Saturday, November 26, 2005

Boxes of old snap shots

We are here at a table
full of grown up things
from closets where boxes
are stacked with the hints
of history in receipts,
business cards, flashlights
without batteries.
There is nothing I can say
when there is a blank piece
of paper stapled to another
page from a memo pad
where "hurry" is written
in pencil jags desperate
enough to run off the page
and into another room.
From the kitchen you said
you could hear angels breathing
so slightly out of wind that their
wings move the branches from
the roof, swoop the leaves from the
longest branches, make a cloud
surrender its rain as we
go through the photos of
us gathered around baskets
of colored eggs on a Sunday
after dinner, the sun fading
on the sidewalk and a shadow
creeping over half the
house, all our clothes were
showing the disarray of
being worn all day, it was Easter
in 1963, the angels were there
even then.
Lights dim and go bright again,
a cell phone rings,
one of us steps outside and
chats on the porch and now
we can hear the low hiss of
tires rolling to a halt at the corner
where there are four stop signs
and only one car,
feathers fall from the sky
and makes the skin of
couples walking their dog
crawl like battalions of snakes
creeping their way to the
Irish sea, yes, I see you
holding up a 45 record,
no, I wasn't a musician
back then, I wasn't that old
but you are this beautiful
as yet another box is emptied,
how many cigarette lighters are
held in a bundle with a thick
red rubber band and
how many cigarettes and cigars
do you think they lit
at the bars where the parents
drank on Saturday nights
in the Summer, usually when
it rained and the aroma of
the State Fair would come over
the trees and fill the living rooms
full of farm smells, the world
was a soiled stack of straw.
Yes, that is my Dad,
that's my mom,
no, I don't know where they got
the fake beards
and vampire teeth,
they told me it was
a holiday for dead things
when only ghosts and their
pets walk the supermarket aisles
past cereal boxes and diet plans
before they drift into the parking lot
and float up to the moon’s white corona
to play nursery on the stars
on the stars and sleep
finally in the space between
the earth and the sky,
yes, that’s right,
my father was quite a storyteller,
he could do the impossible,
he stayed married to my mom, after all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Smoke Alarms

Smoke alarms
in the center of the night
shift gravity with
the shovels full
of noise as the cat knocks
its plate of dried meat
off the balcony,
to the driveway below.

Helicopters scour the ground
with pools of light
that scurrying up alleys walls
and over parked cars,
there are cans rolling
into the streets,
shopping carts
slamming into mail boxes,
this is where everyone wants to be,
tight and napping at the beach
in a corner room,
over a dumpster,
next to chain smoking neighbors.

Nothing to but grumble,
shake my head,
seek your hand, mumble,
light a candle and
curse the darkness.

And just as the night
seemed to blink it's
last straining thoughts of fun
and give in too its darkness,
its warm, heartless interior.

Parties across the bay,
patios that hug shore line,
planks that stick out
like chins needing to be slugged
with a hand that closes and hardens
into the instant weapon that
comes in handy
as it reaches and unstrings
the paper lanterns lighting
hard sand with frantic,
dancing light, fireworks,
boats on the water, enjoying the music,
no one takes tickets in the
middle of the bay,
there are other things
we still aren't done talking about,
snore as we might, dream
where we may . . .

Your news of your mom
dying two years ago
after the phone was shut off
and mail gathered
at the front door,
in a pile, under the slot,
addresses of advertisers
selling shares in futures
no can see anymore,
You hold me
and kiss my hand
and wonder aloud
when the next set of fire works goes off
following the next thing
the cat knocks over
Complimenting a contrapuntal
Groan of guitar
from stereo on the patio
someone was just pushed from
to the hard, packed, cold sand below
why it seems to be still in
the apartment,
the air not moving,
the dark of the room
disturbed only by a television screen
that throbs with images of abstracted passions,
sleek icons wet with desire
that seems a burden in a time
when there is a good guess,
of how much time
there's left to play with
the toys you already have,

I wonder too,
and whistle something
that starts off as Charlie Parker
and winds up a Sousa March,

There are only so many
days left that really have nothing to do
with shopping, I say,

The cat grunts, spits something up,
the fire works stream across the bay,
flames burst from the explosion
and engulf the patio deck the rocket it,
screams from the balcony,
smoke alarms in the middle of the night,
screams, electronic bass and rap assuming
a burnt tinge that colors the holiday, I kiss you,
I wish I was kissing you, wherever you are,

There are lives that haven't touched me yet,
nothing breaks the calm waters,
and no oar violates the lake surface.

