Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Gone Girl": another masterwork from director David Fincher

New film releases that receive huge hype and a landslide of enthusiastically favorable reviews sound an alarm for me. With the majority of films being mere blockbuster tent pole spectacles and sequels there of intended only to fulfill audience expectation for loud and tech-y distraction, there has been a habit among movie taste makers  to over praise any film that strays from the formulaic norm and  attempts adult subject matter instead. Too often I walk from the theater with a  vaguely disappointment, thinking many greatly praised releases are over rated by cineastes eager to dust off their superlatives and create and create a cinematic event. It is a variation of the media cluster-bang ups where it seems as though there have only been two or three news items worth mentioning in the last month or so.

That said, I report happily that "Gone Girl", for all the intimidating hype, is a terrific piece of work, deftly, skillfully, subtly directed by the increasingly estimable David Fincher ("Fight Club", "Zodiac", "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"). Without going into plot detail and risk spoiling the film for others, lets say here that this is an intricate thriller, a murder mystery or sorts, a black comedy, a tale that evolves from a sort of "Peyton Place" situation of inane passion and betrayals but begins to morph into a taut, edgy thriller and into a dark, bleak comedy. As I said, this is a tale with lots of detail and surprises, but Fincher has a master's control of the material--use of flashbacks and shifting from points of view add texture and bring you in further into this seductive drama-comedy. We do not lose our place anywhere in the telling.
Fincher, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, has a sense of how to introduce complexity in a film at precisely the moment when you think you've accurately assessed where the plot is going. Especially pleasing is the lack of any rickety deus ex machina, the blatantly mechanical plot device in the form of a stock character or clichéd situation that appears only to initiate a generic and predictable twist in a genre thriller. "Gone Girl’s changes, cogently devised and deftly deployed, arise organically from the terrain of lying, cheating and infidelity that's already been laid out.


The casting , as well, highlights a superb ensemble of players. Ben Affleck  fitting vindication for all the fan nastiness that's come his way over the last few years. He is an actor who has a director’s honest estimation of his own talent as an actor; although not the most charismatic or fluidly demonstrative leading man we have in our time, Affleck, as with Clint Eastwood, knows his expressive limits and performs marvelously when he stays within them. We also get a supremely nuanced performance from Rosamund Pike; she has the wherewithal to project the image of an icy prom queen/honors student and the have her character credible into an intellectually inclined problem child who's personality complications arise like boiling water once you get close and have an extended look under the veneer. A big plus here is the presence of Carrie Coon, from HBOs 'The Leftovers", who I think as a fantastic, brilliant actress who will be a talent we'll see much amazing work from. Playing Affleck's twin sister in this movie, she is wonderful with characterization of the odd mixture of sibling love and red hot aggravation. Coon does not go for big gestures but rather captures the right expression, raises or lowers her voice to the right dynamic level, reveals body language that is a marvel to watch for its nuance and sense of containment. Coon is essentially evocative in her movements, having, it seems, a cat like control over emotion and reflex; she can see the build of emotion , whether anxiety, lust or rage, and she has the instinct and skill to make the explosions of personality seem perfectly normal. Jarring, yes, but not arbitrary, not compulsive. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

the rebirth of Twin Peaks

 Showtime has announced that it's reviving the trail blazing program Twin Peaks, David Lynch's monumental deconstruction and redefinition of what can be done with a serialized television drama. Interesting news, yes, but I have my doubts.Truthfully, I thought Twin Peaks ran out of gas by the end of the second season. What had started as funny, ironic and genuinely intriguing deconstruction of crime dramas, Lynch and Frost conspicuously lost interest in having their odd narrative trail lead us to Laura Palmer's killer. The odd twists , turns and eccentric personalities became more important; Lynch has always had a had time with sticking to anything resembling a coherent plot, and it was no surprise, really, that his initially appealing manner, quizzical, off kilter, askew, wore out after one season.

By the end of season 2, we had a mess of a series even die hard Lynch fans complained about. The Showtime revival, to be sure, could give us more structure in terms of actual story lines and believable characterizations ; Lynch's penchant for chronic oddness and quirky situations, where the banal meets the sublime and a series of minor epiphanies occur like quiet, low-spark string of fire crackers, might seem to arise from real motivation and emotional turmoil and not a creator's whimsy. I am hoping that we don't have another instance of 2 short lived HBO programs, John from Cincinnati , created by Deadwood auteur David Milch that tried for a combination of surfing, Zen, spiritual lassitude and copious amounts of assorted surf bums, former cops, henchmen, lovers, muggers, thieves and potheads reciting benedictions that would have confused the most learned scholar, with most of its only season taking place in Imperial Beach in San Diego Country and centering around a quizzical stranger who may be the second coming of Christ  or a chirping cretin. At best the show made you think of Beckett and his idea of depicting characters who are, at some point, beyond the delusion that they have free will and find themselves in locations they cannot leave, shuffling through their own set of stylized rationalizations, weighing the consequences of choices they might might, past events and intimacies that have brought to their current stagnation, ritually going about their daily rounds of meals, laundry, loveless marriages, finally able to come to no decision at all and remain as they are, in limbo, numbed and mumbling.

