Tuesday, March 30, 2010

An overwrought after taste

The problem with The Sweet Undertaste is the straining effort poet Philip Schultz takes to make it a significant, moving poem. Less poem than it is a narrative broken up with pained intellection and verbal padding, this tale of a WW 2 survivor suffering his end in a Stateside hospital seems like a small drawer into which Schultz tried to cram too much material. Perhaps a longer, more vivid form is needed for this storyline, a book, a novel perhaps, or a film where the thick language can give way to stunning, convincing visuals. We have is something that makes me think of the worst aspects of novelists Russell Banks writing, an absent sense of when to stop a description, of when to clip an adjective or a verb. Condensed though this poem is, it has overwriting to spare:

What accounts for the sweetness of human beings?
For the fragile, inexhaustible longing in the eyes
of the slowly dying, the sweet undertaste of
a tune sung in a moment of unutterable delight?
The attempt here is to be discursive and conversational at the same time, an achievable balance we know, but Schultz's word choices, his enhancements of the tone he attempts to construct, undermine the sentiment. "The fragile, inexhaustible longing.." would ordinarily be ring true if a sparer sentence were written, but the two qualifiers, "fragile, inexhaustible" indicates indecision ; Schultz doesn't sound convinced that he ' making his case and opts to use both terms, connecting them with another term, "longing", meant to suggest a state of being, a condition of unmet desire, but which is , in itself, a vague, indefinite description. A more concrete image for the Uncle's interior life would bring us to a situation that is already complex, where there needn't be the flourishes that gum up the works. The reluctance to pare this back to more definite language results too easily in comically arch writing:

What accounts for the ignorance and hate
that chased him from the German side of Poland
to the Russian side, from the honeycomb of innocence
to the boomeranging cold of a cattle car rushing through
the moonless Siberian night

The rhetorical question is a set for a rush of language meant to pick up the pace and create momentum, like the stock film cliche of showing calendar pages flying off the wall as time marches on through futures none could predict, but the effect is faintly ridiculous in the lack of sure footing. We have,  I suppose, an attempt at film montage, verbs turned into adjectives as in "boomeranging cold from a cattle car rushing through the moonless Siberian night". I confess to liking "boomeranging", although it's an imprecise use; boomerangs, if properly tossed, turn back toward their point of origin, and the implication is that Uncle Sigmund is traveling in circles. He is, though, going straight ahead into the future. But the issue again is the padding, the added weight inserted to lend the descriptions urgency and impact. I would have jettisoned boomerang, moonless and have the line read as a bare depiction of a cattle car racing along the tracks at night. A more vivid,if an unspoken sense of the horror that awaits might have arisen between the spaces where the excess once resided. And yes, I would have dispensed with the "honeycomb of innocence", an awkward line, a self-parody of a poet stuck for a phrase. There is the tendency to think to that every line in a free verse poem has to ring with coinages, phrases that are quotable in other contexts. One might compare it to a virtuoso guitarist thinking that he is obliged to the most complex improvisations in all spotlighted situations. Monotony results, and the displays of craft, the insertion of particularized style, begins to have no effect. More Joe Pass, less Yngwie Malmsteen. 
...the unalterable fact that once a man has run for his life
never again can he sleep through the night, that once salvation
is torn out of us we continue to run, on one leg and two,
to crawl like a worm through the stony anonymous earth?

Some unifying truth about ideals and human resilience is being looked for in Uncle Sigmund's story, but Schultz doesn't bring us to the point of his realization about the culminating effects of adversity and aging , he begins to lecture us, a style that awards us with an awkward image of worm working its way through a "stony, anonymous earth". This approach gives this relatively brief poem a glacial pace, a thick brick of words. The hospital room at the end, I hope, has another bed next to the dying Uncle Sigmund, reserved for this poem.

Monday, March 29, 2010

A drive through an old neighborhood

Debating what constitutes authenticity is a nice way to chase your tail, but is a fun way to pass the time when there's nothing else making demands on your time. It's not a waste of time since it is a way for us to define and articulate What Matters in life beyond our bond with the Banks and the Legal System. It is what makes life a pleasure, and a large part of that pleasure is maintaining the capacity to be pleasantly surprised.I've preferred to remain agnostic in matters of musical taste; pragmatic might be a better word. Or perhaps my tastes merely change with time. In any event, I tend to think that anyone committed to trying to earn living playing music and performing, activities from which there are no guarantees of financial security (or even an audience) can't help but be sincere. One might dislike the motive or the personality, but the emotion is authentic enough. Better to consider whether the music is at least honest, or better yet, if it's done well: whether music, lyrics, voice, style work on their own terms, makes for a more interesting set of topics, and a more compelling record collection.  What those terms turn out to be might be, at first, seemingly unacceptable or contrary to everything you held as essential to quality. But to paraphrase a famous line contextualizing Modern Art, most original art forms seem at first ugly and horrible; they emerge ahead of the curve and the rest of the culture has to catch up. Not everything gets past the finish line, though, as a review of your record collection reveals. I'd wager we all have many albums from bands and artists we thought were heavy and groovy back in the day that now makes us scratch what's left of our hairline, wondering what we were thinking. It was after I slid into my forties where the other songs and albums by Zeppelin reemerged on my radar and revealed a band that was more diverse, musically, than the popular invective allows. Where I lived at the time, Zeppelin fans were just as likely to be listening to the Band, Van Morrison and CS&N, along with other folks "sissy" artists as they were the macho sounds of hard rock. Like the Beatles or Steely Dan, Led Zeppelin were studio artists, where the studio was the proverbial third instrument. Live, they were one of the worst bands I've ever seen--though they sounded pretty damned good when I saw them in '67 (?) on their first US tour with Jethro Tull--but in the studio, their music was finessed and honed, typical in those days. For all his faults as a faulty technician in live circumstances, he is a producer who brought a fresh ear to the recording process and came up with ideas that circumvented the routine dullness and rigor that's become the bane of less able hard rock and metal bands after his Zeppelin's break up.The only real bad aftershock of " Sgt Pepper's" and other "concept albums" from the period was the mistaken notion by other artists that there had to be one grandiose and grandiloquent theme running throughout both sides of their albums in order for their work to be current with the mood of the art rock of the period. The Beatles succeeded with "Sgt. Pepper", "Magical Mystery Tour", and, and "Abbey Road" ( easily their most consistent set of material, I think) because they never abandoned the idea that the album needs to be a collection of good songs that sound good in a set: overlapping themes, lyrically, are absent in the Beatles work, unless you consider the reprise of the Pepper theme song on a leitmotif of any real significance (its use was cosmetic), although musical ideas did give the feel of conceptual unity track to track, album to album. 
Lennon and McCartney and Harrison's greatest contribution to rock music was their dedication to having each one of their songs be the best they could do before slating it for the album release. For other bands, the stabs at concept albums were routinely disastrous, witnessed by the Stones attempt to best their competitors with the regrettable 'Satanic Majesties Requests". The Who with "Tommy" and "Who's Next" and the Kinks, best of all, with "Lola", "Muswell Hillbillies" and "Village Green", both were rare, if visible exceptions to the rule. "Revolver" and "Yesterday and Today" are amazing song collections, united by grand ideas or not. I buy albums, finally, on the hope that the music is good, the songs are good, not the ideas confirm or critique the Western Tradition. The conventional wisdom is often wrong, but not always, and I think the popular opinion that Sgt. Pepper is a better disc, song by song, than Satanic Majesties is on the mark. Majesties had The Stones basically playing catch up with the Beatles with their emergent eclecticism and failing, for the most part. That they didn't have George Martin producing and finessing the rough spots of unfinished songs marks the difference. Majesties, though does have at least one great song, "2000 Man", and a brilliant one, "She's A Rainbow" For the rest, it sounds like a noisy party in the apartment next door. The album sounds like a collection of affectations instead of a cohesive set of songs. Cohere is exactly what the tunes on Pepper did, good, great, brilliant, and mediocre. The sounded like they belonged together.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Criticism vs Theory

