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The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Bette Gordon Day

 

‘A pioneer in the American Independent Film world, Gordon is best known for her bold explorations of themes related to sexuality. Her early short films, most notably Empty Suitcases, won numerous awards and Festival acclaim worldwide, including showings at the Berlin International Film Festival, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Biennial. Variety (1984) marked her debut as a feature film director, particularly in light of the film’s invitational showing at The Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight.

‘It’s been four decades since filmmaker Bette Gordon moved to New York from the Midwest and took up residence in a loft on Greenwich Street, Tribeca. It was the early ’80s, and Gordon’s new stomping ground was a relative no man’s land—the perfect canvas for penniless artists with big ideas and the space to realize them. “It was a ghost town,” Gordon recalls. “There were no stores, maybe one restaurant and a couple of very cool bars where cool people hung out.” The Lower Manhattan Ocean Club was one such place. On any given night, you could find now award-winning director and painter Julian Schnabel in the kitchen cooking up whatever seafood delights were on offer for the likes of Patti Smith, David Byrne, Rene Ricard, Basquiat—basically anybody breaking new ground in the downtown art scene. “There was also Magoos, where artists would trade work for tab,” Gordon adds, “and the Mudd Club where we went rather than Studio 54, which was over by that time.” Gordon herself worked at a place called the Collective for Living Cinema, an outpost for avant-garde film, which at the time operated out of a high-ceilinged loft on White Street in Tribeca.

‘As Gordon recalls, it was a time of creative camaraderie where those wanting to make some noise, whether through art, music, film, or whatever it was that got them plugged in and inspired, found other like-minded artists rallied to the cause. “It was easy to meet people. It wasn’t driven by market, it was driven by people’s creative inspiration to make film and art for each other,” she explains.

‘While Gordon began her filmmaking career as a structuralist, she soon became involved with issues that joined film and feminism. In the midst of the scorched earth theories that all but prohibited images of women on the screen lest they provide voyeuristic satisfaction for “the male gaze,” she insisted on training her camera on women, often unclothed. An Algorithm, an optically printed film edited from several truncated shots of a woman diving off a board but never breaking the surface of the water, contains the germ of much of her later work. Gordon realized that the problem of the objectification of women in film has less to do with the display of the body than with who has control of the narrative—of the desire that motors it and of how that desire is resolved, or left as an opening into the unknown. She also understood, psychologically and pragmatically, that for a woman to become a filmmaker or to simply enjoy movies, she had to take pleasure in her own voyeurism.

‘Nevertheless, the pressures of the feminist discourse were such that Gordon would have to make several confused efforts at being a “good girl” filmmaker before she could cut loose in her barely disguised autobiography, Variety, the saga of how a nice young woman from the Midwest comes to New York, goes to work as a ticket taker in a porn theater (it’s the end of the 1970s recession), and discovers that she wants to take charge of and act on her fantasies however she pleases. Variety isn’t a perfect movie, but it is one of the most powerful descriptions of the female psyche committed to film by a director who knows how ravishing films can be.

‘“For better or worse, I tend to be drawn to things that are maybe not easy to make, but you can’t really forget them,” she says. “I think all of my films are kind of haunting in some way, and if you can’t get them out of your head it means that I couldn’t get them out of my head either.”‘ — collaged

 

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Stills































 

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Further

Bette Gordon Films
Bette Gordon @ IMDb
Bette Gordon @ The Film-makers Cooperative
UP LATE WITH FILMMAKER BETTE GORDON
Bette Gordon by Evangeline Morphos
THROWBACK MOVIE REVIEW: VARIETY (1983)
Bette Gordon Films from Anthology Film Archives
Bette Gordon on Vimeo
Bette Gordon on dealing with the realities of filmmaking
August 2010, Interview with Bette Gordon
Bette Gordon @ letterboxd
Bette Gordon’s ‘Variety’ 35 Years On
Antti Alanen: Film Diary: Variety (Bette Gordon 1983)
Bette Gordon @ instagram
Bette Gordon @ MUBI
Bette Gordon’s re-control of the cinematic narrative
Anybody’s Woman — Bette Gordon
Amy Taubin on Bette Gordon
Bette Gordon Talks Recognizing the Evil Within Ourselves

 

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Extras


A Message from Filmmaker Bette Gordon


AFS Presents: No Cover – Films By Bette Gordon


Entrevista – Bette Gordon

 

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Interview

 

If the diverse coterie of artists involved in your first feature, Variety, is anything to go by, the creative community was very interconnected at the time. To what do you attribute the collaborative spirit in New York back then?