There is only noise, commotion,
a city consuming itself,
lurching into the next decade,
empty as a can.


Norman Mailer titled a 1963 essay collection The Presidential Papers, with it in mind to have the miscellaneous essays, asides, interviews, book reviews and poems serve as a set of metaphysical advisories for then President John F.Kennedy. Kennedy was assasinated the same year, however, and Mailer's book is a conspicous artifact of the hopes among true believers that more than Kennedy's body didn't die that fatal day.

Here we are again, in the early evening of November 22, 2005, hazily remembering and half-heartedly feeling bad about it being the 42nd anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It is one of those touchstone events with which we've come to mark our progress both as individuals with ideals ,and as democracy that attempts to overcome its worse habits and to ensure and protect freedom for all Americans. As usual, we come up short--I am constantly doing and saying things that run afoul of my professed liberalism on matters of civil rights and free speech, and as a country we come up short when we match ourselves against every grand themed speech given on patriotic holidays when our mandate from Heaven is declared, affirmed, praised. Coming away from these ridiculously steep points of comparison always lacking in ways one could be more "Christ like" or "Kennedyesque" and feeling horrible, sullen and cynical as a result, I have it in mind to ignore Kennedy's image, his body of work, his good deeds and grand speeches, his movie star looks, all those things that JFK supposedly meant to have America become had he lived long enough to work his reputed magic. It has become something like the worship of the dead, a yearning to mope and whine that our best nature and potential was stolen from us and now lies entombed in the dark sealed enclosure that contains the stilled embodiment of our last best chance to do good work.

It's whining, of course, and it comes across as a collective letting-ourselves-of-the-hook when we look around for who is responsible for the wrong turn History took. It's as if we have had ourselves driven from Eden after another, constantly cast out by ogres, terrorists, assassins, malcontents and psychopaths and insane dictators who have no desire to see the population of a great country re-assume command of their lives and extend our potential to- do- good- by- being -good have the effect of getting people off their knees in the worship of betrayed idealism and instead get engaged with their communities that still require the good graces we used to speak of. I am cranky at the moment and fairly disgusted with all the mewling melodies coming from the ain't-it-a-shame club. Once again, enough of this. Let's close the casket a last time and lower JFK into the ground and get on to doing just a little of those good works we've been wishing someone would inspire us to take on. We have to be our own heroes and move into a future determined to make it work.

The past is a lonely country because everyone who lives there is dead

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Blue Balls

A sex drive that gets
20 miles to the gallon
is nothing to laugh at,

I used to wear pointy-toed shoes
that helped me cut a rug,
a ballet of carpet installers
would have fallen
at your feet, nailing
the red carpet into PLACE,

I’ve got everything I need, and it pisses me off
(only when I laugh, though, only when
the surf is good
and everybody talks
about it and I can’t relate
‘cause I talk and lust and write and read and
sing and have my confusion
compounded by the minute,no the
second no, no worse,
and all I want is really to
everything I need)
I need to keep finding out
what I already know, I have to decipher the lables on the drawers,
do you like me?
I am famished,
I am man,
Hear me roar
While I snap my suspenders.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

David Brooks and the Gangsta Jihad

There's nothing like riots by malcontent Muslim youth in France to motivate a conservative American cultural critic to attack the source for all the World's fall from grace, the music. New York Times staff grump David Brooks was alert enough to realize that the old mainstay, rock and roll, has become a firm and honored part of the entertainment mainstreams, a series of bad boy poses made by professional entertainers. There's nothing menacing about that, and hardly anything in the lyrics to scare anyone, let alone push millions to the ramparts for a day of State Smashing. Brooks finds a new wrinkle and places the blame for the violence in France on hip-hop, where Muslim youth have become enamored of the music and have commenced to make their own kind of gangsta rhyme-busting. Brooks cites his evidence, lyrics from tunes made a near decade ago, and assumes the worse of it all. He has a sure fire image that's bound to be discussed in the circular dread clubs that comprise the Moral Majority; this is a generation of young Arab men who model themselves equally after the likes of bin Ladin and Tupac Shakur.Brooks' principal problem, though, is that scant little of his rhetoric contains a fresh or original bit of perspective or hard thinking. His column, in fact, is something of a used car that keeps getting reconditioned and resold. It runs, yes, but it leaks something awful.