At worst it was an interminable bit of self deluded artiness, laboring under the stray notion that indecipherable dialogue and facile weirdness equals poetry. Much of the worst poetry I ever wrote and most of the worst poetry I ever read was dense, complex, full of striking images and surreal segues, and very little of it was worth reading in full.  Carnivale is the second HBO program. It was a bleak , dusty bit of depression , again playing around with someone who may or maybe not be the new incarnation of the Savior. Nothing could save the show from losing my attention, though. Set in Depression era America, its road show of bearded ladies, strong men, clowns, dwarfs, ratiocinated preachers and pissed off waifs was an attempt to furnish the downside of Kerouac's America; instead of bliss and spiritual revivification as a result of  hitting the road, there was instead in Carnivale equal amounts of psychic  and struggle and a constant state of rock solid resentment among the roster of players.  Even the happenstance of supernatural occurrences and miracles in their midst inspired not awe but a groan instead. Everyone grimaced on the screen and gritted their teeth until there was nothing left but raw nubs. What must be said about the work of David Lynch is that he wisely avoids the convenient despair and bleak outlook readymade in the infrastructure of most existential literature and moves instead in the area of the absurd; when his images work, they work with brilliant effect, as is the case of his masterpiece  Blue Velvet . That had an actual story line going through it, a beginning,middle and end, and was set up in sharp but credible contrasts of tone, wonderfully represented as the young man in that film, investigating the reason by an ear was severed and left for him to find, leaves the confines of a Hardy Boys like adventure and enters a world of pure criminal psychosis and evil. This is a solid premise for Lynch to place his bits of baroque extremism. It serves the task of representing the journey of naive soul who has his concepts of decencies tested as he his threatened , seduced, manipulated by the presence and logic of the pure evil he pursued. Lynch, with Mark Frost, brought that element of grim humor and absurd consequence to the first season of Twin Peaks.

John from Cincinnati and Carnivale  were shows populated by characters who were angry, always angry at something, and who battled one another in agendas that were vague or un-articulated. They were, at best, ponderous,snarling square diets of bad bread, unleavened by wit or humor. Here is hoping that Lynch and Frost have developed a lighter touch and a better sense of where a story needs to go.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

"The Equalizer": Equal parts violence and boredom

The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington is a thriller that 's equal parts stylish violence, over- familiar character types in the form of naive victims and idiosyncratic bad guys. And yes, the villains are Russian mobsters, perhaps the last nationality American directors can cast wholesale as evil doers without an excess of complaints from the political sensitive. It is, in essence, the most recent variation of the avenging angel motif that has been a standard part of Hollywood movies since , director Michael Winner's 1974 Charles Bronson effort Death Wish. On that score, we could go as far back as Shane in 1953, George Steven's masterpiece Western about a retired gun fighter who is forced by circumstances he cannot ignore to put his guns back on and ride off to practice his deadly trade once again. It's the kind of often used formula that almost mixes itself once you open the package: gentleman, quiet man, pushed too hard for too long by bad guys, fights back and reveals lethal skills that swift and sure when used. In the end, lots of carnage, gruesome deaths, screaming bad guys and things blowing up and, to be sure, a firm dead pan on the part of the avenging hero serving his curb side justice. 

The Equalizer, based on a fine television program that featured actor Edward Woodward as a black ops spy who , disgusted with his life of gruesome death and deception, quits his espionage employ and puts his special set of skills in the service of those little people who are beset by awful people and circumstances. Odds against you? Call The Equalizer. This a durable premise for a television series.The movie incarnation features Washington as a schleppy worker at a Home Depot like super store who seems, at first , a nice guy , a good friend, a hard worker, but who reveals, when awful things begin to infiltrate his world by the likes of Russian mob bosses and their tattooed goons, sheds the Everyman guise and reveals what he has been all along, a virtuoso of death-dealing, inflicting fair and unambiguous punishment against those who are irredeemably guilty of something. This is all well and good so far as plot particulars, but we are not really engaged by any of this activity. Washington, who can be a superb actor with the presence and gravitas, is in his lazy mode here, seeming not a little bored with the dialogue and the scenes that he happens to be end.

As with Al Pacino at his most unfocused, his voice takes on a mumbling, nasal quality, and comes near to being sing-songy in rhythm. His deadpan stare, so icy and effective in Tony Scott's taut actioner Man on Fire, here suggest that his eyes are glazing over as he struggles to stay awake. Aside from some sweetly nasty death dealing where the former black ops Equalizer treats an assortment fatal conclusions to a swath of thick- necked creeps , the movie drags its feet and scenes lack any feeling of organic development; it's as mechanical a script from a 70s cop show, say Starsky and Hutch or Ironsides. Director Antoine Fuqua cannot energize the material. The most entertaining stretch of the film are those highlighting Martin Csokas as Teddy, an enforcer for the Russian mob boss; tattooed and scarred, this character is sweet extension of the villain who is well spoken, literate, not without charm or a sense of irony, someone who understands beauty and exhibits fine table manners, but someone can without warning and convincingly become a monster, a determined, obsessed , convulsive instrument of malevolence . The screen crackles and scenes get an edge when he enters the room. Csokas' performance is the one I remember. He didn't phone it in; he brought it in person and was in your face, fatally so.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Dreams of Milik and Honey

What song is going through my head? An old one, real old, "Dreams of Milk and Honey" by Leslie West and Mountain, from the second side of their album Flowers of Evil, recorded at the Fillmore East in NYC in 1971. It is one of the great moments of Hard Rock guitar, with a great, lumbering riff that distorts and buzzes on the low strings with crushing bends and harmonics squealing at some raging pitch that might make one think of natural calamity, a force that cannot be withstood.

