Monday, November 29, 2010
It is winter the sun is caught in the bare branches of trees that have surrendered their leaves to the season, the light of the sun is cold on the breath, man walks dog in jerky steps, the dog raises his head and growls, drops the leash from his teeth, a car passes by and a dog in the back seat has head sticking out of the window, yelping against the wind the envelopes his face in a perfect wrap of jet streams pinning his ears to the back of his head,
The man's dog runs after the car, barking and baying along the street lined with snowdrifts and grey, runneld slush, gone into the cold, leash less in the cold gasping for the man's hand and the leash he swings like lariat catching cattle the size of boxcars.
Sunday, November 28, 2010
It is not altogether settled, among those who care about such things, whether the retirement of Duncan Shepherd from his post as the film critic of the San Diego Reader after 38 years of service is a cause for celebration or lamentation. The detractors of Shepherd, who are legion, contend, with wearying predictability, that he was a misanthrope who never found a movie to his liking, that he dispensed his black dots with reckless abandon, and that, most daringly, he harbored a deep-seated animus against the very art of cinema. I confess that I was drawn to his writings precisely because he was not easily amused by the offerings of Hollywood–at last, someone who dared to castigate the mediocrity that pervaded the screen–and I find the accusation that he loathed movies altogether to be a symptom of a reader who either skimmed his reviews superficially or failed to grasp his arguments. One of the delights of reading Shepherd was to discover his occasional praise for a movie that would otherwise escape notice despite its modest charm and crafty execution; he had a discerning eye for those filmmakers who could respect the genre they were working in and make it fresh without resorting to grotesque gimmicks. This is what good critics do, make distinctions, find exceptions.
It is hardly astonishing that the movie critics have been unsparing in their dissection of the movie version of Bewitched, given the dismal track record of television shows adapted into cinematic features. The presence of Nicole Kidman, Will Ferrell, Shirley McLaine, and Michael Caine has not mollified the skeptics. It surprises me only marginally more than Shepherd found some merit in it. It is not a matter of someone making fatuous pronouncements for provocation. Shepherd is more fastidious than that; he sticks to specifics and illustrations, and compares the current movie with a host of other recent works by the same participants. It amounts to arguing that the movie is good because it is less bad than its predecessors; it is an inelegant way of making a case for a movie and a nightmare for studio publicists looking for a flattering blurb. But it gives the reader an intriguing glimpse into how one critic thinks popular entertainment should be conceived and executed.
Shepherd is, in my estimation at least, a masterful if idiosyncratic prose stylist, a peerless historian of film art, and a refreshing breeze of honest opinion when he renders judgment on a feature. He has an aesthetic he will not compromise, and the endless tide of grueling gimmickry has not worn him down. I am less exacting in what it takes to entertain me at the movies, and I am usually more charitable than Shepherd tends to be. That may only mean that my standards are more relaxed and that Shepherd’s love of the movie art is such that he deplores seeing the medium squandered on plots that would not satisfy the requirements for a dime novel. Yet I read him all the same, given that he is the sort of critical contrarian who makes a case instead of pontificating about what aesthetic absolutes are being violated. He is not a critic who bemoans the death of the movies; it is one movie at a time, wryly observed, and judgments rendered in witty and incisive fashion. He is the sort of man you dread to see on the opposite side of a debate since it would mean that you would need to shore up your argument to a sounder foundation.
Three decades into his job, and his reviews are as brutal if elegantly phrased as ever. He does catch you surprised, though, and finds sensibly lovely things to say about films other critics have attacked like packs of hungry dogs. He gave Prince’s star-writer-director vehicle Under The Cherry Moon three stars out of his five-star rating system, appreciating the film’s look and measured style and the director’s ability to create a fantastic sense of place without making a mess of the art he’s trying to create. Likewise, he awarded five stars to Walter Hill’s seriously under-estimated Streets of Fire. Among other comments, he cited that virtually every other critic missed or chose not to discuss, that the ostensible rock and roll fable was actually a Western with its narrative conventions set in the mid 20th century America. Shepherd’s discussion of the Hill film is more nuanced than I’ve given here, but let it suffice that he was right about both films.
