Modiano Moments

Since I first heard of French novelist Patrick Modiano upon his being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014, I’ve read off and on over ten of his novels and novellas, beginning with the three-novella collection Suspended Sentences up through his memoir (or anti-memoir) Pedigree which I read last week and The Black Notebook which I’m currently reading.

Modiano’s books, regardless of plot or characters, are all about searching for something or someone, making sense of fragments from a notebook entry written many years before, or a newspaper clipping referencing someone who may or may not have run with his father, he himself a shadowy figure for Modiano, a photograph or people half-remembered or fully mysterious. What is real, what is a memory, what is a figment, a filament.

A representative example:

At times, it seems, our memories act much like Polaroids. In nearly thirty years, I hardly ever thought about Jansen. We’ve known each other over a very short period of time. He left France in June of 1964, and I’m writing this in April 1992. I never received word from him and I don’t know if he’s dead or alive. The memory of him had remained dormant, but now it has suddenly come flooding back this early spring of 1992. Is it because I came across the picture of my girlfriend and me, on the back of which a blue stamp says Photo by Jansen. All right reserved? Or for the simple reason that every spring looks the same?

Afterimage, by Patrick Modiano (translated by Mark Polizzotti)

Thus Modiano’s books easily blend together in the mind, end up being about nothing, and question their existence in one’s mind, to the point that I’ll pick up one of the many slim volumes I have around the house, read the back cover description, flip through some pages, and yet have no idea whether I’ve already read it or not.

Marie Rivière in “Le Rayon Vert”, by Éric Rohmer (1986)

When I read Modiano it’s hard for me to avoid thinking of my beloved Éric Rohmer, with the French connection of course but also the elliptical nature of his films, the threadbare plots, the vérité of the interactions, the Parisian backdrop of so many of them. A few years ago during a Rohmer retrospective in Tokyo, I went to see my personal favorite of his, Le Rayon Vert (The Green Ray, or Summer), even though I don’t speak French and the Japanese subtitles would be too challenging. True, I had seen it several times by that point, over the years. But dialogue has never been for me something very important in a Rohmer film, certainly not on the same level as the improvised performances like Marie Rivière’s excellent one here. (Here’s an excellent interview with Rivière about the filming and improvisation process.) Not all Rohmer is improvised of course, but the “Comedies and Proverbs” films of the 80s (Le Rayon Vert was the fifth entry) and the “Tales of the Four Seasons” films of the 90s have a strong improvisational tone. This in combination with loose plot structures, lends them an ephemerality that is very much akin to Modiano.

Reading Modiano, and fighting that feeling that there is never anything solid to grab on to, nothing solid upon which to stand, I’m also reminded of another filmmaker and something that I’m fairly sure I heard the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami say about his films when I saw him speak after a showing of his The Wind Will Carry Us at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2000:

I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater … Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.*

*Rather than paraphrase from memory, I’ve taken the above from an undated clip of Kiarostami saying what I remember him saying. (Tautology, much?) I imagine this is something he said often enough that he said something very similar the night I saw him.

This morning, not 15 minutes after I put down my daily Modiano — I’m reading 10-15 pages of The Black Notebook a day, sometimes a morning coffee, or an afternoon aperitif — in what can only be described as a Modiano moment, I saw in my email that I had received a direct message on Flickr (remember them?), written completely in French:

J'espère que vous allez bien? Je me présente Louise M[.], j'ai pu jeter un coup d'œil à votre galerie Flickr, que j'apprécie je tenais à vous le faire savoir car pour des débutants de la photo comme moi, c'est une source d'inspiration! bien que je ne prenne pas beaucoup de photos, il n'en demeure pas moins que c'est une activité que j'aime de plus en plus je cherche encore mon domaine, au plaisir d'échanger peut-être! (Google Translate)

Whether this is genuine or part of some intricate spam/scam I have no idea. Regardless, serendipity was coined for times like this.

Thanks to Modiano, recently I’ve been fantasizing about visiting Paris again, equipped with my own “black notebook” of addresses and locations from Modiano’s books, Rohmer’s films, and Atget’s photos. It was over 25 years ago that I was last in Paris, and I’ve only been there twice, or was it three times. If I were to write down what I remember of those trips, it would read like a passage from a Modiano book :

…summoning up the courage to ask someone in the train station (but which one?) about was the correct train to Chartres, as I didn’t know how to pronounce it and was petrified to be revealed as the dumb American…

…walking across a Paris bridge (Pont Neuf?) and seeing a woman below on the bank defecating, her ass lit up by moonlight…