West, never the most fluid guitarist , had , all the same, a touch, a feel, a sense of how to mix the sweet obbligato figures he specialized in with the more brutal affront of power chords and critically nasty riffing. The smarter among us can theorize about the virtues of amplified instrumentation attaining a threshold of sweetness after the sheer volume wraps you in a numbing cacophony, but for purposes here it suffices to say , with a wink, that is a kind of music you get and accept on it's own truncated terms, or ignore outright. His guitar work was a brick wall you smashed into at a unheard number of miles an hour and, staring up at the sky, you noticed the bloom of a lone flower, not to mention a halo of tweeting birds and la-la music.  There is an aesthetic at work here, but it might as well come to saying that you had to be me , at my age, in 1971 when I was struck by this performance to understand a little of why I haven't tossed the disc into the dustbin.He is in absolute control of his Les Paul Jr., and here he combines with bassist Felix Pappalardi and drummer Corky Laing in some theme and variation that accomplishes what critic Robert Christgau has suggested is the secret of great rock and roll music, repetition without tedium. There are no thousand-note blitzkriegs, no tricky time signatures, just tight playing, a riffy, catchy, power-chording wonder of rock guitar essential-ism. I've been listening to this track on and off since I graduated from high school, and it cracks me up that my obsession with this particular masterpiece of rock guitar minimalism caused a number of my friends to refer to me listening yet again to my personal "national anthem." 
This is the melodic , repetitive grind I wished life always was, endlessly elegant and stagnant, shall we say, in perfect formation of the senses, hearing,smell , taste, the arousal of dormant genitalia, all big and large and grinding at the gears that sing sweet mechanical song of intense love heavier than any metal beam you might care to bite into. Andy Warhol mused that he liked machines and that he wished he could turn into a machine, producing endlessly perefect things of unchanging design and nebulous purpose, unfailing in their exactness. More power to you, Andy.Machines, however, rust and corrode and fall apart and there is something beautiful in that as well but ,alas, the end result of that is the end waxing poetic. Alas. Sing it, Leslie.

A Walk Among the Tombstones trips over itself

A Walk Among the Tombstones, a thriller based on Lawrence Block's novel , features Liam Neeson as former police detective Matt Scudder, a sober alcoholic now working as an unlicensed investigator of sorts in the dark, wet underbelly of New York City.  The film , steadily directed by  Scott Frank, has a great look to it, dark, neo-noir atmospherics that make the city's architecture express the dual qualities of decay and splendor, and Neeson, displaying a bit more resigned humanity than he has in several films, does a good job  of playing a loose cannon caught between both sides of the law as he tries to locate serial killers who are targeting the wives of drugs dealers. Lots of ethical questions arise, and possible audience complications arise--who deserves a bloody justice that falls outside the law?, who are are we supposed to be in sympathy with?--but there is a sentimentality in the story line that spoils what might have been a first rate, remorseless  crime drama. The introduction of a cute orphan black kid, smart, unctuous, smart mouthed, lovable as a all get out when all is said and concluded, is a conspicuous sympathy play , and it rings false in a film that otherwise has the look of a world where good deeds, gallantry and the best intentions go unnoticed, unremarked  upon and which have no effect in changing the cold heart of things.

That Scudder is an alcoholic who attends AA meetings as a means of keeping his focus, his eyes on the prize, so to speak, is a credible element to the character, but there is a sequence where the  12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are read over a montage as a means of producing an alienating effect of a kind. It's a hokey device, actually, and you're not sure how it's meant to come across, cynical, ironic, hopeful. Who can tell? The 12 Steps , described by AA as being "spiritual in their nature", address the notion that the drunk who wishes to recover needs to rely on a spiritual solution to their malaise , to seek knowledge of God's will and the power to carry it out, and to make amends to those who have been harmed. A sensible and simple plan, encouraging good deeds over bad actions and worst results, but the montage the Steps against are a narrative of violence , pure malice and a need to inflict pain and suffering, followed yet again by violence that is revenge, sloppy, crunching, relentless revenge. The juxtaposition is jarring, which would be fine if something had been made of it, but nothing was, and it's a waste of film time  What this film turns out to be is an efficient piece of film making that has a great look and occasionally an effective tone that suddenly goes soft in the heart and soft in the head, not the thing you want for a hard boiled crime story. 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