Friday, November 26, 2010
Jonathan Franzen is a major novelist who seems fated to be remembered for being a weenie as much as being an important writer. In his June appreciation of Christina Stead's 1940 novel, The Man Who Loved Women", the stress-tested author feels at ease to share with us his suspicion that ths thing we love, The Novel, is an affection of vanity, not practical need.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
You had me at "no so fast"
when my mouth ran like a faucet
that filled up the sink,
you had me between centuries
when the moon would be full,
you had me in stitches
and unconscious for days ,
you had me in hospital clothes
with a blood and iron on my breath,
you had me with my marker,
the document I signed
with needle and thread,
you had me going for a minute
you had me guessing along,
you had me the way a fat man has an appetite,
you had me for lunch,
you had me rewrite the love letters I wrote you,
you had me going for a moment,
you had my heart
and I never got it back.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Thursday, November 18, 2010
Still, I took my Dylan very seriously, although I considered him at the time to be an also-ran--the last great age of hipness was the fifties--and I went about my way, my rather self centered and self righteous way, to become a campus poet, seer, gadfly, intellectual, man of mystery. I had long hair, wire frame glasses, I wore as much black as I could, which was absurd since I was living in Southern California, a terrain where I still hang a shingle and get my mail.
Black clothing makes sense, I guess, if you're in colder, damper, more overcast climates, ala NYC, San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, but in So Cal there was and remains a surfeit of sun, which made attempt to be a gloomy, dark, frost-bitten avatar of hip a ridiculous enterprise. It's only beginning to occur to me how absurd my middle class yearnings for street credibility really were. I'd lived up to that point as a self-conscious, shy, hard-of hearing and overweight nerd who was often the brunt of abuse from others because I was thought of as dull and dumb do to my hearing loss--I didn't always catch on to what others were talking about and tried, often times, to bluff my way through a conversation. My responses to what others had said or had asked me , or what I put forward in attempts to become part of a conversation already in progress, were as often as not guesses at the topic, based on what the words I thought the phonemes resembled . It was a poetry of its own sort, and I felt absolutely exhilarated when what I had offered at risk wound up being dead on, and it was even more electric when my mad stab at relevance somehow managed to jump the rails of the subject and introduce a related tangent that others hadn’t considered and thought was a brilliant leap on my part. Too often, though, my remarks caused a quiet in the room that had the dead solemnity of a tombstone; I was the Coltrane of Confusion, the Mozart of Misspeak, and the Picasso of Puzzlement. It went something like this:
"I just got a new bike..."
That's great. What kind is it?"
Norm Crosby, a comedian who was a regular player on the Ed Sullivan Show, came up with that joke, but it got the experience of a hard of hearing fellow trying to make his way through the world without letting on that he had a loss. Crosby got the absurdity of it precisely right and I still use the quip as a reference point some forty years later Even so, I wrote poems, did special readings in 7-11 parking lots, and performed some original verse at an ersatz antiwar rally where in an especially precious ad lib I announced that Bob Dylan was "...the father of us all". One might have wondered how I discovered half the paternity of the counter culture. My nonsense utterances gathered many rueful looks; I was among those weenies that went to dances to listen to the band. During my senior year I'd made something of a name for myself as a faux bohemian, dark and mysterious as previously described, taken to mispronouncing names of famous men and writing reams of awful poetry of which there is not a single line in existence; I tossed the poems into the trash one night, all three folders and four notebooks. It was liberating, if that word ever had any meaning. It was as if someone had taken a big boot from my throat. I was now free to be a pompous git on my terms alone. Not perfect, but progress, no?
Saturday, November 13, 2010
He concludes that DS hates movies. We must note that Josh does not deal with the substance of Duncan Shepherd's critiques; he reminds me of the sort of guy who would listen to a reasonable criticism of a movie he thought brilliant and would respond with the old fallback "Oh, yeah, that's just YOUR opinion."
True as that cliche maybe, it does not diminish the four decades of Duncan Shepherd's film appraisals, since the unspoken addendum to that tired saw is that NOT ALL OPINIONS ARE CREATED EQUAL. Josh as well cannot seem to get his head around the fact that you can regularly read someone you usually disagree with on a particular subject. I don't know why this is hard him to fathom, but it does get back to the "Not all opinions are created equal" remark from two sentences ago--Duncan's wit, knowledge, and elegance as a writer made his opinions worth keeping up with.