Bette Gordon: There was nothing like the early ’80s… It was a very interesting time in the evolution of culture and the world of business and the support that you could get—people doing things for no money. There were these enclaves of do-it-yourself bands—you didn’t even have to play an instrument professionally. There was this kind of rediscovering what it meant to look at art—art as non-object, art as concept, minimal art. People were redefining the parameters, so it was a very exciting time. And in the film world, somebody would have a film that they shot on Super 8, so they’d lug a projector to Tier 3, which was [a no wave art nightclub] on West Broadway. You’d have little posters that you’d make by hand, and at 9 o’clock the poster would go up. I had a big loft and a projector and I’d invite people over to see whatever anyone wanted to show. It was very small, and only because of word of mouth and little posters that you’d Xerox and walk around town and put up—they’d get torn down and you’d put them up again—that you knew what was happening, the old-fashioned way.

What was it that fueled your passion for filmmaking? Are you driven by the same motivations today?

BG: I was always drawn to stories with characters who pushed boundaries, limits, maybe even morality. I was interested in doing anything but being safe. Safe for me was the world I grew up in, and all I wanted was to break those boundaries because I knew that there was a more complex world than the one I was given as a model. [This becomes apparent] when you see John Luc Godard for the first time or when you see Cassavetes or when your world is opened up by work or writing or literature that doesn’t fit in this simplistic box of the assigned role that you are given.

We want to keep making the films we want to make and the stories that we want to tell, and make people think about things that they would not normally think about. Film is a language of the future and I think we need to be conscious of what we’re saying and how we’re saying it.

You continue to live and make films in New York. What is it about the city that appeals to you, creatively speaking?

BG: Around every corner, there is an amazing location. You can explore and find new ways of seeing this place we live in, you just never tire of it. We shot my last film, The Drowning, in City Island—it was fascinating. Staten Island I always find amazing. Yonkers is a whole new film community, and even outside of New York City in Jersey City…I feel inspired by New York, I also like a 24-hour environment where people don’t go to sleep. I have a very weird body clock—it’s probably from my club days because nothing ever started in the ’80s until 11pm and it went at least until 4, and then there was after-hours. So even today, I find that I do my best work around 11. For me, bedtime is never before 2am.

How is it making an independent film now, when independent film has become part of the establishment?

BG: The world has become so savvy. When I first began, there was a Wild West mentality. You just grabbed people from your circle, and if you were an artist, your circle was pretty interesting. Musicians and writers would participate in a freeform way without contracts. We didn’t even know what agents and managers were. Variety’s budget was about $100,000. Working together was organic to the way in which we lived. Now, making an independent film is about getting actors to sign on.

You seem connected to the art world, visually. And you have a sensitivity to what sound is.

BG: My background was as a visual artist, which gave me references that I wish more of my students had. Those who don’t have a visual arts background struggle to translate action and dialogue from the page to the screen. I was lucky not only to travel in circles of very talented people, but ones that were not legislated by a school.

What’s next, what ideas are brewing?

BG: I’ve always wanted to do an adaptation of Paper Moon, a father-daughter story, since I’ve done a mother-son. What I really hate is when reviewers say, “She hasn’t made a film in ten years!” I guess there are people who are able to make a film in a shorter amount of time, but by the time you have an idea and allow it to sit around in your mind and then write it and raise the money, it’s ten years later. But really, it’s the psychological realm that is fascinating to me. The digging deep. I think it comes from the idea of smashing the mirror we talked about earlier. I’m interested in stories where what is is not what is. I’ve thought about making a lighter story.

