Two bad reviews have got to be bad for the soul. All this negativity! So I’ll pile them into one entry, lest they pollute my blog too much.
So I finished reading The Taqwacores. Why, of all the books I’ve been reading, am I writing something about this one? Well, it’s the only novel I’ve read. I dropped Anna Karenina because I decided my head wasn’t in the game. Everything else I pleasure read is non-fiction. I saw this book in the Seattle Central Library, AKA the coolest place in Seattle, and got really excited. Will had sent me a link to a New York Times review back in the day and it piqued my curiosity. I read a few chapters of what was on Google Books and was kind of interested. It had the combination of being in a familiar world (Buffalo) involving people I care about (Muslims) but being bizarre enough to develop a hunger (sociological interest in strange people). But I was broke at the time and I didn’t find a copy at the library so I never actually read the entire thing.
Then, there it was.
Yep, a nice blurry picture of my find at the library. In a section labeled “Adult books with adolescent appeal”, but my eyes lit up. I took it out with about ten other books (Remember, library is closed this week) but I was really excited.
OK, so like a documentary I watched last night (more on this) … I was completely the wrong audience for it.
There is a lot of Arabic in the book. Now, while I have plenty of experience being in places and understanding half of the conversation (Что?) and still get the meaning, I could do that here too. But there are some points where you miss what he’s trying to have the characters do in the dialog – is it ironic? Sarcastic? and this version had no glossary for Anglo-phone idiots so that made it a bit distracting.
There isn’t much of a plot. The book relies on you relating to the characters. And it’s not to say that I couldn’t. Yusef, the protagonist, is a do-gooder in a sea of sin who is from my fine native city. OK, I’ve been there, I remember that. He’s trying to find himself, and he’s telling stories about the house he lived in. The character development could have used a touch more depth. It felt like Tyler telling stories about people he knows rather than literature. OK, that’s fine. And they weren’t completely two dimensional, just mostly. I really liked Rabeya, the feminist in purdah, until she performs fellatio on stage through her burqa to another character because it’s “punk”. I mean, I was so with her all the way to that point. And I get it. Like, I got why she did that, I understood the message and logic (and I’m undecided about that). But in regard to the book… I think you’re supposed to relate to the Muslim culture and expectations. I mean, I learned a lot from this book about that… but I felt like double checking and fact checking everything would be prudent.
For me, the fact that it blatantly takes place in a house either in Allentown or (more likely) University Heights with references that I recognize as UB, Buffalo State, Amy’s Place (a greek diner that serves a 2-2-2? Mhmmmm), the East Side, City Mission, and so forth kept this homesick reader engaged for the first half of the book. And then the graphic, adolescent way of describing sexuality kept me engaged for the rest of it but that’s because I’m perverted. No. That’s not true. It’s because it was kind of like a car wreck, I couldn’t look away. Again, I get the point. I understand its place. But Knight sensationalized the characters. They needed more depth to be really human to me. It’s a good allegory for finding one’s place in their origin and pushing boundaries. I guess it could have been better.
I liked it up to the end of it, where a character dies needlessly in what I suspect is supposed to be a heroic, martyr like scene that seemed so meaningless to me. I’m not attached to punk like a reader is supposed to be I guess.
The cover has a Guardian quote describing Knight (who was born in Rochester) as “The Hunter S. Thompson of Islamic literature”. I know nothing about Islamic literature, but everything I know about Hunter S. Thompson makes me despise him. So I was a bit skeptical. And I see what they mean.
So yeah, the non-punk, female, non-Muslim says the book geared at teenage boy punk Muslims is not the greatest read.
With that being said, if you like reading about weed and debauchery among a religion that only gets press for its members being pious, I highly recommend it.
Now what I don’t recommend? Examined Life. Of all the films I’m watching, why write about this one? Oh yeah, it’s the only one, no TV, no interest most of the time. It was recommended to me by someone who has similar interests to my own. Without watching it, I forwarded the recommendation to Maggie, whose interests are much more congruent to the recommender. I really wish I hadn’t.
Will suggested actually watching it yesterday because the IMDb made it sound interesting to him. I started looking for ways to otherwise keep my hands occupied, as it’s 90 minutes long and I poorly sit still. Will’s a political science graduate student, so these philosophy in the real world things are just as relevant to him as me.
Ugh, had such high hopes for this. And it was so banally mediocre. I was really disappointed. I put the ridiculously long review I typed up to that (and sent to Recommender) after the jump. Part of the reason for the high hopes was that the source knows my thinking reasonably well, and so it seemed promising in this arena. Well, can’t hit home runs every time. Sources are important. You know, you don’t go to your favorite vegetarian to find out which restaurant has the best steak, you don’t go to your favorite geographer (Here’s Johnny!) for a recommendation about philosophy films. (I should note in the interest of justice that my favorite geographer is the one I go to for music, stars, casinos, blueberries, and comfortable couches. But that’s because he’s a drummer in a jam collective and a laid back musician. He’s got a big telescope. And he knows where all the casinos are in Western New York. And he picks blueberries like a champ. And I’m sleeping on his couch in a week and a half) But philosophy films? No way man.You go to people familiar with the material. So yeah. Meh. Details reasons for its suckitude after the “Read more”.