I would be impressed if David Brooks understood and spoke French well enough to comprehend the accelerated rhyme schemes and themes of Gallic gangatisms, but what he cites and objects to sounds like it were handed to him by a young, research assistant.

I can imagine getting a handful of representative CDs , each with notes and hastily translated lyrics. Brooks' shtick is to be the light weight curmudgeon, the junior league Mencken, the mildly offended cultural conservative, and here serves up boiler plate outrage. It comes down to the curse of the columnist who is all writerly finess wrapped around a small store of ideas; the same complaints keep getting used over again, except aimed on another target. Brooks wanted his own foreign menace to hector the readership with, a pop-cultural variant on the Avian Flu. A musical hybrid is going to fuel the destruction of the West.

I've no doubt that Brooks actually believes this and will be able to convince others who are likewise perennially nervous that the threat is real, not metaphorical. Bad sociology or no, we have to remember that the FBI maintained a file on John Lennon. Brooks may be a fool, but it would be a mistake to laugh at him and leave it at that. His kind of aww-shucks conservatism is the kind of low-radar propaganda that helps gets the incompetent and the morally stupid elected.

A lot of middle aged white guys have good ideas and insights about cultural trends and phenomenons originating from places other than Leave-It-To-Beaverland.
I don't buy into the notion that a writer has to be a member of the tribe, so to speak , in order to speak with intelligence about another social group's aesthetic creations; in fact, depending on the wit and resources of the writer, being on the "outside" can be an advantage, since the hypothetical writer in question wouldn't be burdened with investments of identity with the form he (or she) might be trying to write about. A white guy's observations on hip-hop culture, sympathetic but honest to a fault, has potential for being a fun, intriguing, and contentious read.

David Brooks, though, is not one of those white guys, and reminds me that there some benefits to being alive a certain number of years. In this case it's the developing a long memory for what has been presented as sweeping and definitive critiques of popular culture over the decades and recognizing a rewording , a reworking, a laborious rephrasing of standard issue scare-mongering.

Jazz had been demonized, excoriated, condemned, denounced as that element that was the proof of Society collapsing into an amoral morass, rock and roll has been routinely and continuously pilloried as the grossest affront and threat to Morals and Values. And now Brooks dusts off these rickety tropes from the storehouse of Alarmist Invective and frets about how the dark hoards are going to rap and rhyme their way through the Continent intent on nothing less that the destruction of the West. Really, really, this has been said before, it's a routine conservative talking point, and for all the warnings against the influence of nonwhite music on middle class kids that have been issued through the decades, we've muddled on, progressed, survived our own stupidity and to make lives for ourselves.

Brooks is a mouthpiece of a bankrupt set of assumptions, and I can't help notice the timing of his objections to French-Muslim rap; the surfeit of bad news for the White House and the incredibly low poll ratings among Americans, we have the Culture Wars being revved up one more time to send everyone into a panic and tizzy. This time, though, it's not likely to work, as Americans are asking each other why it is things have gotten worse for us with Bush in office. Somehow hip hop, no matter who performs it, doesn't strike one as a compelling reason for why things aren't going right.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Look at that girl

Look at that girl
in the burned out Ford
screaming for burgers.

Stare at the guy
who’s feeling his leg
making sure the in-seam
is still dry.

Gape at the kid
suing his parents
for giving him clothes
instead of the back of their hand.

Check out the calico cat
in love with a bag
that falls apart
at the caress of paws and claws.

Chuckle at the cut
that reduced your stature
and humbled your spine.

Groan when
the hash is slung
on dishes with cracks
deep like rivers and regrets.