ROBIN WILLIAMS

Robin Williams was a room full of radios blaring at full volume, each tuned midway between stations, the air crackling with static gristle, country music, traffic reports, names against Dad, religious shills rattling their tin cans, frayed choruses intoning the Big 90 from Sandusky, bad weather, more static, crazy laughter from the side of the road where old factories hide behind the tree line, the end of the dial veered into infinity and deep into the wilds of wicked, vengeful chatter, every voice cursed with an accent stumbling and bruising its verbal knees on the nonsense sounds that make English the playground of sex without joy, Robin Williams was the Kirby Crackle of each machine in the house coming on with a lurching jerk after the power has been off for a week and the city experiences that hardship of vines creeping under the door jambs and attaching itself to windshields and store front windows, his was a telephone ringing two floors up, three doors over, all night, under the bed, scaring the dog and making the cat's hair stand up like hair cuts that remind that liberty is a code word for fuck off and die, the left end of the dial grows louder in the static, all the music, news, weather, sports, Baptist preaching and miracle cures for a preferred assortment of cooties are sucked in, the room we speak up with the radios and such now pulses and puckers, it is the rant of something being slurped, liquid and quick, the room is empty and is dry as old bone marrow, quiet as cars without gasoline, there is only sun from the window, a breeze, night time coming.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and the gag reflex

Despite critical praise and massive box office success, "Guardians of the Galaxy" was thunder and lightning, rattle and a choking grind and stammer for its two hour running time. Concerning a rag tag group of intergalactic misfits who band together in common cause to retrieve the most powerful element in the cosmos from evil doers who would use it to destroy planets, solar systems, and worse,the character interaction is slightly better than what you'd get from a Fox situation comedy, Those misfits are a mixed bag of dysfunction, being a white guy with mother issues, a raccoon with culture issues, a tree with facial expressions and syllables shorter than an accountant's pencil, a green lady with daddy issues, and a brute who is out to avenge the murder of his family.Suffice to say this troupe is collective of untapped potential who've only to go through their coming trials to discover their as yet undiscovered virtues and better inclinations.

All these heroes achieve a Hollywood inspired resolution and acceptance of those things that they cannot change and rise above the excuses they've provided for themselves and come to believe in something greater than themselves, a cause worth dying for. It turns out, not unexpectedly, that the greater good is friendship , true and blue. The Guardians are essentially a troupe of lonely guys who have found their posse. These are not heroes with intransigent issues and deep seated psychological traumas that do not heel, such as those that plague and motivate Batman and his Marvel Comics knockoff, Dare Devil. This being a universe where morality is no more complex than a slogan and the most credible emotion displayed throughout is from a computer generated tree, these denizens are malcontents whose traumas could be clarified and cured by a guest shots on the Doctor Phil Show.
Most bothersome is that the combination of the two dimensional humanity they attempt to bestow on the characters and the relentless barrage of prattle, eighties song hits and pop culture references and action sequences that are compressed and rushed and introduced whenever the plot begins to choke on its contradictions , the movie is not unlike being in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a drunk who thinks he's Quentin Tarantino.

This has the effect of being trapped in a video arcade with a unctuous preteens, jacked on sugar and energy drinks and a limitless supply of quarters and/ or tokens playing the noisiest games in the joint. There are explosions, cliff hangers, close calls, landscapes and city terrains getting devastated with vaguely described quantities of glowing, pulsating cosmic energy that seem required, in all cases, to be massively destructive to all material and living things, all living things, of course, save the a fore mentioned white guy, green woman, talking raccoon , monosyllabic tree and avenging brute. They appear to caught in an unannounced aura of transcendence, protecting them from explosions an flying projectiles. The profusion of near escapes strains credulity, even in a movie designed to be resolutely unbelievable Our willing suspension of disbelief snaps finally, and find ourselves in the icy realm of tedium; worst, noisy tedium with visual clutter.  

Guardians of the Universe has editing style that is hardly better than the music videos that were the scourge of MTV in the grim, grey day of cable TV, back when it was reruns, televangelists and infomercials . The movie plays like it was designed for viewers with short attention spans . Scale has much to do with what makes characters believable in fantastic contexts, and I'd say that the contrivance of this film's set up overwhelms the possibility of empathetic response to them. It's much less that this film goes against the comic movie norm than that it plays out what have been Marvel's strength--good humor and an instinct to take the story JUST SERIOUSLY ENOUGH to make it dramatically compelling. For the characrters in GOTG, they do not really seem to fighting for a good cause against insurmountable odds. They are more like the Keystone Kops with a budget, a budget that was blown on production at the expense of story. In truth, the only thing you're doing with this movie is not waiting for the resolution to the conflicts that are brought before us but rather waiting for the spring on a stressed wind-up toy to snap and fly to pieces.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

6 short essays on John Ashbery

It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the psychic membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery over rated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own consul regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.  

Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble -rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain site. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain site, clouded, however, by thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet. 
 
He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection. In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work. Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.