Reasons the Examined Life sucked.
1. We were clearly the wrong audience for the film. We watched it for a insightfulness fix, budding from a hope that maybe we’d learn something new, or get exposed to an idea that we hadn’t considered before. But everything that was said was in my mental stagnant waters: I’m familiar with absolutely everything they said. So yeah, totally the wrong audience.
The instructor in me sees this as perhaps a good introduction for a 101 class, or to a group of students who have 0 experience with critical thinking or are very used to compartmentalizing their lives into “Stuff I memorize for tests” and “How I live” in hope of maybe inspiring them to tear down that wall. Freshman honors seminar, I was talking to an 18 year old at church about to start college that I think would benefit from this. Get an introduction early, and then learn enough to forget its flaws later. But for two social science graduate students… No.
2. It was superficial to an infuriating extreme, and worse it has to be by design. They try to touch on too many topics and talk to too many celebrities to get any substantial meaning into this film. This is tragic to me – because the audience that would get something from this movie would likely not realize the academics presented are “important people”.
In some cases the superficiality created comments that were… wrong. For instance, in the conversation between Taylor and Butler about attitudes towards helping, and how it’s disdained… that’s not a universal condition of American society. For instance, helping is gendered. Women in kinship networks are expected to help each other. That’s really obvious, and Butler, of all people, should know better
3. Holy s***ty camera work. They could not get the white balance right for the life of them. I picked up on this. I generally don’t. The problem with this is that the white balance and color is really easy to fix post-production (Will, for instance, knows how to and has done this using Adobe Premier – He’s no videographer, he spent a weekend with a friend’s film and google to teach himself how – if the filmmakers can get Zizek and West, can’t they get a decent editor?) and even SIMPLER as using your camera right in the first place, and having a white piece of paper near by. Will’s critique of the style is that they rely on “art student cliches” such as birds flying when something is supposed to be redemptive, to a distracting extreme. They over rely on motion as a symbol, without having the skill to actually capture motion in the first place. The motion contributed to the color issues, but it also created this distracting dizzying effect. It is thus detrimental to any message they are trying to make. I found a lot of the special, show-offy shots (fish lenses, etc) really distracting. They break up conversation and lines of thought in an attempt to come off as deep.
The difference between a film and a book is that use of color (which they couldn’t get right) motion (which was distraction) and the visual aesthetic to make a point. They failed.
Contrast this to “The Fog of War”, the MacNamara interview documentary. He’s sitting the whole time, and the shots that cut away had meaning. The random ones here were trite and cliche, and seemed random. I’d go so far to use the words “counter-productive” to describe them.
Though, fortunately, there wasn’t too much pesky substance in the way to be distracted from.
4. This film seems, to me, to be like a puddle trying to resemble Lake Erie. Puddle because it should be humble, but it’s trying so hard to present itself as deep. Likely this is the result of the fact they are talking to big people, but at some points, the pretentious tone was a bit unbearable for their attempted project and certainly to my sensibilities. If this is trying to make philosophy accesible to the masses, they are further cementing the ivy tower with the tone. Especially Ronell. Her ideas are interesting, but putting her as one of the first speakers (though I do agree with their choice as West as the beginning, middle and end points… likely due to my bias with West’s approach and ideas) given how much she drips with snobbery, was a very poor choice and colors the rest of the film badly.
The film maker is obviously in love with philosophy, but she assumes that everyone else should be too. Someone unaccustomed to breathing the stiffling airs of the people who are in the academic world would be put off. I am used to it, and it struck me as problematic.
5. The transitions between speakers is akin to wandering through a coffee hour hearing the middle of a conversation. Except in coffee hours, the speakers respect the new listener enough to explain what is going on. This contributed to the aloof quality of the film – I found myself asking Will (and him agreeing – obvious bias but follow) WHY they were bothering to talk about revolution. WHY were they bothering to explain meaning? The film does not respect the watcher enough to tie these loose ends together.
In fact, a coherent theme is nonexistant beyond “here’s a bunch of people saying deep thoughts”. The film demands that the watcher be in awe. If I went for unquestioning awe, I’d still be Catholic, and I’m under the impression that the film is explicitly asking for the opposite. Rather frustrating.
At its best, it reminded me as a mediocre UU sermon. Actually, given that the philosophy IS one of the UU sources and that the ENTIRE RELIGION is interested in the questions of ethics, meaning, and so forth… I think those interested in what the film purports to be about would be better served attending a humble service instead of watching this film.
I mean, I did like that Cornel West, in the middle section, likening intellect to music. Again, I’ve heard that before so this is a case of overexperience. But even if I hadn’t been seeking stimulation and freshness… it’s poorly done. I’m a harsh critic at times, but if I were to describe this film to someone, I’d use the words “cliche” “trite” and “shallow”. Which is too bad, it could have been better.
Better, in my eyes, would have involved:
1. Fewer speakers so they can be depthful
2. Better transitions so the film is coherent
3. More stillness, so it is less nausea inducing
4. FOR THE LOVE OF WHATEVER DEITY OR LACK THEREOF, NON-****TY CAMERA WORK.
I mean, thanks for the recommendation, but if you’re making recommendations in the future… keep this in mind :)