Written By: Nella Larsen

192 pages

Literature/ African-American/ Classics

Publisher: Penguin Classics

This Edition Published: 2002

First Published: 1928

Quicksand, by Nella Larsen, is just what it sounds like: an experience of ever-sinking, of flailing and failing, of struggling to stay above the muck but endlessly falling back into it. The protagonist, Helga Crane, is smart, thoughtful, and aware, and that is precisely her problem. She is mixed-race, the product of a Danish mother and a black father, and she sees too clearly the problem of how people of her skin tone are treated in America. The novel deals with her constant struggle to find a place where she can belong—not only as a black woman or as a white woman, but as her unique self, the sum of those parts. Readers are transported from Harlem to Denmark and back again, hoping against hope that Helga will eventually find a compromise that she can live with.

One thing I like about Nella Larsen is that her books are never just about race, or being mixed-race, or even about being a woman, but rather are about characters who seem like real people and not symbols. Helga Crane is idiosyncratic: she is smart, but impulsive, personable but sometimes alienating, and she doesn’t always know (or do) what’s best for her. She can be frustrating and even unlikable, but she remains relatable in some way. Larsen succeeds at creating antiheroes, women who are not conventionally sympathetic, but whose interior life nonetheless makes us feel for them.

While I think Passing may be Larsen’s masterpiece, I still enjoyed Quicksand for its keen insights and devastating conclusions. Larsen draws largely on her own life, and this added dimension makes the novel all the more fascinating. It is a meaningful look at issues of identity, and it shows both how far we have come and how far we still have to go in creating a more inclusive society.

Mini-Review: Pariah


Drama, 2011

86 minutes

Starring: Adepero Oduye, Pernell Walker, Charles Parnell, Kim Wayans

Directed by: Dee Rees

Written by: Dee Rees

Pariah is the kind of movie that you could easily talk yourself out of seeing. It’s about the “tough” stuff: adultery, family tension, and growing up gay in a home, and situation, that not only doesn’t accept it but tries to suppress it. It is also, partially for that same reason, precisely the kind of movie you should see. Alike (pronounced a-LEE-kay) is a winsome teenage girl who is coming to terms with the fact that she is undeniably a lesbian. She is also black; in short, hers is a voice that is not often heard in popular culture, cinematic or otherwise. Her close friend, Laura, is her bridge into the world she wants to belong to: together they dress in baggy, masculine clothes and frequent a lesbian club that recently opened near where they live in Brooklyn. Her family, however, keeps her in the closest, pressuring her to be the daughter they want even when that is clearly at odds with what she wants for herself.

Alike’s struggle is at times harrowing, heartbreaking, and seemingly hopeless. Though we want her to find common ground with her family, and to be accepted for who she is, it seems evident early on that this cannot possibly happen. This film is not about wish fulfillment but about how we contend with the harshness of reality. Still, even beyond its important subject matter, Pariah is an excellent film, subtle but affecting, surprisingly funny at times, and beautifully acted. It understands its world, its perspective, and thus makes it wonderfully real and imperative to the viewer.

Mini-Review: Revenge


One-hour drama

ABC, 2011-present

Sunday, 9 pm EST

Starring: Emily VanCamp, Madeleine Stowe, Gabriel Mann, Henry Czerny

Created by: Mike Kelley

Intellectually, I recognize “Revenge” as pure camp—the word is even in lead actress Emily VanCamp’s name, after all. The premise of a pretty, blonde twentysomething, with infinite income, who goes to the Hamptons to exact revenge on the people who conspired to put her father in prison for a crime he didn’t commit is so contrived that to call it anything other than camp is to suggest you don’t own a dictionary. Yet, for all its implausibility, “Revenge” is oddly—though perhaps not surprisingly—compelling. To build a show upon such an absurd scenario requires a certain awareness of the absurdity, and I would argue that “Revenge” playfully exploits the tropes of its genre, even as it commits to them. All of the characters verge on caricature, nearly every one a scheming, deceitful opportunist who cares for others only insofar as it will advance his or her own goals. Still, these exaggerated motivations are not unconvincing, nor are the actions that result: no doubt all of us have at one time or another wished we could respond as these privileged people do.

“Revenge” allows its viewers to indulge in fantasies both light and pitch-black. The opulence of the Hamptons, and life on the beach, is on full display, and it is impossible not to get a vicarious thrill out of observing the lavish parties and extravagant homes of the super-wealthy. So too is the backstabbing equally enticing. The gratification of well-executed retribution cannot be underestimated. “Revenge” appeals to our darker impulses, while occasionally reminding us of why we must resist acting on them. It’s a frothy, nighttime soap opera, but it still offers something the psyche needs.

Mini-Review: Strange Powers

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields

Documentary, 2010

89 minutes

Starring: Stephin Merritt, Claudia Gonson, Daniel Handler, Carrie Brownstein, Neil Gaiman, Peter Gabriel

Directed by: Kerthy Fix, Gail O’Hara

In another time, or perhaps another place, Stephin Merritt would be widely regarded as a lyrical genius. He’d be the next Cole Porter, a witty wordsmith whose songs are both deliciously hummable and surprisingly poignant. He’d be famous, in demand, celebrated for his virtuosity…. In his own time and his own situation, though, Merritt is regrettably more obscure than that. While perhaps an indie icon, he is no radio star; his songs are largely unfamiliar to anyone who has not sought them out. Perhaps this suits him just fine. Or, maybe, baroque pop sensibilities and instruments like the ukulele will never be for everyone. Whatever the case, fans like me will have to take solace in the fact that Merritt is, if not an actual star, at least the star of this documentary, which chronicles the ups and downs of his band, The Magnetic Fields, over the course of 10 years. Strange Powers offers an intimate look at Merritt’s process, from writing down ideas to practicing, revising and eventually recording a song. It also gives insight into his close relationship with longtime collaborator Claudia Gonson. For anyone completely enamored of the band’s music, this documentary is a must. It provides access to Merritt that is so rarely granted, and an opportunity to connect with the music on a deeper level. And, no surprise, it has an amazing soundtrack.

Mini-Review: Take the Money and Run

Take the Money and Run

Comedy, 1969

85 minutes

Starring: Woody Allen, Janet Margolin, Marcel Hillaire, Jacquelyn Hyde

Directed by: Woody Allen

Written by: Woody Allen, Mickey Rose

Take the Money and Run is the first “real” Woody Allen movie, the one whose DNA we can still find traces of in the writer-director’s most current offerings. It’s a straight-up comedy, but not necessarily slight. In fact, it’s one of the first of its kind: a mockumentary that employs a wide variety of gimmicks to create the illusion of authenticity. Using this form, it tells the story of Allen’s failed criminal protagonist, Virgil Starkwell, a crook so pathetic that his attempt at a bank robbery is foiled by his poor penmanship. It features both footage of Starkwell and interviews with those closest to him; the best subjects are his parents, who agree to appear only on the condition that they be allowed to wear Groucho Marx glasses (to conceal their identity).

The gags are plentiful, and usually very clever. One of my favorites is a scene of Virgil in his high school’s marching band: he plays the cello. He struggles—and fails—to keep up with his classmates, sitting down in his chair and playing a single note, then getting up and scrambling to keep his place in the band. It’s simple and silly, but also a brilliant bit of visual humor, which Allen does quite well anyway. The whole film is full of such scenes, and my descriptions can hardly do them justice.

…So go watch it, learn it, enjoy it, and then we can start our own club. The password will be, “Is Kowalski a midget?!”

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