Jay Hoffmann

Books, movies, and code


#28: The Speed of Travel

In East of Eden, Steinbeck comments on the way in which time has become compressed in the modern age.

The split second has been growing more and more important to us. And as human activities become more and more intermeshed and integrated, the split tenth of a second will emerge, and then a new name must be made for the split hundredth, until one day, although I don’t believe it, we’ll say, “Oh, the hell with it. What’s wrong with an hour?” But it isn’t silly, this preoccupation with small time units. One thing late or early can disrupt everything around it, and the disturbance runs outward in bands like the waves from a dropped stone in a quiet pool.

In the days of early industrialization, in the 18th and 19th centuries, traveling relatively far distances became something more broadly possible. By carriage or by train or by boat, you had the first lurches of globalization as vast empires spread across the globe.

When I read about traveling in books, or from events of the time, I’m struck by how slow it all feels when compared to today. Travel time was mapped in days and weeks, not hours. Seconds mattered little.

Along the way, you would need to stop. Pretty often actually. To rest, or to gather supplies, or to get some water and food, or change horses, or dozens of other things. Stories in these fictional universes visit distant relatives along the way—that they maybe have not seen for quite a long time, or ever at all—stopping in for a warm fire and a bit of company.

Finding these connections along the way was an essential part of travel. You would have to rely on the kindness of strangers and relatives to make it anywhere. These serendipitous, and sometimes chance, encounters provided the backdrop for a lot of fiction written from this time.

But then we became obsessed with the split second. The speed of travel. Trains, planes and automobiles.

I went with the whole family to Pennsylvania this past weekend. It was so fun, we had a really, really good time. Honestly, the most fun we’ve had together since C was born. Just the best possibly family trip.

The drive was about four hours, and we more or less drove through the whole way, stopping here and there. Along the way I passed about half a dozen old friends and relatives. A lot of them I haven’t seen in a while. But we drove on.


My Dinner with Andre (1981)

April 28, 2024

Deeply affecting, there is something that is so transformational about this film, which refuses to be anything but visually static and emotionally moving. It was a film that draws you into moments, as Wally bumps off of Andre as he embarks on yet another pretentious tangent in yet another cultural context. But it is all so damn uninteresting, and personal, and visceral and emotional.

The visual style anchors the whole thing. The reflections inside reflections. The move from the medium, to the medium close, to the close-up. The subtle pans and cutaways. For a filmic language stripped to basically a few basic elements, every single shot has a purpose. Every frame means something. Louis Malle found the best way to film a play, and he has yet to be copied.

But really, it comes back to the draw of the stories and the storytellers. Roger Ebert, writing about the film after having seen it several times over the years.

What “My Dinner With Andre” exploits is the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told. Both Shawn and Gregory are born storytellers, and as they talk we see their faces, but we picture much more: Andre being buried alive, and a monk lifting himself by his fingertips, and fauns cavorting in a forest. And Wally trudging around to agents with his plays, and happily having dinner with Debbie, and, yes, enjoying Heston’s autobiography. We see all of these things so vividly that “My Dinner With Andre” never, ever, becomes a static series of two shots and closeups, but seems only precariously anchored to that restaurant, and in imminent

Stray Observations

  • Criterion has a good frame of reference and summary
  • Beginning with the inner monologue of Wally helps to anchor everything. We know what he is quietly thinking (and judging) in the first half of the film.
  • The horror and absurdity of the buried alive story as Malle pushes in tight with the camera for the first time, about halfway through 
  • “I really feel like everything I’ve done is horrific”
  • “I mean, we live in a world in which fathers or single people or artists are all trying to live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father or a single person or an artist should look and behave.”
  • As a New Yorker, this rings horribly true: “I think that New York is the new model for the new concentration camp, where the camp has been built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride in this thing that they’ve built—they’ve built their own prison—and so they exist in a state of schizophrenia where they are both guards and prisoners. And as a result they no longer have—having been lobotomized—the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made or even to see it as a prison.”
  • The 1960s was the last burst of a real human being
  • Andre’s theories on globally centralized networks of totalitarian control through capitalism isn’t far off from modern conspiracy theories.
  • “I just don’t think I feel I need anything more than this.” Here, here Wally.
  • Wally is the erratic modern man and Andre is tethered to a fictionalized old world 

Well, have a real relationship with a person that goes on for years, that’s completely unpredictable. Then you’ve cut off all your ties to the land and you’re sailing into the unknown, into uncharted seas. I mean, you know, people hold on to these images: father, mother, husband, wife, again for the same reason: ’cause they seem to provide some firm ground. But there’s no wife there. What does that mean, a wife? A husband? A son? A baby holds your hands and then suddenly there’s this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he’s gone. Where’s that son?”

April 26, 2024

Robin Rendle reminds us that writing is thinking

The most important lesson that blogging taught me is that writing is for thinking first, communication last.

(Sally Kerrigan once said roughly the same thing)

April 25, 2024

Do you think human creativity matters? Well, hmm. Most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about poetry. Right? They have a life to live, and they’re not really that concerned with Allen Ginsberg’s poems or anybody’s poems until their father dies, they go to a funeral, you lose a child, somebody breaks your heart, they don’t love you anymore, and all of a sudden, you’re desperate for making sense out of this life, and, ‘Has anybody ever felt this bad before? How did they come out of this cloud?

Or the inverse—something great. You meet somebody and your heart explodes. You love them so much, you can’t even see straight. You know, you’re dizzy. ‘Did anybody feel like this before? What is happening to me?’ And that’s when art’s not a luxury, it’s actually sustenance. We need it.