Wednesday, November 2, 2005

Brett Easton Ellis

Meghan O'Rourke makes an interesting case for Brett Easton Ellis and his body of work, but I doubt I'll read his newest novel, Lunar Park. Her defense, appearing in Slate, advances a smart and elegant defense made for Ellis and his fellow ‘80’s “Brat Packers” Jay McInerney, Mary Gaitskill, and Tama Janowitz, most tellingly in the collection Shopping in Space: Essays on America's Blank Generation edited by Elizabeth Young and Graham Caveney.British critics all, these American Studies specialists made the case that this “Blank Generation” set of then-young novelists were the most telling and single most important development of the Novel In English, forming a kind of permanent “High Postmodernist” tone through which fiction will give the lie to horrible flatness that is the truth when consumerism irrevocably replaces culture.

A grim determinist view, yes, estimating that inner life is no more than a vaguely self aware mirror that desperately wants to conform to the sheer appearance of beauty and lean design as it’s conveyed by cruel corporations and their marketing departments. It was the perfect line of defense to have in a decade where deconstruction and simulacra were prime subjects in every pedant’s droning mantra. O’Rourke reinvigorates the argument made then as a means of defending Ellis and his new book, and it’s admirable that she nearly had me convinced. What sinks the whole enterprise, however, is an unspoken insistence that graphic and precise descriptions and expositions of what shallow, drooling Pavlov dogs we can be do not suffice as literary art, an art that I would insist get inside situations and personalities rather than hover in godly fashion over the mess. It’s the difference between being in a traffic helicopter over the freeway and actually being behind the wheel, in the midst of it all.

The problem with making a case for a writer who has been on the outs with mainstream critics is that the plausible case gets passed up altogether and overstatement becomes the rule. Gigantism is one of Ellis's flaws, the mistake that accumulation equals worth, value and importance. Sometimes it works, yet even writers who have written long and brilliant books like Jonathan Franzen with Strong Motion will produce a long and profoundly under-edited dud like The Corrections. Franzen needed an honest and ruthless editor to give him back a blue-penciled manuscript with the instructions to make the novel work. Ellis would have benefited greatly from the same advice.

He has always struck me as someone who could be perfectly fine crime novelist, an edgy combination of James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard, if he weren't so busy gussying up his sensationalist subjects with the window dressing of eviscerated narcissism. Certainly his knowing jibes and dissections of ritual consumerism and attending worship of material accumulation have a spot in an America that is exhausting its credit cards to amass more and more of what they cannot take to heaven, but there are limits to how long a reader can gaze into an abyss, or listen to the limitless chatter of character minds that have lost a soul-giving personality. Crime fiction, a form predicated on supreme measures of reserve and clinical flatness, might have been an ideal medium for the rigor mortised humanity he loves to describe constructing the means of their own destruction. The procedural aspects would have imposed some properly ascribed limits on his story lines, and enabled him to write with greater aim.Mailer is exactly right on this point, which is to say that a novelist, even a satirist, needs to be more than a taker of inventories. American Psycho, after all was said and done with brand names, inane opinions on eighties bands, and hack-and-stab remedies for the extreme cases of ennui, is a rather over packed and hastily scribed effort that Ellis needed to finish to fulfill his contract with his publisher. Style and grace, the measures of comedic timing and the required component for wit to sting deeper , is absent from that book, and was in even sparser supply with Glamorama, a large house of a book with many, many unfurnished rooms.

Elements of Ellroy and Leonard are already present in Ellis's work--Ellroy's amoral universe meets Leonard's penchant for sharp observation and satire. The crime genre would have liberated Ellis from struggling to write through his themes under the crushing burden of art, the biggest drag on his effectiveness as a writer. Not that crime novels cannot be artful, as fans of Ellroy , Leonard, James Burke and Mark Costello can attest; the difference is that these writers are artful, describing a skilled application of craft, and not arty, Ellis’s vice, which conveys pose, pose, pose.

To me, Easton Ellis is a more stylized Hubert Selby Jr. Both are cataloging modes of spiritual deprivation.

An interesting comparison and one worth considering. Both are chroniclers of the ways New York will brutalize your soul and kill it, but I'm inclined to give the nod to Selby over Ellis because Hubert used the arc of tragedy to make the violence and desperations of Last Exit to Brooklyn's arresting. One by one, each fantasy and delusion is smashed. It's not a new trick, but it is hard to do believably, and I admire Selby's ability to delicately use a blatant literary device to achieve his drama. Drama is the word.
And I can't consider Ellis as "more stylized" than Selby. Ellis, in fact, is the more conservative prose writer of the two.

