On Adam Driver.

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Earlier this week I went to an independent cinema in Boston in the rain to see a matinee screening of Marriage Story, even though it’s on Netflix and I could have watched it from my couch. I’m glad I did. I really adore going to the movies on my own, especially if there’s hardly anyone else with me in the screening. And giving my attention to only one point of focus feels meditative. As the entire internet knows by now, I am very fond of Adam Driver. I’ve seen an embarrassing number of his films. (But not Silence (2016), because, and I’m sorry to say this, I just can’t deal with Andrew Garfield. Also, I didn’t see Lincoln (2012), in which he has a minor (yet acclaimed) role, because, god, who has the time. And I passed on Midnight Special (2016).) As I was watching Marriage Story, I was thinking about how I would rank my favourite Adam Driver performances, as though ranking an actor’s performances is something I should be doing, or even be thinking about doing. I don’t know if I can really give a numerical value to this, but here’s what I’ve got:

  • Girls (2012-2017). A number of recent profiles have been unable to resist the fact that a character in Girls (“Jessa”, played by Jemima Kirke) once said of Adam Driver’s character (“Adam Sackler”): “He does sort of look like the original man” (New Yorker, Oct. 21st; The Washington Post, Dec. 6th; The Observer, Dec. 8th). Even though Driver was nominated for an Oscar recently (for BlacKkKlansman, 2018), part of me still thinks his earlier work in Girls is the best because he seems at ease in this role, and the outcome of that ease is a performance which is naturalistic and, quite frankly, funny. In general, Driver’s performances can be characterized as tensile: while calm, he always seems on the edge of a fit of rage. This was true long before Kylo Ren. And in Girls it was much more nuanced. For me, Driver is at his best in season 3 of Girls, where his story arc takes him into the theatre; “Adam Sackler” plays Bronterre O’Brien Price in a Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” Driver has a theatre company and stage background, which explains why he gravitates towards narratives about the theatre, and thrives (imho) in those roles (see: Marriage Story). Writers like to write about writing, actors like to act about acting. Television allows actors to really inhabit a role: character can be developed more slowly and deliberately; there’s time – and space – for more emotional depth. So even though there are so many great Adam Driver films, I still think of Girls as some of his best work.

    Girls s3 e09
    “Don’t only text me ‘CAR CRASH!'” “Girls” s3 e09
  • Marriage Story (2019). First of all, I reject this film’s thesis, namely that Los Angeles is a vapid cultural wasteland (as pointed out, and also rejected, by Ira Madison III this week on Keep It). I loved LA. Anyway, Marriage Story might well be Adam Driver’s best performance to date. Driver does best, I think, when he can be reactive — his trademark intensity and tensility structures his performance most clearly in the silences. Highlights of this film: the claustrophobia of the legal proceedings, particularly that one scene with Alan Alda; the knife scene (!); and, of course, Driver singing “Being Alive” from Steven Sondheim’s Company (1970). Adam Driver actually sings more often than you might think. In Hungry Hearts (2014), he sings in Italian; he infamously contributes to a song in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), alongside Justin Timberlake and Oscar Isaac; and he sings as the character “Art the Artist” in two very remarkable episodes of Bob’s Burgers (“The Bleakening,” Parts 1 + 2, in season 8).

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  • Paterson (2016). This quiet, contemplative film is a good watch if you feel like indulging in long, lingering close-ups of Adam Driver’s interesting face. Adam Driver plays a bus driver (get it?) whose name is Paterson and who lives in Paterson, NJ. He’s married to the most beautiful and cutest woman alive, a character played by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who paints everything black and white, and has a precocious dog named Marvin. The film is an imaginative reception of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and dramatizes Williams’ conception of a poetic continuum of mind and matter, extending between human consciousness and the mundanities of daily life. Driver plays his role tranquilly, passively. (Again, that trademark tensility works best in profound, deliberate silences.) The interplay between this character’s poesis and his observations of daily life play out through a series of coincidences and minor dramas which break through the cyclical rhythm of his bus route. Some really wonderful and memorable performances by Barry Shabaka Henley, William Jackson Harper, and Chasten Harmon. Honestly, I love this one.