Celebrity writers are writers nonetheless, and their notoriety doesn't reduce the value of there work, if the work is good. That is the real issue, I think, coming to a new framework that the worth of a work can be determined across the field: artistic, social. The situation is that postmodernism, as a writing style with discernible notions about how a tale will be told, has outstripped contemporary criticism's ability to discuss the work in any really meaningful, useful way. That was the point initially. While postmodern writers are actually engaged with the world through their writing, postmodern critics, a different breed entirely, lose themselves in undecidables and have turned vacillation into a pathetic , minor art. What  concerns me is whether the work is any good,  and the task for criticism, it seems to me, is to determine under what terms  are that bring the desired qualities to life, or instructs us, to a degree, how a writer's book is lacking. This is the short coming of much modern theory, in that "theory" has replaced what we used to regard as real criticism, the starting point at which a conversation starts. A good amount of literary thought of the last fifty years informs us that such a conversation, about what a text means or what can reveal about human experience at the farthest or most intimate edges, is impossible.

It's useful, I think , to separate  "postmodern" novelists,etc, from postmodern theorists. I propose that a new critical language be created to help us deal with the work of Pynchon, DeLillo, Acker, Burroughs, Gaddis, Reed, Kundera, Wallace, Eggers, a language that can see the links between postmodernism and other literary styles, such as Magic Realism, and expand the study as to how different cultures respond to their increasingly variegated existences. Pomo theory , as is, is nothing but a stop sign. A point among many is that postmodern writing has been around long enough -- since after WWll, I believe-- for a useful literary criteria to arise around it. The re-making and the re-re-making of those values are generally extensions, elaborations or, more radically, severe disagreements with standards that formed around a work while in nascent form. Modernism, as an aesthetic movement, among scads of others in history, had it's propagandists in it's early time, critics whose views remain bed rock, the base from which reformations are made.

Postmodern criticism went wrong when the discipline mistook itself for philosophers, or linguists, or cultural anthropologists. The result of this detour has been a mess of unreadable prose whose authors aim to disguise the fact that they've nothing to say. I am for postmodern literature, but I am aghast at postmodern literary criticism. Now, I think, is the time to convene a new project, a better way of dealing with the huge body of work by an interesting population of writers. It's time for a re-making, and re-re-making after that.

Critics without a malleable framework are talking only to themselves, finally. The value of criticism is in how it deepens the reading: an ideal criticism, I think, ought to be the sieve through which the variety is taken in and studied.

This is ultimately about discourse: discourse needs to go somewhere, though, needs to have results, because it is about trying to figure what ways there are that we may engage each other in ways that are honest and mutually satisfying, whatever market system you think this goal is possible under. The exact problem with postmodern theory, the intellectual and not the aesthetic texts, is that it's turned into a self-conscious wallow (often disguised under the rubric of being "self-reflective") that brandishes the idea that an awareness of it's own social construction somehow advances bold, better human freedom. What it does is make the nominal partisans of just causes weak and immobile, ready to have their own conventional wisdom used against them.  by a foe that's true to its own cause enough to use any weapon it can lay its hands on in order to make the world theirs and sterile under one Totalizing God, who, I suspect, isn't likely to have much truck with language theory. 

I don't think understanding ever stops.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Like many another clueless air guitar rebel, I sang in a band during the Seventies, a strange assortment of druggies, layabouts, alkies, and genius geeks who all loved hard rock. I was the singer, and the songs I sang ranged from Trower to Led Zep to Deep Purple to Mountain--I had a miserable voice, but I was the one who could get a raspy tone and volume, so sang I did. No one seemed to mind, most likely because they were usually as drunk as I was. In any case, Dewar and Trower were the perfect combinations of singer and guitarist--there likely hasn't been a collaboration this good since Rod Steward and Jeff Beck or Paul Rodgers and Paul Kossoff (in the late, great band Free). Trower, additionally, is about my favorite British blues guitarist--he broke the Clapton mold his fellows got snared by and developed his own sound; I think he's pretty distinct from Hendrix, even with the similarities. I've seen him pass through town in the last few years, and the man plays better than he ever has. Yeah. Great stuff. The saddest day of my life, though, was when someone who'd recorded one of my band's kegger gigs played the gig--we sounded awful. Even the time-honored honored rock and roll aesthetic favors attitude over expertise; we sucked, in turn, long, deep and hard.

A bag full of agitated electric razors would have sounded better than the clamor we were producing, out of tune, atonal, thumping, with a guitarist who was fried on cocaine and rum who managed to make his guitar sounded worse than car alarms screaming in a West Virginia mall. I, in turn, had the timbre that sounded, to be kind to myself, like someone who was clearing his throat over the loudest microphone on the stage. A crazed dog would have told me to shut the fuck up. I didn't stay quiet, though. At best, the rhythm section, a bass player and drummer who wouldn't be out of place in a police line-up in Hooterville, sounded like two winos having a knife fight under behind an abandoned coin laundry. We knew we were the shit.

 That night we had a gig, and what I did was drink more and scream harder. My voice was gone the following morning, and I could talk or eat shellfish for a month. But I pressed on, I continued, a true believer in my own capacity as a post-blues revenge howler who could tear a hole in the ozone with one ball-squeezing shriek. I was in a band in the Seventies that played hard rock, butt rock so-called, and I was the singer, not that I could sing, but it's not as if any of us could really play either, save for a guitarist who had chops, no ambition, and a taste for coke. Everyone in the band is missing in action, including me, but the fact that my phone doesn't ring with queries from these guys hasn't diminished my lifestyle. Between groping other guys' girlfriends, stealing drugs and records, and not paying back any of the borrowed money I promised to pay back in merely a couple of days, it's just as well that bad news that's over thirty years old remain the tragic history it has so far remained. Our song list:

Hot Blooded
Mississippi Queen Bad Motor Scooter
Tush /Waiting for the Bus / Jesus left Chicago
Heartbreaker/Rock and Roll/Goodtimes Badtimes
All Right Now / Wishing Well
I Just Wanna Make Love to You (FOGHAT VERSION)
JEANIE JEANIE (remember Automatic Man?)
Dancing Madly Backwards (remember Captain Beyond?)
Too rolling stoned/The Fool and Me/Day of the Eagle/Man of the World
Hellcat (Scorpions)
Dirty Love (Zappa)
Thumbsucker (Mountain)
Hiway Star/Space Truckin/Black Night(Deep Purple)
Supernaught (Sabbath)
Bang a gong
Rebel Rebel