I think of Alain Robbe-Grillet, a French "new novelist" who wanted to strip all elements of convenient psychological convolutions, all tangible human feeling, and instead produce a novel of pure, unsullied description. In many ways, Ellis is a very French writer. Remember the last words in American Psycho: No Exit. The fact that Sartre's famous title appears on a sign introduces another tip of the hat to ideas that have seduced Ellis in college, semiotics.

One of Easton Ellis' favorite writers is Joan Didion, who began Play It As It Lays with the precept of writing " a novel so elliptical and fast that it would be over before you noticed it, a novel so fast that it would scarcely exist on the page at all....white space. Empty space...."

He admires Joan Didion, which is swell, but the reason he doesn't write like her is due to his awareness that cannot do what she is able do with her characters in her supremely crafted deadpan style. There is a humanity lurking around behind the eyes of her men and women, battered, shattered, horribly damaged with consumption, violence, money and drugs, but there are personalities, beautifully realized, that are imperfectly trying to make do in a world they no longer have faith in. This is a large part of what makes Didion compelling and worth the effort. Finding the moral vacuum in any age has never been a problem for novelists, it's what kind of witness you wind up being once you find it. Didion has that perhaps capacity to be curious about the humanity of her characters. It's a demonstration of narrative mastery that Ellis hasn't shown.

Even Mailer, when he finally came upon his real life White Negro in the form of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore (in The Executioner's Song, changed his style of writing, going from the high rhetoric and flighty philosophizing and fashioned instead a terse style in which his normally ubiquitous personality was absent, leaving only a complex and moving story to tell with every amount of craft he could muster and sustain. Mailer changed his music, his style and his thinking about his particular set of ideas through his five plus decades as a professional writer, which has made him someone worth returning to.

She is interested in what people are doing to themselves as they try to change the world, a curiosity that brings her to the front ranks of non-fiction writers as well. Ellis isn't able to write in any other way, and I suspect that he's fine with that limit, although he does wish to expand the few notes he can play into major orchestrations.

He admires Joan Didion, which is swell, but the reason he doesn't write like her is due to his awareness that cannot do what she is able do with her characters in her supremely crafted deadpan style. There is a humanity lurking around behind the eyes of her men and women ( Didion , among her other many virtues, makes you believe in interior lives among her characters that were formerly vital, but are now vitiated), battered, shattered, horribly damaged with consumption, violence, money and drugs, but there are personalities, beautifully realized, imperfectly trying to make do in a world they no longer have faith in. This is a large part of what makes Didion compelling and worth the effort.

She is interested in what people are doing to themselves as they try to change the world, a curiosity that brings her to the front ranks of non-fiction writers as well. Ellis isn't able to write in any other way, and I suspect that he's fine with that limit, although he does wish to expand the few notes he can play into major orchestrations. His longer books like Glamorama don't expand the style, refine the ideas he's already written. His writing is an Americanization of moldy existential poses.

The compression of crime fiction would have helped him turn his short comings into assets--he would've been in good company with the likes of George Pelicanos and Dennis Lehain--but it's too late for that, I suppose. Ellis will continue to bleat through his rusty trumpet. Ellis has very few pieces of music he knows how to play, which leaves him with some depressing choices when he strives to create yet again: play them louder, longer, faster, and after that, play them slower, softer, briefer. It is all the same stuff with hardly new idea or insight, matters we look for if we continue to read the same authors over time. We've seen a growth in Ellis as a writer, but it's tumorous rather than artistic. A writer's work ought to develop, as opposed to metastasizing

Making the World Safe for Jonathan Franzen

Ben Marcus, a writer and critic of ambitious genre-blurring novels that one might refer to lazily to as "difficult" or, god forbid, Postmodern, makes a good accounting of himself as he protects the good name of experimental fiction in the October 2005 issue of The Atlantic. Not on line, unfortunately, but the issue is worth seeking out for Marcus's essay, which amounts to a smack down of the self appointed protectors of readers against the gurning armies of avant-garders who've taken to writing novels in order to award millions of book buyers migraines. Marcus writes with a sure verbal slap at his avail, and it's a wonder of the intended target, Jonathan Franzen, will ever manage a response.