 

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10 of Bette Gordon’s 13 films

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w/ James Benning I-94 (1974)
I-94 explores the male and female sexual identities through two people that never appear onscreen together. It exemplifies Bette Gordon’s willingness to tackle topics like eroticism through the female gaze. While the short is only three minutes long, the intimacy captured of the two characters speaks volumes. As one of Gordon’s experimental collaborations with avant garde filmmaker James Benning. I-94 gives viewers a rare dual perspective of the male gaze and the incisive reversal of it, with an uncompromising study into masculinity.’ — fffest

 

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w/ James Benning The United States of America (1975)
The United States of America was filmed with a fixed camera, but one that had a fixed lens. The camera was mounted in the backseat area of a car. Its position—and thus the framing of the images it records—never changes. We see a bit of the backseat area; the backs of the front seats and backs of the heads of the filmmakers who are seated in front (mostly Benning drives, but occasionally he and Gordon exchange places); the front windshield with the rearview mirror fixed in the middle at the top; and a bit of the side windows, left and right. The movement in the film is created almost entirely by the movement of the car as it is driven by the filmmakers from the East Coast to the West, with some north-south driving in the middle of the country. The United States of America has a runtime of twenty-seven minutes, but it’s not possible to determine how long the actual trip took or if the film was edited from footage taken during one trip or several. Our attention, like the attention of the filmmakers/“actors,” is on the passing landscape as it can be seen through the windshield. The film is shot from what in Hollywood is described, cheatingly, as an over-the-shoulder POV, but here, since the camera is midway between the left shoulder of one person and the right shoulder of the other, the shot is an amalgam of two supposed POVs, i.e., a double cheat. There is no dialogue. The sound track is largely derived from the car’s radio—a mix of music and local newscasts, one of which allows us to fix the period as that of the US’s chaotic withdrawal from Saigon in the closing days of the Vietnam war. The United States of America is pure road movie, absent of character goals or desire, but attentive to the movement of history and fixity of geography.’ — Amy Taubin

viewable on The Criterion Channel

 

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Empty Suitcases (1980)
‘… is a narrative derived from film’s own material and my concern for exploring issues of representation and identification in cinema. The film presents fragments of a woman’s life–her work (as a photographer), her friendship and relationships–in short, her economic, sexual,and artistic struggles. By deconstructing the fragments of text, speech, music and picture, the film forces focus on the workings of narrative, as well as on the narrative itself. Central to EMPTY SUITCASES is women’s inability to place and define themselfs in laguage and politics, the location of radical struggle. This displacement leads to a definition of woman as other, and reveals problems of unresolved sexual relations, difference, and violence,–B. G. Her most successful sequences–a militant ‘new wave’ fashion show in which models photograph themselves, an expressionless white woman lipsynching alog to Billie Holliday, a scene where the filmmaker relates a dream only to be drowned out by Talking Heads singing ‘PSycho Killer’–all criticize conventional modes of representation, with particular attention to what current academic jargon calls ‘the imaging of woman.” — J. Hoberman

Watch an excerpt here

 

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Anybody’s Woman (1981)
‘One day in the early 1980s I was wandering around the East Village and I came across the neon lights of the old Variety theater on 3rd Avenue at 13th Street. It was the most delicious theater I had ever encountered. I was drawn in by the glowing sign. As I walked inside I discovered that it was a porn theater and I came up with the idea for this film. I invited my friends Spalding Gray and Nancy Reilly, both members of the Wooster Group, to talk about pornography on-camera. I shot it on Super 8 and spliced it together myself. On the soundtrack, I used the music of Bush Tetras and Marianne Faithfull. ANYBODY’S WOMAN was made for a show at Artist’s Space in 1981 called Emergency. Thirteen filmmakers were given $75 and told to make a film that would be shown a month later; all the films were to address what we saw as an emergency in the arts’ community after right-wing Senator Jesse Helms had slashed funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. This short film was ultimately the precursor to my first feature film VARIETY.’ — Bette Gordon


the entirety

 