There were hundreds of hours of rehearsal in a floating crap game of a scene, going from one band member's parents' house to the other for what were really drinking parties. Things usually got destroyed, and sometimes we made it all the way through a song. We even played a few dozen times. I was drunk most of the time so that I could scream the few words I actually knew to each song, somehow, truly, thinking that I sounded just like Robert Plant or Paul Rodgers or Rod Stewart or any of my swaggering, macho strut heroes, only slightly aware that for all the half-skips sash-shaying I took for masculine intimations of heterosexual power were in fact very much a swanning display of featherless fan dancing. To the end of my time in front of the microphone, twisting my vocal cords into twisted knots of scraping rasps and glottal whispers, I was convinced my style was akin to the greatest belters blues and soul music gave to the white world for worship, Ray Charles, yes, Otis Redding, oh yes, Little Richard, fuck yes! It was a small beer that I never knew what I sounded like, the grunts and groin-splitting yelps buried under layers of un-tuned amplified guitar, farting bass lines, and the endless thrash of a speed freak drummer. Someone once recorded one of our gigs on a reel to reel at a San Diego State Frat Party, and it was a gross, hell-bent, auto accident cacophony, fuzzy and sputtering with feedback and wrong notes and crowd noise and breaking glass: the noise hurt the inner ear: the MC5 without conviction. I was singing, all right, but I sounded like I had two wool socks crammed in my mouth, screaming in muffled horror while a serial killer approached me with a blade. I sounded drunk. The band sounded drunk. The decade was drunk.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Exit, stage left

There was a Kathryn Maris poem I wrote about a bit ago, Lord Forgive Me , which I liked because she managed the near impossible, to write about drinking that avoids the predictable bathos, and knee jerk tragedy that clings to the subject matter.

Alcoholism is such a prevalent condition in marrow of our history and culture that it has assumed the worst thinking of nearly any one's heritage. Maris, though, managed to write through her particular scenario without a hint of self pity or the hoary glorification of the outsider spirit being too sensitive to live the world sober. Not lacking a point of view, the poem was free of cant, getting to a complex emotion irresolution without the expected props. She didn't attempt to make anything "happen."  The lack of the expected stage props in the poem made it a tougher vision. It was more powerful as a result.

Her footing is less sure with the current poem she has in Slate, The Witch and Mcduff Exit My Neighbor's House .  (Note: The small "d" in the title's "Mcduff" is as Slate published it. I assume it is the author's preference).This is more ramble than verse, a formless gruel of would be allusions pretending toward irony. Yet another poet finds herself tangled in the learning that was supposed to aid them in discerning the world more clearly, more deliberately. Maris doesn't get her props out of the warehouse where she stores them.

It's a complex trick that she's attempting here, translating a daily set of occurrences in terms of theatre that she's obviously obsessed with, but for all the framing devices she uses to emphasise her boredom, her encroaching ennui, the poem feels false. It seems that she had laid her references out on the floor like they were incidental things--bottle caps, pens, loose change--and tried to connect them in an interesting pattern by linking them with a length of string. It's less a map to this character's divided self--her distance from the actually lives of her neighbors and her being engrossed with the fictional personalities she superimposes on real people--than it is a strained gathering of author names and literary terms.

 Where ever Maris was trying to go with this poem, she did so without a map. Now she's stuck in an awful, indecisive traffic. This is what happens when you try to make things happen without having an idea of what your driving at.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Stevens, Oppen, and Bronk

I’ve been reading Michael Davidson’s superb anthology of George Oppen’s verse, Collected Poems, forcing me to the keyboard to ponder some connection with Wallace Stevens . with whom he shares an obsession with how the human personality tries to speak to those things that will never let themselves be revealed.The massive solitude in Oppen's work, wholly devoid of Romantic despair, seems an intrinsic part of his recognition that the Earth itself can never be known.Oppen is connected to Wallace Stevens, I think, in that there is awareness that language has the habit of taking on the personality and delusions of the speaker and thus disguises nature, "reality" under layers of wordy assumptions that miss the mark of the mystery of experience. Stevens, though, exults in his search and wonder, and views the finalizing that eludes him as occasion for joy, wonder, a reason to intensify one's attention on the very nature of being in the world; Stevens thinks it enough for the witness to be staggered by the realization that existence is absent of final, metaphysically fixed perimeters, and that one should relish the more profound miracles in the details of their own senses.

Oppen comes to know his loneliness, and there is in his work some longing for old myths that gave comfort to a restless mind. Oppen, though, denies the lure of nostalgia and presses forward on some path that has an end only beyond his own death, that language will be restored to it's ability to correctly assess the world and ourselves in it, and avail us with some ideas of assembling a world that operates on good acts and deeds and not a high rhetoric that amounts to sighing, whimpering and casual bad faith, in Oppen's estimation.

I'd be interested to hear your ideas regarding Oppen's path that leads beyond his own death, as that seems alien to his poetry, at least as far as it refers to poetry.A bad habit of mine is to use dramatic language when I'm the full boil of writing, so forgive me for possible vagueness and overstatement.I am thinking , of course, of Oppen's leftist politics and his association with what's come to be called the Objectivist movement, spearheaded by Louis Bukowski, and whose members, as such, included Charles Reznikoff, Carl Rakosi, with older American modernists such as W.C. Williams and Pound having close affiliations with this loosely defined group of writers.

In the broadest sense, Objectivist writers, following Zukofsky's lead, developed styles that evolved from Imagism, but sought to come up with a kind of unblinkered epic poetry that wasn't hampered the symbolic obscurantism. The idea was to write, according the poet's personality, a verse that presents concrete things and realities not for the purpose of making them mere props for some metaphorical system whose results wind up with dead tropes and forgone conclusions that reaffirm only bad faith, but rather gloried in those things and their uniqueness.

Zukofsky, along with Charles Olson, sought to expand the aesthetic into the social areas, the geographical, into areas the names of which define us in relation to nature and the world humans build within it. Where a modernist like Pound (as opposed to Stevens) sought to legitimize the poet as an insurmountable authority on the exactness of nature and meaning and hence establishing him or her as an arbiter of Power, Oppen's wanted to use his poetics to make the discerning habit of mind, the ability to use language in unsentimental ways, to the general population. This would have been his ultimate gift of love, and there is a tone in his writing that I get, sometimes, that he is aware that such revolutions are started in one's lifetime but often not finished. I've no doubt that he wished that what started as a preferred compositional practice would grow into a self-renewing alignment of the population's right-sized perception of itself within Nature. Some of that loneliness might as a result abate. Zukofsky, Oppen and the work of the Objectivist Poets, as such, are a huge influence on the work of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poets, whose ranks include that charged inversions,reversals and redirected practice  of Ron Silliman, Rae Armentrout, Bob Perelman, and Michael Davidson himself. It's a stretch to refer to these poets as a school or movement at all, which is why I preface the remark with the tired qualifier "In the broadest sense...."