Jonathan Franzen is a gifted novelist whose last novel , The Corrections , could have used an editor who was unafraid to blue pencil the baggier prose that particular novel contained. Like others of his generation who are uncomfortable with providing what amounts to entertainment for a paying public, Franzen evidently equates length with worth, and thus filled his parody with the most minute things in the world of this horrible family. Everything was mocked relentlessly, continuously, endlessly, and each paragraph seemed to burst with more sarcasm and scorn until you wanted to use novel as a weapon against some defenseless thing. He had some ideas about American culture and what we're doing wrong to each other, so it's strange that his critical slings against William Gaddis and particularly his masterpiece The Recognitions. Gaddis is, from all appearances, the model from which Franzen formed his break through tale. Franzen is a worry wart at heart, one who loves to fret about his own comfort, and it's too his credit that he's a splendid enough writer, most of the time , to make us care about the status of his nerves colliding with the world. His essay collection, How To Be Alone is fine in this regard. It's when he attempts to diagnose the ills of American literature and assign blame (if not a cure) where he becomes a whiner, a sniveler, a sayer of absurd declarations. I am with Ben Marcus on this matter, which is to say that the novel is in relatively good shape and that the point of concern, regardless of style or ideology, needs to be on a writer's talent.These debates about the absolute state of writing have been going on in my life for years, and the result has been to make me , perhaps, a bit of a social retard, one who sees life from a sadly short sighted lens.

When I read Franzen's Strong Motion and The Corrections, there was no reason for me to assume that he was someone who wanted to be general reader's guardian against the legions of literary experimenters whose books he imagines are causing the destruction of coherence and common sense. Franzen, a novelist of ideas no less than those he critiques as too heady and thereby dangerous --DeLillo, William Gaddis-- seemed to be one of the smart one of those writers who felt compelled to make the readers labor for the treasure embedded in his books. His writing is not composed of short sentences, his descriptions are not taciturn, his metaphors are not of the kitchen-sink variety. He seemed more than willing to be mistaken for William Gaddis Jr.

Now he renounces his love of Gaddis and re-introduces himself to America as the reader's best friend, a writer who has a"contract" with his readers with he he promises never to stray from the conventions of good form and so worry the expectations of readers soured on experiment and genre-blurring. It's a rant that gets resurrected every five years or so--Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Tom Wolfe have all taken their major shots at other writers in an effort to decry the decline of contemporary fiction at the hands of various invading goons, geeks and smarty pants stack mongers. The terms change, the cures vary, but the diagnosis is always the same, "novels today suck",and the death of the novel is always near. Franzen's fretting in his lengthy list of complaints seems more self-serving than anything else; the flap over the Oprah Book Club is something he feels , evidently, that he must recover from. But all this fawning over what he assumes are middle brow audience tastes is unseemly. I agree that it's absurd to demand that a novel be "difficult" or otherwise complicated in order to be considered great. It's just a foolish to insist that plain-speaking is the only way great ideas get addressed in fiction. More than anything the issue seems a dust up between very few writers who delight in tweaking each other at length over things that are finally so much energy spent going down the wrong road.It's a handy issue on which to hang a polemic, but it avoids the more difficult issue at hand, the discussion of style.

