With These Zombie Eyes, and Other News


On the Shelf

Poster for White Zombie, 1932.

  • In 1929, William Seabrook published The Magic Island, an account of his travels in Haiti, and so introduced American readers to zombies, which soon came to dominate the cinema: “The zombie, they say, is a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life. People who have the power to do this go to a fresh grave, dig up the body before it has had time to rot, galvanize it into movement, and then make of it a servant or slave, occasionally for the commission of some crime, more often simply as a drudge around the habitation or the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks, and beating it like a dumb beast if it slackens.”
  • Knausgaard has at last hunkered down with Houellebecq’s Submission, which meant he had to read Huysmans’s Against the Grain, too—at his daughter’s gymnastics practice—which got him contemplating satire, ennui, political upheaval, and the nature of the sacred. He’s ready to tell you all about it. “When a person has grown up in a certain culture, within a certain societal system, it is largely unthinkable that that culture, that system, might be changed so radically, since everything in life—the beliefs instilled in us as children at home and at school, the vocations we are trained in and to which we later devote our labor, the programs we watch on TV and listen to on the radio, the words we read in newspapers, magazines and books, the images we see in films and advertising—occurs within the same framework, confirming and sustaining it, and this is so completely pervasive that to all intents and purposes it is the world, it is society, it is who we are. Minor modifications and adjustments take place … but total upheaval isn’t even a faint possibility, it is simply unimaginable, and therefore does not exist. And yet society’s total upheaval is what Submission depicts.” (Fingers crossed for a Houellebecq review of the next volume of My Struggle.)
  • Subtlety? Fuck it. Maybe we need art that’s also blunt-force trauma, art that announces its intentions with no equivocation: “Because bluntness is also a virtue. When artists don’t muffle themselves in service of subtlety (or in fear of being called unsubtle), they kindle fervor and fire. When we dispense with subtlety, we’re rewarded with work that resonates in every seat in the theater, not just in the orchestra section. And the more a work has something important to convey, the more it should not be subtle … When we stop fussing over what’s too heavy-handed, we can also start piling on the pleasure, and grabbing straight for the heartstrings. When we don’t worry about taking the long way around, we gain an emotional directness that is more in tune with the way people actually feel. People’s emotions, after all, are not always subtle. They are not hidden under a blanket inside their souls. People feel things, strongly, and creators that underplay that are making it harder for their audiences to connect purely and viscerally to their work.”
  • Filmmaking depends on a basic bit of magic: making real landscapes look like new places. The illusion can be shattered, however momentarily, by something as basic as recognition: when you see a location trying to pass as something (somewhere?) it isn’t, you see the whole apparatus of the movie industry coming out at you. “Seeing a locale you know intimately on screen gives you, much more than a flicker of recognition, a jarring effect that can sometimes prevent you from parsing the film’s internal landscape … Indeed, most of the ‘work’ imagining the geographical world of the film is done by the spectator, who must conjure up the unseen habitat from the slim shards of location the filmmaker divulges … In order to achieve this peculiar illusion, you need to privatize (or, failing that, eschew, by way of a studio set) the actual world—to tame reality into fiction, you must shut off streets (usually at a cost), place production assistants on street corners to keep curious bystanders out of the frame, you must painstakingly ensure continuity between takes and hope the messiness of the off-camera world does not become apparent on screen.”
  • Pity the still-life painters: next to portraits and sweeping landscapes, the depiction of inanimate objects can seem like a frivolous pastime. But in America, the still-life tradition has given us “the history of the ordinary rather than the extraordinary, the masses rather than the elite,” a new exhibition suggests: “At that moment in early American history when the young country began discovering not just the untamed wilderness to the West, but also the untamed elements of within democracy, still life spoke of more than just young men and flowers … ”