These poets come at time when the American modernists were getting older and their ideas had been assimilated by a younger generation. The poets share some similar attitudes regarding poetic language and the quest for unassailable truth, but calling them a coherent movement is a stretch, as you say; literary critics, needing to classify styles and writers, pounced on "Objectivism" as a the term to use, and in fact wrote the manifesto, in the form of their varied systematized remarks, that Zukofsky et al never got around to composing. The poets were off into the American wilderness, distinct in style, attack, voice. Oppen's attraction to the general attitude with the Objectivists, to compose a phonologically responsible poetry, is understandable, but his personality and his style are his own, after the association. It might also be said that Oppen's poetry is the best of this generation of writers

L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, unlike what's been called Objectivistism, was an actual poetry movement, replete with manifestos, several anthologies, and an intimidating backlog of criticism and commentary by the poets themselves addressing what are conspicuously shared ideas and aims, stated succinctly as this: the theme of Language poetry is language.It was an inevitable development, I'd guess, coming out of the Sixties new left affiliations, and riding in along the tide of structuralist -inspired art where making a consume aware of the art's own mechanisms and intentions, was a common card to play; along with the writings of Ron Sukenic, Barthelme, and the films of Godard and Snow, Language Poets seemed to think that exposing the mechanics of syntax and grammar would make readers aware of how they're being manipulated.

Not a bad idea, perhaps, but it's something that expressed whatever was interesting it had rather quickly. Lately, it seems more a strong addition to a poet's resume so they can acquire an academic position. Not surprisingly, there are younger student poets who've been seduced into this style, and one prays they move from the semi-Marxist psycholinguistic braying of that peculiar school and find their own voice, through which they can trust the authority of their senses.

William Bronk is a good companion poet to read along with Wallace Stevens, as both concerned themselves with our ideas of a world unspoilt by skewed perception. Both were poets you could imagine walking among their gardens and cities of perfect forms, the ideal types and not the inferior , material imitations, chancing some thoughts beyond the gravity of the actual planet.

Metonymy as an Approach to a Real World
William Bronk

Whether what we sense of this world
is the what of this world only, or the what
of which of several possible worlds
--which what?--something of what we sense
may be true, may be the world, what it is, what we sense.
For the rest, a truce is possible, the tolerance
of travelers, eating foreign foods, trying words
that twist the tongue, to feel that time and place,
not thinking that this is the real world.

Conceded, that all the clocks tell local time;
conceded, that "here" is anywhere we bound
and fill a space; conceded, we make a world:
is something caught there, contained there,
something real, something which we can sense?
Once in a city blocked and filled, I saw
the light lie in the deep chasm of a street,
palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in
from say, the sea, a purity of space.

Helen Vendler asserts in her review of  the recent  "Selected Poems" that Stevens disguised his true hurts and sorrows with symbolism, merging his high, English inspired cadences with a Yankee's habit of plain speak. His was a seamlessly expressed struggle between the ideal relationships among things, or the ideas of things finding harmony among their distinct qualities, and the tense world he must return to. He was a vice president of an insurance company, after all, an institution designed to protect and amend the quirky happenstance between gravity and clumsy people.

Bronk, in contrast, seems to be in one world who is constantly thinking of the other, and here suggests that it is our ability to coin words or vary our linguistic references to known, quantified qualities that recreates our world constantly, in terms of a musical score, with beats, rhythm, a narrative line that flows or gets jagged according to the tone each moment might take. And it is that skill,developed through various layers of frustrated experience and states of monotonous torpor, that we can again think of what we see as too familiar and what we see as alien and strange as intrinsically exciting, full of intrigue, it's own vital elements we can learn about and learn from. We come to think of the world in other words and not by the clinical terms they're assigned by dictionaries. This availed Bronk to see that light in the street he trudged every day, palpable and blue, as though it had drifted in from say, the sea, a purity of space. Our language needs to remain vital and up to the task of re-inscribing conventional experiences, lest we miss the whole point of having senses to begin with.

Friday, March 19, 2010

THE NEW POEM 3: garden varieties

take eyes from the rise of roof lines
jagged with antennas.
guttered with tennis balls
lobbed and lodged in
gravitated paths that
feed the garden, the weeds,
the casual twig on the asphalt
cracked and crooked,

lift hands to top shelves
where medicines and poisons
mix their warnings,
lower head to tiles
that greet any saddened visage
witnessing the dust
and razor blades
that circle the cistern,

perch an ear to the window
as the blowers clear the debris
with gusts of gasoline combustion,
there is talk of
needed things, precious moments lost in awful hobbies,

yes, one remarks, I was online until work came along
and I was still in pajamas
without lunch money,

no, says the other, such a thing never happened
because you still have your tools,
that torch that sears through the pipe,

what you need is a shave and to dig in
like a weed as all these matters form coalitions,

run a comb through the hustle of hair
a hirsute God left one with,
study the ravines the face achieves,
button the shirt,
smell a rat in the works
when a signature impends a happy ending,

listen to theroom,
wood matches striking,
clean plates being stacked,
drying in the March air .


Thursday, March 18, 2010

The New Poem 2: Dualism

We go equally under twin ladders

rung with gears and tinsel repose,

one of our days

has waned

after the river exhausts the last

of the gold dust

a scent of scribe discerns,

Buckle up your jacket

or care , oh! whack a molester migraine

riven with funnels

that could drain a swamp on the Devil's half acre,

because yes, you could squeeze into those

pants if I squinted long and Asian like,

but that would leave me blind

and searching for code

that would unzip

the back of the dress

every womanly guitarist

desires to wear,

My desire is

seat behind

the steel beam

in the nose bleed seats,

sending you messages

with an Etch a Sketch,

a maze of straight lines

and no joke

to finish the phone call with.

The New Poem: Hat Rant

My hat fits like a glove
strange as that remains
even as the bus passes my door
fireworks in my pants
requested like premium saltines
crispy like insurgent solo takes
on chords we chortle together
carousing to the chorus
crowded with sheets stained
with a rain of notes that stick
to the music whispered hence
and since when do we grab all the free matches
from the sugar bowel
thirteen years after our last smoke?
Rope shadows give me Attica pause
in narrow passage suitless
in the hallway , expecting a sock in the drawer
or a Navy Blue wrist watch timeless as a temperature
scorching the browned grass
for the days left before
an exit appears in the gambling hall,
it's time for rewrite, a retrofit,
a glove that fits like a hat
on the coldest region of famiiar flesh,
I know what I said last year
while wearing shirt sleeves in January shelters,
I am cold NOW
and my feet ache like the dogs the are.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thomas Lux passes it on

I once told Thomas Lux that I considered him "the Poet Laureate of Unintended Results", a description he rather liked. He took it for the compliment I intended it to be because ,I think,he understand that the "unintended results" that make up the material of his work allows him a way to achieve any number of effects--comedic, dark, tragic, bizarrely funny or horrifyingly sad, his is a body of work that investigates the latter day consequences of hubris.