Asbhery settles in for the long haul

Whether It Exists
 by John Ashbery
All through the fifties and sixties the land tilted
Toward the bowl of life. Now life
Has moved in that direction.We taste the conviction Minus the rind, the pulp and the seeds.
It Goes down smoothly.
And the field became a shed in ways I no longer remember. Familiarly, but without tenderness, the sunset pours its Dance music on the (again) slanting barrens.The problems we were speaking of move up toward them.

This may be the closet thing to straight-talk your likely to come across from a John Ashbery poem, a brief meditation on how emotional attachment to otherwise vivid memories wanes as you age. Yet even in it's brief two stanzas and spare outline, this poem manages to bring two signature Ashbery traits to its center, elusive but not aloof.It suggests that just as the planet is formed by forces of weather and natural occurrence, forces that exist precisely because the earth exists at all with innumerable ecosystems shaping its profile over a great many eons, we also come to be formed by the cumulative logic of our choices over time.

Where once youthful ego and naive philosophy gave us the surety that we were the captains of our own fate and were superbly equipped to navigate by invisible stars, we find ourselves with the slipping of years in cities, occupations and with hobbies formed by the life we thought we created from whole cloth. Man makes his tools, and then the tools make man. In Ashbery's poem, our enthusiasms have ceased to be passions, an animating force of character, and are now, wizened with years, tested by experiences great, tragic and mundane, a cluster of traits, inconsistent habits of mind that haven't a coherent center but rather a shambling direction; inclinations rather than agendas. The glory of planting one's flag on a patch of earth with it mind to transform that acre and the acres around into a kingdom that will bear your name on signs and in memory becomes a hallowed shape.

Not that we are required to remain hard wired in stubborn habits and soured romanticism in our old age; Ashbery is a poet who cannot help but remain engaged with the world that has usurped his youthful mandate. Even as days , weeks and months go by faster in old age, the poet views what was the soil which was his metaphor for self creation and brings something from decades of life; what was formerly merely raw material waiting to be formed by an aesthete is now filled with nuanced shades, tones, subtle rhythms in the closely details   of trees and their leaves, tall grass. The world again provides you with something to consider and absorb whenever you're finished tending the wounds of the ego that is recovering from a protracted disappointment.

At a later date I added color  And the field became a shed in ways I no longer remember. Familiarly, but without tenderness, the sunset pours its Dance music on the (again) slanting barrens. The problems we were speaking of move up toward them.  


Ashbery's mojo

It comes down to whether you appreciate the conflations Ashbery artfully manages as he penetrates the membrane between Steven's Supreme Fiction, that perfect of Ideal Types and their arrangements, with the material sphere that won't follow expectation, nor take direction. I happen to think that much of the interstices he investigates are results of artful wandering; Ashbery is a flaneur of his own musings, and the Proustian inspection provides their idiosyncratic, insular joys. Had I thought Ashbery over rated and a bore, I'd have turned my back on critical praise of him and left him cold; I have a habit of keeping my own consul regarding reading preferences, as I'm sure all of us do. But continue to read him I do, over several decades.

Not a rebel, not a polemicist, hardly a rabble -rouser who makes speeches and writes incendiary essays against injustice, Ashbery is an aesthete, a contemplator, an intelligence of infinite patience exploring the spaces between what consciousness sees, the language it develops to register and comprehend experience, and the restlessness of memory stirred and released into streaming associations. Ashbery's are hard to "get" in the sense that one understands a note to get milk at the store or a cop's command to keep one's hand above their head, in plain site. Ashbery's poems have everything the eye can put a shape to in plain site, clouded, however, by thoughts, the cloud bank of memory. He wrestles with the still-engaging problems of Aristotle's metaphysics, that the things in the world are only the expression of an Idea of that thing, which exists prior to manifestation. It's a slippery metaphysics, a guarantor of headaches, but Ashbery wears the problem loosely; he pokes, prods, wonders, defers judgment, and is enthralled by the process of his wondering. Reaching a conclusion for him seems to mean that he is done writing, and no poet wants to think that they've used up their vocabulary.


One might think that the mtvU audience might be more attracted to arch romantic and decidedly urban poet Frank O'Hara, whose emphatic musings and extrapolations had equal parts rage and incontestable joy which gave a smile or a snarl to his frequent spells of didactic erudition. He was in love with popular culture, with advertising, movies, the movies, he had an appreciation of modern art, he loved jazz and ballads, and he loved being a City Poet. He was more the walker than Ashbery, I suppose, or at least he wrote more about the going to and coming from of his strolls. unlike Ashbery, O'Hara loved being an obvious tourist in his own environment, and didn't want for a minute for his poetry to leave the streets, cafes and galleries where he treads. Ashbery is more the stroller who gets lost in his associations triggered by what he beheld. Ever more the aesthete than his fellow New York Poets, he was interested in things a little more metaphysical, that being that the reality that exists in the inter-relations being the act of perception and the thoughts that are linked to it, which branch off from the perception and link again with another set of ideas, themselves connected to material things observed and remembered. O'Hara was immediate, like the city he loved, while Ashbery allowed his senses the authority to enlarge his perception, to explore the simultaneity of sight and introspection.