…being lectured by filmmaker Rose Lowder in her tiny apartment (perhaps near the Pompidou), the tiniest apartment I had ever seen, to this day still the tiniest, about how unhealthy was the yogurt drink I was drinking…

…doing laundry somewhere in the Latin Quarter, from my first visit in 1991, of which I struggle to remember anything less banal than laundry…

Miscellaneous Bits and Bobs on Recent TV Viewing

Bowing out gracefully, or in one chunk

Two shows coming to an end, Ozark and Better Call Saul. The former went with the Breaking Bad final season approach, two parts of an equal number of episodes (seven), released for binging purposes all at once three months apart. Better Call Saul, on the other hand, released the first two episodes of its final season six initially, then one episode per week every Tuesday thereafter. (Note: Here in Japan, the show airs on Netflix, concurrently with the US release on AMC.)

In the recent ballyhoo about Netflix missing its subscriber targets, one analysis mentioned that the binge-ready way of releasing all episodes of a show or a season at once might no longer have the same appeal it once did (I’m paraphrasing). Although I didn’t binge this final part of the final season of Ozark (limiting myself to an episode a day or every two days), being able to contrast the readily-available nature of Ozark versus the wait-until-Tuesday of Better Call Saul has made me realize that indeed I much prefer the set release schedule. I enjoy the anticipation, the having something to look forward to aspect, of Better Call Saul. (And let’s be honest, as entertaining as Ozark is, it just doesn’t have the considered quality of Better Call Saul.) And I appreciate the ease with which I can access tv critics’ recaps or Reddit discussions of the episode I just watched without having to traverse spoiler minefields.

Apple TV+

As far as I can tell, Apple TV+ has been taking the weekly episodic approach much more to heart, at least with the shows I’ve watched recently: Pachinko, Slow Horses, Severance, We Crashed. Is it just a coincidence or does this weekly release concept help feed the impression I have that the quality across the board of the fare on Apple TV+ is of a higher level and that with the exception of We Crashed, none of them felt like a Netflix show, however ill-defined or vague that feeling might be?


Although I had several issues with it, which might best be summed up by that critic fave “uneven”*, I dare say I’ve never seen a TV production as drop-dead gorgeous as Pachinko. Watching Game of Thrones a few years ago, you could not escape the sense, bolstered by repeated mentions of budgets in the press, of each episode having the production values of a blockbuster movie. But you could also not escape the fact that much of that was tied to CG and rubberized dragons and so forth. Pachinko on the other hand, in a strangely unassuming way, feels like a proper epic historical film, with exquisite set and costume design captured through beautiful cinematography, episode after episode.

* A lot of my disappointment with Pachinko — and don’t get me wrong, I still adored the show immensely — was connected to this sense I had that the creators couldn’t decide whether it was a limited series or a multi-season project. I suppose this is endemic to current TV where any renewal of the series likely won’t happen until after the first season begins airing, but I wish more thought and care was given to how to end in such a way that either option (renewal or cancellation) is possible. (I see now on Wikipedia that Pachinko was renewed for a second season in April.)

Miniseries of yonder

Pachinko reminded me a lot of the miniseries — is this term even used anymore? — I watched as a kid growing up in the late 70s and early 80s. Roots of course is probably the one that ushered in the era of the miniseries, although I only saw parts of it at the time. But later I watched many that I can still remember quite clearly: Shōgun with Richard Chamberlain (wasn’t he in all of these miniseries?), which I saw twice, once at home and once at school, the two Herman Wouk ones about WWII, The Thorn Birds (aah, I was absolutely smitten with Rachel Ward), later Fortunes of War with Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson. I would not watch these again, 40 years later, fearing they would not hold up well, but I do cherish the memory of these early milestones in my cultural upbringing.

Documentaries and misogyny

Watched both the Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. docuseries and The Tinder Swindler documentary in quick succession. Both are fine, well-done, particularly the latter which to be honest I wasn’t expecting much from for some reason. (It may be that the title itself pretty much tells you all you need to know about what the story will be about.) But what surprised me was looking for some commentary or follow-up about the respective stories and discovering the sheer amount of victim-blaming connected with the women portrayed, especially Sarma Melngailis, the restauranteur turned fugitive of Bad Vegan. No doubt she shouldn’t come off completely blameless, and is certainly an imperfect and evasive narrator, but how anyone can listen to the many audio recordings of the coercive controlling and gaslighting Anthony Strangis and still come out wholly or largely blaming Melngailis is beyond me. Except that it isn’t really. Imagine if the rolls were reversed, or it was a con-woman swindling a succession of men she met through Tinder. The 30% audience rating for Bad Vegan on Rotten Tomatoes is telling.