What I mean, of course, is that what Lux specializes in is the detailing of plain facts and events of matters we can recognize, with a protagonist's attitude conspicuous and anticipating a set of desired results as their agenda is set out, only to find himself (or herself) confounded and contradicted by interventions that changes the meaning of everything. The beauty of his style isn't that he starts with an abstract, clouded inference toward an infernal contradiction, then working his way to a clarity from which one might suppose the characters should have started. He reverses it and starts off simply, clearly, adding layers of incidental detail, skipping over days, years, through significant events and celebrations and attending tragedies, bringing the reader (and his character) to a situation where nothing is like what they thought it would be.

It's a beautiful technique he's developed; he may be one of a handful of poets who understand irony as an effect achieved through a carefully moving around of narrative elements that come into conflict.

A LITTLE TOOTH by Thomas Lux

Your baby grows a tooth, then two
and four, and five, then she wants some meat
directly from the bone. It’s all
over: she’ll learn some words, she’ll fall
in love with cretins, dolts, a sweet
talker on his way to jail. And you,
your wife, get old, flyblown, rue
nothing. You did, you loved, your feet
are sore. It’s dusk. Your daughter’s tall.

Beautiful. The image is on the tooth, the joy of watching a young child being able to eat solid food. The next you know she's eating meat from the bone and learns the language to make her mischief , and before it's all over, late at night, you realize you're old and tired and you wonder what happened when you were young and at what moment did your baby start developing the skills to have a young, vital life you can hardly keep up with. I love the last line, the second half, when what was a simple memory that lead through a fast-forward to the current moment: "...It's dusk. Your daughter's tall." The shock of recognition, you could say. You wonder where your youth went and then see it in front of you, on your child's face and in her arms and legs, full of the energy you gave her. The implication is clear; we don't lose our youth, if we're lucky. We just pass it on.

The open ended quality is the beauty of the poem. It does imply that it will be the formerly teething daughter's turn to do all those things now that she is taller, full grown, almost an adult. But I also like that it's suggested and not spelled out. The resonance of the last sentence "Your daughter's tall" comes at us as revelation, the startled response to a bright light coming on in a dark room. It's a sentence that ends the poem and yet demonstrates how this small moment is profound in that it summarizes a life that has been and forecasts a life that is yet to be lived at length.

The poem continues off the page, something like a conversation you've been listening to as you walk the street and then the people you've been following turn the corner or enter a building, cutting off the discussion in mid sentence. One can only imagination the possibilities that might yet emerge from a host of plausible guesses, and this inconclusive quality is what makes this a fine poem.

Music notes

I remember reading in Rolling Stone in the early seventies of a drum battle between the late Elvin Jones and former Cream percussionist Ginger Baker. Baker, then touring and hyping his rather lead-footed big band Airforce, had taken to baiting Jones, the usual young gun sass about his elder being over the hill, slowing down. Long story short, and hazy on the details on my part, there was a concert with the two of them in New York, culminating in a drum battle between Jones and Baker. Baker had his post-Cream hardware, double bass, double toms, double snares, double everything, and Jones had his regular kit, simple and to the point. After some standard trade offs, you guessed it, Jones proceeded into rhythmic areas Baker couldn't follow him into: Baker received, to borrow from Howard Cosell describing a fighter just out-gloved by Ali, a drumming lesson. What Jones did on the drums was apparently beyond Bakers' nail hammering sensibility. It was one of those write ups that made me wish I was there.

"JC On The Set" by the James Carter Quartet, a stylistically wandering CD  but frequently fused effort from the saxophonist's. Nice reading of 'Sophisticated Lady'--Carter's phrases are sure and undulate with a blues cadence even as he extends his lines over a sublime melody. In other areas, he sounds tad brackish and barking-- blorts and grunts at times when he really didn't need them, as if to establish some kind of credibility that admirable technique alone cannot . He sometimes grates. Still, his work here is compelling for the most part,and Craig Taborns' piano work is a handy and deliciously quick-witted foil for Carter: elegantly, giddily fast up tempo, meditative and yearing as he scrolls over the ballads. Funky but chic.


Coltrane--tenor sax
Eric Dolphy--alto sax, bass clarinet
Ahmed Abdul-Malik--oud
McCoy Tyner--piano
Jimmy Garrison--bass
Reggie Workman--bass
Elvin Jones--drums.

From the four cd set, the first disc alone is mightily impressive for sheer stamina , and many sections of sublime improvisation. Jones rattles the traps in brisk rhythms, while Coltrane sets fires through out the side. There times when 'Trane gives in to his worse impulses--but these are brief enough, as Dolphys' alto playing, and his work with the bass clarinet is enough to make me almost believe that there is a heaven. What had seemed alien to mainstream, bop-preferring audiences as radical and un-jazz like at the time is now a given in the repertoire of younger improvisers, and there is not a musician today who can match  John Coltrane for the furious ingenuity that came from his soul by way of his instrument. Modal and operating on a rhythmic principle that  makes me think of W.C.Williams alluring yet elusive notion of the 'variable foot" of rhythm--cadences and stresses are constantly changing into nearly perfect accents based on the vocalizations of a words arranged in spontaneous combination that convey meaning and purpose in sound as well as strict definitions--Elvin Jones and Reggie Workman construct an ever evolving foundation , a brooding firmament on which 'Trane, Tyner  and Dolphy overlay a delicious and difficult weave of odd moods and desperate beauty. This is the kind of music that makes me think sometimes that I was born twenty years too late.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Poetry and the mirror

Seems that Slate proper is catching on to something I've been complaining about on these threads for the last ten years or so, poetry about poetry. It is, however, not a situation isolated to The New Yorker, as it is a habit of mind that filters through the versifying consciousness regardless of politics, preference, or where the poet thinks they are in the relative standards of quality. Save for the few instances where the habit results in a brilliant gem of cadenced self-reflection, it is the worst sort of naval gazing, to employ a cliché. To employ a fresher simile, it's the drone of a specialist of who cannot talk about anything else. Poets are supposed to have mastered their craft and then enter the world. Too many of the writers that find sanctuary in the journals have reversed the process. I am not against difficulty, I am not in favor of dumbing- down poems in order to attract larger readerships, and I don't think the non-specialist reader insist, as a class, that poets have their wear as unadorned as sports writing. The gripe is against the poet who cannot get away from making Poetry their principle subject matter, by name. Not that each poem about poetry is, by default, wretched; there are bright and amazing reflexive verses indeed, but they are the exception to the rule, the rule being that a medium that ponders it's own form and techniques and ideological nuances too long becomes tediously generic. The problem, it seems to me, is that some writers who haven't the experiences or materials to bring to draw from will wax on poetry and its slippery tones as a way of coming to an instant complexity. Rather than process a subject through whatever filters and tropes they choose to use and arrive at a complexity that embraces the tangible and the insoluble, one instead decides to study the sidewalk they're walking on rather on where it is they were going in the first place.

I rather love ambiguity, the indefinite, the oblique, the elusive, and I do think poetry can be ruthlessly extended in it's rhetorical configuration to encompass each poet's voice and unique experience; the complexity I like, though, has to be earned, which is to say that I would prefer poets engage the ambivalence and incongruities in a sphere recognizable as the world they live in. First there was the word, we might agree. But those words helped us construct a reality that has a reality of its own, and I am more attracted to the writer who has tired of spinning their self-reflectivity tires and goes into that already-strange world and field test their language skills.