In a strange way, Ashbery is the more sensual of the two, willing to examine that even the sacrifice of immediate coherence. I’m not a fan of difficulty for the sake of being difficult, but I do think it unreasonable to expect poets to be always unambiguous or easily grasped. Not every dense piece of writing is worthy by default, of course, and the burden falls on the individual talent. Ashbery's writing, for me, has sufficient allure, resonance and tangible bits of the recognizable world he sees to make the effort to maneuver through his diffuse stanzas worth the work.

Poetry is the written form where ambiguity of meaning and multiplicity of possible readings thrives more than others, and the tradition is not a parsimonious use of language, but rather a deliberate expansion of what words pieced can do, what meanings they can evoke, and what sensations they can create. Prose is the form that is, by default, is required to have the discourse it carries be clear and has precise as possible. Poetry and poets are interesting because they are not addressing their experiences or their ideas as linear matters subject to the usual linguistic cause and effect; poetry is interesting because it's a form that gives the inclined writer to interrogate their perceptions in unexpected ways. The poetic styles and approaches and aesthetics one may use vary widely in relative degrees of clarity, difficulty, and tone, but the unifying element is that poetry isn't prose, and serves a purpose other than the mere message delivering that is, at heart, the basic function of competent prose composition.

Emphatic Mumbling:John Ashbery's Glorious Diffusion



I've thought for years that the best way to read John Ashbery's poetry is to first throw the instruction manual away and then go for a fishing trip in his various lakes of opaque meanings. Literally, imagine yourself in a boat in the center of a large body of water and cast a line into the water, and then reel in what pulls and makes the line go taut. Whatever comes up is always a surprise, unexpected, perhaps a tangle of things that wouldn't be bound together or linked in any conceivable but in the dreamy but sleepless realm of Ashbery's actively processing mind and attendant imagination.

This might be the closet an American writer has ever come to transcribing the language of their thought process; for all the conventional wisdom about Ashbery's associations with painters, French surrealists and the rush of popular culture, he very closely resembles the method of Virginia Woolf and the still engaging , if topically staid process of stream-of-conscious.

Ashbery's poems are filled with much of the material world, both natural and that which is manufactured, fashioned, contrived and constructed by human agency. In both Woolf and Ashbery, the central voice, the observer,distanced or not, renders an image, makes it solid and substances, gives it attributes and distinguishing nuance, allows the thing to be played with as the mind associates, puns, constructs parallel universes and contradictory time lines; sections of books, a cold cup of coffee on magazine, a painting under a cloth, shorelines seen from Italian villas, comic book heroes and the breathing of a grudgingly referred to "you" who is voiceless, without input.

I was aware that Ashbery was an adherent of Wallace Stevens and his notion of the Supreme Fiction, a reconfiguration of the tension between Idea and it's physical expression to the senses. But where Stevens constructed a grand rhetoric to address the generic formulations of the everyday--his poems often times sound like critiques of a reality that is inferior to a divine Idea that makes their formation possible--Ashbery makes more informal, casual, and brings the distanced bewilderment to street level. There are glimmers, glimpses, observations and sightings of the physical detail that assures you that you and Ashbery are living on the same planet, and yet at precisely the moment you come to a reassurance, these details blur and merge with the spill over of many other chats and conversations the poet seems to be having. The poems are not monologues, and one cannot call them a "medley of voices", as Richard Poirier had referred to Norman Mailer's Why Are We In Viet Nam?. "Medley" implies an orchestration of unlike parts made to harmonize, to make sense in ways that give pleasure. Ashbery's voice is singular, his own, and what comes from his typewriter are whatever arguments, debates, interrogations are rumbling through his consciousness at that given moment. While Ashbery is capable of the well turned sentence and even sweet music on occasion, his aim isn't to give pleasure, but rather to make the ordinary and nettlesome extraordinarily weird.It's not that his poems are any more accessible than Stevens--his less daunting syntax actually seem to make his poetry more demanding than Stevens'-- but with patience we can comprehend a language we might actually use , a voice that could plausibly be one we would have in those moments of lost thought, daydreaming, vague yet intense yearning when there is so much we want to bring together for a moment of clarity but are frustrated to find that our senses keep changing along with the world they behold.

Ashbery is the central poet for many critics whose projects intend to layout the raise of urban Modernism in American verse. Marjorie Perloff is someone else worth mentioning as much of who she deals with are city poets, worldly, college educated, unashamedly bookish, and unafraid to employ a more vulgar popular culture, IE comic books, movies, advertising, along with the more swank and sophisticated allusions to high culture, whether literature, opera, theatre, painting.

A connecting thread through much of the poets emerging after WW2 was their ambivalence to the plenitude of culture and media--Dwight McDonald's derided mass culture--and began, in their individual endeavors, to fashion particular styles to sift through the cultural dumping ground each of them were witnessing.