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  • The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019). OH BOY, what a hot mess. This Terry Gilliam film had an extremely troubled production, and it shows. The plot is bonkers, a lot of the dialogue is nonsense, the characters are underdeveloped (the female characters especially so), and, as A. O. Scott wrote in the NY Times: “the romanticism has a creepy side.” Plus, it’s long! This film attempts in a rather ham-fisted way to entangle itself with and enact the themes of Cervantes; Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and its entanglement with William Carlos Williams, is a much more subtle and successful version of this. But if you can make it through this weird (and, overall, basically bad) thing, there is some really lush cinematography and glamour…

    The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019).
    Adam Driver as Toby and Olga Kurylenko as Jacqui in “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” (2019) https://twitter.com/quixotemovie/status/997193036747673602
  • Star Wars (2015, 2017; 2019). It’s interesting. I think Adam Driver plays the role of Kylo Ren well, but Driver’s overexposed association with this character has the effect of flattening out his perceived range. Put another way, those who know Driver principally as the villain in this Disney merch fest will (with some cause) think that all he can do is stomp around and have “hissy fits.” But, listen, I think he does good things with the role. Yes, I audibly gasped when he took off that helmet in The Force Awakens (2015). That “You need a teacher” line is unfortunate. And I don’t know why he had to be wearing such high waisted trousers in The Last Jedi (2017). He has a uniquely hunched physicality that makes his fight choreography very interesting to watch. What troubles me most, I suppose, is the oversimplicity of Kylo Ren’s character. (Honestly, there is no “there” there for much of Star Wars.) While his struggle with “dark” and “light” is asserted by the films, the received image of Kylo Ren in pop culture is of an angry young man who violently rejects the limits placed upon him by his social context. In 2019, we have a lot of angry young men who use violence to reject limits. In the context of his broader filmography, Adam Driver’s portrayal of anger is actually quite nuanced; elsewhere his performances of rage contain a self-awareness which acknowledges and indeed urges that anger must be resolved and exorcised somehow. There’s an interesting scene of rather violent rage between Jemima Kirke (who plays “Jessa”) and Adam Driver in season 5 of Girls: it’s intense, it’s absurd. But its intense absurdity is precisely the frame of critique which is needed when depicting acts of anger — there must be some mechanism of judgement that presents a means of resolution. In Kylo Ren’s case, we’ll find out soon how his anger is resolved. But in the meantime, I wonder, as others have, about presenting young male anger as a piece of merchandise. Star Wars reified Driver’s place in the modern canon, but he’s been busy doing other work in order to insist that there’s more to him than this. 

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  • There are also some nice small roles and appearances. As a dog lover, I find this short W Magazine interview where Adam Driver talks about his dog, Moose, extremely charming; in the background to that video, there is a woman extremely losing her shit, which I also find very sweet. Driver plays a small but noticeable role as a fuckboi in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), starring the extremely charismatic Greta Gerwig. The next year, Driver sweetly played “love interest” to the force of nature, Mia Wasikowska, in Tracks (2013); there’s a very sad scene in this film involving dogs, btw, so watch out. While he won his Oscar nomination for BlacKkKlansman (2018), and he does give a very subtle performance in it, I wouldn’t actually say it’s his best (that is often the way with Oscars, isn’t it?). I reject the thesis regarding millennials in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young (2014), but he plays this odious part fairly well (the stand-out scene to me in that film is when Naomi Watts, high on Ayahuasca, mistakes Adam Driver for Ben Stiller — that moment is so poignant and intimate). 

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  • With the good, there’s the not so good. We’ve already talked about The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019). Logan Lucky (2017), which put Adam Driver alongside Daniel Craig (doing an accent even before Knives Out) and Channing Tatum, should have been more of a romp but the whole thing fell flat, and he has a rather underwhelming presence. I wanted to like Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (2019), but I didn’t — it lacked subtlety and the sharpness of parody; plus, I know that Tilda Swinton basically is a real life alien (spoiler alert) but she has apparently learned nothing about appropriating Asian culture. I watched The Report (2019) a few days ago and I’ve already forgotten about it: not only it is it forgettable, it lacks the high drama of its genre, and, more worryingly, presents certain politicians in the guise of heroes (again: lacking subtlety). I think I did watch This Is Where I Leave You (2014) but, again, I remember nothing about it, and it’s just about what you would expect given the genre — although I think there are broad comedies of this type which have more heart. 