Wallace Stevens, perhaps the most beautifully oblique poet America has produced, can be said to have written poems about poems, but I think that misses the point. Our latter day mainstream reflexivists are enamored of the their own broad readings and wind up standing outside of poetry thinking they have a better idea to what a poem should be. The concern isn’t the poem, but the abstraction, an inversion that has the erudition outsmarting the inspiration. Stevens was smart enough to familiarize himself with the philosophical propositions regarding the problems associated with the world we see and the world as-is; his genius was that he created a metaphorical systems that could deal with poetics-as-subject and still give us something beautiful and wholly musical. I am beginning to suspect that the problem might not be that poets are writing too many poems about poetry--the tradition for the bard to reflect on his craft and his relevance is very long established in world literary history--but that of the tendency of editors to select or solicit these sorts of works. If one looks further into the works of the New Yorker poets cited in the story, one would notice that they respectively manage to engage life outside their craft ; the body of work is not always as suffocatingly one-idea as it may seem here. Editors, I am tending to think, need to be more open ended as to the subject matter they consider suitable for the magazines or journals they write for.


She picks up her brush
to place it where
stars would awake
amid the downstairs clatter
of spoons dredging the bottoms
of cereal bowls,

Though still asleep
in allegiance to grace under clouds
swimming over the bedposts bearing
a rain of brass bands and animal farms,

she rises from her covers
and goes to the windows,
wonders what it is the birds sing about
when there's no family
left in the nest and a cold sun
blows their feathers in the opposing direction.

Her father shaves with the door open
and he's only a half Santa Clause today
as she walks down the hall,
her brother has both his shoes untied
and he's taking a hammer to his favorite plastic airplane.

Mother sits at the kitchen table
holding a cigarette in her left hand,
raised as if though holding a tray full of drinks
 the other  hand flat and
smoothing  a newspaper page 
and she frowns at a photograph
of  men in overcoats and wide brim hats
saluting missiles and soldiers
who've all found the same dance step.

She says she wants pancakes
but her mother says
there is no flour anywhere
except in the garden
and no pans except the ones that
movie cameras make from
the top of every hill overlooking
a Grecian city next
to an impossibly blue bay.
Her mother laughs ,  an ash falls.
The room is full  of smoky circles.

She helps herself
to the corn flakes
and the milk carton,
wonders why the coffee smells
like  strange,  bitter medicine.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Rae Armantrout wins National Book Critics Award for Poetry

(A hearty congratulations to Rae Armantrout, winner of the National Book Critics Award for poetry  for her collection Versed .She has been writing  superbly succinct poetry and elegantly pared lyrics for decades, and it is with some satisfaction that a poet who enthralled during my years at the University of California San Diego has achieved a well earned notoriety.This is a re-publication of a review I did of  an older book of hers, Next Life .'Tis time to sing the praise of Rae.)

poems by Rae Armantrout

Rae,Armantrout is a poet of intensely private language whose seeming fragments of sentences, scenes and interior recollections still read vividly, provocatively.A member of the Language group of poets whose other members include Ron Silliman, Bob Perleman and Lynn Hejinian among other notables, she has distinguished herself from the frequently discursive style that interrogates the boundaries between the nominal power of language and the contradictions that result when conventional meaning rubs against insoluble fact, Armantrout's poetry is brief, terser, more taciturn and pared to the essential terms and the sensations they conflate. More autobiographical, perhaps, more concerned with raising a sense of genuine autonomy from the words one employs to define direction and purpose, Armantrout's poetry is an on going inquiry about what lies beyond our expectations once they've been given the lie. As in this fine collection's title,what is the "Next Life"? What she leaves out is fully formed by its absence;

We wake up to an empty room
addressing itself in scare quotes.

“Happen” and “now”
have been smuggled out,

to arrive safely in the past tense.

We come home to a cat
made entirely of fish.


Where a good many poets lavish their subjects with an overflow of language that twists and turns and deliberately problematizes syntax to achieve effects that are more stunts than perception or even an interrogation of an elusive notion, Armantrout's poetry is strong, stoic, lean to the degree that what remains are the resonances of a personality witnessing the truth when internal idealism and material fact don't compliment each other. Armantrout's poetry is a cool voice intoning over the varied scraps and arcana of experience, and crisply discovers, underlines and speaks with a curt irony. There are things we've said we were, there are the things we've become, and there are the words we first used to make our declarations asserted again, though mutated, altered, given a few shades of new meaning to meet the demands of a life that becomes more complicated with small, distracting matters. There's a blunted, occasionally jagged feeling to Armantrout's lines, a cadence that will alternate between the hard, acute image, half-uttered phrases that seem like mumbles, and the juxtapositions of word and deed that expose an archive of deferred emotion.


"That's a nice red" you said,
but now the world was different

so that I agreed

with a puzzled
or sentimental certainty

as if clairvoyance
could be extended to the past.

And why not?

With a model sailing ship
in the window
of a small, neat house

and with a statuette
of a s table boy
on the porch,
holding a lamp up

someone was making something clear--

perhaps that motion is a real character.


How should we feel
about "the eraser"?

"Rampages" wears one expression
while "frantically" wears another:

conjoined twins,
miraculously separated
on Judgement Day?

Then "only nothingness"
is a bit vague.

But words are more precise than sight--


The very old man shuffles very slowly
not between
the white lines of a crosswalk
but down one of them.

Like a figure in a dream,
his relations to meaning
is ominous.--


These are voices of of a consciousness that surveys several things at once;time is collapsed, details are suggested, associative leaps abound, and the phrase is terse, hard. Above all, this is a poetry of concentrated power; what is spoken here, the dissonance between expectation and the manner of how perception changes when idealism greets actual events and deeds, are the the things one considers late night, when there's nothing on cable, you've read your books, and only a pen and paper remains; what of me remains in the interactions, the negotiations, the compromises that constitute "making my way" in the world we might inhabit?This is a city of comings and goings, of people and their associations dancing and struggling with the invisible forces of repulsion and attraction; one seeks to transcend what it is that surrounds them, but find that their autonomy is merely a fiction shared only with the self when a community is lacking to applaud or argue with one's declarations of self. Armantrout gets to that small and hardly investigated phenomenon of how all of us--as readers, writers, consumers, family members--create our own dissonances in a manner that is intractable and ingrained. This is a fine, spare , ruminative volume by a singular writer.

Break Out Video

Quentin Tarantino loves exploitation movies, shown through out his body of work, an affection that's especially visible in his effort Death Proof. That homage to grind house movies was QT running on fumes, though--does anyone else suspect that the longish chat between the characters echoed too many familiar cadences from other movies the man has directed? He hasn't made enough movies as an auteur to be already plagiarizing himself. On the subject of exploitation archtypes, this video from Lady Gaga and Beyonce beat Tarantino at his own game, and has the added advantage of being short.

What saves this video for me is the sheer brio of the set; while you do feel that you've seen this trash-can pastiche before, Gaga and Beyonce take possession of what they've picked up and own it outright. The video is an expression of their combined sensibilities, not an exhibit of artifacts tenuously on loan. Years ago there was a video of Bowie Moreand Jagger dueting on "Dancing In the Streets",and what ought to have been a Cultural Moment was instead a graceless stomping of a perfectly fine Motown song. So more power to LG and B!

