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Professor Picks: Literature and Film

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MARCH 07, 2014

Whether you are an English major or an electrical engineer, every semester brings new lists of required reading, mandatory film screenings or problem sets. Professors compile their readers with specific texts to fit the concepts we learn in class. The Weekender reached out to two professors here on campus to find out what books and films we should be reading outside of the classroom. Here are your professor’s picks.

Robert Hass is a distinguished professor in poetry and poetics. He teaches in the English department. Here are his recommendations for books to read:

Leo Tolstoy, “War and Peace.” It turns out great books are mysteriously great. For some reason, every dog in Tolstoy, every horse, each character, almost every field and sky in this book is more alive than fields, skies, horses, humans in anyone else’s novels.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Crime and Punishment.” I don’t think there is another book that takes hold of you the way this one does, and it doesn’t let you go until the last period at the end of the last sentence. And it is the perfect nightmare, a fever dream that mixes comedy, farce, tragedy, terror, intense pathos and metaphysical vertigo into a very potent drink.

Charles Dickens, “Our Mutual Friend.” There’s some reason the great city and the mystery came into being at the same time in the middle of the 19th century, probably because the vast, teeming modern city is a mystery, its connections too complex, too willed and random at once for anyone to get his or her mind around them as an emblem of human life. Dickens invented a way to do that, and he is deeply funny and deeply vivid page by page.

William Faulkner, “The Sound and the Fury.” I’ve loved this book from the first time I read it, and I read it every few years. Part of what is so great about this — a family novel, the story of a sister who disappeared — is that it’s told from four different perspectives, a Joycean howl of loss from the mentally retarded brother; a Joyce-and-Woolf stream of consciousness from the tormented intellectual; a channelling of Mark Twain to get the voice of the frustrated, racist, misogynist businessman brother who has to cope with a family he thinks is a menagerie; and a final voice that is maybe George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” reinvented in the culture of the Delta blues. Just a magical book.

After this, for me it gets a bit arbitrary. There are so many novels I love. I don’t reread “Ulysses” or “Swann’s Way” all the time, but they are permanent parts of my imagination of the world. So are “The Maltese Falcon” and “Moby Dick.” I love Virgina Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” and Thomas Mann’s “Buddenbrooks” and lots of Henry James. More recent books:
J. M. Coetzee, “The Life and Times of Michael K.”; W. G. Sebald, “The Emigrants”; Roberto Bolano, “The Savage Detectives”; Michael Ondatjee, “The English Patient”; Maxine Hong Kingston, “Tripmaster Monkey”; Toni Morrison, “Beloved”; Marilynne Robinson, “Housekeeping”; Milan Kundera, “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.”

But to settle on a fifth: Vladimir Nabokov, “Pale Fire,” because he invents a poet and writes his long poem and then invents a madman annotator of the poem in one of the funniest books about the narcissism of the imagination ever conceived and the looniest novel this side of “Tristram Shandy.” I thought Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House” was going to be my fifth choice because it is such an original book and because Cather writes my favorite sentences of all the 20th-century American novelists. Except Nabokov, who is arguably something other than an American novelist but writes prose like a demented jeweler with immaculately clean hands.

Jeffrey Skoller is a filmmaker, writer and professor in the film and media studies department. Here are his recommendations on films to see this semester:

Who needs expensive DVDs or shopping mall cinema at $12.00 a film? For $35.00 a semester, UC students can get a pass to UC Berkeley’s very own internationally renowned Pacific Film Archive. Nearly five nights a week, you can see some of the most important, exciting and cutting-edge films of global cinema. This spring, series include American Comedy 1960-1989 and retrospectives of master filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Satyajit Ray, from India.

Then there is the Tuesday night documentary film series this spring, which is featuring several of the most significant and powerful documentaries made in the past few years. If you are interested in what is happening in documentary cinema today, these are must-see films:

(Descriptions taken from the Pacific Film Archive website.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2014
7:00 p.m. Body of War
Ellen Spiro, Phil Donahue (U.S., 2007). Ellen Spiro in person. This intimate observational film follows a paralyzed Iraq War veteran’s struggle and evolution into an articulate, outspoken critic of the war. “

Tuesday, March 18, 2014
7:00 p.m. The Missing Picture
Rithy Panh (Cambodia/France, 2013). Winner of the 2013 Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes, this latest film from renowned director Rithy Panh is a testament to the special place of cinema in giving form to phantom pains caused by unthinkable trauma. Clay figures, archival footage, and spoken words weave a stunningly vivid picture of the filmmaker’s and Cambodia’s past. (90 mins)

Friday, April 4, 2014
7:30 p.m. Nuclear Nation
Atsushi Funahashi (Japan, 2012). Atsushi Funahashi and Akira Mizuta Lippit in conversation. An astute documentary about the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant disaster and its continuing aftermath. (96 mins)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014
7:00 p.m. The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer (Denmark/Norway/U.K., 2012). Director’s Cut! “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal and frightening in at least a decade,” says Werner Herzog of this astounding Academy Award–nominated documentary in which notorious death-squad chiefs brazenly reenact heinous crimes they committed during the 1960s Indonesian genocide. (159 mins)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014
7:00 p.m. Leviathan
Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Veréna Paravel (France/U.K./U.S., 2012). Lucien Castaing-Taylor in person. A thrilling adventure both on the high seas and in documentary storytelling, Leviathan immerses viewers in the waterlogged world of fishermen toiling on a creaking trawler. “Looks and sounds like no other documentary in memory” (Dennis Lim, NY Times). (87 mins)

Corrections: A previous version of this article misspelled Robert Hass' last name.
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MARCH 10, 2014