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Variety (1983)
‘The sexually charged tale of a woman’s journey of self-discovery, Bette Gordon’s Variety is a fascinating independent film that challenges common notions about feminism and pornography. Emerging out of the underground NYC arts scene that produced the late ’80s boom in American independent cinema, Variety contains the contributions of an impresive array of talent, including cinematographer Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion), actor Luis Guzman (Boogie Nights), a script by the late cult novelist Kathy Acker, and a score by actor and musician John Lurie (Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law). Renowned photographer Nan Goldin appears in a supporting role, as does Mark Boone Junior (Sons of Anarchy, Memento)

‘Christine (Sandy McLeod), a bright and unassuming young woman, takes a job selling tickets at a porno theater near Times Square. Instead of distancing herself from the dark and erotic nature of this milieu, Christine soon develops an obsession that begins to consume her life. The character’s reaction unexpectedly flips normal gender roles; director Gordon daringly twists feminist ideology by showing a woman who finds self-expression through an interest in pornography. Variety becomes even more provocative when it dramatizes the changes that occur in Christine’s relationships with both Mark (Will Patton), her boyfriend, and Louie, a dangerous-looking patron of the theater.

‘Few films deal honestly with a female’s sexual point-of-view, and particularly with the way in which she develops her own fantasy world. Controversial and highly personal, Variety does just that, and in so doing announces itself as the major film of a director who embodies the essence of independent cinema.’ — Kino Lorber


Trailer


the entirety


Variety (1983) Q&A with Bette Gordon and Katherine Bauer

 

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w/ Chantal Akerman, Ulrike Ottinger, Valie Export, Maxi Cohen, Laurence Gavron and Helke Sander SEVEN WOMEN SEVEN SINS (1987)
‘As wide-ranging an omnibus film as there has ever been, a group of some of the most important international filmmakers of the last few decades – all of them female – take on each of the biblical vices. Bette Gordon, Chantal Akerman, VALIE EXPORT, Maxi Cohen, Laurence Gavron and more contribute a contemporary celluloid sin. The result is a thoroughly unpredictable introduction to each filmmaker’s work; encapsulating devious narratives and experimental collages, film and video.’ — Metrograph


Trailer

 

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Luminous Motion (1998)
‘LUMINOUS MOTION is a dreamlike and erotically charged thriller from critically acclaimed director Bette Gordon (Variety). Deborah Kara Unger (The Game) stars as an unnamed hustler who seduces and robs gullible men while criss-crossing the country with her ten-year-old son Phillip (Eric Lloyd, The Santa Clause). Phillip grows accustomed to this outlaw life on the road, but his world is turned upside-down when his mother settles in the suburbs with a carpenter named Pedro (Terry Kinney). Desperate to reclaim his mom’s attentions, Phillip plots Pedro’s violent end, hoping for a return to the road. But this Oedipal dream turns into a nightmare as they are pursued by ghosts from their past, including Phillip’s menacing father (Jamey Sheridan, Spotlight), who seems to be intent on reclaiming his place at the head of this deteriorating family.’ — Kino Lorber


Trailer

 

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Jill Sobule Flight (jet plane charm) (1999)


the entirety

 

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Handsome Harry (2009)
‘As in the films that precede it, the mysteries—and terrors—of desire also propel Handsome Harry, which reunites Gordon with Luminous Motion‘s Jamey Sheridan, here in the title role. A road movie ensemble piece interrupted by flashbacks, HH finds its hero reconciling with the unpalatable notion that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, each man maims the thing he loves. Harry, a well-liked, long-divorced middle-ager, capable of only the most awkward interactions with the waitress who clearly wants him and the son who’s driven hundreds of miles to visit him in upstate New York, takes off suddenly for Philadelphia to visit Tom (Steve Buscemi), a dying Navy buddy. “We became men together,” Tom reminisces in his hospital bed—rites of passage that torment Harry, who continues to seek out friends from the service to assuage his guilt over a heinous act of betrayal and cruelty. Each visit serves as a set piece for the pathologies of white midlife manhood: entitlement, repression, rage, self-pity. Gordon films every encounter—some of which droop under too much hectoring (the script is by first-timer Nicholas T. Proferes)—with a hesitant empathy, maintaining just the right tone before Harry’s lushly romantic final reunion. In Gordon’s films, Eros’s capacity to disturb and disrupt is celebrated as its greatest quality.’ — Melissa Anderson

Watch the trailer here

 