Thoughts on Murder Among the Mormons

Here are some thoughts on Netlix’s 2021 true crime docu-series Murder Among the Mormons, which I watched with my son earlier this month.

I’ve watched a lot of true-crime dramas so far this year, and in truth, they start to blend together. It may be, as New York Times critic Margaret Lyons recently posited, that “cheesy reenactments” are to blame. She singled out Murder Among the Mormons as “among the more egregious offenders in their use of murky, dialogue-free re-enactments of such behaviors as sitting down on a couch, shaking hands and holding envelopes….”

Personally, they don’t bother me all too much, but she is on to something when she writes that the “conventions of the genre” (true crime) are fairly readily apparent. That said, I enjoyed Murder Among the Mormons but thought it should have been four shorter episodes rather than three 55-minute ones. In other words, it seemed to me there was half an episode’s worth of material or story that was left on the cutting room floor. There were to me valuable aspects which I’ll mention below that the directors didn’t circle back to, leaving a strange unfinished taste in the mouth.

The series dealt with three bombings in Salt Lake City in 1985, involving people related to the antique documents business, specifically those dealing in old documents related to the Mormon Church. It is eventually revealed that document dealer Mark Hofman is behind the bombings, and not only that but that most if not all the documents he was finding and selling were in fact forgeries he had created. I had never heard of the case and as I try to not read anything about these documentaries before I watch them, I was mainly intrigued by the Mormon angle. I sort of naïvely presumed, given that I’ve already watched a couple of (not great) TV documentaries about Mormon fundamentalism earlier this year, that the murder was not only among the Mormon Church but directly connected with it.

So I was the perfect victim for the misdirection the documentary goes to some lengths to set up in the first episode — that these bombings must be related in some way to the Mormon Church’s active interest in suppressing unearthed documents which tell a different story than what is the official foundation story of the Mormon Church. (Here’s a contemporaneous LA Times story from before the bombings of the controversy these documents were creating.) It was a clickbait-y way to play on the expectations some (myself included) hold regarding the Mormons and to get people to stick around for episodes 2 and 3.

A rough replica of the golden plates on display in the Church History Museum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. (Wikimedia Commons)

(As an aside that will no doubt offend believers of organized religions, the fact is that the “White Salamander” version of the church’s foundation (which is what one of the unearthed documents — later revealed to be a forgery — details) is no more fantastical or “out there” than the official origin story of an angel called Moroni visiting Joseph Smith in his bedroom and telling him where the golden plates (which became the Book of Mormon) were buried. Furthermore, the documentary sort of takes at face value these “historical” documents when in reality we’re talking about fictions, whether they were written in the 1800s or forged a hundred years later. To me, the more interesting story to be told is about how a master forger was able to capitalize on the Mormon’s insatiable need for their origin story — itself created out of whole cloth — to be validated.)

The best thing about the documentary by far was the interview segments with Shannon Flynn, who was somewhat of an acolyte and business partner to Hofman and clearly still maintains feelings of admiration for him, along with a healthy dose of betrayal. Flynn is a character and a half, to put it mildly, and speaks in a strange Truman Capote-like tone — possibly on account of some disease or ailment that isn’t explained. (In the 1985 footage he speaks completely different and “normal”). He also has facial ticks and muscles that move all over the place, and he has a flair for the dramatic pause as well. His presence absolutely makes the documentary and reminds me that often what I remember most about the many documentaries I watch are these one-of-a-kind personalities, and the quality of the interviews, the choices directors and editors make about what interview material to use, where interviews are cut, etc.

February 11, 1987, New York Times article on the “master forger” Mark Hofman.

The documentary left me unsatisfied in part because I kept waiting for it to circle back to the experts who all authenticated the various forgeries. We’re not just talking about people who had a vested interest in these documents being real, like dealers or collectors. None other than the FBI said they could find no evidence a certain document was forged, and plenty of other experts authenticated them as well, including those at the American Antiquarian Society and the Library of Congress. But while episode 2 went into detail about Hofman’s dealings with dealers, featuring, in particular, an interview with a dealer in New York who was helping to arrange the sale of Hofman’s “Oath of the Freeman” (a document from the 1600s related to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, but alas a forgery) for $1.5 million dollars, once the full extent of Hoffman’s duplicity and the murders he committed to keep the charade going are revealed in episode 3, we hear nothing again from any of these people who had been duped. No doubt one wouldn’t want to talk about being so utterly hoodwinked, but it’s hard to know if the show’s creators really tried or felt that this angle was surplus to proceedings and the copious amounts of recorded testimony from Hofman that makes up the bulk of episode 3.

All in all, an interesting but disappointing documentary series.