The deer hunter

Robert Wrigley ventures into Hemingway country with his poem Wait, an intriguing mediation that makes me think of one of many faux Zen vanities where one tries to observes themselves in the world, in this case, observing yourself wait for the perfect micro-instance through the elapsing moments and seconds when you sense that perfect alignment to squeeze the trigger and take down the deer. Wright goes for the glass-like clarity of that moment, the intangible perfection within a moment that is about to fade , and remains, within his descriptions of the forest, the deer, the consequences to come and the consequences that result, hard in his images. A smart decision--it's a temptation to lard this kind of subject of with didactic screeds that only obfuscate with cracker barrel philosophy where clarity is crucial for success. It makes me think of the severely pared down vision of Michael in Michael Cimino's film The Deer Hunter, where a terse discussion of being ready for The Shot comes down to a verbless distillation. Michael, prompting an unsure Nicki about his fitness to make the kill, tells this:  " You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it's all about. A deer's gotta be taken with one shot".

Hemingway, Mailer, Faulkner, Cimino, and now Wrigley, it's a paradox that a particular facet of the male personality  finds, in  stories from the these writers,  it's unity with something greater than itself in the ritualized effort to kill a living creature. The hunt becomes a spiritual practice of a sort, where concentration, seemingly conflated here to equal an intense meditative discipline, brings one from the noise, clutter and vanities of the world of ego and brings them in an uncluttered relationship with the thing they are observing. The senses are alive and the mind becomes rich with the details and minute stirrings in this niche, this particularized bracket of time. Everything is noticed and inventoried, the relationships of things,natural and man made, are revealed and in the sensational rush of waiting, breathing steadily, intensely aware of one's posture and purpose in this scene, you feel directed, a part of the chain of nature , acutely aware of one's fatal but unavoidable purpose and aware, as well, of consequences, results, the continuation of a natural order beyond the killing of the deer.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Some good words for Ray Bradbury

It was my good fortune to happen upon a Ray Bradbury panel at the 2009 ComicCon in San Diego,where the Master himself was taking and answering questions from a large, adoring crowd. It was , of course, a love fest for one the pioneers of fantasy and speculative fiction, an appreciation for a writer many of us have a lifetime's relationship with this imagination. For all his work in pre-Code horror comics, pulp fiction magazines and paperback books, considered for years to the be the Red Light District of Literature, his oeuvre is one those rare productions that have proven to be something everyone else, from critics to mainstream media, have had to catch up with. The callowest of lit-crit 101 pronouncements are applied here: does the  work have legs, and do you marvel at the style and techniques the writer used to move you along with the narrative . A good writer  is able to overcome a reader's objection to fantastic tales; the writer who's work remains current is the rare breed who's tales transcend the genre from which they originally sprang. So one learns how to get  adult" about those pulpy fantasies that gave you pleasure when you were a teen, someone still learning about the world through the stories one heard.You have to say that you did a fair and accurate summary of Bradbury's career and a fair estimation of his work. If you’re a good genre writer and you stick around long enough, you have a very good chance of having a host of recently minted book critics and biographers elevating you the higher ranks of Faulkner or Twain.
It's happened a dozen or so times , particularly in the mystery/crime arena with the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett. Sometimes the shoe actually fits, given that Chandler and Hammett were both innovators of form who had their lyric flights and coolly compressed melodramas informed by a tangible and subtle played romanticism.

Others have been less believable, as in the case of Jim Thompson, who is genuinely creepy and entertaining, but lacks music and wit, or James Ellroy, who mistakes intensity and encroaching unreadability as requirements of writerly worth. Elmore Leonard resists the temptation to let critics and upper echelon authors seduce him with praise and a general invitation to take his work more seriously; he is the kind of professional you most admire, someone who continues the work, writing one brilliantly middlebrow entertainment after another.Would that a few of our "serious" authors adopted the work ethic and wasted fewer pages and less of our time with their reputations.Some writers literally beg to be taken seriously; they implore us to read their novels deeply and let the philosophical conflicts resonate long and loudly.Has there been a John LeCarre novel that hasn't been compared to the world weary speculations of Graham Green's ambivalent attaches and minor couriers wrestling with the issue of Good versus Evil under a shadow of a silent Catholic God? Has there been a discussion among fans of James Lee Burke that didn't slip into a tangent about the American Southern tradition, with Faulkner's and Flannery O'Conner's names repeatedly dropped like greasy coins? It's not such a bad thing, though. LeCarre and Burke are fine writers and do manage to provide a complex settings where the moral battles take place in their work. Their presence in the high rankings needn't make anyone squeamish.

Stephen King, try as he might, will not remain on the top shelf no matter who places him there. He is the master of premise, one great and magnificent idea after another, but then he goes soft in the head and rushes through his novels with flights of illogical that even excusing them as part of a horror novel's delirious nature cannot excuse the slip shod execution. Bradbury? He is very good, sometimes even brilliant in all his amazing convolutions, and I think it would do everyone a great favor to not burden him with the weight of "literary importance". There are issues and morals and philosophies galore slithering through the paragraphs of his stories and novels, but Bradbury above all else is fun to read. I think it's enough that he be admired as craftsman with a slight touch of the poet. Bradbury, however sage we might wish him to be, never shed the basic rule of all professional writers go by; you need to be read by an audience that wants to be entertained.

A book worth reading and re-reading

The fuss over postmodern style has blessedly subsided a while ago, leaving me with the opportunity to clear some novels from my bookshelf that  aged as well as I would have hoped. What had seem novel, bold, smart in the eighties and nineties now seems, well, contrived, faddish and tacky.  DeLillo , Pynchon and others are doing just fine for credibility , of course, and  younger writer's effort,  Chris Bachelder's Bear v Shark:The Novel, scores big with his 2002 debut novel. It was the po-mo laugh fest that the over-praised and under-edited Jonathan Franzen strained. "The Corrections".It answers what every Luddite might have been wondering about the long term effects of television watching on our much assaulted nuclear family.

In the future, the televisions have no off switch, nor do they have remote controls, because technology has gotten to the point that television no longer influences the culture, but IS the culture. Reality and simulation melt together seamlessly, without a trace of resistance from the archetypal family whose path we follow as they prepare themselves for a Las Vegas vacation to witness the much hyped Media Event of Bear v. Shark. Bachelder keeps a straight face through out most of this short but punchy novel, and displays an ear for the way television cant infiltrates our daily speech, and invades our dream life. Scattered through out the book are a heap of fast and savage rips on Mass Mediated news, sports call-in shows, flouncy entertainment under which nothing substantial resides. In this world, experts in the guise of pundits, jocks, philosophers, and academics all feed a an uncountably intrusive technology that renders every distraction and disturbance into an entertainment value, to be used until a new contrived sequence of illusion can be set in place.