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The Drowning (2016)
‘The movie is a prime specimen of “the paranoid style.” You feel it in the fractured visual palette, in the piecemeal depiction of Tom’s house and the quietly unnerving wind through the curtains. Tom’s home life was already destabilized. He wants Lauren to remain in New London, but her center of gravity is shifting to New York City, where her reputation as a painter is growing. Danny, with his sixth sense, puts his fingers in that fissure. The end of the movie is absurd — but sometimes a good capper is. There’s something awesome about a cathartic action that leads not to relief but more horror. In Bette Gordon’s universe, that’s the fundamental tragedy of being a man.’ — Vulture


Trailer


Excerpt


Josh Charles And Bette Gordon Discuss “The Drowning”

 

 

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p.s. Hey. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. If he’s like strip poker where I get to cheat, that’s more appealing, yes. ** Barkley, Hi, Barkley! Great to see you! Oh, wow, thank you so much about ‘Zac’s Drug Binge’. That’s so great to hear, I’m so happy you liked it and that you let me know. Yeah, I’m super proud of it, cool. I just read about that 100 gecs album and am definitely planning to get it. Exciting! How are you, how and what you are doing? Thank you again, pal! ** Ian, Hey there, Ian. Yes, it’s the blog’s magic hour, or magic 24 hours, I guess. I saw your comment yesterday and read the new piece on your site, and I really, really like it! It’s fantastic! Kudos. You were on a roll there, and still are, I’m sure. Everyone, Ian is just such an excellent writer, and he parses out short works on his site Nitepain Incorporated, and there’s a new one there called ‘WASP Summons/BD Session’, and it’s excellent. I recommend you go over there and read it. This way. Yeah, the fly puke paintings are kind of great, no? Thank you for stopping by. A pleasure. ** Hank, Hi, Hank! Welcome, hello, good to meet you. Oh, okay, cool. I’ll go watch the video as soon as I have finished my concentration-requiring p.s. activity today Thank you in advance. What’s up? Everyone, Hank came by here yesterday to share a video, I think with you all as well as with me, and it seems to be titled ‘Dear Dennis’, which is certainly intriguing to me and perhaps to you as well in your own, more distanced ways? Watch it here. Thanks again, and come back any time. ** Bill, Hi. As occasionally, or even more than occasionally happens in the escort/slave posts, and never more so than in the case of that anecdotal tidbit of ScorchingAstral, I make a little note to swipe (ha ha) that for some future film scene. Great luck hitting the finish line of your demo. I am its oyster in waiting. ** h (now j), Hi. Yes, of course I thought of you instantly when I saw that the visa madness was rescinded. Whew. The hopelessness you guys are having to deal with and feel is so fucking heartbreaking and hateful. Stay strong. ** brendan, Big B! Reading is good. Better when it’s not one’s only choice, of course. Is baseball still in line to help rescue you? ** Steve Erickson, Great news about your test! No, the ads are from … well, you can tell by checking the dates on the comments. Recently. Don’t know why the COVID thing has become a non-issue of sorts. Re: the escorts over here, things have relaxed enough that I guess the escorts and clients feel more daring or something? Or the precautions are thought to be understood? Not sure if I’ll get to see that Alex Winter doc. Obviously, it sounds most interesting. I know three people who were child stars, and all of them are doing just fine whether they’re still acting or not, but maybe they’re flukes? The NNAMDI does sound like that, I agree. Nice call. ** Corey Heiferman, Visible comments! Yeah, I don’t think I’ve ever even watched people play chess. Oh, I guess on TV tournaments a few times. I did like how it makes you look super intently at the players’ faces, searching for clues and stuff. Bon day. ** Okay. Today’s the day when I ask you to consider and watch the films of Bette Gordon. Much of interest there if you deem to let it inside. See you tomorrow.