Vergil enamels, liking what you like, Adrienne Maree Brown; tempora cum causis (5)

Ancient. Vergil’s Aeneid has inspired no shortage of visual representations in antiquity and modernity. In the 16th century, an unknown enameler made a series of plaques (82 are recorded) illustrating episodes from the Aeneid. These images are based on woodcut illustrations in the complete works of Vergil, edited by Sebastian Brandt, and published by Johann Grüninger in Strasburg in 1502. Here’s a small selection: Aeneas leaves Dido in Book 4 (Met Museum); Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld in Book 6 (Fitzwilliam Museum); Nisus and Euryalus in the enemy camp in Book 9 (Met Museum). 


Modern. This week I’ve been thinking about how difficult it can be to be open about what you really like. I was listening to Monday’s episode of What a Cartoon, which is done by the Talking Simpsons hosts, Henry Gilbert and Bob Mackey (I’ve written about them before, and surely will again). This week they were talking about the Pokémon anime (Japan 1997; US 1998). Both of the hosts spoke with their guest, Kat Bailey, about the fact that they felt pressure to hide their interest in it, despite the fact that it was deeply attractive to them and deeply resonant. There are a number of reasons why you might feel the need to hide your interest in something benign. We do want to connect, of course, but openness of this kind is a vulnerable thing. And it’s not just about the popularity contest. When I think back to times when I kept my interests to myself, I can pinpoint a dread which stems from middle class anxiety. For a long time, part of me truly could not embrace pop culture publicly, as much as I wanted to, because I felt that I was supposed to be interested, or appear to be interested, in something else. It’s certainly connected to my profession; in some of the academic environments I’ve found myself in, there has been a performative preference for the high brow. But it didn’t originate there for me. Education more broadly has historically expressed itself as the individual’s ability to make the correct series of references to correct audiences. The peer pressure which arises from a common consciousness can be enough to make you want to hide the parts of your interest that do not fit into the contemporary cultural lexicon.

In this context, I find myself, again, having some praise for the internet, despite its current and growing toxicity. Early on, it gave me an outlet and a community for my (probably bad) creative writing on message boards. The mainstream acceptance of quote unquote nerd culture could be explained by the fact that those who developed secret ways to find their people back in the nascent years of the internet over time set the stage for the embrace of once niche interests by the general public. (The cynical commodification of our desires and childhood nostalgia also has a role to play here.) While my twitter account is primarily geared towards an audience expecting Classics content, these days I tweet almost as much about the “bad” tv I watch, Adam Driver, or video games.

I’m beginning very slowly to operate by the principle that even if I know the thing I like is not actually that good, it’s okay for me to like it, and to admit that that’s the case. I’m beginning to regret not giving some things a chance just because I thought I was supposed not to like them. If some cultural artefact resonates with you, the draw is magnetic. The feeling of being pulled in a certain direction without knowing exactly why is the same divining rod that I use for my scholarly life. I’m drawn to certain texts for my research because something about them resonates with me; I read some ancient authors instead of others because I’m more interested in how they do what they do. Resisting that magnetic pull based on the expectation of imagined rejection is an extra mental block which none of us needs. 


Excerpt. Adrienne Maree Brown 2019: 11: “I believe in transformative justice — that rather than punishing people for surface-level behaviour, or restoring conditions to where they were before the harm happened, we need to find the roots of the harm, together, and make the harm impossible in the future. I believe that the roots of most harm are systemic, and we must be willing to disrupt vicious systems that have been normalized. I believe that we are at the beginning of learning how to really practice transformative justice in this iteration of species and society. There is ancient practice, and there will need to be future practices we can’t yet foresee. But I believe that with time it must be an incredible pleasure to be able to be honest, expect to be whole, and to know that we are in a community that will hold us accountable and change with us.”

Daily Life. I received two sets of flowers for the first time in my life!

Meroë Augustus, “Outer Worlds”, Maurice Blanchot; tempora cum causis (4)

Ancient. The Meroë Head of Augustus (British Museum). 