Bachelder, demonstrating a brevity and incisive wit that trashes the claims made for the word-gorged "genius" of D.F. Wallace, writes surely, sharply, with his eye never off his target.  Though he does, at times, resort to the sort of post-modernism stylistics and cliches, such as having the author step out from the story to deliver some self-aware discourse on the limits of narrative's capacity to represent the external world fully, completely -- he has a novel or two to go before the lit.critese is pounded out of him -- our author finally reveals a humane side underneath the smart language, and issues forth a funny yet serious warning about our habit of relinquishing our thinking and our capacity to live imaginatively over to the hands of data-drunk programmers.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Simmering Bigelow

Profiling  Hurt Locker  director Kathryn Bigelow hot after her historic  double Oscar for Best Film and Best Director,  Vancouver Sun writer Jamie Portman made note of  the film maker's "simmering anger" and her seeming fascination with violence.  It's been asked, reasonably, that if  Bigelow had been a man, would the reporter had written the article the way it  was.. Kathryn Bigelow directed a fine motion picture that won both best director and best picture Oscars, which establishes her as a director of high skill who takes a back seat to no one. She also joins a community of artists who's personality quirks become almost as well known as their work. One can imagine the equivocating  variations that will be spontaneously created when those thinking they have issues with Bigelow's cinematic vision. She might become part of a name-dropping choruses that give quick inventories of the pluses and minuses of being a famous artist:

Mailer is a great writer, sure , but isn't he a blustering egomaniac? Bukowski is a brilliant poet, yeah, but isn't he an incorrigible drunk? Picasso reshaped what can be  done with paint and canvas, but  wasn't he misogynistic monster? Brando redefined film acting for a generations to come,but wasn't an self-destructive egocentric? 

Maybe the director will one of those who are referred to by their last name, "Bigelow", with readership knowing exactly who you're referring to. The advantage of that depends, though, on whether one's body of work or the history of their public moodiness is the first thing people think of when one's name is mentioned.
The pattern is discernible, where one begins by acknowledging a subject's talents , gifts and accomplishments, and then qualifies the exceptions with what are more often references to gossip talking points than a writer's subtle observations. Still, it becomes fair game , as many celebrities discover. The fact that they are celebrities means that they are news, period, and discussion of them is not limited to the quality of the work they do. Bigelow's temperament has been no secret in the film industry for years, and now that she's made history by being the first woman to win the best director award, her past work and her short-fuse become topics for conversation.

So yes, if Bigelow had been a man with the same history of anger, I think the reporter would have recent much the same thing. And it is, in fact, unusual for a woman director to be as fascinated with violence as a male director is; that's what makes her a ground breaker, that's what makes her newsworthy beyond her two Oscars, and it's something fit for public discussion.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Are there movies after Movie Reviews?

It was a special bit of good fortune  and pleasure to have taken classes by the late and revered film critic Manny Farber while an undergraduate at the University of California San Diego, where he taught. It was he, first among a host of serious film pundits, who convinced me that a critic was someone who's copy a smart editor left untouched. So long as the critic could write well, knew his or her stuff regarding the art and history of cineman, and who could meet deadlines without hassel, the editor was wise not to try to change or modify a critic's opinion,let alone tamper with the prose style. A readership distrusted reviewers who seemed to write great praises for every film a studio released, and were drawn more toward that critic they were sure they'd an honest and well argued opinion from. One also would look for that critic who'd managed to alert you to things in movie making that you hadn't been aware of, or only had a vague notion about. The blessing for lovers of movies and readers of quality film criticism was the 2009  publication of Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber from Library of America. Farber, a painter of note as well as a film critic, brought to the task of reviewing the artist's eye; he could take in the entire canvas and was able to discuss the visual styles of directors, photographers and lighting technicians who could create a distinct set of techniques to get across a broad and subtle range of emotions. The wonders of the collection is that one finds that while Farber broke with the pack and wrote about movies as a fully developed art in itself  and not an adjunct or subsidiary form to another--film is no medium's poor cousin--he wasn't a strident formalist. The social uses of film concerned him as well, and through out this anthology one finds the juiciest of tidbits that clarify what's confused, puncture what's pretentious, highlight what his not discussed:

"The robust irrationality of the mouse comedies has been squelched by the syrup that has been gradually flowing over the Disney way.”
"Good work usually arises when the creators... seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or anything... It goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity."
"Masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies. Three sins of white elephant art are (1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity. "
Movies were the issue at hand, and discussing them Farber was able to slice through the distinctions that kept low , middle and high culture segregated and their respective audiences apart. Movies were a vehicle anyone who'd seen them could have an opinion of--all of us had seen the same film, all of us had seen and understood, the same plot and motivations, and all of us, with no specialized training nor advanced degrees, could bring our interpretations to the discussion; anyone who cared to participate could have a say. As often as not, the long range conversations and disagreements over movies and their meanings, directors and their directions, was itself criticism, much of it sparked by the concise, pity, perceptually brilliant musings of Manny Farber.I realize, though, that this great period of American film criticism is largely behind us, giving way to a consumer guide ratings that are pithy, if not artful. A large part of the problem might well be that critics, so called, are bored with a preponderance of movies that bleed into one another--how other movies does this stinker remind me of?-- but there are those who fight the good fight none the less. I am thinking of Duncan Shepard of the San Diego Reader, a Farber protege, who seems not to care for the majority of  releases he's tasked with evaluating and yet who is among the top movie essayists in the country: his writings on the Coen Brothers and Clint Eastwood are the finest and subtlest I've come across. Still,the trend is not good.

There was a funny 2005 piece by former Slate film critic David Edelstein about those film reviewers who seemingly are willing to whore their good names in order to be quoted in big movie ads. Edelstein gets to heart of the matter that film criticism has become a game of dodge ball rather than a reasonable case for why a movie is good, bad, or stalls somewhere in between. Critics will flee or produce more colored smoke if someone presses them to back up the original opinion; Peter Travers, Rolling Stone's shrill shill for mediocre work, would evaporate like slight rain in Death Valley if he were grilled. Film criticism used to mean, not all that long ago, an exercise in establishing movies as a rich and unique narrative art form, with a critical vocabulary and working theories used to establish criteria for good, bad and indifferent work. Impressionable as a twentyish critic , I applied the thinking to what reviews I did for some local publications and, truth be told, I was a bag of wind much of the time, grandiose and prolix, but the readers got an honest and considered opinion. Yes, I know that I was read; I still have both my hate and fan mail. All this worked as long as their was a constant stream of good films to parse, but as film production became the province of corporate interests, and as more independent publications became property of overgrown media combines, criticism became cheer leading for company projects, good , bad or worse.

Time magazine, for example, oversees reviewing the product of Warner Brothers Studios. However loud the chant goes that there is no undue influence put upon Time's assigned scribe, it remains a rotten situation. You wonder just how badly Richard Schickel could maul a particularly odious WB release without the worry of getting pink slipped. The consequence of this is that nearly every mainstream reviewer reads like Peter Travers, manically upbeat, cheery, positive, and utterly, completely unreliable. Critics, as such, are little more than musicians who can play only one song. Their answer to that charge would be, naturally, a variation of witlessly up sided spin: "Well yes, and what's more, we can play "Happy Birthday" in every key!” It would be a nice party trick, but it doesn't cut for discussion when you most desire one.