8 Comments

  1. Hello, Dennis! I have a deadline tomorrow morning, so I’m brief today, but thank you for this Bette Gordon post. I saw her work only until Variety (1983) so I didn’t really look into some of her recent works. I appreciate her structuralist shorts like Algorithm and I-94 (this one, I believe, currently available on Criterion Channel). The mechanism and texture (formally so perfect yet confrontational re cultural industry and gender/sexuality) are truly astounding. And thinking of colors in Variety, wow, that incarnadine neon lights and costumes… full of complex impacts…I must see more by her asap. Well, more soon. Returning to work for now. I think I’ll treat myself with coldbrew coffee today. My dive deli sells it. I found it rather oddly fancy considering I’m living on a poor side of nyc. Have a lovely day.

  2. Bette Gordon is wonderful. Very nice Day for her.

    With Proust one gets to “cheat” all the time as he does so much writing “between the lines”

    It’s Ginger Rodgers Birthday so Pick Yourself Up

  3. This all makes for a very interesting Day. Ooh Handsome Harry is available here for DVD rental, so I can try that out for lockdown viewing with my long-suffering family haha. There’s been some recent choices they did enjoy though: The 400 Blows and Varda’s Le Bonheur both went down particularly well.

  4. Ah, the Bette Gordon day is here! I did enjoy Variety a week or two ago. Look forward to some of her other films (though maybe not The Drowning, hmm). So Luminous Motion is based on the Scott Bradfield novel? It’s been awhile, but the description for the movie doesn’t sound that similar.

    h (now j), I didn’t say I was *good* at online chess, haha. I actually spend a fair amount of time watching game analysis and lessons, which I often enjoy more than playing myself.

    Just posted this sneak peek (silent):
    https://vimeo.com/439022846

    Bill

  5. What an amazing lush treat to get so many of Gordon’s films in one place! I’ll be diving in later tonight.

    Baseball is indeed scheduled to start a week from today. 60 game season. The teams are only playing teams in their geographical area, NL and AL. No people in the stands. It’s going to be a crazy experiment. But isn’t everything now?

    My new photos were going to be featured in a local article this week – but at the last minute, they killed them because of “privacy concerns.” It seems crazy. Self censorship sucks. -B

  6. Hi Dennis. I’ve been reading your blog daily for the past month or two after becoming a big fan of your writing. Finally found the guts to comment!

    Thanks for this post, I’m watching The United States of America now and enjoying very much. Nothing like a windshield view.

    Earlier this week I came across this compilation of covers of Animal Crossing soundtrack music and thought I should share, especially after reading the Tokata’s Song post. Some pretty interesting stuff, I like the kk waltz a lot. Hope all is well.

    https://quantumnatives.bandcamp.com/album/nu-horizons

  7. THE DROWNING is really underrated. It makes a good companion to Joel Edgerton’s debut as a director, THE GIFT (which is far superior to BOY ERASED.)

    I saw an Australian film, the 2008 LAKE MUNGO, that I loved today. It’s a mockumentary about the family of a teenage girl who mysteriously drowns and her apparent haunting, but it reminded me of TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME & Kiyoshi Kurosawa. The direction has a real elegance, while it could still pass for a Netflix true crime show. Made just before the time when most horror films sell themselves on their subtext, this digs deep into pain and grief, with many eerie images buried in the frame.

  8. Corey Heiferman

    July 17, 2020 at 6:38 am

    @Bill I enjoyed the video sneak peak, look forward to the whole thing. Where do you play chess online? Maybe we could play sometime. Have you read Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story” (also known as “The Royal Game”? I recommend it to anyone who likes both chess and literature.

    @brendan Great news about baseball, enjoy! My peak fandom is likely behind me but I’m happy about this for family and friends.

    Bette Gordon’s a new name to me. Look forward to watching what you posted here and seeing what they have at the video store.

    Bini announced a new round of restrictions this morning. The idea is to let people work but make it difficult for them to have fun. He isn’t presenting any scientific evidence to back up this puritanical approach. At least my new favorite hangout is classified as a bookstore where people happen to drink coffee rather than as a bona fide coffee shop, so I have someplace to go. Also, my dad’s cancer treatment is going as well as could be expected so there’s a bit less urgency about visiting USA.

    I’m excited about my first ever translation gig. It’s Hebrew-English for the abstract of a master’s thesis, the entirety of which I already edited in English. Should be manageable and a good springboard to future gigs.

    What does your weekend hold in store?

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