Elizabeth Bishop is exquisitely hermetic in her verse, and is much closer to the qualities Stevens praised for poetic surfaces calling their own form into question, and James Merrill , who was something of a virtuoso in sustained, whispering elusiveness.
One sees why some of the poets of the New York School receive more attention from readers and critics, especially the work of Ashbery and Frank O'Hara (and to a lesser degree, the wonderfully digressive poems of Ron Padgett); meanings and intents about the growling contradictory messages of physical reality are dealt with as unresolvable conditions of existence in the work, but the point is how the poet is engaged with their world. It might be said that Ashbery's work makes no sense, and conveys a sense of witness to an ever blooming enlargement of perception.The poetry of the New York School was , in essence, about talking about the world as it unfolded , an attempt to give a cadence and rhythm to the kind of personality which bears witness to the confluence of sight, sound and smells .This is a fitting rite for a city that is in your face, traffic lights, pedestrian density and raw-lettered advertising, the moment you step out the door of your apartment building; everything is seemingly noticed, nothing is trivial, everything is a part of the story. Sheer meaning, hard and fast, is not be found here, but feeling, resonance, introspection are, and it is this several layered ambiguity that keeps a reader up at night, staring out of the window, testing the keyboard as ideas about what we haven't thought about comes in phrases even God himself couldn't explain.O'Hara is not so oblique or confusing--he is popular precisely because he has the lyric capacity to merge his far flung loves of high and low culture and still carry on a rant that achieves a jazzy spontaneity--he is the poet from whom Billy Collins has taken from and tamed for polite company.

Ashbery is the stroller, the walker in the city, the flaneur, the sidewalk engineer examining the city in it's constant self-construction, composing a poetry of association that accompanies a terrain of things with inexplicable uses.

What seems like a mighty muddle in his writing becomes full engagement of a personality in love with what the senses bring him; at his best the intelligence of the poems is transcendent and there is , in the main, a tangible joy in how he phrases his reactions, responses and retorts to a world that always seems to baffle him in some wondrous way.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

"Lunch Poems": Frank O'Hara's masterpiece is 50 years old

Frank O’Hara published a poem he wrote in 1964 about where he was and what he was doing when he heard that fabled jazz and blues singer Billie Holiday passed away. There is temptation to scratch your head after you read and offer a dumbfounded groan, wondering what the hell this babbling prattle might be. I had the same response, but repeat readings of the poem gave me a blue, as second and third readings of verse that reveal themselves like opened Christmas gifts often do. The poem isn’t about Holiday, it does sing her praises or moon over the soul and genius that is no longer hours to witness live and suffering for our entertainment. What had been remarked about her was already said, what she had done was well known fact and the stuff of legend; her music was the kind that seeped into the soul and played the over tuned strings of your heart, as was the case with O’Hara. The city poet was going about his business scurrying New York City getting things done, crowding his hours with chats, errands, music, a drink, more chatter, a day like another, indistinguishable until the the latest of worst possible things that could happen , happens:

The Day Lady Died
BY FRANK O'HARAIt is 12:20 in New York a Fridaythree days after Bastille day, yesit is 1959 and I go get a shoeshinebecause I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   at 7:15 and then go straight to dinnerand I don’t know the people who will feed me I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun   and have a hamburger and a malted and buyan ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets   in Ghana are doing these days                                                        I go on to the bankand Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)   doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life   and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine   for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do   think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or   Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègresof Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaineafter practically going to sleep with quandariness and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANELiquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and   then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue   and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and   casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a cartonof Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking ofleaning on the john door in the 5 SPOTwhile she whispered a song along the keyboardto Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing. 


A perfect monologue of someone's hurried, distracted trek through a bustling city scape , attempting to get things done and then prepare themselves for later pleasure or duties performed , an accounting of inane events, a list of stupid rituals and stop overs that merge suddenly with news of incredible sadness, a deep sharp wound that is made that brings  on the ironic counter effect, a recollection of joy. Frank O'Hara's tribute to Lady Day makes sense and it is one of the very few that people remember from poetry because, I think, you have a sense that he is a friend who was standing next to you when first heard of the tragic passing of someone close to your heart. It's a poem that you re-read, over and over, through the decades. Frank O'Hara wrote more than a few poems like that.

It's been fifty years since the publication of Frank O'Hara's seminal book "Lunch Poems":, which means that I was twelve when it first appeared. It was a small book, part of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets series on his City Lights imprint, and it was one of those books you saw everywhere you went as a young person in search of experience, ideas, and kicks of a sort; it was on bookshelves and stuffed in back pockets all over the map, especially the city map. Reading Frank O'Hara was one of those authors you had to read in order to feel current with the alternative culture.