Friday, November 12, 2010
The desire to depict reality in a different way, to find a truth that hadn't yet been brought forward, is a permanent impulse among artists who are the least bit figurative, and Munch's penchant for gloom and depressed spaces were a perfect inspiration, it that's the word, to take the image of the world apart, tweak the essential elements, and reassemble it, askew, fuzzy, angular. Munch's genius was also his pathology, and the crazed energy in his head which drove him to relentless distraction was additionally his ugly gift to the world. It still commands our attention generations later.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
None among us relishes the idea of spending inordinate amounts of time with someone who seems to have no vocation other than to wait for their own personal End of Days, but there is shared in our endless ranks the issue of family, loyalty, a grudging paying back of the attention that was given to us unconditionally, if grudgingly, by our parents. In adulthood , our tasks multiply , among them the giving of care and attention to aging patriarchs and matriarchs, together separately. We grit our teeth, we mix our thoughts with high, chiming music, we go to lunch, we make the bed, we distract ourselves with airport novels and movies about imperiled women that rotate like plates on one of the plethora of cable channels; coping with the deadened time, the terse conversation becomes itself an art, an artifice radiating in the mind alone, unseen, a psychic mask that allows us at least a composed visage , if not assuaged nerves.
Rosanna Warren , it appears , prefers a fussy, antiquated prose as she narrates her afternoon with a mother who seems too tightly wrapped in a generation of frustrated designs: the peculiar emphasis of the fussily described detail, the pristine diction of the adjectives and crafted application of verbs in the service of capturing a recent event seems to me an affectation--the style seems like an elliptical gathering of phrases from a Henry James novel , The American or Wings of Dove when a character's movements are no longer "closely observed" by the untrustworthy narrator but become obsessively detailed, a clue to an author's stalling action until a plot turn presents itself.-- but it is the artifice, perhaps, Warren wants to draw us to. It's a voice coming through the either as if from a hundred years earlier, underscoring the distance the daughter has created as a means of disowning whatever emotional damage might be radiating between her and her mother; this is an attempt to treat the circumstances like they were scenes from a novel, quaint, picaresque to a degree, a situation that one can get to with tenacity, like the last page of a book. And yet, and yet...for all the defenses and denials festooned in a mellifluous 'though dubious music, there are cracks in the defenses.
They are dying, side by side, at different rates, at different speeds, and this is the subtext of their day of tea, meals and mornings of small talk and walks among the towns people, they are where they are , locked in gestures and cadences that mirror one another across the decades, busy with small tasks and habitual tics, waiting, under it all, to leave this plane, one,and then the other.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
I was on a rather long journey to get something of the critic's tone and elegance--Shepherd and the late Steve Esmedina, another Reader critic, were my local stylistic models.Duncan's departure is a loss for film criticism ; there was something sublime about The Reader, one of the largest alternative weeklies in the country, having the single most "un-blurbable" film critic .
His style and his nuanced, formalist arguments of movies, favorable or otherwise, were so that it was literally impossible to extract a single quote from them for a newspaper ad. That suited him fine, and it suited his readers.I left these words in the comment stream following his last column:
I am sorry to see you leave the pages of the Reader, web or otherwise. You've been one of the few refusing to be swayed to the chorus of fluctuating fashion. Although I have to say that I disagreed with your judgments more than half the time, I respected and looked forward to your knowledge, your wit and the elegance of your prose. It was a good bet that if I wanted to defend a film you found wanting, I would have to "up my game". You have my gratitude that you kept up the good fight as long as you had; I hope someday soon I might again be able to read you again, on terms that suit you, about what you find engaging.Good luck , Duncan.
Monday, November 8, 2010
Hirshfield's "Alzheimer's " poem was actually the first of two poems published in slate, the second one being the bittersweet coda to the the former work's spare unraveling of expectations to aging and infirmity.
The poem, called "The Kind Man", picks up where the other poem ends, where the beautiful thing that was supposed to be forever--the memory of a great man, the beauty of the poem--slips into anonymity and becomes mere material for a younger generation to make use of. The survivor realizes that they don't want their lives becoming museums of those they can longer talk to , kiss, argue and have meals with. Small things become less mementos of glad times than they are stubbor pebbles in the shoe as one tries to move on.
