Something Good #82: In Good Hands
I’ve come to trust a certain feeling that comes over me when I first make contact with a piece of art. The opening lines of a book; the first 30 seconds or so of a movie; bars of a song, etc. It is a feeling of being in good hands, an intuitive sense that the author knows what they are doing and that the experience will be worth my time. It is an exciting sensation. I am not always right, but I would say at least 80-85% I can trust my instincts.
One of my most memorable good-handed experiences was the first time I saw what is probably my favourite movie, and certainly one that has inspired me in profound ways for years now, the 4.5-hour semi-experimental Argentine film Historias Extraordinarias by Mariano Llinàs (this is real, I am not making this up.) It was the late 2000s and I was serving on the jury of a festival of films from the “Ibérolatinoamericain” world. I had about a dozen films to watch in a relatively short span of time, and I was groaning at the thought of fitting in an obscure entry that closed in on five hours long. (Three-hour movies are hard enough for me to watch at home, with my limited attention span.)
But from the very first moments, a barely-in-focus, pixelated digital video shot of a man we’ll come to know only as “X,” a businessman on an obscure, mundane errand, walking down a country road, I was utterly hypnotized. The first few minutes of the film tell a story, completely in voice-over (in fact, the entire film is narrated in voice-over), of betrayal, murder, and utter confusion. Almost all of it takes place in one long (in both senses) shot of a farm field, as if we are standing very far away and watching through binoculars. Finally, the voiceover concludes:
When the episode ends, X has killed a man. He has witnessed a murder and is wanted by two killers. He has an envelope they want, and doesn’t know what’s inside it. He doesn’t know the killers or if they have seen them.
He knows nothing.
It only gets better from there. I have beaten the drum steadily for this movie for over 15 years and I encourage you to seek it out.
And that is just one example. Here are some other openings that grabbed me from the first moment and refused to let go.
W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz:
In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks.
The first minute of New Order’s “Dreams Never End,” and specifically the change at 00:53. This was used to beautiful effect as a music cue in Olivier Assayas’ Carlos:
The first paragraph of Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten:
One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life.
The opening stanza of Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey:
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.
The handwritten opening to the Pet Shop Boys’ “Being Boring” video, and the opening lines: “I came across a cache of old photos / And invitations to teenage parties…” What a way to start a song!
And there are very few lines I love more than the beginning of the first chapter of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise:
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.
I would like to know your favourite good-hands moments, or lines, or scenes. I put the call out on Substack’s Notes and Chat for readers’ favourite examples; here are a few of the responses I got.cited a line from the opening paragraph of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds:
brought up Charles Portis, who I've always wanted to read. The Dog of the South begins thusly:
Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.
MY WIFE NORMA had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone.
There are more, but I’m going to parcel them out and maybe make In Good Hands a regular feature. Please send me yours, either by replying or commenting below. Or telling me in person, whatever works.
An amygdalar earworm that bubbled up this week: I was staying in a pensione in Vienna while backpacking through Europe as a teenager, and I went downstairs to a little grocery to buy some cheese. I asked for some gouda, and the woman behind the counter seemed confused. When I pointed at the wheel of cheese in the refrigerator, she smiled widely and said, “Oooohhhh… howda!”
I think about this every time I eat gouda cheese. Which, to be frank, is not often enough.
Well! The day has finally come, or rather, will come very soon, that You Can Live Forever will be released in the United States of America, by the excellent people at Good Deed Entertainment. After a wonderful festival run, we are super-excited for this wide release. It’s going to be mostly digital, as these things are these days; you’ll be able to rent or buy the film on the usual platforms: Amazon, Apple, Vudu, Google Play, starting May 5.
That said, we will be kicking things off with a theatrical release in New York City, which me, my co-director Sarah Watts, and our star Anwen O’Driscoll will be on hand to introduce on our opening weekend. So please come by and say hi; your support means so much on these crucial first few days. It has been nearly a year since we premiered at Tribeca and it is very exciting and full-circle-feeling to present the film in the very same cinema we first showed it to the world, the Village East by Angelika. You can get tix here.
This week’s #nojacketsrequired comes from the bookshelf of friends-of-the-newsletter Luc and Sheila. As usual, please send your de-jacketed discoveries my way.
Oh, and the opening lines?
WHEN HE WAS YOUNG—seventeen and eighteen years old—Lyndon Johnson worked on a road gang that was building a highway (an unpaved highway: roads in the isolated, impoverished Texas Hill Country weren’t paved in the 1920s) between Johnson City and Austin.
It is not too late to join Barely a Book Club! We are wending our way to the end of Hav, and I encourage to jump aboard at your own leisure and pleasure.
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