Staff Picks: Sorceresses, Sidewalks, Suturing


This Week’s Reading

From Taipei Story.


When I hopped over to BAM recently to see Edward Yang’s 1985 Taipei Story, I didn’t realize that I was about to encounter one of the most beautiful movies I’ve seen this year. Taipei Story is a stunning and fluid masterpiece about a couple, Chin (Tsai Chin) and Lung (Hou Hsiao-hsien), slowly drifting apart in an increasingly modern Taiwan. They make vague plans to move to America, but they fall through—neither one of them can seem to stop giving money to their struggling friends and family. The movie is sewn through with glorious slow images: of Taiwan’s new, monotonous high-rises (“I can’t tell anymore which ones I designed and which I didn’t,” says Chin’s architect lover); clogged highways; active night markets and cozy karaoke bars. Everything is bent in a glacially paced Weltschmerz. The biggest bummer (spoiler, sorry): when Lung dies, stabbed at the end by a young admirer of Chin’s. It happens so casually, in a muffled street scuffle, that it just seems like another quiet moment in this drifting, sad story. But Yang has flipped the tragedy switch: after his attacker flees, Lung starts to walk away, then stops, pulls back his jacket, and looks at a dripping, red orb on his white dress shirt. He limps down the empty, tree-lined parkway, hoping for a cab. It never comes. —Caitlin Love

I watched A Perfect Couple (1979) from start to finish before I realized it was a Robert Altman movie. I should’ve known: it’s a bonkers rom-com including an assault with a fireplace poker, a very horny veterinarian, and a tender moment in the ER, with the doctor interrupting to say, “I don’t think you two should be kissing while I’m suturing.” Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin play star-crossed lovers with troubles at home. He, well into his forties, still lives in the baroque family mansion, where his tyrannical Greek father presides over creaky, oppressive family dinners. She’s a backup singer in Keepin’ Em Off the Streets, a Delaney and Bonnie–ish rock revue whose asshole bandleader insists on grueling, interminable rehearsals, after which the band repairs to the hip loft where they cohabit in promiscuous, cultlike harmony. Altman’s arch, cynical side is here in abundance—he makes love seem like an apocalypse, the sort of thing you’d undertake only if the drugs stopped being fun. But almost in spite of himself, he ends up with a winsome story about trapped people looking for life’s fire exits. (He also sneaks in one of the earliest examples of a happy gay couple in all of cinema.) The sets, designed by regular Altman collaborator Leon Ericksen, are at once airy and labyrinthine, giving the camera plenty of holes to plumb and baubles to dwell on. And the script is quietly lacerating: when Dooley advertises himself for a video-dating service, he stammers, “I’m interested in having a relationship that’s, uh … well I don’t like to say meaningful, because everybody says meaningful.” —Dan Piepenbring 


From A Perfect Couple.


There’s no way around it: I, Olga Hepnarová is a disturbing watch. Directed by Petr Kazda and Tomás Weinreb, it recounts the life of Olga Hepnarová, who, in 1973, intentionally drove a truck through a packed Prague sidewalk. Killing eight and injuring at least twenty, unrepentant Hepnarová was the last woman executed under the communist regime. I feared the movie would lodge a predictable argument, blaming communism for her actions—but it’s unflinchingly resistant to easy answers. Shooting in black and white, the cinematographer Adam Sikora creates a gray atmosphere in which Michalina Olszanska’s Olga becomes both victimizer and victimized. Bone-thin and painfully awkward, she’s a bullied outcast with a violent grudge. We’re thrown into her volatile resentment, but we’re also provided with moments of interpersonal connection, which, for all her callousness, still have the power to perforate her isolation. This tension creates a cyclical system of cause and effect, in which the avoidable and the inevitable intersect. Sidestepping the temptations of caricature, I, Olga Hepnarová asks the often silent, difficult questions of gruesome acts. —Madeline Pereira


From I, Olga Hepnarová.


Samantha Hunt’s first story collection, The Dark Dark, comes out in July. In “All Hands on Deck,” thirteen teenagers, all mysteriously pregnant at the same time, hover inches off the ground in their high school hallway; in “Beast,” a woman transforms into a deer after her husband falls asleep, and finds herself frightened of the surrounding night: cars, construction, strip malls—all on American land that used to be to farm property and forests. In these ten stories, Hunt connotes the feminine with magic in an undeniably male and intensely puritanical way. The principal at the high school accuses the thirteen girls—who harbor strange fetishes for America’s founding fathers—of witchcraft; the anamorph is terrified to tell her husband of her transformations. And so we wonder, what would that look like, a man reconciling the creature that is his wife via the codifications of contemporary conversation? At the heart of each story is the sense that the American experiment was doomed. It failed to understand women without language that casts them as beasts, sorceresses—organisms hormonally inhuman. The Dark Dark reads like a feminist manifesto threaded through imaginative fiction; it’s the most evocative, impressive collection I’ve read this year. —Daniel Johnson

A cult favorite, Flann O’Brien’s novel The Third Policeman is bizarre and hilarious: it moves along some puckish metafictive ground. There are bicycles, pancake is used as a superlative placeholder noun, and time is often, though not always, recursive. The plot, if it is just one, follows a narrator who kills, steals, and ends up in a police station. He’s an informal scholar of an intellectual named de Selby and, as events unfold, de Selby’s thought is presented alongside the narrator’s. We learn that de Selby believes the Earth isn’t spherical but rather sausage shaped, and that motion is unreal. The narrator relays all this from the police station, where he’s been detained for murder. At another point, the narrator discovers that he has a soul named Joe, a touchy sort who takes offense to a comment about his, Joe’s, body, thus setting the narrator off on an earnest meta-digression about his soul having a body inside of his, the narrator’s, body. Reading The Third Policeman can feel a bit like living inside Zeno’s paradox, where any presumptive movement is halved and then halved again. But there’s great humor and feeling in O’Brien’s writing—the swirling effect that emerges in a good hall of mirrors. —Noah Dow