Curious readers themselves have no difficulty reading so-called difficult writers like Don DeLillo or Salmon Rushdie and then switching without controversy to more conversational scribes like John Cheever or Lorrie Moore so long as the author displays a mastery of personal style that makes what the author is trying to do worth the read. Hemingway, I realized in college, was more than over-the-counter prose sans verbs , adjectives and metaphor and that his mastery of language, his crafted selection of words enabled him to get across(in his best writing) his notions of bravery, honor and personal code as felt experience without arm-waving or excessive bathos. Faulkner, contrarily, had a dense style beholden to cinematic flashbacks,William James' notion of the mind as stream-of-conscious in which the world is perceived through a plurality of associations,and a Bergsonian concepts of interior time ,all heady influences that might make a novel unwieldy and daunting, fiction that is rich less for straight forward morality plays and situation comedies that finally resolve themselves and affirm a vague faith in invisibly dispensed justice but more about the sheer rhythm, pace and texture of experience, the actual duration of time and thought between plot actions. It is daunting, of course, but there is the argument that exposure to and a taste for problematic fiction, fiction that does not rest on conventional expectation, helps a reader think through problems that have more symbolic complications than tactical ones. There is that hope that a reader lands somewhere on their feet after tackling the tides and and eddies of Faulkner's novels and recognizes that life isn't a series of problems to be solved as if it were a take home math test; empathy is the word here, and it is the story less revealing that would have us speak to one another a bit more richly as differences are covered and common ground cleared away. Faulkner's his ability for empathy and poetic description (again, in his best work) moves you along, experiencing something wholly other than the world one lives in.Individual style, how it's developed, and how a mastery of language through style makes a text, conventional or dense,interesting to the ideal reader is more difficult to discuss than the cleverly coined dismissals of ideas one doesn't like.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Nicolas Cage is Hollywood's Worst Actor

The Weather Man drew my attention when I heard what the film was about, but a disappointment and slight depression came on me like a foul wind when I read that Nicolas Cage was in the title role. A pity, since this would the ideal role for William H. Macy, who has made a career of finding the core loneliness at the center of characters who have to maintain public faces. Cage is a neon sign that is never off, buzzing with some circuits burned out or blinking madly in both daylight and night. It's a predictable set of histrionics he has assembled inside that little bag of factory tricks he owns for the defeated purpose of catching a viewer by surprise. He is as formulaic in his performances as Tony Scott is in his excessive jump cuts and jitter-cam pacing; neither can trust an understated moment, or let character and story develop in ways other than frequent bursts of problem-child energy. You dread being around the man at the end of Halloween night. It's certainly a smart idea to explore the eternal vacuum that one imagines occupies the minds of the relentlessly cheery sorts of who impanel the local news shows, but there's that sinking feeling when Nicolas Cage is selected to play the principal character. It's not that Cage lacks the demonstrative ticks and shticks to animate the sort who has no passion or life force beyond their presence in front of the camera, it's just that we've seen them again with little variety or invention since Honeymoon in Vegas, Face/Off or The Rock. Let us add Leaving Las Vegas to the odious list; it cut close to the bone here, but the film valorized the lead character's slow and purposeful suicide by alcohol, and we were made to endure an implicit propaganda that it was somehow a noble act to leave life in this way. This ass-ended wallow in Hemingway machismo dealt with the subject with an expectedly heavy hand--it's one of those films where every scene is weighted in increasing measures so that the gravity of the hits you hard. Not hit you, so much as falls from on high like Monty Python's sixteen-ton weight, a accumulation of gross bathos and animal logic that lack for no nothing except grace or a light touch from director Mike Newell. Cage is allowed all the space he needs to wallow, writhe, stumble, slur and fuck up as his death rattle impends, one of the most overplayed death scenes I remember coming upon. It's curious as well that Cage nabbed an Oscar for Best Actor this year; routine actors going berserk in generally undistinguished films are no strangers to Hollywood's highest honor. Cage and fellow Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Training Day) share that bit of fallow distinction.

Those likewise not convinced of Cage's greatness may insert their own examples of where this bogglingly blank method actor doesn't so much chew up the scenes he's in as much a takes a wrecking ball to them, mixing twitch, itch, tick, thousand-yard states, mumbling and inexplicable Elvis-isms in slight reshufflings, movie to movie, in a consistent display that an amassing of quirky mannerisms is the same as creating a character. In fairness, Cage has been in good motion pictures, specifically Raising Arizona and City of Angels, but these seem accidental or merely a case when directors knew what do with his alternating states of a catatonic slump and manic maneuvering. I recently paid good money to watch him in the political comedy Lord of War , due mainly to some artfully edited trailers but lo, instead of a black comedy along the lines of Catch 22 we're instead subjected to a two hour monologue from Cage’s drawling character, with no real point to make other than a conveniently easy irony aside. One or two lousy films from a good actor are forgivable and you hope for better work to come along soon, but Cage has been awful in bad films for so long that his name alone dampens that fleeting curiosity about the movie. For Weather Man, this ten dollars is staying in my wallet.