest and most self-destructive pleasures. Each story is a refrain of the private indignities that keep you lying awake at night, the things that leave you wondering, Am I a good person, despite wanting what I want? With a wry voice and an all-knowing smirk, Roupenian lances through the sexual anxiety that permeates much of contemporary literature and society. Look at who you are, she dares us. “Look at what you’ve done.” —Madeline Day 

Jonas Mekas, the Lithuania-born poet and filmmaker, is by now a legend for his Village Voice movie column that ran from 1958 to 1977. (To give you an idea of how influential Mekas was, John Waters credits these columns with breathing life into his desire to make movies.) While Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris were reinventing how to write about mainstream movies, Mekas became the Herodotus of the American alternative and DIY film scene, the locus of which was south of Fourteenth Street. Yet despite his giant presence in downtown culture, Mekas’s actual work isn’t easy to come by today. While hardly a complete Mekas reader, his new collection, Conversations with Filmmakers, offers a very good entry point. A few of the people in this book became celebrities outside the New York social scene—Susan Sontag, Andy Warhol, Andrea Dworkin, Jack Smith—but most of them are specialist material for fanatics of the underground art world. Gregory Markopoulos, whose relative obscurity is partly due to his disdain for publicity of any kind, tells Mekas in a rare interview: “I believe cinema is a supreme work of art. The other arts have become old … Cinema remains the youngest of the arts and contains elements of eternity: meaning poetry.” One article excerpts texts and manifestoes from 1968 written in protest of both the New York Film Festival and the cinema’s cultural gatekeepers in general. My favorite: “The entire concept of a film festival, of a cultural event, militates against the establishment of ongoing relationships between film-makers and audiences, especially new audiences, which alone makes vital and progressive art possible.” —Ben Shields

 

John Carpenter.

 

John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars is a mess, but it’s my favorite kind of mess: ambitious and atmospheric, delighting in its own brand of chaos and strangeness. The film chronicles a prisoner extraction gone wrong in the wasteland valleys of Mars, where something murderous and ancient lurks. This desert is heavy and horrible with dread, grungy Burning Man types, and loads of thrash metal (the soundtrack is a collaboration among Carpenter, the weirdo guitarist Buckethead, and the band Anthrax). I can’t deny the film’s faults: the plot barely makes sense, the titular spirits follow no discernible logic (why is it that this roaming mass of paranormal dust seems allergic to most of the main characters?), and scenes are frequently cleaved by jarring jump cuts and fades. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. And I don’t mean this in an “it’s so bad it’s good” sense; Ghosts of Mars is fantastic and completely sui generis. What other movie lets you see Ice Cube ham it up as the tough-talking space convict Desolation Williams, or delight in the sight of a deranged, hulking man in black-metal makeup writhing in flames, or experience the thrill of a train howling through the empty sands of the red planet? Capitalism is horrible, but at least the confluence of money and art occasionally gives us chunky, baffling gems such as this. —Brian Ransom

Samantha Harvey’s savory Dear Thief, from the short-lived publisher Atavist Books, haunted me for a long time. The novel’s creeping twist arrived such that I felt as betrayed as its protagonist, and as caught. So when The Western Wind appeared in the office, I knew I had to ride the story out no matter its discomforts. I didn’t realize, however, that the discomforts would be so various. Set in late-fifteenth-century England, in a less than exceptional hamlet, The Western Wind is a remarkable argument for the temperance of religion. The narrator, a priest named John Reve, is among the only in his parish with an education. Reve reminds me that not so long ago, religion and learning were indistinguishable, that science and religion were equally close cousins, and that clean linen was less attainable than heaven. The misery of muddy late-spring England, stinking with sooty fires and piss pots, is hell for the hypochondriac in me, but the twenty-first-century reader is illuminated by what could be Harvey’s gentle rebuttal to Brexiteers and their bards. The book struck me as a fable about the consequences of failed bridges and the danger of close-mindedness. Go back far enough in English history and you’ll find the same paranoia, isolationism, and bigotry of today—but with more goose fat. —Julia Berick

I’m missing a lot of background when it comes to appreciating what’s going on in El mal querer, the second full-length studio album by the Spanish singer Rosalía. I know next to nothing about flamenco and, until some middle-of-the-night googling, had not heard of Flamenca, the thirteenth-century Occitan romance on which the album is apparently based. But for the past two days, I’ve had “Pienso en tu mirá” on repeat, and so I’m here to tell you that even if you have no knowledge and maybe even no Spanish, it is spectacular. That song in particular is the best sort of hybrid. Something about the mix of staccato rhythms and impossible-to-follow handclaps (I tried, I failed) with vocals that seem almost mumbled, and the video that seems to cross-pollinate “Bad Girls” with a ballad—it makes you want to look both backward and forward, to the traditions that inspire this singer and to where she will go in the future. —Hasan Altaf

 

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