Welcome to the liminal space between the years, as we all recover from Christmas and brace ourselves for a weekend full of fireworks. Reading activity is definitely ebbing down for me, and has been for much of December — I’ve been slowly drifting through a Wendell Berry essay collection for three weeks now! I anticipate finishing it within the next couple of days, and may add another to the stack from Christmas or my current Kindle Unlimited titles. If my brain breaks out of siesta mode before the New Year starts, I’d like to post some reviews for books I’ve read this year but not done properly. There are several titles on my Top Ten Favorite Reads list that are in that state, so I need to remedy it. The top ten will be part of a series of year-in-review posts that will include the science survey, a general recap of the year, and a list of the movies I watched this past year.
And on that subject, two books I’ve finished recently need reviewin’. First up is Wendell Berry’s How it Went: Thirteen Stories of the Port William Membership. This is Berry’s latest collection of Port William stories, centered around the character of Andy Catlett. Andy is a prominent character in the Membership stories as a whole, having another book (Remembering) devoted to his young life. How it Went spans most of Catlett’s life, opening on the young Andy ringing the dinner bell in giddy solidarity with the bells of the town, announcing the end of World War 2. This particular story throws a bucket of cold water on the reader, as Berry envisions that industrial machine that made victory possible will be turned on the American people – destroying them not in war, but in peace. Berry uses the word ‘Membership’ for Port William very deliberately, and membership is a theme in this as in all of his novels; Andy Catlett is directly dis-membered by the industrial machine when he loses his hand in one, and the people of Port William will be dis-membered as a contiguous society as tractor and mechanized farming turn a mesh of interconnected, interdependent homesteads into just a few big mules, keeping to themselves in their massive machines that insulate them from the land they’re working just as effectively as they destroy the user’s ties to his surrounding community. If that all sounds a little glum, that is the story of Port William – but it’s not a sob story. Berry always works in beauty and sorrow together; his novels leave readers sad for what was lost, but profoundly moved by what was and which might be restored, both by the subject and by his artful writing. He is a superb storyteller, as not one of his works has ever failed to touch me – in the realness of his characters, and their flaws and strengths. There’s a common theme in this of old men passing their knowledge to younger men, of those young men’s shoulders growing with responsibility and their increasing awareness that the old men are gone, and that now they are the old men, with the duty to pass on the story of Port William, and the knowledge of how to husband the land well – but reckoning, too, with the fact that there are far fewer people in the ‘new’ Port William, and that fewer still care about the place that was a membership, not merely a Census-Designated Area or the latest tract to be marked for subdivided development.
On a much different note, I also read Eight Days in the Woods: The Making of the Blair Witch Project. I watched The Blair Witch Project for the first time this past Halloween, having missed most of the media hub-bub back in the day with the exception of it inspiring a game panned by PC Gamer. To the dismay of my cinephile friends, I enjoyed BWP enormously. The sheer novelty of having the actors also be the videographers, of immersing the viewer in a story that could be real because of that production approach – the lack of ‘production’ – struck me as very cool. Imagine footage not planned to the shot by producers, but created extemporaneously by character-actors as the characters would have experienced them! BWP’s approach became ever more interesting as I began digging online for information about the film, and learned that the cast were exposed to enforced method acting: they were experiencing much of what the characters did – the treks in the rain, the overnight camping harassed by strange sounds. The line between Actor and Character was very blurry indeed. Eight Days in the Woods is a history of how several film students met and hatched an idea for the movie, one they wouldn’t begin to work on until a few years later. We’re then taken through planning, production, and release, with the most interesting part being production. The author-editor includes numerous photographs from the production period, and most interestingly the actor notes – those introducing them to their character’s basic backstory, and giving them daily notes with an outline of where they’d need to be by days end. This opens the production’s hood a little bit. The filming was done in a fairly confined park, with the exception of the Griggs House two hours north of the park. One of the more interesting revelations of this book was that the producers’ plans were for a three-phase project, resulting a documentary movie inspired by the seventies series In Search Of….. (The original time setting was also be the seventies, but that proved impractically expensive for a few broke students!) The on-the-ground footage that makes the movie now was only part of the originally planned film, which would have included interviews and analysis by researchers and experts. Budget constraints limited how much “Phase 2” filming could be done, and inspired the idea of making a film that consisted only of the disappeared students’ found footage. If you like the movie, this is definitely of interest.