 Despite the book's ubiquity when I was a teen and a young poet/musician/critic looking to make a mark, I didn't read the volume until I was in my late twenties, after a couple of other poets I'd made friends with strongly suggested that my own work resembled O'Hara's. Curious, of course, I dug up the copy of "Lunch Poems" I bought a couple of years earlier, along with a stack of other assorted texts and which I had also left in said stack. How much my work resembles O'Hara is something for others to suss out, but I will say that I had made a new friend ; the poet's ebullient breeziness, his disdain for the formal conception of profundity, his ability to write a poem that seems wonderfully to capture the sense of an alert mind noticing the city and its citizens and the work and play they do simultaneously is, I think, one of the miracles of modern poetry. With its abrupt beginnings, swooning affection for the tacky, the tarnished and frayed, with its emotions obviously and playfully at the surface of all things engaged, O'Hara transformed the lyric poem; he brought the lone voice back from its time in the wilderness of  the deepest part of downtown and gave it the swing and brackish grit of fast, rapid played  bebop.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Sleigh and WC Williams

Tom Sleigh's poem "Block and Bag", the featured verse on Robert Pinskys' poetry discussion forum, is a superb evocation of the writer's imagination set itself the task of anthropomorphising the obvious. Bored , hung over, or tired from long  road trips and a succession of hotels that are generic and without evidence that decent people would have anything to do with them, the narrator, likely Sleigh himself, stares out his room window and details the touch and do between a styrofoam box and a loose  bag being pushed around by a strong enough wind. It is wonderfully cartoonish, and it is a comic wonder to witness a poem's narrator musing  what the nature of the attraction/repulsion between the   block and bag might be. The poem under discussion:



BLOCK AND BAG
(Tom Sleigh)
Pursuit, delay, anxious moments of dallying,
then leaps, bounds, hilarious cartwheels turning
manic with rage or fear performed in a concrete
courtyard bare but for hotel windows replicating
everywhere these mad, senseless, random chases,
a little styrofoam block fiery as Achilles
racing after a plastic bag kiting and billowing
round and round this blah arena, this angle/plane world
stripped to extremes of sun scraping concrete
bare, or blasted dark, obliviated by clouds,
the light neutered to the spirit’s dullest grays while Block
and Bag now seem hunter/prey, john/whore,
then inexplicably bound and flutter to a halt,
exhausted, Block’s corners pitted, rounded
by bumps and skids and somersaults,
Bag blowzy and worn, bedraggled by all this
unexpected passion, this afflatus of breath swelling
it full then sucked out so it collapses in ruin,
abject, pleading, overdoing it maybe, knowing more
than it lets on, only playing dead for Block’s titillation,
You did it, you conquered, I’m nothing, nothing …
until the whirlwind hits and drives them on
obsessed without purpose in their abandon
that could be joy, terror, elation of love, despair’s
deflation, desire’s movements like armies
maneuvering across no man’s land, the spirit
coquetting after the unreachable
as Block now bounds to within an inch of Bag
fluttering off at an eccentric angle,
the light winking off it like an eye winking,
you know I know you know someone’s watching—
now Bag crumples in a corner, seemingly blacked out,
Block hovering near as if debating to strike
and demolish Bag, put an end to this pursuit—
no angle of approach, no middle ground,
no terms of ransom, no truce—
just this squarish, brick-faced concrete
among endless displacements rippling out
across this nowhere courtyard where Block and Bag
are at it again, running amok, racing round and round,
giving no quarter and desiring none
the way heroes of old lavish on each other
ferocious attentions no lover can rival,
oh most worthy and wedded of combatants:
berserk Block; shrewd tactician Bag.




This is a splendid companion to Tom Sleigh’s “Block and Bag”. Certainly, both poems are set in a material world where what is seen isn’t linked to an unseen metaphysical chain of certainty that even the best poets can only guess at. Indeed, the closest thing that the items in the lines are connected too are the writer’s imaginations which are free to link to associate and characterize the incidents and their particulars as they choose, drawing from their respective wealths of experience, temperament, sensibility.Sleigh, though, distinguishes himself in the way he selects particular qualifiers, similes, choice phrases to his parking lot terrain and the doings of the Styrofoam and bag; his language , connected to emotional association and the texture of moods sculpted from a range of experience, is the animating force behind the narrative his gives the block and bag in their dual tumult; the fluidity and near seamlessness of how phrases emerge from the action as though responding to circumstances the way gardens, in longer time spans, respond to sunlight and good weather, gives everything an accelerated feeling. Sleigh effectively collapses the events into something cinematic, whether a cartoon or a Three Stooges two reeler. Williams, in contrast, pares everything back to a skeletal exactness, presents an outline of events, a sequence of cause and effect that is so simply stated and astounding in clarity that it achieves a unique complexity ; there is a narrative complexity that has everything to do with the language he didn’t use.
As the cat
________
As the cat
climbed over
the top of
the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot
carefully
then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty
flowerpot
I could on for paragraphs about the photographic quality of this fine gem of a verse, but it suffices to say here that what William Carlos Williams has done is distill the movement of the cat trying to navigate over an obstacle course of household items with the effect of a well chosen slide show, uncaptioned, where image and the sequence of images presented tell a story that is profound because it is something that incidental, banal in itself, but meaningful because it is seen. The cat poem makes me think of the motion studies of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, incidently. Good and great poets notice things and create new frameworks for understanding their contexts, and both Sleigh and WCW have done that, with different sorts of language and rhythmic emphasis.







WHAT I'VE BEEN READING

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Ted's bookshelf: read

The Tortilla CurtainU.S.!: A NovelSlaves to Do These ThingsCrackpots: A NovelThe Incentive of the MaggotFrantic Transmissions to and from Los Angeles: An Accidental Memoir

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