The Kind Man
I sold my grandfather's watch,
its rosy gold and stippled pattern to be melted.
Movement unreparable.Lid missing.
Chain—there must have been one—missing.
Its numbers painted with
a single, expert bristle.
I touched the winding stem
before I passed it
over the counter.
The kind man took it,
what I'd brought him as if to the Stasi.
He weighed the honey of time.
This is what we settle for, taking a deep breath and walking over the briarpatched fear of letting go of things imbued with inordinate associations of love and loss, frustration and small wonders, and passing on the things that have family value, accepting the encroaching sense of betrayal, seeing, finally, the watch as only a thing with a minor market value as far as anyone else is concerned. Painful, yes, but this something must be done to make one's life, one's home their own. Any of us who've had to close a parent's house, or say a few words at a good friend's memorial knows the ritual. This is where the life we've given us achieves full autonomy: we are more fully ourselves, more alone than we've been before.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
The question goes "what's eating you?", and , as we get older, shakier, less full of ourselves because there are fewer people who care what we think, or what we've done, a proper answer would seem to be that it is other people who've picked up on your accomplishments and done something more with them. Their inventions and bits of genius are not possible without the base you laid out. So one is a rug, bright, colorful, an intricate weave of detail, experience, improvisations and inspiration, that is chewed on from the margins; the center remains ,the design is visible, but it is tattered and gnawed upon, unable to collect itself to a former glory. The glory never returns.
A thing of beauty is a thing forever, as it goes in the Keatsian sense, but in this instance, the rug standing in as metaphor for a man's presumably long life, the idea of "forever" hinges on the title of Hirshfield's poem,"Alzheimer's". The beautiful man will be so long as there are people to remember him and exchange stories about him, marvel at old photographs, trade details on conversatins they've had with him.
"Forever", Hirshfield implies, is merely another way to refer to describe what the historical record is for the likes of us who do not move mountains , win wars, or save nations from destroying themselves; it merely describes a reprieve against the amnesia that over takes all of us after a loved one dies. The survivors themselves die, and their children have nothing of the friendships to their memory, only the archive of deeds and repeated wisdoms, now uttered as common place phrases in the commonly held idiom. There is a bitterness here, a realization that one has had their turn in the sun and that soon enough the misery of fading away will be done; what remains after the funeral, the books, the furniture, the inventions, the best of what one has done and said, will be distributed among a variety of networks, and what is deemed useful will be judged by an anonymous population that perhaps has no knowledge of who we might have been . Not the example of Keatsian joy. Hirshfield's succinctly debunks the idea that we live on in the memory of others. The lights dim and go out on everything, to the extent that all that actually remains is the detritus of our individual lives, recognized as incidental paraphenalia, to be judged and used by the young in ways of decoration, not honor.
It was suggested by someone that this poem contains an embedded irony in Hirshfield's remembering this dying man in this poem, immortalizing him, in effect. Or so it seems.Preserved in a poem, perhaps, but not really, as most poems that are written and published get a minuscule readership, and that most are not remembered after a short duration. Trust me, as bookseller I have had to clean out houses of a lifetime's reading, piling stacks of old poetry books written by poets with names known only to retired librarians and specialists in arcana. A beautiful poem is not a thing forever, in most respects--someone like Yeats is rare, rare, rare. Poems, their subjects, and their authors fade with time; they become forgotten. What remains is an anonyous residue.
What the old man says about not being the picture of "Keatsian joy" offers a clue to Hirshfield's probable realization that even a metaphorical immortalization in a poem is subject to the recollection of the collection memory. Somethings last longer through the decades better than others, but it is a fact that most poems and their poets are not remembered past their century. Those of us that write poems long to be Shakespeare , Pope or Donne for the sake of longevity, but most of realize, at a gut level, that notoriety in poetry, in content and authorship, is the least reliable way to get famous, or stay famous. I don't think Hirshfied is telling us something so sentimental as to declare that somehow one is remembered in a work of art; this poem has a harder core, but not a cold one. She merely acknowledges, I believe, the limits of memory, of reputation for most of us now walking the earth. Most of us will land in the history books, most of us will not have poems written about us, all of us need to appreciate the joy that does come our way and to not become angry when sorrow occurs , as it must.