It’s hard for me to say that I have a favourite art object from the ancient world, but one which I come back to somewhat regularly is the head of Augustus (27-25 BCE) from Meroë which is now in the British Museum. This is a striking example of a phenomenon which occurs so much with objects (and texts) from antiquity; an act of ancient destruction ironically preserves the artefact into modernity. Strabo (17.54) tells us that in the Roman period, statues of Augustus were erected in Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan and that an invading Kushite army looted many of them when they raided Roman forts and settlements in Upper Egypt in 25 BCE. Most were later returned as a result of negotiations between the Meroitic Candace (Queen) Amanirenas and the Roman general Gaius Petronius. This bronze head from an over-life-sized statue of Augustus was excavated from under the step of a shrine of Victory in the Kushite city of Meroë. It is thought to have been ritualistically placed there after the head was deliberately removed from the rest of the statue, as a symbol of Meroitic victory over Rome. The history of this object documents a history of defiance. And the x-rays are totally creepy. See more images from the British Museum. 

Modern. This week we’ve been playing the newly released Outer Worlds. We’re only a few hours in because, as elder- and middle-aged-millennials, we find ourselves too tired after our day’s work to be able to focus for very long on our beloved video games. As I play, Outer Worlds makes me think about some very dear favourites: the suite of companions and the resulting cross-chatter calls to mind the Bioware games I love (the original Mass Effect trilogy and Dragon Age: Inquisition in particular); the layout of the Unreliable resembles the interior of the Serenity from Firefly (and there are correspondences between the crews: e.g. Parvati/Kaylee; the presence of a priest-figure: Vicar Max/Shepherd Book); and, of course, the visual aesthetic, sound design, game design, and textual components of the Fallout games. (Although, I will say this: while Fallout games felt immeasurably vast, full of adventure, Outer Worlds feels small; deliberately, claustrophobically small.) The moon-headed Spacer’s Choice person reminds me of Futurama’s moon-headed Luna Park person (“Craterface“); which itself recalls the Man in the Moon in Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902).

I’m sure it has been said before that some video games function like literature. In Classics, we regularly talk about literary intertextuality: i.e., when one text draws (usually consciously) on a prior text. Ovid’s Metamorphoses 14.814 is a verbatim verse of Ennius’ Annales 54 (Skutsch; cf. Hinds 1998: 14-15), consciously pointing out the fact of allusion in the act of making it. This is indeed how Stephen Hinds in the famous Allusion and Intertext (1998), introduces textual reflexivity (p1):

“…alluding poets exert themselves to draw attention to the fact that they are alluding and to reflect upon the nature of their allusive activity. Certain allusions are so constructed as to carry a kind of built-in commentary, a kind of reflexive annotation, which underlines or intensifies their demand to be interpreted as allusions.”

It strikes me that this recursively citational mechanism is something that also happens in video games, but we don’t usually name it as a good thing. Too much of a precursor in your game makes you derivative, not a cleverly tongue-in-cheek auteur who knows well what came before and is trying to outdo, or signal respect towards, the past even in the act of alluding to it. What I’m trying to say is that the intertextuality of video games is an inherently interesting thing. Reframing the relationship of games to one another within the context of  literary intertextuality allows us to observe a conscious response to how culture is absorbed and redeployed. Sci-fi has the tropes which belong specifically to itself, and so new artefacts in the science fiction genre will have to deal allusively with that enormous baggage: sifting out which references to forefront, which to reject. The sampling and referential nature of Outer Worlds has invited me to reflect (pleasantly) on how video games build on and subvert one another, as well as the broader traditions which inform them. There’s another dynamic here as well: yes, games take stories from precursors; they also take mechanics. If one game has pleasing and satisfying play, then another might adopt parts of that gameplay not only as an allusion, but an acceptance that the embodied nature of play is moving in one direction over another, based on user experience. Citationality is an operative part of video game design, and when it’s done well it can be very good indeed.


Excerpt. Maurice Blanchot 1995: 2 (Ann Smock trans.): “The circle, uncurled along a straight line rigorously prolonged, reforms a circle eternally bereft of a centre.”

Daily Life. I started my little lending library in my office! I will be adding so many more books soon.